Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq | Page 2

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 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.


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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 ( draws from previous blog posting.

The second from today 7 April, the morning after the strike (


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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.

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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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Leaks to Come under Trump?

Overtime there is a transition from an experienced President at the end of an eight year term to a new President who inevitably is inexperienced and from a different party, there is some degree of friction from the permanent government bureaucracy.  This may be more so under President Trump.

A large number of government staffers in all areas have been hired under President Obama–eight years worth with hiring priorities reflecting his goals for government.  The bureaucracy has also become accustomed to the range of options under the President Obama.  It is not too cynical (in my experience) to expect there to be substantial objections to any major changes in government policy or process. I predict, there will be a large number of leaks squirting out of government in response–good news for the press I suppose.

Leaks coming out of the national security agencies will be no exception.  What makes them different is that they may be investigated and prosecuted. Ironically, President Obama’s Justice Department was by far the most vigorous in pursuing prosecutions.  It will be interesting to watch if President Trump will be so inclined.  His team may think about this now, since it is inevitable.  It can also be a more complicated question than might appear.

Controlling the leaks of national security information is important…but not easy when you quickly see how many people have access to all kinds of information.

It’ll be interesting to watch.  I would predict the first leaks will happen before the President has finished his first month in office.

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President with Global Investments – Unprecedented? Really?

Many commentators have been claiming that Trumps global investments are unprecedented.  His financial interests are certainly worth thinking about, but such issues are not unprecedented.  I am reminded of the following story I heard as a young staffer at OMB reviewing Strategic Nuclear programs and command and control systems.

It seems President Ford was disembarking from Air Force 1 following a trip.  This was in the day when Air Force 1 was a Boeing 707, i.e, small.
Well, parked on the tarmac not far away was the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (aka the doomsday airplane) which provided survivable airborne command and control in the event of nuclear attack.  It’s built around a B-747 airframe, i.e. it’s real big.  And it has United States of America emblazoned along the side and some domed antennae, etc. Impressive.
President Ford (not tripping down the stairway this time) sees it and says, “Hey, what’s that airplane over there?!”  Without missing a beat his nearest staffer replies, “Well sir, why that’s Governor
Rockefeller’s plane.”  President Ford exclaimed, “Geez, that guy really is rich!”

It’s not like we haven’t had wealthy, heavily invested leaders (Kennedy would fit that description as well).



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Trump and Intelligence Community

Does the President need to know what is true or what everyone thinks is true?  

This question that did not first arise with Donald Trump’s election.  It is a function of the growing power of social media.  Political leaders have to make decisions and lead the American people. Facts may not be the most critical element.  Yet it still is important for leaders to know what they are (to the extent possible).  The intelligence community may have to rethink its service to their clients to include assessments on both–i.e what is true (as best they can tell) and what everyone thinks is true.

Consider the circumstance during 2011 when US policy decisions were being made about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Tahrir Square was filled with thousands of protestors.  In retrospect, the images of the opposition and social media trends were out of sync with the “reality” of views among the broader population.  Glibly stated, Mubarak was trending down on twitter so we dumped him?

This is simply meant to illustrate the need to know and evaluate both what is true and what everyone thinks is true.

Then next pernicious question is more difficult.  Intelligence organizations not other collect and analyze data, but have the ability when directed by the President, to shape events through covert action.  If the intelligence can collect and analyze what populations think is true, then can they shape that as well?  This is nothing new.  Fake news stories are not new.  They just spread faster now.  The cold war history is full of efforts to shape thinking on both sides.  One simple example.  Stories were promoted by Russia that the US created and spread AIDS in Africa–stories that are still widely believed in the region.

Social media offer an amped up opportunity to do the same things today.  Russian services have a long history in covert actions and it would be surprising that they would not use this to their advantage.  It seems they have tried to undermine the American image of its election process by hacking.

What will the US do in response?  There will be some big policy issues for the next administration on how to use the intelligence community in a world more defined by image than so-call reality.  The world the President needs to understand is not the simple factual, physical world that intelligence analysts have typically assumed.  Their objective reality, while pure and important, is not all the President needs to know or deal with.

And, Donald Trump is not wrong to be skeptical about the products of the intelligence community.  They make mistakes.  The Iraq WMD assessments were wrong. Political leaders made decisions based on broadly held and broadly wrong assessments of reality. It was, ironically a case where what “everyone” (or most people) thought was true was not true, but the intelligence community did know there was a difference.



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Can Iraq be a Solution Instead of a Problem?

There is an opportunity for the US to recalibrate its approach and objectives in Iraq. It could be a positive rather than a negative and its tied to our approach to Iran. The following piece ran in the Cipher Brief today and lays out a suggested approach:


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Trump vs The Federal Bureaucracy?

How will the bureaucracy respond to President Trump? There is in impression, though no real data that I am aware of, that most federal workers tend toward the democratic side of the political spectrum. I recall the distrust that accompanied the Reagan Administration when they came to power. There was deep suspicion on toward the national security bureaucracy. There was a high premium on finding staff who, a) knew the subject matter they needed, and b) could get things done in the system. The later was not easy. The bureaucracy is difficult to move i the best of times. They can work against a president by delay, by inaction, by withholding information, etc. Presidents come and go but bureaucrats tend to remain.
This is true even in the intelligence and national security fields. Some of them are deeply disappointed that Trump is president. They are experts in the system and how the system can block movement–there are myriad ways of obstructing changes in policy, organization, resources, etc.
There are ways to bring the bureaucracy along and even turn it into an asset. But that requires a lot of skill. You can’t, as much as you might like to, simply say, “You’re Fired.” It can take more energy and resources to remove someone than to simply work around them to achieve an objective. This may be a tough reality for a President Trump to deal with. He is going to need a really strong National Security Council and, less obviously, a very strong Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Then he will need real reach into all agencies. Whoever really runs the transition should be very attentive to this dynamic.

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Mosul and Washington – Between Administrations

The period of time prior to a presidential election is always a vulnerable time for the United States. It is especially so at the end of a two-term administration. The current administration is less focused on new policies than locking in old policies and perhaps a positive legacy. It is normal also for the talent pool to have diminished—good people tend to leave earlier. There is also fatigue and a sense of just running out the clock.

Key nations understand this period of weakness. They also understand that whoever wins in November, there will be a period of transition during which the ability to act will be diminished. New people have to be identified for jobs, confirmed if necessary and come up to spend on events and policy options.

Some competitors will certainly take advantage of this period to create new facts on the ground in areas of their interest. Some will see opportunities to influence US policies they do not like.

Russia, China, Gulf States, Europeans and others will all be sensitive to this opportunity.

One particular pending event stands out. Mosul. A highly anticipated military approach to expel ISIS from this large Iraqi city will begin either shortly before or (my bet) after the US elections. As mentioned in this blog months ago, this could be a disaster for the Obama legacy. Yes, they (Iraqi forces aided by the US) can expel ISIS and that is how they are trying to define success. However, there remains the question of what happens afterwards? Who runs the area? Who provides security, what provincial leaders will be empowered? Will it be national justice applied or local tribal? The post conflict stabilization (to use the popular term) is very uncertain. Prime Minister Abadi, by many accounts, is trying hard to strike a good balance. Days ago he met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in Baghdad. But what about the broad range of Sunni leaders left out (sometimes actively opted out) of the political morass in Baghdad?

Military plans are much easier (but not easy) to formulate than post-conflict reconstruction and governance. We saw this blatantly in 2003 and we are about to see something similar in Mosul 2016-7.

US policy in Iraq, always wobbly in this administration, will be even more so in the next few months.  Iran will certainly be aware of this and we can be certain they will try to take advantage of US indecisiveness and the weakness of the central government in Baghdad.  I hope Prime Minister Abadi can achieve his vision of a strong inclusive Iraq at a time when the US is not and Iran has a competing objective.  The next couple of months will be telling.

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