This is no consolation

I. Several years ago for a Tennebrae or perhaps a Good Friday service, I was asked to come up with contemporary songs to match the traditional seven words Jesus said on the cross as he was dying:

  1. “Forgive them, Father! They do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
  2. “I tell you this: Today you will be in Paradise with me.” (Luke 23:43)
  3. He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ (John 19:26-27)
  4. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
  5. “I thirst.” (John 19:28)
  6. “It is finished.” ( John 19:30)
  7. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)


II. I can’t recall the songs I chose for any but the first, and it’s running through my mind and heart again this Lenten season. I chose the 10,000 Maniacs’ “Please Forgive Us:”

"Mercy, mercy," why didn't we hear it?
"Mercy, mercy," why did we read it 
buried on the last page of our morning papers?
The plan was drafted, drafted in secret.
Gunboats met the red tide, driven to the rum trade 
for the army that they created.
But the bullets were bought by us, it was dollars that paid them.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done
in our name.

There'll be more trials like this in mercenary heydays.
When they're so apt to wrap themselves up
in the stripes and stars and find that they are able
to call themselves heroes
and to justify murder by their fighters For freedom.

Please forgive us, we don't know what was done.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
Could you ever forgive us? I don't know how you could.

I know this is no consolation:
Please forgive us, we don't know what was done,
Please forgive us, we didn't know.

Could you ever believe that we didn't know?
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, we didn't know.
I wouldn't blame you if you never could.
Please forgive us, and you never will.


III. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE I just finished taking a “History of U.S. Foreign Policy” class through the local college, where we learned or were reminded of the many covert operations the U.S. CIA has led to overthrow governments and assassinate those it considered enemies. From the formal creation of the CIA in 1947 (and the creation of the covert arm in 1948), there are many examples, in places like Vietnam, Hungary, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Greece, Bolivia, Cambodia, El Salvador, and the countries below:

>> The overthrow of the IRANian government (1953): Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA (featuring Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, and Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr.) and the UK worked to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran, led by Mohammad Mossadegh, “who had attempted to nationalize Iran’s petroleum industry, threatening the profits of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company” (now BP). The U.S. and UK imposed a boycott on the country and “conducted a massive covert propaganda campaign to create the environment necessary for the coup,” both in Iran and in the U.S. They portrayed it as a spontaneous popular uprising when it was anything but. They installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who formed a military government, ruled as an autocrat, and was heavily supported by the U.S. until he was overthrown in 1979. “Over the next 25 years, more than $20 billion in U.S. taxpayers’ money would pour into a decidedly undemocratic Iran, most of it military aid and subsidized weapons sales for the Shah’s armed forces and SAVAK, his secret police”(from The Oily American, referenced below).

>> GUATEMALA (1954): CIA overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán because the powerful U.S. company, United Fruit Company — with whom both Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, Allen, the CIA director, had financial, personal and legal ties — objected to Árbenz’s plan to reappropriate (with compensation based on tax statements) unused land that had been taken from the Guatemalan people. Or as Schlesinger (see citation below) puts it, “Washington feared Arbenz because he tried to institute agrarian reforms that would hand over fallow land to dispossessed peasants, thereby creating a middle class in a country where 2 percent of the population owned 72 percent of the land. Unfortunately for him, most of that territory belonged to the largest landowner and most powerful body in the state: the American-owned United Fruit Company.”

United Fruit Company staged a PR campaign in the U.S. to convince us that Guatemala was a communist threat to the U.S. and pushed Eisenhower (and the CIA) to get involved, or they would seem “soft on Communism.”

As Wikipedia says (see also Watch Out for the Top Banana by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006): “In 1954, for his clients, the Eisenhower Administration and the United Fruit Company, the public relations expert [and nephew of Sigmund Freud] Edward Bernays engineered American popular consent for the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état to overthrow a capitalist democracy in Central America. The propaganda operation used the North American press to frighten the US public into believing that President Árbenz was a Communist and a political puppet of the USSR, and, therefore, that Guatemala had become a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, the backyard of the United States.”

The CIA harrassed Árbenz, cut off aid and embargoed arms (while increasing arms shipments to neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua), planted Soviet-made weapons on the border to imply that Guatemala was getting arms from the Soviets. As noted in Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1993), “Such economic sabotage of Guatemala was secret, because economic warfare violated the Latin American non-intervention agreement to which the United States was a signatory party; public knowledge that the US was violating the non-intervention agreement would prompt other Latin American countries to aid Guatemala in surviving the American economic warfare.” The CIA also created a small mercenary army of about 500, which they trained in Nicaragua and Honduras. They hired pilots to drop propaganda about the army and they created a fake radio station to tout its supposed victories. Though this mercenary army was no threat to the Guatemalan army, the Guatemalan military feared that if they defeated the CIA invasion, the U.S. would intervene and occupy the country. Panicked Guatemalan officers sent Árbenz into exile. The CIA’s chosen man, Col. Castillo Armas, became the new president, massacring people and wiping out dissent until he was assassinated by his body guard in 1957, when Guatemala then went from military government to military government for the next 30 years, supported by the U.S.

As a review of Weiner’s book on the CIA (cited below) puts it: “Guatemala was made safe for United Fruit — talk about banana republics — but not for democracy. A series of military dictators followed the CIA coup, with death squads and repression in which perhaps 200,000 Guatemalans perished.”

>> The Bay of Pigs (CUBA, 1961), the unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba and attempted overthrow of the revolutionary leftist government of President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado by a counter-revolutionary military trained and funded by the CIA (still under Allen Dulles, with Richard M. Bissell, David Philips, Gerald Drecher and E. Howard Hunt), first authorized by Eisenhower and his National Security Council, and then continued under John F. Kennedy. It was defeated by the Cuban military, under Prime Minister Fidel Castro’s command, within three days. This victory for the Castro administration eventually led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

>> The ‘secret war’ in LAOS (1961-1975): “As the Vietnam War raged, Washington noticed that communist forces had spilled over into Laos. In response, the Americans launched what was later called a secret war. At the time, Laos had been declared ‘neutral,’ but with a growing communist presence, the CIA saw it as the next front in the conflict. A handful of CIA agents were flown in to build on existing tensions between the Hmong and the Laotian government, led by the communist Pathet Lao” (Wikipedia).  The CIA helped train and arm more than 60,000 Hmong fighters, who were to disrupt communist supply lines while the Americans set up a major military airport in Northern Laos. The CIA gave the fighters their own airline, Xieng Kouang airlines, which aided the already bustling opium trade in the region. Even though the U.S. used the Hmong to fight — and was spending $2 million a day carpet bombing Laos — it finally admitted defeat before the stronger communist army and fled. The secret war lasted 15 years during which it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 Hmong died. There are apparently still Hmong people hiding in the jungles of Laos.

>> The overthrow/killing of Salvador Allende in CHILE (1970-1973). When Marxist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile (Sept 1970), U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered that he “not be allowed to take office.” Nixon “pursued a vigorous campaign of covert resistance to Allende, first designed to convince the Chilean congress to confirm Jorge Alessandri as the winner of the election. … Once Allende took office, extensive covert efforts continued with U.S.-funded black propaganda, … strikes organized against Allende, and funding for Allende opponents. … Following an extended period of social, political, and economic unrest, General Augusto Pinochet assumed power in a violent coup d’état on September 11, 1973; among the dead was Allende” (Wikipedia). The CIA says he committed suicide; others say he was massacred.

>> AFGHANISTAN (1979-1989): When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. “President Jimmy Carter, concluding that the Soviet army was passing through Afghanistan to seize the Middle East oil fields, sounded a warning: ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ Reagan replaced Carter as president in 1980, his administration got money from Congress (based on a faulty 1977 CIA report of faltering Soviet oil production) to arm Afghan insurgents and establish a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf, and “the CIA began one of its longest and most expensive covert operations, supplying billions of dollars in arms to a collection of Afghan guerrillas (including Osama bin Laden) fighting the Soviets. At the same time, the U.S. was secretly supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran after Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. The State Department removed Iraq from its list of countries supporting terrorism, so that they could buy weapons. At the same time, we were selling weapons to Iran in the Iran-contra scandal…

>> Iran-contra war against NICARAGUA (1981-1990): Attempts to destabalise and overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, whose democratically elected president was Daniel Ortega. The CIA created a group whose task was to “sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it.” That group is best known for mining Nicaraguan harbors, sinking several Nicaraguan boats and damaging at least five foreign vessels, which led to international condemnation of the U.S. in 1984. The contras, based in Honduras, were waging a guerrilla war to topple the government of Nicaragua. The U.S. financed, armed, trained, and advised them. And even though the Boland Amendment made it illegal under U.S. law to provide arms to the contra militants, the Reagan administration nonetheless armed and funded them, secretly selling weapons to Iran (also in violation of U.S. law) in exchange for cash that they used to supply arms to the contras.

As CIA Director Bill Casey (1981-1987) said: “It takes relatively few people and little support to disrupt the internal peace and economic stability of a small country.”


IV. I CAN’T GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD BECAUSE of our ongoing drone strikes in other countries, killing civilians and combatants without any due process whatsoever. We have two drone programs running now, the covert drone strike program, run by the CIA, and the military drone program, run by the Pentagon. The Pentagon administers its drone program in war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and also in Yemen and Somalia, where it’s carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command. The CIA began its program in Yemen in 2002, expanding in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2004, and ramping up dramatically there and in Yemen and Somalia in 2011 under President Barack Obama. The CIA has never publicly acknowledged its covert drone program.

Estimates for the number of people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen vary widely — partly because the U.S. reportedly counts as a militant any military-age male killed in a drone strike — from about 2,500 to 4,800 — including militant/enemy deaths (2,300 to 3,900) and civilian deaths (170 to 900). Drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2012 are estimated to have injured another 1,300 people.

In May 2012, John Bellinger, former legal adviser for the National Security Council, said on the Diane Rehm show on NPR that the Obama administration “dramatically ramped up the program far more than the Bush administration, perhaps because they learned the lesson of what happened by capturing and detaining people. And we saw what happened with Guantanamo. So they’ve largely been focusing on killing them with several hundred drone strikes, killing thousands of people in several different countries … If the Bush administration had acknowledged a wide-ranging program to kill thousands of people in multiple countries around the world, including a number of civilians, the human rights groups and Europeans would have been outraged. I’m sure they would have accused the president of being a war criminal, grave breaches of international law. What we’ve seen up to this point, and even after this point, is at least European countries have just looked the other way.”

As Hina Shamsi of the ACLU said, on the same Diane Rehm show: “We believe [the drone strokes are] unlawful because the world is not a battle place and because people are being killed in places where the United States is not at war. … [T]he danger here is that the Obama administration, even though it has rightly turned its back on the nomenclature of a global war on terror, is essentially carrying forward the Bush administration’s claim of a worldwide battlefield.”

A detailed legal analysis — looking at legality of drone strikes in terms of Pakistan’s sovereignty, under international humanitarian law (which states, in part, that intentional lethal force is allowed “only when necessary to protect against a threat to life, and where there are ‘no other means, such as capture or non-lethal incapacitation, of preventing that threat to life'”), under U.S. domestic law (including in the context of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed one week after 9/11), and in terms of accountability and transparency — is available in the Stanford report (citation below).


V. Perhaps in the past we didn’t all know about covert actions, “done in our name;” perhaps they were “on the last page of the morning paper,” hidden from all but the most diligent (and literate); but now we have no excuse. We do know what is done in our name, with our dollars, with our bullets.

Mercenary heydays.

Mercy. Mercy.




Added: “The Killing Machines” by Mark Bowden, in The Atlantic, 14 Aug 2013

“Number of drone strikes is rocketing, but who’s counting?” by Michael Evans, in The Australian, 12 March 2013

Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer, in The Long War Journal, last updated 10 March 2013

CIA’s covert drone program may shift further onto Pentagon, by Ken Dilanian, in the Los Angeles Times, 17 Feb 2013.

Drones And Their Use In Counterterrorism, The Diane Rehm show, 7 Feb 2013.

Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes by Cora Currier at ProPublica, 5 Feb 2013

The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2013, at New America Foundation.

Charting the data for US air strikes in Yemen, 2002 – 2013, created by Bill Roggio and Bob Barry, in The Long War Journal, last updated 23 Jan. 2013.

Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan (182-page PDF), a report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at
NYU School of Law, Sept. 2012. Summary here. Legal analysis here.

US Drone Strikes, The Diane Rehm show, 31 May 2012

Iran – overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh (1953)

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

Guatemala – overthrow of Árbenz (1954)

“Ghosts of Guatemala’s Past” by Stephen Schlesinger, in The New York Times, 3 June 2011.

“Watch Out for the Top Banana” by Larry Tye, Cabinet, Fall 2006.

1954 Guatemalan coup d’état at Wikipedia. (Much the same version that I heard in my class this winter, from a history professor with a specialty in Latin American history.)

Bay of Pigs (1961)

Bay of Pigs Release, Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 2 Aug 2011: 769 documents (thousands of pages) of material, including the CIA Inspector General’s Report on the CIA’s ill-fated April 1961 attempt to implement national policy by overthrowing the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba by means of a covert paramilitary operation, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs, and a commentary on that report written by the Directorate of Plans. Also National Security Council briefings.

‘Secret war’ in Laos (1961-1975)

The CIA’s ‘Secret War’ by William Lloyd-George, in The Diplomat, 25 Feb 2011.

Chile – overthrow of Allende (1970-73)

CIA Activities in Chile, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 September 2000. Includes Overview of Covert Actions (Support for Coup in 1970, Awareness of Coup Plotting in 1973, Knowledge of Human Rights Violations, etc.), The ‘Assassination’ of President Salvador Allende; Accession of General Augusto Pinochet to the Presidency; Violations of Human Rights Committed by Officers or Covert Agents and Employees of the CIA.

The Church Report: Covert Action in Chile 1963-1973, from Freedom of Information Act – CIA, 18 Dec. 1975

Afghanistan (1979-1989):

The Oily Americans” by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, in Time, 13 May 2003.

General Info on CIA Covert Actions

Covert United States foreign regime change actions, Wikipedia. Well-documented article.


Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, which summarizes fourteen government overthrows by the US during the past century and a half.

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (2007) by Tim Weiner. Reviewed here.

U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare, and the CIA, 1945-53 by Sarah-Jane Corke, 2008. Reviewed here.


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