Several pieces of news have arisen in the past weeks which, when coupled with past news developments, reveal a clear trend in US martial policy away from traditional military action toward a covert and highly unregulated tactical structure. In essence, we are witnessing a transition from war fighting conducted by the branches of the Department of Defense to a system of operations performed by the CIA, DOD (through the guise of Joint Special Operations Command), and through mercenaries. The reasons for and benefits of such a move are numerous. The roots of this move date back to the fifties but the largest strides in this transition have occurred in the past ten years.
The most recent development in this transition has been the appointment of General David Petraeus to the position of Head of the CIA. Petraeus was confirmed by congress on July 1st for this position based on the belief that he would bring a lot to the CIA. However, what does a four star general have to bring to the CIA? Obviously a lot of military experience. Is this something the CIA needs? Initially the answer should be ‘no’, given the stated mission of the CIA as opposed to the mission of the military. Now, I’m not saying that Petraeus is unqualified for the position, rather, I’m questioning why him?
Only days before the announcement of Petraeus’ nomination for this position, the Obama administration announced planned tactical changes for future DOD controlled military actions. These changes call for fewer troops on the ground while increasing the use of drone attacks and special forces operations, not to mention transferring more responsibilities to the agencies that perform the bulk of these missions: the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. Obvious tactical benefits are clear in such a move, but I’ll touch on those later.
In late 2009, ABC News reported on an alarming increase in the use and deployment of “contractors,” or mercenaries in US military operations. Reporter Matthew Cole writes:
In Iraq, a high-ranking U.S. Army officer told ABC News, Blackwater personnel have been used in military operations that “are supposed to include U.S. soldiers but often end up with the Blackwater people on their own.”
The New York Times reported Friday that such raids against Iraqi insurgents were conducted “almost nightly” between 2004 and 2006, and it quoted several Blackwater guards as saying “the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred.”
The report of this increased reliance on ‘hired help’ in US military operations is further exacerbated by Petraeus’s own comments, as cited in the International Business Times:
The move underscores the CIA taking on a greater role in counter-terrorism activities as clandestine strikes assume a more prominent role. At his Senate confirmation hearings, Petraeus referenced a broad U.S. network of interlocking counterterrorism operations.
“One of the major developments since 9/11 has been the establishment of this network, in many cases led by the Joint Special Operations Command of the military, but with very, very good partnering with elements of the Central Intelligence Agency, other elements of the intelligence community,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus told congress that he “wanted this job,” in reference to the CIA position. He clearly understands how these organizations are intertwined. Given that intimate knowledge of the system, he has decided that the CIA position would be better for him. Why?
As I’ve already outlined, a clear shift in military tactics and martial operations is underway in the United States. What are the benefits of such a transition? The first obvious reason is the absence of oversight. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been heavily covered by the media, and thus the world. Generals frequently sit before congress to answer for their actions while taking commands from the president. Such oversight really prohibits the freedom of military action. However, covert operations provide a shroud of secrecy that many war fighters surely find necessary. JSOC operations were behind the operation to capture bin Laden or to rescue US POWs in Iraq. CIA operations have been behind the bombing of targets in Pakistan. Though there is the idea that all of these actions have been permitted by higher powers, they only represent the highest profile actions. These entities perform numerous other actions with little oversight, relying on notions of state security for their justification. The increased use of mercenaries to conduct such missions only further reinforces this conclusion.
Another reason for this transition from highly visible military actions to covert strikes and mercenary deployments is the fact that it allows for international law to be ignored. US statements claim that “contractors” are not mercenaries and thus are not covered by the Geneva Convention, giving them much more leeway in military actions. Futhermore, CIA operations are often considered “black” and thus free of oversight. Such considerations are hardly given to DOD actions. Furthermore, at this point, the Head of the CIA does not answer directly to the President, rather this figure answers to the Director of National Intelligence. This structure, devised in the past ten years, provides another layer of plausible deniability between the CIA and the Commander in Chief.
The increased use of contractors, as reported by ABC News, has a simple financial benefit: there is no pension obligations between the US and its mercenaries. Those benefits are the concern of their parent company.
Finally, though this is the most tenuous of reasons, decoupling military operations from public and executive oversight creates a situation that can be viewed as cooler. Let me explain. The ability to command strikes and various actions without clearance from an overseeing body is cooler. You come closer to the fiction of James Bond or any other spy movie under such a structure than you could when military actions were carried out by US Army infantry. Think of James Bond: Quantum of Solace, when Bond meets the CIA operative in the bar in La Paz. A black ops strike team is magically on hand to storm the bar and to try and take Bond. This doesn’t happen in a world where such an action would require tons of clearance. But it is possible in a system where covert operations are the status quo, a martial regime the news of the past few years is outlining.
If my conclusions are a bit grand, I’m sorry, but look back on the reporting of the past decade, starting with the links I’ve provided here. Their intentions have been outlined. Their actions in the War on Terror further concrete these conclusions. Hell, the current fighting over budget cuts does not even touch defense and intelligence spending! These are not sacred cows. Rather, they are the elements of the US government that have become untouchable due to the power they have accumulated. It reminds me of a short story/essay I’ve shared with you before. Keep your eyes open.