Over the last few days, I’ve tracked the accusations and counter-accusations between CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A number of people have asked why, as a way to end this issue, the Committee doesn’t just declassify the entire SSCI Report.
But it’s not so simple as that.
It’s not clear there are the votes to release the Report.
Recall that when the Committee approved the Report back in 2012, the vote was largely split on party lines, with the exception of John McCain, who voted as an Ex Officio member (as Ranking Member of Senate Armed Services Committee) to release the Report. McCain is no longer SASC Ranking member: Jim Inhofe is, and I’m betting he’s not going to vote to release the Report.
There are few other changes in the Committee proper since the report was originally finalized. Martin Heinrich and Angus King have replaced Bill Nelson and Kent Conrad, and Susan Collins and Tom Coburn have replaced Olympia Snowe and Roy Blunt.
And while Heinrich has quickly become one of the better overseers on the Committee, including on torture, it’s not actually clear whether King would vote to release the report. Collins, too, has been reported to be undecided (and her vote would be critical to making this a “bipartisan vote,” now that McCain doesn’t have a vote). There are even hints that Mark Warner wouldn’t vote to support its declassification (though he supported its finalization).
And importantly, King and Collins have been reported to be undecided after the time when, in January, the Committee at least began to suspect they’d been surveilled.
There are, obviously, two different issues (though Saxby Chambliss, at least, sides with CIA on both counts). But there’s been little outcry from the swing votes on releasing the underlying report itself.
Update: h/t to JK for the link to the Collins/King report I was not finding.
Imagine a McCain Committee as the inheritor of the tradition of Frank Church and Otis Pike.
(Yes, I did that to make bmaz’ head explode.)
Only, McCain proposes to investigate not just whether NSA has engaged in things it was not authorized to do. But also to investigate Snowden’s leaks themselves and the potential role of contractors in making leaks more likely.
All that said, I might be excited about McCain’s proposal to review the dragnet, as described:
(3) The nature and scope of National Security Agency intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities, including intelligence-collection programs affecting Americans, that were the subject matter of the unauthorized disclosure, including–
(A) the extent of domestic surveillance authorized by law;
(B) the legal authority that served as the basis for the National Security Agency intelligence-collection programs, operations, and activities that are the subject matter of those disclosures;
(C) the extent to which such programs, operations, and activities that were the subject matter of such unauthorized disclosures may have gone beyond what was authorized by law or permitted under the Constitution of the United States;
(D) the extent and sufficiency of oversight of such programs, operations, and activities by Congress and the Executive Branch; and
(E) the need for greater transparency and more effective congressional oversight of intelligence community activities.
There’s just one problem with McCain’s proposal.
Here’s the list of the people who would be on the Committee (he provides titles, I’m providing names):
There are a number of very big NSA defenders on this list — in addition to DiFi and Saxby, both Jello Jay and Coburn are Intel Committee members who have never questioned the dragnet (indeed, Coburn has called for getting rid of the controls on the phone dragnet!). Chuck Grassley, too, has generally been supportive of the dragnet in SJC hearings on the subject. Most of the rest are simply not the caliber of people who might critically assess the dragnet much less show real interest in Americans’ privacy. Only Carl Levin and Pat Leahy, alone among the 12 named members, have been explicitly skeptical of the dragnet at all.
McCain proposes a Select Committee to investigate the dragnet. And he proposes to fill it with people who are really happy with the dragnet as it currently exists.
Update: Just to give a sense of how terrible this make-up for a Select Committee is, compare it with the bipartisan list of 26 Senators who asked James Clapper for more information on other uses of Section 215 last June. Just one Senator from that list — Pat Leahy — would be on McCain’s committee.
Today’s Washington Post carries a story that is quite unlike their usual coverage that tends to tilt toward violence answering most problems. In the story is a striking photo of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari and former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo. Annan, Ahtisaari and Zedillo are traveling as a contingent of The Elders (Mehr News states that Desmond Tutu also traveled with the group), a group founded by the late Nelson Mandela, and are visiting Tehran. When I saw the photo and read the story, I couldn’t help noting the striking contrast between this group of elder statesmen who are traveling the globe to promote peace and diplomacy while the US is saddled with elected representatives who
travel the globe to promote war. The “Three Amigos” of Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Joe Lieberman made too many trips to count, always doing their best to promote America’s forever wars and to advocate spreading them to more countries. With Lieberman’s retirement from the Senate, the latest trip for hypocrisy tourists McCain and Graham had John Barrasso sitting in the third position as they went to Kabul to lobby for indefinite detention without charges and for Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement so that US troops can remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
The Post describes the Tehran trip:
Members of the Elders, a group of former statesman and high-profile peace mediators promoted by the late Nelson Mandela, are visiting Tehran to push for compromises on disagreements between Iran and world powers.
“We must rebuild trust and mutual respect in the region, which is not easy and requires patience,” former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan said Monday. Annan, a member of the delegation, made the remarks at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
The lofty purpose of the three-day visit is to “encourage and advance the new spirit of openness and dialogue between Iran and the international community, and to explore what could be done to enhance cooperation on regional issues,” according to a statement issued by the Elders ahead of their arrival in Tehran.
In a press release Monday, after the first day of the visit, Annan had this to say:
As President Rouhani said to the UN General Assembly in September, that alongside widespread fears in the world today, and I quote:
“There are new hopes; the hope of universal acceptance by the people and the elite all across the globe of ‘yes to peace and no to war’; and the hope of preference of dialogue over conflict and moderation over extremism.”
We believe there has been a number of recent positive developments, most importantly the interim nuclear agreement, signed in Geneva last November. These efforts now need to be sustained to achieve final agreement.
In this regard, we must rebuild trust and mutual respect in the region and further afield. This is not an easy task. It will need patience and perseverance.
Contrast that diplomacy with this Lindsey Graham quote found in the New York Times coverage of the trip to Kabul and in reference to Afghanistan releasing prisoners who have been cleared by the review board at Parwarn Prison:
“If these releases go ahead, it will do irreparable damage to the relationship,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “There will be a backlash in the U.S. Congress.”
Graham only knows war and retribution, this time in the form of cutting off aid.
The world benefits greatly when shuttle diplomats are allowed to ply their trade to promote peace. If the shuttle war mongers are ignored, real progress is likely to ensue.
It turns out that Mark Kirk — not Bernie Sanders — was the first member of Congress to raise concerns about the NSA spying on Senators after Edward Snowden’s leaks started being published. Kirk did so less than a day after the Guardian published the Verizon order from the phone dragnet, in an Appropriations Committee hearing on the Department of Justice’s budget (see at 2:00). After Susan Collins raised the report in the context of drone killing, Kirk asked for assurances that members of Congress weren’t included in the dragnet.
Kirk: I want to just ask, could you assure to us that no phones inside the Capitol were monitored, of members of Congress, that would give a future Executive Branch if they started pulling this kind of thing up, would give them unique leverage over the legislature?
Holder: With all due respect, Senator, I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss that issue–I’d be more than glad to come back in an appropriate setting to discuss the issues that you’ve raised but in this open forum–
Kirk: I’m going to interrupt you and say, the correct answer would say, no, we stayed within our lane and I’m assuring you we did not spy on members of Congress.
The first substantive question Congress asked about the dragnet was whether they were included in it.
After that, a few moments of chaos broke out, as other Senators — including NSA’s representative on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Barb Mikulski — joined in Kirk’s concerns, while suggesting the need for a full classified Senate briefing with the AG and NSA. Richard Shelby jumped in to say Mikulski should create the appropriate hearing, but repeated that what Senator Kirk asked was a very important question. Mikulski agreed that it’s the kind of question she’d like to ask herself. Kirk jumped in to raise further separation of powers concerns, given the possibility that SCOTUS had their data collected.
The very first concern members of Congress raised about the dragnet was how it would affect their power.
And then there was a classified briefing and …
… All that noble concern about separation of power melted away. And some of the same people who professed to have real concern became quite comfortable with the dragnet after all.
It’s in light of that sequence of events (along with Snowden’s claim that Members of Congress are exempt, and details about how data integrity analysts strip certain numbers out of the phone dragnet before anyone contact-chains on it) that led me to believe that NSA gave some assurances to Congress they need not worry that their power was threatened by the phone dragnet.
The best explanation from external appearances was that Congress got told their numbers got protection the average citizen’s did not, perhaps stripped out with all the pizza joints and telemarketers (that shouldn’t have alleviated their concerns, as some of that data has been found sitting on wayward servers with no explanation, but members of Congress can be dumb when they want to be).
And they were happy with the dragnet.
Then, 7 months later, Bernie Sanders started asking similar — but not the same –questions. In a letter to Keith Alexander, he raised several issues:
He even defined what he meant by spying.
“Spying” would include gathering metadata on calls made from official or personal phones, content from websites visited or emails sent, or collecting any other data from a third party not made available to the general public in the regular course of business.
In response, Alexander rejected Sanders’ definition of spying (implicitly suggesting it wasn’t fair), while using a dodge he repeatedly has: the Americans in question are not being targeted, even while they might be collected “incidentally.”
Nothing NSA does can fairly be characterized as “spying on Members of Congress or other American elected officials.”
NSA may not target any American for foreign intelligence collection without a finding of probable cause that the proposed target of collection is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power. Moreover, as you are aware, whenever an NSA activity results in the incidental collection of information about Americans, that information is handled pursuant to the very robust procedures designed to protect privacy interests — procedures that must be approved by the Attorney general or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as appropriate. All those protections apply to members of Congress, as they do to all Americans.
Alexander then addressed just one of the three kinds of spying Sanders raised: phone data (which, if I’m right that NSA strips Congressional numbers at the data integrity stage, is the one place Alexander can be fairly sure Sanders’ contacts won’t be found).
Your letter focuses on NSA’s acquisition of telephone metadata…
And used the controls imposed on the raw data of the phone dragnet as an excuse for not answering Sanders’ question.
Among those protections is the condition that NSA can query the metadata only based on phone numbers reasonably suspected to be associated with specific foreign terrorist groups. For that reason, NSA cannot lawfully search to determine if any records NSA has received under the program have included metadata of the phone calls of any member of Congress, other American elected officials, or any other American without that predicate.
Alexander totally ignored Sanders’ two other specified concerns: emails sent and websites visited.
Which is mighty convenient, because for a very large segment of that collection (the internet metadata collected under EO 12333 and via PRISM, though not the data collected domestically before 2011 or domestic upstream collection), NSA believes it doesn’t even need Reasonable Articulable Suspicion to search on US person identifiers. Continue reading
Today’s New York Times dutifully bleats to us that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been “warned” over his plan to release 88 prisoners from the Detention Facility in Parwan over the objections of the US. The warning:
“If these releases go ahead, it will do irreparable damage to the relationship,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “There will be a backlash in the U.S. Congress.”
Those doing the warning were hypocrisy tourists Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Missing their third amigo, Joe Lieberman, the duo settled for stand-in John Barrasso to join them on the trip. It appears, however, that Barrasso opted out of the opportunity to open his mouth, as he is not quoted in the Times piece and doesn’t appear in the video interview ToloNews conducted while they were in Kabul:
The hypocrisy emanating from [Linsey, as he is identified in the ToloNews video] Graham and McCain is staggering. Back in December of 2011, Graham led the charge to put remarkably strong rights protection for the Parwan prisoners into the NDAA, as Marcy noted, but Obama then proceeded to gut that language with his signing statement.
The entire issue of the prison at Parwan and the “independence” of Afghanistan to make its own decisions on the fate of prisoners put into the facility by US forces has been a point of contention for years and has seen significant deception on the part of the US. For example, in September of 2012, the US pretended, as they had several times before, to hand over “complete” control of the prison to Afghans, but still claimed to have veto power over the release of any prisoners. The US pretended again in March, 2013 to do the handover of the prison.
The current controversy again seems to come down to whether this veto power still exists and to the underlying wish of the US for Afghanistan to practice indefinite detention without charges, which Afghanistan has resisted instituting.
The relevant section 1024 of the NDAA calls for review of Afghan prisoner status:
But the NDAA wasn’t all bad when it comes to U.S. military detention policy. In fact, section 1024 of the law, spearheaded by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, provides detainees held indefinitely in Afghanistan with the right to a military defense lawyer and a neutral military judge to evaluate whether their detention is lawful and necessary. The provision was not particularly controversial and garnered little media attention; Congress apparently understood that for the U.S. to maintain any legitimacy while imprisoning some 3,000 Afghans in their own country it has to provide them basic rights to defend themselves.
As Marcy noted, though, Obama’s signing statement sought to undercut that authority for an Afghan review. Graham and McCain, on their hypocrisy tour, appear to be agitating for the US veto power that Afghanistan never seems to have agreed to. From the ToloNews article accompanying the video: Continue reading
Last Thursday, the US announced that it was adding more companies and more people to its blacklist of those banned from making deals with Iran as part of the overall sanctions aimed at Iran developing nuclear weapon technology. Iran responded the same day by withdrawing its personnel from the technical talks that were underway in Vienna that were aimed at implementing the interim agreement that Iran had signed with the P5+1 group of nations last month in Geneva.
Fredrik Dahl and Adrian Croft of Reuters described those developments in a Friday article:
The United States on Thursday black-listed additional companies and people under sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining the capability to make nuclear weapons, U.S. officials said. Iran says its atomic work is purely peaceful.
Treasury and State Department officials said the move showed the Geneva deal “does not, and will not, interfere with our continued efforts to expose and disrupt those supporting Iran’s nuclear program or seeking to evade our sanctions.”
The somewhat unexpected move by the US provoked anger in Iran:
One diplomat said the Iranian delegation suddenly announced late on Thursday evening – hours after Washington made its decision public – that it was returning to Tehran.
The Iranians said “they had received instructions from Tehran to stop the discussions and fly back to Tehran,” the diplomat said. “It was quite unexpected.”
It seems quite possible that the move by the US was meant to toss a bit of red meat to the war monger crowd. Rumors had been building for some time that new sanctions bills would be introduced in both the House and the Senate. Adding to the harsh economic sanctions on Iran just after they have signed a promising agreement would seem a sure-fire way to prevent a final agreement being reached. True to form, one of the leading war mongers, John McCain, appeared on CNN on Sunday and managed to get headlines such as the one in the Washington Post reading “McCain says Iran sanctions bill ‘very likely’“.
But, if we look a little closer, we see room for a bit of hope. It turns out that the sanctions bill McCain now advocates would not add new sanctions unless the six month negotiating period with Iran laid out in last month’s agreement expires without a final agreement being reached. By delaying any new sanctions so that they would only be implemented if the talks fail, McCain and the other war mongers actually have a chance to help rather than hinder the negotiations. Knowing that failed talks mean even worse economic hardships rather than merely continuing the current set of sanctions would seem to place more pressure on Iran to come to agreement with the P5+1 powers.
The weekend saw discussion by telephone between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They discussed how to move the talks ahead.
There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth by Bibi (Red Line) Netanyahu, war mongers John (Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran) McCain and Lindsey Graham and paid MEK shills throughout Congress today because an agreement was reached early Sunday morning local time in Geneva, culminating a process that has been over ten years in the making to seek a peaceful route to preventing any weapons development in Iran’s nuclear technology. Although this is only an interim agreement, it takes significant steps toward making it much more likely that any move by Iran to construct a weapon would be detected and would take longer. More or less simultaneously with the announcement of the agreement, AP reported that the US and Iran have been engaging in secret bilateral talks since March, well before Rouhani’s election this summer.
A fact sheet on the agreement is posted at the White House web site.
Concern over Iran’s nuclear program had ratcheted up in early 2012 when Iran significantly increased its rate of production of uranium enriched to 20%. That concern arose because 20% enriched uranium is technically much easier to take the remaining way to the 90%+ needed for a weapon. Before that point, most of Iran’s work had been directed toward uranium enriched below 5%. Netanyahu’s famous “red line” applied to the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that would be needed to produce sufficient weapons grade uranium for one nuclear bomb. Significantly, the agreement reached today stops all of Iran’s enrichment to 20% and calls for Iran to either dilute back to below 5% or convert to a chemical form that makes it much harder to convert to weapons grade all of Iran’s stock of 20% uranium. In addition to halting enrichment to 20%, the agreement also prevents Iran from increasing its stockpile of uranium enriched to up to 5%.
Recall that when the IAEA’s latest report came out, I noted that Iran had been showing restraint since the beginning of 2012 by not committing any of the new centrifuges it was installing to actual enrichment activity. Further, no new centrifuges had been installed since Rouhani’s election. The agreement reached today includes a commitment by Iran to take steps to reduce the the number of centrifuges that are available for enrichment, among other restrictions on centrifuges. From the fact sheet:
Iran has committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity:
· Not install additional centrifuges of any type.
· Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.
· Leave inoperable roughly half of installed centrifuges at Natanz and three-quarters of installed centrifuges at Fordow, so they cannot be used to enrich uranium.
· Limit its centrifuge production to those needed to replace damaged machines, so Iran cannot use the six months to stockpile centrifuges.
· Not construct additional enrichment facilities.
My initial understanding of the reductions in centrifuges would apply only to those centrifuges that had been installed but were not yet in use. By consulting the actual IAEA report (pdf) from earlier this month, I calculated that there are roughly 15,660 centrifuges installed at Natanz, with about 9048 of them in use. That means there are an excess of 6612 centrifuges installed but not being used. Half of those would be about 3306 centrifuges to be made unavailable. At Fordow, there are about 2976 centrifuges installed, with 744 in operation. Of the 2232 extra centrifuges there, 1674 are to be made unavailable. Combining the numbers for the two facilities, Iran would be giving up access to 4980 centrifuges under this understanding of the agreement.
However, the fact sheet states quite clearly that the reductions apply to all installed centrifuges. With that as the case, then the reduction is much more dramatic, with 7830 centrifuges being made unavailable at Natanz and 2232 at Fordow, for a total of 10,060 centrifuges being made unavailable. These numbers seem to reduce the centrifuges actually being used for enrichment at Natanz, with the number going down from 9048 to 7830. This reduction of 1200 or centrifuges does seem to match with the number shown in the graph in Annex II of the November IAEA report that are associated with enrichment to 20%, so it would appear that those centrifuges are being shut down entirely rather than being shunted back to enrichment to 5%.
Of course, promising these changes is one thing, but verifying them is critically important. The agreement comes with much greater access to Iranian facilities by IAEA inspectors. Returning to the fact sheet: Continue reading
Even more than Dianne Feinstein’s so-called reversal on the NSA, I’m intrigued by John McCain’s.
“We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies,” McCain said. “Eavesdropping on someone’s private cellphone obviously is something that is offensive to the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
“I think it may even call for a select committee, perhaps even bicameral, when you look at the damage that this has done to our relationship with some of our closest friends and allies,” said McCain, who was the unsuccessful GOP presidential nominee pitted against Obama in 2008. Still, McCain noted that foreign governments are not “innocent” because they also have spied on the U.S. government.
In the past, McCain hasn’t been uncritical in his comments on NSA, but he has used it to fearmonger about terrorists. More tellingly, he favors NSA taking the lead in Internet monitoring for domestic cybersecurity, effectively advocating for domestic spying. And yet now he’s squeamish because we’re wiretapping leaders of other countries?
Sure, it may be he’s just latching onto an issue to attack Obama on. Though who needs a new one given that 60 Minutes has resuscitated the old one?
Of course, McCain is the kind of guy who likes to freelance on foreign policy issues, frequently to pressure Obama from the right. And I can’t help but note that Bibi Netanyahu and Obama spoke today for no apparent reason aside from “regular consultations.”
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke by phone today as part of their regular consultations. The two leaders discussed recent developments related to Iran, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and other regional issues. The two leaders agreed to continue their close coordination on a range of security issues.
While there has been no public report that we tapped Bibi, and while I’m sure the Israelis take his security very seriously, he’s precisely the kind of frenemy I could see the government prioritizing. And while I’m sure Germany spies on us (ineffectively), McCain knows that Israel spies on (and hacks) us extensively, making it a more apt reference as a country that is itself not “innocent.”
Just a gut feel: when the Section 215 database got revealed, a wide range of Senators were up in arms until, in secret briefings, they all of a sudden learned something that calmed their nerves (I strongly believe NSA strips congressional numbers from the Section 215 database on intake). And I think it not outside the realm of possibility that McCain has shown newfound concern about NSA upon learning one of his interlocutors might be targeted as well.
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
There is a very interesting point thrown in as a small tidbit in Monday’s New York Times story on Barack Obama securing the support of John McCain for a military strike on Syria:
Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.
Taken at face value, this version of the story would have us believe that the first group of 50 trained by the CIA was presumably still in the process of “sneaking” into Syria on Monday. But the timeline of US training for these fighters is much more complex than that. Some foul-mouthed blogger noted back in May that this training program had already been underway for some time and the LA Times caught up with her in June, disclosing that the program began at least as far back as November 2012 on US bases in Jordan and Turkey.
The LA Times article details that the training is carried out by both special operations troops and CIA personnel. That would put this program squarely within the US tradition of training and releasing death squads that seem to be as adept at killing innocent civilians as they are at killing military targets. We have seen details of their operation in Iraq and Afghanistan under David Petraeus’ vaunted COIN program. There is no information in the LA Times article regarding the death squads entering Syria at that time. Reading between the lines of the article suggests that the squads were in a holding pattern at that point, awaiting better weapons from the US.
In direct contradiction to Obama’s Monday statement to McCain and Graham on the timing of the entry of the first US-trained death squads into Syria, we have this report from the Jerusalem Post that quotes a story first reported in Le Figaro:
The first group of 300 handpicked Free Syrian Army soldiers crossed the border on August 17 into the Deraa region, and a second group was deployed on August 19, the paper reported.
The paper quoted a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis as saying the trained rebels group was passing through Ghouta, on their way to Damascus.
Okay, now this gets interesting. Obama claimed only the first group of 50 were entering, while Le Figaro claimed there were two groups, with the first one being 300 and the second one not specified by size. Further, note the dates and location: they entered on August 17 and 19 and they passed through Ghouta. The large number of deaths from a suspected chemical warfare agent occurred on August 21 in Ghouta. In fact, the second paragraph of the Jerusalem Post article notes:
Le Figaro reported that this is the reason behind the Assad regime’s alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on Wednesday morning, as UN inspectors were allowed into the country to investigate allegations of WMD use.
Were these first groups of CIA-trained death squad members the target of the attack? Or could it be even worse than that? Vladimir Putin had some very interesting things to say in a wide-ranging interview today, but this bit stands out in relation to the death squad story:
“If it is determined that these rebels used weapons of mass destruction, what will the United States do with the rebels?” Mr. Putin asked. “What will the sponsors of the rebels do? Stop the supply of arms? Will they start fighting against the rebels?”
Whether they were the targets of an attack by Assad’s forces or whether they were the agents carrying out a false flag attack, US-trained death squads could well be at the center of the disputed use of chemical weapons. That would seem to be both a strong incentive and a huge tell for Obama to change both the date and the size of the entry of the first of these agents trained by the US. After all, even while reporting Obama’s leak to McCain and Graham on Monday, the New York Times noted that the training program is covert.
Except that it’s not just the US training them. Going back to the Jerusalem Post article:
The rebels were trained for several months in a training camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border by CIA operatives, as well as Jordanian and Israeli commandos, the paper said.
Oh my. That’s quite the international faculty for this training program. What new wonders await us as more graduates of the program pour into Syria?