Lost in the global outrage over the NSA’s spying program is a surprising fact: the most sought-after item of US aid isn’t relief goods or money. It’s intelligence assistance. The Washington Post reports that the biggest thing many countries want with the NSA is to get on its distribution list. Take Colombia.
The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.
The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.
The power of signals intelligence was demonstrated to Colombian leaders when it was used to find and kill mega drug-lord Pablo Escobar, a saga which was dramatically recounted by Mark Bowden in his book Killing Pablo. Escobar killed practically the entire Colombian Supreme court in a single hit, destroyed a commercial airliner, ordered the deaths of top ranking police and military officials. Nothing could withstand him, except the Colossus of the North.
Colombia, readers will recall, was being fought over by corrupt politicians, drug cartels and leftist guerilla groups which are also drug cartels. In one sense it was typical of the wider world, which is often in the grip of Bad Guys. In a world of rogues the ultimate power flows from force; and the ultimate influence of the United States lies its ability to tilt the balance between one set of actors and another. The trump card: signals intelligence.
The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.
That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.
In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian Air Force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.
The waiting list to get on the distribution sheet of the NSA is surprisingly long and a cynical person might observe that foreign complaints about it are merely roundabout ways of asking to get included on the distribution list. Consider who wants it.
The roster is headed by Mexico, where U.S. intelligence assistance is larger than anywhere outside Afghanistan, as The Washington Post reported in April. It also includes Central America and West Africa, where trafficking routes have moved in response to U.S. pressure against cartels elsewhere.
Many foreign leaders really don’t want ramen for the starving or vaccines for the the sick. What they actually crave is a way to destroy their enemies. Here’s where America comes in.
In order to complete the firing circuit, recipients of US aid have been seeking one more item: precision guided weapons and drones. The Colombians found that mere signals intelligence was not enough to kill the FARC. Even when precisely located they often escaped in the time it took for their units to hack their way through the jungle to close with them. These problems were obviated by the provision of GPS-guided munitions, “the Enhanced Paveway II, a relatively inexpensive guidance kit that could be strapped on a 500-pound, Mark-82 gravity bomb.”
To assure themselves that the Colombians would not misuse the bombs, U.S. officials came up with a novel solution. The CIA would maintain control over the encryption key inserted into the bomb, which unscrambled communications with GPS satellites so they can be read by the bomb’s computers. The bomb could not hit its target without the key. The Colombians would have to ask for approval for some targets, and if they misused the bombs, the CIA could deny GPS reception for future use.
“We wanted a sign-off,” said one senior official involved in the deliberations.
The host countries would of course prefer a blank check. But the Colossus of the North hangs on to its fragile oversight over the foreign countries and the citizens of the Colossus cling to their fragile oversight over Washington.
Pakistan, which routinely complains about the American drone attacks on its citizens was recently revealed to have a more pressing concern. How to get cut in on the program they pretended to hate so they could hit targets of their own choosing. Greg Miller and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post described how the drone program works.
Pakistan’s tacit approval of the drone program has been one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad. During the early years of the campaign, the CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet.
But the files expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement struck between the two countries at a time when neither was willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program. The documents detailed at least 65 strikes in Pakistan and were described as “talking points” for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine. The documents are marked “top secret” but cleared for release to Pakistan.
The complaints may all be for show. These incidents underscore a sad but undeniable fact. Contrary to the hopeful belief that “what the world needs now is love, sweet love” most governments actually prefer NSA signals intelligence and smart-bombs.
The real problem with signals intelligence, like torture, is that is actually useful. If it were not effective there would be no problem getting rid of it. Only things which force us to choose between convenience and our notion of morality pose a real dilemma.
It’s been thus for a long time. Hilaire Belloc, surveying the world of Britannia at it’s height, observed in his poem The Modern Traveler how that empire was maintained. Here is his famous dialogue between Sin and Blood.
And Sin and I consulted;
Blood understood the Native mind.
He said : “We must be firm but kind.”
A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
The nearest modern day equivalent to the Maxim Gun is the NSA. And like the machine gun of yesteryear it may ensnare its makers in a fatal net. But in a world of drug dealers, terrorists and rogues it is temporarily so useful that we are tempted to say: “one day we will cast it away, but not yet. Not yet.”
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