August 9, 2020 / by 

 

Three Things: Bounties, Bounties, Bounce [UPDATE-1]

[NB: Update at bottom of post. /~Rayne]

There won’t be a quiz but there’s an action item at the end.

It’ll be more effort than Trump put into protecting our troops in Afghanistan.

You’ll want to brush up on the NYT report from Friday, Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.

Washington Post confirmed the story: Russian operation targeted coalition troops in Afghanistan, intelligence finds

As did the Wall Street Journal: Russian Spy Unit Paid Taliban to Attack Americans, U.S. Intelligence Says

~ 3 ~

Remember last year when Rep. Adam Schiff said he believed acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was withholding from Congress an urgent whistleblower complaint in order to protect Trump?

We build a crowdsourced timeline to guess what the whistleblower’s subject matter might be. We didn’t see the Ukraine quid pro quo but we still compiled a bodacious chronology of foreign policy events.

I’m betting the bit about John Bolton’s exit in that timeline may be revisited in the near future.

But there was one topic we didn’t give a lot of attention which might be worth looking at again, like right now — the peace agreement negotiations in Afghanistan.

(Commenters added more material in comments not added to the original timeline — I think we were learning it was Ukraine and not Afghanistan or Iran which was the subject of the whistleblower’s complaint.)

Now that NYT’s report that Russia offered secret bounties on U.S. service members has been validated by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, we need to look at the Afghanistan timeline — this time with more content from 2019 and up-to-date 2020 material.

28-AUG-2019 — Russia offered to oversee an agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan; negotiations were in their ninth round when the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested it could be “a guarantor in the agreement” if the two sides wished.

01/02-SEP-2019 — US Special Rep. for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Kabul where the Taliban, Afghan government and the U.S. had “reached an agreement in principle” toward an eventual “total and permanent cease-fire.”

03-SEP-2019 — Russian media outlet Tass reported that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister said the U.S. and Taliban “insist that Russia must be present in one capacity or another at the possible signing of the agreements that the parties are working on now.”

05-SEP-2019 — Suicide blast in Kabul killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico.

06-SEP-2019 — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani postponed a trip to the U.S.

07-SEP-2019 — Over several tweets Saturday evening, Trump canceled the meeting with Ghani at Camp David.

Unclear whether Trump realized he might have been meeting over the anniversary of 9/11 on a peace agreement with both Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban.

07-SEP-2019 — Via Julia Davis (commenter Eureka):

Prof. Michael McFaul tweeted, “What? TASS has these details but USG has not released them? This is very strange. And why does Russia need to be present at signing? We’re they fighting Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and I just missed that?”

09-SEP-2019 — CNN broke story of a CIA asset extracted from Russia in 2017; followed by NYT on the 9th (and then NBC’s Ken Dilanian appears at the asset’s house…)

09-SEP-2019 — Trump asked for Bolton’s resignation and tweeted about it the next morning.

10-SEP-2019 — “They’re dead. They’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, they’re dead,” Trump told the media about the peace talks with Afghanistan.

13-SEP-2019 — Taliban showed up in Moscow almost immediately after the Camp David meeting fell apart (commenter OldTulsaDude).

15-SEP-2019 — Small arms fire in central Warduk province killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy W. Griffin, 40.

20-NOV-2019 — Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kirk Fuchigami Jr., 25, and Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 David C. Knadle, 33, died in a helicopter crash in eastern Logar province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the crash; Trump visited Dover AFB on Nov. 21 when the soldiers’ bodies were returned.

11-DEC-2019 — Unknown number of U.S. personnel were injured during a large bombing of Bagram Airfield.

23-DEC-2019 — Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Goble, 33, was killed in a roadside bombing in northern Kunduz province.

31-DEC-2019 — A total of 22 service members were killed in Afghanistan in 2019. It’s not clear how many U.S. contractors may have been killed because the military doesn’t track them.

11-JAN-2020 — Two U.S. service members were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. Taliban claimed responsibility.

17-JAN-2020 — The Taliban offered a proposal to reduce violence and restart peace negotiations.

27-JAN-2020 — Two U.S. Air Force crew members were killed when an E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft crashed. Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting the plane down.

08-FEB-2020 — Sgt. Javier Jaguar Gutierrez, 28; and Sgt. Antonio Rey Rodriguez, 28 were killed and six other service members were injured in an insider attack in Nangarhar province.

09-FEB-2020 — WaPo reported:

On Sunday, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman in Qatar, where talks have been held, said Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives and Qatar’s foreign minister to discuss “some important issues on the results of the negotiations and the next moves,” according to a statement posted to Twitter.

20-FEB-2020 — Trump replaced Joseph Maguire as Acting Director of National Intelligence; Richard Grenell was named Maguire’s replacment.

21-FEB-2020 — U.S.-led coalition, Afghan forces, and the Taliban militia began a seven-day “reduction in violence” ahead of anticipated agreement.

28-FEB-2020 — Trump nominated John Ratcliffe as Director of National Intelligence.

29-FEB-2020 — U.S. and Taliban sign agreement addressing counterterrorism and the withdrawal of U.S. and international troops from Afghanistan.

03-MAR-2020 — Trump spoke by phone with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban leader and co-founder stationed in the Taliban’s Qatar offices.

23-MAR-2020 — After meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. would cut $1 billion in aid in 2020 and threatened to cut another $1 billion in 2021 because Ghani and Abdullah had not formed a unity government. Pompeo then met with the Taliban’s chief negotiator at Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar where he asked the Taliban to continue to adhere with the February agreement.

??-MAR-2020 — Administration learned that Russia offered secret bounties on U.S. troops.

The officials said administration leaders learned of reported bounties in recent months from U.S. intelligence agencies, prompting a series of internal discussions, including a large interagency meeting in late March. According to one person familiar with the matter, the responses discussed at that meeting included sending a diplomatic communication to relay disapproval and authorizing new sanctions.

30-MAR-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin.

03-APR-2020 — Trump fired Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson, claiming he “no longer” had confidence in Atkinson. Atkinson was then on leave until the effective date of his termination 03-MAY-2020. As IG he notified Congress of the whistleblower’s report regarding the Ukraine quid pro quo, going around Joseph Maguire to do so.

07-APR-2020 — The Taliban pulled out of talks with the Afghan government after discussions over the unrealized prisoner exchange cratered. Under the February agreement, prisoners were to be exchanged at the end of March; the exchange was called off on March 30.

07-APR-2020 — Trump fired Acting Inspector General of the Department of Defense Glenn Fine; Fine had also been named Chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee on 30-MAR. Fine’s termination made him ineligible to continue as chair of that committee.

09-APR-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin.

10-APR-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin (unclear if call was before/after Gen. Miller’s meeting).

10-APR-2020 — Gen. Austin Miller met with Taliban leaders in Qatar:

… The meeting between Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller and Taliban leaders came as both sides accuse each other of ramping up violence since signing a peace deal on Feb. 29, which could see all international troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months.

The meeting, which focused on curbing violence, was part of a military channel established in the U.S.-Taliban deal, the U.S. military’s press office in Kabul told Stars and Stripes.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said night raids and other operations in noncombat areas were discussed at the meeting, and Taliban officials “called for a halt to such attacks.” …

12-APR-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin.

25-APR-2020 — Trump made a joint statement with Putin observing the 75th anniversary of Elbe Day.

07-MAY-2020 — US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met members of the Taliban in Qatar along with the Special Envoy of Qatari Foreign Ministry for Counterterrorism and Mediation in Conflict Resolution, Mutlaq Al-Qahtani. They discussed the prisoner exchange and intra-Afghan talks.

07-MAY-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin; topics were COVID-19, arms control including Russia and China,  and the oil market.

26-MAY-2020 — John Ratcliffe approved by the Senate and sworn in as DNI.

30-MAY-2020 — Trump delays G7 meeting and invites Russia:

01-JUN-2020 — Trump phone call with Putin; delayed G7 meeting and oil market stabilization discussed.

08-JUN-2020 — Trump orders permanent draw down of 25% of U.S. troops stationed in Germany; he did not consult with NATO before this order.

Is there a pattern here (or more)? Was the violence juiced up to pressure the U.S. — specifically public opinion? What the heck did Russia’s Foreign Minister mean by a “guarantor” based on what we know today? How did Qatar become a player in the negotiations?

Did Trump really do nothing at all to protect our troops except talk with Putin and do some butt-kissing with a joint statement and an invitation to the G7 while undercutting Germany and NATO?

The Congressional Research Service policy brief on Afghanistan is worth a read to fill in some gaps. This paragraph is particularly important:

Afghan government representatives were not participants in U.S.-Taliban talks, leading some observers to conclude that the United States would prioritize a military withdrawal over a complex political settlement that preserves some of the social, political, and humanitarian gains made since 2001. The U.S.-Taliban agreement envisioned intra-Afghan talks beginning on March 10, 2020, but talks were held up for months by a number of complications. The most significant obstacles were an extended political crisis among Afghan political leaders over the contested 2019 Afghan presidential election and a disputed prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghan government. President Ghani and his 2019 election opponent Abdullah Abdullah signed an agreement ending their dispute in May 2020, and as of June 2020, the number of prisoners released by both sides appears to be reaching the level at which talks might begin, though the Afghan government may resist releasing high-profile prisoners that the Taliban demand as a condition of beginning negotiations.

~ 2 ~

It wasn’t just U.S. intelligence that learned U.S. troops who were the target of Russia’s secret bounties.

EU intelligence confirmed it had learned that Russia targeted both U.S. and UK troops, offering cash on British targets, too.

UK security officials also validate the report, attributing the work in Afghanistan to Russia’s GRU.

Why hasn’t Britain’s PM Boris Johnson or the Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said anything publicly about this?

Has the Johnson government done anything at all to communicate its displeasure with Russia? Has it taken any punitive action like sanctions?

Because there’s nothing obvious in UK or other international media to this effect as of 3:00 a.m. ET.

~ 1 ~

You’re going to read and hear a lot of folks talking about treason. We don’t encourage that word’s use because it has a specific legal meaning related to traditional warfare; a formal declaration of war establishing a defined enemy is necessary to accuse someone of providing aid and comfort to that enemy.

18 U.S. Code § 2381.Treason

Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.

(June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 807; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(2)(J), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2148.)

We’re not in a formally declared state of war with Russia; they are not a defined enemy.

But this Russian secret bounties business may fall under another umbrella. U.S. troops are deployed to Afghanistan under Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001:

Section 2 – Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements-
(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.
(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

The brushstroke with regard to future acts of international terrorism against the United States is and has been interpreted broadly.

Bounce this around a bit: does the definition of terrorism include repeated attacks on U.S. service members and contractors deployed under the AUMF 2001?

Does failing to take reasonable affirmative effort to protect these targets constitute aiding those who attack U.S. service members and contractors deployed under the AUMF 2001?

Is there, if not 18 USC 2381 – Treason, another section of 18 U.S. Code Chapter 115 — Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities which may more accurately describe the dereliction of duty by members of this administration by failing to protect U.S. troops?

~ 0 ~

And now for the action item…

Guess who else hasn’t uttered a peep about the Russian secret bounties on our troops?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

House Ranking Member Kevin McCarthy.

None of the +20 GOP senators up for re-election  have uttered a peep, nor have the couple who are retiring.

Here’s your action item:

— If you have a GOP senator(s), call their office and ask for a statement from the senator about the Russian bounties. Where do they stand? What action will the senator take?

— Share the results of your call here in the comments.

Congressional switchboard number is (202) 224-3121. Or you can look up their local office number at https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact.

For everybody else, calling your representative and senators to demand hearings with testimony from the former acting Director of National Intelligence Rick Grenell and the current Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe about the presidential briefing that did/did not happen with regard to these Russian bounties.

 

Let’s stay on topic in this thread — this is plenty to chew on.

UPDATE — 29-JUN-2020 10:00 A.M. ET —

Several new line items have been added to this timeline. If you pulled a copy since publication you’ll want to get a new one.

The Washington Post published an article last evening, Russian bounties to Taliban-linked militants resulted in deaths of U.S. troops, according to intelligence assessments.

It’s clear from reading it that many people knew about this intelligence, that there was a concerted effort to address it though the action ultimately taken was none.

Rather like the pandemic response, about which Trump had been warned in adequate time and then did nothing for six or more weeks, followed by a lot of bullshit and bluster.

Congress had better get to the bottom of this because this is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the executive branch.


Meanwhile, Over at Foggy Bottom

“No, you don’t need to be tested. Never mind all those coughing people sitting across the table from you at lunch. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

It’s rough being a career member of the US State Department workforce in the Donald Trump era. In general, much of the work of these people is not particularly affected by the changes in presidential administrations. Passports get issued to US citizens who wish to travel abroad, and visas get processed for those who wish to visit here. Those posted at embassies abroad listen to what is happening around them and report the most interesting stuff back to Foggy Bottom in DC, and they take what they’re told by Foggy Bottom and share it with the country in which they are posted. Big things change, like treaty negotiation postures and diplomatic postures on big picture issues, but the nitty gritty stuff is pretty ordinary and non-controversial.

But now, there’s a new wrinkle: whatever you do, don’t do or say anything that will make the guy who sits in the room with no corners look bad. He does not react well. And that wrinkle makes even the ordinary nitty gritty stuff difficult.

“Domani Spero,” the pseudonym of the author of DiploPundit, means “See you tomorrow, I hope,” which seems a fitting moniker for someone who watches the ins and outs of the State Department. Says he, “DiploPundit wades into leadership and management issues, realities of Foreign Service life, ambassadors and nominations, embassy report cards, current events in countries and regions which may or may not include prominent U.S. interests, and other developments in the international affairs community.” His writing assume that his readers are familiar with State Dept jargon and acronyms, which can put some readers off. On the other hand, for those in and around the US diplomatic community, DiploPundit is a definite place to check in for details that might not make it into general media reporting. Along the way, he occasionally posts items that come from his “burn bag” (State Dept lingo for the receptacle for classified trash that must be burned, rather than taken to the curb), which is his place for receiving anonymous tips. These often come from current State Dept employees, raising issues that they do not feel comfortable in bringing to the attention of their superiors via in-house channels.

Four days ago, DiploPundit noted that the US Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica put out a classic non-denial non-response to a story in the local media. While he didn’t link to the story, he seems to be referring to the Jamaica Observer, which wrote this last Wednesday:

A second case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Jamaica.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton confirmed the second imported case via Twitter this evening.

Dr Tufton said the second case is a US Embassy employee who returned from the UK.

As you might guess, the US Embassy in Kingston started getting calls about this, their response boils down to “we’re aware of the report and will not confirm or deny it, but we’re working with Jamaican authorities and doing a really deep cleaning of all embassy facilities.”

Three days ago, DiploPundit wrote up a Burn Bag post, sent to him by “sickdips”:

“Members of the Embassy community at one post have fallen seriously ill with COVID-19 symptoms, but the State Department will not test them for COVID-19 or *MEDEVAC them. There is already limited medical capacity at many posts, which will be completely overwhelmed as the pandemic spreads. What is MED waiting for? Protecting our people should be our NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.”

MEDEVAC is exactly what it sounds like – medically evacuate – and MED is the acronym for the State Dept’s Bureau of Medical Services. When I went to MEDs page at State.gov, it had nothing but standard “here’s what we do” language and no news items related to COVID-19 among US embassy staffers.

This led me back to that non-denial non-response. In the middle, there’s one sentence that jumped out at me: “The U.S. Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas and locally-employed staff.” Remember what I said at the top? Don’t say or do anything to make the guy who sits in the room with no corners look bad. That’s what’s going on in this statement. “Make sure you tell everyone that we take care of US citizens!”

If sickdips saw this (whether Jamaica is the post about which sickdips was writing or not), it’s probably what prompted sickdips to drop a note to the Burn Bag. Fancy words about protecting the safety of embassy staffers are nice, but actions on the ground like refusing to test after exposure to a known carrier of COVID-19 suggest otherwise.

That was three days ago. The following day, DiploPundit posted a roundup of items about COVID-19 at various embassies, which laid out nine different countries (including Jamaica and Italy) where ordinary services are restricted or the embassies and consulates are completely closed for all but the most extreme emergencies. The list included this observation at the top: “As of this writing, we have not seen any public announcement or guidance from the State Department on COVID-19 for employees or family members. Let us know if we missed any statement from Pompeo or [Undersecretary of State for Management Brian] Bulatao.”

That last sentence was DP poking Pompeo and his chief aide for running the State Department with a very sharp stick, and doing it in a place where everyone in the diplomatic community could and would see it.

That was two days ago. Today, the State Department put out an updated health warning for US citizens thinking about traveling abroad. The short version is this: don’t. The longer version is this:

Global Level 3 Health Advisory – Reconsider Travel

March 15, 2020

The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel abroad due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.

On March 14, the Department of State authorized the departure from any diplomatic or consular post in the world of US personnel and family members who have been medically determined to be at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19.

The first part of that is the language you’d find in a standard State Department warning, albeit these kinds of warning are usually aimed at specific countries or regions, not the whole world. But the second part of that — the part that begins “On March 14 . . . ” — is not standard. Not at all. It sounds to me as if someone at Foggy Bottom who read DiploPundit’s poke tried to address the concern, but “put it out with the trash” late on Saturday, hoping it wouldn’t get too much attention from the general media, and thus incur the wrath of that guy in the room with no corners.

This is a deeply serious development. This kind of “we’ll pull anybody out of anywhere” statement is damn near unheard of, and the only reason I say “damn near” is to give myself wiggle room should someone with greater historical knowledge step up. I can’t think of anything close, ever.

But even so, as broad and sweeping and unheard-of as this is, I don’t think on it’s face it is enough. As DiploPundit notes, “So the ‘authorized departure’ or voluntary evacuation depends on the determination of the local MED unit or based of current medical clearance?” You remember MED – the same folks that wouldn’t authorize testing personnel who had been in contact with an infected person?

Poke, poke, poke.

UPDATE from DiploPundit:

The cable released by State/M Brian Bulatao says: “Effective March 14, 2020, I hereby approve authorized departure (AD) from any diplomatic or consular post of U.S. direct hire employees or eligible family members (EFMs) as listed on employee orders and defined in 14 FAM 511.3 who, after confidential consultation with MED, have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19, or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification in foreign areas.”

Our source, not from Public Affairs, interpret this to mean that MED approval is not specifically required but you need to refer to MED when you go tell your boss you want out.

The  last time we had a global authorized/ordered departure order was probably during Y2K, was it? (The State Department at that time also issued an edict stating that all embassies must be prepared to be self-sufficient for 30 days by January 1, 2000).

When Trump gave his speech last week about the “foreign virus” and the need to blockade the EU but not the UK, it was clear that Trump was acting out of his usual playbook: xenophobia, build bigger walls, get revenge on your foes and carve out loopholes for your friends. Since then, clearer heads have pushed Trump to include the UK in his travel blockade, as viruses do not care about the color of your passport. I suspect those clearer heads are folks like Anthony Fauci on the medical side and whoever at State authorized the evacuation of any diplomatic staff from any post over medical concerns.

God bless them both, because it clearly takes the concerted effort of a group of people who are willing to make the guy in the room with no corners look bad if he’s doing stuff that will kill innocent people. And make no mistake: he *is* doing stuff that will kill innocent people. (See Jim’s post on the Customs mess at airports last night.)

Domani spero, everybody. See you tomorrow, I hope.


Hitting the Fan: Volker’s Text Messages Released

[NB: Check the byline, thanks! ~Rayne]

Around 10:00 p.m. last night, House Democrats released partial transcripts of text messages between former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker and other officials, including:

William B. “Bill” Taylor, Charge d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine;
Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union;
Andrey Yermak, Aide to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky;
Rudy Giuliani, in his role as Trump’s agent;

and others.

The specific texts released had already been “leaked” out of context, according to the cover letter accompanying the partial transcripts sent to members of the Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs Committees, subsequently shared at the Foreign Affairs Committee’s website.

You can read the letter and transcript at this link.

The transcripts suggest the entire State Department knew about the quid pro quo — the release of delayed military and financial assistance in exchange for investigations intended to aid Trump’s personal political aims including re-election. The quid pro quo also looks obvious:

Only one person recognized this effort as problematic: Bill Taylor, who assumed some of the responsibilities of recalled ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

There’s more than one quid pro quo outlined in the transcripts, not readily acknowledged in the media. Less obvious is the trade-off of an agreement to a scripted statement in exchange for an invitation to visit the White House. Such a visit would be a validation of support for Zelensky’s young presidency and a thumb in the eye to Vladimir Putin, bolstering Zelensky’s image with Ukraine’s public.

Community member harpie pointed to a statement on camera at 8:28 AM on August 9 by Trump which fits in the middle of the negotiations, suggesting Trump was fully aware of the exchange.

TRUMP: I think he’s [Zelensky] going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House, and we look forward to seeing him. He’s already been invited to the White House and he wants to come. And I think he will. He’s a very reasonable guy. He wants to see peace in Ukraine. And I think he will be coming very soon, actually.

(source: Aaron Rupar)

The transcripts suggest that Zelensky’s aide/adviser Yermak has been identified as ethically flexible — amenable to this quid pro quo and willing to present it to Zelensky. Yermak’s background is in film/TV production, similar to several of Zelensky’s administration. Only a couple of Zelensky’s team appear to be lawyers, one of which has been barred from holding public office (Andriy Bohdan, appointed to equivalent of Chief of Staff). In the text messages Yermak appears to keep Zelensky at arm’s length from the negotiations, but this may be due to the limited amount of texts released; Zelensky may have been wholly involved on a more direct basis.

~ ~ ~

Compounding the pressure on House Dems to act is Trump’s increasingly overt behavior, asking China yesterday on camera to investigate both of his 2020 political rivals, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

China has now issued a statement in response:

Now that we know how this works in Trumplandia, we can interpret the unexpressed portion of this statement: China will not interfere in U.S. domestic affairs and the U.S. should not interfere in China’s domestic affairs — including Hong Kong.

We can only wonder at what else was in the text transcripts not yet disclosed, and how Trump will react if yesterday was just the beginning act of this program.


Something Smells — and It’s Not Burning Oil

[NB: Check the byline, thanks! /~Rayne]

Others have offered more trenchant responses after Trump’s tweets as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham’s warmongering, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s drivel about the apparent attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility this weekend. Let me offer my two cents about the attack.

This is an early assessment of what happened by a Bloomberg correspondent:

Do open the tweet to look at both images in it; this is the one on the right in the tweet.

Here’s a another image of a portion of the damage from a Bloomberg article (click to expand):

Note carefully this color image as it appears on Bloomberg’s site is an expanded, rotated view of the damage shown in the black-and-white marked up photo on the left in the Bloomberg correspondent’s tweet. The pond at the right hand of the area under smoke is the point of reference.

Now note the detail from the color satellite photo. The color image is attributed to Planet Labs, Inc. at the Bloomberg article while the black-and-white ones are attributed to Digital Globe. The detail is pretty good but not as good as the image taken of the Iranian launch site explosion Trump tweeted on August 30.

I’ll be the first to admit I am not an expert on missiles, munitions, explosions, or oil processing systems. But something about these images doesn’t make sense to me. They don’t look like what I’d expect from missile damage targeting oil facilities.

Below is an image of a BP refinery explosion in Texas from 2005; the cause was blamed on exposure of flammable vapors to a spark from a running motor.

No missile involved. No drone dropping an explosive, either. Some leak and a spark and *FWOOM* (love the technical term).

Granted, the satellite imagery didn’t catch the Abqaiq facility immediately after the explosion when there would have been more flames. But the damage afterward doesn’t look as extensive as the BP refinery explosion.

Note the size of the holes in the rounded tanks in the second black-and-white satellite image to the right in the Bloomberg correspondent’s tweet. Awfully small, more like something used on an automobile-sized target, in my uninformed opinion.

Now note the shadows in the images. These were taken before solar noon over the location; shadows appear on the north-northwest side of any object with adequate profile above ground.

What ever hit the tank-like features came from the northwest and not from the east.

Iran is to the northeast of Saudi Arabia across the gulf.

One more wrinkle — check this map from the Indian Defence Review circa February 2015, analyzing Saudi Arabia’s defenses.

The Abqaiq oil processing facility is located between Riyadh and Dammam.

How would 17 separate missiles or drones from either Iran or Yemen get by the defense network to hit the facility from the northwest?

Pompeo has now said the attack didn’t come from Iraq’s direction.

A whole cascade of questions arises from there on out if you think about it. For grins use Twitter’s search tool and look for “abqaiq.” If you scroll through you’ll see many people are noting similar issues and posing similar questions.

Recommended additional reading: Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted a thread last night related to the other culture issues involved in the regional tensions. It’s worth your time.

Treat this as an open thread.


The Assange Indictment and The Rule of Specialty

Alright, as most of you have discovered, Julian Assange had his asylum status revoked by Ecuador, and officers of the Met (and presumably Scotland Yard too) were allowed into the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to effectuate arrest of Assange. Don’t be fooled by the breathless cable news coverage, the primary arrest warrant was the UK one from Assange’s 2012 jumping of bail conditions, not the extradition request by the US. In short, Assange would still be in custody right now irrespective of the US extradition request.

To flesh out the rest of Assange’s status, to the extent we currently know it, I will pilfer some of the reportage of the excellent Daniel Sandford of the BBC. Assange was presented immediately to Court One at the Westminster Magistrate’s Court where it was made clear that there were two warrants he was arrested on, not just the US request. Assange pled not guilty. He was NOT ordered to present evidence on his failure to surrender (which is appropriate if he declines). The judge presiding, Michael Snow nevertheless, and quite properly, found Assange guilty of the bail offense. Assange will appear in the higher level Southwark Crown Court for sentencing on the bail offense at a future date not yet specified. He will be back in the Westminster Magistrate’s Court, as of now by video link from his detention facility, on May 2nd regarding the extradition matter.

With that background out of the way, let’s look at the more significant US extradition case. First off, here is the EDVA indictment that was unsealed this morning. As you can see, it is for a single count of computer hacking conspiracy. I think most people expected all kinds of different counts, up to and including espionage crimes. Those were not included, nor were the issues from the Vault 7 case, that easily could have been indicted on outside of any real First Amendment issues.

So, while the indictment could have encompassed far many more charges and issues, it does not and is just this one count.

Why is that important?

Because legal commentators like Jeff Toobin on CNN are having a field day noting that there may be more charges forthcoming. And Shimon Prokupecz of CNN reports DOJ is indeed going to seek “additional charges” against Assange. And why is that important? Because of the Rule of Specialty.

I noted this from almost the first second on Twitter, but few other than Ken White (aka Popehat) seem to have caught on to how this doctrine will come into play in the case of Assange. It is a real issue, though we do not know how it will play out at this early stage of the extradition process.

The Doctrine of Specialty is a principle of International law that is included in most extradition treaties, whereby a person who is extradited to a country to stand trial for certain criminal offenses may be tried only for those offenses and not for any other pre-extradition offenses. Long ago and far away I argued this successfully, but that was in relation to the treaty between the US and Mexico. The Assange case obviously involves a different treaty, the US/UK Extradition treaty of 2003.

So, what does the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Treaty of 2003 provide? Well, that is contained in Article 18, which reads as follows:

Rule of Specialty

1. A person extradited under this Treaty may not be detained, tried, or punished in the Requesting State except for:
(a) any offense for which extradition was granted, or a differently denominated offense based on the same facts as the offense on which extradition was granted, provided such offense is extraditable, or is a lesser included offense;
(b) any offense committed after the extradition of the person; or
(c) any offense for which the executive authority of the Requested State waives the rule of specialty and thereby consents to the person’s detention, trial, or punishment. For the purpose ofthis subparagraph:
(i) the executive authority of the Requested State may require the submission of the documentation called for in Article 8; and
(ii) the person extradited may be detained by the Requesting State for 90 days, or for such longer period of time as the Requested State may authorize, while the request for consent is being processed.

2. A person extradited under this Treaty may not be the subject of onward extradition or surrender for any offense committed prior to extradition to the Requesting State unless the Requested State consents.
3. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article shall not prevent the detention, trial, or punishment of an extradited person, or the extradition of the person to a third State, if the person:
(a) leaves the territory ofthe Requesting State after extradition and voluntarily returns to it; or
(b) does not leave the territory ofthe Requesting State within 20 days of the day on which that person is free to leave.
4. I f the person sought waives extradition pursuant to Article 17, the specialty provisions in this Article shall not apply.

It is early, but Assange has specifically NOT waived extradition, and I do not expect that will change. In fact, he would be nuts to waive it. But look out for the US requesting the UK to waive the issue pursuant to Article 18(1)(c). I have no idea how the UK would treat such a request (nor whether it may have already been made). But give the UK credit, they take extradition conditions seriously and will not extradite where the death penalty is in play.

The death penalty could be an issue were Assange to be subsequently charged under 18 USC §794 (Espionage Act), which reads:

(a) Whoever, with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation, communicates, delivers, or transmits, or attempts to communicate, deliver, or transmit, to any foreign government, or to any faction or party or military or naval force within a foreign country, whether recognized or unrecognized by the United States, or to any representative, officer, agent, employee, subject, or citizen thereof, either directly or indirectly, any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, note, instrument, appliance, or information relating to the national defense, shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for any term of years or for life, except that the sentence of death shall not be imposed unless the jury or, if there is no jury, the court, further finds that the offense resulted in the identification by a foreign power (as defined in section 101(a) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978) of an individual acting as an agent of the United States and consequently in the death of that individual, or directly concerned nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large-scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information; or any other major weapons system or major element of defense strategy.

Now, frankly, I think the US, through the DOJ, would have no problem whatsoever stipulating that the death penalty is off the table for Assange. It is almost a given.

The real question is what becomes of the Assange case in light of the Rule of Specialty. Suppose any superseding indictment does not go into charges outside of the “computer offenses” specified in the current indictment, but seeks to add additional computer offenses in an attempt to increase the sentencing range? Does that violate the spirit of the Rule of Specialty?

There is a lot we simply do not know yet. But this doctrine, and how the US proceeds in light of it, needs to be watched closely as the Assange extradition matter proceeds, both in the UK, and once he is remanded to US custody.


Meanwhile, Over In Turkey . . .

Well isn’t this interesting? From Diplopundit last Friday comes a post with this title: Tillerson Meets Erdoğan in Ankara With Turkish Foreign Minister as InterpreterThe post is a series of tweets from all kinds of media folks, which include some of these gems:

Nicholas Wadhams of Bloomberg News:

Secretary of State Tillerson is currently meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is the lone US representative and Turkey’s foreign minister is translating.

Rajib Soylu, Washington correspondent for Daily Sabah:

This is the second Erdoğan – Tillerson meeting where all Turkish, American officials, and even the translators excluded.

Turkish FM functions as a translator.

Ihlan Tanir of Washington Hatti US:

Im trying to understand — I never expected Pres Erdogan and Sec Tillerson to have a press conference but they did not even read statements following 200 minutes of a meeting?

Let’s pause here for a moment to let that last one sink in.

It’s one thing if the Turkish Foreign Minister brings Erdogan over to Tillerson at a meet-and-greet and translates some friendly “let me show you pictures of my grandkids” chit-chat between the two. But that’s not what this was. This was a lengthy, official, and private meeting that lasted over three hours between some very high level folks at a time of rather significant tension between the two countries.

You don’t have meetings like this without your own translator. You just don’t. The typical process is that both sides have interpreters. Official A speaks, the interpreter for Official B tells Official B what was said, and the interpreter for Official A says some version of “Yes, that’s correct” to verify the interpretation. Then it all works in reverse when Official B replies. With difficult issues under discussion, the last thing either side wants is confusion about what each side is saying.

Excluding your own interpreter is so far outside of normal protocols it is unreal, and begs the ever-green question about most everything since 1/20/2017: idiot or crook?

As Diplopundit noted in his/her own tweet, someone else was missing from this meeting — an official note taker:

Saving money on translators*, too? And the foreign FM will just share his notes of the T-E discussion with the State Dept. Or EUR can use their Magic 8 ball. 😭 It knows everything and always willing to share.

(* Diplopundit later corrected this to “interpreters”, as a slip of the fingers since “translators” are more precisely those who deal with written documents while “interpreters” handle verbal communications.)

“EUR” in that last tweet is the State Department’s Office of European Affairs, where long ago I was an intern. I can only imagine the reaction in Foggy Bottom was when word of Tillerson’s meeting with Erdogan reached them. It likely involved multiple variations on “He did WHAT?!?!?” with various . . . ahem . . . flavoring words for emphasis added. As former State Department spokesperson and retired Rear Admiral John Kirby told CNN:

“If the meeting is not conducted in English, it is foolhardy in the extreme not to have at his side a State Department translator, who can ensure that Mr. Tillerson’s points are delivered accurately and with the proper emphasis,” said former State Department spokesman and CNN diplomatic and military analyst John Kirby.

“That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part,” Kirby added.

And that’s what Kirby said about this in public. I’ll leave it to your imagination what he and other current and former State and Defense Department folks said to each other about it in private. Hold onto this for a moment, because we’ll come back to it in a bit.

Eventually, Tillerson and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu did in fact have a press availability, which the State Department has up on their website. In the statements issued by both, as well as their answers to questions from the reporters, they talked about all manner of increasingly tense topics, from the Kurds to what’s happening in Syria to the failed coup and the Turkish demands for Fethullah Gulen to be extradited back to Turkey, and more.

Two items stood out here. First, there’s this from Tillerson about midway through:

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, with respect to how we’re going forward – and that’s what all of the discussion here was about, recognizing where we find ourselves. And I think as the foreign minister indicated, we find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship. And we could go back and revisit how we got here, but we don’t think that’s useful. We’ve decided and President Erdogan decided last night we needed to talk about how do we go forward. The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.

And out of the meetings last night – and much of our staff was up through the night to memorialize how we’re going to go about this, and we’ll share a little bit of that in the joint statement. We’re going to reserve a lot of the details because there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we – and our working teams need to be allowed to do that work in a very open, frank, honest way with one another so that we can chart the way forward together.

I’ll bet the staff was up through the night. If no staff were allowed in the three hour meeting, then the only one who can tell them what was said, what kind of emphasis it was given, what threats were made, what promises were made, and what kind of nuance there was to each of the exchanges was Tillerson. No offense to the Secretary, but that makes the work of the staff very very difficult. To begin with, they had to interview Tillerson just to get all the information about the meeting (and pray he didn’t leave anything out), before they could even think about “how we’re going forward.”

But the larger item that stood out to me came in the very last pair of question asked, reprinted in full below but with emphasis added:

QUESTION:[ed: to Tillerson] Did you warn Turkey that they could be subject to sanctions under CAATSA legislation if they go ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? [ed: CAATSA is the Russian sanctions legislation that Congress passed but Trump refuses to implement with any teeth.]

And for you, Mr. Foreign Minister, would the threat of U.S. sanctions stop you from going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system? And if you do buy the system, do you still want to remain in NATO if you’re obtaining the weapons from Russia?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We did discuss the impact of the CAATSA law that was passed by the Congress last summer that deals with purchases of Russian military equipment. I discussed it last night with President Erdogan; we had further discussions this morning about it. And indeed, it’s in the first group of issues that the foreign minister is referring to. We need to put a group of experts together, and we’ll look at the circumstances around that, as we’ve done with governments all over the world, not just Turkey, because the intent of that legislation was not to harm our friends and allies. But it is directed at Russia for its interference in our elections. So we’ve been advising countries around the world as to what the impact on their relationship and purchases that they might be considering with Russia, and many have reconsidered those and have decided to not proceed with those discussions.

Every case is individual on its own. We want to consult with Turkey and at least ensure they understand what might be at risk in this particular transaction. We don’t have all the details yet, so I can’t give you any kind of a conclusion, but it’ll be given very careful scrutiny, obviously, and we’ll fully comply with the law. And we are – we are now implementing CAATSA and fully applying it around the world.

FOREIGN MINISTER CAVUSOGLU: Thank you very much. First and foremost, I need to underline that I am against the terminology that you use. You used the threat terminology. That is not a correct terminology to be used because it is true for all countries and states. We never use the language of threat and we deny if it is used against us, because this is not correct.

But as Rex has also indicated, this was not something that we talked just yesterday and today. When we met in Vancouver, we talked about this, and from time to time when we have phone conversations, we talk about such issues. This was again brought to the agenda in one of those talks. Of course, there is a law that was enacted by the United States Congress, and they explained this legislation to us. But on the other hand, this is our national security, and it’s important for our national security. I have emergency need of an air defense system. We want to purchase this from our allies, but this does not exist. So even when we are purchasing small-scale arms, the Congress or some other European parliaments, we have – we have and we had difficulty in purchasing these because of these excuses, and I have an emergency need. And the Russian Federation came up with attractive proposals for us. We also talked to other countries, not just with Russia, but we talked about this issue of emergency need with many countries and we had bilateral talks.

Also, in the mid-term, we talked about joint production and technology transfer. We focused on this because this is important for Turkey. And lastly, during the Paris visit of our president – with Eurosam – this is a French-Italian partnership – there was a pre-agreement signed, a memorandum of understanding signed with these groups. So we do not have any problems with our allies. Why should we not meet this requirement with NATO? But, of course, when it is not met within this platform, we need to look for alternative resources. Otherwise, some batteries – some Patriot were withdrawn from our frontier. Some European allies withdrew them. We have (inaudible) of the Italians and Patriots of Spain, and we do not have any other air defense. And we need to meet this requirement as soon as possible. And when we talked to Russia, this was actually an agreement that we reached before the legislation in Congress was enacted. And the remaining part was about the details of loans, et cetera.

Of course, we talked about all of these, and we will take into consideration this – within this working group the commission, but all of us need to understand each other and respect each other. Thank you very much.

In Cavusoglu’s answer, he is pushing back hard on attempts to isolate Turkey. He’s being polite about it, but the very public message is clear: “You know, the Russians seem very interested in making a deal with us, and if you persist in trying to pressure us and don’t back us with the Kurds and cause problems in Syria and don’t return that coup-instigating terrorist you are harboring, the Russians seem pretty clearly ready to help us out where you will not.”

Which makes Tillerson’s earlier comment above sound like he got that message loud and clear. To repeat: “The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies, it’s too valuable to the American people, it’s too valuable to the Turkish people for us to not do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward.”

But there were also some private messages being sent here, too.

Let’s go back to that no-staff-allowed element of the meeting once more. In general, it is in the interests of both parties to a conversation like that to have interpreters and notetakers present, so that in the public discussions that follow (like the one above), everyone agrees on the basic facts of what was said and you don’t getting into a “but you said . . .” and “no I didn’t” back-and-forth. For the meeting to exclude such staffers means that there is something else that overrides this interest.

In this case, the Turks had to have demanded that Tillerson not bring anyone with him to this meeting. There’s no way he would have told his staff “I got this – you take a break while I talk with Erdogan” on his own. The question is why, and all the possible answers I can come up after reading the Turkish Foreign Minister’s reply to that last question involve Vladimir Putin wanting Erdogan to pass on some kind of message to Trump — a message that he did not wish to be delivered within earshot of interpreters and notetakers.

It reminds me very much of that May 2017 Oval Office meeting that Trump had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and outgoing Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. That was the meeting where we later learned that Trump revealed Israeli intelligence to the Russians about their source inside ISIS and told them that he just fired “that nut job” James Comey which took the pressure off of him because of Russia.

Oh, and the US press were kept out of that meeting as well, with the only reports of it coming after the Russians told us about it. As Politico’s Susan Glasser noted about that Oval Office meeting, it came at the specific request of Putin:

The chummy White House visit—photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit—had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, and indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”

Kind of makes me wonder if the reason Tillerson left the interpreter back at the embassy is because Putin asked him to in a phone call last Monday. From CNN:

Washington (CNN) President Donald Trump spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to express condolences for a weekend plane crash outside Moscow, according to a US official.

The phone call came amid ongoing Washington-Moscow tensions over policy in the Middle East and Russia’s attempts to meddling in US elections.

Russian news agencies reported the phone call also included discussion of the situation in Israel. . . .

Again we’re hearing about this via Russian news agencies? I’m sensing a pattern here . . .

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Originally Posted @ https://www.emptywheel.net/state-department/