The Secret War to Come
by David Corn
The Nation magazine, November 5, 2001
What if they waged a war, and there was ,_ nothing to see?
When the first missiles of President Bush's war on terrorism
were launched, television screens displayed night-green fuzz occasionally
interrupted by white bursts. Little could be discerned, but still,
it was something . to watch. Bush and his aides repeatedly say
that much of the new war will be mounted in secrecy.
In other words, no pictures, no words. After the present campaign
in Afghanistan ends-or, conceivably, while it continues-military
and paramilitary action presumably will occur there and elsewhere
without the knowledge of American citizens. This could be the
start of a years-long effort in which the government will attempt
to keep significant aspects of war out of sight and unacknowledged.
Though past administrations have-engaged *n clandestine warfare,
Bush is leading the country into new turf. This will present the
President, the press and especially other politicians with assorted
How will Bush demonstrate that he is waging his war successfully?
He will hail diplomatic initiatives, humanitarian efforts, bureaucratic
reorganizations, improvements in border security and moves that
freeze the funds of terrorists. There might occasionally be arrests
to announce. But White House briefings are unlikely to cover operations
mounted by intelligence agencies and the special forces, the highly
secretive military units, numbering 40,000 or so troops, that
are expected to play a leading role in the new war. If a Navy
SEAL team manages to sneak into a Manila apartment building and
kill the leader of an Al Qaeda cell (and, say, a neighbor or,
two), that is not a victory that will be celebrated in a White
House press release. To keep voters behind him, Bush may have
to tell part of the secret story at some point (assuming there's
success to cite). In the meantime, the Bush crowd will try to
maintain a tight lid on information, an act that coincidence or
not-will enable it to better control the public image of the war.
A state of war will intensify the Bush crew's stronger-than
average penchant for information management. This Administration
is a direct descendant of the White House that in 1991 strove
mightily to curtail media coverage of the Gulf War. Before bombs
fell on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated
that the Administration would release unclassified material to
present the case against Osama bin Laden, but the White House
shot down that idea. (British Prime Minister Tony Blair then issued
such a white paper.) Days later, Bush ordered senior Administration
officials to limit classified briefings on Capitol Hill to eight
senior lawmakers. After senators and representatives threw a fit,
the White House defended the decision by accusing legislators
of leaking, but then backed off. Nevertheless, the White House
noted that members of relevant committees would hear only about
past operations or those happening at the moment, not actions
scheduled to occur.
Although legislators howled about Bush's attempt to shut them
out, their desire to audit this war closely is open to question.
In years past, Congressional oversight of covert actions has not
been assiduous. "A lot of oversight is informal," notes
Loch Johnson, a former aide to a House intelligence subcommittee.
"If you have ten overseers [on a committee], maybe you will
have two or three who are go-getters. And it's difficult for them
to know what questions to ask." Previous administrations
have given the intelligence committees the slip. In 1985, for
instance, the CIA was involved-in a wink-and-nod way-with Saudi
intelligence in an assassination plot against a prominent terrorist
supporter in Lebanon. A car bomb exploded in a Beirut suburb,
killing eighty people but not the target. CIA chief William Casey
did not report this to the intelligence committees.
Under existing law, when the President orders covert action
he must give Congress (the intelligence committees or a smaller
group of lawmakers) a written "finding," which outlines
the operation in a "timely" fashion. Legislators cannot
veto the mission. They can merely argue against it. Over the years,
disputes have occurred over what constitutes "timely,"
and findings can be broad, leaving out significant particulars.
It is possible-experts disagree on this point-that Bush, acting
as Commander in Chief in wartime, might have authority to wage
covert military actions without informing Congress.
Applying checks on Bush's secret war will be tough for Congress.
Consider this scenario: During a classified briefing, a lawmaker
is provided information leading him or her to conclude that the
President has lied to the public about the war. "It puts
the member in a very difficult spot," notes Lee Hamilton,
a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I
wrestled with situations like that several times. Under Congressional
rules, you're not allowed to reveal classified information."
A member is permitted to say anything on the House or Senate floor,
free of penalty, yet that's a step rarely taken. "I tried
to work it out in a behind-the-scenes way," Hamilton says.
"Any President will use his power of information for his
own purposes. And during a war, all the cards are with the executive
branch. Congress cannot stop covert actions. In the long run,
it can limit funds. In the short term, the President can do basically
what he wants."
f Bush wishes to maintain public support for an unseen war,
it will be in his interest to keep the large egos of Congress
somewhat in the know and on his side. But in the past, secret
warriors in the White House have maneuvered to remain unburdened
by Congressional busybodies. The overseers of Congress ought to
bear in mind that the Bush White House hired Elliott Abrams for
a senior National Security Council post, showing little concern
that he pleaded guilty to misleading Congress during the Iran/contra
scandal. And the Administration has contemplated handing an NSC
post to Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former CIA counterterrorism
official indicted for Iying to Iran/ contra Congressional investigators.
Both Clarridge and Abrams were pardoned by Bush 1.
Few precedents suggest that Congress can effectively monitor
an extensive secret war. No legislators are speaking in public
yet about how to supervise such an endeavor. "We've mainly
been reacting to events and not looking too far ahead," says
an aide to one prominent liberal Democratic senator. Another such
aide remarks, "My guy is concerned but hasn't thought about
what to do. There's a fine line between what's appropriate to
be kept secret and what's not." One intelligence committee
aide notes, "Congress is just beginning to wonder about how
to oversee a secret war." There is one certainty: It will
be awfully difficult for any lawmaker to confront the White House
regarding its handling of such a war. The don't-rock-the-boat
tradition in Congress-particularly the Senate-is most powerful
regarding classified matters.
Despite the Administration briefings, most members may not
be informed enough to challenge the White House, since legislators
who don't serve on key committees-a majority of Congress-will
likely be shut out of the information flow. "After Afghanistan,
we may never know what's going on," says a House Democrat
who does not serve on the relevant committees. "Some of us
are trying to figure out how to make clear that we want information.
We don't know yet how to do it. Dick Gephardt is not laying out
a Democratic strategy or thinking about how to be a loyal opposition.
When the war started I was in my district and people said to me,
'Don't they need you back in Washington?' It was embarrassing
to say, 'No, I don't know anything, and I'm not needed there."'
Left-in-the-dark lawmakers won't be able to turn to the media
for help, because a secret war serves up problems for the news
business too. If there is another reality, separate from the White
House version, will the press be able to discover it? Like Congress,
the media do not boast a strong track record in keeping tabs on
White House secret wars-like the preparations for the 1961 Bay
of Pigs invasion, the secret war in Laos in that same decade and
the Reagan Administration's covert war against Nicaragua. On the
other hand, cable networks crave One Big Story these days and
have ratings incentives to pursue details of the secret war. The
Internet makes it harder for media organizations to sit on information
they might be queasy about publishing. Still, major news outfits
will probably have trouble establishing a fix on this planet-wide
war and regularly penetrating the world of clandestine conflict.
As Bush's war on terrorism proceeds, how can the public be
confident that what is being done in its name, with its tax dollars,
is reasonable? Can it depend upon Congress to monitor the war
thoroughly and to withhold funds if the secret war goes awry?
Probably not. Can it rely on journalists to unearth the full truth
of this war? That may be asking too much. The public will probably
not be supplied the information necessary to evaluate the war's
conduct. That will be one more uncertainty of life post-9/11.
As Bush said recently, "All of us are going to have to adjust."
11th, 2001 - New York City