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The Secret War to Come | The Nation

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The Secret War to Come

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

About the Author

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."

If Bush wishes to maintain public support for an unseen war, it will be in his interest to keep the large egos of Congress somewhat in the know and on his side. But in the past, secret warriors in the White House have maneuvered to remain unburdened by Congressional busybodies. The overseers of Congress ought to bear in mind that the Bush White House hired Elliott Abrams for a senior National Security Council post, showing little concern that he pleaded guilty to misleading Congress during the Iran/contra scandal. And the Administration has contemplated handing an NSC post to Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former CIA counterterrorism official indicted for lying to Iran/contra Congressional investigators. Both Clarridge and Abrams were pardoned by Bush I.

Few precedents suggest that Congress can effectively monitor an extensive secret war. No legislators are speaking in public yet about how to supervise such an endeavor. "We've mainly been reacting to events and not looking too far ahead," says an aide to one prominent liberal Democratic senator. Another such aide remarks, "My guy is concerned but hasn't thought about what to do. There's a fine line between what's appropriate to be kept secret and what's not." One intelligence committee aide notes, "Congress is just beginning to wonder about how to oversee a secret war." There is one certainty: It will be awfully difficult for any lawmaker to confront the White House regarding its handling of such a war. The don't-rock-the-boat tradition in Congress--particularly the Senate--is most powerful regarding classified matters.

Despite the Administration briefings, most members may not be informed enough to challenge the White House, since legislators who don't serve on key committees--a majority of Congress--will likely be shut out of the information flow. "After Afghanistan, we may never know what's going on," says a House Democrat who does not serve on the relevant committees. "Some of us are trying to figure out how to make clear that we want information. We don't know yet how to do it. Dick Gephardt is not laying out a Democratic strategy or thinking about how to be a loyal opposition. When the war started I was in my district and people said to me, 'Don't they need you back in Washington?' It was embarrassing to say, 'No, I don't know anything, and I'm not needed there.'"

Left-in-the-dark lawmakers won't be able to turn to the media for help, because a secret war serves up problems for the news business too. If there is another reality, separate from the White House version, will the press be able to discover it? Like Congress, the media do not boast a strong track record in keeping tabs on White House secret wars--like the preparations for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the secret war in Laos in that same decade and the Reagan Administration's covert war against Nicaragua. On the other hand, cable networks crave One Big Story these days and have ratings incentives to pursue details of the secret war. The Internet makes it harder for media organizations to sit on information they might be queasy about publishing. Still, major news outfits will probably have trouble establishing a fix on this planetwide war and regularly penetrating the world of clandestine conflict.

As Bush's war on terrorism proceeds, how can the public be confident that what is being done in its name, with its tax dollars, is reasonable? Can it depend upon Congress to monitor the war thoroughly and to withhold funds if the secret war goes awry? Probably not. Can it rely on journalists to unearth the full truth of this war? That may be asking too much. The public will probably not be supplied the information necessary to evaluate the war's conduct. That will be one more uncertainty of life post-9/11. As Bush said recently, "All of us are going to have to adjust.

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