Today in Secret History: January 31

(From my own archives; here’s a DOT.MIL column published at Washingtonpost.com on January 31, 2000.  I was already thinking about Code Names and the cost of secrecy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 period.)

Making a Molehill out of a Mountain

William M. Arkin

Last September, the USS Kamehameha pulled into the Jordanian port of Aqaba, the first U.S. Navy submarine ever to visit the Hashemite Kingdom. The next day, the crew “manned the rails” in a solemn ceremony while King Abdullah Bin Al-Hussein and other dignitaries piped aboard and toured the submarine from end to end.

The Navy’s press release announcing the visit stated that the crew participated “in several community relations projects, prepared … for their next underway, and explored the sites in Jordan.”

But Kamehameha is no normal submarine, and the visit was neither tourism nor pomp and circumstance. The purpose was to conduct the very secret “Early Victor” exercise.

Early Victor is just one of hundreds of exercises and operations conducted annually by the U.S. military around the globe. Some are well-known, and most, when they are reported, are portrayed as mom and apple pie opportunities for training and good works.

But more often than not there days, there is a secret side to exercises where little more than some felicitous code name is revealed. It is without a doubt the busiest and most vivid engagement in American foreign policy. Or, I submit, in some ways it is American foreign policy.

The Secrecy Factory

What do Diagonal Glance, Promise Kept, Nectar Bend, and Eager Initiative all have in common? They are not they latest porno websites. They are classified exercises where the who and the where and the why can’t be known. An unclassified fiscal year 2001 Pentagon budget document leaked to washingtonpost.com lists hundreds of such exercises conducted with militaries and police forces and intelligence establishments overseas.

The document provides only a hint as to the day-to-day life of the military machine. The focus, according to sources, is increasingly counter-terrorism, and counter-narcotics, and counter-proliferation, and counter-information. So many cons one wonders who’s being conned, and what commitments are being sown in the name of military preparedness.

Atlas Gate, Dimming Sun, Eastern Eagle, Ellipse Echo, Frequent Storm, Noble Piper, Phoenix Jomini, Sacred Company, Trojan Footprint. All were held in 1999 – the details remain classified. In the coming months, more secret exercises with names like Blue Advance, Clean Hunter, Earnest Leader, Inferno Creek, Inherent Fury, Initial Link, Inspired Gambit, Juniper Stallion, Lucky Sentinel, and Ultimate Resolve will be held.

The mountain of secrets seems to have only gotten bigger with the end of the Cold War.

One has to wonder how many involve operations that by their very existence suggest covert commitments to foreign countries undertaken for the benefit of access to bases or exchanges of information or “training” opportunities.

Early Victors, Late Losers

Back in Jordan, after the bunting was stowed away on the Kamehameha, Navy SEALs emerged from special compartments, joining Jordanian commandos to conduct their annual Early Victor Red Sea exercise.

The Kamehameha is no stranger to secret missions. The nuclear-powered submarine was commissioned in December 1965 to launch Polaris ballistic missiles. For almost 30 years, it stealthily plied the waters of the Atlantic, remaining underwater for as much as 60 days at a time, always ready to fire its nuclear weapons in a moment’s notice at the Soviet Union.

Kamehameha had a good Cold War run, but in July 1992, the aging boat was modified for the post-Cold War era. Its missiles were removed and the spaces converted to accommodate Navy SEALs and divers, with special shelters and underwater vehicles able to stealthily place American commandos on an enemy shore. Exercises like Early Victor in Jordan undoubtedly hone these skills, but at what cost?

Special Operators

Early Victor is one of a dozen classified special forces exercises with Middle East commando units. The grand-daddy of secret operators is Special Operations Command. From its headquarters in Florida, SOCOM as it is called, controls the Navy SEALs and Green Berets and Delta Force elite.

SOCOM has a mind-boggling list of classified exercises and operations: Stablise, Skilled Anvil, Desert Sprint, Elegant Lady, Project 46, Link Acorn, Constant Gate, Able Sentry, Assured Response, Promise Kept, Polar Moon, Utopian Angel, Poise Talon, Operation Maraton, Present Haven, Silver Wake, Guardian Retrieval, Bevel Edge, Shepherd Venture, Joint Anvil, Autumn Shelter, Shadow Express. One wonders how many of these are building covert ties to governments and elites who may prove to be on the wrong side of democratic forces and change in the future.

Human rights activists may focus their ire on the military’s School of the Americas for training tomorrow’s secret policemen and dictators in Latin America, but these are whole extension campuses that get to tutor in utmost secrecy.

The secrecy exists because each of the so-called unified commands, such as SOCOM, sets their own priorities for building relations in their area of responsibility. The number of exercises and secret operations is so large, moreover, it is doubtful that many people, even inside the government, can see the forest for the trees.

Another Foreign Policy

I’m a believer that the more secrecy you have, the more likely you are to get into trouble. If there is even more secrecy in military relationships and exercises today than there was during the Cold War, there has to be a good explanation. Is all the secrecy necessary because our security is at stake as it was in the Cold War? Is it required to thwart countermeasures on the part of potential adversaries? Or is it merely avoidance of public involvement and political oversight?

In the Middle East, secrecy is the product of relationships which operate under the constraint that our friends get to call the shots with regard to candidness. The fact that the U.S. military exercises with Israel and Jordan and Egypt all at the same time makes for local sensitivities. Whether the ostensible benefit really enhances anyone’s security, or human rights, or democratic values, seems hardly considered.

The monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East (and elsewhere) are not interested in any details of their covert relations with the United States to get out. Thus the regional commands have particularly full plates of secrets they must manage. The web of relationships, regardless of the real return on investment, become its own justification for both the activity and the secrecy. Thus the Pentagon’s mountain of secrets is also a slippery slope.

(This article was originally published January 31, 2000.)

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