Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Guantanamo investigation nets another suspect

The AP reports that a third person was arrested this morning on suspicion of espionage in connection with the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Ahmed Mehalba joins Airman Ahmad Halabi and CPT Youssef Yee as the latest suspect in an investigation that appears to have unveiled a secret network of Syrian agents at Guantanamo, though the details are extremely sketchy at this point.
Defense Department officials described Mehalba as a civilian contractor who provided translation services, but it was unclear if he had fulfilled his contract or was still working at the camp.

Agents with Customs and Border Protection noticed documents that appeared to have come from the prison camp and that they suspected of being classified. The FBI was called in to interview Mehalba, who denied the documents were his, the official said.

After the interview, the FBI arrested Mehalba on charges of making false statements. He was being held in Boston and further charges are possible, said the official, who declined to describe the nature of the documents in Mehalba's possession.

Boston attorney Michael Andrews was appointed to represent Mehalba by U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Swartwood. Mehalba was to make an initial court appearance later Tuesday, Andrews said. Andrews said he had not met his client and had not been informed of what he is charged with or any of the circumstances of his arrest.
Analysis: There are some really interesting legal issues already in this case. First, Mehalba is not a soldier -- he's a civilian. Thus, he can't be charged in the military system like Halabi and Yee, nor can he be executed for espionage as a soldier could. (There is a remote option of trying a civilian under the UCMJ in time of war, but I rate this as extremely unlikely) If Mehalba were charged with treason, in theory, he could be put to death. But there's nothing in this story to suggest that will happen, and it's extremely unlikely that his offenses rose to the level required for a Constitutional charge of treason. (See Stop the Bleating for more on this subject)

The second interesting legal issue is the choice of forum for these charges. It appears, from this AP report, that federal prosecutors are moving forward in federal court with a criminal prosecution. The President has not designated Mehalba as an "enemy combatant," nor has he transferred him to military custody. Those two things remain an option, as was done after the initial court appearances in both the Padilla and al-Marri cases. But given the political flak associated with such decisions, I think this is also unlikely. Federal prosecutors may use the threat of "enemy combatant" status in their plea bargaining negotiations, as they did in the "Lackawanna Six" case according to several media reports. But I think we'll see this man tried in federal court if the time comes for a trial of some kind.

More to follow...

Monday, September 29, 2003

The "BYOB" War
Reservists issued Vietnam-era flak jackets forced to purchase their own body armor

Jonathan Turley, a GW law professor with whom I typically don't agree, has an outstanding essay on the op-ed page of today's Los Angeles Times about one of his students who's been sent to Iraq as a reserve MP. The soldier was issued a Vietnam-era flak vest upon mobilization. This vest will stop shrapnel and other effects from indirect fire, but is basically worthless for stopping direct fire from small arms. This, despite the procurement of new "Interceptor" body armor for most of the active force, which has been proven to save lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Turley writes that this is a travesty, and I agree.
The greatest shortfall in vests and plates appear to be National Guard and reserve units, though full-time soldiers like Byrd also have reported shortages. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last week that it would not be until December before there were enough plates for all of our people in Iraq.

Murphy's reserve unit, which initially had no modern jackets, was eventually given some Interceptor vests weeks after they arrived in Iraq, but even then the new vests were missing the essential ceramic plates. That is when Werfelman went out and bought some plates for $650 — more than her weekly salary — and sent them to her son so he'd have basic protection. Workers at one armor company she called said that they had been deluged with calls from parents trying to buy vests and plates for their sons and daughters overseas.

Of course, many soldiers do not have even empty Interceptors. When they have received plates from home, they have reportedly used duct tape to attach them to the backs of their flak jackets.

This is a dangerous practice, according to William "Butch" Hancock, who recently retired from the Army after 30 years and currently consults for Point Blank, a body armor manufacturer. He says that some of these plates are designed for front pockets and will not work in such circumstances.

In speeches, President Bush has attributed the record federal budget deficit, in part, to his insistence that U.S. soldiers have the resources they need: "My attitude is, any time we put one of our soldiers in harm's way, we're going to spend whatever is necessary to make sure they have the best training, the best support and the best possible equipment." When Bush later taunted gunmen in Iraq to "bring it on," many GIs must have nervously tugged at their obsolete flak jackets.

For many GIs, Iraq appears to be a strictly BYOB war — Bring Your Own Bulletproofs.

The shortages come down to money and priorities. In 1998, Interceptors were available and issued to armies around the world. However, the U.S. military treats the replacement of body armor as any other "general-issue item." Thus, five years ago the military brass decided to implement a one-for-one exchange of new-for-old vests over a 10-year period. The military recently moved to increase production. The belated priority given to replacing the vests is particularly shocking considering their performance in Afghanistan, where they are credited with saving the lives of 29 soldiers. This is why American mothers are mailing armored plates rather than the traditional baked goods.

It is unclear how we got into this predicament, but it is worthy of a congressional investigation — particularly when it comes to the failure to equip all military units with the modern vests before the Iraq war. After all, the military brass appears to be spending in other areas.
Analysis: Procurement of basic soldier items has been a problem for the Army since its inception during the Revolutionary War. Logistics is hard stuff, and procuring materiel for soldiers to wear/use in combat has always been difficult. That said, we spend an enormous amount of money every year to buy the military what it needs (and sometimes what it wants). There's no excuse for failing to procure Interceptor body armor for every soldier and Marine on active duty -- and every reservist mobilized for duty in a combat zone.

And it's not just the body armor. We've also seen similar shortages of other critical items too, from spare Hummvee tires to Bradley tracks to SINCGARS radio batteries. Our soldiers initially deployed to Afghanistan with lousy boots that fell apart on the rocky mountains of that country. (Look at pictures from 2001/02 and you'll see 100mph tape around the boots of many soldiers.) Some of my friends in Afghanistan and Iraq have spent thousands of dollars at REI.Com to outfit themselves and their soldiers with the best outdoor equipment money can buy, such as high-altitude stoves to stave off cold-weather casualties in the mountains of Afghanistan. I think it's a travesty that a soldier would have to spend his or her own money on mission-essential equipment when we spend $400 billion a year on defense.

Prof. Turley is right -- this boils down to priorities. If the Pentagon wanted to buy Interceptor body armor for every servicemember on active duty, it could. But it chose not to, by making a phased purchase of this product over time for pieces of the force at a time. Then the department made a second choice, which was not to take the armor from some non-deployed elements and shift it to those units in contact now with the enemy. Then the Pentagon made a third choice, which was not to immediately jumpstart procurement of these vests in 2002 when it became clear we were going to invade Iraq. These choices reveal a dangerously skewed sense of priorities for the procurement executives in the Pentagon, who would place programs like missile defense and aircraft carriers above the lives of our soldiers and Marines.

One caveat: these priorities know no political allegiance. Ike may have been the first president to warn us of the military-industrial complex, but this complex has exercised its grip on Democratic and Republican administrations alike since then -- as well as their counterparts in Congress. The Interceptor program dates back to the Clinton Administration, and its officials were the ones who chose the phased purchase instead of a bulk purchase. Of course, the Clinton White Hosue didn't anticipate in the late 1990s that we would fight a second Gulf War in 2003 with nearly our entire Army and Marine Corps. But I think it's fair to say that the force that won the war in Iraq was largely the force procured and trained by previous administrations, so the blame belongs to more than just the current administration.

Notwithstanding that fact, the problem exists now. Our soldiers are in harm's way now. There is no excuse for failing to equip our soldiers with this kind of basic equipment.

Update: See also this New York Daily News article on the body armor issue, courtesy of Military.Com.
"I can't answer for the record why we started this war with protective vests that were in short supply," Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told Congress last week.

Abizaid asked for quick approval of President Bush's request for $87 billion in new funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, which would include $300 million for body armor and $177 million to upgrade Humvees with chassis armor.

With funding for new vests, Abizaid said, "I can tell you that by November, every soldier that's serving in Iraq will have one."

The military had no estimates of how many G.I.s lacked the new vests, which cost $517 each, about $100 more than the old variety. But Abizaid did not argue when House members - waving letters from angry constituents with sons and daughters in Iraq - charged that as many as 30,000 troops in the region were without the latest model.
November, huh? I'd really like to walk the cat back on this issue, to see exactly when these emergency orders were placed. Presumably, some logistician should have forecasted this issue in late 2002 when we were doing our operational planning for Iraq. This shortfall should have been identified, forwarded to higher headquarters, and dealt with. If that was done, and it has taken the contractor a year to produce this many vests (not impossible given production line issues and materials issues), I think the Pentagon has probably made a good faith effort to remedy this problem. But if these requisitions weren't made until sometime this year, or worse yet, until after the war ended, then this is not a good news story.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Q: What's the most important part of the war on terrorism?
A: It's the part fought by lawyers and accountants, not soldiers

Josh Meyer has an outstanding piece on the front page of today's Los Angeles Times that looks at America's success (or lack thereof) in prosecuting the financial part of the war on terrorism. As I've written before, this part is absolutely critical because global financial networks are what give terrorists the ability to move men, materiel, and money around the world. In essence, these networks give power projection capability to groups like Al Qaeda, transforming them from local thugs to global terrorists. Mr. Meyer reports that the work is not going as well as America might like.
Two years after Al Qaeda paymasters helped fund the Sept. 11 attacks from Dubai, one senior U.S. Treasury Department counter-terrorism official says this modern financial crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and Asia remains "a central switching station" of banks, money changers and gold and diamond traders through which terror organizations move cash.

Many countries believed to be at the epicenter of Al Qaeda's re-emerging network — including Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia — are at best years away from establishing the financial and legal infrastructures needed to freeze terrorist assets or gain intelligence on how cells are raising, moving and spending money, say U.S. officials and their counterparts in other countries.

Away from the front lines, the effort to build a global coalition to staunch the flow of funds has suffered political, legal, cultural and technical setbacks so serious that some authorities fear it could fall apart. Many Middle Eastern and European countries, including Germany and France, have disagreed with the Bush administration over such basic questions as the definition of terrorism and what constitutes the financing of terrorism.

Nearly all of those who were identified by the U.S. government in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks as suspected senior financiers of Al Qaeda remain free, without ever having been detained or charged by foreign governments, and off limits to U.S. officials who want to question or arrest them.

Many other suspected financiers of Al Qaeda, other groups designated by the United States as terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and dozens of regional affiliates have simply gone deeper underground or changed to tactics such as using human and animal couriers to move large volumes of cash, officials say. Others have flocked to "soft spots," or countries and cities they have identified as having little scrutiny over their front companies, charities, relief organizations and banks, officials said.

"Two years after we started all this, we don't have a clue, really, as to how they raise their money, how they move it or where it goes," one U.S. official said of Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.
* * *
There have been many successes since President Bush signed Executive Order 13224 on Sept. 23, 2001, authorizing sweeping new powers for the Treasury Department and other agencies.
* * *
But nearly all of the asset freezes occurred in the first few months, a sign, officials say, that the money has shifted elsewhere and that many countries have overlooked or refused to freeze suspected terrorist funds. Now, senior U.S. officials acknowledge, other complications have arisen.
Analysis: Surely, one major obstacle has been the general level of international support for America in its war on terrorism. After Sept. 11, America could do no wrong in the world. Even Arab countries were willing to look the other way when we launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, understanding that it was necessary to excise the cancer of terrorism from that failed state. However, I believe we have squandered our international political capital since Sept. 11, and that this has cost us the ability to do what needs to be done in the financial arena. Mr. Meyer's article bears that out.

Saying this will land me in hot water, but I think there is some unfortunate irony here. Our campaign in Iraq was designed to open a new front in the war on terrorism. However, this campaign cost us dearly in world support, and that decline in world support now appears to be impeding other fronts in the war on terrorism. It's very likely that we have lost ground in this financial aspect of the war, and that those losses owe directly to our intransigence on the world stage. In an indirect way, our war in Iraq is frustrating the war on terrorism, and in net-assessment terms, it may actually be aiding terror networks abroad.

Moreover, our "flypaper strategy" in Iraq actually helps Al Qaeda remain a viable organization in at least four ways:

(1) First, this strategy, helps Al Qaeda raise money. The American occupation of Iraq inflames Arab opinion. It will help Al Qaeda raise money from moderate and radical Arabs for charitable and terroristic operations -- money which is fungible and highly moveable between the two operations. Furthermore, our war in Iraq will increase Al Qaeda's ability to recruit sympathetic persons around the world who are willing to move money around the world through the hawala system or other informal means.

(2) Our war in Iraq also helps Al Qaeda build its logistical support infrastructure. A moderate Arab may not hate the U.S. enough to be a terrorist himself, but he may not mind letting them use his address for a visa, or store something in his warehouse. To the extent that our war inflames opinion among moderate Arabs and others against the United States, it will increase the number of people willing to lend discrete support for Al Qaeda. Such support may not include actual participation in a terrorist act, but it doesn't need to. Simply providing logistical support to Al Qaeda enables it to be a global terror network. The ability to move men and materiel across borders is a key component of Al Qaeda's organizational strength, and this ability will likely benefit from our war in Iraq.

(3) The war in Iraq will also produce a generation of trained guerilla fighters for Al Qaeda to recruit as terrorists. One reason for Al Qaeda's lethality today is its skill base, which was gained through combat in Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, among others. The current guerilla war in Iraq is being fought in a complex operational environment, against a determined and sophisticated adversary (the United States and Britain). Moreover, these guerillas are learning the art of terrorism as theater, with legions of reporters and non-governmental organizations present to witness their actions. Just as Afghanistan and other conflicts provided training for Al Qaeda's recruits in the 1980s and 1990s, so too may Iraq provide the boot camp for terrorists in the 21st Century. Indeed, these fighters may form the new cadre for Al Qaeda to replace the fighters we have killed or captured in Afghanistan.

(4) Finally, success breeds success. Al Qaeda depends on the conduct of "spectacular" operations for recruiting, financing, and other sustenance needs. Iraqi insurgents (possibly aided by Al Qaeda) have been able to successfully hit American and British forces in Iraq over and over again, producing casualties and frustrating the rebuilding effort there. These successes are much easier won than spectactular operations such as Kenya or 9/11, and they are probably helping Al Qaeda sustain itself in the Arab court of public opinion.

Before our soldiers and Marines crossed the line of departure into Iraq, the following question was raised on a military-officer listserv that I participate in:

Does an American invasion of Iraq --
(a) Make a terrorist attack on America more likely
(b) Make a terrorist attack on America less likely
(c) Maintain the same probability of a terrorist attack on America.

Our consensus was that (b) was certainly wrong, and that the right answer had to be (a) or (c). Today, six months after the war's start, I still think that's true. It's still too early to tell whether terrorists will leverage our campaign in Iraq to launch a terrorist attack on the United States, at least beyond the terrorist attacks they're launching daily against our soldiers there. And it's hard to tell how much our counter-terrorism/anti-terrorism measures have done to prevent another attack. However, I remain convinced that another attack is likely, and that we not let our campaign in Iraq distract us from the real threat to American security: terrorism.

Update: Donald Sensing points me towards a very interesting brief from the Congressional Research Service titled "Al Qaeda After the Iraq Conflict", dated May 23, 2003. CRS terrorism specialist Audrey Kurth Cronin concludes that Al Qaeda remains a serious threat to American interests despite the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns:
Most believe that the denial of safe havens and arrests of senior leaders have seriously crippled the organization when judged by its earlier form. However, it may be evolving into something new. For terrorist groups, periods of evolution can be particularly dangerous. Organizations in transition can be especially vulnerable to disruption and destruction, but they can also be less predictable and prone to lash out in order to cause additional damage, rally flagging supporters, and/or prove their continuing viability. With respect to Al Qaeda, evidence of new sophisticated operations, a possible succession plan in action, central coordination of attacks, and growing international ties, all increasingly converging on a common international agenda hostile to the United States and its allies, may give U.S. officials new reason for concern. In the short term at least, even successes in counterterrorist operations against a more decentralized organization can lead to greater difficulty in collecting reliable intelligence, as the paths of communication are increasingly unfamiliar, the personalities are changing, and the locations of operatives are more diffuse. While the long term trajectory is very difficult to assess, for the time being it seems that Al Qaeda (or its successors) has emerged from a period of inactivity and remains a very serious threat, requiring concentrated attention and vigorous countermeasures on the part of its prospective targets. [emphasis added]

Justice Department begins investigation of the Plame affair
Before the dust settles, this probe could claim a West Wing casualty

The Washington Post reports today on a subject that Mark Kleiman and Josh Marshall have been reporting for months -- the likelihood that a senior administration official intentionally disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to the media in retaliation for her husband's statements about uranium in Niger. Ms. Plame's husband, Amb. Joseph C. Wilson IV, was the individual dispatched by the Bush Administration to confirm/deny British intelligence regarding uranium in Africa -- the reports that led to those 16 little words being inserted in the President's State of the Union speech to add imminence to our reasons for attacking Iraq. Now, the Post reports, the Justice Department has launched an investigation into the leak of Ms. Plame's name and identity, which is a crime under federal law.
At CIA Director George J. Tenet's request, the Justice Department is looking into an allegation that administration officials leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer to a journalist, government sources said yesterday.

The operative's identity was published in July after her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly challenged President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium ore from Africa for possible use in nuclear weapons. Bush later backed away from the claim.

The intentional disclosure of a covert operative's identity is a violation of federal law.

The officer's name was disclosed on July 14 in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak, who said his sources were two senior administration officials.

Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife. Wilson had just revealed that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson's account touched off a political fracas over Bush's use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.

"Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.
Analysis: Josh Marshall and Mark Kleiman really have the best coverage on this, along with Kevin Drum and Atrios. I can't add much to what they've already done. However, I will say this screams for an independent prosecutor -- and possibly even a Senate select committee investigation. If the allegations here go as high on the Executive Branch food chain as they seem to, the situation may simply be too politicized for the Justice Department to deal with. I have no doubt that the working FBI agents and federal prosecutors on this case will have the integrity to do the right thing -- whether they vote Republican or Democrat. However, I fear that their politically appointed bosses may feel pressure from the administration. Recognizing the basic fallibility of appointed officials who are beholden to their President, we should remove this from those appointees' hands.

The citation for the federal law here is 50 U.S.C. 421, and was passed as the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. It states:
Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
If a senior administration official did call a Washington journalist, presumably not cleared to receive Top Secret information about CIA operatives' names, and did reveal the name of that operative, then that senior administration is guilty of violating this law. If we're going to throw the book at CPT Youssef Yee and Airman Ahmad Halabi for espionage, then I think we should do the same thing here to this senior administration official.