As the long-festering political situation in Ukraine deteriorates, with something like an open rebellion taking hold in the Western part of the country, amid rumors that martial law may be declared imminently, the government in Kyiv announced today that beleaguered President Yanukovych is meeting with three opposition leaders, including the well-known boxer Vitaly Klitschko of UDAR. Klitschko has published a brief op-ed in the German tabloid BILD, which nicely encapsulates his position. Titled “I fear for the next few days,” it follows:
I fear for what imminently faces us in the course of the coming hours and weeks in Ukraine.
Through his stonewalling tactics and bogus negotiations, ruler Yanukovych has strengthened those wishing to react by resorting to violence on the streets. He alone would therefore be to blame for any renewed bloodshed.
These are his disreputable tactics: He invites us in order to gain time. Now he is promising to reshuffle his cabinet. What he has likely never realized is this: What matters most of all to us demonstrators is him, and his own resignation!
When I talked last night to furious demonstrators in front of the burning barricades, they just wouldn’t let me go. I can understand these people, as the president has been ignoring their demands for the past two months.
What I do know, though, is this: If people now react to the police by resorting to violence, then there will once again be more deaths. I have no wish to be responsible for even more people having to lose their lives in Ukraine.
This is why I want us to widen the protests in every region, in order to bring about our goal of a peaceful coup In the process, I support the demands for a peace conference, voiced by the likes of EU Parliament President Martin Schulz. There can be no solution without international mediators.
What I say to my supporters at this time is this: We have already come a very long way. And the day will come when Yanukovych has to resign. I will continue to fight for these people. And I am fighting to be there for them as their president one day. As the president of a free and open-minded president.
My brother Vladimir is giving me his constant support in our peaceful protests, today he is once again on his travels. When the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe occurred, we were living just a few hundred kilometers from there.
Since we heard nothing from our government about the disaster and the dangers, we sailed paper boats on contaminated waters. Our father, who held a high-ranking position in the military and was responsible for the clean-up operations, later died of cancer.
We will no longer tolerate lies from governments. We want to be genuine democrats. We want freedom for Ukraine.
I hope that Klitschko’s call for a peaceful resolution of the crisis takes hold. But, given the thuggish nature of the Yanukovych regime, and the increasingly alarming rhetoric emanating from Moscow backing up that thuggishness, I am concerned. That said, Klitschko’s call for internationalizing the budding conflict, demanding an EU role in resolution, is the proper course. Let us hope cooler heads prevail, this is a genuinely alarming situation for Ukraine and Europe.
Back in mid-December, the right-wing gadfly Patrick J. Buchanan created a minor stir with an op-ed column positing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the new leader of transnational conservativism. Entitled “Is Putin One of Us?” this provocative piece noted how very paleoconservative many of the Kremlin boss’s public comments actually seem. Though hardly a household word in America, paleoconservatism is the branch of the right-wing movement that rejects post-modernism and still sticks uncompromisingly to “traditional values”; Buchanan – the former Republican operative and ex-Cold Warrior turned popular polemicist – can be considered the movement’s de facto leader, though the mainstream GOP these days keeps paleos at arm’s length, fearing being tarred with racism, sexism, and other Officially Bad Things.
While Putin’s remarks disparaging homosexuals, feminism, and unrestricted migration have raised much ire in the West, for Buchanan, the consummate culture warrior, they are a positive sign that, finally, a major world leader is on the paleo wavelength. To Buchanan and his ilk, Putin’s comments about traditional values are wildly encouraging, an indication that the cause of resisting post-modernism may not be lost after all. As Pat noted:
Putin says his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby and professes to be a Christian. And what he is talking about here is ambitious, even audacious.
He is seeking to redefine the “Us vs. Them” world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent West.
“We do not infringe on anyone’s interests,” said Putin, “or try to teach anyone how to live.” The adversary he has identified is not the America we grew up in, but the America we live in, which Putin sees as pagan and wildly progressive.
It should be noted that such thoughts are not unique to Buchanan, nor are they new in paleoconservative circles. Retired Professor Paul Gottfried, who coined the term paleoconservatism, has been adamant that, whatever the West did to triumph over the Soviets, it has lost the struggle against what some on the Right term “Cultural Marxism.” Another paleo thinker, the Serbian-born Srdja Trifkovic, maintains that, with the end of the Cold War, the United States switched places with the USSR and became the global force for revolution, waging wars to spread post-modern individual, social, and sexual values, while Putin’s conservative Russia stands as a bulwark against it.
But few Americans outside paleocon circles pay attention to such authors, so there was some shock in the media when Buchanan let the cat out of the bag about Putin’s circle of admirers in the West. Progressives were reminded that they had always regarded Pat as a quasi-fascist anyway, leading one Washington Post columnist to sum up Buchanan’s Putin piece thus: “The Intolerant International. Bigots of the world, unite.”
Moscow’s take, however, was rather different, and only two days after Buchanan’s op-ed appeared, a Kremlin newspaper ran an article observing that Pat actually was entirely correct: Vladimir Putin is indeed the de facto leader of global traditionalism and conservatism. The piece appeared in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin’s official paper, so it has regime imprimatur. Entitled ”In the spirit of healthy Conservatism: Society’s demand for conservative policy has been building for a long time, and Putin has clearly responded,” the op-ed was authored by Aleksei Mukhin, a Kremlin-approved public intellectual.
Noting Putin’s recent move towards an open embrace of traditional values, Mukhin observed, ”He has, in fact, taken the position of a global conservative leader. This was noted not just by his supporters, but also by longtime critics, including in the U.S. media.” Mukhin continued, extolling what he calls Putin’s “healthy conservatism”:
In his recent address to the Federal Assembly, the President confirmed the chosen direction toward conservatism, revealing the main components of the new policy: protection of traditional family values, and the consistent defense of his own position. This position is dear not only to Russians, but to the international community as a whole.
Few would dispute that today, on a number of key issues in global politics, it is Putin who not only expresses his own view or outlines Russia’s position, but also takes on the full weight of responsibility to defend the point of view of a significant part of the population of developing or even developed countries.
Moreover, among them are such states that traditionally oppose Russia in the international arena.
Additionally, Mukhin observed that Putin’s vigorous defense of national interests, traditional values, and state sovereignty has attracted admirers far beyond Russia:
Putin has made no secret of the fact that he acts primarily to provide protection for Russia’s national economic interests and directly for domestic producers, as a head of state should act: honestly and openly, not hiding behind humanitarian considerations and Pharisee morality.
Opinion polls show that this position gets the most lively response from Russians – for more than seventy percent of the population, it is important that the country’s leader enjoys authority among the people of other states.
Moreover, the current strengthening of Putin’s international image is by no means the result of the efforts of image makers and political strategists, but largely the result of his own vigorous activity.
After a sidebar extolling Putin’s triumphs in international diplomacy in 2013, including handling the Syrian situation ably, defending the Kremlin’s ally Assad while showing President Obama to be inept and incompetent, thereby restoring Moscow to a prominent role in global affairs, Mukhin returned to his main message:
Let us note that few world leaders today hold such a clear and consistent position on issues so “slippery” for tolerant Europeans and Americans as the protection of traditional (i.e. heterosexual) family values, the role of traditional religions, and a balanced migration policy. And it is clear that the approaches demonstrated by the Russian president in this direction are again dear to the majority of the population in various countries. In his address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin drew attention to the fact that, “today in many countries norms of morality and ethics are being revised, national and cultural distinctions are being blurred.” And, as the president noted, the result is that people are required to recognize the equivalence of good and evil – “concepts which are opposite in meaning.”
However, not all foreign politicians are willing to engage in polemics with their aggressive minorities, so Putin’s influence in the global arena is growing steadily. It is growing particularly among ordinary people, who are now beginning to subconsciously delegate their aspirations and shift their concerns to the Russian president.
Among conservative politicians, such positioning by Putin generally meets with understanding and support, whereas it is mostly liberal-minded competitors who are critical of it. It seems that, as a result, Russia’s president is seen as a leader, if not the main leader, of the “global party of conservative values.”
Sycophancy aside, this is an important message from the Kremlin that Moscow is seeking allies abroad who share its traditional values. Putin is now unambiguously the head of the international “Faith, Family, Nation” coalition. Might we soon see from the Kremlin a new Comintern for the 21st century, based not on global revolution but, in fact, resisting it? It’s significant that some are now taking notice of the increasingly visible ties between Moscow and the far-right in Europe, which openly admires Putin for all the reasons Mukhin’s op-ed elaborated. Pat Buchanan may have more correct than he imagined.
In recent months, the counterterrorism scene in the United States has been riven by debates about what al-Qa’ida (AQ) actually constitutes today, over two-and-a-half years since the death of Osama bin Laden. This has been a politically charged matter as it’s gotten caught up in the lingering catfight about exactly what happened at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and why. This debate isn’t especially edifying, producing more partisan heat than analytical light, but I don’t expect it to go away either. Not to mention that defining the AQ threat accurately is necessary if we want to defeat it in detail and score more than tactical triumphs over the jihadists.
I consider it especially important that American CT experts listen to other voices from beyond the United States and the Anglosphere, so I’m passing on a recent interesting interview with a French CT expert, Yves Trotignon, in the Paris daily L’Opinion. Trotigon is a former CT analyst for DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, and he continues to study terrorism as an outside expert, and he has recently authored a study on the current status of AQ and global jihad for the French military. Trotignon’s viewpoint is encapsulated in the article’s title: “Osama bin Laden has won: the al-Qa’ida threat has never been more significant.” His comments are interesting and, to some, controversial, so I’m passing on the entire interview:
Q: Nearly three years after the death of Osama bin Ladin on 2 May 2011, there is still talk of al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Iraq, Syria, in the Sahel and elsewhere. Where is the terrorist organization?
A: The jihadist threat was never more significant in the past thirty years, that is to say, since this phenomenon first appeared! There is today a real Sunni insurgency, with active movements everywhere, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, but also in North Africa, the Sahel, Yemen, the Sinai, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and even in Southeast Asia. These are powerful movements, interrelated and armed. This threat has taken knocks, but it has adapted to crackdowns. In addition, the Arab uprisings [since 2011] have opened a period of instability, which benefits them.
Basically, Bin Ladin’s gamble has paid off: He hoped to start something global. This has happened, and now AQ dresses up the conflicts, although it does not necessarily organize them. Besides, from 2003, bin Ladin explained that he had wanted to start the fire and that from that point onward AQ would support and inspire other actions.
Q: Can we still speak of AQ as an organized structure, or is it more accurately a movement?
A: Both! There are movements that are direct manifestations of, or have been dubbed by AQ – frequently changing names to this effect, such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are to be found in North Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, in the Sinai, and now in Somalia, where the Al-Shabab organization joined AQ in 2012.
The situation is different in other regions, for example in Indonesia, Nigeria and the Caucasus. There, movements claim ideological kinship with AQ and act in the way they think that AQ would, by imitation, without AQ asking them to do anything. Therefore it is not an International body, as was the communist Comintern, with a central body exercising control with a short leash. Pakistan remains the main center of gravity, particularly at the intellectual and ideological level, but there are others, in North Africa, the Caucasus and Yemen. Everything is in a continuous state of flux, but everything is connected. It is a movement that reconstitutes itself continuously.
Q: How many of these radical jihadists are there?
A: There is no exact number and it’s probably impossible to know. Whom do we count, in effect? The hard core of people trained in terrorism, the fighters in insurgent movements, their supporters, their logistical support? In any case, they number in the tens of thousands …
Q: You say that the threat has never been as significant, but the West appears to have been secure since the major attacks in the early 2000′s, the 9/11, London and Madrid attacks?
A: Yes, we have overcome this by managing to make sanctuaries out of Western Europe and North America against new major attacks, even if there were – as there will be – many foiled attempts. This suppression was effective but it has not stemmed the threat. In particular, it has failed to stop recruitment. One only has to see the number of Europeans who have gone to fight in Syria. They will return and this is a great source of concern for intelligence services and the police.
In particular, the jihadist networks have adapted. One has to read the theoretical texts of al-Zawahiri, bin Ladin’s successor. He favors small, but very spectacular, operations by isolated individuals such as [Toulouse killer] Mohamed Merah, or the attack on the Boston Marathon.
The terrorists committed spectacular actions, such as the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi or at the hotels in Mumbai, where they were sure to reach Western expatriates. In that way they get more mileage than from attacking a barracks in Algeria or Nigeria. What they want is to dampen spirits: Terrorism exists only because we talk about it
Q: What do you think of the situation in Iraq, where AQ has captured cities; and in Syria, where it is confronting Islamist resistance groups?
A: It is a little early to tell because the dust of battle has not yet settled. What we do know is that this is the result of a complex set of alliances between the various international supporters – including from the Gulf – and the interests of various local actors, warlords or tribal leaders. In Syria, everyone says that al-Assad is gaining the upper hand over the rebellion. In Iraq, it remains to be seen if the army can regain control of the cities that have been lost. The two countries somewhat constitute the same theater, since their frontier is a figment of the imagination. Besides, AQ there is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or, as in the English acronym, ISIS.
Q: AQ is fighting the West but also the Shia. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, can you imagine a reversal of alliances between the West and the Shia – Iran to begin with – against Sunni terrorism?
A: Certainly, we are on the same side as the Shia in this case, but only in this case! I believe that it is difficult to have a position of general principle. We should act on a case-by-case basis, pragmatically, with cold calculation, depending on local and regional circumstances. We can also ask ourselves if AQ poses a mortal threat to the West. On balance, would not maintaining the Assad regime in power be at the expense of greater risk for French or British interests? The situation obviously is different in countries like Kenya, Algeria or Niger…
Q: How do you view the way things are developing in North Africa and the Sahel?
A: In the Sahel, France will be engaged for some years, that’s for sure! The big problem is Libya, which is now a failed state, from which the jihadists want to act in Tunisia, Egypt and the Sahel. We should avoid contagion. We often forget Algeria, where the situation has not stabilized. AQIM is still active in Kabylia and the predictable demise of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will usher in a period of uncertainty that terrorists could exploit.
Q: What fundamentally is AQ’s political aim?
A: It is very simplistic and their ideology is not thoroughly structured: Overthrowing states and establishing an Islamic caliphate, this is a fantasy. This is very hard-core Islamism, unlike that of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example … Depending on the situation, they either use Third World, or ethnic or pan-Islamist themes. In fact, what they are really interested in is the battle itself, not the project. They are much too radical to be able to govern and there are unbelievable gaps in their political planning.
Q: What can we do to fight them?
A: I have been wondering that for a long time now … It is essential to suppress them; on the other hand, it is difficult to counter them politically, because you cannot hold a dialog with them. Can we build something on the societel level to halt the recruitment … in 20 years? Certainly it is necessary, but it will not be enough, because AQ does not recruit only the unemployed; it also recruits from the middle classes. The most important point probably is this sense of cultural domination by the West, which AQ rejects. Therefore everything that stems from us is doomed to be ineffectual.
Lots to ponder there, folks, but I find myself in essential agreement with Trotigon’s point that AQ is fueled by a violent fantasy ideology, a toxic version of Salafi jihadism, that is ultimately fantasy-based and cannot actually achieve any of its political goals. Neither can it be reasoned or parleyed with. But it’s far from dead either, despite many setbacks. We ought to dispense with any wishful thinking that the fight against the AQ-inspired global jihad movement is anywhere near over.
As I noted this weekend, the Snowden Operation has entered a new phase and is approaching its end thanks to President Obama’s speech on NSA reforms, and also because the ties between Edward Snowden and Russian intelligence, which I’ve been mentioning for months – and getting vast grief for along the way – have become increasingly obvious and are now being commented on openly by senior American politicians.
Just what the Snowden Operation has done for Russian intelligence, especially the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB), which controls domestic security and most of Russia’s Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capability, has been laid out comprehensively in a recent piece in the Moscow daily Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, co-authored by Andrei Soldatov, perhaps Russia’s best journalist on intelligence matters. Soldatov, a frequent critic of the FSB and more broadly Putin’s “special services” (спецслужбы - a catch-all term for the Kremlin’s intelligence and security agencies), does a masterful job of explaining how Moscow has used the Snowden Operation effectively for its own purposes, foreign and domestic, so I am posting the article, entitled “Year in Review: The Special Services,” in translation in toto:
Thanks to Edward Snowden, the fugitive contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who found refuge in Russia, 2013 will be remembered for the revelations of the American special services’ cyber-surveillance of their own citizens as well as citizens of friendly European states and totally non-hostile Latin American states.
His information, which revealed the methods and scale of electronic interception, made everyone start thinking about the confidentiality of private life and how to avoid finding ourselves in a brave new world where nobody will be able to hide anything from the authorities.
For journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people, Snowden became a hero, eclipsing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But in Russia, unfortunately, Snowden’s revelations led mainly to negative consequences. They gave the Russian authorities carte blanche to regulate the Internet and provided a formal pretext for an onslaught on Internet giants like Google and Facebook.
Last summer, as soon as Snowden had published his first revelations about American surveillance on the Internet, an offensive against global platforms began in Russia, on the pretext of protecting our compatriots’ personal data. Initiatives designed to place Google, Facebook, and others totally under the oversight of the Russian special services are being put forward in the State Duma by Deputy Sergey Zheleznyak and in the Federation Council by Senator Ruslan Gattarov.
The aim is to make the Internet giants site their servers in Russian territory and store Russian users’ information only here. In that event all the information that we post on social networks or that is transmitted through global mail services, messengers, or video chat rooms will automatically become accessible to the Russian interception system, SORM (Operational and Investigative Measures System, i.e. domestic SIGINT). The FSB, the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), and six other special services have access to it.
The system for the interception of Internet traffic and mobile communications in our country is not overseen by anyone except the special services. Although formally in order to intercept citizens’ information a staffer of the special services must obtain a court permit, he is not obliged to show it to anyone except his superior officer. The system is organized technically in such a way that no telecommunications operator or Internet provider can know what information the special services are intercepting or in what quantity – it is all in the hands of the officer who sits at the control panel and himself enters the data of those who are to be monitored.
As Snowden made clear to the whole world, it was for precisely this kind of unsupervised access to communications that the NSA needed to create all the cunning programs like PRISM, and that is what the NSA is now having to justify. But in our country unsupervised access by the special services to traffic was provided for from the outset and this suits our special services completely.
Apart from that, Snowden strengthened Russia’s position in the struggle to regulate the “global” Internet. The point is that Russia does not like the historically established system whereby regulation of the Internet is mainly in the hands of American organizations like ICANN and others. At the end of 2012, Russia sought to change the status quo, attempting to change the rules through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and proposing that the possibility of censoring information on the Internet become global. The attempt failed despite the fact that it was supported by the majority of the countries of the world, but not by the United States or Europe, where, in fact, the main organizations are located.
However, thanks to Snowden’s information that NSA was intercepting traffic from citizens of other countries, Russia gained allies on this issue. For instance, the idea of placing global services under the control of the authorities is now supported in Germany. Such initiatives will not bring any benefit to users: in general, the creation of artificial borders will lead to the so-called Balkanization of the Internet, destroying the originally free structure of the exchange of information on the Internet and restricting the possibility of free access to information.
The past year or so took place under the black sign of the introduction of censorship in the “Runet” (Russian Internet): A blacklist of websites banned by Roskomnadzor (Federal Agency for Oversight in the Sphere of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media) began to operate in November 2012, and last year grew to a ridiculous scale. Apart from information about suicide, drugs, and child pornography, everything was successively blocked on Runet: perfectly decent websites that are the neighbors of banned sites on the same IP, the Yandex and YouTube services in certain regions, jokes on Twitter. Furthermore the machine is gathering speed: The drafters of new laws are threatening to add works of art to the blacklists, and the eve of the New Year saw the adoption of amendments put forward by Deputy Andrey Lugovoy – who is better known from the story of the poisoning of [FSB defector Colonel] Aleksandr Litvinenko in London – introducing extrajudicial blocking of websites for inciting extremism and unauthorized demonstrations.
The invasion of citizens’ private lives, which has been intensifying in recent years, provoked outrage among communications operators for the first time in many years. In November Vympelcom criticized the system of legal interception of telephone conversations and correspondence (SORM). The company sent a letter to the Ministry of Communications criticizing a draft order by the department imposing new requirements on the system for the inception of Internet traffic: According to these, the operator must store all users’ information for twelve hours.
The FSB’s growing appetites in the sphere of surveillance are nothing new, as is indicated by the twofold increase in the interception of telephone conversations and e-mail over the past six years: from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012. But for many years none of this caused a murmur in the industry. Therefore Vympelcom’s outrage that the draft order is contrary to the Constitution, which protects citizens’ right to confidentiality of correspondence, seems encouraging.
The point is that the offensive against the confidentiality of private life on the Internet has recently been proceeding so quickly that it has even frightened the business sector. Apart from the special services and the law enforcement agencies, new players have emerged in this field. In 2013 the Central Bank fined two major e-mail services – Rambler.ru and Mail.ru – for refusing to provide information about users’ correspondence without a court ruling. And recently the department drew up amendments to the law on insider dealing that would grant the Central Bank access to the telephone conversations and correspondence of potentially unscrupulous market players.
The proving ground where the state has decided to use all the surveillance technologies at its disposal is the approaching Olympic Games in Sochi. There, the authorities have put into practice a comprehensive approach, bringing together advanced technologies in the sphere of the interception of information and field surveillance as well as administrative oversight measures that were tried out back at the time of the 1980 Olympics.
As we have written previously in our investigation, in Sochi, SORM has been substantially strengthened and local providers have been busy buying equipment recommended by the FSB in order to meet the state’s requirements for monitoring everyone, including athletes and fans. Rostelecom has also installed DPI [deep packet inspection] equipment on mobile communications networks in the region, making it possible not only to monitor all traffic but also to filter it by searching for the required information by keywords. Moreover, DPI helps, if necessary, effectively to identify users.
But even this was not enough, and in November a government decree came out making provision for the collection of metadata from all types of communication used by athletes, journalists, and even members of the Organizing Committee themselves and for the creation of a database. This will include the names and surnames of subscribers and information about who called whom and when, all the information will be stored for three years, and the FSB will have access to it.
For the country’s main special service this year was generally very successful. Yet again, the FSB extended its powers. This time, the special service was given permission to conduct surveillance and monitoring for the purposes of protection against threats to information security. Given that in our country the concept of an information threat is interpreted very broadly and includes threats to the spiritual life of citizens and the spiritual revival of Russia, this greatly facilitates the procedure for the interception of citizens’ traffic. In 2013, the FSB became the country’s chief cyber department. In January, by presidential edict, it was instructed to create a system for discovering and eliminating the consequences of computer attacks on Russian information resources.
In this situation the shocking interception, including gunfire, of the Greenpeace activists’ ship is perfectly understandable. The FSB explained that it was acting, “in defense of the interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic region,” and for that purpose all means are good.
The FSB, to the president, is still the special service that cannot be criticized. Nobody from the top FSB leadership was punished for the terrorist acts in Volgograd on the eve of the New Year, which cost dozens of lives, just as there was not a single important resignation after the hostage-taking incident at the theater center on Dubrovka or the tragedy in Beslan. Even though a video by Pavel Pechenkin, who blew himself up at the station, in which he clearly declares his intention of doing something of the kind, was openly available on the Internet from March 2012, this could not prevent the terrorist act. The special services knew that he belonged to the ranks of the Dagestani “underground” and that he was planning to commit a terrorist act, but they could do nothing. On the eve of the Olympic Games in Sochi, this looks particularly worrying.
For over half a year now, the world has been astounded by waves of leaked revelations of National Security Agency electronic espionage, provided by the former NSA IT contractor Edward Snowden, who stole something like 1.7 million classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong. There’s never been anything quite like this in the annals of America’s – or really anybody’s – intelligence system. Snowden’s act and its global media reverberations have been one of a kind.
From nearly the outset, I have drawn attention to the obvious foreign intelligence connections to the Snowden case – and obvious they are to anyone familiar with counterintelligence, particularly Russian – and for some time I have termed this sorry spectacle the Snowden Operation, since we don’t know the covername actually given it by Russian intelligence. But, at its core, this is simply an updated version of the operational game played in the 1970s by Cuban and Soviet intelligence with the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), who authored, with KGB “help,” several books exposing U.S. intelligence operations, particularly in Latin America. While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.
The Snowden Operation has been really no more than the Agee show brought into the 21st century and the Internet age. Who needs whole books of leaks when there are websites and “journalists” happy to disseminate it all, usually with deeply flawed “analysis” to boot? Over the last seven months the world has become accustomed to regular leaks of NSA programs that, before last May, individually would have been jaw-dropping in many capitals. Now, well, it’s just Tuesday.
Additionally, the Snowden Operation has engendered not merely complications for U.S. foreign policy, but a blistering domestic debate to boot, just as its architects intended. There is now a considerable cadre of Americans, an odd alliance of leftist bitter-enders, libertarian Randians, and battalions of dudebros who thrive on snark and hating their parents, that is convinced that NSA is the source of all their problems. That this is demonstrably untrue has made little difference, and will not.
However, yesterday President Obama ended the political debate about the Snowden Operation with his much-anticipated speech about NSA and reform, based on the recommendations of his own panel. As my colleague Tom Nichols and I have long predicted, the reform package Obama has delivered is a stinging defeat for the NSA haters. Yes, it will be more difficult for NSA analysts to access metadata, but access it they will. Yes, NSA collection against top foreign leaders will be restricted, somewhat, but Agency support to U.S. and Allied diplomacy will continue. The bottom line is that President Obama’s reforms contain no significant changes to how NSA does business as the leading foreign intelligence agency in the United States and the free world.
These reforms go some distance to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens better, which I’ve wanted for a long time anyway, but even the changes to metadata holdings have been kicked by Obama to Congress for resolution, which will be difficult, since telecom companies understandably have little interest in involving themselves further in what’s become a touchy mess. In all, Obama – many of whose national security policies of late I’ve been critical of – performed masterfully yesterday, delivering a near pitch-perfect speech and resetting the agenda on intelligence matters.
Predictably, the NSA haters have gone bonkers. Somehow, in a fest of self-delusion that must rival anything done by the Reverend Jim Jones to his ill-fated followers, many convinced themselves that Obama might shut down NSA and have its leaders frog-walked into Federal custody, if not simply shot without trial. Alas, nothing of the sort was ever going to happen. In part because no White House will ever shut down its top source of foreign intelligence, or can afford to. But mostly because the hysterical charges we’ve seen thrown at NSA – that it violates the privacy of “hundreds of millions,” many American – for months were essentially false.
Haters will hate, as is their wont, and I’ve frankly enjoyed the bouts of online hysteria from Snowden fanboys since yesterday, involving a gnashing of teeth of epic proportions (for a so-perfect-it-cannot-be-parodied combination of ignorance and sanctimony, Conor Friedersdorf is impossible to top). But the game’s over, Obama just blew the whistle.
There’s much work to be done, naturally, and Congress will spend the rest of 2014 hashing out just what the President’s reforms should actually look like in application (expect a long, needlessly drawn out catfight on The Hill, like everything there), but the White House has shut the door on the ridiculous, overheated spectacle that the Snowden Operation dumped on our Intelligence Community.
None have any expectation that the leaks will stop, given the unimaginably huge amount of Top Secret documents from NSA and Allied agencies that Snowden stole, but the humdrum effect has already set in. The world has become accustomed to such a regular barrage of revelations about NSA that, unless the Iranians are correct that aliens really are running things at Fort Meade (they’re not, I checked), few of these will be front page stories any longer.
The Snowden Operation has guaranteed that NSA has become a global stand-in for unmitigated evil for certain people, a Keyser Söze who reads your email, and there’s not much that Washington, DC, and its friends can do about that. But the real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance. As of yesterday, we know that will not happen. Henceforth, you’ll occasionally encounter people who are obsessed with “NSA” and think the Agency reads their texts of cat pictures, but these are the same sort of people who, in a previous age, were obsessed with Knights Templar, Jews, and Masons, and can be ignored when adults are talking.
I say “NSA” because the global meme fostered online by the Snowden Operation bears so little resemblance to what the Agency actually is and does. Planet Greenwald has done a weirdly masterful job of placing “NSA” in the same category as “UFOs”, “Kennedy Assassination,” “Bigfoot,” and “Area 51″: there actually is something deep down there that might possibly be true, but it’s so buried under hyperbole and fantasy as to be unfathomable as any reality.
I say this with regret, as someone who was calling for reforms of the Intelligence Community, especially NSA, before anybody heard of Edward Snowden. Real reform is impossible now, for at least a generation, because the Snowden Operation has so soiled the cause of real IC reform with treachery, narcissism, crankery, and Putin’s Russia. I worry that today’s modest reforms may not be able to keep up with rapid changes in IT. Privacy concerns about NSA are entirely valid, and had the Snowden Operation confined its leaks to issues of purely domestic surveillance, that healthy and necessary debate about post-9/11 intelligence might have happened, at last. But Ed went to Russia, where he remains. The real drivers of the Snowden Operation never sought a domestic debate about NSA, that was never their agenda, so here we are. Winston Churchill famously termed the Allied victory at El Alamein in late 1942 as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now we’re a bit further along than that in the Snowden Operation.
Discussions of NSA and especially “NSA” will be prominent online and in the real world for years to come. The Agency has lost its cover, for better or worse. As I’ve said before, I hope the Agency uses this opportunity to rebrand itself in a spirit of openness to the American people about its essential mission, which the public has a right to know more about. Regardless, the Agency will survive and its personnel – military, civilian, and contractor – will keep protecting our country and our allies. Before long people will be asking, “What ever happened to that ‘strange guy‘ who defected to Russia?” Once the Snowden Operation kicked off – when exactly that was remains an open question of high interest to counterintelligence investigators in dozens of countries – there was never going to be any other outcome.
Thanks to The New York Times recently giving us a re-treatment of the background to the 11 September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four brave Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, this messy, unresolved tragedy is back in the news.
This is a murky story, as I’ve explained more than once, made so by the challenging relationship between the Department of State and U.S. intelligence on the ground in Benghazi, worsened by the intensely partisan nature of the debate that has surrounded this issue from the beginning. I blame both sides for this politicized mess, which is regrettable on many fronts, since it’s important to ascertain what actually happened that terrible night, and why. NYT has hardly helped clarity by essentially going to bat for Hillary Clinton here, well after the fact, and making a not very convincing case that Al-Qa’ida (AQ) was uninvolved in the attack on CONGEN Benghazi. Rather, according to NYT, this was the work of local extremists who got fired up by that infamous anti-Islam video. I won’t even get into the questionable professional ethics of sending the same reporter to bolster his original controversial account of Benghazi.
In a sense, this is a false debate, since it gets into important yet somewhat obscure definitional questions of what “AQ” really means today. This is a worthwhile query, however, and big-picture, I can’t improve on what Clint Watts has already said on this knotty matter. Additionally, if you’re looking for an informed counterpoint to NYT’s flimsy “no-AQ-in-Benghazi” position, look no further than Tom Jocelyn here.
What’s interesting about the NYT’s position, which seems generally shared by many who adhere to the White House line on the Benghazi debacle, is that it’s already been refuted by many others, including some who cannot be construed as FoxNews representatives. Back in October, the United Nations added to the Security Council’s AQ Sanctions List one Muhammad Jamal Abd-Al Rahim Al-Kashif, a longtime Egyptian terrorist and rather senior AQ affiliate. His violent Islamist gang is termed the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN) and has deep roots in Egypt but also in Yemen, and has strong links with AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) too. The UN’s explanation of al-Kashif’s involvement in Benghazi is rather clear-cut:
Some of the attackers of the U.S. Mission in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 have been identified as associates of Muhammad Jamal, and some of the Benghazi attackers reportedly trained at MJN camps in Libya.
Al-Kashif is no stranger to seasoned AQ watchers – as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community - as he’s been involved in the global jihad since he went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, during AQ’s foundational period, and he’s been a problem for Cairo for decades as a key member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Most recently, al-Kashif, known as Abu Ahmad in the jihadist underworld, was arrested by Egyptian authorities in November 2012 due to his connections to the Nasr City terrorist group.
His Yemeni ties have been deemed important, however, not least because he has a Yemeni wife and spent several years in that troubled country, helping build AQAP, among other jihad-related nefarious activities. That al-Kashif played a key role behind the Benghazi attack seems evident to many experts, and the belief that his part was critical has been bolstered by a new report on the Yemeni news site Al-Omanaa, which is based on information from unnamed senior security officials in that country.
Entitled, “The killer of the U.S. Ambassador in Libya was living in Yemen,” the article claims that U.S. and Egyptian security services have recently asked Yemeni counterparts for information on al-Kashif, whom Washington, DC has accused of “being behind the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on 11 September 2012 in Benghazi.” Additionally, Al-Omanaa says that U.S. intelligence (i.e. NSA) intercepted a phone call between al-Kashif and AQ boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, implying that the call may have discussed the Benghazi attack.
As of now, this is just one report, and the reliability of Middle Eastern media must be assessed as questionable until proved otherwise. That said, if U.S. officials have asked for information about al-Kashif, a longtime AQ associate, on grounds that he was behind the Benghazi raid, that tells us something significant. This is not the first time Arab media has mentioned al-Kashif as one of the ringleaders behind the Benghazi attack – not long after the attack Egyptian media reported that the FBI actually tracked his movements relating to Benghazi, all the way to Cairo after the atrocity – but given the NYT’s recent report, this matter has taken on added significance.
As I concur with Blake Hounshell that we’ll be discussing the Benghazi story for years to come, I’ll file this under “developing” for now and see what emerges … watch this space.
One of the highest-priority issues at present among European intelligence and security agencies is how many young men from Europe have gone to Syria to wage jihad against the Assad regime. As this blog has expressed more than once, it’s correct for European spooks to be worried, since the large number of foreign fighters in Syria – the greatest jihadist surge in the history of Al-Qa’ida (AQ) – is an ominous portent, making Syria’s fratricide something of a jihadist Super Bowl.
Although some of the volunteers will achieve the martyrdom they pine for, most will not, and thousands of young men someday not far off will return to Europe, with improved combat skills, ready to unleash jihad at home. Some of the volunteers are maladjusted immigrants, some are malevolent converts, all seem to be young, motivated, and angry. Given the enduring security problems that resulted from previous jihadist magnets like Bosnia, whose 1992-95 civil war helped birth AQ as a global terrorist movement, European security experts have every reason to fret over mayhem emanating from Syria’s seemingly endless conflict.
Just how many Europeans have gone to Syria to wage jihad is a difficult question to answer with any precision, despite the fact that quite a few of the volunteers enjoy posting their exploits on Facebook, because it’s a politically touchy subject that not too many security officials speak about openly.
Germany is one of the European countries most worried about its nationals in Syria, not least because numbers are rising fast. Recently, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV, German’s mouthful domestic intelligence agency, admitted that, according to his agency, which tracks the problem closely, sixty more German passport holders had gone to Syria since June, for a total of 240 Germans that the BfV believes have left home to wage jihad against Assad. Maassen said that BfV analysts believe that deaths among Germans fighting in Syria have risen too, with the number killed now in “the low two digits.” He also previewed the BfV’s forthcoming unclassified wrap-up report on extremism in Germany for 2013 by adding that it’s “worrying” that Salafis, whom he described as ”the fastest growing Islamist grouping in Germany,” have increased their numbers by a thousand over the last twelve months, for a total of 5,500 Salafis in the country.
If that weren’t worrying enough, a new report out of Belgium on Europeans fighting in Syria paints an even more dire picture. The report entitled “Syrian Networks: Risk Exacerbated,” in today’s La Libre Belgique (which, let is be noted, is a respected center-right Walloon daily, not a supermarket tabloid), includes several jaw-droppers. Citing an apparently classified counterterrorism assessment by the Belgian security service, it includes several assertions, including that approximately 200 Belgians are or have been combatants in Syria, of which at least 20 have been killed in action. Faced with these numbers, Belgian intelligence and police are “overwhelmed” trying to track the problem.
Moreover, at least twenty Chechens who have Belgian residence and/or citizenship have gone to wage jihad in Syria, and some have moved on to commit acts of terrorism in Iraq. Of greatest concern, La Libre Belgique states, “According to a Belgian security source, at this time, ‘Al-Qa’ida has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country’.”
The figure of 4,000 to 5,000 EU passport holders fighting in Syria is a shocking one and quite a bit higher than anything previously seen in the European media. However, I’m not ready to discount it out of hand, as I’ve worked with Belgian intelligence on counterterrorism matters in the past, and I’ve found them to be professionals who have a good understanding of the serious threats they’re dealing with. Additionally, the figures I’ve been given on European jihadists fighting in Syria by intelligence officers and counterterrorism experts – not always what they tell the media, mind you – is not much out of the range cited today by La Libre Belgique.
Time will tell; it always does. It’s certainly possible that Europe is facing a bigger extremist and terrorist threat, thanks to the Syrian jihad, than we’ve previously been told publicly. I’ll be staying on top of this and sharing my findings on this important issue as more information becomes available, so watch this space …