March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Security Risk (Allied Artists, 1954)


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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 


March 6, 2021

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

 


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

 

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



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



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

 

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

 

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

 

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


Afghan mujahidin with Stinger missile

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is euphemistically called "unintended consequences."

 

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

 

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



February 16, 2021

Biden's Iran Policy - Obama Failure 2.0?


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is not a good place.


 




 

January 12, 2021

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

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

 

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


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

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


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

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


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

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