The relentless drumbeat against Donald Trump continues. The Washington Post on October 14 endorsed Hillary Clinton for president while also including in the print edition nine articles, three op-eds, and three letters blasting the GOP candidate, including pieces in the Style and Metro sections of the paper. On the following day there were five articles, a lead editorial, three letters, two op-eds, and two cartoons. And the Post is not alone, with the New York Times doing its bit in running news articles on Trump’s alleged sexual proclivities while the television media continue to run with the stories relating to earlier revelations. When Trump raised the possibility that all of this activity is being coordinated and possibly in part fabricated by the Clinton campaign, he was castigated for even suggesting such a thing.
More disturbing, in my opinion, is the role the White House has been playing in the drama. President Barack Obama has been active in speaking for Hillary and damning Trump, describing the GOP candidate as both unfit for office and lacking in the experience necessary to become head of state. There is a certain irony in Obama’s assertions, as he himself entered office as probably the least experienced president of the past hundred years, but it is the White House’s taking the lead in an electoral campaign that is at a minimum troubling. Traditionally, the president as head of state should be above the fray, as he is paid and empowered by the people to run the country, not to campaign for his successor. It is to be presumed that the Democratic National Committee foots the bill when Obama engages in campaign whistle-stops, but one has to wonder if that includes all the infrastructure costs involved in moving the president from place to place. And, undoubtedly, it would be difficult to winnow out costs when Obama combines campaigning and his official duties.
Michelle Obama holds no official office, so it is less problematic when she hits the campaign trail. Nevertheless, I think it somewhat unseemly that the wife of the president is so heavily engaged in the Hillary Clinton campaign. In recent stops clearly designed to appeal to women, she has denigrated Trump, saying that his comments had shaken her “to her core.” Such criticism is reasonable enough given some of the Trumpean bon mots that have surfaced of late, but there is a touch of hypocrisy in it all given Bill Clinton’s record as a sexual predator, which was certainly in part enabled by Hillary to preserve their political viability.
While the self-immolating Donald Trump certainly deserves much of the criticism hurled at him, the nearly hysterical promotion of Hillary Clinton as a moderate and reasonable alternative by the combined forces of the White House and media does the voter no favors. Pillorying Trump for his ignorance and insensitivity ignores how awful Hillary Clinton is in her own way. Hillaryland promises to be an evolutionary place where Democratic strategists work to bring together a permanent electoral advantage through shrewd appeals to unite segments of the population that see themselves as victimized. And it will also bring with it a likelihood of more war, not only against various players in the Middle East, but also against Russia in Europe, as well as Syria and China in the Pacific.
American voters should wake up to the issue of war versus peace. Daniel Larison and other contributors here at TAC have demonstrated how Hillary Clinton would be a highly aggressive president, with a particular animus directed against Russia. Unfortunately, she would find little opposition in Congress and the media for an extremely risky foreign policy, and would benefit from the Washington groupthink that prevails over the alleged threats emanating from Russia, Iran, and China. James Stavridis, a retired admiral who was once vetted by Clinton as a possible vice president, recently warned of “the need to use deadly force against the Iranians. I think it’s coming. It’s going to be maritime confrontation and if it doesn’t happen immediately, I’ll bet you a dollar it’s going to be happening after the presidential election, whoever is elected.”
Another glimpse of where we might be heading with Hillary in charge was provided last week by Carl Gershman in a Washington Post op-ed, “Remembering a journalist who was killed for standing up to Putin,” that received curiously little additional coverage in the media. Gershman is the head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which means that he is a powerful figure in Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. For those unfamiliar with NED, it is a self-described non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to spreading democracy worldwide. It has been heavily engaged in the various pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe as well as in the Arab Spring. It is funded by the United States government to the tune of $100 million-plus a year, which suggests that its NGO status is somewhat of a convenience, enabling it to carry out projects that the White House would like to distance itself from. Some critics of NED recall that the organization was founded in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, and was intended to be another element in fighting Soviet influence during the Cold War. Currently, it has plausibly been described as doing the sorts of things that the CIA used to do.
NED has a Democratic Party wing called the National Democratic Institute for Foreign Affairs, which is headed by Madeleine Albright, and a Republican Party wing called International Republican Institute, which is led by Sen. John McCain, so support for it is bipartisan. Gershman, who has been plausibly described as a neoconservative and is certainly an interventionist, has been president of the overall NED organization since its founding 33 years ago.
Gershman’s op-ed recalls the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya ten years ago, blaming it on Russian President Vladimir Putin even though there is no evidence to connect him to it and the actual killers were caught, confessed, and were convicted and imprisoned. He then goes on to trot out the usual crimes being committed by the Russian regime: “today, Russia occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. It has annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and threatened its Baltic and Nordic neighbors. It uses email hackers, information trolls and open funding of political parties to sow discord in Europe, weaken the European Union and NATO, and undermine confidence in Western institutions. In league with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, it is expanding its influence in the Middle East, and it is even intervening in the U.S. presidential election.”
Many of Gershman’s bumper-sticker claims are either partially true or unproven, while some of them are ridiculous, completely unsupported by evidence, but Gershman nevertheless concludes that “the United States has the power to contain and defeat this danger. The issue is whether we can summon the will to do so.” It is basically a call for the next administration to remove Putin from power—as foolish a suggestion as has ever been seen in a leading newspaper, as it implies that the risk of nuclear war is completely acceptable to bring about regime change in a country whose very popular, democratically elected leadership we disapprove of.
The comments from the Post readership on the article were largely critical of the author and also of NED itself. One critic wrote that NED should be renamed the “National Endowment for Permanently Boosting Raytheon’s Stock Prices.” Another observed that “No one elected Carl Gershman, the NED, the Council on Foreign Affairs, the Project for the New American Century. No one in the USA elected these people. No Americans elected the owners and editors of the Washington Post and the NY Times. Every poll shows Americans don’t want the USA to intervene in Syria, no actions against the Syrian government.” Still another comment noted that “I only wish I had the time and column space to refute all the lies and misinformation in this article.”
The point to be considered is that the fog created by the trashing of Trump obscures the very real danger posed by a possible President Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is wedded to the Washington foreign-policy consensus about how best to employ America’s vast military resources and is not reluctant to take aggressive action against adversaries who do not conform to Washington’s standards for good behavior. Such posturing might be considered acceptable to the American public when confronting a third-world country, but the stakes become dramatically higher when one is dealing with a country with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them on target. The possibility that hardlining overseas might escalate into such an encounter should be a very serious consideration when Americans go to the polls in two and a half weeks’ time.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
People who make their living thinking about defense policy and national security like everything to fit into a nice framework, preferably one that can be visualized on a PowerPoint slide. If you are unfortunate enough to be standing next to two officials speaking Pentagonese during a reception, you will note that their language is full of acronyms relating to projects and obscure government agencies—and that they refer regularly to strategic concepts and systems, including the venerable “triad” of nuclear deterrence.
The “triad” concept holds that when a country fields land-, air-, and submarine-based nuclear capabilities, it greatly increases its chances of being able to retaliate after an attack. In the case of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for example, if either side would have launched a first strike and knocked out the other side’s land- or air-based systems, submarines would still have provided a devastating second-strike capability. Nuclear war was such an awful prospect that it long was described as intrinsically the ultimate universal deterrent, rendering an actual armed conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that might escalate unthinkable.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 seemed to reduce the chance of nuclear war still further, even though the weapons had proliferated. But no one anticipated the level of hostility toward Russia that is now evident, and talk in the Pentagon is again focused on what it would take to win a war against an apparently resurgent Moscow. And for his part, earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew from a nuclear security pact, citing “hostile actions” by the U.S.
To be sure, much of the Pentagon’s animosity regarding Moscow is budget-driven, with generals and admirals needing an enemy more formidable than “international terrorism” to justify an enhanced role for their respective branches of the service. Recent general-staff claims that the U.S. Army is “outranged and outgunned” by the Russian military are credible only if one counts tanks and does not consider the opposing air forces. Alarms raised by former general and current self-promoting politician Wesley Clark that Russia has built an “invulnerable” tank have been met with derision. Many of the claims regarding advanced Russian weaponry come from the Ukrainian government, which clearly has an agenda to support as it seeks sophisticated U.S. offensive arms and military aid.
The reality is that Russia, apart from its nuclear arsenal, is a bit of a mouse that roared. Its struggling economy generates a GNP that is on par with that of Italy, and it spends one-seventh as much as the U.S. on the military. It has one aircraft carrier versus 10 in the American arsenal, one-sixth as many helicopters, one-third the number of fighter aircraft, and less than half as many active-duty military personnel. It has no effective military allies, while the U.S. has nearly all of Eastern and Western Europe in NATO.
Official U.S. policy is that NATO provides conventional deterrence at such a level that Russia would not be inclined to start a conflict with any alliance member lest it be defeated in short order. But Russia would have certain advantages if it were to attack without warning, relying on internal lines and deploying locally superior forces. And the reliability of a coordinated NATO response can be questioned, as the raison d’etre for NATO itself is wearing thin even as the alliance has expanded to include countries like Montenegro. One U.S. Army officer observed to journalist Mark Perry, “How many British soldiers do you think want to die for Estonia?”
The problems involved in actually mounting a credible conventional defense in Europe are why there is a second level of deterrence: the nuclear umbrella maintained by the United States, Britain, and France. U.S. officialdom used to suggest that Washington and NATO would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, but that was never an actual policy. Last month there were reports that President Obama had considered committing to “no first use” but was overruled by his cabinet, with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter describing such a pledge as “a sign of weakness.” Two liberal congressmen have since introduced a bill that would prohibit U.S. first use of nuclear weapons, but it appears to have little support and is likely to die in committee.
Carter, who describes nuclear weapons as the “bedrock” and “guarantor” of U.S. security, recently spoke at several Minuteman missile bases in the United States. He stated that the U.S. and its European allies are now “refreshing” U.S. strategy by integrating conventional and nuclear weapons in order to “deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO.” Carter explained that Moscow has little regard “for long-established accords of using nuclear weapons,” raising “serious questions” about “whether they respect the profound caution that Cold War-era leaders showed in respect to brandishing their nuclear weapons.”
Ash Carter also elaborated that “if deterrence fails, you provide the president with options to achieve U.S. and allied objectives … all to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons being used in the first place.” He emphasized “our will and ability to act.” Note that Carter did not suggest that the U.S. would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, and was clearly indicating that such weapons are in the mix of how to respond to what he obviously sees as an increasing Russian threat.
Carter is admittedly an anti-Russian hawk. He is also a physicist by training and is somewhat of an expert on policies relating to the use of nuclear weapons. Some of the changes he has made to our nuclear-deterrent policies were recently observable on CBS’s 60 Minutes, which ran a series on the state of the American nuclear arsenal. On board a nuclear-armed Ohio class submarine, officers spoke openly of the heightened state of alert—back up to a Cold War level—since “Russia invaded Crimea.” A relatively new tactical option was also discussed, referred to as “escalate to de-escalate,” which envisions defeating a conventional attack by means of a nuclear demonstration strike. The nuke would serve as a warning of more to come if the attack continued.
The concept of using a nuke as a warning is not exactly new. “Going nuclear” was considered a viable option during America’s two Iraq wars, if Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them, and it has also been a part of the battle plan should the United States go to war with Iran. But what has changed the calculus is the sophistication of the weapons themselves.
New tactical nuclear weapons, like the latest versions of the U.S. B-61, are small and portable. They can be launched from a bomber or as part of a cruise missile or even from a ground installation or vehicle. Further, their operators can “dial up a yield”—i.e., select the size of the explosion on the bomb itself. That means a demonstration nuclear strike can be effectively “nuclear” while also designed to have a relatively small footprint to reduce both civilian and military casualties. This selectivity makes such a bomb, in the minds of some generals and politicians, potentially an effective warning rather than an automatic escalation of the fighting—and as a result it is a weapon that is much “more usable.”
The Russians, of course, have similar weapons, and by some accounts their nuclear arsenal is more modern than that employed by the U.S. Moscow’s war doctrine was recently spelled out by Putin. He said that Moscow “would reserve the right to use nuclear weapons if the existence of Russia is threatened.” This has been interpreted as Putin acknowledging that his conventional forces cannot go head-to-head with those of the U.S. in the long run—and warning that Russia might be forced to go nuclear first, relatively early on in the conflict, to defend itself.
So one should conclude that both sides confronting each other over Eastern Europe are now prepared to go nuclear under certain circumstances. No one is asking the Poles and Slovaks, whose land might well be the site for such a demonstration, what they think, but their governments are officially on board with NATO strategies designed to deter Russia. Germany has, however, expressed considerable nervousness over the saber-rattling as memories of the Red Army are still somewhat fresh.
And there are frightening indications that some senior military officers might be eager to get things started in the belief that a war with Russia could actually be winnable. Certifiable loose cannons on deck include Wesley Clark, who reportedly tried to engineer a confrontation with Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo in 1999. Crazier still, Gen. Philip Breedlove (who retired earlier this year) worked hard during his time as supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe to get NATO and the U.S. involved in a proxy war over Ukraine. In leaked emails, an interlocutor suggested he and the U.N. secretary general might “fashion a NATO strategy to leverage, cajole, convince or coerce the U.S. to react” to the Russian “threat”; Breedlove found this “very promising.” Breedlove, who has regularly lied about the extent of the Russian presence in Ukraine, has hysterically described Moscow as a “long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies.” The general was also reportedly in contact with State Department Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who helped engineer the coup that overthrew the Ukrainian government in 2014.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is calling Putin a new Hitler while the New York Times editorializes against “Vladimir Putin’s Outlaw State.” And the real danger is that the Russian people are watching this display with concern and might soon believe themselves to be backed into a corner by an implacable enemy. Putin has several times warned that there is an increasing perception in Russia that the country is being surrounded and endangered by the continuous expansion of NATO as well as by threats relating to his country’s involvement in Syria. Opinion polls suggest that the average Russian now expects war with the West.
The insistence on the part of the many in the West that Putin must be resisted by using force majeure if necessary is based on gross exaggeration of the actual threat coming from Moscow. That nuclear weapons are now apparently employable in the plans for deterrence on the part of NATO, as well as in the Russian plans for self-defense, should be a terrifying prospect for anyone who cares about what might come next.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
There might well be thousands of books on terrorism, which means that it is extremely difficult to imagine something new. But Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? A History, due to be released next month, differs from most discussions of the terror phenomenon.
English is not a former intelligence officer or national-security official, nor a self-styled foreign-policy expert. He is instead a distinguished historian, born in Northern Ireland and currently a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has written four books on the Irish Republican Army and is very knowledgeable of the history and development of terrorist groups, primarily European ones. He is prone not only to ask questions, but also to try to answer them, having written in 2009 Terrorism: How to Respond.
I found Does Terrorism Work? particularly interesting, as my own career as a counterterrorism officer began in the mid-1970s, when terrorism was still pretty much Western European. I know quite a bit about the groups that English discusses, and I am also intimately familiar with the countermeasures that were employed to combat and eventually defeat them.
English basically accepts the United Nations language on what constitutes terrorism, which is: an action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” He observes that the threat of terror is greatly exaggerated for political reasons, and he notes that efforts to confront it through a global crusade like the U.S.-led War on Terror do little other than create more terrorists. He counsels a restrained response.
In coming to those conclusions he is far from alone. But English also shares his historian’s insights into how groups develop and are motivated, in part to help readers understand how public policy might respond to the actual threat that these groups constitute. As his title indicates, one of the central questions relating to terrorism—and one that oddly has received little attention—is whether it’s effective in achieving what terrorists seek to achieve.
English grades terrorist groups based on whether they achieved their objectives—a process that Thomas Nagel, writing in the London Review of Books, describes as a “report card.” Along the way he makes some assumptions. For example, he posits that terrorist leaders are not as a rule crazy. They are rational players in that they have well-defined political objectives that they seek to attain and that they explicitly lay out in their manifestos. Terror is consequently best seen as a tool in a political process.
English focuses on four terrorist entities—the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Euskadi Ta Akatasuna (ETA), Hamas, and al-Qaeda—though he discusses a number of other groups in passing. Three of his four groups have clearly demonstrated nationalist aspirations; they seek the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland (IRA), Basque independence from Spain (ETA), and restoration of Arab-Muslim hegemony in Palestine (Hamas). Al-Qaeda is defined by English as a “religio-political” movement that is transnational, but it too embraces territorial objectives, including removing the United States from the Middle East and overthrowing and replacing most of the “corrupt” Muslim regimes that are universally in power both in the region as well as in the remainder of the Islamic Ummah.
The book examines in considerable detail the histories of these groups. It notes that an overwhelming percentage of Irishmen and Basques do not and never have embraced the violent agenda promoted by the IRA and ETA, meaning that any kind of terrorist political ascendancy would never have popular support. And the groups have understood from the get-go that they would never defeat, say, the British Army or the Guardia Civil.
English also observes that the existence of terrorist groups actually hampered the moves toward greater regional autonomy, as terrorism hardened existing government positions and tended to undermine the efforts being made by more moderate reformers. In other words, Basque and Northern Irish autonomy would have come sooner without the distraction provided by the IRA and ETA—and change, when it did come, came in spite of the presence of these hostile armed groups, not because of it.
Al-Qaeda likewise is not particularly popular in the Muslim world and has accomplished little more than empowering the existing Islamic governments to get even tougher with dissidents. Its “victories,” as at 9/11, have been merely tactical and have led to the virtual destruction of the group. Hamas falls into the same trap with its continued support of violence against Israel, actually empowering leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu (who are skillful at using the “threat” to justify increasingly hardline responses) while frustrating any attempts by moderates to establish a viable modus vivendi between Jews and Arabs. Netanyahu might not even exist without Hamas.
One might also mention Hezbollah. The group scored a major tactical success when it blew up the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, but the bombings did not translate into any larger political role until the group became more conventional.
Indeed, the book describes in detail only two terrorist movements that plausibly were driving forces in bringing about real political change. The first was 1945-47 Palestine, where Jewish terrorists (primarily associated with the Stern Gang, Irgun, and Haganah) eventually compelled the British to hand over the problem to the United Nations, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel. The second was the campaign by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) to drive the French out of Algeria from 1954 until 1962. But even in those cases, English plausibly makes the case that the British or French could easily have crushed the terrorists, but were not motivated to make the effort, because both countries were retrenching militarily and politically post-World War II. There was also very little popular support back at home for either war, which means that while terror may have accelerated the timetable for withdrawal, it was not a major factor in bringing it about.
All of which leads English to conclude that terrorism has never “worked”—that it has failed to succeed in achieving its principal objectives in strategic terms—a judgment that I would share based on my own experience. And that point is where the book really becomes interesting, as English goes on to argue that terror is unsuccessful not because it employs violence, but rather because its goals are generally unachievable by any means. Given the dismal record of failure by terrorists, English concludes that terrorists cannot win and must even know that they can never win.
And winning is important. One only has to note how ISIS was flooded with volunteers when it was seen as successful, a process that has been reversed now that it is in decline. The persistent failure of terror actually challenges English’s assumption that its leaders are truly rational players, and it also demands some exploration of what motivates the rank-and-file, as it is hardly logical to pursue a policy that you know will not succeed and that will eventually lead to your death. Nagel describes terrorist activity as “delusional.” This failure to connect with reality also potentially upends the perception, which I have shared, that all terrorism is at heart political.
English’s meticulous examination of documents and personal testimony from various groups reveals that both leaders and followers who are prepared to kill large numbers of innocent civilians do not necessarily expect to be rewarded with victory over government forces or benefit personally from political transformation. English concludes instead that they are frequently driven by hatred and the desire to get revenge for the suffering and humiliation inflicted on them by what they regard as an illegitimate government, or by foreigners or foreign governments. He cites, among other evidence, a quotation by Osama bin Laden: “Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.”
So is it possible that George W. Bush was right when he said “they hate us for our freedom”? Well, not exactly, though they certainly do hate us. To be accurate, a lot of the hatred from Islamic terrorist groups is blowback for what we Americans have been doing to Muslims in a tangible and very visible way. If I were a Muslim living in the Middle East or South Asia, it would be very difficult for me to concur with any mainstream-media depiction of the United States as some kind of benevolent hegemon.
English perhaps underappreciates how the brutality and unpredictability of terrorist attacks serve as force multipliers, providing “little victories” and often compelling governments to act contrary to their true interests, even if the eventual result is something less than regime change. And it is certainly possible to disagree with him over the rationality of terrorist leaders in light of his own conclusions. But his observation that terrorism always fails certainly gives one pause in attempts to explain the appeal of quasi-political violent movements that are by nature suicidal. Perhaps attributing it to hatred and revenge taken together, rather than to any rational process seeking to bring about real change, is as close as we can come to understanding it.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
What is going on in Turkey right now reminds me very much of the last few scenes in the first Godfather movie, where Michael Corleone is settling all of the Family’s outstanding business. Corleone is seen in church renouncing “Satan and all his works” while he participates in the baptism of his nephew—shortly before garroting the baby’s father, Carl.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is certainly cleaning house. He has used last month’s failed coup attempt as an excuse to eliminate all his political opponents in the government and military bureaucracies, and he has now begun work on cleaning out the universities and the state schools. There have also been more arrests in the already-shackled media, including of senior editors. By some estimates, upward of 40,000 Turks have been arrested, while twice that many more have lost their jobs, and there are reports that the country’s prisons are being emptied of criminals to make room for the new arrivals. There is talk of bringing back the death penalty for those convicted of “treason” in the conspiracy to overthrow the government.
What do we now know for sure about the coup? It was indeed an attempt to overthrow the Erdogan government, possibly including plans to kill the president. It included some air force, army, and paramilitary police units but did not have the support of the major army commands. In my opinion and that of many others, Erdogan clearly had some prior knowledge that it was coming, as he was already preparing to arrest 3,000 military personnel. The news of the impending arrests reportedly forced the plotters to move more quickly, which took Erdogan by surprise, but he managed to rally his supporters, and the coup was put down with fewer than 300 deaths.
Arrests began immediately, with 12,000 detained within 24 hours, suggesting strongly that a list of suspects had been prepared in advance. Erdogan has, politically speaking, been the main beneficiary of the event. He has obtained emergency powers from parliament and is well-placed to be granted permanent unitary executive authority, which will weaken any and all checks and balances in the Turkish constitution—and ultimately benefit both him and his AKP party.
Erdogan and his supporters immediately blamed an opponent, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and has plausibly been linked to the CIA. Gulen heads a movement called Hizmet, meaning “Service,” which has sometimes been likened to a cult. It allegedly includes many military and police officers, judges, and teachers. In my opinion, the clout of Gulen should not be minimized, but the idea that he could or would arrange a coup is a bit of a stretch. The military had plenty of reasons to loathe Erdogan without Gulen’s assistance, most notably the then-prime minister’s holding of a show trial that convicted 330 senior officers back in 2012 without producing much in the way of evidence.
Turkish media, following directions from the government, have also declared that Washington was involved, a viewpoint shared by none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski. The White House has strenuously denied any connection to the coup, and it defies all reason to suggest that the basically timid Obama administration would back a military coup to overthrow the elected government of a NATO member state. If such a coup were attempted and it were to leak, as it surely would, it would mean the end of NATO, a turn that would please many of us but is anathema to the establishment that the White House represents.
The innuendo coming out of Turkey, orchestrated both by government spokesmen and by the tame, officially controlled media, has convinced a majority of Turks that Washington was behind Gulen and also supported the coup attempt. Visits from high-level officials, including U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and more recently Vice President Joe Biden, have been intended to calm the situation, as has a private meeting between Erdogan and Obama on Sunday, but the Turkish president believes he has the winning hand, and he is not interested in hearing platitudes or making concessions. The longer the issue remains at a boil, the more his hand at home is strengthened, as he can always claim that he is being bullied by Washington.
It is clear that some in Washington see Turkey as essential to the “war on ISIS.” Others are inclined to be skeptical, noting that Turkey has been playing both sides of the conflict in Syria, while its role in NATO is much diminished in an alliance that has largely lost its raison d’être. It also might be observed that Turkey has long pursued its own interests, buying Iranian oil when that country was subject to sanctions and more recently assisting ISIS more than opposing it. Understanding that, the Turkish government’s oft-repeated assertion that the U.S.-supported Kurdish militias in Syria are connected to the insurgent PKK inside Turkey and are terrorists as much as ISIS should have been setting off warning bells in the Pentagon and also at CIA.
All of which leads one to question how the White House managed to get into its current contretemps with Erdogan. The Turkish president clearly couldn’t have cared less about what the White House wanted when he recently made the decision to invade northern Syria. Joe Biden arrived in Ankara as the attack was beginning, a clear signal that Erdogan considered coordination with its American ally an irrelevancy. Biden dutifully supported the offensive and also committed to keeping the Kurdish militias behind the Euphrates in deference to Turkish sensitivities, but it was all political theater. Erdogan’s main target in Syria was never ISIS at all. Political Kurdistan, represented by America’s Kurdish allies, is and always will be enemy number one for Erdogan, for the very sensible reason that a newly created Kurdish state would inevitably obtain a large part of its population and territory from Turkey.
The Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield on the border region on August 24, initially rolling over the town of Jarabulus, which was reportedly controlled by ISIS. The army units were aided by militiamen from the CIA-trained Sultan Murad Brigade. The U.S. had been discussing a cross-border operation with Ankara since 2015, but, uninformed of the impending assault, the embassy as well as Biden were taken by surprise when the Turks actually moved into Syria. Washington belatedly provided limited air support, which terminated when the Turkish army drove south into Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled territory and the true objective of the incursion became clear.
What followed was Washington’s latest nightmare. Two groups of rebel fighters supported and trained by the U.S., the Kurdish YPG and the Sultan Murads, wound up shooting each other. The Turks are clearly trying to carve out a “safe” or buffer zone all along its border with Syria, which will be both ISIS- and Kurd-free, a task that they are describing as “cleansing” the area. How they expect to maintain that and repopulate it without Kurds is unclear, and the danger that embedded U.S. advisors will be killed in the process has preoccupied the Pentagon. The White House is now calling the Turkish incursion and its cleansing of Kurds “unacceptable” and a “source of deep concern,” but it is wrapping its complaints in a broader critique that the internal fighting is not helpful in the war against ISIS, which means that it is essential toothless.
There is, of course, no solution to the Syrian farrago short of the obvious way out: working with genuinely committed players who actually have skin in the game to end ISIS and stabilize the political situation. That would mean cooperating with al-Assad, Russia, and the Iranians. The Turkish incursion into Syria demonstrates that a capable army well-supported can mop the floor with a debilitated ISIS, but the politics of the situation mean that eliminating the terrorist group has become secondary to other, unstated objectives. As President Erdogan has made clear that he will unhesitatingly do what will sell well with the Turkish public, his turning on the Kurds as enemy number one should not surprise anyone, yet Washington is consistently caught flat-footed by what should be obvious to any competent observer.
And the White House is not the only party that is clueless. Hillary Clinton is likely to be the next president and is dedicated to confronting ISIS, Russia, Iran, and al-Assad simultaneously, so the prospects for pulling together any viable coalition to end the bloodshed do not look good.
August 14’s Washington Post print edition featured news articles, op-eds, an editorial, and three letters to the editor all attacking Donald Trump. And the paper’s other bête noire, Vladimir Putin, was featured in the front-page lead story as well as in an op-ed. On the preceding Friday, Putin had been attacked in an editorial for allegedly seeking to start a war in Ukraine.
Trump is running for president and certainly has dropped enough verbal bombs to justify many of the attacks against him. But there is a certain danger inherent in the media’s slanting its coverage to such an extent as to be making the news rather than just reporting it. And when it comes to Russia, the way the stories are reported becomes critically important, as there is a real risk that media hostility toward Putin, even if deployed as a way to get at Trump, could produce a conflict no one actually wants—just as the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers’ yellow journalism, rife with “melodrama, romance, and hyperbole,” more or less brought about the Spanish-American War.
As a case in point, examine the aforementioned front-page story, entitled “Russia’s Tactics Roil Europe” in the print edition and “Alleged Russian involvement in DNC hack gives U.S. a taste of Kremlin meddling” online. It is credited to Michael Birnbaum, the Post’s correspondent in Brussels.
In its lead-in, the article claims that “Russia has tried hard in recent years to tug Europe to its side, bankrolling the continent’s extremist political parties, working to fuel a backlash against migrants and using its vast energy resources as a cudgel.” It goes on to relate that “Obama administration officials say that the Kremlin may now be engaging in similar trickery in the U.S. presidential campaign in an effort to boost Russia-friendly Republican nominee Donald Trump.”
The evidence cited regarding Trump and Putin evidently comes from unnamed members of President Obama’s team, which has pulled out all the stops to defeat the GOP candidate, including denouncing Trump as unfit to be president. Part of the anti-Trump drive orchestrated by the Democrats and Hillary Clinton has been to associate the candidate with Russia at every turn, implying that he is somehow disloyal or worse for seeking to establish friendly relations with Putin.
The article goes on to rely heavily on unnamed sources. “Officials and analysts say” or variations of the expression appear frequently, and when a source is cited by name, it is normally someone who is demonstrably anti-Russian. Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, finds “deepening ties” between the Kremlin and some European political parties. But even he concedes that Russia is exploiting unrest rather than creating it, that Russia’s influence is waning, and that its power to influence developments is clearly limited. The article cites a vote last spring in which French mainstream parties agreed to eliminate sanctions on Russia (imposed over Ukraine), yet the Post provides no evidence that Moscow had a hand in the producing the outcome. In any event, the European Union actually extended sanctions a month later, suggesting that if the Russians were interfering, they were not very good at it.
Another named source, Andrew Foxall, claims that a clever Russia “use[s] different approaches at different times and in different countries” to “achieve its goals,” which he doesn’t bother to define. Foxall is director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society in London, named after former U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a noted Cold War hawk. The society is considered to be neoconservative in orientation, a point Birnbaum fails to note.
A further attempt to subvert European institutions cited by Birnbaum relates to the French anti-EU National Front’s having obtained a $10.4 million loan from a Moscow-based bank after “being shunned by mainstream lenders.” He also notes that right-wing parties in Greece and Germany are alleged to have suspicious ties with Russia because they have attended conferences in Moscow or have party-to-party relationships with Putin’s ruling United Russia. The article also claims, without providing any details, that “Russia has courted politicians from Germany to Hungary to Slovakia to France.”
Reverting to its anonymous sources, the article asserts that Eastern European “leaders suspect the Kremlin of funding environmental groups that opposed measures that would make their countries less dependent on Russian energy.” In most of the world, supporting environmental groups would be considered commendable.
Birnbaum throws in plenty of what must be his own analysis that Putin is building support for his “vision” of the world, seeking to “preserve his domestic power by favoring authoritarian leaders over democratically elected ones,” yet he provides no evidence that this is necessarily the case. Putin is, most would agree, highly pragmatic.
But while Europe provides the backdrop, the real thrust of the article is domestic. Birnbaum uses his largely unsubstantiated claim that Russia is covertly interfering in European politics to speculate that the “propensity to cause mischief in other nations’ political systems may be behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, officials say.” Unnamed “officials” go on to elaborate that it remains “unclear whether the hacking was performed as part of routine foreign espionage or whether the DNC was specifically targeted to sway the election.” The article does not bother to note, presumably because it would weaken the argument, that even the Obama administration, which hacks the communications of friend and foe alike, has balked at blaming the cyber-intrusion on the Russian government—so the assumption that there was any kind of political objective behind it is little more than speculation.
So an article loaded with innuendo has appeared on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper, located in Washington, DC, stating that Russia is engaged in widespread subversion in Europe and is trying to do the same on behalf of Donald Trump in the United States. But the evidence presented in the story does not support what is being suggested, and spreading tales about foreign-government misbehavior can have unintended consequences. It is particularly shortsighted and even dangerous in this case, as a stable relationship with a nuclear-armed and militarily very capable Moscow should rightly be regarded as critical.
It is almost as if some journalists believe that deliberately damaging relations with Russia is a price worth paying to embarrass and defeat Trump. If that is so, they are delusional.
Months of pressure on the Obama administration demanding the release of the redacted “28 pages” of the 9/11 report, regarding possible Saudi Arabian involvement, finally bore fruit on July 15. To be sure, there were deletions from the text to protect names and sources, but the document produced by the White House was largely complete. CIA Director John Brennan provided some damage control prior to the release by arguing that much of the information contained in the redacted section consisted of “raw” and untested information, suggesting that it might not be completely reliable, while some who had seen the full document revealed through leaks that there would be no “smoking gun” exposing direct Saudi involvement in 9/11.
The release of the document produced a brief flurry in the media but, perhaps intentionally, the story disappeared amidst the avalanche of political convention reporting. There was a great deal of new information, though most of it served to corroborate or expand on what was already known. One snippet that I found particularly interesting recounted how in 1999 two Saudi men on a flight from Phoenix to Washington, DC, for an alleged visit to the Saudi Embassy to attend a party asked numerous questions about the plane’s security and tried several times to enter the cockpit. They claimed their tickets were paid for by the Saudi Embassy.
There is a direct link between some of the 9/11 hijackers and presumed agents of the Saudi government, but the 28 pages do not provide any information to suggest that the Saudis at any level actually knew that anyone was involved in a terrorist plot. In fact, as a former intelligence officer myself, the snippets made public rather suggest that the Saudis were more likely keeping tabs on some citizens whom they quite rightly might have suspected of extremism. There are several hints in the text that the Saudis were aggressively running operations against their diaspora citizens. The report noted several times that the Saudis failed to fully cooperate with U.S. counter-terror investigators prior to 9/11, which would not be surprising if they were simultaneously acting independently.
The key player in the story who directly assisted some hijackers, one Omar al-Bayoumi, has been described as a “non-official cover” intelligence officer, but the way his funding from the Saudi Embassy and other official sources fluctuated, paying him irregularly, suggests that he might have been a source or informer, not an actual government case officer. (Several other Saudis identified in the 28 pages fit the same profile.) Bayoumi was in regular contact with Fahad al-Thumairy, an employee of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, who may have been an actual intelligence officer and his controller.
The document does not demonstrate any intent by the government in Riyadh to enable its citizens to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, nor knowledge that anything like that might be developing. It should also be noted, for what it’s worth, that the Bush administration clearly regarded Saudi Arabia as a special friend and directed the FBI and CIA to “back off” from aggressively investigating its intelligence operations in the U.S. and globally. Whether that made any difference in terms of what subsequently happened cannot be determined.
Providing intelligence briefings to presidential candidates is a practice that goes back more than sixty years to the administration of Harry Truman. The briefings are a courtesy and have no basis in law but they are intended to level the playing field somewhat so that an incumbent would not necessarily have an advantage over an adversary who has no access to government produced foreign policy and national security assessments. The briefings are only provided to the two major party candidates and are limited to the candidate, the vice-presidential running mates, and a couple of top aides.
There is no mandated number of briefings for the candidates and it is generally assumed that they will be provided at intervals based on what is happening internationally that might impact on policy prescriptions being debated during the campaign. The briefings have traditionally been produced and delivered by senior CIA analysts and on one occasion agency director Robert Gates even flew to Arkansas to meet with and brief then candidate Governor Bill Clinton. Currently the office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates the briefing but it is reported that the briefers largely are CIA.
Some presidential candidates do not have active security clearances even if they have served in the federal government and are familiar with classification procedures while some others, including governors, have never had to deal at all with the need to protect national secrets. Trump, though admittedly familiar with maintaining confidentiality relating to business documents and dealings, has no experience of government classification and security procedures, which are both quite different in nature and uncompromising in terms of the measures that must be taken to protect the intelligence product.
The briefings will generally be limited to broad overviews of threats and other situations that are developing worldwide but there will be no detailed discussion of sources or capabilities. In intelligence jargon, the candidates will not be receiving any “code word” or “special access” information, nor will they be told anything about CIA or Pentagon covert actions.
This omission is not necessarily intended to imply that there is any risk in providing such information but it serves as a learning device or reminder for the candidates themselves, to impress upon them the “need to know” principle, as well as an introduction or refresher regarding the secure handling of classified information. Specific security guidelines are reviewed in detail prior to each briefing session.
Up until now there has never been any expressed concern by an incumbent administration that either of the major party candidates would mishandle the intelligence that they are provided and, indeed, there have been no known leaks that have developed from the process. No candidate has ever inadvertently or intentionally exploited or misused the classified information that he has been given access to.
It is reported that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be briefed by the intelligence analyst teams this week and, for the first time, concerns are being expressed regarding security. Given the overwhelming media and institutional bias against Trump, most of the speculation relates to him, often particularly focused on his tendency to shoot-from-the-lip in his frequently extemporaneous and freeform campaign stops. It is feared that if he is briefed on an issue and it somehow pops into his head while he is speaking it might well come out in some form or another. Even President Obama has become involved, warning Trump that he has “got to start acting like a president. And that means being able to now receive these briefings and not spread them around.”
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, addressed the issue of the classified briefings on July 28, saying that there was no concern, that it was appropriate to begin the process as “both candidates have been officially anointed.” He added that the briefings are part of a long non-partisan tradition, and that a team of analysts was actively preparing the identical material that would be presented to Clinton and Trump. But critics were not so sure, suspecting that Clapper was either not being candid or was ignorant of what many of his staff were reportedly saying. The Washington Post ran a story on the briefings shortly after Clapper spoke contending that there was considerable dissent, with one anonymous senior intelligence official reportedly saying “I would refuse” to brief Trump based on his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apparent disinterest in world events. The Post also alleged that there was “deep unease among many spy officials with the real estate mogul’s pro-Russian rhetoric” adding that Trump’s call on Russia to “target Clinton’s accounts…was seen as particularly incendiary among intelligence professionals who regard Russia as a bitter foe.”
In a follow-up article the Post also quoted former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who speculated on the precise content of a power point briefing that Trump might be given, saying “It beggars the imagination. Given that [Trump’s] public persona seems to reflect a lack of understanding or care about global issues, how do you arrange these presentations to learn what are the true depths of his understanding?”
Another media report back in June claimed that eight senior security officials, again anonymous, were “worried about Trump having access to classified information.” And even before that in March a former CIA analyst Aki Peritz told the Guardian of his concern that Trump cannot compartmentalize “his thoughts from his public utterances” tweeting “random, and sometimes untrue, items he read on the internet” and has “even been fine with quoting Benito Mussolini.”
Yet another anonymous official cited the Trump tendency to speak off-the-cuff, pulling together what he has heard and read without any filter on what he is saying, while former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin identified another problem. For McLaughlin, who has had considerable experience in briefing senior officials of both the U.S. and foreign governments, a major concern would be Trump’s clear disinclination to process information that runs contrary to what he thinks. In the briefings he will undoubtedly be hearing many things that contradict positions that he has taken. Will he accept or ignore what he is being told? If he ignores it—not for political reasons but because he believes it to be untrue—the briefing will largely be a waste of time.
And then there is Hillary Clinton, whose own questionable practices relating to securing classified information are by now well known, she having been criticized by the FBI director, James Comey, as “extremely careless.” The Washington Post, while crucifying Trump, characteristically whitewashed Clinton, accepting her explanation for the home server email crisis while also praising her experience: she “unlike Trump…has participated in hundreds of intelligence briefings in her career…” That might indeed be true on one level but some observers are not unreasonably pointing out that Hillary Clinton has actually demonstrated a problem with protecting classified information—while Donald Trump’s ability or willingness to do so remains an unknown.
Nearly everything written about Trump in the mainstream media is shaped by the unrelenting hostility that the Washington establishment exhibits towards him, so the elaborations provided by anonymous sources and appearing in extremely unfriendly media outlets should be taken for what they are worth. Many of the named sources, like Michael Hayden, are themselves both longtime critics of Trump and major beneficiaries of the status quo, so it is not surprising that they would suddenly find themselves conveniently concerned over his access to classified information. It is all sheer speculation but it provides another stick to beat Trump with.
And it is of particular interest how the Washington Post seeks to link the intelligence community anger at Trump to Russia and Putin, both regular targets of the newspaper and a convenient hook to demonstrate alleged disloyalty on the part of the GOP candidate. Since the end of the Cold War, I have rarely noted any former or current intelligence officer’s hatred of Russia as the “bitter foe.” Does the paper make all this stuff up? Maybe. At a minimum I believe it would be fair to say that the Post is heavily editorializing what it describes as a news story, not exactly unusual for a newspaper that has an editorial page controlled by neoconservatives who have never been shy about pushing their anti-Trump, anti-Putin agenda.
I regularly talk to a number of former intelligence agency colleagues, many of whom do not like Trump and will not vote for him, but I do not detect much concern over providing him with classified briefings on international developments. Nearly everyone assumes that he is a patriotic American and will protect what is shared with him. The angst over the Trump briefing appears to be contrived, coming mostly from the media and the chattering class. Indeed, I hear much more anger from former colleagues over the Hillary Clinton email scandal because with all her vaunted experience she should and must have known better, and chose to disregard the rules anyway. Many of us believe she ought to be in jail. In any event, both candidates will receive their briefings and one hopes that a better understanding of some developments in the world will prove beneficial to them, possibly making them think twice about some of the ill-advised policies that they have been promoting.
Once upon a time the big threat to civilization was al-Qaeda. But today it is ISIS, alternatively known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh. Transcending their existence as actual physical entities, the names or acronyms have become metaphors for terrorist attacks, striking fear in the hearts of the people and enabling the political class in Europe and the United States to grow government in response. At the Republican National Convention, presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to destroy ISIS—and the Democrats led by Hillary Clinton will probably follow suit. But can it be done? Or, more to the point, how does one go about doing it? How will Trump and Clinton keep their promises to keep Americans safe from Islamic radicals?
What we call terrorism is a tactic used by groups that are essentially political. You can find it in Tacitus, read about it in the accounts of 19th-century anarchists, and consider how it evolved in modern times, starting with the European leftist groups in the 1970s and then migrating to the Middle East. Today terrorism and Islamic radicalism are closely linked, but it is important to remember that it was not always so. What we refer to as terror enables a weaker party to demoralize and even threaten the stability of a nominally much stronger ruling authority.
The United States distinguishes terrorism from mass murder. In the U.S. code, it describes terrorism as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” that “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
So terrorism narrowly construed is an action intended to destabilize the political status quo so as to influence or pervert government decision making. But the definition is somewhat anachronistic. If one moves beyond the legal language, several categories of mass murder might plausibly be regarded as “terroristic” because they inevitably create fear when they include the indiscriminate taking of human life, particularly in situations where people going about their daily lives should normally feel secure. In so doing, whether their prime objective is political or not, they produce a reaction from the government, generally in the form of new laws that enhance the power of the state—which in turn can make the citizenry increasingly suspicious of the authorities.
Three common perpetrators of mass murder are the mentally ill, revenge seekers, and those motivated by an ideology to kill those they define as enemies. The three categories can sometimes overlap, of course. And the weapons they choose are most often guns, sometimes bombs, and more rarely instruments that are not usually associated with intentional killing, to include moving vehicles.
Consider as examples the profiles of eight of the most widely reported recent multiple killings in Europe and the United States, all of which have been described by the media as terrorist acts. The most recent took place in Munich last week, where ten people died. The perpetrator was a mentally deranged German born gunman of Iranian descent who was obsessed with mass killing itself. That was preceded by another attack in Bavaria by an ax- and knife-wielding Afghan refugee on a train, while a Bastille Day attack in Nice by a French citizen of Tunisian descent used a truck to kill 84 during the same week. Both of the latter attacks were reportedly inspired by ISIS.
A March attack on a Brussels airport and a metro station by five Belgian-born citizens of Arab extraction killed 32 using guns and bombs. In November of last year seven Belgian and French citizens of Arab extraction used guns and bombs to kill 130 at restaurants, a theater, and sports facilities in Paris. One additional attacker was a refugee and still another was unidentified. Both attacks were reportedly inspired by ISIS. In January of the same year, the famous attack on Charlie Hebdo took place, also in Paris, with two French citizens of Algerian extraction shooting 13 people and claiming to be inspired by al-Qaeda.
Here in the United States there have recently been two attacks. In June, 50 Americans were killed in a nightclub in Orlando in a shooting carried out by an American citizen born to Afghan refugees; he claimed allegiance to ISIS but has been regarded as having mental problems. In December 2015, 14 died in San Bernardino at the hands of a Chicago-born gunman of Pakistani descent and his Pakistan-born wife, both of whom pledged allegiance to ISIS.
If Donald and Hillary really want to make us safe and actually intend to take steps to do so, what can or should be done to address each category of mass killer and each type of weapon? The convenient response by Hillary Clinton, which she is already offering, is gun control. But any analysis of the recent incidents suggests that it will always be easy to obtain weapons, even in the tightly-controlled Western European environment. In Europe, suppliers are frequently able to connect with those interested in acquiring handguns or rifles. Many of the weapons originate in the Balkans (particularly Kosovo, where they are relatively available) and make their way to the west. Likewise in the United States new laws would not eliminate the hundreds of millions of weapons already in private hands. So gun control, which seems to some to be a simple and affordable solution, would most likely accomplish little or nothing.
Another promising approach, favored by Donald Trump, connects terror to Islam. He has proposed banning the entry of all Muslims or at least those residents from a handful of countries where metastasizing violence promoted by Islamic radicals is prevalent. He has also suggested that there might be “extreme vetting” of citizens from European countries subject to repeated terrorist attacks. The president has considerable authority to initiate such limitations on visa exemption or issuance, though any filtering based purely on religion rather than nationality would no doubt run into legal problems.
Some might plausibly argue that if Pakistanis and Afghans had been forbidden entry into the U.S., Orlando and San Bernardino would not have occurred. But it is difficult to imagine ruling out certain nationalities as potential immigrants as a sustainable policy. It would be far better to develop investigative procedures to weed out potential problems before they are granted visas, but no one is proposing that.
Likewise if North African Arabs had been blocked from residency in Europe, most of the six incidents cited above quite plausibly would not have occurred. Still nearly all of the perpetrators were actually born in Europe or were naturalized citizens; only two were refugees. This suggests that Europe already has large Muslim minorities that are infected by the radicalism bug, which in the U.S. is referred to as “homegrown extremism,” so closing the immigration door now might have little effect. It is neither practical nor politically imaginable that existing Muslim populations should be expelled, leaving one with no better options than increased police surveillance.
Clinton, unlike Trump, appears to favor the current lax visa entry procedures, possibly because she was recently involved in their implementation. But there is a reasonable approach that falls somewhere in between exclusion and an open door: restrict visas for applicants who cannot be thoroughly vetted through existing procedures. Whether either candidate would embrace such fine tuning of the obviously broken system is unclear. There also might be considerable interference from a Congress that would seek to punish some countries when passing enabling legislation and providing funding.
So you can’t stop the guns and it is difficult to create a rational basis for blocking new immigrants or visitors, but the real problem is identifying the mentally disturbed and those influenced by groups like ISIS, who together have carried out nearly all the multiple victim, terrorist-style attacks in the past five years. The United States could destroy ISIS’s caliphate physically from the air, at a cost of possibly tens of thousands of civilian casualties, but it cannot eliminate the group’s effective internet-based propaganda machine. And when ISIS relies on “lone wolf” proxies or independent cells to stage attacks, the nation’s security services are increasingly unable to identify affiliates actually organized and directed by ISIS that would be discoverable and susceptible to being dismantled (if they exist).
Even if ISIS has no physical Caliphate, it will persist online and be accessible to those who seek it out. And it will undoubtedly someday be succeeded by new, even more radical groups with updated messages for the disaffected. U.S. law enforcement attempts to identify those individuals who try to interact with extremist websites and then uses informants to develop criminal cases against them, but it is a process that probably creates more radicalization than it prevents. And as for the mentally disturbed, they only surface when they are reported to authorities by a family member or health care provider, so there is little that one can do to prevent incidents besides encouraging such reporting.
So no matter what the candidates pledge to do, the options available to our next president to deal with ISIS and other terrorism are not very promising. Getting rid of guns is a non-starter and deporting birthright citizens would be both illegal and present practical difficulties. Keeping dangerous visitors out would be highly desirable but it is probably beyond the ability of government bureaucrats to develop and manage such a program successfully. Meanwhile the FBI and NSA read emails, listen in on phones, and react. I would imagine that a post-election review of national security will have all parties throwing up their hands in frustration over the paucity of reasonable options. The new president will likely pretty much come down in support of the status quo.
The military coup in Turkey last weekend started on Friday and consisted of attempts to take over government buildings and key infrastructure. The coup drew mostly on troops from the gendarmerie and the air force and was led by mid-level generals and colonels. There were some initial successes but by early Saturday morning it was clear that the government had prevailed. By Sunday nearly 6,000 arrests of alleged plotters had taken place with more certain to follow.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed a crackdown on the military and also the judiciary and has blamed the coup on arch foe Fethullah Gulen, who resides in exile in Pennsylvania. Analysts believe that defeating the coup has greatly increased Erdogan’s authority and he will be able to consolidate his power by altering the country’s constitution, which, given the sense of crisis in Turkey due to the coup and the recent terrorist attack in Istanbul, is likely to succeed. And due process for the alleged coup plotters under the present circumstances is likely to be limited. They reportedly will be charged with treason. Erdogan will be able to clean house and consolidate his power.
There is inevitably a counter narrative which I and a number of Turkey-watchers who have networked to discuss recent developments are inclined to believe. As full disclosure, I will admit that all of us are established critics of the autocratic and Islamist direction being pursued by Erdogan’s government over the past three years.
First of all, though it is not a major issue, none of us believes that Gulen was behind the coup. It is convenient for Erdogan to blame his principal opponent because it will facilitate the arrests of any and all opponents not linked to the actual coup by claiming that they are Gulenists. Erdogan has become adept at jailing opponents, often journalists, on trumped up charges to include treason and this time around will be no different. The process has already begun with the detention of a number of military officers and judges and will no doubt be expanded as more enemies are identified.
Second, nearly all of us believe that the coup was basically a set-up. Erdogan and his government have been warning for months about the possibility of a coup, so the event itself should surprise no one. It is now certain that there was a coup in fact being plotted, apparently supported mostly by Kemalists in the military who advocate a secular state and are alarmed by aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy, including his collaboration with terrorist groups and hostility towards Russia and Syria. There was also likely an element of concern over the deteriorating Turkish economy with European fear of terrorism wrecking the tourism industry, an issue linked to Ankara’s meddling in Syria and Erdogan’s personal vendetta against the leading Kurdish political party the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Many observers and even government officials when speaking off the record have also criticized the Erdogan-driven breakdown in the truce that up until recently prevailed with the domestic Kurdish minority and its armed wing the PKK.
The coup plotters probably erred in their assumption that there was wide support at senior levels in the Turkish military for a coup. The generals, who once would have been natural opponents of Erdogan’s ambitions, had been severely punished in their first encounter with the then prime minister in 2010-11. A series of show trials claiming that the senior officers were involved in plotting against the government based on very flimsy evidence removed many upper ranks, replacing them gradually with Erdogan loyalists. Many of the officers so convicted have only recently been released from prison but, having been out of power for years, they have not retained any ability to take action against the government.
The coup plotters may have approached one or more of the new Erdogan-appointed generals, without whose support a coup could not succeed, expecting a sympathetic hearing. In all likelihood, they were received cordially but the senior officer immediately reported their overture to the president, setting the stage for a trap.
The rest followed course somewhat as planned. The plotters heard from sympathizers in the judiciary or police that they would soon be arrested so they started the coup before their plans were complete and almost caught the government by surprise. They were few in number so they must have hoped that they would be joined by others. They were not successful and loyal army and police units quickly organized to resist them. Erdogan also was able to call on his civilian supporters to take to the streets and gather at the airport in Istanbul. The results were predictable and the coup was crushed. Erdogan will now reap the political benefits. He is also demanding the extradition of Gulen from the United States and the Obama Administration is reported to be considering the request.
One other aspect of the coup has caused some confusion. Early on it was alleged without any evidence that the plotters were dismayed by recent Erdogan government overtures to Russia and Syria to restore normal relations. That is a complete misreading of developments, as the Turkish military has long been reluctant to support any operations in Syria and, in general, is opposed to any initiatives outside Turkey’s borders. During a brief takeover of Turkish television the coup leaders referred to their movement as a “peace council.” The generals have their hands full with the internal Kurdish and refugee problems and are most definitely not encouraging taking on anything new.
One might also add to changes vis-à-vis Russia and Syria the recent rapprochement with Israel. Turkey’s economy is in bad shape and its international standing has been gravely damaged by Erdogan’s foreign and domestic policies. Opinion polls have been suggesting that the Turkish public is blaming Erdogan directly for the decline in employment and income as well as for the terrorism problem. The shift in policy to mend fences with a number of countries has been a response to that concern and is unrelated to the discontent within the Turkish military.
So the aborted military coup has become a great victory for President Erdogan. It remains to be seen how exactly he will exploit it, but it is certain that he will use it as a pretext for expanding his own powers. To those who object to the notion that the Turkish president would kill his own soldiers to advance his political agenda, one might note that he was considering doing so in 2014 to create a pretext for war with Syria. Consequently the question whether Erdogan might actually have helped set up the coup in a version of a false flag operation is certainly intriguing and must be considered. It should be taken into account by the White House before contemplating bending to any demands from Ankara to extradite Gulen or any of his associates.
Whenever the subject of American foreign-policy catastrophes comes up, the word “Iraq” immediately comes to mind. But George W. Bush’s ill-fated invasion of that hapless land in reality did not do irreparable damage to the United States. That is not to trivialize the costs, including trillions of dollars and the deaths of thousands of Americans plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but the reality is that the U.S. homeland was not attacked and the economy has not collapsed, making Iraq a war that should never have been fought but not a defeat in historic terms.
One thinks of Russia less frequently when U.S. policy failures are examined. In 1991, Russia was a superpower. Today it is a convenience, a straw man fortuitously produced whenever someone in power wants to justify weapons expenditures or the initiation of new military interventions in faraway places. Much of the negative interaction between Washington and Moscow is driven by the consensus among policymakers, the Western media, and the inside-the-beltway crowd that Russia is again—or perhaps is still and always will be—the enemy du jour. But frequently forgotten or ignored is the fact that Moscow, even in its much-reduced state, continues to control the only military resource on the planet that can destroy the United States, suggesting caution should be in order when one goes about goading the bear.
Truly, the unwillingness to takes steps after 1991 to assist Russia in its post-communism transformation into a stable, prosperous, and secure state modeled on the West is the most significant foreign-policy failure by both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past 30 years. The spoliation of Russia’s natural resources carried out by Western carpetbaggers working with local grifters-turned-oligarchs under Boris Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep initiated by Bill Clinton, and the interference in Russia’s internal affairs by the U.S. government (including the Magnitsky Act) have exploited Russian vulnerability and have produced a series of governments in Moscow that have become increasingly paranoid and disinclined to cooperate with what they see as a threatening Washington.
There have also been unnecessary slights and insults along the way, including sanctions on Russian officials and a refusal to attend the Sochi Olympics, to cite only two examples. The drive by Washington democracy-promoters and global hegemonists working together to push Ukraine into the Western economic and political sphere was a major miscalculation, as they failed to realize—or did not care—that what takes place in Kiev is to Moscow a vital interest. Heedless of that reality, the Obama administration, which recently endorsed the somewhat bizarre entry of Montenegro into the NATO alliance, is already treating Georgia and Ukraine as if they were de facto members. Hillary Clinton, who has likened Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, has pledged to bring about their full membership in the alliance. It would not in any way make Americans more secure—quite the contrary, as the United States is pledging itself under the NATO Article 5 to defend both countries. Moscow for its part would be forced to react to such expansion.
Nearly everything Russia does is considered wrong or even threatening by the White House, Congress, and the U.S. media. I was reminded of that predilection when I read recent accounts of Russian “harassment” of American diplomats overseas. The story described how, in one instance, a U.S. embassy officer returning to the building late at night was challenged by a Russian guard and a scuffle ensued. In other alleged incidents the apartments of employees were searched, and it was even claimed that a pet dog had been killed. Certainly the incidents are deplorable, but they are not exactly unusual in the world where spies and spy-catchers interact.
The old KGB was—and its successor organization, the FSB, still is—adept at tricks to unnerve suspected intelligence officers and render them less effective, forcing them always to be looking out for surveillance even when it was not there. From my time in CIA training in the late 1970s, I recall descriptions of how an agency officer had parked his car on a Moscow street only to return to find it gone. It turned up in a plowed field 100 miles away a few days later with no tire tracks evident. It had been picked up and moved by helicopter. Or an officer would return to his apartment and find all his books arranged in alphabetical order, or dinner prepared and sitting on the table. The FBI would do the same sort of thing to suspected KGB or GRU officers in the United States, a warning that they were being observed and that the bureau knew what they were up to. In the intelligence world it is business as usual, but in the U.S. media, the latest round of spy vs. spy was depicted as another sign of barbaric behavior on the part of the Russians.
The point here is that the Russians are not exactly failing to notice what is going on and are drawing their own conclusions about what they must do to defend themselves. None but Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the Kagan family actually want a war, but Moscow is being backed into a corner, with more and more influential Russian voices raised against détente with a Washington that seems to be intent on humiliating Moscow at every turn as part of a new project for regime change. Many Russian military leaders have come to believe that the continuous NATO expansion means that the United States wants war, and both the generals and Vladimir Putin are warning that a resort to arms could easily go nuclear, as Moscow will use all weapons available to defend itself. Putin is, incidentally, the voice for moderation, as he still aspires to a positive relationship with the West, a position he reiterated in his July 4 message to President Obama.
Russia’s generals are not optimistic about what is coming their way. They are insecure because they are aware of their own military inferiority and see nothing but hostility from the West, including evidence that American generals have collaborated to fabricate Russian threats in Europe to force a U.S. reaction. The Russians understand that the buildup of forces on both sides of the border that has resulted from the clashing interests is unstable and dangerously unpredictable. The Russian military justifies its responses based on what it has clearly and unambiguously observed and what it is hearing. But when the Western powers probe Russian borders with their warships and surveillance aircraft, they claim that it is aggression when Moscow scrambles a plane to monitor the activity.
NATO has now decided to base four multinational battalions of combat soldiers in Eastern Europe, along the Russian border, the first troop deployment aimed at Moscow since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington in its own prepackaged view describes itself as behaving defensively, from the purest of motives, while Moscow is always in the wrong, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov notes that it is not his country that is moving soldiers up to a border to confront the West. Picture for a moment a reverse scenario, with a Russian missile cruiser lounging just outside the territorial limits off Boston or New York or a marine infantry brigade based in Cuba, and imagine what the U.S. reaction might be.
Washington’s misguided policy toward Russia under both Republican and Democratic presidents has the potential to become the greatest international catastrophe of all time, with the risk of ending human life on this planet as we know it. NATO expansionism and the regular promotion of a false narrative that Russia is seeking to recreate the Soviet Union together suggest to that country’s leaders that Washington is an implacable foe. The bellicose posturing inadvertently strengthens the hands of hardline nationalists in Russia, while weakening those who seek a formula for accommodation with the West.
Only the much-maligned Donald Trump sees the situation with some clarity. Speaking in Moscow last week, his foreign-policy adviser Carter Page stated (in the words of ABC News) that “the U.S. had been overly hostile toward Russia and … the blame for the current tensions lay largely with the American government.” He “echoed Trump’s own attacks on Washington’s foreign policy consensus, suggesting that U.S. experts and officials’ assessment of Russia was skewed by an anti-Russian bias and that they often ‘unnecessarily perpetuated Cold War tendencies.’”
To be sure, Russia is no innocent in the international one-upmanship game. But the nearly constant animosity directed against Russia by the Obama administration and likely to continue under President Clinton should be seen as madness, as the stakes in the game, a possible nuclear war, are unthinkable.
The FBI has decided not to recommend criminal charges for Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, but Director James Comey’s explanation of the decision provides some additional information on what occurred and how. Among the 30,000 emails turned over by Hillary’s lawyers were eight chains classified at the highest level—“Top Secret”—plus 36 chains that were “Secret” and eight more that were “Confidential.” Comey went on to describe Hillary Clinton and her aides as “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” Clinton’s behavior was “especially concerning” because her email system was not protected by a full-time government security team—or even by a sophisticated private service such as are employed by companies like Yahoo! and Gmail.
The FBI could find no sign of an intrusion into Clinton’s emails, but Comey noted that the nature of her system, which ultimately employed a number of servers, made it unlikely that the bureau could find such evidence even if an intrusion had occurred. One particular concern was that Clinton’s use of the private server while overseas—within the reach of “sophisticated adversaries”—rendered it “possible” that hackers had gained access. And Comey was careful to note that under normal circumstances, despite an FBI recommendation against criminal charges, behavior like Clinton’s might result in “security or administrative sanctions.”
What Comey did not say, though he suggested it, was that based on precedent, the possibility of obtaining a conviction in court would be minimal given the apparent lack of “intent” to defeat the security system in place with a clear understanding that the activity was illegal. The FBI clearly believed that Hillary Clinton had set up the private server for her own personal convenience—and to maintain control over her emails given her political ambitions, rather than letting them go into the government archive, where they might someday become accessible to the public and media.
As a former government employee who has had Top Secret, Codeword, and Special Access Clearances from the Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and State Department, I find the Clinton defense that she and her team considered the private server to be acceptable practice untenable. Anyone who has handled classified information knows very well that you do not copy it, you do not send it somewhere else or share it with someone who has no need to know, and you do not edit it down to make it unclassified in your opinion. It is not a matter for discussion, debate, or interpretation. For me and the former government employees in my circle, the entire Clinton charade that has been playing out for so many months is unfathomable. Apart from Clinton’s ignoring the guidelines for proper handling of classified information, outlined in Executive Order 13526 and 18 U.S.C Sec. 793(f) of the federal code, there is also some evidence of a cover-up regarding what was compromised, as many emails were erased. This itself would be a violation of the 2009 Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
And then there is the political aspect of the investigation. In retrospect, it is interesting to note President Obama’s two statements regarding the inquiry. His first comment was that he would do nothing to impede the investigation and possible charges, elaborating that “That is institutionally how we have always operated: I do not talk to the attorney general about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line.” But he followed up by stating that “There’s carelessness in terms of managing emails, that she has owned, and she recognizes. I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security.”
This suggests to me that Obama knew in advance where the investigation was going in spite of his disclaimers, and his signal that Hillary would in no way be punished for her actions is particularly telling. He recently endorsed Clinton and is participating actively in her campaign, which he would not have committed to if he’d had any concerns about her being indicted. He had to have known what was going to happen; secure in that knowledge, he has been able to do what he can to make Hillary Clinton the next president of the United States.
But even given all of that, I have to believe that the cautious James Comey did Hillary no favors. Comey has challenged her decisionmaking and as much as conceded that if she were currently a government employee she would be fired. Surely some voters, at least, will pay attention to that. As Robert Gates, who was CIA director under George H.W. Bush and defense secretary under George W. Bush and Obama, recently commented, the “whole email thing … is really a concern in terms of her judgment.” He added, “I don’t know what originally prompted her to think that was a good idea.”
Obama’s denial that national security has been compromised is also suspect. Comey carefully left the door open on that issue, and there have been reports that a Romanian hacker who goes by the name Guccifer repeatedly hacked Clinton’s server. He described the server as “like an open orchid on the Internet” and said “it was easy … easy for me, for everybody.” There have also been claims that Russian intelligence and other foreign services were able to hack the secretary’s server. Anyone with the proper equipment, knowledge, and motivation might have been able to obtain access. That is what hackers are able to do, with considerable success, against government servers that are far better protected than a private email setup located in an official’s New York State home.
The national media is awash with stories suggesting that Hillary Clinton has been vindicated by the Comey report, but I think not. The reality is much more complex than that, as the Clintons’ contempt for what many might consider “the rules” is again manifest. If Hillary Clinton had been an employee of State Department rather than the politically appointed head of the organization, I have no doubt that she would have been fired at a minimum or, more likely, sentenced to some jail time or subject to punitive fines. I say this because her setting up of a private server to handle government work is so outside the realm of acceptability that there should have been all kinds of warning bells and whistles going off when she decided to do it.
That no one within her entourage objected demonstrates how loyalty to powerful individuals who can advance one’s career, rather than to a government institution and the Constitution, plays out in Washington. It should serve as a warning for what might be coming in January 2017.
I am surely not the only one noticing the extent to which the corporate media worldwide are damning Donald Trump. In the wake of Brexit, his supporters were repeatedly likened to the Brits who voted Leave, both groups being characterized as “white and less well educated.” And over the past week, the Washington Post has been examining and damning nearly everything The Donald has said and done, hammering the presumptive GOP nominee with an average of six heavily editorialized news articles daily, plus op-eds.
To be sure, Trump has earned much of the opprobrium, with his often contradictory and scattershot presentations of the policies he intends to pursue, as well as the provocative language that has left him legitimately open to charges of racism and sexism. Trump’s racially flavored warnings about homegrown terrorists certainly have considerable popular appeal in the wake of San Bernardino and Orlando, but the reality is that Muslim Americans as a group exhibit low crime rates, achieve higher-than-average levels of education, and are financially successful. Police sources reveal that they frequently cooperate with law enforcement regarding members of their community who are flirting with militancy.
Trump is also presumed guilty of several other Democratic Party-defined capital crimes, including failing to enthusiastically embrace diversity and multiculturalism. But at the core of his appeal to voters is the one issue that he largely gets right, and that is immigration, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a law-and-order issue.
His up-front condemnation of illegal immigration can be seen as the launching pad for his successful campaign for the GOP nomination. From a rule-of-law and national-security perspective, many Americans have long been dismayed by the federal government’s unwillingness to control the nation’s borders, and many blue-collar workers have a more personal stake in the issue, being appalled by the impact of mass illegal immigration on their communities.
While Trump’s proposed blanket ban on Muslim travelers is both constitutionally and ethically wrongheaded and, in my opinion, potentially damaging to broader U.S. interests, his related demand to temporarily stop travel or immigration from some core countries that have serious problems with militancy is actually quite sensible. This is because the United States has only a limited ability to vet people from those countries. The Obama administration claims it is rigorously screening travelers and immigrants—but it has provided little to no evidence that its procedures are effective.
The first step in travel limitation is to define the problem. While it is popular in Congress and the media to focus on countries like Iran, nationals of such countries do not constitute a serious threat. Shi’a Muslims, the majority of Iranians, have characteristically not staged suicide attacks, nor do they as a group directly threaten American or Western interests. The Salafist organizations with international appeal and global reach are all Sunni Muslim. In fact, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Nusra all self-define as Sunni Muslim and regard Shi’as as heretics. Most of the foot soldiers who do the fighting and dying for the terrorist groups and their affiliates are Sunnis who come from Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, and even the homegrown Europeans and Americans who join their ranks are Sunni.
It is no coincidence that the handful of Muslim countries that harbor active insurgencies have also been on the receiving end of U.S. military interventions, which generate demands for revenge against the West and the U.S. in particular. They would be the countries to monitor most closely for militants seeking to travel. All of them represent launching pads for potential attacks, and it should be assumed that groups like ISIS would be delighted to infiltrate refugee and immigrant groups.
U.S. embassies and consulates overseas are the choke points for those potential terrorists. Having myself worked the visa lines in consulates overseas, I understand just how difficult it is to be fair to honest travelers while weeding out those whose intentions are less honorable. At the consulate, an initial screening based on name and birth date determines whether an applicant is on any no-fly or terrorism-associate lists. Anyone coming up is automatically denied, but the lists include a great deal of inaccurate information, so they probably “catch” more innocent people than they do actual would-be terrorists. Individuals who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since 2011, or who are citizens of those countries, are also selected out for additional review.
For visitors who pass the initial screening and who do not come from one of the 38 “visa waiver” countries, mostly in Europe, the next step is the visitor’s visa, called a B-2. At that point, the consulate’s objective is to determine whether the potential traveler has a good reason to visit the U.S., has the resources to pay for the trip, and is likely to return home before the visa expires. The process seeks to establish that the applicant has sufficient equity in his or her home country to guarantee returning to it, a recognition of the fact that most visa fraud relates to overstaying one’s visit to disappear into the unregistered labor market in the U.S. The process is document-driven, with the applicants presenting evidence of bank accounts, employment, family ties, and equity like homeownership. Sometimes letters of recommendation from local business leaders or politicians might also become elements in the decision.
In some countries, documentary evidence can be supplemented by police reports if the local government is cooperative. Some consulates employ investigators, generally ex-policemen, who are able to examine public records if there is any doubt about an applicant’s profile or intentions, but most governments do not permit access to official documents. Recently, background investigations have sometimes been supplemented by an examination of the applicant’s presence on the internet to determine whether he or she is frequenting militant sites or discussing political issues online. If the visa applicant is seeking to become a U.S. resident, the process is, of course, much more rigorous.
Both travel and immigrant visas are nevertheless a somewhat subjective process. I knew a visa officer in Turkey who delighted in turning down Iranian applicants “on principle.” It was a seemingly arbitrary act—but this was shortly after the U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, and it was plausibly based on the fact that there was no embassy any longer in Iran and documents presented in Turkey would be impossible to verify.
Most of those convicted in terrorism-related cases in the U.S. are foreign-born. The real issue that Trump should be addressing is the federal government’s inability to vet visa applicants to a level that could be considered sufficient from a national-security perspective, a failure that has led some conservatives to complain that White House policy is to “invade the world, invite the world.”
In many places, official documents are easy to forge or can even be obtained in genuine form from corrupt bureaucrats. If one is unable to go the source of the document for verification, papers submitted in support of a visa application are frequently impossible to authenticate. So what does one do when applicants from countries in the throes of civil war—like Iraq, Syria, or Yemen—show up at a visa window, some of them with no documents at all? Or when such applicants constitute not a trickle but a flood? It gets complicated, and Trump has a point in saying we should deny visas to all of them until procedures can be established for making those judgments in a more coherent fashion.
Another steady stream of immigrants into the U.S. comes from the refugee-resettlement process; Washington is a signatory to the United Nations-administered agreements to resettle refugees. Much of the background vetting is carried out by the UN in a not-completely-transparent fashion, and the resettlement of the refugees in various places is done by quota—with the U.S. being the largest recipient country, expected to receive 100,000 refugees in 2017. But does the Obama administration have a clue regarding the reliability of the information it gets on the new would-be Americans? If it does, it is not letting on.
The mostly Saudi attackers on 9/11 used temporary or tourist visas to enter the country, so the threat from that source should be clear to everyone involved in the entry process, and consulates are acutely aware of the danger. But beyond that, the Obama administration has been complacent. It would no doubt point to the fact that no refugee to the United States has carried out an act of terror once admitted to the country, which would be true but somewhat misleading: The estimated 77,000 Somali refugees who have somehow wound up in Minnesota have included a substantial number of younger men and women who have returned home to join the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab. And it would in any event be prudent to be cautious when relying on past behavior models, as groups like ISIS have indicated their desire to hit the United States and have proven to be highly adaptable in their tactics.
Trump’s demands to block many visitors and would-be residents might seem an overreaction, but until a broken immigration system is fixed, he is more right than wrong.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes the right of free speech. Though there may be instances when speech cannot be truly uninhibited because of possible consequences, e.g. yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, the right to speak freely has been enshrined in American law and custom. Lately, however, free speech has come under attack even in the U.S. by groups claiming that certain words and expressions can be an incitement to violence or can induce discomfort or fear. This interpretation of free speech as a privilege, rather than a right, is more common worldwide than not.
Many countries with constitutions, and several without, have adopted the principle of freedom of speech, but just how free one actually is varies from place to place. In practice, even many nations where speech is notionally protected nevertheless have laws that define lines that should not be crossed. For example, Turkey’s constitution promises free speech, but there is also a law that makes criticizing the head of state a criminal act, an exception that is currently being strictly enforced under President Erdogan. In Western Europe a number of countries have legislation defining “hate crimes,” laws intended to establish a level of civility among the various constituencies that make up the citizenry. Generally, they define as illegal any attempt to criticize or ridicule someone based on race or religion. In France and Germany it is, for example, illegal to deny that the Holocaust occurred.
Most jurisdictions in Europe consider speech that is either “blasphemy” or “racist” in nature to be illegal, and a court ruling in Brussels suggests that supranational institutions like the European Union are likewise sensitive to what some might regard as free speech that is a bit too free. The European Court of Justice, the EU’s top tribunal, ruled that the European Union was justified in firing a British economist back in 1995 for writing a book that condemned European currency integration. According to the court, the book did damage to the EU’s “image and reputation” and was “aggressive, derogatory and insulting.” It was conceded that the economist, Bernard Connolly, otherwise performed his work satisfactorily and that the book was written and published on his own time and at his own expense. The court nonetheless upheld his dismissal.
That ruling was issued in 2001, but it came back into play in the British media this year as part of the Brexit campaign, as an example demonstrating that under current rules the EU cannot even be criticized without consequences. Connolly, who argued in his book that currency union was a threat to democracy, certainly might be credited with being more correct now than he appeared to be in 1995, given recent events in Greece and the EU’s other underperforming economies. After the 2001 judgment, Connolly referred to the operation of the European Court of Justice as having affirmed the concept of “seditious libel,” a long-discredited principle of jurisprudence maintaining that any attempt to criticize in writing the sovereign authority should be considered equivalent to seeking to overthrow the government itself.
The State Department’s 2015 Country Reports on Terrorism came out earlier this month. It will no doubt be overshadowed by events, as it deals with overseas rather than domestic terror and appeared ten days before the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. But it helps to explain the roots of America’s terrorism problem.
The document purports to be an objective review of the year’s terrorist incidents as well as an overview of some of the players, and it includes a discussion of “violent extremism” issues region by region and country by country. It is a valuable resource that provides considerable information on the various militant groups and the crimes attributed to them. But it is nevertheless a government document.
The Obama Administration definitely has a point of view on what constitutes terrorism and how to deal with it. The report’s section on Afghanistan, for example, implicitly makes a case for a more robust American role in the conflict engulfing that country, and the discussion of ISIS tends to view the group in regional terms, with less emphasis on its ability to operate transnationally.
I often find that how something is described or even ignored is just as important as what is revealed. There is, for example, a section of the report identifying “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” a status that brings with it various sanctions. It would be difficult to find a section that is more hypocritical, as many would consider Washington the leading practitioner of state-sponsored terror, given its claimed authority to go after militant targets anywhere at any time.
This year’s report names only Iran, Syria, and Sudan as state sponsors. Iran and Syria undeniably have relationships with groups like Hezbollah, which is a party of government in Lebanon. Hezbollah is currently heavily engaged in fighting ISIS, which the U.S. government in its own reporting clearly identifies as international enemy No. 1. Meanwhile, Iran is criticized for having a close relationship with Syria, while Syria is condemned for having a close relationship with Iran, resulting in both being labeled state sponsors even though their military efforts, like those of Hezbollah, are focused against groups like ISIS and al-Nusrah that are seeking to do damage to the United States. Regarding Sudan, the report states that it is no longer in the supporting-radicalism business, while earlier annual reports actually commended it for helping international efforts against terrorists—yet it remains on the list, apparently because some people in the White House do not like its president very much.
And there is a bigger problem. I have long argued that “terrorism” is a largely meaningless expression, as it has been politicized to such an extent that it no longer provides any real insight into what a designated group is or is not doing. The United Nations defines terrorism as violent acts intended to coerce a civilian population and destabilize the target country’s government, which probably is as far as a reasonable observer should go with the concept.
Others inevitably entertain a somewhat broader viewpoint on what constitutes a terrorist, because the label enables one to marginalize those one does not approve of. Contemporary Turkey’s political leadership describes journalists, protesters, and even the political opposition in parliament as terrorists because it makes it possible to disregard their arguments and curtail their constitutional rights. Israel, meanwhile, calls Palestinians who are legally resisting its illegal occupation of the West Bank terrorists, while the United States uses drones to kill suspected militants based on profiles and, after the fact, rationalizes the deaths by labeling those killed as terrorists.
At any rate, how big of a problem is terrorism, however we Americans define it? The numbers tell us something. Deaths attributed to terrorists are certainly a huge global problem, with the State Department report recording nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks producing 28,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. But the mayhem is very much concentrated in countries that are gripped by what might reasonably be termed civil war, including Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Several other countries with high levels of “terror” deaths, including Nigeria and Pakistan, are engaged in bloody regional conflicts over economic issues fueled by anti-central-government sentiment: not exactly civil war, but something close to it.
American victims are a lot harder to find. The State Department report, which is only about acts of terrorism overseas, identifies 19 American citizens as victims of terror for the year 2015. Eight of the deaths were in Afghanistan, one in Syria, and one in Somalia, all of which can be regarded as war zones. Three were in Jerusalem and on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a region also suffering from endemic violence: two American visitors, plus a settler who held dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship.
Twenty-two more Americans were injured in terrorist incidents worldwide in 2015, and there were no reported kidnappings during the year. Though I in no way wish to minimize the killing of anyone in a criminal act, which terrorism is, the death and injury toll hardly represents a major international threat to U.S. citizens, and I am sure that many more Americans are killed every year “overseas” in traffic accidents while vacationing. So based on the State Department report, one has to question a counter-terrorism strategy costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year to combat an enemy that is largely ineffective, at least in terms of being able to do direct damage to the United States, its citizens, or its other interests.
And there is, of course, the domestic side of the terrorism industry. The year 2015 was, in fact, a relatively busy year for international terrorists, particularly those who might reasonably be linked to ISIS. Insofar as can be determined, no terrorist act carried out in the U.S. in 2015 was actually ordered or directed by an overseas terrorist group, but some terror suspects were certainly inspired by what is taking place in Europe and the Middle East. The killings in Orlando suggest that the so-called “lone wolf” pattern continues in 2016, with little direction from abroad but considerable motivation generated through interaction with radicals online.
There were 25 deaths in the U.S. attributable to some form of ostensibly foreign-sourced terrorism in 2015, a number that includes six perpetrators killed during or subsequent to the attacks. The largest single attack was at San Bernardino, Calif., in December, which killed 16 including the two gunmen. Another multiple-victim attack took place in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July, killing five military personnel plus the shooter. There has been no real suggestion that any of the attacks could have been prevented, though San Bernardino has led to demands by the government for better access to social-networking accounts and to cell phones. While both capabilities would be undeniably useful for after-the-fact assessments of what has occurred, I would argue that giving the police and intelligence agencies broad authority to access what have traditionally been private communications would lead to fishing expeditions through the thousands of communications posted and calls made by terrorism fantasists. It would be hard to justify an extreme interventionist response as either appropriate or effective.
So a total of 44 Americans died in 2015 in incidents that have been categorized by the U.S. government as foreign-sourced terror. To put that in context, the number is comparable to a single month of homicides in Chicago in the same year, when 468 deaths were recorded.
A final measure of the terrorist threat directed against the United States is the number of people being charged with terrorism offenses in 2015. There were 56 arrests in that year, some involving American citizens or legal residents who intended to travel to join a group that has been designated as “terrorist” by the State Department and/or the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.
But what do those numbers really mean in terms of the vulnerability of the United States to an actual terrorist attack? An estimated two-thirds of all terrorism cases that result in charges in the U.S. are brought about through the use of a paid FBI informant who becomes friendly with the targets and in theory monitors their activities. In many cases, however, the informant actually creates the legal case against the accused by giving the suspects weapons or bombs that do not work.
If the FBI informant actually motivates the targets to carry out the illegal act, that would be considered entrapment, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to make that case unless one were a fly on the wall during all of the meetings involving the informant. A better measure might be whether those accused were ready, willing, and able to carry out a terrorist act without any intercession from an informant. I have done a rough media survey of the identifiable cases from 2015 and could not find a single one where that was so, though in at least one instance a suspect’s online searches relating to how to turn a pressure cooker into a bomb were considered a serious threat.
I am not trying to minimize the threat posed to the United States by terrorists either overseas or domestically, and last weekend’s horrific massacre in Orlando certainly makes one reluctant to endorse anything like complacency. But I would nevertheless advise that the danger posed by radicalized groups and individuals be put into some kind of context, and that draconian steps to deal with the problem be embraced with caution. Terror is the poor man’s weapon against powerful government forces, so it will likely always be with us, but terrorists are rarely successful in their broader objectives—these are achieved only in cases where there is a political vacuum.
I have been reading the State Department annual reports for many years now, and my firm impression is that the international terrorist threat, as poorly defined as it is, has actually been receding as more and more governments actively seek to eliminate militants in their midst, and as fewer states are willing and able to provide them with assistance or a safe haven. Terrorism is a dying industry in every sense of the word, and while the U.S. government should take every reasonable step to protect American citizens, the key word must be “reasonable.” A global anti-terror Crusade led by the United States is not a reasonable response, nor is it necessary, as terrorist groups always eventually fade away due to their own internal contradictions. It is time to declare the War on Terror finished and move on.
Cities reduced to rubble, schools and hospitals leveled, prisoners tortured and executed, car bombs exploding. Long lines of refugees, their homes in ruins, stumbling along a road to nowhere with their few remaining possessions carried on their backs. Graphic photos and videos from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa continue to show the downside of the “New World Order,” the global system operating under American direction envisioned by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
They also demonstrate the enormous perceptual gap between much of the world and the United States, which has not had a hostile force penetrate its borders since Pancho Villa rode into New Mexico in 1916. America does not know and does not understand the reality of war, which renders the bellicose pronouncements made by presidential candidates as so much background noise, little more troubling than their comments about what to do about greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the drums of war continue to beat, with Pentagon sources revealing that the United States has been bombing so many people in so many places that its weapons stockpiles are running low.
Responding to increasing demands for some accountability, President Barack Obama has pledged to bring transparency to the drone wars Washington is waging in at least seven countries. Drone missions have received considerable criticism owing to their lack of any legal framework, but the administration argues they are justified by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gives a carte blanche to the armed forces to pursue and kill “al-Qaeda associated” terrorists wherever they might be. The additional drone attacks undertaken by the CIA are “covert actions” made legal by presidential “findings,” and both the intelligence services and the military are reported to be guided by the constabulary principle, which means that the U.S. has authority to strike a “threatening” terrorist target if the local government lacks either the resources or desire to do the job itself.
Reports in the media suggest that there will soon be a White House report on the numbers of civilians killed since 2009 in drone strikes, but, as is often the case, the devil will be in the details. The government is trying to demonstrate that the civilian death toll is minimal, though it is unlikely to go as far as CIA Director John Brennan, who argued that the agency’s attacks had killed “no civilians.” It will do that by excluding from consideration “war zones” in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, and also CIA “clandestine” operations. Only Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and possibly Pakistan will be included in the findings, as they are “outside areas of active hostilities.”
The report will also manipulate its own definitions of what constitutes a terrorist or militant, and it will justify some otherwise inexplicable attacks as “self-defense” due to U.S. special forces operating in the area. Guidelines for firing drones’ Hellfire missiles have been somewhat subjective, including, for example, considering any male of military age and carrying a weapon as a likely terrorist and therefore subject to annihilation, even though being an armed male in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is not unusual and hardly equivalent to militancy. In other cases, a tribal gathering where several alleged militants are reported to be present will be considered to be 100 percent terrorist, even though the drone operator has no idea who is on the ground apart from the one or two targets who are plausibly or sometimes not-so-plausibly identified.
The document is also likely to include questionable assumptions about the targets of the attacks and, reading between the lines, should raise some serious doubts about the accuracy of the alleged “pinpoint” strikes delivered by drone. If the past is anything to go by, it will be obfuscated by discussion of legal aspects of the use of drones and will tend to dismiss or even ignore the human tragedy playing out on the ground by granting the U.S. government the benefit of the doubt when a target does not fall into any easily discernible category.
There’s inevitably a political objective behind the report, which is to institutionalize the process of using lethal drones by presidential fiat worldwide. Obama has embraced the drone as his weapon of choice against terrorists, having authorized hundreds of attacks, a vast expansion of the deployment compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who approved drone strikes fewer than 50 times in his eight years in office. It is likely that Obama will formalize the procedures for selecting and killing targets by executive order before his term in office ends.
Drone warfare aside, Americans should be appalled by how many people their elected government has directly or indirectly killed since the War on Terror began nearly 15 years ago, particularly as the United States has not actually been at war with anyone during that entire period—and they probably would be appalled if they knew. Bear in mind that there are a lot of ways to die. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously declared killing 500,000 Iraqi children through sanctions that limited the import of food and medicines in the 1990s “worth it.” More recently, the huge dislocations of populations and refugee flows have killed tens or even hundreds of thousands more. One need not have a bullet in the head to die.
Estimates of deaths caused by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are at best guesstimates and depend on what factors are included or excluded. Is starvation due to disrupted food supplies, or death by an illness that would have been treated if the local hospital hadn’t been destroyed, the responsibility of the United States? Some think so, even if the death is “collateral” or occurs some time after the traumatic incident.
Tallying the actual death toll ultimately comes down to a reckoning of deaths that would not have occurred but for the military action. Governments will inevitably try to deflate the numbers and dismiss the causal linkages, while other observers will move in the opposite direction.
A March 2015 report by the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) suggests that there has been considerable, deliberate understating of the true consequences of the U.S.-led response to terrorism. The report claimed that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first ten years post-9/11 as part of the so-called “Global War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. A year later, one might reasonably update the numbers and add Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the carnage—and the current total might easily exceed 2 million. Some other estimates go as high as 4 million. The PSR report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” and based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.
It is difficult and probably unfair to consider George Bush and Barack Obama to be mass killers along the lines of a Pol Pot or even a Josef Stalin, as they did not seek or condone the deaths of large numbers of civilians. But the lesson to be drawn from their passages through the highest public office is that leading what is nominally a democracy is no impediment to lashing out largely indiscriminately, without regard for those on the receiving end. We as a country are now reduced to preparing reports explaining that we really didn’t kill that many civilians with drones while attacking countries we are not at war with by virtue of a plausibly unconstitutional congressional authorization.
The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process. President Clinton or Trump will be able to do more of the same, as the procedures involved are “completely legal” and likely soon to be authorized under an executive order. And the 2 million or 4 million or maybe eventually 6 million dead will become, as Stalin once put it, not a tragedy but just a statistic.
The other day, a question popped up on a Facebook thread I was commenting on: “Where is Victoria Nuland?” The short answer, of course, is that she is still holding down her position as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
But a related question begs for a more expansive response: Where will Victoria Nuland be after January? Nuland is one of Hillary Clinton’s protégés at the State Department, and she is also greatly admired by hardline Republicans. This suggests she would be easily approved by Congress as secretary of state or maybe even national-security adviser—which in turn suggests that her foreign-policy views deserve a closer look.
Nuland comes from what might be called the First Family of Military Interventionists. Her husband, Robert Kagan, is a leading neoconservative who co-founded the Project for the New American Century in 1998 around a demand for “regime change” in Iraq. He is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an author, and a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of a number of national newspapers. He has already declared that he will be voting for Hillary Clinton in November, a shift away from the GOP that many have seen as a clever career-enhancing move for both him and his wife.
Robert’s brother, Fred, is with the hawkish American Enterprise Institute, and his sister-in-law, Kimberly, is the head of the Institute for the Study of War, which is largely funded by defense contractors. The Kagans work to encourage military action, both through their positions in government and by influencing the public debate through think-tank reports and op-eds. It is a family enterprise that mirrors the military-industrial complex as a whole, with think tanks coming up with reasons to increase military spending and providing “expert” support for the government officials who actually promote and implement the policies. Defense contractors, meanwhile, benefit from the largesse and kick back some money to the think tanks, which then develop new reasons to spend still more on military procurement.
The Kagans’ underlying belief is that the United States has both the power and the obligation to replace governments that are considered either uncooperative with Washington (the “Leader of the Free World”) or hostile to American interests. American interests are, of course, mutable, and they include values like democracy and the rule of law as well as practical considerations such as economic and political competition. Given the elasticity of the interests, many countries can be and are considered potential targets for Washington’s tender ministrations.
For what it’s worth, President Obama is reportedly an admirer of Robert Kagan’s books, which argue that the U.S. must maintain its military power to accommodate its “global responsibilities.” The persistence of neoconservative foreign-policy views in the Obama administration has often been remarked upon, though Democrats and Republicans embrace military interventionism for different reasons. The GOP sees it as an international leadership imperative driven by American “exceptionalism,” while the Dems romanticize “liberal intervention” as a sometimes-necessary evil undertaken most often for humanitarian reasons. But the result is the same, as no administration wants to be seen as weak when dealing with the outside world. George W. Bush’s catastrophic failures in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to bear fruit under a Democratic administration, while Obama has added a string of additional “boots on the ground” interventions in Libya, Syria, Yemen, the Philippines, and Somalia.
And Nuland herself, many will recall, was the driving force behind efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013-14. Yanukovych, admittedly a corrupt autocrat, nevertheless assumed office after a free election. In spite of the fact that Washington and Kiev ostensibly had friendly relations, Nuland provided open support for the Maidan Square demonstrators opposed to Yanukovych’s government, passing out cookies to protesters on the square and holding photo ops with a beaming Sen. John McCain.
Nuland started her rapid rise as an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Subsequently, she was serially promoted by secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, attaining her current position in September 2013. But it was her behavior in Ukraine that made her a media figure. It is hard to imagine that any U.S. administration would tolerate a similar attempt by a foreign nation to interfere in domestic politics, particularly if it were backed by a $5 billion budget, but Washington has long adhered to a double standard when evaluating its own behavior.
Nuland is most famous for using foul language when referring to the potential European role in managing the unrest in Ukraine that she and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) had helped create. She even discussed with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt who the new leader of Ukraine ought to be. “Yats is the guy” she said (referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk), while pondering how she would “glue this thing” as Pyatt simultaneously considered how to “midwife” it. Their insecure phone call was intercepted and leaked, possibly by the Russian intelligence service, though anyone equipped with a scanner could have done the job.
The inevitable replacement of the government in Kiev, actually a coup but sold to the media as a triumph for “democracy,” was only the prelude to a sharp break—and escalating conflict—with Moscow over Russia’s attempts to protect its own interests in Ukraine. The new regime in Kiev, as corrupt as its predecessor and supported by neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists, was consistently whitewashed in the Western media, and the conflict was depicted as “pro-democracy” forces resisting unprovoked “Russian aggression.”
Indeed, the real objective of interfering in Ukraine was, right from the start, to install a regime hostile to Moscow. Carl Gershman, the head of the taxpayer-funded NED, called Ukraine “the biggest prize” in the effort to topple Russian President Vladimir Putin, who “may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.” But Gershman and Nuland were playing with fire in their assessment, as Russia had vital interests at stake and is the only nation with the military capability to destroy the U.S.
And make no mistake about Nuland’s clear intention to expand the conflict and directly confront Moscow. In Senate testimony in May of 2014, she noted how the Obama administration was “providing support to other frontline states like Moldova and Georgia.”
Nuland and her neoconservative allies celebrated their “regime change” in Kiev oblivious to the fact that Putin would recognize the strategic threat to his own country and would react, particularly to protect the historic Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea. Barack Obama responded predictably, initiating what soon became something like a new Cold War against Russia, risking escalation into a possible nuclear confrontation. It was a crisis that would not have existed but for Nuland and her allies.
Though there was no evidence that Putin had initiated the Ukraine crisis and much evidence to the contrary, the U.S. government propaganda machine rolled into action, claiming that Russia’s measures in Ukraine would be the first step in an invasion of Eastern Europe. Former Secretary of State Clinton dutifully compared Putin to Adolf Hitler. And Robert Kagan provided the argument for more intervention, producing a lengthy essay in The New Republic entitled “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” in which he criticized President Obama for failing to maintain American dominance in the world. The New York Times revealed that the essay was apparently part of a joint project in which Nuland regularly edited her husband’s articles, even though this particular piece attacked the administration she worked for.
As the situation in Ukraine continued to deteriorate in 2014, Nuland exerted herself to scuttle several European attempts to arrange a ceasefire. When NATO Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove was cited as being in favor of sending more weapons to the Ukrainian government to “raise the battlefield cost for Putin,” Nuland commented, “I’d strongly urge you to use the phrase ‘defensive systems’ that we would deliver to oppose Putin’s ‘offensive systems.’”
To return to the initial question of where Victoria Nuland is, the long answer would be that while she is not much in the news, she is continuing to provide support for policies that the White House apparently approves of. Late last month, she was again in Kiev. She criticized Russia for its lack of press freedom and its “puppets” in the Donbas region while telling a Ukrainian audience about a “strong U.S. commitment to stand with Ukraine as it stays on the path of a clean, democratic, European future. … We remain committed to retaining sanctions that apply to the situation in Crimea until Crimea is returned to Ukraine.” Before that, she was in Cyprus and France discussing “a range of regional and global issues with senior government officials.”
But one has to suspect that, at this point, she is mainly waiting to see what happens in November. And wondering where she might be going in January.
It’s been almost a decade and a half since 9/11, but the foreign-policy establishment still cannot admit that continuous American intervention in the Middle East has been a failure.
I recently attended a conference entitled “Hindsight: Reflections on 15 Years of the War on Terror.” With a wide range of highly respectable speakers, I naively expected that the panels would conclude that the so-called “global war on terror” had been a misguided project ab initio, that the United States continues to repeat mistakes in its national security policy that promote rather than discourage terrorism—and that the terrorism threat itself has been grossly inflated for largely political and economic reasons.
Apart from a single comment by a former U.S. Army general who correctly characterized American involvement in the Middle East as an overly robust response to what is in reality a “low threat, low national interests” situation for Washington policymakers, I was greatly disappointed. Everyone seemed to accept without any real question the presumption that the United States has a preemptive right to use military force to change foreign governments, ignoring that factor as a source of terrorism and only criticizing those actual interventions that have been badly implemented like Iraq and Libya.
Some of the speakers predictably were either promoting personal agendas or the agendas of their political patrons and employers. One keynote speaker blasted Republican foreign policy positions while praising Bill Clinton, and by extension Hillary, for their brilliant foreign policy team, which tempted me to shout out the name “Sandy Berger!” followed by “the Balkans!” and “Sudanese pharmaceutical factory!” The same speaker also refused to address a reasonable question about the well-attested massive Israeli spying operation in the U.S. in 2001, denying that it existed. Indeed, neither Israel nor Palestine were mentioned at all in an hour and a half panel discussion on foreign policy “challenges” coming from the Middle East, an omission that one has to consider to be curious.
While some speakers robustly condemned erosion of personal liberties due to increased security, it was all carefully done in a legal context, which is what I personally find most annoying about existing criticism of the war on terror. What is legal and what isn’t appears to trump how certain developments actually play out in practical terms and it should be accepted that any White House can always find a Department of Justice lawyer willing to affirm that nearly anything is legal, meaning that the distinction is meaningless.
Increasing oversight was promoted by several speakers, which is also a type of legal remedy. Admittedly, some panelists did note that existing oversight does not protect against abuse as the overseers generally do not oversee at all. Officials from all branches of government instinctively and consistently collude with the expectations of the administration, meaning that oversight does not equate to either transparency or accountability. And there was no consideration by panelists whether torture, rendition, data collection and telecommunications backdoors actually enhance national security. This was to my mind a major omission as the public is generally deluded into thinking that the “enhanced interrogation” and “acceptable” ethical lapses funded by the hundreds of billions of dollars invested annually in the warfare state are “making us safe.”
Only one speaker mentioned that existing terrorism cases in the U.S. generally come out of FBI entrapment operations, that the government has rarely caught terrorists in flagrante and that fewer than 50 Americans have been killed by Islamic terrorists since 9/11, suggesting the extent to which the terror threat has been dramatically hyped for reasons that have little or nothing to do with ISIS or al-Qaeda. A “pressure cooker bomb plot” cited by New York’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism as a great success involved a Muslim student who was reportedly only thinking about doing something but who did not even possess the pressure cooker that he was allegedly considering using as a weapon. Muslims arrested for terrorism plots rarely have the capability to carry out any offensive actions and are frequently reliant on FBI informants to provide them with a gun doesn’t work or a bomb that doesn’t explode. Or in this case possibly a pressure cooker with a hole in it.
There were nearly four hours of more and the same, to include hubristic snapshots of Russia and China as eternal enemies and several comments suggesting that Syria would not be so bad now if “we” had taken down Bashar al-Assad a few years back. After an unctuous hymn of praise regarding the effectiveness of the New York Police Department notably minus any mention of its domestic spying operations directed against Muslims, it occurred to me that the narrative being fed was conditioned by one overriding factor: nearly every speaker benefits personally from the continued existence of the war on terror. They are all part of the establishment and supporters of the Washington foreign policy consensus even if they don’t identify themselves that way. Even those academics and lawyers who criticize the war frequently do so in a restrained and high-minded fashion because the status derived from being a player in the continuation of the unending global conflict is as much in their interest as it is in the interests of those who are working for the government or a defense contractor.
Few in the United States and in Western Europe challenge the nature of the terrorist threat and governments have learned that if they shout “terrorism” often enough they will get a free pass on budgets and on approving legislation that restricts the freedom of the average citizen. Freedom is, unfortunately a zero-sum game, power taken from the people is gone forever and is given over to what we Americans have begun to call the “unitary executive,” a transitional process welcomed by heads of state in both parliamentary and presidential government systems.
The war on terror is the driving concern that fuels much government aggrandizement as well as spending. Depending on what one includes in the numbers it is plausible to suggest that as much as $1 trillion per year is being spent to fight against the alleged threat. The “counter-terror” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the most expensive in U.S. history and they are not over yet. The ongoing intervention in Afghanistan, justified by President Obama as a war to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda, continues to cost more than $3 billion per month and is currently undergoing a “surge,” as are also operations in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The federal government employed 2,726,000 as of 2014 compared to 1,500,000 in 2001, not including the military, which itself has 2,100,000 personnel in uniform, including reserves. Most of the new hires have been directly related to the War on Terror for manning the 200 post-9/11 military and CIA bases that have sprung up around the world. The number of reported federal employees does not include contractors, who add considerably to the payroll. More than half of the employees in key sectors within the intelligence community and at the Defense Department are contractors and every contractor costs three times as much as a normal employee.
It is projected that Uncle Sam will spend $4.2 trillion in 2017 compared with $1.863 trillion in 2001, $503 billion of which will be borrowed, reversing 2001’s budget surplus of $127 billion. The Department of Homeland Security, which did not exist prior to 2001, gets $40 billion and employs 180,000; the intelligence agencies get an estimated $100 billion and employ 100,000; the FBI gets nearly $9.5 billion; and the Department of Defense gets $632 billion, which does not include a slush fund to cover the war in Afghanistan and other contingencies. In 2001, the Pentagon budget was $277 billion. When all the increases are added up and compared to the baseline of 2001, the war on terror currently costs the American taxpayer directly more than $500 billion per year as part of an overall defense and national security budget that approaches $1 trillion. As there may be only 100 or so terrorists interested and plausibly capable of attacking the United States directly, that works out to something like $10 billion per year per terrorist.
And that is only at the federal level. Most states now have their own departments of homeland security, and most have dramatically increased both the numbers and firepower of their police forces. There is full-time security manning the entrances of nearly all federal and state and even many local office buildings and schools. The total costs of state and local expenditures to counter the essentially bogus terrorist threat might well exceed the federal expenditures, and then there is the spending on security, often mandated by the government, in the private sector. The conference I attended also demonstrated the extent to which universities, institutes, and security firms have become part of the huge and growing terrorism business, all feeding off of the false assumption that the twenty-first century is the age of the terrorist.
Apart from the benefit to defense industries, money spent directly on the war on terror is essentially wasted. But even as bad as all those numbers in terms of current spending are, consider for a moment the legacy costs and institutional damages that are not so readily visible. Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University estimates that Iraq will cost as much as $5 trillion when all the costs, including interest paid on borrowed money and medical treatment for life for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers, are paid off. The bill for Afghanistan, which appears to lack an exit strategy, will be proportionate, depending on how long the U.S. stays there and at what commitment level. The money spent and the debt continuously incurred explain in part why the United States stumbles along with an antiquated infrastructure and a dysfunctional health-care system. The country cannot continue wasting resources on overstated terrorist threats without paying the price at home.
A little more than one year ago Director John Brennan announced a shake-up at CIA that would, inter alia, enhance the eroded capabilities of the Clandestine Service. An earlier move to appoint paramilitary officer Gregory Vogel as deputy director for the agency’s spies signaled to the bureaucracy that shooting and droning had replaced espionage as the elite component at CIA, and there was considerable concern that the agency had to some extent lost its ability to perform traditional tradecraft. While it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that the agency had abandoned the spy business, by some accounts it has largely given up on unilateral operations and has instead become heavily dependent on often unreliable information shared by friendly intelligence liaison services.
A recent first-person account by Douglas Laux, Left of Boom, describes in some detail new-age spying. The memoir, which has been heavily redacted by CIA censors, describes the role of the spy as foot soldier in combat zones like Syria and Afghanistan. Laux makes the point that many of the current generation of CIA case officers have done little conventional spying, having only worked in war zones where the rules of engagement are quite different than they would be on the cocktail circuit in Paris.
Laux concludes his tale with his frustration in arming rebels in Syria, but his story begins when he arrived in Afghanistan in early 2010. He had a singular advantage over most of his peers in that he was one of the few taught Pashto prior to his assignment. He was sent to a base located in a bleak concrete-block Soviet-era prison and was immediately tasked with developing information on the purveyors of improvised explosive devices that were killing large numbers of American soldiers. He cultivated local tribesmen, but when he met his agents he would wear body armor and be driven to the meetings in an armored vehicle protected by ex-Navy SEAL guards.
Laux’s success, or the lack of it, is difficult to discern from the book due to the extensive redactions, but he notes ruefully how little the military and intelligence agencies knew about Afghanistan or its people. Short tours of duty, as in Vietnam, meant that right from the beginning everyone would be counting down the days until DEROS—date eligible for return from overseas—and those leaving, who might have learned a little of what was going on during their year, would pass the baton to a newbie who would have to begin the process all over again. Laux repeats the joke that the U.S. had not been in the country for 10 years, “We’ve been in Afghanistan one year, ten times.”
Ignorance of what was happening on the ground and failure to communicate across bureaucratic lines came with a price tag. The military would broadcast the names of Taliban who were wanted without coordinating with CIA. The next day men would show up at CIA bases with allegedly “valuable information” based on the names and demand payment. The agency would pay up, assuming that the knowledge of the names of wanted terrorists itself established the bona fides of the purveyors of the information. For Laux, the confusion exemplified everything that was wrong about the United States effort in Afghanistan, an observation that might serve to enlighten certain presidential candidates even today.
Starting with Hammurabi, rulers have frequently appreciated that their subjects would be more acquiescent to being governed if they had at least a minimal appreciation that they were being treated fairly. That understanding has led to the development of law codes along the lines of the Roman Republic’s laws of the Twelve Tables, which were inscribed in bronze and posted prominently in the Forum so everyone would know what the rules were. In the Middle Ages statues of Justice erected in the Italian republics often had her blindfolded and with a scale in one hand and a sword in the other, indicating that guilt would be weighed fairly and punishment, if merited, would be delivered inexorably. For modern democracies the rule of law has often been translated into the expression “equal justice under law.”
Of course everyone knows that there is no such thing as equal justice. Certain infractions are rarely prosecuted while other crimes are pursued rigorously. Expensive lawyers reduce the risk of there being any serious consequences for the wealthy even when one is caught out. Employees of the state are rarely punished even when their felonies cost the taxpayers millions of dollars because no one wants to look closely at corruption in government.
But there is nevertheless the impression that the law exists to serve everyone equally, which is why the recent comments by President Obama regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account, which included 22 emails classified top secret, are so incredible. Obama made two statements regarding Hillary’s private email server while she was secretary of state. His first comment was that he would do nothing to impede the investigation and possible filing of charges against Clinton if the facts should warrant that kind of action, elaborating “That is institutionally how we have always operated: I do not talk to the attorney general about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line.” And then he followed up by stating that “There’s carelessness in terms of managing emails, that she has owned, and she recognizes. I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security.”
Anyone who has ever handled classified material, which presumably includes the president, knows that there are a number of things that you do not do. You do not take it home with you, you do not copy it and share it with anyone who does not have a clearance or a need to know, and you do not transfer it to another email account that is not protected on a government server. If you have a secured government computer, that means that what is on the computer stays on the computer. This is not a matter of debate or subject to interpretation. It is how one safeguards classified information even if one believes that the material should not be classified. That the classification might be unnecessary is not your decision to make.
Obama is, of course, lying when he says that he will allow an investigation to proceed unimpeded. The attorney general and FBI director work for him, and he is keenly aware of what is going on. He doesn’t have to say anything at all for Loretta Lynch to understand that it might be in the administration’s interest to slow down or kill the process. As Obama has one major legacy issue in the waning days of his presidency, to make sure that the Democratic Party holds onto the White House, to torpedo Hillary Clinton through prosecution over mishandling classified information would be unthinkable for him and the people around him. He does not have to send a signed presidential memo or have an off the record conversation to make sure that his associates appreciate that point.
And second, when Obama claims that there was no breach of security, his assessment is irrelevant, in part because he may not know that to be true. The government was not controlling the private server in Chappaqua and numerous messages both there and in Washington have reportedly been erased. Besides, the accusation being made against Hillary is that she mishandled classified information, not that she gave it to some foreign power. She clearly is guilty as messages were cut and pasted minus their classification caveats. The question should be not whether she is guilty—she is—but rather what form of punishment is appropriate. But Obama has sent a clear message that he has considered the matter and there will be no punishment.
And then there is the somewhat similar case of General David Petraeus. While CIA director, Petraeus shared classified information with his lover Paula Broadwell, who was his official biographer. He eventually plea bargained guilty to giving Broadwell eight notebooks that he was insecurely storing in his home, including classified information recorded while he was serving as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The notebooks held some of the most sensitive kinds of military and intelligence secrets, including names of undercover officers, intelligence resources, paraphrases from high-level meetings of the National Security Council, and even some comments about Petraeus’s discussions with the president. It has been argued that Broadwell had a security clearance and was writing an official biography, but she had no need to know the highly sensitive information contained in the notebooks and should not have had access to them.
Petraeus was placed on probation for two years and was fined $100,000, which he could easily afford. Proposals to demote him in rank and so diminish his pension were rejected. Some argued that he was protected by his rank and status and that his punishment had he been an enlisted man or junior officer would almost certainly have been much greater. But it is precisely due to his rank and status that the punishment was more severe than it seemed. He went from being a highly respected military officer and head of the CIA to being a man in disgrace who furthermore had his extramarital affair exposed to the nation. Some might plausibly argue that he should have also done jail time, but it is not unreasonable to maintain that the punishment hurt him in the area where he was most vulnerable—his reputation. In reality the penalty might be considered to be at least somewhat proportionate to the crime.
And then we come to Jeffrey Sterling, who is currently serving a three and a half year prison term for allegedly leaking information to New York Times journalist James Risen. Sterling first came to the media’s attention when in 2003 he blew the whistle on a botched CIA operation called Operation Merlin, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee staff that the CIA had mistakenly sent nuclear secrets to Iran. So it was perhaps inevitable that in 2006, when James Risen published a book that inter alia discussed the botched Operation Merlin, the Department of Justice focused on Sterling as the suspected source. In court the federal prosecutors relied almost entirely on Risen’s phone and email logs, which reportedly demonstrated that the two men had been in contact up until 2005. But the prosecutors did not provide the content of those communications even though the FBI was listening in on some of them. Risen has claimed that he had multiple sources on Operation Merlin, and Sterling has always denied being involved. No evidence was ever produced in court demonstrating that any classified information ever passed between them.
Jeffrey Sterling could not even testify in the trial on his own behalf because he would have had to discuss Operation Merlin, which was and is still classified, meaning he could not reveal any details about it even if they were already known through the Risen book. Indeed, some of the information in Risen’s book relating to Merlin could not have been known by Sterling as he was no longer associated with the operation after mid-2000, a detail that could also not be presented as it too was considered classified. The jury convicted Sterling based on “suspicion,” a verdict that defense witness Colonel Pat Lang, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s clandestine program, described as a “travesty.”
After conviction Sterling was sent to prison in Colorado—900 miles from his family’s home in St. Louis. According to his wife Holly, legal fees have wiped out the couple’s finances, leading some to believe that the government deliberately set out to make an example of Sterling. John Kiriakou, another CIA whistleblower who was also imprisoned, observed that “The point wasn’t just to imprison Jeffrey. It was to ruin him. Utterly ruin him. The point was to demonize him. And frighten any other would-be whistleblowers.”
So much for equal justice under law. The politically best connected abuser of classified information walks, the next one down the ladder in terms of political importance is fined but not otherwise punished, and the least institutionally protected individual goes to jail. And the real irony is that only the first two demonstrably mishandled classified information for their own convenience and benefit. It was never demonstrated that Sterling had done so.