The War in the Shadows

By Chris Hedges

A Swedish documentary filmmaker released a film last year called “Last Chapter—Goodbye Nicaragua.” In it he admitted that he unknowingly facilitated a bombing, almost certainly orchestrated by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which took the lives of three reporters I worked with in Central America. One of them, Linda Frazier, was the mother of a 10-year-old son. Her legs were torn apart by the blast, at La Penca, Nicaragua, along the border with Costa Rica, in May of 1984. She bled to death as she was being taken to the nearest hospital, in Ciudad Quesada, Costa Rica.

The admission by Peter Torbiornsson that he unwittingly took the bomber with him to the press conference was a window into the sordid world of espionage, terrorism and assassination that was an intimate part of every conflict I covered. It exposed the cynicism of undercover operatives on all sides, men and women who lie and deceive for a living, who betray relationships, including between each other, who steal and who carry out murder. One knows them immediately. Their ideological allegiances do not matter. They have the faraway eyes of the disconnected, along with nebulous histories and suspicious and vague associations. They tell incongruous personal stories and practice small deceits that are part of a pathological inability to tell the truth. They can be personable, even charming, but they are also invariably vain, dishonest and sinister. They cannot be trusted. It does not matter what side they are on. They were all the same. Gangsters.

All states and armed groups recruit and use members of this underclass. These personalities gravitate to intelligence agencies, terrorist cells, homeland security, police departments, the special forces and revolutionary groups where they can live a life freed from moral and legal constraints. Right and wrong are banished from their vocabulary. They disdain the constraints of democracy. They live in this nebulous underworld to satisfy their lusts for power and violence. They have no interest in diplomacy and less in peace. Peace would put them out of business; for them it is simply the temporary absence of war, which they are sure is inevitable. Their job is to use violence to purge the world of evil. And in the United States they have taken as hostages our diplomatic service and our foreign policy establishment. The CIA has become a huge private army, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out in his book “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” that is “unaccountable to the Congress, the press or the public because everything it does is secret.” C. Wright Mills called the condition “military metaphysics”—“the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.”

Since the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM)—which includes the Green Berets, the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALs—has seen its budget quadrupled. There are now some 60,000 USSOCOM operatives, whom the president can dispatch to kill without seeking congressional approval or informing the public. Add to this the growth of intelligence operatives. As Dana Priest and William M. Arkin reported in The Washington Post, “Twenty-four [new intelligence]organizations were created by the end of 2001, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Task Force. In 2002, 37 more were created to track weapons of mass destruction, collect threat tips, and coordinate the new focus on counterterrorism. That was followed the next year by 36 new organizations; and 26 after that; and 31 more; and 32 more; and 20 or more each in 2007, 2008, and 2009. In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11.”

There are now many thousands of clandestine operatives, nearly all of them armed and equipped with a license to kidnap, torture and kill, working overseas or domestically with little or no oversight and virtually no transparency. We have created a state within a state. A staggering 40 percent of the defense budget is secret, as is the budget of every intelligence agency. I tasted enough of this subterranean world to fear it. When you empower these kinds of people you snuff out the rule of law. You empower criminals and assassins. One of these old CIA operatives, Felix Rodríguez, was in El Salvador when I was there during the war in the early 1980s. He wore Che Guevara’s Rolex watch. He had removed it from Guevara’s body after ordering Guevara to be executed in the Bolivian jungle. I would later run into clandestine operatives in the Middle East, Africa or Yugoslavia I knew from the wars in Central America. We would invariably chat briefly in Spanish. It was a strange fraternity, even if I was the outsider. The Great Game.

These black forces have created as much havoc, or blowback, in the Middle East as they did in Latin America. And by the time they are done there will be so many jihadists willing to blow themselves up to vanquish America, the Islamic radicals will be running out of explosives. These clandestine operatives peddle a self-fulfilling prophecy. They foment the very instability that allows them to continue to proliferate like cockroaches. The dozens of CIA kidnappings—“extraordinary renditions”—of radical Islamists in the late 1990s, especially from the Balkans, many shipped to countries such as Egypt where they were tortured and murdered by our allies, was the fuse that lit the al-Qaida bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attacks on the Navy destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000. Militant Islamists had publicly vowed reprisals for these renditions.

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