Shadow Government

Sanctioning Venezuela's 'aero-terror'

Tomorrow the House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a joint subcommittee hearing on "Venezuela's Sanctionable Activity." The hearing follows the Obama administration's recent announcement of sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company and a military armaments entity for illicit dealings with Iran.

Congress has been at the forefront in pressing the administration to further unravel the dangerous Venezuela-Iran relationship to identify and sanction activities found to be aiding Iran's international sanctions-busting campaign and that threaten U.S. security interests. There is no shortage of opportunities. It is, as they say, a target-rich environment.

In fact, the next target should be the Venezuelan airline Conviasa, which is operating secretive weekly flights between Venezuela, Iran, and Syria. We do not know for certain who or what is aboard these flights because passengers are not subject to immigration and customs controls and cargo manifests are not made public.

Published reports, however, indicate the flights are ferrying terrorists and weapons between the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East, meaning that that these flights should be targeted immediately using Treasury Department anti-terrorism authorities.

For example, it was widely reported that Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese national who is serving a life sentence for his role in the 2007 terrorist plot to explode fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, was arrested in Trinidad as he was attempting to board a flight to Venezuela. From there, he was to planning to continue on to Iran on the Conviasa flight.

U.S. authorities established that on previous trips to Iran, Kadir met with Iranian official Mohsen Rabbani, who is wanted in Argentina for his role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.

Rabbani has also been identified by Brazilian intelligence as someone who continues to covertly travel to Brazil and other countries in the region seeking converts to Iran's radical version of Islam for training in Iran. They say he enters the continent aboard the Conviasa flight, which they have dubbed "Aero-Terror."

Citing Western intelligence reports, La Stampa of Italy reports that the bulk of the passengers are made up of intelligence officials and military officers of the three countries. It also said the flights are designed to move military and military-related matériel between Venezuela, Iran, and Syria that are banned under international sanctions, such as components for missile systems.

U.S. officials have already expressed their concerns publicly about the flights, so now is the time to act.

Under Executive Order 13324, either the State or Treasury Departments can designate Conviasa as an entity providing material support for terrorism through its services to suspect individuals and entities and thereby bar it from engaging in U.S.-dollar-denominated transactions.

Since most international transactions are done in U.S. dollars, such a measure would effectively cripple "Aero-Terror" operations, as most foreign banks would simply prohibit business with Conviasa rather than imperil their broader access to the U.S. financial system.

Iran is pursuing a head-long campaign to ward off international sanctions and preposition assets in the event of its cold war with the West turning hot -- and its pliant ally in Hugo Chavez is all-too-willing to be an accomplice in that effort. The U.S. has the means to deter this growing menace before it's too late. All that's needed is the will to act.

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Shadow Government

After the speech, only more questions

President Obama's speech was a jumble of internal contradictions. On the one hand, the president rightly said that there would be no safe haven "from which al Qaida or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." But he also said that after the initial reduction of 33,000 troops, "our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace ... [and] by 2014, this process of transition will be complete." He gave no indication that a significant force, or indeed any U.S. force, would remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The president asserted that "so long as I am president, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us." To this end he promised to work with the government of Pakistan, and to hold Islamabad to its "commitments." Ronald Reagan wisely counseled that "presidents should never say never." Obama evidently is prepared to ignore that advice. Has Pakistan in fact promised to make its territory available for drone strikes for the indefinite future? How exactly will the president keep his pledge if Pakistan refuses to let us operate drones against safe havens on its territory? 

The president stated unequivocally that "those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution." Yet he also said that "America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban." Does that mean that the Taliban need not meet the president's conditions before the United States was prepared to include the Taliban? And if not, why is the United States talking to the Taliban today?

The president has proposed a $400 billion cut in defense spending, to take place over the next ten years, over and above the $87 billion that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cut from the Army's Future Combat Systems program. A major reason for the size of the defense budget is the entitlements -- health and retirement benefits in particular -- that are part of the military's compensation package. Yet the president promised the U.S. military that "we will keep our sacred trust with you and provide you with the care and benefits and opportunity that you deserve." Does that mean that benefits will not be cut, and if so, will the $400 billion reduction be drawn solely from the investment accounts -- the key to the U.S. winning its future wars? 

Finally, the president sounded like a good realist when he stated "we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate" when "confronting every evil that can be found abroad." Yet at the same time, while defending what can at best be termed a highly opaque policy regarding U.S. operations in Libya, the president did not explain why U.S. military assets have been deployed to Libya but not to Syria.

The president is a master orator, and his speech once again displayed his talents in this regard. It raised more questions than it answered, however. As a result, it will serve only to confuse our coalition partners, complicate our relations with Pakistan, and further confound an already bewildered and war-weary American people. 

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