Lies, More Lies and then There’s the President
There were only three men in the Oval Office that day: President Trump, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and Steve Bannon, the Chief Whisperer who is known as Jeremiah because of his unwaveringly miserable view of the world.
It was supposed to be a completely confidential meeting called to discuss the mess TFC (That Fucking Child) had got into with yet another early morning tweet, this one alleging that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. But, as so often happens in confidential meetings, there is always one person who talks and that one person tells one person. And so it goes until it ends up with me.
The problem with the tweeted allegation is that, so far, it had turned out to be untrue. Not only that, but it had been greeted with derision by those who know how intelligence works and then denied on the record by the heads of the FBI and the NSA. Not good. Or as TFC might have said: Sad!
“I know they’re all lying,” said the President. “I trust Fox far more than I do those fuckers in the intelligence community.”
“Right,” said Bannon. “They’re all part of the Deep State, doing whatever they can to stop us.”
It was Kushner, the ever practical pragmatist, who brought the conversation back to ground zero.
“But where’s the evidence?” He asked. “We need to find something — anything — that supports what we know to be true. It will be there. We just need to get inside and find it. But how?”
There was a pause in the conversation as the three men looked for the answer.
“What about Ezra?” Kushner suggested.
“What about him?” TFC asked.
“He runs intelligence on the NSC, has access to everything and he owes us big time.”
Ezra Cohen-Watnick is currently the Senior Director for intelligence programs on the NSC and was a protégé of the disgraced former National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn. When Flynn was replaced by Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster, the new broom began to look at the staff he had inherited and wanted to get Cohen-Watnick out of a job for which he felt he was completely unqualified.
But Cohen-Watnick had appealed to Kushner, with whom he shared a strong Jewish faith, and Bannon with whom he shared similar dystopian political views. They in turn had appealed to Trump who overruled McMaster (thus breaking an explicit promise made that he would have control of who was hired and fired at the NSC).
“Perfect,” replied Trump. “He’s our guy. Set him to work and make sure he gets the goods on those bastards.”
And so began another disastrous effort to cover up another lie by my President. The result was that Ezra came up with nothing except a bunch of overseas intercepts that mentioned some people in Trump’s circle. That information was then passed to Devin Nunes, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee that is investigating Trump’s connections with Russia. Nunes goes public, exaggerates what he has, discredits himself and the investigation.
A simple lying tweet births yet another conspiracy that undermines our democracy. Sad indeed.
The Growing Divide Within and Without
I was watching a news report the other day of a demonstration of pro-Trump supporters along a beach in California. It was a meandering and spread out procession of a few hundred people carrying American flags and Trump is our President signs. Nothing much happened until the group came across a handful of anti-Trump demonstrators.
The instant savagery was extraordinary with one young man beaten to the ground and then battered with Trump signs. All this accompanied by foul mouthed abuse from men and women alike. The violence was visceral, frightening and totally partisan with no room for argument or discussion.
It struck me that the demonstration was in so many ways representative of life in the White House these days.
As the credibility of the President and his policies has collapsed (17% support for the failed health care reform, 36% for the man himself) so the political middle ground, where I once stood, has evaporated. What’s left are a dwindling band of True Believers and the rest of us who are lumped together as The Enemy. And the language seems to encompass everyone from China, to Democrats, “that fucker McCain,” Angela “The Dwarf” Merkel, “those shits” in the Freedom Caucus.
It’s all so unrelenting and joyless. TFC himself is always in a foul mood, ranting at one enemy or another. He seems unable to comprehend that the slightest criticism can have merit and so it all becomes part of a vast, inchoate plot, a conspiracy of the many against the dwindling few who are the Keepers of the Flame of Truth.
There’s an interesting parallel here between this time and the closing days of World War II in Europe. Then, Hitler was in his bunker, increasing delusional but reinforced by the few loyalists who remained with him. They told him what he wanted to hear: that the Russians advancing from the east and the allies from the west would never take Berlin; that there was hope. Today, Trump is being told that the American people still support him and that the Russian story of treachery and corruption is all “fake news.”
Like tyrants down the ages, the President’s world is getting smaller and smaller, populated only by the sycophants or the unhinged who protect him from the reality of his disastrous presidency.
The effect this has on us worker bees is horrible. The days of optimism and hope for real change are long gone. They have been replaced by universal paranoia (who of Bannon’s Commisars are checking my emails or monitoring my calls?) and fear. One wrong word that doesn’t comply with the current political wisdom and you’re out. Who to trust?
For example, there has been much public support from the administration for Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff, with Spicy claiming that his job is secure. But I was in a meeting with Jeremiah where it was made very clear that his days are numbered.
“He was supposed to be the guy who brings the votes from the Hill,” said Bannon. “And what did we get? A great health care bill that went down in flames and a rebellion from all those who should be supporting us. He’s a useless little weasel. Let’s get someone else.”
Since then, I know that both Haley Barbour, the former Governor of Mississippi and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Wayne Berman, a top Republican operator who was Finance Chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign, have been approached to see if they would be willing to step up. Priebus’ days are clearly numbered.
I truly hate going to work as each day seems to bring a new horror, another lie here, more corruption there, a screaming match here, a firing there. It’s a roiling cesspit and I’m sinking fast.
Ironically, I take comfort from two trends. The first is the dysfunction in Congress that will ensure the failure of most of TFC’s policies.
Health care has already gone down in flames, the promised tax cuts are not going to happen, there’s no funding for the wall and the $1 trillion infrastructure program is not going to happen either.
It’s possible things could change but TFC is going out of his way to piss off everybody from Democrats to both the left and right among my own party. As a classic bully, he only understands threats and they are not going to work with the prima donnas in Congress who need to be stroked, courted and seduced.
The second trend is how the investigation over the Trump Team’s connections with Russia is unfolding. Despite the wealth of evidence, the Trump team continues to dismiss the investigation as a plot without any foundation. Such denials have been the hallmark of Presidents from Nixon until today. But, it rarely works. In this case, whatever the bluster, the intelligence community is united behind the evidence of several smoking guns from the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the hiring by Russia of 1,000 trolls to plant false stories about Hillary to the numerous covert conversations members of Team Trump had with Russian intelligence to Kremlin sources that indicate Vladimir Putin sees Trump (America’s President!) as an ‘asset’ (spook speak for a willing stooge).
As Trump twists in the wind, Spicy and Jeremiah do their best to distract the House investigation and they have a willing stooge in Devin Nunes the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. But, with the House investigation compromised, the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing ahead with its own inquiry. Whatever the True Believers might want, there is much more information to come out over the next several months and all of it will be damaging to Trump. Disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn might want to cut a deal for immunity from prosecution in exchange for spilling the beans, but it will be months before any such deal could be struck (if at all). Meanwhile, the pressure on others involved in the covert Russian contacts mounts by the day.
What the President needs is a major distraction that will provide an excuse for Draconian measures that will make Russia appear an irrelevant sideshow. The most likely such event is a terrorist attack against America. I know that our enemies are working really hard to pull off such an event — it’s a miracle an attack has not happened already — and they only have to succeed once.
How real is the Terrorist Threat?
A covert insertion on a moonless night is a dream special forces operation. Helicopters, using special technology to deaden the sound of their rotors, had dropped the members of Seal Team 6 well north of the intended target in a remote Yemeni village.
Hiking through the night using night vision goggles to illuminate the path, the soldiers moved over the treacherous, rocky and mountainous terrain that never dropped below 5,000 feet and climbed to over 6120 feet. Predator drones flying overhead relayed detailed information of the ground ahead and provided a perfect picture of the village and its apparently sleeping occupants.
When the SEALs were around 3 miles from their target, the drone overhead detected activity around and at the target where it looked as if the alarm had been raised. People were coming out of houses and taking up defensive positions while others were moving on to the flat roofs of the buildings. It was clear the mission had been compromised, perhaps by someone who had heard the helicopters dropping off the raiding party.
Despite the increased threat to the mission, the SEALs pressed ahead and as they climbed towards their target nestled in the hillside above, they encountered land mines, roaming foot patrols and heavily armed vehicle patrols, all of which was unexpected. They came under attack with a withering hail of small arms fire that came pouring down on them. This quickly escalated to sniper fire, assault weapons and RPG’s. The staccato rattle of automatic rifle fire was mixed the crump of rocket propelled grenades and the rapid beat of a heavy machine gun. This contrasted with the softer sounds of the silenced weapons used by the SEALs.
Trained to advance towards and not away from enemy fire, the SEALs continued pushing forward.
“It became the mission from hell,” one Pentagon friend told me. “Advancing uphill into heavy fire is the worst of all worlds and we started taking casualties.”
The first down was 36-year-old Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens who took a bullet that entered above his chest armor and down into his heart. Owens died shortly afterwards.
With the teams pinned down, three critically wounded and overhead imagery from the Predator showing tens of dozens more fighters arriving from nearby villages, it was clear that the mission was now impossible. After around 45–60 minutes of heavy fighting, the SEALs called in air support in the form of U.S. Marine AH-1Z Viper helicopter gunships, code named Zulu Cobra and MV-22 Ospreys carrying the Quick Reaction Force. The gunships have upgrades which include state-of-the-art weapons and digital technology to respond to modern demands for CAS (Close Air Support). The Zulu Cobras unleashed an array of sophisticated weapons into the village destroying several houses and indiscriminately killing fighters, women and children.
In the planning for the mission last January 29, it had seemed easy enough: choose a moonless night when illumination is at its lowest point for maximum darkness, land far enough away to be undetected and then launch a surprise attack. The targets were worth the effort: Abdul Raouf al-Dhahab and Seif al-Nims two regional commanders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) considered the most deadly of all Al Qaeda branches around the world. Both men were leaders of AQAP and had been targeted for years. After a long period of surveillance, a plan to attack their hideout in the village of Al Ghayil had been drawn up last November, but Obama had left a final decision to the incoming Trump administration. There had been eight US drone strikes against targets in the region but the SEALs were sent in this time because it was expected there would be a wealth of intelligence in the village on hard drives and in cell phone records. Another AQAP leader, Qassim al-Rimi was confirmed to have arrived in the village that evening and provided an unexpected bonus.
As the Ospreys came in to extract the SEALs, one had mechanical failure and had a hard landing Three members were injured but were able to get out alive. It was later destroyed by gunships, on the ground EOD or armed drones in order to avoid its sensitive equipment falling into enemy hands.
This was the first major covert operation of the Trump administration and as the story leaked, it looked like it had been a disaster. The scorecard was one SEAL killed, five injured, a $78.1 million Osprey MV-22 was destroyed. On the plus side of the ledger, the two AQAP targets were both killed although it seems that al-Rimi escaped. In addition, 17–30 local including some AQ members and nine children were killed, almost all by munitions from the gunships. Worst of all, the ambition of a surprise attack, the capturing of senior AQAP leaders and gathering volumes of intelligence from computer hard drives, cell phones and documents was never realized. Although the White House later claimed the SEALs had captured a treasure trove of high value intelligence, this was not true. What information that was recovered merely confirmed existing intelligence and was of little value.
There has been much criticism of the President for what has been claimed to have been a botched operation. The criticism is wrong in that the operation was well planned, approved by both the Special Forces commanders and the Joint Chiefs in their recommendations to the President. But, like all military operations, even the best laid plans can go awry and in this instance, very difficult ground, an apparently effective early warning system and significant enemy firepower all combined to compromise the operation.
The way the approvals process was carried out was also in marked contrast to how such operations were approved under President Obama. Typically, Obama and his team would go through every detail of an operation again and again, measuring risks and ensuring buy in from every possible interested party. Trump’s team despise Obama’s methods and are determined to do things very differently. The final approval of this operation took around 25 minutes and did not involve the President.
TFC was not happy about the media as news of the operation leaked out and he called a meeting of his close advisers to vent.
“Those fuckers,” he shouted. “They never give me a break. This was the generals. They wanted to do it and all I did was say OK. And now those bastards in the media are saying it’s all my fault.”
A couple of weeks after the raid, Trump tried to distance himself further from the operation: “This was a mission that was started before I got here,” said Trump. “This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected, are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
The statement was not lost on either the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community. The President is also the Commander in Chief and it is a longstanding tradition that he takes personal responsibility for both successes and failures. This break with tradition was exacerbated on February 28 during his speech to Congress when Trump highlighted the presence of Carryn Owens, the dead SEALs wife, and the heroism of her late husband. To many in the military it appeared that on the one hand the Commander in Chief was unwilling to take responsibility while the politician was only too happy to exploit the widow for his own self-aggrandizement.
Such behavior is in marked contrast to that of his Secretary of Defense, General Jim Mattis. He hand wrote personal notes to the family of every Marine killed under his command. When he returned after 41 years in the Marines, he took a two week road trip across America with a route dictated by the Gold Star mothers so that he could personally call on as many families as possible to thank them for the sacrifice of father, brother or husband who made the ultimate sacrifice in his country’s service.
But behind all the posturing, one thing is very clear: TFC believes that terrorists are on the rampage across the world, that Muslim terrorists are winning the war against America and that Obama and his minions did nothing to win the war against terrorism. The President’s views about terrorism in turn have informed his views about Muslims, immigration, the Wall and his relations with many African and Arab countries. Like so much of his world, his views have been formed by Jeremiah whispering in his ear and his own profound ignorance.
In every single regard, both he and Jeremiah are wrong. This is not just my view but the current consensus of the American intelligence community, every credible counter terrorist expert across the globe and all of America’s allies.
Here are the facts: In the last two years the amount of territory controlled by ISIS has shrunk by around 30%. The territory controlled by the group inside Iraq has fallen from 40% to around 10%. Since June 2014, ISIS has been responsible for 140 attacks in 29 countries outside of Iraq and Syria which have killed 2,043 people and injured thousands more. But in the US, there have been just six attacks which have killed 63 people. None of these attacks have been carried out by groups of terrorists but have instead been individuals inspired by ISIS propaganda.
Unknown to the general public, dozens of other attacks have been stopped and ISIS has not succeeded in infiltrating anyone into the US. This is an outstanding record by the intelligence community, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.
But the scale of terrorism in America is tiny, the influence of terrorists from overseas non-existent and the actual damage done in terms of lives lost or property destroyed is very, very small. By contrast, there were 58,000 incidents of gun violence in America in 2016 which resulted in 15,000 deaths.
Whatever the reality, TFC and his allies are determined to launch a new war against a largely imaginary enemy. This explains the campaign to limit immigration, although there is no evidence at all that the countries on the target list are particularly risky (the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia a country which is not on the list). TFC’s call for ‘extreme’ vetting of potential immigrants disregards the fact that there is already very thorough vetting which explains why no terrorists have yet managed to infiltrate the country.
During the Presidential campaign, Trump was certain that he had the answer to the threat posed by ISIS. “I have an absolute way of defeating ISIS,” he declared. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
“All I can tell you, it is a foolproof way of winning the war with ISIS. I’m going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.”
The reality has proved to be very different. Ironically, TFC has become the greatest recruiting vehicle that ISIS has ever had. Recent videos and written propaganda have highlighted his statements about Muslims and the “Muslim ban” which they characterize as a war against the Faithful. In his February press conference this is how one exchange went:
Reporter: Can we conclude there will be no response to these particular (Russian) provocations?
Trump: I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response. I don’t say I’m going in Mosul in four months. “We are going to attack Mosul in four months.” Then three months later, “we are going to attack Mosul in one month.” “Next week, we are going to attack Mosul.” In the meantime, “Mosul is very, very difficult.”
Within 24 hours, ISIS had edited what Trump said to be part of a belligerent anti-Muslim tirade from the President that included the President saying: “We are going to attack Mosul. We are going to attack Mosul. We are going to attack Mosul.” A great propaganda coup to help rally the faithful to the ISIS flag.
Leaving aside his naivety about the terrorist threat, TFC’s instructions to the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community and the National Security Council to come up with a new and devastating master plan was greeted with derision.
“Not only did he not have a single idea — not one — about what to do about the threat,” said one senior member of the planning staff. “But also he had absolutely no understanding of counter terrorism strategy or tactics. The whole thing was a sick joke.”
Unfortunately, Trump’s principal advisor on counter terrorism in the White House is another of Bannon’s Boys, Sebastian Gorka. A rather unknown and insignificant figure in the world of counter terrorism, Gorka is a bluff, bearded former British citizen whose parents are Hungarian emmigrants. He got his original BA in theology and philosophy at the University of London where he got a grade of 2:2, which is one step above failure and not an illustration of sparkling intelligence.
In his PhD from Corvinus University in Hungary (another star in the intellectual firmament) Gorka argued that America has failed to develop an effective strategy to deal with the Muslim terrorist threat. Gorka believes that the Muslim faith provides the foundation for terrorism.
What has made him qualified to be in the White House is his three years working for Bannon as editor for National Security Affairs at Breitbart.
Gorka’s touchstone is the novel The Camp of the Saints by the French author Jean Raspail which predicts a dystopian future where a passive Christian Europe is overwhelmed by the Moslem hordes immigrating from the Middle East and India.
It is hard to describe the total lack of credibility Gorka has in the national security community. The idea that this unqualified buffoon has the ear of the President in such an important area is truly unprecedented. Perhaps his view of the world is best summed up by a quote after Trump won the election:
“The era of the Pajama Boy is over January 20th, and the alpha males are back.”
As one of Bannon’s Boys, Gorka is also part of the shadow NSC known as the Strategic Initiatives Group which is tasked with formulating policies to advance the Trump agenda. For those of us with long memories, this sounds strikingly similar to the group set up by Richard Perle and others in the second Bush administration that manufactured intelligence and created policies that led directly to the invasion of Iraq.
In one meeting where I was present that had been called to discuss future counter terrorism strategy, Gorka had a simple contribution to make: “Kill them all.” The eye-rolling from the professionals in the room had to be seen to be believed.
TFC’s ambition to destroy ISIS in short order will never be realized because it is an impossible and impractical dream. As everyone involved in counter terrorism knows, defeating terrorism is a long, multi-generational task that involves not just killing but also undermining the terrorist message and the reasons they have currency in the communities where they operate.
The threat remains real and it is absolutely certain that whatever the efforts of the FBI and the intelligence community, a terrorist attack will succeed.
So what is the great Master Plan created by the President to defeat terrorism? It’s actually very similar to Obama’s plan and a recognition that (as Trump discovered with health care) countering terrorism is a complex problem with no easy answers.
There have been some decisions: more use of special forces, additional troops to Syria to help seize territory from ISIS and more use of drones. For example, in Obama’s two terms in office there was an average of one drone strike or Special forces operation every 5.4 days while in Trump’s term so far, there has been a strike ever 1.8 days. At the same time, Trump has relaxed oversight of the CIA which now has much more latitude to plan and execute drone strikes.
While the world is focused on ISIS, the more dangerous threat to the US is the activities of AQAP and especially their master bomb maker 34-year-old Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, a Saudi now based in Yemen. Al-Asiri has developed a new kind of bomb that is undetectable using existing airport scanning equipment . One method used by the terrorists is to surgically implant liquid explosives in the body of a suicide bomber while another is to use a new kind of explosive in equipment such as cell phones and laptops. Three attacks on aircraft have been preempted by US intelligence but on those cases it was good analysis rather than airport detection systems that did the job.
The evolution of the threat led to new restrictions by the US Department of Homeland Security and the British Home Office. Starting in March, laptops, tablets and larger cell phones will be banned from the main cabin of all aircraft traveling from ten airports in eight countries. Whether this new effort will be enough to counter the threat remains to be seen.
In a sense, these are all conversations that are happening on the margins of the real struggle which is a clash of civilizations between the Christian west and the invading hordes of the Muslim world. In TFC and Jeremiah’s worldview this is an epic conflict with our very survival at stake. That’s the context in which the immigration ban was created within the White House without consultation with either the State Department or the Pentagon. Instead, with Trump’s blessing, it was written by Bannon and his Boys and has proved a disaster: impossible to implement at home and hewing to the narrative propagated by Al Qaeda and ISIS that America is the enemy of Islam.
Yet, military might alone has never won a counter terrorist war. On the contrary, the simple use of military force across the world from Palestine to Malaysia, from Vietnam to Northern Ireland is never enough. Instead it’s a combination of soft power (partnerships with other countries, aid to undermine the terrorist message, job creation) combined with force that wins the day.
The cuts in foreign aid proposed in Trump’s budget would mean that much of the soft power that has been a bi-partisan part of successive administrations would be axed.
By creating a series of straw men — immigrants are the threat, Muslims are the enemy and so are the press — TFC is creating a world that will justify a future overreaction.
Although he has likely never heard of it, the Reichstag fire in Germany in 1933 eerily reflects America today and it is worth diverting for a moment to remember what happened. Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933 as Chancellor of Germany and head of a coalition government. On the night of February 27, 1933, the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, caught fire. A recent Dutch immigrant was arrested and charged with arson. A communist, his arrest gave Hitler the excuse to pass special decree outlawing the communist party and orchestrating a purge of all communists and any other political opposition.
The day after the fire, Hitler passed the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended habeus corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly and authorized the tapping of all telephones and the opening of mail. At a stroke, the way was paved for Nazi Germany and the world was on the road to World War II.
Now, imagine what TFC would do if a terrorist attack happened in America that killed 100 or even 10,000 people. All the prophecies — immigrants are a threat, the media are the enemy, the Muslims are at war with us — would in his mind have come true. It will be a justification for exactly the kind of repression that Hitler found so useful. And the outcome could well be World War III.
I almost can’t believe that I just wrote the words above. Only a very short while ago, I was entering the White House with a sense of awe that I could have been given such a great opportunity to help the country I love prepare for the rest of this century. Now my perspective has shifted so far that I’m truly fearful for the future.
More next week….