How Thousands of Clandestine Operatives Are Fueling a Shadow War
A Swedish documentary filmmaker released a film last year called “Last Chapter—Goodbye Nicaragua.” In it he admitted that he unknowingly facilitated a bombing, almost certainly orchestrated by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which took the lives of three reporters I worked with in Central America. One of them, Linda Frazier, was the mother of a 10-year-old son. Her legs were torn apart by the blast, at La Penca, Nicaragua, along the border with Costa Rica, in May of 1984. She bled to death as she was being taken to the nearest hospital, in Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica.
The admission by Peter Torbiornsson that he unwittingly took the bomber with him to the press conference was a window into the sordid world of espionage, terrorism and assassination that was an intimate part of every conflict I covered. It exposed the cynicism of undercover operatives on all sides, men and women who lie and deceive for a living, who betray relationships, including between each other, who steal and who carry out murder. One knows them immediately. Their ideological allegiances do not matter. They have the faraway eyes of the disconnected, along with nebulous histories and suspicious and vague associations. They tell incongruous personal stories and practice small deceits that are part of a pathological inability to tell the truth. They can be personable, even charming, but they are also invariably vain, dishonest and sinister. They cannot be trusted. It does not matter what side they are on. They were all the same. Gangsters.
All states and armed groups recruit and use members of this underclass. These personalities gravitate to intelligence agencies, terrorist cells, homeland security, police departments, the special forces and revolutionary groups where they can live a life freed from moral and legal constraints. Right and wrong are banished from their vocabulary. They disdain the constraints of democracy. They live in this nebulous underworld to satisfy their lusts for power and violence. They have no interest in diplomacy and less in peace. Peace would put them out of business; for them it is simply the temporary absence of war, which they are sure is inevitable. Their job is to use violence to purge the world of evil. And in the United States they have taken as hostages our diplomatic service and our foreign policy establishment. The CIA has become a huge private army, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out in his book “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” that is “unaccountable to the Congress, the press or the public because everything it does is secret.” C. Wright Mills called the condition “military metaphysics”—“the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.”
Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)—which includes the Green Berets, the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs—has seen its budget quadrupled. There are now some 60,000 USSOCOM operatives, whom the president can dispatch to kill without seeking congressional approval or informing the public. Add to this the growth of intelligence operatives. As Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in The Washington Post, “Twenty-four [new intelligence] organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips, and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.”
There are now many thousands of clandestine operatives, nearly all of them armed and equipped with a license to kidnap, torture and kill, working overseas or domestically with little or no oversight and virtually no transparency. We have created a state within a state. A staggering 40 percent of the defense budget is secret, as is the budget of every intelligence agency. I tasted enough of this subterranean world to fear it. When you empower these kinds of people you snuff out the rule of law. You empower criminals and assassins. One of these old CIA operatives, Felix RodrÃguez, was in El Salvador when I was there during the war in the early 1980s. He wore Che Guevara’s Rolex watch. He had removed it from Guevara’s body after ordering Guevara to be executed in the Bolivian jungle. I would later run into clandestine operatives in the Middle East, Africa or Yugoslavia I knew from the wars in Central America. We would invariably chat briefly in Spanish. It was a strange fraternity, even if I was the outsider. The Great Game.
These black forces have created as much havoc, or blowback, in the Middle East as they did in Latin America. And by the time they are done there will be so many jihadists willing to blow themselves up to vanquish America, the Islamic radicals will be running out of explosives. These clandestine operatives peddle a self-fulfilling prophecy. They foment the very instability that allows them to continue to proliferate like cockroaches. The dozens of CIA kidnappings—“extraordinary renditions”—of radical Islamists in the late 1990s, especially from the Balkans, many shipped to countries such as Egypt where they were tortured and murdered by our allies, was the fuse that lit the al-Qaida bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attacks on the Navy destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000. Militant Islamists had publicly vowed reprisals for these renditions.
“Let me tell you about these intelligence guys,” President Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying in Robert M. Gates book “From the Shadows.” “When I was growing up in Texas, we had a cow named Bessie. I’d get her in the stanchion, seat myself, and squeeze out a pail of fresh milk. One day, I’d worked hard and gotten a full pail of milk, but I wasn’t paying attention and old Bessie swung her shit-smeared tail through that bucket of milk. Now, you know, that’s what these intelligence guys do. You work hard and get a good program or policy going, and they swing a shit-smeared tail through it.”
These operatives invariably prey on the useful idiots, those naive idealists who bind themselves to a cause and are oblivious to the evil they serve, or to those simply greedy for money and a little power. Joseph Conrad got it right in “The Secret Agent,” his novel about anarchist revolutionaries who recruit the mentally disabled Stevie to place a bomb at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Al-Qaida repeated this scenario when it convinced Richard Reid, a petty criminal who was challenged mentally, to get on an airplane with a shoe bomb. The CIA is no different. When the CIA could not induce the Chilean army commander, General RenÃ© Schneider, to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende, it recruited Chilean soldiers to assassinate him. The CIA provided submachine guns, ammunition and $50,000 to the group. It shipped the money and weapons from Washington to Santiago in the regular diplomatic pouch and then hand-delivered the cash and guns to the hit men. On the afternoon of Oct. 22, 1970, the killers surrounded Schneider’s car and shot him. He died three days later. Allende was overthrown in a U.S.-orchestrated coup on Sept. 11, 1973. And this is, basically, what happened in the La Penca bombing in Nicaragua in 1984. Torbiornsson, one of those dimwitted “internationalists” who showed up in Managua under the guise of journalism or solidarity, allowed himself to be used by the Sandinista intelligence service. The target of the bombing was the mercurial rebel leader Eden Pastora, once a commander with the Sandinistas who had defected to fight for the U.S.-backed Contras (the CIA found him as unmanageable as the Sandinistas had) before returning to become part of the Sandinista government in Managua. Pastora was wounded in the blast.
I was in El Salvador in May 1984 when Pastora offered to hold a meeting with journalists in La Penca. It was a long way to travel for one story. I decided in the end not to make the trip with my colleagues. It was a decision that may have saved my life.
What none of us knew until Torbiornsson’s admission is that he had been approached by Sandinista intelligence officials and asked to take along a Sandinista spy whose name was supposedly Per Anker Hansen. When the bombing was first investigated, Torbiornsson lied. He told investigators that he had met Hansen, who passed himself off as a Danish photographer, six weeks before the bombing, when they stayed in the same hotel in Costa Rica. Now Torbiornsson concedes he was introduced to Hansen in Managua. He said that though he knew Hansen was a spy, he had no inkling he was an assassin.
“It took me a long time to understand that it was my friends who put the bomb,” Torbiornsson told the BBC in speaking of the Sandinistas. “It has been like a wound in my soul. … I cannot emphasize how sorry I am.”
Hansen was, according to an investigation carried out by reporters Juan Tamayo and Doug Vaughn at The Miami Herald, in fact a man named Vital Roberto Gaguine. He worked clandestinely with the Sandinistas in the 1980s and was a member of the Argentine People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). He brought and ignited the bomb. He reportedly died in 1989 while carrying out an armed assault with 18 others on army barracks outside Buenos Aires. Enrique Haraldo Gorrioran, who was the commander of the ERP cell in Managua and who ordered the barracks attack, but who did not take part, is reputed to have been a double agent, sending Gaguine and his companions to assured slaughter. He is reportedly living in Brazil from the earnings the revolutionary group made from kidnappings and bank robberies. Trust is exiled in this world. Those who willingly sacrifice others are often themselves sacrificed.
The Newsweek correspondent Susan Morgan, standing in the front, shielded Torbiornsson from the full force of the blast. Morgan suffered serious injuries in one arm, her legs and face. The BBC recently ran a video clip of Morgan confronting the hapless Torbiornsson, who seems still unable to fully understand his culpability.
The killers and the paymasters, the spies and gangsters, the terrorists and jihadists, on all sides of the divide, have grown in numbers to carry out a vast war in the shadows. They are determined to perpetuate the senseless violence and mayhem that are the currency of their profession. And they make peace and diplomacy impossible. That is their goal. Sen. Frank Church in 1975, after chairing a Senate committee investigation into U.S. intelligence activities, defined “covert action” as a “semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies, and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists.”
The multitudes of crimes these killers, torturers, kidnappers, propagandists, special operations units and spies have carried out in our name are well known to those outside our gates. There are hundreds of millions of people who have a tragic intimacy with the twisted and brutal soul of American imperialism. Okinawans. Guatemalans. Cubans. Congolese. Brazilians. Argentines. Indonesians. Iranians. Palestinians. Panamanians. Vietnamese. Cambodians. Filipinos. South Koreans. Taiwanese. Nicaraguans. Salvadorans. Afghans. Iraqis. Yemenis. Somalis. They can all tell us who we are, if we can listen. But we do not. We are as ignorant, gullible and naive as children. We celebrate fictitious red-white-and-blue virtues while our clandestine armies, which at times achieve short-term objectives but always finally plunge us deeper into violence, have steadily weakened and discredited the nation as well as the purported values for which it stands. These clandestine armies travel the globe, awash in hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, sowing dragon’s teeth that rise up later, like the warriors in the myth of the Golden Fleece, to become mirror images of our own monstrosities.