Two weeks ago, I wrote about a U.S. spy satellite that had gone haywire and might need to be shot down. I noted how diplomatically sensitive it would be for the United States to do so after telling China that anti-satellite tests are a big no-no. Some commentators downplayed the possibility that the United States would really shoot the satellite down, but now comes word that it's gonna happen: The U.S. military will use its missile-defense system to blow the errant satellite to smithereens.
Mind you, a missile-defense system is not supposed to be a dual-use satellite killer. U.S. officials have pledged compliance with space and weapons treaties by giving other countries advance notice before shooting off space missiles. They also insist the move is necessary to prevent contamination from toxic substances and is not a showcase of U.S. weapons capability. Still, in the wake of the Chinese satellite missile hoopla, it smacks of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
What's more, shooting the satellite down could create orbital debris, which was a major point of criticism after the Chinese experiment. U.S. officials insist the Chinese test was different in nature as it was higher in altitude and the resulting debris poses a much longer-term threat. They estimate the mess from the U.S. operation will fall to the Earth within a few weeks, whereas debris from the Chinese test will be a danger for decades.
Meanwhile, Russia and
A U.S. spy satellite has gone rogue and will likely come crashing down to the surface sometime in the next month or two. That's bad news, as the satellite is roughly the size of a school bus and may contain hazardous material. (The largest historical instance of "uncontrolled entry" was Skylab, which crashed and burned in 1979 in the Indian Ocean and the western Australian outback. Luckily, nobody was hurt.)
The satellite's fall to Earth presents an interesting dilemma for the U.S. administration. Let gravity take its course, and there's a chance innocent people could get hurt. Shoot it down, and the Bush administration might get into diplomatic trouble with China and create an unintended international precedent. Remember when, after China's anti-satellite missile test last January, the United States was harshly critical of the Chinese government? If the United States is now forced to shoot its own satellite down, it may only reinforce the impression abroad that America just does whatever it wants in space, but looks askance at strategic space activities by other countries. Beijing may leap at the chance to accuse Washington of promoting a double standard.
This is exactly why it's time to push for an international treaty banning space weapons, opponents of the weaponization of the final frontier might argue. I don't want space missiles from other countries pointed at my house any more than the next guy, but I do wonder if a space arms race isn't the more likely outcome. The capabilities space affords corporations and governments are just too powerful to leave unprotected, unfortunately, and the Chinese probably see "Star Wars" as one area where they can catch up with the United States.
Canadian troops may have finally stopped handing off detainees to the Afghan authorities. That policy—always suspect from a human rights perspective—was the product of twin realities. First, NATO states such as Canada hated the optics of handing detainees to the Americans, what with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo still on people's minds. Second, the Canadians, British, and Dutch troops fighting in southern Afghanistan had no desire to get into the detention business themselves.
The solution? Shuffle off detainees to the Afghans and pretend that the treatment they're getting is better than they'd get with the Americans. The policy protects delicate European sensibilities but does little to safeguard prisoners or to help NATO get good intelligence on Taliban activities (though I have been told by people in the know that captured Taliban fighters occasionally "fall off" NATO trucks and end up in American hands).
The issue of prisoners in Afghanistan has always struck me as a nettlesome problem that could easily become an important opportunity. My suggestion? Create a jointly run NATO/Afghan detention center in Kandahar or some other locale in southern Afghanistan. Use the detention center to simultaneously train Afghan police and interrogators (which we're doing anyway) and to hash out a common NATO policy on detention that can ease suspicions within the alliance while producing at least some actionable intelligence.
Thus far, American obstinacy and European fecklessness have scuppered common sense solutions. It's well past time to work together.
It might not surprise you to learn that Big Brother looms large in places like China and Russia. But Britain and the United States are near the bottom of the heap too. According to a new study of 47 countries by Privacy International, a human-rights watchdog based in London, those four countries fall in the bottom tier of countries where government surveillance is used extensively. Other locales in the bottom group, labeled "endemic surveillance societies," are Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. The only place where Privacy International considers there to be "adequate safeguards against abuse" is Greece. And the only country where the surveillance situation is improving for citizens is Slovenia.
Granted, the vast majority of Africa is not included in the study, and much of Latin America is overlooked too. Nevertheless, countries where you'd think civil liberties would be the most protected don't do so well. Australia, France, and most of Scandinavia fall in the category where there is a "systemic failure to uphold safeguards." Interestingly, places that were once part of the Soviet bloc perform relatively well. Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia are cited for having "some safeguards but weakened protection." Where does your country fit in? Click here to find out.
Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) thinks the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran ain't right. "We just see politics injected into this," his spokesman, Tory Mazzola, says. "When it comes to national security we really need to remove politics." The way Ensign plans to "remove politics" is by—wait for it—creating a panel of politicians, House and Senate members, to rewrite the intelligence community's work. Only in Congress, friends, only in Congress.
It's always struck me as funny that people get all worked up over the NIEs in the first place. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the intelligence community will tell you, they are notoriously flawed. Remember the U.S.-Soviet "missile gap"? That was a bunch of nonsense cooked up in an NIE in 1958. The Iranian revolution of 1978? An NIE predicted it wouldn't happen. Then, of course, there's the now infamous NIE 2002-16HC, which made it sound as though Saddam Hussein was weeks away from having nukes.
NIEs are guesses, plain and simple. Just ask the Bush Administration. Even they agree that Ensign's plan is silly. "The President respects sixteen of the intelligence agencies got together to produce the National Intellligence Estimate. I don’t believe that there's any need to have an additional one," White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino told John Gizzi of the ultra-conservative rag Human Events.
Exactly. What is conveening a panel of politicians going to accomplish? The de-politization of the process? Um, right. I'm all for Congressional oversight. Too bad, for instance, that Ensign and his colleagues weren't equally worked up over the 2002 NIE on Iraq, or we might not be in the mess we're in now. But Ensign's plan to waste a bunch of Congress's time and money politicizing the latest NIE will accomplish nothing. I'm nominating this as the dumbest Congressional idea of 2007.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn't have a very good day today. First, Hassan Rowhani, a cleric who heads an influential Iranian think tank and is the former chief of the country's Supreme National Security Council had this to say about the Iranian president's big talk over Iran's increasing influence in the Middle East and the conclusions of the NIE:
To discuss this, we should see the proof of power.
The fact that we cannot open a letter of credit, is this power?
The fact that an Iranian student cannot study abroad in (his or her) chosen field, is that power?
The fact that the economic risks have grown, is that power?
The fact that banking activities have been restricted, is that power?"
Also today, popular former President Mohammad Khatami piled on with this gem before a packed hall of more than 1,000 students at Tehran University, where he delivered remarks on Ahmadinejad's anti-poverty strategy:
It is not right to reduce justice to economic justice. Such a justice spreads poverty and empties the purses of the people who should be used to make the country more powerful and more rich. We need to fight for economic justice but what is more important is the right of people to decide their own fate. These are the reforms that the people want."
The new conventional wisdom in Washington is that the NIE was a boost to Ahmadinejad. But these kinds of attacks on Ahmadinejad are likely to increase in the run up to the March 14 parliamentary elections. And they're an important reminder that, despite his blusterings, Ahmadinejad is anything but an all-powerful leader who reigns without dissent.
On his new blog, Stratfor's George Friedman endorses the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, and he has an unorthodox view of the Bush administration's motives for releasing it now:
We have always regarded the Iranian weapon program as a bargaining chip to be traded for concessions in Iraq. We repeated that ad nauseum I know, but we always thought it true. The NIE agrees with our view so we aren't going to take issue with it. We think it correct.
We also think there was a political component to it being announced. This was not the intelligence community sinking Bush's plans to attack Iran. The U.S. doesn't have the force to attack Iran, as we have argued in the past. Rather, it as [if] Bush [is] taking away [Iran's] bargaining chip. If Iran has no nuclear program, the U.S. doesn't have to make concessions to get rid of it. In an odd way, the NIE weakened the Iranian bargaining position.
This is too clever by half. The simple fact of the matter is that the case for punitive action against Tehran will be far harder to make now. And sure enough, the Chinese already appear to be taking their toe out of the water on a third round of U.N. sanctions. We may yet see a quiet turnaround in U.S. policy toward Iran, since, as Friedman says, the United States won't feel it needs to trade away the store in order to get a grand bargain. There is certainly the North Korea precedent. But that will be a second-best strategy. Somehow, I doubt that NSC staffers were high-fiving each other when the NIE hit the wires. That certainly seems to be what happened in Ahmadinejad's camp, though.
This doesn't exactly inspire confidence, now, does it?
DES MOINES - Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said Tuesday he was unfamiliar with the National Intelligence Estimate that reported that Iran had not had a program to develop nuclear weapons since 2003, and he questioned the intelligence work behind it.
Asked by reporters if he had been briefed on the summary of the report, which was declassified and released Monday, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, said "No." Informed of its content by reporters, he said he agreed with President Bush, who said that Iran remains a threat.
I mean, it's only been front-page news for a few days. And who has the time to actually be informed about the issues when you're busy trying to be the next leader of the free world?
(Hat tip: CFR)
The commentariat has, understandably, gone apoplectic about yesterday's news that Iran stopped its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. And several Democratic candidates, hoping to score points against frontrunner Hillary Clinton, are having a field day:
Barack Obama: "[T]he new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy."
John Edwards: "The new NIE finds that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy."
The problem is, the NIE doesn't actually go that far. It strongly suggests that the threat of sanctions and military action is actually helpful, but makes no promises about what can be achieved through diplomacy:
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international security and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways might—if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.
The NIE's conclusion here is remarkably similar to National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's statement, dismissed everywhere as pure spin:
The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically - without the use of force - as the Administration has been trying to do. And it suggests that the President has the right strategy: intensified international pressure along with a willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests while ensuring that the world will never have to face a nuclear armed Iran. The bottom line is this: for that strategy to succeed, the international community has to turn up the pressure on Iran - with diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and with other financial pressure - and Iran has to decide it wants to negotiate a solution.
Matt Yglesias cries foul and says that the Bush administration has been hyping the threat, and that's certainly true. And it may well be that Vice President Dick Cheney discounts the intelligence community's assessment. But there may also be a defensible reason for the hysteria. If we take Hadley's statement at face value, the past year of bluster coming from the administration makes sense. The fundamental problem is that the Europeans, the Chinese, and especially the Russians are skittish about enacting U.N. sanctions. But the sanctions seem to be working! Yet to get others on board, the United States has had to sound the alarm about the program and threaten that if sanctions fail, it will turn to its Air Force for solutions. In order to be effective, this threat has to be credible: The Iranians have to believe it, and the other members of the Security Council have to believe it. In other words, the Bush administration has to convince the world that the alternative to sanctions is war, rather than a nuclear Iran that might be unpalatable but is ultimately a manageable problem.
Of course, what the administration hasn't done is offer Iran a credible package of inducements that includes security guarantees, economic incentives, and so forth. In the words of the NIE, "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways." Hadley's mention of a "willingness to negotiate a solution that serves Iranian interests" hints that such a package might be in the offing. The trouble is, Iran's negotiators are much more irascible now than they were in 2003, so the price will be far higher than it was back then—assuming a deal is still even possible.
Earlier, this year, I attended Jane's U.S. Defense Conference, an annual event packed with security analysts and the defense contractors who love them. One of the more interesting topics discussed was the trend of Western militaries relying increasingly on commercial—rather than exclusively military—supply chains. In practice, this means that, say, U.S. combat vehicles include more and more parts that are manufactured by firms that aren't strictly "defense contractors." In some cases, it can mean that such vehicles even share parts with commercial, non-military cars, trucks, and planes.
This can be cheaper for American taxpayers and more efficient for the military, but it comes with risks. Consider this: The London Times reports that hackers based in China recently tried to break into the IT systems of Rolls Royce, which manufactures engines for British, U.S., and NATO combat platforms and in fact claims to be the "number two military aero engine manufacturer in the world." Notably, Rolls Royce engines are to power the advanced Joint Strike Fighter, the U.S. Air Force's new baby. There are obvious implications for the military balance of power here. China's jet fighters are getting better, but they're still behind. But manufacturing airplane engines is notoriously difficult, and the Chinese are no doubt eager to learn trade secrets from Western firms.
And Rolls Royce could be just the tip of the iceberg. Internet security firm McAfee reports that China is foremost among 120 countries that are experimenting with cyber warfare capabilities. And firms that supply parts to Western militaries obviously represent fat targets for Chinese snoops or saboteurs. Rolls Royce has supplied the British Royal Air Force for many years, so presumably it is no stranger to the security game; but when it comes to more recent entrants, do we really know how secure these supply chains are?
It's been rumored for a while that someone—perhaps U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney—had been holding up the publication of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. And it's not hard to imagine why, given this explosive finding:
A new assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains on hold, contradicting an assessment two years ago that Tehran was working inexorably toward building a bomb. [...]
The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate that represents the consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, states that Tehran's ultimate intentions about gaining a nuclear weapon remain unclear, but that Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs."
"Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige and goals for regional influence in other ways, might - if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible - prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program," the estimate states. [...]
The new estimate does say that Iran's ultimate goal is still to develop nuclear weapons. It concludes that if Iran were to end the freeze of its weapons program, it would still be at least two years before Tehran had enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. But it says it is "very unlikely" that Iran could produce enough of the material by then.
Instead, the estimate concludes that it is more likely Iran could have a bomb by early to the middle of the next decade. The report says that the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research judges that Iran is unlikely to achieve this goal before 2013 "because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems."
Remember, the State Department's intelligence shop was the group that had the honor of being least wrong about Iraq's WMD programs.
On Saturday, China indicated it was ready to play ball on U.N. sanctions. There's no word yet on how the Russians will vote. But if they get on board and the new Iran NIE is right—and I imagine it will be hotly debated—perhaps it will be possible to convince Iran to give up its goal of nuclear weapons through diplomacy after all.
UPDATE: Download the pdf of the NIE report here.
Last month, during Vladimir Putin's yearly televised question-and-answer show, a mechanic from Novisibirsk called in to ask the Russian president to respond to a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Siberia holds too many natural resources for just one country's use, Albright apparently said. Putin dismissed the statement as "political erotica," and pro-Putin nationalist groups have been using it in speeches and propaganda. The only problem is, Albright never said it. The original caller has himself admitted that he has no idea where he heard the quote.
Just the Kremlin propaganda machine at work, right? Not necessarily. Putin's supporters may have had evidence of a different kind for Albright's nefarious intentions, stated or not. The Moscow Times digs deeper down the rabbit hole:
Boris Ratnikov, a retired major general who worked for the Federal Guard Service, said in a December 2006 interview with government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his colleagues, who worked for the service's secret mind-reading division, read Albright's subconscious a few weeks before the beginning of the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999.
Albright, who as secretary of state played a major role in the lead up to the attacks, was one of the main targets of Russian criticism of the bombing campaign.
Apart from her "pathological hatred of Slavs," Ratnikov said "she was indignant that Russia held the world's largest reserves of natural resources."
On Tuesday, Ratnikov, 62, said he hadn't been part of the mind-reading experiment but had worked as an analyst on the data produced by his colleagues in the study. He said the mind-reading process involved using a picture or some other image of the person under study.
"By tuning in on her image, our specialists were able to glean these things," he said.
George W. Bush once claimed that he had looked into Putin's eyes and seen his soul, but if the Russians can look at a secretary of state's photograph and see into her brain, we might really be in trouble. To learn about the U.S. military's own forays into the exciting world of psychic spying, check out Jon Ronson's hilarious and possibly terrifying book, The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Jeff Stein reports for CQ:
Like Hansel and Gretel hoping to follow their bread crumbs out of the forest, the FBI sifted through customer data collected by San Francisco-area grocery stores in 2005 and 2006, hoping that sales records of Middle Eastern food would lead to Iranian terrorists.
The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.
The brainchild of top FBI counterterrorism officials Phil Mudd and Willie T. Hulon, according to well-informed sources, the project didn't last long. It was torpedoed by the head of the FBI's criminal investigations division, Michael A. Mason, who argued that putting somebody on a terrorist list for what they ate was ridiculous — and possibly illegal.
A check of federal court records in California did not reveal any prosecutions developed from falafel trails.
Posted without comment. Because really, what more is there to say?
UPDATE: Cyrus Farivar chimes in:
I'm not even close to having the skillz of an FBI agent, but I can tell you three reasons why this plan was doomed from the beginning — beyond than the fact that it’s totally illegal.
1) Falafel isn't a Persian food at all. When was the last time you saw an Iranian eating falafel? (And the one time I went with Boyk to Sunshine Café in Berkeley two weeks ago doesn't count.)
2) Iranian terrorist? Seriously? Think about that for a second. Name one Iranian terrorist. Go ahead, I dare you.
3) While the Bay Area may have some Iranians, we're dwarfed by the number that are in LA and Orange counties. Plus, everyone knows that real Iranians ("terrorists" or otherwise) hit up Mashti Malone's for totally sweet bastani.
Just a note, looking again at Stein's story above. He doesn't actually say that the FBI was specifically looking for purchases of falafel. It appears to be a poetic flourish by the reporter:
The idea was that a spike in, say, falafel sales, combined with other data, would lead to Iranian secret agents in the south San Francisco-San Jose area.
Of course, it's not as if it would be any more legitimate to look into purchases of joojeh sandwiches. Because if that were the case, half the working-day population of Dupont Circle and Georgetown would be in big trouble for going to Moby Dick's House of Kabob.
UPDATE2: Ryan Singel of Wired dubs this effort the "Total Falafel Awareness program".
HARROGATE, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 30: The radar domes of RAF Menwith Hill in north Yorkshire dominate the skyline on 30 October, 2007, Harrogate, England. The base is reported to be the biggest spy base in the world. Britain recently agreed to a United States request for the RAF Menwith Hill monitoring station, also known as the 13th field station of the US national security agency, in North Yorkshire to be used as part of its missile defence system. Dubbed 'Star Wars Bases' by anti-war and CND campaigners. The facility houses British and United States personnel. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Malcolm Nance, "a counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant for the U.S. government's Special Operations, Homeland Security and Intelligence agencies" and "an Arabic speaking interrogator and a master Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructor," says that waterboarding unquestionably is torture:
Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.
Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.
Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten[ed] with its use again and again.
This guy doesn't look like a wuss to me. Over to you, Mukasey.
(Hat tip: American Footprints)
I'm growing more convinced that Syria was up to something, possibly an embryonic nuclear program. This huge New York Times story by William Broad and Mark Mazzetti advances what we know considerably:
New commercial satellite photos show that a Syrian site believed to have been attacked by Israel last month no longer bears any obvious traces of what some analysts said appeared to have been a partly built nuclear reactor.
Two photos, taken Wednesday from space by rival companies, show the site near the Euphrates River to have been wiped clean since August, when imagery showed a tall square building there measuring about 150 feet on a side.
Jeffrey Lewis raises some important points, though:
- The people leaking are those dissatisfied with US policy. "A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration," Mazetti and Helen Cooper reported, about "whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House … was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations." Obviously, that rethinking hasn't happened yet. The people who lost that debate are leaking national security information, appealing to the press. That is precisely why Hoekstra (R-MI) and Ros-Lehtinen called for more information — this is about North Korea, not Syria.
- We haven't heard from the people who, as Mazetti and Cooper reported, were "cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings" or "remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat." They might have important information to add, were they willing to leak it.
Look for clues in tomorrow and this weekend's papers, when we may find out if the cautious types are going to push back against this story.
Famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who has a new piece in the New Yorker, had some very interesting things to say in an interview with Der Spiegel last week. Topics ranged from Hitler to the First Amendment in the United States, but his most interesting comments were on Iran and Iraq. On how much the West knows about Iran's nuclear program:
A lot. And it's been underestimated how much the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) knows. If you follow what (IAEA head Mohamed) ElBaradei and the various reports have been saying, the Iranians have claimed to be enriching uranium to higher than a 4 percent purity, which is the amount you need to run a peaceful nuclear reactor. But the IAEA's best guess is that they are at 3.67 percent or something. The Iranians are not even doing what they claim to be doing. The IAEA has been saying all along that they've been making progress but basically, Iran is nowhere.
On Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's status inside Iran:
The reality is, he's not nearly as powerful inside the country as we like to think he is. The Revolutionary Guards have direct control over the missile program and if there is a weapons program, they would be the ones running it. Not Ahmadinejad.
On the "surge" in Iraq:
The Surge means basically that, in some way, the president has accepted ethnic cleansing, whether he's talking about it or not. When he first announced the Surge in January, he described it as a way to bring the parties together. He's not saying that any more. I think he now understands that ethnic cleansing is what is going to happen.
Unlike a lot of journalists, Hersh will publicly state what's he thinking, even if it shows political bias. What he said might not be that surprising, but it's telling because it provides an indication of what some journalist think about what's going on in the Middle East. It should be noted, however, that Hersh himself has admitted to fudging the truth a bit. So take what he says with a large grain of salt.
Glenn Kessler has another big piece on the mysterious Israeli raid on Syria, this time on the front page and coauthored with Robin Wright. Joseph Cirincione writes in with an update to last week's blog commentary on this story, which isn't going away:
The Syria-North Korea story continues to spiral out of control, based as far as I can see on hyperbole and speculation. Its tiny spark has been repeatedly fanned by The Washington Post into what the paper yesterday called "the boldest act of nuclear preemption" since Israel's attack on the Iraq reactor at Osirik in 1981.
But there is no Syrian reactor about to go on line generating plutonium, as there was then in Iraq. (That attack, by the way, was condemned by the world, including President Ronald Reagan, and it backfired, pushing Iraq's program underground and onto a fast track.) There is no evidence that there was anything of nuclear significance in Syria.
I have been at the IAEA's General Conference in Vienna all week. No delegation has raised this issue in the conference. The last two times there were attacks on nuclear facilities—the Israeli Osirak bombing, and the Iraqi attack on Iranian facilities during the Iran-Iraq war—the attacks brought the conference to a screeching halt. This time, nothing.
I have spoken to dozens of experts and officials here, including American officials. None has any knowledge of any significant Syrian nuclear program or can imagine what sort of North Korean exchange with Syria would have constituted a nuclear threat worthy of an airstrike.
The last time American officials raised claims of suspect activities, in 2003, IAEA inspectors went to Syria for a "transparency inspection" and were given wide latitude above and beyond the official requirements of routine inspection. The inspectors accounted for all equipment and facilities and judged it improbable that key elements of the equipment could be diverted from the stated research use without clearly impacted the use for which they were intended. The claims, trumpeted by then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton, were baseless.
This hasn't stopped Bolton, now with the full support of the Post, from crying wolf again. If the United States, Israel or any nation seriously believed there was prohibited or suspicious nuclear activity, they could have called for a special inspection. They still could. Any nuclear material—even after a bombing—would leave traces that IAEA inspectors could detect. This is precisely why we have international agencies—to provide independent, rapid verification of suspect activities. The Washington Post's encouragement for states to shoot first invites a more unstable, less secure world for all.
FP interviewed Bolton earlier this week on this story as well, and he told us, "what exactly the target is, I don't know myself." The North Koreans need to provide "very clear answers" about their alleged proliferation activities, Bolton said. But why not send the IAEA to Syria to verify that there was, in fact, nuclear material at the supposed site? That would clear up this whole mystery, no?
UPDATE: Glenn Kessler writes in—
I just want to make clear that I, as a reporter, have nothing to do with the opinions of The Washington Post editorial page. Joe's commentary seems to merge the news reporting of the Post with the editorial that appeared yesterday. He also seems to suggest the Post has been all alone on this story, when in fact my competitors at The New York Times have also broken good stories on this subject. The story today reported that Israel shared this intelligence with the United States; it pointedly noted there are many questions about this intelligence and it has not been verified. Certainly, the official silence on this story has been striking, which makes it all the more puzzling.
For today's Seven Questions, FP chatted with Ambassador John Bolton, former top Bush administration official and current senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Bolton's got a new book out, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations. This statement from Bolton ought to hook you in:
Once upon a time, we knew how to do clandestine regime change. We need to reacquire that capability.
Many folks have commented on this sensational story in Sunday's London Times, which describes in great detail a daring Israeli raid on a secret Syrian nuclear facility. I have more questions than answers at this point, but I remain very skeptical. Others have already poured cold water on the story, but Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper of the New York Times reported Tuesday—very carefully, you might observe—that some American officials apparently believe that Israeli jets attacked "a site that Israel believed to be associated with a rudimentary Syrian nuclear program." As Mazzetti and Cooper note, the sudden postponement of the six-party talks with North Korea remains a mystery, but it could be tied to tensions over this alleged incident.
After Google recently updated its satellite images of parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, much of the region still looked blotchy — the kind of low resolution that persists in coverage of, say, upstate New York. But several small squares (they stand out as off-color patches from 680 miles up) suddenly became as detailed as the images of Manhattan. These sectors happen to be precisely where the US government has been hunting for bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Turns out, Google gets its images from many of the same satellite companies — DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, and others-that provide reconnaissance to US intelligence agencies. And when the CIA requests close-ups of the area around Peshawar in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, Google Earth reaps the benefits (although usually six to 18 months later).
Remembering this, I set out to discover if there happened to be any high-resolution images on Google Earth around the area where the Israeli air strikes reportedly took place. The London Times story purported to offer some clues:
An audacious raid on a Syrian target 50 miles from the Iraqi border was under way. [...] The target was identified as a northern Syrian facility that purported to be an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates river.
Following this description takes you to al-Mayadin, a Syrian town along the Euphrates river and roughly 50 miles from the Iraqi border. Here's what the area looks like on Google Earth:
There are a couple things to note about the above image. One, it certainly doesn't look like the green banks of the Euphrates are desert, though CNN quoted "sources in the region and the United States" as saying that the air strikes "left a big hole in the desert." Two, the image is not, you may have noticed, very high resolution. (Nor are the areas around it, in case you're wondering.) Contrast blurry al-Mayadin and environs with this shot of Natanz, Iran's once-secret uranium processing facility:
If U.S. intelligence agencies had suspected nuclear activities near al-Mayadin, Cole's reporting suggests that we'd see high-res pictures in Google Earth. But that does not appear to be the case. I can think of several possible explanations:
What do you think?
A number of reports out of Asia today add precious little clarity to what is becoming a growing international story: Israel's alleged bombing on September 6 of nuclear materials of North Korean origin in Syria. First, South Korean and Japanese officials mysteriously said that the next round six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear program, which had been scheduled for September 19, are being delayed. Japanese officials told the Associated Press they did not know why Pyongyang delayed the talks. However, AFP reported that South Korean officials said the talks were pushed back because the Chinese had yet to deliver 50,000 tons of fuel, as they agreed to do in February. An unidentified South Korean foreign ministry official said:
It appears the North's refusal is a simple protest against something it is not happy with, rather than to squeeze more out of the others.
News of the delay was unexpected, given Kim Jong Il's recent cooperative moves. It's also suspicious, as the most likely reasons for a delay would seem to be related to the charge North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria. That connection was disputed by Joseph Cirincione here, but the story continues to gain traction in the British press, with detailed new reports over the weekend alleging the North Korea-Syria axis. On Saturday, U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill didn't directly address the allegations, but told reporters the plan in any case was to press ahead with the six-party talks. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, but said that the U.S. was watching both North Korea and Syria closely.
Then on Monday morning, Seoul's foreign minister dismissed any nuclear connection between North Korea and Syria. Granted, this could be an effort by the South Koreans to salvage the talks the progress made in the last year, and the upcoming summit between the two Koreas. But given the sensational quality of the reports—clandestine air strikes, dumped fuel tanks on the Turkish border, secret nuclear caches and such—this story is not likely to disappear.
I think we know what side of the burgeoning "bomb Iran" discussion Bob Gates is on. Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about comments by Gen. David Petraeus about Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases thought to be supplying arms to Shiite militants in Iraq, the U.S. secretary of defense indicated that diplomacy remains the Bush administration's preferred approach to the Islamic Republic. My transcription:
Wallace: As the general's boss, why not cross the Iranian border to take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers [in Iraq]?
Gates: Now, first of all, there's a question of just how much intelligence we have in terms of specific locations and so on. But beyond that, I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran—that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq, and don't need to go across the border into Iran.
Wallace: Let me ask you a more general question, because there's a lot of chatter in Washington now that the administration is more actively considering various plans to take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program. First of all, is that true, and secondly, can you promise that the president will consult, will go to Congress for approval before he would ever take any such action?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what we may or may not do. I will tell you that I think that the administration believes at this point that continuing to try an deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach. That's the one we are using. We always say, "All options are on the table," but clearly, the diplomatic and economic approach is the one that we are pursuing.
Wallace: That's on the front burner still?
Wallace then turned to another, possibly related subject of Washington chatter: the recent Israeli air strikes on Syria. Many analysts view the strikes as a pointed warning from Israel to Iran; some administration officials say they were aimed at North Korean nuclear materials. Gates was cagey:
Wallace: Let's turn to another part of the world. Is Syria involved in a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.
Wallace: How would we regard that kind of effort, both in terms of the Syrians and the North Koreans?
Gates: I think it would be a real problem.
Gates: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts and obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.
Something didn't smell quite right in Glenn Kessler's recent story in the Washington Post about a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Syria. It looked to me like déjà vu all over again. So I asked Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and a frequent FP contributor, to weigh in. Here's his take:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined "White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection." This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted "intelligence" to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.
Few reporters appear to have done even basic investigation of the miniscule Syrian nuclear program (though this seems to be filtering into some stories running Friday). There is a reason that Syria is not included in most proliferation studies, including mine: It doesn't amount to much. Begun almost 40 years ago, the Syrian program is a rudimentary research program built around a tiny 30-kilowatt research reactor that produces isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel. Over a dozen countries have aided the program including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States (where several Syrian scientists trained) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons it is of little consequence. Syria does not have the financial, technical or industrial base to develop a serious nuclear program anytime in the foreseeable future.
Nor is there anything new about Syria being on the U.S. "watch list"; it has been for years. Unfortunately, this misleading story will now enter the lexicon of the far right. For months we will hear pundits citing the "Syrian-Iranian-Korean nuclear axis" and complaining that attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea's program are bound fail in the face of such duplicity, etc., etc.
The real story is how quickly the New York Times and the Washington Post snapped up the bait and ran exactly the story the officials wanted, thereby feeding a mini-media frenzy. It appears that nothing, not even a disastrous and unnecessary war, can break this Pavlovian response to an "intelligence scoop."
For information on the Syrian nuclear program that any reporter should have read, see the Web site of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
UPDATE: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler responds via e-mail:
I think the world of Joe Cirincione. So I obviously take his concerns seriously.
All I can say in response is that I (and a number of uncredited colleagues) spent more than week knocking on doors of many agencies, seeking answers. No one tried to wave us off the story, including people who normally I thought would have tried their best to prevent us from printing it. I did note a number of caveats and explained that Syria never had much of a nuclear program. There appears to be a connection to the Israeli raid, which is now the subject of some of the tightest censorship in years. We will keep pursuing the story in hopes of providing greater clarity for our readers--and especially experts like Joe.
... more here from Kessler, who reports that the State Department's Chris Hill doesn't expect negotiations with North Korea to be derailed by this.
An interesting story in Israel's Haaretz newspaper about the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria includes this gem:
The New York Times said Wednesday that likely targets were weapons caches Israel believed Iran was sending to Hezbollah via Syria, a claim dismissed later in the day by the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.
"This is blah blah. This is nonsense, this is an unfounded statement. It is not up to the Israelis or anyone else to assess what we have in Syria," said Bashar Ja'afari.
The BBC reports that Wikipedia Scanner, a tool that can identify the source of edits to Wikipedia pages, revealed that workers from CIA computers have altered a number of Wikipedia entries. So what insightful additions did the Agency allegedly contribute?
On the profile of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the tool indicates that a worker on the CIA network reportedly added the exclamation "Wahhhhhh!" before a section on the leader's plans for his presidency.
A warning on the profile of the anonymous editor reads: "You have recently vandalised a Wikipedia article, and you are now being asked to stop this type of behaviour."
The entries for Porter Goss, former CIA director, and Oprah Winfrey were also apparently edited by the CIA network user, though these changes were "more innocuous."
Matt Yglesias has questions about Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, a.k.a "the one that always wins."
I'm hardly an expert on contemporary Japanese politics, but I did read Tim Weiner's gripping new history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. Here's what Weiner has to say about the LDP (pp. 116-121):
The most crucial interaction between the CIA and the Liberal Democratic Party was the exchange of information for money. It was used to support the party and to recruit informers within it. The Americans established paid relationships with promising young men who became, a generation later, members of parliament, ministers, and elder statesmen. Together they promoted the LDP and subverted Japan's Socialist Party and labor unions. [...]
The Japanese came to describe the political system created with the CIA's support as kozo oshoku—"structural corruption." The CIA's payoffs went on into the 1970s. The structural corruption of the political life of Japan continued long thereafter.
"We ran Japan during the occupation, and we ran it a different way in these years after the occupation," said the CIA's Horace Feldman, who served as station chief in Tokyo. "General MacArthur had his ways. We had ours."
The idea was to prevent communist subversion. And it worked! I'm tempted to ask, "At what price?" but it seems that the price was not terribly high. Japan's a pretty stable democracy now, though its justice system needs some work.
Russia's moves on missile defense and its decision to back out of a key arms control treaty are understandably gobbling up most of the news space devoted to Eastern Europe. But keep an eye on relations between Poland and Belarus, which claims to have busted up a Polish spy ring:
Belarus says it has smashed a spy ring which was passing information to Poland about a joint Belarussian-Russian air defence system, called the S-300. The head of the Belarus KGB security service, Dmitry Vegera, said four former Belarussian army officers and a Russian officer had been arrested.
The missile shield has clearly exacerbated relations between the two countries, but there are a host of other nettlesome issues. For months now, Poland has been broadcasting news into heavily-censored Belarus and accepting students who have been kicked out of Belarus's universities for political reasons. In their attacks on the thuggish and unpredictable Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, Poles frequently invoke their own legacy of Solidarity. Why does this matter, you ask? Because Poland is a member of NATO, more serious unpleasantness between the neighbors could quickly become another crisis between Russia and the West. And then things would really get interesting.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff for Dick Cheney, was sentenced today to 30 months in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the so-called "CIA Leak" case. Judging by some of the letters of support he received from Washington heavyweights, it's not hard to see why clemency was not in the cards for Scooter.
For instance, here's a howler from Henry Kissinger's letter:
Having served in the White House and under pressure, I have seen how difficult it sometimes is to recall precisely a particular series of events."
And here's one from Paul Wolfowitz:
Despite some of the malicious gossip about him, I know that Mr. Libby is one of the least partisan individuals you will find in Washington. Although he has served in three Republican adminstrations, some of his closest friends were senior officials in the Clinton administration.
The proliferation threat from rogue states and terrorist groups has to concentrate the mind of any senior U.S. official in the national security area. [...] In the face of all these demands, keeping every detail straight is impossible. [...] I have myself been to meetings after which I could not remember what agency or Department most of the people worked for, or even why they were there. If there is anyone who fully understands our "system" for protecting classified information, I have yet to meet him.
The Libby children are not little now. [Name withheld] is entering that time when girls grow and change startlingly quickly [...]
One of my many enduring and endearing memories of Scooter is of his universal love of families. [...] One of our early "undisclosed location" work trips coincided with Halloween, which I am sure you know is the favorite event of most children's lives. The Cheney grandchildren were required to accompany us on this particular trip, yanked out of school and away from their much-awaited night of Trick or Treating. Their disappointment at being trapped in the desolate, nothing-to-do location was heartbreaking, as was our own, missing our small children that night. While I was working up a pretty annoying whine, Scooter flew into action, finding treats, creating costumes and arranged an ad-hoc trick-or-treat and Halloween games for the kids. [...] It took hours of creative effort on his part.
Needless to say, the judge wasn't quite swayed by these heartfelt appeals.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
According to an article in today's LA Times, Mexico is expanding its domestic surveillance program with a little help from its northern neighbors. The country's Federal Investigative Agency is installing a new $3 million Communications Intercept System which will make it easier to tap phones, track the location of cell phone callers, recognize voices on the other side, and read e-mails. Mexican President Felipe Calderon says that the expanded surveillance is necessary to combat drug gangs, which have killed hundreds of people in the past few months.
What Calderon fails to mention is that the contract shows that the new system is being paid for by the U.S. State Department, and that the U.S. government may have access to some of the information gleaned from this intensified surveillance. Isn't it nice to know that neighbors can share?
First they loosely accused her of being a Zionist stooge, and now there's a formal new charge: that Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who had returned to Iran to see her 93-year-old mother and is now in a Tehran prison, has been plotting the overthrow of the Iranian government.
According to a statement released by the Ministry of Intelligence:
In primary interrogations, she reiterated that Soros Foundation has established an unofficial network with the potential of future broader expansion, whose main objective is overthrowing the system."
My goodness! Not the dreaded Soros Foundation, with its ... grants, its seminars, its lectures, and its transparency initiatives! Moving on:
In conducted research Mrs. Esfandiari has pointed out that the center's activities and programs related to Iran were sponsored and financed by the famous Soros oundation [sic], that is a US foundation owned by George Soros that has played key roles in intrigues that have led to colorful revolutions in former USSR republics in recent years."
The Iranians have issued a warrant for the arrest of the Soros Foundation's representative in Iran. The (badly translated) statement ends with the following:
The ultimate goal of those foundations, too, is to fortify those networks at fields that are of interest for them and reaping the fruits of such activities in due time, that is nothing but people's confrontation with the system. This US designed model with its hallucinating and chanting sign is aimed at soft overthrowing of the system."
Iran's leadership certainly seems to be getting paranoid, but they're barking up the wrong tree here. According to David Samuels' cover story in this month's Atlantic Monthly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are "funding sectarian political movements and paramilitary groups in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories." I'm 100 percent confident that Haleh Esfandiari isn't tied up in any of that business.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.