Thursday, February 16, 2017

Return of McCarthyism: This Time the Intel Community is the Target



When I was in college and, later, as a junior Foreign Service officer, I'd met State Department old timers who related horrifying tales of the McCarthy communist witch hunt era, when an amoral and alcoholic U.S. senator rode a wave of anti-communism in the country to go after mythical "traitors" inside the federal government. Prized on his hit list were career diplomats and, specifically, the so-called China Hands - experts on China who had the misfortune to be working in that country when Mao Tse-tung took power. "Who Lost China?" was the screed of the attack dogs. Foreign Service officers O. Edmund Clubb, John Paton Davies, Jr., John Emmerson, John S. Service, and John Carter Vincent were forced out of the service, their reputations stained by fabrications launched by a blatant liar in the form of Senator Joe McCarthy. Their real crime? Speaking truth to power in their honest reporting from the field. It wasn't until Nixon opened up to Beijing in 1971 that these diplomats' reputations were restored.

I fear it's now the turn of our intelligence agencies to become the targets of a political witch hunt, stoked by President Trump. Following is a sampling of recent headlines:

How The Nation’s Spooks Played The Game ‘Kill Mike Flynn’

White House Plans to Have Trump Ally Review Intelligence Agencies

Trump Blasts 'Criminal' Leaks by Intelligence Agencies


What's especially mysterious as well as troubling, is why Trump has it out for the intelligence community, a linchpin in the nation's defense. He has even likened the IC to Nazis. In my recent article in Washington Monthly, Tinker. Tailor. Mogul. Spy? I said of the president:

"If Russia’s role in the 2016 election is basically undisputed, we’re still left with a separate, more troubling question for which there isn’t yet a clear answer: Could Donald Trump actually be a Russian intel asset?"

I answer my question accordingly:

"Whether therefore Trump is a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian Federation, the bottom line is this: by turning away intelligence briefings, by inexplicably attacking his country’s intelligence agencies and by his open bromance with Putin, the President is putting the nation’s national security at grave risk."

President Trump is about to name a Wall Street crony to become hatchetman against the CIA and the sixteen other intelligence agencies of the U.S. government. What the hell is going on?

If you are either an active duty or retired U.S. intel officer, I'd welcome your views. Anonymous messages are fine, but please identify your agency, grade and whether you are, or were a case officer, special activities officer or analyst. Your identity will be protected. angkor456000 at yahoo dot com

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fear and Loathing in Foggy Bottom


The following is my article published in Washington Monthly, January 30, 2017

Last week, the Trump administration accepted the resignations by four senior officials in top administrative and consular positions, including the Under Secretary of Management, Patrick Kennedy. These resignations followed the departure of the department’s top security officer and the chief of overseas facilities, both of whom resigned before the inauguration.

The resignations set off a hyperbolic reaction in some quarters. “The State Department’s entire senior management team just resigned,” headlined the Washington Post last week in a story that went viral. The story then described “an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.”

In truth, a major change of personnel is standard with any new administration. Whenever a new presidential administration comes to office, all officials occupying positions classified as “Presidential Appointments with Senate confirmation” (PAS) are required as a matter of standard procedure to submit letters of resignation to the White House.

As the American Foreign Service Association, the State Department’s quasi-union, further clarified, “While this appears to be a large turnover in a short period of time, a change of administration always brings personnel changes, and there is nothing unusual about rotations or retirements in the Foreign Service.”

And they are right. Not a purge, but perhaps a house cleaning in the administrative side of the house – those in charge of greasing the wheels to ensure the machine of diplomacy runs smoothly. While a lot of institutional memory is going out the door along with these senior officials, State has a deep bench of subordinates who can keep things on track until a new team is named. When President George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton, all but one Under Secretary were gone. As a businessman, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should recognize the importance of recruiting a top notch management team as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty to worry about with Trump’s State Department. Morale is low and anxiety is high.

As in other areas, the Trump folks have shown themselves graceless in their human resources practices. Well before Trump’s being sworn in, for example, his team announced that all of Obama’s non-career ambassadors – largely party fundraisers and other Democratic loyalists – must depart their embassies as of inauguration day, January 20 – no if’s and’s or but’s. Normally, a new administration allows a brief grace period for incumbents to pack out. And arms control chief, career diplomat Thomas Countryman, was ordered to return home while on a flight to Rome to attend a high-level conference. The 34-year Foreign Service veteran is retiring immediately.

Donald Trump’s White House is way behind the ball in fielding its team. Of 690 political appointees requiring Senate confirmation in all agencies, only 28 have been named and four confirmed as of January 29. And there has been very little contact with the State Department by the Trump transition operation, according to department sources. Rex Tillerson is expected to win full Senate confirmation this week.

The main problem facing the State Department, however, may not be numbers of officials, but morale and direction. Last October, I reported on the high negative approval numbers for Trump among federal employees, including at State. A quarter of those surveyed by the Government Business Council said that they would consider resigning rather than serve under a President Trump, an eventuality that thus far has not occurred. Some 60 percent of federal employees currently hold a negative view of Trump’s transition, according to Government Executive.
Anecdotal evidence reflects an atmosphere of post-election PTSD and high anxiety among many in the State Department.

“Morale is not necessarily low because we fear for our jobs. It is low because we fear for our country,” a senior diplomat with 30-plus years in the Foreign Service told me. “We see what can happen and it terrifies many of us,” he continued. “We are entering uncharted and rather scary territory. Trump’s policies fly in the face of norms that have been respected by Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II and before. Free trade. Honoring commitments. Supporting our allies in exchange for the guarantee of their support. Seeking the moral high ground. Respect for human rights. Ascribing value to the contributions of immigrants. Providing haven to those in danger. Those elements built the foundation of America’s greatness. Without them, America has no leverage in any negotiation. With just the executive orders of the last days, we have lost the moral high ground.” This officer is opting for early retirement rather than continue serving under President Trump.

Another veteran diplomat choosing early retirement confided, “I just simply cannot be a part of normalizing an administration headed by a man who is so clearly lacking in the requisite seriousness, integrity, judgment, character, intellect, and commitment to democratic values. He appears uninterested and incapable of building the trust with foreign counterparts that is so necessary for the successful conduct of American diplomacy. And I have zero confidence that a self-involved and unprincipled Trump administration will adequately safeguard American personnel and facilities overseas.”

In this officer’s view, Trump “poses a dire domestic threat to America’s security, democracy, and prosperity. And the Trump clan’s murky dealings with the Putin regime, together with the intelligence assessments pointing to Russian hacking of the DNC (and God knows what else), raise the specter of a malevolent foreign power undermining our democratic system.”

“Morale is lower than during any transition I have seen,” the 30-plus-year veteran told me. “People are afraid to talk, but when you have a private moment with someone who trusts you, they open up. We understand better than most Americans what the possible consequences of Trump’s policies might be” – referring to diplomats’ seeing first-hand autocratic regimes in other countries. He added that a number of his colleagues are taking assignments on the margins, sometimes below their rank in order to “lie low, stay out of sight, and weather the storm.”

The second diplomat echoed this sense of anxiety: “There is great apprehension and uncertainty. Unlike past administrations of both GOP and Democrats, this new team’s unpredictability and short-sightedness is unsettling to many, especially younger staff who have been through few or no prior changes of administrations. Most remain in wait and see mode.”
According to another source, “there has been no spike in retirements,” thus confirming the wait and see approach.

Department officials are turning their concerns into action. A draft memo opposing President Trump’s Executive Order halting immigration is circulating at State. If signed by employees, the “dissent channel” memo would go to the Acting Secretary. The draft states the new policy “will not achieve its stated aim of to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” It further asserts that the presidential order “stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold” and warns that it will stoke anti-American sentiment.

It is difficult to gauge how widespread these anecdotal sentiments are. Nonetheless, they represent a cross-section of the Foreign Service ranks. Many others are looking to Rex Tillerson to act as a buffer and a steady hand on the foreign policy helm. We are then left with the question: Is he up to the task?

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Trump Is No Reagan, And Here's Why


The following is my article published in Washington Monthly, January 27, 2017

While serving as the State Department’s desk officer for Afghanistan in the ‘80s, I was tasked with drafting a memo updating the President on how the U.S.-backed insurgency against Soviet occupation forces was going.

Under a tight deadline set by the National Security Council (NSC) staff, I drafted a succinct two-page memorandum from then-Secretary of State George Shultz to President Ronald Reagan, duly cleared by a myriad of offices. The Secretary signed it, and it went to the White House. The NSC staff bounced it back: “Make it shorter,” they commanded. So I cut the memo in half – to one page describing a complex guerrilla war involving seven disparate mujahideen groups combating 125,000 Soviet troops with lethal aid provided by Washington, Pakistan and Arab states; a vigorous global diplomatic offensive against Moscow; and the humanitarian catastrophe of over 5 million Afghans forced to flee their country as refugees.

Off this abbreviated memo went back to the White House. The NSC bounced it again: make it shorter. This had us scratching our collective heads, utterly puzzled. A senior department official called the National Security Advisor to get to the bottom of the repeated rejections. Word came back verbally: the President likes things short and simple. Write the memo “as if you were writing it for your mother,” we were told. So, in under 300 words, we endeavored to explain to President Reagan one of our most important and most complex foreign policy issues.

Was the President indeed struggling with senility as the rumors had it? Or was he such an intellectual lightweight that he was incapable of reading a two-page memo on a raging U.S.-fed proxy war against the other superpower? I think we underestimated Reagan. In retrospect, we see that he was a big picture man who let his subordinates sweat the details. He kept his eye on the ball, avoiding distractions.

Can we say the same for President Donald Trump? Are we underestimating him? Will we find that he is a leader in the Reagan mold? The unerring captain of the ship of state who sets the course and leaves the rest to his crew? I fear not. And here’s why.

During the Republican national convention in July 1980, the Republican Party issued a campaign platform outlining a detailed and comprehensive set of policies covering domestic and national security issues. Foreign policy objectives were neatly broken down into nine categories ranging from geographical regions to foreign aid and trade policy. Defense policy, centered on “peace through strength,” likewise succinctly addressed elements encompassing issues spanning nuclear force posture to the defense budget. The Soviet Union, of course, was viewed as the principal threat. Worthy of note was the Republicans’ goal to “make our intelligence community a reliable and productive instrument of national policy.” President Reagan, who ran under the slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” named a national security team that was aligned with his muscular vision of the United States in the world. Over the next eight years, they loyally carried out his policies, the Iran-Contra scandal at the time still a question mark. Reagan’s national security policies were concrete and disciplined.

Donald Trump’s national security vision, by contrast, has been an incoherent hodge-podge of largely ill-thought-out and scattered nostrums, stream-of-consciousness musings and itinerant tirades. Last April, I took a romp into Trumpland to try to ascertain the then-candidate’s worldview.

Former 9/11 Commission executive director and State Department counselor Philip Zelikow told me I was wasting my time, noting, “Trump’s appeal is social and cultural. It is not ideological. So positions on ‘issues’ are just vehicles for communicating an attitude.” Zelikow asserted that “there is actually no way of knowing what Trump would really do about any particular issue as president. He doesn’t know himself.” Tea Party pundit Glenn Beck echoed this conviction, telling CNN, “He is winging this entire election…he’s just making it up as he goes along.”

At that time, the only foreign policy issue laid out by the Trump team on their website was “U.S.-China Trade Reform.” This has since been expanded, but is spare in comparison with Reagan’s 1980 platform. Eight of the eleven foreign policy points deal with ISIS and terrorism, the rest paying lip service to rebuilding the military and restricting immigration. Interestingly, mention is made of the need to “enhance and improve intelligence and cyber capabilities.” The official White House site’s offerings on the issues are even more skeletal. Trump’s “America First Foreign Policy,” guided by Reagan’s “peace through strength,” encompasses building up the military, defeating ISIS and hunkering down on foreign trade.

Trump’s inaugural address paints a zero-sum world in which the U.S. defends allies at a cost to its own security, gives foreign aid at the expense of its own infrastructure development, and allows other countries to steal our companies and jobs as a result of bad trade deals. At the same time that he sounds a neo-isolationist note with “the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump then pledges to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones.” And, again, he vows to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism “completely from the face of the Earth.”

Contrast Trump’s dystopian view of the country and the world with Reagan’s first inaugural, with its declaration that “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.” And contrast Trump’s chaotic start as president with Reagan’s methodical setting forth of his domestic agenda. While Reagan reinforced alliances, Trump has dissed NATO as “obsolete” and insulted Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in his first days in office. Reagan engaged with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, yet ramped up pressures that hastened the Soviet Union’s collapse. Trump, on the other hand, has inexplicably embraced authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin even after it was discovered the latter meddled in the U.S. elections.
 
But lack of a well-defined national security doctrine may not trip him up as much as the starkly divergent worldviews between him and his national security team and possibly among the latter members as well. Take, for example, the wildly discordant views of Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the top officials of Trump’s intended Cabinet on the subject of Russia.
Ousted as Defense Intelligence Agency Director by President Obama, Flynn, like his new boss Trump, has shown a curious affinity for Russia. His communications with Russian officials reportedly are the subject of an FBI-led six-agency investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

On the other hand, in contrast to President Trump’s consistent and puzzling admiration for Vladimir Putin, Defense Secretary James Mattis has named Russia a “strategic competitor” whose behavior “we must confront.” And in contradiction to Trump’s scorn of NATO, Mattis told the Senate, “NATO is central to our defense.” Likewise, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson told the Senate that the U.S. is “not likely to ever be friends” with Moscow and that “Russia must be held accountable for its actions” in Ukraine and elsewhere. CIA Director Mike Pompeo made similar statements defying Trump’s views. It will interesting to see how pro-Russia Flynn and Trump’s DoD, State and CIA chiefs deal with each other on thorny foreign policy issues involving Moscow.

When a new administration assumes office, the White House issues presidential policy directives to the foreign affairs agencies. These constitute their marching orders. An example is a now declassified top secret National Security Decision Directive signed by President Reagan in March 1985 laying out a policy to further tighten the screws on the Soviets in Afghanistan. On a more macro level, each agency produces a comprehensive strategy document. And the White House wraps it all up with its National Security Strategy paper.

What happens, however, when a president talks loosely about abandoning the four decades-old One China Policy? Or, ditching NATO? Or, going on a nuclear weapons building binge? Or, denying Russia is a strategic or cyber threat? Or, repeatedly lambastes his intelligence community, insinuating it can’t be trusted? In other words, how is policy made when the commander in chief takes positions diametrically opposite from those enunciated by his national security team?

There are two scenarios. One is that Trump evolves into a more or less flamboyant figurehead president who leaves the actual running of the government to Vice President Mike Pence and others. The other is chaos and confusion. Borrowing a couple of catchy slogans (“Make America Great Again” and “Peace Through Strength”) from Ronald Reagan is no substitute for a carefully conceived policy framework. The coming policy distillation process will reveal how things will shake out in the Trump administration. Fasten your seat belts.

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The State Department’s Entire Senior Administrative Team Just Resigned

The Washington Post reports today about "an ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers." (Article below)

Any Foreign Service folks out there who would be willing to provide insights for an article I'm writing for a national publication, please contact me at angkor456000 at yahoo dot com. Comments would be strictly for non-attribution. - Jim

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job running the State Department just got considerably more difficult. The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.

Tillerson was actually inside the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom on Wednesday, taking meetings and getting the lay of the land. I reported Wednesday morning that the Trump team was narrowing its search for his No. 2, and that it was looking to replace the State Department’s long-serving undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy, who has been in that job for nine years, was actively involved in the transition and was angling to keep that job under Tillerson, three State Department officials told me.

Then suddenly on Wednesday afternoon, Kennedy and three of his top officials resigned unexpectedly, four State Department officials confirmed. Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond and Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, followed him out the door. All are career foreign service officers who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Kennedy will retire from the foreign service at the end of the month, officials said. The other officials could be given assignments elsewhere in the foreign service.

In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired Jan. 20, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. That amounts to a near-complete housecleaning of all the senior officials that deal with managing the State Department, its overseas posts and its people.

“It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” said David Wade, who served as State Department chief of staff under Secretary of State John Kerry. “Department expertise in security, management, administrative and consular positions in particular are very difficult to replicate and particularly difficult to find in the private sector.”

Trump jokes Tillerson finding Senate confirmation 'tougher than he thought'  Play Video1:31
Addressing a crowd of diplomats at a dinner event Jan. 17, Donald Trump joked that secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson is finding his Senate confirmation tougher than anticipated. (AP)
Several senior foreign service officers in the State Department’s regional bureaus have also left their posts or resigned since the election. But the emptying of leadership in the management bureaus is more disruptive because those offices need to be led by people who know the department and have experience running its complicated bureaucracies. There’s no easy way to replace that via the private sector, said Wade.

“Diplomatic security, consular affairs, there’s just not a corollary that exists outside the department, and you can least afford a learning curve in these areas where issues can quickly become matters of life and death,” he said. “The muscle memory is critical. These retirements are a big loss. They leave a void. These are very difficult people to replace.”

Whether Kennedy left on his own volition or was pushed out by the incoming Trump team is a matter of dispute inside the department. Just days before he resigned, Kennedy was taking on more responsibility inside the department and working closely with the transition. His departure was a surprise to other State Department officials who were working with him.

One senior State Department official who responded to my requests for comment said that all the officials had previously submitted their letters of resignation, as was required for all positions that are appointed by the president and that require confirmation by the Senate, known as PAS positions.

“No officer accepts a PAS position with the expectation that it is unlimited. And all officers understand that the President may choose to replace them at any time,” this official said. “These officers have served admirably and well. Their departure offers a moment to consider their accomplishments and thank them for their service. These are the patterns and rhythms of the career service.”

Ambassador Richard Boucher, who served as State Department spokesman for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, said that while there’s always a lot of turnover around the time a new administration takes office, traditionally senior officials work with the new team to see who should stay on in their roles and what other jobs might be available. But that’s not what happened this time.

The officials who manage the building and thousands of overseas diplomatic posts are charged with taking care of Americans overseas and protecting U.S. diplomats risking their lives abroad. The career foreign service officers are crucial to those functions as well as to implementing the new president’s agenda, whatever it may be, Boucher said.

“You don’t run foreign policy by making statements, you run it with thousands of people working to implement programs every day,” Boucher said. “To undercut that is to undercut the institution.”

By itself, the sudden departure of the State Department’s entire senior management team is disruptive enough. But in the context of a president who railed against the U.S. foreign policy establishment during his campaign and secretary of state with no government experience, the vacancies are much more concerning.

Tillerson’s job No. 1 must be to find qualified and experienced career officials to manage the State Department’s vital offices. His second job should be to reach out to and reassure a State Department workforce that is panicked about what the Trump administration means for them.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Tinker. Tailor. Mogul. Spy?



Feliks Dzerzhinsky
The following is my article published in Washington Monthly, January 13, 2017

Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police – the Cheka – said, “The fact that you are free is not your achievement, but rather a failure on our side.” A clear-eyed killer responsible for the summary executions of tens of thousands during the Bolsheviks’ Red Terror, Dzerzhinsky knew of what he spoke and he didn’t mince words. Fortunately, a heart attack took him down at 49, but his ilk lives on. We Americans should never let our guard down in face of freedom-phobic adversaries like Vladimir Putin. But I fear we are now doing so.

The United States has just endured a carefully planned, well-orchestrated assault against its democratic form of government in the form of a grand cyber-theft of information and targeted release of that information. After a thorough scrub of available intelligence, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies concluded unanimously that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”

In my twenty-five years in the service of Uncle Sam as a diplomat, I was a daily consumer of intelligence reporting. Information produced by spies is just one stream in a flood of facts, speculation and analyses that cross the desks of policymakers, others being press reports, think tank pieces, university research papers and personal conversations. All sources have their flaws as well as their benefits. Key to a report’s value is corroboration from other sources and reliability of the sources of the information being given.

While I have not had the privilege of reading the classified version of the report by the Director of National Intelligence on the Russians’ active measures, it is clear to me from the conclusions that corroboration and source reliability are at a very high level given CIA’s, NSA’s and the FBI’s stated “high confidence” or “moderate confidence” in their conclusions. This is “intellese” meaning reliable multi-source information has been corroborated at multiple levels, leading the vast majority of analysts to conclude with little doubt that Moscow launched an influence campaign against the U.S.
But if Russia’s role in the 2016 election is basically undisputed, we’re still left with a separate, more troubling question for which there isn’t yet a clear answer: Could Donald Trump actually be a Russian intel asset?

The U.S. intelligence chiefs steered clear of this hot potato conjecture. Supporting the case in favor is Trump’s bizarre screeds against the U.S. intelligence community and his equally head-scratching and consistent praise of Vladimir Putin even as his nominees to head the CIA and Defense Department describe Moscow as a threat. “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” former acting CIA Director Michael Morell wrote in the New York Times. An “unwitting agent” or “asset” in spy parlance is an individual who serves the interests of a foreign government without fully realizing it, or, what Lenin liked to call, a “useful idiot.” A “witting” asset is one who knows fully what he is doing.

This gets us to the other report making waves. The self-described “social news and entertainment company” BuzzFeed released an opposition research report on Donald Trump that has been in the possession of many journalists, members of Congress and executive Branch agencies for weeks now. Its leakage was inevitable. The 35-page document is a compendium of spot reports put together from June to December 2016 by a former British MI-6 officer named Christopher Steele. Former American intelligence officers who know Mr. Steele describe him in favorable terms, a well-connected case officer with years of service inside Russia. Steele now heads a private intelligence firm in London. A retired CIA officer who knows Steele told a Russian journalist contact of mine, “It is probably not all accurate but there is clearly some real information there.”

Well, real or not, there sure is. Steele reports a methodical effort by Putin’s intelligence operatives to suborn and recruit Trump over a period of years by means of surveillance, sex and lucrative business offerings. For the salacious details, read the document yourself. But here’s my take.

While news reporters fault the reports based mostly on superficial minor errors, e.g., English spelling of Russian names; proper description of a certain affluent Moscow neighborhood, my problems with Steele’s account go deeper, that is, into how they are formulated. The most egregious flaw in Steele’s reporting is that he appears to rely on a single Russian source for most of his dirt on Trump and official Russian players – a certain “trusted compatriot.” This is a Russian who claims to be in contact with various Putin officials, what is termed in the espionage business an “access agent.” I discern no corroborating sources, which is central to solid intel reporting. Equally troublesome is Steele’s failure to “rate” his source. Standard procedure in any spot reporting is to briefly describe a source’s past reliability: “Source whose information has been confirmed in past reporting,” or “who has a record of providing reliable information over years.” Steele’s single “trusted compatriot” source can conjure up the notorious Ahmed Chalabi, whose bogus reporting on non-existent weapons of mass destruction fooled U.S. policymakers into invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

In some of his reporting, Steele fails to identify any sources for his information. For example, in “A Synopsis of Russian State Sponsored and Other Cyber Offensive (Criminal) Operations,” he writes, “The former intelligence officer reported…” and “a senior government figure reported…” with no elaboration. “Reported” to whom? Himself? The ethereal “trusted compatriot”? A news reporter? Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost)? In any intelligence agency worth its name, an officer would be sent back to the drawing board by his or her supervisor after turning in such reporting. It is for all of these reasons that news organizations, except for BuzzFeed, chose to sit on Steele’s unverified allegations. A final question is whether Steele paid for his information, which is what spies often do. Cash for information too often provides incentives for sources to fabricate. Hence, the need to rate their past reporting.

Nonetheless, Russian intelligence routinely surveilles even low-ranking U.S. diplomats in their country. At a minimum, I would assume that the Russians targeted prominent American Trump for surveillance during his visits to their country. This is standard operating procedure for them. One goal is to acquire kompromat, or compromising material potentially to use against a subject. Whether the material Russian intelligence might have on Trump is the kompromat Steele describes in his dossier, it’s a good bet Russian intelligence has something.

Years ago, ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin told a Russian journalist, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” That journalist, incidentally, died in a still unresolved plane accident shortly after writing a scathing expose on the Russian leader. Over the years, others would meet similarly untimely deaths after crossing Putin. He and his kind play for keeps.

Whether therefore Trump is a witting or unwitting asset of the Russian Federation, the bottom line is this: by turning away intelligence briefings, by inexplicably attacking his country’s intelligence agencies and by his open bromance with Putin, the President-elect is putting the nation’s national security at grave risk. Or, as “Iron Feliks” Dzerzhinsky said, “Our enemies are now suppressed and are in the kingdom of the shadows.”

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Advice for Trump on Post-Fidel Cuba


Following is my article published in Washington Monthly Magazine, January 2017:

At his rallies, Fidel Castro was fond of bellowing, “Socialismo o muerte!”—Socialism or death! Death finally caught up with the dictator last November, and Cuban socialism’s days are likely numbered as well. The Cuban people soon will enter the post-Castro period after President Raúl Castro steps down in two years, as he has promised. What comes after that is anyone’s guess. To be able to have any influence in this transition period, Washington will need to identify which Cubans are in the best position to steer events.

As the United States goes through its own transition, the Trump administration will have to decide whether to continue President Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba or to slam on the brakes, demanding that Havana cease oppression of political dissidents and pursue concrete steps toward democratization.

In our approach to Cuba, we first have to understand what makes official Cuba tick. The reality is that the Communist Party may indeed be history, but one major player is likely not only to stick around, but to keep calling the shots. That player is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), Cuba’s armed forces. The FAR play a role outsized to their numbers, now around 90,000, down from double that during the Cold War years.

The FAR are widely considered to be Cuba’s best-managed and stablest government organization and are held in respect by Cubans generally. They run the economy and control politics. Since he succeeded his brother as president eight years ago, Raúl, who had commanded the FAR since the revolution, has expanded their role. More than half of the Communist Party’s Politburo members have a military background, while the Council of Ministers is likewise dominated by active-duty or retired FAR officers.

The Cuban military controls 60 percent of Cuba’s economy and takes in 40 percent of foreign exchange revenue. The FAR’s so-called “entrepreneur soldiers” manage a wide docket that includes sugar and cigar production, tourism, information technology, and aviation. One in five Cuban workers is employed by the FAR’s holding company, GAESA, which is headed by Raúl’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, an army brigadier who speaks English with a proper upper-class British accent.

I got to know Cuban military officers as the State Department’s representative at monthly military meetings on “The Line”—the border between U.S. and Cuban territory—at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. I found them to be professional, constructive, and amiable. The general who headed the Cuban side even offered to find me “a beautiful Cuban wife,” which I politely declined, having a beautiful American wife already. For years our respective militaries built up a modest level of mutual trust through collaboration on migration matters, sea-air rescue, counternarcotics, oil pollution response, and firefighting. Once, on flying into the naval base, the pilot of our small aircraft had to perform a corkscrew landing to avoid clouds of billowing black smoke kicked up by a brush fire sparked by exploded land mines on the Cuban side as firefighters from both sides of the fence worked together to put out the blaze. Since normalization under Obama, bilateral contacts and cooperation have been growing.

Occasionally, indications surface of tension between old-guard Fidelista officers and younger technocrat/entrepreneur officers. The future lies with the latter group, who are eager to build trust with Washington in hopes the United States won’t “pull an Iraq” on them by encouraging the FAR’s dismantlement in a postcommunist new order and opening the gates to chaos. In order to have the most impact on change, the U.S. needs to get to know and cultivate the pro-reform elements within the FAR.

I visited scores of Cuban families in their homes as a U.S. diplomat with the task of monitoring the human rights conditions of those who tried and failed to flee their country. I was struck by how Cubans always had one eye on the dinner table and one eye on the clock—meeting the daily challenge of how to feed their families while patiently awaiting the time when they could join the globalization wave. Their fretting fed the Cuban proclivity for dark humor. One example:
Student: “Before the revolution, the government took this country to the edge of an economic abyss.”
Teacher: “And after the revolution?”
Student: “Now our government has taken a big step forward.”
Change has been slow in coming. After retiring in 2008, Fidel hovered over Cuba as an éminence grise, second-guessing his younger brother’s decisions. While Fidel grudgingly went along with Raúl’s cautious economic reforms, he had little to say about rapprochement other than that he didn’t trust the U.S. Now that his big brother is gone, will Raúl feel freer to liberalize the Cuban economy and accelerate normalization? If so, time is running out. The eighty-five-year-old revolutionary has said he will retire in 2018. His designated successor, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, is a dour Marxist apparatchik with questionable political staying power. For the first time since the 1959 revolution, Cuba will not be led by a Castro. How will the U.S. deal with it?

Trump has issued conflicting signals. He told CNN earlier this year that he would “probably” maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, but added vaguely that he would insist on “much better deals than we’re making.” But he took a tougher line in a campaign stop in Miami several weeks ago, saying, “All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands.” Vice President–elect Mike Pence repeated that position on Twitter, asserting that Trump would rescind President Obama’s executive orders without “real political and religious freedom” in Cuba.

With the news of Fidel’s death, Trump issued a statement denouncing his legacy “of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” That tough talk caters to the anti-Castro political right, which includes many, mainly older, Cuban Americans. Polls show, however, that a large majority of Americans and now most Cuban Americans favor normalization.

So does the U.S. business community. According to the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), Cuba, which imports 80 percent of its food, is a $1.7 billion market for agricultural products. Last year, the U.S. Commerce Department issued approvals for business transactions worth $4.3 billion, up by a third from the previous year. Tourism will doubtless surge in the years ahead regardless of the fifty-six-year-old official ban that is still in place. Remittances from the United States, estimated at $3 billion for 2015, play a significant role in Cuba’s state-controlled economy.

USACC, whose membership includes agricultural conglomerates Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and Sun-Maid, is devoting serious money to lobby Congress to lift the embargo and fully normalize relations. So is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Cuba Opportunity Summit will hold its third convention next spring at NASDAQ headquarters to explore expanded business opportunities with Cuba. Tickets go for between $995 and $1,695, and interest in the first two conventions was so strong that applicants had to be waitlisted.

How will Trump respond to this kind of commercial momentum? Will we see the pro–tourism development, hotel-building Trump, or the right-wing appeaser Trump? American leverage can be a carrot or a stick. The latter approach was pursued by ten presidents, starting with Dwight Eisenhower, and accomplished little more than allowing the Castros to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for Cuba’s mismanaged economy. The former approach, however, enables the U.S. to gain leverage by being involved with Cuban society at multiple levels, ranging from trade and investment to cooperation on migration and law enforcement to people-to-people contacts. It was easier for Havana to thumb its nose at American interests when there was near-zero U.S. economic and commercial involvement in the island. Major American involvement in Cuba’s economy, in particular, will deepen Cuba’s integration into the global economy, raising the stakes for both sides and tempering political relations. The Trump administration needs to realize that allowing Cuba policy to be haunted by Fidel Castro’s ghost is a bad idea. American business interests will resist it, and both the Cuban and American people deserve better.

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler, Part II


SHPIONOV: I don't like having to be your caddy. I am a professional, an important man back in Moscow. And being exposed for the world to see us on these golf links is very bad tradecraft.

TRUMP: You kiddin' me? Why, this is great cover for you. After all, I'm meeting Tom Jones, sales rep for Golf Balls International, aren't I? By the way, did you see the ass on that cocktail waitress? We have a strict hiring policy here at Mar-a-Lago. The babes must all be hot. And no broad serving the public over 35. We're doing the same policy at the White House when I take over. And I'm making sure Andy Puzder gets the message so he's prepared when confirmed as Labor Secretary.

SHPIONOV: (speechless - mouth agape) Uh, let us stay on track, shall we? We have important business to discuss. And, besides, I hear thunder in the distance.

TRUMP: I've gotta get the ball over that hill. A Michael Barrymore please.

SHPIONOV: I'm sorry. I don't understand.

TRUMP: You Russkies really are dumber than dirt, aren't you? I'm saying, hand me a 4-iron.

SHPIONOV: (fumbles in golf bag) Here.

TRUMP: (holding club - checking distance) “Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air.” Who said that?

SHPIONOV: (shrugs)

TRUMP: Jack Benny.

SHPIONOV: (shrugs again)

TRUMP: Like I said about Russkies... (swings - watches ball - stomps foot) Shit. A Rock Hudson.

SHPIONOV: (shakes head)

TRUMP: You really need to improve your English, Boris. Thought it was straight but it wasn’t. Get it?

SHPIONOV: (ignores comment - looks at watch) My name is Sergei. You see that Vladimir Vladimirovich has not retaliated to Obama's stupid order to expel 35 of our diplomats.

TRUMP: Spies.

SHPIONOV: Embassy personnel.

TRUMP: Whatever.

SHPIONOV: So, Moscow has asked me to ask you what you will do when you take office?

TRUMP: You mean, about the spies?

SHPIONOV: Diplo- ...Whatever.

TRUMP: I'll pull a Mulligan.

SHPIONOV: (scratches sunburnt bald head).

TRUMP: A second chance. I'll let them all come back.

SHPIONOV: Well, Vladimir Vladimirovich has another idea. Since your fellow Republicans in Congress likely would not go along with that, he was thinking of a bigger idea, one that would put relations between our two countries on a better footing.

TRUMP: (handing back the 4-iron) Okay, I'm game.

SHPIONOV: We propose a comprehensive U.S.-Russia Friendship Treaty.

TRUMP: Okay, Boris. Sounds good. But also acey-deucy (climbs in golf cart).

SHPIONOV: Please stick to standard English. That thunder is getting closer. Shouldn't we...?

TRUMP: Climb in Boris. Gotta pull off an Adolf Hitler before the storm arrives.

SHPIONOV: Hitler?! What?!

TRUMP: Two shots to get out of the bunker. Get it?

SHPIONOV: Ah, yes. Funny. So, this treaty. America will recognize Crimea belongs to Russia. NATO will kick the Baltic countries out. And you will accept that Ukraine will again be a Soviet...er, I mean a republic within the Russian Federation.

TRUMP: I'm married to a Slovenian. The women there are like their food. Once you've had a sample, you don't want any more.

SHPIONOV: (speechless again)

TRUMP: Meaning you ever see Miss Ukraine win a Miss Universe Pageant?

SHPIONOV: I don't know.

TRUMP: Take my word for it. No. You guys can have the Ukraine. (thunder clap) Okay Boris, time to run like a sailor's dick.

SHPIONOV: (exasperated). давайте убираться отсюда!

See also:

A Conversation Between Donald Trump and His KGB Handler, Part I