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CIA Struggled To Keep Rationalizing Brutal Interrogations, Report Shows

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When CIA interrogators waterboarded their first prisoner, al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, on Aug. 4, 2002, they justified the simulated drowning as a vital tool to extract secrets about future attacks against the United States.

But after 20 days of round-the-clock interrogation at a secret prison in Thailand, during which Zubaydah was repeatedly waterboarded in long sessions, slammed against walls, slapped, confined in a coffin-size box for 266 hours and chained in “stress positions,” the interrogators concluded the Saudi-born operative knew nothing about new plots.

At that point, the justification changed: Officials said the brutal treatment was necessary not to extract information, but to reassure themselves that Zubaydah already had told them everything he knew.

“Our goal was to reach the stage where we have broken any will or ability of subject to resist,” the interrogators said in an email to CIA headquarters. The goal was to get to “the point that we could confidently assess” that Zubaydah did “not possess undisclosed threat information,” they said.

The shifting explanation for Zubaydah’s treatment, laid out in the 499-page summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report made public Tuesday, provides an example of how the secret interrogation program from its inception became a self-justifying enterprise that slipped free of the constraints that top officials had promised would guide it.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, under intense demands to produce usable intelligence, the agency resorted to deception, manipulation and intellectual contortions to rationalize and continue using interrogation techniques that even some of its own officials worried amounted to illegal torture, the report documents.

In Zubaydah’s case, the sessions often left him crying, whimpering and compliant enough that a raised eyebrow and the snap of an interrogator’s finger were sufficient to get him to “lie flat” to be waterboarded. In one instance, he “became completely unresponsive,” bubbles rising from his water-filled mouth, until he was revived with medical treatment.

Inside the CIA headquarters, officials repeatedly pushed interrogators at secret detention facilities in Poland, Thailand, Afghanistan, Romania and elsewhere to intensify the harsh treatment, even after officers at the sites had concluded there was little more information to be gained from a prisoner.

Many of the agency interrogation teams included case officers with little or no experience and questionable backgrounds, including one with “workplace anger management issues” and another who “had reportedly admitted to sexual assault,” the report says.

CIA Director John Brennan said in a statement Tuesday that “we acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the agency made mistakes.” He added that “the most serious problems occurred early on and stemmed from the fact that the agency was unprepared and lacked the core competencies required to carry out an unprecedented, worldwide program” of detention and interrogation.

One example of that lack of preparation cited in the report: The chief of interrogations, whose name was redacted, got the job even though he had been “orally admonished for inappropriate use of interrogation techniques” while conducting training in Latin America during the 1980s.

The interrogations chief became so disillusioned at the treatment of detainees that he sent an email to CIA colleagues in January 2003, calling the program a train wreck waiting to happen. “I intend to get the hell off the train,” he wrote, adding that he was “retiring shortly” because he no longer wanted to be associated with the program “in any way.”

His departure was in response to the interrogation of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi captured in Dubai in 2002 who was accused of involvement in the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

After questioning Nashiri in 2002 and waterboarding him at least three times, CIA interrogators concluded that he was “cooperative and truthful.” Officials at the CIA’s Alec Station, a headquarters unit responsible for intelligence on al-Qaida, rejected that conclusion because Nashiri had not disclosed any information about future plots, the report says.

The headquarters officials sent an untrained interrogator to take over the questioning and “fix” the situation, the report says. He kept Nashiri in a “standing stress position” with his hands bound above his head for two and a half days. While Nashiri was blindfolded, a pistol was placed near his head and a drill was operated near his body.

Those techniques had not been authorized either by the CIA or by Justice Department officials who had ruled that the CIA’s interrogation practices would not violate U.S. laws against torture. The Justice Department rulings had been based in part on assurances that the program involved safeguards, but those were routinely violated, the committee said.

Two former military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who are identified in the report by pseudonyms, were the chief architects of the interrogation program and personally conducted some of the waterboarding, even though they “had no direct experience” with the practice, the report says. Their only experience was helping to run an Air Force program in the 1980s that trained pilots to resist interrogation they might face if captured by nations that did not observe the Geneva Convention against torture.

The CIA relied on the two men to assess the psychological effects of waterboarding and other techniques on individual prisoners. That put them in position to judge the effectiveness of interrogations they were involved in administering, the report noted.

A company the two formed to help run the program received $81 million from the CIA from 2002 to 2009, the Senate investigation found.

In January 2003, one of the psychologists arrived at the detention site where Nashiri was being held to assess whether he should be subjected to additional harsh interrogation measures. He recommended going ahead with “the full range of enhanced exploitation and interrogation measures” to establish a “desired level of helplessness,” the report says.

Nearly two years after the CIA’s last interrogation of Nashiri, an assessment by one of the psychologists who had recommended his harsh treatment concluded the prisoner had “provided essentially no actionable information.” In 2006, Nashiri was transferred to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo.

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, when detaining prisoners was first discussed within the Bush administration, CIA officials promised their facilities would be comparable to federal prisons or would meet Pentagon standards for prisoners of war.

The facilities fell far short of those standards. In 2002, when officials from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons visited a CIA prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit, they were stunned to find detainees shackled in their cells in complete darkness and isolation, with only buckets for human waste.

“They have never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived,” a CIA officer wrote in an email.

The program grew so quickly that the agency had difficulty keeping track of all of its detainees. In December 2003, a CIA station chief in a country the report does not identify said: “We have made an unsettling discovery that we are holding a number of detainees about whom we know very little.” Most of the prisoners had not been questioned for months.

CIA officers involved in the program worried from the start that they might face criminal charges. Those concerns led Jose Rodriguez, the agency’s deputy director for operations, to seek written assurances from Attorney General John Ashcroft that no one would face prosecution, a request Ashcroft denied.

Rodriguez also warned underlings against writing emails that raised questions about the legality of the interrogations. After one message in 2002 in which an interrogator wrote that the techniques they were using were “approaching the legal limit,” Rodriguez admonished him not to put such statements in writing.

“Such language is not helpful,” he wrote.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Militants Quickly Adjust Tactics To Blunt Airstrikes

By David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times

Militants in Iraq are seeking to blunt the effectiveness of U.S. airstrikes by dispersing their forces into urban areas and increasingly adopting terror tactics such as suicide attacks and bombings, says a senior American military officer.

“What we’ve seen so far is a lot of the black flags have come down, a lot of the convoys have dispersed, a lot of the assembly areas have been moved into urban areas,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a small group of reporters Tuesday. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks.”

The shift in tactics by Islamic State militants in Iraq comes less than a month after the United States began airstrikes. Iraqi and Kurdish troops with backing from U.S. advisers are seeking to eject an increasingly shadowy enemy from towns and cities while defending against attacks.

Dempsey said the dispersal of militants into urban areas will make it “a little tougher” for U.S. warplanes to target them. In more than 160 airstrikes, U.S. aircraft and armed drones have attacked large convoys of vehicles and groups of fighters displaying black flags that made them easily identifiable from the air.

Dempsey spoke to reporters as he headed to Paris for talks about Iraq with French officials. France has said it would consider joining the United States in carrying out airstrikes in Iraq.

As hundreds of additional U.S. troops move in to advise and train Iraqi forces, the Pentagon is planning to widen the types of targets it hits from the air, focusing on Islamic State leaders, he said.

“I think you’ll see the aperture open a little bit … whether it’s fixed facilities, whether it’s high-value individuals. That is the next step,” Dempsey said, referring to broader targets the Pentagon will be allowed to strike once President Obama and Iraq approve the war plan.

Obama is expected to sign off on that plan Wednesday during a visit to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, he said. The blueprint will be presented to Iraqi officials in Baghdad, who will be given a chance to suggest changes, he said.

The United States is also hoping to nail down specific contributions to the military effort from Iraq’s neighbors, which have promised to join the fight against Islamic State.

How far the Obama administration is prepared to go in Syria remains murky. It may take several years to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and “several more years than that” to defeat the group in Syria, Dempsey said. If the United States launches airstrikes in Syria, he said, it will be “to put pressure on” Islamic State militants until the United States and Saudi Arabia can train moderate rebels who can fight them on the ground.

U.S. officials are still waiting for Iraq’s newly installed and Shiite Muslim-led government to take additional steps to reassure Sunnis Muslims and Kurds that it intends to share power. Without a government that enjoys broad support in Iraq, the military effort isn’t likely to be adequate to defeat the militants, Dempsey said.

“I wouldn’t say it is functioning in a way yet that has convinced the Sunnis and the Kurds that it will live up to the promises it has made,” he said of the new government, “but we’re in a much better place than we were six months ago.”

“If that doesn’t happen,” he added, “then it’s time for Plan B.”

The Pentagon assessment ordered last month concluded that the special forces troops that will serve as advisers can only work with 26 out of Iraq’s 50 combat brigades, Dempsey said. The other 24 are considered too sectarian to be considered reliable, Dempsey said.

Under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the units were purged of Sunni and Kurd commanders and were effectively turned into Shiite militias.

“The question for the government of Iraq to answer is what are they going to do about that,” said Dempsey. “You actually can’t have parts of the federal national service be single sect.”

As part of a broad assistance effort, the Pentagon is preparing to give Iraqi and Kurdish troops equipment for combating hidden bombs and is planning to train them in use of the gear at secure facilities north and west of Baghdad, Dempsey said.

“We expect ISIL to begin to rely far more on IEDs,” he said, referring to the Islamic State by one of its acronyms and to improvised explosive devices. “As they retreat, my guess is they will litter, literally litter … areas that they abandon with IEDs. So we need a serious counter-IED effort with the ISF (Iraqi forces) so they don’t stumble in and take unnecessary casualties.”

The Iraqi army and police forces have more experience at dealing with militants who attempt to blend into the population in towns and cities than at fighting a conventional-style war, Dempsey said, noting that they have battled such a shadowy foe for years.

AFP Photo

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Suspected Benghazi Attack Ringleader Is Captured By United States

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — In a secret raid Sunday, U.S. special operations troops captured the suspected ringleader of the 2012 attack against two American government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, putting a key figure in the deadly assault in U.S. hands for the first time, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured near Benghazi by U.S. troops working with the FBI, and was taken to an undisclosed location outside Libya, the Pentagon said in a statement that described him as “a key figure in the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi.”

There were no casualties in the raid and all U.S. personnel have left Libya, the statement said.

President Barack Obama, in statement, said the capture “demonstrated that we will do whatever it takes to see that justice is done when people harm Americans.”

Obama said the United States also remained committed to supporting the Libyan people “as they work to overcome years of tyranny and do the difficult work of building a democracy.”

Khattala’s capture is a major success for the Obama administration, which has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from Republicans since the Benghazi attacks for failing to capture the perpetrators and for poor security at a U.S. diplomatic compound and a CIA base nearby.

Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed that night when more than 60 attackers overwhelmed unarmed Libyan guards and stormed the compound, setting fire to the buildings and engaging in running gun battles with a few CIA and diplomatic security agents.

The Justice Department has issued a sealed indictment of Khattala, officials have said, but the FBI investigation of the incident was stalled for months by instability in Libya. The country’s weak government ruled out extraditing its citizens to the United States.

Until his capture, Khattala continued to live freely in Libya while giving taunting interviews to major media outlets as recently as six months ago. The State Department designated Khattala as a terrorist in January, describing him as a leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant group that has been described as having links to al-Qaida.

Staff writer Neela Banerjee contributed to this report.

Photo: Gianluigi Guercia via AFP
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Army Names General To Investigate Bergdahl’s Disappearance

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Army said Monday it had named a two-star general to investigate the disappearance and capture of Sergeant Bowe R. Bergdahl in Afghanistan, a possible step toward a formal finding that he left his base without authorization.

Major General Kenneth R. Dahl, who formerly served as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will investigate the “the facts and circumstances surrounding” Bergdahl’s capture in June 2009, when he left a combat base near the Pakistani border and was taken prisoner, eventually falling into Taliban hands.

Bergdahl was exchanged last month for five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and is now receiving treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

In its statement Monday, the Army said Dahl will not interview Bergdahl until the team of doctors and therapists who are treating him give their permission. “No timeline for completion of the investigation has been set,” the statement said.

“The Army’s top priority remains Sergeant Bergdahl’s health and reintegration,” it added.

Pentagon officials said that Dahl’s primary task is getting Bergdahl’s account of what happened to him during his nearly five years in captivity.

A previous investigation in 2009, which has not been made public, concluded that Bergdahl left his post without permission after growing disenchanted with the Army and the war in Afghanistan, according to officials familiar with the findings. Bergdahl has said in a video released by his captors that he was captured after falling behind on a patrol.

“These types of investigations are not uncommon and serve to establish the facts on the ground following an incident,” the Army said in a written statement.

Dahl will have access to the 2009 investigation, the Army said.

The prisoner exchange has prompted sharp criticism of the Obama administration by some Republicans in Congress who contend that the deal violated a U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists and that the U.S. gave up too much to get Bergdahl back.

But Obama and top Pentagon officials have responded that they believed the deal was their last chance to get a possibly ailing Bergdahl back and that not doing the swap of prisoners would have breached a longstanding practice of getting back members of military who are taken captive.

Dahl is deputy commanding general of 1st Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. He served as deputy commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division in southern Afghanistan in 2010-12, and returned in 2012 as a deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, according to his Army biography.

Photo via AFP

Hagel Stands Up For ‘Tough Call’ To Trade Taliban Prisoners For Bergdahl

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday defended the swapping of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners, insisting that the exchange was the “last, best chance” to get him back and did not violate a long-standing U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists.

Hagel, in the first testimony to Congress on the controversial swap, dismissed Republican complaints that Congress was not informed about the prisoner swap ahead of time, calling it an “extraordinary situation” that required secrecy until after Bergdahl was handed over in eastern Afghanistan last month.

His appearance before the House Armed Services Committee comes after a week of questioning by lawmakers of both parties about the deal reached by the Obama administration for Bergdahl.

He remains at a U.S. military hospital in Germany undergoing counseling and is facing an investigation into whether he deserted his Army unit before he was taken prisoner.

In sometimes sharp exchanges with Hagel, Republicans on the panel argued that because Bergdahl was believed to be held by a terrorist organization, the deal to free him breached U.S. practice not to negotiate with terrorists.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., called the prisoner swap “deeply troubling” and “unprecedented” — a criticism echoed by several Republican lawmakers on the panel.

“How is it the United States could have been in negotiations with the Haqqani network, a listed terrorist organization, and it not conflict with our policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists?” asked Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.

Hagel insisted that the U.S. had engaged only in “indirect negotiations” with Qatar acting as intermediary, and even then only with Taliban officials, not with members of the Haqqani group, which has close ties to Taliban leaders. It has carried out some of the most deadly attacks in Afghanistan in recent years.

“We didn’t negotiate with terrorists, Congressman,” he told Turner.

Pentagon general counsel Stephen Preston, testifying with Hagel, conceded that the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan during the 1990s before being ousted in the 2001 U.S. invasion, is “not a conventional nation state” like those that held U.S. prisoners of war in past conflicts.

The deal to get Bergdahl “falls within the tradition of prisoners exchanged by opposing forces in time of war,” Preston said, citing the case of Army helicopter pilot Michael Durant, who was captured by Somali militants in 1993 in a battle in Mogadishu in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed.

Durant was returned in a “quiet arrangement” with Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in which he was exchanged for Somalis captured by the U.S., Preston said.

But Turner challenged that account, citing news reports that quoted Aidid as saying Durant was released as a “goodwill gesture” and then-President Bill Clinton as denying there had been any deal.

Hagel conceded that the administration “could have done a better job” at keeping Congress informed about the negotiations to free Bergdahl, who had been held captive nearly five years after leaving his base in eastern Afghanistan without permission.

“We grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sgt. Bergdahl,” Hagel said. “We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiation for Bergdahl’s release.”

Members of both parties criticized the administration for not notifying Congress in advance of the prisoner transfer, with McKeon and others contending it violated a U.S. law requiring 30-day notification before any prisoner can be moved from Guantanamo.

Hagel insisted that the U.S. did not know until hours before Bergdahl was turned over that the Taliban intended to comply with the deal, making it impossible to comply with the 30-day requirement. In addition, Preston said, Department of Justice lawyers had assured them that Obama had the power to transfer the Taliban prisoners without notifying Congress ahead of time, citing his constitutional powers as commander in chief.

“We did not know until the moment Sgt. Bergdahl was handed over safely to U.S. Special Operations Forces that the Taliban would hold up their end of the deal,” Hagel said. “The president’s decision to move forward with the transfer of these detainees was a tough call. I supported it. I stand by it.”

Qatar has promised that the Taliban prisoners will be kept in that country for a year, but Hagel refused to go into further details about security assurances that the U.S. has received aimed at preventing them from threatening the U.S.

“If any of these detainees ever try to rejoin the fight, they would be doing so at their own peril. There’s always — always — some risk,” Hagel conceded.

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

Republicans Criticize Prisoner Swap That Freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Senior Republicans criticized President Barack Obama on Sunday for releasing five high-ranking Taliban prisoners to secure the return of an American prisoner of war, arguing that it breached longstanding U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists.

Administration officials strongly defended the swap, saying Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in danger after five years in captivity. They said they acted to save the life of the only American held by insurgents after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Bergdahl’s parents offered only praise and thanks for the release on Saturday of their 28-year-old son, with whom they had still not spoken.

“There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you,” said Bergdahl’s mother, Jani, fighting back tears during a news conference at an Idaho Army National Guard facility in Boise, near the family’s hometown, Hailey.

“You are free. Freedom is yours,” she added. “We will see you soon. I love you, Bowe.”

Bergdahl’s father, Bob, called the lack of contact a necessary part of his son’s reintegration.

“Bowe has been gone for so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back,” he said. The soldier’s father still wore the bushy beard he had grown to show solidarity with his son, who disappeared after completing guard duty at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.

Bob Bergdahl compared his son’s plight to making a deep-sea dive — if he returned too quickly to the surface, “it could kill him.”

Sgt. Bergdahl was flown Sunday from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He is expected to be moved to a military hospital in San Antonio this week.

The debate in Washington immediately turned partisan. Republican critics argued that the deal would embolden insurgents to try to grab other U.S. soldiers or civilians to trade for more prisoners at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“What does this tell the terrorists? That if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is expected to run for president, said on ABC’s “This Week.” He called the prisoner swap “very disturbing.”

Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel thanked the special operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl on Saturday from a pre-arranged site in Khost province. He told reporters that the administration agreed to the prisoner exchange because Bergdahl’s “safety and health were both in jeopardy” and it was necessary to “save his life.”

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Hagel said he does not believe “that what we did in getting our prisoner of war home would in any way encourage terrorists to take hostages.”

The need to move quickly when the opportunity arose last week prevented Obama from giving Congress the required 30-day notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Hagel said.

The five were released to the custody of the government of Qatar, which mediated the exchange. They are barred from leaving the Persian Gulf emirate for one year. U.S. officials said they would be subject to monitoring and to other restrictions on their movements and activities.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, called the five Taliban prisoners “the hardest of the hard core” who were “possibly responsible for the deaths of thousands.”

Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he added: “We need more information about the conditions of where they’re going to be and how. But it is disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight.”

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, dismissed GOP criticism that the deal to get Bergdahl home would put other soldiers at risk of being taken hostage, and she disputed that it violated a U.S. practice not to negotiate with terrorists.

“This is a very special situation,” she said on CNN, saying that getting Bergdahl back was a “sacred obligation” that required reaching a deal with a “non-state actor.”

“In all likelihood, (the returned Taliban detainees) will not pose a national security risk,” she said.

In previous wars, governments have exchanged prisoners when the conflict is over. But in this case, Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network, a militant group closely linked to the Taliban.

The five released prisoners were all senior Taliban commanders, and were imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban government. Before the exchange Saturday, none was deemed eligible for release by the Pentagon.

Muhammad Fazl, 47, served as Taliban deputy defense minister during the U.S. invasion and commanded troops fighting the U.S. forces in northern Afghanistan, according to a 2008 Defense Department document on his case. He was wanted by the United Nations for “possible war crimes, including the murder of thousands of Shiites,” the document said. “If released, the detainee would likely rejoin the Taliban,” it added.

Khairullah Khairkhwa, according to another 2008 Defense Department document, served as the Taliban government’s interior minister and as governor of Herat province, and he was “directly associated” with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader. Khairkhwa also “was associated” with a military training camp run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a notorious al-Qaida-linked leader later killed by U.S. forces in Iraq. In addition, he was “probably one of the major opium drug lords in western Afghanistan,” the document said.

Mullah Norullah Noori, according to a similar 2008 document, was the senior Taliban commander in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif during the 2001 U.S. invasion. He was wanted by the U.N. for possible war crimes, including the deaths of thousands of Shiite Muslims, the document said. He was “associated” with Mullah Omar and senior al-Qaida leaders, it said.

Abdul Haq Wasiq, according to a 2008 document on his case, served as deputy minister of intelligence during the Taliban rule and was involved in recruiting other militant groups to fight against the U.S. after the 2001 invasion. He used his office to support al-Qaida and “arranged for al-Qaida personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff,” it said.

Mohammed Nabi was a “senior Taliban official” with close ties to al-Qaida, the Haqqani network and other groups that fought the U.S. in Afghanistan, according to a 2008 Defense Department document. He was part of a militant cell in Khost that attacked U.S. troops and facilitated the smuggling of weapons and fighters, the document said.

AFP Photo

Pentagon Orders 600 Troops To Eastern Europe, Criticizes Russia

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Tuesday that it was sending 600 soldiers to Eastern Europe for military exercises in response to “aggression” by Russia in Ukraine, the first U.S. ground forces dispatched to the region in the 2-month-old crisis.

The 173rd Infantry Brigade, a U.S. Army airborne unit based in Vicenza, Italy, will deploy 150-soldier companies to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia over the next month and will rotate more U.S. forces to those and possibly other countries at least through the end of the year, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters.

The four countries, all of which were under Moscow’s control during the Cold War and later joined NATO, have been among the most vocal in asking the U.S. and other alliance members to send forces to their territory in response to Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border.

“What we’re after here is persistent presence, a persistent rotational presence,” Kirby said. “If there’s a message to Moscow … it’s that we take our obligations” to defend NATO members “very, very seriously.”

Latvia’s government said in a statement issued by its embassy in Washington that it welcomed the decision to send troops, calling it a “fast and practical response.”

The first U.S. troops will start infantry training exercises Wednesday in Poland. The others are expected to arrive by Monday for similar land-based exercises in the Baltic countries, Kirby said.

“How far this will go? I can’t give you a specific, you know, deadline or timeline on it,” he said. “But we’re looking at trying to keep this rotational presence persistent throughout the rest of this year.”

Meanwhile, the Navy said Tuesday that it would send the frigate Taylor to the Black Sea when the guided missile destroyer Donald Cook departs. A Russian fighter jet taunted the Donald Cook on April 12 with a dozen low-altitude passes that Pentagon officials denounced as “provocative.”

The Donald Cook is now in port at Constanta, Romania, the Navy said. It was not immediately clear when it would leave the region.

In addition, the White House announced an aid package for Ukraine that includes $11.4 million in assistance for upcoming elections, economic aid and $8 million in nonlethal military supplies. The military assistance includes bomb-detection equipment, hand-held radios and vehicles for Ukraine’s military and border guards.

Russia’s movement of troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region and its buildup of about 40,000 troops elsewhere along Ukraine’s border has raised fears of a civil war in Ukraine and of a large-scale Russian intervention.

But the 28-member NATO alliance has been divided over how to respond, with some major members such as Germany and Britain opposing moves to put troops on the ground. Kirby said the decision to send troops was a bilateral move by the U.S. and the nations concerned.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, the Pentagon has sent 12 F-16 fighter jets and aviation support teams to Poland.

The only moves NATO has made as an alliance is to fly surveillance planes over alliance territory to monitor Ukraine.

“It is essential that NATO continues following developments” and “responds appropriately, if necessary,” Latvia’s government said in its statement.

AFP Photo/Anatoliy Stepanov

Pentagon To Remove 50 Nuclear Missiles From Silos

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to remove 50 nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles from their silos over the next four years but not eliminate them from the U.S. arsenal, a move aimed at complying with a 2010 treaty with Russia and avoiding a fight with members of Congress from states where the missiles are based.

Lawmakers had feared reductions in nuclear forces required under the New START treaty would eliminate an entire ICBM squadron at one of three Air Force bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming where the U.S. keeps its 450 Minuteman III missiles — a potentially major economic blow.

But a senior defense official, who briefed reporters Tuesday on the plan, said a total of 50 missiles would be removed from silos at the three missile bases. That will keep all nine ICBM squadrons operational.

The decommissioned missiles will no longer be counted as operational under the treaty, but would continue to be maintained and guarded. The silos also will be kept operational, the official said, describing them as “warm but empty.”

Lawmakers from the three states applauded the plan, which avoids the need to lay off hundreds of Air Force personnel and cut millions of dollars that the bases pump into the local economies.

“Today’s announcement is a big win for our nation’s security and for Malmstrom Air Force Base and north-central Montana,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), said in a statement. “Keeping silos on warm status ensures that they remain under the watch of Malmstrom’s security and maintenance personnel.”

Malmstrom, near Great Falls, has been rocked in recent months by the discovery of widespread cheating on proficiency tests by Air Force officers serving on Minuteman III launch teams. Last month, the commander of three squadrons retired and nine other officers were removed after an Air Force investigation found cheating had gone on for two years.

ICBM squadrons also are located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

To comply with treaty limits on warheads and launchers, the Pentagon also will convert 30 B-52 bombers configured for nuclear weapons to carry conventional weapons.

The Navy will disable four launch tubes on each of its 14 missile-carrying submarines. The subs thus will carry up to 56 fewer missiles, each with four nuclear warheads.

The treaty calls for the United States and Russia to each cut their deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 by 2018, down from a previous ceiling of 2,200. It also set a limit of 700 deployed missiles and bombers.

The decision to largely spare land-based missiles is at odds with the recommendations of some outside experts, who have called for eliminating or deeply cutting the Minuteman III and relying instead on submarines and bombers to carry nuclear weapons.

Bruce Blair, a former ICBM launch officer and founder of Global Zero, a group that seeks elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide, said it would have been more cost effective and “strategically sensible” to eliminate an ICBM squadron.

Because it is in a fixed location, a Minuteman III missile is more vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack and therefore would have to be fired quickly in a crisis, making it more destabilizing, Blair said.

“It is designed strictly to fight a large-scale nuclear war with Russia,” he said.

gregwest98 via Flickr.com

U.S. Sending Aircraft, More Troops To Aid Search For Kony In Africa

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Monday that it is stepping up the search for fugitive rebel leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa, deploying 150 Air Force special operations troops and four tilt-rotor transport planes to Uganda to help with the manhunt.

The aircraft — V-22 Ospreys that can land and take off like helicopters — will be used to move African troops and their U.S. advisers faster and farther across the vast distances in the countries where Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army operates. Each Osprey can carry 20 soldiers.

“We hope that this will allow them to land in his backyard with no notice,” said Lt. Col. Robert A. Firman, a Pentagon spokesman.

Along with the V-22s, which will be based in Uganda, the U.S. is sending three aerial tankers, which can refuel the Ospreys in flight to extend their range, he said.

There are already about 150 U.S. special operations troops deployed to help Ugandan troops, who are leading the search for Kony. The governments of South Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo also have contributed troops.

The planes will be arriving this week and will fly from an air base in northern Uganda, Firman said, adding that the deployment was possible because of the shrinking U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

The U.S. adviser team had been forced to rely on helicopters and a small number of planes supplied by African countries involved in the search and by contractors, Firman said.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Ospreys, which are based at a U.S. facility in Djibouti, would rotate in and out of Uganda rather than stay there permanently.

“They probably won’t be on the ground for very long but they’ll be back,” he said at a news conference Monday.

Kony, a Ugandan rebel leader, was indicted in 2005 by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. He is accused of abducting thousands of children in Uganda, Sudan and other African nations, turning them into sex slaves and child soldiers.

Although Kony has evaded capture for two decades, U.S. officials say the latest manhunt — launched two years ago — has damaged his Lord’s Resistance Army, reducing the number of attacks it conducts and capturing or killing several of its leaders.

The group has been ousted from Uganda and is believed to have scattered into parts of Congo and Central African Republic. But its estimated 200 fighters move constantly and hide in the dense jungles, using the region’s porous borders to elude capture.

The Obama administration first sent U.S. troops to aid the search in 2011. The Americans are barred from fighting the rebel group themselves except in self-defense and are under orders not to join patrols where there is the possibility of a firefight, Firman said.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, praised the White House move.

“Joseph Kony’s reign of terror has gone on far too long, and we cannot go on another year without bringing him and the LRA to justice,” Inhofe said.

AFP Photo/ Mark Wilson

NATO Reconnaissance Planes To Monitor Ukraine Crisis

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — NATO said Monday that it will begin reconnaissance flights to keep watch on Ukraine, the latest military move intended to reassure U.S. allies in Eastern Europe that are worried about Russia’s incursion in Crimea.

The Airborne Warning and Control System planes, known as AWACS, will begin flying soon over Poland and Romania, both members of NATO, “to monitor the crisis in Ukraine,” NATO said in a statement.

Russian troops seized control in the Crimean peninsula this month, raising fears of a civil war in Ukraine. The crisis has prompted NATO countries that once were under Soviet control to seek firm signals that Washington and the rest of the military alliance will come to their aid if Moscow threatens them.

The military moves announced so far are small but are intended to reinforce the idea that the United States and NATO have sufficient forces available in Europe to respond if the crisis spills beyond Ukraine’s borders, U.S. officials said.

NATO ambassadors in Brussels approved the AWACS flights, acting on a recommendation from the alliance’s top commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove.

“These flights will enhance the alliance’s situational awareness and all will take place solely over alliance territory,” the statement added.

The move comes as U.S. and Polish officials are finalizing details of stepped-up U.S. joint training with the Polish air force that is expected to include deployment of additional U.S. fighters to Poland, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. already has sent six F-15 fighter jets to join air patrols over the Baltic states, more than doubling the number of U.S. aircraft participating in a NATO mission there.

The Truxton, a guided-missile destroyer, recently entered the Black Sea in what the Navy said was a previously planned training exercise. It docked Saturday in the Romanian port of Constanta.

The George H.W. Bush, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, arrived Saturday at the Turkish port of Antalya. It is expected to eventually head for the Persian Gulf.

White House officials have made it clear they do not see a role for the U.S. military in the Ukraine crisis, but they have reiterated that the U.S. will honor its commitment to come to the aid of other alliance members if they are threatened.

“We’re trying to tell (Russia) not to escalate this thing further … and allow the conditions to be set for some kind of resolution in the Crimea,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told PBS’ NewsHour on Friday. “But the message we are sending militarily is to our NATO allies.”

Dempsey added, “We do have treaty obligations with our NATO allies. And I have assured them that if that treaty obligation is triggered, we would respond.”

President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Wednesday at the White House with Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk.

AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte

Military Official Says Complete Pullout From Afghanistan Leaves The Country Vulnerable

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

BRUSSELS — Security in Afghanistan would worsen steadily if all U.S. troops were withdrawn this year, a senior U.S. military official warned Thursday, two days after President Barack Obama ordered the Pentagon to begin contingency planning for such a pullout.

“I can’t speculate what the outcome will be,” the commander said in remarks to reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “What I can tell you is Afghan forces aren’t self-sustainable at the end of 2014, and over time that obviously will have an impact in terms of the security environment.”

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing military plans and assessments.

Hagel and European defense ministers wrapped up two days of meetings Thursday at NATO headquarters that focused on the pullout of all foreign forces at the end of this year if Afghanistan’s government fails to sign agreements with the United States and NATO authorizing a foreign military presence after 2014.

Asked whether attacks could increase and the insurgency would gain strength next year without U.S. troops there, Hagel said: “Yes, one of the consequences could be an erosion of confidence….Yes, there are always risks, there are always uncertainties.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to stay, but Obama said this week that Karzai’s successor could do so. Afghanistan’s presidential election is scheduled April 5.

Despite the international effort to build an Afghan army and police that could withstand the insurgency, the forces are plagued with illiteracy, drug use and desertions. They often fail to provide basic support to troops in the field, including pay, fuel and spare parts.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top commander in Afghanistan, is proposing to keep around 10,000 U.S. troops, with 5,000 NATO and other international troops based in north and west of the country as part of a NATO mission, officials said.

Most of the troops would be assigned to train or advise Afghan units fighting a still-potent Taliban-led insurgency, though some U.S. forces would conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and its affiliates. White House officials have explored leaving fewer U.S. troops, but no decisions have been made, officials said.

Current plans call for steadily withdrawing the 33,000 remaining U.S. troops after the April elections. Another 10,000 would rotate in by July. If Kabul agrees to let them stay, they would remain after Dec. 31. If not, they also would be withdrawn this year.

U.S. military officers in Kabul say the Afghan army, which has taken over responsibility for security in the vast majority of the country, has performed well. But the levels of insurgent attacks has stayed steady for the last two years, the senior military officer said, suggesting they could grow more intense if the U.S. withdraws.

The prospect of a complete U.S. pullout has raised concerns in the military and U.S. intelligence agencies that large parts of Afghanistan, especially in the south and east, could once again fall under Taliban control, increasing the likelihood that remnants of al-Qaida could again operate from its territory.

U.S. officials said last December that intelligence agencies had warned in a secret assessment that security would worsen sharply if the U.S. withdraws and that Kabul, the Afghan capital, could see sharply higher insurgent attacks within a year.

The intelligence agencies also warned that the U.S. ability to launch armed drones and other counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida and other extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan could become more constrained as political opposition to such operations grows in both countries, officials said.

AFP Photo/Aref Karimi

NATO Puts Pressure On Afghanistan To Sign Troop Agreement

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

BRUSSELS — The U.S. and its European allies on Wednesday turned up the pressure on Afghanistan to authorize foreign troops on its territory after 2014, even as officials acknowledged that they may have to wait for President Hamid Karzai’s successor to resolve the standoff.

At the opening of a two-day NATO meeting, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that all alliance troops serving in Afghanistan would follow the U.S. in withdrawing at the end of the year if Kabul refuses to sign an agreement with Washington.

“If there is no agreement, there will be no NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014,” he said. “This is not our preferred option, but it might be the unfortunate outcome if the security agreement is not signed.”

The warning from NATO was closely coordinated with the White House and came a day after President Barack Obama told Karzai in a telephone call that the U.S. was planning for a complete withdrawal over Karzai’s refusal to sign the troop agreement.

NATO has been negotiating a separate agreement with Afghanistan that would authorize other countries to keep troops there after this year, but alliance officials have said from the beginning that the deal was contingent on Afghanistan concluding an accord with the U.S.

The stalemate over the troop agreement has frustrated the White House and the Pentagon, but it has taken even more of a toll in Europe, where the idea of keeping troops in Afghanistan after this year is even more controversial than it is in the U.S.

A senior NATO official said Italy, Germany and Turkey, each of which had pledged to play small but important roles in the post-2014 mission, face deadlines starting later this summer for getting parliamentary approval for the mission and the funds to carry it out.

Allied countries thus may not be able to wait as long for a decision on whether foreign troops will remain as the United States, which could delay until as late as October and still get its remaining troops out of the country by the end of December, officials said.

On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other NATO ministers are expected to approve guidance for alliance planners to begin preparing for possible full withdrawal later this year, officials said.

The U.S. has about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, though the number will drop substantially over the summer, officials say, leaving a small force in place that will take over the post-2014 mission or depart completely. There are about 19,000 troops from other countries.

U.S. officials say they are increasingly resigned to waiting until Karzai leaves office after elections to choose a successor this spring, in hopes that the new Afghan leader might sign the deal. In a clear sign of growing exasperation with Karzai, Rasmussen also raised that possibility Wednesday.

“It appears that President Karzai is not ready to sign a security agreement,” he said. “We are ready to engage with a new president.”

But officials concede that even that option is not foolproof, because the elections could drag on for months due to runoffs and the possibility of contested results. Nor is there any guarantee Karzai’s successor would sign the agreement.

The U.S. and Afghanistan reached a draft bilateral security agreement in November, laying out the terms for keeping U.S. troops in the country past 2014, when all combat troops are to be withdrawn.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is proposing a plan that would keep around 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2015, with 5,000 NATO and other international troops based in the north and west of the country as part of a NATO mission, officials said.

Most of the troops would be limited to training and advising Afghan units, though a portion of the U.S. forces would be designated for counter-terrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida and its affiliates. White House officials have been exploring the possibility of a smaller troop presence but no decisions have been made, officials said.

AFP Photo/Mauricio Lima

Cheating Inquiry Finds ‘Systemic Problems’ In U.S. Nuclear Force

WASHINGTON — Nearly half of the officers responsible for maintaining and operating nuclear-armed missiles at a Montana base have been implicated in a widening cheating investigation, a sign of deep cultural and command problems in the nuclear force, the leader of the Air Force said Thursday.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Pentagon news conference that 92 of 190 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base had been suspended because of the investigation into the sharing of answers on a proficiency test last year.

For the first time since the Air Force disclosed the cheating scandal this month, officials acknowledged that the cheating stemmed from a climate of fear created by commanders, who decided which officers on launch crews would be promoted based on whether they scored perfectly on monthly tests.

“I believe that we do have systemic problems,” James said. “The need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear.”

The number of implicated officers has nearly tripled since Jan. 15, when the Air Force announced that 16 had shared text messages with answers to a monthly missile proficiency test and that 17 others were aware of the suspected cheating but took no action.

Air Force officials continued to say they had no firm evidence that cheating went beyond the single test last year or that it had occurred at the two other Minuteman III missile bases, one in North Dakota and another in Wyoming. They acknowledge, however, that a climate of fear exists at all three installations.

The 550 launch officers at the three bases take three written tests each month on missile safety, handling of launch codes and classified war plans. They also complete a monthly test in a simulator and an annual inspection, along with periodic unannounced inspections.

Eight times a month, a two-man crew completes a 24-hour shift in an underground launch center.

The cheating investigation is focusing on a “core group” of about 40 officers at Malmstrom who are believed to have been most involved in sharing test answers, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, head of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees missiles and long-range bombers that carry nuclear weapons.

The rest were aware of the cheating but may not have used the answers, he said.

With all 92 officers under investigation suspended from launch duty, the remaining crews at Malmstrom have been required to work more shifts, and senior officers have been moved back to launch duty to keep the base’s 150 missiles operational, Wilson said.

Wilson said he had a “force improvement program” to fix what were described as systemic problems that the intercontinental ballistic missile force faces. He said commanders would be disciplined if they were found to have contributed to those problems.

“We’re going to take this wherever it goes,” he said.

Some former launch officers say that cheating in various forms on the tests has been common for decades, though they say the pressure to achieve perfect scores has increased in recent years — ironically, as the importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. national security has declined with the end of the Cold War.

After a 2007 incident in which nuclear weapons were mishandled at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, the Air Force created Global Strike Command to reinforce the need for rigorous attention to the secure and reliable handling of the weapons.

The result was even more pressure on launch crews and more tests, said Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer and co-founder of Global Zero, an organization that advocates worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons.

“Suddenly there were nothing but inspections going on constantly,” he said. “This new organization (Global Strike Command) needed a mission, and it meant that testing took on a life of its own.”

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

House Intelligence Chairman Says Russia Might Have Helped Snowden

By David S. Cloud, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden may have received help from Russian intelligence in stealing and leaking thousands of classified files, many of which the lawmaker said compromised U.S. military operations.

“He is likely to have had help. I think there are some interesting questions … that certainly would lend one to believe that the Russians had at least in some part something to do with” Snowden’s activities, Rogers said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Something more was going on there.”

Many of the thousands of computer files that Snowden copied from the agency’s computer servers related not only to surveillance programs, but also U.S. military operations, some of which now have to be ended, Rogers added.

Snowden is living in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum. Privacy advocates portray him as a hero for disclosing NSA surveillance programs, but U.S. officials call Snowden a traitor who joined the agency with the intent to steal and release information.

Rogers said earlier this month that a damage assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency indicates most of the estimated 1.7 million classified documents that officials say Snowden copied from NSA computers involve military operations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was still unclear whether Snowden received assistance from Russian intelligence or another foreign government. No evidence of a link has emerged.

“He may well have,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We don’t know at this stage.”

She and Rogers called for further investigation into Snowden’s possible foreign intelligence ties before he fled, first to Hong Kong, then to Russia.

Feinstein and Rogers also expressed doubt Sunday about President Barack Obama’s plan for restricting the federal government from collecting data on domestic telephone calls, saying that private phone companies should not be assigned the job instead because they do not want the responsibility and would not be subject to adequate oversight.

“I think that’s a very difficult thing,” Feinstein said of eliminating the government’s role in keeping the records. “The whole purpose of this program is to provide instantaneous information to be able to disrupt any plot that may be taking place.”

Obama in a speech Friday stopped short of calling for the job to be turned over to private companies.

Acknowledging concerns about either the government or private companies holding such data for use in investigations, Obama called for a public-private panel to review the issue and make recommendations in 70 days.

Rogers warned about the possibility of privacy abuses if Congress, the courts and other government agencies are not involved in overseeing the data collection.

“If you move away from the government sector, you lose all of the review,” said Rogers, adding that phone companies are “there to provide service to their customers, not work for the government.”

The comments suggested that Obama’s plan may face opposition in Congress from both parties when the NSA surveillance programs come up for reauthorization next year.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., backed the Obama plan, saying there have been “abuses” in use of the data by the government. He noted that phone companies already collect the information and would not be likely to use it to invade customers’ privacy.

“They’re not going to use that data in ways that will break faith with their customers,” Udall said on “Face the Nation.”

Photo: AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards