In 1972, 41 years before Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was spying on the Internet, David Halberstam issued a warning about government secrecy.
As a young reporter for the New York Times covering the early years of the Vietnam war, Halberstam had repeatedly confronted government duplicity and obstruction.
David Halberstam (on left)
Halberstam arrived in South Vietnam in 1962. Almost at once he realized that the war was not going well for the United States Army and its supposed South Vietnamese allies.
The South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was ill-trained and staffed with incompetent officers who sought to avoid military action.
Reports to military superiors were filled with career-boosting lies about “progress” being made against Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers.
“Screw up and move up” was the way Americans described the ARVN promotion system.
Halberstam soon learned that the phrase applied just as much to the American Army as well–for reasons of the same incompetence and duplicity.
Returning from Vietnam and resigning from the Times, Halberstam set to work on his landmark history of how the United States had become entangled in a militarily and economically unimportant country.
He would call it The Best and the Brightest, and the title would become a sarcastic reference to those men in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations whose arrogance and deceit plunged the United States into disaster.
Halberstam outlined how the culture of secrecy and unchecked power led American policymakers to play God with the lives of other nations.
Out of this grew a willingness to use covert operations. And this meant keeping these secret from Americans generally and Congress in particular.
This ignorance allowed citizens to believe that America was a different country. One that didn’t engage in the same brutalities and corruptions of other nations.
Thus, President Lyndon B. Johnson claimed to be the peace candidate during the 1964 election. Meanwhile, he was secretly sending U.S. Navy ships to attack coastal cities in North Vietnam.
When North Vietnam responded militarily, Johnson feigned outrage and vowed that the United States would vigorously resist “Communist aggression.”
The history of covert operations has had its own in- and -out-of seasons:
- During the Eisenhower Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the governments of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).
- During the Kennedy Administration, the CIA repeatedly tried to assassinate Cuba’s “Maximum Leader,” Fidel Castro.
- During the Nixon Adminisdtration, the CIA plotted with right-wing army leaders to successfully overthrow Salvador Allende, the Leftist, legally-elected President of Chile (1973).
- In 1975, the CIA’s history of assassination attempts became public through an expose by New York Times Investigative Reporter Seymour Hersh.
- Following nationwide outrage, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning the agency from assassinating foreign leaders.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney decided to “take off the gloves.”
The CIA drew up an ever-expanding list of targets and used killer drones and Special Operations troops (such as SEALs and Green Berets) to hunt them down.
Predator drone firing Hellfire missile
And when these weren’t enough, the CIA called on expensive mercenaries (such as Blackwater), untrustworthy foreign Intelligence services, proxy armies and mercurial dictators.
In his 2013 book, The Way of the Knife, New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti traces the origins of this high-tech, “surgical” approach to warfare.
Within the course of a decade, the CIA has moved largely from being an intelligence-gathering agency to being a “find-and-kill” one.
And this newfound lethality came at a price: The CIA would no longer be able to provide the crucial Intelligence Presidents need to make wise decisions in a dangerous world.
While the CIA sought to become a more discreet version of the Pentagon, the Pentagon began setting up its own Intelligence network in out-of-the-way Third World outposts.
And, ready to service America’s military and Intelligence agencies at a mercenary’s prices, are a host of private security and Intelligence companies.
Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel, warns of the potential for trouble: “There is an inevitable tension as to where the contractor’s loyalties lie. Do they lie with the flag? Or do they lie with the bottom line?”
Mazzetti warns of the dark side of these new developments. On one hand, this high-tech approach to war has been embraced by Washington as a low-risk, low-cost alternative to huge troop commitments and quagmire occupations.
On the other hand, it’s created new enemies, fomented resentments among allies and fueled regional instability. It has also created new weapons unbound by the normal rules of accountability in wartime.
Finally, it’s raised new and troubling ethical questions, such as:
- What is the moral difference between blowing apart a man at a remote distance with a drone-fired missile and shooting him in the back of the head at close range?
- Why is the first considered a legitimate act of war–and the second considered an illegal assassination?
In time, there will be answers to many of the uncertainties this new era of push-button and hired-soldier warfare has unleashed. And at least some of those answers may come at a high price.