Let’s forget about the GOP “hypotheticals” that Hamas militants will deliberately infect themselves with Ebola and sneak into the U.S. from Mexico to wreak havoc. Or that gay soldiers getting “massages all day” will make them less able to perform adequately in West Africa and against terrorists. Or even the suggestion that if Mitt Romney were president we wouldn’t have an Ebola problem.
The more serious issue is what to do about the disease now that it is here, and the seemingly willful ignorance coming out of the administration borders on caricature. On Friday October 17th, White House spokesman Josh Earnest observed that “Putting in place a travel ban could have a pretty perverse effect on people who are seeking to travel to this country.”
The debate over what to do about Ebola has demonstrated that even high government officials don’t have a clue regarding how the U.S. immigration system actually works and what can be done reasonably to reduce the likelihood of infected travelers entering our country. President Obama has argued that “We can’t just cut ourselves off from West Africa,” while refusing to ban travelers from the region. Obama doesn’t quite get it, as no one reputable is demanding “cutting off” from West Africa, though many serious observers would like to see the travel of possibly infected visitors suspended until the health crisis passes. Health-care workers and aid agencies would still be able to enter the countries in question on available flights and using chartered and military aircraft.
So in truth, carefully managing travel of visitors from an area where there is an epidemic is not the same as trying to “seal off an entire region of the world” as the president chooses to describe it. Having worked the visa line in various overseas diplomatic assignments, I think I have a good understanding of what can be done very simply to modify an immigration policy in response to an epidemic overseas.
While the State Department issues the actual visas for travel, it is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, that handles the actual entry of returning American citizens, temporary visitors, and foreigners who expect to reside in the United States. A foreign traveler arriving at a U.S. airport seeking to enter the United States is first confronted by a CBP official who confirms that the visitor has the proper documentation to enter the country. There is then a stop at customs, also part of Homeland Security, before actually entering the United States. Any American citizen who has traveled outside the U.S. and then returns is also familiar with the procedure.
The three neighboring countries in Africa that have become the epicenter of the Ebola contagion are Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. Any citizen of those countries traveling on that country’s passport needs a U.S. visa to enter the United States. Currently 150 travelers from those countries are arriving daily in the United States, which means nearly 5,000 visitors a month. There are also a reported 13,000 visas that have been issued and not yet used. Liberian citizen Thomas Duncan, who died in Dallas, arrived on a visitor’s visa.
Visas are approved and issued by Foreign Service Officers serving in the Consular Sections of U.S. Embassies and Consulates. There is a whole alphabet soup of different kinds of visas, including “Diversity” visas handed out by lottery, but the most common type, the B-2, is issued for temporary tourist travel to the U.S. under the assumption that the visitor will be returning home, normally within 90 days. U.S. immigration law requires that that determination be made and the State Department guideline notes that “Visa applicants must qualify on the basis of the applicant’s residence and ties abroad, rather than assurances from U.S. family and friends.” While State Department officers frequently make judgment calls and some are regarded as particularly sympathetic and therefore highly sought after by the local visa seekers, few would jeopardize their own careers by giving a visa to someone whose desire to return home is problematical.
As the American visa officer is supposed to establish to his or her own satisfaction that the traveler has connections with his or her own country, usually consisting of a job, property, or family that would mandate his or her return, the processing of Duncan, a driver for a cargo company with a girlfriend, sister, and son in the U.S., should have raised some concerns about his intentions. Duncan in fact quit his job shortly before departing for the U.S., but that is something the Embassy visa section would not have known. As the State Department is not revealing how the decision to let Duncan enter was made, one has to assume that he somehow demonstrated his viability as a temporary visitor who intended to return to Liberia before his visa expired.
The case of Duncan aside, the local embassy has considerable discretion in issuing a visa. But even though limiting travel from an area where there is an epidemic of an often fatal illness could certainly be construed as grounds for denying a visa, such a blanket decision would have to come from Washington. And it would have to overcome an in-built bias in a system intended to serve U.S. interests abroad, but which frequently leans over backwards to cater to the local constituency. For example, the Freetown Embassy somewhat oddly refers to Sierra Leoneans as its “clientele.”
As the White House is opposed to any travel restrictions, the embassies in question are continuing to approve and issue visitor visas as if nothing is happening, though the Monrovia, Liberia Embassy website indicates that there is an Ebola symptoms screening carried out by local contract guards before applicants are allowed to meet an American officer. There are no special security arrangements in place in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Conakry, Guinea.
Because the unavailability of visas would constrain most travelers, the arguments being made by some in the government and media that a travel ban would require halting flights that go to the three countries and would thus amount to an externally imposed blockade are essentially false. If the intention is to reduce the flow of possibly infected visitors from entering the United States, all that is necessary for most travelers is to stop issuing visas and to suspend the visas that have already been issued but not yet used. That would block most of the potentially infected.
As the propagation of any communicable disease is inevitably a numbers game, the fewer infected travelers that actually enter to the U.S. mean fewer Americans will get infected in turn. And the apparently only semi-prepared U.S. medical system will avoid being overwhelmed by the situation. No one is denying that Ebola will find some way to our shores in any event, but reducing the numbers coming in is critical to isolating and containing the virus. Stopping the issuance of new visas and suspending those already issued would have a dramatic impact.
Some have argued that many West Africans have second passports issued in Western Europe or even the United States and they would be able to travel without visas, connecting through airports in Europe or North Africa. This is because most European countries are in the visa waiver program which means their citizens can travel to the U.S. freely while their governments offer reciprocity to American travelers. This is true enough, but flight manifests, which can be requested by the Department of Homeland Security from the relevant carriers, would reveal where the travel originated and measures already in place for the health screening of those relatively few individuals can either be continued or strengthened. In this case the problem is relatively simple as only two carriers operate between all three of the affected countries and other airports that in turn connect to the U.S. They are Brussels Airlines and Royal Air Maroc. Air France has flights to Conakry.
The point being made here is that there should be some control over who enters the United States when crisis situations develop overseas without the issue becoming a political football. Restricting visas in this case means lessening the number of potentially infected travelers coming from a region where there is a virus epidemic that kills 70 percent of those who acquire it. Such action will inevitably lessen the number of people on this end who might come down with the disease.
That such a simple step is either not appreciated, possibly not understood, or perhaps is being resisted for political reasons by the federal government could have tragic consequences.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The White House strategy to “destroy” ISIS, the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, depends in part on a vague plan to support moderate elements in the opposition to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, presumably to serve as boots on the ground to complete the job started through aerial attacks provided by U.S.-led coalition forces.
Ironically, President Obama in embracing such an approach contradicts his own assertion, made two months ago, that arming Syria’s pro-democracy opposition has always been a “fantasy.” Unfortunately, it is still a fantasy and the competition to find the good insurgents has led to some sharp exchanges between two Republican senators.
Sens. John McCain and Rand Paul have been trading barbs relating to a visit made by McCain last May to meet with Syrian rebels. The meeting included a photo op with the Northern Storm Brigade, a group then receiving U.S. assistance even though little was known about the organization or its leaders.
Paul has claimed somewhat hyperbolically that McCain met with ISIS, a charge that both the senator from Arizona and the mainstream media have sought to dismiss, but it now appears that the Northern Storm Brigade was the organization that sold American journalist Steven Sotloff to ISIS. Sotloff was subsequently beheaded.
John McCain may have been guilty of a ridiculous publicity stunt, but he certainly did not knowingly meet with a terrorist-affiliated group. Yet the fact that he did appear with these rebels—presumably after receiving the imprimatur of whomever from the intelligence or spec-ops community was managing ground operations in Syria from the U.S. perspective—demonstrates just how murky the whole Syrian enterprise has become. Shifting loyalties are certainly the norm, and by all accounts groups like the Northern Storm Brigade are ideologically fuzzy opportunists who are in the game for themselves and whatever they might get out of the continuing anarchy. It and similar groups might well constitute the majority of the “moderate rebels” that the president is hoping to mobilize.
Amidst all the confusion, the intelligence community is particularly concerned lest it again be scapegoated by policymakers who want it to do the impossible. There are a handful of CIA and military operational officers on the ground in Syria and Iraq, but they lack the resources to track insurgents or to categorize their political leanings as good or bad, particularly as third-country volunteers continue to flow into the most extreme organizations worldwide. To a limited extent earlier in Iraq, and subsequently much more in Afghanistan, it was possible to track local residents using biometrics, a necessary expedient because it was and is far too easy to change one’s name and obtain false documents in the region. The biometrics program was so widespread that at one point it was suggested that most of the Afghan male population over the age of 14 might eventually be entered into a database. But that could be aspired to only because coalition forces controlled the ground, meaning that they could establish technical registration points and incorporate the information into something like public records.
No such control over the environment exists in the affected regions of Iraq and Syria, meaning that telling friends from enemies is largely guesswork.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Should America’s law enforcement and the intelligence agencies have the ability to read other people’s mail or listen in on their phone calls? Or, more to the point, since we live in a nation where the rule of law and constitutional liberties allegedly prevail, do they have any legal right to do so given the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on searches without judicial sanction derived from probable cause and, if so, under what circumstances?
The question of whether they can do it technically, and whether they should be given either blanket or conditional authority to obtain such information in connection with ongoing investigations inevitably raises yet another question—do they actually need to have the capability and access to protect the country, or is it only another weapon that they would like to have in their arsenal just to have it available?
The Obama administration is currently confronting a number of information technology companies over their plans to develop and commercially market end-to-end encryption technologies to create client communications systems and eventually databases that cannot be routinely accessed by the government using what is referred to as a backdoor or key. Indeed, such encryption systems cannot normally be accessed by anyone at all but the users. Google and Apple have already announced that encryption will be an integral part of their upcoming products and services in an effort to guarantee client confidentiality.
To be sure, the action by the Internet and telecommunications giants is not motivated either by noblesse oblige or by any actual desire to protect customers from the government. The Edward Snowden revelations about U.S. government spying have made many potential foreign clients in Asia and Europe wary about purchasing systems or products from U.S. based companies that they know will allow access to the National Security Agency (NSA) and other American spy agencies. Concerns have been expressed that U.S. technology companies are unable to protect their clients’ data.
If the NSA spying had truly been limited to international terrorism cases in which a warrant was duly obtained, Washington might well have been given a pass on its behavior, but it is now clear that much of the snooping was both warrantless and speculative, having little or nothing to do with terrorists. The Washington law enforcement and intelligence community have been unable to cite a single credible counterterrorism case reliant on NSA spying that could not have been developed by other means.
As a consequence of the Snowden reports, several countries in Europe and Asia are considering legislation that would effectively nationalize the Internet, requiring data from all communications initiated or received by local residents to be stored in retrievable databases within the national borders. If such legislation gains momentum it would effectively destroy the internet as a transnational information resource and it could stimulate the rise of national telecommunications companies at the expense of the American firms the currently dominate the industry.
America’s telecommunications and internet giants operate globally, so the stakes are high, potentially tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. There is every indication that Apple and Google, likely to be joined by Microsoft and Facebook, will not readily submit to any White House mandates.
The administration’s response has been to touch all the available hot buttons. From the law enforcement side, FBI Director James Comey claims that encrypted communications will allow “people to place themselves beyond the law” while the chief of detectives in Chicago has opined that “Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile.” District of Columbia Chief Cathy Lanier claims Smartphones are “going to be the preferred method of the pedophile and the criminal” while former FBI Counsel Andrew Weissman also piled on the scrum claiming that “They have created a system that is a free-for-all for criminals.” Weissman then suggested new laws to stop the practice, a proposal jumped on in a Washington Post editorial recommending the development of a mandatory “secure golden key” for law enforcement. But it was up to attorney General Eric Holder to ice the cake: “When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step…it is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”
It is just possible that the advocates of readily available government intrusion are sincere in their protests, but the facts regarding the straw men that they raise suggest something quite different. There were only nine reported cases of encrypted phones interfering with official investigations in 2013 and in all nine cases the investigation proceeded anyway using other means to include old fashioned meticulous on-the-street police work.
To be sure, many new technologies can be exploited for criminal activity but the Jeremiahs are most often wrong when they assume that the sky is falling. The automobile was once seen as a boon for bank robbers. Commercial encryption systems have long been on the market, but it is not exactly a business that has broken through to the individual consumer. Most encryption is currently done by the financial services industry, as well as by the government at federal, state, and local levels. If criminals had wanted to hide their phone calls, they would have been able to do so already.
The other issue that is being raised privately in government meetings is the intelligence stake in the controversy. To be sure, the agencies that operate overseas—primarily the NSA, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and military intelligence—work in a largely self-defined environment where rules and laws applicable in the United States are to a certain extent irrelevant. The NSA, which can break sophisticated foreign government encryption, can undoubtedly figure out how to defeat the systems being used by Apple and Google or by any other commercially developed security provider. Apple phones must, after all, communicate, requiring some measure of transparency and a comprehensible product at both ends of the chain which can be attacked.
The CIA and America’s military spies likewise tend to run technical operations overseas at source, meaning that their intelligence collection uses hidden microphones and similar devices where the communication is being produced or received, defeating encryption.
Terrorist groups in the 1990s and afterwards, when the so-called crypto wars began, did indeed use encryption systems, but they were broken by various governments, most notably the U.S., Britain, and Russia. They now rely on couriers and over-the-counter phones that are used once and discarded to communicate. Osama bin Laden’s couriers did indeed rely on cell phones but only when they were miles away from his place of refuge. Calls were placed to cutout numbers that were changed regularly and the instruments themselves were destroyed after use.
So the potential impact of phone encryption on the pursuit of genuine terrorism cases will be minimal, but to return to the initial questions, the answers would appear to be fairly straightforward. The United States certainly has the technical ability to penetrate encryption systems if given enough incentive to do so even if it does not have a key to make such access effortless. Whether it has a legal or constitutional right to invade privacy without a legal process as it did in the NSA spying, the answer ought to be “no.” With a warrant based on probable cause, the answer would have to be “yes” though with caveats to make such investigations specific and narrowly focused on actual presumption of criminal behavior. In defense of customer privacy, there is currently no legal reason why a company cannot structure itself in a way to make it unable to provide information sought after by the government, as Apple is doing. That should continue to be the case, barring any legislative action by Congress which, unfortunately, might well be emulated by other countries, resulting in grave damage to global communications.
Finally, is there any evidence to suggest that being able to defeat phone encryption, or conversely, being unable to do so, has hampered either law enforcement or intelligence operations directed against genuine terrorists or criminals? The answer is clearly “no” and perhaps that is the way the encryption issue should be addressed. If encryption does not do demonstrably grave damage to either law enforcement equities or national security, it should only be seen as a boon to the individual American who can henceforth expect that his privacy will be respected.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Amidst simultaneous media-driven foreign policy crises dealing with Russia and ISIS, most normally well informed Americans might well be forgiven for missing a recent Associate Press report headlined “CIA halts spying in Europe.”
The text somewhat contradicts the headline, as it goes on to describe how the Central Intelligence Agency has issued instructions to its case officers operating in Europe to stand down only on “unilateral operations” involving officials of foreign host nations, which presumably implies countries in the NATO alliance. What that means in plain English is that if one is an American spy assigned to the station in France, one’s “host country,” going after a French official to turn him into a recruited agent is currently not allowed. A “unilateral operation” is one in which the CIA controls and runs the agent clandestinely without anyone else being aware of the relationship.
The stand-down is reported to be in response to the recent flap in Germany where it was determined that at least one and possibly more German government officials were working as spies for the CIA, leading to the unprecedented expulsion of the Agency’s Station Chief by the Germans. It also comes on the heels of the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency spying on top government officials in a number of European countries, including Germany, countries that are at least nominally allies of the United States.
While it may appear to be a no-brainer that spying on the German, French, or Italian governments would produce little information that would justify the blowback resulting from getting caught, there are a lot of good reasons why the CIA would like to have a source at the policy making level of any government. It is because what one is being told in diplomatic language might well conceal nuances or even a fallback position that could mean something quite different.
To cite only one example, while the U.S. is eager to pressure Russia over Ukraine, many European countries are much less willing to antagonize Moscow. If I were the U.S. President I would want to know just how hard my allies are really willing to push before making a commitment for Washington to take the lead. Likewise regarding ISIS, key U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Persian Gulf are going along with pressuring the terrorist group even though they initially supported it and continue to have mixed feelings about Sunni extremists in general. It would be nice to know what they are really prepared to commit to. I cite these two examples not because I think the U.S.-driven policies in either the Middle East or Eurasia are sensible, quite the contrary, but purely as seen from the perspective of Washington power brokers.
And then there is Turkey, America’s most important ally in the Near East. Unless I have missed something, Ankara is persisting in refusing to allow the United States to use its airbase at Incirlik to launch attacks on terrorist groups inside Syria, requiring Washington to stage attacks from carriers in the Persian Gulf. This puts them farther away from the targets and is logistically more complicated. There are also reports that Turkey has been buying black market oil from ISIS while also facilitating the supplying and manning of several terrorist groups operating inside Syria and Iraq. Press accounts from Turkey suggest that ISIS has been recruiting Turks and raising money in Istanbul and elsewhere inside the country without any interference from the police or intelligence services. There were also pro-ISIS demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere to protest the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, again without any reaction by the authorities.
Persistent reports suggest that as many as 5,000 Turkish volunteers are serving with various rebel groups inside Syria, to include a number of former Turkish Army officers and possibly also some intelligence operatives. So one might reasonably conclude that Turkey, itself a Sunni state possibly aspiring to recreate something like the old Ottoman Empire complete with the caliphate, is somewhat ambivalent about what it actually prefers to see emerge from Syria and Iraq. It is almost certainly playing both sides off against each other, hoping to find a comfortable landing spot in between.
Even conceding that President Barack Obama’s current war on terror is a fool’s errand, knowing what Turkey is up to and what its actual intentions are would have to be a primary concern for policy makers in Washington, suggesting that there are a lot of good reasons to spy against at least some allies in Europe. Penetrating the Turkish government at top levels would be a perfect high-priority task for an American intelligence agency.
On a personal note, as a former CIA case officer in Europe whose working languages were Italian, Spanish, German, and Turkish the ban on developing sources who are host country officials would have hit me especially hard, diminishing the potential value of my services. But fortunately for practitioners of the second oldest profession, there are clearly holes in the new policy that it would be possible to drive a truck through.
The restriction, which has been in place for two months, reportedly focuses on host government officials. That leaves a lot of open ground. Presumably local citizens not employed by the government are fair game, as are foreign officials and residents who are either living or working outside their home countries. Recruiting a Russian official in Paris would be allowed, and probably likewise an Italian or Greek official if one could make the case that they might be useful. And it is always possible to find someone useful. A targeted Russian or Chines official might be wary when talking to an American, but more open to development by someone from a country regarded as less threatening. Agents who serve as intermediaries between a U.S. case officer and a target are referred to as access agents.
And actual intelligence value aside, the internal mechanics of CIA dictate that the game must go on no matter what the ground rules. Overseas officers are primarily rated on two criteria: recruiting new sources and running existing sources productively to produce disseminable information. If going after local government officials is no longer allowed, the ingenious minds of men and women who rely on a numbers driven game to achieve promotion will come up with something new to replace it. During my time in the Agency it was notorious that any recruitments made by almost any officer during the last six months of his or her tour were likely to be bogus, contrived to boost the numbers and produce a glowing final fitness appraisal when moving out of one posting and on to another. Which means that CIA case officers will persist in doing whatever they can to game the system and the number of access agents will skyrocket.
All of which means that a short-term panic that has produced a restriction on whom CIA can recruit will eventually be reversed when the realities of why we spy come home. The first time Susan Rice turns to the CIA representative on the National Security Council and asks, “What does President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intend to do?” and the answer is “We don’t know,” everything will return to business as usual.
President Barack Obama presents something of a dilemma. I voted for him twice in the belief that he was basically a cautious operator who would not rush into a new war in Asia, unlike his Republican opponents who virtually promised to attack Iran upon assuming office. Unfortunately, Obama’s second term has revealed that his instinct nevertheless is to rely on America’s ability to project military power overseas as either a complement to or a substitute for diplomacy that differs only from George W. Bush in its style and its emphasis on humanitarian objectives.
That the president is indeed cautious has made the actual process of engagement different, witness the ill-fated involvement in Libya and the impending war-without-calling-it-war in Syria and Iraq, both of which are framed as having limited objectives and manageable risk for Washington even when that is not the case. Obama’s foreign and security policy is an incremental process mired in contradictions whereby the United States continues to involve itself in conflicts for which it has little understanding, seemingly doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past thirteen years but without the shock and awe.
Obama’s actual intentions might most clearly be discerned by looking at his inner circle. Three women are prominent in decision making relating to foreign policy: Samantha Power at the United Nations, Susan Rice heading the National Security Council, and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett in the White House. One might also add Hillary Clinton who, as Secretary of State, operated far more independently than her successor John Kerry, putting her own stamp on policy much more than he has been able to do. Where Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel fits into the decision making is unclear, but it is notable that both he and Kerry frequently appear to be somewhat out of sync with the White House.
What does the Obama team represent? Certain things are obvious. They are hesitant to involve the United States in long, drawn out military adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan but much more inclined to intervene than was George W. Bush when there is an apparent humanitarian crisis, operating under the principle of responsibility to protect or R2P. That R2P is often a pretext for intervention that actually is driven by other less altruistic motives is certainly a complication but it is nevertheless the public face of much of American foreign policy, as the nation is currently witnessing regarding ISIS.
Hillary Clinton has criticized Obama foreign policy because on her view he did not act soon enough on ISIS and “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Her criticism is odd as she was a formulator of much of what the president has been doing and one should perhaps assume that her distancing from it might have something to do with her presidential ambitions. Interestingly, in a self-promoting recent review of Henry Kissinger’s new book World Order, Clinton both defines her own Kissinger-esque foreign policy strategy and also concedes that it is more-or-less the same as Obama’s. Clinton wrote that Kissinger’s world view “largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and cooperation for the 21st century.”
Now if all of that is true, and it might just be putting lipstick on a pig to create an illusion of coherency where none exists, then the United States might just be engaging in a sensible reset of its foreign policy, something like the Nixon Doctrine of old. But the actual policy itself suggests otherwise, with the tendency to “do stupid stuff” prevailing, perhaps attributable to another Clinton book review assertion of “a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.”
Clinton inevitably confuses leadership with hegemony, clearly believing as one of her predecessors at State put it, that America is the “indispensable nation.” Nor can she discern that few outside the beltway actually believe the hype. It would be difficult to make the case that the United States either stands for justice or is willing to tolerate any kind of international order that challenges American interests.
And the arrogance that comes with power means that the country’s leadership is not often able to explain what it is doing. Currently, the administration has failed to make any compelling case that the United States is actually threatened by ISIS beyond purely conjectural “what if” scenarios, suggesting that the policy is evolving in an ad hoc but risk-averse fashion to create the impression that something is actually being accomplished. Any plan to “destroy” ISIS without serious consideration of what that might entail means that the U.S. will inevitably assume the leadership role. Because air strikes cannot defeat any insurgency, and the moderate Syrian rebels waiting to be armed are a fiction, the Obama plan invites escalation and will make the Islamist group a poster child for those who want to see Washington fail yet again in the Middle East.
The tendency to act instead of think might be attributable to fear of appearing weak with midterm elections approaching, but it might also be due to the persistence of neoconservative national security views within the administration, which brings us to Victoria Nuland. Nuland, many will recall, was the driving force behind efforts to destabilize the Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych, an admittedly corrupt autocrat, nevertheless became Prime Minister after a free election. Nuland, who is the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, provided open support to the Maidan demonstrators opposed to Yanukovych’s government, to include media friendly appearances passing out cookies on the square to encourage the protesters.
A Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton protégé who is married to leading neocon Robert Kagan, Nuland openly sought regime change for Ukraine by brazenly supporting government opponents in spite of the fact that Washington and Kiev had ostensibly friendly relations. It is hard to imagine that any U.S. administration would tolerate a similar attempt by a foreign nation to interfere in U.S. domestic politics, particularly if it were backed by a $5 billion budget, but Washington has long believed in a global double standard for evaluating its own behavior.
Nuland is most famous for her foul language when referring to the potential European role in managing the unrest that she and the National Endowment for Democracy had helped create. To be sure, her aggressive guidance of U.S. policy in Eurasia is a lot more important than whatever plays out in Syria and Iraq over the remainder of Obama’s time in office in terms of palpable threats to actual American interests. The replacement of the government in Kiev was only the prelude to a sharp break and escalating conflict with Moscow over Russia’s attempts to protect its own interests in Ukraine, most particularly in Crimea.
Victoria Nuland is playing with fire. Russia, as the only nation with the military capability to destroy the U.S., is not a sideshow like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Backing Moscow into a corner with no way out by using threats and sanctions is not good policy. Washington has many excellent reasons to maintain a stable relationship with Moscow, including counter-terrorism efforts, and little to gain from moving in the opposite direction. Russia is not about to reconstitute the Warsaw Pact and there is no compelling reason to return to a Cold War footing by either arming Ukraine or permitting it to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
And make no mistake about Nuland’s broader intention to expand the conflict and directly confront Russia. In Senate testimony in May she cited how the administration is “providing support to other frontline states like Moldova and Georgia.” Frontline? Last week Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seemed to confirm that the continued expansion of NATO is indeed administration policy, saying that Georgia would be next to join in light of “Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine.”
In 2009 President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” In retrospect it was all hat and no cattle given the ongoing saga in Afghanistan, the reduction of a relatively stable Libya to chaos, meddling in Ukraine while simultaneously threatening Russia, failure to restrain Israel and the creation of an Islamic terror state in the Arab heartland. Not to mention “pivots” and additional developments in Africa and Asia. It is not a record to brag about and it certainly does not suggest that the administration is as strategically agile as Hillary Clinton would like to have one believe.
Victoria Nuland is a career civil servant and cannot easily be fired but she could be removed from her top-level policy position and sent downstairs to head the mailroom at the State Department. It would send the message that aggressive democracy promotion is not U.S. policy, but President Obama has kept her on the job. The president also reportedly is an admirer of her husband’s articles and books which argue that the U.S. must maintain its military power to accommodate its “global responsibilities.” So in response to the question “Why does Victoria Nuland still have her job?” the answer must surely be because the White House approves of what she has been doing, which should give everyone pause.
That the United States’ intention to confront Russia over Ukraine, a place where it has no real interests, borders on the incomprehensible has been clearly demonstrated by both Scott McConnell and Daniel Larison. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer has also described in some detail how the dangerous confrontation is largely the fault of Washington and its European allies, most notably because of the thoughtless expansion of NATO that genuinely threatened Russia. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, whose county would be the front line in any armed conflict, has warned that arming Ukraine might reignite the cold war and possibly even lead to a nuclear exchange.
Particularly at times when security-based policies appear to make no sense, as a former intelligence officer I am often asked how the people who work for the State Department, CIA, and DIA feel about such developments. It is a difficult question to answer as there is no such thing as a monolithic viewpoint in any of the organizations in question. On one hand, dealing with crises in international relations in one form or another is the raison d’etre of the various bureaucracies, so many are attracted by the challenge. But on the other hand, the highly educated and experienced cadres that do the yeomen’s work in each organization are not immune to concerns about where the United States is heading in its pursuit of “terrorists” and “rogue states” worldwide.
A basic understanding of how big bureaucracies operate is essential. Very few individuals in any large government bureaucracy are actually involved in what one might describe as policy issues. This is why insiders refer to places like the “seventh floor” at CIA and State or the E-Ring at the Pentagon, because that is where the movers and shakers have their offices. They are the public faces of their organizations and everyone else is little more than supporting cast. Indeed, many of those on the top executive level have little in common with the other employees at all, as they are themselves political appointees, designated to provide largely uncritical support for the policies being promoted by the White House even when the institutions they head are dubious.
That means that the Chuck Hagels, John Kerrys, and John Brennans of this world probably are only dimly aware of what is occurring on the lower floors of their own buildings. Confronting Russia appears to be popular in both Congress and the media, so it is a no-brainer to crank it up with midterm elections looming, particularly as it also averts attention from the failure of policy on the Israel-Palestine problem. Bombing ISIS is a similarly appealing substitute for having a real policy that will bring real results, and even though it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, the White House and its accompanying chorus of cabinet secretaries and intelligence directors can feel comfortable singing from the same sheet of music and promising that everything will turn out well someday. It might actually be that the cabinet truly believes in what it is peddling, but that is a thought too frightening to contemplate.
But not everyone agrees with their bosses. Indeed, I know of no former or current intelligence official who believes that the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe was a good idea, that toppling Bashar al-Assad would bring anything but chaos, or that bombing ISIS will actually accomplish anything. Given the current national security environment, I think I can state with some certainty that a solid majority of lower and mid-level employees would regard the administration responses to the ongoing series of crises, including both Ukraine and ISIS, as poorly conceived and executed. In the case of Ukraine the judgment would be somewhat stronger than that, bordering on perceptions that what we are experiencing is an abuse of the intelligence process to serve a political agenda, that the Cold War-style tension is both unnecessary and contrived. Many regard the dubious intelligence that has been produced to implicate Moscow in Crimean developments as both cherry picked and unreliable.
Within the intelligence community memories of Iraq and the prefabricated judgments made regarding Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas last year are still fresh among both analysts and information collectors, requiring the political leadership to make its case unambiguously. Intelligence work makes one naturally cynical but the rank and file are now becoming generally suspicious of and even hostile to what is going on.
I have some confidence in my assessment suggesting general unease among intelligence professionals because, as a former spook, I have inevitably fallen in with a crowd of ex-intel and military types who in turn have networks among their former colleagues, some of whom are still employed in the intelligence and national security bureaucracies. We exchange information and viewpoints on a regular basis. One thing we all understand instinctively is that nothing being asserted by any government is ever quite as it seems, and intelligence can be a dodgy business depending on who is pushing the buttons to make a palatable product come out at the other end.
And the mindset of former officers is today quite different than it was in 2003, when 9/11 was still more-or-less fresh, Afghanistan had not yet started to crater, and most people working at CIA and DIA were willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, even if there was widespread concern that the intelligence being produced to attack Saddam Hussein was a bit on the thin side. But having watched Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya crash and burn while being scapegoated numerous times by both Republicans and Democrats in the White House, many intelligence professionals are no longer willing to play follow the leader.
To be sure there are many in the national security community who continue to believe that destroying terrorism justifies massive global devastation, and that the Russians will be marching into Finland if they are not stopped at Sevastopol. But those numbers are surely diminishing as people examine the results of 13 years of trying to make Manichean solutions work in an increasingly complex world.
So the short answer to whether those engaged at the working level in national security actually believe what their bosses are saying is, “Probably not.”
The past few weeks have not been kind to Israel in the public relations department. The war against Gaza was so lopsided and obviously contrived that even in the United States pro-Israel sentiment began to soften. For those interested in fine points of national security there were three news articles of note. The first quoted from a document from the Edward Snowden haul citing a 2007 National Security Agency (NSA) assessment naming Israel as the “third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S.” It ranked just behind perennial adversaries China and Russia in terms of aggressiveness and the persistence of its espionage effort. Israel was also cited as a “leading threat” to the infrastructure of U.S. financial institutions.
The second article reported how U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had his cell phone communications intercepted by Israel in 2013 when he unsuccessfully sought to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The Secretary of State certainly has access to cell phones with encryption, though Israeli snoopers might be able to defeat such measures, but it is possible that he was speaking on open lines at the time. It is an incident recalling both the NSA tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and the notorious Victoria Nuland phone intercepts regarding Ukraine in which she colorfully expressed her opinion of the Europeans.
The third piece described how Israel was given weapons from a U.S. stockpile during its assault on Gaza, allegedly without either the White House or the State Department being informed about what was occurring. As the weapons were being used against mostly Palestinian civilians and included targeting United Nations facilities, the transfer should have been regarded as highly sensitive, politically speaking. One article discussing the confusion also cited an acrimonious phone call between the Israeli prime minister and the American president, noting drily that the administration clearly has “…little influence over the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” in spite of Tel Aviv being the leading recipient of U.S. aid dollars.
All of the above would be embarrassing enough, but Israel has also been extremely active in yet another enterprise that falls in the gray area between covert operations and overt governmental activity. Many governments seek to respond to negative commentary in the media, but they normally do it openly with an ambassador or press officer countering criticism by sending in a letter, writing an op-ed, or appearing on a talk show. Israel does indeed do that, but it also engages in other activities that are not so transparent.
When an intelligence organization seeks to influence opinion by creating and deliberately circulating false information, it is referred to as a “disinformation operation.” Such activity is generally described as public diplomacy when it is done openly by a recognized government official and the information itself is both plausible and verifiable, at least within reasonable limits. But Israel has refined the art of something in between, what might be referred to more accurately as “perception management” or “influence operations” in which it only very rarely shows its hand overtly, in many cases paying students as part-time bloggers or exploiting diaspora Jews as volunteers to get its message out. The practice is so systemic, involving recruitment, training, Foreign Ministry-prepared information sheets, and internet alerts to potential targets, that it is frequently described by its Hebrew name, hasbara, which means literally “public explanation.” It is essentially an internet-focused “information war” that parallels and supports the military action whenever Israel enters into conflict with any of its neighbors.
The hasbara onslaught inevitably cranks up when Israel is being strongly criticized. There were notable surges in activity when Israel attacked Gaza in 2009 and 2012, as well as when it hijacked the Turkish humanitarian relief ship the Mavi Marmara in 2011. The recent Gaza fighting has inevitably followed suit, producing a perfect storm of pro-Israel commentary. The comments tend to appear in large numbers on websites where moderation and registration requirements are minimal, including Yahoo! News, or Facebook and Twitter. Sites like TAC as well as leading national newspapers have much stricter management control over who comments, and are generally avoided.
The hasbara comments are noticeable as they tend to sound like boilerplate, and run contrary to or even ignore what other contributors to the site are writing. They often include spelling and syntactical hints that the writer is not natively fluent in English. As is the practice at corporate customer support call centers in Asia, the commenters generally go by American-sounding names and they never indicate that they are Israelis or working on behalf of the Israeli government. They tend to repeat over and over again sound bites of pseudo-information, most recently maintaining falsely that Hamas had started the “war” and that Israel was only defending itself. The commenters operate in the belief that if something is repeated often enough in many different places it will ipso facto gain some credibility and create doubts regarding contrary points of view.
That Israel is engaged in perception management on a large scale has more-or-less been admitted by the Israeli government, and some of its mechanisms have been identified. The Israeli Foreign Ministry even sent a letter out to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to establish “covert units” at the seven national universities to be structured in a “semi-military” fashion and organized in situation rooms. Students are paid as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.
The serious collaboration between government and volunteers actually began with Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, an incursion into Gaza that killed more than 1,800 Palestinians, when the Foreign Ministry pulled together a group of mostly young computer savvy soldiers supplemented by students both overseas and within Israel to post a number of government-crafted responses to international criticism.
Many of the volunteers worked through a website giyus.org (an acronym for Give Israel Your United Support). The website included a desktop tool called Megaphone that provided daily updates on articles appearing on the internet that had to be challenged or attacked. There were once believed to be 50,000 activists receiving the now-inactive Megaphone’s alerts.
There have also been reports about a pro-Israel American group called Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) preparing to enter its own version of developments in the Middle East on the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. E-mails from CAMERA reveal that the group sought volunteers in 2008 to edit material on Wikipedia “to help us keep Israel-related entries … from becoming tainted by anti-Israel editors,” while also recommending that articles on the Middle East be avoided initially by supporters so as not to arouse suspicions about their motives. Volunteers were also advised to use false names that did not hint at any Israeli or Jewish connection and to avoid any references to being organized by CAMERA. Fifty volunteers reportedly were actively engaged in the program when it was exposed in the media and the program was put on hold.
CAMERA is an Internal Revenue Service-approved 501(c)(3) organization, which means that contributions to it are tax exempt. Such exemptions are granted to organizations that are either charitable or educational in nature and they normally preclude any involvement in partisan political activity. As CAMERA would not appear to qualify as a charity, it is to be presumed that its application for special tax status stressed that it is educational. Whether its involvement in “un-tainting” Wikipedia truly falls within that definition might well be debated, particularly as it appears to have been carried out in semi-clandestine fashion. CAMERA might well also be considered to be a good candidate for registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), as its activity is uniquely focused on promoting the perceived interests of a foreign government.
The use of the nation’s universities as propaganda mills by the Israeli government also raises other significant issues. The growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) has included some universities as targets because of their alleged involvement with the government in the occupation of the West Bank. That the universities are also involved in possible government-sponsored information operations might be an additional convincing argument that BDS supporters might use to justify blacklisting at least some Israeli academic institutions.
Every government is engaged in selling a product, which is its own self-justifying view of what it does and how it does it. But the American public in particular should be aware of the extraordinary efforts that Israel and its supporters make to present a crafted and coordinated image through the media, particularly by way of the Internet. There are certainly many reasons why the United States uniquely views Israel favorably, but the skillful use of information manipulation and perception management certainly contributes to the process.
The Obama administration’s ambassador designee for Turkey John Bass recently had a bad day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, because he had difficulty explaining what is happening in Turkey before finally conceding that its government was “drifting towards” authoritarianism. I have just returned from a visit to Istanbul where I was able to talk to academics, journalists, businessmen, industrialists, and security officials, and can report that Bass’s comment was widely reported in the local media. Both foreign and domestic perceptions of what is taking place in Turkey are indeed generally framed around Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s alleged authoritarianism and religious conservatism opposing the constitutionalism and secularism of his opponents, but of course reality is not quite that simple.
On August 10th Erdogan will be running in the first ever direct election for president of Turkey. He is ramping up his anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric to appeal to his base, and promises to bring with him a “revolution” to transform and gain control over every aspect of the government and society. He will almost certainly quickly move to enhance the power of his office by revising the constitution. Polls predict that he will win even though more Turks oppose him than support him, thanks to a fragmented opposition and his own core of dedicated followers that the other candidates cannot match.
Erdogan supporters have been lampooned as barely educated and deeply religious Anatolian peasants, but the prime minister’s populist and religious message touches them and they return the favor with their votes. It has been reported in the Turkish media that they revere Erdogan, sometimes referring to him as “the Caliph” and even as “Allah,” surely a blasphemous epithet. Some observers point to Erdogan comments suggesting that he sees elections as a tool rather than as an end, leading to criticisms that he promotes what Fareed Zakaria describes as “illiberal democracy.” Others discern a design to restore something like the Ottoman Empire in Erdogan’s plan to build a “Great Turkey” by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
To be sure, Erdogan has done some very good things for his country in his 11 years as prime minister. He has presided over a booming economy evident in the buildings springing up everywhere in Istanbul and the cars on the street, which are largely new and represent many expensive marques. I even saw a Ferrari. And he has succeeded in establishing a modus vivendi with the country’s large Kurdish minority by allowing the community to have access to its own language and culture. The ongoing conversation has greatly reduced the level of violence and there have been similar moves to apologize to the country’s Armenian minority and come to an arrangement over the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Erdogan has also broken the power of the army, which had intervened in Turkish politics four times since 1960. His elimination of the Kemalist military’s role as guarantor of the secular constitution enabled the open government encouragement of Islam, but also resulted in false arrests and imprisonment of hundreds of former and current officers. A subsequent show trial that exposed an alleged conspiracy called “Ergenekon” was widely criticized for its procedural errors. Many of the officers have since been released and will be retried.
And Erdogan undoubtedly blundered in a big way when he supported an armed insurgency against the Syrian government. He assumed that the opposition would succeed in fairly short order and a regime friendly to Turkey and less reliant on Iran would arrive in Damascus. Instead, Turkey has been assigned a supporting role in a war without end while providing a temporary refuge for something like two million Syrian refugees, some 67,000 of whom are now begging on street corners in Istanbul.
Erdogan has also exercised extremely poor judgment in not attempting to mitigate his government’s jailing of journalists, which has given him bad press. His gaining control over one-third of the media has also raised concerns among critics. Direct intervention by the government to control what is reported as well as harass opponents has made many independent journalists overly cautious regarding what they write.
Then there is Erdogan’s insistence on grandiose development projects, to include Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul. Demonstrations and days of rioting followed after the prime minister personally unleashed the police on the largely peaceful protesters. He also banned social media and called the demonstrators and the journalists covering the event terrorists.
Likewise Erdogan’s politicization of Islam might either reflect profound feelings or serve as a bone to throw to his core of religious supporters. Be that as it may, his beneficence has helped create a new self-consciously Muslim entrepreneurial class that has challenged the secularist dominance in many parts of the economy. This displacement of the country’s former secular elite helped fuel the class and cultural conflict evident during last summer’s riots.
There are now Turkish resorts, hotels, housing estates, and restaurants that cater to the “religious.” The comportment of women is particularly scrutinized. Erdogan’s lifting of the ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools and state offices has resulted in a proliferation of the attire, far beyond what might have been imagined in the old Kemalist Turkey. Billboard ads featuring female models have regularly been vandalized and are sometimes banned by government officials for failing to meet “local standards.” But at the same time, many Turks are cool to more rigorous religious adherence with only 12 percent of the population favoring Sharia law.
The Turkish government already has a big role to play in religion, as it pays for the greatly increased number of religious schools in line with Erdogan’s boast that “we are going to raise religious generations.” Government also regulates the approximately 100,000 existing mosques. During Friday prayers, all 100,000 imams read from the same script, which is provided by a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Erdogan plans to build the world’s biggest mosque in Istanbul, even though existing mosques are not used to capacity.
The crux of any argument against Erdogan should be his demonstrably illegal acts. Domestically that would include his corruption and interference in the judicial process. There is little doubt that Erdogan presides over a regime that is awash with corruption. Telephone call recordings reveal that the prime minister personally solicited “donations” from leading businessmen, that his son made tens of millions by illegally trading gold for oil with Iran, and that numerous Justice and Development Party (AKP) apparatchiks have been in on the take from a pool of money managed by the prime minister. Three cabinet ministers were forced to resign when the recordings were made public.
Erdogan has interfered in the judicial process by staging the show trial of senior military officers, and his mass reassignments and arrests of police and prosecutors were undeniably meant to protect himself and his accomplices. He has set up a parliamentary commission to independently investigate the corruption charges, but it has by design gone nowhere. If Erdogan is elected president next week he will have legal immunity and investigations initiated against him will be nullified. In addition, next year the Presidency of the Constitutional Court that presides over government functions will be open and Erdogan will be well placed to fill the position with an ally.
Erdogan has acted criminally in his foreign policy as well. A recorded conversation reveals that the prime minister and his intelligence chief Hakan Fidan considered staging a false flag attack against Turkish targets to justify invading Syria. That would not only be a crime against Turkish law but would also almost certainly qualify as a war crime. There have also been allegations that Turkey has been arming and arranging the movement of the Syrian insurgent al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, including the inadvertent exposure of a clandestine shipment of missiles in January. Turkey only recently declared al-Nusra to be “terrorist.”
Erdogan has claimed that there is a “judicial coup” against him linked to the followers of exiled former ally Fethullah Gulen, a conspiracy which he has called in his usual colorful fashion both a “parallel state” and “blood sucking vampires.” But, apart from numerous arrests, the reassignments of police officers and prosecutors and an ongoing investigation, no evidence has been actually produced to suggest that there is anything approaching a large-scale coordinated effort to discredit or remove him. The Gulenist movement, also referred to as Hizmet, was recently placed on the intelligence list of subversive organizations to enable the government to move against it more aggressively.
But the lack of a demonstrable conspiracy does not necessarily mean that Erdogan errs when he claims to have powerful enemies. He is deeply disliked by many Turks who describe themselves as secular or Kemalists, or who prefer their Islam in a liberal form. Many inside and outside the government would like to see Erdogan gone and it would not be surprising to discover a common interest among opponents to do what they can to attack him.
Erdogan’s maneuvers might also be considered in the context of Turkey’s so-called “Deep State”, which consisted of clandestine mafia-like groups that have operated behind the scenes since the 1950s. The Deep State was made up largely of government officials, many retired but some in active service, who exercised a great deal of influence over government policies from backstage benefitting directly from the country’s persistent corruption.
Erdogan’s 11 years in power have enabled him to become the new owner of the Deep State by muzzling the military and bringing the intelligence service under his direct control. He has also benefited from increased resources, enabling his patronage of supporters to surge dramatically. Phone recordings detail how Erdogan extorts “tithes” from businesses and the wealthy in return for promises of no government harassment. The authorities recently punished Turkey’s largest company Koc Holdings by arranging a tax audit in response to Koc being perceived as anti-Erdogan after it made available its Divan Hotel to shelter protesters who were being gassed and beaten by police at the Gezi Park demonstration. Smaller companies fall in line for fear of losing government patronage and access to tenders.
For those without money, Erdogan seeks loyalty and political support. At one private university I visited that is regarded as anti-Erdogan, a large government cargo helicopter hovers overhead for a couple of hours every day, drowning out conversation. The police also drop by regularly, citing allegations of disturbances. It is pure harassment of a political opponent.
So the simple answer to the question of what is happening in Turkey is that Prime Minister Erdogan presides over an extremely corrupt administration and behaves in an authoritarian fashion, including interfering with the judiciary, to protect his ability to entrench the rule of himself and his followers. He has also proven himself quite capable of committing war crimes to cover up his foreign policy blunders. Other insinuations may or may not be true, and his alleged desire to introduce an Islamic state is as of now not demonstrated, but the danger is that his accession to an enhanced presidency in the near future, coupled with his unassailable voting bloc in parliament, could well mean that he will be pretty much able to do whatever he wants. Therein lies the danger.
The inability of the United States government to anticipate the ISIS offensive that has succeeded in taking control of a large part of Iraq is already being referred to as an “intelligence failure.” To be sure, Washington has unparalleled technical capabilities to track money movements and to obtain information from the airwaves. It is adept at employing surveillance drones and other highly classified intrusive electronic methods, but there is an inherent problem with that kind of information collection: knowing how the process works in even the most general way can make it relatively easy to counter by an opponent who can go low tech.
Terrorists now know that using cell phones is dangerous, that transferring money using commercial accounts can be detected, that moving around when a drone is overhead can be fatal, and that communicating by computer is likely to be intercepted and exposed even when encrypted. So they rely on couriers to communicate and move money while also avoiding the use of the vulnerable technologies whenever they can, sometimes using public phones and computers only when they are many miles away from their operational locations, and changing addresses, SIM cards, and telephone numbers frequently to confuse the monitoring.
Technical intelligence has another limitation: while it is excellent on picking up bits and pieces and using sophisticated computers to work through the bulk collection of chatter, it is largely unable to learn the intentions of terrorist groups and leaders. To do that you need spies, ideally someone who is placed in the inner circle of an organization and who is therefore privy to decision making.
Since 9/11 U.S. intelligence has had a poor record in recruiting agents to run inside terrorist organizations—or even less toxic groups that are similarly structured—in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Information collected relating to the internal workings of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, dissident Sunni groups in Iraq, and now ISIS has been, to say the least, disappointing. To be fair this is often because security concerns limit the ability of American case officers to operate in areas that are considered too dangerous, which is generally speaking where the terrorist targets are actually located. Also, hostile groups frequently run their operations through franchise arrangements where much of the decision making is both local and funded without large cash transfers from a central organization, making the activity hard to detect.
In the case of ISIS, even the number of its adherents is something of a guesstimate, though a figure of 5,000 fighters might not be too far off the mark. Those supporters are likely a mixed bag, some motivated to various degrees by the ISIS core agenda to destroy the Syrian and Iraqi governments in order to introduce Sharia law and recreate the Caliphate, while others might well be along for the ride. Some clearly are psychological outsiders who are driven by the prospect of being on a winning team. They are in any event normally scattered over a large geographical area and divided into cells that have little in the way of lateral connection. They would, however, be responsive to operational demands made by the leadership, headed by Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Moving in small groups while lacking a huge baggage train or infrastructure, it was relatively easy to concentrate to push into Iraq and link up with dissident Sunni tribesmen without necessarily coming to the attention of spies in the sky, American drones flying out of Turkey.
It should be assumed that the U.S. intelligence community has no spies inside ISIS at any level where it might be possible to collect significant or actionable information. In the past, successful penetration of a terrorist organization has come about when a dissident member of the group surfaces and volunteers his services in return for money or other considerations. This is how law enforcement and intelligence agencies broke the Euro terrorists who were active in the 1970s and 1980s, but its success depended on the radical groups being composed largely of middle-class students who were ideologically driven but by nature not necessarily loyal to a political cause or its leaders. The defector model does not appear to have been repeated successfully recently with the demographically quite different radical groups active in Syria, at least not at a level where actionable intelligence might be produced.
Lacking a volunteer, the alternative would be to run what is referred to as a seeding operation. Given U.S. intelligence’s probable limited physical access to any actual terrorist groups operating in Syria or Iraq any direct attempt to penetrate the organization through placing a source inside would be difficult in the extreme. Such efforts would most likely be dependent on the assistance of friendly intelligence services in Turkey or Jordan.
Both Turkey and Jordan have reported that terrorists have entered their countries by concealing themselves in the large numbers of refugees that the conflict in Syria has produced, and both are concerned as they understand full well that groups like ISIS will be targeting them next. Some of the infiltrating adherents to radical groups have certainly been identified and detained by the respective intelligence services of those two countries, and undoubtedly efforts have been made to “turn” some of those in custody to send them back into Syria (and more recently Iraq) to report on what is taking place. Depending on what arrangements might have been made to coordinate the operations, the “take” might well be shared with the United States and other friendly governments.
But seeding is very much hit or miss, as someone who has been out of the loop of his organization might have difficulty working his way back in. He will almost certainly be regarded with some suspicion by his peers and would be searched and watched after his return, meaning that he could not take back with him any sophisticated communications devices no matter how cleverly they are concealed. This would make communicating any information obtained back to one’s case officers in Jordan or Turkey difficult or even impossible.
All of the above is meant to suggest that intelligence agencies that were created to oppose and penetrate other nation-state adversaries are not necessarily well equipped to go after terrorists, particularly when those groups are ethnically cohesive or recruited through family and tribal vetting, and able to operate in a low-tech fashion to negate the advantages that advanced technologies provide. Claiming intelligence failure has a certain appeal given the $80 billion dollars that is spent annually to keep the government informed, but it must also be observed that it is also a convenient club for Republicans to use to beat on the president, which might indeed be the prime motivation.
The real problem for Washington is that penetrating second-generation terrorist groups such as those operating today is extremely difficult, and is not merely a matter of throwing more money and resources into the hopper, which has become the U.S. government response of choice when confronted by a problem. Success against terrorists will require working against them at their own level, down in the trenches where they recruit and train their cadres. It will necessitate a whole new way of thinking about the target and how to go after it, and will inevitably result in the deaths of many more American case officers as they will be exposed without elaborate security networks if they are doing their jobs the right way. It is quite likely that this is a price that the U.S. government will ultimately be unwilling to pay, and that unreasonable expectations from Congress will only result in more claims that there have been yet more intelligence failures.
It has been said that retired American spies frequently end up in some rural location that cannot be found on any map, where they can grow orchids or breed Labrador retrievers in peace. Their British counterparts often settle down to write thrillers with plots so involved and characters so conflicted that only a completely masochistic reader can enjoy the twists and turns.
But what of the flotsam and jetsam of spying, the agents who are used and discarded or, in exceptional circumstances, eventually sent out to pasture and resettled in something akin to law enforcement’s witness protection program?
Most intelligence agents, when they are no longer useful, are simply terminated with a hearty slap on the back: “Nice knowing you. Good luck.” But when an agent is so compromised that he can’t go home again, resettlement under the Agency’s Public Law 110 program is sometimes authorized. If the agent is indisputably on the side of the angels, the process is simple: new identity, job, or a business of some sort, and a house in the suburbs.
The Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, head of South Vietnam’s National Police and a CIA informant—who was famously photographed blowing the brains out of a Viet Cong prisoner in 1968—wound up owning a pizzeria in Burke, Virginia. Down the street a number of Saigon’s former top intelligence officers had townhouses, and everyone would get together at the Vietnam Inn in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia once a week to reminisce over old times, frequently to be joined by friends from the nearby Pentagon and CIA headquarters.
But it all gets trickier when the current good guy was once a really bad guy who participated in targeting and killing Americans. A recent book by Kai Bird on former CIA officer Robert Ames has created quite a stir both in the media and in Congress over the suggestion that Ali Reza Asgari, who reportedly planned the bombing of the United States Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed Ames plus the six-strong CIA station as well as ten other Americans, was subsequently picked up as an agency source and now appears to be living in the U.S. with a false identity and a full repatriation package.
Like many good stories, this tale is not completely true. Asgari, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was indeed a key player in the Beirut bombing but later fell under Tehran’s suspicion and feared that he would be summarily executed. So he planned a defection during a trip to Istanbul, as Turkey was then one of the few countries that Iranians could visit without a visa. Turkish intelligence (MIT) and the CIA were tipped off by Asgari, who brought with him hundreds of documents to establish his bona fides. He was whisked away to an interrogation center near Ankara and later to CIA offsites in the United States.
Asgari, who had good access to the Iranian missile and nuclear programs when he defected, was the most valuable source ever to come out of post-revolutionary Iran. He has since been resettled in a comfortable retirement in the United Arab Emirates—which was one of the demands he negotiated with Washington before he defected—so concerned congressmen can go back to arguing about Obamacare.
Two new spy stories surfaced during the past week. One involved the United States’ apparent recruitment of a German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) foreign intelligence officer and an ongoing investigation of a Bundeswehr official who might also have been turned, together resulting in the CIA Chief of Station in Berlin being declared persona non grata and expelled from the country. The second concerned an investigation launched by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey relating to a possible Cuban sourced news story that was apparently intended to discredit him.
The German intelligence officer was reportedly recruited as a penetration of his own service to inform the National Security Agency (NSA) about what Berlin might be contemplating doing relating to Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. His arrest drew a predictable angry response from senior German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel, herself a target of the NSA program, has demanded to know why Washington would continue to spy on a friend in such an unseemly fashion. Her wrath might be more feigned than real, and might be in response to public demands to “do something,” but the expulsion of the CIA Chief is unprecedented and sends an extremely strong signal. I am nevertheless sure that at least some of her advisers with actual intelligence agency experience have reminded her that governments fund spy agencies to collect information from friends and enemies alike. That is their job, and it also might be noted that the top priority for any intelligence organization is to prevent other intelligence organizations from penetrating its security and obtaining its secrets. You can only do that by getting an agent inside the other guy’s agency before he gets to you.
And as for spying on friends, even the closest of relationships in the intelligence world have limits. The liaison relationship between Germany and the United States is indeed very close, but there are undoubtedly many things that Berlin knows that it might choose not to share for any number of reasons. Having your own man or woman inside is the only way to find out what is being withheld. Is the risk of getting caught worth the possible gain? That is impossible to know until you actually are inside looking around.
Traditionally, every large intelligence organization spent a lot of its time and effort on targeting friends. In the old days of the Warsaw Pact, the KGB had agents inside the Czech, Polish, Hungarian, and East German spy agencies just to make sure that everyone was toeing the line. The U.S. behaved likewise with its friends in NATO, excluding only the British and Canadians with whom there was and still is a bilateral agreement forbidding such activity. There is no reason to assume that the end of the Cold War in any way changed that dynamic.
The Menendez case is equally slippery. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Cuban American, is one of the most outspoken critics of the communist Castro government. He is now claiming that a deliberately fabricated news story surfaced when he was running for reelection in 2012 and was anticipating becoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he currently holds. The story alleged that he had paid for sex with two underage girls while on a visit to the Dominican Republic. Per Menendez, the story was clearly planted to damage his campaign and to force him to relinquish the committee chair. He further claims that the Central Intelligence Agency has now collected evidence that identifies the internet IP addresses that were used to float the story to the media and that the links have been traced back to known Cuban intelligence officers.
The Menendez case is particularly interesting in that it was a somewhat successful attempt by the Cuban spy agency to influence political developments inside the United States even though the Senator won his election. Menendez expressed his outrage, “…I think it is incredibly troublesome that a foreign government would try to interfere either with a federal election or the seating of a senator on a specific committee in order to pursue its foreign policy goals.”
From a technical viewpoint, the planted story itself was carefully prepared, linking the date of the alleged incident to an actual Menendez visit to the Dominican Republic, where he was flown in on a private jet as the guest of a local millionaire eye doctor named Salomon Melgen. Two women backstopped the newspaper account by swearing that they had been with Menendez and had been paid for their services, though they subsequently recanted.
Since the appearance of the fabricated news report some of the mud has certainly stuck to Menendez, as can be readily observed by Googling his name and Dominican Republic, but the story behind the story is that the attempt to smear Menendez is perhaps describable as a bit of intelligence agency blowback.
Menendez’s anger is understandable, but for many years the United States has been routinely engaged worldwide in “covert action,” which includes employing fictitious stories to support specific policies and actions as well as to discredit foreign leaders who are not fully on board politically. This was particularly true in Latin America where it was easy and relatively cheap to acquire local journalists as intelligence assets. Many of the stories produced through that mechanism targeted Cuba and its government, which was then and is now viewed in Washington as the Western Hemisphere’s political bad boy, so it is possible that the Cubans felt that they had a score to settle.
The recruitment of foreign journalists frequently involves providing them with information that in turn enables them to prepare what are referred to as “press placements.” Most large CIA Stations control one or more local journalists and an occasional editor. While US law prohibits intelligence agencies from feeding false information to American journalists, foreign media representatives are fair game. Many local journalists welcome the arrangement as it gives them additional tax free income while also occasionally providing them with information that can be used to further their own careers.
The curious thing about the Menendez case is that the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence appears to have picked the wrong story, believing that a sex case would prove most damaging to the Senator’s career. According to the Washington Post, Menendez might soon be charged regarding an ongoing Justice Department public integrity division investigation over his allegedly doing favors for Salomon Melgen, whom he stayed with in the Dominican Republic. Menendez reportedly twice intervened with federal health-care officials over a finding that Melgen had overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million for eye treatments at his clinics. The senator also pressured the State and Commerce departments to use their influence over the Dominican Republic to confirm a port security contract for a company partly owned by Melgen. Menendez might learn to his regret that the truth is sometimes more damaging that fiction.
The indignation of Merkel over the American spies and of Menendez over the audacity of the Cubans is understandable, but it is all part and parcel of things that spy agencies do regularly. Did Washington learn anything important by monitoring the BND reporting on NSA? Probably not, but intelligence collection is a bit of a crap shoot, looking for something that you don’t necessarily know is there, much like the Donald Rumsfeld observation that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.” Likewise, did the cleverly executed Cuban press placement succeed in bringing down Robert Menendez? No, but if it had been developed a bit earlier and been picked up in more of the mainstream media, it just might have.
Americans have become so accustomed to going to war based on lies that they hardly flinch when the latest round of bellicose innuendo surfaces. The public knows that Iraq was a foreign policy disaster, that Syria is more of the same, and that the current transnational crisis encouraged by Washington’s missteps and engulfing both countries is likely to turn out even worse. All of which makes it more difficult for the usual inside the beltway players to come up with a compelling argument in favor of direct intervention in Iraq or providing still more aid to the “vetted” insurgents in Syria.
The latest selling point for the need to take firm action against the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is that it is a threat against the United States and Western Europe. Indeed, it is probably the only argument that has any traction. British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that his country will be targeted and that assistance to Baghdad is necessary, a refrain similar to that being voiced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has assured the American public that the Obama administration is taking steps to make sure that such an attack never materializes. Sen. Lindsey Graham claims that the “seeds of 9/11 are being planted all over Iraq and Syria,” while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers warns that “this is a problem that we will have to face and we’re either going to face it in New York City or we’re going to face it here [in Iraq].”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s recent featured op-ed in the Washington Post is equally lacking in subtlety in making the argument for an American return to an active role in Baghdad: “We would be foolish to think that ISIS will not plan attacks against the West now that it has the space and security to do so.” The subliminal message being delivered is “act now before a guy with a beard, carrying a Kalashnikov, moves in next door.” Perhaps not so oddly, we have heard variations on that theme before, something about a mushroom cloud rising over Washington.
And just as in the case of the mushroom cloud claim, one has to ask “Where is the evidence?” The intelligence community has been largely silent about the impending threat, apart from admitting that it has limited capabilities to collect information in Iraq and Syria largely because the CIA no longer knows how to spy in places that are challenging. That admission has been coupled with generic assurances that Washington’s spooks have been monitoring the situation and are concerned over developments.
Given the apparent general lack of reliable information regarding the metastasizing Syrian insurgency, one is compelled to ask where the intelligence is to back up the claim that ISIS is intending to expand its activity to the so-called Christian world, which would seem to be at odds with their much more obvious regional agenda in the Middle East. Does it really make sense for ISIS to take steps that would unite a gaggle of Western nations against it at this time, when success at creating a quasi-independent state in the heart of the Arab world is within its grasp?
I suspect that a paucity of reliable intelligence is being shoehorned into an acceptable narrative for policymakers to regurgitate. The promotion of the alleged threat includes a conflation of several quite separate issues. It is based on the indisputable fact that a number of young Muslims ostensibly citizens of European countries and the United States, some of whom are indigenous converts to Islam, have gone to perform jihad in the Middle East and South Asia. As the punditry would have it, they must be planning to return home some day and raise hell, a line of reasoning that has spawned several Congressional hearings hosted by the Rep. Peter King of New York on the so-called home-grown terrorism threat.
It would probably surprise Peter King to learn that political Islam and its terrorist offshoots really do not care much about the United States. Islamic terrorism is overwhelmingly targeted against ostensibly Muslim governments, suggesting that the leap across the Atlantic Ocean is not inevitable except insofar as Washington is seen as the principal supporter of regimes that the insurgents are seeking to topple. But the persistence of the argument that the U.S. and Western Europe are in the crosshairs of a vast international terrorist conspiracy invites some further inquiry.
There are three separate issues that should be addressed. First, and most important, is there any actual evidence that groups like ISIS either intend or have the capability to expand out of the Arab heartland and attack European nations or the United States? I think the answer is clearly “no,” because if such intelligence existed policymakers would be citing it directly to support their desire for a free hand to intervene in Iraq and Syria.
Second, conceding that Western raised and nurtured jihadis do exist, how many individuals are we talking about? Was Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki a one-off, or are there dozens or even hundreds of home-grown terrorists? The New York Times has reported intelligence sources suggesting that there might be 70 American jihadis, a round number that is quite likely a guesstimate. If the intelligence community, FBI, and Congress have no reliable information regarding the possible scale of the problem, derivative assumptions being made regarding the nature of the threat should be greeted with considerable skepticism.
Third, if it can somehow be demonstrated that the Western jihadis are real and pose a definable threat, someone should be asking how these people came to the United States in the first place and why their disaffection, if that’s what it is, has resulted in turning to terrorism as a response. I would suggest two possible lines of inquiry. First, it is necessary to examine immigration policy to learn how groups and individuals have been able to enter the United States through government-funded resettlement programs without any ability on the part of Embassies overseas or the Department of Homeland Security to vet the immigrant candidates on security grounds.
Some of the alleged American jihadis are reported to be disaffected Somalis from Minnesota. One has to wonder just how an apparent concentration of Somalis wound up in Minneapolis in the first place, as it would be impossible to do serious background checks on them given the longstanding lack of state structures and reliable information in their homeland. There is no U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu to do the work, and there are no public records accessible to determine if one is a criminal or has been associated with terrorist groups. It is difficult to understand who decided that available evidence suggested that the Somalis in question might somehow be transformed into good American citizens.
The other line of inquiry would have to be an assessment of whether the Somalis and others were turned rogue by their experience while in the United States, particularly whether the war on terror and its associated invasions of Muslim states had a particular impact on their views of Washington’s role in the world and its willingness to deal fairly with their co-religionists. There is undoubtedly some evidence that that is the case, but I am not suggesting for a moment that external issues should in any way exonerate or attempt to explain away someone’s decision to become a terrorist. Nevertheless, it certainly would be helpful from a law enforcement perspective to try to understand what drives the individuals who are attracted to politically motivated violence.
Given the lack of good intelligence, it perhaps should not be surprising that there has been little serious discussion of the alleged terrorist threat. If there are ISIS terrorists actively preparing for and capable of staging terrorist attacks in the United States, it would be a serious matter indeed, though one might in any case question the hyperbole of a second 9/11 being advanced by some of the advocates of immediate military action. But if the danger is real, the government has failed to make the case in any reasonable fashion, nor has it taken preventive action to address the policies that might have created the homegrown jihadi threat in the first place.
And if the alleged plot is in fact being orchestrated using former residents of the United States, substantially increasing its plausibility, that too should be something that the White House ought to be examining in a serious way. Yet apart from generic fear mongering, vague numbers, and allegations about Americans traveling to the Middle East to engage in jihad, there has been little discussion of what the current terrorist threat actually is, and no consideration at all of reasonable steps that might be taken to contain it.
In a recent discussion I had with Scott Horton on his radio show, we speculated as to why the White House, which surely includes very many smart, hard-working, and responsible people, just cannot seem to recognize the cognitive dissonance inherent in supporting contradictory policies in places like Syria. Supporting the “rebels” in an effort that will likely fail to bring down the government in Damascus only prolongs the suffering of the Syrian people, while, if by some chance the insurgents actually did win, it would mean the death of the once-vibrant Syrian Christian community and the likely installation of a fundamentalist terrorism-supporting regime in the heart of the Arab world that would make its counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran look positively libertarian. And that support comes at the immediate price of the bloody disintegration of neighboring Iraq.
We eventually came to the conclusion that the staffs in large bureaucracies are not necessarily selected for their independence of mind. Quite the contrary, they rise to the top because they learned in grade school to get along well with others, which in practice means that groupthink will always prevail even if it is highly illogical and in the long run damaging to genuine interests. Combine that with an essentially reactive foreign policy, and you have a formula for coming to the wrong conclusion nearly every time.
But the old garbage in-garbage out rule should also be considered. Having been in U.S. intelligence myself, I can confirm that officials tend to regard classified information as reliable and comprehensive, which frequently leads them to ignore everything else. It might be comforting to peruse a glossy report stamped “Top Secret” in the National Security Council conference room, but from my role as an intelligence collector overseas I can assert without any fear of contradiction that clandestine source reporting can be as bad as what one reads on just about any site on the Internet, and is often considerably worse than what appears in the newspapers. This bias in favor of reporting produced by the “community” induces a tunnel vision on the part of intelligence analysts that has belatedly led to a debate about the value of open sources versus the tightly controlled version of reality that prevails in security clearance land.
Unfortunately, government bureaucrats don’t really see the quality of finished intelligence as an information issue. They tend to take steps to shut out unwelcome reports rather than including them and weighing their validity. This is because their prime objective is to control the story being fed to the public and the media. As most of the world currently obtains its information from news services and Internet sources that are beyond the control of any one government, various mechanisms have therefore been exploited to limit the ability of the public as well as government employees themselves to circumvent established narratives being promoted to support specific policies. Recently in Turkey, the government took steps to shut down Twitter accounts that enabled protesters to report independently on police activity. Similar limitations on access to Internet-based social media have been put in place in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and China. The United States has even proposed legislation to turn off all Internet communications in the event of an as yet largely undefined state of emergency.
As a better informed analyst will presumably write better reports, some recent steps taken by the U.S. defense and intelligence communities to treat clearly true leaked information as lies are particularly hard to comprehend. As long ago as late 2010, the Pentagon forbade any employee from visiting the WikiLeaks website. The White House and the Air Force subsequently broadened the prohibition, issuing both an executive order and command guidelines blocking the use of either office or home computers to view sites that contained WikiLeaks-derived information. The ban, which in its Air Force version initially even included family members, ironically confirmed that the information revealed by WikiLeaks was accurate. It also prevented many government employees from reading the New York Times, among other publications, which had unanticipated consequences. While the entire reading public was able to know, for example, that in 2009 the United States had initiated a spying campaign targeting the leadership of the UN in violation of the 1946 United Nations convention, Pentagon intelligence analysts were presumably officially ignorant of that fact.
The unconvincing excuse provided by an Air Force spokesman to justify its draconian measures was that the classified information in the news articles would contaminate the unclassified computers being used to access the news sites, requiring that the computers be sanitized before they could be reused. In other words, information that has once been classified and is now in the public domain is still considered secret if pulled up on a U.S. government computer and read by a government employee. Employees were also advised that they would receive a security violation if they were detected using home or personal computers to view classified material available on public sites, because they had no “need to know” the information.
While most Americans would agree that there are legitimate secrets, the flood of information revealed by WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden suggests that, in some cases at least, classification has been used to conceal either illegal activity or actions that might widely be condemned as inappropriate if revealed to the public. As a result, the belief that the U.S. government mostly acts in the national interest has been replaced by a growing conviction that the government’s own bureaucratic interests and those of the public it purportedly serves have largely diverged.
The latest attempt to clamp down on leaks of information was briefly reported in the New York Times on May 8th. In April, the Office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an updated directive as part of its so-called “pre-publication review policy,” which requires employees as well as many ex-employees to clear in advance speeches, articles, books, and any other unofficial writing, including letters to newspaper editors. Clapper, who is perhaps best known for lying to Congress about the extent of the National Security Agency surveillance program, has now banned current and former employees from including any references to news or media reports based on leaks of classified information. The reasoning? “The use of such information in a publication can confirm the validity of an unauthorized disclosure and cause further harm to national security.”
The new policy, which does not even permit the mention of an article, is widely seen as an attempt to discourage whistleblowers. It is an expansion of the authority granted in a Clapper policy statement issued in March that forbade any substantive contact with journalists, even if the information being discussed were unclassified, which would appear to be a clear violation of First Amendment rights. Ironically, the sweeping ban also makes it impossible for former employees to debunk information in the public sector that is manifestly untrue, as they cannot even mention an article in order to deny its credibility. As one critic noted, government employees “can’t talk about what everyone in the country is talking about.”
The government claims that pre-publication review is not a closed door, and that articles are frequently cleared after it is determined that there is no classified or “sensitive” content, but the reality is that writing critical of the intelligence community has historically suffered trying ordeals in the clearance process, while works that praise the government are ushered through. George Tenet, former Director of Central Intelligence, researched his book At the Center of the Storm using classified documents in a secure room provided by contractor SAIC with the full cooperation of government agencies, while Jose Rodriguez, who headed the CIA torture program, also was able to have his book Hard Measures, which justified his questionable decisions, approved without any major redactions. Other authors who have been more critical, including Ishmael Jones, have been hounded both by CIA and the Justice Department.
The information being protected is not even necessarily classified. The new guideline replaces the old standard of “protection of classified information” with preventing “the unauthorized disclosure of information.” The new rules would also cover how the intelligence agencies conduct their business, including revelations of criminal fraud and waste. The government deliberately writes its rules ambiguously to give itself a free hand to interpret what is or is not considered a violation.
Even well-informed Americans are unlikely to know much about the level of corruption prevalent within the member states of the European Union (EU). A fascinating article in the London Review of Books by UCLA professor Perry Anderson opens with a tour de force run-through of the high crimes and misdemeanors featuring recent heads of state and heads of government across Europe.
Helmut Kohl of Germany and Jacques Chirac of France, the two most powerful European politicians of their era, were guilty of amassing slush funds and embezzlement, yet neither was ever punished. Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder cut a billion Euro deal with Russia’s Gazprom shortly before leaving politics and joining Gazprom’s board at a salary higher than he was receiving as Germany’s chancellor. Two German presidents, Horst Kohler and Christian Wulff, have recently been forced to resign, one for corruption, while two cabinet ministers have stepped down for falsifying their educational credentials.
Former french president Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly took a €50 million “loan” from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to help finance his election bid, and his party has more recently admitted to “anomalies” in the funding of its 2012 campaign. His finance minister Christine Lagarde, currently head of the International Monetary Fund, has been investigated for granting €420 million (€1 = $1.36) to a convicted felon friend of Sarkozy. Current French president Francois Hollande also had some unsavory connections. He reportedly would tryst with his actress mistress in the apartment owned by the girlfriend of a Corsican criminal who was killed during a gun battle last year.
In Britain Tony Blair cozied up to Rebekah Brooks of News of the World, advising her how to beat the five charges of criminal conspiracy against her, advice modeled on his own government’s questionable handling of an investigation into the death of an Iraq war whistleblower. Blair, who in Clintonesque fashion has become a very rich man indeed since leaving office, regularly panders to anyone who has money, including president Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, whose “achievements are wonderful.”
Ireland’s Bernie Ahern made €400,000 disappear before taking office and voting himself the highest salary of any world leader. He left office a year later, under attack for his fiscal mismanagement. Mariano Rajoy of Spain meanwhile took kickbacks totaling a quarter of a million Euros, and his party treasurer Luis Barcenas is currently under arrest while an investigation continues to determine the source of €22 million sitting in undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Rajoy has encouraged Barcenas to “Stay strong” but 85 percent of the Spanish public believes the Prime Minister is lying when he denies any knowledge of the money.
Accountability for corruption and fraud is rare, permitting elites to operate in a virtual no-rules environment. As Anderson notes, “Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to prison.” Only one Eurozone political leader has actually been imprisoned, Greek government minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who has been sentenced to 20 years for assorted shakedowns and money laundering. Across the Aegean, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still in power even after discussing with his son how to hide some tens of millions of dollars obtained from kickbacks. Erdogan fired the policemen and prosecutors who were looking into the matter. A little farther to the south, in Israel, the ex-president Moshe Katsav was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for rape, while former prime minister Ehud Olmert received six years for bribery. Nearly every other Israeli head of state and head of government in the past 20 years has been investigated for corruption or fraud, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A European Commission report on corruption in the Union estimated that it amounts to €120 billion annually, a sum the report described as “breathtaking” while also expressing the view that the true figure is “probably much higher.” The report only covered the member states, conveniently ignoring the massive corruption and fraud in the EU bureaucracy itself, demonstrating once again that accountability only applies to someone else.
After making his slam dunk, Anderson goes on to analyze in detail Italian politics from the 1970s until the present to demonstrate just how corruption takes hold of a political system and delegitimizes it, producing voter apathy, domination of legislatures, and strengthening of executive rule by often unelected elites. Pervasive corruption breeds public indifference and acquiescence to forms of behavior that would otherwise be considered abhorrent, note particularly the extracurricular antics of recently convicted tax evader and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi used his office and existing legislative machinery to block prosecution of himself while also exploiting his media empire to shape an essentially false narrative of his successes as head of government. He is now doing community service.
As I knew many of the Italian politicians Anderson cites, some on a personal basis, from my own time in the Eternal City in the 1970s and 1980s, I found the analysis fascinating while the dissection of Italy’s current leaders’ inability to lead offers significant new insights into the persistence of the Italian malaise. Is genuine reform of a system that is completely broken possible? Probably not.
And Anderson concludes that the Italian experience is far from unique, that the country’s style of governance is becoming the norm in Europe: “Italy is not an anomaly within Europe. It is much closer to a concentrate of it.” While he does not explore the rise of right-wing parties in recent elections, one might well speculate that the renascent nationalism that they offer is both a rebuke to the suffocating bureaucracy of the EU and a warning about the public’s growing intolerance of the corrupt politicians from the political parties that have both dominated and alternated in power in nearly every European country since the Second World War.
But is the problem only European? Most Americans probably think of corruption as a cop in a third-world country demanding a bribe in lieu of issuing a parking ticket. Real corruption is actually much more damaging in the U.S. than elsewhere because it involves far larger sums and is frequently hidden behind a smokescreen of law. The United States in fact exhibits some of the worst features of Euro corruption with a few unique wrinkles of its own. While Italy might well be a paradigm for blatant political corruption in all its forms, and the EU more generally speaking might well be the heir apparent to that distinction, it is nevertheless interesting to note that politicians in a number of countries cited by Anderson have actually been investigated and even convicted of crimes, something that occurs rarely in the U.S., where prison is seemingly limited to Illinois governors whose flamboyant misdemeanors would even make Boss Tweed blush. Which is not to say that prosecution for malfeasance does not take place among U.S. government officials, but it is generally limited to the small fry.
More than in Europe if only because it has been going on longer, money has corrupted every aspect of government at every level in the United States, creating a system in which laws are passed to make various forms of corruption legal. What is “legal” becomes a substitute for what is “responsible or accountable” even though they are not the same, meaning that the interaction of government with its citizenry is frequently framed purely in terms of what people are and are not allowed to do. The revolving door of former government officials that feeds into the perfectly legal lobbying system that prevails in the U.S. and nowhere else in the world is all part of a huge industry. Many would regard lobbying as the worst possible case of institutionalized corruption, as it operates largely behind closed doors to serve special interests that in turn profit from the process, and it does little or nothing for the broader public interest.
The rot starts with the bipartisan dominance of what passes for political process in the United States. The vetting procedure managed by the two parties and their batteries of lawyers coupled with large cash flows from special interests means that challenging the status quo is well-nigh impossible. So if you want to know why Washington pursues policies that do not serve any conceivable national interests, you only have to look at the bottom level where the voter has, in reality, no choice because he is only offered a cookie cutter politician.
The failure of the Tea Party movement perfectly illustrates the problem. Voters eventually became so upset with the status quo that they lashed out and organized to change things. In the case of the Tea Party, they initially demanded smaller, more responsible government, constitutionalism, and an end to America’s perpetual wars, surely all positive objectives. So what happened? The Tea Party was hijacked as its leadership came to be defined by folks like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and Marco Rubio. Ron Paul’s noninterventionist legacy was conveniently forgotten and replaced by traditional GOP across-the-board bellicosity, while small and constitutional government became focused largely on two issues, Obamacare and guns. When the Tea Party weakened because it no longer stood for anything, the GOP establishment quickly moved to eliminate it.
It is depressing to have to acknowledge that corruption in government is so accepted even in politically advanced nations that those who engage in it are rarely held accountable in any serious way. It is as if it is the agreed on price of doing business, but in reality it distorts critical decision making, creates inequality, and weakens the social cohesion that enables most nations to function. A largely alienated citizenry will find it difficult to rally round the flag, so to speak, when a genuine national emergency develops. Professor Anderson describes the trend as “The Italian Disaster,” but in reality it is a disaster for all of us.
Long-time readers of The American Conservative are certainly aware of persistent Israeli spying directed against the United States, but it is a subject seldom explored by the mainstream media. That taboo has apparently been lifted with the recent appearance of three feature pieces by Jeff Stein in Newsweek, “Israel Won’t Stop Spying on the U.S.”, “Israel’s Aggressive Spying in the U.S. Mostly Hushed Up” and “The Latest Document from the Snowden Trove Highlights Israeli Spying”, which together provide details relating to Tel Aviv’s persistent efforts to obtain American secrets. The espionage occurs both inside the United States and in Israel itself, directed against naive U.S. citizens, including government officials, who are subjected to aggressive recruitment attempts while attending meetings and conferences. It has even been reported that “CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East.”
Stein, a Vietnam-era military intelligence officer, formerly a regular columnist on espionage issues for the Washington Post, now writes “Spy Talk” for Newsweek. He is highly respected in the intelligence and law enforcement communities and has excellent contacts within the government.
The recent exposure of the depth and breadth of persistent Israeli espionage against the U.S., which Stein refers to as both “unrivaled and unseemly” and “crossing red lines,” came about in a curious fashion. For some time, the Israeli government has been pressing for inclusion in the visa waiver program. The program permits citizens of 38 countries with low fraud levels, mostly in Europe, to travel to the U.S. without first obtaining a visa. It also mandates reciprocity, so that those countries do nor not require American visitors to get visas in return. Israel’s inclusion in the program has met resistance because it has high fraud levels, largely consisting of young Israeli visitors who overstay their visas and illegally work selling art and so-called Dead Sea products at U.S. malls. Israel has also balked at the reciprocity aspect of the waiver program, frequently exercising its prerogative to refuse entry to American citizens who are of Palestinian or other Arab origin.
Congress would dearly love to accommodate the Israelis, leading Sen. Barbara Boxer to introduce legislation allowing Israel, uniquely, to have the waiver despite its high fraud levels, while also permitting Israel to retain the ability to turn away Americans based on “security concerns.” Allowing Israel to have its cake and eat it too did not, however, go down well with critics, who noted that frequent discrimination against Arab-Americans was not acceptable. The Department of State resisted, and the White House has tacitly supported John Kerry on the issue.
The bureaucratic pushback Congressional persistence on the issue encountered led to closed door hearings before the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees in 2013 and early 2014. To everyone’s surprise, representatives of the intelligence and law enforcement communities showed up in force and harshly denounced aggressive Israeli spying against the United States, citing “dozens” of sharp though fruitless exchanges with Israeli diplomats in the decade after 9/11. After providing chapter and verse on the level of espionage and its intensity, a tale that reportedly shocked the normally pro-Israel congressmen and staffers present, the officials also noted that granting waivers to Israelis without any prescreening process, such that normally carried out at embassy consular sections, would pose a major security threat, and would enhance Mossad’s ability to steal still more secrets.
What exactly were the intelligence and law enforcement spokesmen referring to? They were recalling the massive Israeli espionage operation that predated 9/11 and fearing a return to the U.S. being overrun with young Israeli spies that would be impossible to monitor or control. Many of the stringers for the pre-9/11 Mossad operations were so-called “art students” who traveled the country freely with their wares and provided surveillance teams and other forms of support for the more experienced intelligence officers to whom they reported. They constituted a considerable force multiplier for the trained spies, and the students themselves were mostly ex-soldiers who were used to operating in a disciplined environment. They were essential to the creation of a massive program to spy on Arabs residing in the U.S. that could be constructed ad hoc without any commensurate ability on the part of the U.S. authorities to discover exactly what was taking place.
A second concern relates to U.S. inadvertent complicity in the ability of the Israelis to operate clandestinely. All intelligence agencies issue passports in false names for the use of their operatives, but as information gets collected into vast interconnected databases, and biometric features increasingly appear embedded into documents, the ability to travel freely using various identities becomes constrained.
Israel has two additional problems that result in greater scrutiny of its travel documents. First, it does not regularly report to Interpol on passports that it eventually claims were lost or stolen, many of which wind up being used illegally. And second, the well-known extralegal activities of Mossad subject the bearers of the country’s passports to additional screening, which is why Israel’s intelligence agencies have tended to use genuine but altered European, Canadian, or Antipodean passports “borrowed” from expats residing in Israel when they carry out an operation.
Nevertheless, problems aside, spies need identities, and the more the better. Though Tel Aviv has recently begun issuing passports with biometric features due to pressure from Europe, the issuance is still voluntary and may not be implemented for all documents when the pilot program expires in 2015. That lack of biometrics means that Israeli passports are particularly susceptible to cloning by the government so that one bearer can easily have multiple passports in different names, a boon to the country’s spies.
But possessing multiple identities creates its own problem. It means that the passports themselves as well as their bearers have to be validated, which is where free travel to the United States comes in. Entry and exit stamps from the United States imply that the passport holder is respectable and are therefore as good as gold, enabling travel to many other countries that would instead deny entry. Using a false passport also creates a “legend” for the passport holder with immigration stamps that make him or her appear to be a legitimate traveler.
The visa waiver program for Israel would therefore mean more spies, more stolen technology, and more illegal entries and exits to and from the U.S., courtesy of Mossad. That the issue is even being debated at all is a result of a Congress and Justice Department that have been ever willing to look the other way and forgive Tel Aviv’s transgressions. Former FBI counter-intelligence chief John Cole has provided a “conservative estimate” of 125 potential cases against Israeli spies that were not allowed to develop for political reasons. As Jeff Stein observes drily “…they don’t get arrested very often.” But the genuine pushback over Israeli spying that might derail the visa waiver bid is telling, suggesting that Tel Aviv has finally gone too far and is now confronting major government bureaucracies engaged in national security that will not be as pliable when subjected to pressure from the Israel Lobby as congressmen and the White House. It could produce a direct confrontation pitting the friends of Israel against the law enforcement and intelligence community of the United States. This would inevitably include the Pentagon, which has both been burned by Israeli espionage and become wary of Israel’s insistence that Washington lead a military assault to disarm Iran. If it does indeed shape up that way, it is a conflict that Israel will lose because, for once, vital interests will trump the maneuverings of a foreign country and its lobby that up until now have been able to operate in the shadows.
There is some horse-trading going on between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the packaging of the committee’s now notorious 6,300-page report on the CIA interrogation program.
It is generally agreed that only the 500-page summary of the report will actually see the light of day—and even that will be heavily redacted—but the discussions that are taking place relate to the accompanying statement that will be issued by the committee when the CIA finishes its review and agrees to the partial release of the document to the public.
The agency wants the committee to concede that even though there were admittedly lapses, the CIA was generally acting legally and in accordance with established guidelines when the interrogation program was running and there were successes derived from it.
While it may seem that such a statement would be some kind of “fog of war” guarantee that no legal action will be taken against the CIA officers who carried out the torture, as well as those who approved it, that is not the case. Neither the committee nor the Obama administration has any interest in prosecuting CIA personnel, even if it can be clearly demonstrated that they committed war crimes.
The statement is instead intended to avoid the labeling of the agency as a rogue organization, either directly or by implication, as that would have serious consequences relating to organizational morale and public support for the intelligence community.
At CIA, where attempts to shift towards conventional spying and away from drones are proceeding very poorly, morale is reported to be very low and sinking. Few within the agency are assuaged by clear indications that Republicans on the committee will attempt to minimize any possible consequences deriving from the report’s conclusions.
The problem for the committee is that any statement excusing or trying to mitigate the agency’s procedures is not supported by the report itself. Depending on what is finally released and how it is packaged, the public could well learn that torture was far more widespread and brutal in agency black sites than has been conceded until now, that particular cases of physical abuse were deliberately carried out illegally and “off the record” to avoid oversight and accountability, that information obtained was deliberately misrepresented and that there were a number of deaths from torture that were processed as “John Does” and secretly disposed of to conceal what had been done. Widespread instances of collusion in torture as part of the rendition program might also be revealed.
The reality is that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” regime far exceeded the permissive John Yoo Justice Department guideline that defined torture as any procedure that brought about organ failure or worse, the assumption being that physical abuse as part of the interrogation process would be unlikely to go beyond that point. Either Yoo guessed wrong regarding how far an interrogator might actually go if given legal cover or he did not appreciate that the widely publicized White House pledge to “take the gloves off” against the terrorists might actually have real-life repercussions.
Some years back I would have described myself as a conservative Republican. My understanding of what that meant was shaped by two leading conservatives of that era, during my college years William F. Buckley, and somewhat later, Pat Buchanan. Both were Catholics who embraced essentially traditional social values, as did I, were suspicious of big government, and were willing to endorse strong national defense in confronting the Soviet Union but reluctant to engage overseas unnecessarily.
Back then there was a certain suspicion of someone who was seen as too assertive vis-à-vis foreigners. Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in part because Johnson was able to portray him as being reckless due to his “conservative” anti-communism. Indeed, for most pre-Vietnam 1960s Republicans, foreign policy was worn lightly with little beyond the usual flag waving, but this has all changed. Now nearly every Republican calls himself a conservative and the label implies a general belligerence in dealing with all foreigners except Israel, coupled with general tolerance for a police-state mentality at home. And, of course, it is all backed up by the Bible.
Even Republican mavericks have to toe the line over the institutionalized craziness. An e-mail last week announced that the Rand Paul-leaning Campaign for Liberty was organizing a drawing for supporters because “…each and every one of us has a God-given right – and duty – to defend freedom. That’s why C4L is giving away a brand new Daniel Defense DDM4 AR-15. The AR-15 will come with Magpul MBU.S. front and rear sights and two Magpul mags.” An AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the M-16 assault rifle, while a Magpul mag is a combat magazine that holds 30 rounds, what we Vietnam-era vets used to refer to as a banana clip.
The irrepressible Sarah Palin, much beloved by faux conservatives and the Tea Parties, as well as anyone else willing to cough up her reported $100,000 speaking fee, meanwhile told a National Rifle Association convention audience that those jihadis who are out to get us have to learn that if she were president “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” The audience roared. I am an experienced gun owner myself and consider it a fundamental constitutional right, but I would also note that the freedom of all Americans has been under unrelenting attack for the past thirteen years with little or no resistance from the heavily-armed populace, which compels one to ask: “What are they waiting for?” And, more seriously, when handing out assault rifles and chattering about torturing people to produce a laugh come center stage, it is time to stop and consider whether or not we have finally entered the twilight zone.
So I no longer believe the Republicans to be saying anything credible and no longer consider myself one of them, even marginally, since Ron Paul retired. Well, what about the libertarians? They want small government or even no government, want people to leave them alone, and aren’t interested in getting involved in overseas wars. But hang around with a few of them for a while and you will discover that their distaste for government sometimes veers into the unsympathetic and the uncaring. What their heroine Ayn Rand referred to as “ethical egoism,” but sometimes without the ethical. They generally believe in the “non-coercion” principle which essentially means that the individual should not be forced to do anything by the state, a viewpoint that sometimes fuels a deplorable tendency to unfairly demonize those they see as agents of the government. Cops, in their view, become homicidal monsters and soldiers are baby killers.
It is hard to imagine what a libertarian foreign policy would look like as it would be a contradiction in terms. Many libertarians want to make the armed forces and intelligence agencies go away to be replaced by heavily armed citizens who have a duty to resist an invader, as long as nobody is pressured into joining in the fight, which would violate individual liberty. Open borders and free trade are also on the agenda with no concern for who gets to come into the country and how many Americans wind up getting harmed in the process, because many libertarians really don’t believe in nationalism.
I will largely pass over progressives (as liberals currently refer to themselves since the “L” word has fallen out of favor) because they are now sadly in power in Washington and are demonstrating their utter cluelessness. There has been considerable jesting about a recent op-ed by one Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining how “Stopping Russia Starts in Syria.” Slaughter, a former Hillary Clinton appointed State Department Director of Policy Planning, is a relative heavyweight within the foreign policy establishment. She is currently at Princeton and wants the U.S. to bomb Syria “until the game has changed” to send a message to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And if one is not convinced by Slaughter’s solution or her highly dubious linkage of two quite separate crises I would point to the empty utterances and perverse “humanitarian”-driven bellicosity of folks named Obama, Rice, Clinton, and Power that have together brought us Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Progressive interventionists are particularly dangerous as they are sitting in the White House and believe they have a mission.
Finally there are the realists. Put simply, for realists foreign policy and the use of force overseas is to serve national interests, a basically nineteenth-century notion. That would make sense, but only if one assumes that the United States has an extraterritorial and extrajudicial right to arrange things overseas to suit its own needs, as the enforcer of some kind of latter day Pax Britannica. That certainly can be challenged and the realist agenda itself can be considered to be somewhat light on ethics. Whether it is right to entertain regime change if one has an interest to do so, as the case was made with Mohamed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, certainly can be questioned, and even a “realistic” analysis of the results of that particular intervention would suggest that the ensuing blowback made the entire venture counterproductive.
The point of all of the above is that for too many of the political class, ideological packaging conditions and ultimately trumps sensible policies, meaning that reasonable discussion across party lines becomes impossible. Former CIA Officer Paul Pillar calls it a “Tyranny of Labels.” Ironically there is quite a lot that most Americans would probably agree about if one could get past the ideological divisions and return to the initial organization of the federal government by the Founders. What did they expect from the newly minted War Department and the Department of State? According to the Preamble to the Constitution, the federal government exists “for promotion of the general welfare” of all citizens. Both war and relations with foreigners were seen as instruments that, when needed, were intended to benefit the American people. The tendency to introduce other extraneous agendas and interests through the conflation of defense and foreign policy into a “national security” package is a relatively recent development.
The Founders’ reluctance to embrace a standing army reflected the view that war making should be limited to the ability to defend the nation’s borders. It would not include fighting a war in Ukraine as a form of forward deterrence. Likewise, an ambassador, as the personal representative of the president, was not intended to function as an offensive weapon. He was delegated to serve as a channel for extending the protection and assistance of the United States government to its traveling citizens and to serve as the conduit for negotiating treaties that would facilitate that function. It was never expected that the U.S. ambassador should serve as an instrument to interfere with or critique the sovereignty of the Turkish Sultan or the Russian Tsar.
If there is any confusion about the objectives of U.S. diplomacy, they should be dispelled by George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he stressed the need to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” In spite of his own revolutionary experience, Washington would not have approved of sending ambassadors overseas to openly meet with opponents of the local government, and cultivating “regime change” would shock him. He would agree that while it is accepted practice for an ambassador to report on developments in the country to which he is assigned, involvement or interference in local politics should never be on the agenda.
A return to constitutional concepts of diplomacy and war making might not be as difficult as it seems. It would largely be a change of tone requiring a ratcheting back from the past decade’s policies made on steroids and the restoring of a respectful interaction with the world, what George W. Bush once referred to as a “modest and humble foreign policy.”
Nearly all Americans understand that the primary role for U.S. armed forces is to defend the United States. Most would also accept that the State Department should protect and assist U.S. citizens overseas and facilitate functional interactions with all foreign nations. We Americans can agree to disagree over what foreign crises constitute genuine threats, but most would likely admit that the use of force as a first resort over the past 13 years has been an expensive failure. Getting rid of the blinders that mandate what a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or realist is “supposed to do” or think and getting back to basics would be an enormous step forward, freeing the government to return to what should have always been its primary mission: reducing its footprint overseas and acting in a minimalist fashion to secure the “general welfare” of all Americans.
If you had been a reader of The American Conservative magazine back in December 2011, you might have learned from an article written by me that “Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons [to the Free Syrian Army] derived from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals…” Well, it seems that the rest of the media is beginning to catch up with the old news, supplemented with significant details by Sy Hersh in the latest issue of the London Review of Books in an article entitled “The Red Line and the Rat Line.”
The reality is that numerous former intelligence officials, like myself, have long known most of the story surrounding the on-again off-again intervention by the United States and others in Syria, but what was needed was a Sy Hersh, with his unmatched range of contacts deep in both the Pentagon as well as at CIA and State Department, to stitch it all together with corroboration from multiple sources. In a sense it was a secret that wasn’t really very well hidden but which the mainstream media wouldn’t touch with a barge pole because it revealed that the Obama Administration, just like the Bushies who preceded it, has been actively though clandestinely conspiring to overthrow yet another government in the Middle East. One might well conclude that the White House is like the Bourbon Kings of France in that it never forgets anything but never learns anything either.
The few media outlets that are willing to pick up the Syria story even now are gingerly treating it as something new, jumping in based on their own editorial biases, sometimes emphasizing the CIA and MI6 role in cooperating with the Turks to undermine Bashar al-Assad. But Hersh’s tale is only surprising if one had not been reading between the lines over the past three years, where the clandestine role of the British and American governments was evident and frequently reported on over the internet and, most particularly, in the local media in the Middle East. Far from being either rogue or deliberately deceptive, operations by the U.S. and UK intelligence services, the so-called “ratlines” feeding weapons into Syria, were fully vetted and approved by both the White House and Number 10 Downing Street. The more recent exposure of the Benghazi CIA base’s possible involvement in obtaining Libyan arms as part of the process of equipping the Syrian insurgents almost blew the lid off of the arrangement but somehow the media attention was diverted by a partisan attack on the Obama Administration over who said what and when to explain the security breakdown and the real story sank out of sight.
So this is what happened, roughly speaking: the United States had been seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria since at least 2003, joining with Saudi Arabia, which had been funding efforts to destabilize his regime even earlier. Why? Because from the Saudi viewpoint Syria was an ally of Iran and was also a heretical state led by a secular government dominated by Alawite Muslims, viewed as being uncomfortably close to Shi’ites in their apostasy. From the U.S. viewpoint, the ties to Iran and reports of Syrian interference in Lebanon were a sufficient casus belli coupled with a geostrategic assessment shared with the Saudis that Syria served as the essential land bridge connecting Hezbollah in Lebanon to Iran. The subsequent Congressional Syria Accountability Acts of 2004 and 2010, like similar legislation directed against Iran, have resulted in little accountability and have instead stifled diplomacy. They punished Syria with sanctions for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and for its links to Tehran, making any possible improvement in relations problematical. The 2010 Act even calls for steps to bring about regime change in Damascus.
The United States also engaged in a program eerily reminiscent of its recent moves to destabilize the government in Ukraine, i.e., sending in ambassadors and charges who deliberately provoked the Syrian government by meeting with opposition leaders and openly making demands for greater democracy. The last U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford spoke openly in support of the protesters while serving in Damascus in 2010. On one occasion he was pelted with tomatoes and was eventually removed over safety concerns.
Lost in translation is the fact that Washington’s growing support for radical insurgency in Syria would also inevitably destabilize all its neighbors, most notably including Iraq, which has indeed been the case, making a shambles of U.S. claims that it was seeking to introduce stable democracies into the region. Some also saw irony in the fact that a few years before Washington decided al-Assad was an enemy it had been sending victims of the CIA’s rendition program to Syria, suggesting that at least some short-term and long-term strategies were on a collision course from the start, if indeed the advocates of the two policies were actually communicating with each other at all.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose country shared a long border with Syria and who had legitimate security concerns relating to Kurdish separatists operating out of the border region, became the proxy in the secret war for Washington and its principal European allies, the British and French. When the U.S.-Saudi supported insurgency began to heat up and turn violent, Turkey became the key front line state in pushing for aggressive action against Damascus. Erdogan miscalculated, thinking that al-Assad was on his last legs, needing only a push to force him out, and Ankara saw itself as ultimately benefiting from a weak Syria with a Turkish-controlled buffer zone along the border to keep the Kurds in check.
Hersh reports how President Barack Obama had to back down from attacking Syria when the Anglo-American intelligence community informed him flatly and unambiguously that Damascus was not responsible for the poison gas attack that took place in Damascus on August 21, 2013 that was being exploited as a casus belli. The information supporting that assertion was known to many like myself who move around the fringes of the intelligence community, but the real revelation from Hersh is the depth of Turkish involvement in the incident in order to have the atrocity be exploitable as a pretext for American armed intervention, which, at that point, Erdogan strongly desired. As the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians was one of the red lines that Obama had foolishly promoted regarding Syria Erdogan was eager to deliver just that to force the U.S.’s hand. Relying on unidentified senior U.S. intelligence sources, Hersh demonstrates how Turkey’s own preferred militant group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is generally regarded as an al-Qaeda affiliate, apparently used Turkish-provided chemicals and instructions to stage the attack.
Is it all true? Unless one has access to the same raw information as Sy Hersh it is difficult to say with any certainty, but I believe I know who some of the sources are and they both have good access to intelligence and are reliable. Plus, the whole narrative has an undeniable plausibility, particularly if one also considers other evidence of Erdogan’s willingness to take large risks coupled with a more general Turkish underhandedness relating to Syria. On March 23rd, one week before local elections in Turkey that Erdogan feared would go badly for him, a Turkish air force F-16 shot down a Syrian Mig-23, claiming that it had strayed half a mile into Turkish airspace. The pilot who bailed out, claimed that he was attacking insurgent targets at least four miles inside the border when he was shot down, an assertion borne out by physical evidence as the plane’s remains landed inside Syria. Was Erdogan demonstrating how tough he could be just before elections? Possibly.
And then there are the YouTube recordings. Three days before the election, a discussion not unlike the Victoria Nuland leak in Ukraine surfaced. A conversation between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Hakan Fidan, the chief of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), included Davutoglu saying that the “Prime Minister said that in the current conjuncture of time, this attack [on the Tomb of Suleiman Shah] must be seen as an opportunity for us.” Davutoglu was clearly referring to an attack on the tomb serving as a pretext for a Turkish incursion into Syria. Fidan then declared that “I will send four men from inside Syria, if that is what it will take. I will make up a reason for war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey. We can also prepare a direct attack on the Tomb of Suleiman Shah if necessary.” The recording reveals that Ankara was considering staging a false flag attack on the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman dynasty. The tomb is in Syria but because of its historical importance has been regarded as sovereign Turkish territory, much like an Embassy, and is guarded by Turkish soldiers. So the suggestion is that Ankara was prepared to kill its own soldiers to create an incident that would have led to a broader war.
Critics of Hersh claim that the Turks would be incapable of carrying out such a grand subterfuge, but I would argue that putting together some technicians, chemicals, and a couple of trucks to carry the load are well within the capability of MIT, an organization that I have worked with and whose abilities I respect. And one must regard with dismay the “tangled webs we weave,” with due credit to Bobby Burns, for what has subsequently evolved in Syria. Allies like Turkey that are willing to cook the books to bring about military action are exploiting the uncertainty of a White House that continues to search for foreign policy successes while simultaneously being unable to define any genuine American interests. Syria is far from an innocent in the ensuing mayhem, but it has become the fall guy for a whole series of failed policies. Turkey meanwhile has exploited the confusion to clamp down on dissent and to institutionalize Erdogan’s authoritarian inclinations. Ten years of American-licensed meddling combined with obliviousness to possible consequences has led to in excess of 100,000 dead Syrians and the introduction of large terrorist infrastructures into the Arab heartland, yet another foreign policy disaster in the making with no clear way out.
Washington’s unwillingness to use diplomacy to resolve international conflicts has proven remarkably consistent over the past 13 years. Even chalking it up to ineptitude would let the Bush and Obama administrations off the hook for what are apparently more systemic failures. I am referring to an inability to think outside the box, coupled with a kind of policymaking cronyism that automatically limits any ability to craft a careful and proportionate response to developing situations. Ukraine is the latest example of American failure to see what is plainly visible, but one can go through an entire catalog of misconceived policies starting with Bosnia and continuing through Georgia and the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have turned out poorly. If the current pattern is repeated, catastrophe awaits as involvement in Ukraine deepens and the drive to somehow confront Iran gains momentum in Congress and the media.
Part of the problem is psychological. The United States has not experienced war on its own soil in any serious way since 1865, nor have many congressmen or journalists actually served in the military. For them war is an abstraction, something that is inflicted on other people but not on the United States. Unfortunately, that assessment of American invulnerability is increasingly fragile. Russia is one of the few world powers that can actually hit back at the U.S. with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, a threat that should not be considered outside the realm of possibility should Moscow be pushed into a corner.
Meanwhile the likely failure to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program will only encourage Tehran to build a weapon, which will in turn likely lead to a profusion of nuclear states in response, including unstable regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As the number of nuclear weapons in the hands of governments with internal security problems increases, so too does the risk that a stray weapon or weapons will wind up in the hands of genuine terrorists, whose own numbers are also increasing as U.S. policy creates blowback in a number of countries through its poorly thought-out interventions. It is not unthinkable that the devil’s brew of more weapons and more enemies could eventually lead to Condoleezza Rice’s fantasy vision of a mushroom cloud over Washington.
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been characterized by stops and starts, perhaps not surprising coming from an intelligent man who nevertheless lacked any real understanding of what goes on in the world outside of academia and the Chicago wards. He has been forced to rely on reliably Democratic cronies and frequently self-styled experts to guide him, an understandable if not particularly successful approach that creates little in the way of healthy internal debate. A recent New York Times op-ed by Michael A. McFaul, until recently Obama’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, very clearly illustrates the problem.
It is undeniable that McFaul knows a lot about Russia. He is a former professor of political science at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institute. He was a Rhodes Scholar and holds degrees from both Stanford and Oxford in Russian and Slavic studies. He speaks the language and has lived there. After serving on the National Security Council as Special Adviser to the President, he was named Ambassador to the Russian Federation, serving in that post from January 2012 until February of this year.
Appointment to Moscow generally goes to a career diplomat given the complexities of the relationship and the possibility that the wrong choice could have serious consequences. Obama opted to go with someone he was comfortable with instead of State Department professional John Beyrle, who was generally regarded at Foggy Bottom as the best choice for the post, having already served as both Deputy Chief of Mission, the number two position in the embassy, and as acting ambassador. McFaul, unlike Beyrle, is an unrepentant democracy activist. He even wrote a book called Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can. When he was appointed ambassador he noted that “the United States can speak out on democracy and Georgia while still seeking cooperation with Moscow in other areas,” setting the stage for confrontation with the Russian government.
McFaul believes that the Cold War never ended satisfactorily because Russia did not become an institutional clone of the United States, a thesis elaborated in his book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. In his writing McFaul is particularly hard on Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as a reactionary figure seeking to recreate the Soviet Empire, ignoring the fact that the Russian president is very popular among his countrymen if not among some American academics. McFaul describes other scholars who see the Russian leader more favorably than he as “Putin apologists,” while indicting Putin’s government as “Russia’s new autocratic regime.” McFaul’s writings make clear that he believes that U.S.-style democracy, capitalism, and press freedom are universal rights, and that the United States should impose those standards on Russia as a condition of it joining what McFaul refers to as the “international order.”
From the start of his tenure in Moscow, McFaul was sending the Russian government a message. During his first week he met with opposition politicians and groups, even before presenting his credentials at the Foreign Ministry. He was ambassador in October 2012 when the Russian government began to clamp down on foreign government agencies and nongovernment organizations that were active in “democracy promotion” in Russia, noting that many of the groups were little more than pressure groups directed against the freely elected regime in power. In his op-ed McFaul protests against Russian attempts “To continue to spook Russians about American encirclement and internal meddling…” when that is what precisely has been taking place since 1991.
McFaul is a kindred spirit with Obama’s other favorite foreign policy advisers, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. All of them believe that the United States has some civilizing mission to bestow on the rest of the world, and it is all tied up with convincing countries to become democratic. In reality it is little more than a lazy formulation asserting a unique right for America to remake the world in an image of itself, while blatantly ignoring international law and the world opinion.
McFaul’s op-ed is illuminating in that it rests on a number of assumptions derived from the democracy promotion imperative that are at a minimum questionable. He accepts that the United States has license to involve itself in the internal politics of other countries even when their governments object. He also assumes that spreading democracy by whatever means necessary must be a major priority for any American government.
McFaul does not even argue that democracies are less inclined to go to war, which has sometimes been falsely asserted, but instead appears to believe that democracy is a good thing intrinsically. His assumption is, of course, very much dependent on what he means by democracy. Since he is promoting the American brand, it is quite easy to note how U.S.’s democracy is essentially dysfunctional on many major issues like providing accessible health care and balancing the budget. It is also riven by corruption of various kinds from top to bottom. It is hardly a model for the rest of the world and McFaul even admits that its current incarnation does not “inspire,” but he nevertheless argues that it must be imposed on the willing and unwilling alike.
Being an ideologue like McFaul, Rice, Power, and, presumably, Obama makes one choose not to see or recognize certain realities. McFaul writes that “We did not seek this confrontation [with Russia over Ukraine].” He then elaborates, “A revisionist autocratic leader instigated this new confrontation. We did not.” Really? Then the actions undertaken by successive U.S. presidents to deliberately advance NATO into Eastern Europe in spite of pledges not to do so did not occur? Or the $5 billion worth of “investing” or meddling by Ms. Nuland and company in Ukraine, most recently to remove an elected government and replace it with something more to Washington’s taste did not take place? Or the introduction of new missile systems into Eastern Europe was not a provocation? Or the encouragement of the rape of the Russian economy by American and European “entrepreneurs” aided by domestic oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union in a rush to create a capitalist economy is a fantasy? I could go on, but it think the point is made that Russia had and has very good reasons to fear an aggressive and frequently out of control United States.
McFaul writes about “Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008…,” undoubtedly a bit of a stretch unless one has been spending too much time with John McCain, and he decries Moscow’s propaganda deriding “American imperialism, immoral practices and alleged plans to overthrow the Putin government.” Surely the suggestion of overthrow is too strong as Washington has no such capability, but the United States has made clear its intention to reform Russia by maneuvering “around the Kremlin.” Most governments would demur at being subverted by paid minions of a foreign state, and is attributing imperialism and immorality to Washington really inaccurate?
McFaul indicts Putin because he wishes “…confrontation with the West, no longer feels constrained by international laws and norms, and is unafraid to wield Russian power to revise the international order.” But surely if one plays with the context a bit, those charges are much better applied to Washington than to Moscow. After calling for considerable international pressure on Russia to punish it, McFaul concludes that democracy will triumph in Russia because “democracies have consolidated at a remarkable pace, while autocracies continue to fall.”
If that is true, and there is inevitability to the transition, it is likely something we all can welcome. And if it will happen anyway, it is certainly not worth restarting the Cold War to hasten the process.