« October 2010 | Main | December 2010 »

November 30, 2010

The elusive DADT survey results

The Pentagon is asking reporters to go into a closet to read the results of their don’t ask don’t tell survey. Seriously.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be briefing reporters about the results of the eight-month long survey at 2 p.m. today. Reporters wanting to read parts of the report before asking him questions must go to a conference room and take notes, per Pentagon rules, two hours before the conference begins. The full report will not be available that time, but instead an executive summary and perhaps portions of it. Those notes cannot be published until the press conference begins.  The report is scheduled to posted online between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m.

This has caused quite a stir here at the Pentagon amongst my colleagues. What concerns us here at N&S is how do we ask questions of the top decision makers without fully reading the report first? And if it is going be public, why can’t we have an embargoed copy?  The Pentagon said it does not want the reported leaked beforehand and does not trust journalists to abide by embargo rules. But if the secretary, the chairman and public officials broadly are prepared to answer all questions about the report on which the repeal now hangs, why not make it available to those posing questions beforehand?


November 28, 2010

Crisis Group: Afghanistan strategy failing

Quick post from Kabul as we await the WikiLeaks deluge...

The private International Crisis Group is out with a new report today that delivers a devastating judgement on the U.S./NATO strategy in Afghanistan and its chances for success.

The 12-page briefing, available here, disputes U.S. military commanders' assessment that the surge in U.S. troops and change in strategy has taken the initiative from the Taliban-led insurgency. "There is little proof that the operations have disrupted the insurgency’s momentum or increased stability. The storyline does not match facts on the ground," the report says in its overview.

A "rush to the exit" by the international community is not the answer either, the report says, painting a grim picture of what might happen in that case: "Without outside support, the Karzai government would collapse, the Taliban would control much of the country and internal conflict would worsen, increasing the prospects of a return of the destructive civil war of the 1990s. Even a partial Taliban victory would provide succour and a refuge for Pakistani jihadi groups. That could intensify violence in Pakistan and increase attacks on India."




November 26, 2010

Wikileaks and the future of U.S. relations with its allies

As early as this weekend, Wikileaks could release the latest, newest batch of documents and this is causing a far bigger stir than the first two document dumps combined. The word we keep hearing to describe them is “embarrassing” and that these documents could harm U.S. relations with its allies.

Unlike the first two batches, the next group of documents will come largely from the State Department mainly in the form of cables between diplomats on various allies. The documents are seven times larger than the 400,000 released in October, according to Wikileaks. And U.S. diplomats are already responding. There have been various briefs to allies, including Canada, Britain and Norway, who have all supplied troops to Afghanistan. Israel also has received a briefing as have some members on Capitol Hill, we hear.

In Iraq, Ambassador James Jeffrey already has warned that the documents could hurt U.S. relations and “our ability to do work here.”

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, is suspected of giving the documents to Wikileaks. He has been charged with the downloading and transfer of classified material. But depending on what the documents show, that may be of little comfort to allies the United States has come to depend on in its war in Afghanistan. We will be all staying tuned.

From July 2011 to the end of 2014 to...who knows?

We here at N&S hope you had a fabulous Thanksgiving. We of course have much to be thankful for including the honor of covering national security issues and for our readers. Our beloved Warren Strobel spent Thanksgiving with the troops in Afghanistan. You can read his story on how one group of troops spent their holiday here.

In the last few weeks, we here have noticed a big change in the Afghanistan strategy. Actually, I was having lunch with a friend of mine, and he first pointed it out to me, and I have been thinking about it since. In the span of a few weeks, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan went from Vice President Joe Biden famously predicting a large outpouring of troops starting in July 2011 (Remember Biden's quote: "In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.") to a major withdrawal by the end of 2014 to now troops possibly staying beyond as 2014 is "aspirational."  And yet this has not caused as much as a whimper from what I can tell either here in Washington or around the country.  I can’t understand why.

There are of course various theories. Despite all the talk of a date certain of withdrawal, the new date actually just reflects the reality; the United States is not clear on what it is leaving. Then there is the political reality. With Republicans, who support staying until the mission is complete, winning big in the midterm elections President Obama has their backing to say the United States needs to stay longer. And frankly, it seems the President isn’t seeking to garner the liberals support as  much as the moderates who decide election outcomes.  And then there is everyone’s focus on the economy.

Throughout the goals have not changed, so how has the date? Given that the majority of Americans want out of Afghanistan, why hasn’t this change garnered more discussion?

I would welcome your thoughts.

November 21, 2010

Afghan election saga, next chapter

While they haven't garnered nearly as much attention as last year's flawed presidential election, Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary polls have been a study in chaos. Take widespread insecurity that prevented polling in many places, throw in stuffed ballot boxes and disqualified votes by the hundreds of thousands, and then add audio tapes apparently depicting power-brokers pressuring election officials ... well, you get the idea.

Today in Kabul, the watchdog Electoral Complaints Commission announced it was disqualifying another 20 candidates who at first had appeared to win. The ECC said their election-day tallies were the result of tampering.

The 20 candidates, some of whom were incumbents, came from 10 provinces across Afghanistan. One, Hashmat Khalil Karzai of Kandahar province, is said to be a distant relation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The Washington Post's Joshua Partlow had a great scoop earlier this month about audiotapes that appear to show cabinet minister and former provincial governer Ismail Khan instructing an election official which candidates should be declared winners.

There have been some fairly small protests in Kabul and other cities over the elections, but apathy appears to be the main emotion. Some Western officials say the fact that the ECC is careful considering complaints of irregularity and taking action shows the process if working, after a fashion.

Still, the perception that the elections are illegitimate could further drain support from the Karzai government, hampering U.S. and NATO goals of stabilizing Afghanistan. No word yet on when final election results will be announced.


November 20, 2010

A whistleblower speaks

Salomon, Harold


We spoke earlier this week with Harold Salomon, the man who blew the whistle on contractor Louis Berger Group's deliberate and long-term cheating of the U.S. government. The interview was Salomon's first since the case, which grew out of his revelations, was unsealed in federal court in New Jersey earlier this month. LBG, one of the U.S. Agency for International Development's biggest contractors in Afghanistan, agreed to pay nearly $70 million in fines.

(In the 'Now It Can Be Told' department, when McClatchy Newspapers was the first to report the investigation of Louis Berger back in September, we were aware of Salomon's name as the whistleblower. We agreed to withhold it from publication at the request of he and his attornies at Phillips & Cohen law firm, who said publication might disrupt the investigation and lawsuit).

Salomon began work as a financial analyst at Louis Berger in early 2002 and said he quickly came to realize two things: fraud was going on, and he had been hired because, as a Haitian immigrant, his superiors assumed that he would either not discover the illegality, or not have the gumption to report it.

"Me being an immigrant would be easy prey," he said in a phone interview. They thought "I would not understand anything."

His first clue that something was wrong came just three months into the job, he said, when he was told to send an inexplicable $35,000 wire transfer to an individual overseas. (He declined to name the person or country involved). He questioned his boss, who told him to send the money anyway, and then asked for a confirmation email from the unnamed receipient. The response he got: "I was told it was 'grease money'," ie, a bribe.

Salomon said that at various points, he was asked to lie and misrepresent financial data to the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency. He once found a financial journal entry that was accompanied by a card that stated "do not show to auditors." He took it to his boss, who he said, exclaimed, "Holy Cow, we cannot show this to" the federal government. The note was taken from him and, he believes, destroyed.

Holly Fisher, a Louis Berger spokeswoman, declined to comment on the specifics of Salomon's experiences at the company. She said in an e-mailed statement:

    "This matter was settled with the parties involved—the U.S. government, Mr. Salomon and The Louis Berger Group—on November 5, 2010. The Louis Berger Group has undertaken comprehensive improvements to its internal controls, policies and structures, which form the foundation of the company’s systems going forward. We see no reason to comment further on these matters."

The firm acknowledged over-billing the federal government, in what federal court documents and sources said was a complicated scheme to manipulate overhead rates, sometimes shifting costs from the company's private contracts to government ones.

Salomon said he eventually decided he had to leave the company in order to report what was going on. He took large chunks of data with him that he eventually turned over to federal investigators. "It was just an accident" that I had the information, he said, "I worked long hours at home."

He contacted agents from the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and soon became worried that Louis Berger would try to blame him for the fraud. He hired a lwayer.

Under the whistleblower statutes, Salomon can receive 15 percent to 25 percent of the court award. Salomon said he will give half that amount, still to be determined, to a charity for Haiti he founded.

Salomon said he had plenty of chance to get familiar with corruption in his native Haiti, where he worked from 1986 to 1993. Now, he said, "I have seen corruption in a way that I didn't anticipate or I didn't know could happen in the United States."



November 11, 2010

Happy Veterans Day

Happy Veterans Day!
N&S would like to extend a Happy Veterans Day to all who serve. As national security journalists, we have had the honor of being alongside troops as they served in battle; indeed they have kept us alive as we have traveled with them through the streets of Iraq and the villages of Afghanistan.  We have made so many friends amongst them along the way, and at times, because of the inherent horror of war, we’ve also mourned friends who we came to know so quick and so goodbye to far too soon. Were it not for them – and their predecessors, we would not have the freedom to do our jobs and so we remember them all today, and thank you veterans – and your families – for your service.

In the spirit of today’s holiday, here is the headline from the New York Times for the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice to end World War I, the agareement that was to end all wars. Enjoy.


November 09, 2010

How Obama's visit to India could affect the war in Afghanistan

During his visit to India, President Obama said he supported his host nation receiving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which earned him resounding support from India and repudiation from Pakistan.  As a national security reporter, I couldn’t help but wonder how can the United States build economic ties with India without riling its critical partner in the war in Afghanistan.

As you may recall, Pakistan’s decision to close a border crossing with Afghanistan for just a few days in September caused a logistics problem for the United States, which depends on the crossing to get critical supplies, like gasoline, through to the troops.  In addition, thousands of Taliban fighters cross the border everyday,  and the United States is pushing Pakistan to redirect its energy from the India threat and more toward its internal Taliban problem.

At the same time, the trip to India appeared to be part an effort by Obama to not only expand relations with India because it is the world’s most populated democratic state but because of its economic ties to the United States. 

One could easily argue that the United States should not be upsetting Pakistan with 100,000 U.S. troops next door and a war in at a critical stage. At the same time, the United States has sent millions and millions of dollars in support and supplies to help Pakistan in its flood relief effort, in addition to the $1.5 billion the U.S. government sends every year in government development. And practically speaking, the likelihood of India becoming a permanent member anytime soon is unlikely, and the United States is in real economic trouble. 

I don’t have the answer but simply was struck by how once again the Obama administration’s economic and military effort collided. I would welcome your thoughts. 


Gates supports repealing DADT...exactly one minute too late

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him over the weekend that he would like to see don’t ask don’t tell repealed. His comments came days after Congress indicated that it is unlikely to pass the repeal during the lame-duck session, making his comments exactly one minute too late for any real change to the law in the last days of this session.

Gates said he would like to the repeal to happen after the Defense Department completes its yearlong study of how to implement the repeal on Dec. 1.

"I would like to see the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' but I'm not sure what the prospects for that are, and we'll just have to see," Gates told reporters traveling with him overseas.

But Congress said just days earlier the repeal is not likely anytime soon. The repeal was part of the defense authorization bill that didn’t pass last session. Congress is scheduled to take up again during the lame-duck session, but Arizona Sen. John McCain has said he wants the new bill to not include DADT.  Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan said he was fighting back but if it is not included, the authorization bill is certain to pass and DADT would head back to a now Republican house to be re-introduced as a bill, where it is less likely to pass there, let alone come before the Senate again.

It’s interesting that Gates waited to make his statement until it appeared unlikely it would actually happen this session, which begins next week. Indeed, despite the White House assertions they want the repeal to happen, it does not appear to be their top priority. Immediately after the election, the White House and DoD pushed Congress to address START and didn’t aggressively raise DADT until a week later.

It reaffirms that the top levels of the Pentagon are not eager to see the repeal happen anytime soon, but want to stay in step with the White House position. It’s the latest political dance that has come to define the DADT debate.

November 07, 2010

Kabul traffic

On assignment in Afghanistan....

Kabul's traffic has to be experienced to be believed. Think 4 million-plus people squeezed into a city designed for maybe a quarter of that, then forget lanes, rules, more than a little asphalt and just about everything else. Throw in pedestrians and cyclists dashing around and in between bumper-to-bumper cars. Quarter is rarely given, or asked for.

I've been in some interesting places for traffic before - Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, the roads of rural India - but Kabul is definitely up there with the best. And in terms of swirling dust, it has the rest beat.

We saw two fender-benders as we ventured around town today, and according to the city's central traffic dispatcher, there were four serious accidents around the capital by 12:15 p.m.

But none of that quite prepared us for the drive home at dusk from the city's western edge. With traffic piled up and barely moving, a clean white sedan went sailing past us -- on the sidewalk. "Sidewalk" may be a bit generous to describe the roadsides, which are cut through with a foot-wide drainage ditch to carry away water and collect trash. 

Sure enough, the drainage ditch widened to the left at one point, and in the white sedan went, front-left-tire-frst, it's rear bumper suddenly a foot off the ground. People seem to take adversity with aplomb here. As we passed, the driver emerged, smiling a bit ruefully. He's probably still there.




"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

Send a story suggestion or news tip.
Read more stories by Jonathan Landay.
Read more stories by Warren Strobel.
Read more stories by Nancy Youssef.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3 4 5
    6 7 8 9 10 11 12
    13 14 15 16 17 18 19
    20 21 22 23 24 25 26
    27 28