December 28, 2005

NBC Nightly News: An interview with a Taliban commander

NBC Nightly News Investigative Unit chief Lisa Myers did a story for which I provided input, as well as an interview.

An interview with a Taliban commander

Behind some of the most deadly attacks against U.S. troops is one man: a 35-year-old Afghan who calls himself 'Commander Ismail'

By Lisa Myers & the NBC Investigative Unit

WASHINGTON - Four years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are showing renewed strength, using suicide bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. They are even training the next generation.

Since June 2005, 54 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan, by far the most lethal period since the U.S. invaded.

Behind some of the most deadly attacks is one man, a 35-year-old Afghan who calls himself “Commander Ismail.”

In his first interviews with Western media, Ismail brags about killing three Navy Seals this summer, then downing a Chinook helicopter that came to rescue them, killing another 16 Americans.

Commander Ismail says ousted Taliban leader Mullah Omar is alive and well and that the Mujahaddin are fighting under his command and control.

NBC News interviewed Ismail in August and again this month. Both times, the Taliban made sure we could not provide their location to the U.S. military. An NBC producer was taken on a confusing seven hour odyssey to an unknown location, where Ismail then appeared.

Ismail boasts that in June, he deliberately laid a trap for American forces. "We certainly know that when the American army comes under pressure and they get hit, they will try to help their friends. It is the law of the battlefield."

A tape obtained by NBC News showed what appears to be some of the battle, and the terrorists’ unsuccessful attempt to coax a Navy Seal to surrender. When the U.S. military sent in a rescue team, Ismail’s men were waiting with a rocket-propelled grenade, downing the helicopter, and then spreading out recovered weapons and hi-tech equipment. Later, they displayed captured communications equipment and weapons.

Ismail also predicts more bloodshed to come.

NBC News provided details of the interview to U.S. intelligence. Senior officials say his claims are consistent with what they know about the battle, and they have no reason to believe that the man is not Commander Ismail.

Rick Francona, a former Air Force intelligence officer and now an NBC News analyst, calls the interview revealing. “It’s important that all Americans see who we’re dealing with here— the face of the enemy,” says Francona.

“They’re smart, they adapt to changing tactics, and they are utterly ruthless in their execution,” he adds.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ismail’s claims. But U.S. officials confirm the enemy in Afghanistan has grown more bold and more vicious.

For the video, go to:

© 2005

December 21, 2005

Editorial: The USS Cole - A Victim of Bad Policy?

Originally published: October 26, 2000

The October 12 terrorist attack on the USS Cole while refueling in the port of Aden raises serious questions about U.S. foreign policy decision-making, specifically political-military policy. Aside from the most important question – who did it? – it might be wise to ask the Pentagon why was the ship in Yemen at all?

On October 19, former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander in chief, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, testified before Congressional committees that he had made the decision a few years ago when he was at the helm to use the Yemeni port for refueling U.S. Navy ships. Zinni stated that he was presented only with poor choices of refueling locations. This statement flies in the face of conventional wisdom - there are numerous safer refueling locations in the region - Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali, Dubai, Fujayrah, and Muscat come to mind. When you add the fact that this particular ship had a range in excess of 4000 miles, the claim of the requirement to refuel in Aden loses credibility. Although there is no doubt about the need to use more foreign ports due to cutbacks in military spending and the resultant loss of refueling ships to support underway replenishments, the USS Cole issue has more to do with politics than with logistics.

At the core is CENTCOM’s longtime desire to establish a headquarters in the region – a valid requirement. In a perfect world, CENTCOM headquarters would be located in the region in a stable country with adequate support facilities. That means Saudi Arabia or Egypt. These two countries have been traditionally friendly to the United States and have the infrastructure to support an American military presence. However, neither country will allow it for internal political reasons. Given strident animosity toward the United States for what most Arabs consider blind American support for Israel, no Arab country could permit the permanent stationing of U.S. forces on its soil and survive the resulting public outcry.

Conversely, the countries that might allow the presence of a U.S. military headquarters do not meet the requirements. Kuwait is too close to Iraq; Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman are too close to Iran; and Jordan is too close to, and tied to, the Syria-Lebanon-Israel situation (and these three countries are in the European Command area of responsibility).

CENTCOM has thus set its eyes on Yemen, despite Yemen’s vocal and material support for Iraq during the Gulf War. The Republic of Yemen occupies the southern strip of the Arabian Peninsula and controls the eastern side of the southern entrance to the Red Sea. CENTCOM has always considered the location to be of extreme strategic importance – perhaps overly so.

Yemen has been a favorite of CENTCOM as far back as the early 1980s. At that time, there were two Yemens - the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) friendly to the United States, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), a virtual Soviet client state. South Yemen hosted a large Soviet advisory contingent and allowed the Soviet Navy to use the excellent port facility at Aden. The two Yemens united in May of 1990.

Prior to unification, CENTCOM had tried to convince the president of then-separate North Yemen, President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih, to allow a permanent American presence, and continued to do so after the Gulf War as Salih stayed on as the leader of the newly united Republic of Yemen. Over the last few years, American senior officers, including every CENTCOM commander in chief, have repeatedly visited the united Republic of Yemen. During these visits, the officers routinely meet with President Salih and his senior military leadership, and visit U.S. troops in the country training Yemeni forces in land mine removal, and helping the Yemeni navy establish a coast guard.

According to the Yemeni media, senior American officers routinely request President Salih to allow the United States to establish a military base in Yemen, probably on the island of Socotra. The United States continually denies this, but concedes that there are plans to increase military cooperation between the two countries. While there is no doubt that the United States would be better served if CENTCOM’s headquarters was located in its area of responsibility, establishing the headquarters in Yemen is only marginally better than Tampa, and may be worse depending on the availability of communications and logistics.

Any increased U.S.-Yemen military relationship has been hotly debated between CENTCOM and Middle East specialists in Washington, primarily at the Defense Department. While Washington analysts support a forward headquarters, they believe, and I agree, that Yemen is not the venue. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, an experienced Middle East specialist, supported this view. As early as March of this year, she recommended that the Navy not authorize ship visits to Aden. In fact, the State Department’s annual report on terrorism states that “lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures and the government's inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continued to make the country a safehaven for terrorist groups.”

The recent ship visits – including that of the USS Cole – to Aden were more of a misguided CENTCOM effort to show the flag and build the bilateral U.S.-Yemeni relationship than a valid logistical requirement. Unfortunately the Navy was directed by the CENTCOM staff to use the Yemeni port to bolster relations.

Political expediency and military prudence do not always go hand in hand.

December 20, 2005

NSA Operations Illegal?

This is a follow-up to my previous article ("NSA - Spying on Americans?"). The article was posted on several websites and blogs. For the most part it was well-received, but there are a few naysayers that refuse to believe that people in government might have some integrity and actually conduct these sensitive operations within the guidelines of the law. You know the type - "I have never done any of this for a living, but I am ever so smarter than any of you who have." But I digress.

The main source of the more savage comments appears to be this passage:

Is all this against this law? I'm not a lawyer, but I doubt it. Having spent considerable time doing this for a living, I cannot contemplate NSA (or the parent Defense Department) undertaking this "special collection program" without concurrence of the NSA's General Counsel. I would be surprised if the Justice Department was not consulted as well.

I don't make this stuff up. In virtually every intelligence operation, especially these special access programs, the in-house lawyers are involved at every stage of the planning and sometimes the execution. It's a requirement, not an option. As I said, in the case of NSA, violation of USSID 18 is almost always a career-ending event. No lawyer would sign off on an operation that violated the law or regulations.

Almost all of those making comments cite the fact that all the lawyers (the NSA and DOD General Counsel and probably the Justice Department as well) who reviewed this particular operation are in-house, part of the executive branch and thus incapable of refusing to approve an operation authorized by the President. That's just not true. If we were going to ignore them, why have them? Again, from personal experience, I can tell you that they at times do disapprove operations that would violate the law. Anyone who claims otherwise is either unaware of how these things work or is intentionally being disingenuous.

If you have a problem with this operation, define your objection. Do you object to NSA intercepting foreign communications that originate or terminate inside the United States between known or suspected terrorist entities, or do you object to them doing it without a court order?

I have no problem with the former, some with the latter.

December 16, 2005

NSA - Spying on Americans?

Note: This article also appeared on MSNBC's Hardball Blog. I am one of the "Hardball War Council."

A December 16 New York Times article, "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts" has caused an uproar around the country. Perhaps some background is in order.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is the largest agency in the U.S. intelligence community. Although nominally part of the Department of Defense, its operations are closely supervised by the Director of National Intelligence and support the entire executive branch. From its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, it oversees a worldwide network of intercept stations operated by "the Fort" (as it is known in the business) and the military services, using the latest technologies to access communications of all types. You name it - telephone, radio, fax, email - NSA intercepts it.

NSA's primary focus is on the collection of foreign communications in response to intelligence requirements, be they for military commanders deployed to combat zones, diplomats negotiating on behalf of the United States, etc. Generally, the communications intercepted by NSA take place outside the United States. And generally, NSA is prohibited from the intercept of communications between "U.S. persons, entities, corporations or organizations."

That is not to say that internal communications, or communications originating or terminating in the United States involving a U.S. person or entity cannot be collected by NSA. Collection of these communications, or those foreign communications involving U.S. persons (a much broader category than a U.S. citizen), entities, corporations or organizations abroad requires either a federal warrant or authorization from the Attorney General.

The governing document for this situation is United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18. I worked in the U.S. SIGINT System for many years - this directive is taken seriously. From what I have observed, violation of USSID 18 is a career-ending event. NSA requires that its officers and military personnel assigned there to complete annual USSID 18 training.

The long-established mechanism to authorize the intercept of internal or US-entity communications is via a federal warrant issued under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), most often referred to as "FISA warrant." It is the FISA court that provides oversight to ensure that NSA's actions are in fact necessary and in keeping with U.S. law. USSID 18 also permits collection of these U.S. communications when authorized by the Attorney General in exceptional circumstances (emergencies, imminent danger, threat to life, etc.).

According to the New York Times article, the President issued an executive order after September 11, 2001, authorizing NSA to monitor without warrants certain international phone calls and e-mail messages to or from persons in the United States. (Note that intercept of internal U.S. communications still requires a federal warrant.) Many of the communications targeted under this executive order were discovered from exploitation of captured Al-Qa'idah and Taliban fighters and their computers and documents. According to government officials, the information collected has resulted in the disruption of terrorist operations.

Is all this against this law? I'm not a lawyer, but I doubt it. Having spent considerable time doing this for a living, I cannot contemplate NSA (or the parent Defense Department) undertaking this "special collection program" without concurrence of the NSA'
s General Counsel. I would be surprised if the Justice Department was not consulted as well.

Was Congress notified? According to the New York Times article, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence committees were briefed by then-director of NSA Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden and then Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet. This almost certainly happened. This activity, clandestine rather than covert, would be considered a "significant intelligence activity," thus requiring Congressional notification.

My question: Was an Executive Order needed? Were the existing provisions of FISA not sufficient to authorize NSA collection of these communications? Since very few FISA requests are turned down, what special situations arose that were not covered by the FISA?

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Retired) is an MSNBC Military Analyst. He served for over 15 years in the U.S. Signals Intelligence System, including tours at the National Security Agency.

December 11, 2005

Al-Qa'idah: Newly Published Az-Zawahiri Message

Ayman Az-Zawahiri

In a September 2005 audiotape just released on an Islamist website, Al-Qa'idah's deputy leader showed good insight into American politics and an understanding of the importance of public opinion.

I would characterize this message - directed at his followers and not the West - as his version of "stay the course." He stated that although Al-Qa'idah is no military match for the Americans, but guerrilla tactics will succeed. He cited as examples of what has worked in the past and is working now, specifically:
- Afghan and Arab mujahidin against the Russians in Afghanistan
- Al-Qa'idah mujahidin in against the Russians in Chechnya
- Palestinian mujahidin against the "Jews" in "Palestine"
- Al-Qa'idah and Somali mujahidin against the Americans in Somalia

- Al-Qa'idah and Taliban mujahidin against the Americans in Afghanistan
- Al-Qa'idah mujahidin in Iraq

Az-Zawahiri claimed that continued mujahidin attacks will of course incur casualties, such is the nature of liberation movements everywhere. If they presevere, the Americans will leave due to increased domestic public opinion against the war, citing the "exit strategy." He likened the effort to Vietnam, when "they abandoned their helpers to meet their fates."

Az-Zawahiri is politically astute. He understands that war is waged not only on the battlefield, but in the media and public opinion. He is using all the facets, believing that if they tough it out, eventually the Americans will tire of it and go home. It was Ho Chi Minh who said, "We kill one of you, you kill ten of us. Soon you will tire of it."

December 10, 2005

Pre-9/11 Warning to Saudis - Some Perspective

Usamah Bin Ladin

On December 9, the National Security Archive released a Department of State cable under the headline and text:

National Security Archive Releases Pre-9/11 Warning To Saudis That Osama Bin Laden Might Target Civilian Airliners

Washington, D.C., December 9, 2005 - More than three years before the 9/11 attack on the United States, U.S. officials warned Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden "might take the course of least resistance and turn to a civilian [aircraft] target," according to a declassified cable released by the National Security Archive today. The warning was made by the U.S. regional security officer and a civil aviation official in Riyadh based on a public threat bin Laden made against "military passenger aircraft" and his statement that "we do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians."

The State Department cable was not mentioned in the report of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated how U.S. intelligence failed to detect planning for the terrorist attacks, using civilian airliners, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Archive analyst Barbara Elias.

Let's put this into perspective and get away from the 9/11 hype.

First and foremost, this has nothing to do with the attacks by Al-Qa'idah terrorists on the United States in September, 2001. This press release refers to a June 1998 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the State Department, recounting a meeting between embassy officers and a senior Saudi official. Although the name of the Saudi official has been redacted from the document, we can infer that since the meeting took place at King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) that it was an airport security official. (Note: In Saudi Arabia, civil aviation is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and Aviation).

King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The meeting was held to relay to the Saudi government American concerns over a potential threat posed by Usamah Bin Ladin to civil aviation in the kingdom. The cable cited a Bin Ladin television interview a week before the Riyadh meeting in which he stated that his organization was targeting a "military passenger aircraft in the next few weeks." It is important to note that the cable states that there was no specific information indicating a threat to civil aviation.

At that time, I was chief of the Defense HUMINT Service counterterrorism intelligence branch. One (if not the) primary focuses of the branch was Usamah Bin Ladin and the threat to deployed U.S. forces. The branch was started to support increased attention to force protection in the wake of the attacks on the U.S. Military Training Mission in Riyadh in 1995 (six dead) and a U.S. Air Force housing area - Khobar Towers - near Dhahran in 1996 (19 dead).

Crater after attack on USAF housing - Al-Khubar, Saudi Arabia

Our assessment of the threat at the time was that Bin Ladin might try to use a shoulder-launched surface to air missile, such as an SA-7 or possibly even the much more capable U.S.-made Stinger left over from the Afghanistan war, to down an American military cargo aircraft flying into or out of Royal Saudi Air Force bases. Since the attacks of 1995 and 1996, the United States military had consolidated most of its activities to Prince Sultan Air Base, a remote facility allowing much greater security.

Given the increased security awareness, some analysts felt that Bin Ladin might be frustrated with his inability to attack an American military aircraft and instead fire on a civilian airliner, most likely at KKIA, just north of Riyadh. Bin Ladin had said earlier that he did not distinguish between military and civilians. Personally, I thought the possibility of Bin Ladin attacking a civilian airliner at KKIA was remote, as there were no American flag carriers operating there on a scheduled basis, and at that time Bin Ladin was not attacking Saudi targets.

This has nothing to do with 9/11. That's why it was not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.

December 8, 2005

Hardball: American withdrawal and the insurgency

From MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews

American withdrawal and the insurgency

Lt. Colonel Rick Francona
MSNBC Military Analyst

As the debate over the war in Iraq continues to heat up, several Congressmen, Senators and even former military officers are calling for an American troop withdrawal, claiming that the presence of U.S. forces in the country that fuels the insurgency; withdraw the troops and the insurgency will end or significantly decrease. After all, without foreign forces in the country, there is no need for an insurgency.

That might make sense if we were dealing with a united Iraqi nationalist or resistance movement. The reality on the ground on Iraq is quite different -- the insurgency in Iraq is not a monolithic or even unified group. Many are trying to draw parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, but the two situations are markedly different. In Vietnam, you had the Viet Cong backed by the North Vietnamese army. They were allied and united in the same cause -- their goal was the same. They had a common vision for the country after the exit of the Americans. This is not the case in Iraq.

The insurgency in Iraq comprises disparate elements, each with its own goals and tactics. These elements may have a temporary alliance with each other -- the Middle Eastern adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" comes to mind - but in the end, their goals are incompatible. Do they all want the Americans/coalition forces to leave? Absolutely. Once they are gone, will the elements of the insurgency then together work out the future of Iraq? Doubtful. If they are successful and cause the Americans to leave, then they will have to deal with each other's opposing positions. However, their joint immediate goal is to cause an American withdrawal.

The calls for American withdrawal vary from just leaving, to a timetable, to redeployment of the forces to neighboring countries, or a combination thereof. In any case, the result will be the same - handing a victory to the insurgents. All of these options involve ceding territory to the enemy. That will be regarded not only as a victory for the insurgency, but an affirmation of their belief that Americans will not continue in the face of continuing casualties. That perception will last a long time and may impact future U.S. operations in the region and around the world.

After the withdrawal, the real power struggle in Iraq will begin. The two major elements of the insurgency are the former regime elements and the foreign fighters of Al-Qa'idah Ar-Rafidayn, the Al-Qa'idah affiliated group led by Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi. Both want the Americans (and coalition) out of Iraq, but for different reasons. The former regime elements, the Sunnis who were driven from power by the American-led invasion of 2003, want to reassert their control over the country, to regain what they believe their rightful position. Withdrawal of American troops will not lessen their attacks. They will refocus their efforts on the new Iraqi government, a government they regard as illegitimate and composed of Shi'a and Kurds that mean to keep them from exercising the power they once did. The level of violence will likely increase with the removal of American forces, not decrease.

The Az-Zarqawi group, however, is not interested in the reinstatement of the secular, socialist Ba'th regime. They have been vocal in their calls for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state, a caliphate somewhat akin to the former Taliban state in Afghanistan. Should American forces withdraw, the Az-Zarqawi group will increase their attacks on the new Iraqi government, and likely continue their attacks on the Shi'a as well. Az-Zarqawi has stated he will attack American forces elsewhere in the region. Moving them to Kuwait, as suggested by at least one retired general, is not a solution. Hunting down and killing the insurgents is.

It is the presence of American forces that prevents the insurgency from turning into an outright civil war. The departure of those forces will trigger a bloodbath.

November 24, 2005

Iraq: Insurgent Mortar Tactics

Over the last two years, the insurgents in Iraq, the insurgents - be they Iraqis or part of the Az-Zarqawi-led Al-Qa'idah in Iraq - have learned that they cannot attack American forces directly. Every time they do, they suffer unacceptable losses.

To continue their attacks on the Americans, the insurgents have adopted tactics that allow them to strike without sacrificing themselves. These tactics are in addition to the suicide bombers and the use of their most effective weapon, the improvised explosive device (IED).

One such tactic is the use of a mortar with an improvised delay trigger. Here's how it works.

The insurgents determine as best they can the appropriate firing position of the tube and the suitable charge for the round. The tube is buried or otherwise supported to stand alone. An ice cube is placed in the tube, followed by the round. The mortar team departs the area. After the ice cube melts, the round falls into the tube and is launched at the target.

Why not fire the mortar by hand and run away? They tried that. However, the American military possesses accurate "firefinder" radars, the AN/TPQ-36 and AN/TPQ-37 which can immediately locate enemy fire. The radar back-plots the firing location to friendly artillery and mortar positions to allow for counterbattery fire. Use of this tactic defeats the counterbattery fire.

Another common mortar tactic is to mount the mortar in the back of a pickup truck. The team fires the mortar while slowly moving, which is very inaccurate, or from a fixed position, departing immediately after firing. While counterbattery fire might be effective in this instance, the insurgents normally fire from built up areas - concern for civilian casualties prevents an artillery response.

Although the insurgents can use these tactics to fire mortars, the most effective weapon in the insurgent arsenal is the IED.

November 23, 2005

Iraqi Demands for American Troops to Depart?

Arab League Seal and National Flags

In the final communique issued at the end of the recent Arab League meeting in Cairo, Iraqi leaders called for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. They noted that these forces are present in Iraq under the terms of a United Nations mandate, which was recently extended for another year.

The problem with a timetable is that it creates a race against the clock. From the US/coalition perspective, we then have to kill most of the them faster than the timetable expires. From the insurgents' perspective, they merely have to survive in sufficient numbers until the forces depart.

Some media outlets have reported that the Iraqis "demanded" a timetable. Let's take a look at what was really said. If you read the Arabic text, the Iraqi leaders used the word "natlabu," which can be properly translated as either "we request" or "we demand." I prefer to use "request" because more often than not the connotation is less strident than "demand." It's a subtlety missed by some translators.

What was also in the communique was the statement that "resistance is the right of all nations." What does that mean? To me, it means that Iraqi nationals involved in the insurgency fighting US/coalition forces can eventually be granted some sort of amnesty, while the "terrorists" (Iraqi or foreign) cannot. Who determines who is who? We'll see.

Although many in the United States will find the prospect of pardoning any of the insurgents abhorrent, there will have to be some form of national reconciliation if the country is to stand up as a coherent political entity.

Both of these statements - the request for a timetable and "resistance is a right" - are likely attempts by the Shi'as and Kurds to bring the Sunnis back into the fold. Will it work? Maybe, but probably not anytime soon. It has taken ten years for Bosnia Herzogovina to agree to a federal structure and to try to write a constitution, and foreign forces are still there.

November 15, 2005

MSNBC Hardball - CIA and Torture


November 15 - I appeared on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss recent allegations of torture by the CIA. Here is the transcript:


Torture tactics spur debate
Does aggressive interrogation of an alleged terrorist cross the line?

Sen. John McCain says he wants to ban cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees. Though Vice President Cheney has been lobbying for language that will not limit the president's power in prisoner treatment.

Is there a right and wrong way to treat an alleged terrorist?

Rick Francona, a retired Air Force Lieutenant colonel and MSNBC analyst, and Dana Priest, a reporter for The Washington Post, play Hardball on the issue. Priest recently broke the story on the CIA so-called black sites.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST: Let me start with Colonel Francona here. It seems to me there's four levels of hell if you get captured by the United States. There's how you're treated by the military, how you might be treated by the CIA, how you might be treated if you end up in one of these black sites in Eastern Europe and what happens to you if you have to go one of these rendition sites like Egypt. Am I right, Colonel Francona? There are four levels of hell here for treatment.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): You're exactly right, Chris, and that's in about the right order. Of course, the military operates under a strict series of standards that were set up by the Department of Defense. Basically they're adhering to the Army Field Manual on interrogation. And that's pretty cut and dry.

Then you get into this kind of murky world of what happens if you fall into the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency? If you're held in one of the Central Intelligence Agency's facilities, there's a lot of oversight and restriction on that. But as we've seen reported, and I think Dana had some information on this, was when you get into the black sites that are in other countries, then you get outside of U.S. supervision, outside of real oversight.

The CIA is in charge but they're offshore and they're, you know, out of sight, out of mind and then the worst is, of course, what we call these extraordinary rendition, is when you are handed over to our foreign service and you're at the mercy of that service.

MATTHEWS: OK, Dana, your review of the four levels of hell yourself. What do you know about them?

DANA PRIEST, THE WASHINGTON POST: The one that I'm most familiar with although it's very vague, is the CIA site, the black sites. You know, they are not operating without guidelines. In fact, their guidelines are approved by the Justice Department and the White House and the CIA General Counsel's Office. But we don't know much about them, contrary to the military interrogation techniques that we have got lists and lists of and we see what's being debated in Congress.

The CIA has refused to turn over anything about those. We know, however, there have been some techniques used. Water boarding is the most familiar where a detainee is made to believe they're going to drown.

MATTHEWS: Are they? Are they going to drown? I mean, I'm wondering if that isn't just the real thing.

PRIEST: No. I mean, the whole point of having somebody in that site is not to kill them. It's to interrogate them so that you can get information out of them.

MATTHEWS: Well, how often do they get out of hand and how often do they actually drown somebody? Like every tenth time? Enough times to make you think they might be doing it?

PRIEST: No. I think we would hear. We know about seven or eight investigations involving CIA people linked to deaths of detainees. We have not heard of any in the black sites yet and I we would.

MATTHEWS: How would we hear? If somebody is over in Poland or somewhere, somewhere else in Eastern Europe at some old gulag site, would we actually get a report of someone who died over there?

PRIEST: Well, we, the people, would not. The public. I mean, the only way that we've known anything about the sites is through press reporting. Because the members of Congress who know about this, there are perhaps four, they're sworn to secrecy. They violate a law if they tell you about it, and that's catch-22 for them.

MATTHEWS: Well, here is what Senator Hagel said. I don't know if this is catch-22 or not. Here's what he had to say. We're going to watch the reports of these secret CIA jails, the story you broke.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R), Nebraska said, "The recent media reports of a worldwide American system of secret black hole jails run by the Central Intelligence Agency and developed explicitly to circumvent our obligations under the Geneva Convention soils further everything America represents. It further erodes the world's confidence in America's word and our purpose."

OK. Colonel Francona, what do you make of that? You're a military man. What is your personal sense of what's right and wrong in the area of treating prisoners?

FRANCONA: I don't have the problem with the CIA running a series of overseas detention facilities and interrogation sites. I'm more concerned about what goes on in them and how it's overseen from headquarters. If there are guidelines that are adhered to and those guidelines are within the framework of the law, I don't have a problem with that.

MATTHEWS: Why would you take somebody over to Poland if you weren't going to treat them differently than you would in Georgia?

FRANCONA: Because you could do things in Poland that you can't do in Georgia because you are out of sight.

MATTHEWS: That's my point. Dana, is that your assessment? There's a reason why these are black sites? Because they want to do things in the dark?

PRIEST: Well, yes. And the only reason they took them overseas is because they didn't want U.S. courts and U.S. law to apply.

The only reason that they're secret where they are is because they would be breaking the laws of democracies, where these black sites are located. Because they have laws like we do, that gives detainees certain rights.

MATTHEWS: I don't want to be a complete goo goo here, a good government type, Colonel Francona, but what about the United Nations declaration of human rights, which outlaws this kind of torture of any kind, really?

FRANCONA: Well, here we're going to get into semantics. What constitutes torture? What constitutes, you know, aggressive interrogation?

MATTHEWS: How about it hurts real bad? Let's keep it simple. It hurts real bad, that's torture.

FRANCONA: That's torture.

MATTHEWS: It hurts real bad.

FRANCONA: Threatening with a loaded weapon, threatening to kill their family, I don't regard that as beyond the pale. When you start breaking things, forcing joints, that's beyond the pale, that we shouldn't be doing.


PRIEST: The bottom line is, we don't know. Senator Hagel is on the intelligence committee. He doesn't know about these black sites and that's because they won't brief members who are even supposed to be doing oversight to give them any comfort about what might be going on there.

To watch the video, go to

© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

October 17, 2005

MSNBC - Analysts agree Iraqi vote could be key to future

Analysts agree Iraqi vote could be key to future Coughlin and Francona say approval, high turnout could quell insurgency

Although it is not yet official, after this weekend's voting, it appears Iraq has adopted a new constitution.

For millions of Iraqis, it is a cause for celebration -- a victory for the political process and defeat of the insurgents. But for Sunnis, who came out in huge numbers -- many to vote against the document -- it is a stark reminder of where they stand during the post-Saddam era.

On Monday, MSNBC Analysts Con Coughlin and Rick Francona joined anchor Randy Meier to discuss the impact of the expected approval of the constitution and what may be next for the country.

Coughlin, an editor at the London Daily Telegraph and author of 'Saddam, His Rise and Fall,' told Meier that after this weekend's constitutional approval a successful election at the end of the year could spell doom for the insurgency.

"I think the next key thing really -- and it's not that far away -- is the elections in December. If the Iraqis elect a government based on the new constitution that has an international recognition and legitimacy, then there's actually no point in having an insurgency. Basically, it is people fighting their own government," Coughlin said.

"I think already, we're seeing some Sunni's drafting away from the ideological resistance and any change in how Iraq is governed," he added. "I think we will see that drift increase the longer this process continues."

Francona, a retired Air Force colonel and former officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, noted that although the Sunnis did not support the constitution, their participation was very important, and encouraging for the fledgling democracy's future.

"I think that by all of the Sunni's that did turn out, it legitimizes the process and underscores that the Iraqis are interested in developing some sort of legitimate government on their own," he said.

"As for the document itself, there is still a lot of Sunni resistance to the provisions in there. If you look at the way the vote went in some provinces -- in the Anbar province 97 percent against -- there are a lot of problems with the document, but most of the Sunnis realize now that they have to be a part of the political process," he added.

Francona noted that although many Iraqis admitted that they didn't fully understand the document and were voting after getting direction from their Imams and tribal leaders, the vote was an encouraging start.

"This country has a long history of not making decisions -- being told what to do. It was created in the aftermath of World War I and really enjoyed no freedom at all. So the concept of people making their own decision and voting that way is very new to them," he said.

To watch the entire interview with Rick Francona, go to:

© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

October 12, 2005

Al-Qa'idah: Letter from Ayman Az-Zawahiri

A letter from Ayman Az-Zawahiri, second only to Usamah Bin Ladin in the Al-Qa'idah hierarchy, was intercepted by coalition forces in July. The letter is dated July 9, 2005.

There has been some question as the authenticity of the letter, but for argument's sake, let's assume it is real.

This is not rhetoric - this is a letter from a senior Al-Qa'idah official to the head of the Al-Qa'idah affiliate in Iraq, that being Abu Mus'ib Az-Zarqawi's Al-Qa'idah in Mesopotamia. In addition to the text of the message, there are also some interesting items that can be gleaned from a careful reading of the letter.

Here is what I got from my reading:

- Az-Zawahiri cannot travel easily.

- Az-Zawahiri does not have ready continuous access to electronic media, including Al-Jazeera satellite television. He cannot tell what of his recordings was broadcast, nor does he have a good sense of what is happening in Iraq.

- It is difficult for Al-Qa'idah to send couriered communications.

- The arrest of Abu Faraj Al-Libi (Al-Qa'idah's chief of operations, usually regarded as the number three position in the organization) had a severe impact on the organization's finances, to the point that Az-Zawahiri asked Az-Zarqawi to send him $100,000. The arrest did not, however, result in the arrest of any of the Arab members of Al-Qa'idah. He seems to value the Arab members more than other nationalities.

- Pakistan's operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area are problematic for the organization.

- Al-Qa'idah continues with the ultimate goal of establishing a caliphate governed by the Shari' (strict Islamic law) with its center in what is now Syria or Egypt. Israel would have to be removed.

- The plan for Iraq:
1. Expel the Americans
2. Establish Islamic governance
3. Move the struggle to the surrounding countries
4. Move against Israel

- Popular support is essential for success - unlike what happened to the Taliban who did not attempt to widen their support base. Political action is equally important as military operations.

- "The Americans will exit soon." Az-Zawahiri has studied the American experience in Vietnam and believes that if they presevere, the American will just leave.

- Az-Zawahiri makes no distinction between the Iraqi Shi'a and the Iranians. He uses the terms interchangeably. Although he despises them and considers them to be apostates, he realizes that they cannot kill all of Iraq's millions of Shi'a. According to Az-Zawahiri, many Muslims do not understand the rationale for Az-Zarqawi's attacks on the Shi'a, and the attacks on Shi'a mosques are alienating Muslims around the world. Additionally, the attacks on the Shi'a divert resources from attacks in the primary adversary - the Americans.

- The Iranians are holding at least 100 Al-Qa'idah members, some of them senior leaders.

- Recorded beheadings and slaughter are counterproductive and hurt the cause in the media. Az-Zawahiri believes that half of the battle is being fought in the media, and broadcasts of the killings is not helpful. He says that they will have to wind the battle for hearts and minds in the media because they will never be able to do it on the battlefield.

- Az-Zawahiri's favorite wife, a son and a daughter were killed in an American air strike.

Read the entire text of the letter in either English or Arabic at:

Syria: Ghazi Kan'an Commits Suicide?

The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the mouthpiece of the Bashar Al-Asad regime, announced today that Syrian Minister of the Interior, Ghazi Kan'an, had committed suicide in his office in Damascus. Kan'an was more known for his previous position, that of military intelligence chief for Lebanon during Syria's occupation of that country.

There may be a connection to the suicide and the soon-to-be-released United Report on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

I do not normally forward another analyst's views, but Pat Lang's take on this is superb. I worked for Pat for many years - he knows of what he speaks.

Read Pat Lang's The End of Gazi.

September 29, 2005

Foreign Policy: With Friends Like These

I was recently interviewed for, and subsequently quoted in, an article written by Erik Sass for Foreign Policy journal.

Here is the text. If you wish to read it in its original format, see

With Friends Like These
By Erik Sass -
Posted September 2005

An Iranian group has killed American civilians, allied itself with Saddam Hussein, and holds a spot on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. So why might it become America’s newest friend in the Middle East? Hint: Tehran.

In August 2002, intelligence reports revealed secret nuclear facilities in the Iranian cities of Natanz and Arak. The revelation left officials in Tehran speechless, in large part because the evidence was not gathered by the United States or any of its allies. Rather, the courier of such sensitive intelligence was the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), a decades-old Iranian dissident group. In most cases, dissident groups who could work so effectively within rogue states would be natural friends with Washington. But in the case of the MEK, it’s more complicated: The U.S. State Department lists the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is no doubt the group has a darkly violent past. The MEK opposed Iran’s Shah in the 1970s, and during its militant opposition, killed U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iran, and backed the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran. Though the MEK initially was supportive of the 1979 Islamic revolution, it eventually opposed the clerical regime that came to power. In two 1981 attacks, the MEK killed the Iranian president, premier, chief justice, and 70 other Iranian officials. And with the support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the MEK launched attacks on Iran beginning in 1987, during the brutal endgame of the Iran-Iraq war, later claiming that they killed 40,000 of their countrymen during these campaigns.

Decades later, Iran is still a rogue state. But some say that it’s time to rethink the MEK. “I say the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says Raymond Tanter, a former Middle East analyst on Reagan’s National Security Council, now Washington’s leading MEK booster. “They have eyes and ears on the ground. And they can provide us with human intelligence that we just don’t have.”

That presence on the ground, and its clear opposition to Iran, is winning the MEK support in Washington. President Bush recently called the MEK a “dissident group,” a clear hat tip, and several U.S. legislators want the MEK removed from the terrorist list, which would allow it to raise money in the United States. MEK fundraisers have challenged the group’s terrorist status in court, so far without success. The Iran Freedom Support Act, a House bill clearly intended to help the group, was introduced in April by longtime MEK backer Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It remains tied up in committee. MEK supporters on Capitol Hill are likely waiting on the State Department’s official revocation (or reaffirmation) of the group’s terrorist status, expected to take place in early

October.Retro Radicals

With a curious ideology somehow melding Marxism and Shiite Islamism, the MEK is a relic of a different time—a group of aging student activists who cling to their 1970’s radicalism. Comparable American and European groups like the Weather Underground and the Red Brigades faded away long ago, but the MEK has lived on in isolation. Despite its claims to be “democratic,” the group is actually a strict authoritarian commune, with frequent reports of beatings and torture of members who try to leave. Critics of the MEK don’t hesitate to call it a cult, and even some supporters concede that the group is rather unusual. The group’s leadership is a “gynocracy,” with women making up 30 percent of the fighting force and holding a disproportionately large share of military and political leadership positions. All members are subordinate to the “President-Elect,” Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud. Maryam’s face appears on t-shirts, signs, and pamphlets, and her slogans are repeated by followers with an eerie mantra-like insistence.

But the group’s bizarre nature isn’t the problem for gaining American backing. Rather, it’s a more important question: Has the MEK really given up terrorism? The group has foresworn violence, outwardly at least, as it desperately tries to scrub off the terrorist label. The centerpiece of the MEK’s new program is a peaceful “Third Way” to regime change, calling for a highly implausible referendum on a new Iranian government. Now that the group is angling for U.S. patronage, it has dropped the anti-American and overtly Marxist rhetoric from the group’s early days, and instead talks of free markets, liberty, freedom, and democracy. “The law says if they haven't engaged in terrorist activity for two years, and they don't have the means or intent to perform terrorist acts, they get off the list,” argues Tanter, “I say, follow the law.”

For now, the Bush administration seems to be trying to have it both ways. At a 2004 House International Relations subcommittee hearing, John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that while the MEK is a terrorist organization, he didn’t think that it “prohibited us from getting information from them.”
During the MEK’s long cooperation with Saddam Hussein, it assisted in the brutal suppression of the Kurds and Shiites, earning the enmity of both groups. So it came as no surprise when Iraq's new Shiite-dominated interim Governing Council issued a decree in 2003 (never enforced, by dint of U.S. inaction) saying that the MEK would be expelled from the country. The group got a temporary reprieve from the Iraqis, but is under enormous pressure from official and unofficial groups, including the Shiite Badr Brigade, to leave Iraq as soon as possible, a large-scale relocation that will require American support and diplomatic muscle.

Meanwhile, the MEK’s transformation into a tool of U.S. intelligence is fast becoming a fait accompli. U.S. forces have disarmed its military wing in Iraq and news reports suggest demoralized fighters are deserting their base at Camp Ashraf. According to Massoud Khodabandeh, a former MEK security officer who left the group in 1996 and recently testified against its leadership on trial on charges of terrorism in France, “more than 300 members have fled…[and] 1,000 disaffected members approached the U.S. army and requested to be separated from the organization.” Both the mujahedin who have sought protection in U.S. custody and the hardline supporters still with the group clearly need something to do—and the Pentagon is holding all the cards.

“I'm not saying I always approve of the tactics that the group used in the past,” cautioned Shirin Nariman, a longtime MEK member and fundraiser who joined the group in the late 1970’s. “The whole world has changed, so of course it requires different strategies. And they don't require an army.” (Though a member of the MEK, Nariman often refers to the group in the third person). Former member Khodabandeh is blunter: “They have this dilemma. On one hand they have [used] violence for 30 years. On the other hand they have to get some support from someone (in America or other places) to survive after Saddam.” He dismissed the “peaceful” rhetoric as tactical posturing by the group, masking its terrorist character.

Friends in Need

When the Iran-Iraq war ended, an MEK commander asked about the future of the group said, “We have always adjusted tactics in our fighting. The form of fighting is secondary.” Predictably, the group is retooling itself again, and according to some sources, moving its operations to a new frontier.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has granted permission for the MEK to operate from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, which borders Iran. This decison suggests to some that there is a possibility that the CIA may be deploying the MEK in western Afghanistan as well, to the provinces of Herat and Farah, thus doubling the length of Iranian border open to infiltration. As with Pakistan, the MEK is familiar with that terrain, having infiltrated western Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

Asked what the MEK might be doing, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Rick Francona, a former Air Force intelligence specialist with experience in the Middle East, says: “The primary focus will be the collection of intelligence, possibly even setting up infiltration and exfiltration routes and identifying agents in place inside Iran.” Francona explains that MEK teams could work in conjunction with any of these activities: “While U.S. technical intelligence sensors—electronic and visual—are useful, it is always better to have a human source that can penetrate the facility, tell us what is going on inside the buildings, who is doing what, intentions, progress, and so on. A good spy is hard to beat.”

But is MEK intelligence any good? Current and former U.S. officials have told Newsweek magazine that they knew of the major revelations about Iran’s nuclear program before the MEK made them public, and the group has a record of exaggerating intelligence or sometimes simply making things up. U.S. officials have learned to take MEK claims with very large grains of salt. David Kay, the former intelligence official who spent years investigating Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, expressed a balanced view: “They're often wrong, but occasionally they give you something.”

More alarming, however, is Khodabandeh’s warning that the MEK has been heavily infiltrated by Iranian intelligence, and is of limited utility. However, he concedes, “Having said that, I think it is the job of CIA officers to use the available forces on the ground.” Khodabandeh also notes that the CIA might be able to “clean” the organization of Iranian infiltrators, restoring some of its usefulness as a covert ops force. An alternative method, suggests Francona, would involve culling small operating groups of trustworthy individuals from the MEK’s ranks, employing them in isolated “cells” to limit the damage if any one of them is discovered. “There is precedent for this,” he says, although he refuses to elaborate.

Meanwhile, the latest U.S. intelligence assessment released recently now projects that Iran is a decade away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. But MEK supporters say the assessment is both naïve and out of date, because of the subsequent election of ultra-conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president in June. Tanter warns, “What the elections did was consolidate power under supreme leader Khamenei in such a fashion that there’s now very little need to conciliate the moderates in the Iranian government. I anticipate that Iran will take a tougher line on negotiations on Europe.” Iran’s recent rejection of a seemingly generous European “grand bargain” as “insulting” would appear to confirm Tanter’s prediction.

Despite the political changes on the ground, it is still hard to imagine the MEK playing a large role in any future regime change in Iran. With no more than 3,800 aging members, the group could hardly destabilize the Iranian government itself, but it may prove useful as an intelligence asset. With its allies currently frustrating U.S. efforts to refer the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council, Washington may be in need of friends and any help may be appreciated. The question is whether the MEK are the kind of friends you can count on.

Erik Sass is a freelance journalist.

September 27, 2005

The Saudis: Why They are Not Liking Us?

I was asked by a friend who recently returned from a trip to Egypt. He was told by some Egyptians that they were not enamored of the Saudis and asked if I had ever heard that. My reply:

The Saudis are not universally liked for several reasons.

They have alienated much of the Muslim world for their embrace andcontinued support of Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist adherence that drives people like Usamah Bin Ladin and Abu Mus'ib Az-Zarqawi, in addition to the Saudi royal family. They came to power in the peninsula by subduing or co-opting the other tribes. One tribe/family that they ejected from the Hijaz was the Bani Hashim - direct descendants of the prophet - or as we know them today, the Hashemites. They were the initial ruling family ofIraq, and are still on the throne in Jordan.

The oil wealth has transformed the House of Sa'ud from desert warriors to a bunch of wealthy, hypocritical spoiled brats. They run the country like it is their private property, despite machinations to wrap themselves in the mantle of Islam - changing the title of the monarch from King to Custodian of the Two Holy Places, things like that.

There is real resentment and unrest in the Magic Kingdom. If the royal family does not address the political aspirations of the newly emerging technocrats that have been schooled at some of the best universities in the world, we may be looking at Iran in about 1975, when the first cracks started to appear. Add to this the fundamentalist backlash to the relationship between the royal family and the United States - fueling organizations like Al-Qa'idah.

On a more direct level, Saudis are arrogant travelers and tourists. They demand all the things they cannot have in Saudi Arabia - wine,women and song, and they have the money to buy all three. When I was stationed in Damascus, I used to frequent the bars and night clubs looking for contacts (tough job, but somebody had to do it). In the summer, the place was overrun with Saudis, since Damascus sits at a little over 2000 feet elevation and the weather was pleasant year 'round. The Saudis would show up with major money and start offering young Syrian girls (who are quite pretty, much more so than the Egyptians) more than the equivalent of three months pay for one night with them. Can you blame some of the girls for giving in? Then there was an outbreak of AIDS as these same Saudis were often frequent travelers to the sex shops of Thailand. The Iranian "pilgrims" to the holy sites in Lebanon and Syria were not as bad, but only because they hadless money.

During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Saudis acted pretty much the same way with everyone - "You are mere servants." When I got into a conversation about the inequities of wealth distribution in what they like to call the "Arab Nation" (a myth as far as I amconcerned), a Saudi brigadier just shrugged and said, "God meant for us to be rich." How do you argue with that? Sort of like theIsraelis and the "God gave this land to me" argument.

Yeah, they're real sweethearts. You may ask why my book is banned in the Kingdom.

Saddam Husayn - Witness for the Defense?

I recently spoke to a group in Corvallis, Oregon. Although the press coverage is not entirely accurate, it makes for interesting reading.

ANDY CRIPE/Gazette-Times

Port Orford resident Rick Francona gave a talk about the Middle East on Friday during a lunch meeting of the Greater Corvallis Rotary Club. Francona has been a Middle East military analyst for NBC, CNBC and MSNBC since 2003.

Close view of Iraq

By KYLE ODEGARDGazette-Times reporter

Hussein will be guilty and executed, analyst predictsRick Francona wasn't thrilled with the prospect of serving as a defense witness for Saddam Hussein.

But there the Port Orford man was, telling the former dictator's legal team that, yes, the United States knew Iraq used chemical weapons to kill Iranian troops — and on 5,000 Iraqis as well.

And yes, the United States continued to support Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Francona, 54, won't testify in the trial after all, but he'll be involved as an analyst for NBC television.

Few people know Iraq like he does, after stints with the CIA and other agencies in the Middle East. On Friday, the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel talked with the Greater Corvallis Rotary Club.

"I think it's a foregone conclusion that (Hussein) will be found guilty" and executed, Francona said. "They've reinstated the death penalty just for him.

"Hussein's trial is set to start Oct. 19, and he will face charges for numerous alleged crimes committed by his regime, including the use of poison gas against 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

"They were testing the weapons to see if they worked," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the United States knew that without its support, Iraq would lose the war against its neighbor.

"We were so concerned about an Iranian victory that it overshadowed Iraq using chemical weapons," Francona said.

Hussein was seen as the lesser evil.

The dictator will not face charges of using poison gas against Iranian troops, which Francona said he discovered. That omission got Francona crossed off the defense list, he said.

During the last year of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Francona served at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as an advisor for Iraqi armed forces, serving in the field with Iraqi army and flying with the Iraqi air force.

Throughout the Gulf War, Francona was the personal interpreter for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

After that, Francona served in northern Iraq with the CIA.

Besides Hussein, Francona also talked Friday about the messy history and borders of the Middle East, and the new war in Iraq.

"I think there was always a plan for Iraq starting in 1992," he said. America was forced to play its hand because sanctions against Iraq were going to be lifted.

Two things went wrong with the invasion, he said. First, Turkey wouldn't let the United States invade Iraq from the north, so the Sunni Triangle wasn't reached until two weeks after Baghdad fell.

Second, the United States disbanded the Iraqi army.

"Three hundred thousand people in the street with guns and no money," Francona said.

Things will improve there when people take a stand to end the chaos in the Sunni Triangle.

"We're not going to defeat the insurgency. The Iraqis are going to defeat the insurgency," he said.

And America's been waiting a long time for that to happen, Francona added.

Francona is the author of "Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace."

Kyle Odegard covers Philomath and rural Benton County. He can be contacted at or 758-9523.

Copyright © 2005 Corvallis Gazette-Times

September 2, 2005

Al-Qa'idah Ties to London Bombings Confirmed

This does not come as a surprise.

A connection between the perpetrators of the London transportation system terrorist bombers and the Al-Qa'idah organization has been suspected all along, but the recent videotape from Al-Qa'idah number two man Ayman Az-Zawahiri eliminates any doubt.

The connection spans three continents over a period of six years.

Ayman Az-Zawahiri

The earlier connection:

Harun Rashid Aswat met with convicted (and admitted) Al-Qa'idah member James Ujaama in Bly, a small town in southern Oregon to discuss establishing an Al-Qa'idah training camp. Aswat spent some time there, but in the end decided that the facility was not optimum for Al-Qa'idah's needs. Aswat returned to the united Kingdom. After Ujaama's arrest and confession, the United States issued an indictment for Aswat and sought his extradition to answer the charges. The British refused to arrest Aswat at that time.

A later connection:

The July 7 London attacks were committed by four British-born Muslims, including one named Mohammed Sidique Khan. During the investigation into the backgrounds and activities of the bombers, a link turned up between Aswat and Khan. Khan and Aswat had been in numerous telephone calls for the two week period prior to the attacks on July 7. Links between the July 7 and July 21 bombers have been established as well.

Now the tape:

The video from Az-Zawahiri includes a segment with Mohammed Sidique Khan obviously made prior to the July 7 attack in which Khan died. I'd call that an Al-Qa'idah link.

August 26, 2005

Iraq: Locals Turn In Az-Zarqawi Fighters

Finally, some positive news from the trouble Al-Anbar province in Iraq. American warplanes struck a facility believed to be occupied by as many as 50 members of Abu Mus'ib Az-Zarqawi's Al-Qa'idah in Iraq organization.

The good news, in addition to killing up to 50 of Az-Zarqawi's thugs, is how the information was derived. Local residents alerted American forces to the presence of the mostly foreign fighters in the building in Husaybah. Husaybah is a dusty smuggling town directly on the Syrian border, and as such is a favorite infiltration route for weapons and fighters into Iraq from Syria.

This is the only way the insurgency can be defeated - with the support of the local population in the Sunni-dominated area, often called the "Sunni triangle." Thus far, most of the Sunni population has chosen to remain silent, not providing needed information to the American and/or Iraqi forces. Once the Sunnis decide to support the new government and provide information on the insurgents in their midst, the insurgency will be defeated.

August 25, 2005

Iraqi Draft Constitution - Sunni Displeasure

The draft Iraqi constitution was accepted by the National Assembly on Monday. Although a vote was scheduled for August 25, it has been further deferred. There may be a vote on August 29, however, some Shi'a delegates insist no vote is necessary.

Sunni opposition remains adamant against the draft in its current form. President Jalal Talabani is trying to bring the Sunnis into consensus agreement, but it appears that he has not been successful thus far.

What are the provisions that upset the Sunnis? Primarily, they focus on the diminution of central power in favor of regions and provinces, including distribution of oil revenues.

Here are some specific examples.

Article (7):
1st - Entities or trends that advocate, instigate, justify or propagate racism, terrorism, takfir (declaring someone an infidel), sectarian/ethnic cleansing, are banned, especially the Saddam Ba'th Party in Iraq and its symbols, under any name. It will be not be allowed to be part of the multilateral political system in Iraq, which should be defined according to the law.

Article (9):
1st - (b) Forming military militias outside the framework of the armed forces is banned.

Article (63):
1st - A legislative council called the "Council of Union" will be established and will include representatives of regions and provinces to examine bills related to regions and provinces.

Article (110):
1st - The federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution all over the country. A quota should be defined for a specified time for affected regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime or later on, in a way to ensure balanced development in different parts of the country. This should be regulated by law.
2nd - The federal government and the governments of the producing regions and provinces together will draw up the necessary strategic policies to develop oil and gas wealth to bring the greatest benefit for the Iraqi people, relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.

Article (111): All that is not written in the exclusive powers of the federal authorities is in the authority of the regions. In other powers shared between the federal government and the regions, the priority will be given to the region's law in case of dispute.

Article (112): The following duties will be shared by the federal and regional authorities:
1st - administering and organizing customs, in coordination with the regional government, and this will be regulated by law.
2nd - organizing and distributing the main electrical power resources.
3rd - drawing up environmental policy to guarantee the protection of the environment from pollution and the preservation of its cleanliness, in cooperation with the regions.
4th - drawing up general planning and development policies.
5th - drawing up general health policy, in cooperation with the regions.

6th - drawing up general education and childrearing policy, in consultation with the regions.

Article (113): The federal system in the republic of Iraq is made up of the capital, regions, decentralized provinces, and local administrations.

Article (114):
1st - The regions comprise one province or more, and two regions or more have the right to join into one region.
2nd - One province or more have the right to form a region, based on a request for a referendum, which can be presented in one of two ways: ....

Article (115): The authorities of each region include legislative, executive and judicial authorities.

Article (116):
1st - The governments of regions have the right to practice legislative, executive and judicial powers according to this constitution, except in what is listed as exclusive powers of the federal authorities.
2nd - The regional authority has the right to amend the implementation of the federal law in the region in the case of a contradiction between the federal and regional laws in matters that do not pertain to the exclusive powers of the federal authorities.
3rd - It is permissible to delegate the authorities practiced by the federal government to the regional governments and vice versa, with the approval of both.

4th - A fair share of the revenues collected federally is designated to regions, in a way that suffices their duties and obligations, taking into consideration the (region's) resources and needs.
5th - Offices for regions and provinces are to be established in embassies and diplomatic missions to follow up on cultural, social and local development affairs.

(Note: The entire chapter devoted to the regions and provinces is likely unacceptable to the Sunnis.)

Article (150): Laws legislated in Kurdistan since 1992 remain in effect, and decisions made by the government of the Kurdistan region - including contracts and court decisions - are effective unless they are voided or amended according to the laws of the Kurdistan region by the concerned body, as long as they are not against the constitution.

Usamah Bin Ladin - Wounded in Action?

Translation of an August 24 post on an Al-Qa'idah-related website:

Shaykh Usamah personally participated in the attack on a Spanish base in Afghanistan - Urgent!

One of the brothers in the Al-Qa'idah organization in Afghanistan said Shaykh Usamah personally participated in the "Khalud" raid against the international crusader occupation. The operation took place when a group of mujahidin officially headed by Shaykh Abu 'Abdallah [Usamah Bin Ladin] attacked a Spanish crusader base. Five of the mujahidin were martyred, and sources indicated that the shaykh was slightly wounded, as God knows. The mujahidin announced that they killed 23 Spanish soldiers after abducting them, some of whom were officers. The brothers, thanks be to God, also downed a helicopter of the occupiers with 17 soldiers onboard, thanks be to God.

God is great
Sahab association for media productions



A Spanish helicopter carrying 17 soldiers crashed in Afghanistan on August 16. However, there is no indication of hostile fire, although that cannot be ruled out. As for the claimed attack on a Spanish base, none of this rings true. There are about 350 Spanish soldiers in Afghanistan involved in a reconstruction project near the western city of Herat. The thought that Usamah Bin Ladin, thought to be in frail health, crossed the entire country of Afghanistan from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are where he is believed to be hiding, and personally led an assault on a Spanish base seems a bit far-fetched.

I suspect this is an attempt to provide a morale booster to the Al-Qa'idah fighters who are being hunted down by American and Afghan troops.

From the NBC Nightly News blog ("The Daily Nightly"):
One, Rick Francona, who had served as military attaché in Baghdad, Dubai and Damascus — and could read the post in its original Arabic — suggested this was “psyops” to improve morale in Afghanistan.

Rick noted that Taliban and al-Qaida forces are on the offensive right now and that nothing would help morale better than reports that their leader “the sheikh” was back in Afghanistan, back in command of operations and putting his own life on the line.

August 24, 2005

MSNBC - Iraqi Prison Camp Escape Tunnel


MSNBC Analyst and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona and MSNBC anchor Amy Robach discussed the military's recent find of an extensive tunnel that prevented a massive escape at an Iraqi prison.

Foiled breakout a wake-up call

Francona discusses details behind near prison break in Iraq

On March 24, an informant in America's largest prison in Iraq at Camp Bucca tipped off officials at that facility that a group of prisoners had planned what would have been the largest prison break from a U.S. facility in history.

Wednesday's 'Washington Post,' reports that military guards discovered a fully completed 357-foot tunnel that included ventilation, lighting and cardboard at its exit.

According to MSNBC Analyst and Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, both the thwarted breakout and level of expertise involved in the scheme were astonishing.

"I'm not only surprised that it happened, I'm surprised at the sophistication of this tunnel. If you look at the specifications of what these guys did basically using their hands and tools that they could craft from things that they stole from their American captors," he said. "They moved 100 tons of dirt in 60 days, they were able to hide the dirt. ... They were able to hide it under the barracks, they flushed it down the commodes, It was lighted, ventilated, very well done."

Francona, who said that the population of the prison has almost doubled to nearly 6,000 within the past year because of U.S. counter-insurgency operations, noted Iraq's history of creating architecturally impressive structures.

"The Iraqis have been engineers since time began. They've built wonderful things. If you travel through the country you can see the skill that they have. So to find a few engineers in a group of prisoners shouldn't be surprising," he said.

Since foiling the breakout by analyzing satellite imagery after the tip, Francona said U.S. officials have adjusted their policies.

"There are different procedures in place today, I can tell you that," he said.

"How did it happen? Well, the American guards were naïve when they first got there. They figured 'They're in captivity. The war's over for them.' Not quite," Francona said.

Changes are both structural and managerial.

"They've rearranged the camp now, put solid concrete foundations under all the buildings and moved the buildings so that they're under constant observation," Francona said. "No more than groups of 20 together at one time."

To watch the entire interview with Rick Francona, go to

© 2005 MSNBC Interactive

Assassination - A Foreign Policy Tool?


On August 23, I appeared as a guest on Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss Reverend Pat Robertson's remarks calling for American covert operatives to assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. I am not a South American specialist - my comments focus on the use of assassination as a foreign policy tool.

Assassination has been against U.S. policy since it was specifically prohibited in an executive order signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, again by executive order under President Jimmy Carter and then again with the current executive order in force EO 12333, singed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The law not only prohibits the United States government from conducting assassinations, it also prohibits conspiring, supporting, assisting, etc, anyone else from doing it. Oft-heard remarks such as "we'll have the Israelis do it" are nonsense.

The names that usually come up when discussing assassination in this context are Saddam Husayn and Usamah Bin Ladin.

  • Saddam Husayn
During war, the leader of country is the commander in chief of the armed forces and is considered a valid military target. In peacetime, he is not. In the 1990's, it was U.S. government policy to support organizations attempting to overthrow Saddam Husayn - this became the official public position of the government when President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. How was Saddam to be treated under this act? At the time, U.S. intelligence agencies had to be careful not to cross the line - we could not support groups who were planning to kill Saddam, only those groups who agreed to take him into custody.
  • Usamah Bin Ladin
After the initiation of the Global War of Terror, Usamah Bin Ladin became a military target, the leader of hostile "armed forces" in a sense.

For more on the Hardball segment:


August 23, 2005

Iraq: Constitutional Issues

On August 22, the Iraqi committee charged with drafting a new constitution for the country presented its draft to the National Assembly. The draft, originally due on August 15, was accepted by the speaker of the assembly, Hajim Al-Hasani. Al-Hasani then made a surprise announcement that the expected vote would be delayed three days to give the assembly time to reach consensus between the three major groups - the Shi'as, Sunnis and the Kurds. The Sunnis have rejected the draft.

The Shi'as and the Kurds crafted the draft document, with some compromise between the two groups. The Sunnis claim they were not consulted in the final stages of the process. The major sticking point in the draft is the actual construct of the federal system. Other issues also remain, but the root of the problems revolve around the nature of the federal structure. It is that federal structure that will determine how much authority provinces and regions have, and more importantly, how Iraq's main source of income - oil revenue - will be managed.

The draft is in itself a compromise between the Kurds and the Shi'as. The two agreed to wording that Islam is to "a source" of the law, but not "the source," and that no laws passed an be in contravention of the tenets of Islam. The Shi'as agreed to this in return for the Kurds withdrawing their right to secede after eight years. The Kurds accepted the modified Islamic legal reference because they realize this is about as good as they are going to get, and anything less Islamic probably will not survive the referendum.

The Shi'as and Kurds have the required votes to pass the draft and trigger the October referendum. The two groups control 215 of the 275 seats - only a simple majority (138 votes) are required to call for the referendum. Doing so without at least attempting to reach some sort of consensus with the Sunnis could lead to a backlash. The Sunnis could throw their lot in with the insurgency, believing that they will get a better deal if the current interim government collapses. Alternatively, they could energize the Sunni population and hope to defeat the draft constitution in the referendum. A two thirds negative vote in three provinces defeats adoption of the constitution and requires another draft be crafted.

The next three days will be interesting. What attempts will be made to bring the Sunnis into the fold? What changes will be offered to address Sunni grievances? In the end, whether or not the Sunnis agree, the Shi'as and Kurds will vote to hold the referendum on the draft constitution on Thursday.

Of interest is the fact that there is no word in the Arabic language for compromise. They use "negotiate" and "consensus" - not quite the same. I doubt we will get to consensus.