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Why Is CIA Avoiding the Conclusion that Putin Hacked Hillary to Retaliate for Its Covert Actions?

The most logical explanation for the parade of leaks since Friday about why Russia hacked the Democrats is that the CIA has been avoiding admitting — perhaps even considering — the conclusion that Russia hacked Hillary in retaliation for the covert actions the CIA itself has taken against Russian interests.

Based on WaPo’s big story Friday, I guessed that there was more disagreement about Russia’s hack than its sources — who seemed to be close to Senate Democrats — let on. I was right. Whereas on Friday WaPo reported that it was the consensus view that Russia hacked Hillary to get Trump elected, on Saturday the same journalists reported that CIA and FBI were giving dramatically different briefings to Intelligence Committees.

The question the Republicans and Democrats in attendance wanted answered was whether the bureau concurred with the conclusions the CIA had just shared with senators that Russia “quite” clearly intended to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton and clinch the White House.

For the Democrats in the room, the FBI’s response was frustrating — even shocking.

During a similar Senate Intelligence Committee briefing held the previous week, the CIA’s statements, as reflected in the letter the lawmakers now held in their hands, were “direct and bald and unqualified” about Russia’s intentions to help Trump, according to one of the officials who attended the House briefing.

[snip]

“The FBI briefers think in terms of criminal standards — can we prove this in court,” one of the officials said. “The CIA briefers weigh the preponderance of intelligence and then make judgment calls to help policymakers make informed decisions. High confidence for them means ‘we’re pretty damn sure.’ It doesn’t mean they can prove it in court.”

The FBI is not sold on the idea that Russia had a particular aim in its meddling. “There’s no question that [the Russians’] efforts went one way, but it’s not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals,” said one U.S. official.

Subsequent leaks have continued to make it clear there’s a dispute both about what motive Russia had to target Hillary (to destabilize the US? to get Trump elected?) and how much evidence there is (the FBI thinks it is circumstantial, the CIA thinks it a  smoking gun). In addition, there have been unanswered questions about why CIA only briefed that Russia affirmatively supported Hillary this week, when reportedly they have had the evidence that conclusion is based on for months.

Remarkably, only secondary commenters (including me, in point 13 here) have suggested the most obvious explanation: The likelihood that Russia targeted the former Secretary of State for a series of covert actions, all impacting key Russian interests, that at least started while she was Secretary of State. Those are:

  • Misleadingly getting the UN to sanction the Libya intervention based off the claim that it was about protecting civilians as opposed to regime change
  • Generating protests targeting Putin in response to 2011 parliamentary elections
  • Sponsoring “moderate rebels” to defeat Bashar al-Assad
  • Removing Viktor Yanukovych to install a pro-NATO government

Importantly, the first three of these happened on Hillary’s watch, with her active involvement. And Putin blamed Hillary, personally, for the protests in 2011.

Never mind the relative merit of these covert operations. Never mind that Putin has not, yet, released any evidence to support his claim that Hillary (or CIA) supported the 2011 protests targeting him personally; there is no doubt he believes it. During the primary Hillary as much as confirmed that when her diplomats negotiated the UN voted in 2011, they had regime change in mind the whole time. The US has acknowledged its covert operations against Assad in Congressional testimony. And hackers released a call from Victoria Nuland acting like she was in charge of deciding what post-Yanukovych Ukraine would look like.

In other words, whatever the merits and evidence behind these four events, there is no doubt Putin sees them as a threat to Russian interests and blames the US for all of them, with merit in at least some of the cases.

And yet, this most obvious motive has not been leaked to the press, creating the impression that it has never been considered by the people who carried out these covert actions.

To admit this possible motive publicly, of course, would require admitting that the US still tampers in other governments, including some that are elected (even if in elections of dubious fairness). It would also require admitting that our own government got targeted as a response to these covert interventions, which would make concerns about how novel this intervention was a lot less convincing.

Finally, if this motive were the real reason Putin tampered in our election, it might explain why Obama has been reluctant to respond. Perhaps the US believes that Putin has evidence that might prove — or at least create a convincing case that — that the US did intervene to try to weaken him in 2011. And again, the US has already stated on the record they’ve got a covert operation to topple Assad.

Update: I’ll add that DC Leaks, which has always been conflated with Guccifer 2 (which released only Democratic files) and the DNC and Podesta leaks to Wikileaks, started by releasing documents with very clear ties to Ukraine, including a great many targeted at George Soros. If DC Leaks is considered part of the same operation, it is all the more unbelievable that CIA has not considered this explanation.

Update: At an October 18 event, Michael Hayden said (after 20:30) Putin did this because he believes that we do this to him all the time, citing the Rose Revolution, 2011 protests, and Maidan, but not mentioning Libya and Syria. Hayden did claim that the US doesn’t actually do those things (again, not mentioning Libya and Syria), but earlier he said he had done similar things to the actual hack while Director of NSA.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Unpacking the New CIA Leak: Don’t Ignore the Aluminum Tube Footnote

This post will unpack the leak from the CIA published in the WaPo tonight.

Before I start with the substance of the story, consider this background. First, if Trump comes into office on the current trajectory, the US will let Russia help Bashar al-Assad stay in power, thwarting a 4-year effort on the part of the Saudis to remove him from power. It will also restructure the hierarchy of horrible human rights abusing allies the US has, with the Saudis losing out to other human rights abusers, potentially up to and including that other petrostate, Russia. It will also install a ton of people with ties to the US oil industry in the cabinet, meaning the US will effectively subsidize oil production in this country, which will have the perhaps inadvertent result of ensuring the US remains oil-independent even though the market can’t justify fracking right now.

The CIA is institutionally quite close with the Saudis right now, and has been in charge of their covert war against Assad.

This story came 24 days after the White House released an anonymous statement asserting, among other things, “the Federal government did not observe any increased level of malicious cyber activity aimed at disrupting our electoral process on election day,” suggesting that the Russians may have been deterred.

This story was leaked within hours of the time the White House announced it was calling for an all-intelligence community review of the Russia intelligence, offered without much detail. Indeed, this story was leaked and published as an update to that story.

Which is to say, the CIA and/or people in Congress (this story seems primarily to come from Democratic Senators) leaked this, apparently in response to President Obama’s not terribly urgent call to have all intelligence agencies weigh in on the subject of Russian influence, after weeks of Democrats pressuring him to release more information. It was designed to both make the White House-ordered review more urgent and influence the outcome.

So here’s what that story says.

In September, the spooks briefed “congressional leaders” (which for a variety of reasons I wildarseguess is either a Gang of Four briefing including Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Harry Reid or a briefing to SSCI plus McConnell, Reid, Jack Reed, and John McCain). Apparently, the substance of the briefing was that Russia’s intent in hacking Democratic entities was not to increase distrust of institutions, but instead to elect Trump.

The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The difference between this story and other public assessments is that it seems to identify the people — who sound like people with ties to the Russian government but not necessarily part of it — who funneled documents from Russia’s GRU to Wikileaks.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

[snip]

[I]ntelligence agencies do not have specific intelligence showing officials in the Kremlin “directing” the identified individuals to pass the Democratic emails to WikiLeaks, a second senior U.S. official said. Those actors, according to the official, were “one step” removed from the Russian government, rather than government employees.

This is the part that has always been missing in the past: how the documents got from GRU, which hacked the DNC and John Podesta, to Wikileaks, which released them. It appears that CIA now thinks they know the answer: some people one step removed from the Russian government, funneling the documents from GRU hackers (presumably) to Wikileaks to be leaked, with the intent of electing Trump.

Not everyone buys this story. Mitch McConnell doesn’t buy the intelligence.

In September, during a secret briefing for congressional leaders, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) voiced doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, according to officials present.

That’s one doubt raised about CIA’s claim — though like you all, I assume Mitch McConnell shouldn’t be trusted on this front.

But McConnell wasn’t the only one. One source for this story — which sounds like someone like Harry Reid or Dianne Feinstein — claimed that this CIA judgment is the “consensus” view of all the intelligence agencies, a term of art.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

Except that in a briefing this week (which may have been what impressed John McCain and Lindsey Graham to do their own investigation), that’s not what this represented.

The CIA shared its latest assessment with key senators in a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week, in which agency officials cited a growing body of intelligence from multiple sources. Agency briefers told the senators it was now “quite clear” that electing Trump was Russia’s goal, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

The CIA presentation to senators about Russia’s intentions fell short of a formal U.S. assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies. A senior U.S. official said there were minor disagreements among intelligence officials about the agency’s assessment, in part because some questions remain unanswered. [my emphasis]

That’s a conflict. Some senior US official (often code for senior member of Congress) says this is the consensus view. Another senior US official (or maybe the very same one) says there are “minor disagreements.”

Remember: we went to war against Iraq, which turned out to have no WMD, in part because no one read the “minor disagreements” from a few agencies about some aluminum tubes. A number of Senators who didn’t read that footnote closely (and at least one that did) are involved in this story. What we’re being told is there are some aluminum tube type disagreements.

Let’s hear about those disagreements this time, shall we?

Here’s the big takeaway. The language “a formal US assessment produced by all 17 intelligence agencies” is, like “a consensus view,” a term of art. It’s an opportunity for agencies which may have differing theories of what happened here to submit their footnotes.

That may be what Obama called for today: the formal assessment from all agencies (though admittedly, the White House purposely left the scope and intent of it vague).

Whatever that review is intended to be, what happened as soon as Obama announced it is that the CIA and/or Democratic Senators started leaking their conclusion. That’s what this story is.

Update: One other really critical detail. When the White House announced the Obama review today, Wikileaks made what was a bizarre statement. Linking to a CNN story on the Obama ordered review that erred on the side of blaming Russia for everything, it said, “CNN: Obama orders report into WikiLeaks timed for release just prior to Trump presidency.” Even though none of the statements on the review focused on what this story does — that is, on the way that the DNC and Podesta emails got to Wikileaks — Wikileaks nevertheless interpreted it as an inquiry targeted at it.

Update: And now David Sanger (whose story on the Obama-ordered review was particularly bad) and Scott Shane reveal the RNC also got hacked, and it is the differential leaking that leads the spooks to believe the Russians wanted Trump to win.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public.

This may be a fair assessment. But you would have to account for two things before making it. First, you’d need to know the timing and hacker behind the RNC hack. That’s because two entities are believed to have hacked the DNC: an FSB appearing hacking group, and a GRU one. The FSB is not believed to have leaked. GRU is believed to have. So if the FSB hacked the RNC but didn’t leak it, it would be completely consistent with what FSB did with DNC.

NYT now says the RNC hack was by GRU in the spring, so it is a fair question why the DNC things got leaked but RNC did not.

Also, Sanger and Shane say “largely documents” from Dems were leaked. That’s false. There were two streams of non-Wikileaks releases, Guccifer, which did leak all-Dem stuff, and DC Leaks, which leaked stuff that might be better qualified as Ukrainian related. The most publicized of documents from the latter were from Colin Powell, which didn’t help Trump at all.

Update: It’s clear that Harry Reid (who of course is retiring and so can leak speech and debate protected classified information without worrying he’ll be shut off in the future) is one key driver of this story. Last night he was saying, “”I was right. Comey was wrong. I hope he can look in the mirror and see what he did to this country.” This morning he is on the TV saying he believes Comey had information on this before the election.

Update, 12/10: This follow-up from WaPo is instructive, as it compares what CIA briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence with what FBI briefed the House Intelligence Committee about the current state of evidence. While the focus is on different Republican and Democratic understandings of both, the story also makes it clear that FBI definitely doesn’t back what WaPo’s sources from yesterday said was a consensus view.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

CyberCommand Turns Its “Cyberbombs” from Assad to ISIS

David Sanger has a long piece on how CyberCom is — for the first time, he says! — launching cyberattacks on ISIS.

The United States has opened a new line of combat against the Islamic State, directing the military’s six-year-old Cyber Command for the first time to mount computer-network attacks that are now being used alongside more traditional weapons.

The effort reflects President Obama’s desire to bring many of the secret American cyberweapons that have been aimed elsewhere, notably at Iran, into the fight against the Islamic State — which has proved effective in using modern communications and encryption to recruit and carry out operations.

The National Security Agency, which specializes in electronic surveillance, has for years listened intensely to the militants of the Islamic State, and those reports are often part of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. But the N.S.A.’s military counterpart, Cyber Command, was focused largely on Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — where cyberattacks on the United States most frequently originate — and had run virtually no operations against what has become the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world.

[snip]

The goal of the new campaign is to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters. A benefit of the administration’s exceedingly rare public discussion of the campaign, officials said, is to rattle the Islamic State’s commanders, who have begun to realize that sophisticated hacking efforts are manipulating their data. Potential recruits may also be deterred if they come to worry about the security of their communications with the militant group.

[snip]

“We are dropping cyberbombs,” Mr. Work said. “We have never done that before.”

The campaign has been conducted by a small number of “national mission teams,” newly created cyberunits loosely modeled on Special Operations forces.

Golly, what a novel idea, hacking an adversary that relies on the Internet for its external strength? Imagine how many people we could have saved if we had done that a few years ago? And all this time CyberCom has just been sitting on its thumbs?

Sanger suggests, of course, that CyberCom has been otherwise focused on Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, which (post-StuxNet) would be significantly an active defense. He pretends that cyber attacks have not been used in the ISIS theater at all.

Of course they have. They’ve been going on so long they even made the Snowden leaks (as when NSA “accidentally” caused a blackout in Syria).

But it would be inconvenient to mention attacks on Syria (as distinct from its ally Iran), I guess, because it might raise even more questions about why we’d let ISIS get strong enough, largely using the Internet, to hit two European capitals without undercutting them in the most obvious way. It all makes a lot of sense if you realize we have, at the same time, been directing those resources instead at Bashar al-Assad.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

With One Bombing Run Russia Gets the US to Acknowledge CIA’s “Covert” Regime Change Forces

For some time, a number of us have been tracking the collective forgetfulness about CIA’s acknowledged covert forces on the ground in Syria. I often point back to the day two years ago when Chuck Hagel confirmed our covert efforts in Syria in a congressional hearing, as well as Senate Foreign Relations Committee member frustration with their inability to get details on the acknowledged covert ops (that already numbered in the thousands, according to Tom Udall) there. Jim and I have written a slew of other posts about CIA’s covert forces there (one two three four five six seven are just a small sampling).

More recently, Adam Johnson caught NYT and Vox pretending CIA’s efforts don’t exist at all.

This past week, two pieces—one in the New York Timesdetailing the “finger pointing” over Obama’s “failed” Syria policy, and a Vox“explainer” of the Syrian civil war—did one better: They didn’t just omit the fact that the CIA has been arming, training and funding rebels since 2012, they heavily implied they had never done so.

To be fair, some intelligence reporters have done consistently good reporting on CIA’s covert war in Syria. But the policy people — especially the ones reporting how if Obama had supported “moderate” rebels sooner — usually pretend no one knows that Obama did support Qatar and Saudi-vetted liver-eating rebels sooner and they often turned out to be Islamists.

The selective ignorance about CIA’s covert operations in Syria seems to have been eliminated, however, with one Russian bombing run that targeted them.

Russia launched airstrikes in Syria on Wednesday, catching U.S. and Western officials off guard and drawing new condemnation as evidence suggested Moscow wasn’t targeting extremist group Islamic State, but rather other opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

One of the airstrikes hit an area primarily held by rebels backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and allied spy services, U.S. officials said, catapulting the Syrian crisis to a new level of danger and uncertainty. Moscow’s entry means the world’s most powerful militaries—including the U.S., Britain and France—now are flying uncoordinated combat missions, heightening the risk of conflict in the skies over Syria.

Thus far, of course, US officials are insisting that the anti-Assad troops Russia targeted are wholly distinct from ISIS (even while they remain silent about whether they’re Islamic extremists).

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and said he raised U.S. concerns about attacks that target regime opponents other than Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. In Syria’s multi-sided war, Mr. Assad’s military—aided by Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah—is fighting both Islamic State and opposition rebel groups, some of which are supported by the U.S. and its allies.

[snip]

The U.S. and its allies were angry at the Russians on many scores: that they are supporting Mr. Assad; that they aren’t coordinating their actions with the existing, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition; that they provided terse notice only an hour before their operations; that they demanded the U.S. coalition stay out of Syrian airspace; and that they struck in areas where anti-Assad rebels—not Islamic State—operate.

“It does appear that they were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach,” said Mr. Carter, the U.S. defense chief.

This attempt to distinguish ISIS from the CIA-backed rebels will quickly lead to an awkward place for the Administration and its allies, not least because making any distinction will require providing details on the vetting process used to select these forces, as well as addressing the evidence of cooperation with ISIS or traditional al Qaeda in the past. Plus, the more the US argues these groups that aren’t entirely distinct from al Qaeda are entirely distinct from ISIS, it will make the Administration’s claim that the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda authorizes it to fight ISIS (in related news, DOJ just denied USAT’s FOIA request for 3 OLC documents making that case) really wobbly. Any claim Russia makes that these anti-Assad forces are also Islamic extremists (and therefore entirely legitimate targets in the fight against ISIS) will be based on intelligence that is no more shitty than US intelligence that they’re not, especially given that CentCom admits on the record it can’t even trust (much less vet) the communications it is getting from rebels on the ground about their coordination with al Qaeda. It will devolve into a he-said-she-said about whose claims are more suspect, Assad’s or the Saudis’ who’ve been pushing for regime change long before the Arab Spring gave then an opportunity to push it along.

And all the while, any pretense that CIA’s involvement is covert will grow more and more laughable. Reporting like this — which claims Putin has “hijacked” Obama’s war on ISIS when the content only makes sense if Putin has more urgently hijacked Obama’s regime change efforts against Assad — will become more and more laughable.

Whatever Russia’s entry does for the tactical confrontation (I have no hopes it will do anything but make this conflict even bloodier, and possibly expand it into other countries), it has clarified a discussion the US has always tried to obscure. There are plenty of US backed forces on the ground — which may or may not be Islamic extremists (see Pat Lang on this point) — whose priority is toppling Bashar al-Assad, not defeating ISIS. While there will be some interesting fights about who they really are in coming days (and whether CIA has already acknowledged that it inflamed Islamists with its regime change efforts), American priorities will become increasingly clear.

Make no mistake: I am not defending Russia, Syria, our vetted “moderate” rebels, Saudi Arabia, or anyone else. It’s a volatile situation and none of the outside intervention seems to be helping. But one big reason we’ve been failing is because we’ve been lying publicly about the forces on the ground. Those lies just got a lot harder to sustain.

(As always on the Syrian quagmire, see Moon of Alabama’s latest.)

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

While We’re Investigating Intelligence Failures on Syria…

For the past several weeks, we’ve had a series of stories about how the intelligence on ISIS was cooked — at least within DIA. I had grand plans to write some posts on it — to track DIA’s past recent politicization (which I think should raise some skepticism about these claims, though I find them largely credible), to how the story has developed, and to a number of things that likely aren’t even being considered in whether the intelligence is cooked (such as whether treating ISIS as a terrorist group serves an analytical disservice).

Ah well — the posts that might have been.

But amid that frenzy about politicized Syria intelligence, the Guardian reports that in 2012 Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin offered up Bashar al-Assad as part of a proposed peace deal, purportedly at his government’s direction.

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.

Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition.

But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.

[snip]

“The most intriguing was the meeting I had with Vitaly Churkin because I know this guy,” Ahtisaari recalled. “We don’t necessarily agree on many issues but we can talk candidly. I explained what I was doing there and he said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’

“He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

I’m not so sure I buy this was a real offer from Russia. Possibly it was a trial balloon designed to prove that on Syria, as on Libya, the western powers were lying about their ultimate goals being regime change (though obviously this was an offer to remove Assad, though not his regime).

China Matters has a lot to say about this disclosure, arguing that it confirms his observation in the wake of a July 17, 2012 terrorist attack on Assad that the US was probably partnering with al Qaeda. Those posts are well worth reading (and the potential roles of David Petraeus and Hillary Clinton in such a scheme — one which Obama temporarily halted in summer 2012, only to reconsider it in 2013 — are equally worth considering).

But here’s the other question that must be raised from this article.

What the fuck kind of intelligence failure in 2012 had everyone in the US government believing that Assad was about to fall? I mean, I get that that was the conventional wisdom at the time (a CW China Matters rightly takes on in his post). But there were plenty of people (CM is one, Moon of Alabama another, Joshua Landis another) who were predicting Assad would be able to withstand that assault. Indeed, CM argues that Assad’s ability to withstand the July 2012 decapitation strike should have been the clue.

What sources were leading both the press and US intelligence to believe Assad was going to fall?

If you buy that the Russians were willing to make a reasonable deal of some sort in 2012, then the mistaken belief Assad was about to fall has been almost as catastrophic as the intelligence failures that got us into the Iraq War in terms of deaths and dislocation. They’ve been far more damaging, at least thus far, than cooked intelligence on ISIS. That bad intelligence likely comes the same vicinity as the intelligence that said we could insert a small group of fighters in al Nusra’s vicinity without the al Qaeda affiliate responding.

Admittedly, it’s likely there has been some internal accountability for this intelligence failure. David Petraeus probably could have withstood sharing code word intelligence with his mistress, after all. And Bandar bin Sultan, who surely was in charge of this effort, lost the Saudi intelligence portfolio.

But it is likely we’re taking advice from the same people as we did then, with the same disastrous consequences. Which go far beyond fluffing US success against ISIS.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Neoliberalism Helped Syrian Banks Evade Sanctions

I’ve written a lot about how neoliberalism has been counterproductive for any soft war we’re waging against ISIS, Russia, or China. We keep forcing allies and client states — including post Arab Spring Egypt and, especially, Ukraine — to adopt neoliberal policies. That creates more instability at precisely the time the new regime (like it or not) is trying to consolidate.

Neoliberalism doesn’t offer much benefit for many of the hearts and minds we’d like to win over.

But it has helped someone.

According to this fascinating WaPo analysis (and underlying study), the reason Syrian elites and their banks have been able to withstand sanctions is because Bashar al-Assad adopted (mixed) neoliberal policies when he assumed control. It created an interconnected elite whose ties with were Assad more inextricably linked than they had previously been, such that people doing business with sanction targets have too much invested in the regime itself to stop doing business with the sanctioned entities.

Bashar aimed to revamp the three decades of populist structure in an ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to pursue neoliberal economic policies, eventuallyshifting public assets to a network of crony capitalists close to the regime. The abandonment of socialist policies in a post-populist era culminated with the establishment of the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE) in 2009. The number of firms listed on the exchange has since grown, even after 2011, and currently comprises 23 companies spanning sectors such as transport, media, industry, agriculture, banking and insurance.

[snip]

The newly established Syrian private banking system redistributed the monopolistic market share of public banks with private lenders, while maintaining a degree of protectionism so the state-owned banks preserved their banking services monopoly. This arrangement was part of what Raymond Hinnebusch termed a ‘middle way’ of allowing the expansion of the private sector while ostensibly reforming state owned enterprises.

The booming private banks attracted politically connected businessmen, including many former politicians and senior security officials, natural partners for foreign institutional investors for whom a 49 percent Syrian ownership was required for an operating license until 2010.

[snip]

Thorough review of disclosures made by publicly listed private banks on the DSE indicate a similar trend, in which prominent Syrian businessmen— some of whom have been sanctioned for their support to the regime— own a substantial number of shares and even sit on the board of directors in multiple banks. As my research shows, there are at least 23 individual investors whose shareholdings exceed 1 million shares. With more than 36 million shares in aggregate, these individuals make up at least 4.5 percent of overall shares of private banks and 11 percent of total retail investors’ stock ownership.

This is symptomatic of the emergence of a new generation of ‘regime businessmen,’ whose relationship with the state transformed from a de facto alliance since Bashar al-Assad came to power to the central backbone of the regime now. Through joint business ventures and inter-family marriages, this alliance translated into the regime businessmen’s dominance of profitable sectors, including energy, banking and finance, construction, and tourism, and has in turn ensured the regime’s economic survival.

[snip]

Most of these businessmen have substantial investments in the country that outweighed their overseas assets and commercial interests. Their inextricable connections with the ruling political elite have made them highly invested in the survival of the regime.

I suspect the same is true of Russia.

That’s not all that surprising. With the exception of the largest banks, our business elite is pretty committed to the US regime, largely as a result of the cronyist benefits that those ties afford.

Indeed, the analysis raises more general questions about whether neoliberalism makes dangerous regimes more resilient.

But I also note the irony.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Emergency Fundraising Succeeds: World Food Programme Restarts Suspended Aid for Syrian Refugees

A week ago today, I pointed out the moral depravity of a situation in which the US never hesitates to find funding to increase air strikes and the flow of weapons into Syria and other fronts in the battle against ISIS while the UN World Food Programme was forced to suspend emergency food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to a funding shortfall. There is a rare bit of good news on that front, as the WFP announced today that the emergency appeal for funds has made up for the shortfall and food aid is restarting. In fact, more than $80 million has been raised, so some funding will carry over into January.

It appears that private donations made up only a small part of this influx of funds:

Among individuals contributing online through wfp.org, the third largest number by nationality were Syrians, after Americans (first) and Canadians (second). The online campaign featured Aloe Blacc’s song “I Need A Dollar” as the soundtrack for the #ADollarALifeline video which launched on social media channels. Almost 14,000 individuals and private sector donors in 158 countries contributed US$1.8 million dollars.

It is indeed heartwarming to see so many individuals step up to do what they can. However, considering how many US amoral contractors are making outrageous amounts of money shipping weapons into the region, I find it repulsive they didn’t make up the funding shortfall entirely on their own. Just their lobbying funds alone could have taken that hit without affecting their other funds. We have not yet gotten the list of countries that stepped up for the bulk of the emergency funds nor how much each gave, but we can only hope that the countries doing the most meddling in the region are also providing the most funding for the residents they have displaced.

Sadly, this stopgap funding is merely the beginning. The New York Times reports this morning that the UN’s budget request for 2015 for all humanitarian assistance will go up 27% over the amount needed in 2014:

The appeal, a barometer of the global impact of wars and disasters, calls for 27 percent more funding in 2015 than the amount requested a year ago for 2014 and is intended to aid more than 57 million people in 22 countries.

The number of people affected by conflict “has reached record levels” for the post-World War II era, Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency aid chief, told a news conference in Geneva. She said that aid agencies had assessed that 78 million people were in need of assistance, but the appeal targeted only the most vulnerable.

Nearly three-quarters of the funds were designated for just four crises: in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the protracted but little-reported conflict in Sudan. Other priorities included the Central African Republic, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The number of people displaced by conflict reached the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013 but is still rising “exponentially,” António Guterres, the United Nations refugee chief, told the news conference, climbing to 32,000 a day last year from 14,000 a day in 2011. In 2014, he said, the figure would certainly have increased further.

Given the US role in those countries leading the way in terms of number of refugees, it is fitting that a large portion of the costs of caring for the refugees should fall to us as well. And of course, those first two are problem areas very much because of our meddling. We broke Iraq and have continued to feed its dysfunction ever since. We helped start the unrest in Syria, too. In fact, as the torture report drops today, don’t forget that we relied on Bashar al-Assad as an “ally” for outsourcing of torture early in that program, so getting rid of him is needed to help hide what we did.

However, I still long for the day when the US response to a crisis gets out of the “which group do we fund” approach and instead looks to “how can we help the people” as the approach that will work. As we see from the record numbers of displaced people, our approach now spreads hunger and death. What would happen if instead of sending in weapons, we sent in food, housing construction materials and medical assistance? What if we even actively excluded weapons from these areas?

Of course, that has little chance of happening in our lifetimes. In the meantime, your donations for assistance to Syrian refugees can be made here and the WFP provides updates here.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

Did Obama’s Beloved “Moderate” FSA Fighters Flee Aleppo?

The Obama Administration continues to hold onto the fantasy that training and equipping a group of “moderate” rebels in Syria will allow threading the gap between the Bashar al-Assad regime that continues to relentlessly attack its own citizens and the ISIS fighters who behead many of the folks in their path. After all, Obama and his minions seem to want us to to think, the “moderates” only occasionally eat a victim’s heart or behead people after posing for photos with John McCain.

The press in Turkey is reporting that Obama’s centerpiece of the “moderate” rebel movement, the Free Syrian Army, has fled the strategic city of Aleppo where battles have taken place since early in the Syrian civil war. The reports say that within the past two weeks, the new leader of the FSA, Jamal Marouf (previous FSA leader Salem Idris was among those in the famous photo with McCain) fled to Turkey where he is being protected. Iranian news is repeating these reports, with stories in both Fars News and PressTV. Both Iranian stories cite this report from Turkey:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the recognized armed opposition group against the Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has ceased its resistance in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, withdrawing its 14,000 militia from the city, a ranking Turkish security source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 17.

“Its leader Jamal Marouf has fled to Turkey,” confirmed the source, who asked not to be named. “He is currently being hosted and protected by the Turkish state.”

The source did not give an exact date of the escape but said it was within the last two weeks, that is, the first half of November. The source declined to give Marouf’s whereabouts in Turkey.

Wow, so not only did the leader apparently leave, but 14,000 fighters abandoned Aleppo, too? That’s huge. The only Western news story I see so far on this is an AFP story carried by Yahoo News in the UK. The story opens by describing how desperate the refugee problem will be in Turkey if Aleppo has indeed fallen:

Turkey fears another two to three million Syrian refugees could cross its borders if the region of Syria’s second city of Aleppo is overrun either by Islamist extremists or regime forces, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday.

Turkey is already hosting at least 1.5 million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict and has repeatedly warned that its capacities are being strained by the numbers.

It takes another sixteen paragraphs or so before getting to the news about Marouf:

Meanwhile the Turkish online newspaper Radikal reported that the chief of the moderate anti-Assad group the Syrian Revolutionary Front, Jamal Maarouf, had fled to Turkey two weeks ago.

There was no confirmation of the report and no further details were immediately available.

But never fear! The article gives us this rosy news as a conclusion:

Media reports said at the weekend that Turkey and the United States have agreed a plan under which some 2,000 FSA fighters would be trained on Turkish soil.

Let’s see, 14,000 troops fled, and now we’re going to train a whopping 2000 to take their place.

Winning!

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

Zbig’s Plotting over Chilean Sea Bass

Earlier this month, President Obama hosted a dinner with past foreign policy luminaries to explain his plan to combat ISIL. He served Chilean sea bass and d’Anjou pear salad as they discussed the future of America’s empire.

Harman described the dinner on Monday as “focused and thoughtful.” Over a dinner of d’anjou pear salad and Chilean sea bass, Obama, Vice President Biden and the outside experts engaged in a deep discussion of the options to combat the Islamic State, those who participated said.

Among the attendees was Zbigniew Brzezinski (see the full list of attendees below), Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor.

I thought it a curious choice, given how much of the Blowback we’re still fighting he birthed. As NSA, after all, Zbig crafted what he thought was a brilliant plan to draw the Soviet Union into a quagmire in Afghanistan. Even after al Qaeda had started attacking the US in Africa, Zbig thought fostering well-trained Islamic terrorists was an acceptable trade-off for having lured the Soviet Union into an embarrassing defeat.

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?

B: 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?

B: 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 fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: 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?

Zbig doesn’t acknowledge it here, but another reason he thought this was such a great idea is because the Iranian revolution was already in full swing, and he hoped to counter our loss of footprint there with something to keep the Russians busy next door.

In so many ways that decision has led inexorably to where we are, doing the bidding of dangerous Saudi allies who are actually a cause of the extremism we fight, not its solution.

Even before the Chilean sea bass dinner, I’ve been wondering whether the US would double down on its commitment to the Saudis, in spite of the way they’ve fostered this terrorist threat, or whether we’d use the opportunity to cement the deal with Iran, giving us more space from the Saudis.

I’m embarrassed I even wondered. I should have known from heavy-handed intercept of Russian jets and the increasing sanctions on both Russia and Iran that we intended to gain advantage both against ISIS and against those who question our unlimited hegemony.

But this account of how the Saudis came to join in bombing campaigns against Islamic extremists makes it rather clear.

The Americans knew a lot was riding on a Sept. 11 meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia at his summer palace on the Red Sea.

A year earlier, King Abdullah had fumed when President Barack Obama called off strikes against the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This time, the U.S. needed the king’s commitment to support a different Syrian mission—against the extremist group Islamic State—knowing there was little hope of assembling an Arab front without it.

At the palace, Secretary of State John Kerry requested assistance up to and including air strikes, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. “We will provide any support you need,” the king said.

That moment, more than any other, set in train the U.S. air campaign in Syria against Islamic State, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. Mr. Obama made clear he would only authorize strikes if regional allies agreed to join the effort.

[snip]

The process gave the Saudis leverage to extract a fresh U.S. commitment to beef up training for rebels fighting Mr. Assad, whose demise the Saudis still see as a top priority.

[snip]

After Islamic State made startling gains in Iraq, Saudi officials told Mr. Kerry in June that Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with close ties to Iran, needed to go, according to U.S officials. Once that happened, Riyadh would step up its role against Islamic State and work to bring other Gulf states onboard. The Obama administration had come to a similar conclusion and started to maneuver Mr. al-Maliki out of office.

[snip]

Two of the F-15 pilots were members of the Saudi royal family, including Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of the crown prince. In the third wave of the initial attack, half of the attack airplanes in the sky were from Arab countries.

There’s far more at the link: the Saudi agreement to host the training (something I’ll return to), Bandar’s presence — and smiles — at the meeting on September 11,  (Though, if I’m not mistaken, the story had more details about the meeting between Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir and Obama when it was first posted last night, including that they used first names.)

Whether the US means to faithfully execute their half of the bargain or not, and whether the Saudis are dealing with us in good faith, remains a very good question.

But if they really intend to help the Saudis and Qataris take out Assad (not because he’s a brutal dictator, of course, but because he’s not their brutal dictator), certain things must come with that: a means to undercut the momentum our fight against ISIL will necessarily give Iran and Russia. Otherwise, no amount of training of “moderate” rebels will make a difference — or keep the Saudis happy.

Maybe that’s not what we intend. Maybe we’ve still got a plan in place to ditch the Saudis. But if not, expect some kind of Zbig plan that will likely backfire worse than his earlier one. Read more

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

“Let’s Bomb Syria” Version 2 Is Working; Why Did Version 1 Fail?

Polls taken almost exactly one year apart show a remarkable reversal in US opinion regarding the prospect of air strikes on Syria. Last year, in a poll conducted September 6-8, (pdf) there were a number of questions regarding action in Syria. By a margin of 59% to 39%, Americans overwhelmingly said they thought Congress should not pass the then pending resolution authorizing “military action for 60 to 90 days” that also banned use of US troops in a combat role. Further, 55% of those polled stated that even if Congress passed the resolution, they opposed US air strikes in Syria while only 43% favored them. In the hypothetical of no Congressional authorization, opposition to the air strikes rose to 71% with only 27% favoring them. Just one year later, those numbers have reversed. In a poll conducted September 4-7, 65% of Americans now say they support expanding US air strikes against the Sunni insurgents into Syria, while only 28% oppose them. Checking the crosstabs, support for the strikes jumps to 74% for Republicans but still is 60% for Democrats.

So why is this year’s Drum-Up-War week working, when last year’s failed?

Despite the heinous nature of last year’s sarin attack, it seems to me that most Americans did a good job of recognizing that what is underway in Syria is a civil war in which the US has no vital interest other than humanitarian concern for widespread death and displacement of citizens. Having failed to paint Bashar al-Assad as an evil-doer on the level of Saddam Hussein (or perhaps after Americans rejected such an obvious campaign to do so) Obama and his fellow war hawks now consider ISIS “the focus of evil in the modern world“.

The beheading of US journalists in Syria got huge play in the press. And yet, if we drill down a bit, the rate of journalists being killed in Syria is going down from its peak in 2012.

Somehow, Obama’s war gang has managed to convince ordinary Americans that ISIS represents a real threat to the US. That same poll that favors attacks on ISIS in Syria found that a staggering 91% of Americans find ISIS to be a serious threat to the US (59% said “very serious” and 31% said “somewhat serious”). Sadly, there is no reality behind this fear on the part of Americans. Even Time, in doing its best to support the hysteria, winds up undercutting the concept in a story today. In a piece creatively titled “Understanding the ISIS Threat to Americans at Home“, we learn:

On the one hand, Attorney General Eric Holder has said western fighters joining ISIS and returning home radicalized are the national security danger he worries about most. “We are seeing, I would say, an alarming rise in the number of American and European Union nationals who have been going to Syria to help extremist groups,” Holder told TIME last month. “This represents a grave threat to our security,” he said.

But in a thorough presentation on Sept. 3 at the Brookings Institution, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, presented a less scary picture. ISIS has no cells in the U.S., Olsen said, “full stop.” Further, Olsen said, “we have no credible information” that the group “is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIS, Olsen said “is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.”

At most, the article concludes, quoting Obama in his “exclusive” with Chuck Todd, he needed “to launch air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”

The links Holder is hyping about ISIS and AQAP simply do not exist:

Holder says the danger comes from the combination of westerners joining ISIS and the expert bomb-makers working for the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is not clear what if any evidence exists of such collaboration yet. On the one hand, AQAP has issued statements in support of ISIS, and both groups are active in Syria and Iraq; on the other, al Qaeda and ISIS split in the last year after a debate over tactics and territory.

Several senior administration officials tell TIME they have seen no evidence of direct contact between individual members of AQAP and ISIS.

In the end, the article concludes, Obama’s war team has deduced that we must attack ISIS because at some point in the future, they will turn their sights on us. Never mind that in this case, attacking ISIS in Syria winds up helping Assad, whom we wanted to attack last year:

Jane Harman, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said that while the Assad government was a major topic of discussion, she and other participants told Mr. Obama that he could order military action in Syria without fear of helping Mr. Assad, since ISIS was occupying ungoverned territory that his forces were unlikely to reconquer.

I guess that Harman and Obama know that Assad won’t be able to reconquer those once ISIS is gone because of the bang-up job we will do training and equipping our famousmoderate” rebels, but hey, what could go wrong on any of this?

In the end, though, the apparent support for this version of strikes on Syria seems to me to have come about because of the shift in focus on the “enemy” from a president oppressing the citizens of his country to an international terror group that we must fear and that represents true evil. As far as the average American is concerned, meddling in another country’s civil war is out of bounds, but when it comes to protecting the homeland against evil-doers, anything goes.

And it doesn’t even need Congressional approval.

 

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.