USS Clueless -- Notes on the rescue of Elian in Miami

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Notes on the rescue of Elian in Miami

Did they have to use so many men and so many weapons?

Actually, they did.

Setting aside the decision to make an armed raid, once that job was assigned to the agents, they had to design a mission with two goals:

  1. Retrieve the child so he could be reunited with his father.
  2. Try not to harm anyone while doing so.

Suppose that four agents in plain clothes had shown up in the afternoon, with plenty of warning. One stays with the car, three go inside. I think this may be what some people envision as a more appropriate level of response. What happens?

A riot, that's what happens. Several hundred Cubans surround the house and refuse to permit the agents to leave with the child. Armed only with pistols, either they shoot their way out, or they leave without the child. Maybe both. Regardless, the mission fails.

The presence of the mob changes everything. It can't be ignored. (And if you don't believe their intention to riot, please note that in the hours following the rescue, there was extensive rioting in Miami.)

To succeed on both sections of the mission, the raid had to be made without warning, with complete surprise, in the middle of the night, with overwhelming force, and had to be accomplished very rapidly.

This was, in essence, a hostage rescue mission. The core of the mission team were US Marshals. Now, the Marshals train for these kinds of missions or rather, for worse ones. What they train to do is to apprehend fugitives who are often armed, dangerous and desperate. They train to accomplish that with as few casualties as possible. The perfect mission is capture of the fugitive with no-one getting hurt.

Sun Tzu tells us that Supreme excellence in war lies in causing your opponent to surrender without a fight. And so it is here.

In the face of a mission like this, if someone thinks there's a good chance of succeeding, then they are more likely to resist, thus requiring the application of deadly force. But if they are presented with a threat so great that resistance is obviously futile, then they are more likely to give up without a fight.

So the agents train in presenting the most obvious and formidable threat they can. They deliberately shout; they deliberately threaten verbally to kill anyone who even looks like they might offer resistance, because by doing so they reduce the chance that they'll actually have to do so. While the outfits they wear are functional, they are also intimidating, and aid in this effort to demoralize resistance.

Nor is this an empty threat. It is no bluff. The guns are real, the ammunition is live, and the Marshals train extensively in their use. (But the sage says that the best time to bluff is with four aces.)

But why so many? Because of the crowd. The mission had to be intimidating, overwhelmingly strong, and fast, because it was necessary to stun that crowd and demoralize it to prevent it from interfering. The nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs was a riot, because then anything could have happened, including a bloodbath. If members of the crowd were also armed, it could have turned into a firefight, the worst of the worst possibilities.

The sudden appearance of a platoon of heavily armed men scared the crowd for a few minutes. It wouldn't have lasted; they would have eventually reorganized and attacked. But during those few minutes, the mission was accomplished and the child rescued.

Once the child was away, all that remained was an orderly withdrawal, something else they train in. However, once the child was away there was no longer any reason for the crowd to fight, so the danger was lessened.

But if blame for any of this lies anywhere, it is squarely with the family in Miami and with the Cuban community there, who deliberately set up the situation to make a forced seizure of the child as dangerous and volatile as they possibly could without directly violating the law.

What of the man who was hit on the head? First, let's be clear that he was committing a felony at the time he was struck: he was attempting to prevent federal agents from carrying out their duty. In other circumstances they would have been well within their rights to shoot him. So any claims of "roughing up innocent bystanders" are nonsense. He ceased to be innocent as soon as he started trying to block the door.

But more important is that he represented the first manifestation of the crowd beginning to get organized to resist. It had to be stopped, because if it wasn't. the whole situation would have been out of control about two minutes later, and much worse might have been necessary. By bonking that guy with a rifle butt, it wasn't necessary to shoot five people shortly thereafter.

They also used gas and pepper spray on the crowd. Again, they were using a display of non-lethal force, so that lethal force would not be required. It was not gratuitous brutality; it was a measured response in an explosive sitation to keep things under control, by intimidating that crowd. While it is true that some of those gassed were women and children, the blame for that lies with those people who chose to place them there in harm's way the Cuban community of Miami.

The mission went nearly perfectly. Injuries were minor, the child was retrieved, and the agents got away safely without firing any shots. It was a textbook example of how to deal with such a situation, and those who planned it and those who carried it out deserve the highest commendation.

And as for the Cuban community of Miami, I have no sympathy for them. None whatever.

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