Cracks in the Covert Iceberg (5/98)

For almost two decades, the US government claimed that it bankrolled the overthrow of Afghanistan’s revolutionary regime only in response to the invasion of Soviet troops in the final days of the 1970s. But early this year, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter’s national security advisor at the time, finally admitted that covert US intervention began long before the USSR sent in troops. "That secret operation was an excellent idea," he explained. "The effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap."

The resulting war – provoked to turn Afghanistan into a geopolitical pawn – led to almost 2 million deaths. Ultimately, much of the country was reduced to rubble, and a government attempting to shake off feudalism was replaced with a fundamentalist regime that lynches opponents without trial and bars women from employment and education. Today Afghanistan is open territory for energy companies building a massive oil and gas pipeline to Pakistan. Meanwhile, millions of people, including even those who once worked for the CIA, are paying a high price.

Whenever such operations are exposed, officials and pundits are quick to say that, as bad as they sound, they’re "ancient history." Things were different during the Cold War, after all, and beating communism required extreme, often unsavory, tactics. Yet, the same cynical manipulation and disregard for human life characterizes current US operations around the world.

A recent example, which at least has sparked some outrage, is US training of Indonesian commandos accused of torturing and killing civilians. Despite a congressional ban, the Pentagon exploited a legal loophole allowing human rights training to provide instruction in demolitions, sniper techniques, psychological operations, and "military operations in urban terrain." The targets include workers who’ve lost their jobs during the country’s economic crisis, students opposing President Suharto’s military-dominated regime, and East Timorese who want independence. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration defends its actions as "engagement with an important country" that serves US national interests.

Less publicized, but equally deadly, is US involvement in the low-intensity war being waged in Mexico. Under the guise of anti-drug operations, the US has provided $50 million to Mexico for arms and training since 1995. This includes the US training of the Air-Mobile Special Forces Group (GAFE), created in direct response to the 1994 rebellion in Chiapas.

After courses at Fort Bragg, GAFE units have gone on to kidnap, torture, and kill opponents of the government. Wearing hoods, they enter homes in the middle of the night to surprise their targets, and raid hotels and restaurants without presenting search warrants. Although responsibility for the massacre of 45 civilians in Acteal last December hasn’t yet been directly traced to GAFE, that incident also reflects counter-insurgency lessons learned at the School of the Americas (SOA) in Georgia and other US training centers.

In the new documentary, Father Roy: Inside the School of Assassins, Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who’s spent the last two decades trying to close the SOA, points out that the insurgents under attack are usually reformers, human rights workers, and peasants who oppose repressive governments. Despite platitudes about human rights, the US continues to pursue the same agenda that marked its past intervention in Latin America and Southeast Asia – making the world "safe" for corporate exploitation.

And just as in the past, what we read or hear these days about US intervention is only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, the emergence of 24-hour news and the information superhighway promotes the illusion that there are no secrets left. In reality, however, for the last 15 years the CIA has effectively used the National Endowment for Democracy as a cover to fund hundreds of so-called non-governmental organizations as fronts for its operations, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Declaring Islamic fundamentalism the post-communist global menace, it also runs covert operations in places such as Libya, Iran, and the Sudan.

Not long ago, the Council on Foreign Relations suggested that the CIA should be allowed to use use journalists and clergy as cover – as if they don’t already. There also are clear signs that the Agency is moving into economic intelligence and computer-age information warfare.

On the other hand, growing public skepticism about the accuracy of news reports – not to mention the need to start another war with Iraq – suggest that not everything’s going as the military-intelligence establishment would like. The public may not know the whole story yet. But the more they learn, the less they’re willing to swallow the official line.