April 14, 2004 | USA Today

Red Tape Threatens to Cage Military Might

Co-Authored by Robert Andrews

One lesson emerging from this week's 9/11 commission hearings is that confusion and lack of clarity can be disastrous in fighting terrorism.

During hearings Tuesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft complained to panel members that “we did not know an attack was coming because for a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies.” He went on to say that “our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls” that strangled communications between the FBI and CIA. The commission's staff report Tuesday backed up Ashcroft's contention. It said the FBI and CIA had opportunities to learn of and prevent terrorist attacks, but a lack of awareness prevented senior government officials from connecting the now-proverbial dots.

Similar misunderstandings were exposed earlier in the 9/11 commission hearings. Samuel Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, testified that the White House believed it had ordered the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden.

Yet, CIA Director George Tenet followed up that revelation with the news that he did not believe the agency had the authority to kill the al-Qaeda leader unless it was conducting a kidnapping operation, and any loss of life was incidental.

And so, bin Laden remains at large today. He has murdered thousands around the globe and is planning, according to Tenet, spectacular new attacks on America and her allies. We face the prospect of a brutal, global twilight war against fanatics whose hatred and methods know no limits.

Even as the commission uncovers such crossed wires and barriers that may have played into 9/11, Congress is grabbing at a dangerous solution. It is considering a new policy that would only increase confusion and take a powerful tool away from the military. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is quietly circulating a proposal that would ensnare clandestine U.S. military operations in the same sort of procedural restrictions placed on CIA covert actions and that contributed to the Ashcroft charges and gave rise to the Berger-Tenet misunderstanding.

An airing of this idea appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (“The Rise of the Shadow Warriors,” by Jennifer D. Kibbe of the Brookings Institution). Kibbe warns that without CIA-like controls on special units performing clandestine missions, “administration hawks may soon start using special (operations) forces to attack or undermine other regimes on Washington's hit list.”

While such restrictions on CIA covert operations — including requirements that the president report to Congress about every plan — are appropriate to protect against rogue operations, they would hamstring clandestine military ones. CIA covert operations, no matter how sensitive the plans, require a clear chain of accountability. For example, in the 1980s, it was correct to require the president to notify Congress before the CIA provided arms to the Afghans fighting the Soviets.

When it comes to clandestine military operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the war on terrorism, however, similar layers of reporting and procedure will only discourage ideas from the field and delay operations that require quick action. Most military operations are kept secret beforehand in order to achieve success through stealth and surprise. In some cases, deception plays a major part in providing this secrecy.

Indeed, it has been an integral part of warfare since well before the Greeks breached the walls of Troy by hiding in the Trojan Horse. Without the elaborate deception operation that confused the Germans about when and where Allied landings would come in 1944, D-Day might have failed.

On a much smaller scale, today's military operations require the same tight security and the ability to hide behind subterfuge. And, like Normandy nearly 60 years ago, once the battle is joined, once our Green Berets and SEALs rescue a hostage or capture or kill a terrorist, there will be no intent to deny American responsibility. Military operations are not covert operations that the government seeks to deny after the fact — they are the fighting of a war.

Applying CIA-like controls to military operations could even restrict skilled U.S. military personnel from surveying potential battlefields around the world. It would certainly result in potentially dangerous delays that would prevent time-sensitive intelligence about terrorists from being acted on promptly. Had such requirements been in place in the fall of 2001, our Green Berets, SEALs and Air Force Special Operations would likely have had a much harder fight in Afghanistan, where just a handful of these trained professionals overthrew the Taliban and eliminated al-Qaeda's principal sanctuary in just a few weeks.

The Defense Department's Special Operations Command is now assuming the role of being the lead command in the war on terrorism. In fact, these elite forces during the past year have been assigned the most deployments in their 50-year history, including controlling two-thirds of combat operations in Iraq. We should do everything possible to make it easier, not more difficult, for the forces to react rapidly.

The 9/11 commission hearings have given us a picture of the delay and uncertainty that marked the U.S. government's efforts to try to move against al-Qaeda using the CIA in the 1990s. Those problems shouldn't be compounded by a new policy that undercuts a timeless and effective tactic of warfare.

R. James Woolsey, director of Central Intelligence from 1993 to 1995, is a vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, and a Distinguished Advisor with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Robert Andrews is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Green Beret and CIA officer.