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Archive for December 3rd, 2006

Mideast allies near a state of panic


U.S. leaders’ visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.

But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president’s journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush’s summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney’s stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom’s leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation’s Mideast policy.

Arabs are “trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party’s point men on Iraq. “They’re trying to figure out their Plan B.”

The allies’ predicament was described by Jordan’s King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America’s steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

“Something dramatic” needed to come out of Bush’s meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because “I don’t think we’re in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007.”

The only regional leader to voice unqualified support for the Bush administration has been Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has gone so far as to say that the Iraq invasion contributed to regional stability.

To Middle East observers, Bush can no longer speak for the United States as he did before because of the domestic pressure for a change of course in Iraq, said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“He can talk all he wants about ‘staying until the job is done,’ but these leaders can read about the American political scene and see that he may not be able to deliver that,” Brown said.

The Bush-Maliki meeting Thursday, closely watched around the world in anticipation of a possible change in U.S. strategy, produced no shift in declared aims. Rather, it resulted in diplomatic stumbles that seemed to belie the leaders’ claims that their relationship was intact.

On the eve of the summit, a leaked memo written by Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, showed that U.S. officials questioned Maliki’s abilities. But the memo also was a reminder of dwindling U.S. influence over Iraq. Some of the steps that Hadley said the Iraqis should take, such as providing public services to Sunni Arabs as well as Shiites, were moves that the Americans had demanded for many months, without success.

The leak of the memo cast a shadow over the summit, and Maliki abruptly canceled the first scheduled meeting, a conversation among Bush, Maliki and Abdullah. White House aides insisted that the cancellation was not a snub.

One Middle East diplomat said later in an interview that Maliki had canceled the meeting to put distance between him and Bush at a time when Iraq’s Shiite lawmakers and Cabinet ministers with ties to militant cleric Muqtada Sadr had halted their participation in the government to protest the summit.

On Saturday, in his regular radio address, Bush said that his relationship with Maliki was, in fact, improving.

“With each meeting, I’m coming to know him better, and I’m becoming more impressed by his desire to make the difficult choices that will put his country on a better path,” Bush said.

During the trip, Bush was unable to distance himself from the fierce debate about Iraq policy back home. The president felt the need to respond to news accounts saying that an advisory panel on Iraq would urge a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from the region. He insisted that suggestions for such a “graceful exit” were not realistic.

Despite this, Bush repeated in his radio address that he intended to look for a bipartisan solution to the war, and would listen to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which is scheduled to present its findings Wednesday.

He also said that his own internal review, coming from Pentagon and White House officials, among others, was near completion, suggesting that he may be discussing the options before him over the next several days.

“I want to hear all advice before I make any decisions about adjustments to our strategy in Iraq,” Bush said.

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Could CIA blogs prevent next 9/11?

A “new generation of Web-savvy spies” taking cues from bloggers and Wikipedia users might just be able to “prevent the next 9/11,” according to “some of the country’s most senior intelligence thinkers,” but “political will and institutional culture” is holding them back, reports an article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine.

Clive Thompson writes that “throughout the intelligence community, spies are beginning to wonder why their technology has fallen so far behind — and talk among themselves about how to catch up,” and “many of them believe the answer may lie in the interactive tools the world’s teenagers are using to pass around YouTube videos and bicker online about their favorite bands.”
Intelink, the secure internal computer network for United States spy agencies, may be “too secure,” as even the 9/11 Commission pointed out that agencies failed to “connect the dots” regarding terrorism “clues.”

“Billions of dollars’ worth of ultrasecret data networks couldn’t help spies piece together the clues to the worst terrorist plot ever,” Thompson writes. “So perhaps, they argue, it’s time to try something radically different. Could blogs and wikis prevent the next 9/11?”

Excerpts from article:

So why hasn’t Intelink given young analysts instant access to all secrets from every agency? Because each agency’s databases, and the messages flowing through their internal pipelines, are not automatically put onto Intelink. Agency supervisors must actively decide what data they will publish on the network — and their levels of openness vary….
….
Spies, Andrus theorized, could take advantage of these rapid, self-organizing effects. If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink — linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important — then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst’s report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.
….
With Andrus and Burton’s vision in mind, you can almost imagine how 9/11 might have played out differently. In Phoenix, the F.B.I. agent Kenneth Williams might have blogged his memo noting that Al Qaeda members were engaging in flight-training activity. The agents observing a Qaeda planning conference in Malaysia could have mentioned the attendance of a Saudi named Khalid al-Midhar; another agent might have added that he held a multi-entry American visa. The F.B.I. agents who snared Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota might have written about their arrest of a flight student with violent tendencies. Other agents and analysts who were regular readers of these blogs would have found the material interesting, linked to it, pointed out connections or perhaps entered snippets of it into a wiki page discussing this new trend of young men from the Middle East enrolling in pilot training.

When I raised the idea of collaborative tools like blogs and wikis, Spalding and Russ Travers, one of the center’s deputy directors, were skeptical. The whole reason the center works, they said, is that experts have a top-down view that is essential to picking the important information out of the surrounding chatter. The grass roots, they’ve found, are good at collecting threats but not necessarily at analyzing them. If a lot of low-level analysts are pointing to the same inaccurate posting, that doesn’t make it any less wrong.“

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UK poisoned spy probe widens to U.S. and Russia


LONDON, England (AP) — An inquiry into the death of a poisoned ex-KGB spy was expanding outside Britain, the country’s senior law and order official said Sunday, as investigators visited Washington and prepared to travel to Moscow.

A potential witness in the investigation into the death of former Russian agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko had been interviewed in the United States and a team was ready to leave London for Russia within days, a police official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said British police hoped to question a number of people in Moscow — including Andrei Lugovoi, another former spy who met Litvinenko on November 1, the day the 43-year-old fell ill.

Home Secretary John Reid said Sunday the inquiry was expanding and would go wherever “the police take it.”

“Over the next few days I think all of these things I think will widen out a little from the circle just being here in Britain,” Reid told Britain’s Sky News television.

In London, one of Litvinenko’s contacts was undergoing further hospital tests after showing traces of contamination with a radioactive substance, polonium-210.

Mario Scaramella, a 36-year-old Italian security consultant, was well and showing “normal” test results, London’s University College Hospital said in statement Sunday. (Watch how worried you should be about polonium-210 poisoning )

Scaramella, who had been working for the Italian Parliament’s Mitrokhin Commission investigating KGB activity in Italy, met Litvinenko at a central London sushi bar on November 1.

He told Litvinenko about an e-mail he received from a source naming the purported killers of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down on October 7 at her Moscow apartment building. The e-mail reportedly said that he and Litvinenko — a friend of the reporter — were also on the hit list. (Watch Scaramella say how he told spy they were both on a secret hit list )

Tests on Friday confirmed Scaramella had been exposed to polonium-210, the rare substance found in Litvinenko’s body before he died in London on November 23. But doctors said Scaramella had been exposed to a much lower level of the radioactive material.

Reid declined to comment on the claims of friends of Litvinenko who have accused the Kremlin of involvement in the ex-spy’s poisoning. Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the charges as “nonsense.” (Watch scientists working with polonium in a lab )

“The worst thing we can do is speculate. We will end up with egg on our face. This isn’t a game of Cluedo,” Reid said, referring to a murder mystery board game.

British officers, who are being assisted by the FBI, have interviewed ex-KGB officer Yuri Shvets in Virginia, the police official said. Shvets had claimed to have compiled a dossier on criminal charges made by Russian prosecutors against figures connected to the Yukos oil company.

Former Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, a Russian exile living in Israel, told The Associated Press last week that Litvinenko had given him a document related to the charges.

Nevzlin — charged by Russian prosecutors with organizing murders, fraud and tax evasion — claimed the inquiries may have provided a motive for the ex-spy’s murder.

Litvinenko reported feeling unwell on November 1 and died three weeks later, his body withered, his hair fallen out and his organs ravaged. (Autopsy performed on Litvinenko)

The Sunday Times newspaper quoted Lugovoi on Sunday as saying he had also been contaminated with polonium-210.

He denied that he and two business associates, Dmitri Kovtun and Vyacheslav Sokolenko, who met Litvinenko together on November 1, were involved in Litvinenko’s death.

“We suspect that someone has been trying to frame us,” the Sunday Times quoted Lugovoi as saying. “Someone passed this stuff onto us … to point the finger at us and distract the police.” He did not say whether he had fallen ill.

Three British Airways planes which had been grounded for testing for a radioactive substance were cleared Saturday to resume service. The Health Protection Agency — which deals with public health issues in Britain — said that although very low levels of polonium 210 were found on two of the planes, there was no risk to passengers.

Another airline, easyJet, said Scaramella had flown with them to London from Naples on October 31 and returned on November 3, two days after his meeting with Litvinenko. The HPA said there was no risk to the public from those flights.

A hotel and London’s Emirates Stadium — home of the Arsenal soccer team, where some of Litvinenko’s contacts attended a game — were also searched, but no public health hazard was found, the HPA said. A total of 24 people have now been referred for tests for possible radiation exposure.

Results of Litvinenko’s autopsy are expected next week and the ex-spy’s funeral is also expected to take place in London. Due to the levels of radiation in his body, the coffin will be sealed.

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So Now What, Mr. President?


Folks used to wonder why he didn’t push into Baghdad. Baker doesn’t hear that question much anymore.

Dec. 11, 2006 issue – George W. Bush was doing everything he doesn’t usually like to do. He was traveling in foreign lands (when Bush campaigns, he likes to fly home every night to sleep in his own bed). The carefully choreographed president was hit with a sudden change in schedule. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, America’s thin hope to create a stable government in Iraq, had seemingly snubbed Bush and was now standing frostily a few feet away at a press conference after a mini-summit meeting, held at a fancy hotel in Jordan because, nearly four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is still too dangerous to meet in Iraq. Maliki was reportedly sore because someone high in the Bush administration had leaked a secret memo from national-security adviser Steve Hadley to the president saying, in essence, that Maliki was well intentioned but either out of touch, weak or deceitful.

Bush hates leaks almost as much as he dislikes meeting with the journalists who now surrounded him, clamoring to know about reports that a long-awaited independent panel was about to call for a substantial troop pullout from Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker Commission after its co-chairman, former secretary of State James A. Baker, has been widely seen as a gambit by Republican moderates close to Bush’s father, the 41st president, to rescue the 43rd president from his disastrous plunge into Iraq. Of all the things Bush dislikes, the idea of needing to be rescued by Daddy may well top the list.
So no wonder the president was a little out of sorts. “I know,” Bush began, trying, unsuccessfully, to stifle a tone of deep exasperation, “there’s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there’s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.”

A few days later, many thousands of miles away at his ranch in Texas, Jim Baker was resting up, lying low, waiting for his moment. The leak, reported in The New York Times, that the Iraq Study Group was about to call for substantial troop pullback was wrong, Baker knew. In fact, the Iraq Study Group report, scheduled to be released this week, will set no timetables or call for any troop reductions, according to a source familiar with the report, who, like everyone involved, requested anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject. It will speak more generally of shifting U.S. troops from an active combat role to advising Iraqi forces, and suggest that the president could, not should, begin to withdraw forces in the vaguely defined future. The report will also urge more diplomatic initiatives to secure Iraq and the region.

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Mideast allies near a state of panic


U.S. leaders’ visits to the region reap only warnings and worry.

WASHINGTON — President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.

But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president’s journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush’s summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney’s stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom’s leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation’s Mideast policy.

Arabs are “trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party’s point men on Iraq. “They’re trying to figure out their Plan B.”

The allies’ predicament was described by Jordan’s King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America’s steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

“Something dramatic” needed to come out of Bush’s meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because “I don’t think we’re in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007.”

The only regional leader to voice unqualified support for the Bush administration has been Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has gone so far as to say that the Iraq invasion contributed to regional stability.

To Middle East observers, Bush can no longer speak for the United States as he did before because of the domestic pressure for a change of course in Iraq, said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“He can talk all he wants about ‘staying until the job is done,’ but these leaders can read about the American political scene and see that he may not be able to deliver that,” Brown said.

The Bush-Maliki meeting Thursday, closely watched around the world in anticipation of a possible change in U.S. strategy, produced no shift in declared aims. Rather, it resulted in diplomatic stumbles that seemed to belie the leaders’ claims that their relationship was intact.

On the eve of the summit, a leaked memo written by Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, showed that U.S. officials questioned Maliki’s abilities. But the memo also was a reminder of dwindling U.S. influence over Iraq. Some of the steps that Hadley said the Iraqis should take, such as providing public services to Sunni Arabs as well as Shiites, were moves that the Americans had demanded for many months, without success.

The leak of the memo cast a shadow over the summit, and Maliki abruptly canceled the first scheduled meeting, a conversation among Bush, Maliki and Abdullah. White House aides insisted that the cancellation was not a snub.

One Middle East diplomat said later in an interview that Maliki had canceled the meeting to put distance between him and Bush at a time when Iraq’s Shiite lawmakers and Cabinet ministers with ties to militant cleric Muqtada Sadr had halted their participation in the government to protest the summit.

On Saturday, in his regular radio address, Bush said that his relationship with Maliki was, in fact, improving.

“With each meeting, I’m coming to know him better, and I’m becoming more impressed by his desire to make the difficult choices that will put his country on a better path,” Bush said.

During the trip, Bush was unable to distance himself from the fierce debate about Iraq policy back home. The president felt the need to respond to news accounts saying that an advisory panel on Iraq would urge a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from the region. He insisted that suggestions for such a “graceful exit” were not realistic.

Despite this, Bush repeated in his radio address that he intended to look for a bipartisan solution to the war, and would listen to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which is scheduled to present its findings Wednesday.

He also said that his own internal review, coming from Pentagon and White House officials, among others, was near completion, suggesting that he may be discussing the options before him over the next several days.

“I want to hear all advice before I make any decisions about adjustments to our strategy in Iraq,” Bush said.

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