June 15, 2021

NSA leaker Reality Winner released from prison – now what?

That’s not a rhetorical question – I think I have a fairly good idea of what comes next for Reality Winner. She will gain fame and fortune as a darling of the left-wing media.

 

Winner was arrested in 2017 for the unauthorized release of a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information report produced by the National Security Agency about Russian attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. See my earlier views on this: Reality (is the) Winner - former NSA contractor pleads guilty.

 

Winner has become the new darling of the left, following in the footsteps of fellow felon Bradley/Chelsea Manning. Many of their supporters believe them to be noble whistleblowers – they’re not. Both are misguided traitors who released highly classified information to the media.

 

There are avenues for actual whistleblowers to report irregularities and possible illegalities – releasing top secret intelligence documents to the media is not one of those avenues. Winner was caught, and admitted her felonious activity. Her plea agreement allowed her to receive a sentence of just over five years (plus three years of supervised release) instead of the 10 years she could have received.

 

Winner has been released from prison after just four years and will remain in a halfway house until November, at which time she will begin the three years of supervised release. She is prohibited from public appearances and contact with the media while at the halfway house.

 

I hope these restrictions continue during the supervisory period as well. If not, I can guarantee you that she will become a media darling, fawned over by the left-wing media and portrayed as a heroine standing up to the government. As I said, she’s not – she’s a convicted felon who betrayed her oath to safeguard intelligence sources and methods.

 

Winner sought a pardon from President Trump, who declined to interfere. She did the crime, let her do her time. I am not sure how you can request a pardon for a crime you admit you committed.

 

Now she is seeking the same from President Biden, who just might go along with the cries from the left-wing media to grant her a pardon. I think that would send the wrong signal to the men and women of the armed forces and the intelligence community.

 

Watch for a book deal….


March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Security Risk (Allied Artists, 1954)


Normally I review movies and series that are based on or about the Middle East. However, I did spend my entire career as a professional intelligence officer – about half the time as a signals intelligence officer and the other half as a clandestine human resources intelligence officer, more commonly referred to as a case officer.

 

One of my pet peeves is the arbitrary use of the term spy. I was not a spy – I recruited spies, foreign officers and officials who had access to their government’s secret and sensitive information to provide that information clandestinely to U.S. intelligence services. They were the spies – I was an American intelligence officer “running” or “handling” them on behalf of my country. Spies agree to betray their countries for a variety of reasons, some honorable, some not – it depends on which side of the equation you are.

 

Security Risk is a 1954 film by Allied Artists, directed by Harold Schuster, and written by Jo Pagano and John Rich. The film stars John Ireland, Dorothy Malone, Keith Larsen, Dolores Donlon, John Craven and Susan Cummings. It’s just 69 minutes long, so it does not require a huge investment of your time.

The write-up on several classic movie sites describes this as an American action film. I would call it an espionage drama, but in terms of the genre in 1954, it might also qualify as an action thriller. There is a lot of action packed into just 69 minutes.

 

The story line: (I will avoid spoiling the film for those of you who plan to watch it.)

 

In the early 1950’s as the Cold War between the two major post World War II powers – the United States and the Soviet Union – heated up, the Soviets were very interested in knowing what research and development was taking place in the greater Los Angeles area. At that time, southern California was the epicenter of American high-tech defense and aerospace research and development.

 

The film synopsis describes the scientist who is the focus of a Soviet espionage cell as a nuclear physicist. I never got that from the film – all we are really told is that he was a government researcher and was working on an undefined “formula.” The cell was tasked with acquiring the formula from the scientist.

 

The venue for the story is the Big Bear ski resort in San Bernardino County. The resort is 100 miles east of Los Angeles, about a three-hour drive in 1954. The scientist, Dr. Lanson (we never hear his first name), decides to take a short respite from his research by going skiing at Big Bear. Obviously, the cell tasked with acquiring his research notes and “the formula” had him under surveillance; at least three members of the cell follow him to the resort.

 

There is also a support asset in residence at Big Bear, which leads me to believe that the Soviets considered the area a popular area for the defense and aerospace researchers and contractors in the Los Angeles area, and likely similar facilities in Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base.

 

As you would expect, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was concerned with the activities of Soviet and other hostile intelligence services – the Bureau is the primary counterintelligence agency in the United States. As such, there is an FBI agent in Big Bear to make sure these hostile intelligence services are kept at bay. You decide whether he is successful.

 

So as not to spoil the viewing experience for those who wish to watch the movie, I will only say that the Soviet cell at some point in the past recruited Dr. Lanson’s assistant at whatever research facility that employed him. This sets up a series of events that are interesting, and yet a bit implausible. It is the assistant who is tasked by the cell to clandestinely acquire the research papers and “the formula” from Dr. Lanson’s personal effects in the lodge suite that he shares with his assistant.

 

Okay, you see why I am baffled by this. If the cell has already recruited Dr. Lanson’s assistant, there should be no need to even mount this operation in Big Bear. Recruiting the assistant would have been a major intelligence coup, providing direct access to virtually all of the doctor’s research projects. Even if much of it was compartmented and not directly accessible by the assistant, the chances of accessing at the main research facility are far greater than a chance acquisition at a ski resort. Of course, without that, there would be no basis for the movie.

 

Continuing, when the assistant gets a chance to search the doctor’s desk, papers, and personal effects at the lodge, he pretty much ransacks the place. This is counterproductive. The goal of a clandestine intelligence operation is to acquire the information without anyone knowing that the acquisition has even occurred. Tossing an office or room only tells the security officials that something has likely been compromised.

 

Of course, this begs the question – why was Dr. Lanson in possession of these highly classified papers while ostensibly on vacation? Isn’t the purpose of a vacation to vacate your mind from the job? Merely having the materials with him and working on them in a non-secure facility violates virtually every security protocol there is.

 

The assistant is successful in discovering the research papers, including “the formula.” As any good intelligence asset, he properly photographed all of the materials. He is discovered while photographing the documents, a fight ensues, and the assistant is able to make his escape.

 

Read this-> When the assistant leaves the lodge, he leaves behind the documents out (he should have replaced them) and get this, leaves his camera there. In other words, he left the very items he was sent to acquire. Sort of like the current joke, “You had one job….”

 

The very first thing you learn at the Intelligence Operations Course, Tradecraft 101, or just plain old “spy school” is GET THE INTELLIGENCE. That’s why we do this.

 

Bottom line: It’s an entertaining story, especially if you have any background in intelligence operations.

 

Watch it for free at the Russian classic film site Odnoklassniki:  https://ok.ru/video/1735416220340

 

 


March 6, 2021

“Yeah, thank you, Charlie Wilson” – the law of unintended consequences

 


In a recently aired episode of the CBS television series Seal Team, there was a quick phrase that probably went unnoticed by most of the viewing audience. Even if they heard it, they probably are not aware of the meaning.

 

In Season 3, Episode 19, Bravo Team is operating in a village in Afghanistan. Overwatch for the operation is being provided by a Predator drone. As shown in this screen capture, a surface-to-air missile is launched at and hits the drone.



The loss of the drone caused a loss of communications with the operational headquarters, and a loss of situational awareness. As the team realizes what has just happened, one of the SEALs remarks, “Thank you, Charlie Wilson.”



For those viewers who were not aware of the level of U.S. involvement in opposing the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the remark may not mean anything. To those of us who were involved in the American effort to support the Afghan resistance fighters – the self-proclaimed mujahidin (holy warriors) – it was a reminder of the concept of unintended consequences.

 

From 1987 until Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait in 1990 and I was deployed to Saudi Arabia, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon as the Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia.

 

When I was not in Baghdad working the operation assisting Iraqi forces, my office was peripherally involved in the Defense Department's slice of the CIA program supporting the Afghan mujahidin - "holy warriors" opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That Defense Department support included the delivery of the FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired air defense missile.

 

At some point in America's support - I think it was 1986 - Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson insisted that the "muj" needed an air defense weapon to combat the heavily armed Soviet MI-24 assault helicopter gunship, the Hind. He insisted that they be provided the U.S.-made state-of-the-art Stinger.


Afghan mujahidin with Stinger missile

Charlie Wilson was a charming Southern gentleman. When I visited his office the first time, the launcher that fired the first Stinger in Afghanistan was hanging on the wall – he was extremely proud of that. He liked to talk about the Confederacy, in fact, much of the art in his office portrays battles of the Civil War. When my boss remarked about a depiction of Pickett's July 3, 1863 unsuccessful charge at Gettysburg, he quietly nodded his head and remarked, "If Pickett had been successful, we'd be having this conversation in Richmond...."

 

Back to the Stinger. There was absolutely no interest at the Pentagon in supplying the world's most lethal shoulder-fired air defense system to a bunch of tribesmen in Afghanistan – for several reasons. First, we believed they could have achieved the same effect with lesser-capability Soviet weapons, such as the readily-available (and not traceable to the United States) SA-7.

 

Second, and more importantly, no one wanted the Stinger in the hands of potential bad guys. Since we had to provide all of the weapons and equipment via the Pakistani intelligence service – the notoriously unreliable ISID – we were concerned that money talks and the Stinger would find itself where we did not want it to go.

 

We were proven right in October 1987 when the U.S. Navy seized the Iran Ajr while it was laying mines in the Persian Gulf. Found on the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessel was a battery of a Stinger launcher. The serial number of the battery was traceable to the CIA Afghan Task Group – it had been sent to Pakistan destined for the muj.

 

I am not sure where it was diverted, but I am betting on the ISID. We in the HUMINT (human intelligence) business used to joke that you had to recruit an "x" (the nationality of your choice), but you could buy a Pakistani – in south Asia, money talks. To make matters worse, during the operation, another Iranian boat fired two Stingers at a U.S. Navy A-6. We concluded that weapons we had sent to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan were being used against us in the Persian Gulf.

 

This is euphemistically called "unintended consequences."

 

When Congressman Wilson was in Pakistan on an official visit in 1987, he wanted to use the U.S. Defense Attaché's C-12 aircraft to fly somewhere. Fine, but Wilson wanted to take his girlfriend along. The Defense Attaché, a USAF colonel, said, "Sir, you mean your assistant." Wilson – looking for a fight – insisted that the colonel was going to take his girlfriend along. The colonel refused; it caused us (well, me) hours of grief trying to save the airplane once Wilson got back to Washington.

 

All in all, am I a fan of Charlie Wilson's? Let's see – a former Navy intelligence officer, a drunken womanizer, but someone who got things done. His heart was in the right place, but allowing the Stinger to end up in the hands of the IRGC, the Taliban, and who knows who else, is the epitome of unintended consequences. 



February 16, 2021

Biden's Iran Policy - Obama Failure 2.0?


Obviously satire, but let’s take a look at what is driving it. It’s simple – President Biden’s ill-advised and ill-timed policies on Iran, basically rolling back all of the gains of the Trump Administration to contain Iran, are dangerous. It’s almost like we are watching the implementation of Obama 2.0. That Iran policy was disastrous then, and it will be disastrous now.

 

Since taking office on January 20, Biden has signaled to both the Iranians and our allies alike that he will be attempting to engage the Iranians, despite the consistent Iranian repudiation of Obama’s efforts to do the same during his eight years in office. In the past few days, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a former Obama official, has stated, “The path to diplomacy is open right now” with Iran.

 

Let’s follow that thought – just who will be advising Biden on his Iran foreign policy decisions? Three key advisors have roots in the Obama Administration – we know how its Iran policy turned out. Remember the optic of pallets of cash being flown to Iran just as American hostages were released. Although Obama insisted there was no linkage between the cash deliveries and hostage releases, Iranian officials have stated unequivocally that there was.

 

Blinken previously served in the Obama Administration as Deputy National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2015 and Deputy Secretary of State from 2015 to 2017. Before that, from 2009 to 2013, he was the National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden. His focus was, among other things, Iran’s nuclear program.

 

Then we have National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Sullivan worked in the Obama Administration as Director of Policy Planning at the Department of State, and as Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then as National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden from 2013 to 2014. He was also a senior advisor for the Iran nuclear negotiations.

 

Rounding out the Iran team is Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley. Malley’s claim to fame (or infamy) is being the lead negotiator (or capitulator) of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In the Obama Administration, Malley was designated the National Security Council “point man” for the Middle East, as well as the special advisor on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS – the so-called “JV team,” according to Obama. Given the state of American foreign policy in the region when Obama left office, this is not a sterling résumé.

 

Biden has tasked Malley to bring both the United States and Iran into compliance with the JCPOA. I’m not sure that is technically possible, since the United States is no longer a party to the JCPOA. I take that as an indication where the Biden Administration is heading – a new round of concessions and capitulations to the mullahs in Tehran.

 

It could be worse. If John Kerry had not been named as the jet-setting Special Envoy on Climate Change, he would likely be advising Biden on Iran. Thank God for small mercies.

 

Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of Biden, “He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” With these three – Blinken, Sullivan, and Malley – advising Biden on Iran, I don’t expect that record to improve.

 

In addition to this Obama-rerun cast of advisors, let’s look at some of the actions of the new administration in “containing” Iran.

 

Some of the first actions Biden has taken in the region was to freeze the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. Access to this advanced aircraft was a sweetener on the UAE-Israel track of the Abrahamic Accords. Of course, the Biden Administration may not care if that historic agreement falls through – it does not appear that Biden is that friendly to Jerusalem. 


After almost a month in office, Biden has yet to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – you’d think that a call to America’s closest ally in the region would have already happened, but the Democrats have generally never been fond of Israel, especially when it is led by the Likud party.

 

Biden has also frozen impending sales of advanced munitions to Saudi Arabia, a measure of disapproval of Saudi (and UAE) military operations against the Huthi-led revolt in Yemen.

 

In an even more incredulous, and in my opinion, utterly moronic, move, Biden has removed the Huthi movement – a Shi’a militant group supported, trained, and armed by Iran – from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

 

It is ironic – right out of the gate, Biden has protected a terrorist group supported by the world’s leading state supporter of terrorism, and taken punitive measures against the two countries leading the fight in support of the Yemeni government which the United States recognizes.

 

Here’s what to watch in the near future. On February 15, a group believed to be associated with Iranian-supported Iraqi Shi’a militias claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.S. coalition facility in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. The attack killed a foreign worker and wounded several U.S. contractors, as well as wounding an American servicemember.

 

What will Biden do in response? If he does nothing, he will be perceived as weak. If that is the case, he will have failed the test – get ready for increased Iranian-sponsored militia attacks on US and allied coalition facilities and personnel.

 

With the Obama Administration holdovers, the team that brought us the dangerous and disastrous JCPOA, we have some insight as to where Biden’s policy toward Iran is likely headed.

 

It is not a good place.


 




 

January 12, 2021

Turkey may have halted plans to turn former Istanbul church into a mosque

According to a Turkish news outlet (read article here), the Turkish government may be reconsidering the August 2020 decision by self-styled new sultan President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reconvert the Church of the Holy Savior museum to a mosque. (Read my initial thoughts on that decision - "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)

 

The church/museum in the Chora (Kariye) section of Istanbul is considered one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the city’s new Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularized museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes. It is listed as one of the top 30 “must-see museums” in the world. 


The original church was built in the early 5th century to the south of the Golden Horn, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great; it became incorporated within the city's defenses later that century.

The frescoes and mosaics, plastered over by the Ottomans, are being restored. They are stunning, almost overwhelming. I have seen mosaics in other early Christian Churches throughout the Middle East, but nothing like these.


In August 2020, the government ordered the re-conversion of the museum into a mosque. The move came shortly after a similar decision to re-convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque from a museum, despite outcries from the international community. That conversion took place and the building is now known as the Ayasofya-i Kebîr Câmi-i Şerifi (Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque).
 

President Erdoğan was scheduled to inaugurate the newly converted mosque last October, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey’s top religious authority, cancelled the event the day before to allow for continued restoration work. 


The church/museum remains closed as the work continues, giving hope that it will remain a museum. Others maintain that the delay is merely a result of the Turks exercising great care when covering the Christian art. 

Let’s hope for the former and not the latter. 



November 22, 2020

Traitor Jonathan Pollard free to go to Israel - good riddance

Netanyahu tweet on Pollard release
Netanyahu tweet on Pollard release

On November 20, Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted for betraying his country and selling national defense information to Israel, was freed from the terms of his post-confinement parole. That means he is now free and will undoubtedly relocate to the country he spied for, Israel, where he will be welcomed as a national hero.

 

Yes, that Israel, one of America's closest allies and a major benefactor of American aid, political support, intelligence sharing, and other largesse. I have stated unequivocally in the past, and will do so again - Pollard did irreparable harm to U.S. intelligence capabilities at the behest of his Israeli masters, and got only partially what he deserved. If it was up to me, he would still be in prison.

 

For those who may not be familiar with the treachery of Jonathan Pollard, let’s recap.

 

Jonathan Pollard was employed as an analyst at the what is now the U.S. Navy’s  National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland. He had been granted a Top Secret clearance with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS-SCI) and other special access programs (SAP). Readers with experience in the military or intelligence community will recognize those designations.

 

In 1984, Pollard volunteered his services to an Israeli Air Force officer attending university in the United States. He continued to work for the Israeli intelligence services until his arrest on November 21, 1985 as he and his co-conspirator wife Anne attempted to enter the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, hoping to seek asylum.

 

Pollard made a plea deal with the U.S. government under which he would plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to deliver national defense information to a foreign government. Although that offense carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, the prosecution agreed to recommend "only a substantial number of years in prison." 


However, citing Pollard’s repeated violations of multiple terms of the agreement, on March 4, 1987, the judge adjudicating the case imposed the maximum penalty, a life sentence. That sentence was also greatly influenced by the classified damage-assessment memorandum provided by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. I have seen the damage assessment – it is truly devastating.

 

Apologists for Pollard claim that spying for Israel is "not really spying" since Israel is an ally of the United States. One has to consider that blanket statement that Israel is an ally of the United States with some reticence. Israel used the information provided by Pollard as "trade material" with the Russians - during the height of the Cold War - in return for the release of Jews detained in Russia. That is hardly the action of an ally of the United States.

 

There is speculation that American agents, people the U.S. intelligence agencies had recruited to collect information for us at great risk, were uncovered and executed because of the information the Israelis provided to the Russians. If that is the case, Pollard should have been executed instead of being sentenced to life in prison.

 

There is a group of Pollard supporters who claim that Pollard has been treated more harshly than others, but they fail to mention that others in the same class as Pollard - CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen - were also sentenced to life in prison. My response to the claim that other traitors have been given lesser sentences - the judges in those cases got it wrong; the judge in the Pollard case (as well as with Ames and Hanssen) got it exactly right. Unfortunately, prevailing laws at the time limits his “life” sentence to 30 years. That ended on November 21, 2015. He has been on post-confinement parole since then. While he could have been kept in that status for 15 years, he has been freed after five.

 

Many Israeli leaders and media outlets are citing this as a great day for Israel. It is not at all – this merely reminds that 36 years ago, someone in the Israeli intelligence services thought it would be a good idea to steal intelligence information from their greatest ally and staunchest supporter, then later reveal the sources and methods used to acquire that information to America’s greatest foes. Hardly a great day for Israel.  

 

So, the convicted felon/traitor Jonathan Pollard is now free to go to Israel. If he’s not in prison where he belongs, then I am glad he is not walking free in my country. Good riddance. Israel, you can have him – after all, you bought him.

 

To my Israeli and pro-Pollard Jewish friends (and I have many): I know we disagree vehemently on this issue. I will not change my mind, nor will I get involved in a drawn-out discussion where we are unlikely to resolve our differences. This is my view - you are free to voice your own. I simply will not respond to your misguided attempts to justify Pollard’s betrayal of my - and what was once his - country.


October 5, 2020

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (Warner Brothers - 2014)

The Water Diviner follows the journey of an Australian farmer whose three sons were killed or missing during the fighting at Gallipoli (in present-day Turkey) in 1915. The farmer, Joshua Connor (played by Russell Crowe), travels from Australia to the former battlefield at Gallipoli to search for his sons. The movie is inspired by true events.


That said, there has been a fair amount of fiction added, some of which requires a rather healthy dose of the "suspension of disbelief," that concept that makes fiction work, especially historical fiction. Most viewers familiar with Muslim or Middle Eastern customs will note this when watching the developing relationship between Connor and a Turkish woman.


To set the stage to inform your decision on whether to invest two hours watching the film, some background. I will avoid providing spoilers. 


It's 1919 when Connor decides to go to what remains of the Ottoman Empire, specifically to Gallipoli. Gallipoli is a name seared into the psyche of Australians and New Zealanders - the two dominions of the British Empire formed the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Their troops were often referred to as "Anzacs." 


An ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on April 25, and met fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army commanded by Mustafa Kemal - later known as Kemal Atatürk, who became the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. 


After an eight-month stalemate, the Allies evacuated the Dardenelles, having suffered over 56,000 dead, including 8,709 from Australia and 2,721 from New Zealand. The losses at Gallipoli - and from all wars since - are remembered every April 25 on ANZAC Day. Virtually every city and town in the two countries has a monument honoring those who fell at Gallipoli. It touched every part of the small dominions.


Connor gets to Turkey, then on to Gallipoli. Then it gets complicated - I will leave that for you to discover. 


The scenes shot in Istanbul were well done. Viewers who have visited Turkey will recognize many of the sights, especially the Sultan Ahmed  Mosque (Blue Mosque).


A nod to the fine acting of Russell Crowe and Yılmaz Erdoğan, and to Olga Kurylenko for, well, being Olga Kurylenko. Seriously, her portrayal of young Turkish widow was nicely done.


Many Armenian groups have criticized the movie for not addressing the Armenian Genocide, some even labeling the movie as supporting Turkish denials. I am going to give the producers a pass on this particular film. This was about the fighting between the Ottoman Empire and British Empire, and a father's search for his sons. It had nothing to do with the Armenians. There are movies that clearly downplay or deny that the genocide occurred, but this is not one of them. 


I recommend the movie on many levels - the history is mostly accurate, including the occupation of Istanbul by the Allied powers as they dismantled the Ottoman Empire, and the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). There is also the human interest story of a father searching for lost family members and the lengths he is willing to go in that effort. 


Watch it on Netflix.



September 4, 2020

Movie Review: The Promise (Survival Pictures - 2016)

The Promise is a 2016 film (released in the United States in 2017) that uses a romantic triangle just before and during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It is a rather interesting concept - the use of the interplay of two men in love with the same woman to focus attention on one of the worst atrocities in modern history. I will let the readers decide if it works.

The three main characters are an Armenian pharmacist who wants to be a doctor, an Armenian woman traveling in the Ottoman Empire with the third character, a journalist reporting on what will later be called World War One.

In order for the pharmacist to pursue a medical degree, he leaves small village in southern Turkey and moves to Constantinople (now called Istanbul). To afford the tuition and expenses in the city, he agrees to marry a girl from his village in return for a generous dowry - I believe this is "the promise."

Once in Istanbul, the triangle develops. At the same time the three are involved in romantic relationships, what is portrayed as a systemic government effort to eradicate the Armenian population in the country begins and continues until the three are miraculously reunited and rescued. It was difficult to believe - no amount of the suspension of disbelief would help.

Of note, almost immediately after The Promise was released, three Turkish film companies released a movie titled The Ottoman Lieutenant. It portrayed the genocide as localized random acts of violence rather than a concerted, government-directed campaign. Read my review of that film.

Neither of the two competing movies did well at the box office. The Ottoman Lieutenant cost over $40 million to make, but grossed just over $400,000 worldwide. The Promise cost almost $100 million - all bankrolled by Armenian-American investor Kirk Kerkorian - and grossed only $12.4 million.

The producers of both films claim the money was not important - the message was. Producers of The Promise have labeled The Ottoman Lieutenant as an attempt to counter their film. I would not be surprised if the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was behind the effort.

Criticisms: The Armenian Genocide was a massive human rights atrocity. It just seems to me to use a romantic triangle is not giving it the gravity it deserves. The counter argument is that it was a way to get people to watch it. It didn't work, obviously.

I don't understand the significance of the title. If it was the agreement for the pharmacist to marry a local girl in exchange for the dowry that was to enable his studies in Constantinople, it really had little to do with the plot.

I was disappointed in the movie and story line, but not the cast. Christian Bale, Charlotte La Bon, Isaac Oscar, and one of my favorite actresses, Shohreh Aghdashloo, gave solid performances, but not even actors of that level could save the script.

Despite that, I do recommend it because of the attention it does draw to the Armenian Genocide. It is available on Netflix.




September 1, 2020

Movie Review: Escaping Tel Aviv (Sharif Arafah - 2009)


Escaping Tel Aviv is a 2009 Egyptian movie that takes place in mostly in Israel (filmed in South Africa). The plot involves two intelligence officers - one works for the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and the other is an Israeli Arab who is an officer in Mossad, Israel's civilian intelligence agency.

Both officers speak fluent Arabic and Hebrew and have similar backgrounds, so much so that the Arabic title of the movie is Wilad al-'Am (ولاد العم‎) which translates to "the cousins."

The movie begins with the Mossad officer Daniel, using the Arabic name 'Izzat (played by Sherif Mounir), leaving Port Said, Egypt, with his Egyptian Muslim wife Salwa (played by Mona Zaki) and their two children. The wife is unaware of his true identity, having met him while he was living as an Egyptian for seven years. She was also unaware that the departure was planned. Once in Tel Aviv, she is desperate to return to Egypt with her children.

Egyptian intelligence officer Mustafa (played by Karim Abdel Aziz) is assigned the mission of repatriating Salwa and the two children from Tel Aviv back to Egypt. The movie revolves around his operation to do just that.

Some comments on the production. I was surprised at the scenes supposedly set in Tel Aviv - it was convincing. I don't speak Hebrew, so I will leave an assessment of that to someone who does. I was impressed that both of the lead actors, both Egyptians, were able to sound convincing (at least to me) in Hebrew. The majority of the movie was in pure Egyptian dialect.

It has been a long time since I have used Egyptian Arabic - it took me about half an hour to get my ear re-tuned to it. This movie was made for an Egyptian audience, so they are not speaking anything resembling Modern Standard Arabic. Egyptians speak fast, and have a unique staccato style of talking. I had to pay close attention.

As many of you know, I often criticize the subtitling of Arabic soundtracks. I found this one to be about as close as could be to the original Arabic. Some colloquialisms were changed to make sense to an English-speaking (or in this case, reading) audience. The Hebrew dialogue was subtitled in both English and Arabic.

A few criticisms. The thought that the Egyptian GID would dispatch one of its best officers to Israel to repatriate a housewife and two children is a bit far-fetched. This would normally be handled diplomatically - Egypt and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1980. In the movie, Salwa at one point asked an Israeli Arab to direct her to the Egyptian embassy.

I will not spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that some of the tactics used by Egyptian officer Mustafa are off-the-chart unrealistic. I will let you decide which.

It's a two hour movie, and with a fair amount of the suspension of disbelief required for most fictional stories, it is entertaining. As a former operations officer, it was interesting to watch a movie about intelligence officers where Mossad is not the dominant player.

It is available on Netflix.




August 24, 2020

Movie Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant (Netflix - 2017)


Initial comment - let's remember that the first rule of fiction, even historical fiction, is the suspension of disbelief. That means as you are watching a movie or reading a book that is not history or a biography, you need to keep telling yourself that this is not true, it's entertainment. However, when you watch a movie set in actual historic events, you expect the author to at least adhere to some aspects of reality.

If you decide to watch The Ottoman Lieutenant, be prepared to engage in a major suspension of disbelief. That said, you may want to watch it. Let me give you some information that will inform your decision. Consider that the movie production cost was about $40 million, but grossed worldwide just over $400,000 (less than $250,000 in the United States).

If you can imagine it, the movie is a Turkish-American romantic story set in the city and environs of Van, in eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the opening days of World War One. At the time, Van was a city with a majority Armenian and Kurdish population. The Armenians were arming themselves and forming militias, knowing full well that war was coming, and they would likely be caught between the Ottoman and the Russian armies. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in October 1914.

The love triangle in the movie, which I found to be unlikely, involves an American doctor (Josh Hartnett) working in an American-sponsored hospital in Van, established and run by an older doctor (Ben Kingsley). An American nurse (Hera Hilmar), who met the young doctor while he was in the States on a fundraising trip, decides to bring much-needed medical supplies and a truck to the hospital. A bit far-fetched.

Bringing the supplies to eastern Anatolia requires permission from the Ottoman authorities. Ottoman Army Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) is assigned to escort the nurse to the hospital in Van. You see where this is going - young doctor, young nurse, young officer.

As someone whose professional focus has been the Middle East, I find the historical aspects of the lead-up to World War One of interest, and was curious as to how the producers were going to treat the obvious issue: the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.

The disappointing answer: the producers either ignored it or adhered to the official Turkish government position. I should have known how this was likely to be handled since the major investors in the project are Turkish, the production companies are Turkish, and the final cut of the movie was done in Turkey.

The film treats the Armenians as the cause of the problem - blame the victims. In the Turkish view, Ottoman attacks on Armenians were reactions to armed Armenian gangs roaming the countryside raiding travelers and Ottoman villages. The killings of Armenians were part of this violence, unorganized in nature, but in no way an organized government genocide.

After I watched the movie, I did more research and discovered that there is a school of thought that this movie was a response to another movie - The Promise - that depicts the Armenian genocide as just that, an organized attempt to eliminate the Armenians in what is now Turkey. I plan to watch and review it. Where this movie smacks of denial, perhaps The Promise will better address the issue.

It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Turks, given the recent actions of their megalomaniac president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In July of this year, he revoked the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church and later mosque, into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia houses some of the world's greatest Christian art, which will now be recovered. Just last week, he did the same thing to another former church/museum, the Chora Church. (See my article: "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)

Add to that, Erdoğan's actions in Syria since 2015 have been unnecessary, unhelpful, and dangerous. It appears to many of us Middle East observers that he is tacitly supporting the Islamists in Syria, much as he facilitated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in their earlier years. Think not? How did all of the foreign fighters in Syria actually get to Syria?

Now the self-styled sultan is trying to expand what I call his neo-Ottoman reach to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, has established a military base in Qatar. (Read more of my articles on how unhelpful Erdoğan has been.)

If you're a fan of Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you may like the movie. Otherwise, save yourself the 106 minutes.

It is available on Netflix.