Few of us have any real understanding of the secretive world of intelligence and undercover operations. Spy thrillers are hardly a reliable guide. But perhaps we can learn a bit from the revelations of whistleblowers – disillusioned insiders who decide to tell all and damn the consequences.
I have before me memoirs by two American whistleblowers –Susan Lindauer, Extreme Prejudice: The Terrifying Story of the Patriot Act and the Cover Ups of 9/11 and Iraq (2010) and Sibel Edmonds, Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story (2012). Both books are self-published. Which could mean either that no publisher would risk taking them or that no publisher thought them credible.
Lindauer was a CIA “asset”who represented the US in unacknowledged and therefore deniable “back-channel”communications with various governments. She negotiated an agreement with the government of Saddam Hussein that took all declared American interests into account but still failed to avert the US attack on Iraq. She says that when she blew the whistle, she was arrested on obscure charges under the Patriot Act and that while she was in prison an attempt was made to declare her insane and forcibly drug her.
Edmonds translated tapped telephone conversations from Turkish and Persian sources for the FBI. She discovered that a colleague was working for the very businessmen it was their task to monitor and says when she tried to persuade her bosses to do something about it she was fired. She was also branded a traitor by the government of her native Turkey, to which she could no longer safely return.
Pillars of society
The official mission of the FBI is to fight dangerous forms of organized crime like terrorism, money laundering and the illegal trade in narcotics, arms, nuclear components, and military and industrial secrets. The trouble for FBI agents who sincerely want to pursue this mission is that many of the criminals engaged in these activities are extremely well-connected and influential –real ‘pillars of society’. As Edmonds remarks, most of us associate global crime with gun-toting gangsters and Mafiosi. However,
“Turkish criminal networks consist mainly of respectable-looking businessmen (including top international CEOs), high-ranking military officers, diplomats, politicians and scholars.” (p. 97)
These respectable people employ the best lobbying firms and cultivate (to put it more crudely, buy) equally respectable American public officials and Pentagon, State Department and White House bureaucrats, securing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in US government contracts for Turkish companies.
Naturally, those officials and bureaucrats do not want to receive FBI reports about the criminal activity of their partners. They made it clearly understood that even raising such delicate matters, let alone acting on them, would “irreparably damage our relations with a key ally.”
Nor did Bush Administration officials want to endanger even more lucrative relations with another “key ally”by having the connections of prominent Saudis with Islamist terrorism brought to their attention. It was much more convenient to blame Saddam.
This does not mean that nuclear non-proliferation, prevention of terrorist attacks and other declaratory goals are completely phoney. In principle, some policy makers might like to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And they do not relish the prospect of being blown to pieces in their plush air-conditioned offices. It is just that they do not give these issues high priority. Other things take precedence. Especially making money.
Terrorism, of course, is only a bad thing when it is directed against ‘us’. The CIA has always been happy to fund and promote terrorism against Russia and other rival powers. Sometimes terrorists escape the control of their patrons and ‘bite the hand that fed them’. This is known in the trade as blowback.
Neither of the whistleblowers gives credence to the theory that the Bush Administration actually arranged the attacks of September 11, 2001. Lindauer, however, speculates without any proof that a rogue group of US intelligence agents could have given the terrorists a helping hand by laying explosives under the Twin Towers.
In the weeks and days leading up to September 11 it wasn’t easy to discern what exactly top US officials wanted. They received warnings of imminent terror attacks from their own agents and from other governments (the French, for instance), but appeared not to heed them. How was their unresponsiveness to be interpreted? Most likely they were ‘in denial’ – their heads stuck firmly in the sand.
Some agents continued right up to the last moment to repeat the warnings and urge the adoption of countermeasures –for example, the deployment of anti-air defences on the roofs of threatened buildings. Others took a different view.
What makes such things possible is the division of intelligence agencies into numerous small groups that are isolated from one another and responsible only to the very top of the government hierarchy. When –as evidently often happens –they find themselves without clear guidance from above, they may begin to act autonomously and at cross purposes. Thus, in the run-up to the war with Iraq, some groups of agents (like the one Lindauer belonged to) were trying to avert war while others were trying to bring it about.