Petraeus Memo Widens scope of US Military Covert Operations in ME

The 7-page memo seen by the NYT and signed by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus authorizes US troops to engage in clandestine intelligence-gathering in the greater Middle East. The article implies that the memo also authorizes more military teams to go into unconventional conflict situations in both unfriendly and friendly countries.

Critics worry that the order blurs the line between combat soldiers and spies and weakens the claim of all soldiers to humane treatment under the Geneva Conventions.

My own view is that the United States was founded as a government of laws, not men, and that the siren call of covert operations is steadily undermining the rule of law. Blurring the line between military action and spying makes it impossible to talk about the covert missions, since they are typically classiified. The same is true for predator drone strikes.

Military action such as launching drones should be carried out by the uniformed military, not by CIA operatives or, worse, contractors. The former action would allow us to discuss the campaigns as free citizens of a republic. As it is now, often civilian contractors are piloting drones long-distance and we cannot so much as get a straight answer out of the elected officials. Where the US is striking at friendly countries, there should be a Status of Forces agreement to provide a legal framework for the actions.

And intelligence gathering should be carried out by the civilian such agencies. The more you make elements of the military actually intelligence assets, the more likely it is that the lines between them will get strained. That blurring could be bad for all troops. There is already a tendency in the ME for locals to see all Americans as CIA, and giving troops a lot of covert missions will reinforce these views.

We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late?

34 Responses

  1. Yes; it is too late. I’ve lived in Lebanon and Jordan, and I know their suspicion of the ‘CIA vampire squid’. I had to give up carrying a fake Samsonite briefcase to avoid it.

  2. [...] Juan Cole comments: My own view is that the United States was founded as a government of laws, not men, and that the siren call of covert operations is steadily undermining the rule of law. Blurring the line between military action and spying makes it impossible to talk about the covert missions, since they are typically classiified. The same is true for predator drone strikes. [...]

  3. “We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late?”

    No, it’s certainly not too late, but it seems difficult if not impossible to be a country of laws — that is, a country where laws are above men — and also maintain an empire. The legal code will find conflict with the imperator. Many autocrats, such as Suleiman, are known as “law givers”. But he who giveth also taketh away. Where laws are above men armed conflict must always be grounded in the law. Empires just don’t function that way.

    But it is not too late. It is interesting to compare how various polities — Rome, Istanbul, London — handled the fundamental break. There are many paths to choose. Which one for Washington?

    • It is a country of laws as long as the laws are politically expedient at the time. Laws what laws? Were laws applied when we illegally invaded Iraq. Did laws apply when we raped their children,killed their parents,destroyed their infrastructure, kidnapped their citizens and took then to other countries?
      I am not sure what laws we are talking about.

  4. So US military are to become clandestine cells operating in foreign countries? Presumably then it is okay for the Pakistanis, North Koreans, Cubans, and anyone else feeling threatened by the US to send cadres into the US to gather intelligence and connect with possible sympathizers. And if we discover Iranian, Israeli, Chinese, or other operatives here we will treat them the way we want our military to be treated if discovered abroad? Of course.

    • All of those countries have been doing it for years, and we have treated them humanely.

      I have always believed the war on terror should be fought clandestinely; our networks against theirs. It is cheaper, more effective, and yes – more humane.

      • @N : Whether another country does something has no bearing on whether we should do the same, i.e. ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ or so I remember hearing way back when.

        Your second statement is basically jargon – what does ‘clandestine’ mean? ‘Our network against theirs?’ What does that mean with regards to the intelligence agencies that actually exist? They’re not really networked. Speaking of networks, did the FBI ever get their super-expensive computer network to work? My own jargonistic statement would be that terrorists should be essentially treated as criminals, and handled by the appropriate authorities – primarily ones other than the military.

        Sorry to be so polemic, but you appeared to have missed the point of the article.

  5. Just when did we become a nation that believes in the rule of law when we are dealing with real or imaginary foes in foreign policy. By 1820 we had the Monroe Doctrine, which basically stated that the Americas were our playground, and that other foreign States were to stay out; and from that moment onward we treated the Americas, especially Latin America and South America as our playground. We fabricated the supposed reasons for the Mexican American War, 1845; the Spanish American War 1898, Vietnam 1964, and a multitude of overthrows of Latin American and South American rulers; and as you have reminded us, the overthrow that resulted in the Shah of Iran’s rule in Iran from 1958 to his death. Allende in Chile, the list can go on and on. Laws of nations don’t apply to us, they never did.

  6. In my opinion, no matter what we call it, we are in a global war against foes whose morals/ethics are formed from alien ideologies, religious and otherwise. In my perception such foes willingly exploit our self imposed moral/ethical restrictions including laws.

    Global battle field preparation requires collection, evaluation, and analysis of foreign war fighting capabilities. So I would pose the following question: Shall we blind our own combatants by legally restricting the gathering intelligence or must we deviate from our legal standards. I see this as a fateful dilemma.

    • “In my perception such foes willingly exploit our self imposed moral/ethical restrictions including laws. ”

      It’s not about them. It’s about you. Osama Bin Laden in 2000 when he publicly declared war on the US said “I want to turn America into a shadow of itself.” If America loses its “moral/ethical restrictions including laws” he succeeds.

      Indeed America in my view has already lost all moral rights in the world due to Abu Gharib and an illegal war and domestic security restrictions and when it loses the moral high-ground to a bunch of homicidal religious extremists that is a sorry state of affairs.

      I visited America for the first time back in 2006. Flying from Ireland to New York, it was the first time I saw the reality of “Fortress America”. I have traveled a lot around Europe and have never even had to show my passport to get into a country. In my travels in Asia and around Arabia I only had to flash my passport at customs. Flying into the US was awful, guns visible, passports scanned, stood in front of a computer to take my photo, body scans, and a pat down.

      Gives any traveler the taste of the militarist state they are flying into. Don’t plan to make a second visit.

    • Mr. Rice, there’s a part of every human brain that resonates more or less loudly to the “opinion” you hold, about “global warfare” against some implacable enemy. “The Enemy” is one of the strongest archetypes in our psyches, albeit one that gets puny attention and study because “everybody already knows what and who The Enemy is,” and agrees that whatever is done to The Enemy is only what we are so morally sure The Enemy is planning to do to Us at the earliest sneaky opportunity, so we better do it worse and faster and bigger. Fundamentally because, as Pogo is repeatedly quoted as saying, “We has met the enemy, and he is Us.” And we think we know who we are by supposed contrast to The Enemy, who is, we are morally sure, all the things we think we are not. Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful, comfortable thing, isn’t it?

      My opinion is that it is the same part of the resonant brain that keeps forcing all the rest of us further and further into a corner from which there is no escape but a mass die-off of our species. Your kind of thinking produced the Cold War (on all sides) and WW I and its lead-off batting for WW II and now this Global War On Terror that has False Premise as its central core and military industrialism and political expediency as its muscles and nervous system. And your fast-disappearing Real Wealth and mine as its blood supply.

      You may FEEL that there is a Huge Dark Enemy out there that So Threatens Our Sacred Freedoms To Do What We Are Told By Our Sacred Leaders that we have to be willing to destroy our own village in order to save it from being “gotten” and “taken over” and turned by The Other, that Bogeyman who lives in the closet or under the bed, into exactly what we are making it into ourselves, and there are evil people in the world, for very sure — but a whole lot of them are sort of nominally “on our side.” And facts that make up history and current events show pretty clearly that what you have is a “feeling,” an opinion formed by a lot of propaganda over a long time, that has dam-all to do with making a world that is even meta-stable with a world economy that is sustainable for the almost 7 billion of us.

      That you think our “combatants” currently submit to any kind of limitations on every sort of abuse and murder, and that they should be freed patently to do the Jack Bauer thing, 24/7, because you believe we need evil men able to do evil things that give other evil men on the “other” side the excuse to do what they so much enjoy doing, tells me you are either disingenuous or need to go clean your glasses.

      And you can sit on your desk chair and pontificate about how in a more perfect world, wouldn’t it be lovely if such messy things did not happen. And carry in your heart the notion that a civil society that works on some basic notions of ethics and decency is weak and will succumb to those pesky Arab Communists, unless we kill or disorient them all first. Preferably kill, after torturing. “The purpose of torture is torture,” remember.

      Got news for you, bunky — this Vietnam vet is of the opinion that YOUR ideology is “alien,” yet all too human. Having seen a bit of how that set of notions has worked since I first became a bit politically aware, starting with childhood recollections of black-and-white TV broadcasts of Bomber Joe McCarthy, aided by a closet mean-spirited truly evil guy named Roy Cohn and of course Dick Nixon, ripping a large rent in the social fabric for some pretty crass political and personal gain, I gotta say that the vision you so “reluctantly” would deem necessary is a bust.

      So talk pretty, and so deep-voiced seriously, about how the Real World supposedly works, and how “we” must turn the monsters loose to “protect” us against the monsters that MAY exist out in the dark and surely WILL exist in some numbers thanks to the war wimp and chicken hawk “policies” of generations of “conservatives” and “nominal hawkish liberals,” and the Predatory Hellfire of our Bad Guys “lighting up” wedding parties and groups of reporters armed with heavy cameras, and do everything in your personal feeble power to create the elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy that is almost certainly inevitable anyway. And be glad that you likely will not live long enough to have to pay the consequences that eventually come due for the progeny of those Serious people and their acts.

      • Well said JT, beautiful!!!
        This one is especially felicitous: “You may FEEL that there is a Huge Dark Enemy out there that So Threatens Our Sacred Freedoms To Do What We Are Told By Our Sacred Leaders that we have to be willing to destroy our own village in order to save it from being “gotten” and “taken over” and turned by The Other,”!
        Very nice, thank you!

  7. We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late?

    The claim to legitimacy was surrendered when 9 men(/women) stole the 2000 election. The Constitution was eviscerated when impeachment was taken off the table. The Rule of Law was made inoperative when an administration refused to enforce the Law.

    Until such time those issues are made right, kiss the Republic and all you have believed bye-bye. You have problems and it will not end well.

  8. He can’t even keep tabs on Iraq, which is supposed to be the central platform of the effort. However, as the US clearing intends to stay in Iraq for the next 60 years, maybe things will be different then.

  9. - …a government of laws, not men… -

    That is why we should look for the solution to this insanity in law.
    Public Law 107-40.
    Congress declared war against enemies to be named later.
    Bush named al-Qaeda.
    Congress set the mission for the US military as ‘preventing future terrorism’ by our enemies.
    Everything can be explained by the US military having to prevent future terrorism, as set down into law by Congress.
    This, of course, is insane. The US military can never complete this mission, and thus there will never be any exit strategies, only entry strategies to find and kill potential future terrorists.
    Every country deals with future terrorism but only America declared war.
    That’s insane. That’s Public Law 107-40.

  10. Dear professor Cole, I was watching a video of Chalmers Johnson, interviewed at Berkley. He said that you can have a democracy or an empire, but that you can’t have both simultaneously. I think he’s right. I can’t imagine a benevolent way of making war, or an invasion-troop-friendly environment. Americans are understandably concerned about the well-being of their soldiers. But soldiers occupying a foreign country were they are not welcome will always be at risk, specially when they are culturally a world apart from the local population. The talk about how to make that which is instrinsically bad look good is pointless -just ask the Afghans of the Pakistanis.

  11. Pres. Obama’s speech, 12/01/09:
    “Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and those who harbored them — an authorization that continues to this day.”

    Public Law 107-40. The President talks about it. I talk about it. Why doesn’t everyone else?

    - We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? -

    Do something about Public Law 107-40 and the insanity will end.

  12. I fear it is already to late Prof Cole. As a European who studied International Affairs, I’m looking at America with increasing concern (which sadly hasn’t decreased since Obama got in) .

    On the Political Economy, I’m in little doubt that the US has become a plutocracy. Fear Europe is also following close behind.

    But on the article itself some worrying signs of what is around the corner.

    “ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region”

    “Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.”

    This seems to imply the US military is planning an increase in covert operations into Iran. Appears like Iran has got it’s reply for the US after its diplomatic ju-jitsu with Brazil and Turkey. But could be more smoke and mirrors and threats.

    Little mention of expanding the war in Pakistan and of course if any US operations within Saudi Arabia became public the population there would be furious at both the US and the monarchy.

    Certainly bears close attention.

  13. We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late?

    I would very much hope that.

    It was that hope that led in part to the election of Obama, who promised us that there was no conflict between upholding our laws and our security. But since he got election, Obama has done a 180 degree turn. Obama is still the commander in chief, and the buchk stops at his desk.

    • 180 degree turn? Did you sleep through his Senate career and presidential campaign?

      If I say there “no conflict between upholding our laws and our security” and then vote for retroactive immunity for telecoms who spied illegally on Americans, what does that tell you? He refused/refuses to prosecute any official for approving torture, what does that tell you? He refused/refuses to call the Iraq War a criminal war of aggression, what does that tell you?

      Perhaps you should have studied candidate Obama more thoroughly. Senator Obama was a necon . He didn’t just turn into one on day one of his presidency.

  14. Same old doctrine: The only truly sovereign nation is the USA. All others have limited sovereignty, with limits to be determined ad hoc by the President of USA in consultation with the military-industrial complex. (Not just the Mideast, remember the CIA grabbing a guy off the streets of Rome It).

    The Petraeus Memo is a classic example. “Gathering intelligence” is just inserted to give the operation a benign look. After nine years of non-stop violence, our military is hardly going to take a pass on a target of opportunity – in the hope that one more kill will behead the enemy.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced that it had had a serious lapse in judgment, and was retracting the award to Obama? Maybe give it to Juan Cole.

  15. I think Obama was our last chance, and my hope that the chance that he represents is rapidly diminishing. He promised to close Gitmo, and then he promised again to close Gitmo, and then he shut up about Gitmo. He promised to restore the constitution, and then he didn’t close Gitmo, and he decided to try a bunch of guys with military tribunals, and he decided guys in our prisons in Bagram are exempt from habeas corpus, and he decided to assasinate some American citizens, and his AG decides Miranda is an unnecessary impediment, and he decides that people we tortured can’t be tried at all and should be imprisoned forever without trial. So what he meant by “restoring the constitution” and my vision of what that means are two very different things.

  16. When some Middle Eastern régime holds non-uniformed American soldiers as “unlawful combatants,” without trial and indefinitely, will the neocons so in love with Gitmo, “enhanced interrogation” and the rest, give them a bye? Or will they vomit up the gander sauce they are served?

  17. Gen. Patraeus is a neo-con. He is a great admirer of the late Irving Kristol.
    ’nuff said.
    Griff

  18. “We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late? ”

    It’s been too late for a couple of centuries.

    • Thank goodness- I was wondering if I was the only one who had noticed. I’ve been in ‘Shock and Awe’ as a result of things which have in the past/ and continue to take place in the USA for years.
      The atrocious laws , attitudes towards your own citizens – the way the most vulnerable are treated/disregarded…. None of what has happened in the last decade ( since September 11) should be a surprise to anyone as it is merely a more visible continuation of what was happening before.
      If you didn’t complain then I think it may be too late now – look to your poor and disenfranchised – its where the future is.

  19. I think this puts Obama’s “Hands Off” during the Iran election protests, in context.
    Bush’s covert operations to undermine the Iranian government were never called off.
    So under Obama, they are maintained, and then to add insult to injury, increased.
    There aught to be some consequence to getting oneself elected under false pretenses!

      • My comment was meant to show how, vis a vis Iran, American Policy had not changed from what it was under Bush.
        The last sentence refers to Obama.

  20. .
    when DNI Dennis Blair had a tiff with Leon Panetta, Leon went crying to Obama and Blair got a pink slip.
    When Dave Petraeus got into it with Panetta, he just started up his own little mini-CIA and now ignores Leon. It’s good to be oligarch.
    .

  21. Indefinite imprisonment, drone wars, oppressive copyright/freedom of information laws, demonization of Muslims, nuclear threats, imperialist wars, unprecedented corporate/military/government conflagration = USA, most fascist state in history??

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