Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Selective Outrage (Cyber Edition)

It's always fun to watch politicians and their flunkies try to spin a bad situation, and those tactics were clearly on display during Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal.  Before receiving that "Stay Out of Jail" card from the FBI and Obama's Justice Department, Mrs. Clinton and her minions tried various arguments to excuse her illegal behavior, without too much success.  From the "grooveyard of forgotten favorites," as El Rushbo might say:

"Other secretaries of state did it (used private e-mail accounts for government business)."  There's a kernal of truth to that, with some important qualifiers: first, none ever utilized a private account on the industrial scale pioneered by Mrs. Clinton.  Additionally, her predecessors never sent the nation's most closely-guarded secrets on a personal system that lacked even basic security features, and none ever plotted to evade public disclosure and archiving laws by creating their own domain and server network.

"I never sent or received classified information."  This is another howler, since the defense is largely based on claims that information in the e-mails lacked classification markings.  Never mind that the lack of classification headers and paragraph markings is not an excuse for mishandling classified data or transmitting it improperly--or that Mrs. Clinton (in one message) directed aides to remove classification markings so sensitive material could be sent over an unclassified fax machine.  Hillary and her senior aides clearly chose to ignore (read: violate) security requirements, and the hits just keep on coming.  Friday, Vice News disclosed that Mrs. Clinton sent at least 22 Top Secret e-mails to senior aides in 2011 and 2012.  The messages are among those withheld from public release by the State Department, since they contain information that would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

But not to worry, we were told.  There was no firm evidence that enemy hackers accessed her server system, and might have collected all the information stored there--including "missing" e-mails that were deleted by Clinton's aides and members of her legal team.  That claim has been refuted by a number of IT and counter-intelligence professionals, who note that foreign intel services are quite capable of accessing a system, collecting whatever they want and exiting--all without leaving a trace.

After down-playing the "foreign hacker" threat for months, the Democrats are now doing a 180, after Wikileaks began publishing thousands of e-mails pilfered from the DNC archives.  The first dump came on the eve of this week's Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and it revealed a number of interesting nuggets, including unassailable proof that party leaders worked actively to deny Bernie Sanders their presidential nomination.  That revelation forced party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to resign in disgrace, as e-mails detailed suggestions by Democrat officials to use anti-Semitic tactics against the Vermont Senator. 

There were also messages that revealed collusion between the DNC and the mainstream media.  One e-mail described a private meeting with a senior executive at NBC News and in another message, Ms. Wasserman Schultz told network anchor Chuck Todd that a critical line of coverage "had to stop."  Wikileaks also published an e-mail from a CNN producer who vowed to keep the focus on the Democrats and another from a Politico reporter, who sent his story to the DNC for review before submitting it to his editor.

To deflect attention away from the messages--and their damning content--the Democrats are playing the victim card (as only they can) and focusing on the hack.  Almost immediately, party officials blamed the Russians and there may be some evidence to support that accusation.  While Wikileaks denies any connection with Putin's intelligence services, many current and former western intel officials have long believed that the organization and its founder, Julian Assange, are little more than Russian cut-outs.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, it's rather curious that Mr. Assange, currently holded up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London (to avoid rape charges in Sweden) has requested protection from the Russian FSB.   Assange also counseled American turncoat Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow after he released thousands of classified NSA documents.  Snowden remains in Russia to this day, with round-the-clock security from an FSB protective detail.

At this point, the Democrats' collective pucker factor must be at an all-time high.  If hackers tied to Russian intelligence made off with all of the DNC's secrets, it's a fair bet they have all of Hillary's e-mails as well.  Holding all the high cards, Mr. Putin has the luxury of choosing his options.  He can sanction the continued release of Democratic party e-mails and start adding missing messages from HRC's server as well, inflicting an ultimately fatal blow to her campaign.  Or, the Russian leader can offer to turn off the tap, in exchange for whatever he wants on the world stage.  Given Mrs. Clinton's past pliability in dealing with Moscow, it's easy to see her caving to any blackmail demands from the Kremlin.  Our allies in places like the Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics and elsewhere should be very, very nervous.

The notion of Mr. Putin using spycraft to influence our presidential election should be disquieting to all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation.  And, it's absolutely mind-boggling that GOP nominee Donald Trump is calling on the Russians to "locate" Hillary's missing e-mails and publish those as well.  While Mr. Trump has chummy relations with the Russian leader, he might also be concerned about what the GRU's 6th Directorate has retrieved from his computer networks.  Putin can easily use the same tactics against Trump, if the situation dictates.

It's also important to view the current hubbub through the lens of politics.  Fact is, the Democrats weren't overly concerned when Wikileaks was publishing secrets that made George W. Bush look bad, and they down-played serious security breaches at OMB (and other federal agencies) during Obama's time in office.  But now that their party--and presidential nominee--have been targeted, the Democrats are demanding an all-hands-on-deck effort to pinpoint the source of the hack and punish the offenders.  Good luck with that; the odds of us actually getting our hands on the hackers is pretty much non-existent. I'm sure Putin and his cronies are getting a good laugh out of spoiling Mrs. Clinton's coronation in Philadelphia, with the promise of more "fun" in the weeks ahead.

And one final thought, before giving too much sympathy to Hillary or the Democrats.  Lest we forget, the party's cyber woes began with HRC's attempts to circumvent the law (and potential scrutiny) with her infamous home-brew server network and e-mail domain.  It's quite possible the alleged Russian foray began penetration of her servers and led them on to the DNC.  Apparently, Ms. Wasserman-Schultz was presiding over a network that was only marginally more secure than Mrs. Clinton's.  Yet, she allowed staffers to conspire against Sanders in terms that are vile at best, racist at worst.  Of course, she never believed any of those e-mails would enter the public domain--just as Hillary thought she could get away with her on-line crimes.

Both were woefully mistaken.  And the worst is yet to come.                                

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ataturk's Last Stand (Today's Reading Assignment)

If you read just two articles this week, may we suggest this opinion piece from Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters, and the latest column from former NSA senior spook John Schindler?  Both offer important insight into the failed "coup" in Turkey, and what it means for Ankara and the West.

While we've had minor differences with Lt Col Peters in the past, his analysis of the abortive military revolt in Turkey is spot-on.  When the coup fizzled on the streets of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, so did Ataturk's lasting vision of a modern, secular state firmly oriented towards Europe and western values.  As Peters writes: 

Friday night’s failed coup was Turkey’s last hope to stop the Islamization of its government and the degradation of its society.  Reflexively, Western leaders rushed to condemn a coup attempt they refused to understand. Their reward will be a toxic Islamist regime at the gates of Europe.
Our leaders no longer do their basic homework.The media relies on experts-by-Wikipedia. Except for PC platitudes, our schools ignore the world beyond our shores. Deluged with unreliable information, citizens succumb to the new superstitions of the digital age.

So a great country is destroyed by Islamist hardliners before our eyes—and our president praises its “democracy.”

That tragically failed coup was a forlorn hope, not an attempt to take over a country. Turkey is not a banana republic in which the military grasps the reins for its own profit.  For almost a century, the Turkish armed forces have been the guardians of the country’s secular constitution. Most recently, coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 (with “non-coup” pressure in 1997) saw the military intervene to prevent the country’s collapse.


So who is the man our own president rushed to support because he was “democratically elected?” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is openly Islamist and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which President Obama appears to believe represents the best hope for the Middle East. But the difference between ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t one of purpose, but merely of manners:  Muslim Brothers wash the blood off their hands before they sit down to dinner with their dupes.

With barely a murmured “Tut-tut!” from Western leaders, Erdogan has dismantled Turkey’s secular constitution (which the military is duty-bound to protect).  His “democracy” resembles Putin’s, not ours.  Key opposition figures have been driven into exile or banned.  Opposition parties have been suppressed.  Recent elections have not been held so much as staged.  And Erdogan has torn the fresh scab from the Kurdish wound, fostering civil war in Turkey’s southeast for his own political advantage.

Erdogan has packed Turkey’s courts with Islamists.  He appointed pliant, pro-Islamist generals and admirals, while staging show trials of those of whom he wished to rid the country.  He has de facto, if not yet de jure, curtailed women’s freedoms.  He dissolved the wall between mosque and state (Friday night, he used mosques’ loudspeakers to call his supporters into the streets).  Not least, he had long allowed foreign fighters to transit Turkey to join ISIS and has aggressively backed other extremists whom he believed he could manage.

And if that weren't enough, there is ample evidence that Erdogan has allowed the purchase of ISIS oil by various Turkish middlemen, helping the terrorist army fund its operations.  At the same time, Turkey's leader tries to maintain his image as a loyal NATO ally, allowing U.S. aircraft to stage missions against ISIS targets from Incirlik Airbase.  It's a strategy roughly akin to that of Pakistan, which has played all sides of the war in Afghanistan, trying to advance its own agenda.  But Erdogan has played a much more active role than his counterparts in Islamabad, allowing foreign fighters, weapons and oil to flow across the border, clamping down only when it suits his interests, typically before a NATO summit, or when the Obama Administration offers a rare bit of criticism.  

Making matters worse, Erdogan has tacitly aided ISIS on the battlefield.  While Turkey is ostensibly committed to attacking the terrorists, much of Turkey's military activity in Syria has focused on targeted Kurdish militias who have been the most effective forces battling ISIS and the Assad regime.  But Erdogan fears a free Kurdish enclave in Syria more than the terrorists, so ISIS has received little attention from Turkish military forces. 

Which brings us back to Friday's "coup" and accelerated cleansing of Turkey's officer corps under Erdogan.  Since assuming power more than a decade ago, Mr. Erdogan has worked systematically to reduce the power of the Turkish General Staff, guarantors of a secular state for nearly a century.  The TGS leads the second-largest military in Europe, a force that has been extensively modernized over the last 25 years.  And, leaders of the armed have never been hesitant about seizing power to save Turkey from extremist elements; there have been three coups since 1970 and the military pressured the government into major changes in 1997.  As various analysts have noted, military coups have generally been a stabilizing influence for Turkey and that was the apparent motivation behind last week's revolt; the generals, admirals and lower-ranking officers who led the rebellion hoped to wrest control of the country from Erdogan and his Islamist factions.  

But it wasn't much of a coup.  As Dr. Schindler notes in the New York Observer, the plotters could only muster about a battalion worth of troops--not enough to take over a mid-sized village, let alone an entire country.  And the narrative grows even stranger as more details emerge; as Erdogan flew back to Ankara from vacation, F-16 pilots supporting the coup locked onto the Turkish president's jet multiple times, yet no one gave the order to open fire, reinforcing Rule #1 of a military takeover: you'd better be prepared to kill the king (or president) if you want to succeed.  Instead, Erdogan landed, and began suppressing the coup in earnest.  The last of the ringleaders wasn't arrested until Monday afternoon, but for all practical purposes, the revolt ended almost as soon as it began.  

The coup's stunning failure has prompted speculation that perhaps it was a false flag operation, staged by Erdogan and his supporters.  While there's no definitive proof to support that charge, it is very clear the Turkish president will make the most of this opportunity.  As of this writing, more than 25% of the nation's flag officers have been detained, along with more than 2,000 judges.  Even in a nation with a liberal view of interrogation techniques, you can't elicit that many confessions in less than 72 hours.  After the coup failed, Erdogan simply dusted off his enemies list and sent loyalist security forces to round them up.  Mr. Erdogan has already suggested that Turkey may restore the death penalty, so it's likely that many of the coup leaders will pay for their actions with their lives.   

Throughout the crisis, the Obama Administration has stood behind the Turkish president and his Islamist government.  To be fair, it is a difficult situation, with Ankara being a key NATO ally, sitting astride some of the world's most important real estate, and home to Incirlik Airbase, where USAF F-16s and A-10s fly daily missions against ISIS.  And did we mention that Incirlik is also home to an unspecified number of tactical nuclear weapons?  While some sources maintain the nukes were withdrawn years ago, the U.S. has spent millions to upgrade nuclear storage facilities at Incirlik in recent years, suggesting the weapons are still there, or may return in the near future.  A few hours after the coup, Erdogan ordered the cut-off of water and power to the base, to underscore his displeasure with Washington.  

Why is he mad at us?  A moderate imam named Fethullah G├╝len (who was once an Erdogan ally) fled the country during a previous purge and now lives in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Erdogan describes him as the "spiritual leader" of the rebellion and is demanding his extradition.  Not surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. government is willing to listen to Ankara's demands.

What comes next?  Erdogan has promised a "thorough cleansing" of the "virus" infecting his country, meaning that the military, judiciary and other bastions of opposition will be completely purged.  The Turkish military will lose thousands of competent officers to prison, execution or exile, further weakening the one institution that kept Turkey stable and oriented to the west.  Their departure, along with other Kemalists will leave the "sick man of Europe" that much weaker and push it further into the Islamist orbit.  Dark days lie ahead for Turkey, but our leaders are too busy cheering on Erdogan to notice.  And we will pay for that folly.                     



Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Opportunity Missed

Donald Trump was served the political equivalent of batting practice last night.  He took a mighty cut and swung for the fences.  The presumptive GOP presidential nominee didn't whiff, but he didn't knock it out of the park, either.  Call it a golden opportunity that was missed.

We refer to his speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, delivered just hours after FBI Director James Comey announced he would not recommend prosecution for Hillary Clinton in her e-mail scandal.  And while Mr. Comey did a grave disservice to the rule of law, he methodically destroyed the various defenses that Clinton has offered for her "home-brew" e-mail system, which was used to transmit hundreds of classified messages.  Comey's point-by-point demolition of Mrs. Clinton's arguments played perfectly into Trump's claims about "Crooked Hillary" and the wholesale corruption associated with her political machine.

Comey finished his announcement before 12 noon (eastern time); Mr. Trump didn't take the stage in Raleigh until roughly eight hours later.  That was, presumably, enough time to craft a speech that expounded on the corruption and cronyism themes illustrated by the FBI decision; Hillary's "convenient" weekend interview with the bureau and that "chance" meeting last week between her husband Bill and Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Phoenix.  "The system is rigged" Trump tweeted after Comey's announcement.  That (supposedly) teed things up for a full-throated indictment of Clinton corruption during his Raleigh speech, with the e-mail scandal as merely the latest example.

To his credit, Trump did offer a couple of zingers about Hillary and her e-mails:

"We're talking about the life blood of our country, the safety of our people," said Trump, who took no time at all is using this ammunition against Clinton's questionable judgment.

"Stupidity is not a reason that you're going to be innocent," Trump said.    

But overall, the Raleigh address was merely a variation on his typical, rambling stump speech.  Build the wall; protect our borders, strengthen our military, take care of our vets, repeal Obamacare--the same stuff you've heard a hundred times before.  

To be fair, those are critically important themes and they do resonate with conservative voters.  And every politician has a standard campaign address that is typically delivered at every stop.  We'll even give Mr. Trump credit for doing something most politicians avoid; he speaks from a few notes, rarely using the teleprompter that President Obama and Mrs. Clinton rely on like a crutch.  

But last night wasn't a time for the regular stump speech.  The Raleigh forum provided an excellent opportunity to go after Mrs. Clinton's illegal handling, transmission and storage of classified material--and the lies she used to justify her practices.  An expanded speech, focused on those points, would have played very well in North Carolina for very important reasons, which were apparently lost on the Trump campaign.  

For starters, the Tarheel State has one of the largest military populations in the nation.  Well over 100,000 active duty personnel are stationed at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville; Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, Seymour Johnson AFB in Goldsboro and the Marine Corps Air Stations at New River and Cherry Point.  Additionally, there are National Guard and Reserve units scattered across the state and North Carolina is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans and military dependents.  

What do all of those service members--current and former--have in common?  Virtually all of them hold (or have held) a security clearance.  They are intimately aware of the requirements for gaining access to the nation's secrets, and the standards of conduct necessary for maintaining a security clearance.  Based on what we've learned from the FBI investigation, Hillary Clinton would no longer be eligible for a security clearance, based on her patterns of conducts and lies.  

In other words, that Army Specialist at Fort Bragg, the Marine Lance Corporal at Lejeune and the Airman First Class at Seymour Johnson are being held to a higher standard than the woman who was First Lady, a Senator, Secretary of State and now wants to be Commander-in-Chief.  The contrast could not be more stark--or compelling.  

And, it's a fair bet there were a number of military personnel at that Trump rally.  We're betting the room would have exploded if Trump had compared their conduct with that of Hillary Clinton, and told the crowd that she is not fit to lead those men and women.  

Instead, we got the usual from Donald Trump.  And it wasn't a bad speech--just the wrong speech for that time and place.  Maybe his handlers decided there wasn't enough time to roll out an address on the e-mails and give him enough time to rehearse it before arriving in North Carolina.  Or, perhaps the pollsters determined that such a speech would be too narrowly focused; better stick to the usual script and offer a little something for everyone.  

Unfortunately, that calculation was a tactical error which (hopefully) won't become a strategic mistake. Having escape prosecution yet again, Mrs. Clinton is desperate to change the topic, so she's attacking Trump's business record and his use of bankruptcy laws when a handful of his deals went bad.  

Hillary is betting that Trump will take the bait and spend the coming days (or weeks) defending his business practices, and neglecting other issues.  Obviously, Mr. Trump has every right to defend his long and successful career in various enterprises.  But he shouldn't take his eye off the prize; Hillary Clinton remains very vulnerable on the e-mail issue (and related corruption charges).  And, even in a day when only 1% of the population serves in the military, most Americans can understand the difference between a junior enlisted member and a cabinet official.  We're also betting they can appreciate the difference in how those young troops uphold the highest standards of conduct and Mrs. Clinton doesn't.  

Mr. Trump needs to draw that distinction, every time he faces a campaign crowd or a TV camera.  And his "ad team" (assuming they exist) need to craft spots which reinforce those themes, and air them in the swing states where Hillary now dominates the airwaves.  In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, the Clinton campaign will air more than 1,000 TV spots before the end of the summer.  We're still waiting for the first Trump ad.  

And did we mention that the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area has an even larger military/veterans population than North Carolina?  
ADDENDUM: Thoughts in a similar vein from Kyle Foley at RedState and none other than El Rushbo.                                   

Friday, July 01, 2016

Adrift, Redux

The Navy has released its report on the January incident that resulted in 14 sailors being captured and detained by Iran, after a patrol boat suffered a mechanical failure and drifted into hostile waters. 

Calling the assessment "devastating" might be an understatement.  From CNN:

"This incident was the result of failed leadership at multiple levels from the tactical to the operational," investigators wrote in the detailed, partially redacted, report.
The report found the crews were poorly prepared, their boats not properly maintained, communication almost entirely lacking, and their conduct after being captured by the Iranians wasn't up to military standards.
In a stunning finding, the report said the sailors veered off course almost immediately after heading out to sea and had no idea where they were when a mechanical failure struck one of the boats.
"The boat crews could visually see Farsi Island, but were not concerned as they were unaware that it was Iranian or that they were in Iranian waters," the report said. 
The report details a lax culture for U.S. Navy sailors who routinely patrol the Persian Gulf which ultimately led to a highly embarrassing incident for the U.S. military just as crippling economic sanctions were set to be lifted as part of the Iranian nuclear deal.
"The culture ... (was) characterized by informality. They conducted no patrol briefings, and missions were supported by no formal mission analysis, standard planning factors, risk assessment, or overwatch," investigators wrote.
And, a number of sailors will pay the price for those mistakes.  Captain Kyle Moses, the commodore in charge of the task force that included the patrol boats and crews, was dismissed from his post and has been recommended to face non-judicial punishment, which will end his career.  The commodore who led the patrol squadron at the time of the incident has also been fired and will face sanctions as well.  According to Navy Times, at least seven other sailors, officer and enlisted, are also expected to receive punishment for their actions in the incident.
The Navy's final report paints a picture of a unit with little discipline that was completely unprepared for a 250-mile transit from Kuwait to Bahrain.  Crew members on the two boats did not recall seeing the mandatory, written patrol briefing before departure, and investigators believe it was never prepared. The report also found that the crew was never familiarized with the region, and didn't know about weather, geography or potentially hostile threats--fundamental knowledge for any personnel preparing to go in harm's way.  
Equally damming is the Navy's assessment of the sailors' conduct after being capture:
The report found that during the 24 hours they were held some crew provided more information to their Iranian captors than they should have, and that they ate food while being filmed -- something they should not have done because it can be and was used as propaganda. One crew member disobeyed a direct order, the report said.
Asked by their captors how it was possible a boat like theirs could have traveled such a distance, one sailor replied, "Yeah, I wish you could tell my people that because we told them these boats don't do that" -- a statement investigators said was inappropriate. 
But to no one's surprise, the Navy inquiry also leaves many questions unanswered.  We posed many of these back in January, shortly after the crews were captured, detained and and released.  A few points worth re-examining:
The most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain is along the western side of the Persian Gulf; Farsi Island is more centrally located.  If the boats were following a direct route, they must have drifted for some time before reaching the Iranian-controlled island.  If only one vessel was affected by the engineering casualty, why didn't the second boat take it under tow?  Why weren't additional assets--including airpower--dispatched by 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain?  The presence of Navy helicopters and F/A-18s overhead might have caused the Iranians to think twice.

And what about distress calls from the [Swedish-built] CB-90s to Navy command elements?  Early reports suggested the Navy "lost track" of its assets.  Perhaps someone can explain why the vast surveillance assets of the United States Navy couldn't maintain radio and/or radar contact with a pair of patrol boats--or provide warning of Iranian activity.  Major surface combatants (along with airborne assets) give the Navy an impressive SIGINT capability on the high seas; assuming we were tracking Iranian activities, it would be nice to know what information commanders had as the episode unfolded and how it impacted their decision-making.

There are also issues involving the commander of the boat element, believed to be the junior officer who issued the on-camera apology.  Why did he offer no resistance when the Iranians began boarding his craft.  Article II of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct states "I will never surrender of my own free will.  If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they have the means to resist."  A CB-90 is heavily armed, with .50-caliber machine guns, GAU-19 mini guns and individual weapons for the crew.  Obviously, no officer wants to see his command slaughtered; on the other hand, would it have been possible for the crew to resist, particularly with air support? 
According to the Navy report, the crews of the two patrol boats had no idea where they were.  That admission is stunning in the GPS era, but let's assume for a second (as some intel analysts have suggested) that Iran was jamming that navigation system at the time.  Whatever happened to old-fashioned navigation, using the sun, stars, charts and a sextant.  The junior officer in charge of the boats is an Annapolis grad; at last report, midshipmen were required to take courses in navigation and master the operation of small craft before graduation (emphasis ours).  Perhaps the Naval Academy ought to ask for their diploma back.  
Likewise, many service members (current and former) are scratching their heads over the crew's willingness to cooperate with their Iranian captors.  That raises serious questions about the level and frequency of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training provided to riverine crews.  Most naval personnel who go into harm's way (aviators, SEALs, special warfare small craft operators and EOD teams) receive specialized training in those critical skills.  Based on the video released by Iran--and the Navy report--the patrol craft crews captured in January either didn't receive that training, or forgot everything they learned at SERE school.  One Navy contact suggested that riverine crews are only required to complete an on-line SERE course, despite the fact they operate in hostile waters and may be subject to capture by the enemy.  If that report is accurate, it is a damning indictment of Navy leadership and its training system.  
And senior commanders--above the task force and squadron level--should also be criticized for their reaction to the incident.  Back in January, reports suggested the Navy commanders somehow "lost track" of the two patrol craft; indeed, the just-released report suggests that a control element assigned to keep tabs on the transit failed to perform its mission, and had no idea the boats were drifting into hostile waters.  
But that explanation only goes so far.  Fact is, the U.S. Navy has impressive surveillance and intelligence collection capabilities in the Persian Gulf, for obvious reasons.  As the Iranians began to react to the patrol boats approaching Farsi Island, there was radio chatter between command elements and IRCG vessels assigned to the intercept.  That activity was almost certainly detected and reported by SIGINT assets afloat and ashore--and quickly relayed to 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain.  The sudden spike in radio chatter provided an early indication that something was unfolding, and should have spurred additional efforts to determine what the Iranians were after, and the potential presence of allied assets in the area.  
Then, there is this little nugget, which attracted little attention six months ago.  It suggests that the USS Harry Truman battle group was in the early stages of mounting a response as the situation developed:
"A senior Iranian naval officer said the Truman and other allied ships began "maneuvering" as the American sailors were detained.  The Iranian admiral also claimed that his country's anti-ship missiles were "locked on" to the Truman as the disabled U.S. patrol boats drifted towards his country's territorial waters."                     
The "maneuvering" was likely a turn into the wind, a prelude to launching air operations.  But we can't find any mention of that in the Navy report.  Was it a mere coincidence, or (taking a page out of the Benghazi playbook), did someone issue a "standdown" order, deciding it was too late to provide assistance.  Clarification of the Truman's tasking during those critical minutes is something Congress should demand, along with details of communications between the carrier battle group, 5th Fleet Headquarters and senior officials in Washington, D.C.  
And there's another important element that deserves a more detailed explanation.  In mid-May, Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes said details about Iran's treatment of the captured sailors would "shock" the nation.  Mr. Forbes, who recently lost his primary for re-election, said information about the sailors ordeal was provided in a classified military briefing and he encouraged other members of Congress to view the presentation as well.  To date, the Obama Administration has refused to disclose the details of that briefing and Congressman Forbes suggests it may be a year--or longer--before the information is released.   
Mr. Forbes is one of the leading defense experts on Capitol Hill and not given to rash remarks, so there is no reason to doubt the veracity of his account.  Obviously, if sailors were watching their comrades being subjected to mock executions (or similar tactics), it would influence their behavior before the enemy, particularly if they lacked the proper SERE training.  But we may not know what really happened to those sailors until after Team Obama leaves office.  In the interim, those nine sailors will likely see their careers come to an end, and the Navy will (hopefully) make the training, operational and maintenance changes needed to prevent similar incidents in the future.  
But we still haven't learned the full story of what transpired near Farsi Island back in January.  And the rest of those details may be a long time coming.         

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Loose Ends

The House Select Committee on Benghazi released its final report this morning.  Republican members of the panel (and their staff) crafted the document; committee Democrats, who dismissed the two-year inquiry as a political witch-hunt--and worse--marked the occasion with more criticism of their GOP colleagues, while claiming the report provided no evidence of wrong-doing by Hillary Clinton.

By that standard, it should also be noted that the assessment doesn't exactly cover Mrs. Clinton in glory, either.  House investigators affirmed what most Americans have known for years; the former Secretary of State ignored hundreds of requests from Ambassador Chris Stevens to upgrade security at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya, but his pleas were ignored.  Stevens was one of four Americans who died when Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012.

Indeed, the report documents 10 previous terror attacks in area during the months leading up to Benghazi, including two IED strikes against the American compound.  Yet, Mrs. Clinton's State Department elected to decrease security in the weeks before the final attack.  One unnamed security official summed it up well: noting the escalating violence in Benghazi, he predicted that "people are going to die" if the State Department didn't upgrade security for its personnel.

And when confronted with the truth, Hillary fell back on her most tried-and-true tactic: she lied.  Not just once, but repeatedly.  As David French notes at National Review, the House report is particularly effective at noting the blatant contradictions between public statements on the debacle (which initially blamed that infamous internet video) and private communications, where Mrs. Clinton immediately classified it as a terrorist attack.

Indeed, one of the more revealing sections of the report details a video conference, led by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough as the U.S. facilities were under siege.  It paints a picture of a national security team that was confused and mired in political correctness.  From Politico:

According to the report, some participants on the videoconference were unsure about what each agency was doing to rescue Americans.

State Department officials on the call also brought up concerns about whether Marines who might have been deployed to Benghazi were wearing uniforms, the report found — something officials previously said could hurt diplomacy in the region. One commander told the committee he and his men over the course of three hours kept having to change from uniforms to civilian clothes.

Panel Democrats said witnesses told investigators that the overall focus of the teleconference was first and foremost the safety and security of U.S. personnel in Benghazi. Adm. Kurt Tidd, director for operations at the joint staff at the Pentagon, said they "went down the list of the types of forces that are potentially available." 

"[W]e came out of that meeting with basically: send everything,” he said. 

But GOP sources said that urgency to ensure help was moving on the ground was not reflected in notes and action items. Half of the action items that conference participants wrote down in their notes had nothing to do with rescuing Americans, they said. Many of the action items were about the anti-Islamic video on which the administration would incorrectly blame the attack.

Hillary Clinton briefly participated in the teleconference, though it's unclear what directives she offered (if any).  A short time later, she went home for the evening, while Americans were still under attack at the CIA Annex.  In the end, no American military forces were dispatched to Benghazi.
Quite predictably, Mrs. Clinton's court stenographers in the MSM view the House report as vindication.  Absent a smoking gun, they glad accept the Democrat narrative that the two-year investigation was a waste of time and money.

But moving beyond the spin, the narrative depicts a foreign policy establishment that was completely dysfunctional.  After securing the desired "win" by removing Libyan dictator Mummar Qadhafi, Mrs. Clinton and her minions--along with President Obama and his national security team--had no plan for moving forward in Libya.  Instead, the nation foundered and became a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists, including those that killed four Americans on that terrible night almost four years ago. 

Unfortunately, the report leaves many unanswered questions about our failure to respond.  After originally deciding to "send everything," the administration and its top military officers apparently determined that nothing could be done.  There were no available assets, they argue; the distance was too great and the forces that could be mustered would arrive too late to make a difference.  

And, at various points in their assessment , Committee Chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and his colleagues seem quite willing to go along with that narrative.  Responding to questions about sending F-16s from Aviano AB, Italy, the Air Force told Mr. Gowdy's investigators that jets and crews at that installation were busy with an inspection. "Live" munitions had not been assembled and could not be prepared quickly enough to mount a response to Benghazi.  

But that rather tidy explanation has been debunked by individuals at the scene.  Last month, an airman who was at Aviano at the time told Adam Housley of Fox News that Aviano's 31st Fighter Wing was alerted for "real world" tasking that night, and the base flighline was abuzz with activity, as pilots and ground crews prepared for possible tasking in Benghazi. 

In his interview with Mr. Housley, the airman made it clear that the preparations were in response to events in Libya--not the inspection.  Indeed, Air Force policy has long mandated that real-world tasking always trumps evaluations.  At the moment a unit is alerted, the evaluation stops.  Of course, the USAF has never specified what type of inspection was taking place at Aviano.  Was it a local operational readiness exercise (ORE), or a formal evaluation by the U.S. Air Force in Europe (USAFE) Inspector General?  Such questions could be easily answered by the committee requesting a copy of the inspection report--or interviewing the wing commander--but there is no evidence Gowdy or his investigators ever made those requests.  

The committee also raised red flags about potentially incomplete displays of available forces in theater.  The report notes that a C-17 which flew an evacuation mission to Libya on 12 September (apparently from a base in Europe) was not included in a graphic depiction of on-hand assets during that period.  Did anyone from the committee bother to check with the command post or base ops at Ramstein AB, Germany, RAF Mildenhall in the UK, or other bases that support C-17 missions--and would track the arrival and departure of transient aircraft?  

Likewise, the panel sheds no light on USN assets in the Mediterranean.  While there was no carrier in the region that night, there were almost certainly guided missile destroyers, cruisers or attack submarines that (as a last resort) could have mounted a cruise missile strike against terrorist targets in Benghazi, using updated coordinates provided by an unarmed UAV, orbiting overhead. 

Additionally, there is no information on the status of airlift assets available to move SOF elements from Croatia, or a Marine FAST team from Rota, Spain.  Such data should be readily available through the theater operations center, or the Tanker Airlift Coordination Center, part of Air Mobility Command (AMC) at Scott AFB, Illinois.  The report provides no indication that investigators contacted AMC or other airlift control elements as part of the probe.   This much we know: it took more than five hours for the Pentagon to begin moving assets towards Benghazi, unacceptably slow given the deteriorating situation on the ground in Libya.  

Equally disturbing is the (apparent) inability of the committee to fill in the "missing hours" in President Obama's schedule on the night in question.  Officially, we know that he met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey in the late afternoon, about two hours into the attack.  A few hours later, he placed a call to a foreign leader, but there is no indication of his whereabouts (or actions) in the time leading up to that conversation, or in the hours that followed.  Publicly, Mr. Obama would not be seen again until 9 am the following morning, as he departed for a campaign trip to Nevada.  

In fact, no one seems really sure who was calling the shots in the situation room that night, with Mr. Obama apparently indisposed and Mrs. Clinton at her home.   The scenario is mind-boggling; American diplomatic and intelligence facilities are being overrun; our ambassador is dead, and the Commander-in-Chief and SecState are nowhere to be found.   

As Mr. French observes, the Benghazi disaster would be enough to end the career of a mere mortal, but no one describes Hillary Clinton in those terms.  She has proclaimed it is time to "move on," and her friends in the media are ready to follow suit.  Benghazi will now fade in the nation's rear-view mirror as Clinton sets her sights on November.  

Mr. Gowdy and his Republican committee members should be commended for their work, but in the end, it merely affirms the worst qualities of Mrs. Clinton, which the media and political elites are all-too-happy to ignore, regardless of the consequences.  And unfortunately, the Gowdy reports still leaves many questions unanswered.  Hillary Clinton wasn't the only senior official who failed miserably that night, and like the former Secretary of State, they will never be held accountable. 



Thursday, June 23, 2016

Correcting History

There is something quite predictable about The New York Times article which presents a new twist on one of the most iconic images in history--Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.  Here's the lede from reporter Michael S. Schmidt, who has covered military topics for many years, and quite frankly, should know better:

"An internal investigation by the Marine Corps has concluded that for more than 70 years it wrongly identified one of the men in the iconic photograph of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II."

Mr. Schmidt goes on to detail the results of an official inquiry which has determined that Navy Corpsman John Bradley was not one of the flag-raisers in photograph, which was taken atop Mount Suribachi as the battle still raged on 23 February 1945.  The possibility that Bradley was not in the photo was first detailed in an article published by the Omaha World Herald in 2014; a pair of World War II history buffs took a closer look at Rosenthal's epic photo and decided that the figure identified as John Bradley did not match other images taken of him that day.  Those photos, culled by two amateur historians from various archives and published by the Herald, show Bradley wearing "cuffed" uniform pants, while all of the men in the flag-raising photo are wearing trousers without cuffs.  


Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising, with the participants identified.  Prior to a recent USMC inquiry, it was accepted that five Marines and a Navy Corpsman (John Bradley) appeared in the image.  Now, it is believed that the man identified as Bradley was actually a sixth Marine.  

Other clues also emerged.  A photo of Bradley, taken earlier that day, shows him wearing a belt and pouches that don't match those of the man in the Rosenthal photo.  Indeed, the figure identified as John Bradley for eight decades has a pouch with wire cutters dangling from his belt--an item that was not standard issue for Navy Corpsmen.  Over a period of weeks, the two historians, one from Ireland, the other in Omaha, became increasingly convinced that the man believed to be Bradley was actually a Marine named Harold Schultz.   

Needless to say, these claims generated tremendous controversy.  The flag-raising photo won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945; it is the most widely-reproduced image of all time and it became the model for the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In fact, sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the massive figures that form the centerpiece of the monument, began working on a maquette for his design when the photo first appeared--years before receiving the actual commission.  The memorial was dedicated in 1954, and remains one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Washington, D.C.

John Bradley's role in the flag-raising was also the focus of a best-selling book (Flags of Our Fathers, written by his son, James), which also became the basis of a Clint Eastwood film, released in 2006.  Until those Marine history buffs began comparing old photographs, the weight of evidence suggested that the elder Bradley was the man who helped raise Old Glory on that February day long ago.

But to their credit, both the Marine Corps and James Bradley were willing to consider the possibility of mistaken identity, stretching over 75 years.  The Corps appointed a panel of experts, led by a retired Lieutenant General, who eventually arrived at the conclusion that the figure in the photograph was PFC Harold Schultz and not the Navy Corpsman.  And last month, James Bradley expressed doubt that his father is one of the men in the Rosenthal photo.  

Which brings us back to the folks at the Times and today's update on the controversy.  For whatever reason, Mr. Schmidt and his editors claim the figure in the photo, the memorial and countless reproductions was "wrongly identified" as John Bradley, hinting at motives that were somehow sinister and conspiratorial. 

A complete telling of the episode casts events in a much different light.  The inaccurate identification of Harold Schultz as John Bradley is the product of the fog of war and the reluctance of many Iwo survivors to talk about the horrors of the campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Marines and sailors.  

As any student of the battle knows, there were two flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi that day.  The first was performed by members of a 40-man led by lLt Harold Schrier, who reached the top of the peak around 10:30 am.  John Bradley was a Corpsman assigned to that group and participated in the first flag raising, which was recorded by Marine Corps combat photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery.


A photo taken just moments after the initial flag-raising on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.  Navy Corpsman John Bradley is the sixth man from the left, with his right hand on the flagstaff.  The image was taken by Marine Corps combat photographer Sgt Lou Lowery and first appeared in Leatherneck magazine in 1947.    

The second flag-raising, also supervised by Lt Schrier, occurred about two hours later.  By that time, Lowery was heading down from the summit to deliver his film for processing.  He ran into Joe Rosenthal and another Marine photographer, Sergeant Bill Genaust, who was carrying a motion picture camera.  Lowery told them he had recorded the flag raising, but encouraged them to continue up Suribachi, because of the good view from the top of the peak.  The second flag went up shortly after Rosenthal and Genaust arrived.  Rosenthal, on assignment for the AP, shot the moment hurriedly, not really sure of what his Speed Graphic had captured. 

With the battle still raging, Rosenthal didn't have time to record the names of the flag raisers.  But, as the photo gained instant acclaim, there was a clamor to identify the men in that image, led by President Roosevelt, and bring them home.  By the time the search began in earnest, three of the Marines (Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley and Harlan Block) had been killed in action, and John Bradley was recovering from battle wounds.  

Among the survivors, Private Rene Gagnon (who served as a runner during most of the battle) was quickly identified as a flag raiser, and officers leaned heavily on him to identify the rest.  He signed an affidavit naming himself, Strank, Sousley, Bradley, Hank Hansen and Ira Hayes as the men in the photo.  Hansen, he claimed, was the Marine closest to the base of the flag pole--a mistake that was not corrected until Harlan Block's mother saw the image and claimed the man in question was actually her son.  At that point, Gagnon revised his account.  Hansen also died on the island and Hayes was a very reluctant participant in the fanfare that followed. Haunted by his experiences in combat, Hayes died of alcoholism in 1955.  

As for John Bradley, he also had no taste for celebrity and was long traumatized by what he witnessed on Iwo.  But he also understood the military, and when directed to take part in the bond drive, the young Corpsman obeyed his orders.  Yet, he also moved to quickly distance himself from the fame accorded to the flag-raisers.  After leaving the Navy, Bradley became a successful funeral director in his home state of Wisconsin, fathered a large family and became a pillar of the community.  

While acknowledging his service in World War II--and participation in the flag-raising--Bradley refused to provide any details.  As recounted in Flags of Our Fathers, John Bradley struggled with the demons of war, weeping in his sleep for many years, and rejecting all media requests for interviews.  Even members of his family knew only the barest details of time in battle.  After Bradley's death in 1994, his widow and children found a Navy Cross in a shoebox in his closet.  John Bradley received the Navy's second highest award for valor on Iwo (for braving withering enemy fire to treat wounded Marines) and never told anyone about it, even his wife of 50 years.  

Likewise, Harold Schultz did his best to bury the past and move on.  Wounded in battle, he returned to the U.S. to recuperate and was discharged from the Marine Corps in the fall of 1945.  He spent the rest of his career working for the Post Office in southern California, living a quiet and humble existence.  Schultz didn't marry until he was 60 and only mentioned the flag-raising once, over the supper table with his wife and step-daughter in 1992.  When his daughter exclaimed "My gosh, Harold, you're a hero," he said "No, I was a Marine."  It was the last time he mentioned the event, although a copy of the Rosenthal photo was among his belongings when Schultz died in 1995.  

The Marine Corps is now updating its records to reflect Schultz's position as one of the flag-raisers.  But why did the mistake persist for so long?  Perhaps the answers can be found in the era that produced such remarkable men.  Both John Bradley and Harold Schultz came from a time when most Americans didn't eagerly seek fame, or to capitalize on their exploits.  Most viewed military service as a necessary  obligation after their country was attacked and they willingly did their job--not necessarily for freedom, democracy or any other lofty ideal, but for their buddies who were serving alongside. 

Raising the flags on the bitterly-contested island was part of a job they had to do.  And when confronted with extraordinary circumstances--namely, being identified as a part of that iconic image and instructed to perform fund-raising and publicity functions that came with the territory--John Bradley reluctantly agreed.  As depicted in his son's book and the Eastwood film, there was enormous pressure to find the men in the photo and leverage that moment to push the nation on towards final victory, particularly in regards to funding the war effort through one last bond drive.  It is very clear that the elder Bradley and Ira Hayes were uncomfortable with their sudden fame and acclaim, and sought to return to a normal life as quickly as possible.  It is also clear that neither tried to profit from the experience; books and films about their lives appeared after their passing.  

The same can be said for Harold Schultz.  He was apparently quite happy to fade into the anonymity of everyday life and saw no need to correct the historical record.  Schultz was likely haunted by the same ghosts that troubled John Bradley, Ira Hayes and the other men who lived through Iwo.  They left too many friends behind to worry about about who might have been in a photo--even if it is one of the most famous images in history.  And if called on to discuss such matters, they did so with great reluctance and the utmost humility.  

That is not to say that historical inaccuracies should not be corrected.  But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Harold Schultz, John Bradley and the other men who did their duty on that remote island so many years ago.  It is a lesson in deference and respect, virtues that appear to be fading as quickly as the last men and women from the Greatest Generation.             


Monday, June 20, 2016

God and Airmen at Travis AFB

Returning after an extended break from the blog, I came across this disturbing headline (and accompanying video) at Breitbart:

"Veteran Forcibly Dragged from Air Force Ceremony for Mentioning God."

The video was recorded on 3 April of this year, at a ceremony for Master Sergeant Charles Roberson, who was retiring from active duty after more than 20 years of honorable service.  MSgt Roberson, like many leaving the service, requested a flag-folding as part of the event.  While there is no "official" flag-folding ceremony, it is well-established in military tradition, and there are several narrations which accompany the ritual.

And that's where the controversy at Travis begins.  Sergeant Roberson, like many departing service members, requested a narrative which highlights (in part) our religious heritage and liberties.  Here are a few excerpts:

"The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance."


"The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.  

The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."  

Needless to say, those references didn't sit well with politically-correct Air Force leadership, which issued its a secular version back in 2005.  Religious themes were dumped in favor of "factual information, that shows respect for the flag and expresses our gratitude for those individuals who protect our country, both at home and abroad."

Unfortunately for the USAF's PC Police, many retirees--like MSgt Roberson--preferred the religious narrative and kept using it at their retirement ceremonies.  The vast majority of commanders allowed the choice, figuring (correctly) that the honoree deserved that much, after decades of wearing the nation's uniform and enduring the sacrifices associated with military service. 

But Roberson's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sovitsky, had other ideas.  As retired Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez began reciting the religious-themed flag-folding narrative, at least four of Sovitsky's non-commissioned officers surrounded the narrator and dragged him from the room. Members of Travis's 60th Security Forces Squadron were summoned and Rodriguez was escorted from the base.  

All because a retiring NCO requested a flag-folding narrative that spoke to his religious beliefs.  Let the record show that MSgt Roberson personally invited SMSgt Rodriguez to his retirement ceremony and specifically requested that he render the religious version of the flag-folding narration.  Roberson made his preferences known well in advance, so claims by Air Force p.r. flacks that Rodriguez "disrupted" the ceremony or showed up unannounced are pure bunk.  

In fairness, it is worth noting that leadership in the 749th Maintenance Squadron (Roberson's outfit) were aware of his request and opposed it from the start.  The estimable John Q. Public blog has been on the story from the start and reports that Roberson's chain of command provided "guidance" on the narrative once Roberson made his preferences known: Rodriguez was not to perform the "unauthorized" flag speech.  MSgt Roberson passed on the directive to the narrator, while making clear his preference for the religious-themed narrative.  According to J.Q.P., Roberson left the final decision to Rodriguez as to whether he would stand and speak during the flag folding.  SMSgt Rodriguez chose to exercise his First Amendment rights, and for his efforts, was unceremoniously dragged from the ceremony and kicked off post.  

Some might argue that the Air Force had a right to eject Rodriguez.  His narrative could be construed as an endorsement of Judaism and Christianity, and it took place on public property, specifically a building at Travis AFB.  Volumes of court rulings would seem to support the USAF, no matter how repugnant its actions were.  

But J.Q.P. raises important counter-arguments that demolish the Air Force's position.  He notes that military chaplains often deliver religious invocations at retirement ceremonies and other official events, often appearing in the same frame as the American flag.  As for the Air Force Instruction (34-1201) that mandates use of the "secular" flag-folding script, the reg doesn't carry the weight of law and "creates an unwarranted limitation" on the ability of service members to draw inspiration from the flag and express it publicly.  Such expressions are not contrary to the maintenance of good order and discipline, so the USAF's position is further eroded.  And, there's the very real possibility that leaders of the 749th issued illegal detention orders when they directed those NCOs to remove Oscar Rodriguez.

And here's the kicker: the flag-folding is not part of the official retirement ceremony, so the Trotskyites in the 749th were attempting to dictate content and participation of a private ritual--requested by the retiree--after the conclusion of events that fall under Air Force purview.  Instead, the "leadership" of the unit (and we use that term advisedly) tried to exert total command influence over the event.  What was supposed to be a fitting send-off for a retiring airman instead became a strong-armed spectacle, thanks to commanders who seem to care only about their P.C. agenda--and not those who serve under them.  

J.Q.P. describes the Travis debacle as more proof of the "moral rot" that is crippling the USAF.  Sadly, we can't disagree.  

In response to media queries, the Air Force says an investigation into the matter is underway.  For those keeping score at home, the probe is being handled by the 60th Security Forces Squadron, the same unit  involved in removing Oscar Rodriguez from Travis after he was ejected from MSgt Roberson's retirement ceremony.            

We're quite sure it will be the very model of impartiality and fairness.