The Covert Action Virus

Twenty or so years ago, I had a conversation with a soil scientist of my acquaintance, who had recently returned from an extended trip through Central America. He had been teaching alternative farming techniques to peasant farmers being squeezed into less and less available land, as part of a private aid group. It sounded to me like an ideal gig for the Peace Corps, so I was surprised when he answered: “Uh-uh. No way. If you’re in Central America with the Peace Corps, everyone just assumes you’re CIA. Nobody will talk to you, and you can’t get anything done.”
I was taken aback, given that, as the Peace Corps itself says:

Persons who have been employed by an intelligence agency, or otherwise have been associated with intelligence activities, are ineligible to serve as volunteers. This exclusionary policy is one aspect of the broader, long-standing policy of maintaining an absolute separation between Peace Corps and intelligence activities conducted by the U.S. government. This absolute separation is necessary to protect volunteers’ safety and to maintain the trust and confidence of the people in the countries in which volunteers serve.

The inverse, however, is also true. Because of this exclusionary policy, the Peace Corps would in fact make an excellent cover for an agent. This goes to the very nature of the deception that is the core of what intelligence agents do: it does not matter what lie is believed, as long as a lie is believed. As long as the target believes something that is not true, he/she can be manipulated. Which means that everything is a potential cover story, a legend, and a potential target for infiltration and exploitation. Every bureau, every commercial outlet, every information source is a potential target. Every cell of the body politic is susceptible to this, either proactively or by being compromised; a virus of deceit, secrecy, and covert action.

The problems with this are obvious, and became apparent to me again this morning, when I opened Firedoglake and saw USAID Fake HIV Center in Cuba Undermines Global Health Efforts. I followed the links; the gist, as reported by the AP, is that “Over at least two years, the U.S. Agency for International Development — best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid — sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba.” These untrained agents, supplied with encrypted flash drives, and codes for communications, “posed as tourists, visited college campuses, and used…[a]n HIV-prevention workshop one called “the perfect excuse” to recruit political activists.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the operation was set up by the same contractor that dreamed up the failed “Cuban Twitter” project.

This program is being defended by the Obama Administration: according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the program “enabled support for Cuban civil society, while providing a secondary benefit of addressing the desires Cubans express for information and training about HIV prevention.” Note the moment of honesty: the secondary benefit of the HIV awareness program was HIV awareness. The first was covert action.

This type of covert action is not rare, as Peter at FDL goes on to elaborate; nor is it just medical aid being used as cover. The fake NGO that was used to decapitate a FARC unit in Columbia is missing, but he includes the fake hepatitis vaccine program in Pakistan that helped identify Usama bin Laden-since then, the Pakistani Taliban has outlawed polio vaccination and killed 60 vaccination workers, allowing polio to make a robust comeback. Another one Peter could have pointed to was the role of the NED-the National Endowment for Democracy-in Ukraine, where it has spent tens of millions of dollars on a wide variety of programs. As  One of the founders of the NED-“whose purpose is to support foreign organizations sympathetic to US foreign policy goals” explained it in 1991“A lot of what we do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA.” And so it is: whether it be Nicaragua, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Albania, Iran, Cuba, Mongolia, or Venezuela, the NED is there. No wonder Putin was pissed about US operations in Ukraine. Every dollar spent there was intended to lessen Russian influence. Every single aspect of the “civil society” NED is supporting there can be considered a covert operation targeted on Russian interests.

And that’s the real issue-the meta-issue. The effect of using everything as a cover for covert operations is the certain destruction of the ability of people to have faith in institutions that, in a democracy, require faith to operate (rampant conspiracy theory-the guaranteed response to pervasive secrecy-has the same effect). You can have democracy-or you can have deceit and covert action. You can have citizen participation-or you can have counterintelligence programs designed to “expose disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize…” You can have journalism-or you can have Operation MOCKINGBIRD, in which the CIA compromised dozens of journalists and fed them CIA propaganda. You can have community policing-or you can have Phoenix Program-style counterinsurgency as law enforcement, in which pervasive surveillance, secret and unconstitutional police methods, and Special Operations teams combine to “neutralize threats.” Radley Balko reports an average of fifty thousand SWAT raids annually in the US…we have come a hell of a long way from “to serve and protect.”

And that’s the point-when everything is a covert action bureau, or cover, that is all it is. It cannot be an institution that operates by deceit and covert violence, AND be a democratically-controlled institution responsive to citizens’ needs. You can have democracy, and freedom, and all the messy processes that democratic institutions require to operate; or you can have the expediency, secrecy, deception, and violence of government-by-secret-police-agency. When your service providers collect and sell your information; when your cell phone is tracked by retailers in the mall; when your movements are tracked via car tracking, facial recognition programs, and ubiquitous cameras; and when your police subvert oversight by deceiving responsible authority, your institutions have become spy agencies, whose tools are secrecy and deception: anathema to self-government in a free society. A paradigm of covert action, or a representative democracy. You cannot have both.

You cannot have both, and there will be no progress until this question is answered, definitively. Subverting change in defense of the status quo, after all, is what intelligence agencies do. Our government is infected with a virus, that has seemingly moved into every cell; healing America will require, first, a robust immune response from a citizenry that will not be able to suspend the necessary weight of disbelief much longer, and second, an intense vaccination course to keep the patient from  relapsing.

 

I’m Not Saying I Agree…But I Understand

Chris Rock once did a stand-up routine where he talked about the OJ Simpson case, and his theme was, “I’m not saying it’s right-but I understand.” This is kind of how I feel about Ukraine: I’m not defending Putin, and I’m not saying taking the Crimea in violation of treaty was right-but I DO understand. Here’s why:

I had forgotten about Zbigniew Brzezsinski’s famous quote: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” This kind of fanatical bipolar myopia isn’t really funny anymore, given that the Cold War ended a generation ago, but it seems to be the core of much US thinking toward the current crisis in Ukraine, much to the detriment of our understanding why Russia is doing what it is doing. With communism defeated, there was  little ideological reason to continue fighting, beyond the entrenched corporate interests of  surviving Cold War -era institutions and the knee-jerk opposition of the Grand Chessboard-type thinking that thought it was a good idea to, say, march NATO up to Russia’s border. The idea that Russia, and any Russian leader, has a legitimate interest in Ukraine complicates this simplistic Good Guy/Bad Guy  narrative, so attempts to undermine Russian influence in Ukraine are left out of the mainstream conversation, as are the activities of Western intelligence agencies in fanning the unrest, and the uncomfortable presence of a significant fraction of neo-Nazis in Ukrainian resistance.

This reactionary impulse may have something to do with US motivation in aiding the anti-Russian Ukrainians, and maybe some of the Ukrainians are simply US aid sponges,  but there is a long history of antipathy between Ukraine and Russia, even before Stalin starved somewhere around 3.5 million Ukrainians to death in the Thirties. This was repaid, of course, by many Ukrainians welcoming the Nazi invaders of 1941. After the war, a Ukrainian independence movement largely controlled by unreconstructed fascists fought on, until finally crushed by the Soviets.

Fast forward. During de-Stalinization, Crimea is transferred to Ukraine from Russia, though the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered there.

Fast forward. When the USSR collapses, Ukraine has the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal on its territory. In return for giving them up, Russia signs a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity; this is the one broken-maybe-by Russia’s incursion into the Crimea. We’ll return to that momentarily. Also, US Secretary of State James Baker promises Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO will refrain from moving East if the USSR stands down. After the USSR dissolves, NATO, of course, immediately adds most the old Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe to NATO, which is why it so infuriated the Russians when Ukrainian President Yushchenko started talking about Ukraine, on Russia’s border, joining NATO, and expelling the Black Sea fleet from Crimea.

So, when Putin outbid the EU for favorable trade terms with Ukraine, he was operating within the accepted rules of the game. Meanwhile, the US is funding the Ukrainian resistance, and is wiretappedamong other things, picking the next leader of the resistance. Then, after Yanukovich’s “turn” toward Russia backfired, and the demonstrations got out of hand-the Russians brokered a deal to end the protests, and Yanukovich agreed to step down and transfer power to the Parliament.

That should have been the end of it; instead, the Ukrainian resistance reneges on the deal, essentially staging a coup d’tat even though they had already won. Furthermore, to complete the circle, there is a significant, visible presence of Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

And that’s why Putin is pissed. In his mind, he was playing a clean game, while Russia was being undercut by a covert op; he brokered a deal in good faith, only to see the Ukrainians immediately renege; and finally, the symbols of the hated fascists who killed at least 30 million Russians in the defining event of Soviet history are being prominently displayed, on Russia’s border.

There is simply no way in hell that any Russian leader is going to allow a hostile government with operational ties to Western intelligence to thrive in Ukraine-period. Especially one that reneges on its agreements, and is working hand in glove with both the US and NATO, who have lied to Russia at every step. Especially one that insists on rubbing its identification with the Nazis in Russia’s face. And, since temporal distance seems to have fogged people’s memories, Russia is a major strategic nuclear power and need have no fear of a conventional military threat, since attacking Russia is a prescription for national suicide.

Also, Russia is allowed to keep 25,000 troops in Crimea, although they are supposed to stay in their restricted area. That’s the treaty violation. There are no dragnets, roundups, or mass executions underway. Putin is walking a fine line here, asserting Russian hegemony in Ukraine without taking the irrevocable plunge of massive bloodletting. So far, he can still back out, and there are some signals that he may be looking for a way out. If he is, we should let him, since the alternative is for Russia to go all the way forward, and just take Ukraine, install the government it wants, and then withdraw to avoid a bloody counterinsurgency campaign. The closest analog in recent US history is probably the invasion of Panama in 1988.

So, I’m not saying it’s right, or saying I approve-but I understand.