CIA Red Cells and common sense
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.
| August 29, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence, Media
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