TBR News October 12, 2016

Oct 12 2016

The Voice of the White House 


Washington, D.C.  October 12, 2016:”The origins of the growing Syrian mess are quite simple.

Assad is a dictator.

His father was a dictator.

Assad became allied with Russia at one point and leased Putin’s navy a port facility on the Mediterranean.

That annoyed the Pentagon very much.

And when Putin got his hands on the former large Russian naval base at Sebastopol,(in the Crimea) this annoyed Washington even more.

And Israel was furious with Assad because they believed he was allowing Russia to trans-ship surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, missiles that could do terrible damage to Israel.

Tel Aviv then ordered Washington to carpet bomb southern Lebanon, just as they had insisted the US bomb Tehran to stifle the development of atomic weapons.
The US declined but in private Hillary Clinton assured Tel Aviv that if she were elected president, such bombing attacks would commence at once.

The civil war in Syria was genuine but inflamed by US support of the rebels and as the US was supporting the rebels, Putin backed the legitimate government.

His aircraft stopped the exporting of stolen Syrian oil to Turkey (and from Turkey it went to Israel and the US) and by attacking rebel groups, a number of CIA specialists who were training these groups were turned into cat meat.

And the US screams that Russia attacked an aid convoy and various Aleppo hospitals but they conveniently forget the earlier US aerial attacks on a clearly marked Pakistani hospital and other such institutions.

It is, after all, the kicked dog that yelps.”


How Syria Became the New Global War

As the noose around Aleppo tightens — and the Assad regime and its Russian allies continue to bomb the city — the extremely dangerous nature of this proxy war is becoming more apparent than ever. Could escalation between Moscow and Washington be on the horizon?

October 10, 2016


According to Abu Yazen, a scout for the rebel group Levant Front who is stationed a couple of kilometers outside the siege ring, Syrian Arabic dialect no longer gets you very far on the front lines surrounding Aleppo.

Every group participating in the murderous fighting around the city is trying to listen in on the radio communications of their opponents. “But to understand Assad’s troops, I would have to be multilingual,” Yazen said over Skype during a recent moment of calm, when no bombs from the regime or from Russia were falling on the city.

In the “Afghan sector” near Khan Tuman southwest of the city, Dari is spoken, a dialect of Persian common in Afghanistan, Yazen says. In the “Hezbollah sector” in the south, Arabic with a Lebanese accent can be heard. The Iranian officers, meanwhile, speak Persian. And nobody, the scout continues, understands the Pakistanis when they speak Urdu. He says that the Iraqi militias surrounding Aleppo tend to speak with the strong accent prevalent in southern Iraq, “but we’ve gotten used to it.” The only reason they don’t hear much Russian, he says, is because the pilots flying overhead “only use frequencies that are difficult for us to intercept.”

Aleppo, the destroyed, divided city, has become a symbol for the horrors of the air war that the Syrian regime and its allies are waging against the Sunni rebels, as well as a symbol for the impotence of the West. Seldom have Western politicians been as helpless as they are now. And seldom has the air war in Syria been as brutal as it has been in the last two weeks.

Now that diplomacy has collapsed, the eyes of the world are once again squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has thrown his unconditional support behind the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. And they are on US President Barack Obama, the leader of the Western world, who didn’t want to become deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.

An Apocalyptic Wasteland

It was the hours-long September 19 air attack on a United Nations aid convoy — allegedly carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance — that spelled the end of the arduously negotiated cease-fire after just one week. The attack appears to have been initiated by a Syrian helicopter. Reporting by the Washington Post indicates that a Russian drone and warplanes were also in the air. The rebels have no air force.

Since the collapse of the cease-fire, the regime once again seems to believe that it can emerge as the winner of this war. Russian jets and Syrian helicopters have pounded besieged eastern Aleppo, transforming it into an apocalyptic wasteland. According to the United Nations, more than 300 civilians have been killed in the city in the last two weeks and five hospitals have been either partially or completely destroyed. Some 250,000 people are thought to be still living in eastern Aleppo, which is completely surrounded by forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Russian bunker busters and incendiary bombs are being dropped on eastern Aleppo without any consideration for the civilians living there. That, says UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, constitutes a war crime. Complete annihilation is a strategy that Russia has successfully pursued before — in the 1990s assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny. But even as the West accuses Syria and Russia of committing war crimes, Moscow and Damascus have issued blanket denials.

Even if the Syrians are the ones being forced to suffer, for many of those involved, the conflict is no longer about Aleppo or even Syria. Of this, the Babylonian mixture of languages spoken on the frontlines and in the air above is just one of many indications. “I have the feeling that we have become laboratory rats for Russian, Iranian and Syrian weapons — and for the West’s political experiments,” says Sharif Mohammed, a civilian who is holding out in eastern Aleppo.

In its sixth year, the conflagration has become a kind of world war in three respects. Firstly, for the last four years, large numbers of foreigners have been flowing into the country to join the fight. More than 20,000 radical Sunnis have joined Islamic State (IS) and about three times that many Shiites from a half-dozen countries are thought to be fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

The US-Russia Proxy War

Secondly, the conflict has destabilized the entire region, a development that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to heating up the civil war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government.

Thirdly, Syria has become a proxy war between the US and Russia. At stake is the role America wants to play in the world — and the role that Russia can play in the world.

It has been a year since Putin began his intervention in Syria — on the pretext that he intended to fight Islamic State. For a year, the Americans and Russians tried to convince themselves that they shared common interests in Syria and could agree to fight terrorism together. But in reality, Russia is playing a role similar to the one it adopted in Ukraine: It is providing massive amounts of military support to one side, thus becoming a de facto party to the war, while posing on the international stage as a mediator and part of a possible diplomatic solution.

Many Western politicians had hoped that Russia would play a more constructive role this time around. That, though, has proven to be an illusion. And that helps explain why the diplomacy that many Western politicians had hoped would bring about a solution has repeatedly failed. Because Russia is taking part in Assad’s air strikes on civilians, the US last week withdrew from all peace talks. In response, Russia pulled out of a deal for the disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium — which can be seen as an indirect threat to use atomic weapons.

For the first time in a long time, officials in the US government are once again considering military intervention in Syria and bombing Assad’s military. Former General David Petraeus said last Wednesday that it would be “very, very straightforward” to destroy Assad’s air force using cruise missiles and other weapons launched from a distance.

Is it time for the US to finally take action? How dangerous would an American intervention be in Russia’s backyard? Could Syria trigger a global conflagration?

Presumably to underline the plausibility of such fears, Russia is now sending two additional warships and a missile corvette with anti-aircraft capabilities to the Mediterranean. The Russian Defense Ministry has openly threatened to shoot down US warplanes over Syria and said that the Syrian military is in possession of Buk surface-to-air missile systems. That is the same weapons system used to shoot down Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Putin is hoping that Barack Obama will not want to launch a military engagement in the final months of his presidential tenure.

And what are the Europeans doing? Not much. German Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t believe sufficient support can be found for new sanctions against Russia, particularly since the Social Democrats, her center-left junior coalition partner, are pursuing reconciliation with Moscow.

At the end of last week, Russia’s foreign minister and the US secretary of state were at least talking with each other on the phone again and Putin announced that he was interested in meeting with French President François Hollande. Nevertheless, there are no current prospects for a new cease-fire — and even as global politics continue to focus on Syria, and men, women and children continue dying in Aleppo.


“We aren’t expecting anything anymore. We are, of course, still watching the news, but nobody is still hoping that talks will bring a solution,” says Ibrahim al-Mousa, a 33-year-old doctor. He looks extremely tired. Wearing a blue surgeon’s cap and a carefully trimmed beard, Mousa is one of the last remaining doctors in the city.

“At the beginning of the revolution,” he says, “people still hoped that a no-fly zone would be established over Aleppo. Now, we are just hoping that the rebels will be able to break the siege” so that food can once again be delivered to the city. He spoke to us from Aleppo via Skype, which is the only way left to communicate with people in the eastern part of the city. It has been a year since the last SPIEGEL reporter was able to visit Aleppo.

Mousa is a doctor in the hospital called M1. Back in 2012, rebels in Aleppo gave the city’s most important hospitals code names, from M1 to M8, so that they would remain secret and be less easy targets for Assad’s barrel bombs. These days, though, hospitals are regularly coming under attack. Even the usually reserved UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon felt it necessary to issue a reminder: “Deliberate attacks on hospitals are war crimes,” he said in late September.

Last week, hospitals M2 and M4 had to be evacuated and temporarily closed after being struck by bombs. It wasn’t the first time, says Ibrahim al-Mousa, but there used to be twice as many doctors in the city. Many medical professionals have since left Aleppo, he says. Pressure has steadily risen on those who have remained, he says, adding that only two orthopedic surgeons are still in the city. Sometimes, in particularly severe cases, he calls for help from a British doctor with whom he used to work in Aleppo. Last week, Mousa had to reconstruct a jawbone, a challenging and complex operation. The British doctor provided guidance via Skype.

Regime Cynicism

“Everything around our building lies in rubble. We know that there are no safe places in Aleppo,” Mousa says. “Two days ago, a missile struck just 25 meters away from us.” Inside the hospital, they carefully ration the electricity produced by a generator and still have food in stock. In the rest of the city, there is no electricity anywhere, nor is there drinking water or milk. Those needing to move around Aleppo have to wait on the side of the road for someone to pick them up, Mousa says, before adding that it has become too expensive to drive. In the night, he says, the city is completely dark, with no light anywhere — neither from the streets nor from the buildings.

Ibrahim al-Mousa had originally intended to become a plastic surgeon, a service that, given rich Syrians’ eagerness to have their noses done, had been in high demand prior to the war. But in the fourth year of his specialized studies, he broke off his training and began operating on the wounded in field hospitals. Now, he says, he can’t imagine anymore what it is like to live in a city with traffic lights, restaurants, peace and normal life.

In eastern Aleppo, all the schools have closed down, there is hardly any bread and a bomb can strike your home at any time.

Two weeks ago, the Assad regime’s news agency published a video on Twitter showing young and beautiful people dancing to house music in a club. At the end of the video, a subtitle appears reading: July 16, 2016, Aleppo. The Tourism Ministry published a second video showing picturesque drone images from intact western Aleppo to the “Game of Thrones” soundtrack.

The two cynical clips were not meant for tourists. Rather, they were meant to show that in the government-controlled parts of the city, in western Aleppo, people’s lives were good. And that the others, those living in rubble, were suffering because they were against Assad.


No one could have predicting in spring 2011 that Friday demonstrations against a dictator would develop into a regional war that now has implications for almost the entire world.

Back then, the opposition activists who rose up peacefully were beaten down and hunted by militias. Many of them were shot. The result was a civil war that increasingly developed along sectarian lines. On the one side were the rebels, most of whom are Sunnis, who make up the majority of Syria’s population. On the other side was the regime, supported by several of the country’s minorities. Assad’s core supporters are Alawites, who make up 10 percent of Syrian citizens, and the Shiites, who represent 2 percent. In addition, many Christians (10 percent of the population) also support the dictator.

How did this civil war develop into a conflict affecting the entire globe? It is primarily the result of a fateful combination: Numerically, supporters of the Assad regime are in the minority in the country, but Russia and Iran were both determined to prop up their trusted vassal. This has created situation that nobody wanted, yet no power moved to prevent — in particular the United States, which might have been able to put a stop to the violence early on.

As the conflict has developed, more and more parties have joined. Donations from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states mostly went to radical-Islamist groups among the rebels, which contributed to their strength, and Turkey also supported select Islamist groups in addition to Turkmen. Locally rooted, moderate militia groups that were initially the strongest rebel groups — collectively known as the Free Syrian Army — increasingly found themselves in competition with ideologically and financially powerful rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Finally, Islamic State also began expanding its control over Syrian territory.

The result was a “quagmire” that Barack Obama wanted to avoid at all costs. And Vladimir Putin took advantage of the opportunity to increase Russia’s geopolitical influence.

Without the ground troops, warplanes and bombs of his allies, Assad’s regime would have collapsed years ago. But if he and Putin are allowed to continue bombing unhindered, it is likely that they will ultimately be able to take Aleppo. It might require a few months; it might even take a year. But the upshot would be that the Assad regime would then control a rump state encompassing both the capital Damascus and the city that was once Syria’s most important economic hub. It would be devoid of people and little more than a pile of rubble, but it would be in Assad’s hands. Aleppo would be part of Pax Russica — and it would be as quiet as a cemetery.


Has Syria become Obama’s greatest failure? In an interview with Vanity Fair, the US president recently said in response to a question about what keeps him up at night: “Another good example of that is the situation in Syria, which haunts me constantly. I would say of all the things that have happened during the course of my presidency, the knowledge that you have hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, millions who have been displaced, (makes me) ask myself what might I have done differently along the course of the last five, six years.”

His critics have a clear answer to that question. They are certain that the situation in Syria would not have spun so far out of control if the US had intervened more courageously years ago. But Obama had one primary goal for his tenure in the White House: He wanted to prevent the US from becoming involved in yet another war in the Middle East.

He embarked on a significant modification of US foreign policy, away from the interventionist tendencies of his forebears — a lesson learned from the devastating war in Iraq, started by the 2003 US invasion. The US government supported the uprising against Assad, but did little to ensure its success.

The British-American analyst Charles Lister has been keeping close tabs on Syrian rebel groups for years. “The Obama administration has never demonstrated a willingness to implement policies that would lead to what its rhetoric has always stated: that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy and must be removed from power,” he told SPIEGEL. “The Obama administration’s policy approach to Syria can best be described as a containment strategy, whereby the opposition is given just enough to sustain itself, but not enough to get close to winning.”

Lister notes that military support, organized by the CIA, was provided, but it was insignificant compared to the ever-increasing support Assad received from his allies. This American policy, he says, has had a devastating effect. It has strengthened the radicals and weakened the moderates, primarily because radical groups receive their money and weapons from other sources. “As time has passed, the spillover effects of this containment policy have … recently encouraged the US to adopt a strict counter-terrorism lens to the whole conflict,” Lister says.

Frustrations with USA

Obama put his eggs in the diplomatic basket, but without the threat of military intervention. The US hoped that Russia would be prepared to drop its support of Assad, an approach which has proven erroneous. Now, the strategists in the White House and in the State Department don’t know what to do.

The “red line” that Obama once drew — the use of chemical weapons by the regime — was transgressed by Assad without consequences. “That robbed US foreign policy of any deterrent effect,” says Thanassis Cambanis, an expert on the Middle East with the Century Foundation. America’s hesitant strategy, he says, encouraged Putin to test out a more offensive-minded approach in the conflict — and to actively intervene militarily a year ago. “Putin waited until he was certain that the US would not intervene and then he did so himself.”

Frustration over the deadlock is particularly apparent with US Secretary of State John Kerry. He met with Syrian civilian representatives on the sidelines of the recent UN General Assembly and was unusually frank about the failures of US diplomacy in the conflict. “I lost the argument,” Kerry said during the closed-door meeting. “I’ve argued for the use of force. I’m the guy who stood up and announced that we’re going to attack Assad for the use of (chemical) weapons.” A recording of his comments was later leaked to CNN.

The increasingly confusing situation among the rebels has also deterred the US. Who is moderate? Who is extreme? Many fighters have become radicalized as the increasingly brutal conflict has progressed, while some of those fighting for extremist groups joined them simply because they paid the best. Because the US wanted to avoid the mistake of supporting the “wrong” rebels, they have refrained from becoming involved at all and decided roughly one year ago to focus their efforts on defeating Islamic State.

That, though, says Charles Lister, is a short-sighted policy because “adopting a counter-terrorism approach to Syria is directly undermining out own counter-terrorism approach!” Islamic State is a consequence of the Syrian war and its expansion was only made possible by the situation in the rest of the country. It would be in America’s interest to strengthen an opposition movement that is not led by extremists. The vacuum that was created by America’s limited engagement, he says, has instead been filled by Iran, Russia and countless terror organizations.

‘Time to Call Moscow’s Bluff’

Lister has developed a 30-day plan as a possible blueprint for a US intervention in Syria. He proposes that the first 20 days be spent massively boosting the military capabilities of moderate rebel groups — by providing them with anti-tank and light anti-aircraft weapons. The next 10 days should be spent negotiating another cease-fire, this time flanked by the threat of cruise missile strikes against Syrian military facilities should the regime violate the cease-fire. The US, he says, must try to incorporate Russia in the plan and to obtain a UN Security Council resolution or, if that proves unworkable, to assemble a “coalition of the willing.”

After day 30, the cease-fire could take effect, Lister argues. The goal would not be to topple Assad but to limit his ability to take military action. The next step would be to negotiate a de facto partitioning of the country, in the hopes that the cease-fire would strengthen the hands of moderates in both rebel-held territories and in areas under the control of the Assad regime. Lister assumes that a decade of negotiations and transition would follow.

Lister believes that fears of Russian escalation in the event of US intervention are unfounded. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been relatively low-risk thus far, he argues, and Moscow is uninterested in a “World War III scenario.” He writes: “It is time that the United States called Moscow’s bluff.”

Thus far, it is the most detailed publicly known plan for US intervention. Lister, though, does not work for the government; he is merely a well-known analyst. And even if military options are once again being discussed in the US government, there is currently no indication that Barack Obama is thinking about changing course.


The intervention in Syria filled many Russians with pride, but the most recent escalation has caused significant consternation. Ever since Washington suspended cooperation with Moscow, concern has increased in the Kremlin that the US could launch attacks on Syria’s army.

Such “direct aggression” by the US against Syria, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said 10 days ago, would result in “frightening, tectonic shifts” in the Middle East.

Critical political observers say that the conflict in and around Aleppo has spun totally out of control and has all the hallmarks of a catastrophe. The two major powers, they say, now stand in direct confrontation — and it is time to abandon the illusion that Russia can cooperate with the Americans.

The end of the cease-fire comes at an inconvenient time for Russia. Many in Moscow had hoped that the deal would help Assad by weakening US opposition to his continued presidency. But then, helicopters apparently belonging to Syria destroyed the UN aid convoy near Aleppo. If the Russians were indeed involved, as it appears they were, it is unclear who among Putin’s acolytes would stand to benefit.

The official explanation for Russia’s involvement in Syria remains to fight international terrorism, not prop up the Assad regime. Unofficially, though, Russian politicians own up to the real goal: achieving geo-political parity with the US. Assad’s political survival is merely a means to that much larger end. He is the only political actor who can preserve Russian influence in the region. Should he topple, Russia would have to bid farewell to its dream of wielding influence over the Middle East and the Mediterranean from its military bases in Tartus and Latakia.

Leonid Asayev, an expert on the region at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, has warned that Russia is increasingly taking sides with the Syrian regime and could be made liable for the crimes Assad is committing. He says that Assad is masterfully playing Russia off against the US.

When Russia entered the conflict a year ago, Moscow said the intervention would last but “a few months.” Now, the Kremlin is openly saying that Russia will have an extended presence in Syria.

In the last 12 months, Russia’s air force has flown 13,000 attacks in Syria and Moscow has spent 58 billion rubles on the conflict, or around 830 million euros — according to calculations made by Russia observers on the strength of official data. Yet Moscow has not been able to boost Assad’s troops to victory over the rebels. This would have given Assad the ability to dictate his conditions for a political settlement. But Russian military leaders say that the military capabilities of Assad’s forces are far too limited. Indeed, from the very beginning, the former argued for a much more significant intervention in Syria. But if Russia had begun suffering heavy casualties, it would have been difficult to assuage the Russian population.

Putin’s Shady Strategy

That helps explain why Russia is relying on an instrument in Syria that has only been developed by the Kremlin in the last several years: private military firms in the model of Blackwater, the private US company that was heavily involved in the war in Iraq. Moscow has deployed its mercenary units as ground forces to spare its regular troops from the risk. “What we do there? We are the first wave attack,” wrote one of the men on the Saint Petersburg Internet portal Fontanka.ru. “Syrian special forces courageously follow us before they are immediately interviewed by Russian state television.” The general public in Russia is told virtually nothing about the deployment of the Russian mercenaries and it is unknown exactly how many of them are active in Syria.

Now, Moscow is preparing for the US to implement plan B and perhaps begin attacking Syrian government troops directly. That would leave the Kremlin with no other choice than to increase its military support of Damascus.

Already, it looks as though the Kremlin has decided to increase the number of planes it has stationed at Khemeimim air base southeast of Latakia. Additional Su-24 and Su-34 bombers as well as Su-25 warplanes are being prepared for deployment in Syria, according to the newspaper Izvestia. The latter model, designed to provide close air support for ground troops, can fly up to 10 sorties each day, thus enabling them to “attack fighters almost without interruption,” the paper wrote. In addition, the Admiral Kuznetsov — the Russian navy’s only aircraft carrier — will set sail for the Syrian coast in mid-October along with the rest of its battle group.

Moscow has denied involvement in the Syrian ground war, but experts believe that several thousand Russian officers and soldiers are in the country. The website By24.org has collected photos of Russian soldiers from Latakia, Hama and Homs that have been posted on social media.

On occasion, reports emerge in the Russian media that include the names of casualties. The army leadership is quick to claim in such instances that the victim “hadn’t been in the military for some time.” When it came to the 19-year-old soldier Vadim Kostenko, the military claimed that he had committed suicide due to “lovesickness.” His parents, however, refused to believe the explanation because of the number of injuries on their son’s body.


The strict focus on Russia and the US leaves out an extremely important party to the conflict. After all, Assad’s most important ally isn’t Moscow, it’s Tehran. Though even if both Russia and Iran back Assad, the two countries view each other with mistrust and jealousy.

What is currently taking place in Syria is nothing less than the first international Shiite jihad in recent history. Largely unnoticed by the global public, tens of thousands of Shiite fighters have been recruited from half a dozen countries, trained and sent to Syria. It is a shadow army with fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Around 10,000 of them are standing at the gates of Aleppo.

In the last weekend of September, an airplane landed at an airport near Aleppo with great pomp. It was carrying an Iraqi cleric named Akram al-Kaabi, the founder of the Nujaba Movement, a Shiite militia that is thought to have 1,000 Iraqi fighters on the frontlines surrounding the city. “Youth like you are conducting jihad inside Iraq and outside Iraq,” he said in an address to his fighters that was filmed and later posted on social media channels.

He didn’t say anything about Assad or about the political situation. Instead, consistent with fundamentalist Shiite dogma, he sought to declare the deployment as being part of a religious war. He told the men they were fighting the same “monster” as Hussein once did, a reference to the venerated grandson of the Prophet who fell in the year 680 during a battle in the southern Iraqi city of Kerbala.

Nujaba is just one of around 60 Shiite-Iraqi militias that arose in the wake of rapid IS advances in Iraq. They are fighting in that country as well as in Syria. And they are part of a much larger network whose chains of command come together not in Iraq, but in Iran. Over 30 years ago, thousands of Sunnis joined the jihad in Afghanistan against the country’s Soviet occupiers, and now it is Shiites who are going to war in a foreign country in the name of religion.

Revolutionary Guards Strategy

This stream of mercenaries is being organized by the Quds Force, a military branch within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Pasdaran, who are responsible for foreign operations. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Revolutionary Guards have developed into a state within the state, an army with its own business empire that only reports to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a leader in the Iranian revolution. The Iranian government under the leadership of President Hassan Rohani essentially has no influence over Tehran’s Syria policies.

The Revolutionary Guards developed an internationally active network of militias, schools and charity organizations over the years that pursues but a single goal: committing Shiites from myriad countries to the goals pursued by Iran’s Islamic revolution. Troops for foreign deployments in Iraq and Syria are recruited from this network.

When Islamic State conquered Mosul and large swathes of western Iraq in the space of just a few days in June 2014, a number of Shiite militias joined together to form a parallel army called the Popular Mobilization Forces or, in the Arabic abbreviation, Hashd. They include up to 100,000 fighters from dozens of groups and there is apparently no clear command structure. Most of the militias were founded by the Quds Force and remain under its control.

On Feb. 22, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi even provided them with official authorization in his “Decree 91” as a long-term “independent military formation” belonging to the state. The units, the decree stated, will be “allied” with the commander in chief of all armed forces, meaning the prime minister himself. The decree does not indicate that he will have command authority over the militias. In other words: The Iraqi government will finance a gigantic power made up of numerous militias, but will not have control over them.

That means that the Revolutionary Guards has managed to establish an ideologically pure bridgehead in Iraq, comparable to the 1982 founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, the third such bridgehead is to be established in Syria.

From a demographic point of view, it seems like a hopeless task to find enough loyal fighters from among the Shiite and Alawite minorities to cling to power against the Sunni majority. Indeed, this probably helps explain why the Revolutionary Guards is trying to convert Syrians with money and jobs. Houses in areas abandoned by Syrian rebels are also being given to Shiite fighters, who are being encouraged to have their families join them.

Most of those recruited by the Quds Force come from Afghanistan and many are sent to camps in Iran for training. But the Iranian network has also mobilized fighters from the Shiite minority in Pakistan. This shadow army has suffered immense losses — their families receive paltry compensation and a flag, but fresh recruits keep on coming. At least for now.

In the end, all of the strands come together in Iran — or, to be more precise, at Quds Force commander Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, a man who likes to pose as a pop star of war, having his picture taken on the frontlines with a keffiyeh thrown casually across his shoulders, his graying beard carefully trimmed.

There is only one country from which volunteers are not recruited: Iran itself. Losses from among the Iranian population could upset the country’s apathy.


The situation in Syria is made even more complicated by the fact that two proxy wars are being waged on the same territory. The more visible of the two is that between Russia and the West. But the structurally more meaningful proxy war is that being waged between the Shiites and the Sunnis — and between their protector states Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states are on the side of the Sunni opposition. But Saudi Arabia has a problem: Its military has little capacity for involvement in Syria because it is engaged in a second, more important proxy war with Iran. That war is taking place right next door in Yemen — and things aren’t going well for the Saudis. For the last one-and-a-half years, the Saudis have led a military alliance that has been unable to defeat the Shiite Houthi rebels.

As such, it was hardly surprising that nothing came of Saudi Arabia’s announcement last February that the country was prepared to send ground troops into Syria. The Saudis also failed to follow up on their pledge to supply the Syrian opposition with mobile surface-to-air missiles. Still, the kingdom did make a military base available to the US where moderate rebels were trained. The most important American air base in the region, Al Deid, is in Qatar, from which attacks in the region are coordinated.

The Saudi government has emphasized that they only support “moderate opposition” forces in Syria. But analysts are convinced that radical Islamist groups also benefit from financial assistance and weapons deliveries from the Gulf — though from private sources rather than state coffers.

Still, given the military dominance and resolve displayed by the opposing forces, pretty much everything the Gulf states do in the region smacks of toothless symbolism. They could do more, but they don’t want to, particularly since they are fearful of destroying what remains of their ties with Russia. In parallel with their Syrian offensive, Moscow in recent years has focused on intensifying its economic ties with the Gulf states — with some success.

Even Saudi Arabia, whose hard-currency reserves are shrinking, is interested in good economic ties with the Russians. From the Saudi perspective, the US — its traditional protective power — can no longer be relied on. The gradual American withdrawal from the region has led Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to increasingly keep Syria at arm’s length. But flows of money and weapons to the rebels are unlikely to ever stop completely.


Where will things in Aleppo and in Syria go from here? Last week, the tone worsened between Washington and Moscow, and Russia is doing what it can to prevent a US intervention. On Thursday of last week, the two sides at least spoke to each other by telephone, but at a UN Security Council meeting on Saturday, two competing resolutions for a cease-fire in Aleppo — one introduced by France and one introduced by Russia — were vetoed. And the interests pursued by Washington and Moscow remain diametrically opposed.

The Pentagon continues to examine the possibility of arming moderate opposition forces with surface-to-air systems that would allow them to shoot down low-flying helicopters belonging to the Syrian air force. There is also speculation about US Special Forces which, according to several sources, are currently in rebel-held areas between the border city of Azaz and Aleppo. But it remains unclear if the troops were there to continue the assault against IS or to support rebels as they advance on Aleppo. It seems more likely that the conflict between the US and Russia will continue to be fought on the diplomatic level.

What is clear, however, is that external powers have much more control than the Syrians do over how the war will develop in the future. A decisive factor will be how long and to what degree those external powers want to support their local allies. Russia, for its part, is hoping to increase its geopolitical footprint in the world — and it must achieve results, either diplomatically or militarily, to do so. It will remain a party to the conflict for as long as it takes.

Much is also dependent on the results of the presidential election in the US. Should Donald Trump become president, the US will likely pull back even further than it has thus far. If Hillary Clinton wins, one can expect the US to pursue its conventional strategy as an interventionist power.

It is thus likely that things will remain the same in the near future: Jets and helicopters will continue pounding eastern Aleppo into rubble and the world will continue to stand by as the blood flows and children die. And in a few weeks or months, the Shiite ground alliance will take over the destroyed city.

Everybody Loses

That would not, however, mean victory for Assad. The Sunni uprising would likely continue as a guerilla war and remaining moderate rebels would be pushed even further into the arms of the extremists. That could mean that the conflict will continue for many years to come, with Syria remaining a source of global instability. And as long as that is the case, it will be impossible to completely eradicate Islamic State.

The alliance of Russian troops and Shiite militias is sufficient for keeping the Syrian uprising in check. But if Russia were to withdraw, power structures in the country would shift dramatically. As a result, Moscow likely faces an extended stay in the country. The Syrian rebels, for their part, have continually proven their ability to stand firm. There is little reason to believe that the Sunni rebellion against Assad’s rule will end any time soon.

There is something that all parties to the war — except for the Kurds in the north — agree on: maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. The regime wants to preserve the country and the rebels have vehemently rejected all demands for partition, as have Russia, US and Turkey. The Iranians, according to Walter Posch, an Iran expert in Austria, are also “allergic to anything that looks like a break-up of the state.”

And yet, should the war continue, partition seems the most likely outcome. No side currently appears able to win enough public support to control the entire country and Syria is falling to pieces. Only those who are too poor to leave remain in the country — or those who are profiting from the war. Those who will be needed to rebuild the country at some point in the future have already left — and the longer the fighting continues, the fewer reasons they will have to return to the rubble of a destroyed Syria.

No one, it seems, will emerge victorious.

But this war isn’t just destroying Syria. It is changing the entire world. Leaders around the world who are interested in crushing uprisings among their populations will take a close look at how the world reacts when the rules of the international community — as weak as they may be — are completely ignored. Such leaders will be pleased to note that nothing is beyond the pale. Huge, bunker-busting bombs can be dropped with impunity on schools and hospitals, as Putin is now doing. Sarin and chlorine gas can be deployed, as Assad has done. And as long as you have a powerful ally, preferably one with a seat on the Security Council, nothing happens.

A few days ago, there were a few — but not many — newspaper reports that Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir had, according to Amnesty International, used chemical weapons in Darfur. The story wasn’t worth much more than a brief blurb. It has, after all, become normal once again.

By Riham Alkousaa, Benjamin Bidder, Christian Neef, Maximilian Popp, Gordon Repinski, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Samiha Shafy and Holger Stark

Bolt cutters expose vulnerability of North America’s oil pipeline grid

October 12, 2016

by Liz Hampton and Ethan Lou


HOUSTON/NEW YORK-All it took was a pair of bolt cutters and the elbow grease of a few climate activists to carry out an audacious act of sabotage on North America’s massive oil and gas pipeline system.

For an industry increasingly reliant on gadgets such as digital sensors, infrared cameras and drones to monitor security and check for leaks, the sabotage illustrated how vulnerable pipelines are to low-tech attacks.

On Tuesday, climate activists broke through fences and cut locks and chains simultaneously in several states and simply turned the pipelines off.

All they had to do was twist shut giant valves on five cross-border pipelines that together can send 2.8 million barrels a day of crude to the United States from Canada – equal to about 15 percent of daily U.S. consumption.

The activists did no damage to the pipelines, which operating companies shut down as a precaution for checks before restarting.

The United States is the world’s largest energy market, and the infrastructure to drill, refine, store and deliver that energy to consumers is connected by millions of miles of pipeline that are impossible to protect entirely from attack.

“You’re not manning these things on a permanent basis. It’s not viable,” said Stewart Dewar, a project manager at Senstar, an Ottawa-based company that authored a 2012 white paper on pipeline security. “It’s too expensive.”

There are more than 200,000 miles (322,000 km) of oil lines and many times that of natural gas lines across the United States. Thousands of rural and often remote pumping and valve stations dot the country.

The cost of posting armed guards at valve stations, usually found every 20 miles along the underground pipelines, would be prohibitive, said Dewar.

For companies, there are few options to police the parts of their pipeline networks that sit above ground, such as the valve stations.

The stations are usually protected by nothing more than the same flimsy chain link fence and padlocks elementary schools use to protect their playgrounds.


The same vulnerabilities are present worldwide. In Nigeria and conflict zones such as Iraq, pipelines have been targeted by militants. In Mexico, thieves target the fuel arteries to siphon off fuel.

But until Tuesday, environmental activists had never carried out a simultaneous, coordinated attack of this magnitude.

Tuesday’s action, supported by the Vermont-based Climate Disobedience Action Fund, was held to draw attention to climate change and to support opponents of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which critics say could rupture and sour drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.

Several pipeline operators and safety experts said shutting off valves was extremely dangerous and that activists underestimated the risks.

Pipelines can be heavily pressurized depending on length and altitude variation, and shutting off a valve could cause ruptures that are “catastrophic” for the environment, Paul Tullis of Tullis Engineering Consultants said.

“It’s like a freight train,” he said of the momentum with which the oil moves. “If these people are hydraulic engineers, they might be able to do this safely.”

Activists often do not fully know what they are doing, even if they think they do, Tullis said.

Protesters said they spent months studying how to safely shut the valves. The ability for them to access the proprietary information necessary to shut a line safely was questioned by experts.

Either way, pipeline specialists said it was lucky there were no leaks on Tuesday. Once the valves are shut, pressure can quickly build up inside pipelines that operate under as much as 1,000 pounds (450 kg) per square inch.

Protesters were taking a chance that a weak spot in a line would not explode, and that employees in operations hubs would spring into action after hearing alarms.

“On the wrong pipeline, in the wrong place (actions like this) could kill people. This is hazardous hot liquid. It’s not something to be terrified of, but it must be respected,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts Inc, a pipeline advisory firm.


After the tampering, owners Enbridge Inc, TransCanada Corp, Spectra Energy and Kinder Morgan shut their lines as a precaution.

They did not immediately respond to questions about their broader security precautions, though some of them emphasized having multiple safety systems in place.

The general vulnerability of U.S. infrastructure – from bridges to power plants and ports – became more apparent after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has asked pipeline companies to carry out a “security vulnerability assessment” for their assets and to conduct risk assessments that include the “likelihood of a success of an attack,” and to take steps to mitigate those risks.

A review published by the DHS in 2015 identified physical and cyber security as a risk to energy infrastructure systems, including the threat of multiple, coordinated attacks and electromagnetic pulse events, but focused primarily on threats to the electrical grid.

Security experts said they have tried to strike a balance between protecting facilities, ensuring freedom of movement and keeping costs in check.

The Association of Oil Pipe Lines, an industry group, said it recognized disagreements exist about energy policy, but that the protest went too far.

Previous valve closures have caused spills, including one of nearly 4,000 barrels of oil, the group said.

“We don’t want anyone to get hurt or cause a release into the environment,” said Andrew Black, the group’s president.

(Reporting by Liz Hampton in Houston and Ethan Lou in New York; Additional reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar and Jessica Resnick-Ault; Writing by Terry Wade; Editing by Simon Webb and Bill Rigby)

 Australia says foreign spies hacked government weather bureau

Foreign spies installed malware on an Australian government computer system, an official report has found. Investigators stopped short of naming the country suspected.

October 12, 2016


The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) reports that a foreign intelligence service initiated a 2015 malware attack that originated at the Bureau of Meteorology and might have spread to other government networks – including the Defence Department’s. Initial media reports linked the cyberattack to China, which the United States has also accused of hacking government and corporate websites.

The ACSC’s report attributed “the primary compromise to a foreign intelligence service” but did not name which country it suspected. “We don’t narrow it down to specific countries, and we do that deliberately,” Dan Tehan, who assists Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday. “But what we have indicated is that cyberespionage is alive and well,” he added.

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) cybersecurity agency identified a remote administrative tool (RAT) and other malware on the weather bureau’s system in 2015. The report found that the attackers had likely succeeded at stealing information and that the bureau had instituted insufficient security controls.

“The RAT had also been used to compromise other Australian government networks,” the report found. “ASD identified evidence of the adversary searching for and copying an unknown quantity of documents from the bureau’s network. ”

In 2013, Australia accused Chinese hackers of stealing blueprints for the national intelligence agency’s headquarters. In June, US officials blamed Chinese hackers for compromising the records of up to 4 million current and former government employees. Chinese officials called the accusations irresponsible, but President Barack Obama vowed that the United States would aggressively bolster its cyberdefenses.

‘Destructive effect’

Other governments remain the biggest threats to Australia’s cybersecurity, the ACSC found; though growing, the risk from nonstate actors remains insignificant. Such groups currently pose “a low cyberthreat,” despite demonstrating a savvy understanding of social media and exploiting the internet for propaganda purposes, the report found.

The ACSC considers such groups’ cybercapabilities “rudimentary,” but the report warns that they show signs of improving in the near future. “It is unlikely terrorists will be able to compromise a secure network and generate a significant disruptive or destructive effect for at least two or three years,” the ACSC announced.

Tehan said the possibility of such attacks by nonstate actors remained “real.” “We have to understand that when it comes to cyberterrorism, there is a growing threat,” he said.

The ACSC found 1,095 serious cybersecurity incidents over 18 months through June.

Moscow dismisses UK minister’s Syria comments as ‘Russophobic hysteria’

The latest rise in tensions comes over allegations that Russia bombed an aid convoy – a charge the Kremlin rejects. Moscow has said there were no Russian planes in the area of the aid convoy to Aleppo.

October 12, 2016


Moscow slammed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after he lashed out at Russia over their brutal bombing campaign against the Syrian city of Aleppo.

The Kremlin dismissed Johnson’s charges as “Russophobic hysteria.”

On Tuesday the British diplomat called for protests outside the Russian embassy in London over Moscow’s seemingly indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, which Johnson said was “unquestionably a war crime.”

The Kremlin fired back with a retort, reminding Britain of its obligations to ensure the safety of foreign diplomats on British soil.  “Probably the British foreign minister is aware of the Vienna Convention and that Great Britain is duty-bound to take responsibility for the safety of Russian diplomatic missions on its territory,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Other Russian diplomats piled on. Defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov dismissed Johnson’s charge, saying, “accusing Russia of all mortal sins” was just a “storm in a teacup.”

He added, “The Russophobic hysteria that is regularly fuelled by certain members of the British establishment has not been taken seriously for a long time.”

Konashenkov insisted the Russian air force was not responsible for last month’s bombing of a UN convoy in the Aleppo region, and accused Britain of withholding the evidence it says it has against Russia.

“The alleged ‘evidence’ you say you have won’t be worth a penny if it is made available to everyone,” he said.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the Kremlin was “truly ashamed for” Johnson over his comments.

Bombing an aid convoy

Johnson also accused Russia of bombing a humanitarian aid convoy, a charge that Konashenkov dutifully rebutted.

“There were no Russian planes in the area of the aid convoy to Aleppo. That is a fact,” he said.

But Johnson insisted there is evidence that would substantiate Russia’s hand in the attack.

The Kremlin is supporting, if not orchestrating, a ferocious military assault on rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Many civilians have been killed, prompting widespread allegations of war crimes.

In all, more than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria’s five year civil war, which has also displaced millions.

The growing tensions between the West and Russia over alleged war crimes in Syria prompted President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to cancel a visit to France.

A day earlier, French President Francois Hollande accused Syrian forces of committing a “war crime” in the battered city of Aleppo with the support of Russian air strikes.

Over the weekend Russia vetoed a UN draft resolution aimed at stopping Russian and Syrian regime air strikes. The United States is pressing for a war crimes probe into the destruction.

American Power at the Crossroads

A Snapshot of a Multipolar World in Action

by Dilip Hiro


In the strangest election year in recent American history — one in which the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson couldn’t even conjure up the name of a foreign leader he “admired” while Donald Trump remained intent on building his “fat, beautiful wall” and “taking” Iraq oil — the world may be out of focus for many Americans right now.  So a little introduction to the planet we actually inhabit is in order.  Welcome to a multipolar world.  One fact stands out: Earth is no longer the property of the globe’s “sole superpower.”

If you want proof, you can start by checking out Moscow’s recent role in reshaping the civil war in Syria and frustrating Washington’s agenda to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.  And that’s just one of a number of developments that highlight America’s diminishing power globally in both the military and the diplomatic arenas.  On a peaceable note, consider the way China has successfully launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a rival to the World Bank, not to speak of its implementation of a plan to link numerous countries in Asia and Europe to China in a vast multinational transportation and pipeline network it grandly calls the One Belt and One Road system, or the New Silk Road project.  In such developments, one can see ways in which the previously overwhelming economic power of the U.S. is gradually being challenged and curtailed internationally.

Moscow Calling the Shots in Syria

The Moscow-Washington agreement of September 10th on Syria, reached after 10 months of hard bargaining and now in shambles after another broken truce, had one crucial if little noted aspect. For the first time since the Soviet Union imploded, Russia managed to put itself on the same diplomatic footing as the U.S. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented, “This is not the end of the road… just the beginning of our new relations” with Washington. Even though those relations are now in a state of suspension and exacerbation, it’s indisputable that the Kremlin’s limited military intervention in Syria was tailored to achieve a multiplier effect, yielding returns both in that war-ravaged, devastated land and in international diplomacy.

In August 2015, by all accounts, President Assad was on the ropes and the morale of his dwindling army at rock bottom. Even the backing of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had proven insufficient to reverse his faltering hold on power.

To save his regime from collapse, the Kremlin’s military planners decided to fill the gaping hole left by Syria’s collapsing air force, shore up its air defenses, and boost its depleted arsenal of tanks and armored vehicles. For this, they turned one of Russia’s last footholds abroad, an airbase near the Mediterranean port of Latakia, into a forward operating base, and shipped to it warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. Russia also deployed its most advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles there.

The number of Russian military personnel dispatched was estimated at 4,000 to 5,000.  Although none of them were ground troops, this was an unprecedented step in recent Russian history.  The last time the Kremlin had deployed significant forces outside its territory — in December 1979 in Afghanistan — proved an ill-judged venture, ending a decade later in their withdrawal, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work,” said President Barack Obama at a White House press conference soon after the Russian military intervention. He should have been an expert on the subject since a U.S.-led coalition had been bombing targets in Syrian territory controlled by the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) since September 2014.  Nonetheless, the Pentagon soon signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kremlin over safety procedures for their aircraft, now sharing Syrian air space, and established a ground communications link for any problems that should arise.

During the next six months in a sustained air campaign, Russian warplanes carried out 9,000 sorties, claiming to have destroyed 209 oil production and transfer facilities (supposedly controlled by ISIS), and enabled the Syrian army to retake 400 settlements spread over 3,860 square miles. In the process, the Russians lost just five men. As the prospect of Russia playing an ongoing critical role in Syria grew, the mood in the White House started to change. In mid-March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. The implication, even if through gritted teeth, was that the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the Russian position in Syria, and that closer coordination between the two leading players was needed to crush ISIS.

A year after the Russian campaign was launched, most major Syrian cities were back in government hands (even if often in rubble), and rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack.  The morale of the Assad regime had improved, even if the overall size of its army had diminished. It was no longer in danger of being overthrown and its hand was strengthened at any future negotiating table.

No less important to the Russians, just reemerging on the Middle Eastern stage, all the anti-Assad foreign players in Syria had come to recognize the pivotal position that the Kremlin had acquired in that war-torn land where a five-and-a-half-year civil conflict had resulted in an upper estimate of nearly 500,000 deaths, and the bombing of hospitals had become commonplace. On the first anniversary of the Russian campaign, Putin dispatched more planes to Syria, which made getting into a quagmire a possibility. But there can be no question that, in the interim, Putin’s strategy had served Russia’s geopolitical goals well.

Putin Sought Out by the Anti-Assad Arabs

Between October 2015 and August 2016, top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Turkey all held talks with Putin at different venues. The first to do so, that October, was the Saudi defense minister, Prince Muhammad, a son of Saudi King Salman.  They met at the Russian president’s dacha in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Saudi Arabia had already funded the purchase of CIA-procured TOW anti-tank missiles, which had largely powered a rebel offensive against Assad in the summer of 2015. Now, the two agreed that they shared the common goal of preventing “a terrorist caliphate [ISIS] from getting the upper hand.” When Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir mentioned his concern about the rebel groups the Russians were targeting, Putin expressed readiness to share intelligence, which meant future cooperation between their militaries and security services.

Later that day, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates, called on Putin. “I can say that Russia plays a very serious role in Middle Eastern affairs,” he stated afterwards, adding, “There is no doubt that we have a privileged relationship.”

The ruler of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, went a step further after meeting Putin at the Kremlin in January 2016.  “Russia,” he declared, “plays a main role when it comes to stability in the world.” Along with Jordan, Qatar had been providing the CIA with bases for training and arming anti-Assad insurgents.  A month later, the next Gulf chief to call on Putin in Sochi would be King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, which has hosted the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet since 1971. He presented a “victory sword” of Damascene steel to the Russian leader. After their talks, Foreign Minister Lavrov reported that the two countries had agreed to boost economic and military ties.

In August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg to meet “my dear friend” Putin. Their relations had fallen to a low point when the Turks shot down a Russian warplane over northern Syria.  Unlike Western leaders, however, Putin had personally called Erdogan to congratulate him on aborting an attempted military coup in July. “We are always categorically opposed to any attempts at anti-constitutional activity,” he explained. After three hours of talks, they agreed to mend their strained economic relations and, in a striking reversal, Erdogan suddenly stopped calling on Assad to step down.

In sum, thanks to his limited military intervention in Syria, Putin had acquired enhanced leverage in decisions affecting the future of the Middle East, which helped divert international attention from Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.  To Putin’s satisfaction, he had succeeded in offering an on-the-ground rebuttal to Obama’s claim, made after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”

As an added bonus, Putin had helped solidify his own popularity at home, which had spiked to a record 89% approval rating in the wake of events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine at a time when U.S. and European sanctions, combined with low oil prices, had led to a recession that would shrink the Russian economy by 3.7% in 2015.  It was a striking demonstration that, in domestic politics, popular perception about a strong leader trumps — if you’ll excuse the word — economic realities. This year the Russian economy is expected to shrink by perhaps another 1% and yet in recent parliamentary elections, the Putin-backed United Russia party won 54% of the vote, and 343 of 450 seats.

Chinese and Russian Geopolitical Interests Converge

As a result, in part, of Western sanctions, Russia has also been tightening its economic ties with China. In June 2016, Putin made his fourth trip to Beijing since March 2013 when Xi Jinping became the Chinese president. The two leaders stressed their shared outlook mirroring their countries’ converging trade, investment, and geopolitical interests.

“President Putin and I equally agree,” Xi said, “that when faced with international circumstances that are increasingly complex and changing, we must persist even harder in maintaining the spirit of the 2001 Sino-Russian strategic partnership and cooperation.” Summing up relations between the two neighbors, Putin offered this assessment: “Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international arena.” As co-founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 1996, the two countries regard themselves as Eurasian powers.

During his visit to Beijing last June, Putin cited 58 deals worth $50 billion that were then being discussed by the two governments. Russia was also preparing to issue yuan-denominated sovereign bonds to raise $1 billion and discussing plans to link China’s national electronic payment network to its own credit card system.  The two neighbors were already partners in a $400 billion deal in which the Russian energy company Gazprom is expected to supply China with natural gas for the next 30 years.

As an example of the Sino-Russian geopolitical convergence in action, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, head of China’s Office for International Military Cooperation, recently visited the Syrian capital, Damascus. He met with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij and held talks with the Russian general coordinating military assistance to that country. Guan and al-Freij agreed to expand Chinese training and humanitarian aid in order to counter religious extremism.

During Putin’s June visit, Xi called for closer cooperation between their news agencies so that both countries could “together increase the influence” of their media on world public opinion.  Each has actually already made significant forays into the global information stream. In China, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television started its “going out” project in 2001 through China Central Television. By 2009, its foreign language section was broadcasting programs globally via satellite and cable in Arabic, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

In 2006, Putin set up RT as a brand of TV-Novosti, an autonomous non-profit organization financed by the Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, with a budget of $30 million, and gave it a mandate to present the Russian point of view on international events. Since then, RT International has been offering round-the-clock news bulletins, documentaries, talk shows, debates, sports news, and cultural programs in 12 languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, and Turkish. RT America and RT UK have been airing locally based content since 2010 and 2014 respectively.

With an annual budget of $300 million in 2013-2014, RT still lagged behind the BBC World Service Group, with its $367 million budget and news in 36 languages. During a visit to RT’s state-of-the-art studios in Moscow in 2013, Putin urged its employees to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams.”

China’s Global Power Projection

In 2010, President Obama launched his “pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China’s rising power. In reply, within six months of becoming president, Xi Jinping unveiled a blueprint for his country’s ambitious One Belt and One Road project. It was aimed at nothing less than reordering the geostrategic configuration of international politics, while promoting the economic reconstruction of Eurasia. Domestically, it was meant to balance China’s over-reliance on its coastal areas by developing its western hinterlands. It was also to link China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia to Europe by a web of railways and energy pipelines. In February 2015, the first cargo train successfully completed a 16,156-mile round trip from the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu to Madrid, Spain, and back — a striking sign of changing times.

In 2014, to implement its New Silk Road project, Beijing established the Silk Road Fund and capitalized it at $40 billion. Its aim was to foster increased investment in countries along the project’s various routes. Given China’s foreign reserves of $3.3 trillion in 2015 — up from $1.9 trillion in 2008 — the amount involved was modest and yet it looks to prove crucial to China’s futuristic planning.

In January 2015, the Chinese government also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing. Two months later, ignoring Washington’s urgings, Great Britain became the first major Western nation to sign on as a founding member. France, Germany, and Italy immediately followed its lead. None of them could afford to ignore China’s robust economic expansion, which, among other things, has turned that country into the globe’s largest trading nation. With $3.87 trillion worth of imports and exports in 2012, it overtook the U.S. ($3.82 trillion), displacing it from a position it had held for 60 years.

China is now the number one trading partner for 29 countries, including some members of the 10-strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  This may explain why ASEAN failed to agree to unanimously back the Philippines, a member, when the Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July in its favor and against China’s claims to rights in the South China Sea. Soon after, China announced the holding of a 10-day-long joint Sino-Russian naval exercise in those waters.

Reflecting its expanding gross domestic product (GDP), China’s military expenditures have also been on the rise. According to the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese armed forces, Beijing’s defense budget has risen 9.8% annually since 2006, reaching $180 billion in 2015, or 1.7% of its GDP. By contrast, the Pentagon’s 2015 budget, $585 billion, was 3.2% of U.S. GDP.

Of the four branches of its military, the Chinese government is, for obvious reasons, especially focused on expanding and improving its naval capacity.

A study of its naval doctrine shows that it is following the classic pattern set by the United States, Germany, and Japan in the late nineteenth century in their quest to become global powers. First comes a focus on coastal defense of the homeland; second, establishing the security of its territorial waters and shipping; and third, the protection of key sea-lanes it uses for its commercial interests. For Beijing, safeguarding the sea-lanes used to bring Persian Gulf oil to the ports of southern China is crucial.

The ultimate aim and fourth stage of this process for an aspiring world power, of course, is power projection to distant lands. At present, having reached the third stage in this process, China is laying the foundation for its final goal with a Maritime Silk Road project, which involves building up ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.

The medium-term aim of China’s navy is to curtail the monopoly that the U.S. has enjoyed in the Pacific. It is rapidly building up its fleet of submarines for this purpose. Meanwhile, as a sign of things to come, China acquired a 10-year lease on a 90-acre site in Djbouti in the Horn of Africa to build its first foreign military outpost. In stark contrast, according to the Pentagon’s latest Base Structure Report, the U.S. has bases in 74 countries. The respective figures for France and Britain are 10 and seven. Obviously, China has a long way to go to catch up.

The Realistic Aims of China and Russia

At the moment, Chinese leaders do not seem to imagine their country openly challenging the United States for world leadership for, minimally, decades to come.  Ten years ago, the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country’s most prestigious think tank, came up with the concept of “comprehensive national power” as a single, carefully calculated number on a scale of 100. In 2015, the respective figures for America, China and Russia were 91.68, 33.92, and 30.48.

At 35.12, Japan was number two on the list. At 12.97, India was number 10, although that has not deterred its prime minister, Narendra Modi, from declaring that his country has entered “the age of aspiration,” and insisting that the latter part of the twenty-first century will belong to India. To any realist, Modi’s claim lies in the realm of fantasy, but it is a reminder of just how multipolar the coming decades could turn out to be. (When it comes to distant power projection, India has done no better than to start building a radar network in Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean to keep tabs on Chinese merchant shipping and warships.)

The global scenario that the down-to-earth presidents of China and Russia seem to have in mind resembles the sort of balance of power that existed in Europe for a century after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. In the wake of that fateful year, the monarchs of Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia resolved that no single European country should ever become as powerful as France had been under Napoleon.  The resulting Concert of Europe then held from 1815 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

China and Russia are now trying to ensure that Washington no longer exercises unrestrained power globally, as it did between 1992 and summer of 2008. In early August 2008, overwhelmed by the mounting challenges of its war in Afghanistan, and its military occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration limited itself to verbal condemnations of Russia’s military action to reverse gains made by the pro-western president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in an unprovoked attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Think of that episode as a little-noticed marker of the end of a unipolar planet in which American power went mostly unchecked. If that is so, then welcome to the ninth year of a multipolar world.

New Clinton email reveals direct support for ISIS from two powerful Western allies

October 11, 2016

The Canary

A new Hillary Clinton email published by WikiLeaks as part of the ongoing release of hacked campaign files confirms that Daesh (Isis/Isil) has state backing. And from powerful Western allies, no less.

Anti-terrorism analysts have long seen Daesh as a non-state-affiliated actor which grew out of an al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq (and later Syria). But the email sent by Clinton herself (dated 27 September 2014) shows there’s much more to the story.

Secret support for Daesh

The lengthy email contains a summary assessment of proposed US policy plans in Iraq and Syria. This is based on what the email internally describes as Western and US intelligence sources. Most of the document lays out strategies for pushing Daesh back in the Middle East.

But one section bluntly describes Western allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar as direct supporters of Daesh (“ISIL” in this email):

We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region… The Qataris and Saudis will be put in a position of balancing policy between their ongoing competition to dominate the Sunni world and the consequences of serious U.S. pressure. [emphasis added]

Intelligence authorship

Clinton herself sent the 2014 email directly from her personal account to campaign chairman John Podesta. But the intelligence content has the look and style of Sidney Blumenthal’s authorship. Blumenthal is a long-time top Clinton advisor who has provided many such sensitive intelligence briefings to Clinton, even when she was Secretary of State.

It appears that Clinton either copied or forwarded the intelligence briefing which was the basis for the short exchange with Podesta.

Both the arsonists and firefighters

The New York Times recently described Saudi Arabia as both “the arsonists and firefighters” in the Middle East. This is because the controversial kingdom clamps down on terrorism at home, while promoting its version of Wahhabi ultra-conservatism abroad.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Britain and the US goes back decades, as the oil-rich nation entered into an ‘oil for security‘ pact with the West which can be traced to the US Carter administration, and even to Franklin D. Roosevelt. As such, it has spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations in the USA. And it has meant that the West has routinely looked the other way as the Saudi regime exports extremism, funding a large number of radical mosques and organisations around the world.

Beginning in 1979, the West actively sponsored the rise of a mujahideen army in central Asia in partnership with the Saudis to fight against Soviet troops. Historians view the current US/UK-Saudi covert intervention in Syria as a parallel situation to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. More recently, the Gulf kingdom has negotiated record-breaking weapons deals with the UK.

Clinton email confirms claims by other intelligence sources

In Syria, the West and Saudi Arabia have supported a jihadist insurgency which seeks to topple the Assad government. Leaked documents provided to The Washington Post by Edward Snowden confirmed a CIA covert Syria programme which costs $1bn per year. The secret programme, given the name Timber Sycamore, has involved close coordination with the Saudis and other Gulf regimes like Qatar.

Moreover, a 2012 Pentagon intelligence report (declassified in 2015) predicted that “an Islamic state” would arise out of the Western/Gulf covert program which sought to overthrow the Syrian government. The White House allegedly knew about the secret report. And it was widely circulated within the intelligence community. It specifically names “the West” and “Gulf Countries” as the prime movers backing the jihadist insurgency in Syria.

In short, analysts have long acknowledged indirect Saudi support of Daesh. But Clinton’s email is the first known intelligence memo which spells out direct Saudi support of the Wahhabi terror group.

This leaked email alone should cause the media and Western governments to demand a radical reevaluation of the West’s priorities in the Middle East.

The Second Debate: Oh, Those Dastardly Russians!

Martha Raddatz cheers head-chopping Syrian rebels, Trump dissents

October 12, 2016

by Justin Raimondo


The second presidential debate was supposed to have been an ambush in which the “threat” of Trump was dispatched with little effort on Hillary’s part. The tape of Trump engaging in what heterosexual men call “locker room talk” had just been released and the two moderators, Anderson Cooper (Clinton News Network) and Martha Raddatz (resident foreign policy “expert” at ABC) were primed and ready to pounce.

It didn’t work out that way.

Trump batted down questions about the tape like a lion swatting a fly. He then proceeded to go on the offensive. Particularly effective was his raising of the Clinton email question. The big moment came when Trump pointed out that people’s “lives have been ruined when they did one fifth of what you have done,” and Hillary responded by telling people to go to her web site so Trump could be “fact-checked”:

“Last time at the first debate, we had millions of people fact checking, so I expect we’ll have millions more fact checking, because, you know, it is – it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

“TRUMP: Because you’d be in jail.”

The audience burst into applause.

From that moment on, the smug smile Hillary had been wearing was absent from her visage, and with each blow Trump landed she flinched. By the end of it I thought she was going to burst into tears, but never mind – you can go see for yourself. Foreign policy didn’t come into the debate until a good twenty minutes or so into it. In response to Hillary bringing up – again! – the Captain Khan imbroglio, Trump averred:

“If I were president at that time, he would be alive today, because unlike her, who voted for the war without knowing what she was doing, I would not have had our people in Iraq. Iraq was disaster. So he would have been alive today.”

This segued into an argument about the refugees pouring into the West, with Raddatz asking Hillary why we should raise the number coming into the US from 10,000 to 65,000, as she would have it. As usual, Mrs. Clinton deployed diversionary tactics to avoid the issue:

“First of all, I will not let anyone into our country that I think poses a risk to us. But there are a lot of refugees, women and children, think of that picture we all saw of that 4-year-old boy with the blood on his forehead because he’d been bombed by the Russian and Syrian air forces. There are children suffering in this catastrophic war, largely, I believe because of Russian aggression. And we need to do our part.”

She went on from there, but this was the first instance of many when she used those dastardly Russians as a shield to protect herself from inconvenient questions, like this one from the audience via Raddatz:

“This question involves WikiLeaks’ release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches speeches, which she has refused to release. In one line in particular, in which you Secretary Clinton purportedly say, ‘You need both a public and private position on certain issues.’ So, two from Virginia asks: ‘is it okay for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have have a private stance on issues?’ Secretary Clinton?”

Here Hillary invoked none other than Abraham “Honest Abe” Lincoln to justify her two-faced approach to public policy question, a typical exercise in Bizarro World logic that will go down in history as one of the worst answers ever given during a presidential debate. Aside from that, however, look where she went with that:

“But, you know, let’s talk about what’s really going on here, Martha because our intelligence community just came out and said in the last few days that the Kremlin, meaning Putin and the Russian government, are directing the attacks, the hacking on American accounts to influence our election. And WikiLeaks is part of that as are other sites where the Russians hack information, we don’t even know if it’s accurate information and then they put it out. We have never in the history of our country been in a situation where an adversary, a foreign power, is working so hard to influence the outcome of the election, and believe, they’re not doing it to get me elected. They are doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump. Now, maybe because he praised Putin, maybe because he says he agrees with a lot of what Putin wants to do, maybe because he wants to do business in Moscow. I don’t know the reasons, but we deserve answers, and should demand that Donald release all of his tax returns so that people can see what are the entanglements and the financial relationships …”

Rather than answer the question about her two-faced approach, she again launched into what can only be described as an unhinged tirade about those evil Russians. Think about this: have we ever had a presidential election in which one candidate is accusing the other of being in league with a foreign power? Not that I can think of. It’s unprecedented, at least in modern times. And they accuse Trump of being a “demagogue”!

I could reiterate all the many reasons why this neo-McCarthyite nonsense is crazy, but Trump himself called her out. After highlighting the oddly counterintuitive way in which she blamed her lying on “Honest Abe” – which got a laugh from the audience, while Hillary looked visibly shaken – Trump went on to say:

“As far as other elements of what you were saying, I don’t know Putin. I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together, as an example, but I don’t know Putin. But I notice, any time anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians, well she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. Maybe there is no hacking … and the reason they blame Russia is they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia…. but I know nothing about the inner workings of Russia. I don’t deal there, I have no businesses there, I have no loans from Russia.”

As Jeffrey Carr and other cyberwarfare experts have pointed out, we don’t know who hacked the Democratic National Committee or any of the other organizations recently targeted: Hillary doesn’t know, the FBI doesn’t know, and we won’t know unless the perpetrators openly take credit. It could be an insider: it could be a couple of teenagers sitting in a Shanghai cybercafe. Yet this question is much less important than the information that’s being revealed – and, again, Hillary and her media fan club are pulling their diversionary tactics, screaming that “The Russians are coming!” in the hope that we don’t notice the evidence of corruption that’s being laid at our feet on an almost daily basis.

Speaking of the media’s key role in all this, Raddatz showed her cards when the subject of Syria came up. Here’s the “question” she asked both candidates to answer:

“The heart breaking video of a 5-year-old Syrian boy named Omran sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble after an airstrike in Aleppo focused the world’s attention on the horrors of the war in Syria, with 136 million views on Facebook alone. But there are much worse images coming out of Aleppo every day now where in the past few weeks alone 400 have been killed, at least 100 of them children. Just days ago, the State Department called for a war crimes investigation of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and of its ally, Russia, for their bombardment of Aleppo. So this next question comes from social media, through Facebook. Diane from Pennsylvania asks: If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? Isn’t is a lot like wasn’t it like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped?”

This kind of emotional blackmail is typical of Raddatz and the media’s Islamist cheering squad, but it has nothing to do with what we ought to be doing – or not doing – in Syria. The reality is that the Islamist rebels are no better than al-Qaeda or ISIS, as this video of a 12-year-old child being beheaded by US-funded rebels near Aleppo shows. Yet Raddatz has never, to my knowledge, mentioned this grisly event: it doesn’t fit into her neat little narrative that depicts the rebels as angels and Assad as the Devil.

Quite naturally, Hillary – who championed the rebels during her tenure at State – took to Raddatz’s question like a fish to water. She reiterated her longstanding call for a “no-fly zone” – in spite of testimony from the chairman of the joint chiefs that this would mean a midair confrontation with Russian aircraft, i.e. war with Russia. She finished her peroration with another long rant against “Russian aggression,” and it was left to Trump to answer her in the only way she could be answered:

“She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people. And you know what happens? They end up being worse… Look at what she did in Libya with Qaddafi. Qaddafi is out. It’s a mess.”

Raddatz wasn’t about to take this laying down. In that stern schoolmarmish tone she used whenever she addressed Trump, she said:

“Mr. Trump, let me repeat the question. If you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and I want to remind you what your running mate said. He said provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength and that if Russia continues to be involved in airstrikes along with the Syrian government forces of Assad, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike the military targets of the Assad regime.

“Trump: Okay. He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.

Raddatz: You disagree with your running mate?

“Trump: I disagree. Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran who she made strong and Kerry and Obama made into a powerful nation and a rich nation, very quickly, very, very quickly. I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved. She had a chance to do something with Syria, they had a chance, and that was the line.

“Raddatz: What are do you think will happen if Aleppo falls?”

It was as if Raddatz had taken Hillary’s place, and was joining the debate as her surrogate. One had to look on the spectacle and wonder if Raddatz knew how brazenly her sympathies were being put on display for millions of viewers to see: Trump’s answer was that Aleppo has already fallen.

The focus then turned to Hillary, who was asked by Raddatz what would she do if and when Aleppo does fall: would she put US troops on the ground? Hillary then showed what a “two-faced” policy analysis really looks like by saying no – and then saying she’d put “special forces” in there. Are not Special Forces ground troops – or would they be walking on air? Raddatz, of course, didn’t call her out on this.

That was the extent to which foreign policy was discussed at the second debate: after all, don’t we have more important things to talk about – like Trump’s off-color comments made in private eleven years ago?

To any foreign policy mavens who were watching, this debate underscored one essential fact: the danger of allowing Hillary Clinton in the White House. Her antipathy for Russia goes beyond anything we have seen, even during the cold war. If she really believes Russia is actively trying to intervene in the election on behalf of Trump, who can doubt that this notoriously vindictive woman will take revenge on Moscow once she has her hands on the nuclear trigger?

Another interesting aspect of this debate was Trump’s break with his running mate on the all-important Russian Question. As a conventional, i.e. neoconnish, Republican, Pence echoes the boilerplate Russophobia that is the conventional wisdom in Washington. That Trump didn’hesitate to distance himself from Pence on this issue shows that his instincts are good, i.e. that avoidance of conflict with nuclear-armed Russia is a core conviction rather than a mere idiosyncrasy.

To our hysterically anti-Russian media, this is nothing less than treason. As far as the rest of us are concerned, it’s just common sense.

Security fears over FBI contracting out highly sensitive surveillance documents

US entrusted Aveshka to prepare, organize and courier surveillance materials, such as documentation leading to court orders under intelligence surveillance act

October 12, 2016

by Spencer Ackerman

The Guardian

New York-The FBI has contracted out with a private firm to handle, distribute and monitor highly sensitive surveillance documents, in an arrangement veteran FBI agents consider a potential privacy and counterintelligence risk.

Since 2015, the FBI has entrusted a national-security professional services contractor, Aveshka, to prepare, organize, courier and disseminate surveillance materials, including documentation leading to court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), the legal wellspring of domestic national-security surveillance.

Neither the company nor its employees have been accused of any wrongdoing, but national security has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the arrest last week of a Booz Allen Hamilton employee on suspicion of stealing National Security Agency computer code. FBI veterans and other surveillance experts consider the bureau to be effectively inserting a private firm as a middleman in surveillance, which they consider an inherent and seemingly unnecessary security vulnerability.

“The FBI here is literally giving out the keys to the national security kingdom,” said Jim Wedick, a 35-year FBI agent who retired in 2004.

“Being a courier for Fisa material, you literally have all information needed to identify both subjects and informants. Something any adversary would want. It’s the choke point for information.”

Bob Martin, a senior vice-president at Aveshka, said the contract began in 2015 and was worth less than $1m. Aveskha employees, he said, “relatively junior folks”, work within the FBI’s Fisa unit, which prepares, handles and organizes the basis for surveillance applications under the law for the secret Fisa court. The surveillance applications are prepared by the FBI but can concern surveillance from other intelligence agencies, including the NSA.

An online job posting from the firm describes its responsibilities as including “prepar[ing] Fisa documents which shall include the review and selection of relevant documents and other materials”; “[d]eliver and pickup FISA, FISA orders, and other classified documents to and from Executive Management, the Department of Justice, and other sources at scheduled times/dates”; and “[d]isseminat[ing] FISA orders and add[ing] document to electronic files and data repositories”, including the FBI’s database for tracking Fisa cases.

Martin told the Guardian the bulk of the firm’s functional responsibilities were “supporting the logistics operation” of the FBI concerning Fisa-related documents. He said he believed Aveshka employees working on the contract for the FBI held top-secret clearances and involved physically couriering the Fisa-relevant documents.

Ed Shaw, who retired from the FBI in 2014 after a 25-year career, said that ensuring Aveshka personnel held security clearances mitigated the risk of a surveillance leak. But Shaw said the material contained within Fisa submissions were amongst the most sensitive classified material the US government possessed, particularly when concerning renewals of surveillance-court orders.

“That’s how did the Fisa surveillance go, what did you get, was it worthwhile,” said Shaw, who for 18 months worked in the FBI’s security compliance unit, which investigates people for mishandling classified information. “To get a renewal, you have to show [the court] that you’re getting relevant information. It’s oozing with content.”

Several FBI veterans and outside experts noted that over decades, private contractors have become interwoven with the national-security apparatus, though usually for functions outside the agencies’ core competencies, such as designing and maintaining information-technology systems.

“Preparing Fisa documents – talk about an inherently governmental function,” agreed former FBI counterterrorism agent Michael German.

“We have a private contractor that’s preparing a wiretap request. That seems dangerous … Certainly the FBI has people who can walk across the street to the Department of Justice and deliver a Fisa package.”

Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Harold Thomas Martin III has been arrested on suspicion of taking highly classified information from the NSA. The episode has prompted a new wave of warnings about potential vulnerabilities resulting from contracting, particularly since Booz Allen also employed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Privacy and security experts, however, point out that the history of US counterintelligence debacles is a story replete with risks from agency employees, such as the FBI’s Robert Hanssen and the CIA’s Aldrich Ames.

“I don’t think that private contractors are necessary more of a security risk than government employees,” said Jennifer Granick of Stanford law school’s Center for Internet and Society. As an attorney, Granick noted, preparation of court materials “often entails a lot of mundane stuff that’s not substantive.”

But a congressional aide, who was not cleared to speak for the record, considered the FBI contract bizarre.

“It is very odd to me anybody on outside government would be responsible for building the binder of Fisa materials and couriering it to place to place,” the staffer said.

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, called the Aveshka contract a “sign of the times”, as private firms are increasingly enmeshed in the most sensitive national-security functions the government performs.

“By definition, this introduces some new vulnerabilities. Contractors, who are driven by a profit motive, will often provide superior service. But they may also cut corners in the name of efficiency that should not be cut,” Aftergood said.

Martin, the Aveshka vice-president, did not respond to additional requests for information on the FBI contract. FBI spokesman Christopher Allen declined comment.

Supreme Court to consider lawsuit against former Attorney General Ashcroft

October 11, 2016

by Robert Barnes

The Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would consider a long-running lawsuit against former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and other top officials filed by immigrants who say they were racially profiled and illegally detained after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The court will be even more shorthanded than usual: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan recused themselves from the case, meaning it could be heard by a minimum quorum of six justices. The nine-member court has a vacancy because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

The case was filed by six men on behalf of hundreds of mainly Muslim noncitizens who were detained on civil immigration charges for as long as eight months. They never were charged with terrorism but were held in harsh conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.

Besides Ashcroft, they attempt to sue former FBI director Robert Mueller and former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner James W. Ziglar.

Ashcroft “ordered that respondents were to be held in these conditions (and their deportations delayed) until they were cleared of any connection to terrorism,” the men said in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. “Mueller oversaw the clearance operation, and would not authorize release of Respondents even after the New York field office cleared them, awaiting a CIA name check. Respondents and others languished for months in solitary confinement even after they had been cleared.”

The suit has been mired in legal maneuvering in the lower courts. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit said it could proceed, and the government asked the full circuit to reconsider. The judges split 6 to 6.

Those who said the suit could advance said the men “plausibly” alleged that Ashcroft “ratified the rogue acts of a number of field agents” aimed at men who were Arabs, Muslims or both.

The dissenters said the decision did not comport with the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions that protected Ashcroft from similar lawsuits.

The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to intercede in this case, as well.

In its petition to the court, the Justice Department said that unless the justices stopped the suit, “the nation’s highest ranking law-enforcement officers” could be subjected to “compensatory and even punitive damages in their individual capacities because they could conceivably have learned about and condoned the allegedly improper ways in which their undisputedly constitutional policies were being implemented.”

Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the men, said the justices should have simply let the case proceed.

“No one is above the law. To suggest that the most powerful people in our nation should escape liability when they violate clearly established law defies the most fundamental principle of our legal system,” she said.

“At a time when racial and religious profiling are put forward as serious policy proposals for dealing with everything from immigration to terrorism, it is more important than ever that the high court affirm that government officials, especially those at the highest levels, can be held accountable when they break the law,” she said. “We look forward to making that argument before the justices.”

As is customary, Sotomayor and Kagan did not say why they recused themselves. But Sotomayor was a judge on the 2nd Circuit before she was confirmed to the Supreme Court. As President Obama’s solicitor general, Kagan might have dealt with some aspect of the litigation.

The combined cases against the officials will be called Ziglar v. Turkman.






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