Reuters reports: A breakthrough agreement to end a standoff over Iran’s nuclear program appeared to face its first major difficulty on Friday with Russia warning that a U.S. sanctions move could “seriously” complicate its implementation.
Russia, which along with the United States is among the six world powers which negotiated the November 24 interim accord with Tehran, echoed Iran’s criticism by saying Washington’s sanctions decision violated the spirit of the deal.
Moscow’s statement came after diplomats said Iran had interrupted technical talks with the six nations in Vienna over how to implement the agreement, under which Tehran is to cap its nuclear program in return for limited sanctions easing.
The developments highlighted potential obstacles negotiators face in pressing ahead with efforts to resolve a decade-old dispute between the Islamic Republic and the West that has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.
Several Western diplomats insisted the inconclusive outcome of the December 9-12 expert-level discussions in Vienna should not be seen as a sign that the political deal hammered out nearly three weeks ago was in serious trouble.
But Russia made its concerns clear a day after the United States blacklisted additional companies and people under existing sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such aims.
“The U.S. administration’s decision goes against the spirit of this document,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, referring to the Geneva agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.
“Widening American ‘blacklists’ could seriously complicate the fulfillment of the Geneva agreement, which proposes easing sanctions pressure.” [Continue reading...]
An Associated Press investigation has revealed that Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 and who was at that time described by the State Department as “a private citizen involved in private business in Iran,” was in fact working for the CIA. He had been hired by a team of analysts who were running a rogue intelligence operation.
A 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, Robert Levinson had a natural ability to cultivate informants. Former colleagues say he was an easy conversationalist who had the patience to draw out people and win their confidence. He’d talk to anyone.
“Bob, in that sense, was fearless,” said retired FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon, who worked with Levinson in Miami in the 1980s. “He wasn’t concerned about being turned down or turned away.”
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Levinson turned his attention away from Mafia bosses and cocaine cartels and began watching the Russian gangsters who made their homes in Florida. Russian organized crime was a niche then and Levinson made a name as one of the few investigators who understood it.
At a Justice Department organized crime conference in Santa Fe, N.M., in the early 1990s, Levinson listened to a presentation by a CIA analyst named Anne Jablonski and spotted a kindred spirit.
Jablonski was perhaps the government’s foremost expert on Russian organized crime. Former colleagues say she had an encyclopedic memory and could, at the mere mention of a crime figure, quickly explain his place in the hierarchy and his method of moving money. When White House officials had questions about Russian organized crime, they often called Jablonski directly.
In the relatively staid world of CIA analysts, Jablonski was also a quirky character, a yoga devotee who made her own cat food, a woman who skipped off to Las Vegas to renew her vows in an Elvis-themed chapel.
After the Santa Fe conference, Levinson left a note for Jablonski at her hotel and the two began exchanging thoughts on organized crime. Jablonski invited Levinson to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to speak to her colleagues in the Office of Russian and European Analysis.
By the time Levinson retired from the FBI in 1998, he and Jablonski were close friends. She attended his going-away party in Florida, met his family and harvested his knowledge of organized crime.
In retirement, Levinson worked as a private investigator, traveling the world and gathering information for corporate clients. Jablonski, meanwhile, thrived at the CIA. After the Sept. 11 attacks, former colleagues say, she was assigned to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller about terrorist threats every morning.
In 2005, Jablonski moved to the Office of Transnational Issues, the CIA team that tracks threats across borders. Right away, she arranged for Levinson to speak to the money-laundering experts in the office’s Illicit Finance Group.
In a sixth-floor CIA conference room, Levinson explained how to track dirty money. Unlike the analysts in the audience, Levinson came from the field. He generated his own information.
In June 2006, the head of Illicit Finance, Tim Sampson, hired Levinson on a contract with the CIA, former officials said. Like most CIA contracts, it was not a matter of public record. But it also wasn’t classified. [Continue reading...]
Following an internal investigation into the events leading up to Levinson’s disappearance, Jablonski and Sampson were forced to resign.
Jablonski later became chief data officer for Regulatory DataCorp, Inc. (RDC), a private intelligence company serving major banks. Yesterday evening the company’s website leadership page included this description of her:
Today a company representative I spoke to said that she no longer works there but couldn’t tell me when she left. Presumably it was within hours of the publication of the Associated Press report.
USA Today reports that the White House strongly urged AP not to run the story:
“Without commenting on any purported affiliation between Mr. Levinson and the U.S. government, the White House and others in the U.S. Government strongly urged the AP not to run this story out of concern for Mr. Levinson’s life,” said a statement from Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council.
NBC News, however, reports that Levinson’s family believe the disclosure may be helpful:
Friends and relatives of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in Iran more than six years ago, say they hope new disclosures that he was working for the CIA will lead to more action to get him home.
“Bob is a courageous man who has dedicated himself, including risking his own life, in service to the U.S. government,” Levinson’s family said in a statement provided to NBC News. “But the U.S. government has failed to make saving this good man’s life the priority it should be.”
While the account told by the AP places emphasis on the role of Anne Jablonski, characterizing her as “quirky” (like 20 million other Americans she practices yoga) and implies that as “kindred spirits” she and Levinson perhaps carry equal responsibility for conducting a rogue operation, the story says nothing about the prevailing culture in the CIA after Vice President Dick Cheney had said that it would need to operate on “the dark side.”
The idea of a group of analysts contracting an American to conduct a clandestine mission inside Iran might sound reckless, but the fact is, they were working inside an agency that was engaged in torture, kidnapping, and the operation of secret prisons.
Governments, their agencies, and companies, all expect unswerving loyalty from their employees, but the obligations of loyalty invariably seem to flow in only one direction.
The pursuit of artificial intelligence has been driven by the assumption that if human intelligence can be replicated or advanced upon by machines then this accomplishment will in various ways serve the human good. At the same time, thanks to the technophobia promoted in some dystopian science fiction, there is a popular fear that if machines become smarter than people we will end up becoming their slaves.
It turns out that even if there are some irrational fears wrapped up in technophobia, there are good reasons to regard computing devices as a threat to human intelligence.
It’s not that we are creating machines that harbor evil designs to take over the world, but simply that each time we delegate a function of the brain to an external piece of circuitry, our mental faculties inevitably atrophy.
Use it or lose it applies just as much to the brain as it does to any other part of the body.
Carolyn Gregoire writes: Take a moment to think about the last time you memorized someone’s phone number. Was it way back when, perhaps circa 2001? And when was the last time you were at a dinner party or having a conversation with friends, when you whipped out your smartphone to Google the answer to someone’s question? Probably last week.
Technology changes the way we live our daily lives, the way we learn, and the way we use our faculties of attention — and a growing body of research has suggested that it may have profound effects on our memories (particularly the short-term, or working, memory), altering and in some cases impairing its function.
The implications of a poor working memory on our brain functioning and overall intelligence levels are difficult to over-estimate.
“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system,” Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, wrote in Wired in 2010. “When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought.”
While our long-term memory has a nearly unlimited capacity, the short-term memory has more limited storage, and that storage is very fragile. “A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind,” Carr explains.
Meanwhile, new research has found that taking photos — an increasingly ubiquitous practice in our smartphone-obsessed culture — actually hinders our ability to remember that which we’re capturing on camera.
Concerned about premature memory loss? You probably should be. Here are five things you should know about the way technology is affecting your memory.
1. Information overload makes it harder to retain information.
Even a single session of Internet usage can make it more difficult to file away information in your memory, says Erik Fransén, computer science professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. And according to Tony Schwartz, productivity expert and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, most of us aren’t able to effectively manage the overload of information we’re constantly bombarded with. [Continue reading...]
As I pointed out in a recent post, the externalization of intelligence long preceded the creation of smart phones and personal computers. Indeed, it goes all the way back to the beginning of civilization when we first learned how to transform language into a material form as the written word, thereby creating a substitute for memory.
Plato foresaw the consequences of writing.
In Phaedrus, he describes an exchange between the god Thamus, king and ruler of all Egypt, and the god Theuth, who has invented writing. Theuth, who is very proud of what he has created says: “This invention, O king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus points out that while one man has the ability to invent, the ability to judge an invention’s usefulness or harmfulness belongs to another.
If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.
Bedazzled by our ingenuity and its creations, we are fast forgetting the value of this quality that can never be implanted in a machine (or a text): wisdom.
Reuters reports: Pope Francis said in the first peace message of his pontificate that huge salaries and bonuses are symptoms of an economy based on greed and inequality and called again for nations to narrow the wealth gap.
In his message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace, marked around the world on January 1, he also called for sharing of wealth and for nations to shrink the gap between rich and poor, more of whom are getting only “crumbs”.
“The grave financial and economic crises of the present time … have pushed man to seek satisfaction, happiness and security in consumption and earnings out of all proportion to the principles of a sound economy,” he said.
“The succession of economic crises should lead to a timely rethinking of our models of economic development and to a change in lifestyles,” he said.
Francis, who was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year on Wednesday, has urged his own Church to be more fair, frugal and less pompous and to be closer to the poor and suffering.
His message will be sent to national leaders, international organizations such as the United Nations, and NGO’s.
Titled “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace“, the message also attacked injustice, human trafficking, organized crime and the weapons trade as obstacles to peace.
Instead Time chose Pope Francis, a man who in the last year has been transforming the Catholic church by focusing on the searing inequalities brought about by poverty. In one of his many poignant quotes recently, he asks:
How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
I keep going back to the line “those wielding economic power”. They are the ones who have come to dominate our society, a society that over the last 40 years has slowly ceded to the ideology of free markets.
When I worked on Wall Street in the 90s, I traveled for business to Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina. I was one of many foreigners there to tell them how they needed to reform their country, open it up to the free markets. They did embrace the free markets. That worked well until it didn’t, ending in a massive crash in 2001. Poverty rates climbed during that period.
We bankers would travel in taxis, past the slums that ringed the city center of Buenos Aires. No banker went in there. It was said to be too dangerous. Instead we moved around numbers on a spreadsheet, numbers that represented people. Pope Francis did go into the slums. Regularly. He saw what we didn’t. As he wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation: “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” [Continue reading...]
Ars Technica: Consumer advocates have asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to declare that AT&T violated a privacy rule in the Communications Act by selling phone records to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
A report last month said that “AT&T has turned over international calling records to the CIA. The telecom charges the CIA more than $10 million per year in exchange for access to metadata about calls by suspected terrorists overseas.”
In response, a group of consumer advocacy groups led by Public Knowledge filed a petition today with the FCC.
Appealing to the FCC is a new tactic against government collection of calling records. Previously, privacy advocates have tried to shut down the phone collection by filing lawsuits, including one in the Supreme Court. [Continue reading...]
Meanwhile, Reuters reports: Verizon Communications Inc told activist investors on Wednesday that it might skip a vote on a shareholder proposal that seeks details on the company’s cooperation with government surveillance efforts.
Verizon’s law firm Jones Day said in a November 25 letter that the company would exclude the measure from its 2014 proxy statement unless the activists did more to verify their eligibility to file the proposal.
The company’s response appears to be more aggressive than the stance AT&T Inc took against a similar proposal, said Jonas Kron, senior vice president for Trillium Asset Management, a co-filer of the measures at both telecommunications companies.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Islamist fighters ran the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria.
The turn of events was the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war. It also weakened the Obama administration’s hand as it struggles to organize a peace conference next month bringing together rebels and the regime.
The Islamic Front is a recently formed alliance of the largest Islamist rebel groups that excludes the two main al Qaeda-linked rebel groups—the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham—and is considered the more moderate faction among Islamist rebel groups.
Gen. Idris flew to the Qatari capital of Doha on Sunday after fleeing to Turkey, U.S. officials said Wednesday. “He fled as a result of the Islamic Front taking over his headquarters,” a senior U.S. official said.
An Islamic Front spokesman also said Gen. Idris had fled to Turkey.
The Front took over the warehouses and offices controlled by the Supreme Military Council, the moderate opposition umbrella group that includes the FSA and coordinates U.S. aid distribution, officials said. They also seized the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, near the warehouses in the town of Atmeh.
The growing strength of the Islamic Front prompted the U.S. and its allies to recently hold direct talks with Islamic Front representatives. The goal, according to Western officials, was to persuade some Islamists to support a Syria peace conference set for Geneva on Jan. 22 for fear that a lasting accord won’t be possible without their backing. The SMC already agreed to participate in the peace talks. [Continue reading...]
In a review, Owen Bennett-Jones writes: In Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy Michael Ryan draws a useful distinction between the drawn-out or ‘deep’ battle of ideas and the ‘close’ battle of combat. The recent al-Qaida advances can be seen as close-battle victories of relatively little importance, but al-Qaida and the West are also engaged in a broad ideological struggle and it is here, significantly, that the West’s inability to put up a decent counterargument to al-Qaida is more worrying. In the last three years bin Laden and now al-Zawahiri have convinced millions of people that, for all their excesses, they have a point. Their key messages relate to Western double standards now so widely discussed as to require only the briefest rehearsal: the West’s creation and subsequent abandonment of a mujahedin fighting force to confront the Soviets; the neglect of the hallowed principle of habeas corpus implicit in extraordinary rendition; detentions without trial in Guantánamo; the humiliation and torture of prisoners in Iraq; the CIA’s use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; and, most recently, the NSA’s disregard for privacy. This litany of human rights abuses, al-Qaida argues, is explained by the West’s hatred of Islam. The actions of a few fringe figures such as Pastor Terry Jones who do indeed seem to hate Islam are then cited as supporting evidence.
One aspect of the US’s use of torture, incidentally, has received too little attention. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded no fewer than 183 times. At some point he worked out his interrogator’s protocols, including the length of time (40 seconds) he could have water poured down his throat. By the end he was seen counting down the seconds with his fingers. It’s said by people who have read the transcripts of his confessions that some of his information led to the arrests of leading jihadis. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed later told the Red Cross that he also gave false information so as to confuse the Americans. Crucially, he failed to answer questions about the location of either al-Zawahiri (despite having met him the day before his capture) or bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the Americans to Abbotabad. Other detainees told the Americans that al-Kuwaiti had been well known to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for years. So the waterboarding not only fed al-Qaida’s narrative, it was also ineffective.
Other examples of counterproductive Western policies abound. Take the 2013 drone strike on the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Mehsud was known to have deployed suicide bombers all over Pakistan, yet his death evoked a wave of sympathy in the country. It was simultaneously a close-battle victory for the US and a deep-battle defeat. Although many Pakistanis were happy that Mehsud was no long threatening them, their relief was outweighed by the thought that the US’s use of drones in Pakistan was an unacceptable breach of sovereignty and a national humiliation. Sympathy for Mehsud was punctured only when a journalist revealed that his house in the tribal areas was worth $120,000 (a huge sum in that part of Pakistan) and included extensive gardens with orchards.
At a stroke the news dented the Taliban’s carefully burnished image as selfless holy warriors renouncing worldly comforts for their faith. Some jihadis evoke the kind of admiration that Western socialists feel for the volunteers who fought in Spain. YouTube videos of fit young men, brave, idealistic and pious, washing themselves in mountain streams, give jihadism a romantic air. Bin Laden was perfectly placed to take advantage of this appeal, having given up his riches for a life of hardship and struggle. You can’t help thinking that the US would have been well advised to use the drones not to kill Mehsud but to leaflet his admirers with images of his luxurious lifestyle.
The carefully honed Robin Hood image is only part of the story. Ryan’s stated purpose in Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy is to identify other aspects of radical Islam’s support base, the better to equip US strategists for the deep battle. The book consists of summaries, translations and analysis of important al-Qaida texts including al-Zawahiri’s Knights under the Prophet’s Banner; The Administration of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji; A Practical Course for Guerrilla Warfare (actually not an ideological text but a description of military tactics) by Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; various articles by Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi including Fourth Generation Warfare, which argues that al-Qaida should conceive of itself as a revolutionary vanguard; and finally a perennial favourite on many jihadi websites, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance by Abu Musab al-Suri.
Ryan’s survey pins down crucial elements of al-Qaida’s appeal. Even many of its detractors in the Middle East would accept that the organisation is trying to respond to the humiliations meted out to the Arab people by colonial European powers, the US, Israel and, according to al-Zawahiri, the United Nations, the multinationals, internet providers, the global news media and international aid agencies. All these stand accused of using puppet regimes in the Middle East to continue the colonial project by other means. As I travelled around the Middle East during the Arab Spring, the word that most often cropped up in the slogans in various capitals was not ‘freedom’ – the one the Western media recognised and highlighted – but ‘dignity’. The failure of the Arab Spring has reinforced al-Qaida’s case. For a moment it looked as if people power rather than jihadi violence would topple the authoritarian regimes bin Laden railed against. Today those hopes have been dashed. Indeed, the Egyptian army’s successful assault on the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government may turn out to be as useful to al-Qaida as the US invasion of Iraq. It’s already a familiar argument that only the jihadis have the resolve and drive to sweep away entrenched dictatorial regimes. [Continue reading...]
If you’ve heard the phrase “class war” in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it’s been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich. Back in 2011, for example, President Obama’s modest proposal of a “millionaire tax” was typically labeled “class warfare” and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the “class warfare path.” Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging “class warfare” by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare. In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict.
In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen! And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase “class war,” which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment. After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which “class struggle,” “working class,” and “plutocrat” were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of. It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America.
It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life. All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money’s really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet’s famed comment: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society. The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what’s left of American democracy from — another of those banned words that should come back into use — the plutocrats. Tom Engelhardt
The great American class war
Plutocracy versus democracy
By Bill Moyers
I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document. By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.
Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country. He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him. He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”
Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?” He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.”
That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration. How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court!
“It’s not hard to make sarin. You could mix it in the backyard. Two chemicals melded together.” — Seymour Hersh interviewed on CNN, December 9, 2013.
The idea that the chemical warfare agent, sarin, is easy to make is central to Seymour Hersh’s claim that the August 21 attacks killing hundreds of Syrians could have been carried out by the rebel group, the Al Nusra Front. (With unquestioning confidence in the reliability of his source(s), Hersh rests this claim on classified intelligence reports none of which he claims to have seen.)
Hersh’s backyard sarin production appears to be concocted from fiction. The only non-state actor known to have engaged in large-scale sarin production was the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo. They invested $30 million in this endeavor which included the creation of a production facility.
The plant was a free-standing three-story building, staffed by workers with chemistry and chemical-engineering expertise who designed and built proper process controls. It was a complex, expensive operation, and its production capacity was approximately 2 gallons of sarin per batch.
Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and former member of the U.S. Secret Service, estimates that the August attack would have required one ton of sarin — far more than Aum Shinrikyo was able to produce even with their dedicated facility.
Hersh says “there’s two inert substances” used for producing sarin. But Kaszeta points out that the precursors are neither easy to obtain nor inert. Methylphosphonyl difluoride is both reactive and corrosive and as a Schedule 1 substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention, is tightly controlled.
Even if the precursors are obtainable, anyone trying to make sarin in an at-home lab would face a challenge because, in many ways, the ingredients are more dangerous than the final product. An intermediate step in the production, for example, requires the use of hydrogen fluoride gas at a high temperature. Hydrogen fluoride is nasty stuff, and a lot of it is needed to make sarin. Even in its more stable liquid form, the smallest leak would destroy all the chemistry equipment and almost everything else in a modern kitchen. Anyone trying to combine these ingredients may kill or seriously harm himself and anyone nearby.
Amy E. Smithson, a researcher on chemical and biological weapons at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, who investigated the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan emphasized that in assessing the capacity of non-state actors to use chemical weapons there is a huge gulf between the “theoretical possibility” and the “operational reality.” And keep in mind that Aum Shinrikyo was operating in the tranquility of peacetime Japan — it’s obstacles were all technical with none from the battlefield.
“By almost any standard, Aum was a terrorist nightmare – a cult flush with money and technical skills led by a con-man guru with an apocalyptic vision, an obsession with chemical and biological weaponry, and no qualms about killing,” Smithson writes.
But by almost any standard, Aum Shinrikyo’s chemical weapons program, and an earlier attempt to develop biological agents, failed to produce anything close to the killing power the group desired.
The cult started off by trying to simply acquire chemical weapons from a rogue U.S. operation peddling nerve gas on the black market – but found itself dealing with a front for the U.S. Customs Service.
For terrorists, the lesson here is plain: Worldwide law enforcement and intelligence agencies represent no small obstacle.
When Aum Shinrikyo then turned to producing its own stockpiles of chemicals in 1993, it soon ran into complex problems involved in dispersing nerve gas in ways that kill lots of people.
“Weaponizing” chemical agents requires munitions that disperse the substances in droplets, which can kill on skin contact, or vapor, which can be lethal if inhaled. But most explosive devices within the technological reach of terrorists would either destroy most of the chemical agents upon detonation or fail to effectively disperse them.
Spraying also can effectively disperse chemical agents. But most experts believe that 90 percent of any agent sprayed outdoors will not reach its intended targets in lethal form, given the vagaries of temperature, sunlight, wind and rain. Pumping chemical or biological agents into a building’s indoor ventilation system is no easy task either, requiring detailed knowledge of how air is distributed from floor to floor.
In Aum Shinrikyo’s first attempt to attack a rival group by spraying sarin gas from a moving van, Smithson notes, “the sprayer completely malfunctioned and sprayed backwards.” The second attempt ended up exposing the group’s security chief to the toxic nerve agent.
When the cult finally executed its climactic subway attack, its dispersal method of choice was poking holes in plastic bags with sharpened umbrella points. Noxious fumes then seeped from the bags into the subway cars.
The resulting chaos and death shocked the world. “Rescue crews found pandemonium, with scores of commuters stumbling about, vision-impaired and struggling to breathe,” Smithson writes. “Casualties littered the sidewalks and subway station exits. Some foaming at the mouth, some vomiting and others prone and convulsing.”
But in the final analysis, she notes, 85 percent of the 5,510 people treated at Tokyo hospitals and clinics were simply worried, not harmed. Twelve ultimately died from sarin exposure, about 40 others were seriously injured, and slightly less than 1,000 were “moderately ill.”
Brian Whitaker writes: In the blue corner, Seymour Hersh, one of America’s most famous and highly paid investigative reporters. In the red corner, Eliot Higgins, who sits at home in an English provincial town trawling the internet and tweets and blogs about his findings under the screen name Brown Moses.
On Sunday, in a 5,000-word article for the London Review of Books, Hersh suggested Syrian rebels, rather than the regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus on August 21.
On Monday, Higgins responded on the Foreign Policy website, demolishing the core of Hersh’s argument in a mere 1,700 words.
While seeking to re-ignite the “whodunnit” debate about chemical weapons, Hersh’s article unwittingly revealed a lot about the changing nature of investigative journalism. Hersh is old-school. He operates in a world of hush-hush contacts – often-anonymous well-placed sources passing snippets of information around which he constructs an article that challenges received wisdom.
The Hersh style of journalism certainly has a place, but in the age of the internet it’s a diminishing one – as the web-based work of Higgins and others continually shows.
The main problem with Hersh’s article is that he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet. The result was that his article posed a number of once-important questions which others had already answered. [Continue reading...]
Thomas Hegghammer writes: Sometime in the spring or summer of 2013, history was made in Syria. That was when the number of foreign fighters exceeded that of any previous conflict in the modern history of the Muslim world. There are now over 5,000 Sunni foreign fighters in the war-torn country, including more than a thousand from the West. The previous record-holder — the 1980s Afghanistan war — also attracted large numbers overall, but there seems never to have been more than 3,000 to 4,000 foreign fighters at any one time in Afghanistan. This influx of war volunteers will have a number of undesirable consequences, from strengthening the most uncompromising elements of the Syrian insurgency to reinvigorating radical communities in the foreign fighters’ home countries. Not all of these fighters can be considered jihadists, of course, but many can, and more will be radicalized as they spend time in the trenches with al Qaeda-linked groups. At this rate, the foreign fighter flow into Syria looks set to extend the life of the jihadi movement by a generation.
But why is Syria attracting so many war volunteers? How could this happen only two years after the Arab spring and the death of Osama bin Laden prompted many to predict the decline of jihadism? The short answer is that it’s easy to get there. Not since the early days of the Bosnia war has it been less complicated for Islamists to make it to a war zone. This was stated in a recent Washington Post interview with a Syrian facilitator:
“‘It’s so easy,’ said a Syrian living in Kilis who smuggles travelers into Syria through the nearby olive groves and asked to be identified by only his first name, Mohammed. He claims he has escorted dozens of foreigners across the border in the past 18 months, including Chechens, Sudanese, Tunisians and a Canadian. ‘For example, someone comes from Tunisia. He flies to the international airport wearing jihadi clothes and a jihadi beard and he has jihadi songs on his mobile,’ Mohammed said. ‘If the Turkish government wants to prevent them coming into the country, it would do so, but they don’t.’”
The obstacles facing Syria volunteers today are smaller than those faced by most other foreign fighters in the past two decades. A Saudi showing up at Islamabad airport in 2002 humming jihadi anashid would be on the next plane to Guantanamo, and woe to the Arab caught in combat gear on the Chechen border. It is not just the border crossing which is less complicated; the risk of legal sanctions at home also seems lower, thus far at least, for Syria-farers than for their predecessors. A European Islamist with al Qaeda in Yemen would face almost certain prosecution on his return. The United States has been even less forgiving, sending several Somali-Americans to prison for merely trying to join al-Shabab. Thus far, few if any European countries seem to be systematically prosecuting foreign fighters returning from Syria, although some E.U. officials have called for stricter legislation. [Continue reading...]
Philip Weiss writes: The lobby is doing its utmost to sandbag the breakthrough agreement between the U.S. and Iran. The Congress is now readying yet more sanctions bills; the Forward says Democrats are backing the legislation or doing nothing to oppose it because “These are the men and the women, after all, who are on a first-name basis with most of the board of AIPAC.” MJ Rosenberg says the Israel lobby is the reason Sens. Tim Kaine, Sherrod Brown and — conspicuously — progressive Elizabeth Warren have been silent on the diplomatic breakthrough.
One reason that supposed liberals can get away with this is that the New York Times and the Washington Post give them no heat. In reporting on the sanctions effort, our leading papers leave out the lobby’s role, allowing the nightflower to remain a nightflower. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: The head of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards rebuked the country’s foreign minister Tuesday over comments he made about the military’s ability to withstand a potential American attack.
The criticism against Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appeared to be part of the broader political pushback by Iranian hard-liners against moderate President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration.
The latest spat revolves around comments Zarif made last week to students at a Tehran university, where he said a U.S. military attack could paralyze Iran’s defensive system.
On Tuesday, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari dismissed Zarif’s remarks, saying the foreign minister “has no expertise in the field of defense,” and “his comments comparing the military power of Iran and the United States were incorrect.”
Speaking at another Tehran university, Jafari said the U.S. could only destroy up to 20 percent of Iran’s missile capability if it bombs the country heavily, according to a report Tuesday by the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Zarif has also faced pressure in parliament over his remarks. Dozens of lawmakers asked Rouhani Sunday whether the foreign minister should lose his job over the comments. [Continue reading...]