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Monday Morning: Swivel, Heads

Somebody out there knows what this tune means in my household. For our purposes this Monday morning, it’s a reminder to take a look around — all the way around. Something might be gaining on you.

Let’s look…

Android users: Be more vigilant about apps from Google Play
Better check your data usage and outbound traffic. Seems +300 “porn clicker” apps worked their way around Google Play’s app checking process. The apps rack up traffic, fraudulently earning advertising income; they persist because of users’ negligence in vetting and monitoring downloaded apps (because Pr0N!) and weakness in Google’s vetting. If this stuff gets on your Android device, what else is on it?

IRS’ data breach bigger than first reported
This may also depend on when first reporting occurred. The number of taxpayers affected is now ~700,000 according to the IRS this past Friday, which is considerably larger than the ~464,000 estimated in January this year. But the number of taxpayers affected has grown steadily since May 15th last year and earlier.

Did we miss the ‘push for exotic new weapons’?
Nope. Those of us paying attention haven’t missed the Defense Department’s long-running efforts developing new tools and weapons based on robotics and artificial intelligence. If anything, folks paying attention notice how little the investment in DARPA has yielded in payoff, noting non-defense development moving faster, further, cheaper — a la SuitX’s $40K exoskeleton, versus decades-plus investment by DARPA in exoskeleton vaporware. But apparently last Tuesday’s op-ed by David Ignatius in WaPo on the development of “new exotic weapons” that may be deployed against China and Russia spawned fresh discussion to draw our attention to this work. THAT is the new development — not the weapons, but the chatter, beginning with the Pentagon and eager beaver reporter-repeaters. This bit here, emphasis mine:

Pentagon officials have started talking openly about using the latest tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning to create robot weapons, “human-machine teams” and enhanced, super-powered soldiers. It may sound like science fiction, but Pentagon officials say they have concluded that such high-tech systems are the best way to combat rapid improvements by the Russian and Chinese militaries.

Breathless, much? Come the feck on. We’ve been waiting decades for these tools and weapons after throwing billions of dollars down this dark rathole called DARPA, and we’ve yet to see anything commercially viable in the way of an exoskeleton in the field. And don’t point to SKYNET and ask us to marvel at machine learning, because the targeting failure rate is so high, it’s proven humans behind it aren’t learning more and faster than the machines are.

Speaking of faster development outside DARPA: Disney deploying anti-drones?
The Star Wars franchise represents huge bank — multiple billions — to its owner Disney. Control of intellectual property during production is paramount, to ensure fan interest remains high until the next film is released. It’s rumored Disney has taken measures to reduce IP poaching by fan drones, possibly including anti-drones managed by a security firm protecting the current production location in Croatia. I give this rumor more weight than the Pentagon’s buzz about exoskeletons on the battlefield.

Lickety-split quickies

That’s a wrap — keep your eyes peeled. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Did Obama Order Total Information Shutdown on Afghanistan?

In a stunning and blatantly obvious move to try to hide its failed efforts in Afghanistan, the military suddenly decided back in October that they would classify any and all information on the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) despite data having been provided to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for the 24 quarterly reports that preceded the one dated October 30, 2014 (pdf). Initial digging on that classification decision appeared to put the classification decision in the hands of ISAF Joint Command. The head of ISAF Joint Command then broke his own classification of ANSF capability a few days later when he proclaimed that ANSF is a “hugely capable fighting force” in a news briefing.

The timing for this classification couldn’t have been worse. US forces were in the final stages of the handoff of Afghan security to ANSF and Barack Obama eventually relied on butchered semantics to proudly proclaim that the war was over, despite a residual fighting force to which he had secretly given expanded combat powers.

Today, though, the classification of ANSF capability last quarter looks less like an arbitrary move by the Commander of ISAF Joint Command and more like a total information shutdown on Afghanistan. Perhaps Lt. Gen. Anderson just got the call for a shutdown before everyone else. In the SIGAR quarterly report released today (pdf), we learn that the military now has classified “nearly every piece of data used by the inspector general to assess the Afghan security forces.” In an appendix to the report, SIGAR lists the more than 140 questions that the military previously responded to openly but now says the answers are classified. Here is a sampling that SIGAR provided in the email sent out releasing the report:

–The over 140 SIGAR questions that received classified or otherwise restricted responses are listed starting on page 211. Sample of questions:
–Please provide a broad definition of the terms “unavailable” and “present for duty.” (page 211)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Army food from Afghan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) for the current year. (page 211)
–How has the $25 million authorized by Congress for women in the Afghan army been used? (page 212)
–Total amount of funding that the United States has expended on Afghan National Police salaries from ASFF for the current year. (page 212)
–Please provide details of DOD/NATO-funded contracts to provide literacy training to the ANSF, including: a. the cost of the contract(s) and estimated cost(s) to complete (page 213)
–Please confirm that the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Afghanistan (CJIATF-A) is dissolved. (page 215)
–Please offer an assessment of the anticorruption initiatives of Afghan Ministry of Defense and Afghan Ministry of Interior (page 215)

As the New York Times article linked above points out, the military also initially tried to classify the number of US forces present in Afghanistan and only relented on that point when it was pointed out that the number had already been released by the Obama Administration.

The “explanation” offered by the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell, is far from satisfactory. Here is an excerpt from his letter to SIGAR explaining the sudden expansion of classification:

Campbell

Campbell then had the temerity to add later in his letter that he is “committed to maximum transparency in our operations”. Just wow. That sounds like Obama declaring himself the most transparent President ever, and then going on to rely on expanded classification coupled with unprecedented levels of prosecution of whistleblowers.

But instead of just looking like a move Obama would make, perhaps it did come at his behest. Not only is the military clamming up on virtually all information out of Afghanistan, it appears that the State Department is as well. From page 147 of SIGAR’s report:

Despite the requirement of Public Law 110-181 that federal agencies provide requested information or assistance to SIGAR, the State Department did not answer any of SIGAR’s questions on economic and social-development this quarter, and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up.

Had only one Federal agency, the Defense Department, suddenly shut down the flow of information, it would have been easy to believe that they were ones trying to hide their own failures. But now that a second agency, the State Department, has shut down information flow at the same time, and won’t even provide an explanation for their move, it seems clear to me that the order to shut down information flow had to come from above. With both the Defense Department and State Department going silent, could such an order have come down from anyone other than Obama himself? The failure that is our Afghanistan war has entered its fourteenth year, has spanned two presidents and is now being summarily swept under the rug by the Most Transparent Administration Ever®.

Postscript: For more evidence on just how failed the Afghanistan effort has been, recall that John Kerry’s brokered extra-constitutional National Unity Government was over three months late in finally announcing a full slate of 19 cabinet nominees. Sadly, the slate included poorly screened candidates and the Afghan Parliament yesterday rejected 10 of those nominees while voting to confirm only 9.

Where Are They Now? Dozens of Prisoners Unaccounted For With Closure of US Bagram Prison

Both NBC and Reuters are reporting that the US has closed its prison at the Bagram air base that was used to house non-Afghan prisoners. After many fits and starts, the US had ceded control of (mostly?) all Afghan prisoners to Afghanistan last year. As far as I can tell, the last time we had an accounting of the foreign prisoners held at Bagram was in February, when the number sat at 49, although Adam Goldman noted that the US was busy trying to reduce that number.

There was a report of two Yemenis being transferred out of the facility back in August and Russian prisoner Irek Ilgiz Hamidullin was brought to the US for trial in November, but even as recently as earlier this week, when Latif Mehsud and two of his guards were repatriated to Pakistan, Dawn still reported that conventional wisdom put the number of foreign prisoners held at Bagram in the dozens. The Dawn report relayed a statement from the US embassy that the population was being reduced:

The US Embassy in Kabul said the three prisoners had been held at a detention centre near Bagram airfield.

The facility is believed to house several dozen foreign prisoners who the United States will no longer be allowed to keep in Afghanistan when the mission for the US-led force there ends later this month.

“We’re actually just going through and returning all the third-country nationals detained in Afghanistan to resolve that issue,” a US embassy spokeswoman said.

Note especially that the spokeswoman said “all the third-country nationals”. That stands out because Hamidullin was not the only prisoner held at Bagram who was expected to be brought to trial. Goldman’s report in February said that the “number of people being looked at for prosecution is in the single digits”. Are more of these prisoners already being held in the US in preparation for the filing of charges? Are they held elsewhere? Or were they repatriated instead?

But there were also some prisoners who can’t be tried but are still deemed “too dangerous to release”:

And bringing some of them to the United States for trial in a military commission, an option being considered by the Obama administration, could run into political opposition or may be stymied by a lack of court-ready evidence.

What happened to the prisoners whom the US deemed too dangerous to release but who lacked “court-ready evidence”?

The US prison at Bagram and Defense Department operated prisons throughout both Afghanistan and Iraq have a long, checkered history of lies and misdirection about facilities and their population. Further, this facility at Bagram has been used to house prisoners who were tortured. It seems likely that most of the 49 foreign prisoners known to be there in February have been repatriated without public announcements, but what about those who had been slated for indefinite detention? We now have a number of prisoners who were deemed dangerous and have disappeared in the last several months. Will their status ever be clarified? Will we be forced to concoct more crazy theories on where they went?

Update: It should be noted that both of the stories linked at the beginning of this post state that the last two prisoners transferred out of the US facility at Bagram were handed over to Afghan authorities. This represents a huge change in policy for Afghanistan. Under Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan was adamant that no foreign prisoners would be held in Afghan jails. With this move, it is clear that Ashraf Ghani has changed the policy. So perhaps Afghan prisons are where we will find all of the prisoners the US had slated for indefinite detention without charges?

Defense Department Ignores SIGAR, Orders Russian Helicopters in End-Run Around NDAA

An Mi-17 undergoing maintenance. Most maintenance within SMW is carried out by contractors because SMW lacks the expertise. (SIGAR photo).

An Mi-17 undergoing maintenance. Most maintenance within SMW is carried out by contractors because SMW lacks the expertise. (SIGAR photo).

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, (SIGAR) issued a report (pdf) yesterday that serves as microcosm of the bumbling ineptitude and denial of reality that has characterized the entire US military’s misadventure in Afghanistan. Subtexts running through this scandal run the gamut from US think tanks cooking up unworkable plans to the vast network of international arms dealing (replete with counterfeit parts), Russia supplying arms to Syria, possible blow-back from the arrest of Viktor Bout, the US Congress remarkably trying to exert a bit of power and finally DoD declaring that they will continue with their schedule for claiming Afghanistan can provide its own defense operations despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

At issue here primarily is a contract for 30 Russian Mi-17 helicopters. Despite the fact that the US has been at war in Afghanistan continuously for almost twelve years now, and despite the spectacular failure of US helicopters under haboob (dust storm) conditions in the failed April, 1980 Iran hostage rescue attempt, it appears that Russian helicopters are more reliable in desert conditions and easier to maintain in flying order with a less sophisticated ground crew than US helicopters

The route by which we got to this contract is remarkable. The helicopters are to be supplied to the Special Mission Wing, which is the air support group for Afghanistan’s Special Operations forces. But how this group came into existence is very important to the current scandal. From the report (footnotes removed in this and all subsequent quotes):

At a December 2011 Special Operations Summit, ISAF senior leadership identified the development of air support capacity as a priority for improving Afghan military capabilities for counterterrorism and other special operations missions. To respond to this need, NTM-A [NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan] sponsored a RAND study to assess requirements and provide recommendations. The study’s recommendations discussed different scenarios for the planned size—in terms of both personnel and aircraft—of air support, the command structure, and scope of operations.

NTM-A determined that the Afghan Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) existing Air Interdiction Unit, a counternarcotics-focused unit, would provide the best foundation to develop an Afghan counterterrorism and special operations aviation capability, while maintaining critical counternarcotics efforts. On May 12, 2012, NTM-A issued a military order identifying its concept for the establishment of the SMW. On July 18, 2012, the ANA commissioned the SMW, which replaced the Air Interdiction Unit.

That’s all fine and dandy, except that the geniuses at RAND didn’t allow for the fact that they created a destructive turf war inside the Afghan government. The new SMW is to be housed within Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) since that is where Afghan Special Operations resides. The turf war over moving the existing unit has not yet been resolved: Read more