America's Secret War: On the Trail of the CIA

Since Sept. 11, the CIA has played a vital role in the war on terror. But what role is it? Operating in the shadows, American secret services have been given wide-ranging powers by the Bush Administration. And they include murder, abduction and torture.

Questions about the CIA and Bush's handling of the war on terror have been dogging the president of late.
REUTERS

Questions about the CIA and Bush's handling of the war on terror have been dogging the president of late.

It's Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the terror attacks in New York and Washington. US President George W. Bush withdraws with his closest advisors to Camp David in order to escape the chaos of the week and to develop the first plans to confront the new and unprecedented challenge facing the United States.

In the afternoon, then CIA head George Tenet distributes a file to all participants of the crisis summit. It's called "Going to War." Inside are the first rough outlines of the coming war against terrorism. In the upper left corner of the file's cover, there is a red circle inside of which is a portrait of Osama bin Laden with a black line drawn through it.

Tenet wants to go on the offensive. And his list of priorities is ambitious. Goal number one: Destroy al-Qaida and close off the terror group's zones of safety, wherever they might be.

According to Bob Woodward in his book "Bush at War," this is a list with wide-ranging powers, granted to authorities battling worldwide terror. And Tenet does not hold back. He requests that his agents be given the go-ahead to eliminate al-Qaida wherever the CIA comes across its members. He wants carte blanche for clandestine operations without having to first go through the long process of having them authorized. In addition, CIA agents should again have authority to kill -- a power withdrawn from US intelligence agents in 1976 by then-President Gerald Ford.

Also on Tenet's wish list is a request for hundreds of millions of dollars to buy help from foreign intelligence services. Specifically, Tenet thought agents from Egypt, Jordan and Algeria could help the CIA track down and eliminate al-Qaida.

Three days later, Bush signs a Presidential Directive whose exact wording only a very few Americans know until this day. Point for point, the demands made by the CIA were granted, and with that, the document became the first shot fired in the worldwide war on terror. Bush ordered the CIA to be the first on the new front. America's secret agencies were unleashed.

Four years later, America's intelligence services -- and especially the CIA (the "flagship of the business where you come if you want the gold standard," according to the agency's new director Porter Gosss) -- have become one of the most controversial weapons in the fight against terrorism. The most powerful army in the world has become an occupying power in Iraq and, by its mere presence, attracted a whole new generation of mujahedeen; but Bush's intelligence community has fought its part of the battle under the apparent motto, "The end justifies all means."

Washington's secret agents, whose disdain for international legal norms right up through the 1970s gained them a reputation for being ugly Americans, are back on the international political stage. Not everybody is happy to see them.

And Bush is using all tools at his disposal. Measured by sheer numbers and capability, America's gigantic secret service apparatus appears just as omnipotent as its military: Fifteen agencies with 200,000 employees and a yearly budget of some $40 billion. The sum represents more than most countries even spend on their militaries. The satellites of these agencies can read license plates from space -- and the newest generation of these advanced spy satellites are just as sophisticated as the Hubble Space Telescope. But instead of peering into the depths of the universe, they look down at what's happening here on Earth.

Every day, analysts from this secret army deliver their findings to their superiors and, in the form of the Presidential Daily Briefing, to President Bush himself. It's a sort of super-secret daily newspaper -- with severely limited circulation -- comprising between 12 and 30 pages. It's the most important thing you have to read every day, Bush Senior -- himself head of the CIA for a year -- told his son when Bush Junior took office.

But the secret war doesn't end with America's spy agencies. Likewise in the shadows -- sometimes operating within international law, sometimes outside it -- are the special forces of the American military. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sends them on missions across the globe; indeed they may, some say, already be operating inside of an Iran that continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Ashton Carter, assistant secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, says he would be "surprised and disappointed" if covert measures were not already under way against Iran's armaments program.

And where American personnel can't go, the National Security Agency's (NSA) worldwide network can eavesdrop. The NSA routinely listens in on the United Nations in New York -- and UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, at least for a while, was one of the agency's number one targets, says James Bamford, a leading expert on the NSA.

One of the newest weapons in the secret service arsenal is called "geolocating." When satellites locate a suspect through a mobile phone signal, for example, special forces or warplanes can quickly strike. The technology has become so precise that mobile phones can be located to within one meter.

Indeed, the ability to locate a target precisely was instrumental in killing al-Qaida military head Mohammed Atif in his house near Kabul, in November 2001, or in the arrest of bin-Laden aide Abu Subeida in Pakistan. But the system also makes grave mistakes. In 2002 in Afghanistan, for example, hastily scrambled bombers dropped their ordnance on a wedding party instead of on a targeted meeting of terrorists.

US President Bush with CIA head Porter Goss.
AP

US President Bush with CIA head Porter Goss.

CIA head Goss, himself a CIA agent for 10 years before he went into politics, encourages the risk-taking by his agents. "And when it goes wrong, I will support you," he has told them. He sends his agents with deadly powers and backpacks full of dollars into operations all over the world where they also have the authority to call in air power. Or, alternatively, they can call in a Predator -- drones armed with laser-controlled Hellfire rockets and which can be steered from half a world away using a simple joystick.

In the 1980s and '90s, secret operations in foreign countries became rarer, and analysis was emphasized. But that was the old CIA -- an organization former officer Melissa Boyle has derided by saying the days of James Bond are over. President Bush has repeatedly warned Americans that the new enemy confronting the US is totally different than all those that have come before.

This warning represents the birth of the new CIA -- an agency that should strike fear into the hearts of its enemies.

So is the CIA on the road to re-establishing the notoriety it for so long had in the Third World? That of a frightening, secret power that kidnapped politicians, bought mercenary troops and toppled governments at will merely because Washington didn't approve of them?

Shortly after the agency's founding on July 26, 1947, by President Harry Truman, the CIA had already made the world its playground. It began deciding who were the good guys and who were the bad guys and began to punish the bad guys at the order of the White House.

The "firm" had a license to kill, and used it during the Cold War against a Soviet enemy that was at least as brutal. In the 1960s, the CIA developed a highly poisonous arrow that was supposed to leave no traces whatsoever during an autopsy. It also experimented with training dolphins to deliver explosives to a given target.

But these were hollow victories. Mixed in with the successes were disastrous missions abroad and embarrassing mistakes at home. The combination led to the CIA becoming more of a burden then a help. The nation was horrified to learn that President Richard Nixon used former agents for the Watergate break-in; Americans were disgusted by the government's spying on tens of thousands of citizens critical of their government; the term "America's Gestapo" began to make the rounds.

The result was a reigning in of Big Brother. In 1974, a law went into effect requiring that all clandestine operations abroad had to be rubber-stamped by Congress. Intelligence services began concentrating almost exclusively on technological data-gathering -- and thus largely stayed out of the Iranian revolution. In an Afghanistan fighting against the USSR, the CIA failed to appreciate that the mujahedeen -- generously supplied with American arms and money -- were not only fanatic opponents of the Soviets, but were also against the American "crusaders."

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