I might believe the latest Russia story (about bounties for American scalps in Afghanistan) when I see a headline like this:
Russian Fiscal Conservatives Blast Putin for Paying for What He’s Already Getting for Free
I might believe the latest Russia story (about bounties for American scalps in Afghanistan) when I see a headline like this:
Russian Fiscal Conservatives Blast Putin for Paying for What He’s Already Getting for Free
There’s no reason for you to accept the story about the Russian military paying Afghan militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post all started this controversy late last week with incredibly thin stories. They did not even pretend to claim that it was true the Russians had put bounties on U.S. troops, only that they had anonymous sources who claimed there was a government report somewhere that said that. They were reporting the “fact” that there was a rumor.
They wouldn’t even say which agencies were leaking the story. All we were told was the story came from “intelligence officials” or even “people familiar” with the story.
All three stories were written in language conceding they did not know if the story was true. The Times wrote this “would be an escalation,” “officials have said,” “it would be the first time,” and again, “would also be a huge escalation.” [Emphasis added.] (“Escalation” of what? Russia’s global dark arts war against American interests which also happens to only exist in the form of claims of anonymous government officials.)
The New York Times follow-up story was still very thin. Again, the extremely vague “intelligence officials” and now the extremely broad “special operations forces,” who are not intelligence officials, are their claimed sources. They do not cite the CIA, who refused to comment.
The sources claim that the intelligence report says that captured “militants”—again deliberately vague—were caught with some American cash and later admitted to Afghan National Security Force interrogators that they had been paid these Russian bounties.
Well the entire country is awash in American cash as well as every form of black market in drugs, guns, prostitution and the rest. The U.S. itself has been paying the Taliban since 2005 or 2006 literally billions of dollars in protection money for convoys of U.S. supplies in the country. There’s even a whole book devoted to that subject called Funding the Enemy: How US Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban by Douglas Wissing. They then spend that money buying American weapons, night-vision equipment and even Humvees from the Afghan Army the U.S. has built there.
Of course the Afghan government has a huge interest in perpetuating such tales as these, whether they tortured these statements out of these prisoners or not. They want desperately for U.S. forces to stay to protect their power. If making up a story about Russia and the Taliban could undermine the Trump administration’s peace talks with the Taliban, then they just might do that.
Remember, just in this century, America’s intelligence agencies have lied about Iraq’s unconventional weapons and alliance with Osama bin Laden, Libya’s impending genocide, Syria’s “moderate rebel” bin Ladenite terrorists and false-flag chemical weapons attacks, and most recently the massive hoax that Donald Trump was a brainwashed, blackmailed secret agent of Putin’s Kremlin who had conspired with Russia to usurp Hillary Clinton’s rightful throne in the 2016 election. They’re liars.
After all we’ve been through, we’re supposed to give anonymous “intelligence officials” in the New York Times the benefit of the doubt on something like this? I don’t think so.
The Wall Street Journal conceded yesterday that the National Security Agency is dissenting from the conclusion about the bounties, though of course not saying why. However, just the fact that they put that in the paper seems to signal a very strong dissent from the conclusion and the media and political war that is being waged in the name of it. The Pentagon also said on Monday it has not seen “corroborating evidence” to support the claims.
Current reports are that the supposed events all happened last year. This raises major questions why the story was leaked to the three most important newspapers in the country in the way that it was last week. The national security state has done everything they can to keep the U.S. involved in that war, successfully badgering Obama and Trump both into expanding it against their better judgement. If Trump had listened to his former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, we’d be on year three of an escalation with plans to begin talks with the Taliban next year. Instead, Trump talked to them for the last year-and-a-half and has already signed a deal to have us out by the end of next May.
The national security state also has a continuing interest in preventing Trump from “getting along with Russia.” Anything they can do to advance the tired debunked old narrative that Trump puts Russian interests before America’s, they will. Of course that is the story TV is pushing again this week. (I am not a Trump supporter. But lies are lies and his position on Afghanistan is now correct.)
Before this supposed story broke last week, Sen. Angus King, the Democrat, was already complaining about Trump’s plans for a “precipitous” and “hasty” withdrawal from Afghanistan, after two decades—a withdrawal planned for completion another year from now. Shocking but not surprising, as they say.
What interest might Russia have in doing this?
It’s America who switched sides in the Afghan war, not Russia. They have supported the U.S. effort and U.S.-created government in Kabul since 2001. In 2012, when the Pakistanis closed the “southern route” from Karachi through the Khyber Pass, Russia re-opened the “northern route” through their country to allow American supplies into Afghanistan for Obama’s “surge.” They have sent arms to the Afghan National Army. To get around their own sanctions, the U.S. has even had India buy helicopters from the Russians to give to the Afghan government.
There’s no question they are talking to the Taliban. But so are we.
There were claims in 2017 that Russia was arming and paying the Taliban, but then the generals admitted to Congress they had no evidence of either. In a humiliating debacle, also in 2017, CNN claimed a big scoop about Putin’s support for the Taliban when furnished with some photos of Taliban fighters with old Russian weapons. The military veteran journalists at Task and Purpose quickly debunked every claim in their piece.
Let’s say hypothetically that the story was true: The simplest explanation for Russia’s motive then would be that they were trying to provoke exactly the reaction they have gotten, which is renewed pressure on Trump to back out of the withdrawal deal with the Taliban since his political enemies will spin it as a “win” for Russia if we leave. But why would Russia want to provoke America to stay in Afghanistan? Could it be for the same reason that Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan backed the mujahideen against the USSR back in the 70s and 80s—to provoke them into committing national suicide by bogging them down in a no-win quagmire, killing hundreds of thousands of people and wasting uncountable billions of dollars?
So what would that say about our policy now?
Of course that’s all nonsense too. The reason the Russians have supported our efforts in Afghanistan for the last 19 years is because we’re protecting their friends in power and at least supposedly have been fighting to keep transnational Islamist terrorism at bay. If they are backing the Taliban at all now it would be just a small version of their own “Awakening” policy of supporting the local mujahideen against the new smaller and more radical groups claiming loyalty to ISIS there, since the Taliban have been their most effective opponents.
This is not much different than the current American policy which prioritizes the Taliban’s keeping ISIS and al Qaeda down and out for us.
Afghanistan will probably be mired in protracted conflict for years after U.S. forces finally leave, though hopefully all sides are tired enough of fighting now that they can negotiate acceptable power-sharing arrangements instead. If the pressure is bad enough that Trump renounces his own deal, the Taliban will almost certainly go back to war against U.S. forces there. That is not likely to happen though.
As far as America’s relationship with Russia—the single most important thing in the world for all people—this is just another setback on the road to a peaceful and acceptable coexistence.
It’s been nearly four years since the myth of Trump-Russia collusion made its debut in American politics, generating an endless stream of stories in the corporate press and hundreds of allegations of conspiracy from pundits and officials. But despite netting scores of embarrassing admissions, corrections, editor’s notes and retractions in that time, the theory refuses to die.
Over the years, the highly elaborate “Russiagate” narrative has fallen away piece-by-piece. Claims about Donald Trump’s various back channels to Moscow—Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Alfa Bank—have each been thoroughly discredited. House Intelligence Committee transcripts released in May have revealed that nobody who asserted a Russian hack on Democratic computers, including the DNC’s own cyber security firm, is able to produce evidence that it happened. In fact, it is now clear the entire investigation into the Trump campaign was without basis.
It was alleged that Moscow manipulated the president with “kompromat” and black mail, sold to the public in a “dossier” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. Working through a DC consulting firm, Steele was hired by Democrats to dig up dirt on Trump, gathering a litany of accusations that Steele’s own primary source would later dismiss as “hearsay” and “rumor.” Though the FBI was aware the dossier was little more than sloppy opposition research, the bureau nonetheless used it to obtain warrants to spy on the Trump campaign.
Even the claim that Russia helped Trump from afar, without direct coordination, has fallen flat on its face. The “troll farm” allegedly tapped by the Kremlin to wage a pro-Trump meme war—the Internet Research Agency—spent only $46,000 on Facebook ads, or around 0.05 percent of the $81 million budget of the Trump and Clinton campaigns. The vast majority of the IRA’s ads had nothing to do with U.S. politics, and more than half of those that did were published after the election, having no impact on voters. The Department of Justice, moreover, has dropped its charges against the IRA’s parent company, abandoning a major case resulting from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.
Though few of its most diehard proponents would ever admit it, after four long years, the foundation of the Trump-Russia narrative has finally given way and its edifice has crumbled. The wreckage left behind will remain for some time to come, however, kicking off a new era of mainstream McCarthyism and setting the stage for the next Cold War.
The importance of Russiagate to U.S. foreign policy cannot be understated, but the road to hostilities with Moscow stretches far beyond the current administration. For thirty years, the United States has exploited its de facto victory in the first Cold War, interfering in Russian elections in the 1990s, aiding oligarchs as they looted the country into poverty, and orchestrating Color Revolutions in former Soviet states. NATO, meanwhile, has been enlarged up to Russia’s border, despite American assurances the alliance wouldn’t expand “one inch” eastward after the collapse of the USSR.
Unquestionably, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the day Trump took office, the United States maintained an aggressive policy toward Moscow. But with the USSR wiped off the map and communism defeated for good, a sufficient pretext to rally the American public into another Cold War has been missing in the post-Soviet era. In the same 30-year period, moreover, Washington has pursued one disastrous diversion after another in the Middle East, leaving little space or interest for another round of brinkmanship with the Russians, who were relegated to little more than a talking point. That, however, has changed.
The Washington foreign policy establishment—memorably dubbed “the Blob” by one Obama adviser—was thrown into disarray by Trump’s election win in the fall of 2016. In some ways, Trump stood out as the dove during the race, deeming “endless wars” in the Middle East a scam, calling for closer ties with Russia, and even questioning the usefulness of NATO. Sincere or not, Trump’s campaign vows shocked the Beltway think tankers, journalists, and politicos whose worldviews (and salaries) rely on the maintenance of empire. Something had to be done.
In the summer of 2016, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails belonging to then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, her campaign manager, and the Democratic National Committee. Though damaging to Clinton, the leak became fodder for a powerful new attack on the president-to-be. Trump had worked in league with Moscow to throw the election, the story went, and the embarrassing email trove was stolen in a Russian hack, then passed to WikiLeaks to propel Trump’s campaign.
By the time Trump took office, the narrative was in full swing. Pundits and politicians rushed to outdo one another in hysterically denouncing the supposed election-meddling, which was deemed the “political equivalent” of the 9/11 attacks, tantamount to Pearl Harbor, and akin to the Nazis’ 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. In lock-step with the U.S. intelligence community—which soon issued a pair of reports endorsing the Russian hacking story—the Blob quickly joined the cause, hoping to short-circuit any tinkering with NATO or rapprochement with Moscow under Trump.
The allegations soon broadened well beyond hacking. Russia had now waged war on American democracy itself, and “sowed discord” with misinformation online, all in direct collusion with the Trump campaign. Talking heads on cable news and former intelligence officials—some of them playing both roles at once—weaved a dramatic plot of conspiracy out of countless news reports, clinging to many of the “bombshell” stories long after their key claims were blown up.
A large segment of American society eagerly bought the fiction, refusing to believe that Trump, the game show host, could have defeated Clinton without assistance from a foreign power. For the first time since the fall of the USSR, rank-and-file Democrats and moderate progressives were aligned with some of the most vocal Russia hawks across the aisle, creating space for what many have called a “new Cold War.”
Under immense pressure and nonstop allegations, the candidate who shouted “America First” and slammed NATO as “obsolete” quickly adapted himself to the foreign policy consensus on the alliance, one of the first signs the Trump-Russia story was bearing fruit.
Demonstrating the Blob in action, during debate on the Senate floor over Montenegro’s bid to join NATO in March 2017, the hawkish John McCain castigated Rand Paul for daring to oppose the measure, riding on anti-Russian sentiments stoked during the election to accuse him of “working for Vladimir Putin.” With most lawmakers agreeing the expansion of NATO was needed to “push back” against Russia, the Senate approved the request nearly unanimously and Trump signed it without batting an eye—perhaps seeing the attacks a veto would bring, even from his own party.
Allowing Montenegro—a country that illustrates everything wrong with NATO—to join the alliance may suggest Trump’s criticisms were always empty talk, but the establishment’s drive to constrain his foreign policy was undoubtedly having an effect. Just a few months later, the administration would put out its National Security Strategy, stressing the need to refocus U.S. military engagements from counter-terrorism in the Middle East to “great power competition” with Russia and China.
On another aspiring NATO member, Ukraine, the president was also hectored into reversing course under pressure from the Blob. During the 2016 race, the corporate press savaged the Trump campaign for working behind the scenes to “water down” the Republican Party platform after it opposed a pledge to arm Ukraine’s post-coup government. That stance did not last long.
Though even Obama decided against arming the new government—which his administration helped to install—Trump reversed that move in late 2017, handing Kiev hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles. In an irony noticed by few, some of the arms went to open neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian military, who were integrated into the country’s National Guard after leading street battles with security forces in the Obama-backed coup of 2014. Some of the very same Beltway critics slamming the president as a racist demanded he pass weapons to out-and-out white supremacists.
Ukraine’s bid to join NATO has all but stalled under President Volodymyr Zelensky, but the country has nonetheless played an outsized role in American politics both before and after Trump took office. In the wake of Ukraine’s 2014 U.S.-sponsored coup, “Russian aggression” became a favorite slogan in the American press, laying the ground for future allegations of election-meddling.
The drive for renewed hostilities with Moscow got underway well before Trump took the Oval Office, nurtured in its early stages under the Obama administration. Using Ukraine’s revolution as a springboard, Obama launched a major rhetorical and policy offensive against Russia, casting it in the role of an aggressive, expansionist power.
Protests erupted in Ukraine in late 2013, following President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, preferring to keep closer ties with Russia. Demanding a deal with the EU and an end to government corruption, demonstrators—including the above-mentioned neo-Nazis—were soon in the streets clashing with security forces. Yanukovych was chased out of the country, and eventually out of power.
Through cut-out organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the Obama administration poured millions of dollars into the Ukrainian opposition prior to the coup, training, organizing and funding activists. Dubbed the “Euromaidan Revolution,” Yanukovych’s ouster mirrored similar US-backed color coups before and since, with Uncle Sam riding on the back of legitimate grievances while positioning the most U.S.-friendly figures to take power afterward.
The coup set off serious unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking enclaves, the eastern Donbass region and the Crimean Peninsula to the south. In the Donbass, secessionist forces attempted their own revolution, prompting the new government in Kiev to launch a bloody “war on terror” that continues to this day. Though the separatists received some level of support from Moscow, Washington placed sole blame on the Russians for Ukraine’s unrest, while the press breathlessly predicted an all-out invasion that never materialized.
In Crimea—where Moscow has kept its Black Sea Fleet since the late 1700s—Russia took a more forceful stance, seizing the territory to keep control of its long term naval base. The annexation was accomplished without bloodshed, and a referendum was held weeks later affirming that a large majority of Crimeans supported rejoining Russia, a sentiment western polling firms have since corroborated. Regardless, as in the Donbass, the move was labeled an invasion, eventually triggering a raft of sanctions from the U.S. and the EU (and more recently, from Trump himself).
The media made no effort to see Russia’s perspective on Crimea in the wake of the revolution—imagining the U.S. response if the roles were reversed, for example—and all but ignored the preferences of Crimeans. Instead, it spun a black-and-white story of “Russian aggression” in Ukraine. For the Blob, Moscow’s actions there put Vladimir Putin on par with Adolf Hitler, driving a flood of frenzied press coverage not seen again until the 2016 election.
While Trump had already begun to cave to the onslaught of Russiagate in the early months of his presidency, a July 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki presented an opportunity to reverse course, offering a venue to hash out differences and plan for future cooperation. Trump’s previous sit-downs with his Russian counterpart were largely uneventful, but widely portrayed as a meeting between master and puppet. At the Helsinki Summit, however, a meager gesture toward improved relations was met with a new level of hysterics.
Trump’s refusal to interrogate Putin on his supposed election-hacking during a summit press conference was taken as irrefutable proof that the two were conspiring together. Former CIA Director John Brennan declared it an act of treason, while CNN gravely contemplated whether Putin’s gift to Trump during the meetings—a World Cup soccer ball—was really a secret spying transmitter. By this point, Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe was in full effect, lending official credibility to the collusion story and further emboldening the claims of conspiracy.
Though the summit did little to strengthen U.S.-Russia ties and Trump made no real effort to do so—beyond resisting the calls to directly confront Putin—it brought on some of the most extreme attacks yet, further ratcheting up the cost of rapprochement. The window of opportunity presented in Helsinki, while only cracked to begin with, was now firmly shut, with Trump as reluctant as ever to make good on his original policy platform.
After taking a beating in Helsinki, the administration allowed tensions with Moscow to soar to new heights, more or less embracing the Blob’s favored policies and often even outdoing the Obama government’s hawkishness toward Russia in both rhetoric and action.
In March 2018, the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom was blamed on Moscow in a highly elaborate storyline that ultimately fell apart (sound familiar?), but nonetheless triggered a wave of retaliation from western governments. In the largest diplomatic purge in US history, the Trump administration expelled 60 Russian officials in a period of two days, surpassing Obama’s ejection of 35 diplomats in response to the election-meddling allegations.
Along with the purge, starting in spring 2018 and continuing to this day, Washington has unleashed round after round of new sanctions on Russia, including in response to “worldwide malign activity,” to penalize alleged election-meddling, for “destabilizing cyber activities,” retaliation for the UK spy poisoning, more cyber activity, more election-meddling—the list keeps growing.
Though Trump had called to lift rather than impose penalties on Russia before taking office, worn down by endless negative press coverage and surrounded by a coterie of hawkish advisers, he was brought around on the merits of sanctions before long, and has used them liberally ever since.
By October 2018, Trump had largely abandoned any idea of improving the relationship with Russia and, in addition to the barrage of sanctions, began shredding a series of major treaties and arms control agreements. He started with the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which had eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons—medium-range missiles—and removed Europe as a theater for nuclear war.
At this point in Trump’s tenure, super-hawk John Bolton had assumed the position of national security advisor, encouraging the president’s worst instincts and using his newfound influence to convince Trump to ditch the INF treaty. Bolton—who helped to detonate a number of arms control pacts in previous administrations—argued that Russia’s new short-range missile had violated the treaty. While there remains some dispute over the missile’s true range and whether it actually breached the agreement, Washington failed to pursue available dispute mechanisms and ignored Russian offers for talks to resolve the spat.
After the U.S. officially scrapped the agreement, it quickly began testing formerly-banned munitions. Unlike the Russian missiles, which were only said to have a range overstepping the treaty by a few miles, the U.S. began testing nuclear-capable land-based cruise missiles expressly banned under the INF.
Next came the Open Skies Treaty (OST), an idea originally floated by President Eisenhower, but which wouldn’t take shape until 1992, when an agreement was struck between NATO and former Warsaw Pact nations. The agreement now has over 30 members and allows each to arrange surveillance flights over other members’ territory, an important confidence-building measure in the post-Soviet world.
Trump saw matters differently, however, and turned a minor dispute over Russia’s implementation of the pact into a reason to discard it altogether, again egged on by militant advisers. In late May 2020, the president declared his intent to withdraw from the nearly 30-year-old agreement, proposing nothing to replace it.
With the DOJ’s special counsel probe into Trump-Russia collusion coming up short on both smoking-gun evidence and relevant indictments, the president’s enemies began searching for new angles of attack. Following a July 2019 phone call between Trump and his newly elected Ukrainian counterpart, they soon found one.
During the call, Trump urged Zelensky to investigate a computer server he believed to be linked to Russiagate, and to look into potential corruption and nepotism on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden, who played an active role in Ukraine following the Obama-backed coup.
Less than two months later, a “whistleblower”—a CIA officer detailed to the White House, Eric Ciaramella—came forward with an “urgent concern” that the president had abused his office on the July call. According to his complaint, Trump threatened to withhold U.S. military aid, as well as a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky, should Kiev fail to deliver the goods on Biden, who by that point was a major contender in the 2020 race.
The same players who peddled Russiagate seized on Ciaramella’s account to manufacture a whole new scandal: “Ukrainegate.” Failing to squeeze an impeachment out of the Mueller probe, the Democrats did just that with the Ukraine call, insisting Trump had committed grave offenses, again conspiring with a foreign leader to meddle in a U.S. election.
At a high point during the impeachment trial, an expert called to testify by the Democrats revived George W. Bush’s “fight them over there” maxim to argue for U.S. arms transfers to Ukraine, citing the Russian menace. The effort was doomed from the start, however, with a GOP-controlled Senate never likely to convict and the evidence weak for a “quid pro quo” with Zelensky. Ukrainegate, like Russiagate before it, was a failure in its stated goal, yet both served to mark the administration with claims of foreign collusion and press for more hawkish policies toward Moscow.
The Obama administration scored a rare diplomatic achievement with Russia in 2010, signing the New START Treaty, a continuation of the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty inked in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Like its first iteration, the agreement places a cap on the number of nuclear weapons and warheads deployed by each side. It featured a ten-year sunset clause, but included provisions to continue beyond its initial end date.
With the treaty set to expire in early 2021, it has become an increasingly hot topic throughout Trump’s presidency. While Trump sold himself as an expert dealmaker on the campaign trail—an artist, even—his negotiation skills have shown lacking when it comes to working out a new deal with the Russians.
The administration has demanded that China be incorporated into any extended version of the treaty, calling on Russia to compel Beijing to the negotiating table and vastly complicating any prospect for a deal. With a nuclear arsenal around one-tenth the size of that of Russia or the U.S., China has refused to join the pact. Washington’s intransigence on the issue has put the future of the treaty in limbo and largely left Russia without a negotiating partner.
A second Trump term would spell serious trouble for New START, having already shown willingness to shred the INF and Open Skies agreements. And with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) already killed under the Bush administration, New START is one of the few remaining constraints on the planet’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
Despite pursuing massive escalation with Moscow from 2018 onward, Trump-Russia conspiracy allegations never stopped pouring from newspapers and TV screens. For the Blob—heavily invested in a narrative as fruitful as it was false—Trump would forever be “Putin’s puppet,” regardless of the sanctions imposed, the landmark treaties incinerated or the deluge of warlike rhetoric.
As the Trump administration leads the country into the next Cold War, a renewed arms race is also in the making. The destruction of key arms control pacts by previous administrations has fed a proliferation powder keg, and the demise of New START could be the spark to set it off.
Following Bush Jr.’s termination of the ABM deal in 2002—wrecking a pact which placed limits on Russian and American missile defense systems to maintain the balance of mutually assured destruction—Russia soon resumed funding for a number of strategic weapons projects, including its hypersonic missile. In his announcement of the new technology in 2018, Putin deemed the move a response to Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from ABM, which also saw the U.S. develop new weapons.
Though he inked New START and campaigned on vows to pursue an end to the bomb, President Obama also helped to advance the arms build-up, embarking on a 30-year nuclear modernization project set to cost taxpayers $1.5 trillion. The Trump administration has embraced the initiative with open arms, even adding to it, as Moscow follows suit with upgrades to its own arsenal.
Moreover, Trump has opened a whole new battlefield with the creation of the US Space Force, escalated military deployments, ramped up war games targeting Russia and China and looked to reopen and expand Cold War-era bases.
In May, Trump’s top arms control envoy promised to spend Russia and China into oblivion in the event of any future arms race, but one was already well underway. After withdrawing from INF, the administration began churning out previously banned nuclear-capable cruise missiles, while fielding an entire new class of low-yield nuclear weapons. Known as “tactical nukes,” the smaller warheads lower the threshold for use, making nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the White House has also mulled a live bomb test—America’s first since 1992—though has apparently shelved the idea for now.
As Trump approaches the end of his first term, the two major U.S. political parties have become locked in a permanent cycle of escalation, eternally compelled to prove who’s the bigger hawk. The president put up mild resistance during his first months in office, but the relentless drumbeat of Russiagate successfully crushed any chances for improved ties with Moscow.
The Democrats refuse to give up on “Russian aggression” and see virtually no pushback from hawks across the aisle, while intelligence “leaks” continue to flow into the imperial press, fueling a whole new round of election-meddling allegations.
Likewise, Trump’s campaign vows to revamp U.S.-Russian relations are long dead. His presidency counts among its accomplishments a pile of new sanctions, dozens of expelled diplomats and the demise of two major arms control treaties. For all his talk of getting along with Putin, Trump has failed to ink a single deal, de-escalate any of the ongoing strife over Syria, Ukraine or Libya, and been unable to arrange one state visit in Moscow or DC.
Nonetheless, Trump’s every action is still interpreted through the lens of Russian collusion. After announcing a troop drawdown in Germany on June 5, reducing the U.S. presence by just one-third, the president was met with the now-typical swarm of baseless charges. MSNBC regular and retired general Barry McCaffrey dubbed the move “a gift to Russia,” while GOP Rep. Liz Cheney said the meager troop movement placed the “cause of freedom…in peril.” Top Democrats in the House and Senate introduced bills to stop the withdrawal dead in its tracks, attributing the policy to Trump’s “absurd affection for Vladimir Putin, a murderous dictator.”
Starting as a dirty campaign trick to explain away the Democrats’ election loss and jam up the new president, Russiagate is now a key driving force in the U.S. political establishment that will long outlive the age of Trump. After nearly four years, the bipartisan consensus on the need for Cold War is stronger than ever, and will endure regardless of who takes the Oval Office next.
President Bill Clinton’s favorite freedom fighter just got indicted for mass murder, torture, kidnapping, and other crimes against humanity. In 1999, the Clinton administration launched a 78-day bombing campaign that killed up to 1500 civilians in Serbia and Kosovo in what the American media proudly portrayed as a crusade against ethnic bias. That war, like most of the pretenses of U.S. foreign policy, was always a sham.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was charged with ten counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in The Hague in the Netherlands. It charged Thaci and nine other men with “war crimes, including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture.” Thaci and the other charged suspects were accused of being “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders” and the indictment involved “hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities and include political opponents.”
Hashim Thaci’s tawdry career illustrates how anti-terrorism is a flag of convenience for Washington policymakers. Prior to becoming Kosovo’s president, Thaci was the head of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), fighting to force Serbs out of Kosovo. In 1999, the Clinton administration designated the KLA as “freedom fighters” despite their horrific past and gave them massive aid. The previous year, the State Department condemned “terrorist action by the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army.” The KLA was heavily involved in drug trafficking and had close to ties to Osama bin Laden.
But arming the KLA and bombing Serbia helped Clinton portray himself as a crusader against injustice and shift public attention after his impeachment trial. Clinton was aided by many shameless members of Congress anxious to sanctify U.S. killing. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CN) whooped that the United States and the KLA “stand for the same values and principles. Fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values.” And since Clinton administration officials publicly compared Serb leader Slobodan Milošević to Hitler, every decent person was obliged to applaud the bombing campaign.
Both the Serbs and ethnic Albanians committed atrocities in the bitter strife in Kosovo. But to sanctify its bombing campaign, the Clinton administration waved a magic wand and made the KLA’s atrocities disappear. British professor Philip Hammond noted that the 78-day bombing campaign “was not a purely military operation: NATO also destroyed what it called ‘dual-use’ targets, such as factories, city bridges, and even the main television building in downtown Belgrade, in an attempt to terrorize the country into surrender.”
NATO repeatedly dropped cluster bombs into marketplaces, hospitals, and other civilian areas. Cluster bombs are anti-personnel devices designed to be scattered across enemy troop formations. NATO dropped more than 1,300 cluster bombs on Serbia and Kosovo and each bomb contained 208 separate bomblets that floated to earth by parachute. Bomb experts estimated that more than 10,000 unexploded bomblets were scattered around the landscape when the bombing ended and maimed children long after the ceasefire.
In the final days of the bombing campaign, the Washington Post reported that “some presidential aides and friends are describing Kosovo in Churchillian tones, as Clinton’s ‘finest hour.’” The Post also reported that according to one Clinton friend “what Clinton believes were the unambiguously moral motives for NATO’s intervention represented a chance to soothe regrets harbored in Clinton’s own conscience…The friend said Clinton has at times lamented that the generation before him was able to serve in a war with a plainly noble purpose, and he feels ‘almost cheated’ that ‘when it was his turn he didn’t have the chance to be part of a moral cause.’” By Clinton’s standard, slaughtering Serbs was “close enough for government work” to a “moral cause.”
Shortly after the end of the 1999 bombing campaign, Clinton enunciated what his aides labeled the Clinton doctrine: “Whether within or beyond the borders of a country, if the world community has the power to stop it, we ought to stop genocide and ethnic cleansing.” In reality, the Clinton doctrine was that presidents are entitled to commence bombing foreign lands based on any brazen lie that the American media will regurgitate. In reality, the lesson from bombing Serbia is that American politicians merely need to publicly recite the word “genocide” to get a license to kill.
After the bombing ended, Clinton assured the Serbian people that the United States and NATO agreed to be peacekeepers only “with the understanding that they would protect Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians and that they would leave when peace took hold.” In the subsequent months and years, American and NATO forces stood by as the KLA resumed its ethnic cleansing, slaughtering Serb civilians, bombing Serbian churches and oppressing any non-Muslims. Almost a quarter-million Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, and other minorities fled Kosovo after Mr. Clinton promised to protect them. By 2003, almost 70 percent of the Serbs living in Kosovo in 1999 had fled, and Kosovo was 95 percent ethnic Albanian.
But Thaci remained useful for U.S. policymakers. Even though he was widely condemned for oppression and corruption after taking power in Kosovo, Vice President Joe Biden hailed Thaci in 2010 as the “George Washington of Kosovo.” A few months later, a Council of Europe report accused Thaci and KLA operatives of human organ trafficking. The Guardian noted that the report alleged that Thaci’s inner circle “took captives across the border into Albania after the war, where a number of Serbs are said to have been murdered for their kidneys, which were sold on the black market.” The report stated that when “transplant surgeons” were “ready to operate, the [Serbian] captives were brought out of the ‘safe house’ individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic.”
Despite the body trafficking charge, Thaci was a star attendee at the annual Global Initiative conference by the Clinton Foundation in 2011, 2012, and 2013, where he posed for photos with Bill Clinton. Maybe that was a perk from the $50,000 a month lobbying contract that Thaci’s regime signed with The Podesta Group, co-managed by future Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, as the Daily Caller reported.
Clinton remains a hero in Kosovo where a statue of him was erected in the capital, Pristina. The Guardian newspaper noted that the statue showed Clinton “with a left hand raised, a typical gesture of a leader greeting the masses. In his right hand he is holding documents engraved with the date when NATO started the bombardment of Serbia, 24 March 1999.” It would have been a more accurate representation to depict Clinton standing on a pile of corpses of the women, children, and others killed in the U.S. bombing campaign.
In 2019, Bill Clinton and his fanatically pro-bombing former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, visited Pristina, where they were “treated like rock stars” as they posed for photos with Thaci. Clinton declared, “I love this country and it will always be one of the greatest honors of my life to have stood with you against ethnic cleansing (by Serbian forces) and for freedom.” Thaci awarded Clinton and Albright medals of freedom “for the liberty he brought to us and the peace to entire region.” Albright has reinvented herself as a visionary warning against fascism in the Trump era. Actually, the only honorific that Albright deserves is “Butcher of Belgrade.”
Clinton’s war on Serbia was a Pandora’s box from which the world still suffers. Because politicians and most of the media portrayed the war against Serbia as a moral triumph, it was easier for the Bush administration to justify attacking Iraq, for the Obama administration to bomb Libya, and for the Trump administration to repeatedly bomb Syria. All of those interventions sowed chaos that continues cursing the purported beneficiaries.
Bill Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Serbia was as big a fraud as George W. Bush’s conning this nation into attacking Iraq. The fact that Clinton and other top U.S. government officials continued to glorify Hashim Thaci despite accusations of mass murder, torture, and body trafficking is another reminder of the venality of much of America’s political elite. Will Americans again be gullible the next time that Washington policymakers and their media allies concoct bullshit pretexts to blow the hell out of some hapless foreign land?
Ten years ago, “restraint” was considered code for “isolationism” and its purveyors were treated with nominal attention and barely disguised condescension. Today, agitated national security elites who can no longer ignore the restrainers—and the positive attention they’re getting—are trying to cut them down to size.
We saw this recently when Peter Feaver, Hal Brands, and William Imboden, who all made their mark promoting George W. Bush’s war policies after 9/11, published “In Defense of the Blob” for Foreign Affairs in April. My own pushback received an attempted drubbing in The Washington Post by national security professor Daniel Drezner (he of the Twitter fame): “For one thing, her essay repeatedly contradicts itself. The Blob is an exclusive cabal, and yet Vlahos also says it’s on the wane.”
One can be both, Professor. As they say, Rome didn’t fall in a day. What we are witnessing are individuals and institutions sensing existential vulnerabilities. The restrainers have found a nerve and the Blob is feeling the pinch. Now it’s starting to throw its tremendous girth around.
Read the rest of this article at The American Conservative.
An airstrike from the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition hit a vehicle carrying civilians in north Yemen on Monday. The airstrike killed 13 people, including four children. The same day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres removed the Saudi coalition from a global list of parties who have harmed children in conflicts.
The international humanitarian group Save the Children said the victims were on their way home from a local market when the vehicle was suddenly bombed. The Houthi’s Health Ministry identified eleven of the victims, which included one woman and four children, ages 12-14.
The coalition often targets civilian infrastructure, which is why Guterres’s move to remove them from the “blacklist” drew sharp condemnation from human rights groups. Saudi warplanes have hit schools, hospitals, water treatment plants, markets, weddings, and other civilian targets.
The UN special representative for children in armed conflict said Guterres made the decision to remove the Saudis from the blacklist following “sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to airstrikes.” While it is true the worst of the bombing took place in the early days of the war, bombs still fall on civilians in Yemen regularly.
Saudi Arabia’s effort to drive out the Houthis and reinstate President Hadi started in 2015 with the full support of the United States, the UAE, and other Gulf allies. The airstrikes, blockade, and siege on the country has always been a war on civilians.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave. This article was originally featured at Antiwar.com and is republished with permission.
Former president George W. Bush has returned to the spotlight to give moral guidance to America in these troubled times. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bush announced that he was “anguished” by the “brutal suffocation” of George Floyd and declared that “lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.”
Bush’s declaration was greeted with thunderous applause by the usual suspects who portray him as the virtuous Republican in contrast to Trump. While the media portrays Bush’s pious piffle as a visionary triumph of principle, Americans need to vividly recall the lies and atrocities that permeated his eight years as president.
In an October 2017 speech in a “national forum on liberty” at the George W. Bush Institute in New York City, Bush bemoaned that “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.” Coming from Bush, this had as much credibility as former president Bill Clinton bewailing the decline of chastity.
Most media coverage of Bush nowadays either ignores the falsehoods he used to take America to war in Iraq or portrays him as a good man who received incorrect information. But Bush was lying from the get-go on Iraq and was determined to drag the nation into another Middle East war. From January 2003 onwards, Bush constantly portrayed the US as an innocent victim of Saddam Hussein’s imminent aggression and repeatedly claimed that war was being “forced upon us.” That was never the case. As the Center for Public Integrity reported, Bush made “232 false statements about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and another 28 false statements about Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda.” As the lies by which he sold the Iraq War unraveled, Bush resorted to vilifying critics as traitors in a 2006 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Bush’s lies led to the killing of more than four thousand American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But since those folks are dead and gone anyhow, the media instead lauds Bush’s selection to be in a Kennedy Center art show displaying his borderline primitive oil paintings.
In February 2018, Bush was paid lavishly to give a prodemocracy speech in the United Arab Emirates, ruled by a notorious Arab dictatorship. He proclaimed: “Our democracy is only as good as people trust the results.” He openly fretted about Russian “meddling” in the 2016 US election.
But when he was president, Bush acted as if the United States were entitled to intervene in any foreign election he pleased. He boasted in 2005 that his administration had budgeted almost $5 billion “for programs to support democratic change around the world,” much of which was spent on tampering with foreign vote totals. When Iraq held elections in 2005, Bush approved a massive covert aid program for pro-American Iraqi parties. The Bush administration spent over $65 million to boost their favored candidate in the 2004 Ukraine election. Yet, with boundless hypocrisy, Bush proclaimed that “any (Ukrainian) election…ought to be free from any foreign influence.” US government-financed organizations helped spur coups in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004. Both of those nations, along with Ukraine, remain political train wrecks.
In that October 2017 New York speech, Bush proclaimed: “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny.” But ravaging the Constitution was apparently part of his job description when he was president. Shortly after 9-11, Bush turned back the clock to before 1215 (when the Magna Carta was signed), formally suspending habeas corpus and claiming a prerogative to imprison indefinitely anyone he labeled a terrorist suspect. In 2002, Justice Department lawyers informed Bush that the president was entitled to violate the law during wartime—and the war on terror was expected to continue indefinitely. In 2004, Bush White House counsel Alberto Gonzales formally asserted a “commander-in-chief override power” entitling presidents to ignore the Bill of Rights.
Under Bush, the US government embraced barbaric practices which did more to destroy America’s moral credibility than all of Trump’s tweets combined. Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” regime included endless high-volume repetition of a Meow Mix cat food commercial at Guantanamo, head slapping, waterboarding, exposure to frigid temperatures, and manacling for many hours in stress positions. After the Supreme Court rebuffed some of Bush’s power grabs in 2006, he pushed through Congress a bill that retroactively legalized torture—one of the worst legislative disgraces since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. During his years in the White House, Bush perennially denied that he had approved torture. But in 2010, during an author tour to promote his new memoir, he bragged about approving waterboarding for terrorist suspects.
Is Bush nominating himself to be the nation’s racial healer? When he was president, Bush inflicted more financial ruin on blacks than any president since Woodrow Wilson (who brought Jim Crow barbarities to the federal government). Bush trumpeted his plans to close the gap between black and white homeownership rates and promised in 2002 to “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to solve the problem. Bush was determined to end the bias against people who wanted to buy a home but had no money. Congress passed Bush’s American Dream Downpayment Act in 2003, authorizing federal handouts to first-time homebuyers of up to $10,000 or 6 percent of the home’s purchase price. Bush also swayed Congress to permit the Federal Housing Administration to make no–down payment loans to low-income Americans. Bush proclaimed: “Core American values of individuality, thrift, responsibility, and self-reliance are embodied in homeownership.” In Bush’s eyes, self-reliance was so wonderful that the government should subsidize it. And it didn’t matter whether recipients were creditworthy, because politicians meant well. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign trumpeted his down payment giveaways, a shining example of “compassionate conservatism.”
Thanks in large part to his policies, minority households saw the fastest growth in homeownership leading up to the 2007 recession. The housing collapse ravaged the net worth of black and Hispanic households. “The implosion of the subprime lending market has left a scar on the finances of black Americans—one that not only has wiped out a generation of economic progress but could leave them at a financial disadvantage for decades,” the Washington Post reported in 2012. The median net worth for Hispanic households declined by 66 percent between 2005 and 2009. That devastation was aptly described in a 2017 federal appeals court dissenting opinion as “wrecking ball benevolence” (quoting a 2004 Barron’s op-ed I wrote). But almost none of the media coverage of the ex-president reminds people of the economic carnage of this Bush vote-buying binge.
It is possible to condemn police brutality and, even more importantly, the evil laws and judicial doctrines that enable police to tyrannize other Americans without any help from a demagogic ex-president who ravaged our rights, liberties, and peace. As I commented in an August 2003 USA Today op-ed, “Whether Bush and his appointees will be held personally liable for their [Iraq War] falsehoods is a grave test for American democracy.” The revival of Bush’s reputation vivifies how our political media system failed that test. As long as George Bush doesn’t turn himself in for committing war crimes, all of his talk about “achieving justice for all” is rubbish.
This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.
Anyone who reads newspapers, watches cable news, or frequents social media newsfeeds is well aware that, over the last few years, allegations have snowballed both from the United States government and commercial news media that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 United States presidential election to benefit the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. On April 18, 2019 the long trail of these allegations culminated in what is almost universally considered in our news media as the ultimate guilty verdict: the 448-page redacted report released by ex-FBI Chief Robert Mueller, who was appointed by Congress as a nominally independent investigator.
The purpose of this paper is not to rule out these allegations. If anything, it’s easy to imagine that Russia could have had some motivation to influence our elections given the foreign policy differences between the two candidates; one who voiced support for working with Russia, and the other who likened Putin to Hitler. One also cannot forget that, when our country had analogous interests in the outcome of Russian elections in 1996, there is evidence that we openly interfered to get our preferred candidate elected.
Rather, based on the available evidence, much of it systematically ignored by the U.S. commercial and State media, this paper is simply a citizen’s effort to assess the integrity of a congressionally-authorized investigation—allegedly independent and impartial—that could potentially have a major impact on the relations between the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers. Given that, as of this paper, the U.S. ranks no higher than 48th among countries of the world in freedom of the press, the integrity of American media coverage of the Mueller Report also has to factor into this assessment. Despite what has been implied in the liberal media, critics of Mueller are not just from the far fringes of the political right and left wing. They include seasoned ex-diplomats, professors from reputable universities, alumni of our national security agencies, and respected journalists outside of commercial media.
Among those at the forefront of dissent is a group calling itself the Veteran Intelligent Professionals for Sanity (VIPs) that has included 23 alumni, some highly placed, of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and military intelligence. The most prominent member of this group is William Binney, a Technical Director who has over 30 years of experience at National Security Agency and actually developed some of the software the agency uses to detect cyber intrusions. Much of the narrative in this paper is based on the testimony of the above sources.
Speculation as to how growing demonization of Russia started in the first place will vary depending on the political orientation of the observer. Adherents of the so-called “realism” school of international relations (for example, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer) will likely see Russiagate at least in part as just the latest chapter in the history of American interventionism with the objective of dominating and isolating Russia ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. As noted by Princeton and NYU Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies Stephen Cohen, adherents of the political right wing (for example, Fox News) will likely see the genesis of Russiagate in the Democratic Party’s efforts to dig up dirt on Trump in Russia. Conversely, the liberal community (for example, The New York Times and MSNBC) will likely see the starting point of Russiagate in the vigilance of the FBI when it apparently detected possible collusion between one of President Trump’s advisors, George Papadapoulus, and alleged Russian proxies offering dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Libertarians and those on the farther left have even speculated about former CIA Director John Brennan’s role in stirring up conspiracies about Russia to bring down President Trump. A case could also be made that the issue goes back to the 2012 Magnitsky Affair that resulted in U.S. sanctions against Russia based on allegations surrounding the death of a whistleblower in a Russian prison (as of this paper, the narrative regarding this affair is in some controversy).
Whatever Russiagate’s origins, and the continuing disagreements between Democrats and Republicans as to the Mueller Report’s claims of collusion and obstruction of justice by the Trump Administration, the entire spectrum of both political parties accepts as fact that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) computer server during the 2016 presidential campaign. Further, there is bipartisan consensus that Russia recruited Wikileaks, an international organization well known for its disclosure—long under U.S. criminal investigation—of classified documents, to release emails damaging to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Certainly all Democrats and at least some Republicans (mostly those opposed to Trump) accept as fact that Russia also flooded social media with engineered “fake” posts, memes, newsfeeds, and tweets intended to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign. In their view, these manipulations may have actually affected the outcome of the election and at the very least aggravated polarity between American citizens, undermining their faith in “our democracy.”
To sidestep accusations of “whataboutism,” I’ll put aside the argument that, since the United States appears to have interfered in the elections of some 80 countries in its history, any similar operations by Russia can be dismissed as just covert business as usual. I’ll also overlook the possibility that the American public had every right to know about the information released in the stolen DNC emails. The fact is that, based on international law and simple ethics, suspicion of undue meddling by a foreign power in democratic elections is a serious matter meriting investigation and, if appropriate, retaliatory action. In this case, however, two questions come to mind:
In keeping with the Mueller Report format, this paper addresses hacking and social media issues separately.
The story leading up to the Mueller Report might as well begin on April 29, 2016 when the DNC first discovered a cyber intrusion in its servers and alerted the FBI. At this point standard practice would have dictated that the FBI take immediate possession of the servers and conduct its own forensic analysis to determine the immediate cause of the intrusion and neutralize its threat. But protocol would normally not stop there.
According to Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during its last days, the FBI’s role would normally only be an understudy in this kind of investigation unless the cyber intrusion were related solely to domestic law enforcement. At the very least, any cyber intrusion impacting national security would require input from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) of the State Department. With primary expertise in military affairs, the DIA would be the choice to weigh in on whether an intrusion came, as has been alleged, from Russian military intelligence (GRU). On the other hand, the INR’s participation would normally be mandatory in assessing foreign intentions and political activity. When it comes to identifying hacking, the NSA’s expertise would be applicable, since it monitors all data flowing in and out of the United States. All in all, input from the above agencies would both diversify expertise and allow for possible inter-agency disagreement requiring resolution.
Unfortunately, little evidence appears to have emerged that any of the above protocol was in fact followed.
First, under pressure from the DNC, the FBI never took possession of the affected servers but allowed the DNC to delegate forensic analysis to its own hired cybersecurity companies, primarily Crowdstrike. FBI Director James Comey even acknowledged that the FBI violated its best practices by this lapse but justified the decision based on his confidence that Crowdstrike was a “high class entity” that could be trusted to fill in for the FBI. Diverse critics of this assessment, however, have cited the following:
Outside of its footnotes, the Mueller Report makes no mention of Crowdstrike.
Second, as reported by the VIPs and Ambassador Matlock, the national security community’s follow-up to Crowdstrike’s claims was not the broad based investigation that it should have been based on standard protocol. Instead, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper apparently hand-picked 12 staff members solely from the CIA, NSA, and FBI for this purpose. While this change of protocol in itself does not necessarily invalidate the integrity of an investigation, history has shown that “hand-picked” operatives are often more than aware of the results their superiors are hoping to find. For an example, we need only look back to intelligence justifying the invasion of Iraq.
Far from being an impartial party, Clapper has political leanings obvious to any viewer of MSNBC, where he has appeared, and his integrity has already been in question given Edward Snowden’s disclosures that Clapper had lied under oath to Congress in March 2013 about the CIA’s involvement in surveillance and torture. As a result, Clapper had to retract his claims in June 2013. It is also worth noting that Ambassador Matlock reported that he had been informed by a senior official that the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research did, in fact, have a different opinion regarding the hacking but was told not to express it.
With this background, we can now return to the unfolding story immediately following the DNC’s discovery of a cyber intrusion. After being hired by the DNC on May 4, Crowdstrike claimed to have discovered the hacking on May 6. It’s common practice for cyber security operatives to use the standard terminology APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) to describe serious cyber intrusions—especially if they’re believed to come from state sources. As Yasha Levine, an investigative reporter, noted, the first step in these cases is normally to analyze the breach’s data trail, which includes such items as source codes, language settings, compiler times, time zones, and IP settings. If the breach follows a pattern similar to that of a prior and well-known threat, the operative may assign a pre-existing APT number and, to add a little color, give the APT a more evocative name.
In this case Crowdstrike’s anti-hacking software, Falcon, detected two intrusions, which appeared to have similar characteristics to two older APTs 28 and 29, both alleged to have been associated with Russia but, as characterized by more than one observer, on extremely thin evidence. Crowdstrike named APT 29 “Cozy Bear” with the claim that it could be traced to the Russian FSB (Russian Federal Security Services) and then named APT28, “Fancy Bear” with the claim that it could be traced to the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence). These allegations are what appeared in the Mueller Report. It should be noted that, as per Binney, Crowdstrike did nothing to neutralize these intrusions until June 10, 45 days after the last DNC email message was copied, on the pretext that taking any action would have alerted the intruders to abort their effort. This rationale has understandably been cited as a gross violation of standard practices to protect confidential data.
The “Fancy Bear” malware was allegedly implanted in three instalments, the last one after Crowdstrike had installed its Falcon software. Falcon claimed to have identified the IP address to which the hacker was sending exfiltrated data but, as per Adam Carter, a British cybersecurity expert, overlooked that the address had been inoperational since an earlier hacking in the German Parliament. It’s worth noting that Binney had been puzzled why NSA couldn’t pinpoint the IP address and only offered “moderate” confidence in the FBI and CIA’s assessments about hacking origins, since NSA would normally have been the best positioned to track hacking back to its source.
In any case, as reported by Scott Ritter, the DNC legal counsel agreed at some point after May 6, 2016, that the intrusion should be disclosed to the American public. Ironically, Crowdstrike felt that the message would have more impact coming from the FBI, but the DNC rejected this suggestion and instead disclosed the alleged hacking to the Washington Post which ran articles on June 14 and 20, 2016. Shortly after the articles came out, a hacking cyberpersona calling itself Guccifer 2.0 came from out of nowhere and claimed to be responsible for the breach. It has been speculated that Crowdstrike was taken by surprise at this development and simply assumed that Guccifer was a front for the GRU based on some Russian “fingerprints” it detected (more clarification on these to follow).
Following Crowdstrike’s analysis, national intelligence and security agencies issued three successive reports:
Aaron Maté, an independent journalist writing in The Nation, Real Clear Investigations, and other publications, also reported that the speedy ICA production schedule itself seemed to be a red flag. He referenced a statement made by former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, who, while testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, indicated that an assessment characteristic of the ICA’s would normally take months if not a year and that there appeared to be a rush to produce it within a matter of days.
As noted by Daniel Lazare, an independent reporter writing in Consortium News, the ICA allocated some 7 of its 13 pages vilifying RT, the Russian state-owned media newsfeed, for its role in both spreading disinformation to sow discontent in the U.S. and also producing videos highlighting defects in the United States. I can add that this theme was amplified in 2018 by our entertainment media in the highly popular Showtime espionage series, Homeland, in which a Russian-fabricated video is portrayed as having needlessly provoked a gun battle between the FBI and right-wing survivalists that killed innocent people including children.
In search of corroborating evidence to validate the ICA’s claims, anyone taking the time to browse through RT will of course find a) bias and some outright propaganda not unusual for state-owned networks (The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Marti come to mind) and b) some tabloid trash designed to attract viewers. At the same time, especially in its wide variety of interview and news analysis programs, RT features reputable international journalists reporting and commenting insightfully on diverse global issues. As accused, much of the commentary does in fact focus on the United States’ less admirable features (many of which are systematically ignored by our commercial media), but the content of the programs is more often than not totally valid.
For the cold warriors still among us, it can be agreed that in the Soviet days, no self-respecting American short of an outright communist would be caught dead working for Pravda, the hallmark of Russian propaganda. However, rarely mentioned in the commercial media is that RT seems to be an acceptable platform for a variety of benign American media personalities (Larry King, for one) as well as journalists who left U.S. news networks they felt were inhibiting their ability to pursue truly investigative reporting (Chris Hedges from The New York Times and the late Ed Schultz from MSNBC come to mind).
For all the above reasons, claims by our intelligence community that the sole purpose of RT’s reporting is to corrupt American citizenry with undue negativity about our country and sow discord is flat out insulting to Americans and would be greeted with incredulousness in any international court of justice, especially given the highly biased, selective, and at times even false reporting that can be found in U.S. commercial media.
Beyond the above reports, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents on July 13, 2018, charging them with interference in the American presidential election by hacking into the DNC server and distributing the stolen emails to Wikileaks. This indictment provided more detail—much of which made its way into the final Mueller Report—as to how these intrusions were alleged to have taken place. As noted by both Aaron Maté and former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley, however, the unequivocal charge in the indictment that Russian GRU officers “stole thousands of emails” was watered down to “officers appear to have stolen thousands of emails” in the final Mueller Report.
The above dossier needs to be included in this paper, since it appears to have played a significant role in the growing charges against Russia in 2016. While acknowledging it as unverified and in some cases erroneous, the Mueller Report otherwise barely touches on the circumstances surrounding it.
As reported by journalists Joe Lauria in Consortium News and Jackson Lears in the London Review of Books, the legal counsel for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Mark Elias, was paid in April 2016 to hire Fusion GPS, a commercial research and strategic intelligence firm (which oddly Mueller was unable to identify in his congressional testimony) to conduct “opposition research” that might connect Trump with Russia. Seeking what it considered the most informed source, Fusion contracted with Christopher Steele, a former British MI6 intelligence officer, who claimed to have contacts in the Russian government and ultimately provided the DNC with 17 reports between June and December 2016 allegedly from these sources.
The dossier eventually made its way into CNN’s hands but was not published, since, as noted above, its questionable sourcing included unverified claims and outright falsehoods (for example, allegations that Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, had met with the Russians in Prague). After the dossier surfaced in the White House, however, Buzzfeed, the news and entertainment website, released it on January 10, 2017, drawing criticism from some observers for what they considered a lapse in journalistic ethics given the dossier’s flawed content.
As was noted even in the commercial media in December 2019, the dossier nevertheless formed the basis of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) authorization for the FBI to investigate Carter Page, a Trump advisor, for links with the Russians. It also does no credit to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff that he referenced the dossier as if it were an authoritative source in his opening remarks at a March 20, 2017 congressional hearing about Russian election interference.
According to the Mueller Report, the GRU had set up a website by April 19, 2016, referred to as DCLeaks, before Guccifer appeared on the scene. This site was alleged to be the release point of various stolen documents from the DNC, many of which were encrypted so they couldn’t be made public until the timing was deemed by the GRU to be strategically appropriate.
At the same time, without appearing to offer forensic evidence, the Mueller Report claims that Guccifer was a stealth online persona designed by the Russians to appear as a rogue Romanian (named after the original Romanian Guccifer who was jailed in 2016) but who was actually a front for the GRU to hack into the DNC. This persona was alleged to have employed “spearphishing” (a technique that normally uses an email to divert the recipient to a website poised to install malware) to break into the DNC server and exfiltrate (extract) confidential files that were ultimately released to Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor and publisher.
Mueller’s claims as to Guccifer’s identity and role have been challenged by a variety of observers, first and foremost, the VIPs, for the following reasons:
In Binney’s assessment, all the above considerations made it difficult not to conclude that Guccifer was in fact a fraud.
One of Binney’s major arguments against the Mueller Report’s hacking claims was that the transmission speed of the alleged data infiltration was too fast for the Internet. To test this belief, Binney analyzed publicly available files released on July 5, 2016 (including such varied data categories as author, title, time, etc.) that Guccifer claimed to have hacked. To verify transmission speed capabilities achievable in 2016, Binney and an associate conducted a number of transmission tests from remote locations to the U.S. The fastest speed obtainable was from Britain to New Jersey and amounted to 12 megabytes per second. The speed that Guccifer actually achieved was close to 50, which, according to Binney, is fully in keeping with leaks to external storage devices like a thumb drive. Binney cites the above evidence to suggest that the DNC email disclosures were not due to remote hacking but to a local leak.
As reported by Politico, it should be noted that, when transmission speed issues were brought up at the above-cited trial of Roger Stone, prosecutors pointed out that file data flagged by Binney could have been released by Russian intelligence officers after the hack took place. Binney did acknowledge the possibility—remote as it was—that there could have been a Russian agent with access to the computers, who, with the help of outside hacking, was able to access the emails and download them into an external storage device. At the same time, this scenario not only appeared unlikely but also contradicted the self-certain claims in the Mueller Report and has been unsupported by any offered evidence.
To maintain fairness, it also needs to be noted that there was some dissent within the VIPs as to whether the cited transmission speeds in fact precluded hacking. These dissenting views were given some coverage in the September 1, 2017 edition of The Nation magazine that featured opinions from various sources considered as expert. At the same time, in response to several of his challengers, Binney presented counter arguments and stood by his claims. No further evidence came forth refuting him.
Apart from transmission issues, Binney also noted that the Guccifer data used a simple filing system called a File Allocation Table (FAT) that rounds each time stamp of a message up to the nearest even number. Again, as per Binney, this system is only used in external storage devices, while data transmitted through the Internet would only show random odd and even time stamps.
Given the tremendous global implications of Russiagate and Mueller’s conclusions, the debate in The Nation only underscores the critical importance of open ended analysis of evidence from expert sources rather than from solely a private cybersecurity company with glaring vested interests and questionable past performance. Despite vague references to the contrary coming from the intelligence community, observers have apparently failed to find evidence that any of these agencies ever conducted their own forensic analysis of data.
Prominent among the accused in the Mueller Report for collaborating with the Russians in the release of emails stolen from the DNC is Julian Assange, the editor and publisher of Wikileaks. One of the most persuasive pieces of evidence in the Mueller Report is its reproduction of intercepted communication between Assange, DCLeaks, and Guccifer. At first glance, this communication, cited on various pages of the report, appears to prove collusion. When lined up chronologically and submitted to additional scrutiny, however, the thread has been characterized by several observers as raising troubling questions.
First, as reported by Aaron Maté, intercepted communication between Guccifer and DCLeaks took place on a Twitter account, a highly unlikely social media platform for espionage professionals given how easily monitored it is.
Second, as reported by Mueller, Assange announced on June 12, 2016 that he had “upcoming leaks” related to Hillary Clinton. But this announcement took place before cited communication between Assange and both of the alleged Russian fronts, and Assange received nothing from these counterparties until July 14. While Mueller notes that the FBI may have had limited access to this correspondence because of Assange’s efforts to hide it, the lack of evidence for earlier communication between the above parties still raises questions.
Most importantly, Mueller reports that Assange released 30,000 documents on July 22, 2016, only four days after he allegedly received them from Guccifer. In the sections of the report in which Assange is quoted (under the heading “Dissembling”) it was not mentioned that he categorically denied ever having released any of the documents that were received from Guccifer on July 18. His reason was that he already had the desired documents, and there was no time to validate the accuracy of the material, especially considering the questionable source. However one may fault Assange for unsavory personality traits and visceral antipathy to Hillary Clinton, it has been pointed out that Wikileaks’ journalistic reputation rests solely on the accuracy of its released documents. The discovery of any fabrication would have ended Assange’s career, and it therefore defies credibility that he would have released 30,000 documents for the most part sight unseen.
As noted by the VIPS, Assange’s attorney had been in negotiation with the Department of Justice on March 17, 2016 and offered to share evidence regarding the leaks but was rebuffed by Mark Warner, the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. However suspect Assange’s credibility may have been at that point, could there have been any harm in meeting with him on the chance that admissible evidence might be forthcoming? Similarly, Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and an associate of Assange, claimed to know the source of the DNC disclosures but was never interviewed.
For most Americans, Mueller’s much anticipated appearance to present his report and respond to questions before Congress on July 24, 2019 was all about Trump’s culpability or exoneration regarding Russian collusion and obstruction of justice. In keeping with the intent of this paper, however, I focus only on what evidence Mueller provided at that hearing beyond what was already in his released report regarding evidence of direct Russian interference in our election. Largely true to his word, Mueller added very little new information at the hearing and only raised questions by what he avoided in his presentation and responses to questions.
Based on reporting by Joe Lauria, Mueller’s case was not helped by his dodging legitimate questions as to whom he failed to interview in his investigation and why. For example, Joseph Mifsud was a somewhat mysterious Maltese academic with alleged Russian connections who approached George Papadapoulos—a foreign policy advisor to Trump—with an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller refused both to explain why Mifsud was not charged despite his having lied in testimony to the FBI and also to address allegations that Mifsud might have been a U.S. asset for the State Department and FBI. As reported by Daniel Lazare, Mueller’s silence also applied to other alleged Russian “assets” who appeared to have U.S. government connections, including Felix Sater, Henry Oknyansky, and Konstantin Kilimnik.
Lauria also reported that Mueller was guilty of a false accusation in characterizing Wikileaks’ release of DNC emails as a violation of the law, since the emails were not classified, and Wikileaks was never accused of stealing them.
Finally, Mueller refused to discuss anything associated with the Steele Dossier, which was of course implicated in the December 2019 revelations of FBI flaws in the Russian collusion investigations.
None of the above narrative of course proves that Russian hacking didn’t take place nor denies that there is circumstantial evidence that it in fact did. However, the above does raise questions as to whether the Mueller Report, its related investigations, and its associated media coverage were commensurate with minimal standards of impartiality and thoroughness, especially when it came to addressing dissent. If Russia were a defendant in a courtroom, would it matter how airtight the prosecutor’s case was if no defense attorney were allowed to participate?
Only a cyber security expert can credibly weigh in when it comes to hacking allegations, but an average citizen with common sense can certainly assess the validity of many of the accusations leading up to Mueller’s claim that the Russian government orchestrated social media interference, at worst altering the course of our election and at best aggravating political polarization to the detriment of our democracy. At this point we can overlook the technicality that the U.S. is not a democracy but a republic and skip over the possible claim that domestic threats to our democratic institutions are far worse than anything coming from abroad.
Everyone agrees that a shadowy organization with the comically deceptive name of Internet Research Agency (IRA) acted as a “troll farm” polluting our social media with tens of thousands of newsfeeds, posts, memes, and tweets that fabricated the identity of the parties originating them. At issue is what the IRA’s intent was and what effect its intrusion had on either election outcomes or social conflict among our citizens. In other words, is there substantial evidence precluding the possibility that the IRA’s social media campaign was nothing more than a clickbait scheme to exploit gullible Americans and take their money?
The most thorough reporting I encountered that challenges the prevailing narrative about the IRA’s likely intentions in its social media manipulation comes from the investigative website, Moon of Alabama. This source has a long history of insightful and well-documented analysis of world current events and has been attributed with more than sufficiently credible sourcing to be taken seriously by even the watchdog website Media Bias/Fact Check. Much of the copy below draws from MoA.
The owner of the IRA, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been characterized by several sources, including The Wall Street Journal, as a somewhat sketchy food service entrepreneur who was awarded contracts with the Russian military and school system. His career in manipulative social media apparently started when parents, outraged by his substandard school cafeteria food, wrote scathing comments on schools’ websites. In response, Prigozhin thought to hire people to impersonate parents and flood the comment threads with testimonials praising the food.
Viral Attack or Clickbait?
The above strategy apparently proved remarkably successful and, as per more than one observer, would have logically provided the motivation to expand into international clickbait operations. In fact, it’s been pointed out that there’s nothing in the Mueller Report ruling out the possibility that the IRA’s intrusion had little to do with elections and a lot to do with fleecing the American public. For example, most of the IRA’s alleged legal violations would seem to be in line with the following standard practice for clickbait:
In fairness to Mueller, his report did claim that some IRA employees had verified that their intent was to influence the election, but there were neither specifics offered nor speculation as to why the IRA would have invested so much of its resources in initiatives that had nothing to do with the election. It’s of course reasonable to assume that Prigozhin, a staunch Putin supporter, would have been averse to posting anything that could aid Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but it also appears that, despite a preponderance of posts implicitly favorable to Trump, the political affiliations reflected by the IRA posts covered a wide range.
Needless to say, the most effective targets for clickbait would be groups holding mutually hostile views and likely to be provoked by inflammatory posts. But to conclude that the intent of the posts was to “sow discontent” and “undermine our democracy” seems not only farfetched but also an insult (maybe some would say partially deserved) to the American people for the following reasons:
Beyond the above considerations, it has been pointed out that knee-jerk outrage over Russian posts could open the door to criminalizing any controversial opinions expressed by foreigners in our social media.
Probably the most commonly referenced piece of verified data used to prove potentially damaging Russian interference in our elections is that, as disclosed by the Facebook general counsel in congressional hearings, the IRA released some 80,000 posts and news feeds in Facebook that reached 126 million Americans over two years including the period of the 2016 presidential election. This fact has been cited again and again in newspapers, cable news media, the Mueller Report, and most conspicuously in the congressional Mueller hearings by Jackie Spier, congresswoman from California, who characterized the intrusion as “an attack.”
At face value, the data is of course alarming, especially as the recipients of the fabricated items add up to the total number of voters in the election. A review of the transcripts of the same hearing also reveals, however, that a) 126 million Americans “may have received” these posts, b) there’s neither an indication of what percentage of the received posts are generally viewed by the average Facebook user nor how many of the 80,000 had anything to do with the election (only 7% of the posts apparently mentioned Clinton or Trump), and c) most significantly, the total number of news stories circulated during this time period amounted to a jaw-dropping 33 trillion or so, which means that the IRA posts amounted to .0000000024% of the total news stories.
The Mueller Report also alleged that the IRA created 3,814 Twitter accounts reaching 1.4 million people during the election campaign, but even the report conceded that more than 90% were not election-related, and the 15,000 tweets that the IRA released contrasted with 189 million coming from all sources.
A revealing postscript to the above narrative took place on February 16, 2018, when Mueller indicted 13 people and three companies associated with the IRA. Hardly expecting any of the defendants to appear, Mueller’s team was apparently taken by surprise when one of the companies, Concord Management Consultants, showed up on May 18 and, after hiring a Washington lawyer, asked for its day in court. Initially, Mueller apparently attempted to brush off this challenge by claiming that the defendant had not been properly served, and when that effort fell short, prosecutors tried to limit Concord’s access to evidence owing to its “sensitivity.” But a hearing was ultimately held under seal on May 28, and by July 1, 2019 the presiding federal judge, Dabney Friedrich, issued a ruling directing Mueller to cease and desist in claims of any connection between the IRA and the Russian government simply because there was no legally admissible evidence to support the claim. In fact, Mueller’s proof was limited to references to an article in The New York Times and photos of Prigozhin shown together with Putin.
It is a sign of the hysteria surrounding this issue that, despite a clear reference to this ruling by one of the Republican congressman in the Mueller hearings on July 24, 2019, the ruling was systematically ignored by all the Democrats, first and foremost Jackie Spier, who continued to accept the claims as fact.
Adding to the cyber intrusions, the Mueller Report cites numerous divisive rallies and protests fomented by fake posts. It appears, however, that these events were for the most part sparsely attended, sometimes by fewer than 10 people.
As was true for the hacking controversy, the above evidence does not preclude either that the IRA’s social media intrusion was in fact intended to influence the presidential election or that it could have conceivably had enough impact to sway election results in closely contested states. At the same time, even if it could be shown that the IRA’s intent was to help Trump, research released in October 2019 by American, Danish, and Norwegian academics focusing at least on Twitter intrusions did not find any evidence that they had any effect on the election. Putting that data together with Judge Friedrich’s ruling and a measure of common sense, it’s hard to imagine Mueller’s allegations getting far in any reputable international court of justice.
The above pages should provide at least some reasonable responses to the first question raised in this paper regarding the persuasiveness of the evidence the U.S. can provide to prove its case to the world. The second question regarding appropriate trust for the validity of classified information can be addressed much more briefly.
It seems fair to say that U.S. intelligence and security agency assessments of any threat to our country should be taken with a high degree of seriousness. At the same time, given at least some of these agencies’ long history of deception, covert operations, and in some cases, outright atrocities, can any truly investigative reporter take such assessments on faith without demonstrable forensic evidence? For that matter, can any member of Congress briefed on classified intelligence regarding cyber intrusions, but otherwise lacking knowledge of cybersecurity, really be qualified to weigh in definitively on these matters either, especially if that member has connections to the interests of the military-industrial-security complex?
I have yet to hear it remarked in our commercial media that, after years of strongly criticizing and even demonizing our security and intelligence agencies for their excesses, the liberal community has suddenly come to regard these same sources as champions of truth and justice, not only because they seem to have aligned more closely with the Democratic Party’s interventionist drift but also because they happen to be largely opposed to President Trump. The large number of alumni of these agencies who appear either as guests or regular contributors on liberal cable news outlets only reinforces this observation.
It therefore seems reasonable to give high credence to our security and intelligence community when it provides sufficient disclosure of evidence to stand in a hypothetical court of law. It does not seem reasonable to accept the community’s redactions when they are basically saying to the public, “You’ll just have to trust us.”
Volumes have already been written about the integrity of our country’s print and digital news media, but, as noted early in this paper, a “citizen’s assessment” of the Mueller Report can’t avoid directing major scrutiny to the media for its largely unquestioned support of the report’s Russian interference allegations with only rare acknowledgement of any legitimate dissent.
When acknowledgement does take place, it most often appears as a disingenuous façade of journalistic ”balance.” For example, a couple of years ago I was surprised to see that Professor Emeritus Stephen Cohen, a strong critic of Russiagate, was briefly interviewed on MSNBC off prime time by an anchor, Ali Velshi. While Velshi deserves credit for extending due respect to Professor Cohen’s policy positions and even subsequently sharing them with a panel of MSNBC regulars, the panel almost immediately changed the subject, and, as further discussion wore on, Professor Cohen’s interview might as well have never taken place. Similarly, as a daily reader of The New York Times, I can barely remember instances of this newspaper acknowledging Russiagate dissent other than when it attributed it to such obviously fringe sources as 4chan or the online message board Reddit.
The above examples suggest why the U.S. ranks so low in the world when it comes to freedom of the press. It’s certainly not that our country lacks admirable constitutional protections for free speech; rather, it’s that the combination of a) corporate media ownership and subsidies, b) media funding from large corporate advertisers, and c) government influence virtually controls almost all of American mainstream print and digital news sources. In this environment, newsfeeds can pass fact checking with flying colors and still be advancing falsehoods simply by virtue of information omitted.
Emblematic of the media hysteria directed toward Russia is also the number of news items that have been retracted, refuted, or at least strongly questioned. On March 23, 2019 Matt Taibbi, a journalist with The Rolling Stone, listed examples of such news stories (in some cases shown as actual headlines below) featured in such commercial media outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN:
Like the Mueller Report, most of the media appears to be functioning as the prosecutor to the exclusion of the defense attorney.
Guardian Angels or Propaganda Factories? Democracy, Progress, Values, and Integrity on the March
In addition to media bias, a disturbing if not surprising trend serving to reinforce unquestioned belief in Russia’s nefarious attacks on “our democracy” is the proliferation of seemingly non-partisan, independent think tanks, advocacy groups, and websites—all with lofty, progressive-sounding names promoting democratic values—that function as facades for blatantly anti-Russian and often interventionist policy positions. Representatives of these groups appear regularly on liberal cable news programs and newspaper columns, while, as noted above, rarely seen are any legitimate dissenters. Below is by no means a complete list of these “guardian” entities.
National Endowment for Democracy – A federally funded organization established in the 1980s to provide what has been characterized as a more respectable face for the kind of international covert activities, including elections interference, that had given the CIA a bad name.
Alliance for Securing Democracy – A security advocacy group with the specific mission of countering Russian subversion of “our democracy.” Its members include the neoconservative Bill Kristol, and the CIA has been cited as a source of funding. This organization is housed under another similar group, the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
National Democratic Institute – an allegedly non-partisan organization that claims to work with partners in developing countries to increase the effectiveness of democratic institutions. It is funded in part by the NED and the notorious USAID. A member of the NDI, Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia and a Putin critic, once contested the Russian President’s charge that the NDI had CIA connections but failed to mention that it functioned as an arm of the Democratic Party funneling millions of dollars toward what many observers have characterized as a U.S.-orchestrated regime change in Ukraine.
Center for American Progress – an advocacy and research organization with strong connections to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign that blamed Russia for turning the election against the Democrats.
The Atlantic Council – A veritable who’s who of security state, military, and corporate interests. Past members include Henry Kissinger, James Clapper, Samantha Powers, and Rupert Murdock. The organization is funded by Arab Gulf oil producing countries, NATO, and the weapon industry. The Atlantic Council sponsors Bellingcat, allegedly a citizen’s investigative organization that has in fact been accused by a wide variety of observers of spreading significant disinformation, much of it directed against Russia.
Integrity Initiative – A charity funded by the British foreign office, NATO, and rightwing donors whose stated purpose is to expose the Russian threat to Western democracies. The organization has been accused of spreading disinformation and apparently recently lost its charity status.
Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika – research organizations with funding from tech companies, media, and government agencies. Most significantly, they were commissioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee to study alleged Russian intrusion into U.S. social media and concluded that Russia launched a sustained effort to manipulate the American public and undermine democracy. Graphika has state and military connections.
New Knowledge (now known as Yonder) –a research and cybersecurity organization with links to the German Marshal Fund and the Alliance for Securing Democracy and funded in-part by venture capital. The organization’s activities have included alleging Russian influence in Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 campaign, and they drew widespread scrutiny for staging a false flag operation that implied the Kremlin was working to defeat the Democratic candidate in the 2017 Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate.
Propornot (contraction of “Propaganda or Not”) – a shadowy website featured on the November 24, 2016 Washington Post front page, which gave credence (later retracted) to the website’s claims (based on alleged “expertise”) that some 200 newsfeed websites (which it listed by name) were unduly influenced by Russia, either wittingly or unwittingly. Many of these websites were in fact nothing more than sources of dissenting views to prevailing narratives in our media regarding domestic and foreign policy issues, and at least several of the websites were taken off the list after they protested.
European Values – a security think tank in the Czech Republic funded by various European government sources and the embassies of the United States and Israel. One of its major programs is Kremlin Watch, which “aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against Western democracies.” Similar to Propornot, European Values has also cited newsfeed websites allegedly under Russian influence. Not long after the Washington Post Propornot feature, European Values released a report, The Kremlin’s Platform for ‘Useful Idiots’ in the West, that criticized some 2,000 “idiots,” including respectable journalists and politicians, for appearing on RT.
In 1945 the philosopher Karl Popper wrote a book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which he took to task the philosophers Plato, Hegel, and Marx for being, in his view, latent authoritarians who laid the groundwork for future totalitarian regimes on both the right and left. While there are reasons to disagree with much of Popper’s interpretation, certainly a truly “open society” with guaranteed rights exemplified by those currently in our Constitution, including freedom of speech, is a time honored ideal central to the cherished beliefs of most all Americans. It’s nevertheless telling that one or two of the philosophers that Popper demonized believed that, for all their admirable qualities, “pluralistic” systems like ours are also vulnerable to becoming facades behind which increasingly powerful interests exert more and more control without the public even being aware of it. While in no way invalidating the legitimacy of the democratic model, neither are these risks are imaginary if one looks at developments in our country.
Mandatory for any open society is a truly well-informed public with constant exposure to diverse news reporting and analysis without the necessity of exploring the obscure corners of the internet to get a full story on public policy issues. The Mueller Report and its unquestioned support by practically the entire American mainstream journalistic universe (at least when it comes to charges of Russia’s “attack” on our freedoms) do not appear to fit well into that scenario. It can be further added that even access to dissenting websites has been progressively suppressed by the manipulation of algorithms in search engines, as evidenced by the increasing difficulty of such reputable forums as CounterPunch to meet fundraising targets. Of course, it can’t be overlooked that some of the politically motivated attacks on the Mueller Report, especially those coming from the Trump administration, can also be regarded as a threat to the open society. Trump’s portrayal of the entire news media outside of right-wing outlets as “the enemy of the people” is a direct attack on freedom of the press.
At the same time, the self-aggrandizing claims of the liberal media to be guardians of “the truth” (as shown, for example, on full page ads in The New York Times) ignore that approaching the real truth requires that all credible evidence along with its historical context be examined before a conclusion is reached, especially on subjects with potentially major impact on world peace. As noted above, scoring well on “fact checking” is not enough, and one of the dangers in liberal media bias is that it’s more subtle and easily overlooked than the tirades coming out of the right-wing media.
It’s ironic that, at a time when accessible, well-sourced information is almost limitless on the internet, so much of the American public is retreating into isolated bubbles of self-justifying news narratives. It’s also ironic that some news sources like The New York Times that have their own obvious problems with impartiality are sponsoring educational programs for detecting “fake news.”
To avoid applying a double standard, I of course can’t escape that my own biases and the sources for this paper may be subject to their own “bubbles” and that there may be refutations of at least some of the evidence presented above. I can, however, hope that this paper will at least serve as a case study documenting the critical importance of allowing dialog and well-sourced dissent their rightful place in public discourse worthy of the open society that Popper defended.
Since the completion of the above paper in early March 2020, Russiagate has been largely dormant and understandably pre-empted by the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks, however, there have been new Russiagate developments important enough to merit further reporting.
The most important of these developments relates to Crowdstrike, the private cybersecurity company whose claims appear to have formed the basis for the Mueller Report’s charges that Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee computer server in 2016. Yet, as was noted earlier, the company’s name does not appear anywhere in the Mueller Report other than in a few footnotes referencing an article written by the company’s founder. More than two years after the Report was released, however, Crowdstrike’s role in the Russiagate investigation became abundantly clear when, on May 7, 2020, the House Intelligence Committee released 53 declassified transcripts of Russiagate-related interviews it held between 2017 and 2018. One of these happened to be with Shawn Henry, Crowdstrike’s president.
In what came across as evasive and barely articulate testimony, Henry clearly admitted that Crowdstrike had only uncovered suggestive evidence rather than anything concrete to implicate Russia in hacking the DNC server. Further, he acknowledged that, while the stolen DNC data was “set up to be exfiltrated,” there was no evidence that “it actually left” the server. As per Ray McGovern, “exfiltrate” means either transferring data out of a computer through hacking or copying it onto an external storage device. Given this distinction, Henry’s statement suggests that the data did in fact go to a storage device because if it had gone through the internet, Crowdstrike would have been able to track its departure. More detail about Henry’s testimony are found in articles by Ray McGovern and Aaron Mate here and here.
As to the identity of the suspected hackers, Henry again relied on suggestive evidence when he said, “There are other nation-states that collect this type of intelligence for sure, but…what we would call the tactics and techniques were consistent with what we’d seen associated with the Russian state.” The transcript also revealed that a) Perkins Coie, the law firm that hired Crowdstrike to investigate the intrusion into the Democratic National Committee server was one and the same that hired Fusion GPS to pursue the largely discredited Steele Dossier and b) Henry had previously served in the FBI Cyber Division under Robert Mueller.
It has been pointed out that Henry’s admissions were a possible explanation for why the language in the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) that the Russian GRU officers “stole thousands of emails” was watered down to “officers appear to have stolen thousands of emails” by the time it got to the final Mueller Report.
Of course even suggestive evidence is enough to raise suspicion of Russian hacking and warrant further investigation, but the troubling implications of the transcripts are obvious. As noted earlier, I’ve found no indications that U.S. intelligence agencies had any forensic evidence of hacking other than what Crowdstrike provided to the FBI in redacted reports. Unless the House Intelligence Committee had access to a smoking gun that is yet to be disclosed, Committee Chair Adam Schiff’s unequivocal claims of Russian guilt over the years would seem to be at odds with the forensic evidence that Crowdstrike presented to the committee.
This apparent disconnect also raises some suspicion as to why Henry’s testimony remained hidden for so long, since it could have at least corroborated some of the Mueller Report’s critics. Based on public records and official correspondence, the circumstances leading to the delay in the transcripts’ release are somewhat complicated, but they appear to boil down to a dispute between the White House and the House Intelligence Committee, which had come under Democratic control after the November 2018 mid-term elections.
Going back to September 2018, the Committee had agreed to release the transcripts as soon as the Office of the Department of National Intelligence (ODNI) completed its declassification review of their contents. The dispute began when, having itself cleared all the transcripts, the ODNI informed the committee in March 2019 that the 10 transcripts containing testimony from members of the Trump administration were being withheld. The reason for this delay was that the Executive Office of the President wanted to check the transcripts for possible conflict with executive privilege.
The ODNI attributed this request to standard protocol, but, in a letter to the ODNI, Schiff maintained unequivocally that the recorded testimonies were solely the property of the Intelligence Committee. His position was that, since the transcripts had been cleared by intelligence agencies, any further review by the White House would be an unwarranted intrusion into the committee’s investigations. It wasn’t until May 4, 2020 that ODNI Acting Director Richard Grenell released the 10 transcripts after the White House withdrew its request
I’ve been unable to find clear guidelines as to which branches of government outside of intelligence agencies would have been entitled to advance review of the transcripts, and it’s possible that Schiff is justified in blaming the White House for the 11-month delay. At the same time, I also haven’t seen any compelling explanations as to why the Henry transcript couldn’t have been released in March 2019, since it was never requested for review by the White House.
It’s worth noting that a search on The New York Times website for coverage of the above transcript yielded no results and that a broader internet search revealed coverage that was almost exclusively from right-wing news outlets.
The second major development that merits reporting relates to the prosecution of General Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor during the post-election transition period in late 2016 and early 2017. While not directly related to alleged Russian hacking or social media manipulation, the Flynn affair is worth exploring, since it raises issues associated with the FBI’s practices during the Russiagate investigations.
In one of several phone calls, Flynn spoke with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States on December 29, 2016. Unbeknownst to Flynn, the call was intercepted by the NSA, presumably in keeping with its surveillance of Kislyak. Among the requests Flynn made on the call was that Russia refrain from retaliating to sanctions that the Obama administration had just imposed for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections. On January 24, 2017 Flynn was interviewed by the FBI and ultimately charged with lying to the agent who questioned him. However, a plea bargain was reached on December 1, 2017 based on Flynn’s commitment to cooperate with the FBI and admit that he had lied during the interview.
In June 2019 Flynn changed his legal team and withdrew his guilty plea, citing what he considered inadequate prior legal counseling and also improper FBI conduct based on new information. In February 2020 Attorney General Willian Barr appointed a lawyer to review Flynn’s case, and on May 7 the Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss the case altogether based in part on the claim that Flynn’s lying was immaterial to any “legitimate FBI investigative basis,” especially given that the FBI had earlier recommended that the investigation be closed. As of this addendum, the case is on hold pending response from the case’s presiding judge Emmet Sullivan.
Following the interception of the 2016 phone call, one of the first controversies to arise regarded the justification for the disclosure or, as it came to be known, “unmasking” of Flynn’s identity as a participant in the call. “Masking” occurs when, for example, a national security agency surveilles a foreign terrorist and intercepts email correspondence between the terrorist and an American citizen. To avoid possibly unwarranted incrimination of the citizen, the agency will normally not disclose the citizen’s identity when it issues reports about this communication to other branches of government. However, if any of the recipients (normally other security agencies but in some cases political leadership) of the report feel they have compelling reasons to know the citizen’s identity, they can request that the citizen be “unmasked.” If the reporting security agency agrees with the applicant’s rationale, it will comply with the request.
The issues surrounding Flynn’s possible unmasking through this process are too complicated to address fully in this paper, but the controversy began when Flynn’s identity as a party to Kislyak’s phone call was revealed to the public on January 20, 2017 in a Washington Post article by David Ignatius, who cited a senior U.S. government official as the source. The controversy only intensified on May 13, 2020 when Richard Grenell released a document listing some 27 names of officials—including Vice President Biden and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers—who had requested Flynn’s unmasking between November 2016 and January 2017. Grenell’s cover letter indicated that he could not confirm whether these officials actually had been granted their requests, and it has been pointed out that, given their timing, at least some of the requests may have been related to issues unrelated to Flynn’s phone call with Kislyak.
In any case, among the arguments made to justify disclosing Flynn’s identity are, first, that he was obviously colluding with Russia, an adversary, to undermine pre-existing U.S. policy and, second, that he was in violation of the Logan Act prohibiting unauthorized private citizens from negotiating with foreign powers regarding disputed matters.
Among opposing arguments are that, first, as a transition team member, Flynn was not out of line contacting a foreign leader, especially to defuse a potentially explosive situation affecting the incoming administration; second, that his position as incoming security advisor pre-empted his status as a private citizen; and, third, that the Logan Act has never been used as the basis for a prosecution.
In the wake of newly disclosed information, questions about FBI practices throughout its investigation and the prosecution of Flynn are, if anything, even more controversial. In the days following the DOJ’s motion to drop the case, The New York Times coverage of this issue was largely limited to emphasizing Flynn’s character flaws and citing a variety of legal experts who condemned the DOJ’s decision. Links to some of the Times’ articles during this period can be found in Patrick Lawrence’s May 11 article in Consortium News.
On May 15, however, the Times finally saw fit to publish an article acknowledging possible overreach in the FBI’s prosecution of Flynn and addressed the following developments:
While acknowledging flaws in the FBI’s conduct, the Times indicated that, based on testimony from legal experts and former law enforcement officials, the FBI had complied sufficiently with the rules surrounding voluntary interviews and that it was standard practice for the FBI to test subjects accused of telling lies and wait to see what they would say.
By having withheld the above-cited unsealed documents, the prosecutor assigned to Flynn’s case violated protocol required by the presiding judge to disclose evidence that could be useful for the defense. These documents were only shared with Flynn’s defense team after Attorney General Barr appointed an outside prosecutor to investigate the situation. The Times indicated that, despite this violation, some former law officials disagreed that the notes would have sufficed to exonerate Flynn.
Much stronger criticism of the FBI’s conduct, however, comes from Coleen Rowley, a retired FBI special agent who was named one of Time Magazine’s persons of the year in 2002 because of her exposure of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures. In a May 18, 2020 article in Consortium News, she draws from her own long-standing experience with the FBI to contrast the agency’s conduct in the Flynn case with the protocol emphasized in the earliest days of her FBI training.
In her account, Flynn was asked to have a “friendly chat” on January 4, 2017 in which he was told that he would not need a lawyer present. Rowley underscores that the intent of the applicable Title 18 US Code 1001 relative to FBI interrogations is that, to encourage honest responses to questions, suspects should be cautioned in advance not to lie. She adds that lying to the FBI in itself would almost never be prosecuted, simply because most suspects will at least bend the truth if not outright lie if only to avoid embarrassment.
Another FBI policy violation that Rowley brought up was the way the interview was recorded. Unlike most state and local law enforcement authorities, the FBI does not make use of audio-recorded transcripts. Instead, it relies on a form (FD-302) to be filled out by questioners giving an account of the conversation that can be used in court. While this form has been criticized by defense lawyers as inviting abuse, Rowley emphasizes that, to ensure the highest possible accuracy, agents are trained to limit themselves to verbatim transcripts free from editing by supervisors, especially those not present at the interview.
It turns out that this protocol was violated after FBI Agent Peter Strzok conducted the interview, and agent Joe Pientka took notes. As reported by Rowley, text messages show that Strzok and his FBI colleague and paramour, Lisa Page, who was not present at the meeting, edited the 302 form following the interview. It’s also worth mentioning that Strzok, who is virulently anti-Russian, was later fired for texting inflammatory messages about President Trump.
Rowley also notes that, based on her experience, an FBI agent’s court testimony as to what a defendant said is considered more useful to the prosecution than simply a recorded interview simply because in the event of conflicting testimony, the jury would be more likely to believe the FBI agent. She also added that, had Strzok and Pientka asked for Flynn’s consent to be tape recorded, he would have been immediately alerted that the interview was far from a “friendly” discussion regarding counter-intelligence about Russia. While Rowley makes it clear that she is not “a fan” of Flynn, she adds that “wrong is wrong.”
A final note relating to FBI protocol in Flynn’s prosecution was that, while, in its article, The New York Times acknowledged that Flynn’s lawyers advised him to plead guilty because of concern over the consequences of doing otherwise, it did not mention that the FBI threatened to prosecute his son if Flynn didn’t cooperate.
This paper is of course in no position to weigh in legally as to whether the DOJ’s motion to drop the Flynn case was justified, and there is certainly a substantial community of legal authorities who strongly believe it was not. At the same time, it appears that both the FBI’s conduct in the Flynn matter and the House Intelligence Committee’s handling of the Henry transcript only add to questions about the overall integrity of the Russiagate investigations.
A third development worth reporting is that, as of March 16, 2020, the Department of Justice dropped all charges against Concord Management, the one defendant that actually asked for its day in court after Mueller indicted 13 people and three companies associated with the IRA for manipulation of social media during the 2016 presidential election. In brief, the basis for the ruling was that the case promoted “neither the interests of justice nor the nation’s security.” Two of the stated reasons for this ruling, however, were that Concord a) had been “eager and aggressive in using the judicial system to gather information about how the United States detects and prevents foreign election interference” and b) as a foreign entity, had “no exposure to meaningful punishment in the event of conviction.” As reported by The New York Times, “department officials denied that the decision to drop the charges was intended to dismantle Mr. Mueller’s work, noting that prosecutors are still pursuing charges against the 13 Russians and the Internet Research Agency.”
Several issues surrounding the above ruling come to mind. First, neither the dismissal motion nor The New York Times article mention that, in a June 2019 hearing related to Concord, the presiding judge ruled that there was no legally admissible evidence to support Mueller’s charges against Concord. Second, an indictment seems hardly valid if it prohibits the defendant from standard due process because of anticipated national security issues. Third, the rationale that a defendant is immune from punishment only adds to the belief that the indictment was issued because it was assumed that the trial would never take place.
On Memorial Day, the media do their usual sacralizing of war. Instead, it should be a day for the ritualized scourging of politicians. During the last 70 years, their lies have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of almost 100,000 American soldiers and millions of foreigners. And yet, people still get teary-eyed when politicians take the stage to talk about their devotion to the troops.
On Memorial Day 2011, for instance, the Washington Post included numerous touching photographs of graves, recent widows or fatherless kids by the headstones, and stories of the troops’ sacrifices. The Post buried a short article in the middle of the A-Section (squeezed onto a nearly full-page ad for Mattress Discounters) about the U.S. military killing dozens of Afghan civilians and police in a wayward bombing in some irrelevant Afghan province. The story’s length and placement reflected the usual tacit assumption that any foreigner killed by the U.S. military doesn’t deserve to be treated as fully human.
The Washington Post celebrations of Memorial Day never include any reference to that paper’s culpability in helping the Bush administration deceive America into going to war against Iraq. When Post reporters dug up the facts that exposed the Bush administration’s false claims on the Iraqi peril, editors sometimes ignored or buried their revelations. Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks complained that in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “There was an attitude among editors: ‘Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?’”
The Post continued aiding the war party by minimizing its sordidness. When the Bush administration’s claims on Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program had collapsed, the Washington Post article on the brazen deceits was headlined, “Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence.” According to Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, the press are obliged to portray politicians as if they are honest. He commented in 2007, “From August 2002 until the war was launched in March of 2003 there were about 140 front-page pieces in the Washington Post making the administration’s case for war. It was, ‘The President said yesterday.’ ‘The Vice President said yesterday.’ ‘The Pentagon said yesterday.’ Well, that’s part of our job. Those people want to speak. We have to provide them a platform. I don’t have [sic] anything wrong with that.”
The Post was not alone in its groveling to war. Major television networks behaved like government-owned subsidiaries for much of the period before and during the Iraq War. CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan explained a month after the United States attacked Iraq, “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, ‘Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war,’ and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.” Jessica Yellin, a CNN correspondent who formerly worked for MSNBC, commented in 2008, “When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings.” NBC news anchor Katie Couric stated that there was pressure from “the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it.”
Before the war, almost all the broadcast news stories on Iraq originated with the federal government. PBS’ Bill Moyers noted that “of the 414 Iraq stories broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, from September 2002 until February 2003, almost all the stories could be traced back to sources from the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.”
But this record of servility and deceit has not slackened the media’s enthusiasm to drench Memorial Day with sanctimony.
In reality, Memorial Day should be a time to remember the government’s crimes against the people. Politicians have perennially sent young Americans to die for false causes or on wild-goose chases.
Over the past century, war memorials have become increasingly popular. However, most of the memorials do little or nothing to inform people of the chicaneries or deceits that paved the way to or perpetuated the war. It would be a vast improvement if each war memorial also had an adjacent monument of major lies—such as an engraved plaque listing the major deceits by which the American public were swayed to support sending American boys off to die for some grand cause.
The Vietnam War memorial in Washington, for instance, lists the names of each American killed in that conflict. If that memorial could be complemented by excerpts from the Pentagon Papers—or from some of the major admissions of deceit by some of that war’s policymakers—the effect on the public would be far more uplifting.
General Patton said that an ounce of sweat can save a pint of blood. Similarly, a few hours studying the lessons of history can prevent heaps of grave-digging in the coming years. President Trump has saber-rattled against Iran, North Korea, Syria, and other nations. His bellicose rhetoric should spur Americans to review the follies and frauds of past wars before it is too late to stop the next pointless bloodbath.
Memorial Day can benefit from the creativity of free spirits across the board. Tom Blanton, the mastermind of the website Project for a New American Revolution, proposed in an exchange on my website changing Memorial Day to make it far more realistic:
It used to be that Memorial Day was to honor dead soldiers. In recent years, we are asked to also honor veterans (who already have a day) and active duty members of the armed services. This may be an indication that the politicians feel there aren’t enough dead soldiers…
I think Memorial Day should simply be renamed Tombstone Day and people should decorate their yards with styrofoam tombstones like they do for Halloween. True-believers might even consider a few flag-draped coffins made of cardboard and maybe hanging dismembered arms and legs made of rubber from their trees.
Blanton’s proposal would provide a shot in the arm for party stores during the slow period between Valentine’s Day and Halloween. And it would be a spark for conversations that were far more substantive than the usual flag waving.
I would favor celebrating Memorial Day the way the British used to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes was the leader of a conspiracy in 1604 to blow up the Parliament building in London. Until recently, the British celebrated the anniversary of that day by burning Guy Fawkes in effigy. (Government officials have recently banned such burnings on the grounds that something bad might happen because of the fires. The movie V for Vendetta probably made some bureaucrats nervous.)
It would be appropriate to celebrate Memorial Day by burning in effigy the politicians whose lies led to the deaths of so many Americans (and innocent foreigners). Those whose images deserve to be torched run the gamut from Lyndon Johnson to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton (Kosovo) to George W. Bush (Iraq, et cetera), to Barack Obama (Afghanistan, Libya, et cetera). Donald Trump’s warring has primarily resulted in the killing of foreigners, but they are also worthy of remembrance and lamentation. The burnings could be accompanied by recitations of the major offenses against the truth and liberty that each politician committed.
The best way to honor American war dead is to cancel politicians’ prerogative to send troops abroad to fight on any and every pretext. And one of the best steps towards that goal is to remember the lies for which soldiers died.
Sun Tzu, or if you prefer Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” gave the wise advice: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
There’s much more going on under the surface than meets the eye regarding Danny Makki’s joining the Middle East Institute’s Syria Program as a non-resident fellow.
Of course, the pro-Syria crowd along with independent journalists piled on in response to Danny’s very unexpected announcement on Wednesday, “Delighted to be joining @MEI_Syria as a non-resident scholar, look forward to covering Syria in-depth and working with some great talent.”
Delighted to be joining @MEI_Syria as a non-resident scholar, look forward to covering Syria in-depth and working with some great talent.
— Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) May 20, 2020
I myself piled on in knee-jerk reaction too, but then deleted a couple Tweets. Many understandably were shocked, considering this “great talent” on the team includes none other than Charles Lister as editor and program director.
Lister’s record speaks for itself, so no need to dig into that horror show. But also recall that when Danny Makki himself was co-organizer of the British-Syrian Society 2016 Damascus conference which for pretty much the first time invited a large group of mainstream media journalists into the country to get the government’s perspective, Lister led the charge of essentially trying to blacklist any of the independent journalists on that trip or subsequent ones (predictably the NYT and BBC and other MSM individuals on the trip were spared). I was on the same trip and attended the supposedly controversial conference, and was viciously attacked and smeared, especially when I wrote this.
Here’s the reality: long before a number of prominent indy voices “discovered” Syria, Makki was among the small group of analysts involved deeply in the country pre-war (and of course he’s both Londoner and Damascene, also with family in Syria) and even rarer was reporting from the ground the whole time. When the same indy journalists now so quick to proclaim he’s gone to “the dark side” would go to Damascus often for the first time, who was the very fixer greeting them at the airport?
Danny has been the “man on the ground” for years, even before the war.
Do you really think the very man who remains among a tiny number of West-based pundits with rare direct access to Assad and his “inner circle” — who has often set up equally rare interviews with Assad for outside journalists — has suddenly jumped on the pro regime change bandwagon? (I might add that, yes, there are a number of Damascus and externally-based people always trying to “bring journalists” into Syria for this or that reason.)
Do you really think one of a handful of Damascus’ official fixers is going to suddenly ‘switch’ to the roll of sellout ‘traitor’ propagandist… all for a few bucks and the “recognition” of a non-resident scholar for MEI?
Lister= talent? = Twilight Zone.
Well that's a revolting piece of news. What are you hoping to achieve by joining a war propagandist, Danny?
Shame. Sell your country much? Was it the $$$, Danny? Or you climbing the ladder (down, down, down)? pic.twitter.com/4dAphHRuXN
— Eva Bartlett (@EvaKBartlett) May 21, 2020
People are much too quick to view this simply as a well-known Damascus voice being co-opted and compromised under Lister & company’s influence (with the wheels greased via UAE money etc..), but consider that it’s actually the other way around.
Since the start of the war there’s been a long-running internal debate within Syrian government circles and their allies over media strategy (or one might even say there was no proper strategy at all early on): for brevity’s sake let’s describe it simply as “engagement” vs. “go the trenches” type information warfare. Understandably, given the ground war was for years bolstered by an equally fierce US-UK-Gulf propaganda media war, Damascus long stuck to the latter.
But now militarily things have been decisively settled: the Syrian government is here to stay, the Western propagandists and their beloved “rebels” have lost. And as one insider (who I shall not name) who dialogues with US National Security Council officials on behalf of Damascus assured me just this week: “Trump’s generals view the armed opposition as basically jihadists and terrorists, and therefore accept that Assad must stay.” This is the reality even if no one within the D.C. defense establishment or the brass at MacDill AFB publicly voices it.
How do you think NSC and top admin officials have come to such a conclusion? What played out behind the scenes that ultimately got Trump to reportedly dump the CIA’s likely multi-billion dollar covert regime change program in 2017? Over the past couple years, the “regime” has opted for engagement. It has paid off.
Suffice it to say that there’s long been a small group of intermediaries straddling Damascus and London/Washington using “mainstream creds” to influence decision-makers in the right direction on Syria, especially military circles, against all odds.
This effective “lobbying” campaign has been carried on very far behind the scenes, with almost zero reporting on it and its players, only some of its tangential effects have exploded on the US domestic politics scene (think for example of Gen. Flynn’s “Syria confessions” in 2015 and the ‘deep state’ war, if you will, subsequently unleashed).
Funny enough, the old national security hawks and neocons of the Bush-Obama era still have sour grapes about it, as is occasionally demonstrated when they randomly emerge from their dusty beltway basements to rant at some nobody on Twitter:
No, @GenMhayden’s position was that @realDonaldTrump was serving as a “useful fool” for Putin, parroting Moscow’s views on a variety of issues, including the false view advocated by Putin and Assad that in quashing Syrian dissent they were “killing ISIS.” https://t.co/WTKwAzVyRs
— Hayden Center (@mvhaydencenter) May 22, 2020
The Danny Makki saga actually demonstrates that the very Western/Gulf based pundits and think tanks that helped to destroy Syria in the first place are now forced to sing a somewhat different tune.
They are now starved of information in a new phase of the war where it’s clear that “engagement” with Damascus is the only option left. The Charles Listers of the world are actually the ones who were slowly forced from their own extreme position (of essentially blacklisting and shunning any and all contact with Damascus, or those who dared to engage).
The tables have turned. It’s a permanent state of things. Damascus “insiders” hold the cards.
Lister has been forced to compromise by inviting Makki in, not the other way around. Simply watch Makki’s careful words as he writes now and in the future — you’re not going to see some sort of “compromise” play out.
The ‘information war’ has entered a new phase. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
While the world is busy fighting COVID-19, Israeli political parties have reached a government coalition agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in bringing annexation of occupied Palestinian territory to the table, setting a provisional timeframe—less than two months from now. He can thank the Trump plan for the confidence to push annexation so hard and so fast.
There have been many explanations why the Trump Mideast “vision” fell short of even the most basic requirements for a just and lasting peace. But few commentators have analyzed how the Trump plan dealt with the future of Palestinian Christians in particular—and how Israel’s annexation plans would affect Christian life in Palestine. Let us be clear: implementing the Trump plan would bring catastrophic consequences for the prospects of a political solution between Israelis and Palestinians, and particularly for the fulfillment of the rights of the Palestinian people, including Palestinian Christians.
The basic principles of the U.S. plan contradict the official position of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. In response to the plan’s publication, the representatives of Christian churches actually based here in the Holy Land, and not in D.C., affirmed “our strong devotion to achieving a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on the international legitimacy and the relevant UN resolutions and in a manner that guarantees security, peace, freedom and dignity to all of the peoples of the region.”
Read the entire article at Haaretz.com.
House Intelligence Committee documents released Thursday reveal that the committee was told two and half years ago that the FBI had no concrete evidence that Russia hacked Democratic National Committee computers to filch the DNC emails published by WikiLeaks in July 2016.
The until-now-buried, closed-door testimony came on Dec. 5, 2017 from Shawn Henry, a protege of former FBI Director Robert Mueller (from 2001 to 2012), for whom Henry served as head of the Bureau’s cyber crime investigations unit.
Henry retired in 2012 and took a senior position at CrowdStrike, the cyber security firm hired by the DNC and the Clinton campaign to investigate the cyber intrusions that occurred before the 2016 presidential election.
The following excerpts from Henry’s testimony speak for themselves. The dialogue is not a paragon of clarity; but if read carefully, even cyber neophytes can understand:
Ranking Member Mr. [Adam] Schiff: Do you know the date on which the Russians exfiltrated the data from the DNC? … when would that have been?
Mr. Henry: Counsel just reminded me that, as it relates to the DNC, we have indicators that data was exfiltrated from the DNC, but we have no indicators that it was exfiltrated (sic). … There are times when we can see data exfiltrated, and we can say conclusively. But in this case, it appears it was set up to be exfiltrated, but we just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.
Mr. [Chris] Stewart of Utah: Okay. What about the emails that everyone is so, you know, knowledgeable of? Were there also indicators that they were prepared but not evidence that they actually were exfiltrated?
Mr. Henry: There’s not evidence that they were actually exfiltrated. There’s circumstantial evidence … but no evidence that they were actually exfiltrated. …
Mr. Stewart: But you have a much lower degree of confidence that this data actually left than you do, for example, that the Russians were the ones who breached the security?
Mr. Henry: There is circumstantial evidence that that data was exfiltrated off the network.
Mr. Stewart: And circumstantial is less sure than the other evidence you’ve indicated. …
Mr. Henry: “We didn’t have a sensor in place that saw data leave. We said that the data left based on the circumstantial evidence. That was the conclusion that we made.
In answer to a follow-up query on this line of questioning, Henry delivered this classic: “Sir, I was just trying to be factually accurate, that we didn’t see the data leave, but we believe it left, based on what we saw.”
Inadvertently highlighting the tenuous underpinning for CrowdStrike’s “belief” that Russia hacked the DNC emails, Henry added: “There are other nation-states that collect this type of intelligence for sure, but the — what we would call the tactics and techniques were consistent with what we’d seen associated with the Russian state.”
Interesting admission in Crowdstrike CEO Shaun Henry’s testimony. Henry is asked when “the Russians” exfiltrated the data from DNC.
Henry: “We did not have concrete evidence that the data was exfiltrated from the DNC, but we have indicators that it was exfiltrated.” ? pic.twitter.com/TyePqd6b5P
— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) May 8, 2020
Try as one may, some of the testimony remains opaque. Part of the problem is ambiguity in the word “exfiltration.”
The word can denote (1) transferring data from a computer via the Internet (hacking) or (2) copying data physically to an external storage device with intent to leak it.
As the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity has been reporting for more than three years, metadata and other hard forensic evidence indicate that the DNC emails were not hacked — by Russia or anyone else.
Rather, they were copied onto an external storage device (probably a thumb drive) by someone with access to DNC computers. Besides, any hack over the Internet would almost certainly have been discovered by the dragnet coverage of the National Security Agency and its cooperating foreign intelligence services.
Henry testifies that “it appears it [the theft of DNC emails] was set up to be exfiltrated, but we just don’t have the evidence that says it actually left.”
This, in VIPS view, suggests that someone with access to DNC computers “set up” selected emails for transfer to an external storage device — a thumb drive, for example. The Internet is not needed for such a transfer. Use of the Internet would have been detected, enabling Henry to pinpoint any “exfiltration” over that network.
Bill Binney, a former NSA technical director and a VIPS member, filed a sworn affidavit in the Roger Stone case. Binney said: “WikiLeaks did not receive stolen data from the Russian government. Intrinsic metadata in the publicly available files on WikiLeaks demonstrates that the files acquired by WikiLeaks were delivered in a medium such as a thumb drive.”
The So-Called Intelligence Community Assessment
There is not much good to be said about the embarrassingly evidence-impoverished Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Jan. 6, 2017 accusing Russia of hacking the DNC.
But the ICA did include two passages that are highly relevant and demonstrably true:
(1) In introductory remarks on “cyber incident attribution”, the authors of the ICA made a highly germane point: “The nature of cyberspace makes attribution of cyber operations difficult but not impossible. Every kind of cyber operation — malicious or not — leaves a trail.”
(2) “When analysts use words such as ‘we assess’ or ‘we judge,’ [these] are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. … Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary … High confidence in a judgment does not imply that the assessment is a fact or a certainty; such judgments might be wrong.” [And one might add that they commonly ARE wrong when analysts succumb to political pressure, as was the case with the ICA.]
The intelligence-friendly corporate media, nonetheless, immediately awarded the status of Holy Writ to the misnomered “Intelligence Community Assessment” (it was a rump effort prepared by “handpicked analysts” from only CIA, FBI, and NSA), and chose to overlook the banal, full-disclosure-type caveats embedded in the assessment itself.
Then National Intelligence Director James Clapper and the directors of the CIA, FBI, and NSA briefed President Obama on the ICA on Jan. 5, 2017, the day before they gave it personally to President-elect Donald Trump.
On Jan. 18, 2017, at his final press conference, Obama saw fit to use lawyerly language on the key issue of how the DNC emails got to WikiLeaks, in an apparent effort to cover his own derriere.
Obama: “The conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC e-mails that were leaked.”
So we ended up with “inconclusive conclusions” on that admittedly crucial point. What Obama was saying is that U.S. intelligence did not know—or professed not to know—exactly how the alleged Russian transfer to WikiLeaks was supposedly made, whether through a third party, or cutout, and he muddied the waters by first saying it was a hack, and then a leak.
From the very outset, in the absence of any hard evidence, from NSA or from its foreign partners, of an Internet hack of the DNC emails, the claim that “the Russians gave the DNC emails to WikiLeaks” rested on thin gruel.
In November 2018 at a public forum, I asked Clapper to explain why President Obama still had serious doubts in late Jan. 2017, less than two weeks after Clapper and the other intelligence chiefs had thoroughly briefed the outgoing president about their “high-confidence” findings.
Clapper replied: “I cannot explain what he [Obama] said or why. But I can tell you we’re, we’re pretty sure we know, or knew at the time, how WikiLeaks got those emails.” Pretty sure?
Preferring CrowdStrike; ’Splaining to Congress
CrowdStrike already had a tarnished reputation for credibility when the DNC and Clinton campaign chose it to do work the FBI should have been doing to investigate how the DNC emails got to WikiLeaks. It had asserted that Russians hacked into a Ukrainian artillery app, resulting in heavy losses of howitzers in Ukraine’s struggle with separatists supported by Russia. A Voice of America report explained why CrowdStrike was forced to retract that claim.
Why did FBI Director James Comey not simply insist on access to the DNC computers? Surely he could have gotten the appropriate authorization. In early January 2017, reacting to media reports that the FBI never asked for access, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee there were “multiple requests at different levels” for access to the DNC servers.
“Ultimately what was agreed to is the private company would share with us what they saw,” he said. Comey described CrowdStrike as a “highly respected” cybersecurity company.
Asked by committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) whether direct access to the servers and devices would have helped the FBI in their investigation, Comey said it would have. “Our forensics folks would always prefer to get access to the original device or server that’s involved, so it’s the best evidence,” he said.
Five months later, after Comey had been fired, Burr gave him a Mulligan in the form of a few kid-gloves, clearly well-rehearsed, questions:
BURR: And the FBI, in this case, unlike other cases that you might investigate — did you ever have access to the actual hardware that was hacked? Or did you have to rely on a third party to provide you the data that they had collected?
COMEY: In the case of the DNC, … we did not have access to the devices themselves. We got relevant forensic information from a private party, a high-class entity, that had done the work. But we didn’t get direct access.
BURR: But no content?
BURR: Isn’t content an important part of the forensics from a counterintelligence standpoint?
COMEY: It is, although what was briefed to me by my folks — the people who were my folks at the time is that they had gotten the information from the private party that they needed to understand the intrusion by the spring of 2016.
In June last year it was revealed that CrowdStrike never produced an un-redacted or final forensic report for the government because the FBI never required it to, according to the Justice Department.
By any normal standard, former FBI Director Comey would now be in serious legal trouble, as should Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, et al. Additional evidence of FBI misconduct under Comey seems to surface every week — whether the abuses of FISA, misconduct in the case against Gen. Michael Flynn, or misleading everyone about Russian hacking of the DNC. If I were attorney general, I would declare Comey a flight risk and take his passport. And I would do the same with Clapper and Brennan.
Schiff: Every Confidence But No Evidence
Both pillars of Russiagate–collusion and a Russian hack–have now fairly crumbled.
Thursday’s disclosure of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee shows Chairman Adam Schiff lied not only about Trump-Putin “collusion,” [which the Mueller report failed to prove and whose allegations were based on DNC and Clinton-financed opposition research] but also about the even more basic issue of “Russian hacking” of the DNC.
[See: “The Democratic Money Behind Russia-gate” republished today.]
Five days after Trump took office, I had an opportunity to confront Schiff personally about evidence that Russia “hacked” the DNC emails. He had repeatedly given that canard the patina of flat fact during an address at the old Hillary Clinton/John Podesta “think tank,” The Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Fortunately, the cameras were still on when I approached Schiff during the Q&A: “You have every confidence but no evidence, is that right?” I asked him. His answer was a harbinger of things to come. This video clip may be worth the four minutes needed to watch it.
Schiff and his partners in crime will be in for much tougher treatment if Trump allows Attorney General Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham to bring their investigation into the origins of Russia-gate to a timely conclusion. Barr’s dismissal on Thursday of charges against Flynn, after released FBI documents revealed that a perjury trap was set for him to keep Russiagate going, may be a sign of things to come.
Given the timid way Trump has typically bowed to intelligence and law enforcement officials, including those who supposedly report to him, however, one might rather expect that, after a lot of bluster, he will let the too-big-to-imprison ones off the hook. The issues are now drawn; the evidence is copious; will the Deep State, nevertheless, be able to prevail this time?
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing ministry of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. A former CIA analyst, his retirement he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
Trump has vetoed Congress’s effort to keep him from going to war against Iran unilaterally. Nothing remarkable there. We’ve come to expect such things from the fraud who posed as antiwar.
What’s interesting is that Trump has reminded of what a narcissist he is. That fact is so much a part of the landscape that it can be hard to notice these days.
In vetoing the bill passed under the War Powers Resolution, a 1970s post-Vietnam attempt to restore Congress’s exclusive power under the Constitution to make war, Trump said, “This was a very insulting resolution….”
Insulting? That’s why he vetoed it? Apparently Trump is incapable of seeing congressional action he doesn’t like as anything but personal. It’s hard to imagine another president saying this publicly. Other presidents would have pushed back (erroneously) against the constitutional war-powers argument, but they wouldn’t have made it personal, even if they suspected it.
As I’ve often said, Trump is a caricature of the establishment politician, and that’s why the establishment hates him.
The Trump administration is edging America toward the exit in Afghanistan, nearly two decades after President George W. Bush intervened in the aftermath of 9/11. The U.S. quickly dispersed Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and ousted the Taliban, only to spend the following years failing to build a stable, liberal democracy centered in Kabul.
America’s extended commitment of lives and resources to Afghanistan never made sense. If there is one spot on the planet in which the US has little strategic interest, it is Afghanistan. The latter is geographically distant, landlocked among Iran, China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan is strongly tribal and socially traditional, a Muslim country ruled at the village and valley. With formal borders drawn by British officials, Afghans have strong family, ethnic, and religious ties across nations. US officials had little contact with Afghanistan prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, which Washington used to bleed America’s Cold War adversary.
Then came 9/11. Two decades later America’s Afghan allies cannot even agree on who won the latest presidential election, with dueling claimants occupying neighboring palaces. There still are many good people who desire peace and want to create a tolerant, liberal society. Someday their vision may come to pass. But not in the future that we can see at a cost that we can bear. And not at the American military’s hands. The time for delay is over: Washington’s sole objective should be to leave, quickly.
Debating “what might have been” is a waste of time and breath. In September 2001 the Bush administration targeted al-Qaeda after the group hijacked four airliners, turned them into de facto cruise missiles, and murdered some 3000 people. The administration also sought to oust the Taliban government, which hosted the group’s training facilities. Both objectives were quickly achieved.
Alas, the Neocon-dominated administration, convinced that it could remake Afghanistan and the world, stuck around, but without anything close to necessary force levels. Jarrett Blanc of the Carnegie Endowment explained: “After a messy but basically successful counterterrorism effort, we expanded our objectives in ways that were bound to fail. We mortgaged our counterterrorism objectives to more maximalist aims, making our original ambition harder to secure.”
Indeed, consumed with hubris the Bush administration vetoed any political negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban, the only way to create a stable peace. The latter reemerged and launched a full-scale insurgency. But Washington, busy in Iraq, never responded accordingly. The resistance grew until even Bush realized that he had a problem.
Then think tanks helpfully produced studies and newspapers busily published op-ed filled with plans to turn around the war and optimistic predictions for the future. One New York Times headline from a decade ago: “US Is Gaining in Afghanistan, General Writes.” The Financial Times entitled an op-ed: “How the US Intends to End the War with the Taliban.” A Los Angeles Times opinion piece declared: “Winning in Afghanistan.” The Washington Times insisted: “Failure in Afghanistan Not an Option.” A news story in the same paper ran “Report says Afghan War Showing Progress.” Yahoo enthused: “Fragile Progress Builds Momentum in Afghanistan.” A policy expert offered his thoughts on Foreign Policy online: “5 Ways to Win the War in Afghanistan.”
With Americans at home wondering why Americans were dying abroad, President Barack Obama, his Nobel Peace Prize secure on his bookcase, doubled and tripled down, twice upping the number of combat troops. I visited Afghanistan in both 2010 and 2011, when US and allied troop strength was at its zenith. Allied hubris was in full flower, though cynicism took over once official briefers left the room. No Afghan not working for the government had anything positive to say about the Afghan government. Even then Afghans with connections were believed to be moving resources and often families abroad, such as to Dubai. They were preparing for the inevitable.
Nevertheless, US officials continued to proclaim success and promise even greater progress so long as Americans continued to sacrifice lives and wealth for the war. Unfortunately, such claims failed to reflect reality on the ground. Last year Andrew Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies produced a highly critical study, noting that “official US and Afghan data seem to sharply understate the level of growing threat presence, influence, and control.” Indeed, he concluded, the Pentagon’s official reports “seem more spin than objective.”
Last December the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers.” The conclusion was simultaneously simple and devastating: “US officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” In January John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue … mendacity and hubris.”
Thus, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said to veterans “We will not squander what they and you have won through blood, sweat and tears,” it is not clear what achievements he was imagining. Americans at home were lied to as Americans in Afghanistan died so Washington policymakers could avoid taking responsibility for failed policies.
Candidate Donald Trump appeared to understand the issue when he bulldozed his Republican opponents by forthrightly denouncing the Bush-Obama wars. He began criticizing the Afghanistan misadventure early. In a 2012 tweet he complained: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
A year later he insisted: “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick.” He even did what seems inconceivable today, praise Obama. Said Trump: “I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money — rebuild the US!”
Since then even military officers sound more pessimistic. For instance, in 2017 Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress: “We used the term stalemate a year ago, and, relatively speaking, it has not changed much.” A year later Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, slated to take over US Central Command, opined at his confirmation hearing: “We believe that it is important to convince the Taliban that, even as we are in a stalemate, so they are in a stalemate, and they will be unable to find a path to victory on the battlefield.” This after more than 17 years of fighting.
Far more depressing are independent reports, such as those routinely issued by Sopko’s office. Financial aid was wasted or stolen. Development projects were not completed or failed to deliver. Total area contested by the Taliban was at a record. Casualties among Afghan security were rising, along with Taliban attacks on cities – including suicide attacks in the capital.
Afghan security personnel were ghosts or ineffective. For years many Afghan personnel existed on paper only. During my 2011 visit to a police training center a Marine Corps officer warned me to beware: “everyone is selling something.” An American instructor observed that he “tried” to teach the recruits, but without much success.
Last August the New York Times reported that Kabul’s “security forces are in their worst state in years – almost completely on the defensive in much of the country.” Despite promises by the Afghan military to take the offensive, “in most major battlegrounds, the bulk of the regular Afghan forces are still holed up in fortified bases and outposts. Most offensive operations have been left to small numbers of Afghan and American Special Operations soldiers, backed by both countries’ air forces.”
In his January quarterly report Sopko highlighted several important security problems. One is that “Enemy-initiated attacks from October–December 2019 were at the highest level for the fourth quarter of any year since data collection began in 2010.” Another was that “Afghan special forces conducted fewer ground operations in the fourth quarter, lower than any other quarter in 2019, and only 31% of their operations were conducted without US or Coalition assistance.”
His conclusions are necessarily more limited than in the past. So negative have been his assessments that the Pentagon started classifying data on the performance of the Afghan security forces. In February he told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that most indicators “of measuring success are now classified, or we don’t collect it. So I can’t tell you, publicly, how well a job we’re doing on training.” He obviously can’t tell the public either.
High attrition rates continue to be one of the Afghan military’s biggest problems. The latest SIGAR report, issued last Thursday, noted that total reported Afghan National Defense and Security Forces personnel levels continued to fall, to 281,807 in January, 50,000 below the levels in January 2017.
As a result, Kabul has over-relied on the Afghan Special Security Forces, made up of specially trained military and police units. Noted the inspector general: “Misuse occurs when [Ministry of Defense] or [Ministry of Interior] orders the ASSF to conduct operations that are more appropriate for the conventional forces or assigns them other inappropriate tasks. Examples of misuse include using special forces to man checkpoints, hold terrain, or provide personal security for politicians or ANDSF leaders.” Such “misuse” fell last year, but then so did use of the ASSF since Taliban activity dropped during peace negotiations with America.
However, all these indications pale compared to one simple metric. How do embassy people get to the airport, a mere three miles away? During my visits I flew to other cities and bases in Afghanistan several times. We drove to the airport. In chaotic traffic on roads filled with security personnel and vehicles. By streets with barricades and roadblocks. Past garish “poppy palaces” with high walls. Into the terminal with multiple checkpoints and security stops.
So did US personnel. But a friend recently returned from embassy duty said that has changed. Now they use a helicopter to travel to the airport. Driving is deemed unsafe.
After nearly 20 years of American and allied occupation.
President Trump could have begun his presidency with a clean slate by announcing the coming withdrawal of US troops. Responsibility for any adverse consequences would fall on his predecessors, the authors of the failed attempt at nation-building. Alas, he surrounded himself with hawks who resisted his desire to bring home American personnel.
Apparently forgetting that he had been elected president, on their advice he instead increased troop levels, leaving even more US and allied personnel to die for nothing. Now Washington is attempting to salvage a peace settlement with the Taliban, which is dependent on unlikely agreement between the insurgents and Kabul government. This process is supposed to lead to the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.
The good news is that the administration has begun pulling out American forces. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said (and later denied) that the president wanted them all home by election day. However, why wait for November?
The war in Afghanistan is an extraordinary tragedy that predates US involvement. In 1973 the king was ousted. His wrecked palace sits on the outskirts of Kabul, a silent reminder of the nation’s nearly half century of agony. In 1978 came the coup by a party supported by Moscow. The Soviet Union intervened a year later amid civil war. The Reagan administration made support for the Mujahedeen a priority, but funneled most assistance through Pakistan, which backed the most radical factions. Soviet troops left in 1989 and Soviet money ended three years later, leading to the regime’s collapse. Feuding insurgent factions occupied Kabul, leading to another civil war. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia aided the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban, which overran much of the country by 1996. Iran was on the other side, almost going to war against the Taliban two years later.
Afghans suffered under a regime rooted in the 6th century AD, when Mohammad began his activities. Then came 9/11 and a new war, which continued as America’s presence waned. Washington always believes everything is about Washington, but that isn’t the case in Afghanistan. Observed Mohammad Sayed Madadi of the Afghanistan Civil Service Institute: “Over the past decade, the violence has become extremely local, with parties from both sides fighting tribal feuds and personal grievances.”
The US has no reason to stay. The worst argument is that Americans have sacrificed too much to leave and America cannot lose a war, especially to “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State,” as claimed by Rep. Liz Cheney – like her father ever-ready to sacrifice American lives in foolish wars. Economists warn against the sunk cost fallacy. Washington already has wasted more than $1.5 trillion directly on the war. Toss in present and future veterans’ costs and interest on borrowed funds and the total price could hit $3 trillion. The human cost also has been high. Killed have been 2298 military personnel, 3820 contractors, and 1145 allied servicemen. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many grievously. Afghanistan, of course, has been ravaged by the war.
However, these costs already have been incurred. Americans should stay only if the future expense of doing so is worth the benefit. It isn’t. To throw more money and lives away to avoid losing a war not worth fighting is beyond foolish. And sacrificing more lives to try to redeem those already lost is compounding the previous crime, putting political pride before national interest. The best way to honor the dead is to not waste any more of the living. Indeed, a new poll found that 71 percent of Afghan veterans and 69 percent of military family members believed Washington should bring home the troops.
Forget the tiresome claim of “credibility.” The time to worry about credibility is before making commitments that are foolish and not worth keeping, and which can’t possibly be maintained. Should Washington have continued to fight the Korean and Vietnam Wars, potentially forever? America’s adversaries are aware that Americans will act on issues of great moment. That will not change if Washington stops trying to impose Western-style governance on an alien land half a world away. Indeed, to keep wasting lives and money trying to do the impossible is far more likely to raise questions of judgment and even sanity in foreign capitals.
The claim simultaneously most serious and stupid is that endless war in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks. Trump said his aides insisted that “if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.” But Afghanistan was the site of al-Qaeda’s operations only because Osama bin Laden had been there fighting the Soviets. After the US invaded he relocated to neighboring Pakistan, where he was later killed. No one who planned and initiated the 9/11 attacks spent any time in Afghanistan. These days national affiliates are more dangerous than the original organization and they are located around the globe.
In any case, while the Taliban might be willing to use al-Qaeda in the war today, the movement would not likely welcome the group if America withdrew. (Similarly, Washington’s ongoing economic war against Iran caused the latter to open contacts with the organization, but Tehran originally aided the US against what then was an enemy.) The Taliban resented bin Laden’s abuse of their hospitality and would prefer to avoid a retaliatory repetition leading to their ouster again.
David Petraeus, former commander in Afghanistan, and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security, last year warned that “some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region.” Which proves too much: a small US force tasked with backing Kabul cannot prevent terrorist groups from operating nearby. By their logic a much larger presence is necessary and must be permanent – and presumably should extend everywhere else on earth where regimes either are hostile or lack complete control of their territory.
Notably, Petraeus took a more optimistic view when he was in command announcing his accomplishments. Reported the Washington Times in March 2011: “The top US military commander in Afghanistan [Petraeus] told Congress Tuesday that his forces had made enough progress to justify starting a three-year withdrawal in July.” When it comes to Afghanistan, there always is good news, but never quite enough to warrant finally pulling out.
Another claim is that only by staying can Washington create a liberal, democratic, and tolerant society. But that goal is likely to remain out of reach irrespective of US policy. Plenty of Afghans, especially women, want peace, prosperity, equality, and liberty. Unfortunately, America cannot bring that to them, at least at any reasonable cost in any reasonable time. Afghans have been fighting for almost 50 years. They could do so for another 50 years.
It is wrong to make more Americans die on such a Quixotic mission, one unconnected to any substantial interest for their own country and people. Grand humanitarian crusades, no matter how seemingly worthy in the abstract, cannot justify ivory tower warriors sending others into combat.
Finally, the argument that Afghanistan is somehow vital, surrounded by such important nations as China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states, is precisely backward. If everything is vital, then nothing is vital. Afghanistan may be vital, but only to its neighbors, not America. And they should be left with responsibility for stabilizing their region. Their interests are many and conflicting. Washington should make clear its intention to leave and invite Kabul’s neighbors to take over the burden and develop a coordinated response. Americans then could drop at least one foreign conflict and focus on their many other challenges and problems.
After fighting for two decades, no withdrawal would be premature. It is time for America to leave Afghanistan. With or without an agreement with the Taliban. There is little likelihood the Taliban would fulfill such a pact even if today’s 13,000 Americans on station remained. Victory was out-of-reach even when there were 100,000 US and another 40,000 allied troops on duty in Afghanistan.
Given widespread opposition to the Taliban, the Kabul government and allied ethnic militias are likely to survive, though only with more limited authority over more limited regions. The real negotiations that will matter are those among Afghans, backed by neighboring states.
President Trump should keep his promise. If not, the Democrats should campaign against Bush’s and now Trump’s mistaken social engineering in Central Asia. Ultimately the issue is up to the American people. As my friend Scott Horton concluded his informative book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan: “Americans can and must put aside political differences over issues which, frankly, pale in comparison to the crisis of our government’s destructive war in Afghanistan and work together to end it now.”
Washington should wish Afghans well. And leave them, after decades of foreign intervention, to decide their own future.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. This article was originally featured at Antiwar.com and is republished with permission.
Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon popped up on national television on a Thursday night to proudly announce that he invaded Cambodia. At that time, Nixon was selling himself as a peacemaker, promising to withdraw U.S. troops from the Vietnam War. But after the sixth time that Nixon watched the movie “Patton,” he was overwhelmed by martial fervor and could not resist sending U.S. troops crashing into another nation.
Presidents had announced military action prior to Nixon’s Cambodia surprise but there was a surreal element to Nixon’s declaration that helped launch a new era of presidential grandstanding. Ever since then, presidents have routinely gone on television to announce foreign attacks that almost always provoke widespread applause—at least initially.
Back in 1970, congressional Democrats were outraged and denounced Nixon for launching an illegal war. In his televised speech, Nixon also warned that “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” Four days after Nixon’s speech, Ohio National Guard troops suppressed the anarchist threat by gunning down thirteen antiwar protestors and bystanders on the campus of Kent State University, leaving four students dead.
Three years after Nixon’s surprise invasion, Congress passed the War Powers Act which required the president to get authorization from Congress after committing U.S. troops to any combat situation that lasted more than 60 days. Congress was seeking to check out-of-control presidential war-making. But the law has failed to deter U.S. attacks abroad in the subsequent decades.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton launched a missile strike against Sudan after U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by terrorists. The U.S. government never produced any evidence linking the targets in Sudan to the terrorist attacks. The owners of the El-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant—the largest pharmaceutical factory in East Africa—sued for compensation after Clinton’s attack demolished their facility. Eleven years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit effectively dismissed the case: “President Clinton, in his capacity as commander in chief, fired missiles at a target of his choosing to pursue a military objective he had determined was in the national interest. Under the Constitution, this decision is immune from judicial review.” Presidential determinations based on secret (and often false) information were sufficient to legally absolve any killings or calamities abroad.
In 1999, Clinton unilaterally attacked Serbia, killing up to 1,500 Serb civilians in a 78 day bombing campaign justified to force the Serb government to embrace human rights and ethnic tolerance. Serbia had taken no aggression against the United States, but that did not deter Clinton from bombing Serb marketplaces, hospitals, factories, bridges, and the nation’s largest television station (which was supposedly guilty of broadcasting anti-NATO propaganda). The House of Representatives took a vote and failed to support Clinton’s war effort, and 31 congressmen sued Clinton for violating the War Powers Act. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit after deciding that the congressmen did not have legal standing to sue. Most of the U.S. media ignored dead Serb women and children and instead portrayed the bombing as a triumph of American benevolence.
After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush acted entitled to attack anywhere to “rid the world of evil.” Congress speedily passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which the Bush administration and subsequent presidents have asserted authorizes U.S. attacks on bad guys on any square mile on earth. Congressional and judicial restraints on Bush administration killing and torturing were practically nonexistent.
Bush’s excesses spurred a brief resurgence of antiwar protests which largely vanished after the election of President Barack Obama, who quickly received a Nobel Peace Prize after taking office. That honorific did not dissuade Obama from bombing seven nations, often based on secret evidence accompanied by false denials of the civilian casualties inflicted by American bombings of weddings and other bad photo ops.
In 2011, Obama decided to bomb Libya because the U.S. disapproved of its ruler, Muammar Gaddafi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton notified Congress that the White House “would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission.” Plagiarizing the Bush administration, the Obama administration indicated that congressional restraints would be “an unconstitutional encroachment on executive power.” Obama “had the constitutional authority” to attack Libya “because he could reasonably determine that such use of force was in the national interest,” according to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Yale professor Bruce Ackerman lamented that “history will say that the War Powers Act was condemned to a quiet death by a president who had solemnly pledged, on the campaign trail, to put an end to indiscriminate warmaking.”
On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump denounced his opponent as “Trigger Happy Hillary” for her enthusiasm for foreign warring. But shortly after taking office, Trump reaped his greatest inside-the-Beltway applause for launching cruise missile strikes against the Syrian government after allegations the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.
The following year, the Trump administration joined France and Britain in bombing Syria after another alleged chemical weapons attack. Several officials with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaked information showing that the chemical weapons accusations against the Syria government were false or contrived but that was irrelevant to the legality of the U.S. attack.
Why? Because the Justice Department ruled that President Trump could “lawfully” attack Syria “because he had reasonably determined that the use of force would be in the national interest.” That legal vindication for attacking Syria cited a Justice Department analysis on Cambodia from 1970 that stated that presidents could engage U.S. forces in hostilities abroad based on a “long continued practice on the part of the Executive, acquiesced in by the Congress.” The Justice Department stressed that “no U.S. airplanes crossed into Syrian air-space” and that “the actual attack lasted only a few minutes.” So the bombs didn’t count? If a foreign government used the same argument to shrug off a few missiles launched at Washington D.C., no one in America would be swayed that the foreign regime had not committed an act of war. But it’s different when the U.S. president orders killings.
In the decades since Nixon’s Cambodia speech, presidents have avoided repeating his reference to America being perceived as “a pitiful, helpless giant.” But too many presidents have repeated his refrain that failing to bomb abroad would mean that “our will and character” were tested and failed. Unfortunately, the anniversary of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia passed with little or no recognition that the unchecked power of American presidents remains a grave threat to world peace.
With the coronavirus pandemic putting the US in potential economic crisis, Israeli officials are keen to get as much military aid out of the Americans, and as quickly, as they can. The requests seek the aid delivery well ahead of schedule, and potentially double the agreed amount.
Israel is expected to present this as their own coronavirus-related need, with some officials saying that since US aid tends to be spent heavily on US arms, produced in US factories, it should be easy to present it as domestic spending, not foreign aid.
A lot of officials are at least reasonably sure that this will work enough that Israel’s aid isn’t in serious threat, despite the US economic woes, but some are saying this isn’t a good time to try to ask for more, and risk making the aid into a political issue at a time when a lot of people have their hands out.
Some experts are saying Israel should hold back the requests, and with the possibility that the US may consider foreign aid cuts across the board, that Israel shouldn’t ask for any exemptions.
Israel’s position, as it so often is, seems to be divided between the assumption that they can always squeeze a little more out of the US, and concerns that if they press the US at the wrong time, they may risk starting a longer-term rift for what could be a protracted period of economic weakness.
This article was originally featured at Antiwar.com and is reprinted with permission.
In the mainstream view, the Syrian conflict began in the Spring of 2011 with a period of peaceful, pro-democracy protests, which were then brutally suppressed by the Assad regime. As the liberal-left Intercept describes it, “Syrian civilians rose up to demand political reform. That protest movement soon turned into open revolution after government forces met the protestors with gunfire, bombardment, mass arrests, and torture.”1The Intercept, “Syria’s voice of conscience has a message for the West,” by Murtaza Hussein and Marwan Hisham, October 26, 2019. Accessed on November 22, 2019. https://theintercept.com/2016/10/26/syria-yassin-al-haj-saleh-interview/
Perhaps the best early expression of this view comes from prominent Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Writing on April 10, 2011 in the New York Times, Saleh claims, “Although some argue that the demonstrations are religiously motivated, there is no indication that Islamists have played a major role in the recent protests, though many began in mosques. Believers praying in mosques are the only ‘gatherings’ the government cannot disperse, and religious texts are the only ‘opinions’ the government cannot suppress. Rather than Islamist slogans, the most prominent chant raised in the Rifai Mosque in Damascus on April 1 was ‘One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!’ Syrians want freedom, and they are fully aware that it cannot be sown in the soil of fear, which Montesquieu deemed the fount of all tyranny. We know this better than anyone else. A search for equality, justice, dignity and freedom — not religion — is what compels Syrians to engage in protests today. It has spurred many of them to overcome their fear of the government and is putting the regime on the defensive.”2New York Times, “Prisoner of Damascus” by Yassin al-Haj Saleh, April 10, 2011. Accessed on April 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/opinion/11saleh.html
When taking a closer look at events during the first months of the Syrian uprising, however, a very different picture emerges. Salafist activists and militants played a key role from the beginning of the uprising, while launching an armed insurrection against the Syrian state. Syrian sociologist Muhammad Jamal Barout noted that the Salafist movement was prominent in “creating and pushing the events” of the Syrian uprising, and pointed to the important role played by supporters of Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abeddine, an exiled Salafist cleric who mixed the anti-Shia views of Ibn Taymiyya with the ideas of revolution and the sovereignty of God of Sayyid Qutb.3“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5. Salafist activists and militants viewed the 2011 uprising as a chance to reignite the 1979-1982 war against the Syrian government, which they viewed as a heretical, “Alawite-led regime,” in hopes of erecting a fundamentalist religious state in its place.
This desire of the Salafists to topple the Syrian government aligned with the goals of US intelligence. US planners sought regime change in Syria to weaken Iran, and in response to Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah support for Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.4Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, described the reasons why US planners have long wished to overthrow the Syrian government, while highlighting Syria’s strategic importance to the US interests in the Middle East, and the Syrian government’s resistance to these interests. Leverett explains that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since the establishment of the Assad regime in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular Iran. Leverett complains however, that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.” Leverett notes further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq.” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian militant groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principle conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hizballah fighters in southern Lebanon” and that Syria “continues to see its ties to Hizballah as an important tactical tool in its posture toward Israel.” Leverett then wonders whether the best course for “changing problematic Syrian behaviors” would entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other. See “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire,” by Flynt Leverett, Brookings Institution Press, 2005, pages 8-18. With the help of regional allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and the Future party in Lebanon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and equipment to Salafist militant groups. This informal partnership between Salafist militants on the ground and foreign intelligence agencies ensured that the protest movement would become militarized, and that the ensuing Salafist-led insurgency would plunge Syria into one of the bloodiest wars of the last half century.
Valid Syrian government claims that it faced a nascent armed Salafist insurgency from the beginning of the uprising were not considered credible, while false claims of opposition activists, such as Saleh’s above, about the entirely secular and peaceful nature of the uprising were wrongly taken at face value. Little effort was made by the Western press to determine which of the conflicting narratives (pro-government, pro-opposition, or neither), were indeed accurate.
In most narratives of the Syrian uprising, the long history of the conflict between the Syrian government and the country’s Salafist community before the 2011 uprising is simply ignored. Also ignored are the activities of the Salafists during the first weeks and months of the uprising. In these narratives, it is as if Syria’s Salafist community simply did not exist until many months after the uprising started, while armed Salafist militant groups came into existence seemingly out of thin air, and only in response to the alleged government crackdown on peaceful secular protestors.
The Salafist segments of the opposition, which advocated sectarianism and violence, were present from the beginning, however, and ultimately proved to be much stronger than their peaceful counterparts, both secular and religious. Syria analyst Aron Lund consequently noted that, “Some Western and Syrian critics of Assad have argued that the militarization and Islamization of the uprising was an inevitable reaction to brutal repression, and that democratic activists represented the ‘original revolution.’ But a vastly stronger Islamist movement begged to disagree, and as Syria continued its descent into sectarian civil war, such counterfactuals simply did not matter — the opposition was what it was, not what its backers would have liked it to be.”5The Century Foundation (TCF), “How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition,” by Aron Lund, October 17, 2017. https://tcf.org/content/report/assads-enemies-gave-syrian-opposition/
In the remainder of this essay, I describe the role that Salafist activists and armed groups played in the first weeks and months of the Syrian uprising, as well as the role of US intelligence and its regional partners in militarizing the protest movement.
The conflict between Syrian government and the country’s Salafist community stretches back decades. Writing in the pro-opposition al-Jumhuriya.net, ‘Arwa Khalifa observes for example that, “The conflict between the Salafi movements in Syria and the political regime did not start with the  Syrian revolution. Rather, this conflict, which historically possessed its own mechanics and self-causes, was initially part of the battle of the al-Assad regime with the movements of political Islam and its military branches, such as the Fighting Vanguard,” the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which engaged in armed struggle against the Syrian government between 1979-82.6Al-Jumhuriya.net, “On the structure of Salafi organizations in Syria: The Army of Islam as a model,” by Arwa Khalifa, September 9, 2016. Accessed on November 30, 2019. https://www.aljumhuriya.net/ar/35519
According to Syria expert Patrick Seale, the June 16, 1979 killing of 32 Alawite officer cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School marked the formal beginning of that war.7“Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East,” by Patrick Seale, University of California Press, 1989 page 316. At the time, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sa’id Hawwa advocated violence against Syria’s Alawites based on the religious rulings of Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century religious scholar who urged the extermination of Alawites as heretics.8“Sa’id Hawwa and Islamic Revivalism in Ba’thist Syria,” by Itzchak Weismann, Studia Islamica, No. 85. (1997), pp. 131-154. Accessed on April 24, 2020. https://www.ou.edu/mideast/Additional%20pages%20-%20non-catagory/Hawwa_Islamic_RevivalismInBaathistSyria_Weismann.pdf Seale explains that on June 26, 1980 President Hafez al-Assad narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, which killed his body guard. Assad responded the next day by executing 500 Brotherhood prisoners held in Tadmur prison. Membership in the Brotherhood was formally banned by the Syrian government, by penalty of death, on July 8, 1980. Brotherhood militants detonated a series of car bombs in Damascus, between August and November 1981, including an explosion in the Azbakiya district that killed or wounded hundreds of civilians. The Syrian army defeated the Muslim Brotherhood-led insurrection in 1982, after the Brotherhood leadership tried but failed to ignite a nationwide revolt from the city of Hama on February 3.9“Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East,” by Patrick Seale, University of California Press, 1989 pages 328-329, 331-334. Brotherhood sources claimed the three-week battle resulted in 20,000 or more deaths, while the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), estimated a much lower number, some 2,000, including 300-400 Brotherhood militants.10United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), “Syria: Muslim Brotherhood Pressure Intensifies,” May 1982. Accessed on April 26, 2012. https://syria360.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/dia-syria-muslimbrotherhoodpressureintensifies-2.pdf
In the years immediately preceding the 2011 uprising, the Syrian government had continued to use harsh measures against Syria’s Salafists broadly to counter the threat of Salafi-Jihadist terrorist groups. The Financial Times noted for example that according to the Strategic Research and Communication Centre, a UK-based Syrian institute, Syria’s Salafi-Jihadis are “a small minority that the regime initially promoted after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, allowing members to join the Iraq insurgency. Realising that the Salafi jihadis could pose a domestic danger, however, Damascus has in recent years moved against them.”11Financial Times, “Syrian clerical elite fractures” by Roula Khalaf, May 11, 2011. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/59d1240a-7bf3-11e0-9b16-00144feabdc0
This danger was illustrated by two waves of terror attacks in Syria during the years leading up to the 2011 uprising, namely between 2004-06 and 2008-09. Terrorism expert Peter Neumann writes that “Representatives of European intelligence services stationed in Syria at the time say that they received reports about terrorist incidents ‘on a monthly basis.’”12London Review of Books, “Suspects into Collaborators,” by Peter Neumann, April 3, 2014. Accessed on November 25, 2019. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n07/peter-neumann/suspects-into-collaborators The deadliest terror attack occurred in 2008, when a car bomb exploded in a Damascus suburb, near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. The shrine is revered by Shia Muslims and contains the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and Fatimah and granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad. The LA Times quoted Syrian State media as reporting that the “vehicle was loaded with more than 400 pounds of explosives and blew up between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. in a busy pedestrian area often filled with Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian religious tourists,” killing 17 and injuring 14.13LA Times, “Car bombing in Damascus kills 17,” by Borzou Daragahi, September 28, 2008. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-sep-28-fg-syria28-story.html
As a result of this and other terrorist attacks, the Syrian government initiated a far-reaching crackdown on Syria’s Salafist community. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report states for example that “The largest group of defendants before the [Supreme State Security Court] in the last three years can broadly be categorized as ‘Islamists’ – proponents of an Islamic state where shari`a (Islamic law) would be enforced.” The report went on to state that in many cases, the security court “relied solely on the defendants’ possession of CDs and books by fundamentalist clerics as ‘evidence’ of belonging to groups planning terrorist acts” and that the court “has cast the net too wide in its prosecution of Islamists and has blurred the lines between holding or expressing fundamentalist religious opinions or beliefs (which is protected by international law) and actual acts which warrant being criminalized, such as involvement in violence.”14Human Rights Watch, “Far from Justice: Syria’s Supreme State Security Court,” February 2009. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria0209web.pdf
Syrian government repression of the Salafi community is further illustrated by the career of the well-known Syrian human rights lawyer, Razan Zeitouneh. According to a former colleague, Zeitouneh was “one of the team of lawyers representing regime opponents in court. The regime is most fearful of political Islam and the Kurds, so the majority of political prisoners in Syria are Islamists, who, like the Kurds, are treated particularly badly. Zaitouneh therefore also defends Salafists, whose views she personally rejects. But like all prisoners, they have earned the right to a fair trial.”15Qantara, “The kidnapping of the Douma 4: The Salafist and the human rights activist, by Kristen Helberg, December 12, 2014. Accessed on March 08, 2020. https://en.qantara.de/content/the-kidnapping-of-the-douma-4-the-salafist-and-the-human-rights-activist
As a result, most of the political prisoners languishing in Syria’s brutal prison system before the start of the uprising in 2011 were Islamists [the largest group of defendants], and it was the Islamists who also suffered the most at the hands of the Syrian secret police. This explains why, during the first weeks of the uprising, opposition activists demanded the release of all political prisoners.16http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/04/03/syria.unrest/index.html Zahran Alloush, who formed the armed opposition group, Jaish al-Islam, was among the Salafi prisoners released by the government in a June 2011 amnesty. According to Khaleej Online, Alloush was released due to popular pressure, as his father was well known Salafist preacher based in Saudi Arabia.17Khaleej Online, “Zahran Alloush, the leader of an organized army, has been under the surveillance since 1987,” December 25, 2015. Accessed on March 08, 2020. https://alkhaleejonline.net/%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%B2%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B4-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%AF-%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%B4-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%85-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B0-1987
The demand for the release of Salafist political prisoners was something some secular opposition activists later came to regret. Opposition activist Mousab al-Hamadee explained that “I first met Hassan Abboud in the autumn of 2011, before he became Ahrar al Sham’s high emir. He had just been released from prison by the government of Bashar Assad in response to demands for political reform. As an organizer of some of those demonstrations, I thought it appropriate for me to meet some of the prisoners I’d helped free…By late 2012, it had become clear to many of us in the secular opposition that Ahrar al Sham was stabbing us in the back. Foreigners began showing up in its ranks. Running into Saudis, Egyptians and Kuwaitis fighting with Ahrar al Sham became the norm.”18McClatchy, “Recalling a Syrian leader who helped jihadis grow prominent in rebellion,” by Mousab al-Hamadee, September 30, 2014. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24773947.html
Other opposition activists and their supporters in the Western press attempted to blame the rise of the Salafist armed groups on the Syrian government itself and resorted to spreading conspiracy theories suggesting that Assad released Salafists such as Hassan Aboud and Zahran Alloush from prison to deliberately Islamize and militarize an otherwise peaceful and secular uprising.19Libertarian Institute, “Did Assad Deliberately Release Islamist Prisoners to Militarize and Radicalize the Syrian Uprising?” by William Van Wagenen, February 22, 2018. Accessed on April 22, 2018. https://libertarianinstitute.org/articles/assad-deliberately-release-islamist-prisoners-militarize-radicalize-syrian-uprising/
The 2011 uprising therefore gave Syria’s Salafists (the Muslim Brotherhood included) the chance to take revenge against the Alawite-led Syrian government that had long been oppressing them and to achieve “freedom” according to their own fundamentalist religious outlook.
In contrast to the mainstream view, a significant segment of the Syrian opposition consisted of Salafist activists, who did not advocate secular, liberal democracy, but instead wished to replace the Alawite-led secular Syrian government with one based on a fundamentalist (Salafist) interpretation of Islamic law.
For example, British state media (BBC) claimed that the organizers behind the Syria Revolution Facebook page (the mechanism through which many early anti-government protests were organized) were “not from any political group but were simply activists and rights campaigners from Syria and Europe.”20BBC Arabic, “Syria: A demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior in the capital, Damascus,” March 16, 2011. Accessed on April 24, 2020. http://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast/2011/03/110316_syria_prisoners_families.shtml However, Syria expert Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma confirmed that these activists were Muslim Brotherhood members, including the page’s administrator who lived in Sweden.21Syria Comment Blog of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, “The Man behind ‘Syria Revolution 2011’ Facebook-Page Speaks Out,” April 24, 2011. Accessed on October 27, 2019. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-man-behind-syria-revolution-2011-facebook-page-speaks-out/ Syrian blogger Camille Otrakji consequently observed that, “If you read the older posts on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page (before they got a facelift and professional PR help), you wouldn’t believe how much religious language you find, and also how much deception there is. They were trying to whip up sectarian hysteria, to radicalize Syria’s Sunnis so as to bring down the regime. This is not what most Syrians want, but they have enough Syrians they can potentially influence.”22Qifa Nabki, News and Commentary from the Levant, “Talking about a Revolution: An Interview with Camille Otrakji,” May 2, 2011. Accessed on March 09, 2020. https://qifanabki.com/2011/05/02/camille-otrakji-syria-protests/
This segment of the opposition used hate speech to incite members of Syria’s growing Salafi community to violence against the country’s minority religious groups as part of an effort to topple the government. This was manifest through sectarian slogans chanted at some of the early anti-government demonstrations, such as “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave!”23Los Angeles Times, “A dilemma for Syria’s minorities,” by Peter Galbraith, September 08, 2013. Accessed on April 11, 2013. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/la-xpm-2013-sep-08-la-oe-galbraith-syria-minorities-20130908-story.html See also, Amnesty International, “Syria: Summary Killings and other abuses by armed opposition groups,” March 14, 2013. Accessed on November 25, 2019. https://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/summary_killings_by_armed_opposition_groups.pdf , “Let us speak plainly, we don’t want to see Alawites,”24Azmi Bishara explains that, “As a result of the Friday of Glory protest and the ripping of the picture of the president, a sharp sectarian polarization emerged between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods, which appeared in a number of events like the attack of the Shabiha on the Nur mosque in Khalidiya, which led to occurrence of sectarian slogans among the protestors such as ‘we want to speak plainly, we don’t want to see an Alawite!’ After that, a number of assassination events took place, such as the assassination of Ra’id Iyad Harfoush (Alawi) the colonel Muaein Mahla (Alawi) and colonel Abd al-Khadr al-Telawi (Sunni).” See “Syria: A Path to Freedom from Suffering,” by Azmi Bishara, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2013, Arabic Kindle Edition, chapter 2, footnote 120. and “No to Iran! No to Hezbollah!”25“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5, footnote 239.
Journalist Harout Ekmanian, an Armenian Christian from Aleppo, explained in 2016 that, “’Alevis to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ was a slogan invented during the first days of the rebellion and it is still commonly used. However, back then, it was condemned, because there were people with different views in the opposition. Once the opposition started to carry arms and became militarized, this slogan is started to be used more commonly.”26Agos, “’Alevis to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ is still a common slogan,” interview with Harout Ekmanian by Fatih Gökhan Diler, October 17, 2016. Accessed on April 04, 2020. http://www.agos.com.tr/en/article/16756/alevis-to-the-grave-christians-to-beirut-is-still-a-common-slogan
Opposition media activists have commonly dismissed such threats of genocide and ethnic cleansing as propaganda, spread by the government to cause fear among Syria’s minority groups and cause them to remain loyal to Assad. They claim that government supporters graffitied “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut,” on public walls and paid infiltrators to shout the same slogan at anti-government demonstrations.27Time, “Eyewitness from Homs: An Alawite Refugee Warns of Sectarian War in Syria,” by Aryn Baker, March 1, 2012. Accessed on April 04, 2011. https://world.time.com/2012/03/01/eyewitness-from-homs-an-alawite-refugee-warns-of-sectarian-war-in-syria/
Ekmanian acknowledges that the government did attempt to exploit minority groups to its own advantage but makes clear that the threats by Salafist segments of the opposition were nevertheless very real. He explains that, “The state wanted to make the Christians look like its supporters and the opposition wanted to get rid of the Christians anyway; this is a perfect match. Thus, Christians, especially Armenians, are trapped in their current situation.”28Agos, “’Alevis to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ is still a common slogan,” interview with Harout Ekmanian by Fatih Gökhan Diler, October 17, 2016. Accessed on April 04, 2020. http://www.agos.com.tr/en/article/16756/alevis-to-the-grave-christians-to-beirut-is-still-a-common-slogan
Kim Sengupta of the Independent, who spent considerable time embedded with opposition militants in northern Syria, confirmed that these chants were common, as well. She wrote in November 2012 that the number of “jihadist groups had undoubtedly grown and is a source of concern among the more secular revolutionaries. Some groups have banned the chant ‘Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves’, which started early in the uprising.”29The Independent, “The plight of Syria’s Christians: ‘We left Homs because they were trying to kill us’” by Kim Sengupta, November 2, 2012. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-plight-of-syrias-christians-we-left-homs-because-they-were-trying-to-kill-us-8274710.html If these chants had not been common, the more secular commanders would have had no reason to ban them.
These Salafist elements of the opposition opted for armed struggle from the earliest days of the uprising. Salafist preachers based abroad (such as Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine,30The National, “Muhammad Surur and the normalisation of extremism,” by Hassan Hassan, November 13, 2016. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/muhammad-surur-and-the-normalisation-of-extremism-1.214695 Yusuf al-Qaradhawi,31Echorouk Online, “Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi criticizes the Syrian regime and calls for the victory of the revolutionaries,” April 1, 2011. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.echoroukonline.com/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%AE-%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%B6%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88/ and Adnan Arour32The National, “Sheikh Adnan Arour’s Meteoric Rise From Obscurity to Notoriety,” by Phil Sands, July 5, 2012. Accessed on October 28, 2019. https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/sheikh-adnan-arour-s-meteoric-rise-from-obscurity-to-notoriety-1.367387) and others based within Syria (including Louay al-Zouabi in Deraa,33Al-Sharq al-Awsaat, “Secretary General of the Salafist ‘The Believers Participate’: The real enemy for us is Khamenai, then Hezbollah, then Bashar al-Assad,” September 26, 2011. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://archive.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=642139&issueno=11990#.Xdn6ZOipHqa Sa‘id Delwan in Douma,34Century Foundation, “Into the Tunnels: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Rebel Enclave in the Eastern Ghouta,” by Aron Lund, December 16, 2016. Accessed on November 25, 2019. https://tcf.org/content/report/into-the-tunnels/?session=1&session=1&agreed=1 Amjad Bitar in Homs,35Jusoor for Studies Center, “War Economy in Syria,” November 16, 2018. Accessed on November 9, 2011. http://jusoor.co/details/War%20Economy%20in%20Syria/457/en and Anas Ayrout in Banyas36For acknowledgement of Ayrout as the leader of the protest movement in Banias, see Al-Jazeera, “House to house raids’ in Syrian cities,” May 9, 2011. Accessed on November 23, 2011. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/05/201159103011741192.html For acknowledgement of Ayrout’s Salafist orientation, see Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), “Syria’s Uneasy Bedfellows,” by Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Heiko Wimmen, December 2016. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/comments/2016C52_ows_wmm.pdf) agitated for armed insurrection and helped facilitate the flow of foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from the Gulf states to assist Salafist opposition fighters in Syria.
A native of the Hawran region in southern Syria, Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine is famous for writing the book, “Then Came the Turn of the Majus.” According to Iraqi academic Nibras Kazimi, Sarour’s book inspired Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the notorious leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), to call for genocide against Iraq’s Shia population shortly before Zarqawi’s death in 2006.37Note that Sarour wrote the book under the pseudonym. For a discussion of Sarour’s influence on Zarqawi, see Hudson Institute, “Zarqawi’s Anti-Shia Legacy: Real or Borrowed?” by Nibras Kazimi. Accessed on November 2, 2019. https://www.hudson.org/research/9908-zarqawi-s-anti-shi-a-legacy-original-or-borrowed One Saudi writer described how, “Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine combined the cloak of Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab with the pants of Sayyid Qutb, by holding the book of Tawheed in the right hand, and the Shade [In the Shade of the Qur’an] in the left hand.”38Al-Modon, “Sarourism: The departure of the teacher and the survival of the dialectical dream!” November 14, 2016. Accessed on April 14, 2020. https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2016/11/14/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%B1%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%A8%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%84%D9%8A
Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th century reformer and spiritual forefather of the modern Saudi state, called for waging war against both non-Muslims and those Muslims who did not conform to his teachings, most notably the Shia. In 1801, Abd al-Wahhab’s followers sacked and plundered the Shiite religious city of Karbala, located in modern day Iraq.39“A History of Saudi Arabia,” by Madawi al-Rasheed, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2010, pages 16-21.
Sayyid Qutb, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood theoretician executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, called for armed struggle to overthrow political leaders or regimes he viewed as heretical for failing to rule according to Qutb’s own interpretation of Sharia law.40“Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam,” by Gilles Kepel. Harvard University Press, 2002, pages 23-27.
Muhammad Sarour’s innovative mixture of these two ideologies is particularly pernicious in the Syrian context, as it calls for not only toppling the Syrian government, but also exterminating Syria’s minority Alawite population broadly (the Alawite faith is viewed as an offshoot of Shiism).
Muhammad Jamal Barout notes that the slogan “No to Iran! No to Hezbollah!” became common in anti-government demonstrations as a result of Muhammad Sarour’s influence. Barout writes that, “The merging of hostility for the [Syrian] regime and Hezbollah was the result of the Salafi propaganda campaign originating from the Gulf countries which targeted Shiites generally, and which focused on the concept of the Shiite-Nusayri [Alawite] alliance, as expressed in the writings of Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abbedine.”41Barout points to, for example, the “Shia-Nasiri Alliance” episodes on Sheikh Mohammed Surur Zain al-Abbedine’s website: http://www.surour.net/.” See “Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5, footnote 239. For video of an early demonstration in Homs where this slogan is repeated see this video, “Homs Bayada Demonstration” uploaded by MrSirya75 on June 1, 2011. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoY6RqeFJyQ
Syrian academic Hassan Hassan also noted Sarour’s influence within the Syrian protest movement. Hassan observed upon Sarour’s death in 2016 that, he “was quietly active in the Syrian uprising” and was also “a pioneer of the bridging between revolutionary ideas derived from political Islam and traditional religious concepts taken from Salafism. The mixture helped produce what is known today as Salafi-jihadism — of which ISIL and Al Qaeda are products.”42The National, “Muhammad Surur and the normalisation of extremism,” by Hassan Hassan, November 13, 2016. Accessed on April 07, 2020. https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/muhammad-surur-and-the-normalisation-of-extremism-1.214695
The opposition umbrella group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which was created in December 2012 and enjoyed support from the United States and other Western powers,43New York Times, “Pressure Builds on Syrian Opposition Coalition; Fears of Chemical Weapons Rise,” December 5, 2012. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/06/world/middleeast/clinton-expresses-support-for-new-syrian-opposition-coalition.html also noted the important role played by Sarour during the uprising. Upon Sarour’s death in 2016, the group stated it was “deeply saddened to hear of the death of scholar Mohammed Suroor Zain Abidin at the age of 78. Abidin devoted his life to the defense of the right and just causes of the Islamic nation. He was also a devoted supporter of the Syrian people…May he rest in peace. May the revolution for freedom and dignity emerge victorious.”44National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, “Syrian Coalition Mourns Scholar and Thinker Mohammed Suroor Zine Abidine,” Press release, November 12, 2016. Accessed on April 07, 2020. http://en.etilaf.org/press/syrian-coalition-mourns-scholar-and-thinker-mohammed-suroor-zine-abidine.html
On April 25, 2011, one month after the first major anti-government protest in Deraa, Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood cleric based in Qatar, called for toppling the Syrian government, claiming that the “train of the revolution has reached its station in Syria.” Qaradhawi, who has a significant following throughout the Arab world due to his religious program on the al-Jazeera satellite channel, attempted to incite his followers in Syria against the government on sectarian grounds during the same speech, claiming that “the people treat President Assad as if he is Sunni, he is educated, young, and can accomplish a lot, but his problem is that he is a prisoner of his entourage and of his [Alawite] sect.”45Al-Ahram, “Al-Qaradawi: Al-Assad is a prisoner of his sect .. and Syria is more ahead of the revolts than its neighbors,” March 25, 2011. Accessed on April 07, 2020. http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/53398.aspx In December 2012, al-Qaradhawi claimed on al-Jazeera that it was necessary to fight anyone supporting the Syrian government, including not only combatants, but also civilians and religious leaders.46YouTube, “Al-Qaradhawi issues a fatwa to kill millions of Syrians, whether combatants or civilians,” posted by UsaDegage, December 16, 2012. Accessed on December 12, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgVF0t2mfsE&feature=youtu.be
Saudi-based Salafi cleric Adnan Arour also played a significant role in early events. Originally from Hama and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Arour had a significant following in Syria, thanks to his own satellite television program, and was well known for his anti-Shia and anti-Alawi sectarianism.
As Islamic scholar and opposition supporter Thomas Pierret notes, Arour had “made a name for himself over the previous five years with his anti-Shiite programs. As soon as demonstrations started in Deraa, Al-‘Ar’ur reoriented his media effort to support the uprising with the programme With Syria Until Victory…Al-‘Arur rapidly acquired considerable popularity among the protestors: he was frequently praised by crowds during demonstrations.”47Religion and State in Syria: The Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution,” by Thomas Pierret, Cambridge University Press, first edition, 2013, page 237. Then al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen noted in March 2012 that Arour’s “name is often chanted in demonstrations” and that Arour often spoke at early protests via satellite feed from Saudi Arabia, where many of the opposition media coordinators were based. Rosen also notes that Arour was popular in Sanamain, a conservative town near Deraa and an early site of protests.48Foreign Policy, “Islamism and the Syrian uprising,” by Nir Rosen, March 08, 2012. Accessed on April 07, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/08/islamism-and-the-syrian-uprising/
Muhammad Jamal Barout notes that Arour studied at the hands of Salafi scholars Sheikh Nasir al-Din al-Albani and Sheikh Bin Baz in Saudi Arabia, and “became famous among some strict Salafists who seem to think that God created them only for the sake of killing the Shia, due to his debates with the Shia and Sufis,”49“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5, footnote 253. and that “Arour, who possesses a certain influence in the ranks of popular religious groups broadly through his satellite channel ‘Sifa,’ changed from forbidding rebellion against the sovereign power before the outbreak of the protest movement, to supporting [rebellion] and aiding it, and inciting participation in it,” while asking supporters to call out “‘God is great’ from the rooftops” of their homes.50“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5.
Arour notoriously warned in June 2011 that “Those Alawites who remained neutral will not be harmed. Anyone who supported us will be on our side, and will be treated as a citizen just like us. As for those who violated all that is sacred, by Allah, we shall mince them in meat grinders and we shall feed their flesh to the dogs.”51Memri TV, “Syrian Sunni Cleric Adnan al-Ar’our threatens the Alawites who supported the Syrian regime: We shall mince them in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs,” June 26, 2011. Accessed on December 15, 2019. https://www.memri.org/tv/syrian-sunni-cleric-adnan-al-arour-threatens-alawites-who-supported-syrian-regime-we-shall-mince
Islamic cleric Anas Ayrout gave anti-government sermons at the al-Rahman mosque in Banyas and used the mosque as a base to organize early anti-government demonstrations in the city. In the first anti-government demonstration in Banyas on March 18, 2011, protestors attacked an Alawite truck driver, while three weeks later, on April 10, Ayrout’s supporters publicly stabbed to death an Alawite farmer, Nidal Janoud.52Syria Untold, “Cities in Revolution. Al-Bayda: The White City,” by Sabr Darwish. Accessed on March 07, 2020. http://cities.syriauntold.com/citypdf/Baniyas_en.pdf Ayrout later became a member of the Western-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) and in 2013 called for killing Alawite civilians to create a “balance of terror” to compel them to abandon support for the government.53Reuters, “Syrian rebel sheikh calls for war on Assad’s Alawite heartland,” by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, July 10, 2013. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-coast/syrian-rebel-sheikh-calls-for-war-on-assads-alawite-heartland-idUSBRE9690PU20130710
Western journalists and academics sympathetic to the uprising attempted to obscure the sectarian orientation of these Salafi preachers and their supporters among the anti-government demonstrators. Thomas Pierret argued for example that Arour’s threat to mince Alawites in meat grinders was not meant to threaten the entire Alawite community, but “was very specific, it targeted ‘those who violated sanctities,’ a reference to rapists.”54Syria Comment, “Sheikh Arour Becomes Icon of the the Revolutionary Military Councils,” by Joshua Landis, October 07, 2012. Accessed on April 09, 2020. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/sheikh-arour-becomes-icon-of-the-the-revolutionary-military-councils/ Pierret also suggested that Muhammad Sarour and his followers “constitute a factor of relative moderation for the [armed] groups they sponsor,”55Pierret, T 2017, Salafis at war in Syria: Logics of fragmentation and realignment. in F Cavatorta & F Merone (eds), Salafism After the Arab Awakening: Contending with People’s Power., Chapter 9, C. Hurst & Co. DOI: 20.500.11820/43fd1a6f-7603-41be-b2a6-61957ce2a345 even though Sarour’s anti-Shia sectarianism heavily influenced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s calls for genocide against Iraq’s Shia population, as noted above.
In contrast to Pierret, Syrian scholar Abdallah Hanna lamented the sectarianism and hate speech of the Salafist televangelists, noting that, “There is no doubt that one of the factors of the popular movement lies in the hatred of Alawites that control the regime. But not all Alawites benefit from the wealth of the regime. . . . So why attack the Alawites and call for hostility to them as a sect? Why do oppressive forces arise on the ground in some religious circles to wage a war through religious satellite channels on the Alawite sect as a whole?”56“Pages from the History of Political Parties in 20th Century Syria and its Social Atmospheres,” by Abdallah Hanna, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Qatar, 2018, page 443.
Unsurprisingly, most Syrians rejected the sectarianism of the Salafists, and therefore rejected the Syrian opposition broadly. Nir Rosen acknowledged that Arour’s “popularity has encouraged secular Sunni and minorities to prefer the regime,”57Foreign Policy, “Islamism and the Syrian uprising,” by Nir Rosen, March 08, 2012. Accessed on April 07, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/08/islamism-and-the-syrian-uprising/ while Syrian historian Sami Moubayed explained that simple demographics show that most Syrians are not sympathetic to Islamist or Salafist ideology as advocated by Arour and the Muslim Brotherhood. Moubayed writes that, “Ten per cent of the population is Christian, and they would never vote for the [Muslim] Brotherhood. Neither would the fifteen percent Alawite and Shiite communities, or the three per cent Druze, or two per cent ‘others’ (Circassians, Jews, Ismailis). Then come fifteen per cent Syrian Kurds and ten per cent tribes and Bedouins, who although Sunni Muslims, would also never support an Islamic party. That adds up to fifty-five per cent, topped with no less than twenty-five per cent of Syria’s seventy-five per cent Sunni majority, who are seculars or ordinary Syrians simply un-attracted to political Islam.”58“Syria – A Decade of Lost Chances,” by Carsten Wieland, Cune Press 2012, Kindle edition, chapter 14, part 5.
Abdallah Hanna’s suggestion, that the hate speech of Arour and others is really directed at the Alawite community as a whole, is also unsurprising, given the long history of anti-Shia hate speech from Salafi preachers in general. Shortly after Anas Ayrout’s 2013 call for revenge against Alawite civilians, fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Nusra Front, and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) cooperated to carry out a string of attacks on Alawite villages in Latakia in August 2013, massacring 190 civilians and taking some 200 hostage, according to Human Rights Watch.59Reuters, “Syrian rebels killed 190 civilians in August dawn raid: HRW,” October 10, 2013. Accessed on April 04, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-killings/syrian-rebels-killed-190-civilians-in-august-dawn-raid-hrw-idUSBRE99A03520131011 Syrian dissident Nidal Nuaiseh acknowledged at the time that, “Salafist calls for the murder of Alawites are not new, but are at the core of the Salafist ideology, and have been at its core for hundreds of years.”60Al-Monitor, “Syrian opposition condemns jihadists targeting Alawite,” by Haytham Mouzahem, August 14, 2013. Accessed on March 07, 2020. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/08/syria-opposition-alawite-massacres-sectarianism.html Nuaiseh attempted to distance the mainstream opposition from the massacres, suggesting they were carried out by “non-Syrians.” This claim was later shown to be incorrect, however, when video emerged of FSA head Salim Idriss insisting on his group’s involvement. The New York Times reports that Idriss’ comments came in response to “criticism from Islamist groups that his fighters were hanging back,” during the attacks on Alawite villages.61The New York Times reports that “And in a video filmed nearby during the operation, Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the military council, is seen insisting that his forces played a leading role, in statements responding to criticism from Islamist groups that his fighters were hanging back. The report said it was unclear whether forces linked to General Idris took part in the initial Aug. 4 attack, when forensic evidence suggests most of the civilians were killed. But it also said that anyone continuing to coordinate with such groups could be complicit in war crimes.” See New York Times, “Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says,” by Anne Bernard, October 11, 2013. Accessed on March 7, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/11/world/middleeast/syrian-civilians-bore-brunt-of-rebels-fury-report-says.html
Of course, other elements of the protest movement opposed the sectarianism of the Salafists, and instead attempted to promote unity and religious co-existence by chanting slogans such as “One, One, One, the Syrian people are one” and “Peaceful, peaceful, Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia!” during early protests. These protestors took to the streets demanding democracy and an end to the Syrian government’s notorious corruption, emergency laws, indefinite detention of political prisoners, and lack of press freedoms.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, for example, Adnan Wehbe of the Arab Democratic Socialist Union party played a large role in the demonstrations and organizing local committees. These protestors chanted slogans calling for freedom, national unity, and for remaining peaceful, while helping to prevent Salafist protestors from destroying public institutions and burning down the municipal building in Douma.62“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5, footnote 276.
Opposition to the Salafists in Douma was not limited to those with a secular outlook. Salafist violence was also opposed by a number of local Sunni Muslim clerics, including the Mufti of Douma, Abd al-Hamid Delwan Abu Basheer, who remained supportive of the government and spoke out against the “infiltrators” and “rioters” engaging in violent actions during demonstrations and called for the Syrian Army to intervene to protect civilians.63Syrian Free Press, “These are some treasonous names and the positions of some ‘sheikhs’ in Douma regarding the revolution,” May 22, 2011. Accessed on April 4, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/notes/syrian-free-press/sfp-syria-douma-هذه-بعض-اسماء-الخونة-وبعض-مواقف-شيوخ-دوما-من-الثورة/211915752162492/ Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Bhouti, the country’s most prominent Sunni cleric and a staunch critic of Salafism, also remained supportive of the government. Al-Bouthi was assassinated by opposition militants in 2013, after Yusuf Qaradhawi indirectly called for his killing during an interview on al-Jazeera.64During the interview, al-Qaradhawi criticized al-Bhouti by name for his support for the Syrian government and in the same interview says that “we should fight anyone who works with the authority, whether combatants or civilians, religious clerics or the ignorant.” See YouTube, “Thus al-Qaradhawi incited the killing of al-Bouti,” posted by 24.ae, March 28, 2013. Accessed on March 03, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpMIa1ACn1g
In Deraa, the mufti of the al-Omari mosque, Sheik Ahmed Siyasna, strongly supported the anti-government demonstrations but opposed resorting to violence and tried to solve the conflict between protestors and the government peacefully. Siyasna participated in negotiations with the government and met with President Assad to present the demands of Deraa’s protestors to him directly, despite pressure from supporters of Muhammad Sarour to change his position and cut off negotiations.65“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 6, footnote 385. Siyasna also opposed the stock piling of weapons in the al-Omari mosque by opposition militants, something he was ultimately unable to prevent.66Anwar Al-Eshki, a former Saudi general similarly confirmed that opposition militants were stockpiling weapons in the al-Omari mosque as part of a guerrilla war against the Syrian army. He stated that: “Let us talk about the ongoing war in Syria. Is it an urban warfare? Is it a war between equivalent forces? We all know there is no balance of powers. We saw in different occasions how to arm small groups to form a ‘resistance.’ To arm a ‘resistance’ doesn’t necessarily mean to give them tanks of heavy weapons like what happened in Libya. However, you give them weapons, so they can defend themselves and exhaust the army. The goal is to drive the government forces outside the cities to the villages. Let me tell you some facts. The first fact: A man from Deraa came to me here in the center. He was injured. They all urged us to supply them with weapons. They stored weapons at that time in the al-Omari mosque, despite the objections of the blind sheikh [Ahmed al-Siyasna]. The sheikh refused the idea of using force. After that I called Riyad al-Assad. He told me that about 17 thousand joined him, and he wants to engage in a fight with the Syrian National Army. I said no, and told him that we refuse the idea, I mean that our center refuses the idea, because our center is independent. I told him that we in the center refuse the idea. You have to leave and join the opposition outside Syria. . . . He asked me, ‘What opposition do you mean?’ I said, ‘Join the opposition that is being sponsored by Turkey, and then you will be protected by a state.’ I told him, ‘In Turkey you can form an army that will be the substitute for the Syrian National Army, this substitute can fill the vacuum, so we avoid what happened in Iraq when the army was dissolved. He actually did what I told him; he left to Turkey and started the war against the government. He has now a new plan to move the fight to the villages away from the big cities. The operation is not as some may think, a matter of direct fight. It is absolutely not. It is an urban warfare, you hit and run so they can’t catch you.” See YouTube, “Syria – Daraa revolution was armed to the teeth from the very beginning,” posted by Truth Syria, April 10, 2012. Accessed on December 19, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKN-tP4s_uU&t=1s
In the Spring of 2011, Salafist elements of the opposition not only participated in protests alongside these more secular elements, but also formed armed militias and began attacking Syrian police, security forces, and soldiers within days of the first protests. Armed opposition militants also carried out an assassination campaign against Syrian army officers, alleged informants, and civilian government supporters.
According to Hassan Aboud, the leader of the Salafi militant group the “Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant” (Ahrar al-Sham), the group’s underground cells participated in organizing the initial anti-government demonstrations in Syria, and also engaged in combat against Syrian security forces as early as May 2011.67“The Religious Roots of the Syrian Conflict: The Remaking of the Fertile Crescent,” by Mark Tomass, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, page 174. Tomass summarizes Aboud’s comments from his interview with al-Jazeera, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRPb4nFU2UA&feature=youtu.be Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine similarly reported that according to one fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, the group “started working on forming brigades ‘after the Egyptian revolution . . . well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.”68Time Magazine, “Meet the Islamist Militants Fighting Alongside Syria’s Rebels” by Rania Abouzeid, July 26, 2012. Accessed on November 9, 2019.
Writing in Al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within the group, foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.” Suleiman notes that these Saudi fighters joined Ahrar al-Sham based on recommendations from senior al-Qaeda figures, and that long time jihadi activist and former Fighting Vanguard member Abu Khalid al-Souri played an important role in establishing the group.69Note that it has been claimed that Abu Khalid al-Souri was detained by the CIA (along with fellow jihadist Abu Musab al-Souri), rendered to Syrian intelligence, and then released from prison by Syrian authorities in early 2011, at the start of the Syrian uprising. Syria expert Aron Lund writes however that it has never been confirmed that Abu Khalid a-Souri was ever in Syrian government custody. See Carnegie Middle East Center, “Who and What Was Abu Khalid al-Suri? Part I,” by Aron Lund, February 24, 2014. Accessed on November 30, 2019. https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/54618 In my view these rumors are part of a propaganda effort to wrongly blame the Syrian government for the “Islamization” of the Syrian uprising, which I have written about in detail. See Libertarian Institute, “Did Assad Deliberately Release Islamist Prisoners to Militarize and Radicalize the Syrian Uprising?” by William Van Wagenen, February 22, 2018. Accessed on November 30, 2011. https://libertarianinstitute.org/articles/assad-deliberately-release-islamist-prisoners-militarize-radicalize-syrian-uprising/ Opposition activist and later McClatchy journalist Mousab al-Hamadee explained that “One of my friends who is now a rebel leader told me that the moment the group announced itself in 2011 it got a big bag of money sent directly from Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaida.”70McClatchy, “Recalling a Syrian leader who helped jihadis grow prominent in rebellion,” by Mousab al-Hamadee, September 30, 2014. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24773947.html When the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, formally announced its existence in January 2012, newly arriving foreign fighters began joining Nusra instead, but Ahrar al-Sham was initially the preferred group for militants of the notorious terror group wishing to fight in Syria, and Ahrar and Nusra remained close allies throughout much of the Syria conflict.71Al-Monitor, “Saudi jihadists flow into Syria,” December 8, 2013, by Abdullah Suleiman Ali. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/12/saudi-fighters-syria-official-silence.html#ixzz4sTtn60TA Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s designated Abu Khalid al-Suri as his envoy to mediate the dispute that led to the splintering of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq (later ISIS) into two separate organizations.72Time, “Al Qaeda’s Top Envoy Killed in Syria by Rival Rebel Group,” by Aryn Baker, February 24, 2014. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://time.com/9555/al-qaeda-al-suri-syria-isis/
Exiled Salafi cleric Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abedine (discussed above) provided the ideology guiding Ahrar al-Sham, while supporters of Sarour constituted the local social base undergirding the militant group.73Al-Modon, “Sarourism: The departure of the teacher and the survival of the dialectical dream!” by Aqil Hussein, November 14, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2016/11/14/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%B1%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%A8%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%84%D9%8A Supporters of Sarour also constituted the militant wing of the protest movement in Deraa, which refused dialogue and negotiations with the government.74“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 6, footnote 385.
Muhammad Sarour was able to draw on Saudi fighters and money to support Ahrar al-Sham due to the strong roots of the Sarouri movement in the kingdom, which date back to the 1960’s. Sarour spent the longest period of his life (after Syria) in Saudi Arabia (1965-74), and achieved his greatest success preaching there. His followers became spread throughout the country, enjoying popular support and official standing, with many holding high positions in religious and educational institutions.75Al-Modon, “Sarourism: The departure of the teacher and the survival of the dialectical dream!” by Aqil Hussein, November 14, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2016/11/14/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%B1%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%A8%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%84%D9%8A Kuwaiti Islamic scholar Ali al-Sanad notes that most of the sheikhs and leaders of the activist wing of the Salafist movement in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states supported Ahrar al-Sham, because they viewed the armed group’s ideology as closest to their own.76Arab 21, “The Sarouri Salafism” What is its presence in the Syrian revolution?” by Bisaam Nasser, October 08, 2015. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://arabi21.com/story/864291/%22%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9%22-%D9%85%D8%A7-%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%89-%D8%AD%D8%B6%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AB%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9%D8%9F
Supporters of Muhammad Sarour were not alone in supporting Ahrar al-Sham and launching a war against the Syrian government under the cover of the anti-government protest movement. US, Qatari, Turkish, and Saudi intelligence played a crucial role in supporting the nascent Salafist insurgency.
In April 2011, former Bush Administration official John Hannah alluded to Saudi efforts to funnel Saudi fighters to Syria under the supervision of former Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Hannah warned that the Saudis might “once again fire up the old Sunni jihadist network and point it in the general direction of Shiite Iran.” Hannah then recommended US officials partner with Bandar to make sure his activities would serve US goals, among them efforts to “undermine the Assad regime.”77Foreign Policy, “Bandar’s Return,” by John Hannah, April 22, 2011. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/04/22/bandars-return/ The cooperation between the CIA and Saudi intelligence recommended by Hannah indeed materialized and was publicly acknowledged by US intelligence officials and in mainstream US media, though not until years later.
Former Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, acknowledged the early cooperation among the region’s intelligence agencies to stoke the insurgency in Syria, under US direction. Al-Thani explained that, “When the issue in Syria first began, I went to Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah. Upon instructions of his Royal Highness, I addressed the situation. The Saudi King said, ‘We are with you.’ The Saudi King said, ‘You lead the Syrian file and we coordinate with you.’ We took responsibility and we have all evidences on this issue. And anything that went was going to Turkey and was coordinated with US forces. The distribution of military support was happening by way of American, Turkish, Qatari, and Saudi forces. They were all there, the military personal were there.”78YouTube, “Hamad Bin Jassim: We Supported Al-Qaeda in Syria,” posted by Syriana Analysis, October 27, 2017. Accessed on February 02, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f33l30kQxg&feature=youtu.be In the same interview, Hamad bin Jassim tacitly acknowledged Qatari support for al-Qaeda, explaining as well that, “Maybe a mistake happened, where a particular faction has been supported for a period of time. But not Daesh [ISIS], this is an exaggeration. Maybe there was a relationship with Nusra, maybe. I don’t know about this subject. I say, even if there was support for Nusra, but when they told us al-Nusra is unacceptable, the support stopped and the focus was on liberating Syria.”
V.A. Haran, the Indian ambassador to Syria at the start of the uprising, claimed that “Many of the gulf countries threw their prison doors open and sent all their al-Qaeda type people to Syria, gave them weapons, gave them money, they said don’t come back before Assad is overthrown,” and that this was confirmed to him by a senior UN official.79YouTube, ‘’’The Syrian Conundrum and Conflict’ as an introductory event to the series ‘West Asia Conflicts,’ part 1. See minute 42:00. Posted by the Centre for Policy Research, October 29, 2019. Accessed on December 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cnfOiYYlh8&feature=youtu.be
Abdullah Suleiman Ali reported in al-Monitor that many of the Saudis arriving in Syria to fight managed to leave the country via Riyadh airport (as confirmed by posts on their Twitter accounts), despite formal travel bans from the Saudi government due to past radical activities, and that other Saudis managed to travel to Syria to fight within weeks of being released from prison.80Al-Monitor, “Saudi jihadists flow into Syria,” December 08, 2013, by Abdullah Suleiman Ali. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/12/saudi-fighters-syria-official-silence.html#ixzz4sTtn60TA
The Daily Beast reported on this issue as well, explaining in December 2013 that, “U.S. intelligence sources say dozens of Saudi jihadists have been allowed to fly out of Riyadh without challenge, several after being released from detention and many of whom were under official travel bans. Those going to fight are not obscure figures: a major in the Saudi border guards was killed in early December in Deir Atieh in Syria; another Saudi jihadist killed fighting in Aleppo was the son of Maj. Gen. Abdullah Motlaq al-Sudairi. Hardline Salafist Saudi clerics have also been heading to Syria without incurring problems from Saudi Arabian authorities.”81Daily Beast, “Syria’s Saudi Jihadist Problem” by Jamie Dettmer, December 16, 2013. Accessed on 23 January, 2020. https://www.thedailybeast.com/syrias-saudi-jihadist-problem
In 2016, Mark Mazetti reported in the New York Times that Saudi efforts to arm opposition militants in Syria “were led by the flamboyant Prince Bandar bin Sultan, at the time the intelligence chief, who directed Saudi spies to buy thousands of AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition in Eastern Europe for the Syrian rebels. The C.I.A. helped arrange some of the arms purchases for the Saudis, including a large deal in Croatia in 2012.”82New York Times, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, January 23, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html
Mazetti noted as well that the CIA had for decades relied on Saudi intelligence for both financial and logistical assistance for operations the CIA was not allowed to undertake directly, for legal reasons or due to opposition from the US Congress. This included operations in Angola in the 1970’s, and in Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 1980s.83New York Times, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, January 23, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html
Other US allies also played a crucial role. Mazetti writes further that “The White House has embraced the covert financing from Saudi Arabia — and from Qatar, Jordan and Turkey,” and that “estimates have put the total cost of the arming and training effort at several billion dollars.”84New York Times, “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels,” Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, January 23, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html
In 2014, US Senator John McCain expressed appreciation for Saudi efforts. McCain told the Munich Security Conference, “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends,”85Atlantic, “’Thank God for the Saudis’: ISIS, Iraq, and the Lessons of Blowback,” by Steve Clemons, June 23, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-saudi-arabia-iraq-syria-bandar/373181/ after he and fellow US Senator Lindsey Graham had met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm the “rebels” in Syria.86Atlantic, “’Thank God for the Saudis’: ISIS, Iraq, and the Lessons of Blowback,” by Steve Clemons, June 23, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/isis-saudi-arabia-iraq-syria-bandar/373181/
By relying on allies, under CIA direction, to fund extremist Salafist militias in Syria, the Obama administration was able to promote the false view that the US had not intervened in Syria. US Vice President Joe Biden also publicly acknowledged Saudi and Turkish support for Salafist armed groups in Syria, including al-Qaeda and even ISIS, while at the same time (falsely) claiming these close US-allies were acting against US wishes.87BBC, “Joe Biden apologised over IS remarks, but was he right?” by Barbara Usher, October 07, 2014. Accessed on January 23, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-29528482
This led to accusations of US “inaction” in Syria from US hawks and Syrian opposition supporters, and to claims that the US had abandoned or even opposed the Syrian insurgency, despite aggressive US intervention on its behalf.88Libertarian Institute, “The myth of US inaction in Syria,” by William Van Wagenen, July 08, 2018. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://libertarianinstitute.org/articles/the-myth-of-us-inaction-in-syria/ In the face of such criticism, US Special Envoy to Syria Michael Ratner, in a meeting with members of the Syrian opposition, explained that “The armed groups in Syria get a lot of support, not just from the United States but from other partners,” while Secretary of State John Kerry added in the same meeting, “I think we’ve been putting an extraordinary amount of arms in,” and “Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, a huge amount of weapons [are] coming in. A huge amount of money.”89Youtube, “Leaked audio of John Kerry’s meeting with Syrian revolutionaries/UN,” posted by Angel North on October 04, 2016. Accessed on April 22, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4phB-_pXDM&feature=youtu.be
While US and Saudi officials claim the arming of opposition militant groups began in 2012, the flow of weapons to these groups from neighboring Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, and with the help foreign intelligence agencies, began much earlier.
The Syrian government claimed it was intercepting weapons being smuggled into Syria from Iraq in early March 2011, two weeks before the outbreak of protests in Deraa on March 18.90Reuters, “Syria says seizes weapons smuggled from Iraq,” March 11, 2011. Accessed on November 30, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-iraq/syria-says-seizes-weapons-smuggled-from-iraq-idUSTRE72A3MI20110311 These claims were largely dismissed by Western observers but are likely credible given similar claims from opposition sources. Muhammad Jamal Barout writes that according to prominent opposition and human rights activist Haitham Manna’, there were secret communications between some Syrian businessmen abroad who found themselves in a battle of revenge with the Syrian regime because their interests had been harmed by the network of the pro-regime businessman Rami Makhlouf, and that these groups were willing to fund and arm opposition movements throughout the country. Barout notes that these businessmen apparently had relations with professional networks capable of delivering weapons to any location in Syria and that some members of the Future Movement (a prominent political party in Lebanon led by Saad Hariri and known to have strong Saudi and US support) were among those arranging these weapons shipments. Barout notes further that Manna’ publicly disclosed part of these contacts in an interview on al-Jazeera on March 31, 2011, just two weeks after the beginning of anti-government protests, with Manna’ claiming that “he had received offers to arm movements from Raqqa to Daraa three times by parties he did not identify in the interview.”91“Syria in the Last Decade: The Dialectic of Stagnation and Reform,” by Muhammad Jamal Barout, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2012, Arabic Kindle edition, chapter 5, including footnotes 240 and 241.
Manna’ confirmed further details to journalist Alix Van Buren of Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper, speaking “about three groups having contacted him to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria. First, a Syrian businessman (the story reported by Al Jazeera); secondly, he was contacted by ‘several pro-American Syrian opposers’ to put it in his words (he referred to more than one individual); thirdly, he mentioned approaches of the same kind by ‘Syrians in Lebanon who are loyal to a Lebanese party which is against Syria.’”92As quoted in Syria Comment, “Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces,” by Joshua Landis, April 13, 2011. Accessed on December 07, 2019. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/western-press-misled-who-shot-the-nine-soldiers-in-banyas-not-syrian-security-forces/
Van Buren notes as well that other opposition sources claimed that supporters of former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who had defected to France years before, were “sowing trouble by distributing money and weapons” and meddling “with the blood of the innocents.”93As quoted in Syria Comment, “Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces,” by Joshua Landis, April 13, 2011. Accessed on December 07, 2019. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/western-press-misled-who-shot-the-nine-soldiers-in-banyas-not-syrian-security-forces/
Azmi Bishara, an Arab former member of the Israeli parliament and general director of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, similarly notes that armed groups began smuggling weapons into the Syrian city of Homs from nearby Lebanon in late April 2011, and that these weapons were initially used in individual kidnappings and assassinations. He explains that in Homs, opposition militants killed or kidnapped 30 people in one day in July 2011 alone. These weapons were also used against the Syrian army in instances when it attempted to storm a city or town, for example in Qalqilya on May 14, 2011 and in Rastan and Talbiesah on May 20, 2011. Like Barout, Azmi Bishara indicates that many of the weapons were smuggled into the Homs area by supporters of Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, as evidenced by the naming of some armed groups after his or his father Rafiq Hariri’s name.94“Syria: A Path to Freedom from Suffering,” by Azmi Bishara, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2013, Arabic Kindle Edition, chapter 2, footnote 136.
Similarly, on June 1, 2011, the UAE-owned National reported that according to an activist from Homs, “The army is facing armed resistance and is not able to enter” the nearby towns of Talbiseh and Rastan, as opposition militants were fighting with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The activist added “that in recent years weapons have been smuggled in from neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq.”95National, “Armed citizens put up resistance to Syrian army,” June 01, 2011. Accessed on 05, December 2019. Shttps://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/armed-citizens-put-up-resistance-to-syrian-army-1.401631
As a result, violence carried out by opposition militants against Syrian security forces and the Syrian army accompanied anti-government demonstrations from the start. For example, Israel National News reports that “seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched” on Sunday, 20 March 2011, just two days after the first major protest in Deraa.96Israel National News, “Bloody Syrian Protests Continue,” March 21, 2011. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/143026 Journalist Sharmine Narwani confirmed that three days later, on March 23, 2011 two Syrian soldiers, Sa’er Yahya Merhej and Habeel Anis Dayoub, were also killed in Daraa.97Russia Today, “Syria: The Hidden Massacre” by Sharmine Narwani, May 7, 2014. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/ Narwani reports as well that according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), opposition militants killed 19 members of the Syrian security forces or “mukhabarat” in Deraa on April 1, 2011.98Russia Today, “Syria: The Hidden Massacre” by Sharmine Narwani, May 7, 2014. Accessed on November 9, 2019. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/
On April 10, 2011 opposition militants killed 9 Syrian soldiers traveling by bus in Banyas. Opposition activists attempted to blame the killings on the Syrian government, and these claims were uncritically passed on by the Guardian newspaper, which linked to a video provided by opposition activists of a soldier injured in the attack. The Guardian claimed that the video showed the soldier acknowledging that he had been shot by government security forces after refusing to fire on civilians. But these claims were refuted by Syria expert Joshua Landis, who writes that “The video does not ‘support’ the story that the Guardian says it does. The soldier denies that he was ordered to fire on people. Instead, he says he was on his way to Banyas to enforce security. He does not say that he was shot at by government agents or soldiers. In fact he denies it. The interviewer tries to put words in his mouth, but the soldier clearly denies the story that the interviewer is trying to make him confess to. In the video, the wounded soldier is surrounded by people who are trying to get him to say that he was shot by a military officer. The soldier says clearly, ‘They [our superiors] told us, “Shoot at them IF they shoot at you.”’”99Syria Comment, “Western Press Misled – Who Shot the Nine Soldiers in Banyas? Not Syrian Security Forces,” by Prof. Joshua Landis, April 13, 2011. Accessed on November 11, 2019. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/western-press-misled-who-shot-the-nine-soldiers-in-banyas-not-syrian-security-forces/
On April 17, 2011 opposition militants assassinated Syrian Brigadier General Abdu Telawi, his two sons, and a nephew near the Zahra neighborhood in Homs. According to Syria researcher Aziz Nakkash, the killings came “at a time of heightened anti-regime demonstrations. The event was highly publicized with the mutilated bodies of the men and the funeral in Wadi al-Dahab widely broadcast on television.”100Friederich Ebert Stiftung, “The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community,” by Aziz Nakkash, March 2013. Accessed on November 09, 2019. https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/09825.pdf Two other Alawite Syrian army officers, Ra’id Iyad Harfoush and Muaein Mahla were also assassinated in Homs at this time, continuing the pattern of tit-for-tat sectarian killings between Sunnis and Alawites in Homs.101“Syria: A Path to Freedom from Suffering,” by Azmi Bishara, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2013, Arabic Kindle Edition, chapter 2, footnote 120.
Then Indian ambassador to Syria V.P. Haran noted that on April 18, 2011 Syrian media reported that between 6 and 8 Syrian soldiers were killed when an armed group raided two security posts on the road between Damascus and the Jordanian border. After visiting the area two days later and speaking with locals, Haran had the impression that something even more serious had taken place. US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and the Iraqi Ambassador to Syria both expressed their view in private conversations to Haran that al-Qaeda in Iraq (which later formed the Nusra Front) was responsible for the killings.102YouTube, ‘’’The Syrian Conundrum and Conflict’ as an introductory event to the series ‘West Asia Conflicts,’ part 1. Posted by the Centre for Policy Research, October 29, 2019. Accessed on December 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cnfOiYYlh8&feature=youtu.be
Opposition sources providing testimony to Human Rights Watch confirmed that opposition militants killed 7 members of the security forces during a demonstration in the town of Nawa, in Deraa province, on April 22, 2011.103Human Rights Watch, “’We’ve Never Seen Such Horror’: Crimes against Humanity by Syrian Security Forces,” June 01, 2011. Accessed on January 20, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/06/01/weve-never-seen-such-horror/crimes-against-humanity-syrian-security-forces
On April 25, 2011 opposition militants killed 19 Syrian soldiers. Journalist Sharmine Narwani writes that “on April 25 – Easter Monday – Syrian troops finally moved into Daraa. In what became the scene of the second mass slaying of soldiers since the weekend, 19 soldiers were shot dead . . . by unknown assailants. The names, ages, dates of birth and death, place of birth and death and marital/parental status of these 19 soldiers are documented in a list of military casualties obtained from Syria’s Defense Ministry. The list was corroborated by another document – given to me by a non-government acquaintance involved in peace efforts – that details 2011 security casualties. All 19 names were verified by this second list.”104Russia Today, “Syria, the Hidden Massacre,” by Sharmine Narwani, May 7, 2014. Accessed on March 15, 2020. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/
As fighting continued between the Syrian army and opposition militants in Deraa, most Western media outlets described this as an attempt to use overwhelming force to suppress peaceful protests. Opposition sources confirmed however, that armed clashes between the Syrian army and unknown militants were taking place. Al-Jazeera quoted a Deraa resident on April 27, 2011 as noting that, “The army is fighting with some armed groups because there was heavy shooting from two sides,’ he said. ‘I cannot say who the other side is, but I can say now that it is so hard for civilians.’”105Al-Jazeera, “Deraa: A City Under Dark Siege,” April 27, 2011. Accessed on October 27, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/04/2011427215943692865.html
Then al-Jazeera journalist Ali Hashem reported that armed men were crossing into Syria from Lebanon in April and May 2011 and clashing with the Syrian army.106Real News Network, “Al Jazeera Journalist Explains Resignation over Syria and Bahrain Coverage,” March 20, 2012. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://therealnews.com/stories/ahashempt10319 These unknown armed men were likely Salafist militants from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, a two-hour drive from Homs by car. Der Spiegel reported that Sheikh Masen al-Mohammad, a prominent Salafist cleric in Tripoli, was sending fighters into Syria as early as Summer 2011.107Der Spiegel, “Jihadists Declare Holy War Against Assad Regime,” by Ulrike Putz, March 30, 2012. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/foreign-jihadists-declare-war-on-syria-s-assad-a-824875.html
In a rare early admission of the armed nature of the opposition in the early months of the Syrian uprising, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on May 8, 2011 that, “American officials acknowledge that some protesters have been armed. Syrian television is suffused with images of soldiers’ burials.”108New York Times, “Syria Broadens Deadly Crackdown on Protesters,” May 8, 2011. Accessed on October 19, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/09/world/middleeast/09syria.html
Opposition militants ambushed and killed 120 Syrian soldiers in the city of Jisr al-Shagour, near the Turkish border on June 4, 2011. The violence began when an armed militant named Basil al-Masry was killed while attacking a government check point. Masry’s death angered many residents of the town, who believed rumors that Masry had been unarmed when he was killed, rather than carrying out an armed operation. As a result, his funeral became an anti-government demonstration. As protestors approached the local post office, several hundred Islamist militants emerged from among the protestors and opened fire on government snipers stationed atop the post office roof. The militants then threw incendiary devices inside the post office doors, lighting the building on fire and burning eight people to death, before turning to attack the nearby military security building, where state security and political security personnel were barricaded inside. When the Syrian authorities sent a convoy of soldiers to come to their assistance, the Islamist militants ambushed their convoy, killing some 120.109“No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria,” by Rania Abuzeid, 1st Edition, 2018, Kindle edition, pages 55-61.
Opposition activists spread the false claim that the soldiers were defectors killed by their own Alawite superiors in the army, despite evidence to the contrary provided by Joshua Landis, showing the soldiers had been killed by opposition gunmen.110Syria Comment, “What Happened at Jisr al-Shagour,” by Joshua Landis, June 13, 2011. Accessed on November 10, 2019. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/what-happened-at-jisr-al-shagour/ As Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine reported, it was only years later that activists involved in the incident acknowledged that the story of the soldiers defecting was fabricated. Abouzeid had herself reported on the incident at the time, and unwittingly passed on the false claims suggesting the dead soldiers had defected.111Time, “Syria’s Wounded Refugees: Tales of Massacre and Honorable Soldiers,” by Rania Abouzeid, June 12, 2011. Accessed on November 9, 2011. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2077207,00.html Abouzeid later reversed her reporting and provided full details of the event after interviewing an Islamist militant who had participated in the attack, as well as other civilians that were present in the initial protest outside the post office. The militant acknowledged to Abouzeid as well that he and his men had filmed the bodies of some of the security forces they killed and presented the videos as if they showed “mass grave’s full of the regime’s victims.” The fabricated claim about defecting soldiers was used to conceal the fact that the soldiers were killed by Islamist militants, and thereby allow the uprising to continue to be viewed as peaceful.112“No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria,” by Rania Abuzeid, 1st Edition, 2018, Kindle edition, pages 55-61.
Six days after the killings in Jisr al-Shagour, Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times reported a similar incident, where Islamist gunmen used the cover of a demonstration to attack Syrian security forces, this time in the town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man. According to tribal elders from the town, men armed with rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers joined some 5,000 protestors demonstrating outside a military barracks in the middle of the town. The armed men attacked the barracks, where roughly 100 police were barricaded inside, causing a military helicopter to come to the aid of the police. Four policemen and 12 of the armed men were killed, while 20 policemen were wounded. The barracks was ransacked by a mob and set on fire, as was the local courthouse and police station.113Sunday Times, “Syria caught in crossfire of extremists,” by Hala Jaber, June 26, 2011. Accessed on April 09, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/syria-caught-in-crossfire-of-extremists-pvb9lslv3wz
Opposition militants also began assassinating government informants during this period. Amnesty International reports that according to a relief worker involved in transporting the dead and wounded in the Damascus suburb of Douma, “In July and August 2011, one man was ‘executed’ around every two weeks… We would go and pick them up. The most common reason given for the killings was that the victim served as an informer for the security. The number of those ‘executed’ gradually increased to one every week, then two or three every week. By July 2012, three to four people were being ‘executed’ every day, and we stopped knowing the exact accusation. People just referred to them as informers.”114Amnesty International, “Syria: Summary killings and other abuses by armed opposition groups,” March 14, 2013. Accessed on April 04, 2020. https://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/summary_killings_by_armed_opposition_groups.pdf
While the Syrian government faced a curious mixture of non-violent protest and armed insurrection from the beginning of the uprising, Western reporting focused only on protests, while implying that any deaths occurring in Syria resulted from the Syrian government killing peaceful demonstrators demanding democracy. To explain the deaths of Syrian soldiers and security forces, Western journalists passed on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that the Syrian army was killing its own soldiers.
The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) was one group that helped spread these false rumors. The British state media reported on May 5 that sources within the DCHRS “said 81 bodies of soldiers and army officers had been received. Most were killed by a gunshot to the back. DCHRS says it strongly suspects that the soldiers were killed for refusing to shoot civilians.”115BBC, “Syria protests: Rights group warns of ‘Deraa massacre,’” May 5, 2011. Accessed on February 02, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-13299793 DCHRS is based in Washington DC, while the group’s founder, Radwan Ziadeh has had longstanding ties with the US and British governments. In 2010, shortly before the outbreak of war in Syria, Ziadeh was a fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Ziadeh also became director of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council (SNC), which represented the US, British, and Gulf-backed political opposition abroad. Journalist Max Blumenthal notes that the NED has played a prominent role in destabilizing various governments viewed as enemies of the United States, and that according to Allen Weinstein, a founding member of the NED, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA.”
Implausible claims of the Syrian government killing its own soldiers were rejected even by Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the pro-opposition SOHR, who is a chief source of information about events in Syria for the Western press. Abul Rahman stated that, “This game of saying the army is killing defectors for leaving – I never accepted this because it is propaganda.”116Russia Today, “Syria: The Hidden Massacre,” by Sharmine Narwani, May 7, 2014. Accessed on November 11, 2019. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/157412-syria-hidden-massacre-2011/
Certainly, the government did kill some peaceful protestors. However, while reporting from Syria in the summer of 2011, journalist Nir Rosen described how he had “been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified. The demonstrators who go out every day since March know they are risking their lives. It helps them to believe in paradise and martyrdom.”117Al-Jazeera, “Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s protest movement,” by Nir Rosen, February 16, 2012. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/02/20122157654659323.html Times of London journalist Hala Jaber observed in June 2011 that according to one Syrian security official, the security forces “see demonstrators in the hundreds or thousands, chanting anti-government slogans or tearing pictures of Assad — something that only a few months ago would have landed people in jail — and they react heavy-handedly and shoot randomly.”118Sunday Times, “Syria caught in crossfire of extremists,” by Hala Jaber, June 26, 2011. Accessed on April 09, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/syria-caught-in-crossfire-of-extremists-pvb9lslv3wz
On May 3, 2011 Syrian political writer Camille Otrakji summarized the conflict this way: “While most protests were genuinely peaceful, many were confrontational and violent. Syria’s police and security personnel are not used to such challenges and sadly in some cases some of them probably reacted with unnecessary violence. But out of an estimated 150,000 protesters so far up to 500 died according to opposition figures. Government claims 78 died, and I believe the real figure is in between, closer to opposition figures. The government claims that many died in armed confrontations. Given that 80 soldiers and policemen also died, it is only logical that non-peaceful armed men were among the hundreds of ‘civilian’ casualties. In other words, not all civilian casualties were peaceful protestors. Many others probably died through excessive security personnel violence. We need to keep in mind that despite the bitter feeling all of us today have after hundreds died, an investigation of what happened should be conducted. None of us has access to the truth, but I think it is fair to conclude for now that the numbers imply that it is not true that there is an official policy of shooting randomly at any demonstrator. Many fatal mistakes took place, but many others died while they were taking part in non-peaceful confrontations with the army or police.”119Monthly Review Online, “No Revolution in Syria: An Interview with Camille Otrakji,” May 11, 2011. Accessed on March 15, 2020. https://mronline.org/2011/05/03/no-revolution-in-syria-an-interview-with-camille-otrakji/
The Dutch priest Franz Van Der Lugt, who lived in Syria for nearly 50 years, made a similar observation. He wrote that, “From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.” Van der Lugt notes further that, “Moreover, from the start there has been the problem of the armed groups, which are also part of the opposition. . . . The opposition of the street is much stronger than any other opposition. And this opposition is armed and frequently employs brutality and violence, only in order then to blame the government. Many representatives of the government [regeringsmensen – Father Frans might also be referring to supporters of the government] have been tortured and shot dead by them.”120BRICS Post, “Eyewitness to the Syrian Rebellion: Late Father Frans Denounced a Violent ‘Opposition, Instigated and Paid by Foreign Interests,’” by John Rosenthal, 19 April 2014. Republished on Global Research. Accessed on November 18, 2019. https://www.globalresearch.ca/eyewitness-to-the-syrian-rebellion-late-father-frans-denounced-a-violent-opposition-instigated-and-paid-by-foreign-interests/5378784
As Australian academic Tim Anderson observes, Van der Lugt’s testimony is important because he was an independent witness.121Global Research, “History of US-NATO’s ‘Covert War’ on Syria: Daraa March 2011,” by Tim Anderson, November 29, 2015. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://www.globalresearch.ca/history-of-us-natos-covert-war-on-syria-daraa-march-2011/5492182 Van der Lugt was on the ground in Homs to witness events directly and was widely respected by belligerents on both sides of the conflict. When Van der Lugt was murdered by unknown gunmen in April 2014, after refusing to leave Homs despite terrible violence and a crippling government siege of opposition-held areas of the city, the Telegraph observed that, “In recent months Father Van der Lugt was known as a champion for inter-religious dialogue, who had managed to maintain working, generally good, relationships with some of the most hardline Islamic rebel groups in the area.”122Telegraph, “Dutch priest murdered in his church in the besieged Syrian city of Homs,” by Ruth Sherlock, April 7, 2014. Accessed on November 18, 2019.
The myth of an entirely secular and peaceful protest movement persisted in part because many of the most common chants, such as “God, Syria, Freedom, that’s all,” were ambiguous enough to allow Western observers to assume that calls for freedom and dignity by the protestors meant a call for liberal democracy, rather than a call for the freedom to live in a country governed by Salafist interpretations of Islamic law and ethnically cleansed of Alawites and other religious minorities. Similarly, the signature slogan of the uprising, “The people want the fall of the regime,” gave no indication of why they wanted to topple the government, nor what type of government they wished to replace it with.
For Syrian Salafists intent on toppling the Syrian government and cleansing the country of Alawites, there was no contradiction between these goals and struggling for what they viewed as “freedom.” This is evidenced by the names of the anti-government armed groups they established as well as by their rhetoric.
As mentioned above, Ahrar al-Sham was one of the earliest (established in March 2011) and most powerful anti-government armed groups.123Time, “Meet the Islamist Militants Fighting Alongside Syria’s Rebels,” by Rania Abouzeid, July 26, 2012. Accessed on April 13, 2020. http://world.time.com/2012/07/26/time-exclusive-meet-the-islamist-militants-fighting-alongside-syrias-rebels/ The group’s name translates to the “Free Men of Syria.”124Wilson Center, “The Ahrar al Sham Movement: Syria’s Local Salafists,” August 23, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-ahrar-al-sham-movement-syrias-local-salafists-0 The group received early funding from al-Qaeda,125McClatchy, “Recalling a Syrian leader who helped jihadis grow prominent in rebellion,” by Mousab al-Hamadee, September 30, 2014. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article24773947.html and was founded in part by long-time jihadi militant Abu Khalid al-Suri. Ahrar al-Sham’s ideology was inspired by the sectarian Salafist preacher, Muhammad Sarour, as discussed above.126Aqil Hussein writes that, “A phrase that many say on the Syrian scene today, is that it [Sarouria] already applies to some factions, foremost of which is the ‘Ahrar al-Sham Movement,’ which one of its leaders previously wrote in response to questions about the identity of the movement: ‘Ahrar al-Sham is not al-Qaeda and at the same time, they are not [Muslim] brothers.’” See al-Modon, “Sarourism: The departure of the teacher and the survival of the dialectical dream!” by Aqil Hussein, November 14, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2016/11/14/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%B1%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%A8%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%84%D9%8A
Similarly, many of the armed opposition groups fighting under the “Free Syrian Army” banner had Islamist or Salafist orientations. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is typically viewed as secular and democratic, Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper described how the FSA was first established by a group of army deserters, but then numerous Salafist armed factions, including Liwa Islam, Saqour al-Sham, Ahfad Rasoul, and the Farouq Brigades, soon began fighting under the FSA banner.127Al-Hayat, “Syrian Islamic Brigades unite with regional support in anticipation of a political solution,” October 06, 2013. Republished by Sama News. Accessed on April 13, 2020. https://samanews.ps/ar/post/173810/%d9%83%d8%aa%d8%a7%d8%a6%d8%a8-%d8%a5%d8%b3%d9%84%d8%a7%d9%85%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%b3%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%aa%d8%aa%d9%88%d8%ad%d8%af-%d8%a8%d8%af%d8%b9%d9%85-%d8%a5%d9%82%d9%84%d9%8a%d9%85%d9%8a-%d8%a7%d8%b3%d8%aa%d8%a8%d8%a7%d9%82%d8%a7-%d9%84%d9%84%d8%ad%d9%84-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%b3%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%b3%d9%8a
The Lebanese Daily Star observed that, “More than one FSA battalion has named itself after Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century Sunni Muslim scholar who urged the extermination of Alawites as heretics. This kind of act cancels out any favorable rhetoric or actions by other elements of the FSA, some of whose spokesmen often promise to establish a Syria that is pluralist and civil, and not religious in character.”128Daily Star, “A sect in the Middle: Syria’s Alawites endure considerable resentment,” by Marlin Dick, October 6, 2012. Accessed on April 04, 24. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/Oct-06/190351-a-sect-in-the-middle-syrias-alawites-generate-considerable-resentment.ashx#ixzz28edAP9AX
Nusra Front Shura Council member Abu Firas defended the FSA from accusations of apostasy leveled at the group by ISIS, explaining that, “A lot of groups are under a big umbrella called the FSA,” and that many of them, “are believers, good and righteous people, who want the Shari’a of Allah to prevail on the earth.” Abu Firas specifically mentions Liwa al-Tawheed, Nur al-Deen al-Zinky, Liwa Islam and Jund al-Sham as being among these “righteous” FSA groups.129Youtube, “Bilal Abdul Kareem Interviews Jabha Nusra Shura Member Abu Firas, part 3 of 3.” Posted by Face the Truth, August 21, 2015. Accessed on April 17, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0_ZNsNNn28
Liwa al-Islam was led by Zahran Alloush, the son of a famous Salafi preacher from the Damascus suburb of Douma. Alloush’s group later grew to become another of the most powerful anti-government armed groups, namely “Jaish al-Islam,” or the “Army of Islam.” Alloush’s group fought under the “Free Syrian Army” moniker from its founding in July 2011 until mid-2012.130Century Foundation, “Into the tunnels,” by Aron Lund, December 212, 2016. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://tcf.org/content/report/into-the-tunnels/?session=1&session=1
Alloush, who was well known for his anti-Alawite and ant-Shia sectarianism (he called for the ethnic cleansing of these groups from Syria131Syria Comment, “Zahran Alloush: His Ideology and Beliefs,” by Joshua Landis, December 15, 2013. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/zahran-alloush/ and infamously paraded Alawite captives in cages in the streets of Douma)132Telegraph, “Syrian rebels using caged civilian captives as human shields,” November 02, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11971269/Syrian-rebels-using-caged-pro-Assad-captives-as-human-shields.html also viewed himself as among those “Free Syrians” struggling against the Syrian government. For Alloush however, this meant fighting against democracy, rather than for it. When answering an interviewer’s question of whether he supported democratic elections after the fall of the regime, Alloush explained that “I am also one of the free Syrian people.” At the same time, Alloush claimed that the Syrian people as a whole reject democracy and demand the establishment of an Islamic state. Alloush claimed as proof of this that the early anti-government protestors “went out from the mosques to say, ‘there is no one with us except God.’ And they said, ‘God is great.’ They did not say ‘Democracy is great.’”133Youtube, Interview with Zahran Alloush, entitled “I am chosen from God,” posted by Morad709. Accessed on December 05, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEzUikxKrTc&feature=youtu.be
Another of the early Free Syrian Army groups was “Kita’ib al-Farouq,” or the “Farouq Brigades.” Farouq is a title referring to an early companion of the prophet Muhammad, the second Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab. The Farouq Brigades were founded in part by a Salafi preacher named Amjad Bitar, who was able to fund the group via donations from Salafi networks in the Gulf states.134Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “The Shredded Tapestry: The State of Syria Today,” by Ammar Abd al-Hamid. Accessed on April 11, 2020. https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2012/09/25/the-shredded-tapestry-the-state-of-syria-today/
One Farouq fighter explained to a Belgian journalist that he was not “free” while living under the Baathist-led Syrian government: “Before the revolution, the regime was too strong; it had a hand on each person, and it was not possible to live as an Islamist in Syria. After the revolution, we are free to live as our faith commands us to live. The right way, in Islam, is the Islamic State.”135La Courier du Maghreb ed de l ‘Orient, “Interview with the Jihadist who held me hostage for five months,” by Pierre Piccinin, June 2014. Accessed on November 23, 2019. https://lecourrierdumaghrebetdelorient.info/exclusive/syria-interview-with-the-jihadist-who-held-me-hostage-for-five-months/
Farouq, with its original base in Homs, also received support from Salafi networks in nearby Tripoli, Lebanon. According to a Salafi preacher in Tripoli who participated in sending money and fighters to Syria in support of Farouq, “Assad is an infidel. . . . It is the duty of every Muslim, every Arab to fight the infidels…There is a holy war in Syria and the young men there are conducting jihad. For blood, for honor, for freedom, for dignity.”136Der Spiegel, “Jihadists Declare Holy War Against Assad Regime,” by Ulrike Putz, March 30, 2012. Accessed on April 17, 2020. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/foreign-jihadists-declare-war-on-syria-s-assad-a-824875.html In Salafist discourse then, the struggle for freedom and dignity is a synonym for the struggle to establish a fundamentalist religious dictatorship.
Similarly, the terms “jihad” and “revolution” are often used interchangeably or in tandem, as are the terms “mujahideen” and “revolutionaries.” For example, in 2015, Abdullah Muhaysini, a Saudi religious cleric who served as a judge for the Nusra Front, praised the battle fought by the group (known at the time as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) to capture Idlib as “Islamic, Jihadist, and revolutionary.”137YouTube, “See what Abdullah Al-Muhaysini says in his testimony of the liberation of Idlib, posted by Orient News, March 28, 2015. Accessed on March 08, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvtigqxE1eE&feature=youtu.be In 2020, the Nusra Front (by then known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) issued a statement describing its fighters as “revolutionary mujahideen” and its struggle as a “revolution,” while pledging to continue fighting until “Syria returns free, dignified and defiant.”138Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi’s Blog, “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham Statement on Ankara-Moscow Agreement,” by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, March 7, 2020. Accessed on March 8, 2020. http://www.aymennjawad.org/2020/03/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-statement-on-ankara-moscow
This is not surprising given the influence of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb on jihadi thought. His book, “Milestones” set out the strategy for using a Leninist-style “vanguard” to lead the armed struggle for an “Islamic revolution.”139New York Times, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror” by Paul Berman, March 23, 2003. Accessed on April 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/23/magazine/the-philosopher-of-islamic-terror.html Qutb wished to topple secular Arab governments and establish an Islamic state supposedly under God’s sovereignty in their place. Consequently, the Muslim Brotherhood splinter group that fought to topple the Syrian government between 1976 and 1982 called itself the “Fighting Vanguard.” Many of its militants went on to fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and later became prominent in the jihadi movement, most notably Abu Khalid al-Suri and Abu Musab al-Suri.140Carnegie Middle East Center, “Who and What Was Abu Khalid al-Suri? Part I,” by Aron Lund, February 24, 2014. Accessed on April 17, 2020. https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/54618
The Salafist use of discourse promoting freedom and dignity, but for fundamentalist religious goals, explains why slogans as seemingly contradictory as “God, Syria, freedom, that’s all,” and “Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut!” could coincide during the early anti-government demonstrations.
In contrast to the conventional view, the Syrian uprising was not entirely peaceful or secular. Syria’s Salafist movement was prominent in “creating and pushing the events” of the Syrian uprising. Salafist preachers both within Syria and abroad used sectarian hate speech to incite their followers against the Syrian government and against Syria’s Alawite and Christian communities broadly. From the earliest weeks of the protest movement, armed Salafist militants attacked and killed Syrian security forces, soldiers and police. The violence and sectarianism of the Salafists caused most Syrians, including Syria’s Sunni Muslims, to reject the uprising and take either a neutral stance or remain supportive of the government, despite its oppressive security apparatus and the corruption of the ruling elite.
While US and Gulf intelligence agencies did not orchestrate the early anti-government protests nor create the armed insurgency that accompanied them from the start, these outside actors played a key role in the conflict. US and Gulf intelligence agencies stoked the nascent insurgency by funneling billions of dollars of weapons and equipment to Salafist armed groups, because they shared the goal of toppling the Syrian government and thereby weakening Assad’s close ally, Iran. US support for the Salafist insurgency escalated and extended the conflict, leading to years of unnecessary bloodshed and suffering for millions of Syrians. Events in Syria of the past decade provide a further example of the horrendous consequences of US foreign policy in the region. As in Iraq and Libya, US foreign policy in Syria was not benign or well intentioned, but rather deliberately destructive and has caused human suffering on a scale that is difficult to fathom.
The Department of Defense inspector general has released a damning report on the DoD’s massive “JEDI” cloud computing project, exposing a revolving door between Amazon and the Pentagon.
The DoD’s September 2017 announcement of JEDI (a catchy acronym for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) sparked a frenzy in the US tech sector, with the country’s largest companies vying for the access, power, and prestige that would accompany the $10 billion prize. Government awarded Microsoft the contract last October, but Amazon is disputing the decision in court, and allegations of corruption continue to fly.
Thus far, the press has largely focused on the most salacious aspect of the controversy: allegations by former defense secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis that Donald Trump told him to “screw Amazon” out of the JEDI contract. According to Mattis, Trump wanted to take revenge on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for the negative coverage he’s received from the Bezos-owned Washington Post.
However, the IG report released last week shows that the corruption surrounding JEDI runs far deeper than the WWE-like feud Trump has with Mattis, Bezos, and the Post. Though the IG did not conclude that the procurement process was rigged one way or the other, the report shows that Big Tech is firmly embedded in the national security state.
The IG investigated seven current or former DoD officials – including Mattis – finding that four had ties with Amazon before, after or in some cases during their time with the DoD.
The smokiest gun in the IG report relates to former DoD official Deap Ubhi, who worked as a cloud technician at Amazon Web Services (AWS) from 2014 to 2016 before joining the Defense Department as a digital services expert. The report says Ubhi worked on the JEDI project in late 2017, even taking a one-on-one meeting with Microsoft to learn about the company’s cloud products – at the same time he was negotiating with Amazon to return there!
Ubhi accepted a job with Amazon in October 2017 while still working on the JEDI project, according to the IG report. A Twitter account in Ubhi’s name says that he still works at Amazon.
The IG found that Ubhi failed to disclose information or lied – yes, the IG report uses the word “lied” – at least three times in an effort to conceal his ties with Amazon. Despite this egregious misconduct, the IG only recommended that the DoD review Ubhi’s security clearances. His case was referred to a federal prosecutor, who did not pursue the matter further and declined to comment on the case.
Ubhi may be the most glaring red flag in the IG report, but is certainly not the only one.
Turn to Sally Donnelly, who left the DoD in 2012 to start the DC lobbying shop SBD Advisors – described by Politico as a “stealth” consulting firm. According to the IG report, Amazon hired Donnelly’s SBD Advisors in 2015 to “help AWS understand better how the DoD worked.”
After consulting for Amazon about the inner workings of the DoD, Donnelly returned to government as a special advisor to Mattis in January 2017. With her came former SBD Advisors director Tony DeMartino.
Donnelly and DeMartino worked on the JEDI project in 2017 before leaving again to form their own consulting firm, Pallas Advisors. Another person involved in the JEDI project, Robert Daigle, also left the DoD in 2017 to join Donnelly and DeMartino at Pallas, the report says.
Yet another former DoD official, Victor Gavin, also took part in the JEDI procurement process even though he had already accepted employment with Amazon. Here, the Inspector General did not flag any ethics violations because Gavin disclosed his ties with Amazon, only sat in one meeting about JEDI, and was not heavily involved in the project.
Lest readers think the IG only investigated the Amazon-Trump controversy, the report also scolds DoD official Stacy Cummings for taking part in the JEDI procurement process while owning between $15,001-50,000 of Microsoft stock. The report notes that Cummings disclosed her Microsoft stock, but made the mistake of participating in the JEDI project anyways – stopping only when a DoD ethics attorney flagged the violation. The Inspector General recommended that Cummings undergo counseling and training.
So what about the Mad Dog himself?
The IG report does not identify any financial ties between Mattis and Amazon, but it certainly seems like the former Defense Secretary had his heart set on the tech giant from the beginning.
After discussing cloud technology with his buddies in the CIA – which uses Amazon as its cloud provider – in December 2016, the report says Mattis came to the conclusion that a comprehensive cloud may be the best fit for the DoD’s data storage needs. Mattis then had an “off-the-record” meeting at a charity dinner in the UK with Amazon executive Teresa Carlson in March 2017, before meeting Bezos at least twice over the next 10 months.
The last meeting was a January 2018 private dinner in DC with Mattis, Donnelly, Bezos and Carlson, who discussed “leadership,” security, China and global trends, space technologies, and “Mr. Bezos’ offer to help support the DoD,” according to the IG report.
By this point, Amazon’s relationship with the Pentagon was starting to draw attention from the media.
In March 2018, an unnamed non-profit organization ran a full-page ad in the New York Post, the first line reading: “President Trump: Your Defense Department is set to award a no-bid, ten-year contract for all its IT infrastructure to Administration-enemy Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.” The ad, which has been removed from the Post’s website, featured a prominent picture of Mattis walking and speaking with Bezos, according to the IG report.
The same month, Bloomberg News and Business Insider also published articles reporting that Oracle CEO Safra Catz was in Trump’s ear about how the JEDI procurement process was being rigged for Amazon. Bloomberg later reported that it had obtained a copy of a 33-page dossier that portrayed “a web of conflicts to cast doubt on the integrity of the cloud procurement,” with allegations that “Defense Department officials participated in shady activities, all of which gave Amazon an edge.”
The media reports and Oracle’s protests apparently succeeded, as Trump started lobbing Twitter insults towards Amazon and Bezos while allegedly exerting influence on the JEDI procurement process behind the scenes throughout 2018. The abovementioned DoD officials departed government from late 2017 to late 2018 – Ubhi and Gavin to work for Amazon; Donnelly, DeMartino and Daigle to start a new lobbying shop; and Mattis, ostensibly to protest Trump’s Syria “withdrawal.”
If one views this through MAGA-tinted glasses, it might seem like Trump was following through his promise to Drain the Swamp by cutting the DoD from its ties to Amazon.
But when one takes into account that Oracle CEO Catz was a member of Trump’s transition team and had dinner with the president in April 2018 to discuss JEDI, it seems far more likely that Mattis was telling the truth when he said Trump wanted to “screw Amazon” – either as revenge on Bezos, a favor to Catz, or a combination of the two. As Thomas Knapp argued in an article published on antiwar.com last December, Trump should have squashed the entire JEDI project altogether if he really wanted to reduce government waste and malfeasance.
There are no good guys in these power struggles – just various factions vying for money and control, all at the public’s expense.
There is a sickness in the United States Navy, and it goes beyond the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a disorder of irresponsible political leadership, and a high command more focused on expediency than maintaining the confidence of the sailors in their care.
The latest symptom of this disease was the abrupt dismissal of Captain Brett Crozier, formerly of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. When members of his crew became infected with COVID-19, Crozier sent a four-page memo explaining his disagreements with current containment strategy and recommending a more aggressive plan of action. The memo, which was sent using an unclassified email, was published by the press immediately. Two days later he was relieved of command by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, whose subsequent nastiness and incongruous standards of behavior resulted in his own resignation.
Opinion has become divided over whether Captain Crozier should have been relieved for impulsively breaking chain-of-command (among other accusations) or whether the punishment was unjustified due to his selfless motivation on behalf of his crew. No matter which side is correct, there is only one appropriate answer: it was wrong to relieve Crozer of command without a proper inquiry.
Crozier possessed the awesome power of commanding a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, one of the mightiest weapons in the world. And with that privilege comes responsibility. “On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them goes accountability,” wrote Vermont Royster in a 1952 Wall Street Journal editorial that has become a dogma among career seamen. Every error, purposeful or not, falls on a captain’s shoulders. “No matter what, he cannot escape.”
But while Royster wrote of reviews, debates, inquiries, probes, and committees, Crozier received none of them. He was given no fair hearing, nor the benefit of the doubt that the situation mandated. Only an official inquiry can determine if Crozier should have been removed for cause.
To give perspective on the events of the past two weeks, a retired U.S. admiral spoke to the Libertarian Institute in an exclusive interview. “Should he have been removed for [breaking chain-of-command] before the inquiry? No,” said the three-star, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I think that if he decided that he had tried to get across that time was of essence, it [the virus] was spreading…and there was no change in that strategy that he said was ineffective, then I would have to say he did what was accountable—outside of war—to the welfare of his men and women, knowing (and he should have known this) that his career would be harmed by it.”
The admiral compared Crozier’s situation to being under incoming fire, a situation that necessitates decisive action. “I think if this man did speak up, and they weren’t listening, then he felt he did the right thing and that’s what a commanding officer is called to do: step outside the chain of command if he has to, at times, to save his crew.”
An inquiry prior to any kind of reprimand is typical Navy procedure, and was the route favored by both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday. But both men relented and chose to publicly support the acting navy secretary’s decision to dismiss Crozier immediately.
And how did Acting Secretary Modly arrive at this conclusion? He told The Washington Post that President Donald Trump’s opinion weighed heavily in his thought process, explicitly because his secretarial predecessor, Richard Spencer, had been dismissed because he found himself at odds with Trump over the Eddie Gallagher case.
“I thought it was terrible what he did. To write a letter. This isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered,” Trump chided after the fact. While the president said he had not made the determination to dismiss Crozier, his displeasure with the captain’s negative appraisal being made public was obvious to Modly.
“I think the immediacy with which he was removed had to do with the public disclosure and embarrassment,” speculated the retired admiral. “And that’s a shame.”
Modly’s resentment of the embarrassment didn’t stop there. The Acting Secretary proceeded to fly 8,000 miles so he could board the USS Theodore Roosevelt and address the five thousand sailors who had cheered their former commanding officer as he departed. Modly excoriated the crew for voicing support for Crozier and described their former captain as either “too naïve or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this.” His excursion, where he was onboard the ship for thirty minutes, cost the taxpayer $243,000.
Crozier emailed his memo to twenty people—including members of his staff, but excluding his immediate superior, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, and Acting Secretary Modly—and it was subsequently leaked to the press within twenty-four hours. Modly gave a “private,” adversarial address to thousands of men, audio portions of which were uploaded to the internet within thirty minutes. He must have realized his behavior was at least as reckless as Crozier’s (if not more so) and for a lesser cause, because he resigned within a day—but not before doubling down on his comments, and then retracting them.
“It was beyond the pale,” the retired admiral said, regarding Modly’s stunt. “His resignation was correct. You must have respect down the chain of command if you expect it up the chain of command.”
Chief of Naval Operations Gilday has said he’s begun an official investigation into the circumstances of the memo and the dismissal, with a conclusion to be made public as early as this week. The possibility of returning Crozier to command has not been taken off the table.
As the grandson of two Navy veterans, and the nephew of two more, it is imperative that the high command move forward with transparency and make accountable any wrongs that were committed. That is the only cure for regaining the lost trust of their sailors and their loved ones.
Hunter DeRensis is senior reporter for The National Interest and a regular contributor to the Libertarian Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.
Sunday was the 75th anniversary of the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was sainted by the media even before he died in 1945. CNN last week trumpeted FDR as “the wartime president who Trump should learn from.” A 2019 survey of historians ranked FDR as the third greatest president. President George H.W. Bush praised him for having “brilliantly enunciated the 20th-century vision of our Founding Fathers’ commitment to individual liberty.”
Roosevelt did often invoke freedom, but almost always as a pretext to increase government power. FDR proclaimed in 1933: “We have all suffered in the past from individualism run wild.” Naturally, the corrective was to allow government to run wild.
FDR declared in his first inaugural address: “We now realize… that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership can become effective.” The military metaphors, which practically called for the entire populace to march in lockstep, were similar to rhetoric used by European dictators at the time.
Roosevelt declared in a 1934 fireside chat: “I am not for a return of that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few.” Politicians like FDR began by telling people that control of their own lives was a mirage; thus, they lost nothing when government took over. In his re-nomination acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic Party convention, Roosevelt declared that “the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties . . . created a new despotism. . . . The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship.” But if wages were completely dictated by the “industrial dictatorship”—why were pay rates higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and why had pay rates increased rapidly in the decades before 1929? FDR never considered limiting government intervention to safeguarding individual choice; instead, he multiplied “government-knows-best” dictates on work hours, wages, and contracts.
On January 6, 1941, Roosevelt gave his famous “Four Freedoms” speech, promising citizens freedom of speech, freedom of worship—and then he got creative: “The third [freedom] is freedom from want… everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.” Proclaiming a goal of freedom from fear meant that the government henceforth must fill the role in daily life previously filled by God and religion. FDR’s list was clearly intended as a “replacement set” of freedoms, since otherwise there would have been no reason to mention freedom of speech and worship, already guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Roosevelt’s new freedoms liberated government while making a pretense of liberating the citizen. FDR’s list offered citizens no security from the State, since it completely ignored the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment (to keep and bear firearms), the Fourth Amendment (freedom from unreasonable search and seizure), the Fifth Amendment (due process, property rights, the right against self-incrimination), the Sixth Amendment (the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury), the Eighth Amendment (protection against excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments).
FDR perennially glorified government as the great liberator of the common man. In a 1936 message to Congress, he denounced his critics: “They realize that in 34 months we have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberties of the people.” Because FDR proclaimed that the federal government was a “people’s government,” good citizens had no excuse for fearing an increase in government power. The question of liberty became totally divorced from the amount of government power—and instead depended solely on politicians’ intent toward the governed. The mere fact that the power was in the hands of benevolent politicians was the only safeguard needed.
Roosevelt sometimes practically portrayed the State as a god. In his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he declared, “In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.” In 1937, he praised the members of political parties for respecting “as sacred all branches of their government.” In the same speech, Roosevelt assured listeners, in practically Orwellian terms, “Your government knows your mind, and you know your government’s mind.” For Roosevelt, faith in the State was simply faith in his own wisdom and benevolence. Roosevelt’s concept of the State is important because he radically expanded the federal government— and most of the programs he created survive to this day.
FDR declared in 1938, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Did Japanese-Americans round themselves up for concentration camps in 1942, or what? Did the people who owned the gold that FDR forcibly confiscated in 1933 secretly will that they be stripped of any defense against the inflation that FDR intentionally ignited?
FDR’s perpetual deceits on domestic policy are grudgingly recognized by some scholars but his brazen lying on foreign policy has not received its due. in 1940, in one of his final speeches of the presidential campaign, Roosevelt assured voters, “Your president says this country is not going to war.” But FDR was working around-the-clock to pull the United States into World War Two. Once the U.S. was engaged in fighting both Germany and Japan, FDR was determined to demand unconditional surrender from both nations. That demand severely undercut German generals who were reaching out to strike a deal with the Allies that would have toppled Hitler much earlier than April 1945. Thomas Fleming’s The New Dealers War vividly explains how FDR’s war demands perpetuated the fighting and cost the lives of far more Americans, Germans, and others.
Two months before he died, FDR met Stalin and Churchill for the infamous Yalta conference. Roosevelt had previously praised Soviet Russia as one of the “freedom-loving Nations” and stressed that Stalin is “thoroughly conversant with the provisions of our Constitution.” FDR agreed with Stalin at Yalta to move the border of the Soviet Union far to the west—thereby effectively conscripting 11 million Poles into Soviet citizenship.
Poland was “compensated” with a huge swath of Germany, a simple cartographic change that spurred vast human carnage. As author R.M. Douglas noted in his 2012 book Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War, the result was “the largest episode of forced migration… in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians – the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16 -were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland.” At least half a million died as a result. George Orwell denounced the “relocation” as an “enormous crime” that was “equivalent to transplanting the entire population of Australia.” Philosopher Bertrand Russell protested: “Are mass deportations crimes when committed by our enemies during war and justifiable measures of social adjustment when carried out by our allies in time of peace?”
In a private conversation at Yalta, FDR assured Stalin that he was feeling “more bloodthirsty” than when they’d previously met. Immediately after the Yalta conference concluded, the British and American air forces turned Dresden into an inferno, killing up to 50,000 civilians. The Associated Press reported that “Allied air bosses” had engaged in the “deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers as ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom.” Ravaging Dresden was intended to “‘add immeasurably’ to FDR’s strength in negotiating with the Russians at the postwar peace table,” as historian Thomas Fleming noted.
Almost all the tributes to FDR this month have omitted his dictatorial tendencies or his bloodthirsty warring. There were good reasons why Friedrich Hayek labeled FDR as “the greatest of modern demagogues.” The canonization of Franklin Roosevelt is a reminder to Americans to beware of any “lessons of history” touted by an establishment media that is vested in the perpetuation of Leviathan and all its prerogatives.
During Iraq War II (2003–2011), in addition to thousands of American soldiers and contractors who died, more than 100,000 Iraq civilians were killed. This number is consistent with independent counts as well as leaked Pentagon data (sources available at Wikipedia). However, more sophisticated studies which combined data sets and methodologies from multiple independent efforts have produced a total estimate of deaths (from 2003-2018) of 1.5-3.4 million people. This does not count the combatants who died fighting against what many consider to have been a foreign invader conducting an illegal occupation (or those fighting in unavoidable civil conflict caused by the invasion).
There’s no question about this war being a massive human tragedy, a catastrophe of choice, a milestone of unholy slaughter in the early history of the 21st century. This slaughter is intimately associated with the leader who started it: George W. Bush. The question remains, how could one man be so evil?
Bush’s guilt can be evaluated by examining his motives. Why did he do it? Did he really believe that WMDs were in Iraq? Did he want to avenge his daddy? There is in fact a clear answer to this question.
The purpose of the Iraq war was to flex American muscle. The neoconservative vision of American hegemony seeks to use American military power to enforce its desired policies abroad. Neocons believe that if the military is never used in pursuit of American policy objectives then it’s a waste of money and a sign of weakness that would invite predators of their ilk from other powers to prey on the so-called free world. In the post-Cold War environment where America had emerged as the world’s sole superpower, Iraq was the ideal opportunity to show the world that America means business. This rationale is cold, cynical and indifferent; neoconservatism is a policy position, possessing a realist morality that washes its hands of any concern for common people.
According to neoconservatism, the harm caused to common people by military intervention is morally unimportant. Neoconservatives believe that people who live in geopolitical problem areas would face moral deprivations from their own bad governments anyway. They believe that it doesn’t matter – really – whether one dies by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, or by an American bomb. To neoconservatives, the world is a better place when America is in charge. With a single rationalization, neocons willfully exclude concern for common people from their policy formulations.
The cynical moral view of Neoconservatism is consistent with Hannah Arendt’s notion of, “The banality of evil.” This phrase comes from a book Arendt wrote about the Jerusalem crimes against humanity trial of Holocaust facilitator Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer who coordinated the logistics of moving populations of Jews into eastern camps. In the book, she points out how average Eichmann was. He did not possess high intelligence and lived his life as a joiner. He was not particularly anti-Semitic, showed no signs of psychopathy and generally got along well with other people. He had carried out his role in the Holocaust purely out of a quiet commitment to his bureaucratic duty in the larger society in which he took part. Arendt calls evil banal because it is, in this case, neither a product of psychopathic or hateful intent nor can the mild-mannered conduct of Eichmann be remotely morally justified. In the end, Arendt claims that Eichmann’s evil is connected to his profound moral stupidity.
Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann’s moral status provides insight into George W. Bush’s moral guilt.
With perhaps over a million innocents dead because of a policy-driven, unnecessary war, Bush has the status of a moral monster. Yet, Bush’s evil is particularly banal. This kind of evil would not be recognized by its vicious fangs or wicked scowl. It is an evil that is unassuming, bungling even. Preventing this kind of person from having power requires special attention to what makes them so evil.
In 2013, Ron Fournier penned an article in The Atlantic arguing that George W. Bush was a good man. During a 2002 press conference, Mr. Fournier and a colleague stood to mark Bush’s entrance to the room, while other journalists and foreign press remained seated in smug protest. Bush handwrote a note to each man, thanking them for at least honoring the dignity of the office of the Presidency. Bush was known for small gestures of respect, from punctuality, to requiring a simple dress code for the Oval Office. Fournier argues that Bush had a sense of decency, not wanting to interrupt Fournier’s family time for an interview, for example, and also taking time to visit with the families of slain soldiers.
It seems incredible that a man guilty of such crimes against humanity could be perceived as decent. This represents a clue to understanding banal evil. The gestures to which Ron Fournier refer hardly absolve George W. Bush of his status as a possible moral monster, but they do hint at the possibility that Bush has some sort of moral compass. What’s the relationship between Bush’s crimes and that compass? If Bush truly has any sense of decency, how could he have launched the Iraq War? Philosophy can provide an answer.
Stanford University’s philosophy department runs an online encyclopedia of philosophical definitions. One entry discusses the conscience, or moral compass.
“Through our individual conscience, we become aware of our deeply held moral principles, we are motivated to act upon them, and we assess our character, our behavior and ultimately our self against those principles.”
Conscience involves one’s own self-awareness of one’s deeply held principles. Being aware of some moral principles does not imply that one would be aware of all possible moral principles. Everyone has a unique moral self-identity, a sense of what’s right and good, and a sense of where one stands on the spectrum of good and evil. Conscience is a connective tissue. It relates the moral principles in which one believes, to one’s perception of one’s own identity. Through conscience, one constructs a sense of identity out of chose moral principles. A moral compass serve not only to guide choices, it also is a tool for self-reflection.
Our moral beliefs also contribute to how we perceive others. We judge others based on where we believe they stand on the spectrum of good and evil, and in some cases we use our perception of others to reflect back on our own sense of moral identity.
“More recent psychological studies have suggested that people tend to link the identity of others not so much to their memories, as traditionally believed, but to their morals: it is the loss of one’s moral character and moral beliefs, rather than of one’s memory, that leads us to say that a certain individual is not the same person anymore (Strohminger and Nichols 2015). These findings provide empirical support to the idea that conscience is essential to one’s sense of personal identity and to attributions of personal identity.”
According to the psychological research discussed above, one’s sense of identity can have less to do with actual actions, and more to do with one’s chosen moral beliefs. If someone could associate their own identity with the identity of others holding a particular moral worldview, then one could calibrate their moral compass to reflect differently on their own life. If you tie your identity to those you morally admire, you can partially absolve yourself of a degree of moral accountability. You concede moral responsibility to a larger group, which also means conceding moral reasoning – including feelings of guilt or accountability – to that group. When confronted with the guilt of your particular actions, you simply defend the tribe’s power, and ignore morality.
In recent years, George W. Bush has taken up painting at a hobby. This past autumn, some of Bush’s paintings were displayed at an exhibit at the Kennedy Center. These painting featured scenes of America’s military veterans, including many wounded warriors. This Portraits of Courage exhibit demonstrates Bush’s quiet obsession with the men and women wounded in wars, many of whom he sent off to fight.
“Command Sergeant Major Brian Flom was wounded in the face by a rocket attack in Iraq in 2007.
“‘That was the easy part,’ he said, standing beside a painting in which he appears with fellow military personnel, one of dozens of works on display at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
“‘The challenging part was the TBI [traumatic brain injury] and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied a lot of time spent in a combat zone.’
“Recovery is ‘still going on – it’s an everyday process, right, and some days are better than others.’
“Flom was selected to go on a mountain bike ride with Bush in 2015 and has now met him ‘many times,’ including dinner at the former president’s house.
“Bush ‘decided one day to paint people that he had a connection with and meant something to him, and here I am.’”
Bush is spending his retirement connecting to the people who were wounded in wars. This connection is interesting, because it relates to the perceived moral identity of these people. These paintings are a way for Bush to tie his identity to the moral status of veterans.
Bush’s painting hobby began much earlier. Infamous among leaked images of the former president’s early paintings are bizarre self-portraits of the man in the bathtub and shower. The images portrayed are toes sticking up from the water, and also one in which the back of his head is shown, his face barely appearing in a mirror. These paintings show a sense of detachment, unclear identity, and a desire to wash away something unclean.
It’s possible that ‘W’ himself has been facing a small crisis of conscience, and uncertainty about his own moral identity, spurred by a sense of moral guilt. The paintings might have been a therapy, to concretize the feelings. As he developed the hobby, Bush sought to relate to the moral identity of the soldiers he admired.
By connecting to the moral values of those who sacrificed themselves in war, Bush heals his own guilt. Bush is guilty of crimes against decency, by ordering a war – he is a warmonger. However, wounded veterans have a different perceived moral relationship to war. War provides veterans with honor through valor. Their sacrifices are interpreted as a form of service to the greater society. By connecting to an identity that valorizes war, Bush can reframe the relationship of his own identity to war.
Starting a war made Bush into a monster, so he seeks to heal his conscience by surrounding himself with those his war has made into heroes.
It’s pathetic that a man who held as much power as George W. Bush would attempt to free ride off of the moral status of those his wars has harmed, all to make himself feel a little better about himself. Showing some love to a few veterans couldn’t hardly make up for the pain Bush caused. Yet, all that matters in this case is Bush’s own sense of identity in the context of his own moral values. Evil doesn’t usually take the form of a comic book villain. A person can have a sense of decency, a moral compass, commit acts of compassion, possess empathy, and still be evil. To diagnose Bush’s evil, one has to first examine the history of his moral self-identity.
During the campaign for the 2000 Presidential Election, the Washington Post ran an article exploring Bush’s youth, his past and his values. George W. Bush’s simple and idealistic view of his own father, George Herbert Walker, seems to have been the anchor of his worldview.
“Today, of course, Bush has embarked on trying to duplicate his father’s greatest accomplishment – becoming president of the United States. Relationships between fathers and sons are never simple, but the close parallels between their two careers, Bush’s fierce loyalty to his father and his thin skin whenever his father is criticized suggest something particularly complex.”
Bush 41 was a paragon of moral rectitude to 43. 43’s sense of right and wrong was entirely received from his father, with very little personal effort devoted to developing his own independent view of the world.
“One of the things that Bush often talked about was his family, especially his father. Several of the Bonesmen said Bush described him in ‘almost God-like’ terms.
“‘I can remember one instance of him using his Dad as an example of resilience, saying my father had a great disappointment in not winning the Senate seat, but this is what you do, you bounce back. So you’re down, you just get back up. His attitude was you gave it your best shot. And he used his dad to show this,’ recalled Robert McCallum, now an Atlanta lawyer.”
Even Bush Sr.’s position on war was uncontroversial, simply correct to Jr.
“‘He believed that his father’s position was correct – we’re involved, so we should support the national effort rather than protest it,’ recalled Robert J. Dieter, a Yale roommate for four years who is now a clinical professor of law at the University of Colorado.”
George W. Bush was a social creature, but he didn’t seem to be a boundary pusher. His time at Andover private school showed him to be extroverted.
“Within months of his arrival, Bush was seen as a campus mover, not on the strength his intellect or his athletic achievements, but by sheer force of personality. Bush was nicknamed ‘Lip’ because he had an opinion on everything – and sometimes a tongue sharper than necessary.”
At Yale, he partied, but not too hard.
“‘George was a fraternity guy, but he wasn’t Belushi in ‘Animal House,’’ recalled Calvin Hill, who was in DKE with Bush and went on to play professional football. ‘He went through that stage in his life with a lot of joy, but I don’t remember George as a chronic drunk. He was a good-time guy. But he wasn’t the guy hugging the commode at the end of the day.’”
Bush was known to think of others, and act according to an internal sense of dignity.
“Like his father, Bush could display good breeding along with his rough Texas edges. Several former classmates recall him going door to door with a sympathy card for a classmate from the West Indies – one of the few blacks on campus – who had lost his mother. Another classmate who hailed from a public school said he was struck by Bush’s efforts to reach out beyond his social circle.”
Bush, a famous Skull and Bones member, was a joiner.
“‘George moved seamlessly among all the different groups,’ recalled Ken Cohen, today a dentist in Georgia. At the same time, Cohen noted, ‘he was a Bush and he had a sense of who he was … his family tradition. He was not a rebel.’”
During the chaotic years of the Vietnam War protests, Bush seemed unphased. His attitude was conventional and maybe even disinterested.
“In a recent interview, Bush said he has no recollection of any anti-war activity on campus during his undergraduate years – an extraordinary statement considering that [Reverend] Coffin was by then a leader of the national anti-war movement and was arrested for aiding and abetting draft resistance during Bush’s senior year.”
Altogether, the portrait of George W. Bush painted by his history is very clear. He was a relatively simple man, uninterested in the depths of political thought. He respected his father and upheld him as the quintessential example of what respectable thought and behavior looked like, but he himself never deeply considered what that meant. He was a social guy, a clear extrovert, but hardly a remarkable social presence.
Bush was a boring guy. Friendly, social, possessing a mild sense of dignity, but ultimately having a forgettable character. He held a belief that morality and respectability were important, because of his father, but he never deeply examined the question beyond this conviction.
As a regular man, Bush was not a monster, but neither was he a giant. He was kind of a chump, a man who does have a conscience, but one about which nothing special can be said. He took all of his moral cues from his social superiors. Bush is a lot like Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann was described as a profoundly average man of profoundly average intelligence. His intellectual conception of the world relied on clichés and official bromides. He deferred his moral thinking in all things to the system and his superiors. He had no particular interest in these questions himself and no real ability to generate his own personal insights about them. He was a joiner and liked to belong to groups where others could feed him a sense of identity and meaning. When he noticed his social betters endorsing seemingly evil plans, he consoled himself that as a lesser man this surely absolved him personally of any guilt. Consequently, he hardly had any guilt. Eichmann even bragged about what he did, oversold his own role, valuing notoriety and his sense of belonging — to Nazi social circles which no longer existed. He was able to live in the moral worldview of those he admired, unwilling to exercise any meaningful personal conscientiousness. He believed that conceding moral responsibility to others was a good enough excuse to absolve himself of personal moral accountability.
George W. Bush does possess a sense of guilt, or at least a little regret. He has at least some moral injury and seems to seek to heal it. As a simple person, his paintings and meetings with soldiers seem sufficient as therapy. Bush’s moral worldview permits him to feel guilt, just not in proportion to the great evil he has perpetrated. Bush’s evil lies with the fact that he is a man who is capable of guilt and regret, who is not a psychopath, but who is simultaneously able to remain completely unconcerned or uninterested in the trauma his choices have caused in millions of innocent lives.
Bush’s guilt recalls the fictional Colonel in Apocalypse Now who burned down a village in order to go surfing. Despite the monstrosity of the act, this colonel goes out of his way to provide water and empathetic comfort to a mortally wounded Viet Cong soldier. While the Colonel here is no Eichmann level mental midget, the literary metaphor refers to selective morality driven by contrived moral self-identity. It is an absurdist take on evil, but banal evil is somewhat absurd.
Bush’s evil is not the product of a person with a wicked heart. Rather, like Eichmann, Bush’s evil is a product of his stupidity. As a profoundly average man, a joiner who never questions much and concedes all moral and intellectual accountability to his social superiors, Bush simply allowed evil to happen. He is accountable for this, he is deeply guilty. However, his moral self-identity will never process that guilt. He is capable of understanding that his war has harmed brave soldiers whose lives he values, but because the world of his social and intellectual superiors – his father, the writers at National Review – does not care about Iraqi lives, neither does Bush. Make no mistake, this is profoundly evil, a profound moral lapse. Yet, the cause is Bush’s profoundly average nature.
Bush is worse than a monster, he is middling.
Altogether, George W. Bush’s conscience stands as a refutation of the Great Man or chieftain theory of national leadership. Conscience is a powerful force within humans. However, conscience is not built to bear the guilt of a nation. Conscience doesn’t process the magnitude of suffering caused by war. There’s a reason why it is said that one death is a tragedy, but one million deaths is a statistic.
Gut instinct, the heart and the individual conscience alone are not sufficient tools to evaluate the propriety of a given war. Humans are not qualified to make moral judgments of this magnitude. It’s making Sophie’s Choice a million times over for people we’ll never know. It is above our pay grade.
Instead, we humans should seek to avoid war, and pour our wealth and energy into actions which serve as alternatives to war. We should never trust human authority figures to have the moral capacity to make reasonable, good judgments about when to go to war or not.
In my opinion, Eichmann’s banal evil is actually a prototype for all evil. Men like Eichmann and Bush exemplify evil in its purest form. Humans are moral beings, and the concession of moral responsibility to others is the greatest form of surrender of which a human soul is capable. The social superiors who created the monstrous policy in which Bush and Eichmann merely operated — they may be smarter, more psychopathic — nevertheless are guilty of the same banality. They all hold a middling moral self-identity, and their moral world view is held deliberately narrow.
Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz all. They all have a little Bush in them. Joiners, team members. The idea that sweet cool ninja spec-ops teams will solve world social problems is stupidity. The idea that you can start a little war, make some oil bucks in Iraq, then just move on is willful ignorance of the condition of and dynamics affecting other people. Thinking that a mere purple-fingered election will make immediate, deep changes to a centuries-old culture — more stupidity, on its face!
I’d be inclined to think that the truly wicked — the real psychopaths — tend to fit into the world with the rest of us much better than the idiots. They’re usually smart enough to know the limits, to understand that you have to pretend to be good around most people most of the time to get by in life. This type will order quiet assassinations, wipe villages off of maps in ways such that no one would notice. They’re the types that quietly execute the Salvador Option, and for better or worse restore stable conditions without history noticing. They’re evil too, they’re insidious, but their impact is less.
The truly evil who kill millions are always bungling idiots. Bush, the tantrum throwing Hitler types, the self-satisfied Roosevelts of history, joiner Truman, bone-brained Mao — all a bunch of morons, smug Idi Amins, who caused immense damage every time they were allowed to set policy direction in lieu of their subordinates. These subordinates, evil psychopaths like Curtis LeMay, or Reinhard Heydrich, they never started any wars, they didn’t appoint themselves, they didn’t carry out their own orders. Psychopathy limits itself. The stupid idiots, the banal evil, is what gives license to psychopathy.
Hitler was a self-aggrandizing, bungling chump. Eichmann was a midget of a man. Heydrich was evil, but his evil needed Hitler and Eichmann. LeMay bombed 1 million Japanese to death, but he needed Truman and the naïve, ever unrepentant farm-boy pilots on both sides of his psychopathy. Psychopathy is the seed of evil, but stupidity is the fertile ground in which it grows.
In Bush’s mind, he did the best job he could as president of an America which he views as an always good country, which has to fight wars sometimes. In his heart, he regrets that people he respects faced harm. He surrounds himself with people that are in all ways better than him, the soldiers he sacrificed. He feeds off of their valor to heal his moral injury. Yet, there seems to be very little concern in his heart for the true victims of his wars – the hundreds of thousands of dead innocents from foreign lands. Bush is an average man whose conscience is not equipped to conceive of that guilt. He is profoundly evil, because he is stupid.
The only justice Bush will ever face must come from the lessons we learn from him. One lesson stands out. Only idiots start wars. Another is that evil blossoms where conscience shrinks and shirks.
Can anyone think what our society might have spent six and a half trillion dollars on instead of 20 years of war in the Middle East for nothing? How about the trillion dollars per year we keep spending on the military on top of that?
Invading, dominating and remaking the Arab world to serve the interests of the American empire and the state of Greater Israel sounds downright quaint at this point. Iraq War II, as Senator Bernie Sanders said in the debate a few weeks ago, while letting Joe Biden, one of its primary proponents, off the hook for it, was “a long time ago.” Actually, Senator, we still have troops there fighting Iraq War III 1/2 against what’s left of the ISIS insurgency, and our current government continues to threaten the launch of Iraq War IV against the very parties we fought the last two wars for. This would almost certainly then lead to war with Iran.
The U.S.A. still has soldiers, marines and CIA spies in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Tunisia, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and only God and Nick Turse know where else.
Worst of all, America under President Donald Trump is still “leading from behind” in the war in Yemen Barack Obama started in conspiracy with Saudi then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back in 2015. This war is nothing less than a deliberate genocide. It is a medieval-style siege campaign against the civilian population of the country. The war has killed more than a quarter of a million innocent people in the last five years, including at least 85,000 children under five years old. And, almost unbelievably, this war is being fought on behalf of the American people’s enemies, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). These are the same guys that bombed the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000, helped to coordinate the September 11th attack, tried to blow up a plane over Detroit with the underpants bomb on Christmas Day 2009, tried to blow up another plane with a package bomb and launched the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France since then. In fact, CENTCOM was helping the Houthi regime in the capital of Sana’a target and kill AQAP as late as January 2015, just two months before Obama stabbed them in the back and took al Qaeda’s side against them. So the war is genocide and treason.
As Senator Rand Paul once explained to Neil Cavuto on Fox News back before he decided to become virtually silent on the matter, if the U.S.-Saudi-UAE alliance were to succeed in driving the Houthi regime from power in the capital city, they could end up being replaced by AQAP or the local Muslim Brotherhood group, al-Islah. There is zero chance that the stated goal of the war, the re-installation of former dictator Mansur Hadi on the throne, could ever succeed. And yet the war rages on. President Trump says he’s doing it for the money. That’s right. And he’s just recently sent the marines to intervene in the war on behalf of our enemy-allies too.
We still have troops in Germany in the name of keeping Russia out 30 years after the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Empire, even though Germany is clearly not afraid of Russia at all, and are instead more worried that the U.S. and its newer allies are going to get them into a fight they do not want. The Germans prefer to “get along with Russia,” and buy natural gas from them, while Trump’s government does everything in its power to prevent it.
America has expanded our NATO military alliance right up to Russia’s western border and continues to threaten to include Ukraine and former-Soviet Georgia in the pact right up to the present day. As the world’s worst hawks and Russiagate Hoax accusers have admitted, Trump has been by far the worst anti-Russia president since the end of the last Cold War. Obama may have hired a bunch of Hitler-loving Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine for him back in 2014, but at least he was too afraid to send them weapons, something Trump has done enthusiastically, even though he was actually impeached by the Democrats for moving a little too slowly on one of the shipments.
We still have troops in South Korea to protect against the North, even though in economic and conventional terms the South overmatches the North by orders of magnitude. Communism really doesn’t work. And the only reason the North even decided to make nukes is because George W. Bush put a gun to their head and essentially made them do it. But as Cato’s Doug Bandow says, we don’t even need a new deal. The U.S. could just forget about North Korea and it wouldn’t make any difference to our security at all.
And now China. Does anyone outside of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps really care whether the entire Pacific Ocean is an American lake or only 95% of it? The “threat” of Chinese dominance in their own part of the world exists only in the heads of hawkish American policy wonks and the Taiwanese, who should have been told a long time ago that they are on their own and that there’s no way in the world the American people or government are willing to trade Los Angeles and San Francisco for Taipei. Perhaps without the U.S. superpower standing behind them, Taiwanese leaders would be more inclined to seek a peaceful settlement with Beijing. If not, that’s their problem. Not one American in a million is willing to sacrifice their own home town in a nuclear war with China over an island that means nothing to them. Nor should they. Nor should our government even dream they have the authority to hand out such dangerous war guarantees to any other country in such a reckless fashion.
And that’s it. There are no other powers anywhere in the world. Certainly there are none who threaten the American people. Our government claims they are keeping the peace, but there are approximately two million Arabs and Pashtuns who would disagree except that they’ve already been killed in our recent wars and so are unavailable for comment.
Enough already. It is time to end the war on terrorism and end the rest of the American empire as well. As our dear recently departed friend Jon Basil Utley learned from his professor Carroll Quigley, World Empire is the last stage of a civilization before it dies. That is the tragedy. The hope is that we can learn from history and preserve what’s left of our republic and the freedom that made it great in the first place, by abandoning our overseas “commitments” and husbanding our resources so that we may pass down a legacy of liberty to our children.
The danger to humanity represented by the Coronavirus plague has, by stark relief, exposed just how unnecessary and therefore criminal this entire imperial project has been. We could have quit the empire 30 years ago when the Cold War ended, if not long before. We could have a perfectly normal and peaceful relationship with Iraq, Iran, Syria, Korea, Russia, China, Yemen and any of the other nations our government likes to pretend threaten us. And when it comes to our differences, we would then be in the position to kill them with kindness and generosity, leading the world to liberty the only way we truly can, voluntarily, on the global free market of ideas and results.
That is what the world needs and the legacy the American people deserve.
Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan and editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,000 interviews since 2003.
Five years ago the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invaded neighboring Yemen. The conflict was supposed to be quick and simple, over in a few weeks. Now the once-haughty Saudi royals have offered a ceasefire, after their opponents, Houthi irregulars, captured the province of al-Jawf.
The conflict has created a horrific humanitarian crisis. Yemen, which has long been divided, impoverished, and embattled, is wrecked, and is unlikely to emerge as one complete nation. The cost has been roughly 100,000 dead in combat (nearly 20,000 of them civilians); another 130,000 dead from the consequences of the conflict; a million people suffering from Cholera; 20 million Yemenis facing food insecurity; sixteen million regularly hungry; and ten million at risk of famine.
Read the full article at The American Conservative.
Australia has a proud military history, even before it was a federation in 1901 it had sent men abroad in service of Empire. Still a new nation while the British fought bitterly against the Boers in South Africa, the Australian military identity was slowly forged in incidents of undeniable heroism and controversy. Famously, the Australian soldier Breaker Morant became an Australian hero, elsewhere he was a revenge minded man who executed unarmed Boer prisoners and likely civilians. He was tried and executed, perhaps as an example by the British as such conduct was not rare in an ugly war. Morant’s legacy however would run on in most theatres for over one hundred years of Australian military service.
In the World Wars the Australians were notorious for heroic conduct and fighting with a respected ferocity. They were not above executing prisoners. This was not unique to the Australian soldier, they were not above it either. Intimate savagery was not unlawful it was expected to be found inside the heat of battle and soon after as the fog of war lingered. It is not a statement of good and evil, merely one of fact. Most if not all sides in war have had soldiers that do this to others. It is the disregard and acceptance of such actions that brings into question the society and culture that not only continues to conduct war abroad but condones all its horrible outcomes with pride. That is the Australian character regarding its wars and war fighters.
The recent emergence of footage of an Australian SASR troops murdering an unarmed man as he prayed in a field somewhere in Afghanistan has not raised much controversy inside of Australia. It has mildly been reported but mostly buried beneath the concerns about COVID-19 and the potential shortages on toilet paper for most Australian voters. The military however, still abroad, still killing are always above reproach. As with most released footage incidents it beckons just how common such events are, given the confidence of those who are being recorded. To kill an unarmed man as shown in the clip is almost routine.
In June 2019 the Australian Federal Police raided the homes of journalists, most of those raided worked for the state-run ABC network. The raids were a response to a 2018 report about the Australian intelligence agencies using their powers to spy on Australian citizens. For most Australians such a revelation and the frightening response on journalists was met with apathy and an eager trust in the governments wisdom when it comes to their defense. It was assumed by some that such measures taken by the AFP would not only keep Australians alive, the terrorists at bay but most of all save Australian soldiers lives. Australian soldiers still fighting an unwinnable war inside Afghanistan.
Australians love war. They always have. Every year in April the nation indulges in a ritual to celebrate the lives of martyrs that served the British empire in a brutal war, the date commemorates the invasion of mainland Turkey in 1915. The heroism is never in doubt, the rationale reason for the war is however never truly sought. It assumed as a righteous destiny of the Australian soldier to be overseas in the service of a larger imperial partner. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan it does not matter, it is the right of the Australian soldier to be there. That is the imbedded belief of the citizen as they stand for dawn service each April 25.
So as news reports and whistle-blowing soldiers from both Australia and New Zealand share their experiences in Afghanistan with shaky voices they are met with wary ears and sometimes distain. When former defense lawyer David McBride revealed what became known as the “Afghan Papers” much of it revealing unlawful killings by Australian SAS members he was charged for leaking classified materials, though the content was never disputed or denied. The Australian government simply did not want the truth of bloodshed to become exposed to the public but more importantly to foreigners that have a glowing opinion of the Australian nation.
Now with such graphic footage of an Australian special forces member murdering an unarmed man it is hard to deny the claims of the whistle-blowers. Even if the executed man was a horrible mass murdering terrorist, he was unarmed and vulnerable. His capture could have provided intelligence and many hours of painful debriefing at the hands of coalition interrogators. Instead it is likely this man had nothing to offer alive, so he was executed by the elites of the Australian military.
What the outcome is, remains uncertain. Perhaps a tighter grip on the release of such footage. It is alleged that the SAS soldier in the clip was stood down, how would we know given the secrecy of the SAS and how precious trained and experienced soldiers at his level are. With the COVID-19 pandemic it is likely that the Australian government will use the fear and concerns to help widen its already immense powers over the citizenry’s lives. No matter how incompetent it reveals itself in either health or security it is without competition.
It would take an elite level of mercenary and psychotic mentality to visit upon a land thousands of kilometres away from home and to then execute a man already on his knees as he prays to his God close to his own house. A stranger In shock, frightened and pleading for his life is then killed. This is the war that continues to be waged in many of our names, and this is the horrors that distant strangers face because it is our foreign policy to kill out of our own insecurities and our governments need to rule in any capacity.
The Australian Police are investigating the allegations in a recent incident of an SAS soldier Ben Robert-Smith who kicked a handcuffed prisoner off a cliff and ordered his killing. Smith is a highly decorated hero of the war. The outcome of such an investigation and trial will be telling. But what it does reveal is the harshness of those elites pressed into long periods of service in a war that few understand other than it must somehow go on.
So, for the time being, hidden among the news of pandemic the crimes of war will trickle to the screens of those who care. The few watchdogs that exist will limply bark into a mob desperate for their own creature comforts as they face quarantine. The war, those endless epidemics of government cruelty will go on. The futility of Australia’s mission in Afghanistan will most likely continue, even if in secret. And the recent incident so graphically captured on film is just another contact.
by Scott Horton
by Scott Horton
by Will Grigg
by Sheldon Richman
by Sheldon Richman