Eli Lake has a piece trying to explain the big disparities between claimed numbers of Americans who have joined ISIS.
One might think that a government that secretly collected everyone’s cellphone records would be able to find out which Americans have joined ISIS. But actually that task is much harder than it would appear.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN more than 100 Americans have pledged themselves to the group that declared itself a Caliphate in June after conquering Iraq’s second-largest city. Hagel added, “There may be more, we don’t know.” On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman walked back Hagel’s remarks, saying the United States believes there are “maybe a dozen” Americans who have joined ISIS.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast when asked if there were more than 12 Americans in ISIS. “We have some identifying information on some of the Americans, it may not be their name but we have enough information. That said, we readily acknowledge that that number is probably low and there are others we don’t know about.”
“I think 12 is probably low only because there is always stuff we don’t know,” said Andrew Liepman, who left his post as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2012 and is now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “I would not say that number is hugely low, but we always have to remember what we don’t know.”
But at least some of these discrepancies are actually quite easy to explain.
First, Lake jokes about the NSA’s dragnet. But that is actually one explanation for the larger numbers: in FISC documents, it is clear NSA treats association as transitive, meaning that an association with someone who is known to be associated with a group is itself, in many cases, considered evidence of association with the group. And some of this analysis is not going to go beyond metadata analysis (meaning NSA may not get around to reading the content to confirm the association unless the metadata patterns suggest some reason to prioritize the captured communication).
Thus, for any Americans who are in email or phone contact with a known or suspected member of ISIS, NSA likely considers them to be associated with ISIS. And remember, NSA’s collection of email and phone records overseas is almost certainly more extensive than their collection here, meaning those contact chains will be more exhaustive.
In addition, we know that the government considers traveling to an area of terrorist activity to be reasonable suspicion that someone is a known or suspected terrorist. The watchlist guidelines list just that as one behavioral indicator for being watchlisted as a known or suspected terrorist (see page 35).
3.9.4 Travel for no known lawful or legitimate purpose to a locus of TERRORIST ACTIVITY.
This means that any Americans who have traveled to Syria or Iraq are likely classified, by default, as terrorists. And many of those may have traveled for entirely different reasons (like freelance journalism).
That the Pentagon responded the way it did to Chuck Hagel’s fear-mongering is itself tacit admission that the government’s means of tracking terrorist affiliation sweep far wider than actual terrorist affiliation actually does. All Americans who have communicated with ISIS or traveled to Syria may not even want to join ISIS, and not all that want to will succeed in doing so. But NSA and NCTC are going to track everyone who might want to join, because that’s the best way to keep us safe.
Of course, that means the numbers can be used as Hagel used them, to fearmonger about the possible rather than the actual threat of American ISIS members.
All the more reason to make these watchlisting details public!
Back in July of last year, SIGAR issued an alert (pdf) regarding what SIGAR head John Sopko termed “a potentially troubling example of waste that requires your immediate attention”. That statement was in Sopko’s cover letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Head of Central Command Lloyd Austin and ISAF Commander Joseph Dunford. It would appear that the folks in the Department of Defense missed that key word “immediate”, as the subsequent responses from the Defense Department have been both troubling and, at least on the most important move, slow.
First, to set the stage on the evidence of wasteful spending in constructing a building that had no use at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. From the alert letter linked above:
I was told by senior U.S. military officials that the recently completed Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) Command and Control Facility, a 64,000 square feet building and related infrastructure with a contract award value of $34 million that was meant to serve as a command headquarters in Helmand to support the surge, will not be occupied. Based on documents provided to SIGAR, it appears that military commanders in Afghanistan determined as early as May 2010 that there was no need for the facility, yet the military still moved ahead with the construction project and continued to purchase equipment and make various improvements to the building in early 2013. Based on these preliminary findings, I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped.
In addition, I was told that U.S. military officials expect that the building will be either demolished or turned over to the Afghan government as our military presence in Afghanistan declines and Camp Leatherneck is reduced in size. Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling—destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a “white elephant” to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain. Determining all of the facts on how we reached this $34 million dilemma and what can be done to prevent it from happening again is the reason for sending this management alert letter to you.
Even though the Camp Leatherneck Commander determined in May, 2010 that the building was not needed, construction began anyhow after February of 2011. Ironically, Sopko notes in his letter that this may well be the best-constructed building he has toured in his many inspections in Afghanistan, even though it was known before construction began that there would be no use for the building.
Sopko’s letter continues, citing information collected that the building can accomodate 1200 to 1500 staff but that at the time of writing, only 450 people were available to use it. Furthermore, there was nobody on the base qualified to maintain the expensive HVAC system. But it gets even worse:
According to a senior U.S. military official, as the footprint of Camp Leatherneck decreases, the building could be outside the security perimeter, thereby making it unsafe for the U.S. military to occupy it. This leaves the military with two primary options—demolish the building or give it to the Afghan government.
However, to make it usable for the Afghan government, the building would require a major overhaul of existing systems, including the expensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. A high-ranking, senior U.S. military official also advised me that the facility was built to U.S. construction standards rather than Afghan standards. For example, the power runs at U.S. 60 cycles versus Afghan 50 cycles and U.S. 120 volts versus Afghan 220 volts. Therefore, it would not be easy to transfer the building to the Afghan government. These were some of the reasons why the U.S. military officials we spoke with believe the building will probably be demolished.
It appears that the Defense Department reacted to Sopko’s letter, because Sopko states in a subsequent letter that he was informed that an investigation was underway and that his questions would be answered. But that process seems to have directly contradicted earlier work from DoD. Sopko wrote a new letter (pdf) to the same recipients on November 27 of last year: Continue reading
As I posited yesterday, Pakistan appears to be putting together a US-style counterterrorism structure. This morning, we see even stronger hints that a full-blown military offensive against the Taliban may soon be launched by Pakistan. Although we have not seen any evidence that they have done so yet, I fully expect Pakistan to include both the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network among their targets in this operation. In fact, the Washington Post article mentions that Pakistan “would ‘not discriminate’ among the TTP, the Haqqani network and other militant groups in North Waziristan, including al-Qaeda”. In return for this offensive, look for Pakistan to get a massive amount of US financial and intelligence assistance. The US also appears to be making a renewed push against the Haqqani network inside Afghanistan and this report from Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart describes that effort while noting that the US wants Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis and any other groups that use Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to launch attacks in Afghanistan.
These moves by Pakistan and the US make more sense when we see that the US has come to the realization that an ongoing troop presence in Afghanistan is increasingly unlikely. There was significant movement on that front yesterday, with President Obama speaking to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the telephone. From the White House readout of the call:
President Obama called President Karzai today to discuss preparations for Afghanistan’s coming elections, Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and the Bilateral Security Agreement.
With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.
The United States continues to support a sovereign, stable, unified, and democratic Afghanistan, and will continue our partnership based on the principles of mutual respect and mutual accountability. We remain fully supportive of our partners in the Afghan security forces, and we continue to proudly work side by side with the many Afghans who continue to work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their fellow citizens.
Although there is no clear deadline date, this phone call has the hallmarks of a “final warning” to Karzai. If the US doesn’t see movement from him on the BSA soon, look for the zero option of a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan to take place. As noted in the readout, the lack of a signed BSA is causing trouble for NATO, as well. A NATO gathering (called a Defense Ministerial) opened today, but with no BSA in place, Afghanistan planning can’t be done, prompting a very uncomfortable opening press conference for Secretary General Rasmussen.
It’s hard to imagine how Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s travels this week could have gone any worse. Starting off with horrible optics, Hagel began his trip with a stop in Bahrain. Although it appears that he at least had enough sense not to appear in front of the cameras with him, he did meet with Bahrian’s king even though the country continues a brutal crackdown on protests, in which mass punishment and torture by the king’s forces have been documented as ongoing. Hagel did appear in front of the cameras though, to “share a laugh” with Egypt’s foreign minister (see this photo essay and scroll down) while in Bahrain, so he did manage a public appearance with a regime engaged in violent suppression of its people.
Hagel moved on to Afghanistan. The US press had already warned us ahead of the visit that he and Karzai were not scheduled to meet even though the US is in the midst of applying incredible amounts of pressure to convince Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement by the end of this year. Or perhaps by the NATO meeting in February. Or whenever. Not content to settle for a mere snub, though, Karzai went a step further in his disrespect to Hagel. Under a story with the headline “President Karzai Leaves for Iran, While Hagel Still in Kabul“, Tolo News informed us yesterday of Karzai’s latest move:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a high-ranking delegation departed Kabul on Sunday to meet with Iranian officials, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Karzai is visiting Iran to negotiate with Iranian officials on bilateral relations between Tehran and Kabul, the Presidential Palace said in a statement.
Karzai will meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani today in Tehran, the statement added.
Karzai’s visit to Iran took place while the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is visiting U.S forces in Afghanistan.
It appears that Karzai was treated quite well in Tehran:
And RT informs us that a security deal between Iran and Afghanistan now appears likely (h/t to Greg Bean for alerting me to this link via Twitter).
Think about that. Hagel came to Afghanistan with no Karzai meeting arranged and then while he was there, Karzai went to Tehran and announced a pending agreement. It can’t get much worse than that.
Or can it? Hagel’s next stop was Pakistan. He met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where Sharif told him that drone strikes must stop. But while Hagel was there, the US “announced” that NATO shipments through Pakistan would resume since protests against drones have stopped. From the same Express Tribune article about the meeting with Sharif:
But a US defence official told reporters in Kabul that the suspension of shipments via Pakistan had been lifted because the protests had stopped, removing the threat to Nato trucks that move through the Torkham gate pass.
Except that the protests have not stopped. So it appears that the US withdrew that statement. From Dawn:
The visit came as Hagel’s deputies withdrew Sunday’s statement that said Nato shipments out of Afghanistan through Pakistan were to resume due to the end of anti-drone protests.
And as an added bonus, we have yet another incident of NATO supply trucks using the southern route in Afghanistan being attacked, so perhaps pressure is being ratcheted up on that route as well.
Perhaps it is time for Mr. Hagel to come home.
On the very same day that a member Congress stated that Middle Eastern cultures routinely lie during negotiations, several US senior officials suggested dishonest ways of working around Hamid Karzai’s conditions for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement by getting someone other than Karzai to sign it.
Granted, Duncan Hunter, Jr. is batshit crazy and also was arguing for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in a war with Iran, but his statements on honesty yesterday provide a supremely ironic context for John Kerry and Chuck Hagel suggesting someone other than Karzai could sign the agreement. TPM has Hunter’s comments:
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) said Wednesday that it is in the Middle Eastern culture to lie during negotiations.
“In the Middle Eastern culture, it is looked upon with very high regard to get the best deal possible no matter what it takes — and that includes lying,” Hunter said in an interview with C-SPAN. “That’s one reason that these Gulf states like to work with the United States — because we’re honest and transparent and we have laws that we have to live by.”
Hunter and his ilk, of course, would point to Karzai’s new conditions imposed after the loya jirga approved the BSA and urged Karzai to sign it. But is the US acting any differently than the actions Hunter criticizes in its attempt, at any cost, to get a work-around?
From the Washington Post:
The Obama administration is looking for ways to work around Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s new demands concerning a key security agreement with the United States, a senior U.S. official close to the negotiations said Wednesday.
“One of the things we’re trying to do quietly is design, engineer, imagine ways that we could get ourselves out of this fix,” the official said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the emerging strategy on the record. “One of those ways might be to find a mechanism, a technique where Karzai could abide by his loya jirga pledge not to sign it but still give us the document we need.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry suggested this week that someone other than Karzai might sign the security deal. Possibilities include the top Afghan and U.S. defense officials, although U.S. officials played down that option after Kerry spoke.
But in Washington on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also suggested to reporters at the Pentagon that the signature of an Afghan leader other than Karzai might suffice.
And Martin Dempsey has also joined the Coalition of the Working-Around:
Dempsey said it was important that any agreement be binding. “As long as the document is considered legally binding by both parties and credible internationally, then I think it will be a matter of who they decide signs it,” he said.
The attempts to bypass Karzai are not being received well in Kabul. From Khaama Press:
Aimal Faizi, spokesman for president Hamid Karzai has said that the Afghan ministers will not be authorized to sign the security pact unless the demands are met.
Mr. Faizi further added that president Hamid Karzai remains committed to his two main demands to sign the agreement. “President Karzai wants an absolute end to the military operations on Afghan homes and a meaningful start to the peace process, and we are certain that the Americans can practically do that within days or weeks,” Faizi quoted by Reuters said.
He also added, “As long as these demands are not accepted, President Karzai will not authorize any minister to sign it.”
There is one more very important tidbit buried near the end of this article. It turns out that the US didn’t merely mention getting someone other than Karzai to sign the agreement, it has already approached the Afghan defense minister to try to persuade him to sign it:
According to reports, US officials have also approached Afghan defense minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi during the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels to discuss such a possibility.
Hunter couldn’t have said it any better. The US wants this document signed, no matter what it takes.
The NYT has a tick-tock of Obama’s Syria policy. I find it fascinating for two reasons.
Obama uses “covert” status as a legal fiction, nothing more
First, consider the coverage of the covert op — one acknowledged explicitly by Chuck Hagel in Senate testimony. NYT says President Obama actually signed the Finding authorizing arming the rebels in April, not June, as Hagel claimed, but Obama did not move to implement it right away.
President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.
Indeed, the story may have been driven by CIA types trying to blame Obama for indolence after first signing that finding.
As to the decision to do this as a covert op, NYT describes it arose — first of all — out of difficulties over using the Armed Forces to overthrow a sovereign government.
But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.
Those difficulties, of course, were the same ones present that should have prevented Obama from considering bombing a sovereign government in August, which of course weren’t the ones that ultimately persuaded Obama not to bomb.
The big reason to do it as a covert op, however, came from the need to be able to deny we were arming al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.
As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”
Yet in spite of this explanation — one which you’d think would demand secrecy — the NYT notes that Ben Rhodes went and announced this policy publicly.
But, the NYT notes (perhaps in anticipation for the inevitable FOIA), the President didn’t say anything about it himself.
Where the hell was the IC getting its rosy scenario about Assad’s overthrow?
The other striking thing about the story is how it portrays Obama’s policies to have been driven by (unquestioned by the NYT) overly rosy assessments of Assad’s demise.
I’m working on a longer post on how Saudi King Abdullah took all his toys and went home because we wouldn’t start an illegal war at his behest.
But for the moment, I want to look at a passage from this article reporting a Bandar bin Sultan tantrum.
Diplomats and officials familiar with events recounted two previously undisclosed episodes during the buildup to the aborted Western strike on Syria that allegedly further unsettled the Saudi-U.S. relationship.
In the run-up to the expected U.S. strikes, Saudi leaders asked for detailed U.S. plans for posting Navy ships to guard the Saudi oil center, the Eastern Province, during any strike on Syria, an official familiar with that discussion said. The Saudis were surprised when the Americans told them U.S. ships wouldn’t be able to fully protect the oil region, the official said.
Disappointed, the Saudis told the U.S. that they were open to alternatives to their long-standing defense partnership, emphasizing that they would look for good weapons at good prices, whatever the source, the official said.
In the second episode, one Western diplomat described Saudi Arabia as eager to be a military partner in what was to have been the U.S.-led military strikes on Syria. As part of that, the Saudis asked to be given the list of military targets for the proposed strikes. The Saudis indicated they never got the information, the diplomat said. The Pentagon declined to comment.
“The Saudis are very upset. They don’t know where the Americans want to go,” said a senior European diplomat not in Riyadh.
So, in the second anecdote, we have a European diplomat revealing that “the Pentagon” refused to share targeting information about our planned strikes in Syria. It’s a smart decision, mind you, but I wonder whether something specific precipitated that, particularly given the allegations Bandar was engaging in disinformation and worse. Withholding such information from him, for example, would have prevented him from ensuring a few bombing runs led to further involvement.
Then there’s the first incident, in which the Saudis were shocked that the US hadn’t included protecting its Eastern Province in any war plan for Syria. Again, it’s a lot easier to sow a full-blown war in Syria if you know you’re protected from Syria’s sponsors at home.
But I do think Saudi Arabia’s oil industry would have been the most logical countarattack for Syria and its allies, though probably using hacks rather than bombs.
Moreover, this gets to the expectations of the Technical Cooperation Agreement, in which the Saudis keep funneling us dollars and we protect its most vulnerable parts. Certainly, the Saudi threat to bring its weapons dollars elsewhere sure seems like a threat to discontinue it.
Still, this, too, was partly about sharing intelligence.
Has someone decided that the Saudis have been misusing the intelligence we’ve shared with them?
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For the life of me, I don’t know why they’re doing this. But in both the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday and on Chris Hayes’ show yesterday, John Kerry made a remarkable claim.
KERRY: — I disagree. And, first of all, let — let — let me make this clear. The president — and this is very important, because I think a lot of Americans, all of your listeners, a lot of people in the country are sitting there and saying oh, my gosh, this is going to be Iraq, this is going to be Afghanistan. Here we go again.
I know this. I — I’ve heard it.
And the answer is no, profoundly no. You know, Senator Chuck Hagel, when he was senator, Senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of Defense, and when I was a senator, we opposed the president’s decision to go into Iraq, but we know full well how that evidence was used to persuade all of us that authority ought to be given.
I can guarantee you, I’m not imprisoned by my memories of or experience in Vietnam, I’m informed by it. And I’m not imprisoned by my memory of how that evidence was used, I’m informed by it. And so is Chuck Hagel. And we are informed sufficiently that we are absolutely committed to not putting any evidence in front of the American people that isn’t properly vetted, properly chased to ground and verified. And we are both convinced that what we are putting before the American people is in the security interests of our country and it will not lead to some further engagement. [my emphasis]
John Kerry’s flip-flopping support for President Bush’s disastrous Iraq War was one of the most heavily litigated issues in the 2003 to 2004 Presidential campaign. Everyone knows he supported that war and only later came out against it.
And of course, a secret intelligence source called a roll call shows that both men did support Bush’s decision to go to war.
I suppose what John Kerry means — but is not saying explicitly — is that after the war started going south, he pointed to Bush’s politicized intelligence as an excuse for his vote (while still usually voting to fund the ongoing war).
But that points to the way the Syrian attack is most likely to be like the Iraq War: after all, had the war not turned out to be such a disaster, Bush’s lies to start it wouldn’t have mattered as much. Yet the war did turn out to be a disaster. The entirely foreseeable unintended consequences of the Iraq attack — not the lies about WMD — ultimately made support for Iraq toxic.
Remember, though: Bush lied not just about yellowcake and aluminum tubes, he also suppressed information about the possibility of an insurgency. And whereas the claims Kerry is making about the August 21 CW strike may be completely true (though his casualty claims appear not to be), his claims about what might happen if we overthrow Assad probably aren’t. According to Homeland Security Chair Mike McCaul, Kerry’s claims that only 15 to 25% of the rebels are extremists do not match what the intelligence community has briefed him (they’ve said over half of the fighters are extremists).
And so when Kerry says Syria will not be like Iraq — and misleadingly claims he and Hagel didn’t support the war they in fact voted for — he’s actually emphasizing the way it could very well be just like Iraq: in which the Administration presented a false picture about how easy the aftermath of the attack would be, which in turn led a lot of people — perhaps Kerry more than any other person — to regret their votes.
What matters about the Iraq War here is that it was sold as a cakewalk in spite of the fact the government knew an insurgency was likely, not that that cakewalk was sold using yellowcake and aluminum tubes. And in that sense, we already know the proposed Syria attack is like the Iraq War, because we know the government is fibbing about what might come next.
And that’s almost as readily apparent as is the misleading nature of Kerry’s claim that he (and Hagel) didn’t support Bush’s cakewalk.
Update: Meanwhile, the source Kerry cites for his estimates on numbers of extremists is a consultant for the rebels.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged members of the House of Representatives to read a Wall Street Journal op-ed by 26-year-old Elizabeth O’Bagy — an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War — who asserted that concerns about extremists dominating among the Syrian rebels are unfounded.
“Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al-Qaida die-hards,” O’Bagy wrote for the Journal on Aug. 30. “Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces,” she wrote.
But in addition to her work for the Institute for the Study of War, O’Bagy is also the political director for the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a group that advocates within the United States for Syria’s rebels — a fact that the Journal did not disclose in O’Bagy’s piece.
There’s a fundamental dishonesty in the debate about Syria derived from treating the authorization to punish Bashar al-Assad for chemical weapons use in isolation from the Administration’s acknowledged covert operations to support the rebels. It results in non-discussions like this one, in which Markos Moulitsas refutes Nicholas Kristof’s call for bombing Bashar al-Assad based on the latter’s claim we are currently pursuing “peaceful acquiescence.”
And war opponents don’t have to deal with arguments like this one, from the New York Times’Nicholas Kristof:
So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die.
The administration has gone to great lengths to stress just how limited air strikes will be, and to great pain to reiterate that regime destabilization is not the goal. So I’m not sure where Kristoff gets the idea that such attacks will have any effect on the growing influence of Islamists in the region. But let’s say that by some miracle, the air strikes do weaken the Assad government, it is the “Al Qaeda elements” that stand most to gain, as they are be best placed to pick up the pieces.
Markos is right: the Administration has gone to great lengths to claim this authorization to use force is only about limited bomb strikes, will involve no boots on the ground, and isn’t about regime change. Here’s how the President described it:
I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.
But both are ignoring that at the same time, the Administration is pursuing publicly acknowledged (!) covert operations with the intent of either overthrowing Assad and replacing him with moderate, secular Syrians (based on assurances from the “Custodian of the Two Mosques” about who is and who is not secular), or at least weakening Assad sufficiently to force concessions in a negotiated deal that includes the Russians.
Yet here’s how the President’s National Security team discussed the other strand of this — lethal support for vetted rebels — from the very beginning of Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
SEN. CORKER: What I’m unaware of is why it is so slow in actually helping them with lethal support — why has that been so slow?
SEC. KERRY: I think — I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that. Suffice it to say, I want to General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel. That is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it’s made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.
Secretary Hagel, do you — or General, do you want to –
SEN. HAGEL: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition, as you all know. We have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance. The vetting process, as Secretary Kerry noted, has been significant. But — I’ll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything — but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action, and as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.
SEN. CORKER: As he’s answering that, and if you could be fairly brief, is there anything about the authorization that you’re asking that in any way takes away from our stated strategy of empowering the vetted opposition to have the capacity over time to join in with a transition government, as we have stated from the beginning?
Is there anything about this authorization that in any way supplements that?
GEN. DEMPSEY: To your question about the opposition, moderate opposition, the path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed, capable, moderate opposition. And we know how to do that.
Secondly, there’s nothing in this resolution that would limit what we’re doing now, but we’re very focused on the response to the chemical weapons. I think that subsequent to that, we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a — in a more overt way. [my emphasis]
The President, as part of covert action (that is, authorized under Article II authority), decided to lethally arm vetted rebels in June. Those efforts were already increasing significantly, independent of the spanking we’re discussing for Assad. Nothing related to the spanking will limit those efforts to arm the rebels (no one comments on it here, but elsewhere they do admit that spanking Assad will degrade his defenses, so the opposite will occur). And General Dempsey, at least, is forthright that the Administration plans to return to Congress after the spanking to talk about increased, overt support for the rebels.
So there’s the spanking.
And then there’s the lethal arming of rebels which is not a part of the spanking, but will coincidentally benefit from it and has been accelerating of late.
Spanking without regime change. And regime change (or at least a negotiated solution).
Which returns us to the content of the AUMF. Continue reading
The French, who have a long history with Syria, offered a somewhat more developed explanation for why they’re so sure that Bashar al-Assad should be held responsible for the August 21 attack even while someone in his Ministry of Defense appears to have been panicked and confused about the attack. (Note: Alan Grayson asked for this intercept to be declassified in today’s hearing, but Chuck Hagel seemed unenthused about that idea.)
Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.
In their case for war they talked about how tightly controlled Assad’s Chemical Weapons are.
The Syrian chemical programme is centred around the Center of Scientific Studies and Research (CSSR), in charge among others of producing chemical warfare agents. Its Branch 450 is in charge of the filling of chemical ammunitions, as well as the security of chemical sites and stockpiles. Formed exclusively with Alawi officers, this unit is known for its high loyalty to the regime.
Bachar al Assad and some of the most influential members of his clan are the only ones empowered to order the use of chemical weapons. The order is then forwarded to the commanding officers within the competent branches of the CSSR. In parallel, the armed forces HQs receive the order, decide of targeting and of the choice of weapons and toxic agents to use.
While not definitive, it is a slightly more developed version of the argument that the US made.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad is the ultimate decision maker for the chemical weapons program and members of the program are carefully vetted to ensure security and loyalty. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) – which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense – manages Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Nevertheless, in the face of some questions about what the men in the CW unit were doing, both governments have offered simply an argument about how reliable the CW staffers are in this unit.
But that comes amidst what John Kerry claims is a big wave of defections. The most notable is that of General Habib Ali, Assad’s former Minister of Defense and like him an Alawite.
“Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official,” Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris.