January 15th, 2012

Covert Commentary

The world of espionage is impossibly murky. We still, for example, know little about Sidney Reilly, the steampunk-era British superspy and consummate master of deception who may have inspired the James Bond series.  It was only last year that MI6 let an official historian give us an inkling if it what it was doing in 1909. When writing about covert activities—even heavily documented ones—we must always remember their uncertain nature and the information gaps we must deal with. Unfortunately, recent commentary about covert activities does not treat it with the gravity and care that the complex subject deserves.

One example of tangled thinking about covert operations can be found in Ali Vaez and Charles Ferguson’s recent article on the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists. Vaez and Ferguson denounce the killings as immoral and counterproductive. They do not suggest the US is responsible, but still penned this paragraph:

Notwithstanding Secretary Clinton’s immediate reaction to the assassination by categorically denying “any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” Tehran blamed the bombing on “America and the criminal Zionist regime.” A disturbing saying, fueled by livid nationalism, spread across Iran like wildfire, “They save our sailors, but kill our scientists.” The phrase refers to the humanitarian-cum-diplomatic rescue operations by the U.S. navy in the Persian Gulf that has saved the lives of Iranian mariners in the past few days. The goodwill gesture that countered Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to global oil traffic has been largely ruined by the coldblooded murder.

It should be stated outright there is no proof that the United States is involved, and there is strong reason to dismiss the idea. While such operations may have been old hat in the rough-and-tumble era of Castro and exploding cigars, the new face of American targeted killing is the drone, air strike, or special operations team. These operations, while highly classified, are quite obvious, make headlines, and are clearly attributed to purposeful American action. They are tied to military campaigns defined by the Authorization of Military Force (AUMF), however loosely interpreted. They are “covert” in the legal sense but not in spirit because their effects are plainly visible.

Additionally, the expert consensus seems to be that the Israelis and the MEK are carrying out these operations in combination, which fits with Tel Aviv’s nearly 40-year policy of making life very unpleasant for Arab and Persian nuclear (and conventional) technologists. Yet the article paragraph implies that the United States is still somehow to blame for greater tension over the Iranian nuclear regime. Charitably read, Vaez and Ferguson are arguing that the Iranians are conflating the killing of the scientists with the larger nonlethal covert campaign (Stuxnet, et al), with potentially detrimental results.

The problem is that Vaez and Ferguson do not prove for sure that the Iranians are making this logical leap. Certainly, as the article indicates, popular rumor may conflate these two activities. But does the Iranian leadership? Given the longstanding history of American-Iranian covert competition in the Middle East, is it very plausible that the Iranian leadership has a more sophisticated understanding of the the structure and logic of American covert operations than the article suggests. And the United States is, for all of the secrecy surrounding American covert warfare, a vastly more open society than Iran, and Tehran must have at least a few analysts that can read English. Of course, it’s also possible that they do regard both American and regional covert operations as part of a unified drive against them—but the article does not effectively make the case.

So what’s the point? That we should loudly condemn targeted killings of Iranian scientists (which the article acknowledges the US already has?) That some American politicians make bad gaffes without thinking about the consequences? That boat has already long since sailed. Or that the US can’t carry out even nonlethal covert operations because the Iranians will double-down on their commitment to a program that they are already strongly committed to?

But the problems with public commentary about covert operations go beyond Vaez and Ferguson’s article. On Twitter, the recent Mark Perry article about the alleged Israeli false flag operation is taken as gospel—thin sourcing be damned. Then there’s the matter of Seymour Hersh’s long history of reporting dodgy information about covert geopolitics, which Carl Prine rightly highlights in a recent critical blog post. We have heard a lot of criticism since the Iraq War about reporters acting as uncritical relayers of anonymous officials looking to inject their own agendas into the public sphere. So why the lack of skepticism when those public officials talk to outsider journalists?

For a Beltway bureaucrat engaged in factional warfare, both Hersh and the much-derided mainstream journo are simply both means to an end. Hersh and Perry, may, in fact, be more useful to them precisely because their outsider status gives them greater credibility that a MSM outlet lacks among the conspiratorially-minded. We are asked to accept their sources at face value, but would many of their readers do so if Judith Miller made the same request?

The levels of deception and purposeful misdirection within the espionage world should also give us pause about making definite conclusions about tradecraft based on fragmented press recollections about bungled operations. Plainly put, we have no idea what really happened to the supposed American intelligence networks in Lebanon and Iran. It is thus unclear why commentators readily speculated as to the bureaucratic and/or strategic causes of tactical and operational failures without a solid basis in information. What we do have, is what a number of different actors—most significantly Hezbollah, which seeks maximum propaganda impact, want us to think for various reasons. I hesitate even to type “us” because it is even unclear what kind of audience(s) these messages are targeted towards.

As Mike Tanji observes, this unfortunate tendency is perhaps especially pronounced in the cyber world:

Yet in every report about cyberespionage there is a line akin to “all signs point to this being the work of country X” – without any critical analysis. There are 20 (G-20) “major economies” in the world, 31 “high income” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations, and 35 “advanced economies” per the International Monetary Fund – all of which could benefit greatly from the intellectual output of American engineers and scientists. But since we’re so heavily invested in preparing to fight a conventional war with just two adversaries, that’s who we blame.

I echoed this point in my CTOVision summary of 2011 in cybersecurity. People are rightly very familiar with Chinese espionage. But do they know anything about the expansive French technical espionage regime? If not, let former French intelligence chief Pierre Marion fill you in: “It would not be normal for us to spy on the United States in political or military matters, but in the economic and technical spheres we are competitors, not allies.”

Covert operations are murky by definition. Those of us who learn of them via the New York TImes or CNN are by far the most removed from the truth. And, as any sampling of Cold War spy histories and the career of James Jesus Angleton tells us, the spooks themselves also are groping in the dark.

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng