May 10th, 2013
07:03 PM ET

History repeats itself with 'war on terror'

‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres this Sunday at 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET

By Remi Brulin, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Remi Brulin is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Journalism Institute. You can follow him @RBrulin. The views expressed are his own.

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, we are finally getting a clearer picture of the ways in which the United States is waging what it calls its “war on terrorism.”

At the center of the government’s strategy has been the decision to shift the focus away from capturing and interrogating alleged terrorist suspects to killing them, with a series of covert wars prosecuted mostly by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command frequently relying on so-called kinetic operations: night raids, “find, fix and finish” operations, cruise missile strikes, and the increasing use of drones.

Yet these approaches raise not only fundamental legal and moral questions, but also doubts about their long-term strategic effectiveness. And, to a historian, they also carry disturbing echoes of the past.

Decades ago, Latin American regimes allied with the U.S., and then the U.S. government itself, insisted that they were fighting a war on terrorism. In the process, they resorted to methods and tactics that themselves fit any reasonable definition of terrorism. Indeed, America’s “targeted killings” and the 2004 decision to fund and train Iraqi special commandos echo very specific practices of the 1970s and 1980s. Considered in such a historical context, they highlight some of the fundamental contradictions and inconsistencies that lie at the heart of the discourse on terrorism.

Take the case of Orlando Letelier, who was one of the most vocal opponents of the Pinochet regime in Chile. In 1976, he was killed by a car bomb in the streets of Washington, DC. Planned by the Chilean secret services, this action was reportedly carried out by members of the U.S.-based Cuban Nationalist Movement. Fast forward to today, during recent Senate hearings on “targeted killings and the drone wars,” and Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks has expressed concerns that U.S. practices may weaken the rule of law and set dangerous precedents. Were the Letelier assassination to have taken place today, she explained, the Chilean government would likely use arguments similar to those of the Obama administration when justifying strikes in Yemen or Somalia.

More from GPS: The future of the terrorist threat

In the 1970s, the leaders of Chile and several other Latin American military regimes repeatedly referred to the threat to national security posed by “subversives” and “terrorists.” In fact, they often insisted that they were waging a war against terrorism.”

Faced with a supposed coordinated terrorist threat, these states implemented a coordinated response: a secret program called Operation Condor, under which they shared intelligence and sent hit teams across international borders to find, capture, torture and kill hundreds of so-called terrorists. Letelier was simply Condor’s most famous victim.

How did the U.S. react? The government’s refusal to declassify countless documents makes it hard for us to assess just how much the United States knew about Operation Condor. But documents that have been declassified suggest that U.S. officials did little to stop such practices and that in their private communications with their allies, they agreed that the threat of “terrorism” required drastic measures.

Regardless, in public, the Letelier assassination was condemned as an act of international terrorism, and led to the U.S. ending all aid to Chile. But this surely begs the question of whether current targeted killing practices resembling the Letelier case should themselves be condemned as acts of terrorism?

The implementation of the “Salvador Option for Iraq” raises similarly awkward questions.

Faced with a growing insurgency, in 2004 the Bush administration initiated an important shift in strategy and started funding and training Special Police Commandos. Their methods were brutal, and are alleged to have included the widespread use of torture.

The program was reportedly advised by retired Colonel Jim Steele, a highly decorated soldier during the Reagan years who led a group of U.S. advisers training and funding El Salvador’s security forces. El Salvador was central to Reagan’s discourse on “terrorism” and he repeatedly insisted that the Salvadoran security forces needed U.S. military aid to defeat the threat.

Yet it would be impossible to define terrorism in a way that would include the Salvadoran leftwing forces, which the Reagan administration repeatedly labeled as terrorists, without also including the rightwing forces funded and trained by the United States, and which were responsible for the overwhelming majority (as much as 90 percent) of civilian deaths during that conflict.

That the U.S. government decided to implement similar policies in Iraq in 2004, a country supposedly at the heart of the war on terrorism at the time, underscores how murky and ideological the discussion of terrorism has become, especially in the post-9/11 years.

Sadly, implemented in secrecy and outside any system of accountability, policies in the so-called war on terror are often immoral, of dubious legality, and of less than obvious long-term strategic value. At home, meanwhile, they have led to the troubling erosion of civil liberties.

America would be better served if the whole narrative of the war on terror were retired and the “war” itself – both at home and way – with it.

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Topics: Terrorism

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Fareed, do you think houses are gratuitous? Apartments seem better for the environment and seem more cost effective. I am asking this because I recently realized that I like apartments and dislike houses. Am I the only one?

    May 10, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      Also, what is the link between gun ownership and living in an apartment?

      May 11, 2013 at 10:32 am | Reply
  2. TX Patriot

    Why do my posts not show up?

    May 10, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Reply
    • rightospeak

      Because you are a patriot and probably told them the truth. The Imperial Parrots are afraid of truth as the devil is afraid of Holy Water. Many, many of my comments vanished -it contradicted their propaganda.

      May 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  3. kamal taori

    I fully support the contents and the fear. Actually this problem of terror needs a holistic or multi-pronged strategy where both precept and practice have to be questioned and provided with alternatives. Eye for eye may never be the solution and hence this holistc, area based development planners could go a long way in solving the problems of our time. Let USA come out with alternative development and growth strategy by strengthenening the bottom, network with actual doers and the problems wll have holistic solutions. But where is the understanding and also the will to go beyond and look for the best, voluntary solutions to the problems of our time. Many have alternatives

    May 10, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  4. Benedict

    But Americans were horrified when they learnt about water-boarding as a means of obtaining information from terror suspects. How then do American security get terror plots from hardened individuals without breaking their moral code?!.

    May 11, 2013 at 2:57 am | Reply
  5. TX Patriot

    Recently released damage inspection video shows clearly that there was no 757 in the Pentagon on 9/11. It really does not matter what anyone says they saw, there must be a plane (wreck) inside. There was no video of the inside allowed to the public for more than 11 years. Watch the video and you will see why.

    Search on youtube – Pentagon Damage Video

    May 11, 2013 at 3:11 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Be careful TX Patriot, the right-wingers may have your comments censored. Such posts like yours and mine tends to hurt their feelings. They want us to believe in their phony "war on terror" which is really a war for Western expansionism in both the Middle East and Central Asia.

      May 13, 2013 at 12:14 am | Reply
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  10. karinalibary

    You might want to read Joe Frazier's new memoir of reporting on the El Salvador war as the Associated Press's Central America Correspondent during the war years. It's a ground's-eye view of a largely forgotten war and the lessons it should have (and still can?) teach us. As the article here on CNN points out, El Salvador is a point of historical insight for decisions the US made later, but it is also a case study in how countries fall apart and what that means for eveyday people.

    Listen to Joe reading from the introduction and read an online preview here: (and you can find some nice things fellow journalists have said about the book).

    May 12, 2013 at 11:03 am | Reply
    • RBrulin

      Will do. Sounds fascinating. Thank you for mentioning it to me!

      May 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • African Queen

      Thank you for recommending this book. I just read the preview. Very fascinating...on my way to buy a copy!

      May 16, 2013 at 9:44 am | Reply
  11. rightospeak

    Yes , unfortunately history repeats itself because we do not rule ,but are being ruled and NOT for our benefit. It appears that we are heading for planned disaster-our industries sold out to the Chinese, endless wars depleted our treasury and put us in debt, most of our gold is probably gone- that is why CBC film "The Secret World of Gold " was removed from some sites and is not being shown on American TV. When will the American public realize that we are fast heading for an abyss and social unrest ?

    May 12, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      I'm afraid that when the Americans realize what you said is true rightospeak, it may be too late. Ignorance is by far the biggest problem this country faces. That's how Mitt Romney got nominated and Barack Obama elected last year and is the reason that the Tea Party Movement is flourishing!

      May 13, 2013 at 12:19 am | Reply
  12. j. von hettlingen

    Targeted killings are nothing new. The Israelis had been conducting their operation "Wrath of God" for more than 20 years, to eliminate the 11 Palestinians behind the massacre of 11 Israeli team members at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.
    The US had trained the Iraqi security forces to combat the Al-Qaeda in 2004. The same forces are cracking down on Sunni demonstrators, leading to widespread outrage and secessionism.

    May 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
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