Posted by Brad @ 6:36 pm on October 16th 2013

Perfidy and that Somali Pirate

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So this weird hobby horse of mine. See Bin Laden raid , Colombia hostage rescue

Anyway, out of Belgium – officials undercover convinced a Somali pirate wanted for attacking Belgium vessels (who had publicly retired from pirating) that they wanted him to consult on a movie reflecting his life and on maritime piracy. So he traveled to Belgium and was promptly arrested. Yoink.

Permalink: /2013/10/16/perfidy-and-that-somali-pirate/

Posted by Brad @ 9:42 am on July 14th 2011

Perfidy and Bin Laden?

As details of the bin Laden raid continue to leak out, there’s one in particular that have given me and a few other people pause. Namely, the Guardian is reporting that American intelligence organized a fake vaccination program in the neighborhood in which the bin Laden compound was thought to be, as a way of potentially gaining access to his DNA (by extracting blood while vaccinating his children). The details can be found here.

A few years ago, you may recall, Colombian counter-narcotic forces rescued handful of long-held hostages taken by the rebel FARC, and which included three Americans: Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell. The hostages were rescued by Colombian officials pretending to be the Red Cross, getting the rebels to agree to an inspection of the hostages, and then…yoink.

I wrote at the time about the concept of perfidy – that is flying a false flag or otherwise convincing your enemies that you’re there for humanitarian reasons and instead, you know, shooting them when they surrender. The Bin Laden action is not precisely that, I think. No military action was taken at the time, it was not precisely in the context of a war, no specific organization was represented – really it falls much more cleanly under the category of garden variety intelligence ruse. Although it’s pretty iffy, my guess would be a fair court would likely rule that this action was permissible.

And yet, it is, after a fashion, an action that is problematic for the same reason you can’t pretend to be the Red Cross and then shoot the guy when he comes to you for treatment (or when he allows you to provide humanitarian aid to hostages). Namely, the ruse is an exploitation of precisely the same impulse that allows pretending to be the Red Cross to work: that is, the inherent trust that enemies have in the notion that humanitarian workers and doctors are not, in fact, agents of a military campaign exploiting your trust in them to get you killed. That a doctor approaching you to treat wounds, fundamentally, ought to be treated differently than you would treat somebody that might fall under the category of combatant. That humanitarian workers are out-of-bounds for either exploitation or retaliation.

Of course, nobody really gives a shit about whether resorting to trickery to get Bin Laden was “fair” or not, and if there’s anybody who has shown a propensity to exploit and retaliate against humanitarian workers, it’s Al Queda. That’s not the point. The point is, once you begin to pose as the Red Cross, or humanitarian workers, or local doctors going out in the community to give Hepatitis B vaccinations, then the enemy, quite rationally and justifiably, can view those people as no-longer off-limits. In a world in which America has a reputation for playing by a set of relatively clear rules, it might make America’s job harder, but our enemies are almost lulled into playing by those same rules. In a world where we don’t vaccinate children to enable us to kill their fathers, our enemies have no reason to mistrust vaccinations or the physicians and nurses who are giving them. In a world where the Red Cross relief workers or the nurse down the street providing medical care to neighborhood children might, in fact, be CIA agents come to kill you, those people are suddenly fair game.

So while the Bin Laden action isn’t quite flying a false flag, I think it’s an action of a similar kind. And the more we throw out the rule book in our military conduct and cease to care about holding ourselves to any ideals or constraints save those that are directly beneficial to the most immediate military (or police) action being taken, the more it’s us, as much as them, sowing the seeds of anarchy and nihilism.

James Fallows, Maryn McKenna, Kent Sepkowitz, and Christopher R. Albon all have thoughts on this that are worth reading.

Posted by Brad @ 9:50 am on August 7th 2008

Perfidy and Colombia

We of course reported on the freeing of the American hostages in Colombia, and the daring and pretty ingenious rescue the Colombian government devised and executed that precipitated it. We have been as central in the online fight to get our hostages back as anybody—much more so in truth.

But, in the glory of getting them back, one thing that had honestly not occurred to me at the time:

The International Red Cross said Wednesday that Colombia broke the Geneva Conventions by deliberately using its humanitarian emblem during the covert military mission that freed Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages…. “It seems to be a deliberate improper use of the emblem,” said Anna Schaaf, an ICRC spokesman. She said this was a violation of international law.

Use of the Red Cross symbol in a military operation violates the first Geneva Convention because it could damage the relief group’s neutrality in conflicts, endangering medical personnel on the battlefield who are using the red cross for protection.

In the July 2 rescue, a team of Colombian military intelligence agents posing as members of a fake international humanitarian group airlifted the hostages safety, including Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, and three U.S. military contractors….

Now, fat chance the Colombian government is going to give a toss what the Red Cross says on this matter. And Andy McCarthy will not be alone in blowing a big fat raspberry on the whole notion of it. And, quoting WSJ’s Best of the Web, this attitude probably sums up most people’s immediate response:

“Maybe we’re dense, but it seems to us that rescuing civilian hostages from a terrorist group is a higher humanitarian priority than preventing unauthorized use of a trademark. The way the Red Cross interprets them, the Geneva Conventions seem almost quaint.”


The Red Cross is making nothing other than a very plain reading of the Geneva Conventions—and the American Field Manual for that matter (though America, let’s note, was not really involved here, just using that as an example). The relevant section is the prohibition on perfidy—battlefield trickery—and the very few prohibitions in that regard represent some of the oldest and most core values of Western society on what is and isn’t appropriate conduct in warfare.

And they matter.

A lot.


Posted by Brad @ 4:51 pm on May 19th 2014

CIA Says “Okay, No More Fake Vaccination Programs”

After a number of deans of schools of public health continue to raise alarm that after the CIA’s coordinated fake vaccination program in Pakistan, Pakistani’s who might have reason to fear the West (warlords in far flung areas) have, quite rationally, banned or otherwise harassed vaccination programs and the medical professionals trying to organize and execute them. Oh, and suddenly polio is resurgent there.

For what it’s worth. Although I suspect it’s not based on any internalization of the dangers of perfidy but rather just based on the fact that they don’t really have any going right now. So more a “yeah yeah, whatever, we’ll not do that for now”.

This is one of my hobby horses I know, but to reiterate again, the reason we have rules of war isn’t because we’re sissypants or because we’re following quaint and antiquated “civilized” rules in a world that no longer does, akin to the British lining up in fields to fight the Revolutionary War. Things like prohibitions on torture, on false flag operations, on mass and indiscriminate police state surveillance, on assassinating other heads of state, on indefinite detention or indiscriminate killing of non-battlefield “combatants”, and basically all those things you find prohibited in the Geneva Conventions and Army Field Manual, aren’t based on quint “gentlemen” agreements. They are rather based on centuries of hard won wisdom on unintended consequences and how, even if certain things may expedite short term military objectives, they do so at the expense of the long term goals of what Western Civilization is presumably trying to achieve with military action in the first place – peace, stability, health, freedom, etc.