Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Paging Joe Klein...

It's rare to see a liberal pundit get his head handed to him (by another MSM outlet, no less), practically in the same news cycle.

We refer to Joe Klein of Time magazine. Appearing on Chris Matthew's syndicated show over the weekend, he opined that President Obama enjoys a better relationship with the military that George W. Bush. A partial transcript of his comments, courtesy of Newsbusters:

JOE KLEIN, TIME MAGAZINE: The other thing is there’s still tension between [President Obama] and Petraeus about what exactly, how exactly to close out Afghanistan. I'd say the relationship is pretty good, very, better than it was with Bush because the military hated the fact that he wasn't really doing the job in Iraq.

Unfortunately for Mr. Klein, the military apparently never got the message. Barely a day later, the Gallup organization released a new poll, showing that veterans and active-duty military personnel give the President lower marks than the general population. The poll was based on more than 230,000 interviews conducted for Gallup's daily tracking poll between January 2010 and April of this year.

According to the survey, President Obama's approval numbers were significantly lower among military personnel and veterans among all age groups. Among the 18-29 demographic, Mr. Obama has a 58% approval rating among the general population, but only 44% among military members and veterans in that age group.

Among Americans between the ages of 30-39, the president has a 51% approval rating in the general population, but that number drops to 41% for active-duty members of the armed forces and those who have previously served. The same gap is seen in the 40-49 demographic. Collectively, the three groups represent over 90% of the nation's military, and a significant portion of its younger veterans.

Clearly, the numbers don't back up Mr. Klein's assertion. So, how did he manage to get it so wrong?

For starters, there's been a lot of spin in Democratic circles about their "inroads" with the military vote. If you believe their operatives, members of the armed forces and veterans are no longer a lock for the GOP. As more women and minorities join the military, they reason, Democratic candidates will receive a greater share of the armed forces vote.

But if the 2008 presidential election is any indication, the Democrats still have a lot of work to do. On the eve of that election, a Military Times survey showed that Republican candidate John McCain held almost a 3-1 lead among "career" officers and NCOs serving in the armed forces. Final electoral results showed that Senator McCain received well over 60% of the military vote, while losing to Mr. Obama by more than seven percentage points.

We're also guessing that Mr. Klein doesn't spend much time with the grunts, who worry about things like operations tempo, deployments and how they're going to support their families. While the rank-and-file give the President due credit for his successes (i.e., the bin Laden raid), they're also aware the Obama Administration has been hacking away at the Pentagon budget.

Under a plan outlined by outgoing SecDef Robert Gates, the Army and Marine Corps will see significant manpower cuts--never mind that our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue for years. Military members understand that math perfectly well; literally thousands of troops will be forced from the ranks in years to come, with middling prospects for civilian employment. Did we mention that younger veterans (under the age of 30) have one of the highest employment rates among all Americans? Those "career" and "pocketbook" issues clearly affect perceptions of the commander-in-chief.

We're also guessing that Mr. Klein's military interaction is probably limited to senior officers he meets on the cocktail party circuit in D.C. Officers at that level have a stake in the success or failure of an administration, and it's not too difficult to find a few cheerleaders with stars on their uniforms. Put another way: if you're a three-star in D.C. who's looking to reach the top of the military food chain, would you say something bad about the president (and his relationship with the armed forces) to a "friend of the administration" like Joe Klein?

Here's a suggestion for the Time columnist, who's actually been to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Before making more generalizations about the military, spend a little more time with members of the armed services--not the generals and colonels, but the mid-level, career officers and NCOs who make things work. Their insights would prove informative--even illuminating, and give Mr. Klein a better idea as to why his assertion didn't match the Gallup poll.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ultimate Sacrifice

On this weekend when we remember all service members who gave their lives for this country, it is important to look past the headstones and other memorials. Those fallen heroes were men and women; sons and daughters; husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, cousins and friends. They laid down their lives so that we might enjoy the blessings of freedom and liberty.

But who are these extraordinary individuals? Sadly, most of us who have worn the uniform know someone who made the ultimate sacrifice. But for millions of Americans, the concepts of "war" and "service" are almost foreign. The nation's military has been at war for the past decade, but for most of us, life goes on as usual. For the vast majority of the nation's families, there is no worry about a son or daughter serving in harm's way, or a uniformed officer appearing on their doorstep, delivering the worst news any parent or sibling can receive.

So, on this Memorial Day, it's important for us to move beyond the holiday's symbolism, and remember the individual sacrifice of those who gave their lives. If you don't know a family that has been touched by the nation's wars, read this piece by Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun. It tells the story of Travis Manion and Brendan Looney, friends and roommates at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Today, they are joined in death at Arlington National Cemetery. Manion, a Marine Corps officer, died in Iraq in 2007; Looney, a SEAL officer, was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last year. Both were remarkable young men, dedicated to leading their troops and serving their nation. An excerpt:

Though undeniably tragic, the culmination of Travis and Brendan's bond is more than that for the people who loved them. It's a story of bravery, of goodness, of two men who died doing what they were put on the earth to do.

"They're probably the two best guys I've ever known and the two best guys I ever will know," says their friend and academy classmate Ben Mathews. "I think it means something that they're together. It's terrible that they had to give their lives, but they're shining examples of what Americans can strive to be."

Brendan was days from beginning SEAL training in San Diego when the news of Travis' death tore his world asunder. His sister, Erin, had always viewed him as indestructible and was taken aback to hear him hurt so badly. "That was the toughest part," she says. "It was the first time I ever saw Brendan in a different light. Not that he wasn't still tough, but maybe he was a little more vulnerable."

The Navy would not allow Brendan to leave for the funeral. In his fury, he briefly considered quitting. Instead, he dedicated his training to Travis and won the coveted "Honor Man" spot as the top graduate of his class.

On missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brendan wore two personal items — his wedding ring and a metal wrist band Travis' parents gave him to commemorate his friend. At his wedding reception in 2008, he handed Travis' mom, Janet, the gold trident pin he received for completing SEAL training.

"I only got this because of Travis," he said.

Read the whole thing, and take a moment to remember Brendan, Travis and all the extraordinary Americans who paid the price for our freedom. We owe them so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Definition of Success

Seems that CBS News can't wait to exorcise Katie Couric from its collective memory. The Perky One had barely finished her last broadcast as anchor of the CBS Evening News when a crane appeared outside the network's New York broadcast center, and began removing the giant poster of Couric that previously adorned the building.

Meanwhile, the rollout for her successor, Scott Pelley, is already underway--in earnest. Ahead of his June 6th debut on the Evening News, Mr. Pelley is granting scores of media interviews, hoping generate a little buzz and begin putting his own mark on the broadcast, which once dominated the network news ratings.

Wags would argue that Pelley has nowhere to go but up. Earlier this year, CBS gave up on the Couric experiment after an investment of nearly five years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Roughly $60 million was paid to Ms. Couric; the rest was spent on promotion, marketing and other expenses. There's also the matter of lost ad revenue; with Katie in the anchor chair, CBS remained dead last in the evening news wars, and was forced to charge lower ad rates than rivals ABC and NBC.

It an effort to put the best possible face on the Couric debacle, CBS touted the number of awards won by Couric and the Evening News. But the real measure of success in broadcasting is ratings and revenue, and by those standards, Ms. Couric was a dismal failure. No wonder CBS decided to pull the plug on her earlier this year. Network insiders say there was no real effort to keep Couric, even if she accepted a large pay cut. CBS decided it could do just as well with someone else (like Mr. Pelley), who earns far less than $15 million a year.

Amazingly, there are those (outside the Couric family) who are lauding her CBS tenure as a rousing success. In a recent New York Times column, Gail Collins hailed Katie Couric for "not screwing things up."(H/T: Newsbusters).

From my perspective as a charter of the progress of American women, Couric was a total success. The first great mandate for a First Woman is not to screw things up for the Second Woman or the Third. On that count, Couric was great. She was under incredible scrutiny and pressure and she held up her end. There was never a moment when American viewers turned to each other and said, "Well, that certainly didn't work out."


Excuse me, Ms. Collins, but that's exactly what happened. If Couric had been the godsend that CBS was hoping for, she would still be in the anchor chair on the Evening News, and the network wouldn't be in third place among the network nightly newscasts. Instead, Scott Pelley is warming up in the newsroom and Katie Couric is looking for her next gig.

Of course, it's not a surprise to read such pap in the Times' op-ed pages. Remember, this is the same publication that has been losing readers for decades, and went begging not long ago for a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Using Collins' tortured logic, you'd guess the Times would really be in bad shape if it weren't for the reporters, editors and executives who helped create the current mess. Keep it up, folks, and very soon you can join Ms. Couric in looking for her next job in journalism.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Question of the Day

...from the editorial pages of the Washington Post, no less:
Israel’s border bloodshed: Will Syria be held accountable?
A few salient paragraphs:

THE SYRIAN regime of Bashar al-Assad on Sunday made a desperate effort to distract attention from its continuing, bloody assaults on its own people. Hundreds of Palestinians were bused from refu­gee camps near Damascus to the de facto border with Israel in the Golan Heights, where they broke through a fence and invaded a nearby town. Surprised and badly outnumbered, Israeli troops eventually opened fire, killing at least one person. Crowds of Palestinians also marched on Israeli border posts with Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; all together more than a dozen fatalities were reported.

Palestinians demonstrate every year against Israel’s founding, and Facebook organizers helped drum up support for Sunday’s marches in the style of the Arab Spring. But no one can reach the heavily militarized Syrian front with Israel without the consent and cooperation of the Assad regime. That Syria’s allies in Lebanon and Gaza, Hezbollah and Hamas, were visibly involved in the demonstrations was also telling. Like the dictatorship in Damascus, the terrorist groups are profoundly threatened by the Arab demands for democratic change — and trying to switch the subject to Israel is the region’s most familiar political gambit.

Sadly, we know the answer to the Post's question, and it's almost certainly "no." While the paper's editorial board praised the Obama Administration for "calling" the Damascus government on its latest maneuver, that criticism came rather late. The White House has largely been silent while Bashir Assad's security forces slaughtered protesters in the street; by some accounts, at least 1,000 Syrians have been killed by the military and police since the anti-regime demonstrations began over a month ago.

And, as the Post observes, Mr. Obama himself has not yet publicly condemned the violence, or withdrawn our ambassador to Damascus. Administration officials have promised to "adjust" relations with Syria if the situation worsened. Now, with Mr. Assad provoking a conflict with Israel, hasn't the time come for that "adjustment," as the editorial asks rather pointedly?

Unfortunately, there are those in Washington (and even Israel) that prefer the current devil in Damascus to what might come next. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had no problem calling for the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but the departure of the younger Assad is a different matter. Sure, he's a brutal despot, but Mr. Assad is a known quantity. Besides, there are still those in government (hellooo...Foggy Bottom) who still hold hope that Bashir Assad could be instrumental in the Middle East peace process.

We hate to burst their bubble, but hopes of a lasting peace between Syria and Israel evaporated years ago, about the time that Mr. Assad put his camp squarely in the Iranian orbit. As Tehran's closest ally in the region, it's Syria's job to keep pressure on Israel, by supporting terrorist proxies, keeping them supplied and dominating affairs in Lebanon.

Sunday's border incident was nothing more than a transparent ploy to shift focus from Assad's own domestic troubles by provoking another confrontation with Israel. Most assuredly, there will be more. The Syrian dictator has yet to crush the pro-democracy movement within his borders; accomplishing that goal will require something along the lines of the 1982 Hama massacre, which claimed the lives of at least 15,000 residents of that city. Assad clearly wants world attention focused elsewhere during the next phase of his crackdown, so why not stir things up with Israel?

The danger, of course, is that any border skirmish between the two countries can quickly escalate into full-scale war. And don't believe that option isn't on the table. As we noted recently, the battle for the future of the Middle East is being waged in Syria. The Assad government will do anything to survive and Iran is fully committed to that effort. Without its friends in Damascus, Iran would lose a valuable proxy in the fight against Israel and face severe difficulties in maintaining Hizballah's grip on Lebanon.

All the more reason for the U.S. to get even tougher on Damascus. The administration's Middle East peace envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, stepped down over the weekend, affirming that the process is dead--and has been for years. Mitchell's departure also demolishes the notion that Syria is ready for serious talks with Israel, so the White House has no reason to maintain that charade any longer. It's time for that "adjustment" in relations with Damascus, beginning with the withdrawal of our ambassador, comments on the Syrian situation from Mr. Obama himself, and more support for Israel.

What are the odds of those events actually happening? You can probably answer that one yourself.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Consider this a legal notice: in the coming days, your humble correspondent plans to trademark the terms "U.S. Air Force," "United States Air Force," and "USAF, " along with the service logo (assuming it's still available). Once the paperwork is filed, General Schwartz, Secretary Donley and the rest of those blue-suiters will kindly cease-and-desist from using those terms (and the logo) without my permission. Of course, the service can have them back--for a price.

Call me greedy, but I'm not the only one. In fact, I was inspired by the good folks at Disney, who filed a trademark on "SEAL Team 6" just two days after members of the Navy special operations unit killed Osama bin Laden. According to press reports, the Disney filing covers clothing, footwear, headgear, toys, games and "entertainment and educational services." Look for the "SEAL Mission Adventure Ride" to make its debut at Disney theme parks just as soon as the "imagineers" can jin one up.

Oddly enough, I was at a Disney property when the trademark filing was announced. A fellow military retiree didn't really see anything wrong with the move, opining that Disney "does a lot for the armed forces." You can say that about a lot of companies--and with the exception of The Mouse, they aren't trying to cash in on the exploits of our military heroes.

Of course, there's nothing illegal about Disney's move. You could even call it shrewd. But it also strikes me as incredibly tone-deaf. A company that cultivates its pubic image so carefully made a crass money grab, with little regard for the possible public-relations fall-out. And, as the execs at Disney understand, image means a lot in the entertainment business. Families who flock to the company's theme parks and resorts, buy tickets for its movies and watch its TV channels might have second thoughts--if they thought Disney was ripping off the troops.

That's why I'm surprised the company didn't announce that a chunk of its SEAL profits would be donated to various charities supporting special forces operators who are killed or maimed in the line of duty. Apparently, Disney didn't have enough time to work out a partnership before filing the trademark. Evidently, the suits were afraid someone might beat them to the punch. You can also surmise that Disney sees another jackpot in the SEAL Team 6 brand, and isn't anxious to share the profits.

Equally stunning is the public reaction--or lack thereof. So far, I haven't see a single op-ed column or TV commentary condemning the trademark filing, or asking about Disney's support for the brave men who made this latest windfall possible. And no one is talking about boycotting Disney over this apparent slight. But that tends to happen when less than 1/2 of one percent of the nation's citizens wear the uniform, and for many families', their last connection to the military is through a grandfather or great-grandfather who served in World War II.

We're also wondering about "corporate social responsibility," that favored term of the life, often applied to companies accused of old-fashioned greed, ripping off the public or exploiting their employees. Clearly, such demands don't extend to conglomerates that merely capitalize on the military for fun and profit.

So maybe Disney got it right. Cash in on the heroism of SEAL Team 6, make another mint, and no need to worry about bad p.r. That's why I'm trademarking all those Air Force terms. Sooner or later, someone will want tennis shoes, sunglasses or a T-shirt with the words "Air Force" and that super-cool logo. You see, this is a long-term investment, since the USAF isn't exactly a hot brand right now. The same week the SEALs double-tapped bin Laden, the "air arm" was marking its own achievement: dedicating an area at the Air Force Academy reserved for those who practice "earth-centered religions."

Obviously, the brand needs some work.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Stuck in an airport, I just saw another Democratic strategist (or maybe it was a former administration official) praise President Obama for the "gutsy" raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Rest assured, that adjective has been focus group-tested and will make its way into countless campaign commercials for the 2012 presidential election.

And yes, Mr. Obama deserves credit for the call. Sending a small force of SEALs and intel operatives into the heart of Pakistan--in search of the world's most wanted terrorist--took some nerve. Plenty can go wrong during that type of operation, as evidenced by the mechanical failure of a stealth helicopter that resulted in a hard landing inside bin Laden's compound, and eventual abandonment of the craft. Remnants of the chopper are reportedly on their way to China, which has an obvious interest in our stealth technology.

But how hard was the decision to go after OBL? Review the decision points faced by the Commander-in-Chief and judge for yourself.

First, it's worth remembering that the search for the Al Qaida leader never stopped. Enhanced interrogation techniques, used on 9-11 mastermind Khalin Sheik Mohammed, provided the first clues about a trusted courier, used to ferry information to and from bin Laden. Questioning of other Al Qaida detainees provided other clues, sending intelligence analysts on a massive search of existing databases, in an effort to learn the identity of the mystery courier.

It's not clear if Mr. Obama was aware of this effort. Running down leads and connecting the dots represents part of the daily grind of intelligence analysis. But we do know that the President was immediately informed when the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a phone call from the courier, which provided the first confirmation of his identity, his ties to the compound and the possible presence of bin Laden.

Armed with this information, the decision for any president is clear. Given the most promising lead on OBL's whereabouts in years, you instruct your intelligence community to spare no effort in running it to ground. The compound quickly moved to the top of the intel "collection deck," receiving maximum attention from imagery satellites, SIGINT assets, HUMINT agents and other intel resources. The CIA even established a covert observation post in bin Laden's neighborhood, located less than a mile from Pakistan's national military academy.

Within a few weeks, the effort yielded more information. Analysts identified a tall figure who took regular strolls in the compound's courtyard. Nick-named "The Pacer," the man bore a strong resemblance to the Al Qaida leader, providing another hint that bin Laden's lair had finally been discovered.

How did the President react? We'll probably get the blow-by-blow in Mr. Obama's memoirs, but it's safe to say he pressed the spooks for additional details. By March of this year, administration officials had strong reason to believe bin Laden was at the compound, and they were debating the best way to target him. Senior military officers favored a drone strike but the President opted for a commando raid, believing it would provide conclusive "proof-of-death" (if successful).

President Obama decided to go ahead with the mission after months of intensive intelligence collection and surveillance, using the full resources of the U.S. military and the intel community. True, we never had total assurance that bin Laden was at the compound--or that the raid would succeed--but the available information suggested a golden opportunity was at hand.

Against that backdrop, did the President really have any other choice? While there were justifiable reasons to delay or even abort the operation, but those negatives were obviously outweighed by the positives. While Mr. Obama's supporters laud his decision as "gusty," I would use other terms, such as "logical" and "deliberate."

From my perspective, gutsy is better used to describe presidential choices when the odds are even longer. Lincoln's decision to take a stand against slavery and preserve the union--even if it meant a civil war--was gutsy. So was Harry Truman's choice to use the atomic bomb against Japan (against the counsel of his most senior advisers) with no guarantee the weapon would actually work. John F. Kennedy risked global humiliation when he vowed to beat the Russians to the moon within a decade. And yes, it took a fair amount of guts for George W. Bush to double down on Iraq when wise men (and women), in and out of government, urged him to cut and run.

History will ultimately judge the "gutsiness" of Barack Obama's call on bin Laden. For now, his decision-making on the raid strikes us as precise, methodical and appropriate. Admirable qualities, indeed. Now, if Mr. Obama would only show the same traits in his economic policies.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to OPSEC?

If truth is the first casualty of war, then operations security or OPSEC, runs a close second. In this age of targeted leaks and instant media, it has become virtually impossible for the U.S. to protect sensitive details of classified missions, even when the lives of special forces and intelligence operatives are on the line.

The latest case-in-point? The killing of Osama bin Laden by members of SEAL Team 6 less than two weeks ago. Details of the secret raid began trickling out in the hours after the assault on the terror leader's compound in Afghanistan. Since then, the flow of information has become a veritable flood, creating concerns about the compromise of data collected during the mission--and the safety of the operators who gathered it.

In fact, members of SEAL Team 6 expressed worries about the safety of their families in a recent meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. With so much information about the unit--and its activities--entering the public domain, the SEALs are rightly concerned that their family members might become terrorist targets. As the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported yesterday:

Gates said the threat of retaliation has increased as international interest in the covert operations team has placed a spotlight on the unit after operational details, which were going to be kept secret, were released the next day.

"The one thing I would tell you," Gates told a meeting with about 1,000 Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., "... is that I think there has been a consistent and effective effort to protect the identities of those who participated in the raid, and I think that has to continue."

"We are very concerned about the security of our families - of your families and our troops, and also these elite units that are engaged in things like that."

Equally disturbing is the willingness of government officials to jeopardize the security of SEAL team members and their dependents. According to Mr. Gates, the senior administration officials who watched the raid unfold from the White House also agreed to keep key elements of the mission classified. That "promise" didn't last for a single news cycle; within hours, sources were telling the media that SEAL Team 6 was the unit that "got" bin Laden.

"Frankly, a week ago Sunday, in the Situation Room, we all agreed that we would not release any operational details from the effort to take out bin Laden. That all fell apart on Monday, the next day."

With the team's participation confirmed, it took only a Google search to gain information on their home base at Dam Neck, Virginia. From there, it only takes a little legwork to locate SEALs in Virginia Beach (where the Dam Neck annex is located) and surrounding communities.

Indeed, some of the local SEALs could be potentially identified through their family connections. At least two of them are married to prominent professional women, well-known in the Tidewater area. Appropriately, both women have removed references to their husband's profession from their own, on-line biographies. But you can still find older listings that identify their spouses as SEALs, based in the Hampton Roads area. And, with the use of various "people search" tools, you can glean even more information.

It's happened before. In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the families of B-52 crew members assigned to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana reportedly received threatening letters and phone calls from unknown individuals. Obviously, the base doesn't publish a public roster of its bomber crews, so the information--including home addresses--was obtained from public records. Similar databases could be used to locate the homes of SEAL team members.

Responding to leaks about the bin Laden operation (and potential threats to the SEALs and their families), Secretary Gates said the Defense Department is looking for ways to "pump up the security." But officials must strike a balance between protection and operational secrecy. A sudden, massive security presence in certain locations around Virginia Beach could also provide information to terrorists. Additionally, there's the challenge of determining who might be at risk and how to protect them. Beyond spouses and children, there are support personnel and contractors who are a part of the team's infrastructure. They also represent potential targets.

While DoD wrestles with security concerns, someone might want to take a look at those leakers. To its credit, the Obama Administration has been aggressive in going after individuals who disclose classified information, but there has been no talk about investigating the leaks surrounding the SEAL raid.

And for obvious reasons; many of the disclosures originated at the highest levels of government, among individuals with some access to information about the mission. In some cases, details leaked to the press proved false, but enough accurate information was gleaned to provide an accurate description of the raid--and its participants. Now, as various officials take their victory lap, the SEALs are concerned about the safety of their families.

To be fair, all administrations leaks for political reasons. But there is also a time and a place to keep secrets and the bin Laden raid was one of those occasions. Officials who kept the intelligence-gathering and operation carefully under wraps were far too anxious to share their information with members of the press, with little regard for the consequences. Operations Security begins at the top of the command chain, and some members of the current administration have displayed a reckless disregard for secrecy, and the military personnel who might be affected by unauthorized disclosures to the press.

Attorney General Eric Holder has spent years investigating CIA interrogators who supposedly tortured terrorist detainees--gaining information that eventually led the SEALs to Osama bin Laden. That inquiry is continuing, with no end in sight. If only Mr. Holder would devote similar time and resources to the leaks that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden. Then maybe, just maybe, the operatives assigned to future secret missions could rest a bit easier.

They deserve nothing less.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

In the hours following Osama bin Laden's death, there were dire predictions about the previously-announced Taliban spring offensive. With the Al Qaida leader eliminated by Navy SEALs, the "experts" warned, Taliban attacks would prove even more violent and deadly than in years past.

Flash forward almost two weeks, and the offensive really hasn't materialized, as the Washington Times explains:

The outcome of the attacks was far from the doom presaged in the press. “All of the Taliban involved in the Kandahar attack were either captured or killed,” a military source with detailed knowledge of the offensive told The Washington Times. “Needless to say, not the greatest start to their vaunted spring offensive.” In late April, the insurgents announced the offensive would begin on May 1, but the heroin poppy season was not over and the leadership may have been preoccupied with what our source euphemistically called “revenue-enhancing activities.” The most significant event on May 1 was when the Pakistan-based Haqqani terrorist network sent a 12-year-old boy wearing a suicide vest into a marketplace in eastern Afghanistan, killing seven civilians and wounding 34, including women and children.

The promised large-scale offensive didn’t materialize on the date promised, and throughout the week, that sector was relatively quiet. This was no accident. According to the International Security Assistance Force, the ground for the Taliban defeat had been well prepared. “It’s not like we were sitting around waiting for the Taliban to do something,” our source said. “Throughout the winter we were extremely aggressive. We pressed the fight.” During the first week in May, the number of Taliban complex attacks was lower than during the same period in 2010. “The Taliban don’t have the same sanctuaries or weapons caches they used to have,” our source said. “And a lot of their higher level leaders are gone.”

Earlier this month, Time magazine likened early attacks in the Taliban spring campaign to the 1968 Tet Offensive. So far, that comparison appears ridiculous. But the "strategists" at Time may be ultimately vindicated. Tet was actually a stunning military defeat for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong allies; likewise, the new offensive in Afghanistan may prove to be an equally serious setback for the Taliban and their Al Qaida allies.

The Ultimate Brake Test

It's been a standard feature of automobile commercials for years: to emphasize the safety of their products, car makers like to stage "sudden stop" sequences, showing their products braking to a swift halt with a minimum of swaying and skidding.

Stopping a 2,000-pound car (traveling 60 miles an hour), in minimal distance, is one thing. Now, imagine the same feet with a wide-body jetliner.

To demonstrate the capabilities of its new 747-8 aircraft (and help secure its safety certification), Boeing devised a rather impressive braking test. As it approached rotation speed, the crew of the 747-8 would abort their takeoff, as pilots sometimes must do. Nothing really unusual about that.

But the engineers at Boeing decided to make their test a little more challenging. The jetliner's brakes (made by B.F. Goodrich) were replaced with a duplicate set that was completely worn out. But the Boeing team still wasn't finished. The 747-8 would abort the takeoff at near-maximum takeoff weight (just under one million pounds), at a speed of 200 mph. Thrust reversers could not be used in the test, meaning the pilots could only rely on the bad brakes--and their skill. And, to simulate the chaos that often ensues during airport emergencies, fire fighters would not be allowed to hose down the brakes for a full five minutes after the aircraft came to a halt.

The results can be see via this link, from cnet. Despite its worn-out brakes, the 747-8 stopped in a shorter distance that predicted by test engineers. Amazingly, the brakes didn't catch fire, despite their inherent deficiencies. Not a bad advertisement for Goodrich aircraft brakes--or the Boeing 747-8.
ADDENDUM: Safety certification for the 747-8 has not been without controversy. Rival Airbus insisted that the 747-8 was a new design, and should meet all requirements for aircraft moving from the drawing board to operational service. Boeing argued for a less-stringent test program, noting that the "new" aircraft is actually a derivative of the 747-400, which has already met (and surpassed) all required safety criteria. Events like the brake test are clearly aimed at silencing critics, while highlighting the safety features of the "stretch" jumbo jet.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Missing Son

Initially, it was believed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a "three-fer." Media reports indicated that Navy SEALs not only took out the Al Qaida leader, they also got two of his sons, Khalid and Hamza. Both served as senior aides to their father, and some analysts suggested that Hamza might one day become the leader of the terrorist network.

Unfortunately, reports of Hamza bin Laden's demise were exaggerated. Sources tell ABC News that the youngest of bin Laden's offspring wasn't present when SEALs stormed the compound on 1 May:

One of Osama bin Laden's sons went missing in the midst of the Navy SEAL raid that took the life of the Al Qaida leader more than a week ago, Pakistani security officials told ABC News.

The officials said bin Laden's three wives, who are all in Pakistani custody, said that one of bin Laden's sons has not been seen since the raid. The son was not identified, but Pakistani investigators agreed that it appeared someone was missing from the sprawling compound.

Later, however, one U.S. official said there was no evidence anyone was missing from the compound and Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that in a recent briefing with the CIA there was no mention of a missing son.

There are several possible explanations for the apparent discrepancy. Pakistan, embarrassed by the revelation that bin Laden was living in their country for the past five years, is anxious to tarnish the U.S. raid and its success. There is also an implied message in the claim from Islamabad: play ball with us, we'll give you access to bin Laden's wives and you might find the "missing" Hamza.

However, Senator Feinstein's comments don't exactly clarify the situation. Just because the youngest bin Laden son wasn't mentioned in the CIA briefing doesn't mean that he didn't escape during the raid--or during the days the preceded it. On the other hand, there is also the very real possibility that Hamza was among those killed, and U.S. intelligence is being cautious in releasing a "final" KIA list, to keep the jahidists guessing.

Finally, there is the (very) remote chance that Hamza escaped and is being shadowed by U.S. operatives, hoping that he will leads us to other Al Qaida big fish. After all, U.S. operatives discovered contact phone numbers and "getaway" cash in OBL's garments; it's safe to assume that other occupants of the compound were similarly-prepared.

But that suggestion strikes us as highly unlikely. It is possible the Hamza fled during the raid and escaped into the surrounding neighborhoods. The SEAL operation was very lean in terms of manning, given their assignment to conduct a lightning strike and get out as quickly as possible. One missing element apparently "missing" from the operation was the security perimeter (usually established by Army Rangers). If the cordon wasn't in place, Hamza would have an opportunity to escape, assuming he survived the initial shoot-out, and wasn't detected by CIA agents--and other operatives--who were monitoring the raid.

Still, it's doubtful that Hamza bin Laden (assuming he's still alive) would quickly lead us to other Al Qaida leaders. When word of OBL's death was flashed around the world, surviving terror leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, quickly went to ground. And, when they learned that the U.S. had tracked down the elder bin Laden through his trusted courier, Al Qaida began changing its communications procedures. Long-time couriers have probably been pulled from the streets and terrorist chatter has reportedly dropped as well. It's characteristic of a terror network moving into survival mode, trying desperately to cover its tracks.

That's one reason the near-term threat for a mid-level or major terrorist attack has waned, rather than increased. Unless something on the scale of the London or Madrid attacks--or, God forbid, an attack utilizing WMD--was in the final planning stages, Al Qaida will be hard-pressed to carry out such strikes in the coming months. The terror network's European affiliates have been hard-hit in recent years, meaning that such strikes would probably require coordination and resources from other Al Qaida elements, increasing the possibility of detection and interdiction.

To be sure, bin Laden's surviving network is not without options. Al Qaida in the Arabia Peninsula is capable of hitting targets in the Middle East and beyond, one reason that U.S. drone attacks resumed in Yemen almost as soon as the raid in Pakistan was announced. There were a number of reasons for the resumption of UAV attacks on the Arabian Peninsula. First, U.S. officials believed--correctly--that we might be able to get its leader, Anwar al-Awlaki--and further weaken the organization.

More realistically, we hoped the UAV strike would throw Al Qaida's most important affiliate off-balance, and lessen the short-term threat posed by al-Awlaki and his minions. In the mean time, intelligence seized from bin Laden's compound may provide better information on the group's leaders, and facilitate their elimination in the future.

Al Qaida is far from dead, but the death of OBL has thrown the group into disarray. There may be a temporary uptick in suicide bombings in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, along with domestic scares based on intel derived from the Pakistan raid. But those developments should be placed in perspective; Al Qaida has been significantly weakened and it can be further diminished in the months ahead, with actionable intelligence in the hands of organizations like SEAL Team Six.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Should White House Nix bin Laden Pix?

It seems to be the Debate of the Week, at the highest levels of the administration: whether to release pictures of Osama bin Laden, after he was killed by Navy SEALs at his compound in Pakistan.

At one point on Tuesday, release of the photos appeared to be imminent. In an interview with NBC News, CIA Director Leon Panetta suggested the "death" photos might be available in a matter of hours. But other members of the Obama national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have argued against releasing the images, fearing they would inflame the Muslim world and raise the danger faced by U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

From what we're told, the photos are gruesome. The Al Qaida leader took at least one bullet to the head, which blew away much of his skull. Images taken by the SEAL team capture those wounds in full detail, leaving no doubt about bin Laden's fate. Less-graphic photos were reportedly taken aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, before the terrorist mastermind was given an Islamic funeral and his body was buried at sea. At this point it's unclear if any images will ever be released.

At first blush, we believed release of the photos was essential, proving bin Laden's demise, once and for all. But we're also aware that many in the Muslim world will never believe that OBL was killed by the infidels. Any image provided by the U.S. government will be denounced as a fake, so we're not sure how many bin Laden sympathizers would be convinced by photographic proof, or any other evidence that might be offered.

As for "offending" the Islamic world, that is a concern, but it shouldn't be an over-arching factor in deciding against releasing the photos. As The Talkmaster mused this morning, how many Muslims were publicly upset over the videotaped beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl? Or the pictures of men and women leaping to their deaths from the towers of the World Trade Center on 9-11? As we recall, those horrifying images sparked celebrations in places like the West Bank and Gaza, the same places where bin Laden has been publicly mourned in recent days?

To their credit, Congressional Republicans aren't pushing the President to release the photos. House Speaker John Boehner told the National Journal that he "doesn't need to see" the images, after a phone conversation with Mr. Obama on Sunday evening, shortly after the raid ended. "He walked me through the steps that were taken and I have no doubts," Boehner said.

Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, offered the best rationale for not releasing the photos. Appearing on "Fox and Friends" this morning, Mr. Rogers suggested withholding the images--if their disclosure would increase the risk faced by our military personnel. We certainly concur with that sentiment.

Unfortunately, plans to withhold the photos may be overcome by events--and technology. Various members of Congress have already seen the images, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte. According to Senator Ayotte, the photograph was shown to her by another member of the Senate. That suggests that a number of copies are already in circulation, and it's just a matter of time before one is leaked to a news organization. Given that reality, the White House will probably have to release at least one bin Laden death photo, despite the risk to our troops in the field.
ADDENDUM: It was subsequently revealed that the photos viewed by Senators Brown and Ayotte were fakes. Just the first in a flood of doctored photos othat will make the rounds in the weeks, months, and years that follow.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Killing bin Laden

There is something eminently satisfying about the death of Osama bin Laden. Almost a decade after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and more than 10 years after the bombing of the USS Cole and our embassies in Africa, the Al Qaida mastermind finally met his fate on Sunday, with a bullet fired from a Navy SEAL. One shot, one very important kill.

And, we should take great pleasure that the world's most wanted fugitive is on the lam no more. Instead, he's now shark food in the Indian Ocean, after a hastily-arranged burial at sea. With the blood of thousands of innocents on his hand, the Al Qaida leader got better than he deserved. We'd have preferred his head on a pike outside his compound, but the dumping at sea will suffice.

Without the body, there can be no burial shrine, no geographic rallying point for the jihadists. Instead, let them live with the sobering knowledge that the long arm of our intelligence services and special forces can eventually track them down as well, even behind the walls of a fortified compound in Pakistan. U.S. counter-terrorism efforts aren't always perfect, but our people are relentless and they have unlimited resources. Sooner or later, the clock was bound to run out on bin Laden and it did just that early Sunday, inside his hideout north of Islamabad.

Which brings us to some rather interesting facts regarding the killing of Osama bin Laden. To be sure, we may never know the full details of the operation, and that suits us just fine. During the victory lap that follows this type of event, officials and politicians often become a bit too chatty, disclosing details that will only complicate the planning and execution of similar operations in the future. For example, we don't need to know the name of the SEAL who put a bullet in bin Laden's brain; just give him the Navy Cross (along with other members of the team) and give him some of the reward money for the kill/capture of bin Laden.

-- In terms of surprises, perhaps the biggest one was bin Laden's actual hiding place. Conventional wisdom held that the Al Qaida leader was holed up in a cave complex somewhere in Pakistan's western tribal lands. But Osama bin Laden was finally located in a rather comfortable compound in Abbottabad, only 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city. The city is home to Pakistan's military academy, and locals report that a number of Pakistani military officers and government officials live in the area. That raises obvious questions about who was harboring bin Laden.

-- Media accounts indicate that bin Laden's compound was built five years ago, suggesting that he had been living in Abbottabad for an extended period of time. Again, that flies in the face of long-held intelligence analysis, which suggested the Al Qaida leader was constantly on the move, to complicate tracking by our military and intelligence assets.

The sojourn in Abbottabad suggests that bin Laden felt very secure in his surroundings, or suffered from medical issues that limited his mobility. There have been persistent reports that bin Laden was hobbled by kidney disease and other problems. Staying in one place would facilitate medical treatment, but increase the probability of detection. Still, the Most Wanted Man in the World apparently managed to live in one place--for years--without being detected. This again highlights the failure of U.S. human intelligence in critical regions of the world. True, we ultimately got our man, but the intel post-mortem will likely reveal missed details that might have led us to OBL sooner.

-- Did bin Laden get a little too comfortable in his Pakistani hideout? That appears to be the case. For years, we assumed that UBL was surrounded by dozens of bodyguards, even at remote hideouts. But when the 'kill" operation went down, the SEALs (reportedly) had at least a 4-1 advantage over bin Laden and his entourage, which included one wife and his adult son. Call it an unfair fight--exactly what the SEALs wanted. What happened to Al Qaida's version of the Praetorian Guard? Did OBL give them the night off, or did he deliberately detach much of his security detail, trying to maintain a low profile--and believing that his Pakistani friends would tip him about any planned U.S. military action?
-- The killing of bin Laden should settle the debate about closing Guantanamo Bay, once and for all. Catherine Herridge of Fox News was among the first to report that the interrogation of detainees at that facility yielded details that opened the trail to Abbottabad. Could the intel have been developed through other means? Perhaps. But the ability to interrogate (and re-interrogate) detainees, then fuse that information with other sources, is invaluable. It was a detainee at Gitmo who provided the first clues about trusted Al Qaida courier. Interrogations at CIA "black site" prisons in Poland and Romania generated more information, providing critical details that ultimately led to bin Laden.

And how did we get these nuggets from captured terrorists? Did someone say "enhanced interrogations?" Thank you, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, John Yoo and other former officials who pushed for those interrogation techniques, and fought the legal battles necessary to implement them. Without their efforts, OBL might still be living in his Pakistani compound.

-- The SOF team that took out bin Laden was surprisingly small. During a CBS Special Report last night, correspondent Lara Logan speculated about a much larger force that included a Ranger security element, additional air assets and a larger assault force. Ms. Logan clearly needs a refresher course in SOF tactics. From what we've been told (so far), the raid was carried out by two dozen SEALs, ferried to the compound by two Blackhawk helicopters. One of the choppers malfunctioned over the target and made a hard landing, before the SEALs began their attack. A back-up helicopter was called in for the extraction, and the inoperable Blackhawk was destroyed by the departing SOF team.

By design, this raiding force was made to be mean, lean and lethal, packing enough operators to take care of OBL and his group, but without creating a large signature that might be detected by the terrorists--or their friends in the Pakistani military and/or intelligence services. As it turned out, bin Laden was caught completely off-guard, and so were the Paks. Some of their agents reportedly showed up as the SEALs were departing, probably wondering how much we had discovered about their relationship with the Al Qaida leader.

Bin Laden's death marks a great victory in the War on Terror, and President Obama deserves some of the credit. For a Commander-in-Chief who has been sometimes reluctant to use military force, Mr. Obama decided to take a roll of the dice and it paid off handsomely. He rejected proposals to simply bomb the compound, electing the more risky strategy of sending in the SEALs to eliminate OBL and remove any doubt about his fate. It was a daring call, one that proved correct in the end. Perhaps this success will make him less hesitant to utilize the military option in the future.

But the lion's share of of our gratitude should go to those who conducted the operation and facilitated its planning. Members of SEAL Team 6 conducted a textbook operation, but their raid depended on precision intelligence and the spooks delivered. It's worth noting that some of the information that led to Osama bin Laden was developed in the first year after 9-11. There were numerous false starts, miscues and lost opportunities over the decade that followed, but ultimately, the intel community developed the data that brought the SEALs to Abbottabad. In the intelligence business (and what we once called The War on Terror), persistence is indeed, a virtue.
ADDENDUM: U.S. officials have disclosed that bin Laden's corpse did not show obvious signs of disease, malnutrition or other medical issues. The terrorist leader appeared to be in good health at the time he was killed, so health wasn't an over-arching factor in his decision to remain at the compound.