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  • Keith A. Comess - Phụng Hoàng...againA long time ago, 1965-1972 to be more exact, the CIA acting in conjunction with US special operations forces, elements of the Army of Vietnam and the "Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam" decided to identify and "neutralize" (via infiltration, capture, targeted killings, terrorism, torture) the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (affectionately known as the Vietcong). This attempt to "pacify" the opposition was called the Phoenix Program or Phụng Hoàng. Supposedly, Phoenix "neutralized" 81,740 of our "adversaries". Of course, the US lost that war and left the us to ponder the legacy of the conflict. That legacy is known as "the lessons of Vietnam". Evidently, whatever those lessons were supposed to convey, they did not include learning from past mistakes. The lynch pin of our response to the September 11, 2001 attacks is essentially the resurrected Phoenix Program. So, just as with the eponymous mythological bird, the Phoenix is born anew: infiltration, capture, targeted killings, terrorism and torture, all designed to savage our way to victory against the hydra-headed al Qaeda and its spawn of "affiliated groups". It also includes a new twist: killing of American citizens. As before, it features the CIA and US Special Forces (now known as JSOC). But this time, the program is carefully cloaked in secrecy. The story of the "new Phoenix" is the subject matter of Jeremy Scahill's exhaustively researched and comprehensive book, "DIrty Wars". It is an excellent work and likely to serve as the reference standard on the subject for many years.

    Scahill's book appeared almost simultaneously with New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti's book ("The Way of the Knife") and both deal with essentially the same topic. "Knife" is more "reportorial" in tone and content. It reads quickly and it is incisively written. It presents the essentials with the requisite detail, but no more. Scahill, on the other hand, is encylopaedic: if it could be found and documented, it's there. Scahill uses the biography of Anwar al-Awlaki as the framework for the narrative. This is both interesting and informative because, while occupying but a tiny amount of text, Awlaki's story gives the reader abundant insight into both the evolution of a "terrorist" and the general methods employed for dealing with him. In short, his story is basically the archetype for the "dirty war" and by understanding that aspect, one understands much.

    Scahill's basic premise is that the "dirty war", while tactically successful is a strategic debacle, just as the Phoenix Program was in Vietnam. Unlike the original, this version is worldwide: it operates (or operated) in "... the Balkans, Somalia, Chechnya, Iran, Syria and throughout Africa and Asia". Scahill suggests it extends into at least 100 countries, many of which are kept secret. In short, according to Scahill's facts, drone surveillance and killings, JSOC raids and covert prisons are apparently creating more enemies of America and doing so much faster than we can "neutralize" them. Whilst inflaming animosity overseas (where a plethora of independent polls indicate that worldwide sentiment -excepting in the US- is strongly against this approach) it also destabilizes governments. Scahill cites the cases of Somalia and Yemen to illustrate his point. He further notes that reality has now intersected science-fiction: Philip K. Dick's "pre-crime" is now manifest as license to kill in advance of violent action in the form of "signature strikes" wherein patterns of activity (such as a group of "military aged men" carrying weapons) can be targeted and killed based on presumption, alone.

    The secondary premise of "Dirty Wars" is the argument that the entire approach is undermining of the "rule of law" here at home. "The illegal we can do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer" per Henry Kissinger, but not by much. First came violation of the Posse Comitatus Act (which prohibits the military from conducting domestic law enforcement). It turns out this precedent was set by President Bill Clinton around 1996. Scahill asserts Clinton issued "...a secret presidential directive...that authorized JSOC to operate on US soil in counter-terror operations...". That precedent was dramatically expanded by the administrations of G.W. Bush and now Obama: both Executives assert the right to unfettered authority whenever the elastically defined "War on Terror", the "perpetual war", is invoked. Obama and Bush have effectively repudiated Ford's Executive Order 12333 which stated, "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." Aside from the overseas components, alarming as they are, the concrete manifestation of this newly asserted prerogative has produced the domestic surveillance program (warrantless wiretaping, infiltration of ecology and "Occupy" meetings, etc) and militarization of the police. It has voided the traditional "balance of powers", not that dissent in the Legislative or Judicial Branches has been prominent. Via the "Copper Green" program, it has transfered spy authority (at least nominally subject to Congressional review) to JSOC (which is generally not under Legislative Branch scrutiny). Per Scahill, the military is now "...free to act as a spy agency and a kill/capture force rolled into one." The Dirty War has produced collateral damage in the form of erosion of public trust and cynicism directed towards the government which, at least as construed by various "elites" is simultaneously dishonest, overarching and jingoistic. Conservatives might consider it costly and wasteful were it not for the collateral benefits for defense contractors and lobbyists. In the words of Glenn Greenwald, "His [Obama's] most consequential speeches [on the drone warfare program, Guantanamo, etc] are shaped by their simultaneous affirmation of conflicting values and even antithetical beliefs": doubletalk, in other words which enables liberals to believe the Chief Executive is anguished by his actions but bound Promethius-like to the ossified and intractable bureaucracy of the US government while providing coded words of encouragement to the "military-industrial complex".

    In any event, for better or for worse, the video-game antiseptic drone war and its consequences are here with us for the indefinite future. The actions taken are precedent setting. They may be myopic and they may be destabilizing with dire consequences for all of us. While it may be premature to guess the outcome, Scahill musters many facts suggesting that this aspect of American policymaking at least has learned nothing at all from similar mistakes made since World War II. The self-styled JSOC "soldier-scholars", McChrystal and Petraeus claim the title, have learned zero from counter-insurgency superstars such as Kitson, Galula and Trinquier. As Scahill carefully and candidly notes, not all targeted killings are bad decisions.

    Sometime shortly before February 17, 1775 as part of his notes for a Proposition at the Pennsylvania Assembly, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." In designing, implementing and executing the "Dirty War", we may be on the road to losing all three and a lot more besides. This is a problem that may have no ideal solutions, but Scahill asserts that the present course of action is a bad one.
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