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[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

Laura Cooper’s Forgotten Deposition

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

Performance art by a couple dozen GOP House members garnered a lot of media attention last week. Their noisy assault on a House sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) during a deposition obstructed a House investigation and compromised the security of the SCIF in an attempt to cast doubt upon the House impeachment inquiry process.

Sophomore (sophomorish-?) GOP representative Matt Gaetz stood out as both a leader of the flash mob; this was his second attempt to crash a meeting though this latest one didn’t do as much for his image.

The stunt and the GOP’s whiny little pizza party and follow-up presser drew a lot of media attention with reactions running the gamut. It was pure hypocrisy for the GOP mob to claim the deposition was an attempt to prevent the public from seeing what was going on, since the committee in attendance included both Democrats and Republicans and operated to rules written and implemented by a Republican majority in 2015

But lost in all the hullaballoo was the deposition itself. This may be exactly what the House GOP intended with their performance – not just to derail the deposition, but to prevent the public from actually knowing anything about Laura Cooper’s testimony.

Projection, as always – when the GOP’s crashers said it was about a meeting Democrats were trying to keep secret, it was about secrets the GOP wants kept.

Which should make us wonder what it was that Laura Cooper had to say that was so worrying to both Trump and the GOP that they staged this intervention.

They didn’t intervene in diplomat Bill Taylor’s deposition, after all. We knew it was going to be rough for Trump because we’d already seen some of Taylor’s texts from his side, casting Gordon Sondland and the administration in a bad light.

But the last time Gaetz pulled this stunt, trying to barge into an investigative session closed to all but House Intelligence Committee members, the subject being interviewed was Fiona Hill.

Hill was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council; she announced on/around June 18 this year that she planned to leave her role at the end of August. She received a subpoena to appear on/around October 10 and appeared last Monday October 14 in a closed-door session for ten hours before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

The House parliamentarian ruled Gaetz was not eligible to attend this session; he’s not a member of these three committees. There were other Republican members of these committees in attendance though we don’t know exactly who or how many because the roll call has not been publicized.

The attempt to crash looked like interference at the time. Perhaps Gaetz intended worse, but the deposition went on.

This past week’s deposition of Laura Cooper was much shorter than Hill’s, at only three hours’ duration. It’s not clear whether Cooper’s testimony was not as broad as Hill’s given Hill’s background and role in the administration. It’s possible Cooper’s deposition was interrupted by the GOP flash mob.

This looks not only like an attempt to interfere with the conduct of the House inquiry and obstruct testimony, but witness intimidation and tampering.

Two patterns may be emerging though with only these two depositions be-bothered by GOP stunts it’s not enough data to cinch this.

First, both of these witnesses were women. GOP reps didn’t try to interfere with depositions or hearings of male witnesses like U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Bill Taylor.

Did they pick these two witnesses to intimidate because they were women?

A third woman witness had been harassed but long before she became a witness for the House inquiry; former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had been through a character assassination by right-wing horde leading up to her recall from her post in Ukraine this past May, before the key Trump-Zelensky phone call on July 25.

Second, both Hill and Cooper were not anticipated as witnesses when the whistleblower complaint became public knowledge. Diplomats and White House personnel who were involved directly in the call were expected as likely witnesses. What was it that emerged during the earliest testimony which compelled the House committees to call Hill and Cooper?

Did Hill’s departure from her role as special adviser trigger questions?

What exactly did Office of Management and Budget tell the Defense Department and when which would have made Cooper a needed witness?

What was it about Cooper’s anticipated testimony which required such a big dog-and-pony show to suck up media attention to propel the GOP’s misdirection while cutting into time alloted for Cooper’s deposition?

Cooper in particular received a letter from the DOD informing Cooper and her counsel that she as Executive Branch personnel couldn’t “participate in [the impeachment] inquiry under these circumstances” according to an administration-wide direction. There were attachments to bolster claims made in the letter with regard to the House Committees’ refusal to allow White House counsel to attend the depositions and the legitimacy of the inquiry. The letter emerged after Reuters reported on October 17 that Cooper wouldn’t testify and before her deposition.

The letter, which looks a bit odd, wasn’t from the Acting Secretary of Defense or the Office of General Counsel for DOD. Instead it was printed on letterhead from the Deputy Secretary of Defense and signed by David L. Norquist, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Why note this?

1) Because the letter wasn’t dated. It has a date stamp on it – 22 OCT 2019 – but not a date typed on the letter at the time it was printed. The stamp appears to be a Received By date but it may also be the date the letter was sent; it’s not clear who or what government entity may have stamped it, whether the Pentagon, Cooper’s attorney, or the House committee which received it though it’s likely not the committee. Note also that October 22 is the date Taylor testified before the House.

2) Because the signature on the letter is almost illegible; “David L.” is legible but the last name isn’t, save for the letter T at the end. There is no name, title, department beneath the signature. Compare this letter to the first attachment, a letter from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, signed by Robert R. Hood. You’ll see there is a name, title, department beneath his signature.

3) Because there’s no subject line, though not all government-issued letters may have them, and

4) There’s no list of attachments, except in the body of the letter, and they’re referred to as Tab A, B, etc. instead of by document title or by a URL if published and available to the public.

Why are these points important? Because someone seeking this particular communication by FOIA wouldn’t be able to find it by date or by Norquist’s name, title, or department, or by the attachments.

If someone was looking for a letter from DOD’s general counsel telling Cooper not to respond to the House committees’ subpoena, they wouldn’t find it. Ditto if they were looking for a letter from the Acting Defense Secretary. Nor would they find it by date written.

Note also, though it’s probably just a coincidence: David L. Norquist is Grover Norquist’s younger brother. Can’t pick your family.

But you can choose whether to include a date, name, title, department on a letter.

~ ~ ~

The New York Times reported last evening that the National Security Council’s authority on Ukraine, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, will testify today before the House impeachment investigation that he objected not once but twice to the context of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Colonel Vindman said in his statement. “I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained.”

Vindman was present during the phone call and remains an active member of White House staff. It’s not just Vindman’s role, though, which shakes up Trump’s supporters. His credentials will be difficult to push back against — Harvard-educated Purple Heart recipient, and a still-active member of the military, who immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler when his parents fled the former Soviet Union. The right-wing horde is already scrambling to discredit Vindman, going so far as to accuse him of being a double agent and a “hostile witness” in a “kangaroo court.”

In his written statement to the House, Vindman said objected to Sondland’s statements during a post-call debriefing session; he was the third person to do so apart from the as-yet unnamed whistleblower.

Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump’s former top Russia adviser, raised concerns about Rudy Giuliani’s role in US foreign policy toward Ukraine, telling lawmakers on Monday that she saw “wrongdoing” in the American foreign policy and tried to report it to officials including the National Security Council’s attorney, according to multiple sources.

“She saw wrongdoing related to the Ukraine policy and reported it,” one source said. …(CNN, 14-OCT-2019)

With Vindman and both Hill and Bolton sharing their objections with NSC’s top legal adviser, John A. Eisenberg has heard from the most senior and most authoritative persons on U.S. policy on Ukraine. Eisenberg’s role was already in question.

It was Eisenberg to whom several alarmed White House officials turned when Trump urged Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. It was Eisenberg who then helped order the record of that call into a system used for ultra-secret classified information. And it was Eisenberg who, several reports said, consulted with political appointees at the Justice Department on how to handle a whistleblower’s complaint about the Ukraine call. (Politico, 26-OCT-2019)

Has Eisenberg also coached others on handling of correspondence related to the quid pro quo investigation, like Norquist’s letter to Cooper? Note that Norquist isn’t an attorney.

We know now that Vindman’s testimony corroborates both Hill’s and Taylor’s, and that Gordon Sondland is exposed to at least one charge of making a false statement.

It’s this corroboration with Vindman’s testimony that Matt Gaetz tried to obstruct with his first attempt at barging into Fiona Hill’s deposition.

Was it also corroboration with Vindman’s testimony that Gaetz and his flock of GOP co-conspirators tried to obstruct with their barging into the House SCIF during Laura Cooper’s testimony last week?

Among the Republicans participating in the protest was Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican. Gaetz and Scalise both suggested they might return at some point to protest further, though they did not do so Wednesday.
The storm-the-room stunt came two days after Trump said that he thought Republicans “have to get tougher and fight.” Many of the Republicans engaged in the protest were at a White House on Tuesday meeting with Trump, and a person familiar with the matter told CNN that Trump had advance knowledge of the plans to enter the space. (CNN, 23-OCT-2019emphasis mine)

Or is there something worse yet ahead which syncs with Cooper’s testimony, something serious enough to warrant Trump conspiring with Gaetz and House GOP members to deter comparison?

Is this why Former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman refused to comply with a House subpoena, filing suit instead with the D.C. district court to determine if he is required to testify? Is this suit a stunt of a more subtle nature, intended to head off the next obstructive parade of House GOP members before John Bolton is subpoenaed?

“Notwithstanding”: How Congress Enabled Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter to Keep Child Rape and Torture from Disrupting Forever War

Back in September of 2015, the New York Times published sickening details on widespread child rape in the Afghan military. The Times’ investigation was centered in part on a victim of child rape who had served as a “tea boy” to Afghan officers and subsequently acquired a weapon. He opened fire inside a base, killing three US Marines.

I had noted at the time that one of the victims, Gregory Buckley, Jr. had told his father just before he was killed that reporting Afghan soldiers for child rape was discouraged because “it’s their culture”. This stood out to me because I had been reporting on the retroactive classification of a DoD report that stated many green on blue killings could be explained by cultural incompatibilities between US troops and the Afghans they were training.

The reports of child rape were so disgusting that Congress commissioned a study by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Recontruction to look into how such widespread abuses were allowed to happen. After all, the “Leahy laws” were aimed at preventing funding of foreign entities known to be committing gross violations of human rights. SIGAR finished their report in June of 2017, but it has only now been declassified and released.

While the report “found no evidence that US forces were told to ignore human rights abuses or child sexual assault”, the end result of actions by Secretaries of Defense Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter leading up to the September 2015 incident are damning in how they result in just that outcome, at least when it comes to using funding that Congress provided.

Here is how SIGAR places the investigation into perspective:

You are excused if, like me, you need to go off and curse a while over the outrageous sums of money we have “invested” in a security force that is failing at this very moment.

But now we have yet another outrage. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided in 2005 that no other law could be used to get in the way of the funding of our sacred war in Afghanistan. Recall that the torture memos were released in late 2004, so Congress rightly feared that much of what we were funding in Afghanistan was illegal and they didn’t want to let those measly laws get in the way of their war.

Just look what DoD had to go through to ignore what the Afghans were doing. Here is Chuck Hagel trying to provide cover in 2014:

This of course looks just fine. We all need a written protocol on how to report human rights abuses. But what happens when abuses are found? Oh, that’s bad. And even though DoD still redacts much of Hagel’s action, it’s clear he was told of abuses but he freed up funds anyway by relying on the “notwithstanding” clause:

It gets even worse. Ash Carter did the same thing, just a few short months before the tea boy attack that killed Buckley and two others:

Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter were fully aware of gross human rights abuses, including both child rape and torture, but elected to use the blunt tool that Congress had given them to ignore these human rights abuses and continue funding the same units within the Afghan military that carried out the abuses. So while official policy was that abuses are to be reported, they then are completely ignored at the Congressional and Cabinet level in order to continue a forever war that is forever failing.

Illiberal Hollywood: It’s 1984 — Or Is It 1964? Can’t Tell from EEOC’s Inaction


If you haven’t watched this Bloomberg-produced video yet, you should. The women directors interviewed are highly skilled and have been fighting Hollywood’s not-at-all-liberal misogyny for decades.

And yes, decades — nothing substantive has happened since 1983 when Reagan-appointee Judge Pamela Rymer ruled for two major studio defendants in the Directors Guild of America‘s lawsuits against them for their discriminatory hiring practices. There was an uptick for about one decade after the suit; by 1995, roughly 16% of movies were directed by women.

But since then the numbers have fallen, and neither the DGA nor the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have done anything about it.

We could cut some slack on the first decade, between 1995 and 2005, right? Congress was full of right-wing zealots chasing the president over a blowjob, and the president who followed him was hyper-focused on going to war, pushed by Dick Cheney’s hand up his backside. Their administrations drifted along with them, shaped by their leaders’ attentions.

But a second decade now — over thirty years in all since 1983 — and the EEOC gave the matter no attention at all? It’s not as if the film and television industries aren’t right under the noses of people charged with paying attention. Who can work in government and say they haven’t watched any television or film in thirty years? Hello, West Wing?

Or is that an answer in itself, that the film and television industries are merely acting with government sanction, that it is U.S. government policy to discriminate in entertainment media because it serves national interests? Read more

Why Did DoD Wait Over Three Months to Issue Records Preservation Order After SIGAR Request?

The $34 million building without a use. (SIGAR photo)

The $34 million building without a use. (SIGAR photo)

Back in July of last year, SIGAR issued an alert (pdf) regarding what SIGAR head John Sopko termed “a potentially troubling example of waste that requires your immediate attention”. That statement was in Sopko’s cover letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Head of Central Command Lloyd Austin and ISAF Commander Joseph Dunford. It would appear that the folks in the Department of Defense missed that key word “immediate”, as the subsequent responses from the Defense Department have been both troubling and, at least on the most important move, slow.

First, to set the stage on the evidence of wasteful spending in constructing a building that had no use at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province. From the alert letter linked above:

I was told by senior U.S. military officials that the recently completed Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) Command and Control Facility, a 64,000 square feet building and related infrastructure with a contract award value of $34 million that was meant to serve as a command headquarters in Helmand to support the surge, will not be occupied. Based on documents provided to SIGAR, it appears that military commanders in Afghanistan determined as early as May 2010 that there was no need for the facility, yet the military still moved ahead with the construction project and continued to purchase equipment and make various improvements to the building in early 2013. Based on these preliminary findings, I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped.

In addition, I was told that U.S. military officials expect that the building will be either demolished or turned over to the Afghan government as our military presence in Afghanistan declines and Camp Leatherneck is reduced in size. Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling—destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a “white elephant” to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain. Determining all of the facts on how we reached this $34 million dilemma and what can be done to prevent it from happening again is the reason for sending this management alert letter to you.

Even though the Camp Leatherneck Commander determined in May, 2010 that the building was not needed, construction began anyhow after February of 2011. Ironically, Sopko notes in his letter that this may well be the best-constructed building he has toured in his many inspections in Afghanistan, even though it was known before construction began that there would be no use for the building.

Sopko’s letter continues, citing information collected that the building can accomodate 1200 to 1500 staff but that at the time of writing, only 450 people were available to use it. Furthermore, there was nobody on the base qualified to maintain the expensive HVAC system. But it gets even worse:

According to a senior U.S. military official, as the footprint of Camp Leatherneck decreases, the building could be outside the security perimeter, thereby making it unsafe for the U.S. military to occupy it. This leaves the military with two primary options—demolish the building or give it to the Afghan government.

However, to make it usable for the Afghan government, the building would require a major overhaul of existing systems, including the expensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. A high-ranking, senior U.S. military official also advised me that the facility was built to U.S. construction standards rather than Afghan standards. For example, the power runs at U.S. 60 cycles versus Afghan 50 cycles and U.S. 120 volts versus Afghan 220 volts. Therefore, it would not be easy to transfer the building to the Afghan government. These were some of the reasons why the U.S. military officials we spoke with believe the building will probably be demolished.

It appears that the Defense Department reacted to Sopko’s letter, because Sopko states in a subsequent letter that he was informed that an investigation was underway and that his questions would be answered. But that process seems to have directly contradicted earlier work from DoD. Sopko wrote a new letter (pdf) to the same recipients on November 27 of last year: Read more

The Cost of Bullshit: Climate Change, National Security, and Inaction

photo: toolmantim via Flickr

photo: toolmantim via Flickr

While we’re waiting for Congress and the White House to do something productive together for once, let’s recap:

•  The Department of Defense said climate change is a critical strategic concern with regard to its operations and its impact on defense efforts, based on its legislatively-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published two-plus years ago in 2010;

•  The State Department also said climate change is a serious threat to our national security, noted in its inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QQDR), also published two-plus years ago in 2010;

•  A who’s who of defense and diplomacy expressed their concerns about climate change and the need for urgent action, as Marcy noted two days ago; apparently whatever action has been taken so far has not impressed these experts as responsive to the threat climate change poses.

Yet if asked, the average American likely could not point to a single action taken by the U.S. government to reduce the impact of climate change.

In other words, all the effort expended and resources spent on drafting the components of the QDR and QQDR are wasted, the words published mere bullshit—more wasted government employees’ time and taxpayer money.

How much has this wordy inaction cost us?

Here’s a more specific opportunity to save taxpayer money:

…Of all military spending, energy accounts for a small proportion, roughly less than 2% of total military expenditures and 2% of total US energy usage–but is 93% of all US government energy consumption.In fact, the US military is the single biggest consumer of energy in the nation, at about 932 trillion BTU in 2009, resulting in 4% of all US carbon emissions.

Oil accounts for 78.5% of all US military energy usage (54% of that is jet fuel); electricity is 11%, direct use of natural gas comes in a bit under electricity. Direct use of coal and other sources of energy are small fractions of total usage. …

[source: TreeHugger.com, 05-MAY-2011]

The amount spent on energy surely hasn’t declined since these numbers were published in 2009.

Yet Congress and the White House have been locking horns over the sequester for some time now, looking for places to cut costs. Doesn’t it seem like any item should be ripe for examination and audit for cost-cutting if the government is the largest consumer?

Further:

…The United States is far and away the largest military spender on the planet–but you probably already knew that. How much more? In 2010 the US accounted for 42.8% of all military spending in the world (and has doubled military spending since 2001). The next nearest competitor, China, accounts for 7.3% of global military spending. The UK, France, and Russia each spend roughly 3.7%. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy round out the top ten. All other nations spending 25.3% combined.

In dollar terms, the grand total spent on military offense and defense in 2010 was $1.6 trillion. So based on those calculations, done by a Swedish think tank, the US outspent China by 5.86 times. …

[source: TreeHugger.com, 05-MAY-2011]

If the U.S. is the largest military spender, its energy expenditures must likewise be the largest globally. This means the U.S. military could provide the largest impact globally on climate change by urgently and robustly changing its fossil fuel consumption.

Which begs the question: are we going to stop wasting time and money on reports like the QDR and the QDDR when we’re clearly making no effort to follow the recommendations they contain by responding to climate change and its inherent national security risks?

Or are we going to save some serious money on downsizing our military’s fossil fuel consumption AND make immediate, widespread impact on climate change and national security at the same time?

We really need an answer because this bullshit is costing us a fortune in taxes and lost societal opportunities. (Hurricane Sandy cost the federal government at least $180 million dollars; it’s not yet clear how much February’s blizzard cost in tax dollars. Toronto CAN, however, spent CA$4 million on cleanup and repairs, and it was not the municipality hardest hit by the storm.)

And with each drought and mega-storm, the lack of response is costing us even greater treasure in loss of personal opportunities, homes and lives.

Hagel Hearing: Twilight of the Neocons Makes Senate Armed Services Committee Dysfunctional

The disgusting bullying of former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) during his hearing yesterday on his nomination to be Secretary of Defense is demonstrated clearly in the short clip above where Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Closet) asks Hagel to “Name one person, in your opinion, who’s been intimidated by the Israeli lobby.” Hagel said he couldn’t name one. A quick look at this word cloud from the hearing, though, or at this tweet from the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran: “At Hagel hearing, 136 mentions of Israel and 135 of Iran. Only 27 refs to Afghanistan. 2 for Al Qaida. 1 for Mali.” shows that Hagel should be at the top of the list of those intimidated by the Israeli lobby, which yesterday was embodied by the SASC.

Hagel did himself no favors when he stumbled badly on one of the few substantive and relevant topics brought up. On Iran’s nuclear program, even after being handed a note, he bungled the Obama administration’s position of prevention, stating first that the US favors containment. [His bungled statement of the Obama administration’s position should be considered separately from the logic of that position, where containment of an Iran with nuclear weapon capability is seen by some as a stabilizing factor against Israel’s nuclear capabilities, while prevention could well require a highly destabilizing war.]

Overall, however, the combative nature of Republican questioning of Hagel was just as hostile as the questioning last week of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi incident. Why would Republicans turn on one of their own with a vengeance equal to that shown to their long-term nemesis? Writing at Huffington Post, Jon Soltz provides an explanation with which I agree when he frames yesterday’s hearing as a referendum on neocon policy (emphasis in original):

“Tell me I was right on Iraq!”

Essentially, that’s what Sen. McCain said during most of his time in today’s confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel. And that sums up why the die had been cast on the Hagel nomination, before we even got to these hearings today, which I am currently at. This vote, I believed (and now believe more than ever) is a referendum on neocon policy, not on Chuck Hagel.

Much of McCain’s bullying of Hagel was centered on McCain trying to get Hagel to admit that he had been wrong to oppose the Iraq surge. This clinging to the absurd notion that the Iraq surge was a success sums up the bitter attitude of the neocons as the world slowly tries to emerge from the global damage they have caused. And that this view that the surge was a success still gets an open and unopposed position at the Senate Armed Services Committee highlights the dangerous dysfunction of one of the most influential groups in Washington.

A functional SASC would have spent much time in discussion with Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who provided a meticulous debunking of the myth that the Iraq surge was a success. His report, however, has been quietly ignored and allowed to fade from public view. Instead, this committee has essentially abandoned its oversight responsibilities in favor of pro-war jingoism. That Hagel refuses to engage in their jingoism is at the heart of neocon hatred of him.

Hagel would have done himself and the world a favor by turning the tables on the Committee during the hearing. A report (pdf) released Wednesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction highlights a massive oversight failure by the Senate Armed Services Committee that lies at the juxtaposition of US defense policy in both Iran and Afghanistan. Despite long-standing sanctions against US purchases of Iranian goods, the Committee has allowed the Department of Defense to purchase fuel for use in Afghanistan that could well have come from Iran. Here is the conclusion of the report (emphasis added):

DOD’s lack of visibility—until recently—over the source of fuel purchased for the ANSF raises some concerns. DOD lacked certification procedures prior to November 2012 and had limited visibility over the import and delivery sub-contracts used by fuel vendors. As a result, DOD is unable to determine if any of the $1.1 billion in fuel purchased for the ANA between fiscal year 2007 and 2012 came from Iran, in violation of U.S. economic sanctions. Controls—recently added by CJTSCC to the BPAs for ANSF fuel—requiring vendor certification of fuel sources should improve visibility over fuel sources. To enhance that visibility, it is important that adequate measures are in place to test the validity of the certifications and ensure that subcontractors are abiding by the prohibitions regarding Iranian fuel. Recently reported steps to correct weaknesses in the fuel acquisition process may not help U.S. officials’ in verifying the sources of fuel purchased with U.S. funds for the ANSF. Given the Afghan government’s continued challenges in overseeing and expending direct assistance funds, it will become more difficult for DOD to account for the use of U.S. funds as it begins to transfer funds—in March 2013—directly to the Afghan government for the procurement and delivery of ANSF fuel. In light of capacity and import limitations of the Afghan government, the U.S. government may need to take steps to place safeguards on its direct assistance funding—over $1 billion alone for ANSF fuel from 2013-2018—to ensure that the Afghan government does not use the funds in violation of U.S. economic sanctions.

Imagine the sputtering that would have ensued if Hagel had managed to ask Graham or McCain why the committee had failed to enforce the sanctions against purchasing Iranian fuel by the Defense Department. While he was busy singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” on the campaign trail in 2008, McCain was failing in his responsibility to see that Iranian fuel wasn’t purchased by the Defense Department.

Shorter Gen. Nicholson: “Yeah, We Lied Earlier About Afghan Troop Capabilities, But You Can Believe Us This Time”

It would appear that even the Washington Post is beginning to see through the way that the Defense Department continues to make outrageous claims regarding the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces. An article published last night to the Post’s website carries the headline “Panetta, other U.S. officials in Kabul paint rosy picture of Afghan situation”. The article opens in conventional news-as-transcription-of-government-narrative fashion:

With Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Kabul to take stock as the Obama administration weighs how quickly to draw down troops over the next two years, a senior U.S. military commander on Wednesday hailed the progress Afghan security forces have made.

Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, the head of operations for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said NATO troops have begun a radical shift in mission: doing the bare minimum to support Afghan troops, who, he said, are starting to operate unilaterally. “We’re now un-partnering from” Afghan forces, Nicholson told reporters Wednesday evening. “We’re at that stage of the fight.”

The article then plants a hint, stating that if Afghan forces are seen as achieving capability to function on their own, the US withdrawal can be accelerated from the current plan of taking another two years.

Remarkably, the Post then moves on to provide some perspective for Nicholson’s claim:

The assessment Nicholson offered, however, is far rosier than the one that U.S. officials have provided recently. They have been citing the resilience of the Taliban and the shortcomings of the Afghan government and military.

Just one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own without air or other military support from the United States or NATO, according to a Pentagon report to Congress that was released Monday.

But Nicholson wants us to believe that even though the Defense Department has been lying for years about Afghan troop capabilities, they really, really mean it this time and we should believe them:

Nicholson said that although U.S. commanders have made “disingenuous” claims in the past about the extent to which Afghans were acting as equal partners in joint missions, officials now see the Afghan army as ready to operate largely on its own, albeit with key logistical and financial support from NATO. The new strategy as the United States tries to transfer greater responsibility to the Afghan government and military is one of “tough love,” Nicholson said.

Sadly, Nicholson’s claims appear to have no more credibility than previous DoD claims on ANSF capabilities. Consider this exchange from the briefing held Monday at the Defense Department, featuring as speakers Senior Defense Official “[Briefer name deleted]” and Senior State Department Official “[briefer name deleted]” where we see that the Post isn’t the only media operation that sees through the duplicity. This exchange starts with a question from Lita Baldor of AP [emphasis added]: Read more

Delay in Publishing Afghan War “Progress” Report Forces Panetta Into “Clarification” Mode re Safe Havens in Pakistan

By law, the Department of Defense is required to prepare reports on “progress” in the war in Afghanistan twice a year. The first report for 2012 was published (pdf) in April, so one would expect the second report to follow in October. Even though this second report was provided to Congress around that time, it was not published (pdf) until yesterday. It seems likely to me that the Obama administration did not want the public to be reminded so close to the November elections just how big a failure the war effort in Afghanistan has become, and so release of the report was significantly delayed, first by the election and then presumably to allow time for more panty-sniffing in the Petraeus-Broadwell-Allen-Kelley scandal.

It turns out that delaying important reports before releasing them has consequences. Pakistan took exception to a claim in the report regarding safe havens for terrorists in Pakistan and whether Pakistan is cooperating in taking action against those terrorists. From the Express Tribune:

Pakistan on Tuesday rejected as ‘baseless’ the latest US report accusing Islamabad of undermining security in Afghanistan by allowing safe havens for insurgents.

A Pentagon report released on Monday said that Pakistan is persistently undermining security in Afghanistan by permitting safe havens for insurgents and its failure to effectively combat the flow of improvised explosive devices (IED) materials.

The October 2012 report, published by the US Department of Defense (DoD), is from the period of April to October of this year. The report says, “The insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan government, and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan.”

However, a senior security official told The Express Tribune on Tuesday on condition of anonymity that “as the drawdown approaches, the US appears to make Pakistan a scapegoat to cover up its own failures in Afghanistan.”

The accusations and Pakistan’s response continue:

The DoD report stated that the insurgency in Afghanistan receives support including sanctuary, training infrastructure, operational and financial support from within Pakistan. “The availability of sanctuary inside of Pakistan enables key elements of the insurgency to remain potent and threatening, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Taliban Network.”

But Taliban havens across the border in Pakistan, the limited capacity of the Afghan government and “endemic corruption” posed the greatest risks as the US prepares to pull out troops by the end of 2014, the Pentagon said.

Reacting to the Pentagon assessment, the official insisted that Pakistan had not permitted any “terrorist sanctuaries” on its soil. “If they (US) have any evidence about safe heavens, they should share with us,” he added.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was forced into issuing the equivalent of a Nixon-era “that statement is no longer operational” response to Pakistan. From Dawn: Read more

Panetta, DoD Use Semantic Games to Claim Joint Operations Nearly Normal Again in Afghanistan

Civilian casualty rates in Afghanistan updated through August of 2012, as obtained by Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room. Click on image for a larger view.

Late Thursday, Leon Panetta contributed even further to his diminishing credibility by trying to claim that joint missions between US and Afghan troops are returning nearly to normal levels. From the Washington Post:

Most U.S. and NATO combat troops have resumed joint operations with Afghan forces, the Pentagon said Thursday, although U.S. officials said they remain worried about the threat of fratricidal “insider attacks.”

U.S. commanders had substantially scaled back the joint operations 10 days ago in an urgent effort to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. and NATO troops.

At a news conference, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said “most” U.S. and NATO units had “returned to their normal partnered operations” with their Afghan allies. But he offered few details, and other Pentagon officials offered conflicting accounts of how many missions were still being conducted separately.

The new information was also found to be unclear by the New York Times:

In a significant restriction on a core element of the Western exit strategy from Afghanistan, the American-led military coalition said last week that all joint operations with Afghan forces conducted below the battalion level had to first go through a formal approval process — an effort to stem attacks by members of the Afghan security forces that have killed 51 American or allied service members this year. Officials now say those approvals were being handled efficiently enough that the number of partnered operations was returning to normal. . . . The number is now climbing again, said officials, who declined to offer specifics.

Spencer Ackerman is having none of this ploy, though, and the title of his piece from Thursday evening tells us all we need to know: “Whatever Pentagon Says, U.S. Patrols With Afghans Aren’t ‘Normal’ Yet“: Read more

GAO Catches DoD Changing Definitions to Claim Progress Training Afghans, Misses Real Risks

Patrick Eddington pointed us toward a report (pdf) released yesterday by the GAO. The report is titled “Afghanistan Security: Long-standing Challenges May Affect Progress and Sustainment of Afghan National Security Forces”. GAO describes their reasons for the report (which is also Congressional testimony):

This testimony discusses findings from GAO reports and ongoing work that cover (1) progress reported and tools used to assess ANSF capability, (2) challenges affecting the development of capable ANSF, and (3) use of U.S. Security Force Assistance Advisory Teams to advise and assist ANSF.

The report does a very good job of catching the Defense Department redefining the highest category of ANSF capability in order to claim progress in the percentage of units that have achieved the highest level. However, as Eddington pointed out in his tweet, GAO falls far short of its second goal of enumerating the “challenges affecting the development of capable ANSF”, as the report is entirely silent on the two biggest hurdles faced: defections and green on blue killings.

Here is Reuters’ Missy Ryan describing the use of changed descriptors to claim progress:

The Pentagon’s decision to change the standards used to grade the success of Afghan police and soldiers, who are a centerpiece of U.S. strategy for smoothly exiting the war in Afghanistan, helped it present a positive picture of those forces’ abilities, a U.S. government watchdog reported on Tuesday.

“These changes … were responsible, in part, for its reported increase in April 2012 of the number of ANSF units rated at the highest level,” the Government Accountability Office said in a new report on Afghan national security forces, known as ANSF.

In a twice-annual report to Congress in April 2012, the Defense Department reported that Afghan police and soldiers “continued to make substantial progress,” classifying 15 out of 219 army units as able to operate ‘independently with assistance’ from foreign advisors. Almost 40 out of 435 police units got the same rating.

And what was the redefinition of terms that was used? Merely a slight change that completely negates its meaning:

“Key definitions used in capability assessments … have changed several times,” the GAO said. Its report said the Pentagon’s highest rating for Afghan forces had changed from ‘independent’ in early 2011 to ‘independent with advisors’ later that year.

Gosh, the only way that DoD could show that the ANSF had increased the number of units rated at the highest level of capability was to redefine that highest level of capability. So, instead of “independent”, the most capable units are now “independent with advisors”, which is, you know, NOT independent. Read more