Nine days after the September 11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington, George W. Bush explained to the country how the government planned to respond. Speaking on prime-time television before a joint session of Congress, he described the coming war: “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”
President Bush was almost certainly speaking from a text scrutinized by the White House staff, members of a half-dozen cabinet departments, and echelons of lawyers. Thus covert operations was a carefully chosen phrase.
Never before has a president announced so explicitly that covert operations would be a major part of U.S. policy. His announcement is a direct result of the new kind of threat we face: global terrorist organizations. Having raised the issue, we need to consider whether, where, and when to use covert action to fight terrorism.
Combating International Terrorism: The Options
Of the four basic options for dealing with foreign terrorist threats, each is appropriate for a different set of conditions.
The first option is diplomacy and cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies. This works when a country has a functioning government and operates in good faith with the United States. The Clinton administration, unfortunately, relied on cooperation even when a government was clearly unwilling or unable to work with us, with the result that terrorists had more territory from which to operate safely. (See Bruce Berkowitz, “Should We Send in the Marines—or the Cops?” Hoover Digest, fall 2001.) The reluctance of Saudi Arabia to cooperate with the United States in the Khobar Towers bombing investigation was one example. Yemen’s foot-dragging behavior after the attack on the USS Cole was another.
The second option is full-scale war against countries that willfully harbor terrorists. This was the case in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had virtually taken over the government, as it was the main bankroller of the Taliban regime. When U.S. officials linked Al Qaeda to the September 11 attacks, the Taliban refused to turn over its “guests.” Given the evidence and the Taliban’s clear lack of cooperation, it was easy for the United States to justify military action under international law, which allows armed self-defense. But terrorist organizations, learning from the experience of Al Qaeda, will likely avoid providing the United States a clear justification for full-scale war.
Also, full-scale war usually requires the support of allies. Even when the United States is willing to do most of the fighting, we still need allies to provide bases, airspace, and intelligence. If one does not have such support, full-scale military operations are difficult or impossible.
In the future, then, terrorist organizations will be more careful in choosing where to set up shop. Most likely, they will pick countries that are not quite enemies of the United States but certainly not friends either. They could choose countries with governments not fully in control. Combined with terrorists’ efforts to hide and disavow responsibility for their actions, the United States could have an increasingly difficult time finding allies willing to support full-scale, overt military operations—even when the United States can claim grounds for armed self-defense. The third and fourth options—covert action and direct action—are discussed below.
The legal definition of covert action appears in the U.S. Code (Title 50, Chapter 15, Section 413b), which defines covert action as any “activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” In other words, covert actions are deniable activities.
It is telling that the main reason for defining covert action in the law has been to establish procedures for approving such activities and notifying Congress. Covert operations hide the visible signs of U.S. responsibility. Thus we need special provisions to maintain control, oversight, and accountability through other—classified—channels.
It is important to understand that covert operations are not secret operations. Secret operations are supposed to be concealed completely from the public. Some high-tech weapons, for example, are secret. By hiding them, we prevent enemies from developing countermeasures. Some diplomacy is secret, too, allowing U.S. officials greater flexibility in floating ideas or negotiating the early stages of an agreement free from public pressure.
Most covert operations are, in contrast, entirely visible. The only thing secret about these activities is the U.S. role. Indeed, almost anything the United States has done as a covert action—paramilitary operations, security assistance, and so on—has been done overtly on other occasions. Thus the first questions to ask about any proposed covert operation are “Why do you want to do it covertly?” and “Why is concealing the role of the U.S. government essential to its success?”
Usually, the only good reason for covertness is that public knowledge of U.S. responsibility would make the operation much less effective or simply impossible to carry out. For instance, some propaganda will have a greater impact on foreign audiences if it seems to come from a neutral source. Payoffs or security protection to a foreign official could discredit the official or give his rivals political ammunition if they became public.
Which brings us to combating terrorism. Sometimes direct, open involvement with the United States might make it impossible for an otherwise willing foreign government to cooperate with us. For example, the press has reported that teams from the Department of Defense (DOD) and the CIA are helping Pakistan and the Philippines in tracking Al Qaeda cells. The United States has had “complicated” relations with these countries in the past—another way of saying we supported military dictators in both countries during the 1970s and 1980s as part of our Cold War efforts to contain the Soviet Union—which is why we now need to reduce the visibility of U.S. support. In the Philippines, a large U.S. presence would be burdensome political baggage for the current government (a democracy installed with U.S. assistance in 1986). In Pakistan, a visible U.S. presence could be a rallying cry for religious fundamentalists who oppose the current regime. General Pervez Musharraf may have come to power via a coup, but he has at least declared his intentions of building democracy. The fundamentalists want a theocratic state.
Even so, there are situations in which U.S. leaders might be tempted to use covert action to fight terrorists but should not. The rule of thumb should be whether the United States plans to send armed forces into combat. Simply put, all military force should be overt—openly linked to the U.S. government.
We must keep clear distinctions between terrorists and ourselves. Regular armies and terrorists often fight using similar methods—small, semiautonomous cells dispersed over vast regions. This is simply the nature of modern warfare; any army that fights in large, pre-set formations is vulnerable, and modern communication networks make it possible for combat forces to operate as small, highly mobile units. Terrorists have access to the same technology and are using similar tactics.
The main differences between terrorists and regular armies are the rules they follow when they fight. Uniformed military forces are an expression of every nation’s legitimate right of self-defense. In principle, they are trained to operate under international rules of war. Under these rules, they try to avoid killing noncombatants. Just as important, they identify themselves openly when they fight by wearing uniforms or insignia. This lets them distinguish themselves from noncombatants and makes their governments responsible for their actions. Terrorists, in contrast, do not abide by the rules of war. They target noncombatants to create fear and confusion. That is, after all, the definition of terror. Terrorists also hide their identities. This makes it harder to find them and harder to hold their sponsors responsible for their actions. It also makes it harder to fight them without harming noncombatants.
This is why using covert action to fight terrorists presents problems. When U.S. forces fight covertly—that is, when they hide U.S. responsibility by not wearing insignia or reporting through a clear, public chain of command—our combat operations begin to resemble those of terrorists. This undermines the credibility and moral standing of the United States.
Another option for using lethal force against terrorists is direct action. This kind of activity has received much less attention than covert action in the past but is likely to be more important in the future.
The DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines direct action as “short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions by special operations forces or special operations–capable units to seize, destroy, capture, recover, or inflict damage on designated personnel or materiel.” Strip away the jargon, and you are talking about ambushing terrorist groups, raiding weapons shipments in transit, and rescuing hostages. Direct action is not a show of force. It is military force to achieve important, but limited, objectives.
A key difference between direct action and covert action is that in direct action the United States does not conceal its responsibility. Soldiers wear uniforms and insignia, which is an important difference between a covert paramilitary operation and direct action. Direct action involves innovative military action to eliminate terrorists—while not acting like terrorists ourselves.
Besides complying with international law, direct action has another advantage over covert military operations. It compels presidents to acknowledge that undertaking combat is an act of war and forces them to decide whether they can justify that step and whether they want to take it.
Finally, because U.S. responsibility for direct action is public, politicians have no place to hide if things go sour. Planners of operations, because they are under greater public scrutiny, are more likely to learn from their mistakes. Recall the failed 1980 U.S. hostage rescue mission in Iran. Because it was not covert, the Carter administration had to take responsibility (which, admirably, it did). The U.S. military learned that it was
not prepared and the public understood this. As a result, military officials proposed fixes and Congress supported them.
Are We Prepared?
Ironically, many military officers who would be responsible for direct action have been skeptical about using it. General Henry Shelton, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and himself a member of the army’s Special Forces, supposedly once derided such operations as “going Hollywood.” In fairness, they do conjure up visions of Mr. T and The A-Team or Napoleon Solo and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
But we will likely require this capability in the war on terrorism. The new threat demands it. Moreover, to carry out direct action effectively, we will need to develop new capabilities. We currently lack the ability to react quickly. Logistics support is also a problem.
Currently, U.S. Special Operations forces can move faster than, say, an army division or a navy carrier battle group. Even so, deploying a special operations force of almost any kind remains a big military operation. Putting almost any combat unit into the field still requires days—even weeks—to prepare. Also, the DOD lacks effective means of supporting small units in the field once they are deployed. This is why the CIA—rather than the DOD—put the first U.S. combat forces into Afghanistan after September 11. It was not because we needed to be covert; the whole world knew we were at war. It was just that the CIA could move faster, using its network of case officers, contractors, and cooperating foreign governments.
But using the CIA as a quick-response arm of the DOD is a bad idea. Few organizations do more than one thing well. If the CIA starts to fight wars, it will be less able to conduct espionage—that is, recruit spies, perform analysis, and support noncombat covert operations. Consider how much has been revealed about the CIA’s activities in Afghanistan. The press carried reports about the CIA’s military assistance teams even before it learned what the DOD was doing in Afghanistan. Can any organization with this kind of visibility operate secretly? The press also reported that the CIA operated Predator unmanned aircraft to track Taliban units and attack them with missiles. If the CIA did this while trying to maintain deniability, then it was coming dangerously close to resembling the terrorists it was trying to destroy.
It makes more sense to better prepare U.S. military forces for direct action. The defense department must develop small, highly mobile combat forces to attack the new threats we face. It must also develop the specialized infrastructure it needs for logistics, communications, and supplies.
Direct action is overt military force, but such operations may require covert activities for support. For example, if a terrorist organization takes refuge in a country that is surrounded by countries hostile to the United States, there may be nowhere in the neighborhood for a U.S. staging area. In such a case, the United States may need to set up bases covertly before the operation. This might seem like a role for the CIA, but, again, there are good reasons it should not be directly involved. Any military operation that used the CIA’s secret infrastructure would likely compromise the agency’s spying operations. The last thing you want to do if you are trying to maintain safe houses and dead drops is to call attention to yourself with helicopters, armored vehicles, and people in fatigues carrying automatic weapons.
The DOD must develop this capability itself. The laws that define oversight requirements for CIA covert action also allow the DOD to carry out similar operations to support combat operations. For example, the Title 50 requirements for notifying Congress about covert operations exclude “traditional military operations”—including direct actions and the clandestine activities needed to support them. These activities are authorized under different laws and have their own notification requirements. By starting afresh, the military services could also explore new approaches to providing cover and operating a covert infrastructure.
Let spies be spies and soldiers be soldiers. We will need them both.
An Arsenal of Options
Dealing with terrorism—as well as similar asymmetric threats—will require diplomacy, law enforcement, and a range of military capabilities. This choice will depend partly on the nature of the threat—small power, great power, or something in between—and whether we can count on the support of allies. It will also depend on whether we can use the rule of law or must resort to force.
The long-range goal of the United States should be to promote cooperative, democratic governments so that diplomacy and cooperative law enforcement are effective in as much of the world as possible. In the meantime, the most important ingredient in dealing with terrorism will be leaders who can make explicit, high-level decisions about which combination of capabilities is most appropriate in each case.