The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

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What we learned from Seymour Hersh 8.

Jeb Bush[1], Judith Miller[2], David Brooks[3], and—apparently—Bob Woodward[4] have all argued that the George W. Bush Administration did not lie us into a war in Iraq in 2003. Instead, they were themselves the victims of an intelligence failure. Paul Krugman has offered a furious response insisting that the Bush Administration did too lie us into a war.[5] Krugman’s position essentially is that of the Democratic Party.[6] Who is more nearly correct?

Saying today that there was an “intelligence failure” directs one’s attention to the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. They are, after all, the long-standing and still-standing foreign intelligence analytical arms of the government. If an “intelligence failure” did occur, it occurred there, right?

In truth, the intelligence accepted by the Bush Administration was of a decidedly “iffy” quality. In this sense, the Bush Administration did fall victim to an “intelligence failure.” However, according to Seymour Hersh, the intelligence was “iffy” because the Administration did not like the intelligence produced by the CIA and the State Department. It created the Office of Special Plans (OSP) inside the Defense Department, staffed it with outsiders to get a non-consensus view of the intelligence, and by-passed the normal procedure for creating a National Intelligence Estimate. The OSP gave the Administration what it wanted and did not receive from CIA and State: a justification for war in Iraq. Today, OSP is no more.[7] A post-invasion investigation found many faults in US intelligence, but was explicitly barred from investigating Administration use of intelligence.[8]

The controversy over how we came to be in Iraq obscures several other questions. First, how did CIA and State come to be shouted down by OSP? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were effective exponents for OSP. Did Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell defend their own analysts and espouse their views? What of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice? In theory, the National Security Adviser’s chief function is to co-ordinate the different government agencies to make sure that the President receives the best advice. Did she make sure that alternative views were heard?

Second, asking for a justification for a war is one thing. Not asking for an assessment of what would happen as the result of such a war is another thing. General Anthony Zinni had warned that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would lead to the fragmentation of Iraq and that “the crazies” would take over. He can’t have been alone in this belief. He certainly wasn’t wrong. Did anyone in the Administration ask for an assessment? Or did they just accept that American forces would be met with parades and flowers, unicorns and crystals?

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/25/iraq-invasion-america-war-jeb-bush-us-election

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Miller

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/19/opinion/david-brooks-learning-from-mistakes.html

[4] http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/george-wbush-weapons-of-mass-destruction-iraq-war/2015/05/24/id/646530/ This one has me scratching my head.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/opinion/paul-krugman-errors-and-lies.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region&_r=1

[6] Heading into an election year proclaiming that “Oh, we’re a bunch of dopes who got played by the other side, so vote for us” must be disheartening.

[7] OSP closed down in June 2003. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Office_of_Special_Plans

[8] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Intelligence_Commission ; and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curveball_%28informant%29

What we learned from Seymour Hersh 7.

During 2002 and early 2003, OSP took on CIA and the State Department. W. Patrick Lang[1] summed up what he saw of the arguments within the Bush Administration over intelligence: the people at OSP “banded together to dominate the government’s foreign policy, and they’ve pulled it off. They’re running Chalabi. The D.I.A. [Defense Intelligence Agency] has been intimidated and beaten to a pulp. And there’s no guts at all in the C.I.A.” (p. 208.)   One source told Hersh in early 2002 that “if it became known that Rummy[2] wanted [D.I.A.] to link the government of Tonga to 9/11, within a few months they would come up with sources who’d do it.” One former CIA officer told Hersh that “George [Tenet] knows he’s being beaten up, and his analysts are terrified. George used to protect his people, but he’s been forced to do things their way.” Another told Hersh that the “analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. I’ve never seen a government like this.” (Quotes from p. 224.) CIA analysts working on Iraq and briefing senior officials “got pounded on, day after day,” according to one Bush administration official. Without any substantial support from George Tenet in response to the criticism, “Pretty soon you say ‘Fuck it.’” (Quoted, p. 228.)

In late February 2002, the State Department sent former ambassador Joe Wilson[3] to Niger to investigate the “yellow cake” uranium story floated by the Italians. Wilson came back by early March 2002 and wrote a report discrediting the story. What he found was that all of Niger’s “yellow cake” uranium came from only two mines. Both were operated by a single French company. The entire output of the mines was sold by prior contract to power companies in France, Spain, and Japan. “Five hundred tons can’t be siphoned off without anyone noticing,” an IAEA official told Hersh. (p. 237.) So, that was the end of that. Except that it wasn’t.

On 24 September 2002, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet[4] and others briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Iraq’s WMD.   Tenet told the senators that a) a shipment of aluminum tubes, suitable for use in constructing uranium-enriching centrifuges, had recently been intercepted, and b) reports had been received that Iraq had sought to purchase “yellow cake” uranium from Niger between 1999 and 2001. That same day the British made public a similar report about the “yellow cake” uranium. On 26 September 2002, Secretary of State Powell repeated the assertion about the attempt to purchase “yellow cake” uranium before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In early October 2002, an Italian journalist who served as the conduit for an Italian businessman with political connections (who had been a proven source for an earlier story), contacted the American embassy. She transmitted what appeared to be documents from Niger about Iraq’s attempts to purchase uranium. She turned over the documents on 9 October 2002. (pp. 231-232.) Soon afterward, the Italian journalist investigated the story in Niger and concluded—like Joe Wilson back in March—that the story was bogus. Hersh reports that the CIA officers who examined the documents regarded them a fake from the get-go. (p. 233.)

Nevertheless, on 23 January 2003, in an op-ed piece in the NYT, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice[5] affirmed “Iraq’s efforts to get uranium from abroad.” On 26 January 2003, Secretary of State Powell asked, in a public forum, “why is Iraq still trying to procure uranium?” On 28 January 2003, President Bush repeated the assertions about the aluminum tubes and the “yellow cake” uranium in his State of the Union address. On 5 February 2003, Powell made the American case for war against Iraq in a speech to the UN Security Council.

On 5 or 6 February 2003, IAEA officials concluded that the documents from Niger—which they only received from the Americans on 4 February 2003, were obvious forgeries. (p. 237.) IAEA informed the Americans and the British, then waited for a response. No response came. (p. 237.) A month later, on 7 March 2003, Mohammed ElBaradei[6] informed the UN Security Council that the documents upon which the accusations about “yellow cake” were based were forgeries.

On 19 March 2003, the United States and a “coalition of the willing” attacked Iraq.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Patrick_Lang

[2] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_C._Wilson

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Tenet

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condoleezza_Rice

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_ElBaradei