Congress and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are looking into whether there was Donald Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government to “influence” the results of the 2016 presidential election. Stupidity and naivete will probably be revealed in abundance, but collusion to alter the outcome of an election—and thereby damage American democracy—is unlikely to be demonstrated.
The mantra in Washington, both within the media and the inside-the-beltway establishment, is that Russia actively “interfered” in the election and may have changed the outcome, but that is largely speculative. Since the line between possibly influencing or favoring a certain outcome and interfering has been rather difficult to discern, Russiagate has evolved into a seemingly never-ending inquiry that will likely produce nothing in terms of indictable criminality among the Trumpsters. The Russians for their part will likely be seen to have engaged important individuals in a foreign country to advance their own interests—something governments worldwide do.
Indeed, the process itself seems to be backwards. Unlikely to be revealed is how the whole affair became a national-security issue in the first place. Who exactly stole the files from the DNC server and the emails from John Podesta? It would seem to me that appreciating how the theft of the documents took place is crucial to understanding what has come to be called Russiagate. Demonstrate exactly what occurred and many of the other pieces will inevitably fall into place.
At this point, all that is clearly known after more than a year of huffing and puffing is that last summer files and emails pertaining to the election were copied and then made their way to WikiLeaks, which published some of them at a time that was damaging to the Clinton campaign. Those who are blaming Russia believe that there was a hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server and also of John Podesta’s emails that was carried out by a Russian surrogate or directly by Moscow’s military intelligence arm. They base their conclusion on a statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security on October 7, 2016, and on a longer assessment prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6.
Both government appraisals implied that there was a U.S. government intelligence agency consensus that there was a Russian hack, though they provided little in the way of actual evidence that that was the case and, in particular, failed to demonstrate how the information was obtained and what the chain of custody was as it moved from that point to the office of WikiLeaks. The January report was particularly criticized as unconvincing, rightly so, because the most important one of its three key contributors, the National Security Agency, had only moderate confidence in its conclusions, suggesting that whatever evidence existed was far from solid.
Leaked reporting in the mainstream media subsequently provided some clues regarding what was behind the alleged intelligence community judgement. A hacker identified as Guccifer 2 might have broken into the system on behalf of Russia and there were reportedly traces of electronic fingerprints in the alleged intrusion that were characteristic of Russian intelligence hacks. Both of those assertions have been separately challenged and it has been observed that they are somewhat speculative. There are also reports that intercepted Kremlin phone conversations involving high level officials expressed considerable joy at the Trump victory, suggesting that Moscow was closely monitoring and possibly playing some role in the electoral process.
An alternative view that has been circulating for months suggests that it was not a hack at all, that it was a deliberate whistleblower-style leak of information carried out by as yet unknown parties that may have been provided to WikiLeaks for possible political reasons, perhaps to express disgust with the DNC manipulation of the nominating process to favor Hillary Clinton.
There are, of course, still other equally non-mainstream explanations for how the bundle of information got from point A to point B, including that the intrusion into the DNC server was carried out by the CIA, which then made it look like it had been the Russians as perpetrators. That explanation has some plausibility due to the fact that the agency does indeed have cyber-capability to do just that when it goes around the globe and invades foreign information systems. It could also have easily come up with a credible role player who might have pretended that the information came from a dissident Democrat for passage to Assange.
And then there is the hybrid point of view, which is essentially that the Russians or a surrogate did indeed intrude into the DNC computers but it was all part of normal intelligence agency probing and did not lead to anything. Meanwhile and independently, someone else who had access to the server was downloading the information, which in some fashion made its way from there to WikiLeaks.
Both the hack vs. leak viewpoints have marshalled considerable technical analysis in the media to bolster their arguments. The hack school of thought has stressed that Russia had both the ability and motive to interfere in the election by exposing the stolen material while the leakers have recently asserted that the sheer volume of material downloaded indicates that something like a higher speed thumb drive was used, meaning that it had to be done by someone with actual physical direct access to the DNC system.
What the many commentators on the DNC server issue choose to conclude is frequently shaped by their own broader political views, producing a result that favors one approach over another depending on how one feels about Trump or Clinton. Perhaps it would be clarifying to regard the information obtained and transferred as a theft rather than either a hack or a leak, since the two expressions have taken on a political meaning of their own in the context of Russiagate. I am not qualified to judge the technical analyses that have been done on the theft, but I would like to suggest that the bottom line is that we (the American people and government) have no idea who actually stole the material in question.
If Congress were seriously interested in determining who did what to whom, it would have started with the theft of the information. The inquiry should have begun with the DNC server or servers where the information that was stolen was stored, but, oddly, the FBI was not allowed access. So whatever forensic insights that might have been obtained from the actual computers has never been collected or developed by federal law enforcement, which perforce relied instead on an assessment made by a DNC contractor, CrowdStrike, whose co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch is a prominent critic of the Russian government. CrowdStrike ran its own investigation and inevitably blamed the Russians.
If the FBI had moved quickly to do a forensic examination on the computers, information retained in the system presumably could have told investigators exactly who logged in and at what times. With that in hand, questioning of the individuals identified could have begun. Also, a thorough investigation would include obtaining a list of all those individuals who theoretically had access to the information that was stolen under the assumption that someone might have been using an associate’s password. Yet there is no indication that any questioning of those with access to the DNC system has occurred or is even being contemplated.
A good investigation would also examine possible motive. Back in July there was little doubt that Hillary Clinton would win the election and it is far-fetched to think that the Russians would in even their wildest imaginings think that they could change the result. But that is not to say that they would not have been interested in weakening the Clinton presidency by surfacing evidence of a scandal. Nor is there any motive for then CIA Director John Brennan to do a hack and blame it on Moscow since he would have known that the information being released would damage his candidate, Hillary Clinton—but he might have thought that promoting the Russian connection would do even worse damage to Trump. It seems to me that likely motive also includes two other plausible possibilities: that someone took the information to sell it to a party who has not yet been identified, or that someone stole the information to get even either with the Democratic establishment or with individuals running the primaries and the convention.
As there would have been only a limited market for the Clinton papers and their sale would be tricky and require developing contacts desirous of obtaining such information, revenge would seem to be the more likely explanation. But even there we know nothing as no names have surfaced as part of whatever has been passing for an investigation. DNC staffer Seth Rich, who was killed in a still unexplained “robbery attempt” in Washington on July 10, 2016, has been identified as a potential suspect by conservative media, but that possibility has been strenuously rejected by his family and others, and it does not appear that there has been any FBI follow-up on his case.
I honestly believe that we the public will never know who stole the Clinton and Podesta emails unless Julian Assange of WikiLeaks chooses to come clean on the issue, which is unlikely. In fact, Assange, who has denied that it was the Russians, might not know whom he was dealing with. If a sophisticated intelligence agency was somehow involved it could have used its own recruited assets as interlocutors, pretending to be who they were not. A well-constructed cover story could have easily fooled Assange. A capable spy agency would also have run its operation replete with red herrings while using cut-outs to break the transmission belt of the information so the theft could not plausibly be traced back to it, or to its sponsoring government.
The fact that more than a year of inquiry has gone by without anyone inside the DNC IT system being investigated suggests that whatever happened has been buried so deep that it will never surface. Even now, it might pay some dividends for the FBI to examine the DNC server, but there is virtually no pressure from anyone to make that happen. Certainly the FBI has given no indication that it has a clue about what took place and is content with attributing it to the Russians, particularly since that seems to be the conventional wisdom. Blaming the theft and what happened subsequently on Moscow is both convenient and comforting because no American constituency gets offended and it means you don’t really have to annoy anyone but Vladimir Putin.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
A congressman once admitted to me that he and his colleagues know a lot of things, generally speaking, but their knowledge only “extends about one inch deep.” In other words, the briefings provided by staffers and in committees is intended to touch only on what is important to know to look well informed in front of the C-SPAN cameras without any unnecessary depth that would only create confusion. And the information provided must generally conform to what the congressmen already believe to be true and want to hear so no one will be embarrassed.
That such ignorance would be particularly notable in the realm of foreign policy should surprise no one because congressmen as a group are no longer very well educated. Few speak foreign languages and no one any longer studies the history or culture of any country but the United States, and sometimes not even that.
Some Congressmen nevertheless boast about all the countries they have visited to “fact find.” They fail to recognize how they travel in a bubble, whisked to foreign lands via military aircraft on the virtually worthless congressional delegations known as CODELS. On these trips, spouses go shopping while American legislators are briefed by the ambassador’s staff and the CIA station, both of which, for budget reasons, are more interested in demonstrating what a wonderful job they are doing rather than explaining the complexity of the local situation. And that is followed by the obligatory visit to listen to the local head of state lie about how everything is going just fine in his country. Given the reality of garbage in, garbage out, it is no wonder that buffoons like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are lauded as foreign-policy experts in the Republican Party. It’s called setting the bar really low.
For a Congress intent on appearing to be doing something while doing nothing, one of the worst time wasters is the committee hearing, where the senators and congressmen call in “experts” to explain to them why a certain policy is either worthwhile or useless. Of course, it usually doesn’t exactly play out that way, as the committee generally wants to hear testimony that supports its preconceptions about whatever is being discussed, so it only invites those to the party who will say what it wants to hear.
To cite only one of many examples of Congress’s unwillingness to listen to any opinion that might challenge the establishment view, a February 16 hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Committee entitled “Iran on Notice” featured four “experts,” all of whom were hostile to Iran and advocates of “solutions” ranging from actively encouraging regime change to using military force. No one knowledgeable enough to explain Iran’s behavior and/or offer non-confrontational approaches was invited or asked to participate.
I have been closely following some recent hearings that relate to Russia, most particularly the Senate Judiciary session that was supposed to look into the issue of registry under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 for Russian agents. The hearing, which started on July 26, and was extended to the following day, was entitled “Oversight of the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections: Lessons Learned from Current and Prior Administrations.” The first day’s session included statements by three Justice Department and FBI officials regarding how the FARA legislation is enforced and how presumed violations of it are investigated. There were some specific comments and questions from individual senators regarding Russian and Saudi government attempts to influence opinion in the United States, but little in the way of drama.
The second day was for additional “expert testimony.” It consisted of billionaire hedge-fund director William Browder, who read a prepared statement and then responded to questions. (Video of the statement and the following discussion are available here, with Browder beginning at minute 24.) Browder, who clearly has his own agenda to debunk a film made last year attacking him and a narrative about a former employee Sergei Magnitsky that he has been promoting, was embraced by the senators, who should have known better. Veteran award-winning journalist Robert Parry describes what took place: “…last week, Senate Judiciary Committee members sat in rapt attention as hedge-fund operator William Browder wowed them with a reprise of his Magnitsky tale and suggested that people who have challenged the narrative and those who dared air the documentary one time at Washington’s Newseum last year should be prosecuted for violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).”
Not even one senator challenged William Browder’s sometimes extraordinary claims about Russia’s government in general and its President Vladimir Putin in particular, including that Putin is the richest man in the world due to all the money that he has stolen. As Browder appears to be seeking to use FARA to punish those who have criticized him or even watched a movie about him based on the assumption that they must be Russian agents, he might well be regarded as not exactly a disinterested source providing objective information about Russia and its government.
American-born British citizen Browder has been the principal promoter of a narrative about Russian government malfeasance relating to his former employee Sergei Magnitsky, who, Browder claims, was a courageous whistleblower who was falsely arrested after exposing corruption and eventually died in a Moscow prison after being tortured. Browder’s energetic promotion of the Magnitsky story has poisoned relations with Moscow and led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act by Congress in 2012. Russia rightly has seen the legislation, which includes sanctions on some officials, as unwarranted interference in the operation of its judicial system.
Browder astutely portrays himself as a human-rights campaigner dedicated to promoting the legacy of Magnitsky, but his own biography is inevitably much more complicated than that. The grandson of Earl Browder, the former general secretary of the American Communist Party, William Browder studied economics at the University of Chicago, and obtained an MBA from Stanford.
From the beginning, Browder concentrated on Eastern Europe, which was beginning to open up to the west. In 1989 he took a position at highly respected Boston Consulting Group dealing with reviving failing Polish socialist enterprises. He then worked as an Eastern Europe analyst for Robert Maxwell, the unsavory British press magnate and Mossad spy, before joining the Russia team at Wall Street’s Salomon Brothers in 1992.
He left Salomon in 1996 and partnered with Edmond Safra, the controversial Lebanese-Brazilian-Jewish banker who died under mysterious circumstances in a fire in 1999, to set up Hermitage Capital Management Fund. Hermitage is registered in tax havens Guernsey and the Cayman Islands. It is a hedge fund that was focused on “investing” in Russia, taking advantage initially of the loans-for-shares scheme under Boris Yeltsin, and then continuing to profit greatly during the early years of Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy. By 2005 Hermitage was the largest foreign investor in Russia.
Browder had renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1997 and became a British citizen apparently to avoid American taxes, which are levied on worldwide income. In his book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, he depicts himself as an honest and honorable Western businessman attempting to function in a corrupt Russian business world. That may or may not be true, but the loans-for-shares scheme that made him his initial fortune has been correctly characterized as the epitome of corruption, an arrangement whereby foreign “investors” worked with local oligarchs to strip the former Soviet economy of its assets paying pennies on each dollar of value. Along the way, Browder was reportedly involved in making false representations on official documents and bribery.
As a consequence of what came to be known as the Magnitsky scandal, Browder was eventually charged by the Russian authorities for fraud and tax evasion. He was banned from reentering Russia in 2005, even before Magnitsky died, and began to withdraw his assets from the country. Three companies controlled by Hermitage were eventually seized by the authorities, though it is not clear if any of their assets remained in Russia. Browder himself was convicted of tax evasion in absentia in 2013 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Browder has assiduously, and mostly successfully, made his case that he and Magnitsky have been the victims of Russian corruption both during and since that time, though there have been credible skeptics, including Israel Shamir, who have dissected the sordid side to his rise to power and wealth. Browder has reportedly used political contributions and threats of lawsuits filed by his battery of lawyers to popularize and sell his tale to leading American politicians like Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, ex-Senator Joe Lieberman, as well as to a number of European parliamentarians and media outlets.
But there is, inevitably, another side to the story, something quite different, which documentary filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, presented to the viewer in his film The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes. The film has only been shown publicly once, at the Newseum in Washington on June 13, 2016—a viewing that I attended, and that proceeded in spite of threats from Browder and attempted disruption by his supporters. Browder has characteristically used lawsuits and threats of still more legal action to intimidate numerous television stations in Europe and prevent additional showings.
Nekrasov discovered what he believed to be holes in the narrative about Magnitsky that had been carefully constructed and nurtured by Browder. He provides documents and also an interview with Magnitsky’s mother maintaining that there is no clear evidence that he was beaten or tortured and that he died instead due to the failure to provide him with medicine while in prison or treatment shortly after he had a heart attack. A subsequent investigation ordered by then Russian President Dimitri Medvedev in 2011 confirmed that Magnitsky had not received medical treatment, contributing to this death, but could not demonstrate that he had been beaten even though there was suspicion that that might have been the case.
Nekrasov also claimed that much of the case against the Russian authorities is derived from English language translations of relevant documents provided by Browder himself. The actual documents sometimes say something quite different, including that Magnitsky is consistently referred to as an accountant, which he was, not as a lawyer, which he wasn’t. Browder calls him a lawyer because it better fits into his preferred narrative. Magnitsky the accountant appears in the document of his deposition which was apparently part of a criminal investigation of possible tax fraud, meaning that he was no whistleblower and was instead a suspected criminal.
Other discrepancies are cited by Nekrasov, who concludes that there was indeed a huge fraud related to Russian taxes but that it was not carried out by corrupt officials. Instead, it was deliberately ordered and engineered by Browder with Magnitsky, the accountant, personally developing and implementing the scheme used to carry out the deception.
To be sure, Browder and his international legal team have presented documents in the case that contradict much of what Nekrasov has presented in his film. It might be that Browder and Magnitsky have been the victims of a corrupt and venal state, but it just might be the other way around. Having a highly politicized Congress and a vengeful Browder lining up against a conveniently unpopular Russian government just might suggest that one is hearing a narrative that peddles lies as much as it tells the truth.
The Senate just might consider looking more deeply into Browder’s business activities while in Russia before jumping to conclusions and bringing him in as an “expert” on anything. He should not be given a free pass because he is saying things about Russia and Putin that fit neatly into a Washington establishment profile and make Senators smile and nod their heads. As soon as folks named McCain, Cardin and Lieberman jump on a cause, it should be time to step back a bit and reflect on what the consequences of proposed action might be.
One might also ask why anyone who has a great deal to gain by having a certain narrative accepted should be completely and unquestionably trusted, the venerable Cui bono? standard. And then there is a certain evasiveness on the part of Browder, who notably makes outrageous claims about the Russians but does not do so under oath, where he might be subject to legal consequences for perjury. The film shows him huffing and puffing to explain himself at times and he has avoided being served with subpoenas on allegations connected to the Magnitsky fraud that are making their way through American courts. In one case, he can be seen on YouTube running away from a server, somewhat unusual behavior if he has nothing to hide.
So, if you wonder why the United States Congress makes such bad decisions, it just might be due to the kind of information that it gets when it travels the world and holds hearings. Inviting a man who has renounced his U.S. citizenship to avoid paying taxes, who likely engaged in questionable business practices, and who very definitely has his own agenda, which includes vilifying the Kremlin, is hardly the way to go if one truly wants to understand Russia, particularly as no one participated in the hearing to rebut his claims. And if fining American citizens or forcing them to register as enemy agents because they may have supported or gone to see a movie is reflective of that gentleman’s mindset, there is even more good reason to reject the snake oil that he might be selling.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
On July 25, Pakistani-American IT specialist Imran Awan was arrested at Dulles Airport for bank fraud while he was allegedly fleeing to Pakistan. The reports predictably produced some press coverage before the story died. Yet the speed at which the news vanished has prompted some observers to suggest that there might actually be something more to the disappearance than the operation of the normal media-reporting cycle. A number of conservative websites, including Breitbart, have been sounding the alarm over a possible cover-up that just might even be linked to what we are now calling Russiagate.
To be sure, the tale is a strange one with plenty of unsavory links. Thirty-seven-year-old Awan, as well as his wife and two brothers Abid and Jamal, worked as IT administrators for nearly 30 congressmen, all Democrats, including former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. They did not have security clearances and it is not even certain that they were in any way checked out before being hired. At one point, they brought into the House as a colleague one Rao Abbas, someone to whom they owed money and who might have had no qualifications at all to work IT. Abbas wound up working in the office of Rep. Patrick Murphy, who was at the time a member of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as for Rep. Theo Deutch. He was paid $250,000.
The process of granting security clearances to Congressional staff is not exactly transparent, but it is not unlike clearances for other government agencies. The office seeking the clearance for a staff member must put in a request, some kind of investigation follows, and the applicant must sign a non-disclosure agreement before the authorization is granted. Sometimes Congress pushes the process by demanding that its staff have access above and beyond the normal “need to know.” In March 2016, for example, eight Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee requested that their staffs be given access to top-secret sensitive compartmented information (SCI). It is not known if the Awans, who were working for several committee members, would have been involved, but Buzzfeed, in its initial reporting on the investigation of the Awans family, repeated the concerns of a congressman that the suspects might have “had access to the House of Representatives’ entire computer network.”
The Awans billed Congress for more than $4 million between 2004 and 2016, a sum that has been reported to be three or four times higher than the norm for government contractor IT specialists performing similar work. The considerable level of overbilling has not been explained by the congressmen involved. In spite of all that income, Imran Awan declared bankruptcy in 2010, claiming losses of $1 million on a car business that he owned in Falls Church, Va. The business was named Cars International A, abbreviated on its business cards as CIA.
As of February 2016, the Awans came under suspicion for having set up an operation to steal and resell government-owned computer equipment. It was also believed that they had somehow obtained access to House of Representatives’ computer databases as well as to other information in the internal computer system that they were not normally authorized to work on as part of their duties. The Capitol Hill Police began an investigation and quietly alerted the congressmen involved that there might be a problem. Most stopped employing the Awan family, but Wasserman-Schultz kept Imran on the payroll until the day after he was actually arrested.
Some of those defending the Awans, to include Wasserman-Schultz and the family lawyer, have insisted that he and his family were the victims of “an anti-Muslim, right-wing smear job,” though there is no actual evidence to suggest that is the case. They also claim that the bank fraud, in which he obtained a home equity loan for $165,000 from the Congressional Federal Credit Union based on a house that he owned and claimed to live in in Lorton, Va., was largely a misunderstanding; it was described by his lawyer Chris Gowen, a Clinton family confidant, as something that was “extremely minor.” It turned out that there was a tenant in the house, an ex-Marine and his Naval officer wife, who were very suspicious about a large quantity of what appeared to be government-sourced computer equipment and supplies, all material that had been left behind by the Awans. They contacted the FBI, which discovered hard drives that appeared to have been deliberately destroyed.
The FBI is certainly interested in the theft of government computers. But it is also looking into the possibility that the Awans were using their ability to access and possibly exploit sensitive information stored in the House of Representatives’ computer network, as well as through Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, which Imran had access to and connected to the Democratic National Committee server. As Imran Awan was also a dual-national, born in Pakistan, the possibility of espionage also had to be considered. The charge that Awan was actually arrested on, bank fraud, was an easy way to hold him, as that aspect of his activities was well documented. It allows the other more serious investigations to continue, so the argument that Imran Awan is only being held over a minor matter is not necessarily correct.
Awans wired the credit union money to Pakistan, as part of a $283,000 transfer that was made in January. His wife Hina Alvi also left the U.S. two months later. She was searched by Customs officers and it was determined that she was carrying $12,000 in cash. She also had with her their three children, and numerous boxes containing household goods and clothing. It was clear that she did not intend to come back, but there has been no explanation why she was even allowed to leave, since carrying more than $10,000 out of the country without reporting it is a felony.
As Imran Awan reportedly had access to Wasserman-Schultz’s iPad, he presumably also had access to the incriminating Hillary Clinton emails. He also used a laptop in her office that was, according to investigators, concealed in an “unused crevice” in the Rayburn House Office Building. It is being examined by police but Wasserman-Schultz tried strenuously to recover it before it could be looked at. She pressured the Chief of the Capitol Police Matthew Verderosa to return it, threatening him by saying “you should expect that there will be consequences.”
There is another odd connection of Imran Awan that goes back to the circle around prominent neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq War. In late 2002 and early 2003, Wolfowitz regularly met secretly with a group of Iraqi expatriates who resided in the Washington area and were opponents of the Saddam Hussein regime. The Iraqis had not been in their country of birth for many years but they claimed to have regular contact with well-informed family members and political allies. The Iraqi advisers provided Wolfowitz with a now-familiar refrain, i.e. that the Iraqi people would rise up to support invading Americans and overthrow the hated Saddam. They would greet their liberators with bouquets of flowers and shouts of joy.
The Iraqis were headed by one Dr. Ali A. al-Attar, born in Baghdad to Iranian parents in 1963, a 1989 graduate of the American University of Beirut Faculty of Medicine. He subsequently emigrated to the United States and set up a practice in internal medicine in Greenbelt, Md., a suburb of Washington D.C. Al-Attar eventually expanded his business to include nine practices that he wholly or partly owned in Virginia and Maryland but he eventually lost his license due to “questionable billing practices” as well as “unprofessional conduct” due to having sex with patients.
Al-Attar was investigated by the FBI and eventually indicted for large scale health care fraud in 2008-09. This included charging insurance companies more than $2.3 million for services their patients did not actually receive, with many of the false claims using names of diplomats and employees enrolled in a group plan at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. In one case, the doctors claimed an embassy employee visited three of their clinics every 26 days between May 2007 and August 2008 to have the same testing done each time. The insurance company paid the doctors $55,000 for more than 400 nonexistent procedures for the one patient alone.
Al-Attar fled the United States after the indictment to avoid arrest and imprisonment and is now considered a fugitive from justice. Late in 2012 he was observed in Beirut, Lebanon, conversing with a Hezbollah official. Al-Attar is of interest in this case because he appears to have been a friend of Imran Awan and also loaned him $100,000, which was never repaid. The FBI is currently looking into any possible espionage involving the two men as Awan and his associates clearly had access to classified information while working in the House of Representatives.
The Imran Awan case is certainly of considerable interest not only for what the investigation eventually turns up but also for what it reveals about how things work in Congress. One might well ask how foreign-born IT specialists are selected and vetted prior to being significantly overpaid and allowed to work on computers in congressional offices. And the ability of those same individuals to keep working even after the relevant congressmen have been warned that their employee was under investigation has to be explained beyond Wasserman-Schultz’s comment that Awan had not committed any crime. And how does “bankrupt” Imran Awan wind up with a high-priced lawyer to defend him who is associated with the Clintons? Finally, there are the lingering concerns about the unfortunately well-established Russiagate narrative. Did the Russians really hack into the DNC, or was it some kind of inside job carried out by someone actually working for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for reasons that have yet to be determined, possibly to include espionage? There are many questions—and so far, few answers.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a meeting ostensibly convened to discuss the failure to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). Originally rescheduled for this week, the postponed meeting would have featured Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort testifying about their controversial Trump Tower meeting, but their subpoenas were canceled at the last minute after they arranged to turn over documents. The June 2016 meeting under investigation included Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, publicist Rob Goldstone, businessman Ike Kaveladze, and translator Anatoli Samochornov. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was also in attendance, apparently only briefly.
The Judiciary Committee hearing was originally set up to look at the possible Russian links of former journalist and head of the research firm Fusion GPS Glenn Simpson, who was behind the infamous Trump dossier that appeared in January. Yet in reality it is part of the broader effort to determine whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign.
FARA was created in the lead up to World War II to help monitor the activity of Italian, German and Japanese agent-lobbyists who were believed to be working hard in the U.S. to influence opinion as well as congressional votes in favor of their respective sponsoring nations. The intention was to force the “foreign agents” to register with the Department of the Treasury so they would have to identify their government sponsors and be required to reveal their sources of income.
FARA is not very rigorously enforced, which was one of the points that the Judiciary Committee was prepared to address in regards to Russia, but there can be consequences for those who ignore it. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was recently compelled to register as an agent of Turkey after he received $530,000 in payments to support Ankara’s view regarding those it believed to be behind last year’s coup.
Ironically, the most powerful and effective foreign-government lobby in Washington is so dominant that it has been able to avoid registering for the past 55 years. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was last confronted by FARA when its predecessor organization the American Zionist Council was pressured by John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department in 1962 and 1963. Kennedy’s death stopped that effort—and ended White House attempts to hold Israel accountable for the development of its secret nuclear weapons program (which depended on nuclear material removed illegally from the United States with the connivance of a company located in Pennsylvania called NUMEC).
AIPAC’s website declares that it is “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” so by its own admission it functions pretty clearly as Israel’s proxy. It spent $102 million in 2015, had 396 employees in 2013, and claims to have 100,000 members, many of whom are organized into state and city chapters. It also benefits from being a tax exempt 501(c)4 organization classified as promoting “international understanding.” Its annual Summit in Washington attracts more than 15,000 participants, including scores of congressmen and other senior government officials. It blankets Capitol Hill with its lobbyists and is a prolific source of position papers explaining Israel’s perception of what is taking place in the Middle East. Its easy access to the media and also to politicians in Washington is so widely accepted on Capitol Hill that it reportedly frequently drafts bills that Congress then goes on to propose.
No Washington lobby is benign. Lobbies exist to subvert the public interest. They promote particular agendas and are not intended to enhance the general well-being of the American public. Lobbyists would argue that they are in the information business, that they make lawmakers aware of facts that impact on pending legislation, but the reality is that every lobby is nevertheless driven by self-interest.
The power of the Israel Lobby and of AIPAC is not cost free for the American public. The current $3 billion plus that Israel, with a thriving first world economy, receives in military assistance is on top of the $130 billion that it has received since 1949. Protecting Israel in international organizations like the United Nations has sometimes marginalized the U.S. in such bodies and the lobby’s influence over American foreign policy has often been noted. In 2010 General David Petraeus stated that Israeli policies were putting American military personnel in the Middle East in danger. He quickly recanted, however.
Once upon a time AIPAC’s Steven Rosen boasted to an interviewer, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.” He meant that congressmen would sign on to anything if they thought it would please Israel. Recently the U.S. Congress has been working on bills that would criminalize individuals or groups that support a boycott of Israel. It would not be the first such legislation. The 2015 omnibus trade agreement with Europe included an amendment mandating that nations engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, to include “Israeli controlled territories,” should be subject to retaliatory action by the U.S.
There are currently two bills constituting the Israel Anti-Boycott Act of 2017 (S.720 and H.R. 1697) being considered by the Senate and House that outdo any previous deference to Israeli interests. The Senate bill was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin, who also had a hand in the trade-legislation amendments protecting Israel. According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, the bill was drafted with the assistance of AIPAC. The legislation, which would almost certainly be overturned as unconstitutional if it ever does in fact become law, is particularly dangerous, and goes well beyond any previous pro-Israeli legislation, essentially denying free speech when the subject is Israel.
The two versions of the bill that are moving through Congress have 238 sponsors and cosponsors in the House and 46 in the Senate. If you do your math, you will realize that those numbers already constitute a majority in the House and are only five short of one in the Senate, so passage of the bills is virtually assured. The bill’s sponsors include many congressmen who have in the past frequently spoken out in defense of free speech, with Senator Ted Cruz having said in 2014, for example, that “The First Amendment was enacted to protect unreasonable speech. I, for one, certainly don’t want our speech limited to speech that elected politicians in Washington think is reasonable.”
The movement that is particularly targeted by the bills is referred to as BDS, or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is a non-violen t reaction to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian land on the West Bank and the continued building of Jewish-only settlements. BDS has been targeted both by the Israeli government and by AIPAC. The AIPAC website, which describes the group’s lobbying agenda, includes the promotion of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act as a top priority.
The Israeli government and its American supporters particularly fear BDS because it has become quite popular, particularly on university campuses, where administrative steps have frequently been taken to suppress it. The denial of free speech on campus when it relates to Israel has sometimes been referred to as the “Palestinian exception.” Nevertheless, the message continues to resonate, due both to its non-violence its and human rights appeal. It challenges Israel’s arbitrary military rule over 3 million Palestinians on the West Bank who have onerous restrictions placed on nearly every aspect of their daily lives. And its underlying message is that Israel is a rogue state engaging in actions that are widely considered to be both illegal and immoral, which the Israeli government rightly sees as potentially delegitimizing.
Twenty-one state legislatures have already passed various laws confronting BDS, in many cases initiating economic penalties on organizations that boycott Israel or denying state funds to colleges and universities that allow BDS advocates to operate freely on campus. The pending federal legislation would go one step further by criminalizing any U.S. citizen “engaged in interstate or foreign commerce” who supports a boycott of Israel or who even goes about “requesting the furnishing of information” regarding it, with penalties enforced through amendments of two existing laws, the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Act of 1945, that include potential fines of between $250,000 and $1 million and up to 20 years in prison.
Interestingly, a number of churches, to include the Presbyterians, Mennonites, and United Church of Christ, have divested from companies participating in the occupation of the West Bank and could be subject to the punitive steps authorized by the legislation. And it also is interesting to note that the bills would not punish anyone who does not have a business relationship with Israel for reasons other than politics. The punishment comes solely when one states that he or she is not engaging in business with Israel due to objections regarding what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
Daniel Larison has observed that even if one assumes that the legislation will face judicial hurdles and will never be enacted, it is nevertheless discouraging to consider that a clear majority of congressmen thinks it is perfectly acceptable to deny all Americans the right to free political expression in order to defend an internationally-acknowledged illegal occupation being carried out by a foreign country. That the occupation is illegal has even been acknowledged repeatedly by Washington, which contradicts its own policy with this legislation.
Those co-sponsoring the bills include Democrats, Republicans, progressives, and conservatives. Deference to Israeli interests is bipartisan and crosses ideological lines. Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim, writing at The Intercept, observe that “…the very mention of the word ‘Israel’ causes most members of both parties to quickly snap into line in a show of unanimity that would make the regime of North Korea blush with envy.”
Finally, the seemingly unrelenting pressure to make criticism of Israel illegal is particularly dangerous as it is international. Indeed, it is a global phenomenon. Wherever one goes—Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States—there is a well-organized and funded lobby ready, willing, and able to go to war to protect Israel. In France it is illegal to wear a t-shirt supporting BDS or to demonstrate in favor of it. Britain has introduced laws that include defining criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. In Canada, support of BDS has been regarded as a hate crime.
Will FARA registration of AIPAC as a foreign lobby fix all that? Of course not, but it would be a good first step. AIPAC would have to publicly acknowledge that it is acting on behalf of a foreign government and its sources of income would be subject to review. While the Congress is busy searching for Russian agents under FARA it just might spend some time also examining the pernicious influence of the unregistered and unrestrained Israel Lobby.
Once upon a time one applied for a government position that required a clearance with the expectation that in three or four months the process would be completed and the authorization would or would not be issued. I experienced the drill on three occasions for top-secret clearances, once for the Department of Defense (DOD) and twice for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each government agency then managed its own security, and largely does today, in spite of last year’s creation of the National Background Investigation Board. A subsidiary of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, the board was intended to coordinate and resolve a massive backlog of clearances. Currently the processing delay in issuing more than 70,000 pending top-secret clearances is approaching one year and there is also a large backlog of existing clearances that are up for reauthorization and under review.
Back in my time there were major differences in how the various national-security components ran their background investigations. The DOD clearance was largely document driven, relying on police reports and public records from the various jurisdictions that I had lived in supplemented by a brief personal interview with the chief of police in the town in New Jersey where I had spent the most time. That pretty much was it and the check did not even include confirmation of the university degree that I claimed to have, as no one asked for my approval to obtain that information. The investigator clearly was looking for illegal activity and did not appear to be particularly interested in confirming that I was who I said I was.
One particular sticking point with the military was the concern over my father rather than me. He was a naturalized citizen and the investigation absolutely required production of the original document confirming that fact, which we were eventually able to produce. It struck me as odd that one part of the government could not have asked another part to confirm the information, but that was the case back then and apparently is still the case now. There is little reciprocity between agencies and information is not routinely shared.
One of the reasons why is that each agency has a different perspective on what is important and what isn’t. CIA clearances were quite different than those carried out by the Army. They required a polygraph examination at an early stage and the background checks were very thorough, including interviews with bosses from summer jobs while I was in college as well as of people I knew while I was at school. There were a number of questions about possible homosexuality both directed at friends and as part of the poly, which, of course, would not be allowed today. Public records were, of course, reviewed, as were credit reports. FBI clearances went through a similar vetting, though the polygraph exam was not mandatory in all cases. For CIA there were also follow-up reviews every five years or thereabouts, though they generally consisted of another polygraph exam with particular attention paid to concealed foreign contacts and relationships, both amorous and espionage related.
A big difference between background checks back then and now was that the investigations were initially conducted by the office of security of the actual component that one was intending to work for. Today the investigations are nearly all conducted by contractors, who are themselves hungry for a piece of what has become a multi-billion dollar business. These companies are developing highly sophisticated security software to constantly update government files on its employees.
There are nearly five million United States government employees with clearances. Since Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, there has been considerable demand from Congress to reduce that number. But the national security industry is, if anything, slated to grow under President Donald Trump. The White House has added its own concerns over politically motivated leakers of classified information and would like to see mechanisms in place that continuously monitor activity by clearance holders to reveal who might have engaged in unauthorized exposure of the sensitive information that has wound up in the Washington Post and New York Times.
But instead of limiting the access to classified information, there has been instead a push for increased and even continuous monitoring of those who have clearances to avoid what are described as “insider threats.” Software fixes are already in place at some agencies to scour public records and also in some cases redline users who have repeated access to certain types of files that are not directly germane to their work. As we have seen in the recent case of claimed whistleblower Reality Winner, printers connected to classified computers have features that enable identification of the actual user when there is a leak.
Using computers to continuously monitor cleared employees generally employs a variation on software that has already been developed for commercial users, including air carriers, where there is high risk and major liability if an employee is responsible for a violent incident. The special software constantly reviews criminal and civil files, such as divorce filings, bankruptcies, traffic violations, unreported foreign travel, and credit reports, to identify red flags that might result in unacceptable or even aberrant behavior on the part of the employee or prospective employee. Spies are notoriously motivated by money (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen) and careful review of their credit reports might have revealed that they were financially stressed before they took the step of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people in September 2013, reportedly was the subject of a Rhode Island police report that revealed that he had been “hearing voices” shortly before he went on his rampage.
Monitoring one’s civil and criminal record is not particularly easy to do, as much of the information is only available at state or even county and local levels and not all of it is online. Even though most of the information that is being screened by the government computers is public record and therefore fair game, there is concern that while something like a bankruptcy or a foreign trip is verifiable fact, other information might be either uninterpretable or completely lacking context. Even public databases frequently contain inaccurate information, including what is referred to as false negatives and false positives—and yet if they appear to cross an employer red line, they become part of the personnel file. Some of it is certainly information that once upon a time would have been regarded as both private and sensitive, such as a credit report, even though applicants for security clearances customarily waive any right to privacy when they are being background investigated.
And there is also increasing pressure coming from government managers to begin screening social media to determine if individuals are becoming disgruntled or otherwise developing hostile attitudes towards their employer. To complain about one’s job or express unpopular opinions would not exactly be criminalized but it would inevitably become an element in consideration of one’s ability to move upward in the organization, even if that is not the intention.
The bottom line is that no one has yet made the case that the continuous monitoring of five million security clearance holders would actually reduce espionage and “insider threats.” It is clear, however, that it would be enormously expensive and is therefore being pushed hard—both by prospective contractors offering their services and also hardliners in government who seek to have such a weapon in their arsenal to catch spies, leakers, and malcontents. Critics observe that while aggressive monitoring quite possibly might discover an individual instance where someone could appear to be in one of those “at risk” categories, most individuals who are moving in that direction do not necessarily allow their inner thoughts or hidden activities to become either part of the public record or an entry on Facebook.
And the greatest danger of all is over the horizon. Once the government discovers a new technology to intrude on the lives of ordinary citizens, a pretext will no doubt be developed after the next terrorist incident or insider attack to use it in ever widening circles as new threats are allegedly discovered. When that happens, we can confidently expect Patriot Act III, with a provision allowing continuous surveillance of any and all possible suspects. And there is actually a precedent. Back in 2003, the Pentagon under George W. Bush was already tinkering with what if referred to as Total Information Awareness to examine predictive behavior, described at the time as the “biggest surveillance program in the history of the United States.”
Total Information Awareness was briefly implemented before being abandoned 14 years ago. Today the technical resources available are much more impressive, with the ability to have a fully automated process that can monitor, store, and recover billions of pieces of data in real time. It means that achieving continuous monitoring for everyone who resides in or travels to the United States is now a reality. Every American will become a potential victim and part of an Orwellian nightmare as a substantially mythical national security narrative trumps privacy concerns and constitutional rights. And the government, to quell any concerns, will continue to insist that what it is doing is only done to make you safer.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA offier, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Not so long ago my wife and I, in a heated moment, canceled our subscriptions to the Washington Post and the New York Times on the same day. We stopped short of burning recent copies of both publications on a bonfire in our front yard, but were elated at ending our connection to America’s leading sources of government propaganda and outrageously fake news. We toasted our liberation with a nice glass of Oregon State pinot noir.
We had become increasingly annoyed over the constant defamation of Donald Trump as candidate and president-elect even before he was inaugurated and had a chance to do anything wrong. But the real reason for our removal of America’s self-styled papers of record was the horrible coverage of Russia in general and what was going on in Syria in particular. That both papers kept repeating how Moscow had interfered in the election and that Syria was using chemical weapons without providing any evidence in either case had proven to be our own red line in terms of what we would allow into our house.
Not having the papers readily available has meant that we have avoided a lot of sensational journalism explaining in some detail why the United States has both a right and an obligation to be interfering militarily in every corner of the world simultaneously, and we also missed some really crazy stuff. A Washington Post opinion piece that I completely missed when it first appeared on June 23, but which I have recently discovered, was entitled “This is what foreign spies see when they read President Trump’s tweets.”
As presumably few Americans can appreciate that Donald Trump’s tweets are actually classified documents and I was once upon a time a spy, I found the title intriguing, so I put on my tin hat and dove in. First of all, I took note of the author. She is Nada Bakos, self-described as a former “CIA analyst and targeting officer.” I didn’t know what a targeting officer was, but the article went on to explain it.
Per a page advertising her forthcoming book at Amazon, Nada worked as an “analyst on the team charged with analyzing the relationship between Iraq, al Qaida, and 9/11.” Redundancy aside, as there was no actual evidence linking together Iraq, al-Qaeda and 9/11, one wonders how Bakos reacted when CIA Director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney came pounding on her door insisting that there had to be a relationship to justify war. Reportedly some CIA analysts refused to endorse the lie that Iraq was cooperating with al-Qaeda to bring about 9/11, so hopefully Bakos got it right and stood her ground.
Bakos subsequently became the chief “targeter” working on al-Qaeda notable Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who rose to the rank of First Emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq before he died in a “targeted” killing by U.S. forces in 2006. Bakos’s book’s subtitle is “My life in the CIA, on the Hunt for the Godfather of ISIS,” which refers to her role in locating and killing al-Zarqawi. I would note in passing that al-Zarqawi was a genuine monster and richly deserved what he got.
In any event, the Amazon blurb goes on to note that “after 20 years in the intelligence field and corporate world, Ms. Bakos is currently focused on national security issues and regional stability around the world.” One might note in passing that “regional stability” is a feelgood U.S. government buzzword that means the same thing as “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect,” both of which are sound principles that are presumably enshrined somewhere in the U.S. Constitution. Or maybe not.
So what does Nada Bakos have to say about Trump’s tweets? Well, intelligence agencies around the world are apparently busy trying to analyze them because “they’re trying to determine what vulnerabilities the president of the United States might have. And he’s giving them a lot to work with. Trump’s Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency.”
Bakos twists herself into a pretzel in trying to emphasize the importance of an intelligence agency learning everything there is to know about a foreign head of state. She draws on her own experience, recounting how “At the CIA, I tracked and analyzed terrorists and other U.S. enemies, including North Korea. But we never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now—to get a real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind. If we had, it would have given us significant advantages in our dealings with them.”
That’s where I began to lose it. I would first of all note that learning what one might about habits and attitudes of terrorist leaders in order to anticipate where they will go or what they would do so you can kill them is much different than assessing what the head of a legitimate government might say or do based on his or her personality. I seriously doubt that there are teams of intelligence analysts, as Bakos claims, sitting around worrying about the deeper meaning of Donald Trump’s tweets. There might be no deeper meaning at all, and it would seem to me that Trump is relatively transparent. Narcissistic, quick to take offense, impulsive, unwilling to consider “details”—he is a walking id. So what is there to figure out beyond that?
I suspect this article was written both to sell a book and to diminish Donald Trump from a new angle, one that might reasonably be described as bizarre. Whatever kernel of truth it might contain is overwhelmed by hyperbole. Bakos cites how the Saudi Arabians may have exploited their intelligence-derived assessment of Trump to publish favorable newspaper stories about him and line the highway from the airport with billboards praising the new American president. But, as flattery will get you everywhere, such activity is not necessarily a brilliant insight into how to win over the new sheriff in town. It would not have taken a genius to figure out that Trump likes to be celebrated, and it is likely that the Saudis would have made a similar effort for any American president.
And I might add that judging from Bakos’s brief bio, she likely did her “analysis” and “targeting” from the comfort of an office at CIA headquarters. I wonder how much time she spent actually analyzing foreign leaders up close and personal. I know from my own experience that no one in Langley in my era would have wasted much time or effort on personality profiles. That was done at headquarters by guys and gals who holed up in the basement and went methodically through newspaper clippings. As a CIA case officer who lived overseas in four countries, my recollection is that no one ever had the least bit of interest in the quirks of foreign leaders. They were part of the background noise of operating overseas. While we would have been delighted to recruit a deputy prime minister both as a source of information and as an agent of influence, it was a very low priority to step back and worry about his personal foibles.
As I recall very clearly, the Department of State generally had the “leader profile” bases well covered both in terms of foreign-government intentions and the proclivities of the key players in the host governments. U.S. Foreign Service officers actually met with senior government officials, attended their receptions, had lunch with them, and went to their parties. The FSOs were very well trained in making assessments and writing them up for policymakers in Washington. It was their job and they were quite good at it.
So, no, I am not buying that Donald Trump’s twittering makes the United States more vulnerable from a national security point of view, with teams of hostile intelligence officers somehow and somewhere using computers to perform “content analysis on the president’s tweets in the aggregate,” as Bakos puts it. I do believe, however, that there is a major covert industry nationwide that is seeking to do whatever it can to delegitimize Trump and Bakos’ silly article is just one more example of what is being purveyed in the mainstream media to that end. The jury should still be out on what kind of president we actually have, and Trump is certainly not helping his case through his unwillingness to play the game and act presidential. But the assertion that his use of Twitter is somehow making the country less safe is complete nonsense.
I went to a meeting the other night with some Donald Trump supporters who, like me, had voted for him based on expectations of a more rational foreign policy. They were suggesting that the president’s attempts to move in that direction had been sabotaged by officials inside the administration who want to maintain the current warfare state. Remove those officials and Trump might just keep his pledge to leave Bashar al-Assad alone while improving relations with Russia. I was somewhat skeptical, noting that the White House had unilaterally initiated the April 7 cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase as well as the more recent warning against an alleged “planned” chemical attack, hardly moves that might lead to better relations with Damascus and Moscow. But there are indeed some administration figures who clearly are fomenting endless conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere.
One might reasonably start with Generals James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, both of whom are hardliners on Afghanistan and Iran, but with a significant caveat. Generals are trained and indoctrinated to fight and win wars, not to figure out what comes next. General officers like George Marshall or even Dwight Eisenhower who had a broader vision are extremely rare, so much so that expecting a Mattis or McMaster to do what falls outside their purview is perhaps a bit too much. They might be bad choices for the jobs they hold, but at least they employ some kind of rational process, based on how they perceive national interests, to make judgements. If properly reined in by a thoughtful civilian leadership, which does not exist at the moment, they have the potential to be effective contributors to the national-security discussion.
But several other notable figures in the administration deserve to be fired if there is to be any hope of turning Trump’s foreign policy around. In Arthur Sullivan’s and W. S. Gilbert’s The Mikado, the Lord High Executioner sings about the “little list” he is preparing of people who “never will be missed” when he finally gets around to fulfilling the requirements of his office. He includes “apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,” indicating that the American frustration with the incompetence of its government is not unique, nor is it a recent phenomenon.
My own little list of “society’s offenders” consists largely of the self-described gaggle of neoconservative foreign-policy “experts.” Unfortunately, the neocons have proven to be particularly resilient in spite of repeated claims that their end was nigh, most recently after the election of Donald Trump last November. Yet as most of the policies the neocons have historically espoused are indistinguishable from what the White House is currently trying to sell, one might well wake up one morning and imagine that it is 2003 and George W. Bush is still president. Still, hope springs eternal, and now that the United States has celebrated its 241st birthday, it would be nice to think that in the new year our nation might be purged of some of the malignancies that have prevailed since 9/11.
Number one on my little list is Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who is particularly dangerous as she is holding a position where she can do bad things. Haley has been shooting from the lip since she assumed office and, it has become clear, much of what she says goes without any vetting by the Trump administration. It is never clear whether she is speaking for herself or for the White House. That issue has reportedly been dealt with by having the State Department clear in advance her comments on hot button issues, but, if that is indeed the case, the change has been difficult to discern in practice.
Haley is firmly in the neocon camp, receiving praise from Senators like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and from the Murdoch media as well as in the opinion pages of National Review and The Weekly Standard. Her speechwriter is Jessica Gavora, who is the wife of the leading neoconservative journalist Jonah Goldberg. Haley sees the United Nations as corrupt and bloated, in itself not an unreasonable conclusion, but she has tied herself closely to a number of other, more debatable issues.
As governor of South Carolina, Haley became identified as an unquestioning supporter of Israel. She signed into law a bill to restrict the activities of the nonviolent pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the first legislation of its kind on a state level. Haley has also stated that “nowhere has the UN’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” On a recent visit to Israel, she was applauded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating “You know, all I’ve done is to tell the truth, and it’s kind of overwhelming at the reaction…if there’s anything I have no patience for, it’s bullies, and the UN was being such a bully to Israel, because they could.”
But Haley sometimes goes far beyond trying to “tell the truth.” In February, she blocked the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a diplomatic position at the United Nations because he is a Palestinian. In a congressional hearing this past week, she was asked about the decision: “Is it this administration’s position that support for Israel and support for the appointment of a well-qualified individual of Palestinian nationality to an appointment at the UN are mutually exclusive?” Haley responded yes, that the administration is “supporting Israel” by blocking any Palestinian from any senior UN position because Palestine is not recognized by Washington as an independent state.
At various UN meetings Haley has repeatedly and uncritically complained of institutional bias towards Israel, asserting that the “days of Israel bashing are over,” without ever addressing the issue that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians might in part be responsible for the criticism leveled against it. Her description of Israel as an “ally” is hyperbolic and she tends to be oblivious to actual American interests in the region when Israel is involved. She has never challenged the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well as the recent large expansion of settlements, which are at least nominally opposed by the State Department and White House.
Haley is inevitably a hardliner on Syria, reflecting the Israeli bias, and consistently hostile to Russia. She has said that regime change in Damascus is a Trump administration priority. Her most recent foray involves the White House warning that it had “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” Haley elaborated in a tweet, “…further attacks will be blamed on Assad but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people.” Earlier, on April 12, after Russia blocked a draft UN resolution intended to condemn the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, Haley said, “We need to see Russia choose to side with the civilized world over an Assad government that brutally terrorizes its own people.”
Haley’s analysis of who is doing what to whom in Syria is certainly questionable at a minimum. And her language is hardly supportive of possible administration diplomatic attempts to mend fences with the Russians and can also be seen as quite dangerous as they increase the likelihood of an “accidental encounter” over the skies of Syria as both sides harden their positions and seek to expand the areas they control. She has also said that, “We’re calling [Russia] out [and] I don’t think anything is off the table at this point. I think what you’re going to see is strong leadership. You’re going to continue to see the United States act when we need to act.” Regarding Moscow’s role on the UN Security Council, she complained that, “All they’ve done is seven times veto against Syria every time they do something to hurt their own people. And so Russia absolutely has not done what they’re supposed to do.”
Regarding Ukraine, Haley has taken an extreme position that guarantees Russian hostility. In February, she addressed the UN Security Council regarding the Crimean conflict, which she appears not to understand very well. She warned that sanctions against Russia would not be lifted until Moscow returned control over the peninsula to Kiev. On June 4, she doubled down, insisting that the United States would retain “sanctions strong and tough when it comes to the issue in Ukraine.”
Haley is also increasingly highly critical of Iran, which she sees as the instigator of much of the unrest in the Middle East, again reflecting the Israeli viewpoint. She claimed on April 20, during her first session as president of the UN Security Council, that Iran and Hezbollah had “conducted terrorist acts” for decades within the Middle East, ignoring the more serious terrorism support engaged in by U.S. regional allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. She stated last week that the Security Council’s praise of the Iran Nuclear Agreement honored a state that has engaged in “illicit missile launches,” “support for terrorist groups,” and “arms smuggling,” while “stok[ing] regional conflicts and mak[ing] them harder to solve.” All are perspectives that might easily be challenged.
Haley is also much given to rhetoric reminiscent of George W. Bush during his first term. Regarding North Korea, on May 16 she told reporters that, “We have to turn around and tell the entire international community: You either support North Korea or you support us,” echoing George W. Bush’s sentiment that, “There’s a new sheriff in town and you’re either with us or against us.”
So Haley very much comes across as the neoconservatives’ dream ambassador to the United Nations–full of aggression, a staunch supporter of Israel, and assertive of Washington’s preemptive right to set standards for the rest of the world. That does not necessarily make her very good for the rest of us, who will have to bear the burdens of imperial hubris. Nor is her tendency to overstate her case a plus for the Trump administration itself, which is clearly seeking to work its way through Russiagate–and just might be considering how to establish some kind of modus vivendi with Vladimir Putin.
If Donald Trump really wants to drain the Washington swamp and reduce interference in other nations, he might well continue that program by firing Nikki Haley. He could then appoint someone as UN ambassador who actually believes that the United States has to deal with other countries respectfully, not by constant bullying and threats. In the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, she’s on my list and “she will never be missed.”
Something peculiar happens to American presidents after they take office on January 20.
Campaign promises to right the easily perceived misdirections in foreign policy are abandoned, and the new program for dealing with the rest of the world winds up looking very much like the old one. Bill Clinton was an anti-Vietnam War draft dodger who preached the moral high ground for going to war before he turned around and got involved in the Balkans while also bombing Sudan and Afghanistan. George W. Bush promised non-interference and no nation-building overseas, but 9/11 converted him into an exemplar of how to do everything wrong as he sank into the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barack Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 was likely due to the perception that he was the peace candidate, particularly in contrast to his opponent Senator John McCain, but he wound up deeper in Afghanistan, out of, and then back into Iraq, interfering in Syria, and bringing about disastrous regime change in Libya while also allowing relations with Moscow to deteriorate. Donald Trump has surrounded himself with generals after promising no deeper involvement in foreign wars and the generals are telling him that winning wars only requires more soldiers on the ground and just a little more time and effort to stabilize things, all of which are self-serving formulae for policies that have already failed.
And then there are the perennial enemies, with Iran at the top of the list while Russia and China play supporting roles. Some would blame the foreign policy orientation on the Deep State, which certainly is suggestive, but I rather suspect that the flip-flops of recent presidents are also based on some other elements. First, none of them has been a veteran who experienced active duty, which makes war an abstraction observed second hand on PowerPoint in a briefing room rather than a reality. And second, the shaping of their views can be directly attributed to the pervasiveness of the establishment view on the appropriate role for the United States in the world.
Sometimes referred to as America’s “civil religion,” one can also call it “American exceptionalism” or the “leadership of the free world” or even “responsibility to protect” but the reality is that a broad consensus has developed in the United States that enables serial interventionism with hardly a squeak of protest coming from the American people.
Donald Trump has been in office for five months and it would appear that at least some of the outlines of his foreign policy are beginning to take shape, though that may be exaggeration as no one seems to be in charge. The “America First” slogan seemingly does not apply to what is developing, as actual U.S. interests do not appear to be driving what takes place, and there does not seem to be any overriding principle that shapes the responses to the many challenges confronting Washington worldwide.
The two most important observations that one might make are both quite negative. First, lamentably, the promised détente with Russia has actually gone into reverse, with the relationship between the two countries at the lowest point since the time of the late, lamented Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State. Second, we are already at war with Syria even though the media and Congress seem blissfully unaware of that fact. We are also making aggressive moves intended to create a casus belli for going to war with Iran, and are doubling down in Afghanistan with more troops on the way, so Donald Trump’s pledge to avoid pointless wars and nation-building were apparently little more than glib talking points intended to make Barack Obama look bad.
The situation with Russia can be repaired as Vladimir Putin is a realist head of state of a country that is vulnerable and willing to work with Washington, but it will require an end to the constant vituperation being directed against Moscow by the media and the Democratic Party. That process could easily spin out for another year with all parties now agreeing that Russia intervened in our election even though no one has yet presented any evidence that Russia did anything at all.
Syria is more complicated. Senators Tim Kaine and Rand Paul have raised the alarm over American involvement in that country, declaring the U.S. military intervention to be illegal. Indeed it is, as it is a violation of the United Nations Charter and the American Constitution. No one has argued that Syria in any way threatens the United States, and the current policy is also an affront to common sense: like it or not Syria is a sovereign country in which we Americans have set up military bases and are supporting “rebels” (including jihadis and terrorists) who are seeking to overthrow the legitimate government. We have also established a so-called “de-confliction” zone in the southeast of the country to protect our proxies without the consent of the government in Damascus. All of that adds up to what is unambiguously unprovoked aggression, an act of war.
The war began in earnest when the Obama administration began building bases and sending Special Ops into Syria in the late summer of 2015, after the White House announced that it would “allow airstrikes to defend Syrian rebels trained by the U.S. military from any attackers, even if the enemies hail from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
That policy guaranteed escalation and direct American involvement in the conflict. In the last month, for the first time since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, the United States has directly attacked Syrian government forces or proxies four times, including two air attacks against Iranian militiamen allied to Damascus. Those moves were preceded by the April U.S. Navy launch of 59 cruise missiles in an attack directed against a Syrian air base. The recent escalation has produced a response from Russia, which decried in the strongest terms the latest of these incidents, in which a U.S. F-18 Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber.
Moscow has now threatened to act against any U.S.-led coalition aircraft flying over western Syria, a step that could in short order lead to a Russian-U.S. war in the Middle East.
Syria is currently under attack from the air forces of sixteen nations operating within its airspace loosely affiliated with the U.S. effort to bring about regime change. When Syria resists, it is routinely accused of using “forbidden” weapons by the mouthpieces of the terrorist groups operating inside the country under the American umbrella. Currently, the White House is warning that it has “identified potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley elaborated in a tweet, “…further attacks will be blamed on Assad but also on Russia and Iran who support him…”
Syria will “pay a very heavy price” if a chemical attack takes place, according to the White House statement. The U.S. warning will inevitably motivate the so-called rebels to stage an attack themselves and blame it on Damascus, as they have done in the past. It also dangerously escalates the conflict by directly targeting both Russia and Iran as Syrian “accomplices” in war crimes. It is a very dangerous move by the Trump Administration and one that apparently was not coordinated with the Defense and State Departments, which were caught flat footed by the White House announcement. The nature and credibility of the information implicating Syria has not been revealed and is being regarded as an “intelligence matter.”
Much of this acting against actual U.S. interests has come about due to the “worthless ally” syndrome which has been prevalent in Washington for several decades. In the Middle East, where many of the problems begin, there is no coherent policy that has evolved beyond unconditional support for local “allies” Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. This has meant in practical terms that the U.S. defers to Riyadh, Ankara, Cairo, and Tel Aviv in nearly all regional matters while it is also the guarantor of a feckless Afghan government.
So in spite of pledges to disengage from the cycle of warfare in the Middle East, the United States seems to be on course for direct involvement in a series of local conflicts with no clear “victory” and exit policy in place. Remove al-Assad and what comes next? What will the Russians do? Will America’s so-called allies Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia be satisfied with dismemberment of the Syrian state or will they insist on pushing on to Tehran? Who would fill that vacuum?
There are certainly other foreign policy black holes, to include the awful decision to rollback normalization with Cuba and the hot-then-cold moves against North Korea. Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier, is about to implode and it is not clear if the State Department has any contingency plan in place to deal with the crisis. But Russia and Syria are in a class by themselves as they have the potential to turn into Class A disasters, like Iraq or possibly even worse. And then there is Iran lurking, apparently hated by all the talking heads in Washington and inextricably linked to what is happening in Syria. It is more than capable of becoming the next catastrophe for a White House that is apparently staggering from crisis to crisis. What will Trump do? I am afraid that the lesson learned from the cruise missile attack on a Syrian base in April was that using force is popular, repeat as necessary. That would be a major mistake, but there is every sign that some of the people around Trump have their eyes on escalating and “doing something” in Syria and also against Iran for starters, and if Russia gets in the way we can deal with them too.
The recent series of terrorist incidents in Europe has produced the inevitable finger pointing regarding the ability of the security services to respond and has also reopened the debate over what might be done to prevent the attacks in the first place.
Similar discussions have been going on in the United States for some time, to include consideration of the Violent Radicalism and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 by the House of Representatives. The bill, sponsored by then congresswoman Jane Harman, was fairly toothless, seeking to establish a national commission and study center, but it was strongly criticized for many of its assumptions and definitions, with some critics noting how it might be exploited to enable the prosecution of “thought crimes.” It was passed in the House by a 404 to 6 vote but, fortunately, later died in the Senate.
More recently, congressman Peter King has held hearings on radicalization of Muslim Americans that ran intermittently for nearly two years between 2010 and 2012. As terrorist incidents actually declined in number during that period, there was little desire on the part of Congress to initiate any draconian new legislation in response to the often conflicting “evidence” compiled by King’s House Homeland Security Committee.
It should surprise no one that the Europeans are much more advanced in their creation of anti-terror legislation than is the United States, if only because they have been more often on the receiving end of ideologically motivated violence. Assuming that America might well be arriving tomorrow where Europe is today in counter-terror, it is instructive to look at one of the proactive frameworks currently in place to analyze both its effectiveness and legality.
Britain has experienced three terrorist attacks in three months. The government response has been defined by the British Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, popularly referred to by the acronym “Contest.” Contest consists of four so-called “workstreams”: “Pursue” to physically interdict terrorist attacks; “Protect” to establish physical barriers against terrorist tactics and weapons; “Prepare” to minimize the after-the-fact impact of a terror attack; and “Prevent,” which is a highly aggressive and controversial program to prevent radicalization.
Prevent is the program that has received the most attention. It relies on the so-called conveyor belt theory which postulates that someone who is either alienated or critical of the status quo will inevitably graduate to even more extreme views and eventually cross the line from nonviolence to violence. Those who are identified as vulnerable by Prevent are sometimes entered into a government funded but privately managed counseling program referred to as “Channel,” which has worked with 8,000 mostly young Muslim men in an effort to avoid radicalization.
The problem with evaluating Prevent’s effectiveness is that it is the government doing the assessing. It equates success with the numbers going through the program and it ignores the many critics who note that it has so alienated the Muslim community that it actually creates more new potential militants than it succeeds in deradicalizing. The fundamental issue is that there is no actual model or profile of a terrorist that one can focus on in an effort to prevent radicalization, so the definition of who might be a threat has been continuously broadened lest anyone escape the net. Nearly all of the recent terrorist attacks in Britain were carried out by young men born in Britain who were at least nominally Muslim, but beyond that they had very little in common in terms of education, family and social background or even religiosity. Their belief in a violent solution to what troubled them certainly sets them apart but it is unlikely that the security services would be able to discern that in any event, so their names frequently join the 23,000 others on the British “subjects of interest” potential terrorism database. From a policing point of view, those 23,000 are joined by thousands more names submitted by ordinary Britons as part of the Prevent program, each one of which has to be investigated and either cleared or added to the database.
The British security agencies have inevitably been overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of terror suspects. Surveillance of a suspect is extremely labor intensive, even when assisted by Britain’s extensive CCTV system, which covers large parts of the country’s cities and towns as well as the roads connecting them, so it is safe to assume that very few dangerous individuals are actually being watched at any given time. This asymmetry makes the odds very much in the terrorist’s favor as he can strike anywhere with any kind of weapon while the police must try to protect everywhere.
Due to the public outcry over the recent attacks, the British government is currently undertaking a sweeping security review on terrorism. It will likely expand the Prevent program in spite of uncertainty at all levels over whether it is actually working or not. In addition to encouraging citizens to report suspicious behavior, the legislation actually compels institutions that are in any was connected to the government to actively seek out and identify those exhibiting potential terrorist sympathies. That includes, schools, universities, libraries and any government office that deals with the public. The establishing legislation for Prevent defines early warning signs of terrorist sympathies as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
A recent article in the London Review of Books entitled “Don’t go to the doctor,” explores how Prevent sometimes works in practice in an educational environment. Universities and other schools are required to aggressively seek out radicalized students. They have to submit regular reports demonstrating that they are complying with the law to include specific information regarding individual cases and follow-up action to make sure that they are diligently seeking out radicals. In one case cited, an instructor at Oxford, in dealing with a Muslim university student who was struggling with her course work, learned that the woman had gone to see her doctor regarding depression. Due to Prevent, she felt obligated to ask the student whether she was being radicalized.
Similarly, a librarian at a major university was asked by another college to provide a professional reference for a colleague. One of the questions was “Are you completely satisfied that the applicant is not involved in extremism?” Other universities in Britain have stopped allowing Muslim students to use college rooms for gatherings out of fear that the meetings will be used for radicalization. Guest lists for many university sponsored meetings that are open to students must now be provided 48 hours prior to the event for security screening. College authorities are allowed to search the rooms of Muslim students “on suspicion.”
Some might regard Prevent as a relatively innocuous but necessary measure to combat radicalization. I do not agree as any program that focuses on a particular minority while compelling ordinary citizens to report on other ordinary citizens opens the door to many types of abuse. In any event, the U.S. Constitution would seem to make the type of legislation that established Prevent in Britain unimaginable on this side of the Atlantic, but one should not relax too soon as this is the home of the Patriot and the Military Commissions Acts.
Prevent operates on the principle that individuals who are maladjusted will eventually become pathologically so if they are not counseled and convinced to abandon their wicked ways. It neither addresses nor in any way concedes that many of the disaffected that it targets are actually angry for reasons that are at least comprehensible, including what the British government continues to do to fellow Muslims overseas, which is sometimes referred to as “blowback.” End the bombing of Syrians and Iraqis and much of the motivation to bomb in Birmingham just might disappear. Oddly enough, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn raised that very issue in the recent British electoral campaign, saying that terrorism was often a response to the policies that the government was carrying out in the Middle East. His comment was largely ignored by the British media, but the Labour Party went on to win many more votes than anticipated and Corbyn nearly became Prime Minister. Perhaps the real message on what actually causes terrorism is beginning to get through to the public. Let us hope so.
Yes, I voted for Donald Trump. When people confront me and ask me why, I sort of shuffle off, head down, while muttering something about how “he wasn’t the war candidate.”
I even stuck with Trump until he launched cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria and overnight became the establishment favorite, with all the media and most politicians singing his praises for attacking a country with which the United States was not at war over an alleged atrocity that did not involve Americans—and could easily have been attributed to the terrorists that Damascus has been fighting. And then he did it again, using fighter bomber aircraft to attack a column of Syrian government-affiliated militiamen who were allegedly approaching and thereby threatening a position inside Syria where U.S.-supported “good” insurgents, accompanied by American advisers, were apparently hunkered down.
Someone should take out a map and show Trump where Syria is and outline its borders while explaining what “sovereign territory” is supposed to mean. If he could grasp the concept, possibly by relating it to Mexico, it just might suggest to him that we Yanks could actually be foreign invaders who have crossed a national border and are killing local people in gross violation of international law.
And then there is the foreign-policy finesse exhibited on his recent World Tour. It began with his predictable slobbering all over the Saudis and Israelis before stiffing the Palestinians. But then he elevated his game by angering the Pope, whining to the Germans because there are no Chevys on the streets of Berlin, pushing his way past the Montenegran Prime Minister and, finally, insisting on riding in a golf cart and arriving late to the photo-op ending the G7 meeting in Sicily while everyone else walked the 700 yards. His boorishness manifests itself as a nearly complete unwillingness to make even the smallest gesture that would ease the relations with other countries and leaders who are important U.S. partners. I guess he sees doing so as a sign of weakness. Class act all the way, Donald!
But then again, when I am really down on Trump and what he is doing or not doing, I think of Hillary Rodham Clinton. A good friend of mine Joe Lauria, formerly a Wall Street Journal correspondent, has recently introduced, edited, and provided extensive commentary for a book entitled How I Lost By Hillary Clinton. It is an indictment of the Clinton campaign “in her own words” and includes a foreword by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who discusses the leaks of Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta emails that together provide much of the material included in the text.
Lauria uses the source material to describe the Clinton campaign using her own speeches as well as the leaked emails of her close associates, and it really is refreshing to revisit what made the “inevitable” Hillary so unappealing, particularly as she is now trying to rebrand herself without assuming any serious blame for her shortcomings as a candidate. Along the way, documents reveal the road to Russiagate and Clinton’s plans for more regime change, as well as expose corruption within the nominally “neutral” DNC, the latter of which led to the deliberate sabotage of the campaign of Bernie Sanders and the de facto anointment of Clinton as president-apparent.
The book is organized around two central themes, Hillary as an elitist and Hillary as a hawk. In his introduction, Lauria describes Clinton as “an economic and political elitist and a foreign-policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans—the very people she needed to vote for her.” It is a fair assessment and in his introduction Joe also takes aim at Russiagate among other targets, asking why, after more than a year of investigation and assessment, there has been no National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the alleged interference by Moscow in the U.S. election. NIEs are meticulously prepared to provide detailed analysis of an issue, to include sourcing and reliability assessments. They are carefully crafted products of the entire intelligence community and they include dissenting opinions. That there has been no NIE on Russiagate is unfathomable, unless of course such a report would reveal that Russiagate is itself a complete fabrication.
Lauria particularly assails Clinton foreign policy, describing her as a neoliberal interventionist who was the principal driving force behind a series of U.S.-led actions that turned Libya into a failed state while she was also urging tough action against Russia and yet another regime change in Syria. Joe notes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were arming terrorists in Syria on her watch, which she was aware of from DIA reporting, while also contributing generously to the Clinton Foundation, which notoriously intermingled its ostensibly humanitarian programs together with the political activities of Hillary and Bill. And the Foundation also rewarded the Clintons directly through generous salaries and substantial perks for the whole family, to include foundation-funded travel on executive jets, which totaled $12 million in 2011 alone.
The Clinton sense of entitlement knew no limits, with Bill once accepting a $1 million birthday present from Qatar, the principal funder of al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra. Citing email evidence, the book documents how major foreign donors to the foundation were able to enjoy special access to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hillary’s closest associate Huma Abedin was point person for much of the activity and was paid a $105,000 salary by the State Department, plus an undisclosed amount by a consulting firm linked to the foundation, a double dip arrangement of questionable legality.
Between April 2013 and March 2015, Hillary Clinton gave 91 speeches and earned over $21 million. The three speeches for Goldman-Sachs that she made during that time, for which she was paid $675,000, are the best known, mostly because soon-to-be candidate Clinton refused to release the transcripts. But she also spoke to just about any group who would pay her upwards of a $200,000 fee plus expenses. This included several public universities. In her speeches, she sometimes complained about how awful it was that many Americans had begun to look down on those who have a lot of money, including a comment to Goldman Sachs that “there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives.” She was referring to herself and Bill.
It was rare that Hillary’s mask would drop and she would say what she really thought, though it did happen sometimes. A speech at an LGBT fundraiser in New York included the now infamous line: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it…they are irredeemable but thankfully they are not America.” Or at least not an America that she would recognize.
Hillary’s speeches and the emails of Podesta and her staff are quoted in extenso in the text and appendices. The most enduring impression is how boring most of what she said really was. Her political experience enabled her to say what her audience wanted to hear—no more, no less. She rarely spoke of actual policy in concrete terms and, for example, when speaking to Goldman Sachs, she was instead full of platitudes and generic praise for the “American way” of democracy promotion combined with good, solid, liberal, and free-market values. She included how the financial-services industry is in the forefront of all the positive changes taking place worldwide. There was nary a critical word about the role of the largely unregulated and predatory big banks in the great crash of 2008, and when she spoke of the suffering caused by that disaster, she was referring to the disruptions experienced by those in financial services and government who were made uncomfortable by being forced to respond to the crisis.
As Joe Lauria observes, Clinton’s failure was clearly her inability to comprehend what many mostly white working-class people in the United States were experiencing. Her failure to see or understand inevitably became an inability to empathize with such audiences verbally in a way that would appear to be sincere. She came across as leaden and scripted. Her speeches increasingly became sustained attacks on Trump the man and his admittedly flawed personality, combined with appeals to women to vote for her purely because of her own gender. Her campaign was singularly lacking in any formula for addressing the real problems experienced by many in the country.
Speaking to bankers and other elitists from the Washington-New York axis and Hollywood was a lot easier for Hillary because she was, after all, one of them. She avoided campaign visits to working-class constituencies. And she compounded that with a bellicose world view that considered Washington’s ambition to become some kind of benign but resolute global hegemon as both quite practical from a resources point of view and also the right thing to do, something that most Americans failed to relate to as a high priority.
So Hillary portrayed largely in her own words is well worth a read. Unfortunately for our country, there are a lot of Hillary clones still out there who have not learned the lesson of her defeat. Fortunately for conservatives, quite a few of them are still in charge of the Democratic Party.
The most recent Russiagate expose comes from The Intercept, which was founded by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill. The site has been the source of a number of stories that rely on stolen or leaked government documents, including material from Edward Snowden. It has also produced some exemplary investigative reporting on U.S. government high crimes and misdemeanors of various kinds, including its account of the Obama Administration assassination program and, more recently, the misrepresentation by the White House of the military action in Yemen that killed an American Navy Seal.
The article appeared yesterday and is entitled “Top-Secret NSA Report Details Russian Hacking Effort Days Before the 2016 Election.” The report mentioned is dated May 5. The leaker, an NSA contractor named Reality Leigh Winner, working out of Georgia, came to the attention of the authorities after The Intercept contacted the NSA and asked for comments before it ran the article. It was asked not to run the piece, but was willing to redact some material at the request of the government. Winner was identified by microdot keys on the paper that led to the copier she had used. She has been arrested and charged under the Espionage Act and is the first Trump-era leaker to be prosecuted.
The article has inevitably caused quite a stir among those like myself, who believe passionately that Russiagate is mostly a politically-motivated fraud, and those on the other side of the fence, who think that Moscow did interfere in the recent presidential election with the intention of helping Donald Trump win.
At risk of oversimplifying, I would summarize the article and the NSA document it is based on as follows: The report described two cyberattacks that its NSA authors attribute to Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU. The first attack “evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions” was on August 24, 2016, directed against a company that markets voter registration software. The second occurred about a week before the election, directed against 122 local election officials, presumably in the eight states where the company operated. The attacks employed spear phishing, which is using spoof emails to deceive users into accessing links or attachments that install malware on the computer of the user. The spoof emails were reportedly sent from two email providers, Google’s Gmail and Microsoft’s Outlook.com, so they would look benign to a United States user.
According to the NSA report, the first attack on the American company, subsequently revealed to be VR Systems of Florida, was likely successful and the information obtained was used to create emails that would look authentic to the recipients for the second wave of attacks, which began on October 31 and November 1. The report describes the second series of attacks as a “voter registration themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”
VR Systems’ products are used by electoral commissions in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In its article, The Intercept opines that “the report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood.” If everything related in the report is true, indeed it does, and it somewhat challenges Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent emphatic claim that his country had not interfered in the U.S. election.
The Intercept article cites an unnamed intelligence official who “cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.” To that I would add, “even if it is all true as described.” And I would also make some additional observations about what the report and Intercept article are suggesting. First and foremost would be the questions of scale and timing. There is no evidence that the Russians, or whoever carried out the probes, were able to tamper with either the actual voting process or the tabulation of votes. Indeed, the NSA report dismisses any such possibility. Second, corrupting an election in a country as large as the United States with an electoral system that is largely decentralized would require much more than a probe of 122 local officials starting a week before the balloting. So there was clearly no intention to disrupt the election or to tilt it in a certain direction based on the evidence provided by the NSA report.
I would also note that there is no proof provided in the report to support the assertion that the GRU, Russian military-intelligence service, carried out the probes. Would a highly-sophisticated intelligence service behave so transparently in an operation that would certainly be regarded as highly sensitive? I think not. Cut-outs would have been used to misdirect anyone looking to determine the hand behind the hacks.
All of which is not to say the Russian government didn’t do it or order it done, but it seems to me that the revelations provided in the NSA report do not go very far beyond the kind of random probings that are part and parcel of foreign-intelligence operations as carried out by any sophisticated service. Did someone in Moscow think it might be useful to have some kind of idea of how to meddle with U.S. election technology if that type of info might prove useful down the road? Quite possibly. It should be noted that the U.S. National Security Agency illegally collects vast quantities of information on ordinary Americans but that does not necessarily imply intent to use it in a malicious way. It is a desirable capability and intelligence agencies are always working to expand their reach.
So was Russian intelligence probing U.S. electoral systems? Quite plausibly yes, and it should be a matter of concern for every American as it suggests a vulnerability in the electronics behind how we vote. But did Russia actually interfere with the election or seek to use the probing to elect a particular candidate? The answer is clearly no. The article and the document it is based on should serve as a wake-up call to those who are complacent about the security of our technologies. But on a political level, we are back to square one, with often hysterical allegations surfaced as part of the media and political storm we now refer to as Russiagate.
The Central Intelligence Agency, established through the National Security Act of 1947, was primarily intended to be a centralized clearinghouse for information to prevent another Pearl Harbor-style attack on the United States. Be that as it may, the initiation of what would eventually be termed the Cold War soon after led to the rapid expansion of the Agency’s role, to include running actual spies and engaging in classic covert actions. The CIA took the lead in the U.S. pushback against Moscow and developed tactically into the principal offensive weapon in America’s conduct of the Cold War. Russia and its allies responded in kind. Indeed, the Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies might well be termed the war of the spies.
Espionage employing human agents, as opposed to technical intrusions, is a high-risk and morally questionable business. It was justified after World War II because the United States was confronted by a cluster of enemies who were militarily powerful and fully capable of hitting the American homeland with nuclear weapon-tipped ballistic missiles. Given that level of confrontation, the most important secrets were those relating to the intentions of the leadership of countries like Russia and China—and it is only possible to obtain that kind of information from an actual spy who penetrates the inner councils of the hostile regimes. That is precisely why so much time and effort has been put into recruiting, training, and supporting spies overseas.
On May 20, the New York Times reported that “Killing CIA Informants, China Crippled U.S. Spying Operations”. The article described how an entire network of American spies in China had been identified by the counterintelligence services of that country and rolled up between 2010 and 2012, “crippl[ing] U.S. spying operations…for years afterwards.” Some of the “eighteen to twenty” sources, including high level government officials, were executed while others were imprisoned. It is to be presumed that all who were not shot outright were tortured. The Times report stated that a thorough damage assessment has been conducted but it had proven impossible to identify the actual cause of the disaster, so it remains unknown whether there was a mole or some tradecraft or communications failure that had brought about the death and imprisonment of so many American agents.
In reality, the rolling up of entire American espionage networks is not exactly that unusual because of the way intelligence agencies operate even when their actions have not been betrayed from within. Sweeping arrests of American spies have occurred not only in Russia and China, but also in Cuba, Iran, India and France. In theory, every single high-level spy in what is referred to as a “denied area” with a hostile and capable counterintelligence service is compartmented off from any other spies operating in that country, but the reality is that agents are often recruited and handled in such a way that the exposure of one individual puts all the others at risk.
To be sure, the mole explanation is attractive because it is more convenient to blame an individual than it is to critique an entire system. But as the presumed mole has not been discovered, it also leads to the presumption that he or she might still be active. CIA and FBI moles have been devastating. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Edward Howard provided the Soviet Union with information that led to the betrayal of numerous agents and the virtual destruction of espionage networks that took years to develop. In this case, investigators identified several possible moles, one of whom had quit the Agency and moved to an unnamed Asian country, but a solid case to proceed with an arrest could not be developed.
And then there is the tradecraft angle. Tradecraft is the term used to describe how an American case officer identifies, develops, recruits and then runs a spy. The Times account reveals that highly-sensitive Chinese agents were routinely met by their handlers in Beijing. There were encounters in restaurants where the local counterintelligence service employed the waiters and had microphones implanted on all of the tables. I must admit that I find it unimaginable that even a Chinese-American case officer would risk meeting a Chinese official in the high-security environment that Beijing represents, but that is apparently what the FBI investigation determined. It would be a piece of cake for local surveillance to pick up the agent, interrogate him, and develop a clear picture of the CIA modus operandi in the city. Once you have one spy you have the key to identifying all of them.
The other two notable vulnerabilities are how and where foreign spies are recruited and what they use to communicate. How would you recruit a Chinese official or scientist who would have information that Washington wanted? You would approach him when he is outside China on business, vacation, or studying. But the problem is that those places where American intelligence can operate freely are relatively easily identifiable and are also well known to the counterintelligence service in Beijing. So a Chinese physicist recruited by U.S. intelligence while doing postgraduate studies at an American university would intensify interest in others who also attended that university, some of whom might also be spies.
Back in my time in the Agency, a number of hostile intelligence services identified vacation and business destinations in the Middle East where their officials were being spotted by CIA, approached, and sometimes recruited. Knowing this, they could focus on recent travelers to those areas and were able to turn several of the agents while also identifying a number of others. The Chinese counterintelligence service could certainly have done the same in assessing its travelers that it considered sensitive from either a political or occupational point of view.
Knowing how the opponent is approaching and recruiting spies from among your countrymen also provides an opportunity to run a dangle operation, which can be used to enter, identify, and disrupt an intelligence network. A dangle is essentially a double agent who will pretend to work for the Americans while really working for his own country. U.S. intelligence polygraphs new agents but “swirl” examiners confess that lie detectors work best on Americans, who find it hard to lie when confronted by a machine that they believe can tell what is the truth. Asians and Arabs are regarded as particularly difficult to examine effectively because their cultures make it possible to mentally compartmentalize their responses. Guilt-ridden Catholics are easy.
And then there are the communications, seen by many as the most vulnerable element in agent handling. No one writes letters anymore, so secret or invisible writing is passé, but electronic communication using satellites is very much in. Messages from spies are encrypted, but anything encrypted can be unencrypted if enough time and effort are committed to the project. One should assume that the counterintelligence services in Moscow and Beijing are very good at what they do and quite willing to work hard. American intelligence services probably used the same technical system to stay in touch with all their spies in China, so when you catch one of them and analyze his procedures and equipment you are probably well on your way to catching all of them. And when you uncover a “nest of spies” you inflict serious collateral damage on whoever recruited them. In this case, prospective Chinese agents willing to trade secrets for money will come to the logical conclusion that the United States government is unable to protect them.
The best way to avoid the pain and embarrassment of having one’s human sources exposed is to cut back on spying in most places most of the time because running agents will inevitably mean occasionally getting caught. It is perhaps more important to consider why one spies in the first place. Unique information that protects a vital national interest is certainly desirable, but unleashing thousands of numbers-driven case officers worldwide to collect information that is either of passing interest or no interest at all is both a waste of resources and an invitation for international humiliation when something goes wrong. With that in mind, one has to wonder how many of the Chinese who paid the ultimate price were actually providing information that was essential to policymakers in Washington. Perhaps none of them were.
The media story about Jared Kushner’s approach to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak to create a back channel is breaking two ways and along predictable political lines. Kushner’s supporters in the administration are stating that Donald Trump’s son-in-law did nothing wrong, arguing that establishing an alternative channel to foreign governments and other interested parties is not that unusual. In fact, such connections can prove useful in establishing common ground on some issues.
Democrats and most of the media are arguing otherwise, some based on the somewhat unsustainable view that anything that is not completely transparent having to do with the Russian “enemy” is intrinsically wrong. Others have also been noting that part of the arrangement proposed by Kushner apparently involved using Russian diplomatic communications channels to exchange information and views. If true, this is a bizarre twist to the tale, as it would permit Moscow to control the narrative and its pace to suit its own interests.
If Kushner actually suggested Russian communications to avoid using U.S. government or commercially available resources, he will have considerable explaining to do. And certainly some of the onus regarding what took place must fall on General Michael Flynn, who was reportedly at the meeting with Kislyak and should have known better than to accept using a foreign country’s communications system.
There have inevitably been suggestions that Kushner at a minimum should lose his security clearance immediately and therefore his access to classified information. But that view fails to appreciate that the clearances are a presidential prerogative and can be changed or reinstated by President Trump as he sees fit. One source observes that “In fact, the security clearance system itself is an expression of presidential authority. Its scope and operation are defined in an executive order (EO 12968), and its terms can be modified by the President at will.”
So it is likely that the Kushner story will become just another part of the endless special counsel investigation into the Trump administration’s alleged Russian links. Yet the real story should be the “leak” that revealed the details of the Kushner proposal. The leaker, whoever he was, provided highly classified and very restricted access information to the media; it indicated that the Kushner discussions with the Russians took place in Trump Tower and that a report on the proposal was then relayed back to Moscow using Russian diplomatic communications, which were intercepted, decrypted, and retained by the National Security Agency (NSA).
It is generally believed, correctly, that the NSA intercepts nearly all diplomatic communications originating from embassies in Washington, which is not to say that it is always successful at decrypting them. Decryption requires an enormous expenditure of time, money, and effort. It is almost always limited to communications of countries that are considered to be adversaries—which these days would include Russia, China, and Iran—or potential sources of information on transnational issues like terrorism or drug trafficking. And even when there is a major effort, the attempt to crack the encryption sometimes fails, particularly when one is dealing with a sophisticated opponent.
It is clear from the Kushner leaker’s tale that the Russians were confident that their diplomatic communications were secure. But the NSA had actually broken them and was reading their messages. Now that the Russians know that their communications are not secure, they will take necessary steps to tighten up their procedures and protocols, which means that the United States government will no longer be able to read their message traffic and will start all over with having to break into the new system. This reality will be enormously costly both to Russia and the U.S., and it will mean that a major intelligence advantage that Washington possessed will no longer be viable.
However one feels about the paranoid and reactionary post-9/11 level of global spying carried out by the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, being able to read an adversary’s mail provides a huge advantage if one wants to avoid surprises and mitigate factors that could result in unnecessary conflict. And, to be completely fair, it also gives one an advantage if you are planning on mischief yourself and want to know how an opponent will react. Either way, that ability would have been one of the crown jewels of the intelligence community—and losing that advantage over Russia is an enormous, self-inflicted intelligence failure. Yet the media has chosen to ignore that real disaster because they want the story to be Kushner and Trump, not the leaker who has done tremendous damage to the nation’s intelligence collection capability.
Back in my time in the CIA, there were two places in the headquarters building one could go that were free speech zones—places where it was safe to vent about senior management without necessarily being admonished or even reported. They were the Historical Intelligence Collection room off the library, where no one ever went to look at the books, and the office supplies storage room in the basement. The supplies room had a lot of dark corners and concealing shelves where it was possible to be anonymous and it was completely unsupervised in the belief that true-blue CIA officers would never stoop to taking even a single pencil more than was actually needed to get the job done.
I don’t know if those rooms still exist, but I sometimes think of them when the subject of government conspiracies come up. I have this vision of two or three conspirators huddled in the corner behind the staplers back in 1975 discussing how one would go about eliminating the likes of Senator Frank Church, who at that time was heading a major congressional investigation into CIA improprieties.
If there had been such a gathering, I would imagine that the Washington Post would have found out about it on the next day as intelligence officers are gregarious and like to talk. This has been my principal problem with the debate in some quarters about the 9/11 Commission. Their report did indeed miss many important angles in order to protect certain governmental interests, but if there had been a genuine conspiracy involving what must have been hundreds of people to demolish the Twin Towers with explosives, it surely would have leaked long ago.
Two months ago, I would have dismissed as fantasy any thoughts of a conspiracy based in America’s national security agencies to bring down Donald Trump. But now I am not so sure. Many of my friends who are former intelligence officers are increasingly asking questions. It is worth pointing out that none of us are fans of what the White House has been doing and saying—quite the contrary. Still, alerting the country to concerns over what might be a developing soft coup orchestrated by the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to nullify the results of a national election in no way equates to trying to protect Donald Trump and his uncouth and ill-informed behavior. It is rather a defense of the Constitution.
Donald Trump said on Wednesday that “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” He might be right. He was referring to Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein’s appointment of the highly-respected Robert Mueller as independent counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump’s bombast puts everyone but his most tone-deaf supporters on edge, but there are two points that he has been making repeatedly that are essential to any understanding of what is going on. First, the investigation into Russia and the Trumpsters has been a high priority at FBI and also in Congress for nearly a year. Yet so far no one has produced evidence that anyone broke any law or even that someone did something wrong. Second, and more importantly, the vilification of Trump and Russia has been driven by a series of leaks that come from the very top of the national security apparatus, leaks that appear not to have been seriously investigated.
This involvement of FBI and CIA in the campaign, whether inadvertently or by design, was particularly evident in the various reports that surfaced and were leaked to the press during the campaign and right up to the inauguration. The leaks of that type of information, to include technical intelligence and Special Access Program “codeword” material, require top-level access as well as the ability to arrange clandestine contacts with major players in the media, something far beyond the reach of most employees at CIA or the FBI.
Similar leaks have been appearing since that time. I confess to finding Monday’s detailed account of what President Trump discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, which included corroborating material that likely did more damage than the information that was actually shared, highly suggestive of the possibility that something like a conspiracy is, in fact, functioning. Given the really tight-security control of that transcript after it was determined that it contained sensitive information, one might reasonably assume that the leaks to the media came directly out of Donald Trump’s own National Security Council or from the highest levels of the office of the DNI, CIA, or FBI.
Yesterday, the anonymous sources struck again, revealing that “Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” That sort of information had to come from the top level of the FBI and would have been accessible to only a few, but even though the leaks of what constitutes highly-classified information have been recurring for many months, no one has been fired or arrested.
The emphasis on Russia derives from the government and media consensus that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers that led to the exposure of what the DNC was doing to destroy the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. There is also a related consensus that the Russian hacking was intended to damage American democracy and also to help the Trump campaign, a narrative that the president has described as a “made-up thing,” a view that I share. All of these assertions are regarded as unquestionably true as measured by inside-the-beltway groupthink, with even the White House now conceding that there was Russian interference in the election.
Sometimes the hysteria over Russia produces over-the-top stories in the mainstream media, including last week’s completely speculative piece wondering whether the entourage of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during his White House visit. It was the type of tale that might have been inspired by a leak from someone in the National Security Council who personally observed the context of the meeting and was able to provide corroborating details.
Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming groupthink, it has been repeated ad nauseam by people like myself that no actual evidence has been produced to support any of the claims being made about Russia and Trump. There is more evidence that the White House was penetrated by Ankara—through the good services of Michael Flynn—than by Moscow, but Congress has not called for an investigation into Turkey’s lobbying. Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA analyst, is even speculating that the Agency might have been the actual hacker into the DNC, leaving a trail behind that would have suggested that it was done by the Russians. His concern arises from the recent WikiLeaks revelation that the CIA had developed cyberwarfare capabilities to do just that.
McGovern, like myself, is also asking why former CIA Director John Brennan has not been summoned by the Senate Committee looking into Russia-gate. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified twice, while former FBI Director James Comey, current NSA Director Mike Rogers, and former Justice Department senior official Sally Yates have all appeared once. Brennan’s absence is conspicuous as he was the senior national security official most closely tied to the Obama Administration, may have had the tools at hand to fake the Russian connection, and has also been plausibly linked to “encouraging” British Intelligence to provide damaging information on Michael Flynn.
I now suspect that there is indeed a group at the top of the U.S. national security system that wants to remove Donald Trump and has wanted to do so for quite some time. If that is true, I believe that they have been operating with that goal in mind for at least the past year. It is not a traditional conspiracy or cabal in that it does not meet and conspire together, but I suspect the members know what they are doing in a general sense and are intervening whenever they can to keep Trump off balance. Their program is simple: convince the nation that the president and his team colluded with the Russians to rig the 2016 election in his favor, which, if demonstrable even if not necessarily true, would provide grounds for impeachment. They are motivated by the belief that removing Trump must be done “for the good of the country” and they are willing to do what they consider correcting a mistake made by the American voters. They are assisted in their effort by the mainstream media, which agrees with both the methods employed and the overall objective and is completely on board with the process.
Saving the country from Trump is certainly an attractive notion. I suspect the Comeys, Clappers, and Brennans, together with a host of former senior officers who appear regularly on television, if they were involved, see themselves as great patriots. But they must understand that the blunt instrument they are using is far more dangerous than the current occupant of the White House. A soft coup engineered by the national security and intelligence agencies would be far more threatening to our democracy than anything Donald Trump or even the Russians can do.
Intelligence agencies and senior government officials tend to use a lot of jargon. Laced with acronyms, this language sometimes does not translate very well into journalese when it hits the media.
For example, I experienced a sense of disorientation two weeks ago over the word “sensitive” as used by several senators, Sally Yates, and James Clapper during committee testimony into Russiagate. “Sensitive” has, of course, a number of meanings. But what astonished me was how quickly the media interpreted its use in the hearings to mean that the conversations and emails that apparently were recorded or intercepted involving Trump associates and assorted Russians as “sensitive contacts” meant that they were necessarily inappropriate, dangerous, or even illegal.
When Yates and Clapper were using “sensitive” thirteen times in the 86 page transcript of the Senate hearings, they were referring to the medium rather than the message. They were both acknowledging that the sources of the information were intelligence related, sometimes referred to as “sensitive” by intelligence professionals and government insiders as a shorthand way to describe that they are “need to know” material derived from either classified “methods” or foreign-liaison partners. That does not mean that the information contained is either good or bad or even true or false, but merely a way of expressing that the information must be protected because of where it came from or how it was developed, hence the “sensitivity.”
The word also popped up this week in a Washington Post exclusive report alleging that the president had, in his recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gone too far while also suggesting that the source of a highly classified government program might be inferred from the context of what was actually revealed. The Post describes how
The information Trump relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said. The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said that Trump’s decision to do so risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.
The Post is unfortunately also providing ISIS with more information than it “needs to know” to make its story more dramatic, further compromising the source. Furthermore, it should be understood that the paper is extremely hostile to Trump, the story is as always based on anonymous sources, and the revelation comes on top of another unverifiable Post article claiming that the Russians might have sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during the visit.
No one is denying that the president discussed ISIS in some detail with Lavrov, but National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom were present at the meeting, have denied that any sources or methods were revealed while reviewing with the Russians available intelligence. McMaster described the report as “false” and informed the Post that “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation. At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Tillerson commented that “the nature of specific threats were (sic) discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods, or military operations.”
So the question becomes to what extent can an intelligence mechanism be identified from the information that it produces. That is, to a certain extent, a judgement call. The president is able on his own authority to declassify anything, so the legality of his sharing information with Russia cannot be challenged. What is at question is the decision-making by an inexperienced president who may have been showing off to an important foreign visitor by revealing details of intelligence that should have remained secret. The media will no doubt be seeking to magnify the potential damage done while the White House goes into damage control mode.
The media is claiming that the specific discussion with Lavrov that is causing particular concern is related to a so-called Special Access Program, or SAP, sometimes referred to as “code word information.” An SAP is an operation that generates intelligence that requires special protection because of where or how it is produced. In this case, the intelligence shared with Lavrov appears to be related to specific ISIS threats, which may include planned operations against civilian aircraft, judging from Trump’s characteristically after-hours tweets defending his behavior, as well as other reporting.
There have also been reports that the White House followed up on its Lavrov meeting with a routine review of what had taken place. Several National Security Council members observed that some of the information shared with the Russians was far too sensitive to disseminate within the U.S. intelligence community. This led to the placing of urgent calls to NSA and CIA to brief them on what had been said.
Based on the recipients of the calls alone, one might surmise that the source of the information would appear to be either a foreign-intelligence service or a technical collection operation, or even both combined. The Post claims that the originator of the intelligence did not clear its sharing with the Russians and raises the possibility that no more information of that type will be provided at all in light of the White House’s apparent carelessness in its use. The New York Times, in its own reporting of the story, initially stated that the information on ISIS did not come from an NSA or CIA operation, and later reported that the source was Israel.
The Times is also reporting that Trump provided to Lavrov “granular” information on the city in Syria where the information was collected that will possibly enable the Russians or ISIS to identify the actual source, with devastating consequences. That projection may be overreach, but the fact is that the latest gaffe from the White House could well damage an important intelligence liaison relationship in the Middle East while reinforcing the widely held impression that Washington does not know how to keep a secret. It will also create the impression that Donald Trump, out of ignorance or hubris, exhibits a certain recklessness in his dealing with classified information, a failing that he once attributed to his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.
And President Trump has one more thing to think about. No matter what damage comes out of the Lavrov discussion, he has a bigger problem. There are apparently multiple leakers on his National Security Council.
This article has been updated to reflect news developments.
President Barack Obama was a master at using the tools available through the Justice Department to silence whistleblowers and otherwise put a lid on developments that might embarrass his administration. He initiated numerous claims of the state-secrets privilege to stop lawsuits against the government, while also prosecuting leakers with a zeal previously unseen.
So perhaps it is not completely surprising to learn of a truly bizarre tale that surfaced last week regarding an Obama-era closed-door trial and imprisonment of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) translator, Daniela Greene, a German linguist who reportedly traveled secretly from Detroit to Syria to wed a leading ISIS terrorist whom she had been investigating but had never met.
The odd romance could have come straight out of a work of fiction. In fact, it has an uncanny resemblance to Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, where the Russian double agent Tatiana Romanova claimed that she had fallen in love with James Bond as a result of studying his KGB file. And just like in the Fleming novel, our FBI heroine experienced guilt and remorse before finally deciding to do the right thing, though in her case the right thing meant returning to her old allegiance rather than embracing a new one.
One interesting aspect of the trial and imprisonment of Greene is how it was all kept secret. Another notable fact is that she was convicted on a lesser charge that minimized her jail time, with the judge further being induced to give her the lightest possible sentence. This mitigation was reportedly due to her cooperation, but it might also be because the case was such an embarrassment, demonstrating that there are huge holes in the bureau’s security vetting and personnel-management procedures.
Admittedly there is much that one does not know about the Greene saga, as considerable portions of the court records were sealed and remain unobtainable. But there are certain bits that can almost certainly be surmised from similar cases involving defections. Thirty-eight-year-old Daniela Greene was born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Germany. She married an American servicemember, from whom she has subsequently separated, and moved to the United States. She eventually obtained a master’s degree in history from Clemson University and was eventually hired in 2011 by the FBI as a German-language translator. As part of the hiring process, she was subjected to what was believed to be a thorough background check that included a polygraph. She was granted a top-secret clearance to provide translation support in highly sensitive terrorism-related investigations.
In January 2014 Greene was working in the bureau’s Detroit office, focusing on a German-born rapper who had converted to Islam and become a jihadist affiliated with ISIS. He was well-known for his propaganda and recruiting videos aimed at a German-speaking audience. His actual name was Denis Cuspert but his rapper name was Deso Dogg. Both in Syria and online he went by various other names, including Abou Mamadou and Denis Mamadou Cuspert. He also used an Arabic name, Abu Talha al-Almani (“Father of” Talha “the German”). In one video he is seen holding a newly severed human head while in another he is kicking a corpse on a battlefield near Homs in Syria.
Cuspert fled Germany in 2012, shortly after having posted a fake video on Facebook that allegedly showed American soldiers raping a Muslim woman. The video reportedly motivated a man to attack U.S. servicemen in Frankfurt, killing two of them. After stops in Egypt and Libya, Cuspert wound up in Syria where he was put to work in the ISIS propaganda department.
Greene’s professional interest in Cuspert apparently developed into a different type of obsession. She identified several phone and Skype accounts he used but also found a third account that she kept to herself, not reporting the information to her superiors. Shortly thereafter, she almost certainly made initial contact with Cuspert surreptitiously through that account. In June 2014, she filed a foreign-travel request claiming that she intended to visit her family in Munich, which was granted, but instead flew to Istanbul and made her way to the border, where she contacted Cuspert and he arranged for her onward travel into Syria. Once in Syria she immediately married Cuspert, even though she was still married to her American husband, but within two weeks she began to have serious concerns about what she had done.
On August 1, five weeks after Greene’s departure from the U.S., the FBI issued a secret arrest warrant for her. Increasingly distraught over her situation, Greene somehow escaped Syria and made her way back to the United States, where she was arrested on August 8. She was allegedly fully cooperative, her case was sealed, and a series of closed hearings followed through the end of the year, when she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison dating from her arrest in August. She was released in August 2016 and now lives in Syracuse.
Greene’s testimony regarding Cuspert apparently led to his being identified as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in February 2015. She also reportedly provided other information that was “significant, long-running and substantial.” Greene claimed during her interrogations in late 2014 that she had revealed little to her husband and his colleagues during her short time in Syria, an assertion the FBI may or may not have believed to be true. Shortly after Greene’s sentencing, the German media picked up on bits of the story, alleging that Cuspert had actually been duped into marrying an FBI “spy,” a spin that likely originated with the U.S. government to create suspicion regarding Cuspert among his colleagues in ISIS.
The handling of the Greene case is only partly discernible because so many of the relevant court documents are still sealed, but it does raise some serious questions beyond the procedures used to check out new employees. Greene might have been able to provide substantial information on Cuspert personally and on her surroundings at an ISIS stronghold in Syria. But she spoke no Arabic and it is safe to assume that she would not have been trusted, which would mean close monitoring of her activities was likely. And she admitted providing information to Cuspert on the investigation into him, so it is possible that she also was forthcoming on other FBI cases that she knew about.
FBI translators work closely with special agents on cases, so it is not as if they spend all day translating documents without any understanding of why texts are relevant. Greene might have had considerable information on terrorism investigations underway in Germany. She would certainly have been pressed by ISIS to establish her bona fides and she no doubt would have been cooperative, just as she was when she returned home to the United States and opted to help her FBI interrogators. And as ISIS would have been careful not to let her know too much while she was still being assessed, one has to be somewhat skeptical about the reliability or importance of the information that she proved willing to provide to the U.S. government.
Greene was plausibly a traitor. She provided classified information to an enemy of the United States (as defined by the 2016 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force). She was tried in secret and received a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. Other American citizens or residents convicted of providing material assistance to terrorists or desiring to join ISIS and al-Qaeda have received much stiffer sentences. Terrorism or national-security cases produce an 87 percent conviction rate and the sentences have averaged 14 years, even when the accused did absolutely nothing beyond talking or sending money back home in one of the frequent FBI “sting” operations (referred to by some as entrapment). So there is a substantial difference in terms of how justice was served in the Greene case compared to what was normal for others who “provide material assistance to terrorism.”
Two other national-security cases involving CIA-officer whistleblowers sent to prison also illustrate how justice is not always blind. On January 23, 2012, John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who had exposed the secret and illegal Agency waterboarding program to Senate investigators, was charged with disclosing classified information to journalists, including the name of an undercover CIA officer who had already been exposed in the media. The government made no effort to demonstrate that any genuine national-security interests had actually been damaged by Kiriakou’s actions. To avoid a protracted trial held in secret, in October 2012, Kiriakou plea-bargained guilty to one count of passing classified information to the media, thereby violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In January 2013, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison and is now free.
Then there is 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 are 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 Col. 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 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 in the United States. Joining a terrorist group to marry one of its leaders while sharing classified information merits little in the way of either publicity or consequences because it would embarrass the “system.” But blowing the whistle on wrongdoing causes a ton of bricks to descend—even when the government fails to demonstrate that any actual damage has been done. It is all a matter of perception. The contrite translator cooperates and gets a pass while those who expose government criminality can expect nothing but the worst, even if an essentially phony case has to be contrived to dole out the punishment.
The firing of FBI Director James Comey may have been a surprise to some, most particularly in the media, but there was a certain inevitability about it given the bureau’s clear inability to navigate the troubled political waters that developed early last summer and have continued ever since. The initial reaction that it may have been triggered by Comey’s recent maladroit comments regarding the Huma Abedin emails would appear to miss the mark as that issue was not raised either by Attorney General Jeff Sessions or by the White House in their written explanations of what had taken place and why.
The most widely accepted explanation for the firing is that it was carried out by the White House to disrupt the ongoing investigation into apparent Russian meddling into the U.S. presidential election and suggestions that there may have been collusion between some Trump campaign officials and the Russians. But that argument lacks credibility in that the action will have the opposite effect, energizing both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agitate for an independent counsel to look into the issue. And FBI professionals on the investigative team certainly will not stop their work now that Comey is gone. As Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins put it, “The president didn’t fire the entire FBI. He fired the director of the FBI.” She added she had “every confidence” the investigation will continue apace.
The statements by the White House and Sessions cite two issues. The first is Comey’s unprofessional handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, where he first decided not to prosecute her over the mishandling of classified information and then subsequently revealed to the public that the investigation had been reopened shortly before the election, possibly influencing the outcome. This is a serious matter, as Comey broke with precedent by going public with details of bureau investigations that normally are considered confidential. One might argue that it is certainly an odd assertion for the White House to be making, as the reopening of the investigation undoubtedly helped Trump, but it perhaps should be seen as an attempt to create some kind of bipartisan consensus about Comey having overreached by exposing bureau activities that might well have remained secret.
The second issue raised by both Sessions and the White House is Comey’s inability to “effectively lead the Bureau” given what has occurred since last summer. That is a legitimate concern. When the Clinton investigation was shelved, there was considerable dissent in the bureau, with many among the rank-and-file believing that the egregious mishandling of classified information should have some consequences even if Comey was correct that a prosecution would not produce a conviction.
And the handling of “Russiagate” also angered some experienced agents who believed that the reliance on electronic surveillance and information derived from intelligence agencies was the wrong way to go. Some called for questioning the Trump-campaign suspects who had surfaced in the initial phases of the investigation, a move that was vetoed by Comey and his team. It would be safe to say that FBI morale plummeted as a result, with many junior and mid-level officers leaving their jobs to exploit their security clearances in the lucrative government contractor business.
There has been considerable smoke about both the Clinton emails and the allegations of Russian interference in last year’s election, but I suspect that there is relatively little fire. As Comey asserted, the attempt to convict a former secretary of state on charges of mishandling information without any ability to demonstrate intent would be a mistake and would ultimately fail. No additional investigation will change that reality.
As for the Russians, we are still waiting for the evidence demonstrating that Moscow intended to change the course of the U.S. election. Further investigation will likely not produce anything new, though it will undoubtedly result in considerable political spin to explain what we already know. It is unimaginable that Michael Flynn, for all his failings, agreed to work on behalf of Russian interests, while other names that have surfaced as being of interest in the case were hardly in a position to influence what the Trump administration might agree to do. There is no evidence of any Manchurian Candidate here.
I believe that the simplest explanation for the firing of Comey is the most likely: Donald Trump doesn’t like him much and doesn’t trust him at all. While it is convenient to believe that the FBI director operates independently from the politicians who run the country, the reality is that he or she works for the attorney general, who in turn works for the president. That is the chain of command, like it or not. Any U.S. president can insist on a national-security team that he is comfortable with, and if Trump is willing to take the heat from Congress and the media over the issue he certainly is entitled to do what he must to have someone he can work with at the FBI.
The United Nations Charter, to which all member states are signatories and which prevails over all other treaties and agreements, states that the organization is obligated to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.”
The justices at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 concluded that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The U.S. Constitution’s Article I states that only Congress has the authority to declare war, with the understanding that, per Article II, the president is empowered to respond to a “sudden” or imminent threat only if there is no time to pass such a declaration. An Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) amended in 2016 grants the president blanket authority to respond militarily to threats against the United States, but only if they originated with al-Qaeda and “associated forces.”
So how is it that on April 6 the United States attacked a fellow member state in the United Nations that has an internationally recognized sovereign government? That member state posed no imminent threat, had not attacked the United States, and was not at war with Washington. Nor did that member state consist of or support al-Qaeda or an associated group, and it was not under sanction from the United Nations Security Council to authorize any other member state to act against it. On the contrary, that member state was actively fighting several terrorist groups as defined by the U.S. government that had occupied its sovereign territory.
I am, of course, referring to the cruise-missile attack on Syria, which many critics are belatedly recognizing to be illegal under both international and U.S. law. But illegality being related to the ability to enforce the law, there has been little apparent desire on the part of the United Nations to bring Washington to heel, and the U.S. would surely use its Security Council veto to stop any undesirable UN action.
The United States has been backing various schemes to undermine and force “regime change” on Baathist rule in Syria since 2006, well before the so-called Arab Spring brought protests to the streets of Damascus. More recently, Washington has been arming and training so-called rebels against the Bashar al-Assad regime, ostensibly in unrealistic hopes that some kind of transition to a moderate, pro-Western regime might take place. Current White House policy appears to consist of putting pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked al-Ansar, which the Syrian government is fighting, while also demanding the replacement of Assad to permit resumption of all-party peace talks. Apart from those general markers, there has been little attention paid to what might happen on day two, after Assad is gone. Reasonable concerns that the vacuum created might be filled by radical Islamists have largely been ignored.
But even if the United States policy is a muddle, there are others in the region who know what they want and are pretty sure what they have to do to get there. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also have been fighting an unsanctioned and illegal war against Syria with very little in the way of pushback from the international community. They have been hostile to Syria’s government for two decades and began bankrolling and arming dissidents inside the country after fighting began in 2011. Their reasoning is that Syria has become an ally of Iran and Lebanese Shi’ites, including Hezbollah, threatening to create a ring of Shi’ite-dominated territories that will cut across the middle of the Arab Middle East and empower the government in Tehran, which the Saudis in particular see as their regional enemy. It is also possible that the Saudi export of militant Wahhabism also plays a role; Syria, which like Iraq before it is tolerant of most religions, is often accused of being both unacceptably secular and supportive of heretics.
So the Saudis would like to see a Syria in which the Sunni Arabs are dominant, which will presumably lead to discrimination against Shi’ites, Alawites, and Christians—as well as a severing of political ties with Iran. In reality, a broken Syria would likely turn out much like neighboring Iraq, with minorities in trouble and a lack of effective central control. But that would be all right with Riyadh, as it would mean the alliance with Iran would be de facto dissolved. Whether the Syrians would benefit from the change is immaterial as perceived through the optic of Saudi interests.
Turkey would also like to see Assad gone and a Syria in chaos. On April 25, Ankara attacked Kurdish targets in both Syria and Iraq, including members of the YPG militia, who are U.S.-trained and -supplied allies against ISIS. Twenty YPG militiamen were reported killed. The Turks claim that virtually all armed Kurdish groups are terrorists, allied with Turkey’s domestic terrorism problem, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey particularly fears that Syria will permit the creation of a Kurdish-dominated entity along their mutual long and difficult-to-defend border. It wants Assad out because it has accused him, perhaps rightly, of supporting the incursions of Kurdish terrorists, but it chooses to ignore the fact that the current problems with the Kurds were in part initiated by the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader needed a credible enemy for internal political reasons, to discredit a largely Kurdish party that opposed him.
Turkey has supported ISIS in the past, including treating their wounded in Turkish hospitals and allowing them to regroup in safe havens inside Turkey, mostly because the terrorist group is a foe of the Kurds. It has also been plausibly claimed that Ankara supplied the sarin that was used in several attacks on Syrian civilians that have been conveniently blamed on the government in Damascus. The shoot-down of a Russian fighter bomber in December 2015 may have also been a crude attempt to draw the U.S. and NATO into a war against Assad and Moscow. Ironically, playing both sides in an all-too-visible attempt to bring down Assad has destroyed any credibility that Erdogan has. And weakening Syrian central-government control and de facto handing power over to a ragtag of rebels and local tribesmen will virtually guarantee the emergence of a Kurdish statelet, but Ankara is apparently not thinking that far ahead.
Finally, there is Israel. Israel, unlike Syria’s other adversaries, has been seeking to destabilize its neighbor for more than 20 years and has little or nothing to do with either Iran or the Kurds. The Yinon Plan of 1982, drafted when hard-right politician Menachim Begin was prime minister, was outlined in a paper entitled “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s.” It maintained that Israel’s security would be guaranteed only if its neighbors were to be somehow forced or otherwise induced to come apart and return to their tribal, ethnic, and religious constituencies, which had been arbitrarily combined into individual nation-states by the imperial powers after World War I. The Yinon Plan included recommendations for military action to accomplish what might not be done more clandestinely, including an Israeli invasion of Syria to break the country down into Alawite, Druze, Sunni, and Christian communities. A fragmented Arab world creating a “Balkanized” weak-state system for the region, combined with relocation of the Palestinians to Jordan, would remove all the threats to Israel’s survival.
The Yinon Plan never became official Israeli government policy. But it might be seen as a blueprint for the regional actions subsequently undertaken by Tel Aviv, which have persistently sought to weaken Arab governments perceived as being too powerful or threatening. A second paper, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” followed in 1996, during the prime ministry of Benjamin Netanyahu. It was authored by a group of American neoconservatives that included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Meyran and David Wurmser. It advocated a policy of preemption for Israel and was particularly focused on Iraq and Syria as enemies. Once critic described the document as endorsing “a mini-cold war in the Middle East, advocating the use of proxy armies for regime changes, destabilization and containment.”
More recently, Israeli officials have made clear that they would prefer to have “moderate rebels” in control in Syria than the Assad government. They have reportedly provided medical care for wounded militants, possibly including ISIS. It would appear that there is a de facto truce between the Israeli military and ISIS, as ISIS reportedly apologized when one of its associated groups fired on IDF units in the Golan Heights back in November.
Israel has carried out a number of air strikes against Syrian bases and military units, most recently a missile attack near Damascus on April 27. There are also reports that it is already using its new U.S.-provided F-35 stealth fighters for combat missions against Syria.
Israel would prefer to have a fragmented political situation across its border rather than a unified and capable government. The former constitutes an easily containable threat, while the latter will no doubt continue efforts to regain most of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 and continues to hold. So the choice for the Israeli government is a simple one—and it does not include whatever the United States might currently be envisioning. It is, in fact, much closer to what Turkey and the Saudis want.
Daniel Larison has frequently warned that the U.S. is encumbered with allies that are allies in name but not in reality. In terms of actual national interests, it should be observed that the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and Israelis are all currently (or have been recently) in bed with terrorist groups that the United States is pledged to destroy. All of them have either directly attacked or arranged for surrogates to attack the legitimate Syrian government, which is opposing ISIS and al-Ansar on the battlefield. Turkey has also attacked Kurdish militiamen allied with and trained by Washington.
The Trump administration will certainly not pressure Israel to change course when the president travels to Jerusalem later this month. Apart from anything else, Trump will be aware that Republicans in Congress have launched an Israel Victory Caucus and that all 100 senators have recently signed a letter to the United Nations demanding that it abandon its “anti-Israel bias.” So there is no wiggle room there. Nor will The Donald squeeze President Erdogan when he arrives in Washington next week, for fear that the already feckless and foundering Syria policy will become even more unmanageable. And the Saudis are always there in the background, using their money weapon to buy influence and manage the narrative.
So the answer to the question “Who is destroying Syria?” must be “Pretty much everyone.” Though there are different motives surfacing regularly by the key players to justify the continued carnage. From the commentary coming out of the foreign and defense ministries in Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Tel Aviv, it is more than a bit hard to discern if there might be a way out of this quagmire. Otherwise, it appears that it will continue to be business as usual until everyone gets tired, declares victory, and goes home.
On the morning of April 4, a Syrian Air Force Russian-made Sukhoi-22 fighter bomber dropped or fired something at a target in rebel-held Idlib Governorate. A cloud of some chemical substance subsequently materialized and drifted to the adjacent inhabited village of Khan Shaykhun, where it killed between 50 and 100 people. We also know that the Russians used a “hotline” prior to the attack to alert the United States military that the strike would be taking place against what was apparently described as an arms depot.
We also know about what might be considered collateral damage. The deaths and alleged use of chemical weapons were described by President Donald Trump as a “vital national-security interest” and served as the pretext for a strike by 59 U.S. cruise missiles two days later, which was directed against the Syrian air base at al-Shayrat. The U.S. attack did little damage and the base was soon again operational. The White House also reversed itself regarding possible Syrian peace talks, declaring that Bashar al-Assad must be removed as a condition for any political settlement of the ongoing crisis. It also described Russia as complicit in protecting the Syrian president. Secretary of State Tillerson declared that bilateral relations with Moscow cannot improve as long as Russia is supporting al-Assad. The relationship with Russia is, according to President Trump, at an “all-time low.”
The U.S. government, in support of its narrative justifying the cruise-missile attack, has issued a four-page assessment entitled “The Assad Regime’s Use of Chemical Weapons on April 4, 2017.” The report was issued by the National Security Council, which is part of the White House, and was authored by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national-security advisor, rather than Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. The provenance suggests that it might not be what it is touted as, a “Summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Assessment …” It makes a number of claims, some of which might be considered fact-based, while others seem questionable.
Bear in mind that nearly all the information and physical evidence available from the attack site in Syria has come from anti-Assad sources linked to al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, which controls the area. This includes the so-called White Helmets, who are opposition surrogates. The established narrative derives from this material as well as from bipartisan assertions of Assad’s “certain” guilt, even from normally liberal Democrats, which are being presented as fact.
The four-page White House report is supplemented by commentary provided by McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis (also a former general) on the day of the U.S. attack, as well as a more recent interview with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, which describes the decision-making process and the military options. Each official, as well as President Trump, took it as a given that Syria had carried out the attack. Regarding the motive for such an attack, the report claims that Damascus was seeking to halt a rebel advance. Others in the media have claimed that it was done to “test” the United States or intimidate the Syrian population, but some other observers find those explanations elusive. After all, Bashar al-Assad would have had no good reason to stage a chemical attack when he was winning the war, while the rebels theoretically had plenty of motivation to stage a “false flag” attack to alienate Damascus from Western Europe and the Americans.
There is considerable repetition in the White House report describing Syrian involvement, rebel inability to mount a chemical attack, physical remains, and symptoms of the dead and injured. It says that the U.S. government is “confident” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack using “a neurotoxic agent like sarin … against its own people” on the morning of April 4, and that it would have been impossible for the rebels to fabricate the incident because it would be too complicated for them to do so. The alleged U.S. intelligence relating to understanding the attack included Sigint, geospatial monitoring, and physiological examination. Plus “Credible open source reporting … tells a clear and consistent story.” This included commercial-satellite imagery, which shows the impact sites of the weapons used, and opinions registered by civilian agencies like Medecins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International.
The U.S. government report also maintains that Syria has violated its international obligations by retaining chemical-weapons capabilities even though it agreed to destroy all stocks in 2013. The narrative also insists that the still highly controversial attack made on Ghouta in 2013 was, in fact, carried out by Damascus. Syrian chemical-weapons experts were probably “involved in planning the [current] attack.” Symptoms of the victims were consistent with exposure to sarin.
Since the attack, per the report, the Russians and Syrians have been spinning out “false narratives” employing “multiple, conflicting accounts [of what took place] in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community.”
As noted above, beyond the bare bones of the Syrian attack, the U.S. retaliation, and the casualties, there is little in the incidents and the surrounding analysis that can be regarded as hard fact. Little in the National Security Council report is unassailable, and one should note that almost none of it is based on U.S. intelligence resources. The possibility that a Syrian chemical-weapons expert was “probably” involved expresses uncertainty, suggesting that an intercepted telephone call is being generously interpreted. And the geospatial monitoring is either a satellite (or even a drone) overhead, or possibly an AWACS plane operating along the nearby Turkish border, which would register the flight path of the Su-22 and the subsequent explosion(s), hardly conclusive evidence of anything beyond what we already know to be true.
The thinness of the U.S. intelligence came through in an April 13 talk by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who described the pressure from the White House to come up with an “assessment.” As a bottom line, he commented that “Everyone saw the open-source photos, so we had reality on our side.” One might observe that that reality was derived from Google satellite photography possibly adjusted by the rebels and freely interpreted by the media, not from the $80 billion per year intelligence community.
Observers should also reexamine the assumption that rebels would be unable to either mount a chemical attack or create a “false flag” operation. There have been numerous instances of ISIS and al-Nusra use of chemicals both in Syria and Iraq, the most recent being just this past week in western Mosul. And the similar Ghouta “false flag” in 2013 almost succeeded, apparently aided by Turkish intelligence, stopped only when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper paid a surprise visit to President Obama in the Oval Office to tell him that the case against Damascus was not a “slam dunk.”
And the physical evidence that the Syrians launched a chemical attack from the air has been challenged. The only eyewitness to surface, a 14-year-old, has described how she saw a bomb drop from an airplane and hit a nearby building, which produced a mushroom cloud. It is just as the Russians and Syrians described the incident and rules out sarin, which is colorless. And then there is the testimony of Professor Theodore Postol, professor emeritus of science, technology, and national-security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol has examined the evidence in the photos and concluded that the toxin was fired from the ground, not from the air, adding that no competent analyst would believe otherwise—suggesting that there was a rush to judgment. Postol concluded that “it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the U.S. government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack.”
Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter has also disputed the findings in the White House report, noting that what evidence there is points to the use of conventional weapons by the Syrians. He also notes that the Su-22’s available weapons cannot deliver a chemical or gas attack from the air, something which Donald Trump and his advisers might not have been aware of.
And then there are the victims. The tests confirming the presence of sarin were carried out in Turkish hospitals and Ankara is far from a neutral party, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having demanded repeatedly that al-Assad be removed.
It is all too easy to forget that the rebels and their associates are killers, with little to differentiate them from the crimes that are being laid at Bashar al-Assad’s door. Two recent examples of rebel brutality include the beheading of a child and the recent bombing of Syrian refugees waiting to cross into government-controlled territory. The latter attack killed more people—including women, children, and babies—than the incident at Khan Shaykhun, but it was not so much as mentioned by President Trump. It was only briefly reported in the U.S. media before being dropped down the memory hole, presumably because it did not fit the prevailing narrative.
Other videos and pictures of Khan Shaykhun victims cited by the White House show survivors being assisted by alleged medical personnel, who appear not be wearing any protective garb. If the chemical agent had actually been sarin, they too would have been affected. And the symptoms of sarin are similar to the symptoms experienced with exposure to other toxins, including chlorine and smoke munitions. One survivor noted a smell of rotten food and garlic. Sarin is, in addition to being colorless, odorless.
And then there is the question of al-Assad’s chemical-weapons supply. It is now being asserted by the White House that the Syrians retained a significant capability, but that is not what Secretary of State John Kerry said in July 2014, when he claimed everything was destroyed: “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” The United States, working with Russia, was instrumental in destroying the Syrian chemical stockpile.
It certainly appears that there was a rush to judgment on the part of the White House and the top presidential advisors. It is possible that al-Assad did what he has been accused of, but the Trump administration decided to assign guilt to the Syrians before they could have known with any clarity what had happened. As in the case of Iraq, the available intelligence was made to fit the preferred narrative. All that remained was to call a meeting of top advisors to determine exactly how to punish Damascus. The truth about what occurred in Syria on April 4 remains to be discovered, and is almost certainly possessed by many in the U.S. intelligence community. Perhaps someday, someone who understands what happened will feel compelled to reveal what he or she knows.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the incident and the U.S. retaliation is severe and potentially catastrophic. As Princeton Professor Stephen Cohen, America’s leading expert on Russia, put it recently:
I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. And arguably, it’s more dangerous, because it’s more complex. … So the question arises, naturally: Why did Trump launch 50 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian Air Force base, when, God help us, he did kill some people, but was of no military value whatsoever? Was this meant to show ‘I’m not a Kremlin agent?’ Because, normally, a president would have done the following. You would go to the United Nations … and ask for an investigation about what happened with those chemical weapons. And then you would decide what to do. But while having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the leader of China, who was deeply humiliated, because he’s an ally of Russia, they rushed off these Tomahawk missiles.
Wars and rumors of wars have been dominating news cycles of late. No one should be surprised that there is a “former intelligence officer” subculture that is particularly noticeable in the Washington, DC, area. We stay in touch, communicate regularly, have lunches to discuss the “old days,” and sometimes organize to raise objections to some of the foreign follies pursued by the U.S. government. Though we often try to stay under the radar, making personal but discreet contact with sympathetic congressmen and journalists, we sometimes work together to get letters to the editor or articles placed in national publications. More rarely we appear on television or radio to discuss our own perspectives on current events.
There is an additional element that helps shape our perceptions—namely, that many of us are in contact with friends who are still in harness with the Intelligence Community or who are working as post-retirement contractors. Though current employees generally are highly cautious about what they are doing, and we are acutely aware that it is not a good idea to ask anything specific, frustration over specific governmental policies and actions is occasionally vented.
Recently, with the cruise missile attacks on a Syrian airfield, there has been a considerable loosening of the normal restraints that employees exercise regarding their duties. Even more than the invasion of Iraq, which was viewed skeptically by many in the community, the decision by President Trump to retaliate with force against Damascus has been met with dismay among many of those closest to the action in the Middle East.
Many officers have expressed frustration and anger over what has taken place—not to challenge national-security policy, which they leave up to the politicians, but because they are perceiving a tissue of lies, as in Iraq. They have expressed their concerns in very specific ways to former fellow officers and friends. For the first time, people on the inside of the process are really talking. And we have been listening, astonished at the level of anger.
The insiders note that no evidence has been produced to demonstrate convincingly that Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on a civilian area. U.S. monitors, who had been warned by the Russians that an attack was coming, believe they saw from satellite images something close to the Russian account of events, with a bomb hitting the targeted warehouse, which then produced a cloud of gas. They also note that Syria had absolutely no motive for staging a chemical attack. In fact, it was quite the contrary, as Washington had earlier that week backed off from the U.S. position that President Bashar al-Assad should be removed from office. The so-called rebels, however, had plenty of motive. Many intelligence officials have concluded that the White House is lying and concealing what it knows.
Some employees have even expressed a desire that a whistleblower might step forward to demolish the administration’s casus belli, though none has yet offered to do so. Most of all, those on the ground are alarmed over ongoing preparations for expanding the war, including seemingly active plans to establish no-fly zones and safe havens. The uncompromising demand that al-Assad must go will lead, in their opinion, to a rapid escalation of military activity that inevitably will result in conflict with Russia.