Saturday, March 31, 2007
Bush's Shadow Army
By Jeremy Scahill, The Nation
Posted on March 20, 2007, Printed on March 30, 2007
This article is adapted from Jeremy Scahill's new book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books).
On September 10, 2001, before most Americans had heard of Al Qaeda or imagined the possibility of a "war on terror," Donald Rumsfeld stepped to the podium at the Pentagon to deliver one of his first major addresses as Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush. Standing before the former corporate executives he had tapped as his top deputies overseeing the high-stakes business of military contracting -- many of them from firms like Enron, General Dynamics and Aerospace Corporation -- Rumsfeld issued a declaration of war.
"The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America," Rumsfeld thundered. "It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk." He told his new staff, "You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world.... [But] the adversary's closer to home," he said. "It's the Pentagon bureaucracy." Rumsfeld called for a wholesale shift in the running of the Pentagon, supplanting the old DoD bureaucracy with a new model, one based on the private sector. Announcing this major overhaul, Rumsfeld told his audience, "I have no desire to attack the Pentagon; I want to liberate it. We need to save it from itself."
The next morning, the Pentagon would be attacked, literally, as a Boeing 757 -- American Airlines Flight 77 -- smashed into its western wall. Rumsfeld would famously assist rescue workers in pulling bodies from the rubble. But it didn't take long for Rumsfeld to seize the almost unthinkable opportunity presented by 9/11 to put his personal war -- laid out just a day before -- on the fast track. The new Pentagon policy would emphasize covert actions, sophisticated weapons systems and greater reliance on private contractors. It became known as the Rumsfeld Doctrine. "We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists," Rumsfeld wrote in the summer of 2002 in an article for Foreign Affairs titled "Transforming the Military."
Although Rumsfeld was later thrown overboard by the Administration in an attempt to placate critics of the Iraq War, his military revolution was here to stay. Bidding farewell to Rumsfeld in November 2006, Bush credited him with overseeing the "most sweeping transformation of America's global force posture since the end of World War II." Indeed, Rumsfeld's trademark "small footprint" approach ushered in one of the most significant developments in modern warfare -- the widespread use of private contractors in every aspect of war, including in combat.
The often overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is their unprecedented scale of outsourcing and privatization. From the moment the US troop buildup began in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon made private contractors an integral part of the operations. Even as the government gave the public appearance of attempting diplomacy, Halliburton was prepping for a massive operation. When US tanks rolled into Baghdad in March 2003, they brought with them the largest army of private contractors ever deployed in modern war. By the end of Rumsfeld's tenure in late 2006, there were an estimated 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq -- an almost one-to-one ratio with active-duty American soldiers.
To the great satisfaction of the war industry, before Rumsfeld resigned he took the extraordinary step of classifying private contractors as an official part of the US war machine. In the Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Review, Rumsfeld outlined what he called a "road map for change" at the DoD, which he said had begun to be implemented in 2001. It defined the "Department's Total Force" as "its active and reserve military components, its civil servants, and its contractors -- constitut[ing] its warfighting capability and capacity. Members of the Total Force serve in thousands of locations around the world, performing a vast array of duties to accomplish critical missions." This formal designation represented a major triumph for war contractors -- conferring on them a legitimacy they had never before enjoyed.
Contractors have provided the Bush Administration with political cover, allowing the government to deploy private forces in a war zone free of public scrutiny, with the deaths, injuries and crimes of those forces shrouded in secrecy. The Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress in turn have shielded the contractors from accountability, oversight and legal constraints. Despite the presence of more than 100,000 private contractors on the ground in Iraq, only one has been indicted for crimes or violations. "We have over 200,000 troops in Iraq and half of them aren't being counted, and the danger is that there's zero accountability," says Democrat Dennis Kucinich, one of the leading Congressional critics of war contracting.
While the past years of Republican monopoly on government have marked a golden era for the industry, those days appear to be ending. Just a month into the new Congressional term, leading Democrats were announcing investigations of runaway war contractors. Representative John Murtha, chair of the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Defense, after returning from a trip to Iraq in late January, said, "We're going to have extensive hearings to find out exactly what's going on with contractors. They don't have a clear mission and they're falling all over each other." Two days later, during confirmation hearings for Gen. George Casey as Army chief of staff, Senator Jim Webb declared, "This is a rent-an-army out there." Webb asked Casey, "Wouldn't it be better for this country if those tasks, particularly the quasi-military gunfighting tasks, were being performed by active-duty military soldiers in terms of cost and accountability?" Casey defended the contracting system but said armed contractors "are the ones that we have to watch very carefully." Senator Joe Biden, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has also indicated he will hold hearings on contractors. Parallel to the ongoing investigations, there are several bills gaining steam in Congress aimed at contractor oversight.
Occupying the hot seat through these deliberations is the shadowy mercenary company Blackwater USA. Unbeknownst to many Americans and largely off the Congressional radar, Blackwater has secured a position of remarkable power and protection within the US war apparatus. This company's success represents the realization of the life's work of the conservative officials who formed the core of the Bush Administration's war team, for whom radical privatization has long been a cherished ideological mission. Blackwater has repeatedly cited Rumsfeld's statement that contractors are part of the "Total Force" as evidence that it is a legitimate part of the nation's "warfighting capability and capacity." Invoking Rumsfeld's designation, the company has in effect declared its forces above the law -- entitled to the immunity from civilian lawsuits enjoyed by the military, but also not bound by the military's court martial system. While the initial inquiries into Blackwater have focused on the complex labyrinth of secretive subcontracts under which it operates in Iraq, a thorough investigation into the company reveals a frightening picture of a politically connected private army that has become the Bush Administration's Praetorian Guard.
Blackwater was founded in 1996 by conservative Christian multimillionaire and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince -- the scion of a wealthy Michigan family whose generous political donations helped fuel the rise of the religious right and the Republican revolution of 1994. At its founding, the company largely consisted of Prince's private fortune and a vast 5,000-acre plot of land located near the Great Dismal Swamp in Moyock, North Carolina. Its vision was "to fulfill the anticipated demand for government outsourcing of firearms and related security training." In the following years, Prince, his family and his political allies poured money into Republican campaign coffers, supporting the party's takeover of Congress and the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency.
While Blackwater won government contracts during the Clinton era, which was friendly to privatization, it was not until the "war on terror" that the company's glory moment arrived. Almost overnight, following September 11, the company would become a central player in a global war. "I've been operating in the training business now for four years and was starting to get a little cynical on how seriously people took security," Prince told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly shortly after 9/11. "The phone is ringing off the hook now."
Among those calls was one from the CIA, which contracted Blackwater to work in Afghanistan in the early stages of US operations there. In the ensuing years the company has become one of the greatest beneficiaries of the "war on terror," winning nearly $1 billion in noncovert government contracts, many of them no-bid arrangements. In just a decade Prince has expanded the Moyock headquarters to 7,000 acres, making it the world's largest private military base. Blackwater currently has 2,300 personnel deployed in nine countries, with 20,000 other contractors at the ready. It has a fleet of more than twenty aircraft, including helicopter gunships and a private intelligence division, and it is manufacturing surveillance blimps and target systems.
In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina its forces deployed in New Orleans, where it billed the federal government $950 per man, per day -- at one point raking in more than $240,000 a day. At its peak the company had about 600 contractors deployed from Texas to Mississippi. Since Katrina, it has aggressively pursued domestic contracting, opening a new domestic operations division. Blackwater is marketing its products and services to the Department of Homeland Security, and its representatives have met with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The company has applied for operating licenses in all US coastal states. Blackwater is also expanding its physical presence inside US borders, opening facilities in Illinois and California.
Its largest obtainable government contract is with the State Department, for providing security to US diplomats and facilities in Iraq. That contract began in 2003 with the company's $21 million no-bid deal to protect Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer. Blackwater has guarded the two subsequent US ambassadors, John Negroponte and Zalmay Khalilzad, as well as other diplomats and occupation offices. Its forces have protected more than ninety Congressional delegations in Iraq, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to the latest government contract records, since June 2004 Blackwater has been awarded $750 million in State Department contracts alone. It is currently engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign to be sent into Darfur as a privatized peacekeeping force. Last October President Bush lifted some sanctions on Christian southern Sudan, paving the way for a potential Blackwater training mission there. In January the Washington, DC, representative for southern Sudan's regional government said he expected Blackwater to begin training the south's security forces soon.
Since 9/11 Blackwater has hired some well-connected officials close to the Bush Administration as senior executives. Among them are J. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA and the man who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, and Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon Inspector General, who was responsible for policing contractors like Blackwater during much of the "war on terror" -- something he stood accused of not doing effectively. By the end of Schmitz's tenure, powerful Republican Senator Charles Grassley launched a Congressional probe into whether Schmitz had "quashed or redirected two ongoing criminal investigations" of senior Bush Administration officials. Under bipartisan fire, Schmitz resigned and signed up with Blackwater.
Despite its central role, Blackwater had largely operated in the shadows until March 31, 2004, when four of its private soldiers in Iraq were ambushed and killed in Falluja. A mob then burned the bodies and dragged them through the streets, stringing up two from a bridge over the Euphrates. In many ways it was the moment the Iraq War turned. US forces laid siege to Falluja days later, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands, inflaming the fierce Iraqi resistance that haunts occupation forces to this day. For most Americans, it was the first they had heard of private soldiers. "People began to figure out this is quite a phenomenon," says Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, who said he began monitoring the use of private contractors after Falluja. "I'm probably like most Congress members in kind of coming to this awareness and developing an interest in it" after the incident.
What is not so well-known is that in Washington after Falluja, Blackwater executives kicked into high gear, capitalizing on the company's newfound recognition. The day after the ambush, it hired the Alexander Strategy Group, a K Street lobbying firm run by former senior staffers of then-majority leader Tom DeLay before the firm's meltdown in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. A week to the day after the ambush, Erik Prince was sitting down with at least four senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including its chair, John Warner. Senator Rick Santorum arranged the meeting, which included Warner and two other key Republican senators -- Appropriations Committee chair Ted Stevens of Alaska and George Allen of Virginia. This meeting followed an earlier series of face-to-faces Prince had had with powerful House Republicans who oversaw military contracts. Among them: DeLay; Porter Goss, chair of the House Intelligence Committee (and future CIA director); Duncan Hunter, chair of the House Armed Services Committee; and Representative Bill Young, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. What was discussed at these meetings remains a secret. But Blackwater was clearly positioning itself to make the most of its new fame. Indeed, two months later, Blackwater was handed one of the government's most valuable international security contracts, worth more than $300 million.
The firm was also eager to stake out a role in crafting the rules that would govern mercenaries under US contract. "Because of the public events of March 31, [Blackwater's] visibility and need to communicate a consistent message has elevated here in Washington," said Blackwater's new lobbyist Chris Bertelli. "There are now several federal regulations that apply to their activities, but they are generally broad in nature. One thing that's lacking is an industry standard. That's something we definitely want to be engaged in." By May Blackwater was leading a lobbying effort by the private military industry to try to block Congressional or Pentagon efforts to place their forces under the military court martial system.
But while Blackwater enjoyed its new status as a hero in the "war on terror" within the Administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, the families of the four men killed at Falluja say they were being stonewalled by Blackwater as they attempted to understand the circumstances of how their loved ones were killed. After what they allege was months of effort to get straight answers from the company, the families filed a ground-breaking wrongful death lawsuit against Blackwater in January 2005, accusing the company of not providing the men with what they say were contractually guaranteed safeguards. Among the allegations: The company sent them on the Falluja mission that day short two men, with less powerful weapons than they should have had and in Pajero jeeps instead of armored vehicles. This case could have far-reaching reverberations and is being monitored closely by the war-contractor industry -- former Halliburton subsidiary KBR has even filed an amicus brief supporting Blackwater. If the lawsuit is successful, it could pave the way for a tobacco litigation-type scenario, where war contractors find themselves besieged by legal claims of workers killed or injured in war zones.
As the case has made its way through the court system, Blackwater has enlisted powerhouse Republican lawyers to defend it, among them Fred Fielding, who was recently named by Bush as White House counsel, replacing Harriet Miers; and Kenneth Starr, former Whitewater prosecutor investigating President Clinton, and the company's current counsel of record. Blackwater has not formally debated the specific allegations in the suit, but what has emerged in its court filings is a series of legal arguments intended to bolster Blackwater's contention that it is essentially above the law. Blackwater claims that if US courts allow the company to be sued for wrongful death, that could threaten the nation's war-fighting capacity: "Nothing could be more destructive of the all-volunteer, Total Force concept underlying U.S. military manpower doctrine than to expose the private components to the tort liability systems of fifty states, transported overseas to foreign battlefields," the company argued in legal papers. In February Blackwater suffered a major defeat when the Supreme Court declined its appeal to hear the Falluja case, paving the way for the state trial -- where there would be no cap on damages a jury could award -- to proceed.
Congress is beginning to take an interest in this potentially groundbreaking case. On February 7 Representative Henry Waxman chaired hearings of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. While the hearings were billed as looking at US reliance on military contractors, they largely focused on Blackwater and the Falluja incident. For the first time, Blackwater was forced to share a venue with the families of the men killed at Falluja. "Private contractors like Blackwater work outside the scope of the military's chain of command and can literally do whatever they please without any liability or accountability from the US government," Katy Helvenston, whose son Scott was one of the Blackwater contractors killed, told the committee. "Therefore, Blackwater can continue accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the government without having to answer a single question about its security operators."
Citing the pending litigation, Blackwater's general counsel, Andrew Howell, declined to respond to many of the charges levied against his company by the families and asked several times for the committee to go into closed session. "The men who went on the mission on March 31, each had their weapons and they had sufficient ammunition," Howell told the committee, adding that the men were in "appropriate" vehicles. That was sharply disputed by the men's families, who allege that in order to save $1.5 million Blackwater did not provide the four with armored vehicles. "Once the men signed on with Blackwater and were flown to the Middle East, Blackwater treated them as fungible commodities," Helvenston told lawmakers in her emotional testimony, delivered on behalf of all four families.
The issue that put this case on Waxman's radar was the labyrinth of subcontracts underpinning the Falluja mission. Since November 2004 Waxman has been trying to pin down who the Blackwater men were ultimately working for the day of the ambush. "For over eighteen months, the Defense Department wouldn't even respond to my inquiry," says Waxman. "When it finally replied last July, it didn't even supply the breakdown I requested. In fact, it denied that private security contractors did any work at all under the [Pentagon's contracting program]. We now know that isn't true." Waxman's struggle to follow the money on this one contract involving powerful war contractors like KBR provides a graphic illustration of the secretive nature of the whole war contracting industry.
What is not in dispute regarding the Falluja incident is that Blackwater was working with a Kuwaiti business called Regency under a contract with the world's largest food services company, Eurest Support Services. ESS is a subcontractor for KBR and another giant war contractor, Fluor, in Iraq under the Pentagon's LOGCAP contracting program. One contract covering Blackwater's Falluja mission indicated the mission was ultimately a subcontract with KBR. Last summer KBR denied this. Then ESS wrote Waxman to say the mission was conducted under Fluor's contract with ESS. Fluor denied that, and the Pentagon told Waxman it didn't know which company the mission was ultimately linked to. Waxman alleged that Blackwater and the other subcontractors were "adding significant markups" to their subcontracts for the same security services that Waxman believes were then charged to US taxpayers. "It's remarkable that the world of contractors and subcontractors is so murky that we can't even get to the bottom of this, let alone calculate how many millions of dollars taxpayers lose in each step of the subcontracting process," says Waxman.
While it appeared for much of the February 7 hearing that the contract's provenance would remain obscure, that changed when, at the end of the hearing, the Pentagon revealed that the original contractor was, in fact, KBR. In violation of military policy against LOGCAP contractors' using private forces for security instead of US troops, KBR had entered into a subcontract with ESS that was protected by Blackwater; those costs were allegedly passed on to US taxpayers to the tune of $19.6 million. Blackwater said it billed ESS $2.3 million for its services, meaning a markup of more than $17 million was ultimately passed on to the government. Three weeks after the hearing, KBR told shareholders it may be forced to repay up to $400 million to the government as a result of an ongoing Army investigation.
It took more than two years for Waxman to get an answer to a simple question: Whom were US taxpayers paying for services? But, as the Falluja lawsuit shows, it is not just money at issue. It is human life.
A Killing on Christmas Eve
While much of the publicity Blackwater has received stems from Falluja, another, more recent incident is attracting new scrutiny. On Christmas Eve inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, an American Blackwater contractor allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi bodyguard protecting a senior Iraqi official. For weeks after the shooting, unconfirmed reports circulated around the Internet that alcohol may have been involved and that the Iraqi was shot ten times in the chest. The story then went that the contractor was spirited out of Iraq before he could be prosecuted. Media inquiries got nowhere -- the US Embassy refused to confirm that it was a Blackwater contractor, and the company refused to comment.
Then the incident came up at the February 7 Congressional hearing. As the session was drawing to a close, Representative Kucinich raced back into the room with what he said was a final question. He entered a news report on the incident into the record and asked Blackwater counsel Howell if Blackwater had flown the contractor out of Iraq after the alleged shooting. "That gentleman, on the day the incident occurred, he was off duty," Howell said, in what was the first official confirmation of the incident from Blackwater. "Blackwater did bring him back to the United States."
"Is he going to be extradited back to Iraq for murder, and if not, why not?" Kucinich asked.
"Sir, I am not law enforcement. All I can say is that there's currently an investigation," Howell replied. "We are fully cooperating and supporting that investigation."
Kucinich then said, "I just want to point out that there's a question that could actually make [Blackwater's] corporate officers accessories here in helping to create a flight from justice for someone who's committed a murder."
The War on the Hill
Several bills are now making their way through Congress aimed at oversight and transparency of the private forces that have emerged as major players in the wars of the post-9/11 period. In mid-February Senators Byron Dorgan, Patrick Leahy and John Kerry introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on no-bid contracts and cronyism, providing for penalties of up to twenty years in prison and fines of up to $1 million for what they called "war profiteering." It is part of what Democrats describe as a multi-pronged approach. "I think there's a critical mass of us now who are working on it," says Congressman Price, who represents Blackwater's home state. In January Price introduced legislation that would expand the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000 (MEJA) to include all contractors in a war zone, not just those working for or alongside the armed forces. Most of Blackwater's work in Iraq, for instance, is contracted by the State Department. Price indicated that the alleged Christmas Eve shooting could be a test case of sorts under his legislation. "I will be following this and I'll be calling for a full investigation," he said.
But there's at least one reason to be wary of this approach: Price's office consulted with the private military lobby as it crafted the legislation, which has the industry's strong endorsement. Perhaps that's because MEJA has been for the most part unenforced. "Even in situations when US civilian law could potentially have been applied to contractor crimes, it wasn't," observed P.W. Singer, a leading scholar on contractors. American prosecutors are already strapped for resources in their home districts -- how could they be expected to conduct complex investigations in Iraq? Who will protect the investigators and prosecutors? How will they interview Iraqi victims? How could they effectively oversee 100,000 individuals spread across a dangerous war zone? "It's a good question," concedes Price. "I'm not saying that it would be a simple matter." He argues his legislation is an attempt to "put the whole contracting enterprise on a new accountable footing."
This past fall, taking a different tack -- much to the dismay of the industry -- Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve lawyer and former reserve judge, quietly inserted language into the 2007 Defense Authorization, which Bush signed into law, that places contractors under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), commonly known as the court martial system. Graham implemented the change with no public debate and with almost no awareness among the broader Congress, but war contractors immediately questioned its constitutionality. Indeed, this could be a rare moment when mercenaries and civil libertarians are on the same side. Many contractors are not armed combatants; they work in food, laundry and other support services. While the argument could be made that armed contractors like those working for Blackwater should be placed under the UCMJ, Graham's change could result in a dishwasher from Nepal working for KBR being prosecuted like a US soldier. On top of all this, the military has enough trouble policing its own massive force and could scarcely be expected to monitor an additional 100,000 private personnel. Besides, many contractors in Iraq are there under the auspices of the State Department and other civilian agencies, not the military.
In an attempt to clarify these matters, Senator Barack Obama introduced comprehensive new legislation in February. It requires clear rules of engagement for armed contractors, expands MEJA and provides for the DoD to "arrest and detain" contractors suspected of crimes and then turn them over to civilian authorities for prosecution. It also requires the Justice Department to submit a comprehensive report on current investigations of contractor abuses, the number of complaints received about contractors and criminal cases opened. In a statement to The Nation, Obama said contractors are "operating with unclear lines of authority, out-of-control costs and virtually no oversight by Congress. This black hole of accountability increases the danger to our troops and American civilians serving as contractors." He said his legislation would "re-establish control over these companies," while "bringing contractors under the rule of law."
Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House intelligence committee, has been a leading critic of the war contracting system. Her Iraq and Afghanistan Contractor Sunshine Act, introduced in February, which bolsters Obama's, boils down to what Schakowsky sees as a long overdue fact-finding mission through the secretive contracting bureaucracy. Among other provisions, it requires the government to determine and make public the number of contractors and subcontractors (at any tier) that are employed in Iraq and Afghanistan; any host country's, international or US laws that have been broken by contractors; disciplinary actions taken against contractors; and the total number of dead and wounded contractors. Schakowsky says she has tried repeatedly over the past several years to get this information and has been stonewalled or ignored. "We're talking about billions and billions of dollars -- some have estimated forty cents of every dollar [spent on the occupation] goes to these contractors, and we couldn't get any information on casualties, on deaths," says Schakowsky. "It has been virtually impossible to shine the light on this aspect of the war and so when we discuss the war, its scope, its costs, its risks, they have not been part of this whatsoever. This whole shadow force that's been operating in Iraq, we know almost nothing about. I think it keeps at arm's length from the American people what this war is all about."
While not by any means a comprehensive total of the number of contractor casualties, 770 contractor deaths and 7,761 injured in Iraq as of December 31, 2006, were confirmed by the Labor Department. But that only counts those contractors whose families applied for benefits under the government's Defense Base Act insurance. Independent analysts say the number is likely much higher. Blackwater alone has lost at least twenty-seven men in Iraq. And then there's the financial cost: Almost $4 billion in taxpayer funds have been paid for private security forces in Iraq, according to Waxman. Yet even with all these additional forces, the military is struggling to meet the demands of a White House bent on military adventurism.
A week after Donald Rumsfeld's rule at the Pentagon ended, US forces had been stretched so thin by the "war on terror" that former Secretary of State Colin Powell declared "the active Army is about broken." Rather than rethinking its foreign policies, the Administration forged ahead with plans for a troop "surge" in Iraq, and Bush floated a plan to supplement the military with a Civilian Reserve Corps in his January State of the Union address. "Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush said. The President, it seemed, was just giving a fancy new title to something the Administration has already done with its "revolution" in military affairs and unprecedented reliance on contractors. Yet while Bush's proposed surge has sparked a fierce debate in Congress and among the public, the Administration's increasing reliance on private military contractors has gone largely undebated and underreported.
"The increasing use of contractors, private forces or as some would say 'mercenaries' makes wars easier to begin and to fight -- it just takes money and not the citizenry," says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has sued contractors for alleged abuses in Iraq. "To the extent a population is called upon to go to war, there is resistance, a necessary resistance to prevent wars of self-aggrandizement, foolish wars and in the case of the United States, hegemonic imperialist wars. Private forces are almost a necessity for a United States bent on retaining its declining empire."
With talk of a Civilian Reserve Corps and Blackwater promoting the idea of a privatized "contractor brigade" to work with the military, war critics in Congress are homing in on what they see as a sustained, undeclared escalation through the use of private forces. "'Surge' implies a bump that has a beginning and an end," says Schakowsky. "Having a third or a quarter of [the forces] present on the ground not even part of the debate is a very dangerous thing in our democracy, because war is the most critical thing that we do."
Indeed, contractor deaths are not counted in the total US death count, and their crimes and violations go undocumented and unpunished, further masking the true costs of the war. "When you're bringing in contractors whom the law doesn't apply to, the Geneva Conventions, common notions of morality, everything's thrown out the window," says Kucinich. "And what it means is that these private contractors are really an arm of the Administration and its policies."
Kucinich says he plans to investigate the potential involvement of private forces in so-called "black bag," "false flag" or covert operations in Iraq. "What's the difference between covert activities and so-called overt activities which you have no information about? There's no difference," he says. Kucinich also says the problems with contractors are not simply limited to oversight and transparency. "It's the privatization of war," he says. The Administration is "linking private war contractor profits with warmaking. So we're giving incentives for the contractors to lobby the Administration and the Congress to create more opportunities for profits, and those opportunities are more war. And that's why the role of private contractors should be sharply limited by Congress."
Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Courtesy: The New York Times Company
U.S. Iraq Role Is Called Illegal by Saudi King
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
March 29, 2007
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, March 28 — King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Arab leaders on Wednesday that the American occupation of Iraq was illegal and warned that unless Arab governments settled their differences, foreign powers like the United States would continue to dictate the region’s politics.
The king’s speech, at the opening of the Arab League meeting here, underscored growing differences between Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration as the Saudis take on a greater leadership role in the Middle East, partly at American urging.
The Saudis seem to be emphasizing that they will not be beholden to the policies of their longtime ally.
They brokered a deal between the two main Palestinian factions last month, but one that Israel and the United States found deeply problematic because it added to the power of the radical group Hamas rather than the more moderate Fatah. On Wednesday King Abdullah called for an end to the international boycott of the new Palestinian government. The United States and Israel want the boycott continued.
In addition, Abdullah invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Riyadh earlier this month, while the Americans want him shunned. And in trying to settle the tensions in Lebanon, the Saudis have been willing to negotiate with Iran and Hezbollah.
Last week the Saudi king canceled his appearance next month at a White House dinner in his honor, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. The official reason given was a scheduling conflict, the paper said.
Mustapha Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said the Saudis were sending Washington a message. “They are telling the U.S. they need to listen to their allies rather than imposing decisions on them and always taking Israel’s side,” Mr. Hamarneh said.
In his speech, the king said, “In the beloved Iraq, the bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation and detestable sectarianism.”
He added: “The blame should fall on us, the leaders of the Arab nation, with our ongoing differences, our refusal to walk the path of unity. All that has made the nation lose its confidence in us.”
King Abdullah has not publicly spoken so harshly about the American-led military intervention in Iraq before, and his remarks suggest that his alliance with Washington may be less harmonious than administration officials have been hoping.
Since last summer the administration has asserted that a realignment is occurring in the Middle East, one that groups Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon along with Israel against Iran, Syria and the militant groups that they back: Hezbollah and Hamas.
Washington has urged Saudi Arabia to take a leading role in such a realignment but is finding itself disappointed by the results.
Some here said the king’s speech was a response to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s call on Monday for Arab governments to “begin reaching out to Israel.”
Many read Ms. Rice’s comments as suggesting that Washington was backing away from its support for an Arab initiative aimed at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel wants the Arabs to make changes in the terms, most notably the call for a right of return for Palestinian refugees to what is today Israel. The Arab League is endorsing the initiative, first introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002, without changes.
The plan calls on Israel to withdraw from all land it won in the 1967 war in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the Arab world. It also calls for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Regarding the Palestinians, the king said Wednesday, “It has become necessary to end the unjust blockade imposed on the Palestinian people as soon as possible so that the peace process can move in an atmosphere far from oppression and force.”
With regard to Iraq, the Saudis seem to be paying some attention to internal American politics. The Senate on Tuesday signaled support for legislation calling for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq in exchange for further funding for the war.
Last November, officials here realized that a Democratic upset could spell major changes for the Middle East: a possible pullout from Iraq, fueling further instability and, more important, allowing Iran to extend its influence in the region.
“I don’t think that the Saudi government has decided to distance itself from Bush just yet,” said Adel alToraifi, a columnist here with close ties to the Saudi government. “But I also think that the Saudis have seen that the ball is moving into the court of the Democrats, and they want to extend their hand to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.”
Turki al-Rasheed, who runs an organization promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia, said the king was “saying we may be moving on the same track, but our ends are different.”
“Bush wants to make it look like he is solving the problem,” Mr. Rasheed said. “The king wants to actually solve the problems.”
King Abdullah said the loss of confidence in Arab leaders had allowed American and other forces to hold significant sway in the region. “If confidence is restored it will be accompanied by credibility,” he said, “and if credibility is restored then the winds of hope will blow, and then we will never allow outside forces to define our future nor allow banners to be raised in Arab lands other than those of Arabism, brothers.”
The Saudis sought to enforce discipline on the two-day meeting, reminding Arab leaders and dignitaries to stay on message and leave here with some solution in hand.
“The weight of the Saudis has ensured that this will be a problem-free summit,” said Ayman Safadi, editor in chief of the Jordanian daily Al Ghad. “Nobody is going to veer from the message and go against the Saudis. But that doesn’t mean the problems themselves will be solved.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations gave a stark assessment in an address to the meeting, saying the region was “more complex, more fragile and more dangerous than it has been for a very long time.”
There is a shocking daily loss of life in Iraq, he said, and Somalia is in the grip of “banditry, violence and clan rivalries.”
Iran, which on Saturday had new sanctions imposed against it by the Security Council, is “forging ahead with its nuclear program heedless of regional and international concerns,” Mr. Ban added.
Having spent Monday and Tuesday in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Mr. Ban urged the new Palestinian government to demonstrate a “true commitment to peace.”
In return, he said, Israel must cease its settlement activity and stop building a separation barrier.
He concluded, “Instability in the Arab League states is of profound significance to international peace and security.”
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut, Rasheed Abou-Alsamh from Jidda and Warren Hoge from Riyadh.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
PTDF: Atiku Raises Fresh Allegations
From Andy Ekugo in Abuja, 03.28.2007
Vice President Atiku Abubakar yesterday reacted to the claim of the Finance Minister, Mrs. Nenadi Usman, that the Ministry of Finance merely authenticated the release of PTDF's $20m placed in the defunct Trans International Bank (TIB); by raising further allegations of financial malpractice against the president in the management of the fund.
According to a statement by the Atiku Campaign Organisation, "it is also curious that she could not tell Nigerians who or what 'ate away' the amount of $500m within two years from the secret accounts, bringing the deposited amount to $1.2 billion at the time the Senate put PTDF under the searchlight."
By admitting that the Ministry of Finance authenticated the release of the money, according to Atiku, "she has unwittingly confirmed that the Vice President did not carry out a secret transaction on the PTDF fund. If indeed, as the Minister stated in her statement, 'the President does not dictate or approve placement in banks, it is the Finance Minister and Accountant General who do,' then, she has fully cleared the Vice President of any wrongdoing." The Vice President accused the minister of merely playing with words when she admitted to the observance of due process in the release of the money and then went ahead to dissociate government from the investment of those funds in an interest yielding account.
"The matter at hand as per the charge against the Vice President in the Review Committee report is whether the number two citizen acted alone in the matter and that the President had no knowledge whatsoever of the $20 million in issue. We are satisfied that we have provided conclusive evidence that President Obasanjo knew of the movement of the funds and their subsequent placement," the statement stated.
"The Presidency never conceded that anyone, much less, the Finance Ministry, knew about the $20m placement until the document showing the Ministry’s involvement became public knowledge. It is also curious that while Usman found her voice to defend Mr. President on the $20m placement, she could not tell Nigerians why the President ran four secret accounts of the PTDF with his former Adviser on Petroleum Products, into which $1.7 billion were lodged, without the knowledge of the entire PTDF management."
"It is also curious that she could not tell Nigerians who or what 'ate away' the amount of $500m within two years from the secret accounts, bringing the deposited amount to USD1.2billion at the time the Senate put PTDF under the searchlight."
"It is incredible that she said the President never approved expenditure in excess of N50 million while evidence before the Senate showed that he approved N10 billion PTDF expenditure in the week of Senate debate of Third Term Agenda without FEC approval; approved another $25 milion to an unknown African Institute of Science of Technology, Abuja without FEC approval; and approved N250 million to his personal lawyer for the mere task of registering a company without the approval of the FEC."
"The resort to getting FEC's retroactive approval for these expenditures after Senate had opened enquiry into the PTDF is actually not a defence by the President but an admission to a deliberate effort to distort the records so as to pervert the course of justice. The President and his ministers are indeed guilty of perjury in addition to the crimes that have been established against them in the management of PTDF."
But while reacting to a statement credited to Lagos lawyer used as Missile in THISDAY yesterday, Political Adviser to the President, Bashorun Akin Osuntokun, said Atiku, rather than the president has questions to answer.
Osuntokun's statement reads: "Our attention has been drawn to a quote contained in the THISDAY of Tuesday, March 27th, 2007, in which renowned social crusader, Mr. Femi Falana, called on Vice President Atiku Abubakar to resign over his various indictments concerning the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF)."
“Mr. Falana was quoted in these words: 'What Mr. Vice President is saying is clear. That I am a thief and that my boss should also own up. That admission is enough for him to resign and quit the presidential race. In a normal situation, both of them would have resigned honourably, having been indicted by the National Assembly'.
As much as we appreciate the concerns of Mr. Falana on this issue, we have to, however, set the picture straight. The PTDF issue has gone through five stages of investigation or review viz: the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) investigations and indictment; the Federal Executive Council review headed by the Attorney General of the Federation, Chief Bayo Ojo, his indictment, white paper and gazette; and the Professor Ignatius Ayua Administrative Panel of Inquiry inquest and indictment."
"Furthermore, the Senator Ndoma-Egba Senate Committee report similarly investigated the issue and returned a verdict of indictment on the Vice President, followed at last by the Senator Tsauri Committee of the Senate, which reviewed the Ndoma-Egba Committee’s work. It also returned a vote of indictment on the Vice President."
"The only difference this time is that the Tsauri Committee, which is chiefly populated by senators who have one axe or the other to grind with the President, decided to also drag President Obasanjo’s name into the scandal- not for corruption but what it deemed as 'illegality' in the approval of public utility projects"
"The President has maintained that he did no wrong, and his views have been corroborated by prominent and credible government officials, including the Chairman of the EFCC, Malam Nuhu Ribadu and the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Nenadi Usman.
The same cannot apply to Vice President Atiku Abubakar, whose only defence is that he is not the only one with soiled fingers. We agree with Mr. Falana that it is only an abnormally immoral person who will be indicted by five consecutive panels that will still remain in the office of the Vice President and in the race for President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
"President Obasanjo’s determination to ensure that the future crop of leaders are not made up of proven crooks and treasury looters who deploy the same stolen resources to contest election and win court verdicts is not a personal war as many have chosen to see it. It is simply part of his resolve to see that the nation moves away from the ugly past so that this nation will, under the able hands of new visionaries, enter the enviable club of the twenty most developed economies in the world by the year 2020. Nigerians should not be deceived by the contrived 'underdog' propaganda being mounted by the Vice President’s camp, many of whom do not even understand the depth of treachery and perfidy the man they are blindly following is capable of when he achieves what he is coveting."
FG Places Security Alert on Shell MD, Others
From Funso Muraina in Abuja, 03.27.2007
The Federal Government has directed security agencies to place the 21 persons accused of transporting toxic waste allegedly on the directive of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) under security surveillance, pending the commencement of their trial.
Specifically, the Federal Government directed the Police to be vigilant on the accused persons so as to facilitate easy access to them whenever the Police would be asked to produce them in court.
Twenty-seven count charge had been preferred against the 21 accused persons over the alleged illegal dumping of toxic waste, to wit, the movement of Radioactive Source from Port-Harcourt in Rivers state to Warri in Delta state, without authorisation from the appropriate authorities.
The accused persons include; Shell, its Managing Director, Mr. Basil Efoise Omiyi, Western Atlas International Nigeria Ltd, Mr. Taiwo Akinokun, Samuel Ndahbros, Azuka Onianwa, Blessing Nwaogu, Babatunde Oribido, Maxwell Weeksee, Moses Edafe, Joseph Kintum, O and X Nigeria, Julius Joram, ED. Wayles International Services, Oyinbo Afeyebo, Cand E Global Nig. Ltd. Do-Good Philip, Isaac Akpobaro, Efe Oriedajiwhe, Anderson Onw-hakpo and Oruma Johnbull.
The letter on the surveillance was from the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice and signed by Abdullahi Mikailu, a Chief State Counsel, copied to the Deputy Inspector General of Police, “D” Department of the Nigeria Police Force Headqu-arters, Abuja.
Calling the attention of DCP S.G Balogun, the letter entitled Re: Charge Number: FHC/ABJ/CR/30/2007, FRN VS Western Atlas International Nigeria Limited & 20 others reads: “Above subject matter refers. I am directed to inform you that appropriate charges (copy attached) has been preffered against above mentioned accused persons before Federal High Court Miatama, Abuja.
"You will be further informed as soon as the matter is directed and a date is fixed for hearing”.
In a charge no FHC/ABJ/CR/30/2007, prepared by the Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation, Salihu Aliyu,the 21 accused were alleged to have illegally shipped radio active sources from Port Harcourt in Rivers state to Warri, Delta state.
The suit was placed before the Abuja Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.
In a 27 count-charge, the SPDC, two international companies among other accused were accused of violating the Nuclear Safety and Radiation law.
In the charge filed before the court on March 22, the accused are said to have allegedly conspired between September 9 and October 9, 2006 to carry, transport, handle, stored and transfer the radio active sources to an unauthorized person.
The DPP said the accused failed to obtain requisite clearance from the Department of the state Services.
The charge brought against the 21 accused persons in Abuja, stated that Western Atlas among others, transported radioactive sources (namely one neutron source, m – Be with serial No 48474, one density, Cs-137 with serial No 969, one neutron verifier Am-Be with serial No D-311, two density verifier Cs -137 with serial number V- 1008 and v-1031, one Gamma ay-rig, Ra -226 with serial No WA-644) from Port Harcourt to Warri in violation of section 77 of the Nigerian Basic Ionization Radiation regulations 2003 and section 41 of the Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Act 1995."
The accused, according to the charge, have therefore committed an offence contrary to section 516 of the criminal Code Act Cap 77 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 1990.
The FG stated further that the accused contravened section 5(2)(c) of the Nigerian safety and security of radioactive sources regulatory 2006 and therefore punishable under Section 45(1)(a) of the Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Act 1995.
E D Wayles International was accused of handling radio active materials including towing a barge called Emonina 11 containing radio active bunker from SPDC Ogunnu jetty to Perker rig 73 in Warri, Delta State, without valid licence or authorisation from the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Israel snubs Condoleezza Rice
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem
Condoleezza Rice received a humiliating snub from Israel yesterday when it refused her offer to act as negotiator between its government and the Palestinian authorities.
Condoleezza Rice was in Israel to meet with Mr Olmert and offer her services as negotiator
Miss Rice met with Mr Olmert in an effort to revive Middle East peace hopes
The American Secretary of State, who was attempting to kick-start final status talks on the creation of a Palestinian state during a visit to Jerusalem, was forced to postpone a press conference planned on Monday evening after tense discussions with the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
With Israel refusing to give in, Miss Rice was forced to head back to Washington unable to announce any major breakthrough on the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian question.
America had hoped to be able to cite progress in the Middle East peace process as a counterweight to its regional unpopularity arising out of its troubled occupation of Iraq.
The problem from Israel’s point of view is that final status talks cannot begin while the current Palestinian unity government fails to meet international conditions of renouncing violence, recognising Israel and accepting all existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
The unity government contains independent ministers and others affiliated with Fatah, a movement Israel does negotiate with, but the fact that it is dominated by representatives of the Islaimist movement Hamas means it fails to meet the three conditions.
“These conditions are not Israeli conditions, but international conditions demanded by the international community,” said Miri Eisin, a spokesman for Mr Olmert. “Israel has made clear that when the conditions have been met, then Israel is willing to enter into full negotiations.”
When asked about Miss Rice’s offer to act as interlocutor, she said: “That was just one idea.
“Secretary of State Rice came with many diverse ideas and we are grateful for her direct involvement which is very positive and gives added momentum.”
Miss Rice read a prepared statement yesterday - 12 hours after the planned press conference was meant to be held - in which she sought to put the most positive spin her latest visit to the region, the fourth in the last four months.
She said Mr Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, had agreed to meet fortnightly to discuss day-to-day matters although she conceded final status talks were some way from starting.
“As I’ve noted before, we’re not yet at final status negotiations,” she said.
“These are initial discussions to build confidence between the parties.”
Mr Olmert already meets regularly with Mr Abbas. But the Israeli prime minister has had some harsh words for the Palestinian leader, accusing him of “breaking promises” over the creation of the new unity government.
Mr Olmert’s office said Mr Abbas had committed himself repeatedly to not forming a unity government until Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal captured by Palestinian militants last June, was released.
Israel is angry the unity government has been formed without Cpl Shalit’s release, in breach of Mr Abbas’s undertaking.
The focus of the Middle East peace process shifts to Saudi Arabia tomorrow, where the Arab League is due to meet with Israel-Palestine at the top of the agenda.
“There will not be a military solution to Iraq,” Mr. Hagel declared. “Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. It doesn’t belong to the United States. Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost.” ... Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska)
Good people talking...
Served red hot!
Broken Promises and Barefaced Lies
by Joshua Frank
We have observed the same song and dance so many times before it's hard to believe more didn't see it coming. The Democrats once again let down their constituents and all the other voters who ushered them in to power last November – believing, in utter stupidity, that they would somehow halt the madness of the Iraq war by challenging the Bush administration and their Republican allies in Congress.
By now we should all know about the ugly stunt they pulled last week. The Democratic majority in the House passed an appropriations bill that would give Bush more money to continue his war. The legislation, which will likely be knocked out by the White House, calls for the troops to come home later this year. Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, believed this would somehow appease their antiwar base. Regrettably their smarmy attempt has absolutely no teeth whatsoever. Having been one of the unfortunate geeks who actually read the bill, I can tell you only one thing – it's a complete farce.
In order for troops to come home the Bushies would have to confirm whether or not "progress" had been made in Iraq, not Congress. So with more money in hand and sole authority on deciding whether or not the war in going as planned, the White House, even if Bush signed the bill, would never have to end the thing. The proposal wasn't a compromise as many have claimed, but a dagger in the heart of all of us who want to bring this war to a screeching halt.
Fortunately these are the sorts of betrayals that fuel activists like Cindy Sheehan and CODEPINK in to putting their energy in opposing the Democratic leadership. Nancy Kricorian, who manages CODEPINK's ListenHillary.org, a site dedicated to challenging Sen. Clinton's stance on the Iraq war, recently told me why she believes it is imperative that we take on the Democratic stalwarts like Hillary Clinton.
"Hillary is the current Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination and because she is one of the most powerful people in the party, so we feel it is important to hold her accountable for her voting record on and her public statements about Iraq," Kricorian said. "We hope that by pressuring her to change her stance … we will have an impact on the [Democrats]. We are tired of convoluted rhetoric and empty words – we want Hillary and the Democrats to stop buying Bush's war."
Cindy Sheehan reiterated a similar line when I recently spoke with her. "We need to take Hillary and [Nancy] Pelosi on to reflect true progressive antiwar values, not AIPAC or neocon values," she said. "It is important to keep the pressure on her and the others, because number one, she needs to be exposed, and two, she needs to know that we are not fooled by her."
...even the child knows what to do.
As Election Spectacle 2008 takes center stage over the next year, let's not buy the Democratic bull that they are going to do anything substantial to end the war in Iraq, even if Barack, Hillary, and rest of the gang promise as much. We gave them an antiwar mandate, and they still want to give Bush billions more to continue the war and the sole authority to decide when the time is right to bring the troops home.
The Democrats aren't a party of opposition, but a party of capitulation.
How Much More Harm Can Bush Do?
by Paul Craig Roberts
U.S. casualties (dead and wounded) have now reached 27,000 in a war that was supposed to be a "cakewalk," over in a few weeks. If what four-star Gen. Wesley Clark, former supreme commander of NATO, told Amy Goodman in a March 2 interview is correct, U.S. casualties are yet in their early days.
Gen. Clark told Amy Goodman that shortly after 9/11 he was shown a Pentagon "memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and, finishing off, Iran."
That sounds exactly like the plan that neoconservative Norman Podhoretz set out in Commentary magazine.
The media have done a good job for the government of keeping the blood and gore out of the living room. Except for close friends or relatives of one of the 27,000, Americans have not been impacted by the war. They are even less aware of the consequences for Iraqis.
Every day 100 or more Iraqi civilians are killed and 100 or more are maimed and injured. For example, as of early evening Tuesday, March 6, the U.S. had lost 10 GIs killed. Iraqi casualties for the day totaled 621, with 215 killed and 406 wounded.
U.S. troops routinely kill Iraqi civilians mistakenly or from frustration, but the heavy daily casualties are the result of the civil war made possible by the U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi government. U.S. troops per se are not responsible for much of the daily toll, but the Bush administration, Congress, and the American people are.
The March 6 toll of 621 civilian casualties is high even for Iraq. Assume 200 casualties each day and the result is 73,000 Iraqi casualties per year. Why does anyone in the Bush administration, Congress, or among the public believe that the U.S. has the right to wreck a country and inflict such extraordinary harm on a civilian population?
How did the "war on terror" become a war on the Iraqi people?
We have heard every answer: intelligence mistakes, incompetence, and evil machinations. Whichever answer we take, the killing and destruction continue.
It has recently come to light that the U.S. government has imposed an oil deal on the puppet Iraqi government that turns Iraqi oil over to U.S. and British firms for exploitation. Bush-Cheney have not brought Iraqis democracy, but they have stolen their oil revenues.
The profits of the military-industrial complex are soaring, and higher military budgets are being appropriated. The value of Cheney's Halliburton stock options has not merely doubled or tripled but multiplied by a factor of 32.
The Israel Lobby sees the war as enhancing Israeli hegemony in the Middle East and making possible the completion of Israel's theft of Palestine from Palestinians.
Thus, the three most powerful lobbies in America are the beneficiaries of the devastation of Iraq. The combined power of these lobbies makes it impossible for Congress to respond to the American people and end the war.
American politicians and administrations still cloak their motives in idealistic principles, but it has been a long time since anyone has seen any principled behavior in Washington.
Despite the unrelenting U.S. propaganda against Iran and North Korea, a poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries for the BBC World Service (March 6) found that Israel, Iran, and the U.S. in that order are regarded as the most negative influences on the world. Even North Korea is regarded as a less negative influence than America.
Japan, Canada, the EU, France, China, and India are all regarded as more positive influences on the world than the United States.
The Bush-Cheney regime has achieved this deplorable result in a mere six years.
Yet the Democrats cannot even pass a toothless resolution against committing more U.S. troops to Iraq.
Far from making Americans safe by attacking a country that posed no threat to the U.S., Bush and Cheney have alarmed the Russians and the Chinese. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Gen. Yury Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian General Staff, have both warned that the Bush regime's military aggression and drive for hegemony are setting off another arms race. Gen. Baluyevsky says that Russia might pull out of the 20-year-old Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
China has announced a 17.8 percent increase in its military budget for 2007.
China is America's most important banker. How long will China fund America's wars and trade deficit when it finds itself so threatened by America's "leaders" that it has to accelerate its military spending?
Americans still regard themselves as the salt of the earth. But the rest of the world no longer sees Americans that way. When citizens of other countries turn their eyes toward America, they see evil.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
War with Iran Is Not A Done Deal
by Tony Karon
So, is the U.S. going to attack Iran? I’ve been in South Africa for much of the past month, and the question kept recurring among observers of the international scene. Nobody knows the answer, of course, for the simple reason that it’s unlikely that a decision has been taken. To be sure, as Michael Klare points out, President Bush’s rhetoric suggests that he’s already decided to bomb Iran. And the Administration, served as ever by a willfully naive media corps stoking misconceptions, is certainly preparing the public for a confrontation. And there’s no question that the folks who brought you the Iraq war would very much like to see a second front opened in Iran. At the same time, however, there are a number of powerful countervailing forces in play that will restrain President Bush’s more hawkish instincts — it’s clear, already, that the bomb-Iran crowd faces considerable hostility in the U.S. Congress, among the key U.S. Sunni-Arab allies in the region (on whose behalf Washington claims to be challenging Iran) and, very importantly, among the uniformed leadership of the U.S. military. And the leadership in Iran, aware of the danger, appears to be moving to calm tensions on a wide array of fronts (moves that allow the pragmatists in Washington to craft a narrative — for domestic consumption — arguing that pressure on Iran has strengthened the U.S. hand to negotiate with Iran, and that negotiations can now proceed).
The talks involving the U.S. and Iran and other Iraq stake-holders that begin in Baghdad on Saturday but are slated to continue in Cairo and Istanbul in the coming weeks could be an important indicator: If the U.S. simply uses those to hurl allegations at Iran of malfeasance in Iraq, I’d say the chances of an attack may be greater. Then again, an overly hostile stance would leave the U.S. isolated — just as it did in the six-party talks on North Korea, where Washington was eventually forced to accept China’s lead. If, instead, there’s a serious engagement on the basis of the two sides recognizing each other’s stake in Iraq, it might be a sign that more pragmatic voices are prevailing in Washington. It won’t, of course, be the decisive indicator: The Washington factional struggle will ebb and flow in the coming months, and with it will go the prospects for war with Iran. In short, I’d say this is not a done deal, and whether or not there is a war will be determined by the outcome of a number of factional battles in Washington and elsewhere in the world — and also on the readiness of the U.S. media and political leadership to challenge the misconceptions required to enable another war.
The Cheney element in the Bush administration is clearly leading the charge to bomb Iran, and as Seymour Hersh reports, it has already initiated an extensive covert war using al-Qaeda-allied Sunni Islamist groups as proxies against Iran and its allies. These people have no shame, nor sense of humor or history, it seems: After all, it was a similar strategy in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that created al-Qaeda in the first place. This time, it will be different, Hersh’s sources insist, no doubt with a straight face:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
The upsurge of terror attacks by separatists inside Iran suggest that the the Administration has already signed off on a massive expansion of covert operations against Tehran.
At the same time, the propaganda effort has been cranked up to proclaim Iran the source of all trouble in the Middle East — and much of the media is being naively helpful, as usual, by failing to question many of the fundamentals. For example, the idea that Iran is “meddling” in Iraq. What exactly is the U.S. doing there? Iran has far more legitimate interest in shaping the politics of its neighbor, whose last Sunni regime initiated a war that killed more than a million Iranians. Not only that, the overwhelming majority of Iraq’s democratically elected political leaders (both Shiites and Kurds) are on close terms with Iran and welcome its involvement in rebuilding their country. And the Iraqi government has not echoed the U.S. accusation about Iranian activity. Still, the trope that “Iran is meddling in Iraq” has now been embraced by much of the mainstream media. The distortion is clear in the language of this report from CNN on changes being considered in the Iraqi intelligence structure: Under the headline “Pro-Iran Agency May Take Over Iraq’s Intelligence,” it
notes that the current Iraqi intelligence structure was created entirely by the U.S. and that the Iraqi government wants to bring it under its own authority. “But now, the future of the U.S.-controlled agency appears to be in jeopardy. A document from Iraq’s National Security Council lays out a blueprint for Iraq’s new intelligence
community. Under that plan, all intelligence gathering would be consolidated under Iraq’s Iranian-friendly central government.” So, the democratically elected government of Iraq wants to exercise its sovereignty by putting its own intelligence service under its control (rather than that of a foreign power, i.e. the U.S.), and this is portrayed as some sort of Iranian power grab!
The second self-serving myth that has passed unchallenged is the idea that a looming Iranian threat — evident in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories (where even the Israelis admit that the only reason Hamas is cozying up to Iran is that the U.S. has shut down every other channel of support) — has effected a realignment in Middle Eastern geopolitics, putting the key Sunni autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) into alliance with the U.S. and Israel to confront Iran. This notion is even more crudely rendered in some quarters as a kind of region-wide Sunni-Shiite throwdown. This may be what Cheney and the neocons and Israel would like, but it’s hardly what’s actually happening.
Of course there’s a long-running rivalry between the Iranians and Saudis in the region, and events in Iraq have certainly stirred up Sunni-Shiite tensions. But the Saudis aren’t so naive as to buy into Washington’s fantasy world in which rivals and enemies can simply be isolated and eliminated. And, unlike the purveyors of these fantasies in Washington, the Sunni regimes are intimately aware of their own political weakness — of their isolation from their own, Sunni citizenry. So while they have, indeed, ramped up their own engagement throughout the region, the Saudis’ approach has been substantially at odds with that of the Bush Administration. That much was abundantly clear when Riyadh pulled the rug out from under the Bush Administration’s efforts to destroy Hamas. Where Bush and Rice had been demanding that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas dissolve the Hamas government and call new elections — and arming their chosen proxy, Mohammed Dahlan, to fight Hamas to the finish — the Saudis stepped in and brokered a unity deal to stave off a Palestinian civil war. Getting Abbas into a government alongside Hamas was precisely the opposite of what Washington wanted, yet the Saudis made clear that despite their own misgivings about Hamas, there was no other way — Hamas is more popular than Fatah, and isolating it only drives it into the arms of Iran.
An even sharper schism will be evident in the coming weeks as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan look to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process via a reinvigoration of the Saudi proposals adopted by the Arab League in 2002: Full recognition for Israel on the basis of its withdrawal to its 1967 borders. While the Bush Administration is notionally committed to reviving the peace process, neither it or its Israeli ally has reckoned with the reality of what peace would demand of the Israelis — the Israeli government is not inclined to accept the 1967 borders (and, remember, while Olmert’s support stands at about 3% of the electorate, currently leading the field is the noxious expansionist Bibi Netanyahu, who has no intention of giving up any more land). Yet, as Jordan’s King Abdullah made clear in an impassioned speech to Congress this week, Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders is essential to any progress in the region on a host of other issues. But President Bush has never shown any inclination to press the Israelis to make concessions, and it’s a safe bet that Condi Rice will be as frustrated as her predecessor, Colin Powell, in any efforts to persuade her boss that peace actually requires compelling the Israelis to take steps that they are unlikely to take unless they are given no option.
Nor is the Palestinian example the only one that shows the difference between the Saudi position and that of the U.S. While Washington has clamored for Iran’s isolation, the Saudis have been actively engaging with Tehran at the highest level, with a view to calming sectarian tensions in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. The Saudis know the Iranians can’t be wished away; that containing their regional ambitions requires engagement and a recognition of the reality that they will retain considerable influence in a place such as Iraq. The fact that talks are to begin in Baghdad this weekend that will bring the U.S. face to face with Iran is an indication that the bellicose line in the Bush Administration has been pegged back. In this respect, the guilty verdict against Cheney aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby couldn’t have come at a better time, because anything that keeps the most dangerous man in the world on the back foot could help avert a war. Then again, the word in Washington is that Cheney has lost control of the process of shaping Bush’s decisions, which is why the U.S. is suddenly reversing course on both North Korea and Iran.
The other major factor militating against a U.S. military strike against Iran is that the uniformed leadership of the U.S. military is adamantly opposed to such a catastrophic course of action. Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Peter Pace even took the unprecedented step of publicly questioning the White House claim that Iran was behind attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. And the Times of London reports that some of America’s top military commanders have vowed to resign their posts if President Bush orders an attack on Iran.
So, in short, I don’t agree with Klare and others who argue that the bombing of Iran by President Bush before he leaves office is a done deal. It’ll only happen if it’s allowed to happen.
An Awful Legacy Of Bush 41
by Joe Conason
Someday, historians will wonder why the highest officials in the Bush Justice Department believed that they could inflict heavy-handed political abuse on federal prosecutors-and get away with it. The punishment of the eight dismissed U.S. Attorneys betrays a strong sense of impunity in the White House, as if the President and his aides assumed that nobody would complain about these outrages or attempt to hold them accountable.
That confidence was understandable, of course, after so many years of living with a docile press corps and a compliant Congress. And the precedent for this misconduct was set long ago.
There was once another Republican prosecutor who insisted on behaving professionally instead of obeying partisan hints from the White House. His name was Charles A. Banks, and the Washington press corps said nothing when he was punished for his honesty by the administration of the first President Bush.
The cautionary tale of Chuck Banks begins during the summer of 1992, as the Presidential contest entered its final months with Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton leading incumbent President George H.W. Bush.
At the time, Mr. Banks had already served for five years as the United States Attorney in Little Rock. As an active Republican who had run for Congress and still aspired to higher office, he counted Mr. Clinton among his political adversaries. The first President Bush had recently selected him as a potential nominee for the federal bench. Nothing could have better served Mr. Banks' personal interests than a chance to stop the Clintons and preserve the Bush Presidency.
In September 1992, a Republican activist employed by the Resolution Trust Corporation provided that opportunity by fabricating a criminal referral naming the Clintons as witnesses in a case against the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association (the small Arkansas savings and loan owned by Whitewater partner and Clinton friend James McDougal).
The referral prepared by L. Jean Lewis lacked merit-as determined by both Mr. Banks and the top F.B.I. agent in his office-but Ms. Lewis commenced a persistent crusade for action against the hated Clintons. The F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney repeatedly rejected or ignored her crankish entreaties.
Eventually, however, officials in the Bush White House and the Justice Department heard whispers about the Lewis referral. Obviously, that document had the potential to save the President from defeat in November by smearing the Clintons as corrupt participants in a sweetheart land deal. (They had actually lost a large sum of money in Whitewater.)
That fall, Edith Holiday, secretary to the Bush cabinet, asked Attorney General William Barr whether he knew anything about such a referral. Although Mr. Barr knew nothing, he quickly sent an inquiry to the F.B.I. Weeks later, the President's counsel, C. Boyden Gray, posed a similar improper question to a top Resolution Trust Corp. official.
The queries and hints from above created intense pressure on Mr. Banks to act on the Lewis referral despite his opinion, shared by the F.B.I., that her work was sloppy and biased. After Mr. Barr ordered him to act on the referral no later than two weeks before Election Day, he replied with a roar of conscience.
"I know that in investigations of this type," he wrote in a remarkable memo to his boss, "the first steps, such as issuance of ... subpoenas ... will lead to media and public inquiries of matters that are subject to absolute privacy. Even media questions about such an investigation in today's modern political climate all too often publicly purport to 'legitimize what can't be proven' ....
"I must opine that after such a lapse of time, the insistence for urgency in this case appears to suggest an intentional or unintentional attempt to intervene into the political process of the upcoming presidential election ....
"For me personally to participate in an investigation that I know will or could easily lead to the above scenario ... is inappropriate. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct and violates the most basic fundamental rule of Department of Justice policy." The Whitewater case didn't save the first President Bush, but it was later revived as a pseudo-scandal that ultimately wasted almost eight years of investigative effort and tens of millions of dollars in an effort to destroy President Clinton. More pertinent today is what happened to Mr. Banks and Ms. Lewis-and the U.S. Attorney's office in Little Rock.
Mr. Banks forfeited his promised judgeship and returned to private practice with his political career ended.
The incompetent Ms. Lewis appeared before the Senate Whitewater Committee, where she lied repeatedly before "fainting" under examination by the Democratic counsel. She then disappeared from public view until 2003, when the White House rewarded her with an important federal job. Those who had observed Ms. Lewis in action were astonished when she was named chief of staff to the Pentagon Inspector General, at a salary of $118,000 a year.
An ugly sequel occurred last December, when the Justice Department rudely ousted H.E. (Bud) Cummins III-another upstanding and competent Republican prosecutor in Little Rock-so that a crony of Karl Rove could replace him in the U.S. Attorney's office.
Was this what George W. Bush meant when he promised to return "honor" and "integrity" to the Oval Office?
(c) 2007 Joe Conason
Is the Administration’s new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?
by Seymour M. Hersh March 5, 2007
A STRATEGIC SHIFT
In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country’s right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that “realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region.”
After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. That calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq’s Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The new American policy, in its broad outlines, has been discussed publicly. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that there is “a new strategic alignment in the Middle East,” separating “reformers” and “extremists”; she pointed to the Sunni states as centers of moderation, and said that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah were “on the other side of that divide.” (Syria’s Sunni majority is dominated by the Alawi sect.) Iran and Syria, she said, “have made their choice and their choice is to destabilize.”
Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.
A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee told me that he had heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not been adequately briefed. “We haven’t got any of this,” he said. “We ask for anything going on, and they say there’s nothing. And when we ask specific questions they say, ‘We’re going to get back to you.’ It’s so frustrating.”
The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney. (Cheney’s office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, “The United States is not planning to go to war with Iran.”)
The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The new strategy “is a major shift in American policy—it’s a sea change,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. The Sunni states “were petrified of a Shiite resurgence, and there was growing resentment with our gambling on the moderate Shiites in Iraq,” he said. “We cannot reverse the Shiite gain in Iraq, but we can contain it.”
“It seems there has been a debate inside the government over what’s the biggest danger—Iran or Sunni radicals,” Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written widely on Shiites, Iran, and Iraq, told me. “The Saudis and some in the Administration have been arguing that the biggest threat is Iran and the Sunni radicals are the lesser enemies. This is a victory for the Saudi line.”
Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that “the Middle East is heading into a serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.” Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy. “The White House is not just doubling the bet in Iraq,” he said. “It’s doubling the bet across the region. This could get very complicated. Everything is upside down.”
The Administration’s new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its strategy for winning the war in Iraq. Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put “fear” into the government of Prime Minister Maliki and “make him worry that the Sunnis could actually win” the civil war there. Clawson said that this might give Maliki an incentive to coöperate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Even so, for the moment, the U.S. remains dependent on the coöperation of Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as U.S. allies. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the White House back Maliki. A memorandum written late last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the trends have been in the opposite direction. As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has steadily increased.
Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Administration National Security Council official, told me that “there is nothing coincidental or ironic” about the new strategy with regard to Iraq. “The Administration is trying to make a case that Iran is more dangerous and more provocative than the Sunni insurgents to American interests in Iraq, when—if you look at the actual casualty numbers—the punishment inflicted on America by the Sunnis is greater by an order of magnitude,” Leverett said. “This is all part of the campaign of provocative steps to increase the pressure on Iran. The idea is that at some point the Iranians will respond and then the Administration will have an open door to strike at them.”
President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out this approach. “These two regimes”—Iran and Syria—“are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq,” Bush said. “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”
In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war. On February 11th, reporters were shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration’s message was, in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own failures of planning and execution but of Iran’s interference.
The U.S. military also has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Iranians in Iraq. “The word went out last August for the military to snatch as many Iranians in Iraq as they can,” a former senior intelligence official said. “They had five hundred locked up at one time. We’re working these guys and getting information from them. The White House goal is to build a case that the Iranians have been fomenting the insurgency and they’ve been doing it all along—that Iran is, in fact, supporting the killing of Americans.” The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months. But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who “get scooped up and released in a short time,” after they have been interrogated.
“We are not planning for a war with Iran,” Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, announced on February 2nd, and yet the atmosphere of confrontation has deepened. According to current and former American intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran. American military and special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq.
At Rice’s Senate appearance in January, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, pointedly asked her whether the U.S. planned to cross the Iranian or the Syrian border in the course of a pursuit. “Obviously, the President isn’t going to rule anything out to protect our troops, but the plan is to take down these networks in Iraq,” Rice said, adding, “I do think that everyone will understand that—the American people and I assume the Congress expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces.”
The ambiguity of Rice’s reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:
Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary. And that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, “We didn’t cross the border going into Cambodia,” in fact we did.
I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee. So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the President is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous.
The Administration’s concern about Iran’s role in Iraq is coupled with its long-standing alarm over Iran’s nuclear program. On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years, “of a nuclear-armed Iran, astride the world’s supply of oil, able to affect adversely the global economy, prepared to use terrorist organizations and/or their nuclear weapons to threaten their neighbors and others around the world.” He also said, “If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk with the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried… . The threat Iran represents is growing.”
The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on Iran’s weapons programs. Current and former American officials told me that the intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in Iran, includes a claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental missile capable of delivering several small warheads—each with limited accuracy—inside Europe. The validity of this human intelligence is still being debated.
A similar argument about an imminent threat posed by weapons of mass destruction—and questions about the intelligence used to make that case—formed the prelude to the invasion of Iraq. Many in Congress have greeted the claims about Iran with wariness; in the Senate on February 14th, Hillary Clinton said, “We have all learned lessons from the conflict in Iraq, and we have to apply those lessons to any allegations that are being raised about Iran. Because, Mr. President, what we are hearing has too familiar a ring and we must be on guard that we never again make decisions on the basis of intelligence that turns out to be faulty.”
Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the President. In recent months, the former intelligence official told me, a special planning group has been established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours.
In the past month, I was told by an Air Force adviser on targeting and the Pentagon consultant on terrorism, the Iran planning group has been handed a new assignment: to identify targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq. Previously, the focus had been on the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities and possible regime change.
Two carrier strike groups—the Eisenhower and the Stennis—are now in the Arabian Sea. One plan is for them to be relieved early in the spring, but there is worry within the military that they may be ordered to stay in the area after the new carriers arrive, according to several sources. (Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s southern coast.) The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring. He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House’s not being “foolish enough to do this in the face of Iraq, and the problems it would give the Republicans in 2008.”
PRINCE BANDAR’S GAME
The Administration’s effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.
Last November, Cheney flew to Saudi Arabia for a surprise meeting with King Abdullah and Bandar. The Times reported that the King warned Cheney that Saudi Arabia would back its fellow-Sunnis in Iraq if the United States were to withdraw. A European intelligence official told me that the meeting also focussed on more general Saudi fears about “the rise of the Shiites.” In response, “The Saudis are starting to use their leverage—money.”
In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S., which is crucial to the Saudis. Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar. A former Saudi diplomat told me that during Turki’s tenure he became aware of private meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney and Abrams. “I assume Turki was not happy with that,” the Saudi said. But, he added, “I don’t think that Bandar is going off on his own.” Although Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said, he shared his goal of challenging the spread of Shiite power in the Middle East.
The split between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to a bitter divide, in the seventh century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis dominated the medieval caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, and Shiites, traditionally, have been regarded more as outsiders. Worldwide, ninety per cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, and are the largest Muslim group in Lebanon. Their concentration in a volatile, oil-rich region has led to concern in the West and among Sunnis about the emergence of a “Shiite crescent”—especially given Iran’s increased geopolitical weight.
“The Saudis still see the world through the days of the Ottoman Empire, when Sunni Muslims ruled the roost and the Shiites were the lowest class,” Frederic Hof, a retired military officer who is an expert on the Middle East, told me. If Bandar was seen as bringing about a shift in U.S. policy in favor of the Sunnis, he added, it would greatly enhance his standing within the royal family.
The Saudis are driven by their fear that Iran could tilt the balance of power not only in the region but within their own country. Saudi Arabia has a significant Shiite minority in its Eastern Province, a region of major oil fields; sectarian tensions are high in the province. The royal family believes that Iranian operatives, working with local Shiites, have been behind many terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, according to Vali Nasr. “Today, the only army capable of containing Iran”—the Iraqi Army—“has been destroyed by the United States. You’re now dealing with an Iran that could be nuclear-capable and has a standing army of four hundred and fifty thousand soldiers.” (Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops in its standing army.)
Nasr went on, “The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis”—Sunni extremists who view Shiites as apostates. “The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back.”
The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of Sunni extremists, who object to the corruption and decadence among the family’s myriad princes. The princes are gambling that they will not be overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and charities linked to the extremists. The Administration’s new strategy is heavily dependent on this bargain.
Nasr compared the current situation to the period in which Al Qaeda first emerged. In the nineteen-eighties and the early nineties, the Saudi government offered to subsidize the covert American C.I.A. proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities. Then, as now, many of the operatives who were paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
The Saudi said that, in his country’s view, it was taking a political risk by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration. “We have two nightmares,” the former diplomat told me. “For Iran to acquire the bomb and for the United States to attack Iran. I’d rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed.”
In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction. At least four main elements were involved, the U.S. government consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states shared its concern about Iran.
Second, the Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression and to begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between the two factions. However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms.)
The third component was that the Bush Administration would work directly with Sunni nations to counteract Shiite ascendance in the region.
Fourth, the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations. Syria is a major conduit of arms to Hezbollah. The Saudi government is also at odds with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar. (A U.N. inquiry strongly suggested that the Syrians were involved, but offered no direct evidence; there are plans for another investigation, by an international tribunal.)
Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, depicted the Saudis’ coöperation with the White House as a significant breakthrough. “The Saudis understand that if they want the Administration to make a more generous political offer to the Palestinians they have to persuade the Arab states to make a more generous offer to the Israelis,” Clawson told me. The new diplomatic approach, he added, “shows a real degree of effort and sophistication as well as a deftness of touch not always associated with this Administration. Who’s running the greater risk—we or the Saudis? At a time when America’s standing in the Middle East is extremely low, the Saudis are actually embracing us. We should count our blessings.”
The Pentagon consultant had a different view. He said that the Administration had turned to Bandar as a “fallback,” because it had realized that the failing war in Iraq could leave the Middle East “up for grabs.”
JIHADIS IN LEBANON
The focus of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, after Iran, is Lebanon, where the Saudis have been deeply involved in efforts by the Administration to support the Lebanese government. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah has an extensive infrastructure, an estimated two to three thousand active fighters, and thousands of additional members.
Hezbollah has been on the State Department’s terrorist list since 1997. The organization has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that killed two hundred and forty-one military men. It has also been accused of complicity in the kidnapping of Americans, including the C.I.A. station chief in Lebanon, who died in captivity, and a Marine colonel serving on a U.N. peacekeeping mission, who was killed. (Nasrallah has denied that the group was involved in these incidents.) Nasrallah is seen by many as a staunch terrorist, who has said that he regards Israel as a state that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood Israel in last summer’s thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies on America’s support but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. (Photographs of Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice on the cheek when she visited during the war were prominently displayed during street protests in Beirut.)
The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors’ conference in Paris, in January, which the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight billion more, including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis. The American pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in military aid, and forty million dollars for internal security.
The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”
American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.
During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting “to hijack the state,” but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. “Salafis are sick and hateful, and I’m very much against the idea of flirting with them,” he said. “They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly.”
Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, “The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous.” Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. “I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government’s interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah,” Crooke said.
The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.
In 2005, according to a report by the U.S.-based International Crisis Group, Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and the son of the slain former Prime Minister—Saad inherited more than four billion dollars after his father’s assassination—paid forty-eight thousand dollars in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted that many of the militants “had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.”
According to the Crisis Group report, Saad Hariri later used his parliamentary majority to obtain amnesty for twenty-two of the Dinniyeh Islamists, as well as for seven militants suspected of plotting to bomb the Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut, the previous year. (He also arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination, in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.) Hariri described his actions to reporters as humanitarian.
In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. “We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here,” he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn Lebanon into a “theatre of conflict.”
The official said that his government was in a no-win situation. Without a political settlement with Hezbollah, he said, Lebanon could “slide into a conflict,” in which Hezbollah fought openly with Sunni forces, with potentially horrific consequences. But if Hezbollah agreed to a settlement yet still maintained a separate army, allied with Iran and Syria, “Lebanon could become a target. In both cases, we become a target.”
The Bush Administration has portrayed its support of the Siniora government as an example of the President’s belief in democracy, and his desire to prevent other powers from interfering in Lebanon. When Hezbollah led street demonstrations in Beirut in December, John Bolton, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., called them “part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup.”
Leslie H. Gelb, a past president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Administration’s policy was less pro democracy than “pro American national security. The fact is that it would be terribly dangerous if Hezbollah ran Lebanon.” The fall of the Siniora government would be seen, Gelb said, “as a signal in the Middle East of the decline of the United States and the ascendancy of the terrorism threat. And so any change in the distribution of political power in Lebanon has to be opposed by the United States—and we’re justified in helping any non-Shiite parties resist that change. We should say this publicly, instead of talking about democracy.”
Martin Indyk, of the Saban Center, said, however, that the United States “does not have enough pull to stop the moderates in Lebanon from dealing with the extremists.” He added, “The President sees the region as divided between moderates and extremists, but our regional friends see it as divided between Sunnis and Shia. The Sunnis that we view as extremists are regarded by our Sunni allies simply as Sunnis.”
In January, after an outburst of street violence in Beirut involving supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew to Tehran to discuss the political impasse in Lebanon and to meet with Ali Larijani, the Iranians’ negotiator on nuclear issues. According to a Middle Eastern ambassador, Bandar’s mission—which the ambassador said was endorsed by the White House—also aimed “to create problems between the Iranians and Syria.” There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks with Israel, and the Saudis’ goal was to encourage a breach. However, the ambassador said, “It did not work. Syria and Iran are not going to betray each other. Bandar’s approach is very unlikely to succeed.”
Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of Syria, and has repeatedly told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct control of the religious leadership in Iran. In a conversation with me last December, he depicted Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, as a “serial killer.” Nasrallah, he said, was “morally guilty” of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the murder, last November, of Pierre Gemayel, a member of the Siniora Cabinet, because of his support for the Syrians.
Jumblatt then told me that he had met with Vice-President Cheney in Washington last fall to discuss, among other issues, the possibility of undermining Assad. He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would be “the ones to talk to,” Jumblatt said.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a branch of a radical Sunni movement founded in Egypt in 1928, engaged in more than a decade of violent opposition to the regime of Hafez Assad, Bashir’s father. In 1982, the Brotherhood took control of the city of Hama; Assad bombarded the city for a week, killing between six thousand and twenty thousand people. Membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The Brotherhood is also an avowed enemy of the U.S. and of Israel. Nevertheless, Jumblatt said, “We told Cheney that the basic link between Iran and Lebanon is Syria—and to weaken Iran you need to open the door to effective Syrian opposition.”
There is evidence that the Administration’s redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood. The Syrian National Salvation Front is a coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005, and the Brotherhood. A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me, “The Americans have provided both political and financial support. The Saudis are taking the lead with financial support, but there is American involvement.” He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House. (In 2005, a delegation of the Front’s members met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided members of the Front with travel documents.
Jumblatt said he understood that the issue was a sensitive one for the White House. “I told Cheney that some people in the Arab world, mainly the Egyptians”—whose moderate Sunni leadership has been fighting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for decades—“won’t like it if the United States helps the Brotherhood. But if you don’t take on Syria we will be face to face in Lebanon with Hezbollah in a long fight, and one we might not win.”
On a warm, clear night early last December, in a bombed-out suburb a few miles south of downtown Beirut, I got a preview of how the Administration’s new strategy might play out in Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, who has been in hiding, had agreed to an interview. Security arrangements for the meeting were secretive and elaborate. I was driven, in the back seat of a darkened car, to a damaged underground garage somewhere in Beirut, searched with a handheld scanner, placed in a second car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and transferred again. Last summer, it was reported that Israel was trying to kill Nasrallah, but the extraordinary precautions were not due only to that threat. Nasrallah’s aides told me that they believe he is a prime target of fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives, as well as Sunni jihadists who they believe are affiliated with Al Qaeda. (The government consultant and a retired four-star general said that Jordanian intelligence, with support from the U.S. and Israel, had been trying to infiltrate Shiite groups, to work against Hezbollah. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has warned that a Shiite government in Iraq that was close to Iran would lead to the emergence of a Shiite crescent.) This is something of an ironic turn: Nasrallah’s battle with Israel last summer turned him—a Shiite—into the most popular and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region. In recent months, however, he has increasingly been seen by many Sunnis not as a symbol of Arab unity but as a participant in a sectarian war.
Nasrallah, dressed, as usual, in religious garb, was waiting for me in an unremarkable apartment. One of his advisers said that he was not likely to remain there overnight; he has been on the move since his decision, last July, to order the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid set off the thirty-three-day war. Nasrallah has since said publicly—and repeated to me—that he misjudged the Israeli response. “We just wanted to capture prisoners for exchange purposes,” he told me. “We never wanted to drag the region into war.”
Nasrallah accused the Bush Administration of working with Israel to deliberately instigate fitna, an Arabic word that is used to mean “insurrection and fragmentation within Islam.” “In my opinion, there is a huge campaign through the media throughout the world to put each side up against the other,” he said. “I believe that all this is being run by American and Israeli intelligence.” (He did not provide any specific evidence for this.) He said that the U.S. war in Iraq had increased sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from spreading into Lebanon. (Sunni-Shiite confrontations increased, along with violence, in the weeks after we talked.)
Nasrallah said he believed that President Bush’s goal was “the drawing of a new map for the region. They want the partition of Iraq. Iraq is not on the edge of a civil war—there is a civil war. There is ethnic and sectarian cleansing. The daily killing and displacement which is taking place in Iraq aims at achieving three Iraqi parts, which will be sectarian and ethnically pure as a prelude to the partition of Iraq. Within one or two years at the most, there will be total Sunni areas, total Shiite areas, and total Kurdish areas. Even in Baghdad, there is a fear that it might be divided into two areas, one Sunni and one Shiite.”
He went on, “I can say that President Bush is lying when he says he does not want Iraq to be partitioned. All the facts occurring now on the ground make you swear he is dragging Iraq to partition. And a day will come when he will say, ‘I cannot do anything, since the Iraqis want the partition of their country and I honor the wishes of the people of Iraq.’ ”
Nasrallah said he believed that America also wanted to bring about the partition of Lebanon and of Syria. In Syria, he said, the result would be to push the country “into chaos and internal battles like in Iraq.” In Lebanon, “There will be a Sunni state, an Alawi state, a Christian state, and a Druze state.” But, he said, “I do not know if there will be a Shiite state.” Nasrallah told me that he suspected that one aim of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer was “the destruction of Shiite areas and the displacement of Shiites from Lebanon. The idea was to have the Shiites of Lebanon and Syria flee to southern Iraq,” which is dominated by Shiites. “I am not sure, but I smell this,” he told me.
Partition would leave Israel surrounded by “small tranquil states,” he said. “I can assure you that the Saudi kingdom will also be divided, and the issue will reach to North African states. There will be small ethnic and confessional states,” he said. “In other words, Israel will be the most important and the strongest state in a region that has been partitioned into ethnic and confessional states that are in agreement with each other. This is the new Middle East.”
In fact, the Bush Administration has adamantly resisted talk of partitioning Iraq, and its public stances suggest that the White House sees a future Lebanon that is intact, with a weak, disarmed Hezbollah playing, at most, a minor political role. There is also no evidence to support Nasrallah’s belief that the Israelis were seeking to drive the Shiites into southern Iraq. Nevertheless, Nasrallah’s vision of a larger sectarian conflict in which the United States is implicated suggests a possible consequence of the White House’s new strategy.
In the interview, Nasrallah made mollifying gestures and promises that would likely be met with skepticism by his opponents. “If the United States says that discussions with the likes of us can be useful and influential in determining American policy in the region, we have no objection to talks or meetings,” he said. “But, if their aim through this meeting is to impose their policy on us, it will be a waste of time.” He said that the Hezbollah militia, unless attacked, would operate only within the borders of Lebanon, and pledged to disarm it when the Lebanese Army was able to stand up. Nasrallah said that he had no interest in initiating another war with Israel. However, he added that he was anticipating, and preparing for, another Israeli attack, later this year.
Nasrallah further insisted that the street demonstrations in Beirut would continue until the Siniora government fell or met his coalition’s political demands. “Practically speaking, this government cannot rule,” he told me. “It might issue orders, but the majority of the Lebanese people will not abide and will not recognize the legitimacy of this government. Siniora remains in office because of international support, but this does not mean that Siniora can rule Lebanon.”
President Bush’s repeated praise of the Siniora government, Nasrallah said, “is the best service to the Lebanese opposition he can give, because it weakens their position vis-à-vis the Lebanese people and the Arab and Islamic populations. They are betting on us getting tired. We did not get tired during the war, so how could we get tired in a demonstration?”
There is sharp division inside and outside the Bush Administration about how best to deal with Nasrallah, and whether he could, in fact, be a partner in a political settlement. The outgoing director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, in a farewell briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in January, said that Hezbollah “lies at the center of Iran’s terrorist strategy… . It could decide to conduct attacks against U.S. interests in the event it feels its survival or that of Iran is threatened… . Lebanese Hezbollah sees itself as Tehran’s partner.”
In 2002, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, called Hezbollah “the A-team” of terrorists. In a recent interview, however, Armitage acknowledged that the issue has become somewhat more complicated. Nasrallah, Armitage told me, has emerged as “a political force of some note, with a political role to play inside Lebanon if he chooses to do so.” In terms of public relations and political gamesmanship, Armitage said, Nasrallah “is the smartest man in the Middle East.” But, he added, Nasrallah “has got to make it clear that he wants to play an appropriate role as the loyal opposition. For me, there’s still a blood debt to pay”—a reference to the murdered colonel and the Marine barracks bombing.
Robert Baer, a former longtime C.I.A. agent in Lebanon, has been a severe critic of Hezbollah and has warned of its links to Iranian-sponsored terrorism. But now, he told me, “we’ve got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it’s going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites.
“The most important story in the Middle East is the growth of Nasrallah from a street guy to a leader—from a terrorist to a statesman,” Baer added. “The dog that didn’t bark this summer”—during the war with Israel—“is Shiite terrorism.” Baer was referring to fears that Nasrallah, in addition to firing rockets into Israel and kidnapping its soldiers, might set in motion a wave of terror attacks on Israeli and American targets around the world. “He could have pulled the trigger, but he did not,” Baer said.
Most members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities acknowledge Hezbollah’s ongoing ties to Iran. But there is disagreement about the extent to which Nasrallah would put aside Hezbollah’s interests in favor of Iran’s. A former C.I.A. officer who also served in Lebanon called Nasrallah “a Lebanese phenomenon,” adding, “Yes, he’s aided by Iran and Syria, but Hezbollah’s gone beyond that.” He told me that there was a period in the late eighties and early nineties when the C.I.A. station in Beirut was able to clandestinely monitor Nasrallah’s conversations. He described Nasrallah as “a gang leader who was able to make deals with the other gangs. He had contacts with everybody.”
The Bush Administration’s reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then—notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams—are involved in today’s dealings.
Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal. Abrams led the discussion. One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”—a reference to Cheney’s role, the former senior intelligence official said.
I was subsequently told by the two government consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.)
The former senior intelligence official also told me that Negroponte did not want a repeat of his experience in the Reagan Administration, when he served as Ambassador to Honduras. “Negroponte said, ‘No way. I’m not going down that road again, with the N.S.C. running operations off the books, with no finding.’ ” (In the case of covert C.I.A. operations, the President must issue a written finding and inform Congress.) Negroponte stayed on as Deputy Secretary of State, he added, because “he believes he can influence the government in a positive way.”
The government consultant said that Negroponte shared the White House’s policy goals but “wanted to do it by the book.” The Pentagon consultant also told me that “there was a sense at the senior-ranks level that he wasn’t fully on board with the more adventurous clandestine initiatives.” It was also true, he said, that Negroponte “had problems with this Rube Goldberg policy contraption for fixing the Middle East.”
The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight, was accounting for covert funds. “There are many, many pots of black money, scattered in many places and used all over the world on a variety of missions,” he said. The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star general.
“This goes back to Iran-Contra,” a former National Security Council aide told me. “And much of what they’re doing is to keep the agency out of it.” He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations. And, he said, “The C.I.A. is asking, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re concerned, because they think it’s amateur hour.”
The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress. Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress on what it depicted as the Administration’s blurring of the line between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the same reporting requirements. And the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, has scheduled a hearing for March 8th on Defense Department intelligence activities.
Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, a Democrat who is a member of the Intelligence Committee, told me, “The Bush Administration has frequently failed to meet its legal obligation to keep the Intelligence Committee fully and currently informed. Time and again, the answer has been ‘Trust us.’ ” Wyden said, “It is hard for me to trust the Administration.”