Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2004 / 23 Kislev, 5765

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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So why exactly does the CIA conduct paramilitary operations? | Of all the oxymorons in politics and journalism, my favorite has been "secret war," wars being pretty tough to keep secret. And ever since the "secret war" in Laos in the 1960s, I've wondered why the CIA was conducting paramilitary operations.

Apparently President Bush is wondering, too. He's ordered CIA Director Porter Goss to study whether to transfer responsibility for paramilitary operations to the Department of Defense.

The job of the CIA is to collect information on what potential enemies are doing (to spy), and to figure out what the information means (to analyze). But the Operations Directorate of the CIA has long had a fascination with the dagger end of the cloak and dagger business.

Covert action is a natural companion to espionage. Once you know what's going on, the desire to influence the situation behind the scenes becomes irresistible.

The more modest forms of covert action (bribing a politician here, subsidizing an opposition newspaper there) are sensible additional duties for spymasters. But leading guerrilla bands and hunting down terrorists are tasks more suitable for soldiers than for spies.

The primary reason for getting the CIA out of the paramilitary business is that it isn't very good at it. The secret war in Laos didn't work out so well. Neither did the Bay of Pigs. CIA paramilitary operatives in Afghanistan performed well, but no better than Special Forces, from whose ranks most of the CIA operatives had come.

Back in the day, the CIA got into the paramilitary business partly because it gave political leaders (they thought) plausible deniability, partly because the military in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't much interested in special operations forces.

These days, the military is up to its eyeballs in covert operations, and the Green Berets, the SEALs, and Delta Force are very good indeed. It makes sense that people whose business is war would be better at war than people whose business is spying.

The big debate in Washington these days is over whether three agencies whose primary responsibility is to provide real time tactical intelligence for the military should be removed from the Department of Defense. If we were more thoughtful, we'd be thinking about transferring more intelligence functions to the Department of Defense.

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The military is both a much larger producer and consumer of intelligence than ever before, and the war on terror has blurred what we once thought were bright lines separating war fighting, intelligence, and law enforcement.

We need to think carefully about how we should organize to fight the war on terror, both within DoD and without. It wasn't the military which failed us on 9/11.

President Bush has told Director Goss he wants to increase by 50 percent the number of clandestine operators and intelligence analysts in the CIA. This would be daunting enough without the simultaneous need to clear dead wood that has accumulated in an agency that has repeatedly let us down.

The CIA doesn't know much about North Korea or Iran, and didn't know much about Iraq chiefly because officers in the Operations Directorate are more risk averse than their grandfathers were. Nearly all case officers today operate under "official cover" (they pretend to be diplomats) so that if they are caught spying, all that can happen to them is that they'll be expelled. Spies caught operating under non-official cover (NOC) can be executed.

But foreign intelligence services usually know within hours who the CIA station chief at the embassy is, and official cover doesn't work so well when the target is a country (like Iran and North Korea) with which the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations, or, like al Qaeda, isn't a country at all.

The CIA recruits chiefly from Ivy League universities, which explains why it has so much trouble penetrating terror groups and hostile foreign governments, thinks former Navy SEAL Matthew Heidt.

"I don't understand how some blue blood lefty punk is going to be able to find and recruit someone capable of penetrating the hard targets we need to be looking at," Heidt said.

So where are we going to find large numbers of people brave enough to operate under NOC, and tough enough and skilled enough to succeed? Only in the military, in the special operations forces. And if they are already there, why place them under less capable management?

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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