The CIA's Dark Shadow in America
Little more than a week after 9/11, Cofer Black gave instructions to his CIA team before their mission. "I don't want Bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead … I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want Bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to show Bin Laden's head to the president. I promised him I would do that."
A month later, at a meeting sponsored by Schwab Capital markets, CIA executive director "Buzzy" Krongard laid out for investors what such a war would entail. "[It] will be won in large measure by forces you do not know about, in actions you will not see and in ways you may not want to know about," he said.
Back then there wasn't a treaty that couldn't be violated, a principle waived or a definition parsed in the defence of American power and pursuit of popular revenge. To invoke the constitution, the Geneva convention or democratic oversight was evidence that you were out of your depth in the new reality. Laws were for the weak; for the powerful there was force. This was not just the mood of a moment; it has been policy for more than a decade.
Obama's arrival offered a shift in focus and style but not in direction or substance. "I don't want [people at the CIA] to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders," he said shortly before his first inauguration. It was never difficult to see what could go wrong with this approach. But it has, nonetheless, been shocking to see how wrong things have gone. As covert operations were shielded from oversight, so human rights violations became not just inevitable but routine.
In a 2004 report military intelligence officers told the International Committee for the Red Cross they believed between 70% and 80% of the detainees in Iraq were innocent. The nods and winks became permanent tics – so reflexive they embedded themselves in the institutional subconscious. "The most serious thing is the abuse of power that that allows you to do," Lawrence Wilkerson, former secretary of state, Colin Powell's chief of staff, told Jeremy Scahill in his book, Dirty Wars. "You find out the intelligence was bad and you killed a bunch of innocent people and you have a bunch of innocent people on your hands, so you stuff 'em in Guantánamo. No one ever knows anything about that. You don't have to prove to anyone that you did right. You did it all in secret, so you just go to the next operation. You say, 'Chalk that one up to experience'… And believe me that happened."
The logic driving this state of affairs is not only self-fulfilling, it's self-perpetuating. The more they act with impunity the more abuses are committed, the more they have to cover up and the more secrecy they need. So long as it happened abroad, the consequences for the American polity were limited. Abu Ghraib and drone attacks cost precious few votes or senior careers. But it was only a matter of time before these ramifications started making themselves felt at home. Foreign policy doesn't take place in a vacuum; it's co-ordinated by and incorporated into the same system that elaborates domestic policy. Once you have told operatives to take their gloves off and fight dirty on the road they don't just start playing by Queensbury rules at home.
Those openly called on to flout international law in the interests of a higher good do not then suddenly submit that goal to domestic law once they've gone through customs. Once the state has deliberately created space for power to be exercised without accountability those who occupy that space will protect it against enemies domestic and foreign. When your war is global and unending it inevitably comes home and keeps going. The monster the US has unleashed on the rest of the world is steadily devouring its own.