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The First Rule of the Fight Club…

I’ve been waiting to comment on the news that one of the SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden has a book coming out on September 11.

The publication will undoubtedly be yet another telling episode in our government’s asymmetric treatment of secrecy, but thus far it is too soon to say how. After all, when a SEAL wants to “correct the story,” does he plan to engage in a little JSOC score-settling (I heard rumors the Rangers and the SEALs had competing versions not long after the operation). Will he reveal details that change our understanding of Pakistani knowledge of the operation? Or will he significantly upend the myth Obama’s team has spun about it? All were–and probably still are–possible.

In any case, the book publication will present an interesting challenge for the Obama Administration, which has gone to great lengths to prevent or disincent publication of other books revealing secret information. Nevertheless, the completely arbitrary system for prepublication review seems to encourage people to bypass the system. (This SEAL has already planned to donate much of the proceeds of the book, following a lead set by Ishmael Jones, which takes away one of the tools the government might use against him.)

Finally, there’s the political problem Obama will have. It’ll be hard for the Administration to villainize this SEAL the way it has given others. After all, the SEAL played a key role in half of Obama’s re-election bumper sticker: “Osama bin Laden is dead, GM is alive.” Either he’s a hero for killing OBL, or he’s not, right?

It’s against that background that I read the exposure–first by a Fox News Pentagon reporter, citing “multiple sources,” and then by Craig Whitlock, citing “Pentagon sources”–of the SEAL’s real identity. Given that the Pentagon was sharing (or at least confirming) the SEAL’s identity to the WaPo, then this line from the SOCOM spokesperson is rather ominous.

And Col. Tim Nye, a Special Operations Command spokesman, said the author “put himself in danger” by writing the book.

“This individual came forward. He started the process. Read more

Can Hillary Turn on Electricity in Yemen Better than AQAP?

Due to the vagaries of smart phone RSS feeds, I re-read this story over the weekend. In addition to describing Secretary of State Clinton’s speech before the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference–in which she described how special ops fit into her idea of really smart power–it also aired JSOC complaints about Hillary’s proposed closer ties between diplomacy and special ops.

But rumor has it Clinton’s vision has its detractors — and that its implementation in hotspots such as Yemen and Congo has made some Special Operations Forces officers very unhappy. In Yemen, in particular, some commando officers look upon the State Department’s expanding shadow-war powers as a bureaucratic intrusion on what should be military territory. A source tells Danger Room that in Yemen State has effectively hijacked all U.S. counter-terrorism funding, requiring a labyrinthine approval process for even small expenditures. According to detractors, the funding control is a way of cementing State’s expansion into the Special Operations Forces traditional remit.

McRaven does not share the officers’ objections. The admiral has enthusiastically widened and deepened his command’s alliances with commando forces from allied nations — all in a bid to build what he calls the “global SOF partnership.” The Army 10th Special Forces Group’s ongoing deployment to Afghanistan is a perfect example: 10th Group’s Afghanistan task force includes commandos from Poland, Romania and several other countries. In a sense, McRaven is becoming more of a diplomat as Clinton becomes more of a warrior. Meeting in the middle, they’ve apparently chosen to be allies instead of rivals.

In that context, Clinton’s appearance at an otherwise minor military trade show is an important signal. McRaven is showing his officers that if he and America’s top diplomat can get along, then they can get along with their own State Department counterparts, as well. An evolving vision of American warfare is counting on it.

This story came out on May 24, just a few days after this largely unnoticed AP story described John Brennan seizing control over targeting. One reason for Brennan to do so, it seemed, was to give State more direct influence over targeting.

The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.

[snip]

But some of the officials carrying out the policy are equally leery of “how easy it has become to kill someone,” one said. The U.S. is targeting al-Qaida operatives for reasons such as being heard in an intercepted conversation plotting to attack a U.S. ambassador overseas, the official said.[my emphasis]

That is, it seems like this process–which the AP dates to sometime in mid-April–allowed State to bypass DOD’s vetting process by submitting targeting suggestions directly to Brennan. And the AP story appeared to arise out of the same disgruntlement within JSOC as Wired’s story.

Now, I actually support Hillary’s efforts to strengthen State’s soft power efforts; we won the Cold War as much with soft power and oil price manipulation as we did by bankrupting Russia with an arms race. But we’ve sucked at it ever since. Read more

Riyadh’s Station Chief, John Brennan, Takes JSOC’s Drone Keys Away

I think I’ve actually found a story in which John Brennan features but was probably not the original leaker: this one, describing how Brennan is centralizing all drone targeting decisions in the White House.

The Pentagon is likely to be sidelined from decisions on determining which terror leaders are targeted for attacks by drones. It’s a change that would concentrate the power to strike with lethal force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.

Let me make a few points about timing.

First, this leak comes on the same day the Obama Administration succeeded in hiding the “Gloves Come Off” Memorandum of Notification authorizing–in addition to torture–the targeted killing program. I suspect this means there will be less oversight from here on out.

In addition, the leak also comes just after the Administration asked for another month extension on their response to the drone FOIA. That’s funny, because the Administration was reportedly ready to start revealing details about military drone operations, but not CIA ones.

The changes considered most likely to win adoption would bring about greater openness regarding the military drone program, while keeping most or all details of CIA strikes classified, U.S. officials said. CIA officials are opposed to publicly acknowledging the details of drone programs under its control, for fear of setting precedents that could affect other covert programs.

Does this mean the Administration also wants to micromanage transparency, as well as targeting, in part by exerting more control over that part of the program that would be more transparent?

But the most interesting coincidence with this news is the expansion of signature strikes in Yemen. When Greg Miller first reported on the possibility of signature strikes in Yemen, he suggested that JSOC neither needed nor wanted that authority; it would be used with CIA alone.

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.

[snip]

Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.

“How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”

[snip]

The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

That was two days before the Saudis delivered us up an UndieBomb plot on April 20 to justify expanding our attacks in Yemen.

But when, five days after the Saudis delivered the UndieBomb plot (though still weeks before we’d learn about it), WSJ reported Obama had approved the signature strikes, the story said JSOC had asked for signature authority along with the CIA.

“This was an interagency decision made based on deliberations about the growing threat from AQAP and concerns about the safe haven,” a senior Obama administration official said. The White House is “broadening the aperture” for CIA and JSOC strikes, the official added.

[snip]

The CIA and JSOC asked last year for broader targeting powers, however, which would include leeway to conduct what are known as “signature strikes,” in which targets are identified based on patterns of behavior, such as surveillance showing they are transporting weapons.

[snip]

Recently the CIA and JSOC, citing the fears about an al Qaeda haven, renewed requests to the White House.

In other words, there have been conflicting reports about whether JSOC wanted to or would participate in signature strikes.

Since then, we’ve launched our big new assault on Yemen, including a drone strike that killed 8 civilians.

Then, just as our assault expands, John Brennan–perhaps along with his Saudi friends–decides we can’t exercise the level of caution that DOD has previously exercised.

Under the new plan, Brennan’s staff compiles the potential target list and runs the names past agencies such as the State Department at a weekly White House meeting, the officials said. Read more

Terror Drugs with No Mention of Larger Context'>NYT Covers the War on Terror Drugs with No Mention of Larger Context

This NYT article, which describes how the US has adopted the Special Forces approaches used in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the drug trade in Central America, rather bizarrely makes no mention of the larger context–growing opposition in Latin America to the War on Drugs as such. On the contrary, the NYT suggests there is consensus about drugs unlike the Cold War disagreements that existed when Oliver North built similar bases in Honduras to fight the Contras.

Narcotics cartels, transnational organized crime and gang violence are designated as threats by the United States and Central American governments, with a broader consensus than when that base was built — in an era when the region was viewed through a narrow prism of communism and anticommunism.

“The drug demand in the United States certainly exacerbates challenges placed upon our neighboring countries fighting against these organizations — and why it is so important that we partner with them in their countering efforts,” said Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, the No. 2 officer at Southern Command, which is responsible for military activities in Central and South America.

Compare that formula–US demand creates the need for us to set up Forward Operating Bases out of which our Special Forces can operate–with that offered by Guatemala’s right wing President, Otto Pérez Molina, in his calls to legalize drugs. [This is my very rough translation.]

In part, we have seen an unequal struggle [against drugs] because America is not cooperating with Central America as it should on this problem.

[The fight against drugs] is a shared responsibility that has different levels and degrees that each country must take.

The US is the largest consumer and the final destination of all the drugs passing through Central America and therefore it has the greatest responsibility.

Read more

Is It the CIA–or the Saudis–Who Want Signature Strikes in Yemen?

This is, IMO, the most telling line in this entire article on the CIA’s request to use the signature strikes in Yemen that proved so problematic in Pakistan:

The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

After all, in Pakistan, where only the CIA flies drones, David Petraeus has sharply limited the use of signature strikes. But in Yemen, where both JSOC and CIA fly drones (and operate on the ground), JSOC sees no need but Petraeus does.

Consider what that means in conjunction with this:

The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.

The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.

That is, these signature strikes would be operating from a base in Saudi Arabia (or is it in Oman), with informants developed, in significant part, by the Saudis (ya think)? And this authority, if granted, would permit the killing of people whose identities the CIA did not know.

The Saudis have, in the past, asked for Predator drones specifically so they could use them to attack the Houthi rebels in Yemen. They have blamed the Houthis and other unrest in Yemen on Iran, their rival for hegemony in the Middle East. At least according to what the Yemenis claimed to their Parliament, Saudi intelligence was involved in the disastrous strike on al-Majalah.

Now maybe this crazed plan wasn’t dreamed up by the Saudis.

But it sure sounds like a backdoor way for the Saudis to access control over drones and their targets in Yemen, without the CIA double-checking their work.

Mind you, the article suggests that even former CIA Saudi station chief John Brennan is likely to oppose this idea.

The CIA might be able to replicate that success in Yemen, the former intelligence official said. But he expressed skepticism that White House officials, including counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, would approve the CIA’s Yemen request.

So maybe I’m completely wrong that this is a way to give the Saudis more control.

Still. There are a lot of other reasons this is a terrible idea, many of them readily apparent just from the many contradictions in this piece. But the degree to which it outsources more control of our already counterproductive drone program to the Saudis is certainly one big reason, IMO, why it’s a terrible idea.

Update: Since I’m talking about Saudi Arabia’s interests in Yemen, I ought to point out this news.

On March 28, a Saudi diplomat named Abdullah al Khalidi was kidnapped by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the port city of Aden, Yemen. AQAP’s gunmen captured al Khalidi, who served as Saudi Arabia’s deputy consul in Aden, as he was getting into his car outside of his residence.

Sometime thereafter the Saudi embassy in Sanaa received a call from an ex-Guantanamo detainee named Mishaal Mohammed Rasheed al Shadoukhi. According to Saudi government sources cited by Asharq Al Awsat, al Shadoukhi assured the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Ali Al Hamdan, that al Khalidi was “fine and in good health.”

Al Shadoukhi issued several demands, including the “release of all female prisoners” who are in Saudi custody and connected to al Qaeda, the release of various other detainees held by Saudi authorities, and a ransom payment that is to be negotiated.

Al Shadoukhi also told the ambassador that the Saudis could send an emissary to Jaar, a southern Yemeni town controlled by al Qaeda and its allies, if they want to discuss al Khalidi’s “case” with his kidnappers further.

Al Shadoukhi is one of the many Saudis who went through “deradicalization”–a process which seems to have resulted in some double agents and some people aware that the Saudis were recruiting double agents.

DOE Washing Terrorists in the Nevada Desert

I’ve long suggested that our attempts to suggest Mossad was running the MEK (and Jundallah) led covert operations in Iran were attempts to hide US cooperation with those groups against Iran.

Sy Hersh confirms precisely that speculation with respect to the MEK.

The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted from American intelligence. He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”; “The goal is to affect Iranian psychology and morale,” he said, and to “demoralize the whole system—nuclear delivery vehicles, nuclear enrichment facilities, power plants.” Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines. He added that the operations are “primarily being done by M.E.K. through liaison with the Israelis, but the United States is now providing the intelligence.” An adviser to the special-operations community told me that the links between the United States and M.E.K. activities inside Iran had been long-standing. “Everything being done inside Iran now is being done with surrogates,” he said. [my emphasis]

More interesting, he describes JSOC training MEK in the Nevada desert.

Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by its advocates, M.E.K. has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.”

Hersh goes on to describe that we not only taught MEK how to stay in communication in the field, but how to intercept Iranian communications as well (remember the importance of intercepts in our understanding of Iranian nukes?). Moreover, the stuff the JSOC trainers were teaching MEK was so “sexy” that people started to get worried.

We’ve been training terrorists in our own deserts and sending them out against Iran–all while fear-mongering about Iran engaging in terrorism.

In other words, even the war on terror hasn’t taught us how such schemes can backfire.

“Quiet Lobbying Campaign” For SOCOM: Hollywood Movie, President’s Campaign Slogan

Coming so quickly on the heels of Lt. Col. Daniel Davis documenting the depraved level of lying that characterizes the primary mode of action for many at the top levels in our military, it’s galling that Admiral William McRaven would take to the front page of today’s New York Times to advance his efforts–hilariously and tragically labeled by the Times as a “quiet lobbying campaign”–to gain an even freer hand for the Special Operations Command, which he heads.

Never forget that it was from within Special Operations that Stanley McChrystal shielded Camp NAMA, where torture occurred, from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Never forget that it was Special Operations who instituted the dark side of the COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in Afghanistan that relied on poorly targeted night raids that imprisoned and tortured many innocent civilians. Never forget that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld bypassed the normal chain of command to work directly with Stanley McChrystal when he headed JSOC, sending McChrystal on missions not reported to area command. This relationship with Cheney and Rumsfeld had a strong effect on JSOC, as noted by Jeremy Scahill:

Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch.

Among the military commanders being bypassed by Cheney and Rumsfeld was the head of SOCOM, the position that McRaven (who was McChyrstal’s deputy when most of McChrystal’s war crimes were carried out) now occupies, but this same attitude of teaming with the executive branch to bypass the regular defense chain of command has survived intact.

Today’s article in the Times opens this way:

As the United States turns increasingly to Special Operations forces to confront developing threats scattered around the world, the nation’s top Special Operations officer, a member of the Navy Seals who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, is seeking new authority to move his forces faster and outside of normal Pentagon deployment channels.

The officer, Adm. William H. McRaven, who leads the Special Operations Command, is pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy. The plan would give him more autonomy to position his forces and their war-fighting equipment where intelligence and global events indicate they are most needed.

At least the Times does pay a short homage to the quaint, old way of the chain of command as it currently exists:

While President Obama and his Pentagon’s leadership have increasingly made Special Operations forces their military tool of choice, similar plans in the past have foundered because of opposition from regional commanders and the State Department. Read more

Not So Great Expectations: Paying the Price of Hubris in Iraq, Afghanistan

Developments over the past few days on several different fronts are coming together in a way that outlines just how arrogantly the US conducted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the consequences of that hubris are now diminishing the previously dominant role for the US in the region going into the future. At the same time, these developments drive home the message of the terrible waste of lives and money the war efforts have been.

In today’s New York Times, we learn that the staff at the gargantuan US embassy in Baghdad is about to be cut in half. It appears that one of the driving forces behind these cuts is that the Iraqis are not making it easy for embassy personnel to move freely into and out of the country:

At every turn, the Americans say, the Iraqi government has interfered with the activities of the diplomatic mission, one they grant that the Iraqis never asked for or agreed upon. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office — and sometimes even the prime minister himself — now must approve visas for all Americans, resulting in lengthy delays. American diplomats have had trouble setting up meetings with Iraqi officials.

Perhaps Mr. al-Maliki should study the activities of the US Customs Service if he really wants to learn how to make it even clearer to selected foreigners that he doesn’t want them in his country.

But al-Maliki is not the only elected Iraqi official who sees an opportunity to repay the US for the hubris it has shown the region, as the Times quoted Nahida al-Dayni, whom they described as “a lawmaker and member of Iraqiya, a largely Sunni bloc in Parliament” with regard to the embassy compound:

The U.S. had something on their mind when they made it so big. Perhaps they want to run the Middle East from Iraq, and their embassy will be a base for them here.

That US actions in the Middle East would have prompted such an attitude among local officials should have been foreseen, but the Times article informs us that the State Department seems to have been hit by a bit of shock and awe: Read more

Foreign Policy’s “False Flag”

Wikipedia defines “false flag operations” as “covert operations designed to deceive the public in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by other entities.” Unpacking such an operation would require explaining clearly the target audience(s) of the deception and the purpose of it.

But Mark Perry doesn’t describe that structure in his Foreign Policy story, titled “False Flag,” asserting that members of Jundallah were recruited by Mossad agents pretending to be CIA officers.

According to two U.S. intelligence officials, the Israelis, flush with American dollars and toting U.S. passports, posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives — what is commonly referred to as a “false flag” operation.

The memos, as described by the sources, one of whom has read them and another who is intimately familiar with the case, investigated and debunked reports from 2007 and 2008 accusing the CIA, at the direction of the White House, of covertly supporting Jundallah — a Pakistan-based Sunni extremist organization. Jundallah, according to the U.S. government and published reports, is responsible for assassinating Iranian government officials and killing Iranian women and children.

But while the memos show that the United States had barred even the most incidental contact with Jundallah, according to both intelligence officers, the same was not true for Israel’s Mossad. The memos also detail CIA field reports saying that Israel’s recruiting activities occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers, most notably in London, the capital of one of Israel’s ostensible allies, where Mossad officers posing as CIA operatives met with Jundallah officials. [my emphasis]

Explaining that structure would seem all the more important in a story–apparently in the works for a year and a half–published at the precise moment the Americans are trying to deny any involvement in the ongoing assassinations of Iranian scientists.

The problem is all the more real given the ambiguity of Perry’s language. When he says the Israelis were “flush with American dollars,” does he mean they got the dollars from America, or only that they were–as dollars are in common usage–American? When he notes that the recruitment “occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers,” is that meant to suggest that it did so with their assent?

The ambiguity in Perry’s article is more significant given that, while he describes George Bush “going ballistic” when he was briefed on the op, Perry also provides evidence that at least some at the top officials in Bush’s Administration didn’t seem to care all that much.

A senior administration official vowed to “take the gloves off” with Israel, according to a U.S. intelligence officer. But the United States did nothing — a result that the officer attributed to “political and bureaucratic inertia.”

“In the end,” the officer noted, “it was just easier to do nothing than to, you know, rock the boat.” Even so, at least for a short time, this same officer noted, the Mossad operation sparked a divisive debate among Bush’s national security team, pitting those who wondered “just whose side these guys [in Israel] are on” against those who argued that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Furthermore, while Perry references earlier stories covering Jundallah, he doesn’t even consider the role of JSOC in this false flag operation, even though one of them–Sy Hersh’s–specifically describes the involvement of JSOC in such ops.

And as for the suggestion that since Obama took over, such cooperation between the US and Israel has been dramatically curtailed? The claim that the US and Israel have only been cooperating on operations that “are highly technical in nature and do not involve covert actions targeting Iran’s infrastructure or political or military leadership” would first of all seem to be a stretch given that StuxNet and Duqu are all about infrastructure. It would also seem to gloss the apparent role that drones have had in targeting these scientists (Iran has captured some Israeli drones, in addition to the American ones, but most of the airspace involved would require US acquiescence). Add in the recent border incident between Iran and Pakistan involving claimed Jundallah members (the border area isn’t exactly Israel’s backyard), it seems the Obama Administration is, at best, looking the other way.

Israelis and Americans have long hidden behind each other when working with Iranians, going back at least to the Iran-Contra ops that Dick Cheney had a fondness for. Hiding behind Israelis lets American officials pretend we’re not doing the taboo things we’re doing. Hiding behind Americans lets Iranian partners working with Israelis pretend they aren’t working with the Zionist enemy. That false flag business works in many different directions, after all.

Mind you, whatever the other purposes of this “false flag” story, its publication at this point in time just stripped Jundallah partners of the ability to deny they’re working with Israel, with all the probably dangerous consequences that will have.

Iran Begins Uranium Enrichment at Qom Tuesday, Enrichment Scientist at Natanz Assassinated Wednesday

Fars News photo of the aftermath of the bomb that killed Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton railed Tuesday against Iran’s beginning of operations at its Qom uranium enrichment facility, which is buried deep within a mountain to protect it from bunker-buster bombs. Less than 24 hours later, the Deputy Director of the Natanz enrichment facility was assassinated when a bomb attached to his car exploded in northern Tehran. Iran is blaming Israel,citing similarities of this attack with two previous attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks in which Iran says the US also was complicit.

Despite the fact that Iran’s new uranium enrichment plant at Qom is designed to enrich uranium to only 20%, well short of the 90%+ that is needed for nuclear weapons, the US response to the start of operations there paints it as a highly provocative act:

“This step once again demonstrates the Iranian regime’s blatant disregard for its responsibilities and that the country’s growing isolation is self-inflicted,” Clinton said in a statement.

/snip/

“The circumstances surrounding this latest action are especially troubling,” Clinton said.

“There is no plausible justification for this production. Such enrichment brings Iran a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.”

Clinton rejected Iran’s assertion that it needed to enrich uranium to produce fuel for a medical research reactor, saying Western powers had offered alternatives means of obtaining such fuel but their offers had been rejected by Tehran.

Remarkably, Clinton also called for Iran to return to the “P5+1” talks, apparently having missed Iran’s Foreign Minister stating last week that Iran is ready to return to these critical talks aimed at diffusing the tension over Iran’s nuclear technology.

It appears that the US is having a bit of trouble with message management over its actions in relation to Iran. Over at Moon of Alabama, b reports on an embarrassing incident yesterday in which transcription from a “senior administration official” in the Washington Post got a bit too candid and had to be revised. Read more