Tag Archives: special operation forces

How to Write History: CIA Deletes Scenes from Zero Dark Thirty film

ZeroDarkThirty2012Poster

In January (2013) the US Senate intelligence committee launched an investigation into whether Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were granted “inappropriate access” to classified CIA material following concern from high-profile members over the film’s depiction of torture in the search for the al-Qaida chief. The probe was dropped in February….

However according to Gawker it has now emerged that the CIA did successfully pressure Boal to remove certain scenes from the Zero Dark Thirty script, some of which might have cast the agency in a negative light. Details emerged in a memo released under a US Freedom of Information Act request. It summarises five conference calls held in late 2011 for staff in the agency’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) “to help promote an appropriate portrayal of the agency and the Bin Laden operation”.

Several elements of the draft screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty were changed for the final film upon agency request, according to the memo. Jessica Chastain’s Maya, the film’s main protagonist, was originally seen participating in an early water-boarding torture scene, but in the final film she is only an observer. A scene in which a dog is used to interrogate a suspect was also excised from the shooting script. Finally a segue in which agents party on a rooftop in Islamabad, drinking and shooting off an AK47 in celebration, was also removed upon CIA insistence. This was agreed to despite the documented use of aggressive dogs in US interrogations of terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay in the early days of George W Bush’s war on terror, and despite some of the photographs from the later Abu Ghraib scandal featuring dogs menacing naked prisoners.

The memo appears to confirm suspicions of a cosy relationship between the CIA and Boal, with the agency confident it would be portrayed positively due to the level of help it had provided to the film-makers. “As an agency, we’ve been pretty forward-leaning with Boal,” a CIA staff member wrote to colleagues in documents released last year. “He’s agreed to share scripts and details about the movie with us so we’re absolutely comfortable with what he will be showing.”

Excerpts, Ben Child, CIA requested Zero Dark Thirty rewrites, memo reveals, Guardian, May 7, 2013

CIA Memo

The New Army: United States Special Operations in 70 Countries

SEALS_wearing_diving_gear. Image from wikipedia

Not long after Adm. William H. McRaven led the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, he was put in charge of the nation’s entire contingent of Special Operations forces, and set to work revamping them to face a widening array of new threats as America’s combat role in the Middle East and southwest Asia winds down….Admiral McRaven’s goal is to recast the command from its popular image of commandos killing or capturing terrorists, and expand a force capable of carrying out a range of missions short of combat — including training foreign militaries to counter terrorists, drug traffickers and insurgents, gathering intelligence and assessing pending risk, and advising embassies on security.

But along the way, the ambitious Admiral McRaven has run into critics who say he is overreaching, or as one Congressional critic put it, “empire building” at a time when the military is shrinking its footprint in Afghanistan and refocusing on other hot spots around the world. Congress has blocked, at least temporarily, an idea to consolidate several hundred of the command’s Washington-based staff members in a $10 million-a-year satellite office here, saying it would violate spending limits on such offices.

At the same time, Admiral McRaven has also faced criticism that he is encroaching on the turf of the military’s traditionally powerful regional commanders. Shortly before leaving the Pentagon, former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta granted Admiral McRaven new authority to make staffing decisions in the Special Operations units assigned to the regional commanders. While they will still have the final say on missions in their region, Admiral McRaven will now have the ability to allocate the much sought-after 11,000 deployed Special Operations forces where he determines intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed.

Indeed, in the past year, the command has conducted three classified exercises to determine where it can expand Special Operations forces in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

As for the office he has sought in Washington, Admiral McRaven couches his plans to consolidate the command’s disparate operations into a new “National Capital Region” office in similar reform-minded terms, telling Congress in April that it would “better support coordination and decision-making” with other federal agencies.  Supporters described the plan as a management efficiency for the 373 people serving as liaison officers scattered in dozens of executive branch departments and the intelligence community, as well as members of a legislative affairs office that has operated here since the mid-1980s.  If the plan is approved, an additional 70 Special Operations personnel could be assigned to the Washington office. By comparison, the Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and South Asia, has just 15 people in Washington. The Africa Command has 10. The headquarters would be overseen by a three-star officer and is envisioned to have an annual budget of $10 million, although some of that money is already in the command’s budget for staff assigned to duties here.

Admiral McRaven’s proposals have run afoul of Congress before. Last spring [2012], the Special Operations Command sought approval for new authority from Congress to train foreign internal security forces that had been off limits to the American military… Statistics provided by Special Operations Command noted that in any given week, its personnel were operating in more than 70 countries. During one week in March (2012), for example, the command had teams in 92 nations.  Until now, those troops have been financed through the geographic commands in the Middle East, Africa, Europe or Latin America….The goal, command officials say, is not just improving their quality but also improving their coordination with foreign troops and diplomats. The command has sent liaison officers to 10 United States embassies worldwide – Australia, Canada, Britain, Jordan, Poland, Colombia, France, Turkey, Kenya and Italy – to advise indigenous special forces and coordinate activities with those troops.

Nearly a decade ago a similar experiment to place small teams of Special Operations troops in American embassies to gather intelligence on terrorists and to prepare for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill them, backfired.  In one case, members of the “military liaison elements” in Paraguay were pulled out of the country after killing an armed robber who attacked them. The shooting had nothing to do with their mission, but the episode embarrassed senior embassy officials, who had not been told the team was operating in the country.

Admiral McRaven says those early problems have been ironed out, and his troops carry out missions only with the approval of the regional American commander and the United States ambassador in that country.

ERIC SCHMITT and THOM SHANKER, A Commander Seeks to Chart a New Path for Special Operations, New York Times, May 1, 2013

See also the Power of the US Special Operations Command

Right-sizing the CIA in Iraq

The Central Intelligence Agency is preparing to cut its presence in Iraq to less than half of wartime levels, according to U.S. officials familiar with the planning, a move that is largely a result of challenges the CIA faces operating in a country that no longer welcomes a major U.S. presence.  Under the plans being considered, the CIA’s presence in Iraq would be reduced to 40% of wartime levels, when Baghdad was the largest CIA station in the world with more than 700 agency personnel, officials said.  The CIA had already begun to pull back in Iraq since the height of the war, officials said. But the drawdown, coming six months after the departure of American military forces, would be significant. The officials declined to provide exact numbers, give a breakdown of levels of analysts versus covert operators or say where agency workers would be redeployed, all of which are classified.

Proponents of the change say the CIA can make better use of its personnel in other areas. Those could include emerging terrorist hot spots such as Yemen, home to the al Qaeda affiliate the U.S. considers to pose the greatest threat to the homeland, and Mali, where an unstable government has fanned concerns.

The move comes amid worries over possible gaps in U.S. intelligence about the threat posed by al Qaeda in Iraq. Administration officials, diplomats and intelligence analysts have in recent weeks debated whether the militant organization is a growing threat after an internal government report pointed to a rise in the number of attacks this year, officials said.  The plan would also reduce the U.S. intelligence presence in the region as neighboring Syria appears to be verging on civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq is also sending fighters to Syria to battle the Assad regime, Pentagon officials say.

The spy drawdown is part of a broader shift in U.S.-Iraq relations, with Washington moving to scale back diplomatic and training missions in the country. But it illustrates the limits of the Obama administration’s national-security strategy, as it steers away from ground wars and toward smaller operations that combine intelligence and special-operations capabilities.  Such a strategy relies heavily on cooperation from host governments, and as the CIA’s Iraq experience shows, cooperation can wane even where the U.S. has invested billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives.  The Iraqi government, including Iraq’s intelligence service, has scaled back its counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. as it asserts its sovereignty, U.S. officials say.  “If you don’t have that cooperation, you are probably wasting the resources you are allocating there and not accomplishing much,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Near East analyst.

Backers of the drawdown say al Qaeda in Iraq doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S  [as they are involved in the battle for Syria?]. “This is what success is supposed to be like,” said a senior U.S. official who has worked closely with the Iraqis. “Of course we don’t want to have the same number of people after all U.S. troops go home that we had at the height of the war.”  A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. is in the process of “right-sizing” its presence in Iraq. Both President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have “made very clear that we’re going to continue to have a close and strong security partnership,” this official said.

The planned reductions at the CIA represent a major shift from the approach under consideration just six months ago. Late last year, the CIA and Pentagon were considering several options for CIA and special-operations commandos to team up in Iraq, according to current and former officials. One option was to have special-operations forces operate under covert CIA authority, similar to the arrangement used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.  “There was a general consensus,” said a former intelligence official, “that there was a need for this in Iraq.” But as it became clear that the U.S. would withdraw all troops and that the Iraqi government was less inclined to accept an expansive CIA-special operations role, those plans were tabled. “It’s not going to happen,” said a U.S. official.  Iraq requires CIA officers to make appointments to meet with officials who were previously easily accessible, one of several obstacles that add to a mood of growing distance between the sides. The result is a degraded U.S. awareness about the activities of al Qaeda in Iraq, particularly at a tactical level, officials said.  “Half of our situational awareness is gone,” said one U.S. official.

Iraqi officials said they continue to cooperate with the U.S. on counterterrorism. Hassan Kokaz, deputy head of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior’s intelligence service, said the U.S. may be adjusting to the new “state-to-state” relationship between the countries since the military withdrawal in December.  “We have asked them to wear civilian clothes and not military uniforms and to be searched when they visit Iraqi institutions,” he said. “Perhaps they are not used to this.”  In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, police are pursuing al Qaeda-linked militants without needing U.S. special-operations forces or the CIA, said Gen. Sarhad Qadir, a local police commander.

Another senior Iraqi security official, however, said Iraqis don’t have the necessary surveillance and other technical capabilities. Iraqi forces also are plagued by clashing sectarian and political loyalties, the official added. “We need the Americans because they were able to work with all the [Iraqi] forces without exception,” he said.  The CIA drawdown would recalibrate the agency’s responsibility in the country away from counterterrorism operations and back toward traditional intelligence collection, with a sharpened focus on neighboring Iran, officials say. Baghdad will remain one of the agency’s largest stations, they say; Kabul is currently the largest. 

Excerpt, SIOBHAN GORMAN And ADAM ENTOUS, CIA Prepares Iraq Pullback, Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012