1975 was a very bad year for the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA is still living with the damage caused by Senator Frank Church and his army of arrogant young Church Committee lawyers. Spurred on by Watergate, they descended upon CIA headquarters like locusts, scurrying into every nook and cranny, seeking to expose alleged abuses of law and power.
They were determined to rein in the “rogue elephant,” and they did. CIA covert action activities essentially disappeared from 1975 until the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And then they reappeared only in part – with the authorization to use covert (and sometimes not so covert) paramilitary action to drive al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and to decapitate its leadership.
The CIA’s charter gives it three primary functions: The collection and analysis of intelligence, and covert action. All of our intelligence services may engage in the first two, but only the CIA is permitted to engage in covert action, and then only with the authorization of a “presidential finding.”
Covert action generally falls into two categories: military and political. The CIA is clearly back in the business of military covert action, and its operations have been very successful, but it does not appear to be involved in political covert action any longer, and this is to the detriment of the US government.
Why are we not using this resource? Because political covert action operations are very sensitive and require complete US deniability. And we are not very good at operating in secret any longer. Not since the CIA’s “family jewels” – operations that involved assassination attempts against foreign leaders and covert attempts to subvert foreign governments – were gleefully revealed by the Church Committee back in 1975.
Political covert action involves influencing foreign political events in a way that is totally deniable – not attributable to the U.S. government. The overthrow of the anti-American Mohammad Mosaddegh and the reinstatement of the Shah in Iran back in 1953 is a well known example of CIA covert political action that worked. Others also worked but remain classified.
The sticking point to covert action is this: In order to influence political events in a particular country it is necessary to recruit foreign correspondents to write articles favorable to the U.S. position, or for the CIA to plant articles designed to influence public perceptions in the foreign media. The bad word for this is propaganda; it is a very effective tool.
Covert action has been described by one colorful former CIA officer as something between the State Department’s “nice doggy” and the military’s “whack over the head with a big stick.”
The United States desperately needs something between diplomacy and military action. The CIA must get back into the business of using covert action to advance U.S. goals around the globe in a cost effective way. We need to become pro-active; not reactive.
Think of the lives and treasure that would have been saved in Iraq if we had been able to identify and covertly fund and support an opposition figure or party that could have deposed Saddam Hussein and replaced him. I know these opposition forces existed, even in Saddam’s own Baath Party. Why didn’t we use these people to our own advantage?
Likewise, when the demonstrations broke out in Iran during the 2009 presidential elections we were caught by surprise. One of the three opposition candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, garnered a surprising 34 percent of the vote despite massive election fraud. What if the CIA had been acting behind the scenes to fund and support Mousavi? Perhaps the outcome of the election would have been different and we would not be facing a war with Iran today. Instead, we sat idly by and did nothing.
And we permitted, indeed contributed enthusiastically, to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt. Mubarak, with all of his warts, was our closest ally in the Middle East besides Israel, and we gladly engaged in military action to bring about his downfall without a clue as to who would replace him. The use of covert political action would have gone a long way to assuring a reliable replacement. Now we are left with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge, and that is definitely a huge step backwards.
Muammar Gadhafi was a despicable human being who committed numerous terrorist acts against the U.S. and others. I personally was awakened in the middle of the night when PanAm Flight 103 was blown out of the air. But he had given up his nuclear aspirations and was moving steadily into the Western camp. Now, with U.S. military help, he is gone and his replacement is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that whoever replaces him will not be an improvement as far as U.S. interests are concerned.
Political covert action would have quietly identified, nurtured, supported and manipulated into power, a viable, pro-US alternative to Gadhafi, well before Gadhafi’s demise.
Political covert action is a powerful weapon in the hands of the CIA. But it sits, covered in dust, in a box deep in the bowels of the basement in Langley. It’s time to bring it back. But before that can happen, the US public must be prepared to remove the shackles and let the CIA do the job it was created to do – in secret, without outside interference.
Fred Rustmann is a 24 year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, author, and chairman of CTC International Group, a provider of worldwide business intelligence based in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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