“Covert operations” — the bugaboo of the1970s — were the many little secret fights we made against the agents of the Evil Empire who were busy in so many places. Many covert operations failed, and Congress saw the CIA as a bunch of out-of-control renegades. So in 1974 a law was created to control our entry into covert operations by making the president personally responsible for them. Before a covert operation may take place (or as soon after as possible) the president has to make a determination, “personally, officially, and in writing” that the operation is important to U.S. national security, and notify the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in a “timely fashion.” That caused another stir in the Reagan days when Adm. John Poindexter took a rather liberal view of what was timely in the Iran-Contra operation.
Though it sounds pretty innocuous, the staff work behind a determination can take weeks or months. Too many layers of CIA and White House review (not to mention State and DoD, which also get a chop on them) add week after week of delay. And by the time the approval is given, the whole idea is likely to have been overtaken by events. The law’s net effect is to reduce the number of covert ops, limiting them to the ones that are worth the effort, and not overtaken by events while the mound of paperwork is being rolled up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
According to last Wednesday’s Washington Times, the Senate Intelligence Committee is working on legislation to hog tie our special-operations forces’ activities with miles of the same red tape. And the result will either be a nonevent, or something even more dangerous — and probably more clearly unconstitutional — than the War Powers Act itself. Current law defines “covert operations” to mean any action to influence political, economic or military conditions abroad, exempting “traditional military activities,” intelligence gathering, and such. In 1991, the law was amended to extend the “traditional military activities” exemption to just about everything done by someone wearing the U.S. uniform, whether or not acknowledged by the government. Now, some in Congress want to narrow the definition, to make special ops part of the paper trail. Which means that decisions to use spec-ops forces will be slowed by the same process that slows intelligence operations.
Some of their Pentagon critics call them, “our Gucci boys.” They get a lot of the most exotic equipment and operate in disregard of many of the rules the regulars have to follow. It’s only natural that other troops would become a bit jealous of their flashy achievements. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be among them, charging the Taliban fort at Mazar-e-Sharif on horseback? All that one lacked was the Duke, and someone playing “charge” on a bugle. One army officer was outraged when he encountered a bunch of bearded Navy SEALs in Afghanistan. He was told to chill out, and the scruffy SEAL boys went back to work. In the war against terrorism, the special-operations forces are playing a crucial role that has brought most of the regulars around. When they talk about the spec-ops boys, it’s often in terms of the “disproportionate” effect they have on the enemy. The problem now, of course, is Congress.
Congress likes to take credit for things that go well, and they’re probably feeling stung by the spec-ops successes because they’re not in the loop. Reporting the new “special-ops” presidential determinations to the Intelligence Committees won’t give them any control over anything, it will simply create the political illusion that the members of Congress had some supervisory role. There is no demonstrable need for any such restrictions on spec-ops. No scandal, no renegade operations. Nothing to propel this, other than Senatorial vanity.
The special-ops forces have succeed with attacks planned months in advance such as closing the Scud Box. Remember the fears of Saddam’s Scud missiles, and how they could rain death on our gathering troops or on Israel at the outset of the war? Well, they didn’t get fired because — as my sources both forecasted and later reported — the Scud batteries were attacked and destroyed by the spec-ops boys in the first few minutes of the war. They did that after being in the desert for a long while before, scouting the locations. But that is a rarity. Special-ops work in the war on terror mainly because of their ability to take advantage of events as they happen. Acting and reacting quickly, doing things that others can’t because they are not limited by their operational doctrines, the whole spec-ops community — Army Rangers and Green Beanies, Navy SEALs, Marine Recon, and Air Force forward combat controllers — are the point of our very sharp spear. Without the ability to deploy right now, without waiting for Washington to debate for hours or days, that spear point will be blunted.
Sometimes, you just get lucky. Tomorrow night Saddam and OBL could be sitting on the beach in Latakia, Syria, roasting marshmallows and having a cappuccino, talking about how to get back at the Great Satan. The guy looking through the periscope of the Navy nuke boat offshore calls the boss at CINCLANT, and suggests, how ‘bout I put a coupla boats full of SEALs in the water, and go catch or whack these guys? Yeah, ok, so it’s Syria? So what? Yeah, but boss…
So this goes up to Special Operations Command, to the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and Big Dog. Who then calls Dubya and Dick, and Colin and George, and asks them to sign off on something Dick Myers just wrote on a legal pad, which someone slaps on the fax machine to the Senate Intelligence Committee. No prob, right? Yeah, right.
To create a presidential determination will take umpteen reviews in Special Operations Command, then to the Joint Chiefs and Big Dog, then to the White House (and don’t forget the CIA and the State Department and God only knows who else) where things will be massaged, discussed, and hours, days and weeks will pass. And the opportunity will evaporate. The flexibility and opportunism that makes spec ops succeed will be taken away from them.
It may be that this is the harebrained scheme of a few staffers, or it may be — as the Times reported — that it’s based on a misunderstanding of positions taken in negotiations on the law between Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and several senators. But whatever the ultimate legislative product is — if it is anything like the restrictions on other covert activities — it will significantly interfere with the effectiveness of our special-operations forces at a time when they are most needed. Perhaps the language can be crafted to allow the president to delegate the authority to make these determinations, and the delegation can be passed down to the SOCOM guys and the local commanders who need to make snap decisions. Maybe. But I doubt that will satisfy those on the Senate committee who want to shackle the warriors.
There were many reasons for the intelligence failures that left us unprotected from the 9/11 attacks. It may be that these failures had nothing to do with the requirements for “presidential determinations” on covert ops. But we are damned sure that the special-operations forces are working with tremendous effect, and that the intelligence community is still weaker than it should be. It is beyond strange — it’s bizarre — that the Senate would want to “fix” what’s working by making it more like what is not. Many bad ideas die in congressional markups and conferences. This one should. If it doesn’t, the president should veto the bill. There are many things we can live without, but fast, flexible, and opportunistic special forces just ain’t one of them.
— NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst. He is the author of the novel Legacy of Valor.