covert, adjective

1. secret or hidden; not openly practiced or engaged in or shown or avowed; "covert actions by the CIA"; "covert funding for the rebels"

And that’s our word of the day. Covert.

Apparently, as a noun, it refers to a flock of coots. I have no idea what a coot is… never seen one as far as I’m aware. I asked the research staff here at the PWB to provide a little information on the coot, perhaps even dig up a photo of a coot flock.

Needless to say, that request is languishing with the other various tasks piling up on their desks. The PWB office is clearly nothing more than a shelter for wayward slackers.

Regardless, onward and upward. I decided on the word of the day after spending some time in the car this morning listening to the news. Frankly, I’d rather spend my commute listening to my preset geezer rock stations, but my wife surreptitiously (different than covertly) reset some of my classic rock settings to NPR stations from around the country.

I don’t know about you, but I could sit in traffic all day long if the music’s right. And by right, I mean the kind of rock and roll that can reach down and make your privates tingle. The opening chords from an AC/DC tune, or the Stones, the Doors, Creedence, BTO, Lynyrd, Led, Cream, Pink…the Floyd, not the girl. That’s what keeps me sane during a drive.

If the music’s not right I might get a little testy. Testy as in taking the covers off the twin 50s on the front of the truck and opening up a fourth lane to the office. Believing that I should lower my blood pressure and focus on my happy place, my wife reset some of the stations.

Honestly, the music is rarely right on an NPR station, unless you’re a fan of Celtic tunes, obscure tribal sounds from around the globe or that smarmy introspective music being pooped out by a variety of solo male artists who all sound alike and spend too much time expressing their emotions.

But the NPR announcers do have really calm, measured voices. Voices that say “… I’m smarter than you, so shut your uneducated piehole and listen.”

Not exactly in those words, but there’s an implied meaning.

This morning, there was a mention of Pakistan. Specifically, there was a discussion by a handful of individuals (a handful is smaller than a flock) debating whether the U.S. should engage in covert operations on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan. I shall repeat that.

There was a discussion on the radio about the possibility of conducting covert operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban elements currently operating in Pakistan. This should not come as a surprise to anyone focused on world events and particularly the recent upheaval in Pakistan. Although I am aware that it’s tough to pay attention to world events now that American Gladiators has fired back up.

Is it just me, or are there others out there who would love to see the next presidential election decided on The Eliminator? This would save us a fortune in campaign expenses and reduce the election process down to a manageable 60 minutes including commercials.

But I digress. Here’s my point… if you’re having a dialogue in the media about whether to engage in covert operations, it could be too late to engage in covert operations. Unless I’m missing the point entirely, and that is entirely possible, the best covert ops are those done in secret.

See, in the not-so-old days, we’d identify a threat, gather what intelligence was possible, draw up scenarios for dealing with the threat and then carry out an operation. Nowhere in the checklist was there a bullet point labeled "See what the public thinks," or “Use media outlets to debate operational scenarios.”

Then what would happen is that the operation would either succeed, partially succeed or go all skeewampus. At a point afterwards, some tool would feel the need to leak information about the covert operation. Usually because they didn’t get enough hugs from their mother. At that point, we’d have an outcry from those on Capitol Hill who had been briefed on the operation (“I am shocked to learn of this, even though I did get a briefing on it last month…”) and eventually a hue and cry from the media.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was less screwed up than others I’ve seen. At least you had a chance to go after the enemy in private without an audience. Remember the enemy? Those fellas hate covert operations. Nothing a terrorist dislikes more than a well run covert operation.

So here we are… debating in the papers, radio and television whether the CIA should be launching covert ops in Pakistan to help eliminate the rats nest of Al Qaeda foreigners, Taliban , Pakistani extremists, Uzbeks and others who have sheltered in the tribal areas outside the control of the Pakistan military and the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI.

To be fair, we should probably put this matter up for a referendum and gather the opinions of all parties involved. At least we could satisfy those who argue the government should be completely transparent and sensitive to the needs of our enemies. After all, it’s our obnoxious ways, particularly our irritating desire to protect U.S. lives and interests, that make otherwise warm and loving Islamic extremists hate us.

Perhaps discussing the possibility of covert operations is in itself a clever covert op. Not only does the dialogue improve our image as an inclusive and open society, but it makes us look like complete dorks incapable of planning and conducting successful operations.

It’s fascinating that we’re having this open conversation about sneaking around Pakistan right in front of our Pakistani allies. It’s like sitting at the dinner table talking about what to do with Grandpa now that he’s old and thinks he’s Field Marshall Montgomery, while Grandpa sits at the table taking it all in. If I were a Pakistani government official, military or ISI officer, politician or average citizen, I’d be pretty damned irritated by the discussion.

Here’s the thing: Pakistan is a sovereign nation. As such, just like us, they act according to their own interests and agenda. For many years leading up to 2001, it was in their interest to support, train, finance and attempt to control the very extremists that are now turning on the Pakistani government and military. Lest we get all righteous and whiny about Pakistan accommodating the extremists, we did the same thing with the Mujahadeen during their jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

What are the lessons? Well, first, giving lots of weapons and ammunition to wild eyed, zealous Islamic extremists is, generally speaking, not going to bring you long term stability. I think we’ve learned that one already… just like Pakistan is learning the same lesson now (not to mention the Saudis and others).

Second, we won’t win this ongoing struggle against Al Qaeda and their like minded minions without the cooperation, support and efforts of our allies, particularly the Pakistanis.

And third, let’s show the Pakistani government and military some respect. Let’s have the decency to acknowledge their seat at the dinner table by not openly talking about the covert operations we may or may not conduct. I may be crazy as a coot, but keeping some things secret might just help us and hurt the enemy. I think that’s our objective, isn’t it?

As always, we encourage you to send in your thoughts, insight and churlish comments to peoplesweeklybrief@hotmail.com

While the staff here is far too inefficient to answer all the email, we do read everything. Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.