Defense Department Rules Data on Failure in Afghanistan Is Not Releasable

Today, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released the 38th quarterly report on the “reconstruction” effort in Afghanistan. We need only read as far as Inspector General Sopko’s cover letter to learn that the Department of Defense has decided that the effort in Afghanistan is failing so badly that a complete lid must be placed on information that provides details that can be used to document that failure:DOD continues to blaze new ground in its efforts to hide its failures. Remember when it tried retroactive classification to hide a report it didn’t like? This is an interesting variation on that play. Now, data that is clearly known to be unclassified, and that SIGAR has been publishing for two years, is suddenly “not releasable”.

Why is it not releasable? That, of course, is because it shows just how badly DOD is failing in Afghanistan. Note that SIGAR tells us “the number of districts controlled or influenced by the government has been falling since SIGAR began reporting on it”. You can bet everything you own that had there been even the slightest improvement on territory held by Afghan forces, DOD would have told SIGAR to release the data and would have had generals on every network touting their resounding success. At the same time, DOD is replaying a previous trick in classifying the actual force size for Afghan forces. I interpret that move to be telling us that Afghan forces are dwindling faster than previously claimed, presumably through the also-classified rates of casualty, attrition and capability metrics.

The ruling prohibiting release of data on the territory held becomes even closer to an attempt at retroactive classification as we move to the next part of Sopko’s cover letter:Just because they don’t want us looking closely at the data from November, here it is:
Granted, this report is from December 15, but let’s take a look at how that claim that “The Afghan Government retains control of Kabul” holds up. In today’s New York Times, we have this:
With Kabul suffering this badly, imagine how bad it must be in the rest of the country. The war in Afgthanistan is now over 16 years old. It’s time for it to take those car keys and drive itself home, because things are going so badly there that DOD is hiding all the data it can.

“Notwithstanding”: How Congress Enabled Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter to Keep Child Rape and Torture from Disrupting Forever War

Back in September of 2015, the New York Times published sickening details on widespread child rape in the Afghan military. The Times’ investigation was centered in part on a victim of child rape who had served as a “tea boy” to Afghan officers and subsequently acquired a weapon. He opened fire inside a base, killing three US Marines.

I had noted at the time that one of the victims, Gregory Buckley, Jr. had told his father just before he was killed that reporting Afghan soldiers for child rape was discouraged because “it’s their culture”. This stood out to me because I had been reporting on the retroactive classification of a DoD report that stated many green on blue killings could be explained by cultural incompatibilities between US troops and the Afghans they were training.

The reports of child rape were so disgusting that Congress commissioned a study by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Recontruction to look into how such widespread abuses were allowed to happen. After all, the “Leahy laws” were aimed at preventing funding of foreign entities known to be committing gross violations of human rights. SIGAR finished their report in June of 2017, but it has only now been declassified and released.

While the report “found no evidence that US forces were told to ignore human rights abuses or child sexual assault”, the end result of actions by Secretaries of Defense Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter leading up to the September 2015 incident are damning in how they result in just that outcome, at least when it comes to using funding that Congress provided.

Here is how SIGAR places the investigation into perspective:

You are excused if, like me, you need to go off and curse a while over the outrageous sums of money we have “invested” in a security force that is failing at this very moment.

But now we have yet another outrage. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided in 2005 that no other law could be used to get in the way of the funding of our sacred war in Afghanistan. Recall that the torture memos were released in late 2004, so Congress rightly feared that much of what we were funding in Afghanistan was illegal and they didn’t want to let those measly laws get in the way of their war.

Just look what DoD had to go through to ignore what the Afghans were doing. Here is Chuck Hagel trying to provide cover in 2014:

This of course looks just fine. We all need a written protocol on how to report human rights abuses. But what happens when abuses are found? Oh, that’s bad. And even though DoD still redacts much of Hagel’s action, it’s clear he was told of abuses but he freed up funds anyway by relying on the “notwithstanding” clause:

It gets even worse. Ash Carter did the same thing, just a few short months before the tea boy attack that killed Buckley and two others:

Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter were fully aware of gross human rights abuses, including both child rape and torture, but elected to use the blunt tool that Congress had given them to ignore these human rights abuses and continue funding the same units within the Afghan military that carried out the abuses. So while official policy was that abuses are to be reported, they then are completely ignored at the Congressional and Cabinet level in order to continue a forever war that is forever failing.

A Thousand Days of Hell in Yemen Produce a Million Cases of Cholera

War crimes are being committed on a daily basis in Yemen and the world barely takes notice. Consider this outdated report from the World Food Programme in August:

Back in August, fully 76% of the population, over 20 million people, were in need of humanitarian assistance. And that was before the first of two missiles were fired into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, prompting an even tighter blockade of aid by the Saudis. The outrageously sadistic, immoral and illegal bombardment of Yemen has now been going on for 1000 days. A large group of international figures has come together to note this sad milestone and to call for an end to the violence, but the world is not listening. A small note in The Hill has this description of the pitifully small number of US politicians who joined in the effort:

More than 350 international politicians, celebrities, Nobel laureates and other prominent figures signed a statement Tuesday demanding U.S., U.K. and French action to end the Yemeni civil war.

“The U.S., U.K. and France, as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and major weapons suppliers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, bear a special responsibility to use the full extent of their leverage to press their partners in the region to end the crisis,” read the statement, dubbed “A global call to President Trump, Prime Minister May and President Macron.”


U.S. signatories include Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche, and actresses Alyssa Milano and Piper Perabo.

The usually war-loving Washington Post editorial staff also noted the atrocities a month ago, but to very little effect. A new effort, led by Ted Lieu, is aimed at getting the blockade lifted.

Although it is the Saudis who are doing the bulk of the bombing, the US and several EU countries are primary enablers of the atrocities. Here is Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia in May, signing a $100 billion military aid agreement with the Saudis:

Those are American-made fighters dropping American-made bombs on defenseless Yemeni citizens every day. Reuters reported earlier this week that 136 Yemeni civilians died in air strikes in less than a two week period this month.

But deaths from bombs or starvation are not the only problems. Because the Saudis intentionally targeted infrastructure, including the water supply, cholera cases in Yemen have been reaching unprecedented levels. The disgusting milestone of one million cholera cases has now been reached.

Rather than helping the Yemenis, Trump is actively working to make the situation worse, with the US itself carrying out over 120 air strikes this year and even admitting to ground operations by US troops. Recall that our first ground operation there under Trump was a miserable failure:

In the first offensive operation personally approved by Trump, a Jan. 28 raid in Yemen resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, the wounding of several other service members and the destruction of an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

And, of course, Trump and Nikki Haley see no irony in their massive over-response to the two missiles that have been fired into Saudi Arabia during this 1000 day Saudi and US blitzkrieg:

The U.S. has been providing intelligence and aerial refueling to the Saudis. Last week, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley used the charred remnants of a ballistic missile with Iranian markings as a backdrop to call on Iran to stop supporting the Houthis.

If you have any spare cash left over from your holiday shopping, please consider a donation to try to ease the widespread starvation in Yemen. Somehow, while there are still tens of billions of dollars in US weapons sales in play, I just don’t see any reason to think the Trump administration will take any action to back up their gentle calls for the Saudis to lift the blockade.

Poot and POTUS Plan to Move Beyond the Mueller Investigation

I think people are misunderstanding something that happened the other day when Trump called Vladimir Putin. As the press reports, Trump initiated the call. The remarkably brief readout from the White House makes it clear Trump called to thank Putin for saying nice things about the economy (many have taken that as Trump’s declaration that he values such flattery, which is no doubt true, but Trump didn’t write the readout).

President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia today.  President Trump thanked President Putin for acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference.

The two presidents also discussed working together to resolve the very dangerous situation in North Korea.

The even briefer formal readout from the Russian side (and this is unusual for them) said only,

Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump at the initiative of the American side.

Though reports state that the Kremlin said the men also discussed US-Russian ties.

The Kremlin said Thursday the two men discussed US-Russia ties and increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula, an issue that Putin chastised the United States for in earlier comments.

Other reports note that HR McMaster did not participate in the call.

The leaders talked for about 10 minutes, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster didn’t participate in the call, a White House official said.

So Trump saw reports that Putin mentioned him in his annual press conference, and called him up to comment about it, without an adult present.

Of course (as Politico notes but doesn’t focus on), Putin’s reference to Trump’s alleged success with the economy isn’t the most pointed thing he said in his press conference. Here’s the full exchange between ABC’s Terry Moran and Putin.

Terry Moran: Thank you, Mr President. Terry Moran with ABC News.

First, in the United States investigations by Congress, the Department of Justice and the media have uncovered a very large number of contacts between Russian citizens associated with your government and high officials of the Trump campaign. And some of those officials are now being prosecuted for lying about those contacts. All this is not normal. And many Americans are saying where there is that much smoke there must be fire. How would you explain to Americans the sheer number of contact between the Trump campaign and your government?

And second, if I may. It has almost been a year since Donald Trump has been elected president. You praised Donald Trump during the campaign. What is your assessment of Donald Trump as president after one year? Spasibo.

Vladimir Putin: Let us begin with the second part of your question. It is not for me to evaluate Donald Trump’s work. This should be done by his electorate, the American people. But we do see some major achievements, even over the short period he has been in office. Look at the markets, which have grown. This is evidence of investors’ trust in the US economy. This means they trust what President Trump is doing in this area. With all due respect to President Trump’s opposition in the United States, these are objective factors.

There are also things he would probably like to do but has not been able to do so far, such as a healthcare reform and several other areas. By the way, he said his intentions in foreign policy included improving relations with Russia. It is clear that he has been unable to do this because of the obvious constraints, even if he wanted to. In fact, I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people, and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world, including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc. There are many things we can do much more effectively together in the interests of our people than we are doing them now. Actually, we can do everything more effectively together.

Terry Moran: How would you explain the connection between the government, your government, and the Trump campaign? How would you explain it to Americans?

Vladimir Putin(In English.) I see, I see. (In Russian.) You know that all this was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate. It seems strange to me, and I mean it, that the people who are doing this do not seem to realise that they are damaging the internal political climate in the country, that they are decimating the possibilities of the elected head of state. This means that they do not respect the people who voted for him.

How do you see any election process worldwide? Do we need to ban any contacts at all? Our ambassador has been accused of meeting with someone. But this is standard international practice when a diplomatic representative and even Government members meet with all the candidates, their teams, when they discuss various issues and development prospects, when they want to understand what certain people will do after assuming power and how to respond to this. What kind of extraordinary things did anyone see in this? And why should all this take on the nature of spy mania?

You have watched the investigation on social media. The share of Russian corporate advertising makes up less than 0.01 percent, with that of American companies totaling 100, 200 and 300 percent. It is simply incomparable. But, for some reason, even this is seen as excessive. This is some kind of gibberish.

The same can be said about the situation with our media outlets, including RT and Sputnik. But their share in the overall information volume is negligible, as compared to the share of global US media outlets all over the world and in Russia. And this is seen as a threat. Then what about freedom of the media? This is actually a cornerstone, on which American democracy itself is based.

All of us should realise that someone succeeds and someone does not. We need to draw conclusions from this and move on, instead of pouncing on one another like animals. We need to think about this and draw conclusions.

Moran starts by noting that Trump’s people are now being prosecuted for lying about contacts with Russians, and asks why there were so many contacts. He then invites Putin to comment on Trump’s success.

Putin responds by saying it’s not his place to evaluate Trump’s success (elsewhere in the press conference Putin made grand show of respecting Russia’s democracy, too), but then goes ahead and does so, claiming that the economy is an “objective” success of Trump’s.

Moran has to prod him to get a direct answer on the second point. Putin repeats a Republican talking point — that the investigation “was invented by the people who stand in opposition to Mr Trump to present his work as illegitimate” — and complains about this “spy mania.” But then he doesn’t address the allegations that Russian spies were cozying up to Trump’s officials, not just its ambassador; he instead focuses on the social media investigation (and rightly points out that Russian social media had just a fraction of the impact of equally problematic right wing social media manipulation).

It’s the middle bit — what might have been Putin’s first response to Moran’s question about the investigation — that I suspect elicited Trump’s call to Putin.

I do not know if he still wants to or has exhausted the desire to do this; you should ask him. I hope that he does and that we will eventually normalise our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people.

Having gotten Trump’s attention with a bullshit compliment, Putin then asked, “do you still want to go steady?”

Putin’s question — do you still want to normalize relations — came against the background of increasing Russian challenges in Syria, the theater where, even according to Jared Kushner’s public comments, the Russia-Trump cooperation was supposed to first bear fruit.

“On Dec. 13, two Russian Su-25s flew into coordinated coalition airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River near Abu Kamal, Syria,” the spokesman said, “and were promptly intercepted by two F-22A Raptors providing air cover for partner ground forces conducting operations to defeat ISIS.”

The U.S. jets used chaff, flares, and other maneuvers to “persuade the Su-25s to depart,” said the spokesman, and also made repeated calls on N emergency channel to the Russian pilots. Coalition leaders also contacted Russians on the ground along the deconfliction line. After 40 minutes, the Russians flew back to the west side of the Euphrates.

The U.S. and Russia verbally agreed in early November that Russian aircraft would stay west of the Euphrates and American jets would stay east. According to the spokesman, since the Russians are now crossing the river six to eight times a day, “it’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots’ actions are deliberate or if these are just honest mistakes.”

“Are you still interested,” Putin asked, while making it clear Russia could make Trump’s life far more difficult that it is currently doing.

And Trump got on the phone and said … we don’t know what he said, but we can sure guess.

In the wake of it, Trump’s team leaked details of their request to meet with Robert Mueller next week to find out whether the probe will, as Ty Cobb has absurdly been claiming for some time, be drawing to a close.

President Donald Trump’s private lawyers are slated to meet with special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his team as soon as next week for what the President’s team considers an opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the next steps in Mueller’s probe, according to sources familiar with the matter.

While the lawyers have met with Mueller’s team before and might again, the sources believe the upcoming meeting has greater significance because it comes after the completion of interviews of White House personnel requested by the special counsel and after all requested documents have been turned over. Mueller could still request more documents and additional interviews. No request to interview the President or the vice president has been made, sources tell CNN.

But Trump’s team, led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, is hoping for signs that Mueller’s investigation is nearing its end, or at least the part having to do with the President. Their goal is to help Trump begin to emerge from the cloud of the ongoing investigation, several of the sources explained. The sources acknowledge that Mueller is under no obligation to provide any information and concede they may walk away with no greater clarity.

If such a meeting does occur, it will come amid the rumors that Trump plans to fire Mueller. Either Mueller finishes up and gives Trump an all clear, and soon, the message seems to be, or Trump will ensure Mueller can’t report the opposite.

Putin wants to get on with things, with making good on his investment in Donald Trump. And in response to that message, Trump made moves towards trying to end the investigation that would show such a plan would be the quid pro quo for Putin’s help getting Trump elected.

Fifteen Years Fighting the War on Terror Would Have Inured Mike Flynn to Kidnapping

As the Wall Street Journal reported this morning, in December 2016, Mike Flynn had a second meeting with representatives of Turkey to discuss a plan to help them kidnap Fethullah Gulen.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have asked at least four individuals about a meeting in mid-December at the ‘21’ Club in New York City, where Mr. Flynn and representatives of the Turkish government discussed removing Mr. Gulen, according to people with knowledge of the FBI’s inquiries. The discussions allegedly involved the possibility of transporting Mr. Gulen on a private jet to the Turkish prison island of Imrali, according to one of the people who has spoken to the FBI.

The report has led to some gleeful hand-wringing (and, as always, baby cannon eruptions) from interesting quarters.

For those of us who have opposed the US practice of extraordinary rendition, sure, the notion that Flynn would work with a foreign country to assist in the illegal kidnapping of someone that country considered a terrorist does seem outrageous. But for those who, not so long ago, worried that counterterrorism success might lead us to eschew things like extraordinary rendition, I’m not sure I understand the hand-wringing.

Yet the more effectively we conduct counterterrorism, the more plausible disbelief becomes and the more uncomfortable we grow with policies like noncriminal detention, aggressive interrogation, and extraordinary rendition. The more we convince ourselves that the Devil doesn’t really exist, the less willing we are to use those tools, and we begin reining them in or eschewing them entirely. And we let the Devil walk out of the room.

Especially not when you consider Mike Flynn’s service to the country. For fourteen years, Flynn played a key role in counterterrorism policy, serving in an intelligence role in Afghanistan when we were paying Pakistan bounties just to have enough Arabs to fill Gitmo, serving as Director of Intelligence for JSOC for some of the bloodiest years of the Iraq War, then serving in another intelligence role in Afghanistan during a period when the US was handing prisoners off to Afghanistan to be tortured.

That’s what two presidents, one a Nobel Prize winner, and another increasingly rehabilitated, asked Mike Flynn to do. And in that role, I have no doubt, he was privy to — if not directly in the chain of command — a whole lot of legally dubious kidnapping, including from countries with respectable institutions of law. (In related news, see this report on MI6 and CIA cooperation with Gaddafi, including kidnapping, after 9/11.)

So having spent 14 years kidnapping for the United States, why is it so odd that Flynn would consider it acceptable to help one of our allies in turn, to help them kidnap the kinds of clerics we ourselves have targeted as terrorists.

There is, of course, something different here: the suggestion that Flynn and his son might profit mightily off the arrangement, to the tune of $15 million.

Under the alleged proposal, Mr. Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., were to be paid as much as $15 million for delivering Fethullah Gulen to the Turkish government, according to people with knowledge of discussions Mr. Flynn had with Turkish representatives. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has pressed the U.S. to extradite him, views the cleric as a political enemy.

But even the notion of bribery to facilitate human rights abuses is not something the US forgoes. One of the biggest disclosures from the SSCI Torture Report, for example, is how the Bush Administration worked to bribe other countries to let us build torture facilities in their countries.

The buddies of those now scolding such arrangements were part of that bribery operation.

The big question with Flynn is whether the similar bribe for this kidnapping operation would have been different from those under the table bribes we paid for our torture facilities. Did they go into the countries’ populace, or did they get pocketed by the national security officials doing the dirty deeds?

I actually don’t mean it to be a gotcha — though I would sure appreciate a little less hypocritical squeamishness from those who elsewhere view such irregular operations as the cost of keeping the country safe (as Erdogan claims to believe to be the case here).

Rather, I raise it to suggest that Mike Flynn knows where the bodies are buried every bit as much as David Petraeus did, when he was facing a criminal prosecution to which the best response was graymail. Flynn surely could demand records of any number of kidnapping operations the United States carried out, and he might well be able to point to bribes paid to make them happen, if Robert Mueller were to charge him for this stuff. It’s different, absolutely, that it happened on US soil. It may (or may not be) different that an individual decided to enrich himself for this stuff.

But this is the kind of thing — Mike Flynn knows well — that the US does do, and that certain hawks have in the past believed to be acceptable.

Is There More to Trump’s Thumbs Up Picture?

Yesterday, Trump tweeted out this bizarre picture, featuring him, Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, Dan Scavino, and either Staff Secretary John Porter or Body Man John McEntee, all giving a thumbs up.

It appears to be a celebration of the one year anniversary of his win, though in the wake of the shellacking the GOP took in VA and his disavowal of Ed Gillespie seems like denial.

But given the inclusion of Jared — fresh off his 4AM chats with Mohammed bin Salman that immediately preceded MBS’ purge (Jared apparently joined the trip late, and some White House reporters didn’t even know he was on it) — and the fact it was taken (given Hicks and Trump’s garb) a day before it was posted makes me wonder whether the tweet is not serving a dual purpose, signaling for the second time this week that Trump supports MBS’ plans in the Middle East.

As John de Vashon noted on Twitter, the picture also foregrounds the FT coverage of MBS’ purge, from a newspaper even more dated than the clothing.

As I’ve noted of late, MBS’ purge is consistent with what I imagined, back in May, a Jared Kushner-brokered “peace” deal would look like — basically a reordering of the Middle East at the behest of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

[C]onsider what the purported Middle East peace that Kushner has reportedly been crafting would actually look like. It’d include unlimited support for Israeli occupation of Palestine. Bashar al-Assad would be ousted, but in a way that would permit Russia a strategic footprint, perhaps with sanction of its occupation of Crimea and Donetsk as well. It’d sanction the increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. It’s sanction Saudi Arabia’s ruthless starvation of Yemen. It’d fuck over the Kurds.

And it’d mean war with Iran.

Trump took steps towards doing most of those things on his trip, not least with his insane weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, itself premised on a formal detachment of weapons sales from any demands for respect for human rights. Of particular note, Trump claimed to be establishing a great peace initiative with Islamic countries, even when discussing meetings that treated Iran (and by association most Shia Muslims) as an enemy.

Several days ago in Saudi Arabia, I met with the leaders of the Muslim world and Arab nations from all across the region. It was an epic gathering. It was an historic event. Kind Salman of Saudi Arabia could not have been kinder, and I will tell you, he’s a very wise, wise man. I called on these leaders and asked them to join in a partnership to drive terrorism from their midst, once and for all. It was a deeply productive meeting. People have said there had really never been anything even close in history. I believe that. Being there and seeing who was there and hearing the spirit and a lot of love, there has never been anything like that in history. And it was an honor to be involved.

Kushner’s “peace plan” is not so much a plan for peace. It’s a plan for a complete remapping of the Middle East according to a vision the Israelis and Saudis have long been espousing (and note the multiple nods on Trump’s trip to the growing alliance between the two, including Trump’s flight directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv and Bibi’s comment on “common dangers are turning former enemies into partners”). It’s a vision for still more oppression (a view that Trump supports globally, in any case).

Yes, it’d probably all be accomplished with corrupt self-enrichment on the part of all players.

Just before the purge, Saad Hariri resigned and is believed to he held in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has claimed the curiously timed missile striking Riyadh signaled Iran was in Yemen. Now, Saudi Arabia is ordering its citizens out of Lebanon immediately, suggesting there may be some kind of response now that they’ve pulled Hariri out of Lebanon.

In other words, it feels like MBS, while consolidating power and seizing his opponents’ considerable assets, is about to expand his war in the Middle East.

And conveniently, Trump and Putin will meet on Friday to lay out plans (reportedly including on Syria).

I’ve said for some time that whatever merit there is to the Russian investigation, it risked focusing too closely on just Russia, and not Trump’s other corrupt ties. Jared’s plans (and his claims about the scope of his meetings with other Ambassadors) were always far broader than just Israel.

And no one in Trump’s orbit have the sophistication to understand if they’re being snookered by the Saudis and Israelis.

So I wonder whether this picture isn’t designed to do far more than gloat about the election.

Zbig’s Blowback Outlives Him

Zbigniew Brezezinski passed away today of cancer at the age of 89. My condolences to his family.

I share(d) a birthday with him, and once slept in a room he used during the first cabinet meetings of the Carter Administration. So I’ve always had some curiosity about, if not quite affinity to, him.

Perhaps as a result I’ve always been acutely aware that he is the man who set off the chain of events, 38 years ago, that has led to the war on terror (without even — as he optimistically claimed in 1998 — ending the Cold War). Here’s the 1998 interview where he boasted of the decision.

Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Of course, while the Cold War may have paused, it’s back in full swing now, and Sunni extremists continue to wreak havoc on targets within and outside of the Middle East.

Zbig’s blowback has officially outlived the man. May we remember the soldiers, of every country, who have died as a result this Memorial Day weekend. Rest in Peace.

What Fake French News Looks Like (to a British Consulting Company)

Along with reports that APT 28 targeted Emmanuel Macron that don’t prominently reveal that Macron believes he withstood the efforts to phish his campaign, the post-mortem on the first round of the French election has also focused on the fake news that supported Marine Le Pen.

As a result, this study — the headline from which claimed 25% of links shared during the French election pointed to fake news — has gotten a lot of attention.

The study, completed by a British consulting firm (though the lead on the study is a former French journalist) and released in full only in English, is as interesting for its assumptions as anything else.

Engagement studies aren’t clear what they’re showing, but this one is aware of that

Before I explain why, let me stipulate that accept the report’s conclusion that a ton of Le Pen supporters (though it doesn’t approach it from that direction) relied on fake news and/or Russian sources. The methodology appears to suffer from the same problem some of BuzzFeed’s reporting on fake news does, in that it doesn’t measure the value of shared news, but at least it admits that methodological problem (and promises to discuss it at more length in a follow-up).

Sharing is the overt act of taking an article or video or image that one sees in social media and, literally, sharing it digitally with one’s own followers or even into the public domain. Sharing therefore implies an elevated level of interest: people share articles that they feel others should see. While there are tools that help us track and quantify how many articles are shared, they cannot explain the sharer’s intention. It seems plausible, particularly in a political context, that sharing implies endorsement, yet even this is problematic as sharing can often imply shock and disagreement. In the third instalment [sic] of this study, Bakamo will explore in depth the extent to which people agree or disagree with what they share, but for this report (and the second, updated version), the simple act of sharing—whatever the intention—is nonetheless highly relevant. It provides a way of gauging activity and engagement.


These are the “likes” or “shares” in Facebook, or “favourites” or “retweets” in Twitter. While these can be counted, we do not know whether the person has actually clicked through to read the content being shared before they like or retweet. This information is only available to the account owner. One of the questions that is often raised about social media is whether users do indeed read the article or respond simply to the headlines that appear in their newsfeed. We are unable to comment on this.

In real word terms, engagement can be two things. It can be agreement—whether reflexive or reflective—with the content shared. It can also, however, be disagreement: Facebook’s nuanced “like” system (in which anger is a valid form of engagement) or Twitter’s citations that enable a user to comment on the link while sharing it both permit these negative expressions.

The study is perhaps most interesting for what it shows about the differing sharing habits from different parts of its media economy, with no overlap between those who share what it deems “traditional” media and those who share what I’d deem conspiracist media. That finding, more than almost any other one, suggests what might be needed to engage in a dialogue across these clusters. Ultimately, what the study shows is increased media polarization not on partisan grounds, but on response to globalization.

Russian media looks very important when you only track Russian media

As I noted, one of the headlines that has been taken away from this study is that Le Pen voters shared a lot of Russian news sources — and I don’t contest that.

But there are two interesting details about how that finding came to be that important to this study.

First, the study defines everything in contradistinction from what it calls “traditional” media.

There are broad five sections of the Media Map. They are defined by their editorial distance from traditional media narratives. The less accepting a source is of traditional media narratives, the farther away it is (spatially) on the Map.

In the section defining traditional media, the study focuses on establishment and commercialism (including advertising), even while pointing to — but not proving — that all traditional media “adher[e] to journalistic standards” (which is perhaps a fairer assumption still in France than in the US or UK, but nevertheless it is an assumption).

This section of the Media Map is populated by media sources that belong to the established commercial and conventional media landscape, such as websites of national and regional newspapers, TV and radio stations, online portals adhering to journalistic standards, and news aggregators.

It does this, but insists that this structure that privileges “traditional” media without proving that it merits that privilege is not meant to “pass moral judgement or to define what is ‘good’ or ‘evil’.”

Most interesting of all, the study includes — without detail or interrogation — international media sources “exhibiting these same characteristics” in its traditional media category.

These are principally France-based sources; however, French-speaking international media sources exhibiting these same characteristics were also placed into the Traditional Media section.

But, having defined some international news sources as “traditional,” the study then uses Russian influence as a measure of whether a media cluster was non-traditional.

The analysis only identified foreign influence connected with Russia. No other foreign source of influence was detected.

It did this — measuring Russian influence as a measure of non-traditional status — even though the study showed this was true primarily on the hard right and among conspiracists.

Syria as a measure of journalistic standards

Among the other kinds of content that this study measures, it repeatedly describes how those outlets it has clustered as non-traditional (primarily those it calls reframing outlets) deal with Syria.

It asserts that those who treat Bashar al-Assad as a “protagonist” in the Syrian civil war as being influenced by Russian sources.

A dominant theme reflected by sources where Russian influence is detected is the war in Syria, the various actors involved, and the refugee crisis. In these articles, Bachar Assad becomes the protagonist, a perspective opposite to that which is reported by traditional media. Articles touching on refugees and migrants tend to reinforce anti-Islam and anti-migrant positions.

The anti-imperialists focus on Trump’s ineffectual missile strike on Syria which — the study concludes — must derive from Russian influence.

Trump’s “téléréalité” attack on Syria is a more recent example of content in this cluster. This is not surprising, however, as Russian influence is detectable on a number of sites in this cluster.

It defines conspiracists as such because they say the US supports terrorist groups (and also because they portray Assad as trustworthy).

Syria is an important theme in this cluster. Per these sources, and contrary to reports in traditional media, the Western powers are supporting the terrorist, while Bashar Assad is trustworthy and tolerant leader, as witness reports prove.

The pro-Islam non-traditional (!!) cluster is defined not because of its distance from “traditional” news (which the study finds it generally is not) but in part because its outlets suggest the US has been supporting Assad.

American imperialism is another dominant theme in this cluster, driven by the belief that the US has been secretly supporting the Assad regime.

You can see, now, the problem here. It is a demonstrable fact that America’s covert funding did, for some time, support rebel groups that worked alongside Al Qaeda affiliates (and predictably and with the involvement of America’s Sunni allies saw supplies funneled to al Qaeda or ISIS as a result). It is also the case that both historically (when the US was rendering Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured) and as an interim measure to forestall the complete collapse of Syria under Obama, the US’ opposition to Assad has been half-hearted, which may not be support but certainly stopped short of condemnation for his atrocities.

And while we’re not supposed to talk about these things — and don’t, in part, because they are an openly acknowledged aspect of our covert operations — they are a better representation of the complex clusterfuck of American intervention in Syria than one might get — say — from the French edition of the BBC. They are, of course, similar to the American “traditional” news insistence that Obama has done “nothing” in Syria, long after Chuck Hagel confirmed our “covert” operations there. Both because the reality is too complex to discuss easily, and because there is a “tradition” of not reporting on even the most obvious covert actions if done by the US, Syria is a subject on which almost no one is providing an adequately complex picture of what is going on.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the measure of truth on Syria has become the simplified narrative you’re supposed to believe, not what the complexity of the facts show. And that’s before you get to where we are now, pretending to be allied with both Turkey and the Kurds they’re shooting at.

The shock at the breakdown of the left-right distinction

What’s most fascinating about the study, however, is the seeming distress with which it observes that “reframing” media — outlets it claims is reinterpreting the real news — doesn’t break down into a neat left-right axis.

Media sources in the Reframe section share the motivation to counter the Traditional Media narrative. The media sources see themselves as part of a struggle to “reinform” readers of the real contexts and meanings hidden from them when they are informed by Traditional Media sources. This section breaks with the traditions of journalism, expresses radical opinions, and refers to both traditional and alternative sources to craft a disruptive narrative. While there is still a left-right distinction in this section, a new narrative frame emerges where content is positioned as being for or against globalisation and not in left-right terms. Indeed, the further away media sources are from the Traditional section, the less a conventional left-right attribution is possible.


The other narrative frame detectable through content analysis is the more recent development referred to in this study as the global versus local narrative frame. Content published in this narrative frame is positioned as being for or against globalisation and not in left-right terms. Indeed, the further away media sources are from the Traditional section, the less a conventional left-right attribution is possible. While there are media sources in the Reframe section on both on the hard right and hard left sides, they converge in the global versus local narrative frame. They take concepts from both left and right, but reframe them in a global-local context. One can find left or right leanings of media sources located in the middle of Reframe section, but this mainly relates to attitudes about Islam and migrants. Otherwise, left and right leaning media sources in the Reframe section share one common enemy: globalisation and the liberal economics that is associated with it.

Now, I think some of the study’s clustering is artificial to create this split (for example, in the way it treats environmentalism as an extend rather than reframe cluster).

But even more, I find the confusion fascinating. Particularly in the absence of — as it did for Syria coverage — any indication of what is considered the “true” or “false” news about globalization. Opposition to globalization, as such, is the marker, not a measure of whether an outlet is reporting in factual manner on the status and impact and success at delivering the goals of globalization.

And if the patterns of sharing in the study are in fact accurate, what the study actually shows is that the ideologies of globalization and nationalism have become completely incoherent to each other. And purveyors of globalization as the “traditional” view do not, here, consider the status of globalization (on either side) as a matter of truth or falseness, as a measure whether the media outlet taking a side in favor of or against globalization adheres to the truth.

I’ve written a fair amount of the failure of American ideology — and of the confusion among priests of that ideology as it no longer exacts unquestioning sway.

This study on fake news in France completed by a British consulting company in English is very much a symptom of that process.

But the Cold War is outdated!

Which brings me to the funniest part of the paper. As noted above, the paper claims that anti-imperialists are influenced by Russian sources, which it explains for criticism of Trump’s Patriot missile strike on Syria. But it’s actually talking about what it calls a rump Communist Cold War ideology.

This cluster contains the remains of the traditional Communist groupings. They publish articles on the imperialist system. They concentrate on foreign politics and ex-Third World countries. They frame their worldview through a Cold War logic: they see the West (mainly the US) versus the East, embodied by Russia. Russia is idolised, hence these sites have a visible anti-American and antiZionist stance. The antiquated nature of a Cold War frame given the geo-political transformations of the last 25 years means these sources are often forced to borrow ideas from the extreme right.

Whatever the merit in its analysis here, consider what it means for a study the assumptions of which treat Russian influence as a special kind of international influence, even while conducting no reflection on whether the globalization/nationalization polarization it finds so striking can be measured in terms of fact claims.

The new Cold War seems unaware that the old Cold War isn’t so out of fashion after all.

The #FakeNews about Iraqi WMD Got Hundreds of Thousands Killed


This morning, Dana Milbank — who used to have a podcast with Chris Cillizza on which he once suggested Hillary would choose to drink Mad Bitch beer —  wrote a piece warning of the dangers of fake news.

After writing about a threatening email he received, Milbank considered whether episodes like the attack on Comet Ping Pong — which he described as “the family pizza place in Northwest Washington I’ve been frequenting with my daughter ever since she was a toddler a decade ago” — were the new normal. Milbank described the role of Alex Jones in making a “bogus and bizarre accusation” against Hillary. Then he turned the attack on Comet Ping Pong, in part, into an attack on the media.

This would appear to be the new normal: Not only disagreeing with your opponent but accusing her of running a pedophilia ring, provoking such fury that somebody takes it upon himself to start shooting. Not only chafing when criticized in the press but stoking anti-media hysteria that leads some supporters to threaten to kill journalists.

The man whose “Mad Bitch beer” comment targeted Hillary ended his piece by scolding Trump for fueling rage against Hillary and those who support her.

If Trump were a different leader, he would declare that political violence is unacceptable in a free society. Perhaps he’d say it after eating a “Steel Wills” pie at Comet.

But instead he continues to fuel rage against his opponents and his critics.

On Twitter, Peter Singer — who wrote a very worthwhile book that uses fiction to lay out near term threats to the US  — RTed Milbank’s story with the comment, “stop winking and nodding” at fake news because it can get people killed.


Singer works at New America Foundation, but he used to work at Brookings Institution, which employs people like Michael O’Hanlon and Charles Lister to write propaganda, funded in part by Qatar, designed to generate support for endless wars in the Middle East.

In response to Singer’s tweet, I RTed it and pointed out that “The #fakenews about Iraqi WMD DID get hundreds of thousands killed.” That in turn led to some interesting discussions, most notably with Zeynep Tufekci, who claimed that by “conflating two very, very different types of failure” I was being unhelpful because those different kinds of fake news operated via different mechanisms.

Tufekci is right. The means by which an uncritical press — enthusiastically joined by the WaPo’s editorial page and many, but not all, of its reporters — parroted Dick Cheney’s lies about Iraqi WMD are different than the means by which millions of people sought out the most outrageous claims about Hillary. The means by which the financial press claimed the housing market would never collapse are different than the means by which millions of people sought out conspiracy theories about the people who didn’t prosecute the banksters. The means by which Dana Milbank got to insinuate the Secretary of State might choose Mad Bitch beer are even different than the means by which millions of people sought out news that called the former Secretary of State #CrookedHillary. The means by which the traditional press focused more attention on Hillary’s email server than on Trump’s fraudulent business practices are different than the means by which millions of people sought out claims that Hillary’s email server was going to get her indicted. All of those traditional news examples of fake news included an editorial process designed to prevent the retelling of fake news.

The means by which traditional news media shares fake news are different than social media’s algorithm driven means of sharing fake news.

Until you remember that a week before the election, Fox’s Bret Baier, who eight months earlier had moderated a GOP primary debate, reported that the investigations into Hillary “will continue to likely an indictment.” While Baier retracted the claim just over a day later, the claim was among the most damaging pieces of fake news from the campaign, not least because it confirmed some of what the most inflammatory social media claims were saying and magnified the damage of Jim Comey’s irresponsible announcement about finding new emails.

Baier got manipulated by his sources who knew how to game the means the press uses to avoid fake news. Baier got manipulated into sharing fake news that served the goals of his sources. It turns out Baier was not any more immune from the manipulation of his biases than your average news consumer is.

Now, the NYT (though not, I think, the WaPo) apologized for their WMD coverage and Milbank apologized for his Mad Bitch podcast and Baier apologized for his indictment scoop. No one has yet apologized for focusing more attention on Hillary’s email server than Trump’s own corruption, but I’m sure that’s coming. I’m not aware that the financial press apologized for the cheerleading that ultimately led to millions of Americans losing their homes to foreclosure, but then it also hasn’t stopped the same kind of fake news cheerleading that led to the crash.

Indeed, while it shows remorse after some of the worst cases, the traditional news media still lapses into the habit of reporting fake news, often in a tone of authority and using an elite discourse. Such lapses usually happen when a kind of herd instinct or a rush to get the news first sets in, leading news professionals to tell fake news stories.

And, now that social media has given average news consumers the ability (and after financialization has led to the disappearance of reliable local news), average news consumers increasingly bypass news professionals, listening instead to the stories they want to hear, told in a way that leads them to feel they are assuming a kind of self-control, told in a language and tone they might use themselves. At its worst — as in the case of PizzaGate — a kind of herd instinct sets in, with news consumers reinforcing each others’ biases. On Sunday, that almost got a lot of innocent people — families like Milbank’s own — killed.

Elite commentators may view the herd instincts of average news consumers to be more crude than the herd instincts of professional news tellers. Perhaps they are. Across history, both types of herd instincts have led to horrible outcomes, including to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.

But as we try to deal with our herd instincts and the mistakes we all make (myself very much included), we might do well to exhibit a little less arrogance about it. That certainly won’t eliminate the mistakes; we are, ultimately, herd animals. But it might provide a basis to rebuild some trust, without which leads all of us — the professionals and the average news consumers — further into our own bubbles.

Update: This Current Affairs piece treats WaPo’s peddling of fake news — including the PropOrNot story — well.

Our Syrian Rebels Are Issuing Threats Via WaPo

This is a striking article in the WaPo. It deals extensively with setbacks rebels in Syria have already suffered at the hand of Russia’s campaign. But it bears this headline, as if Trump’s administration, not Russian intervention (and Obama’s mixed commitment), is the key change.

Fearing abandonment by Trump, CIA-backed rebels in Syria mull alternatives

As I said, the story provides plenty of evidence the real change here stems from Russian involvement, not Trump’s election. But Trump’s election provides a way for a bunch of people to issue threats about what rebels might do in response to their fading fortunes.

The story quotes some anonymous US officials which likely includes Adam Schiff, who is also quoted by name, as well as an anonymous “U.S.-vetted rebel commander” who apparently speaks for the thousands the article claims to represent, and Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Jassim al-Thani, suggesting that if rebels aren’t helped more America’s alliance with the Gulf States may be in trouble. It also lays out what Trump’s incoming team, including Mike Flynn and James Mattis, might feel about how a Syrian win would help Iran.

I’m most interested in this part of the article, in which a single US official lays out a certain narrative about the US backed rebels — basically pretending that the covert program has worked.

The possibility of cutting loose opposition groups it has vetted, trained and armed would be a jolt to a CIA already unsettled by the low opinion of U.S. intelligence capabilities that Trump had expressed during his presidential campaign.

From a slow and disorganized start, the opposition “accomplished many of the goals the U.S. hoped for,” including their development into a credible fighting force that showed signs of pressuring Assad into negotiations, had Russia not begun bombing and Iran stepped up its presence on the ground, said one of several U.S. officials who discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The United States estimates that there are 50,000 or more fighters it calls “moderate opposition,” concentrated in the northwest province of Idlib, in Aleppo and in smaller pockets throughout western and southern Syria, and that they are not likely to give up.

“They’ve been fighting for years, and they’ve managed to survive,” the U.S. official said. “Their opposition to Assad is not going to fade away.”

Not only does this passage far overstate the success of US efforts, but it — like Qatar’s foreign minister — threatens that these armed men won’t go away if the US backs Assad.

No matter what you think of US efforts in Syria, this kind of narrative from the people who’ve backed an unsuccessful covert program is fairly disturbing, as if even the US officials in the story are siding with the more explicit threats from Qatar against the US.

Yes, if Trump really remains committed to his promised partnership with Russia (assuming he and the nutjobs he has hired can manage that relationship, which I doubt), the rebels will side with Qatar (and the Saudis and who knows what Erdogan will do?) against Assad — which has basically been what they’ve been doing all this time anyway. Yes, if that happens, the US will lose its leverage over Qatar, with potentially dangerous consequences.

But this sounds awfully close to Americans turning against American policy, no matter how untutored Trump is.