April 12, 2022

Movie Review: All the Old Knives (Amazon – 2022)

 


This movie focuses on a CIA investigation into a failed intelligence operation that takes place in Vienna, Austria eight years earlier. The movie is set in 2020, with the botched operation in 2012. The film uses flashbacks mixed in with the contemporary story, and with a few exceptions, flows well.

 

The movie is inspired by actual events. Any of us who have been subjected to either Department of Defense or Central Intelligence Agency internal investigations of botched intelligence operations – I have been subjected to both – will easily identify with the “witch hunt” mentality present in the movie.

 

As always, I will try not to reveal things that will spoil your enjoyment of the film, which actually requires very little suspension of disbelief. The events depicted in the movie actually happened (for the most part).

 

Most of the action takes place in city of Vienna, particularly at the CIA station in the U.S. Embassy there. I have spent a lot of time in Vienna (wife’s family), and for the most part, the scenes matched the script, with one glaring exception – the Gloriette was badly mismatched.

 

The other venue in the movie, which was beautifully videographed, is the Monterey Peninsula - specifically Carmel-by-the-Sea and Pacific Grove, as well as the stunning vistas of California Highway 1 along the Monterey County coast. To those of us who spent time learning foreign languages at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, it was a trip down memory lane. My wife and I liked it so much, we were married there, and vacation there to this day.

 

The plot: A Turkish passenger jet is hijacked by Islamist terrorists at the airport in Vienna. The CIA station rallies to gather information on who perpetrated the crime, and any possible solutions.

 

Based on an interrogation, an Agency source, now dead – one assumes he died under “enhanced interrogation” (how inconvenient)– claimed that there was a leak (a “mole” in the parlance) from inside the Vienna station that led to the debacle that ensues. I am being vague here so as to not reveal too much.

 

Eight years later (now 2020), “Langley” – “Agency-speak” for CIA headquarters – wants to know what went wrong, or more correctly, if there was a leak at Vienna Station and who the mole was. One of the case officers from that botched operation – well-played by Chris Pine – is assigned to re-investigate the station’s actions and ultimately discover the mole.

 

Of course, there are the unnecessary gratuitous sex scenes and too many personal aspects to the story. Enjoy them – the actors are attractive – and the storylines are not that farfetched.

 

The plot line takes numerous twists and keeps you guessing until the end – well done. Enjoy trying to figure out who the mole was.

 

The four main characters were all played well:

·       Chris Pine as Henry Pelham

·       Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison

·       Laurence Fishburne as Vick Wallinger

·       Jonathan Pryce as Bill Compton

 

Bottom line: Enjoyable film - watch it, immerse yourself in the plot’s twists and turns, and put a bit of money on who you think it is.

 

You can watch it on Amazon.

___________________
Footnote: I was involved in the National Security Agency coverage of the hijacking of a 1984 Kuwaiti Airways flight to Tehran, Iran, and listened live to the murder of an American diplomat. It still haunts me.


 


March 23, 2022

Movie Review: The Operative (Yuval Adler, 2019)


The Operative is an adaptation of the novel The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher-Atir. Reicher-Atir is a former Israeli army commando (he led part of the force during the 1976 raid on Entebbe) and commander of the army’s special operations directorate.

 

Some of the reviews label the author as a former intelligence officer, however, given his long career as a special operations soldier, I believe he has had exposure to many intelligence operations, but is not an intelligence officer himself. That would explain some of the tradecraft missteps in the film.

 

The movie stars Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman, and Cas Anvar. I think Kruger and Anvar were quite credible in their roles. Freeman, a skilled actor with a long list of credits, was badly miscast in this role as a British Jew and Mossad case officer. Watching him in that role required quite a bit of suspension of disbelief. (That is what fiction requires – that you are able to enjoy the story even though you know it is not only untrue but sometimes unbelievable.)

 

The film revolves around a Mossad operation to place an operative (Kruger) in Tehran to meet an Iranian electronics dealer (Farhad, played by Anvar), with the goal to eventually recruit him. I’ll not spoil the experience for you if you choose to watch it.

 

Most of the tradecraft is fine, if a bit elementary. The missteps are quite obvious to the trained eye, however. The use of two legends simultaneously is dangerous if not impossible, the clumsy use of easily detectable electronic communications, and the strange side operation to smuggle explosives into Iran via Turkey – puzzling at best, unnecessary at worst.

 

I still wonder how Rachel (Kruger’s character) was supposed to make initial contact with her target, but I guess I will have to find the book and read it – it has recently been translated into English.

 

Bottom line: for all its minor flaws, it’s still a good story. It shows a side of the intelligence business not often seen – the toll of operational life on the people who do this for a living. It can be extremely stressful. Trust me.

 

Watch it on Netflix.


February 12, 2022

Movie Review: Death on the Nile (20th Century, 2022)

 


There have been three movie adaptations of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel Death on the Nile. The first was in 1978 starring Peter Ustinov as the legendary Hercule Poirot, followed by the gold standard version starring the quintessential Poirot portrayed by David Suchet in 2004. 

In 2022, we have Kenneth Branagh attempting to salvage his disastrous portrayal of the Belgian sleuth in his adaptation and remake of Murder on the Orient Express. When I saw the publicity surrounding the release of his adaptation of the novel, I was skeptical. 

 

So when I saw that Branagh remade one of my favorite movies, I was skeptical – given his past, I was not in the mood to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then, I thought, “Okay, I have personally been to all of the venues of this novel – let’s see how he interprets this.”

 

Flashback: In 1987, I was in war-torn southern Iraq (don’t ask) driving north of al-Basrah when I can across an old airfield. There was a vintage tri-motor aircraft parked on the side of the hangar bay and I thought to myself, “This is an Agatha Christie moment.” It haunts me to this day.

 

Years later, I was in Egypt (again, don’t ask), and took the opportunity to visit the historical sites in Aswan and Abu Simbel. Agatha Christie wrote her novel in 1937 while staying at the First Cataract hotel in Aswan. I stayed at the same hotel, which by then had become the Pullman Hotel, and visited Philae Island as seen in the movie – what great venues. I understand these were recreated in a movie studio in England, but the producers did an excellent job. (See my photos of Aswan from the late-1990s)

 



 To the critics that will claim that the scenes what is purported to be Abu Simbel are not accurate, remember that prior to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, these archeological treasures were rescued from the resultant rise of the water level and the creation of Lake Nasser.

 



What most of us have visited are the relocated actual monuments. (See my photos of Abu Simbul from the late 1990’s)


I watched the Branagh version on an XD screen, then came home and watched the 2004 David Suchet version to make a comparison. Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express and this adaptation of Murder on the Nile was like night and day – Branagh has completely changed his portrayal of Hercule Poirot from a rigid automaton to an actual likeable character with flaws and personal introspections.

 

I like the updating of a 1937 period novel to the 21st Century – the adaptation is well done, with maybe the exception of the gay couple (no spoiler alert here). It works well for a story told in the 1920s.

 

Go see it – immerse yourself in the minimal suspension of disbelief. Kenneth Branagh is totally believable as Hercule Poirot. He may not be the quintessential Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet, but it’s a fast-moving and enjoyable two hours.

 


January 23, 2022

Movie Review: Munich – The Edge of War (Netflix, 2021)

 


Yes, I know this is not about the Middle East. I am reviewing this because of the intelligence aspects of the movie.

 

As with all good fiction, the reader must exercise what authors refer to as “the suspension of disbelief” - avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something unlikely or impossible in reality. Watch it, and go along with it for the sake of enjoyment. This movie does a fair job in blurring that line between belief and disbelief, although there are a few scenes of various meetings that are pretty far-fetched.

 

The movie, an adaptation of British author Robert Harris’s novel Munich, is set in 1938 as Adolph Hitler threatens to seize the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, claiming it to be rightfully German territory. Of course, as anyone remotely familiar with modern history knows, there were negotiations between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Yes, the Italians and French were there as well, but this was basically London versus Berlin. This is where “appeasement diplomacy” began.

 

The talks took place in Munich. The two lead characters who walk us through these events turn out to be a British civil servant (Hugh Legat) and a German diplomat (Paul von Hartmann), both of whom attended Oxford for a period of two years in the early 1930’s, and struck up a friendship.

 

At some point in the preparations for the talks, Legat is summoned to a meeting with a colonel from MI-6 (British Military Intelligence, now the Secret Intelligence Service, although the MI-6 moniker is still heard). At that meeting, a plan is set in motion that utilizes the untrained Legat as an intelligence operative.

 

I will leave the political and other aspects of the movie to others, and don’t want to provide any more spoilers that I may have inadvertently done. I will focus on the intelligence aspects of the movie.

 

First, dispatching a completely untrained civil servant on a dangerous intelligence operation into "unfriendly" territory without any preparations whatsoever is a recipe for disaster. At the very minimum, Legat should have been given some rudimentary counterintelligence training – basic do’s and don’t, some simple surveillance detection concepts (there was no time for real training), some sort of concealment device for documents, a communications plan, and emergency/distress signals. He got none of that.

 

It gets worse – he is tasked by the MI-6 colonel to carry out this operation without notifying his superiors. Not a good idea, when you are working at the level of the prime minister and his most senior adviser Sir Horace Wilson. What might be sound operational procedure could very appear to be to working at odds with your own government.  At least the colonel provided some clandestine support, but I’ll stop there.

 

It becomes obvious that there has been an MI-6 penetration of the German government at the highest levels – that’s a real intelligence success. I suspect there was a "walk-in" to the defense attache office at the British Embassy, but that's just speculation. It rarely gets any better than what we deduce is happening, but in this case, it could have been just that. Unfortunately, they never take it to the next level.

 

In any operation, the overriding concern is collection of the intelligence. I remember having that drilled into me at intelligence operations school – get the intelligence, get the intelligence, get the intelligence. That’s why you are there, that’s why we spend the money, that’s why we take the risks. You’ll see that Legat never got that admonition.

 

The other overriding concern is the security and safety of your asset. Both of the main characters, mostly through no fault of their own, repeatedly put each other at risk. It’s so obvious, there is no need to belabor it.

 

One more comment about the historical and political aspect of the movie. At the end, in what appears to be an attempt to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain and his legacy as the prime minister who appeased Hitler. The producers put forth the supposition that Chamberlain knew Hitler would not be satisfied, but sacrificed the Sudetenland to buy time to allow the Allies (which at that time did not include the United States) to prepare for inevitable war. Interesting, but not accurate.

 

BOTTOM LINE: As far as historical fiction goes, it takes a lot of liberties, but with enough suspension of disbelief, it’s a good story. It’s not The Hunt for Red October, but it will keep you entertained.

 

It should also provide a badly-needed reminder that appeasement does not work.


Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81144852

 

January 7, 2022

Miniseries Review: "The Girl from Oslo" (Netflix 2021)

My initial observation: this is the worst title the producers could have chosen for the English-language version of this miniseries. The Hebrew title, Azharat Masa ("Travel Advisory") is not much better. The Norwegian title, Bortført ("Abducted") is probably the best of the lot.

 

The show tells the story of two Israeli siblings and the daughter of a Norwegian diplomat visiting Israel and Egypt when the three are abducted by Islamist terrorists and held as hostages to be used in a prisoner exchange for convicted terrorists being held by Israel and Norway.

 

The Norwegian title at least hints at the actual subject – the Hebrew and English, not so much. Something called “The Girl from Oslo” could be a romantic comedy, a travel show, a musical – anything but a show about international intrigue and transnational terrorism. What caught my eye was the one phrase, “When her daughter is abducted, a Norwegian diplomat travels to the Middle East….”

 

Without that one phrase, I would have ignored the series entirely.

 

The series is filmed in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Norwegian – I am sure that posed a variety of problems. As I listened to the English-dubbed soundtrack, it appears to be well-done. Some personal comments – some of the actors portraying Arabs were in reality native Hebrew-speaking Israelis. It is a hard accent to disguise, but overall was fairly good. Of course, the Arabic-speaking actors were perfect, but…

 

…and this is a small nit, but if I had to describe the Arabic in the series, I would call it closer to the Palestinian Arabic spoken on the West Bank than that spoken in the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, where the series is set. Like I said, a minor thing.

 

The subtitling was well-done, but for those who understand the underlying Arabic, you will note that these are more interpretations than actual translations, which if fine. I often interpreted rather than directly translated when I served as an Arabic translator. It’s an art….

 

There have been some complaints about the final editing, which by contract agreement was done by the Norwegians. The Israelis believe that the editing removed a lot of the subtle nuances about the geopolitical situation. Maybe – but the story remains tightly produced and tense throughout. Though, a little more   “attention to details” would have made a number of scenes more credible.

 

Some background for those of you who decide to watch it – and I do recommend it.

 

- This is a work of fiction. Although there was a kidnapping of a Norwegian and Israeli while on vacation in the Sinai, they were later released. There was no relation to designated terrorist groups Hamas or ISIS.

 

- As with all fiction, it does require some of what is called “suspension of disbelief,” in other words, this is a story, so go along with some of the things you might think are unrealistic.

 

- Much of the action on the Israeli side occurs in the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence. The ministry is a relatively new organization, loosely modeled on the American Office of the Director of National Intelligence, established to coordinate and oversee the various Israeli intelligence and security organizations. As in the United States, it is more an administrative organization than an operations agency. (See paragraph immediately above.)

 

- The three main organizations in the series are the Israelis, Hamas, and ISIS. For those who don’t follow Middle East events closely, it can be confusing. Hamas is an Arabic acronym for harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah (Islamic Resistance Movement), a Palestinian Islamist political and quasi-military organization whose goal is to eliminate the State of Israel. It controls virtually all aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. Its military arm, known as the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is responsible for a variety of attacks on Israel. It is supported by Iran and possesses a huge arsenal of rockets and missiles.

- ISIS (also referred to in the series as “Da’ish”) is an acronym for the English translation of its name, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Da’ish is an acronym of the Arabic name, al-dawlat al-islamiyah fi al-‘iraq wal-sham. ISIS and Hamas, although both Sunni organizations, are often at odds with each other. While Hamas is the principal power in the Gaza Strip, ISIS has a presence in the Sinai Peninsula, and maintains a state of hostility with the Egyptian government. Israel and Egypt, as seen in the series, cooperate on efforts against ISIS.

 

- I was surprised at some of the Hamas versus ISIS interactions in Norway, including Hamas’s use of a female operative. I find that a bit hard to believe, but maybe they’ve moved out of the 7th Century.

 

My bottom line: It’s a good story, moves fast, and requires only minimum suspension of disbelief. It will entertain you, but it’s not Fauda.  

 

Watch it on Netflix



October 24, 2021

Movie Review – Official Secrets (2019)

 

Official Secrets poster

Here we have yet another fact-based movie about an intelligence officer who betrays her country and her oath. Here again, we have yet another whitewash by the entertainment industry who appear to hold these traitors in high esteem.


This is the story of a linguist – Katharine Gun – employed by the highly secretive Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the signals intelligence organization of the United Kingdom, the counterpart of the American National Security Agency (NSA).


Note how the movie is described by Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB.



You see the same mantra repeated over and over to the point that people start believing it. Terms like “whistleblower,” “illegal,” “spy,” and “unlawful” are just incorrect when applied to Katherine Gun and her betrayal. The movie also repeats these falsehoods ad nauseam, also adding the ludicrous charge that the United States was seeking information to blackmail fellow members of the United Nations Security Council.


Katharine Gun is not a whistleblower, which is a specific legal term here in the United States – I am not sure about British law. Here there are specific requirements for someone to qualify for “whistleblower” protection, including how and to whom to report illegal activities. None of those involve leaking highly classified defense or intelligence information to the media – which is exactly what she did.


Nothing that NSA did violates U.S. law – in fact, there are statutory legal protocols that allow for just this activity. Collecting intelligence from foreign communications is what NSA does. If the communications occur in the United States, it requires a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. None of the countries mentioned in the Koza email enjoy any immunity from surveillance by American intelligence services.

 

Read the email for yourself. I see no indication of blackmail or anything that would violate U.S. law.

 

Text of a Top Secret/Comint email claimed to have been sent by Frank Koza of the NSA Regional Threats (RT) office on January 31, 2003. The recipients were officials of NSA’s British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ): 

 

As you've likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc - the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. In RT, that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.


We've also asked ALL RT topi's to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can't afford to ignore this possible source.


We'd appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines. I suspect that you'll be hearing more along these lines in formal channels - especially as this effort will probably peak (at least for this specific focus) in the middle of next week, following the SecState's presentation to the UNSC.


Thanks for your help.


No one should be surprised that the U.S. and UK intelligence communities collect foreign communications – that is the core mission of both NSA and GCHQ. To imply that this email indicates illegal, illicit, or immoral activity is ludicrous.


As for the movie production itself – it has well-known British actors who are skilled at their craft. That said, I am disappointed that they chose to appear in this anti-American whitewash of treasonous activity. Are they condoning such behavior? It would appear so.


Pass on this one.



 

 

 


October 10, 2021

Movie Review – Snowden (Oliver Stone – 2016)

Against my better judgment, I decided to watch Oliver Stone’s production of the story of the traitor Edward Snowden. I often wonder at Stone’s predilection with anti-American themes, but that is an analysis for another time.


The film contains a mix-mash of intelligence community descriptions and definitions which, let’s say are only vaguely accurate. I could go through the list of inaccuracies, but I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt since it is highly unlikely that any of them have ever been inside the operations and training facilities depicted. I only wish the operations spaces at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) were as nice as these sets.

 

The workspaces in both agencies – I’ve worked in both – are what I would call “GSA* chic” and usually small, cramped, and filled with equipment and files. The smaller spaces are normal because much of the work being done is not only highly classified, but also compartmented. People working in one area are unlikely to be cleared for operations just ten feet away.

 

The movie attempts to portray Snowden as an intelligence officer at both agencies, but in reality, he was a communications technician, not an operations officer, and later as a technical contractor. This is obvious from the description of the training facility where Snowden received his training, referred to colloquially as “the Hill.”**

 

The facility exists, and is where the CIA trains people to become Telecommunications Information Systems Officers (TISO), technicians responsible for maintaining the agency’s communications systems around the world. Having worked with TISOs in many locations, they are competent professionals, but they are not field operations personnel – that training takes place at another CIA facility, commonly referred to as “the Farm.” ** The factitious and amateurish asset recruitment scenarios in which Snowden claims to have participated are comic at best, and obviously not part of the skill set provided in his position. I suspect he was attesting to “pad his CV.”

 

The program that Snowden seems to have found so egregious has to do with the intelligence community’s access to the meta data of phone calls of American citizens. When I was in the signals intelligence business (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), we referred to this information as “externals” – date, time, numbers connected, duration, etc., as opposed to “internal” information, the actual content of the communication.

 

What is the difference in how the data is used?

 

The internal information, the content, is used for intelligence information – that’s easy. It is the use of the externals, the meta data, that is extremely useful in uncovering networks – the term is network analysis – who is talking to whom.

 

Let’s use a real-world scenario. Although I do not consider the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID) to be an ally, they have been useful at times when their counterterrorism goals coincide with ours. The ISID develops intelligence – or we apprise them – of the presence of an al-Qa’idah operative in Quetta.

 

ISID officers obtain whatever warrant or authorization necessary (I suspect it is none) to “kick in” the location. One of the most valuable items in the venue will be electronics – cell phones, satellite phone, tablets, computers, hard drives, thumb drives, etc. It is a treasure trove of data.

 

Let’s focus on the cell phones, although all of the media involved will yield similarly useful data. If this venue, say that al-Qa’idah believed to be a safe house, was occupied and/or used by a known al-Qa’idah operative, wouldn’t you want to know who with whom he has been communicating? That’s a rhetorical question – of course you would. If these contacts were located in the United States, doesn’t that take on a greater sense of urgency? Of course.

 

The claimed issue (I don’t buy it) for Snowden was the intelligence community’s access to American citizens’ meta data. Granted, the warrants required to access this data, issued via the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts, are easy to obtain – but shouldn’t they be? An al-Qa’ida operative in Pakistan is talking to someone in the United States; we need to take a look at that.

 

Although Stone never developed it fully in the movie, the thought that warrants should be limited to the future – in other words, once we have the phone numbers from the Pakistani ISID – the intelligence community and FBI obtain warrants for future communications. The problem: once these safe houses are raided, al-Qa’idah (or whatever group) closes all the accounts and stops using the devices the now assumed to be compromised. We need to know what has happened in the past.

 

Recent legislation has limited the intelligence community’s access to that historic information, thanks to the overreaction of Snowden’s treason. Unfortunately, our Congress, both houses but primarily the House, have aided in that limitation. If the intelligence community cannot ascertain who these terrorists were connecting with in the United States, we have less of a chance of preventing a future terrorist event.

 

My primary issue with the movie, which Stone admits is not a documentary or a historical account but a fictionalized version of reality, is the attempt to portray Snowden as a whistleblower rather than the traitor he chose to become. There is no historical record of Snowden contacting the proper whistleblower channels – supervisors, inspector generals, or members of Congress – before he decided to contact the media.

 

Snowden is not a whistleblower – he went to the media, who he arranged to meet not in the United States, but Hong Kong. Yes, Hong Kong, now a part of the Peoples Republic of China. After meeting with journalists there and releasing classified data, fled to Moscow – yes, Russia – to evade capture.

 

Call me skeptical. Edward Snowden, who publicly to international media, released highly classified U.S. national security information, and that – and more – did not end up in the hands of Chinese and Russian intelligence? I did this for a living for almost three decades. Whatever sensitive, classified information he had, they now have. From colleagues in the intelligence community, we may never recover from the losses he caused.

 

So, my views of Ed’s future? If it was up to me, I would go further than former CIA director and NSA director General Mike Hayden’s (a personal acquaintance) comments that Snowden will die in Moscow. I would cause it – but that’s just me, someone who has lost agents in the field because of traitors like Snowden. If he is allowed to return to the United States, I’d like to have a one-on-one conversation.

 

Bottom line: Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower, and as Oliver Stone would have you believe, he is not a hero. He is a traitor, weak of character, and easily manipulated. This cinematographic attempt to justify his actions borders on abetting treason.

 

If you must watch, the film is available on Netflix:
https://www.netflix.com/title/80064514

 

__________

* General Services Administration, the agency of the U.S. government responsible for the outfitting and basic functioning of official facilities. Think “lowest bidder.”

 

** These facilities exist, but officially not by these nicknames – I have chosen not to identify them. I received my clandestine operations training at the facility referred to as “the Farm.” I am sure anyone doing a Google search will figure out where they are, but my secrecy agreements prevent me from identifying them.

 

August 15, 2021

The fall of Kabul – who did not see this coming?

 

A U.S. helicopter flies over Kabul (Rahmat Gul - AP)

Thanks to the Biden Administration’s disastrous handling of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the world is about to witness another botched evacuation reminiscent of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Those of us who served in Vietnam will never forget the disturbing images of Huey helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the American embassy.

 

It appears that history is about to repeat itself.

 

President Biden announced, probably against the advice of his senior military leadership, that the United States would withdraw all of its forces by the end of August. I can’t say that I blame Biden for not listening to the same generals who created the absolute disaster that Afghanistan has become.

 

Let’s review how we got here. Soon after the al-Qa’idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban to surrender ‘Usamah bin Ladin to the United States. The Taliban refused, triggering the U.S. invasion of the country and the removal of the Taliban, to be replaced by the Northern Alliance. The American military began operations to eliminate al-Qa’idah, including bin Ladin.

 

By early December, the U.S. and its allies (including Northern Alliance, British, and German forces) had forced the remnants of al-Qa’idah to seek shelter from the relentless air attacks in the Tora Bora cave complex near the border with Pakistan. An Afghan militia leader claimed that he had negotiated the surrender of al-Qa’idah, including bin Ladin, and they were working out the “modalities of bin Ladin’s surrender.”

 

I remember shaking my head in disbelief. Rather than committing U.S. forces to the capture or killing of bin Ladin, we agreed to “outsource” it to an unreliable Afghan warlord. I said to anyone who would listen that there is no way this group of Afghans was going to turn over a fellow Muslim, a fellow warrior, to the United States. It was just not going to happen. President Bush refused to commit U.S. forces to an attack, believing Pakistani lies that they would apprehend bin Ladin if he tried to enter Pakistan.

 

We all know what happened – this “working out the modalities” was merely a ploy to buy time to allow tribal forces on both sides of the border to spirit bin Ladin into Pakistan, where he remained until U.S. forces tracked him down in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. The Pakistanis had no idea where he was for almost ten years? I find that hard to believe.

 

After the end of the Battle of Tora Bora, I maintain that the United States had achieved its major objective of the invasion of Afghanistan – to remove al-Qa’idah from the country. The survivors of the organization who accompanied bin Ladin into Pakistan dispersed to other areas to continue the fight – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Maghreb.

 

So why did the United States feel compelled to remain in Afghanistan, a country that has been known as “the graveyard of empires?” You would think that knowledgeable people in the American intelligence, military, and diplomatic communities would have recognized the folly of committing a large military force to Afghanistan except to oversee the orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops.

 

For reasons that I cannot fathom, some bright light, probably at the State Department, came up with the idea that we should try to introduce Western-style democracy into this tribal society. This phenomena – starting out to do one thing (removing al-Qai’dah) and morphing into another (nation building) – is called “mission creep.” We Americans excel at it.

 

The obvious, but faulty, analogy that some will point out is the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. There is nothing remotely similar to reintroducing democratic institutions in Europe and creating democracy from nothing in Afghanistan.

 

Of course, the first step in any of these efforts is to establish security – that usually means more troops. The American military presence continued to grow to combat the threat still posed by the resurgent Taliban. In my view, at that time, the Taliban did not represent a threat to the United States. Al-Qa’idah did, and was dealt with.

 

Did I want the Taliban to resume control of Afghanistan? No. Did I think that the continued presence of American and allied troops would prevent it? No. I thought the presence of foreign troops would only be able to postpone the Taliban’s return to power, but in the end not prevent it. Why didn’t our supposedly bright military leaders tell the President(s) that? If you can’t win a war, don’t fight it.

 

As we have seen time and time again, a smaller, committed force can outlast a superpower and defeat the incompetent indigenous forces supposedly trained and equipped by their sponsors. The Afghan army was never a capable fighting force, despite the huge expenditure of American and allied resources and massive training efforts.

Why not? Because their hearts were not in it. Most of the troops willing to join the Afghan military or security forces were doing it for a paycheck, not a burning desire to keep democracy alive in Afghanistan.

 

On the other hand, the Taliban fighters are true believers. They will fight to the death to achieve their objective – the reintroduction of an Islamic state in Afghanistan. They also enjoy enough popular support to continue to fight on despite the efforts of the United States and its allies.

 

It is only the presence of foreign forces that prevent the Taliban from retaking the entire country. With the irresponsible manner of the Biden withdrawal, it is only a matter of time – I give it days – before the Taliban regain control.

 

In a press conference on July 8th, Biden claimed that a Taliban victory was not inevitable, citing the fact that the Afghan military of 300,000 was among the best equipped in the world, and capable of defeating the 75,000 Taliban fighters. Just two days ago, the Pentagon spokesman claimed that Kabul was not in imminent danger. Clearly, neither one of them has a grasp on the reality of the situation.

 

My bottom line: We should have left Afghanistan after ‘Usamah bin Ladin was allowed to “escape” to Pakistan in an act of perfidy in 2001, or at the latest in early 2002, and prevented the loss of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

 

 


June 28, 2021

Film Review: From the Sky (Ian Ebright, 2014)

From the Sky is a short film, only 18 minutes long, but it’s worth the watch. 


The film was released in the spring of 2014, so I am estimating that it was probably filmed in 2013. The producers did this on a small budget, and filmed it in of all places, the state of Washington. It works well enough for what they were trying to accomplish.

 

The stated premise of the film: A peaceful father (Hakim) and troubled son (‘Abbas) suffering from post traumatic stress disorder traveling through a region that often experiences U.S. drone strikes. 


The two are forced to make difficult decisions when two armed militants (Dhiyah and Samir) visit their camp. 


I watched this film, which is in Arabic with English subtitles. The actors playing the father and the two militants spoke with in a light Levantine dialect and accent, although at times it appeared they were trying to speak unaccented standard Arabic. The actor playing the son spoke the clearest unaccented Arabic, which is probably what they were going for.

 

I say this because at no time is a location mentioned, no country, city, village, or region.  Given the Levantine accent, one could almost believe that it is supposed to be Syria. That is also underscored by the fact that when Dhiyah and Samir first meet Hakim and ‘Abbas, they greet and are surprised that the father and son speak Arabic. The only place these two things would be likely is Syria, where there is a large Kurdish-speaking minority. Although there are Kurds also in Iraq, Iraqi-accented Arabic is much different than the Levantine accent heard in this film.

 

The subtitles in English are accurate in the interpretation, although the translations are not exact – I have no problem with interpreting the meaning, not the actual words. That’s what I did in my interpreting assignments.

 

The problem with the scenario as presented is the date. Assuming the film was made in 2013 or even early 2014, the United States was not using armed drones in either Syria or Iraq – other areas of the region, yes, but not Syria. The first air attacks, by both manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, were on September 23, 2014, six months after this film was released. It was almost as the producers were prescient as to what was going to happen – a bit uncanny, actually.

 

I remember the initial airstrikes clearly. I was having dinner at Guantanamera, a Cuban restaurant in Manhattan on 8th Avenue just a few blocks from the CNN bureau in Columbus Circle. My phone rang and I was asked to get back to the studio as soon as possible as we were going live with coverage of the strikes. Since I had served as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in the past, I was the first call they made. Never mind the few beers….

 

I digress. Without spoiling the film, the interaction between the father and son on one had and the two armed militants is intense and well-done. The son is suffering from an earlier traumatic incident and is susceptible to the not-so-subtle recruitment efforts of Dhiyah, the more charismatic of the two militants.

 

A comment – there is one drone strike in the film. There is no way that strike would have made it through the rigorous target validation process required for approval to strike. This is just a film, maybe with political overtones.

 

If I say more, it will give too much away. Watch it – it’s just 18 minutes long, but the film says a lot. Just keep in mind, the producers are probably against drone strikes. I, on the other hand, support them fully.

 

The Ian Ebright film is available on Amazon, and free to Prime members. Watch it here.




June 24, 2021

Defense Department Linguist Sentenced to 23 Years in Prison

 

Miriam Taha Thompson

In March 2020, I wrote and analysis of a U.S. Army contract linguist who was arrested for espionage. You can read that article here: Department of Defense Linguist Charged with Espionage – A Spy Story.

 

This week, that linguist, Miriam Taha Thompson, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for “delivering classified national defense information to aid a foreign government.” The sentence was part of a plea agreement – Thompson admitted that she knew that the Top Secret intelligence information that she was passing to a Lebanese national would be provided to Hizballah, a designated foreign terrorist organization. Given the fact that Thompson is 62 years of age, a 23-year sentence constitutes a virtual life sentence. 

 

I’m fine with that. She should spend the rest of her life in prison. When I wrote the article last year, we knew from Thompson’s admissions that she not only provided information that included true identities of eight human intelligence sources, she activity advised her Lebanese lover/case officer on how to collect more information on the sources.

 

What we did not know a year ago is that the operation in which she willingly participated was an Iranian intelligence operation focused on determining the American intelligence sources who made the assassinations of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qasem Suleimani  and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the founder of the notorious Iranian-backed and controlled Iraqi Shi’a militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. Both men were killed in an American drone strike on January 3, 2020 just outside the Baghdad International Airport.

 

The killing of Suleimani and al-Muhandis was made possible by an excellent U.S. intelligence operation. Likewise, the Iranian-Hizballah operation to ferret out the Americans’ human sources was also effective. Unfortunately, it is spy versus spy.

 

According to the Department of Justice announcement, in 2017, she started communicating a Lebanese national (an unindicted co-conspirator), with whom she entered into a romantic relationship. She was aware that he had ties to Lebanese Hizballah.

 

In December 2019, while Thompson was assigned to a Special Operations Task Force facility in Iraq, the United States launched a series of airstrikes in Iraq targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah; that effort culminated in the drone strike that killed Soleimani and al-Muhandis.


Following Suleimani’s death in January 2020, her Lebanese case officer began asking Thompson to provide “them” with information about the human assets who had helped the United States to target Suleimani. Thompson admitted that she understood “them” to be senior Lebanese Hizballah officials. It is widely understood that providing anything to HIzballah is the same as providing it to the IRGC.

 

After receiving this “request for information” – this is actually her tasking – in early January 2020, Thompson began accessing dozens of files concerning human intelligence sources, including true names, personal identification data, background information and photographs of the human assets, as well as reports detailing information the assets provided to the U.S. intelligence community.

 

By the time she was arrested by the FBI on February 27, 2020, Thompson had provided Hizballah with the identities of at least eight clandestine human assets and a list of at least 10 U.S. targets for future strikes.

 

She knew what she was doing.

 

As I said in my earlier article, no matter how naïve Thompson tries to appear, her own words transmitted to her case officer indicate her level of involvement. She warned her case officer that at least four of these U.S. assets were operating in Lebanon, targeting the Amal organization among others, and suggested that the assets’ telephones be tapped. That’s not just providing information, that’s actively participating in an operation of a hostile intelligence service against the United States.

 

My question for the U.S. intelligence community writ large, and specifically the Special Operations Task Force in Irbil – why was this relatively low-level contract employee capable of gaining access to human source true identification data?

 

Inexcusable. Someone should be held accountable for that, but will they? Doubtful – they found the spy, so it’s congratulations all around and back to business as usual.