Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990

An Un-American Way of War

Just as in the period of the “discovery” of unconventional warfare and then counterinsurgency in the late 1950s and the 1960s, the literature of “low-intensity conflict” emphasized the stresses and strains it put on the high principles of the American fighting man. General John Calvin, SOUTHCOM commander in the mid-1980s, called the new conflicts “uncomfortable wars.” His own experience in such wars included a 1950s stint as an adviser in Colombia and later service in Vietnam (a not unusual example of U.S. personnel taking their Latin American experience to other theaters).1 Colonel John Waghelstein warned that these wars were problematic for the military establishment because “this kind of conflict is fundamentally different from the American way of war.”2

Another former SOUTHCOM commander, Galvin’s predecessor General Paul Gorman (a veteran of Vietnam, Korea, and unspecified intelligence work) has also stressed the disagreeable nature of low-intensity conflict.3 Such conflict is defined in terms of the tactics used— and the unfair advantage of the adversary. As in 1950s writing on political warfare, the nature of low-intensity conflict is characterized as an undeniably dirty war, however disturbing to right-thinking Americans; mirroring the enemy’s dirty tactics is presented as the only means to equalize the fight. General Gorman’s description of the enemy’s style of low-intensity conflict is fairly representative: It is “inherently a form of warfare repugnant to Americans, a conflict which involves innocents, in which non-combatant casualties may be an explicit object. Its perpetrators are secretive, conspiratorial, and usually morally unconstrained. Their operations are the antithesis of respect for human rights.” There is also a suggestion that the enemy’s ruthlessness gives them an edge: “They can succeed if all they undertake is death and destruction, and yet they can impose on a defending government grave imperatives for restraint, heightened regard for human rights, creative reconstruction and societal reform under stress.”4 The way is clear, then, for an argument that Americans should respond in kind.

The emphasis in much of the published record is on the constraints imposed upon U.S. forces in combating unscrupulous adversaries. Counterinsurgent Sam Sarkesian has stressed that meeting the challenge of unconventional warfare is “complicated by the American way of war” and the American system, “whose norms and values constrain and limit strategic and tactical options in responding to unconventional conflicts.... “5 To an extent, the challenge is posed by the tactics of low-intensity conflict, particularly “revolution and counterrevolution”—including “hit and run raids, ambushes, assassinations, terror, and occasionally conventional operations.“6 The larger problem, however, is the historical basis of American warfare on “a ‘moral’ dimension.” Sarkesian notes:

Going to war was for the purpose of achieving some higher “good” [and] usually demanded a clear identification of the enemy and his “evil” purposes. Moreover, the American way of war attempts to make a clear distinction between war and peace.... But, in the contemporary international environment, there seem to be few clear lines between war and peace.7

Sarkesian’s advice, like that of the 1950s political warriors, is to respond in kind to the adversary and to educate the politicians and the people that the “American view of war is generally incompatible with the characteristics and demands of counterrevolution”—and that counterinsurgency tactics (including assassination) should not be constrained by unrealistic ethical standards:

If American involvement is justified and necessary, national leaders and the public must understand that low-intensity conflicts do not conform to democratic notions or tactics. Revolution and counterrevolution develop their own morality and ethics that justify any means to achieve success. Survival is the ultimate morality.8

Low-Intensity Ethics

The most fanatical advocates of counterterror in the 1980s were the civilians in government, in the defense establishment, and in the quasi-academic world of experts in the fields of terrorism, special operations and counterinsurgeny. Pentagon legal consultant William V. O’Brien’s writing on special operations provides some insight into the way counterterror was reconciled with military law, ethics, and professionalism in the 1980s.9 O’Brien, like other proponents of special operations as the key to winning in low—intensity conflict, argues that their brief duration, specific targeting, and urgency (or necessity) justify “exceptions to the normal moral and legal constraints” on military action. Special operations in “surgical strikes” are a case in point:

First, they are discrete and, accordingly, do not present the problem of cumulative violations.... Second, they may be presumed to be justified by a high and urgent necessity that may require sacrifice of other values such as some of the normal moral—legal constraints. Third, as a practical matter surgical operations may be subject to intrinsic limitations arising out of the capabilities of the force and the circumstances of its deployment.10

O’Brien argues further that the one-off nature of special operations, in turn, justifies the U. S. forces’ occasional “immoral and illegal conduct”; so long as the “overall record” is within the rules, special operations do not breach the norms of “just war.” The suggestion that war crimes are acceptable in small doses, the selective ideal of special warfare, recalls the 1967 army manual’s warning that only selective counterterror is legitimate (“i.e. genocide is not an alternative”). O’Brien’s warning not to go too far bears the same double message—that war crimes are to be expected but should not be excessive in number:

[S]uch conduct in itself may not necessarily bar the claim that just war standards have been met generally. However, repeated, cumulative violations of the war conduct law could well become sufficiently important to bar claim to just war status. This is an important point in special operations involving extraordinary, controversial means not normally used in regular conventional operations.11

The illegal side of special operations has also been justified by suggestions that the legitimacy of assassination, torture, or other special tactics can be weighed beforehand. O’Brien recommends a cost—benefit calculus that would involve

a comprehensive... analysis in which all of the potentially immoral and illegal actions were included in the evil effects of the operation, to be balanced against the just cause. . It might be possible to come out with a legitimate finding of overall proportionality even though a number of clearly immoral or illegal actions were contemplated from the outset and carried out in the operation. 12

The argument that war crimes in small quantities are acceptable is an exercise in quantum ethics—and an expression of the irrational belief that American crusaders in the ideological war can do no wrong. The argument expitomizes the Cold Warriors’ blind faith that the just cause of America suffices to purify virtually any act of outrage carried out in its name. When psychological warfare chief General Robert McClure requested access to Hermann Goering “and his partners” at Nuremberg, to learn of the black arts of psy—war from the true masters, he surely believed that his motives in doing so were pure (see p. 59). Similarly, when Ed Lansdale mused on the need for a twentieth-century update of The Prince, he did so in the belief that Americans could perpetrate small evils, and indeed must shoulder a burden of such evil, while still remaining pure of heart. The same logic—or more correctly, faith—underlay the Cold War course by which Americans set out explicitly to mimic the worst they could imagine of their ideological enemies, and to export this parody of the adversary as a counterinsurgency model through which to defend the Free World.

The argument for war crimes in small doses is no more compelling in terms of law than in terms of ethics. The escape clauses in the fine print of the norms of law and civilized conduct are largely imaginary. The leeway for isolated operations, however, are hardly the anarchic acts of renegade individuals. Special operations as proposed and programmed within the United States’ defense establishment are clearly determined and regulated at the highest level. There can be no exemption from accountability for torture and assassination, summary execution and hostage-taking by U.S. forces—including foreign contract personnel—that are under orders to this effect, or instructed to use their discretion in the use of illegal means to attain designated objectives in accordance with special operations doctrine. Whether performed covertly or overtly, governments are responsible for the crimes of war or peace committed at their behest.

The ethical argument in defense of selective terror and “surgical strikes” is less compelling than the practical observation that what really matters is the way these things are perceived. An axiom suggested for war planners was that “long duration of special operations permits more time for criticism and opposition to accumulate force.”13 Unless observers can document a crime in the course of special operations and show it to be part of a pattern, it is argued that there is no crime—and that little can be made of crimes that are rapid in execution, surgical in precision, and each unique in nature. Swift success, moreover, induces instant approval—and subsequent amnesia, as O’Brien points out: “It is a hard, but true, fact of life that success overcomes a lot of moral, legal, political, and cultural scruples.”14 The remedy, then, is to either conceal the action or perform the dirty work with sufficient speed, and above all success, to put a damper on criticism.

Ethical considerations were seen by many special operations advocates to enter the low-intensity equation as a matter of practical politics—not a particular deference to esoteric moral or legal yardsticks. That a bout of selective assassination or a commando raid can turn around a situation overnight, however, is a premise that finds little application to the realities of situations like those of El Salvador or Nicaragua in the mid-198Os. Although the special warfare experts excel in the short, sharp engagement, they tend to lose the more subtle political contests. Yet it is these contests, with their political subtleties and ethical absolutes, that ideological war is all about.

In counterinsurgency, ethical considerations may be the key to winning, and hunter—killer commando raids or assassinations that achieve minor objectives may well torpedo any reasonable expectation of winning over the people. The politics of special warfare, however, remain largely stuck in the attitudes of the commando. As Major General Michael D. Healy, former Commander at Fort Bragg, remarked from hisabuse built into the laws of war allows for acts of error and omission, insubordination and anomaly, but not for a premeditated flouting of the law in a strategy of terror. Isolated war crimes that are committed in violation of enforced superior orders would clearly be insufficient to tar the belligerent force as a whole. American special own experience with army Special Forces, “I know of no question ever being raised by participants regarding morality or legality of the mission. There was simply a dedicated determination to win.... Despite petty detractors, they went out and got the job done.”15

Some Americans in government were clearly aware that the “can do” approach was not always good enough—that breaking the law could be counterproductive. Jimmy Carter’s CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner pointed this out, in the context of moves to broaden the CIA’s scope for domestic activities, with an argument that would apply equally to military special operations forces. He opposed domestic operations on the grounds of CIA attitudes to law: “CIA officers are not trained to operate in the domestic environment, where regard for law is a primary consideration. The ethic of intelligence is to get thejob done in spite of local laws.”16 What was fine for covert actions in domestic environments overseas was poison back home. Special operations were not devised with the law in mind—neither our law nor anyone else’s.

The potential of special operations to engineer swift success is limited to minor theaters in the low-intensity scenario. Insurgencies are rarely successfully countered by single, daring operations in a manner comparable to lightning hostage—rescue raids or hit-and-run reprisals against foreign capitals. Insurgencies that can be rapidly overcome with selective assassination or with rapid “surgical” operations hardly merit the name. Nor are undesirable regimes as a rule so fragile as to await only a Rambo commando to topple them. As a consequence, the public-relations factor is particularly acute in counterinsurgency. Special operations can hardly be both a centerpiece of long-term counterinsurgency and, at the same time, selective and covert.

The Medium and the Political Message

The political cost at home of using terror tactics becomes proportionately higher as their use continues in an open-ended conflict. The counterterror advocates argue that Americans suffer from a crippling tendency to exaggerate and become emotional when confronted with certain tactics of special operations, especially in counterinsurgency. The media in particular are accused of establishing “utterly unrealistic” standards of behavior through the “unfairness and irresponsibility of much of the reporting and bias engendered by these subjects.”17 O’Brien sums up the counterinsurgent’s frustration at the average American’s bias against torture, murder, and starvation—and his or her failure to understand their necessity:

Torture is the single favorite... followed closely by “tiger cage” atrocity stories.... Attacks on the revolutionaries’ leadership and infrastructure, including terrorist or alleged terrorist methods used as anti—terror instruments, are generally viewed with repugnance on the American home front, as the media and anti-war movement campaign against the Phoenix operation in Vietnam demonstrated. Starvation as a means of combat is another source of popular revulsion.... Forced movement of civilians, often genuinely required for their own safety or because of legitimate military necessity, is the source of endless criticism.18

Torture and summary execution, by O’Brien’s standards, are abhorrent but sometimes necessary for eminently practical reasons: “It may not be possible to give quarter, detain, or care for prisoners and civilian detainees.” Torture in turn, may be the lesser of two evils: “An argument may be made that torture in exceptional circumstances may be required to obtain vital information from prisoners or detainees. Many innocent lives and the success of the mission may depend on such information being obtained in time.”19

The view that torture is legitimate if used selectively found some favor among special operations advocates attending the 1983 National Defense University symposium on special operations. A commentary by the moderators accepted the logic of exceptions, that “if torture is the only way to get information that is absolutely indispensable... many of us might agree, ex post facto, that it was necessary.” This, however, is held to be “a different proposition from routinely torturing every prisoner of war over a fifteen-year period. Not all prisoners have critical information, there is a great difference between special cases... and a routine amoral approach to things.”20

The civilian advocates of unrestricted unconventional warfare have been most articulate on the topic of international terrorism. A common argument is that terrorists (like communists in the 1950s and insurgents in the 1960s) are beyond the pale of civilized conduct and should not enjoy any of the protection offered by law to normal human beings. The underlying premise is that terrorists are readily identifiable as a breed apart (perhaps by the mark of Cain). Raymond Price posits:

There is a need... for a return to the use of extralegal procedures. The rush to purity in which the CIA’s covert action capabilities were gutted in the 1970s was an open invitation to terronsm.... Law alone is not enough. Anyone tempted to join the terrorist underground should be on notice that enlistment is his own death warrant, exercisable wherever he is caught.21

The “instant justice” implied is, of course, precisely the point of counterterror in doctrine. In practice, this has been the foundation of state murder of ideological antagonists in many counterinsurgency states since the 1960s — although a small percentage of the victims were actual terrorists by any definition. Similarly, the idea of a “terrorist underground” can be interpreted broadly. An opposition party tainted by an undesirable ideology, a peasant union with an unsavory view on private property, or a troublesome priest may come to be classed with the actual bomb-thrower.

Advocates of counterterror in the 1980s have sometimes cited Guatemala as a model example. Defense analyst Edward Luttwak contrasts the go—for-broke tactics in Guatemala—which he deems successful— and what he considers a halfhearted approach in El Salvador:

If [journalists] go to Guatemala to look for guerrillas, the only ones they will find are in the mortuary. They can never encounter a live guerrilla. The war in Guatemala is being won; the war in El Salvador is being lost. The one big difference is that the Guatemalans are apparently determined to win, and their determination to win is very clear. Secondly, the Guatemalans are extremely modest in terms of how they conduct their operations. . . Even a bad army can win a guerrilla war if it uses the appropriate tactics and methods systematically.22

Luttwak appears to be unaware that the Salvadorans have since 1974 resolutely used the tactics perfected by the Guatemalans, with army “death squads” and civilian auxiliaries murdering some 50,000 locals between 1980 and 1983 alone. Since 1984, there have been a few prisoners—but the norms remain those of counterterror and instant execution.

Another advocate of tough tactics against subversives, Neil C. Livingstone, the author of a number of studies of international terrorism, makes more or less the same point as does Luttwak, but cites El Salvador as the example of successful counterinsurgency. The “death squad,” in Livingstone’s view, represents an appropriate means to an end: “As many as half of the approximately 40,000 victims in the current conflict in El Salvador were killed by death squads.... In reality, death squads are an extremely effective tool, however odious, in combatting terrorism and revolutionary challenges. “23 Livingstone even justifies counterterrorists who wipe out entire families. In Argentina, he observes, mass murder “played the most significant role in defeating an organized terrorist challenge.”24 Of the “more than 15,000 victims,” “nearly all were leftists or relatives of left—wing activists.” A clean sweep was organized with a view to the future. The Argentine’s answer to the liberal’s lament—that terror begets more terror—was to eradicate all actual and potential opposition: “Too often the death of one family member at the hands of government security forces radicalized every brother, sister, and cousin, who then became terrorists in order to avenge the victim. Thus, when a terrorist was identified every member of his or her family was often killed to prevent blood feud.”25

Atrocity and Military Standards

Like the French theorist—practitioners of guerre révolutionnaire, the special operations experts argue that the ends justify the means. The inherent righteousness of the counterinsurgent’s cause is counted upon to keep the terror within responsible limits. Torture, for example, may be disagreeable, but the pain of the victims is to be weighed against the lives of the innocent—a logic that presumes the victims to be among the guilty. The argument of expedience and necessity—that it is impractical to take prisoners or irresponsible not to torture them—takes the special operations forces back to the norms of the 1950s doctrine of unconventional warfare.

The French idea of the guerre sale, the dirty war, provides a model justification for reactive terror: a convention by which the adversary is blamed for initiating dirty warfare. Overcoming American scruples was viewed as a principal challenge to be met so that America could compete in the dirty war. The U.S. Army field manuals of the 1960s warned that troops engaged in counterinsurgency were subject to “continuing morale and psychological pressures,” particularly because of the “natural reluctance of the soldier to repress women, children, and old men who may be supporting guerrilla activities” and “the elusiveness of the guerrilla and the difficulty in identifying him.”26 A particular stress of guerrilla warfare, identified as “fear of guerrilla atrocities,” in turn, is found to lend itself to retaliation in kind. 27

The emphasis on the “un-American” nature of guerrilla war suggests that in such an environment it is somehow inevitable that Americans too would commit atrocities. This persists in the Vietnam retrospectives of the popular press, as evinced in a 1988 Newsweek article:

There was also the very nature of the fighting—sinister guerrilla warfare in which soldiers were often unsure who the enemy was. It was, especially, a war fought without boundaries, spilling over among a civilian population of women and children and constantly tumbling into transgressions.... Many GI’s took part in atrocities or witnessed them. One veteran tells of seeing his buddies detonate a grenade in a woman’s vagina. Another was ordered to throw an old woman down a well, then drop a grenade on her. 28

But tumbling into transgressions was something more than falling into temptation: It depended very much on the fact that the conflict was defined as an “unconventional war” in which no one was bound by rules.

There is a consensus in the literature that atrocities are part and parcel of counterinsurgency, although these arguments are countered by others that emphasize the political cost. A 1983 Military Review article, “Preventing Atrocity in Low—Intensity Conflict,” observes that atrocities have “an impact well beyond the physical damage involved, reflecting a special kind of symbolism that transcends immediate circumstances.”29 Although a high-impact act of counterterror might be described positively in the same terms, this author stresses the cost in terms of American values:

Again, the nature of low-intensity conflict runs counter to certain American values. Many... have noted the American hunger for a moral element in going to war.... If US forces commit atrocities abroad, it not only aids their opponents, but it also serves to weaken resolve on the “home front.”30

The author warns that “it is vital to prevent atrocity at a point where it seems imminent—on the battlefield or in the streets,” but he also places equal emphasis on the urgency of “pointing out to policy makers the links between atrocity and their actions, policies and rhetoric.... ”31

The propensity to commit atrocities in counterinsurgency warfare has been addressed by military historian John M. Gates, who contrasts the American nineteenth-century experience with the present. “Atrocities have taken place in virtually all wars,” writes Gates, “but the frustrations of guerrilla warfare... create an environment particularly conducive to the commission of war crimes.”32 Gates’s account of the crushing of the Philippines’ independence movement at the turn of the century underscores the contradictory reactions of army leaders to the realities of guerrilla warfare. The campaign of “pacification” progressed from a fairly correct treatment of the enemy in arms and the civilian population (building schoolhouses and the like to show the benefits of colonialism) to ruthless scorched-earth reprisals throughout entire regions. As one officer warned, it was no use “going with a sword in one hand, a pacifist pamphlet in the other hand and trailing the model of a schoolhouse after.”33 A similar debate with a similar outcome—that military victory comes first—was a feature of the 1960s counterinsurgency era and was revived in the 1980s.

The conclusion drawn from the turn-of-the-century Philippine experience was that the army then made at least some effort to calibrate the machinery of pacification in accordance with the law of war of the time. Gates observes, notwithstanding, that atrocity reports became the hallmark of the Philippine campaign, with an increasing blurring of the limits of military law: “The more frustrating the campaign became, the more frequently the Americans crossed the line separating the harsh reprisals sanctioned by General Order 100 from such crimes of war as torture and wanton destruction. “34 Despite this, Gates contrasts favorably the nineteenth—century soldier’s “effort to fight guerrillas within the context of a set of legal and moral restraints” with the norms of counterinsurgency today:

In places as remote from each other as El Salvador and Afghanistan, one sees an acceptance of widespread and seemingly indiscriminate terror against civilians as a primary technique for dealing not only with insurgents and their supporters, but with the uncommitted as well. At present, the laws of war are frequently ignored.35

A quantitative review of courts-martial of American servicemen during, respectively, the four peak years of the Philippine pacification campaign (1900—1904) and the twenty-five-year American presence m Indochina could materially strengthen the argument that military toleration of atrocity has indeed increased. The court-martial of the brigadier general that commanded the Samar campaign may be a case in point: No top officers in Vietnam were the object of such attention. The record on both Vietnam and the Philippines suggests, however, that courts-martial for war crimes resulted by and large in slaps on the wrist. Philippines-era courts-martial for torture included prosecutions brought for hanging suspects by ropes (which resulted in reprimands); none, however, are on record for the use of the ‘‘water cure, ‘‘ where water was funneled into a prisoner’s nose and mouth (which might suggest official sanction).36 Courts-martial in Vietnam, which centered on charges of mass killings, appear to have presented a similar pattern of selective prosecutions and punishment, and to have been few in number, as Gunter Lewy points out:

At times, charges brought were not commensurate with the seriousness of the offense, and sentences adjudged by courts-martial in Vietnam sometimes were so light as to eliminate any deterrent effect. This fact may have contributed to an attitude of laxity and indifference regarding war crimes.... As of 21 May 1971, 29 Army personnel had been convicted of war crimes in Vietnam, and confinement had been adjudged against 15 of them. Data available for 13 of these men show that on the average they served 51.5 % of their sentences before being released as a result of parole or clemency action.37

Those found guilty included My Lai’s Lieutenant William Galley, convicted of the premeditated murder of not less than 22 people. Sentenced initially to life imprisonment at hard labor, he spent just 3 1/2 years in detention, under “house arrest.”38

Critics of the United States’ relaxed approach to humanitarian law in Vietnam have pointed out that there was a serious problem of omission in the training of conventional forces, let alone special counterinsurgency units. In 1967, for example, army regulations required just one hour of instruction on the Geneva and Hague Conventions during basic training and an annual refresher course. Troops received a Geneva Conventions update on arrival in Vietnam and were issued code of conduct cards outlining some of the basic dos and don’ts.39 Lewy cites a former Marine battalion commander whose testimony was included in the records of the court—martial of several Marines for atrocity killings, in order to stress that the question of war crimes—and illegal orders—was simply not addressed: “[I]n my 20 years of commissioned service, I know of no time period of instruction where an individual Marine was told when he could disobey an order.”40

An army inquiry in the aftermath of the My Lai scandal (the Peers Inquiry) recommended that a new approach to training in the laws of land warfare be required.41 New training materials were, in fact, prepared by personnel from the school of the army’s Judge Advocate General, the army’s chief legal officer. It was recognized that practical interpretation of the rules of war was required in order to make the lesson stick. A 1970s officer training course took this practical approach, for example on the matter of illegal orders:

While an American soldier must obey promptly all legal orders, he must also disobey an order which requires him to commit a criminal act in violation of the law of war.... An order to execute a prisoner or detainee is clearly illegal. An order to torture or abuse a prisoner to get him to talk is clearly illegal…. [The soldier] should first try to get the order rescinded, but if the person giving it persists, then he has to disregard it…. . Soldiers are to be instructed: “The lack of courage to disregard an illegal order… is not a defense to a charge of murder, pillage or any other war crime. “42

This was a good start—what remained was for army operations commanders to back up the army lawyers. This was not to be the case.

In practice, counterinsurgency became increasingly marginal to the mainstream military in the 1970s and even more exclusively the province of the Special Forces and associated units from the other services. The development of human rights training materials for American officers leading American regulars in counterinsurgency scenarios had little impact. The counterinsurgency wars of the 1970s and 1980s were fought largely by local forces, trained by U.S. Special Forces. Much would be made of the “human rights” curricula fed into the United States’ training program for Salvadoran troops in the first years of the 1980s—the years of the highest level of killings outside of combat there. So long as the norms of special, unconventional warfare allowed for breaking the law, the rules of war could have little effect.

The explanation of the special approach to war crimes in counterinsurgency may well lie with the changing concepts of warfare since 1900. The U.S. Army in 1900 did not distinguish between the conventional war (in which military law and regulations are, for the most part, unambiguous and ironclad) and unconventional war (in which discretionary powers to go outside the law are written into a doctrine designed to cover special circumstance). The varying scenarios of Indian-fighting, the Civil War, and the subjugation of the Philippines prompted changes in regulations and operational orders (and legal provision for reprisal killings) but not a wholesale suspension of norms of military discipline, law, and order.

A distinction should be drawn between circumstances that beget atrocity—from civil war and intercommunal violence to wars of conquest or pacification—and a policy that relies on it. The whole sphere of counterterror (or “direct action” in another terminology) opens the door to atrocity as policy, however selective its proposed implementation.

Direct Action and the Lexicon of Terror

A 1986 study prepared for the House Armed Services Committee’s Special Operations Panel by special operations authority John M. Collins outlines the skills required of the military’s special operations forces for their varied missions. Their military assistance, advisory, and training role encompasses ‘‘unconventional warfare and internal defense/foreign internal defense, terrorism, and counterterrorism.”43 A skills chart lists Assassination and Abduction (“A&A”), Hostage Taking, Random Killing and Maiming, Sabotage, Capture, and Termination as some of the basics of the genre.” The definitions suggest their formal status under present doctrine:

Assassination and abduction are illegal special operations employed offensively for sociopolitical purposes. Official actions to capture or kill key insurgents and transnational terrorists (“Termination”) are legal and defensive.

Assassination and abduction (A&A) are direct, discriminating, essentially decisive, economical, and occasionally unique ways to achieve required results.45

The report’s distinction between assassination and termination is less than clear. Termination is defined variously as” ‘surgical’ antipersonnel operations”;46 “Legal steps to kill individuals or groups”;47 and a “euphemism for killings by authorities of individuals or groups engaged in illegal and/or warlike activities.”” To a layman, termination might sound like legal assassination; what makes it legal is the nature of the target and the fact that it is “official.” Assassination, in turn, appears to be distinguished only by its illegality.

The Collins study distinguishes between skills needed for the execution of “direct action”—assassination, abduction, hostage-taking, termination, and the like—and those required for planning their application. Assassination, in short, is no work for amateurs: “Any malcontent, for example, can murder or maim indiscriminately, but it takes expertise and meticulous planning to pick proper targets, times, and places, parlay results into political capital, and replicate successful processes repeatedly.”49 The greater the potential repercussions, the higher the planning skill levels required. In assassination and abduction, for example, “operational skills are paltry, compared with those of planners, who must predict implications correctly.”50

A footnote to a chart outlining decision-making levels within the U.S. command structure in relation to distinct special operations tasks notes that it excludes from its scope “political assassination, which is illegal; also political abduction and terrorist acts listed on Figure 2 [hostage taking, random killing, and maiming] because of official and public disapproval.”51 Another footnote adds, however, that both the United States and the Soviet Union “back associates that sometimes employ tactics shown, but the United States disapproves in principle.”52 The extent, let alone the expression, of disapproval over the actions of associates was also a matter of varied definitions and qualifications. Asked a hypothetical question on the proper governmental response when “the ruler of a country vital to the West starts to kill off his political opponents,” Alexander Haig suggested that there are murders and then there are murders: “When you say he had this fellow butchered in the street, it is very different from first-degree murder in the classic court-room case.”53 Frank Devine, who was U.S. ambassador in El Salvador when mass terror began there in 1979, said, diplomatically: “We would certainly inform [the hypothetical ruler] that we do have objections to an iron fist policy. [But] I would look with appreciation at his 20 years of loyal support and anti—Communism. . .

The consensus was that assassination was forbidden but “termination” was not, although the definition of assassination remained deliberately obscure. Congressional debate on the contra “murder manual” focused on the terms of Executive Order 12333 of December 1981: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government shall engage in or conspire to engage in assassinations.” The congressional committee finding was that the CIA had not violated EO 12333, at least willfully. Duane R. Clarridge, described as the Latin America division chief of the CIA’s Directorate for Operations, briefed the Senate subcommittee in response to the charges. According to an account of the secret briefing, Clarridge acknowledged the murder of “civilians and Sandinista officials in the provinces, as well as heads of cooperatives, nurses, doctors and judges,” but he maintained they were not within the terms of EQ 12333: “These events don’t constitute assassinations because as far as we’re concerned assassinations are only those of heads of state.” He continued, “I leave definitions to the politicians.” “After all, this is a war—a paramilitary operation.”55 Senators apparently did not challenge Clarridge’s specious interpretation of the law.

A similar interpretation appears in a paper delivered at a joint Services symposium on terrorism in 1985. Guy B. Roberts observed pointedly that EQ 12333 made no attempt to define assassination, and he wondered, “Could a military operation designed to eliminate a terrorist threat conceivably involve assassination?”56 The implication was that it could not, and in any case, Roberts maintained that an Executive Order “does not have the force of law, and an act in contravention of that order is not prosecutable.”57 A 1986 paper by an army intelligence officer also distinguishes between “assassinations” and deliberate killings—which are considered legitimate insofar as they are comparable to conventional military actions against military personnel. Such operations against “such usually ‘hard’ terrorist targets as ideological leaders, military commanders, planners, intelligence personnel, logisticians and henchmen” could include forced extradition or “creative efforts to delay, harass, intimidate and physically eliminate individual transnational terrorists and their sponsors.”58

The legal limits of “direct action” may depend on the situation; the assassination that is forbidden in peacetime might be the normal task of a sniper or other elite fighter in wartime. The tendency to wage war without declaring war, as in unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency, sometimes makes the distinction purely academic. The wartime situation might be illustrated by the approach taken at the Marine Corps’ Scout Sniper Instructor School in Quantico, Virginia. The school, opened in 1976 to train personnel from all services, teaches killing by stealth. According to Captain Steven L. Walsh, the officer in charge, “the bottom line is to kill people.... It’s a specialty, like flight school.”59 The eight-week program is not just target shooting:

It teaches assassination from a concealed position, firing over long distances with a high-powered rifle.... Snipers are invaluable for light infantry maneuvering and night-time defense, and are gaining new importance in an era of terrorism, according to military leaders.... Training at the instructor school is secretive. The marines, who feel gung-ho about the program but are wary of controversy, show a certain defensiveness. Sniper methods and deployment are not considered topics for discussion.60

The fairly broad definition of “assassination” made political guidance from the government of the day all the more important. After the CIA-linked bombing went awry in Beirut in March 1985, the administration used a rather liberal interpretation of the range of permissible “terminations” in defense of the CIA. According to the Washington Post:

Officials said the short-lived covert operation... did not violate the presidential ban on involvement of U. S. personnel, directly or indirectly, in any type of assassination planning or operation.... Officials reasoned that killing terrorists was “preemptive self-defense,” rather than assassination, according to a source. “Knocking off a guy who is about to kill you,” the source said, “is no more assassination than a policeman getting off the first shot at a man pointing a shotgun at him.”61

In the world of covert action and preemptive counterterrorism, careful deliberation and specific decisions may well be required before taking action. But ambiguity over what is forbidden can combine with the political signals of tough-talking rhetoric to encourage actions outside the law on a more generalized basis.

The practice of illicit tactics may be facilitated—or suggested—by seemingly innocuous and eminently reasonable procedural tips in army manuals. The unclassified version of the U.S. Navy’s counterinsurgency doctrine for Marine Corps landing forces, for example, is largely unexceptionable, a compendium of recommended routines and practical advice.62 Practical recommendations in the navy’s 1967 counterinsurgency manual (FMFM 8-2), however, could, with a little imagination (and under the stress and frustration of counterinsurgency warfare) lead directly to many of the forms in which gross abuse of human rights has been reported in counterinsurgency scenarios. To wit: “Paragraph 304, a. (1) Avoid ‘advertising’ the fact that a guerrilla is a prisoner until competent authority has decided how best to exploit him.”63 This is the number-one recommendation for dealing with surrendered and captured guerrillas. Placing “advertising” in quotations is the equivalent of a comradely “wink”: Perhaps it was illegal to openly recommend total secrecy in these matters. Number two is to strictly prohibit “abuse, maltreatment, or harassment” of the prisoners. A standing order to keep quiet about detentions, however, could be the first step of a routine of temporary or permanent “disappearance.” Forces that are authorized to deny holding prisoners during interrogation are rather more likely to abuse, maltreat, or kill them when their whereabouts are known only within the ranks of the military.

Keeping detentions a secret until interrogation has been completed is hardly a convention exclusive to the U.S. military. Police who are investigating terrorism—or organized crime—often prefer to snatch suspects and interrogate them before their cohorts have an opportunity to escape or eliminate evidence. Judicial safeguards should be in place to ensure that police are accountable before the law in such situations, yet in a military operation this accountability is absent. Counterinsurgency programs built upon the U.S. military model adapt to the full range of domestic law enforcement U.S. military norms developed for the exceptional circumstances of wartime. In doing so, they tend to sidestep the safeguards of the domestic legal system within which they nominally operate.

The Marine Corps manual’s recommendations on the intelligence value of the relatives of “known guerrillas” might also be interpreted as commonsense law enforcement advice—in a rule of law situation. Elsewhere it could be an inducement to hostage-taking, blacklists, and “death squad” activity, all of which are still common features of counterinsurgency in the 1990s:

Paragraph 303 (b) (5) The names and locations of families, relatives, and friends of known guerrillas are obtained. These persons are valuable sources of information and may be used as a lure for trapping guerrillas.... Establishment and maintenance of records concerning black and gray lists should be restricted to those units having the capability to administer them.64

More direct references to supposedly illegal tactics also appear in unclassified Special Forces manuals of the 1980s, which recommend guerrilla tactics to be used in the multiple scenarios of unconventional warfare. Included among the range of special operations are missions to “abduct selected personnel.”65

The contention that Special Forces’ use of “A&A”—Assassination and Abduction—skills was prohibited because they were illegal is questionable. Direct involvement in terror operations by U.S. personnel in peacetime would, no doubt, be limited to the “surgical,” deniable, and closely supervised operations with which the CIA is occasionally credited. More significant is the proliferation of American assets—overseas allies and disposable acquaintances—trained and assisted in the skills and wherewithal of direct action mayhem and terror. The pool of “A&A” talent within the U.S. armed forces is clearly considerable, and these assets at one remove may be even more numerous and used more regularly. U.S. contract employees of Hispanic origin played a major part in the more complex of the sabotage and raiding operations in the undeclared war with Nicaragua. Termed “UCLAs,” these “Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets” were disposable personnel whom the U.S. government could (and would) deny if caught out; and so they were free to use the full range of special operations skills their Special Forces trainers could impart.66 But this was almost a sideshow to the Special Forces training relationships with foreign military and paramilitary forces.

The evidence from U.S. counterterror programs in recent years directly contradicts the suggestion that official “disapproval” of illegal tactics means a complete avoidance of their use. U.S. teams have been caught instructing foreign associates in the use of selective “A&A” (and, on occasion, random killing and maimings) too often. Some of the more colorful accounts of counterterror in action have emerged when operations went wrong (as in the March 1985 Beirut bombing), or when counterterror teams were exposed as they undertook particularly eccentric—or renegade—projects. The Edwin Wilson affair, in which former or active CIA personnel recruited a Special Forces “A” Team from Fort Bragg and set up a terrorist training school in Libya, was an example of the latter (Wilson’s prison sentence still fails to allay doubts as to his team’s initial agency status). Special Forces Master Sgt. Luke Thompson later told interviewers that his posting to Tripoli was unusual only in that he did not quite understand why the United States was working with the Libyans.67 The training in “A&A,” the manufacture of explosive devices ranging from ashtrays to plastique potted palms, using American C-4 plastic explosive and high-tech timers, were apparently all in a day’s work. The Wilson affair took place at the height of Admiral Turner’s clean-up of the CIA’s special warfare establishment during the Carter administration.

Better examples of the institutional side of contemporary counterterror can be found in the Reagan administration’s efforts in Central America: the overnight transformation of Honduras into a counterinsurgency state of army “death squads” and “disappearances,” and the unconventional war against Nicaragua illustrate the two dimensions of modern military counterterror. The manual prepared in the 1980s for the unconventional war on Nicaragua, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, though aimed at the United States’ proxies, promoted the liberal use of “A&A” skills. The United States’ partnership with El Salvador’s terrorist armed forces as tens of thousands of people were detained and slaughtered offers further evidence that terror tactics are still on the special warfare agenda, and not only at arm’s length.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice68

Underlying the counterterrorist doctrine is the premise that terrorism is overwhelmingly effective. It has been taken for granted in all U.S. Army field manuals and training curricula for foreign armies. Insurgents are continually characterized as terrorists, and terrorism is vaunted as their best shot at power. A préis of a 1980s officer candidate course at Fort Benning illustrates this. Lessons on “The Rural Guerrilla” were based on a chapter of Field Manual 31-16 (on counterinsurgency) and on Cuban-born adventurer, “General” Alberto Bayo’s 1960 150 Questions for a Guerrilla.69 Bayo’s approach to guerrilla warfare was very much that of an apolitical, renegade prankster who deals in coercion and terror, reflecting his conventional army and urban terrorist experience in Spain and Morocco. Theorists of revolutionary warfare from Mao to Guevara were notably absent from the curriculum, as were the views of more sensible opponents of terrorism like Yoram Dinstein, who states flatly:

“Terrorism must not be confused with guerrilla warfare. Guerrillas who comply with the rules of warfare have nothing in common with terrorists: they are simply irregular troops. Conversely, terrorists... disobey the laws of armed conflict by attacking civilians indiscriminately in order to instil fear.”70 The net effect of the course was to reinforce a distorted view of guerrilla warfare and so to provide a warped model for counteraction: That is, if guerrillas are terrorists then counterguerrillas are counterterrorists.

A lack of confidence in American values permeates this perspective, a conviction that it is impossible—or suicidal—to attempt to fight back against the terrorist with anything less than counterterror, and that “in the strange new world of terrorism... ‘civility’ requires decided uncivilized responses... the end justifies the means and the use of appropriately ‘brutal’ means is the only vehicle to protect lives.”71 Even the option of retaliation “directed surgically... at those directly responsible” is considered too restrictive—because “retaliation almost never would be imposed in practice because of the difficulty of identifying and locating the actual killers.” The alternative proposed is terrorism against second parties, including the innocent: “[P]rotection of lives and morals requires only that retaliation be directed at parties who can influence the future behavior of the terrorists. The closer they are to the terrorists the better... regardless of the actual degree of their complicity. “72

A fascination with the use of terror is also found in the voluminous literature spewed out by academia’s numerous specialists on terrorism. Some scholars appear to have a complacent and sometimes enthusiastic view of the necessity or legitimacy of countering terrorism with terror— a matter discussed further below. The popular position has not, however, gone unchallenged. Conor Cruise O’Brien took issue with the specialists that “partly deprecated and partly condoned” terrorism and counterterror, expressing a certain squeamishness on the topic but concluding that it is, after all, effective.73 O’Brien notes that Bowyer Bell, in his Transnational Terror, “like Machiavelli, sees that terrorism can have its uses. He does not rule it out for ‘our side,’ and finds the general public too squeamish on the subject.74 O’Brien warns that there are few certainties in the realm of terrorism, “no calculus of violence” by which one can gauge the political efficacy of murder.

Because terrorism is assumed to be overwhelmingly effective, it is seen as an unfair advantage over law-abiding governments. As a 1986 Military Review article bemoans, “While terrorists can engage in violence with relative impunity, we wish to take an ineffectual moral high ground which limits us to commit forces in so-called ‘clean wars.’75 The dominant view in the Reagan era was that terror is the secret of the insurgent, the key to the manipulation, organization, and motivation of an otherwise static society. That insurgents might emerge from an grass-roots popular movement demanding change, and the public might not need to be terrorized into compliance by revolutionary task masters—this was unthinkable.

The mirror imagery was sometimes bizarrely reinvigorated by events—and by the way events were reported. The resolution of a kidnaping in Beirut of three Soviet diplomats in 1985 (a fourth was killed) would be attributed by the American press to prompt counterterror by the KGB. According to the accepted account, a relative of a Shia Muslim leader was kidnaped, castrated, and shot. The severed organs were sent

to the Hezbollah leader with a warning that other relatives would be dealt with similarly if the three were not released. This, in the American view, led to the release of the kidnap victims and effectively stopped anti-Soviet actions in Lebanon. But was it true—either the story of retaliation and mutilation, or the suggestion that in this case (and in this case alone) tit for tat was the end of the story? It would seem that the CIA, then seeking more rope for overseas counterterror operations, might have had more to gain from the story than the KGB. Whatever happened to win the release of the Soviet diplomats, the American counterterror advocates took the story and ran with it. An op-ed piece by former Council of Economic Advisors staffer Benjamin Zycher stresses the humanitarian nature of such “surgical” counterterror—the quick and nasty response winning lasting benefits:

Brutal, you say? Uncivilized? Inhuman?... The “inhumanity” of the KGB limited the death toll among innocents to two; moreover, it is a safe bet that terrorists will think twice, or more, before attacking Soviet diplomats or civilians again. It is the “brutality” of the KGB that will protect innocent life.76

The model most frequently cited for counterterror in the 1980s was Israel, although even counterterror advocates were not wholly convinced that the Israeli policies of reprisal, retaliation, and preemptive strikes did not do more to nurture than to neutralize future threats to Israel’s survival.77 Neil Livingstone, who favored the Israeli approach, dates its wholehearted adoption of aggressive counterterrorism to the Black September group’s murder of eleven members of Israel’s Olympic team in Munich in 1972, and the subsequent decision to devise a new approach to the terrorist threat.”78 The outcome was, by his account, the creation of a new division within Israel’s secret intelligence service, the Mossad, known as “Mivtzah Elohim” or “Wrath of God,” described by Livingstone as

a new organization committed to fight fire with fire... [that] relentlessly struck back at the Black September terrorists, conducting daring raids into Beirut to kill the top leadership of the organization, tracking down Palestinian operatives in Europe and other locations and assassinating them.79

The Israeli approach, in Livingstone’s view, was to “wage a war in the shadows... sending out hit teams to terminate the architects and executioners of terrorism” as a threat and a warning to others.80 Livingstone’s thesis in brief is that under certain circumstances, in order to defend national interest in a dangerous world, “systematic murder must be sanctioned and legitimized as an instrument of national policy.”81

A document said to be a top-secret CIA report on Israel’s intelligence and security apparatus, dated March 1979, provides further detail on Israeli counterterror, or “executive action.”82 The report notes that operations carded out by Mossad stations ranged from “formal liaison exchanges with host services through unilateral projects to special executive actions against Arab terrorists... especially in parts of the Near East and Western Europe.”83 Lebanon, in particular, was “attractive for intelligence projects,” including assassinations or destruction of “Palestinian terrorist leaders, personnel and installations,” and support for “Christian rightists in Lebanon’s civil war.

An Israeli Psychological Warfare or Special Operations Division, “probably in the Political Action and Liaison Directorate,” was reported to run “highly sensitive covert action operations against Arab terrorists and ex-Nazis, and sabotage, paramilitary and psychological warfare projects.”84 Mossad was also responsible for terror operations to be blamed on others, “to create mutual distrust among Arabs and to draw Western sympathy away from the Arab cause.”85 The CIA report cites one “Wrath of God” operation gone wrong—an ad hoc special operation directed from Mossad headquarters, with agents deployed on temporary duty: “In July 1973, an Israeli assassination squad of 16 was involved in the murder of a Moroccan Arab in Lillehammer, Norway. Norwegian authorities captured, tried and imprisoned six of the “86 group.

A denouement to Israel’s campaign of vengeance against Black September came some time after the car bomb murder in 1979 of Ali Hassan Salameh, who reputedly had led the Munich terror operation. Ali Has-San, it seems, may have been a double agent working with (if not necessarily for) the United States.87 Salameh, according to one account, had passed information on terrorist plans and apparently gone to some lengths to protect his American clients. The Sunday Times of London recounts the affair:

[Salamehi warned Henry Kissinger that his jet was in danger of being shot down on a visit to Lebanon in 1973 and he provided him with a personal bodyguard. The following year he warned the CIA station chief of a plot to kidnap him and a grateful CIA flew him and his wife.., for an all-expenses-paid holiday to Hawaii.... [T]he Israelis set out to kill Salameb and in 1979 they finally succeeded, but only after they had asked the Americans if they would object. A bureaucratic fumble led the Americans to deny Salameh and ensure his death.88

The antiterrorism hysteria in Washington in the immediate aftermath of the 1983 Beirut attack on the Marines led to serious consideration of adopting the tactics of the Israelis for dealing with the United States’ own international adversaries. Secretary of State Shultz alluded to the matter in his speech on terrorism on 29 October 1984, a month after the U. S. embassy annex in Beirut was bombed:

[N]o nation has had more experience with terrorism than Israel, and no nation has made a greater contribution to our understanding of the problem and the best ways to confront it.... Much of Israel’s success in fighting terrorism has been due to broad public support for Israel’s anti-terrorism policies. Israel’s people. . . entertain no illusions about the meaning or the danger of terrorism.89

Shultz’s expression of admiration for the tough Israeli approach was followed by a plea for a similar national consensus on counterterror within the United States, “to consider means of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation... to prevent and deter future terrorist acts. “90 “There should be no moral confusion on this issue,” he exhorted, “our aim is... to make the world a safer place to live for all of us. “91

In the event, the United States did not fully implement unilateral counterterror on the Israeli model during the Reagan years. The concept of counterterror, however, was reinvigorated and put into practice through American training and organizational initiatives. Although it was too dangerous for Americans to be fielded as hit men, U.S. sponsorship of foreign contract agents, proxies, and allied armies for counterterror would be an ongoing part of the covert arsenal of unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency. Yet, American secret warfare professionals remained reluctant to engage openly in counterterror, at the risk of bumping off the wrong targets and being exposed thereby; and there was added concern at a higher level over the potential of terror to provoke terror, irrevocably and unpredictably altering the uneasy scheme of international relations. Special operations authority John Collins describes and dismisses the allure of Israel-style counter-terror in a single paragraph:

Counterterrorism incorporates many of the most complex special operations.... Technology is important but human factors predominate. Tactics and strategy must mesh, or the final result is failure. Israel’s eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth tactics, for example, have been widely admired for many years; from a strategic standpoint, however, they leave the nation insecure, by creating terrorists faster than air strikes and hit teams can kill them.92

The Terror Manuals

The organization and waging of unconventional warfare on Nicaragua, in turn, illustrated through its tactics of atrocity a commitment to the old-style norms of 1950s political warfare. Nicaragua was special, indeed, in that the atrocities of the irregular forces fighting the war could be matched to their U.S. government training materials. The 1983 Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare manual issued, in Spanish, to contra forces by the U.S. government put on the record, albeit inadvertently, the 1980s standing of its doctrine of unconventional warfare.

The 1983 manual provided a documentary link to prior U.S. army field manuals that explicitly prescribe the use of terrorism.

The psychological operations manual was the second CIA contra manual to receive unwanted media attention. A sixteen-page manual in comic book format had been issued earlier the same year, illustrating thirty-eight ways by which right-thinking individuals could sabotage the Nicaraguan government and economy. The suggests and general tone were reminiscent of “General” Alberto Bayo’s 150 Questions for a Guerrilla. Options included wasting water and electricity; puncturing tires, gas tanks, and radiators; putting earth or water in gas tanks; making anonymous telephoned death threats to the boss; damaging office machinery; and instructions on making Molotov cocktails. “Anti-Sandinista Slogans” to be daubed on walls are illustrated, profoundly, with “Long live the Pope.”94

The comic book received relatively little attention; its format and the “prankster” nature of much of what it proposed combined to encourage the media to view it as a relatively trivial production. The psychological operations manual was of another caliber: It openly set out criteria and a methodology for murder. Americas Watch examined the manual in the context of the United States’ obligations under the Geneva Conventions, and concluded:

[T]he United States has aided and abetted the contras in committing abuses by organizing, training, supplying and financing them, and by serving as their vigorous and enthusiastic public relations advocate. In addition, by publishing and distributing the CIA’s Manual. . . the United States has directly solicited the contras to engage in violations of the laws of war.95

The latter point was also made by the International Court ofJustice, in a ruling of 27 June 1986: By producing and distributing the manual to the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Front, that is, the contras), the United States government had “encouraged the commission by them of acts contrary to the general principles of humanitarian law. “96

The manual was sufficiently blatant in its advocacy of terrorism that the House Select Committee on Intelligence, which nominally exercised oversight over CIA, was obliged to investigate the matter. In a public report of its findings, issued inJanuary 1985, the committee said it “had been written by the CIA in 1983 for use in the ‘covert’ war against Nicaragua,” which had violated the Boland Amendment and other domestic legislation:

The manual talks of “neutralizing” Sandinista officials and creating martyrs. This raises the question of whether Executive Order 12333, which prohibits assassinations, was violated. The manual also talks of shooting civilians trying to leave a captured town, blackmailing others to work for the contras, and endangering innocent people by inciting violence in mass demonstrations.97

The committee’s conclusions were a model of equanimity. The manual was, indeed, found to have constituted a violation of the Boland Amendment although it was less clear on the matter of the ban on assassinations. But no one, and certainly not the CIA as an institution, was found to have deliberately violated either the one or the other. The low-level agency men held responsible for the manual were perhaps ignorant of the law. The high-level policymakers were, at worst, not exercising adequate “command and control of the entire Nicaragua covert action.” The committee concluded: “Negligence, not intent to violate the law, marked the manual’s history. The Committee concluded that there was no intentional violation of Executive Order 12333.”

The committee’s exoneration of the CIA on the grounds that its establishment had been ignorant and negligent contrasted with the administration’s defense of the manual as being essentially beneficent. Ronald Reagan himself maintained that the furor over the manual was “much ado about nothing”; that the reference to “neutralizing enemies meant no more than to tell them “you are not in charge any more.“ 98

Perhaps most ironic, in the light of the manual’s content, was the administration’s characterization of it as a positive step toward inducing the contras to exercise restraint in waging unconventional war. When CIA chief William Casey broke agency silence on the manual, a New York Times editorial noted he had insisted that “the bulk of the manual” counsels soldiers to befriend the population, and that “the instruction about ‘neutralizing’ adversaries is not as important as the manual’s lessons in guerrilla etiquette.”99 Casey’s approach was echoed by Reagan stalwarts, notably Senator Malcolm Wallop, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, who claimed, “Taken as a whole, the manual calls for the avoidance of violence to the extent possible and was designed to put restraint and a rationale on guerrilla operations. As a whole, the manual is a code of conduct for which the United States ought not to be ashamed.”’100

Taken as a whole, the contra manual, like the military doctrine of unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency, offers relatively little space for explicit prescriptions of terrorism. Terrorism is there, however, as if it were a legitimate and necessary part of the whole. And as such, the point is not that United States should be ashamed but that it should halt the promotion of terrorism by its agents, in accord with the behavior it demands of others in the international community.

Direct reference to counterterror figures in only a fraction of the volumes of doctrinal guidance produced by the military and intelligence establishment. Counterterror is not, however, a matter of technical complexity but rather a signal. While more complex and prolific guidance is laid down in doctrine to limit the scope or nature of particular military actions—as, for example, in the rules of engagement for peacekeeping forces—the instruction authorizing counterterror removes barriers, inviting its application as a routine tactic. In the Nicaraguan case, as in the counterinsurgency programs of El Salvador and Guatemala, terror tactics by troops advised by U.S. personnel were not incidental but central to the military effort. The evidence is in the pattern of military practices—the sheer ubiquity of atrocity—and in the doctrinal guidance attributing to terror and counterterror an outstanding virtue. The role of terror remains at the heart of the doctrine of unconventional warfare and as such continues to permeate both counterinsurgency and the ill-defined area of special operations as a whole.



  1. Gen. John Rogers Galvin, “Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm,” Parameters 16, no. 4 (Winter 1986), pp. 2—8. Galvin became a four-star general in April 1985, after his appointment as Commander-in-Chief Southern Command, based in Panama. His Latin American experience began in Puerto Rico and included two years as a Ranger adviser to the Colombian army, returning to the United States in 1958—an early experience of an uncomfortable war. He subsequently served in Vietnam and in Europe (Biographical details are in the proceedings of the 1986 Low Intensity Warfare conference, p. 231).

  2. Col. John Waghelstein, “Post-Vietnam Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” Military Review (May 1985), p. 42.

  3. General Paul F. Gorman, “Low Intensity Conflict: American Dilemma,” in Department of Defense, Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference (1986), pp. 13—37. A biographical note is in the same source, p. 232. Gorman’s counterinsurgency credentials are impeccable, including two tours in Vietnam and a stint as Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency, office of the Secretary of Defense. On return from service in Europe “he was assigned as National Intelligence Officer, General Purpose Forces, Central Intelligence Agency.”

  4. Ibid., p. 15.

  5. Dr. Sam C. Sarkesian, “Commentary on Low-Intensity Warfare: Threat and Military Response,” in Department of Defense, Proceedings of the Low-Intensity Warfare Conference 14—l5January 1986, p. 48—49. Dr. Sarkesian is a political scientist, author of numerous studies on counterinsurgency, and a veteran of twenty years of active military service.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ibid., p. 49.

  8. Peter Kornbluh and Michael Klare, Low Intensity Warfare: Counterinsurgency, Promsurgency, and Antiterrorism in the Eighties (New York: Pantheon, 1988), p. 15, citing Sam C. Sarkesian, “Low Intensity Conflict: Concepts, Principles, and Policy Guidelines,” Air University Review 26, no. 2 (1985), pp. 7, 11.

  9. William V. O’Brien, “Special Operations in the 1980s: American Moral, Legal, Political, and Cultural Constraints,” in Frank R. Bamett, B. Hugh Tovar, and Richard H. Shultz, eds. ,Special Operations in U.S. Strategy (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, in cooperation with the National Defense Information Center, 1984), pp. 53—94. O’Brien s views are of interest only because he is apparently taken seriously by the defense establishment. He is the author of several studies on the law of armed conflict and on limited war, including The Conduct of Just and Limited War (New York: Praeger, 1981) and, for the Department of Defense, The Law of Limited International Conflict (Washington, D.C.: Institute of World Policy, Georgetown University, April 1965), prepared under Contract SD 179 DOD for the office of the Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs). His contribution to the record of the 1983 National Defense University symposium on special operations was by far the longest.

  10. Ibid., p. 72.

  11. Ibid., p. 68.

  12. Ibid., pp. 72—73.

  13. Ibid., p. 80.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Cited in the record of a discussion in the March 1983 National Defense University symposium, “The Role of Special Operations in U.S. Strategy for the 1980s,” in Barnett, Tovar, and Shultz, Special Operations in U.S. Strategy, p. 159.

  16. Cited in Working Committee on the CIA/FBI Executive Order, Suspending the Constitution, How President Reagan’s Executive Order 2333, ‘United States Intelligence Activities’ Affects You (Washington, D.C., 1983), p. 3.

  17. O’Brien, in Barnett, Tovar, and Shultz, Special Operations in U.S. Strategy, p. 77.

  18. Ibid., pp. 77—78 (emphasis added).

  19. Ibid., p. 72.

  20. Ibid., p. 92, notes on the “general discussion” following the presentation of the paper of William V. O’Brien.

  21. Raymond Price, “Terrorism: A Case for New Rules,” International Herald Tribune (9—10 November 1985). Price also recommends holding imprisoned terrorists hostage to the acts of their cohorts abroad—”let it be known that terrorist acts to secure their release will result in their immediate execution.”

  22. Edward Luttwak, cited in the record of a discussion in the March 1983 National Defense University symposium on special operations, in Bamett, Tovar, and Shultz, Special Operations in U.S. Strategy, pp. 157—58.

  23. Neil C. Livingstone, “Death Squad,” Journal of World Affairs 4, no. 3 (1986), p. 241, cited in Alex Schmid, Interdisciplinary Research Project on Root Causes of Human Right.s Violations (Leiden, Netherlands: Center for the Study of Social Conflicts, 1988).

  24. Ibid., pp. 242—43.

  25. Ibid.

  26. U.S. Department of the Army, Counter-Guerrilla Operations, FM 31-16 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Army, 1967), chapter 12, “Personnel.”

  27. Ibid.

  28. David Gelman, “Treating War’s Psychic Wounds,” Newsweek (29 August 1988), p. 39.

  29. Roger A. Beaumont, “Preventing Atrocity in Low-Intensity Conflict,” Military Review (November 1983), pp. 65—73.

  30. Ibid., p. 70.

  31. Ibid., p. 73.

  32. John M. Gates, “Indians and Insurrectos,” Parameters (March 1983), p. 67.

  33. Ibid., p. 66. General Lloyd Wheaton also urged” ‘swift methods of destruction’ to bring a ‘speedy termination to all resistance.’ “The school of swift destruction won out with orders from the top for harsh measures. Gates notes that “On the island of Samar the line between retaliation and revenge became blurred beyond recognition for some soldiers.”

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid., p. 67.

  36. William J. Pomeroy, American Neo-colonialism: Its Emergence in the Philippines and Asia (New York: International Publishers, 1970), pp. 84—98. Pomeroy emphasizes that the many courts-martial during and in the aftermath of the Philippines intervention were too little and too late.

  37. Guenter Lewy, “The Punishment of War Crimes: Have We Leamed the Lessons of Vietnam?” Parameters (December 1979), pp. 14—16. Twenty-seven Marines were convicted of the murder of Vietnamese nationals; four were sentenced to serve five years imprisonment or less. Twelve were sentenced to life with hard labor, but served on average 6% years confinement.

  38. Ibid., p. 15. Lewy cites Galley’s case as one of political intrusion into the judicial process. Galley’s sentence was reduced to 10 years by the Secretary of the Army in April 1974, and he was released seven months later on parole.

  39. Ibid., p. 12. The cards were entitled “The Enemy in Your Hands,” “Nine Rules,” “Code of Conduct,” and “Geneva Conventions.” Lewy adds that a survey of army personnel in Vietnam in May and June 1969 found that more than half had not received their required annual refresher on the Geneva and Hague Conventions.

  40. Ibid.

  41. The My Lai incident, in March 1968, involved a section of the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade. The secret inquiry was led by General William Raymond Peers. According to General William Westmoreland’s memoirs (A Soldier Reports [New York: Dell, 1980], p. 494), the army’s interest was first alerted in April 1969 by a letter from a former soldier. The inquiry was to examine evidence ofcommand responsibilities in a cover-up. The inquiry resulted in a recommendation to bring charges against twelve officers related “to dereliction of duty in suppressing information and failing to obey lawful regulations.” They included the former Americal Division commander. The pretrial investigations, however, determined that there was evidence to bring just one of the twelve to court: the 11th brigade commander. He was then acquitted. The conclusion was that nobody had known what had happened at My Lai.

  42. U.S. Department of the Army, Army Subject Schedule 27-1, 8 October 1970, p. 10, cited in Lewy, “The Prevention of War Crimes,” p. 13.

  43. John M. Collins, Draft Committee Print for Special Operations Panel House Armed Services Committee, U.S. and Soviet Special Operations (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, 23 December 1986), p. 83, Figure 16, “Tasks connected to skills.” Collins is a former paratroop colonel and thirty-year army veteran who served with the Special Operations Task Force Europe and became a Library of Congress defense specialist in 1972. Testimonials to the authoritative nature of his study are reprinted on its inside cover and include statements from William Colby, General Richard Stilwell, General William Yarborough, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Wilson.

  44. Ibid.

  45. Ibid., p. 84. The 1981 Special Forces manual, Command, Control, and Support of Special Forces Operations FM 31-22 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army Headquarters, 23 December 1981), p. 2-7, refers to missions to “abduct selected personnel” as a task in unconventional warfare.

  46. Ibid., p. 76, Figure 15, “Special tasks across the conflict spectrum.”

  47. Ibid., p. 7, Figure 2, “U.S. and Soviet Special Operations related to tasks.”

  48. Ibid., p. 114.

  49. Ibid., p. 82.

  50. Ibid., p. 84.

  51. Ibid., p. 15, Figure 6, “U.S. High Command related to Special Operations tasks.”

  52. Ibid., p. 7, Figure 2.

  53. Conor Cruise O’Brien, “General Haig in the Underworld,” The Observer (London;

    18 March 1984), citing the panel discussion broadcast in March 1984 by Granada Television (UK) on “Terror and the State,” produced by Andrew McLaughlin.

  54. Ibid. Devine’s approach was a practical one, suggesting that a turn to mass counterterror implied the ruler was losing his grip; “I would. . . ask myself how long in the future will he have the same degree of support? Will he still be there?” A British participant, M. P. Julian Amery, made the seminal response, to which Haig appears to have agreed: “You haven’t told us much about the fellow who was murdered. Whether he was a friend of ours or a possible alternative, or whether he was somebody subversive and possibly anti-Western. I’d be very surprised if there weren’t a number of people round this table who’d done business with murderers, who’ve killed off their political opponents either by judicial murder or by other means.

  55. Christopher Dickey, With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), pp. 108, 257.

  56. Guy B. Roberts, “Covert Responses: The Moral Dilemma,” paper presented at the Joint Services Committee on Professional Ethics Conference on Terrorism, National War College, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C., January 10—11, 1985, in Neil C. Livingstone and Terrell E. Arnold, Fighting Back (New York: D. C. Heath, 1986), p. 137.

  57. Ibid.

  58. Captain William H. Burgess III, U.S. Army, “Countering Global Terrorism,” Military Review (June 1986), p. 74. Burgess was a former commander of the Special Forces Operational Detachment-Intelligence, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Fort Meade. His background included work with the Tenth Special Forces Group and training with the British 22 SAS regiment. The rider on “physical elimination” is a footnote on EO 12333’s assassination ban and a reference to the laws of war. “Assassination is construed by some to be banned by the Annex Embodying the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land of Hague Convention Number IV, 18 October 1907, to which the United States is a signatory. Article 23, paragraph (b) states that it is especially forbidden... to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army. This clause does not, however, preclude more conventional attacks on enemy soldiers anywhere they can be found.”

  59. Philip Smith, “At US Marine Sniper School, ‘The Bottom Line Is To Kill’” Washington Post Service, International Herald Tribune (1986).

  60. Ibid.

  61. Bob Woodward and Charles R. Babcock, “CIA Tied to Beirut Bombing,” Washington Post Service, International Herald Tribune (13 May 1985).

  62. This section draws in particular from U.S. Department of the Navy, Headquarters United State Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Operations, FMFM 8-2, 22 December 1967 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Navy).

  63. Ibid., p. 36.

  64. Ibid., p. 33, paragraph 303 (5).

  65. U. S. Department of the Army, Headquarters, Command, Control, and Support of Special Forces Operations, FM 31-22 (Washington, D.C.: 23 December 1981), pp. 2-7.

  66. Reference to the “UCLAs” emerged in the context of unconventional warfare operations against Nicaragua. See, for example, David Ignatius and David Rogers, “Aiding the Contras: Why Covert War in Nicaragua Evolved and Hasn’t Succeeded,” Wall Street Journal (5 March 1985). These authors referred to the “Latin assets” as comprising a “separate and secret paramilitary force” to perform operations beyond the technical competence of the contras.

  67. Interviews with Sergeant Thompson appeared in two British television documentaries in 1982: the BBC’s “Dealing in Terror” (Jeremy Paxman, Panorama) and Central television’s “The Most Dangerous Men in the World” (both January 1982). A New York Times interview with Sergeant Thompson appeared in July 1982. Peter Maas’s Manhunt: The Incredible Pursuit of a C.I.A. Agent Turned Terrorist (New York: Jove, 1986), provides further details on Sergeant’s Thompson’s recruitment and subsequent testimony.

  68. Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Reflections on Terrorism,” New York Review of Books 23, no. 14 (16 September 1976), p. 48. O’Brien refers to the origins of sectarian terrorism in Northern Ireland: “I do not know whether the Irish political Sorcerer’s Apprentices who conjured up the Provisionals had any international mentors, but they certainly had models.”

  69. U.S. Department of the Army, Fort Benning, Course: Officer Candidate Course (El Salvador), Peacetime: 13 weeks 633 Hours. National Security Archive. Bayo had served in the Spanish army in North Africa in the 1920s, and with Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.

  70. Yoram Dinstein, “Terrorism and Human Rights,” cited in Tufts University, International Terrorism: An Inquiry into Contemporary Political Violence, A Resource Book (a compilation of papers and articles prepared for an interdisciplinary symposium held at Tufts on 28 February and 1 March 1986).

  71. Benjamin Zycher, “Reagan Could Leam Lesson on Terror from KGB,” Los Angeles Times Service, International Herald Tribune (21 January 1988).

  72. Ibid.

  73. Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Reflections on Terrorism,” New York Review of Books (September 1976), p. 48.

  74. Ibid., commenting on J. Bowyer Bell, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Transnational Terror (Washington, D.C.: Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, 1976).

  75. Stephen Sloan, “In Search of a Counterterrorism Doctrine,” Military Review (January 1986), p. 47.

  76. Benjamin Zycher, “Reagan Could Leam Lesson,” International Herald Tribune (21 January 1988). A contemporary account of the kidnaping was reported in David Zenian, “Four Russian Diplomats are Seized in Beirut,” UPI, International Herald Tribune (1 October 1985).

  77. The second model for extraterritorial counterterror is South Africa; American policymakers are rather more reticent about citing South African than Israeli models. Special operations addicts in the Soldier of Fortune mold, however, don’t hesitate to laud South African operations in neighboring countries.

  78. Neil C. Livingstone, “Proactive Responses to Terrorism: Reprisals, Preemption, and Retribution,” in Neil C. Livingstone and Terrell E. Arnold, eds., Fighting Back (New York: D.C. Heath, 1986). Livingstone also deals with Israeli counter-terror in his book The War Against Terrorism (New York: D.C. Heath, 1982), pp. 174—75.

  79. Ibid. In fact, extraterritorial operations with little concern for international law were hardly innovations: The Israeli kidnap of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from his hideaway in Argentina was a well-known precedent. The deployment of assassination squads against Arab leaders (and not only terrorists) also appears to have considerably predated 1972.

  80. Livingstone, The War Against Terrorism, p. 175, terms this “executive action.” He adds that ideally “the targets of such terminations should not be nationals of the country on whose soil the hit is made so as to diminish the concern of that government over the incident and to relieve it of the need to retaliate against the offending nation out of a sense of obligation to its own citizens.”

  81. Ibid., p. 174.

  82. Counterspy (May—June 1982), pp. 34—54, reproduces in facsimile what is purported to be a CIA document on Israel’s security system, which was reconstructed from the shredder by Iranian students after the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover. The document, Israel, Foreign Intelligence and Security Services (Secret, nofom-nocontractorcon), March 1979, looks and reads like the real thing. What the CIA apparently still calls “executive action,” and the apparatus with which it is carried out, is described in detail.

  83. Ibid., p. 42.

  84. Ibid., p. 41.

  85. Ibid., p. 40.

  86. Ibid. The victim was a waiter. Livingstone suggests that Black September itself was somehow responsible for luring the Israelis into killing the wrong man. The considerable flap that followed (two of the team were caught seeking refuge with an Israel embassy security officer) led to a souring of Israel’s relations with Norway—but not to a halt in overseas counterterror.

  87. James Adams, “A Tale of Terror,” The Sunday Times (London; 3 April 1983), a review of Wall Street Journal writer David Ignatius’s novel, Agents of Innocence (London: W.H. Allen, 1988), which is based on the affair.

  88. Ibid.

  89. U.S. Information Service, “US must be willing to use force against terrorism,” Text: Shultz remarks of 25 October 1984 on terrorism, pp. 7—8.

  90. Ibid., p. 8.

  91. Ibid.

  92. John Collins, U.S. and Soviet Special Operations, p. 80 (see note 42, above).

  93. For the full text in translation, see Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Vintage, 1985), with essays by Joanne Omang and Aryeh Neier. An extensive extract from the Congressional Research Service translation, prepared for the House Select Committee on Intelligence, appeared as “The Psychology of Guerrilla Warfare: A CIA Primer for Nicaragua,” New York Times Service, International Herald Tribune (24 October 1984). For a Spanish view, see “Como matar a sangre fria en Nicaragua” (How to kill in cold blood in Nicaragua), in Cambio 16 (5 November 1984).

  94. Some of the panels have the text in English, in small lettering, with the Spanish translation in bold print. Extracts from the manual appear in Hugh O’Shaugh— nessy, “Nicaragua: Dirty Tricks,” The Observer (London; 16 September 1984), and in Cambio 16 (5 November 1984). Joanne Omang, in Psychological Operations, p. 28, writes that the sabotage comic had surfaced in Honduras in July 1984.

  95. Americas Watch Violations of the Laws of War by Both Sides in Nicaragua, 1981—1985 (New York: March 1985), p. 6.

  96. Cited in Amnesty International, Nicaragua, The Human Rights Record, 1986—1989 (London: Amnesty International, October 1989), pp. 60—61.

  97. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Report on the Activities of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence during the 98th Congress (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2January 1985).

  98. Cited in Americas Watch (July 1985), p. 74; Americas Watch adds that “neutralizing,” in fact, “is a CIA term of art; it means murder. Any ambiguities in meaning, moreover, are easily resolved by context: the reference in the manual is to ‘selective use of violence’ to neutralize opponents.”

  99. “Casey’s Peculiar Defense,” New York Times Service, International Herald Tribune (5 November 1985).

  100. Psychological Operations, p. 30, and Americas Watch (July 1985), p. 74.


Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990

© 2002 Michael McClintock