Tuesday, January 31, 2006

One Step Forward, One Step Back?

Representatives of the "Big Five" nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France) have agreed to refer Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. The announcement came after a marathon meeting in London that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday morning. Some observers expressed surprise at the decision; Moscow and Beijing had previously hinted that they might block the referral of Iran, which has extensive trade with both Russia and China.

Tehran's response was both angry and predictable, threatening to resume suspended nuclear activities. Iranian officials also said that the referral would mean the "end of diplomacy" over its nuclear program.

Good news, right? The west is finally acting with some degree of unity and decisiveness, setting the stage for sanctions against Iran and (potentially) military action.

Not so fast. Buried near the bottom of the AP story is this observation from Russia's foreign minister:

"In an apparent attempt to reassure Tehran, Russia underlined that referral to the Security Council will not mean immediate action."

"The Security Council will not make any decisions," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

In other words, Russia is keeping its options open in the Security Council, including (possibly) the veto of measures or resolutions on Iran that Moscow considers too harsh. China could adopt a similar strategy, making it even more difficult for the UN to "punish" Iran (and I use that term advisedly).

Is Iran worried about the threat of UN action? Well, consider this headline, out of the OPEC meeting in Vienna. The Iranian representative has assured OPEC that his country will not curtail oil production, despite the UN referral. Obviously, Tehran can't afford the loss of revenue that would come with an embargo or decrease in production. But on the other hand, if Iran were truly concerned about UN sanctions, they would saying something completely different in Vienna, and actively play their oil card.

Make no mistake: referring Iran's nuclear program to the UN is a positive step. Now, the U.S. and its allies must avoid the mistake of taking a step backward, by letting Tehran's allies derail the process, or agreeing to some form of watered-down punishment.

The Tape Zawahiri Had to Release

For a brief moment yesterday, there was a flurry of debate and analysis over the latest videotaped message from Al Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Dr. Walid Phares has an expansive analysis at The Counterterrorism Blog. He believes the tape reflects an increased sophistication within Al Qaida's propaganda efforts, as Zawahiri tries to rally the jihadists, while sowing doubt among western audiences that are uneasy over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I will agree with Dr. Pharres on one point: by appearing on tape only days after a U.S. attempt on his life, Zawahiri scores minor propaganda points by proving that he is alive and well. But Phares ignores a larger issue: this was a message that Zawahiri had to tape and disseminate quickly, to remove any doubts about his fate. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the message is that Al Qaida was able to get it out so quickly. Some have speculated that Zawahiri has better access to communications than bin Laden; suggesting that his location is not as remote as the Al Qaida leader. If that assessment is correct, it may be easier for Zawahiri to interact with operatives and direct Al Qaida operations. That would be an ominous development, indeed.

The downside of that access--as demonstrated by the recent Predator strike--is that Zawahiri may be easier to locate and target. Zawahiri tries to downplay the near-success of that operation, noting that only Allah can determine the time and place of his demise. That may be true, but it also ignores an equally salient fact: if Zawahiri had kept his dinner engagement a couple of weeks ago, he now would be with his quota of virgins in paradise, courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency. That near-miss has clearly rattled Zawahiri, and he tries to deflect that reality by emphasizing collateral damage from the attack, labeling Bush the "Butcher of Washington."

I'm not an Arabic speaker, nor an expert in radical Islamic culture, so perhaps I'm missing some of the nuances in Zawahiri's message. But it's hard to see how calling Bush a "butcher" is going to advance the cause, among western or Islamic audiences. At this juncture, the jihadist and anti-war camps are well-formed. President Bush's approval ratings have actually risen in recent months (Rasmussen now has him at 50%), and recent public opinion surveys find a wide majority of Iraqis and Afghans are strongly optimistic about the future of their countries. Those numbers suggest that the Al-Qaida message is not resonating as Zawahiri would hope. Hence, the need to depict the U.S. as a murderer of innocent Muslims, warn of new attacks on American soil, and reiterate claims that Al Qaida is winning the war. It's standard terrorist boilerplate, and there's nothing particularly sophisticated about that

Other analysts have observed that Al Qaida's video production values have improved, suggesting (again) that Zawahiri may have access to better communications facilities. In the tape released yesterday, Zawahiri is seen in front of a black backdrop, making it easier to distinguish his features--and demonstrate that he was not wounded by the recent U.S. attack.

But that choice of backdrop is also revealing--and may reflect concerns over Zawahiri's safety (more on that in a moment). Looking at the tape, it looks like Al Qaida (or perhaps Al Jazerra, which aired the tape) used a process call chroma-key, to electronically insert Zawahiri in front of the black background. It's the same technique used by local TV stations for weather segments, allowing the meterologist to appear in front of satellite or radar graphics. In reality, the presenter is standing in front of a blank wall (usually light green in color); the desired graphic or background is inserted in place of that particular color. In the past, chroma-key typically required a TV studio; however, the technique can now be accomplished with a high-end video camera, a backdrop painted the appropriate color, and the right editing software.

So why go to all that trouble? A black chroma key backdrop makes it more difficult to determine where the videotape was produced, and doesn't provide hints about Zawahiri's location. You may recall that some of Al Qaida's earliest tapes depicted bin Laden and his deputy in outdoor settings (the nature hike, as some intel wags called it). The pastoral scenes ended when it was revealed that the CIA had hired geologists familar with the rock formations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Examining the rocks provided potential clues to the whereabouts of bin Laden and Zawahiri. More recent videos showed Zawahiri in front of a cloth or canvas backdrop. But even that "neutral" backdrop can reveal information that may lead analysts to a particular region where that material is commonly used. The sudden switch to a black backdrop indicates that Zawahiri is leaving nothing to chance, and despite the bravado, he may be worried that past tapes provided clues to his whereabouts, and put the Predators back on his trail.

The "new look" of Zawahiri's tape also raises another question: if chroma-key was used, where was it added to the tape--at the Al Qaida source, or by the folks at Al-Jazerra? The answer to that question would reveal a great deal about the "relationship" between the TV network and the terrorist organization.

I welcome comments from anyone currently working in video production regarding the possible use of chroma-key in the Zawahiri tape, and how it might have been accomplished--in a terrorist hideout, or in an Avid suite at Al Jazerra.

Monday, January 30, 2006

In Defense of National Security

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been some terrific speeches and op-ed columns defending the NSA domestic surveillance program, most notably from General Michael Hayden, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence (and a former director of the NSA) and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.

Here's another one to add to the list, from Debra Burlingame, a former attorney and the sister of Chic Burlingame, the pilot of a hijacked American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon on 9-11. As she reminds us, the bureaucratic "walls" that existed before September 11, 2001 (including the FISA court) made imperative the implementation the Patriot Act, and expansion of the NSA program.

I agree whole-heartedly with Ms. Burlingame. Less than five years after 9-11, it is almost incomprehensible that members of the Senate are willing to play fast and loose with our security, by (a) refusing to renew the Patriot Act in its current form, and (b) holding hearings that will further undermine the NSA program. But for many on the left, politics trumps everything, including national security.

Tehran's Latest Ploy


Secretary of State Rice, in London for talks on the Iranian nuclear matter, says Tehran's efforts at compromise are not satisfactory. At this point, the U.S. and its European allies seem likely to press ahead with efforts to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council, through the IAEA. If that happens, watch for Tehran to play the Russian and/or Chinese "card" in the coming days.


With a diplomatic show-down looming over its nuclear program, Tehran has thrown a bone to the international community, allowing access to a razed military site in Tehran. Iran had previously blocked access to the site, which is believed to have links to Tehran's nuclear program. Iranian officials made the concession just hours before Monday's meeting between U.S and European officials that could result in the referral of Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also considering a referral, and will address the issue on Thursday, at a meeting of its 35-nation board in Vienna.

The razed site in Tehran, named Lavizan, was dismantled more than two years ago, after Iranian opposition groups linked the complex to Iran's nuclear program. Prior to that disclosure, western intelligence agencies had detected a large-scale expansion program at the facility, which had known ties to a major Iranian university and nuclear research organizations. The IAEA originally asked for information on Lavisan and access to the facility in 2004, but the Iranians have denied those requests until now.

Given Tehran's change of heart regarding IAEA access, tt's a good bet that the Lavizan site has been thoroughly sanitized, and inspectors will find little of value at that location. The Iranians have employed similar tactics in the past, removing (or hiding) indicators of nuclear R&D activity at other clandestine sites. As late as 2001, Lavizan was described as a veritable beehive of activity, with hundreds of cars parked around the complex. Personnel, equipment and projects once assigned to Lavizan have likely been moved to other, undetected locations.

In announcing that the Lavizan site was no longer off limits, Iranian spokesmen also indicated that there was still time (and room) for negotiation. It will be interesting to see if Tehran's friends in the IAEA (most notably, Russia and China) "bite" on this offer, and use it as a pretext for postponing a referral to the Security Council. The U.S. and the Western Europeans still seem determined to elevate the matter to the UNSC, but it is hardly a done deal. With their commercial interests and investments in Iran, Moscow (or perhaps more likely, Beijing) will seize upon Tehran's offer as justification for more, pointless diplomacy.

Weighing the Risks

Our prayers and thoughts go out to ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff, and his videographer, Doug Vogt. As you know, both were seriously wounded in Iraq on Sunday, when the convoy they were riding in was hit by an IED. Both men suffered head wounds, and have been evacuated to a U.S. military medical facility in Germany, where their treatment and recovery will continue.

At the time of the blast, Woodruff and Vogt were embedded with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, and were traveling with a joint U.S.-Iraqi convoy. Earlier reports suggested that the ABC journalists had transferred from an armored HUMVEE to an Iraqi vehicle shortly before the IED attack. The Iraqi vehicle--probably an armored personnel carrier--was the lead vehicle in the convoy.

Drudge has a still shot of Woodruff, taken about 30 minutes before the attack. For unknown reasons, Woodruff is not wearing a helmet or body armor in the photograph, although the soldiers with him are wearing protective gear. That seems like a rather odd choice; virtually any location in Iraq is in range of insurgent snipers or mortar fire. However, body armor is also cumbersome and it can create shadows that don't look good on TV. ABC does report that Woodruff and Vogt were wearing helmets and body armor at the time of the attack, and it probably saved their lives. The network also indicates that the two journalists were standing in the hatch of the Iraqi vehicle at the time the IED detonated, filming other vehicles in the convoy. In that position, they would have been exposed to more of the blast and shrapnel from the IED, which may help explain the serious nature of their head wounds.

And, from what I can gather, the IED sounds like a fairly small one; I've seen video from Chechnya that shows a Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle blown apart by a buried IED; in that video, a Russian crew member sitting in the hatch is catapulted more than 30 feet in the air by the force of the blast, killing him instantly and obliterating the armored vehicle. A large IED would have had a similar effect on that Iraqi vehicle, and killed everyone on board.

BTW, this is not an attempt to "blame the victims." From my perspective, Woodruff deserves credit for liberating himself from the anchor chair and covering the war from the front lines. But covering Iraq is a dangerous business; journalists must constantly weigh the need to "get the story" against the risks associated with that task. It's a constant balancing act that requires developing a sense of when to press forward and when to pull back. Watching a Fox News documentary on the liberation of Fallujah last fall, I was impressed with the skill and courage of correspondent Greg Palkot. Mr. Palkot and his crew were embedded with the Marines throughout the Fallujah campaign, and it was evident that they knew how to cover a combat operation, without bringing unnecessary danger to themselves--or their Marine escorts.

I wish Mr. Woodruff and Mr. Vogt a speedy recovery.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

From Opinion Journal. Joseph Rago, Assistant Features Editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, recently attended a New York forum on the "artistic influence" of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. No kidding.

You may recall that Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg were executed in the 1950s for stealing U.S. nuclear secrets for the Soviet Union. While some of the left continue to profess their "innocence," the guilt of the Rosenberg's was demonstrated conclusively in a number of sources, ranging from Kruschev's memoirs, to The Rosenberg File (Joyce Milton and Ronald Radosh's definitive account of their espionage activities) and most recently, the Vernona intercepts, declassified by the U.S. government in 1995.

Of course, the left never let the truth stand in the way of a pet cause. According to some of the luminaries at the forum, the Rosenbergs were "murdered, basically" (playwright Tony Kusher), and their prosecution part of a campaign to "persuade Americans to be afraid" (novelist E.L. Doctorow).

Rago concludes by noting that, during the Q&A session, "cold warriors" were warned "not to ask disrespectful questions." Predictably, no one did.

A fascinating--and frightening--look into the mindset of the radical left, and the 'artists" that embrace it.

Putting Together a WMD Task Force

Interesting read in today's Washington Times from Bill Gertz, who is without peer on the national security beat. According to Gertz, the Pentagon's latest four-year strategy report calls for establishment of a new task force to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being transferred to terrorist groups.

The new task force will reportedly include special operations forces, intelligence personnel, and aircraft dedicated for that mission. Reading between the lines, the proposed unit is consistent with the Bush Administration's proactive approach in dealing with terrorism. If we determine that a transfer is about to take place (or has just occurred), the unit will spring into action, before the terrorists can use their WMD on an American target.

As with any new military unit, the devil will be in the organizational details. According to the strategy document, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), headquartered at Offut AFB in Omaha, Nebraska, has the lead for countering WMD threats, including chemical, biological, portable nuclear devices, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. STRATCOM is the successor to the USAF's Strategic Air Command (SAC), which once controlled the nation's land-based strategic nuclear forces. In recent years, STRATCOM has expanded its mission to include long-range strike and information operations, in addition to its nuclear deterrence role. Control of the WMD task force represents a further enlargment of STRATCOM's operational portfolio.

However, many of the personnel assigned to the WMD mission will be drawn from the ranks of U.S. special forces, setting up a potential tug-of-war between STRATCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). SOCOM is already stretched thin supporting the war on terror, and the command may be reluctant to surrender (or share control) of several hundred highly-trained operators with STRATCOM. The strategy document does propose transfer of the foreign military training mission to "regular" forces, freeing up more special ops troops for other missions, including the WMD task force.

Then, there's the critical issue of intelligence. The success of the WMD task force will largely hinge on the ability of the spooks to track the potential movement and transfer of WMD. While new technologies--including Measures and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT)--may help, the task remains daunting. Tracing the movement of biological pathogens or components for a small nuke is definitely a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. While our intelligence capabilities have improved measurably since 9-11, the intel chief of the WMD task force may have the toughest job in the intel community, with absolutely no margin for error.

The task force appears to be on a fast-track, reflecting the grave nature of this threat. According to Gertz, command and control elements will be ready by 2007, and (we assume) the rest of the unit will become operational in the same time frame. And not a moment too soon.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas Comes Home to Roost

For years, the U.S. and Israel operated under the (false) assumption that Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement were reliable partners in the peace process. We ignored reports of rampant corruption, the ruthless elimination of political rivals, and Arafat's long history of saying the "right" things to western diplomats and media types, while vowing to destroy Israel in speeches to domestic audience.

After Arafat's death, we stuck with Fatah and its new leader, Mahmoud Abbas. There appeared to no real alternative--only the radical Palestinian group Hamas, who made no secret about its desire to eliminate Israel. The post-Arafat era supposedly provided a new opportunity for peace. Abbas was touted as something of a reformer, despite that fact that many of Arafat's cronies and crooks were still in place. Israel eventually agreed to vacate the Gaza Strip, with the support and blessing of the United States and our European allies. The peace process was supposedly moving forward, setting the stage for an eventual Palestinian state.

In backing Fatah, we opted for the lesser of two evils. Now, that strategy has backfired, with the triumph of Hamas in yesterday's Parlimentary elections. At last count, the terrorist group had a solid majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Parliment, leaving Fatah with only 43 seats. Abbas has asked Hamas to form the next Parliment; at this point it's unclear whether Fatah will join the new government, or serve in the opposition. Hamas has stated that it does not favor negotiations with Israel and refuses to disarm, rendering the peace process virtually dead.

Hamas's triumph has provoked a lot of back-pedaling and head-scratching in Washington, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere. Pundits believed that the terrorist group would make gains in the election, but few predicted the landslide that transpired. Some "experts" are now expressing hope that Hamas will moderate its views, now that it holds the reigns of power. he same group that has murdered hundreds of Israelis over the past decade? Fat chance.

History will record that the U.S. (and Israel) actually had another option. We could have--and should have--encouraged a legitimate democratic movement within the Palestinian ranks, rather than hitching our cart to Arafat's corrupt horse. Instead, we chose to believe that the master terrorist was the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, despite ample evidence that he was illegitimate, both as a Palestinian and a leader. Meanwhile, Hamas kept growing and attracted support from Palestinians who gave up on Fatah--and its leaders--years ago. Arafat stole billions from the Palestinian treasury, deposited his wife in a five-star Paris hotel and cut his cronies in on the action. The U.S. (particularly the Clinton Administration) never blinked, and encouraged Israeli governments to keep dealing with Arafat and Fatah.

Now, we're faced with a genuine terrorist state on Israel's doorstep and few viable options for dealing with the problem. At this juncture, we can only hope that Hamas miscalculates and Israel settles the problem, once and for all.

Iraq's WMD File

From the Unfinished Business Department, there are new claims about what might have happened to Saddam's WMD. In a new book, a former senior general in Iraq's Air Force claims that large quantities of WMD materials were flown to Syria in the months before the U.S.-led invasion. The retired Iraqi officer--Air Marshal Georges Sada--reports that two Iraqi transport aircraft made more than 50 WMD flights to Syria, under the guise of humanitarian relief missions for flood victims. Mr. Sada said he learned of the flights from the pilots who flew them.

The original New York Sun story can be found here, and Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse has more on Sada's report. As Rick points out, none of Sada's claims have been fully corroborated, and he's relying on second-hand information, at best. But the reported flights fit a pattern of pre-war activity that saw a steady flow of traffic from Iraq to Syria. This traffic--which consisted mostly of vehicle convoys--has been confirmed by other sources, ranging from the head of the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (retired Lieutenant General James Clapper), and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Gen Clapper, Mr. Sharon and other experts believe the detected traffic was related to the movement of Iraqi WMDs and related material to Syria.

Sada was something of a rarity in Saddam's Iraq--a non-Baathist and Christian who rose to the upper echelons of power. Since the overthrow of Saddam, he has worked as an advisor Prime Minister Allawi, and also serves as Iraq outreach director for an Oklahoma-based evangelical group. Sada never provides any explanation as to why he waited so long to "go public" with his story (other than the fact he's hawking a book). There's also the issue of how reliable the Air Marshal's information might be; he was forced out of the Iraqi Air Force in 1986 (because he refused to join the Baath Party), recalled in 1991 (to interrogate Allied POWs), then tossed into prison himself because he refused Qusai Hussein's order to execute the POWs. He was clearly an "outsider" in the last days of Saddam's regime, although he retained contacts within the Iraqi military.

At the very least, Air Marshal Sada's story sounds credible, and matches pre-war activity that has been confirmed by other, independent sources. He is also highly respected by post-war Iraqi leaders and by American evangelicals who have worked with him, including Dr. Terry New. I've met Dr. New and know him as a man of great integrity who has risked his life to spread the Gospel throughout the Middle East. Dr. New has only the highest praise for Georges Sada, and says "everything he's told me has completely checked out." Given his background and references, Sada's claims cannot be arbitrarily dismissed. But I'm guessing that Sada's book will receive virtually no attention from the MSM, because his information doesn't fit the "Bush lied" template.

Accepting Osama's Offer

When the Al-Qaida leader offered a conditional "truce" last week, it was summarily rejected by the White House. No-brainer, right?

Good thing that Professor Douglas A. Borer doesn't work for the National Security Council. Borer--who (amazingly) is on the faculty at the Naval Post-Graduate School--has written an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, suggesting that we accept bin Laden's proposal. He writes:

"If our goal is to roll back terrorism and reduce its global appeal, sooner or later we are going to have to deal directly with terrorists. Even if such negotiations fail, history has shown that a silver lining is often found..."

"The same might be true by now engaging with bin Laden. I very much doubt that his offer to negotiate is genuine, but if we cannot make a deal that is acceptable, President Bush can show the world that bin Laden is a bogus partner, thus undermining his undeniable legitimacy in parts of the Muslim world. In the all important battle for global public opinion, the US might be able to use this opportunity to reverse some of the decline we have suffered in Iraq. Ultimately, if negotiations fail, CIA Predator drones and elite military units can again be sent on search and destroy missions against Al Qaeda. By calling to the table bin Laden's truce offer, we do not give up the military option; however, if we play this right, even if negotiations fail, we may have more to gain than to lose by exploring peace."

Let me get this straight. Professor is suggesting that we "partner" with a madman with the blood of more than 3,000 Americans on his hands. And what sort of deal would he deem "acceptable?" Bin Laden has already made it clear that any deal hinges on getting the U.S. out of the Middle East, so he can re-establish the "caliphate" based on radical Islam. The caliphate would, of course, serve as a launching pad for bin Laden and his minions to expand their influence into Europe, the Asian subcontinent, and southeast Asia. With Al-Qaida in charge, any hope for democratic reform in the region would vanish; Middle East oil would top $100 a barrell--assuming it was still available to "infidels"--and Islamic terrorists could concentrate on attacks in the U.S. and Western Europe, possibly using nuclear weapons. Please explain how striking a deal with bin Laden would enhance our security.

Andrew Cochran of the Counterterrorism Blog has it right: Professor Border should be fired immediately. The idea that he is training our military's best and brightest at the Post-Graduate school is simply beyond comprehension. Academic freedom is one thing; teaching a "surrender" strategy at a prestigious military institution is intolerable and unacceptable.

Building a Nuclear Capability

As we've noted in previous posts, creating a nuclear capability means more than building a bomb. Along with the weapon, nations attempting to join the nuclear club must also have delivery platforms, and a means for identifying potential targets/aim points.

Analyzing current activity in Iran, there is no doubt that the mullahs are pressing toward a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability. Work on an "Persian bomb" is continuing, with Iranian scientists pursuing both uranium and plutonium-based weapons. In terms of targeting, Iran began purchasing satellite imagery of potential aim points (including Israeli cities) in the late 1990s. More recently, they've been upgrading their satellite downlink and imagery capabilities, allowing them to receive higher-quality shots from outside suppliers.

Iran is also developing missile systems, capable of delivering nuclear warheads to targets in the Middle East--and beyond. We've written extensively on the SHAHAB-3, the medium-range missile (based on a North Korean design) that has the range to hit Israel. Since becoming operational in late 2004, the SHAHAB-3 has been deployed at multiple locations inside Iran, using a variety of basing options. Many of Iran's SHAHAB-3s (and their mobile launchers) are stored in large underground complexes, making them difficult to track--and potentially target, since the missiles would be dispersed away from garrison during contingency operations.

But Tehran has never been completely satisfied with the SHAHAB-3. The missile's range maximum range extends just past Israel and its payload is limited. Iran has working on missiles with a longer range and capable of delivering a larger warhead. There have been reports of SHAHAB-4/5 programs, designed to field an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), allowing Iran to potentially target portions of Southern Europe and India as well. It is unclear how much progress Tehran has made on its IRBM program.

Of course, it would be easier for Iran to simply purchase an existing IRBM from an outside source, and there are growing indications that Tehran has done just that. In December, German intelligence sources told the newspaper Bild that Iran had obtained a limited number of BM-25 IRBMs from North Korea. The BM-25 is based on a 40-year-old Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the SS-N-6. North Korean land-based versions of the BM-25 are believed to have a range of 2500-4000 km, depending on payload. That would allow the Iranians to target all of the Middle East, a large portion of the Asian subcontinent, and much of Europe.

The presence of BM-25s in Iran has not yet been confirmed. However, with Tehran's expertise in the SHAHAB-3 (and potential assistance from North Korea), Iranian engineers could assemble and test-fire a BM-25 before the end the year--the very period when European leaders will decide what action (if any) they will take regarding Iran's nuclear program.

One more note: from inception, the SS-N-6/BM-25 was designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Acquisition/integration of the BM-25 could give Iran a ready option for the first "Persian bomb" whenever it is built. With the SHAHAB-3, the Iranians would probably have to downsize the warhead to mate it with the missile, creating another delay in Iran's nuclear program. The BM-25 could probably accept an early-model Iranian warhead without modifications, allowing Iran to have a nuclear missile force much sooner.

And that raises the central question: just how far along is Iran in its nuclear program. Some intelligence analysts believe Tehran may be a decade away from actually fielding a nuclear device, but the "sudden" acquisition of the BM-25 may contradict that assessment. If Iran was 8-10 years away from having a working bomb, why the sudden rush to obtain a longer-range, nuclear-capable missile? Both Tehran and Pyongyang may be trying to beat potential sanctions, but the missile deal also suggests other scenarios: (1) Iranian efforts to develop an indigenous IRBM have been unsuccessful, and (2) Iran needs a nuclear-capable missile because it will have a warhead much sooner than 2016.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mr. Kim's Travels

Earlier this month, we reported on the visit to China by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. When the trip was first revealed, there were hints that Kim would be out of the DPRK for an extended period of time, perhaps a week or longer. That gave rise to speculation that China was only an intermediate stop, and that Kim's train would carry him on to Moscow, for talks with Vladimir Putin.

The Moscow trip turned out to be just that--speculation. Kim remained in China for eight days (10-18 January), one of his longest stays outside the DPRK in recent years. His willingness to remain away from Pyongyang for that length of time suggests that Kim is confident in his hold on power--and the ability of his security forces to prevent "unpleasant events" during his absence. While anti-regime graffitti has appeared in public areas over the past year--an exceedingly rare event in the DPRK--there were no reports of unrest during Kim's trip to China, suggesting that domestic opposition (and I use the word loosely) is nothing more than an irritant, and an occasional embarassment.

Beyond its length, Kim's trip was also unusual because of his itinerary. The North Korean despot spent most of his time touring Chinese economic development zones, including the "original four" (Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zuhai and Shanghai) that helped trigger China's economic revolution. Kim's visits to those locations were designed to signal his "commitment to economic reform," aimed at both his Chinese hosts and the North Korean populace. Kim had lavish praise for China's economic development, and hinted that the DPRK hoped to follow that model.

Unfortunately for his country, Kim's actions have never matched his rhetoric. North Korea remains an economic basket case, where millions have died from starvation and the survivors couldn't exist without food donations from the outside world. North Korea's GDP actually declined in the 1990s. Power shortages became so common that rail service was severely impacted; western spy satellites imaged North Koreans riding on the roofs of electrified rail cars, because there was only enough power to operate a limited train schedule. Thousands of North Koreans--apparently tired of waiting for Kim's economic reforms--have fled across the border to neighboring China, risking imprisonment (or even death) if they are caught and returned to the DPRK.

The odds of North Korea replicating China's economic boom are exactly.....zero--and Kim Jong- il understands that. But he also understands the p.r. benefit of talking the economic modernization game, since it makes the DPRK less menacing. That's a good image to project before the next round of six-party talks, aimed at neutralizing North Korea's nuclear program. Additionally, Kim knows that some South Korean congolmerates are willing to throw good money at marginal investments in North Korea, as a way of currying favor with his regime, and lessening the possibility of a military conflict. Those investments won't produce a lot of trade, but they will put more money in Pyongyang's coffers, providing a welcome supplement to the SCUD sales, counterfeiting and drug running that have been North Korea's only successful exports.

By all accounts, Kim had a swell time in China. And best of all, he managed to return to North Korea without a major explosion along his route of travel. That alone made it a successful trip.

Have You Seen This, Mr. Stein?

From Cliff May and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, graphic proof that the liberation of Iraq ended barbarism and genocide on a scale that is unimaginable. The foundation has released new video of torture conducted by Saddam's thugs in pre-war Iraq. WARNING: many of the images are graphic and disturbing. Definitely not for the kiddes, nor the faint of heart.

Someone needs to send a copy of this to Joel Stein at the Los Angeles Times.

Today's Reading Assignment

...From former New York mayor Ed Koch, on Osama's recent offer of a truce. He makes the same observation we offered last week: from a military perspective, those seeking a truce are usually losing the war.

But, as Mr. Koch also notes, there is a "fifth column" within our country that would gladly accept the "truce," instead of continuing the War on Terror, and the sacrifices it requires. They also represent a danger, and they're the audience that bin Laden is playing to.

Liberal Ignorance (and Idiocy) on Display

Thanks to Radio Blogger, here's a transcript of last night's conversation between Hugh Hewitt and Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein. Mr. Stein agreed to appear on Hugh's radio program after announcing (in his most recent column) that he doesn't support the troops because he doesn't support the war.

Read the transcript carefully. In his comments, Stein reveals a near-total ignorance of our military, and the challenges they face in Iraq. He also seems hard-pressed to identify anyone he knows who is currently serving on active duty. But that didn't stop Mr. Stein from pronouncing the Iraq War as unjust, and our troops unworthy of his support.

It's one of the most devastating take-downs of a liberal talking head that you'll ever read--or hear. Somewhere in the LA Basin, an upscale village is clearly missing an idiot.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

His Biography Says It All

"Joel Stein is desperate for attention," begins the bio of the Los Angeles Times columnist. He certainly won't be lacking for attention after his latest effort, entitled "Warriors and Wusses," which should antagonize conservatives and liberals alike.

For those on the left, Stein says the idea of condemning the war while "supporting" the troops is a "wussy" position.

"...I'm not for the war. And being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken — and they're wussy by definition. It's as if the one lesson they took away from Vietnam wasn't to avoid foreign conflicts with no pressing national interest but to remember to throw a parade afterward."

As for conservatives, Stein takes the predictable jabs at the chicken hawks who coerce young men and women into fighting unjust wars, etc.

"I do sympathize with people who joined up to protect our country, especially after 9/11, and were tricked into fighting in Iraq. I get mad when I'm tricked into clicking on a pop-up ad, so I can only imagine how they feel."

"But when you volunteer for the U.S. military, you pretty much know you're not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you're willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it's Vietnam."

Stein once wrote a recurring Q&A feature for Time, where he affected the mocking style and tone of an over-age smartass. Judging by his work in the Times, it's pretty clear he hasn't matured much as a writer, or as a smug observer of the passing scene. By his estimation, the only "just" war in recent memory was Kosovo. He opines that troops who served there "got lucky" because they got a chance to end ethnic genocide.

Stein is apparently too busy calling President Bush a nitwit to notice one salient fact: by liberating Iraq and overthrowing a tyrant, soldiers and Marines stopped genocide in Iraq as well; the proof is in the grim evidence uncovered by our troops. At last count, allied forces had discovered the graves of more than 300,000 Iraqis slaughtered by Saddam, mostly because they belonged to the "wrong" ethnic group or religious sect. By comparison, only about 3,000 victims of ethnic genocide were discovered in Kosovo, the "good war" that Mr. Stein seems to yearn for.

You may recall that Bill Clinton told us that military action was necessary in the Balkans because the Serbs had killed "tens of thousands" in Kosovo. His administration even offered satellite photos of alleged mass graves. Of course, that intelligence wasn't flawed, was it? And no one could accuse Clinton of lying to get us into a war against a country that posed absolutely no threat to our national security. Does Stein have a double standard?

Joel Stein may be the only liberal who's willing to oppose both the war and the troops that are fighting it, but he's still an idiot and an ingrate. At the end of the column, he expresses hope that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return. But please, no parades"

That sentence reveals the left's underlying contempt for those of us who wear--or have worn--a military uniform. From their perspective, we're little more than cannon fodder, incapable of holding a real job or making a more positive contribution to society. And since we're likely to get shot up or lose our minds to PTSD, we'd better build more VA hospitals and psychiatric facilities, while tossing in a meager pension for good measure. Afterall, anyone dumb enough to volunteer for the military could never "make it in the real world."

Here's an idea for Mr. Stein. Paraphrasing Kipling, it's easy to take shots at the war (and the troops) when you're quartered in the relative safety of So-Cal. The Times columnist needs to broaden his horizons, and sign on for an embed tour with an Army or Marine unit in Iraq. At this point, he might have a hard time finding a unit willing to take him on, but I'm sure the necessary arrangements could be made. From the front, even Joel Stein might get a new perspective on the war, and men and women who fight it on his behalf.

But I'm guessing that Stein would never go to Iraq. Better to express his contempt for the war (and the troops) from the comfort of the Times newsroom. What a wuss.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Bin Laden (and Newsweek) Don't Get It

Newsweek is out with a story that discusses "new technology" in the hunt for bin Laden. Actually, it's little more than a recap of how the military (and the CIA) are using drones to search for suspected terrorists, and take them out. This blog--and a number of others--have discussed UAV employment at great lengths, even noting that video feeds from the drones were greatly reduced in the run-up to the most recent strike, to increase security for the operation. Newsweek also makes the point--which we advanced last week--that the U.S. is now getting better information on the whereabouts of Al Qaida leaders, possibly from within the organization itself. According to the magazine, the CIA now has a large liaision team operating in Pakistan, and information developed by those agents is starting to pay off.

But, in typical Newsweek-speak, the article still manages to take a shot at the Bush Administration. In the final paragraph, the authors note bin Laden's claim (made on his most recent audio tape) that he bled the Russians white in Afghanistan, and can do the same to the USA; they also suggest that "Americans" (read: the White House) don't want to listen.

"Don't let your strength and modern arms fool you," bin Laden said in his message. "We have nothing to lose. A swimmer in the ocean does not fear the rain." As he has so often, bin Laden closed by invoking his successful war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "We bled their economy, and now they are nothing. In that there is a lesson for you." Perhaps there is. Americans just don't want to hear it from him."

There's a major problem's with Osama's analysis (which Newsweek conveniently fails to mention). The Soviet economy of the 1980s was already on its last legs, burded not only by the War in Afghanistan, but trying to match U.S. defense spending under Ronald Reagan. Additionally, the mujahedin who fought the Soviet Army were aided and supplied by a superpower (the United States), which provided critical training and weaponry--namely Stinger missiles--that turned the tide of battle. Bin Laden's fighters also had the full support of the Pakistani government and intelligence services, another support element that is lacking this time around. While there are elements in Pakistan sympathetic to bin Laden, his troops cannot operate in the country or seek refuge with impunity, as they could twenty years ago.

Finally, Osama--and the editors of Newsweek--need a lesson in basic economics. The U.S. has a $5 trillion economy, and has managed to put a major dent in Al-Qaida with defense spending that is just over 3% of our GDP. Given those numbers, Osama better re-think his plan, and Newsweek needs to rethink its "analysis."

Israel Drops a Hint

Israel's defense minister has hinted (again) that his country country is preparing for military action to stop Iran's nuclear program.

Speaking at an academic conference, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that "Israel will not accept an Iranian nuclear capability and must have the capability to defend itself, with all that implies and we are preparing." However, he stopped short of actually threatening a strike against Iran, and said that international diplomacy should be the first course of action.

If you've been following the escalating nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran, the comments of Mofaz are hardly surprising; in fact, they largely mirror statements from other senior Israeli officials, including the now-incapacitated Ariel Sharon. For more than a year, members of the Sharon government have hinted that there is a "red line" that Iran will not be allowed to cross. And if passes that point, then Israel retains the right to use military force. The Israelis have been deliberately vague on what constitutes the "red line," reflecting debate within the government on the status of Iran's program, and to avoid tipping Israel's hand, should military action become necessary.

Israel has strike plans for Iran on the books for some time, as a matter of prudent military planning. The Israelis have been watching the threat from Iran evolve for more than 20 years; as Tehran developed the means for hitting Israel (with deployment of its SHAHAB-3 medium-range missiles), the Israelis refined their plans, incoporating new intelligence data and the capabilities of new weapons systems that could be used against Iran, namely the F-15I (Israel's version of the F-15E Strike Eagle), and the JDAM satellite-guided bomb, useful for precision attacks against high value targets.

In the coming weeks, we'll address the military balance of power between Tehran and Tel Aviv, focusing on the operational issues that confront both countries. We'll begin (briefly) with some potential indicators that Israel is moving toward an actual strike on Iran. These are the types of indicators intelligence analysts would look for, in an effort to divine Tel Aviv's intentions; a few are listed below:

-- Increased flight training by Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15I, F-15C and F-16I squadrons (all three aircraft types would likely be used in an attack against Iran).
-- Heightened training between Israeli fighters and IAF tanker aircraft (Israeli strike fighters would need to be refuled in flight at least twice during the long-range mission to Iran and back)
-- Increased activity/readiness among Israeli missile defense batterys (Arrow II and Patriot); these assets would protect Israel from an Iranian counter-strike with Shahab-3s
-- Statements by Israeli leaders designed to prepare the populace for military action and a possible response by Tehran; these statements would focus on the imminent danger posed by Iran's WMD and missile programs
-- Increased security/air defense deployments near Israeli nuclear facilities, including its primary complex in the Negev Desert
-- Short-notice or increased IAF deployments to Turkey. The Israelis have a close military relationship with Ankara, and Turkey's vast airspace allows IAF crews a chance to practice long-range navigation and air refueling skills required for a strike against Iran. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that Israel would launch such a strike from Turkish soil, since it would effectively end Tel Aviv's important alliance with Ankara
-- Increased activity among Israel's medium-range missile force, specifically deployments or dispersals of the Jericho II MRBM, capable of hitting Iran with conventional or nuclear weapons
-- Heightened training activity among Israeli commando and search-and-rescue (SAR) forces, which would support strike operations
-- Increased civil defense preparations for Israel's civilian population

These are but a few of the indicators that might suggest that Israel is preparing to strike Iran. But these signals are hardly clear; for example, the IAF routinely sustains a high operational tempo; preparations for a mission to Iran could be easily concealed within normal training activity. Additionally, the Israelis do an effective job of masking other indicators; the Jericho II is rarely seen outside its bunkers, and potential movements or deployments would be timed during periods when U.S. surveillance platforms aren't looking. Such operations would also be carried out under strict security, with minimal radio or phone traffic that might provide another tip-off.

In terms of indicators for a potential Israeli attack, we know what to look for. Unfortunately, the Israelis also know what we're looking for, and they know how to hide them.

Friday, January 20, 2006

This is the Way to Treat Leakers

Former Pentagon intelligence analyst Lawrence Franklin was sentenced today to 12 years in prison for passing classified information to an Israeli diplomat. At his plea hearing last October, Franklin said he was frustrated with U.S. Middle East policy, prompting him to pass classified data to the diplomat and an pro-Israeli lobbying group. Two members of that group will go on trial for similar charges in April.

As we've said before, a democracy must protect its secrets in order to survive. There are limits on the information we can share with others--even countries that are our friends. For disclosing classified information, Mr. Franklin got what he deserved.

Or did he? One of the counts to which Franklin pleaded guilty was unlawful retention of classified national defense information. Franklin admitted that he sometimes took classified data home, to stay up to speed.

That raises an obvious question: if Franklin is getting jail time for that crime, why aren't Sandy ("Classified Docs in My Pants") Berger and John ("Secret Information on My Home Computer") Deutch in federal prison? Both got a slap on the wrist for deliberately mishandling classified information. Berger got a fine and probation for removing classified documents from the National Archives; investigators found that Deutch had over 1,000 classified files on his home P.C.--which was connected to the internet--after he resigned as Director of the CIA. A copy of the CIA IG report can be found here. Deutch eventually pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information (a misdemeanor) and paid a $5,000 fine. Berger got a $10,000 fine and lost his security clearance for three years.

Franklin won't go to jail until after the lobbyists go on trial. Federal prosecutors have also promised to press for a reduction in sentence, if Franklin cooperates against the lobbyists.

If he has any sense of fairness, Federal Judge T.S. Ellis III should drop any portion of Franklin's sentence connected to the mishandling charges. It's difficult to justify jail time on that charge while Berger and Deutch walk around free. The Justice Department needs to be consistent in prosecuting--and punishing--anyone who mishandles or leaks classified information.

Sponge Bob in the Dock

As you may have heard, the food police are after Sponge Bob. More specifically, a "public interest" group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest is threatening to file a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Viacom (which airs Sponge Bob on its Nickelodeon cable network), and Kellogg, the cereal manufacturer. The center claims that the companies are engaging in deceptive and unfair marketing, by using cartoon characters to sell sugary cereals and other junk foods.

With a name like "The Center for Science in the Public Interest," it's a foregone conclusion that the organization is anti-business, anti-capitalism, and insistent that it must save Americans from those evil corporations. Give me a break. Judging from their shrill rhetoric, you'd think that kids were being brainwashed by Sponge Bob to eat Pop-Tarts and Sugar Smacks.

Yes, there is an obesity epidemic among American kids, but it's more the result of parents who either can't--or won't--say no to their kids. If Little Junior pitches a fit in the cereal aisle for a box of Frosted Sugar Bombs, well, we'd better buy it, so his self-esteem doesn't suffer and he won't hate us. In my day, you didn't see a lot of tantrums in the grocery store, because such behavior usually meant a quick trip to the car, and some swats on the bottom. Today, it's rare to make a trip to Wal-Mart and not see at least one child throwing a fit because he or she can't have something, while a mortified parent looks on. Restore a little discipline in the household, and you won't be buying as many boxes of Fruit Loops to placate the little hellion.

America's schools are also to blame. Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of schools offering P.E. as part of their curriculum. And sadly, many of the schools that still require phys ed have replaced old-fashioned sports and calorie-burning exercises with activities designed to improve participation and self-esteem. If you want healthier kids, make physical education mandatory, and reintroduce activities that actually promote health and fitness.

Here's another novel idea: if you want healthy kids, get them away from the TV. Back in the bad old days of my childhood (and the four-channel TV universe), there were times when you had to "make your own fun" because there was absolutely nothing to watch on television. As a result, I spent a lot of hours playing sports (football, basketball, baseball), riding my bike and climbing trees. Time was marked by how many innings of baseball you played before dark, not how many cartoons you watched.

Lest we forget, these same outdoor, physical activities are still available youngsters today. But getting a kid away from the TV, X-Box or computer takes a little effort, namely parents who limit on their children's time for those activities. The last time I checked, every TV, PC and video game had "off" button but too many parents are reluctant to push it, and so-called interest groups are more concerned with trying to regulate everyone's life. Instead of suing Sponge Bob and Kellogg, the Center could do much more for the cause of healthy kids by simply encouraging parents to act like....parents.

Of course, there's not much money in promoting responsible behavior, so I'm guessing the center will press ahead with its lawsuit. Meanwhile, it's a dark day in Bikini Bottom when Sponge Bob gets sued because so many parents refuse to do their job.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Let's Call a Truce

Al-Jazerra is airing excerpts from what it says is a new bin Laden audiotape. At one point in the tape, the Al-Qaida leader offers a possible truce to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, while claiming that preparations are underway for more attacks in the United States.

We haven't heard the entire tape (yet), and the voice has yet to be authenticated as bin Laden's. The speaker says heightened security is not the reason there have been no additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9-11. "You will see them here at home the minute they are through with preparations, with God's permission," he said.

As far as we know, God hasn't commented on the purported bin Laden statements. But claims that Al-Qaida has delayed attacks in the U.S. due to long-term preparations is downright ludicrous. True, bin Laden's organization plans some of its operations over a period of years. But since 9-11, we have foiled a number of terrorist attacks; in a speech last October, President Bush stated that intelligence and security services have prevented at least 10 major Al-Qaida attacks since 9-11, three of them in the U.S. Hat tip: Troutmaster. In late 2002, FBI Director Stephen Muller reported that more than 100 terror plots were foiled in the year following 9-11. And remember: these are many more successes that haven't been reported, to protect intelligence sources and on-going counter-terrorism operations. In a more permissive security environment, Al-Qaida would followed the 9-11 strikes with even more attacks on American soil.

But the real story here is bin Laden's offer of a "truce." If the Global Jihad is going so well, why does the Al-Qaida leader want to take a pause for the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan? You don't have to be a military analyst to see that the Al-Qaida "offer" is a tacit admission that it's terror campaign is failing in both countries. Attacks in Iraq dropped almost 33% between October and December; the number of successful IED strikes is at an 18-month low, and Al-Qaida failed to prevent the election of a democratic government in that country. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaida remnants are all-but-beaten, despite a recent upswing in suicide attacks, and the U.S. has enjoyed recent success in targeting the group's leadership along the border with Pakistan. In short, Al-Qaida is playing a losing hand in both countries, and it is increasingly stretched thin (in terms of leadership and resources). Hence, the need to call a truce in the Middle East, and focus remaining resources on attacks within the U.S.

While the truce offer indicates that we are, indeed, winning the War on Terror, some caution is in order. Perhaps more than ever, Al-Qaida is in need for a major success on U.S. soil, something beyond the scale of last summer's attacks in London. There is no doubt that Al-Qaida continues to plot strikes within the CONUS, despite a continued degradation in their operational capabilities.

Then What?

France--with the backing of the United States--has rejected Iran's request for more talks on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice summed it up best, saying "there's not much to talk about," in terms of additional negotiations with Iran.

The EU-3 are now pressing ahead to develop "the greatest possible consensus" in dealing with Iran, whatever that means. The international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has already agreed to hold an emergency meeting of its board of governors, on 2 February in Vienna. At that meeting, the EU-3 and the United States are expected to press the IAEA to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. However, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, on a diplomatic mission to South Asia, told reporters that "differences remain" in coordinating an Iranian strategy with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

Let's assume for a moment that the world powers can overcome their differences, create a united front and persuade the IAEA to refer Tehran to the UNSC. Then what? At that point, the policy track seems to get a little murky. As we pointed out previously, China is now a major consumer of Iranian energy, and has indicated it might veto any security council resolution that imposes harsh sanctions on Iran. And even the Europeans--for all their new-found forcefulness on the Iranian issue--seem a little squishy. In a draft resolution now being circulated, the Europeans ask the UNSC to press Tehran to "extend full and prompt cooperation" to the IAEA. However, the resolution stops short of asking the UN to impose sanctions against Iran. Other reports indicate that Russia is seeking an option that stops short of an actual referral.

Is it any surprise, then, that Tehran shows so little concern about the current round of diplomatic maneuvering? Tehran's foreign minister described the case for a UNSC referral as "weak." Iranian President Ahmadinejad shrugged off the proposed resolution entirely, calling it "politically motivated."

With the threat of a meaningless resolution hanging over their heads, the Iranians can remain indifferent to the diplomatic process. At some point, they will probably express interest in a new or modified proposal, but only for the sake of sustaining the diplomatic sideshow and avoiding real sanctions or military action. And that will probably be enough to keep the Europeans and U.S. engaged diplomatically, while Iran's nuclear program keeps marching along.

For some clear-headed thinking on the Iranian problem, I highly recommend the U.S. Army Institute's recently-published book, "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran." In one particularly illuminating section of the book, Kenneth Timmerman highlights the fallacies associated with the idea that we can "negotiate" with Tehran. In his conclusion, Timmerman believes we have only two options with Iran, capitulation or war. In a recent posting, I took Timmerman to task for some faulty assumptions about the Iranian military and reported sales of military hardware from Russian to Iran. However, in this case, I believe Timmerman is correct. A nuclear-armed Iran cannot be allowed to emerge (as long as the country is ruled by a radical clerical regime) and the U.S. must be prepared to take military action to prevent Tehran from joining the nuclear club.

As an alternative, Michael Ledeen suggests increased support for Iranians who want to overthrow their repressive government. I second that notion, but with a cautionary note. Since the Iranian student movement fizzled a few years back, the domestic opposition has been in relative disarray. Meanwhile, the mullahs have shown no hesitation to do whatever it takes to secure their hold on power. True, spontaneous revolutions have occurred recently in Lebanon and the Ukraine, surprising everyone. But those uprisings succeeded because the existing governments were weak, and potential spoilers (Syria, Russia) were unable or unwilling to intervene. That is not the case in Tehran. But Ledeen's idea of a "people's revolt" makes more sense that pointless diplomacy, or a military coup that might lead to a civil war.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Khabab Goes Ka-Boom

More good news from Pakistan. ABC News is reporting that last week's Predator strike in the tribal region of northern Pakistan netted an Al-Qaida big fish afterall. Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC that the terrorist organization's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert, 52-year-old Abu Khabab al-Masri, was among those killed when a U.S. missile struck a building in the village of Damadola, near the Afghan border. Khabab, an Egyptian chemist, was one of at least three Al-Qaida figures who died in the attack. The strike was aimed at Al-Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who apparently decided not to attend a planned meeting in the village.

Among his "accomplishments," Khabab ran one of Al-Qaida's most notorious terrorist training camps, and personally trained hundreds of terrorists includng shoe bomber Richard Reid and the so-called "20th hijacker, Zacharias Moussaoui.

There's a certain sense of irony (and justice) in knowing that Osama bin Laden's top bomb man died in the blast from a Hellfire missile. We can also take satisfaction in the knowledge that we came very close to getting Zawahiri. Khabab and Zawahiri were close associates, and there are strong indications that Al-Qaida's #2 leader had plannned to attend the meeting.

As we noted previously, tracking these terrorist leaders to a specific location was not the work of Predator surveillance alone. There are growing indications that the U.S.--or another intelligence service--has penetrated the inner layers of Al-Qaida, and has much more reliable information on the activities/whereabouts of its senior leaders.

Unfortunately, Al-Qaida is capable of learning from its mistakes. After this near-miss, Zawahiri will likely "go to ground," review his communication and security practices, and take himself out of circulation for a while. We can only hope that we get another crack at Zawahiri before the trail goes cold again.

One final note: Khabab's death may also shed some light on that artillery shell that the NYT identified as remnants of the U.S. rocket. Khabab's presence, coupled with the artillery shell, suggests that the Hellfire may have destroyed an Al-Qaida bomb factory, or perhaps an IED training facility.

What Iran Needs....

.....is a timely coup or popular uprising, and the replacement of nut-job President Ahmadinejad with a military dictatorship. So says Jonah Goldberg of NRO.

Nice thought, but there's a major problem with that scenario. When Mr. Goldberg talks about "serious and sophisticated members" of the Iranian military, which one is he talking about? Since the Islamic Revolution, Tehran has maintained a dual military system, consisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the "regular" armed forces. In other words, Iran has both IRGC and "regular" ground forces; two navies, and two air forces, with personnel and hardware roughly divided between these organizations.

The "regular" military, in some respects, represents continuation of the military created by the Shah. While the mullahs distrusted the Iranian armed forces, they couldn't disband them, particularly with Saddam lurking next door. Instead, they began building the IRGC, creating a military organization that was undoutedly loyal to the new regime, and capable of defending it against an internal uprising. Both regular and IRCG units fought in the long war with Iraq, where the revolutionary guards gained a reputation for fanaticism and fatalism; on several occasions, IRGC units staged "human wave" attacks against entrenched Iraqi positions, with horrific casualties.

While the IRGC and regular military are supposed to cooperate in defending the Islamic Republic, their relationship has been marked by competition, distrust, and outright hostility. There are numerous examples of IRCG air defense units firing on Air Force drones (and vice versa), because the two organizations refuse to coordinate flight activities. "Joint" training between regular and IRGC entities remains somewhat rare, and both sides maintain their own equipment, training and logistical systems. Not the most efficient--or effective--way to run a military.

Howevever, this separate-but-equal system appears to be changing. In recent years, the IRGC has slowly gained primacy among Iran's military forces. High value assets--including Tehran's ballistic missile force--are strictly under control of the revolutionary guards. The IRGC also appears to be winning the battle for funding and new systems, while conventional forces make do with worn-out, U.S. produced equipment, bought by Iran in the 1970s.

The IRGC's slow rise to preeminence also lessens the chances for a military coup. Political and religious "reliability" are critical factors in the advancement of an IRGC officer's career, and the mullahs have selected their generals carefully. Conversely, the pool of western-trained officers who remained in the military after the revolution is rapidly decreasing. Iran's theocrats have long viewed these officers with suspicion, and they were tolerated only because of their technical or management expertise. These western-influenced officers-many of whom trained in the U.S.--were long considered a source of a potential coup. However, their dwindling numbers (and influence) makes that an increasingly-remote possibility.

A military coup in Iran would be nice--almost anyone is preferable to Ahmadinejad--but you've got to be careful what you wish for. A revolt led by the IRGC (not likely, in my estimation), might lead to another radical regime; a coup among the regular forces would be preferable, but that would probably result in open warfare between the regulars and the IRGC, and the possibility of a civil war in Iran. Such a conflict that could easily boil over and engulf other nations in the region, with potentially horrific consequences.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Chopper Update

According to ABC News, the Army believes that a Russian-made SA-7/GRAIL was used to down that Apache attack helicopter in Iraq on Monday.

That revelation is rather surprising, since the Apache is equipped with an advanced self-protection system, designed to defeat a variety of shoulder-fired SAMs, including the 1960s-vintage SA-7. Saddam Hussein had thousands of man-portable SAMs in his arsenal; many went missing after the fall of Baghdad and are presumed to be in the hands of insurgents.

However, no self-defense suite is fool-proof. In rare cases, the system may fail to detect a missile launch. In other situations, maneuvers by the aircraft may actually prevent the missile from "acquiring" decoy flares or being blinded by a burst of laser energy. There is also a chance--albeit slim--that insurgents have somehow modified their SA-7s to make them more resistant to U.S. self-protection systems. However, such modifications are likely beyond the capabilities of insurgents, since they would require the installation of new, cooled seeker heads and/or infrared counter-countermeasure (IRCCM) circuitry.

A better explanation is that the insurgents are getting better training in MANPAD employment. In the past, terrorists in Iraq have utilized their shoulder-fired SAMs ineffectively, decreasing chances for a hit. Better employment tactics would increase the threat to Allied aircraft, but only slightly.

As we noted previously, the sudden rash of helicopter losses will prompt a review of U.S. helicopter tactics and counter-measures. In the chess game between our helicopters and ground threats, the enemy has made its latest move. Now, we'll make a counter-move to offset any advantage they might have gained.

On a related note, insurgents are reportedly using something called "Airborne Improvised Explosive Devices" against our choppers. Based on rudimentary media accounts, this weapon sounds like a large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery shell (perhaps 57 or 100mm), modified to explode at extremely low altitudes. Making that modification would simply require the installation of a new fuse, programmed to detonate at operating altitudes used by U.S. helicopters. The 57mm shell was originally designed to engage aircraft at medium altitude (up to 23,000 feet with radar guidance). Installation or modification of a low-altitude fuse is a relatively easy fix, within the realm of the terrorists' expertise.

Along With Those "Innocent" Villagers

Last week's Predator strike in northern Pakistan also killed some terrorists. The New York Post has more. Also turns out that Zawahiri was among a group of 10-12 jihadists who had been invited to dinner in the village. So much for that "innocent victims" angle.

Break bread with terrorists, get a Hellfire through the window. I'm guessing those border villages will be hosting fewer "Osama Appreciation Banquets" in the future.

What I find interesting is how quickly--and effectively--Al-Qaida used the incident as a propaganda vehicle. Reporters arrived on the scene quickly, and they obligingly photographed the "collateral" damage, including dead cattle, destroyed homes and injured children. Not to mention the NYT's infamous "missile" photograph. Hat tips to Michelle Malkin, Thomas Lifson and others who spotted the staged photo.

As we have noted, the U.S. conducted a similar strike in the region in early December, killing Al Qaida's #3 man. But there was very little outcry over the incident, and few protests in Pakistan. There may be several reasons for the milder reaction to that strike: first, it was identified as a Pakistani operation (with U.S. support), even though the coupe de grace was delivered by an American missile. Secondly, there was less collateral damage, and (finally), the strike appeared to catch Al-Qaida off-guard, leaving them unable to mount an effective propaganda effort. But this time around, the terrorists had a plan, and they were able to paint the strike as an attack on innocent villagers, shaping initial reaction to the event, particularly in the Muslim world.

Unfortunately, initial media impressions are lasting, so it will difficult for the truth to trump the original exaggerations and erroneous reports. However, observers will note a dramatic change in the tone of Pakistani spokesmen, who now emphasize the terrorist presence in the village, and the consequences of harboring Al-Qaida. As reaction to the event fades, Islamabad can drop the initial rehtoric (which was designed for public consumption), and get back to the serious business of tracking down terrorists. We can only hope that Zawahiri is a little less choosy in accepting future dinner invitations.

Anything for Money

TV news can be a cruel business. You reach a certain age, gain a few pounds, burn a few bridges, and suddenly, you're facing an early and unplanned retirement. Or, as many in the trade have done, you segue to something else, presumably a gig that will match your former network salary.

Consider the case of Giselle Fernandez. Once upon a time, Ms. Fernandez was a correspondent for CBS and NBC News who won two Emmys for her work. While I'm hardly a fan of the broadcast networks (or their news divisions), Ms. Fernandez seemed like a solid reporter and she appeared to have a bright future in television news.

But somewhere along the way, Ms. Fernandez got side-tracked. First, she signed on as a co-host of Access Hollywood, one of those fluffy, celebrity profile-and-gossip shows that makes The View look like See It Now. Ms. Fernandez also served (briefly) as host of an A&E series called "This Week in History," a sort of 60 Minutes meets your high school history book. Most recently, Ms. Fernandez surfaced as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." That should be a nice addition to her "journalist" resume.

While her current career path probably won't generate any reporting offers, Ms. Fernandez deserves more respect than another network cast-off, Nightline veteran Dave Marash. When ABC declined to renew his contract last year, Mr. Marash began seeking new employment. His resume was much longer and more "serious" than Giselle Fernandez's; in addition to his stint as a Nightline correspondent, Marash also worked as a reporter and anchor in New York (at WCBS-TV) and Washington, D.C's WRC-TV. Conventional wisdom said that a "pro" like Mr. Marash would eventually land at another network.

Last week, Mr. Marash surfaced--not at NBC, CNN or even Fox--but at the new, English language version of al-Jazerra, as its chief Washington correspondent and anchor. Asked about the channel's reputation for being an Al-Qaida mouthpiece, Marash retored that "conventional and, dare I say, informed opinion is that the channel is thoroughly respected."

Oh really? Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned in terms of journalistic values, but I find it hard to respect a network whose Madrid correspondent, Tayssir Alouni, was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for carrying money to al-Qaida members in Afghanistan. According to Spanish prosecutors, Alouni served as a al-Qaida courier for several years, while he also worked as an "independent" journalist for al-Jazerra.

Then, there's the lingering issue of the network's institutional bias. As Cliff Kincaid of AIM noted back in 2004, al-Jazera has a long history of showing the U.S. military forces in the worst possible light, suggesting that the network has an anti-American agenda. In fact, the network's reports were once viewed as so biased that former Secretary of State Colin Powell held discussions with officials from Qatar (where the network is based) about al-Jazerra's tone and content.

Apparently, al-Jazerra's unique slant on the news is of little concern to Mr. Marash. Al-Jazerra's English-language channel is a high priority project for the network, and they needed a recognizable face to front their American operation. I'm guessing that Mr. Marash will be well-paid for his work, easily matching his six-figure ABC salary.

But, at the end of the day, there's always that nagging question of where the money comes from, and whether you abide with your employer's way of doing business. Dancing With the Stars isn't exactly what Zworykin had in mind when he first contemplated the cathode ray tube, but at least Ms. Fernandez can say that she's earning an honest living. Working for a network with a clear anti-American agenda, can Dave Marash say the same thing? But then again, how is working for Al-Jazerra that different from working for ABC News. As Rich Noyes reminds us, Marash was willing to tout the insurgent party line once before, despite contrary evidence. Sounds like he will be a nice fit for Al-Jazerra. Some people really will do anything for money.

The Tehran-Caracas Axis

From yesterday's Opinion Journal, Mary Anastasia O'Grady highlights the growing ties between Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--and why we should be concerned. As Ms. O'Grady notes, Iran has recently assigned an agreement that calls for "technology transfer" from Tehran to Caracas. Details of the deal remain sketchy, but military technology will almost assuredly be part of the package. Proliferation of Iranian WMD and missile technology to Venezuela? Don't bet against it.

Some People Never Learn

Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite likes to remind us that he was a reporter long before he ascended to the anchor chair. And, in fairness, Mr. Cronkite's resume as a reporter is both lengthy and impressive. As a United Press correspondent during World War II, covered the European Theater and interviewed many of the key Allied military leaders. Later in his career, Cronkite reported from Vietnam, producing a famous "post-Tet" documentary in 1968 that surmised that the war could not be won. Cronkite's CBS documentary is widely credited with helping turn American public opinion against the war.

More than 30 years later, Cronkite is still proud of his work, noting the documentary's impact on American sentiments toward the war. Not surprisingly, he also believes that the Iraq war is "unwinnable" and believes the U.S. should pull out now. Cronkite made his comments over the weekend, in a meeting with television writers. The retired CBS anchorman told his audience that his Vietnam editorial, delivered at the end of the documentary, was his "proudest moment" in a long and storied career.

Nothing wrong with taking pride in your work, but there's only one problem: Cronkite got it wrong in Vietnam, and (of course), he's wrong again on Iraq. Tet was actually both a strategic and operational defeat for the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies. Launching wide-spread attacks across South Vietnam, VC and North Vietnamese Army units were quickly repulsed by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Only one provincial capital (the ancient city of Hue) was actually captured by the enemy and Hue was liberated a month later, after bloody, house-to-house fighting.

In fact, Tet decimated the Viet Cong as a fighting force; more than 50,000 enemy troops (mostly VC) died during the offensive, requiring a massive influx of North Vietnamese troops to carry on the ground war in the south. The offensive also destroyed the myth that the Viet Cong enjoyed wide support from the South Vietnamese people. This 2003 NRO column by John O'Sullivan (from 2003) does a nice job of summarizing how the media got it wrong on Tet. Instead of crowing about is work, Cronkite ought to be embarassed. With his Tet documentary, the CBS anchorman violated the first rule of journalism: he got the facts horribly wrong.

Sadly, the lasting "legacy" of Cronkite's Vietnam reports is that they became part of the conventional wisdom of the day, helping set the stage for our departure from Vietnam--and the communist bloodbath that followed. Of course, you won't hear Mr. Cronkite talk about the thousands of South Vietnamese who later perished in reedcuation camps, or died in rickety boats trying to free their communist masters after the fall of Saigon. That is also a legacy of Vietnam, a legacy hastened by Cronkite's biased and ill-informed reporting on the Tet offensive.

We can be thankful that the current administration (unlike the Johnson White House) puts little stock in the military "analysis" of CBS News.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cue the "Baretta" Theme

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. The Marine Corps catches up with a deserter--36 years after he went AWOL.

The SAM Threat

The U.S. Army has lost three helicopters in Iraq in less than two weeks, resulting in the deaths of at least 14 soldiers. According to a spokesman for coalition forces, the most recent crash occurred this morning, north of Baghdad. Few details have been released regarding the incident; however the military said the downed chopper was an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and its two-person crew died in the crash. It was the second fatal crash in four days; last Friday, an OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter went down near Mosul, killing its two-man crew. Earlier this month, a UH-60 Blackhawk transport chopper crashed in Tal Afar Province, killing 12 Americans.

Each of these incidents remains under investigation, and the causes of these crashes have not been determined. At least three insurgent groups have claimed responsibility for downing the Apache, although their claims have not been verified. Overall, the U.S. military has compiled a remarkable flight safety record in helicopter operations in Iraq, but this sudden spike will almost certainly prompt a review of operating patterns, tactics and counter-measure employment.

There will be a similar review of insurgent tactics and weaponry. Could these losses be the result of terrorists using better weapons againts our helicopters? Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, insurgents have had little success using man-portable, surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs) against coalition aircraft, despite their widespread availability. Among the reasons for the lack of success? Reliance on older SAMs (mostly Russian-built SA-7/14/16s), which are easily defeated by western countermeasures; poor tactical employment by the terrorists, and equally ineffective training for newly-recruited insurgent gunners. Those factors, coupled with successful western tactics and on-board countermeasures systems, have largely diminished the MANPAD threat in Iraq.

On the other hand, the introduction of a more advanced MANPAD (such as the Russian SA-18) could improve the odds for the insurgent. Like other, modern shoulder-fired SAMs, the SA-18 has an expanded engagement envelope and infra-red counter-counter measures (IRCCM), which can sometimes defeat aircraft self-defense systems. There have been periodic rumors that terrorists in Iraq have acquired the SA-18, but no confirmation of their use in combat. Military investigators will carefully comb crash wreckage, and use missile fragments to determine what weapon might have been used--if, in fact, the choppers were downed by hostile fire.

And that's an important "if." There are a number of factors that can cause the crash of a military aircraft, including weather, mechanical problems, and pilot error. Officially, we won't know what brought down these helicopters until the Army completes its investigation several months down the road. But there is suspicion that hostile fire may have been a factor in at least one or two of the crashes, again raising questions abount insurgent tactics and weaponry.

MANPADs remain an important weapon for insurgents in Iraq. MANPAD gunners are typically assigned their own security detail in the field, and they are deemed "too important" for other assignments, notably suicide missions. As the terrorists lose ground against coalition forces, this would be an opportune time to introduce more advanced MANPADs, in an effort to diminish coalition air dominance. While the jihadists will never chase U.S. helicopters from the skies of Iraq (as they did with the Soviets in Afghanistan), they could accomplish another goal, producing aircraft losses that reinforce the (false) notions that we are somehow losing the war.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Hunt for al-Zawahiri

In the aftermath of the (apparently) failed attempt to kill Al Qaida's #2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, there's a lot of hand-wringing and official indignation going on. Collectively, this is little more than an effort to cover the tracks of a joint operation that missed its intended target.

I say "joint" because it's virtually impossible that Pakistan had no prior knowledge of the planned strike. American surveillance drones had been criss-crossing the border area for days, in an effort to pin-point Zawahiri's whereabouts. Islamabad was also aware of a U.S. attack in early December that killed Al-Qaida's #3 leader; that strike was remarkably similar to the attempt on Zawahiri. In both cases, the attacks were carried out by Predator drones, ostensibly operated by the CIA. The strikes came after intensive intelligence efforts to locate the designated target. When the December attack succeeded, Pakistan quickly offered a cover story, saying that the Al Qaida figure died in an "accidental" explosion.

Unfortunately, the recent attempt on Zawahiri inflicted collateral damage that was quicked publicized by the western press and Arabic media, leaving Islamabad in a difficult position. The Pakistani government quickly moved to distance itself from the strike, summoning the U.S. ambassador for the obligatory protest. The Musharaff government also made vague statements about "preventing similar incidents from happening again."

Such rhetoric and posturing is strictly for public consumption. Behind the scenes, the Pakistanis will continue to cooperate with the U.S., since the Al-Qaida presence in the tribal regions poses a direct threat to regional security and the governmenit in Islamabad. Diplomatic notes and political protestations aside, the Paksitanis really have no other choice.

One final note: while the hunt for senior Al-Qaida figures never stops, the hunt for Zawahiri intensified dramatically just before the recent strike. For at least a 24-hour period during the week of 7 January, Predator video feeds from Afghanistan were cut off to outside agencies, to prevent a possible tip-off of the search target--and the pending strike. Such a move is very rare, and it shows the level of effort associated to the surveillance mission and resulting attack. However, UAV imagery is rarely enough to justify a strike. Heightened Predator surveillance was likely an attempt to confirm other intel reports. Given the successful strike in December--and the effort to "get" Zawahiri a few days ago--it seems evident that the U.S. has better intelligence on the whereabouts and habits of senior Al Qaida leaders; possibly from within the group itself.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Follow the Oil

12 Jan 06//1:30 p.m./PST

EU foreign ministers proclaim nuclear talks with Iran can go "no further," and have urged UN Security Council to take up the matter. Secretary of State Rice says she is "gravely concerned" and supports the European proposal. Russia is now indicating that it would abstain, rather than vote against efforts to move the matter to the security council.

But Beijing may have other ideas (below).


Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment activity has raised a logical question: is the international community willing to coalesce against Tehran, and take steps to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons?

Let's assume for a moment that diplomacy remains the preferred approach. The next step in that process would be for the International Atomc Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, something that could occur at the next IAEA meeting in March. If the UNSC takes up the issue, they could impose economic and/or military sanctions against Tehran, or even approve the use of military force (but don't get your hopes up).

Of course, any action by the security council can be vetoed by one of the permanent members. And who might be willing to stand with Iran? My guess is China, which has recently signed a series of key energy deals with Tehran. While Russia has its own, considerable investments in Iran, China may have the most to lose if the UN imposes sactions against the Tehran regime.

As Bloomberg reported late last year, Iran is becoming an increasingly important source of energy for China's booming economy. Iranian oil exports to China jumped 16% last year, and Iran now ranks as Beijing's #2 energy supplier, behind Saudi Arabia. In fact, China's growing demand for Iranian oil and natural gas is said to be undercutting U.S. diplomatic efforts to reign in Tehran's nuclear program. It's hard to get other nations to get tough with Iran, when Tehran literally has them over an oil barrel.

Just last fall, Iran signed a $70 billion dollar energy deal with Beijing, promising to sell China at least 150,000 barrels of oil a day and millions of tons of liquefied natural gas over the next three decades. Beijing is also helping Iran developed new oil fields in that country, which (presumably) will result in even more exports to China.

Beijing's growing appetite for Iranian oil gives Tehran a powerful ally on the security council. More than two years ago, Chinese officials indicated that they did not want the U.S. to refer theIranian nuclear issue to the Security Council, and there is no indication that Beijing has changed its stance. Follow the oil, and you'll see another reason that Tehran has little to fear from on-going efforts at nuclear diplomacy.

Unfinished Business

Less than a year after the death of John Paul II, Turkey has freed the man who attempted to assassinate him back in 1981. Mehmet Ali Agca was released from prison earlier today, after serving 25 years in Turkish and Italian jails for his plot against the pope and the 1979 murder of a Turkish journalist. Agca's attorney said this his client did not receive favorable treatment, and merely benefitted from "current laws" in his native Turkey.

According to his lawyer, Agca now wants to work for the cause of "democracy and culture," whatever that means. Agca's release was cheered by dozens of supporters, including a man who hijacked a Maltese jetliner in 1997, demanding freedom for Agca, calling him a "role model" for everyone who loves the Turkish nation."

If Agca is genuinely interested in the issue of "democracy" he could do everyone a big favor by clearing up a bit of unfinished business about his 1981 plot to kill Pope John Paul II. There have been persistent reports that the Soviet KGB ordered the hit, working through their counterparts in the Bulgarian intelligence service, who reportedly hired Agca. Just last April, Thomas Joscelyn of the Weekly Standard reported that German officials had discovered evidence that confirmed KGB involvement. The evidence was unearthed in the archives of the Stasi, the former East German intelligence organization and consisted of correspondence between the Stasi and their Bulgarian counterparts. In the recently-discovered letters, the spooks reportedly discuss the "hit" order from Moscow, and efforts to cover-up traces of Bulgarian involvement.

Case closed? Not quite. Despite the documentary find, Sofia has continued to deny any involvement in the plot, as has Moscow. But the Bulgarians have been less-than-forthcoming in attempting to prove their innocence. When an Italian parlimentary committee, investigating the Bulgarian connection, reviewd copies of the Stasi correspondence (provided by the Sofia government), they discovered the files had been altered, with names of intelligence operatives blacked out. So much for openess and cooperation from a fellow NATO ally.

As for Agca, he's offered a number of stories down through the years, including claims that Vatican officials regcognized that he was the Messiah, and conspired with him to shoot the Pope. While much of the MSM coverage focused on Agca's alleged instability--and his reported involvement with right-wing Turkish extremists--other journalists (notably Clare Sterling) quickly seized on the Bulgarian connection and provided compelling evidence of a assassination plot that was hatched in Moscow, and carried out by Sofia's agents. Ironically, Agca once admitted that he was part of a Bulgarian plot, then recanted his story, after allegedly receiving threats in prison from Bulgarian agents.

Why did the American media--and the CIA--ignore this story for so long? As Joscelyn, Arnaud de Borchgrave and others have noted, the thought that the KGB might order the assassination of the Pope didn't sit well with media elites, who still favored detente with the Soviets. From the CIA perspective, pursuing the KGB angle might have exposed the agency's close relationship with the Vatican during the 1980s. The agency worked with the Pope and the estern European church to encourage pro-democratic movements behind the Iron Curtain. As an early supporter of the Solidarity labor movement--dating back to its inception in the late 1970s--the pontiff was a threat to the Soviets, and (eventually) a target for elimination.

Twenty-five years later, Mehmet Al Agca can finally shed new light on that fateful day in St. Peter's Square. As a "democratic activist," he should tell us--truthfully--who hired him, and the nature of his relationship with Bulgarian intelligence. The world has the right to know, once and for all, if the attempted assassination of the John Paul II was indeed the handiwork of the Evil Empire and its cronies in Sofia.