I’m shocked, shocked to learn the CIA was planning to kill Bin Laden
I’m a bit puzzled by the flap over revelations that the Bush administration approved a secret CIA program to send assassination teams overseas to kill suspected al Qaeda leaders. I understand the concerns about the absence of Congressional oversight, but three aspects of the case strike me as odd. First, although the Bush administration should ...
I’m a bit puzzled by the flap over revelations that the Bush administration approved a secret CIA program to send assassination teams overseas to kill suspected al Qaeda leaders. I understand the concerns about the absence of Congressional oversight, but three aspects of the case strike me as odd.
First, although the Bush administration should be criticized for not informing Congress, this is one case where key officials seem to have realized that the proposed program wasn’t really feasible and decided not to implement it. Because examples of competent national security decision-making by the Bush team were few and far-between, shouldn’t we give them a smidge of credit for NOT sending some unfortunate Jack Bauer on a foolish mission?
Second, for those who are outraged to learn that the United States was planning to assassinate suspected terrorists leader, please explain to me the difference between sending in an assassination team to kill a suspected al Qaeda member, and sending a Predator or Reaper drone into some remote area to do the same thing? The target is just as dead no matter what instrument is used, and as we have already seen on several occasions, the risk to innocent civilians and the danger of various forms of blowback is probably greater when the U.S. uses unmanned drones. Moreover, both responses are essentially extra-judicial executions: the potential targets are suspected of being “enemy combatants” but that hasn’t been proven and U.S. intelligence has mis-identified a number of alleged “terrorists” in the past. And then ask yourself how Americans would react if some other country were doing the same thing on U.S. soil.
So if you’re troubled by the idea that the United States was preparing to send hit squads into some foreign country, you ought to be equally troubled by our current policy of taking terrorist suspects out from the air. But I don’t get the impression that the latter program bothers very many people here in the United States, and certainly not the leadership in either party. As Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) remarked following the recent revelations, “The Predator strikes have been successful, and I was pleased to see the Obama administration continue them … This [covert assassination program] was another effort that was trying to accomplish the same objective.”
Thucydides had it right: “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The strong also try to convince everyone that they are also more virtuous, even when the evidence for the latter claim is dubious. And on that note, the Times today also has a piece on U.S. air tactics in Afghanistan that reads like a press release straight from CentCom HQ. It reports that the United States is now conducting a “kinder, gentler” air cover policy, in order to avoid civilian casualties. I hope that’s true, but I also hope someone remembers this piece the next time we hit a village by mistake.
One last point: the fact that the CIA concluded that the assassination program was unworkable suggests that there is a very large gap between the image of covert action portrayed in American pop culture and the reality on the ground. If you watch 24, Mission Impossible, the various Bourne movies, or even lighter fare like Ocean’s 11, they depict a world where smart and exceedingly well-trained experts, equipped with a lot of cool high-tech gadgetry, can perform extraordinary feats of derring-do in far-flung locations. They also portray a world where the U.S. government has enormous real-time surveillance capabilities, vast and swift analytical capacities, and a well-trained set of agents ready to send virtually anywhere to go after virtually anyone (even if someone like Jason Bourne keeps outwitting them).
If you watched enough of these movies, and didn’t have any other sources of information, it would be easy to believe all sorts of crazy ideas about black helicopters and other loony conspiracies. And it makes me wonder: do such productions lead viewers in the U.S. and abroad to exaggerate what the United States is actually capable of doing? If so, then Americans may expect too much from their national security apparatus, and foreign populations may be too inclined to blame events on nefarious American interference.
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Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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