The Administration's plan for Iran.
In the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh writes:
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,” Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.” He the concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.
The President’s position, and its corollary—that, if many of America’s problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.
The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.
During a secure videoconference that took place early this summer, the President told Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that he was thinking of hitting Iranian targets across the border and that the British “were on board.” At that point, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice interjected that there was a need to proceed carefully, because of the ongoing diplomatic track. Bush ended by instructing Crocker to tell Iran to stop interfering in Iraq or it would face American retribution.
At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the Administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the Administration could say, “Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives.” The former intelligence official added, “There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, ‘You can’t do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we’re only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.’ But Cheney doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President.”
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “The President has made it clear that the United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution with respect to Iran. The State Department is working diligently along with the international community to address our broad range of concerns.” (The White House declined to comment.)
I was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the “execute order” that would be required for a military operation inside Iran, and such an order may never be issued. But there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning. In mid-August, senior officials told reporters that the Administration intended to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. And two former senior officials of the C.I.A. told me that, by late summer, the agency had increased the size and the authority of the Iranian Operations Group. (A spokesman for the agency said, “The C.I.A. does not, as a rule, publicly discuss the relative size of its operational components.”)
“They’re moving everybody to the Iran desk,” one recently retired C.I.A. official said. “They’re dragging in a lot of analysts and ramping up everything. It’s just like the fall of 2002”—the months before the invasion of Iraq, when the Iraqi Operations Group became the most important in the agency. He added, “The guys now running the Iranian program have limited direct experience with Iran. In the event of an attack, how will the Iranians react? They will react, and the Administration has not thought it all the way through.”
That theme was echoed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national-security adviser, who said that he had heard discussions of the White House’s more limited bombing plans for Iran. Brzezinski said that Iran would likely react to an American attack “by intensifying the conflict in Iraq and also in Afghanistan, their neighbors, and that could draw in Pakistan. We will be stuck in a regional war for twenty years.”
In a speech at the United Nations last week, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was defiant. He referred to America as an “aggressor” state, and said, “How can the incompetents who cannot even manage and control themselves rule humanity and arrange its affairs? Unfortunately, they have put themselves in the position of God.” (The day before, at Columbia, he suggested that the facts of the Holocaust still needed to be determined.)
“A lot depends on how stupid the Iranians will be,” Brzezinski told me. “Will they cool off Ahmadinejad and tone down their language?” The Bush Administration, by charging that Iran was interfering in Iraq, was aiming “to paint it as ‘We’re responding to what is an intolerable situation,’ ” Brzezinski said. “This time, unlike the attack in Iraq, we’re going to play the victim. The name of our game seems to be to get the Iranians to overplay their hand.”
General David Petraeus, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, in his report to Congress in September, buttressed the Administration’s case against Iran. “None of us, earlier this year, appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq’s leaders all now have greater concern,” he said. Iran, Petraeus said, was fighting “a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.
Iran has had a presence in Iraq for decades; the extent and the purpose of its current activities there are in dispute, however. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, when the Sunni-dominated Baath Party brutally oppressed the majority Shiites, Iran supported them. Many in the present Iraqi Shiite leadership, including prominent members of the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, spent years in exile in Iran; last week, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Maliki said, according to the Washington Post, that Iraq’s relations with the Iranians had “improved to the point that they are not interfering in our internal affairs.” Iran is so entrenched in Iraqi Shiite circles that any “proxy war” could be as much through the Iraqi state as against it. The crux of the Bush Administration’s strategic dilemma is that its decision to back a Shiite-led government after the fall of Saddam has empowered Iran, and made it impossible to exclude Iran from the Iraqi political scene.
Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, who is an expert on Iran and Shiism, told me, “Between 2003 and 2006, the Iranians thought they were closest to the United States on the issue of Iraq.” The Iraqi Shia religious leadership encouraged Shiites to avoid confrontation with American soldiers and to participate in elections—believing that a one-man, one-vote election process could only result in a Shia-dominated government. Initially, the insurgency was mainly Sunni, especially Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nasr told me that Iran’s policy since 2003 has been to provide funding, arms, and aid to several Shiite factions—including some in Maliki’s coalition. The problem, Nasr said, is that “once you put the arms on the ground you cannot control how they’re used later.”
In the Shiite view, the White House “only looks at Iran’s ties to Iraq in terms of security,” Nasr said. “Last year, over one million Iranians travelled to Iraq on pilgrimages, and there is more than a billion dollars a year in trading between the two countries. But the Americans act as if every Iranian inside Iraq were there to import weapons.”
Many of those who support the President’s policy argue that Iran poses an imminent threat. In a recent essay in Commentary, Norman Podhoretz depicted President Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary, “like Hitler . . . whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it . . . with a new order dominated by Iran. . . . [T]he plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force.” Podhoretz concluded, “I pray with all my heart” that President Bush “will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel.” Podhoretz recently told politico.com that he had met with the President for about forty-five minutes to urge him to take military action against Iran, and believed that “Bush is going to hit” Iran before leaving office. (Podhoretz, one of the founders of neoconservatism, is a strong backer of Rudolph Giuliani’s Presidential campaign, and his son-in-law, Elliott Abrams, is a senior adviser to President Bush on national security.)
In early August, Army Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Times about an increase in attacks involving explosively formed penetrators, a type of lethal bomb that discharges a semi-molten copper slug that can rip through the armor of Humvees. The Times reported that U.S. intelligence and technical analyses indicated that Shiite militias had obtained the bombs from Iran. Odierno said that Iranians had been “surging support” over the past three or four months.
Questions remain, however, about the provenance of weapons in Iraq, especially given the rampant black market in arms. David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by “the huge amounts of arms” it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country. He recalled seeing stockpiles of explosively formed penetrators, as well as charges that had been recovered from unexploded American cluster bombs. Arms had also been supplied years ago by the Iranians to their Shiite allies in southern Iraq who had been persecuted by the Baath Party.
“I thought Petraeus went way beyond what Iran is doing inside Iraq today,” Kay said. “When the White House started its anti-Iran campaign, six months ago, I thought it was all craziness. Now it does look like there is some selective smuggling by Iran, but much of it has been in response to American pressure and American threats—more a ‘shot across the bow’ sort of thing, to let Washington know that it was not going to get away with its threats so freely. Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.”
Another element of the Administration’s case against Iran is the presence of Iranian agents in Iraq. General Petraeus, testifying before Congress, said that a commando faction of the Revolutionary Guards was seeking to turn its allies inside Iraq into a “Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests.” In August, Army Major General Rick Lynch, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters in Baghdad that his troops were tracking some fifty Iranian men sent by the Revolutionary Guards who were training Shiite insurgents south of Baghdad. “We know they’re here and we target them as well,” he said.
Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me that “there are a lot of Iranians at any time inside Iraq, including those doing intelligence work and those doing humanitarian missions. It would be prudent for the Administration to produce more evidence of direct military training—or produce fighters captured in Iraq who had been trained in Iran.” He added, “It will be important for the Iraqi government to be able to state that they were unaware of this activity”; otherwise, given the intense relationship between the Iraqi Shiite leadership and Tehran, the Iranians could say that “they had been asked by the Iraqi government to train these people.” (In late August, American troops raided a Baghdad hotel and arrested a group of Iranians. They were a delegation from Iran’s energy ministry, and had been invited to Iraq by the Maliki government; they were later released.)
“If you want to attack, you have to prepare the groundwork, and you have to be prepared to show the evidence,” Clawson said. Adding to the complexity, he said, is a question that seems almost counterintuitive: “What is the attitude of Iraq going to be if we hit Iran? Such an attack could put a strain on the Iraqi government.”
A senior European diplomat, who works closely with American intelligence, told me that there is evidence that Iran has been making extensive preparation for an American bombing attack. “We know that the Iranians are strengthening their air-defense capabilities,” he said, “and we believe they will react asymmetrically—hitting targets in Europe and in Latin America.” There is also specific intelligence suggesting that Iran will be aided in these attacks by Hezbollah. “Hezbollah is capable, and they can do it,” the diplomat said.
In interviews with current and former officials, there were repeated complaints about the paucity of reliable information. A former high-level C.I.A. official said that the intelligence about who is doing what inside Iran “is so thin that nobody even wants his name on it. This is the problem.”
The difficulty of determining who is responsible for the chaos in Iraq can be seen in Basra, in the Shiite south, where British forces have earlier presided over relatively secure area. Over the course of this year, however, the region became increasingly ungovernable, and by fall the British had retreated to fixed bases. A European official who has access to current intelligence told me that “there is a firm belief inside the American and U.K. intelligence community that Iran is supporting many of the groups in southern Iraq that are responsible for the deaths of British and American soldiers. Weapons and money are getting in from Iran. They have been able to penetrate many groups”—primarily the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias.
A June, 2007, report by the International Crisis Group found, however, that Basra’s renewed instability was mainly the result of “the systematic abuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias.” The report added that leading Iraqi politicians and officials “routinely invoke the threat of outside interference”—from bordering Iran—“to justify their behavior or evade responsibility for their failures.”
Earlier this year, before the surge in U.S. troops, the American command in Baghdad changed what had been a confrontational policy in western Iraq, the Sunni heartland (and the base of the Baathist regime), and began working with the Sunni tribes, including some tied to the insurgency. Tribal leaders are now getting combat support as well as money, intelligence, and arms, ostensibly to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Empowering Sunni forces may undermine efforts toward national reconciliation, however. Already, tens of thousands of Shiites have fled Anbar Province, many to Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, while Sunnis have been forced from their homes in Shiite communities. Vali Nasr, of Tufts, called the internal displacement of communities in Iraq a form of “ethnic cleansing.”
“The American policy of supporting the Sunnis in western Iraq is making the Shia leadership very nervous,” Nasr said. “The White House makes it seem as if the Shia were afraid only of Al Qaeda—but they are afraid of the Sunni tribesmen we are arming. The Shia attitude is ‘So what if you’re getting rid of Al Qaeda?’ The problem of Sunni resistance is still there. The Americans believe they can distinguish between good and bad insurgents, but the Shia don’t share that distinction. For the Shia, they are all one adversary.”
Nasr went on, “The United States is trying to fight on all sides—Sunni and Shia—and be friends with all sides.” In the Shiite view, “It’s clear that the United States cannot bring security to Iraq, because it is not doing everything necessary to bring stability. If they did, they would talk to anybody to achieve it—even Iran and Syria,” Nasr said. (Such engagement was a major recommendation of the Iraq Study Group.) “America cannot bring stability in Iraq by fighting Iran in Iraq.”
The revised bombing plan for a possible attack, with its tightened focus on counterterrorism, is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon. The strategy calls for the use of sea-launched cruise missiles and more precisely targeted ground attacks and bombing strikes, including plans to destroy the most important Revolutionary Guard training camps, supply depots, and command and control facilities.
“Cheney’s option is now for a fast in and out—for surgical strikes,” the former senior American intelligence official told me. The Joint Chiefs have turned to the Navy, he said, which had been chafing over its role in the Air Force-dominated air war in Iraq. “The Navy’s planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They’ve got everything they need—even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed. The Navy is flying FA-18 missions every day in the Gulf.” There are also plans to hit Iran’s anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile sites. “We’ve got to get a path in and a path out,” the former official said.
A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called “short, sharp incursions” by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, “Cheney is devoted to this, no question.”
A limited bombing attack of this sort “only makes sense if the intelligence is good,” the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing “will start as limited, but then there will be an ‘escalation special.’ Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there. The goal will be to hit the cue ball one time and have all the balls go in the pocket. But add-ons are always there in strike planning.”
The surgical-strike plan has been shared with some of America’s allies, who have had mixed reactions to it. Israel’s military and political leaders were alarmed, believing, the consultant said, that it didn’t sufficiently target Iran’s nuclear facilities. The White House has been reassuring the Israeli government, the former senior official told me, that the more limited target list would still serve the goal of counter-proliferation by decapitating the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to have direct control over the nuclear-research program. “Our theory is that if we do the attacks as planned it will accomplish two things,” the former senior official said.
An Israeli official said, “Our main focus has been the Iranian nuclear facilities, not because other things aren’t important. We’ve worked on missile technology and terrorism, but we see the Iranian nuclear issue as one that cuts across everything.” Iran, he added, does not need to develop an actual warhead to be a threat. “Our problems begin when they learn and master the nuclear fuel cycle and when they have the nuclear materials,” he said. There was, for example, the possibility of a “dirty bomb,” or of Iran’s passing materials to terrorist groups. “There is still time for diplomacy to have an impact, but not a lot,” the Israeli official said. “We believe the technological timetable is moving faster than the diplomatic timetable. And if diplomacy doesn’t work, as they say, all options are on the table.”
The bombing plan has had its most positive reception from the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A senior European official told me, “The British perception is that the Iranians are not making the progress they want to see in their nuclear-enrichment processing. All the intelligence community agree that Iran is providing critical assistance training, and technology to a surprising number of terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, too.
There were four possible responses to this Iranian activity, the European official said: to do nothing (“There would be no retaliation to the Iranians for their attacks; this would be sending the wrong signal”); to publicize the Iranian actions (“There is one great difficulty with this option—the widespread lack of faith in American intelligence assessments”); to attack the Iranians operating inside Iraq (“We’ve been taking action since last December, and it does have an effect”); or, finally, to attack inside Iran.
The European official continued, “A major air strike against Iran could well lead to a rallying around the flag there, but a very careful targeting of terrorist training camps might not.” His view, he said, was that “once the Iranians get a bloody nose they rethink things.” For example, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani, two of Iran’s most influential political figures, “might go to the Supreme Leader and say, ‘The hard-line policies have got us into this mess. We must change our approach for the sake of the regime.’ ”
A retired American four-star general with close ties to the British military told me that there was another reason for Britain’s interest—shame over the failure of the Royal Navy to protect the sailors and Royal Marines who were seized by Iran on March 23rd, in the Persian Gulf. “The professional guys are saying that British honor is at stake, and if there’s another event like that in the water off Iran the British will hit back,” he said.
The revised bombing plan “could work—if it’s in response to an Iranian attack,” the retired four-star general said. “The British may want to do it to get even, but the more reasonable people are saying, ‘Let’s do it if the Iranians stage a cross-border attack inside Iraq.’ It’s got to be ten dead American soldiers and four burned trucks.” There is, he added, “a widespread belief in London that Tony Blair’s government was sold a bill of goods by the White House in the buildup to the war against Iraq. So if somebody comes into Gordon Brown’s office and says, ‘We have this intelligence from America,’ Brown will ask, ‘Where did it come from? Have we verified it?’ The burden of proof is high.”
The French government shares the Administration’s sense of urgency about Iran’s nuclear program, and believes that Iran will be able to produce a warhead within two years. France’s newly elected President, Nicolas Sarkozy, created a stir in late August when he warned that Iran could be attacked if it did not halt is nuclear program. Nonetheless, France has indicated to the White House that it has doubts about a limited strike, the former senior intelligence official told me. Many in the French government have concluded that the Bush Administration has exaggerated the extent of Iranian meddling inside Iraq; they believe, according to a European diplomat, that “the American problems in Iraq are due to their own mistakes, and now the Americans are trying to show some teeth. An American bombing will show only that the Bush Administration has its own agenda toward Iran.”
A European intelligence official made a similar point. “If you attack Iran,” he told me, “and do not label it as being against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will strengthen the regime, and help to make the Islamic air in the Middle East thicker.”
Ahmadinejad, in his speech at the United Nations, said that Iran considered the dispute over its nuclear program “closed.” Iran would deal with it only through the International Atomic Energy Agency, he said, and had decided to “disregard unlawful and political impositions of the arrogant powers.” He added, in a press conference after the speech, “the decisions of the United States and France are not important.”
The director general of the I.A.E.A., Mohamed ElBaradei, has for years been in an often bitter public dispute with the Bush Administration; the agency’s most recent report found that Iran was far less proficient in enriching uranium than expected. A diplomat in Vienna, where the I.A.E.A. is based, said, “The Iranians are years away from making a bomb, as ElBaradei has said all along. Running three thousand centrifuges does not make a bomb.” The diplomat added, referring to hawks in the Bush Administration, “They don’t like ElBaradei, because they are in a state of denial. And now their negotiating policy has failed, and Iran is still enriching uranium and still making progress.”
The diplomat expressed the bitterness that has marked the I.A.E.A.’s dealings with the Bush Administration since the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The White House’s claims were all a pack of lies, and Mohamed is dismissive of those lies,” the diplomat said.
Hans Blix, a former head of the I.A.E.A., questioned the Bush Administration’s commitment to diplomacy. “There are important cards that Washington could play; instead, they have three aircraft carriers sitting in the Persian Gulf,” he said. Speaking of Iran’s role in Iraq, Blix added, “My impression is that the United States has been trying to push up the accusations against Iran as a basis for a possible attack—as an excuse for jumping on them.”
The Iranian leadership is feeling the pressure. In the press conference after his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad was asked about a possible attack. “The want to hurt us,” he said, “but, with the will of God, they won’t be able to do it.” According to a former State Department adviser on Iran, the Iranians complained, in diplomatic meetings in Baghdad with Ambassador Crocker, about a refusal by the Bush Administration to take advantage of their knowledge of the Iraqi political scene. The former adviser said, “They’ve been trying to convey to the United States that ‘We can help you in Iraq. Nobody knows Iraq better than us.’ ” Instead, the Iranians are preparing for an American attack.
The adviser said that he had heard from a source in Iran that the Revolutionary Guards have been telling religious leaders that they can stand up to an American attack. “The Guards are claiming that they can infiltrate American security,” the adviser said. “They are bragging that they have spray-painted an American warship—to signal the Americans that they can get close to them.” (I was told by the former senior intelligence official that there was an unexplained incident, this spring, in which an American warship was spray-painted with a bull’s-eye while docked in Qatar, which may have been the source of the boasts.)
“Do you think those crazies in Tehran are going to say, ‘Uncle Sam is here! We’d better stand down’? ” the former senior intelligence official said. “The reality is an attack will make things ten times warmer.”
Another recent incident, in Afghanistan, reflects the tension over intelligence. In July, the London Telegraph reported that what appeared to be an SA-7 shoulder-launched missile was fired at an American C-130 Hercules aircraft. The missile missed its mark. Months earlier, British commandos had intercepted a few truckloads of weapons, including one containing a working SA-7 missile, coming across the Iranian border. But there was no way of determining whether the missile fired at the C-130 had come from Iran—especially since SA-7s are available through black-market arms dealers.
Vincent Cannistraro, a retired C.I.A. officer who has worked closely with his counterparts in Britain, added to the story: “The Brits told me that they were afraid at first to tell us about the incident—in fear that Cheney would use it as a reason to attack Iran.” The intelligence subsequently was forwarded, he said.
The retired four-star general confirmed that British intelligence “was worried” about passing the information along. “The Brits don’t trust the Iranians,” the retired general said, “but they also don’t trust Bush and Cheney.”
Sunday, September 30, 2007
The Administration's plan for Iran.
The New York Times reports:
Freedom’s Watch, a deep-pocketed conservative group led by two former senior White House officials, made an audacious debut in late August when it began a $15 million advertising campaign designed to maintain Congressional support for President Bush’s troop increase in Iraq.
Founded this summer by a dozen wealthy conservatives, the nonprofit group is set apart from most advocacy groups by the immense wealth of its core group of benefactors, its intention to far outspend its rivals and its ambition to pursue a wide-ranging agenda. Its next target: Iran policy.
Next month, Freedom’s Watch will sponsor a private forum of 20 experts on radical Islam that is expected to make the case that Iran poses a direct threat to the security of the United States, according to several benefactors of the group.
Although the group declined to identify the experts, several were invited from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group with close ties to the White House. Some institute scholars have advocated a more confrontational policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, including keeping military action as an option.
Last week, a Freedom’s Watch newspaper advertisement called President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran “a terrorist.” The group is considering a national advertising campaign focused on Iran, a senior benefactor said, though Matt S. David, a spokesman for the group, declined to comment on those plans.
“If Hitler’s warnings were heeded when he wrote ‘Mein Kampf,’ he could have been stopped,” said Bradley Blakeman, 49, the president of Freedom’s Watch and a former deputy assistant to Mr. Bush. “Ahmadinejad is giving all the same kind of warning signs to us, and the region — he wants the destruction of the United States and the destruction of Israel.”
With a forceful message and a roster of wealthy benefactors, Freedom’s Watch has quickly emerged from the crowded field of nonprofit advocacy groups as a conservative answer to the nine-year-old liberal MoveOn.org, which vehemently opposes the Iraq war.
The idea for Freedom’s Watch was hatched in March at the winter meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Manalapan, Fla., where Vice President Dick Cheney was the keynote speaker, according to participants. Next week, the group is moving into a 10,000-square-foot office in the Chinatown section of Washington, with plans to employ as many as 50 people by early next year.
One benefactor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the group was hoping to raise as much as $200 million by November 2008. Raising big money “will be easy,” the benefactor said, adding that several of the founders each wrote a check for $1 million. Mr. Blakeman would not confirm or deny whether any donor gave $1 million, or more, to the organization.
Since the group is organized as a tax-exempt organization, it does not have to reveal its donors and it can not engage in certain types of partisan activities that directly support political candidates. It denies coordinating its activities with the White House, although many of its donors and organizers are well connected to the administration, including Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary.
“Ideologically, we are inspired by much of Ronald Reagan’s thinking — peace through strength, protect and defend America, and prosperity through free enterprise,” Mr. Fleischer said.
Among the group’s founders are Sheldon G. Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, who ranks sixth on the Forbes Magazine list of the world’s billionaires; Mel Sembler, a shopping center magnate based in St. Petersburg, Fla., who served as the ambassador to Italy and Australia; John M. Templeton Jr., the conservative philanthropist from Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and Anthony H. Gioia, a former ambassador to Malta who heads an investment group based in Buffalo, N.Y. All four men are long-time prolific donors who have raised money on behalf of Republican and conservative causes.
For years, the group’s founders lamented MoveOn’s growing influence, derived in large part from its grass-roots efforts, especially on the debate about the Iraq war. “A bunch of us activists kept watching MoveOn and its attacks on the war, and it just got to be obnoxious,” said Mr. Sembler, a friend of Vice President Dick Cheney. “We decided we needed to do something about this, because the conservative side was not responding.”
Mr. Sembler, who is on the board of directors of the American Enterprise Institute, said the impetus for Freedom’s Watch “came out of A.E.I.” last winter. He said that at an institute event in December 2006 he listened to retired Gen. Jack Keane and Frederick W. Kagan, an A.E.I. scholar, talk about the need for a troop increase in Iraq, a plan adopted by Mr. Bush in January. “I realized it was not only what we needed to do,” Mr. Sembler said, “but we needed to articulate this message across the country.”
Mr. Sembler also said he was frustrated that he heard reports at institute events earlier this year that the increase was working, but that the news media was not reflecting the progress.
Mr. Fleischer said: “After the president announced the surge, and even Republicans started getting nervous, there was a palpable fear among several of us that this fall Congress was going to cut off the funding and the Middle East would explode and America would likely get hit. It really wasn’t much more complicated than that.”
Over the summer, Mr. Fleischer and the other founders recruited a president, choosing Mr. Blakeman, who served as a deputy assistant to the president in charge of scheduling and appointments. In 2000, Mr. Blakeman led the Bush-Cheney campaign’s public relations effort during the 36 days of the deadlocked election. He left the White House in January 2004.
Mr. Blakeman and Mr. Fleischer said they intended to turn Freedom’s Watch into a permanent fixture among Washington advocacy groups, waging a “never-ending campaign” on an array of foreign policy and domestic issues. They also hope to build an active, grass-roots support network.
But Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org, which was founded in 1998 by two Silicon Valley venture capitalists, said he doubted the group’s ability to meet that goal.
“This is the fourth or the fifth group that intends to be the right-wing MoveOn,” Mr. Pariser said, naming other fledgling groups like TheVanguard.org and Grassfire.org. “So far, it’s not clear that this group is anything other than a big neoconservative slush fund. They are a White House front group with a few consultants who are trying to make a very unpopular position on the war appear more palpable.”
Like Freedom’s Watch, MoveOn had its origins in an attempt by wealthy political donors, including George Soros, to shape the debate in Washington. MoveOn began shortly after the Starr report was delivered to Congress in September 1998, detailing accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice against President Bill Clinton.
Already, Freedom’s Watch and MoveOn have clashed through competing advertisements over Gen. David H. Petraeus’s war progress report to Congress earlier this month.
In one Freedom’s Watch ad, Sgt. John Kriesel, a National Guardsman from Stillwater, Minn., who lost his legs in a bomb attack near Falluja, pleads with Congress and the American people not to “surrender” in Iraq. As the screen shows a still photograph of the second hijacked plane bearing down on the burning World Trade Center, Sergeant Kriesel adds, “They attacked us, and they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq.”
Several of the group’s spots suggested that Iraq, rather than Al Qaeda, was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, even though the independent Sept. 11 commission investigation and other inquiries found no evidence of Iraq’s involvement. But in August, when the organization rolled out the advertisement with Sergeant Kriesel to two focus groups in Pennsylvania, its upbeat, patriotic message was well received, even causing a few viewers to weep, Mr. Blakeman said.
“The focus groups couldn’t tell whether it was a Republican ad or a Democratic ad,” he said. “It was the voice of a soldier, and that’s the message we want to deliver to Americans: listen to the opinions of real people.”
The campaign was seen as a way to head off any momentum in Congress toward halting the financing for the Iraq war. The group’s advertisements, placed in nearly 60 Congressional districts in 23 states, targeted wavering moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Freedom’s Watch also pounced on MoveOn.org’s full-page “General Betray Us” advertisement published Sept. 10 in The New York Times. Mr. Bush called the advertisement “disgusting.” Both chambers of Congress passed resolutions condemning the advertisement. The New York Times was also embroiled in the debate after giving MoveOn a discounted price for the advertisement, which the newspaper later acknowledged was a mistake. MoveOn has since agreed to pay the difference.
That advertisement, Mr. Blakeman said, “was an unexpected gift,” allowing Freedom’s Watch to “take the high road” and demonstrate that it is a “conservative voice that is not divisive.”
Mr. Pariser, of MoveOn, said his group’s grass-roots membership — it claims 3.3 million members — was the envy of Freedom’s Watch. “I think people see that Freedom’s Watch is a few billionaires, and not a large, mainstream constituency,” he said.
Mr. Blakeman denied the accusation that Freedom’s Watch is a White House front group. “I don’t need their help,” he said of his former colleagues at the White House. “I don’t seek their help. And they don’t offer it.” Mr. Blakeman is a long-time friend of Ed Gillespie, the new counselor to Mr. Bush who succeeded Dan Bartlett. Mr. Blakeman said that he speaks with Mr. Gillespie, but that they are careful not to discuss the activities of Freedom’s Watch.
Mr. Fleischer said Freedom’s Watch was not coordinating with the White House and had an agenda beyond the Bush administration. “On Jan. 21, 2009, what will these critics say when we are still here, doing the same thing?” he said. “We will still be here after George Bush is gone.”
Saturday, September 29, 2007
By the time Congress finishes a supplemental spending plan for the Iraq War, senior Democrats say, it is likely that voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will have made their choice on White House hopefuls.
The “Super Tuesday” primaries probably will be over, too.
Congressional Quarterly reports:
That political calendar — combined with the reality of how hard it is for Democrats to get left and center to agree — has caused some senior lawmakers to conclude that Congress will soon end up letting the parties’ presidential candidates take the lead on Iraq policy.
“The outcome of the presidential primaries will help to bring focus to the debate on Iraq in Congress,” said Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., agreed, saying, “There’s no question that the presumptive presidential nominee will carry a lot of influence on the Iraq debate.”
Murtha, a close adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said he has advised the leadership to put off the supplemental spending debate until early 2008 to allow time for Democrats to form more consensus on Iraq.
The supplemental will be the vehicle for the big showdown on whether to continue funding for the war, and “it will be decided in January or early February,” he said.
Congress has a target adjournment of Nov. 16, and there won’t be any urgency to make a decision before January, Murtha argued. “There is enough money in the pipeline until then,” he said.
The leadership is not willing at this stage to be pinned down on a timetable for the supplemental. “We will be discussing it over the next few weeks,” Hoyer said. There are a lot of factors. I don’t want to pinpoint any one factor.”
But senior appropriators James P. Moran, D-Va., and David E. Price, D-N.C., said Murtha’s opinion would carry considerable weight. “The short answer is we will probably follow Mr. Murtha’s advice,” said John B. Larson of Connecticut, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., confirmed that the supplemental had no place on the immediate floor calender and said it was unclear when it would go to the floor.
Liberals, Republicans Want Action
But the push to delay action on funding has run into flak from liberal Democrats, who fear they are losing votes for their position.
“I would like to see the showdown now, rather than waiting until next year,’’ said Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.
Some Republicans also criticized the notion.
“I’d like to see the Democrats move the supplemental as soon as possible. They should not be playing politics with this,’’ said Eric Cantor, R-Va., the chief deputy whip.
“I think it’s inane for us to wait,” said Jerry Lewis of California, ranking Republican on Appropriations.
But Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, a moderate who is not running again, predicted that many Republicans would welcome putting off further showdowns on Iraq until the winners for each party emerge from the primaries.
“Each party will be looking for its presumptive leader to begin to lead at that point,” she said. “The Democrats almost already have that in Hillary [Clinton]. I hope that the candidates for both parties will help to move us to the center.”
Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., also predicted a softening of the debate’s ideological edges.
“By early next year, there will be a coming together [for] both parties and their presidential candidates. And they will be moving to the center on Iraq and other issues. By March, it will all be about presidential politics,” he said.
Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Republicans would closely watch where the front-runners for the two parties line up on Iraq after Super Tuesday, on Feb. 5.
“A lot will depend on the situation [in Iraq] at the time. And a lot will depend on what the presidential candidates are saying about Iraq after Feb. 5,” Blunt said.
Clinton, New York’s junior senator and the front-runner so far for the Democratic presidential nomination, said on “Meet the Press” on Sept. 23 that she would vote against the next supplemental “because I think that it’s the only way that we can demonstrate clearly that we have to change direction.”
But she has also distanced herself from proposals that would rapidly reduce troop levels and end the war next year.
At the Democratic presidential debate in Hanover, N.H., on Sept. 26, she said it would be “my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term.”
But she and the two other Democratic front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (1999-2005), declined to promise that all troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of their first term.
The leading GOP presidential candidates — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson (1995-2003) of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — have allowed little daylight between themselves and Bush on the war. Only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who trails in polls, has taken a strong anti-war stand with his proposal (HR 2605) to end the authorization for the war (PL 107-243).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he believed that the Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate — who also include Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut — were already having a big impact on the Iraq debate by promoting their own initiatives.
Reid said he had made no decision on when the supplemental would move but added that the emergence of a presumptive Democratic nominee would help build consensus on Iraq.
Plus, he said, “It will take a lot of attention off of me, which will be nice.”
The International Herald Tribune reports:
A small group of Republicans facing election fights next year have rallied around war legislation they think could unite the party: Call for an end to U.S. combat in Iraq, but wait until President George W. Bush is almost out of office.
The majority Democrats deemed the proposal a nonstarter and underscored on Friday the difficulty Congress has in striking a bipartisan compromise about the war. What attracts Democrats has repelled Republicans and vice versa, making it impossible so far to find middle ground.
"I don't support it at all," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "It doesn't do anything."
The proposal, by Republican Sen. George Voinovich, would require that Bush change the mission of U.S. troops from combat to primarily support roles, such as training Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. infrastructure in Iraq. His legislation would set a goal of completing such a mission transition within 15 months.
If enacted immediately, that timeline would not kick in until Bush's last couple of weeks in office.
"That's very courageous," Reid quipped when a reporter asked him Friday about the proposal.
Co-sponsors of the bill include Sen. Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole and Norm Coleman, all Republicans. Of the sponsors, only Voinovich is not up for re-election in 2008.
In response to Reid's rejection, a Voinovich spokesman said the senator "will continue to work for a bipartisan, nonpolitical compromise so our nation finally speaks with one voice."
Likewise, Alexander said the country is ready for consensus on the war.
"It is inexcusable for the Senate to keep lecturing Baghdad about being in a political stalemate when we continue to be stuck in our own political stalemate on Iraq," he said in an e-mailed statement Friday.
The Senate is in the midst of wrapping up debate on a $672 billion (€474 billion) defense policy bill that would authorize more than a one-half trillion dollars (€350 billion) in annual defense spending and $150 billion (€106 billion) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including $23 billion (€16 billion) added for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles.
The bill, on track to be passed on Monday, also would make it easier for Iraqi refugees to apply for U.S. visas. An amendment by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, adopted on Thursday, would provide 5,000 special immigrant visas each year for five years; the new visas would be given to Iraqis who fear retribution because they worked for the U.S. government in Iraq.
Senate Democrats tried to attach legislation ordering an end to combat but repeatedly failed to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome parliamentary hurdles.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he worked closely with Voinovich until late Thursday in the hopes of striking a compromise. Levin wants to set the goal in nine months, but acknowledges he lacks the votes to pass it.
After Voinovich suggested extending the goal to 15 months, Democratic support dissipated, said Levin.
"To try to put this off until after the election, rather than a reasonable period of completion, I believe would be to unnecessarily introduce a political element to what is a bipartisan effort," he said.
Voinovich, Alexander and Coleman have been outspoken critics of Bush's war strategy, citing voter frustration with what they say seems an open-ended military commitment in Iraq. Coleman in particular has become a popular political target by anti-war groups hoping to replace him with a Democratic candidate willing to demand troop withdrawals.
But each of the Republican senators has rejected Democratic legislation that includes a timetable for troop withdrawals, contending they do not want to tie the hands of military generals and a wartime president.
While the defense policy bill approves war spending for next year, it does not guarantee it; Bush will have to wait for Congress to pass a separate appropriations bill that transfers money to the military's coffers.
Democratic leaders say the recent passage of a stopgap spending bill that funds the Pentagon at 2007 levels gives the military enough money to keep the war going for a few more months. A spending bill to pay for combat through next September might not be passed until early next year, officials said.
Killings of Iraqis led to court case.
The Boston Globe reports:
A military panel acquitted US Army Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval of two counts of murder yesterday, apparently swayed by testimony from fellow Army snipers that two Iraqi men were killed on orders from a higher-ranking soldier.
Sandoval was convicted of a less serious charge of planting detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it look like the victim was an insurgent. As a result, he still could face five years in prison. The seven-member jury deliberated less than two hours in clearing him of all but one charge.
Sandoval, 22, of Laredo, Texas, had faced five charges in the deaths of the two unidentified Iraqi men.
In dramatic testimony during the two-day court-martial, Sandoval's colleagues testified they were following orders when they shot the men during two separate events, on April 27 and May 11. The shootings took place near Iskandariyah, a volatile Sunni-dominated area 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Specialist Alexander Flores, of Hayward, Calif., who was in the same squad as Sandoval on the day of the April killing, testified their platoon leader said the suspect was "our guy" and ordered them to move in, which they interpreted as "take the target out."
The suspect, who wore dark clothing and used a sickle to cut grass in a field, matched the general description Iraqi soldiers had given the Americans of one of two insurgents they had faced earlier in the day, according to testimony.
After the killing, Flores said Staff Sergeant Michael Hensley told him to place the detonation wire on the body and in the man's pocket, which he said he did.
But prosecutors cited an interview with Sandoval immediately after his arrest in which he said he planted the wire.
Outside court, Flores stood by his testimony.
"He was just doing his job, as he was told. It's not his fault," said Flores, who, along with the rest of Sandoval's sniper platoon, greeted him with hugs and well wishes.
In the May shooting, Sergeant Evan Vela said Hensley told him to shoot a man who had stumbled upon their snipers' hideout, although he was not armed and had his hands in the air when he approached the soldiers.
"He [Hensley] asked me if I was ready. I had the pistol out. I heard the word shoot. I don't remember pulling the trigger. It took me a second to realize that the shot came from the pistol in my hand," Vela testified, crying.
Sandoval, who was charged with murder because prosecutors said he did nothing to stop the killing, also was acquitted yesterday of charges he planted the weapon on the second man's body.
Vela of Rigby, Idaho, and Hensley of Candler, N.C., are both charged in the case and will be tried separately.
All three soldiers are part of the 25th Infantry Division at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Friday, September 28, 2007
PM broadcast [MP3; text transcript]:
MARK COLVIN: It's a truism about the internet that, like the human body, it reacts to damage by creating pathways around it.
But in the case of Burma, where the country's main internet pipeline has actually been cut today, that may take a while.
Hours after the Internet stoppage became obvious, a Burmese official is now claiming that "the Internet is not working because the underwater cable is damaged".
But it's not just the cable. By a strange coincidence, an official at a Thai telecom that provides satellite services to Burma says it appears that internet services inside the country are down as well.
Since the Burmese military government won't let journalists in to see what's happening for themselves, those, like our Correspondent Karen Percy in Bangkok, who are trying to gain information from afar, are finding it even harder.
Karen joins me now.
But, Karen, I gather that some information, even with the internet down, is starting to leak out?
KAREN PERCY: Yes, we're starting to get some stories come across the wires. New video has also appeared. CNN has just showed some video. It is from yesterday, but apparently we are … there has been some way that the various people who've been feeding out information have been able to get around these restrictions.
We're in fact hearing that shots have been fired in Rangoon. We cannot confirm this at this stage. There are reports of hundreds or thousands, depending on who you believe, of crowds in the city, but we do know that also, going on what has happened in the past couple of days, that the security forces will be on the lookout for anybody breaching the various bans that the Junta has put on on gatherings and the like.
We are also hearing, via some internet websites, that troops are on their way to the city, troops … divisions from central Burma are on their way to Rangoon.
Now, there is an extraordinary … some speculation going on. In fact, a couple of these divisions may well be preparing to retaliate against the troops who are already in Rangoon.
I do stress this is unconfirmed, it is speculation, but I will also say that a lot of the rumours and speculation that we have heard over this past week or so have turned out to be true, but I will still caution, I guess, what is going on there. We're also hearing of military aircraft activity.
So there's certainly a sense that the Junta, there's activity, military activity, and the protesters are active again today. So confrontation of some sort is inevitable.
MARK COLVIN: Military aircraft activity, is that coming, for instance, from the … from surveillance by, from outside? Is it coming from the Thai Air Force or anything like that?
KAREN PERCY: I'm not sure where the … it's popping up on one of the various websites that are monitored by activists on the outside. Where they're getting their information, I don't know. I guess that they're hearing from people on the inside that there is military activity. As to where it's coming from, I don't know. But if aircraft are up and about, then that would signal something major is going on.
MARK COLVIN: And what about what we've been able to glean about yesterday? We already have heard the Australian ambassador saying the death toll is probably well above what the military government is saying. What else can we find out about yesterday?
KAREN PERCY: Well, new pictures have appeared. CNN has just played some new pictures, apparently shot from a rooftop of some sort, looking down onto where the protesters were yesterday, and seeing I think it would be the Japanese photographer video journalist, you see him in the distance, a soldier very close to him, I think it's him being shot pretty much at point-blank range. There is another person who goes down in front of him, just a few seconds before.
The crowd is quite large, so certainly the information we're getting in terms of the fact that there is still a resolve by people seems to be there, but that also the military is certainly not just firing into the air. They seem to be firing with an intent to, if not kill, then maim.
There are some other …
MARK COLVIN: But, by the way, with the Japanese photographer, I think the Burmese military claimed that it was just a ricochet, but you say the video makes it pretty clear that it's nothing of the sort.
KAREN PERCY: Well, this particular video, if it matches up with the video that the Japanese have also got, then I think yes, it certainly shows he's very close. But even the still that I have seen on a Japanese website shows a soldier … shows the journalist lying on the floor and a soldier maybe two metres away from him, standing, looking at him. Nobody else is around.
So it would appear to me that yes there was a deliberate, and that's certainly been what the various reports on websites has been saying as well.
But again, you know, we need to be very careful here. It's hard to make judgement calls because there is so little information.
But we area also getting information from the Asian Human Rights Commission that is saying that it has heard of eight people being killed in a suburb of Rangoon yesterday, that there were …
So, and also we were talking earlier about reports of activity at a school at Rangoon, we think this morning, where a student might've been killed.
MARK COLVIN: Karen Percy, thank you very much. Karen Percy in Bangkok.
The International Herald Tribune reports:
Iraqi police and witnesses said U.S. troops backed by helicopter gunships raided an apartment building in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad on Friday, killing 10 civilians and wounding 12. The U.S. military said it was checking into the report.
An unknown number of people also were detained after the 2 a.m. incident in the Sihha district in Dora where clashes took place between U.S. helicopters and gunmen, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Shaheed Abdul-Al, a 42-year-old metal worker who lives in the area, said his family was awakened by the sound of helicopters, heavy gunfire and bombing.
"We saw a big spark of light with bombing sounds come from the direction of the (targeted) building," he said. "We were horrified and still awake at sunrise."
Ahmed Salim, a 16-year-old student who lives near the targeted complex, said he saw U.S. military vehicles through his window.
"When the Americans left, I and others rushed to the site where people began to rescue victims," he said. "I saw some injured ones and dead bodies."
In violence north of Baghdad, at least six people were killed when four gunmen with long beards wearing military uniforms barged into a busy cafe late Thursday as people were playing a popular game to celebrate the end of the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The men arrived in a Russian-made military vehicle used by the Saddam Hussein-era army and opened fire, shouting, "God is great," according to a provincial police officer who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
The six killed included three off-duty police officers and eight other people were wounded, the officer said.
The attack occurred in Sadiyah, a town some 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad in the volatile Diyala province.
The Associated Press reports:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday rejected a Senate proposal calling for the decentralization of Iraq's government and giving more control to the country's ethnically divided regions, calling it a "catastrophe."
The measure, whose primary sponsors included presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., calls for Iraq to be divided into federal regions for the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities in a power-sharing agreement similar to Bosnia in the 1990s.
In his first comments since the measure passed Wednesday, al-Maliki strongly rejected the idea, echoing the earlier sentiments of his vice president.
"It is an Iraqi affair dealing with Iraqis," he told The Associated Press while on a return flight to Baghdad after appearing at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "Iraqis are eager for Iraq's unity. ... Dividing Iraq is a problem and a decision like that would be a catastrophe."
Iraq's constitution lays down a federal system, allowing Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north to set up regions with considerable autonomous powers. But Iraq's turmoil has been fueled by the deep divisions among politicians over the details of how it work, including the division of lucrative oil resources.
Many Shiite and Kurdish leaders are eager to implement the provisions. But the Sunni Arab minority fears being left in an impoverished central zone without resources. Others fear a sectarian split-up would harden the violent divisions among Iraq's fractious ethnic and religious groups.
On Thursday, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said decisions about Iraq must remain in the hands of its citizens and the spokesman for the supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed.
"We demand the Iraqi government to stand against such project and to condemn it officially," Liwa Semeism told the AP. "Such a decision does not represent the aspirations of all Iraqi people and it is considered an interference in Iraq's internal affairs."
A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader, dismissed the proposal during Friday prayers in Karbala.
"The division plan is against Iraqi's interests and against peaceful living in one united Iraq," Sheik Abdul Mahdi al Karbalaei told worshippers. "Any neighboring country supporting this project will pay the price of instability in the region."
Al-Maliki said he discussed the role of U.S. troops and private security contractors in the country, stressing that Iraq is a sovereign nation and it should have control over its own security.
Security "is something related to Iraq's sovereignty and its independence and it should not be violated," he said.
Al-Maliki's comments follow a Sept. 16 shooting in central Baghdad that killed 11 Iraqi civilians allegedly at the hands of Blackwater USA guards providing security for U.S. diplomats.
The Moyock, N.C.-based company said its employees were acting in self-defense against an attack by armed insurgents. Iraqi officials and witnesses have said the guards opened fire randomly, killing a woman and an infant along with nine other people, but details have widely diverged.
The Washington Post reported Friday that a preliminary U.S. Embassy report found the shooting involved three Blackwater teams.
It said one was ambushed near a traffic circle and returned fire before fleeing the scene, another was surrounded by Iraqis when it went to the intersection and had to be extracted by the U.S. military and a third came under fire from eight to 10 people in multiple locations.
The report said the three teams had been trying to escort a senior U.S. official who had been visiting a "financial compound" back to the U.S.-protected Green Zone when a car bomb struck about 25 yards outside the entrance. The official was unharmed, it said.
An unidentified State Department official described the report to the newspaper and stressed it was only an initial account.
The New York Times also reported Friday that the shootings occurred as Blackwater was trying to evacuate senior U.S. officials with the United States Agency for International Development after an explosion occurred near the guarded compound where they were meeting.
Participants in the operation said at least one guard continued firing on civilians while colleagues called for the shooting to stop, according to the newspaper's account, which cited American officials who have been briefed on the investigation.
It also said those involved have told U.S. investigators they believed they were firing in response to enemy gunfire but at least one guard also drew a weapon on a colleague who did not stop shooting.
American officials have publicly remained mum on their findings pending the results of a series of investigations.
Also Friday, U.S. Army Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval was acquitted of charges he killed two unarmed Iraqis. He was convicted of a lesser charge of planting evidence on one of the bodies to cover up the crime. Sandoval, 22, of Laredo, Texas, was expected to be sentenced Saturday.
In other violence, 10 civilians were killed and 12 others were wounded Friday in an attack on an apartment complex in a primarily Sunni neighborhood in southern Baghdad. And north of Baghdad, at least six people were killed in a busy cafe late Thursday and people celebrated the end of the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Australia, meanwhile, said it has taken command of the multinational naval task force guarding Iraq's two oil terminals in southern Iraq for the third time. The job protecting the vital facilities rotates between Australia, Britain and the United States.
'First Blush' Report Raises New Questions on Shooting
The Washington Post reports:
The initial U.S. Embassy report on a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad involving Blackwater USA, a private security firm, depicts an afternoon of mayhem that included a car bomb, a shootout in a crowded traffic circle and an armed standoff between Blackwater guards and Iraqi security forces before the U.S. military intervened.
The two-page report, described by a State Department official as a "first blush" account from the scene, raises new questions about what transpired in the intersection. According to the report, the events that led to the shooting involved three Blackwater units. One of them was ambushed near the traffic circle and returned fire before fleeing the scene, the report said. Another unit that went to the intersection was then surrounded by Iraqis and had to be extricated by the U.S. military, it added.
Separately, a U.S. official familiar with the investigation said that participants in the shooting have reported that at least one of the Blackwater guards drew a weapon on his colleagues and screamed for them to "stop shooting." This account suggested that there was some effort to curb the shooting, with at least one Blackwater guard believing it had spiraled out of control. "Stop shooting -- those are the words that we're hearing were used," the official said.
The report, by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, details the events as described by Blackwater guards -- details that are now at the center of an intense debate in Iraq and in Congress over the larger role of private security firms in Iraq. Tens of thousands of armed, private guards operate in Iraq, protecting everything from U.S. and Iraqi officials to supply convoys. The shooting incident is being scrutinized in at least three separate investigations.
Witnesses and the Iraqi government have insisted that the shooting by the private guards was unprovoked. Blackwater has claimed that its guards returned fire only after they were shot at. The document makes no reference to civilian casualties. Eleven Iraqi civilians were killed and 12 wounded in the incident. The report said Blackwater sustained no casualties.
According to the report, which was obtained by The Washington Post, the incident occurred shortly after noon as three Blackwater teams moved to escort one "principal" back to Baghdad's Green Zone. The official had been visiting a "financial compound" when a car bomb detonated about 25 yards outside the entrance, the report said.
Two of the Blackwater teams returned to the Green Zone with the official, who was apparently unharmed. But the third team came under fire from "8-10 persons" who "fired from multiple nearby locations, with some aggressors dressed in civilian apparel and others in Iraqi police uniforms," the report said.
A State Department official cautioned that the "spot report" is only an initial account. "They're not intended to be authoritative reports of what occurred in any given incident." The report was drafted by the watch officer for the embassy's regional security office and approved by the deputy regional security officer in Baghdad.
The official, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigations into the shooting, said the report, which was dated the same day as the attack, reflected only what embassy officers were told by the Blackwater guards immediately after the incident. He said details could change as the investigations move forward.
According to the document, Blackwater's guards were completing written statements and the embassy's regional security officer had launched an investigation. Previous press accounts have alluded to the spot report's existence, but the full report had not been made public.
The report, which is designated sensitive but unclassified, differs significantly from the account of the Iraqi Interior Ministry and several witnesses interviewed at the scene. According to those accounts, the Blackwater guards moved into the traffic circle in a convoy of armored vehicles, halting traffic and then firing on a white sedan that had failed to slow down as it entered the area. The car burst into flames, killing the occupants, according to these accounts. The Blackwater team then unleashed a barrage of fire into the surrounding area as people tried to flee in the pandemonium.
Sarhan Thiab, a traffic policeman who was in the circle at the time, said Iraqi police did not fire on Blackwater. "Not a single bullet. They were the only ones shooting," said Thiab, who said he and other traffic officers fled to nearby bushes once the shooting began.
"All the vehicles were shooting. They were shooting in every direction," said a senior Iraqi police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigations. "They used a rocket launcher or grenade launcher to hit the car. They were supported by two helicopters who were shooting from the air."
After about 15 minutes, the guards sped away under cover of the smoke, eyewitnesses said.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi government investigation is expected to examine the incident, along with at least a half-dozen other shooting incidents involving Blackwater.
According to the report, the sequence of events leading up to the shooting began at 11:53 a.m., when a car bomb exploded 25 yards outside of the Izdihar financial compound, just over a mile northwest of the Green Zone. One principal was inside, accompanied by a Blackwater personal security detail identified as Team 4. A Blackwater team normally consists of three or four armored vehicles manned by multiple security contractors armed with assault rifles and pistols.
A Blackwater tactical support team, identified as TST 22, drove to the location to help Team 4 extract the principal. The two teams escorted the official back to the Green Zone "without incident," according to the report. "It is unknown who was the target of the" car bomb.
According to the report, a third Blackwater team, identified as TST 23, was dispatched from the Green Zone to assist after the car bomb detonated. Upon arriving at Nisoor Square, in Baghdad's affluent Mansour neighborhood, the report said, TST 23 was "engaged with small arms fire" from "multiple nearby locations."
The report said TST 23 returned fire and tried to drive out of the ambush site. However, one of the company's tactical armored vehicles, a BearCat, became disabled during the shooting. In the middle of the firefight, according to the report, the other tactical support team, TST 22, was ordered back out of the Green Zone to assist TST 23 in Nisoor Square, identified in the document as Gray 87.
Before TST 22 could arrive, according to the report, TST 23 had towed the BearCat and returned to the Green Zone. TST 22 found itself alone in the congested traffic circle and confronted by an Iraqi quick-reaction force. "Over the next several minutes, additional Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police units arrived and began to encircle TST 22 with vehicles," according to the report. "The Iraqis had large caliber machine guns pointed at TST 22."
The Blackwater team contacted the tactical operations center for the U.S. Embassy's regional security office, which oversees private security movements, according to the report. The report said the embassy's regional security office deployed the embassy's air assets, believed to be Blackwater's armed "Little Bird" helicopters, for "route reconnaissance and additional coverage."
"The U.S. Army QRF" -- quick-reaction force -- "arrived on scene at 12:39 hours and mediated the situation," the report said. "They escorted TST 22 out of the area and successfully back to the [Green Zone] without further incident."
Some U.S. officials have questioned why the Blackwater team decided to evacuate the principal and return to the Green Zone, rather than remaining inside the compound. "It doesn't make sense," said one U.S. official. "Why would they go back out there when they were already safe?"
The report said Blackwater's armored vehicles incurred superficial damage from small-arms fire. Although the report made no mention of civilian casualties, the document added, "The nature of the Bearcat malfunction is under investigation."
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The New York Sun reports:
Frustrated by press leaks about its most sensitive electronic surveillance work, the secretive National Security Agency convened an unprecedented series of off-the-record "seminars" in recent years to teach reporters about the damage caused by such leaks and to discourage reporting that could interfere with the agency's mission to spy on America's enemies.
The half-day classes featured high-ranking NSA officials highlighting objectionable passages in published stories and offering "an innocuous rewrite" that officials said maintained the "overall thrust" of the articles but omitted details that could disclose the agency's techniques, according to course outlines obtained by The New York Sun.
Dubbed "SIGINT 101," using the NSA's shorthand for signals intelligence, the seminar was presented "a handful of times" between approximately 2002 and 2004, an agency spokeswoman, Marci Green, confirmed yesterday. Officials were pleased with the program, she said.
"They believe they were very successful in being able to talk to journalists regarding our mission and the sensitivities of our mission in an unclassified way," Ms. Green said.
The syllabi make clear that the sessions, which took place at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md., were conceived of not merely as familiarization tours, but as part of a campaign to limit the damage caused by leaks of sensitive intelligence.
"Course Objective: to convey the fragility of SIGINT and to increase editors' and reporters' understanding that there are other ways to express similar thoughts in an article without compromising the story and without compromising SIGINT," the syllabi said.
The NSA's seminars, delivered over tea and pastries, and accompanied by a clip from "Top Gun," seemed designed to elicit a chummy atmosphere and to highlight commonalities between reporters and the agency's electronic sleuths. "Reporters go to great lengths to protect their sources, as do we," one talking point for the classes said. "We need your help."
Journalists were also treated to technical demonstrations and encouraged to feel that they had gotten a rare behind-the-scenes view of the agency. "Stress that this is the first-ever such course in NSA's history," another talking point said. During one sensitive discussion, journalists were to be told they could not take any notes.
Among the news stories singled out for redrafting by the NSA were an Associated Press rewrite of a 1999 USA Today article by Jack Kelley reporting that officials used a "reconnaissance satellite" to intercept Osama bin Laden's telephone calls and head off six attacks on American embassies, a 1998 Knight Ridder dispatch by Neely Tucker reporting that an "exhaustive review of electronic intercepts of the traffic on bin Laden's communications network" picked up evidence of his involvement in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and a 1998 New York Times story by Steven Lee Myers reporting that a Pentagon warning about a possible attack on American interests in the Persian Gulf was prompted by "eavesdropping on conversations between Mr. bin Laden" and his cohorts.
The exact substitutions of language that the NSA proposed were deleted from the syllabi released to the Sun under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency did leave in the caveat that it was "neither confirming nor denying the accuracy" of the reports it used as examples.
Mr. Tucker, the author of the Knight Ridder story, said in an interview yesterday that he was never invited to the course and never knew the NSA had a problem with the report. "Nobody ever said a word," he said. Mr. Tucker, who now writes for the Washington Post, noted that he was in Africa at the time and that the passage probably originated with another reporter in Washington.
Told of his involvement in the NSA seminar, he said, "Always glad to help NSA any way I can."
Mr. Myers did not respond to a phone message yesterday seeking comment. Mr. Kelley, who quit USA Today in 2004 amid a probe into fabricated stories, could not be reached.
Ms. Green said the program stopped in late 2004 due to staffing changes at the NSA's public affairs operation.
In 2005, following the publication of a New York Times story on a secret program for warrantless wiretapping of some phone calls placed or received in America, the Bush administration's attitude toward leaks became far more confrontational. Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss crusaded against leaks at the CIA and later told a Senate committee that he hoped reporters would be called before grand juries to identify their sources. Attorney General Gonzales also discussed the "possibility" of prosecuting journalists who wrote stories based on leaked intelligence.
The syllabi, which are marked as drafts, list presenters including the director of the NSA at the time, General Michael Hayden, the agency's general counsel, Robert Deitz, and the head of the signals intelligence division, Maureen Baginski.
Ms. Baginski, who left NSA in 2003 and is now in the private sector, said yesterday that she had no recollection of making such a presentation. Told of the rewriting element of the class, she chuckled and said, "It's an interesting approach."
The Sun obtained the syllabi in response to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding an investigation into leaks about NSA intercepts that may have presaged the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The released course materials contain no obvious reference to those leaks, but they may have been mentioned in portions of the syllabus the NSA deleted from the released copy.
The Washington Post reports:
Corn farmer Jim Handsaker has found a slew of ways to ride the heartland boom in biofuels that is reshaping the economy of rural Iowa.
He sold some of his 2006 crop this year for more than $4 a bushel, the highest price in a decade. His stake in two nearby ethanol plants brought in several thousand dollars more in dividends. Meanwhile, soaring farmland prices have pushed the value of the 400 acres he owns to around $2 million.
Even so, come October he will get a subsidy check from the government, part of a $1.6 billion installment that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will send to corn farmers.
Those annual automatic payments to Handsaker and thousands of other prospering corn growers have long been controversial. But coming at a time when taxpayers are already subsidizing the ethanol industry to the tune of $3 billion a year, the double-barreled support system for those who grow corn and those who turn it into fuel has begun to draw fire in Congress.
"Federal farm subsidies are already narrowly focused on certain crops and are excessive," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a farmer and former chairman of the Senate agriculture committee. "They become ridiculous given the exploding possibilities to grow crops for biofuels production."
So far, Congress has shown little inclination to adjust the subsidies to account for the new energy-driven rural economy.
A House-passed farm bill would give corn growers $10.5 billion over the next five years, even if prices stay high. These "direct payments," a kind of annual allowance, are set by formula and go out automatically, regardless of prices, profits, yields or weather.
At the same time, a Senate-approved energy bill would double the federal requirement for the use of ethanol from corn -- a move that should further buttress corn prices.
Handsaker, a Republican who keeps a framed picture of President and Mrs. Bush in his office, argues that such farm subsidies help keep agricultural land in the hands of family farmers and away from corporate monopolies.
Handsaker is not banking on the ethanol boom lasting. "We've all been down the road of price plateaus," he said.
But he acknowledges that justifying the payments is not easy in the midst of an energy renaissance in the heartland. Country roads are dotted with signs advertising "ethanol corn" -- genetically engineered seeds with the high starch content ideal for making 200-proof, high-octane ethanol.
Just weeks before the October harvest, Hardin County, Handsaker's home in central Iowa, was a sea of corn rolling southwest from Iowa Falls. Handsaker once grew a mix of corn and soybeans on the farmland he and his brothers own or rent. "Now we're 100 percent corn," he said.
On a once quiet highway west of Iowa Falls, a constant stream of tractor-trailers pound the road, hauling corn to the Hawkeye Renewables ethanol refinery and soybeans to Cargill Inc.'s biodiesel plant.
To celebrate a banner year, Hawkeye founder and chief executive Bruce Rastetter pulled out the stops for his annual midsummer bash. Several hundred politicians, businessmen and farmers mingled at his richly landscaped hilltop estate, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) made his entrance in a wagon pulled by Rastetter's team of Percheron draft horses.
"It's a great country," said Rastetter, a Hardin County native who started with a few acres of farmland and a small feed business 20 years ago. He recently pledged $1.75 million to Iowa State University. In addition to his Iowa Falls plant, he operates a second one in a nearby county and has two more under construction.
The boom has helped push shares in Iowa ethanol plants to double or triple the initial price. Bill Couser, a corn grower and cattleman who was a driving force behind a new ethanol plant in neighboring Story County, says a grateful local school bus driver who bought shares "waves and honks every time she drives by."
"That's the secret of this ethanol industry," Couser said. "It's keeping the dollars at home."
In July, Pine Lake Corn Processors, the second Hardin County plant after Hawkeye's, announced profits for the previous eight months of $3,800 a share, more than the $3,250 cost of the initial investment. "It's worked out better than my wildest dreams," said Pine Lake President Larry Meints, a corn grower who pushed for the new plant after becoming fed up with hauling grain to distant elevators.
The new market means corn-rich Hardin County has to import the crop even though it grows 35 million bushels a year. The county can't supply its two ethanol refineries and its thriving pork, beef and poultry industries.
"Things are good here," said Howard B. Wenger, president of Iowa Falls State Bank, who reviews the balance sheets of hundreds of farmers.
He estimates that most farmers earned between $100 and $400 an acre on their 2006 crop after expenses, depending on whether they owned or rented their land. That translates into profits of $100,000 to $400,000 on a 1,000-acre farm. The USDA predicts that net farm income will be $87.1 billion this year, up nearly 50 percent over 2006.
Iowa farmland values are up 18 percent in the past 12 months, according to Federal Reserve Board surveys, making millionaires on paper out of any farmers owning 200 acres free and clear.
The rural prosperity is due in large measure to billions of dollars in federal subsidies and incentives for corn-based energy. These include a 51-cent tax credit that gasoline manufacturers get on every gallon of ethanol they mix with their blends, and more than $500 million in federal cash to ethanol refiners between 2001 and 2006.
In 2005, Congress required the use of at least 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2012. Then in 2006 came new demand for ethanol as a pollution-curbing additive, along with a jump in gasoline prices that made the corn-based fuel competitive.
"We're harvesting the sun out here," said Handsaker, a genial man who typifies the new breed of businessman-farmer. "We're creating something with sun and chemicals and water and making a renewable product instead of unloading an oil tanker."
When he started in 1971, he recalled, farmers sold their crops to the local livestock industry or sent them "down the river" to volatile export markets.
Prices soared when the Soviet harvest failed or Argentina's corn crop fell short. In between, government payments bridged the gap between solvency and bankruptcy. From 2001 through 2005, Handsaker and his two brothers collected more than $500,000, according to USDA records.
Now four ethanol plants have sprouted within easy trucking distance of their farms and will get about half the 450,000 bushels they produce.
Still, the three brothers stand to collect about $45,000 in direct payments this year, based solely on their previous crop acreage and yields, according to USDA records. Congress created the payments in 1996 as part of a plan to temporarily buttress farm incomes while other traditional subsidies were eliminated. They were supposed to be phased out. Instead, the 2002 farm bill continued them.
"It's a bonus program, not a safety net," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "Farmers I talk to know it's not politically sustainable to ask taxpayers to make payments to them in highly profitable years."
Durbin plans to offer a farm bill amendment that would gradually replace the automatic payments with a program to compensate growers when statewide farm revenues fall below the norm. The National Corn Growers Association embraces a similar plan. This week, the Senate agriculture committee's chairman, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), circulated a proposal to cut direct payments by $4.5 billion over five years.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the country's largest farm organization, opposes any changes, but the National Farmers Union, the nation's second-largest, supports an overhaul of direct payments. "It's the most costly and inefficient method for providing a safety net," said the union's president, Tom Buis.
Lugar, the senator from Indiana, favors scrapping the current farm program and using crop insurance and tax-exempt savings accounts to tide farmers over in bad years.
"A farmer's best friend in Iowa is the energy bill," said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State. "What do you need the direct payments for? It's money for nothing."
Rastetter, along with most others in the ethanol industry, argues that increasing requirements for ethanol use would do more for corn growers than farm programs would. If the government expands its support for ethanol, he said, "then the market price of corn will support farmers and provide the safety net."
But relying on energy policy instead of the traditional farm program worries many in rural Iowa who remember previous bubbles.
The bank still holds a mortgage on his land, Handsaker notes.
Ethanol prices have been tumbling recently as supply catches up with demand. Some ethanol companies, including Rastetter's, have put plans for new refineries on hold pending action by Congress to expand required use.
But such action faces stiff opposition from the livestock industry, which contends that the added demand for corn could mean higher feed and food costs. Environmental groups say it could jeopardize water supplies and sensitive lands in exchange for only minimal savings in the use of fossil fuels, given the amounts of gasoline and chemical fertilizer needed to raise corn.
Meanwhile, the prices of fertilizer, seed and land have been rising rapidly as landlords and corporations move to capture their share of higher grain prices. "As far as the bioeconomy, I don't think any of us thinks it's the golden egg," said April Hemmes, who owns 1,000 acres of prime farmland near Iowa City.
Testimony in Court-Martial Describes a Sniper Squad Pressed to Raise Body Count
The New York Times reports:
An Army sniper is taught to kill people “calmly and deliberately,” even when they pose no immediate danger to him. “A sniper,” Army Field Manual 23-10 goes on to state, “must not be susceptible to emotions such as anxiety or remorse.”
But in a crowded military courtroom seemingly stunned into silence on Thursday, Sgt. Evan Vela all but broke down as he described firing two bullets into an unarmed Iraqi man his unit arrested last May.
In anguished, eloquent sentences, Sergeant Vela, a member of an elite sniper scout platoon with the First Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, quietly described how his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, cut off the man’s handcuffs, wrestled him to his feet and ordered Sergeant Vela, standing a few feet away, to fire the 9-millimeter service pistol into the detainee’s head.
“I heard the word ‘Shoot,’” Sergeant Vela recalled. “I don’t remember pulling the trigger,” he said. “I just came through and the guy was dead, and it just took me a second to realize the shot had come from the pistol.”
Then, Sergeant Vela said, as the man, a suspected insurgent, convulsed on the ground, Sergeant Hensley kicked him in the throat and told Sergeant Vela to shoot him again. Sergeant Vela, who is not on trial but faces murder charges in connection with the killing, said he fired a second time.
His testimony on Thursday, in the court-martial of Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., another sniper who is accused of murder, provided a glimpse into the dark moments of a platoon exhausted, emotionally and physically, by days-long missions in the region south of Baghdad that soldiers call the “triangle of death.” In their testimony, Sergeant Vela and other soldiers described how their teams were pushed beyond limits by battalion commanders eager to raise their kill ratio against a ruthless enemy.
During a separate hearing here in July, Sgt. Anthony G. Murphy said he and other First Battalion snipers felt “an underlying tone” of disappointment from field commanders seeking higher enemy body counts.
“It just kind of felt like, ‘What are you guys doing wrong out there?’” he said at the time.
That attitude among superiors changed earlier this year after Sergeant Hensley, an expert marksman, became a team leader, according to soldiers’ testimony. Though sometimes unorthodox, soldiers said, Sergeant Hensley and other snipers around him began racking up many more kills, pleasing the commanders.
Soldiers also testified that battalion commanders authorized a classified new technique that used fake explosives and detonation wires as “bait” to lure and kill suspected insurgents around Iskandariya, a hostile Sunni Arab region south of Baghdad.
As their superiors sought less restrictive rules of engagement — to legalize the combat killing of anyone who made a soldier “feel threatened,” for example, instead of showing hostile intent or actions — the baiting program, as it was known, succeeded in killing more Iraqis suspected of being terrorists, soldiers testified.
But testimony in proceedings for Sergeant Hensley and, on Thursday, for Specialist Sandoval, both of whom face murder charges in connection with separate killings of Iraqi men last spring, suggest that as the integrity of the battalion’s secret baiting program began to crack, so did Sergeant Hensley.
Only a select group of snipers in the battalion were told of the program, but many more were ordered, without explanation, to carry the baiting items on missions, creating rumors that the items were intended to be planted on victims of unjustified killings, soldiers testified.
Sergeant Hensley, according to several snipers, added to such suspicions when he told a junior member of his team to plant a roll of copper wire — clear contraband — on a suspected insurgent that Specialist Sandoval killed on April 27 after being authorized to shoot by his platoon commander.
On a separate mission two weeks earlier, Sergeant Hensley had killed another Iraqi man he said appeared to be “laying wire” near an irrigation ditch, as the man’s wife and children worked and played nearby.
Then on May 11, Sergeant Vela killed the unarmed man. Afterward, as he testified Thursday, Sergeant Hensley pulled an AK-47, a weapon favored by insurgents, out of his pack and placed it on the body, telling his team that the gun would “say” what happened.
Specialist Sandoval’s court-martial on murder charges began here on Wednesday, and is scheduled to conclude Friday. Sergeant Hensley’s court-martial on murder charges is scheduled to begin here Oct. 22.
An evidentiary hearing for Sergeant Vela, who took the stand on Thursday in the Sandoval court-martial after being granted immunity from incriminating himself in that case, is expected later this year.
Sergeant Murphy has been investigated for a killing of another Iraqi man on April 7. Prosecutors have warned two more battalion members that they are also suspected of committing possible crimes as accomplices in the murder cases.
Struggling to explain why a highly trained Army sniper unit, renowned for its lethal economy of patience and discipline, would bog down under a cloud of murder investigations, some soldiers in interviews faulted commanders for pushing units to keep their kill counts high.
Others pointed toward the outsized influence on the unit by Sergeant Hensley, who, according to other soldiers’ testimony, was dealing with two recent deaths: that of a close friend, killed in a roadside bomb, and also the suicide of his girlfriend back home.
“Staff Sgt. Hensley just continued to drive on,” said Specialist Joshua Lee Michaud, in testimony at the July hearing about the sergeant’s toughness. “Both of them didn’t even faze him.”
A trainer of snipers, Sgt. First Class Terrol Peterson, testified Thursday that the very emotions a sniper must control to do his job properly — anxiety and remorse — sometimes emerge in unexpected and painful ways. “When a sniper breaks, he breaks bad,” Sergeant Peterson said.