Secret Ops and Self-Government Don't Mix

Americans hardly got an opportunity to decide whether they wanted to play a role in assassinating rebel leaders in Colombia. Is that a problem?
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About the foreign policy being carried out with taxpayer money, in our names: Does the American public want to spend billions of dollars helping Colombia to assassinate the leaders of its leftist insurgency movement (with apparent success, such that the rebel forces are in disarray)? Do Americans want their NSA and CIA directly complicit in a Latin American army's program of assassinations?

If the matter were put to a vote in Congress, or made the subject of a plebiscite, it isn't at all clear to me that interventionist champions of U.S. involvement in Colombia would prevail. Yet the United States is providing Colombia with money, smart bombs, NSA intelligence, and CIA personnel to help target and kill rebel leaders. 

Why isn't there any criticism of the program in the U.S.?

Perhaps opposition never had a chance to take shape because the program has been conducted in secret. It is public now thanks to the Washington Post's Dana Priest. The U.S. provides "real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them," she reports. "That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb." In theory, assassinations are still illegal under U.S. law, a prohibition put in place due to bygone abuses of covert CIA killing. 

In practice, laws that constrain the national-security state are easily circumvented. All that's needed are creative lawyers and arrogant officials. Here's how the Colombia operation got approved, according to the Post:

White House lawyers, along with their colleagues from the CIA and the departments of Justice, Defense and State, had their own questions to work through. It was one thing to use a PGM to defeat an enemy on the battlefield—the U.S. Air Force had been doing that for years. It was another to use it to target an individual FARC leader. Would that constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved. 

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender. And, as a drug-trafficking organization, the FARC’s status as a threat to U.S. national security had been settled years earlier with Reagan’s counternarcotics finding. At the time, the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height, and the government decided that organizations that brought drugs to America’s streets were a threat to national security.

When I read sentences in the newspaper like, "Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia," I mourn for a world where newspapers are so accustomed to dubious logic from national-security officials that the leaps are no longer even remarked upon.

Almost every link in that chain of reasoning is problematic, but none is particularly surprising. Civil libertarians have been fighting to constrain the national-security state in the War on Terrorism in part because once a line of reasoning is used to empower the government to fight one thing, the power is invariably used elsewhere. First, national security supposedly demands that the president be allowed to order due-process-free assassinations of suspected terrorists. Not so long after, national-security officials are using the same precedent to help kill FARC in Columbia. 

Where does it end?

Here's another example of War on Terror logic spreading from one conflict to another:

Just across the Putumayo River, one mile inside Ecuador, U.S. intelligence and a Colombian informant confirmed the hideout of Luis Edgar Devia Silva, also known as Raul Reyes and considered to be the No. 2 in the seven-member FARC secretariat. It was an awkward discovery for Colombia and the United States. To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain ...

U.S. national security lawyers viewed the operation as an act of self-defense. In the wake of 9/11, they had come up with a new interpretation of the permissible use of force against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the FARC. It went like this: If a terrorist group operated from a country that was unable or unwilling to stop it, then the country under attack — in this case, Colombia—had the right to defend itself with force, even if that meant crossing into another sovereign country. 

Take every prerogative that George W. Bush claimed for the United States after 9/11 and imagine extending it to Colombia too. Yes, America really is that shortsighted.

And that isn't even the most jaw-dropping passage in the article. Guess what the United States and Colombia did to keep their "smart bomb" cooperation a secret?

The countries would identify a target, determine his location, send planes with precision-targeted bombs, and then ... they'd also bomb and strafe the hell out of the whole area so that, by outward appearances, they weren't using precision weapons!

To hide the use of the PGMs from public discovery, and to ensure maximum damage to a FARC’s leaders’ camp, the air force and U.S. advisers developed new strike tactics. In a typical mission, several A-37 Dragonflys flying at 20,000 feet carried smart bombs. As soon as the planes came within a three-mile “basket” of the target, a bomb’s GPS software would automatically turn on.

The Dragonflys were followed by several A-29 Super Tucanos, flying at a much lower altitude. They would drop a series of dumb bombs in a pattern nearby. Their blast pressure would kill anyone close in and also flatten the dense jungle and obscure the use of the smart bombs. Then, low-flying, Vietnam-era AC-47 gunships, nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon, would strafe the area with mounted machine guns, “shooting the wounded trying to go for cover,” according to one of several military officials who described the same scenario.

Now, perhaps the American people badly want to destroy FARC. Perhaps they think the success of this program will somehow result in us winning the war on drugs. Perhaps they're okay with the secret billions being funneled to these activities. Perhaps a majority even wants the CIA to be back in the assassination business, targeting not just al-Qaeda and associated forces, but also various foreigners who pose a far smaller threat to the safety of Americans. But I have my doubts. 

And the CIA's off-the-books, one-step-removed-from-pulling-the-trigger, find-a-way-around-the-law approach to this effort subverts both accountability and loyal opposition. 

National-security officials might retort that the success they've had defeating bad guys in Colombia may not have been possible had this program been conducted transparently, with debate about (1) America's proper role in Colombia; (2) whether our assassination ban should be lifted to target FARC; and (3) whether we should spend lots of money, along with CIA and NSA man hours, on the operation. 

They're right. As it now operates, the national-security state is incompatible with government by the people. Reforming it might make some current operations impossible, just as China could hardly have built its Olympic infrastructure projects so easily but for its use of authoritarian coercion.  What sorts of tradeoffs do we want to make in America between our ability to be a self-governing people and the ability of our national-security state to leverage secrecy as it carries out missions that are increasingly of its own choosing? 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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