“They have cast all the mysteries and secrets of government… before the vulgar (like pearls before swine), and have taught both the soldiery and people to look so far into them as to ravel back all governments to the first principles of nature…” Clement Walker, on the English Revolution, 1661

From Miami with Love

Something very interesting happened this past April in an El Paso courtroom. There, a verdict was returned in the case of one Luis Posada Carriles, a man that has notably been described as the “Osama Bin Laden of Latin America” and “one of the most dangerous terrorists in recent history”. [1]

The circumstances of the case and the details of Posada’s extraordinary biography could be mistaken for the plot of an international thriller — there’s ample evidence of a long career in the business of international terrorism, including declassified FBI and CIA documents [2] and Posada’s on-the-record admission of involvement [3] in a string of hotel bombings in Havana. Add to that terrorism convictions by multiple governments that have found themselves in Posada’s crosshairs, an outstanding INTERPOL warrant, sundry bombings and other paramilitary attacks within Cuba and abroad. He ran guns to the Contras during their cross-border war with Nicuaragua, as exposed during the Reagan-era ‘Iran Contra’ scandal hearings [4]. He was caught flying 200 lbs of C4 plastic explosive into Panama City and convicted of a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro [5]. He’s connected with the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 in 1976 and the immolation of 78 people. [6]

Far from being reviled as a mass murderer however, among the fervently anti-Castro members of Miami’s Cuban exile community Luis Posada Carriles is considered a hero and a freedom fighter. The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a well-connected [7] organization Posada claimed to have received money from to carry out a 1997 bombing campaign in Havana stated in that same year in a publication that they did not regard attacks against Cuba to be ‘terrorist actions’. [8] Note that this defies the common understanding of the term as “the use of violence and fear to achieve a desired political end.”

It also defies understanding that a known militant of Posada’s notoriety was allowed to apply for asylum and set foot in Miami in 2005, having been just recently pardoned and released from jail in Panama for the attempted Castro hit. [9] This political double standard or blind spot in the US-led ‘War on Terror’ was not lost on the hundreds of thousands of Cubans that turned out in massive anti-Posada rallies held in Havana during the middle of May 2005. [9]

Posada was arrested shortly thereafter, but he was not charged under any anti-terror statutes or treaties. Instead, he was charged with lying [10]: specifically, lying to immigration about whether he had arrived in the US by boat or by bus and lying about his past involvement in Havana bombings, all charges that carry relatively light sentences [11]. Any questions of charges under the various national and international statutes against terrorism were off the table.

To understand the reasons behind this unique new approach to prosecuting the war on terror, it is necessary only to understand that for decades Posada was America’s terrorist. As it turns out, that makes all the difference in the world.

‘School of the Assassins’

Outrage in Havana. Welcome in Miami. Diffidence in Washington. The polarized reactions occasioned by Posada’s return to the US provide an unusually clear example of what’s meant in practice by the saying ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist‘ [12] Posada himself has displayed little inhibition in the past to relate his exploits to the media and appears adamant in the belief that his mission is to help free Cuba and/or fight Communism in the region. As for his methods, he claims he’s not losing any sleep [13] over their bloody toll in Havana, at least — an ability we might chalk up to extensive practice.

Young Luis lived through and was shaped by the turmoil and civic unrest of the latter years of the US-backed Batista regime. He studied medicine and chemistry at Havana University, meeting Castro during the student uprisings, violence, and protests of the era [14]. However, he opposed the Cuban Revolution and was active in speaking out against the new regime, convictions which landed him in prison. Upon his release, he fled to Mexico and then to Miami where he was recruited by the CIA [15] for the ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion, though his squadron within Brigade 2506 never saw action.

Between 1963 and 1964, Posada trained in demolitions and sabotage at the US Army’s infamous ‘School of the Americas’ at Fort Benning in Georgia. Whistleblower site SOA Watchdescribes the operations of the School of the Americas as having

trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins. [16]

The alumnus of this school counts among its members a significantly higher number of military dictators and secret police than your average collegiate. The SOA Watch online database[17] of program graduates lists some 395 alumni of particular notoriety for their reign as military or intelligence officers once they returned to their home country, including thoseworking with cocaine traffickers [18], those involved in church burnings targetting activist preachers [19], the organization of death squads [20], the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero [21], and other similar breaches of human rights.

Posada’s career took off. Fast forward a number of years and we find the by-now seasoned militant heading up the feared Venezuelan intelligence agency, the DISIP or Dirección Nacional de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención which by that time had become a CIA-supported base of operations against the Castro regime in Cuba. [22]

The remarkable career of Luis Posada Carriles and other graduates of the SOA (since renamed but still very much in operation and teaching “the identical courses” [23]) should not come as any great surprise to students of Latin American history, as even a cursory perusal of the public record reveals a comprehensive, decades-long involvement in the area by American intelligence, special forces, and their proxies. Yet time and again, public debate on the issue (on the rare occasions it receives exposure in the mainstream media) fails to question the ongoing policy of shipping US military resources and expertise to the area, instead focussing on issues narrow enough in scope as to exclude any discussion of the wider context.

Such as the distraction of Posada’s ‘immigration fraud’ charges. Such as the Army’s contention that SOA Watch “claims a false cause-and-effect relationship between training at [SOA] and the criminal acts of a few who have attended the school’s programs in the distant past.” Such as one oft-cited attack on the founder of the SOA Watch (Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois), the allegation by Paul Mulshine of the New Jersy Star-Ledger that he “had once gone on patrol with the Salvadoran guerillas” [24]. Looking into the available facts on the matter, it becomes apparent instead that the priest’s goal was to travel the countryside, speak with the poor, and investigate who may have been responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero and a number of catholic nuns of his order, as reported in Time magazine and a 1999 interview with the priest [25] [26].

Some irony may be detected in the way Bourgeois’ trip to interview dispossessed natives was ginned-up into a ‘guerilla patrol’, given that the embedding of US agents within guerilla groups is a fairly standard military practice in the area. The study of these and similar tactics, a field known as ‘Low Intensity Conflict’, has produced a body of military scholarship on counterinsurgency documenting the use of tactics as diverse as the direct creation of armed insurgent (or counter-insurgent) militias, the use of embedded special forces operatives asagents provocateur, the administrative suspensions of civil rights in occupied regions, and ‘psuedo-operations’, the use of violence and fear undertaken while masquerading as the enemy.

Counterinsurgency, by the Book

One of the first recorded outline and proposal of guerilla warfare is found in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a practical manual on military strategy written in the 6th century BC [27]. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, published somewhat later in 1532 AD, is one of the West’s earliest works of modern political philosophy and presents a treatise on regime change and the pacification of rebellious subjects in newly acquired realms. Machiavelli infamously advises aspiring princes that “whoever becomes master of a city accustomed to the free way of life invites his own destruction unless he destroys it first … Anything you implement or plan is useless if you do not set the citizens against each other and scatter them throughout the land, because otherwise they will forget neither the name of liberty nor those institutions…” [28]

For current students of Low Intensity Conflict in this past century, there’s the writings of General Sir Frank Kitson, a British military man that held the title Commander in Chief of UK Land Forces from 1982-85. During the 1950s, he was assigned to serve in the suppression of the Kenyan and Malayan uprisings during the postwar collapse of Britain’s colonial empire, and he committed his experiences to print in a number of volumes. Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping, published in 1971, came to print around the time he was actively applying the same concepts in Northern Ireland, setting up a covert British Army unit [29] subsequently accused of drive-by shootings and assassinations [30].

Kitson outlined a theory of the 3 stages of insurgency and subversion [31] in which, chillingly, any criticism of the state is seen as falling along a continuum of insurgency. This ‘slippery slope’ model encompasses a preparatory period in which the subversives communicate their ideas to the population, the non-violent phase in which the use of protest, pickets, strikes and boycotts by critics are presented as the dangerous precursor to violence — and the use of police force becomes an operational decision to put down protest. Finally the insurgency erupts, and militants stream into the streets, engaging in armed conflict with government forces.

Just such a theory of ‘subversion’, where protest is seen as leading inevitably to violence appears to have become entrenched in law-enforcement practice. In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union discovered that US Department of Defence anti-terrorism training course material identified protest as a form of ‘low level terrorism’ [32]. The recent experience of the Toronto G20, in which large crowds of protestors and passerby were held captive for long periods of time in defiance of Canadian civil charter rights suggest that this attitude is operational in Canada as well. When questioned about the roundup of innocents outside the Novotel building on June 26, 2010, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair stated that “I know a lot of people who did not come to commit crimes but were facilitating the potential of that breach of the peace … by providing cover in a crowd” (emphasis added), thus justifying the suspension of civil rights in the city [33].

Counterinsurgency and Low Intensity Conflict theory provides for the use of a number of continuum-of-force tactics ranged along various stages of the insurgency: the use of informants, psychological operations or propaganda campaigns during the ‘non-violent phase’, the stick-and-carrot approach of police force followed up by concessions offered to aggrieved communities upon restoration of public order, the use of velvet-glove intimidation by military or police forces to create an atmosphere of “respect and awe” among populations, the cordon and search of civilian areas, the use of central identity databases or watch lists on the population and the insertion of ‘psuedo-operations’ special forces disguised as insurgents to wreak deliberate mayhem and confusion. [34]

Lawrence E Cline, a military instructor at the US Naval Postgraduate School notes crisply in his 2005 monograph Psuedo Operations and Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Other Countries that “Pseudo operation strategies used in earlier counterinsurgency campaigns can offer valuable lessons for future missions.” He goes on to present an exhaustive survey of such lessons from the Phillipines to Africa, offering first a word of caution:

These operations, although of considerable value, also have raised a number of concerns. Their use in offensive missions and psychological operations campaigns has, at times, been counterproductive. In general, their main value has been as human intelligence collectors, particularly for long-term background intelligence or for identifying guerrilla groups that then are assaulted by conventional forces. Care must be taken in running these operations both to avoid going too far in acting like guerrillas, and in resisting becoming involved in human rights abuses. [35]

Cline also writes that the “potential political impact” of direct psuedo-operations unfortunately makes it “all too easy for government opponents to brand the teams conducting these missions as ‘death squads’ beyond the reach of the law.” [36] His apprehension is well-founded.The first case described in his paper, the paramilitary response to the 1946-1955 Huk Insurrection in the Philippines, crops up continuously in the literature for its early innovations in the field like the deployment of small hunter-killer teams. In his book Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990 Michael McClintock quotes a top army officer describing the style of the Nenita or ‘skull squadron’, named for their use of the skull and crossbone flag “The special tactic of these squadrons was to cordon off areas; anyone they caught inside the cordon was considered an enemy…. When I was stationed in the Candaba area [in Pampanga], almost daily you could find bodies floating in the river, many of them victims of Valeriano’s Nenita Unit.” [37] His source for the quote is a book co-authored by the same Major Napoleon Valeriano.

As a top agent working under Phillippines CIA station chief Colonel Lansdale, Valeriano was a central figure in shaping future counterinsurgency policy. Roland G. Simbulan, Manila Studies Program coordinator at the University of the Philippines writes

The CIA’s success in crushing the peasant-based Huk rebellion in the 1950s made this operation the model for future counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam and Latin America. Colonel Lansdale and his Filipino sidekick, Col. Napoleon Valeriano were later to use their counterguerrilla experience in the Philippines for training covert operatives in Vietnam and in the US-administered School of the Americas, which trained counterguerrilla assassins for Latin America. [38]

Valeriano was instrumental in the training of Cuban exiles [39] [40] for the Bay of Pigs invasion, and so in tracing the thread of Major Valeriano’s career we may observe an unbroken decades-long succession of covert involvement in foreign LIC operations from Indonesia to the operations of Luis Carriles Posada in Latin America and beyond, and it is to Posada’s trial in El Paso that we now return.