The Secret War to Come | The Nation


The Secret War to Come

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What if they waged a war, and there was nothing to see?

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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When the first missiles of President Bush's war on terrorism were launched, television screens displayed night-green fuzz occasionally interrupted by white bursts. Little could be discerned, but still, it was something to watch. Bush and his aides repeatedly say that much of the new war will be mounted in secrecy. In other words, no pictures, no words. After the present campaign in Afghanistan ends--or, conceivably, while it continues--military and paramilitary action presumably will occur there and elsewhere without the knowledge of American citizens. This could be the start of a yearslong effort in which the government will attempt to keep significant aspects of war out of sight and unacknowledged. Though past administrations have engaged in clandestine warfare, Bush is leading the country into new turf. This will present the President, the press and especially other politicians with assorted challenges.

How will Bush demonstrate that he is waging his war successfully? He will hail diplomatic initiatives, humanitarian efforts, bureaucratic reorganizations, improvements in border security and moves that freeze the funds of terrorists. There might occasionally be arrests to announce. But White House briefings are unlikely to cover operations mounted by intelligence agencies and the special forces, the highly secretive military units, numbering 40,000 or so troops, that are expected to play a leading role in the new war. If a Navy SEAL team manages to sneak into a Manila apartment building and kill the leader of an Al Qaeda cell (and, say, a neighbor or two), that is not a victory that will be celebrated in a White House press release. To keep voters behind him, Bush may have to tell part of the secret story at some point (assuming there's success to cite). In the meantime, the Bush crowd will try to maintain a tight lid on information, an act that--coincidence or not--will enable it to better control the public image of the war.

A state of war will intensify the Bush crew's stronger-than-average penchant for information management. This Administration is a direct descendant of the White House that in 1991 strove mightily to curtail media coverage of the Gulf War. Before bombs fell on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that the Administration would release unclassified material to present the case against Osama bin Laden, but the White House shot down that idea. (British Prime Minister Tony Blair then issued such a white paper.) Days later, Bush ordered senior Administration officials to limit classified briefings on Capitol Hill to eight senior lawmakers. After senators and representatives threw a fit, the White House defended the decision by accusing legislators of leaking, but then backed off. Nevertheless, the White House noted that members of relevant committees would hear only about past operations or those happening at the moment, not actions scheduled to occur.

Although legislators howled about Bush's attempt to shut them out, their desire to audit this war closely is open to question. In years past, Congressional oversight of covert actions has not been assiduous. "A lot of oversight is informal," notes Loch Johnson, a former aide to a House intelligence subcommittee. "If you have ten overseers [on a committee], maybe you will have two or three who are go-getters. And it's difficult for them to know what questions to ask." Previous administrations have given the intelligence committees the slip. In 1985, for instance, the CIA was involved--in a wink-and-nod way--with Saudi intelligence in an assassination plot against a prominent terrorist supporter in Lebanon. A car bomb exploded in a Beirut suburb, killing eighty people but not the target. CIA chief William Casey did not report this to the intelligence committees.

Under existing law, when the President orders covert action he must give Congress (the intelligence committees or a smaller group of lawmakers) a written "finding," which outlines the operation in a "timely" fashion. Legislators cannot veto the mission. They can merely argue against it. Over the years, disputes have occurred over what constitutes "timely," and findings can be broad, leaving out significant particulars. It is possible--experts disagree on this point--that Bush, acting as Commander in Chief in wartime, might have authority to wage covert military actions without informing Congress.

Applying checks on Bush's secret war will be tough for Congress. Consider this scenario: During a classified briefing, a lawmaker is provided information leading him or her to conclude that the President has lied to the public about the war. "It puts the member in a very difficult spot," notes Lee Hamilton, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I wrestled with situations like that several times. Under Congressional rules, you're not allowed to reveal classified information." A member is permitted to say anything on the House or Senate floor, free of penalty, yet that's a step rarely taken. "I tried to work it out in a behind-the-scenes way," Hamilton says. "Any President will use his power of information for his own purposes. And during a war, all the cards are with the executive branch. Congress cannot stop covert actions. In the long run, it can limit funds. In the short term, the President can do basically what he wants."

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