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.