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

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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CW in Syria – Assad will be around longer than Obama

Consider:  Would the events below and ponder whether they would be taking place if the Obama administration were not so obviously just running out the clock?  It’s a safe bet that Bashar al-Assad will be in power longer than Barack Obama.

Last week the UN’s “Joint Investigative Mechanism” reported its conclusion that the government of Syria (the Syrian Air Force) had used chlorine as a weapon in two instances. It also concluded that ISIS had used mustard agent on one occasion. It is still reviewing evidence on some other events before making its final report next month.

This is remarkable from a process standpoint. The UN had mandated an earlier investigation to determine if chemical attacks had taken place in Syria. A detailed analysis by the OPCW and UN concluded that chemical use had occurred. But they were not mandated to say who was responsible. The Security Council voted a resolution last year that mandated the new group (the Joint Investigative Mechanism), to identify if possible, those responsible.   They were given a year. Notably, Russia went along with this, presumably aware that in all likelihood the Syrian government would not come out innocent. And they didn’t.

Now there is debate over what to do about it. Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than a year ago and Russia is fighting by his side. Chlorine as a weapon is not very useful. So it’s a mystery why they don’t put the screws to Bashar to stop.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has something at stake himself since he was a key architect of the diplomatic deal that got Syria to get handover its extensive chemical weapons infrastructure. This was seen as a success in an otherwise dismal theatre. Now Bashar al-Assad blows some of his “goodwill” by using a toxic industrial chemical as a weapon. Go figure.

The UN and human rights advocates are strident that consequences must be exacted for Syria’s violating the Chemical Weapons Convention it signed in 2013. Otherwise others will feel less constrained. Bad precedent.

All that’s true, but in the scheme of things, there are much bigger problems in the Syria/Iraq/ISIS/Iran/Russia/US mess. The US looks a bit lame now because Russia is the dominant actor there and the UN is not going to do anything about Syria that Moscow objects to.

Some will paint the Obama Administration as having failed in its diplomatic strategy of disarming Syria of CW weapons. That’s overstated since the large inventories of weapons and agents Syria possessed (mustard and nerve agents—far more lethal than chlorine) have been removed. This is still a major accomplishment if you consider the risk that this stuff could have fallen into hands of ISIS.

However, the overarching Syria policy has not succeeded in any other objective. Bashar al-Assad is stronger now and the coordination between Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran is a big new reality—just as the US has reduced its focus and attention to a narrow objective—killing ISIS. What remains governing the region in the aftermath, well the US will have little impact—at least as this administration runs out the clock. One thing is certain. Bashar al Assad will be in power longer than Barack Obama.

Which brings me to the ignored part of the UN report. They concluded that ISIS had conducted attacks using mustard agent. Mustard agent is a real chemical agent, not a toxic industrial chemical used as a weapon (i.e. chlorine). ISIS has real expertise and intent. And this underlines the risk of the assault on ISIS in Mosul.

Mosul was the heart of ISIS chemical expertise and facilities. Some apparently have been hit by US strikes, but among the very big uncertainties of “doing Mosul” soon, is the potential of widespread dissemination of chemical agents by ISIS—in Mosul and elsewhere.


Posted in Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, Mosul, Russia, Sunni, Syria, Syria CW, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Tony Blair and the UK Chilcot Report

Below is an opinion piece that UK publications did not print.  It seems anything that would appear to defend the actions of Prime Minister Tony Blair is of no interest.  My take on the Chilcot review of the UK actions regarding Iraq….

One consequence of the long delay in issuing the Chilcot Report is that the context in which the events took place is a distant memory. The American reviews of the policy and intelligence decisions were made more contemporaneously. They certainly identified errors of process and judgment, particularly in the US intelligence community. The fact that these reviews took place closer to the time of the crucial decisions, however, implicitly meant readers had a better understanding of the urgency and dangers leaders in both executive and legislative branches felt.

I spent over six years investigating Saddam’s WMD programs in the 1990’s as Deputy Chairman of the UN Iraq inspection team dubbed UNSCOM. I also led the Iraq Survey Group throughout 2004 that produced the definitive report on those programs after the war. The later effort answered the questions remaining from the former. In 2004, we had access to sites, documents and the Iraqis themselves, including Saddam. From this experience, there are several points that are important to highlight in considering the Chilcot Report.

In 2002, we knew Saddam had a history with WMD—a positive history from his perspective. His use of chemical munitions during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980’s arguably saved him. Iran was conducting “human wave” attacks against Iraq positions with good effect. Saddam responded by using 101,000 chemical munitions.

Less obvious, but even more potent for Saddam, was the role played by WMD in the 1991 Kuwait war. Saddam possessed both chemical and biological weapons (and was close to achieving a nuclear weapon). He ordered chemical and biological weapons to be loaded, dispersed, and he pre-authorized their use in the event coalition forces moved on Baghdad. Iraq detailed these actions to UN inspectors in 1995 and stated their view that this contributed to deterring the United States from going to Baghdad in 1991.

Intelligence analysts and weapons inspectors saw that from Saddam’s perspective, WMD was vital. Combine this with Saddam’s long track record of obvious cheating during the period of weapons inspection activities in Iraq in the 1990’s.  For example, Iraq denied having any offensive biological weapons at all for over four years. This history did not incline inspectors or the US intelligence community to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt when he could not demonstrate verifiably that he had gotten rid of all WMD. In fact, inspectors could prove that some things claimed by Saddam were steadfastly wrong.

Inspectors left in 1998—when an impasse resulted from their inability to conclude Iraq was disarmed and the US and UK responded with a four-day bombing operation. Saddam refused to allow inspectors to return and from that point forward, Iraq was doing relatively well. Sanctions were crumbling.

At the same time, intelligence agencies were left largely blind. The detailed reports of UNSCOM inspectors ended and intelligence analysts had virtually nothing new to base their judgments. Intelligence agencies made the mistake of focusing on only a single notion, basically that Saddam would be crazy not to pursue WMD. This was a broadly held notion and it colored the analysis of the limited data available. Worse, sources and reporting that supported Iraq WMD were viewed uncritically.

By the time of the September 11, 2001 attack, Saddam’s regime had been recovering as sanctions were collapsing. Today, after 15 years the shock of 9/11 may have faded. However, at the time, there was a radical recalibration of what was required to defend the US. Washington could not afford to “give up the first punch.” It was too costly.

Moreover, there was widespread intelligence reporting that a second wave of attacks was imminent. The US and other intelligence agencies were on worldwide alert for any reports or indications of threats. This produced a lot of worrisome reporting. Much of that reporting touched on the risk of an attack employing WMD.

Exacerbating this was the very real flurry of letters containing anthrax mailed to various locations in the US resulting in five deaths.

This was not an atmosphere where leaders were inclined to minimize threats. Neither was it a time when intelligence officials would opt not to pass on questionable reports. One of the key faults prior to 9/11 was the failure to share information.

In Washington, 2002 was a critical year for intelligence collection. There were very limited opportunities to collect information on Iraq. Reports that Iraq had WMD were received as well as reports that Iraq did not have WMD. Intelligence analysts tended to discount the later saying that Iraq was of course good at hiding things and even some senior Iraqi officials would not necessarily know the true situation. Saddam opposition groups fed dubious defectors to both the US government and journalists. They were saying what many expected to hear—Saddam had WMD.

For his part, Saddam made his own (fatal) mistake in early 2002. At a February meeting with his ministers, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri suggested that Iraq permit UN weapons inspectors back to continue their inspections. Saddam agreed, but on condition that Aziz and Sabri first negotiate a guarantee with the UN that would assure sanctions would be lifted when inspectors found nothing. To outside observers, this appeared to be more of a disingenuous tactic by Saddam.

From Saddam’s perspective, he assumed Washington knew the truth about his WMD status. The world’s last superpower spent tens of billions of dollars on intelligence; his assumption was that we knew the truth. (Saddam’s ambiguous statements about his WMD were aimed at deterring Iran, he later explained.) He suspected, not unreasonably, that Washington was simply using the inspection process to sustain sanctions on Iraq. However, had he allowed the inspectors to return when his advisors recommended, there would have been much more time for them to conduct their work before the political and military momentum built for war to remove him.

In October 2002, the US intelligence community produced its consensus assessment of Iraq WMD in a National Intelligence Assessment. It stated categorically in its summary of key judgments that Iraq possessed both chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear programs were suspected, but, less clear. This document was the basis for both legislative and executive decision-makers in considering the use of force. It was a deeply flawed document now used as an example of how not to produce and report intelligence.

Could responsible authorities have not acted in the presence of such a judgment? Bear in mind that an independent review of the failures of US intelligence on Iraq WMD did not find they were caused by political influence. They were wrong for other reasons.

Finally, two points are worth recalling about Saddam’s actions. First, he was not in complete compliance with the UN weapons limits. He had been developing and producing ballistic missiles that exceeded range limitations. He had been limiting the access of inspectors. Of course these were far short of the violations Washington assumed.

More importantly, as documented in the Iraq Survey Group Report, Saddam had the full intention of reconstituting his WMD after sanctions were lifted. Saddam played a long game and he viewed his setbacks of the 1990s as temporary.

Where we would be today had Saddam remained in power is an open question. Certainly the flawed execution in removing Saddam from power and the series of actions taken in the succeeding years have contributed to the instability obvious in Iraq today.

The decisions taken by leaders in Washington and London were not based on lies. They were based on flawed intelligence combined with real fears of renewed attacks, and in response to actions by Saddam that offered little evidence he had changed his stripes. We should have known better, but we didn’t. Risks and consequences were evaluated and extremely difficult decisions were taken.

Under similar circumstances I suspect current critics might in fact, have made similar decisions.

Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, United Nations, WMD | 3 Comments