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Covert ops: Newt Gingrich’s (not so) secret weapon

If a wave of déjà vu washed over you last night as Newt Gingrich outlined his approach to the violence in Syria, there’s good reason. The United States should "have our allies covertly helping destroy the Assad regime," the former House speaker argued duringthe Republican presidential debate in Arizona. "There are plenty of Arab-speaking groups ...

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If a wave of déjà vu washed over you last night as Newt Gingrich outlined his approach to the violence in Syria, there’s good reason. The United States should "have our allies covertly helping destroy the Assad regime," the former House speaker argued duringthe Republican presidential debate in Arizona. "There are plenty of Arab-speaking groups that would be quite happy. There are lots of weapons available in the Middle East."

The response echoed one of Gingrich’s favorite refrains. In November, for instance, he advocated "maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian [nuclear] program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable."

Of course, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have also called for covert action in Iran. But Gingrich wants to apply the tactic far more expansively. In January, he called for clandestine operations to "encourage the Cuban people to feel that the end of the Castro brothers is actually the end of the dictatorship and that the time has come for a transition."

In explaining how he would have handled the Libyan uprising during an appearance on Fox News last spring, Gingrich declared that the United States should have initially "taken a quiet, careful, indirect route that would have gotten rid of Qaddafi but without using American force and without using overt American action."

Just this month, he told Greta Van Susteren that he would alter President Obama’s approach to Pakistan by urging Congress to repeal all restrictions on U.S. spying, thereby rebuilding the "American capacity to do genuine intelligence and genuine covert operations."

Gingrich likes to say that his faith in covert operations stems from how U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II confronted the Soviet Union and supported the Polish trade union and opposition movement Solidarity in the 1980s. "They helped organize Solidarity, financed it, got printing equipment and communications gear," Gingrich told Miami’s CBS4, in explaining how the Castro regime could be overthrown nonviolently.

All this overt talk about covert action, however, has some people worrying that a President Gingrich would preside over the least-secret secret operations in U.S. history. "What is it about ‘covert’ that the Republicans don’t understand?" the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius marveled after one debate in which the candidates used the word nine times. If Gingrich really believed he could become president, he "wouldn’t put himself in the position of having to deny in office something that he had already admitted he’d do if elected," added Shikha Dalmia at The Daily, flagging America’s "inglorious history of covert operations" as a cautionary tale.

To be sure, it’s one thing to recommend secret operations on the campaign trail and quite another to blab about them while in office. But Gingrich doesn’t exactly have a sterling track record on the governing side, either. In 1995, he spearheaded an effort in Congress to launch a $20 million covert CIA program against Tehran over the objections of CIA and Clinton administration officials, who argued the project would be wasteful and ineffectual.

At the time, the New York Times News Service noted that Gingrich had "made his feelings known so strongly that his desire for a covert operation" had become public, getting picked up by news outlets and Iranian leaders and diminishing the chances that the program would succeed:

Now the CIA finds itself required, against its better judgment, to plan a "secret" mission, with its cover already blown, in a region where U.S. policy has in recent years suffered failures and fiascos.

If Gingrich does indeed become president, he could find himself in a similar bind — in several dicey regions, no less.

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