Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 1: The Rise of Neoconservatives

Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty_Wars_Book_Cover_US_FINALJeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield” is a masterpiece of independent journalism that explores the spread of U.S. paramilitary violence in the shadows. I have taken far too many notes (!) so thought I would share them here.

Starting from today I will cover several of the key insights and themes covered in the book, beginning with the rise of neoconservatism and its effects on U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Part 1: The Rise of the Neoconservatives

 “The world is a battlefield” was a mantra repeated over and over again by American neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration.  A handful of officials, armed with decades of lobbying and political organization, and led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, would change the direction and shape of U.S. foreign policy. Under their guidance, assassination, enhanced interrogation, and Special Operations would move from the periphery of national policy to its beating heart.

Prior to the Bush years of 2001 to 2009, the Clinton administration was no angel of course—it pioneered extraordinary rendition and paved the legal foundations for targeted killings in the mid-1990s. Indeed, under Clinton more than 70 renditions were conducted. But according to Richard Clarke, Clinton’s counterterrorism “czar”, government officials at this time were largely “risk averse”. There was a great concern about violating the long-standing ban on political assassinations institutionalized by the Ford administration in 1976 and later reinforced by Jimmy Carter.

Indeed, during the Clinton era, White House bureaucracy largely worked to slow down targeted killings, creating a great deal of institutional inertia. Coming out of the Reagan-Bush era, which was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal, Clinton put in place a series of checks and balances for lethal covert action: first a proposed covert action would be sent to the CIA and reviewed by the General Counsel, before being passed on to two separate CIA committees—the Covert Action Planning Group and the Covert Action Review Group. It would then go back to the General Counsel for a final legal review and sent to the White House. Once there it would be put before the Interagency Working Group of Covert Action. After a final review by the heads and deputies of the relevant agencies, the action would be presented to the president. Quite the paper chase.

The Architects

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney first worked together in the Nixon White House in 1969, when Rumsfeld hired the future vice-President as an aide. For decades they worked to grant the executive branch with unprecedented powers to wage secret wars and spy on U.S. citizens—in effect, paving the way for an “emperor-style” U.S. presidency. But this Roman Empire would not be built overnight. In the 1980s, Congress enacted a law that required the White House to report its spying activities to congress—something that infuriated the future Vice-President. As George H. W. Bush’s defense secretary during the 1991 Gulf War, Cheney “continued building his vision of a supremely powerful executive branch” (p.11).  At the center of their vision was a massive escalation in defense spending called the “Defense Planning Guidance” (1992).  This vision never saw the light of day, however, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, buried the plan. But Cheney and Rumsfeld would only have to wait a decade to realize their plan.

After Bush’s 2001 inauguration, Rumsfeld and Cheney staffed the administration with leading neoconservatives, many of who were involved in the ultra nationalist “Project for the New American Century”. The first task of secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld was to wage a war against the Pentagon “bureaucracy” – an internal conflict that would later give rise to the “revolution in military affairs”. Meanwhile, Cheney would become the most powerful vice president in history.  And in concert with Paul Wolfowitz, the undersecretary of defense, these three figures began pressing for an attack on Iraq – as well as a global war in the shadows that involved rolling back American civil liberties.

The Bush Years

When Bush was sworn in, his administration indicated it would hold on to Clinton-era checks and balances. National Security Presidential Directive-1 (NSPD-1) signed on February 13, 2001, mirrored the Clinton bureaucratic system. But in March, Bush asked Condoleezza Rice to request the CIA to prepare authorities for covert action in Afghanistan. A new NSPD circulated in June was even more ambitious: a program built on far-reaching covert action that was eventually approved at a September 4, 2001 meeting of Bush administration “principals”. Yet there remained dissent and mixed opinion in the White House – although this doubt would be expunged as the Twin Towers crumbled, and Cheney and Rumsfeld sought to explore the attacks.

Under the U.S. Constitution, it is Congress, not the President, which has the right to declare war. This was recently codified in the 1973 War Powers  Resolution, which Cheney viewed as “unconstitutional”.

But in the days after 9/11 this piece of legislation was all-but-scrapped. On September 14, the House and Senate granted President Bush the Authorization for Use of Military Force. This was a kind of “blank check” that gave a large leeway to target any groups, including “persons” that the president deemed affiliated with 9/11 (thus giving the green light for assassinations and reversing decades of “risk averse” presidencies). And so an open-ended war against anybody was born: the Bush administration declared the world a battlefield. But it was the still-secret order signed a day earlier that was even more momentous: this classified presidential directive granted the CIA authority to capture and hold militants across the globe, and wiped out the roadblocks of congressional oversight and ended the practice of the president signing off on each lethal operation. And killing “terrorists”, according to Bush administration lawyers, did not count as assassination. A newly empowered CIA would be spearheaded by Cofer Black.

But Rumsfeld did not want the CIA to be the lead agency in charge of global defense, and wanted nothing to do with oversight and bureaucracy. Already, the invasion of Afghanistan was spearheaded by a CIA team under an operation codenamed “Jawbreaker”. It relied heavily on private contractors and Special Operations Forces.

Likewise, Cheney wanted to gut the interagency reviews of proposed lethal actions that were standard under Clinton. And so, a (pro-war) “War Council” was formed, led by David Addington, Cheney’s counsel and long-time advisor, to rubber stamp the legal justification for dirty war.

Central to Cheney’s “Dark Side” campaign would be presidential findings that would limit effective congressional oversight. According to the National Security Act of 1947, the president is required to issue a finding before undertaking a covert action – and that the covert action complies with U.S. law and the Constitution. The presidential finding signed by Bush on September 17, 2001 created a highly classified program codenamed “Greystone” (GST).

GST was the umbrella term for all classified activities, and in effect, pre-authorized a range of dark side activities, such as kidnap and assassination. Moreover, in the early stages of GST, the administration reduced the elite “Gang of Eight” members of Congress to just four – the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees. They in turn were prohibited from discussing these briefing with anyone. In effect, then, the GST program had zero oversight. And infamously, on February 7 2002, Bush signed a directive that stated the Geneva Convention did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban prisoners.

Turf Wars between the CIA and Pentagon begin

By 2002 a “turf war” between the CIA and Pentagon for supremacy over the global U.S. fight against terrorism was exploding.

Rumsfeld was pressuring CIA analysts for Iraq intelligence. Neither Cheney nor Rumsfeld were satisfied with the intelligence coming from the CIA or the military’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Ever more frustrated, Rumsfeld and Cheney began establishing their own private intelligence apparatus, run out of Douglas Feith’s office in the Pentagon. By mid-2002, Feith’s “shop” had become the Office of Special Plans, and the primary plan was of course to create a justification for an invasion of Iraq. This office would go well beyond CIA assessments of the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction. Relatedly, they pushed for new tactics to extract intelligence from detainees—and turned to the enhanced interrogation tactics located in the U.S.’ SERE manual.

U.S. Special Forces were then tapped to run a parallel intelligence program known as “Copper Green”.

Next: The Rise of JSOC

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3 Responses to Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 1: The Rise of Neoconservatives

  1. Pingback: Dirty wars and private eyes | geographical imaginations

  2. Pingback: Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 2: The Rise of JSOC | Understanding Empire

  3. Pingback: Creating Monsters (Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 6) | Understanding Empire

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