The New York Times reports: When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Since then, the C.I.A. and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.
The support for the Syrian rebels is only the latest chapter in the decadeslong relationship between the spy services of Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance that has endured through the Iran-contra scandal, support for the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and proxy fights in Africa. Sometimes, as in Syria, the two countries have worked in concert. In others, Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg reports: As lawmakers and former Pentagon officials push President Barack Obama to deploy special-operations forces more aggressively against Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. is taking a step in that direction.
“We’re deploying a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces and put even more pressure on ISIL,” Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.” The new force may start with about 200 personnel, a U.S. official said.
With the attacks in Paris putting new pressure on Obama to show progress in the stalemated war against terrorists, defense analysts are calling for an intensified campaign of raids to disrupt the group’s leadership, gather intelligence and build momentum.
“The goal is to start a chain reaction of intelligence-driven raids that increase in frequency and expand in scope over time,” said Robert Martinage, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations under Obama. “The metric becomes can you disrupt and dismantle the network faster than the enemy can repair and regenerate it?”
A model for such special operations would be the commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The tactics, honed in hundreds of raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, were developed by groups such as Task Force 714 in Iraq, which joined the intelligence resources of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency with Navy Seal Team Six and Army Delta Force commandos. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: When Michael Haas, a former senior airman with the US air force, looks back on the missions he flew over Afghanistan and other conflict zones in a six-year career operating military drones, one of the things he remembers most vividly is the colorful language airmen would use to describe their targets. A team of three would be sitting, he recalls, in a ground control station in Creech air force base outside Las Vegas, staring at computer screens on to which images would be beamed back from high-powered sensors on Predator drones thousands of miles away.
The aim of the missions was to track, and when the conditions were deemed right, kill suspected insurgents. That’s not how they put it, though. They would talk about “cutting the grass before it grows out of control”, or “pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn”.
And then there were the children. The airmen would be flying the Predators over a village in the tribal areas of Pakistan, say, when a series of smaller black shadows would appear across their screens – telling them that kids were at the scene.
They called them “fun-sized terrorists”.
Haas is one of four former air force drone operators and technicians who as a group have come forward to the Guardian to register their opposition to the ongoing reliance on the technology as the US military’s modern weaponry of choice. Between them, the four men clocked up more than 20 years of direct experience at the coalface of lethal drone programs and were credited with having assisted in the targeted killings of hundreds of people in conflict zones – many of them almost certainly civilians. [Continue reading…]
‘The attacks will be spectacular’: How the Bush administration ignored this warning from the CIA months before 9/11
Chris Whipple writes: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” The CIA’s famous Presidential Daily Brief, presented to George W. Bush on August 6, 2001, has always been Exhibit A in the case that his administration shrugged off warnings of an Al Qaeda attack. But months earlier, starting in the spring of 2001, the CIA repeatedly and urgently began to warn the White House that an attack was coming.
By May of 2001, says Cofer Black, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, “it was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.” “There were real plots being manifested,” Cofer’s former boss, George Tenet, told me in his first interview in eight years. “The world felt like it was on the edge of eruption. In this time period of June and July, the threat continues to rise. Terrorists were disappearing [as if in hiding, in preparation for an attack]. Camps were closing. Threat reportings on the rise.” The crisis came to a head on July 10. The critical meeting that took place that day was first reported by Bob Woodward in 2006. Tenet also wrote about it in general terms in his 2007 memoir At the Center of the Storm.
But neither he nor Black has spoken about it publicly in such detail until now — or been so emphatic about how specific and pressing their warnings really were. Over the past eight months, in more than a hundred hours of interviews, my partners Jules and Gedeon Naudet and I talked with Tenet and the 11 other living former CIA directors for The Spymasters, a documentary set to air this month on Showtime.
The drama of failed warnings began when Tenet and Black pitched a plan, in the spring of 2001, called “the Blue Sky paper” to Bush’s new national security team. It called for a covert CIA and military campaign to end the Al Qaeda threat—“getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan.” “And the word back,” says Tenet, “‘was ‘we’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’” (Translation: they did not want a paper trail to show that they’d been warned.) Black, a charismatic ex-operative who had helped the French arrest the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, says the Bush team just didn’t get the new threat: “I think they were mentally stuck back eight years [before]. They were used to terrorists being Euro-lefties—they drink champagne by night, blow things up during the day, how bad can this be? And it was a very difficult sell to communicate the urgency to this.”
That morning of July 10, the head of the agency’s Al Qaeda unit, Richard Blee, burst into Black’s office. “And he says, ‘Chief, this is it. Roof’s fallen in,’” recounts Black. “The information that we had compiled was absolutely compelling. It was multiple-sourced. And it was sort of the last straw.” Black and his deputy rushed to the director’s office to brief Tenet. All agreed an urgent meeting at the White House was needed. Tenet picked up the white phone to Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. “I said, ‘Condi, I have to come see you,’” Tenet remembers. “It was one of the rare times in my seven years as director where I said, ‘I have to come see you. We’re comin’ right now. We have to get there.’” [Continue reading…]
Scott Shane writes: A diabolical range of recent attacks claimed by the Islamic State — a Russian airliner blown up in Egypt, a double suicide bombing in Beirut and Friday’s ghastly assaults on Paris — has rekindled a debate over the proper limits of government surveillance in an age of terrorist mayhem.
On Monday, in unusually raw language, John Brennan, the C.I.A. director, denounced what he called “hand-wringing” over intrusive government spying and said leaks about intelligence programs had made it harder to identify the “murderous sociopaths” of the Islamic State.
Mr. Brennan appeared to be speaking mainly of the disclosures since 2013 of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance of phone and Internet communications by Edward J. Snowden, which prompted sharp criticism, lawsuits and new restrictions on electronic spying in the United States and in Europe.
In the wake of the 129 deaths in Paris, Mr. Brennan and some other officials sounded eager to reopen a clamorous argument over surveillance in which critics of the spy agencies had seemed to hold an advantage in recent years.
“As far as I know, there’s no evidence the French lacked some kind of surveillance authority that would have made a difference,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “When we’ve invested new powers in the government in response to events like the Paris attacks, they have often been abused.”
The debate over the proper limits on government dates to the origins of the United States, with periodic overreaching in the name of security being curtailed in the interest of liberty. This era of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in some ways resembles battles that American and European authorities fought in the late 1800s with anarchists who carried out a wave of assassinations and bombings, provoking a huge increase in police powers, said Audrey Kurth Cronin, a historian of terrorism at George Mason University.
Since then, there were the excesses of McCarthyism exploiting fears of Communist infiltration in the 1950s, the exposure of domestic spying and C.I.A. assassination plots in the 1970s, and the battles over torture, secret detention and drone strikes since Sept. 11, 2001. [Continue reading…]
When journalists grant government sources anonymity, the proforma explanation for doing so is the following line (or one of its common variants): officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to comment publicly.
That claim is almost always false. Authorization is besides the point. The primary reason for an official wanting anonymity is so that his or her remarks will have no return address. No one other than the journalist offering their source camouflage will be in a position to come back with a follow-up question. When there is no risk of any comeback, assertions can be made and opinions expressed in the knowledge that they will escape critical scrutiny. Likewise, propositions can be floated and later easily abandoned.
Another reason sources want anonymity is for the same reason that internet trolls conceal their identities: they don’t want to be held responsible for the language they use. They imagine that invisibility creates space for unvarnished honesty — even though the evidence more often shows that this kind of freedom from social inhibitions has a habit of releasing the inner jerk.
The Daily Beast reports: [S]ix U.S. intelligence and military officials told The Daily Beast that they hoped an ISIS attack on Russian civilians would force Putin to finally take the gloves off and attack the group, which the U.S. has been trying to dislodge from Iraq and Syria for more than a year, without success.
“Now maybe they will start attacking [ISIS],” one senior defense official smugly wondered last week. “And stop helping them,” referring to ISIS gains in Aleppo that came, in part, because the group took advantage of Russian strikes on other rebels and militant outfits.
Since the plane crashed, Russia has struck two ISIS-controlled areas in Syria: Raqqa and Palmyra.
“I suppose now he’ll really let ISIS have it. This should be fun,” one senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast. [Continue reading…]
Fun, perhaps, if you’re an intelligence analyst with a 9-5 job in Langley, Virginia, or the Pentagon. But although Raqqa and Palmyra are under the control of ISIS, they still have civilian populations. And bombing isn’t fun for anyone on the receiving end.
It is already clear that in its bombing operations in Syria, Russia is not greatly concerned about the precision of its targeting. It’s definition of inefficiency is for a jet to return to its base without releasing its bombs.
Those U.S. officials who now relish the prospect of Russia “finally take the gloves off” against ISIS are conjuring images of what are euphemistically described as “robust kinetic operations” — the type that ISIS apparently deserves. Implicit in this characterization is the assumption that restraint is an expression of timidity, the antidote to which is unrestrained force.
In reality, the effect of indiscriminate bombing will be to tell local populations that there are no outside forces working for their liberation.
If the enemies of ISIS pose a greater threat than ISIS itself, the logic for joining ISIS only becomes more compelling.
Two foreign coalitions take turns bombing areas under ISIS control and civilians are expected to tell the difference https://t.co/odQSXp6jsO
— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) November 9, 2015
The New York Times reports: A Senate security officer stepped out of the December chill last year and delivered envelopes marked “Top Secret” to the Pentagon, the C.I.A., the State Department and the Justice Department. Inside each packet was a disc containing a 6,700-page classified report on the C.I.A.’s secret prison program and a letter from Senator Dianne Feinstein, urging officials to read the report to ensure that the lessons were not lost to time.
Today, those discs sit untouched in vaults across Washington, still in their original envelopes. The F.B.I. has not retrieved a copy held for it in the Justice Department’s safe. State Department officials, who locked up their copy and marked it “Congressional Record — Do Not Open, Do Not Access” as soon as it arrived, have not read it either.
Nearly a year after the Senate released a declassified 500-page summary of the report, the fate of the entire document remains in limbo, the subject of battles in the courts and in Congress. Until those disputes are resolved, the Justice Department has prohibited officials from the government agencies that possess it from even opening the report, effectively keeping the people in charge of America’s counterterrorism future from reading about its past. There is also the possibility that the documents could remain locked in a Senate vault for good. [Continue reading…]
Patrick G. Eddington writes: At exactly 5 p.m. on March 13, 2007, just as I was preparing to leave my cubicle in Washington for the day, I got a phone call from the journalist Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers. To this day, I remember his exact words.
“One of your congressman’s constituents is being held in an Ethiopian intelligence service prison, and I think your former employer is neck-deep in this.”
The congressman was Rush Holt, then a Democratic representative from New Jersey, for whom I worked for 10 years starting in 2004. The constituent was Amir Mohamed Meshal of Tinton Falls, N.J., who alleges that he was illegally taken to Ethiopia, where he was threatened with torture by American officials. My “former employer” was the Central Intelligence Agency, but it soon became apparent that the agency “neck-deep in this” was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Eight years after Mr. Meshal’s rendition, his case ended up before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The questions hanging over the proceeding were: can the United States government allow, or even facilitate, the rendition of an American citizen to another country for interrogation? And can United States officials themselves conduct rendition and interrogations of American citizens, including threats of torture, on foreign soil?
The New York Times reports: While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.
If the SEALs got Bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of Al Qaeda was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.
Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.
The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said. [Continue reading…]
Musa al-Gharbi writes: The sweeping language in the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has empowered both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to interpret their counterterrorism mandate broadly, to include targets ranging from the Taliban to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram and other Al-Qaeda affiliates around the world.
The U.S. drone program, which aims to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States, has been a key component of their efforts.
However, critics have questioned the program’s effectiveness for some time. For example, U.S. officials didn’t always know whom they were killing or what group the targets belong to — let alone whether or not they committed any grievous crime or posed a meaningful threat to U.S. personnel or interests. Moreover, those killed in the drone strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants, a term denoting any military-aged male killed in the campaign. [Continue reading…]
Glenn Greenwald writes: I personally don’t view the presence of Al Qaeda “affiliated” fighters as a convincing argument against supporting Syrian rebels. It’s understandable that people fighting against an oppressive regime – one backed by powerful foreign factions – will align with anyone willing and capable of fighting with them. Moreover, the long-standing US/UK template of branding anyone they fight and kill as “terrorists” or “Al Qaeda” is no more persuasive or noble when used in Syria by Assad and the Russians, particularly when used to obscure civilian casualties. And regarding the anti-Assad forces as monolithically composed of religious extremists ignores the anti-tyranny sentiment among ordinary Syrians motivating much of the anti-regime protests, with its genesis in the Arab Spring. [Continue reading…]
This statement might confuse some of Greenwald’s readers — at least I’m sure it would have if he had made it the lead of his latest column. Instead, this recognition that alliances of convenience are inevitably formed during any attempt to overthrow a tyrannical regime, was more of an afterthought buried deeply within a diatribe aimed at the BBC.
Greenwald goes on to assert: “It’s not a stretch to say that the faction that provides the greatest material support to Al Qaeda at this point is the U.S. and its closest allies.”
He might not think it’s a stretch — many others would beg to differ.
The idea that Al Qaeda inside or outside Syria is backed by the U.S. government should be treated with the same amount of scorn as claims that 9/11 was an “inside job.”
American concerns about weapons falling into the wrong hands has and continues to be obsessive, as a Wall Street Journal report in January made clear.
It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.
After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.
Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.
Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones — and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks.
On those occasions where U.S. supplied weapons are known to have ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda, this has been a major embarrassment to the Obama administration.
Even now, after a month in which Russia has conducted more than 800 airstrikes in Syria, rebels have yet to be supplied with the most basic form of effective air defense — MANPADs, though this may soon change — and the flow and use of TOW anti-tank missiles remains tightly regulated.
What continues to get obscured by those who insist on pushing the narrative of rebels heavily armed by the U.S. and its allies, is the enduring imbalance of military power in this war: the fact that the Assad regime and its allies continue to maintain air dominance largely unchallenged.
The Daily Beast reports: As Charles Lister, an analyst of Syria’s multifarious insurgency at the Brookings Institution, calculated, the use of the TOW missile has increased a staggering 850% since the Russians started bombing, a metric that bolstered by press accounts featuring rebels attest to sudden bonanza of the tank-killer. Also reappearing on the battlefield is the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher, a munition purchased by the Saudis from Croatia and imported into southern Syria via Jordan in 2013. (That supply line was abandoned after the launcher was found in the hands of jihadists not long after its import.)
Evidence of rebel victories is everywhere on social media. Here’s a video of Liwa Suquour al-Jabal destroying an artillery gun with a TOW missile in Khirbat al Naqus, near Latakia. Here’s one of a BMP being wiped out with a TOW near al-Qarassi, Aleppo, a town the rebels appear to have sacked, along with Tel Qurha, which lies just hundreds of meters south of a regime army base. According to the opposition-run Local Coordination Committees, Jaysh al-Fateh seized the village of Mansoura in Hama today after intense combat with pro-regime forces. The FSA participated in that operation, too, because the same anti-tank missile system was put to use in Mansoura.
Mohammed Rasheed, a fighter with Suqur al-Ghab, one of the CIA-backed militias fighting in Hama, told The Daily Beast, “We have managed to liberate two towns; Mea’ar Kabi in the northern [suburb] of Hama and Lahaya. We have been planning for this operation since the start of the Russian invasion. We wanted to reverse the situation and attack them instead of just defending ourselves.” Rasheed said that his brigade destroyed 23 regime tanks and killed 15 Syrian soliders — in the last 24 hours. “What helped us in this operation is that we all got united and fought as one army.” [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret communications in 2012, fearing its longtime ally might try to carry out a strike on Fordow, Iran’s most heavily fortified nuclear facility.
Nerves frayed at the White House after senior officials learned Israeli aircraft had flown in and out of Iran in what some believed was a dry run for a commando raid on the site. Worried that Israel might ignite a regional war, the White House sent a second aircraft carrier to the region and readied attack aircraft, a senior U.S. official said, “in case all hell broke loose.”
The two countries, nursing a mutual distrust, each had something to hide. U.S. officials hoped to restrain Israel long enough to advance negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran that the U.S. had launched in secret. U.S. officials saw Israel’s strike preparations as an attempt to usurp American foreign policy.
Instead of talking to each other, the allies kept their intentions secret. To figure out what they weren’t being told, they turned to their spy agencies to fill gaps. They employed deception, not only against Iran, but against each other. After working in concert for nearly a decade to keep Iran from an atomic bomb, the U.S. and Israel split over the best means: diplomacy, covert action or military strikes.
Personal strains between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erupted at their first Oval Office meeting in 2009, and an accumulation of grievances in the years since plunged relations between the two countries into crisis.
This Wall Street Journal account of the souring of U.S.-Israel relations over Iran is based on interviews with nearly two dozen current and former senior U.S. and Israeli officials.
U.S. and Israeli officials say they want to rebuild trust but acknowledge it won’t be easy. Mr. Netanyahu reserves the right to continue covert action against Iran’s nuclear program, said current and former Israeli officials, which could put the spy services of the U.S. and Israel on a collision course.
In early 2012, U.S. spy agencies told the White House about a flurry of meetings that Mr. Netanyahu convened with top security advisers. The meetings covered everything from mission logistics to the political implications of a military strike, Israeli officials said.
U.S. spy agencies stepped up satellite surveillance of Israeli aircraft movements. They detected when Israeli pilots were put on alert and identified moonless nights, which would give the Israelis better cover for an attack. They watched the Israelis practice strike missions and learned they were probing Iran’s air defenses, looking for ways to fly in undetected, U.S. officials said.
New intelligence poured in every day, much of it fragmentary or so highly classified that few U.S. officials had a complete picture. Officials now say many jumped to the mistaken conclusion that the Israelis had made a dry run.
The U.S. Air Force analyzed the arms and aircraft needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and concluded Israel didn’t have the right equipment. The U.S. shared the findings, in part, to steer the Israelis from a military strike.
The Israelis weren’t persuaded and briefed the U.S. on an attack plan: Cargo planes would land in Iran with Israeli commandos on board who would “blow the doors, and go in through the porch entrance” of Fordow, a senior U.S. official said. The Israelis planned to sabotage the nuclear facility from inside.
Pentagon officials thought it was a suicide mission. They pressed the Israelis to give the U.S. advance warning. The Israelis were noncommittal.
Israeli officials approached their U.S. counterparts over the summer about obtaining military hardware useful for a strike, U.S. officials said.
At the top of the list were V-22 Ospreys, aircraft that take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes. Ospreys don’t need runways, making them ideal for dropping commandos behind enemy lines.
The Israelis also sounded out officials about obtaining the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the U.S. military’s 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb, which was designed to destroy Fordow.
White House officials decided not to provide the equipment.
Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu spoke in September 2012, and Mr. Obama emerged convinced Israel wouldn’t strike on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.
By the following spring, senior U.S. officials concluded the Israelis weren’t serious about a commando raid on Fordow and may have been bluffing. When the U.S. offered to sell the Ospreys, Israel said it didn’t have the money.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who championed a strike, said Mr. Netanyahu had come close to approving a military operation against Iran. But Israel’s military chiefs and cabinet members were reluctant, according to Israeli officials. [Continue reading…]
Mark Bowden writes: Without a shred of evidence, without contradicting a word that I wrote, Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine this week suggests that the “irresistible story” that I told about the killing of Osama bin Laden in my 2012 book, The Finish (excerpted in Vanity Fair), might well have been a fabrication—“another example of American mythmaking.” He presents an alternative version of the story written by Seymour Hersh as, effectively, a rival account, one that raises serious doubts about mine, which is all but dubbed “the official version.” It’s not meant kindly.
Mahler’s think piece about the iffiness of reporting and the hazards of trying to shape history into a narrative is a great gift to conspiratorial thinkers everywhere. It’s not often that the most distinguished journalistic institution in America wades so fully into the crackpot world of Internet theorizing, where all information, no matter its source, is weightless and equal. Mahler is careful not to side with either Hersh or me, but allows that “Hersh’s version doesn’t require us to believe in the possibility of a government-wide conspiracy.”
In fact, that’s exactly what it does. [Continue reading…]