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Don’t Hold Your Next Academic Conference in Egypt or Pakistan

Mark Mazzetti has a blockbuster piece in today’s New York Times about a secret order issued by Gen. David Petraeus last fall, with the aid of Adm. Eric Olson, that authorizes Special Operations Forces in the Middle East and South Asia to “fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond.” In practice — and a Petraeus spokesman declined comment here — that reportedly means engaging in covert action to fill those gaps. That means taking measures that the government would deny any knowledge of occurring (something the CIA is legally authorized to perform) rather than clandestine operations, in which the government merely denies involvement. Special operators can do clandestine stuff, but (typically) not covert stuff.

What might this mean in practice? Mazzetti:

General Petraeus’s September order is focused on intelligence gathering — by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others — to identify militants and provide “persistent situational awareness,” while forging ties to local indigenous groups.

Petraeus’ spokesman declined comment. But if that’s faithfully reported, it sounds a lot like uniformed personnel could assume civilian cover for intelligence purposes. And that carries the non-trivial risk of unaffiliated businesspeople or academics or journalists or tourists in the Middle East or South Asia being presumed to be spies — and, hence, targets — by local security forces or extremists. Foreign allied governments in the region might also not like the U.S. sponsoring “local indigenous groups” that might destabilize their countries or threaten their rule.

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