The Timing of CIA’s Discovery Its Paramilitary Ops Fail

Mark Mazzetti reports that in 2012 and 2013, CIA did a study that one of its favorite means of covert intervention — arming rebels — pretty much doesn’t work.

An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works.

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.

But in April 2013, President Obama authorized the C.I.A. to begin a program to arm the rebels at a base in Jordan, and more recently the administration decided to expand the training mission with a larger parallel Pentagon program in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to battle fighters of the Islamic State, with the aim of training approximately 5,000 rebel troops per year.

The only “success” CIA could find was the mujahadeen ousting the Russians in Afghanistan.


I’m particularly interested in the timing of all this.

Mazzetti says there were multiple studies done in 2012 — at which point David Petraeus was CIA Director, and was pushing to arm rebels in Syria — and 2013 — by which point John Brennan had replaced Petraeus.

So the timing looks something like this:

2012: CIA starts doing studies on how crappy their covert ops have been

2012: Hillary and Petraus both push Obama to arm Syrians

2012: Benghazi attack targets CIA officers ostensibly working to reclaim weapons used to oust Qaddafi but reportedly to send them on to Syria

2012: Petraeus ousted for reasons that probably aren’t primarily that he fucked his biographer

2013: John Brennan nominated to serve as CIA Director. As part of his confirmation process, the follow exchange takes place (Bark Mikulski asked a similar question in the hearing itself).

Question 7: What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?

The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.


Question 8: What are you views on what some have described as the increased “militarization” of the CIA mission following the September 11, 2001 attacks?

In my view, the CIA is the nation’s premier “intelligence” agency, and needs to remain so. While CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability to be able to carry out covert action as directed by the President, the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities.

April 2013: Obama signs finding authorizing an op CIA knew wouldn’t work

June 2013: Covert op begins, per Chuck Hagel confirmation of it in August

As Mazzetti explains, the amazing discovery that CIA’s covert ops are often useless was one reason Obama delayed so long before he authorized one anyway (and his close confidante Brennan implemented it).

But I think two other things are likely (in addition to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in both April and August 2013). One, it wasn’t so much Obama was opposed to such an op; he was just opposed to the way Petraeus (who oversaw the latter part of the Libya op) and Hillary implemented it. (Note, Mazzetti specifically notes both Hillary and Leon Panetta’s claims they warned Obama to respond earlier in Syria, so Mazzetti’s piece may be a response to that.) And just as likely, the Saudi-tied rising strength in ISIL forced our hand, requiring us to be able to offer a legitimate competitor to their paid terrorists.

Particularly given the mujadadeen “success” apparently cited in the CIA study, I find that rather ominous.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. seedeevee says:

    “April 2003: Obama signs finding authorizing an op CIA knew wouldn’t work”

    ??? – name/date problem — Should that be 2013?

  2. orionATL says:

    so arming “rebels” doesn’t work.

    bet that came from the analytical side of cia. the adrenaline cowboy side doesn’t analyze.

    • RUKidding says:

      It’s the PTB that don’t analyze sh*t, other than what the spreadsheet number crunching says. If the numbers come up “good” for making money off of such irresponsible activities that “don’t work anyway,” as Big Dick Cheney would opine: “SO????”

      My understanding is that once Team USA started whatevertheEFF we did against ISIS, all the big time MIC War Industries saw a giant jump in their stock prices. Hey: get your priorities correct!!

      Thanks for the outline/timeline. Something happened vis Petraeus & I agree that it had little to do with his idiotic sexytime shenanigans. That said, IMO the main reason why the CIA continues on its doomsday missions is: MONEY. CHA CHING!!!!!

      Most everything else is just icing on the cake, incidental or collateral damage.

      So, er, the arming of the Mujahadeen in Afganistan “worked” – eh? You don’t say. One might quibble with that, but that’s just me.

  3. P J Evans says:

    Shouldn’t they be doing this kind of review all the time, so they don’t get into so damned many messes?

  4. Don Bacon says:

    Our guys never fight like their guys, because our guys are fighting for us and their guys are fighting for their country, as they see it. It’s a continuing lesson for the colonial managers in Washington, Vietnam being a prime example which should have stopped the process but didn’t.
    Another point: These foreign efforts are designed to protect Americans’ freedoms, the (amusing) story goes. What foreigner wants to do that?

  5. BiasedReporter says:

    Several comments on this.

    “The only “success” CIA could find was the mujahadeen ousting the Russians in Afghanistan.”

    Blowback never considered as part of evalutation?

    “Petraeus ousted for reasons that probably aren’t primarily that he fucked his biographer”

    He resigned–but you think he was forced out? over what issue?

    This was a great post ( explaining this “the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities.”

  6. lefty665 says:

    ” (Note, Mazzetti specifically notes both Hillary and Leon Panetta’s claims they warned Obama to respond earlier in Syria, so Mazzetti’s piece may be a response to that.) ”
    Think you got it. Schadenfreude is watching O squirm at their self serving public chiding. A pox on all their houses.

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