How the Pentagon Failed To Sell ‘Bountygate’ Hoax to U.S. Intelligence

How the Pentagon Failed To Sell ‘Bountygate’ Hoax to U.S. Intelligence

The New York Times dropped another Russiagate bombshell on June 26 with a sensational front-page story headlined, “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.”  A predictable media and political frenzy followed, reviving the anti-Russian hysteria that has excited the Beltway establishment for the past four years.

But a closer look at the reporting by the Times and other mainstream outlets vying to confirm its coverage reveals another scandal not unlike Russiagate itself: the core elements of the story appear to have been fabricated by Afghan government intelligence to derail a potential US troop withdrawal from the country. And they were leaked to the Times and other outlets by US national security state officials who shared an agenda with their Afghan allies.

In the days following the story’s publication, the maneuvers of the Afghan regime and US national security bureaucracy encountered an unexpected political obstacle: US intelligence agencies began offering a series of low confidence assessments in the Afghan government’s self-interested intelligence claims, judging them to be highly suspect at best, and altogether bogus at worst.

In light of this dramatic development, the Times’ initial report appears to have been the product of a sensationalistic disinformation dump aimed at prolonging the failed Afghan war in the face of President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from it.

The Times Quietly Reveals Its Own Sources’ Falsehoods 

The Times not only broke the Bountygate story but commissioned squads of reporters comprising nine different correspondents to write eight articles hyping the supposed scandal in the course of eight days. Its coverage displayed the paper’s usual habit of regurgitating bits of dubious information furnished to its correspondents by faceless national security sources. In the days after the Times’ dramatic publication, its correspondent squads were forced to revise the story line to correct an account that ultimately turned out to be false on practically every important point.

The Bountygate saga began on June 26, with a Times report declaring, “The United States concluded months ago” that the Russians “had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.” The report suggested that US intelligence analysts had reached a firm conclusion on Russian bounties as early as January. A follow-up Times report portrayed the shocking discovery of the lurid Russian plot thanks to the recovery of a large amount of U.S. cash from a “raid on a Taliban outpost.” That article sourced its claim to the interrogations of “captured Afghan militants and criminals.”

However, subsequent reporting revealed that the “US intelligence reports” about a Russian plot to distribute bounties through Afghan middlemen were not generated by US intelligence at all.

The Times reported first on June 28, then again on June 30, that a large amount of cash found at a “Taliban outpost” or a “Taliban site” had led U.S. intelligence to suspect the Russian plot.  But the Times had to walk that claim back, revealing on July 1 that the raid that turned up $500,000 in cash had in fact targeted the Kabul home of Rahmatullah Azizi, an Afghan businessmen said to have been involved in both drug trafficking and contracting for part of the billions of dollars the United States spent on construction projects.

The Times also disclosed that the information provided by “captured militants and criminals” under “interrogation” had been the main source of suspicion of a Russian bounty scheme in Afghanistan. But those “militants and criminals” turned out to be thirteen relatives and business associates of the businessman whose house was raided.

The Times reported that those detainees were arrested and interrogated following the January 2020 raids based on suspicions by Afghan intelligence that they belonged to a “ring of middlemen” operating between the Russian GRU and so-called “Taliban-linked militants,” as Afghan sources made clear.

Furthermore, contrary to the initial report by the Times, those raids had actually been carried out exclusively by the Afghan intelligence service known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Times disclosed this on July 1. Indeed, the interrogation of those detained in the raids was carried out by the NDS, which explains why the Times reporting referred repeatedly to “interrogations” without ever explaining who actually did the questioning.

Given the notorious record of the NDS, it must be assumed that its interrogators used torture or at least the threat of it to obtain accounts from the detainees that would support the Afghan government’s narrative. Both the Toronto Globe and Mail and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have documented as recently as 2019 the frequent use of torture by the NDS to obtain information from detainees.  The primary objective of the NDS was to establish an air of plausibility around the claim that the fugitive businessman Azizi was the main “middleman” for a purported GRU scheme to offer bounties for killing Americans.

NDS clearly fashioned its story to suit the sensibilities of the U.S. national security state. The narrative echoed previous intelligence reports about Russian bounties in Afghanistan that circulated in early 2019, and which were even discussed at NSC meetings. Nothing was done about these reports, however, because nothing had been confirmed.

The idea that hardcore Taliban fighters needed or wanted foreign money to kill American invaders could have been dismissed on its face. So Afghan officials spun out claims that Russian bounties were paid to incentivize violence by “militants and criminals” supposedly “linked” to the Taliban.

These elements zeroed in on the April 2019 IED attack on a vehicle near the U.S. military base at Bagram in Parwan province that killed three US Marines, insisting that the Taliban had paid local criminal networks in the region to carry out attacks.

As former Parwan police chief Gen. Zaman Mamozai told the Times, Taliban commanders were based in only two of the province’s ten districts, forcing them to depend on a wider network of non-Taliban killers-for-hire to carry out attacks elsewhere in the province. These areas included the region around Bagram, according to the Afghan government’s argument.

But Dr. Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School, a leading expert on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan who has been researching war in the country for three decades,  dismissed the idea that the Taliban would need a criminal network to operate effectively in Parwan.

“The Taliban are all over Parwan,” Johnson stated in an interview with The Grayzone, observing that its fighters had repeatedly carried out attacks on or near the Bagram base throughout the war.

With Withdrawal Looming, the National Security State Plays Its Bountygate Card

Senior U.S. national security officials had clear ulterior motives for embracing the dubious NDS narrative. More than anything, those officials were determined to scuttle Trump’s push for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Pentagon brass and civilian leadership, the fear of withdrawal became more acute in early 2020 as Trump began to demand an even more rapid timetable for a complete pullout than the 12-14 months being negotiated with the Taliban.

It was little surprise then that this element leapt at the opportunity to exploit the self-interested claims by the Afghan NDS to serve its own agenda, especially as the November election loomed. The Times even cited one “senior [US] official” musing that “the evidence about Russia could have threatened that [Afghanistan] deal, because it suggested that after eighteen year of war, Mr. Trump was letting Russia chase the last American troops out of the country.”

In fact, the intelligence reporting from the CIA Station in Kabul on the NDS Russia bounty claims was included in the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) on or about February 27—just as the negotiation of the U.S. peace agreement with the Taliban was about to be signed. That was too late to prevent the signing but timed well enough to ratchet up pressure on Trump to back away from his threat to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan.

Trump may have been briefed orally on the issue at the time, but even if he had not been, the presence of a summary description of the intelligence in the PDB could obviously have been used to embarrass him on Afghanistan by leaking it to the media.

According to Ray McGovern, a former CIA official who was responsible for preparing the PDB for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the insertion of raw, unconfirmed intelligence from a self-interested Afghan intelligence agency into the PDB was a departure from normal practice.

Unless it was a two or three-sentence summary of a current intelligence report, McGovern explained, an item in the PDB normally involved only important intelligence that had been confirmed.  Furthermore, according to McGovern, PDB items are normally shorter versions of items prepared the same day as part of the CIA’s “World Intelligence Review” or “WIRe.”

Information about the purported Russian bounty scheme, however, was not part of the WIRe until May 4, well over two months later, according to the Times. That discrepancy added weight to the suggestion that the CIA had political motivations for planting the raw NDS reporting in the PDB before it could be evaluated.

This June, Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting to discuss the intelligence report, officials told the Times. NSC members drew up a range of options in response to the alleged Russian plot, from a diplomatic protest to more forceful responses. Any public indication that US troops in Afghanistan had been targeted by Russian spies would have inevitably threatened Trump’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

At some point in the weeks that followed, the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency each undertook evaluations of the Afghan intelligence claims. Once the Times began publishing stories about the issue, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe directed the National Intelligence Council, which is responsible for managing all common intelligence community assessments, to write a memorandum summarizing the intelligence organizations’ conclusions.

The memorandum revealed that the intelligence agencies were not impressed with what they’d seen. The CIA and National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) each gave the NDS intelligence an assessment of “moderate confidence,” according to memorandum.

An official guide to intelligence community terminology used by policymakers to determine how much they should rely on assessments indicates that “moderate confidence” generally indicates that “the information being used in the analysis may be interpreted in various ways….” It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the NDS intelligence when the CIA and NCTC arrived at this finding.

The assessment by the National Security Agency was even more important, given that it had obtained intercepts of electronic data on financial transfers “from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account,” according to the Times’ sources.  But the NSA evidently had no idea what the transfers related to, and essentially disavowed the information from the Afghan intelligence agency.

The NIC memorandum reported that NSA gave the information from Afghan intelligence “low confidence” — the lowest of the three possible levels of confidence used in the intelligence community.  According to the official guide to intelligence community terminology, that meant that “information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information.”

Other intelligence agencies reportedly assigned “low confidence” to the information as well, according to the memorandum. Even the Defense Intelligence Agency, known for its tendency to issue alarmist warnings about activities by US adversaries, found no evidence in the material linking the Kremlin to any bounty offers.

Less than two weeks after the Times rolled out its supposed bombshell on Russian bounties, relying entirely on national security officials pushing their own bureaucratic interests on Afghanistan, the story was effectively discredited by the intelligence community itself. In a healthy political climate, this would have produced a major setback for the elements determined to keep US troops entrenched in Afghanistan.

But the political hysteria generated by the Times and the hyper-partisan elements triggered by the appearance of another sordid Trump-Putin connection easily overwhelmed the countervailing facts. It was all the Pentagon and its bureaucratic allies needed to push back on plans for a speedy withdrawal from a long and costly war.

This article was originally featured at The Grayzone and is republished with permission.

How the Pentagon Failed To Sell ‘Bountygate’ Hoax to U.S. Intelligence

Pentagon’s Phony Iran ‘Evidence’: New Rationale for US Intervention?

Last week a senior Pentagon official accused Iran of having sabotaged four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on May 12 and of firing a rocket into Baghdad’s Green Zone on May 19. Iran executed these events, he said, either directly or through regional “proxies.”

But instead of creating sensational headlines, the briefing by Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the director of the Joint Staff, was a flop, because it was clear to reporters covering it that he could not cite a single fact to back it up.

The story got only the most cursory coverage in major news outlets, all of which buried Gilday’s accusation deep in stories about the announced deployment of 1,500 more U.S. troops to the Middle East. Relatively few readers would even have noticed Gilday’s inflammatory claims.

Nevertheless, the briefing raises a serious question whether National Security Adviser John Bolton intended to use the new accusation against Iran stoke a war crisis – much as Vice President Dick Cheney, in another era, used the argument that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for a covert nuclear weapons program to justify the invasion of Iraq. A careful examination of Gilday’s accusations make clear that they do not even claim to be based on any intelligence assessment.

Substituting syllogism for evidence

Gilday was apparently chosen to give a non-political patina and the authority of the US military to an accusation that clearly originated with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a prepared statement, Gilday declared, “In the recent past, Iranian leaders have publicly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They have backed up those threats with actions, posturing their forces in an effort to intimidate the movement of international trade and global energy sources.”

Gilday went on to cite “[r]ecent actions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to include attacks against foreign tankers in Fujairah and the attempted covert deployment of modified dhows capable of launching cruise missiles,” calling them “all part of a dangerous and escalatory strategy by Iran to threaten global trade and to destabilize the region.”

During questions and answers, Gilday added that “we believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership of Iran at the highest levels and that all of the attacks that I mentioned have been attributed to Iran through their proxies or their forces.”

When pressed by reporters, however, Gilday simply repeated variants of the argument he had presented in his prepared statement. When a reporter pressed him for evidence to support the accusation, he responded, “So the Iranians said they were going to close the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians struck those – those tankers. The Iranians struck the – that pipeline facility in Saudi Arabia through their proxies in Yemen. We know that they’re tied directly to the proxies in Iraq that launched the rocket [in Baghdad’s Green Zone].”

Then, when asked by a persistent reporter, “What do you have to back up your case?” Gilday repeated yet again that the Iranians “have said publicly they were going to do things. We learned more through intelligence reporting they have acted upon those threats and they’ve actually – they’ve actually attacked.”

Gilday was thus deploying a crude syllogistic argument (A is true, and B is logically related to A, so B must be true), as the entire basis for the accusation against Iran regarding these two incidents.

But his syllogism was based on a false premise. What a senior Iranian official actually said on April 22 was not that Iran intended to close the Strait of Hormuz unilaterally, but that it would do so in response to any effort to prevent Iran from using it. Alireza Tangsiri, head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps naval force, declared on April 22, “According to international law, the Strait of Hormuz is a marine passageway, and if we are barred from using it, we will shut it down.”

When another reporter challenged Gilday, the admiral finally referred to “intelligence sources that we have.” But when the reporter asked for further clarification, Gilday reverted to another version of the same syllogistic argument based on the idea that the Iranians had “said that they were going to close the Strait of Hormuz.”

Another reporter tried again, asking, “Can you provide us with anything to back this up?” Gilday responded, “I can’t reveal the sources of that reporting.” That wasn’t what he had been asked to do. His response was another obvious ducking of the reporters’ demands for any reason to believe that the US government had actual evidence of Iranian responsibility.

A reporter then tried to try come to Gilday’s assistance by giving him an example of the generic kind of evidence the press was expecting. Was it perhaps the “sophistication of the attack,” the reporter asked, or “maybe the forensics that you’ve done?” But Gilday simply refused to be drawn into such a discussion.

Stovepiping Israeli “intelligence” to strengthen Bolton’s hand

Gilday’s use of “We” in expressing “high confidence” in Iran’s culpability conveniently obscured the all-important question of who had actually decided to make the accusation last week. He was obviously not making it on his own, and he did not even hint at any analysis or assessment from the US intelligence community on the oil tanker sabotage or the rocket fired into the Green Zone. Conveniently for the those behind the Gilday briefing, moreover, no one in the press asked why no such intelligence analysis had been mentioned.

The circumstantial evidence thus points to John Bolton and his allies, notably Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, as the unacknowledged sources of the judgment. That fact is crucial to understanding their Iran strategy, because evidence clearly indicates that those policymakers have based their decisions to escalate the conflict on information provided by a highly self-interested source – the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On May 13, the day after the sabotage of four oil tankers, including two Saudi vessels, a story in the New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence “had warned the United States in recent days of what it said was Iran’s intention to strike Saudi vessels,” citing a “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official” – the term traditionally used to refer in the press to a senior Israeli intelligence official.

That Israeli intelligence warning, moreover, was part of a broader Israeli warning to the United States on alleged Iranian plans to attack US troops and other US and allied targets in the Middle East. On May 6, leading Israeli national security correspondent Barak David reported that warning had been given to Bolton and other senior US officials in an April 15 meeting in the White House. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau reported virtually the same warning by Israeli intelligence that Iran or its proxies were planning a possible strike or strikes against American and/or Saudi targets in Iraq and elsewhere, again citing the “senior Middle Eastern intelligence official.”

Furthermore, those Israeli claims have been “stovepiped” directly through Bolton, who leads the US team of senior national security officials in regular meetings with senior Israeli officials aimed at agreement on joint strategies on issues of policy toward Iran. Those meetings began in December 2017 with agreement on an initial “Joint Work Plan,” and include “joint preparation for different escalation scenarios in the region concerning Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.”

The implications of this arrangement for the internal US politics of Iran policy are profound and dangerous. It means that intelligence analysts have been removed from the process, allowing Bolton and Pompeo to determine the validity of the intelligence warnings on Iran coming from the Israelis. That same stovepiping gives Bolton, who has long had a long reputation for cynically twisting intelligence to advance his own political aims, a crucial source of power over intelligence on Iran.

The result is a gambit that appears to be just as deceptive as the creation of the false intelligence case for the invasion of Iraq and equally intended to provide a political basis for military confrontation with Iran. This time around, corporate media outlets can’t plead ignorance of the trickery as they did in 2003. Adm. Gilday’s remarkable performance in ducking the demand for evidence revealed all too clearly that the alleged “intelligence” claimed by the Bolton’s team is simply a device to push the United States toward confrontation.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at porter.gareth50@gmail.com.

Republished from antiwar.com.

Do Iranian ‘Threats’ Signal Organized U.S.-Israel Subterfuge?

Do Iranian ‘Threats’ Signal Organized U.S.-Israel Subterfuge?

President Donald Trump’s national security team has been leaking “intelligence” about Iranian threats for a week now in an attempt to justify escalating tensions, including moving American air attack assets to the Persian Gulf. But a closer look suggests that National Security Advisor John Bolton and other senior officials are trying to pull off an intelligence deception comparable to the fraudulent pretense for war in Iraq.

There’s also credible evidence that Israel could be playing a key role in this subterfuge.

This deception has served to defend not only a U.S. military buildup in the region, but an expansion of the possible contingencies that could be used to justify military confrontation. In Bolton’s White House statement on May 5, he said the deployment of assets to the Gulf would “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”

Read the rest at theamericanconservative.com.

The Real Motive Behind the FBI Plan to Investigate Trump as a Russian Agent

The Real Motive Behind the FBI Plan to Investigate Trump as a Russian Agent

The New York Times and CNN led media coverage last month of discussions among senior FBI officials in May 2017 of a possible national security investigation of President Donald Trump himself, on the premise that he may have acted as an agent of Russia.

The episode has potentially profound political fallout, because the Times and CNN stories suggested that Trump may indeed have acted like a Russian agent. The New York Times story on Jan. 11 was headlined, “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.” CNN followed three days later with: “Transcripts detail how FBI debated whether Trump was ‘following directions’ of Russia.”

By reporting that Russia may have been able to suborn the president of the United States, these stories have added an even more extreme layer to the dominant national political narrative of a serious Russian threat to destroy U.S. democracy. An analysis of the FBI’s idea of Trump as possible Russian agent reveals, moreover, that it is based on a devious concept of “unwitting” service to Russian interests that can be traced back to former CIA director John O. Brennan.

The Proposal That Fell Apart

The FBI discussions that drove these stories could have led to the first known investigation of a U.S. president as a suspected national security risk. It ended only a few days after the deliberations  among the senior FBI officials when on May 19, 2017, Trump chose Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to be special counsel. That put control over the Trump-Russia investigation into the hands of Mueller rather than the FBI.

Peter Strzok, who led the bureau’s counter-espionage section, was, along with former FBI General Counsel James A. Baker, one of those involved in the May 2017 discussions about investigating Trump. Strzok initially joined Mueller’s team but was fired after a couple of months when text messages that he had written came to light exposing a deep animosity towards Trump that cast doubt over his  impartiality.

The other FBI officials behind the proposed investigation of Trump have also since left the FBI; either fired or retired.

The entirety of what was said at the meetings of five or six senior FBI officials in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director on May 9, 2017, remains a mystery.

Closed-door Testimony

The CNN and Times stories were based on transcripts either obtained or, in the case of the Times, on portions read to it, of private testimony given to the House Judiciary and Government Oversight and Reform committees last October by Baker, one of the participants in the discussions of Trump as a possible Russian agent.

Excerpts of Baker’s testimony published by CNN make it clear that the group spoke about Trump’s policy toward Russia as a basis for a counter-intelligence investigation. Baker said they “discussed as [a] theoretical possibility” that Trump was “acting at the behest of [Russia] and somehow following directions, somehow executing their will.”

Baker went on to explain that this theoretical possibility was only “one extreme” in a range of possibilities discussed and that “the other extreme” was that “the President is completely innocent.”

He thus made it clear that there was no actual evidence for the idea that he was acting on behalf of Russia.

Baker also offered a simpler rationale for such an investigation of Trump: the president’s firing of FBI Director Comey. “Not only would [firing Comey] be an issue of obstructing an investigation,” he said, “but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”

But the idea that Comey’s firing had triggered the FBI’s discussions had already been refuted by a text message that Strzok, who had been leading the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians, sent immediately after the firing to Lisa Page, then legal counsel to Andrew McCabe, formerly the bureau’s deputy director who was then acting director.

“We need to open the case we’ve been waiting on now while Andy is acting,” Strzok wrote, referring to McCabe.

As Page later confirmed to congressional investigators, according to the CNN story, Strzok’s message referred to their desire to launch an investigation into possible collusion between Trump and the Russians.  Strzok’s message also makes clear he, and others intent on the investigation, were anxious to get McCabe to approve the proposed probe before Trump named someone less sympathetic to the project as the new FBI director.

Why the FBI Wanted to Investigate

The New York Times story argued that the senior FBI officials’ interest in a counter-intelligence investigation of Trump and the Russians sprang from their knowledge of the sensational charges in the opposition research dossier assembled by British ex-spy Christopher Steele (paid for by the DNC and the Clinton campaign) that the Putin government had “tried to obtain influence over Mr. Trump by preparing to blackmail and bribe him.”

But the Times writers must have known that Bruce Ohr, former associate deputy attorney general, had already given McCabe, Page and Strzok information about Steele and his dossier that raised fundamental questions about its reliability.

Ohr’s first contacts at FBI headquarters regarding Steele and his dossier came Aug. 3, 2016, with Page and her boss McCabe. Ohr later met with Strzok.

Ohr said he told them that Steele’s work on the dossier had been financed by the Clinton campaign through the Perkins-Cole law firm.  He also told them that Steele, in a July 30, 2016 meeting, told him he was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president,” according to Ohr’s contemporaneous notes of the meeting.

So, key figures in the discussion of Trump and Russia in May 2017 knew that Steele was acting out of both political and business motives to come up with sensational material.

Strzok and Page may have started out as true believers in the idea that the Russians were using Trump campaign officials to manipulate Trump administration policy.  However, by May 2017, Strzok had evidently concluded that there was no real evidence.

In a text message to Page on May 19, 2017, Strzok said he was reluctant to join the Mueller investigation, because of his “gut sense and concern” that “there’s no big there there.”

Why, then, were Strzok, Page, McCabe and others so determined to launch an investigation of Trump at about the same time in May 2017?

CNN article about the immediate aftermath of the Comey firing reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and senior FBI officials “viewed Trump as a leader who needed to be reined in, according to two sources describing the sentiment of the time.”

That description by anti-Trump law enforcement officials suggests that the proposed counter-intelligence investigation of Trump served as a means to maintain some leverage over his treatment of the FBI in regard to the Russia issue.

That motivation would be consistent with the decision by McCabe on May 15, 2017 – a few days after the discussions in question among the senior FBI officials – to resume the bureau’s relationship with Steele.

The FBI had hired Steele as a paid source when it had earlier launched its investigation of Trump campaign official’s contacts with Russians in July 2016. But it had suspended and then terminated the relationship over Steele’s  unauthorized disclosure of the investigation to David Corn of Mother Jones magazine in October 2016. So, the decision to resume the relationship with Steele suggests that the group behind the new investigation were thinking of seizing an opportunity to take off the gloves against Trump.

The ‘Unwitting Collaboration’ Ploy

The discussion by senior FBI officials of a counter-intelligence investigation of Trump has become part of the political struggle over Trump mainly because of the stories in the Times and CNN.

The role of the authors of those stories illustrates how corporate journalists casually embraced the ultimate conspiracy theory – that the president of the United States was acting as a Russian stooge.

The reporters of the CNN story — Jeremy Herb, Pamela Brown and Laura Jarrett — wrote that the FBI officials were “trying to understand why [Trump] was acting in ways that seemed to benefit Russia.”

The New York Times story was more explicit.  Co-authors Adam Goldman, Michael S. Schmidt and Nicholas Fandos wrote that the FBI officials “sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.”

The same day the Times story was published, the lead author on the piece, Adam Goldman, was interviewed by CNN. Goldman referred to Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt in the days after the Comey firing as something that supposedly pushed the FBI officials over the edge.  Goldman declared, “The FBI is watching him say this, and they say he’s telling us why he did this.  He did it on behalf of Russia.”

But Trump said nothing of kind. What he actually said — as the Times itself quoted Trump, from the NBC interview —was: “[W]hen I decided just to do it, I said to myself – I said, you know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” The Times article continued: “Mr. Trump’s aides have said that a fuller examination of his comments demonstrates that he did not fire Mr. Comey to end the Russia inquiry. ‘I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people,” Mr. Trump added. ‘He’s the wrong man for that position.’ ” Goldman was evidently trying to sell the idea of Trump as a suspected agent of Russia.

Goldman also gave an interview to The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, in which the interviewer pressed him on the weakest point of the Trump-as-Russian-agent theory.  “What would that look like if the President was an unwitting agent of a foreign power?” asked Chotiner.

The Times correspondent, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, responded:  “It is hard to say what that would look like.” Goldman then reiterated the concept. “People were very careful to tell me that: ‘It is wittingly or unwittingly.’” And in answer to a follow-up question, Goldman referred to evidence he suggested might be held by the FBI that “perhaps suggests that the President himself may be acting as a foreign agent, either wittingly or unwittingly….”

The idea that American citizens were somehow at risk of being led by an agent of the Russian government “wittingly or unwittingly” did not appear spontaneously. It had been pushed aggressively by former CIA Director John O. Brennan both during and after his role in pressing for the original investigation.

When Brennan testified before the House Intelligence Committee in May 2017, he was asked whether he had intelligence indicating that anyone in the Trump campaign was “colluding with Moscow.”  Instead of answering the question directly, Brennan said he knew from past experience that “the Russians try to suborn individuals, and they try get them to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly.” And he recalled that he had left the government with “unresolved questions” about whether the Russians had been successful in doing so in regard to unidentified individuals in the case of the 2016 elections.

Brennan’s notion of “unwitting collaboration” with Russian subversion is illogical.  Although a political actor might accidentally reveal information to a foreign government that is valuable, real “collaboration” must be mutually agreeable. A policy position or action that may benefit a foreign government, but is also in the interest of one’s own government, does not constitute “unwitting collaboration.”

The real purpose of that concept is to confer on national security officials and their media allies the power to cast suspicion on individuals on the basis of undesirable policy views of Russia rather than on any evidence of actual collaboration with the Russian government.

The “witting or unwitting” ploy has its origins in the unsavory history of extreme right-wing anti-communism during the Cold War. For example, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was at its height in 1956, Chairman Francis E. Walter declared that “people who are not actually Communist Party members are witting or unwitting servants of the Communist cause.”

The same logic – without explicit reference to the phrase — has been used to impugn the independence and loyalty of people who have contacts with Russia.

It has also been used to portray some independent media as part of a supposedly all-powerful Russian media system.

The revelation that it was turned against a sitting president, however briefly, is a warning signal that national security bureaucrats and their media allies are now moving more aggressively to delegitimize any opposition to the new Cold War.

Republished from consortiumnews.com.

How Trump Thwarted Calculated Israeli Effort to Keep U.S. in Syria

How Trump Thwarted Calculated Israeli Effort to Keep U.S. in Syria

The Pentagon was not the only party pressing Donald Trump to keep troops in Syria last year. It turns out the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington were working very hard to get the Trump administration to use America’s military presence there to support an Israeli campaign of airstrikes aimed at threatening war with Iran.

The Israeli strategy was aimed at dividing Russia from Iran and thus putting pressure on Tehran to withdraw its military personnel from Syria. A campaign by a pro-Israel think tank actually succeeded in getting such a policy ready for Trump’s approval last fall—although it was not supported by some Pentagon officials.

The story of the Israel lobby’s latest attempt to capture American policy, recounted here for the first time, reveals just how far Israel was able to reach into the Trump administration before the president personally intervened.

Israel’s Strategy of Provocation in Syria

In early 2018, Israel had stepped up the pace of its airstrikes against Iran-related targets in Syria. The original rationale for the strikes had been to prevent Iran from transporting advanced, highly accurate missiles through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon (although Israeli military intelligence had admitted nearly a decade ago that Hezbollah had already received hundreds of such weapons). But by 2018, the IDF had added another reason for the attacks: to force Iran to give up its military presence in Syria altogether. This despite the fact that Israel had failed to cite any evidence of any permanent Iranian bases there.

Read the rest at theamericanconservative.com.

The Shaky Case That Russia Manipulated Social Media to Tip the 2016 Election

The Shaky Case That Russia Manipulated Social Media to Tip the 2016 Election

In their long recapitulation of the case that Russia subverted the 2016 election, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times painted a picture of highly effective Russian government exploitation of social media for that purpose. Shane and Mazzetti asserted that “anti-Clinton, pro-Trump messages shared with millions of voters by Russia could have made the difference” in the election.

“What we now know with certainty: The Russians carried out a landmark intervention that will be examined for decades to come,” they write elsewhere in the 10,000-word article.

But an investigation of the data they cite to show that the Russian campaigns on Facebook and Twitter were highly effective reveals a gross betrayal of journalistic responsibility. Shane and Mazzetti have constructed a case that is fundamentally false and misleading with statistics that exaggerate the real effectiveness of social media efforts by orders of magnitude.

‘Reaching’ 129 Million Americans

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), is a privately-owned company run by entrepreneur Vevgeny V. Prigozhin, who has ties with President Vladimir Putin. Its employees poured out large numbers of social media postings apparently aimed at stoking racial and cultural tensions in the United States and trying to influence U.S. voters in regard to the presidential election, as Shane and Mazzetti suggest. They even adopted false U.S. personas online to get people to attend rallies and conduct other political activities. (An alternative explanation is that IRA is a purely commercial, and not political, operation.)

Read the rest at consortiumnews.com.

How the Department of Homeland Security Created a Deceptive Tale of Russia Hacking US Voter Sites

How the Department of Homeland Security Created a Deceptive Tale of Russia Hacking US Voter Sites

The narrative of Russian intelligence attacking state and local election boards and threatening the integrity of U.S. elections has achieved near-universal acceptance by media and political elites.  And now it has been accepted by the Trump administration’s intelligence chief, Dan Coats, as well.

But the real story behind that narrative, recounted here for the first time, reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created and nurtured an account that was grossly and deliberately deceptive.

DHS compiled an intelligence report suggesting hackers linked to the Russian government could have targeted voter-related websites in many states and then leaked a sensational story of Russian attacks on those sites without the qualifications that would have revealed a different story. When state election officials began asking questions, they discovered that the DHS claims were false and, in at least one case, laughable.

The National Security Agency and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigating team have also claimed evidence that Russian military intelligence was behind election infrastructure hacking, but on closer examination, those claims turn out to be speculative and misleading as well. Mueller’s indictment of 12 GRU military intelligence officers does not cite any violations of U.S. election laws though it claims Russia interfered with the 2016 election.

A Sensational Story 

On Sept. 29, 2016, a few weeks after the hacking of election-related websites in Illinois and Arizona, ABC News carried a sensational headline: “Russian Hackers Targeted Nearly Half of States’ Voter Registration Systems, Successfully Infiltrated 4.” The story itself reported that “more than 20 state election systems” had been hacked, and four states had been “breached” by hackers suspected of working for the Russian government. The story cited only sources “knowledgeable” about the matter, indicating that those who were pushing the story were eager to hide the institutional origins of the information.

Read the rest at consortiumnews.com.

Media, Hardliners Play Up North Korean Nuclear “Deception” Claim

Media, Hardliners Play Up North Korean Nuclear “Deception” Claim

Just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was about to leave for denuclearization negotiations in Pyongyang, a spate of media stories reported that North Korea is deceiving the Trump administration by seeking to hide some of its nuclear facilities.
Those stories suggest an effort by some Trump administration officials, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, to derail the US-North Korea negotiations by pressuring Trump and Pompeo to embrace the narrative that Kim Jong Un is deceiving the US. Before becoming national security adviser, Bolton had made no secret of his opposition to any Trump effort to reach an agreement with North Korea.
On July 1, The New York Times reported a conflict between Bolton and Pompeo over the timetable for denuclearization. The story said Bolton was determined to limit the period during which North Korea would be required to substantially disarm to one year, while Pompeo had publicly suggested it could take the remainder of Trump’s first term.
That same day on “Face the Nation,” Bolton said Pompeo would be “discussing” with North Koreans “how to dismantle all of their [weapons of mass destruction] and ballistic missile programs in a year.” But Bolton made it clear that it would be based on a “full disclosure” by North Korea of all its activities and facilities.
Read the rest at truthout.org.

An Elite Coalition Emerges Against a Trump-Kim Agreement

An Elite Coalition Emerges Against a Trump-Kim Agreement

An implicit coalition of corporate media, Democratic partisans and others loyal to the national security state are actively hostile to any agreement that would endanger the continuation of the 70-year-old Cold War between the United States and North Korea.
The hostility toward Donald Trump on the part of both corporate media (except for Fox News) and the Democratic Party establishment is obviously a factor in the negative response to the summit. Trump’s dysfunctional persona, extremist domestic strategy and attacks on the press had already created a hyper-adversarial political atmosphere that surrounds everything Trump says or does.
But media coverage of the Singapore summit shows that something much bigger and more sinister is now in play: a consensus among foreign policy and national security elites and their media allies that Trump’s pursuit of an agreement with Kim on denuclearization threatens to undo seventy years of U.S. military dominance in Northeast Asia.
Those elites are determined to resist the political-diplomatic thrust of the Trump administration in negotiating with Kim and have already begun to sound the alarm about the danger Trump poses to the U.S. power position. Not surprisingly Democrats in Congress are already aligning themselves with the national security elite on the issue.
The real concern of the opposition to Trump’s diplomacy, therefore, is no longer that he cannot succeed in getting an agreement with Kim on denuclearization but that he will succeed.
The elite media-security framing of the Trump-Kim summit in the initial week was to cast it as having failed to obtain anything concrete from Kim Jong-un, while giving up immensely valuable concessions to Kim. Almost without exception the line from journalists, pundits and national security elite alike compared the joint statement to the texts of previous agreements with North Korea and found that it was completely lacking in detail.
Ignoring Kim’s Concessions
Thus The Washington Post quoted a tweet by Richard Haas, chairman of the über-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, that the summit “changed nothing” but “makes it harder to keep sanctions in place, further reducing pressure on North Korea to reduce (much less give up) its nuclear weapons and missiles.”
The New York Times cited the criticism of former CIA official Bruce Klingner, now at the Heritage Foundation, that the joint statement failed to commit North Korea to do as much as promised in agreements negotiated in 1994 and 2005. And CNN reported that the Joint Declaration “did not appear to make any significant progress” in committing the North Koreans to complete denuclearization, citing the use of the word “reaffirmed” in the document, which it opined “highlighted the lack of fresh commitments.”
Those criticisms of the joint statement conveniently ignored the fact that Kim had already made the most significant concession he could have made in advance of detailed negotiations between the two states when he committed North Korea to ending the testing of both nuclear weapons and long-range missilesin April following meetings with then CIA Director Mike Pompeo earlier in the month. That commitment by Kim meant that North Korea was entering negotiations with the United States before it had achieved a credible threat to hit the United States with an ICBM armed with a nuclear weapon.

First contact. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The fact that no mention of Kim’s centrally important concession can be found in any of the reports or commentaries on the summit underlines the scarcely hidden agenda at play. Mentioning that fact would have pointed to understandings that Pompeo had already reached with Kim and his envoy to Washington before the summit and were not reflected in the brief text. Pompeo actually confirmed this in remarks made in Detroit on June 18, which only Bloomberg news reported.
Furthermore, the trashing of the summit also employed the politically motivated trick of deliberately ignoring the vast difference between a joint statement of the first ever meeting between the two heads of state and past agreements on denuclearization reached after weeks or months of intensive negotiations.
What really alarmed and even outraged the media and their elite national security allies, however, was that Trump not only announced that he would suspend U.S.-South Korean joint exercises or “war games” as long as the North Koreans were negotiating in good faith on denuclearization, but even called the exercises “very provocative.”
One journalist and commentator after another, including CNN and the Times’ Nicholas Kristof, denounced that description as “adopting” his adversary’s “rhetoric” about the exercises. In a podcast with former National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor, former NSC official Kelley Magsamen, now at the Democratic Party’s Center for American Progress, rather than acknowledging that a vital principle of diplomacy is to put oneself in the position of one’s opponent, charged that Trump had “internalized the language of our adversaries.”
The media and critics deploring Trump’s willingness to suspend the joint U.S.-South Korean war games have portrayed it as a betrayal of the security alliance with South Korea. But that claim merely dismisses the desires of South Korean President Moon and betrays ignorance of the history of U.S.-South Korean war games.
Been Called ‘Provocative’ Before
When Trump called the drills “provocative,” he was merely expressing the same view that some U.S. officials adopted as long ago as the mid-1980s. These officials also called the exercises “provocative,” according to a State Department official interviewed by historian Leon Sigal for his authoritative account of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.
Donald Gregg, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993, observed in an interview with Sigal that the North Koreans mobilized their forces at great expense every time the drills, called “Team Spirit,” were held in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was an Army general and chief of U.S. military intelligence in Korea in the early 1990s, later confirmed to Sigal that the North Koreans would “go nuts” during the annual Team Spirit exercises. Part of the reason for that extreme North Korean anxiety about the drills was that the United States routinely flew nuclear capable B-52s over South Korea as part of the exercises – a practice resumed in recent years after a long hiatus and no doubt reviving the trauma of the U.S. devastation of North Korea from 1950-53.
Ambassador Gregg had supported the idea of suspending the annual Team Spirit exercise in 1992 as part of a proposed effort to get North Korea to change its mind about wanting nuclear weapons. Furthermore the South Korean government itself formally announced in January 1992 that the Team Spirit exercises were being suspended in light of “progress” on North-South nuclear issues. Furthermore, the Clinton administration cancelled Team Spirit drills each year from 1994 to 1996 in an effort to demonstrate the U.S. seriousness in pursuing an agreement with North Korea for an end to its production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Trump leaving Singapore. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The provocative character of the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills became even more pronounced after North Korea began testing nuclear weapons and then intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 2015, the U.S. and South Korea adopted a new war plan codenamed OPLAN 5015, which calls for surgical strikes on North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites and command-and-control facilities, as well as “decapitation” raids targeting senior North Korean leaders, according to the South Korean Yonhap News Agency.
Although the U.S. Command in South Korea has always insisted that all joint exercises are defensive in nature, press reports said that the war plan, which could only be based on a first strike strategy, would be the basis of the publicly announced Ulchi Freedom Guardian war games scheduled for August 2017.
What the national security elite and their media allies are really upset about is the real possibility that Trump will succeed in negotiating a denuclearization deal with North Korea that includes a formal end to the Korean War.  That could complicate the Pentagon’s continuing strengthening of the U.S. military posture vis a vis China.
Fareed Zakaria, CNN’s establishment foreign policy pundit, recalled the Pentagon’s aim during the Clinton administration to maintain at least 100,000 U.S. troops in Northeast Asia, and worried that, if the U.S. military alliance with South Korea is deemphasized, the U.S. would “fall below that threshold.”
Ian Bremmer, the CBS News national security pundit, explained that Trump’s willingness to suspend military exercises means that “the United States is probably going to be a much more marginal player at the end of the day in this region.”
Magsamen suggested a similar concern about Trump weakening the alliance with South Korea in an interview with Vietor, commenting that “a lot of us…see the North Korean challenge in a broader context vis a vis our adversaries, like China and Russia.”
These are early indications of a showdown between Trump and the elite alliance arrayed against him. Senate Democrats can be expected to push back against any agreement that portends possible withdrawal from South Korea, as indicated by the bill proposed by Senators Chris Murphy and Tammy Duckworth to forbid troops withdrawal without Pentagon approval.
If his opponents are dissatisfied with the agreement Trump negotiates, the Senate probably wouldn’t ratify a treaty to end the Korean War that Pyongyang would certainly demand. The most promising diplomatic development in East Asia in seven decades could thus be nullified by the shared interests of the loose coalition in preserving a status quo of tension and possible war.
Reprinted with permission from ConsortiumNews.com.

An Elite Coalition Emerges Against a Trump-Kim Agreement

Back to the future? Bolton, Trump and Iranian regime change

Now that the Trump administration has derailed the Iran nuclear deal, the old issue of regime change in Iran is back again. National Security Advisor John Bolton is obviously the chief regime-change advocate in the administration, and there is every reason to believe he has begun to push that policy with Donald Trump in his first month in the White House.
Bolton was part of the powerful neoconservative faction of national security officials in the George W Bush administration that had a plan for supporting regime change in Iran, not much different from the one Bolton is reportedly pushing now. But it was a crackbrained scheme that involved the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) exiled terrorist organisation that never had Bush’s support.
Bolton may find history repeating itself, with Trump resisting his plan for regime change, just as Bush did in 2003.

Trump calls for change

Trump has appeared to flirt with the idea of Iranian regime change in the past. During the December protests in Iran, he said on Twitter that it was time for a change, noting: “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years.”
Trump’s killing of the nuclear deal, however, stopped short of rhetoric signalling the aim of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Instead, Trump suggested that “Iran’s leaders” are “going to want to make a new and lasting deal, one that benefits all of Iran and the Iranian people”. He added: “When they do, I am ready, willing and able.”
Read the rest at middleeasteye.net.

The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War With Iran

The Untold Story of John Bolton’s Campaign for War With Iran

Everyone knows Bolton is a hawk. Less understood is how he labored in secret to drive Washington and Tehran apart.

In my reporting on U.S.-Israeli policy, I have tracked numerous episodes in which the United States and/or Israel made moves that seemed to indicate preparations for war against Iran. Each time—in 2007, in 2008, and again in 2011—those moves, presented in corporate media as presaging attacks on Tehran, were actually bluffs aimed at putting pressure on the Iranian government.

But the strong likelihood that Donald Trump will now choose John Bolton as his next national security advisor creates a prospect of war with Iran that is very real. Bolton is no ordinary neoconservative hawk. He has been obsessed for many years with going to war against the Islamic Republic, calling repeatedly for bombing Iran in his regular appearances on Fox News, without the slightest indication that he understands the consequences of such a policy.

His is not merely a rhetorical stance: Bolton actively conspired during his tenure as the Bush administration’s policymaker on Iran from 2002 through 2004 to establish the political conditions necessary for the administration to carry out military action.

More than anyone else inside or outside the Trump administration, Bolton has already influenced Trump to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton parlayed his connection with the primary financier behind both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump himself—the militantly Zionist casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—to get Trump’s ear last October, just as the president was preparing to announce his policy on the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He spoke with Trump by phone from Las Vegas after meeting with Adelson.

It was Bolton who persuaded Trump to commit to specific language pledging to pull out of the JCPOA if Congress and America’s European allies did not go along with demands for major changes that were clearly calculated to ensure the deal would fall apart.

Read the rest at the American Conservative.

An Elite Coalition Emerges Against a Trump-Kim Agreement

How the Pentagon Enlisted Trump to Continue Its Perpetual “War on Terror”

The speech by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on January 17 laying out a series of conditions that would make it possible to withdraw US troops from Syria confirmed what had already been revealed by the Pentagon itself: The Trump administration is planning to keep US troops in Syria indefinitely.

Although it was not a comprehensive policy statement, the Tillerson speech completed a months-long process in which the Pentagon has succeeded in enlisting the Trump administration to sign on for a semi-permanent US military engagement in three countries with significant US troops contingents: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This trifecta of semi-permanent US military engagements reflects the extraordinary power of the Pentagon to sway even a president who had made opposition to such policies a central element of his campaign.

The Pentagon Gets Its War in Syria

Two months before Tillerson’s speech, Secretary of Defense James Mattis had already telegraphed the fact that the US military had been given approval for a long-term commitment in Syria now that ISIS (also known as Daesh) had been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. In mid-November in a briefing for reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said that US forces in Syria would fight Islamic State “as long as they have want to fight” and that preventing the return of what he called “ISIS 2.0” was a “longer-term objective.” He even suggested that US forces would remain to help establish conditions for a diplomatic solution. “We’re not going to walk away before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis.

In another briefing for reporters in late December, Mattis said that the US forces in Syria would be “shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing” role.

Tillerson’s talk was a political gloss on what the Pentagon had already begun planning to do. It provided a series of reasons for the US military to maintain a long-term presence in Syria, while at the same time giving it maximum latitude to avoid getting into a war with Iranian, Russian or Syrian forces.

Tillerson presented the US presence in Syria as necessary to ensure that not only ISIS but al-Qaeda in Syria will “suffer an enduring defeat” — a new term suggesting that the military mission would continue to be counter-terrorism. The reality, as Mattis had already announced, was that the US military is planning to be involved in post-war “stabilization” — something Trump had denounced during the campaign — for many years.

The Tillerson gloss struck the obligatory anti-Iran chord, vowing that US troops would remain until Iranian influence in Syria has been “diminished.” Mentioning that objective was an obvious way to justify a long-term US military presence in Syria, since no one believes that Iranian influence in Syria will be diminished in the coming years.

Despite its obvious bow to the administration’s anti-Iran-war constituency, the word “diminished” was clearly chosen as an alternative to other possible formulations that would have been supported by pro-Israeli figures and institutions lobbying the administration. It reflects the Pentagon’s interest in averting war against the Assad regime or its Iranian allies and its determination to keep its intervention in Syria focused on terrorism and avoid getting involved in forcible regime change.

In the early months of the Trump administration, Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected a proposal from National Security Council staffers for US military intervention against Assad. And in June 2017, the US-led coalition fighting ISIS actually welcomed the likely Syrian and Iranian-supported forces entering the city of Deir ez-Zor, which had been under ISIS occupation, rejecting any idea of seeking to preempt such a move militarily. That determination to avoid being drawn into a war against Iran or Syria has remained unchanged through 2017.

Tillerson enunciated a vision of regime change in Syria that would bring about the departure of Assad and his family not by force, but through “an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-sponsored elections.” He did not address the multiple violent political-military conflicts involving Turkey, the Kurds, the remnants of al-Qaeda-led opposition forces and the Assad regime, which is very likely to suck the United States into new and dangerous waters if it maintains a military presence in the region.

The Pentagon Ends Trump’s Anti-Interventionist Themes

The Trump administration’s clear commitment to open-ended US war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria adds Trump to the list of presidents who opposed wars only to ultimately give in to the war state bureaucracy under persistent pressure. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barack Obama had all been skeptical about war proposals on Vietnam and Afghanistan, respectively. But both before and immediately after becoming president, Trump had expressed strong and explicit antagonism toward the idea of indefinite wars.

In a 2013 tweet, as he was contemplating a run for the presidency, Trump declared, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” In a speech devoted to foreign policy during the 2016 primary election, Trump attacked war policies in Iraq, Libya and Syria as destructive of societies and creating unnecessary threats to the United States. “We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed,” he declared, adding that the US had created a “vacuum … that ISIS would fill,” along with Iran.

After he had won the presidential election, moreover, Trump did not abandon those anti-intervention themes. In the last speech on his “victory tour” in December 2016, Trump said “intervention and chaos” must “come to an end.” He vowed, “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we knew nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with. Instead our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”

Trump asserted that past policies had “depleted” the US military, “because we’re all over the place fighting in areas we shouldn’t be fighting in.” He also declared that, instead of investing in wars, he would spend the money on rebuilding the US’s crumbling infrastructure.

Once Mattis took over at the Pentagon, however, he and Dunford, along with National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, began a campaign to get Trump to abandon his opposition to semi-permanent US military interventions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

By April 2017, US officials were already engaged in discussions with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq on agreements for what US military officials were calling “open-ended commitments” of US troops in those countries — despite expectations that ISIS would soon be decisively defeated in its Iraqi and Syrian urban strongholds.

Afghanistan was the subject of the most acute tensions between the White House and the national security bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy was determined to obtain the deployment of many more troops and, even more important, unlimited time to carry out the US-sponsored war. But for the next four months, Trump — encouraged by political adviser Steve Bannon to remain true to his political base — refused to give his approval to any of the proposals.

Trump’s national security team became “alarmed” about Trump’s persistent questioning of the need for what they called a “robust American presence around the world,” according to an Associated Press account. On July 20, his advisers took Trump and Bannon into “the Tank” — the small room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly — and used charts and diagrams to drive home their message that the forward deployments of troops, spies and diplomats was necessary to “make the world safe for American businesses.”

In August, however, the administration’s crisis over the proposed unending war across the Middle East and Afghanistan came to a head, as Bannon sought to use his connections with the Zionist Organization of America to oust McMaster, claiming that he was not supportive of Israel’s interests. Bannon’s scheme collapsed, however, when Trump’s biggest campaign donor, arch-Likudist Sheldon Adelson, refused to support it. Suddenly, Bannon became much more politically vulnerable, and by the end of the month, he was forced out of the White House.

At the climactic meeting on Afghanistan at Camp David in mid-August, from which Bannon was excluded, Mattis, McMaster and Dunford pressed their advantage. Trump’s opposing stance to intervention dissolved completely. He did not question the generals’ plans for the indefinite continuation of the 16-year-old war, which they presented as necessary to prevent ISIS and al-Qaeda from having a “safe haven” in Afghanistan. They also showed Trump 1972 photographs of Afghan girls in Kabul in mini-skirts to convince him that Western values could prevail in Afghanistan.

Without an aide capable of seeing through the Pentagon’s deceptions, Trump who is well known for a deferential attitude toward senior generals, was a pushover. Announcing the Afghanistan decision a few days later, Trump repeated what he had been told at Camp David. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America,” he declared.

Once they had turned Trump on Afghanistan, the Pentagon could rely on a simple argument to ensure his compliance with their plans for Syria and Iraq: liken any Trump interference in the war bureaucracy’s plan for open-ended US wars in Iraq and Syria to Obama’s policy of completing the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011. Tillerson emphasized that point in his speech: “We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he declared.

Thus, did Trump consent to the Pentagon’s plans for permanent US wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The New Pentagon Business Model

The permanent wars in those three countries represent, in effect, a new Pentagon business model for those regions. The model looks for far more payoff in term of congressional appropriations — as well as power at home and abroad in relation to budgetary and political costs — than the Pentagon obtained from waging the big wars of the past in Iraq and Afghanistan. It counts on US casualties remaining relatively small, because combat will take the form of bombings or Special Operations attacks.

Low US casualties are crucial to the new model, because most Americans are not convinced such US military endeavors are necessary or good for this country. A Morning Consult/Politico poll in August 2017 found only 40 percent supportive of additional troops for Afghanistan, while 32 percent wanted complete withdrawal from the war, with the remaining 28 percent unsure.

That reality will certainly require the Pentagon to exercise tighter control over information. Already, the Department of Defense has moved to classify data about Afghan security forces, so it will be more difficult to criticize the US effort as a failure. In order to avoid large-scale criticism, the Pentagon will likely also need to cover up the actual scale of civilian casualties from Special Operations raids and bombings by the United States, as has occurred in the past in Afghanistan, and has occurred again in regard to the US-led coalition bombing of ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

The new Pentagon model is taking advantage of a malleable president to prolong the war bureaucracy’s extraordinary increase in control over resources and power, which it has already enjoyed for more than 16 years. It may succeed in terms of bureaucratic interests, but at great cost to the people of the United States — and at even greater cost to the people of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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