Tag Archives: Syria

American Coup and the Syria Debate

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 8 September 2013


Programmed to act

By William M. Arkin

The drive last week to attack Syria for using weapons of mass destruction is an American straight-jacket of the most confining sort.

Before President Obama decided to ask Congress to authorize the use of military force, the arguments for and against were flying. Is it legal? Is the intelligence accurate? Do we know the right targets? Can missiles or aircraft overcome supposedly robust Syrian air defenses? Will U.S. military and Syrian civilian lives be spared? Are we really helping the Syrian people? How will the rest of the world react? Can we achieve our objectives? The horror of chemicals, the gassing of innocent civilians, terror weapons; the hyperbole reserved for the evil of weapons of mass destruction is only matched by equally grave phrases — American credibility on the line, catastrophe, World War III — used to describe the costs of action or inaction.

That’s the thing with WMD.

They hover above every other concern, foreign and domestic. They are a national security trump card accorded a special place befitting being the most coveted and detested of all objects.

In close to 40 years I’ve been working on issues relating to the military, I’ve watched this never-ending theater of WMD. Over decades and diverse administrations, justifications for the use of force — limited and full scale — have constantly revolved around weapons of mass destruction. Protection against them, real and imaginary, has served itself as justification for government excess and a curtailment of our freedoms. So much so that even today, from august international bodies that sit on high to the recognized wise that populate academia to human rights activists and even peaceniks, the common mantra is that WMD cannot be tolerated. We stop everything because it is WMD and we fret about the consequences of both action and inaction because it is WMD.

We do so because of a little known and little understood entity that truly drives American national security practices: It’s called The Program.

Founded in the darkest days of nuclear threat during the Eisenhower administration, The Program began as a limited system given responsibility for survival of the government. The nuclear arms race ended, but The Program never completely went away. And since 9/11, like everything else about national security, its mission and focus has expanded. The main reason again is WMD.

An accepted assumption passed down from Clinton to Bush to Obama is that an exceptional threat that once just existed in all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union transformed into an everyday threat. And not only that, but in an age of terrorism and global connectedness, WMD manifests not just from foreign regimes or terrorist groups, but also in common components — pressure cookers, a nasty virus, a keyboard — anything that could be the trigger for societal breakdown, even if it comes in the form of natural disasters or just system failures.

As the agent of survival, The Program is also the survivor.

To conceive of what The Program is, think Wall Street. It is a place, but it is also allusively the entirety of certain interests. It is made up of the equivalent of banks and financial institutions — actual offices in departments and agencies of government; people, policies, objectives — but it is not ruled by one man or entity, yet it acts in unison and with united purpose. It has a nominal headquarters that culminates in the White House but it has become more permanent than the elected who occupy it. And though it is budgeted and the Congress even participates in its workings, it is neither legislated nor publicly sanctioned. The Program exists through a system of sealed envelopes — four dozen formal Presidential Emergency Action Documents more secret than anything that has been revealed about the National Security Agency of late, arrangements that instruct a surviving entity of what to do if a nation-destroying calamity befalls Washington or the United States.

Because Doomsday is now thought by the experts in government to be any day, and because the potential battlefield is anyplace and every place, the work of The Program, and its power, has dramatically expanded. A survival apparatus operates behind the scenes as if survival is perpetually and instantly at stake. There’s no overt conspiracy here, unless one considers the supremacy of this impenetrable and unchallenged ideology.

Successive presidencies have granted The Program extraordinary powers and extralegal action beyond anything sanctioned in the Constitution or public laws. This is precisely because whatever would activate the need for overt takeover would surely be necessary to preserve or even restore the nation’s institutions and laws. Extraordinary secrecy safeguards The Program, but in an always hyperbolic society where threats redefined as mass destruction are seemingly everywhere, not too many questions are asked.

With the discussions that began last week, we will be back again in this cycle, whether it’s with Iran’s WMD or North Korea’s or even al Qaeda’s. At the highest reaches of government, the inherited and ingrained assumption will be that when it comes to WMD violating law to uphold law is allowable, even warranted. And not only that, but because of WMD and the vulnerability of modern society, political compromises and legal violations will be endorsed to prevent or forestall mass destruction.

The Program is a subtle American coup that condemns us to perform the same rituals and set down the same red lines oblivious to the stranglehold that this way of thinking and mode of governance has on our nation. If the program were effective at improving our national security, if at the end of any given year the powers that be concluded that they had made progress and could loosen the reins of secret government and return to some state of normalcy, then one might reluctantly agree with the Washington tune that everything is a trade-off between security and freedom.

Not only does this never happen, but policies of torture and warrantless surveillance and government assassination of American citizens persist and flourish, our freedoms and values actively undermined in a state of martial life that is both invisible and all-encompassing.

For The Program, Syria is just business as usual.

It’s not as if the thousands who toil away behind the scenes have an opinion one way or another. Nor are they necessarily pulling any strings. But the business of doing the nation’s dirty work demands a complex web, and the mission to connect the dots to every potential hiding place creates an almost unlimited mandate.

What The Program endeavors for is for the American people to get with the program. Fear of mass destruction and the righteous action associated with WMD forms a perfect cushion and shield, survival and sustenance assured for noble purposes.

William M. Arkin is author of “American Coup: How a Terrified Government is Destroying the Constitution;” and co-author of the best-selling book and newspaper series “Top Secret America.”

Eager Lion Now Supplants Bright Star as Largest U.S. Exercise in Middle East

The details emerging about the Eager Lion 12 military exercise in Jordan are almost as scary as the speculation circulating in the press about a Syria (or Iran) mission preparation.  Jordan and the United States continue to insist that the exercise has no connection with any real-world events.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) now says that the exercise is “the largest annual exercise in the Central Command area of operations,” supplanting Bright Star, the exercise series previously conducted in Egypt.  I guess the masters of war planning have a lot of faith in the stability and resilience of the Jordanian government, come to think of it, just like they did about Egypt.

Eager Lion, which most press reports refer to as including 17 participants, actually includes 19 participants, according to CENTCOM.   They include Australia, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, France, Italy, Iraq, Jordan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Spain, Romania, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States.  The exercise is touted as “building relationships,” but the 19 nations weren’t named until May 15th: I suppose it’s more like a furtive affair than a relationship.  It’s interesting to note that Turkey, previously reported as participating, evidently is not; and that Iraq is there.

Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit offload from a Navy Landing Craft Utility vessel at the Royal Jordanian Naval Base in Aqaba, May 2, 2012, to begin their participation in Exercise Eager Lion 12. (Official Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Richard Blumenstein)

And though special operations is the undeniable focus, more than 1,000 U.S. Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit stormed ashore – okay maybe didn’t storm, but landed – in a display of amphibious readiness.  What surprised me in the belated announcement of the Marines May 2nd landing is that the Marine Corps casually referred to the augmented battalion and its Iowa Jima assault ship as the “forward-deployed crisis response force.”

I didn’t even know that there was such a crisis response force, and nothing was reported in the news media when it was deployed in March.

The on-scene U.S. commander for Eager Lion 12 is Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, who in his day job is Commander Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) and for the exercise is Commander, Combined Joint Task Force Spartan (CJTF Spartan).  Tovo is one of the most talented officers in our Army’s senior ranks and clearly is one of our nation’s Special Operations Forces’ superstars,” CIA Director David Petraeus said in an email to the Tampa Tribune.  There’s an odd hit job on Tovo on Examiner.com, as if anything is actually known about the man.

U.S. War in Syria; trial balloon or business as usual?

We interrupt the regularly scheduled war with Iran to speculate about war with Syria.  Some Senator calls for military action, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey says it won’t be so easy, because the air defenses are too robust and there’s no identifiable insurgency, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says maybe it would be best to have an international consensus in favor of military action, and the news media says that President Obama has asked for military options from a supposedly reluctant U.S. military.

The story leads radio news, The New York Times and The Washington Post on the web.  The bloviaters – I guess myself included – are out in full force.

This one is simple: The leadership gives the patent Washington answers in their testimony before Congress that also says nothing, nothing about U.S. policy, U.S. interests.  The message, just in case you care and hang on the warnings about war is that if the air defenses weren’t so strong, if the international community yelled “charge,” if an identifiable in-country ally was found, war would be okay. What an idiotic way to run the world.

Jordan is Eager: But For What?

The U.S. and Jordan will hold their largest military exercise ever in May, according to the state-run news agency Petra.

Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force and commander of the Marine component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is in Amman this week meeting with Jordanian military officials to prepare the 17 nation exercise.  One of those participants will be Iraq, sending its military outside the country for the first time.

The theme of the exercise, officials say, is guerrilla warfare and “strategic threats.”

As one Arab commentator asks: “So who exactly will be this “Eager Lion” target?

“Strategic threats”?  “Guerrilla warfare?”

The first Eager Lion exercise in this series – Eager Lion 11/Infinite Moonlight 11.2 – was held last year from June 11-30, and involved 14 other countries spread operating at six locations inside Jordan.  This exercise also focused, according to CENTCOM, on “irregular warfare, special operations and counterinsurgency.”

But behind the scenes, the Army’s 20th Support Command from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland participated.  The official name of the 20th is Support Command (CBRNE) for chemical biological, radiological, nuclear and high yield explosives.  The unit was activated in 2004 to consolidate Army WMD response and search capabilities, and in Eager Lion last year, it held biological warfare identification exercises and radiological and nuclear response and civil defense training.

Military exercises happen all the time – check out my list of exercises – and some might just dismiss all of them and this one as well as routine, opportunities for militaries to get together, familiarize themselves with each other, practice basic skills.  But every exercise of this size also includes so-called “strategic” purpose, a scenario that is generally made up to guide decision-making.  Some country is made up – say Irandia, fighting with another made up country, say Israelandia – and they fight a nuclear war, or some external event in say a place like Syria spreads to Jordan.

Just because Iran, Israel, and Syria are in the news right now, and just because WMD are being bandied about doesn’t necessarily mean that this exercise is intended to mimic an actual real world scenario.  After all, if the focus of this year’s exercise is also counter insurgency, one has got to mention the Palestinian population of Jordan or even the Jordanian people themselves, who might just spring into action someday.  What “skills” do you think the U.S. is sharing?

The reality is that despite all of these questions, Eager Lion is also just an exercise, scheduled each year in the late spring/early summer, one that takes a year to prepare, to schedule the units to participate, to agree on all of the rules and complete all of the paperwork, etc., etc.  In some way, however, it is also the making of foreign policies and the subtle steering of the future.

It once was the case, during the days of Saddam that these U.S.-Jordanian exercises were highly secret, proving cover for preparations for U.S. forces to deploy to Jordan in order to fight Iraq (which they did in 2003).  Saddam is gone now, but the neighborhood is ever more complicated.  I wonder what they are cover for now?