David Petraeus

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Benghazi: A Poster Child for Covert Ops Blowback

You’ve no doubt heard that, last Friday (a pre-holiday Friday, as some people are already on their way to Thanksgiving), the Benghazi scandal ended with a fizzle.

The House Intelligence Committee released its report on the Benghazi attack, which basically says all the scandal mongering has been wrong, that Susan Rice’s talking points came from the CIA, that no one held up any rescue attempts, and so on and so on. This post will attempt to lay out why that might have happened. The short version, however, is that the report reveals (but does not dwell on) a number of failures on the part of the CIA that should raise real concerns about Syria.

Note that not all Republicans were as polite as the ultimate report. Mike Rogers, Jeff Miller, Jack Conaway, and Peter King released an additional views report, making precisely the points you’d expect them to — though it takes them until the 4th summary bullet to claim that Administration officials “perpetuated an inaccurate story that matched the Administration’s misguided view that the United States was nearing victory over al-Qa’ida.” Democrats released their own report noting that “there was no AQ mastermind” and that “extremists who were already well-armed and well-trained took advantage of regional violence” to launch the attack. Among the Republicans who presumably supported the middle ground were firebrands like Michele Bachmann and Mike Pompeo, as well as rising Chair Devin Nunes (as you’ll see, Nunes was a lot more interested in what the hell CIA was doing in Benghazi than Rogers). The day after the initial release Rogers released a second statement defending — and pointing to the limits of and Additional Views on — his report.

Now consider what this report is and is not.

The report boasts about the 1000s of hours of work and 1000s of pages of intelligence review, as well as 20 committee events, interviews with “senior intelligence officials” and 8 security personnel (whom elsewhere the report calls “the eight surviving U.S. personnel”) who were among the eyewitnesses in Benghazi. But the bulk of the report is sourced to 10 interviews (the 8 security guys, plus the Benghazi and Tripoli CIA Chiefs), and a November 15, 2012 presentation by James Clapper, Mike Morell, Matt Olsen, and Patrick Kennedy. (Here are  the slides from that briefing: part onepart two.) As I’ll show, this means some of the claims in this report are not sourced to the people who directly witnessed the events. And the reports sources almost nothing to David Petraeus, who was CIA Director at the time.

The FBI analyzed the intelligence better than CIA did

One of the best explanations for why this is such a tempered report may be that FBI performed better analysis of the cause of the attack than CIA did. This is somewhat clear from the summary (though buried as the 4th bullet):

There was no protest. The CIA only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke), and after the FBI began publishing its interviews with U.S. officials on the ground on September 22, 2012.

That is, one reason Susan Rice’s talking points said what they did is because CIA’s analytical reports still backed the claim there had been a protest outside State’s Temporary Mission Facility.

Moreover, in sustaining its judgment there had been a protest as long as it did, CIA was actually ignoring both a report from Tripoli dated September 14, and the assessment of the Chief of Station in Tripoli, who wrote the following to Mike Morell on September 15.

We lack any ground-truth information that protest actually occurred, specifically in the vicinity of the consulate and leading up to the attack. We therefore judge events unfolded in a much different manner than in Tunis, Cairo, Khartoum, and Sanaa, which appear to the the result of escalating mob violence.

In a statement for the record issued in April 2014, Mike Morell explained that Chiefs of Station “do not/not make analytic calls for the Agency.” But it’s not clear whether Morell explained why CIA appears to have ignored their own officer.

While the report doesn’t dwell on this fact, the implication is that the FBI was more successful at interviewing people on the ground — including CIA officers!! — to rebut a common assumption arising from public reporting. That’s a condemnation of CIA’s analytical process, not to mention a suggestion FBI is better at collecting information from humans than CIA is. But HPSCI doesn’t seem all that worried about these CIA failures in its core missions.

Or maybe CIA failed for some other reason. Continue reading

Another Iraq Failure by Petraeus: Graft-Ridden Military

Back when the Bush Administration and their neocon operators were most proud of their “accomplishments” in Iraq, their poster boy for this success most often was my favorite ass-kissing little chickenshit, David Petraeus. As the public finally became aware of what a disaster Iraq really was and as Obama moved his focus to the “good war” in Afghanistan, I noted that Petraeus’ name was no longer associated with Iraq once it, and especially Petraeus’ multiple attempts to train Iraq’s military, had failed. Today we have further news on how Iraq’s military came to be in such sad shape that many units simply disappeared when it came time to confront ISIS. It turns out that while he was gaining accolades for training Iraqi troops, Petraeus was in reality creating a system in which Iraqi officers were able to siphon off the billions of dollars the US wasted on the whole training operation:

The Iraqi military and police forces had been so thoroughly pillaged by their own corrupt leadership that they all but collapsed this spring in the face of the advancing militants of the Islamic State — despite roughly $25 billion worth of American training and equipment over the past 10 years and far more from the Iraqi treasury.

/snip/

The United States has insisted that the Iraqi military act as the conduit for any new aid and armaments being supplied for a counteroffensive, including money and weapons intended for tribal fighters willing to push out the Islamic State. In its 2015 budget, the Pentagon has requested $1.3 billion to provide weapons for the government forces and $24.1 million intended for the tribes.

But some of the weaponry recently supplied by the army has already ended up on the black market and in the hands of Islamic State fighters, according to Iraqi officers and lawmakers. American officials directed questions to the Iraqi government.

“I told the Americans, don’t give any weapons through the army — not even one piece — because corruption is everywhere, and you will not see any of it,” said Col. Shaaban al-Obeidi of the internal security forces, also a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar Province. “Our people will steal it.”

But don’t look for any of the new billions being spent to put controls on graft into place:

American officials say working with the tribes, and military corruption, is beyond the scope of their mission. “Reducing corruption is not part of the advisers’ role,” said one American official involved in the effort, “and there is no reason to believe that advisers’ presence will reduce corruption.”

Isn’t that just peachy? We know without a doubt that giving weapons or financial support to the Iraqi military is guaranteed to wind up helping ISIS instead of fighting them. And yet Washington insists on throwing another $1.3 billion going down the same shithole.

Part of the reason that this can’t be stopped is that the US side of the graft is so organized and institutionalized. Moving out from just the efforts within Iraq to the entire campaign against ISIS, we see who really benefits:

President Obama is asking Congress for an additional $5.6 billion to fight the militant group. A large share of the money, if approved, would be given to the Pentagon to train and equip Iraqi forces, while a smaller portion would be reserved for the State Department.

/snip/

The big defense companies that manufacture weapons are likely to receive orders to help the military replenish its stocks, analysts said.

That includes Falls Church giants Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, as well as Raytheon and Boeing, said Roman Schweizer, a defense policy analyst with Guggenheim Securities.

/snip/

More broadly however, the budget includes funding requests for operations and maintenance of military bases, as well as classified operations and research and development.

That could potentially boost business for services companies such as Arlington’s DRS Technologies, or contractors that work in the field of intelligence, said James McAleese, founder of Sterling-based McAleese & Associates, a government contracts consultancy.

Ah, but the big goose keeps producing golden eggs for the folks who train Iraq’s military. The article continues:

In the long term, the biggest procurement for services contractors could stem from the $1.6 billion requested for the Iraq Train and Equip Fund, Schweizer said.

The fund would be used to provide training at multiple sites throughout Iraq for approximately 12 Iraqi brigades, according to the White House.

Although the Pentagon has yet to state if it plans to use contractors for training, “history would suggest that when the Army goes somewhere, contractor support follows,” Schweizer said.

So, while Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah continue their tussles over who owns what in Afghanistan’s graft-sharing arrangement, graft-sharing here in the US is politely played out in the Washington process of contracting. And in Washington, we know that the company that makes the biggest investment in congressmembers wins fair and square.

US Feeding its Addiction to Training Iraqi Military

Political and military leaders in the US are hopelessly addicted to the idea of training an Iraqi military. Never mind that it fails every time a “new” initiative on training is introduced. As soon as the situation in Iraq deteriorates, the only idea that Washington can put forward is train more Iraqi security forces. As soon as genius Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military and banned Saddam’s Baath party, training a new force became central to US activities in Iraq even though Bremer’s move had made it impossible.

David Petraeus, the ass-kissing little chickenshit himself, first led the training effort and was given several Mulligans. He burst on the political scene in 2004, penning an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he spouted fictitious numbers on accomplishments in training and perhaps helped Bush to re-election. He then was hailed again by the press as the perfect leader to train Iraqi forces in 2007, with no discussion of what happened to all those forces he “trained” earlier. And now that Iraqi forces fled their posts in droves ahead of ISIS, the only solution our fearless leaders can imagine is for us to once again train Iraqi forces.

Not only are we getting another fix for our training junkies, but Chuck Hagel is accelerating the effort:

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the Pentagon will accelerate its mission to train Iraqi forces to combat Islamic State militants, using troops already in Iraq to start the effort while funding is sought for a broader initiative.

The quest for more funding had been announced earlier by Obama:

Hagel’s announcement follows President Barack Obama’s Nov. 7 decision to roughly double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, adding 1,500 military personnel to establish sites to train nine Iraqi brigades and set up two more centers to advise military commands.

Obama also sought $5.6 billion in funding from Congress for the initiative, including $1.6 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces. Officials initially said the funding would have to be approved by Congress before the new effort could begin.

Translating from military-speak, nine brigades in US forces means between 27,000 and 45,000 troops. So Obama wants $1.6 billion to train a few more tens of thousands of Iraqi troops. We have already spent many more billions to train several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security forces. Several times. Why on earth would anyone think it will go any better this time?

Of course, one bit of information feeding the desire for the junkies is that Iran now openly admits that they have advisors in Iraq helping the military:

A senior Iraqi official lauded Iran’s assistance to Iraq in fighting terrorist groups, including the ISIL, and said the Iranian military advisors played an important role in freeing Jarf Asakhr in the Musayyib district in the North of Babylon province.

“The Iranian advisors were present in the battle ground during the Jarf Asakhr operations and provided excellent counselling to the fighters of popular front,” Governor-General of Karbala province Aqil al-Tarihi told FNA on Sunday.

Stressing that the cleanup and liberation operations in Jarf Asakhr were all carried out by the Iraqi forces, he said, “Iran helped the success of the operations with its useful consultations.”

Late September, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Gholam Ali Rashid announced that Iran’s military advisors were present in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine to provide those nations with necessary military recommendations.

Besides bragging about their advisors in Iraq, Iran is having a lot of fun trolling the US on its misadventures in Iraq. We know, of course, that ISIS has come into possession of large amounts of US-provided weaponry as Iraqi bases have been seized and that there have been reports of US airdrops of supplies and weapons missing their targets. Iran provided this hot take on those developments today:

Iraqi intelligence sources disclosed that US military planes have been supplying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Takfiri terrorists with weapons and foodstuff under the guise of air raids on militants’ positions.

The Iraqi forces have found out that the US aircraft usually airdrop arms and food cargoes for ISIL militants who collect them on the ground, Asia news agency quoted Iraqi army’s intelligence officers as saying.

“The Iraqi intelligence sources reiterated that the US military planes have airdropped several aid cargoes for ISIL terrorists to help them resist the siege laid by the Iraqi army, security and popular forces,” added the report.

On Saturday, Iraqi security sources disclosed that the ISIL terrorist group is using the state-of-the-art weapons which are only manufactured by the US and each of their bullets are worth thousands of dollars.

“What is important is that the US sends these weapons to only those that cooperate with the Pentagon and this indicates that the US plays a role in arming the ISIL,” an Iraqi security source told FNA.

The source noted that the most important advantage of the US-made weapons used by the ISIL is that “these bullets pierce armored vehicles and kill the people inside the vehicle”.

He said each of such bullets is worth $2,000, and added, “These weapons have killed many Iraqi military and volunteer forces so far.”

Well, gosh. If ISIS has all those sophisticated weapons we originally gave to Iraq, the only answer is to send more of those sophisticated weapons to Iraq and train more Iraqi troops. Who will once again abandon their posts, leaving the weapons for the next opponent to seize…

If the NSA “Won” the War in Iraq, Why Are We Still Losing It?

To Shane Harris’ misfortune, his book, @War, out today, came out on the same day that General Daniel Bolger’s book, Why We Lost, came out.

That means Harris’ first excerpt, initially titled “How the NSA Sorta Won the Last Iraq War,” came out just days before Bolger’s op-ed today, mourning another Veteran’s Day to contemplate the 80 men he lost. Bolger wants us to stop telling the lie that the surge won the Iraq War.

Here’s a legend that’s going around these days. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled a dictator. We botched the follow-through, and a vicious insurgency erupted. Four years later, we surged in fresh troops, adopted improved counterinsurgency tactics and won the war. And then dithering American politicians squandered the gains. It’s a compelling story. But it’s just that — a story.

The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Harris’s story, which explains how network analysis and then hacking of Iraqi insurgents — including Al Qaeda in Iraq — helped us to win the surge, relies on that legend.

TAO hackers zeroed in on the leaders of the al Qaeda group. Centering their operations in Baghdad, they scooped up e-mail messages that the terrorists had left in draft form in their personal accounts, where they could be picked up by fellow fighters without having to be sent over the Internet. This was a common trick terrorists used to avoid detection. TAO had been on to it for years.

For TAO, hacking into the communications network of the senior al Qaeda leaders in Iraq helped break the terrorist group’s hold on the neighborhoods around Baghdad. By one account, it aided U.S. troops in capturing or killing at least ten of those senior leaders from the battlefield.

[snip]

For the first time in the now four-year-old Iraq War, the United States could point to a strategy that was actually working. The overall success of the surge, which finally allowed U.S. forces to leave Iraq, has been attributed to three major factors by historians and the commanders and soldiers who served there. First, the additional troops on the ground helped to secure the most violent neighborhoods, kill or capture insurgents, and protect Iraq’s civilians. The cities became less violent, and the people felt safer and more inclined to help the U.S. occupation. Second, insurgent groups who were outraged by al Qaeda’s brutal, heavyhanded tactics and the imposition of religious law turned against the terrorists, or were paid by U.S. forces to switch their allegiances and fight with the Americans. This so-called Sunni Awakening included 80,000 fighters, whose leaders publicly denounced al Qaeda and credited the U.S. military with trying to improve the lives of Iraqi citizens.

But the third and arguably the most pivotal element of the surge was the series of intelligence operations undertaken by the NSA and soldiers such as Stasio. Former intelligence analysts, military officers, and senior Bush administration officials say that the cyber operations opened the door to a new way of obtaining intelligence, and then integrating it into combat operations on the ground. The information about enemy movements and plans that U.S. spies swiped from computers and phones gave troops a road map to find the fighters, sometimes leading right to their doorsteps. This was the most sophisticated global tracking system ever devised, and it worked with lethal efficiency.

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, credited this new cyber warfare “with being a prime reason for the significant progress made by U.S. troops” in the surge, which lasted into the summer of 2008, “directly enabling the removal of almost 4,000 insurgents from the battlefield.” The tide of the war in Iraq finally turned in the United States’ favor.

I didn’t get a review copy of Harris’ book, so I’ll have to let you know whether he grapples with the fact that this victory lap instead led us to where we are now, escalating the war in Iraq again, with ISIL even more powerful for having combined Saddam’s officers with terrorist methods. I’ll also have to let you know why Harris claims this started in 2007, when we know NSA was even wiretapping Iraqi targets in the US as early as 2004, a program that got shut down in the hospital confrontation.

Harris would have done well to consider Bolger’s call for an assessment of this failure.

That said, those who served deserve an accounting from the generals. What happened? How? And, especially, why? It has to be a public assessment, nonpartisan and not left to the military. (We tend to grade ourselves on the curve.) Something along the lines of the 9/11 Commission is in order. We owe that to our veterans and our fellow citizens.

Such an accounting couldn’t be more timely. Today we are hearing some, including those in uniform, argue for a robust ground offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq. Air attacks aren’t enough, we’re told. Our Kurdish and Iraqi Army allies are weak and incompetent. Only another surge can win the fight against this dire threat. Really? If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we’re there.

That is, if this network analysis and hacking is so superb, then why didn’t it work? Did we not understand the networks that our spectacular tech exposed? Or did we do the wrong thing with it, try to kill it rather than try to win it over? Not to mention, did we account for the necessarily temporary value of all these techniques, given that targets will figure out that their cell phones, the RFID tags, their laptops, or whatever new targeting means we devise are serving as a beacon.

And there’s one more lesson in Harris’ excerpt, one I doubt he admits.

Earlier in the except, he explains in giddy language how the NSA’s hackers broke an insurgent method of leaving draft unsent emails.

Centering their operations in Baghdad, they scooped up e-mail messages that the terrorists had left in draft form in their personal accounts, where they could be picked up by fellow fighters without having to be sent over the Internet. This was a common trick terrorists used to avoid detection. TAO had been on to it for years.

Even while he provides David Petraeus opportunity to do a victory lap for the surge that in fact did not win the war, he doesn’t mention that Petraeus adopted this insurgent technique to communicate with his mistress, Paula Broadwell. Harris also doesn’t mention that the FBI, like the NSA before it, easily broke the technique.

More important still, Harris doesn’t mention that FBI found reason to do so. These techniques — described with such glee — were turned back on even the man declaring victory over them. They didn’t win the war in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but they sure made it easy for President Obama to take out Petraeus when he became inconvenient.

I have no sympathy for Petraeus, don’t get me wrong. But he is an object lesson in how these techniques have not brought victory to the US. And it’s time to start admitting that fact, and asking why not.

Update: In a post I could have written (though probably not as well), Stephen Walt engages in a counterfactual asking if we didn’t have the dragnet we might be doing better at fighting terrorism. Go read the whole thing, but here’s part of it:

Second, if we didn’t have all these expensive high-tech capabilities, we might spend a lot more time thinking about how to discredit and delegitimize the terrorists’ message, instead of repeatedly doing things that help them make their case and recruit new followers. Every time the United States goes and pummels another Muslim country — or sends a drone to conduct a “signature strike” — it reinforces the jihadis’ claim that the West has an insatiable desire to dominate the Arab and Islamic world and no respect for Muslim life. It doesn’t matter if U.S. leaders have the best of intentions, if they genuinely want to help these societies, or if they are responding to a legitimate threat; the crude message that drones, cruise missiles, and targeted killings send is rather different.

If we didn’t have all these cool high-tech hammers, in short, we’d have to stop treating places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria as if they were nails that just needed another pounding, and we might work harder at marginalizing our enemies within their own societies. To do that, we would have to be building more effective partnerships with authoritative sources of legitimacy within these societies, including religious leaders. Our failure to do more to discredit these movements is perhaps the single biggest shortcoming of the entire war on terror, and until that failure is recognized and corrected, the war will never end.

The Timing of CIA’s Discovery Its Paramilitary Ops Fail

Mark Mazzetti reports that in 2012 and 2013, CIA did a study that one of its favorite means of covert intervention — arming rebels — pretty much doesn’t work.

An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works.

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.

But in April 2013, President Obama authorized the C.I.A. to begin a program to arm the rebels at a base in Jordan, and more recently the administration decided to expand the training mission with a larger parallel Pentagon program in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to battle fighters of the Islamic State, with the aim of training approximately 5,000 rebel troops per year.

The only “success” CIA could find was the mujahadeen ousting the Russians in Afghanistan.

Goodie.

I’m particularly interested in the timing of all this.

Mazzetti says there were multiple studies done in 2012 — at which point David Petraeus was CIA Director, and was pushing to arm rebels in Syria — and 2013 — by which point John Brennan had replaced Petraeus.

So the timing looks something like this:

2012: CIA starts doing studies on how crappy their covert ops have been

2012: Hillary and Petraus both push Obama to arm Syrians

2012: Benghazi attack targets CIA officers ostensibly working to reclaim weapons used to oust Qaddafi but reportedly to send them on to Syria

2012: Petraeus ousted for reasons that probably aren’t primarily that he fucked his biographer

2013: John Brennan nominated to serve as CIA Director. As part of his confirmation process, the follow exchange takes place (Bark Mikulski asked a similar question in the hearing itself).

Question 7: What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?

The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.

[snip]

Question 8: What are you views on what some have described as the increased “militarization” of the CIA mission following the September 11, 2001 attacks?

In my view, the CIA is the nation’s premier “intelligence” agency, and needs to remain so. While CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability to be able to carry out covert action as directed by the President, the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities.

April 2013: Obama signs finding authorizing an op CIA knew wouldn’t work

June 2013: Covert op begins, per Chuck Hagel confirmation of it in August

As Mazzetti explains, the amazing discovery that CIA’s covert ops are often useless was one reason Obama delayed so long before he authorized one anyway (and his close confidante Brennan implemented it).

But I think two other things are likely (in addition to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in both April and August 2013). One, it wasn’t so much Obama was opposed to such an op; he was just opposed to the way Petraeus (who oversaw the latter part of the Libya op) and Hillary implemented it. (Note, Mazzetti specifically notes both Hillary and Leon Panetta’s claims they warned Obama to respond earlier in Syria, so Mazzetti’s piece may be a response to that.) And just as likely, the Saudi-tied rising strength in ISIL forced our hand, requiring us to be able to offer a legitimate competitor to their paid terrorists.

Particularly given the mujadadeen “success” apparently cited in the CIA study, I find that rather ominous.

Funding Hapless Mission to Train Syrian Rebels Increases Value of Saudi Terror Hedge Fund

The cycle time for the US wiping its collective memory and re-starting a training program for troops aimed against the enemy du jour seems to be getting shorter. While the covert CIA plan to train “moderate” rebels to fight in Syria has not even ended, the new $500 million Obama just got approved by Congress for the military to train rebels is being described almost as if it is the only program around:

Even if the training goes as planned, the rebels will be outnumbered. While the United States has proposed to train and equip 5,000 rebels, the Central Intelligence Agency has said it believes that the Islamic State has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Elsewhere in that article we do see “This scaled-up training program would be overseen by the Defense Department, unlike the current covert program here and a similar program in Jordan, both overseen by the C.I.A.”, but since the number of fighters trained by the CIA isn’t added to those we plan to train using the military, it would appear that those “fighters” are in the process of fading into the sunset.

With David Petraeus still unavailable to run this PR training program, we are actually seeing hints this time that at least a few of our Congresscritters may be learning that our history of training isn’t exactly stellar and could bode poorly for this effort:

Some lawmakers who voted against Wednesday’s measure argued the administration was moving too fast and did not yet have a feasible plan to arm the Syrian rebels. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said it was “pretty disturbing” that Thursday’s hearing was occurring after the House had voted.

“I don’t think the plan that I have seen was detailed enough to make me believe that your plan will work,” Sanchez said. “I hope I am wrong. I hoped the same thing when I voted against the Iraq war that I was wrong, but I don’t believe I was wrong on that.”

Still, the larger focus of Thursday’s hearing shifted from the push for Congress to approve arming and training the Syrian rebels to the future of the U.S. military campaign against ISIL.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) said she had doubts about the plan and asked Hagel to explain the endgame against ISIL. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) asked about the vetting of forces in Iraq — and not just Syria. And Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) wanted more details about potential airstrikes in Syria.

Remarkably, the press also is noticing that this effort is ill-fated. From the same NYTimes article linked above:

While the House approved an aid package for the rebels on Wednesday and the Senate followed on Thursday, at present the rebels are a beleaguered lot, far from becoming a force that can take on the fanatical and seasoned fighters of the Islamic State.

What’s more, the Times acknowledges that the “moderates” have different priorities from US goals in Syria:

Short of arms, they are struggling to hold their own against both the military of President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists of the Islamic State. Their leaders have been the targets of assassination attempts. And some acknowledge that battlefield necessity has put them in the trenches with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, an issue of obvious concern for the United States.

While they long for greater international support and hate the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, ousting Mr. Assad remains their primary goal, putting them at odds with their American patrons.

As Marcy noted earlier this week, small amounts of recognition of the perverse role of Saudi Arabia in funding global terrorism is also finally creeping into general awareness. Former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham has been quite active lately in pushing on that front. In addition to the quote Marcy presented from a Tampa news outlet, there is this from a Patrick Cockburn interview:

Senator Graham, a distinguished elder statesmen who was twice Democratic governor of Florida before spending 18 years in the US Senate, believes that ignoring what Saudi Arabia was doing and treating it as a reliable American ally contributed to the US intelligence services’ failure to identify Isis as a rising power until after it captured Mosul on 10 June. He says that “one reason I think that our intelligence has been less than stellar” is that not enough attention was given to Saudi Arabia’s fostering of al-Qaeda-type jihadi movements, of which Isis is the most notorious and successful. So far the CIA and other intelligence services have faced little criticism in the US for their apparent failure to foresee the explosive expansion of Isis, which now controls an area larger than Great Britain in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

/snip/

Senator Graham does not suggest that the Saudis are directly running Isis, but that their support for Sunni extremists in Iraq and Syria opened the door to jihadis including Isis. Similar points were made by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, and MI6, who said in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute in London in July that the Saudi government is “deeply attracted towards any militancy which effectively challenges Shiadom”. He said that rulers of the Kingdom tended to oppose jihadis at home as enemies of the House of Saud, but promote them abroad in the interests of Saudi foreign policy. Anti-Shi’ism has always been at the centre of the Saudi world view, and he quoted Prince Bandar, the ambassador in Washington at the time of 9/11 and later head of Saudi intelligence, as saying to him: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunni have simply had enough of them.”

So the long-term position of the Saudis is to promote Sunni jihadists against Shia forces globally. But part of how they avoid US ire is that they play both sides. From the Times article:

So far, the program has focused on a small number of vetted rebel groups from the hundreds that are fighting across Syria, providing them with military and financial help, according to rebel commanders who have received support.

The process is run by intelligence officials from a number of countries. The United States provides overall guidance, while Turkey manages the border, and Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia provide much of the funding.

Despite fostering the conditions that led to the formation of ISIS, the Saudis also are helping to fund what can only be described as a doomed before it starts effort to combat ISIS. In the world of terrorism, the Saudis are behaving like a hedge fund, betting on both sides of the ISIS issue. Despite their small position against ISIS in the short term, there is no doubt their long term position is one of radical Sunni jihadism. In fact, since the training is doomed, by helping to fund it, the Saudis are increasing the overall stature of their long term jihadist investment. No matter how much money the US throws at this effort or how many “moderate rebels” it trains, only a fool would believe the Saudis would allow the Syrian rebels and Iraq to defeat a Sunni jihadist movement.

After Spectacular Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, US to Throw More Money at Training for Syrian Rebels

This image is from June, but it could apply to just about any day US policy and "accomplishments" from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond is discussed.

This image is from June, but it could apply to just about any day US policy and “accomplishments” from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond are discussed.

A central part of Barack Obama’s prime-time disclosure that he is authorizing air strikes in Syria was his call for half a billion dollars to train and equip “moderate” rebels in Syria. Proving that bipartisanism in Washington is not dead, John Boehner was quick to show his support for this nifty plan:

Congressional leaders rallied behind President Obama’s call to combat the Islamic State, vowing Thursday to back his request for funding to arm Syrian rebels as early as next week.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects the House to pass Obama’s $500 million funding request to train and equip Syrian rebels who are fighting the militant group, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

/snip/

“We only have one commander in chief,” Boehner said. “At this point in time, it is important to give the president what he is asking for.”

Remarkably, though, even this USA Today article notes that there might be a slight problem or two with this brilliant plan to stop ISIS, otherwise known as “the personification of evil in the modern world“:

Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another endangered Democrat, said he was opposed to arming Syrian rebels. “We must have greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us,” he said.

House Republicans are divided into two camps, according to Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. He told the Associated Press after a closed-door caucus meeting that one side hopes to hold Obama “accountable for doing the right thing.” The other group — that includes himself, Fleming said — believes Obama’s plans amount to an “insane strategy to go out there and depend on people that are proven undependable” to take down the Islamic State.

Wow. I think I just became a big fan of a Republican congressman from Louisiana.

So where could Begich have gotten the idea that if we arm extremists they might eventually use those arms on us? I mean, besides folks like Osama bin Laden and the death squads we have armed in Iraq and Afghanistan? And how could Fleming think the groups we plan to train and arm might be undependable? That is, besides the Iraqi troops we trained who then abandoned their posts and US-supplied weapons as soon as ISIS entered the picture or the Afghan troops that routinely give territory back to the Taliban as soon as US forces withdraw?

And about that half billion dollar budget. Note that back in June, SIGAR’s latest figures (pdf) showed that the US has already disbursed over $48 billion to the Afghan Security Forces Fund which provides funding for the training and support of Afghanistan’s troops. Despite those billions, of course, no one doubts that these forces will be completely unable to function once US troops and US funding are gone, just as we saw when Iraqi forces faded away in the face of ISIS.

So yes, we are still stuck in that version of the movie Groundhog Day where we just end up training and equipping groups to take on our latest enemy, only to have the effort fail. But who should lead this august effort? Our most accomplished failure on this front, hands down, is David Petraeus. How could we possibly not use the author of this brilliant prose, penned in September, 2004, claiming that his second attempt at training troops in Iraq was a smashing success: Continue reading

The President Who Demanded Stanley McChrystal’s Resignation Is Not Sheltering the NatSec Bureaucracy

As I have repeatedly noted, I think President Obama will protect John Brennan — and the CIA more generally — because of the mutual complicity built in between CIA and the White House over covert ops.

It’s not just that CIA knows the full details of the drone killings Obama authorized on his sole authority. It’s also that the CIA is still protecting the Office of the Presidency’s role in torture by withholding from the Senate documents over which the White House might — but did not formally — claim Executive Privilege. Obama did the same thing when he went to some lengths to prevent a very short phrase making it clear torture was Presidentially-authorized from being released in 2009; it wasn’t just the Finding that still authorized his drone strikes the President was protecting, but the Office that George Bush sullied by approving torture.

I also think Obama will stand by Brennan because they have worked closely so long Brennan is one of Obama’s guys.

Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein doesn’t agree, however. After dismissing Conor Friedersdorf’s version of the mutual incrimination argument, he suggests Obama is simply demonstrating to the national security bureaucracy he’s on their side.

Obama is concerned -– in my view, overly so -– with demonstrating to the intelligence bureaucracy, the broader national security bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy in general, that he is on their side. The basic impulse to stand up for the people he appointed isn’t a bad one; nor is the impulse to demonstrate to the intelligence community that he is no wild-eyed peacenik softie who opposes the work they do. For one thing, he’s more likely to effect change in national security areas if experts in the government believe he’s at least sympathetic to them as individuals and to their basic goals, even if he questions some of the George W.Bush-era (or earlier) methods. For another, the ability of bureaucrats to hurt the president with leaks doesn’t depend on the existence of deep dark secrets. Every president is vulnerable to selective leaks and a drumbeat of steady negative interpretations from the bureaucracy.

And yet, overdoing support for the bureaucracy can have severe costs. On torture, for example, emphasizing the good intentions of those faced with difficult choices during the last decade makes sense. But failing to take action, and leaving bureaucrats with serious liabilities because the status of their past actions is unresolved, only may have made reassuring them of presidential support increasingly necessary. That’s not a healthy situation.

Again: some of the incentive to (at least at first) stand up for presidential appointees is inherent in the presidency, and a healthy thing to do even when the president believes people have misbehaved and should go. But throughout his presidency, Obama has been overly skittish when it comes to potentially crossing his national security bureaucracy, and I strongly suspect that torture and other Bush-era abuses are both part of the original cause and will cause more of that timidity down the road.

Obama has been overly skittish when it comes to crossing his NatSec bureaucracy?

First, as I have already noted, Obama was perfectly happy demanding David Petraeus’ resignation for fucking his biographer. While I have my doubts whether that was really the reason — and while by firing him, Obama undercut a potential 2012 rival — he didn’t shy away from firing a man with some of the best PR in DC.

You might also ask the 19 top Generals and Admirals Obama has fired (most with the help of Bob Gates; also note the 20th on this list is Petraeus) — so many that conservatives accuse him of “purging” — whether he’s squeamish about crossing the NatSec bureaucracy. And while Micah Zenko’s comment on Twitter is correct that intelligence officials have largely escaped this treatment, Obama seemed happy to use  Michael Leiter’s National Counterterrorism Center’s failure to stop the UndieBomb attack to fire then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

President Obama is not a man afraid to fire members of the national security bureaucracy.

The starkest contrast with Brennan’s treatment comes from the case of Stanley McChrystal.

Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation not because his night raids were exacerbating extremism in Afghanistan. Not because many service members felt he had left them exposed. Not because, even then, it was clear the surge in Afghanistan was going to fail.

Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation because Michael Hastings exposed McChrystal and his top aides (including Michael Flynn, who quit in April because of differences on policy) being insubordinate. Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation because doing so was necessary to maintain the primacy of civilian control — like separation of powers, one of the bedrocks ensuring national security doesn’t trump democracy.

That, to me, is the important takeaway from comparing McChrystal’s fate with Brennan’s.

When a top member of the national security bureaucracy challenged the control of the civilian executive, he got canned, appropriately, in my opinion.

But when the Director of the CIA permitted his Agency to strike at the core of the separation of powers by investigating its overseers, Obama offered his support. Obama may have fired a top general for threatening Executive authority, but he has supported a top aide after he threatened Legislative authority.

You can come up with any number of explanations why Obama did that. But being afraid of taking on his National Security bureaucracy — as distinct from taking on the intelligence agencies, as Obama chose not to do when Clapper lied or when Keith Alexander oversaw the leaking of the family jewels even while getting pwned in his core cyberdefense capacity — is not the explanation.

Obama has proven to have no qualms about upsetting his national security bureaucracy. Just that part of it run covertly.

Latest Catch-22 For US Military: Training Iraqi Troops Too Dangerous Due to Previous “Training”

The abject failure of US efforts to train troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been one of my most frequent topics. Even though the US mission in Iraq has officially ended and the mission in Afghanistan is mired in a surreal form of purgatory as the government re-invents it vote auditing procedure and even the structure of its government, the US military just can’t kick its addiction to training and is now contemplating yet another attempt at training Iraqi troops.

The New York Times tries to come to the aid of the military this morning with a front page story dedicated to re-starting the training process. The problem though, is that as the Times dives into the idea, it becomes apparent that our previous failures in training may have made it too dangerous to start (and, of course, fail again, but the Times doesn’t go there) the process yet again. That danger even makes it into the headline: “US Sees Risks in Assisting a Compromised Iraqi Force“.

The story opens:

A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.

The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.

Imagine that. Despite eight years of work and over $25 billion invested, two and a half years after we left Iraq only about half of Iraq’s units are even fit enough for the US to advise them in an effort to take on their latest existential threat.

But the real beauty in the current conundrum lies in who stepped up to fill the training gap when the US left:

Adding to the administration’s dilemma is the assessment’s conclusion that Iraqi forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki are now heavily dependent on Shiite militias — many of which were trained in Iran — as well as on advisers from Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.

Shiite militias fought American troops after the United States invaded Iraq and might again present a danger to American advisers. But without an American-led effort to rebuild Iraq’s security forces, there may be no hope of reducing the Iraqi government’s dependence on those Iranian-backed militias, officials caution.

So when we left, Maliki supplemented his military with the very Shiite militias that US forces had been fighting. At least one reason for Maliki’s move was that these militias knew how to fight and the troops the US trained were useless. Those militias have been trained by Iran. And as much as the US would love to “rebuild Iraq’s security forces” through yet another ride on the training carousel, that could well be too dangerous because many of the people we would then be training might remember that less than three years ago, the US trained their weapons on them while training other Iraqi troops to go after them. The Times article rightly recognizes this situation as ripe for a resurgence of green on blue insider killings if the US tried to train such forces. They quote Michael Barbero, who was in charge of training in Iraq from 2009 to 2011 (funny, once again, while discussing training failures, David Petraeus is never mentioned):

“The advisory mission has inherent risks, but they can be mitigated,” he added. “You can put security with them. You can be selective about where you put the advisers. We can apply the lessons learned from dealing with the insider threat in Afghanistan.”

Gosh. Our military just can’t stop looking at hopeless situations and saying that they are at the turning point where they will get better. Despite all those previous failures, this time, by golly, we’ll get it right:

And General Dempsey also emphasized any American military involvement in Iraq would be different than in the past.

You see, this time we’ll call our guys advisers instead of trainers. That should make all the difference. Even if those we are advising know that we were trying to kill them very recently…

The Petraeus Failure Legacy in Iraq Grows

There are of course many people to blame for the war crime of US invasion of Iraq, but David Petraeus’ role as the falsely constructed hero of Iraq who in reality was the author of some of its most profound failures stands out. Recall the heady days of the fall of 2007 when Washington was paralyzed by the Congressional hearings on Iraq. Washington had already forgotten Petraeus’ false claims of training prowess in his September, 2004 Washington Post op-ed that launched his career in a political direction and helped Bush get re-elected. Instead, Petraeus was granted a mulligan on troop training and was promoted to head US troops in Iraq to preside over the surge so that his vaunted “new” COIN strategy could be implemented. Petraeus then of course was given credit for that COIN strategy being behind the decline in violence, even though we learned from Lt. Col. Daniel Davis and others that the drop in violence was more likely due to Iraqi Sunnis turning to the US because of the excessive brutality of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Sadly, with all the Washington circus atmosphere surrounding the hearings and the Move-On Betrayus ad, a key document prepared by the GAO (pdf) was all but ignored during the hearings.  There were in fact 18 benchmarks for the Iraq war effort outlined in the legislation passed in January of 2007 authorizing the surge. The opening of the document provides the most telling one sentence summary of what the US hoped to achieve at the time:

The January 2007 U.S. strategy seeks to provide the Iraqi government with the time and space needed to help Iraqi society reconcile.

Although the vaunted Petreaus COIN strategy paid lip service to winning “hearts and minds”, the sad reality is that the US spent zero effort on achieving any sort of social reconciliation in Iraq. The huge Sunni-Shia schism remained intact and was even further fed by the US’ hand-picked Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. On the list of benchmarks from the legislation, unlucky number 13 held the key:

Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.

Needless to say, the GAO found that particular benchmark unmet in September, 2007 and it remains unmet today as Sunni extremist ISIS troops gain territory throughout Iraq while al-Maliki’s Shia forces melt away. A tremendous window opened for reconciliation when the Sunni militias abandoned al Qaeda in Iraq and joined with the US, but these groups were given no standing by al-Maliki, who even continued to send his Shia-dominated military into Sunni regions, laying groundwork for local support once ISIS came into the picture.

But it is Petraeus’ failure as the leading figure behind the training of Iraq’s forces that stands out today. From the New York Times:

Recent assessments by Western officials and military experts indicate that about a quarter of Iraq’s military forces are “combat ineffective,” its air force is minuscule, morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.

As other nations consider whether to support military action in Iraq, their decision will hinge on the quality of Iraqi forces, which have proved far more ragged than expected given years of American training.

The Washington Post piles on with more bad news:

After tens of thousands of desertions, the Iraqi military is reeling from what one U.S. official described as “psychological collapse” in the face of the offensive from militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The desperation has reached such a level that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is relying on volunteers, who are in some cases receiving as little as a week’s military training, to protect his ever-shrinking orbit of control.

“Over time, what’s occurred is that the Iraqi army has no ability to defend itself,” said Rick Brennan, a Rand Corp. analyst and former adviser to U.S. forces in Iraq. “If we’re unable to find ways to make a meaningful difference to the Iraqi army as they fight this, I think what we’re looking at is the beginning of the disintegration of the state of Iraq.”

In the end, all of the years and the billions of dollars spent on “training” Iraqi forces has given a force that is “combat ineffective’, “far more ragged than expected” and melts away at the first sign of resistance.  But wait. Any day now, we will see that those 300 “advisers” we are sending into Iraq will magically train a new force that will get it right this time. Who knows, maybe Petraeus will be given yet another chance to lead that training. What could go wrong?

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bmaz @zefirotorna If there are bigger pieces of human scum at this time on earth than McCulloch and @GovJayNixon it's hard to fathom who they are
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bmaz RT @zefirotorna: @bmaz Agree on @GovJayNixon. And he said no a special prosecutor about 6 hours ago. He and McCulloch are on this together.
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bmaz @KellyCDenver @larosalind this is actually Honergirl. Look them up on google. Just killer.
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emptywheel @FalguniSheth It's actually a family thing. My grandmother (or great grandmother) gets credit. @bmaz
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield That is Dara Lind, @DLind She is very cool and does excellent work. She is not your average Voxer.
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bmaz @nickmartin Cool. Let me know and we will get lunch again or something. Happy holidays!
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bmaz @nickmartin You back for Christmas this year?
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bmaz Would have been better if Obama had spared the life of Abdulrahman Awlaki instead of turkeys Mac and Cheese, but bygones I guess.
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