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The CIA Keeps (Our Enemies’) Secrets Secret

July 8th, 2014 - 1:34 pm

My heart goes out to Jeffrey Scudder, who was thrown out of CIA after trying to get some documents declassified.  His story, captivatingly told in the WaPo by Greg Miller, will be incomprehensible to those who have been spared the Kafkaesque experience of trying to get the agency to cough up important old stories.  I’ve been there, and Mr. Scudder’s story, albeit very unusual, rings true.

He’d had a promising career in various overseas postings, and he had the sort of personality that you’d think CIA would cherish:  intense, tenacious, highly patriotic.  Sounds like a great dinner guest.  In one of those personnel moves driven by the intelligence and foreign policy establishment’s managerial gurus, he was moved to a sleepy corner of the CIA forest:  the unit charged with reviewing material for possible declassification and public release.  There he found more than a thousand files, mostly from long ago, that he felt should be released.  Some were.  Many weren’t.  So when he moved on, to a position in counterintelligence, he filed an FOIA request for some of those still-classified stories.

At that point, the agency fired him, after an “investigation” that normal people would call harassment, that involved a 6 a.m. search of his house and interrogation of his family, seizure of his child’s and wife’s computers, etcetera etcetera and so forth.

The WaPo story dutifully reproduces the agency’s explanation, involving Mr. Scudder’s alleged mishandling of classified documents, but you can pretty much ignore that stuff.  The CIA often invents things about documents it want to retain.  Or maybe even destroy, as I found out over many years.

In the late 1970s I learned of the existence of an operation conducted by the U.S. government in Italy shortly after the end of the Second World War.  The operation was called “gyre” (from “Jabberwocky,” which led me to believe that James Jesus Angleton, the head of U.S. military intelligence in Italy during the war, had been involved).  The “gyre” file had a lot of material on the Italian Communist Party, going back to its founding (1921).  According to what I was told, that material documented the true nature of the party, which was very closely linked to Soviet intelligence.  As it had both a public and a clandestine component (known to adepts as the “armed party”), the structure was designed to deceive outsiders.  They could only see the public party, but not the clandestine part, and certainly not the close cooperation with the Soviet spooks.

I requested the file, but was told that the documents were properly classified, and thus not available.  I asked why documents from the early 1920s, dealing with our enemies, were properly classified.  I was told that the source was still alive.  So that was that…until 1981, when I became special adviser to the secretary of state, and had plenty of security clearances. One day I told this story to Bill Casey, who arranged for me to read the file, albeit with a caveat:  I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  It seemed redundant to me (I was  bound by an agreement to keep ALL secrets secret, right?) but I signed.  And I read it.

It’s a very important file for anyone who wants to fully understand Soviet espionage, and of course for anyone curious about the Italian Communist Party.  I can’t say much more about the contents except that the description given to me was very accurate.  I waited about ten years, when I learned that the source had died, and again requested the file.  Rejected again!  This time on the grounds that “there were no such documents.”

I pointed out that I knew they existed.  Indeed I had read them, so I was in a plight similar to Mr Scudder’s:  trying to make public documents I had actually seen, convinced they were important, knowing they did not involve any secrets that could damage American interests.  But CIA just said there were no such documents, so what could they do?

Then came the Mitrokin files…

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Iran and the Straw Man

July 1st, 2014 - 2:28 pm


The estimable Sohrab Ahmari of the indispensable Wall Street Journal editorial page does some helpful reporting from London, telling us about leading British advocates of a deal with Iran.  Mr. Ahmari thereby confirms the durability of that famous line about the newspaper: “Interesting paper — opinion on the news pages and news on the editorial pages.”

He interviewed three leading proponents of making deals with the Khamenei regime, and they trot out the usual “arguments,” above all the presumed importance of giving international support to the  imagined moderation of President Rouhani, so that the presumed hard-liners around Supreme Leader Khamenei will be forced to make concessions.  Of the three, the best-known is former Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who talks about a recent trip to Iran as if it were a Western metropolis:

“Tehran looks and feels these days more like Madrid or Athens than it does, say, Mumbai or Cairo,” he wrote in a January op-ed.

“I know that Tehran is not Madrid,” Mr. Straw told me. “My point was that’s what the city felt like from the narrow perspective of the journeys that I was making. That was all. It feels more like those cities, Athens too, it felt to my entirely subjective judgment, than, I think, Cairo or Mumbai — what it felt like looking out from the car.”

Which gives a fairly alarming picture of strategic “analysis” by one of Great Britain’s most influential characters.

But then, we already knew a great deal about Jack Straw’s vision of the Islamic Republic.  He was the mastermind of one of the many failed attempts to set up a grand bargain between the United States and Iran, back when George W. Bush was in the White House and Condi Rice was at Foggy Bottom.  Straw convinced Rice that the time was ripe for settling matters with the mullahs, and he arranged for the secretary of state to talk to Ali Larijani, then the West’s favorite Iranian official.  After months of talks, the Americans involved believed they had reached an agreement with Larijani — the usual deal, the Iranians promise to stop enrichment and we lift sanctions — and the signing and/or celebration affair was scheduled at UNHQ in September, 2006.  Condi and her right-hand man, Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, flew up to New York for the happy occasion, but Larijani’s plane never took off.

So Mr. Straw has not only advocated a deal with Iran, but has vigorously acted in a very British way — manipulating his U.S. colleagues — to try to accomplish it.  Many thanks to Sohrab Ahmari for showing that Straw is a man of strong convictions.  Pity they’re so dangerous for us all.

(Artwork created using multiple images.)

Throughout the battle of Iraq, it was clear that there could not be decent security there so long as the mullahs ruled in Tehran. They made no secret of their intention to drive us out and dominate Iraq. Indeed, top Iranian leaders, as well as Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, made public announcements that once we had brought down Saddam Hussein, it would be their turn, and they would use the same methods that had driven us out of Lebanon in the mid-1980s.

To that end, the Iranian regime provoked all manner of violence, from tribal to ethnic, because they believed they were better able to operate in chaos. In these bloody conflicts, the Iranians sometimes supported both sides. They backed al Qaeda (Abu Musab Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, worked for years out of a Tehran base) and they backed Shi’ite terrorists like Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

This strategy was very difficult for us to comprehend, because it wasn’t possible to simply pick one side and support it.  The same holds true in Syria: Iran supports pro-and anti-Assad terror groups (I think this started as a scheme to acquire influence in any successor regime). Nor were we willing to acknowledge that Iran would continue to destabilize Iraq.  As the slaughter in Syria got worse, it became ever more urgent for Iran to control Iraq.  Why?  Because if Assad fell, Hezbollah would either have to relocate or risk disintegration, and Iranian strategists, from Supreme Leader Khamenei on down, picked Iraq as Plan B.

We could have acted effectively in these battlefields; the best strategy was to support the tens of millions of Iranians who hate the regime. But President Obama and his people do not want that. They act as if they want the Iranian regime to win, the latest evidence being the squeals of delight about possible “strategic cooperation” with the mullahs, our most openly hostile enemies.

It is folly to expect real cooperation from the Iranians. They think they are winning on every front (they aren’t; they are at mortal risk from their own citizens), and that Obama will never do anything to thwart them (this rings true). So they won’t do anything to improve our standing or national security. They will just continue to work for our destruction and domination.

Why does this appeal so much to the Obama administration?


image illustration via shutterstock /  Filip Bjorkman

I was in the room in 1985 during the US/Iran/Israel negotiations that eventually led to Iran-Contra, and while I had no authority to make commitments for the American government, I had plenty of opportunity to ask questions and talk at length with the others.  It was not a happy experience, and it was worsened by the knowledge that, while we spoke, a top American CIA officer was being tortured to death by the Iranians.

Hostage negotiations between a Western democracy and a hostile totalitarian regime lopsidedly favor the evil regime.  Its leaders do not care about human life, while ours are often driven by concern over the fate of their citizens.  You can see that in the case of Israel, which releases hundreds of terrorists for a single Israeli hostage, and you can see it in those US/Iran/Israel negotiations back in ’85:  President Reagan was very passionate about saving our hostages, as Israeli prime ministers, including Begin and Netanyahu, have been about saving theirs.

Our leaders have long claimed that we don’t pay for the release of hostages, nor do we negotiate with terrorists.  False on both counts.  Indeed, I don’t know of any democratic country that doesn’t do both.  To stay with Iran, President Carter negotiated a deal for the release of the diplomats from our Tehran Embassy–the deal entailed the release of Iranian funds blocked in US banks–and Reagan’s several deals with the Iranians sent weapons to the mullahs.  More recently, Obama’s negotiations with Iran have also included American hostages in Iranian jails, as we know from the fact that he raised that question with Iranian President Rouhani during their phone conversation last September.

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Mirrors and Veils: The Bergdahl Perplex

June 1st, 2014 - 8:39 pm

I will confess to a dark suspicion that when Robert Bergdahl, standing next to President Obama, said in Pashto to Bowe Bergdahl, “I am your father,” it was some sort of coded message.  I mean, what in the world was that all about?  Does any father have to say such a thing to a son?  Did he think Bowe didn’t know who his father was?

But then I started to ask questions of people who had followed the Bergdahl saga, and they calmed me down a bit.  The elder Bergdahl seems a bit odd.  Look at the pictures.  “A hippy,” one of my best sources said.  A guy who’d gone to Idaho to pursue a lifestyle reminiscent of the romantic sixties:  love, peace, and the expansion of the mind.  Or so they say.  And it connects well with the story of Bowe, leaving his base in an “intoxicated state,” which, if true, can’t mean alcohol, which is forbidden in such places.  It might mean pot, or hashish, however.  Berkeley, California, on the plains of Afghanistan.

I think, as I always do when confronted with “breaking news,” that we are some distance from the truth.  We don’t have the real facts just yet, and, contrary to all our frenzied desire to know everything right away, it’s a good idea to take a deep breath and analyze the odors.

One good place to start is where Brad Thor does:  forget about the Taliban, they weren’t holding Bowe.  He was a captive of the Haqqanis, which Thor nicely describes as a mixture of terrorism and mafia, “80% Sopranos and 20% Al Qaeda.”  He then asks an important question:  what did the Haqqanis get for Bergdahl?  That’s exactly right, because four of the Guantanamo terrorists were indeed Taliban, and hence low priority for the Haqqanis.  So?

So we need to ask how much money the Haqqanis got, or how many weapons, or maybe diamonds, I don’t know.  We probably arranged for the payment–it’s illegal to do it directly, I believe (although CIA has done it, as has the military, usually under the guise of “providing information”)–and the Qataris may have thought it was a good investment.  But something of value had to be given to the Haqqanis.  I don’t believe they turned over Bowe as a favor to the Taliban.

It is also possible that the Iranians were involved….

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Roman Jews: We Are Not Afraid

May 27th, 2014 - 6:00 pm

Judaism is booming in Italy, and has become chic in recent years.


A terrorist struck at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on Sunday.  The police are trying to find the killer, but meanwhile, two days later, crowds of people came to the Jewish Museum in solidarity…in Rome.

Riccardo Pacifici, the president of the Rome Jewish community, spoke in a way the Belgians and other European Jews should have:

“It’s time to show these rogues, these murderers, that we are not afraid, they do not intimidate us. We will march together and take them to jail,” according to Italy’s Il Messagero newspaper on Monday.

While many Jews on the other side of the Alps are so frightened of being attacked, they are either leaving or trying to conceal their Jewish identity, it is quite different in Italy, as I detailed recently in Tablet Magazine.

In Rome, the Jews have developed a reputation for being tough guys, and they’ve proved the image is correct.  Ever since the main synagogue on the banks of the Tiber was bombed by Palestinian terrorists in 1982, the Rome Community have organized self-defense groups that have gone after antisemitic groups in the city.  They have staged public demonstrations, smashed the headquarters of Jew-hating groups, and occupied courtrooms where Nazis were on trial, lest the judges think there was little public concern about the verdict.

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As usual, the Italians are operating outside the box.  The “European” elections in Italy weren’t really about Europe, and it’s hard to fit the amazing results into the pattern you’ve been reading about regarding France, Great Britain and the other EU countries.

The elections were nominally for the European Parliament, an honorific body that has no legislative standing (it only ratifies measures from on high, it can’t initiate anything) but good salaries and amazing slush funds for travel, lodging, and associated expenses.  This time around, however, the vote was taken to be a referendum on the new prime minister (Matteo Renzi, the 39 year old from the center-left Democratic Party (PD) who has been in office barely three months).  His noisiest and most threatening challenger was Beppe Grillo, a foul-mouthed former professional comedian who leads the 5-Star Movement.  Grillo called for the total rejection of the political class (above all, Renzi) and promised that, once he won the European vote, he’d demand the government fall and then he would win national political elections and purge the whole political system.

Instead, Renzi carried the PD to unprecedented success:  more than 40% of the vote.  No Italian party had won 40% since the Christian Democrats in 1958.  Moreover, his PD was the only governing party on the continent to improve its standing compared to past elections, and most Italian commentators, including some who expected Grillo to win (he got about 21%, half of Renzi’s) are now saying that Renzi is in full control, and if members of his coalition balk at passing his key reform measures, he can threaten them with new national elections they know they will lose.

Which is quite something for a 39 year old who just a couple of years ago, as mayor of Florence, badly lost the PD’s primary and faced an uncertain future.  We seem to have an answer to the basic question about Matteo Renzi.  Everyone knew he was smart and ambitious, but nobody knew if he had the charisma, toughness and cunning required to govern Italy.   Now we know that he does.

Good news for Italians, who will shortly head the EU for six months, thereby giving Renzi an additional platform to advance his pro-growth programs.  Combined with the electoral battering of the bureaucratic parties that have been running Europe, and the strong popular support for nationalist, Eurosceptic leaders in France and Britain (and a mild rebuff to Chancellor Merkel in Germany), there is at least some chance that Brussels’ misguided policies of top-down hypercontrol of European enterprise may be loosened.

It’s suitably ironic that the new star of European politics is a young Florentine, running as leader of the country’s biggest left-wing party, who is universally believed to be a conservative.  Maybe even a neoconservative.

Perhaps Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz should campaign as Democrats.

We all know the Muslim world is a political and cultural disaster zone.

All you need to know is the spectacularly low level of book sales in the Arab world, and a similarly miserable record in winning Nobel prizes, whether in literature or hard science.  A dozen years ago, a group of Arab scholars did a report for the United Nations that ascribed the failure of Arab society to a lack of freedom, knowledge and womenpower.  And things have gotten considerably worse since 2002;  the authors could write that there were no ethnic conflicts then.  That’s long gone.

Never mind a failed state;  we’re talking about a failed civilization, even in the most culturally advanced Muslim domain, the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The root of their failure is the War Against Fun.  They’re not only failures, but grim, humorless failures.  This is the miserable common denominator of the Muslim world.  As Jonathan Schanzer recently tweeted, “Saudi blocks Youtube. Iran blocks Instagram. We knew they could eventually find common ground.”

They know it themselves, and talk about it a lot. Several writers in the Saudi press, for example, unloaded on the ban on celebrating Valentine’s Day, as here:

[The answer] to most of our daily needs comes from the West, from the Christian world, of [the culture] we created in previous eras only a pittance remains… the prohibition on Valentine’s Day bears no relation to faith or belief, but [only] to desert thinking that lacks subtlety, targets women specifically and prevents a social encounter between men and women and normal life as in other societies. The guardians of values and customs went overboard in pressuring our society…it has become desiccated and coarse and adopted the thinking and behavior of the desert..

Or in this tirade, quoted in the same article linked above:

What grabs attention is that those who ban imitating the West on Valentine’s Day see nothing amiss in imitating the West in other ways, and are completely immersed in [Western] consumer culture and in devouring new Western products…

They know we’re better.  Some of them, seemingly more with the passage of time, are desperate and brave enough to risk life and limb to fight back on behalf of fun.

The War Against Fun is deadly because it stultifies and suffocates creative enterprise.  If the regime wins, and fun is killed, it would mark the death of playfulness, which is the heart of creativity.  The Iranians are (falsely, I think) credited with the invention of chess, but there are no brilliant Persian chess grandmasters nowadays.  Iranian humor is nasty, misogynistic and often sadistic, like the unhappy country’s ruling tyrants.

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The Censors and Their Tyrannical Friends

May 20th, 2014 - 6:30 pm

From the very beginning, the doctrines of political correctness were intended to silence and paralyze the Right.  The locus classicus of this demand is Herbert Marcuse’s essay on “Repressive Tolerance,” written in the early 1960s when he was a Brandeis professor:

Liberating tolerance…would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: … it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.

Tolerance would only be granted to those with proper ideas, and committed to proper actions.  And who would decide which ideas and actions were proper, and which were to be forbidden?

People rather like himself:

…everyone “in the maturity of his faculties” as a human being, everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously.

His students and followers, in other words.  He wanted to create:

[a] democratic educational dictatorship of free men… in Mill, every rational human being participates in the discussion and decision–but only as a rational being. (In contemporary America) this would be a small number indeed, and not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people. The problem is not that of an educational dictatorship, but that of breaking the tyranny of public opinion and its makers in the closed society.

Marcuse denied he was an elitist, insisting that once people were “educated” to accept ideas and actions that the society at large considered subversive, true freedom would reign supreme.

He’d be quite surprised to learn that his proposals are gathering momentum, precisely among those who consider themselves members of the intellectual elite.  The movement extends from college campuses (for which he had some hope) to international “scientific” bodies (think about the campaigns against those who refuse to accept the dogmas of “climate change”), to the broader society.  We have reached a point where a radical “activist” can go on national TV and call for the imprisonment of anyone in public office who disagrees with him.  And the host murmurs that there might not be enough room.

Like Marcuse, the advocates of this rule-by-right-thinking-inellectuals invariably claim to be democracy’s best friends, even as they work for its doom.  Take David Brooks for example, who proclaims that we’re in an era of democratic complacency and decay.  He thinks that we’ve recently learned about the shortcomings of democratic republics:  “The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws.”

And then he tells us things we learned back in the 1830s from Alexis de Tocqueville:  democratic countries are lousy at long-range planning, our system of checks and balances can paralyze badly needed policies, etcetera etcetera and so forth.  We show up badly, he says, when compared to innovative “Guardian States” like China and Singapore.  Our schools stink when compared to South Korea’s.  And best of all, he insists, “They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.”

Brooks, just like Marcuse, insists that he has come to save democracy, not to bury it.  He wants “a strategy to make democracy dynamic again…use Lee Kuan Yew means (aka benevolent dictatorship, ML) to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level.”

And what is his glorious solution?  The model for the revivification of democracy?

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The Secret Deals With Iran

May 14th, 2014 - 7:17 pm

“You’re right to keep tweeting that question.  Why the hell is the agreement with Iran still secret?”

I’m always grateful for praise, especially when it comes from America’s legendary spymaster, the late James Jesus Angleton, who was passing on the kind words through my recently rehabbed ouija board.  I’d been repeatedly tweeting “why is the deal with Iran still secret?” and apparently Angleton manages to get online (although with him, you never really know where his information comes from).

ML:  “Presumably there’s some stuff in it that the administration doesn’t want us to know about, otherwise they’d open it up.”

JJA:  “Yes, that’s the obvious explanation.  But I’m surprised that those few members of Congress who HAVE read it, are similarly hushed up.  And I’m also surprised that those who haven’t read it aren’t insisting that they do.  After all, we’re not surprised to have secret treaties, are we?  But then, it’s hard to keep track of all the secret deals in the world nowadays.  Which, among other things, puts a lot of strain on the language…”

ML:  “Yeah, you always were keen on language.  Some of those non-secret ‘secrets’ are Rumsfeldian, they’re part of the ‘known unknown,’ or maybe better, the ‘unknown known.’  For me, that’s the most fascinating one:  the secrets we don’t want to know.”

JJA:  “Precisely.  Not surprisingly, several of them have to do with Iran, a country that specializes in secrecy and deception.”

ML: “Yeah, but these aren’t deceptions, or at least they’re not about Iranian deceptions. As far as I can tell, we and other Western governments are keeping secrets from the people. The governments know what’s happening, but they hush it up. And it’s not only the interim agreement. There’s the whole business about al Qaeda-and-Boko Haram, which in turn leads us to al Qaeda-and-Iran, etcetera. Not to mention the question about American hostages in Iranian captivity.”

JJA: “Let’s leave the hostages for last. I’ve seen a lot of that stuff on Boko Haram, and it’s hilarious to see all the editorialists and columnists who are acting as if they’d been following Nigeria in great detail for a decade or more, heh. All of a sudden everyone’s an expert.”

ML: “Who knew there were so many Africanists? Those of us who did Africa for years and years rarely saw any of these guys…”

JJA: “It’s easier to stay in New York or Washington, you don’t have to take all those shots.”

ML: “Or take those malaria pills with nasty side effects…”

JJA: “But there has been some good research, and I liked that Eli Lake story that referred to academic research on the connections between Boko Haram and al Qaeda.

ML: “Me too. But I wasn’t all that happy with the lack of good followup. That story went back to the 1990s, and said that Boko Haram figures were in touch with Osama bin Laden’s gang in Sudan. And, given the way my mind works, I started thinking…”

JJA: “…about Iran. Well of course, because we know that bin Laden was then establishing working relations with Hezbollah, which of course IS Iran, and so logic grabs you by the throat and drags you to the question: is there a link between Boko Haram and Iran, aside from bin Laden?”

ML: “Just so, exactly what I thought. And then I find that the good Jacob Zenn at the West Point Combating Terrorism Center wrote a good deal about Iranian support for radical Islam in Africa.”

JJA: “And I can promise you that there are American intelligence officers who can connect an awful lot of Iranian dots in West Africa over the years. Iranian arms shipments have been seized, and here and there in the African press you can find former Boko Haram members who talk quite openly about their colleagues being trained in Afghanistan, and even in iran itself. This guy, for example.”

ML: “Yeah, I saw that. But I couldn’t tell how reliable the story was.”

JJA: “There’s quite a bit of it, once you start digging. And of course there’s all that stuff about the al Qaeda-Iran cooperation, mostly written by Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio in that wonderful Long War Journal.

ML: “I’ve got some sympathy for the analysts and reporters who get baffled by the AQ-Iran connection. I mean, how can you explain the apparent fact that there are AQ groups fighting each other in Syria, and there’s evidence that Iran is supporting them all?”

JJA: “But we know they did the same thing in Iraq! (He was getting worked up, and started coughing. Are there Camel cigarettes where he is?). They supported both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and both sides of some tribal conflicts as well. They desperately wanted civil war, figuring they would benefit from all the killing.”

ML: “Also, it gives them some degree of control, I suppose, whoever wins in the end…”

JJA: “Well, in Syria they want Assad to win, no question about that. Africa is more like Iraq, the Iranians support radical jihadis whoever they are, Boko Haram included…so, as in Syria as in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you want to win, you’re going to have to come to grips with Iran.”

ML: “Good luck with that one! Obama just wants a deal with Iran, he doesn’t want to challenge the regime in Tehran.”

JJA: “Sure, everybody has that figured out by now. But they always omit another of those non-secret secrets, the one you mentioned at the beginning. The hostages.”

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