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How Many Snowdens Are There?

The sensational case of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor gone rogue, and Russian, with something like 1.5 million highly classified documents, making this the biggest compromise in all intelligence history, has caused embarrassment and worse at NSA and across the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Since Snowden held high-level security clearances, the expensive and time-consuming vetting process for which is supposed to weed out obvious troublemakers, many questions have been raised about how this could have happened.

The short, and painful, answer is that Snowden was far from the first bad apple to have “beaten” the IC’s security clearance system, and he surely won’t be the last. Like so many things across the Federal government, and particularly the Department of Defense (DoD), a great deal of once-critical missions have been outsourced since the 1990’s, leading to gross incompetence and corruption by for-profit companies. (Outsourcing is a fully bipartisan boondoggle that nobody inside the Beltway wants to look into very deeply, since so many cash in on it, one way or the other.) In Snowden’s case, the firm that handled the collection of data for his clearances, USIS, stands accused of fraud on a truly massive scale, having simply faked 665,000 background investigations between 2008 and 2012. It’s little wonder that Snowden’s clearances were handled poorly.

Just how flawed the DoD security clearance system is was further highlighted by the September 2013 spree shooting at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard that killed a dozen people. The shooter, Aaron Alexis, was a Navy contractor who held a Secret-level clearance, and despite a serious incident with police indicating grave mental disturbance that should have resulted in the suspension of said clearance, and with that employment termination, the system failed to work and nothing got reported through proper channels. Since Alexis’s background investigation (BI) was handled by — of course — USIS, one wonders how much had actually been investigated about this troubled young man in the first place.

That said, the BI for a Secret-level clearance is pretty perfunctory, amounting to a glorified criminal background check, while that conducted for the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence (TS/SCI) level, like Snowden possessed, is far more detailed and comprehensive, at least in theory. Hence the old IC joke that TS/SCI means “you’re not a felon” while Secret means “we don’t know that you’re a felon.”

To obtain TS/SCI clearances, applicants are subjected to an intricate examination of their life called a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) that is intended to weed out the criminal, the untrustworthy, the habitually mendacious, the psychologically unfit, as well as those with connections to hostile foreign countries. To get a job at one of the big IC agencies your SSBI will include psychological tests and a polygraph examination about counterintelligence matters and perhaps your lifestyle (if both it’s termed a “full scope” polygraph examination), the latter being largely an inquiry into criminal matters, especially drug-related, and any truly deviant sexual tendencies. The idea is to weed out those with foreign allegiances and/or who are vulnerable to exploitation by foreign intelligence services.

The polygraph is a controversial topic that I don’t intend to explore in detail here. In the hands of an experienced examiner, it can be a valuable interrogation tool; regrettably, the IC has too few veteran polygraphers, thanks in large part to the fact that it’s a boring and underappreciated job that most people leave as soon as they can transfer into something more satisfying and sexy. In the hands of an inexperienced examiner, the polygraph can be worse than useless, while using it with broad-brush questions leads to many false positives and “inconclusives” (known as INCs in the trade). In my time in counterintelligence, I saw “the box” perform both splendidly and miserably: it all comes down to the examiner and his or her ability and “sixth sense” in interrogation. A security panacea it is not and will never be.

Once you get cleared the process continues, however — they call it a lifetime secrecy oath with good reason — and you will be subjected to periodic reinvestigations every five years if you hold TS/SCI, every decade if you have a Secret-level clearance. Since five (or ten) years can be a long time, serious incidents that may impact one’s clearance status are supposed to be reported through channels — here the Alexis case highlighted the failures in the system — or are otherwise supposed to be self-reported.

Holders of TS/SCI clearances especially — who undeniably surrender a fair amount of privacy and freedom when they take on the responsibility — are supposed to inform security without delay regarding important life incidents or changes, including criminality (“Um, I got a DUI.”), finances (“Yeah…I owe a bookie $43,000 — ponies weren’t going my way.”), foreign travel (“I’m taking my kids on spring break — to Iran!”), and foreign entanglements (“I’m dating a stripper — from China…we’re cool, right?”). Needless to add, some people are quicker to report these things than others, and reinvestigations can reveal interesting facts. In my time in counterintelligence, I heard them all.

Of course, people who are warped enough to betray their oath and the country are not likely to self-report their misdeeds, à la Snowden, so the burden falls on vigilant security and especially co-workers to make note of such things and pass on relevant information. Except they don’t. Rather, they hardly ever do. I was involved in several espionage investigations, and the one constant was that co-workers never reported their concerns, which turned out to be considerable, to the proper authorities. Nobody wants to be “a rat,” moreover there’s a very human tendency at work whereby no one wants to think the worst of a co-worker — perhaps a coffee club buddy or carpool friend. Americans are an optimistic people, you know.

Just how weak this reporting system is across DoD was laid bare by the recent case of Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, who until a few months ago was the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) — in English, his was the second hand on the trigger of America’s vast nuclear arsenal. It would be hard to overstate the responsibility in his hands. Regrettably, VADM Giardina was leading a secret life based on obsessive gambling, at which he was spending something like fifteen hours a week, which would qualify as a part-time job. One wonders how he had time for this when his full-time job was among the busiest anywhere in DoD or the U.S. Government.

VADM Giardina was well known at several casinos around Omaha, Nebraska, where STRATCOM is headquartered, and he seemed to lose more than win. As revealed in a recent investigation by the Associated Press, the admiral was hailed as “Navy Tim” at his homes-away-from-home, who knew more about him than STRATCOM or the Navy did. Indeed, his official employers only learned of VADM Giardina’s habit when he was arrested for passing homemade fake chips; employing skills not taught at the Naval Academy or any Navy school I attended, VADM Giardina had converted $1 poker chips into the $500 kind. Casinos frown on this sort of thing, and the admiral was arrested and subsequently banned for life from certain casinos. Before that ban was in place, VADM Giardina kept gambling there, even after his arrest, so serious was his addiction.

It was this arrest that alerted his employers and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) — before that, they had no inkling about the admiral’s habits. When asked by a casino security officer about the protocols he, as a TS/SCI (plus) holder, was subject to, Giardina replied, “(What) they’re really trying to do is find out if you got, you know, if you’re having sex with animals or something really crazy or you’ve got this wild life that you could be blackmailed into giving military secrets out.” We can only hope that Russian and Chinese intelligence — whose interest in the deputy commander of STRATCOM would be difficult to overstate — were as blissfully unaware as the U.S. Navy was about his private life.

Why Giardina wasn’t caught beforehand isn’t difficult to discern. Nobody likes to tell security, those sneaky and snoopy guys down the hall, about their counterintelligence concerns regarding a co-worker — particularly when that co-worker is your boss and a three-star admiral. Despite the fact that the admiral, on advice of counsel, refused to cooperate with NCIS, Giardina is getting kid-glove treatment. He was found guilty in May 2014 of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer: lying to an investigator and passing fake gambling chips. Giardina was given a written reprimand and ordered to forfeit $4,000 in pay; he will retire with one less star and still get a very handsome pension. Needless to add, the APA (Admirals’ Protective Association) remains a powerful force, and those lower in rank would never be dealt with so kindly. In identical circumstances, less senior officers would see a pension-less future while enlisted personnel would face prison. Giardina continues to profess a sort of innocence; perhaps he can help O.J. Simpson find the “real killers” someday.

I wish I could tell you this is an anomaly. It is not; it is entirely normal in U.S. military and intelligence circles these days. Rank has its privileges and connections matter — more than rules and regulations. I will share with you just one case, among many, that I was involved in. The individual in question had gotten an job at an IC “three-letter agency” through connections. Although this person’s initial SSBI had revealed anomalies, related to hostile foreign intelligence no less, they were brushed aside due to said connections. Upon reinvestigation, it was learned that this person had some serious personal issues. Specifically, there was domestic violence involving guns plus a suicide attempt. Police were called and there were reports. Worse, the individual had lied to officers of the court about all this. By any standard, this was a seriously disturbed individual. This was all reflected in the paperwork given to DoD investigators.

You know what happened? Absolutely nothing. Last I heard this person still has TS/SCI clearances and is working for the IC. Making big money, no less. I wish I could say I’m shocked, but I no longer am. How many Snowdens are there? Is it a handful? Dozens? Platoons? Battalions?

I don’t know and I no longer venture a guess. Despite recent, ahem, setbacks, the IC has asked for more taxpayer money next year. If this is money well spent I shall defer to you as a taxpayer. I don’t think it’s worth having vastly expensive intelligence agencies if you can’t keep secrets and prevent those secrets from being broadcast to the world…but then I’m kinda old school about that sort of thing.


More Silly NSA Criticism

The “surveillance state reform” crowd is in the doldrums, now that their wonder-boy Edward Snowden is in Russia for the long-haul, under Putin’s watchful eye, and it’s been painfully evident for months that major reforms of the National Security Agency are politically stillborn, indeed they were killed off by Snowden and his traitorous antics, which left a bad taste in the mouths of normal Americans.

This doesn’t prevent the occasional outburst from the NSA-hating contingent, usually of a very misinformed kind, and today we have a new, rather silly example. I give you “The Real Lesson of Recent Cyberattacks: Let’s Break Up the NSA,” which advocates dismantling the Agency, which has two big components: the Signals Intelligence Directorate (SID) and the Information Assurance Directorate (IAD). The former conducts electronic espionage against foreigners, while the latter protects sensitive U.S. defense and intelligence networks from foreigners reading our classified mail.

The author cites several recent cyberattacks on “the White House, the Postal Service, and the National Weather Service,” all of which have received press attention, and rightly so. Then there’s the very serious cyberattack on the State Department, which led to the unprecedented shutdown of State’s unclassified email system a few days ago. It’s clear the U.S. Government is having problems protecting its less-sensitive information systems from foreign cyber intrusions, and worse.

Yet in a bout of snark, the author adds as “wise” commentary:

If only there was a federal agency dedicated to protecting federal information systems and critical U.S. infrastructure from criminals and foreign attackers. Oh, wait—there is. It’s the National Security Agency. And to all appearances, it’s botched the job so badly you’d think it wasn’t really trying in the first place.

“Maybe it wasn’t,” he adds, veering off into uninformed speculation about how SID and IAD are in cahoots to violate everyone’s privacy while letting Beijing read our mail…or something. The author has so little idea of how NSA actually functions that his argument is difficult to explain in any lucid fashion.

But the core problem is that the author’s central rant is entirely wrong. If he had bothered to read the IAD mission statement, which is linked in his own piece, it states the following;

IAD protects and defends National Security Information and Information Systems. In accordance with National Security Directive 42, National Security Systems are defined as systems that handle classified information or information otherwise critical to military or intelligence activities.

Got that? In other words, NSA is not responsible for security of the unclassified systems at the White House or the State Department, which were recently compromised according to press reports, and NSA has literally nothing to do with protecting unclassified information systems at the Post Office or the National Weather Service. Nice try to pin that on NSA, it just happens to be entirely wrong.

The author does not tell you that those Federal departments and agencies are responsible for their own cybersecurity on unclassified information systems. Even inside the Department of Defense, less sensitive systems are handled by the Defense Information Systems Agency, not NSA, another important fact which the author fails to disclose. NSA’s IAD is charged with protecting the security and integrity of Top Secret (plus) computer and communications systems that impact military and intelligence matters….and that’s it.

There’s a case to be made that SID and IAD should be separated, though they have resided together since NSA’s creation in 1952. Despite the fact that there is some mission overlap between them, SID and IAD are headquartered at different locations and there’s not a great deal of personnel exchange between the directorates, not to mention that SID is far larger than IAD in terms of both budget and personnel.

That said, marrying SIGINT and Information Assurance in a single agency makes more sense than, say, the marriage of finished national-level intelligence analysis and national-level human intelligence at CIA, in the Directorate of Intelligence and the National Clandestine Service, respectively — a union that is an accident of history and is not replicated in most Western intelligence communities.

If you want to separate SID and IAD to weaken NSA, that’s fine, just say that. There is no case for that divorce, however, that can be made on the basis of factually incorrect arguments such as we have here. It would be wise for authors to have a sense of what NSA actually does — which is not hard to find online — before they pontificate about how the Agency does everything wrong.



Lingering OKBOMB Questions

One of the more curious aspects of our postmodern information age is how stories that are actually known — meaning they have already been reported and can easily be found online — nevertheless fail to develop traction in the public consciousness, until sometimes they do, without apparent warning.

A classic case is the recent blow-up of Bill Cosby’s public reputation. Although allegations of rape against the actor-comedian, by more than a dozen women, have been reported for over a decade, including a 2006 out-of-court settlement, it was only recently — specifically last month, when comedian Hannibal Burress stated matter-of-factly of “America’s Dad”: “Yeah, but you’re a rapist” — that the story finally got legs. Suddenly, it has become a sensation, not helped by Cosby’s ham-handed efforts at online reputation management and his bizarre on-air silence about the allegations. It’s difficult to see how Cosby’s reputation can recover from this, but it’s worthwhile to ask why all the fuss now?

It’s perhaps even more worthwhile to ask why certain sensational stories never seem to develop public traction at all, despite the existence of important evidence indicating there’s something we should be talking about.

A classic case in point is the 19 April 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, including nineteen children, and injured almost 700 more people, making it a true spectacular in the annals of domestic terrorism. One of the perpetrators, Timothy McVeigh, the man who rented the truck used in the attack, was in police custody just ninety minutes after the bombing, pulled over while driving a car without a license plate, leading to suspicions that he wanted to get caught. Within days his partner, Terry Nichols, was in police hands too.

McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001, as he wished, while Nichols is in maximum security Federal prison for life without possibility of parole, and a couple that assisted the bombers in small ways, Michael and Lori Fortier, cooperated with authorities, leading to a reduced sentence for him (he was released from prison in 2006) and no jail-time for her.

Although the official investigation, termed OKBOMB by the authorities, was vast, with FBI agents conducting 28,000 interviews, as well as collecting over three tons of evidence, plus nearly one billion pieces of information, almost from the outset there have been nagging concerns about whether the full extent of the McVeigh-Nichols conspiracy was uncovered. Despite the expenditure of millions of man-hours on OKBOMB, questions have lingered for nearly two decades about how two hard-right ne’er-do-wells, neither of whom possessed bomb-making skills worth mentioning, managed to pull off such a spectacular attack on their first try — doubts that have lingered after 9/11, with many cases of failed bomb-making by self-starting jihadists across Europe and the United States.

Then there’s the troubling issue of “John Doe #2,” a mystery man who was seen at the bombing site with McVeigh, among other places, by some two dozen witnesses, yet was never identified by OKBOMB. Finding him never got very far — it’s perhaps significant that the account of the case authored by McVeigh’s attorney was titled Others Unknown — since the unrepentant McVeigh was happy to take the blame (and fame), while Federal authorities have never shown much interest in a parley with Terry Nichols, who has to know more than he’s said to date.

It was obvious to many who have examined the case with open eyes that, for reasons that can only be guessed at, the FBI and their masters in Washington, DC, never displayed much ardor for unraveling OKBOMB’s full dimensions. McVeigh and Nichols were in custody almost immediately, and were easily linked to the attack, and that seemed to be enough to satisfy politicians and the public. Just last week, a Federal judge scolded the FBI for being unable to find crucial videotapes of the 1995 attack, which mysteriously went missing and that the Bureau never seemed too eager to find. This was thanks to the case of Kenneth Trentadue, who died under mysterious circumstances in Oklahoma City in August 1995, while in Federal custody. The sad Trentadue affair is one of the many unsolved mysteries surrounding OKBOMB, with his family ardently believing that he was tortured to death by the FBI, which mistakenly took him for John Doe #2.

Serious inquiry into OKBOMB has not been helped by a glut of fantasy-cum-conspiracy theorizing by people who do not know much about terrorism and intelligence. The Oklahoma City atrocity has attracted more than its share of charlatans and self-styled experts, some of whom are eager to pin the bombing on Arabs, Masons, Jews, and perhaps space aliens.

Nevertheless, the American mainstream media has long shown a stunning lack of interest in the unanswered questions surrounding the attack. Over at INTELWIRE, terrorism expert J.M. Berger has published a raft of well-researched stories about various aspects of the case, based on declassified Federal records, including PATCON, the FBI’s failed effort in the early 1990s to detect and deter violent right-wing nut-balls just like McVeigh and Nichols. Similarly, the publication two years ago of a serious book looking into all this, by two respected experts on the case, got a few positive reviews but generated none of the public attention that OKBOMB’s continuing mysteries actually merit. The FBI’s lead agent on OKBOMB  has long advocated reopening the case, on the basis of considerable evidence that his investigation never saw, but that, too, has fallen on deaf ears.

Even members of Congress asking questions about who really bombed Oklahoma City have encountered stonewalling from the FBI and the Department of Justice, under multiple White Houses. The most significant Congressional look at OKBOMB came in 2005, when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) sponsored an investigation of possible foreign connections to the attack, which followed numerous leads that the FBI had deemed dead-ends. Rohrabacher’s official report makes interesting and depressing reading.

It bears noting up-front that this Congressional inquiry got embarrassingly little cooperation from people who should want to know the truth. Frank Keating, who was Oklahoma’s governor in 1995, refused to cooperate with Rohrabacher’s investigators and asked that the inquiry be halted. Neither were the FBI and DoJ much more helpful, and this Congressional inquiry met with more obstruction than assistance from Federal authorities. It should be stated that the White House in 2005 was occupied by a member of Rohrabacher’s own party, and Keating is a Republican too. Not wanting to know the full OKBOMB story seems to transcend normal politics in Washington, DC.

The Rohrabacher investigation followed two avenues of inquiry well-trodden by others before: possible connections between McVeigh/Nichols and the Middle East, and the possible role in the bombing played by the white supremacist compound at Elohim City, Oklahoma.

While the notion of Iraqis having a direct hand in the attack was always fanciful, the issue of trips by McVeigh and Nichols to the Islamist-infested southern Philippines lingers, not least because they seem to have honed their bomb-making skills there. Nichols had in-laws there and it is a curious fact that they were in Cebu City at the same time as Ramzi Yousef, the Al-Qa’ida-linked bomber of the World Trade Center in 1993. No “smoking gun” has ever emerged to establish a firm link, but the Rohrabacher inquiry identifies important questions that need to be answered. Some of them look highly suspicious to any seasoned counterintelligence hand.

More troubling still are ties between McVeigh/Nichols and the white supremacist compound at Elohim City, really an armed trailer park, which had up to a hundred residents, adherents of Christian Identity, a strange ideology that justifies race-war. The compound was well known to authorities and the media, and multiple sources have established a connection between Elohim City and the bombers, McVeigh especially, as Rohrabacher’s inquiry demonstrated.

"Andy the German"

“Andy the German”

The most troubling angle is the role of Andreas Strassmeir, a German national who had lived at Elohim City, on-and-off, beginning in 1992. He had come to America in 1989, as an ardent fan of Civil War reenacting — as a Confederate, naturally. He became close with McVeigh, the two having met at a gun show in the spring of 1993, and the latter spoke warmly of “Andy the German,” whom he phoned at Elohim City, where “Andy” was head of security, several times. Strassmeir is by any accounts an odd character. The son of a politically well connected family in Germany, Strassmair served in the German military as a junior officer, including in some intelligence capacity, before becoming immersed in far-right politics. In a pattern seldom encountered in extreme right circles, in Germany or America, Strassmeir was an ardent Zionist who spoke fluent Hebrew and, he admitted, had lived on a kibbutz in Israel.

Although Strassmeir’s connection to McVeigh was known to Federal investigators, the FBI showed a bizarre lack of interest in him or his possible ties to terrorism. As Rohrabacher’s report notes:

For nearly a year after the bombing, the FBI did not interview Strassmeir. Only when he had fled the country was he queried briefly on the phone by the FBI. The agents apparently accepted his denial of any relationship with McVeigh, and there is no evidence of any further investigation into this possible link.

Strassmeir returned to Germany in 1996, uninhibited by anyone in Washington, DC, then gave a couple interviews to the local media in which he denied being involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, and resumed a quiet life; at last report, he was selling military figurines. As Rohrabacher’s investigation uncovered, Elohim City was also mixed up with the Aryan Republican Army, a gang of far-right bank robbers that pulled off more than twenty heists across the Midwest in the early-to-mid 1990’s. There were more than hints that the ARA may have helped fund McVeigh’s terrorism — but that, too, was an angle that the FBI showed a puzzling lack of interest in pursuing with vigor.

While Rohrabacher’s investigation into foreign connections to OKBOMB was ultimately “inconclusive,” by its own admission, thanks to a lack of cooperation from the FBI and DoJ, it asked the right things and defined several important questions that need additional inquiry. The investigative path to be taken is there, should anyone in Washington, DC, ever wish to do so.

After 9/11, as a National Security Agency counterintelligence officer, I was involved in an Intelligence Community re-look at recent acts of terrorism, searching for possible links to foreigners. Oklahoma City was one of these. I quickly discovered, as Rohrabacher’s investigators did a few years later, that the FBI and DoJ had no interest in anyone peeking into the case, which they considered closed, indeed tightly shut. Even in Top Secret channels, avenues were blocked. Since that investigation remains highly classified, I will not divulge its contents, though I will make two general comments.

First, the visits by McVeigh and Nichols to the southern Philippines remain mysterious, and perhaps will in perpetuity. Their connections to Ramzi Yousef are weak but visible, while the hand of a Middle East intelligence service, one known for its support to international terrorism, was detectable in outline, if not in detail.

Second, Strassmeir — who seems to be the key to much of the remaining mystery surrounding OKBOMB — appeared to be an intelligence source, and possible agent provocateur, for as many as three different intelligence services, all of which are known to watch neo-Nazi activities in the United States with interest.

The investigation will have to remain there, unsatisfactorily, until somebody decides to resume it. The twentieth anniversary of the Oklahoma City atrocity will soon be upon us. It would be good if a serious re-look at OKBOMB’s many unanswered questions were established for the event. With every passing year, the chances of clearing up the case grow more difficult; eventually it will be impossible. The public deserves to know the full story of this terrible crime.


Operation DAMASCUS: The Italian Job

Bosnia-Hercegovina’s troubles with terrorism and extremism were back in the news this week, with police raids leading to the arrest of eleven radicals associated with the Islamic State, several of whom recently waged jihad in Syria. This was the second part of Operation DAMASCUS, which began two months ago, a long-delayed effort to dismantle Bosnia’s radical Islamist infrastructure.

Among the five extremists still in custody since their arrest in early September is Bilal Bosnić, a Salafi man-about-town with connections all over Central Europe. As I noted at the time of his arrest:

The biggest catch was Bilal Bosnić, a radical imam who is the de facto leader of Salafi jihadism in the country, particularly its very radical variant that is affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (his competitor, Nusret Imamović, has been in Syria for several months, where he backs the rival, Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra faction). Notorious for his fiery and YouTube-friendly sermons exhorting his followers to join the caravan with the Islamic State, Bosnić has spent considerable time in Central Europe causing trouble and recruiting for the jihad, principally in Italy and Austria. His arrest therefore is important.

The bearded imam was taken into custody at his farm near Buzim, in Bosnia’s far west where he lives with his four wives and sixteen children; there were also a dozen “guests” in the residence who had come to Bosnić to receive religious instruction, he said, in his very crowded house. The imam ostensibly supports himself by tending goats — his previous career as an accordion player in a folk band ended abruptly when Bosnić found religion — but Bosnian intelligence believes that he receives funds from abroad, likely with the help of Iranian intelligence, which possesses a robust covert infrastructure in Bosnia dating back more than two decades. Bosnić is the “big fish” in this operation, since he can be linked to dozens of Bosnians and other Europeans who have joined the Middle Eastern jihad on behalf of the Islamic State. 

Unsurprisingly, counterterrorism officials from several countries are interested in talking with Bosnić, and the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz this week reported that Lamberto Giannini, the counterterrorism boss for the Italian State Police, has been in Sarajevo for the last few days, tracking down leads relating to Bosnić, who has spent considerable time rabble-rousing among Salafis in Italy. It’s not clear if Giannini has talked with Bosnić — Sarajevo officials admitted only that there has been “an exchange of information” with Italian partners, though it clear that the counterterrorism relationship between Rome and Sarajevo is better than it has been in years. Interest in Bosnić and his activities is not new in Rome, though it was spiked by an interview the imam gave to La Repubblica in late August, shortly before his arrest, in which he boasted that fifty Italians were fighting with the Islamic State, with his encouragement, as well as the customary Salafi bluster about conquering Italy, including the Vatican.

Closer cooperation between European security services is vitally necessary if there is serious intent, at last, of dismantling Salafi jihadist networks across the continent. The Islamic State’s war in Iraq and Syria is generating an unprecedented security crisis in Europe, with thousands of Europeans having gone to wage jihad under Da’ish’s black flag. Bosnia is a hotspot for this sort of radicalism and terrorism, and extremists like Bosnić have deep connections to Austria, Germany, and Italy in particular. This is an encouraging, if belated, sign that European governments are taking this threat seriously, before it becomes a major threat to peace at home.

More will be forthcoming soon …


Why the Islamic State is Winning

Today’s headlines bring word of some sort of ceasefire, or at least modus vivendi, between the Islamic State (*Da’ish) and Al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Syria, where the Salafi jihadists have been bitter enemies, fighting each other often more than the Assad regime which they both seek to overthrow. While it would be unwise to think this is more than a tactical allliance, any rapprochement between Da’ish and AQ is an important development that has worrisome implications for their mutual enemies.

This is particularly the case because the U.S.-led campaign to prevent Da’ish from taking over more of Syria and Iraq than the fanatical group already controls is going poorly, to be charitable. The belatedly named Operation INHERENT RESOLVE has been underway for over three months already and its accomplishments are few. Beyond some individually impressive airstrikes on Da’ish targets, there is less here than meets the eye, strategically speaking. In terms of operational tempo and coordination of objectives, what the United States and its allies are doing via air falls well short of an actual strategic air campaign, as has been obvious for some time, and stands little chance of blunting the grave Da’ish threat to both Syria and Iraq anytime soon. Dropping some bombs does not a strategic air campaign make, as the Obama White House seems to be grasping rather late.

Small wonder, then, that today we have news of Da’ish leadership, supposedly the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — who may, or may not, have been gravely injured in a recent U.S. airstrike — taunting the American-led war against the group as “terrified, weak and powerless.” To make matters worse, Da’ish is proving adept at minimizing the impact of U.S. intelligence; specifically its communications security is showing worrisome signs of having a learning curve that will blunt the power of American SIGINT, which is always our leading source of intelligence around the world. One U.S. intelligence official noted that Da’ish “likely learned a lot from recent unauthorized disclosures,” an oblique reference to the on-going Snowden Operation, the largest leak in intelligence history, which hit Western SIGINT like a locomotive. The bottom line is that shortfalls in intelligence are rendering our already inadequate air war against Da’ish even less effective than it could be.

Then there is the far from trivial matter of confusion in Washington, DC, about what exactly Operation INHERENT RESOLVE is supposed to achieve. Reports this week reveal that the Pentagon cannot decide internally just what its new Iraq war is trying to do, while coordination with the White House, and particularly Obama’s deeply troubled National Security Council, falls short of the abysmal standards of civil-military relations set by the Johnson Administration during their failed war in Vietnam. Also as in the late 1960s, Pentagon displeasure at NSC micromanagement of the air war, particularly by the unpleasant and unqualified National Security Adviser Susan Rice, has leaked into the media in impressive, and depressing, detail.

To make matters worse, the current American strategy to defeat Da’ish, inasmuch as it exists at all, is based on the assumption that the United States and its allies will bring airpower to act as the hammer to crush Da’ish on the anvil of the Iraqi military. That force, created at enormous expense in American time, talent and treasure over the past decade, is frankly a joke. Yesterday, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey explained the requirement concisely“We’re going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture territory lost, and eventually the city of Mosul, to restore the border.” Regrettably, Baghdad has nowhere near that many “competent” troops, despite the expenditure of billions of U.S. dollars to that end. In reality, the Iraqi military has roughly nine serviceable brigades, a bit more than 20,000 battle-ready troops who can be relied upon to confront Da’ish with any hope of success — and even that may be an optimistic estimate. Without a significant injection of American military advisors down to the battalion level in the Iraqi Army, there seems little hope that Bahgdad can push Da’ish back in a strategic manner, no matter how many bombs we drop. American taxpayers ought to have many questions about all this, having been told for years that their money had bought a decent military for Iraq.

Some have called for the introduction of U.S. ground forces to defeat Da’ish. While there is little doubt that this would work, at least temporarily — it would require something like two to three heavy divisions to get the job done, however, a considerable force — that it is being pushed by the very same strategically illiterate neocon cheerleaders who got everything wrong about Iraq since 2003 should tell you a lot about the quality of their analysis. Moreover, there is no reason to think that introducing U.S. ground forces into Iraq in large numbers will produce outcomes any different than they did a decade ago: tactical victories leading to no discernible strategic wins, which amounts to the same thing as defeat.

Recently retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger is causing a stir by pointing out the obvious yet painful truth that, in any strategic sense, the United States has been defeated in both its wars in the Greater Middle East since 2001. His new book, aptly named Why We Lost, is causing upset yet is sparking a debate that must happen (you can get a teaser of his views here). While I am not in full agreement with Bolger’s argument, it reveals realities that have been largely kept from the American public, specifically that generalship in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been deeply flawed, and that the Pentagon invested in impossible strategic goals in both countries. Bolger helpfully demolishes the Petraeus legend (like Petraeus, Bolger is a soldier with a Ph.D.; unlike Petraeus, Bolger is a serious and much-published scholar), which ought to have the salutary effect of blunting the peculiar and pernicious myth, beloved by neocons, that the U.S. military won in Iraq only to be sold out by Washington, DC. This “stab in the back” legend is toxic, though easily found inside the Beltway, and Bolger’s work, which has been preceded by equally trenchant analysis showing the essential fraudulence of Petraeus’s vaunted Surge, ought to have a cleansing effect on American discussions of our realistic strategic options in the Middle East.

The U.S. military is quite capable of defeating almost any adversary on the battlefield, even Da’ish, though that is not the same thing as producing lasting political outcomes that Americans will like. This is particularly true in the Greater Middle East, where the politico-cultural barriers to Westernization delivered by the barrel of a gun are steep and strong. Over the last decade, multiple approaches have been tried: in Afghanistan and Iraq, a U.S. “heavy” footprint was applied while in Libya a “lead from behind” air coalition employing locals as the ground force (not unlike what we hope to do in Iraq now) sufficed to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. All these countries are violent basket-cases now.

On the essential fraudulence of the “counterinsurgency” myth that was peddled to the American public during George W. Bush’s second term I don’t have much to add to what other scholars have already said. The “COIN” agenda proved effective at promoting the careers and fortunes of some U.S. Army officers and their think-tank hangers-on, yet quite ineffective at producing strategic victory. It is now time, indeed long overdue, to dispense with magical thinking about what the application of American military power might achieve in any lasting strategic or political sense in the Middle East.

To be blunt, we kill very effectively but we have precious little understanding of how to transform Muslim societies by force. Indeed, our efforts in that direction usually produce opposite outcomes, which should be easily predictable were we not besotted by lies about how others view us and what we seek to achieve. It is dangerously easy, when ensconced in the Pentagon or White House bubble of endless PowerPoints and meetings, to believe entirely untrue things. This is a strategic deception that is painful because it is entirely self-inflicted.

Simply put, we have no ability to change Muslim societies unless we are willing to stay the long haul and are eager to kill staggering numbers of people, many of them civilians, in horrible ways. And even then, lasting victory is far from certain. In the 1950’s, France crushed the Algerian insurgency tactically through methods that no Western state would approve today — massive internment of civilians, indiscriminate killings, and torture on an industrial scale — and still failed to strategically defeat the local resistance, thanks in no small part to global disgust at what France was doing in Algeria. And this was a country that France had occupied for well over a century and its military knew intimately. (One of the more ridiculous facets of the Petraeus-led COIN mafia was their citation of France’s 1954-62 war in Algeria as a model of any sort to emulate, but how they out-cherry-picked Cheney to make their ahistorical arguments is, alas, another story.)

The bad news I have to share with you is that the last time any Western effort to strategically defeat an uprising in the Middle East, meaning crushing it and bringing some sort of lasting peace, was in the early 1930’s, over eighty years ago. The worse news is it was Fascist Italy pacifying its Libyan colony with horrifying force.

Italy had occupied Libya since 1911-12, when it grabbed it from the ailing Ottoman Empire, and Rome periodically crushed small-scale rebellions there. By the late 1920’s, however, the Italians faced a serious uprising, led by the wily Sheikh Omar Mukhtar, a gifted rebel leader. To crush this revolt, Mussolini dispatched General Rodolfo Graziani with a mandate to exert Fascist control over Libya using all means necessary. This Graziani did, employing armor, artillery, and airplanes, some carrying chemical bombs, to kill everybody moving in rebel-held areas. Moreover, the Italians interned the entire civilian population in many places, some 100,000 people, mainly women and children, of whom forty percent died from disease and malnutrition. Mukhtar was captured by the Italians in 1931, his rebel army having been ground to pieces, and was executed in public. By the next year, Rome had pacified Libya, thanks to outreach to the defeated rebels, and the country was at peace, as it would remain until the Second World War. That many Libyans fought for Fascist Italy against the British in that war says something about Italian acumen in suppressing rebellions — although, needless to add, Graziani is considered a war criminal today, as he certainly was by our current standards.

Simply put, no Western country today would approve the use of almost any of the methods that Italy applied in Libya. Indeed, as I’ve explained previously, even Putin’s Russia has cleaned up its act in this regard. No state in the 21st century that does not wish to be a global pariah can employ tactics that would actually be effective in suppressing the sorts of uprisings that are now endemic in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — and are likely spreading across the Middle East right now. Unless the fate of one’s country is directly at stake, killing lots of civilians and applying brute force on a massive scale is simply off the table. The sooner we accept this fact, the sooner we can have an honest and reality-based debate about what can be achieved by force of arms in the Middle East.

Nearly three months ago, I explained how airpower should be applied to gradually defeat Da’ish, and I stick by my recommendations. We can still win this one, in the sense that we can prevent Da’ish fanatics from taking over more of the Middle East than they already have. Eventually, they will implode thanks to their own toxic radicalism. Additionally, my recommendations on how to slowly, deeply defeat Da’ish through aggressive offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, still stand. Regrettably, I see no signs that any of this is happening. Instead, our efforts to defeat Da’ish are ailing, and this is a fight we cannot afford to lose. A necessary first step is having a genuine debate about what our military can — and cannot — achieve in Iraq and Syria.

*Da’ish is considered pejorative and is disliked by the Islamic State, so by all means let’s use it.

Operation DAMASCUS, Part II

This morning, in a series of coordinated police raids across Bosnia-Hercegovina, authorities arrested eleven Islamist radicals suspected of support for terrorism and the jihad in Syria and Iraq. The raids took place in five Bosnian locations, including Sarajevo, the country’s capital.

As explained by the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), “The detained are suspected of links with financing, organizing and recruiting Bosnian citizens to leave for Syria and Iraq and fight in armed conflicts there alongside radical terrorist groups and organizations.”

damascus3This is a continuation of Operation DAMASCUS, the Bosnian police-intelligence move to diminish the country’s substantial Salafi jihadist infrastructure, which began with raids in early September, which I explained in detail at the time. Of the extremists arrested over two months ago, five remain in custody, importantly including Bilal Bosnić, a radical imam who is the de facto leader of Salafi jihadism in the country, particularly its very radical variant that is affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz has detailed coverage of today’s round-up, including the names of the arrested, some of which will be familiar to seasoned jihad-watchers in Southeastern Europe: Ramiz Ibrahimović, Fikret Hadžić, Senad Kljajić, Enver Lilić, Mehmed Tutmić, Kenan Okan, Berin Tahić, Salko Imamović, Halil Garanović, Samir Hadžalić, and Ahmet Mušanović — most of these men are believed to have been fighting recently with the Islamic State.

Avaz has also reported that SIPA seized weaponry and explosives, presumably brought to Bosnia from the Middle East by returning jihadists, during today’s raids. More details will be forthcoming, watch this space, but this is one more overdue step in Bosnia’s struggle to diminish the country’s deep-seated radical infrastructure, which dates to the war fought there two decades ago — it’s a nasty and underreported story that includes terrorism, corruption, crime, jihadists from many countries, and lots of Iranians. Any progress on that front should be welcome news to those who oppose armed Salafism, especially in Europe.

UPDATE (14 Nov, 1230 EST): Having talked with Bosnian security, I can confirm that, among those arrested yesterday, at least five have fought in Syria with the Islamic State:  Ramiz Ibrahimović, Fikret Hadžić, Enver Lilić, Mehmed Tutmić, Samir Hadžalić, while others are suspected of having done so. More as it happens.

On Espionage Denial

Yesterday I reported the allegation that top U.S. diplomat and NATO Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow is an agent of influence of Russian intelligence. This explosive charge was leveled by Russian businessman and parliamentarian Konstantin Borovoy, a normally rather sober fellow. Any such allegation, particularly when it comes from anywhere near Russia, must be evaluated as a possible smear, what Russian intelligence calls disinformation.

The Kremlin, through its special services, excels at what it terms Active Measures, and slandering Western politicians and officials whom Russian officialdom dislikes has long been part of that. And Putin and his siloviki indeed have reason to dislike Vershbow, who got on their bad side back in 2003, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, when he publicly pointed out that ties between Russian intelligence and Iraqi partners were decidedly cozy

So kompromat of a nasty sort may be at play here. That said, it’s difficult to see why Borovoy, a vehement critic of the Putin regime, would willingly play a role in this sort of FSB operational game. His use as an unwitting conduit for disinformation of course cannot be ruled out, but Borovoy, a harsh critic of the FSB and its KGB predecessor, could not fail to be aware of what Active Measures are and how they work.

Hence we need a proper investigation of this whole affair. We need press coverage, indeed the real point of my piece yesterday was that the inattention of the Western media to Russian intelligence operations over the years has only served to get us more of them. The eyes of normally inquisitive reporters often get averted when leads go places that prove discomforting to their worldview (this rot was present with “investigative journalism” from the start, but that is another story).

This morning I was asked via Twitter by Joshua Foust, who spent a couple years as a contractor analyst with U.S. Defense intelligence, but has no experience with anything involving Russian counterintelligence, as far as I am aware, “do you really think the media is an appropriate place to evaluate the allegation that a senior diplomat is a Russian spy?”

Yes, I absolutely do think it is the job of the media to investigate such cases when they become public. U.S. Government counterintelligence investigators can be assumed to be doing their due diligence in this matter, but Foust’s question mystifies me. It’s tantamount to saying that, because the Food and Drug Administration has people who keep tabs on the pharmaceutical industry, why should journalists bother to look into allegations that certain medicines may harm people because, hey, DC has that covered, right?

In fact, journalists have a key role to play in exposing how Russian intelligence spies on, subverts, and influences Western politics in many ways, none of them positive. As Michael Weiss recently pointed out, it’s fallen to a small number of Western journalists to investigate what Russian spy agencies are up to, since most European governments remain distressingly silent about this subject in public.

In particular, NATO governments should do more to counter Russian spies and lies, which are proliferating online. Back in the early 1980’s, when Kremlin disinformation ran rampant, the Reagan administration established a U.S. interagency working group to counter Soviet Active Measures, and it enjoyed important successes. It’s high time to begin a similar effort again, tailored to the online age, perhaps on a NATO-wide basis.

Is Sandy Vershbow a Russian spy? I assume and hope not. However, the State Department has provided more than its share of Kremlin agents over the years, most recently Felix Bloch, whose convoluted case continues to raise questions about the extent of KGB penetration of Washington, DC. The notion of a high-level American diplomat secretly serving the Kremlin is anything but fanciful, even though many who should be curious prefer not to ponder the idea. Considering that Alger Hiss still has defenders who insist in the face of mountains of evidence — some of it provided by yours truly — that he was not the top Soviet agent he actually was, I’m not optimistic that American journalists will quickly develop the appropriate curiosity about what Putin’s special services are up to. Still, it’s good to encourage any inquisitiveness by the Fourth Estate.




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