Friday, August 26, 2016

What Might Have Been (Iran Edition)

For the second time in three days, there has been a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.  During today's incident, an American patrol craft fired three warning shots into the water after four Iranian boats harassed U.S. and Kuwaiti Navy vessels in the northern Persian Gulf. As CNN reports: 

"At one point, the Iranian boat came within 200 yards of one of the US Navy boats. When it failed to leave the area after the Navy had fired flares and had a radio conversation with the Iranian crew, the US officials said, tthree he USS Squall fired three warning shots. Following standard maritime procedures, the Navy fired the shots into the water to ensure the Iranians understood they needed to leave the immediate area."  

The episode came just two days after four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels staged a "high-speed intercept" of the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz.  

American officials said two of the vessels slowed and turned away only after coming within 300 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer as it transited international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, and only after the destroyer had sent multiple visual and audio warnings.  In response, a senior IRGC naval officer said Iran will continue its close-quarters intercepts of American vessels, maneuvers deemed "unsafe" and "unprofessional" by the U.S. Navy.  

The most recent showdowns in the Gulf are merely the latest in a string of dangerous incidents involving Iranian military forces.  Last December, one of its vessels fired a rocket near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman; that was followed by the capture and brief detainment of 10 American sailors whose Riverine broke down during a transit from Kuwait to Bahrain and drifted into Iranian waters.  And just last month, one of Iran's naval craft sailed close to the USS New Orleans while the Commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, was on board.   
And, did we mention recent revelations that the Obama Administration paid a $400 million ransom to secure the release of four American hostages from Iran last year?  Or that more money is on the way, helping Tehran finance its own military modernization program, and fund terrorist proxies around the world. 

Then, there's the nuclear deal, which places Iran squarely on the path to developing those weapons.  Iran's partnership with North Korea will provide the expertise needed to extend the range of Tehran's ballistic missiles, so an Iranian ICBM--capable of a nuclear warhead to the CONUS--is a virtual certainty, and perhaps by the end of this decade.

Against that grim backdrop, it's a fair question to ask what might have been, particularly if the U.S. had pursued regime change as a priority in Iran.  And there were opportunities, most recently during the so-called "Green Revolution" in 2009.  After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction won the presidential election ("stole" is probably a better term), thousands of Iranians took to the streets, demanding change. 

The widespread unrest threatened to topple the Tehran regime, which responded brutally.  Between 800 and 3,000 protesters were killed in the street; hundreds more disappeared and were executed in Iranian prisons.  President Obama refused to lift a finger in support, claiming the demonstrators--which represented a broad cross-section of Iranian society--didn't represent "real change."  He never admitted publicly that the Iranian election was riddled with fraud, aimed at keeping Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in power.

Why was Obama so insistent on letting the Iranian revolution die on the vine?  We finally have some answers, thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon and his new book, The Iran Wars.  Eli Lake of Bloomberg devoted a recent column to Solomon's work and its revelations.  He affirms what many long suspected; Obama's obsession over reaching some sort of deal with Iran overruled any other considerations; he was quite willing to let the Green Revolution die on the vine, to preserve his then-secret overtures to Tehran.  As Mr. Lake writes:

It's worth contrasting Obama's response with how the U.S. has reacted to other democratic uprisings. The State Department, for example, ran a program in 2000 through the U.S. embassy in Hungary to train Serbian activists in nonviolent resistance against their dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, too, accused his opposition of being pawns of the U.S. government. But in the end his people forced the dictator from power.

Similarly, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with popular protests in 2003 after rigged elections, George W. Bush dispatched James Baker to urge him to step down peacefully, which he did. Even the Obama administration provided diplomatic and moral support for popular uprisings in Egypt in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Iran though is a very different story. Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country's ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession. And even though the president would impose severe sanctions on the country's economy at the end of his first term and beginning of his second, from the start of his presidency, Obama made it clear the U.S. did not seek regime change for Iran.  

And, as Mr. Solomon reveals, the president's over-arching desire to strike a deal with Iran influenced critical decisions in other areas.  It's the main reason he walked away from the infamous "red line" in Syria three years ago.  Iranian negotiators told their American counterparts the nuclear talks would end if the U.S. intervened against Syrian dictator--and Iran ally--Bashir Assad.  Obama blinked.  The President also took the unusual steps of ending U.S. programs that documented human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic and wrote letters to Iran's Supreme Leader, assuring him that the we had no plans to overthrow him.  

In the end, Obama got his badly-flawed nuclear deal--and a lot more.  Iran is more belligerent and aggressive than ever before, as evidenced by the recent naval encounters in the Gulf.  And the situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.  Tehran got everything it wanted in the nuclear accord, and the return of long-frozen Iranian assets in the U.S. will provide a funding stream for new military hardware, the nuclear program and various terrorist allies.  

To be fair, there is no guarantee that American support would have guaranteed the success of the Green Revolution.  But as Mr. Lake writes, it was definitely worth a gamble.  Installing a new Iranian regime would have been a game-changer across the Middle East, likely resulting in a nuclear deal that effectively dismantled the Iranian program and eradicated the emerging threat.  The situation in places like Syria might have become more manageable and there's even the possibility that Tehran's support for groups like Hezbollah would fade.  Without that assistance, the group would become less of a threat to Israel and its stranglehold over Lebanon might decrease as well.  

Unfortunately, all of those scenarios are permanently banished to the realm of what "might have been," thanks to the obsessive and feckless behavior of Barack Obama.  Mr. Solomon's book is on our reading list, since he clearly breaks new ground in reporting one of the story's most important diplomatic stories.  One thing we're wondering about: what role did Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett play in all of this?  Ms. Jarrett, the president's closest confidante was born in Iran to American parents and, by some accounts, retains a certain affinity for the land where she grew up.  

Nothing wrong with that, but Jarrett seems to be an invisible hand in the diplomatic activity that pursued the nuclear deal to the exclusion of everything else.  One report indicates that Ms. Jarrett played an active role in secret talks with Iran before the public negotiations began.  Never mind that the presidential adviser has no real experience in diplomacy or national security matters.  But she does have Mr. Obama's ear, and some observers believe that Jarrett played a role in the departure of Ambassador Dennis Ross from the president's national security team early in his tenure.  Ross, a veteran Middle East hand, favored a much tougher approach in negotiations with Iran.  Needless to say, that didn't sit well with Mr. Obama or Ms. Jarrett. 

In the end, the president's singular focus on "winning over" Iran--encouraged by members of his inner circle--spelled doom for brave Iranians who rose up during the Green Revolution.  Some of them still languish in prison to this day.  Not surprisingly, the Obama administration isn't doing anything to help them, since we no longer track human rights abuses in Iran.                 



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mr. Putin's New FOB

As we noted on Twitter (@natehale) earlier today, the difference between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama can be summed up rather succinctly.  Mr. Putin plays geo-political chess; President Obama is stuck on "Words With Friends."

Evidence of that analogy can be found in the Russian president's latest move, which took many observers by surprise.  In a matter of a few hours, Putin not only altered the balance of power in the Middle East, he also established a serious threat to one of our military trump cards--the ability of U.S. carrier battle groups to operate and project power in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Al-Masdar, the Israel-based Arabic news service, was among the first to report Mr. Putin's move: the deployment of TU-22M "Backfire" bombers to Hamadan Airbase in west-central Iran.  Photos published on Al-Masdar's website (and re-posted at revealed at least four Backfires at Hamadan, along with support aircraft.


Russian TU-22M "Backfire" bombers on the ramp at Hamadan Airbase, Iran, just hours before striking targets in Syria (Al-Masdar photos via  

And less than 24 hours after they arrived, the Russian bombers launched a highly-publicized strike against terrorist targets in Syria.  It marked the first time since the 1979 revolution that Iran has allowed a foreign power to conduct military operations from its territory.  From the U.K. Telegraph:

“Flying with full bomb loads from Iran’s Hamadan airbase, the aircraft carried out group attacks on Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions,” the ministry said. Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful rebel jihadist group previously affiliated with al-Qaeda

Fighter escorts for the mission flew out of Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in western Syria. All aircraft returned to their respective bases after the mission, the ministry said.

Iranian officials confirmed that the country has offered Russia use of military infrastructure for its air campaign in Syria on Tuesday.


Tuesday’s mission is thought to be the first time Russian aircraft have flown missions from Iran since Moscow launched air strikes in Syria in September last year, and potentially marks a major expansion of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, many media accounts focused on Hamadan's relative proximity to targets in Syria.  Operating from Iran, the TU-22Ms (and other Russian strike aircraft) can reach the battlefield sooner, carrying larger bomb loads and burning less fuel.  

But Mr. Putin has another reason for deploying bombers to a forward operating base in Iran--and it has nothing to do with Jabhat al-Nusra, or efforts to prop up Bashir Assad's regime.  Moscow's motive for sending the Backfires to Hamadan is also rooted in sending a message to the U.S., and specifically, our naval forces which patrol the Persian Gulf.  

For decades, our ability to project power in the region has been predicated (at least in part) on the Navy's ability to send carrier battle groups into the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.  The presence of a carrier helps ensure control of vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), used by supertankers carrying oil to markets in the Far East, Europe and even North America.  

The presence of TU-22Ms at Hamadan poses a new threat to those shipping lanes--and our ability to keep them open.  While the Backfire is an aging weapons system--it first entered operational service in the early 1970s--it remains a potent threat to naval vessels.  In fact, the Russians largely designed it as a "carrier killer," firing anti-ship missiles at long range.  The threat posed by the Backfire (and other Soviet-era bombers) was one of the key factors in development of the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which were built to destroy enemy strike aircraft before they could launch against the carrier and its escorts.  

For a naval strike mission, the newest TU-22M (NATO reporting name Backfire C) carries up to nine missiles, three AS-4 "Kitchen," mounted internally or on wing pylons, or up to six AS-16 "Kickback," carried on a rotary launcher in the weapons bay.  The AS-4 first appeared in the early 1960s and remains in production today; newer variants have been updated with a datalink (to allow mid-course updates).  The Kitchen can carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead; it has a maximum range of 320 nautical miles.  

Like the AS-4, the Kickback was originally fitted with a nuclear warhead, and designed to blast through enemy defenses, allowing Russian bombers to reach their targets.  With a range of 160 NM, the Kickback was similar to the U.S. Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which was carried on our strategic bombers for decades.  The AS-16 follows a dive profile, climbing to 40,000 feet before plunging down on its target.  At least one variant of the missile is designed to target enemy ships, including aircraft carriers.  

Operating from Hamadan (or other bases in Iran), Russian TU-22s could target U.S. battle groups in the Persian Gulf while remaining over land, inside the coverage of S-300s and other advanced surface-to-air missile systems.  Moscow recently began delivering S-300 batteries to Iran and if they follow operational practices in Syria, the Russians could deploy their own SAMs near forward operating bases and integrate them with the host nation air defense network.  

To be fair, the U.S. Navy has a number of counter-measures to deal with Backfires and their missiles.  In addition to the F/A-18s on the carrier, there are interceptor missiles (SM-2/3) on Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, along with short-range defensive systems (Sea Sparrow, CIWS) on virtually all vessels.  TU-22M deployments to Hamadan--or other Iranian bases--won't keep our carrier groups from sailing into the Persian Gulf, but it will be one more factor naval commanders must account for.  The same holds true for other American military assets in the region.  

Which brings us back to Mr. Putin, who understands a thing or two about geopolitics and power projection.  In the span of less than a year, he has established a military presence that threatens both the eastern Mediterranean (and the Suez Canal) along with the Persian Gulf.  Meanwhile, the reaction here at home has been troubling, to say the least.  President Obama and his minions keep telling us that Putin's strategy is doomed to fail--never mind the recent gains by Russian surrogates on the ground, and the return of Moscow's military presence in key regions.  There is no evidence Hillary Clinton would try a different approach in dealing with Putin.   

As for Donald Trump, he seems to favor giving Russia a free hand in the Middle East, as part of "better relations" with Moscow.  Such thinking is both naive and dangerous--no wonder Putin is on the march.  Leadership is on vacation in the U.S. and the former KGB Colonel is going keep rolling the dice; he has much to gain and virtually nothing to lose, both now and after election day.    


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cooking the Intel Books

You remember the refrain: "Bush lied, people died."  That phrase took on a life of its own following the invasion of Iraq; the "failure" to discover Saddam's alleged WMD arsenal, and allegations that intel assessments had been altered--if not actually fabricated--to support administration policies.

As a grand conspiracy, it had to be the greatest of all times.  Turns out that not only did U.S. intelligence believe that Saddam Hussein had resurrected his WMD program, so did the spooks in the UK, France, Germany, Russia and just about every other country with a credible intel service.  The problems, as later documented by independent review panels in the U.S. and Great Britain, was "group think" among intelligence experts who feared down-playing a potential threat in the post 9-11 world.  

It's a phenomenon I've experienced first-hand.  As a analyst, I know the perils of challenging the status quo or what the community refers to as the "consensus" about a particular situation  or threat.  Once the template is set, it takes very compelling evidence to change an assessment, particularly on something as important as an enemy's WMD capabilities and a potential decision to go to war.

Journalist Judith Miller, who would never be described as a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," nicely summarized the issue--and its impact on policy decisions--in a piece written earlier this year:

"No, President Bush did not take America into a war because he was strong-armed by a neoconservative cabal. As President Bush himself famously asserted, he was the “decider.” And no, he didn’t go to war for oil. If we wanted Saddam’s oil, we could have bought it.

President’s Bush decision to go to war was based on the information that he and his team relied on -- information that was collected by the world’s top agents and analyzed by the world’s top analysts, including the intelligence agencies of France, Germany and Russia, countries whose leaders did not support going to war. But they all agreed on one thing -- Saddam had and was continuing to develop WMD.

Our intelligence professionals, and those of major European countries, overestimated Saddam’s capabilities. Mistakes like that filter through the system -- from the White House to Congress to journalists to the public. And those mistakes impact policy. But here’s the key thing to remember -- they were mistakes…not lies."

But what if intelligence estimates were "sexed-up" (borrowing the Brits' term) to support a favored narrative or policy option?  According to a House of Representatives Joint Task Force, that's exactly what happened at US Central Command (CENTCOM), after intel analysts filed a whistle-blower complaint, alleging that assessments were manipulated to "present an unduly positive outlook" on CENTCOM efforts to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and combat ISIS.  

Appointed by the chairmen of three House committees (Armed Services, Intelligence and Oversight), the task force has released its interim conclusions on the matter.  And it's not a pretty picture; Congressional investigators found that changes in the command's intelligence directorate (J-2) "resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM."  

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the report, the work environment in the J-2 began to deteriorate after the departure of CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and his senior intelligence leadership.  Mattis, a legend in the Marine Corps and one of the finest general officers of his generation, was forced out in Tampa in 2013, after running afoul of President Obama and his national security team.  

Mattis's replacement brought in a new J-2, Army Major General Steven Grove.  Under his leadership, the directorate established a new Analytic Review Team (ART) to improve the "quality and consistency" of products generated by analysts working in the command's Joint Intelligence Center (JIC).  According to investigators, the ART quickly grew from a single reviewer to a multi-member team, and resulted in slower production of intelligence assessments.  The analyst who filed the whistle-blower complaint alleged that the ART was used by senior intel leaders to exert more control over J-2 reporting and its contents.  Other analysts claimed the rationale for the ART was never fully explained and CENTCOM's previous, three-step review process provided a "more than adequate" quality control process.  

About the same time (summer of 2014), General Grove also created a "fusion center" within the J-2 to provide additional reporting that focused on ISIS and related issues.  Some analysts told investigators that it was "never clear" how JIC personnel would contribute to the new center; others claimed the fusion team actually became something of a dumping ground for intel specialists whose views disagreed with those of senior intelligence leaders.  

Analysts also stated that changes in the J-2s daily intel summary (or INTSUM) were also used by leadership to tighten control over assessments and their findings.  Additionally, the task force found that CENTCOM's intelligence directorate relied too heavily on operational reporting to "soften" their estimates, and (perhaps most damning), they discovered that the more "optimistic" assessments were not supported by estimates from other elements of the intel community. 

And, there was an unprecedented amount of "coordination" between the J-2 and officials at the top of the intel chain.  From the task force summary:

The CENTCOM Director of Intelligence or his deputy had, and continue to have, secure teleconferences with the Joint Staff Director of Intelligence and senior ODNI leaders—frequently including the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). These calls took place several times per week before daily intelligence briefings by the DNI to the President. Senior CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate leaders reported that neither the Director of the DIA nor other COCOM Directors of Intelligence have participated in these calls.

The frequency of these interactions could have provided CENTCOM leaders with outsized influence on the material presented to the President outside of formal coordination channels. These frequent interactions are at odds with the DNI James Clapper’s testimony to Congress that “intelligence assessments from CENTCOM…come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In other words, Clapper was "consulting" with CENTCOM just before his daily brief to President Obama, but the information he received was never vetted against data from other agencies.  At best, that's sloppy, inexcusable tradecraft.  At worst, it's "cooked" intelligence, offering carefully-tailored analysis from a single source that fits a desired narrative.  Obviously, that the more "sunny" assessments from CENTCOM meshed nicely with administration claims of "progress" in the war against ISIS.  

This is intelligence malpractice of the first magnitude, and the analysts at Central Command were justified in filing a formal complaint.  Unfortunately, it looks like nothing will come of it, although the DoD Inspector General is continuing its own probe into the matter.  General Grove has moved on to a new assignment, and his civilian deputy (identified as a key participant in the analytic scheme) remains in place at CENTCOM.  And Jim Clapper is still gainfully employed as well.  

Many spooks, current and former, once had great respect for General Clapper, who enjoyed a brilliant career in the Air Force and later, won plaudits for his management of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) under President Bush.  But as DNI, he has been a tremendous disappointment.  He lied in testimony before Congress on NSA domestic collection efforts in 2013, and now, he's been caught in another fib about how military intelligence on ISIS reaches the highest levels of our government.  

But DNIs serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief and Clapper isn't going anywhere.  He has apparently mastered the fine art of telling his boss what he wants to hear, which speaks volumes about that "modified" analytic and production processes at CENTCOM, and the preferences of the man who is the ultimate consumer of that intelligence.                   

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Selective Outrage (Cyber Edition)

It's always fun to watch politicians and their flunkies try to spin a bad situation, and those tactics were clearly on display during Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal.  Before receiving that "Stay Out of Jail" card from the FBI and Obama's Justice Department, Mrs. Clinton and her minions tried various arguments to excuse her illegal behavior, without too much success.  From the "grooveyard of forgotten favorites," as El Rushbo might say:

"Other secretaries of state did it (used private e-mail accounts for government business)."  There's a kernal of truth to that, with some important qualifiers: first, none ever utilized a private account on the industrial scale pioneered by Mrs. Clinton.  Additionally, her predecessors never sent the nation's most closely-guarded secrets on a personal system that lacked even basic security features, and none ever plotted to evade public disclosure and archiving laws by creating their own domain and server network.

"I never sent or received classified information."  This is another howler, since the defense is largely based on claims that information in the e-mails lacked classification markings.  Never mind that the lack of classification headers and paragraph markings is not an excuse for mishandling classified data or transmitting it improperly--or that Mrs. Clinton (in one message) directed aides to remove classification markings so sensitive material could be sent over an unclassified fax machine.  Hillary and her senior aides clearly chose to ignore (read: violate) security requirements, and the hits just keep on coming.  Friday, Vice News disclosed that Mrs. Clinton sent at least 22 Top Secret e-mails to senior aides in 2011 and 2012.  The messages are among those withheld from public release by the State Department, since they contain information that would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

But not to worry, we were told.  There was no firm evidence that enemy hackers accessed her server system, and might have collected all the information stored there--including "missing" e-mails that were deleted by Clinton's aides and members of her legal team.  That claim has been refuted by a number of IT and counter-intelligence professionals, who note that foreign intel services are quite capable of accessing a system, collecting whatever they want and exiting--all without leaving a trace.

After down-playing the "foreign hacker" threat for months, the Democrats are now doing a 180, after Wikileaks began publishing thousands of e-mails pilfered from the DNC archives.  The first dump came on the eve of this week's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and it revealed a number of interesting nuggets, including unassailable proof that party leaders worked actively to deny Bernie Sanders their presidential nomination.  That revelation forced party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to resign in disgrace, as e-mails detailed suggestions by Democrat officials to use anti-Semitic tactics against the Vermont Senator. 

There were also messages that revealed collusion between the DNC and the mainstream media.  One e-mail described a private meeting with a senior executive at NBC News and in another message, Ms. Wasserman Schultz told network anchor Chuck Todd that a critical line of coverage "had to stop."  Wikileaks also published an e-mail from a CNN producer who vowed to keep the focus on the Democrats and another from a Politico reporter, who sent his story to the DNC for review before submitting it to his editor.

To deflect attention away from the messages--and their damning content--the Democrats are playing the victim card (as only they can) and focusing on the hack.  Almost immediately, party officials blamed the Russians and there may be some evidence to support that accusation.  While Wikileaks denies any connection with Putin's intelligence services, many current and former western intel officials have long believed that the organization and its founder, Julian Assange, are little more than Russian cut-outs.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, it's rather curious that Mr. Assange, currently holded up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London (to avoid rape charges in Sweden) has requested protection from the Russian FSB.   Assange also counseled American turncoat Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow after he released thousands of classified NSA documents.  Snowden remains in Russia to this day, with round-the-clock security from an FSB protective detail.

At this point, the Democrats' collective pucker factor must be at an all-time high.  If hackers tied to Russian intelligence made off with all of the DNC's secrets, it's a fair bet they have all of Hillary's e-mails as well.  Holding all the high cards, Mr. Putin has the luxury of choosing his options.  He can sanction the continued release of Democratic party e-mails and start adding missing messages from HRC's server as well, inflicting an ultimately fatal blow to her campaign.  Or, the Russian leader can offer to turn off the tap, in exchange for whatever he wants on the world stage.  Given Mrs. Clinton's past pliability in dealing with Moscow, it's easy to see her caving to any blackmail demands from the Kremlin.  Our allies in places like the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere should be very, very nervous.

The notion of Mr. Putin using spycraft to influence our presidential election should be disquieting to all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation.  And, it's absolutely mind-boggling that GOP nominee Donald Trump is calling on the Russians to "locate" Hillary's missing e-mails and publish those as well.  While Mr. Trump has chummy relations with the Russian leader, he might also be concerned about what the GRU's 6th Directorate has retrieved from his computer networks.  Putin can easily use the same tactics against Trump, if the situation dictates.

It's also important to view the current hubbub through the lens of politics.  Fact is, the Democrats weren't overly concerned when Wikileaks was publishing secrets that made George W. Bush look bad, and they down-played serious security breaches at OMB (and other federal agencies) during Obama's time in office.  But now that their party--and presidential nominee--have been targeted, the Democrats are demanding an all-hands-on-deck effort to pinpoint the source of the hack and punish the offenders.  Good luck with that; the odds of us actually getting our hands on the hackers is pretty much non-existent. I'm sure Putin and his cronies are getting a good laugh out of spoiling Mrs. Clinton's coronation in Philadelphia, with the promise of more "fun" in the weeks ahead.

And one final thought, before giving too much sympathy to Hillary or the Democrats.  Lest we forget, the party's cyber woes began with HRC's attempts to circumvent the law (and potential scrutiny) with her infamous home-brew server network and e-mail domain.  It's quite possible the alleged Russian foray began penetration of her servers and led them on to the DNC.  Apparently, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz was presiding over a network that was only marginally more secure than Mrs. Clinton's.  Yet, she allowed staffers to conspire against Sanders in terms that are vile at best, racist at worst.  Of course, she never believed any of those e-mails would enter the public domain--just as Hillary thought she could get away with her on-line crimes.

Both were woefully mistaken.  And the worst is yet to come.                                

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ataturk's Last Stand (Today's Reading Assignment)

If you read just two articles this week, may we suggest this opinion piece from Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters, and the latest column from former NSA senior spook John Schindler?  Both offer important insight into the failed "coup" in Turkey, and what it means for Ankara and the West.

While we've had minor differences with Lt Col Peters in the past, his analysis of the abortive military revolt in Turkey is spot-on.  When the coup fizzled on the streets of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, so did Ataturk's lasting vision of a modern, secular state firmly oriented towards Europe and western values.  As Peters writes: 

Friday night’s failed coup was Turkey’s last hope to stop the Islamization of its government and the degradation of its society.  Reflexively, Western leaders rushed to condemn a coup attempt they refused to understand. Their reward will be a toxic Islamist regime at the gates of Europe.
Our leaders no longer do their basic homework.The media relies on experts-by-Wikipedia. Except for PC platitudes, our schools ignore the world beyond our shores. Deluged with unreliable information, citizens succumb to the new superstitions of the digital age.

So a great country is destroyed by Islamist hardliners before our eyes—and our president praises its “democracy.”

That tragically failed coup was a forlorn hope, not an attempt to take over a country. Turkey is not a banana republic in which the military grasps the reins for its own profit.  For almost a century, the Turkish armed forces have been the guardians of the country’s secular constitution. Most recently, coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 (with “non-coup” pressure in 1997) saw the military intervene to prevent the country’s collapse.


So who is the man our own president rushed to support because he was “democratically elected?” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is openly Islamist and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which President Obama appears to believe represents the best hope for the Middle East. But the difference between ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of purpose, but merely of manners:  Muslim Brothers wash the blood off their hands before they sit down to dinner with their dupes.

With barely a murmured “Tut-tut!” from Western leaders, Erdogan has dismantled Turkey’s secular constitution (which the military is duty-bound to protect).  His “democracy” resembles Putin’s, not ours.  Key opposition figures have been driven into exile or banned.  Opposition parties have been suppressed.  Recent elections have not been held so much as staged.  And Erdogan has torn the fresh scab from the Kurdish wound, fostering civil war in Turkey’s southeast for his own political advantage.

Erdogan has packed Turkey’s courts with Islamists.  He appointed pliant, pro-Islamist generals and admirals, while staging show trials of those of whom he wished to rid the country.  He has de facto, if not yet de jure, curtailed women’s freedoms.  He dissolved the wall between mosque and state (Friday night, he used mosques’ loudspeakers to call his supporters into the streets).  Not least, he had long allowed foreign fighters to transit Turkey to join ISIS and has aggressively backed other extremists whom he believed he could manage.

And if that weren't enough, there is ample evidence that Erdogan has allowed the purchase of ISIS oil by various Turkish middlemen, helping the terrorist army fund its operations.  At the same time, Turkey's leader tries to maintain his image as a loyal NATO ally, allowing U.S. aircraft to stage missions against ISIS targets from Incirlik Airbase.  It's a strategy roughly akin to that of Pakistan, which has played all sides of the war in Afghanistan, trying to advance its own agenda.  But Erdogan has played a much more active role than his counterparts in Islamabad, allowing foreign fighters, weapons and oil to flow across the border, clamping down only when it suits his interests, typically before a NATO summit, or when the Obama Administration offers a rare bit of criticism.  

Making matters worse, Erdogan has tacitly aided ISIS on the battlefield.  While Turkey is ostensibly committed to attacking the terrorists, much of Turkey's military activity in Syria has focused on targeted Kurdish militias who have been the most effective forces battling ISIS and the Assad regime.  But Erdogan fears a free Kurdish enclave in Syria more than the terrorists, so ISIS has received little attention from Turkish military forces. 

Which brings us back to Friday's "coup" and accelerated cleansing of Turkey's officer corps under Erdogan.  Since assuming power more than a decade ago, Mr. Erdogan has worked systematically to reduce the power of the Turkish General Staff, guarantors of a secular state for nearly a century.  The TGS leads the second-largest military in Europe, a force that has been extensively modernized over the last 25 years.  And, leaders of the armed have never been hesitant about seizing power to save Turkey from extremist elements; there have been three coups since 1970 and the military pressured the government into major changes in 1997.  As various analysts have noted, military coups have generally been a stabilizing influence for Turkey and that was the apparent motivation behind last week's revolt; the generals, admirals and lower-ranking officers who led the rebellion hoped to wrest control of the country from Erdogan and his Islamist factions.  

But it wasn't much of a coup.  As Dr. Schindler notes in the New York Observer, the plotters could only muster about a battalion worth of troops--not enough to take over a mid-sized village, let alone an entire country.  And the narrative grows even stranger as more details emerge; as Erdogan flew back to Ankara from vacation, F-16 pilots supporting the coup locked onto the Turkish president's jet multiple times, yet no one gave the order to open fire, reinforcing Rule #1 of a military takeover: you'd better be prepared to kill the king (or president) if you want to succeed.  Instead, Erdogan landed, and began suppressing the coup in earnest.  The last of the ringleaders wasn't arrested until Monday afternoon, but for all practical purposes, the revolt ended almost as soon as it began.  

The coup's stunning failure has prompted speculation that perhaps it was a false flag operation, staged by Erdogan and his supporters.  While there's no definitive proof to support that charge, it is very clear the Turkish president will make the most of this opportunity.  As of this writing, more than 25% of the nation's flag officers have been detained, along with more than 2,000 judges.  Even in a nation with a liberal view of interrogation techniques, you can't elicit that many confessions in less than 72 hours.  After the coup failed, Erdogan simply dusted off his enemies list and sent loyalist security forces to round them up.  Mr. Erdogan has already suggested that Turkey may restore the death penalty, so it's likely that many of the coup leaders will pay for their actions with their lives.   

Throughout the crisis, the Obama Administration has stood behind the Turkish president and his Islamist government.  To be fair, it is a difficult situation, with Ankara being a key NATO ally, sitting astride some of the world's most important real estate, and home to Incirlik Airbase, where USAF F-16s and A-10s fly daily missions against ISIS.  And did we mention that Incirlik is also home to an unspecified number of tactical nuclear weapons?  While some sources maintain the nukes were withdrawn years ago, the U.S. has spent millions to upgrade nuclear storage facilities at Incirlik in recent years, suggesting the weapons are still there, or may return in the near future.  A few hours after the coup, Erdogan ordered the cut-off of water and power to the base, to underscore his displeasure with Washington.  

Why is he mad at us?  A moderate imam named Fethullah G├╝len (who was once an Erdogan ally) fled the country during a previous purge and now lives in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Erdogan describes him as the "spiritual leader" of the rebellion and is demanding his extradition.  Not surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. government is willing to listen to Ankara's demands.

What comes next?  Erdogan has promised a "thorough cleansing" of the "virus" infecting his country, meaning that the military, judiciary and other bastions of opposition will be completely purged.  The Turkish military will lose thousands of competent officers to prison, execution or exile, further weakening the one institution that kept Turkey stable and oriented to the west.  Their departure, along with other Kemalists will leave the "sick man of Europe" that much weaker and push it further into the Islamist orbit.  Dark days lie ahead for Turkey, but our leaders are too busy cheering on Erdogan to notice.  And we will pay for that folly.                     



Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Opportunity Missed

Donald Trump was served the political equivalent of batting practice last night.  He took a mighty cut and swung for the fences.  The presumptive GOP presidential nominee didn't whiff, but he didn't knock it out of the park, either.  Call it a golden opportunity that was missed.

We refer to his speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, delivered just hours after FBI Director James Comey announced he would not recommend prosecution for Hillary Clinton in her e-mail scandal.  And while Mr. Comey did a grave disservice to the rule of law, he methodically destroyed the various defenses that Clinton has offered for her "home-brew" e-mail system, which was used to transmit hundreds of classified messages.  Comey's point-by-point demolition of Mrs. Clinton's arguments played perfectly into Trump's claims about "Crooked Hillary" and the wholesale corruption associated with her political machine.

Comey finished his announcement before 12 noon (eastern time); Mr. Trump didn't take the stage in Raleigh until roughly eight hours later.  That was, presumably, enough time to craft a speech that expounded on the corruption and cronyism themes illustrated by the FBI decision; Hillary's "convenient" weekend interview with the bureau and that "chance" meeting last week between her husband Bill and Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Phoenix.  "The system is rigged" Trump tweeted after Comey's announcement.  That (supposedly) teed things up for a full-throated indictment of Clinton corruption during his Raleigh speech, with the e-mail scandal as merely the latest example.

To his credit, Trump did offer a couple of zingers about Hillary and her e-mails:

"We're talking about the life blood of our country, the safety of our people," said Trump, who took no time at all is using this ammunition against Clinton's questionable judgment.

"Stupidity is not a reason that you're going to be innocent," Trump said.    

But overall, the Raleigh address was merely a variation on his typical, rambling stump speech.  Build the wall; protect our borders, strengthen our military, take care of our vets, repeal Obamacare--the same stuff you've heard a hundred times before.  

To be fair, those are critically important themes and they do resonate with conservative voters.  And every politician has a standard campaign address that is typically delivered at every stop.  We'll even give Mr. Trump credit for doing something most politicians avoid; he speaks from a few notes, rarely using the teleprompter that President Obama and Mrs. Clinton rely on like a crutch.  

But last night wasn't a time for the regular stump speech.  The Raleigh forum provided an excellent opportunity to go after Mrs. Clinton's illegal handling, transmission and storage of classified material--and the lies she used to justify her practices.  An expanded speech, focused on those points, would have played very well in North Carolina for very important reasons, which were apparently lost on the Trump campaign.  

For starters, the Tarheel State has one of the largest military populations in the nation.  Well over 100,000 active duty personnel are stationed at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville; Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro and the Marine Corps Air Stations at New River and Cherry Point.  Additionally, there are National Guard and Reserve units scattered across the state and North Carolina is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans and military dependents.  

What do all of those service members--current and former--have in common?  Virtually all of them hold (or have held) a security clearance.  They are intimately aware of the requirements for gaining access to the nation's secrets, and the standards of conduct necessary for maintaining a security clearance.  Based on what we've learned from the FBI investigation, Hillary Clinton would no longer be eligible for a security clearance, based on her patterns of conducts and lies.  

In other words, that Army Specialist at Fort Bragg, the Marine Lance Corporal at Lejeune and the Airman First Class at Seymour Johnson are being held to a higher standard than the woman who was First Lady, a Senator, Secretary of State and now wants to be Commander-in-Chief.  The contrast could not be more stark--or compelling.  

And, it's a fair bet there were a number of military personnel at that Trump rally.  We're betting the room would have exploded if Trump had compared their conduct with that of Hillary Clinton, and told the crowd that she is not fit to lead those men and women.  

Instead, we got the usual from Donald Trump.  And it wasn't a bad speech--just the wrong speech for that time and place.  Maybe his handlers decided there wasn't enough time to roll out an address on the e-mails and give him enough time to rehearse it before arriving in North Carolina.  Or, perhaps the pollsters determined that such a speech would be too narrowly focused; better stick to the usual script and offer a little something for everyone.  

Unfortunately, that calculation was a tactical error which (hopefully) won't become a strategic mistake. Having escape prosecution yet again, Mrs. Clinton is desperate to change the topic, so she's attacking Trump's business record and his use of bankruptcy laws when a handful of his deals went bad.  

Hillary is betting that Trump will take the bait and spend the coming days (or weeks) defending his business practices, and neglecting other issues.  Obviously, Mr. Trump has every right to defend his long and successful career in various enterprises.  But he shouldn't take his eye off the prize; Hillary Clinton remains very vulnerable on the e-mail issue (and related corruption charges).  And, even in a day when only 1% of the population serves in the military, most Americans can understand the difference between a junior enlisted member and a cabinet official.  We're also betting they can appreciate the difference in how those young troops uphold the highest standards of conduct and Mrs. Clinton doesn't.  

Mr. Trump needs to draw that distinction, every time he faces a campaign crowd or a TV camera.  And his "ad team" (assuming they exist) need to craft spots which reinforce those themes, and air them in the swing states where Hillary now dominates the airwaves.  In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, the Clinton campaign will air more than 1,000 TV spots before the end of the summer.  We're still waiting for the first Trump ad.  

And did we mention that the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area has an even larger military/veterans population than North Carolina?  
ADDENDUM: Thoughts in a similar vein from Kyle Foley at RedState and none other than El Rushbo.                                   

Friday, July 01, 2016

Adrift, Redux

The Navy has released its report on the January incident that resulted in 14 sailors being captured and detained by Iran, after a patrol boat suffered a mechanical failure and drifted into hostile waters. 

Calling the assessment "devastating" might be an understatement.  From CNN:

"This incident was the result of failed leadership at multiple levels from the tactical to the operational," investigators wrote in the detailed, partially redacted, report.
The report found the crews were poorly prepared, their boats not properly maintained, communication almost entirely lacking, and their conduct after being captured by the Iranians wasn't up to military standards.
In a stunning finding, the report said the sailors veered off course almost immediately after heading out to sea and had no idea where they were when a mechanical failure struck one of the boats.
"The boat crews could visually see Farsi Island, but were not concerned as they were unaware that it was Iranian or that they were in Iranian waters," the report said. 
The report details a lax culture for U.S. Navy sailors who routinely patrol the Persian Gulf which ultimately led to a highly embarrassing incident for the U.S. military just as crippling economic sanctions were set to be lifted as part of the Iranian nuclear deal.
"The culture ... (was) characterized by informality. They conducted no patrol briefings, and missions were supported by no formal mission analysis, standard planning factors, risk assessment, or overwatch," investigators wrote.
And, a number of sailors will pay the price for those mistakes.  Captain Kyle Moses, the commodore in charge of the task force that included the patrol boats and crews, was dismissed from his post and has been recommended to face non-judicial punishment, which will end his career.  The commodore who led the patrol squadron at the time of the incident has also been fired and will face sanctions as well.  According to Navy Times, at least seven other sailors, officer and enlisted, are also expected to receive punishment for their actions in the incident.
The Navy's final report paints a picture of a unit with little discipline that was completely unprepared for a 250-mile transit from Kuwait to Bahrain.  Crew members on the two boats did not recall seeing the mandatory, written patrol briefing before departure, and investigators believe it was never prepared. The report also found that the crew was never familiarized with the region, and didn't know about weather, geography or potentially hostile threats--fundamental knowledge for any personnel preparing to go in harm's way.  
Equally damming is the Navy's assessment of the sailors' conduct after being capture:
The report found that during the 24 hours they were held some crew provided more information to their Iranian captors than they should have, and that they ate food while being filmed -- something they should not have done because it can be and was used as propaganda. One crew member disobeyed a direct order, the report said.
Asked by their captors how it was possible a boat like theirs could have traveled such a distance, one sailor replied, "Yeah, I wish you could tell my people that because we told them these boats don't do that" -- a statement investigators said was inappropriate. 
But to no one's surprise, the Navy inquiry also leaves many questions unanswered.  We posed many of these back in January, shortly after the crews were captured, detained and and released.  A few points worth re-examining:
The most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain is along the western side of the Persian Gulf; Farsi Island is more centrally located.  If the boats were following a direct route, they must have drifted for some time before reaching the Iranian-controlled island.  If only one vessel was affected by the engineering casualty, why didn't the second boat take it under tow?  Why weren't additional assets--including airpower--dispatched by 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain?  The presence of Navy helicopters and F/A-18s overhead might have caused the Iranians to think twice.

And what about distress calls from the [Swedish-built] CB-90s to Navy command elements?  Early reports suggested the Navy "lost track" of its assets.  Perhaps someone can explain why the vast surveillance assets of the United States Navy couldn't maintain radio and/or radar contact with a pair of patrol boats--or provide warning of Iranian activity.  Major surface combatants (along with airborne assets) give the Navy an impressive SIGINT capability on the high seas; assuming we were tracking Iranian activities, it would be nice to know what information commanders had as the episode unfolded and how it impacted their decision-making.

There are also issues involving the commander of the boat element, believed to be the junior officer who issued the on-camera apology.  Why did he offer no resistance when the Iranians began boarding his craft.  Article II of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct states "I will never surrender of my own free will.  If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they have the means to resist."  A CB-90 is heavily armed, with .50-caliber machine guns, GAU-19 mini guns and individual weapons for the crew.  Obviously, no officer wants to see his command slaughtered; on the other hand, would it have been possible for the crew to resist, particularly with air support? 
According to the Navy report, the crews of the two patrol boats had no idea where they were.  That admission is stunning in the GPS era, but let's assume for a second (as some intel analysts have suggested) that Iran was jamming that navigation system at the time.  Whatever happened to old-fashioned navigation, using the sun, stars, charts and a sextant.  The junior officer in charge of the boats is an Annapolis grad; at last report, midshipmen were required to take courses in navigation and master the operation of small craft before graduation (emphasis ours).  Perhaps the Naval Academy ought to ask for their diploma back.  
Likewise, many service members (current and former) are scratching their heads over the crew's willingness to cooperate with their Iranian captors.  That raises serious questions about the level and frequency of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training provided to riverine crews.  Most naval personnel who go into harm's way (aviators, SEALs, special warfare small craft operators and EOD teams) receive specialized training in those critical skills.  Based on the video released by Iran--and the Navy report--the patrol craft crews captured in January either didn't receive that training, or forgot everything they learned at SERE school.  One Navy contact suggested that riverine crews are only required to complete an on-line SERE course, despite the fact they operate in hostile waters and may be subject to capture by the enemy.  If that report is accurate, it is a damning indictment of Navy leadership and its training system.  
And senior commanders--above the task force and squadron level--should also be criticized for their reaction to the incident.  Back in January, reports suggested the Navy commanders somehow "lost track" of the two patrol craft; indeed, the just-released report suggests that a control element assigned to keep tabs on the transit failed to perform its mission, and had no idea the boats were drifting into hostile waters.  
But that explanation only goes so far.  Fact is, the U.S. Navy has impressive surveillance and intelligence collection capabilities in the Persian Gulf, for obvious reasons.  As the Iranians began to react to the patrol boats approaching Farsi Island, there was radio chatter between command elements and IRCG vessels assigned to the intercept.  That activity was almost certainly detected and reported by SIGINT assets afloat and ashore--and quickly relayed to 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain.  The sudden spike in radio chatter provided an early indication that something was unfolding, and should have spurred additional efforts to determine what the Iranians were after, and the potential presence of allied assets in the area.  
Then, there is this little nugget, which attracted little attention six months ago.  It suggests that the USS Harry Truman battle group was in the early stages of mounting a response as the situation developed:
"A senior Iranian naval officer said the Truman and other allied ships began "maneuvering" as the American sailors were detained.  The Iranian admiral also claimed that his country's anti-ship missiles were "locked on" to the Truman as the disabled U.S. patrol boats drifted towards his country's territorial waters."                     
The "maneuvering" was likely a turn into the wind, a prelude to launching air operations.  But we can't find any mention of that in the Navy report.  Was it a mere coincidence, or (taking a page out of the Benghazi playbook), did someone issue a "standdown" order, deciding it was too late to provide assistance.  Clarification of the Truman's tasking during those critical minutes is something Congress should demand, along with details of communications between the carrier battle group, 5th Fleet Headquarters and senior officials in Washington, D.C.  
And there's another important element that deserves a more detailed explanation.  In mid-May, Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes said details about Iran's treatment of the captured sailors would "shock" the nation.  Mr. Forbes, who recently lost his primary for re-election, said information about the sailors ordeal was provided in a classified military briefing and he encouraged other members of Congress to view the presentation as well.  To date, the Obama Administration has refused to disclose the details of that briefing and Congressman Forbes suggests it may be a year--or longer--before the information is released.   
Mr. Forbes is one of the leading defense experts on Capitol Hill and not given to rash remarks, so there is no reason to doubt the veracity of his account.  Obviously, if sailors were watching their comrades being subjected to mock executions (or similar tactics), it would influence their behavior before the enemy, particularly if they lacked the proper SERE training.  But we may not know what really happened to those sailors until after Team Obama leaves office.  In the interim, those nine sailors will likely see their careers come to an end, and the Navy will (hopefully) make the training, operational and maintenance changes needed to prevent similar incidents in the future.  
But we still haven't learned the full story of what transpired near Farsi Island back in January.  And the rest of those details may be a long time coming.