For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
We are pleased to run this guest post from Nadia Schadlow, a friend of Shadow Government and a valued member of the security studies expert community.
By Nadia Schadlow
Is government likely to be more successful by cutting off outside sources of information and expertise? The answer is no. While Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recent Washington Post article covered a range of concerns regarding the influence of two think tank analysts, the wider think tank community should reflect upon the implications of the article before Washington starts the holiday season with too much schadenfraude in the air. Anyone who has worked in or closely with the government knows that its reactions and counter-responses are hardly nimble, and that the tendency is toward overreaction. It would be a shame if Washington drew the wrong lessons from the profile. However one might view specific policy ideas offered by particular analysts, efforts by government officials to reach out to experts outside of their organizations should be actively encouraged. The U.S. military, like any government agency or private-sector corporation, does not have a monopoly on wisdom.
The husband and wife Kagan team profiled in the article are controversial figures for their role in advocating for a surge of troops first in Iraq, and then, in Afghanistan. As we know, wars are profoundly political events -- both at home and where they are actually fought -- and most anyone involved in thinking and writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been caught, at some point, in the ensuing maelstrom. While the Kagans' ideas might have been controversial and disputed and even wrong, it would be short sighted for the government to make it yet more difficult to interact with outside experts.
Although the White House website has over 20,000 "hits" for public-private partnerships and although virtually every major foreign-policy (and domestic policy) initiative of late lauds the importance of such partnerships, the government is in fact schizophrenic about these relationships. I have yet to talk to someone who has said working with the government in any formal capacity was easy.
Yet as the government faces cuts all around, it is scrambling for ideas: ideas to make its programs run faster, smoother, better. Ideas to save money, gather better data, and yes, often, to save lives. It does so with the help (if not the lead) of a rich and varied think tank and academic community. Every major government program, from Obamacare to tax reform to defense budget realignments, has benefitted from the research and analysis of analysts who work at think tanks and in academic centers. If experts on health care or on Pakistan are not reaching out to non-government experts, they are not doing their job. And since these experts need to make a living, they must raise money for the institutions in which they work; They, unlike the government, do not have a tax base upon which to draw.
Think tanks are one of the great strengths of this country. They provide a dynamic environment of intellectual inquiry that helps to refine ideas and translate academic arguments into policy-relevant recommendations. They allow individuals who have been fast-paced operational practitioners some time to sit back and consider the history or politics of a country more deeply, and then go back and work the long hours with greater context. They provide a way for younger individuals to gain knowledge and then "deploy" that knowledge once they enter government.
Unlike the British executive branch, in which senior civil servants serve at the undersecretary level and hold the collective national wisdom in their expertise, the U.S. government populates the executive as far down as the office director level with short term political appointees. In our system, the think tanks and many in the academy constitute the collective national expertise, and every administration rightly calls upon them when weighing policies and making decisions. Many of the more successful high-level government officials today came from this community.
President Obama and other White House officials recognize that think tanks and universities generate debate and that is why they choose to speak at them. That is why White House and other officials cite non-government reports and books, often. That is why even during the last series of presidential debates, both candidates identified outside studies written by individuals who sought to influence debates about tax rates and health care and Iran.
Why shouldn't think tank and academic analysts -- who spend months on the ground gathering information -- form opinions and seek to influence policy? Journalists spend months and months in a war zone, expressing their views in books and articles. Completely by chance I am halfway through Mr. Chandrasekaran's book, Little America. The book is filled with often sad and frustrating stories about how government officials failed to listen to outside experts. The author devotes pages and pages to how one USAID official stubbornly refused to listen to any outside agricultural experts, much to the detriment of may Afghan lives and to the U.S. effort there.
Most who work in this field know that the government, particularly the intelligence community, can make it difficult to hire individuals who have spent long periods of time in specific countries. A friend, who runs a defense firm, makes an effort to hire the excellent candidates who have been rejected for spending too much time, in say, Asia. Should government officials be concerned about calling an analyst who has written an interesting report, and asking for further information? Perhaps even regularly? Are we to assume that high-ranking general officers and senior officials do not have the independence of mind or enough critical thinking skills that they cannot reject weak arguments? Should they avoid spending time with smart people who offer different viewpoints? Are staff officers or mid-level government mangers so threatened by different and even disagreeable views, that they cannot counter them?
Formal government programs exist -- from White House fellows, to the Council on Foreign Relations fellows, to the Franklins fellows at USAID -- to allow individuals with expertise to share their knowledge with the government. Many of these fellows, who spend a year working closely with high-level government officials, have worked at banks, technology-related firms, and for the foreign aid complex. They have existing professional relationships and these fellowships are often funded by outside parties.
I work for an organization that has supported writers and analysts at think tanks (as well as academia) from across the political spectrum: from the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute and yes, the Institute for the Study of War. All of these organizations -- as well as countless others -- enrich our public policy debates. Hopefully, a philosophy of governance that appreciates the value of such interactions and discourse will continue to flourish.
Dr. Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation. She is a former member of the Defense Policy Board.
I am finally mad about Benghazi.
I've been willing to cut the Obama administration a lot of slack because, as a former CIA analyst and NSC director, I've been in the exact situation they were in on the day of the attacks. Something dramatic happens -- an explosion or an assassination -- the higher-ups expect to know every detail instantaneously, and a mad scramble ensues to find any little scrap of information to satisfy the demand for data. In the madness, the typical standards for vetting information are bypassed. That's how policymakers end up running around for a day or two after a crisis reading -- and repeating -- inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information.
Even if there were a few reports from the intelligence community saying the attack was a terrorist attack, I am sure there were other reports saying it was a mob attack. Policymakers will inevitably choose to believe whatever piece of evidence confirms their preexisting conclusions and prejudices. The Obama administration, eager to continue the narrative that al Qaeda is on the verge of "strategic defeat" and that the "tide of war is receding," would naturally have chosen to believe the mob attack theory, especially if they got a few reports saying so. And once you make a judgment, it becomes extremely difficult to revise it in light of new information. While wrong, that's only human.
But former Director David Petraeus reportedly testified to Congress that the CIA's original talking points explicitly mentioned al Qaeda involvement in the attack but were changed by unknown officials to delete references to al Qaeda. If true, the administration's failure to acknowledge the attack as a terrorist strike is no longer an understandable cognitive failing; it is the blatant politicizing of intelligence. Someone changed Congressional testimony to sound more favorable to the Obama administration's preferred narrative.
To be clear, I think it is more likely that the person responsible is an official in the intelligence community than the White House or policy community. Talking points for an intelligence official briefing Congress would go through intelligence channels, probably through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), not through the White House.
That does not lessen the charge of politicization. The intelligence community, ever sensitive to its precarious relationship to its consumers in the policy community, can sometimes censor itself for fear of offending a policymaker with bad news or with a judgment that policymakers could interpret as a criticism of policy. The fault lies with the intelligence community for caving in and showing no spine, but also with the policymakers for allowing or encouraging a culture of censorship and politicization.
This is exactly the same charge that Democrats launched against the Bush administration for the intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A later Senate investigation found absolutely no evidence that the White House fabricated intelligence, but that didn't stop Democrats from accusing Bush and Cheney of pressuring the intelligence community and encouraging a culture of sloppy analysis by loudly repeating their preferred narrative.
If the CIA judged al Qaeda affiliates were involved in the Benghazi attack and some other official (probably in the ODNI) deleted the reference, it was likely because the official knew the Obama administration preferred the narrative that al Qaeda was nearing strategic defeat and the tide of war was receding.
The narrative is wrong, and we should allow for the other side to make its own judgments and get them wrong -- we make mistakes too. The troubling thing is that the Obama administration has apparently insisted on their narrative so much, so loudly, and so vociferously that analysts in the intelligence community no longer feel able to state simple facts that contradict the narrative. Apparently the White House is so inflexible about this position that simply stating a fact like "al Qaeda was involved in the Benghazi attack" would be enough for an analyst to feel that he would lose credibility with and access to the president.
Such intellectual inflexibility and dogmatism is dangerous in the White House. Policymakers should be ever watchful lest they fall prey to group think and bias confirmation. The bubble of power is so insular that the president and his advisors need to work consciously to get out of it and seek out dissenting opinions. That is part of how Bush was able to make the decision for the Iraq Surge against the collective advice of the Joint Chiefs, Congressional leaders, and most others. The Obama administration, apparently, hasn't learned this lesson yet.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Vice-President Biden may have fired up his base with his sneering condescension last night, but I wonder whether he may have unintentionally fired up others as well.
Before the debate had reached the 10 minute mark, FP.com's own Josh Rogin pointed out that Biden told a whopper on Benghazi security. This is not a trivial matter, and when even mainstream reporters are saying that Biden has some "clean up of his own to do today on Libya," Biden must know he made a grave mistake.
Moreover, as this careful reconstruction makes clear, the administration faces very serious and troubling questions about the way they have misled the public on what happened in Libya.
The administration desperately needs a scapegoat to keep this scandal as far from the White House as possible. And that is why I think that, beyond Biden's fact-challenged statements, the more consequential thing he did last night was to try to make the intelligence community (IC) the scapegoat (and I am not the only one who picked up on this). Based on this interview with Obama's deputy campaign manager, the fingering of the IC appears to be a deliberate, coordinated strategy by the politicos -- and it is very risky.
First, as numerous fact-checkers have already pointed out, the administration did not merely go with whatever the IC told them. They went with whatever was the most politically useful story at the time. The Obama campaign keeps complaining about how Romney-Ryan have politicized this issue, but in fact the Obama campaign has played this as a political issue from the very start.
Second, the IC can fight back. Frustration has been mounting for years within the IC over the way the administration has politicized intelligence. At some point, that frustration could bubble over into retaliatory leaks and damaging revelations.
So far, the Obama campaign has been careful not to finger a specific person as the scapegoat.Last night, Biden kept it vague. But the talking points Biden was hiding behind were CIA talking points and the head of the CIA is David Petraeus, undoubtedly the person in the administration the American people trust most on national security -- and yet, paradoxically, perhaps the person the hardened partisans in the Obama White House trust the least. I have been surprised that Petraeus has not personally been drawn into the fight thus far, but I wonder if he heard Biden calling him out last night.
The CIA was not the only national security institution Biden took aim at last night. Even more troubling was the damage he did to civil-military relations, which I will take up in a later post.
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Outrage over the recent national security leaks has been slowly building. It has all the signs of having legs, as they say in the business -- of being a long-term Big Problem, rather than a short-term distraction.
The outrage is bipartisan, and in particular has been voiced with authority and passion by the senior senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, who claims that she learned things from David Sanger's book that she didn't learn as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.
And the outrage is beginning to have a focus: on National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Old Beltway hands see the dots as connecting and pointing to Donilon as the most senior, if not the earliest and certainly not the only, source. The focus may be unfair, or at least based only on circumstantial evidence. Undoubtedly others were leaking sensitive information, perhaps without the knowledge or approval of senior leaders like Donilon, let alone his boss, the president. But when folks like Tom Ricks are starting a death watch the focus is likely to stay riveted on White House advisors, and on Donilon in particular.
This is all bad news for the Obama administration, obviously. The issues at the center of this scandal are the very ones that have been rare bright spots on Obama's record, where even his most ardent critics have given him praise. Indeed, what the self-aggrandizing leaking has done is to shift the story-line from how the Obama administration helped protect our national security by successfully pursuing Bin Laden to how the Obama administration has hurt national security by bragging about the operational details of the strike -- a pattern repeated over several sensitive covert operations. The first story-line makes for a nice Democratic campaign commercial. The second story-line is fodder for Republicans.
One way this ends is with a lengthy criminal investigation that may or may not resolve the matter. Andrew McCarthy has argued persuasively that as egregious as the leaking has been, it is unlikely to end in criminal convictions. And it is unlikely to end before the election, leaving the scandal as an open wound that cannot heal.
Which suggests another way this could end: with a high-profile resignation, most likely Tom Donilon's. By all accounts, Donilon is fiercely loyal to the president and completely committed to Obama's reelection. He must see, therefore, the damage this is doing to the administration and must be keen to stop the damage if he can. Perhaps he has already offered to resign; several of his predecessors have tendered resignations over far more minor matters. The current scandal, which is quite serious and far-reaching, would likely have driven a principled NSA to offer his resignation long ago. The fact that he is still on the job may simply indicate that President Obama did not accept the offer.
I suspect President Obama may be reconsidering. In the past, Obama moved fairly decisively to distance himself from other close friends and advisors who became campaign liabilities. This scandal has all the makings of a major campaign liability, and in a close election, this president can't afford the distraction.
In truth much as I searched, I have found that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics actually has no analogue in foreign policy. Regardless, it is a good way to describe Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Call it the Uncertainty Doctrine.
Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth.
So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly.
Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan and then immediately a pull out date. Should our allies stick with us as we take out just enough bad guys to make the Taliban more vengeful when they return? Or instead should Kabul just make deals with the Taliban? An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable but so is Israel removing one from the hands of Iran. Assad must go, but we will not do anything to make that happen. On the other hand maybe its best if he just stayed -- easier to work with than the alternative.
China was a partner in global action problems -- perhaps even a G2 was in the offing! Together we would work on climate change, nonproliferation, who knows what else? Now the United States needs to pivot to Asia to keep China in check.
Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.
The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"
Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears.
India is a strategic partner whom we would like to join us in checking (or not checking?) China but we are going to leave Afghanistan for India to fight over with its archrival Pakistan.
I think the point is made. Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
Reading through the various detailed accounts, and keeping in mind that we are still learning new things and unlearning things we thought we knew barely a day ago, I am struck by the following aspects of the affair:
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Peter Feaver is right that many voices got things wrong on Egypt at multiple points over the last couple of weeks -- especially (now former) President Mubarak himself. But this doesn't mean that everyone has been wrong. As Jackson Diehl and others have pointed out, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt has for the past year warned repeatedly, in public and in private, and with specific policy prescriptions, of the fragility of Mubarak's rule. Moreover the Working Group stressed the urgent need for the United States to wean ourselves from exclusive reliance on Mubarak and instead extend diplomatic and material support to democracy reformers in Egypt. As I have noted before, the White House should have seen this coming.
The United States has lost significant ground in Egypt over the past few weeks, by repeatedly failing to get out in front with a clear, united, and public message of support for democracy and against Mubarak's continued misrule. This amounts to a missed opportunity by President Obama to assure the Tahrir Square protestors of U.S. support, and of the entire administration to extend crucial economic and diplomatic support for Egyptian democracy activists over the last two years. As Jake Tapper and Glenn Kessler documented, the Obama Administration's record on this count is a failure, most crucially in its drastic budget cuts and abdication of the Bush administration's policy of providing support directly to democratic opposition groups.
In the midst of today's exuberance over Mubarak's departure, as the White House wrestled with what to say and do next, it should realize that just as important as specific statements and policies will be demonstrating to the people of Egypt, that the United States will partner with them in creating a better future for themselves. President Obama's eloquent statement today struck all the right notes, but he has offered the right words on behalf of democracy before -- it is the deeds that have been wanting.
Specifically, this means holding the Egyptian military accountable for ruling temporarily while staying committed to a specific timetable for nationwide elections, and offering full-fledged diplomatic and economic support for Egypt's beleaguered political parties in preparation for the elections. It will also mean renewed efforts on behalf of legal protections for civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion -- which also serve as institutional bulwarks against the undemocratic inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood. A new poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy offers encouraging findings that only 15 percent of Egyptians approve of the Brotherhood, and only 12 percent want sharia law. Egyptian soil is fertile for the growth of democracy.
What might this mean in history? It is impossible to say. But as I note today over at ConservativeHomeUSA, Feb. 11 also marks the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which unleashed many of the maladies that afflict the Middle East today. It is a telling contrast between the two revolutions that Iran today arrested more opposition leaders and blocked media reporting on Egyptians dancing to their freedom in the streets. We can hope that Egypt's revolution will give a new meaning to Feb. 11. Yet hope is not a policy, as the saying goes, and so the administration should be working now to craft a bold policy that bolsters democracy in Egypt, and helps the Egyptian people turn Feb. 11 into a notable date on the calendar of liberty.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
In an incredible 36 hours of developments, Hosni Mubarak managed to wrong-foot just about everyone, ultimately himself. First he was resigning, then he wasn't, then he did. It appears, after all, that there was a coup.
But as the events unfolded, almost everyone, including bloggers like me, managed to get it wrong:
The Intelligence community. The beleaguered IC was already reeling from White House criticism about failing to predict events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt. (This criticism is a bit unfair since I bet there were some warnings -- given the volume of intelligence products and the way they are written, virtually everything has been predicted as "possible." Moreover, it is clear that those with vastly better intelligence and sources on Egypt than anything the IC ever could hope to amass, the Mubarak regime itself, were also surprised by the flow of events.) Then came the gaffe by Director of National Intelligence Clapper about the "largely secular" Muslim Brotherhood, a statement his staff was obliged to walk back later in the day. And the topper was CIA Director Panetta's admission that his forward-leaning prediction yesterday about Mubarak's departure was based not on intelligence analysis but on television reports. This is an almost textbook case of the CNN effect.
The White House. President Obama and his team clearly expected Mubarak to step down yesterday and gave every appearance of being flummoxed when he didn't. Now that he has, perhaps they will generate a ticktock account that shows a steely command marked by grace under pressure. Some of their most ardent supporters, however, already have spoiled that narrative -- witness Steve Clemons, "The mystique of America's superpower status has been shattered." His critique is surely exaggerated; has any other external power been more relevant to the crisis than the United States? Whoever is number two is a very, very distant number two. But the mystique of smart diplomacy might have taken a hit, and there are serious questions to be asked about the utility of Obama's soft power.
Bloggers and all the other rapid-response pundits. Including, of course, me. Blogging is to crises what radio play-by-play is to basketball. It is always a step or two behind, usually relating the obvious and (hopefully) never driving the outcome. It rather reminds me of the old joke from the national security policymaking world that many memos deserve to be classified, "Burn Before Reading."
Of course, in the end, the person most wrong-footed is Mubarak himself. He lost the chance to leave graciously. He is leaving, but it has much more the feel of the Oscar winner still talking into the microphone despite the orchestra drowning him out today than it would have even yesterday.
Of greater importance is the possibility that he wrong-footed his own successors. As I noted yesterday, the departure of Mubarak is actually the easiest part of mollifying the protesters. Their deeper demands for democratic reform, good governance, and greater economic opportunity for all are far more difficult to engineer. If the regime has this much trouble managing the easy part, what does this say about their prospects for managing the harder parts?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
According to reports, Congresswoman Jane Harman is resigning from her seat in the House of Representatives.
As I indicated earlier, the "thoughtful on national security" wing of the Democratic caucus suffered heavy losses in the midterm election. I worried that with a smaller group of moderate Democrats with which to partner, bipartisanship on national security policy would be that much harder to forge.
It just got a little harder with the departure of Jane Harman. Apparently, her new post will be head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where she will retain her prominent voice on national policy. But she will be speaking from the outside rather than from the inside.
The reports do not say why she is leaving, but it is no secret that she was on the outs with former Speaker now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It is possible that that situation was bearable while Democrats held the majority and became unbearable in the new era. Whatever the reason, it is a loss for the Democratic Party and, I believe, for the country more generally. I wish her every success in her new venture, and I also hope that new voices emerge in the Democratic caucus with her foreign policy sensibility. I just wish I was as confident of the latter as I am of the former.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Australian citizen and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is clearly an "enemy of the United States," as the Wall Street Journal argues, and the Obama administration is rightly considering prosecuting him for espionage. I agree with my colleague Peter Feaver that the disclosure of State Department cables hurts our diplomats' abilities to do their jobs. But a more pressing and complex question is whether the New York Times should be prosecuted as well.
It is a crime to disclose classified information under the Espionage Act of 1917 (see 18 U.S. Code § 793, paragraph e). The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in Schenck vs. United States (1919). The Court ruled that "Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent." The First Amendment does not protect espionage.
The most famous prosecution under the Espionage Act was the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times vs. United States (1971), in which the Nixon administration attempted to stop the publication of a Department of Defense internal history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration lost the case and the New York Times (and others) published the history in full. Since the Pentagon Papers case, administrations have been generally reluctant to prosecute under the Espionage Act both because of the perceived difficulty of winning a conviction and because of general discomfort with the idea of suing the media for the content of what they publish.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
The latest dump of classified information stolen from the U.S. government is extraordinarily damaging to U.S. national security, but not in the way that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, apparently intended. (If the summer leak was a gusher what does that make this latest round, a tsunami?)
Assange is a garden-variety anti-American who believes that the United States is a malevolent actor which engages in all sorts of shameful secret activities that, if revealed, would discredit all aspects of American power. Prior to earlier dumps of classified material, Assange claimed that the secret files would document massive war crimes by the United States. They did not.
Based on the depictions of the cables in the media (the New York Times coverage begins here, the Guardian coverage begins here, and Der Spiegel's coverage begins here, it appears the same thing is true for this latest batch. The media apparently found no instances of shameful behavior -- I am assuming that if they had done so, they would have led with those stories. Instead, the cables document that American diplomats have been doing what they are supposed to be doing: collecting information, reporting their opinions and insights back to headquarters, and trying to build international cooperation in pursuit of core American foreign-policy goals.
The cables document that diplomats often relay information that would be, well, undiplomatic to say publicly. Diplomats often get foreign interlocutors to be more candid when they believe their discussions will remain confidential. Diplomats also opine on a range of topics -- the limitations of current lines of U.S. policy or the weaknesses of allies -- that would compromise an administration's effectiveness if shared with a general audience, but not because the views were dishonorable, or indicated that the United States was engaged in reprehensible behavior.
Assange's damage to the United States is not in what he discovered about the past, but rather in the peril he has placed our diplomats, our friends and partners, and our policies in the future. The massive security breach has made every bilateral relationship more difficult and likely lowered the quality of diplomatic reporting. Will our interlocutors be as candid now that they have seen what happens? Ironically, Assange's attack on our diplomats has meant that our statecraft may be more dependent on cruder instruments of state power, especially brute force. (Elsewhere on FP, Dan Drezner reads the situation just as I do and notes one further likely result: an uptick in intelligence failures as the bureaucracy responds by stove piping information to prevent future espionage of this sort.)
If WikiLeaks had uncovered evidence of gross misdeeds, I suppose reasonable people could debate the balance of interests the dump might have served. Outlandish claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the leaks have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they have damaged the United States and in doing so achieved no higher purpose than the damage they have done. To fervent anti-Americans, weakening the United States is an end unto itself.
In wartime, we should expect enemies to seek to damage us in this way. How will President Obama respond to an enemy attack of this sort?
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
In a four-day journey at the beginning of November that took him through Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki asserted that the United States was "displeased with the expansion of relations between Iran and African countries," and opined that while the U.S. had a "thirst for power," Iran practiced the subtler "power of logic." He described his top priority in Africa as "the exportation of technical and engineering services."
Less than two weeks later, Mottaki had to hastily return to West Africa to deal with the exposure by Nigerian authorities of another, more nefarious export: rocket launchers, grenades, and other illicit arms disguised as building materials and accompanied, apparently, by two members of the elite "Quds Force" unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The contrast between Iran's public campaign to drum up diplomatic support and build economic ties to stave off increasing isolation and its shadowy network of arms smuggling, support for terrorism, and subversive activities serve as a stark reminder of the nature of the Iranian regime and the dangers it poses well beyond its own borders, and well beyond the nuclear issue.
This latest revelation of Iranian malfeasance is hardly without precedent. Whether using the Quds Force -- described by the U.S. Department of State as "the regime's primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad" -- or proxies such as Hezbollah, the regime since its founding in 1979 has sought to project its power and influence far afield, often with lethal results.
The examples are manifold. In January 2009, Israeli forces bombed a convoy in Sudan allegedly containing Iranian arms bound for Hamas fighters in Gaza. That same year, at least three cargo vessels were found to be carrying weapons from Iran, likely bound for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, in violation of UN sanctions prohibiting Tehran from exporting arms. In 2007, a derailed train in southern Turkey was found to be carrying Iranian arms, also likely destined for Hezbollah arms caches. And for several years, the Quds Force has been supplying militants in Iraq and Afghanistan with weapons, training, and funding.
Iran's activities are not limited to arms smuggling. Earlier this year, Kuwaiti authorities uncovered an alleged Iranian "sleeper cell," souring what had been one of Iran's calmer regional relationships. Morocco in 2009 severed its diplomatic ties with Iran amid accusations that Iran was engaged in subversive activities there. The same year, Egyptian authorities broke up a Hezbollah cell reportedly planning attacks against tourism and infrastructure targets.
The list goes on, geographically and chronologically. U.S. authorities have targeted Hezbollah networks in West Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. INTERPOL has issued warrants for high-ranking Iranian officials -- one of whom ran for Iran's presidency in 2009 -- in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Argentina. And Iran's complicity in assassinations in Europe and the 1996 terrorist attack on U.S. servicemen in Riyadh stymied EU and U.S. initiatives to repair relations with Tehran in the 1990s.
These activities, taken together with Tehran's refusal to cooperate with the IAEA on its nuclear activities and callous violations of its own people's human rights, paint a picture of a regime which pursues its own security by flouting international rules and norms of acceptable behavior. The recent revelations of Iranian arms smuggling are not an isolated incident, as the list above makes clear, but part of a consistent strategy utilizing terrorism, intimidation, and destabilization to enhance the regime's own power and influence.
As the United States and its allies try to restart negotiations with Iran, the regime's support for terrorism and other troubling activities counsel vigilance and realism. It calls for vigilance, because even as Western officials seek new points of pressure and avenues for outreach to bring Iran to the negotiating table, existing sanctions designed to constrain Iran's ability to sow violence and instability beyond its borders must be vigorously enforced. And it calls for realism, because it demonstrates that even a resolution of the nuclear issue would only begin to address the far broader concerns about the regime and its activities, making a true U.S.-Iran reconciliation far away indeed.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Although Britain and France have closely aligned interests, they have long found it difficult to cooperate. As Shakespeare once described the relationship: "France and England, whose very shores look pale with envy of each other's happiness." While NATO allies France vetoed Britain's application for the European Economic Community -- not just once but twice. But yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a treaty that will bind their defense establishments tightly together for the coming fifty years.
The treaty commits the countries to cooperation in nuclear stockpile stewardship, development of a 10,000 troop expeditionary force, and sharing of aircraft carriers. The agreement will see Britain's second carrier capable of landing French (as well as American) fighters, and swapping crews. They will jointly purchase transport aircraft and develop UAVs and future attack submarines.
Cameron was at pains to emphasize the agreement's strengths in terms of Britain's ability to fight unilaterally, saying it will "increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity." Sarkozy reassured that France would not balk at participating in Britain's wars -- a crucial argument after the Falklands and Iraq wars.
France and Britain have fought mostly on the same side in their wars of the past century, they've been committed to the others defense through NATO since 1949, as well as have Europe's only nuclear arsenals and its most powerful conventional militaries. They also have political cultures in which the use of military force is still generally accepted as a central element of statecraft.
It has long made sense for Britain and France to cooperate more closely on defense issues. The Blair government took a major step forward with the St Malo agreements in the late 1990s; but France remaining outside the NATO integrated military command since 1967 created both practical difficulties and suspicion in the United States about European cooperation.
France has been warming to NATO for nearly a decade, acknowledging advances other militaries were making as the result of close cooperation with U.S. military transformation. France returned to NATO military staffs last year, removing major obstacles to the kind of relationship Britain has been seeking.
Both countries showed unexpected compromise. Britain has accepted in defense the "two speed Europe" it fought so stridently against in EU councils. France was ambitious for an EU defense in ways that have not materialized; the agreement with Britain can be seen as both countries conceding the EU is incapable of providing the basis for closer practical cooperation. The United States should understand it also as a vote of no confidence that NATO can provide that basis (although the Cameron government would surely deny that, given how much rhetoric about NATO the defense review contains).
The Cameron government managed this all very shrewdly, rolling out their national security strategy, then their defense review, then their budget, and only then signing the U.K.-France treaty. Different sequencing would have increased the outcry in Britain that the budget cuts were damaging to Britain's security. Setting the context as they did, the optics are good European politics (a novelty for a Tory government), good transatlantic politics, and innovative ways to keep costs down.
When Great Britain and France were melding their militaries together to fight The Great War (as World War I was called before there was World War II), the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Foch, worriedly asked his British counterpart, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, how many casualties it would take before Britain were fully committed to winning the war. Haig imperiously answered "it would take but the death of a single British soldier," to which Foch irritatedly replied, "then assign him to my staff and I'll shoot him myself the first day of the war." With the new Cameron-Sarkozy agreements, the French may finally have their casualty.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times is highlighting the Iran angle in the latest dump from Wikileaks. That doesn't appear to be generating as much commentary as the question of civilian casualties but I think it may be more important for shedding new light on the war.
In particular, the Iran reports draw attention to an underappreciated part of the surge in 2006-2007: the ratcheting up of efforts against the Iranian-backed Jaysh Al Mahdi (JAM) terrorist cells and, indeed, on the Iranian agents themselves who had been operating with near impunity inside Iraq for much of 2006. The surge was designed to buy time to accomplish five tasks: 1) pruning the accelerants of the sectarian violence, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) on the Sunni side and the Iranian backed rogue militias on the Shia side; 2) building a larger and more reliable Iraqi security force (ISF) -- in the language of Jaws, building a bigger boat; 3) fostering local, bottom-up accommodation (as with the Tribal Awakening -- a marked departure from the top-down, Green Zone centric approach that preceded the surge); 4) connecting these localized, decentralized efforts to the central Iraqi government, making the Iraqi government relevant to the regions; and 5) pushing the top-down reconciliation steps, the famous "benchmarks."
The first were two sides of the same coin: no one expected the surge to "win" the war, but it was designed to beat the problem down, while building the solution (Iraqi forces) up, until the two were matched again, permitting an American withdrawal. Beating the problem down involved significantly ramped up kinetic operations by "Stan McChystal's guys" against these groups.
Most of the attention of outside commentators focused on the Sunni accelerants of the violence -- how the Tribal Awakening and accelerated raids reversed AQI's momentum. But those inside the administration with responsibility for this issue were just as concerned about the Shia side, especially the Iranian connection. The trove of intelligence reports about rogue Shia and Iranian operations helps explain why.
There is a cottage industry among academics and some pundits attempting to discredit the surge as either a total failure or as irrelevant to what progress there has been in Iraq. The latest Wikileaks dump poses a real problem for them, and I haven't seen any of them yet adequately rise to the challenge: how would any of their preferred options in 2006 have dealt with the Iranian challenge in Iraq more successfully than did the surge that President Bush ordered?
There are two breathless stories today that are hyped as shock and awe assaults
on the national security establishment. I have read both and tried several
times to muster the requisite emotion, but both struck me as the analytical equivalent
The first and biggest, is the Washington Post's long-awaited investigative series on the growth of the national security establishment. Taking its cue from British tabloids, the Post has breathlessly promoted this series with its own brand -- "Top Secret America" -- sensational headlines -- "A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control" -- and extravagant but somewhat unprovable claims -- such as the charge that the intelligence community failed to connect the dots in a timely manner on the recent terrorist attempts because of the redundant nature of the system. Its most innovative aspect is a series of nifty interactive features that allow tailored searches and graphics-rich displays of two basic (and I would have thought, well-established) facts: (1) that the national security world is complex and (2) that defense spending has grown in the last decade. Bottom line: This is a very glossy website that so far seems to try a bit too hard to shock viewers with how much gambling is going on in the casino.
The series has just begun and perhaps future installments will offer more bombshell revelations, but the first installment leaves me wondering what the fuss was about. The major claim that the complexity of the intelligence community has made it hard to manage in a centralized fashion is neither new nor proven in a novel way. I am sympathetic to the charge -- anyone who has worked in government understands how complex the national security establishment is and can probably name a publication or an organization that, in one person's humble opinion, could be dropped without fatally wounding national security. The difficulty is that when you aggregate across a variety of experienced perspectives, you do not come up with a common list of things to axe. One man's meat is another man's fluff, and vice-versa. You need look no further than this very series to establish this fact. The Washington Post team have spent two years talking with scores of people and compile all of the complaints without producing (yet, yet ... perhaps the best is yet to come) any coherent and viable set of reforms.
The two leads, Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, have a wealth of experience bringing obscure matters to a more general audience (full disclosure: Bill and I co-moderated a discussion group at washingtonpost.com called Planet War for a time). I would like to think that some of the purple prose got foisted upon them by editors desperate to generate traffic to the website. So perhaps the series will develop in a more constructive direction.
I have less high hopes for Jacob Heilbrunn's crocodile tears complaint about the waning of establishment Republicans on foreign policy. He begins with the hook that one of the leading Republican contenders for 2012, Mitt Romney, came out opposed to the new START treaty with Moscow, a treaty supported with varying degrees of enthusiasm by several senior Republican wise men. But debates among Republicans about the wisdom of specific compromises on specific nuclear arms control treaties is as old as, well, nuclear arms control. Indeed, because Heilbrunn explicitly avoids taking up the merits of the case either way, he does not demonstrate that this new debate is especially shallow or even especially vigorous.
Alas, the piece goes downhill from there and quickly reaches farce by the fourth paragraph, which reads:
Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama's domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele's comment that Afghanistan is "Obama's war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America's defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama's "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world.
I have read this paragraph several times and I still can't make sense of it.
Republicans have not reflexively criticized Obama's foreign policies. The
"stoning" of Michael Steele by other Republicans was actually a defense
of one set of Obama's foreign policies regarding Afghanistan. Bill Kristol has
been one of the loudest supporters of Obama on the foreign policy in question.
And so on.
But beyond mere sloppy editing, the paragraph and the entire piece betrays a more fundamental wrong-headedness. It wants to claim that there is a new Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy, and, of course, that the new orthodoxy is flawed and a rejection of the old Republican establishment. But the evidence it presents actually reveals something else: a rich panoply of debate among Republicans today and throughout the Cold War. Doubtless some of those positions were flawed and some of them are flawed today (put it this way, George Will and Bill Kristol cannot both be right about Afghanistan). But there is no orthodoxy and it is certainly not reflexively opposed to everything the Obama administration has attempted to do on national security. And, of course, neither is it reflexively anti-establishment. Even a casual reader of the Shadow Government blog will find a range of opinion, and we are hardly the full spectrum of Republican foreign policy specialists.
I can imagine an interesting piece doing the intellectual geography of mapping out various Republican debates. But I haven't read that piece yet, and somehow I doubt it will begin with the premise that Republican intellectuals have sold out to the barbarians.
Two big pieces, both worth reading, but count me just poked, not provoked.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
President Obama's announcement that, in his view, there was a "systemic failure" that almost enabled al Qaeda to make its long-sought and long-denied follow-up strike on U.S. soil has got me reconsidering my view that it is premature to fire Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano.
statement, fueled by fresh revelations of how warnings went unheeded, is an
abrupt reversal from the administration's original stance which peddled the
view that the abortive terrorist attack was an indication that the system had
worked well. Coupled with Obama's vague warning that there would be "accountability
at every level" it now looks increasingly likely that the administration's
missteps amount to firing offenses for at least some. But for whom and when?
Pending fresh revelations, I will stick to my view that we don't know enough yet to determine the level and degree of administration failure and thus the proper type of accountability. We need the oversight hearings first. We do know enough, however, to know that the hearings must be an absolute top and urgent priority. We should demand that the Obama administration cooperate with those hearings and not stone-wall, as some have claimed they are doing. And we do know a bit more about lines of inquiry for those hearings.
Beyond my initial suggestion that the hearings focus on the impact, if any, of the Obama's administration's effort to replace the "war" mind-set with a "law enforcement" mind-set throughout the counter-terrorism bureaucracy, I would add one more: are the failures and missteps that almost led to catastrophe on Christmas day partially a result of the intense feuding between the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence that has characterized the Obama tenure from the start? That charge is leveled in the Post story and it is not wildly implausible. Certainly experienced insiders have been warning of just such a possibility: that the cumulative effect of the numerous steps Obama has taken and not taken -- for instance, the decision to pursue what Vice President Cheney has called a politically motivated investigation of CIA counter-terror activities during the early Bush years, or the failure to resolve turf fights between the Director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence -- would yield excessive caution and breakdowns in interagency coordination on operational matters. Cheney's warning looks prescient in light of recent reporting.
But let's acknowledge that the picture is still unclear and the reporting still based on fragmentary evidence and anonymous quotes from insiders who may have their own self-protection incentives to distort the picture. All the more reason to get key administration officials to testify on the record and under oath. What they have to say may simply underscore the difficulty of providing adequate security in an age of globalization and transnational terrorist networks, or it may very well amount to a strong repudiation of some key aspects of Obama's approach to the terrorist threat. If it is the latter, then President Obama should acknowledge this forthrightly and take whatever steps are necessary, changing policy and perhaps personnel.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
President Obama has said that he is very angry about the leaks coming out of Afghan Strategy Review 2.0:
"I think I'm angrier than Bob Gates about it," Mr. Obama replied. "We have deliberations in the situation room for a reason; we're making life and death decisions that affect how our troops are able to operate in a theater of war. For people to be releasing info in the course of deliberations is not appropriate."
"A firing offense?" Reid inquired.
"Absolutely," Mr. Obama responded.
His anger is understandable, and I have some sympathy for it. It is hard enough to decide what to do without having these
internal deliberations play out on the front pages of the papers.
Frustration over leaks is an occupational hazard of working in any administration. Every member of Shadow Government can cite multiple times
when the president or other principals expressed similar anger during the Bush
Still, my sympathies are not unqualified. The longer the review drags on, the more unrealistic it is to expect that the process can continue to be leak-free. The president is right to want to deliberate leak-free, and the president has the right to extend the process as long as he wants, but at some point -- and I don't know when that point is, but now that we are around day
92 82 since McChrystal initially filed his report, we can safely say we are
past that point -- the blame for the leaks must be a shared matter. (Editor's Note: It is 82 days as of today and won't be 92 days until after the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, which is when the White House hints it will announce a decision ... unless they decide to spring the announcement on the ultimate of late-Friday dumps, Black Friday, in which case it would only be slightly less than 92 days.)
And speaking of assessing blame, with the exception of the original leak of the McChrystal report (the provenance of which is still debatable and I am losing confidence in my own hunch that it was Holbrooke or someone connected to him), it is not too hard to tell who is doing most of the leaking: very senior White House folks (I am thinking assistant-to-the-president-level, and higher). The most informative stories have outlined in some detail the objections raised by VP Biden and Chief of Staff Emanuel to the bigger footprint options. Those stories frame the Biden/Emanuel objections in very favorable terms. Most of the leaks (again with the exception of the initial McChrystal report leak) have had the effect of making it slightly more difficult for Obama to pick the option most favored by McChrystal and the other senior military brass.
I suspect that the president, the vice president, and the White House chief of staff have a pretty good idea who are the unnamed SAO's (senior administration officials) in many of the more detailed stories. And I am very confident
that the more junior level officials on the Obama national security team
believe that the top rank folks (who have the widest latitude for talking to
the press) know who are those SAO's.
So my bottom line is that I expect that the Obama SAO's will not be deterred from leaking, despite the president's strongly expressed outrage.
Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
One topic that is likely to arise during President Obama's trip to Asia, if not in his meetings in Beijing, is the continuing modernization of the Chinese military. Asian leaders are privately, and increasingly publicly, concerned about China's growing military might and what they see as a failure of the United States to respond. This year's Australian defense white paper, for example, portrays a future in which China contests American primacy in Asia and beyond. When one of the United States' closest allies expresses such concerns, Washington should listen.
According to at least one high-ranking official, the United States has systematically underestimated the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization for years. On Oct. 21 in an interview with the Voice of America, the incoming Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral Robert F. Willard, USN, told reporters that, "In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. ... They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they've developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on." Willard should know. Prior to becoming the USPACOM commander, he was in command of all U.S. naval forces in the Pacific; before that, he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
Willard's observation should be cause for concern, but is not a surprise. Intelligence organizations have a tendency to underestimate rising powers. As I discuss in my book, Uncovering Ways of War, U.S. Army and Navy intelligence in the period between the two world wars underestimated the growth of the Japanese military power not because of racial bias or ethnocentrism, but rather because of the very real tendency to look back on Japan's modest military capabilities and project them into the future. As a result, American intelligence organizations overlooked a number of areas where the Japanese military innovated, failures that cost the United States and its allies dearly in World War II.
I suspect that the same pathologies may be at work today regarding China. The People's Liberation Army of the 1980s and 1990s was hardly first-rate. In recent years, however, China has made real strides, including the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in July 2007 and the development of an anti-ship ballistic missile designed to attack U.S. carrier strike groups. Outside a small circle of cognoscenti, however, perceptions of Chinese military power have failed to keep pace with this reality.
If we are in danger of underestimating Chinese military power, China's leaders are in danger of overestimating it. Some portions of the Chinese military have not seen action since China's 1979 war with Vietnam; others have not seen combat since the Korean War. Although China is in the process of fielding increasingly capable weapons, the military effectiveness of the PLA is very much an open question.
The United States needs to do more to understand the Chinese military. The PLA intently studies the U.S. military; the U.S. military lacks a similar curiosity about them. That needs to change. It would be worthwhile, for example, to translate and make available to scholars a broader array of Chinese writings about military affairs. In addition, the U.S. military needs to devote greater attention to understanding the Chinese military, as well as the strategic and operational challenges it poses. Doing so will not, as some assert, preordain conflict with China. To the contrary, a better understanding of the Chinese military should help us avoid misperception and bolster deterrence. Such an effort should include our allies and friends in the region, who have their own perspectives and their own concerns with China's military expansion.
By Dov Zakheim
There are several issues at play regarding the so-called secret CIA programs to target and kill al-Qaeda leadership. The first is whether the CIA should have told the Congress what it planned prior to actually fleshing out a complete program. One could argue that the Congress, or at least its senior leaders, should have been informed immediately upon the CIA's consideration of such an effort. But one could argue to the contrary that, until the program was fully formulated -- with the various legal, international, and other concerns fully resolved -- there was nothing to inform the Congress about. Indeed, one might assert that informing the Congress -- with the attendant risk of leaks -- would have damaged that CIA program prematurely, and, far more importantly, would have sullied America's reputation abroad on the basis of a hypothetical policy that might never have come into being. The proof of this latter consideration is that, in the end, the program never got off the ground.
As for Mr. Cheney, while the press delights in attacking him, and he appears to delight in goading the press, he should not be at the center of this issue. Rather, the debate should be about both whether the United States can and should even consider a program to kill those who wish to massacre thousands upon thousands of our citizens, and at what point in the process of formulating such a program the Congress should be informed.
Reasonable people can debate these issues. For my part, I feel that with respect to sensitive programs of this nature, the probability of a leak resulting from informing the Congress about them must be balanced against the likelihood of their actually being approved for execution. When a program's fate is highly in doubt, the risk of a leak is high, and the consequences of that leak certain to be highly damaging. Thus, it may be better to wait until the program is more fully defined before informing the Congress of its existence.
Ultimately, the question of whether to mark terrorists for death will not really go away until al-Qaeda and its copycat organizations are defeated. What Mr. Cheney may or may not have done nearly a decade ago is a sideshow in this debate, nothing more.
A recent New York Times story and today's column by David Ignatius have surfaced a dispute between the DNI and the director of the CIA about responsibilities for the selection of the "chief of station" at overseas posts. (Tradtionally the chief of station is the senior CIA official at the post and oversees intelligence liaison relationships and operations in that country, as part of the country team headed by the ambassador.)
The DNI wishes to be able to select the head intelligence community representative in the country. The CIA director wants to retain his traditional authority to appoint all station chiefs. Ignatius argues, defending the CIA position, that the CIA does overseas operations and liaison relationships, so the CIA ought to look after the station chiefs.
The White House will ultimately settle this dispute. I write only to help readers understand why this issue is more complicated than one might think after reading the Ignatius argument.
First, overseas operations are much more than the human intelligence (HUMINT) collection that CIA manages. In some countries, the main overseas work -- and staffing to support it -- may concern signals intelligence or other technical operations that are managed by the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office, among others. In some cases the HUMINT role may also be eclipsed by defense intelligence relationships that are usually looked after by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the embassy's Defense Attache (which involves a set of challenging coordination problems in its own right). Then there are FBI/Legatt issues, Treasury issues, DHS issues, and so on.
Second, even where the CIA's role is large, even dominant, for the intelligence mission being carried out in the country, the CIA's role is rarely the whole story. Thus the station chief needs to be an interagency manager on behalf of the intelligence community, or else that job will be bumped to the ambassador or, more likely, get bumped back to Washington. In Washington, the DNI has significant authority to resolve the turf battles, but may not have direct authority over the station chief who should have been part of the solution, not part of the problem. Usually interagency issues are worked out pretty effectively in the field. But there are problem cases. Since the station chief should really be the representative of the intelligence community, not just a representative of one component of it, the DNI has a legitimate concern to ensure that station chiefs are appointed and managed in a way that conforms with their responsibility.
Third, it is the DNI's responsibility to manage the foreign liaison relationships. These relationships are a huge -- and little known -- dimension of U.S. intelligence policy of every kind. Having learned some lessons from years of initial experience with the new DNI structure, the U.S. government sought to clarify responsibility for managing these foreign relationships. After months of arguments and drafting exercises (involving the current Secretary of Defense and former CIA director, among others), the result was codified last year in a presidential Executive Order 13470 (30 July 2008).
That order states that the DNI "may enter into intelligence and counterintelligence arrangements and agreements with foreign governments and international organizations." The DNI "shall formulate policies concerning intelligence and counterintelligence arrangements and agreements with foreign governments and international organizations." The DNI "shall align and synchronize intelligence and counterintelligence foreign relationships among the elements of the Intelligence Community to further United States national security, policy, and intelligence objectives."
So one can see why the DNI might feel some responsibility for the appointment of the intelligence community's overseas representatives. President Obama is certainly free to rewrite this executive order. If he and his advisers think it is worth their time to revisit this Executive Order, they will learn a lot about why it was written this way.
The most worrisome aspect of the current dispute is not its substance. It is an interesting problem, but there are several ways to work it out. One solution might draw on the role of the Secretary of State to the selection of ambassadors. The Secretary always recommends, usually gets her wish, but does not have the final power of decision.
Instead, the troubling aspect of the case is what it appears to say about the relationship between the DNI and the CIA director. That relationship is vital to the effectiveness of the intelligence community. Even before Obama took office, experience had shown why a president should take the time to be sure his appointees in these two positions work well together and understand their respective roles in the broader system.
I first gained access to the OLC memos and learned details about CIA's program for high-value detainees shortly after the set of opinions were issued in May 2005. I did so as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's policy representative to the NSC Deputies Committee on these and other intelligence/terrorism issues. In the State Department, Secretary Rice and her Legal Adviser, John Bellinger, were then the only other individuals briefed on these details. In compliance with the security agreements I have signed, I have never discussed or disclosed any substantive details about the program until the classified information has been released.
Having been the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, I'm aware of what some of these captives did. The Commission wondered how captives were questioned (for details on that, see this previously disclosed report), and the matter is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation by special prosecutor John Durham. Nonetheless, the evidence against most -- if not all -- of the high-value detainees remains damning. But the issue is not about who or what they are. It is about who or what we are.
Based on what had earlier been released, I have offered some general views on "Legal Policy for a Twilight War." With the release of these OLC memos, I can add three more sets of comments, each of which could be developed at much greater length.
1. The focus on water-boarding misses the main point of the program.
Which is that it was a program. Unlike the image of using intense physical coercion as a quick, desperate expedient, the program developed "interrogation plans" to disorient, abuse, dehumanize, and torment individuals over time.
The plan employed the combined, cumulative use of many techniques of medically-monitored physical coercion. Before getting to water-boarding, the captive had already been stripped naked, shackled to ceiling chains keeping him standing so he cannot fall asleep for extended periods, hosed periodically with cold water, slapped around, jammed into boxes, etc. etc. Sleep deprivation is most important.
2. Measuring the value of such methods should be done professionally and morally before turning to lawyers.
A professional analysis would not simply ask: Did they tell us important information? Congress is apparently now preparing to parse the various claims on this score -- and that would be quite valuable.
But the argument that they gave us vital information, which readers can see deployed in the memos just as they were deployed to reassure an uneasy president, is based on a fallacy. The real question is: What is the unique value of these methods?
For this analysis, the administration had the benefit of past U.S. government treatment of high-value detainees in its own history (especially World War II and Vietnam) and substantial, painful lessons from sympathetic foreign governments. By 2005, the Bush administration also had the benefit of what amounted to a double-blind study it had inadvertently conducted, comparing methods that had evolved in Iraq (different Geneva-based rules, different kinds of teams) and the methods the CIA had developed, with both sets being used to against hardened killers.
Opponents should not overstate their side either. Had a serious analysis been conducted beforehand (it apparently was not), my rough guess is that it might have found that physical coercion can break people faster, with some tradeoff in degraded and less reliable results.
Which underscores the importance of moral analysis. There is an elementary distinction, too often lost, between the moral (and policy) question -- "What should we do?" -- and the legal question: "What can we do?" We live in a policy world too inclined to turn lawyers into surrogate priests granting a form of absolution. "The lawyers say it's OK." Well, not really. They say it might be legal. They don't know about OK.
3. The legal opinions have grave weaknesses.
Weakest of all is the May 30 opinion, just because it had to get over the lowest standard -- "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" in Article 16 of the Convention Against Torture. That standard was also being codified in the bill Senator John McCain was fighting to pass. It is also found in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, a standard that the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 does apply to these prisoners. Violation of Common Article 3 is a war crime under federal law (18 U.S.C. section 2441), a felony punishable by up to life imprisonment. (The OLC opinions do not discuss this law because in 2005 the administration also denied the applicability of Common Article 3.)
The OLC holds, rightly, that the United States complies with the international standard if it complies with the comparable body of constitutional prohibitions in U.S. law (the 5th, 8th, and 14th Amendments). Many years earlier, I had worked in that area of the law. I believed that the OLC opinions (especially the May 30 one) presented the U.S. government with a distorted rendering of relevant U.S. law.
At the time, in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo. I expect that one or two are still at least in the State Department's archives.
Stated in a shorthand way, mainly for the benefit of other specialists who work these issues, my main concerns were:
The underlying absurdity of the administration's position can be summarized this way. Once you get to a substantive compliance analysis for "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" you get the position that the substantive standard is the same as it is in analogous U.S. constitutional law. So the OLC must argue, in effect, that the methods and the conditions of confinement in the CIA program could constitutionally be inflicted on American citizens in a county jail.
In other words, Americans in any town of this country could constitutionally be hung from the ceiling naked, sleep deprived, water-boarded, and all the rest -- if the alleged national security justification was compelling. I did not believe our federal courts could reasonably be expected to agree with such a reading of the Constitution.
By Phil Zelikow
I will have more to say soon about interrogation policies in the Bush administration and the recently renewed debate over them, but for now I'll just say this: I am not eager to see any government officials prosecuted for crimes because of their zeal to protect their country. But crimes committed for worthy motives are still crimes, and we have institutions to sort this out.
So has anyone beside me found it troubling that President Obama is making announcements on who should be prosecuted for possible crimes? Whatever one's view of the matter, didn't the administration ardently announce its dedication to depoliticizing the Department of Justice? So why is it proper for the president to tell Attorney General Eric Holder what he should conclude?
There seem to be four possibilities here:
1. No unlawful conduct occurred. That judgment should, at least initially, be made by the Attorney General, free from political influence.
2. Unlawful conduct occurred, but the suspects have a credible defense -- that before undertaking their unlawful conduct, they relied in good faith on authoritative (though in retrospect, mistaken) legal opinions that the planned conduct would be lawful, and these opinions were also issued in good faith. Again, that judgment should be made, at least initially, by the attorney general, free from political influence.
3. Unlawful conduct occurred, and the legal opinions are not an adequate defense. Federal prosecutors, regular or specially appointed, then go to work. Again, the prosecutorial judgments should be free from inappropriate political influence.
4. Unlawful conduct occurred, and the legal opinions might not be an adequate defense. But President Obama decides to issue a blanket pardon for any possible criminal activity.
Or you have option #5, in which the president does not exercise his pardon power but instead, in effect, tells his attorney general what conclusions he should reach about whether federal officials broke the law.
Can you imagine what folks would say if a Republican president exercised option #5? I wish President Obama would just play this straight. He also does no favor to suspects if he politicizes the question of their innocence.
By Christian Brose
An important little detail went mostly uncovered from yesterday's Senate hearing of the Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples. You can watch the whole hearing if you like, but what I found interesting was that Maples had this to say in response to questioning by Sen. Carl Levin:
The Quetta shura is operating openly, as you know, in Quetta. I believe it is more in relation to the effect on the Pakistani population, in particular the Pashtun population in Pakistan that causes the Pakistani government to move at a slower pace. And they have not taken action against that Quetta shura.
What's noteworthy about this is not that the information is new. It's definitely not. It's that, as best I can recall, it has never been acknowledged publicly by a senior member of the U.S. government.
Now that the U.S. government has gone on record that the Quetta shura, essentially Mullah Muhammad Omar and the rest of the Taliban's most senior leadership, is operating openly in Pakistan, it won't be long before policymakers are asked some pretty tough and uncomfortable questions. Like, what are you doing about the fact that our own government now admits that the Taliban's nerve center is functioning not in Pakistan's tribal areas, but in the capital of a major Pakistani province, and not only does the Pakistani government know all about it, it's not doing anything to address it? Furthermore, what exactly are the billions of dollars that we are giving to the Pakistani government getting us exactly?
The answers to these questions (if good ones exist) are no better than the policy options we have. One response, which Vice President Biden and others have advocated, is making U.S. assistance to Pakistan conditional on the government's performance. This is a nice idea, and some form of it may work in a "do more to get more" sort of way. But the challenge of imposing conditions on allies is not new; nor is it easily resolved. You're essentially making a threat: "do more and do better ... or else." But there is no "or else" with Pakistan. The threat is empty, and both sides know it.
No matter how poorly the Pakistani government performs, the United States will continue to give it assistance, because the potential downsides of not doing so are worse. And now that we have admitted publicly that things in Pakistan really are as bad as we always knew they were, I don't envy the member of the Obama administration who will have to respond to the tough questions that will inevitably follow.
By Dov Zakheim
Leon Panetta may know very little about intelligence, but he knows a lot about managing difficult organizations. After all, he was Chief of Staff in a White House that was not noted for its organizational rigor. As Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he had to say "no" more often than he said "yes." He will have to do more of the same in a CIA that is one and the same time demoralized, yet the subject of bitter criticism for behaviors than seem to stretch the boundaries of legality.
The CIA is a tough organization. It has done in many would-be reformers, both on the Right and the Left. No doubt there will be some among the Agency's veterans who will view Panetta as another outsider around whom they can run circles, while newer, younger Agency types, with only the past few years as their guide, may resent what they might see as "do-gooder" meddling with their organization.
But life has changed for the CIA. The one major legacy it will inherit from the Bush years is that it no longer has the same direct line to the President it once did. Rather, its Director is subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence, pushing the organization into the background. In addition, the CIA will be carefully watched by a Democratic Congress that has been itching to tighten oversight screws but was prevented from doing so by a Republican Administration. The Obama team is unlikely to provide the CIA with the same political cover.
So those tough veterans, and those spirited newbies are in for a shock. They may try to run circles around the new CIA boss, but they will then hit the brick wall of Congress. Ironically, Panetta might be a reformer, but with his years in the Congress as well as the White House, he may actually be a better and more successful Agency leader than one who might have come from its own ranks -- someone, say, like Porter Goss.
By Christian Brose
President-elect Obama's pick of Leon Panetta for Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) has kicked up a lot of dust about the merits of appointing an "intel outsider" to that post, instead of a career intelligence professional. My colleague Josh Keating has a good overview of the strange bedfellows now aligning over this issue. This brought to mind what one intelligence professional turned DCI (Robert Gates) had to say about his old "intel outsider" boss at Langley:
What truly set Bill Casey apart from his predecessors and successors as DCI was that he had not come to CIA with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming it, or improving the quality of intelligence. What I realized only years later was that Bill Casey came to CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.
So instead of focusing, as so much commentary now is, on how Panetta will relate to the career service, how he will work with Congress, and whether he will clamp down on detention and interrogation practices -- all of which are essentially management issues -- maybe we should be asking what strategic policy goal (or goals) Panetta should be heading to the CIA to pursue.
I'm told that "wage war against the Soviet Union" is out.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.