Thursday, July 24, 2014

The spyier in chief

Did you catch this disturbing news:

The White House and the NSA have something in common; they both track website user data. But it looks like the folks at the White House might not have known it was happening, and the tracking could be a violation of the White House privacy policy.
Whitehouse.gov is among thousands of websites that have been tracking visitors' online behavior, usually without the visitors' knowledge, with an almost untraceable program, according to a new study by ProPublica.

I would ask: Can you believe this?

But of course you can.

With the spyier in chief Barack, we tend to expect this sort of thing to happen.

And to happen often.



This is C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"


Thursday, July 24, 2014.  Chaos and violence continue, Iraq gets a 'new' president, Brett McGurk appears before Congress again and is grilled by Senator Robert Menendez, US House Rep Frank Wolf notes the plight of Iraqi Christians, and much more.



Yesterday morning, the State Dept's Brett McGurk and the Defense Dept's Elissa Slotkin appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Today, they appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  They were the first panel.  The second panel was former US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, retired Lt Gen Michael D. Barbero and Brookings Institute's Kenneth Pollack.

Americans remain in Iraq, including many working out of the US Embassy in Baghdad.  After Iranians repelled the US-installed Shah of Iran in 1979, they then seized the US Embassy in Tehran. A similar event in Iraq is one of the big fears in Congress and in the White House.

Senator Barbara Boxer raised the issue in the hearing.

Senator Barbara Boxer: Last question is: Are you confident we have adequate personnel on the ground to truly protect our embassy and the Americans in Baghdad?

Brett McGurk: Uh, Senator, yes.  We have moved in substantial assets both into the airport and also into the embassy.  Uhm, I was just there as late as [last] Thursday and we're confident that our defensive parameters and everything -- that our people will be safe.  Our Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security just visited Baghdad last week to do his own assessment.  We've also had teams on the ground from Centcom and this is an ongoing assessment.  And our intelligence assets have the entire everything all around the parameter of Baghdad, the airport and our embassy, very well covered so we're 

Senator Barbara Boxer: Okay.  Can you tell us how many people we have at the embassy or is that something that you don't want to discuss in open --

Brett McGurk:  We have total in Baghdad about-about 2500 now.

As with yesterday's hearing, the administration's view/spin was noted because no one knows how safe it is or isn't for diplomatic staff in Iraq.

Senator Marco Rubio also raised the issue in the hearing.  And pointed out that Shi'ite militias could be as dangerous to the US embassy staff as IS.  McGurk rushed to disagree, insisting that "since 2011," there have been no attacks on the US Embassy or its staff by Shi'ite militias.


A State Dept friend lamented today that I never say anything "nice" about Brett.

So let's note, he managed to keep it in his pants.  Of course, the hearing was in DC, so maybe that had something to do with it?

I'll also give him credit for grasping how the process of forming a government in Iraq is supposed to work.  He knows how it is supposed to work and he can outline it very clearly.  That's not sarcasm on my part, the western press struggles to grasp these basic facts.  Brett had them down pat.

He also played with his watch far less while speaking than he did the day before when appearing in front of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

So that's the "nice."

It's also worth noting that Brett was still spinning like crazy.  His catch phrase appeared to be:  "We have been embraced."  He said it repeatedly when asked how the Iraqis were responding to the beefed up American presence.

He delivered his catch phrase with such gusto, a few probably almost forgot that it was the book end to Donald Rumsfeld's (false) claim that US troops would "be greeted as liberators" (then-President of Vice Dick Cheney)  -- with roses strewn in their path.


Senator Robert Menendez is the Chair of the Committee and he wasn't in the mood for spin.  Nor was he in the mood for prettying up tyrant Nouri al-Maliki.  What happens, he wanted to know, if Nouri doesn't go but gets a third term as prime minister.


Chair Robert Menendez:  Now if it ends up being Prime Minister Maliki, how do you think that you keep this government together, this nation together?

Brett McGurk: Uhm, as I mentioned in my statement,  as the president has said, it is not our job to pick the leaders but our leaders do have to have a very inclusive agenda and pull the country together. 

Chair Robert Menendez:  I'm not asking you to pick.  Nor do I suggest we should.  The question is that if that is the result, by their own choice, it seems to me that it was very difficult -- based upon what has happened so far, based upon Sunni responses to ISIS at least in response to their grievances with the current national government -- that isn't the likely outcome of that to be more possible to see a divided Iraq?

Brett McGurk:  Uh, the prime minister will be chosen from the Shia political blocs.  And Grand Ayatollah [Ali al-] Sistani, interestingly, over the last  month, he has been very active and he has laid down some guideposts for how to form the next government.  First, it has to correct the mistakes of the past meaning it can't look anything like the current government.  Second, you need new leaders that reflect a national consensus.  We've had that now with the Speaker and the President, and so the prime minister will also have to reflect that emerging national consensus.  It remains to be seen whether the existing prime minister could build such a consensus but that remains very much in question.

Chair Robert Menendez:  You commented in the House hearing yesterday that options being developed for the President are more concrete and specific as a result of the US military advisors on the ground in Iraq and increased intelligence collection.  What guidance have you received in terms of timing for these decisions and how will the political insecurity conditions on the ground influence the president's decisions?


Elissa Slotkin: Well, as I said, the assessments came in last week. Uhm, they're dense, they're significant and so we're still working through those.  After we've done that, the President -- I'm sorry, the Secretary and the Chairman will make informed recommendations to the President.  Uhm --

Chair Robert Menendez:  Are you going to be able to tell us anything more than I read in the New York Times

Elissa Slotkin:  I would --

Chair Robert Menendez:  Which was more than I knew before you came here.

Elissa Slotkin:  I would -- I understand.  I would caution against using a leaked, half-report in the New York Times as your basis  for that --

Chair Robert Menendez:  Well the absence of having information leads me to only publicly reported resources.  So when do you intend to come to us in whatever setting to advise the Congress?  You know, this Committee has the jurisdiction over arm sales.  And my reticence to arms sales to Iraq has in some respects been proven true when in fact we've had much of our equipment abandoned and now in the hands of ISIS.  So unless you're going to give us a sense of where the security forces are at, moving forward, this Chair is not going to be willing to approve more arm sales so that they can be abandoned to go to the hands of those who we are seriously concerned about in terms of our own national security interests. 

Elissa Slotkin:  Sir, I understand and our intent is to come and brief Congress at the time when we've piled through it ourselves.  We've kept the Congress very informed.  I know I've been up at least twice a week for our Committees.  We are committed to remaining in close contact with you and there is no attempt to hide it from you.

Brett McGurk: And I would just add, Mr. Chairman, I think we're in a race against time there's no question -- 

Chair Robert Menendez: Well that's my point.

Brett McGurk: And  one thing that we have found, by surging special forces, by surging intelligence assets, as you mentioned, we do know an awful lot more than we knew, uh, uh, even six weeks ago.  Security forces in Baghdad, particularly north of Baghdad -- I describe  some of this in my written testimony -- are trying to do some things to fight back.  They have taken nearly a thousand casualties in the last month.  These units, particularly units that we have relationships with, they  are fighting, they are capable.  And those are the type of units that we're looking at to assist. But, again, this is all being discussed by the national security team as we --


That's enough of that exchange.

There were practical moments as well -- or possibly just 'practical.'

Why should the US spend almost half-a-million dollars on the military request DoD has for Iraq operations?

McGurk was given the chance to explain that.

Who had "ninety minutes in"?  In the pool for how long before an administration official mentioned oil, who had 90 minutes?

Let's note an exchange that came up almost 90 minutes into the hearing.

Senator Marco Rubio:  But here's the question that we get from people -- and that is that people are outraged about what is happening and that is especially the different reports that are coming out about what ILIS is doing.  And by no means is this a group that's popular and Americans understand that this is a terrible, radical group of individuals.  That being said, public opinion polls and just from the phone calls we get in our offices, the attitude of much of the American public is: "It's a mess but it's their problem, let them figure it out."  And I have personally said this isn't even about Iraq at this point, it's about the longterm security of the United States and the threat that ISIL poses to the United States, especially if they're able to establish a safe haven of operations -- similar to what al Qaeda did.  In fact, it was even worse than what al Qaeda was able to do in Afghanistan.  But I was hoping from the administration's point of view and from the State Dept and the Defense Dept's point of view, you could perhaps use this as an opportunity to explain to my constituents in Florida why this matters to America?  Why something happening half-way round the world in a country that people quite frankly think increasingly perhaps we shouldn't have gotten involved in, why does this matter?  Why should people care about what's happening in Iraq given the problems that are happening here at home?

Brett McGurk:  Thank you, Senator.  I'll say a couple of things.  You know, of course, I address the ISIL threat in my opening statement and that is a very serious counterterrorism threat and that is, number one.  But these are vital-vital US interests in Iraq. Number one, the counterterrorism, the al Qaeda threat.  Number two, just the supply of energy resources to the global markets.  Iraq through 2035 will-will account for 45% in all of the growth in energy exports.  If Iraq were to collapse and a major civil war -- sectarian war, the-the effects to our economy here at home would be -- would be quite serious.  


Oil -- a national security issue?  But, of course, it had nothing to do with the reasons why the US government declared war on Iraq.

Crazy.


You shouldn't call the Iraqi people 'crazy,' but you can certainly apply that term to the Kurdish officials who picked the nominee for President of Iraq.  Fouad Massoum.  76-year-old Fouad Massoum.  The president is limited to two terms.  Prior to today, the post has been held by only one person since the US invasion: Jalal Talabani.

When he began his second term, Jalal was 76-years-old.  Fouad Massoum?

76-years-old.

He should be in a retirement home, not presiding over Iraq.

How stupid are Kurdish officials?  Fouad Massoum isn't as overweight as Jalal but few people are.

The world remembers what happened the last time an unhealthy, elderly and obese man was installed as President of Iraq, right?

December 2012,  Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke.   The incident took place late on December 17, 2012 following Jalal's argument with Iraq's prime minister and chief thug Nouri al-Maliki (see the December 18, 2012 snapshot).  Jalal was admitted to Baghdad's Medical Center Hospital.    Thursday, December 20, 2012, he was moved to Germany.  He remained in Germany until July 19, 2014.  That's one day shy of 19 months -- 19 months, Jalal spent out of the country.  19 months, his family refused to allow the Speaker of Parliament to see him, refused to allow PUK officials to see him, refused to allow anyone to see him.

19 months Iraq suffered without a president.

The PUK is Fouad Massoum's party as well.  The PUK should have had the decency to step aside on this round having deprived the country of a president for 19 months and refused to call for the Constitution to be followed and Jalal to be replaced for failure to perform his duties due to being incapacitated.

The illegal war (and the US-imposed sanctions prior) helped ensure that Iraq is a young country -- the median age, per the CIA, is 21.3 years-old.

But they're stuck with a 76-year-old as president?

Roy Gutman (McClatchy Newspapers) notes:

While many politicians had warm words for Massoum, a respected Kurdistan analyst cautioned that the longtime opponent of ousted leader Saddam Hussein is widely viewed as weak. "He’s a compromise candidate in Irbil," said Hiwa Osman, referring to the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "If people want a compromise, they use him."


The new president was a topic in today's US State Dept press briefing moderated by spokesperson Marie Harf:

QUESTION: Iraq. Yeah. Today, the parliament elected –

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: -- Fuad Masum, a man of solid political credentials. But he’s also a communist. So do you have any comment on that?

MS. HARF: That he’s a communist?

QUESTION: Mm-hmm.

MS. HARF: We congratulate the Iraqi people on the election of a new president. This is a crucial step in the formation of a new government. Obviously, we’ve said this needs to happen as soon as possible. The next slip is a prime minister designate must be named within 15 days. They will then have 30 days to form a government with parliamentary approval.

QUESTION: Okay. And the general feeling in Iraq that Maliki’s fortunes are receding, is that your assessment? Do you have anyone in mind that you might like to support, like (inaudible)?

MS. HARF: As we’ve always said, we do not support any one person or any one party. We have been very clear about that from the beginning of this process.

QUESTION: But you would like to see Maliki or the Maliki era end?

MS. HARF: I don’t think I said that, Said.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I said we don’t support any one person. And we’ve also said – and you’ve heard Brett McGurk speak about this a little bit yesterday – that we have had concerns with some of the ways the Maliki government has governed and how they have not always governed inclusively. But we are not endorsing any party or any person, period, to be the next prime minister of Iraq.

QUESTION: And lastly, the Maliki government announced that they are receiving Russian equipment or Russian military equipment. Do you have any comment on that?

MS. HARF: Well, I haven’t seen this specific announcement, but – the last few times I’ve been asked about this. If it’s done through the proper channels –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


MS. HARF: I haven’t seen that, but the last few times I’ve talked about this, look, there’s a way that Iraq can get weapons from other countries. There’s a proper channel to do this. And if it’s through that channel, then I don’t think we have a big problem with it. We know there’s a big threat there that they need a lot of help to fight.

Iraq may have a new president but it shows little success at shaking the prime minister who won't fade away.  Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Vivian Salama (AP) report, "Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected an attempt by Iran to persuade him to step down, senior Iraqi politicians said Wednesday, underlining his determination to defy even his top ally to push for a third term in office and further exacerbating the country's political crisis."

In other news, Sinan Salaheddin and Sameer N. Yacoub (AP) report an attack on a Taji prison convoy has left at least 60 people dead.  On the topic of violence in Iraq, US House Rep Frank Wolf addressed it today.  His office issued the following:



     Jul 24, 2014
Washington, D.C. – For the second time this week, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) took to the House floor to alert his colleagues – and the world – of the genocide he believes is taking place in Iraq.
“Christianity as we know it in Iraq is being wiped out,” Wolf said. 
Wolf began today’s speech by reading the first two paragraphs of a Wall Street Journal editorial from earlier in the week:  “Mr. Speaker: Imagine if a fundamentalist Christian sect captured the French city of Lyon and began a systematic purge of Muslims.  Their mosques were destroyed, their crescents defaced, the Koran burned and then all Muslims forced to flee or face execution.  Such an event would be unthinkable today, and if it did occur Pope Francis and all other Christian leaders would denounce it and support efforts by governments to stop it.
“Yet that is essentially what is happening in reverse now in Mosul, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham drives all signs of Christianity from the ancient city.  Christians have lived in Mosul for nearly 2,000 years, but today they are reliving the Muslim religious wars of the Middle Ages.”
Wolf then read parts of an e-mail he received form someone on the ground in Iraq who painted a very dire situation:  “All Mosul churches and monasteries are seized by ISIS.  There are around 30.  The cross has been removed from all of them.  Many of them are burned, destroyed and looted.   Many others are being used as ISIS centers.  The religious Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs are destroyed in Mosul.  This destruction is endangering very ancient sites, such as prophet Jonah’s tomb, which was broken last week, according to many reporters.” 
Wolf then asked: “Where is the West?  Where is the Obama Administration?  Where is the Congress? The silence is deafening.”
Wolf ended his remarks by quoting William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who, in making the case against slavery in 1789, told his colleagues, “Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
Below is the complete text of Wolf’s remarks: 
“‘Imagine if a fundamentalist Christian sect captured the French city of Lyon and began a systematic purge of Muslims.  Their mosques were destroyed, their crescents defaced, the Koran burned and then all Muslims forced to flee or face execution.  Such an event would be unthinkable today, and if it did occur Pope Francis and all other Christian leaders would denounce it and support efforts by governments to stop it.
“Yet that is essentially what is happening in reverse now in Mosul, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham drives all signs of Christianity from the ancient city.  Christians have lived in Mosul for nearly 2,000 years, but today they are reliving the Muslim religious wars of the Middle Ages.’
“These are not my words.  They are the first two paragraphs of a Wall Street Journal editorial published earlier this week.
“Now I want to read parts of an e-mail I received yesterday from someone in the ground in Iraq: ‘All Mosul churches and monasteries are seized by ISIS.  There are around 30.  The cross has been removed from all of them.  Many of them are burned, destroyed and looted.   Many others are being  used as ISIS centers.  The religious Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs are destroyed in Mosul.  This destruction is endangering very ancient sites, such as prophet Jonah’s tomb, which was broken last week, according to many reporters.’ 
“It has been widely reported that ISIS soldiers have painted ‘N’ on the doors of Christians to signify that they are ‘Nasara,’ the word for Christian.  Shiite homes were painted with the letter ‘R’ for “Rawafidh,’ meaning rejectors or protestants.
“Christianity as we know it in Iraq is being wiped out. 
“With the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other country. 
“I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide.  I also believe it is a crime against humanity.
“Where is the West?  Where is the Obama Administration?  Where is the Congress? The silence is deafening.
“The West, particularly the church, needs to speak out.
“The Obama Administration needs to make protecting this ancient community a priority.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry need to have the same courage as President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell when they said genocide was taking place in Darfur.
“The Congress needs to hold this administration accountable for its  failure to act.
“The United Nations has a role, too.  It should immediately initiate proceedings in the International Criminal Court against ISIS for crimes against humanity.
“I will close today by reading the final two paragraphs of The Wall Street Journal editorial I began my statement with:  ‘Today's religious extremism is almost entirely Islamic. While ISIS's purge may be the most brutal, Islamists in Egypt have driven thousands of Coptic Christians from homes they've occupied for centuries. The same is true across the Muslim parts of Africa. This does not mean that all Muslims are extremists, but it does mean that all Muslims have an obligation to denounce and resist the extremists who murder or subjugate in the name of Allah. Too few imams living in the tolerant West will speak up against it.
“As for the post-Christian West, most elites may now be nonbelievers. But a culture that fails to protect believers may eventually find that it lacks the self-belief to protect itself.’
“As William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian and abolitionist, famously told his colleagues, ‘Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.’”













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