Monday, November 30, 2009

The Rest of the Story

Just in time for President Obama's speech on Afghanistan, John Kerry and the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are revisiting an old canard in the War on Terror.

In a report released yesterday--just in time for the Sunday papers and talk shows-- the panel's Democratic majority repeats claims that Osama bin Laden was "within our grasp" at Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. military leaders made the decision not to pursue him with massive force.

And, if you believe Mr. Kerry's narrative, we're still paying the price for that mistake today. Surviving to fight another day, bin Laden's escape "laid the foundation for today's reinvigorated Afghan insurgency," and inflamed the internal strife which threatens neighboring Pakistan. As the Associated Press reports:

“Removing the al-Qaida leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the report says. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide. The failure to finish the job represents a lost opportunity that forever altered the course of the conflict in Afghanistan and the future of international terrorism.”

The report states categorically that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora when the U.S. had the means to mount a rapid assault with several thousand troops at least. It says that a review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”

On or about Dec. 16, 2001, bin Laden and bodyguards “walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area,” where he is still believed to be based, the report says.

While the AP clearly accepts the committee's version of events, more careful readers will note that the Senate report was carefully crafted to endorse Mr. Kerry's long-held views. While committee members (and staffers) have security clearances--and access to classified information--their assessment was largely based on unclassified government records and other open sources.

Why does that matter? Because the intelligence record on bin Laden's presence at Tora Bora is far less conclusive. While a former Delta Force commander (who participated in the battle) claims to have advanced within 2,000 yards of bin Laden's suspected position, Al Qaida fighters who were later captured said their leader was only in the area for only a short time, and departed before the main battle began. Intelligence summaries prepared after the battle have raised similar questions about how long bin Laden was at Tora Bora and the possibility that he was never "in our grasp."

Similarly, claims about bin Laden's radio chatter at Tora Bora are based on the opinions of a CIA expert who was with U.S. forces. How does the expert's claims stack up against NSA analysis of the traffic? Readers of the report will never know, since Kerry's staffers never bothered to consult the world's premier SIGINT agency or if they did, NSA's conclusions never made the final report.

It's also worth noting that some of the "sources" cited in the report have their own axe to grind with the Bush Administration and the military chain-of-command. The Delta operative, who uses the pen name "Dalton Fury" wrote a book that is highly critical of how military commanders handled operations at Tora Bora. A CIA paramilitary officer--also present for the operation--reached the same conclusion, and emerges as another primary source for the Kerry report.

Meanwhile, the assessment is less charitable towards key players who changed their minds, namely retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Mike DeLong, who served as the Deputy Commander at CENTCOM under General Tommy Franks. While noting that General DeLong initially supported claims about bin Laden's presence at Tora Bora, the report also hints that the former flag officer's later views may have been influenced by politics. The Senate study observes that DeLong's change-of-heart came just before the 2004 presidential election, and only weeks after General Franks published similar claims about Tora Bora.

But there's also the possibility that DeLong simply revised his position after reconsidering what he knew as the battle unfolded--and what he subsequently learned from available reporting. As he told Senate staffers in an interview:

‘‘What I put in the book was what the intel said at the time,’’ he said. ‘‘The intel is not always right. I read it that he was there. We even heard that he was injured. Later intel was that he may or may not have been there. Did anybody have eyeballs on him? No. The intel stated that he was there at the time, but we got shot in the face by bad intel many times.’’

Obviously, both DeLong and his former boss, General Franks, have a dog in the fight, trying to preserve their reputations against the pull of both history and politics. But the same holds true for Mr. Kerry. Five years ago, he tried to indict George W. Bush for "failing" to get bin Laden, but that issue never resonated with the American public. Now, as a Democratic president prepares to justify a major troop increase in Afghanistan, Senator Kerry finds it convenient to (once again) blame his political rival, insisting that the war against Al Qaida could have been won at Tora Bora in December 2001.

Naturally, that theory has more holes that a block of Swiss. Al Qaida has managed to muddle along for the past eight years, despite long stretches when bin Laden was incommunicado--thanks largely to U.S. military pressure. While the terror leader remains an inspirational figure among radical Islamists, but there is ample reason to believe that bin Laden's movement would have survived his demise.

Indeed, post 9-11 attacks in locations as diverse as Bali, Madrid, London and Fort Hood illustrate that terror splinter cells and "lone wolves" may pose the greatest threat to western security, regardless of Al Qaida's current status, or that of its founding father.

Was an opportunity missed at Tora Bora? Probably. But our inability to "get" bin Laden at that moment, in the snowy mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border--was not a decisive failure, a mistake that doomed our effort, as Mr. Kerry would suggest. Truth is, the war against our Islamic terrorists will continue long after bin Laden is gone, regardless of when that occurs.


As part of its assessment, the Senate report claims that the "vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Army and Marine Corps," was kept on the sidelines. But that ignores some rather inconvenient facts; the window of opportunity at Tora Bora was relatively narrow, and secondly, it takes considerable effort to transport thousands of troops (and required logistics) high into the mountainous terrain of the Afghan border region. Preparations for the kind of battle envisioned by Kerry and his armchair strategists would have taken weeks--and provided a clear tip-off for bin Laden and his entourage. By the time that force was assembled, the terror leader would have been long gone.

But don't tell that to the military experts on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

ADDENDUM: The Wall Street Journal reminds us that Mr. Kerry was actually against more troops for the Tora Bora campaign back in 2001, telling CNN's Larry King that the strategy then in place was "the best way to protect the troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will." That means Kerry is now in the awkward position of supporting a troop surge for Tora Bora, eight years after he was against it.

Sound familiar?

Friday, November 27, 2009

About that Bundle

What does the U.S. Air Force have in common with kids at the toy store?

They're both in the market for the latest version of the Sony PlayStation 3.

And, while youngsters want them to play video games, the service has another purpose in mind --bundling the consoles to create a massive massive computer cluster, for use in special projects at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) in Rome, New York.

Obviously, the USAF needs lots of PS3s to create that cluster--2,200 to be exact. So, the service has placed an order for that number of game consoles, at a cost of $650,000. Total cost for the cluster project is about $2 million, according to an AFRL official. Once completed, the bundled PS3s will be used to create virtual models of the human brain, among other projects.

According to Air Force Times, the Rome lab already has a "small" PlayStation cluster in operation, incorporating 336 consoles, linked in fourteen groups of twenty-four. When that first "buy" was announced last year, USAF officials noted that it was cheaper to link PS3s than buy processors designed specifically for the task. By one estimate, the cluster is five times cheaper than the "alternate" processor solution.

But the advantages of the PS3 cluster don't end there. Along with their advanced CPUs, the consoles have a high-end graphics capability, extremely useful in military modeling and simulation work.

While Rome lab deserves credit for their cost-effective solution, there is a down-side to the PS3 approach. With no limits on PS3 exports--and their ready availability on the global market--there's nothing to prevent our adversaries from building their own bundles, for weapons design, employment simulations, or other military functions.

In fact, the U.S. intelligence community began tracking adversary acquisitions of game consoles almost a decade ago, when Saddam Hussein's front companies reportedly purchased 4,000 PlayStation 2s. At the time, there was concern that Saddam's scientists would bundle the PS2s in a configuration similar to that used at Rome Labs. Intelligence analysts believed that Saddam wanted the PlayStations to create a cheap, powerful computer bundle to support his WMD program. However, there is no evidence that the bundle was actually assembled, and some experts believe the game consoles were given away as gifts to Saddam's political cronies.

While the late Iraqi dictator might have missed the "bundling option," it remains available to almost any country willing to invest the time (and money) in a large-scale purchase of PlayStations, and the effort required to link them together. We can only wonder if the Iranians or North Koreans have their own PS3 bundles, providing support for their militaries and/or WMD programs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

War Games

Iran is currently conducting a highly-publicized air defense drill, aimed at demonstrating its ability to defend nuclear sites from Israeli (or U.S.) attack.

But from what we've seen, the exercise won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of IAF planners, or their American counterparts.

Video from the war game, aired on state-run TV (and picked up by western news organizations), looked remarkably similar to past air defense exercises. In fact, it was hard to tell if the footage was new, or just recycled from past drills.

Recycled or not, the air defense systems on display in Iranian TV coverage were decidedly dated. In one snippet we viewed, air defense crews were shown removing camouflage netting from an I-HAWK radar. The I-HAWK (or, if you prefer Improved Homing-All-the-Way Killer) is a surface-to-air missile system purchased from the U.S. in the 1970s.

Readiness levels among Iran's I-HAWK units have declined in recent years, the product of the system's increasing age and declining availability of spare parts. Still, the I-HAWK remains an integral part of Tehran's air defense network, despite the fact that both the U.S. and Israel have effective counter-measures for system.

The Iranian TV report also featured live-fire footage of what appeared to be optically-guided AAA (of marginal value against cruise missiles, or aircraft dropping smart bombs at medium altitude), and interestingly enough, the launch of an SA-5 Gammon long-range SAM.

Purchased from Russia more than a decade ago, the SA-5 is a huge, lumbering missile designed for use against non-maneuvering platforms like AWACS aircraft or tankers. Against fighter-sized targets, the Gammon has virtually no capability, but with its large size and strap-on boosters, the SA-5 does look impressive at lift-off--probably one reason it was highlighted by Tehran's military censors.

The Gammon launch caught our attention because Iran's SA-5 sites have been (traditionally) maintained at low readiness levels. That isn't likely to change, even if the live-fire was staged for the cameras. Tehran's few SA-5 sites suffer the same readiness and maintenance issues that are affecting I-HAWK units, with no remedies in sight.

Iran has been trying to upgrade its air defenses, most notably through the recent purchase of a Chinese-designed C3 system and the Russian SA-15 mobile SAM. Purchased from Moscow more than three years ago, the SA-15 (NATO nickname: Gauntlet) has supposedly been integrated into Tehran's air defense system. But footage of the Gauntlet was noticeably absent from Iranian TV coverage.

There could be a number of reasons for that omission. Perhaps the Iranians didn't want to provide clues about potential basing or field operations, although the U.S. and Israel are well-acquainted with the system and how its employed. It's also possible that Iran's propaganda ministry simply wanted the most impressive visuals, or simply cobbled something together from stock footage, without incorporating the SA-15.

There's also the chance that Iran is experiencing integration problems with the short-range SAM system. As we've noted in previous posts, Tehran has a history of buying weaponry "on the cheap," without making the large-scale (and necessary) investments in training, spares and maintenance. Consequently, Iran's learning curve on new systems tends to be a bit longer--and steeper--than other nations.

It's also worth noting that video of Iranian fighter aircraft was also missing, at least in the report we saw. While fighters remain a key element of Tehran's defense plan for nuclear facilities, there are critical weaknesses in that area as well. Despite the availability of some newer airframes (most notably the MiG-29 Fulcrum), Iran's fighter fleet is still built around aging, U.S.-built F-4s, F-5s and a handful of F-14 Tomcats that are still operable.

Not exactly a threat that keeps the U.S. or the Israelis up at night--no matter how Tehran tries to spin it.
ADDENDUM: As always, we try not to read very much into Iranian claims--or TV coverage of their military. But this exercise appears very similar to past events, with no discernable improvement in air defense capabilities. No wonder Tehran has been pressing Russia on delivery of the S-300 SAM system. Arrival of that advanced missile system in Iran would greatly complicate potential air strikes against nuclear facilities and likely force an Israeli attack before the S-300 becomes operational.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Raising the Bar?

A renewed "Era of Accountability" seems to be taking hold in the U.S. Air Force.

The service's Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, has made it clear: officers in key positions--particularly wing commanders--had better shape up, or they may find themselves looking for a new job.

And Schwartz has backed up the tough talk with action. According to Air Force Times, five wing commanders have been fired since late 2008, the service's biggest "house-cleaning" since the mid-1990s.

The most recent firings occurred in October at Minot AFB, North Dakota, where the commanders of the 91st Missile Wing and the co-located 5th Bomb Wing were dismissed, barely two weeks apart. Colonel Joel Westa, leader of the bomber unit, was relieved of his duties on 30 October, after senior officers "lost confidence in his performance." Earlier in the month, the commander of Minot's missile wing, Colonel Christopher Ayers, was removed for similar reasons.

While none of the commanders (all Colonels) were personally fired by General Schwartz, it seems clear that other generals are taking his guidance to heart. As Schwartz told the Times last month, both the service--and the public--expect command positions to be filled by the most capable officers.

“We owe it to our airmen and to the American public to ensure we have the right people for the times in these key positions, and this is what our numbered air force and major command commanders have done,” Schwartz told Air Force Times in a telephone interview [on] the same afternoon that official word of the latest sacking came down.

According to the Times, the USAF hasn't sacked this many commanders since 1996, when 16 officers, including a major general, were punished in connection with the fatal crash of a CT-43 carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. All thirty-five military and civilian personnel on board the aircraft, including Mr. Brown, were killed in the accident.

A retired Air Force general who spoke with the paper (on the condition of anonymity) suggested that the service needs to do a better job in screening--and selecting--individuals who serve as wing commanders. He noted that neither Colonel Westa and Colonel Bryan Bearden--fired earlier this year as commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan AB, Korea--had previous assignments as an Operations Group Commander. Leadership of an operations group has traditionally been a stepping-stone for a wing commander billet.

But that factor alone doesn't explain the Air Force's new-found willingness to sack wing commanders. Westa and Ayers were fired, in large part, because of continuing problems with the service's nuclear enterprise. In fact, Westa took command of the 5th Bomb Wing because of the unit's involvement in a highly-publicized nuclear mishap. Ground crews at Minot mistakenly loaded nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52, which transported them to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The incident triggered a series of Air Force and DoD investigations, and the firing of Westa's predecessor, Colonel Bruce Emig.

Those inquiries revealed wide-spread problems in Air Force nuclear operations--issues that were not limited to Minot, Barksdale, or other installations supporting flight operations. As investigators discovered, declining emphasis the nuclear enterprise--and its workforce--created the environment that led to the Minot debacle and other, less serious incidents. Experts warned that the problems developed over time and it would take almost as long to fix them.

In other words, some wing commanders face an almost impossible task: meeting the Air Force's exacting standards for nuclear operations, despite deficiencies in personnel, funding and even hardware. The U.S. hasn't produced a "new" nuclear weapon in 20 years, and it's becoming more difficult to maintain our existing stockpile. That problem is further exacerbated by a shortage of trained personnel, another by-product the the USAF's neglect of the nuclear enterprise since the end of the Cold War.

That doesn't mean the service should "go easy" on commanders that lead nuclear units. But the Air Force should also realize that problems exposed at Minot won't be cured quickly--or easily. More commanders will get the axe, regardless of their professional pedigree, or how they are screened. But the hazards of command won't deter ambitious officers. As one flag officer told Air Force Times, there is no shortage of Colonels who want to be wing commanders.

But the renewed focus on accountability may raise another question--namely, how far that emphasis extends up the chain of command. While several Air Force generals have been sacked over the past decade or so, the service has also rehabilitated some of them. We've written at length about two of them; Major General Larry New was fired as an Operations Group Commander in the late 1990s, after a deadly crash involving a helicopter unit under his command. Sixteen crew members died in that mishap.

Still, New went on to become a wing commander and earn two stars before retiring. One of his contemporaries, Mark Shackelford, has demonstrated even greater resiliency. Fired as a Brigadier General (in charge of the F-22 Raptor System Program Office), Shackelford was transferred to a missile defense post where he earned his second star. He was promoted to Lieutenant General last year, and now serves as military deputy in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Not bad for a guy whose career was supposedly over just seven years ago.

The ability of Generals New and Shackelford to survive "career-ending" incidents has led to charges of a double-standard. And, based on the available evidence, those accusations are hard to refute. In a "zero defect" Air Force, it's hard to see how some leaders managed to survive such miscues.

To be fair, both New and Shackelford earned their stars before the new push for accountability. It will be interesting to see if other general officers earn a similar "rehabilitation" during the watch of General Schwartz. If that doesn't happen, it will certainly be a step in the right direction. It's a little hard to justify the firings of wing commanders when some members of the flag officers club keep advancing, despite past screw-ups.


ADDENDUM: The Air Force's new-found demand for accountability also extends to the ranks of its most senior enlisted members. Chief Buddy tipped us earlier today to the sudden disappearance of Command Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney from his post at Air Force Material Command. Gurney's biography and official photograph were apparently removed from the AFMC website last week, usually the first indication that a senior leader has been fired. So far, the command has been mum on the reasons behind Gurney's sudden departure.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Filling the Ranks at West Point (and the Other Service Academies)

While the military continues its push for diversity, it isn't getting much help from some key members of Congress, who represent heavily minority districts across the country.

An Associated Press review of service academy appointments over the past five years reveals that lawmakers from the nation's major urban areas--New York, Chicago and Los Angeles--rank at or near the bottom in the number of students they've nominated to the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

As the wire service discovered:

Academy records obtained by the AP through the Freedom of Information Act show that lawmakers in roughly half of the 435 House districts nominated more than 100 students each during the five-year period.

But Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York City, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, nominated only four students, the lowest among House members who served the entire five-year period. Rep. Charles Rangel, whose New York City district includes Harlem, was second-lowest, with eight nominations. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose San Francisco district is 29 percent Asian, was also near the bottom, with 19.

In fact, the bottom 20 House members were all from districts where whites make up less than a majority.

"It's beyond my imagination how someone that has the ability to nominate doesn't do it," Craig Duchossois said last December at his final meeting as chairman of the Naval Academy's Board of Visitors.

He noted what an academy appointment means: a free four-year education and a guaranteed job as an officer for at least five years after graduation.

Velazquez, Rangel and Pelosi would not comment or did not return calls.

Trying to explain this trend, the AP attempts to provide a little cover for Pelosi (and other representatives with few nominations), quoting anonymous sources that claim many inner-city students can't meet the service academies' stringent admissions requirements--or they're simply unaware of the opportunities offered.

Of course, there is an element of truth in that. As we've noted in previous posts, the number of American youth who qualify for military service has declined dramatically in recent years. According to one recent estimate, only 28% of the nation's young men and women meet the standards for enlistment; the rest are rejected for reasons ranging from obesity and other medical conditions, to drug usage and criminal activity, and even the long-term use medications for attention deficit disorder.

So, if the pool of potential enlistees is shrinking, it stands to reason that fewer young people would meet admission standards for West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. Then, there's the matter of politics; many of the representatives with few appointments were vocal critics of the war in Iraq. The AP tries to suggest those members of Congress were holding true to their principles, refusing to train young Americans to fight in a conflict they oppose.

But those arguments only go so far; as the AP discovered, some minority members of Congress (or those serving urban areas) make more of an effort to appoint deserving constituents to the academies. Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents portions of Baltimore--and has steadfastly opposed the Iraq War--has (nonetheless) nominated 128 students from his district over the past five years. To his credit, Mr. Cummings and his staff try to make young people aware of the opportunities available at the service academies--an effort neglected by the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Charley Rangel.

This isn't the first time that Mr. Rangel's constituents have been noticeably absent in the military's ranks. Back in 2005, the Harlem representative claimed that minorities were disproportionately represented in the the armed services--and by extension, suffering more than their share of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Tim Kane of the Heritage Foundation obliterated those claims with a detailed study, released shortly after Mr. Rangel 's widely-publicized call for reinstating the draft. Analyzing reams of demographic and geographic data, Dr. Kane found that African-Americans constitute 14% of the nation's military, about the same level of representation (13%) in the general population. So much for that "unfair burden" theory. Moreover, the Heritage analysis found that the fastest-growing segment of military recruits came from areas with the highest income levels.

Kane also made the remarkable discovery that not a single young person from Rangel's district joined the armed forces in the year covered by his survey and data analysis (emphasis ours). To our knowledge, Congressman Rangel never replied to the Heritage study and its rather inconvenient truths.

To be sure, it's sometimes difficult to find academy candidates in neighborhoods with poor schools, rampant crime and families that are often splintered. Still, it's worth the search. At one Baltimore high school, the AP interviewed an 18-year-old Filipino immigrant, who's been working towards an Annapolis appointment for the past for years. We certainly hope she makes it. And, it would be even better if some of our elected representatives made more of an effort to send qualified young men and women to the service academies.

The key word, of course, is qualified. Seats at West Point, Annapolis and The Springs should be reserved for young people with the necessary traits to become future military leaders. But those qualities are not exclusive to white, suburban kids. If the numbers from Baltimore are any indication, there are future generals and admirals in the inner city, waiting to be discovered and encouraged.

The Right Stuff (Mental Health Services Edition)

The recent shooting rampage at Fort Hood took an exceptionally heavy toll on the post's mental health clinic. Five of the thirteen soldiers and civilians who died were mental health specialists; another 19 were wounded by the shooter, Army Major Nidal Hasan.

Making matters worse, many of the behavioral health specialists killed or wounded at Fort Hood were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Given their limited numbers in the Army's ranks, the casualties threatened to create havoc with deployment schedules, and the return of specialists already in theater.

But if that was Hasan's intent, he miscalculated--and badly. According to USA Today (via Army Times), several of the wounded mental health professionals will still deploy, and others are volunteering to fill slots in Afghanistan, originally earmarked for their Fort Hood colleagues.

Despite their wounds, however, eight of the specialists were still willing to deploy, said Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Lie-Ping Chang, commanding general of a medical unit that includes two combat stress control units decimated by the shooting.

The units are rebuilding quickly, Chang said. Eight of the wounded have returned to duty, and 14 other mental health reservists have volunteered to fill vacancies and go to Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.

Two reservists have volunteered to immediately deploy with the units in December, and 12 have said they will be ready by early January, Chang said.

“I think we can do it,” Chang said, referring to replenishing his ranks. “The response was so overwhelming, and the people wanted to do the right thing.”

Two vacancies remain, said Chang, who is a family physician and commands the 807th Medical Command, under which the two combat stress control units are assigned.

Hasan was one of three active duty soldiers assigned to the 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment, one of the two units slated to deploy in the coming weeks. Members of the 467th and its sister unit, the 1908th Army Reserve Combat Stress Control Detachment, were processing through the Fort Hood deployment center when Hasan went on his rampage.

Kudos to the mental health professionals, active duty and reserve, who are refusing to let a terrorist interrupt their mission. Godspeed to members of the 467th and 1908th; they will make a difference in the war zone. More importantly, their resilience and devotion to duty is a dramatic rebuke to the actions of Major Hasan. We hope he contemplates that failure at his future home on death row at Leavenworth.

Pardon the Interruption

Due to an exceptionally busy work and travel schedule, we've been away for the past few days. We'll try to catch up over the weekend--much to discuss.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Blame Game

Faced with a colossal screw-up of their own making, bureaucrats--and the government organizations they run--behave in predictable ways. There are inevitable attempts to feign ignorance, blame the calamity on someone else, or both.

All of these feckless traits are on display as the Fort Hood tragedy continues to unfold. Normally, we don't refer to acts of terrorism as a tragedy but this time we'll make an exception, because the murderous rampage of Major Nidal Hassan could have been easily prevented, had the bureaucrats done their job.

Let's begin with the FBI. Earlier this year, the bureau learned that Hassan, an Army psychiatrist, was in communication with "several" Al Qaida figures, including one of its spiritual leaders, Anwar al Awlaki. Did we mention that Awlaki was once a cleric at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia where Hasan attended worship services? Or that two of the 9-11 hijackers attended the mosque at the same time as Hasan?

We also know that Awlaki has been the target of U.S. investigations on at least three different occasions, the first in the months following 9-11. Allowed to leave the U.S. in 2002, Awlaki has become an inspiration for jihadists around the world, including Nidal Hasan, or so it would appear.

The FBI claims the imam never responded to Hasan's e-mails, which (the bureau assures us) was part of a "research project" being conducted by the psychiatrist. So far, the bureau hasn't detailed Hasan's contacts with other Al Qaida figures, or if they responded to his queries. And, there is reason to believe that the FBI stumbled across Hasan as part of a recent probe of Awlaki and his activities.

Yet, the bureau had little interest in e-mail questions from a U.S. Army officer (emphasis ours). Someone ought to ask the FBI how many other military personnel were corresponding with the radical cleric. That alone was a red flag that demanded a detailed inquiry. But the FBI decided to pass the baton to another agency.

That's why the FBI didn't make the final call on investigating Major Hasan. That decision was "out-sourced" to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), a branch of the Defense Department Inspector General's office. While counter-terrorism is one of the missions of the DCIS, the agency spends most of its time dealing with contractor fraud and illegal transfers of defense technology.

By comparison, the FBI bills itself as the nation's "front line" on terrorism. The bureau has established a huge counter-terrorism division and maintains joint terrorism task forces in more than one hundred U.S. cities. According to its own website, FBI agents have played a leading role in foiling past plots against both civilian and military targets across the country.

Lawyers might argue about jurisdictional issues (afterall, Hasan was a military officer), but if the FBI was so inclined, it could have retained authority over the case, or passed it to the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CIC). Like its counterparts in the Navy and Air Force, the CIC is charged with handling counter-terrorism cases within the ranks. But, the service says it was never contacted by the FBI regarding suspicions about Hasan, and the CIC never investigated his activities. Instead, a disinterested bureaucrat at the DCIS took a cursory look, and decided to close the case.

That's rather stunning, when you consider the latest revelations about Major Hasan. According to the Dallas Morning News, there are indications that Hasan may have wired money to individuals in Pakistan in recent months, raising new concerns about his ties to terrorists. Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee told the paper that "sources outside the intelligence community" learned about Hasan's ties to Pakistan, which in his words, "raise a whole other level of questions" about the Army psychiatrist and events that led to last week's shooting spree. If these sources can develop that information in a matter of days, we wonder what the FBI and/or DCIS might have uncovered, had they conducted a full investigation of Major Hasan.

Admittedly, we don't know how much information the DCIS had (beyond those e-mails) in reviewing the Hasan case. But the failure of that agency--and the FBI--to share information with the Army is appalling; a textbook example of bureaucracy at its worst. Making matters worse, the refusal of federal agents to pursue an investigation of Hasan was motivated--in part--by career concerns and political correctness. Sources report that federal authorities feared they'd be "crucified" if they pushed the Hasan matter, afraid that the Army officer would accuse them of violating his First Amendment rights.

But if the FBI and DCIS deserve blame for failing to follow up on Hasan's activities, the Army missed the boat as well. The psychiatrist's radical views were well known to fellow residents (and his superiors) at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where Hasan spent six years in training. Some of those physicians complained to their supervisors, who discussed Major Hasan's behavior on multiple occasions.

As NPR reported yesterday, key officials at Walter Reed held meetings in the spring of 2008. Those sessions dealt with several issues, including Hasan's behavior. One source told correspondent Daniel Zwerdling that officials openly wondered if the Army officer was psychotic.

When a group of key officials gathered in the spring of 2008 for their monthly meeting in a Bethesda, Md., office, one of the leading — and most perplexing — items on their agenda was: What should we do about Hasan?
Hasan had been a trouble spot on officials' radar since he started training at Walter Reed, six years earlier. Several officials confirm that supervisors had repeatedly given him poor evaluations and warned him that he was doing substandard work.

Both fellow students and faculty were deeply troubled by Hasan's behavior — which they variously called disconnected, aloof, paranoid, belligerent, and schizoid. The officials say he antagonized some students and faculty by espousing what they perceived to be extremist Islamic views. His supervisors at Walter Reed had even reprimanded him for telling at least one patient that "Islam can save your soul."

According to NPR, meetings about Hasan continued into the spring of this year, as he completed a fellowship and prepared to depart for Fort Hood. And, despite the aforementioned string of "poor evaluations," Hasan was still promoted to Major, and Army officials made no attempt to block his transfer to the Texas installation. They believed Fort Hood's large mental health staff would be able to "monitor him" and provide support.

It's also worth noting that leaders at Walter Reed had the same concerns as federal agents, fearing charges of "discrimination" if they pursued disciplinary action against Hasan, or tried to discharge him from the Army.

Rubbish. Based on the picture that has now emerged, the service had ample reasons to initiate Hasan's discharge years ago. Each branch of the military has regulations governing the removal of officers for improper conduct or substandard performance. The directives are relatively clear, and provide a step-by-step process for getting rid of bad officers, regardless of their specialty.

The system works, but it takes supervisors who are willing to identify unfit officers, document their problems, and push the matter to conclusion. It's not an easy task, but it is absolutely vital for the integrity and security of our military forces.

Unfortunately, no one at Walter Reed or Fort Hood was willing to build a case against Major Nidal Hasan. Senior officers didn't want the added burden of generating all that paperwork, coordinating with the JAG Corps and filling all of the other squares required to discharge Hasan. Their reluctance was underscored fears of being called racists or bigots, putting them under scrutiny and (possibly) ending their careers. It was a risk no one wanted to take.

The same calculation was made by the FBI and DCIS, who were equally anxious to close the books on Major Hasan. As a result, the bureaucrats dodged potential claims of discrimination, but they allowed a terror plot to fester, and 14 innocent people--including an unborn child--paid with their lives.

Meanwhile, the same bureaucrats have been talking with their favorite reporters, anxiously sharing what they "didn't know" or "weren't told" about Major Hasan. The Army is quick to note that it knew nothing about the FBI's interest in Hasan's e-mails (and his contacts with Al Qaida figures), while the bureau says it was never told about the psychiatrist's long history of jihadist comments.

Truth be told, the FBI, the DCIS and the Army are culpable in this debacle. There's more than enough blame to go around, and no amount of bureaucratic finger-pointing can hide that fact.

Political Correctness in the Ranks

In the wake of the massacre at Fort Hood, many have expressed shock and amazement that the shooter--Army Major Nidal Hasan--openly expressed anti-American and anti-military views. Yet, he was never punished, and the service (apparently) made no effort to discharge him.

Sadly, the case of Nidal Hasan is yet another testament to political correctness run amok in the nation's military. According to press reports, Hasan's ties with Muslim radicals date back to his days as a student in suburban Washington--at a medical school run by the armed forces. Later, as a psychiatric resident, he was suspended for proselytizing about his religion. He reportedly received a poor performance report from superiors, but Hasan was still promoted to Major in May of this year.

Indeed, Hasan's fellow officers complained about his remarks and conduct, but senior officers made no real effort to discipline him--beyond that brief suspension at Walter Reed--or document his unacceptable conduct. Never mind that the Army (like the other services) has regulations governing the removal of officers who pose a potential security threat, or perform poorly on the job. Based on what we know, it seems apparent that concerns about Major Hasan were largely ignored for two reasons, both rooted in the ugly specter of political correctness.

First, as a minority officer, Hasan would have likely filed complaints against superiors attempting to discipline him, claiming racial discrimination. In today's military, even suggestions of bigotry or racism can be career-killers, giving Hasan's superiors a reason to ignore complaints against him, no matter how valid they were. Sadly, their lack of leadership is all-too-common in a politically-correct military.

Secondly, many senior officers worship at the altar of P.C., with little regard for the potential consequences. The Army Chief of Staff, General George Casey, stunned many soldiers (and veterans alike) by declaring that it would be a greater tragedy [than the loss of life at Fort Hood] if the service's diversity became a "casualty" of Hasan's actions.

But slavish devotion to political correctness isn't limited to the Army. One of our favorite Navy bloggers, Commander Salamander, uncovered this recent example at the U.S. Naval Academy:

On 29 OCT, the USNA Color Guard made an appearance at the World Series. The day prior to their appearance, two Midshipmen were removed from the Color Guard by senior Commissioned Officers in leadership positions at Annapolis for one simple reason; they were white males. That isn't a guess on their part - that is what they were told.

Before I go further, I want to detail a couple of things. I didn't think about running this story after the first notification I received. However, I soon started to receive multiple tips from multiple contacts associated with Annapolis, alumni, and parents.

Over the last few days, working with over a half-dozen very reliable sources, the following story started to flesh itself out.

The day before their appearance, the two MIDN were notified that USNA senior leadership did not like the fact that the Color Guard was not diverse enough. As a result, they were to be removed and replaced with someone with a higher melanin content in their skin, and a female. Boom - there you go.

Ironically, one of the white midshipmen still appeared with the color guard at the World Series because his "diversity" replacement forgot his shoes and cover. As you might expect, this incident has received no attention (outside Salamander's blog), but the Navy has gone into a defensive crouch, referring all inquiries to the Annapolis public affairs office. Late last week, the PAOs released a carefully sanitized statement, excerpted below:

- Background into World Series Event/Decision:On 28 October 2009, we learned that the Color Guard had been asked to carry the colors at World Series game number 2 at Yankee Stadium. We were excited at the opportunity to represent the Naval Academy in front of our nation and looked at a number of options to ensure our color guard members were fully qualified and available to participate. Upon reviewing the different options, a preliminary option was discussed, but later modified to have a color guard composition of 8 members that would honor the proud work of our team members and highlight the tremendous talents of our many Midshipmen.

Obviously, it's a long way from the diversity decision at the USNA, to the murderous rampage at Fort Hood. But there is a clear thread linking these seemingly unrelated events--the thread of political correctness. When military leaders begin to value the appearance of their organization over its performance and adherence to standards, bad things inevitably happen. The mindset that led to the color guard change at the Naval Academy is the same thinking that allowed Nidal Hasan to forment his radical views, while wearing the nation's uniform. Political correctness helped set the stage for his terrorist attack, and the death of 13 Americans.

In that sense, maybe it's not that far from Annapolis to Fort Hood afterall.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nowak Walks

The legal saga of Lisa Nowak, the disgraced former astronaut who threw away her NASA career over a confrontation with a romantic rival, is coming to an end.

Nowak, a Navy Captain, appeared in an Orlando courtroom this afternoon, and pleaded guilty to reduced charges of burglary of a car (a third-degree felony) and misdemeanor battery. The charges stemmed from Nowak's 2007 showdown with Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, the woman who was dating her former lover, astronaut Bill Oefelein.

Noting her military service--and lack of a prior criminal record--Judge Marc Lubet accepted Nowak's guilty plea and sentenced her to only two days in jail (with credit for time served after her arrest), and one year's probation. Captain Nowak must also send a "sincere" letter of apology to Shipman within 10 days and perform 50 hours of community service.

With today's plea agreement, Nowak avoids trial on more serious charges, which could have netted a five-year prison sentence. Following her arrest, Nowak was indicted on a serious of felony counts--including kidnapping--although many of those charges were later dismissed.

As part of her guilty plea in today's pre-trial hearing, Nowak offered apologies to Shipman, the Air Force Captain who began dating Oefelein after his break-up with Nowak. As the Orlando Sentinel reports:

"... Nowak turned from a courtroom podium Tuesday to face the woman she was accused of attacking two years ago. She stood up straight, and her blue eyes focused on Colleen Shipman sitting in the front row of the packed room.

"I am sincerely sorry for causing fear and misunderstanding and all the intense public exposure you have encountered," Nowak said.


When she addressed the court, Shipman described Nowak as a woman apparently intent on murder:

"It was in her eyes, a blood-chilling expression of unlimited rage and glee," Shipman said. "I am a hundred-percent certain Lisa Nowak came here to murder me."

Shipman said she lost her job in the
U.S. Air Force because of the attack and that it gave her high blood pressure, dizzy spells and migraines. Her family has lost money taking time off work to support her through the trial, she said.

Shipman said she still has nightmares and constantly looks over her shoulder. She bought a shotgun and had an alarm installed in her home, "all in effort to feel secure again, but none of it has worked."

She lives with Oefelein in Alaska, and the two are engaged.

As part of her sentence, Nowak was told to avoid contact with Oelefein, who was also fired from NASA because of the scandal.

Having accepted a plea deal in a civilian court, the Nowak case now shifts to the Navy, which can also impose punishment. However, the service has offered no indication as to whether Nowak will face charges. Some observers believe the Navy would prefer to have the whole mess go away, and allow Nowak to quietly retire.

And that would be criminal, for lack of a better term. Nowak's offenses might be described as "crimes of the heart," but her actions in Orlando are inexcusable. Allowing her to avoid military punishment would send the worst possible signal, reaffirming the old maxim about "different spanks for different ranks."

Thanks to her guilty plea, Lisa Nowak is now a convicted felon. Accordingly, she is not deserving of retirement at the rank of Captain. The Navy should allow her to retire, but as a Commander, the last rank at which she served honorably. Sending her out the door at reduced rank would send the right message--that senior officers (and former Navy poster girls) are not above the law.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Today's Reading Assignments...

...from the opinion pages of the New York Post. In his column on the Fort Hood massacre, Ralph Peters (a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel) says call the attack what it was--an act of Islamic terror. He also takes the Army chain-of-command to task, for ignoring obvious warning signs, and allowing the shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, to remain in service.

But Hasan isn't the sole guilty party. The US Army's unforgivable political correctness is also to blame for the casualties at Fort Hood.

Given the myriad warning signs, it's appalling that no action was taken against a man apparently known to praise suicide bombers and openly damn US policy. But no officer in his chain of command, either at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or at Fort Hood, had the guts to take meaningful action against a dysfunctional soldier and an incompetent doctor.

Had Hasan been a Lutheran or a Methodist, he would've been gone with the simoom. But officers fear charges of discrimination when faced with misconduct among protected minorities.


For the first time since I joined the Army in 1976, I'm ashamed of its dereliction of duty. The chain of command protected a budding terrorist who was waving one red flag after another. Because it was safer for careers than doing something about him.

Get ready for the apologias. We've already heard from the terrorist's family that "he's a good American." In their world, maybe he is.

But when do we, the American public, knock off the PC nonsense?

In another piece from today's paper, Paul Sperry offers similar thoughts, noting that the military (essentially) refuses to see extremists in its midst.

So, how will the Army handle this scandal, with obvious culpability at both Walter Reed and Fort Hood? Look for the service to hand out administrative punishment to a couple of Colonels--and ignore the larger problem.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Making the Tough Calls

As the Army searches for answers in the Fort Hood massacre, one fact has become painfully obvious--Major Nidal Hasan, the military psychiatrist who killed 13 of his fellow soldiers and wounded 30 more--exhibited troubling behavior long before embarking on that murderous rampage.

But, as far as we can tell, no one in Hasan's chain-of-command bothered to follow up on his vociferous opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and written comments that suicide bombers might be considered heroes--in the same vein as American soldiers who sacrifice their lives for those of their comrades.

According to various press accounts, Hasan entered the military in 1999, when he was accepted as a student at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS), the only medical school in the armed forces. Entrance into the program required that Hasan be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in a branch of the military (he chose the Army). One requirement for commissioning was a background check, required for his security clearance.

As part of that process, Hasan was required to fill out a Standard Form 86 (SF-86), the standard document used by all applicants seeking a clearance. For access to SECRET information (the clearance held by most military physicians), Hasan had to provide personal data for the previous five years, including addresses, schools attended and employers.

Information provided on that form was then checked against data in databases maintained by the FBI and local law enforcement. Inconsistencies between the SF-86 and the background checks would result in detailed questioning by the Defense Investigative Service. Failure to reconcile those issues would result in denial of a security clearance--and commissioning as a military officer.

To be fair, there probably wasn't anything on the original SF-86 (or the background check) that would raise red flags with investigators. Hasan was a native-born American; the son of Palestinian emigres from Jordan. He attended three colleges in before finally graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in biochemistry. A fairly standard resume for a medical student, although his peripatetic academic career might prompt a few questions, along with his age. Hasan was 29 when he entered the military medical school, a bit older than many of his classmates.

Still, in the days before 9-11, it was probably easy for Hasan to pass the required background checks, gain a security clearance, and admittance to the Hebert School of Medicine at the USUHS. And, with a 10-year window until the next update, Hasan's questionable comments and behavior might not become a security issue until his clearance was up for renewal.

However, access to classified information can be denied long before the individual's clearance comes up for review. Commanders can rescind a military member's clearance for a variety of reasons, including questions about their allegiance to the United States, and perceptions of foreign influence and preference. Hasan's comments and actions in recent years certainly fall into those categories.

Yet, there are no indications that Hasan's superiors at Walter Reed or Fort Hood took any action to suspend or revoke his clearance. True, members of the Medical Corps don't deal with classified material on a regular basis. But the alleged killer completed a fellowship in Disaster and Preventive Psychiatry and participated in at least one forum sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. That raises new questions about Hasan's potential access to classified data--and why a military doctor with a history of anti-American comments was selected for those programs.

Beyond security issues, there is also the troubling matter of why Hasan's superiors never tried to discipline him for his conduct--or consider removing him from the military. NPR was among the few outlets to report that Major Hasan was suspended (briefly) during his tenure at Walter Reed, for proselytizing about his Muslim faith with colleagues and patients--many of whom were combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

There are also accounts of Hasan engaging in heated debates with colleagues about the Global War on Terrorism, with the psychiatrist supporting anti-U.S. (and anti-military) positions. But that pattern of behavior--dating back several years--did not result in additional disciplinary action, or efforts to end his Army career. Despite his troubles at Walter Reed, Dr. Hasan was promoted to Major earlier this year.

His advancement is even more puzzling, given the fact that officers typically "pin on" their new rank about a 12-18 months after the promotion board meets. That means the panel that selected Hasan for advancement met in 2008, on the heels of his suspension at Walter Reed. Apparently, there wasn't enough in Hasan's personnel folder--including his performance reports--to prevent him from being promoted.

After completing his training (and being transferred to Fort Hood), Hasan's troubling behavior and comments continued. A recently-retired Colonel--who worked with Hasan at the base mental health clinc--told the psychiatrist to "button it" on at least one occasion, after he launched into an anti-war tirade. But there is no indication that Dr. Hasan's immediate supervisor, the hospital commander, or more senior officers at Fort Hood ever conducted a wider investigation into Hasan's views, and their potential impact on post security.

We also know that the alleged killer appeared on the FBI's radar earlier this year, after Hasan posted comments sympathetic to suicide bombers on a website. Because Hasan was an Army officer, there was almost certainly contact between FBI agents and senior officers at Fort Hood, not to mention the service's Criminal Investigation Command. Yet, Dr. Hasan kept seeing patients at the post hospital.

The on-going investigation into the Fort Hood massacre will confirm what many of us already know; Army commanders either missed or ignored obvious warning signs, setting the stage for this week's deadly rampage. But the larger question is why. We don't want to prejudge any inquiry or report, but it's a fair bet that authorities will blame poor coordination and communication between Hasan's superiors at Walter Reed, and those at Fort Hood.

While there is probably an element of truth in that theory, it's also clear that other elements were at play. First, the Army was anxious to recoup its significant investment in Hasan's education and training. After nearly a decade in school, the service expected Dr. Hasan to fulfill his military obligations--and his debt to the taxpayer.

Secondly, the Army was in need of his services, despite Hasan's spotty record as a mental health provider. With thousands of soldiers suffering from PTSD and other psychological disorders, the service needs all the psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors it can muster. We're guessing there was pressure to keep Hasan on the job, so the busy Fort Hood clinic wouldn't wind up being a "doctor short."

Finally, there's the ugly specter of political correctness as a factor in this equation. We've seen military commanders who are reluctant to punish minority military members, for fear of receiving discrimination complaints. Others buy into the "diversity celebration" business and are hesitant to remove a minority officer, lest they upset the demographic balance.

When we first heard about Hasan and his "record," we thought back to some pearls of wisdom from Chief Buddy, one of the legendary "first shirts" and senior enlisted advisors in recent Air Force history. The Chief had absolutely no tolerance for sub-standard performers or individuals who couldn't adapt to military life. JAGs at his various duty bases dreaded phone calls or visits from the chief, knowing that he was getting rid of another slacker, which meant more work for the legal folks.

But a senior JAG also paid him the ultimate compliment, saying "Chief, you never made a bad call." Today's military needs more leaders like that Chief Master Sergeant, individuals who are willing to make the tough decisions to preserve the integrity and yes, the security of our armed forces.

Nidal Hasan never belonged in the U.S. Army; his comments and actions in recent years only affirmed that suspicion. And, if someone at Walter Reed or Fort Hood had been willing to ignore expediency and make the tough (but correct) call, this week's carnage could have been easily prevented.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Details Emerge

As the Fort Hood community deals with the horror of today's mass murder at the Texas base, details are beginning to emerge about the alleged killer, Army Major Nidal M. Hasan.

A psychiatrist assigned to the Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Hasan had been assigned to the post since 2007, when he completed training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

In fact, all of Hasan's medical training was provided by the U.S. military. According to a provider database maintained by the state of Virginia (where he was licensed), Hasan earned his medical degree from the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the university operates the only medical school in the U.S. military.

After earning his M.D. degree, Hasan moved on to Walter Reed for a four-year residency in psychiatry. The Virginia medical database also indicates that Hasan completed a fellowship in Disaster and Preventive Psychiatry at Walter Reed earlier this year.

According to his professional profile, listed on the website, Hasan saw patients at Fort Hood five days a week, and spent "90% of his time" at the installation. The profile also reported that Hasan had been in clinical practice for "less than a year" at the time the website was updated last month.

There were no reports of past disciplinary action against Hasan, according to the database. He was licensed to practice medicine in Virginia 2005 and his license was up for renewal next year.

However, sources tell the Associated Press that Hasan received a poor performance evaluation during his time at Walter Reed. Despite that, he completed his residency on schedule, was transferred to Fort Hood, and promoted to Major in May of this year.

Various media outlets report that Hasan was "upset" about his deployment to Iraq, scheduled for later this month.

Using two handguns, Hasan opened fire around 1:30 p.m. today, targeting soldiers at a readiness center on the western side of the sprawling base. A Fort Hood spokesman said soldiers "cycle through" the facility as they prepare to deploy. It's unclear if Hasan was participating in pre-deployment processing when he opened fire, killing 12 soldiers and civilians before being shot by a security guard.

Two other soldiers were taken into custody shortly after the shooting but were later released, according to Republican Congressman John Carter, whose Texas district includes Fort Hood.

Some reports suggested the Hasan was a convert to Islam, but that was not immediately confirmed. Hasan was a U.S. citizen. Students at the USUHS are required to be citizens before graduation, so they can be commissioned as military officers.
UPDATE: 11:00 p.m. EST. The commanding general at Fort Hood now says that Hasan did not die in the shootout. Though he was hit multiple times, the gunman somehow survied and is hospitalized in stable condition. Looks like death row at Leavenworth will be getting a new senior ranking officer in the near future. On a happier note, the civilian security guard who first engaged Hasan also survived. That lady deserves a medal, a pay raise, or both.

We've also noted that the post-shooting spin has already begun, with various "experts" offering possible explanations for Hasan's murderous rampage. At least one pundit suggests the shooter was feeling the effects of "second-hand PTSD," caused by being around those who experience the condition first-hand. And predictably enough, a member of Hasan's family claims the Major experienced "anti-Muslim" discrimination in the Army. But apparently, the discrimination wasn't enough to deny him a decade of taxpayer-funded education and a commission as an Army officer--and not to mention his recent promotion to field-grade rank.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

One Year From Now

As they digest results from yesterday's off-off year elections, pundits of all stripes are weighing in on 2010. And depending on your point-of-view, yesterday's returns in Virginia, New Jersey and upstate New York can be interpreted as:

(A) The resurgence of conservatism in the Republican Party.
(B) A major defeat for the policies of President Obama, especially his national health care scheme.
(C) A failure by Democrats to run electable candidates in the Garden State and the Old Dominion.
(D) A rebellion by the electorate, fed up with escalating taxes, skyrocketing government spending and a sour economy.
(E) The inability of the New York--and national--GOP establishment to come together behind a conservative candidate in an upstate district that's been controlled by Republicans for more than a century.
(F) All the above.

As for what this portends for next year, well, the 2010 elections are still a long way off. In the wake of Obama's victory last year, few would have predicted that a Republican would win the governor's race in newly-"purple" Virginia by almost 20 points, and take most of the GOP ticket with him.

Indeed, this time last year, a lot of supposedly "smart" people in the state had their eye on Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair who was preparing to open his fat checkbook and buy the Democratic nomination for governor. Everyone assumed the Bob McDonnell would be the Republican nominee, but in the wake of the party's disastrous 2008 showing, there were real questions about GOP unity and its ability to match McAuliffe's unlimited personal resources.

Obviously, the smart people were wrong.

So, what's in the crystal ball for 2010? Conventional wisdom--and two centuries of electoral results--suggest that the party in control of the White House will lose seats in the House and Senate. The exact number depends on a myriad of factors, ranging from the economy, to the quality of candidates (and their challengers) and their ability to raise money.

But let's throw one more variable into the mix. It's an issue that didn't even register at the ballot box yesterday, but it could be the overriding factor a year from now.

We refer, of course, to a conflict with Iran.

While largely ignored by the mainstream media (and de-emphasized by the White House), the Iranian "problem" continues to fester. Since late summer, we've learned that Iran has built a second uranium enrichment facility, renewing concerns about a possible, parallel covert nuclear development effort--and how soon Tehran might have the bomb. When confronted with that evidence, the Iranians hemmed and hawed, then "agreed" to ship much of their yellowcake out of the country for enrichment.

However, that deal lasted only a few days. Tehran promptly reneged on its promise, leaving the much-hailed, multi-lateral nuclear talks at something of an impasse. Meanwhile, western intelligence analysts warn that Iran could have a viable nuclear device within the year.

None of this has been lost on the Israel, which (increasingly) views Iran as a go-it-alone proposition. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote of an Israeli populace bracing itself for war with Iran.

In the last few years, Israelis have been asking themselves two questions with increasing urgency: Should we attack Iran if all other options fail? And can we inflict sufficient damage to justify the consequences?

As sanctions efforts faltered, most Israelis came to answer the first question affirmatively. A key moment in coalescing that resolve occurred in December 2006, when the Iranian regime sponsored an "International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust," a two day meeting of Holocaust deniers. For Israelis, that event ended the debate over whether a nuclear Iran could be deterred by the threat of counter-force. A regime that assembles the world's crackpots to deny the most documented atrocity in history—at the very moment it is trying to fend off sanctions and convince the international community of its sanity—may well be immune to rational self-interest.

Opinion here has been divided about the ability of an Israeli strike to significantly delay Iran's nuclear program. But Israelis have dealt with their doubts by resurrecting a phrase from the country's early years: Ein breira, there's no choice. Besides, as one leading Israeli security official who has been involved in the Iranian issue for many years put it to me, "Technical problems have technical solutions." Israelis tend to trust their strategic planners to find those solutions.

Mr. Klein Halevi also notes that Israelis have largely lost confidence in the U.S.'s ability to halt Iran's nuclear program and ensure their national security. That perception, coupled with Tehran's steady progress in its nuclear program, reinforces the notion that Israel must strike--and soon.

The exact timing for such an attack would depend on several variables. First, Israel must have some assurance that the strike would deliver a crippling blow, setting back the Iranian program by at least several years. Additionally, Israeli military planners would prefer to launch a raid before Iran acquires a state-of-the-art air defense system, like the Russian S-300. Rumors of a possible S-300 sale to Tehran have been a staple in defense circles for years. While those reports have not panned out (yet), it's probably just a matter of time before advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles arrive in Iran, greatly complicating Israeli attack planning.

Those criteria suggest the early months of 2010 would be the most likely time for an Israeli strike. Beyond that window, Iran will either have a bomb, or dispersed key elements of its nuclear program, reducing the effectiveness of a possible attack by the Israeli Air Force. The longer timeline also gives Tehran more time to acquire (and deploy) the S-300, posing a major threat to Israel's operational planning.

How exactly does this fit into our domestic political equation? With his preoccupation with health care and tax-and-trade, Mr. Obama has largely ignored the Iranian issue. So far, the President has invested all of his efforts in diplomacy, hoping we can "talk" Tehran out of its nuclear ambitions. Good luck with that one.

Meanwhile, the centrifuges at Natanz keep spinning and the Israelis keep watching. At some point, early in the New Year, an IAF strike package will head east, and the conflict with Iran will begin. And Mr. Obama's response will become the defining moment of his presidency.

What should we expect? No one can say with any certainty, but this is the same president who can't make up his mind on a troop increase in Afghanistan, despite deteriorating conditions there. According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, a final decision in that matter is still "weeks away." And the conflict in that country doesn't have the capacity to escalate past the nuclear thresh hold in a matter of minutes.

Clearly, "decisive action" by Mr. Obama would go a long way in bringing the crisis to a successful resolution. Incidentally, we define that phrase in terms of (a) unqualified support for Israel; (b) the use of U.S. ISR and missile defense systems to defend Israel as required, and (c) a massive American response to any Iranian attack against our military forces--or our allies--in the Middle East.

That sort of stand would also help Obama's political standing (and that of his party) heading into the 2010 elections. Make no mistake; the consequences of a war between Israel and Iran would be felt far beyond the region. Get ready for oil at $300 a barrel--or higher--and rising prices for just about everything else, to boot. The economic consequences of the conflict would likely drive the U.S. (and other western economies) from a deep recession, into a full-blown depression.

But voters might be willing for forget about some of that pain, provided the President responds effectively, and lays out a clear vision for stopping Iran, once and for all. But that sort of response isn't Mr. Obama's stock-in-trade. In fact, his indecisiveness is actually making various situations worse.

So imagine if you will, a sudden Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran and its terrorist allies respond with all-out missile strikes on Israeli population centers, using chemical and biological weapons. Massive civilian casualties prompt Tel Aviv to respond with a nuclear strike, using long-range Jericho II missiles. The entire region plunges into war; the Strait of Hormuz is closed (at least temporarily) and oil prices head to stratospheric levels.

That is likely to be the backdrop for next year's elections. If Mr. Obama doesn't take dramatic action (diplomatically and militarily) he will be blamed for the coming catastrophe in the Middle East. And his party will pay a staggering political price.