Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iraq. Show all posts

11 November 2015

Close, But No Cigar

Some of you might remember a column I wrote awhile back about Valerie Plame Wilson, the Iraqi intelligence asset CURVEBALL, and the Nigerian yellowcake controversy, pieces of a larger puzzle, the much-disputed evidence for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Here's something of a postscript.

Any man's death diminishes us, as Donne says, although we all harbor an occasional hidden glee when some particularly pernicious bastard falls off his perch. Are there graves I'd piss on? Without even thinking twice. And as luck would have it, Achmed Chalabi died this past week. I wouldn't call him the blackest of villains. A shameless opportunist, a con man, an embezzler, a fabricator, a scoundrel, even a patriot - all things to all men, it might be said.

This is the guy who sold the Iraq war. CIA didn't trust him worth a hoot, but he had the ear of Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary and Rumsfeld's point man on WMD. Wolfowitz set up a spook shop in the Pentagon basement called the Office of Special Plans, and handed it off to one of his house attack dogs, Doug Feith. OSP's brief was to reassess the raw intelligence product regarding Iraq, since it was obvious to the administration war hawks that CIA and the rest of those goldbricks hadn't gotten the God damn memo. In other words, somebody had to come up with the smoking gun, and in their hour of need, a champion did indeed appear.

Now, as to why you'd buy warmed-over merchandise from a tainted source like Chalabi, this is a naive question. Yes, he'd been convicted of bank fraud in Jordan, and there were later questions about accounting practices at the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group he founded - during one three-year period it was kept afloat with some 30 million bucks of U.S. State Department aid money - but let's not be churlish. Chalabi was preaching to the converted. They'd already seen the light on the road to Damascus. They were hearing what they wanted to hear, the mobile labs for chemical and biological warfare, missile payloads, nuclear research. BND, the West German security service, was raising doubts, but these were dismissed. The story got legs. It's all a twice-told tale.

Chalabi's legend starts to unravel, afterwards. I'm using the term legend advisedly. In the secret world, it means a false biography or back-story, that supports a deception. If we start from the premise that Chalabi wanted to liberate Iraq, well and good, but then we begin to wonder, at what cost, and to whom? Couple of examples. Chalabi encouraged the Kurdish resistance, in the mid-1990's. It was brutally suppressed, he escaped. He was back, with U.S. forces, in 2003. He was unrepentant. Nor was he apologetic for feeding us bogus information. (It's been remarked, however, that intelligence he provided about his personal or political enemies turned out to be entirely accurate.) A more damaging suspicion is that Chalabi sold out early, and the high bidder was Iran. Supposing it to be true, and there's reason to believe it, everything turns inside out. We've got the accepted narrative backwards.

Sake of argument, let's just imagine one of OSP's chief resources was in fact an Iranian agent. How would it affect our Iraq policy - what would the desired result be, from Iran's perspective? A humiliating American failure, sure, but that's collateral damage. The big draw is a weak or compromised Iraq, fractured by tribalism and religious faction, near collapse. Low-hanging fruit. You could make the case that this is exactly what's come to pass, and the long game has worked in Iran's favor. They've got good position. And it shouldn't come as any surprise that they're ready to climb in bed with the Russians, either. The self-cultivated image of the mullahs as fanatics is a lot more bark than bite. They're a pragmatic bunch, by and large, and it may simply be that we've been played like a violin. It wouldn't be the first time we were undone by better technique or tradecraft. 

This is total speculation, of course. I'm not saying any of it's true.

22 June 2015

The Marine and the Game Warden

You could say this column is a sequel to a piece I wrote called "The Ranger And The Sheriff's Wife."  That was a report on two non-fiction books that seemed to be chock full of ideas for crime stories.  So is this.

Thieves of Baghdad, by Matthew Bogdanos, Bloomsbury Books, 2005.

Matthew Bogdanos planned to go into his family's restaurant business but one day, on a whim, he decided to enlist in the Marines.  The recruiter took one look at his test scores and said he was doing no such thing.  He was going to enlist in college and then the Marines would accept him for officer's school.

So Bogdanos became the first person in his family to attend college, and on 9/11 he was a federal prosecutor in New York City, and a member of the Marine Reserves.

After the famous looting of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, Bogdanos was able to convince his superiors that he was the perfect person to head the squad assigned to search for the missing antiquities. After all, how many Marine officers could there be with law degrees and knowledge of classical art and literature?

As you can imagine, the job was extremely complicated.  For example, consider the difficulty of simply reporting accurately how much was stolen.  If thieves took five pieces  of an old jar, did they take one item or five?

More importantly he discovered that a lot of the material hadn't been stolen at all; but was placed in safe-keeping to protect it from the U.S. troops who were no doubt planning to confiscate the art and take it back home.  So Bogdanos and his men had a diplomatic task to do, convincing people that all they wanted  was to get the art safely back into the museum.  Inevitably this involved drinking many cups of tea with interested parties.

Which is not to say the marines didn't deal with actual thieves or terrorists.  Both were encountered in big numbers.  I highly recommend this book.

  Shell Games, by Craig Welch, William Morrow Books, 2010. 

It was like a Walt Disney movie that turned into Stephen King. 

So says one of the main characters in this book, summarizing his career.  But the protagonist is Ed Volz, a cop with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.  HIs job was to catch people like the Disney-to-King gentleman above.

You see, Puget Sound has a poaching problem.  The main target of these "clam rustlers" is the geoduck (gooeyduck), a bizarre-looking bivalve that can live well over one hundred years.

Because they take so long to develop they are considered the "old growth forest" of the sea and no one knows for sure how long it takes to replenish a field that has been harvested.  One of the nasty parts of the trade is that until you dig the clam out of the sand (sometimes two feet down) you can't tell if it is valuable or  relatively worthless..  Since pulling it out of the sand kills it, that counts as part of your fishing quota, whatever quality it turns out to be.

As you can guess, nasty poachers find all kinds of ways around the quotas, so both state and federal agents keep busy trying to keep people from stealing the things to sell, mostly to Asia.  One problem for the good guys is getting the legal system to take the crime seriously (clam rustling!), although the occasional arson or attempted murder helps with that.

This non-fiction book is full of remarkable, larger-than-life characters, like the Native American sculptor/fisher, a twice-convicted felon, who volunteered to go undercover to catch the poachers.  Or the alleged hit man who travelled with a teddy bear.  Or Seattle's legendary Ivar Haglund, "P.T. Barnum of the Sea," who, when a truck full of syrup spilled on the highway, showed up with a plate of pancakes and a fork.  Or, well, take this fellow, a real lateral thinker:

He'd been experimenting with planting geoducks much like shellfish companies farmed oysters and had leased forty-seven acres of public tidelands just off a county park near Purdy Spit.  Since the land was underwater and not suited for building, the county charged just twenty-five hundred dollars.  But in readying his farm for planting baby clams... [he] set about removing obstacles -- namely an entire colony of wild geoducks.  [He} dug up and sold $2 million worth of clams.

A wild story.

13 March 2013


Let's talk about lies.

It's a widely-held article of faith, particularly on the Left, that the Bush administration falsified intelligence to get us into the Iraq war.  I don't completely subscribe to this, for reasons I'll go into. But the purpose of this post is to examine one of the more puzzling sideshows in the run-up to actual combat operations: the full-court press by Vice President Cheney's office to discredit Valerie Plame Wilson, a career CIA officer, and her husband Joe, a retired diplomat.
Valerie and Joe Wilson

In discussing whether or not the Iraq intelligence was 'stovepiped,' an expression Seymour Hersh was the first to use, it might help to review, first, the culture of CIA, and secondly, the mindset of the Bush security team.  Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, once remarked that the DCI has only one consumer, and that he serves only one president at a time.  In other words, the job description is to give the president the best available analysis of sometimes conflicting intelligence product, and reconcile any disagreements.  State and Defense may have competing agendas, and they're free to make their own arguments, but the DCI shouldn't be swayed by policy differences. In practice, however, it's more about political survival.  George Tenet, Bush's DCI, had extraordinary access to the Oval Office, and the president trusted his advice.  The brute fact, though, is that you can't keep bringing your guy news he doesn't want to hear, or he's simply going to stop listening.  Tenet wanted to protect his place at the table, and it led him to start shading or deflecting unwelcome truths.  His own people at Langley were the first to realize he was insulating himself from failure.  He couldn't afford to have Bush turn a deaf ear.  We hang on prince's favors, Wolsey tells us, but when we fallwe fall like Lucifernever to hope again.

George Tenet
Tenet, to be fair, had no mean adversaries, chief of them Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and Rumsfeld had a deep bench to draw on.  He set up a spook shop at the Pentagon, run by an undersecretary named Doug Feith, who reported personally to the SecDef.  (As an aside, and because I can't resist, Gen. Tommy Franks, later commander of the forces in Iraq, was to characterize Feith as "the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.")  The point of the exercise is that they didn't trust Langley, so they mined the same raw data and then came to a radically different conclusion, one more to the liking of the Cabinet war party headed up by the vice president.

Both interpretations of the evidence turned on the trustworthiness of the clandestine Iraqi source codenamed CURVEBALL.  CIA considered him a self-aggrandizing phony and his stuff utterly unreliable, but DoD was ready to cut him more than a little slack.  CURVEBALL gave legs to the story that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological agents, the so-called WMD. There's an apposite quote from the late James Jesus Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence (and Angleton will return, in a subsequent blog entry).  "Not every story we wish to be true," he said, of a KGB deception, "is necessarily false."

Rafid al-Janabi a/k/a CURVEBALL
Which brings us to the notorious episode of the Nigerian yellowcake.  A report surfaced that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger, which could be turned into fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.  CIA decided to send Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, who had experience and connections in Africa, to check it out.  If true, here their smoking gun.  It's an axiom, in intelligence, that you can't prove a negative, but Wilson didn't find anything to support the story.  So we've got an ambiguous result.  Wilson couldn't say for sure the Iraqis didn't try to acquire yellowcake, he could only say there was no evidence that they had, in fact, tried.  "Highly doubtful," he told CIA.

The next question in this little drama is how the Nigerian yellowcake found its way into the State of the Union address.  CIA fact-checks a draft of the speech, and Tenet says the offending lines have to come out.  They do. But then, by all accounts, the vice president and the SecDef insist they go back in.  In the event, Bush utters the fatal words, "Saddam Hussein recently bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."  Joe Wilson, watching the president on television, goes WTF? Disgruntled, or disappointed, or just plain pissed off, he writes an Op-Ed that comes out in the New York Times, disputing the whole nine yards.  There's nothing, he says, to suggest any truth to this yellowcake moonshine.

State of the Union
You with me so far?  Because it gets murkier.

Now, to coin a phrase, the fur hits the fan.  Dick Cheney is reportedly ripshit. Joe Wilson, in his opinion, has stabbed them all in the back.  You don't, for Christ's sake, take your grievances to the God damn New York TIMES.  Joe's gone over to the enemy.  At this point, it's not a dispute about the intelligence, and this is where I put in my own two cents.  Honest men can disagree.  I stepped on my dick about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. I didn't think they'd pull the trigger, and I was proved wrong.  Older, wiser heads were right. This isn't by any means an exact trade.  You make the best guess.  In this case, Cheney's being dishonest.  It's not really about Niger.  It's a grudge match.  Joe Wilson's in his sights.

The rubber meets the road.  Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie, is a serving CIA officer.  She's worked covert, overseas.  Her present post is at Langley, in non-proliferation.  Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, blows Valerie to a Washington columnist, Robert Novak.  The deception they're floating is that Valerie persuaded the powers that be to send Joe to Niger with the express purpose of spiking the yellowcake rumor.

I told you it was complicated.

Let's, for the moment, ignore the facts.
Cheney and Rumsfeld

What's the narrative Cheney's suggesting?  First, that CIA's a hotbed of Lefties, who don't whole-heartedly believe in a war with Iraq. Joe Wilson's another ComSymp.  His wife gets him the gig.  The two of them are in bed together, in more ways than one.  Bottom line, Valerie is soft on Iraq, and so is Joe. Between the two of them, they wanted to sabotage the war effort.

There are a couple of things wrong with this picture.

Valerie didn't pick Joe for the mission, and Joe didn't have a horse in the race.  We're talking apples and oranges.  Valerie, by her own account, really liked her job, and believed in it.  I take her at her word. Duty is, perhaps, a careworn expression.

What was the point?  Or the object.  What is Cheney trying to accomplish, and who would care? Who'd even understand the Byzantine reasoning behind this stratagem?  Nobody outside the Beltway.  Cheney's an inside guy.  He doesn't come right out and say, Joe Wilson's soft on Iraq. He moves in on the oblique.  Which might lead us to believe his target audience wasn't the general public at all, but Congress, particularly the ranking members of the armed services committees. These are the people who'd vote on any Iraq war resolution, and the vice president wants their votes in the bag.  Anything else would be noise.

Push comes to shove, sacrificing Valerie Plame's career or Joe Wilson's reputation is small potatoes. They get thrown under the bus to Baghdad.

Full disclosure. I've met Valerie Wilson since she and her family moved to Santa Fe, and have had some passing conversations with her– not, as it happens, on these particular questions. In their own words, here's a recent article Valerie and Joe wrote for THE GUARDIAN.