The U.S. will be fighting a new kind of enemy in future wars, so it needs a new kind of military strategy, in the view of GOP U.S. Senate candidate and former CIA operative Rob Simmons.
He calls for dramatically better intelligence-gathering. He’s incredulous that the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” evaded security to board a plane because of a one-letter spelling discrepancy in a watch-list database—the kind of discrepancy that still produces a “Did you mean?” link in a simple Google search.
He calls for new “hybrid” courts try terrorism suspects.
Most of all, he advocates a shift to far greater reliance on clandestine “special operations” rather than conventional troops. The kind of operations he participated in during the Vietnam War.
For the most part, the U.S. will be fighting al Qaeda-like terrorists, not enemy countries, he said in an interview with the Independent about foreign policy.
“My prediction is that the primary targets [of future] wars will be non-governmental organizations [NGOs] engaged in terrorist activities against us and our allies, like Israel,” said Simmons, one of two leading candidates for the Republican nomination to succeed retiring Democratic Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd. “We’ve been lucky since 9/11. We’ve had 26 separate plots to attack Americans in the continental United States.”
If elected, he expects “almost certainly” to see the U.S. targeted for a domestic attack during his term. He expects to be wrestling with how to prepare and respond. He promised to draw on lessons gained from his own clandestine experience—beginning with on-the-ground work for the CIA in South Vietnam in the 1970s—to push above all for more special ops. (Click here to read a story about New Haven cop who’s been overseeing such operations as a Green Beret in Afghanistan.)
Simmons offered a sample of his approach to foreign policy—based on his personal story and his strongly held views—during a televised debate March 2 with his Republican opponents. The moment stood out during an evening otherwise dominated by scripted, poll-tested sound bites.
He agreed to amplify those views during the interview this week at the offices the Independent shares with La Voz Hispana in downtown New Haven.
He was relaxed throughout the interview, at one point pulling a pocket-sized Constitution from his grey blazer and leafing through it to bolster his points.
Attack masterminds like Osama bin Laden aren’t committing “crimes,” Simmons said, referring to arguments that the U.S. should conduct “police actions” rather than a “war” against terrorists.
A crime, he said, occurs when “you robbed a bank and shot somebody. ... When you kill 3,000 people and collapse the World Trade Center and terrorize New York City and the world,” that amounts to a declaration of war, necessitating different tactics.
“You fight it with intelligence, information, and special operations.”
Sam Adams 2.0
That’s what Samuel Adams did, Simmons argued.
“In 1773 in Boston there was the Boston Tea Party. It was organized by the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty were Sam Adams’ group. But on the day the Tea Party took place, Sam Adams made it a point to be in a public place drinking whatever he was drinking, being observed by the British that he was in public and therefore could have nothing to do with the Boston Tea Party. The people in the Boston Tea Party were disguised as Indians and Africans ... throwing the tea overboard.
“To this day, the identities of the people that were on the boats throwing tea overboard are unknown. That was a special operation that had a very specific purpose.
“There is nothing new or un-American about special operations.’‘
What is new, according to Simmons, is the predominance of a non-state enemy that requires a greater reliance on those tactics, and requires those tactics to be updated.
In a conventional war against other nations—say Korea or WWII—the fighting takes place out in the open with “uniformed [soldiers], flags flying, bugles blowing, no question about who it was,” he said.
“In dealing with a terrorist target, clandestine forces, or special operations forces, are in many instances in my view a better choice. They are less expensive. They don’t commit the active component of the U.S. military. They can be done with sub rosa, without the flags flying and the uniformed folks.”
He offered a typical scenario.
“Let’s say against an enemy force in an island in the Pacific. You might have your special operations folks swim in clandestinely, infiltrate a command bunker complex, place explosives, withdraw a safe distance, and blow up the command structure of that particular force. ...
“If a sovereign state is hosting a terrorist group to train within its borders, then you want to reduce the profile of the U.S. involvement in the attack. So you use special operations forces. These are people who are not easily identified as being U.S. personnel. These are people who have to come within the sovereign territory of a foreign state with whom we may or may not have diplomatic relations, but they are hosting the training of people who are going to kill us or our allies, like Israel.”
The U.S. has increasingly turned to special forces and clandestine operations in the war in Afghanistan. Of late that approach has come under criticism.
In one case, a Department of Defense official was accused of turning a peace-seeking intelligence operation into a secretive targeted assassination effort run through former CIA and special forces operations. Military officials called it a rogue operation and said they shut it down.
Simmons dismissed the operation as the work of a “solo operator, without authority,” not a reflection on the advisability of reliance on clandestine special ops.
Meanwhile, human rights workers and Afghan officials have accused special ops forces of being responsible for an inordinate amount of civilian deaths and operating outside the ordinary rules of engagement. In response, the top U.S. commander in the region, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “has brought most American Special Operations forces under his direct control,” The New York Times reported last week.
Simmons responded to that story by saying that his own experience taught him differently, and that the more conventional attacks in Afghanistan may be producing more problems.
“Usually special operations have far less civilian casualties than conventional operations,” he argued. “What I read coming out of Afghanistan is, I read of the remotely piloted vehicles ... seeing a cluster of people, and then the order goes forward to attack. And after the fact, you learn that maybe that wasn’t a group of Taliban. Maybe it was a group of civilians. Also, the air attacks against the poppy fields are very unpopular, for two reasons. One, they destroy what constitutes the rural economy in a lot of the tribal regimes. And second, civilian casualties are encountered there as well.
“My experience with special operations is that they are far more discreet when it comes to civilian casualties, because they’re on the ground and they’re aware of who they’re dealing with ... My experience in Vietnam was that civilian casualties was higher with conventional forces.”
“Enhanced Interrogation"vs. “Torture”
That experience raised questions that resonate today about how to get information out of captured opponents, and it shaped some of Simmons’ views on how to conduct the wars of the 21st century.
As a CIA operations officer, Simmons served as adviser to South Vietnamese operators of a “Province Interrogation Center” from 1970 to 1972.
Author Douglas Valentine, who wrote a critical account of the centers in his book The Phoenix Program, charged that illegal forms of torture took place there, and that Simmons failed to report them.
In the interview this week, Simmons flatly denied it. He said the centers had “constant visits by the Red Cross and other international authorities,” and the the standards “exceeded” those of the international agencies.
That claim—that the U.S.-advised interrogation centers were better than other such places—led to an opposite charge against Simmons: That he used the better facilities to push prisoners to offer up information in return for better treatment.
The book Birds of Prey by Mark Moyar quotes Simmons describing the gambit this way:
“When prisoners were wounded, we had a 50 percent better chance of getting them to cooperate with us than if they were not. These people knew very well that good medical treatment was scarce. Vietnamese hospitals were very primitive, and to get care you had to have money. If you were a peasant VC suspect, you wouldn’t get much there. I knew some American doctors who helped me out from time to time. I’d bring in an American doctor with a big bag full of pills and devices and everything, and he’d put his gear on and listen to a heartbeat and go through a fairly elaborate routine, which seemed quite sophisticated to a peasant. Then the doctor would look at the wound and say, ‘Oh, that looks very bad. It could get infected. You could lose that limb.’ The prisoner would ask, “what can you do?” I’d usually let the doctor go,” Rob Simmons says, “and then tell the prisoner, ‘We’d like to help, but it’s hard to get the medicine. I can’t do anything to help you without getting some sort of help in return.” That tended to work well.’”
Author Valentine called that tactic, in one radio interview, “not only a war crime” but “psychological warfare ... terrorizing people in order to get intelligence from them, information from them about their associates, their political associates; people that trusted them with their lives.”
In the interview this week, Simmons stressed that he and the CIA weren’t responsible for treatment of the prisoners. “The prisoners did not belong to us. The prisoners were on loan to us,” he said. “The prisoners were under control of the South Vietnamese government ... The South Vietnamese government was charged with the care and feeding of the prisoners.”
That said, he added that the cells were cleaner, “the food was better,” and medical attention superior in the center he advised. He said he offered a legitimate choice to prisoners who wanted to stay in that facility rather than be sent back to a regular South Vietnamese-overseen cell.
“They have a choice,” Simmons said. “You can stay in the military jail with the other prisoners. That’s fine. Or you can stay in the better location.”
The price: information that can save lives.
He called it a fair bargain used commonly at all levels.
“Have you ever seen the movies where the policeman is in the room and the guy is being asked questions, and he begins to cooperate, and the policeman offers him a cigarette?” Simmons said. “That’s the nature of developing a relationship.”
He saw the tactic provide important information, such as the identities of people planning attacks. A participating prisoner would be driven in the back of a truck or jeep to a South Vietnamese marketplace. He’d remain concealed and “look out through a peephole and identify Vietcong insurgents purchasing food and medicine.”
In battling al Qaeda or other terrorist groups today, the military needs to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get that information, in order to save lives, Simmons argued. Click on the play arrow to the second video at the top of the story for more on the reasons for and potential limits of those tactics, including waterboarding.
The Hybrid Solution
Simmons continued to develop his ideas about military strategy as staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and as commander of the New Haven-based 434th Military Intelligence Detachment. One of his missions involved studying the major threats that will face U.S. interests in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Terrorism ranked high on that list.
In his current campaign, one issue has been whether to try captured terrorists in civilian or military courts. Simmons joined fellow Republican Linda McMahon and Democrat Dick Blumenthal in calling on the Obama administration to use a military tribunal, not federal court, for the trial of alleged 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Conservatives argue that it’s too dangerous to trial terrorist suspects in civilian courts: Life-or-death secrets can be released. Others argue that civilian courts have proved themselves capable of protecting intelligence and producing justice, and that even foreign nationals deserve due process of law.
Simmons said that in many cases there’s an appropriate third way: “hybrid courts” in which judges are specially trained to handle sensitive intelligence, as in military courts; but in which cases move more quickly than in military tribunals, ensuring that suspects don’t languish in jail for years without having been proved guilty. Civilians oversee the trials. But they take place on military bases. Glenn Sulmasy, a captain at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, calls them “National Security Courts.” (Read about them here.)
Changing times, the changing nature of wars, require new thinking about how to try prisoners, Simmons said. Just as they require a broader discussion of how to conduct foreign policy. If he has his way, that discussion can take place even in a modern sound-bite-addled political campaign.