January 16, 2009

The Great Game: Review

{The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage
Frederick P. Hitz}

The Great Game: Review

There's a good deal of interest in this comparative analysis of spying as it appears in fiction and reality--Frederick P. Hitz had a long history of service in the CIA and the State Department, so he's able to speak as a knowledgeable insider. But is there something in the nature of secret service work that obliges its practitioners to wear blinders in perpetuity? even long after their official career terminates? It's not that Frederick HItz never touches on a moral issue related to the tradecraft of spying: it's that auxiliary questions seem to preoccupy him to the exclusion of fundamental ones.

It seems clear enough, by the length and detail of the list he compiles if nothing else, that he's unhappy with the many incursions by U.S. intelligence on the rights of its citizens--the buggings, long files on protestors and activists (the length and fanatically schematic detail providing one operative definition of anal retentive thinking), the whole wackily paranoid surveillance drill--that finally so outraged Congress that they demanded direct oversight of intelligence operations. What mainly troubles him however is a consequence of Congressional oversight that nags at his conscience to this day, that it forced the CIA to abandon its contra allies in the covert war against the government of Nicaragua. Forgive me if I point out that there are at least three ethical questions raised by the Iran-Contra business that are far more pertinent and central: 1) why was U.S. intelligence aiding and abetting such an army of rapacious thugs in the first place? 2) what excuse did they have for conniving at the military overthrow of a democratically elected government? 3) did it occur to anyone involved in the drug and gun running operations that financed this dirty caper, that the blowback from those deals would string corpses link by link in an ongoing chain from that day to this present one and beyond? or was that thought of secondary relevance compared to such a golden shot at abridging the freedoms of a sovereign state?

Nowhere is this blindered approach more evident, perhaps, than in Hitz' assessment of 911:

"Successful espionage is impossible without tight operational security.
The events of September 11, 2001, underscore this admonition. There were nineteen Arab men who hijacked the aircraft that struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and crashed in the field near Shankstown, Pennsylvania. They were professionals, for the most part, without previous terrorist involvement, from so-called moderate Arab allies of the United States, i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. They maintained tight operational discipline over a long period preparatory to the attacks. Some of them lived in the United States with their families during the two years prior to 9/11, keeping to themselves, going to flight school, and nobody came forward to report any suspicious behavior. It is still unclear whether all of them knew that their 9/11 mission entailed suicide, but they were remarkably discreet in their movements, and the organization that funded their preparations was highly sophisticated."
--p 72

'Discreet' wouldn't be my adjective of choice to describe somebody who prepares for a suicide mission by taking flight lessons and tells instructors he only needs to learn how to take a plane up, he doesn't need to learn how to land it. Frugal maybe, but discreet no. That this wasn't red flagged was no fault of U.S. domestic intelligence; the blame here rests solely on the insufficient intelligence, curiosity or sense of civic responsibility of whoever shrgged and booked these truncate lessons. But why does Hitz skip over completely what's become common knowledge since: that intelligence of an upcoming attack of major importance was circulating months before the event, which might have been prevented if these early warnings had been properly investigated. They weren't, primarily it seems because of rivalries between competing intelligence agencies. More importantly, there's an extensive backstory to this Al Qaeda operation which once again is silently overlooked, so that there's no possibility of attending to its lesson.

How far back Al Qaeda goes as an organization I don't know, but surely the point at which its power, presitge and visibility on the world stage received its biggest spike (before 911) was during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, when they and the Taliban fought as allies alongside U.S. military and intelligence forces. Whether any Al Qaeda (or Mujahadeen who later graduated to positions in Al Qaeda) were actually flown to Langley for training in guerilla warfare and covert ops, they were certainly trained and armed by the CIA and the Pentagon, and heavily financed by the U.S. state department. Taliban rule in Afghanistan was a direct consequence of their participation in that war. Two wars being fought today at a huge cost in human life and other irreplaceables is only the most prominent and visible consequence of that long-ago alliance. It's probable Al Qaeda would never have grown to an organization capable of the Twin Tower attack without the seminal education of those early fighting years. And why was the war in Afghanistan fought?

Zbigniew Brzezinski was fond of boasting, once upon a time, that he set an Afghan trap for the Soviet Union. This was probably a considerable oversimplification and aggrandisement of his personal role, and I've no doubt the Soviets had their own bad reasons for making no effort to avoid war there. I do notice he's toned down such claims of late--perhaps afraid that awakening interest in Afghan ancient history would lead to too much inquiry, and affix firmly to his back the word debacle? (At best, I can think of far uglier words than that you could apply to starting a war whose ultimate toll was a million dead to get up the nose of a geopolitical rival. That a human being with beating heart and functioning breath could (even if he was hyperbolizing) boast of such an achievement is enough to make a body wonder if he wasn't overhasty rejecting his childhood belief in the existence of a literal devil.)

The reason all this matters is that many people still with considerable power and influence saw no possible downside in boosting the might and educating the coarse killing sensibilities of Al Qaeda if Al Qaeda could direct its force against Soviet Russia, over the bloody proving ground of Afghanistan, with none too much care taken of its civilian population, which has proved not only an evilly cynical but a hugely impractical calculation. New people coming up, hand picked by these genii of disaster, tend to mirror the attitudes that breed these results. Spy tradecraft is littered through its whole history with calculations of this kind, which are typically displayed as badges of superior ability to live in 'the real world'--but subject them to a shred of logical analysis and see if you can find one single point at which they differ structurally from the ravings of the clinically insane. Kafka was the great novelist of the spy genre--or maybe Lewis Carroll.

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