Friday, December 28, 2012

The Man Who Stopped a School Shooting

Until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the deadliest school shooting in American history occurred at the University of Texas in 1966.  Charles Whitman, an architecture student at the university (and a Marine Corps veteran) climbed the landmark, 28-story clock tower on the UT campus with a high-powered rifle, then opened fire.  Sixteen people died before a small group of Austin police officers, accompanied by armed citizens put an end to the rampage.

Now, one of the heroes of that deadly day has died.  Former Austin policeman Houston McCoy passed away Thursday at the age of 72, following a long illness.

McCoy, then a young patrol officer, was among the first members of the Austin police department to arrive at the scene after Whitman began shooting.  They found death and horror across a wide stretch of the campus surrounding the sniper's perch.  Dozens lay dead or wounded while Whitman continued firing.  When a police sharpshooter in a small plane circling the tower was unable to draw a bead on the shooter, McCoy and other officers made their way to the  tower and began moving towards the observation deck, where Whitman was partially obstructed by the structure.

The Austin American-Statesman describes how McCoy, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, ended 99 minutes of chaos:

The frantic moments on the observation deck and who did what and when have been rehashed, researched and analyzed by history buffs and family. It’s generally accepted that it was McCoy’s shotgun blast that felled Whitman. But [fellow Austin policeman Ramiro] Martinez shot him, too, and initially got the credit until about 1970, when then-Police Chief Bob Miles first began to publicly talk about McCoy’s role in stopping Whitman. By then, McCoy had resigned from the department and was a civilian flight instructor in Del Rio for the U.S. Air Force.

From his bed in a rest home in 2011, McCoy recounted what he remembered: “I got him. But it really doesn’t matter whether I got him or Martinez did. Martinez is a good man, and he was the first police officer on the deck to confront the sniper. There were many heroes that day, police officers and civilians.”

Houston McCoy's humility belies his heroism on that fateful day.  Back in 1966, virtually no police department in America was prepared for what unfolded in Austin.  There were no SWAT teams; few police units had dedicated helicopters and officers on the beat generally didn't have access to rifles like the ones Whitman used during his shooting spree.  Urban legend has it that the Austin PD issued a public plea for citizens to bring hunting rifles to the scene to increase officer's firepower.   In fact, one of the men who climbed the tower with McCoy, Martinez and fellow officer Jerry Day was Allen Crum, a deputized civilian carrying a borrowed rifle.

Most people were unaware of McCoy's role in stopping Whitman until 1970, when new details of the shooting were made public.  Until then, Martinez had been credited with firing the shots that killed the sniper.  Indeed, autopsy results showed that one round from Martinez's service revolver struck Whitman.  But it was a pair of shotgun blasts--fired by McCoy that felled the gunman.

Years later, McCoy insisted that he did not want to be defined by that day--or Charles Whitman:

n an interview with the American-Statesman in April 2011, he vehemently requested that Whitman — whom he didn’t call by name but referred to as “the sniper” — not be included in his final story. “But I guess you have to do that, mention the incident,” McCoy said. “Just be sure to say that I was not the only police officer there that day. It was teamwork.

Officer McCoy's heroism and selflessness are reminders of what is often necessary to stop a madman.  Now, in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, it's instructive to look back at the first deadly rampage at an American school and how it finally ended, not with the passage of new restrictions on the Second Amendment, but at the end of a shotgun barrel, carried by a brave man wearing a badge.

Forty-four years after Whitman's rampage, another gunman appeared on the UT campus.  He terrorized students briefly before taking his own life as university police arrived.  Incidentally, the sprawling Texas campus had been declared a "gun free zone" several years before the would-be shooter, Colton Tooley, opened fire in the campus library.  Go figure.      



Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lucky Man

NBC's Richard Engel is a very lucky man.

The network's "Chief Foreign Correspondent" was released earlier this week, five days after being taken captive while covering the civil war in Syria.  Engel and the rest of his crew were freed on Monday when their captors (part of a faction loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad) were stopped at a checkpoint manned by anti-regime forces.  At least two of the kidnappers were killed when a firefight ensured and the NBC cerw managed to escape.  Members of the rebel group that ended the abduction helped Engel and his colleagues reach safety in Turkey on Tuesday.

In an interview that aired on his network, Engel said the NBC team was not tortured during their days in captivity, but they were subjected to mock executions.  That strikes us as a bit odd; a number of journalists have died inside Syria and Assad's thugs would have little problem with torturing a western news crew before executing them and disposing of their bodies.   But Engel and the other NBC journalists lived long enough to escape when the opportunity presented itself.

So why were Mr. Engel and his crew allowed to survive?  The first possibility is that the kidnappers realized they had nabbed a really big media fish, one that was worth more alive than dead.  Engel has been covering the Middle East for more than a decade, and speaks fluent Arabic.  Without the  language barrier that confronts many western journalists, perhaps Engel convinced the kidnappers to let them live, in exchange for a potential ransom from NBC, or the "goodwill" that would come from eventually releasing them.

Still, that scenario is a bit of a stretch.  The Assad government has murdered 44,000 of its citizens over the past 18 months, and their public image went in the toilet a long time ago.  Somehow, the Damascus government doesn't seem overly concerned with the subtleties of public relations, and that same trait extends to the pro-Assad group that nabbed Mr. Engel.

In reality, there is probably a much more simple--and direct--explanation for Engel's survival.  The Assad government planned to use the NBC crew to send a message, warning western reporters to stay out of Syria.  Perhaps there would have been a show trial in Damascus, or some rougher treatment before their release.  While Engel and his colleagues deserve credit for making the best of  a bad situation, their relatively long survival (before escape) suggests their captors had no plans for a quick execution.

Unfortunately, the next foreign reporter to be captured inside Syria may not be as fortunate.  As we've noted in previous posts, the conflict in Syria is growing more savage by the day.  There are growing concerns about Assad's massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and their potential employment against rebel forces.   The regime has also begun using SCUD missiles and shorter-range (but more accurate) SS-21s against its foes.   Obviously, a surface-to-surfaced missile isn't exactly the weapon of choice against rebel forces, which don't mass in large concentrations or operate from fixed facilities, like conventional forces.

But on the other hand, a SCUD or SS-21 is an ideal weapon for delivering a chemical warhead against populated areas where the rebels operate and find refuge.   So far, there have been no confirmed reports of missile strikes against insurgent forces using chemical weapons, but opposition groups claim the Assad regime has used chemical weapons several times in recent weeks.  However, these reports are no better than second-hand and they have not been confirmed by any western intelligence organization, or media outlet.

Which brings us back to Mr. Engel and his competitors.  If Assad is planning to unleash chemical weapons against his people, the last thing he wants is a western media crew to document the mass casualties, or falling victim themselves, if they happen to be in the affected area.  So, why not grab a high-profile western journalist and use that unfortunately individual (or crew) to send a not-so-subtle message to the rest of the press.  Engel was clearly the chosen medium, until the plan was interrupted by rebel forces at that checkpoint.

We're guessing that Mr. Assad's goons are shadowing other western reporters, in a search for their next kidnap victims.   And with the survival of the Assad government at stake--and a CW offensive in the offing--the next abduction will occur sooner, rather than later.  And we will likely see a much different outcome.
ADDENDUM:  Damascus may have other reasons for chasing reporters out of the war zone (and other areas).  It was reported today that Syria is serving as a trans-shipment point for the Russian-made S-300 air defense system en route to Iran.  Officially, Moscow has refused to sell the state-of-the-art equipment to Tehran, but Fox News reported today that the S-300 is being shipped to Iran through Syria.  In exchange, the Iranians will continue to provide the guns, ammunition and support that Damascus needs to continue the war with the rebels.

While Russia has sold the advanced3 SA-17 SAM system to Syria in the past, Moscow reportedly canceled an S-300 delivery to Assad's forces earlier this year.  Other reports suggest that Croatia is transferring its older SA-10 equipment to Iran through Syria, with the blessings of Moscow.  The SA-10 represents of the "first generation" of the system, which has evolved into the more advanced SA-20/S-300 variants.

Croatia never deployed the SA-10 operationally, and the radars, missiles and other equipment were kept in covered storage for years.  The condition of the Croatian SA-10s is unknown, but they could be restored to operational service with Russian assistance.  Deployment of the SA-10 in Iran would present serious challenges to potential air attacks by the U.S. or Israel.   Transferring the surplus gear from Croatia (through Damascus) creates a degree of deniability for Russia, which never allowed a direct transfer of the S-300 from its production lines, to Iran.

If the Croatian SA-10s are being flown to Iran, the most likely trans-shipment point is Damascus International Airport or military airfields in that area.   Clearly, there are plenty of people in Syria, Iran, Russia and Croatia who don't want western reporters ("embedded" with rebel forces) to provide more video proof of these flights.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Re-thinking Guns and Schools

Friday's massacre in Connecticut will inevitably re-ignite the debate over guns and school safety.  Of course, some believe the debate is already over; for years, the education establishment has argued that schools should be designated as "gun free" zones, with swift punishment for anyone who violates that policy.  There have been numerous cases where elementary school students have been suspended for bringing a toy gun to school.  In recent months, youngsters in Colorado, North Carolina and Michigan received suspensions for having a toy gun at school, or on a school bus.

As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut grapple with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it may be worth considering the efficacy of existing policies.  Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, but they did little to protect the victims of today's rampage.  Media reports indicate the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used handguns registered to his mother, who was a teacher at the school.  Lanza killed his mother at their home before going to Sandy Hook and  launching the shooting spree that ultimately claimed 27 lives.

A tragedy of this type inevitably resurrects memories of similar events in the past; Virginia Tech, Colombine, Jonesboro and others.  But oddly enough, there is little mention of a school shooting that ended not with the gunman taking his own life, but with the suspect being forced to stop his rampage at the barrel of a gun, aimed by a school official who had the training and courage to fight back.  We refer to the shooting that occurred in Pearl, Mississippi in October 1997.

There are some similarities between events in Pearl 15 years ago, and what happened yesterday in Connecticut.  The shooter in Mississippi, Luke Woodham, began his crime spree by murdering his mother at their home before heading to Pearl High School, where he was a student.  Arriving on campus a few minutes later, Woodham used a high-powered rifle to target his fellow students and school staff members.  Two students died and seven others were wounded in a hail of bullets.  The school principal desperately called 911 for assistance.

But Assistant Principal Joel Myrick took another approach.  Long concerned about the possibility of shooting incident, Myrick kept a .45 pistol in his car.  When shots rang out on that October morning, Myrick dashed to his car and retrieved the weapon, then returned to the school in search of the gunman.  When the assistant principal confronted Woodham, the gunman surrendered.  When police arrived, they found Myrick holding Woodham at gunpoint, his foot across the assailant's neck.

We may never know the number of lives saved by Joel Myrick.  When he caught up with Woodham, the shooter had returned to his mother's car and was preparing to drive to nearby Pearl Junior High School, where he planned to resume his shooting spree.  Instead, Woodham was taken into custody, tried, convicted and sentenced to three life terms in prison.  Woodham will be eligible for parole when he turns 65.

While the loss of life in Pearl was tragic, it could have been much, much worse.  At a decisive moment, it was the presence of an armed citizen that prevented a much greater slaughter.  And the Mississippi incident isn't the only example.  In May 1974, Palestinian terrorists targeted an Israeli school in the village of Ma'alot, taking a number of students hostage.  When Israeli commandos tried to free the students, the terrorists opened fire on their captives, killing 22 of them.

Fearing another attack, Israeli educators asked the military for assistance.  But the IDF told them it was impractical to station troops at all schools and college campuses. So, the Israelis began training teachers, counselors, administrators and parent volunteers to carry weapons, and provide protection  for their schools.  While virtually no teachers carry guns in the classroom, every school soon had an armed sccurity detail, professional or volunteer.  Realizing that Israeli schools were no longer a "soft" target, the terrorists began looking elsewhere.  It would be more than 25 years before the jihadists would again target an Israeli school.

In March 2008, two off-duty IDF officers stopped an attack on a religious school in Jerusalem.  The Israeli officers, both former students at the institution, arrived before police, and eliminated the Palestinian gunman, who had already slaughtered eight students.  But as in the Pearl shooting, the timely intervention of the IDF officers likely prevented a far worse tragedy.  The terrorist managed to smuggle an automatic weapon and hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the school and might have killed many more students, had the Israeli officers not arrived on the scene.

To be fair, the presence of armed educators and security personnel isn't a panacea.  During the Colombine massacre, a school security officer retreated into the main office and remained there throughout the rampage; a sheriff's deputy, assigned as the school's resource officer, was called to the perimeter of the campus shortly before the shooting began and was unable to re-enter the building.

Still, the presence of armed--and trained--individuals can make a difference.  A shooter at the Appalachian School of Law surrendered after being confronted by fellow students--who retrieved weapons from their vehicles.  By some accounts, the suspect still had rounds in his gun at the time of his capture, and could have killed others without the intervention of the armed students, both of whom were local law enforcement officers.

School security has steadily improved since the days of Pearl and Colombine.  Yet, events like the one in Newtown still occur, though the overall number of shootings has declined.  Just hours after the bodies of dead children were removed from Sandy Hook school, liberal politicians were already plotting strategies to leverage the tragedy in a new attempt to restrict gun rights.  But for those who are genuinely sincere about preventing such disasters in the future, it's time for an honest examination of what does--and doesn't--work.  Creating an armed security presence inside our schools may seem radical, but given the record of "gun free zones" and "zero tolerance," it may be time for a different approach.  


Monday, December 03, 2012

The Most Dangerous Turn in Syria

The conflict in Syria appears poised to take an ominous--and even more deadly--turn.

In recent days, there have been several developments, suggesting that the on-going civil way may soon cross one of the feared "red lines," dragging Syria's neighbors (and perhaps NATO) into the conflict as well.

First, there were multiple reports last week that the Assad government had shut down internet access across the country and restricted cell phone service in a number of areas.  The move came after government forces suffered a string of recent defeats, losing control of air bases and other key facilities around Damascus.  Restricting communications would (at least in theory) make it more difficult for rebel forces to plan follow-on attacks.  Syrian insurgents, like those in other countries, have made extensive use of various internet platforms to coordinate their activities.

While the communications shut-down makes some degree of military sense, it raises a couple of obvious questions.  First, why did Assad and his minions wait so long, and secondly, why surrender such a valuable source of "open source" intelligence information as the battle for Syria enters a critical phase.  Besides, rebel forces have been receiving secure communications gear from the U.S.  (and other sources) for several months, so pulling the plug on the internet may not impact anti-government forces as much as Mr. Assad might hope.

But the comms black-out may be related to something far more dangerous--the potential introduction of chemical weapons in the 20-month-old conflict.  According to The New York Times, U.S. intelligence agencies have detected recent movements involving Syria's chemical stockpile, activity that goes well beyond past measures which placed them in more secure locations:

The Syrian military’s movement of chemical weapons in recent days has prompted the United States and several allies to repeat their warning to President Bashar al-Assad that he would be “held accountable” if his forces used the weapons against the rebels fighting his government. 


What exactly the Syrian forces intend to do with the weapons remains murky, according to officials who have seen the intelligence from Syria. One American official provided the most specific description yet of what has been detected, saying that “the activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation,” which goes beyond the mere movement of stockpiles among Syria’s several dozen known sites. But the official declined to offer more specifics of what those preparations entailed.

U.S. officials did not provide specifics on the type of activity observed.  Preparation actions involving chemical weapons can include such measures as

-- Removing chemical shells and missile warheads from secure storage
-- Transporting those weapons to designated delivery systems (such as aircraft, artillery units and missile battalions)
-- Special security measures involving weapons storage sites and employment assets
-- Detection of chemical protection and decontamination activity among units involved in CW operations
-- Activation of special C2 networks associated with WMD employment (and)
-- The actual "mating" of chemical munitions with delivery platforms

Not surprisingly, the current activity involving Assad's CW stockpile has caught the attention of Israel's neighbors.  Turkey has asked NATO to deploy two Patriot air defense battalions, to help defend the country from chemical-tipped missiles that might be fired from Syria.

Meanwhile, Israel is considering a much more aggressive approach.  Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought Jordan's permission to bomb Syrian WMD sites on two occasions in the last two months.  In both instances Jordan declined, saying the "timing wasn't right."

With many Syrian CW facilities located near the Jordanian border, Israel believes it is important to have Amman's permission before launching an attack through its airspace.  But as U.S. officials observe, Israel doesn't need Jordan's permission to go after Syria; over the years, the Israeli Air Force has struck a number of targets in Syrian-controlled territory with near-impunity.  So, why the sudden concern about Jordanian permission?

For starters, it's worth remembering that airstrikes alone won't eliminate most of Syria's chemical arsenal.  Neutralizing that threat means destroying weapons, eliminating production facilities and removing some assets--and personnel--from Syrian territory.  It's a monumental task, one that would require a minimum of 75,000 troops, based on a recent Pentagon estimate.

While there are no indications that Israel (or anyone else) is contemplating that type of operation, a flight corridor through Jordan would have certain advantages.  First, it would decrease the amount of time Israeli aircraft spend in hostile airspace, and if coupled with a feint towards Lebanon (a more traditional ingress route for Syrian missions) and cyber-attacks against Damascus's air defense network, the IAF would have much better odds of achieving complete tactical surprise.

Additionally, the "Jordan option" suggests Israel has more than airstrikes in mind.  Routing through Jordan would be ideal for an Israeli command operation, using helicopters and transport planes to ferry special forces assets deep into Syrian territory, allowing them to attack high-value WMD sites and fly captured weapons back to Israel.

This much is certain: the events of recent days are clearly connected, and signal that the Syrian civil war is moving in a very dangerous phase.  With the internet switched off (and only limited cell phone service), it will be easier for the Assad government to use chemical weapons against the rebels, without the sort of "instant" reporting that would normally accompany such events.

Under present conditions, it may take hours (or even days) for reports of CW attacks to reach the west, giving Mr. Assad and his regime time to concoct their own version of events.  By his calculations, if the circumstances surrounding chemical attacks are "murky" enough, the west is less likely to act, giving him the green light to continue a WMD campaign against his own people.

And if all else fails. Assad is quite willing to provoke a regional war, in hopes of uniting the Arab world against their common foe--Israel.  If the chemical genie is released from its bottle, it's quite easy to envision initial attacks against rebel forces being followed by "stray" missiles launched against Israel and Turkey.  Assad believes (correctly or not) that both of his foes would be restrained by the U.S. and NATO--and the success of available missile defense systems.

If his desperation plan works, the various regional players would be less likely to intervene on the side of the rebels (hoping to avoid a further escalation in the conflict), allowing Assad to proceed with an even greater genocide in the name of regime survival.  And if it doesn't, there's always a quick flight to Tehran, and billions looted from the Syrian treasury, socked away in Swiss bank accounts.

As for the United States, our recently re-elected Commander-in-Chief is about to get a nasty surprise.  Having kicked the Syrian can to the end of the road, President Obama will soon face a tough decision.  Find some way to neutralize the Syrian WMD threat, or watch those weapons be used against anti-government forces--along with innocent civilians in Israel, Turkey and Jordan.  He can out-source the job to the Israelis (or the Syrian rebels); launch a U.S. military operation, or mount some sort of coalition effort.  Whatever he chooses, the outcome won't be very clean, and the potential loss of life could be significant.  But there are few good options in Syria right now, and postponing the decision won't make them any better.           

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Plans for the Big Bang

If there were any remaining doubts about the real purpose behind Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program, this may end the speculation once and for all.  From George Jahn of the Associated Press, who covers the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from Vienna:

Iranian scientists have run computer simulations for a nuclear weapon that would produce more than triple the explosive force of the World War II bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, according to a diagram obtained by The Associated Press.
The diagram was leaked by officials from a country critical of Iran’s atomic program to bolster their arguments that Iran’s nuclear program must be halted before it produces a weapon. The officials provided the diagram only on condition that they and their country not be named.
The International Atomic Energy Agency — the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog — reported last year that it had obtained diagrams indicating that Iran was calculating the “nuclear explosive yield” of potential weapons. A senior diplomat who is considered neutral on the issue confirmed that the graph obtained by the AP was indeed one of those cited by the IAEA in that report. He spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
According to the AP, the Iranian chart shows an explosive yield in the 50-kiloton range, making it three times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  By comparison, the warheads carried by U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs have a reported yield in the 330kt range, while submarine-launched Trident D-5 missiles have warheads with a yield in the 1 megaton range.  
Due to improved accuracy, U.S. nuclear weapons (and those of other nuclear powers) have decreased in explosive power over the past 30 years.  The single warhead mounted on American Titan II ICBMs--retired from active service in 1986--had a yield of 10 megatons.  At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union tested a massive bomb with a yield of 50-100 megatons, depending on its configuration.  
Experts who have seen the diagram say its more of a performance chart than a blueprint for the actual device.  Others claim its a bit optimistic in predicting the explosive force of an Iranian device, noting that North Korea's initial nuclear tests were duds, generating yields somewhere between 2-6 kilotons, on the low end of the scale for a Hiroshima-type weapon.  Many analysts believe these results are indicative of devices that failed to detonate properly.  Tehran could face similar difficulties in designing and testing their own nuclear weapons.  
On the other hand, Iran has certain advantages in its nuclear development efforts.  First, while Tehran's economy is far from robust, the Iranians can devote greater resources to their program, including money for outside experts.  Over the years, there have been credible reports about nuclear scientists from Russia, North Korea and Pakistan making their way to Iran, and providing vital assistance.  Similarly, Iran has benefited from the learning curve of other programs--most notably North Korea--improving chances for a successful first test, and a shortened development cycle.  
As for the source of the diagram, it most likely came from Iranian opposition groups, who gave it to Israeli or American intelligence operatives.  Our money is on the Israelis, who are facing a short-term decision on how they must deal with Iran's nuclear program.  A U.S. leak is considered less likely, given the Obama Administration's insistence that Tehran is still many months away from critical "red lines," leaving room for more diplomacy.  
There is also the possibility that the chart is some sort of Iranian disinformation effort, aimed at convincing the west that it is much further along in its nuclear development, and highlighting the potential consequences of military action against Tehran.  However, the disinformation theory is also considered less plausible, since the diagram could influence Israel's decision to launch a military strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.  If Iran is in a final sprint to complete a bomb--as most intelligence analysts believe--they don't want to invite a near-term Israeli attack that could set back the program by months or years. 
A final, albeit remote possibility, is that the leaked diagram is a warning from elements within the IAEA who have long believed that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and are frustrated over the inaction by their agency (and the rest of the international community).  According to the AP, the diagram is part of a computer simulation conducted in 2008 and 2009, five years after U.S. intelligence claimed that Iran had suspended most meaningful work on its nuclear weapons program.  
That claim--made in an infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate--effectively thwarted potential action against Tehran by the Bush Administration.  As Iran's nuclear program marches steadily forward, we can only wonder if our intelligence officials are being more honest about Tehran's current intentions than they were about the security debacle in Benghazi.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lessons of the Dome

Iron Dome interceptor missiles streak skyward to engage Palestinian rockets earlier this week (Time magazine photo).  

As the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold, many analysts are scratching their heads over the fundamental question: why did the terrorist organization instigate a sudden war with their implacable foe?  In hindsight, the week-long conflict looks like a major disaster for Hamas, despite the usual pronouncements of bravado from surviving terrorist leaders.

History will show that Hamas had been ramping-up operations for weeks before launching a full-scale rocket offensive against Israeli targets.  The breaking point (ostensibly) was Israel's elimination of a key terrorist leader, blown up in a precision strike by the IAF.  Hamas warned that the assassination had "opened the gates of hell," conjuring up images of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hizballah, when thousands of rockets rained down on Israeli towns along its borders, killing at least 40 Israeli civilians.  The rocket barrage also had a major impact on ordinary life; thousands of Israelis, particularly in the north, relocated to areas that were less vulnerable, while thousands more were forced to remain in close proximity of their air raid shelters.    

This time, the results were much different.  With "Iron Dome" rocket defense batteries deployed at key points along the border and near major population centers (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem), the terrorist rocket campaign was completely ineffective.  By some estimates, Iron Dome intercepted between 80 and 90% of the rockets fired at Israel, and the intercept rate actually improved in the latter stages of the conflict, as Israeli operators and system contractors tweaked its performance.  Three Israeli civilians died in the latest rocket barrage, a decrease of more than 70% from 2006.   The air raid sirens still produced jitters among the Israeli populace, but the psychological, economic and social impacts were less pronounced this time, as civilians realized that Iron Dome could knock     down most of the rockets fired their way.

Which brings us back to Hamas and their grave mis-calculation.  What did the terror group hope to accomplish with their near-term offensive?  Weaken Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the run-up to Parliamentary elections?  Divert attention away from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is scheduled to address the U.N. in the coming weeks?  Force Egypt into the conflict on the side of Hamas?  If any of these represented actual goals, then Hamas failed, and failed spectacularly.  Not only did their rockets inflict insignificant injuries and damage in Israel, but Hamas paid a heavy price for its effort.  More than a week of counter-strikes by the IAF killed several senior terror leaders and badly damaged their infrastructure for missile launch operations and logistical support.  It will take more than a year to replenish the assets lost during a week of concentrated Israeli air strikes.

But perhaps the Hamas offensive had more narrow objectives.  It's worth remembering that the terror group does nothing without the support of its allies in Iran; after all, who do you think is the source for most of the rockets launched from Gaza into Israel.  So, the latest rocket war had the clear backing of Tehran, which raises obvious questions about Iranian motives.

To be sure, the Tehran government supported some of the political goals outlined previously.  But Iran also had military reasons for goading Hamas into a short-term war with Israel, reasons that go well beyond killing innocent civilians and inflicting maximum property damage.  In fact, it might be argued that Iran was interested in an operational test of the Iron Dome, to determine the system's operational capabilities against larger volleys of Palestinian rockets.  When it became clear that the defense system was up to the task, Iran had no problem with Hamas running to Egypt (in the best tradition of Arab war-fighting) and asking them to arrange a cease-fire.

Iron Dome's performance is of obvious concern to Iran.  Most scenarios for a conflict between Israel and Tehran feature massive missile attacks against the Jewish state, with many of the  rockets launched from places like Gaza, southern Lebanon and even Syria.  If these attacks could overwhelm Iron Dome, the thinking goes, the Israelis might be forced to allocate other assets against the long-range rocket threat (read: Patriot batteries), leaving the country with less protection against ballistic missile, such as Iranian Shahab-3 missiles.

Of course, the Israelis have long considered that possibility, prompting the deployment of a layered anti-missile system, built around the Iron Dome (for short-range rockets); upgraded Patriot units for short-range missiles like the SS-21 and SCUD variants, and the Arrow II system for longer-range missiles from Iran.  The recent conflict demonstrated that Iron Dome can handle mass volleys of rockets--including the larger Fajr-5--without assistance from other assets.  At one point, the Palestinians even tried to refine their "saturation" tactics, concentrating their launches at a single Iron Dome battery.  Their scheme failed; the system engaged rockets that threatened populated areas, while ignoring those bound for the open countryside, just as it was designed to do.  Not long after that failed "project," the Palestinians were pressing for a firm cease-fire.

While political motives for the "November war" cannot be discounted, it also seems clear that Hamas (along with its Iranian patrons) wanted a better read on how their tactics would fair against the Iron Dome, which is now entering wider operational service.  To say the least, Hamas got its answer during the week-long war, and it wasn't the one they were looking for.

So, the terrorists--and the Iranians--will go back to the drawing board, searching for tactics that will make future rocket barrages more effective.  It's a sure bet that future campaigns will begin with some sort of terrorist raid against Iron Dome batteries along the border, followed by a huge vollley of rockets through the area guarded by the site was was under attack.  But once again, the Israelis have an answer for that scenario; perimeter defense is the first mission of any air defense system in the field, and the IDF can easily provided additional assets to secure the Iron Dome sites.

Another, more frightening possibility is the use of chemical weapons during future Palestinian rocket attacks.  If you know only a handful of your missiles will get through, equip them with a warhead that will inflict maximum casualties.  Unconfirmed reports indicate the Palestinians were contemplating such a move during last week's attacks, but there is no evidence that a chemically-tipped rocket was launched towards Israel.                      

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Gathering Storm (Israel Edition)

While an Israeli diplomat negotiates a possible cease-fire with Hamas in Egypt, there are signs the conflict my yet erupt into full-scale war.

Perhaps the most notable indicator involves the U.S. Navy.  It was announced today that an amphibious ready group, including the landing dock USS Gunston Hall; the amphibious transport dock USS New York and the helicopter carrier USS Iwo Jima have been re-routed from the homeward leg of their deployment, and sent to the waters off Israel.  According to CNN, the vessels have been dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean to assist with the possible evacuation of American citizens from Israel, in the event of a wider war between the Jewish state and its Muslim neighbors.

[U.S.] officials stressed an evacuation remains an extremely remote possibility and the Obama administration is not currently planning for one. Americans who wish to leave the region now are able to do so using commercial airlines.
But the decision to send the ships even if the event is such a remote contingency underscores the growing concern about where the Israel-Gaza conflict could be headed.
"This is due diligence. It is better to be prepared should there be a need," one official said Monday. Both officials said the ships would be used only for assisting Americans and not for any combat role.
The most immediate impact will be on the ships' crews and the estimated 2,500 Marines on board. They had been scheduled to return to Norfolk, Virginia, just after Thanksgiving; their homecoming will now be delayed several days depending on events, the officials said.
While there are no signs of a near-term evacuation of non-essential personnel (known in defense and diplomatic circles as a NEO operation), the re-positioning of those amphibious assets is significant.  At the time they received their new orders, the ships and crews of the amphibious readiness group were west of Gibraltar, only days away from returning to Norfolk.  

At first blush, it would appear the deployment was influenced (in part) by September's tragic events in Libya, when four Americans died during a terrorist attacks at our diplomatic and intelligence facilities at Benghazi.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta--and other senior administration officials--have claimed that the U.S. had few military assets in the region at the time that were capable of providing immediate support.  The ready group is capable of putting more than 2,500 Marines ashore, supporting them with transport and attack helicopters, as well as AV-8B Harrier attack aircraft.  

But Americans should be safe in Israeli territory, so the movement of the ready group is aimed more at a NEO contingency than other military operations.  Yet, as we've noted during similar alerts, the potential number of evacuees could easily overwhelm our military forces off-shore.  According to one estimate, the number of American citizens living in Israel may top 250,000; other projections put the total much lower, somewhere between 50-80,000.  And, as we've observed in the past, the State Department often uses the "Rule of Three" in determining the number of potential evacuees; in other words, take the "known" number of Americans living in that country and multiply it by three; that latter figure is a good estimate of the how many U.S. citizens might request evacuation.  

Obviously, you'd need more than three Navy amphibious ships to remove thousands of Americans from a war zone.  If a NEO is in the offing, look for the State Department to begin organizing an airlift from Israel, using both commercial and military transport planes.  But even then, it will be a slow process, one that could be complicated by enemy missile attacks against population and debarkation centers.  At least one media report suggests Hamas may be preparing chemical warheads for its long-range rockets, a development that would certainly lead to a wider war and more difficulty in removing U.S. citizens from Israel.  

There have been half-a-dozen major wars involving Israel since the Jewish state was re-established in 1948.  Interestingly, the U.S. never conducted a NEO during any of those conflicts, but the preparations for that type of evacuation are now underway.  So far, no one has  issued a "go" order to the amphibious group (or other American military forces in the region).  But the re-routing of the Iwo and its sister ships cannot be dismissed as a mere precaution.  After the scandal of Libya, DoD and the White House aren't taking any chances and clearly, officials at both locations expect the situation to get much worse before it gets better.       

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Wages of November 6th

Today's reading assignment from Andrew McCarthy, writing at National; a few salient paragraphs:

So along comes Hamas. Just days before the presidential election, the terrorist organization — begotten by the Brotherhood and serving as its Palestinian branch — spearheaded an Islamist offensive, firing in just a few days over 120 rockets into the Jewish state from its home base in Gaza. You may not have heard about it until a few days after the election. Like Iran’s act of war in shooting at a U.S. drone in international waters, it signaled a further dangerous unraveling of the Middle East that undercut the media narrative of Obama as foreign-policy chess master, so it was tucked under the rug. But it could not be ignored forever, for it is not just another spike in the ever-thrumming Gaza border skirmish. It is the renewal of an unending war — an existential one for Israel, which is expected to fight “proportionately,” with both hands tied behind its back, yet blithely accept, as the international community has, the barbaric Islamist claim that nothing short of Israel’s destruction will be satisfactory.


The jihad against Israel “isn’t a matter of individuals, not a matter of community. It is a matter of a nation. The Arab nation, the Islamic nation.” So exclaimed Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil on Thursday in Gaza. He had been sent there to show solidarity with Hamas by Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood leader Egyptians elected as their president. “We are all behind you,” Qandil continued — behind “the struggling nation . . . that is presenting its children as heroes every day.”

This is how the Middle East’s Muslims see the situation. They are not Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Iraqis, and so on. They are the ummah, the “Islamic nation.” For them, Gaza is not a regional dustup over parochial grievances. It is a civilizational struggle to be fought to the finish — the finish being when the enemy is vanquished. We used to fight wars that way, too. The fact that we’ve decided total victory by force of arms is a quaint concept does not mean everybody else has. Islamists define victory in the Middle East as the annihilation of Israel. That is the ambition of the region, not just of Hamas. Our government’s decades-old claim that the aggression results from a “perversion of Islam” weaved by a fringe of “violent extremists” is dangerously delusional.

The U.S. reaction so far?  A perfunctory statement acknowledging Israel's right to defend itself, and a phone call between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  But, as Mr. McCarthy reminds us, this is the same administration that has been actively encouraging the Islamists that are now calling for the final defeat of Israel.  

Meanwhile, some of the Palestinian "missile crews" from Gaza have moved their crude weapons into Egyptian territory, with the apparent blessing of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.  Some of those rockets have already been launched against Israeli territory.  What happens when the Israelis finally lose their patience and strike launch sites in Egypt, not Gaza?  Will the new Egyptian leader show the same restraint exercised by the Israelis (so far)?  What will Mr. Obama do when Egypt begins mobilizing, and the Middle East hurtles towards an all-out regional war?  Another speech?  More behind-the-scenes deal-making with the Islamists who now run Turkey?  

In related news, Iran has announced plans to greatly increase its nuclear output, putting it at a critical "red line" in another seven months.  Obviously, Israel won't let Tehran get that far; the elements of an IAF strike against Tehran are simply awaiting the authorization from the Prime Minister.  The current Israeli Air Force "surge" against Hamas provides the perfect operational cover for launching tankers and fighters against Iran.  And that will happen sooner, rather than later.         

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Who Knew? (Petraeus Scandal Edition)

The sexual affair that forced the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus was one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington, or at least that's what The New York Times would have us believe.

In a report published yesterday, the paper said that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia had a discussion about the matter with an FBI official in October.  The Times' implication is clear: leaders on both sides of the Congressional aisle were aware of Petraeus's misdeeds, but said nothing with the election looming.

But, as with many accounts offered up by the NYT, you need to read a little further to get to the gist of the story; here's a CNN account of the latest twist, based on the paper's original article:

[Cantor spokesman] Doug Heye said the Congressman had a conversation with the whistleblower about the affair and the national security concerns involved in the matter (emphasis ours).

The New York Times reported Saturday that on October 31, Cantor's chief of staff phoned the FBI to inform the agency about the call between the Congressman and the FBI official.  The Times reported Cantor learned of the whistleblower through Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Washington.

A spokesman for Reichert told CNN Sunday that the Times article was accurate, but that the Congressman had no further comment on his involvement in the case.    

The key word, obviously, is whistleblower.  Why did an FBI official approach Congressman Reichert when the bureau had been investigating the Petraeus matter for months?  Why didn't the official simply raise his concerns internally?

One possibility is the official was concerned about how the probe was being handled, and feared recrimination if he or she voiced their objections at the bureau.  Congressman Reichert does not serve on the House Intelligence Committee, but is co-chair of the Law Enforcement Caucus and was sheriff of King County, Washington before being elected to Congress.  It's rather curious that Reichert referred the matter to Cantor; perhaps he thought the matter was so serious that (a) Congressional leadership needed to hear the the whistleblower's story, and (b) the FBI would pay more attention if the concern was voiced by the majority leader and not an "ordinary" member of the House.

The timing of Mr. Cantor's involvement is equally interesting.  Both the Washington Post and the NYT confirm that the majority leader contacted the bureau in late October, a little more than a week before the presidential election.   By that time (according to earlier reports), the investigation had been underway for several months.  Was the FBI official that approached Congressman Reichert worried that the bureau was about to sweep the affair under the rug, or was it a set-up, aimed at creating "bi-partisan" knowledge of the matter, less than two weeks before Petraeus's affair would become public knowledge?

Here's another reason to keep the Cantor timeline in mind: the same Washington Post account insists that both the President and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, did not learn of the investigation until election night:
The notification came Tuesday evening, while polls were still open in an election that would return President Obama to office for four more years.
"Director Clapper learned of the situation from the FBI on Tuesday evening around 5 p.m.," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. "In subsequent conversations with Director Petraeus, Director Clapper advised Director Petraeus to resign." The official said Clapper has been fully briefed on the FBI investigation and has not called for his office or CIA to conduct a follow-up probe or damage assessment, indicating Clapper does not see the case as a security threat.
The official would not address why the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and others were not notified earlier of the FBI investigation and its link to Petraeus. The emerging details suggest Petraeus was not involved in the decision to notify the White House that he had been ensnared in an FBI probe. Instead, it was Clapper who told the White House late Wednesday.
A senior administration official defended the decision not to notify the president earlier, saying staffers "needed to get their arms around" the matter before briefing Obama, who had returned from his election trip to Chicago on Wednesday night.

So, in other words, the nation's highest-ranking intelligence officer and the commander-in-chief didn't learn of the Petraeus investigation until Tuesday night?  Call that one highly implausible, to say the least.

Lest we forget, the probe into the CIA Director's activities began over concerns that his e-mail had been hacked, and sensitive information might have been compromised.  Yet, neither the FBI Director or his boss, the attorney general, saw any need to notify the DNI or the President?  If that's the case, then Eric Holder and Robert Muller should be fired immediately for gross incompetence.

Of course, Mr. Holder is no stranger to controversy, or putting his department in the midst of a political imbroglio.  If the "Fast and the Furious" scandal is any indication, Mr. Holder knew about the Petraeus affair long before the final stages of the presidential campaign--and so did the White House.  Mr. Mueller, on the other hand, is well-regarded in Washington and has done a credible job running the FBI; given his track record, it's difficult to envision the bureau conducting a probe of General Petraeus without Mueller's knowledge.  In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Mr. Holder was aware of the investigation "for several months."  That means that Mr. Mueller was in the loop as well.  

If the "who knew" (and when) timeline already seems a bit shaky, one thing is clear: David Petraeus will not be testifying before Congress on the Benghazi scandal anytime soon.  Appearing on ABC's This Week, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss (the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee) said General Petraeus will "eventually" testify on the matter, but he is not expected to appear during closed-door hearings this week.  "He's trying to put his life back together and that's what he needs to focus on," Chambliss said.  The committee chairman, Senator Diane Feinstein of California, offered similar thoughts on CBS's Face the Nation.

That puts Republicans in a rather inconvenient position.  If Petraeus doesn't testify soon, the investigation loses steam and it may prove impossible to sort out what happened at Benghazi.  But if they subpoena the former CIA Director, they will lose the public relations battle, viewed as "harassing" a military hero at a low point in his life.  And rest assured, the White House is shrewdly calculating that Congressional Republicans--one week after a major electoral defeat--won't pressure Petraeus to testify.

If it all seems a little pat, give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the class.  It's evident that many in the administration don't want General Petraeus appearing before Congress in the near future.  And one reason was provided, strangely enough, by the CIA Director's former paramour, Paula Broadwell.  Israel National News reporter Gil Ronen was (apparently) the first journalist to discover a lecture Ms. Broadwell delivered at her alma mater, the University of Denver, on October 26th.

Broadwell's address, part of an annual alumni seminar, have been posted at YouTube.  Beginning at 34:52 into her remarks, Broadwell answers a question concerning General Petraeus and the Benghazi incident.  She affirms the CIA Director was aware of requests for assistance from American personnel on the ground, then adds a couple of tantalizing details: first, the CIA was holding two Libyan prisoners at the Benghazi annex, which was attacked after the consulate fell.  That certainly provides another rationale for the assault on the annex.

To our knowledge, no one has previously acknowledged the presence of Libyan prisoners at that facility.  That sort of information would come from someone in a position to know--say, the CIA Director.  It also suggests that the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus did not end (as originally reported) when the retired general took over the agency in 2011.  Divulging that type of "insider" information indicates that Petraeus and Broadwell were in regular contact through the attack in Benghazi and discussed events that transpired on the night of September 11th.  Yet, the FBI claims that national security wasn't jeopardized by their relationship.  Based on the prisoners claim, it sounds like Congressional Republicans should add one more name to their witness list--Paula Broadwell.

In her Denver speech, Ms. Broadwell also revealed that besieged CIA operatives in Benghazi made a specific request for a "command in-extremis force."  These elite units, assigned to every regional command, consist of Delta Force operators and other special forces personnel.  One of their specialties is providing quick reaction assistance to American facilities under attack.

Why is that nugget so important?  According to the official Pentagon timeline, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (and other senior officials) discussed the deployment of SF assets from Croatia and the United States to Benghazi, if violence flared anew.  The discussions took part between midnight and 2 am (Benghazi time) on September 12th.  The in-extremis force is never mentioned, assuming it is not the unit that was training in Croatia at that time.

And that, in turn, leads to another report that has been making the rounds since the Benghazi incident occurred.  Some in military circles claim there was a sharp disagreement between officials in Washington and General Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command.  Libya is part of AFRICOM's geographic region, and the "in-extremis" force that would have been dispatched belonged to General Ham.  The CINC reportedly wanted to send forces to Benghazi, but was told to stand down by his superiors in Washington.  We should note that these claims have been sharply denied by the Pentagon.  It was also announced late last month that General Ham will be leaving his post in March 2013, well ahead of schedule. DoD spokesmen told the Washington Times the leadership change was in the works well before Benghazi, though Ham's tenure will be shorter than other MAJCOM leaders.

"Curiouser and curiouser," as Lewis Carroll's Alice once observed.  This much we know: the Petraeus scandal--and its connection to events in Benghazi--won't magically disappear, as much as the Obama Administration might prefer.  General Petraeus is going through a rough patch right now--completely of his own making--but that doesn't negate his obligation to testify before Congress.  Republicans in the House and Senate should demand that he appear this week, and issue a subpoena, if necessary.  The families of four dead Americans deserve that much.

The Petraeus Plot Thickens

It's been barely 24 hours since CIA Director David Petraeus resigned, after admitting he engaged in an extra-marital affair.  But the episode is already metastasizing in to a major sex and political scandal, positioned at the intersection of personal indiscretion, election-year politics and September 11th attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.   Among the recent developments:

- Questions as to Why the FBI Was Involved.  Various media accounts suggest the bureau was looking into Petraeus's relationship with biographer Paula Broadwell for several months.  That revelation is somewhat surprising; as former CIA operative Robert Baer told CNN's Piers Morgan last night, he knew of "four or five" agency directors who carried on affairs during their tenure at Langley.  Mr. Baer may be engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but one thing is clear.  Those other escapades never (apparently) attracted the attention of the FBI, despite the potential blackmail threat.

So why was the FBI involved?  One of the bureau's primary missions is domestic counter-intelligence, ferreting out enemy moles, spy rings and and other activities that may jeopardize national security (the CIA is responsible for counter-intelligence outside our borders).  Apparently, there was something about the affair that caught the FBI's attention, and with it, the attention of the Obama White House.  With the administration "in the loop," they had a trump card that could be played against Petraeus at a time of their choosing.  With the director scheduled to testify before Congress next week, Team Obama found its moment.  As we noted in a previous post, the possibility that the White House torpedoed General Petraeus is quite likely.

- Who is the Second Woman?   The Wall Street Journal reported late Saturday that the FBI probe began after a second women (who lives in Florida) complained about harassing e-mails she received from Ms. Broadwell, inquiring about her relationship with the general.  Once again, we find the feds' response rather interesting.  Thousands of harassing e-mails are sent across the web each day, yet few receive any attention from law enforcement.  Of course, e-mails that involve the CIA Director would certainly raise the ante, as would those involving a second individual at the upper levels of defense or intelligence.  The "other woman" doesn't appear to be an ordinary "civilian," since the feds promptly acted on her complaint, and launched a full-scale investigation.

- What About the Vetting Process?  Many have expressed surprise that Petraeus's affair wasn't discovered during his confirmation process as CIA Director.  But the fact is, General Petraeus received only a cursory check as he retired from the Army and moved to Langley.  As a senior military commander, Petraeus already had access to the nation's most sensitive secrets, and investigators had decades of security clearance investigations and updates to draw upon.  On the surface, David Petraeus looked remarkably clean and since he didn't disclose the affair at the time of his confirmation, there was nothing in his background check to arouse suspicions.  And, as former FBI agent Gary Aldrich observed during the Clinton years, greater latitude is given to political appointees in terms of past misdeeds and questionable behavior.  But the general failed to report his affair--for rather obvious reasons--so it remained a secret until the FBI began its probe.

- What Does This Have to Do With Benghazi?  In a word, plenty.  As we've noted previously, Petraeus's sudden departure may prevent him from testifying about what happned in Libya on the night of September 11th, at the very time Congress is trying to get to the bottom of the mess.  The CIA will still send someone to the Hill this week, but it's unclear if the acting director was actively involved in the decision-making on that fateful evening.  And, if Petraeus (and the administration) choose to fight or ignore a Congressional subpoena, we may never learn what he did during the attacks on our consulate and safe house.  As Ralph Peters observed the other day, the timing of Petraeus's departure is far too convenient.  With the White House aware of Petraeus's affair (through the FBI and attorney general Holder), they could afford to keep him on the job--and articulating the "video" version of Benghazi--until it became convenient to cut him loose.

So what comes next?  The hearings on Capitol Hill will go forward, but the narrative has changed, and that's by design.  Questions about what happened in Libya have now been superseded by a good, old-fashioned sex scandal.  The media is already looking for the second woman, and the sex angle will drive coverage for the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the issue of Benghazi will fade into the background; Congressional Democrats will likely accept lame excuses offered by the administration, DoD and the intel community, while the public learns every excruciating detail of David Petraeus's extra-marital affairs.  Indeed, the sex angle will become the prism through which many Americans view the Benghazi scandal; the emerging meme will go something like this: David Petraeus was too busy with his affairs to pay attention to the growing threat to our personnel in Libya.  Connect a few more dots, and it's easy to see the former CIA Director becoming a scapegoat for the loss of four Americans in Benghazi.

And that too, will be by design.                                

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Sudden (and Curious) Departure of David Petraeus

In one of the first shock waves to hit Washington since Tuesday's Presidential election, CIA Director David Petraeus announced his resignation this afternoon, citing an extra-marital affair. NBC News has the take-away quote from the retired Army general and now "former" spook:

"After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours."

Describing Petraeus's departure as a surprise would be an understatement.  There have been no whispers in the nation's capital about a possible change of leadership at CIA, or any extra-curricular activities involving General Petraeus.  Indeed, with last year's appointment of his wife to a senior post at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the Petraeus' seemed hard-wired into the Washington establishment, and seemed poised to remain in government indefinitely.  There was no word today on whether the general's wife, Holly Petraeus, planned to leave her position at the CFPB.

Long-time associates of Petraeus described the resignation as consistent with the general's character.  "He feels that he screwed up.  He did a dishonorable thing and needed to try to do the honorable thing," one former confidant told the Danger Room in an e-mail.  

That may certainly be the case.  But powerful men and women in the nation's capital admit indiscretions only reluctantly.  In fact, there was nothing to indicate that Petraeus would soon leave the CIA post; in recent days, he had provided "rules for living" to Newsweek magazine, through his biographer and long-time confidant, Paula Broadwell--later revealed as the "other" woman.  If Petraeus knew the affair was about to become public, it's doubtful that he would have supplied the list, which includes such axioms as "lead by example," and "recognize and admit your mistakes."  Guess one out of two isn't that bad.  

David Petraeus's sudden fall from grace invites a rather obvious question, namely who leaked information about his affair.  In our experience, someone at the general's level typically resigns over an affair when the story is about to hit the press.  We're guessing that someone in the media was given the details about the CIA Director's extra-marital affair, and they called Langley asking for a statement.  Realizing his indiscretion would soon become public, Petraeus took the pro-active step of submitting his resignation, which was "regretfully" accepted by President Obama.  

So, who "got" David Petraeus?  Beyond his own, deplorable conduct, there is the list of ususal suspects.  We'll begin with veterans of the CIA clandestine service and paramilitary operations directorate.  They are furious over Petraeus's conduct in the aftermath of the Benghazi debacle, when his statements on the attack were similar to those of administration officials, who suggested the attack on the consulate was the result of  an "out-of-control" protest, sparked by outrage over an internet video that offensive to Muslims.  Two CIA contractors were among the four Americans killed in the attack and other agency personnel were wounded.  Yet, the administration did nothing to send assistance to the besieged consulate, other than a quick reaction force from the embassy in Tripoli.  

As we've noted before, no one plays the "leak" game better than the spook community.  As the White House clung to its "video" narrative, operatives involved in the Benghazi operation began passing details of that fateful night, raising new questions about what actually occurred.  The leaks were aimed (in part) at the administration, but they were also directed at Petraeus and the Director of National Intelligence (James Clapper) who were viewed as not only abandoning operatives on the ground, but doing little to defend the reputation of intelligence professionals when various administration officials suggested the community "got it wrong" before Benghazi.  

Then, more than six weeks after the attack, Petraeus did something a bit unusual.  Realizing the White House's well-deserved reputation for throwing people under the bus, the CIA Director announced that no one at his agency had taken steps to prevent assistance from reaching our diplomats and intel operators on the ground in Benghazi.  That assertion shifted the blame squarely on the administration and the Pentagon.  Needless to say, Petraeus's comments didn't exactly win him any friends in the West Wing, or on the E-ring of the Pentagon.  And, if he was trying to rally support in the spook world, it was probably too late for that as well.  

So members of the intel community had plenty of motive for exposing the CIA Director's extra-curricular activities.  And, it wouldn't be that hard to discover what he was up to.  As a former senior commander (and more recently as head of the CIA), Petraeus has been living in a 24-hour security bubble for years, so his protection detail was probably aware of the affair, and it didn't take long for word to leak to other spooks, who had plenty of motive to get rid of Petraeus. Additionally, there are now reports the affair began during his military days--possibly dating to the general's tenure as our commander in Iraq and Afghanistan--so there were plenty of people in a position to "know."  

But don't exclude the possibility of a White House "job," either.  Relations between the retired General and Mr. Obama were never good; there were disagreements over U.S. policies in Afghanistan and many in the administration viewed Petraeus as "too independent" for the job.  And, when the CIA Director blamed the lack of support in Benghazi on the White House, the administration had a clear reason for getting rid of General Petraeus.  As President Obama reviews candidates for his second term cabinet (and other senior positions) we keep hearing the term "pliable" being tossed about.  In other words, the Commander-in-Chief is looking for individuals who will take orders without question or complaint.  David Petraeus clearly didn't fit that mold. So, with his affair under investigation by the FBI, it wasn't hard for Team Obama to obtain that information and use it when it became convenient.   

And of course, the White House derives one more benefit from Petraeus's departure.  Just hours after his resignation was announced, the Administration revealed that the former director will not testify during Congressional hearings on Benghazi next week.  With a key player unavailable, it becomes that much more difficult to determine what happened when our consulate was attacked.  We can only wonder if Representative Mike Rogers (chairman of the House Intelligence Committee) would pursue a Congressional subpoena to compel Petraeus to appear.  But with the GOP licking its wounds after Tuesday's elections--and new demands for bi-partisanship--the White House is betting that Rogers won't press the issue.  So, valuable testimony will be lost as Congress tries to get to the bottom of Benghazi.

In any case, Petraeus is gone and selection of the next CIA Director will likely be based on political connections, rather than demonstrated expertise.   Petraeus was anything but a great DCI; as a consumer of intelligence, he knew the basics of the business, but had no experience in running an intel bureaucracy, much less reworking it for the challenges that lie ahead.  Still, he's probably better than the person who will follow him at Langley, illustrating yet another danger from Mr. Obama's re-election victory.  
ADDENDUM:  Later reporting indicates that Petraeus's affair was under investigation by the FBI as a potential security risk.  That's significant because it indicates that the CIA Director's indiscretion was widely known.  Put another way: FBI counter-intelligence agents had to brief their bosses, who (in turn) briefed the Director, who provided updates to the Attorney General, Eric Holder.  From Eric's lips to Obama's ear, as one might say.  Additionally, the FBI agents kept their CIA counterparts in the loop, as a matter of professional courtesy and potential damage assessments.  So, there are plenty of people at Langley who probably caught wind of the director's problems, and were preparing to drop the bomb when Petraeus stepped down.

One final note: former Michigan Congressman Pete Hoekstra (who knows as much about intel as anyone in Washington) tweeted this evening that the Petraeus mess will "get much worse..more here than meets the eye."

We shall see.                     

Monday, November 05, 2012

Disenfranchised Over There (Election Edition)

Before you go to the polls tomorrow, stop and give thanks to those who guarantee your franchise.  We refer specifically to those men and women who wear the nation's uniform; without their service and sacrifice, tomorrow's exercise in representative democracy would be at mercy of a maurading foreign power.  So, before you touch that screen or fill out your ballot, think of those military members, from generations past and present, who made it possible.

Then consider this: many of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coasties won't be participating in Tuesday's presidential election.  And it's not due to apathy, or their distance from a polling place.  Instead, their right to vote has fallen prey to bureaucratic incompetence and election year politics.  From The Hill:
A group of Republican senators said Monday that thousands of voter ballots are unlikely to reach military service members until after Nov. 6.
One day ahead of the election, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to express their concern over delays in ballots reaching military voters overseas.    

“We write to express concerns over another serious failure by the Department of Defense (DoD) to safeguard the voting rights of our overseas military service members, which we believe could result in the imminent disenfranchisement of thousands,” the letter stated.
Mail redirection in the military can take between 14 to 50 days, meaning a ballot could reach the voter possibly more than a month after ballots have to be mailed back in order to be counted. The Military Postal Service Agency (MPSA) identified problems with the system after the 2010 election, but hasn’t implemented changes.    
“DoD’s failure to fix this longstanding problem means that the blank ballots of thousands of overseas service members, as well as some who have recently returned from overseas, could be currently trapped in an archaic and inefficient mail forwarding system,” the senators wrote. “These ballots are unlikely to reach these service members until after Election Day has passed."
Cue Bill Murray.  If this seems like something out of Groundhog Day, it should.  As we've noted in countless posts over the past seven years, this sort of thing happens every election cycle.  Military absentee ballots are often mailed out late by states and municipalities, meaning they can't be returned in time to be counted.  And Congressional Democrats have consistently refused to support legislation mandating that military absentee ballots be shipped by the fastest means available.  So much for bi-partisanship.  
This year, there was a new wrinkle.  DoD is required to set up voter assistance offices on all of its installations around the world.  But a check by the Pentagon's inspector general (in late summer) found that many of the offices couldn't be reached, suggesting they had not been established, or staffers weren't around to take a phone call--or help military voters.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta finally ordered his service chiefs to look into the IG's findings in mid-October, less than three weeks before the election.  At that late date, it was virtually impossible to fix base-level problems with the voter assistance program.  Coincidence?  You be the judge.  
To be fair, there are some who insist the absentee voter problem isn't the result of a conspiracy.  A few hours after the GOP senators registered their complaint, the bureaucracy struck back, through an article printed in the Everett, Washington Herald (among other publications), claiming the issue can be easily explained by other factors, including a change in automatic mailings of absentee ballots (which often went to the former addresses of military personnel) and declining election-year interest.  
Through Oct. 26, 846,442 military personnel, voting-age dependents and U.S. civilians living overseas had downloaded the Federal Post-Card Application from the website run by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. That's down 21 percent from 2008.

By the same date in 2008, at least 1,082,540 military and overseas voters had downloaded the post card, which they can use to register to vote and request an absentee ballot.
Pamela Mitchell, acting director of the voting program, which administers federal tasks of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, gave several possible reasons for the drop. One is that, with the Iraq war over, fewer military are deployed, including Guard and Reserve members. 
That may be true, but there are still more than 68,000 service members in Afghanistan--and thousands more serving in other locations around the world, including a significant number of guard and reserve personnel.  But their other theory is a real howler, namely that thousands of military members have lost interest in the election, as Ms. Mitchell suggests:
"...a drop of 236,000 (in post-card applications) is large enough also to indicate a general decline in voter interest. Mitchell conceded that point, too.

"We encourage voting but we recognize that, at the end of the day, it's a personal choice … What we want to make sure of is that, for those who want to execute that right, we provide every assistance possible," Mitchell said.
Let's see...the most important presidential contest in a generation, with huge implications for U.S. national security and the military, and roughly 10% of the armed forces population is sitting this one out?  Sorry, but that logic doesn't exactly pass the Aggie test.  
For what it's worth, Ms. Mitchell also claimed that the military voter assistance program is "in the best place it's ever been" to help members of the armed services cast their ballots.  Guess someone forgot to tell the DoD IG, which was deeply concerned about those voting assistance offices that couldn't be reached barely four months before the election.  
And of course, the article doesn't begin to address the problems with ballots that are mailed out late, or a military postal system that can't implement required reforms.  Those Republican Senators have every right to question the never-ending problems with armed forces absentee voting, but they need to offer a solution, not just indignation.  
As we observed three years ago, the State of Arizona has developed a remarkably effective on-line voting system that allows thousands of service members to cast their ballots without worrying about the base voting office, or the whims of the U.S. Postal Service.  Other states also allow on-line voting, and there is no reason these cannot be adopted for absentee voting by all overseas military personnel.  A defense department that spends billions of dollars on IT technology every year can allocate the resources necessary to create a secure, on-line voting system for military personnel stationed overseas.  Experts claim that fax and e-mail ballots carry serious security risks, but that hasn't been the case in Arizona, which has been using on-line voting since 2008.  
Simply stated, there has to be a better system than the current, failed model.  And even if the dramatic decline in military absentee voting isn't the result of a conspiracy, it's very clear that the officials in charge of the program--at the local, state and federal levels--are doing very little to increase voting participation by the very men and women who defend the franchise for us all.