Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt created TomDispatch.com and is co-founder of the American Empire Project

February 12th, 2013 11:53 AM

Dumb and Dumber: A Secret CIA Drone Base, a Blowback World, and Why Washington Has No Learning Curve

Crossposted from TomDispatch

You could, of course, sit there, slack-jawed, thinking about how mindlessly repetitive American foreign and military policy is these days. Or you could wield all sorts of fancy analytic words to explain it.  Or you could just settle for a few simple, all-American ones.  Like dumb. Stupid. Dimwitted. Thick-headed. Or you could speak about the second administration in a row that wanted to leave no child behind, but was itself incapable of learning, or reasonably assessing its situation in the world.

Or you could simply wonder what’s in Washington’s water supply. Last week, after all, there was a perfect drone storm of a story, only a year or so late -- and no, it wasn’t that leaked “white paper” justifying the White House-directed assassination of an American citizen; and no, it wasn’t the two secret Justice Department “legal” memos on the same subject that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were allowed to “view,” but in such secrecy that they couldn’t even ask John O. Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism tsar and choice for CIA director, questions about them at his public nomination hearings; and no, it wasn’t anything that Brennan, the man who oversaw the White House “kill list” and those presidentially chosen drone strikes, said at the hearings. And here’s the most striking thing: it should have set everyone’s teeth on edge, yet next to nobody even noticed.

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post published a piece by Greg Miller and Karen DeYoung about a reportorial discovery which that paper, along with other news outlets (including the New York Times), had by “an informal arrangement” agreed to suppress (and not even very well) at the request of the Obama administration. More than a year later, and only because the Times was breaking the story on the same day (buried in a long investigative piece on drone strikes), the Post finally put the news on record.  It was half-buried in a piece about the then-upcoming Brennan hearings. Until that moment, its editors had done their patriotic duty, urged on by the CIA and the White House, and kept the news from the public. Never mind, that the project was so outright loony, given our history, that they should have felt the obligation to publish it instantly with screaming front-page headlines and a lead editorial demanding an explanation.

On the other hand, you can understand just why the Obama administration and the CIA preferred that the story not come out. Among other things, it had the possibility of making them look like so many horses’ asses and, again based on a historical record that any numbskull or government bureaucrat or intelligence analyst should recall, it couldn’t have been a more dangerous thing to do. It’s just the sort of Washington project that brings the word “blowback” instantly and chillingly to mind.  It's just the sort of story that should make Americans wonder why we pay billions of dollars to the CIA to think up ideas so lame that you have to wonder what the last two CIA directors, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, were thinking. (Or if anyone was thinking at all.)

“Agitated Muslims” and the “100 Hour War”

In case you hadn’t noticed, I have yet to mention what that suppressed story was, and given the way it disappeared from sight, the odds are that you don’t know, so here goes. The somewhat less than riveting headline on the Post piece was: “Brennan Nomination Exposes Criticism on Targeted Killings and Secret Saudi Base.” The base story was obviously tacked on at the last second. (There had actually been no “criticism” of that base, since next to nothing was known about it.)  It, too, was buried, making its first real appearance only in the 10th paragraph of the piece.

According to the Post, approximately two years ago, the CIA got permission from the Saudi government to build one of its growing empire of drone bases in a distant desert region of that kingdom. The purpose was to pursue an already ongoing air war in neighboring Yemen against al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.

The first drone mission from that base seems to have taken off on September 30, 2011, and killed American citizen and al-Qaeda supporter Anwar al-Awlaki. Many more lethal missions have evidently been flown from it since, most or all directed at Yemen in a campaign that notoriously seems to be creating more angry Yemenis and terror recruits than it’s killing. So that’s the story you waited an extra year to hear from our watchdog press (though for news jockeys, the existence of the base was indeed mentioned in the interim by numerous media outlets).

One more bit of information: Brennan, the president’s right-hand counterterrorism guy, who oversaw Obama’s drone assassination program from an office in the White House basement (you can’t take anything away from Washington when it comes to symbolism) and who is clearly going to be approved by the Senate as our the new CIA director, was himself a former CIA station chief in Riyadh. The Post reports that he worked closely with the Saudis to “gain approval” for the base. So spread the credit around for this one. And note as well that there hasn’t been a CIA director with such close ties to a president since William Casey ran the outfit for President Ronald Reagan, and he was the man who got this whole ball of wax rolling by supporting, funding, and arming any Islamic fundamentalist in sight -- the more extreme the better -- to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as “the president’s private army.” Now, run by this president's most trusted aide, it once again truly will be so.

Okay, maybe it’s time to put this secret drone base in a bit of historical context. (Think of this as my contribution to a leave-no-administration-behind policy.) In fact, that Afghan War Casey funded might be a good place to start. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about the present Afghan War, still ongoing after a mere 11-plus years, but our long forgotten First Afghan War. That was the one where we referred to those Muslim extremists we were arming as “freedom fighters” and our president spoke of them as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

It was launched to give the Soviets a bloody nose and meant as payback for our bitter defeat in Vietnam less than a decade earlier. And what a bloody nose it would be! Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev would dub the Soviet disaster there “the bleeding wound,” and two years after it ended, the Soviet Union would be gone. I’m talking about the war that, years later, President Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski summed up this way: "What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?"

That’s all ancient history and painful to recall now that “agitated Muslims” are a dime a dozen and we are (as Washington loves to say) in a perpetual global “war” with a “metastasizing” al-Qaeda, an organization that emerged from among our allies in the First Afghan War, as did so many of the extremists now fighting us in Afghanistan.

So how about moving on to a shining moment a decade later: our triumph in the “100 Hour War” in which Washington ignominiously ejected its former ally (and later Hitler-substitute) Saddam Hussein and his invading Iraqi army from oil-rich Kuwait?  Those first 100 hours were, in every sense, a blast. The problems only began to multiply with all the 100-hour periods that followed for the next decade, the 80,000th, all of which were ever less fun, what with eternal no-fly zones to patrol and an Iraqi dictator who wouldn’t leave the scene.

The Worldwide Attack Matrix and a Global War on Terror

Maybe, like Washington, we do best to skip that episode, too.  Let's focus instead on the moment when, in preparation for that war, U.S. troops first landed in Saudi Arabia, that fabulously fundamentalist giant oil reserve; when those 100 hours were over (and Saddam wasn’t), they never left. Instead, they moved into bases and hunkered down for the long haul.

By now, I’m sure some of this is coming back to you: how disturbed, for instance, the rich young Saudi royal and Afghan war veteran Osama bin Laden and his young organization al-Qaeda were on seeing those “infidels” based in (or, as they saw it, occupying) the country that held Islam’s holiest shrines and pilgrimage sites.  I’m sure you can trace al-Qaeda’s brief grim history from there: its major operations every couple of years against U.S. targets to back up its demand that those troops depart the kingdom, including the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen in 1996, the destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the blowing up of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000.  Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s extraordinary stroke of dumb luck (and good planning), those attacks of September 11, 2001, which managed -- to the reported shock of at least one al-Qaeda figure -- to create an apocalyptic-looking landscape of destruction in downtown New York City.

And here’s where we go from dumb luck to just plain dumb. Lusting for revenge, dreaming of a Middle Eastern (or even global) Pax Americana, and eager to loose a military that they believed could eternally dominate any situation, the Bush administration declared a “global war” on terrorism. Only six days after the World Trade Center towers went down, George W. Bush granted the CIA an unprecedented license to wage planet-wide war. By then, it had already presented a plan with a title worthy of a sci-fi film: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” According to journalist Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine, the plan “detailed operations [to come] against terrorists in 80 countries.”

This was, of course, a kind of madness. After all, al-Qaeda wasn’t a state or even much of an organization; in real terms, it barely existed.  So declaring “war” on its scattered minions globally was little short of a bizarre and fantastical act. And yet any other approach to what had happened was promptly laughed out of the American room. And before you could blink, the U.S. was invading... nuts, you already knew the answer: Afghanistan.

After another dazzlingly brief and triumphant campaign, using tiny numbers of American military personnel and CIA operatives (as well as U.S. air power), the first of Washington’s you-can’t-go-home-again crew marched into downtown Kabul and began hunkering down, building bases, and preparing to stay. One Afghan war, it turned out, hadn’t been faintly enough for Washington. And soon, it would be clear that one Iraq war wasn’t either. By now, we were in the express lane in the Möbius loop of history.

“Stuff Happens”

This should be getting more familiar to you. It might also strike you -- though it certainly didn’t Washington back in 2002-2003 -- that there was no reason things should turn out better the second time around. With that new “secret Saudi base” in mind, remember that somewhere in the urge to invade Iraq was the desire to find a place in the heart of the planet’s oil lands where the Pentagon would be welcome to create not “enduring camps” (please don't call them "permanent bases"!) -- and hang in for enduring decades to come.

So in early April 2003, invading American troops entered a chaotic Baghdad, a city being looted. (“Stuff happens,” commented Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in response.) On April 29th, Rumsfeld held a news conference with Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, broadcast on Saudi TV, announcing that the U.S. would pull all its combat troops out of that country. No more garrisons in Saudi Arabia.  Ever.  U.S. air operations were to move to al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.  As for the rest, there was no need even to mention Iraq. This was just two days before President Bush landed a jet, Top Gun-style, on an aircraft carrier off San Diego and -- under a White House-produced banner reading “Mission Accomplished” -- declared “the end of major combat operations in Iraq.” And all’s well that ends well, no?

You know the rest, the various predictable disasters that followed (as well as the predictably unpredictable ones). But don’t think that, as America’s leaders repeat their mistakes endlessly -- using varying tactics, ranging from surges to counterinsurgency to special operations raids to drones, all to similar purposes -- everything remains repetitively the same. Not at all. The repeated invasions, occupations, interventions, drone wars, and the like have played a major role in the unraveling of the Greater Middle East and increasingly of northern Africa as well.

Here, in fact, is a rule of thumb for you: keep your eye on the latest drone bases the CIA and the U.S. military are setting up abroad -- in Niger, near its border with Mali, for example -- and you have a reasonable set of markers for tracing the further destabilization of the planet. Each eerily familiar tactical course change (always treated as a brilliant strategic coup) each next application of force, and more things "metastasize."

And so we reach this moment and the news of that two-year-old secret Saudi drone base. You might ask yourself, given the previous history of U.S. bases in that country, why the CIA or any administration would entertain the idea of opening a new U.S. outpost there. Evidently, it’s the equivalent of catnip for cats; they just couldn’t help themselves.

We don’t, of course, know whether they blanked out on recent history or simply dismissed it out of hand, but we do know that once again garrisoning Saudi Arabia seemed too alluring to resist.  Without a Saudi base, how could they conveniently strike al-Qaeda wannabes in a neighboring land they were already attacking from the air? And if they weren't to concentrate every last bit of drone power on taking out al-Qaeda types (and civilians) in Yemen, one of the more resource-poor and poverty-stricken places on the planet?  Why, the next thing you know, al-Qaeda might indeed be ruling a Middle Eastern Caliphate.  And after that, who knows? The world?

Honestly, could there have been a stupider gamble to take (again)? This is the sort of thing that helps you understand why conspiracy theories get started -- because people in the everyday world just can’t accept that, in Washington, dumb and then dumber is the order of the day.

When it comes to that “secret” Saudi base, if truth be told, it does look like a conspiracy -- of stupidity.  After all, the CIA pushed for and built that base; the White House clearly accepted it as a fine idea. An informal network of key media sources agreed that it really wasn’t worth the bother to tell the American people just how stupidly their government was acting. (The managing editor of the New York Times explained its suppression by labeling the story nothing more than "a footnote.")  And last week, at the public part of the Brennan nomination hearings, none of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is supposed to provide the CIA and the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community with what little oversight they get, thought it appropriate to ask a single question about the Saudi base, then in the news.

The story was once again buried. Silence reigned. If, in the future, blowback does occur, thanks to the decision to build and use that base, Americans won’t make the connection.  How could they?

It all sounds so familiar to me. Doesn’t it to you? Shouldn’t it to Washington?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Enron billionaire John Arnold thinks everyone should believe him when he says we've got to cut pensions because he's so incredibly rich: John...

Mar 5th
4:20 PM
Read More

More in David Sirota's continuing series on the billionaire takeover of PBS: More PBS conflict woes as activists move to eject David Koch from board of...

Mar 3rd
12:35 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles