Today is a banner day for aficionados of the CIA. After a 15-year Freedom of Information Act struggle, the National Security Archive has finally forced the CIA to reveal the “family jewels” — a 702 page treasure trove of documents characterized in The New York Times as a “catalog of domestic wiretapping operations, failed assassination plots, mind-control experiments and spying on journalists.” Whether or not you wade through the dense coverage of this frightening archive, we all need to keep our perspective on the role of the CIA in U.S. government activities. While the atrocities reported in the “family jewels” are certainly atrocious in their own right, they are actually a tiny corner of a larger history that includes all manner of crimes against humanity, from mayhem against individuals to full fledged state terrorism.
And there is one thing that the “family jewels” will not reveal: how this decades-long criminal history has impacted international politics. Here is a simple summary: most of the world’s current man-made disasters are in some way or another “blowback” from past crimes committed by the CIA and its brethren in the “intelligence,” “security,” or “defense” apparatuses of the United States government. Sadly, this includes (of course) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also the multiplex crises in the rest of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, South Asia, East Asia and…wherever.
A good way to see this is to read Roger Morris’ beautifully presented history three part history of the CIA on TomDispatch, which focuses on the ways in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shaped and was shaped by his career in the CIA. I will repeat one example Morris’ comprehensive account that captures so much of the way in which the U.S. has created so much of the ugliness that currently disgraces our world.
This a story about Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group that successfully fended off what American and Israeli military planners expected to be an overwhelming onslaught of air power, an onslaught that killed thousands, flattened whole cities, and compromised the Lebanon’s infrastructure.
Many of us remember that in 1983, during a previous crisis there, an American military barracks was bombed, killing 241 marines who were part of an international peacekeeping force sent there in 1982. That bombing was, as Morris tells the story “itself a bloody reprisal for earlier American acts of intervention and diplomatic betrayal in Lebanon’s civil war” which had been raging since 1975.
No one in the American intelligence community knew for sure (and no one knows to this day) who was actually responsible for the bombing, but CIA director William Casey decided nevertheless to undertake reprisals. He chose as his target a Shia cleric, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah, “because of his reputation for fiery sermons in favor of social justice and national independence — and because allied spy agencies — Israel’s Mossad, Saudi Arabia’s GID, and Phalangist informers — claimed he led a militant Shiite group that bore responsibility for the attack on the Marines.”
That was enough evidence for Casey to commission an attack on Fadlallah. It was also enough for his top deputy, Robert Gates, Head of the Directorate of Intelligence, and in charge of processing all the best information the Agency could gather. As the rumors of the coming attack on Fadlallah spread through the agency, Gates’ agents tried to warn him about the lack of evidence against the cleric (does this sound familiar?). Here is Morris’ story of their efforts:
“In our shop, we knew what Casey would be looking for in revenge for the barracks bombing and what the Israelis and Saudis were pushing,” related one analyst who would later become a senior Agency official. “We laid out all the unknowables and caveats and how we were being whipsawed [by allied spy agencies], and we sent it upstairs for Gates to give to Casey, and we recommended it be bootlegged to the NSC and White House and even to Defense if it came to that.”
When there was no sign that Gates had done anything with their warning, two of the analysts confronted the deputy director. “This is terrible,” one of them told him.
“We are not here to pick a fight with the boss,” Gates answered dismissively. “I’m not particularly concerned about some set-to in Lebanon.”
The CIA did not just try to assassinate Muhammad Husain Fadlallah. Instead the Agency carbombed his entire neighborhood with an explosion that was felt “miles away in the Chouf Mountains and well out in the Mediterranean.” Whether or not the cleric was the perpetrator, the message would be clear to all concerned: attacks on American marines would result in retribution against the whole offending community. It was, in short, an act of state terrorism. Eighty-one people were killed and over 200 wounded in the crowded impoverished Bir El-Abed neighborhood where Fadlallah lived. (Fadlallah himself was unhurt — he had been delayed arriving home that evening because he stopped on the street “to speak to an elderly woman.”)
Though this incident was barely news in the US–and there was not even a hint that the CIA had authored the carbombing — the message was received in Bir El-Abed. The next day, “a notice hung over the devastated area where grief-stricken families were still digging the bodies of loved ones out of the rubble. It read: “Made in the USA.””
But the people of Bir El-Abed and the surrounding Shia communities extracted the “wrong” conclusion from this message: instead being overwhelmed by the display of American government slaughter, they set out to develop a countervailing violence of their own:
Among those of Fadlallah’s bodyguards not killed in the explosion, 22 year-old Imad Mugniyah would join the emerging Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and, over the next decade, as a shadowy chief of security, direct a series of reprisal attacks against Americans in a bloody chain reaction of terror and counter-terror. Among Fadlallah’s admirers, outraged by the bombing and ever after distrustful of the Americans he had once admired, was a round-faced, 25 year-old theology student of already recognized charisma and organizational skills. He would rise to become Hezbollah’s leader — and, after his forces fought the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to a standstill in the summer of 2006, one of the most popular figures in the Arab world: Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
This incident took place 20 years ago, long enough for us to track the connection to current mayhem in Lebanon. The public display of the CIA’s “family jewels” should remind us that the myriad CIA actions chronicled there are not isolated incidents. They are a coordinated system that has delivered violence like that perpetrated in Bir El-Abed to every corner of the world in the past 40 years, in myriad forms and under many disguises. These actions have ended the lives hundreds of thousands (in Iraq alone!), ruined the lives of millions, and earned the hatred of tens of millions. By now, the impact of our government’s action is so pervasive, that even the most distant and seemingly disconnected acts of violence are in some way consequences of, or reactions to, the activities of the U.S. government. All in our names. We really need to stop them.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz) and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo).