Friday, August 26, 2016

What Might Have Been (Iran Edition)

For the second time in three days, there has been a confrontation between U.S. and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.  During today's incident, an American patrol craft fired three warning shots into the water after four Iranian boats harassed U.S. and Kuwaiti Navy vessels in the northern Persian Gulf. As CNN reports: 

"At one point, the Iranian boat came within 200 yards of one of the US Navy boats. When it failed to leave the area after the Navy had fired flares and had a radio conversation with the Iranian crew, the US officials said, tthree he USS Squall fired three warning shots. Following standard maritime procedures, the Navy fired the shots into the water to ensure the Iranians understood they needed to leave the immediate area."  

The episode came just two days after four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels staged a "high-speed intercept" of the guided missile destroyer USS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz.  

American officials said two of the vessels slowed and turned away only after coming within 300 yards of the US guided-missile destroyer as it transited international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, and only after the destroyer had sent multiple visual and audio warnings.  In response, a senior IRGC naval officer said Iran will continue its close-quarters intercepts of American vessels, maneuvers deemed "unsafe" and "unprofessional" by the U.S. Navy.  

The most recent showdowns in the Gulf are merely the latest in a string of dangerous incidents involving Iranian military forces.  Last December, one of its vessels fired a rocket near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman; that was followed by the capture and brief detainment of 10 American sailors whose Riverine broke down during a transit from Kuwait to Bahrain and drifted into Iranian waters.  And just last month, one of Iran's naval craft sailed close to the USS New Orleans while the Commander of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, was on board.   
And, did we mention recent revelations that the Obama Administration paid a $400 million ransom to secure the release of four American hostages from Iran last year?  Or that more money is on the way, helping Tehran finance its own military modernization program, and fund terrorist proxies around the world. 

Then, there's the nuclear deal, which places Iran squarely on the path to developing those weapons.  Iran's partnership with North Korea will provide the expertise needed to extend the range of Tehran's ballistic missiles, so an Iranian ICBM--capable of a nuclear warhead to the CONUS--is a virtual certainty, and perhaps by the end of this decade.

Against that grim backdrop, it's a fair question to ask what might have been, particularly if the U.S. had pursued regime change as a priority in Iran.  And there were opportunities, most recently during the so-called "Green Revolution" in 2009.  After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction won the presidential election ("stole" is probably a better term), thousands of Iranians took to the streets, demanding change. 

The widespread unrest threatened to topple the Tehran regime, which responded brutally.  Between 800 and 3,000 protesters were killed in the street; hundreds more disappeared and were executed in Iranian prisons.  President Obama refused to lift a finger in support, claiming the demonstrators--which represented a broad cross-section of Iranian society--didn't represent "real change."  He never admitted publicly that the Iranian election was riddled with fraud, aimed at keeping Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in power.

Why was Obama so insistent on letting the Iranian revolution die on the vine?  We finally have some answers, thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon and his new book, The Iran Wars.  Eli Lake of Bloomberg devoted a recent column to Solomon's work and its revelations.  He affirms what many long suspected; Obama's obsession over reaching some sort of deal with Iran overruled any other considerations; he was quite willing to let the Green Revolution die on the vine, to preserve his then-secret overtures to Tehran.  As Mr. Lake writes:

It's worth contrasting Obama's response with how the U.S. has reacted to other democratic uprisings. The State Department, for example, ran a program in 2000 through the U.S. embassy in Hungary to train Serbian activists in nonviolent resistance against their dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic, too, accused his opposition of being pawns of the U.S. government. But in the end his people forced the dictator from power.

Similarly, when Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met with popular protests in 2003 after rigged elections, George W. Bush dispatched James Baker to urge him to step down peacefully, which he did. Even the Obama administration provided diplomatic and moral support for popular uprisings in Egypt in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Iran though is a very different story. Obama from the beginning of his presidency tried to turn the country's ruling clerics from foes to friends. It was an obsession. And even though the president would impose severe sanctions on the country's economy at the end of his first term and beginning of his second, from the start of his presidency, Obama made it clear the U.S. did not seek regime change for Iran.  

And, as Mr. Solomon reveals, the president's over-arching desire to strike a deal with Iran influenced critical decisions in other areas.  It's the main reason he walked away from the infamous "red line" in Syria three years ago.  Iranian negotiators told their American counterparts the nuclear talks would end if the U.S. intervened against Syrian dictator--and Iran ally--Bashir Assad.  Obama blinked.  The President also took the unusual steps of ending U.S. programs that documented human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic and wrote letters to Iran's Supreme Leader, assuring him that the we had no plans to overthrow him.  

In the end, Obama got his badly-flawed nuclear deal--and a lot more.  Iran is more belligerent and aggressive than ever before, as evidenced by the recent naval encounters in the Gulf.  And the situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.  Tehran got everything it wanted in the nuclear accord, and the return of long-frozen Iranian assets in the U.S. will provide a funding stream for new military hardware, the nuclear program and various terrorist allies.  

To be fair, there is no guarantee that American support would have guaranteed the success of the Green Revolution.  But as Mr. Lake writes, it was definitely worth a gamble.  Installing a new Iranian regime would have been a game-changer across the Middle East, likely resulting in a nuclear deal that effectively dismantled the Iranian program and eradicated the emerging threat.  The situation in places like Syria might have become more manageable and there's even the possibility that Tehran's support for groups like Hezbollah would fade.  Without that assistance, the group would become less of a threat to Israel and its stranglehold over Lebanon might decrease as well.  

Unfortunately, all of those scenarios are permanently banished to the realm of what "might have been," thanks to the obsessive and feckless behavior of Barack Obama.  Mr. Solomon's book is on our reading list, since he clearly breaks new ground in reporting one of the story's most important diplomatic stories.  One thing we're wondering about: what role did Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett play in all of this?  Ms. Jarrett, the president's closest confidante was born in Iran to American parents and, by some accounts, retains a certain affinity for the land where she grew up.  

Nothing wrong with that, but Jarrett seems to be an invisible hand in the diplomatic activity that pursued the nuclear deal to the exclusion of everything else.  One report indicates that Ms. Jarrett played an active role in secret talks with Iran before the public negotiations began.  Never mind that the presidential adviser has no real experience in diplomacy or national security matters.  But she does have Mr. Obama's ear, and some observers believe that Jarrett played a role in the departure of Ambassador Dennis Ross from the president's national security team early in his tenure.  Ross, a veteran Middle East hand, favored a much tougher approach in negotiations with Iran.  Needless to say, that didn't sit well with Mr. Obama or Ms. Jarrett. 

In the end, the president's singular focus on "winning over" Iran--encouraged by members of his inner circle--spelled doom for brave Iranians who rose up during the Green Revolution.  Some of them still languish in prison to this day.  Not surprisingly, the Obama administration isn't doing anything to help them, since we no longer track human rights abuses in Iran.                 



Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Mr. Putin's New FOB

As we noted on Twitter (@natehale) earlier today, the difference between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama can be summed up rather succinctly.  Mr. Putin plays geo-political chess; President Obama is stuck on "Words With Friends."

Evidence of that analogy can be found in the Russian president's latest move, which took many observers by surprise.  In a matter of a few hours, Putin not only altered the balance of power in the Middle East, he also established a serious threat to one of our military trump cards--the ability of U.S. carrier battle groups to operate and project power in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Al-Masdar, the Israel-based Arabic news service, was among the first to report Mr. Putin's move: the deployment of TU-22M "Backfire" bombers to Hamadan Airbase in west-central Iran.  Photos published on Al-Masdar's website (and re-posted at revealed at least four Backfires at Hamadan, along with support aircraft.


Russian TU-22M "Backfire" bombers on the ramp at Hamadan Airbase, Iran, just hours before striking targets in Syria (Al-Masdar photos via  

And less than 24 hours after they arrived, the Russian bombers launched a highly-publicized strike against terrorist targets in Syria.  It marked the first time since the 1979 revolution that Iran has allowed a foreign power to conduct military operations from its territory.  From the U.K. Telegraph:

“Flying with full bomb loads from Iran’s Hamadan airbase, the aircraft carried out group attacks on Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions,” the ministry said. Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a powerful rebel jihadist group previously affiliated with al-Qaeda

Fighter escorts for the mission flew out of Russia’s Hmeymim airbase in western Syria. All aircraft returned to their respective bases after the mission, the ministry said.

Iranian officials confirmed that the country has offered Russia use of military infrastructure for its air campaign in Syria on Tuesday.


Tuesday’s mission is thought to be the first time Russian aircraft have flown missions from Iran since Moscow launched air strikes in Syria in September last year, and potentially marks a major expansion of Russia’s military presence in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, many media accounts focused on Hamadan's relative proximity to targets in Syria.  Operating from Iran, the TU-22Ms (and other Russian strike aircraft) can reach the battlefield sooner, carrying larger bomb loads and burning less fuel.  

But Mr. Putin has another reason for deploying bombers to a forward operating base in Iran--and it has nothing to do with Jabhat al-Nusra, or efforts to prop up Bashir Assad's regime.  Moscow's motive for sending the Backfires to Hamadan is also rooted in sending a message to the U.S., and specifically, our naval forces which patrol the Persian Gulf.  

For decades, our ability to project power in the region has been predicated (at least in part) on the Navy's ability to send carrier battle groups into the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.  The presence of a carrier helps ensure control of vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), used by supertankers carrying oil to markets in the Far East, Europe and even North America.  

The presence of TU-22Ms at Hamadan poses a new threat to those shipping lanes--and our ability to keep them open.  While the Backfire is an aging weapons system--it first entered operational service in the early 1970s--it remains a potent threat to naval vessels.  In fact, the Russians largely designed it as a "carrier killer," firing anti-ship missiles at long range.  The threat posed by the Backfire (and other Soviet-era bombers) was one of the key factors in development of the F-14 Tomcat and AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which were built to destroy enemy strike aircraft before they could launch against the carrier and its escorts.  

For a naval strike mission, the newest TU-22M (NATO reporting name Backfire C) carries up to nine missiles, three AS-4 "Kitchen," mounted internally or on wing pylons, or up to six AS-16 "Kickback," carried on a rotary launcher in the weapons bay.  The AS-4 first appeared in the early 1960s and remains in production today; newer variants have been updated with a datalink (to allow mid-course updates).  The Kitchen can carry either a nuclear or conventional warhead; it has a maximum range of 320 nautical miles.  

Like the AS-4, the Kickback was originally fitted with a nuclear warhead, and designed to blast through enemy defenses, allowing Russian bombers to reach their targets.  With a range of 160 NM, the Kickback was similar to the U.S. Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which was carried on our strategic bombers for decades.  The AS-16 follows a dive profile, climbing to 40,000 feet before plunging down on its target.  At least one variant of the missile is designed to target enemy ships, including aircraft carriers.  

Operating from Hamadan (or other bases in Iran), Russian TU-22s could target U.S. battle groups in the Persian Gulf while remaining over land, inside the coverage of S-300s and other advanced surface-to-air missile systems.  Moscow recently began delivering S-300 batteries to Iran and if they follow operational practices in Syria, the Russians could deploy their own SAMs near forward operating bases and integrate them with the host nation air defense network.  

To be fair, the U.S. Navy has a number of counter-measures to deal with Backfires and their missiles.  In addition to the F/A-18s on the carrier, there are interceptor missiles (SM-2/3) on Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers, along with short-range defensive systems (Sea Sparrow, CIWS) on virtually all vessels.  TU-22M deployments to Hamadan--or other Iranian bases--won't keep our carrier groups from sailing into the Persian Gulf, but it will be one more factor naval commanders must account for.  The same holds true for other American military assets in the region.  

Which brings us back to Mr. Putin, who understands a thing or two about geopolitics and power projection.  In the span of less than a year, he has established a military presence that threatens both the eastern Mediterranean (and the Suez Canal) along with the Persian Gulf.  Meanwhile, the reaction here at home has been troubling, to say the least.  President Obama and his minions keep telling us that Putin's strategy is doomed to fail--never mind the recent gains by Russian surrogates on the ground, and the return of Moscow's military presence in key regions.  There is no evidence Hillary Clinton would try a different approach in dealing with Putin.   

As for Donald Trump, he seems to favor giving Russia a free hand in the Middle East, as part of "better relations" with Moscow.  Such thinking is both naive and dangerous--no wonder Putin is on the march.  Leadership is on vacation in the U.S. and the former KGB Colonel is going keep rolling the dice; he has much to gain and virtually nothing to lose, both now and after election day.    


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cooking the Intel Books

You remember the refrain: "Bush lied, people died."  That phrase took on a life of its own following the invasion of Iraq; the "failure" to discover Saddam's alleged WMD arsenal, and allegations that intel assessments had been altered--if not actually fabricated--to support administration policies.

As a grand conspiracy, it had to be the greatest of all times.  Turns out that not only did U.S. intelligence believe that Saddam Hussein had resurrected his WMD program, so did the spooks in the UK, France, Germany, Russia and just about every other country with a credible intel service.  The problems, as later documented by independent review panels in the U.S. and Great Britain, was "group think" among intelligence experts who feared down-playing a potential threat in the post 9-11 world.  

It's a phenomenon I've experienced first-hand.  As a analyst, I know the perils of challenging the status quo or what the community refers to as the "consensus" about a particular situation  or threat.  Once the template is set, it takes very compelling evidence to change an assessment, particularly on something as important as an enemy's WMD capabilities and a potential decision to go to war.

Journalist Judith Miller, who would never be described as a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," nicely summarized the issue--and its impact on policy decisions--in a piece written earlier this year:

"No, President Bush did not take America into a war because he was strong-armed by a neoconservative cabal. As President Bush himself famously asserted, he was the “decider.” And no, he didn’t go to war for oil. If we wanted Saddam’s oil, we could have bought it.

President’s Bush decision to go to war was based on the information that he and his team relied on -- information that was collected by the world’s top agents and analyzed by the world’s top analysts, including the intelligence agencies of France, Germany and Russia, countries whose leaders did not support going to war. But they all agreed on one thing -- Saddam had and was continuing to develop WMD.

Our intelligence professionals, and those of major European countries, overestimated Saddam’s capabilities. Mistakes like that filter through the system -- from the White House to Congress to journalists to the public. And those mistakes impact policy. But here’s the key thing to remember -- they were mistakes…not lies."

But what if intelligence estimates were "sexed-up" (borrowing the Brits' term) to support a favored narrative or policy option?  According to a House of Representatives Joint Task Force, that's exactly what happened at US Central Command (CENTCOM), after intel analysts filed a whistle-blower complaint, alleging that assessments were manipulated to "present an unduly positive outlook" on CENTCOM efforts to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and combat ISIS.  

Appointed by the chairmen of three House committees (Armed Services, Intelligence and Oversight), the task force has released its interim conclusions on the matter.  And it's not a pretty picture; Congressional investigators found that changes in the command's intelligence directorate (J-2) "resulted in the production and dissemination of intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior, career analysts at CENTCOM."  

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  According to the report, the work environment in the J-2 began to deteriorate after the departure of CENTCOM commander General James Mattis and his senior intelligence leadership.  Mattis, a legend in the Marine Corps and one of the finest general officers of his generation, was forced out in Tampa in 2013, after running afoul of President Obama and his national security team.  

Mattis's replacement brought in a new J-2, Army Major General Steven Grove.  Under his leadership, the directorate established a new Analytic Review Team (ART) to improve the "quality and consistency" of products generated by analysts working in the command's Joint Intelligence Center (JIC).  According to investigators, the ART quickly grew from a single reviewer to a multi-member team, and resulted in slower production of intelligence assessments.  The analyst who filed the whistle-blower complaint alleged that the ART was used by senior intel leaders to exert more control over J-2 reporting and its contents.  Other analysts claimed the rationale for the ART was never fully explained and CENTCOM's previous, three-step review process provided a "more than adequate" quality control process.  

About the same time (summer of 2014), General Grove also created a "fusion center" within the J-2 to provide additional reporting that focused on ISIS and related issues.  Some analysts told investigators that it was "never clear" how JIC personnel would contribute to the new center; others claimed the fusion team actually became something of a dumping ground for intel specialists whose views disagreed with those of senior intelligence leaders.  

Analysts also stated that changes in the J-2s daily intel summary (or INTSUM) were also used by leadership to tighten control over assessments and their findings.  Additionally, the task force found that CENTCOM's intelligence directorate relied too heavily on operational reporting to "soften" their estimates, and (perhaps most damning), they discovered that the more "optimistic" assessments were not supported by estimates from other elements of the intel community. 

And, there was an unprecedented amount of "coordination" between the J-2 and officials at the top of the intel chain.  From the task force summary:

The CENTCOM Director of Intelligence or his deputy had, and continue to have, secure teleconferences with the Joint Staff Director of Intelligence and senior ODNI leaders—frequently including the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). These calls took place several times per week before daily intelligence briefings by the DNI to the President. Senior CENTCOM Intelligence Directorate leaders reported that neither the Director of the DIA nor other COCOM Directors of Intelligence have participated in these calls.

The frequency of these interactions could have provided CENTCOM leaders with outsized influence on the material presented to the President outside of formal coordination channels. These frequent interactions are at odds with the DNI James Clapper’s testimony to Congress that “intelligence assessments from CENTCOM…come to the national level only through the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In other words, Clapper was "consulting" with CENTCOM just before his daily brief to President Obama, but the information he received was never vetted against data from other agencies.  At best, that's sloppy, inexcusable tradecraft.  At worst, it's "cooked" intelligence, offering carefully-tailored analysis from a single source that fits a desired narrative.  Obviously, that the more "sunny" assessments from CENTCOM meshed nicely with administration claims of "progress" in the war against ISIS.  

This is intelligence malpractice of the first magnitude, and the analysts at Central Command were justified in filing a formal complaint.  Unfortunately, it looks like nothing will come of it, although the DoD Inspector General is continuing its own probe into the matter.  General Grove has moved on to a new assignment, and his civilian deputy (identified as a key participant in the analytic scheme) remains in place at CENTCOM.  And Jim Clapper is still gainfully employed as well.  

Many spooks, current and former, once had great respect for General Clapper, who enjoyed a brilliant career in the Air Force and later, won plaudits for his management of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) under President Bush.  But as DNI, he has been a tremendous disappointment.  He lied in testimony before Congress on NSA domestic collection efforts in 2013, and now, he's been caught in another fib about how military intelligence on ISIS reaches the highest levels of our government.  

But DNIs serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief and Clapper isn't going anywhere.  He has apparently mastered the fine art of telling his boss what he wants to hear, which speaks volumes about that "modified" analytic and production processes at CENTCOM, and the preferences of the man who is the ultimate consumer of that intelligence.