by Michael McClintock
Just as in the period of the “discovery” of unconventional warfare and then
counter-insurgency 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
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
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
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.”
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 counter-insurgency 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
The most fanatical advocates of counter-terror 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 counter-insurgency.
Pentagon legal consultant William V. O’Brien’s
writing on special operations provides some insight into the way
counter-terror 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 counter-terror is legitimate (“i.e. genocide is not an
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
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
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
counter-insurgency 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
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
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 counter-insurgency, 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 his abuse 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
“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 the job 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 counter-insurgency.
Special operations can hardly be both a
centerpiece of long-term counter-insurgency and, at the same time, selective
The Medium and the Political
The political cost at home of using terror tactics becomes proportionately
higher as their use continues in an open-ended conflict.
The counter-terror advocates argue that
Americans suffer from a crippling tendency to exaggerate and become
emotional when confronted with certain tactics of special operations,
especially in counter-insurgency.
The media in particular are accused of
“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
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
“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
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
terrorism... 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 counter-terror in doctrine.
In practice, this has been the foundation of
state murder of ideological antagonists in many counter-insurgency 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
Advocates of counter-terror in the 1980s have sometimes cited Guatemala as a
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
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 counter-terror and instant
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
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 combating terrorism and revolutionary challenges. “23
Livingstone even justifies counter-terrorists
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
“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
Like the French theorist - practitioners of guerre r'volutionnaire,
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
counter-insurgency 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
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
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 counter-insurgency, 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
Although a high-impact act of counter-terror
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
The propensity to commit atrocities in
counter-insurgency warfare has been addressed by military historian John
M. Gates, who contrasts the American nineteenth-century experience with
“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
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
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
A similar debate with a similar outcome - that
military victory comes first - was a feature of the 1960s counter-insurgency
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
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 3½ 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 counter-insurgency 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
In practice, counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency scenarios had little impact.
The counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency
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 counter-terror (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
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
“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,
“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
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 -
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
The congressional committee finding was that
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
“After all, this is a war - a paramilitary
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
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
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 counter-insurgency, 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
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 counter-insurgency
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
counter-insurgency manual (FMFM 8-2), however, could, with a little
imagination (and under the stress and frustration of counter-insurgency
warfare) lead directly to many of the forms in which gross abuse of human
rights has been reported in counter-insurgency scenarios.
“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
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.
Counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency 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
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. counter-terror 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 maiming) too often.
Some of the more colorful accounts of
counter-terror in action have emerged when operations went wrong (as in the
March 1985 Beirut bombing), or when counter-terror 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
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
Better examples of the institutional side of contemporary counter-terror can
be found in the Reagan administration’s efforts in Central America:
the overnight transformation of Honduras
into a counter-insurgency state of army “death squads” and
“disappearances,” and the unconventional war against Nicaragua
illustrate the two dimensions of modern military counter-terror.
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 Apprentice
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 pr'is 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 counter-insurgency) 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
“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 instill 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 counter-guerrillas
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 counter-terror, 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 counter-terror, expressing a certain squeamishness on the
topic but concluding that it is, after all, effective.73
O’Brien notes that Bowyer Bell, in his
“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 kidnapping in Beirut of
three Soviet diplomats in 1985 (a fourth was killed) would be attributed by
the American press to prompt counter-terror by the KGB. According to the
accepted account, a relative of a Shia Muslim leader was kidnapped,
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 counter-terror 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 counter-terror 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” counter-terror - the quick and nasty response winning
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
counter-terror in the 1980s was Israel, although even counter-terror
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
Livingstone’s thesis in brief is that under
certain circumstances, in order to defend national interest in a dangerous
“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 counter-terror, 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 group."86
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
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
counter-terror within the United States,
“to consider means of active prevention,
preemption, and retaliation... to prevent and deter future terrorist
“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 counter-terror on the Israeli model during the Reagan
The concept of counter-terror, 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 counter-terror would be an ongoing part of the covert
arsenal of unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency.
Yet, American secret warfare professionals
remained reluctant to engage openly in counter-terror, 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
Special operations authority John Collins
describes and dismisses the allure of Israel-style counter-terror in a
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
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
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
“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
[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 of Justice, 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
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
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
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
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
“the instruction about 'neutralizing’
adversaries is not as important as the manual’s lessons in guerrilla
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
Taken as a whole, the contra manual, like the
military doctrine of unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency, 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 counter-terror figures in only a fraction of the volumes
of doctrinal guidance produced by the military and intelligence
establishment. counter-terror 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 counter-terror removes barriers, inviting its
application as a routine tactic. In the Nicaraguan case, as in the
counter-insurgency programs of El Salvador and Guatemala, terror tactics by
troops advised by U.S. personnel were not incidental but central to the
The evidence is in the pattern of military
practices - the sheer ubiquity of atrocity - and in the doctrinal guidance
attributing to terror and counter-terror an outstanding virtue.
The role of terror remains at the heart of the
doctrine of unconventional warfare and as such continues to permeate both
counter-insurgency and the ill-defined area of special operations as a
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 counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency credentials are impeccable,
including two tours in Vietnam and a stint as Special Assistant for
counter-insurgency, 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
counter-insurgency, and a veteran of twenty years of active military
7.Ibid., p. 49.
8.Peter Kornbluh and Michael Klare, Low Intensity Warfare:
counter-insurgency, 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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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%
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.
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
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.
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
46.Ibid., p. 76, Figure 15, “Special tasks across the conflict
47.Ibid., p. 7, Figure 2, “U.S. and Soviet Special Operations related to
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
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
54.Ibid. Devine’s approach was a practical one, suggesting that a turn
to mass counter-terror 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.
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
59.Philip Smith, “At US Marine Sniper School, 'The Bottom Line Is To
Kill’” Washington Post Service, International Herald Tribune (1986).
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, counter-insurgency Operations,
FMFM 8-2, 22 December 1967 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the
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
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).
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 counter-terror 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
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 counter-terror.
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
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
90.Ibid., p. 8.
92.John Collins, U.S. and Soviet Special Operations, p. 80 (see note 42,
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
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.