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On that Acknowledged Covert Op in Syria

The NYT has a tick-tock of Obama’s Syria policy. I find it fascinating for two reasons.

Obama uses “covert” status as a legal fiction, nothing more

First, consider the coverage of the covert op — one acknowledged explicitly by Chuck Hagel in Senate testimony. NYT says President Obama actually signed the Finding authorizing arming the rebels in April, not June, as Hagel claimed, but Obama did not move to implement it right away.

President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.

Indeed, the story may have been driven by CIA types trying to blame Obama for indolence after first signing that finding.

As to the decision to do this as a covert op, NYT describes it arose — first of all — out of difficulties over using the Armed Forces to overthrow a sovereign government.

But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.

Those difficulties, of course, were the same ones present that should have prevented Obama from considering bombing a sovereign government in August, which of course weren’t the ones that ultimately persuaded Obama not to bomb.

The big reason to do it as a covert op, however, came from the need to be able to deny we were arming al Qaeda-linked rebels.

Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.

As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

Yet in spite of this explanation — one which you’d think would demand secrecy — the NYT notes that Ben Rhodes went and announced this policy publicly.

But, the NYT notes (perhaps in anticipation for the inevitable FOIA), the President didn’t say anything about it himself.

Where the hell was the IC getting its rosy scenario about Assad’s overthrow?

The other striking thing about the story is how it portrays Obama’s policies to have been driven by (unquestioned by the NYT) overly rosy assessments of Assad’s demise.

Read more

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Syrian Government Off to Good Start With OPCW, But Why Is Peace Conference Six Weeks Away?

The Washington Post reports this morning that the Syrian government has been “businesslike and efficient” in its dealings with the OPCW and that things are on track for representatives from the OPCW to be inside Syria tomorrow to start working on the details of destroying Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Considering how rapidly the UN Security Council resolution passed unanimously on Friday evening was put together, though, it remains a mystery to me why the UN is waiting until mid-November for a peace conference to begin in Geneva.

The good news from OPCW:

Inspectors from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said they would arrive in Damascus midday Tuesday and spend a week in the city before starting visits to chemical weapons facilities declared by the Syrian government. The OPCW officials said the details of the Syrian declaration appeared to line up with external intelligence assessments of what the government possesses, giving them optimism that the regime was being cooperative.

“It’s been good business so far,” said an OPCW official, speaking at a briefing for reporters under the condition of anonymity. “So far, our interactions with the Syrians have been very businesslike and efficient.”

The difficulties that the inspectors will face underline why I have been stating all along that a ceasefire is an important component of destroying the chemical weapons:

Another OPCW official said inspection teams may not even be able to reach every declared chemical weapons site because of security concerns. The inspectors will be working with unarmed U.N. security guards and under the protection of Syrian government forces, but significant portions of Syrian territory are not under the full control of Assad’s military.

“It may be that we are not in a position to go to some of these locations,” the official said. “We are not a military unit.”

It is difficult to tell from the phrasing here whether some of the sites where the inspection teams will work are under rebel control or whether the teams merely need to pass through rebel-held territory in order to reach sites still under government control. In either case, a ceasefire would make the work much more likely to be successful.

Even though it appears that the teams intend to destroy the equipment that Syria could use to do the final mixing of the two chemical precursors composing the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons by November 1, much work will still be needed to destroy the chemicals themselves. Waiting until mid-November to start the peace conference seems a poor choice to me:

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged the National Coalition for the Syrian opposition forces to reach out to other groups and forge an agreement on a united delegation for an upcoming peace conference in Geneva. Reports suggest that the peace conference will be held in mid-November. Hectic parleys are on in New York, to firm up the exact date, which is expected to be finalised this week. Meanwhile, it was known that Iran may also participate in the peace talks.

In his meeting with Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in New York on Saturday, the Secretary-General welcomed the opposition’s commitment to send a delegation to the upcoming peace conference.

Ban “urged the National Coalition to reach out to other opposition groups and agree on a representative and united delegation,” states the readout issued by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson.

If we break through all the noise about chemical weapons, the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian war is huge:

Since March 2011, the Syrian civil war has claimed over 100,000 lives. The civil war has displaced over 4 million people within Syria and sent more that 2 million people fleeing for safety to neighbouring countries.

Let’s hope that this peace conference is more successful than the last one:

A first Syria peace conference was held in Geneva in June 2012. The 2012 conference agreed that there should be a transitional government in Syria with full executive powers and called for a new conference to decide how to implement the accord.

The fact that Iran, a strong ally of the Assad government, is likely to take in part in this conference seems to bode well for it to make real progress on bringing hostilities to an end. I just wish the timing were more in concert with the planned actions on rounding up and disposing of the chemical weapon precursors.

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.

US, Russia Agree on Syria Plan; UN Security Council Vote Could Come Later Today

In a continuation of Barack Obama’s pivot to diplomacy, it appears that the US and Russia, along with several other UN Security Council members, have come to an agreement on how to structure the UNSC resolution on the surrender and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Further good news comes in the early analysis of the disclosure by Syria of its chemical weapon stockpile, as it appears that most of the material is composed of binary precursors. Because of this, Syria can be effectively disarmed quickly by destruction of the mixing equipment. Further, these sarin precursors can be destroyed more quickly and safely than sarin that has already been prepared. Finally, hints are now being dropped that the rapid progress on the diplomatic front may have been brought about by a realization that Assad may not be in full control of the use of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Talks between the US and Russia had been stalled for some time over the issue of how Chapter 7 of the UN Charter would be invoked in the UNSC resolution. The US has favored putting that language into the resolution currently under discussion, spelling out military action to be taken should Syria default in its responsibilities in the disarming process. Russia has resisted such an automatic process. It appears that the issue has been resolved by making it clear that if Syria should violate the initial agreement, the Security Council will meet again to vote on invocation of Chapter 7 and potential military action. Although war hawks will dismiss this approach as allowing Syria to delay and obfuscate, it also prevents manipulation by the US to blow a minor violation out of proportion and initiate military action without a full hearing before the Security Council.

Reuters emphasizes the current absence of Chapter 7 consequences in the draft resolution in the opening of its article on developments:

Ending weeks of diplomatic deadlock, the United States and Russia agreed on Thursday on a U.N. Security Council draft resolution that would demand Syria give up its chemical arms, but does not threaten military force if it fails to comply.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said a deal was struck with Russia “legally obligating” Syria to give up its chemical stockpile and the measure went to the full Security Council in a closed-door meeting on Thursday night. U.N. diplomats said a vote could come within 24 hours.

The process which would be followed in the event of a violation of the agreement by Syria is described by the New York Times:

Western diplomats said the resolution would be legally binding and would stipulate that if Syria failed to abide by the terms, the Security Council would take measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the strongest form of a Council resolution. Such measures could include economic sanctions or even military action. But before any action could be taken, the issue would have to go back for further deliberations by the Security Council, on which Russia, like the other permanent members, holds a veto.

By making any Chapter 7 actions subject to a separate vote both the US and Russia will be forced to provide convincing evidence for the positions they take. The US won’t be able to move for military action on shaky grounds and Russia will be under a huge amount of pressure if they attempt to prevent a response to a clear violation. Gosh, such a process would put the UN into a position of functioning as it was intended. What a concept.

With all of the usual caveats that this is yet another transcription by Joby Warrick, there is very interesting and encouraging news coming from the initial disclosures on Syria’s chemical weapons: Read more

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.

Speaking at UN, Obama Tries to Claim He Was Always For Diplomacy in Syria

I had seen several indications this morning that Obama planned to call for a diplomatic approach to the ongoing conflict in Syria despite the earlier indications that he intended to pursue a military strike even if the UK did not join and the UN did not provide a resolution authorizing force. I was hopeful that this new-found reliance on diplomacy would go all the way to calling for a ceasefire to provide safe conditions for the gathering and destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

Alas, my hopes were once again dashed as Obama fell far short of proposing a ceasefire and he wound up delivering very convoluted remarks as he tried to maintain the fiction that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been proven to have carried out the August 21 chemical weapons attack and that he favors diplomacy over military action. The quotations I will use here are from the Washington Post’s transcript of his speech.

In a move that approaches Colin Powell’s historic spinning of lies before the invasion of Iraq, Obama stated that there is no dispute that Syrian forces are responsible for the August 21 attack:

The evidence is overwhelming that the Assad regime used such weapons on August 21st. U.N. inspectors gave a clear accounting that advanced rockets fired large quantities of sarin gas at civilians. These rockets were fired from a regime-controlled neighborhood and landed in opposition neighborhoods.

It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.

As I stated shortly after the UN report came out, the report did not show that the rockets for which they determined trajectories carried sarin. That argument is strengthened further by the subsequent realization by others that not one of the environmental samples from the Moadamiyah site came back as positive for sarin. So now one of the famous lines that cross at a Syrian military installation has to be disregarded entirely because there is no evidence of sarin at the point of rocket impact. [Look for the website and reporters for the linked post to be attacked mercilessly. Both the Global Research site I linked to in one questioning post and the Mint Press site which suggested a Saudi false flag operation have been attacked savagely as to their credibility. Remarkably, I have yet to see any of those attacks actually contradict the questions that have been raised.*]

Let’s take a look at Obama’s logical gymnastics as he tried to justify both his initial intent to attack Syria and then his rediscovery that he prefers a diplomatic approach. Early in his Syria comments, he claimed ” A peace process is stillborn.” He gave no evidence of what, if any, role the US played in the peace process. In fact, his next sentence provides a partial clue to just how the peace process died: “America and others have worked to bolster the moderate opposition, but extremist groups have still taken root to exploit the crisis.”

You see, those moderate groups that we are arming are not able to defeat the extremists that others are arming. Sounds like a child caught fighting who says “he hit me back first”.

So that background of a stillborn peace process is why, even before the weak evidence from the UN that the US is misrepresenting came out, Obama insisted that he had to attack Assad. Obama’s ploy to support his actions approached a George W. Bush administration level of disdain for the UN itself as he supplied his rationalization: Read more

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.

NYTimes Finally Finds Concern Over Impunity for War Crimes, But Only Assad’s War Crimes

Despite the fact that the US has never faced prosecution for its illegal invasion of Iraq or for the many documented acts of rendition and torture in the Great War on Terror, the New York Times this morning found it possible to rail against the injustice of impunity for war crimes. But only after jumping on the bandwagon to convict Bashar al-Assad’s government of a war crime for which definitive proof has not yet been developed. Here is their hand-wringing:

The repercussions have elevated the 30-month-old Syrian conflict into a global political crisis that is testing the limits of impunity over the use of chemical weapons.

The Times goes on to present the evidence from the UN analysis in the most unflattering light toward Assad. Nowhere in the report do we get discussion of the fact that the UN inspectors were not at the attack site until five to eight days after the attack. Even more importantly, the Times completely elides any reference to the cautionary note in the report that “potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated“.

The most damning accusations in the Times article rely on material outside the UN report (pdf). The report does not disclose any findings on the quality of the sarin found in the analysis, but that did not stop the “diplomats” who are eager to assign blame:

Both the British and American ambassadors to the United Nations also told reporters that the report’s lead author, Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who joined Mr. Ban in the Security Council briefing, had told members that quality of the sarin used in the attack was high.

“This was no cottage-industry use of chemical weapons,” said Britain’s ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant. He said the type of munitions and trajectories had confirmed, “in our view, that there is no remaining doubt that it was the regime that used chemical weapons.”

Much attention has been given to the analysis of munitions found by the inspectors. The smaller of the two types described, the M14 or 140 mm rocket (which reportedly can carry about two liters of sarin), is typically launched by a towed launcher such as the one pictured here on Wikipedia. The larger type, a previously undescribed 330 mm rocket (which could carry over 50 liters of sarin) would be launched from a much larger vehicle, presumably the type usually seen mounted on the back of a large truck. Multiple sources state that the various Syrian rebel groups have not been documented to have launchers of these types.

Much also has been made of the triangulation of the two flight paths that the UN inspectors described, since the paths cross at a known Syrian military site. There is a huge problem, however, in using this information by itself to state conclusively that the flight paths prove that Syrian forces, under orders from Assad, fired the chemical weapons. From the way that the UN report is written, it is impossible to determine whether the two rockets for which these flight paths were determined actually tested positive for sarin, or if they even were tested at all. That is very important, since we know that Syrian forces continued to attack the Ghouta area during the time between the chemical attack and when the UN inspectors were allowed to do their work. In fact, we know that conventional shelling was carried out from the very base the ballistics analysis points to:

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also reported several air raids on the suburbs, and added that President Bashar Assad’s forces were shelling eastern Ghouta from the Qasioun mountain overlooking Damascus.

The analysis by Casual Observer, which he posted in this tweet and this close-up identifying Qasioun matches the information in the previously linked diagram from the Times and allows us to confirm that conventional artillery from the Qasioun base was known to have been fired at the chemical attack zone in the time between the chemical attack and the UN inspection.

At most, the ballistics analysis provides circumstantial evidence that supports the allegations that the Qasioun base was the source of at least some of the shelling where the chemical attack took place. The insecure nature of the site, coupled with the UN report being silent on whether there were positive sarin tests on the two rockets for which flight path analysis was carried out, prevents any conclusion that the sarin originated from the Syrian military base. And that’s before even getting to the question of whether Assad himself gave a command to fire chemical weapons.

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.

Happy “Dirty Your Hands” by Partnering with Bashar al-Assad Day

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As I noted last week, 12 years ago today, President Bush signed the Memorandum of Notification that governed — and as of last year, at least, still governs — our war on terror.

Part of that MON, according to Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, includes partnering with “rogue regimes” like Syria on intelligence collection.

[Tenet] called for initiating intelligence contact with some rogue states such as Libya and Syria that he said might be helpful in trying to destroy al Qaeda. For the CIA to obtain helpful information against the terrorists, they might have to get their hands dirty.

After signing that MON, Bush’s own regime sent people like Maher Arar off to be tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The same guy we almost went to war against last week because he’s so barbaric, we partnered with, in a policy set by the President, outsourcing our torture.

As of May 25, 2012, the government was still relying on this MON (probably, at a minimum, to cover the drone and other method assassinations that aren’t covered by any AUMF).

I already noted all this; I wasn’t going to otherwise call out the anniversary of the day the “Gloves Came Off.”

But then I saw this clip of Philip Mudd on Colbert. About halfway through, Mudd says we have to fight Syria because Assad is,

a tyrant who has a reckless abandon when he murders innocents. At what point do you draw a line and say we are not just US citizens, we’re global citizens?

Mudd then goes on to answer a question about whether he tortured prisoners by saying he was Deputy Director of the Counterterrorism Center, which held and tortured prisoners.

He doesn’t regret that, he says.

He then goes on to admit he signed papers to render prisoners.

Mudd: If you’re asking if I’m responsible for some of that, the answer’s yes.

Colbert: Alright, you think that was the right thing to do.

Mudd: Yes.

Colbert: And we renditioned some of those people to Syria.

Mudd: Uh, I think the answer’s yes, I don’t [shakes head]

Colbert: OK

Mudd: We rendered a lot of people.

At what point do you draw a line, says this man, who can’t even remember that Syria was indeed one of the countries we outsourced our torture to, even the torture of an innocent man. We must be global citizens, not just American citizens, he says, and doing anything else is a sign of cowardice.

And yet, this intelligence expert can’t even figure out why Assad thinks he can get away with murdering his own people.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

US Negotiating Position in Lavrov-Kerry Deal Depends on Expansive Commander-in-Chief Claims

Four weeks ago, our goal in Syria was regime change — to back the purportedly vetted rebels we’ve been training covertly in hopes they could defeat not only Bashar al-Assad, but also the more extreme (and better trained and more determined) Al Qaeda-tied fighters seeking to overthrow him.

Now, we are partners with Russia in ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. Congratulations to Putin on pulling this off (and to Obama for responding to a lifeline to at least get some positive benefit out of this, assuming Assad complies). May this save the lives of innocent Syrians.

While the framework that Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry just agreed to does allow the US to demand a UN resolution backing use of force in case Assad does balk,

The United States and the Russian Federation concur that this UN Security Council resolution should provide for review on a regular basis the implementation in Syria of the decision of the Executive Council of the OPCW, and in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

The proposed joint US-Russian OPCW draft decision supports the application of Article VIII of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which provides for the referral of any cases of non-compliance to the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council.

According to the AP the US does expect Russia would still veto such a resolution, and has instead made it clear it would act using Commander-in-Chief authority to protect “US interests.”

The resolution would come under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, which allows for military action, but U.S. officials acknowledge Russia would veto such a step and do not contemplate seeking authorization for the use of force. U.S. officials stress that President Barack Obama retains his right as U.S. commander-in-chief to conduct military strikes to defend American national security interests in the absence of U.N. authorization.

In other words, the US at least anticipates going to war unilaterally in any case. (For a laugh, read this John Bellinger piece which claims this makes this agreement just like Iraq because we went into Iraq because Saddam was insufficiently cooperative with inspectors looking for the WMD he didn’t have.)

Unlike Saddam, Assad has at least the hypothetical ability to comply with this agreement (though I expect Jim will have a lot to say in coming days about the practicality of the plan to move and destroy the weapons).

But as Marc Lynch made clear in a piece written before this agreement, we continue to be captive to the Gulf sheikhs’ demands.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s missile strikes against Syria may be off the table for now as diplomatic attention shifts to talks with Russia and the U.N. Security Council. But while negotiators from Moscow and Washington meet in Geneva, the increasing tempo of Washington’s public commitment to a strategy of arming parts of the Syrian opposition continues, with the aim of forcing President Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Read more

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

US: “Never Mind That Guy Eating a Heart, We Have Handwritten Receipts For the Guns”

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Lethal aid. Nonlethal aid. Moderate groups. Radical Islamist groups. Light weapons. Anti-aircraft weapons.  We have been barraged with a dizzying array of descriptions of what is going on in Syria and to what extent the US is helping which groups.

I have been harping recently on the issue of why the Obama administration is going to great lengths to change the date and time of entry for the first CIA-trained and armed death squads the US sent into Syria. Despite public evidence the first group entered as at least 300 militants on August 17, both Barack Obama and the CIA have “leaked” that the first group of 50 entered or was armed in the last week of August or the first week of September, after the disputed chemical weapons attack on August 21. But keep in mind that these groups are the small death squads built on the US model of the CIA and JSOC troops “training” already organized militia groups that often are organized around ethnic or religious issues. These groups were at the heart of Petraeus’ vaunted COIN strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those countries, they were brutal groups that were known for night raids and the ruthless killing, torture and disappearing of innocent civilians. It’s hard to imagine that the CIA and JSOC have changed their “winning” syllabus for this training, so look for more of these types of atrocities.

Those small death squads being trained by the CIA and JSOC are separate from the larger Free Syrian Army headed by General Salim Idris, who was a General in Assad’s military until his defection in the summer of 2012. A big deal has been made about the fact that the US has not been providing direct lethal aid to the FSA. In fact, back on March 1, Idris took to the pages of Foreign Policy to make his plea for lethal aid directly:

The United States has repeatedly expressed its reluctance to provide Syria’s armed opposition with weapons, due to the fear that they will fall into the hands of extremists groups. At this week’s meeting in Rome, the U.S. government promised only to provide non-lethal support. It’s time for Washington and the international community to reconsider, because the only way to prevent the rise of warlords and extremist groups is to support the organized Syrian opposition in professionalizing the armed revolution.

But look, Idris promised us that his team has things under control and nothing could go wrong with us giving him lethal aid:

In fact, the Syrian Coalition, an internationally recognized umbrella group of opposition parties, has made great strides to account for all advanced weaponry under the rebels’ control. It now registers and traces all such arms to ensure that only trained officers under the command ever receive and use them.

The problem, though, is that Idris’ claim in March that the US wasn’t helping his group with lethal aid was bullshit. As CTuttle reminded us in a comment in my post yesterday, the New York Times discussed how the CIA has been “assisting” the flow of lethal aid to the FSA and other groups for over a year. The Times article was published a little over three weeks after Idris’ plea, but documents CIA involvement in weapons shipments for a long time before that point: Read more

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.

CIA Joins Obama’s Dissembling on Date Death Squads Sent Into Syria

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I still don’t quite know what the angle is for this particular obfuscation, but given the efforts first from Obama himself and now from the CIA, both with planted leaks, the Obama administration is continuing its efforts to hide the date on which CIA-trained death squads first began entering Syria. From my first post on this topic, beginning with a quote from the New York Times:

Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.

Taken at face value, this version of the story would have us believe that the first group of 50 trained by the CIA was presumably still in the process of “sneaking” into Syria on Monday.

The “Monday” in that context would be September 2. The post goes on to note that rather than September 2, after the disputed August 21 chemical weapon attack, French sources had actually documented that the first group of CIA-trained and armed fighters was as large as 300 (not 50) and entered Syria on August 17, well ahead of the release of chemical agents.

And yes, go back and parse that bit from the New York Times carefully, especially this: “covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels”. We aren’t just training these death squads, we are arming them, too. That is what makes last night’s “revelation” in the Washington Post even more important to look at:

The CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear — a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war.

Any doubts that this was a planned and sanctioned leak were wiped away within an hour of the Post putting up this story when Barbara Starr “confirmed” the report on Twitter. But we know from my first post on the topic that the death squads really started rolling into Syria on August 17. If we back up “two weeks” from last night’s report on September 11, we get only to August 28. This is a full week after the disputed chemical weapon attack and much closer to the September 2 date on which Obama leaked that the death squads were then in the process of beginning their entry into Syria.

The timing for the flow of arms to these groups is another way we can pinpoint when they became enmeshed in activities inside Syria. With yesterday’s leak on when the flow of arms began, we have once again seen the US try to shift the date for involvement of the death squads inside Syria from before the chemical weapons attack to after it.

Two completely unnecessary but very public leaks, one from Obama himself and the other from “U.S. officials and Syrian figures” have done their utmost to change the public record on when the CIA-trained groups first entered Syria. Why is it so important to the Obama administration to obscure the entry date?

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.

American Dirty Hands and Chain of Command

[Tenet] called for initiating intelligence contact with some rogue states such as Libya and Syria that he said might be helpful in trying to destroy al Qaeda. For the CIA to obtain helpful information against the terrorists, they might have to get their hands dirty. — Bob Woodward, Bush at War

On September 15, 2001, George Tenet presented Cofer Black’s plan to respond to 9/11 to George Bush. It included rendering suspects to allied torturers including Egypt, partnering with rogue regimes including Bashar al-Assad’s, and ultimately capturing and torturing suspects ourselves.

On September 17, 2001, George Bush implemented that plan by signing a Memorandum of Notification reflecting vague outlines of it.

George Bush’s signature on that document led directly the torture of Ibn Sheikh al-Libi in Omar Suleiman’s hands and Binyam Mohammed’s torture in Pakistani custody, both before DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel gave its sanction to torture. In addition, it led to Maher Arar’s torture in Assad’s hands outside the terms permissible in our rendition program.

Yet as these details of George Bush’s personal implication in torture became clear, President Obama hid it, both with repeated state secrets invocations and by hiding official confirmation of the existence of that document with Bush’s signature on it. The Administration succeeded in hiding that official confirmation by arguing — just last year! — that it was still relying on that document that also endorsed partnering with Assad. (There’s reason to believe that that document which authorized partnering with Assad also served to authorize some of our drone assassinations, including at least the first attempt against Anwar al-Awlaki.)

Meanwhile, the most independent assessment of the August 21 chemical weapons strike — from Human Rights Watch — still has the same gap as every other case does: while it concludes the CW were launched by Assad’s regime, it provides no evidence that it was launched on his orders.

The evidence examined by Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that the August 21 chemical weapon attacks on Eastern and Western Ghouta were carried out by government forces. Our basis for this finding is:

  • The large-scale nature of the attacks, involving at least a dozen surface-to-surface rockets affecting two different neighborhoods in Damascus countryside situated 16 kilometers apart, and surrounded by major Syrian government military positions.
  • One of the types of rockets used in the attack, the 330mm rocket system – likely Syrian produced, which appear to be have been used in a number of alleged chemical weapon attacks, has been filmed in at least two instances in the hands of government forces. The second type of rocket, the Soviet-produced 140mm rocket, which can carry Sarin, is listed as a weapon known to be in Syrian government weapon stocks. Both rockets have never been reported to be in the possession of the opposition. Nor is there any footage or other evidence that the armed opposition has the vehicle-mounted launchers needed to fire these rockets.
  • The August 21 attacks were a sophisticated military attack, requiring large amounts of nerve agent (each 330mm warhead is estimated to contain between 50 and 60 liters of agent), specialized procedures to load the warheads with the nerve agent, and specialized launchers to launch the rockets

Obviously Assad has not yet publicly named — much less condemned — anyone within his regime for doing this (but then, only about 14 Americans have ever paid a price the systematic torture authorized by that Bush signature). If this deal with the Russians actually happens, naming and prosecuting the persons responsible for the August 21 attack should be part of the agreement. 

But there is a fundamental problem with America launching a war against Assad for the August CW attack based on chain of command arguments (or “common sense,” as its most recent incarnation has it). That’s because, with all the legal problems surrounding any intervention on our part (especially without UN sanction, which may change under the Russian deal), there are such clear and ongoing instances where, even with clear evidence of human rights violations done under nothing but Presidential authorization, the US doesn’t hold its own responsible.

There was a time when US violations of human rights norms weren’t so clearly documented (though the definitely existed). But now that they are, to claim we have the moral authority to hold Bashar al-Assad responsible based on a chain of command argument when we won’t even hold our own responsible for partnering with him in human rights crimes is particularly problematic.

As human rights hypocrites ourselves, that makes us not even global policemen, but rather simple enforcers when it serves our geopolitical interests.

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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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.