Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

US Intelligence and the Press

Yesterday, George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted an interesting discussion moderated by Michael Morell and four prominent Washington journalists regarding coverage of intelligence by journalists.  The journalists were Andrea Mitchell, long-time NBC correspondent who has covered everything in the last forty years; David Ignatius who has a similar depth of experience with the Washington Post; Peter Finn another long time journalist at the Post and currently their national security editor; and finally, Suzanne Kelly, formerly with CNN who the founder of the specialized national security web publication “Cipher Brief”.

There was discussion of the usual tension between government secrecy and first amendment freedoms specially blessed on the press.

Then, keying on the issue now prominent from the Julian Assange case, Morell politely asked the key question facing the press today:  Who is a journalist (and implicitly receives the special protections of the first amendment)?  The panel largely dodged the question.  Peter Finn came closest to candor by saying that it was an open issue, but one thing for sure was he did not want the government to define who was a journalist.  Then quickly turned to something else.

This is a critical question.  The journalists on the panel would be hard to dispute as real journalists.  They have lived by the standard ethics and principles of old school journalism.  But who defines a journalist?  Today you can “self-identify” as many things.  Pick up a paint brush, put on a beret, and presto, you’re an artist!  And with that you get artistic license!

Journalism similarly lacks formal certification criteria.  Get a lap-top, write a blog and you’re a journalist.  Or, use a cell phone and  create a You Tube product.  All the editorial standards and editorial oversight that the experienced journalists on the panel yesterday referenced are out the window.

Old time journalists are trying, with justification, to preserve their independence and first amendment rights, but the hoards of others who have no loyalty to ancient journalistic ideals of fact-checking, sourcing, etc. swarming the new media.  Perhaps the Post, Times, and NBC  do strive to retain old standards rather than just generate clicks as the seasoned news veterans described at the panel yesterday.  But that certainly doesn’t look like the future to me.

There is an inevitable crash concerning who qualifies as a journalist.  If the media does not establish criteria that are sustainable in court, then it may well be that government does need to step in.  This an issue that cannot be dodged.  “Journalists” are going way beyond reporting facts and are now actively seeking to shape outcomes–not just for their own interests but for foreign interests.  There is a crisis in journalism–it would be interesting to see more reporting on it.

Posted in Intelligence, journalism coverage, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Space News – And National News

Tuesday this week, in a speech before the National Space Council, Vice President Pence announced that the US would land its astronauts on the Moon again within five years.  He said:

“And I’m here, on the President’s behalf, to tell the men and women of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the American people that, at the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.

And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil.”

This strikes me as a big deal.  The Trump Administration has been consistently vigorous in pushing American space programs both government and private.

The three major networks all carried a space story on the evening news–but not the commitment by the US to return to the moon in five years.  No, edging out that story was the cancellation by NASA of the first “all women” spacewalk because they discovered that one of the spacesuits they had on the space station did not fit the astronaut.  Now, admittedly, this raises some concerns about NASA mission planning.

But what is it about this space story that makes it a headline while the announcement of the commitment to return to the moon is not?

 

 

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The Value of Allies – It’s Personal

In his resignation letter, Secretary of Defense General Mattis called out the importance of Allies for US national security.  I expect his eloquent statement will be long-quoted by those involved in foreign policy.  But I bet it resonates even more with individuals who have  served the US in almost any capacity overseas–military, intelligence, diplomats, Peace Corps, USAID, etc.  It’s personal.

I’ve worked with the French in Chad, Brits various places, Aussies in Iraq, etc.  The value of having kindred spirits who can be called upon (or vice versa) when the unexpected happens is invaluable.  Out in the field, you need friends.  Whether its another embassy that can help or other views to inform decisions or reports.  The US and allies who share overarching principles are invaluable.  In a pinch they can save your life–and vice versa.

Remember the role Canada played in helping some of our embassy staff escape from Iran during the revolution.  They took a big risk.  There are lots of other examples–some will never be public.  Some probably never known at “policy levels” of either government.

If you have served the US abroad–it’s blindingly obvious allies are vital.

In Washington, perhaps other short term arguments may obscure fundamental points.  Mattis reminds us that alliances of governments who share long-standing ideals and principles are the core to international security.  Maybe we pay more in NATO, but don’t for a second think we don’t get a lot of benefit.  Sure we should argue for greater contributions when others begin to take things for granted.  But the benefit we get should be remembered.

Lost in the news yesterday was an example. The US Justice Department indicted two Chinese individuals for theft of data by hacking.  It would be meaningless but for the fact that several other countries stepped forward with similar steps.  We have been attacked for over a decade by the Chinese is this way.  We will need allies to effectively turn this around.

Maybe something good will come of Mattis’ resignation if it serves to remind everyone of the elemental need to have as many on this planet who share our common ideals.  For those who have served abroad, its also personal and obvious.

Posted in Allies, Iraq, NATO | Leave a comment

Syrian CW Use – Why? There’s a good reason

Many have wondered why Syrian would continue to use chemical munitions recognizing that the international community would condemn such actions. After all, they received some measure of positive recognition when acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and allowed the OPCW inspectors to supervise the removal/destruction of their (large) declared CW capacity. They did a good job though it is now apparent that Syria retained a limited capacity in contravention of their treaty obligations. So why incur all the wrath of the international community just to use some limited chlorine (possibly also sarin) barrel bombs? After all, (and the Russians) have been bombing extensively with conventional weapons to great effect.

They answer may be the extensive tunnels that Jaesh al-Islam seems to have had in Douma. Clearing insurgents out of tunnels is not an easy military task. A uniquely effective tool could be Chlorine gas. Conventional bombing will drive insurgents (and civilians) into basements and bunkers. Chlorine is a perfect response to that. It is heavier than air and sinks to lower levels. Using chlorine will flush insurgents out of their tunnels and remove their last bastion of protection. It was shortly after Basher al-Assad used chlorine that the last insurgents agreed to evacuate Douma.

And now the presence of insurgent tunnels is beginning to become know.

Chlorine and barrel bombs seem to have been the perfect weapon for this military problem.

Sadly, I doubt Bashir al-Assad will be deterred from using this potent weapon in similar circumstances in the future. The airstrike of last Friday night may have sent a message, but it was mixed. It seems we launched over one hundred cruise missiles, some very advanced and NO ONE WAS HURT! That seems a peculiar measure of merit.   Possibly there was some damage to buildings that may have been associated with chemical weapons fabrication, but the fear of upsetting the Russians constrained targeting to the point where on the order of a quarter billion dollars of our most sophisticated munitions are expended with the caution that no one should be hurt. Bashir al-Assad’s uses weapons with exactly opposite purpose.

 

The Russian certainly are protected the regime—sort of a variation of Saddam’s use of civilians as human shields.

 

Following last years strike, the White House put out a detailed compilation of the essential data that supported their assessment about Syrian CW use. This time they have not yet. The French have issued a fairly detailed paper. More could be done.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, an expert in dealing with UN inspectors, will continue to offer alternative explanations and arguments. He will challenge UN inspectors and assert that they have not proved their case. Lavrov, did this with great panache when I was deputy Chairman of the UN Iraq weapons inspection team called UNSCOM (Lavrov was the Russian ambassador to the UN). He would have to think that little green men could have dropped chemical agent from flying saucers, or, if you found that unlikely, then the weapons inspectors themselves were at fault. But certainly there are many other explanations for the data presented by west. Washington needs to counter this in a more compelling manner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Russia, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Kim Jong Un – We have no clue what motivates/deters him….

The September 18, 2017 New Yorker had a very good article about Kim Jong Un by Evan Osnos.  He made the point that we really have no idea what motivates him (or perhaps more importantly, would deter him).  And, or course Kim Jong Un will have the same problem viewing Washington.  We experienced similar ignorance about Saddam in 2002-3.  Only afterwards did we learn a great deal about his incentives, goals, etc.  Wisdom can come late and at great cost.  It’s important to recognize that we are very ignorant about what Kim sees as a plus or a minus–and vice versa. Below is a letter I sent regarding this article and published in the New Yorker of October 16, 2017.

TRUMP VS. KIM JONG UN

I directed the Iraq Survey Group, which detailed the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and, more important, the internal dynamics of Saddam Hussein’s regime (“On the Brink,” September 18th). Reading Evan Osnos’s report about Kim Jong Un and North Korea, I noticed some striking parallels. Saddam made assumptions about President Bush and Washington that were wildly off the mark; he did not know what motivated Washington, and Washington did not know what motivated him. So it is now with Kim and Donald Trump. Osnos notes that there is no U.S. Embassy in Pyongyang. Similarly, the U.S. closed its Embassy in Iraq in 1990 and reopened it only after the invasion of 2003. This dramatically limited the number of Americans who had any contact with Iraqis inside Iraq. The quality of U.S. decisions—and the understanding of the public—suffered from that. The same will be true of North Korea.

Charles Duelfer

Fairfax, Va.

Posted in Iraq, North Korea | 1 Comment

Iraq – Avoiding the Next Insurgency

It is blindingly obvious that while ISIS soon may be expelled from Mosul, absent any further US policy change, there will be a renewed insurgency fueled by disaffected Sunni groups.

This is depressingly similar to Spring 2003. I was in Iraq in early April 2003 meeting with assorted Iraqis that I had come to know well from several years as the deputy head of the UN Iraq weapons inspection group, UNSCOM. It was clear at the time that, having removed Saddam but lacking anything to hold the Iraq together, there was inevitable conflict around the corner.

Worse were the US decisions to disband the army and condemn Baathists to having no future in Iraq. The pending turmoil was clear to see. The freshly disenfranchised Iraqis implored the US to listen to them. If the US offered no hope, then many would chose insurgency. It was clear in May of 2003 that if there was no major change by the US, there would be an insurgency by the 4th of July. There was.

We are at a similar moment. A range of groups with roots in the initial mistakes of 2003, will have little choice but to re-ignite internecine conflict. In fact, it’s worse this time. Iran has a strong motive and ability to fan those flames. Tehran does not desire a strong Iraq that is inclusive of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tribes, territories and interests. The fragile progress that has been made by Prime Minister Abadi in nurturing national institutions and trying to constrain corruption will collapse. If the US does not take a bolder position in supporting an inclusive empowered central government, Abadi will remain weak and unable to rein in sectarian violence, corruption and the militias of various stripes.

Yes, Iraq is a mess. But it will get worse if the Washington refuses to take a stand. The Iranians, Turks, Kurds Gulf States, Russians and various Iraqi factions are tough for anyone to balance. But if the next elections in Iraq—2018—are not to be the last serious elections in Iraq, then all these parties must know that the US will put its weight and resources in back of Abadi’s efforts to reform the national Iraqi government. And time is running out.

Iran understands this. The Kurds understand this. And, the various Sunni resistance groups understand this. They do not want to return to fighting. The older members know the costs and privately indicate they just need some indication of a process that will include them and that the US will back or even just monitor, in some fashion.

However, as things now stand, the same forces that were shut off from any hope of a future in spring of 2003 will resort to violence and destruction. Assorted resistance groups will have no choice but to fight. External interests are reported to be offering weapons, training and funding. They are being goaded to take on, not only the militias that are largely Shia and supported by those aligned with Iran (i.e. former Prime Minister Maliki), but also to attack the US presence.

Ironically, Iran is reported to be offering resources via Maliki to these latent insurgent groups. Yes this means Iran is funding both sides of a conflict. This is not really surprising in that region.

Still, these groups, as in 2003, may avoid the path of renewed insurgency if they feel they have an alternative. It is imperative that the US supports a dialogue in some fashion between them and the central government.

Abadi, whose intentions are widely seen as being good, cannot take such steps without strong backing. There are lots of opposing forces, not just Maliki and his segment of the Dawa party, but the corrupt Sunni officials in Baghdad who do not want to risk losing their influence to Sunni empowered leaders in the Sunni provincial areas of Iraq.

Iran has a strong interest in a weak Iraq and will support groups that keep turmoil going. The Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis have different stakes in Iraq. Likewise, Turkey has its separate interests to support. And Russia has made its presence known. These competing interests can only be brought in line if there the US engages forcefully and influence events leading to the elections next year. If the vacuum of American disinterest (beyond defeating ISIS) continues, chaos will blossom.

The US needs to keep its military presence, support and training in Iraq post Mosul. In fact, an expansion would help. Building up a degree, perhaps at Qayyara military air base near Mosul and or Al Assad air base would send a potent message to all parties. (Other bases in Turkey and Qatar are recently looking less certain.)

The US should continue training for security forces in liberated areas and the Iraqi Army generally. It will have to encourage the provision of reconstruction efforts that are channeled directly to the regions that will use them. But it will also have to take convincing positions regarding strategy of engagement with all the outside parties—reversing our hands-off image.

Iran and its supporters in Iraq need to know that they will pay a price for fostering sectarian violence in Iraq. At the same time, all must know that the US will support the Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts for a strong Iraq with robust national institutions that represent all Iraqis. Of course that’s what we say now, but it’s not what people see on the ground. They see that Abadi cannot control the militias operating in his own country. They see that militias can take hostages and prisoners and Abadi has no control over their fate. This needs to change.

Washington must have a robust strategy for the political/military process leading to the next elections. Iran has a broad network of support and Iraqi politicians who will act consistent with Tehran’s interests—former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Badr Organization head Hadi al Amiri are the most prominent. Our current policy is not to pick winners. Well that sounds good, but we can sure tell who is bad. We can act to level the playing field that is now wildly tilted against a favorable outcome. Maliki is rumored to be one of the richest men in the Middle East. That means there are a lot of people in Baghdad whom he owns.

Only the US can step in and make a powerful stand that can give some hope to the disaffected Sunni resistance that there is a political path open to them. They know Abadi’s heart may be open to their views, but Abadi, without US support, is far too weak to take the necessary steps toward dialogue that would fend off the coming insurgency. The other parties will learn from this—i.e. the US is going to be reckoned with.

There is no time to be lost for the US to make clear it understands the stake it has in Iraq and its interest in Iraq extends far beyond the limited goal of removing ISIS.

Posted in Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, Mosul, Sunni | Leave a comment

Syria CW Use – Why?

The headline news of Syrian use of Sarin last month has faded from memory.   Even the US strike against the Syrian base at Khan Sheikhoun seems to have sunk beneath the daily harangue of Trump news. The military strike seems to have accomplished its various puposes.

However, there have been lingering questions about this event. The US view of the event seems convincing, certainly compared to the Russian hypotheses. But it would be good to hear more and a thorough UN investigation would be helpful.

The White House issued a short paper on 11 April and gave a background briefing to the press (available on their website https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/11/background-press-briefing-syria-4112017). In addition to the obvious evidence of casualties, open source videos, medical reports, and aircraft tracks, they say they had signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence. They concluded sarin was used and the attack was at the direction of President Bashir al-Assad.

Turkey and France have also stated that sarin had been used.

The OPCW (the implementing organization for the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria signed up to in 2013) reports that a nerve agent, sarin or something similar to sarin was used. This is based on biological samples examined at four different laboratories in four different countries. They have not attributed responsibility. It is worth remembering that the OPCW verified destruction of a lot of Syrian CW stocks, but they still have open issues to be resolved. They have not completed their investigation and have not yet investigated on the ground in Syria. .

Some experts have challenged the US presentation on various technical grounds. The background paper does not have a lot of detail that underlying intelligence assessments presumably contain. If those data were really weak, I suspect there would be more leaks–from the briefings on the Hill if nowhere else.

The part I find puzzling is why Bashir al-Assad would order such a flagrant attack that does so little militarily. The background briefing by “a senior administration official” addresses this with the following:

“SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the context in which these weapons were employed, what motivated the regime — the fact that they were losing in a particularly important area, and that’s what drove it.  

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so in the middle of March, opposition forces launched an offensive from Southern Idlib province toward the major city of Hama, which is a strategic city in Syria.  It’s Syria’s third city, and it’s also the location of a key Syrian regime airbase that has been crucial for the regime and the forces that support it for projecting power from central Syria, both along the western spine, from Aleppo down to the south, and also further to the east to support operations in Palmyra.  So that is an airbase that the regime had to calculate that it could not lose.

The opposition offensive approach was able to penetrate to within just a couple of miles of that strategic airbase and also threatened the Hama population center within just a few miles.

At that point, the regime we think calculated that with its manpower spread quite thin, trying to support both defensive operations and consolidation operations in Aleppo and along that north-south spine of western Syria, and also trying to support operations which required it to send manpower and resources east toward Palmyra, we believe that the regime probably calculated at that point that chemical weapons were necessary in order to try to make up for the manpower deficiency.  

That’s why we saw, we believe, multiple attacks of this nature against locations that the regime probably determined were support areas for the opposition forces that were near Hama — for example, in the town of Al-Tamanah and then in the town of Khan Sheikhun, both of which are in what would be, in military terms, the rear area for the opposition forces that were on the front line.

So we believe certainly that there was an operational calculus that the regime and perhaps its Russian advisors went through in terms of the decision-making.

This just does not sound terribly compelling. This is a lot of assumptions on top of assumptions about the assessed operational military rationale for dropping a sarin chemical munition from an SU-22 aircraft given the inevitable international outcry. To violate flagrantly the international treaty (again) for rather marginal military advantage against the insurgents formerly known as al Nusra, seems peculiar.

It would have been interesting to hear the discussion between President Assad and his military commanders that led to this action. Too bad they don’t leak as much as Washington does.

 

Posted in ISIS Chemical Weapons, Russia, Syria, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Syria Strike – Before and After – Watch for Russian Action in Ukraine

Putin will respond to action as would be expected.  It is a safe bet that Russia will amp up pressure in other areas such as Ukraine.

Secretary of State Tillerson, who, with General McMaster put forward a strong case for the Syrian action, will have to address this when he travels to Moscow next week.  He will need a strong message, but combined with a reminder with Washington has its benefits.

Two opinion pieces written with Judy Miller for the Fox Opinion Page. The first on 5 April (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/04/05/syria-trumps-first-national-security-test-needs-more-than-tough-tweets.html) draws from previous blog posting.

The second from today 7 April, the morning after the strike (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/04/07/syria-airstrikes-critical-message-trump-sent-to-north-korea-china-and-russia.html).

 

Posted in Russia, Syria, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Syria CW – Time to dust off Obama’s military options

Syria certainly looks to have used chemical agent in Khan Sheikhun. This instance is a really big deal for a number of reasons–and President Trump will need to act.

First, whereas Syria has been dropping chlorine in “barrel bombs” over the last two years, this case certainly seems to be military chemical agent—nerve agent sarin. That is a big step up from simply using a toxic but far less lethal industrial chemical chlorine. It means either they have retained hidden stocks of agent from what they turned over to the OPCW inspectors, or they have retained hidden production capacity. Both are gross violations for their commitment to the CWC and of course the use of CW is a war crime.

Reports from the site indicated that agent was from an aircraft. This means some sort of CW munition was used. For an agent like sarin, or even mustard, this requires a more sophisticated device and more elaborate procedure for use. Again, putting chlorine in a barrel bomb and rolling it out of a helicopter is one thing, but mixing and loading sarin or mustard in a munition and deploying it in an effective way is far more difficult.   Imagine loading the munition with agent, transporting the munition to the aircraft, flying the aircraft to the target, launching the munition, and the munition has to detonate in the proper way to disperse the agent (in itself a tricky task). Achieving all this, with an agent that, unlike chlorine is orderless and can kill or incapacitate very quickly requires special procedures, protective equipment and probably special communications (that could be intercepted).

On the political side, this really sticks it to the Trump administration. If Basher al Assad did order this as seems highly likely, then he did it days after Washington has changed its policy to accept a Syrian outcome that includes Basher remaining in power. It happens as the international meeting in Brussels is considering how to rebuild Syria. It even puts the Russians in the uncomfortable position of having to defend Syria with transparent alternative facts.

So now we have the Trump administration responding with a statement by the president saying that use of CW by Bashar al Assad was reprehensible, and that it was the fault of Obama’s policies.   That’s it?   What happened to all the tough talk from the campaign?

It seems to this observer that if intelligence concludes as seems likely, that Syrian aircraft used CW agent, then its time to give real thought to dusting off the military options that were planned under Obama in 2013. Syrian airfields, runways and aircraft offer a commensurate target to the blatant violation by Basher al Assad. It’s complicated by the presence of Russian aircraft now. But perhaps it would be a good way for the Trump administration to distance itself from the aura of Putin.

This is the first real test of Trumps foreign policy verve. It will tell the world a lot how he responds.

Posted in Intelligence, Russia, Syria, Syria CW, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

A License to Receive Intelligence?

Should government officials be licensed or pass a test before they can receive intelligence?

The debate about whether to believe intelligence reporting on Russian hacking of the DNC highlights a chronic problem.  Steps were taken to improve collection, analysis and reporting in response to the wildly wrong assessments about Saddam’s WMD a decade ago.  This included better training of analysts.

But there is no training for politicians, bureaucrats and other recipients of intelligence reports.  Most consumers, and especially new political leaders, have no idea how intelligence is gathered or how intelligence analysis is created.  The types of reports, confidence levels, systemic weaknesses, prejudices, and processes are often only gradually learned ad hoc by political leaders over time.  In order for a consumer to make a valid judgment about the quality of a report provided, he/she must have some understanding of how these things come to be.

As someone who has been involved in such matters for decades, here are a few observations that illustrate pitfalls for untrained recipients of intelligence:

There is a tendency to think a highly classified report that few people can see is more important and more believable, than a less classified report.

A report based on stolen secrets is deemed more valuable than one full of information gained another way.  (If your enemy doesn’t know that you have the information, that’s another and different characteristic–important, but does not necessarily relate to accuracy.)

There is a tendency to highlight the unusual or explosive.  If a source in a bar in Beirut says he overheard someone say they had seen no WMD in Iraq, that may get reported, but it would not get much attention in Washington.  But, if a source reported that he overheard someone saying his cousin had a WMD container in Iraq—that account would go up the food chain very quickly.  The data in the first report is of no different quality than the second.

Confidence levels are now usually attached to assessments, but does the reader really understand what low, medium or high mean?

What is the character of the source of the information?  There are a lot of different sources each with weaknesses and flaws and potential for misinterpretation.

Transcripts of conversations appear very compelling.  But they can be very misleading.  Are they translations?  Do they account for sarcasm?  Imagine reading a transcript of a discussion where discussants mention the “nuclear option.”  If Saddam had said that, it would have created quite a stir.  If a Senator on the Hill says it, that’s another matter.

For intelligence analysts, when making an assessment, the downside of over-estimating a threat is often less than under-estimating it.

It’s very difficult to make a downward revision from a high confidence assessment to a lower confidence assessment.  It is awkward to explain that new information may have undermined a previous judgment.

There a host of biases inherent in the system and there are a myriad of peculiarities of how intelligence is gathered, sorted and reported.  Readers of these products can only know how to judge intelligence judgments if they have some understanding of how they’re created.

One useful thing the much-maligned office of the Director of National Intelligence could do is create a short course on intelligence products and processes for consumers and mandate that only those who have taken the course should receive material.

The government spends a lot of time and money checking the backgrounds of people to be “cleared” to receive intelligence.  That makes sense to protect sensitive information.  Doesn’t it make sense to expend some additional effort to make sure the recipients understand the intelligence they are getting?

You need to pass a knowledge test to drive a car or carry a concealed weapon.  Untrained use of intelligence can be very dangerous too.

 

 

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