Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 17, 2007

More Accountability for Contractors

Things aren’t looking good for Blackwater. The company is on the hot seat over the actions of one of its Personal Security Details, which is accused of killing some seventeen civilians in Baghdad on September 17 for no good reason.

Blackwater claims that its personnel acted appropriately in self-defense, but that claim is getting harder to sustain in light of this New York Times article, which recounts interviews with three Kurds who witnessed the whole incident. The Times reports: “The three witnesses, Kurds on a rooftop overlooking the scene, said they had observed no gunfire that could have provoked the shooting by Blackwater guards.”

The accounts of these Kurds carry more weight than do many of the other statements made in recent weeks condemning Blackwater. As the Times notes:

The Kurdish witnesses are important because they had the advantage of an unobstructed view and because, collectively, they observed the shooting at Nisour Square from start to finish, free from the terror and confusion that might have clouded accounts of witnesses at street level. Moreover, because they are pro-American, their accounts have a credibility not always extended to Iraqi Arabs, who have been more hostile to the American presence.

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Things aren’t looking good for Blackwater. The company is on the hot seat over the actions of one of its Personal Security Details, which is accused of killing some seventeen civilians in Baghdad on September 17 for no good reason.

Blackwater claims that its personnel acted appropriately in self-defense, but that claim is getting harder to sustain in light of this New York Times article, which recounts interviews with three Kurds who witnessed the whole incident. The Times reports: “The three witnesses, Kurds on a rooftop overlooking the scene, said they had observed no gunfire that could have provoked the shooting by Blackwater guards.”

The accounts of these Kurds carry more weight than do many of the other statements made in recent weeks condemning Blackwater. As the Times notes:

The Kurdish witnesses are important because they had the advantage of an unobstructed view and because, collectively, they observed the shooting at Nisour Square from start to finish, free from the terror and confusion that might have clouded accounts of witnesses at street level. Moreover, because they are pro-American, their accounts have a credibility not always extended to Iraqi Arabs, who have been more hostile to the American presence.

Of course, we should not jump to any conclusions before the FBI completes its investigation. And even if Blackwater employees acted inappropriately, they would hardly be the first contractors or soldiers guilty of killing civilians in this conflict. In fact, the military is investigating claims that a recent airstrike killed nine children and six women about 75 miles north of Baghdad. (See this article for details.) Such “collateral damage” is inevitable in this kind of conflict fought against a vicious foe that does not wear uniforms and that often uses civilians as human shields. That doesn’t justify possible misconduct on the part of either soldiers or contractors, but it does at least provide context that too often seems missing from news accounts.

Don’t get me wrong. Contractors need to be held accountable for wrong-doing, which they have not been to date. But I am troubled by the willingness of so many to demonize all contractors without suggesting a good alternative. As this Wall Street Journal story notes, say what you will about Blackwater, its services will be hard to replace. With about 1,000 personnel and a number of armored vehicles and armed helicopters, Blackwater is the primary provider of protective services for State Department personnel in the most dangerous parts of the country, including Baghdad. Two other contractors work in safer areas—DynCorp in northern Iraq and Triple Canopy in the south. Either one would be hard-pressed to replace Blackwater tomorrow. The U.S. military could do it, but doesn’t want to, because it needs every soldier it can get on the frontlines.

Throwing all contractors out of the country isn’t terribly practical; even getting rid of Blackwater alone would be tough. A better alternative—as I suggested in this op-ed—is to create more accountability, by putting mercenaries under the direct purview of military commanders. According to the New York Times, that is precisely the direction in which Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wants to go.

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Libya, Newest Security Council Member

Meet the newest members of the United Nations Security Council: Vietnam, Croatia, Costa Rica, Burkina Faso, and Libya, all elected yesterday for two-year terms starting next January 1. The United States chose not to fight Tripoli’s bid, which was unopposed. “We have not actively campaigned against them,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey in the beginning of this month. Previously, Washington had engaged in a fifteen-year campaign to keep Colonel Qaddafi’s repugnant regime off the Council.

At one time, that regime was considered an international pariah. Yesterday, 178 of 192 nations in the General Assembly voted for the North African state. As Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the UN, said, “The world obviously does change.”

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Meet the newest members of the United Nations Security Council: Vietnam, Croatia, Costa Rica, Burkina Faso, and Libya, all elected yesterday for two-year terms starting next January 1. The United States chose not to fight Tripoli’s bid, which was unopposed. “We have not actively campaigned against them,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey in the beginning of this month. Previously, Washington had engaged in a fifteen-year campaign to keep Colonel Qaddafi’s repugnant regime off the Council.

At one time, that regime was considered an international pariah. Yesterday, 178 of 192 nations in the General Assembly voted for the North African state. As Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the UN, said, “The world obviously does change.”

But has Libya? The same one-man system still rules the North African state. That tyrant was responsible for the deaths of two Americans in the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub—and for the killing of 270 people from 21 countries over Lockerbie in 1988. “I feel that the U.S. has totally lost its moral compass,” said Susan Cohen, who lost her twenty-year-old daughter in the downing of Pan Am 103.

The outraged mother is right. In reality, the only thing that has changed is Qaddafi’s take on geopolitics. That is a slim reed—the Libyan strongman is, after all, known to be mercurial. Yet, if there is any justification for Washington’s passive stance toward Libya—and this is not much comfort for Ms. Cohen and the other grieving parents, children, spouses, and friends—it is the need to show a path for bad governments to return to the international community.

But which governments will learn from Libya? Iran, unfortunately, is bound to be unimpressed by the rewards offered to Qaddafi for his apparent conversion, because Tehran’s mullahs are much more determined to upset the global order. Perhaps the unpredictable Kim Jong Il will see a lesson in yesterday’s events. Yet, if Washington cannot convince the Korean to do a Qaddafi, America’s acceptance of Libya ultimately will be seen as an act of weakness instead of one of forgiveness.

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The Shia Awakening

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

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After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

However, as I wrote in late August, “what worked in Ramadi might not work in Baghdad. [Moqtada al-Sadr's radical Shia] Mahdi Army’s relative moderation, compared with al Qaeda’s brutality, prevents it from being rejected by the entire society.”

I may have been too pessimistic and given Sadr’s militia more credit than it deserves.

The New York Times reported last week that many Shias in Baghdad, including some tribal sheikhs, are now turning against the Mahdi Army and working with the Americans to evict them. Sadr’s base is collapsing from right underneath him, and it’s a direct result of the successful assault on radical Sunnis by General Petraeus’s surge forces and the Mahdi Army itself.

The Mahdi Army picked up substantial local support thanks to its defense of Shias from Sunni insurgents and death squads. Neither the American soldiers nor the Iraqi security forces were able to secure the streets of the neighborhoods, so Sadr’s militia was called on for the job. Many portions of Baghdad have since been purged of Sunni extremists, partly due to the notorious sectarian “cleansing” and population transfers. The Mahdi Army is a victim of its own success, in a way: it has outlived its perceived usefulness and has degenerated into an ideology-free gang of murderous street thugs who do not want to let go of power. A militia need not be as deranged as al Qaeda to wear out its welcome, even in Baghdad.

Sadr’s army has been opposed by a substantial number of Shias all along. The new opposition comes from his base, and includes several sheikhs who supported him not long ago.

It’s hard for Americans to appreciate just how much power sheikhs have in Iraq. What they say goes. I spent a week in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad, where every sheikh had come around to the American side. Earlier this year they insisted that not a single shot shall be fired at American soldiers, and not a single shot has been fired since. When they say it’s time to join Moqtada al-Sadr, or it’s time to join the Americans, nearly every person under their authority does what they say.

In the parts of Iraq where the locals turn against the insurgents en masse, it is only a matter of time before the insurgents are finished. Civilians phone in actionable intelligence on the locations of safe houses, weapons caches, IED’s, and everything else.

The radical Sunnis in Iraq are the most vicious. It is logical, then, that they are being defeated first. Extremist Shias have been tougher because they are more moderate, as well as more numerous. But defeating Sunni insurgents knocks out support from under the radical Shias. If you’re looking for a reason to hope in Iraq, that is it.

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Thabo Mbeki, Fellow Traveler

Reading Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letters is alternately a mind-numbing and revelatory experience. Mind-numbing because of their length and monotony; revelatory because they really do give the reader an insight into the paranoid and aggrieved mind of the South African President.

The lead item in this week’s missive—”Che Guevara—a fond farewell forty years later!”—sounds exactly like what it is: Stalinist propaganda. Mbeki calls Guevara “our beloved hero,” remarking that he died soon after former ANC president Albert Luthuli. This is an absurd juxtaposition: Luthuli was a man of unimpeachable reputation who preached reconciliation with whites and multiracial democracy. He was also an ally of the novelist Alan Paton and his anti-Communist Liberal Party. Luthuli himself was a strong anti-Communist who feared that Communists would tarnish the reputation of the anti-apartheid movement (which they later did). Nor did Luthuli ever call for his political enemies to be executed.

In today’s South Africa, it is considered gauche to bring up the ANC’s historic ties to the Soviet Union, just as it was considered pro-apartheid to write about these ties during the years of the nation’s struggle for freedom. To do so apparently reveals one’s anachronistic anti-Communism. Contemporary South Africa, after all, is hardly going Red, in spite of the continued influence of its domestic Communist Party.

But just because the Soviet Union is dead does not mean that its admirers are, or that they have significantly altered their ideologies of governance. As the South African blogger Michael Kransdorff explains, effusions of the above kind are par for the course when it comes to the missives of Mbeki and his top associates. It is far too soon to conclude, as so many are wont to do, that post-apartheid South Africa is on stable, democratic, liberal footing. It says something ominous about the political temperament and ideology of South Africa’s leading politician when he praises Che Guevara and denounces the United States.

Reading Thabo Mbeki’s weekly letters is alternately a mind-numbing and revelatory experience. Mind-numbing because of their length and monotony; revelatory because they really do give the reader an insight into the paranoid and aggrieved mind of the South African President.

The lead item in this week’s missive—”Che Guevara—a fond farewell forty years later!”—sounds exactly like what it is: Stalinist propaganda. Mbeki calls Guevara “our beloved hero,” remarking that he died soon after former ANC president Albert Luthuli. This is an absurd juxtaposition: Luthuli was a man of unimpeachable reputation who preached reconciliation with whites and multiracial democracy. He was also an ally of the novelist Alan Paton and his anti-Communist Liberal Party. Luthuli himself was a strong anti-Communist who feared that Communists would tarnish the reputation of the anti-apartheid movement (which they later did). Nor did Luthuli ever call for his political enemies to be executed.

In today’s South Africa, it is considered gauche to bring up the ANC’s historic ties to the Soviet Union, just as it was considered pro-apartheid to write about these ties during the years of the nation’s struggle for freedom. To do so apparently reveals one’s anachronistic anti-Communism. Contemporary South Africa, after all, is hardly going Red, in spite of the continued influence of its domestic Communist Party.

But just because the Soviet Union is dead does not mean that its admirers are, or that they have significantly altered their ideologies of governance. As the South African blogger Michael Kransdorff explains, effusions of the above kind are par for the course when it comes to the missives of Mbeki and his top associates. It is far too soon to conclude, as so many are wont to do, that post-apartheid South Africa is on stable, democratic, liberal footing. It says something ominous about the political temperament and ideology of South Africa’s leading politician when he praises Che Guevara and denounces the United States.

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Acknowledging the “Anbar Awakening”

I have written elsewhere about Peter Bergen’s essay in the New Republic, “War of Error: How Osama Bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” Here I want to address one particular charge made by Bergen:

If, as the president explained in a speech last year, the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas. Garrett [Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent], for one, understands why. “Interrogation techniques that violate human decency…can weaken others supporting us in fighting terrorism and can actually create more enemies,” he says. In other words, Bush’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism has been counterproductive. And the consequences for our safety are real.

Having stated that the Bush policies are weakening others supporting us in fighting terrorism, Mr. Bergen, two paragraphs later, writes about the impressive level of cooperation we are witnessing:

[C]ooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies has generally been strong since September 11. For instance, al Qaeda’s plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners was disrupted last year by the joint work of U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services.

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I have written elsewhere about Peter Bergen’s essay in the New Republic, “War of Error: How Osama Bin Laden Beat George W. Bush.” Here I want to address one particular charge made by Bergen:

If, as the president explained in a speech last year, the United States is today engaged “in the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas. Garrett [Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent], for one, understands why. “Interrogation techniques that violate human decency…can weaken others supporting us in fighting terrorism and can actually create more enemies,” he says. In other words, Bush’s legal strategy in the war on terrorism has been counterproductive. And the consequences for our safety are real.

Having stated that the Bush policies are weakening others supporting us in fighting terrorism, Mr. Bergen, two paragraphs later, writes about the impressive level of cooperation we are witnessing:

[C]ooperation between U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies has generally been strong since September 11. For instance, al Qaeda’s plot to bring down ten U.S. airliners was disrupted last year by the joint work of U.S., British, and Pakistani intelligence services.

We are in fact seeing unprecedented international cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, military action, and diplomacy. Nations may oppose our policies on interrogation, but there’s little evidence this opposition is undermining day-to-day efforts to combat jihadists. The reason should be obvious: other nations have a profound self-interest in defeating bin Ladenism. And so despite our differences, we have achieved unprecedented levels of integrated planning across scores of countries.

More fundamentally, though, I dissent from Bergen’s assertion that “right now we are on the losing side of the battle of ideas.” In fact, the most important ideological development in the last year is that the Sunni population in Iraq has turned against al Qaeda’s ideology and concomitant brutality. The “Anbar Awakening,” which is spreading to other regions in Iraq, is a sign of Muslims’ rejecting radical Islamist ideology. And just last week in the New York Times we read about Shia in Baghdad turning against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army:

“Everything is changing,” said Ali, a businessman in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Ur, in eastern Baghdad…. “Now in our area for the first time everyone say, ‘To hell with Mahdi Army.’ Not loudly on the street, but between friends, between families. Every man, every woman, say that.”

This doesn’t mean we have decisively won the “war of ideas” in the Islamic world; that clash is still unfolding and will for some time to come. But Bergen’s claim that we are losing is belied by the most significant and encouraging ideological development we have seen in a great long while. (In his almost 6,000 word essay, Bergen devotes only a paragraph, and a qualified one at that, to the “Anbar Awakening.”) Those who believe winning the (figurative) war of ideas is paramount might consider doing all they can to help us to win the (literal) war in Iraq. After all, the best way to discredit militant Islam as an ideology is to defeat those who are taking up the sword in its name.

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The Strange Syrian Game

According to a UN press release, Syria’s UN ambassador, while bashing Israel, said something wholly unexpected yesterday at a session of the world body’s disarmament conference:

Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations’ airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July [sic] attack in Syria. He vowed that whenever a right of reply was exercised, Syria would expose the underlying goals of the Zionist entity.

Haaretz now reports that Syria is denying that their ambassador admitted that the target Israel struck deep inside their territory on September 6 was in fact nuclear.

Why are the Syrians going through this peculiar exercise in admission and denial? Was the ambassador misheard, as they are claiming, or were his remarks a slip acknowledging the truth? Or is Syria, like Israel itself, deliberately starting to practice a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities and plans?

According to a UN press release, Syria’s UN ambassador, while bashing Israel, said something wholly unexpected yesterday at a session of the world body’s disarmament conference:

Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations’ airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July [sic] attack in Syria. He vowed that whenever a right of reply was exercised, Syria would expose the underlying goals of the Zionist entity.

Haaretz now reports that Syria is denying that their ambassador admitted that the target Israel struck deep inside their territory on September 6 was in fact nuclear.

Why are the Syrians going through this peculiar exercise in admission and denial? Was the ambassador misheard, as they are claiming, or were his remarks a slip acknowledging the truth? Or is Syria, like Israel itself, deliberately starting to practice a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities and plans?

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Preventing Predators

The New York Times had a jarring report on Monday on jihadist bloggers. There is, of course, nothing particularly new about this phenomenon; al Qaeda’s mastery of the Internet is a familiar, if unfortunate, fact of modern life. What was jarring was that the prime example cited in the Times article—a blogger who extols the virtues of Osama bin Laden and decries the supposed depravity of the “United States of Losers”—lives right in the very country that he loathes. As the Times account notes:

It turns out he is a 21-year-old American named Samir Khan who produces his blog from his parents’ home in North Carolina, where he serves as a kind of Western relay station for the multimedia productions of violent Islamic groups.

The Times claims that “there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Khan is operating in concert with militant leaders, or breaking any laws.”

Can this really be true? I’m no lawyer (more knowledgeable contentions readers, please feel free to weigh in), but isn’t he guilty at least of conspiracy to commit terrorism, inciting violence, or some other crime? If not, then it suggests that our laws need to be revised. It would have been unthinkable in World War II to have Americans spreading Nazi propaganda on our own soil. It should be just as unthinkable to have jihadists operating here today, even if they limit themselves to written assaults.

In fact, Khan may not confine himself to spreading propaganda in the future. The Times writes:

Mr. Khan said that he had dreams about meeting Mr. bin Laden and that he would not rule out picking up a weapon himself one day. In a recent essay, he argued that jihad was mandatory for all Muslims, and he cited three ways to fulfill this obligation: join fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan or Algeria; send them money; or promote militant videos as part of the jihad media.

Isn’t this tantamount to a child molester’s announcing his intentions in advance? Surely there must be legal mechanisms that society can take to protect itself against such would-be predators.

The New York Times had a jarring report on Monday on jihadist bloggers. There is, of course, nothing particularly new about this phenomenon; al Qaeda’s mastery of the Internet is a familiar, if unfortunate, fact of modern life. What was jarring was that the prime example cited in the Times article—a blogger who extols the virtues of Osama bin Laden and decries the supposed depravity of the “United States of Losers”—lives right in the very country that he loathes. As the Times account notes:

It turns out he is a 21-year-old American named Samir Khan who produces his blog from his parents’ home in North Carolina, where he serves as a kind of Western relay station for the multimedia productions of violent Islamic groups.

The Times claims that “there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Khan is operating in concert with militant leaders, or breaking any laws.”

Can this really be true? I’m no lawyer (more knowledgeable contentions readers, please feel free to weigh in), but isn’t he guilty at least of conspiracy to commit terrorism, inciting violence, or some other crime? If not, then it suggests that our laws need to be revised. It would have been unthinkable in World War II to have Americans spreading Nazi propaganda on our own soil. It should be just as unthinkable to have jihadists operating here today, even if they limit themselves to written assaults.

In fact, Khan may not confine himself to spreading propaganda in the future. The Times writes:

Mr. Khan said that he had dreams about meeting Mr. bin Laden and that he would not rule out picking up a weapon himself one day. In a recent essay, he argued that jihad was mandatory for all Muslims, and he cited three ways to fulfill this obligation: join fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan or Algeria; send them money; or promote militant videos as part of the jihad media.

Isn’t this tantamount to a child molester’s announcing his intentions in advance? Surely there must be legal mechanisms that society can take to protect itself against such would-be predators.

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Eavesdropping on Hell

Along with interrogations of captured al-Qaeda fighters, communications intelligence (known as COMINT, in the intel trade) is one of the keys to American self-defense. Congress has long recognized the critical nature of this brand of intelligence. In the aftermath of World War II, it protected American activities in this realm in a special statute, Section 798 of Title 18, which makes it a crime to publish classified information pertaining to COMINT.

With the Bush administration’s failure to prosecute the editors and reporters of the New York Times, who in 2005 compromised one of America’s most critical programs for tracking al-Qaeda communications, Section 798 seems to have lapsed into desuetude. Evidently, the political costs of carrying out such a prosecution were deemed too great, and the benefits to national security, when weighed in the balance, insufficient.

In the wake of the Times’s disclosures, it is impossible to say whether al-Qaeda operatives became more careful than they already were in their use of emails and telephone communications. But that would be a logical supposition.

Whether or not that is the case, it is worth taking note of a chapter from a different era, when one of the world’s most evil regimes was carrying out its most evil deed—the extermination of the Jews. Eavesdropping on Hell is an authoritative account, produced by the National Security Agency, of what was learned about the Holocaust from COMINT as it was unfolding.

It appears that the Nazis, acutely aware of the price they might pay for their actions, were highly disciplined in their approach to using radios and other vulnerable means of communication. The result was that:

Allied communications intelligence discovered nothing of the prewar and early wartime high-level Nazi planning for the general campaign against Europe’s Jews and other groups targeted for elimination. This situation also was true for most of the large-scale wartime plans, such as the massacres in the western Soviet Union or the death camps. There were [a] few exceptions to this trend, most notably the intercept and decryption of German police messages that indicated that Italian Jews were soon to be subjected to roundup and deportation to camps in October 1943. Usually, though, Nazi planning, preparations, and orders to carry out these operations were not communicated in a means such as radio that could be intercepted by the Allied monitoring stations. Plans and orders were delivered by courier or were communicated orally at meetings and thus denied to Allied monitors. As a result, information that could have warned of an impending operation was missed.

The entire study is a demonstration of the vital importance of COMINT and the consequences of its absence.

Along with interrogations of captured al-Qaeda fighters, communications intelligence (known as COMINT, in the intel trade) is one of the keys to American self-defense. Congress has long recognized the critical nature of this brand of intelligence. In the aftermath of World War II, it protected American activities in this realm in a special statute, Section 798 of Title 18, which makes it a crime to publish classified information pertaining to COMINT.

With the Bush administration’s failure to prosecute the editors and reporters of the New York Times, who in 2005 compromised one of America’s most critical programs for tracking al-Qaeda communications, Section 798 seems to have lapsed into desuetude. Evidently, the political costs of carrying out such a prosecution were deemed too great, and the benefits to national security, when weighed in the balance, insufficient.

In the wake of the Times’s disclosures, it is impossible to say whether al-Qaeda operatives became more careful than they already were in their use of emails and telephone communications. But that would be a logical supposition.

Whether or not that is the case, it is worth taking note of a chapter from a different era, when one of the world’s most evil regimes was carrying out its most evil deed—the extermination of the Jews. Eavesdropping on Hell is an authoritative account, produced by the National Security Agency, of what was learned about the Holocaust from COMINT as it was unfolding.

It appears that the Nazis, acutely aware of the price they might pay for their actions, were highly disciplined in their approach to using radios and other vulnerable means of communication. The result was that:

Allied communications intelligence discovered nothing of the prewar and early wartime high-level Nazi planning for the general campaign against Europe’s Jews and other groups targeted for elimination. This situation also was true for most of the large-scale wartime plans, such as the massacres in the western Soviet Union or the death camps. There were [a] few exceptions to this trend, most notably the intercept and decryption of German police messages that indicated that Italian Jews were soon to be subjected to roundup and deportation to camps in October 1943. Usually, though, Nazi planning, preparations, and orders to carry out these operations were not communicated in a means such as radio that could be intercepted by the Allied monitoring stations. Plans and orders were delivered by courier or were communicated orally at meetings and thus denied to Allied monitors. As a result, information that could have warned of an impending operation was missed.

The entire study is a demonstration of the vital importance of COMINT and the consequences of its absence.

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