A Few Thoughts on the Attack on the Saudi Oil Facility

While we all wait to actually see something that resembles actual evidence, as opposed to speculation and assertions, of who is responsible for Saturday’s attack on the Saudi oil facility, I think there are several things to keep in mind. The first is that the administration in general and the President, the Secretary of State, and the US Special Representative for Iran do not have any real credibility in any of their public statements. You will undoubtedly remember that all three of them went all in on Iran being responsible for the two rounds of tanker attacks in port in the UAE and just underway off the UAE’s coasts earlier in the summer. You’ll notice that those assertions were not only quickly contested by the ship owners and the UAE. And you have also probably noticed that all three stopped talking about them shortly after the initial round of public bluster. So until or unless someone with some credibility comes out and provides some verification that the Iranians actually conducted Saturday’s attack on the Saudi refinery, all assertions from the administration should be taken with a very large grain of salt. And this goes even more for anything the Saudis state publicly, as well as the Israelis. Both Muhammad bin Salman and Bibi Netanyahu have their own reasons for wanting to place the blame for this on Iran. And both would really like the US to fight Iran for them to the last American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD and Service civilian, and contractor. Is it possible that Iran is responsible? Yes it is. What we don’t know right now is how plausible or probably it is.

What I think is going to happen here is that the President will bluster a bit more on Twitter or in press gaggles about Iran, though, apparently, the Special Representative has told Congressional staffers that the President is still open to engagement with Iran. So I expect that we’ll see a replay of what happened with the two rounds of tanker attacks from this past summer. Several days of Presidential bluster on Twitter and in press gaggles about Iran being responsible and what the US could do, followed by the Secretary of State and the US Special Representatives trying to both back up the tough talk, while doing whatever it is they’re doing. If no evidence is actually ever presented, or contrary evidence comes out, then the whole thing will just be dropped.

I do not think we’re going to see a US military response. A one off strike, either lobbing a couple of missiles or a US Air Force or Naval aviation strike, would be both tactically and strategically pointless. All it would do is rally the just attacked Iranian populace to support the Iranian government. As I’ve written about here, as well as in more professional publications, an invasion of Iran would be strategic malpractice. Moreover, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere, we simply do not have the military resources right now to actually increase our military operational tempo, let alone add a third theater of war to the Afghan and Iraqi ones we are already operating in. And there’s another reason an American response is unlikely: this wasn’t an attack on Americans or American infrastructure. As far as we know so far from the reporting, no Saudis were hurt or killed. Certainly no Americans were. So any attack on Iran here would not be justifiable, it would be preemptory. Not that I think the President or the Secretary of State actually care about such things as Just War Theory. It is also hard to convince Americans to support going to war to protect Saudi oil refineries, so even the domestic politics of this would be a very difficult needle to thread.

There’s a final dynamic at work here that I think is very important, which is that the Iranians are in control of this situation, not the President, not the Secretary of State, not Muhammad bin Salman, and not Bibi Netanyahu. They also have the President’s number. They know he doesn’t want to actually get into any more wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and, in fact, wants to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. They also don’t give a damn about the Trump Doctrine. The Iranians have no desire to treat the President fairly and from their perspective they’ve gotten nothing but “or else” from the US for over 40 years, with, perhaps, the exception of how President Obama treated them in the run up to and during the JCPOA negotiations. The open ended “or else” threat of the Trump Doctrine is a hollow threat for Iran. As a result, the Iranians are actually calling the shots here, not the President or anyone else. Whether the President, Secretary Pompeo, the Special Representative for Iran, or anyone else advising them recognizes this reality is something I cannot speak to.

Finally, for those looking for other resources, both subject matter experts and reporters, on the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran, I recommend the following.

Open thread!








It Was Bibi! Or What Did Jared Know and When Did He Know It?

Back in May 2018 I did a post about how foreign intelligence services appeared to have been trying to collect Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) by capturing the unsecured cell phone conversations from the President’s and other elected and appointed officials in DC’s unsecured cell phones. My post was the result of reporting from Wired that DHS had confirmed that unauthorized cell-site simulators, commonly known as stingrays, had been found around DC. Politico had also just reported that the President was using two unsecured cell phones, one for calls with his friends and outside advisors and the other for posting tweets. According to Politico’s reporting from May 2018, neither phone is equipped with “sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials – a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance”.

And now, thanks to new reporting from Politico we know who was behind this: Israel! (emphasis mine)

he U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.

But unlike most other occasions when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior, one of the former officials said.

The devices were likely intended to spy on President Donald Trump, one of the former officials said, as well as his top aides and closest associates — though it’s not clear whether the Israeli efforts were successful.

Based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts.

That analysis, one of the former officials said, is typically led by the FBI’s counterintelligence division and involves examining the devices so that they “tell you a little about their history, where the parts and pieces come from, how old are they, who had access to them, and that will help get you to what the origins are.” For these types of investigations, the bureau often leans on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA (DHS and the Secret Service played a supporting role in this specific investigation).

“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” said a former senior intelligence official.

There are two parts to this operational security breakdown and counterintelligence nightmare. The first is a President who refuses to follow even the most basic rules for maintaining operational security and the second is a client state, Israel, which treats its patron, the US, as if it is a hostile foreign power. The Israelis, of course, are denying that they did this (emphasis mine):

An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied that Israel placed the devices and said: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”

After this story was published, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied that Israel was behind the devices. “We have a directive, I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies,” he said in a gaggle with reporters. “And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. It [the report] is a complete fabrication, a complete fabrication.”

But former officials with deep experience dealing with intelligence matters scoff at the Israeli claim — a pro forma denial Israeli officials are also known to make in private to skeptical U.S. counterparts.

One former senior intelligence official noted that after the FBI and other agencies concluded that the Israelis were most likely responsible for the devices, the Trump administration took no action to punish or even privately scold the Israeli government.

“The reaction … was very different than it would have been in the last administration,” this person said. “With the current administration, there are a different set of calculations in regard to addressing this.”

The former senior intelligence official criticized how the administration handled the matter, remarking on the striking difference from past administrations, which likely would have at a very minimum issued a démarche, or formal diplomatic reprimand, to the foreign government condemning its actions.

“I’m not aware of any accountability at all,” the former official said.

The administration’s failure to hold the Israelis accountable for this SIGINT collection operation only encourages them, as well as other foreign actors – from allies and partners to hostile competitors – to conduct similar operations in the future. It also places others at risk. Anyone who is in contact with the subjects of the collection themselves become targets for collection. So all those people the President is talking to on the phone at night in the residence or who he meets with for golf or other social events at his properties every weekend and all the people in professional and personal contact with the people around the President in and out of government who can influence him on issues pertaining to Israel and Israel’s interests become targets. You may not know where Rudy Giuliani or Lou Dobbs or whomever the President had lunch with at his golf club last Sunday are right now, but the Israelis definitely do. They also know who they’ve been talking to on the phone, having dinner with, etc. The same goes for all of Jared and Ivanka’s friends and those of everyone else in the White House and the Executive Office of the President who may be working on something of interest to Israel or just close to the President.

The administration’s encouragement of Bibi’s bad behavior, as well as going all in on Bibi’s and Ron Dermer’s, his senior political advisor and ambassador the the US, strategy to make Israel a partisan issue in the US may continue to provide short term gain for Bibi and Israel. In the long term, however, it makes it inevitable that a future Democratic president is going to have to put Bibi and Israel back in their place. Given Bibi’s attempts to write the vast majority of Jewish Americans out of Judaism, aided and abetted by some American and Israeli Jews who are now making the argument that there are religious Jews (the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox) and then there are the “born” Jews who aren’t really Jewish*, Bibi and Israel won’t be able to count on the majority of Jewish Americans to come to his and Israel’s defense when the reckoning comes. Bibi has once again sown the wind, the question is whether he will ever reap the whirlwind.

Open thread!

* This has to be the dumbest argument regarding who is and isn’t Jewish ever. Even more so since it is being made by Jews. It takes the worst portions of the anti-Semitic arguments that Jews are a race or ethno-nationality apart from all others and pushes all Jews who aren’t as devout ,or devout in a way that the person making the argument approves of, into the racial/ethno-national category. Jews who are devout, or devout in the way that the person making the argument approves of, count as actual Jews because they’re religious. So the good Jews are Jewish because Judaism is a religion and the good Jews are observing it correctly and that is the only thing that sets them apart from non-Jews. The bad Jews are Jews who aren’t really Jewish because Judaism is a race or ethno-nationality, the bad Jews are either not observing the religion correctly or at all, and therefore because they are racially Jewish they are set apart from everyone including Jews who are Jews because they are observant of Judaism, which is a religion.

I now have a headache!








The Peace Talks With the Taliban and Secretary Pompeo’s Statement That US Forces Have Killed 1,000 Taliban In the Past Ten Days

Shortly after BettyC put up her post yesterday about the President announcing by tweet that he had first invited the Taliban to a final round peace agreement negotiation and signing ceremony at Camp David and subsequently cancelled the invitation because the Taliban killed several US military personnel last week, I texted* the following to her:

I give it 50/50 odds that there was no actual, formal Camp David invite. The Afghan president was supposed to visit the US this week to meet with the President at the White House, but cancelled that trip on Friday. The Taliban’s spokesperson tweeted out yesterday that there are lots of potential next steps, but never mentioned this at all.

Pompeo’s statement that we’ve killed 1,000 Taliban in the past week makes no sense either. There would have been wall to wall coverage and Brian Williams would’ve been airdropped into Nangahar if we’d mounted an offensive large enough to net 1,000 enemy KIA. We’d also have taken our own share of casualties. None of which has been reported.

My guess is that by Wednesday will have several articles, from WaPo, the Times, Politico, Daily Beast, and Axios, that basically shred both of these assertions. The President’s invite and Pompeo’s assertion about killing 1,000 Taliban.

We now know, thanks to reporting by The New York Times, that there was a formal invite to the Taliban, but that the entire plan for the Camp David trip had been hastily created because the President decided on an impulse or whim on Labor Day weekend that if he could get the Taliban to Camp David he could seal the deal. And while the reporting doesn’t really delve into whether this would be a good thing for Afghanistan or Afghans, it does make clear that the President thought this would be good for his campaign for reelection. Given that the negotiations are not complete, the Taliban are clearly not completely on board (more on this in a paragraph), the Afghan president and government isn’t actually involved, this wasn’t a fully baked idea.

Secretary Pompeo then went on Chris Wallace’s Fox News Sunday show and in an attempt to demonstrate how tough the administration is being on the Taliban and announced, without any corroborating evidence, that the US has killed 1,000 Taliban (fighters?) in the past 10 days. To be very blunt, if we had, as Secretary Pompeo announced on Chris Wallace’s Fox News Sunday show, killed 1,000 Taliban in the past ten days it would have made news. Even if the Commanding General of Operation Resolute Support or the Commanding General of CENTCOM wanted to keep this as locked down as possible, there would have been, as I texted BettyC, wall to wall coverage and Brian Williams would’ve been airdropped into Nangahar if we’d mounted an offensive large enough to net 1,000 enemy KIA. We’d also have taken our own share of casualties. None of which has been reported in addition to the KIAs we took in the attacks on Kabul last week.

All of this sturm and drang and equine and canine extravaganza is obscuring something even more important. That as bad as it is that the US is still conducting combat operations in Afghanistan after almost 18 years, ending this part of America’s forever war preemptively will make things worse, not better. Unless the US can reach a negotiated settlement that is able to secure the Afghan government and the Afghan citizenry, reaching a deal with the Taliban just so someone can tout “promise made, promise kept” during the 2020 campaign the US will have failed to secure the peace. The sole point of modern interstate conflict, as well as modern 3rd party participant low intensity warfare**, which is what the Afghan war against al Qaeda and the Taliban have been, is to use conventional and unconventional military power to establish the conditions to secure the peace post cessation of battlefield hostilities. Reaching an agreement with the Taliban that is solely about reaching an agreement with the Taliban, even if it returns several thousand American troops home in short order does not do meet this requirement.

The Taliban have made it very clear that they believe the Afghan government is a “stooge government”. This Taliban position has made completing the negotiations with them very difficult for Ambassador Khalilzad. The Taliban, as well as others in Afghanistan, have often remarked to US military personnel that “you have the watches, we have the time”. They know that eventually we, as well as our NATO coalition partners in NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTMA-A) have to come home. And they are simply waiting for that to happen. This is part of the reason that they’ve escalated their offensive activities over the past several weeks. Both because they perceive that the President wants out – despite assertions made about them, they’re not stupid, they read our newspapers and watch our news programs – and because it allows them to increase the pressure on Khalilzad and his negotiators. The Taliban’s recent offensive escalation is part of their negotiation strategy, not something being done in spite of it.

Any agreement we reach must include the Afghan government, not be the precursor to the Taliban negotiating with that government. A government they consider to be illegitimate. A government that they will escalate their war with as soon as we have too few troops in theater to do anything but hunker down in our fortified bases. This will not make Afghanistan safer, it will not make the region safer, and it will not make the US and our allies and partners safer. I am not arguing for the forever war. I am arguing for a strategy that uses our and our coalition allies’ combat, training, and advise and assist missions in Afghanistan to set the conditions to secure the peace. We have, several times, made progress towards doing this. Unfortunately that progress never stuck for a variety of reasons. The whole point of invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban and root out al Qaeda was to change the dynamic. Signing a peace agreement with the Taliban simply to be able to check a box for a reelection campaign that ignores that the dynamic hasn’t been shifted, that we have not established the conditions to secure the peace, is a peace agreement that isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.

Open thread.

* We do not have a slack channel.

** I am using low intensity warfare to refer to two related types of war. The first is all forms of war short of interstate war. The first usage, all forms of war short of interstate war, refers to revolution, rebellion, civil war, insurgency, and terrorism. The second refers to types of war: irregular, asymmetric, unconventional, and guerrilla warfare (a type of irregular warfare). Insurgency and terrorism are both forms and types of ear and belong in both categories.








Breaking News: The US Pulled One of Its Top Clandestine Officers from Russia in 2017 Amid Concerns He or She Would Be Burned

Infrastructure Week is off to a hell of a start!

Jim Sciutto has the exclusive at CNN (emphasis mine):

Washington (CNN)In a previously undisclosed secret mission in 2017, the United States successfully extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government, multiple Trump administration officials with direct knowledge told CNN.

A person directly involved in the discussions said that the removal of the Russian was driven, in part, by concerns that President Donald Trump and his administration repeatedly mishandled classified intelligence and could contribute to exposing the covert source as a spy.

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter.

The removal happened at a time of wide concern in the intelligence community about mishandling of intelligence by Trump and his administration. Those concerns were described to CNN by five sources who served in the Trump administration, intelligence agencies and Congress.

Those concerns continued to grow in the period after Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov. Weeks after the decision to extract the spy, in July 2017, Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg and took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter’s notes. Afterward, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the President may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community’s response to the Trump-Putin meeting.

The secret removal of the high-level Russian asset has left the US without one of its key sources on the inner workings of the Kremlin and the plans and thinking of the Russian president at a time when tensions between the two nations have been growing. The US intelligence community considers Russia one of the two greatest threats to US national security, along with China.

“The impact would be huge because it is so hard to develop sources like that in any denied area, particularly Russia, because the surveillance and security there is so stringent,” a former senior intelligence official told CNN. “You can’t reacquire a capability like that overnight.”

The decision to pull the asset out of Russia was the culmination of months of mounting fear within the intelligence community.

At the end of the Obama administration, US intelligence officials had already expressed concerns about the safety of this spy and other Russian assets, given the length of their cooperation with the US, according to a former senior intelligence official.

In the first months of his administration, Trump’s handling of classified intelligence further concerned intelligence officials. Ultimately, they decided to launch the difficult operation to remove an asset who had been working for the US for years.

The President was informed in advance of the extraction, along with a small number of senior officials. Details of the extraction itself remain secret and the whereabouts of the asset today are unknown to CNN.

Much, much more at the link, including Sciutto reporting that this happened when Secretary Pompeo was the Director of Central Intelligence. It would not surprise me in the least to find out that Sciutto was originally tipped to this story by Ambassador Bolton, given that he and Secretary Pompeo are increasingly at odds these days. Ambassador Bolton has been largely sidelined on Afghanistan policy* and it has been reported that it is Secretary Pompeo, who is clearly eclipsing all others right now regarding US foreign and national security policy, who has sidelined Bolton. This type of selective leak as a form of bureaucratic knife fighting is a Bolton specialty.

Sciutto’s story is not surprising. I wrote here several times in the first several months of this administration that the Intelligence Community would be tightening up their compartmentalization of information to protect sources and methods from the President and some of his key political appointees like his son in law Jared Kushner. This reporting will, however, only reinforce the President’s paranoia about, fear of, and anger at the Intelligence Community. Sciutto has reported that the President and several key senior officials were read on to the operation, but I’d be willing to wager real money that neither the President, nor his senior officials who were read on to this operation were given the meat of his reporting that the extraction was done over concern that the President might burn the asset. Retired CIA officer Robert Baer’s interview about Sciutto’s reporting on CNN about a 1/2 an hour ago isn’t going to help either. Baer, who is also a CNN contributor and analyst, stated in no uncertain terms that “the CIA has never trusted the President since he visited the Soviet Union in 1987”. There aren’t any clips of that up yet, but I guarantee it is waiting for the President to watch it on his super TIVO.

This is going to be the best Infrastructure Week ever!

Open thread.

* I’ll have more about both the Camp David insanity, which was already starting to be broken down by reporting as of last night, and Secretary Pompeo’s bizarre assertion that we killed 10,000 Taliban in the past ten days later today.








Crisis in The Commons: Johnson Loses His Majority As Brexit Consumes the United Kingdom

Boris Johnson has lost his majority in The House of Commons.

And this won’t be the last defection today.

Here’s the live feed from the House of Commons. Michael Gove is at the microphone now spewing his usual bullshit.

Here’s live coverage from Sky News:

Neither the BBC, nor ITV are running live feeds and coverage of what is going on. Or, rather, that can be embedded here.

As always, Carol Cadwaller is on top of this story!

Peter Jukes gets right to the core of the problem.

Of course Brexit isn’t the crime, it is the cover up!

And here’s some solid analysis from Lewis Goodall of SkyNews.

Here’s a link to my analysis the day after the Brexit vote. An excerpt:

The short course for strategy and policy is really quite quick and simple. To make policy one determines what your ideal objectives are, establish how much risk you are willing to assume to achieve them, and then either decide to attempt to achieve those objectives or a less than ideal, but still perfectly acceptable, but less risky alternative. Once this is done, in order to further minimize that risk and to ensure the maximum likelihood of success, you determine what ways and means you have, what additional ways and means you may need, how to bridge the gap between the two, and then you execute: applying your ways and means to achieve your ends. Finally, personalities matter and relationships matter. Congratulations! You now know more about strategy and policy than any elected or appointed official pushing for the Leave position that I saw on the BBC News coverage of the Brexit vote from 8 PM EDT last night to 3 AM EDT this morning.

It didn’t matter if the official was from the Conservative Party or from the Labor Party or from the UK Independence Party. They knew what the ends they wanted to achieve – leave the EU on terms negotiated to be the most favorable to Britain, but that was it. None of them expressed any real idea of how to achieve this beyond Vote for Leave, Article 50 now or later, return of sovereignty, and a better future for Britain. I don’t mean to make light of what happened or what anyone tuning in witnessed. A number of these ladies and gentlemen were quite articulate, had a clear grasp of how the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty process worked, and in some cases actually were quite aware that the real issues were poor outcomes for average, and often rural/small town/village British people that resulted from the failures of British government and governance, not because of anything specifically involving the EU.

The pro Brexit vote demonstrates the failure of elected and appointed officials who do not have a firm grasp of policy, strategy, and their potential effects – positive and negative. It is quite ironic that a successful referendum campaign partially based on anger at elites, notables, and experts to run things effectively has shown that the elites, notables, and experts running the Vote Leave movement and campaign do indeed not have the foggiest idea of how to run things effectively. Nothing says “I understand and empathize” like a Vote Leave Tory Member of Parliament, who graduated from public school and the Oxbridge system and has been an MP for his entire professional career, explaining to BBC anchors that the average British person is fed up with the failures of the elites and the experts running Britain and that is why the country must leave the EU.

The chaos seen today clearly demonstrates the failure of strategy and policy among the Vote Leave campaign leadership. We can clearly see that they don’t really have any ways and means to achieve their stated end: a negotiated departure from the EU that provides Britain with the best possible terms. Nor do they have any idea what they should be. They have destroyed their relationships with the EU leadership who want the separation done immediately and are in no mood to bargain, let alone allow Britain off the hook easy. And they have no leverage with the EU as a result. Johnson, Gove, Stuart, Farage, and others are now the dog that caught the Vauxhall. Unfortunately they clearly have no idea what to do with it.

And here’s a live shot of Brexit in action:

Rule Britannia, Britannia rule a bunch of small towns in the middle of England where the population is old, on government assistance, white, and angry.

Open thread!