Friday, July 30, 2010

Back in Business?

(Perhaps) the week's most disturbing news, from Eli Lake at the Washington Times:

Scientists, engineers and financiers involved in the A.Q. Khan nuclear-smuggling network are being contacted by several governments in an effort to lure these specialists out of retirement.

The development is raising concerns among U.S. intelligence agencies about the revival of the proliferation network that was thought to have been shut down years ago.

Two U.S. intelligence officials and other U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports said information compiled over the past seven months showed that agents from several foreign governments — including Brazil, Burma, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — pursued members of the network named after Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist considered to be the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

The goal of these regimes is rather obvious (and ominous): use experts from the Khan network to accelerate (or seed) nuclear weapons development efforts. In the case of North Korea and Iran, scientists and engineers from the Khan group could help produce more reliable nuclear devices with a higher yield that Pyongyang and Tehran could achieve on their own. For the others, it's a convenient method for jump-starting a nuclear program.

Why the sudden rush to get the bomb? After all, countries like Brazil, Burma, Nigeria and Sudan don't face nuclear rivals in their neighborhoods. The answer is simple: there's no better way to establish yourself as the regional hegemon than by being the first on your block with a nuke. Many of the nuclear upstarts have such ambitions, and believe the time is right to establish their own programs, with help from Khan alumni.

The U.S. deserves at least some of the blame for this. By failing to deal decisively with the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, Washington sent the wrong signal to others interested in joining the nuclear club. Now, with the mullahs in Tehran ready to cross the atomic finish line--without U.S. intervention--the next generation of nuclear rogue states is ready to give it a try.

And why not? They have nothing to fear from the United States. Just ask the dictators in Iran and North Korea.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sergeant Major "Phony"

By all accounts, Command Sergeant Major Stoney Crump served honorably in the U.S. military, first as a Marine and for the past twenty-four years, as a member of the U.S. Army. Not only did Crump attain the highest enlisted rank (CSM), he was received numerous decorations, including four Meritorious Service Medals, five Army Commendation Medals, and six Army Good Conduct ribbons.

But (apparently) it wasn't enough. So CSM Crump decided to embellish his military resume, and now he's in a lot of trouble. As Army Times reports:

Crump, the senior enlisted adviser to [Walter Reed Medical Center's] brigade until May 17, twice submitted official biographies that falsely claimed he attended a range of elite schools including Ranger School, Sniper School, Special Forces Assessment Course and Special Operations Combat Medic School, according to the charging documents. He also claimed to have attended the exotic Panamanian Jungle Warfare School, according to the documents.

Between March 2006 and April 2010, at Walter Reed and in Heidelberg, Germany, where Crump served as the Army health center’s command sergeant major, he is charged with repeatedly wearing 11 unearned awards and decorations, including the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal with an Arrowhead device — an indication that he had made a combat jump into Grenada, a deployment that appears nowhere in a summary of his 27-year career that was released by Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky.

According to investigators, Crump even lied about his life before the military, claiming that he played college football at Duke University. University officials say Crump was never a student (or an athlete) at the school, although he spent one year on the football team at East Carolina University.

For his military deception, the Sergeant Major is facing at least three criminal charges:

Crump has been charged with violating three articles of military law: failure to obey an order or regulation, Article 92; making false official statements, Article 107, and Article 134, a general provision covering conduct that brings discredit on the armed forces.

Clearly embarrassed over Crump's charade, the Army would like to get rid of the CSM as quickly as possible. But from our perspective, this is an eminently teachable moment. Crump's actions not only discredit senior NCOs, they cheapen the accomplishments of soldiers who actually earn combat badges and decorations for valor.

This blog has actively encouraged the prosecution of various civilians (and veterans) who create false military resumes, or distort their accomplishments in uniform. Why should CSM Crump be any different? Throw the book at him--and all the other frauds in uniform--and the problem of "stolen valor" in the ranks will dramatically decrease.
ADDENDUM: There is a certain irony in the discovery of Crump's deceit. At the time his deception was discovered, CSM Crump was working for Colonel Gordon Roberts, the commander of the Walter Reed medical brigade. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Colonel Roberts is the only Medal of Honor recipient still on active duty in the U.S. military. He received the award as a junior enlisted man in Vietnam, where he courageously attacked (and wiped out) a series of enemy machine gun nests. We can only wonder if Colonel Roberts, who knows a thing or two about valor, was the first to spot a CSM with a medal "rack" that didn't match his assignment record.


It may be the biggest dump of sensitive government documents since the Pentagon Papers. WikiLeaks, the site which encourages the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, has begun its "release" of more than 90,000 secret documents on the war in Afghanistan.

And, based on what we've seen so far, it's something of a companion piece to last week's much-hyped Washington Post series on "Top Secret America." As we noted at the time, the WaPo series was more of a marketing than a journalistic triumph, cobbling together information that already existed in various, unclassified corporate reports and government databases.

While the info released by WikiLeaks is, indeed, classified, much of it is pedestrian in nature. The New York Times, which was granted early access to the material (along with the U.K. Guardian and Der Spiegel) describes it as an "unvarnished," ground-level view of the war that is "much bleaker" than higher-level government assessments.

According to the Times, the treasure-trove of classified documents offers new, previously-undisclosed revelations about the war and its conduct. But a review of that list leaves us underwhelmed; individuals with a military or intel background (or for that matter, readers of the Longwar Journal and other defense blogs) have some familiarity with these claims, listed below (our comments, in italics, follows each "disclosure) .

The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Duh...literally hundreds of shoulder-fired SAMs were left behind after the Soviet-Afghan war, and thousands more have found their way into the country since 2001. The real story here is the Taliban's inability to employ these weapons effectively; MANPADS that brought the Soviet air force to its knees in the 1980s have been tactically inconsequential in the current conflict, a testament to our tactics , constantly-improving infrared counter-measures and poor training for insurgent gunners.

Secret commando units like Task Force 373 — a classified group of Army and Navy special operatives — work from a “capture/kill list” of about 70 top insurgent commanders. These missions, which have been stepped up under the Obama administration, claim notable successes, but have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment. True, much of TF 373's work is classified, but the unit's existence is well-known; we found references to the SOF organization as far back as three years ago, when retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote about their Iraq operations in the Washington Post. With Iraq largely stabiliized, it only makes sense that TF 373 (and similar units) would shift their focus to Afghanistan, and the elimination of bad guys in that country.

The military employs more and more drone aircraft to survey the battlefield and strike targets in Afghanistan, although their performance is less impressive than officially portrayed. Some crash or collide, forcing American troops to undertake risky retrieval missions before the Taliban can claim the drone’s weaponry. The push for more drones over Afghanistan has been extensively reported by Air Force Times and other military publications; in fact, the service's inability to field enough drones created something of a rift between the USAF and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Likewise, the effort to recover downed drones may be under-publicized, but it is hardly unknown.

The Central Intelligence Agency has expanded paramilitary operations inside Afghanistan. The units launch ambushes, order airstrikes and conduct night raids. From 2001 to 2008, the C.I.A. paid the budget of Afghanistan’s spy agency and ran it as a virtual subsidiary. SOP for the Langley crew since Vietnam.

It's also worth noting that none of the documents we've reviewed so far could be considered "finished" intelligence--information that has been thoroughly researched, analyzed and vetted. Indeed, most of the WikiLeaks material could be considered the intel equivalent of a rough draft--operational-level intelligence summaries, prepared by officers in the field. In most cases, the assessments offer information obtained from informants, or through the capture of Taliban documents or prisoners. Sometimes, the information proved accurate; on other occasions, tips provided were either inaccurate, or (perhaps) an enemy attempt at disinformation.

Both the Pentagon and the White House have expressed anger over the documents' release--as they should. They are also correct in observing that many of the reports represent little more than a snapshot in time, at a particular geographic location. Even the Times had to admit that the leaked material does not contradict official views of the war. If the information seems a bit "grittier," well, that tends to happen as you get closer to the battlefield.

Why release the documents? WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims the reports will show "more pervasive violence" in Afghanistan than the military or the press had previously reported. He also believes the documents will reveal "war crimes" committed by U.S. and NATO forces, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians.

But some of those claims sound specious, at best. In one document reprinted by the Times, an airstrike is ordered against two fuel trucks stolen by insurgents. Before USAF F-15Es drop their guided bombs, American forces in the area determined that no civilians were present. After the attack, one of the F-15s counted at least 56 dead insurgents in the area, with 14 more attempting to flee the scene.

A few hours later, the Taliban claimed that most of the dead were civilians, who were invited to take fuel from the stolen trucks. In other words, the enemy engineered the event, stealing fuel tankers that would almost certainly be targeted by coalition forces. The civilian deaths were certainly a tragedy, but they could also be blamed on the fog of war, and the willingness of enemy forces to use innocent civilians for their own purposes.

As for the massive "disclosure" of classified material, Mr. Assagne clearly deserves no brownie points. His current moment in the media spotlight was arranged by Army Private Bradley Manning, an intelligence specialist who allegedly downloaded the documents and transmitted them to WikiLeaks. For his trouble, Private Manning will spend years in a federal prison. While refusing to confirm that Manning was his source, Assagne has offered to help pay for his legal defense. How touching.

We find it interesting--but hardly surprising--that most of the documents were generated during the Bush era. True, Mr. Bush ran the war effort for almost nine years, but the Obama team has generated a lot of paperwork on the conflict over the past 18 months or so. Yet, relatively few documents from that period are represented in what has been released so far. In leftist terms, that's a two-fer: expose alleged atrocities in the Afghan War, while linking them (by virtue of time) to their favorite bogeyman, George W. Bush.

While Private Manning was the likely source for the massive leak, there are still unanswered questions about his large-scale download of the material. During our last gigs as intelligence specialists, it was impossible to download material from SIPRNET (the government's SECRET-level intelligence intranet), to such storage devices as flash drives, DVDs, or other media. In fact, at the organization where we worked, the transfer of classified material to those devices was handled by a special IT shop, and the number and type of authorized media was carefully noted, along with the files they contained.

Yet, Manning was apparently free to download reams of classified documents, and eventually transferred them to WikiLeaks. The fact he got them out of his work area is unsurprising (believe it or not, searches of individuals leaving intel vaults or SCIFs is extremely rare); but it is baffling that Manning's SIPRNET system allowed him to download files--at will--to external storage devices.

We're guessing that Manning's old outfit is looking for a new security manager, too. Maybe Julian Assagne will ante up for that individual as well. Allowing the wholesale theft of classified documents on your watch is not conducive to a long-term intelligence career. At the very least, those security officials are now looking at non-judicial punishment--or worse--for their failures. Perhaps Manning will thank them after he signs that eventual book-and-movie deal; or maybe Mr. Assagne will give them a "shot out" from the lecture circuit.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


When new British Prime Minister David Cameron recently visited the U.S., he was (rightfully) grilled over last year's decision to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on "humanitarian" grounds. Al-Megrahi, the only individual prosecuted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 108 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, was allowed to go free last year, after doctors told Scottish officials that he was dying of prostate cancer. Returning to Libya, al-Megrahi was treated as a national hero.

Since then, Mr. al-Megrahi's health has taken an amazing turn for the better. Current medical assessments suggest the convicted bomber--responsible for the deaths of more than 100 American citizens--could easily live another 10 years. While Scottish authorities made the decision to release him, members of Congress pressed Mr. Cameron for more information on the decision-making process, including allegations that a British-Libyan oil deal may have influenced al-Megrahi's release.

Now, it appears that U.S. indignation over the matter was misplaced (at best) and hypocritical at worst. The Australian, quoting the U.K. Sunday Times, reports that Obama Administration officials told their Scottish counterparts that it would be "far preferable" to release al-Megrahi, rather than imprison him in Libya:

Correspondence obtained by The Sunday Times reveals the Obama administration considered compassionate release more palatable than locking up Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in a Libyan prison.

The intervention, which has angered US relatives of those who died in the attack, was made by Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US embassy in London, a week before Megrahi was freed in August last year on grounds that he had terminal cancer.

The document, acquired by a well-placed US source, threatens to undermine US President Barack Obama's claim last week that all Americans were "surprised, disappointed and angry" to learn of Megrahi's release.

So far, the U.S. has refused to release the letter (what a surprise). But the correspondence certainly puts our "anger" in a different context. After months of enduring political cheap shots from the Obama Administration--and their friends in Congress--the Brits apparently decided to fight back, releasing the full text of the U.S. embassy letter.

Of course, the note is anything but a revelation. The U.K. Guardian first reported the letter's existence (and its contents) last August; since then, the British media has published various accounts of British officials expressing disgust over our hypocrisy in the al-Megrahi matter.

As two U.K. governments have discovered, the Obama crowd will throw anyone under the bus to advance its aims. The Brits have clearly reached a breaking point with the Anointed One and his foreign policy team; look for more leaks this week, to put more pressure on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to reveal what they knew about the proposed release.

If history is any indicator, both the President and Secretary of State will feign ignorance of the plan to set al-Megrahi free. And the former members of "JournoList" will play right along. How long before one of them suggests branding David Cameron a racist, to deflect attention away from yet another administration blunder.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Personnel File

When Alvin Greene won the Democratic Senate nomination in South Carolina, there were immediate questions about his past, namely a 13-year military career. During that time, Greene served in no less than four military components, compiling a less-than-distinguished service record. But there was little information about his military career; that remained something of a mystery, much like Greene's successful run for the Senate nomination.

Now, thanks to a local reporter for the Associated Press (and Greene himself) we're learning more about the candidate's checkered military career. AP reporter Jim Davenport recently sat down with the Senate nominee on Thursday, with Greene willingly providing copies of evaluations from his days in uniform. They paint a picture of an individual who was able to perform only mundane tasks; required constant supervision, and in the words of one supervisor, represented a potential "threat" to other airmen because of a persistent inability to perform assigned duties.

As someone who authored, reviewed and endorsed literally hundreds of performance reports during three decades in the Air Force, that last statement is rather stunning. True, USAF performance reports are filled with inflated ratings and descriptive puffery, and a lot of us fought lengthy battles over EPRs and OERs that offered an exaggerated picture of an airman (or officer's) capabilities. Still, it is very rare for an evaluator to use such terms to describe a sub-standard airman:

Greene is "usually capable of handling mundane tasks with supervision" but is "not able to adapt to any changes to daily routine," the reviewer wrote, also noting that Greene had received multiple disciplinary actions for failing to perform his duties.

Greene was also written up for posting sensitive information on a military Internet server, a mistake that resulted in a three-day work stoppage. Records showed Greene was kept at Shaw while the rest of his unit deployed after leadership "recognized his inability to contribute to the wartime mission."


A year later, Greene was evaluated again, this time in his new job as an analyst working with the weapons of mass destruction section. But Greene's job had little to do with intelligence analysis and more to do with shredding documents and escorting contractors around the base.

Again receiving low marks for ineffective leadership, Greene also was rated as not knowing much about his duties or performing them effectively and not complying with minimum training requirements.

The reviewer also wrote Greene "required a daily to-do list" to perform basic duties and had a "consistent inability to follow instructions or maintain basic job knowledge." Most seriously, the reviewer wrote that Greene would represent "a threat to others" because of his inability to grasp the basics of military training.

It's also worth remembering that Alvin Greene was not some airman, fresh out of technical training. By the time the negative reports were placed in his personnel file, Greene had spent almost a decade in uniform, seven years with the South Carolina Air National Guard (1995-2002), and more than three years on active duty at Shaw AFB, near Sumter. Yet, the tasks he performed--in an intelligence squadron--were consistent with a newly-assigned airman, not someone who should have advanced to E-5 (Staff Sergeant) by that time. Greene's final EPR is indicative of someone who has been denied re-enlistment, and the performance evaluation offers support that decision.

But there are still unanswered questions about Greene's days as a blue-suiter. His performance in the Air National Guard was good enough to allow re-enlistment and someone in the organization had to recommend Greene's transfer from the guard to active duty. It would be informative to review Greene's EPRs from his days in the Guard, and the package that allowed him to transition to the active Air Force.

At best, Greene's supervisors in the ANG ignored his obviously deficiencies; at worst, they papered over his obvious flaws for more than five years, and willingly pawned him off on an active-duty unit. Unfortunately, that speaks volumes about intermediate and command-level supervision within the guard unit. If Greene was a poor performer on active duty, then it's likely that his work was equally dismal in the guard; yet no one was (apparently) willing to send him packing, until that active-duty slot became available. Kudos to that commander at Shaw for doing a job that no one else was willing to tackle.

Despite his dismal performance history, Alvin Greene still received an honorable discharge from the Air Force. And six months later, Greene was back in a military recruiter's office, this time with the South Carolina Army National Guard. Apparently, no one in the Army Guard bothered to read Green's EPRs from Shaw, because he was quickly accepted into organization. After about six months with the guard, he transitioned to active-duty again, this time in the Army.

Mr. Greene hasn't released details of his Army service (perhaps Mr. Davenport should pay another visit to Manning), but from what we know, it was sub-standard, at best. When Greene first won the Senate nomination, a soldier who served with him said the soldier-turned-candidate arrived at their unit in Korea wearing the wrong rank.

Apparently, Greene had suffered more disciplinary issues in his previous assignment, and was busted back to Private First Class (E-3) from Specialist (E-4). NCOs in Korea noted the discrepancy when Green arrived wearing a Specialist's insignia, which did not match the rank listed in the personnel records. Greene was quietly advised to put PFC stripes back on his uniform, and he remained at that rank until his discharge in 2009, after fourteen years of military service.

We emphasize that fact because it takes someone special to spend that much time in uniform, and never advance beyond the grade of E-4. We're guessing that someone in Greene's Army personnel record, you'll find evaluations similar to those from his Air Force days. There is every reason to believe that Greene was denied re-enlistment in the Army as well, prompting his switch to politics.

Clearly, not everyone is cut out for military service. Each year, thousands are discharged by the various branches of service for "failing to adapt" to military life. Ideally, that decision is made early in the career of the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, before too much time (and money) h has been wasted on their pay and training. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with Alvin Greene. He spent almost 15 years in the military--full and part-time. We can only guess how much money was frittered away on the abortive service career of Alvin Greene.

As for the Democratic senatorial nominee, you won't be surprised by his take on that long list of military misfortunes. You see, he's a victim:

Greene protested the denial (which kept him at Shaw while the rest of his unit deployed), writing that the reviewer "only concentrates on presenting a negative perception of me by making false statements of my character" and saying the reviewer and other airmen "create a hostile work environment."


Greene also objected to that appraisal, writing that corruption to his computer "can often make it impossible for me to accomplish tasks in a timely fashion" and said another airman "cursed me out and told me I am wanted out."

To be fair, Mr. Greene does have a couple of things going for him: first of all, military service means nothing to the Democratic Party, which has long history of lying about our armed forces(John F. Kerry, who served in Vietnam); "loathed" the military (Bill Clinton) or falsified their own achievements while in uniform (Tom Harkin). Indeed, Alvin Greene may gain some street cred in certain DNC circles for having been forced out of uniform by some heartless (and probably racist) military officers.

Additionally, the national political media has absolutely no interest in the Greene story; remember, the AP dispatch was filed by a writer in Columbia, SC, not the DC bureau or a political writer at the wire service's New York headquarters. And that's a reasonable call, given the fact that Greene's chances of winning are approximately zero.

But consider this alternative scenario. What if Alvin Greene was a Republican nominee who suggested that South Carolina's economy might be improved by manufacturing "bubble head" dolls that resembled him? Or had an embarrassing military record? Or, better yet, was an active member of the Tea Party? How do you suppose the AP would handle the story? If that were the case, we guess that Mr. Davenport wouldn't be conducting interviews and research for another member of the Columbia bureau, but rather, a heavy hitter from New York or DC.

That's the way the game is played in the twilight of American journalism. And if you don't believe us, just ask the fine folks over at JournoList 2.0--the same ones who discussed smearing Karl Rove or Fred Barnes as a racist, and worked to deflect the Jeremiah Wright story away from the Anointed One.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Not-So-Secret America

Judging from the first two installments, the Washington Post series on the intelligence community--and its over-reliance on contractors--is more marketing and hype, instead of original reporting.

With its flashy graphics (click on the map the see if there's an intel facility in your town!) and slick packaging, the highly-publicized series, authored by Dana Priest and William Arkin, practically screams "Pulitzer nominee," but there's little new information below the banner headlines. More than 5,000 words into the "exclusive," here's what the Post reporters have uncovered after two years of digging:

-- More than 3,000 companies now perform some sort of intelligence-related work for the U.S. government; many sprang up--or moved into that field--after 9-11, when the feds, desperately short of intel expertise, began handing out contracts like business cards.

-- An estimated 854,000 people now hold Top Secret security clearances, roughly one out of every 40 Americans, a total greater than the population of Washington, D.C.

-- There has been a boon in the construction of intelligence facilities for federal agencies and defense contractors. Scores have been built over the past nine years.

-- Senior defense and intelligence officials are concerned about the role of contractors in the intelligence business, fearing that firms are more concerned about the corporate bottom line than the mission at hand.

Perhaps we're a bit jaded, but our collective response to all of this is a giant...yawn. If you've spent any time in military, homeland security, intel or government appropriations circles since that fateful day in 2001, the "revelations" of the Post series are nothing new. Indeed, Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin obtained all their material from unclassified sources, so the same information is available to anyone with enough time and an unlimited research budget. If you want to know how much Northrop-Grumman, Boeing or SAIC is making from intelligence contracts, that data can probably be found in corporate reports, or various Congressional appropriations bills.

Of course, the real issue lies in the special investigation's central theme: are the nation's intelligence agencies, counter-terrorism organizations and the military too dependent on contractors? According to Priest and Arkin, the Beltway Bandits can be found in virtually every intelligence function:

Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones. They are the historians, the architects, the recruiters in the nation's most secretive agencies. They staff watch centers across the Washington area. They are among the most trusted advisers to the four-star generals leading the nation's wars.

So great is the government's appetite for private contractors with top-secret clearances that there are now more than 300 companies, often nicknamed "body shops," that specialize in finding candidates, often for a fee that approaches $50,000 a person, according to those in the business.

Making it more difficult to replace contractors with federal employees: The government doesn't know how many are on the federal payroll. Gates said he wants to reduce the number of defense contractors by about 13 percent, to pre-9/11 levels, but he's having a hard time even getting a basic head count.

Obviously, the same question might be asked of other government agencies; does anyone know the number of contractors working for the Department of Health and Human Services, for example? But the Post is focused on the intelligence community, and the "gusher" of money that has attracted so many firms, large and small, to the spook world in recent years.

If you accept the paper's thesis, there are way too many contractors, often duplicating work performed by federal employees. But there are a few problems with that analysis, something the Post actually acknowledges in its series.

First, there will always be some degree of overlap and duplication in the intelligence business. Some of that is little more than empire-building; like any government bureaucracy, intel agencies are practiced in the art of finding new "issues" or "threats," and parlaying that concern into more funding. Did we mention that the CIA now follows climate change?

Using that model, it's little wonder that intelligence contractors eagerly offer their expertise in areas that show fiscal promise. Put another way: if a senior official at Langley--with budgetary horsepower--wants someone to generate a classified study on global warming, or create a database linking various climate models and sensors, do you think that Lockheed-Martin, L3 (or dozens of smaller firms) will say "no thanks" to a multi-million initial contract, and the promise of more money down the road?

Secondly, there's the difficulty in attaining that goal that everyone seems to share: eventually scaling back contractor involvement in the intel business, and replacing their reps with civil service employees. As the Post observes, experience levels in the intelligence community have decreased in recent years, as more analysts, technicians and operatives join the ranks of contractors.

Money is the primary reason, but not the only one. Given a chance to collect a federal pension and move into a six-figure job with a contractor, thousands of intel professionals gladly took that option. Many were already nearing the end of their civil service careers, and most remembered the bad old days of the late 70s (under Jimmy Carter) and the Clinton years, when intel agencies were underfunded, and certain disciplines--most notably, human intelligence or HUMINT--were largely gutted. Rather than endure another cycle of budget plus-ups and cutbacks, many veterans spooks took their annuities, and returned as contractors.

And, the community was glad to have them back. In the days following 9-11, there was a dearth of experience in many areas, including HUMINT, targeting, and others. Contract employees (and the firms that hired them) offered the quickest way to inject needed expertise and keep experienced hands in the game.

Which brings us to another reason for the explosion of intelligence contractors: security clearances. So far in its series, the Post has dealt indirectly with this fundamental issue. To perform most types of intel work, you need a Top Secret/SCI security clearance. For a new comer to the intel world, that requires an extensive background check that can take 18-24 months to complete. While their clearance is processed, new hires typically sit in a "green room," handling mundane administrative tasks--or just surfing the internet--while drawing entry-level federal pay (typically a GS-9).

On the other hand, a typical intel contractor already has a clearance, based on their past service as an intelligence officer, or service in the military. For an employee with active clearances, it's just a matter of transferring their file to the contractor's security office, and putting them to work. If you want to replace experienced personnel--who are already cleared for TS/SCI information--be prepared to wait. Then, there's the matter of duplicating their expertise. You'll need another decade (or longer) to replace the experience levels of many contract employees. And needless to say, that entails a certain risk for national security.

Can we afford to eliminate certain intel contracts and certain programs now handled by those various firms? Certainly. But where do you begin making the cuts? Those decisions require strong leadership, something that's been sorely lacking in the nation's expanded intelligence community. At his confirmation hearing today, retired Lieutenant General James Clapper, the nominee to be the next Director of National Intelligence, said he was "committed" to making the current model work. Against that backdrop, it's difficult to envision substantial cuts in the contractor force. Besides, if the federal intel workforce is generally inexperienced, are we willing to accept the decrease in collective experience that accompany the down-sizing.
ADDENDUM: In their series, Priest and Arkin note that contractors have caused occasional embarrassment for the defense and intelligence establishments, citing the examples of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and various shooting incidents involving Blackwater employees. However, the contractors involved in those episodes were performing security work, not intelligence. There is a difference--something the Post reporters should understand.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why Judges Matter

Of all the powers assigned to the President, perhaps none is more important than his ability to pick judges for the federal bench. After all, chief executives come and go, but many of their judicial appointees linger for years--even decades--after the President has left the White House.

And, in some cases, that means we're stuck with judges who betray their constructionist roots; engage in judicial activism on a grand scale, or issue rulings that are simply mind-boggling. President Eisenhower described his appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as "one of the worst mistakes he ever made." George H.W. Bush (reportedly) had similar thoughts about David Souter, the supposed conservative who sided with the high court's liberal wing for most of his career.

But the damage doesn't end at the Supreme Court; there are plenty of bad judges at the appellate and district court levels, enjoying their lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary. And, if you need a current case-in-point, look no further than District Judge Robert Blackburn of Colorado. In a ruling issued Friday, Blackburn declared the federal "Stolen Valor" act to be unconstitutional because it violates free speech (emphasis ours). The law, which was signed into law in 2005, makes it a crime to wear, manufacture or claim unauthorized military decorations.

We've written extensively about the law in recent years. The Stolen Valor Act (sponsored by Democratic Congressman John Salazar of Colorado) was a direct response to literally hundreds of cases where individuals claimed--and often wore--military medals they never earned. Some of phonies never spent a day in the armed forces; others served, but never received the decorations they bragged about, and often displayed at patriotic celebrations and other events. More than a few of the military frauds used tales of "heroism" for financial gain as well.

In his decision, Judge Blackburn said (essentially) that Americans have the right to lie about serving in the armed forces and the military honors they received. In his ruling, the judge said the government did not show a "compelling reason" to limit that type of statement.

Let that sink in for a moment, and consider this: military decorations for valor recognize individual acts of courage that are extraordinarily rare, and often save lives, turn the tide of battle, or both. Over the course of our nation's history, less than 3,500 military personnel have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Many recipients are recognized posthumously; currently there are less than 100 living recipients of the MOH, and only one (Army Colonel Gordon Ray Roberts) is still on active duty.

Yet, it's perfectly acceptable for any American--whether they served or not--to create their own resume as a war hero, and wear decorations they never earned. Judge Blackburn made his ruling in a case involving someone who did just that: Rick Glen Strandlof, a Colorado man who claimed to be an ex-Marine who won the Silver Star and Purple Heart in Iraq. In reality, Strandlof never served. For his deceit, Strandlof was convicted under the Stolen Valor Act, the same law tossed out by Blackburn's decision.

An ACLU attorney (who filed an amicus brief in the case) said the Stolen Valor law is fatally flawed because it doesn't require prosecutors to show that anyone was injured or defamed by the lie. Obviously, the ACLU doesn't believe that phony claims of valor harm legitimate military heroes.

But then again, the organization never asked men like Leo Thorsness, Bud Day, or Pat Brady how it feels to be associated--even remotely--with the likes of Xavier Alvarez, Richard McClanahan, or Michael O'Brien. Alvarez, McClanahan and O'Brien all claimed to be recipients of the MOH; in fact Mr. O'Brien (a former state judge in Illinois) claimed he was awarded the decoration not once, but twice.

Sadly, they represent just the tip of the iceberg; over the past two decades, there has been a veritable "army" of wannabes who identified themselves as military heroes. And it's not just fraudulent claims about the MOH; when you factor in the phonies who say they've received the Distinguished Service Cross; the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross and the Silver Star, there have been literally thousands of examples of Stolen Valor. Until the federal law was signed five years ago, it was left largely to the real medal recipients to police their own ranks and expose the frauds.

Based on Judge Blackburn's ruling, that may be the case again. According to his interpretation of the law, we all have a constitutional right to lie about serving in the military and the decorations we earned. By the way...did I mention that I am a four-time recipient of the MOH, and I have the Silver Star and 13 Purple Hearts to boot? Or that I was promoted to General of the Air Force below-the-zone? I'd love to post my decoration citations and relevant details of my remarkable career, but all of those assignments were top secret, you understand (nod, nod; wink, wink). Trust me.

Indeed, thanks to Blackburn's liberating decision, I can even expand my fraudulent resume. In addition to my military exploits, I can also report that I graduated from an Ivy League law school (at the age of 17), passed the bar on my first try, and was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush. In my spare time, I attended medical school, so I'm also the only federal judge who's also a brain surgeon. And if I'm lying? Doesn't matter; just ask Judge Blackburn.

Of course, I'm acutely aware of various laws that make it a crime to practice law or medicine without a license, so I'll temper my activities in those areas. Clearly, there's a very good reason for those laws. Phony doctors and lawyers not only harm the public, they also cause damage to the legal and medical professions, making it more difficult for real attorneys and doctors to maintain the public's trust.

The same principle applies to military heroes--or so you'd think. Their reputation (and to a lesser degree, the reputation of all who served and earned decorations while in uniform) is harmed by those who manufacture tales of heroism and display medals they never earned. But no, that's a free speech right. Maybe I should send my "phony judge" resume and business card to Blackburn and ask if I'm still protected by the First Amendment. I'll let you know when I get that "cease-and-desist" letter from the federal court, or a visit from the FBI.

In case you're wondering, Judge Blackburn was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush and (as far as I can tell) he never served in the military. Somehow, that's not surprising.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Korb "Solution"

In a recent issue of Armed Forces Journal, Regan-era defense official-turned-progressive Lawrence Korb offers his "prescription" for the military's health care problem.

His essay is based on hard facts; it's no secret that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior leaders are deeply concerned about escalating medical costs for active duty personnel, their dependents and military retirees. The annual bill for Tricare, DoD's "off-base" health care system is now $50 billion; put another way, the program now consumes roughly 9% of the Pentagon's annual budget--and it's share of the pie is growing rapidly. During the eight years that George W. Bush was in office, the Tricare budget grew by 163%.

From Mr. Korb's perspective, rising military health care costs can be blamed on a variety of factors, including the high price of specialized care for troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. But--surprise, surprise--he pins much of the blame on the Bill Clinton (for changing the military retiree system) and Bush Administration for excessively increasing those benefits, to retain qualified personnel.

In the waning days of the second Clinton administration, Congress, at the request of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made two changes to the military compensation system that the administration refused to challenge. First, in 1999, Congress raised the percentage of base pay that a military retiree would get after 20 years of service from 40 percent to 50 percent. Second, in 2000, Congress authorized and the administration approved allowing military retirees and their family members to keep Tricare benefits for life. Previously, when military retirees and their family members turned 65, they became part of the Medicare system like everyone else.

When these measures were adopted, military recruiting and retention were in excellent shape and there was no analysis to support a claim that these two costly actions would improve the quality of the men and women joining or remaining in the armed forces. In fact, personnel officials within the Office of the Secretary of Defense recommended that these changes not be accepted because of their long-term costs.

During the Bush administration, the military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon and the White House compounded the problem in four ways: They failed to request that the president and Congress activate the Selective Service System to deal with the manpower-intensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; they used the wrong metrics to determine the size of the annual pay raise; they failed to veto or even to threaten a veto when Congress provided larger-than-requested pay raises; and they refused to request a long-overdue increase in Tricare premiums every fiscal year.

There are a couple of problems with Mr. Korb's analysis. As we noted in a recent post, Tricare was created--in large part--because Bill Clinton refused to fund military health care. Facilities were closed and the medical corps was cut, along with the rest of the armed forces. With fewer hospitals, clinics and health care providers, the armed forces had to send virtually all military retirees (and many dependents) to civilian doctors and treatment facilities, where costs were far higher.

Almost a decade ago, Air Force magazine highlighted the fiscal problems facing military health care. The publication discovered that Mr. Clinton had been underfunding (emphasis ours) the system by roughly $500 million a year. So, President Bush inherited a system that was short of money, facilities and health care professionals. Facing those realities, the new administration decided it would be easier to pump more money into Tricare--with the understanding that military health care bills would increase significantly.

How serious was the Clinton mistake? As former Air Force Surgeon General Paul Carlton explained back in 2001, military facilities were capable of providing care at prices far below those of civilian hospitals. According to Carlton, the price tag for an appendectomy in a military hospital was about $300--the cost of a surgical pack. The same procedure for an armed forces beneficiary in a civilian facility was $6,000. So, runaway military health care costs actually began under Bill Clinton, a fact largely ignored in Korb's analysis.

As for his "cure," Mr. Korb offers ideas that are a rehash of existing policies, and solutions that would have a serious impact on many military families:

The Pentagon and Congress can work together to alleviate this situation by taking five steps. First, require that military retirees who have access to health insurance through their job or that of a family member use that system rather than Tricare. Second, apply a means test for deciding whether retirees and their family members older than 65 are eligible for Tricare for Life as opposed to relying solely on Medicare. Third, raise Tricare premiums from $460 a year to $1,000 for a military family and then adjust that figure annually to reflect the rising costs of health care. Fourth, use MAC, rather than base pay, as a basis for deciding on the size of the annual pay raise. Fifth, after the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, reduce the size of the ground forces to pre-9/11 levels.

News flash for Larry Korb: when military retirees receive medical benefits from civilian employers, that latter system becomes their primary health plan. I discovered that first-hand a few years ago, when I signed a contract as a long-term substitute in a local school system. With my participation in the school's health care system, that plan served as my primary medical insurance, and Tricare became the secondary carrier.

At first glance, Mr. Korb's proposal to raise Tricare premiums for military families makes a certain amount of sense. There hasn't been a premium increase in more than a decade, despite escalating military health costs, and retired senior officers can easily afford to pay more.

But raising premiums also ignores an important fact: the "typical" military retiree isn't a Colonel or General, but rather an E-6 (Technical Sergeant in the USAF). An E-6 leaving the armed forces after 20 years in uniform earns a pension of $1,800 a month. Raising the Tricare premium will take a real bite out of the average retiree's budget, particularly in an era of limited civilian employment prospects, and limited cost-of-living adjustments.

And finally, Korb's suggestion to cut force levels after our disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan is equally preposterous. A premature exit from either locations could have dangerous repercussions for national security. There is also a sense that we need to retain larger ground forces, as a hedge against potential conflicts in places like Korea and the Persian Gulf. There is no appetite for fighting protracted, future campaigns with an undersized Army and Marine Corps, where some units have served two combat deployments in only three years.

One thing is clear; DoD is facing huge budget cuts, and health care will almost certainly be slashed. If Obama's health care scheme survives, there will be a push to move many Tricare recipients into the new government program. The Pentagon could (presumably) pay an annual "tax" and largely eliminate Tricare, accelerating the transfer of many military members into national health care.

If that happens, it would represent the latest in a long series of broken promises on military medical care. When I joined the armed forces in the early 1980s, I was "guaranteed" lifetime access to on-base health care. That promise went out the window when Bill Clinton underfunded the system and created Tricare. Now, with that program's costs spiraling out of control, it's a sure bet that the military health care system of 2015 will look much different from today. And, as in any discussion of the "government" and medical care, "different" does not mean "better."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Hero No More

Even in death, Texas state senator (and former U.S. attorney) Charles Ferguson Herring was hailed as a war hero.

Mr. Herring, a Democrat who died in 2004, represented the Austin area in the state senate for 17 years, from 1956-1973. He also served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas from 1951-1955. During his lifetime, Herring claimed to have won the Navy Cross, three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star as a Navy officer during World War II. Herring also stated that he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the naval reserve, before leaving the service in the mid-1950s.

As you might have guessed, Herring's claims of valor were nothing but lies. Doug Sterner, who runs a website honoring military heroes, obtained copies of the late senator's military records under the Freedom of Information Act. While Mr. Herring served as a junior officer in the Navy (and Naval Reserve) from 1943-1953, he never received any decorations for valor, and was never wounded in combat. From the El Paso Times, via

All references to combat valor were stripped from Herring's online biography at the Texas State Cemetery [on July 1st]. The action came after its officials received military records contradicting Herring's claims of heroism during World War II.


The record shows that Herring received no awards for combat valor or for being wounded. It makes no mention of a Bronze Star for service in a war zone. And it shows he left the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant junior grade, two ranks below lieutenant commander, after 10 years of service.

According to the Times, Mr. Herring repeated his claims of heroism during an oral history interview, conducted before his death. That information was used in the senator's obituary, which until this month, was posted on the cemetery's website. Herring was interred in a section of the cemetery reserved for individuals "whose actions defined Texas history and culture." Among those buried in that portion of the cemetery are former governors, signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence and famed World War II combat artist Tom Lea.

Cemetery officials were first confronted with Herring's fraud in January, when the El Paso newspaper published its initial story on his military record. But the cemetery didn't remove the false information until earlier this month, when it received copies of of Herring's military records, confirming that he never received the Purple Heart, or medals for combat valor.

Doug Sterner told the Times that the cemetery is using the wrong approach. "You need documentation to add him to the list, not documentation to remove him."

Herring's son, who lives in the Austin area, said the family wants the record to be corrected. He did not respond to an interview request after the cemetery removed his father's fraudulent obituary. Earlier this year, the younger Herring suggested there might be two sets of military records, since his father's name was originally spelled with one "r" and wasn't changed to the current form until 1963.

Fat chance. Like other military phonies, Charles Herring decided to embellish his military record for political gain. Having a Navy Cross on his "resume" certainly didn't hurt the elder Herring when he was running for the state senate, or building friendships with people like Lyndon Baines Johnson. And, he sustained the charade throughout his life; if not for the efforts of Doug Sterner (and other watchdogs), Charles Herring would still be regarded as a military hero.

In case you're wondering, Mr. Herring is not in danger of losing his current burial spot. Cemetery officials say he is entitled to that space, based on his years of service in the state legislature. But from now on, he will be remembered as a politician and a military phony, a man who wasn't satisfied with his own, honorable service and decided to "add" a few decorations for good measure.

And he almost got by with it. Almost.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Consequences, Anyone?

When a South Korean destroyer sank in late March--killing 46 ROK sailors--the U.S. warned of potential "consequences" if Pyongyang was found responsible. And, in early May, when an international investigation concluded that North Korea was, indeed, behind the attack, there was a similar statement from senior American officials. Here's a May 21st quote from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking from Tokyo:

"I think it is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 21 while visiting her Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.

Less than two months later, any talk of "consequences" has vanished. From "The Cable" at

Fast forward to [9 July], when the United Nations released a presidential statement which not only does not specify any consequences for the Kim Jong Il regime, but doesn't even conclude that North Korea was responsible for the attack in the first place.

The statement acknowledges that the South Korean investigation, which included broad international participation, blamed North Korea, and then "takes note of the responses from other relevant parties, including from the DPRK, which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident."

"Therefore, the Security Council condemns the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan," the statement reads.

And how did the Obama Administration react to the U.N.'s collective shrug?

The White House's spokesman on such matters, Mike Hammer, issued a statement clearly stating that the Obama administration believes North Korea was responsible and arguing that the U.N. statement "constitutes an endorsement of the findings" of the Joint Investigative Group that issued the report blaming North Korea.

To the U.S. and the South Koreans believe North Korea was guilty but the U.N. isn't willing to go that far. But what about the next step? Will there be any follow up, any "consequences" for North Korea, as Clinton seemed to promise in May?

"I think right now we're just allowing North Korea to absorb the international community's response to its actions," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.

North Korea's representative to the U.N., Sin Son Ho, called the statement a "great diplomatic victory."

"That doesn't sound like a lot of absorption," one member of the State Department press corps shot back at Toner.

For once, the media--and Mr. Sin--got it right. This is (another) victory for Kim Jong-il. Once again, he has challenged his primary foes, the United States and South Korea, and escaped without any repercussions. Sure, it was a stretch to believe the U.N. Security Council would do anything. But, considering earlier vows of "consequences," the current silence from Seoul and Washington is deafening.

Unfortunately, it's hardly a surprise. The Obama Administration has a hard time challenging our enemies, saving most of its scorn for our friends. Mr. Kim is acutely aware of that tendency. Now, he'll return to the next step in his playbook, suggesting he might return to the bargaining table, provided the South Korea and Washington make a few concessions. And sure enough, some members of the striped-pants set are suggesting just that. Anything to get talks going again, so that North Korea can interrupt them again, at a time and place of its choosing.

Meanwhile, the families of those dead sailors would like some answers. How do you say "don't hold your breath" in Korean?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Fighter that Saved Britain

A restored Hawker Hurricane, the unsung hero of the Battle of Britain. While the "Hurry" shot down more German planes than the Spitfire, the latter aircraft received most of the credit for defeating the Luftwaffe in the pivotal 1940 air campaign (Reuters photo via the U.K. Daily Mail).

On this 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, there are the inevitable tributes to the men (and women) of the Royal Air Force, who prevented a German invasion in the late summer of 1940, and in the process, saved a nation and altered the course of World War II.

Today, Winston Churchill's immortal tribute to British fighter pilots who defeated the mighty Luftwaffe has become the battle's accepted synopsis ("never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few"). The Prime Minister's stirring words conjure up images of undermanned RAF fighter squadrons, rising to meet vast formations of German fighters and bombers. Ironically, it the was Luftwaffe that was most affected by shortages of pilots and aircraft, while the British had far more success at replacing combat losses.

Another famous misconception about the Battle of Britain concerns the RAF's two primary fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. Eight decades later, the Spitfire is regarded as the most important fighter of the campaign, a superb aircraft that outclassed German ME-109s and 100s in the skies over Britain, and secured final victory for the RAF.

But that image is also an exaggeration, as the U.K. Daily Mail recently reminded us:
"...the summer of 1940 will always be associated with the Supermarine Spitfire, the single-engined RAF plane which became the most potent symbol of Britain's fight against German subjugation. The very name Spitfire is now synonymous with victory in the air.

But this is a travesty of what really happened in the crucial months of 1940.

For the RAF aircraft which actually won the Battle of Britain was an older, larger, slower but still deadly fighter, the Hawker Hurricane.

Without the Hurricane, the RAF would have probably lost the Battle of Britain, because there were simply not enough Spitfires emerging from the aircraft factories and into the squadrons. In the national struggle for survival, the Hurricane dominated the front line.


On the eve of the Battle of Britain in early July 1940, Fighter Command's operational force throughout the United Kingdom was made up of 29 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 of Spitfires, proportions that were to remain the same throughout the coming months.

The overall distribution between the two fighters was largely reflected in German losses. According to the Air Ministry's own figures, for every two Luftwaffe planes brought down by the Spitfires, three were shot down by Hurricanes.

Despite such statistics, the Hurricane's contributions are often viewed as secondary, through the prism of history. Popular accounts suggest Hurricane squadrons were dispatched to attack German bomber formations, while the more nimble Spitfire battled Luftwaffe fighters.

But that image is equally misleading; with Hurricane squadrons forming the backbone of Fighter Command in 1940, those units engaged the ME-109s more often than the less-numerous Spitfires. Yet, press accounts of the era--and British propaganda--almost always featured the "Spit." As author Leo McKinstry writes, footage of a German aircraft being shot down was used in a popular newsreel feature in 1940. The film was recorded by the gun camera of a Hurricane, which was responsible for the kill. On the newsreel, the narrator attributed it to a Spitfire; Hurricane pilots in the audience groaned.

With the passage of time, the "Hurry's" slight became even more pronounced. When the British MOD staged a Battle of Britain fly-by in 1945, there wasn't a single Hurricane in the formation. While pilots trumpeted its virtues, the Hurricane was largely forgotten by the public and air power historians.

Why did it happen? The Spitfire simply captured the public's imagination, like other legendary aircraft of the Second World War. Ask someone to name a fighter plane from that era, and they'll probably mention the Spitfire, the P-51, the ME-109 or a Japanese Zero. Never mind that other aircraft were equally capable--or more widely produced. Allied propaganda gladly fed romantic notions of the Spitfire, to help sustain public support for the war effort.

Mr. McKinstry's new book attempts to rectify oversight of the Hawker Hurricane, and it's long overdue. Unfortunately, most of "The Few" who flew Hurricanes into combat in the summer of 1940 have passed on. It's a fitting requiem for a great aircraft and the men of Fighter Command who helped turned the tide of the war eight decades ago.

The Cost-Benfit Analysis of Hitting Iran

It's received (relatively) little attention here in the U.S., but there's a growing consensus among our Persian Gulf allies that military force will be required to halt Iran's nuclear program.

That sobering assessment was echoed publicly last week, in remarks by the UAE's Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba. Speaking to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Mr. al-Otaiba endorsed the idea of a military strike against Iran, to prevent that nation from obtaining nuclear weapons:

"I think it's a cost-benefit analysis," Mr. al-Otaiba said. "I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what."

"If you are asking me, 'Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?,' my answer is still the same: 'We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.' I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E."

Al-Otaiba's comments were the most candid to date from a senior Arab official. While other diplomats from the region have expressed similar thoughts, they have been in private conversations with their U.S. counterparts.

Ambassador al-Otaiba's willingness to deliver his assessment publicly underscores growing regional concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions--and Washington's inability (or unwillingness) to counter them. In fact, he predicted that key governments in the region would dump their alliance with Washington--in favor of closer ties with Iran--if the U.S. is unwilling to take on Tehran:

[Mr. al-Otaiba] said that his country would be the last Arab country to cut a deal with Iran, if Tehran were to go nuclear. But he predicted other wealthy Arab states in the Gulf would dump their alliances with the U.S. in favor of ties with Tehran if President Obama does not stop the Islamic republic's quest to become a nuclear power.

"There are many countries in the region that if they lack assurance that the U.S. is willing to confront Iran, they will start running for cover with Iran," he said. "Small, rich, vulnerable countries do not want to stick their finger in the big boy's eye if they do not have the backing of the United States."

The ambassador also said that "talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous."

It's also rather obvious that Mr. al-Otaiba wasn't "freelancing" or speaking out of turn. In fact, it's almost certain that his remarks were approved (or coordinated) in advance, at the highest levels of the UAE government. And, quite clearly, they were aimed at the Obama Administration, reminding the White House that our regional allies are running out of patience with the sanctions game. If the U.S. isn't prepared to act--and soon--it risks not only a nuclear Iran, but the loss of key allies in the region. Any bets on how that would impact the price of oil?

In a separate interview with the Washington Times, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said al-Otaiba's comments "reflect the views of many Arab states in the Persian Gulf region." He said our regional allies "know and worry" at Obama Administration policies won't stop Iran. According to Mr. Bolton, the gulf states increasingly regard a pre-emptive strike "as the only option."

From our perspective, there were three remarkable elements in Ambassador al-Otaiba's speech. First, while he didn't exactly encourage it, the UAE official didn't rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Reading between the lines of his remarks, it's clear that the Emirates would prefer a U.S. campaign, but absent that, the gulf states are willing to tacitly support anyone going after Iran.

It's also worth noting that the Ambassador's speech came less than two months after a British report that Saudi Arabia would allow Israeli warplanes use its airspace for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. While that account was subsequently denied, the Mr. al-Otaiba's remarks lend some credence to that original U.K. account. As Iran comes closer to getting the bomb, its neighbors are growing nervous, and willing to sign off on almost any plan to destroy Tehran's nuclear facilities.

We were also struck by the UAE's willingness (as expressed by Ambassador al-Otaiba) to absorb the blows that would come in a conflict between Iran and the U.S. As a key American partner in the region--and a beddown location for U.S. air assets--Abu Dhabi would almost certainly be subjected to Iranian missile strikes, carrying the high probability of civilian casualties. And, as the ambassador noted, his country also stands to lose economically, through the loss of trade with Iran, and the potential impact of UAE oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz.

Finally, Mr. al-Otaiba's Aspen speech is the clearest call yet (from the Arab world) for action against Iran. With a front-row seat for Tehran's nuclear drive, officials in the UAE understand that Iran will not stop until it acquires nuclear weapons. They also recognize U.S. policies towards Iran as a failure, dating back to the second Bush Administration and even earlier. In unusually blunt language, Ambassador al-Otaiba reminded his audience that the days of "kicking the Iran can" down the road are over, and it's time to begin planning for less palatable options. His candor is commendable. We only wonder if anyone in Washington is listening.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Spy Swap

Home to Moscow: less than two weeks after being arrested, Russian operative Anna Chapman has been deported, following one of the most hastily-arranged "spy swaps" in history (AP photo).

Barely a week ago, Anna Chapman and those other, deep cover Russian operatives were facing long stints in a U.S. jail, after the FBI rolled up their spy ring.

Now, they're heading back to the Motherland, as Washington and Moscow conduct a hastily-arranged "spy swap," the largest since the Cold War.

The exchange began this afternoon with Ms. Chapman, the red-haired "femme fatale" of the group (and nine other defendants) entering guilty pleas in a Manhattan federal court. They were quickly sentenced to time served, and ordered deported by Judge Kimba Wood (remember her?) During the sentencing, Judge Wood announced that Russia would release four people to the United States--individuals imprisoned for spying for the west. From the AP account of today's proceedings:

The defendants each announced their pleas to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. Some spoke with heavy Russian accents, sometimes in broken English, despite having spent years living in the U.S. posing as American and Canadian citizens.

An 11th defendant was a fugitive after he fled authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.

The defendants provided almost no information about what kind of spying they actually did for Russia. Asked to describe their crimes, each acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.

Defendant Anna Chapman mentioned she had communicated with a Russian official via a wireless signal, sent from her laptop. Asked by the judge whether she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, "Yes I did, your honor."

Among those expected to be released by Moscow is Igor Sutyagin, a former arms control expert who was serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the U.S. A journalist in Vienna reportedly saw Sutyagin getting off a plane from Russia this afternoon; however, his release was not immediately confirmed.

In many respects, the spy swap was stunning. Such exchanges occurred periodically during the Cold War, but the sudden deal for Chapman (and her fellow operatives) caught some observers off-guard. After all, the "suburban" espionage ring was widely viewed as costly and ineffective.

Most of the Russian agents had been living in the United States for a decade--or longer--but there was no evidence they had acquired or passed on secret information. None of the defendants were accused of espionage; all pleaded guilty today to charges of failing to register as a foreign agent. In the spy game, that's the equivalent of a speeding ticket.

So, why was Moscow so anxious to secure the release of Ms. Chapman and the others? Predictably, the gang at AP says Russia doesn't want the spy case to upset "improving" relations with Washington. With an arms limitation treaty and other important business pending, Russian leaders don't want the distraction of a espionage scandal, and give Congress a reason to reject important agreements.

Still, that explanation only goes so far. Both sides have endured far worse spy episodes, and under more difficult circumstances (the 1960 U-2 incident comes to mind). Yet, even in that case, there was no sudden rush to make a deal. Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot, endured a Moscow show trial and months of KGB interrogation before he was finally freed. Other operatives have languished in prison for years prior to release.

Which brings us back to our original question: what made Anna Chapman so valuable that Russian leaders secured her release in near-record time? For starters, consider the fact that the operatives were living her openly, with the rights accorded to legal immigrants. We'll assume that all of them "lawyered up" immediately after arrest, which means they were not subjected to extensive interrogations by the FBI, at least not without their attorneys present (emphasis ours).

Despite years of bureau surveillance, the SVR (Russia's successor to the KGB) believes that Chapman and her associates still have information that's worth protecting. Better to arrange a quick deal and not leave them hanging in the U.S. Justice system, where the threat of a lengthy sentence (or a plea deal) could convince them to talk. At this point, it's not clear what information the Russians are trying to protect, but for a spy ring that was supposedly incompetent--at best--Moscow pulled out all the stops in bringing them home.

As for the United States, our agreement to the quick exchange is also a bit puzzling. Some have suggested that we wanted Mr. Sutyagin released, given the harsh treatment he has undoubtedly received in Russian prisons. But if that was the case, why didn't we roll up the spy ring months or even years ago? Sutyagin was convicted in 2004, and has spent most of the past six years in a facility above the Arctic Circle. By comparison, Anna Chapman's digs in federal lock-up were positively luxurious.

Here's a more likely scenario for our support of the spy swap. Chapman and her fellow operatives were instructed to penetrate policy-making circles, making contact with members of our elite. To date, there has been no comprehensive list of who they associated with, beyond a few vague descriptions in court filings. Is there something embarrassing in Chapman's list of American contacts, names that might be revealed over the course of a lengthy trial?

Or, as one reader has suggested, did she launder large sums of SVR money through her real estate ventures, a technique that might create some uncomfortable moments for U.S. banks, real estate firms and individual investors that did business with Chapman. With the spy exchange, we may never know the answer to these questions, unless Ms. Chapman returns to her "capitalist" cover and writes a book.

One thing is certain: when the U.S. and Russia agree to a major spy exchange in a matter of days, it's clear that both sides have something to protect. Maybe Anna Chapman and her associates weren't such failures after all.
ADDENDUM: The rapid exchange may also be rooted in "tradecraft" issues, particularly on the Russian side. From what we've been told, FBI counter-intelligence officials had been monitoring the Chapman ring for years, finally arresting the operatives after one of their comrades fled the country. That disclosure set off alarm bells at the SVR, which (like any spy agency) doesn't like having its deep-cover operatives identified and monitored continuously. Getting Chapman--and her fellow spies--back to Moscow will allow controllers to thoroughly debrief the operation and try to figure out what went wrong. Likewise, the FBI wasn't anxious to disclose how it discovered the Chapman ring so quickly--and how years of effective surveillance went undetected by the SVR.

In a recent article for The Weekly Standard, intelligence historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes list the most common techniques for discovering spies, including signals intelligence and "turning" disaffected Russian intelligence operatives. While those are genuine possibilities, the authors also raise the "nightmare" scenario for Russian intelligence: there may be a high-level mole in Moscow Center, someone with detailed knowledge of deep cover operations who has been in place for years, and is likely, still on the job.

It's also worth noting that one of the western spies freed by Russia was instrumental in identifying American turncoats like Robert Hanssen and Rick Ames. When he was arrested, there was genuine concern about the loss of a "crown jewel" source, and its potential impact on our intelligence operations. But if our hunch is correct, it looks like the CIA found an excellent replacement.

As the hub-bub over the spy swap begins to fade, you can rest assured that SVR staffers are working around the clock, trying to figure out if they've been penetrated, what that person has access to, and how much of that information has been passed to western intelligence.

And how's your week been going, Mr. Putin?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

More Missing Afghans

In mid-June, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) issued a "Be on the Lookout" bulletin for 17 members of the Afghan military, who had gone AWOL from the Defense Language Institute at Lackland AFB, Texas.

As we noted at the time, the lookout alert raised some rather interesting issues:

Here's the rub: some of the Afghans have been missing for more than a year. The most recent AWOL occurred in January 2010, when 1st Lieutenant Javed Ayran disappeared. Military spokesmen offered no explanation as to why DoD waited until this week to issue the "lookout" bulletin.

Each of the missing Afghans was issued a Department of Defense Common Access Card, an identification card used to gain access to secure military installations, with which they "could attempt to enter DOD installations," according to the bulletin. Base security officers were encouraged to disseminate the bulletin to their personnel.

"The visas issued to these personnel have been revoked, or are in the process of being revoked. Lookouts have been placed in TECS," it reads.

Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS), which is shared by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, is a computer-based database used to identify people suspected of violating federal law.

Federal officials interviewed by Fox News tried to downplay the matter, despite NCIS's transmission of the "lookout" memo. A Defense Department spokesman claimed that most of the Afghans had already been accounted for; a law enforcement source described the issue as "more of an immigration problem" than a security risk, despite the Afghan's ability to access military installation, and stepped-up search activities (as evidenced by the NCIS bulletin).

And the number of AWOL Afghans is much higher than first thought. FNC has learned at least 46 Afghan military members who have gone missing before, during or after language training in the United States--roughly one out of every 15 assigned to the program over the last five years.

The [June] BOLO alert included men who had been apprehended more than six months before it was issued, and it failed to include the name and photo of the most recent Afghan to vanish from DLI — a pilot who disappeared in March — as well as 28 others who have gone AWOL in recent years.

"Since 2002, 745 students have passed through the U.S. on this training and only 46 have actually gone absent without leave, and in 2009 there was a peak of 21 students," Col. Stewart Cowen, NATO spokesman, Afghanistan, told

Citing statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security, Cowen said 25 of the 46 remain unaccounted for.

According to Fox, at least 18 of the missing men are believed to be in Canada, home to a growing number of AWOL Afghan military personnel. Reporter Jana Winter also discovered the number of Afghans who have walked away from DLI has skyrocketed in recent years; in 2007, only three Afghans were reported AWOL from the language training center. Two years later, the number of missing Afghans had grown to 21.

To help curb the AWOL problem, a full-time liaison officer, Lt Col Wahab Sultany, was assigned in January to work with Afghan students at DLI. By all accounts, Sultany was very successful; not a single student went AWOL during his watch. But Lt Col Sultany was suddenly recalled to Afghanistan, and sure enough, another Afghan soldier went AWOL shortly after his departure.

Predictably, officials at DoD, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security are trying to put the best possible spin on this situation. And, to be fair, some of the Afghans are low-risk. Given the opportunity to flee a war-ravaged, impoverished nation, they used their DLI posting as an opportunity to flee Canada, or disappear among the vast illegal population in the United States. Of course, the desire to get out of Afghanistan is no excuse for violating the immigration laws of Canada, or this country.

But there's also the matter of how carefully the Afghans were vetted, and who they might be associating with while on the lam. In years past, the screening of Afghan soldiers was notoriously poor, allowing Taliban and Al Qaida sympathizers to infiltrate the ranks. There is the possibility that terrorists may have slipped into the DLI program, using their free ticket to America to go AWOL and link up with other radicals. No wonder NCIS sent out that BOLO bulletin last month, even if much of the information was outdated.

One more note: Fox News located eleven of the original AWOL group by simply searching Facebook. Go figure. Memo to the feds: try looking on-line; it's amazing what you can find on social media sites.

Monday, July 05, 2010


For anyone who served in the Air Force during the 1990s, it's a familiar refrain: early retirement boards, force "shaping" and involuntary separations, tools used to remove thousands of NCOs and officers from the ranks in the name of saving money.

How, with massive defense cuts on tap, force reductions are back--with a vengeance. The Air Force needs to get rid of 6,000 airmen by the end of this year, and they're looking any possible justification for getting rid of "redundant" personnel, as the Brits would say. Plans for an early retirement board for selected Colonels were actually put on hold because the service found more O-6s who could be eliminated. Now, a total of 584 Colonels will meet the August board, up from the 459 originally targeted for a July SERB panel. An early retirement board for selected Lieutenant Colonels is scheduled to meet this month, as planned.

The service is also getting rid of junior officers who have not entered technical training, or did not complete their designated course. According to Bruce Rolfsen of Air Force Times, at least 28 lieutenants in that category have been targeted for discharge; some will leave the service as early as this month.

About one-third of the junior officers are assigned to Vandenburg AFB, California, where they never entered (or failed to complete) missile and space training. And, as they scramble to find civilian jobs--or a slot with the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard--some of the lieutenants are getting a nasty shock. Along with their discharge notice, the Air Force has also served notice that some of the officers may be required to repay part of their education which was financed by the service.

For one lieutenant, that bill could exceed $200,000--half the cost of his education at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The officer, who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity, had problems at the school and was put on probation at one point (the paper doesn't specify if it was for academic or disciplinary grounds). But, he still graduated with his class, and the service complied with his request for missile training.

At Vandenburg, his commander decided he did not meet required standards for the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which is mandatory for all personnel who work with nuclear weapons. Denied entry into the missile program, the lieutenant requested training as a finance or acquisitions officer. So far, that request has been rejected; instead, the academy grad has received his separation papers and a notice that he may have to repay part of his education.

Another lieutenant isn't facing a reimbursement bill, but his career as an officer appears to be over, barely a year after it began. A former NCO, he received his commission through Officer Training School last year and reported for missile training at Vandenburg. Early in the program, the lieutenant was received the seminal question asked of all prospective missile launch officers: would you launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM, if so ordered? The lieutenant answered "no," mistakenly thinking he had sole responsibility for carrying out the command (a missile launch crew consists of two officers). That answer was enough to keep him out of the missile program and the service has also denied requests to put him in another career field.

While the former Staff Sergeant will receive severance pay (based on his enlisted service), it's far from the combined income he once enjoyed with his wife. Before OTS, the NCO was stationed at a base in Colorado, where his spouse was employed as a civil service employee. She quit that job after her husband's commissioning, to accompany him on expected assignments as a missileer.

Based on our experiences (years on PRP and TS/SCI cleared), we'd say the lieutenants are partly responsible for their misfortunes. The former NCO committed a cardinal sin (for a launch officer) by expressing hesitation about executing launch orders. There is simply no room for doubt in that line of work; once verified and confirmed, the launch crew must be prepared to carry out their assignment, fully understanding that their actions will help unleash Armageddon on millions of people.

We also find it a bit odd that an NCO (with years of service under his belt) wasn't aware of the "two-man" concept. Virtually any activity involving a nuke requires a minimum of two certified personnel, hence the assignment of two individuals for every launch crew. If the lieutenant had any reservations about the ultimate nature of the job, he should have omitted "missiler" from his career preference sheet.

The academy grads selection of missiles is also a bit puzzling, given his checkered history at "The Zoo." But we're also a bit more forgiving in his case. After all, he still managed to graduate on time, and (we assume) that someone at the academy assured him that past cadet problems would not hinder him as an active duty officer.

Once upon a time, the Air Force was more forgiving of such circumstances. It was quite common to find wash-outs from pilot training (and other long tech schools) in other career fields. But in a mandatory force-reduction era, the service will use any excuse to get rid of a few more people.

The real problem, of course, is how the rules are enforced. We're guessing the lieutenant at Vandenburg isn't the only member of his USAFA class who spent time on probation. It would be interesting to know if any other "zoomies" with a similar past have been removed from training programs or denied entry into tech schools. If that didn't happen, we'd say the lieutenant has a basis for legal action. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that a military appellate court (or a civilian court) would side with him, and it would take years--perhaps decades--to resolve the case, with no assurance of a favorable outcome.

In this draw down, as in those that came before, there is always a touch of irony. Even in the face of mandatory cuts, there are career fields that are undermanned. We wonder if any of the younger troops facing separation could be utilized in those AFSCs. Because this much is certain: as surely as the Air Force is scrambling to discharge thousands of personnel it no longer needs, there will come a time (probably 4-7 years down the road), when the service will be short of NCOs and officers, particularly in the middle grades. At that point, we'll wonder how much of the "experience shortage" might have been prevented, had the Air Force done a better job with those personnel cuts back in 2010.