Forgotten Failure in Bosnia

Twenty years ago this August, there was no hotter story in the emerging global media than Bosnia and its terrible civil war, which was unfolding gorily in near real time. CNN in particular made great copy on the conflict, and worldwide its emerging star Christiane Amanpour became an icon with her “live from Sarajevo” pitch.

Just how accurate much of the reportage out of bloody Bosnia was that fateful summer remains an open question. The war’s position as the first extended conflict to take place in the context of 24/7 global TV coverage before the rise of Internet fact-checking seems historically important. Yet there can be no doubt that “advocacy journalism” did a magnificent job at forcing Western governments to pay attention and eventually intervene militarily in Bosnia.

Even the masterful politico Bill Clinton, who initially professed minimal interest in foreign affairs, least of all Balkan conflicts which few Americans understood, wound up pushed by the media and advocates to get involved in Bosnia’s fratricide. Soon, it became America’s and NATO’s problem. By the autumn of 1995, the United States was brokering a deal to end the fighting, the so-called Dayton Accords, and almost sixty thousand NATO troops soon headed to Bosnia to keep a then-fragile peace.

What a difference two decades makes …

… Read the rest at The National Interest

Iran, Israel, and America: On Historical Analogies

Today, Nicholas Burns, an American diplomat now retired after many years of honorable service to the Republic, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe advocating – you guessed it – diplomacy as the solution to the mounting Iranian nuclear crisis. Whether you find Ambassador Burns’ prescription for the increasingly worrisome stand-off between Israel and Iran persuasive, or not, he makes many thoughtful points which merit pondering.

Along the way he makes several observations which are perhaps more jaw-dropping than he intended. He states: “It is not in America’s interest to remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s increasingly swift timetable for action.” A few years ago, before Professors Walt and Mearsheimer lobbed a grenade published their book about The Lobby, statements indicating the Republic is held hostage to Likud and AIPAC, if not necessarily to Israel per se, would have been controversial. Whether or not you agree with Prof. Mearsheimer that Bibi and Barak consider the U.S. political class to be a bunch of “wussies” they can control, I think it’s safe to say that until recently such language would have placed anyone beyond the pale … now, not so much.

Beyond the issue of who’s the tail and who’s the dog in the increasingly messy U.S.-Israel relationship – a question which has taken on more-than-customary urgency given the current Israeli government’s recent public move towards sky-is-falling rhetoric about Iran – there’s the intriguing matter of what historical analogies apply in this knotty case. Amb. Burns notes that Harvard’s Graham Allison has been dining out on his take of the current crisis as “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” As the ambassador adds: “Iran and the United States are like two trains hurtling toward each other on the same track in a breakneck game of diplomatic chicken.”

October 1962 – when Kevin Costner saved the world

Maybe, but I don’t really buy that one. In the first place, we can now state with certainty that the leadership in both DC and Moscow in 1962, whatever their bluster and chest-thumping, never wanted war, much less nuclear war – as we found out when Niki K. cried uncle. The Soviets and Americans were headed by civilian and (mostly) military leaders who were sane and rational actors who understood the consequences of screwing up the Cuba missile thing. I’m not convinced that Tehran’s leadership is equally reality-based, and certainly Israeli agit-prop in recent years has advocated strongly for painting Iran’s top echelon as, not to put an overfine point on it, batsh*t crazy. Not to mention that a few Israeli commentators have recently observed that Bibi, drunk on power and chants of a “second Holocaust,” might not be fully in earth orbit any longer either.

Additionally, in 1962 both the U.S. and the USSR had a good handle on each other’s military capabilities and how they would be used if the balloon went up. Whereas the whole point of the current crisis is that nobody outside Iran has any firm idea of what the mullahs really have, nor how they might want to use it. (And U.S. intelligence doesn’t know either, no matter what Ehud Barak says.)

So is there a good analogy in modern history? I’m afraid there is, and it’s not a happy one. The best analogy, says this historian, for the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the mounting crisis with Iran, goes back a century, to just before Europe went crazy and destroyed itself.

In the years leading to the First World War, Russia developed a cancerous relationship with Serbia, with the latter becoming a troublesome client which occupied Russian attention out of any proportion to Serbia’s actual size, importance, and influence.  While there were genuine ethnic and religious ties between the two countries, they were neither traditional nor natural allies, beyond a mutual loathing for Islam. Russia aided Serbia for decades in its wars – some open, some covert – against the declining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. By 1913 Serbia had defeated the forces of Islam in its neighborhood, taking over lands which Serbs held to be sacredly theirs (even if inconveniently occupied mostly by non-Serbs who did not want to ruled by Serbs), and it wanted to take the fight to Austria-Hungary, which it viewed as the last obstacle to Serbia’s quasi-religious “place in the sun.”

Latter-day observers tend to think of the Habsburg Empire as a harmless, lumbering state in decline, more famed for waltzes and cakes than aggression, but in the years before 1914, Belgrade saw Austria-Hungary as a dangerous, warlike enemy bent on annihilating Serbia. That none of this was true – outside of occasional Viennese barrack-room fantasy – made no difference. The dangerously loopy head of Serbian intelligence convinced himself and his retinue that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, was the head of the “war party” in Vienna and had to be killed. So they did. This was the origin of the plot which culminated in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. It was the most consquential act of state terrorism in modern history, yet was based on a complete and total misread of Austrian intentions – the ill-fated archduke in fact was the most peace-oriented leader in the empire – which may be instructive about the value of intelligence analysis.

Franz Ferdinand … no, he was not in the band

Unless you’ve been asleep or in a cave for the last 90-plus years, you will know that Serbia’s misguided preventative attack on Austria-Hungary led directly to the First World War and pretty much the collapse of European civilization. Which was emphatically not what Russia wanted. Yet St. Petersburg went along with what Belgrade wanted, tail wagging dog style, down to war. Why?

Part of the problem was effective Serbian lobbying, which won the hearts and, eventually, minds of much of Russia’s political and military elite. There was a genuine soft-spot for the Serbs which Belgrade had cleverly nurtured, bolstered by clerical God-talk of a mystical kind. Morever, Russian policy towards Serbia was disjointed, between diplomats, soldiers, and spies and their different ministries and factions, which Belgrade was able to exploit. For instance, there is evidence that Russian spooks, who admired their gutsy-if-crazy Serb cousins, had a hand in starting and funding the Sarajevo assassination plot – but there’s never been evidence that St. Petersburg, much less the Tsar, approved such dirty work.

The saddest part of all this is that there were always Russians, some quite influential, who were sounding alarm bells, loudly and often, that the Serbs were nothing but trouble and would lead Russia to catastrophe. Sergei Witte, the Tsar’s most esteemed minister, led what one might retrospectively term Russia’s “reality-based community,” and counseled caution in Balkan matters: to no avail. Witte once called the Serbs “a race of Balkan brigands” who, he said, would eventually get the thrashing by Vienna they had long deserved. Yet cooler heads did not prevail, and Russia, rather than restraining her hot-headed ally-cum-protege, did the opposite when the July crisis came, with terrible consequences for themselves and all Europe.

I’m really hoping the current three-sided crisis like Iran ends just like the Cuban Missile Crisis – happily and quietly. But I have my doubts, and when those doubts are darkest I think of the tangled relationship between Serbia and Russia before 1914.

Merah just another “lone wolf? Not so much …

Last March, when 23 year-old Mohamed Merah killed seven people – four of them children – in a series of three shooting incidents in southern France, the Islamist of Algerian origin was pronounced a “lone wolf” by the media and the French government. This aimless and angry young man apparently followed the now-customary path of crime and alienation leading to self-directed jihad against innocents. Think spree killer with a vaguely Salafist gloss. Once Merah went out in a 30-hour siege and a final blaze of glory it seemed difficult to determine what exactly motivated the novice terrorist.

“Yo, this is jihad, bro!” No “lone wolf” after all.

Yet newly declassified French intelligence documents paint a very different picture of Merah, who was much more deeply embedded in the jihad movement than Paris was willing to admit in the spring. As reported in Le Parisien yesterday, while French domestic intelligence (DCRI) agreed with calling Merah a “lone wolf” they knew better – much better. The 23 pages of classified reports, going back to 2009, demonstrate that the DCRI was aware of a wide range of worrisome activities by Merah, who became a target of “special surveillance,” as was his brother, due to their close relations with the Toulouse jihad in-crowd.

December 2009: Merah pops up in surveillance of the Toulouse radical Salafis; DCRI notes that the young man, who recently emerged from prison, is conducting “religious classes” at his apartment, while talking regularly with his brother Abdelkader, a known associate of the Toulouse jihad circle, who had recently moved to Cairo to further his muj education.

November 2010: DCRI reports that Merah, now learning Arabic as a “member of an Islamo-delinquent fraternity” in Toulouse, is part of a younger generation of jihadists who have emerged from prison more radical than ever.

January 2011: DCRI reports in detail about Merah, who had recently traveled to Afghanistan and was picked up by local security forces. This report is based largely on Afghan information shared with Paris, which paints a disturbing picture of a troubled young man who claimed to have gotten to the country via Germany, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and Tajikistan, saying he was a tourist. DCRI now officially considers Merah a person of concern, “with a serious delinquent past [now] in a radicalization phase.”

September 2011: DCRI report observes that, upon his return from Afghanistan, Merah quickly reintegrated with the Toulouse jihad scene and appears more radical than ever. Thus he is now considered “special target of the service,” and although Merah is reported to be headed to Pakistan shortly, French authorities do nothing to stop him.

November 2011: Once he returns from Pakistan, Merah is interviewed by the DCRI in Toulouse. Merah, who admits to spending time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, claims he returned home to sort out his legal situation. Based on his travels to known jihad-linked locations, DCRI pronounces Merah a “direct threat,” observing in the report that young men who engage in jihad tourism “can return with instructions to carry out armed actions.”

Despite this chilling prediction – practically a prophecy about what Merah would execute in a few months – the DCRI and French authorities did nothing.

This is what “epic fail” looks like.

As a former intelligence officer, I am always sympathetic to the people who have to monitor the bad guys – in France, as in Britain and many other countries, the number of potential terrorism targets is vast – and it’s always easy to render criticism from a comfy chair long after the events in question. That said, this appears to be a massive screw-up by French intelligence.

Regardless, these reports put paid to the notion that Merah – along with his brother, who was just as deeply involved in the jihad scene in southern France and was a good deal more complicit in the March mayhem than initially believed – was a mere “lone wolf.” In reality, the vast majority of home-grown jihad terrorism cases are more closely linked with known jihadist groups and travels than we are initially told. While occasionally a troubled young man initiates a self-starting jihad based solely on viewing ugly websites – it appears more common among Americans than Europeans – this is seldom the case in the real world. Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the shopworn “lone wolf” label altogether.

Now isn’t this interesting …

Today Ehud Barak, Israel’s hardline defense minister, stated that U.S. intelligence is finally coming around to the Israeli (i.e. pessimistic, sky-falling) position on Iranian nuclear development. As reported by CBS, Barak stated, “As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates. It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Translation: get ready to pull those chocks and get the F-15Is rolling!

Barak was responding to a report today in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz about a new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), allegedly on Iranian nukes. Barak – one of the world’s most interesting people, IMHO – has many faults, but stupidity isn’t one of them. The guy has several degrees in tough STEM-like subjects, led the IDF’s super-spooky SAYERET MAT’KAL (think Delta or DEVGRU but possibly more hardcore), rising to the head of the Israeli military and – along the way – becoming the most decorated soldier in his country’s history. Did I mention he’s a highly accomplished pianist?

This guy doesn’t do “slips of the tongue” when the mike is on. Period.

And he’s talking about an NIE or something like it; he later backtracked a bit on what exactly it was, though he seemed to have a good handle on what it said.

A couple rules of the road. NIEs are very special things, exceptionally LIMDIS (limited distribution); when I was a full-time spook I didn’t read them – that was way above my pay-grade. That’s for the White House and related bigwigs. And they are always NOFORN: not for foreigners.

So, a few possibilities. Barak and his government are playing one huge head-fake with Obama, whom they openly dislike, even though he just dumped more money on Israel. Or, they have seen it – how, exactly, this former counterspy wonders – and are diming out DC in a very tough game of hardball.

Regardless, the rules of the spy game are clear and have been since Moses was a boy. When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.

Israel clearly feels that spy rules don’t apply to them, especially where the Americans are concerned, but even so this is a new low, when Barak feels he can casually, on air, divulge exceptionally closely held U.S. secrets.

Just when the Obama administration begins to get a handle on its huge leak problems inside the Beltway, there’s a whole new universe of problems to contend with. The historian in me is struggling to find a parallel for an international intel mess of this sort, at this high a level, and I’m not finding a good match. This, my friends, is a whole new ballgame.

Can’t wait to hear what Dan Senor Mitt Romney has to say about this one …

Tehran’s men in Sarajevo

My book Unholy Terror exposed the taboo subject of the global jihad and its substantial relationship to Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH). It upset more than a few people, who didn’t want to hear that Bosnia’s Muslims included, as well as many victims of aggression, more than a few friends of Al-Qai’da and Iran. I elaborated in detail the very close relationship between leading circles in Sarajevo and Tehran, going back to 1990. Tehran and its intelligence services were early supporters – with money and influence – of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has ruled the Muslims in BiH for most of the last two decades.

As the book explained, the U.S. and NATO cracked down on the very close linkages between the SDA and Tehran beginning in late 1995, when Western military forces entered BiH as peacekeepers, and hundreds of Pasdaran operatives began leaving the country. But they never left altogether, even following a second DC-mandated crackdown after 9/11. The SDA has always had a soft spot for Tehran, even for its unsavory intelligence services, whom more than a few Bosnian Muslims view as friends who helped them during the 1992-95 civil war.

Looks like it musta been a tough meeting.

What’s happened in the five years since Unholy Terror appeared? It seems that the SDA has been up to its old tricks, sounding pro-Western in public while remaining uncomfortably close to the Iranians in private. Now, with a potential war with Iran looming, the U.S. and its European allies, who have done so much to help the Bosnian Muslims for a generation, have had enough. As reported by the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz, last week Patrick Moon and Nigel Casey, the American and British ambassadors to BiH, jointly read the riot act to Sadik Ahmetovic, the country’s powerful security minister, telling him that the SDA and Sarajevo must sever their secret ties – espionage, political, financial – with Tehran. While official Sarajevo said the meeting was cordial, apparently it was good deal more confrontational than that.

Communist counterspy or jihadist spymaster? Depends who’s asking, on which day.

For over 20 years, the SDA has included its influential Security Board, headed by Bakir Alispahic, the former head of Sarajevo’s intelligence service and a man long considered dangerously radical by the U.S. and NATO; the Board has an intelligence function and controls a good deal of the party’s activities and serves as the clandestine channel with Tehran (as well as a whole raft of suspect jihadist organizations). Ahmetovic is a member too, as is Fikret Muslimovic, BiH’s true eminence grise and the man who engineered the alliance with Iran back in the early 1990s, when he created the SDA’s intelligence apparatus. Muslimovic was a career Yugoslav military counterintelligence officer and convinced Communist who spent the 1980s locking away Islamic radicals in BiH, yet who upon Bosnian independence in 1992 suddenly became an Islamic hardliner and advocate of linkages with Iran and Al-Qa’ida … sometimes it’s better not to ask too many questions.

In recent years the SDA has tried to steer away from its “Iranian line”, without success. According to Sarajevo sages, the SDA is coalescing around Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of the late president Alija Izetbegovic – the old man considered a secular saint by many in the West but also a convinced Islamist by Iran, an odd amalgam to pull off. Izetbegovic Junior has a long-honed reputation for crime, corruption and radicalism considered impressive by Bosnians, who set that bar pretty high.

Sarajevo officially has been given a warning to reset its course in a European and Western direction as war with Iran looms. Hard decisions will have to be made by the SDA. They have been repeatedly deferred for nearly two decades but can be avoided no longer. If the Bosnian Muslims opt to stick with Iran as tensions rise, the ramifications for them and all Europe may be dire indeed.

Who killed Uwe Barschel?

The discovery of Uwe Barschel dead in the bathtub of Room 317 of Geneva’s swank Hotel Beau-Rivage on October 11, 1987, brought to close the career of one of West Germany’s most promising young politicians. It also began one of the most sensational unsolved mysteries in recent German history, involving corruption, dirty money, international espionage – and murder.

Uwe Barschel, 1944-1987

Hardly more than week before two journalists found the 43 year-old Barschel’s lifeless body, fully clothed and half-submerged in the tub, he had resigned his post as governor of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, which he had held since 1982. His tenure was widely regarded as a success, and he was one of the rising stars of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), then in its salad days under the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl. Yet Barschel’s resignation came amid a burgeoning scandal involving dirty money and spying on political rivals. Two investigations into the matter, known in Germany as “Waterkant-Gate” in emulation of Nixon’s downfall, later determined that no blame could be officially placed on the now-dead Barschel.

The circumstances of his demise were odd, to say the least. As scandal engulfed his career, Barschel made off for Gran Canaria to get away from it all, then headed for Geneva, though exactly why was never clear. His widow – who like the couple’s four children has insisted for a quarter-century that Barschel was murdered – claimed he had compromising material with him: papers, pictures, and the like, which could prove embarrassing to his enemies. Strictly speaking, the cause of death was never in doubt, as Barschel’s body, found oddly clothed in the bathtub, was a walking pharmacy, including a half-dozen drugs, among them heavy barbituates, antihistamines, sleep aids, and the like.

But from the beginning there were reasons to suspect that Barschel was not a suicide, besides the protestations of his family. There were indications that one or more persons other than Barschel had been in the room around the time of death, things were tossed about, and the position of the body seemed odd for a suicide. In November 2010, the family’s doubts – and over two decades of rumors – got scientific backing when the respected Swiss toxicologist Hans Brandenberger, an expert witness in many criminal cases, concluded after long examination that Barschel indeed had been murdered, citing the fact that some of the drugs found in the room and/or the body were virtually impossible for a normal person to obtain, and the likely force-fed cocktail was an almost ideal death combination to kill quietly. This, he concluded, was a professional hit.


Yet who wanted Barschel dead? Certainly he had political enemies back home, but the complexity of the crime scene, coupled with Barschel’s odd movements in the days before his demise, pointed to international, not domestic, intrigue. Not to mention that German politicans had not been in the habit of knocking each other off since 1945. Barschel’s large number of trips to East Germany was of interest to West German intelligence, and in later years evidence emerged that Barschel had some sort of relationship with the Stasi, the DDR’s infamous State Security, but no evidence has ever come to light pointing to Stasi involvement in his death, neither has any motive for the DDR to kill Barschel been apparent.

Rumors swirled for years, particularly around hush-hush international arms smuggling through Schleswig-Holstein in the mid-1980s which even Barschel’s family seemed aware of, but there were few solid leads until the mid-1990s, when Victor Ostrovsky, the onetime MOSSAD operative, claimed based on personal knowledge that Israel had taken out the West German politician. Ostrovsky’s 1995 book The Other Side of Deception, actually his second memoir account, expounded at length about the secret struggle between Iran and Israel back in the 1980s, including secret weapons deals involving West German spies and politicos.

Truth-teller or fabulist?

Ostrovsky’s credibility has always been an open question, since his written works contain a jumble of information, some true, some exaggerated – much of it seems to be MOSSAD hall-gossip – some possibly made up altogether. Yet two things have never been in doubt. Ostrovsky has been treated as a major state enemy by Israel, his former employer. And Ostrovsky’s account of Barschel’s assassination was very detailed and seemed to jibe with what investigators had found at the crime scene, as well as the family’s recollection of events. The former spook now runs an art gallery in Arizona and sticks by his story.

Ostrovsky described a complex kill operation, with at least some awareness by the BND, the German Federal Intelligence Service, in which MOSSAD lured Barschel to the Hotel Beau-Rivage where he was sedated, then force-fed a complex drug cocktail, and eventually a heart attack was induced. As for motive, Ostrovsky claimed that Barschel had put his foot down and stopped allowing the Israelis to use ports in Schleswig-Holstein for the secret shipment of arms to Iran as an extended part of the soon-to-be-infamous Iran-Contra debacle. Israel first discredited Barschel, engineering the scandal which undid his career, then killed him off.

The ex-MOSSAD operative’s account got backing from a 1995 investigative report in the Washington Post, which reached complimentary conclusions, and led Israel to offer a relatively weak denial that it had any involvement in Barschel’s death (MOSSAD never comments on its more unpleasant activities, but some denials have been stronger than others). Questions about Israeli involvement in the case have lingered since the mid-1990s, without much more evidence to prove, or disprove, Ostrovsky’s shocking claims. The German detective leading the investigation then concluded it was likely murder, not suicide, but there was insufficient proof to back that up.

In mid-2011 German police announced that the cold case was being reopened, in light of Dr. Brandenberger’s report, with the hope of finding new evidence to finally establish what really happened to Uwe Barschel. Last week it was reported that new evidence has indeed come to light, including DNA data which may establish who, other than the victim, was in Room 317 that fateful night a quarter-century ago. Fingerprints and DNA information have demonstrated that Barschel was not alone in the last hours of his life. German media has increasingly pointed fingers at the MOSSAD, and the case is again front-page news. Certainly MOSSAD’s assassination in January 2010 of HAMAS higher-up Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, using a complex drug cocktail to sedate the victim before killing him in a manner made to appear like a natural death, seems to have caused German investigators to wonder how long Israeli hit teams have used such methods.

What really happened?

Additional information is expected soon from the German authorities. Perhaps by the twenty-fifth anniversary of Uwe Barschel’s untimely death, we will know what really happened and the mystery can be solved once and for all.

Friends from the Institute

Just in time for Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel – where he is reported to be focused mainly on not making a fool of himself before the media, London-style – the AP dropped a bombshell disguised as an article on the taboo subject of Israeli espionage against the United States. The detailed piece, which was sourced from several places in the Intelligence Community, has been met with shock and horror in the usual places; Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a denial as vociferous as it was quick. Aggressive Israeli spying on the U.S. is something polite people are never, ever supposed to discuss; mentioning it will not get you invited to the right Georgetown parties.

But there was nothing in the piece which was exactly news to anyone who knows how the global intelligence game is actually played. That CIA considers Israel to be the number-one spy threat in the Middle East is a revelation only to neophytes. Counterintelligence officers for decades have been aware of the extent of Israeli espionage against the U.S., at home and abroad, though politicos are customarily wise enough to never mention it. Indeed, CI experts for years have spoken of the Big Four threats to the USG: Russia, China, Cuba, and Israel.  

I prefer my spies to look like this …

Russia remains as big a spy threat to the West and the U.S. as it was at the height of the Cold War. Their operations are as aggressive as ever, and their playbook is the same. Although the round-up of a big Russian illegal network in the U.S. two years ago was treated as a comic-opera affair in the media, with emphasis on hot redheads (and, let me say, who doesn’t like hot redheaded spy-vixens?), that story justifiably caused deep concern in CI circles and indicated big problems, including possible penetrations of U.S. intelligence.

The Chinese spy threat is less popularly understood, and there is a lot less written about it, with some happy exceptions, but Beijing’s espionage against the USG has risen in recent years and shows no signs of abating, rather the contrary. That said, Chinese HUMINT operations are seldom successful outside their ethnic millieu – though that may be cold comfort given the size of the overseas Chinese community in the West today.

The inclusion of Cuba on the Big Four list may surprise, given the comically pathetic condition of that country, but Havana’s intelligence agencies have long punched above their weight in the global spy game. Cuban operations against the USG are widespread and pernicious, including long-term penetrations of our intelligence agencies. Castro’s case officers for decades have had no trouble recruiting spies among Cuban exiles – usually they have more volunteers than they can handle – and Cuban-American groups are deeply penetrated (usually the crazier and more right-wing an exile pontificates, the more likely s/he is a mole for Havana). Not surprisingly, Florida is a hotspot for Cuban espionage. Neverthless, like the Chinese, the Cubans operate best among ethnic kin, save the occasional oddball lefty Anglos who actually lose money spying for Cuba.

The Israeli espionage threat to the United States, however, is different, because DC and Tel Aviv are such close partners, and Israel is the world’s biggest recipient of American aid dollars.  In the real world, allies do spy on each other. Per the counterspy’s mantra: There are no friendly intelligence agencies. Yet America’s closest intelligence partners, the Five Eyes of the Anglosphere (U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and usually New Zealand), have preserved a remarkable amount of the sincere spy-friendship borne of shared hardship in World War II, and come pretty close to being friends who don’t spy on each other.

Not like this.

Israel emphatically is not that sort of spy-buddy. The AP article included glimpses of just how aggressive and duplicitous Israeli HUMINT operations against American interests actually are, and have been for decades. Anyone who has looked closely at the infamous Pollard case, including Israel’s continuing lobbying to get their boy out of his jail cell, gets some sense of how the Israelis play the game.

It’s no secret inside the Beltway that Israel spies on everybody, America included, and uses its close partnership with the USG to further its espionage against it. None of this is new, and as far back as 1954 Israeli dirty tricks targeted the U.S., including the false-flag bombing of the U.S. Information Agency office in Egypt, the so-called Lavon affair. Espionage is a messy business, to be sure, but what sets the Israelis apart is that they act so aggressively even towards their closest friends.

Israel’s intelligence agencies are small – certainly compared to America’s multi-headed espionage leviathan – and professional. Foreign HUMINT and dirty tricks are handled by the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (the legendary MOSSAD), while domestic intelligence is conducted by the impressive Security Agency (SHABAK), yet the biggest piece of the puzzle is Military Intelligence (AMAN), which includes Israel’s substantial and effective SIGINT effort.

The “MOSSAD myth” is a real force-multiplier, even though it’s only partly true. Israeli spies are far from super-human, as a long string of missteps and own-goals will attest, yet they are undeniably super-aggressive, including against America. Their small numbers are boosted abroad by sayanim (“helpers”), mainly diaspora Jews who provide material support to Israeli intelligence. From a CI perspective this makes Israeli operations a tough nut to crack, not to mention that MOSSAD relies on an array of fronts and cut-outs in many countries to assist its espionage. It was no surprise to CI hands that DoD’s Larry Franklin was convicted in 2006 of passing classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, since although AIPAC is widely known to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, the counterspies understand that it has an, ahem, exceptionally close relationship with Israeli intelligence. CI professionals were likewise less than shocked when it turned out that Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House’s intelligence committee, was reported to be having spooky conversations with AIPAC too.

There is a long history of Israeli espionage against America and its interests, and an equally long history of the American MSM showing little interest in delving deeply into some of the more intriguing Israeli ops in the United States (see: Israeli art students). In this sense, the weekend’s AP story was a surprise, and a welcome one. As a former CI officer I have nothing but professional admiration for what Israeli spooks manage to pull off, and in their shoes I’d do exactly the same stuff. Yet as an American I have questions about what our ally is doing, and why we tolerate the worst of it.

For a long time, American journalists and politicians have denied there is an issue here. The AP has blown the lid on that one, and good on them. Henceforth, those who deny that Israel spies mightily on the USA are either playing politics or they don’t know what they are talking about.

Terrorism versus Fake Terrorism

One of the big, if largely unspoken, issues in counterterrorism is the considerable role played by intelligence agencies in manipulating terrorist groups – penetrating their cells, confusing them, sometimes wrecking them altogether. This sort of thing, termed provocation by insiders, is a messy business which is understood by counterintelligence hands worldwide yet seldom gets mentioned by BigTerror “experts” since it doesn’t fit the neat and tidy “good guys v. bad guys” narrative they prefer.

Yet provocation happens in the real world and plays a big part in defeating terrorists. The most successful campaigns against terrorism have usually incorporated provocation, often with great operational success and baleful humanitarian consequences. Provocation works, so many intelligence services employ it. But provocation isn’t nice, indeed it’s a nasty business, so BigTerror “experts” usually avoid mentioning it.

When provocation is employed effectively by your intelligence agency – you take your time, you place agents carefully inside the terrorist group – you wind up taking effective control of one terror cell, then another, until eventually you’re running the show. At which point you run the terrorists into the ground, encouraging them to do stupid and self-defeating things, and you declare victory. Sounds like a bad movie, but the Russians, who invented this sneaky tactic, have been taking it to the bank for over a century. They call it provokatsiya.

Others do it too, and it leads to situations where it can be difficult to determine which terrorists are legit and which are “under control” as the pros say. Unraveling it all can be challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible. It makes analysis tough, which is why conventional analysts simply avoid the issue altogether … and thereby miss the real story.

One of my favorite examples goes back over thirty years. Back in the 1970s, strange as it may sound today, Croatians were one of the world’s biggest terrorism problems. Emigres living in the West who hated the Communist regime in Yugoslavia waged a shadow war against Tito by attacking Yugoslav embassies, shooting up regime facilities, hijacking airplanes – ah, the good old days, when terrorists took over commercial planes to win sympathy and not just fly them into buildings – and even staging commando raids into the motherland. Most of their activities were in Western Europe, but the Croatian freedom fighters brought terrorism to Australia, Canada, and even the United States, where they did bombings, killed rivals, and are the top suspects in one of the bloodiest terrorist outrages in U.S. history.

I’m from the Yugoslav government, and I’m *not* here to help.

Naturally, these shenanigans got the attention of the Yugoslav secret police, the dreaded UDBA, which successfully penetrated many of the terrorist groups deeply. During the Cold War, UDBA waged a very successful and very nasty campaign against troublesome emigres which involved assassinating over eighty people in the West – some of them actual terrorists, some of them people Tito just didn’t like. By the 1970s UDBA was in functional control of several of the Croatian terrorist groups and proceeded to eliminate them one by one. By the mid-1980s Yugoslavia’s emigre terrorism problem had been liquidated (just in time for Yugoslavia to collapse under its own weight, but that’s another story).

One of UDBA’s top successes was the case known as the Croatian Six, which remains a big story in its native Australia and offers an ideal study in provocation. In February 1979, Australia was rocked by the arrests of six Croatian immigrants who according to police were plotting to blow up a long list of prominent targets around Sydney, including a major theater packed with innocent people, several businesses, and even an attack on Sydney’s water supply. The police were tipped off by the seventh member of the group, Vito Virkez, who called the cops and dimed out his co-conspirators.

1979 … when terrorism suspects knew how to dress.

The Croatian Six from day-one protested their innocence, and from the outset there were whispers that things were not quite right. In the first place, the six guys were actually two groups of three, and they didn’t seem to know each other.  The cops went hard on them and coerced confessions, and may have planted explosives. No one bothered to ask why six average immigrants, who hated Tito but had no grudge against Australia, would want to blow up a bunch of innocent Australians. How that would help liberate Croatia from the Communists and endear Aussies to their cause remained a mystery. Above all, the prosecution failed to disclose that ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence service, suspected that the whole thing was an UDBA set-up and knew that, shortly before calling the Australian cops, Vito Virkez had phoned the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney, which ASIO knew was staffed by UDBA officers.

As expected, Virkez testified as the star witness against the Croatian Six, who were convicted of a raft of charges and sentenced to hefty prison terms. That Virkez promptly left Australia to return to Communist Yugoslavia, which he allegedly had been fighting against, got less attention than it should have. To this day the case remains the highest-profile terrorism trial in Australian history, despite the fact that as far back as 1991 it’s been confirmed that this was all a fake. Australian TV reporter Chris Masters tracked down Mr. Virkez in his native Bosnia, who admitted that his real name was Misimovic and he was actually a Serb, not a Croat. He was an UDBA agent provocateur who’d been dispatched to Australia in the early 1970s to penetrate and discredit Croatian groups down under. By tarring the Croatian emigration with extremism and terrorism, UDBA gained a big political victory and neutralized its enemies in Australia.

A lot has come out since “Virkez” had his cover blown in 1991, including an excellent report earlier this year by Hamish Macdonald (full disclosure: I was a source for that story), and lawyers and activists are trying to get justice for the poor guys who got set up and falsely convicted of terrorism over thirty years ago. Let’s hope they succeed – better late than never.

UPDATE: Australian journalist Sasha Uzunov, who has closely looked at just-declassified intelligence documents, reveals that in January 1977, ASIO reported that Yugoslavia warned Australia that, if Australian authorities didn’t act to suppress anti-Yugoslav activities down under, Belgrade would take matters into its own hands … this appears to be UDBA’s warning shot across the bow before setting up the Croatian Six. Nice job, Sasha!

A Bombing in Burgas

Another suicide bombing in Europe, this time in – of all places – Bulgaria. Yesterday, an as-yet-unidentified bomber got on a bus filled with Israeli tourists and killed himself, five tourists (earlier reports said six but this morning Israeli authorities have dropped that by one), and the local bus driver; many more were wounded. Tragedy has arrived at the seaside town of Burgas, 250 miles east of the capital Sofia, which has become in recent years a getaway for Israelis.

Bulgarian officials, who are working closely with U.S. and Israeli partners to get to the bottom of this quickly, have asserted that the bomber possessed a fake U.S. driver’s license. Israel has wasted no time pointing a finger at its arch-nemesis Iran, claiming this was Tehran’s operation using Hizballah as a cut-out.

Within hours of the atrocity, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu explicitly blamed Iran, adding, “Iranian terror is spreading worldwide.”  Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised the customary payback, while this morning Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one for subtle words,  stated that Iran’s culpability for the attack was “crystal clear,” and that the rapid identification was “certain,” without explaining what evidence that conclusion was based upon.

Though Iran has, of course, denied involvement, Tehran certainly has the means, motive, and opportunity, not to mention a track record of doing just this sort of thing. In recent months, Iranian operatives, or their surrogates, have tried to blow up Israelis in India, Georgia, and Thailand, while it’s tough to write off as a mere coincidence that the Burgas atrocity fell eighteen years to the day of the 1994 AMIA bombing, when Hizballah operatives blew up a Jewish center in Buenos Aires on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the feared Pasdaran. That spectacular killed 85 and wounded hundreds and caused such blowback for Iran that it backed away from terrorism in Latin America for years.

What about Burgas? The not-so-secret secret war that’s been brewing between Iran and Israel in recent years has been spilling out all over the place. Iran has repeatedly pointed the finger at Netanyahu & Co. for the killings of its nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions, plus major cyber attacks against its defense infrastructure, with American help – which sounded rather conspiratorial, until someone in the Obama administration admitted that the U.S. and Israel really are behind the cyber-shenanigans.

As pointed out today by Uzi Arad, the former Israeli national security adviser, the current shadow war between Tehran and Tel Aviv began in February 2008, with the Israeli assassination of Imad Mughniyah, Hizballah’s longtime operations boss and a top Pasdaran officer (and the world’s leading terrorist for more than two decades; Osama was never the varsity), and since then Iran has retaliated repeatedly and by now the lethal tit-for-tat has taken on a momentum all its own.

So the odds on Iranian culpability for yesterday’s crime are good, particularly given Tehran’s involvement with low-rent and downright kooky terrorist efforts of late, but there are mitigating factors. First, Iran and Hizballah historically haven’t been a big concern in Bulgaria. Security officials in Sofia have usually rated them pretty low-down on the pecking order of threats (the last time Iranian intelligence was in Bulgarian news for violence was back in 1993 when an Iranian operative was killed by local mafiosi in a gunfight; Tehran’s man was either a spy moonlighting as a drug baron, or a drug baron moonlighting as a spy).

Moreover, the Balkans aren’t known for suicide bombings – that’s more of a London thing, really – while Iran’s once impressive terror infrastructure in Southeastern Europe has been whittled down in recent years. Back in the 1990s, Tehran built up a robust  intelligence posture in the Balkans, with hundreds of Pasdaran operatives serving in Bosnia during that country’s civil war (this was a story mostly ignored by U.S. media but there’s a fabulous book on the subject if you want to know the facts). But after some missteps, including getting caught using Hizballah as a cut-out to try and blow up the U.S. Embassy in Croatia in 1995, Iran gradually reduced its networks in the region. While Tehran still maintains a noteworthy intelligence presence in the Balkans, they generally have kept a lower profile, particularly since 9/11. They – like Al-Qa’ida – consider the Balkans to be a safe haven of sorts in Europe, not a major operational venue.

Until, perhaps, now. If Tehran is behind the Burgas atrocity, that says something significant about Iran’s increasing willingness to go ugly in the shadow war with Israel. That the still-quite-revolutionary revolutionary regime might do this while the U.S. Navy is significantly increasing its assets in the Persian Gulf speaks to Tehran’s unwillingness to back down in the face of Western military might.

This will likely get interesting, and dangerous, perhaps a good deal quicker than many are expecting. Let’s see what evidence the Israelis come up with to match this week’s claims of Iranian terrorism.

UPDATE: While the Bulgarian foreign minister has pronounced that it’s “wrong and a mistake” to blame anyone at this point in the Burgas investigation, a noted Israeli defense analyst has stated, “Netanyahu wants to turn the Israeli intelligence failure over Bulgaria into an excuse to strike Iran,” noting that it took Bibi a whole two hours to point the finger at Tehran yesterday.

UPDATE 2.0: While the Israeli media today generally endorses the government’s view that the Burgas attack probably was the work of Hizballah (read: Tehran), many commentators are counseling caution – unlike the Netanyahu cabinet – before Israel retaliates: “given the current situation in the Middle East, which is both uncertain and sensitive, much thought should be invested here,” says Ron Ben-Yishai.

UPDATE 3,0: Senior U.S. official confirms to NYT that American intelligence believes that the Burgas bomber was part of a Hizballah cell operating in Bulgaria, and this was Iranian “tit for tat” against Israel for recent attacks on Iranian interests, though no specific intelligence supporting that conclusion has been cited.


When I was an NSA officer my co-workers and I always found it amusing to laugh at the high-silliness Hollywood portrayals of No Such Agency (as we used to call it), monitoring average Americans in the minutiae of their daily lives. Enemy of the State may have been a serviceable action flick but it was a deeply misleading portrayal of what NSA actually does.

After 9/11 NSA got mired in the so-called wiretapping scandal, something which the left got quite hot and bothered about during George W. Bush’s second term; yet as with drones, we’ve heard minimal civil liberties yelping from the MSNBC crowd now that their guy is in charge.

I have to confess the post-9/11 kerfuffle never moved me much, since I knew what was actually going on, and that it bore scant resemblance to what the media portrayed as gross civil liberties violations. Moreover, it all looks different when you’re on active service, charged with protecting the nation and its citizens from terrorists bent on mayhem and murder. You don’t have the luxury of pontificating quite the same way you do as when you’re blogging with bunny slippers on.

That said, huge changes in telecommunications in the last decade-plus have thrown up a very different intelligence playing field. Simply put, everything is out there in the online world, in the ‘trons somewhere, just waiting to be picked up and exploited. And you don’t have to be a hardcore civil libertarian, as I am not, to be a tad concerned about the implications of all this. In the borderless online world, what exactly are the boundaries? It was all a lot clearer back in 1993 when U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, USSID 18 to the cognoscenti, was promulgated. But that was a long, long time ago in telecom. Now it’s … murky.

In recent years several NSA whistlebowers have come forward to explain how Big Brother really is listening in on you, reading your emails, snooping on your chats, et al. Most of those speaking out are individuals with agendas and sometimes failed careers behind them.

But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

 “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.

NSA’s historical record in this arena can be considered less than stellar. During World War Two the U.S. signals intelligence service, NSA’s forerunner, began collecting drop-copies of every telex – you can explain to the kids and grandkids what those were – going in and out of the United States. This huge undertaking, which sucked up on average 150,000 messages per month, continued for 30 years as Operation SHAMROCK until it was shut down by the NSA director just before Congress got overly interested. Worse, beginning in 1967 – yes, under LBJ, not Tricky Dick – NSA started Operation MINARET, the listening in on several thousand domestic individuals and groups considered hostile or subversive.

This Congress did get pretty worked up about during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, which led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, as well as the construction of “the wall” between law enforcement and intelligence which worked quite well at protecting civil liberties but was rather less effective at thwarting terrorists bent on their “big wedding” …. as we found out on 9/11.

More than a few NSAers were unhappy with the misuse of their Agency during the Johnson and especially Nixon years. One of them was my father, a career NSA officer (full disclosure: both my parents were career NSAers – it was an interesting childhood; I was “born with clearances” in insider jargon) who felt that his Agency had exceeded its mandate and was acting unconstitutionally. He voiced his concerns “up the chain” as they say. Back in the early 1970s the Agency still lived by the mantra of Never Say Anything so going to the media was unthinkable. Even limiting one’s protest to internal channels was not, shall we say, a career-enhancing move for a few years, until Congress changed everything, but it was a principled stand. A few years later, NSA would get very concerned about protecting the country from foreign threats in a manner consistent with the Constitution and our values: a balance which can be difficult to achieve consistently in the real world.

That terrible day in late summer 2001 rightly changed a lot about how U.S. intelligence fights terrorism. The infamous “wall” got lowered and even moved around a bit. If what Bill Binney says is true it has been lowered considerably more and may have been chopped down altogether, and that is something we should all be discussing.