Friday, November 18, 2005

The CIA's Disappearing Acts

The mystery of Dana Priest’s brief disappearance from the pages of the Washington Post following her revelation of the CIA’s little gulag of “black sites” on Nov. 2 was resolved this morning with her latest revelation: Not that she’ll win a Pulitzer Prize for public service next year, which she will, or should, but that the CIA has been operating (and funding) “joint operation centers in more than two dozen countries where U.S. and foreign intelligence officers work side by side to track and capture suspected terrorists and to destroy or penetrate their networks.” The agency Graham Greene called “one of those services so ineptly called secret” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan smelled out for its habitual “malfeasance” has richly lived up to bleak expectations before and after September 11. But for once, one must admit in all fairness and clear-eyed realism that these joint operations centers are exactly what the CIA should be doing, even if the partnerships are not always savory. It’s the only way the so-called war on terror should have been fought from the start — out of sight, in the world’s back-alleys and ideological slums and fanaticism-breeding gutters, where terrorists feed, fatten up and split, like amoebas, into short-fused clones.

The war would not have been visible of course. It couldn’t have served as a running campaign ad of jingoism and God-Save-Republicanism and soapbox for liberal-bashing. It would have, from the Bush administration’s perspective, been useless. But had that sort of engagement been the exclusive focus of the anti-terror campaign it might have been quite effective, especially with the cooperation of other countries not keen on being publicly insulted and alienated by the Bush administration’s little warriors “who got five deferments and never been there” (to quote Rep. John Murtha). It would have made the Iraq invasion the obvious folly it’s been from the start. It would have made the USA Patriot Act the obvious domestic folly it continues to be. It might even have led to a few consequential captures. As it is, we’ll never know. The focus is so diffuse, the CIA’s joint operations centers are themselves a sideshow by necessity, and such a sideshow that they’re probably run as rogue operations in half of those two dozen places, with little Ollie Norths taking them south by way of black sites and tortuous little excursions on the Rendition Express.

Priest’s story puzzles me in one respect. Here’s what she reports in the fourth paragraph: “Virtually every capture or killing of a suspected terrorist outside Iraq since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- more than 3,000 in all -- was a result of foreign intelligence services' work alongside the agency, the CIA deputy director of operations told a congressional committee in a closed-door session earlier this year.”

President Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2003 said this, to the accompaniment of great applause: “All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.” They’ve been, so to speak, “disappeared,” as our mobster-in-chief so obviously loved to phrase it back when his popularity tickled Icarus’s feet. That, of course, was three years ago, which raises a question. Is the Post just three years late rehashing known facts and filling in a few procedural details? (The self-tortured Bob Woodward, remember, had told us in Bush at War that “the CIA was heavily subsidizing [Algeria’s] intelligence service, spending millions to get their assistance in the war against al Qaeda,” so CIA franchising of intelligence operations with foreign services isn’t exactly new). Or is the Post letting us coyly know that even that aspect of the war has, as it clearly has, produced not one arrest in three years?