04 April 2015

Andrew Cockburn's Kill Chain - II (an excerpt)


The following is an excerpt from Andrew Cockburn's new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins Henry Holt, 2015). 
'Drones, Baby, Drones!' The Rise of America's High-Tech Assassins
By Andrew Cockburn,  Alternet, March 30, 2015
[Reposted with permission of the author, originally posted by Alternet]
The Richard M. Helms Award dinner, held annually at a major Washington hotel, is among the highlights of the intelligence community’s social calendar. Hosted by the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation, the event raises and distributes money to aid families of officers killed in action, whose sacrifice is commemorated in the rows of stars carved into the wall of the foyer at agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The venue for the 2011 event, held on March 30, was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Pentagon City, and as usual it attracted hundreds of intelligence luminaries, current and former. Joining them were senior executives of various defense corporations—Lockheed, SAIC, Booz Allen, General Atomics, and others—who had generously sponsored tables at the event.
There was much to celebrate. President Barack Obama, who had run a quasi-antiwar liberal campaign for the White House, had embraced the assassination program and had decreed, “the CIA gets what it wants.” Intelligence budgets were maintaining the steep upward curve that had started in 2001, and while all agencies were benefiting,none had done as well as the CIA. At just under $15 billion, the agency’s budget had climbed by 56 percent just since 2004.
Decades earlier, Richard Helms, the CIA director for whom the event was named, would customarily refer to the defense contractors who pressured him to spend his budget on their wares as “those bastards.” Such disdain for commerce in the world of spooks was now long gone, as demonstrated by the corporate sponsorship of the tables jammed into the Grand Ballroom that evening. The executives, many of whom had passed through the revolving door from government service, were there to rub shoulders with old friends and current partners. “It was totally garish,” one attendee told me afterward. “It seemed like every arms manufacturer in the country had taken a table. Everyone was doing business, right and left.”
In the decade since 9/11, the CIA had been regularly blighted by scandal—revelations of torture, renditions, secret “black site” prisons, bogus intelligence justifying the invasion of Iraq, ignored signs of the impending 9/11 attacks—but such unwholesome realities found no echo in this comradely gathering. Even George Tenet, the CIA director who had presided over all of the aforementioned scandals, was greeted with heartfelt affection by erstwhile colleagues as he, along with almost every other living former CIA director, stood to be introduced by Master of Ceremonies John McLaughlin, a former deputy director himself deeply complicit in the Iraq fiasco. Each, with the exception of Stansfield Turner (still bitterly resented for downsizing the agency post-Vietnam), received ringing applause, but none more than the night’s honoree, former CIA director and then-current secretary of defense Robert M. Gates.
Although Gates had left the CIA eighteen years before, he was very much the father figure of the institution and a mentor to the intelligence chieftains, active and retired, who cheered him so fervently that night at the Ritz-Carlton. He had climbed through the ranks of the national security bureaucracy with a ruthless determination all too evident to those around him. Ray McGovern, his supervisor in his first agency post, as an analyst with the intelligence directorate’s soviet foreign policy branch, recalls writing in an efficiency reportthat the young man’s “evident and all-consuming ambition is a disruptive influence in the branch.” There had come a brief check on his rise to power when his involvement in the Iran-Contra imbroglio cratered an initial attempt to win confirmation as CIA director, but success came a few years later, in 1991, despite vehement protests from former colleagues over his persistent willingness to sacrifice analytic objectivity to the political convenience of his masters.
Gates’s successful 1991 confirmation as CIA chief owed much, so colleagues assessed, to diligent work behind the scenes on the part of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s staff director, George Tenet. In 1993, Tenet moved on to be director for intelligence programs on the Clinton White House national security staff, in which capacity he came to know and esteem John Brennan, a midlevel and hitherto undistinguished CIA analyst assigned to brief White House staffers. Tenet liked Brennan so much that when he himself moved to the CIA as deputy director in 1995, he had the briefer appointed station chief in Riyadh, an important position normally reserved for someone with actual operational experience. In this sensitive post Brennan worked tirelessly to avoid irritating his Saudi hosts, showing reluctance, for example, to press them for Osama bin Laden’s biographical details when asked to do so by the bin Laden unit back at headquarters.
Brennan returned to Washington in 1999 under Tenet’s patronage, initially as his chief of staff and then as CIA executive director, and by 2003 he had transitioned to the burgeoning field of intelligence fusion bureaucracy. The notion that the way to avert miscommunication between intelligence bureaucracies was to create yet more layers of bureaucracy was popular in Washington in the aftermath of 9/11. One concrete expression of this trend was the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, known as T-TIC and then renamed the National Counter Terrorism Center a year later. Brennan was the first head of T-TIC, distinguishing himself in catering to the abiding paranoia of the times. On one occasion, notorious within the community, he circulated an urgent report that al-Qaeda was encrypting targeting information for terrorist attacks in the broadcasts of the al-Jazeera TV network, thereby generating an “orange” alert and the cancellation of dozens of international flights. The initiative was greeted with malicious amusement over at the CIA’s own Counterterrorism Center, whose chief at the time, José Rodríguez, later opined that Brennan had been trying to build up his profile with higher authority. “Brennan was a major factor in keeping [the al-Jazeera/al-Qaeda story] alive. We thought it was ridiculous,” he told a reporter. “My own view is he saw this, he took this, as a way to have relevance, to take something to the White House.” Tellingly, an Obama White House spokesman later excused Brennan’s behavior on the grounds that though he had circulated the report, he hadn’t believed it himself.
Exiting government service in 2005, Brennan spent the next three years heading The Analysis Corporation, an obscure but profitable intelligence contractor engaged in preparing terrorist watch lists for the government, work for which he was paid $763,000 in 2008. Among the useful relationships he had cultivated over the years was well-connected Democrat Anthony Lake, a former national security adviser to Bill Clinton, who recommended him to presidential candidate Barack Obama. Meeting for the first time shortly after Obama’s election victory, the pair bonded immediately, with Obama “finishing Brennan’s sentences,” by one account. Among their points of wholehearted agreement was the merit of a surgical approach to terrorist threats, the “need to target the metastasizing disease without destroying the surrounding tissue,” as Brennan put it, for which drones and their Hellfire missiles seemed the ideal tools. Obama was initially balked in his desire to make Brennan CIA director because of the latter’s all-too-close association with the agency’s torture program, so instead the new president made him his assistant for counterterrorism and homeland security, with an office down the hall from the Oval Office. Two years into the administration, everyone in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom knew that the bulky Irishman was the most powerful man in U.S. intelligence as the custodian of the president’s kill list, on which the chief executive and former constitutional law professor insisted on reserving the last word, making his final selections for execution at regularly scheduled Tuesday afternoon meetings. “You know, our president has his brutal side,” a CIA source cognizant of Obama’s involvement observed to me at the time.
Now, along with the other six hundred diners at the Helms dinner, Brennan listened attentively as Gates rose to accept the coveted award for “exemplary service to the nation and the Central Intelligence Agency.” After paying due tribute to previous honorees as well as his pride in being part of the CIA “family,” Gates spoke movingly of a recent and particularly tragic instance of CIA sacrifice, the seven men and women killed by a suicide bomber at an agency base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009. All present bowed their heads in silent tribute.
Gates then moved on to a more upbeat topic. When first he arrived at the Pentagon in 2007, he said, he had found deep-rooted resistance to “new technology” among “flyboys with silk scarves” still wedded to venerable traditions of fighter-plane combat. But all that, he informed his rapt audience, had changed. Factories were working “day and night, day and night,” to turn out the vital weapons for the fight against terrorism. “So from now on,” he concluded, his voice rising, “the watchword is: drones, baby, drones!”
The applause was long and loud.

Excerpted from Andrew Cockburn's new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins Henry Holt, 2015).  Reprinted here with permission from the author.

27 March 2015

Andrew Cockburn's Kill Chain - A Book Review


The attached book review is a slightly revised version of The Folly of Machine Warfare, which I wrote for Counterpunch in its March 27-29 edition.

Chuck Spinney


Book Review

Andrew Cockburn
Henry Holt and Co. (March 10, 2015)

Caveat emptor: the author of this book is a friend of thirty-five years, so I am biased, proudly so in this case.  While I know what Cockburn can do, I must admit I was literally blown away by this book. And I am no stranger to this subject, having worked as an engineer-analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 25 years.  

What makes Cockburn’s book so powerful, in my opinion, is not only his sourcing and detail (which are amazing), but the fact that he has written a book that is at once overwhelming in terms of information, yet so well written, it is accessible to the general reader.  It is a page turner.  He dissects the rise of drone warfare and examines its conduct in fascinating detail from the point of view of the targeteers in the CIA and the White House, to the controllers in front of video screens, and to the effects on the victims at the receiving end.  

In so doing, he shows how the ideology of drone warfare is really old wine in a new bottle: it is a natural evolution of three interconnected mindsets: (1) the flawed ideas underpinning the now-discredited theory of strategic bombing in WWII; (2) the search for perfect information embodied in disastrous all-knowing, all-seeing electronic battlefield (starting with McNamara’s electronic line of Vietnam); and (3) the search for surgical precision in both conflict and coercive diplomacy embodied, for example, in the simplistic targeting theories underpinning the drug war and the primitive escalate-the-pressure tactics of precision targeted sanctions.  At the roots of these three ideologies, I would argue, is an unchanging three-part set of propositions woven together in the 1930s by the evangelical instructors in the Army Air Corps Tactical School. They preached the theory of victory thru airpower alone, and they believed that only strategic bombing could justify an independent Air Force on a par with the Army and the Navy, with comparable or even larger budgets.

These future leaders of the AF constructed a seductive tautological argument, based on the fallacious assumptions of having extensive a priori knowledge of the enemy’s inner workings coupled to perfect combat intelligence.  It remains unchanged to this day and goes like this: (1) The enemy is a physical system or network made up of critical linkages and nodes, be they ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, Salafi fanatics in Iraq with access to cell phones and the internet, or Pashtun warlords in the hills of Afghanistan. (2) The enemy system can be reliably analyzed and understood from a distance, making it possible to exactly identify those specific nodes or links that are vital to the functioning of the adversary system, be it an industrial power like Germany, a tribal alliance in Yemen, or the financial links of a terrorist network or foreign oligarchy. (3) That past failures are irrelevant because new technologies will provide the wherewithal to attack and destroy these vital nodes or links with precision strikes and thereby administer a mortal wound to the adversary.  

In short, the conduct of war is an engineering problem: In the current lexicon of the Pentagon and its defense contractors, the enemy is a 'systems of systems' made up of high value targets (HVTs) that can be identified and destroyed without risk from a distance with unmanned systems, and the military-technical revolution makes any past failures irrelevant to current capabilities. The reasoning is identical to that described in the preceding paragraph.  Yet despite stridently confident predictions of decisive precision effects, from the days of the Norden bombsight in B-17s to those of the Hellfire missile fired by drones, this theory has failed over and over to perform as its evangelists predicted and are still predicting. The need to dismiss the history of repeated failures is why the never-ending promise of a military-technical revolution is central to the maintenance of the ideology.

Viewing war as an engineering problem focuses on technology (which benefits contractors) and destructive physical effects, but this ideology ignores and is offset by the fundamental truth of war: Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.  Our technology’s physical effects can be — and often are — offset or mitigated by our opponent’s mental counters or initiatives, reflecting both his adaptability and unpredictability, and his moral strengths, like resolve and the will to resist. Combat history has proven over and over that mental and moral effects can offset physical effects, for example, when the destruction of ball bearing factories did not have its predicted effects in WWII, when bicycles carrying 600 pounds of supplies were used to by pass destroyed bridges on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the Serbs used cheap microwave ovens to fool expensive anti-radiation missiles in Kosovo.  And as Cockburn shows, this has proven true again in the ongoing war on terror, and its mirror image, the war on drugs.  

Any one who doubts that this critique applies to drones used in a counter-terror strategy should be asked to explain the collapse in Yemen — a place where drones reached their apotheosis as the centerpiece of American counter-terror strategy. 


Cockburn has provided a highly readable, and logically devastating story, written from a bottom-up empirical perspective.  He explains why our strategy in Yemen was doomed to fail, as indeed it has in recent weeks. His meticulously referenced historical and empirical research makes this book hard to pick apart. No doubt, there are some small errors of fact.  For example, not all the drone/bombers deployed in ill starred Operation Aphrodite (which blew up JFK's elder brother) in 1944 were B-24s as Cockburn incorrectly suggests; the operation also used B-17s.  But I defy anyone to find a single thread or family of threads that can be used to unravel his tapestry. 

16 March 2015

An Excellent Summary of the Syrian Civil War


No end in sight for Syria war as conflict enters fifth year
Four years since the start of the conflict, Assad is emboldened as international attention is drawn to the threat of Islamic State
Middle East Eye, Sunday 15 March 2015 11:12 GMT
Syria’s conflict enters its fifth year on Sunday, with no end in sight to the fighting. 
More than 210,000 people have been killed and half of the country’s population displaced, prompting rights groups to accuse the international community of “failing Syria”.
The country now lies carved up by government forces, militant groups - including Islamic State - Kurdish fighters and the so-called moderate opposition. 
Diplomacy remains stalled, with two rounds of peace talks achieving no progress and even a proposal for a local ceasefire in Aleppo fizzling out.
The conflict began as an anti-government uprising, with small-scale protests, inspired by similar revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, taking place in Damascus in February.  
But things quickly spiralled when the government arrested and tortured a group of teenagers in the southern city of Deraa. In response, hundreds took to the streets in Damascus and Aleppo on 15 March. Several days later, on 18 March another protest broke out after Friday prayers in Deraa. Government forces once fired on the demonstrators, killing several people. The violence only prompted thousands to turn out the following day to attend the funerals of those killed. The government once again fired on the marchers, killing between one to six people according to activists. The government then released the teenagers on 21 March, but the deaths and the fierce crackdown prompted a militarisation of the uprising and its descent into today’s brutal multi-front conflict.
The consequences have been devastating.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says Syria is now “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.
Around four million people have fled abroad, with more than a million taking refuge in neighbouring Lebanon.
Inside Syria, more than seven million people have been displaced, and the UN says around 60 percent of the population now lives in poverty.
The country’s infrastructure has been decimated, its currency is in freefall and economists say the economy has been set back some 30 years.

Assad government emboldened
Rights groups have documented horrific violations, with the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting this week that 13,000 people had been tortured to death in government detention since the uprising began.
Tens of thousands more remain in government jails and detention facilities, with many effectively disappearing after their arrest.
Despite international outrage at the death toll, and allegations that his government used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, President Bashar al-Assad has clung to power.
His forces have consolidated their grip on the capital Damascus and are moving to encircle rebels in the second city of Aleppo to the north.
The assaults have been aided by the government’s increasing reliance on crude explosives-packed barrel bombs, which Assad denies using despite extensive documentation.
His government is newly emboldened by both its military successes and an apparent shift in international rhetoric.
Calls for his resignation have been notably more muted as international attention shifts to the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
Diplomats describe a new willingness to countenance a role for Assad in Syria’s future, and even the rhetoric from key Assad opponent Washington has shifted.
On Friday, CIA director John Brennan said Washington was concerned that the “collapse” of Syria’s government could open the way for a IS takeover.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has also stressed that Washington’s top priority is defeating IS. 
Little prospect for peace
Last year, the United States assembled a coalition of nations to fight the group in Syria and Iraq, where IS rule a swathe of territory they have deemed an Islamic “caliphate”.

Air strikes, particularly in concert with the efforts of Kurdish fighters on the ground in Syria, have rolled back some IS gains, but the group continues to wield significant power.
It has grabbed international headlines with gruesome propaganda videos depicting the killings of journalists, aid workers and other civilians.
It has also attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many from the West, prompting concern about the prospect of attacks by returning militants.
Despite the international attention, there is little prospect of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland failed to achieve progress, and Staffan de Mistura, the third UN envoy to tackle the conflict, has gained little traction with his proposal for a localised ceasefire in Aleppo.
Russia, a key Assad ally, is floating its own dialogue process, and will host talks in Moscow in April, but it remains unclear if the internationally recognised opposition will attend.
On Thursday, a group of 21 rights groups denounced the international community for failing to implement UN resolutions and end the conflict.
“This is a betrayal of our ideals,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council group.


Syria_4years-01_0.jpg

09 March 2015

How Tough is the Peshmerga?


The Peshmerga, manned by Sunni Kurds, is generally considered to be the West’s toughest and most reliable bulwark against Isis in Iraq.  But for reasons explained by Patrick Cockburn below, that belief may reflect more of a hope than a strategic reality.

War with Isis: The Kurdish Tiger's roar is worse than its bite - the Peshmerga have come to rely on US air strikes
World View: With militant fighters at the gate, the former boom town of Irbil is full of refugees and abandoned buildings
BY PATRICK COCKBURN, Independent, 8 March 2015
[Reposted with permission of the author]
“They are like the Mongols,” says Najmaldin Karim, speaking of the forces of Islamic State (Isis) battering at the defences of the oil province of Kirkuk, of which he is governor. They have not broken through and he is confident they will not do so, but the threat they pose and the fear they cause is the dominant feature of life even in those parts of northern Iraq they did not conquer last year.
In terms of the terror that Isis inspires through the savagery of its actions, it does indeed have much in common with the Mongolian horsemen who destroyed Baghdad and slaughtered its inhabitants in 1258. Isis similarly cultivates an atmosphere of fear among its enemies, so that the Iraqi army disintegrated when Isis forces stormed Mosul last June and much the same thing happened when they attacked the supposedly more resolute Iraqi Peshmerga in Sinjar and Nineveh Plain a few months later.
The swift victories of Isis at that time gave the impression of a demonic and unstoppable force. In the eyes of Isis leaders, military successes far beyond what they had expected simply affirmed that they were carrying out God’s work and had divine support. Less attention was given to the weaknesses of the states and armies which Isis had so easily defeated. But it is on their ability to learn from past failings that the outcome of the war now being fought in Iraq and Syria will be determined.
Criticism of Isis’s opponents and their dismal performance on the battlefield has mainly focussed on the Baghdad government. There is no doubt that its corruption and sectarianism played into the hands of Isis. Less attention is given as to why the military forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), supposedly far tougher and better commanded, fled from the Isis attack in August even faster than the Iraqi army in June. Yazidi villagers from Sinjar and Christians from the Nineveh Plain complain bitterly that they were abandoned by Peshmerga units whom only hours earlier had sworn to defend them to the last drop of their blood. It was one of the most shameful defeats in history.
The KRG has always got a better press than the Baghdad government, particularly since its oil boom got under way in the past five or six years. It presented itself as “the other Iraq”, which functioned properly, and Kurdish leaders invariably disparaged the central government in Baghdad as crooked and dysfunctional. They pointed to new five-star hotels, shopping malls, roads, bridges and apartment buildings sprouting on every street in Irbil, the Kurdish capital. There was a boom town atmosphere, and there were very few places on earth of which this could be said in the wake of the financial crash of 2008. Delegations of foreign businessmen, many of whom could not have found Iraqi Kurdistan on the map a couple of years earlier, poured into Irbil. Local managers complained that they could not find rooms for them despite all the new hotels. It seemed to go to the heads of Kurdish leaders who spoke of KRG becoming like an oil state in the Gulf, a landlocked version of Dubai.
Visiting KRG a couple of years ago, I felt that it was alarmingly similar in mood to Ireland pre-2008 at the height of the Celtic Tiger boom. The Kurds and the Irish are both small nations who feel they have been hard done-by throughout their history. Now they had thrown off foreign oppression and were getting rich like their neighbours. In Irbil as in Dublin it was a feeling conducive to delusion and a belief that “the Kurdish tiger” would bound forward for ever.
What those plane-loads of over-optimistic foreign government ministers and businessmen never understood was how fragile all this was. There was more in common between the ways in which the KRG and the rest of Iraq were ruled than they imagined. The Kurds depended on their 17 per cent share of Iraq’s oil revenues to pay the one in three of the labour force that worked for the government. Corruption was rife. A friend told me that he lived in part of Irbil surrounded by director generals working for the government: “I have a higher salary than any of them, but they have houses three times bigger than mine.” One Kurdish woman told me: “I call it ‘Corruptistan’.” For all the new five-star hotels, it was difficult to find a good school or hospital.
KRG was always flattered by any comparison with Baghdad. “Ease of doing business in Irbil compared to Baghdad is very good,” a businessman told me in early 2013. “Compared to the rest of the world it is rubbish.”
What really made Iraqi Kurdistan different from the rest of Iraq was that security was good, and it felt safe. Kurds and foreigners alike never seemed to look at a map and notice that they lived an hour’s drive from some of the most violent places on the planet. Mosul is only 50 miles from Irbil and has never been other than an extraordinarily dangerous city since 2003.
The belief that Iraqi Kurdistan is the safe part of Iraq was punctured when Isis captured Mosul last June. Even then, the Kurdish leadership deluded itself that what had happened was a Sunni-Shia battle in which they could stay on the sidelines and even benefit by opportunistically taking over Arab-Kurdish disputed areas. In August, they discovered they had made a calamitous error when Isis launched an ambitious offensive that came close to capturing Irbil. The United States and Iran rushed to help, while the KRG’s new ally, Turkey, found itself unable to.
Irbil today looks like Pompeii or Herculaneum in which a sudden disaster – in the Kurds’ case military rather than volcanic – has frozen all activity. The city is full of half-completed hotels, shopping malls and apartment buildings. Some of these are crammed full of refugees living in huts provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees. These are the people who are paying the price for the Kurdish leadership’s delusions of grandeur and security. Overall, there are 1.2 million extra internally displaced people and Kurdish refugees from Syria in KRG since last June. Kurdish leaders claim credit for giving them refuge, but many of those who have lost their homes blame those same leaders for underestimating the Isis threat when it was containable.
The Peshmerga have made successful counter-attacks, taking back much of Sinjar, but Mosul and its surroundings remain firmly under Isis rule and, so long as this continues, the KRG will remain fundamentally insecure. Crucial to the Peshmerga advances have been US air strikes, and it is noticeable in visits to the frontline how dependent the Peshmerga is on US air power.
This staves off the prospect of total defeat, but the future of the Iraqi Kurds still looks grim even if it is not as bad as it looked last August when many in Irbil started to flee the city just as they had done in 1991 during Saddam Hussein’s counter-offensive. Whatever happens, as in Ireland after 2008, the days of the “Kurdish tiger” are truly over.

05 March 2015

The long history of Israel gaming the 'Iranian threat'


Years before his recent grandstanding in Congress, Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders conjured a threat where one previously didn’t exist

Gareth Porter, Middle East Eye, Thursday 5 March 2015 17:01 GMT

[Posted with permission of author and credit to Middle East Eye.  Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

Western news media has feasted on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s talk and the reactions to it as a rare political spectacle rich in personalities in conflict. But the real story of Netanyahu’s speech is that he is continuing a long tradition in Israeli politics of demonising Iran to advance domestic and foreign policy interests. 
The history of that practice, in which Netanyahu has played a central role going back nearly two decades, shows that it has been based on a conscious strategy of vastly exaggerating the threat from Iran.
In conjuring the spectre of Iranian genocide against Israelis, Netanyahu was playing two political games simultaneously. He was exploiting the fears of the Israeli population associated with the Holocaust to boost his electoral prospects while at the same time exploiting the readiness of most members of US Congress to support whatever Netanyahu orders on Iran policy.
Netanyahu’s primary audience was the Israeli electorate. He was speaking as a candidate for re-election as prime minister in an election that is just two weeks away. His speech was calculated to play on the deep-rooted anxiety of Israeli voters about the outsiders who may want to destroy the Jewish people.

Fear of the Persians
Netanyahu reminded his Israeli audience that, “In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people.” That was an obvious allusion to the annual Jewish ritual at Passover of repeating the warning that “in every generation they have risen up against us to annihilate us”.  But Netanyahu drew a parallel between the story in the book of Esther about a “powerful Persian viceroy…who plotted to destroy the Jewish people 2,000 years ago” and “another attempt by another Persian potentate to destroy us”.
Netanyahu was taking advantage of what former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich calls the “Holocaust Syndrome” or “Masada complex” that is woven into the fabric of Israeli politics. His ranting about an Iran intending to wipe out the entire country has appealed especially to his Likud constituency and other Israelis who believe that the outside world is “permanently hostile” to the Jewish people. 
Other Israeli prime ministers have played the Holocaust card for domestic purposes too. Yitzhak Rabin actually started it during his tenure as Prime Minister from 1992 to 1995, pointing to the alleged “existential threat” from Iran in order to justify his policy of negotiating with the PLO. It was also Rabin who established the propaganda theme of Iran as a terrorist threat to Jews across five continents that Netanyahu continues to cite today. 
Phantom of genocide
Later, however, Netanyahu would use the alleged Iranian threat to do exactly the opposite – refuse to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Many former senior military and intelligence officials have never forgiven Netanyahu for what they consider a reckless policy toward Iran that they link to his failure to deal with the Palestinian problem.
The demonisation of Iran has also served Netanyahu’s political interest in manipulating the policy of the US government and other other world powers. By portraying Iran as bent on the genocide of the Israeli Jews, Netanyahu has sought to get the Americans to threaten war against Iran, hoping for a real military confrontation that would lead to actual war with Iran that would reduce that country’s power. A key element in Netanyahu’s manipulation of the United States and other states has been the suggestion that it if they don’t take care of the problem he may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  
He has failed to achieve that maximum objective, but he has been successful in his lesser objective of getting the United States to organise a system of “crippling sanctions” against Iran.
Rabin and the nuclear threat
The portrayal of Iran as a serious threat to Israel’s existence has been serving Israeli diplomatic interests ever since Rabin reversed more than a decade of low-key policy toward the Islamic Republic and suddenly began claiming that Iran would have nuclear weapons and missiles capable of hitting Iran within three to seven years and appealed to the United States to stop it. The government even hinted in January 1995 that it might have to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors (Iran had only one) as it had done against Iraq 12 years earlier.
Rabin, who did view Iran as a threat to Israel in the long run, deliberately exaggerated that threat, as one of his advisors later acknowledged, in part to ensure that the United States would continue to see Israel as its irreplaceable ally in the Middle East and not be tempted to come to terms with Iran. In fact, as Rabin’s director of Mossad recalled two decades later, Israeli intelligence still considered Iran to rank much lower than Iraq and other threats to Israel during Rabin’s tenure, because Iran was still preoccupied with Iraq and would have no missile that could reach Israel for many years.
Mossad has also repudiated Netanyahu’s political manipulation of the Iran threat.  Since 2012, at least Israeli intelligence has agreed with US intelligence that Iran has not made any decision to try to acquire nuclear weapons. And a series of Mossad chiefs have taken the unprecedented step openly rejecting Netanyahu’s use of the term “existential threat”.
'Existential danger' dismissed by Mossad
Tamir Pardo, the current chief of Mossad, has said that a nuclear Iran would not necessarily pose an existential threat to Israel even if it did acquire nuclear weapons. His predecessor Meir Dagan, who has made no secret of his disdain for Netanyahu’s handling of policy toward Iran as dangerously reckless, said flatly in 2012, that “Israel faces no existential threat,” and another previous Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, has also criticised Netanyahu for talking about an “existential threat” from Iran.
Interestingly, Netanyahu stopped using the term in his AIPAC and congressional speeches, while continuing to make the claim that Iran has genocidal intentions toward Israel.
Netanyahu’s dishonesty on the subject of Iran is best documented by the fact that he was so persuaded by Mossad’s briefing on the subject when he first became prime minister in 1996 that he appointed the Mossad briefer, Uzi Arad, as his national security adviser and abandoned the Labor government’s exaggerated depiction of the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes. For six months the Israeli government stopped claiming that Iran was threatening Israel.
Israel's fear of US-Iran rapprochement
What induced Netanyahu to start selling the snake oil of Iran as menace to Israel was not any new evidence of Iranian interest in nuclear weapons or hostility toward Israel. It was the fear of a rapprochement between the Clinton administration and the newly elected Khatami government and the hope of depriving Iran of what was assumed to be Russian assistance for building missiles that could reach Israel.
Netanyahu was alarmed by the signals from both Tehran and Washington in the summer of 1997 indicating interest in reducing tensions between the two countries. That would have represented a real threat to Israel’s political and strategic interests, and he was determined to cut it short. Netanyahu’s response was to start to begin sending messages to Iran through other governments that Israel would carry out pre-emptive strikes against Iranian missile development sites unless it stopped its ballistic missile programme.   
It was a reckless tactic that would not cause Iran to stop working on missiles, but could well provoke a much tougher Iranian public posture toward Israel. That, in turn, would allow Netanyahu to put pressure on the Clinton administration to steer clear of any warming relations with Iran.   
Netanyahu’s indirect threats did cause Iran to focus much more on the potential threat from Israel in its missile programme, making Iran and Israel strategic adversaries for the first time. Netanyahu bears personal responsibility for having created a conflict with Iran that had never existed before. But it is not the conflict that he has been alleging all these years.

02 March 2015

Stalingrad on the Tigress II


Did the MILCRATs Head Off a Disaster?
My earlier posting on this subject argued that CENTCOM’s planned attack on the Mosul was ‘a bridge too far’ because (1) the long distance to be traversed through hostile Sunni territory by 25,000 untested Shi’a troops would leave the Iraqi army increasingly vulnerable to a welter of flank attacks in an offensive that would necessarily stretch into the debilitating heat of the summer; (2) the movement would expose Baghdad and elsewhere to spoiling attacks by ISIS; and (3) the Kobani model of fixing ISIS troops with a ground attack on a symbolic city and then using airpower to bomb ISIS to smithereens simply did not apply to the far larger urban sprawl of Mosul. 
Nancy Youssef now reports that saner heads have prevailed and this mad plan is now on indefinite hold.
There may be more to this bizarre episode that meets the eye, however.  
Everyone knows the American military is obsessed with secrecy.  That suggests an obvious question: Why would planners in CENTCOM’s headquarters  violate the principle of “loose lips sink ships”?
Youssef’s original report suggested that CENTCOM sources told her they were trying to ”psych out”  ISIS.  Youssef  is one of the better reporters covering the Middle East, so there is no reason to question her characterization of this “leak.”  But the rationale rings hollow.  ISIS’s shocking mix of blitzkrieg and psy-ops over last summer makes it difficult to believe that CENTCOM planners could be so naive as to believe that a bombastic threat would out psych ISIS.  
What gives?
Only time will answer this question.  But there is one obvious hypothesis that bears thinking about: Namely, the bureaucratic hypothesis that loose lips are sometimes intended to sink the ship.  
Such a hypothesis might go something like this:  Perhaps the military was being pressured to retake Mosul by civilian political operatives in the US national security apparat — operatives who were eager to deflect partisan criticism for the heretofore lackluster conduct in Obama’s war to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.  Retaking Mosul would undo one of the crown jewels of ISIS’s blitzkrieg.  That would hand the Obama administration a spectacular victory.  
But rather than taking the high road of threatening to resign in protest over such an amateurish plan, the seasoned MILCRATs in the office of the Joint Chiefs and/or CENTOM did what they are really good at doing: that is to say, they decided to increase their political leverage by leaking the plan to the press, knowing that the leak would cause the plan to self destruct.  The military would be off the hook, the civilian pol-mil hacks put in their place, and the Pentagon’s allies on Capitol Hill given an issue to exploit in the looming policy war over the defense budget.
No doubt, there are other legitimate hypotheses to explain this weird episode, but the preceding speculation is certainly consistent with the kind of antics and bureaucratic gamesmanship I saw repeatedly in the Pentagon during my 25 years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  
There is one litmus test for this hypothesis: Will CENTCOM go on witch hunt to find the ‘leaker’?  After all, in a military culture where A-10 pilots can be accused of treason for leaking the merits of their own plane, a leak of this magnitude — if not ‘authorized’ — would certainly qualify as treason.

24 February 2015

The Dangers of a Slow Boil in Ukraine


Introduction

Defense News, a defense industry trade publication, just released a report entitled, Ukraine Signs Defense Deal with UAE.  It led with --
“ABU DHABI — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a deal for unspecified military and technical cooperation with the UAE on Tuesday, and said negotiations are ongoing with the United States and unspecified European nations.
Poroshenko told reporters at the IDEX show here that he hoped talks with the US would yield an agreement to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia. Poroshenko reportedly planned to meet with chief Pentagon weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, at the show.”
An arms deal between Ukraine and the UAE — what gives?  
The UAE is not a major producer of high technology weapons, but it is a big buyer of U.S. weapons, including missile defense systems, ground vehicles and rockets, and F-16s and Apache Helicopters, etc. Nicknamed by some as Little Sparta, the UAE has been and is a major ally of the US in most of the US wars since 1991.  Today, the UAE is home to some of the most important US military facilities in the Middle East, including its only overseas F-22 base. More US strikes on ISIS come from the UAE than any other source. The UAE also is home to a spooky private mercenary army run by the secretive billionaire founder of infamous Blackwater Worldwide, Erik Prince, who now lives part time in Abu Dhabi. 
Note the pregnant suggestion of some kind of involvement by the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition czar in the second paragraph of the Defense News report.  Is there a possibility that the UAE will end up being a back door for funneling arms and military assistance to the Ukraine?
No one can say, but all of this is very mysterious.
More to the point of this posting, the UAE connection illustrates yet another seemingly unrelated thread in the increasingly complex tapestry of the growing confrontation between the US and Russia over the Ukraine.  This confrontation is being created insensibly by a weaving of seemingly inconsequential but growing connections between the US and Ukraine, without any respect for Russia's legitimate security interests.  These connections grew out of what first appeared to be an unrelated NATO enlargement; and lead to our behind-the-scenes participation in the coup of February 2014 that overthrew the legally elected, if unsavory, government of President Victor Yanukovich.  The coup, in turn, opened the door for the civil war and the eventual rise of President Petro Poroshenko, the man who is now making arms deals with one of the best customers of US arms manufacturers. And at the same time, there is a tense internal US debate over whether or not to send arms to Ukraine. 
Americans may see the UAE gambit may seem to be just one small disconnected event, but the Russians might see it as another part of an evolving tapestry of an increasingly confrontational plan to isolate Russia.
Attached herewith is a very interesting analysis of how this slowly boiling confrontation with Russia could evolve insensibly into Cold War II, or even a nuclear confrontation.  It is written by my good friend, William R. Polk, a prominent historian.  His point of departure is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and he is drawing from his personal experience as an aide to the most senior decision makers in that crisis.
Chuck Spinney

THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS IN REVERSE
William R. Polk
24 February 2015
In a rather ghastly 19th century experiment, a biologist by the name of Heinzmann found that if he placed a frog in boiling water, the frog immediately leapt out but that if he placed the frog in tepid water and then gradually heated it, the frog stayed put until he was scalded to death.  Are we like the frog?  I see disturbing elements of that process today as we watch events unfold in the Ukraine confrontation.  They profoundly frighten me and I believe they should frighten everyone.  But they are so gradual that we do not see a specific moment in which we must jump or perish.  So here briefly, let me lay out the process of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and show how the process of that crisis compares with what we face today over the Ukraine. [CS note: Polk's point about the insensible increase in tensions is a valid and important one, but as James Fallows pointed out to me, the boiling frog experiment is a myth, because the experiment involved removing the brain from the frog. One could argue that the removal of the brain, creates a stronger analogy and actually improves on Polk's point.]  
* * *
Three elements stand out in the Cuban Missile Crisis:  1)  relations between the USSR and the US were already "on the edge" before they reached the crisis stage;  each of us had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction aimed at the other.   2)  the USSR precipitated the Crisis by advancing into Cuba, a country the US had considered part of "area of dominance" since the promulgation of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. 3)  some military and civilian officials and influential private citizens in both countries argued that the other side would "blink" if sufficient pressure was put on it.  
Allow me to point out that I had a (very uncomfortable) ringside seat in the Crisis.  I was one of three members of the "Crisis Management Committee" that oversaw the unfolding events.  On the Monday of the week of October 22, I sat with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary George Ball, Counselor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council Walt Rostow and Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson and listened to President Kennedy's speech to which we all had contributed.   The account Kennedy laid out was literally terrifying to those who understood what a nuclear confrontation meant.  Those of us in that room obviously did.  We were each "cleared" for everything America then knew. And we each knew what our government was seeking -- getting the Russian missiles out of Cuba.   Finally, we were poised to do that by force if the Russians did not remove them.
Previous to that day, I had urged that we remove our "Jupiter" missiles from Turkey.  This was important, I argued, because they were "offensive" rather than "defensive" weapons.  The reason for this distinction was that they were obsolescent, liquid-fired rockets that required a relatively long time to fire; thus, they could only be used for a first strike.  Otherwise they would be destroyed before they could be fired.  The Russians rightly regarded them as a threat.  Getting them out enabled Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to remove the Russian missiles without suffering an unacceptable degree of humiliation and risking a coup d’état.
Then, following the end of the crisis, I wrote the "talking paper" for a review of the crisis, held at the Council on Foreign Relations, with all the involved senior US officials in which we carefully reviewed the "lessons" of the crisis.  What I write below in part derives from our consideration in that meeting.  That is, it is essentially the consensus of those who were most deeply involved in the crisis.  
Shortly thereafter, I  participated in a Top Secret Department of Defense war game, designed by Professor Thomas Schelling of MIT in which he set out a scenario of a sequence of events -- ironically placed near the Ukraine --  to show that the USSR would accept an American nuclear attack without responding.  It was, as he said, in our "post mortem" discussion of the game, a vindication of an extension of the theory of deterrence.  It was to prove that we need not fear a reaction to a limited nuclear attack.  Henry Kissinger had popularized this idea in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.⁠1  
In the post mortem discussion of the Game I argued, and my military, intelligence and diplomatic colleagues on our war game team agreed with me, that the idea of limited nuclear war was nonsense.  No government could accept a devastating attack and survive.  If it did not retaliate with a "victory-denying response,"⁠2 it would be overthrown and executed by its own military and security forces.    And the original attacker would in turn have to avenge the retaliation or it would face a similar fate.  Tit for tat would lead inevitably to "general war."  Twenty years later, in 1983, a second Department of Defense war game (code named "Proud Prophet") in which I did not participate and which was heavily weighted to the military confirmed what I had argued in 1962: there was no such thing as a "limited" nuclear war if both sides were armed with nuclear weapons.  Limited nuclear actions inevitably ended in all-out war.
So, to be realistic, forget "limited" war and consider general war.  
Even the great advocate of thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller, admitted that their use would "endanger the survival of man[kind]."  The Russian nuclear scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, laid out a view of the consequences in the Summer 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs as "a calamity of indescribable proportions."  More detail was assembled by a scientific study group convened by Carl Sagan and reviewed by 100 scientists,  A graphic summary of their findings was published in the Winter 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs.  Sagan pointed out that since both major nuclear powers had targeted cities, casualties could reasonably be estimated at between "several hundred million to 1.1 billion people" with an additional 1.1 billion people seriously injured.  Those figures related to the 1980s.  Today, the cities have grown so the numbers would be far larger.  Massive fires set off by the bombs would carry soot into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to fall to a level that would freeze ground to a depth of about 3 feet.  Planting crops would be impossible and such food as was stored would probably be contaminated so the few survivors would starve.  The hundreds of millions of bodies of the dead could not be buried and would spread contagion.  As the soot settled and the sun again became again visible, the destruction of the ozone layer would remove the protection from ultraviolet rays and so promote the mutation of  pyrotoxins.  Diseases against which there were no immunities would spread.  These would overwhelm not only the human survivors but, in the opinion of the expert panel of 40 distinguished biologists, would cause "species extinction" among both plants and animals.  Indeed, there was a distinct possibility that "there might be no human survivors in the Northern Hemisphere...and the possibility of the extinction of Homo sapiens..." 
So to summarize:  
1) it is almost certain that neither the American nor the Russian  government could  accept even a limited attack without responding;  
2)  there is no reason to believe that a Russian government, faced with defeat in conventional weapons, would be able to avoid using nuclear weapons;   
3) whatever attempts are made to limit escalation are likely to fail and in failing lead to all out war;  and 
4) the predictable consequences of a nuclear war are indeed an unimaginable catastrophe. 
These dangers, even if today they seem remote, clearly demand that we do every thing we possibly can to avoid the fate of the frog.  We can see that the "water" is beginning to heat up.  We should not sit and wait for it to boil.  We did not do so in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We and the Russians worked out a solution.   So what will we, what should we do now?
* * *
The first step is to "appreciate" the situation as it actually is and to see clearly the flow and direction of events.  Of course, they are not precisely the same as in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  History does not exactly repeat itself,  but, as Mark Twain has pithily said, subsequent events sometimes "rhyme" with those that went before.
Consider these key elements:  
1) Despite the implosion of the Soviet Union and the attempts to cut back on nuclear weapons,  Russia and the United States remain parallel nuclear powers with each having the capacity to destroy the other -- and probably the whole world.   Hundreds if not thousands of our weapons apparently remain on "hair trigger alert."  I assume that theirs are similarly poised.
2)  Both Russia and the United States are governed by men who are unlikely to be able to accept humiliation -- and almost certain murder by "super patriots" in their own entourages -- and would be forced to act even at the cost of massive destruction to their countries.  So pressing the leadership of the opponent in this direction is literally playing with fire.   As President Kennedy and the rest of us understood in the 1962 crisis, even if leaders want to avoid conflict, at a certain point in their mutual threats, events replace policy and leaders become bystanders.  
3)  Both the Russian and American people have demonstrated their resilience and determination.  Neither is apt to be open to intimidation.  
4)  Both the Russians and the Americans are guided in their foreign policy by what they believe to be "core concerns."   For the Americans, as the Cuban Missile Crisis and many previous events illustrate, this comes down to the assertion of a "zone of exclusion" of outsiders.  America showed in the Cuban Missile Crisis that we would not tolerate, even at almost unimaginable danger, intrusion into our zone.  Among the Russians, as their history illustrates,⁠3  a similar code of action prevails.  Having suffered, as fortunately we have not, horrifying costs of invasion throughout history but particularly in the 20th century, the Russians can be expected to block, by any means and up to any cost, intrusions into their zone.  
5)  We said we understood this fundamental policy objective of the Russians,  and officially on behalf of our government, Secretary of State James Baker, Jr.  agreed not to push our military activities into their sphere.   We have, however, violated this agreement and have added country by constituent country of the former Soviet Union and its satellites to our military alliance, NATO.   
6) We are now at the final stage, just short of Russia itself in the Ukraine, and, as the Russians know, some influential Americans have suggested that we should push forward to "the gates of Moscow."   Those who advocate what the British once called a "Forward Policy," now see the necessary first steps to be the arming of the Ukraine.  And finally,  
8) There is no way in which we or the European Union could arm the Ukraine to a level that it could balance Russia.  Thus, they are likely both to give the Ukrainians unrealistic notions of what they can do vis-à-vis Russia and to be seen by the Russians as "offensive" moves to which they might feel compelled to respond. Consequently, they could lead us all into a war we do not want.
* * *
So what to do?
In a word: stop.  What we are now doing and what we contemplate doing is not in our interest or in the interests of the Ukrainians and is perceived as a threat by the Russians.  We cannot deliver on the policy we would encourage  the Ukrainians to adopt by arming them without a war.  Economic sanctions are a form of that war, but they are unlikely to accomplish what we have been proclaiming.   So, the logic of events could force the Russians and us to the next step and that step also to the next and so on.   Our moves in this direction could cause massive  death and destruction. We should stop doing what does not work and is not in our interests nor in the interests of either the Ukrainians or the Russians. 
But stopping on what terms?
Having myself helped to negotiate two complex but successful ceasefires, I have learned two things:  first, a ceasefire cannot be obtained unless both parties see it as less bad than the alternative and, second, a ceasefire is merely a necessary precondition to a settlement.  So what might a settlement involve?
The elements of a general settlement, I believe, are these:  
1)  Russia will not tolerate the Ukraine becoming a hostile member of a rival military pact.  We should understand this.  Think how we would have reacted had  Mexico tried to join the Warsaw Pact.  Far-fetched?  
Consider that even before the issue of nuclear weapons arose, we tried to overthrow the pro-Russian Cuban government in the Bay of Pigs invasion and tried on several occasions to murder Cuban Head of State Fidel Castro.  We failed;  so for two generations we have sought to isolate, impoverish and weaken that regime.  We would be foolish to expect that the Russians will not react similarly when challenged by an anti-Russian Ukrainian government.   Thus, to press for inclusion of the Ukraine into NATO is not only self-defeating; it risks overturning a generation of cautious moves to improve our security and increase our well-being and is pointing us toward at least a cold -- if not a hot -- war.  We need to adopt a different course.
2)  We must recognize that the Ukraine is not part of our sphere of  influence or dominance. It is neither in the Western Hemisphere nor in the North Atlantic.  On the Black Sea, the concept of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an oxymoron  The Black Sea area is part of what the Russians call "the near abroad." The policy implications are clear: Just as the Russians realized that Cuba was part of our sphere of dominance and so backed down in the Missile Crisis, they will probably set their response to our actions on the belief that we will similarly back down because of our realization that the Ukraine is in their neighborhood and not in ours.  The danger, of course is that, for domestic political reasons -- and particularly because of the urging of the neoconservatives and other hawks -- we may not accept this geostrategic fact.  Then, conflict, with all the horror that could mean,  would become virtually inevitable.  
3)  But conflict is not inevitable and can fairly easily be avoided if we wish to avoid it.  This is because the Russians and Ukrainians share an objective which the United States also emotionally shares.  The shared objective is that the Ukraine become a secure, prosperous and constructive member of the world community.  Becoming such a member can be accomplished only by the Ukrainians themselves. But as all qualified observers have seen, Ukrainian society and political organization have far to go to reach our joint objective.  This is true regardless of the Russian-American dispute.  Its government is corrupt, tyrannical and weak.  The best we can do is to remove outside deterrents to the growth of a healthy, secure and free society. 
The way to do this is two fold:  first we need to stop our military intrusion into Ukrainian-Russian affairs, so diminishing Russian fears of aggression, and, second, wherever possible and in whatever ways are acceptable to both parties to assist the growth of the Ukrainian economy and, indirectly, the stability and sanity of the Ukrainian governing system.  A first step in this direction could be for the Ukraine to join the European Union.  This, in general terms, should be and for our own sakes must be, our strategy.
-------------------
1 Kissinger  realized his mistake and partially repudiated what he had argued in a later, 1961, book, The Necessity for Choice.
2 This was apparently embodied in Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59.  It was carried forward in President Reagan's Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance.  And it was emphasized by Albert Wohlstetter, a former colleague of mine at the University of Chicago and one of the leading neoconservatives in the June 1983 issue of Commentary.
3 I have laid out the Russian experience in a previous essay, "Shaping the Deep Memories of  Russians and Ukrainians" which is available on my website, www:williampolk.com.