An embarrassing number of people in DC have been saying publicly since Friday that we have to launch cruise missiles against Bashar al-Assad or risk the “credibility” of the United States. John McCainMike McCaul. Adam Schiff. Former NSC staffer Barry Pavel.

But this WSJ piece — after describing how central the Saudis were in presenting earlier claims that Assad had used chemical weapons and in the midst of descriptions of how central a role Bandar bin Sultan is playing in drumming up war against Syria — reports that Saudi King Abdullah and others were bitching about US credibility as early as April.

In early April, said U.S. officials, the Saudi king sent a strongly worded message to Mr. Obama: America’s credibility was on the line if it let Mr. Assad and Iran prevail. The king warned of dire consequences of abdicating U.S. leadership and creating a vacuum, said U.S. officials briefed on the message.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who was the first Saudi official to publicly back arming the rebels, followed with a similar message during a meeting with Mr. Obama later that month, the officials said.

I wonder if we started taking Saudi taunts about our credibility more seriously after Bandar made a show of wooing Vladimir Putin?

In any case, here we go, hastily getting involved in the war in Syria and potentially escalating it across the region as a whole, without proper review much less a plan on how to actually improve the situation in Syria.


Apparently, the only kind of credibility that matters for America’s place in the role anymore is if our Saudi overlords suggest we lack credibility if we fail to do their explicit, and long-planned, bidding.


Meanwhile think of all the things American has squandered its position as unquestioned leader of the world without confronting. Poverty, hunger. The most obvious, of course, is climate change.

How much more “credibility” would the United States have by now if, at the start of his Administration, Obama had launched not just a Manhattan project to dramatically curb American use of fossil fuels, but also invested the goodwill Obama had (back before he expanded the drones) to find an equitable, global approach to climate change.


Apparently, the only thing the Villagers in DC think could or should win us “credibility” is in unquestioningly serving as global enforcer against the brutal dictators our brutal dictator friends the Saudis wants us to punish (though the Saudis are quite selective about which brutal dictators they stake our credibility on).

America could have used its power and leadership to earn real credibility. Instead, we’re trying to suck up to Bandar Bush.

Displacing the Reset with Russia

As you no doubt heard yesterday, Obama called off a planned meeting with Putin after the G20 next month in response to a number of things (including Russia’s increasing persecution of gays), but largely triggered by Russia’s offer of asylum to Edward Snowden.

In addition to this piece applauding that decision, Julia Ioffe wrote up all the things about our approach to Snowden in Russia that Lawrence O’Donnell deemed unfit for MSNBC last night, which echo what I said back in June. The key bullet points are:

  • You can’t back Putin into a corner and leave him no options. If you are a world leader worth your salt, and have a good diplomatic team working for you, you would know that. You would also know that when dealing with thugs like Putin, you know that things like this are better handled quietly. Here’s the thing: Putin responds to shows of strength, but only if he has room to maneuver. You can’t publicly shame him into doing something, it’s not going to get a good response. Just like it would not get a good response out of Obama.
  • The Obama administration totally fucked this up. I mean, totally. Soup to nuts. Remember the spy exchange in the summer of 2010? Ten Russian sleeper agents—which is not what Snowden is—were uncovered by the FBI in the U.S. Instead of kicking up a massive, public stink over it, the Kremlin and the White House arranged for their silent transfer to Russia in exchange for four people accused in Russia of spying for the U.S. Two planes landed on the tarmac in Vienna, ten people went one way, four people went the other way, the planes flew off, and that was it. That’s how this should have been done if the U.S. really wanted Snowden back.

You don’t back ego-driven world leaders into corners — whether it is Putin or Obama — and succeed in achieving your goals.

All that said, Reuters reported a far more interesting development than Obama blowing off the Putin meeting yesterday. The Saudis have offered to bribe Putin to back off his support of Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia has offered Russia economic incentives including a major arms deal and a pledge not to challenge Russian gas sales if Moscow scales back support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Middle East sources and Western diplomats said on Wednesday.


Syrian opposition sources close to Saudi Arabia said Prince Bandar offered to buy up to $15 billion of Russian weapons as well as ensuring that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia’s position as a main gas supplier to Europe.

In return, Saudi Arabia wanted Moscow to ease its strong support of Assad and agree not to block any future Security Council Resolution on Syria, they said.

Finally, America’s allies (and it’s unclear how involved the US was in this deal, though Bandar usually plays nicely with us) are speaking to Putin in terms of Russia’s interests, rather than insisting Assad’s overthrow benefits everyone.

I’m especially interested in Bandar’s promise to “ensur[e] that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia’s position as a main gas supplier to Europe.” That, frankly, is probably the biggest carrot on the table here. But I can imagine no way Bandar could guarantee it (did the Qataris buy in? can Bandar control fracking in Europe? and what happens if and when the Saudis succeed in getting us to overthrow the Iranians?).

It appears the Saudis are more impressed with the meeting than Putin.

One Lebanese politician close to Saudi Arabia said the meeting between Bandar and Putin lasted four hours. “The Saudis were elated about the outcome of the meeting,” said the source, without elaborating.


Putin’s initial response to Bandar’s offer was inconclusive, diplomats say. One Western diplomat in the Middle East said the Russian leader was unlikely to trade Moscow’s recent high profile in the region for an arms deal, however substantial.

He said Russian officials also appeared skeptical that Saudi Arabia had a clear plan for stability in Syria if Assad fell.

But it at least appears to suggest that Putin would respond to discussions that acknowledged Russia’s interests, for a change. Even if Bandar can’t yet present a plan that seems plausible.

Does Putin really have to be the grown-up in the room who points out that Syria without Assad will not be stable anytime soon?

No matter what happens with Snowden, very few have acknowledged that, in addition to details of spying on Americans, he has also mapped out the backbone of our increasingly fragile hegemony over the world.  We have responded only by ratcheting up pressure, rather than attempting persuasion.

It will be interesting to see, first, whether this Saudi initiative has any better effect. And if it does, whether we’ve been included in implementing it.

Update: Washington Institute’s Simon Henderson says we weren’t part of this scheme.

The Saudi diplomatic push shows Riyadh’s determination to force the Assad regime’s collapse, which the kingdom hopes will be a strategic defeat for Iran, its regional rival in both diplomatic and religious terms. It also reflects Riyadh’s belief, shared by its Gulf Arab allies, that U.S. diplomacy on Syria lacks the necessary imagination, commitment, and energy to succeed.


Meanwhile, the United States is apparently standing on the sidelines — despite being Riyadh’s close diplomatic partner for decades, principally in the hitherto successful policy of blocking Russia’s influence in the Middle East. In 2008, Moscow agreed to sell tanks, attack helicopters, and other equipment to the kingdom, but the deal never went through. Instead, in 2010, Washington and Riyadh negotiated a huge $60 billion defense deal (including attack helicopters), the details of which are still being finalized. The events of the past week suggest that the U.S.-Saudi partnership — which covers regional diplomacy, the Middle East peace process, the global economy, and weapons sales — is, at best, being tested. It would be optimistic to believe that the Moscow meeting will significantly reduce Russian support for the Assad regime. But meanwhile Putin will have pried open a gap between Riyadh and Washington. The results of the latest U.S.-Russian spat will be watched closely, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

CIA “Command and Control” in Syria

Yesterday, in a story describing the state of affairs following the suicide bomb that took out key members of Bashar al Assad’s national security team, David Ignatius described CIA’s (and Israel’s) involvement in Syria this way:

The CIA has been working with the Syrian opposition for several weeks under a non-lethal directive that allows the United States to evaluate groups and assist them with command and control. Scores of Israeli intelligence officers are also operating along Syria’s border, though they are keeping a low profile.

Even before I read Ignatius’ piece, I wondered if we had shared intelligence with the rebels, helping them to decimate Assad’s team so effectively. Certainly, intelligence sharing could be included under non-lethal activities.

And now, Middle Eastern sources are reporting this RUMINT.

Reports in the Arab-language press indicate the head of Iran’s covert foreign operations Quds force was killed in Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus.
Al-Quds Force’s long-elusive commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, is reported to have made several trips to Damascua to meet with Assad and his top commanders since January of this year.
Iran has made no bones about having bolstered Assad’s embattled regime with members of its own elite Revolutionary Guard, but the death of Suleimani would be a direct blow to Tehran.

Suleimani, who masterminded al-Quds Force operations in Iraq and covert activities throughout the Persian Gulf and Lebanon, is a key figure in Iranian policymaking, particularly in security matters.

A combat veteran of Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, Suleimani took command of the al-Quds Force in the late 1990s and has become a powerful figure in the upper echelons of the Tehran regime.

His death in Wednesday’s bombing could indicate Syria’s rebels have covert support from Western nations in their anti-Assad campaign.

Well now, that would be rather remarkable “luck,” wouldn’t it? Those feisty Islamist-tied rebels taking out Assad’s national security team and our enemy, all in one terrorist attack?

Additionally, Syrian rebels have seized the border crossing points between Syrian and Iraq, another pressing issue Ignatius rather presciently raised yesterday.

The main transit routes into Syria come from the four points of the compass — Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. The two key axes, in terms of Western assistance, are Turkey and Jordan, both close allies of the United States. The two potential flash points for spreading the sectarian fighting are Lebanon and Iraq, both of which have substantial Shiite militias allied with Iran, which backs Assad.

It all seems to be falling into place for the Islamist backed rebels, huh?

Meanwhile, in probably but not definitely unrelated news, King Abdullah just named Bandar bin Sultan to head Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service.

I wonder. Is the War on Terror still operative? Or has CIA been swapping prepositions of late?

Update: Wrong! Bandar’s appointment is totally related to Syria. He was appointed because he’s the guy who partnered with us the last time (save Libya) we used Islamists to clandestinely overthrow a country.

For Saudis and Westerners who remember Prince Bandar as a driving force rallying international support and procuring weapons for Muslim fighters seeking to push Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s, the appointment was a sign that the Saudis might play a more influential role as uprisings that may remake the Arab world, especially in Syria.

“In these very hectic moments for Saudi foreign policy…we need Bandar bin Sultan,” said Abdullah al-Shammri, a political analyst. “He’s a volcano, and we need a volcano at this moment.”

Mr. al-Shammri cited what he called Prince Bandar’s “special relationship” with American officials. He also mentioned parallels between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia working together in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and current circumstances in Syria, where the U.S., Saudi Arabia and others are trying to overcome Russian objections to tougher action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

WikiLeaks Reveals How the British Lied to OECD about BAE Bribery

A WikiLeaks cable dated March 5, 2007 has raised new interest in the BAE bribery scandal (AP, WSJ, Telegraph). While no one seems to have noted this, the cable shows that the British lied to their counterparts at the OECD about details of the bribery investigation into BAE.

As the Guardian (which led the reporting on this story) reported three years ago, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office started investigating evidence of an elaborate kickback system by which the Brits would give money to the Saudis for BAE contracts in 2004 (it turns out those kickbacks were allegedly used to fund covert operations). In 2006, Prince Bandar bin Sultan flew to London and threatened Tony Blair the Saudis would stop sharing information on terrorists if the SFO continued its investigation. As a result, in early 2007, the SFO stopped its investigation, citing public interest. The US settled its investigation of the same bribery scheme for $400 million last year.

The cable appears to be preparation for the March 2007 OECD meeting of the Working Group on Bribery; it serves as a review of what had happened in the previous, January 2007, meeting regarding the British decision to stop its investigation of the BAE bribery scheme. Much of the cable reviews the stance of each country regarding the UK decision, with France vocally complaining that the British decision violated the Convention on bribery’s prohibition on invoking relations with foreign countries as reason to spike a bribery investigation, and Australia fully supporting the UK decision. According to the cable, the American delegation was in between those two positions (they were basically arguing for putting off a conclusion about the appropriateness of the decision until the March meeting for which this cable served as preparation):

The U.S. delegation took note of the experience and professionalism of U.K. delegation members. The US del inquired into what appeared to be inconsistent accounts relating to differences in views of the SFO Director and Attorney General regarding the merits of the case, reports alleging British intelligence agencies had not joined the government’s assessment that the case raised national and international security interests, and whether the SFO could provide WGB members with assurances that BAE would not continue to make corrupt payments to senior Saudi officials.


The U.S. delegation commented that it was not appropriate at this juncture to conclude that Article 5 does not contemplate the proper invocation of national security interests.

Ultimately, the cable reveals, the group developed a consensus to revisit the issue in the March meeting after further review of the British investigation.

The cable is perhaps most interesting because it gives us a glimpse of what the British publicly told the international community about its investigation, the targets, and the reasons for dropping the investigation.

The SFO Deputy Director falsely portrayed the decision to end the investigation as voluntary

Most interestingly, the cable shows that SFO Deputy Director Helen Garlick portrayed SFO Director Robert Wardle’s decision to terminate the investigate as entirely voluntary.

Garlick started by underscoring the U.K. delegation’s willingness to answer as much as possible the questions of the WGB, bearing in mind pending litigation in the U.K. Garlick reported that SFO and MOD Police investigators had expended more than 2 million pounds sterling on the BAE investigations. She said on December 14, SFO Director Robert Wardle had decided to discontinue the joint SFO/MOD Police investigation based on his personal, independent judgment.

The French doubted this (I’m guessing they were suspicious partly because Wardle did not brief the group himself). Shortly after the January meeting, the Guardian reported that Wardle disagreed with Lord Goldsmith’s ultimate decision to spike the investigation and in 2008 Wardle testified that he strongly disagreed with the decision.

Wardle told the court in a witness statement: “The idea of discontinuing the investigation went against my every instinct as a prosecutor. I wanted to see where the evidence led.”

All of which suggests the French were right to doubt that Wardle made this decision himself.

The Brits may have kept Bandar bin Sultan’s role in the bribery scheme secret

In addition, tt appears that the Brits may have kept Bandar bin Sultan’s rule in the bribery scheme secret–though it may be, instead, that the cable didn’t record the details of the briefing pertaining to Bandar. The cable describes the Brits exhorting their partners to keep the contents of the briefing on the investigation classified.

U.K. delegation head Jo Kuenssberg said the U.K. recognized the level of interest of WGB members in the case and stressed the need to respect the confidentiality of the information contained in the U.K.’s briefing,

And then, among the details revealed in the investigation, the Brits described an “unnamed senior Saudi official” and “another very senior Saudi official” as recipients of some of the bribes in the scheme.

Third, payments made under the al-Yamamah contract to an unnamed senior Saudi official: Garlick advised that in October 2005, the SFO had demanded BAE produce documents including payments related to the al-Yamamah contract. The company made representations to the AG on public interest grounds (political and economic considerations) as to why the investigation should be halted. The AG undertook a Shawcross Exercise and sought representations from various British officials regarding the case. The SFO Director wanted to continue the investigation. On January 25, 2006, the AG agreed that there was no impediment to continuing the investigation. The SFO sought Swiss banking records regarding agents of BAE. The SFO found reasonable grounds that another very senior Saudi official was the recipient of BAE payments. The SFO was poised to travel to Switzerland in connection with its Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) request when the decision to discontinue the investigation was made;

The cable explicitly named Turki Bin Nasir, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s Air Force and already by that point publicly tied to the bribery scheme. So these two must be others. I’m guessing that Bandar–whose receipt of $1 billion via the scheme would be broken by the Guardian in June 2007–is the “very senior Saudi official” mentioned, not least because his involvement seems to have been exposed at the Swiss bank account stage of the investigation. So the only question, then, is whether the Brits kept his name–as they did the “unnamed senior Saudi official”–secret from their counterparts at the OECD. It appears, however, they did.

In addition, the British review of the investigation far underplayed the amount involved here.

Louis Freeh Defending Iran-Contra Type Arms Deals Along with Bandar

There’s an aspect of the Louis Freeh interview on Frontline I find fascinating.

In defense of his client, Saudi Prince Bandar, on allegations that Bandar received billions in bribes associated with a huge BAE defense contract, Freeh mostly tries to pretend there’s a meaningful distinction between the Saudi family and high government officials in it. Thus, the plane and estate that Bandar got in connection with the BAE deal are actually government-owned facilities he has use of.

And conveniently, Freeh hasn’t looked at the Swiss Bank Accounts or the Yamamah contract, so he can’t comment on their legality.

But I’m also fascinated by a more subtle tactic Freeh uses–to implicate high ranking Americans (and Brits) in the use of the funds. 

He explains away that structure of the al Yamamah contract to Congressional intransigence during the Reagan Administration. Congress wouldn’t let the Administration sell planes to Saudi Arabia, so what was Reagan to do except encourage Margaret Thatcher to set up a big corrupt contract to bypass this restriction?

Freeh: In other words, the United States, was not able to sell the Saudis F15s, and I think you understand the origin to this contract. The King sent Prince Bandar, my client, to President Reagan with very specific instructions, “Buy F15s.” And of course the United States had armed the Saudi armed forces for the last 20 years before that.

President Reagan said to my client, “Congress will never approve the sale of F15s.” My client then went up to the hill, spoke to senior leadership on both sides of the aisle, and they said, “We can’t authorize the purchase of F15s by the King of Saudi Arabia.” He went back to President Reagan who said, “Go talk to Maggie Thatcher,” which my client did. That’s how Tornados and the treaty, not the contract but the treaty between the two countries, was originated.

He wanted to buy the planes in the United States.


So there was only one bidder here by default and that was the British Aerospace Systems and the Toranado, at least as the contract began. So the way the treaty was set up, if the Ministry of Defense and Aviation wanted to purchase U.S. arms, U.S. arms could be purchased through BAE and DESO, which was the U.K. Ministry that did the purchasing, and that was sort of a way to purchase arms, transparent way to purchase arms, Read more

The BAE Bribes Funded Covert Ops

Man, this is one big paragraph. Makes you want to, um, breathe.

But here’s the key point of the paragraph–the description of how BAE bribes to Bandar bin Sultan and others were laundered through some offshore accounts and then used to fund covert ops.

Remember, that the real story behind the BAE "Al Yamamah" scandal is that, under the arms-for-oil barter deal, the British accumulated well-over $100 billion, in off-the-books, offshore funds, that have been used to finance covert operations, for the past 23 years (the deal was first signed in 1985, and has been regularly updated ever since).

After which said long breathless paragraph goes onto insinuate that the BAE bribes might be tied to 9/11.

The other nagging matter around the BAE case is that Prince Bandar "inadvertently" helped finance the 9/11 attacks, through funds provided by him and his wife to two Saudi intelligence operative in California, who, in turn, bankrolled two of the hijackers.

Now, before we focus too closely on the 9/11 insinuation, first let’s consider a few other details. 1985, when these funds were set up, was actually before BCCI, the Pakistani bank that both the CIA and the Saudis used to launder money for covert ops, folded. I’m curious whether any of the "usual hedge funds, etc. in places like the Cayman Islands, BVI" in which the Saudis dumped their bribe receipts were BCCI accounts? And did they move from there to Riggs Bank, where the Saudis and General Pinochet were subsequently laundering their money?

Read more

Bandar Bush Kicks the Poodle

Via AmericaBlog, the Guardian reports that Bandar bin Sultan, adoptive member of the Bush family, is alleged to have threatened Tony Blair to convince him to spike the investigation into BAE-related bribery of Bandar.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers threatened to make it easier for terrorists to attack London unless corruption investigations into their arms deals were halted, according to court documents revealed yesterday.

Previously secret files describe how investigators were told they faced "another 7/7" and the loss of "British lives on British streets" if they pressed on with their inquiries and the Saudis carried out their threat to cut off intelligence.

Prince Bandar, the head of the Saudi national security council, and son of the crown prince, was alleged in court to be the man behind the threats to hold back information about suicide bombers and terrorists. He faces accusations that he himself took more than £1bn in secret payments from the arms company BAE.

He was accused in yesterday’s high court hearings of flying to London in December 2006 and uttering threats which made the prime minister, Tony Blair, force an end to the Serious Fraud Office investigation into bribery allegations involving Bandar and his family. [my emphasis]

Now, it appears that Bandar threatened to "hold back information about suicide bombers and terrorists" in the UK–I don’t think this suggests that Bandar was going to direct terrorists to attack the UK. Here is what the Poodle said about the meeting:

The critical difficulty presented to the negotiations over the Typhoon contract … All intelligence cooperation was under threat … It is in my judgment very clear that the continuation of the SFO investigation into al-Yamamah risks seriously damaging confidence in the UK as a partner … I am taking the exceptional step of writing to you myself

And here is what the British Ambassador (to Saudi Arabia, I guess?) said to the Serious Fraud Office:

We had been told that ‘British lives on British streets’ were at risk … If this caused another 7/7, how could we say that our investigation was more important? … If further investigation will cause such damage to national and international security, [the head of the SFO] accepted it would not be in the public interest

Read more