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POTUS and the Latte Thing

I occasionally wade into U.S. domestic politics, usually to castigate excessive partisanship, often of a rigidly ideological cast, which I think is making Americans stupid. Customarily I get a lot of “but the other guys are the stupid ones” kind of reaction, which perhaps makes my point.

This week President Obama created a firestorm by saluting his Marine guards as he was stepping off Marine One – while holding a cup of coffee. The ensuing LatteGate has led to a very predictable two-phase reaction:

1. The Right castigates Obama for yet another example of how he supposedly despises the U.S. military.

2. In response, the Left states that Obama has suffered injustice like no president in U.S. history.

I think both responses are quite wide of the mark, but what’s more important here is we have yet another example of how deceptive partisanship is ruining political discourse in our country.

Let me state up-front that the President returning the salute that’s rendered by his military retinue is anything but a venerable tradition, in fact it dates to Ronald Reagan. No president before that — not even Eisenhower, who had five stars and more military service than any President before or since — felt it necessary to salute back. But now that salute, like the President always having an American flag lapel pin on his blazer, is one of those things that Must Be Done, lest accusations of insufficient patriotism start flying. Personally, I think it’s silly, more proof of the Imperial Presidency that I find un-American.

But if the President wants to salute back, he can: that’s his call. Asking him to do it properly, while not holding something in his right hand, is not an excessive demand, but, hey, everybody screws up once in a while. Yet when you’re POTUS the camera is on you every public moment, that’s just reality in 2014. It’s time to let this slide, Obama goofed. Let’s just ask him to get it right in the future, if he wishes to keep saluting people in uniform.

Of course, the Right could not let this outrage stand, so we’ve had several days of Official Poutrage from FoxNews and the Usual Suspects about how Obama really despises the military, and here’s more proof. Let it be said that I’m sure most Americans who’ve served in uniform winced a tad when they saw the President’s latte salute, but I feel safe in stating that not a single voter changed his or her mind about Obama on the basis of that gaffe. Minds were made up long ago, this was just more grist to certain ideological mills.

Obama has not always been his best ally on military matters, as since 2008 we’ve witnessed a few  gaffes indicating that the President isn’t overly familiar with our armed forces (my favorite was the “corpse-man” misspeak). It’s anything but surprising that Obama, who like virtually all members of the country’s educated elite today has never served in uniform, isn’t well acquainted with military protocol. After all he’s a product of elite liberal education (Punahou, Columbia, Harvard Law), and espouses the usual views of that smart set, so it’s not shocking that he knew basically nothing — and literally nothing first-hand — about the U.S. military before he became Commander-in-Chief.

That said, I see no evidence that Obama possesses any anti-military bias. He has spoken movingly as he’s bestowed the Medal of Honor several times in a manner that cannot be viewed as anything other than respectful of our fighting men and women. I don’t see much deep interest in military matters in this White House, but indifference is not the same thing as hostility.

The harsh truth is that Democrats are judged differently on military affairs because, well, they’re Democrats. Since the early 1970’s, the Right has assumed that all Democrats are anti-military, even though most of them clearly are not. Thus it was easy to paint George McGovern, a highly decorated WWII bomber pilot with a far more distinguished war record than Richard Nixon (a Navy supply corps officer in the Pacific who never was in combat), as some sort of anti-Pentagon peacenik, which he was not.

There is an element on the Right that lies in wait for “proof” of a Democrat’s anti-military bias. And Obama walked right into their sights this week. It was the same with Bill Clinton, who was assumed to be anti-military by many Americans (relatedly, I encourage anyone who thinks the Right has it uniquely in for Obama to Google “Clinton” and “Lewinsky”), and we can expect this to continue until we have a major party shift, which has happened before in this country (Google “Solid South,” for those curious).

This isn’t fair, but then life isn’t fair, as JFK sagely reminded us. And before the Left starts to feel too good about itself, it needs to be said that they have an exact analogy to the military issue, and that’s race. Just as Democrats are assumed by the Right to be anti-military, without any evidence of that, the Left assumes Republicans are racist, barring proof that they’re not.

Of course, there are Republicans who are racists, just as there are Democrats who despise the military, but both those breeds are exceptions in their tribe. And arguing that most Republicans are “really” racists, even if they don’t know it, seems depressingly like maintaining that most Democrats are “really” anti-military, even though there’s no hard evidence that’s true. Again, indifference should not taken for hostility, yet it often is for partisan purposes.

Life’s not fair, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can make a crass joke about Asians and get away with just an apology, while any Republican who did that would be run out of public life. Similarly, I have quite a few friends on the Left who remain convinced that George W. Bush was an incorrigible racist, even though I can find no evidence of that. On the contrary, Bush appointed our country’s first African American secretary of state, and his closest advisor on foreign affairs was his buddy whom he appointed our country’s first African American and female national security advisor, later making her the first African American and female secretary of state (that I think Condoleezza Rice was less than mediocre in those jobs is immaterial). Not to mention his unprecedented support for aid programs for Africa, which would seem to argue that Bush actually cared about black people, impressing even “Saint Bob” Geldof. Yet Bush made quite a few gaffes that were taken to be about race (Google “Hurricane Katrina” for starters), and for some people that was enough to prove his innate racism, which I could never detect.

It would be nice if Americans stopped assuming by default that Democrats hate the military and Republicans hate non-whites, but I’m not an optimist there, since we have lots of venues that make money off propagating these toxic myths. Of course, I find this deeply unhealthy in a democracy, so maybe this is something we can all work on together.

Let’s admit first that neither you nor I know what’s going on in other people’s heads. Maybe Barack Obama really does hate the military. Maybe George W. Bush really does hate black people. But until we can prove that, let’s just assume that they don’t. That would make the Republic a nicer and more functional place.


What If Everything You Know About Terrorism Is Wrong?

One of the points I consistently try to get across in my writings and talks is that international terrorism is a good deal more complicated than most portrayals of it would have you believe. In many movies — and official presentations too, since governments often leave interesting details out of what they tell the public — there’s a shadowy group of bad guys bent on blowing something up, and it’s up to the good guys (cops and/or spooks) to stop them before they kill. Sometimes the case really is as simple as the Official Narrative portrays it, but often it’s not.

A couple days ago I explained how a terrorist group in Turkey called Tawhid-Salam, which is behind several attacks and assassinations in recent years, is really a wholly owned subsidiary of Iranian intelligence. It serves as a cut-out for the notorious Pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is recognized by the U.S. Government as a terrorist group. What makes this particularly troubling is that Tawhid-Salam has evaded close scrutiny for years because top Turkish officials are in bed with Tehran.

My piece was met with a certain degree of incredulity. Would revolutionary Shia Iran really support Sunni terrorists? Yes, Tehran certainly would — and does. The Pasdaran has been backing Sunni jihadists, including Al-Qa’ida (AQ), since at least the beginning of the 1990’s, as my writings on Bosnia, which are based on reliable intelligence, have demonstrated. Certainly there has been a detectable relationship between Tehran and “AQ Central” since 1996 at least, a fact which is well known to intelligence services worldwide.

Yet most journalists and a distressing number of “terrorism experts” ignore such matters. One happy by-product of the current American-led war on the Islamic State is that some people are now more willing to state that Iran does in fact possess ties to various terrorist groups, among them AQ and the Islamic State. Yet it’s still a struggle to get many people to see what’s obvious here.

Part of this willful disbelief is due to simple ignorance. Most “terrorism experts,” and virtually all of them possessing academic credentials, have exactly zero personal interaction with operational counterterrorism; therefore they are ignorant of the fact that many intelligence services — and all of them in the Middle East — play a wide range of operational games with terrorist groups, AQ very much included, encompassing everything from placing agents inside terror cells to actually creating terrorist fronts like Tawhid-Salam.

Yet much of their ignorance is intentional, since there is ample open-source information demonstrating that the actual backstory of many terrorist groups is murky and messy. The Official Narrative peddled by virtually every talking head on television or mainstream op-ed writer omits important details, particularly the clandestine interaction of states with terrorists. There is no “it’s complicated” button in counterterrorism studies, but there ought to be.

This dirty complexity deters most “terrorism experts,” since it quickly leads to awkward questions about what’s really going on behind news reports of bombings and murders. Academics especially like things to be simple and preferably numeric. Here the dominance of social scientists in terrorism studies has played a pernicious role, since they want clean numbers upon which to work their statistical magic. Big Data is all the rage among academics working in counterterrorism, yet it seems to never occur to what I term the Credulous Number-Crunching Brigade that their data may be junk.

I’ve taken Brigade members to task over this, but the plain truth is that most academics simply ignore things that may contradict their assumptions about the reality of international terrorism. I’m not talking about professors who play fast and loose with numbers — academia is as prone to fantasy fads as anywhere — but those who simply avert eyes when discussion of real-world provocation and what I’ve called Fake Terrorism comes up. They don’t want to know.

This is particularly troubling because many of these “terrorism experts” are taken seriously by governments and are treated like rock stars in the Pentagon and other halls of power, even when their work is deeply flawed by its omission of fundamental realities. This aversion to complex questions that may have messy answers does not serve the cause of defeating terrorism.

As a result, critical questions about which governments are secretly collaborating with AQ and Salafi jihadists, and to what degree, tend to never even get asked, much less answered. To even bring them up is to invite ridicule, amid whispers of “conspiracy theories.” This leads to a strange, faculty-lounge-friendly universe of imagination that bears little resemblance to what the problem of international terrorism actually is.

A classic example of this came a few years back when I was sitting through a presentation on Salafi jihadism by a noted expert, someone who has appeared regularly in the media. Let me state that he’s a smart guy who has crunched a great many numbers and much of his presentation was interesting and relevant. The jaw-dropper arrived when he put up a slide — counterterrorism is as fueled by PowerPoint as everything else that touches the Department of Defense or the Intelligence Community — showing 1995 as the year with the greatest number of AQ terrorist attacks on the West.

In a very technical sense, this was a true statement, since that year did indeed witness an unusually large number of attacks by AQ-linked terrorists in Europe; several bombings in Paris by Algerians of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) bolstered the numbers. However, the real story of the 1995 Paris bombings is one of the murkiest of all terrorism sagas in recent memory.

The Official Narrative is straightforward enough: GIA was using France, which has a large Algerian diaspora, as a major base for fund-raising and recruitment for their jihad against the Algerian regime, and a cell of operatives led by one Ali Touchent went off the rails and conducted seven bombings between late July and mid-October 1995, most famously attacking the Paris Metro, which altogether killed eight and wounded 157 civilians.

Paris was in panic mode after the bombings, and the terror cell was mostly rounded up by French authorities, being sentenced to long prison terms, save two members, one of whom went out in a blaze of glory. The other terrorist who evaded capture was Ali Touchent, the ringleader, who escaped the dragnet via GIA ratlines and apparently returned to Algeria. What became of this mystery man is difficult to answer with certainty — Algiers proclaimed his death more than once — but there is no doubt that Algerian intelligence, the military’s feared Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), missed several chances to arrest Touchent, which may have something to do with the fact that the terror mastermind turned out to have close family connections to the DRS.

Hence there is a real question of who actually bombed Paris in 1995. Senior Algerian officials have admitted personal knowledge that Touchent was really a DRS agent provocateur, while top French intelligence officials have stated the same — and that Paris knew at the time that Algiers was actually behind the terror wave. The DRS manipulated GIA terrorists to conduct a series of bombings in France, an operation led by Ali Touchent, known as Tarek in the jihadist underworld, and this is something that jihadists close to the bombings likewise figured out.

Why the Algerian junta would bomb Paris via jihadist cut-outs is debatable, although DRS officials have stated that Algiers was feeling diplomatic pressure from France to take part in negotiations to end the country’s ugly civil war, which was entering its bloodiest phase. Paris was aware of the extent to which its Algerian partner was employing mass violence to defeat the Islamists and was troubled by the bloodshed. But the powerful DRS, which serves as the backbone of the military regime in Algiers to this day, was in no mood to negotiate with terrorists and wanted Paris to back off. The bombings achieved this, and French intelligence officials got the message and dropped talk of a negotiated settlement of Algeria’s civil war, which the regime effectively won in the latter half of the 1990’s by crushing GIA.

In contrast, there is ample evidence that the DRS deeply manipulated GIA from the outset, employing a strategy of penetration and provocation that Algerian spies learned from KGB instructors, the Russians having invented and perfected this dark art. This approach, while morally repugnant, proved highly effective at defeating the jihadists. By encouraging GIA to employ repulsive methods, above all embracing a violent takfiri tendency that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerian civilians, the junta drove the jihadist movement into the ground and undermined the Islamist message.

GIA’s takfiri tactics, which included massacres of civilians by the hundreds, became so noxious that AQ broke ties with the group in 1997. Abu Musab al-Suri, perhaps the wisest strategist that the Salafi jihad movement has produced, worked closely with GIA and he realized that they had been deeply penetrated by Algerian intelligence, which was manipulating the group to murder innocents.

I have written about how the DRS defeated GIA with these ugly yet effective clandestine methods, making statements that are uncontroversial to most Algerians, who are well aware of how their country functions, only to meet skepticism from Western “terrorism experts,” who seem content to ignore mountains of evidence about what was really going on behind the scenes in Algeria’s civil war. Most academics will not acknowledge what Al-Qa’ida figured out about GIA almost twenty years ago.

At times, I have been tempted to conclude that fictional depictions of terrorism are sometimes more accurate than scholarly treatments of the problem. Yet, even then, many “experts” seem to miss the obvious. After 9/11, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent enjoyed a brief fad as a “must-read” for insights into terrorism and the murderer’s mindset. No less than geo-strategy guru Robert Kaplan praised its “surgical insight into the mechanics of terrorism.” Conrad’s book can plausibly claim to be the first novel about terrorism (and one of the first spy novels), and I heartily endorse it.

However, those who encouraged everyone to pick up The Secret Agent to understand terrorism completely missed the point, as Conrad’s book is not about terrorism but fake terrorism. It’s unintentionally revealing that Western “terrorism experts” have plugged a novel that actually details how Russian intelligence used agents provocateurs masquerading as terrorists to discredit real terrorists over a century ago (which, in fact, the Tsar’s agents did frequently). Conrad, a Pole born Józef Korzeniowski in what is today Ukraine, was well acquainted with Russian secret methods, including what they call provokatsiya, his father having been imprisoned by the Tsar’s secret police for his Polish nationalist activism.

Really understanding terrorism is of more than academic interest as the West confronts a long-term war against Salafi jihadism. Obama came into office in no small part due to hopes from many Americans that the Bush-era Global War on Terrorism could be ended. But the enemy invariably gets a vote, and the rise of the Islamic State means that we face a protracted struggle against Salafi jihadism on many fronts. Even if Western governments, above all America’s, were to immediately embrace the unconventional strategy which I have proposed to defeat the enemy (see here and here), lasting victory over the jihadists is decades, not years off.

But a necessary first step is acknowledging that international terrorism is a good deal more complex than talking heads would have you believe. “Terrorism experts” in the academy and think-tankdom are hardly unique in their myopia — as I’ve noted, quite a few bookish “experts” in other fields basically have no idea what they’re talking about — but their unwillingness to dig deeply into the influence of states and intelligence services on terrorist groups means that the public is being misinformed and governments are getting bad advice. We no longer have the luxury of averting eyes, as the Salafi jihadist threat to the West is real and rising.

The appearance of the Islamic State as a major force in Iraq and Syria, with threats of terrorist attacks on the West, has concentrated minds again to a degree. But unwillingness to ask difficult questions persists in many quarters. Despite the fact that we have more than circumstantial evidence that the Islamic State is being manipulated by Syrian intelligence, and Iran’s too, these notions are dismissed out of hand by too many Westerners who study terrorism. Yet if we want to defeat the Islamic State, it would be wise to actually understand it. That Washington, DC, continues its bipartisan blocking of release of the full 9/11 Commission Report, which includes troubling details of Saudi misconduct regarding Al-Qa’ida, is not an encouraging sign.

This week we have yet another appalling beheading by terrorists linked to the Islamic State, this time the victim was a French tourist in Algeria. Given that the Islamic State has been cast out of the Al-Qa’ida family for its takfiri ways, including mass murdering of civilians — just as GIA was in 1997 — any serious analyst should be asking questions about what is really going on here, particularly given Algeria’s murky counterterrorism track record. Don’t let the Credulous Number-Crunching Brigade win, the stakes are too high.

Erdoğan’s Turkey and Iranian Intelligence

Western concerns have mounted in recent years as Turkey, once a NATO stalwart, has drifted into an increasingly Islamist orientation, in both foreign and domestic policy, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been prime minister since 2003 and was just elected Turkey’s president. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become increasingly repressive at home, with scores of jailed journalists and other secularists, many of them top military officers, who have run afoul of the AKP and its Islamist policies. Yet whatever misgivings exist about Ankara’s atmosphere of domestic repression, it’s Erdoğan’s worrying tendencies in foreign policy — a deliberate strategic turn away from the West combined with obvious affection for revolutionary Iran — that have led to serious concerns in NATO and beyond.

The transformation of Turkey, a frontline state which possesses the second-largest army in the Atlantic Alliance, into something like a frenemy on a good day, from any Western viewpoint, has led to awkward questions about what’s really going on in Ankara. These have been asked for years, with whispers mounting about covert Iranian influence at the highest levels of politics and security in Turkey, but it’s been easy to dismiss much of this as evidence-free conspiracy-mongering of the sort beloved by Turks of all political colorations. Yet there is now convincing proof that Tehran indeed has a disturbing degree of secret influence in Turkey’s ruling circles.

There’s no small irony in this, as Erdoğan’s governance has feasted upon allegations of a Turkish “deep state,” a shadowy cabal of secularists termed Ergenekon that the AKP claims have been pulling the secret strings in Ankara for decades. Belief in this “deep state” has provided the AKP with the excuse to jail and otherwise harass hundreds of political foes who deeply oppose the country’s Islamist turn under Erdoğan. Yet it turns out that Turkey’s real “secret team” is the AKP’s own, which serves the party’s religiously-based agenda and is tightly connected to Iranian intelligence.

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

For years, Turkish investigators who have tried to determine who stands behind Tawhid-Salam haven’t gotten very far, meeting obstruction at every turn, reportedly from the highest levels in Ankara, leading to suspicions that Erdoğan and the AKP have something to hide. In recent months, however, the terror group’s covert mask has begun to fall, thanks to mounting evidence that Iran indeed is pulling the strings behind Tawhid-Salam, which plays a key role in the Quds Force’s global terror campaign against Israel and Western interests.

Similarly, Tawhid-Salam operatives have been observed surveilling an important NATO radar base in Turkey, a sensitive site that monitors possible Iranian missile launches, while other members of the group were witnessed conducting surveillance on the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, apparently in preparation for a possible terrorist attack. The group’s interest in nuclear research materials, discovered during a raid on a Tawhid-Salam safehouse, caused notable alarm in certain circles. Yet, despite the fact that Turkish counterintelligence has repeatedly witnessed Tawhid-Salam members meeting with known Qods Force operatives, nothing was ever done to crack down on the group.

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency. As an NSA document stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden explained: “U.S. intelligence reporting in recent years indicates possible Iranian connections with Dr. Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT/SIB. The possible impact of these connections to the US SIGINT relationship is unknown at this time.”

With Hakan providing top-cover, it’s no surprise that Turkish investigations into Tawhid-Salam never get very far. Other top figures assessed as being part of the conspiracy include Interior Minister Efkan Ala and ruling AKP spokesperson Beşir Atalay. Officials who possess hard evidence of ties between the group and Tehran’s spies — including video and audio surveillance in abundance, as well as the testimony of Tawhid-Salam members who have defected to the police — have found themselves thwarted, harassed, and even jailed by the AKP. In a typical case, Ali Fuat Yılmazer, former head of the Istanbul police’s intelligence unit, conducted an extensive investigation that revealed Tawhid-Salam had penetrated the Turkish government and the AKP at the highest levels, and was a tool of the Pasdaran. For this, he was thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. 

Surveillance video still showing a meeting in İstanbul between a Tawhid-Salam member and Naser Ghafari, the top representative of the Quds Force in Turkey.

Surveillance video still showing a meeting in İstanbul between a Tawhid-Salam member and Naser Ghafari, the top representative of the Quds Force in Turkey.

Members of the opposition have publicly stated that the AKP is directly linked to Tawhid-Salam and Erdoğan’s cadres are covering for the group — and for its Iranian masters — by stopping investigations, arresting those who speak out, and spreading disinformation while allowing known Iranian intelligence agents to escape Turkish dragnets. Of the 251 suspects named in the thwarted official investigation into Tawhid-Salam, twenty-eight were Iranians, all of them suspected Qods Force operatives; none were called to testify and the AKP did its best to prevent press coverage of the matter. For his part, Erdoğan has dismissed the entire issue, terming Tawhid-Salam “fake” and “imaginary.”

To say that Ankara seems to be working at cross-purposes in the matter of Tawhid-Salam is too kind. A special prosecutor’s investigation of the group, which lasted three years, recently wrapped up with no findings. Prosecutors did not call a single relevant witness to testify, although many suspected Pasdaran/Tawhid Salam operatives have been identified in Turkey, while AKP higher-ups took over the investigation, ensuring it would go nowhere, instead turning it around as a vehicle to harass the AKP’s enemies who ask questions about the party’s linkages to Tehran. None of the 103 suspects believed to be directly involved in terrorism, including known Qods Force members, who were identified by police inquiries into Tawhid-Salam, were called to share their information with prosecutors.

While Turks who object to the country’s Islamist turn are outraged by the failure of this investigation to unravel the “mystery” of Tawhid-Salam — which appears to be hiding in plain sight — it’s difficult to express surprise, since Erdoğan and the AKP are following their usual playbook of lies, harassment and obfuscation to prevent important questions about the party being answered in any detail. It would therefore be wise to expect that the Pasdaran will continue to exercise its malign influence over Erdoğan and the AKP as long as they remain in power in Ankara. To observe that the secret alliance between the leaders of Turkey, a critical country for both Europe and the Middle East, and the most dangerous men in Iran, presents a challenge for NATO and the West is a considerable understatement.

Fixing Pentagon Intelligence

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), that vast agglomeration of seventeen different hush-hush agencies, is an espionage behemoth without peer anywhere on earth in terms of budget and capabilities. Fully eight of those spy agencies, plus the lion’s share of the IC’s budget, belong to the Department of Defense (DoD), making the Pentagon’s intelligence arm something special. It includes the intelligence agencies of all the armed services, but the jewel in the crown is the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s “big ears,” with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which produces amazing imagery, following close behind.

None can question the technical capabilities of DoD intelligence, but do the Pentagon’s spies actually know what they are talking about? This is an important, and too infrequently asked, question. Yet it was more or less asked this week, in a public forum, by a top military intelligence leader. The venue was an annual Washington, DC, intelligence conference that hosts IC higher-ups while defense contractors attempt a feeding frenzy, and the speaker was Rear Admiral Paul Becker, who serves as the Director of Intelligence (J2) on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). A career Navy intelligence officer, Becker’s job is keeping the Pentagon’s military bosses in the know on hot-button issues: it’s a firehose-drinking position, made bureaucratically complicated because JCS intelligence support comes from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is an all-source shop that has never been a top-tier IC agency, and which happens to have some serious leadership churn at present.

Admiral Becker’s comments on the state of DoD intelligence, which were rather direct, merit attention. Not surprisingly for a Navy guy, he focused on China. He correctly noted that we have no trouble collecting the “dots” of (alleged) 9/11 infamy, but can the Pentagon’s big battalions of intel folks actually derive the necessary knowledge from all those tasty SIGINT, HUMINT, and IMINT morsels? Becker observed — accurately — that DoD intelligence possesses a  “data glut but an information deficit” about China, adding that “We need to understand their strategy better.” In addition, he rued the absence of top-notch intelligence analysts of the sort the IC used to possess, asking pointedly: “Where are those people for China? We need them.”

There’s a lot going on in the admiral’s comments, which hit on important points as the United States plans for possible war in East Asia — rather, one hopes, deterring one. In the first place, it’s odd that an intelligence leader would think that understanding an opponent’s strategy, much less his grand strategy, is the job of the spooks. That actually is the job of all senior officers, and such matters are taught at War Colleges — or are supposed to be. That said, Becker’s frustration is understandable, since the Naval War College, allegedly the leading light of DoD education, was just found by the Navy’s own Inspector General to be overpriced and underperforming, and some of his views should be taken in this context.

More important is his allegation that DoD intelligence types have a problem differentiating forests from trees, and here Becker is entirely accurate. A lot of dots do not a coherent picture necessarily make, particularly when intelligence analysts lack necessary knowledge — language, culture, history, time in the target country — about the problem at hand. On this charge DoD intelligence, and the whole IC, have little coherent defense, since decades of favoring diversity of experience over specialized knowledge among intelligence officers leads to exactly the situation — smart people who know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little — that Admiral Becker lamented this week.

The most interesting, and unintentionally revealing, part of the J2’s comments came when he highlighted intelligence legends of the past, whose like cannot be found in DoD spy circles today, Becker maintained. I am generally skeptical of hoary “golden ages” in any organization, since memory plays tricks, yet here the admiral had a point. He cited Vernon Walters, a legendary Cold War semi-spy. An Army general, Walters was a polyglot who spoke several foreign languages well enough to serve as translator for presidents; Walters also served as a CIA top manager and the White House’s secret emissary to the Vatican. Yet his career was so totally unrepresentative of both DoD and the IC that he presents a fascinating one-off during the Cold War. One suspects that a gifted odd duck like Walters would not last long in today’s Army; he certainly would stand minimal chance of becoming a three-star general.

Becker likewise mentioned Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, a Navy intelligence officer who rose to head NSA and serve as CIA’s deputy director. A very gifted officer, Inman was perhaps NSA’s best-ever director, and he enjoyed a second-to-none reputation for smarts. Again, however, Inman represents such an outlier, bureaucratically speaking, that you wonder what Becker was getting at here. Not to mention that Inman has a reputation for prickliness, as evidenced by the weird flame-out of his nomination as Secretary of Defense by President Clinton. (It should also be noted that long-retired Admiral Inman was a staunch, and rare, public critic of warrantless wiretapping by NSA after 9/11.)

Yet the most intriguing example of past greats cited by Admiral Becker was the joined case of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort. This pair are rightly considered legends in Navy intelligence circles for their remarkable achievement that enabled American victory at the June 1942 Battle of Midway, the turning-point of the Pacific War. After Pearl Harbor, these officers, who were close friends, played a critical secret role in giving Admiral Chester Nimitz vital information about Japanese intentions. With half his fleet sunk at Pearl Harbor, and suffering from a critical shortage of aircraft carriers, Nimitz faced a dire situation in the spring of 1942. Fortunately for him, Rochefort’s code-breaking unit in Hawaii was able to provide Nimitz amazing insights into Japanese plans, thanks to their access to the enemy’s  high-grade naval communications, with Layton at the admiral’s side interpreting the top secret information for him. Rochefort’s team accurately predicted when and where the Japanese fleet would strike, and the outnumbered Pacific Fleet beat them to the punch at Midway. Theirs was one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of intelligence, and Nimitz correctly considered Rochefort and Layton to have been his “priceless advantage” lurking secretly behind the victory at Midway.

That said, it is more than a little disingenuous for Admiral Becker to suggest that there’s any mystery as to why Laytons and Rocheforts seem not to exist in the 21st century U.S. Navy. An examination of how those officers became the legends they remain reveals painful truths about DoD intelligence today. In the first place, Layton and Rochefort were surface warfare officers (SWOs), i.e. ship-drivers, as were all Navy line officers in the 1920’s who didn’t drive submarines or fly airplanes. They were never in the intelligence career “ghetto” because it simply did not exist; in the mid-1920’s, when both junior officers went “behind the green door” and entered the top secret world of code-breaking, they were accredited SWOs as there was no career path yet for spooks in the Navy (back then intelligence and code-breaking were functionally united in the Navy, only to be separated bureaucratically after World War II, as they inexplicably remain today).

Rochefort was recruited for the Navy’s hush-hush code-breaking program in Washington, DC based on his responses on a crossword puzzle that he sent to a P.O. Box (this clever yet simple method worked well at quietly identifying sailors who might excel at cracking codes). He and Layton underwent three years of intense, top secret training in how to decipher Japanese codes. It was evident to Navy leadership, which could read a map, that war with Japan was more a matter of when than if — the same is true today with China — so a small, elite cadre of officers was developed who could understand Japan and its navy. After completing their code-breaking course, Rochefort and Layton were sent to Japan for three years to learn the language, culture and mindset of the future enemy.

As a result of this rigorous program, by the time war with Japan actually came, the U.S. Navy possessed officers who deeply understood the enemy linguistically, operationally, and culturally, with gifted men like Layton and Rochefort leading the intelligence effort that proved decisive in American victory in the Pacific War. There is no mystery how this happened: it was the outcome of wise planning. And this sort of forward-looking thinking in intelligence circles does not happen anymore, and is the root cause of the dysfunction that Admiral Becker rightly decried this week.

In today’s Navy, intelligence and information warfare officers have too little contact with line officers, who generally view them as spooky and not always helpful. Moreover, rigid career paths mean that officers on the make will seek a diversity of assignments, avoiding specialization like the plague on a career that it is. Any intelligence officer who suggested that s/he should study Chinese naval and intelligence matters intensely for three years then go to China for three more years to learn Mandarin and Chinese ways, would be laughed out of the room, between cost and security concerns, amid whispers of “career suicide.” This simply is not how the U.S. Navy — or any of our armed services — actually works.

Of course, such dysfunction is a choice. I have no doubt that the Navy today possesses officers of the high caliber of Ed Layton and Joe Rochefort, but how they are groomed, career-wise, means that such talents are not finding their niche. This bespeaks a powerful bureaucratic inertia and a fundamental lack of seriousness about the threats we face. If America wants to avoid a war with China, or win it should it come, the Pentagon needs to get serious about grooming officers who truly understand the enemy and his mindset. This cannot be done quickly and requires real talent-spotting and nurturing; small is beautiful here — it’s a question of quality, not quantity (which is exactly why the Pentagon, which remains stuck in a mass-production mindset, does not adopt such common-sense career paths).

Admiral Becker has raised important questions about just how effective DoD’s vast intelligence empire actually is at understanding China. He and those like him — the leaders of our IC — have the ability to implement measures that, given time, will get the Pentagon the gifted and properly educated officers that we need to win future wars. We possess the talent; what we lack is the seriousness of purpose to break bureaucratic china to make things actually happen. There’s not much time to waste.

P.S. Admiral Becker also did not address the painful fact that, due to bureaucratic warfare of a kind only too well known in the Pentagon still, Joe Rochefort received no career reward for his epic success that led to Nimitz’s victory at Midway. Actually he was punished for it. You can read my write-up of that scandal here.

Is Islamist Radicalism Rising in Serbia?

The Sandžak region of southwestern Serbia — what the Serbs call Raška — is home to most of the country’s Muslims, where they form about sixty percent of the population. They call themselves Bosniaks, just like their neighbors and co-religionists in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and there are close religious and cultural connections between Sarajevo and Novi Pazar, the Sandžak’s main urban center.

Islamist radicalism has long been a worry for Belgrade and Serbian nationalists, who have warned since the 1980’s of a “green transversal” linking majority-Muslim Bosnia and Kosovo via Sandžak, a potential land-grab at the expense of Serbia and Orthodox Christianity in the Balkans. While there has never been convincing evidence that such a plan exists, neither is it fully a figment of the Serbian nationalist imagination, as some Balkan Muslims indeed have spoken of their desire to unite all their co-religionists in Southeastern Europe in a common, religiously-based state. Moreover, Serbian paranoia has been stoked by the independence of Bosnia and Kosovo, leaving only little Sandžak in the way of achieving this Islamist dream.

Just how much radicalism there is among Sandžak’s Muslims is an open — and to Belgrade very important — question. There is no doubt that extremist views have taken hold in certain quarters, as periodic police raids have revealed, while the issue cannot be separated from the far larger problem of Salafi jihadism in neighboring Bosnia. Some terrorist incidents in recent years have a Sandžak connection, for instance the 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy by Mevlid Jašarević, a native of Novi Pazar, while a few dozen Bosniaks from the region have gone to the Middle East, particularly Syria, to wage jihad, and some have been killed.

The biggest factor, however, is Muamer Zukorlić, a fiery preacher who has been the mufti (i.e. head imam) for Sandžak since 2007. Never missing a chance to act theatrically, the mufti, who has two wives and seven children, regularly gets into quarrels with Serbian authorities, having honed his ability to find hot-button yet mostly symbolic issues — the names of streets, for instance — that fire up Muslim hardliners and Serbian nationalists in equal measure. Zukorlić has carved out a niche as the defender of Bosniak rights in Serbia, while pushing a somewhat radical version of Islam that avoids the taint of overt jihadism. He has also spent energy on public quarrels with fellow Muslim clerics that have not contributed to Islamic unity in the region, while his attention-getting political stances have caused greater disharmony in an already troubled part of Europe.

Hence there have long been questions about what the mufti’s real agenda is. His political acts have veered towards the absurd, for instance his campaign to become Serbia’s president in 2012: he got 1.1 percent of the vote but garnered considerable media attention, while his call for autonomy for Sandžak predictably provoked outrage among Serbian nationalists who, having seen the Kosovo example, view that as mere cover for separatist revolt.

Zukorlić’s latest stunt has put him back on Balkan front pages. On September 5, the mufti led a parade of activists through Novi Pazar, men clad in military-style green uniforms and wearing red fezzes, carrying the flags of the Bosnian Army of the 1992-95 war. To make matters worse, they congregated to honor the memory of a local Muslim notable who served as mayor of Novi Pazar under Nazi occupation, overseeing the deportation of the region’s Jews to death camps, and was later executed by Tito’s regime for his collaboration, which included the murder of several thousand Serbian civilians.

Predictably, this parade generated press coverage and outrage. Rasim Ljajić, a Sandžak Muslim who serves as a minister in the Belgrade government, denounced the mufti’s stunt, observing that “Zukorlić is now demonstrating force to gain something more and promote his personal interests,” adding that the parade is harmful for the impoverished region: “It was hard to find investors for this area before, and this event removes even a theoretical chance of attracting them. The citizens of Sandžak should not look for culprits for this in Belgrade, Brussels, or Washington, but in their own backyard.”

On cue, Serbian nationalists have responded to Zukorlić’s parade — to them a pure provocation — with denunciations and hysterics. At last the feared “green transversal” is being made real, according to Belgrade hardliners, while bearded ultra-nationalists fighting in Ukraine with Russian-backed separatists have announced that, upon their return to Serbia, they will head straight to Novi Pazar to stage their own march, a measure that seems certain to harm the already precarious relationship between Bosniaks and Serbs in the region.

All this has led some to wonder what’s really going on here. This is the Balkans, after all, where intelligence agencies have a long history of penetrating extremist groups of all sorts and exploiting them for political purposes. As I’ve written about extensively, using agents provocateurs to manipulate enemies has long been Belgrade’s preferred method of neutering the opposition and reframing political debates. Balkan Islamists have had problems with Serbian intelligence for decades. Back in 1990, when Yugoslavia was falling apart, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosnian Muslim party, headed by Alija Izetbegović, was penetrated by Belgrade’s spies at the highest levels, while the wily Izetbegović, who had done multiple stints in Yugoslav prisons for his Islamist activism, himself had a relationship with Tito’s intelligence services than can be fairly assessed as complex.

Hence the recent analysis by the journalist Miloš Vasić in the Belgrade weekly Vreme, which asks important questions about what Zukorlić is really up to. Vasić has previously elaborated the problems that remain pervasive in the former Yugoslavia thanks to a lack of lustration. Communist-era secret services remain largely in place there, with baleful impacts on politics and society, as spies continue to play their old provocative games. As he observes of the mufti’s march:

The main question — namely, what this brings to Sandžak and its people and whom it benefits — has not been raised by anybody, but it is high time this thing was finally cleared up. Sandžak and its people have only harm from the mufti’s charlatan political adventurism. After twenty years (and more) of suspicions, pogroms, and discrimination, all they needed were the mufti’s uniformed thugs.

Cui bono? is indeed the relevant question in this case, and for anyone acquainted with Balkan politics and secret services, it must be asked, as Vasić does directly:

On the other hand, who benefits from the mufti? Well, those who made him, of course, those who brought him in, encouraged him, and push-started him way back when, in order that he should go on under his own steam until now, when fuel is running out. With this feeble-minded adventuristic gesture of parading uniformed louts, Mufti Zukorlić has come dangerously close to being branded as a paid agent provocateur in the service of forces to whom, in their desperation, Sandžak remains as the only “secessionist” bogeyman in a pandemonium of “haters of all things Serbian” and “destroyers of Serbia.” When such people do not exist, they need to be made up and at this activity, agents provocateurs have no match.

While there is a bona fide problem with Islamist radicalism in Sandžak, and it appears to be growing, there can be no doubt that the stunts of Mufti Zukorlić serve only to inflame internethnic passions and discredit his brand of extremism, at least temporarily. It certainly merits looking closely into what is really going on here. Belgrade’s spies have played such clandestine operational games for decades, sometimes successfully, sometimes with horrific consequences. Given the tinderbox that Southeastern Europe is today, thanks to war, instability, poverty, hopelessness, organized crime, and rising extremism, this is a dangerous game indeed.

The Isonzo and the Madness of War

Today Pope Francis denounced war as “madness” in a moving homily delivered at Redipuglia, at a vast monument to the dead of the First World War located in northeasternmost Italy, a stone’s throw from the Slovenian border. The pontiff did not mince words:

Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep … Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction … War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying … Greed, intolerance, the lust for power. These motives underlie the decision to go to war and they are too often justified by an ideology.

Pope Francis chose a very appropriate place to castigate war and those who advocate it as mad and irrational, as Redipuglia perfectly represents the brutal stupidity of deeply flawed war-making. It is located close to the Isonzo River, which witnessed the worst fighting of perhaps mankind’s most brutal conflict, the Great War. Between May 1915 and August 1917, the Italian Army attempted to cross the Isonzo and break through Austro-Hungarian lines in a series of eleven offensives, all of which were failures to one degree or another. Led by the inept bungler General Luigi Cadorna, who favored sheer brutality over tactical finesse — he made the much maligned Field Marshal Haig look like Napoleon — the Italians never achieved any major breakthroughs. In over two years of attritional fighting, the front budged only a few miles and in some places the Austro-Hungarian defenses never moved at all. In the process, Cadorna cost his country nearly a half-million dead.

After the bloodbath ended in late 1918, Italy collected its mountains of dead, gathering them in large ossuaries, the greatest of them at Redipuglia, located in the middle of the rocky limestone plateau overlooking the Adriatic known as the Carso, which witnessed so much fighting between mid-1915 and late 1917. After his Fascists took power in 1922, Benito Mussolini, who had been wounded in action in the Carso fighting, not far from Redipuglia, oversaw the construction of grandiose monuments to the dead of the Isonzo, his fallen comrades in arms.

Redipuglia’s massive multi-level ossuary, located at the peak of Monte Sei Busi, which witnessed savage fighting in 1915-16, is silently impressive. Here is the resting place of a hundred thousand dead Italian soldiers, victims of the Carso battles: forty thousand of those are unknown. To honor them, there is a monument with the simple inscription:


What does my name matter to you?

Cry to the wind


And I will rest in peace

The votive chapel at the top of the Redipuglia ossuary has a small museum filled with personal artifacts dug up all over the plateau — crosses, rosaries, pins, buttons, and the like — belonging to the legions of Italian dead. It is a story of a hundred thousand tragedies. One such recorded there is the death of three brothers, Achille, Ermino and Luigi Cortellessa, sons of a peasant family in Caserta, all of whom died on the Carso inside a year, the oldest of them just twenty-four. A faded photograph of the Cortellessa boys, located in the votive chapel, is all that remains of them.

The pope’s paternal grandfather, Giovanni Carlo Bergoglio, was one of the lucky ones. He fought on the Isonzo with the elite Bersaglieri, the rifle corps Mussolini also belonged to, but survived the war, later emigrating to Argentina, where the pontiff was born. Pope Francis recalled hearing “many painful stories from the lips of my grandfather.”

Before visiting Redipuglia, the pope started the day at Fogliano, just down the road, where the only major Austro-Hungarian cemetery located on the Italian side of the Isonzo valley can be found. Francis said prayers for the 14,406 Habsburg dead buried there, only 2,406 of whom lie in marked graves, with the rest remaining unknown. Above the entrance to the Fogliano cemetery is a sign reading Im Leben und im Tode vereint (United in Life and Death), and the men of a dozen nationalities of the long-defunct Habsburg Empire who gave their lives on the Isonzo indeed are united in perpetuity.

Today, in the era of the European Union, the notion of Italians and Austrians slaughtering each other in the hundreds of thousands over a minor Alpine river seems absurd. This is progress of an important sort. But Pope Francis’s visit to the Isonzo and his denunciation of war there is a message that the world needs to hear, especially as Europe’s largest country exploits nationalism in a manner Mussolini would have appreciated, saber-rattling and invading neighbors, thereby threatening Europe again with needless war. The ossuary at Redipuglia is a powerful reminder of where such madness ultimately leads.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about this subject, read my book, Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, which is available in English and Italian.


Arctic Move: Russia Gets Its Own NORTHCOM

In an important sign of Russia’s increasing militarization of the Arctic, a development with troubling implications for several NATO countries, the Kremlin has announced the establishment of a new military command that will be responsible for the country’s north and the Arctic sector. As reported in the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) states it is creating the new Joint Strategic Command (JSC) North* “for the defense of Russia’s interests in the Arctic,” effective 1 October of this year, with all assigned units to be fully manned and equipped by 30 December.

In accordance with the MoD’s “Arctic 2020″ strategic plan that was approved by the Kremlin last year, JSC North will be comprised mainly of forces drawn from the present Western Military District (MD), and will function as Russia’s fifth military district, de facto, though it will not be termed as such. The new command’s lead element with be the Navy’s famed Northern Fleet, which will leave the Western MD by 1 December. 

JSC North will be composed also of new military contingents to be deployed in the Arctic zone, on Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, Franz Josef Land, and Wrangel Island. Beyond naval units, JSC North will gain authority over the 1st Air and Air Defense Command, specifically the 1st Air and Space Defense Troops, including the 531st, 583d, and 1258th Air Defense (SAM) Regiments, the 331st and 332d Radio-Technical (i.e. Electronic Warfare and SIGINT) Regiments, plus other unnamed units stationed in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk regions. The quick stand-up of the new command will require considerable logistical support from the Central and Eastern MDs, according to Kremlin sources.

JSC North will collaborate closely with the Northwest Regional Command of Russia’s Interior Troops (MVD) and the regional border directorates of the Federal Security Service (FSB). General Dmitriy Bulgakov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, announced that new troops and bases in the Arctic will be in place and fully supplied and armed by the end of September, adding that JSC North will possess an eighteen-month supply of fuel, food, clothing, and medical equipment, to be pre-positioned in the Arctic region.

*ОСК «Север» in the original


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