May 25, 2012

Breaking faith: the CIA and the Pakistani doctor

Pakistani television reporting of 33-year sentence for Dr. Shakil Afridi

It is inexcusable. It is the first and most important lesson case officers are taught at "The Farm"* - you have a moral and professional responsibility to safeguard the security of an asset. Security is the key part of any successful operation - it is the first and last thing you cover with your asset each and every time you meet or communicate. No security means no operation at best, a dead or imprisoned asset at worst.

Somewhere in the operation that led to the killing of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin, someone forgot that most basic of concepts. A CIA asset, Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi, has just been sentenced by a Pakistani court to more than 33 years in prison for "conspiring against the state." His crime? Working with American intelligence against bin Ladin. Our crime? Allowing him to get caught.

How did this happen? Why was he allowed to remain in Pakistan after the operation? Was there no plan to extract him and his family immediately after the raid? This is basic Agency tradecraft, but in this case, the basics seem to have been ignored.

That said, the use of a local physician to collect DNA samples of residents in the area of Abbottabad under the guise of a vaccination program to verify the presence of bin Ladin was brilliant. It will be a teaching point at The Farm for years to come - as it should be. The case officer who came up with this method was thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, somewhere up the chain of command, someone dropped the ball on ensuring the safety of the asset. Was Dr. Afridi considered a throwaway? A local source to be sacrificed for the greater good, a small pawn in the larger game of taking down Usamah bin Ladin? If so, this is not the same CIA that I knew. If this is how we treat our assets, why would any potential asset ever agree to work with or for American intelligence agencies again?

What makes this case ever more egregious is that it appears senior Administration officials did not even attempt to protect the doctor's identity. From the press reporting and the Administration spin, I cannot tell how the Pakistanis learned of Dr. Afridi's involvement, but what has come out is troubling.

There were Pakistani press reports, what they call the results of their own investigation - more likely a feed from the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Plausible, since the ISI can be an effective internal security service.

However, here is where it gets disturbing. Two senior Administration officials made statements to the press about the doctor's identity and the role he played in vetting information that bin Ladin was in Abbottabad.

First was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta was the CIA director at the time of the bin Laden raid. In January of this year, he appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and said, "I'm very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence ... that was very helpful with regards to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous toward Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."

The second official was described as "a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterror operations against al-Qa'idah in Pakistan." This official stated, "The doctor was never asked to spy on Pakistan. He was asked only to help locate al-Qa'idah terrorists who threaten Pakistan and the United States. He helped save Pakistani and American lives. His activities were not treasonous, they were heroic and patriotic."

Given the tone and tenor of the statement, I assess that the "senior U.S. official" was none other than White House terrorism advisor John Brennan - it sounds just like him. Either John never attended the tradecraft course at The Farm (Brennan was a reports officer, not a case officer) or he missed the lecture on protecting your intelligence assets. You NEVER reveal the identities, access and most critically, the names of your intelligence assets. Never. The Farm - Rule Number One.

Now what?

Unfortunately, this colossal blunder does not leave the United States with many options to secure Dr. Afridi's release. First, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that Pakistan is an ally. At best, they are a useful adversary and at worst complicit in the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan. The ISI was embarrassed by the raid and the fact that we have exposed them as either incompetents or complicit liars. I have worked peripherally with the ISI - they are not the former, so I have to go with the latter.

What would I do? I would not have missed the opportunity last week to address Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari while he attended the NATO summit in Chicago on Afghanistan. Rather than snub him as President Obama did, I would have had a private "come to Muhammad" meeting with the president and explained that unless the doctor was pardoned or released via whatever face-saving mechanism Zardari could work out, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan would undergo drastic changes.

First, the American ambassador in Islamabad would be recalled and our diplomatic presence downgraded to the chargé d'affairs level. Then all American financial aid (not the symbolic $33 million cut voted on by the Senate), military parts and supplies for Pakistan's American-built equipment and any military training assistance would be halted. Drone attacks would continue from American bases in Afghanistan, this time without Pakistani coordination. All Pakistani military officers attending courses in the United States would be returned to Pakistan, as would most of the Pakistani embassy staff. None of that would change until Dr. Afridi and family arrive in the United States.

Instead, the State Department tells us that "we have regularly taken up this matter with Pakistan" and will "continue to go forward." Forward? The man, an intelligence asset of the United States intelligence community was just sentenced to 33 years in prison, a virtual death sentence. Absolute drivel. Amateur hour.

Do something. Do it now.

* "The Farm" is the CIA training facility "believed to be located at Camp Peary on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia." Since I was trained at the facility, I can neither confirm nor deny that it is there....

Memorial Day 2012

I wrote this in 2007 while a military analyst at NBC News. With a few word changes, I think it holds true yet today. The original is still available at

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Military analyst - MSNBC

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Ed and I served together in Desert Storm - this must have been his toughest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the "summer driving season" or a chance to buy appliances on sale. The constant news coverage of still high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It is not about driving or shopping – it is about remembering the men and women or our armed forces who died while in service to the country. It is important that we not forget that – after more than a decade, we are still at war and we still lose some our finest young men and women every week.

Yes, we are still at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Every one of the fallen volunteered to serve this country, and deserve a moment of remembrance. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces in the past – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a small village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, "In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil." A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, "You are welcome in France."

Over the years, over a million American troops have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the American flag draped on the coffin, an honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of seven rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation "on behalf of a grateful nation."

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive and Rick Francona

May 22, 2012

"Lockerbie bomber dead" - more questions than answers

Now that former Libyan intelligence officer 'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi, convicted for his involvement in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, has died, more questions remain about the entire affair.

These are my thoughts on the issue. I have a unique perspective on this, having served as an intelligence officer for virtually my entire professional career. There are many holes in the official version of what happened with the downing of the airliner and the deaths of 270 people. Many of my readers are familiar with my skepticism about this case, and know that I am not prone to conspiracy theories.

I have excerpted relevant portions of an article I wrote when al-Maqrahi was released from a Scottish prison, ostensibly for health and humanitarian reasons - he was expected to die within 90 days of his release. That was in August 2009. Is Scottish medicine so bad that they could have so badly diagnosed his condition? Hardly - it was corruption on an international scale, a deal with Libya for a lucrative oil contract with the UK's BP oil. (See Thoughts on the release of the "Lockerbie bomber" for the article.)

I have often expressed skepticism that al-Maqrahi was a major actor in the bombing attack that destroyed Pan Am 103, killing 270 people in December 1988. If that is the case, who do I think did it?

To answer that, I want to recall a few events that led up to the attack on Pan Am 103. In 1987, Iran and Iraq had been at war for seven years - casualties from the bloody conflict were approaching one million. Although there had been U.S. Central Intelligence Agency efforts to assist the Iraqi armed forces with intelligence information as early as 1984, these never proved to be effective, owing to mistrust on both sides. By late 1987, however, the Iraqis were beginning to falter under the relentless attacks by the numerically superior Iranians who mounted fanatical human wave assaults on Iraqi troops positions.

In early 1988, the Defense Intelligence Agency prepared an assessment that concluded Iran would likely emerge victorious if the conflict continued another year. Present Reagan declared that an Iranian victory was unacceptable to American interests - he directed the Department of Defense to take steps to ensure that victory did not happen. The result was a Defense Intelligence Agency effort to provide intelligence information to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence. I was one of two officers assigned to execute this effort.

The effort was successful. With American intelligence information, along with the Iraqi use of modified Scud (al-Husayn) missiles and chemical weapons, Iraq was able to force the Iranians to accept a cease-fire in August 1988.

Just a month earlier, there was a critical event in the Persian Gulf. On July 3, an Iran Air passenger jet on a flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai was mistakenly identified as a fighter aircraft by the USS Vincennes and shot down, killing all 290 passengers and crew.

I have met with several Iranian officers since that incident - they all believe the shoot down was intentional and intended to send a message to Tehran that the United States would not permit Iran to prevail in the war with Iraq.

When Iran accepted the ceasefire in August, they declared that they were capable of defeating the Iraqis, but not both the Iraqis and the United States. The Iranians have never forgotten our assistance to the Iraqis and the shoot down of Iran Air 655. Those are two reasons we should not have been surprised when Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers and Iranian-made weapons showed up in Iraq following the U.S, invasion in 2003.

Having failed to defeat the Iraqis, the Iranians wanted revenge against the "Great Satan." How better to avenge the death of 290 passengers and crew on an Iranian airliner than to destroy an American passenger jet. What better target than an airline that has the word "American" in its name?

Here is where the story - let's call it my analysis - takes on truly "bazaar" and bizarre dimensions. There are countries and groups that wish us ill, many for our support of Israel. One such group is the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), headed by Ahmad Jibril. Jibril's group had long been supported by the IRGC.

Who better to turn to than a known terrorist group with experience in explosives and hijackings? At some point in the fall of 1988, IRGC officers met with members of the PFLP-GC, possibly with Jibril himself. The Iranians certainly have enough money and other means of support that would be of interest to Jibril. In return, Jibril agreed to bomb an American airliner. In other words, the Iranians contracted out the hit, hoping to hide the Iranian role in the operation.

The PFLP-GC is in its own perverse way a very talented organization. Their bomb-makers have exhibited expertise in constructing improvised devices that are hard to detect. To bring down a pressurized commercial airliner flying at high altitude does not require a large explosive device. The trick is getting the device onto the aircraft and ensuring that the detonation occurs after the aircraft has reached a suitable altitude for a small device to be effective. The PFLP-GC bomb makers in Syria constructed at least five suitable devices - four were found, and I believe the fifth was the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103.

The explosive device used was concealed in a Toshiba cassette tape player. The explosive material was Semtex, the preferred explosives of terrorist organizations world wide. Until recently, the principal chemical components of Semtex, RDN and PETN, were hard to detect. It was also sold in huge quantities to Libya and Syria, among others.

In order to get the bomb onto the aircraft, the PFLP-GC may have enlisted the help of 'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi and another Libyan intelligence officer accused but not convicted, al-Amin Khalifah Fahimah. The investigation revealed that the bomb, hidden in the Toshiba cassette player, was packed in a Samsonite suitcase. That suitcase was placed into the interline baggage system at Malta International Airport earlier that day aboard Air Malta KM180 which moved the bag to Frankfurt, where it was placed onto Pan Am 103A (a feeder flight), flown to London and later transferred onto the Boeing 747 that operated as Pan Am 103.

'Abd al-Basit al-Maqrahi's cover position was as chief of security for Libyan Arab Airways (LAA); his intelligence service colleague Fahimah's cover was as LAA station manager at the airport in Malta. Certainly they played a role in routing the bomb-laden suitcase onto Pan Am 103. What is not known is whether al-Maqrahi and Fahimah acted alone for the PFLP-GC - who would not be adverse to recruiting the Libyans - or whether Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi sanctioned their participation.

The fact that Qadhafi gave up the two intelligence officers is persuasive to me that this was a rogue operation. If Qadhafi authorized the Libyan intelligence service to conduct the operation with the PFLP-GC and then gave up two of its officers, he broke faith with his intelligence service.

We intelligence officers routinely broke the laws of other countries, knowing full well that our government would never break faith with us. For that reason, I tend to believe that the two were operating on their own, probably for a large amount of money, and got caught. Qadhafi gave them up and took the blame to make peace with the West.

Is al-Maqrahi guilty? Yes, of course. Is Fahimah also guilty? Most likely - their airline covers were crucial to getting the bomb on board the Pan Am jet. That said, it was probably not sanctioned by Qadhafi. The money Libya paid in compensation is minor compared to the benefits resulting from the subsequent suspension of sanctions and later restoration of diplomatic ties with the West, including the United States.

The bottom line: the unproven culprits who have never been brought to justice for the murder of 180 American and 90 others live free in Damascus and Tehran.

Since I wrote that article, the Libyan people have overthrown, and unfortunately killed, Mu'amar al-Qafhafi. During the Libyan revolution, Libyan intelligence chief Musa Kusa (photo) defected to the United Kingdom. Kusa served as the chief of Libya's external intelligence service, the mukhabarat al-Jamahiriyah, from 1994 to 2009, thus during the Pan Am 103 operation. As part of his debriefings, Scottish authorities questioned him about the attack.

Shortly afterward, the European Union dropped all sanctions and restrictions on Kusa, and he is reportedly living well in Qatar. I would like to know just what his answers were to those questions. I suspect that my version of what happened is closer to the truth than the official version. If that is the case, there is a concerted effort to end this affair with no further blame.

There is more. Former Libyan internal security chief 'Abdullah al-Sanusi and al-Qadhafi's son Sayf al-Islam are in custody. They will likely be tried in Libya, although the International Criminal Court has indicted both of them and want to try them in The Hague. They certainly have new information on the bombing of Pan Am 103.

Given the Obama Administration's penchant for publicizing successful intelligence operations and ignoring failures, I believe that if we had learned that the official version was correct - that this was solely a Libyan operation ordered by Mua'mar al-Qadhafi and we now have the word of the Libyan intelligence chief at the time - we would have heard about it. The fact that we have not tells me there is much more to this case than we are being told.

I remain skeptical.

May 20, 2012

Syria: Assif Shawkat dead?

According to claims of the Free Syrian Army, eight senior officials of the Bashar al-Asad regime were killed in Damascus yesterday, including deputy minister of defense Major General Assif Shawkat. In addition to being the deputy minister and fellow 'Alawite, Shawkat sits on Bashar's Crisis Cell.

It goes further: Shawkat is also Bashar's brother in law - he is married to Hafiz al-Asad's only daughter Bushrah. See my October 2010 article, Syria - the rise of Asif Shawkat. In that article, I noted that Asif was to be promoted to lieutenant general (in Syrian Arabic, 'imad), but also note that in the current report, he is listed as a major general (liwa').

The Middle East Live blog of the UK's The Guardian newspaper today carried an article titled Syria: Damascus clashes prompt claims of high-level assassinations in which I was quoted:

The most interesting move here is the promotion of Asif Shawkat to lieutenant general and the news that he may be the next minister of defence. Shawkat owes virtually all of his good fortune to the fact that he is married to Bushra Hafiz al-Asad. If he becomes the minister of defense, al-Asad will have an absolutely loyal and trustworthy ally in that key position. While almost all of the senior officers in key positions are from the 'Alawite minority of the Latakia region, Shawkat is one better, he's family.

Shawkat, now 60-years-old, has been the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence since early 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Most Middle East observers (including me) believe there was a Syrian hand in the murder. We also believe Shawkat was involved in the planning, if not the execution.

The regime has denied the opposition claims about this alleged operation. It is not unusual for the opposition to make such claims, nor is it unusual for the regime to deny such claims, even when true.

It remains to be seen if Shawkat was killed as claimed. He may surface later today or in the next few days for no other reason than to make a proof of life. However, if the opposition claims are true, this is a major success for the opposition. As I said in the 2010 article, this is not just an attack on a senior official, this hits the very heart of the al-Asad family.

May 11, 2012

Syria - we're not even "leading from behind"

Two bombs killed 55 and wounded over 300 in Damascus (SANA)

Despite America's ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's protestations to the contrary, the Kofi Annan ceasefire plan for Syria has failed. It was doomed to fail from the start - Bashar al-Asad has no reason to step down. He has effectively used his military, intelligence and security forces to suppress the opposition, and is doing so with impunity because he has correctly assessed that foreign military intervention is highly unlikely.

The world is watching to see what happens next. Will there be a Libya-style operation to protect Syrian civilians from the military onslaught being waged in several cities? Will a coalition of Arab and Western nations begin to provide effective covert support to the opposition, providing the three things needed for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training? Or will there be a series of increasingly harsh economic sanctions imposed on the country - I mean real sanctions, not the laughable European Union cutoff of luxury goods to the al-Asad family? (See my earlier article, EU luxury sanctions against Syria - is the best you can do?) I am not sanguine that anything is in works.

Why not? Simple. The Russians and the Chinese will not support real action against Syria, and the Obama Administration is too focused on its upcoming tight re-election campaign. It has adopted a very passive observer role, hoping that others will solve the problem, much like the role we have seen this Administration take in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue. Ignore it and hope it either goes away when Tehran announces its nuclear weapons capability, or condemn the Israelis when they attempt to destroy the program.

In the case of Syria, the Administration has put its stock in several "other people's solutions." There is the doomed-from-the-start Annan initiative that virtually no one who knows anything about Syria (and I do not include Kofi Annan in that group) thought would succeed. Under that plan, about a third of the 300 unarmed UN military observers are in Syria.

Since the beginning of the Annan "ceasefire," over 1000 Syrians have died, including 55 in a car bomb attack in a section of Damascus that is home to a major intelligence facility. The facility in the al-Qazzaz neighborhood, located at the intersection of the Airport Road and the Southern Bypass, is pretty heavily guarded - I could never get near it. Now we see Syrian crowds demonstrating against the UN observers.

Then there is the hope that at some point new-again Russian President Vladimir Putin will renounce his staunch support for Bashar al-Asad and support tough United Nations measures. It does not appear this is going to happen. Putin just announced that he will forgo the U.S.-hosted Group of Eight meetings - not exactly an indicator of impending cooperation with the leading nations of the world.

If the Administration is hoping that NATO or European nations are about to form a coalition and militarily intervene in Syria, they are going to be disappointed. France, who took the lead in forming a coalition for last year's military operations against Libya's armed forces, has undergone a major political change. A new president, a socialist, will take office in mid-May and has already announced plans to withdraw French troops two years early from its NATO commitment in Afghanistan. To think a President Hollande is going to commit French forces to Syria is a bit naive.

If the Administration is hoping that the Syrian opposition will somehow gel into an organization with the capability to stand up to the al-Asad regime backed by tanks, artillery and air power, I assess that without external assistance, it is only a matter of time before the government forces prevail. That's a polite way of saying that there will be a bloodbath - the Syrian regime is not known for restraint when it comes to its own survival in power.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that the Pentagon has a series of contingency plans to intervene if ordered to do so by the President. The plans reportedly include establishment of safe areas as well as an air assault on Syrian military forces. That's all well and good, but the planning is useless to the Syrian opposition if the President does not give the orders.

The Gulf States, the Europeans and most importantly, the Syrian people are looking for some kind of American leadership. In Libya, we adopted the nonsensical "leading from behind" construct. It Syria, we are not leading at all.

May 9, 2012

CIA penetration of al-Qa'idah - how about "need to know?"

Bombmaker Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri

The news channels are touting the Central Intelligence Agency's recent success in penetrating al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and preventing a potential devastating attack on a commercial passenger flight bound for the United States.

An agency asset was not only able to stop a bomb plot but fingered one of the key planners of the operation. That is what led to last Sunday's (May 6) drone-launched missile attack on Fahd al-Qus'u. (See my article on that operation, Wanted Al-Qa'idah leader killed in Yemen.)

This represents stellar work by the American intelligence service and good news in the war on terrorism - I assume that war is still going on despite Obama Administration claims to the contrary.

A disclaimer before I continue - I was a case officer trained by the CIA. Having done this for a living, I know first hand the danger and difficulty in working against these terrorist organizations. This operation shows that it can be done.

Regardless of the criticisms levied against the CIA and overall U.S. intelligence community, American intelligence services remain among the best trained, best-equipped, focused and operationally capable organizations in the world. If there is any doubt, captured documents from Usamah bin Ladin's Abbottabad compound reveal a respect for the decimation of the al-Qa'idah organization at American hands.

This operation is just another success story. My concern - why are we reading about it in such detail? This is similar to the "data dump" of operational details that followed the raid that killed bin Ladin a year ago. Rather than "spiking the football in the end zone" again, perhaps a little reticence would have better served the greater good.

This is not the first time we have unwittingly assisted our enemies through our zeal to tout our successes. When so-called "underwear bomber" Nigerian-born 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalib failed to detonate a bomb secreted in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009, the Obama Administration chose to release specific information about why the device malfunctioned.

That device used the explosive compound PETN, the major ingredient of Semtex - the terrorists' preferred plastic explosive. The amount was more than enough required to destroy an airliner in flight. However, the acid-based detonator was not powerful enough to ignite the PETN which had gotten damp from perspiration during the flight.

PETN requires the use of a strong detonator and dry PETN. I have lit Semtex with a match (don't ask) - it burns very hot but does not explode. In effect, by releasing such details, we told al-Qa'idah's principal bomb maker, Saudi national Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri, how to correct his design flaws. I hope we are not going to release similar details of the second generation bomb acquired by the CIA asset.

Then there are problems created by openly acknowledging that the would-be bomber was a CIA asset. Now AQAP is certain that they had been penetrated. A better way to handle this would have been to stop the operation in a way that preserved the secrecy of that critical fact.

It would have been far better to have a security service or airport screener "discover" the bomb and make an arrest. AQAP might then have believed that their "bomber" was simply caught and that their bomb design was subject to detection by current screening techniques and scanners. Maybe they would suspect that their bomber was a double agent but they could not be certain, Instead, we have eliminated that uncertainty and called into question our ability to detect this type of explosive device.

In the end, AQAP or another al-Qa'idah affiliate will attempt another attack, most likely using this type of device. The best defense we have against this is to continue the excellent intelligence work as was done in this penetration of the terrorist organization, identify key leaders and operations personnel, kill them before they can mount an attack, and then not release operational details about it.

I applaud the CIA's intelligence efforts on this case and I applaud the President's decision to expand the use of drone-launched missile attacks on al-Qa'idah operatives. However, the Administration needs to remember that when it publicly acknowledges these victories and reveals significant operational details, it only helps al-Qa'idah refine its offensive capabilities.

When White House officials such as counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan make arrogant statements like, "We had confidence that we had control, that that [bomb] was not a threat, was not an active threat at that time," it only aids al-Qa'idah - it does not make us safer.

Stop talking.

May 7, 2012

Wanted Al-Qa'idah leader killed in Yemen

FBI Wanted Poster - Fahd al-Qus'uفهد القصع  

Message to terrorists who kill American service members, diplomats and citizens: It may take years, even a decade or more, but the military and intelligence services of the United States will hunt you down and kill you.

In Yemen on Sunday, May 6, an airstrike killed wanted al-Qa'idah leader Fahd Muhammad Ahmad al-Qus'u (also rendered as al-Quso). Al-Qus'u was one on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Terrorists for his role in the October 12, 2000 attack on the USS Cole while in the port of Aden, Yemen, in which 17 American sailors were killed.

Although neither the Yemenis nor the Americans have confirmed that the strike was carried out by an American drone, Al Jazeera reported it as an American attack which killed al-Qus'u and an accompanying al-Qa'idah official, as well as wounding six others. This has all the indicators of an attack by a drone-launched Hellfire missile. Of note, the report in Arabic on Al Jazeera stated that al-Qus'u had been "martyred" - any question who's side they are on?

Al-Qus'u had been assigned by al-Qa'idah to videotape the 1998 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, but he fell asleep. To their credit, the Yemenis arrested him and imprisoned him for more than five years. Following his release in 2007, he rejoined al-Qa'idah and became a much more influential member of the organization.

Being from the same tribe as the late (as in also killed by an American missile strike) American-born radical cleric and al-Qa'idah leader Anwar al-'Awlaqi, al-Qus'u was involved in plot by Nigerian-born 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalib to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, 2009. In 2010, he achieved what is considered a benchmark for al-Qa'idah leaders: the U.S. State Department designated him as a "global terrorist."

I have been critical of many aspects of President Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East in general and his prosecution of the wars there in particular. His "leading from behind" style and the constant telegraphing of our plans and strategies to our antagonists is dangerous. That said, his willingness to order drone-launched missile strikes on al-Qa'idah terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen is to be lauded.

Hunting down al-Qa'idah leaders in the countries where they have sought refuge is much preferable and more effective than nation building efforts in countries in which al-Qa'idah is no longer a threat.

May 5, 2012

Syria's chemical weapons and the uprising

Syrian chemical munitions manufacturing facility at al-Safir

Despite Kofi Annan's wishful thinking that his cease-fire plan is "on track," the security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. Many of the world's major powers, including the United States, have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step down.

As this process plays out, there is concern about what might happen to Syria's large stockpile of chemical weapons stored in several locations around the country. The worst case scenario, of course, is that these weapons end up in the hands of a non-state actor such as Hizballah or al-Qa'idah.

Technically, Syria is within its rights to have chemical weapons. The country is a signatory of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits first use of chemical or biological weapons, but does not prohibit the manufacture or possession of them.

More significantly, Syria is not a signatory of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which goes further and does outlaw the production, stockpiling and any - not just "first" - use of chemical munitions. As such, Syria is under no international obligation to declare its chemical weapons, destroy them or even allow international inspectors to monitor them. By not signing the convention, Syria is in company with only Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Somalia and South Sudan.

Syria has not admitted that it possesses chemical weapons, but it is hardly a secret. It is believed to have the largest stockpile of undeclared chemical weapons in the world, including the most lethal chemical warfare agent ever developed, the persistent nerve agent VX.

The Director of National Intelligence, in an unclassified report to Congress in 2006, provided this assessment of Syria's chemical and biological weapons, and the ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver them. It does not address Syrian air force fighter-bombers that can also carry chemical weapons.


Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January to 31 December 2006. (Read the entire report).

Chemical and Biological. Syria continued to seek dual-use technology from foreign sources during the reporting period. Syria has had a chemical weapons program for many years and already has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, which can be delivered by aircraft or ballistic missile. In addition, Syria is developing the more toxic and persistent nerve agent VX. We assess that Syria remains dependent on foreign sources for key elements of its CW program, including precursor chemicals.

Syria's biotechnical infrastructure is capable of supporting limited biological agent development. We do not assess the Syrians have achieved a capability to put biological agents into effective weapons, however.

Ballistic Missile. Syria's ballistic missile program is a key component to its strategy to deter external threats and is a priority in defense planning and spending. Syria possesses one of the largest ballistic missile forces in the Middle East—composed of Scud-class liquid propellant short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), including Soviet—and North Korean—origin Scud missiles. Additionally, Syria fields the SS-21 Mod 2 SRBM. We judge that Syria's operational missile force can employ chemical as well as conventional warheads. Syria is developing a version of its Scud-D missile with greater accuracy and that is more difficult to intercept.

Syria maintains its chemical weapons arsenal and delivery systems to provide a deterrent against an attack by the vastly-superior (and nuclear-equipped) Israeli armed forces. Its ballistic missiles and squadron of SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers can deliver chemical weapons virtually anywhere in Israel.

That fact mitigates Israel's oft-cited argument that it needs to retain control of the Golan Heights seized from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967. Syrian artillery positions on the heights at one time posed a threat to northern Israel, but with the advances in weapons technology, the Syrians no longer need the high ground to put weapons on Israeli targets. Syrian missiles based in protected launch positions in northern Syria can strike targets anywhere in Israel.

Syria's chemical weapons are - and should be - of concern. As the world determines its next steps in confronting the bloodbath in Syria, it needs to take into consideration the status and disposition of Syria's chemical munitions. Although handling of the weapons requires specialized training, having them fall into the hands of Hizballah via the Syrian regime, or into the hands of al-Qa'idah via the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition, is a frightening thought.

May 2, 2012

Obama's Night Trip to the War Zone

President Obama arrives in Afghanistan in the dark

I just read a reporter's account of his short trip to Afghanistan with President Barack Obama on Air Force One. Ostensibly, this was a trip to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, but everyone knows this was merely a "spiking the ball in the end-zone" campaign trip exploiting the one-year anniversary of the killing of Usamah bin Ladin by U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six. To read the reporter's account, this trip was something to be proud of.

I look at it in a different way. I am going to use the reporter's own words to demonstrate the absolute hypocrisy of this presidential campaign trip. I won't identify the reporter in case he ever wants to redeem his self respect on a U.S. military installation in the future. Of course, in newsrooms across America, he may be heralded as "journalist." Having spent five years as a military analyst with a major U.S. news network, I recognize the type - it's either the "news coverage is about me," or "I am a tool for the Obama Administration."

That said, the reportage is instructive - and damning.

"It was a scene from a spy novel. A little after 9:30pm, I arrived at a back gate of Joint Base Andrews. No guard or intercom, I just drove up and it opened. I was in. The security guards verified my identity and I made my way to the rendezvous point. Typically, I would meet traveling White House press aides at the base passenger terminal, but not tonight. Very few people knew what we were doing there, so we met in a dimly lit parking lot."

Having been an intelligence officer, specifically a case officer, one who recruits spies and what most novelists would inaccurately label a "spy," I can tell you that this is a security issue, not an intelligence operation. The young journalist was probably impressed, but this is not cloak and dagger, it's merely database work. Spy novel? Yeah, right.

"We rode a bus onto the tarmac where Air Force One was in shadow. No lights on, inside or out. We boarded. Just before midnight, President Obama arrived. We didn't see him, but more Secret Service agents boarded, the door was closed, and we were off. No lights on in the cabin for takeoff and the initial ascent. All window shades remained down.

"In fact, we would not see daylight for more than 24 hours. The plan was to arrive in Afghanistan after dark and leave before daybreak. As we descended steeply to the runway at Bagram Airfield, again, all inside cabin lights were turned off. We landed at the base at 10:20pm local time and got onto Chinook helicopters that were waiting with rotors spinning. The short flight to Kabul was also in blackout - use of flashlights or phones was prohibited due to their back-lit screens. Pilots and gunners used night vision goggles to navigate.

"After landing at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, we took a short motorcade to the Presidential Palace. In the ornate atrium of the King's Residence, Presidents Obama and Hamid Karzai signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We hopped back in the motorcade for the drive back to ISAF and the helicopter lift to Bagram. Again, in blackout conditions.

"In a hangar at the U.S. base, General John Allen, ISAF commander, gave a rousing warm up talk to about 3000 service members, most of them Army from the 1st Infantry Division. The President then spoke to troops, thanking them for their service and making sure they knew that the entire nation is behind them. Obama then spent 45 minutes shaking hands and taking photos with as many troops as possible. During a visit to the hospital on base here, the President gave out ten purple hearts. At 4:00am local time, the President addressed the nation from Afghanistan."

Now aren't we proud? The President slinks into Afghanistan in the dark, holds a night meeting with the Afghan president, gives a nighttime for U.S. troops (who serve there in the daytime as well) and then takes off in the dark before anyone knows he was there. During his address to the troops, he said, "We can see the light of a new day," and that after years of sacrifice the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan is winding down.

Really? Just hours after the sun came up in Kabul, the Taliban attacked foreign targets in Kabul killing at least six people. They claimed it was in response to the Obama visit.

You might ask, "So, how's that 'light of a new day' coming along?" Given the fact that the President of the United States, arguably the commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces on the planet, has to arrive in a third world country after dark and depart before sunrise, I wonder just how well he is prosecuting the war that is leading to that "light of a new day."

I am guessing, but I have to say, it's not going so well.

May 1, 2012

Egypt: Moussa declares Camp David Accords dead - some context, please

Amr Moussa campaign poster

According to a major Israeli newspaper, Amr Moussa (more properly 'Amru Muhammad Musa - عمرو محمد موسى), possibly the next President of Egypt, has declared the Camp David Accords dead." Haaretz headlined the story, "Leading candidate in Egypt presidential race calls Israel peace accord 'dead and buried'." While he did say that, the headline is a bit misleading and requires some context. For more on Moussa's chances of becoming the next president, see my earlier article, Egypt - the kingmakers speak....

In various speeches over the last few weeks, Moussa chose his words very carefully - after all, he is a professional politician. In his own words, "the Camp David Accords are a historical document whose place is on the shelves of history, as its articles talk about the fact that the aim of the agreement is to establish an independent Palestinian state. This agreement is dead and buried." The candidate described the accords as "ink on paper" (hibr 'ala waraq) - an Arabic idiom that corresponds closely to the English "not worth the paper it's printed on."

What the Haaretz headline does is conflate the Camp David Accords with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, when in reality these are two separate documents. The Camp David Accords, signed in in 1978, did set the framework for the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979 - the two are often confused as the same agreement. The 1978 accords included a commitment to grant the Palestinians "full autonomy" within five years, a phrase many believe to be a guarantee of statehood. You would be hard-pressed to find Egyptians who view the two as separate agreements.

Moussa, again choosing his words precisely, states, "There is an agreement between Israel and Egypt that we will honor as long as Israel honors it." This is a welcome statement. While some of the Islamist candidates have called for the abrogation of the 1979 treaty, cooler heads in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group currently in charge of the country pending election of a president, have prevailed - most of the Islamist candidates have been disqualified by the SCAF-appointed Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission.

There is a reason for Moussa's statement and the SCAF's disqualifications of the Islamist candidates. Moussa is trying to appear as the voice of reason to rational Egyptian voters in the first instance. In the second instance, no senior Egyptian military officer in his right mind wants to abrogate a peace treaty with the Israelis. While the Israelis have been able to devote less of its military resources to its western flank and concentrate on what it believes to be its primary enemies - Iran, Syria, Hizballah and HAMAS - it still maintains enough capability aimed at Cairo to hand the Egyptian military a serious defeat.

Amr Moussa is a brilliant politician and an able statesman. We need to listen to his words carefully and appreciate his handling of the Egyptian electorate. Camp David may be dead, but the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty lives. Perhaps Haaretz should have headlined the article, "Moussa reaffirms Egypt-Israel peace treaty."