by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 5, Jumada' al-Ula', 1426)
Code Name: Deciphering US Military Plans, Programs and Operations in the 9/11 World by William M. Arkin. Pub: Steerforth Press,Hanover, NH, 2005. Pp: 608. Hbk: $27.95.
By Leila Juma
For all the US’s claims to champion universal ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights, its global power is in truth built on much more mundane and less idealistic bases: the power of its military and the reach and influence of its intelligence services. While American politicians call for open-ness and accountability in other countries, these elements of their own power are shrouded in secrecy. While American politicians claim popular and democratic legitimacy for the policies they pursue, the reality is that few of the American people know anything about what their politicians do in their name, not only because they do not bother to find out, but also because politically realities are systematically hidden and lied about by those in power. So effective is the secrecy that few people realise how little they know.
Of course, some elements of this hidden world do sometimes seep into the public domain, but these tend to be disjointed fragments of information from which it is difficult to draw a greater picture. An example is the existence of a GulfstreamV executive jet that operates under cover of fictitious companies and owners, flitting around the world illegally transporting US prisoners from one country to another, by-passing legal processes and protection. The existence of the aircraft, operated by the CIA, was revealed in the Times newspaper, London, in autumn 2004, and further details were published by the Washington Post in December 2004. Such information appears, is published, and then disappears from the notice of all but a tiny number of readers, making little impact on the wider public consciousness.
In this book William Arkin, an American intelligence expert, catalogues many such secrets by laying out as much as is known about many of the codenames used for them that have come into the public domain. Of course, the names themselves are useless; the US authorities must have changed them as soon as they realised that they had become known. But the value of this book lies in the fact that such names exist at all, and the little-known details of the secrets that lie behind them. The codes he lists are the result of years of research into intelligence matters that have made him a highly-respected journalist on such issues.
In June 2002, for example, he revealed that there was a codename ‘Polo Step’ that indicated an extremely high level of secrecy behind which senior White House and Pentagon officials were planning a war on Iraq. This was a level of secrecy so high that those cleared for ‘Top Secret’ information were not even aware that a higher level of secrecy existed. Arkin’s publication of the name ‘Polo Step’, and some of the details of the planning it hid, resulted in a massive but unsuccessful investigation to discover how he learnt the name.
The bulk of the book is effectively a reference listing of some 3,000 out-of-date codenames, whose value lies in what they remind us of, rather than the names themselves. For some, little information is available; for example ‘Acer Gable’ is listed only as “an unknown Air Force weapon or project”. In other cases, the names are not secret, but reflect the propaganda value that the military wanted to put on the operations in question. An American military operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2003 was known as ‘Resolute Strike’. In some cases, the names serve simply as reminders that particular kinds of tactics are used; thus ‘Talent Keyhole’ is used for satellite interception of communications. In other cases, Arkin provides useful information that even informed observers might not have access to; for example, that ‘West Wing’ refers to two secret US airbases in Jordan that are used for air operations against Iraq.
There are also two other useful sections. The first provides a list of federal departments, agencies, commands and organizations involved in intelligence work, along with details of their roles and activities, again providing a sense of the scale of the US’s secret intelligence work. The second is a country-by-country directory listing US operations in different parts of the world, and their cooperation (or lack thereof) with the US in its “war on terror”. This reminds us of the close links the US has with countries like Kyrgyzstan (where US forces have use of a major airbase), and its covert operations in places like Jordan, where CIA officers investigate local political dissidents and a military intelligence team operated under the codename ‘Gray Fox’ before the Iraq war, as well as the way is cultivates contacts in other countries, for example by inviting military officers from countries which do not even have diplomatic links with the US to attend courses and conferences at Pentagon-linked thinktanks.
Arkin is so hated by the US authorities that false documents naming him as an Iraqi spy during the Saddam period were leaked to the media earlier this year. The authorities had to admit they were forged after investigations by other reporters. The information in this book, which the US would prefer people did not know, shows precisely why.