Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Yesterday, BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier containing allegations that Russian operatives worked to identify and develop compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump. Allegedly, this is the full document from which a two-page synopsis was drawn and provided to Trump and President Obama as an appendix to a report about Russian interference in the election.
I have read through the published document, which is actually a collection of short reports containing considerable redundancy. Reportedly, these are memos to the client of an unnamed private security firm in London headed by a former British MI-6 officer who served in Russia and is considered to be a credible source by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. The investigation was commissioned by a group of anti-Trump Republicans and was subsequently supported by anti-Trump Democrats.
Much of the report has been in the hands of the United States government since the summer. The information is apparently being fact-checked by the FBI, but reportedly, it has not been easy to confirm specific details referred to in the document.
The document is somewhat odd in appearance, as it includes no headings or other information identifying who prepared it. That information has evidently been deleted, possibly out of a desire on the part of those who drafted it to remain anonymous. The Wall Street Journal has identified the ex-MI-6 officer as Christopher Steele of the Orbis security company.
I have worked for private international investigative firms, and the first thing I noted was that the language sounds right. The individual reports are exactly what one would expect in terms of tone and content on updates sent to a client to inform him or her what is happening in an investigation.
The next thing I noted was that sources are protected and described by alphabet letters, but are described by position to reveal their access to desired information. That is also what I would have expected from an intelligence officer or a good investigator. But I also noted that quite a lot of the most significant information comes from a single source, Source E. This source’s credibility or lack thereof has to be considered an important issue. With the information publicly available, it is impossible to determine if he really knows what he claims.
Having done intelligence-based investigations for clients, I would have to observe that the initiators of this work were not looking for information to exonerate Trump. That means that the investigation was looking for negatives, which also implies that the investigative firm and the sources that it acquired were not interested in learning what a nice guy Trump is. No reputable security investigative firm would out-and-out lie to a client (though there are plenty of non-reputable companies that would), but anybody who wants to stay in business would collect any and all information and present it in the most negative light possible, because that is what the client wants. That determination would also hold true for the local sources for the report, all of whom would want to stay on the gravy train as long as possible. That means that they might fabricate if they considered it to be doable without getting caught.
What I am saying is that there is a tendency to report speculation and rumors as fact, or at least something approaching that, with the whole product being put together in such a fashion as to appear credible. That is precisely what I felt when I read through the 35 pages. There is considerable detail, and some proper names are cited, including those of two close associates of Trump and one of Putin. Including proper names provides credibility, though in this case, it appears that the FBI has not been able to confirm the dates and places regarding travel and meetings, so the drafters of the document might have gotten some details wrong or might have assumed that discrepancies would not be detected by the client.
And as for Trump and Team Trump’s connection with the Russians, you can bank on the fact that the KGB successor FSB would know who is coming and going in Moscow. They would target prominent Americans and Europeans as potential sources of information and also as possible elements in influence operations, so the assumption that Trump was being monitored is quite credible. But that doesn’t mean he took the bait to do “deals” with the Russians, as the report even notes, and it does not mean that he is an agent. I would also note in passing that U.S. intelligence agencies similarly prey on foreigners passing through or being educated in this country. CIA has an entire division dedicated to spotting, assessing, and recruiting foreigners who are here for business or study, so it is very much an intelligence-agency operational imperative that is not limited to Russia.
My suspicion would be that the report is a composite of some fact, a lot of speculation, and even some fiction. It is very similar to the types of media-focused disinformation produced by both CIA and KGB in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, where a little bit of factual information would be used to provide credibility for a lot of speculation and false stories that were intended to sow doubt and confusion. In this case, the original intent might well have been to discredit Trump personally; its release at this time is likely intended to delegitimize his presidency, or to narrow his options on recalibrating with Russia.
I expect, however, that much of the possibly tall tale being told will unravel as the FBI continues and expands its investigation. Trump has predictably denounced the entire matter as “fake news.” He may be right.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The eagerly awaited report on the alleged Russian influence operation and hack linked to the recent American presidential election finally appeared on Friday. It is quite possible that President Obama, the intelligence community, and Congress now hope that the case has been definitively made to tighten the screws on Russia. If that is so, they are delusional. Moscow and Vladimir Putin may or may not be guilty as charged, but the paucity of the evidence being presented by the White House and the Director of National Intelligence suggests that the American people are being very poorly served by those who have been entrusted with protecting the nation.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was entitled “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution.” It followed the short “Joint Analysis Report” that appeared on December 29, produced by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI. The earlier paper was entitled “Grizzly Steppe—Russian Malicious Cyber Activity” but, apart from assertions of suspected Russian activity connected to an unnamed political party, it provided absolutely no evidence that the alleged intrusions into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers and John Podesta emails were anything beyond probing for vulnerabilities to collect information, and carried out by unknown parties. In fact, it didn’t even provide the evidence for that and was instead largely a primer on how to avoid being hacked.
The short report’s first page had a telling disclaimer: “This report is provided as is for informational purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.” In fact, the information allegedly contained was difficult to discern, making the report completely useless for those seeking to learn the actual evidence behind the alleged Russian hack.
Friday’s longer and updated report was clearly intended to address those shortcomings. It was also thematically linked to the oral testimony provided by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the previous day. The unclassified report is 17 pages, while the original classified version has been described in the media as being 50 pages; this suggests that the evidence supporting claims made was more-or-less completely redacted, a reasonable conclusion given the paucity of information one might consider sensitive in the public document. Nevertheless, the language used and how judgments are expressed often suggests the sources and methods that were exploited to prepare the original document.
In truth, I had fully expected that the report, which is evidently considered to be the “last word” on the claimed Russian hack, would be much more forthcoming, if only to dispel criticism. Seven pages, nearly half the content, consist of analysis of programming by RT International, a Russian-government-owned television broadcasting service. (Full disclosure: I have appeared on RT frequently.) And there are several pages of charts as well as an expansive explanation of analytic methods and terms used, so the actual substantive content is a bit on the thin side.
Before reading the report, I believed that the government would have considerable solid evidence to back up several of its claims, at least some of which might be judiciously used to provide a modicum of credibility for the entire package, but that was hardly the case. Indeed, the report, like the “Grizzly Steppe” effort, includes an unusual disclaimer, noting in an appendix on “Estimative Language” that “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
The report’s “key judgments” and the subsequent echo-chamber coverage in the national media are focused on six “findings” that support the thesis that “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election” reflect an escalation in Moscow’s program to “undermine the U.S. led liberal democratic order.”
The first conclusion is that “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” This claim is the most elusive and is based on the premise that, as head of state, Putin must have known and approved. But if U.S. intelligence does not have access to Putin’s private papers or communications, whether he personally ordered the campaign cannot be known. If it is known through indisputable evidence, the finding should have read something like “There is definitive intelligence indicating that …” The use of the expression “we assess” is weasel wording, meaning that the conclusion is not supported by actual evidence and is a judgment.
The second claim is that “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” This is also preceded by “we assess” and is pure speculation unless the intelligence community has a document revealing such an intention in more or less those words.
The third allegation is that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” This is another “we assess.” No doubt Russia saw Clinton as hostile and would take steps to discredit her using both media and intelligence resources based on its own self-interest, but, again, lacking any documentary or Humint (human intelligence) source providing a clear insight into Russian thinking, the conclusion that it was done to help Trump is speculative. This reservation is supported by a comment at the end of the finding itself, stating that the National Security Agency (NSA) had only moderate confidence in the conclusion. That is a low grade, meaning that there was little or no actual electronic intelligence collected that supports the judgment.
The report also states its belief that in June, Russia shifted its strategy to help Trump by ceasing to say good things about him publicly: “Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire.” The report then goes on to contradict itself, noting that other “pro-Kremlin figures” continued to praise Trump for his “Russia-friendly positions.” However, one can’t have it both ways if one were actually trying to run an “influence campaign.”
Though it did not appear in the report, some news stories have revealed possibly leaked information indicating that Washington had intercepted phone calls made by senior Russian officials expressing joy over the election results. Desperate to confirm Russian involvement, the calls are being regarded by some as additional evidence that Moscow must have aided Trump.
The fourth claim is an assessment “with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (GRU) relayed material to WikiLeaks.” This comment is on firmer ground, even though it is also a “we assess” and appears to indicate that the intelligence community has at least some names and additional corroborative material. It identifies Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks as possible conduits that released “U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.” But it does not indicate who actually might have carried out the alleged hacks and, again, this raises the question of whether the U.S. government does or does not have the type of information that connects the dots, linking together the transmission belt for the information and the identity of its couriers in a chain of custody that goes directly from the alleged hack in the U.S. to the GRU in Moscow and then on to WikiLeaks in Moscow. I doubt that they do have that kind of information, but would concede if I were running a hacking operation combined with an influence or disinformation one, concealing the connections through use of cut-outs (mutually trusted intermediaries) would be an essential in maintaining plausible deniability. In other words, if the Russians actually did it, they would make it difficult to identify how it took place.
The fifth allegation is that “Moscow’s influence campaign … blends covert intelligence operations … with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state funded media, third party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” The report is claiming that Russia’s overt media is part of the plot and that the production of what is now being referred to as “fake news” was all part of the game. RT International is referred to as the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” Assuming there was in fact some kind of plan, one would expect Moscow’s state-owned media to be following an official line on developments in the United States. Even if there were no conspiracy, Russian news would almost certainly reflect a government viewpoint. That is also true in the United States, where the media rebroadcast assertions made by the White House uncritically. Or even worse, like the completely false reports of Russian hacking of utilities in Vermont. Hasn’t Clapper or anyone else on his team read the Washington Post lately?
An odd assertion in the report used to denigrate the coverage provided by RT International and Sputnik news claims that the two Russian state owned outlets “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.” It certainly looked that way to me and to many other Americans, which is possibly why Trump won in the first place. Other “evidence” provided in the report consists of analysis that Russian media was “consistently negative” regarding Clinton. It fails to note that Clinton was consistently negative regarding Russia, regularly seeking to tie an allegedly evil Putin to Trump.
And finally, the sixth assertion is that “Moscow will apply … lessons learned … to future influence efforts worldwide.” This is also preceded by a “we assess” and is sheer speculation unless the intelligence community has somehow obtained a document stating that that is what Russia intends to do or has intercepted a phone call in which Putin has indiscreetly outlined his plans.
I would assume that there were disagreements over some of the findings identified above, but that does not come through in the unclassified version of the report, apart from the one comment about NSA taking a “moderate” position. Given the frequency of “assessments” and “judgments” in the document, the lack of dissent is astonishing. One wonders if disagreements appear in the classified version. Possibly not, particularly if one goes by the example of historic intelligence assessments like the Soviet Estimate and the Iraq WMD reports, which were damaged goods produced under heavy White House pressure to conform to preexisting notions about what should appear.
As one works through the new report, suspicion grows that the so-called analysis is largely derived from an in-depth critique of what was appearing in the Kremlin-controlled media, which might or might not provide an insight into broader government policies. Fully half of the account focuses on Russian overt media operations and reporting, which are, to be sure, highly critical of the U.S. government, and include regular coverage of national surveillance programs and civil-rights infringements. RT also is indicted in the report for opposing “Western intervention in the Syrian conflict.” Well, I and many other Americans who are not useful idiots working for the Kremlin hold the same view. An annex to the report even describes RT International as promoting “radical discontent,” an odd expression that might have been coined by the Comintern.
I am personally quite familiar with RT International and also with quite a few of the American and European contributors who have appeared on their programs, many of which feature speakers holding quite adversarial positions on issues of the day. I am unaware of anyone ever being coached or pressured to adopt a certain viewpoint to conform with an editorial policy and believe that on most issues RT is no worse than many American and European news outlets. If RT coverage of the American election was biased, it is little different than what was occurring in the U.S. media—and if there is a problem with that for the drafters of the report, it appears to be attributable to the fact that the slant was unacceptably pro-Trump rather than pro-Clinton. Trump has said that the only reason anyone is concerned with the possible Russian involvement is that Hillary lost. He is probably correct. Did Russian media coverage really amount to an attack on the United States and our way of life? Did people in America actually vote in large numbers based on what RT International was reporting?
So the latest attempt to nail perfidious Moscow is, to my mind, yet another mish-mash of soft facts combined with plenty of opinion and maybe even a bit of good old Cold War-style politics. A lot of sometimes wild speculation and judgments based on fragmentary information taken together are not a good basis for determining foreign policy, particularly if one is dealing with a powerful foreign state that is heavily armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile delivery systems.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The midnight oil is burning over at the Central Intelligence Agency as senior managers consider options relating to how to play new president Donald Trump and new director Mike Pompeo, neither of whom possesses any serious understanding either of intelligence operations or of how to lead 20,000 often difficult-to-manage employees.
With the exception of the 1976 turnover that followed shortly after the devastating Church Commission report and simultaneously brought in Jimmy Carter as president and Admiral Stansfield Turner as director, the agency has always been able to control the transitions and wind up on the right side of those in power. It has maintained its prerogatives through its use of an elaborate dog-and-pony briefing show that carefully revealed some of the organization’s most cherished secrets to convince the new boss of the immensely valuable product provided by CIA. John F. Kennedy was in that fashion beguiled by Allen Dulles before he soured on the relationship as a result of the dissimulation surrounding Bay of Pigs. Ronald Reagan, who was in any event inclined to be pro-agency, reportedly came away from his first major briefing astonished by what had been revealed.
Today, however, the CIA is in transition and under fire over the Russian hacking issue, though most believe that the war or words and tension with the president will largely vanish after the inauguration. With the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence apparatus—including the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, who is only nominally in charge but in control of a separate staff, and the expansion of Pentagon spying, the agency has lost a good deal of its exclusivity and clout.
Current Director John Brennan is seen as Obama’s man and is not popular in some circles inside the agency, where the president is viewed as weak and vacillating while Brennan is regarded as a presidential poodle, poseur, and yes-man. He is most notably disliked by the traditional spies from the former Deputy Directorate of Operations who have seen their elite status eroded under his leadership as he has promoted paramilitary officers instead of traditional agent handlers to lead the clandestine service. As Brennan will be departing in any event, few will defend the fusion centers that he has created to combine analytic and operational capabilities along the existing lines of the Counter Terrorism Center. Critics believe that putting intelligence collectors together with analysts who meet with the intelligence consumers will inevitably politicize what is being reported.
Most CIA employees are looking forward to the arrival of Pompeo, who promises to be hard-nosed and aggressive. But he will presumably take his lead from the National Security Council and White House staffs. As one of the first high-level appointees to the new administration, he is expected to stake out CIA’s position at the head of the table when the intelligence community convenes. The CIA is likely to be top dog when it comes to funding and will likely expand its operational reach in some parts of Asia and Africa, which are considered to be full of unstable and under-resourced governments that are vulnerable to the infiltration of groups such as ISIS. No one is expecting that the War on Terror will end any time soon.
My wife is English, so every Christmas we include in our celebration holiday crackers. For those unfamiliar with British traditions, the crackers are cardboard tubes wrapped in decorated paper. When you pull on the ends they pop open with a bang, and inside there is a paper crown to commemorate the visit by the three kings as well as a small gift item. This year my cracker would not pop open, a failure that I chose to attribute to Vladimir Putin.
On Facebook it is possible to find numerous accounts of mishaps where someone eventually comments, “Putin did it.” It is, of course, a joke—but it is a reflection of how the Russian president has been demonized to an absurd degree both in the media and by the American political class. The recent criticism derives largely from the allegation surfaced by a Central Intelligence Agency report suggesting that Russia or its proxies hacked into email accounts relating to the recent U.S. presidential election and then exploited the information.
Initially, the story claimed that the Russians were trying to discredit and damage America’s democratic institutions, but the tale soon morphed into an elaborate account of how Moscow was operating covertly to help elect Donald Trump. It is now being claimed in some circles that the Russian intervention, together with public statements by FBI Director James Comey, was decisive in defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and it has also been alleged that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the operation. Without a doubt, if all of that is true it is a serious matter, and calls for a thorough investigation of what took place are not misplaced.
Initially, the FBI did not agree with the still-classified CIA report, but eventually it was convinced, and the report’s conclusion has also been publicly embraced by both Hillary Clinton and the White House. Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin.
The allegation that Putin ordered the interference in America’s election is particularly troubling. As a former intelligence officer, I am aware that learning someone’s intentions is the most difficult task for a spy. Only someone in the president’s immediate circle would be privy to information that sensitive in nature, and there has been no indication that either CIA or any other Western intelligence service has that kind of agent in place. More likely, the CIA and now the White House are assuming, without any evidence, that such a high-level hack and influencing operation would have inevitably required Russian presidential approval. This assumption is certainly plausible, but it’s impossible to demonstrate, and lacking corroboration it should be considered as little more than speculation.
The most detailed examination I have seen of the alleged hack appeared at the The Intercept, concluding that the evidence for the Russian connection was “not enough.” More recently, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate the hack has concluded that the malware detected is related to malware used by Russian military intelligence units in Ukraine. That explanation is not completely convincing, as malware, once in place, is often picked up and used by other miscreants. Also, it would be unlikely that an actual government intelligence unit would be so reckless as to leave behind its own fingerprints when there are plenty of private-sector hackers available to serve as proxies.
And other quite plausible explanations have been offered. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray claims that he met in Washington with an associate of an American who worked for the DNC who provided the information to him for passage to WikiLeaks. Murray is a collaborator of Julian Assange, who, like Murray, has denied any Russian involvement in obtaining the information that was later posted on WikiLeaks. It is significant that, if the story is true, it was a Snowden-style leak, reportedly by a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter who was outraged by DNC shenanigans to deny his man the nomination, rather than a hack that produced the relevant information. And even if the Russians or their proxies were simultaneously hacking sites connected to the U.S. elections, which might be the case, it would have been incidental to the damage being done by the leaker, which shifts the narrative considerably.
The White House could, of course, order the release of at least some of the evidence for Russian perfidy to end all the confusion, but that does not seem to be in the cards. President Barack Obama may be hesitating because he is protecting intelligence sources and methods, but he should also be aware of the fact that the continuous Russia-bashing will have consequences even if President Donald Trump does succeed in moderating the vitriol toward Moscow once he is in office.
Going after Russia has become a bipartisan sport in Washington, predictably coming from Republican senators including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but also being pushed by Chuck Schumer and a number of other leading Democrats, if only to explain how they lost an election that appeared to be theirs for the taking. There is no indication that the situation will improve in the New Year, and one might usefully note the predictable lining up of Washington media and think tanks seeking to bait the Russian bear. The neocon Hudson Institute has two feature articles entitled “Putin is no partner on terrorism” and “How President Obama can retaliate against Russia,” while the American Enterprise Institute posts an article by Leon Aron headlined “Don’t Be Putin’s Useful Idiot.”
And the frenzy about Russia is also letting some of the loonies out of the closet. Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, a Hillary Clinton foreign-policy advisor, claimed before the election that Putin had recruited Trump as an “unwitting agent” of the Russian Federation. He also called for covertly killing Russians and Iranians in Syria to send a message, and he is now declaring that the alleged Russian hack is the “political equivalent of 9/11,” demanding a similar robust response. He identifies several ways he might have reacted in Obama’s shoes, including carrying out a major cyberattack, initiating devastating sanctions, and arming Ukrainians and encouraging others hostile to Moscow. In any event, his approach would have “two key pieces to it. One is it’s got to be overt. It needs to be seen. A covert response would significantly limit the deterrence effect. If you can’t see it, it’s not going to deter the Chinese and North Koreans and Iranians and others, so it’s got to be seen. The second, is that it’s got to be significant from Putin’s perspective. He has to feel some pain, he has to pay a price here or again, there will be no deterrence, and it has to be seen by the rest of the world as being significant to Mr. Putin so that it can be a deterrent.”
Morell seems oblivious to the fact that an overt attack on Russia by either cyber or conventional means is the equivalent of war, in this case without any hard evidence being produced that Moscow actually did anything. Unfortunately, Morell is not alone in seeking a vigorous response to Russia heedless of the fact that the one imperative interest that Washington should have in common with Moscow is to avoid crises that might escalate into a nuclear exchange. Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers. And while Vladimir Putin’s Russia might not be to everyone’s taste, dealing realistically and cautiously with a powerful foreign leader who is not completely to one’s liking just might be better than starting World War III.
Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov has been shot dead in Ankara by an assailant who was subsequently killed by police. Sources who were present at the scene report that the attacker, dressed in a suit and brandishing a handgun, shouted in Arabic “Allahu Akhbar” followed by screams in Turkish, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria! Stand back! Stand back! Only death will take me out of here. Anyone who has a role in this oppression will die one by one.” Moscow, Ankara, and the State Department in Washington are all regarding the killing as a terrorist act.
Ankara’s mayor and the Turkish Interior Minister have confirmed that the assailant was a 22-year-old plainclothes police officer who used his credentials to enter the exhibition hall where the ambassador was opening an exhibition of Russian photographs. The Turkish media is reporting that there was security at the building, both inside and outside, but there appear to have been no special measures like metal detectors in place in spite of the fact that there have been large demonstrations in both Istanbul and Ankara over the past week protesting Russian actions in Aleppo. Some of the demonstrations have occurred in front of the Russian embassy and consulates so security was already at a high level.
Most of the demonstrators against Russia have reportedly been Turks, nominally supporting their own country’s foreign policy and ostensibly responding to reports of both Russian and Syrian brutality. Intelligence sources suggest that there has been no indication whatsoever that radical groups like ISIS or al-Nusra had infiltrated the gatherings, though both groups are known to have active cadres in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey is also now home to more than 2 million refugees from the fighting in Syria but they have been careful to remain apolitical and are monitored closely by the Turkish intelligence service MIT.
Turkish television, which is partially state run and is careful not to offend the government, is speculating that the murder will disrupt a planned Turkish-Russian-Iranian foreign ministers meeting scheduled to start tomorrow in Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria now that Aleppo has fallen. Russia and Turkey are nominally on opposite sides regarding what to do about the government in Damascus, with Moscow continuing to support Bashar al-Assad while Ankara insists that he must be removed.
In reality, Turkey has been shifting closer to the Russian position as the facts on the ground have changed, now stressing the need to take steps to prevent the development of any kind of Kurdish fiefdom along the border as the top priority. Russia is apparently willing to participate in shaping resettlement policies that will satisfy Turkish concerns. And the inclusion of Iran in the discussion is a sign that regime change in the near term is no longer being contemplated as a sine qua non. Iran can also be counted on to share Turkey’s concerns over regional separatism as it has its own problem with an indigenous Kurdish terrorist group called the PJAK.
Turkey has also been undergoing fundamental political shifts. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown more estranged from Washington and the Europeans due to the negative reaction to his crackdown on alleged supporters of the July coup. That his foreign minister will be meeting with Russia in Moscow to discuss Syria is significant. The Turkish media has been cautiously optimistic about Donald Trump, possibly reflecting a government expectation that he will give Ankara a free hand in dealing with what it perceives to be its Kurdish problem, but Erdogan continues to warn that his country’s alignment with the west is not a given. He has made clear that cultivating warmer relations with Moscow and Beijing is a serious option for Ankara, so it will behoove him to take whatever steps are necessary to reassure Vladimir Putin. Erdogan has already telephoned the Russian president to offer his condolences on the killing and it is likely that the government will declare a state of official mourning over the Ambassador’s death.
In the wake of the killing, most diplomatic missions in Turkey are now in a state of security lockdown. The United States Embassy and several European countries have already issued travel advisories in the wake of recent terrorist bombings, suggesting that visitors should exercise caution. These warnings will surely increase in number, further damaging Turkey’s already reeling tourism industry, so it is to be expected that the government will take steps to convince potential visitors that the country is safe.
Russia will also likely proceed cautiously. Its government will clearly consider the fact that Ambassador Karlov could have been provided better protection and will discuss specific steps that might be taken regarding treatment of its diplomatic staff, but its objections will be largely pro forma and it will likely not press on the issue very hard as the improved relationship with Ankara is also in its own interest. Turkey, in spite of considerable political turmoil since the 1980s, can also argue that it has an excellent record on protecting foreign diplomats.
Both Russia and Turkey will express chagrin over the assassination and their bilateral relationship will undergo some strain but they will also be eager to put the incident behind them. If anything, the death of Ambassador Karlov might well accelerate a rapprochement on what to do about Syria, leaving the United States even more isolated in terms of its demand that al-Assad be compelled to step down.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has concluded that Russia acted to aid Donald Trump in winning the election. The story follows accusations that the Russian government was behind the hack of the private servers used by the Democratic National Committee, as well as the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. The information obtained was provided to WikiLeaks and other sources like the Romanian Guccifer 2.0 in order to be made public and discredit the Clinton campaign—and potentially influence the outcome of the election. The New York Times is reporting that the Russians also hacked the Republican National Committee server but did not release any of the information obtained. The GOP claims that its system was not breached.
The allegations about Moscow’s involvement in the election derive from a still-secret report prepared by the CIA that represents the intelligence community’s consensus on the issue, though the use of the word “consensus” implies that there was dissent over the conclusions, and there is even a suggestion that not all of the community signed off on the final draft. For what it’s worth, the report does not address whether the hacking influenced the result of the election, and both the Russian government and WikiLeaks have denied that they were acting in collusion or were part of any organized effort to promote the Trump campaign.
The White House has responded to the analysis by calling for an investigation of hacking surrounding the campaign and election. Donald Trump has issued a statement dismissing the CIA claim: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction … it is now time to move on.”
The Trump response is frivolous because the vulnerability of the U.S. election process to outside interference is a serious issue involving both private and public information-sharing systems. It is also important to note how critics of Russia in Congress, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are already exploiting the allegations to block any possible initiatives by Trump to improve ties with Moscow, which might have serious consequences down the road.
To determine what precisely is being alleged, it is necessary to rely on media accounts, as neither the CIA nor the White House has made public the classified report. It is, first of all, most important to consider the evidence for the hack and dissemination of the information. The White House is claiming the intelligence community has “high confidence” that the hack of servers and the dissemination of the material related to the election was directed from the top levels of the Russian government.
The wording is significant, as it implies that officials have established a direct chain of custody for the materials stolen, including named individuals in the Russian government and conduits used outside it. To put it another way, the U.S. government and its presumed allies at Britain’s GCHQ are claiming that they have obtained information on the series of “cutouts” used to move the information from the hackers to the outlets employed to disseminate the stories. That is why they are claiming “high confidence,” which implies having hard evidence.
That is a serious claim, but it is currently impossible to know whether it is true or not. Some anonymous government officials are reportedly conceding that the direct link from the Russian government to the actual hackers and then on to the disseminators of the information is lacking. If the intelligence community is nevertheless claiming that they know enough to conclude that it was directed from the top levels of the Russian government, then they should be able to produce documentary or other evidence of officials’ ordering the operation to take place.
If the CIA is to maintain its credibility, it should do just that, even if the report is in a sanitized or heavily redacted version to protect sources. Do they have that kind of information? It is clear that they do not, in spite of their assertion of “high confidence.” And there is a suggestion by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a persistent critic of Russian spying who is on the House Intelligence Committee, that the information they do have consists of innuendo and is largely circumstantial.
So what do they actually have? They likely have bits and pieces of the transmission belt the information moved along, and are presuming without necessarily knowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement would have been necessary to initiate such an audacious operation. Putting all of that together, they are positing that approval from the Kremlin leadership was part of the process.
Press accounts indicate that there were two hacker groups tied to Russian intelligence that obtained the information in the first place, and that the material was then provided to others for release, WikiLeaks being the most prominent of the outlets used.
Some in the media are claiming that the Russian hack and dissemination of information had two objectives: first, to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton; and second, to “undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system,” as the Washington Post describes it. I would argue that the “undermine confidence” part is implausible and that no intelligence organization would see that kind of objective as worth pursuing except under very rare circumstances. The Clinton campaign is, however, another story. Hillary Clinton castigated Russia throughout her campaign and made it clear that she would be confrontational in Syria and Eastern Europe. Trump endorsed détente, by contrast, so Moscow’s choice of candidate would have been obvious, and the Kremlin might well have decided to take steps to bolster the Trump campaign in support of Russia’s own self-interest.
Using intelligence resources to advance one’s national interest is what all governments do. The objective is to maintain secrecy, but no one should be too surprised when such activity is detected. Attempts to influence foreign opinion in a targeted country or within a targeted group is referred to in the trade as covert action. All major state players engage in covert action to a greater or lesser extent. The CIA certainly uses its media assets worldwide to place stories supportive of politicians and parties favored by the administration in power in Washington. I would have to assume that President Barack Obama has, for example, approved CIA-generated favorable press coverage of endangered politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose policies he strongly supports.
If a covert action involves the media, it will sometimes consist of totally invented stories that usually are quickly exposed for what they are, or accounts that are partly or largely true but also contain spin or some untruths to undermine or influence a prevailing narrative. If the stories are crafted subtly enough, they will be accepted as true by most of the public. Stories placed in that fashion by an intelligence agency, frequently acting through surrogates, can, upon exposure, be considered part of the “fake news” that has so traumatized the media of late.
Far better than fake news from the intelligence-agency point of view is real news, which is why exposure of the Clinton-Podesta-DNC emails was so effective. They were undeniably true, and they bring to mind another Russian intelligence operation in 2014, where the hacked phone of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was exploited to reveal that Nuland thought little of America’s European allies. The lesson that should be taken home from those errors in judgment is that we create our own vulnerabilities that others will exploit. If the DNC wanted to load the dice to make Bernie Sanders go away, it would have been best not to say so in an email. If John Podesta did not trust Hillary Clinton’s impulsive decisionmaking, he should not have written that opinion down and sent it off electronically. If Nuland wanted to commit an act of fornication on Europeans, she should not have discussed it on an unsecured cell phone.
So nearly every country employs espionage when dealing with others and works on promoting its own interests through the use of its intelligence and other national resources. That should surprise no one. And it is impossible to know if the WikiLeaks publication of hacked emails changed the outcome of the recent election, though it is clear that it did not help Hillary. The lesson is not that the Russians spied on the United States and covertly assisted a candidate they favored. That should be a given, well understood by people in the White House and elsewhere in the administration. That information is no longer private in an age where electronic intrusion or hacking can be run out of someone’s garage should also be a given. But when aspirants to high office are careless in what they say, when they say it, and how they communicate to associates, there will be consequences.
Far better to mend our own fences than try to punish the Russians for doing what comes naturally. That would only lead to a tit-for-tat worsening of an already bad relationship.
“Fake stories” are in the news. The narrative goes something like this: fabricated accounts that misrepresent “the truth” are proliferating on the internet, and once they appear on a social networking site, they are frequently spread far and wide, often doing serious damage along the way to whatever or whomever was the target of the initial posting. Reportedly, Google and Facebook are now alert to the problem and doing their best to monitor and eliminate such material. How exactly that will work is not yet clear, as it would be blatant censorship, and the relative openness of the internet is a major part of its appeal.
And there is, of course, a political aspect to the fake stories. Allegedly, most recent tales were focused on denigrating the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, accusing her of a series of crimes both high and low, challenging her veracity on issues relating to her health, and claiming that she was seeking to “hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.”
That the overwhelming majority of the media’s campaign coverage actually consisted of negative reporting on Donald Trump would appear to contradict that narrative. But because most of those currently promoting the “fake news story” theory can be comfortably described as Clinton supporters, it is perhaps not surprising that whatever benefit might be obtained from the political angle would tilt in her direction.
And there’s something even more nefarious that fits neatly into another storyline that was intensely pursued in the lead-up to the election. It has now been discovered by the assiduous researchers attached to several previously unknown and somewhat shady inside-the-Beltway think tanks that the Kremlin was behind it all, described in some detail by the Washington Post in an article entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The front-page Post piece, which was promptly replayed uncritically elsewhere in the mainstream media, concerned the alleged existence of “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
With two coauthors, a fellow at one of the obscure think tanks cited by the Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, had released an article called “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy” on November 6 through the War on the Rocks online magazine. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, just before the election, and the article shilled heavily for Clinton, asserting absurdly at one point that “A Trump victory could pave the way for Russian ascendance and American acquiescence.”
A second group cited in the article, PropOrNot, revealed on October 30 the keys to “Identifying and Combatting Russian Online Propaganda,” including a convenient table that names all the internet sites that are apparently “useful idiots” engaged in supporting the “active measures” produced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his shadow warriors. PropOrNot alarmingly warns that unless something is done about Moscow’s propaganda, there might be in the “immediate aftermath of the upcoming election, Russian orchestrated political violence in the U.S.”
The research and analysis conducted by both the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot is based on physical connections between sites featuring the “fake stories” as well as repetitive language and expressions, but that is precisely how information moves around on the internet in any event. The completely respectable Consortium News, Antiwar.com, Unz.com, and Ron Paul Institute are four of the sites PropOrNot includes on its “peddlers of Russian propaganda” list, rather suggesting that discussing Moscow’s foreign policy objectively outside the comfort zone of the Washington establishment bubble is enough for inclusion.
The Post article accepts that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee files and other accounts to “embarrass Clinton,” even though actual Russian government culpability has never been unambiguously demonstrated and has been denied by both the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. And it might surprise the Washington Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and PropOrNot to learn that Moscow was watching the U.S. presidential election very closely based on its own self-interest. On one hand, there was a major-party candidate who compared Putin to Hitler and who was advocating confronting Russia in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Syria, including expanding NATO and increasing direct lethal military assistance to Kiev while also intervening directly in Syria. That intervention would include creation of a “no-fly” zone, which would virtually guarantee an incident involving U.S. warplanes and the Russian aircraft supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
On the other hand, there was another major-party candidate advocating dialogue and détente with Russia, arguing that the current level of hostility with Moscow was unwarranted. He was also uninterested in increasing U.S. direct involvement in Syria.
There should be no mystery about whom Putin was going to favor. Yes, Moscow undeniably has a large bureaucracy that engages in media management in support of its own perceived interests, but the State Department does the same thing, as does the CIA overseas, and the Pentagon manages the news coming out of war zones through its embedment of journalists. The White House itself fed false information to journalists in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Many other governments, including those of Israel and China, also engage in methodical global media manipulation to promote both their foreign and domestic policies. And one might also add that the U.S. mainstream media exercises considerable self-censorship over stories that would displease the corporate and political establishment. One must ask who is manipulating whom and whether it is fair to suggest that the American public is so gullible as to believe everything that appears on the internet, on television, or in print?
In addition, I would argue that there is a vast abyss between using a country’s global media resources to favor a certain political outcome in a foreign country and deliberately seeking to destroy that same nation’s political institutions, which is what the Post and its associated think tanks are attempting to link together. And it is not like posting false or misleading stories to obtain some political advantage is something new, having been something like the norm since the invention of mass journalism in the 19th century. It is not for nothing that “truth” has been described as the first casualty when nations engage in conflict and go public to explain their respective points of view.
The Post article wraps its allegations about Russia around the kernel of truth that there have been many false stories on the internet. In my own experience placing false or misleading articles overseas during the Cold War, the trick was not to use a sledgehammer but rather to base an account on a substantially and unimpeachably true story while inserting an element that would convey some additional information. Linking something that was false to something believed to be true would validate the former. Ironically, that is precisely what the Post article seeks to do when it tries to establish as solid its view that Russia was behind the fake news before it demurs, “There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump.” The newspaper is planting the seed that Moscow’s role was decisive by including the reservation.
The Post article also describes the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health issues and implies that the negative commentary was somehow linked to direction coming from Moscow, but the reality is that Clinton actually did stumble and almost fall on camera. That video was played repeatedly, unleashing a torrent of discussion worldwide, including on Clinton-friendly networks like CNN, without any need for Russia to do anything to popularize the story. Russian trolls might indeed have been onto the story quickly, as the article suggests, but they were not alone.
The mainstream media, which clearly is having some difficulty in explaining why anyone should pay attention to it, is eager to discover new reasons why the reporting in the lead-up to the elections was so awful. It is convenient to claim that the Russians planted false stories, and furthermore are attempting to destroy our democracy, which would be a good segue if only anyone would actually believe any of it. The fact is that the public does not trust the media because the reporting has been both intrinsically biased and selective, with Team Clinton being the beneficiary of the status quo far more often than not in the recent electoral campaign. The clearly perceived bias is precisely why the public seeks out alternative sources of information and latches on to fake stories—and while it may be true that a Russian government ministry is responsible for some of what is being produced, the allegation that there exists a plot to destroy American democracy is a bridge way too far. The Democratic and Republican parties are already doing that without any help from Moscow.
I would very much like to see the White House revert to a George Marshall type of foreign policy, in which the United States would use its vast power wisely rather than punitively. As Donald Trump knows little of what makes the world go round, senior officials and cabinet secretaries will play a key role in framing and executing policy. One would like to see people like Jim Webb, Chas Freeman, Andrew Bacevich, or even TAC’s own Daniel Larison in key government positions, as one might thereby rely on their cool judgment and natural restraint to guide the ship of state. But that is unfortunately unlikely to happen.
Instead, by some accounts, we will quite possibly be getting Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Sarah Palin, Jose Rodriguez, Michael Ledeen, and Michael Flynn. Bolton, who is being tagged as a possible secretary of state, would be a one-man reactionary horror show, making one long for the good old days of Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright. There are also lesser, mostly neocon luminaries lining up for supporting roles, résumés ready at hand. To be sure, we won’t be seeing the Kagans, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, or Michael Hayden, who defected to Hillary in dramatic fashion, but there are plenty of others who are polishing up their credentials and hoping to let bygones be bygones. They are eager to return to power and regain the emoluments that go with high office, so they will now claim to be adaptable enough to work for someone they once described as unfit to be president.
It is reported that associates from the conservative Heritage Foundation have been tasked with the search for suitable national-security candidates as part of the transition team. One candidate to head the CIA is Jose Rodriguez, who back under W headed the agency’s torture program. Another former CIA officer who is a particularly polarizing figure and is apparently being looked at for high office is Clare Lopez, who has claimed that the Obama White House is infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lopez is regarded by the Trump team as “one of the intellectual thought leaders about why we have to fight back against radical Islam.” She has long been associated with the Center for Security Policy, headed by Frank Gaffney, a fanatical hardliner who believes that Saddam Hussein was involved in both the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing, that Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist is a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Gen. David Petraeus has “submitted to Sharia,” and that the logo of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency reveals “official U.S. submission to Islam” because it “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star.”
But if Rodriguez and Lopez and others like them can be either discarded or kept in a closet somewhere, let us hope for the best. If Trump appoints competent senior officials, they might actually undertake a serious review of what America does around the world. Such an examination would be appropriate, as Trump has more or less promised to shake things up. He has indicated that he would abandon the policy of humanitarian intervention so loved by President Barack Obama and his advisors, and has signaled that he will not be pursuing regime change in Syria. He will also seek détente with Russia, a major shift from the increasingly confrontational policy of the past eight years.
Donald Trump rejects arming rebels as in Syria because we know little about whom we are dealing with and increasingly find that we cannot control what develops from the relationship. He is against foreign aid in principle, particularly to countries like Pakistan where the U.S. is strongly disliked. These are all positive steps, and the new administration should be encouraged to pursue them. The White House might also want to consider easing the United States out of Afghanistan through something like the negotiated Paris Peace talks arrangement that ended Vietnam. Fifteen years of conflict with no end in sight: Afghanistan is a war that is unwinnable.
Apart from several easy-to-identify major issues, Trump’s foreign policy is admittedly quite sketchy, and he has not always been consistent in explaining it. He has been slammed, appropriately enough, for being simple minded in saying that he would “bomb the [crap] out of ISIS” and that he is willing to put 30,000 soldiers on the ground if necessary to destroy the terrorist group, but he has also taken on the Republican establishment by specifically condemning the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq. He has more than once indicated that he is not interested in being either the world’s policeman or a participant in new wars in the Middle East. He has repeatedly stated that he supports NATO, but not as a blunt instrument designed to irritate Russia. He would work with Putin to address concerns over Syria and Eastern Europe. He would demand that NATO countries spend more for their own defense and also help pay for the maintenance of U.S. bases, which many argue to be long overdue.
Trump’s controversial call to stop all Muslim immigration has been rightly condemned, but he has somewhat moderated that stance to focus on travelers and immigrants from countries that have been substantially radicalized or where anti-American sentiment is strong. And the demand to take a second look at some potential visitors or residents is not unreasonable in that the current process for vetting new arrivals in this country is far from transparent and apparently not very effective.
Beyond platitudes, the Obama administration has not been very forthcoming on what might be done to fix the entire immigration process, but Trump is promising to put national security and border control first. If Trump were to receive good advice on the issue, he would indeed tighten border security and gradually move to repatriate most illegal immigrants, but he would also look at the investigative procedures used to examine the backgrounds and intentions of refugees and asylum seekers who come in through other resettlement programs. The United States has an obligation to help genuine refugees from countries that have been shattered through Washington’s military interventions, but it also has a duty to know exactly whom it is letting in.
Trump is also critical of the Iran nuclear agreement and the steps to normalize relations with Cuba, the two most notable foreign-policy successes of the Obama administration. Any change in the latter would have relatively little impact on the United States, but the Iran deal is important as it stopped potential proliferation by Iran, which likely would have produced a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Trump has called the agreement “horrible” because it stopped short of total capitulation by Tehran and has pledged to “renegotiate it,” which might prove impossible given that the pact had five other signatories. Iran would in any event refuse to make further concessions, particularly as it would no longer be prepared to accept assurances that Washington would comply with any agreement.
The White House could, however, de facto scuttle the agreement by imposing new sanctions on Iran and continuing to apply pressure on Iranian banks and credit through Washington’s influence over international financial markets. If enough pressure were applied, Iran could rightly claim that the U.S. had failed to comply with the agreement and withdraw from it, possibly leading to an accelerated nuclear-weapons program justified on the basis of self-defense. It is precisely the outcome that many hardliners both in Washington and Iran would like to see, as it would invite a harsh response from the White House, ending any possibility of an accord over proliferation.
Someone has to try to convince Trump that the Iranian agreement is good for everyone involved, including Israel and the United States. Even though such a suggestion is unlikely to come from the current group of advisors, who are strongly anti-Iranian, a good argument might be made based on what Trump himself has been urging vis-à-vis Syria, stressing that ISIS is America’s real enemy and Iran is a major partner in the coalition that is actively fighting the terrorist group. As in the case of Russia, it makes sense to cooperate with Iran when it is in our interest, and it also is desirable to prolong the process, delaying Iran’s possible decision to acquire a nuclear capability. Working with Iran might even make the country’s leadership less paranoid and would reduce the motivation to acquire a weapon in the first place, an argument analogous to Trump’s observations about dealing with Russia.
But it all comes down to the type of “expert” advice Trump gets. The president-elect is largely ignorant of the world and its leaders, so he has relied on a mixed bag of foreign-policy advisors. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, appears to be the most prominent. Flynn is associated with arch-neocon Michael Ledeen, and both are rabid about Iran, with Flynn suggesting that nearly all the unrest in the Middle East should be laid at Tehran’s door. Ledeen is, of course, a prominent Israel-firster who has long had Iran in his sights. Their solution to the Iran problem would undoubtedly entail the use of military force against the Islamic Republic. Given what is at stake in terms of yet another Middle Eastern war and possible nuclear proliferation, it is essential that Donald Trump hear some alternative views.
There are other foreign-policy areas as well where Trump will undoubtedly be receiving bad advice and would benefit from a broader vision. He has said that he would be an even-handed negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians, but he has also declared that he is strongly pro-Israel and would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—which is a bad idea, not in America’s interest, even if Benjamin Netanyahu would like it. It would produce serious blowback from the Arab world and would inspire a new wave of terrorism directed against the U.S. Someone should explain to Mr. Trump that there are real consequences to pledges made in the midst of an acrimonious electoral campaign.
The Trump Asia policy, meanwhile, consists largely of uninformed and reactionary positions that would benefit from a bit of fresh air provided through access to alternative viewpoints. In East Asia, Trump has said he would encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals to deter North Korea. That is a very bad idea, a proliferation nightmare, but Trump evidently eased away from that position during a recent phone call to the president of South Korea. Trump would also prefer that China intervene in North Korea and make Kim Jong Un “step down.” He would put pressure on China to stop devaluing its currency because it is “bilking us of billions of dollars” and would also increase U.S. military presence in the region to limit Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea.
It is to be hoped that Donald Trump and his transition team will be good listeners over the next 60 days. Positions staked out during a heated campaign do not equate to policy and should be regarded with considerable skepticism. American foreign policy, and by extension U.S. interests, have suffered for 16 years under the establishment-centric but nevertheless quite different groupthinks prevailing in the Bush and Obama White Houses. It is time for a little fresh advice.
The Republic of Turkey has become a loose cannon on deck, a short-term asset in enabling the U.S.’s bombing of northern Syria but a major liability when it comes to any eventual settlement intended to quell the fighting in the region.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to destroy both genuine enemies and far less blameworthy critics alike in his over-the-top reaction to July’s attempted military coup. His emergency powers were recently extended. He has used an enemies list, prepared pre-coup, to detain 37,000 without any prospect of trial, to arrest or fire more than 100,000 government officials, to shut down newspapers and televisions stations, to close schools and universities, and to wage an increasingly bloody war against the country’s minority Kurds. In Kurdish southwestern Turkey there have been wholesale dismissals and even arrests of teachers, bureaucrats, and elected officials, including mayors. They are being replaced by appointees from Ankara loyal to the government but frequently lacking in the training required to do their jobs.
Erdogan’s paranoia and desire for revenge run deep. Alleged coup organizer Fetullah Gulen has been described as the head of a “terrorist organization … intent on subduing the entire world, far beyond Turkey.” Turkish embassies and consulates overseas have been ordered to compile lists of disloyal citizens, and Ankara even sued a German comedian who satirized Erdogan. In Turkey itself, police and intelligence agents have been arresting people who possess multiple American $1 bills whose serial numbers all start with the same letter. (It is believed that the banknotes were used to establish bona fides among coup plotters.) Reading the wrong newspaper or book has led to firing or imprisonment, while parliamentary critics are being silenced and threatened with arrest after being labeled as terrorists. There have been frequent reports of torture, beatings, and even rape of those detained, and Erdogan has supported calls for the death penalty for military officers involved in the coup.
And then there is the ongoing corruption of Erdogan himself, his family, and his close associates. Turkey illegally bought Iranian oil while Iran was under sanctions, and Erdogan’s son Bilal used his tankers to move it to markets in East Asia to sell it. Fearing a police raid at one point, Erdogan telephoned his son and advised him to go to his safe, remove all the money inside, and hide it. Now the government has been arresting businessmen accused of being sympathetic to the coup without presenting any evidence, while also confiscating billions of dollars in assets belonging to their companies. The assets are being “temporarily” managed by political associates of Erdogan.
Erdogan is unfortunately supported by a solid bloc of voters who see the world the same way he does and generally share his intense and often-cited religiosity. He is inspired by his own personal sense of righteousness, and he has exhibited what one might reasonably describe as megalomania, seeing grandiose building projects and a redefinition of Turkey’s domestic and international interests as part and parcel of his own authority and that of his ruling AKP party.
I have previously described how Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy has long been driven by a somewhat legitimate fear of the development of an independent Kurdish state, which presumably would incorporate parts of Turkey with northern Syria and Iraq as well as western Iran. Indeed, Erdogan’s recent participation in the fighting against ISIS is actually a deliberate misdirection, being instead mostly aimed at striking the Kurdish militias that the United States regards as its most effective fighting force against the terrorist groups.
More disturbing still, recent developments suggest that Ankara is now entertaining irredentist claims over former parts of the Ottoman Empire that are adjacent to Turkey’s current borders, including Mosul in Iraq, areas just north of Aleppo in Syria, and parts of Greece. Erdogan has argued that he has a responsibility to protect “Turks” in neighboring states, a rationalization that he has been employing to bomb Kurdish-controlled areas and to demand a role in the impending Iraqi assault on Mosul, which has a small Turkmen minority. Iraq’s government, knowing that once Ankara has its foot in the door it will be difficult to make Turkish soldiers go home, has flatly rejected the offer. Erdogan responded by observing that Turkey has a right to invade Iraq if it feels threatened.
The aim to assert some form of regional dominance is a reversal of Turkey’s former foreign policy, which stressed friendly relations with all its neighbors. One might further suggest that the July coup let the genie out of the bottle, fully liberating Erdogan from whatever restraints he believed himself to be under and giving him an opportunity to rewrite the country’s constitution to enhance and perpetuate his own power, a process that is now well underway.
Many reasonably question whether NATO should exist at all after the demise of the Soviet Union, but including Turkey as a member raises some very serious concerns due to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (which created the alliance). This provision requires all members to respond to a military threat against any member state as a “collective defense.” As the alliance purports to be defensive in nature, Turkey’s irredentist claims are problematic—particularly as it would not be particularly difficult to contrive an incident that would make an offensive operation appear to be self-defense. Such an incident took place in December 2015 with the clearly premeditated downing of a Russian warplane that had strayed over the border into Turkey for 17 seconds. Turkey regarded the incursion as an act of war. Fortunately, Moscow was restrained in its response, and the situation did not escalate in military terms, so the issue of NATO involvement, though it briefly surfaced in Brussels, was essentially moot.
In addition, as a basically European-American alliance, NATO has long taken as a given that member states will conform to reasonably democratic norms. That is something that Turkey is rapidly moving away from with its mass arrests, show trials, and collective punishments while Erdogan seeks to aggrandize his position by enhancing his own presidential powers. As Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute puts it, “Turkey’s brief democratic moment is ending.”
For the United States, the calculus is somewhat complicated. Hillary Clinton will likely up the ante in Syria, which will require the use of the airbase at Incirlik. But after that, presuming that World War III can somehow be averted while the escalation and intervention are taking place, the role of Turkey should be reevaluated based on strategic considerations distinct from the current fighting in Iraq and Syria. Ankara’s status as a long-term strategic asset should certainly be challenged, particularly in light of the Erdogan government’s authoritarian predilections.
Most observers in Washington now believe that ISIS will soon be defeated as a territorial threat, though it likely will retain a base of operations in troubled Libya. That means any continued operations against the group will be conducted by special ops and intelligence personnel, and thus will not require extensive infrastructure and support. As the U.S. will retain major regional military assets in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, Turkey will become a backwater and a Cold War relic, redundant, with Washington instead increasingly focused on security issues surrounding Iran and the Sunni-Shia conflict.
Ankara persists in believing that its current strategic importance means that it can do or say anything and Washington will avoid any criticism, but the White House is clearly beginning to recognize that Turkey is, in the long run, a liability as long as Erdogan’s brand of democratic centralism prevails. And it must be observed that the current bilateral relationship, in which the administration leans over backwards to placate an invariably irritable Erdogan, produces bad policy. In the recent contretemps with Baghdad over an enhanced Turkish role in Mosul, Secretary of State John Kerry unwisely urged the Iraqis to let the Turks become a partner in the enterprise. He was tone deaf to other considerations of which the government in Baghdad and America’s Kurdish partners were all too aware.
The White House should recognize that Turkey has become a destabilizing force in the Near East. Its past collusion with—and arming of—terrorist groups like ISIS reveals that it is not unwilling to play a double game against its nominal allies. Its implacable hostility toward all things Kurdish affects the internal stability of nearly all of its neighbors and even diminishes Washington’s ability to deal with ISIS. Its increasingly assertive nationalism, which is beginning to define itself as irredentism—backed by what is still, after the purge of thousands of personnel, the most powerful military in the region—could easily morph into a series of local conflicts as Ankara seeks to realign its borders.
If Turkey continues to remain in NATO, and if the U.S. persists in being closely tied to it logistically, the eventual consequences could be grave, with Washington again drawn into a Middle East quagmire by virtue of a war that it is neither prepared for nor seeking to fight.
Security directors from a number of North and East African countries have been discussing the issues raised by the continued flow across their borders of immigrants seeking to reach Europe. The numbers are expected to decline as colder weather arrives, but not as much as in previous years, and the migration is expected to surge again in the spring. Several countries that have become transit points report that the immigrants are coming from as far as the Republic of South Africa, reflecting the economic problems that prevail in much of the continent. Libya continues to be the favored launching point for boats taking the immigrants to Italy, Greece, and even the Balkans, primarily due to the unsettled conditions prevailing in the western part of that country.
Officials note that the migrants create problems all along their routes to the north as they are transiting through relatively poor countries with little in the way of resources to mitigate the difficulties presented by their long journeys. They are also exploited, and even killed, by the people-smugglers that infest the most commonly used routes.
The North and East African governments in question mostly blame the surge taking place over the past two years on European Union policies, which have failed to confront the human tidal wave in any realistic way and are lately being described as “humanitarian” in nature even though the would-be immigrants from Africa are only rarely victims of unrest or civil war. They are instead overwhelmingly young males seeking work and opportunities for a better life. When interviewed by the authorities, they almost all cite the belief that if they reach Italy or Greece they will eventually be able to stay in Europe. Many know that Rome and Athens are willing to put up with them temporarily but will ultimately try to influence them to move on to northern Europe, which suits the migrants perfectly. Many are indeed escaping camps set up to process their applications for asylum or refugee status and are heading north. The word going back to their friends at home is that Europe is now wide open, and it is time to take the initiative, even as some individual nations in Eastern Europe are trying to close the door.
(The flow of would-be refugees out of Syria is, of course, something quite different, but it also includes many non-humanitarian cases, who, like the Africans, destroy their identity documents to make categorizing them and evaluating their status more difficult.)
The North African governments would like to see firm measures to deal with their refugee problem, with the European Union tightening up on its policies and refusing to take in new immigrants and instead returning them to their points of embarkation, which are mostly on the Libyan coast. They believe that once the escape route is closed at its end point, it will also close at all points down the line, which would appear to be a sensible argument. But Europe is dithering, eager to appear to be doing the right thing for world opinion, yet actually making the problem worse by creating an incentive for people to move.
The relentless drumbeat against Donald Trump continues. The Washington Post on October 14 endorsed Hillary Clinton for president while also including in the print edition nine articles, three op-eds, and three letters blasting the GOP candidate, including pieces in the Style and Metro sections of the paper. On the following day there were five articles, a lead editorial, three letters, two op-eds, and two cartoons. And the Post is not alone, with the New York Times doing its bit in running news articles on Trump’s alleged sexual proclivities while the television media continue to run with the stories relating to earlier revelations. When Trump raised the possibility that all of this activity is being coordinated and possibly in part fabricated by the Clinton campaign, he was castigated for even suggesting such a thing.
More disturbing, in my opinion, is the role the White House has been playing in the drama. President Barack Obama has been active in speaking for Hillary and damning Trump, describing the GOP candidate as both unfit for office and lacking in the experience necessary to become head of state. There is a certain irony in Obama’s assertions, as he himself entered office as probably the least experienced president of the past hundred years, but it is the White House’s taking the lead in an electoral campaign that is at a minimum troubling. Traditionally, the president as head of state should be above the fray, as he is paid and empowered by the people to run the country, not to campaign for his successor. It is to be presumed that the Democratic National Committee foots the bill when Obama engages in campaign whistle-stops, but one has to wonder if that includes all the infrastructure costs involved in moving the president from place to place. And, undoubtedly, it would be difficult to winnow out costs when Obama combines campaigning and his official duties.
Michelle Obama holds no official office, so it is less problematic when she hits the campaign trail. Nevertheless, I think it somewhat unseemly that the wife of the president is so heavily engaged in the Hillary Clinton campaign. In recent stops clearly designed to appeal to women, she has denigrated Trump, saying that his comments had shaken her “to her core.” Such criticism is reasonable enough given some of the Trumpean bon mots that have surfaced of late, but there is a touch of hypocrisy in it all given Bill Clinton’s record as a sexual predator, which was certainly in part enabled by Hillary to preserve their political viability.
While the self-immolating Donald Trump certainly deserves much of the criticism hurled at him, the nearly hysterical promotion of Hillary Clinton as a moderate and reasonable alternative by the combined forces of the White House and media does the voter no favors. Pillorying Trump for his ignorance and insensitivity ignores how awful Hillary Clinton is in her own way. Hillaryland promises to be an evolutionary place where Democratic strategists work to bring together a permanent electoral advantage through shrewd appeals to unite segments of the population that see themselves as victimized. And it will also bring with it a likelihood of more war, not only against various players in the Middle East, but also against Russia in Europe, as well as Syria and China in the Pacific.
American voters should wake up to the issue of war versus peace. Daniel Larison and other contributors here at TAC have demonstrated how Hillary Clinton would be a highly aggressive president, with a particular animus directed against Russia. Unfortunately, she would find little opposition in Congress and the media for an extremely risky foreign policy, and would benefit from the Washington groupthink that prevails over the alleged threats emanating from Russia, Iran, and China. James Stavridis, a retired admiral who was once vetted by Clinton as a possible vice president, recently warned of “the need to use deadly force against the Iranians. I think it’s coming. It’s going to be maritime confrontation and if it doesn’t happen immediately, I’ll bet you a dollar it’s going to be happening after the presidential election, whoever is elected.”
Another glimpse of where we might be heading with Hillary in charge was provided last week by Carl Gershman in a Washington Post op-ed, “Remembering a journalist who was killed for standing up to Putin,” that received curiously little additional coverage in the media. Gershman is the head of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which means that he is a powerful figure in Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. For those unfamiliar with NED, it is a self-described non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to spreading democracy worldwide. It has been heavily engaged in the various pastel revolutions in Eastern Europe as well as in the Arab Spring. It is funded by the United States government to the tune of $100 million-plus a year, which suggests that its NGO status is somewhat of a convenience, enabling it to carry out projects that the White House would like to distance itself from. Some critics of NED recall that the organization was founded in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, and was intended to be another element in fighting Soviet influence during the Cold War. Currently, it has plausibly been described as doing the sorts of things that the CIA used to do.
NED has a Democratic Party wing called the National Democratic Institute for Foreign Affairs, which is headed by Madeleine Albright, and a Republican Party wing called International Republican Institute, which is led by Sen. John McCain, so support for it is bipartisan. Gershman, who has been plausibly described as a neoconservative and is certainly an interventionist, has been president of the overall NED organization since its founding 33 years ago.
Gershman’s op-ed recalls the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya ten years ago, blaming it on Russian President Vladimir Putin even though there is no evidence to connect him to it and the actual killers were caught, confessed, and were convicted and imprisoned. He then goes on to trot out the usual crimes being committed by the Russian regime: “today, Russia occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. It has annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and threatened its Baltic and Nordic neighbors. It uses email hackers, information trolls and open funding of political parties to sow discord in Europe, weaken the European Union and NATO, and undermine confidence in Western institutions. In league with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, it is expanding its influence in the Middle East, and it is even intervening in the U.S. presidential election.”
Many of Gershman’s bumper-sticker claims are either partially true or unproven, while some of them are ridiculous, completely unsupported by evidence, but Gershman nevertheless concludes that “the United States has the power to contain and defeat this danger. The issue is whether we can summon the will to do so.” It is basically a call for the next administration to remove Putin from power—as foolish a suggestion as has ever been seen in a leading newspaper, as it implies that the risk of nuclear war is completely acceptable to bring about regime change in a country whose very popular, democratically elected leadership we disapprove of.
The comments from the Post readership on the article were largely critical of the author and also of NED itself. One critic wrote that NED should be renamed the “National Endowment for Permanently Boosting Raytheon’s Stock Prices.” Another observed that “No one elected Carl Gershman, the NED, the Council on Foreign Affairs, the Project for the New American Century. No one in the USA elected these people. No Americans elected the owners and editors of the Washington Post and the NY Times. Every poll shows Americans don’t want the USA to intervene in Syria, no actions against the Syrian government.” Still another comment noted that “I only wish I had the time and column space to refute all the lies and misinformation in this article.”
The point to be considered is that the fog created by the trashing of Trump obscures the very real danger posed by a possible President Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is wedded to the Washington foreign-policy consensus about how best to employ America’s vast military resources and is not reluctant to take aggressive action against adversaries who do not conform to Washington’s standards for good behavior. Such posturing might be considered acceptable to the American public when confronting a third-world country, but the stakes become dramatically higher when one is dealing with a country with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them on target. The possibility that hardlining overseas might escalate into such an encounter should be a very serious consideration when Americans go to the polls in two and a half weeks’ time.
People who make their living thinking about defense policy and national security like everything to fit into a nice framework, preferably one that can be visualized on a PowerPoint slide. If you are unfortunate enough to be standing next to two officials speaking Pentagonese during a reception, you will note that their language is full of acronyms relating to projects and obscure government agencies—and that they refer regularly to strategic concepts and systems, including the venerable “triad” of nuclear deterrence.
The “triad” concept holds that when a country fields land-, air-, and submarine-based nuclear capabilities, it greatly increases its chances of being able to retaliate after an attack. In the case of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, for example, if either side would have launched a first strike and knocked out the other side’s land- or air-based systems, submarines would still have provided a devastating second-strike capability. Nuclear war was such an awful prospect that it long was described as intrinsically the ultimate universal deterrent, rendering an actual armed conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact that might escalate unthinkable.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 seemed to reduce the chance of nuclear war still further, even though the weapons had proliferated. But no one anticipated the level of hostility toward Russia that is now evident, and talk in the Pentagon is again focused on what it would take to win a war against an apparently resurgent Moscow. And for his part, earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew from a nuclear security pact, citing “hostile actions” by the U.S.
To be sure, much of the Pentagon’s animosity regarding Moscow is budget-driven, with generals and admirals needing an enemy more formidable than “international terrorism” to justify an enhanced role for their respective branches of the service. Recent general-staff claims that the U.S. Army is “outranged and outgunned” by the Russian military are credible only if one counts tanks and does not consider the opposing air forces. Alarms raised by former general and current self-promoting politician Wesley Clark that Russia has built an “invulnerable” tank have been met with derision. Many of the claims regarding advanced Russian weaponry come from the Ukrainian government, which clearly has an agenda to support as it seeks sophisticated U.S. offensive arms and military aid.
The reality is that Russia, apart from its nuclear arsenal, is a bit of a mouse that roared. Its struggling economy generates a GNP that is on par with that of Italy, and it spends one-seventh as much as the U.S. on the military. It has one aircraft carrier versus 10 in the American arsenal, one-sixth as many helicopters, one-third the number of fighter aircraft, and less than half as many active-duty military personnel. It has no effective military allies, while the U.S. has nearly all of Eastern and Western Europe in NATO.
Official U.S. policy is that NATO provides conventional deterrence at such a level that Russia would not be inclined to start a conflict with any alliance member lest it be defeated in short order. But Russia would have certain advantages if it were to attack without warning, relying on internal lines and deploying locally superior forces. And the reliability of a coordinated NATO response can be questioned, as the raison d’etre for NATO itself is wearing thin even as the alliance has expanded to include countries like Montenegro. One U.S. Army officer observed to journalist Mark Perry, “How many British soldiers do you think want to die for Estonia?”
The problems involved in actually mounting a credible conventional defense in Europe are why there is a second level of deterrence: the nuclear umbrella maintained by the United States, Britain, and France. U.S. officialdom used to suggest that Washington and NATO would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, but that was never an actual policy. Last month there were reports that President Obama had considered committing to “no first use” but was overruled by his cabinet, with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter describing such a pledge as “a sign of weakness.” Two liberal congressmen have since introduced a bill that would prohibit U.S. first use of nuclear weapons, but it appears to have little support and is likely to die in committee.
Carter, who describes nuclear weapons as the “bedrock” and “guarantor” of U.S. security, recently spoke at several Minuteman missile bases in the United States. He stated that the U.S. and its European allies are now “refreshing” U.S. strategy by integrating conventional and nuclear weapons in order to “deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO.” Carter explained that Moscow has little regard “for long-established accords of using nuclear weapons,” raising “serious questions” about “whether they respect the profound caution that Cold War-era leaders showed in respect to brandishing their nuclear weapons.”
Ash Carter also elaborated that “if deterrence fails, you provide the president with options to achieve U.S. and allied objectives … all to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons being used in the first place.” He emphasized “our will and ability to act.” Note that Carter did not suggest that the U.S. would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, and was clearly indicating that such weapons are in the mix of how to respond to what he obviously sees as an increasing Russian threat.
Carter is admittedly an anti-Russian hawk. He is also a physicist by training and is somewhat of an expert on policies relating to the use of nuclear weapons. Some of the changes he has made to our nuclear-deterrent policies were recently observable on CBS’s 60 Minutes, which ran a series on the state of the American nuclear arsenal. On board a nuclear-armed Ohio class submarine, officers spoke openly of the heightened state of alert—back up to a Cold War level—since “Russia invaded Crimea.” A relatively new tactical option was also discussed, referred to as “escalate to de-escalate,” which envisions defeating a conventional attack by means of a nuclear demonstration strike. The nuke would serve as a warning of more to come if the attack continued.
The concept of using a nuke as a warning is not exactly new. “Going nuclear” was considered a viable option during America’s two Iraq wars, if Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them, and it has also been a part of the battle plan should the United States go to war with Iran. But what has changed the calculus is the sophistication of the weapons themselves.
New tactical nuclear weapons, like the latest versions of the U.S. B-61, are small and portable. They can be launched from a bomber or as part of a cruise missile or even from a ground installation or vehicle. Further, their operators can “dial up a yield”—i.e., select the size of the explosion on the bomb itself. That means a demonstration nuclear strike can be effectively “nuclear” while also designed to have a relatively small footprint to reduce both civilian and military casualties. This selectivity makes such a bomb, in the minds of some generals and politicians, potentially an effective warning rather than an automatic escalation of the fighting—and as a result it is a weapon that is much “more usable.”
The Russians, of course, have similar weapons, and by some accounts their nuclear arsenal is more modern than that employed by the U.S. Moscow’s war doctrine was recently spelled out by Putin. He said that Moscow “would reserve the right to use nuclear weapons if the existence of Russia is threatened.” This has been interpreted as Putin acknowledging that his conventional forces cannot go head-to-head with those of the U.S. in the long run—and warning that Russia might be forced to go nuclear first, relatively early on in the conflict, to defend itself.
So one should conclude that both sides confronting each other over Eastern Europe are now prepared to go nuclear under certain circumstances. No one is asking the Poles and Slovaks, whose land might well be the site for such a demonstration, what they think, but their governments are officially on board with NATO strategies designed to deter Russia. Germany has, however, expressed considerable nervousness over the saber-rattling as memories of the Red Army are still somewhat fresh.
And there are frightening indications that some senior military officers might be eager to get things started in the belief that a war with Russia could actually be winnable. Certifiable loose cannons on deck include Wesley Clark, who reportedly tried to engineer a confrontation with Russian peacekeepers in Kosovo in 1999. Crazier still, Gen. Philip Breedlove (who retired earlier this year) worked hard during his time as supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe to get NATO and the U.S. involved in a proxy war over Ukraine. In leaked emails, an interlocutor suggested he and the U.N. secretary general might “fashion a NATO strategy to leverage, cajole, convince or coerce the U.S. to react” to the Russian “threat”; Breedlove found this “very promising.” Breedlove, who has regularly lied about the extent of the Russian presence in Ukraine, has hysterically described Moscow as a “long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies.” The general was also reportedly in contact with State Department Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who helped engineer the coup that overthrew the Ukrainian government in 2014.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is calling Putin a new Hitler while the New York Times editorializes against “Vladimir Putin’s Outlaw State.” And the real danger is that the Russian people are watching this display with concern and might soon believe themselves to be backed into a corner by an implacable enemy. Putin has several times warned that there is an increasing perception in Russia that the country is being surrounded and endangered by the continuous expansion of NATO as well as by threats relating to his country’s involvement in Syria. Opinion polls suggest that the average Russian now expects war with the West.
The insistence on the part of the many in the West that Putin must be resisted by using force majeure if necessary is based on gross exaggeration of the actual threat coming from Moscow. That nuclear weapons are now apparently employable in the plans for deterrence on the part of NATO, as well as in the Russian plans for self-defense, should be a terrifying prospect for anyone who cares about what might come next.
There might well be thousands of books on terrorism, which means that it is extremely difficult to imagine something new. But Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? A History, due to be released next month, differs from most discussions of the terror phenomenon.
English is not a former intelligence officer or national-security official, nor a self-styled foreign-policy expert. He is instead a distinguished historian, born in Northern Ireland and currently a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has written four books on the Irish Republican Army and is very knowledgeable of the history and development of terrorist groups, primarily European ones. He is prone not only to ask questions, but also to try to answer them, having written in 2009 Terrorism: How to Respond.
I found Does Terrorism Work? particularly interesting, as my own career as a counterterrorism officer began in the mid-1970s, when terrorism was still pretty much Western European. I know quite a bit about the groups that English discusses, and I am also intimately familiar with the countermeasures that were employed to combat and eventually defeat them.
English basically accepts the United Nations language on what constitutes terrorism, which is: an action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” He observes that the threat of terror is greatly exaggerated for political reasons, and he notes that efforts to confront it through a global crusade like the U.S.-led War on Terror do little other than create more terrorists. He counsels a restrained response.
In coming to those conclusions he is far from alone. But English also shares his historian’s insights into how groups develop and are motivated, in part to help readers understand how public policy might respond to the actual threat that these groups constitute. As his title indicates, one of the central questions relating to terrorism—and one that oddly has received little attention—is whether it’s effective in achieving what terrorists seek to achieve.
English grades terrorist groups based on whether they achieved their objectives—a process that Thomas Nagel, writing in the London Review of Books, describes as a “report card.” Along the way he makes some assumptions. For example, he posits that terrorist leaders are not as a rule crazy. They are rational players in that they have well-defined political objectives that they seek to attain and that they explicitly lay out in their manifestos. Terror is consequently best seen as a tool in a political process.
English focuses on four terrorist entities—the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Euskadi Ta Akatasuna (ETA), Hamas, and al-Qaeda—though he discusses a number of other groups in passing. Three of his four groups have clearly demonstrated nationalist aspirations; they seek the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland (IRA), Basque independence from Spain (ETA), and restoration of Arab-Muslim hegemony in Palestine (Hamas). Al-Qaeda is defined by English as a “religio-political” movement that is transnational, but it too embraces territorial objectives, including removing the United States from the Middle East and overthrowing and replacing most of the “corrupt” Muslim regimes that are universally in power both in the region as well as in the remainder of the Islamic Ummah.
The book examines in considerable detail the histories of these groups. It notes that an overwhelming percentage of Irishmen and Basques do not and never have embraced the violent agenda promoted by the IRA and ETA, meaning that any kind of terrorist political ascendancy would never have popular support. And the groups have understood from the get-go that they would never defeat, say, the British Army or the Guardia Civil.
English also observes that the existence of terrorist groups actually hampered the moves toward greater regional autonomy, as terrorism hardened existing government positions and tended to undermine the efforts being made by more moderate reformers. In other words, Basque and Northern Irish autonomy would have come sooner without the distraction provided by the IRA and ETA—and change, when it did come, came in spite of the presence of these hostile armed groups, not because of it.
Al-Qaeda likewise is not particularly popular in the Muslim world and has accomplished little more than empowering the existing Islamic governments to get even tougher with dissidents. Its “victories,” as at 9/11, have been merely tactical and have led to the virtual destruction of the group. Hamas falls into the same trap with its continued support of violence against Israel, actually empowering leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu (who are skillful at using the “threat” to justify increasingly hardline responses) while frustrating any attempts by moderates to establish a viable modus vivendi between Jews and Arabs. Netanyahu might not even exist without Hamas.
One might also mention Hezbollah. The group scored a major tactical success when it blew up the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, but the bombings did not translate into any larger political role until the group became more conventional.
Indeed, the book describes in detail only two terrorist movements that plausibly were driving forces in bringing about real political change. The first was 1945-47 Palestine, where Jewish terrorists (primarily associated with the Stern Gang, Irgun, and Haganah) eventually compelled the British to hand over the problem to the United Nations, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel. The second was the campaign by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) to drive the French out of Algeria from 1954 until 1962. But even in those cases, English plausibly makes the case that the British or French could easily have crushed the terrorists, but were not motivated to make the effort, because both countries were retrenching militarily and politically post-World War II. There was also very little popular support back at home for either war, which means that while terror may have accelerated the timetable for withdrawal, it was not a major factor in bringing it about.
All of which leads English to conclude that terrorism has never “worked”—that it has failed to succeed in achieving its principal objectives in strategic terms—a judgment that I would share based on my own experience. And that point is where the book really becomes interesting, as English goes on to argue that terror is unsuccessful not because it employs violence, but rather because its goals are generally unachievable by any means. Given the dismal record of failure by terrorists, English concludes that terrorists cannot win and must even know that they can never win.
And winning is important. One only has to note how ISIS was flooded with volunteers when it was seen as successful, a process that has been reversed now that it is in decline. The persistent failure of terror actually challenges English’s assumption that its leaders are truly rational players, and it also demands some exploration of what motivates the rank-and-file, as it is hardly logical to pursue a policy that you know will not succeed and that will eventually lead to your death. Nagel describes terrorist activity as “delusional.” This failure to connect with reality also potentially upends the perception, which I have shared, that all terrorism is at heart political.
English’s meticulous examination of documents and personal testimony from various groups reveals that both leaders and followers who are prepared to kill large numbers of innocent civilians do not necessarily expect to be rewarded with victory over government forces or benefit personally from political transformation. English concludes instead that they are frequently driven by hatred and the desire to get revenge for the suffering and humiliation inflicted on them by what they regard as an illegitimate government, or by foreigners or foreign governments. He cites, among other evidence, a quotation by Osama bin Laden: “Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.”
So is it possible that George W. Bush was right when he said “they hate us for our freedom”? Well, not exactly, though they certainly do hate us. To be accurate, a lot of the hatred from Islamic terrorist groups is blowback for what we Americans have been doing to Muslims in a tangible and very visible way. If I were a Muslim living in the Middle East or South Asia, it would be very difficult for me to concur with any mainstream-media depiction of the United States as some kind of benevolent hegemon.
English perhaps underappreciates how the brutality and unpredictability of terrorist attacks serve as force multipliers, providing “little victories” and often compelling governments to act contrary to their true interests, even if the eventual result is something less than regime change. And it is certainly possible to disagree with him over the rationality of terrorist leaders in light of his own conclusions. But his observation that terrorism always fails certainly gives one pause in attempts to explain the appeal of quasi-political violent movements that are by nature suicidal. Perhaps attributing it to hatred and revenge taken together, rather than to any rational process seeking to bring about real change, is as close as we can come to understanding it.
What is going on in Turkey right now reminds me very much of the last few scenes in the first Godfather movie, where Michael Corleone is settling all of the Family’s outstanding business. Corleone is seen in church renouncing “Satan and all his works” while he participates in the baptism of his nephew—shortly before garroting the baby’s father, Carl.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is certainly cleaning house. He has used last month’s failed coup attempt as an excuse to eliminate all his political opponents in the government and military bureaucracies, and he has now begun work on cleaning out the universities and the state schools. There have also been more arrests in the already-shackled media, including of senior editors. By some estimates, upward of 40,000 Turks have been arrested, while twice that many more have lost their jobs, and there are reports that the country’s prisons are being emptied of criminals to make room for the new arrivals. There is talk of bringing back the death penalty for those convicted of “treason” in the conspiracy to overthrow the government.
What do we now know for sure about the coup? It was indeed an attempt to overthrow the Erdogan government, possibly including plans to kill the president. It included some air force, army, and paramilitary police units but did not have the support of the major army commands. In my opinion and that of many others, Erdogan clearly had some prior knowledge that it was coming, as he was already preparing to arrest 3,000 military personnel. The news of the impending arrests reportedly forced the plotters to move more quickly, which took Erdogan by surprise, but he managed to rally his supporters, and the coup was put down with fewer than 300 deaths.
Arrests began immediately, with 12,000 detained within 24 hours, suggesting strongly that a list of suspects had been prepared in advance. Erdogan has, politically speaking, been the main beneficiary of the event. He has obtained emergency powers from parliament and is well-placed to be granted permanent unitary executive authority, which will weaken any and all checks and balances in the Turkish constitution—and ultimately benefit both him and his AKP party.
Erdogan and his supporters immediately blamed an opponent, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and has plausibly been linked to the CIA. Gulen heads a movement called Hizmet, meaning “Service,” which has sometimes been likened to a cult. It allegedly includes many military and police officers, judges, and teachers. In my opinion, the clout of Gulen should not be minimized, but the idea that he could or would arrange a coup is a bit of a stretch. The military had plenty of reasons to loathe Erdogan without Gulen’s assistance, most notably the then-prime minister’s holding of a show trial that convicted 330 senior officers back in 2012 without producing much in the way of evidence.
Turkish media, following directions from the government, have also declared that Washington was involved, a viewpoint shared by none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski. The White House has strenuously denied any connection to the coup, and it defies all reason to suggest that the basically timid Obama administration would back a military coup to overthrow the elected government of a NATO member state. If such a coup were attempted and it were to leak, as it surely would, it would mean the end of NATO, a turn that would please many of us but is anathema to the establishment that the White House represents.
The innuendo coming out of Turkey, orchestrated both by government spokesmen and by the tame, officially controlled media, has convinced a majority of Turks that Washington was behind Gulen and also supported the coup attempt. Visits from high-level officials, including U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and more recently Vice President Joe Biden, have been intended to calm the situation, as has a private meeting between Erdogan and Obama on Sunday, but the Turkish president believes he has the winning hand, and he is not interested in hearing platitudes or making concessions. The longer the issue remains at a boil, the more his hand at home is strengthened, as he can always claim that he is being bullied by Washington.
It is clear that some in Washington see Turkey as essential to the “war on ISIS.” Others are inclined to be skeptical, noting that Turkey has been playing both sides of the conflict in Syria, while its role in NATO is much diminished in an alliance that has largely lost its raison d’être. It also might be observed that Turkey has long pursued its own interests, buying Iranian oil when that country was subject to sanctions and more recently assisting ISIS more than opposing it. Understanding that, the Turkish government’s oft-repeated assertion that the U.S.-supported Kurdish militias in Syria are connected to the insurgent PKK inside Turkey and are terrorists as much as ISIS should have been setting off warning bells in the Pentagon and also at CIA.
All of which leads one to question how the White House managed to get into its current contretemps with Erdogan. The Turkish president clearly couldn’t have cared less about what the White House wanted when he recently made the decision to invade northern Syria. Joe Biden arrived in Ankara as the attack was beginning, a clear signal that Erdogan considered coordination with its American ally an irrelevancy. Biden dutifully supported the offensive and also committed to keeping the Kurdish militias behind the Euphrates in deference to Turkish sensitivities, but it was all political theater. Erdogan’s main target in Syria was never ISIS at all. Political Kurdistan, represented by America’s Kurdish allies, is and always will be enemy number one for Erdogan, for the very sensible reason that a newly created Kurdish state would inevitably obtain a large part of its population and territory from Turkey.
The Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield on the border region on August 24, initially rolling over the town of Jarabulus, which was reportedly controlled by ISIS. The army units were aided by militiamen from the CIA-trained Sultan Murad Brigade. The U.S. had been discussing a cross-border operation with Ankara since 2015, but, uninformed of the impending assault, the embassy as well as Biden were taken by surprise when the Turks actually moved into Syria. Washington belatedly provided limited air support, which terminated when the Turkish army drove south into Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled territory and the true objective of the incursion became clear.
What followed was Washington’s latest nightmare. Two groups of rebel fighters supported and trained by the U.S., the Kurdish YPG and the Sultan Murads, wound up shooting each other. The Turks are clearly trying to carve out a “safe” or buffer zone all along its border with Syria, which will be both ISIS- and Kurd-free, a task that they are describing as “cleansing” the area. How they expect to maintain that and repopulate it without Kurds is unclear, and the danger that embedded U.S. advisors will be killed in the process has preoccupied the Pentagon. The White House is now calling the Turkish incursion and its cleansing of Kurds “unacceptable” and a “source of deep concern,” but it is wrapping its complaints in a broader critique that the internal fighting is not helpful in the war against ISIS, which means that it is essential toothless.
There is, of course, no solution to the Syrian farrago short of the obvious way out: working with genuinely committed players who actually have skin in the game to end ISIS and stabilize the political situation. That would mean cooperating with al-Assad, Russia, and the Iranians. The Turkish incursion into Syria demonstrates that a capable army well-supported can mop the floor with a debilitated ISIS, but the politics of the situation mean that eliminating the terrorist group has become secondary to other, unstated objectives. As President Erdogan has made clear that he will unhesitatingly do what will sell well with the Turkish public, his turning on the Kurds as enemy number one should not surprise anyone, yet Washington is consistently caught flat-footed by what should be obvious to any competent observer.
And the White House is not the only party that is clueless. Hillary Clinton is likely to be the next president and is dedicated to confronting ISIS, Russia, Iran, and al-Assad simultaneously, so the prospects for pulling together any viable coalition to end the bloodshed do not look good.
August 14’s Washington Post print edition featured news articles, op-eds, an editorial, and three letters to the editor all attacking Donald Trump. And the paper’s other bête noire, Vladimir Putin, was featured in the front-page lead story as well as in an op-ed. On the preceding Friday, Putin had been attacked in an editorial for allegedly seeking to start a war in Ukraine.
Trump is running for president and certainly has dropped enough verbal bombs to justify many of the attacks against him. But there is a certain danger inherent in the media’s slanting its coverage to such an extent as to be making the news rather than just reporting it. And when it comes to Russia, the way the stories are reported becomes critically important, as there is a real risk that media hostility toward Putin, even if deployed as a way to get at Trump, could produce a conflict no one actually wants—just as the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers’ yellow journalism, rife with “melodrama, romance, and hyperbole,” more or less brought about the Spanish-American War.
As a case in point, examine the aforementioned front-page story, entitled “Russia’s Tactics Roil Europe” in the print edition and “Alleged Russian involvement in DNC hack gives U.S. a taste of Kremlin meddling” online. It is credited to Michael Birnbaum, the Post’s correspondent in Brussels.
In its lead-in, the article claims that “Russia has tried hard in recent years to tug Europe to its side, bankrolling the continent’s extremist political parties, working to fuel a backlash against migrants and using its vast energy resources as a cudgel.” It goes on to relate that “Obama administration officials say that the Kremlin may now be engaging in similar trickery in the U.S. presidential campaign in an effort to boost Russia-friendly Republican nominee Donald Trump.”
The evidence cited regarding Trump and Putin evidently comes from unnamed members of President Obama’s team, which has pulled out all the stops to defeat the GOP candidate, including denouncing Trump as unfit to be president. Part of the anti-Trump drive orchestrated by the Democrats and Hillary Clinton has been to associate the candidate with Russia at every turn, implying that he is somehow disloyal or worse for seeking to establish friendly relations with Putin.
The article goes on to rely heavily on unnamed sources. “Officials and analysts say” or variations of the expression appear frequently, and when a source is cited by name, it is normally someone who is demonstrably anti-Russian. Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, finds “deepening ties” between the Kremlin and some European political parties. But even he concedes that Russia is exploiting unrest rather than creating it, that Russia’s influence is waning, and that its power to influence developments is clearly limited. The article cites a vote last spring in which French mainstream parties agreed to eliminate sanctions on Russia (imposed over Ukraine), yet the Post provides no evidence that Moscow had a hand in the producing the outcome. In any event, the European Union actually extended sanctions a month later, suggesting that if the Russians were interfering, they were not very good at it.
Another named source, Andrew Foxall, claims that a clever Russia “use[s] different approaches at different times and in different countries” to “achieve its goals,” which he doesn’t bother to define. Foxall is director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society in London, named after former U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a noted Cold War hawk. The society is considered to be neoconservative in orientation, a point Birnbaum fails to note.
A further attempt to subvert European institutions cited by Birnbaum relates to the French anti-EU National Front’s having obtained a $10.4 million loan from a Moscow-based bank after “being shunned by mainstream lenders.” He also notes that right-wing parties in Greece and Germany are alleged to have suspicious ties with Russia because they have attended conferences in Moscow or have party-to-party relationships with Putin’s ruling United Russia. The article also claims, without providing any details, that “Russia has courted politicians from Germany to Hungary to Slovakia to France.”
Reverting to its anonymous sources, the article asserts that Eastern European “leaders suspect the Kremlin of funding environmental groups that opposed measures that would make their countries less dependent on Russian energy.” In most of the world, supporting environmental groups would be considered commendable.
Birnbaum throws in plenty of what must be his own analysis that Putin is building support for his “vision” of the world, seeking to “preserve his domestic power by favoring authoritarian leaders over democratically elected ones,” yet he provides no evidence that this is necessarily the case. Putin is, most would agree, highly pragmatic.
But while Europe provides the backdrop, the real thrust of the article is domestic. Birnbaum uses his largely unsubstantiated claim that Russia is covertly interfering in European politics to speculate that the “propensity to cause mischief in other nations’ political systems may be behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, officials say.” Unnamed “officials” go on to elaborate that it remains “unclear whether the hacking was performed as part of routine foreign espionage or whether the DNC was specifically targeted to sway the election.” The article does not bother to note, presumably because it would weaken the argument, that even the Obama administration, which hacks the communications of friend and foe alike, has balked at blaming the cyber-intrusion on the Russian government—so the assumption that there was any kind of political objective behind it is little more than speculation.
So an article loaded with innuendo has appeared on the front page of a major U.S. newspaper, located in Washington, DC, stating that Russia is engaged in widespread subversion in Europe and is trying to do the same on behalf of Donald Trump in the United States. But the evidence presented in the story does not support what is being suggested, and spreading tales about foreign-government misbehavior can have unintended consequences. It is particularly shortsighted and even dangerous in this case, as a stable relationship with a nuclear-armed and militarily very capable Moscow should rightly be regarded as critical.
It is almost as if some journalists believe that deliberately damaging relations with Russia is a price worth paying to embarrass and defeat Trump. If that is so, they are delusional.
Months of pressure on the Obama administration demanding the release of the redacted “28 pages” of the 9/11 report, regarding possible Saudi Arabian involvement, finally bore fruit on July 15. To be sure, there were deletions from the text to protect names and sources, but the document produced by the White House was largely complete. CIA Director John Brennan provided some damage control prior to the release by arguing that much of the information contained in the redacted section consisted of “raw” and untested information, suggesting that it might not be completely reliable, while some who had seen the full document revealed through leaks that there would be no “smoking gun” exposing direct Saudi involvement in 9/11.
The release of the document produced a brief flurry in the media but, perhaps intentionally, the story disappeared amidst the avalanche of political convention reporting. There was a great deal of new information, though most of it served to corroborate or expand on what was already known. One snippet that I found particularly interesting recounted how in 1999 two Saudi men on a flight from Phoenix to Washington, DC, for an alleged visit to the Saudi Embassy to attend a party asked numerous questions about the plane’s security and tried several times to enter the cockpit. They claimed their tickets were paid for by the Saudi Embassy.
There is a direct link between some of the 9/11 hijackers and presumed agents of the Saudi government, but the 28 pages do not provide any information to suggest that the Saudis at any level actually knew that anyone was involved in a terrorist plot. In fact, as a former intelligence officer myself, the snippets made public rather suggest that the Saudis were more likely keeping tabs on some citizens whom they quite rightly might have suspected of extremism. There are several hints in the text that the Saudis were aggressively running operations against their diaspora citizens. The report noted several times that the Saudis failed to fully cooperate with U.S. counter-terror investigators prior to 9/11, which would not be surprising if they were simultaneously acting independently.
The key player in the story who directly assisted some hijackers, one Omar al-Bayoumi, has been described as a “non-official cover” intelligence officer, but the way his funding from the Saudi Embassy and other official sources fluctuated, paying him irregularly, suggests that he might have been a source or informer, not an actual government case officer. (Several other Saudis identified in the 28 pages fit the same profile.) Bayoumi was in regular contact with Fahad al-Thumairy, an employee of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, who may have been an actual intelligence officer and his controller.
The document does not demonstrate any intent by the government in Riyadh to enable its citizens to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, nor knowledge that anything like that might be developing. It should also be noted, for what it’s worth, that the Bush administration clearly regarded Saudi Arabia as a special friend and directed the FBI and CIA to “back off” from aggressively investigating its intelligence operations in the U.S. and globally. Whether that made any difference in terms of what subsequently happened cannot be determined.
Providing intelligence briefings to presidential candidates is a practice that goes back more than sixty years to the administration of Harry Truman. The briefings are a courtesy and have no basis in law but they are intended to level the playing field somewhat so that an incumbent would not necessarily have an advantage over an adversary who has no access to government produced foreign policy and national security assessments. The briefings are only provided to the two major party candidates and are limited to the candidate, the vice-presidential running mates, and a couple of top aides.
There is no mandated number of briefings for the candidates and it is generally assumed that they will be provided at intervals based on what is happening internationally that might impact on policy prescriptions being debated during the campaign. The briefings have traditionally been produced and delivered by senior CIA analysts and on one occasion agency director Robert Gates even flew to Arkansas to meet with and brief then candidate Governor Bill Clinton. Currently the office of the Director of National Intelligence coordinates the briefing but it is reported that the briefers largely are CIA.
Some presidential candidates do not have active security clearances even if they have served in the federal government and are familiar with classification procedures while some others, including governors, have never had to deal at all with the need to protect national secrets. Trump, though admittedly familiar with maintaining confidentiality relating to business documents and dealings, has no experience of government classification and security procedures, which are both quite different in nature and uncompromising in terms of the measures that must be taken to protect the intelligence product.
The briefings will generally be limited to broad overviews of threats and other situations that are developing worldwide but there will be no detailed discussion of sources or capabilities. In intelligence jargon, the candidates will not be receiving any “code word” or “special access” information, nor will they be told anything about CIA or Pentagon covert actions.
This omission is not necessarily intended to imply that there is any risk in providing such information but it serves as a learning device or reminder for the candidates themselves, to impress upon them the “need to know” principle, as well as an introduction or refresher regarding the secure handling of classified information. Specific security guidelines are reviewed in detail prior to each briefing session.
Up until now there has never been any expressed concern by an incumbent administration that either of the major party candidates would mishandle the intelligence that they are provided and, indeed, there have been no known leaks that have developed from the process. No candidate has ever inadvertently or intentionally exploited or misused the classified information that he has been given access to.
It is reported that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be briefed by the intelligence analyst teams this week and, for the first time, concerns are being expressed regarding security. Given the overwhelming media and institutional bias against Trump, most of the speculation relates to him, often particularly focused on his tendency to shoot-from-the-lip in his frequently extemporaneous and freeform campaign stops. It is feared that if he is briefed on an issue and it somehow pops into his head while he is speaking it might well come out in some form or another. Even President Obama has become involved, warning Trump that he has “got to start acting like a president. And that means being able to now receive these briefings and not spread them around.”
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, addressed the issue of the classified briefings on July 28, saying that there was no concern, that it was appropriate to begin the process as “both candidates have been officially anointed.” He added that the briefings are part of a long non-partisan tradition, and that a team of analysts was actively preparing the identical material that would be presented to Clinton and Trump. But critics were not so sure, suspecting that Clapper was either not being candid or was ignorant of what many of his staff were reportedly saying. The Washington Post ran a story on the briefings shortly after Clapper spoke contending that there was considerable dissent, with one anonymous senior intelligence official reportedly saying “I would refuse” to brief Trump based on his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his apparent disinterest in world events. The Post also alleged that there was “deep unease among many spy officials with the real estate mogul’s pro-Russian rhetoric” adding that Trump’s call on Russia to “target Clinton’s accounts…was seen as particularly incendiary among intelligence professionals who regard Russia as a bitter foe.”
In a follow-up article the Post also quoted former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who speculated on the precise content of a power point briefing that Trump might be given, saying “It beggars the imagination. Given that [Trump’s] public persona seems to reflect a lack of understanding or care about global issues, how do you arrange these presentations to learn what are the true depths of his understanding?”
Another media report back in June claimed that eight senior security officials, again anonymous, were “worried about Trump having access to classified information.” And even before that in March a former CIA analyst Aki Peritz told the Guardian of his concern that Trump cannot compartmentalize “his thoughts from his public utterances” tweeting “random, and sometimes untrue, items he read on the internet” and has “even been fine with quoting Benito Mussolini.”
Yet another anonymous official cited the Trump tendency to speak off-the-cuff, pulling together what he has heard and read without any filter on what he is saying, while former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin identified another problem. For McLaughlin, who has had considerable experience in briefing senior officials of both the U.S. and foreign governments, a major concern would be Trump’s clear disinclination to process information that runs contrary to what he thinks. In the briefings he will undoubtedly be hearing many things that contradict positions that he has taken. Will he accept or ignore what he is being told? If he ignores it—not for political reasons but because he believes it to be untrue—the briefing will largely be a waste of time.
And then there is Hillary Clinton, whose own questionable practices relating to securing classified information are by now well known, she having been criticized by the FBI director, James Comey, as “extremely careless.” The Washington Post, while crucifying Trump, characteristically whitewashed Clinton, accepting her explanation for the home server email crisis while also praising her experience: she “unlike Trump…has participated in hundreds of intelligence briefings in her career…” That might indeed be true on one level but some observers are not unreasonably pointing out that Hillary Clinton has actually demonstrated a problem with protecting classified information—while Donald Trump’s ability or willingness to do so remains an unknown.
Nearly everything written about Trump in the mainstream media is shaped by the unrelenting hostility that the Washington establishment exhibits towards him, so the elaborations provided by anonymous sources and appearing in extremely unfriendly media outlets should be taken for what they are worth. Many of the named sources, like Michael Hayden, are themselves both longtime critics of Trump and major beneficiaries of the status quo, so it is not surprising that they would suddenly find themselves conveniently concerned over his access to classified information. It is all sheer speculation but it provides another stick to beat Trump with.
And it is of particular interest how the Washington Post seeks to link the intelligence community anger at Trump to Russia and Putin, both regular targets of the newspaper and a convenient hook to demonstrate alleged disloyalty on the part of the GOP candidate. Since the end of the Cold War, I have rarely noted any former or current intelligence officer’s hatred of Russia as the “bitter foe.” Does the paper make all this stuff up? Maybe. At a minimum I believe it would be fair to say that the Post is heavily editorializing what it describes as a news story, not exactly unusual for a newspaper that has an editorial page controlled by neoconservatives who have never been shy about pushing their anti-Trump, anti-Putin agenda.
I regularly talk to a number of former intelligence agency colleagues, many of whom do not like Trump and will not vote for him, but I do not detect much concern over providing him with classified briefings on international developments. Nearly everyone assumes that he is a patriotic American and will protect what is shared with him. The angst over the Trump briefing appears to be contrived, coming mostly from the media and the chattering class. Indeed, I hear much more anger from former colleagues over the Hillary Clinton email scandal because with all her vaunted experience she should and must have known better, and chose to disregard the rules anyway. Many of us believe she ought to be in jail. In any event, both candidates will receive their briefings and one hopes that a better understanding of some developments in the world will prove beneficial to them, possibly making them think twice about some of the ill-advised policies that they have been promoting.
Once upon a time the big threat to civilization was al-Qaeda. But today it is ISIS, alternatively known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh. Transcending their existence as actual physical entities, the names or acronyms have become metaphors for terrorist attacks, striking fear in the hearts of the people and enabling the political class in Europe and the United States to grow government in response. At the Republican National Convention, presidential candidate Donald Trump vowed to destroy ISIS—and the Democrats led by Hillary Clinton will probably follow suit. But can it be done? Or, more to the point, how does one go about doing it? How will Trump and Clinton keep their promises to keep Americans safe from Islamic radicals?
What we call terrorism is a tactic used by groups that are essentially political. You can find it in Tacitus, read about it in the accounts of 19th-century anarchists, and consider how it evolved in modern times, starting with the European leftist groups in the 1970s and then migrating to the Middle East. Today terrorism and Islamic radicalism are closely linked, but it is important to remember that it was not always so. What we refer to as terror enables a weaker party to demoralize and even threaten the stability of a nominally much stronger ruling authority.
The United States distinguishes terrorism from mass murder. In the U.S. code, it describes terrorism as “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law” that “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
So terrorism narrowly construed is an action intended to destabilize the political status quo so as to influence or pervert government decision making. But the definition is somewhat anachronistic. If one moves beyond the legal language, several categories of mass murder might plausibly be regarded as “terroristic” because they inevitably create fear when they include the indiscriminate taking of human life, particularly in situations where people going about their daily lives should normally feel secure. In so doing, whether their prime objective is political or not, they produce a reaction from the government, generally in the form of new laws that enhance the power of the state—which in turn can make the citizenry increasingly suspicious of the authorities.
Three common perpetrators of mass murder are the mentally ill, revenge seekers, and those motivated by an ideology to kill those they define as enemies. The three categories can sometimes overlap, of course. And the weapons they choose are most often guns, sometimes bombs, and more rarely instruments that are not usually associated with intentional killing, to include moving vehicles.
Consider as examples the profiles of eight of the most widely reported recent multiple killings in Europe and the United States, all of which have been described by the media as terrorist acts. The most recent took place in Munich last week, where ten people died. The perpetrator was a mentally deranged German born gunman of Iranian descent who was obsessed with mass killing itself. That was preceded by another attack in Bavaria by an ax- and knife-wielding Afghan refugee on a train, while a Bastille Day attack in Nice by a French citizen of Tunisian descent used a truck to kill 84 during the same week. Both of the latter attacks were reportedly inspired by ISIS.
A March attack on a Brussels airport and a metro station by five Belgian-born citizens of Arab extraction killed 32 using guns and bombs. In November of last year seven Belgian and French citizens of Arab extraction used guns and bombs to kill 130 at restaurants, a theater, and sports facilities in Paris. One additional attacker was a refugee and still another was unidentified. Both attacks were reportedly inspired by ISIS. In January of the same year, the famous attack on Charlie Hebdo took place, also in Paris, with two French citizens of Algerian extraction shooting 13 people and claiming to be inspired by al-Qaeda.
Here in the United States there have recently been two attacks. In June, 50 Americans were killed in a nightclub in Orlando in a shooting carried out by an American citizen born to Afghan refugees; he claimed allegiance to ISIS but has been regarded as having mental problems. In December 2015, 14 died in San Bernardino at the hands of a Chicago-born gunman of Pakistani descent and his Pakistan-born wife, both of whom pledged allegiance to ISIS.
If Donald and Hillary really want to make us safe and actually intend to take steps to do so, what can or should be done to address each category of mass killer and each type of weapon? The convenient response by Hillary Clinton, which she is already offering, is gun control. But any analysis of the recent incidents suggests that it will always be easy to obtain weapons, even in the tightly-controlled Western European environment. In Europe, suppliers are frequently able to connect with those interested in acquiring handguns or rifles. Many of the weapons originate in the Balkans (particularly Kosovo, where they are relatively available) and make their way to the west. Likewise in the United States new laws would not eliminate the hundreds of millions of weapons already in private hands. So gun control, which seems to some to be a simple and affordable solution, would most likely accomplish little or nothing.
Another promising approach, favored by Donald Trump, connects terror to Islam. He has proposed banning the entry of all Muslims or at least those residents from a handful of countries where metastasizing violence promoted by Islamic radicals is prevalent. He has also suggested that there might be “extreme vetting” of citizens from European countries subject to repeated terrorist attacks. The president has considerable authority to initiate such limitations on visa exemption or issuance, though any filtering based purely on religion rather than nationality would no doubt run into legal problems.
Some might plausibly argue that if Pakistanis and Afghans had been forbidden entry into the U.S., Orlando and San Bernardino would not have occurred. But it is difficult to imagine ruling out certain nationalities as potential immigrants as a sustainable policy. It would be far better to develop investigative procedures to weed out potential problems before they are granted visas, but no one is proposing that.
Likewise if North African Arabs had been blocked from residency in Europe, most of the six incidents cited above quite plausibly would not have occurred. Still nearly all of the perpetrators were actually born in Europe or were naturalized citizens; only two were refugees. This suggests that Europe already has large Muslim minorities that are infected by the radicalism bug, which in the U.S. is referred to as “homegrown extremism,” so closing the immigration door now might have little effect. It is neither practical nor politically imaginable that existing Muslim populations should be expelled, leaving one with no better options than increased police surveillance.
Clinton, unlike Trump, appears to favor the current lax visa entry procedures, possibly because she was recently involved in their implementation. But there is a reasonable approach that falls somewhere in between exclusion and an open door: restrict visas for applicants who cannot be thoroughly vetted through existing procedures. Whether either candidate would embrace such fine tuning of the obviously broken system is unclear. There also might be considerable interference from a Congress that would seek to punish some countries when passing enabling legislation and providing funding.
So you can’t stop the guns and it is difficult to create a rational basis for blocking new immigrants or visitors, but the real problem is identifying the mentally disturbed and those influenced by groups like ISIS, who together have carried out nearly all the multiple victim, terrorist-style attacks in the past five years. The United States could destroy ISIS’s caliphate physically from the air, at a cost of possibly tens of thousands of civilian casualties, but it cannot eliminate the group’s effective internet-based propaganda machine. And when ISIS relies on “lone wolf” proxies or independent cells to stage attacks, the nation’s security services are increasingly unable to identify affiliates actually organized and directed by ISIS that would be discoverable and susceptible to being dismantled (if they exist).
Even if ISIS has no physical Caliphate, it will persist online and be accessible to those who seek it out. And it will undoubtedly someday be succeeded by new, even more radical groups with updated messages for the disaffected. U.S. law enforcement attempts to identify those individuals who try to interact with extremist websites and then uses informants to develop criminal cases against them, but it is a process that probably creates more radicalization than it prevents. And as for the mentally disturbed, they only surface when they are reported to authorities by a family member or health care provider, so there is little that one can do to prevent incidents besides encouraging such reporting.
So no matter what the candidates pledge to do, the options available to our next president to deal with ISIS and other terrorism are not very promising. Getting rid of guns is a non-starter and deporting birthright citizens would be both illegal and present practical difficulties. Keeping dangerous visitors out would be highly desirable but it is probably beyond the ability of government bureaucrats to develop and manage such a program successfully. Meanwhile the FBI and NSA read emails, listen in on phones, and react. I would imagine that a post-election review of national security will have all parties throwing up their hands in frustration over the paucity of reasonable options. The new president will likely pretty much come down in support of the status quo.
The military coup in Turkey last weekend started on Friday and consisted of attempts to take over government buildings and key infrastructure. The coup drew mostly on troops from the gendarmerie and the air force and was led by mid-level generals and colonels. There were some initial successes but by early Saturday morning it was clear that the government had prevailed. By Sunday nearly 6,000 arrests of alleged plotters had taken place with more certain to follow.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed a crackdown on the military and also the judiciary and has blamed the coup on arch foe Fethullah Gulen, who resides in exile in Pennsylvania. Analysts believe that defeating the coup has greatly increased Erdogan’s authority and he will be able to consolidate his power by altering the country’s constitution, which, given the sense of crisis in Turkey due to the coup and the recent terrorist attack in Istanbul, is likely to succeed. And due process for the alleged coup plotters under the present circumstances is likely to be limited. They reportedly will be charged with treason. Erdogan will be able to clean house and consolidate his power.
There is inevitably a counter narrative which I and a number of Turkey-watchers who have networked to discuss recent developments are inclined to believe. As full disclosure, I will admit that all of us are established critics of the autocratic and Islamist direction being pursued by Erdogan’s government over the past three years.
First of all, though it is not a major issue, none of us believes that Gulen was behind the coup. It is convenient for Erdogan to blame his principal opponent because it will facilitate the arrests of any and all opponents not linked to the actual coup by claiming that they are Gulenists. Erdogan has become adept at jailing opponents, often journalists, on trumped up charges to include treason and this time around will be no different. The process has already begun with the detention of a number of military officers and judges and will no doubt be expanded as more enemies are identified.
Second, nearly all of us believe that the coup was basically a set-up. Erdogan and his government have been warning for months about the possibility of a coup, so the event itself should surprise no one. It is now certain that there was a coup in fact being plotted, apparently supported mostly by Kemalists in the military who advocate a secular state and are alarmed by aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy, including his collaboration with terrorist groups and hostility towards Russia and Syria. There was also likely an element of concern over the deteriorating Turkish economy with European fear of terrorism wrecking the tourism industry, an issue linked to Ankara’s meddling in Syria and Erdogan’s personal vendetta against the leading Kurdish political party the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Many observers and even government officials when speaking off the record have also criticized the Erdogan-driven breakdown in the truce that up until recently prevailed with the domestic Kurdish minority and its armed wing the PKK.
The coup plotters probably erred in their assumption that there was wide support at senior levels in the Turkish military for a coup. The generals, who once would have been natural opponents of Erdogan’s ambitions, had been severely punished in their first encounter with the then prime minister in 2010-11. A series of show trials claiming that the senior officers were involved in plotting against the government based on very flimsy evidence removed many upper ranks, replacing them gradually with Erdogan loyalists. Many of the officers so convicted have only recently been released from prison but, having been out of power for years, they have not retained any ability to take action against the government.
The coup plotters may have approached one or more of the new Erdogan-appointed generals, without whose support a coup could not succeed, expecting a sympathetic hearing. In all likelihood, they were received cordially but the senior officer immediately reported their overture to the president, setting the stage for a trap.
The rest followed course somewhat as planned. The plotters heard from sympathizers in the judiciary or police that they would soon be arrested so they started the coup before their plans were complete and almost caught the government by surprise. They were few in number so they must have hoped that they would be joined by others. They were not successful and loyal army and police units quickly organized to resist them. Erdogan also was able to call on his civilian supporters to take to the streets and gather at the airport in Istanbul. The results were predictable and the coup was crushed. Erdogan will now reap the political benefits. He is also demanding the extradition of Gulen from the United States and the Obama Administration is reported to be considering the request.
One other aspect of the coup has caused some confusion. Early on it was alleged without any evidence that the plotters were dismayed by recent Erdogan government overtures to Russia and Syria to restore normal relations. That is a complete misreading of developments, as the Turkish military has long been reluctant to support any operations in Syria and, in general, is opposed to any initiatives outside Turkey’s borders. During a brief takeover of Turkish television the coup leaders referred to their movement as a “peace council.” The generals have their hands full with the internal Kurdish and refugee problems and are most definitely not encouraging taking on anything new.
One might also add to changes vis-à-vis Russia and Syria the recent rapprochement with Israel. Turkey’s economy is in bad shape and its international standing has been gravely damaged by Erdogan’s foreign and domestic policies. Opinion polls have been suggesting that the Turkish public is blaming Erdogan directly for the decline in employment and income as well as for the terrorism problem. The shift in policy to mend fences with a number of countries has been a response to that concern and is unrelated to the discontent within the Turkish military.
So the aborted military coup has become a great victory for President Erdogan. It remains to be seen how exactly he will exploit it, but it is certain that he will use it as a pretext for expanding his own powers. To those who object to the notion that the Turkish president would kill his own soldiers to advance his political agenda, one might note that he was considering doing so in 2014 to create a pretext for war with Syria. Consequently the question whether Erdogan might actually have helped set up the coup in a version of a false flag operation is certainly intriguing and must be considered. It should be taken into account by the White House before contemplating bending to any demands from Ankara to extradite Gulen or any of his associates.
Whenever the subject of American foreign-policy catastrophes comes up, the word “Iraq” immediately comes to mind. But George W. Bush’s ill-fated invasion of that hapless land in reality did not do irreparable damage to the United States. That is not to trivialize the costs, including trillions of dollars and the deaths of thousands of Americans plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but the reality is that the U.S. homeland was not attacked and the economy has not collapsed, making Iraq a war that should never have been fought but not a defeat in historic terms.
One thinks of Russia less frequently when U.S. policy failures are examined. In 1991, Russia was a superpower. Today it is a convenience, a straw man fortuitously produced whenever someone in power wants to justify weapons expenditures or the initiation of new military interventions in faraway places. Much of the negative interaction between Washington and Moscow is driven by the consensus among policymakers, the Western media, and the inside-the-beltway crowd that Russia is again—or perhaps is still and always will be—the enemy du jour. But frequently forgotten or ignored is the fact that Moscow, even in its much-reduced state, continues to control the only military resource on the planet that can destroy the United States, suggesting caution should be in order when one goes about goading the bear.
Truly, the unwillingness to takes steps after 1991 to assist Russia in its post-communism transformation into a stable, prosperous, and secure state modeled on the West is the most significant foreign-policy failure by both Democratic and Republican administrations over the past 30 years. The spoliation of Russia’s natural resources carried out by Western carpetbaggers working with local grifters-turned-oligarchs under Boris Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s doorstep initiated by Bill Clinton, and the interference in Russia’s internal affairs by the U.S. government (including the Magnitsky Act) have exploited Russian vulnerability and have produced a series of governments in Moscow that have become increasingly paranoid and disinclined to cooperate with what they see as a threatening Washington.
There have also been unnecessary slights and insults along the way, including sanctions on Russian officials and a refusal to attend the Sochi Olympics, to cite only two examples. The drive by Washington democracy-promoters and global hegemonists working together to push Ukraine into the Western economic and political sphere was a major miscalculation, as they failed to realize—or did not care—that what takes place in Kiev is to Moscow a vital interest. Heedless of that reality, the Obama administration, which recently endorsed the somewhat bizarre entry of Montenegro into the NATO alliance, is already treating Georgia and Ukraine as if they were de facto members. Hillary Clinton, who has likened Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, has pledged to bring about their full membership in the alliance. It would not in any way make Americans more secure—quite the contrary, as the United States is pledging itself under the NATO Article 5 to defend both countries. Moscow for its part would be forced to react to such expansion.
Nearly everything Russia does is considered wrong or even threatening by the White House, Congress, and the U.S. media. I was reminded of that predilection when I read recent accounts of Russian “harassment” of American diplomats overseas. The story described how, in one instance, a U.S. embassy officer returning to the building late at night was challenged by a Russian guard and a scuffle ensued. In other alleged incidents the apartments of employees were searched, and it was even claimed that a pet dog had been killed. Certainly the incidents are deplorable, but they are not exactly unusual in the world where spies and spy-catchers interact.
The old KGB was—and its successor organization, the FSB, still is—adept at tricks to unnerve suspected intelligence officers and render them less effective, forcing them always to be looking out for surveillance even when it was not there. From my time in CIA training in the late 1970s, I recall descriptions of how an agency officer had parked his car on a Moscow street only to return to find it gone. It turned up in a plowed field 100 miles away a few days later with no tire tracks evident. It had been picked up and moved by helicopter. Or an officer would return to his apartment and find all his books arranged in alphabetical order, or dinner prepared and sitting on the table. The FBI would do the same sort of thing to suspected KGB or GRU officers in the United States, a warning that they were being observed and that the bureau knew what they were up to. In the intelligence world it is business as usual, but in the U.S. media, the latest round of spy vs. spy was depicted as another sign of barbaric behavior on the part of the Russians.
The point here is that the Russians are not exactly failing to notice what is going on and are drawing their own conclusions about what they must do to defend themselves. None but Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the Kagan family actually want a war, but Moscow is being backed into a corner, with more and more influential Russian voices raised against détente with a Washington that seems to be intent on humiliating Moscow at every turn as part of a new project for regime change. Many Russian military leaders have come to believe that the continuous NATO expansion means that the United States wants war, and both the generals and Vladimir Putin are warning that a resort to arms could easily go nuclear, as Moscow will use all weapons available to defend itself. Putin is, incidentally, the voice for moderation, as he still aspires to a positive relationship with the West, a position he reiterated in his July 4 message to President Obama.
Russia’s generals are not optimistic about what is coming their way. They are insecure because they are aware of their own military inferiority and see nothing but hostility from the West, including evidence that American generals have collaborated to fabricate Russian threats in Europe to force a U.S. reaction. The Russians understand that the buildup of forces on both sides of the border that has resulted from the clashing interests is unstable and dangerously unpredictable. The Russian military justifies its responses based on what it has clearly and unambiguously observed and what it is hearing. But when the Western powers probe Russian borders with their warships and surveillance aircraft, they claim that it is aggression when Moscow scrambles a plane to monitor the activity.
NATO has now decided to base four multinational battalions of combat soldiers in Eastern Europe, along the Russian border, the first troop deployment aimed at Moscow since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Washington in its own prepackaged view describes itself as behaving defensively, from the purest of motives, while Moscow is always in the wrong, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov notes that it is not his country that is moving soldiers up to a border to confront the West. Picture for a moment a reverse scenario, with a Russian missile cruiser lounging just outside the territorial limits off Boston or New York or a marine infantry brigade based in Cuba, and imagine what the U.S. reaction might be.
Washington’s misguided policy toward Russia under both Republican and Democratic presidents has the potential to become the greatest international catastrophe of all time, with the risk of ending human life on this planet as we know it. NATO expansionism and the regular promotion of a false narrative that Russia is seeking to recreate the Soviet Union together suggest to that country’s leaders that Washington is an implacable foe. The bellicose posturing inadvertently strengthens the hands of hardline nationalists in Russia, while weakening those who seek a formula for accommodation with the West.
Only the much-maligned Donald Trump sees the situation with some clarity. Speaking in Moscow last week, his foreign-policy adviser Carter Page stated (in the words of ABC News) that “the U.S. had been overly hostile toward Russia and … the blame for the current tensions lay largely with the American government.” He “echoed Trump’s own attacks on Washington’s foreign policy consensus, suggesting that U.S. experts and officials’ assessment of Russia was skewed by an anti-Russian bias and that they often ‘unnecessarily perpetuated Cold War tendencies.’”
To be sure, Russia is no innocent in the international one-upmanship game. But the nearly constant animosity directed against Russia by the Obama administration and likely to continue under President Clinton should be seen as madness, as the stakes in the game, a possible nuclear war, are unthinkable.