Why Obama changed course on the ‘red line’ in Syria

Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.

The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.

One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.

“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”

But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Shakedown: Israel seeks funding surge in U.S. security support

DefenseNews reports: Israel is seeking a hefty surge in annual security assistance from Washington and has begun preliminary talks with the US administration on a long-term package that would provide up to $45 billion in grant aid through 2028.

In recent months, working-level bilateral groups have begun to assess Israel’s projected security needs in the context of a new 10-year foreign military financing (FMF) deal that will kick in once the current agreement expires in 2017.

Under the existing, $30 billion agreement signed in 2007, annual FMF grant aid to Israel grew from $2.4 billion to $3.1 billion minus, in recent years, rescissions of some $155 million due to a government mandated sequester.

Under the follow-on package, endorsed in principle by US President Barack Obama during a March 2013 visit to Tel Aviv, Israel wants “$4.2 billion to $4.5 billion” in annual FMF aid, a security source here said. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

facebooktwittermail

Barack Obama still misunderestimates ISIS

J.M. Berger writes: The Obama administration’s misguided rhetoric on ISIL finally sped over the edge of a cliff over the last week. Officials stand now like Wile E. Coyote, still taking steps over thin air, bemused, in the moment before gravity takes hold.

With the fall of Ramadi, and continuing through the fall of Palmyra, officials up to and including President Barack Obama have sought to recast the Islamic State’s victories as “tactical” setbacks. Variations on this line were trotted out by the Pentagon and other officials first, and reiterated by the President in an interview published Thursday, in response to a question about the loss of Ramadi: “No, I don’t think we’re losing. There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.”

For those who do not speak Wonkese, making reference to an enemy’s “tactical” success is code for saying that the enemy is not “strategic.”

To be strategic, according to the dictionary definition, is to identify long-term goals and take action to accomplish them. In the Washington vernacular, the act of Being Strategic implies a near mystical quality of superior thinking possessed by some, and clearly lacking amongst the vulgarians of the world — heedless brutes such as ISIL. Tactics are short-term ploys, easy to dismiss. Strategy is for winners.

Perversely, the United States is itself sorely lacking in strategy, whether in its pedestrian or mythical definitions, with regard to the problem of ISIL. We have deployed a fairly limited collection of tactics, with an increasingly baseless confidence that these will “buy time” for improbable political resolutions in Iraq and Syria. Buying time is inherently tactical, or in this case, magical.

In contrast to the Mideast hopes and dreams we have tossed in a box labeled “strategy,” ISIL does in fact have a strategy, which it is pursuing aggressively. ISIL’s long-term goal is a transnational caliphate, and its strategy to achieve that has been clearly laid out if you take the time to understand it: [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Senate to try again after bill on NSA collection of phone records is blocked

The New York Times reports: After vigorous debate and intense last-minute pressure by Republican leaders, the Senate on Saturday rejected legislation that would curb the federal government’s bulk collection of phone records.

With the death of that measure — passed overwhelmingly in the House this month — senators scrambled but failed to pass a short-term measure to keep the program from going dark when it expires June 1. The disarray in Congress appeared to significantly increase the chances that the government will lose systematic access to newly created calling records by Americans, at least temporarily, after June 1.

“This is a high-threat period,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who was stymied in his efforts to extend the program even for a few days by the junior senator for his state, Rand Paul.

A senior administration official said Saturday that the “wind-down process has begun” on the surveillance program, and that the administration did not file an application with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Friday to continue collecting the data. The White House has long said that the administration would not seek to continue the program if the legal authorities expired. Aspects of the program could be reactivated as allowed under new legislation if Congress acts before the deadline. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

For U.S. allies, paradigm shift in intelligence collection

The Associated Press reports: Fearful of an expanding extremist threat, countries that for years have relied heavily on U.S. intelligence are quickly building up their own capabilities with new technology, new laws and — in at least one case — a searing debate on how much the American government should be allowed to spy on their own citizens.

Responding to a jihadi movement that is successfully recruiting people from around the world, France and Canada are both passing laws that would dramatically ramp up their surveillance apparatus. In France, lawmakers are on the verge of approving a bill that would let the government install “black boxes” to collect metadata from every major phone and Internet company.

Canada’s measures were rushed through after a two separate attacks in October 2014 on Canadian soldiers — including one that ended when the gunman stormed Parliament and was shot to death by guards and police. France’s law went into high gear after the January terror attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket that left 20 dead, including the gunmen. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

NSA may need to begin winding down surveillance program this week

The Washington Post reports: A bitter ideological divide in Congress appeared destined Wednesday to at least temporarily end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records as government officials warned they would have to begin shuttering the program after Friday if lawmakers do not act.

In a memorandum, the Justice Department said the National Security Agency would need to act “to ensure that it does not engage in any unauthorized collection” or use of the data should the program not be extended before a June 1 deadline.

The memo, along with comments Wednesday by FBI Director James B. Comey, puts pressure on lawmakers to act at a time when congressional Republicans remain divided over the NSA’s controversial gathering of private telephone records for counterterrorism purposes. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Dahr Jamail: The Navy’s great Alaskan ‘war’

It isn’t the best of times for the American Arctic and let me explain why.

The world is in the midst of an oil glut.  In the last year, oil prices bottomed out before rising modestly.  A NASA study just offered the news that a massive ice shelf in Antarctica, half the size of Rhode Island, will disintegrate by 2020, and not so long ago Science magazine reported that the melting of that region’s ice sheets is proceeding far faster than expected.  SayonaraMiami Beach!  All of this, of course, is happening thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.  In March, the Obama administration responded to such a world by preparing the way for a rather familiar future.  It lifted a ban on drilling for oil and gas off the U.S. southern Atlantic coast, opening those waters and their untapped four billion barrels of oil and 37 trillion cubic feet of gas to future drilling.  Then, less than two weeks ago, the Interior Department green-lighted Shell Oil, a company with a memorably bleak record of exploration and disaster in the Arctic, to launch this country into a drill-baby-drill future in northern waters. 

If Shell gets all its other permits in place, it will begin drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast.  This will happen under what might be some of the worst weather conditions on the planet in an area “prone to hurricane-force storms, 20-foot swells, pervasive sea ice, [and] frigid temperatures.”  We’re talking, of course, about another four billion barrels of potentially exploitable oil just in that region, which is also a sanctuary for whales, polar bears, and other species that have no vote in this matter.  Subhankar Banerjee put the environmental problem in a nutshell (or perhaps an ice cube) at this site back in March in a piece aptly titled “Arctic Nightmares.” Of the dangers of letting Shell loose in those waters, he wrote, “Just think of the way the blowout of one drilling platform, BP’s Deepwater Horizon, devastated the Gulf of Mexico.  Now, imagine the same thing happening without any clean-up help in sight.”  Keep in mind that this sort of far north drilling can only go on because the past drilling and burning of fossil fuels has helped melt Arctic sea ice and open up its potentially vast energy reserves to exploitation.  It’s a little like watching the proverbial snake eat its tail.

So, thanks to our environmental president, things look bad off Alaska. And as TomDispatch regular Dahr Jamail reports, in June they’re about to get significantly worse.  The U.S. Navy is arriving in the Gulf of Alaska big time — and we’re not talking about the cavalry riding to the rescue here.  In waters that are starting to seem like Grand Central Station, that service is planning to launch massive war games with a new set of potentially deleterious effects on those seas and what lives in them.  But let Jamail explain.  Note that this is a joint project of TomDispatch and Truthout, the invaluable website where he now works.  Tom Engelhardt    

Destroying what remains
How the U.S. Navy plans to war game the Arctic
By Dahr Jamail

[This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.] 

I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, “the great one.” During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks.  It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.

Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as “endangered” in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.

Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the U.S. military.

[Read more…]

facebooktwittermail

Anyone telling you ISIS is in decline isn’t paying attention

Hassan Hassan writes: Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organization, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq.

Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.

The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city.

Therefore, the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS, analysts say

The Washington Post reports: As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

CIA: Secrets, politics and torture

Watch the full documentary detailing the CIA’s torture program here.

facebooktwittermail

The $25 million building in Afghanistan nobody needed

Megan McCloskey and Vince Dixon report: This is a story about how the U.S. military built a lavish headquarters in Afghanistan that wasn’t needed, wasn’t wanted and wasn’t ever used—at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $25 million.

From start to finish, this 64,000-square-foot mistake could easily have been avoided. Not one, not two, but three generals tried to kill it. And they were overruled, not because they were wrong, but seemingly because no one wanted to cancel a project Congress had already given them money to build.

In the process, the story of “64K” reveals a larger truth: Once wartime spending gets rolling there’s almost no stopping it. In Afghanistan, the reconstruction effort alone has cost $109 billion, with questionable results.

The 64K project was meant for troops due to flood the country during the temporary surge in 2010. But even under the most optimistic estimates, the project wouldn’t be completed until six months after those troops would start going home.

Along the way, the state-of-the-art building, plopped in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, nearly doubled in cost and became a running joke among Marines. The Pentagon could have halted construction at many points—64K made it through five military reviews over two years—but didn’t, saying it wanted the building just in case U.S. troops ended up staying. (They didn’t.) [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Climate change poses risk to U.S. military bases, says Obama

Reuters: Rising seas, thawing permafrost and longer wildfires caused by warmer global temperatures threaten US military bases and will change the way the US armed services defend the country, President Obama is set to say on Wednesday.

In his commencement address at the United States Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut, the White House said Obama will underscore the risks to national security posed by climate change, one of his top priorities for action in his remaining 19 months in office.

facebooktwittermail

Defense Intelligence Agency report in 2012 warned about rise of ISIS in Iraq

Fox News reports: Seventeen months before President Obama dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team,” a Defense Intelligence Agency report predicted the rise of the terror group and likely establishment of a caliphate if its momentum was not reversed.

While the report was circulated to the CIA, State Department and senior military leaders, among others, it’s not known whether Obama was ever briefed on the document.

The DIA report, which was reviewed by Fox News, was obtained through a federal lawsuit by conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. Documents from the lawsuit also reveal a host of new details about events leading up to the 2012 Benghazi terror attack — and how the movement of weapons from Libya to Syria fueled the violence there. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Experts: U.S. claims Ramadi a mere setback are ‘delusional’

McClatchy reports: The Obama administration Monday called the fall of the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province to the Islamic State a temporary setback that Iraqi forces would reverse with U.S. support. Experts dismissed that assessment as ludicrous.

“Delusional, really, is the better word,” Ali Khedery, a former U.S. official who served as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors to Iraq and three heads of U.S. Central Command, said of the administration’s statement. “It’s unbelievable, frankly. I now know what it’s like to have lived through Vietnam, I guess.”

Experts called the loss a stunning blow to the Iraqi government and U.S. strategy.

It wasn’t clear why the administration clung to an upbeat message three days after the Islamic State overran most of Ramadi and a day after Iraq’s best special forces unit fled the city with other troops, local police and tribal fighters. The message was delivered in nearly identical verbiage by White House, State Department and Pentagon spokesmen and was reinforced by a statement from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How the CIA has been pulling the strings of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11

Yochi Dreazen and Seán D. Naylor report: Since its creation in 1947, the CIA has steadily evolved from an agency devoted to its mission of spying on foreign governments to one whose current priority is tracking and killing individual militants in an increasing number of countries. It has been well documented that the agency’s growing scope and depth of influence in the counterterrorism fight reflects its growing skill at hunting America’s enemies from Pakistan to Yemen. What is more surprising, however, is the CIA’s adept navigation of public scandals and its outmaneuvering of the DNI and opponents from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the rest of the intelligence community. Through such machinations, the spy agency has managed to weaken or eliminate crucial counterweights to its own power.

To be sure, an empowered and largely autonomous CIA has global repercussions. Much of what the world associates with U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks—from drone strikes in the Middle East to the network of secret prisons around the world and the torture that occurred within their walls—originated at Langley. And given the agency’s dominance, the CIA seems bound to retain its outsize role in how the United States acts and is perceived abroad. With the agency at the forefront of another looming U.S. war in the Middle East, its primacy will again be put to the test.

Today, the CIA is the tip of the spear of the administration’s growing effort to beat back the Islamic State, which controls broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. CIA officers in small bases along the Turkish and Jordanian borders have helped to find, vet, and train members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition so they can fight to dislodge the Islamic State and, ultimately, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. In addition, the agency is responsible for helping to funnel weapons and other supplies to rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which dwarfs the CIA in size, resources, and congressional backing, is dispatching Special Forces personnel to the region to carry out basically the same training mission. But if the two pillars of the national security establishment were to collide over Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that the CIA would lose out. For better—and sometimes for worse—the CIA has been winning just these types of fights since the war on terror began 14 long years ago. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How Somalia’s Al Shabaab turned against its own foreign fighters

Jeremy Scahill reports: U.S. counterterrorism agencies have long been preoccupied with the threat posed by the recruiting successes of the Somali terrorist group al Shabaab in Western countries. The group has managed to lure hundreds of foreign fighters — including some 40 Americans — to Somalia through online propaganda videos and word-of-mouth in disaffected immigrant communities.

In recent years, however, al Shabaab has turned on the foreign fighters in its own ranks, waging a brutal campaign to purge the perceived spies from its midst. An intimate account of the Shabaab civil war was provided to The Intercept in a series of interviews conducted with a current member of al Shabaab and a source who has maintained close contacts with the group.

Al Shabaab has assassinated several foreign fighters on the CIA’s kill/capture list over the past few years and currently runs a network of secret prisons that hold, on charges of spying, U.S., British and other Western citizens who came to Somalia to join Shabaab, The Intercept has found. Shabaab operatives torture detainees using techniques such as waterboarding, beatings, and food and sleep deprivation, and conduct public executions of suspected spies, including by crucifixion. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Nick Turse: One boy, one rifle, and one morning in Malakal

President Obama couldn’t have been more eloquent.  Addressing the Clinton Global Initiative, for instance, he said: “When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery.”  Denouncing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, and offering aid to Uganda and its neighbors in tracking Kony down, he said, “It’s part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family, and no girl is raped, and no boy is turned into a child soldier.”  In support of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he has lauded as “not only a great champion of democracy but a fierce advocate against the use of forced labor and child soldiers,” he’skept her country on a list of nations the U.S. sanctions for using child soldiers in its military.  And his ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has spoken movingly in condemnation of the use of child soldiers, which she’s termed a “scourge,” from Syria and the Central African Republic to South Sudan. 

Only one small problem, as Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, points out in his latest reportage: the young, desperately divided nation of South Sudan is something of an American-sponsored creation, its military heavily supported by Washington, and so its child soldiers — and it has plenty of them — turn out not to be quite the same sort of scourge they are in Burma, Syria, or elsewhere.  Somehow, they’ve proved to be in the American “national interest” and so, shockingly enough, as Turse reveals today, were the subjects of a presidential “waiver” that sets aside Congress’s 2008 Child Soldiers Protection Act.  The willingness of a president to sideline a subject he’s otherwise denounced in no uncertain terms is worthy of a riddle that might go something like: when is slavery not slavery?  And the answer would be, when it gets in the way of U.S. policy.  With that in mind, let Turse take you deep into South Sudan, where children tote AK-47s and the sky is not cloudy all day.  Tom Engelhardt

The kids aren’t all right
Presidential waivers, child soldiers, and an American-made army in Africa
By Nick Turse

MALAKAL, South Sudan — I didn’t really think he was going to shoot me.  There was no anger in his eyes.  His finger may not have been anywhere near the trigger.  He didn’t draw a bead on me.  Still, he was a boy and he was holding an AK-47 and it was pointed in my direction. 

It was unnerving.

I don’t know how old he was.  I’d say 16, though maybe he was 18 or 19.  But there were a few soldiers nearby who looked even younger — no more than 15.

When I was their age, I wasn’t trusted to drive, vote, drink, get married, gamble in a casino, serve on a jury, rent a car, or buy a ticket to an R-rated movie.  It was mandatory for me to be in school.  The law decreed just how many hours I could work and prohibited my employment in jobs deemed too dangerous for kids — like operating mixing machines in bakeries or repairing elevators.  No one, I can say with some certainty, would have thought it a good idea to put an automatic weapon in my hands.  But someone thought it was acceptable for them.  A lot of someones actually.  Their government — the government of South Sudan — apparently thought so.  And so did mine, the government of the United States. 

[Read more…]

facebooktwittermail