John Prados' Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (2006) concerns just what the title implies: the covert actions of the CIA against various governments and the effect of those actions on the United States' support for democracy.
The focus of Prados' book is to analyze the Executive branch management of the CIA's covert action program from the Truman administration through the Clinton administration. But it's not just for political scientists or management-theory fans. There are plenty of stories with intrigue and drama, clandestine rendezvous and exotic plots, hidden training camps and high-risk night flights, to keep pretty much anyone interested in the subject turning the pages.
But Prados rightly refrains from pretending that the management of the covert action enterprise can be separated from the quality of the output. And he raises some very serious questions about just what benefit we can say that the US has received from the output of the CIA's covert operations.
One of the strongest impressions his narrative left on me was the extent to which Ronald Reagan's Central American policies, along with the intertwined Iran-Contra business, look like a template for the Cheney-Bush foreign policy generally.
When the Reagan administration took office, the government of El Salvador faced a guerrilla rebellion. The Sandinista rebels led by Daniel Ortega had taken power in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration undertook to support the Salvadorean government And to oppose the Nicaraguan government by backing an unsavory bad of rightwingers that became known as the contras.
Despite his ideological bent and numberous bad policies, the Reagan administration was capable of pragmatism and realism in most areas of foreign policy, most notably with the crucial arms-control treaty with the USSR on intermediate-range ballistic missiles. But in Central America and Iran, a disregard for law, an obsession with secrecy, an unhealthy faith in covert operations and the willingness to rely on "cowboy" operators were all very much part of their approach.
There were some still-familiar players involved. Oliver North was the most notorious. A hero to the Christian Right and to more secular hardliners, North is now a military and political commentator for FOX News. The name of one of his bosses, Bob McFarlane, popped up in connection with a CIA covert op in Afghanistan not long after 9/11 but before the American invasion (in connection with a operation gone bad, not surprisingly). North's other boss at the National Security Council involved with Iran-Contra was John Poindexter, who more recently worked for Rumsfeld on a massive data-mining proposal that included domestic spying and that was theoretically cancelled but survived in other forms, at least in part in the current illegal warrantless wiretapping scheme.
John Negroponte, currently director of national intelligence (DNI) and head of the Homeland Security Department, served as Ambassador to Honduras, playing an active role in the secret war against Nicaragua. Newsweek, to Negroponte's dismay, once described him as the proconsul of the contra war against the Sandinistas. Prados observe that when he was appointed DNI, "Negroponte's chief experience with intelligence ... had been in the Nicaraguan secret war".
Stephen Kinzer wrote of Negroponte's career in Honduras (Our Man in Honduras New York Review of Books 09/20/01 issue; article dated 08/21/01, prior to the 9/11 attacks):
<blockquote>He saw, or professed to see, a Honduras almost Scandinavian in its tranquillity, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries. ...
In Honduras Negroponte exercised US power in ways that still reverberate throughout that small country. His most striking legacy, though, is the Honduras of his imagination. Most people who lived or worked in Honduras during the 1980s saw a nation spiraling into violence and infested by paramilitary gangs that kidnapped and killed with impunity. Negroponte would not acknowledge this. He realized that the Reagan policy in Central America would lose support if truths about Honduras were known, so he refused to accept them.
By nominating Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations, the Bush administration is sending at least two clear messages. The first is addressed to the UN itself. During his years in Honduras, Negroponte acquired a reputation, justified or not, as an old-fashioned imperialist. Sending him to the UN serves notice that the Bush administration will not be bound by diplomatic niceties as it conducts its foreign policy.
Negroponte's nomination is also part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate those who planned and organized the Nicaraguan contra war of the 1980s. When last heard from, these men were objects of public opprobrium and, in some cases, criminal indictments. Bush administration officials believe that they were shamefully mistreated and that they ought to be honored for their much-maligned service. No one is more worthy in their eyes than Negroponte, whose work made it possible for the United States to turn Honduras into a staging area for the contra war. (my emphasis)
Not a man to allow reality to interfere with propaganda: a perfect fit for the Cheney-Bush administration.
Elliott Abrams, today's chief Middle East adviser at the National Security Council, was intimately involved in the contra operation. He convinced the Sultan of Brunei to donate $10 million to the contras. Unfortunately, North's secretary Fawn Hall transposed the numbers on the Swiss bank account he was supposed to use, and the $10 million went missing. Abrams eventually plead guilty to two misdemeanors charges instead of a felony charge but his conviction was voided by a Presidential pardon from Old Man Bush as we was on his way out of office. Did I mention that this technically-not-a-felon is now chief Middle East adviser at the National Security Council and thus one of the main figures in the Cheney-Bush Middle East policies?
Chris Hedges recently wrote of Abrams (Bush's Nuclear Apocalypse TruthDig.org 10/09/06):
Those who do not take this apocalyptic rhetoric ["axis of evil", etc.] seriously have ignored the twisted pathology of men like Elliott Abrams, who helped orchestrate the disastrous and illegal contra war in Nicaragua, and who now handles the Middle East for the National Security Council. He knew nothing about Central America. He knows nothing about the Middle East. He sees the world through the childish, binary lens of good and evil, us and them, the forces of darkness and the forces of light. And it is this strange, twilight mentality that now grips most of the civilian planners who are barreling us towards a crisis of epic proportions.
That secret war in Central America involved a variety of highly questionable and some clearly illegal practices. The contras were an unsavory lot, always better at murdering villagers and stealing than at conducting effective military operations against Nicragua's Sandinista government. The operation never had a realistic chance of unseating the government; it was an harassment operation in reality - though many Reagan officials like North took it as much more serious than that. Significant parts of the operation were outsourced to contractors like John Singlaub whose judgment and performance were not always the best. The operation violated the laws of war in mining Nicaraguan harbors. A private network of donors and ccollaborators, including the active participation of Christian Right groups, brought in players of dubious motivation who also presented security risks to the operation. Funds were diverted illegally to the contras. Congress was deliberately deceived. There was a great deal of recklessness, arrogance, ideological dogmatism and foolish wishful thinking about the whole operation.
And the whole thing was cynically justified as defending and promoting democracy. The covert war against Nicaragua was even named Project Democracy. Prados writes:
The worst aspect of direct White House involvement in a covert action was the squandering of a president's political capital on a marginal issue. The prestige of the presidency, openly committed to an effort at the very margins of legality in international relations, left Ronald Reagan damaged. Project Democracy muddied the waters further by skirting the law of the land. There are many wise reasons for eschewing such a policy.
While the sordidness and ineffectiveness of the secret war against Nicaragua became more public than most, Prados makes it clear that it was not unusual in the quality of its results, i.e., poor. Even though I look at CIA operations with a skeptical eye, I was surprised at the relatively think record of benefits the US has gained from CIA covert operations. Following are some of the more significant operations he discusses.
Iran: Overthrow of Mossadeq, 1953: Produced over a quarter century of a US-friendly but oppressive regime under the Shah, followed by over a quarter century of Shi'a theocracy. Generally seen as one of the most successful covert ops, it nearly fell apart in the execution.
Guatemala: Overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, 1954: Democratic government that annoyed United Fruit and other American companies with a land reform program. Removed annoyance for United Fruit, damaged the US' democratic reputation in Latin America. Also seen as a successful covert op, it actually suceeded virtually by accident.
Bay of Pigs, Cuba, 1961: A well-known disaster.
Continued covert war against Cuba, 1961-???: The Kennedy administration developed an obsession about unseating Fidel Castro, leading to years of secret ops against Cuba, including paramilitary actions. It also included planting bombs and arson, activities which could be described as "partisan warfare" or "terrorism", depending on your taste. Today in 2006 we can say that Castro will probably soon be unseated by health problems or a natural death. A huckuva job by the CIA. The covert war's most obvious effect was to give Cuba greater incentive to be pro-Soviet and anti-American. What benefits the US has derived would be hard to say.
Guyana, 1964: Overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan in a joint operation with the British. Replaced by Forbes Burnham in late December 1964, who ruled like a dictator for the rest of his life. The next free national election there was held in 1992, when Cheddi Jagan was elected again as prime minister. Mainly served to increase Latin American doubts about the United States' commitment to democracy.
Chile, 1973: Successfully promoted overthrow of Salvador Allende's democratically-elected government and its replacement by Augusto Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship. Lots of people tortured and killed. Pinochet still the object of attempts to prosecute him for his crimes as dictator. Pinochet didn't even reverse Allende's nationalization of the copper mines, which was one of the main motives of the Nixon administration's coup program.
The mujahideen war in Afghanistan, 1979-onward: CIA support was critical in organizing the international assistance and arming for fundamentalist Muslim "freedom fighters" against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Some American conservative, arguing far more from faith than evidence, claim the USSR's war in Afghanistan brought down the Soviet Union. That war also created the international jihadist movement as we know it today. a heckuva job.
Besides these, he also provides considerable information on covert ops in Tibet against the Chinese, in China supporting the Nationalists against the Communists, in Indonesia and in Indochina.
Prados argues that the most successful CIA covert ops tend to be those in immediate support of a larger military action. The CIA successfully organized montagnards in Vietnam and the Hmong people in Laos to carry on paramilitary fights against Communist forces in Indochina. Other Vietnam cover programs, like infiltrating South Vietnamese special ops soldiers into North Vietnam were notably less successful, not least because of the good intelligence operations by the Communist side.
The Phoenix program run by future CIA director William Colby was aimed at capturing or killing NLF (Viet Cong) cadres in Vietnamese villages and to infiltrate double-agents into NLF units. Phoenix had a very mixed record. It involved some serious human rights abuses and corruption. But it's generally regarded as having been effective in nuetralizing many enemy cadre, a result Vietnamese Communist officals confirmed to reporter Stanley Karnow after the war.
Prados makes a strong case that even covert political actions in the Soviet bloc countries show little evidence of long-term effectiveness. In the cases of the 1953 workers' protests in East Germany and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, to the extent that covert US "information operations" encouraged revolts that had little practical hope of success, it may even be that they did more harm than good. When the amazing, largely peaceful Revolutions of 1989 occurred in eastern Europe, the CIA had essentially nothing to do with them.
Prados largely concludes, in other words, that even the nonviolent forms of CIA covert war offer the United States a very poor risk-return tradeoff. If that seems to be a drastic conclusion, it si supported by his detailed, careful descriptions of covert ops that have actually taken place. In the end he concludes, "In the democratic revolution, covert action is best left in the toolbox." And by "in the toolbox" he means both maintaining some capability for covert ops but using them very cautiously and sparingly.
That phrase "democratic revolution" is no accident. Prados proceeds from the larger perspective that a key element of American foreign policy is to build on the strength of the powerful democratic example of American institutions - at lealst as they existed prior to the Scalia Five installing the second Bush administration in to power. (Safe for Democracy deals with the Cheney-Bush administration only briefly.) As he puts it:
A great president and visionary, Woodrow Wilson advanced concepts that are still central to American policy almost a century later. The notion of making the world safe for democracy and the belief that peoples have the right to determine their form of government both flowed from Wilson's fertile mind. Internationalism - the idea that the United States should play an active role in world affairs - combined with the other elements to comprise Wilsonianism. In playing this international role America would advance the causes of democracy and self-determination. By 1918 President Wilson had put all those things on the table. In one sense the story of America since then has been the history of the waning and waxing of Wilson's ideas.
Woodrow Wilson when the crowds still adored him
Even the Cheney-Bush administration, committed to diminishing and corrupting democracy at home, have made democracy promotion in the Middle East a cornerstone of their foreign policy, at least in theory. Even the Iraq War, whose official aims were to rid Iraq of their nonexistent WMDs and to counter Saddam's nonexistent operational connection with Al Qaida, the administration and its supporters have retroactively justified as a Napoleonic war of liberation to bring democracy to Iraq via bullets, bombs and torture.
In the context of that central role for democracy in US policy, an inherent problem of covert ops aimed at influencing elections in other countries as well as paramilitary actions aimed at promoting "regime change" by violent means is that it assumes a posture very much at odds with the US commitment to democracy. Prados remembers something that is easy to forget in these days when the Cheney-Bush administration promotes the notion of "democracy" in a magical manner meaning "doing whatever the administration wants". And that is the fact that among the many meanings of democracy is respect for the sovereignty of other nations.
Covert actions confers a great deal of short-term risk. And even in the two paradigm cases of short-term success, Iran and Guatemala, the long-term consequences can partially or fully outweigh the benefits. He writes:
Washington missed a critical opportunity before the [Shah of Iran's] fall when a chance existed to gain credit in supporting the creation of a moderate Islamic democracy. In Guatemala the overthrow of Arbenz turned the country away from democracy, the averred aim of the covert action. Neither victory materially affected the balance in the Cold War while, disturbingly, failure would have triggered shifts by forcing those nations into the arems of the Soviet Union. In all cases the benefits were short term, the costs long term.
A paradigm case for this sort of failure has been Cuba. The vendettas conducted by Eisenhower and Kennedy radicalized Fidel Castro, necessitated Cuban reliance on the Soviets, and converted a traditional U.S. friend into a foe. The covert action also backfired by leading the Cubans and Soviets into nuclear missile deployments, creating a direct military threat to the United States and a crisis that brought this country to the edge of nuclear war. The Cuban-American hostility became entrenched, with further rounds of proxy or direct sparring in lands as distant as Bolivia, the Congo, Angola, Grenada, and Nicaragua.
(continued in following post)