By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

The 7-page memo seen by the NYT and signed by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus authorizes US troops to engage in clandestine intelligence-gathering in the greater Middle East. The article implies that the memo also authorizes more military teams to go into unconventional conflict situations in both unfriendly and friendly countries.

Critics worry that the order blurs the line between combat soldiers and spies and weakens the claim of all soldiers to humane treatment under the Geneva Conventions.

My own view is that the United States was founded as a government of laws, not men, and that the siren call of covert operations is steadily undermining the rule of law. Blurring the line between military action and spying makes it impossible to talk about the covert missions, since they are typically classiified. The same is true for predator drone strikes.

Military action such as launching drones should be carried out by the uniformed military, not by CIA operatives or, worse, contractors. The former action would allow us to discuss the campaigns as free citizens of a republic. As it is now, often civilian contractors are piloting drones long-distance and we cannot so much as get a straight answer out of the elected officials. Where the US is striking at friendly countries, there should be a Status of Forces agreement to provide a legal framework for the actions.

And intelligence gathering should be carried out by the civilian such agencies. The more you make elements of the military actually intelligence assets, the more likely it is that the lines between them will get strained. That blurring could be bad for all troops. There is already a tendency in the ME for locals to see all Americans as CIA, and giving troops a lot of covert missions will reinforce these views.

We still can be a country of laws, not men, can’t we? It isn’t too late?

Juan R. I. Cole, Middle East scholar,  is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. His website: www.juancole.com

and Informed Comment


  1. rexw on the 29. May, 2010 remarked #

    “Seen by the NYT” probably means that the NYT is first on the distribution list.

    After all, the military possibly also had their approval (through their Head Office at AIPAC) to engage in clandestine intelligence gathering in the first place.

    ‘Just stay out of Israel’, says AIPAC. ‘What we are doing there is not for the sensitive eyes of the US public’ or something similar.

    Sounds like an AIPAC-inspired effort to spy on Iran and as you would expect, the US military or CIA will gladly oblige Israel’s wishes on anything at all.

    More Machiavellian activities for Bibi baby. What’s new.

  2. Robert on the 30. May, 2010 remarked #

    It IS “too late” and has gone on for decades. The good news – if there is any in this madness – is that this criminality is simply not sustainable. The Empire is crumbling as I type…

  3. Ross on the 30. May, 2010 remarked #

    It is also a function of the Military not being able to trust their usual intelligence sources such as the CIA or FBI.

    Admiral Mullen has taken the initiative to have direct military contact with countries like Iran so if a flase flag event does happen,measured responses will be the order of the day.

    In the eyes of some,it is a double edged sword,but I think in this climate a necessary one.

  4. Surfer Dave on the 30. May, 2010 remarked #

    Too late. The WAPO report of Bush, oops, Obama’s declaration of unilateral strikes in foreign countries in the case of successful criminal actions on US soil is the perfect example of how all the “laws” have been thrown aside by the “warrior culture” that has developed in the USA. No due process, no recognition of sovereignty, the unstated claim that America is “special” and can trump any nation’s sovereignty because America is “clean and pure”.

    Sorry Juan, it is too late.

  5. Mati on the 17. Mar, 2011 remarked #

    Admiral Mullen has taken the initiative to have direct military contact with countries like Iran so if a false flag event does happen,measured responses will be the order of the day.

    In the eyes of some,it is a…

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