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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 08/29/2010

CIA Red Cells and common sense

By Jeff Stein

It’s been called “boring … a snoozer,” a paper that “pales in comparison” with previous WikiLeaks disclosures. And for sure, last week's exposure of a classified CIA study on foreign reaction to U.S. terrorism "exports" was a dud compared with the 72,000 U.S. intelligence reports WikiLeaks surfaced in July.

But scant attention has been devoted to the actual substance of the CIA Red Cell paper WikiLeaks released: “What If Foreigners See the United States as an ‘Exporter of Terrorism?”

The Red Cell was set up by the CIA in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to “think unconventionally about the full range of relevant analytic issues,” the agency’s Web site says. It “takes a pronounced ‘out-of-the-box’ approach and produces memos intended to provoke thought rather than to provide authoritative assessment.”

If that's its goal, it only partially succeeded.

One of the few who drilled down into the paper was Paul R. Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who answered the Red Cell’s question in a piece for Foreign Policy magazine online: “Yes, America Is Exporting Terrorism.”

Pillar fingered the “American exceptionalism” that Bush administration officials used after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to rationalize strong-arm counterterrorist tactics, singling out kidnappings (aka extraordinary renditions) and no-fly lists. And then, like the CIA study he was writing about, Pillar veered off into “cases over the last couple of years involving Americans traveling abroad to commit terrorism in other countries such as Pakistan and India, including terrorism against non-American targets.”

One the more prominent cases cited by the Red Cellists was David Headley, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan who scouted Mumbai for Lashkar-i-Taiba, the terrorist group based in his native land. He was arrested in 2009.

In an e-mail exchange, Pillar insisted that the Muslim world would see Headley, a onetime heroin dealer who changed his name from Daood Gilani in order to move around more easily, as essentially American, and thus a U.S.-exported terrorist.

Pillar declined to follow the steps of the CIA analysts’ deep into the forests of American history to dig up other examples of U.S.-exported terrorism that could turn world opinion against us today: Irish Republican Army militants who sallied forth from U.S. shores in the 1980s to wreak havoc against Britain.

The CIA analysts could have found examples closer to home.

Two that come immediately to mind are Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, Cuban exiles with CIA links who were implicated long ago in numerous acts of violence, including the sabotage of a Cubana airlines flight out of Venezuela in 1976 that killed 73 people. Successive U.S. administrations over three decades have protected both and refused to extradite them to Venezuela for trial.

To some critics, the Red Cell paper is not just “out of the box” thinking, as the CIA touts its team, but so far out of the box it risks being discarded as junk.

“"First of all, this document makes clear that a document doesn't automatically have any value just because it was classified and comes from the CIA,” says Mathias Vermeulen, a respected research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

“This is a pretty mundane thought experiment, and the reasons why WikiLeaks thought it was relevant to publish this -- other than to ridicule the CIA and the Pentagon -- remain a mystery to me,” said Vermeulen, who also works with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism.

“I have absolutely no idea why the authors think that ‘foreign perception of the U.S. as an exporter of terrorism’ raises difficult legal issues regarding renditions, secret interrogations abroad and extrajudicial killings,” Vermeulen added. “These issues are regulated under international law, and no change in perception will change this set of rules.”

He might have added “local law.”

Indeed, as a prime example of Europeans “pushing back” against U.S. counterterrorism policies, Pillar and the Red Cell analysts cite Italy’s prosecution of two dozen CIA operatives for the abduction of an al-Qaeda suspect in 2003.

But no such thing occurred, as the Red Cell team might have concluded had they studied the case more closely: Milan’s police and prosecutor pursued the case because they were presented with evidence that a man had been kidnapped, period -- as local U.S. authorities would have done.

Not only that, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and top Italian intelligence officials tried to quash the case, and the Justice Ministry in Rome ignored the local prosecutor’s repeated requests to extradite the accused from the United States, i.e., exactly the opposite of what the Red Cell team concluded was the potential effect of U.S. counterterrorism activities.

As Vermeulen and others have noted, as much as renditions and no-fly lists have rubbed foreigners the wrong way, it’s been the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, the prison at Guantanamo, collateral damage from U.S. combat operations and the reports of civilians killed by CIA drone attacks that have kept the flames licking under foreign fury against the United States.

By Jeff Stein  | August 29, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Media  
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"This is a pretty mundane thought experiment, and the reasons why WikiLeaks thought it was relevant to publish this -- other than to ridicule the CIA and the Pentagon -- remain a mystery to me,” said Vermeulen".

I suspect it was a shot across the bow. It may indicate access to a part of the CIA that was thought to be hidden, and may serve as a warning to terminate the 'smear' campaign against Assange.

Otherwise, I agree with the comment above; the released article had little new or exciting content.

Posted by: SuperKK | August 29, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

We Americans should be much less concerned about "...rubbing foreigners the wrong way..."

Posted by: CharlesGriffith1 | August 29, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I think what's really on display here is the overweening terror-centrism of current American strategic discourses, which is paralleled in the military discourses by a kind of CoIn-centrism.

As they say, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Even accepting the most generous definition of "terrorist act," quantitative analysis of terrorism shows there's been roughly 130 "terrorist acts" against American interests every year since 1968. Setting aside civilian casualties in the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we don't have good data, more lives are lost on America's highways every year than have been lost to acts of terror, worldwide, in over four decades.

However, there's partisan value in the word, "terrorism," which means there's political value in the word which means, ultimately, there's bureaucratic value in the word.

Since 9/11 there's been a seller's market for terrorism analysis big and small, scholarly and polemical, quantitative and qualitative, inside the Beltway and out.

Terror is still the flavor-of-the-month. Want to get a book published? Work "War on Terror" or "Terrorism" into the subtitle. If you doubt it, run a title search for "terror" and "terrorism" on the website for any Big Box Book Store -- you'll practically run out of bytes before you run out of book titles.

So of course "outside-the-box" thinking would ask, "What if people think America exports terrorism?" -- no government agency is likely to be so far outside the box that it won't know on which side its budgetary bread is buttered.

Because perpetuating the "war" on whatever it is we're at war with is a foregone conclusion, in bureaucratic (institutional) terms, there's no more money to be made by asking the better question, "What happens when other countries tire of America's campaign against terrorism?" than there would have been in, say, 1960 by asking, "Who cares if the Soviets achieve nuclear weapons parity?"

As it happens, that would have been a good question to ask in 1960 since the Soviets did achieve strategic parity and more or less nothing happened. We just got used to the idea.

In all likelihood, that's what will happen with terrorism. After the inevitable public displays of anguish-qua-resolve starting in the summer of 2011, acts of terror will eventually just be part of the landscape -- there'll be some threshold level of terrorism in the system that we eventually grow comfortable with and then sort of ignore. Just as we stopped ducking-and-covering, we'll stop worrying about 3-ounce bottles of shampoo and New York cab drivers.

Posted by: russellburgos | August 29, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

They asked the correct question but failed in their response. "Exporting terrorism" as we perceive it, is a state that aids and abets groups within its borders that then travel outside and commit terrorist acts. It's like Afghanistan permitting the training camps of al Qaeda that then sent terrorists into the United States.

America doesn't really have anything comparable to that, except maybe the Blackwater contractors. Blackwater contractors work for riches on earth though, not riches in heaven. Otherwise, they are idealogues without direct government sponsorship who train at a remote location and work overseas without regard to local laws to advance the desires of their paymasters.

Somehow the CIA analysts couldn't see anything but dirt floor shack terrorism.

Posted by: blasmaic | August 29, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

As we commemorate the "40 years" of the "War on Drugs" and the "War on Poverty" there are many lessons to be seen in how America prosecutes the "War on Terror".

The current situation in Mexico cannot be understated as to the absolute failure of the War on Drugs. So much so that the President of Mexico is prepared to surrender and call for the US to do the same. After hundreds of billions spent to fight the narco-traffickers and Americas appetite for drugs there has been little progress and the bodies of the innocent testify mightily to the failure not only of the policy, but of the inhumanity associated with the criminalization of drug abuse.

The War on Poverty is best witnessed by the economic disparity in America, and the rise of homelessness; not only amongst the poor but among those who had "picked themselves up by their bootstraps" to join a fragile middle-class. Once again, America's streets are littered with the casualties of greed gone mad. Failure once again becomes the spectre of a war fought in the political arena, with profits going to those in the boardrooms of 'poverty pimps and hustlers', with the poverty-stricken waiting on the sidelines with only hope for comfort.

One war feeding another. Death and destruction feeding poverty and dependence. Yet America does not shy away from declaring war as the solution for anything too big for political remedy. Men with guns, inhumane incarcerations, and legal manipulation have become the standard remedy for what ails America.

There are times and circumstances when war cannot be avoided and at those times it must be fought with a clear mission and a dedicated people, politics notwithstanding. That is not the present War on Terror, and in the next 40 years perhaps we will also revisit this war.

Red Cell will never have the solution to the triangulation of poverty, drugs, and terror, simply because they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. ANALYSE THAT!

Posted by: llocat333 | August 29, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

We Americans should be much less concerned about "...rubbing foreigners the wrong way..."

What do think causes terrorism? American arrogance, rouge intelligence operations, unconditional support and cooperation with the Mossad, assassinations, false leaks - like Wikileaks, terrorism in India, etc.

The rest of the world doesn't trust us. It contributes to conspiracy theories: the CIA assassinated JFK, RFK, and MLK, the CIA blew up the WTC, the Bhutto assassination in Pakistan. The list goes on and on.

Many people think these conspiracy theories are true. They think the CIA is up to their old tricks.

Posted by: alance | August 29, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

Maybe what they were asking was whether the new terms we apply to our designated enemies are somehow applicable to us as well?

We've replaced our old enemy, the godless communists with terrorists mostly Muslim, and now wage wars against them.

But since the defining characteristic of a terrorist is the violence perpetrated, and we sometimes use violence, it's fair to ask whether we, as well can also be placed in the same category as that which we are warring against.

When we were fighting the godless communists, our minuscule atheist community or our libraries might offer the same sort of vulnerability to criticism of possessing aspects of that which we were fighting against.

But these are comparatively minor players in our society.

The military, during this period was smaller than it is now, and while operating on a communist/totalitarian-style planned model of administration, still was less vulnerable to criticism of embodying components of the enemies' systems because the effective parts of communism affected mostly the economy, of which the military had not yet become a major component.

But because our military uses the same principal means, violence, as terrorists, we are vulnerable to getting painted as hypocritical in our espousal of the war on terror and terrorists, and in some ways can be described, in some instances as terrorists, ourselves.

This is probably what the Red Cell was getting at, although the examples they use, individuals from the US that utilize the means of terrorists, misses the greater vulnerability we have when our institutions, or their agents use these means.

Posted by: bhun2 | August 29, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

An interesting series of comments to this article.

And while we may get use to some minor aspects of 'terrorism,' and indeed, we may even label it as something else [like swamp gas in UFO investigations], there is no way that we can ever afford to get use to mass casualties, such as those that were the result of 9/11, even if such attacks resulted from biological weapons that could readily be attributed to the spread of a 'natural disease,' etc.

Posted by: | August 29, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Stein's passing reference to foreign local law bypasses the fact that Congress has done its best to create the mirage that outside the United States, no local law that matters if the US doesn't want it to. All foreign nations have all noticved this, and all etest it, many think it illegal. The planned effect has been equivalent to the Bush-era signing statements, which I believe numbered more than a thousand during that remarkable administration. President sees no need to obey the law of the land when he doesn't feel like it, President and Congress feel similarly about laws of all other lands.

There's persistent blindness, also, to the idea that terror doesn't stop being terrorist when the people who supply it are in US uniforms. The terror air raid on Panama City during the Bush I administration remains an outstanding and shameless example. In thinking no foreigners thinks about things like that much, we delude ourselves.

This in my view amounts to something very close to what a lot of American citizens fear that another organization is and has -- that organization being the United Nations.

Legacy of Ashes includes a melancholy trail of US terror exports, the exporters all too often being under the direct command of sundry political hacks with little knowledge or understanding of they were up to. Possibly the best quotation in the entire work comes from a CIA hero, photographed as such and proud recipient of a top French honor for his blundering in French Indochina. Speaking apparently about his campaign of aerial bombing over Indonesia -- yep, Indonesia -- this hero says there's nothing he ever liked as much as killing Communists, even when they didn't know they were Communists. The photograph shows him leaning on a stick, possibly because of old injuries suffered on one of his bombing runs when his plane crashed into the sea. Kindly Indonesians raced out to rescue and succor him. Self-deluding Communists, perhaps.

Nothing critics of the new WikiLeak say matters all that much, and those who say they can't see much of interest in any leak deserve, usually, no respect and compliance. Nothing to see here, folks. Move on, go home. Nothing to see.

I was astonished a few weeks back when multiple "experts" or "authorities" said such things about the WikiLeaks on offer at that time. Most of those decrying the leaks thought there were 90,000 to look through, naked error. There were about 75,000. All naysayers were hoping their readers would believe they spoke after judicious looks through all 75,000 on offer.

For those of us who can afford a pencil and used envelope, it takes only a moment to see that what these professional naysayers were claiming, one day after the leaks, that they had assessed 75,000 leaks 20 hours after release having digested and assessed each one within two seconds. More meticulous and conservative naysayers who held off for two days were parading five-second appraisals of each leak. Nobody noticed.

Posted by: kunino | August 30, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

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