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Brennan Was Probably Talking about the Telegram PRISM Gap as Much as Encryption

I noted the other day that at a pre-scheduled appearance Monday, Josh Rogin cued John Brennan to explain how the Paris attack happened without warning. In my opinion, the comment has been badly misreported as an indictment solely of Edward Snowden (though it is that) and encryption. I’ve put the entire exchange below but the key exchange was this:

And as I mentioned, there are a lot of technological capabilities that are available right now that make it exceptionally difficult, both technically as well as legally, for intelligence and security services to have the insight they need to uncover it. And I do think this is a time for particularly Europe, as well as here in the United States, for us to take a look and see whether or not there have been some inadvertent or intentional gaps that have been created in the ability of intelligence and security services to protect the people that they are asked to serve. And in the past several years because of a number of unauthorized disclosures and a lot of handwringing over the government’s role in the effort to try to uncover these terrorists, there have been some policy and legal and other actions that are taken that make our ability collectively internationally to find these terrorists much more challenging. And I do hope that this is going to be a wake-up call, particularly in areas of Europe where I think there has been a misrepresentation of what the intelligence security services are doing by some quarters that are designed to undercut those capabilities.

Brennan talks about technology that makes it difficult technically and legally to uncover plots. Encryption is a technical problem — one the NSA has proven its ability to overcome — that might be called a legal one if you ignore that NSA has the ability to overcome the lack of a legal requirement to provide back doors. But I agree this passage speaks to encryption, if not other issues.

In the next sentence, though, he talks about inadvertent or intentional gaps created “particularly in Europe.” He talks about plural unauthorized disclosures — as I noted, Josh Rogin’s own disclosure that the US had broken AQAP’s online conferencing technique may have been more directly damaging than most of Snowden’s leaks —  and “handwringing.” Those have led to “policy and legal and other actions” that have made it harder to find terrorists. In the next sentence, Brennan again emphasizes that “particularly in areas of Europe,” there needs to be a “wake-up call” because “there has been a misrepresentation” of what the spooks are doing, which he suggests was deliberately “designed to undercut those capabilities.”

So the paragraph where he speaks of these problems, he twice emphasizes that Europe in particular needs to adjust its approach.

Last I checked, Europe didn’t pass USA Freedom Act (which would not, in any way, have restricted review of Parisian targeters). Some countries in Europe are more vigorously considering limits on encryption, but those would be just as ineffective as eliminating the code that’s already out there.

What Europe has done, however, is make it harder for our PRISM providers to share data back and forth between Europe (and with providers considering moving servers to Europe, it will raise new questions about the applicability of PRISM for that data). And Europe (not just Europe, but definitely including Europe) has created a market need for US tech companies to distance themselves from the government.

And in the case of Germany, politicians have been investigating how much its BND has done for NSA, and especially which impermissible German people and companies were targeted as part of the relationship. I noted that Brennan raised similar issues just days after the BND investigation turned scandalous in March, and recent revelations have raised new pressure on BND.

With that in mind, in particular, consider what one of the more responsible reports on Brennan’s speech, that of Shane Harris, focused on — terrorists’ use of Berlin headquartered social messaging app Telegram. If terrorists were using WhatsApp (which a lot of the fearmongering focused on), the metadata, at least, would be available via Facebook. But since Telegram is not a US company, it cannot be obliged under Section 702 of FISA, and that surely creates just the kind of gap Brennan was talking about.

Since Brennan’s speech, Telegram has started deleting the special channels set up by ISIS to communicate.

I’m sure Brennan is complaining about encryption and if he can get Congress to force domestic back doors, I’m sure he will (though ISIS reportedly shies away from Apple products, so forcing Apple to give up its encrypted iMessage won’t help track down ISIS). But his speech seemed focused much more intently on ways in which, in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, Europeans have opportunistically localized data and, in the process, made that data far less accessible to the NSA. Brennan, as I made clear in March, definitely would prefer the Europeans rely on Americans for their SIGINT (and in the process agree to some inappropriate spying in their home country), and the gap created by terrorists’ reliance on Telegram is one way to exert pressure on that point.

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Revisiting David Petraeus’ Crack Plan to Ally with Al Qaeda

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on potential airstrikes against Assad, September 3, 2013

SEN. CORKER: What I’m unaware of is why it is so slow in actually helping them with lethal support — why has that been so slow?

SEC. KERRY: I think — I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that. Suffice it to say, I want to General Dempsey to speak to this, maybe Secretary Hagel. That is increasing significantly. It has increased in its competency. I think it’s made leaps and bounds over the course of the last few months.

Secretary Hagel, do you — or General, do you want to —

SEN. HAGEL: I would only add that it was June of this year that the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition, as you all know. We have been very supportive with hundreds of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance. The vetting process, as Secretary Kerry noted, has been significant. But — I’ll ask General Dempsey if he wants to add anything — but we, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action, and as Secretary Kerry noted, probably to go into much more detail would require a closed or classified hearing.

Tom Udall, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on ISIS, September 17, 2014

Everybody’s well aware there’s been a covert operation, operating in the region to train forces, moderate forces, to go into Syria and to be out there, that we’ve been doing this the last two years. And probably the most true measure of the effectiveness of moderate forces would be, what has been the effectiveness over that last two years of this covert operation, of training 2,000 to 3,000 of these moderates? Are they a growing force? Have they gained ground? How effective are they? What can you tell us about this effort that’s gone on, and has it been a part of the success that you see that you’re presenting this new plan on?

A number of us were discussing how odd it was that this big NYT article — describing President Obama blame those who championed arming Syrian rebels — made no mention of the covert CIA operation dating back to 2012 (and confirmed in a public hearing to have started by June 2013). How could a NYT writer pretend the CIA training effort didn’t proceed the DOD one, especially given the fairly lengthy reporting done by other NYT reporters on it? Especially given the Peter Baker’s refutation of Obama’s position pertains to whether Obama should have armed rebels earlier, which of course he did.

In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain.

Which is why I was interested in the blame-setting.

Hillary comes in for a large part of the blame, almost certainly justifiably (though she’s also likely a stand-in for those on Obama’s own staff who espouse intervention with little consideration of consequences). David Petraeus — CIA Director when arms first started flowing to Syria, though not when that April 2013 finding was signed — gets remarkably little blame, especially given the prominence Petraeus Godfather Jack Keane got in the piece.

The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.


The idea of bolstering Syrian rebels was debated from the early days of the civil war, which started in 2011. Mrs. Clinton, along with David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, and Leon E. Panetta, then the defense secretary, supported arming opposition forces, but the president worried about deep entanglement in someone else’s war after the bloody experience in Iraq.

Perhaps most remarkably, our allies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — get no blame here, even in spite of the fact that they’d be funding more radical anti-Assad forces with our involvement or not (on that note, see this great tick tock of how we got here). Much of the reason our options remain so dismal in Syria is because our so-called allies are going to pursue their objectives whether or not we’re playing along. Which leaves only the question of whether anything we could do would improve the outcome — not to mention whether our interest coincides with that of our allies.

So with all that in mind, let’s reconsider David Petraeus crack plan to start allying with al Qaeda to fight (he says) ISIS. As I noted at the time, he engaged in a lot of making shite up, including not only “the Surge” (which he will spin until his dying day), but also what he was doing at CIA.


I’m most interested in this claim:

Petraeus was the CIA director in early 2011 when the Syrian civil war erupted. At the time, he along with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly urged the Obama administration to work with moderate opposition forces. The U.S. didn’t, and many of those groups have since steered toward jihadist groups like the Nusra Front, which are better equipped and have had more success on the battlefield.

While it is true that Obama did not systematically arm rebels in Syria in 2011, it is also a public fact that the CIA was watching (and at least once doing more than that) Qatar and Saudi Arabia move arms from Libya before Petraeus’ departure in 2012, and Obama approved a covert finding to arm “moderate” rebels in April 2013, with CIA implementing that plan in June.

That’s all public and confirmed.

So how is it that we once again are pretending that the CIA — the agency Petraeus led as it oversaw a disastrous intervention in Libya that contributed to radicalization both there and in Syria — didn’t arm purported moderates who turned out not to be?

That is, Petraeus’ plan to ally with al Qaeda accompanies a false narrative about whether we had supported rebels, including al Qaeda affiliates, from the start.

The plan from those who got CIA to support rebels in 2013 (and arm them even earlier) and who kept pushing to train rebels after that is — now that blame is being assigned for the second attempt to arm them — to join with al Qaeda. Which we effectively did years ago.

On top of everything else, its a nice way to inoculate against what has happened, which is and always was going to be about strengthening Islamic fighters.

US Shocked That Islamic State Capable of Military Training

From the context provided in Prothero's article, the guy in the middle is a suicide bomber even though he looks to me more like a member of a ZZ Top tribute band.

From the context provided in Prothero’s article, the guy in the middle is a suicide bomber even though he looks to me more like a member of a ZZ Top tribute band.

The US has been mired in its failed training of “troops” in Iraq and Afghanistan for so long that analysts have now been watching one of the latest Islamic State videos in awe. It turns out that IS has actually managed to institute a few basic military disciplines into its troops and to capture footage of that expertise in action. McClatchy’s Mitchell Prothero talked to a number of these analysts and collected their comments. As a long-time critic of US training in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was intrigued by what the analysts would consider “good” training and how that would differ from the farces that have been perpetrated by US trainers. My cynic’s eye immediately went to this paragraph:

In several scenes that were filmed under fire, for example, Islamic State fighters moving into the Baiji refinery complex appeared to be employing textbook infantry tactics. They also were carrying not only sufficient ammunition for a military operation but also backpacks stuffed with additional supplies, including water – a sign that the Islamic State has a well oiled logistical network for supporting front-line fighters.

What a shock! Troops fighting in a desert have the foresight to enter battle with water bottles in their backpacks! Now why didn’t the US think of that in training the Iraqis?

Snark aside, though, one of the main points of the article is that IS has managed to develop a logistics network that puts the Iraqis to shame. It turns out that in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter), the “government” that the US has set up is too corrupt and inept for a supply chain to work properly:

The military experts said the video provided a disconcerting comparison with Iraqi government troops. They noted, for example, that the scenes of packs filled with ammunition and food contrast with constant complaints from Iraqi troops that the government regularly fails to deliver ammunition to combat forces and often leaves them in the field to fend for themselves for food and water, a circumstance that can lead to the looting of civilian homes and shops.

It seems pretty clear that Prothero feels that the inability to deliver supplies is at least partly due to corruption. From his Twitter feed last night:

As for where those supplies for IS come from, I’ve seen at least one report of IS stealing and redistributing supplies from relief agencies. It seems logical that if they are doing this, those supplies would also find their way to IS fighters as well as civilians.

Prothero also notes that IS has learned to cover their heavy artillery so that it is harder to see from the air:

The video also revealed that the Islamic State appears to have adapted to American airstrikes. Most of the images of artillery, rocket launchers and even heavy anti-aircraft guns mounted on the beds of trucks include a level of camouflage designed to mask the weapons’ positions’ from the air.

Given the constant barrage of US bombs, it’s not too surprising that IS would figure out that they should hide their weapons from jets and drones. Although I’m hardly a weapons expert, one thing that stood out to me about these heavy weapons, though, was the failure to brace against recoil. It seems impossible that IS would have had any kind of accuracy in targeting with the degree of recoil seen in these weapons as shells were fired.

In the end, though, one thing stands out. This propaganda video, for all its purported slick production values and military expertise on display, covers a military operation that eventually failed in the face of those unrelenting US bombs.

Brilliant New Iraq Strategy Unveiled: Promote Sunni-Shia Reconciliation

Once again, the brilliant leaders of the US military have shown a complete ignorance of both the centuries-long Sunni-Shia rift in Islam and more recent US failed efforts to deal with it.

Think back to those heady days in the fall of 2007, when the ass-kissing little chickenshit David Petraeus returned from Iraq to Washington to defend his vaunted Iraq surge and to convince Congress to keep up the effort (while also shoring up political support for the Bush Administration, a long tradition for Petraeus). Perhaps because of all the false furor stirred up over the inane “General Betrayus” ad, Congress and the American public gave Petraeus and the military a pass despite a report card from GAO showing that by meeting only 3 of 18 benchmarks (pdf), the surge was an utter failure. As that document and other materials of the day pointed out repeatedly, the aim of the surge was to provide space for political reconciliation.

That effort, of course, failed miserably. Despite a relative stretch of peace, the Iraqi government that the US proudly hailed turned out to be brutally repressive and sectarian. And when the Sunni-led Islamic State invaded, Iraq’s military that Petraeus proudly trained (several times!) melted away, leaving as the final line of defense the Shia militias that Iraq never disbanded. Those militias promptly set about committing atrocities.

And so what is to be done now? The geniuses at the Pentagon have decided that all we have to do is to mend the Sunni-Shia rift in Iraq:

The U.S.-led air war against Islamic State militants has frozen the immediate threat from that group, and now is the time for Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government to mend its rift with disenfranchised Sunnis, U.S. military officials said on Tuesday.

“Quite frankly, we need to see in Iraq political outreach that addresses the fact that some 20 million Sunnis are disenfranchised with their government,” Lieutenant General William Mayville told a hearing on global threats facing the United States.

Inexplicably, not only did the next speaker, with an “intelligence” affiliation, not laugh at Mayville, he agreed with him:

Mark Chandler, acting director for intelligence for the Joint Staff, agreed, saying “one of the things that really concerns me going forward is if the Shi’ite forces believe that they can control ISIL (Islamic State) without reconciliation with the Sunnis.”

Okay, maybe it is too much for me to expect these guys to know that the Sunni-Shia rift started in 632 and has ebbed and flowed in the intervening thirteen hundred and eighty-some years. But these guys really should be aware of the kerfuffle just seven and a half years ago. Even paying just a tiny bit of attention to what the military and the Bush Administration were saying in the fall of 2007 and then following the thread of what happened on the reconciliation front in the intervening years should show them that this idea has zero chance of success.

Pinning hopes for success in Iraq on reconciliation didn’t work in 2007. Simply calling for it again while changing no other parts of US policy for the region is doomed to the same outcome.

Where IS Abdul Rauf Khadim and Whose Side IS He On?

All of the ladies attending the ball
Are requested to gaze in the faces
Found on the dance cards

Please then remember
And don’t get too close to one special one
He will take your defenses and run

So we change partners
Time to change partners
You must change partners

Lyrics by Stephen Stills

When last we left Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, only two short weeks ago, he had suddenly appeared on the scene in Afghanistan as a recruiter for ISIS. That was after he had spent time on the Taliban’s Quetta Shura as one of Mullah Omar’s top advisors. That was after he escaped from Afghanistan’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison. That was after he had been transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi from Guantanamo, where he was “substantially exploited“.

Today, Pakistan’s Express Tribune is reporting that the Mullah Omar of ISIS, none other than Abu Bakr Baghdadi himself, has named Rauf the head of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which, in ISIS-speak, is now known as the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State. Khorasan also includes Pakistan and selected other surroundings according to ISIS.

That is a very interesting development, especially since earlier this week, there was a report that Rauf had been arrested by the Taliban. Here is Adam Weinstein, writing at Gawker:

The Taliban, bane of America’s post-9/11 Afghanistan operations, said Wednesday that they captured Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a renegade insurgent and ex-Guantanamo detainee who was in Afghanistan recruiting for the Islamic State, the latest parry in a messy internecine conflict between violent Islamist regimes.

The independent Pajhwok news agency of Afghanistan reports that Khadim—who had previously been identified in the media as an ex-Taliban footsoldier who sought revenge against the U.S. after his detention in Gitmo—was arrested, along with 45 armed followers, after attempting to turn local militants against the Taliban and win their allegiance for ISIS’s attempts to build a global caliphate.

However, not everyone was convinced of that report. From Thomas Joscelyn, writing at Long War Journal, also on Wednesday, we have this:

Still, Khadim has been an effective commander and the Khorasan province is already active in southern Afghanistan. There have been skirmishes between Baghdadi’s followers and their rivals in the Taliban, which is clearly gunning for Khadim. One report says that the Taliban has captured Khadim and dozens of his followers, but that has not been confirmed.

Today’s announcement of Rauf as governor of Khorasan marked a rather rapid promotion for him, as a report by Joscelyn on Monday noted that Rauf had been named deputy governor.

Oh, and while you’re trying to sort out just whose side Rauf is on, or whose prison he is in this week, you can get even more confused about funding for ISIS and where it is coming from. Iran seems to be enjoying that particular tidbit.

Shell Announces $11 Billion Petrochemical Plant for Iraq: What Could Go Wrong?

Today’s entry in the “What Could Go Wrong?” sweepstakes is quite a beauty, courtesy of Reuters:

Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) has signed a deal with Iraq worth $11 billion (7 billion pounds) to build a petrochemicals plant in the southern oil hub of Basra, Industry Minister Nasser al-Esawi said on Wednesday.

Esawi told a press conference in Baghdad the Nibras complex, which is expected to come on line within five to six years, would make Iraq the largest petrochemical producer in the Middle East.

“The Nibras complex will be one of the largest (foreign) investments (in Iraq) and the most important in the petrochemical sector in the Middle East,” Esawi said.

Proponents of the deal undoubtedly will point to the fact that Basra is in the far southeastern part of Iraq, far from the swathe of territory controlled by ISIS. Others will even point to the apparent defeat of ISIS in Kobane and how that might signal a turning of the tide in the battle against them. And yes, oil output in Iraq has been steadily rising since that little blip in 2003. As of the time of that linked report from the US Energy Information Administration from 2013, there were other plans for another $24 billion or so in new refineries in Iraq’s oil-producing regions, so why not jump on this Shell plan?

It turns out that there is plenty of fodder for fans of Lee Corso to shout “Not so fast, my friend!” when it comes to this deal. Back in June, there were already rumblings that the big uptick in Iraq violence could threaten expansion of Iraq’s oil sector. Even that article, though, attempted to support the notion that the Basra area remained relatively safe:

As grim as the worst-case situations may be, most analysts still say there is no immediate threat to Iraq’s southern oil fields, which account for approximately 90 percent of the country’s production and oil export. Basra, the heart of Iraq’s oil economy, is situated in an area strongly dominated by Shiites who generally support the central government and are implacable enemies of the Sunni forces on the march in the north.

Badr H. Jafar, chairman of Pearl Petroleum, a consortium that operates in Iraqi Kurdistan, said it was “highly unlikely” that terrorists could disrupt production and operations in southern Iraq.

The New York Times article containing the quote above is dated June 13, 2014. Just a couple of days later, though, we have this:

Turkey’s consulate in the Iraqi city of Basra has been evacuated due to security concerns, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced June 17. The 18 staff members at the consulate, including the consul general, were were taken to Kuwait, Davutoğlu wrote via his Twitter account.

And that wasn’t just a one-off thing. Consider this tweet from October:

A number of airlines discontinued flights to Baghdad because a civilian airplane was hit by bullets there yesterday while landing, but coverage of that halt notes that flights continue in and out of Basra. There was a report January 12 of a plot to attack the port just 20 miles or so from Basra.

There is one more situation that suggests future problems around Basra:

Thousands of Iraqis are living in penury and running out of money after fleeing fighting and settling in the south of the country, the UN’s food agency said on Tuesday, warning that the situation was becoming critical for families in Najaf, Kerbala and Babil.

Jane Pearce, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) country director for Iraq, said structures had not yet been put in place to cater for the people fleeing into the three southern provinces.

WFP is distributing food to 50,000 displaced families in Basra, Dhi Qar, Qadisiya, Missan, Wasit, Muthanna, Najaf, Kerbala and Babil.


WFP needs $292m for its operations in Iraq this year, and has a shortfall of $200m.

Imagine that. Yet another region where the US has no trouble finding funds for bombs, weapons and “training” and yet the WFP is facing a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. But never fear, I’m sure my adorable little troll will be around shortly to stamp his foot and inform us how disaster responders in all their glory have the situation safely in hand and the US can continue its work to create even more refugees because sufficient scraps will be found just in time to avert the worst.

And of course, folks living on the edge of starvation and death from exposure will never, ever be radicalized by such an experience. Sure, go ahead and build that $11 billion petrochemical plant. The US war-industrial complex will be happy to spend hundreds of times more than that amount defending the facility.

Islamic State Recruiter in Afghanistan Was “Substantially Exploited” at Guantanamo

Many outlets are reporting on the disclosure earlier this week that there appears to be active recruiting for Islamic State taking place in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Here is AP as carried by ABC News:

Afghan officials confirmed for the first time Monday that the extremist Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants.

The sources, including an Afghan general and a provincial governor, said a man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf was actively recruiting fighters for the group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The article notes that the Taliban is not taking this development lightly and that there are reports that up to 20 people had died up to that point in skirmishes between the Taliban and those swearing allegiance to IS.

But Mullah Rauf is not just any random figure in Afghanistan. As the article notes, he was once a prisoner at Guantanamo.

In their profile of him this week, the Washington Post had this to say about Rauf:

Rauf is also known as Abdul Rauf Aliza and Maulvi Abdul Rauf Khadim. According to a military document released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, he turns 34 in February and was listed as detainee 108 at Guantanamo Bay. He was transferred to Afghanistan’s control in 2007.

The report on him released by WikiLeaks said he was associated with several known Taliban commanders, but claimed to be a low-level soldier. In interviews with U.S. officials, he was cooperative, but his responses were vague or inconsistent when asked about the Taliban leadership, according to the report. Nonetheless, Rauf was assessed not to be a threat, and was recommended for transfer out and continued detainment in another country.

That Wikileaks document on Rauf can also be read here at the New York Times. This particular paragraph in the report caught my eye:

Rauf exploited

The document from which this is taken is dated October 26, 2004. The parenthetic note from the analyst begins “Detainee is substantially exploited”. In the context of Guantanamo, the issue of prisoner exploitation is a very important topic. A groundbreaking post by Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye in 2011 provides crucial context by what this aside from the analyst means for Rauf’s detention: Continue reading

Pentagon Slowly Coming to Realization That There Might Possibley Be Civilian Deaths from Airstrikes On ISIS

Hell froze over yesterday:

The United States military is investigating reports of civilian casualties that may have occurred as part of the American-led fight against the Sunni militancy known as the Islamic State, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters during a news conference that investigators with the United States Central Command had begun looking into whether coalition airstrikes, which have targeted Islamic State fighters, equipment and oil depots, may have inadvertently hit civilians. Admiral Kirby said he had no additional information. It was the first time that the Pentagon had acknowledged that the air campaign against the Islamic State may have caused civilian deaths.

Recall that US air strikes began in early August. In late September I looked into some of the reports of civilian casualties, and it was not difficult at all to find credible reports. Later on the same day of that post, Michael Isikoff reported that the White House had exempted ISIS air strikes in Iraq and Syria from the new standards of preventing civilian deaths in drone strikes that Obama had announced in 2013.

The Pentagon provided the flimsiest of excuses for having no evidence of civilian deaths at that time:

Earlier Monday, the Pentagon admitted that some assessments of civilian casualties were “inconclusive” since the U.S. was only using drones to assess the results of strikes from the air.

“The evidence is going to be inconclusive often. Remember we’re using [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] to determine the battle damage assessment,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Monday.

A defense official told The Hill earlier this month that accurate assessments of damage from strikes are impossible without U.S. forces on the ground to exploit the attack sites, since Iraqi and Syrian partners did not have the capability.

So the Pentagon claims that they have sufficient intelligence resources to choose targets for attacks, but those same resources magically become incapable of determining the outcome of those attacks.

It’s not like the Pentagon would have to work hard to find credible reports of civilian deaths in their air strikes. Reuters reported back in October that in Syria alone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had documented 32 civilian deaths from US air strikes in a one month period.

The numbers are much worse when we move to Iraq. CNN cited Iraq Body Count data for 2014:

But according to Iraq Body Count’s analysis, 1,748 civilians were reported killed by Iraqi military airstrikes, while 4,325 were killed by ISIS. There were also 118 civilians reported killed by U.S. coalition airstrikes last year.

So while Iraqi air strikes dwarfed US strikes in terms of civilian deaths, it still is remarkable that the Pentagon is finding it so hard to find incidents to investigate when there are over a hundred known dead from our strikes in Iraq in the last year.

Despite those staggering numbers, here is all Central Command could come up with in followup to Kirby’s statement at the top:

Sgt. First Class Sheryl Lawry, a spokeswoman for Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said in an email that Centcom was investigating two instances, one in Iraq and one in Syria, that may have resulted in civilian casualties. The investigations are a result of Centcom’s internal review process. Another three reports of civilian casualties are pending an internal assessment before determining whether they need to be investigated, she said.

The military has examined the credibility of 18 allegations that coalition airstrikes led to civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria from Aug. 8 to Dec. 30 last year, Sgt. Lawry said. Of those, 13 have been determined not to be credible.

Imagine that. Of the the 13 investigations completed, all 13 have cleared the US of killing civilians. There are two that are credible enough that they are still under investigation. Presumably, it is taking some time to manufacture a basis for claiming the reports are not credible. And who knows what those three events still under “assessment” means; we can only guess that they are more recent events and the Pentagon is merely determining how large the whitewash brush needs to be.

Attack at Saudi-Iraq Border Kills Three Saudi Guards

Reuters reports the location of the attack as near the Suweif border station, about 40 km from Arar, Saudi Arabia and 80 km from al-Nukhayb, Iraq (marked by red pin).

Reuters reports the location of the attack as near the Suweif border station, about 40 km from Arar, Saudi Arabia and 80 km from al-Nukhayb, Iraq (marked by red pin), putting the attack roughly where the road connecting them crosses the border.

I’ve long followed events along the porous Pakistan-Iran border area, as there are often events taking place there that have very different descriptions on opposite sides of the border. As recently as December 28, three Iranian IRGC members were killed in the area. This is a departure from the usual pattern, where border guards instead of IRGC are the usual targets. Iran retaliated by firing mortars over the border into Pakistan, who claimed as many as 7 injuries from the attack. Iran is also reporting today that they have arrested a team of “terrorists” south of where the December event took place.

By contrast, even though it as remote as the Iran-Pakistan border, the Iraq-Saudi Arabia border is more heavily fortified and patrolled on the Saudi side. That makes today’s report of three Saudi guards being killed in an attack near a border crossing with Iraq stand out:

Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq, defended by earth barriers and fences and monitored by camera and radar, has been attacked in the past by mortar bombs fired from a distance, but more targeted strikes are rare.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, which hit a remote desert area next to Iraq’s Anbar province where both the Islamic State militant group and Shi’ite Muslim militias close to Riyadh’s foe Iran operate.


Monday’s attackers, described by the ministry only as “terrorist elements”, shot at a border patrol near Arar and when security officers responded, one of the attackers was captured and detonated an explosives belt, the ministry statement on state media said.

One of those killed was a senior officer, ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki told Reuters. Local media, including al-Arabiya television, named the dead officer as General Oudah al-Belawi, the head of a border sector. A third officer was wounded, the ministry said.

The Reuters article quoted above [the quote above is from an earlier version of the article which has since been updated] relied on a single expert to blame the attack on ISIS based on the presence of a suicide bomber.

AP, on the other hand, assigned no blame, but noted (as did Reuters), that Saudi Arabia has joined the fight against ISIS in Syria.

It will be interesting to see whether any group claims responsibility for the attack and whether there are additional attacks along the Saudi-Iraq border. For now, I’d place about as much authority on the pronouncement that the presence of a suicide bomber means the attack came from ISIS as I do on Iran’s latest “documentation” that the US is controlling ISIS operations out of the embassy in Baghdad.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @Kyle_Feldscher If you're not a UM fan, it means you have unfettered access to shop while everyone else is at the game.
emptywheel @TeresaKopec Apparently she's learned a very valuable lesson in fake food, though. Priceless.
emptywheel @TeresaKopec You fed her Twinkies in honor of driving through Whacko, TX?
emptywheel @jrmithdobbs I find that repulsive.
JimWhiteGNV @cocktailhag But then DHS would lose its best early indicator of the extent of hurricane damage.
emptywheel @sjdemas A more important Q is will unions still claim BLM is behind a "war on cops" ? @charles_gaba @elyse4design @jbendery
emptywheel @TeresaKopec Your daughter's pretty sharp.
emptywheel @LemonSlayerUS "Mainstream" terrorists, Vienna approved!
emptywheel @jrmithdobbs Um. No. If only he hadn't been killing at all.
emptywheel @Pedinska Dunno. But he's clearly terrified of Jim Hatbaugh.
emptywheel Reup 2: NSA wants you to forget they'll still be collecting USP call data in bulk.
emptywheel Reup 1: Here are the goodies the IC gets out of USAF implementation today.
November 2015
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