Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
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.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
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.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) court battle with Apple over the security system in place on iPhones appears to be over. But some experts in the communications security community are expressing concern because of the Bureau’s unwillingness to reveal what exactly occurred to end the standoff.
According to government sources speaking both on and off the record, the FBI succeeded in breaking through the Apple security measures with the assistance of an unidentified third party. The technique used was apparently not a one-off and is transferable as the Bureau has now indicated that it will be accessing data on a second phone involved in a murder investigation in Arkansas and is even considering allowing local police forces to share the technology. That means that the FBI and whatever other security and police agencies both in the U.S. and abroad it provides the information to will have the same capability, potentially compromising the security of all iPhones worldwide.
The breakthrough in the case leads inevitably to questions about the identity of the company or individual that assisted the Bureau. It means that someone outside government circles would also have the ability to unlock the phones, information that could eventually wind up in the hands of criminals or those seeking to disrupt or sabotage existing telecommunications systems.
No security system is unbreakable if a sophisticated hacker is willing to put enough time, money and resources into the effort. If the hacker is a government with virtually unlimited resources the task is somewhat simpler as vast computer power will permit millions of attempts to compromise a phone’s operating system.
In this case, the problem consisted of defeating an “Erase Data” feature linked to a passcode that had been placed on the target phone by Syed Farook, one of the shooters in December’s San Bernardino terrorist attack. Apple had designed the system so that 10 failures to enter the correct passcode would lock the phone and erase all the data on it. This frustrated FBI efforts to come up with the passcode by what is referred to as a “brute force” attack where every possible combination of numbers and letters is entered until the right code is revealed. Apple’s security software also was able to detect multiple attempts after entry of an incorrect passcode and slow down the process, meaning that in theory it would take five and a half years for a computer to try all possible combinations of a six-character alphanumeric passcode using numbers and lowercase letters even if it could disable the “Erase Data” feature.
Speculation is that the FBI and its third party associate were able to break the security by circumventing the measure that monitors the number of unsuccessful passcode entries, possibly to include generating new copies of the phone’s NAND storage chip to negate the 10-try limit. The computer generated passcodes could then be entered again and again until the correct code was discovered. And, of course, once the method of corrupting the Erase Data security feature is determined it can be used on any iPhone by anyone with the necessary computer capability, precisely the danger that Apple had warned about when it refused to cooperate with the FBI in the first place.
Most of the U.S. mainstream media has been reluctant to speculate on who the third party that aided the FBI might be but the Israeli press has not been so reticent. They have identified a company called Cellebrite, a digital forensics company located in Israel. It is reported that the company’s executive vice president for mobile forensics Leeor Ben-Peretz was recently in Washington consulting with clients. Ben-Peretz is Cellebrite’s marketing chief, fully capable of demonstrating the company’s forensics capabilities. Cellebrite reportedly has worked with the FBI before, having had a contract arrangement entered into in 2013 to provide decryption services.
Cellebrite was purchased by Japanese cellular telephone giant Suncorporation in 2007 but it is still headquartered and managed from Petah Tikva, Israel with a North American office in Parsippany, New Jersey and branches in Germany, Singapore and Brazil. It works closely with the Israeli police and intelligence services and is reported to have ties to both Mossad and Shin Bet. Many of its employees are former Israeli government employees who had worked in cybersecurity and telecommunications.
If Cellebrite is indeed the “third party” responsible for the breakthrough on the Apple problem, it must lead to speculation that the key to circumventing iPhone security is already out there in the small world of top level telecommunications forensic experts. It might reasonably be assumed that the Israeli government has access to the necessary technology, as well as Cellebrite’s Japanese owners. From there, the possibilities inevitably multiply.
Most countries obtain much of their high grade intelligence from communications intercepts. Countries like Israel, China, and France conduct much of their high-tech spying through exploitation of their corporate presence in the United States. Israel, in particular, is heavily embedded in the telecommunications industry, which permits direct access to confidential exchanges of information.
Israel has in fact a somewhat shady reputation in the United States when it comes to telecommunications spying. Two companies in particular—Amdocs and Comverse Infosys—have at times dominated their market niches in America. Amdocs, which has contracts with many of the largest telephone companies in the U.S. that together handle 90 percent of all calls made, logs all calls that go out and come in on the system. It does not retain the conversations themselves, but the records provide patterns, referred to as “traffic analysis,” that can provide intelligence leads. In 1999, the National Security Agency warned that records of calls made in the United States were winding up in Israel.
Comverse Infosys, which dissolved in 2013 after charges of conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and making false filings, provided wiretapping equipment to law enforcement throughout the United States. Because equipment used to tap phones for law enforcement is integrated into the networks that phone companies operate, it cannot be detected. Phone calls were intercepted, recorded, stored, and transmitted to investigators by Comverse, which claimed that it had to be “hands on” with its equipment to maintain the system. Many experts believe that it is relatively easy to create an internal cross switch that permits the recording to be sent to a second party, unknown to the authorized law-enforcement recipient. Comverse was also believed to be involved with NSA on a program of illegal spying directed against American citizens.
Comverse equipment was never inspected by FBI or NSA experts to determine whether the information it collected could be leaked, reportedly because senior government managers blocked such inquiries. According to a Fox News investigative report, which was later deleted from Fox’s website under pressure from various pro-Israel groups, DEA and FBI sources said post-9/11 that even to suggest that Israel might have been spying using Comverse was “considered career suicide.”
Some might argue that collecting intelligence is a function of government and that espionage, even between friends, will always take place. When it comes to smartphones, technical advances in phone security will provide a silver bullet for a time but the hackers, and governments, will inevitably catch up. One might assume that the recent revelations about the FBI’s capabilities vis-à-vis the iPhone indicate that the horse is already out of the stable. If Israel was party to the breaking of the security and has the technology it will use it. If the FBI has it, it will share it with other government agencies and even with foreign intelligence and security services.
Absent from the discussion regarding Apple are the more than 80 percent of smartphones used worldwide that employ the Google developed Android operating system that has its own distinct security features designed to block government intrusion. The FBI is clearly driven by the assumption that all smartphones should be accessible to law enforcement. The next big telecommunications security court case might well be directed against Google.
The rise of Donald Trump has led to predictions that the neoconservative dominance of Republican foreign policy is about to end, whether or not Trump wins. The Donald has challenged the perpetual military interventionism aspect of neocon-think without doing any damage to his campaign and, in the process, he has certainly noticed who the most strident voices being raised against him are.
Admittedly the prospect of a world blissfully free of neocons is appealing, but some observers have noted how the neoconservatives are chameleon like, blending in with whoever is controlling the levers of power and capable of moving from their original home in the Democratic Party over to the GOP—and then back again to the Democrats whenever it seems tactically advisable. Their eradication is far from a sure thing and one expects to see the neocon stalwarts Victoria Nuland and Robert Kagan at the top of any Hillary Clinton administration.
The effort to disparage Trump is to a considerable extent neocon driven, featuring the usual publications, as well as frequent television and radio appearances driven by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s talking points. Recently the Washington Post, as part of its own unrelenting campaign to destroy the Trump candidacy, has been featuring numerous articles attacking the candidate from every conceivable perspective. An op-ed queried seven “Republicans” regarding their own views of the Trump phenomenon plus their advice regarding what might be done to stop him. Former Congressman Eric Cantor stated flatly that “I don’t believe Donald Trump is a conservative” while Kristol called for mounting “an independent Republican candidacy in the general election.” Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute said Trump “is no conservative and will do lasting damage to the conservative movement,” a sentiment topped by Ari Fleischer’s assertion that “Trump is not really a Republican.”
This playing of word games is an effort to excommunicate individuals who do not fit into an acceptable template drawn by those who comprise the nation’s political elite. Congressman Ron Paul suffered from such attacks labeling him a libertarian when he ran for president. Pat Buchanan had preceded him, described by the neoconservative crowd as an anti-Semite and fascist. In reality, both were attacked for not being internationally interventionist enough to be considered true conservatives, which actually tells one more about the critics than it does about the victims of the denigration.
In its current incarnation, the Republican Party leadership, in going along with the charade, is essentially yielding to the neoconservative view that willingness to assert American leadership through overseas wars was and still is a sine qua non when it comes to being considered a conservative.
All of which makes one wonder about the abuse of the word “conservative.” Perhaps it is the neocons that should actually have the word stripped from their self-designation. The Republican Party has long been regarded as the home of “conservatism,” but that value has most often been linked to what have been regarded as family and traditional values, limited government, and, most particularly, an antipathy towards foreign wars. The GOP in Congress resisted President Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to get America involved in both the First and Second World Wars, and also refused to join the League of Nations after the first war had ended. If anything, nonintervention was solidly in the GOP DNA.
But traditional reluctance to go to war on the part of Republicans was challenged when John F. Kennedy discovered a fictional “missile gap,” forcing the GOP for electoral reasons to become part of the developing national security consensus. It subsequently became the party of robust defense when Ronald Reagan sought to distinguish himself from the lackluster Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s term of office coincided with the appearance of the so-called “neoconservatives,” most notably at the Pentagon (a development that was, not coincidentally, combined with the final purges of the so-called Arabists at the State Department).
While it has often been noted that a group of like-minded individuals gradually commandeered the foreign and defense policy of the Republican Party starting in the 1970s, it is less frequently observed that the hijacking of the tag “conservatism” was itself also part of the process as a way to make the transition more palatable to the public and the GOP rank-and-file.
Many neoconservatives began as Communists. One of the founders of the movement, Irving Kristol, was a radical student at City College of New York in the 1930s. Kristol has been described as an anti-Soviet Trotskyite in his leanings prior to experiencing a political conversion in middle age. That meant advocacy of worldwide revolution, which for Kristol and his later associate Norman Podhoretz later morphed into endorsement of global pax Americana by force majeure.
Kristol famously quipped that he and his colleagues were liberals who were mugged by reality. The joke is amusing, but not completely convincing, since it begs the question of whose reality and to what end. Kristol himself described neoconservatives as “…unlike old conservatives because they are utilitarians, not moralists…”
Though Irving Kristol did not study under leading “neoconservative” theorist Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, his belief in his own peer group of dedicated “intellectuals” as the leadership elements that would direct a broader movement was at its heart Straussian. Kristol summed up the Straussian view that
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.
In his own words, Kristol stated his belief that a robust U.S. military would be the catalyst for positive developments globally and most particularly for Israel. In 1973, Kristol attacked Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, stating that
Senator McGovern is very sincere when he says that he will try to cut the military budget by 30 percent. And this is to drive a knife in the heart of Israel… Jews don’t like big military budgets. But it is now an interest of the Jews to have a large and powerful military establishment in the United States… American Jews who care about the survival of the state of Israel have to say, no, we don’t want to cut the military budget, it is important to keep that military budget big, so that we can defend Israel.
Complicating the definition of neo-conservatism is the fact that there are several currents that have more-or-less come together to form the current incarnation. The historic roots of the movement derived from Kristol and Podhoretz are radical leftist, but there is another source of neoconservatives gathered around the former senator from Washington, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who was liberal on social policies but a hard liner vis-à-vis defense and most particularly the Soviet Union. He was the source of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which tied relaxing trade policies with Moscow to the willingness of the Soviet government to allow Jews to emigrate. Prominent Scoop Jackson Democrats who became Republicans during the Reagan administration include Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, and Ben Wattenberg. Wolfowitz had also been a student of Strauss at Chicago.
A third element that has joined the historic and Jacksonian traditions are the second generation neocons, to include Bill Kristol, John Bolton, Michael Rubin, Charles Krauthammer, Laurie Mylroie, Jennifer Rubin, Dennis Ross, the Kagans, the Makovskys, and Elliot Abrams. It is this generation who staffs the Washington foundations and think tanks that have been associated with neoconservative policies, including AEI, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. They also are prominent in the Rupert Murdoch media empire and in publications to include the Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review and the Washington Post. Many are fixtures on Sunday morning talk television. They are also heavily overrepresented in groups like the John Hay Initiative that have succeeded in shaping the foreign policy positions being taken by nearly all of the GOP presidential aspirants.
There is, of course, considerable mixing and cross fertilization among the neoconservative groups, meaning that they sometimes differ on issues that they consider secondary to their main foreign policy agenda. They are reticent or even silent on many social conservative issues, even accommodating a progressive viewpoint on abortion and gay marriage, education, and health care reform. They support open borders or are at least ambivalent about immigration, favor free trade, promote diversity and multiculturalism. Their failure to address these issues in a serious way reveals above all that they are not genuine conservatives and are more like a one-trick pony that only performs foreign policy.
So what do all neocons actually believe? The unifying principle of neoconservatism is the conviction that the United States has a moral duty to serve as the world’s policeman, preempting the development of challenges from rogue states, which has sometimes caustically been described as “invade the world.” In practical terms, this pursuit of de facto global hegemony means that military force is by default the first option in bilateral relations with foreign states. It also becomes necessary to manufacture an enemy or enemies that theoretically pose a significant threat. This role is currently being played by Russia, China, perennial favorite Iran, and the somewhat more amorphous “Islamo-fascism.”
The fearmongering is necessary for two reasons. First it justifies inflated military budgets that in turn keep the defense contractor money flowing to neoconservative organizations. Second, a robust military, per Irving Kristol’s thinking, guarantees that the United States will always be ready, willing, and available to protect Israel, an imperative derived from the perception that both the U.S. and Israel are morally exceptional states. All neoconservatives support military buildups and interventions, plus they all are zealous in their uncritical support of Israel, to such an extent that the two issues define them.
Confronting the neocons requires first of all exposing the fact that they are not actually conservatives by any reasonable definition. Peter Beinart agrees that the “incoherent definition” needs to be retired and wants to replace it with “imperialist.” Call them what you will, but exposing their exploitation of the conservative label that enables their parasitical relationship with the GOP is perhaps the simplest way to create some separation from their peculiar brand of internationalism. Whether that will make them disappear or not is perhaps debatable, but, at a minimum, it would prevent them from defining what an acceptable Republican party foreign policy might or should be. Donald Trump has for all his faults opened the door just a crack in bringing about that kind of change, including in his rant a direct criticism of the neocons. In that respect, one should most certainly wish him success.
Michael Hayden is the only official to have served as head of both the National Security Agency and CIA. Once retired from public service, the chief spy for much of the George W. Bush era has always had a difficult time staying out of the headlines.
At the NSA, the former Air Force general oversaw what many now consider to be the illegal warrantless surveillance of communications between individuals in the U.S. and alleged foreign terrorist groups. Later appointed CIA director by George W. Bush, Hayden served until 2009, when he resigned and joined the private security consulting Chertoff Group.
To publicize his new book, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, Hayden has ventured to criticize certain positions being taken by GOP presidential aspirant Donald Trump. He has in particular focused on Trump’s support of torture and his willingness to kill entire families of “terrorists.” Hayden has suggested that officers in the military can refuse to do either, even if ordered to do so by the president, because both actions are currently illegal under Pentagon guidelines. It is an odd position for him to take as he defends torture in his book and never challenged White House orders when he was at NSA.
Hayden also somewhat curiously disagrees with Trump and all the other Republican candidates in his unwillingness to support Obama administration efforts to obtain backdoors on security systems in place on telecommunications equipment. Hayden was referring specifically to attempts to coerce Apple to crack the security on its iPhones to obtain additional information relating to the San Bernardino terrorist attack. This position places him at odds with FBI director James Comey. Hayden, as a former director of the NSA, bases his opposition on his knowledge of how security systems can be broken. He asserts that once a breach is engineered into a system it becomes easy to compromise. If Apple were to do as the government is demanding, every iPhone could potentially be attacked down the road by criminal hackers as well as by government agencies acting without any legal authority.
Books by former top spies are generally self-serving, written to explain away the bad decisions made by the authors, a form of confession without any penance or even a mea culpa. They also frequently come with a whopping advance, $4 million in the case of the memoir authored by George Tenet in 2007. Publishers apparently think that anything written about spying is a potential best seller, even though the actual books most often turn out to be somewhat less than that and wind up on remainder piles.
The disappointment in books written by ex-spooks is derived from the fact that they really cannot tell the reader anything interesting as all of that sort of thing remains classified. That means that they talk about process and decision making, which is generally quite boring, requiring them to rely on dramatis personae to create literary tension—with characters like Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby plus assorted world leaders popping into and out of the room like players in a Pirandello comedy. But even the antics of Cheney and Libby tend to pall after the first 30 pages.
What is interesting, however, is the revelation to the public of how a senior official whose entire life has been in the intelligence profession as a top-level bureaucrat thinks. I am not speaking of folks in the middle of the machine like myself, who kvetched regularly about the layers of intransigent management throughout the intelligence community. I am talking about the true believers who ran the machine and actually had a stake in determining what it did and how it did it. In that sense, Hayden’s book and his interviews have been quite revealing.
Hayden was directly involved in two newsworthy projects—the warrantless surveillance and data mining under George W. Bush and the targeted assassination program that was developed under Barack Obama. He enabled both and also supported rendition and torture, raising no questions about the ethics of what was being demanded by the White House. In defending the warrantless surveillance program, Hayden focuses on its legality, ignoring the fact that it produced little or nothing useful while at the same time damaging relations with key allies and compromising the personal security of an untold number of American citizens.
Hayden persists in some views that have long since been discredited, believing, for example, that torture produced information that was vital to the killing of Osama bin Laden. He dismisses 2014’s meticulously researched Senate Intelligence Committee report, which criticized Hayden for misleading the committee and came to a dramatically different conclusion. Hayden has also joined the chorus insisting that the report was flawed because it was written by “Democrats.”
While CIA director, Hayden likewise resisted the release of the Bush Justice Department torture memos, arguing that to do so would damage CIA morale. In fact, when the memos were released they demonstrated how flimsy the government case was for proceeding with the “enhanced interrogation” program.
It appears that Hayden never actually was engaged in any espionage at the working level, but he managed America’s two preeminent spy agencies, dealing with his customers in the government and his counterparts overseas while making adjustments to keep up the morale of his thousands of employees after they came under attack for the Bush-era policies. As the title of his book suggests, he saw his role as director of NSA and later CIA in simple terms. That was to do anything he could to respond to White House demands for “more” information while providing options to disrupt terrorist activity by doing absolutely everything possible—“up to the edge” of limits imposed by law and the constitution. This meant in practice that he was more interested in the letter rather than in the spirit of the law, so any green light from a government lawyer was considered to be enough of a fig leaf to move ahead. And proceeding with a course of action also included routinely deferring to the hysterical demands of unreliable politicians who themselves feared not “doing enough” in the eyes of the public.
In attempting to carry out his inevitably poorly defined mission to protect the country, Hayden sees certain intrinsic obstacles. They include politicians too weak-kneed to have a clear vision of what needs to be done and those who would expose what the government is doing. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney emerge from the book as exemplary no-nonsense leaders while Obama and and a number of leading Democrats are timid, guilt-ridden, and indecisive. The lurking media is always the enemy.
But Hayden’s book also includes some moments of serious introspection. He admits that the intelligence community, existing as it does in a bubble, has often connected poorly with the public, the media and even with government oversight. He accepts that changes are needed to explain the importance of the intelligence product and almost welcomes the Edward Snowden revelations as some kind of wake-up call, even though he makes clear how much he despises the messenger.
In spite of his willingness to ignore the collateral damage caused by many poorly conceived U.S. government programs that he oversaw, Michael Hayden is not a monster. And one might even argue, relying on his first person account, that the Cheneys and Bushes of this world are often unfairly maligned as they sought to deal with a post-9/11 situation that was both unprecedented and unimaginable. It may have been beyond anyone’s ability to craft a proportionate and effective response to assuage the fear gripping the nation, as strident demands to “do something” came from politicians and the media alike.
Hayden, perhaps understandably, does not dwell much on the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, self-inflicted wounds far removed from any justification provided by the panic around 9/11. He focuses on terrorism, not foreign policy, and certainly thought that freedom to tap phones and take other extraordinary steps was all about the salvation of the Republic and not an attack on the Constitution or rule of law. But now, 15 years later, there is perspective. It behooves the architects of the “war on terror” policies to come to grips with the mistakes that were made then—and that continue to be winked at now. As we have seen in the case of the violent GOP reaction to Trump’s denunciation of the Iraq War, self-criticism beyond a certain point is not yet to be expected, either from the writers of insider memoirs or most of those seeking the presidency.
It is widely understood that a number of federal government agencies monitor and even seek to infiltrate jihadist websites. But a program initiated in 2009 to debate the visitors to extremist Islamic sites has yet to find a comfortable organizational niche. The so-called “counterpropaganda” effort against the terrorist Internet is run out of the White House by the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and the National Security Council’s senior director for global engagement. The actual outreach to individuals visiting the websites has been overseen by the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, tasked with “engaging, informing and influencing foreign publics.”
Given the layers of bureaucracy, it is surprising that anything was accomplished, but State Department linguists were finally up and running in 2012 in what was labeled a “Viral Peace” initiative, which trolled radical sites anonymously to argue with militants and sometimes confuse them. This was followed in 2013 by a program that included State Department staffers who identified themselves online as U.S. government employees. They attempted to enter into discussions refuting extremist views, but they found they were treated with little respect by would-be jihadis.
The program has now morphed into something called “Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism,” which is run by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, as a joint project with the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook. In conjunction with universities around the world, the project seeks to “empower students to design and pilot new digital products and tools that counter violent extremist narratives and reach those susceptible to violent extremism messaging.” It produces anti-terrorism campaigns using what is referred to as “counter-speech” to debate radical viewpoints. Organizers claim that there is little U.S.-government input into the content and reject charges that it is “a different type of propaganda.” They prefer to describe it as “authentic.”
Facebook is providing much of the seed money and operational costs, as well as training the students in online message optimization. In its current run, 45 universities competed over a period of 15 weeks. Its six finalists represented schools in Pakistan, Switzerland, Kuwait, and Finland, plus two American colleges, the University of Arkansas and West Point—which shows that the effort is not just limited to overseas. In fact, the program’s director, Homeland Security’s George Selim, has said, “the issue I’m concerned with most is the recruitment and radicalization of young people, specifically in the United States.” The first time the program ran, in early 2015, the winner was Missouri State University.
The assumption is that students will instinctively understand how best to argue points on social media, which may or may not be true. But unfortunately, these gentler efforts to reach out to those being radicalized might soon be preempted by an antsy Congress, which is seeking to compel the companies that run the social networking sites to report “terrorist activity,” and by political candidates like Hillary Clinton, who are calling for aggressive steps to “deprive jihadists of virtual territory.”
The recent carnage in Ankara comes at a good time for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has been demanding that the United States and other NATO allies support him in his war against the Kurds of Syria, who are, incidentally, regarded as allies by Washington in the war against ISIS. The Turks have been bombarding Kurdish positions and staging special ops raids, warning the Kurds against the dangers of becoming too successful in their drive to occupy territory vacated by a retreating ISIS. Erdogan has been fulminating constantly about how the Kurds are all terrorists and therefore the real enemy, along the way insisting angrily that the United States join him in that assessment. “Choose me or the terrorists!” he recently demanded of a U.S. delegation, elaborating that anyone who is a friend of the Kurds will not have a friend in Turkey.
The Turkish president is not only calling for a war against the Kurds. The conflict is already metastasizing into something like a civil war, with The Economist describing Turkey’s southeastern region as a “simmering cauldron of violence.” Erdogan has also thrown down the gauntlet against the opposition parties in his own parliament, some of whom he has also described as “terrorists.” Having already hobbled his country’s press, its judiciary, its military and law enforcement and having made it a crime to protest against his policies or “insult” government officials, he is now intent on obtaining for himself near dictatorial powers as president. Erdogan is currently seeking to force through legislation that would grant him the new authority he seeks even though he lacks sufficient votes to do so. His language in dealing with his own countrymen is replete with the usual fabrications, threats and admonishments that have made him a worldwide sensation over the past two years.
As Erdogan passionately wants his war and his mandate, the Ankara bombing comes at a perfect time for him. Which should be suspicious. The Turkish military high command is known to be strongly opposed to any large scale intervention in Syria, but the killing of soldiers by the bombers might be intended to undermine its resistance. Inevitably, a Syrian Kurd of unknown antecedents has been blamed by name for the attack and also linked to Turkey’s own Kurds. Kurdish leaders both in Syria and Turkey deny any knowledge of the incident, though one spokesman conceded that it might have been a rogue attack staged by victims of the recent Turkish crack down on the Kurdish region of the country. A Kurdish splinter group the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (TAK) has taken credit, but it contradicts what Turkey is claiming about the provenance of the attack and might be a ploy intended to enhance the group’s reputation. But to be sure, apart from revenge the Kurds logically would have no motive to provoke an onslaught by the overwhelmingly more powerful Turkish military. Quite the contrary.
The bombing comes on top of Turkey’s dangerous—and suspicious—shoot-down of a Russian warplane, in which the decision to take decisive action against Moscow must surely have come from the top level of the government in Ankara. The Russian plane could not have been construed as being hostile to Turkey and a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, could only explain the incident if there was actually a Turkish plan in place to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace. Why? Because Russia was demonstrating considerable success in pushing back the rebels which, pari passu, was enabling the Kurds in Syria to expand their area of control. For Erdogan, it always comes down to the Kurds.
One can reasonably argue that Turkey’s present desperation is a direct product of President Erdogan’s miscalculations. He deliberately abandoned efforts to maintain a ceasefire with the Kurds and instead escalated the conflict with them when he began bombarding their positions in Syria in the Summer of 2015. The return to the “Kurds as terrorists” meme was politically motivated, intended to discredit the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is largely Kurdish, prior to national elections. Erdogan also continued to insist that Bashir al-Assad be removed in Syria, even though that has proven to be an unattainable goal and his decision to bring down a Russian plane was tactically unwise as well as bad news for a struggling Turkish economy.
Given Erdogan’s apparent willingness to take seemingly high risk steps in support of his domestic and foreign agendas, one must inevitably pose the question: “Was this bombing in Ankara a false flag attack carried out by Erdogan to justify a war and give him increased authority, both of which are linked?” Those who discount such a possibility would no doubt argue that no contemporary government leader would conspire to kill his own people under such circumstances. Or would they?
The Turkish people wisely are resistant to military engagement outside their country’s borders so the government of Erdogan has considered desperate expedients to create a casus belli to justify waging its own personal war against the Kurds on Syrian soil. The reality is that Turkey has suffered a number of “terrorist” attacks over the past two years, some of which are certainly suspicious in that they came at a time when the government was fearmongering before elections or seeking popular support for a war in Syria. In each case the attribution to Kurds or ISIS has been somewhat suspect or based solely on assertions made by the Turkish government, seemingly without any independent corroboration. If they were indeed false flag attacks, some steps would likely have been taken to delude the actual bombers or shooters regarding who was actually ordering the attack. Kurdish speaking Turkish intelligence officers could easily and plausibly have represented themselves as Kurds, for example.
Recent attacks inside Turkey that have been credited to ISIS or the Kurds might just as reasonably be credited to the Turkish intelligence service MIT based on the principle of “Cui bono?” or “who benefits?” One bombing in Ankara last October, attributed alternatively to ISIS and to Kurds, killed 102 and was particularly suspicious coming as it did shortly before elections. It targeted a peace march that included many Kurds, making it a perfect target to sow discord. It was inevitably exploited to increase government pressure on the Kurdish minority and to weaken the opposition HDP. The tactic was, in the event, successful as Erdogan succeeded in reestablishing his parliamentary majority.
Several so-called ISIS attacks directed against Turkish soldiers and policemen have also been used to create the impression to the U.S. and NATO allies that Turkey was actually in the fight against the Islamic State even though it really was not. One complaint made by the Kurds in 2015 was that the Turks were facilitating the movement of ISIS along the border to attack Kurdish positions. The White House, frustrated by the Turkish inaction, was not fooled by the charade but it felt that it was in no position to contradict Erdogan as it needed to be able to use the NATO airbase at Incirlik, which the Turkish president controlled.
But perhaps the most telling, and chilling, incident relating to Erdogan and his intelligence service cronies is something that did not happen. Back in 2014, a secret telephone recording made by police investigating criminal activity by some family members within the government inner circle revealed that the then-prime minister had conspired with his intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to stage a false flag attack on the tomb of Turkish Sultan Suleyman Shah, which for historical reasons is located inside Syria and is guarded by Turkish soldiers. Davutoglu told Fidan “The Prime Minister [Erdogan] said that in current conjuncture, this attack (on the Suleyman Shah Tomb) must be seen as an opportunity for us.” Fidan responded “I’ll make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey.” In the event, the attack did not take place but if it had it might have meant killing fellow Turks to create a casus belli that would have justified massive retaliation and direct intervention in Syria.
Would Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan be willing to kill his own soldiers to create an incident that would enable him to advance his own agenda? The answer is apparently yes. Were the bombers in Ankara on February 18 somehow instigated or set up by the Turkish intelligence agency MIT? The answer might never be known, but President Obama, in his phone call expressing condolences to Erdogan over the bombing, carefully avoided endorsing Turkish claims that Syrian Kurds had been behind the attack. As the actual perpetrators remain somewhat of a mystery, it would behoove Washington to be very cautious before climbing on to the Turkish bandwagon.
The question of how to balance government surveillance with individual privacy is really quite simple. On one side the government believes that the investigation of someone who is either planning or has actually carried out a crime should be without any conditions, that all evidence potentially relating to the event should be accessible to law enforcement. On the other side, citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their day to day activities, meaning that the government should have to demonstrate indisputable “probable cause” to a judge before undertaking any intrusion into an individual’s private space. And even then, the intrusion should be narrowly defined to include only the actual criminal activity under investigation.
The problem comes in where the two principles collide, particularly as the new national security relationship between government and governed is still being laboriously defined in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of American and British communications monitoring. The manufacturers of telephones and the providers of internet and phone services, which inhabit an uncomfortable space between the government and the public, have inevitably become the new zone of conflict. Apple, maker of the world’s most well known smartphone, has recently found itself in these crosshairs.
Companies such as Apple market hardware and communications services globally based on a presumption that the systems are secure, meaning that they are resistant to being hacked or accessed by either criminals or the government. As a result, security features have been incorporated that are at least in theory unbreakable, some of which are referred to as “end to end encryption” where only the sender and receiver can have access. Sophisticated security systems reportedly have so many variables built into them that they can only be broken by a computer capable of running thousands or even millions of numerical combinations. Such computers exist at NSA but they are unable to defeat a second feature that some phones have, which is a delete function that wipes the phone memory clean of data after 10 tries to break the security system are attempted.
The national security community, for its part, maintains that any communications system must have a “backdoor,” that is a point through which access can be obtained that bypasses or disables the security or passcode and reveals the contents. To further complicate the issue, a federal judge has now entered into the conversation, ordering Apple to “unlock” the iPhone that was used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino California on December 2. The FBI reportedly has been seeking to access the phones for over two months without success and is claiming that Apple has been uncooperative in revealing the technology involved.
Apple’s Chief Executive Tim Cook responded to the demand with a refusal, saying that the “U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create.” Cook went on to state that any attempt to create a backdoor would weaken the overall integrity of the security system, making it susceptible to hacking and other cyber intrusion. And he also correctly noted that many people store substantial information on their phones, meaning that the government or a criminal would have access to personal data far beyond the record of who has been calling whom and when.
All the phone’s peripheral information would become vulnerable and there is no way to guarantee that the government would not access information that has nothing to do with its investigation. Indeed, the past 15 years would suggest that the government cannot be trusted whenever it is presented with an opportunity to overreach. And once a key is developed to compromise the security of even one phone it can be used on all phones that use the operating system, which means any one of the millions of Apple phones.
Cook did not note his other concern—creating a backdoor for the U.S. government would cost Apple much of its huge overseas market, after consumers there turned to other phones with unbreakable encryption. It would be devastating for the company.
The Apple chief also expressed another concern, that bowing to the FBI demand would inevitably lead to new administratively imposed requirements, where the “government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.”
Apple quite likely also understands that any key provided to the FBI would not just be destroyed after use. It would be shared with the CIA and NSA and likely with foreign partners like the British and Israelis, who would not be reluctant to use the new toy. Cook is certainly aware of legislation pending in Great Britain. The British government security services, like the FBI, are particularly concerned over phone encryption and a new law would require the companies involved to “decrypt” desired information when presented with a warrant to do so. It is unclear what would happen next if the company cannot comply because no such technical option exists, as Apple argues, but the British government might well demand that such a feature be incorporated into new operating software. If the company failed to comply, it could be subject to punitive fines or even have its business operation shut down in the UK.
And there is also considerable debate over proposed British government monitoring of the internet, which is likely a harbinger of what might be coming worldwide. Additional legislation being proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May as part of a package of new laws designed to enable the police and security services to have freer access to a whole range of communications services would require technology companies to retain all “internet connection records” for 12 months.
That means that any time you send or receive something or go to a website, the information would be saved and would be accessible to the police. And it would all take place without either judicial oversight or any requirement for a warrant. Interestingly, the legislation is being promoted as a tool to investigate child pornography sites, but it would no doubt be used much more extensively if it becomes law. As in the frequently abused FBI surveillance using National Security Letters, the target of the investigation would have no knowledge that he was being looked at and the communications provider would be forbidden by law from revealing to the customer that anything was taking place.
Nearly everyone would likely agree that revealing the contents of terrorist Syed Farook’s phone would be desirable. But if doing so would also make all Apple smartphones vulnerable to government intrusion, it would be the devil’s own bargain—trading away a fundamental liberty for a tool that the security services would undoubtedly find helpful, though it is unlikely to be a game changer. And as soon as militants learn that some of their phones are vulnerable, they would undoubtedly find other ways to communicate, as they have done in the past.
Government inevitably pushes for more power to define the rules it operates under in such a way as to sanction behavior that once upon a time would have been considered unacceptable. In this case, it is important to understand that the Farook iPhone is not just a single phone owned by a terrorist, as the FBI would have one believe. It instead constitutes a wedge issue, representing the government’s insistence that everyone’s zone of privacy should be defined by some bureaucrat’s interpretation of “making you safe.” Developing an iPhone backdoor to find out whom Farook talked to would be a very bad bargain.
Earlier this year, Seymour Hersh, America’s leading investigative journalist, published an intriguing article on U.S. policy towards the growing conflict in Syria and Iraq. “Military to Military,” which appeared in the London Review of Books, maintains that the Pentagon’s intelligence analysts have, since 2013, been advising against the White House policy of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that it would create a power vacuum in the country that would inevitably be exploited by groups like ISIS. The analysts cited the examples of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as examples of what might go wrong. They also argued that arming a group of “moderate” rebels to overthrow the Damascus government was delusional because even moderates were of necessity entering into “accommodations” with radical groups.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff also observed that the more extreme rebels were being supplied with weapons by feckless allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who were exploiting the crisis in support of their own narrowly construed agendas. They attributed the White House obsession with al-Assad to a Cold War type of mentality born of the view that Syria is a client state of Russia, which continues to be seen as the principal challenge to U.S. global hegemony. It is not a view that the Pentagon embraces, seeing a much more complicated evolving threat situation in the heart of the Arab world that has little or nothing to do with great power rivalry.
According to Hersh, after being ignored by the White House, the Department of Defense began pushing back behind the scenes to undermine the administration policy on al-Assad by sharing intelligence with a number of foreign liaison services—to include Russia, Germany, and Israel—that it knew would be leaked to the Syrian government. The “leaks” of intelligence started in the summer of 2013 and continued until 2015, with the intention of strengthening Damascus’s ability to resist opposition forces, most particularly al-Nusra and ISIS. The information being shared was regarded as “military to military” exchanges and neither the White House nor the State Department was briefed regarding it.
As the United States has also been simultaneously arming and training the so-called “moderate” opposition forces, the possible support of al-Assad would suggest that Washington has been engaged on both sides of the conflict, which is quite possibly an accurate assessment. One expects a certain lack of coherence in the foreign policy emanating from the Barack Obama White House, but what is particularly disturbing is the “Seven Days in May” suggestion that the Pentagon might be running its own unconstitutional foreign policy without the consent of the nation’s civilian leadership.
To be sure, there have been rumblings of discontent from the Pentagon that might have suggested that something was not quite right. Former Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have complained in their memoirs that the national security policy process was increasingly being micromanaged by the White House, which itself was nevertheless unable to exercise effective leadership to establish priorities.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resigned in late 2014 reportedly because he had been disconcerted by a lack of clarity coming out of the White House. He reportedly objected to the increasingly secretive National Security Council (NSC) usurpation of security policy decision making that hitherto had been shared with the Defense Department. He also had sharp disagreements with National Security Advisor Susan Rice over contradictions in the policy against ISIS, arguing that a well-articulated program to address the terrorism threat as a regional issue rather than as distinct problems in Iraq and Syria was essential. He also questioned the lack of any clear policy towards the Syrian government. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was eventually asked to resign and was replaced by non-veteran bean counter Ash Carter, who has carefully not made waves while characteristically pushing issues like gender equality in the military’s combat arms to the fore.
Hersh’s article has only received limited reviews, most of which have been somewhat disparaging, quite likely because a rogue Pentagon is the worst nightmare of every establishment politician and journalist. And, to be sure, there has been some questioning of the “facts” as well as judgments made in his piece, though they have not refuted his central thesis. To be fair, Sy Hersh undoubtedly has top-level sources in the Pentagon and he is meticulous in his fact checking but there is always a possibility that a source might well be embellishing a tale or exaggerating his or her own involvement in it.
As chance would have it, I have recently had candid discussions with two current members of the National Security Council who will have to remain nameless. The first one dropped a bombshell, to my mind, by observing that President Obama, like Bill Clinton, is largely indifferent to intelligence reports. He rarely reads the digests that are presented to him each morning and prefers to make decisions based on his own instincts and what he is being told by his advisors.
The second official, who has been on the NSC since Obama took office, explained the Obama world view. He said that Obama has been convinced by his three closest foreign policy advisors—Rice, Valerie Jarrett, and Samantha Power—that the top U.S. foreign policy priority should be the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P as it is abbreviated. He described how the Obama team sees the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, in which at least half a million mostly Tutsi tribesmen died while the world looked on, as equivalent to the way in which neoconservatives view the Holocaust, leading them to act as if it’s always 1938 in Munich. The interventions in both Libya and Syria can be explained in those terms: a bid to prevent mass slaughter of civilians without any particular regard for what comes afterwards or what the strategic consequences might be. If Obama agrees in principle to keep substantial numbers of American troops in Afghanistan past 2017, the reasoning and possible consequences will be the same.
Given the basic White House prejudice of protecting civilians as the top priority, it becomes easy to understand why Bashar al-Assad is seen as the fundamental problem in the Syria fandango. Al-Assad, it is generally agreed, has killed more Syrians than have the rebels, which makes him the principal enemy. What is ignored in that calculation is the actual U.S. interest in the conflict, which is, to put it in its simplest terms, that ISIS and al-Nusra actually directly threaten the United States while al-Assad does not.
This deliberate unwillingness on the part of the White House to discern a simple truth regarding the conflict has been noted recently by an increasing number of journalists and even politicians. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Virginia State Senator Dick Black, both of whom are veterans, have publicly challenged the implications of the current U.S. policy.
The White House inclination to respond to claims of genocide as the principal driver of policy was prominent in the 2011 intervention in Libya. Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has described how the Defense Intelligence Agency studied the Libyan situation and concluded that probability of mass killings taking place if Gaddafi were to remain in place was based only on “speculative arguments.” It warned correctly and presciently that no actual U.S. interest would be served by intervention, which would only open the door to an extremist takeover of the government.
Porter also recounts how in an eerie parallel to later developments in Syria, the White House approved a plan to cooperate with Qatari government attempts to arm the Libyan rebels. Washington soon discovered that the weapons went mostly to the most radical groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliate.
According to Porter, the U.S. military’s African Command persisted even after the bombing began, arranging a cease fire directly with Gaddafi which would enable him to step down and turn over the reins of government to his army, which would preempt an extremist takeover. The State Department under Hillary Clinton refused to consider such an option. When it was reported that Gaddafi had been killed she laughed and quipped, “We came, we saw, he died.”
The heaping-Ossa-upon-Pelion history of regrettably poor policy choices made by the White House brings one back to the beginning. Is Sy Hersh possibly correct in describing Pentagon pushback against administration policies? And if so, what does that mean in terms of civilian control of the military? As both Hersh and Porter observe, the activity by the generals did not change policy one bit—and one might also imagine that it would be a brave flag officer who would jeopardize his career by engaging in activity that would be unlikely to have any real impact.
I would suspect there is more than a touch of hyperbole in the tale of generals engaging in derring-do to tweak the nose of the White House and I would add that the rebellion by the Joint Chiefs, if it occurred as described, is really little more than a display of petulance. But it is nevertheless interesting to note the depth of unhappiness among professionals in government with the administration’s stop-and-go policies in the Middle East. It is also important to recognize that the collaborative bureaucratic process that once upon a time generated foreign policy has largely been abandoned under the Obamas and one might observe, parenthetically, that U.S. president presumptive Hillary Clinton was part and parcel of the new reality both for Libya and Syria. More recently, she has called for a no-fly zone for Syria which might well lead to the shooting down of Russian planes. I wonder what the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about that?
In his final State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama noted in passing that the United States spends as much on defense as the next eight countries combined. He might have added that the proportions are similar for the Foreign Service and the intelligence community, which cost $50 billion and an estimated $80 billion respectively. The president might well have asked why, if that is so, is there so little bang for the buck in terms of what the U.S. taxpayer gets in return.
To be sure, no one has invaded the United States since Pancho Villa in 1916, but every war fought after 1945 has been either unnecessary, inconclusive, or a failure while the intelligence community is repeatedly caught flat footed in terms of anticipating the moves of both competitors and enemies. And a string of 294 fortress-like diplomatic missions around the world has done little to lessen foreign concerns over the seemingly persistent blundering of an imperial Washington that sometimes seems to be more concerned with style than substance. The Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is, for example, currently sponsoring an “I Love English” video contest.
With that in mind, I carefully followed the commentary on 2012’s Benghazi incident in which four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya, were killed. The tale has become something of a political football, but I was more interested in trying to determine how the response actually worked once it became clear that the consular offices were under attack.
The printed and cinematic accounts of the events in Benghazi are very similar but the Washington Post provided some additional insights through its interview of the CIA’s chief of base in the city, who was identified only as “Bob” as he is retired but still under cover. Bob was willing to talk to the newspaper because he believed that the both the book and film had maligned him, having the character who played him order a “stand down,” which delayed by at least 20 minutes the arrival of the Agency security response team at the site where the ambassador and a State Department colleague were in hiding and subsequently found dead of smoke inhalation.
Bob and at least one other CIA officer have stated that no one was ever ordered to stand down but two other officers from the security team, the sources for both book and movie, claim otherwise. Part of the delay in sending off the team, according to Bob, consisted of attempting to contact local Libyan militias for clarification of what was occurring as well as for armed assistance, if needed. Help was not forthcoming but finger pointing over what had occurred and why continued after the CIA base was attacked the following morning. The diplomatic and CIA facilities were both evacuated on the following day. Clearly there was no love lost between the chief of base and his security team.
The Post article describes Bob as a CIA case officer who had served in Latin America but who had also done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not think I know Bob, but I do know enough about Agency personnel management to guess that he speaks Spanish pretty well but no Pashto and, more to the point, little or no Arabic. Which means he was not an ideal choice for the position because he would be in a highly volatile environment working through an interpreter and in all likelihood the interpreter would be someone provided by the local militias or even someone who walked into the compound and who could speak good English. The interpreter, who might represent almost anything politically speaking, thus becomes the key link in trying to determine what was occurring, and the American officer on the ground would have to defer to the judgement and translating skills of someone whose actual loyalties would be difficult or impossible to assess.
The Benghazi brouhaha recalls an incident at Camp Chapman, near Khost in Afghanistan. The killing of seven CIA officers in 2009, the largest single toll of Agency officers since the Beirut Embassy bombing in 1984, appeared to have been a wake-up call, but perhaps not. The after-action assessment had noted that the Chief of Base Jennifer Matthews, a career analyst, may have been at least partly responsible for the security lapses that led to the deaths. She had been given the position because she aggressively lobbied for the field assignment to help advance her career and the Agency, foolishly, ignored the fact that she had not had the appropriate training and was not experienced enough to be in charge in a war zone.
So people sometimes wind up in the wrong places and as a result people die. But one has to suspect that having the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time is somehow systemic in the federal government, particularly related to those individuals who have to do official tours overseas. When I was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, complaints from officers and non-coms about the rotation system were frequent. One-year tours in Vietnam meant that soldiers were just learning how to do their jobs when they were replaced by someone new who had to learn all over again how to survive. Many did not live through the learning curve and one might reasonably suppose that some thousands of American soldiers might have come home alive if the system had been able to maximize combat effectiveness.
At that time, career officers going to Vietnam would seek safe billets whenever possible but would also speak of having their “tickets punched,” meaning that they needed to have Vietnam active duty on their service records if they were to have any hope of promotion. Currently, both CIA and the Foreign Service as well as the military rotate personnel through countries like Afghanistan and Iraq on one and two-year assignments unaccompanied by their families. The short tour is designed to make up for being unaccompanied but it results in inexperienced officers regularly replacing other officers who have only limited experience. It is a form of “ticket punching” and is a formula for failure.
To be sure, there are administrative problems in having a sufficient number of highly qualified Arabic and Pashto speakers available to fill sensitive assignments, but one would think that after 15 years of the global war on terror someone might have figured out a solution. It takes two years to learn Arabic up to a functional level and no one in mid-career is willing to spend that time and effort, particularly as language training is not particularly career enhancing. So American military officers, intelligence personnel, and even diplomats often tend to be the blind leading the blind when they arrive at an overseas post where the local language is challenging.
And the situation for easier European languages is not necessarily much better as even college-educated Americans rarely learn how to speak a foreign language. In the 1980s a run of five chiefs of station in Italy included only one who could speak Italian. Of 20 or so officers serving in Turkey only one could speak Turkish. A deputy director for operations was so perturbed by the inability of CIA case officers to speak the local language that he blocked assignments for those whose test scores were woeful. After a couple of months he gave up, aware that the problem was insoluble.
In truth the language problem is just one symptom of the “ticket punch” career management that prevails in certain parts of the federal government. Like musical chairs, everyone moves every two years, more or less. And it is not because it is necessary to operate that way because not everyone else in the world of diplomacy and intelligence does the same thing. Back in the old Cold War days, Soviet case officers studied foreign languages and cultures for years before arriving on post. They would even buy clothing and shoes locally to fit in visually. And they would stay on target for years, becoming over time experts on the nuances of their working environment. The British and French operate the same way, having officers in place for years at a time, building up their local expertise. For Americans, the constant rotation of officers was often explained by management not wanting its foot soldiers to “go native.” That chicanery aside, who would be able to work better in the foreign environment, the American or the Russian? Who is more effective today?
So the United States has a lot of its representatives overseas who do not speak the local language and who do not have a clue regarding what the local people are doing or thinking. They generally only serve short tours and their countdown to departure sometimes starts on the day they arrive. It is a bad bargain and it is the reason why disasters like Benghazi and Khost happen. And they will continue to happen because the government fails to address the real problem in training and doctrine—while continuing to spend ever more money on building bigger and better security bubbles for its facilities and people overseas.
Since July the Israel Lobby and other opponents of the understanding reached by the White House and other parties to limit the Iranian nuclear program have been warning that any celebration would be premature, as the agreement is far from a done deal. President Obama survived initial attempts to create legislative hurdles hindering implementation of the pact, but there are clear signals that the battle is far from over.
Congress is again cranking up its efforts to overturn the agreement, incorporating conditions into sometimes unrelated legislation that seek to circumvent or limit the authority of the president to conduct the nation’s foreign policy. This is being referred to as “round two” by critics of the White House, and Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is warning that “there will be many, many more rounds” if needed.
This sustained challenge to long-established executive prerogatives in foreign policy is unprecedented and can only be resisted if the White House retains sufficient Democratic votes in Congress to avoid the overriding of a presidential veto. That is by no means certain in an election year in which there will be considerable media and constituent focus on how individual congressmen have voted on contentious issues.
The first measure seeking to marginalize and punish Iran was House Resolution 158, which passed through the House of Representatives by a lopsided 407 to 19 vote on December 8th. The bill, entitled “The Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015,” altered the existing Immigration and Nationality Act. Rather than going through the Senate independently, where it might have been amended before going to a vote, the act was subsequently rolled into the “must-pass” omnibus spending bill that passed through both the House and Senate on December 18th, and was then signed by President Obama. It is now law.
The Visa Waiver Program includes 38 countries, mostly in Europe, whose citizens can travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa. The program has been in place since 2005 and has generally been regarded as beneficial both for purposes of tourism and business travel. There have been no known security breaches connected to the program.
The bill was a panicked response to the two recent terrorist incidents in Paris and San Bernardino, California, though the changes mandated would in no way have prevented either attack. The concern was that radicalized European citizens who might have traveled to countries known to harbor large numbers of ISIS supporters could use their visa waiver passports to freely enter the United States with the intention of carrying out terrorist acts.
The concern is legitimate, if almost certainly overstated, as an estimated tens of thousands of young Europeans have reportedly joined ISIS, but the proposed legislation creates a number of problems both in terms of international law and agreements that the United States government has entered into. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that it will actually prevent terrorist incidents.
The legislation specifically cites Iran, a persistent and fully committed enemy of ISIS, together with Iraq and Syria, identifying them as countries where either travel or former residency triggers automatic suspension of visa waiver rights. H.R. 158 requires the Department of Homeland Security to designate additional countries where there is increased likelihood that a visitor might become engaged in a credible threat to the U.S., where there is a significant foreign terrorist organization presence, or where there is a safe haven for terrorists. “Dual nationals” of such countries shall be denied visa waivers even if they are traveling on a passport from a visa waiver country. In addition, other travelers from a visa waiver country who have visited any one of the target countries in the past five years shall also be denied entry under the waiver program. Both “nationals” and those who have visited the target countries will be required to apply for normal travel visas, a process that will include mandatory “sharing of information” with the country that issued the prospective traveler’s passport.
In practice this means that any European passport holder who either visits or is by birth from Iraq, Syria, or Iran will be denied an automatic visa to the United States. Ironically, Iran arguably has never carried out a terrorist bombing or suicide attack against the United States while countries whose citizens have done so, including Libya and Pakistan, are not on the list. Saudi Arabia, exporter and supporter of Sunni Muslim terrorism globally, and also the source of nearly all the 9/11 terrorists, is also exempted. This means that someone could visit Pakistan or Libya for weapons training and not be flagged, but if he or she visits Iran for any reason, they could be denied the right to travel to the United States.
The U.S. bill is in violation of World Trade Organization rules against “politicizing trade” and abridging the ability of businessmen to travel freely. In this case, visiting Iran would be punished by denying onward travel to the U.S., so many foreign visitors will avoid Tehran. The law would also be contrary to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that recently resolved the issue of the Iranian nuclear program. The agreement guaranteed that the ability to conduct normal business and trade with Iran would not be impeded.
The inclusion of Iran in the bill does not, of course, have anything to do with the war against ISIS. The American neoconservatives and their congressional allies continue to believe that Iran constitutes the most serious threat against Israel, so it has to be pressured incessantly no matter how it behaves.
Other initiatives are in the works. Recent moves in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seeking to review Iran’s alleged steps taken to develop a nuclear weapon prior to 2003 have regurgitated the same lies that were surfaced back in 2011, claims regarding Iranian behavior and intentions that were based on empty insinuations and forged documents.
Complaints investigated by the IAEA are generally confidential and sometimes even anonymous but it is known that Israel and the United States were behind the latest moves. The IAEA, which is largely funded by Washington, can be relied on to keep the pressure on Iran.
This week’s incident in which Iran briefly detained 10 U.S. Navy personnel who had unintentionally entered into Iranian territorial waters is being magnified in the media, with some questioning whether it was an “act of war.” It was not, by any reasonable standard, and would be quickly forgotten if it had involved anyone but Iran. It will surely be exploited for emotional value over the next few days.
There also have been stories popping up in the Israel-friendly media claiming that Iran is testing ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions, allegations that are being exploited in a bid to impose new sanctions and wreck the nuclear agreement. The White House is under pressure to impose sanctions, as Obama maintains that the missiles are an element in the nuclear agreement, a point of view not shared by Iran. For the moment, the relatively mild sanctions being considered are on hold as the administration is keen to have the nuclear agreement move forward.
Congress has still more up its sleeve. Later this month, Senators will likely seek to extend the Iran Sanctions Act for 10 years, including specific provisions targeting the country’s energy and financial sectors. Ironically, the extension will likely be debated while President Obama will actually be trying to finalize the lifting of the existing sanctions as part of the JCPOA. Supporters of the extension argue that the new authorization will only be on the table, available for the president to use if Iran misbehaves. The intention is clearly to exercise “rigorous” congressional oversight to pressure Iran into responding aggressively to the violation of the spirit of JCPOA, leading to a tit for tat escalation that would put the overall agreement in jeopardy.
Particularly worrying to President Obama is the fact that the sanctions extension effort is being spearheaded by two Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland. If two more Democratic Senators can be convinced to join them, it could mean a veto proof majority in the Senate of 67 votes. Six Democratic representatives, including Democratic National Committee head Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, have also written to Obama demanding sanctions against Iran. On a bill that came to a vote this week intended to restrict Obama’s ability to lift Iranian sanctions, the House voted 191-106 in favor along party lines with 137 abstentions, many of them Democrats, suggesting that support for the president on the issue is very soft.
The proposed Senate extension of sanctions is still somewhat speculative, while the House visa waiver bill will undoubtedly be difficult to enforce as intended, since many Muslims living in France and Britain were born in those countries and have never traveled to the areas where their families originated generations ago. The legislation is so transparently offensive and even illegal that many international friends normally accommodating to U.S. interests will speak up. Visa waiver countries offer reciprocity to visiting Americans, a practice that could easily be amended to pushback against U.S. policies. Indeed, David O’Sullivan, the European Union ambassador to the United States, is already warning that “some of these ideas are being rushed through without necessarily thinking out fully the consequences.”
Many European citizens with Muslim names will continue to be eligible for visa waivers but will inevitably come under suspicion every time they choose to travel to the United States. Their mistreatment by U.S. immigration authorities will no doubt be reported in the international media, but it is the punishing of Iran even when it is blameless that has, disgracefully, become reflexive action for many in the United States government. Worse still, Congress and the Israel Lobby will continue to be creative in adding to the indignities, doing their best to scupper the nuclear agreement even though it is clearly in everyone’s interest.
The latest threats from Washington will accomplish absolutely nothing constructive and will restore the tense state of no-war and no-peace between the U.S. and Iran. If pushed to its logical conclusion, the truculent meddling could very easily lead to a real war.
With relations between Washington and Moscow at a low ebb, can simply talking to Russians provide hope that there might still be room for cooperation?
I recently returned from spending a few days in Moscow, speaking at a conference hosted by RT International, Russia’s global television news service. One of the few major countries I have never visited, Russia proved to be quite a pleasant surprise. Moscow was modern, clean and far removed from its gray socialist roots, a very “European” city in every sense. As my wife and I were driven into the city from the airport, the road turned on a bend in the Moscow River and suddenly the Kremlin walls, surmounted by the golden domes of the churches within appeared bathed in late afternoon sunlight. It was a once in a lifetime vision combining place, time and context that can be unforgettable, like the first time one recalls Gibbon’s words while looking out over the Roman Forum.
Admittedly, we conference attendees were being entertained in VIP style, to include a fabulous gala dinner with entertainment provided by the Russian Army Chorus and an opera singer performing pieces from Borodin’s Polovtsian dancers. Mikhail Gorbachev and Paata Shevardnadze were in attendance and President Vladimir Putin was a surprise speaker. The sponsors worked hard to create a good impression for the speakers, who came from twelve countries, and in that they were eminently successful as their hospitality was exceptional.
Did we know we were being manipulated? Of course, but we were careful not to regurgitate propaganda. On my panel, “Information, Messages, Politics: the Shape-Shifting Powers of Today’s World,” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spoke by video link from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
I argued that security and privacy could indeed coexist in most countries but that it would require governments to reign in the extralegal powers that they have accumulated over the past fifteen years in their respective “wars on terror” and the creation of a clearly defined set of rules for police intervention into one’s privacy. Namely, one must go back to the old practice in many countries requiring convincing a judge to issue a warrant or the equivalent to undertake a clearly defined limited action based on probable cause. And, I added, the judge should work in consultation with something like an ombudsman, a non-government adviser, whose sole responsibility would be to make the case for not violating someone’s civil liberties. I concluded pessimistically that I see no chance of any American president doing the right thing, noting that President Barack Obama had basically rejected reasonable corrections on surveillance proposed during the past year.
I should perhaps unnecessarily point out that no speaker at the conference was coached in any way to adhere to a line, while many of the enduring insights derived from the experience were obtained from mixing with the Russian people. That was relatively easy to do because, even though my Russian is elementary, Russians have for some time been learning English in their schools from the first grade on up and are, unlike Americans, very well informed on what is going on in the world.
In my previous life I encountered many Russians overseas and so was prepared to note yet again that they are by and large like what most Americans believe Americans to be—hard working, friendly and somewhat chatty. Like nearly everyone else on this planet, the talk of Russians turns quickly to their children, schools, where they live and what kind of lives they want to have. They are quick to produce photos of their pet dogs and cats. They are also increasingly religious, with the Russian Orthodox church playing a leading role in the state. Christmas lights were on display everywhere, churches destroyed by Stalin are being rebuilt and there was even a bustling Christmas Market in Red Square.
But there was also a dark side that kept surfacing. Both ordinary Russians and those who are journalists or teachers kept coming around to the same issue: why does the United States hate Russians so much and why does the American press seemingly have nothing good to say about them? They were questions I could not answer in any coherent way. I observed somewhat defensively that Russia under Vladimir Putin had become more authoritarian, that the media has lost much of its freedom and that the old Yeltsin style gross systematic corruption has reportedly been replaced by a newer, more subtle cronyism version of something similar. And I mentioned both Crimea and Ukraine as sometimes mishandled in the government’s undeniable agitprop while also conceding that the Russian case was legitimate on many levels. I expressed my own view that the crisis had been engineered by Washington in the first place, seeking to bring about regime change in Kiev. Concerning RT International itself, I mentioned to several of its spokesmen and reporters that its coverage was frequently unreliable on subjects that are close to home as it was skewed to adhere to the government line. They did not disagree with me.
But somehow none of the back and forth seemed to answer the question and in retrospect I don’t think I have a good response. President Vladimir Putin has numerous critics inside Russia but he remains wildly popular and is viewed as a genuine nationalist of the old school, meaning that for most citizens he is perceived as behaving in terms of Russia’s actual interests. That has made him an appealing figure on the world stage. A recent opinion poll in the United Kingdom revealed that four out of five Britons would vote for Putin rather than their own Prime Minister David Cameron if given the choice. I wonder how a similar poll would play out in the U.S. as the Obama Administration does little to inspire, believing as it does in globalism rather than nationalism. Nor does it admit to many genuine national interests in foreign policy instead choosing to encourage tokenism combined with a bizarre desire for constant agitation to create new democracies.
As for the negativity regarding Russia, to be sure there are many older Americans entrenched in the media and government as well as in the plentitude of think tanks who will always regard Russia as the enemy. And then there are the more cunning types who always need the threat of an enemy to keep their well-paid jobs in the government itself and also within the punditry, both of which rely on the health and well-being of the military-industrial-congressional complex. And there will always be reflexive jingoists like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
But all that hardly explains why there appears to be little understanding in the media and inside the Beltway that a good relationship with Russia is indispensable, and not only because Moscow has the power to incinerate the United States if it is ever backed into a corner and motivated to do so. Russia has proven to be a good partner in Syria where it negotiated and carried out Damascus’s elimination of its chemical weapons in early 2014. It is also the driving force behind current negotiations to end the conflict completely. It has consistently been a reliable ally against terrorism, in recognition of its own vulnerability to ISIS and other Islamic militants. What Russia’s elected leaders do inside their own country should be largely irrelevant to America’s interests, but somehow the cart has been put before the horse, a practice not uncommon in the U.S. media.
Other speakers at the conference were as dismayed as I was by the negativity towards Russia and also provided some additional insights into why Americans just don’t get it. One European speaker joked that U.S.A. could stand for United States of Amnesia in that developments elsewhere in the world are subjected to a superficial 24-hour news cycle before being completely forgotten. Professor Peter Kuznick of American University observed that students in the U.S. rank low on science and math scores, which makes the news, but the area in which their scores are actually lowest is history. He quizzed a class of top students on the Second World War and asked how many Americans died in the conflict. The response was 90,000, which is nearly 300,000 short of the true number. How many Russians? The answer was about 100,000, which is 27,900,000 short. Not knowing something about that number means not understanding what motivates Russia. Kuznick observed that roughly 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. To use the numbers of 9/11 as a basis for appreciating the impact of the Russian war deaths would require the U.S. to experience a 9/11 attack every day for the next 24 years.
But there maybe is hope. I returned to Washington to read a short New York Times article by Professor Jeffrey Sommers of the University of Wisconsin:
The Syrian crisis presents an opportunity for a real ‘reset’ with U.S.-Russia relations. Policy and opinion makers in both countries poorly understand each other… maintaining progress can only advance in a stable world, not through upending states from Egypt, Iraq, Libya to Syria, while hoping democracy follows… The architect of U.S. Cold War policy, George Kennan, warned at the end of his life, in 1998, that President Clinton’s policy of advancing NATO east risked war… It’s clear Putin never intended to seize Ukraine, or even the Donbass. Instead, Putin’s actions signaled that the status quo over NATO’s forward movement must change. The Donbass was his leverage. Putin is a tough nationalist, but rather than fueling the fire of Russian revanchism, Putin is actually the one carefully dousing those flames. Putin wants partnership with the West, but is not willing to be its supplicant… The United States and Russia will not reconcile their worldviews soon. Yet they can pursue common objectives in the Syrian-ISIS crisis that over time could expedite resolution of that challenge.
One does not have to love Mother Russia or Vladimir Putin to appreciate that it is in America’s interest to develop a cooperative relationship based on shared interests. Ukraine, which is every bit as corrupt as Russia if not more so, is not a vital U.S. interest while working with Russia is. The regime change in Ukraine, which was engineered by the United States, created the current crisis, not Putin. Putin several times asked for dialogue, asking only that Washington show some respect to Moscow, a reasonable plea. This year, he has stated very clearly that his country wants to work with the United States. It is an offer that should not and cannot be refused by anyone who genuinely cares for the United States of America and the American people.
The Wall Street Journal story revealing that the Barack Obama administration used the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen to phone calls made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides is being spun in a number of different directions depending on one’s political proclivities. Sen. Rand Paul told Fox News that he was “appalled by it… you could see how it would stifle speech if you’re going to eavesdrop on congressmen and that it might stifle what they say or who they communicate with.”
But whom the congressmen speak to and regarding what is precisely the point, as they were elected to represent their constituents in the United States of America, not the Israeli government. Understanding that, the Obama White House was perfectly within its rights to move aggressively against Netanyahu. The snooping program itself was initiated with bipartisan support towards the end of Obama’s first term, when there were concerns that Netanyahu would order a unilateral attack on Iran that would drag the United States into an unwanted war. In early 2015 its focus shifted to Israeli interference in the U.S. government’s secret involvement in negotiations relating to a possible international agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. It was clear that the Israelis were obtaining classified information on the state of the negotiations and were leaking that information selectively to influence both Congress and supportive organizations within the U.S. regarded as part of the Israel lobby.
Obama was not eavesdropping on American legislators—he was working against a foreign country that was actively spying against the United States and using the information it obtained to interfere with U.S. policy formulation. That was more than sufficient reason to try to find out what Netanyahu was up to. The fact that he was talking to congressmen in an attempt to line them up against the White House is deplorable, but if the congressmen did not exchange classified information with the Israelis then their consciences should be more or less clear, if not completely untroubled.
How dare we spy on the head of a “friendly” government? Cries of outrage are coming from the usual sources—National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal—as this is America’s “greatest friend and closest ally” that we are talking about. Or is it? Israel spies on the United States more than any other ostensibly friendly government does. It has never hesitated to put its own interests first without concern for blowback against the American people. When it is caught out it lies: it did so in the 1954 Lavon Affair, when it would have blown up a U.S. government building; in 1967, when it tried to sink the USS Liberty; and yet again in 1987 to cover up the Jonathan Pollard spy case.
Nor is Israel shy about interfering in American politics. It openly supported Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2012. In 2009 Congresswoman Jane Harman was contacted by an Israeli intelligence “agent” and asked to attempt to influence a reduction of the espionage charges in the then ongoing trial of accused American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spies Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. In return, Harman’s contact promised to support her bid to become chairman of the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence. The Israeli caller, who some suspect was leading Democratic Party donor Haim Saban himself, indicated that he would pressure House speaker Nancy Pelosi using threats to withhold political contributions if Harman were not given the position. Harman was later spoken of as a possible candidate to become Director of Central Intelligence and, without the FBI recordings of her phone conversations, which were made known to Pelosi, she might have obtained either position, or possibly both in succession. (Saban, who has claimed that “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” is currently poised to become the Hillary Clinton campaign’s principal financial contributor.)
So Washington was tapping Netanyahu’s phones to determine what he was up to and who was leaking classified information. And when the phones were tapped, something interesting developed. A number of congressmen were identified speaking to the Israeli officials, who were apparently trying to find out what inducement it would take to obtain a vote against the White House on Iran. And, of course, there might have been more than that, with some congressmen possibly offering to give the Israelis a little encouragement or even help. As the details of the conversations and the names of the congressmen have been redacted in the transcript version that went to the White House, we might never know exactly what happened, but it should be observed that the provision of classified information to someone representing a foreign government is a clear violation of the Espionage Act of 1918. The NSA is not obligated to turn over information it obtains to the Justice Department for prosecution. Nevertheless, given the possibility that there were criminal violations impacting on national security, it would be very interesting to find out who said what to whom in the transcripts of the complete conversations retained by NSA.
Then there are the Jewish organizations that were evidently being briefed, coached, and organized by the Israeli Embassy to oppose the White House proposals. That would be a violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938, which requires any organization offering to work on behalf of a foreign government to register. That means, among other indignities, revealing their sources of funding. As most pro-Israel organizations have 501(c)(3) educational foundation tax status, that might prove most embarrassing and provide yet another bit of evidence to substantiate criticisms of how the Israel lobby is organized and operates to the detriment of American interests.
The final question has to be: who leaked the story to the Wall Street Journal? The authors of the piece claim to have numerous present and former officials as sources, which may be true, suggesting that it is a White House leak, which authorized a number of employees to provide information anonymously or off-the-record to the paper. If that is so, the story might be intended to send a warning shot to some congressmen regarding phone conversations that would best be forgotten. Not coincidentally, Congress is currently preparing to begin work on a new series of sanctions intended to disrupt the final stages of the nuclear agreement with Iran. That the White House would play hardball in this fashion is sheer speculation, but there is a certain plausibility to it.
Nearly everyone claims to want to do something about ISIS, but nothing ever happens. In reality, the only powers directly affected by ISIS that are willing to fight are Iran and Syria, with a little help from Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Pessimistic intelligence assessments prepared for the Pentagon warn that there are multiple agendas being pursued by almost everyone else claiming to be involved in what has been misnamed a multinational coalition. Iraq, a frontline player in the conflict, has been hampered by a dysfunctional and corrupt military that just cannot make headway against the more resolute ISIS fighters, even with U.S. air support. Indeed, ISIS reportedly benefits from more than a sprinkling of renegade Sunni former officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army.
Elsewhere, the duplicity is more openly on display. The Saudis would prefer to see ISIS in Syria rather than Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as an Iranian proxy. They support ISIS secretly, while they are pretending not to, and have focused their military effort on bombing Yemen. Ditto for the Gulf States, most particularly Qatar, home of the United States Central Command. Jordan, nervous about its own internal security, reacted when its pilot was publicly burned to death but has since largely dropped out of the fight except as a venue for the failed U.S. effort to train “moderate” militants.
But Turkey and Israel take the prize for countries playing on both sides. Turkey planned and staged its shootdown of a Russian warplane to disrupt development of a genuine coalition against ISIS, preferring instead to press ahead with its war against the Kurds and Assad. The Turks have been allowing militants to cross their border from Syria with relatively little impediment, a point raised by Obama in recent discussions. More to the point, they have been exchanging weapons and cash for oil, which ISIS is pumping out of the fields that it has occupied in Syria and Iraq. Turkish President Erdogan’s son Bilal is behind the syndicate that exports and sells the oil, transactions that might well amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. An attempt to investigate Bilal in 2013 was derailed when his father intervened to fire all the prosecutors and policemen involved. Turkey will not be joining the fray against ISIS at any time soon.
And then there is Israel, which has made clear that it prefers terrorists to Assad. United Nations observers have for months been reporting its collaboration with militants across its border on the Golan Heights, to include some al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS. It is also buying ISIS oil through Turkish intermediaries. Recent reports out of Iraq reveal that an Israeli colonel named Yusi Oulen Shahak, a reputed member of the elite Golani Brigade, was captured while embedded as an adviser with an ISIS tactical unit. Israel’s government has not commented on the claims, and its media is avoiding the story, but it just might be true given the convoluted politics of the region. In any event, the Turkish, Saudi, and Israeli predilection to pursue their own interests separately underlines the immensity of the problem for Washington, which knows exactly what is happening but is unable or unwilling to openly contradict or rein in its would-be allies.
After his confirmation hearing in 2013, CIA Director John Brennan and other senior managers explained that the Agency would be seeking to enhance its ability to spy using human agents. It was an admission that to a large extent the United States intelligence community had forgotten how to engage in what was once a core capability that had defined its clandestine services for nearly seventy years. Now the Pentagon, which always favored technical spying over its HUMINT efforts because human spies are both unpredictable and considerably prone to embarrassing incidents, is essentially saying the same thing. Everyone is trying to revive the old-time tradecraft in part because machines have failed to collect the right kind of intelligence at the times when it is needed.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified before the House Armed Services Committee on December 1 that a new formation of special operations soldiers tasked, among other things, with “dramatically accelerating the collection of intelligence” would be fielded in Iraq. The unit would most likely be based in or near Irbil, a Kurdish region and therefore a safe destination for U.S. forces. It will likely work together with Kurdish militiamen though it will also be operating unilaterally without coordination with the Iraqi military intelligence services, considered to be both unreliable and possibly even subversive due to reported penetration by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
This development means that American soldiers will be actively engaged in combat operations in both Iraq and Syria without the consent of any national government. It raises some significant legal issues and perhaps even threatens the security of other U.S. troops that are advising the Iraqi Army, particularly if there is an incident in which civilians are killed.
The U.S. troops are not yet in place and even the numbers that will be involved are unclear, though Pentagon insiders guess that they will be in the low hundreds and may even be drawn from or replace some of the estimated 3,300 U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq.
An important distinction being drawn by the Pentagon is that the new soldiers will not be limited to advisory roles and will instead be allowed to actively engage the enemy. They are expected to conduct raids, free hostages and capture ISIS leaders in addition to collecting intelligence. It is to be presumed that rules of engagement they will be operating under would allow them to kill ISIS leaders if capture is not feasible, as was alleged to be the case with Osama bin Laden.
There have been reports that some of the 300 advisers sent to Iraq in June 2014, which was followed by an additional 50 special ops soldiers in December ordered to “advise, train and assist,” have already been exceeding their mandates by directly participating in fighting between local militiamen and ISIS. This has been denied by the Pentagon even though Kurdish officers have confirmed their presence with cell phone photos.
Other U.S. special forces units have been involved in separate raids on targets inside Syria, most notably an operation in October that freed 70 Iraqi prisoners and an earlier Delta Force raid in May that killed ISIS financier Abu Sayyaf. Operations of that type will likely serve as templates for future actions.
There is, of course, a question of whether the new deployment will involve anything beyond collecting battlefield intelligence, but the clear implication of the Carter comments is that the JSOC soldiers, who are trained in recruiting, training and running spies, will be doing just that in an effort to locate and engage ISIS cadres. Jeff Stein, a well-informed former military intelligence officer writing for Newsweek, believes that “American spies are going to be back in action in a big way against the Islamic State…”
Human agent spying, the second oldest profession if not the first, has oddly been eschewed by many in the federal intelligence community’s war against terrorist groups because of its alleged expense. In reality, the costs of HUMINT are far lower than technical collection, which requires a large initial outlay for development and construction of equipment combined with an expensive infrastructure to operate. Indeed, the cutback in the spy culture at CIA came about because running drones and surveillance satellites was taking so much out of the budget. It was part of a shift in priorities that also brought a rise in the power of Agency paramilitaries, recently supplanting the senior operations officer managers in the clandestine services division that supervises spies.
Traditional espionage was also looked down upon by elected and appointed government officials who, lacking any appreciation of intelligence sources and methods, demanded instant answers in the pressure cooker world of Washington policymaking. Recruiting a spy to penetrate ISIS or al-Qaeda requires lots of time, patience, and a large measure of genuine understanding of the potential target. It could take months or even years to seed in an agent and develop access to a terrorist group, while a satellite with a camera and microphone could be activated instantaneously.
Lost in the transition was the fact that the spy would collect information that a camera could not while he might well be in place and effective for a long time. Human agents, unlike machines, can also provide information on plans and intentions, actually permitting the frustrating of planned attacks. And they can do so in real time through sophisticated miniaturized electronic devices that link to communications satellites.
Follow the money: Once human spying ceases to be the first priority in the budget it also becomes increasingly ignored as the weapon of choice.
There were also practical reasons to abandon traditional clandestine practices. The terrorist enemy proved adept at using double agents, meaning that CIA case officers began to go to meetings armed, which was rarely the case before 2001. Armed officers gradually evolved into the Agency’s fielding of security protection teams that would guard the meeting, even in some cases picking up the agent, moving him to a debriefing site with a hood over his head, and dropping him off on a street later after a case officer had finished talking to him. It was hardly old fashioned spying and did not follow the cardinal rule for agent management, which was to build rapport so the source would be cooperating willingly or even enthusiastically. The old ways also suffered a major setback when in 2009 a Jordanian double agent blew himself up at Khost Base in Afghanistan, killing seven American employees of CIA.
But as terrorist targets become more savvy about how they are being spied upon by satellite they are able to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in collecting by microphone and camera. Using phones to plant false leads exhausts resources and confuses those who are doing the targeting and tracking, making the whole process less effective. The consumers of intelligence within the U.S. government have unsurprisingly frequently expressed displeasure with the product resulting from all the tens of billions of dollars of investment in satellites and other technical gear.
So on balance a return to HUMINT is almost certainly a good thing, but it will take considerable time to develop as both the CIA and Pentagon will have to relearn old skills and then apply them to situations on the ground that are volatile to say the least. There will inevitably be a learning curve and the questions will certainly come from Congress and the White House as the process plays out. It is unclear whether government consumers will have the patience to persevere or will instead turn again to the deceptively reliable eye and ear in the sky technology.
Jonathan Pollard, the former United States navy intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel, was released from prison on parole on November 20th upon completion of a 30-year prison term. Pollard, perhaps uniquely among convicted felons, left the federal penitentiary in North Carolina and traveled to New York City where an apartment in Manhattan and a job at an unidentified investment bank were awaiting him. He was united with his second wife Esther, an Israeli citizen whom he had met and married while incarcerated. By some accounts, Pollard likely has a million-dollar-plus nest egg waiting for him in a bank account somewhere outside the United States, representing his accumulated earnings dutifully deposited for him by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to compensate him for his arrest and the time spent in prison. Pollard’s first wife Anne, who also did prison time, is currently suing the Israeli government for compensation for her own pain and suffering now that her former husband has been released.
Pollard is on parole and is required to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements, designed to prevent his fleeing to Israel. He cannot leave the United States for five years even though he has been granted citizenship by the Knesset and has both a town square and a residential building in Jerusalem named after him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared an unofficial holiday in his honor and there will no doubt be a victory parade, as he is regarded as a hero by most Israelis.
Pollard has according to some reports offered to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Two congressmen from New York, Jerrold Nadler and Eliot Engel, as well as the Israeli government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have called on President Obama to let Pollard immediately emigrate to Israel, but there is no indication that the Justice Department will agree. The Pentagon and intelligence community have reportedly voiced strong objections over the risk that Pollard continues to represent due to his alleged photographic memory and his ability to provide context to the documents that he stole.
As I have been following the Pollard case for a number of years, I carefully read many of the media reports on the parole and release from prison. Most were fairly offhand in their coverage, but a number focused on what they discerned to be the main points in the story: that Pollard was spying for an “ally,” that his sentence was alleged to be disproportionately harsh, that anti-Semitism might have played a part in that sentence, and that the information stolen related only to Israel’s enemies. In short, Pollard was a good man only working to help a beleaguered Israel by obtaining intelligence that was being held back by the United States government and who, when caught, was more severely punished than other comparable spies.
As much of the narrative being promoted by the mainstream media is completely false and even hypocritical, it is important to correct the record to demonstrate just exactly what Pollard was as well as what damage he did. Those who are calling for Pollard’s freeing from probation both in Israel and among Israel’s friends in the U.S. should look to the example of how Israel has itself treated Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in 1986. He was drugged and kidnapped, convicted in a secret trial, and spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement. Since his release in 2004, he has not been allowed to leave Israel or speak to journalists and has been re-arrested a number of times.
It is difficult to find a moral high ground when it comes to spying, but Pollard’s friends pretend that the espionage was carried out to help a small and vulnerable ally better defend itself. There is no evidence that Pollard ever thought in those terms himself, and the Pentagon investigation concluded that he was only motivated by money. He reportedly wanted to get rich and before he approached the Israelis he offered to sell his information to several other countries, including Pakistan and then-under-apartheid South Africa. After Pollard was caught, he pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling classified information and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.
Over the years since Pollard was sentenced I have had the good fortune to speak to several former senior intelligence officials who were involved in doing the damage assessment of what the Israeli spy exposed. They were sworn to secrecy on the details of what actually occurred but were able to make some general comments. They agreed on several points, namely that Pollard was the most damaging spy bar none since the Rosenberg espionage ring betrayed U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s; that Pollard exposed entire intelligence collection and deterrent systems that had to be recreated or abandoned at a cost of billions of dollars; and that Pollard, who has never shown any genuine remorse for what he did, should never be released from prison.
When Pollard was awaiting sentencing his lawyers sought to influence presiding Judge Aubrey Robinson into agreeing to minimal jail time, claiming that the espionage was really only a misguided bid to aid a beleaguered friend and ally Israel. Pollard’s wife Anne also appealed directly to the Jewish community to support her and her husband, claiming on “60 Minutes” that “our moral obligation was as Jews.” Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger responded to the pleas by submitting to the judge a letter, which is still classified, detailing precisely the immense damage that Pollard had done. After reviewing the letter, Judge Robinson refused to consider any mitigation and immediately sentenced Pollard to the maximum possible sentence.
In January 2014, M.E. “Spike” Bowman, who was at the time the liaison between the Departments of Defense and Justice and coordinator of the damage assessment, wrote an op-ed entitled “Don’t Trust This Spy” for the New York Times and also provided his assessment of Pollard in a paper presented at the March 7th 2014 National Summit to Reassess the US-Israel Special Relationship. Bowman confirmed the unique damage done by Pollard, observing that there has been no other American spy who provided “information of the quantity and quality that Mr. Pollard has.” To cope with the volume, the Israelis had to install high speed copiers in a safehouse apartment they used with Pollard and it is estimated that he stole 360 cubic feet of documents, enough to fill a room. And it was nearly all information that was beyond secret, meaning top secret and SCI or codeword, which is the most sensitive information that the United States government possesses. The Israelis were delighted and were able to request specific documents from a Defense Intelligence Agency catalog of available intelligence reports that had been given to them by another of their spies in the government, who has never been publicly identified but is generally believed to be a top-level official who served in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Pollard’s high-level clearance meant that he could get his Israeli Washington Embassy-based case officer Colonel Avi Sella, who was also running spy Ben-Ami Kadish at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, anything that he wanted.
For those who hint at anti-Semitism to make their claim that Pollard was treated with disproportionate rigor Bowman notes that it was not a normal espionage case. The conviction was under a special statute (18 US Code 194) that protects information related to “…nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information.” In other words, information that would make the United States vulnerable to attack by an enemy or would limit its ability to respond.
Pollard had provided intelligence to Israel relating to nearly every one of the key national security elements detailed in 18 USA Code 194 and, most particularly, had provided the Radio Signal Notations Manual, which contained details of how the United States collects signals intelligence as well as the known parameters of the systems used by the Soviet Union. The information would enable an adversary to avoid collection by American codebreakers and, if in the hands of a sophisticated adversary like the Soviets, would permit penetration of U.S. systems. Former CIA Director William Casey and others believed that the Israelis provided at least some of the stolen information to the Soviet Union in exchange for the expedited emigration of Russian Jews.
It should also be recognized that the focus on Pollard has obscured the duplicitous behavior by the Israeli government and its proxies in the U.S. I recall when I was in Turkey shortly after Pollard was arrested a delegation of the American Jewish Committee came through town and met with the Consul General and later the Ambassador, insisting that Pollard was some kind of nut and assuring all who would listen that Israel would never spy on the United States. That spin prevailed in much of the media and among the punditry, calling it a “rogue operation,” until Tel Aviv finally ‘fessed up in 1998. The fact is that the Pollard spy operation was approved at the highest levels of the Israeli government and to this day Tel Aviv has reneged on its agreement to return all of the material stolen to enable the Pentagon to do a complete damage assessment. And Israel continues to spy aggressively on the United States, ranking first among “friendly” countries in that category.
The shooting down of a Russian fighter plane by a Turkish F-16 is an extremely disturbing turn of events.
Turkey claims that the SU-24 aircraft had violated its airspace and had not responded to repeated warnings before the armed response took place. The Russians for their part claim that they were operating in Syrian airspace with the concurrence of the Damascus government. President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television shortly after the plane went down and was clearly furious, denouncing a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices” and warning that there would be “severe consequences.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a planned Wednesday visit to talk with his counterpart in Ankara.
The shoot down will have repercussions. It will inevitably involve some kind of response from NATO while also rendering the creation of any grand alliance against ISIS much less likely.
Turkey has produced a map indicating where the violation of airspace allegedly took place. If the map is accurate, it was over a finger of land two miles wide that juts into Syria. The map and Turkish commentary relating to it suggest that the incursion occurred when the Russian plane crossed the border, but there is perhaps inevitably a problem with that account. A fighter traveling at even subsonic speed would have passed over the Turkish territory in roughly twelve seconds, which rather suggests that there would not have been time for any “repeated warnings.”
Then there is the problem with where the plane actually came down. Admittedly the aircraft would not necessarily plummet straight down to mark the spot where it was hit, but the remains appear to have wound up comfortably inside Syria. A video of the plane’s downing also seems to show it being hit and then going directly down.
There is also the question of who gave the order to fire—and why. The Turks have been complaining about Russian aircraft coming too close to the border and there has been inflammatory media coverage about alleged bombings of the ethnic Turkish Turkmen tribesmen who live in the area on the Syrian side. But given the political sensitivity of what is occurring along the Turkey-Syria border, one would have to suspect that any decision to take decisive action came from the top levels of the government in Ankara. American, British, French and Russian airplanes are all operating over northern Syria. None of those planes can be construed as being hostile to Turkey while the terrorist and rebel groups have no air forces. Why a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, would warrant a shoot down has to be questioned unless it was actually a Turkish plan to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace.
Why would the Turks do that? Because Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently with considerable success, and Turkey has been extremely persistent in their demands that he be removed. Al-Assad is seen by Turkey, rightly or wrongly, as a supporter of Kurdish militancy along the long and porous border with Turkey. This explains why Ankara has been lukewarm in its support of the campaign against ISIS, tacitly cooperating with the terrorist group, while at the same time focusing its own military effort against the Kurds, which it sees as an existential threat directed against the unity of the Turkish Republic.
Would Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do something so reckless? Only he knows for sure, but if his objective was to derail the creation of a unified front against terrorist and rebel groups in Syria and thereby weaken the regime in Damascus, he might just believe that the risk was worth the potential gain.
The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week quickly produced demands for stronger steps to be taken against Europe’s own domestic Islamic militants. At least some of the terrorists were indeed French citizens and the massacre of 129 innocent civilians will undoubtedly also generate new calls in the U.S. Congress to do something about the perception of a homegrown terrorist threat on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to attacks against targets that are not high profile and therefore relatively unprotected by security. Think of the havoc multiple gunmen could wreak in coordinated assaults on shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and theaters. And, unlike in France, the perpetrators would be able to procure their weapons locally and even legally, easing the logistical burden on staging an attack.
Whom to blame and what to do will undoubtedly become political footballs in the next several weeks, particularly among those aspiring to be elected president in 2016. Jeb Bush has already declared alarmingly that there is “an organized effort to destroy Western civilization.” Candidates will likely promote new laws to further limit some constitutional liberties in the United States including freedom of speech, oblivious to the fact that perfect security everywhere all the time is an impossible objective while fundamental freedoms once stolen from the American people will never be returned.
I recently attended a very interesting conference in Washington that considered how to analyze the problem that has been called “violent extremism” and questioned what should be done about it, if anything. Several expert panels quickly made clear that the label violent extremism is meaningless, an expression of convenience that actually serves to obscure the broad range of motives that can push someone to become part of a terrorist attack. Several speakers noted that the problem itself has clearly been exaggerated for political reasons, to create a wedge issue to attack the administration. Participants observed that of the thousands of mostly Muslim Americans who have sympathy for the fate of their coreligionists overseas and peruse what are too often loosely described as radical websites, few accept that violence is an appropriate response—and still fewer are willing to do something about it.
So law enforcement and intelligence agencies are actually dealing with a tiny subset within a small minority of the American population. I would add that this marked lack of genuine “homegrown” militants explains the frequency of arrests in terrorism cases where the accused have actually done nothing whatsoever and sometimes appear to have been motivated largely by the ubiquitous FBI informants that are often inserted into such investigations at an early stage. Most cases are consequently resolved with either a plea bargain or with a reduced charge relating to “material support” of terrorism.
Only one speaker believed that “something has to be done” about the violent extremism problem, and he was also the only participant coming at the issue from a government perspective. Most of the others suggested that there might be other ways to look at the phenomenon and agreed, based on a considerable body of research, that there is no identifiable process whereby one becomes a terrorist. Setting up programs based on the premise that that there is some kind of behavior model has been tried in Europe and has proven ineffective. The preferred hybrid programs generally combine police and intelligence agency surveillance of Muslim communities with social service type approaches to “help” those who presumably have been either coopted or “brainwashed,” but they often only generate well-deserved suspicion and unwillingness to cooperate unnecessarily with the authorities.
Where Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs stigmatize and alienate Muslim communities they actually succeed in increasing radicalization while simultaneously discrediting any legitimate government role in preventing a terrorist incident. In one of three current pilot CVE pilot programs in the city of Minneapolis, Somali children were reportedly considered to be “at risk” and were to be monitored both in and out of school to “help spot identity issues and disaffection.” Other programs are being tested in Boston and Los Angeles while the Department of Homeland Security has created an Office for Community Partnerships, a euphemism for CVE, to coordinate efforts.
There are no specific guidelines regarding what constitutes necessary training for a designated CVE lunch monitor or even how and when that individual would be empowered to report suspicious behavior to the FBI. The lack of any framework opens the door to profiling and other abuse. And one might also note that the programs that are currently de facto focused exclusively on Muslims have been deliberately established without any specific sectarian or ethnic bias. The federal government reportedly also considers some groups opposed to gun control, immigration, abortion, and taxes to be violent extremists and potentially subject to the same type of soft surveillance combined with attempts at social engineering.
One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.
The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn’t. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy. Identifying them as fanatics of one kind or another or as “mentally ill” obscures what they really represent—even if it is clearly useful from a propaganda point of view to energize public support for government initiatives.
Avoiding heavy-handed attempts to penetrate and control identifiable communities that the terrorists operate within has failed since the French tried it in Algeria. Relying on the existing courts and law enforcement does work because the justice system has an inherent legitimacy. Identifying terrorists as criminals and dealing with them as such openly and transparently through the criminal justice system provides a guarantee of at least a modicum of due process, particularly when honest efforts are also made to obtain the support and cooperation of the moderates in the local community. That is how the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, ETA, and the IRA were eventually brought to heel. It also led to the dismantling of radical groups including the Weathermen in the United States as well as the Tupamaros and Dev Sol in South America.
Intelligence agencies have a legitimate role in collecting information to support the efforts of law enforcement. But where programs are set up to spy on a suspect community (as they have been most notably in Britain), such activity when exposed will turn cooperation into resistance. In fact, singling out Muslims or immigrants from a particular country either as victims or perpetrators is not a good idea. It labels those on the receiving end as being somehow involved with a poorly defined and nebulous “terror problem” even when they are not. In reality, Muslim-Americans are above average in income and education. They are regarded by most local communities where they have settled as all around good citizens. Law enforcement sources state that they have routinely cooperated with police to help identify members of their community that appear to be becoming radicalized.
So the question over whether domestic terrorism requires a heavy hand, a lighter but more social services oriented approach, or reliance on law enforcement should come down in support of the police and courts. Will there be more terrorist attacks inside the United States? Almost certainly yes, but the solution is to work hard within the limits of the law. We must identify and arrest genuine potential perpetrators while avoiding creating whole classes of alienated citizenry in the process. The criminal justice system is designed to do just that.
And it is important to remember that terrorist organizations come and go, historically speaking. Groups that employ the tactic of terrorism are not the new normal and are mostly creations of specific circumstances that rarely repeat. In the current case, the war against the Russians in Afghanistan followed by the U.S.-led “global war on terror” together triggered dislocation and security breakdowns in the Middle East and Asia. Most radical groups are essentially nihilistic in their core beliefs and they eventually fall out of fashion. Put some of them in jail while providing amnesties for the not-so-hard core and many of the so-called terrorists inevitably go off message and disappear.
Was a Christian non-governmental organization funded by the Pentagon used to smuggle spy equipment into North Korea? Investigative journalist Matthew Cole of the The Intercept has done yeoman’s work in ferreting out the details of what must surely be one of the most ill-conceived military intelligence operations of all time, and that is saying quite a lot. And Congress was reportedly fully briefed on it, though that has been denied by at least one member of the Intelligence Oversight Committee, who accuses the Pentagon of never pausing to consider the potential blowback that it might produce.
With apologies to Cole for any omissions or misunderstandings on my part, the story goes something like this: in 2004 the Pentagon, fired up by the need to “protect the country” post 9/11, was keen on muscling in on the CIA’s virtual monopoly on strategic intelligence collection. Lieutenant General William “Jerry” Boykin, former head of the counter-terrorist Delta Force and at that time deputy in the Pentagon’s office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was tasked with improving collection for the military consumers in key crisis areas, including Iran and North Korea. He turned to the task of creating cover mechanisms to be used by his new corps of clandestine warriors.
Boykin, supported by his boss Stephen Cambone and also by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, soon came up with a scheme to smuggle electronic monitoring equipment and other spyware into top priority target North Korea. In intelligence jargon, North Korea was (and still is) the ultimate “denied area,” a society and government difficult or even nearly impossible to penetrate because of strict population control and a high level of security. At that time the United States had no spies inside the secretive nuclear-armed country telling Washington what was going on. What little information was available on North Korea came primarily from surveillance satellites, from South Korea’s own spy services, and from the very limited intelligence that was being shared by China.
Boykin, who might reasonably be described as an extremely devout evangelical Christian, worked with another evangelical Christian acquaintance named Kay Hiramine to use an existing religious charity he ran called Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG). HISG was to be developed as a mechanism to create a so-called rat line enabling the smuggling of monitoring equipment into North Korea under cover of shipments of used clothing that the regime in Pyongyang was occasionally allowing to enter the country.
The HISG charity was funded by the Pentagon to the tune of an estimated $15 million during the course of the operation, all of which was channeled through three proprietary cover mechanisms. New Millennium Trust, run by a former Delta Force military lawyer, funneled money to an ostensible charity called Working Partners Foundation, run by a car dealer in Colorado who was paid $252,000 in 2006, which in turn passed the money on to HISG. A separate entity called Private Sector Consulting paid HISG salaries and provided other support. The cover mechanisms for funding were established to move the money and conceal the Department of Defense connection. Haramine, for his part, received a $281,351 salary from Private Sector Consulting.
Whether anything could in fact be smuggled into North Korea past the suspicious and watchful border security guards was questionable, but in a test run the HISG charity managed to successfully conceal a large number of bibles in a hidden compartment at the bottom of a shipping container topped up with used winter clothing, a highly prized commodity for starving and freezing North Koreans.
From that point the narrative gets a little bit fuzzy. Boykin retired from the Pentagon in 2007 but the program continued to run with one officer describing it as a “jobs program” for Boykin’s friends, most of whom appear to be, like him, evangelical Christians. It is reported that short wave radios and some electronic devices intended to monitor nuclear programs as well as interfere with North Korean military communications were indeed smuggled into the country by unwitting Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers, but whether they provided any critical intelligence is unclear. The operation continued to run during the Obama administration, finally winding down in 2013. While it is certain that George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew of and approved the operation, it is not known if either the Bush or Obama White Houses had explicit knowledge of it.
Some background on the usual restraints governing how the United States runs covert intelligence operations overseas is necessary. The charity involved in the Pentagon initiative is what is referred to as a non-governmental organization, or NGO. NGOs are not organized like businesses or corporations in that their primary objective is only peripherally linked to making money and their objectives vary considerably. The ones that are encountered overseas frequently have either charitable or educational functions.
NGOs are fair game for infiltration and cover by intelligence organizations, but their exploitation in that fashion is extremely uncommon. That is because it is impossible to control all the unwitting players in an NGO and any such operation would be susceptible to eventual exposure, with the damage derived from potential blowback far exceeding any possible gain.
The United States government does in fact impose a ban on recruiting certain categories of individuals as spies. Clergymen are off limits partly for ethical reasons but more because the exposure of such a relationship would be devastating both to the religious organization itself and to the United States government. Use of the U.S. taxpayer-funded Peace Corps is also banned because exploiting it would potentially turn its volunteers into targets for terrorists. Recruitment of journalists whose reporting potentially might appear in the U.S. media is also forbidden because the distribution of intelligence agency-produced stories could be construed as an attempt to covertly influence opinion and policies inside the United States. Ironically, the federal government officially opposes spy agency disinformation even though it does the same thing through the judicious leaking of information from the White House and Pentagon.
NGOs and individuals that operate as charities like Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), the victim of the recent bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, might in theory be exploited by an intelligence agency. But there is considerable risk of unfortunate consequences when doing so. One need only cite the case of the Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was recruited in 2011 as part of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Afridi covered his search for bin Laden DNA by providing vaccinations against polio. After the story broke, polio eradication projects throughout south Asia foundered, leading to a resurgence in the disease and the injuring and killing by militants of numerous health care workers. Exploiting a humanitarian medical cover proved to be damaging to everyone involved, particularly as a risk-versus-gain analysis suggests that the information provided by Shakil Afridi did not in any way prove critical to the success of the operation to kill bin Laden. In 2014, the White House announced that U.S. intelligence would no longer exploit vaccination programs.
When the Pentagon sought to exploit a religious charity to infiltrate North Korea, all kinds of red flags should have gone up. But they did not because Boykin was relying on his personal relationships and his status as a former head of Delta Force to make the operation untouchable. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who served on the Intelligence Committee at the time, insists that no one in Congress was briefed. She commented astutely on the downside to the operation, observing that “…to use unwitting aid workers on behalf of an intelligence operation, people who genuinely do humanitarian work, to turn their efforts into intel collection is unacceptable. Now we have people who have been hired to do some good work and become unwitting accomplices to an intelligence mission? They can face all kinds of retaliation. It is completely unacceptable.”
Intelligence officers and combat arms soldiers pride themselves on being able to “get the job done” in spite of all obstacles, which often blinds them to the consequences of their actions. Boykin, a product of that tradition—and driven by his own conceit that he needed to do what was necessary to “save” the United States—inevitably failed to recognize that the eventual exposure of the scheme would produce a reaction among foreigners who are already inclined to be suspicious of proselytizing Christians. Now it will be plausibly believed that Christian charities are actually hotbeds of American spies and the likely response will be commensurate with that perception. Using a Christian charity to spy puts at risk all the employees and volunteers linked to that specific organization while helping propagate the myth that any indigenous Christian is a potential traitor.
HISG and its three cover support mechanisms were all disbanded in 2013-14, but not because the Pentagon was concerned about the possible consequences of its actions. It seems that the operation had provided little useful intelligence, not a particularly surprising outcome: Using unwitting and unfocused humanitarian charity volunteers and employees to smuggle in spy gear was a non-starter right from the beginning and should never have been attempted.
I am waiting for a sheepish Pentagon or White House to proclaim that it will never again exploit religiously-affiliated groups as intelligence cover mechanisms. But unfortunately, all I am hearing is silence.
The media are reporting a rare “success” in Washington’s ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to confidential, anonymous government sources, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been engaged in a secret program to assassinate designated “high-value targets,” which means terrorist leaders and other prominent figures, particularly those engaged in propaganda and enticing Western Muslims to join ISIS.
The program, which began in the spring, has reportedly killed four individuals, including ISIS number two Haji Mutazz. The operation employs “an array of satellites, sensors, drones and other technology,” according to the Associated Press, but it has benefited particularly from 24-hour NSA satellite coverage to pick up cellphone signals, a technique that has been used repeatedly in Afghanistan.
The program, which is distinct from the regular bombing attacks carried out by the Air Force and Navy, uses military drones to strike its targets. One of the sources for the AP story describes how the assassinations are keeping ISIS “off balance,” though the program is not seriously degrading the ability of ISIS to plan and execute new operations.
There are a number of problems both with the program itself and how it is being window-dressed. As the information is being provided by the Pentagon anonymously, its release is actually authorized, even though it is not subject to any independent verification. It is likely being described favorably to give the White House a much needed “victory” in the War on Terror.
In addition, revealing to the leadership of ISIS that it is being targeted through its phones will force it to figure out new ways to maintain contact with supporters, complicating future targeting. Revealing such information is referred to in the spy trade as exposing one’s sources and methods, the ultimate “thou shalt not” for any intelligence officer, which suggests that the whole story might be a deception to conceal what is really taking place.
Also, as military-directed drones in Afghanistan are notorious for causing collateral damage, it is not clear if civilians are being killed in the strikes and, if so, how many. Nor is the procedure for authorizing an attack in any way transparent. What constitutes evidence that a high-value target is actually near or using the phone being tracked? Is it now assumed that anyone fitting a profile residing in an area controlled by ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra a legitimate target? What are the rules of engagement?
Finally, there are legal and moral questions relating to targeted assassination itself. The Israelis have employed it for years, but America’s allies in the war against ISIS consider it unacceptable. Targeted assassination of enemy leaders and other prominent figures was contrary to U.S. doctrine prior to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. Now it has become official policy, so much so that it is being heralded as a success.
The White House believes that killing the ISIS leadership is legal under the Authorization for Use of Military Force as it is a Salafist-type terrorist group. That may be true from a U.S. perspective, but endorsing a program of targeted killing opens the door for those being targeted to start reciprocating, aggressively going after coalition government leaders and other high-level officials.