Focal Points Blog

U.S. Agrees to Transfer Nuclear Material to Yet Another Outlaw Nuke Regime

This past July, a nuclear-armed nation, in violation of an international treaty, clandestinely agreed to supply uranium to a known proliferator of nuclear weapons. China and North Korea? No, the United States and Israel.

In a July 8 article entitled “Report: Secret Document Affirms U.S. Israeli Nuclear Partnership,” the Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that the Obama Administration will begin transferring nuclear fuel to Israel in order to build up Tel Aviv’s nuclear stockpile.

There is profound irony in the fact that while the U.S. and some of its allies are threatening military action against Iran for enriching uranium, Washington is bypassing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while aiding Israel’s nuclear weapons program, the only country in the world that has actually helped another nation construct and test a nuclear device.

The saga starts with a box of tea that arrived in South Africa in 1975.

This past May, researcher Sasha Polakow-Suransky uncovered declassified South African documents indicating that in 1975 the Israeli government offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime. Israeli officials apparently tried to block the declassification of the documents, but failed.

According to the British Guardian, then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres—currently president—negotiated with Pretoria to supply South Africa with nuclear warheads for Israel’s Jericho missile. Peres dismissed Polakow-Suransky’s book—“The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa”—as having “no basis in reality for the claims.”

But according to Allister Sparks in Business Day (South Africa), the Israeli offer “to sell nuclear warheads to SA during apartheid is almost certainly correct—despite denials by key figures in both countries.” Sparks should know, because he was told what was in that box of tea by the Rand Mail’s lead investigative reporter, Marvyn Rees.

“I can state this because the disclosures closely corroborate information I was given 32 years ago when the late Echel Rhoodie, then secretary of information, told the Rand Daily, of which I was then editor, how he and Gen. Hendrik van den Bergh, head of the South African Bureau of State Security, had brought what he called ‘the trigger’ for a nuclear bomb from Israel,” Sparks writes.

Sparks has remained silent all these years because he made a promise to Rhoodie not to reveal the conversation, and because he was afraid of the “draconian Defense Act” that would have subjected him to prosecution. But since Rhoodie and the general are dead, the Act repealed, and the story revealed, he felt it was time to come in from the cold.

According to Polakow-Suransky the warhead offer fell through because the parties were worried that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would not go along. But Sparks argues that the “more likely explanation” was that Israel offered a “trigger,” which was cheaper, and ultimately more useful to Pretoria because it would allow the South Africans to produce their own nuclear weapons.

Apparently the Israelis also supplied South Africa with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that enhances the explosive power of nuclear weapons.

According to Sparks, the South African general and Rhoodie packed the trigger into a tea box and put it on a South African Airways plane as hand luggage.

Jump ahead four years to Sept. 22, 1979, when an American Vela 6911 satellite, designed to detect atmospheric nuclear tests, is streaking over the South Atlantic. At 53 minutes after midnight Greenwich Mean Time, near South Africa’s Prince Edward Island, it picked up the telltale double flash of a nuclear weapon detonation. Compared to the 15 kiloton Hiroshima bomb the explosion was small, about 3 kilotons. It was also “clean”—that is, it produced very little radiation, although enough for radioactive Iodine-131 to turn up in the teeth of Australian and Tasmanian sheep several months later.

The Vela and the sheep were not the only confirmations. The U.S. Navy also picked up an acoustic signal indicating a large explosion at or under the sea at the same time and place as the Vela had detected.

The Carter Administration tried to cover up the test, but, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in “The Samson Option,” the explosion was a joint Israeli-South African low-yield “neutron” bomb.

The key to the test was the trigger in the tea box. According to Sparks, South Africa knew how to make a nuclear weapon, but only of the “gun” variety, the same design as the Hiroshima bomb. The “gun” uses an explosive to fire a uranium bullet at a uranium target. When the two converge, the fuel goes critical and the weapon explodes. But while the “gun” design is simple and largely error-proof, it is too big and clumsy to be mounted on a missile.

For a small warhead or a neutron bomb, you need a “trigger,” a finely engineered explosive device that wraps around a uranium core. However, triggers are devilishly tricky and a tiny miscalculation in timing results in a dud. In the 1998 round of testing by India and Pakistan, both countries produced some misfires, as did North Korea.

The Israelis were willing to exchange a trigger for something they needed: uranium yellowcake, the raw material for making weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

According to declassified documents uncovered by Polakow-Suransky, Israel also saw South Africa as an ally. In a Nov. 22, 1974 letter to the South African defense ministry, Peres wrote about the importance of co-operation between Tel Aviv and Pretoria. “This co-operation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it.”

At the time, South Africa was widely reviled for racist policies that denied full citizenship to the vast bulk of its population.

While Peres denies that Israel ever negotiated with South Africa, the Nov. 22 letter concludes by saying that he looks forward to meeting Rhoodie when the latter visits Israel. It was during a meeting four months later that Peres made the warhead offer. Peres—with significant help from France—was a key figure in the establishment of the Israel’s nuclear weapons industry.

The U.S. media has focused on the warhead charge, while ignoring the far more destabilizing proliferation issue. The warheads were never sent, but the box of tea was, and the result was a nuclear explosion by a renegade regime. Since the fall of the apartheid government, South Africa has foresworn its nuclear weapons program.

Israel refuses to sign the NPT—indeed, refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons at all—thus making it ineligible to buy uranium on the world market. Article I of the Treaty explicitly forbids supplying nuclear material to a non-signatory country, which in the case of Israel makes the U.S. in violation of the NPT.

But in Washington’s efforts to line up allies against China, the U.S. has agreed to supply fuel for India’s nuclear power industry, even though India also refuses to sign the NPT. In theory, the U.S. uranium is only supposed to fuel India’s civilian sector, but in practice it will allow India to redirect all of its modest domestic uranium supplies to weapons systems. Pakistan’s request for a similar deal was rebuffed. Thus the U.S. has put aside its treaty obligations in the interests of pursuing allies in the Middle East and Asia.

Sparks argues that, “mutual collaboration” between Israel and South Africa “enabled both countries to develop nuclear weapons.” Now the U.S. has replaced South Africa in aiding Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal—thought to be around 100 warheads—and in the process has undermined the NPT.

Not only is the U.S. in clear violation of Article 1, the Treaty’s Article VI requires member states to end the nuclear arms race, but the Obama Administration has just committed $85.4 billion to “modernizing” its nuclear arsenal. This is not what the Treaty’s designers had in mind, and, while it may not violate the letter of the NPT, it certainly runs against its spirit.

U.S. actions around Israel and India not only weaken the NPT, they make a mockery of Washington’s concern about “proliferation” and bring into question President Obama’s pledge to seek “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Diplomatic chess moves are checkmating a noble sentiment.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.

WikiLeaks XXI: So Much for the Media’s Mandate to Mediate Secrets

Assange ChinaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-first in the series.

In many respects, Julian Assange rep­re­sents lit­tle more than the lat­est iter­a­tion of the clas­sic “one man’s ter­ror­ist is another man’s free­dom fighter” para­dox. As the lat­est doc­u­ment dump from Wik­iLeaks drips into the pub­lic arena, polar­ized foot sol­diers have mate­ri­al­ized from out of nowhere to do bat­tle in what is being mar­keted as a war for America’s future. On one side, crit­ics of Wik­iLeaks make Assange out to be a car­toon­ish super-vil­lain intent on destroy­ing the United States, while on the other, defend­ers of the orga­ni­za­tion argue that Assange hero­ically rips the mask from the face of power, expos­ing the hor­rors of hegemony.

But focus­ing on the Wik­iLeaks fig­ure­head achieves noth­ing from what I can tell aside from feed­ing Assange’s seem­ingly inex­haustible appetite for atten­tion, and pro­vid­ing a plat­form for con­ser­v­a­tive blowhards like Long Island con­gress­man Peter King to score stu­pidly cheap points in what has evolved into a full-scale Repub­li­can siege on Barack Obama’s White House. And while these debates have suc­ceeded in fuel­ing a polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment that has increas­ingly taken on the feel of a Hol­ly­wood spy thriller, they have simul­ta­ne­ously excused Amer­i­cans from hav­ing to thought­fully con­sider the state of our nation dur­ing a period of mul­ti­ple crises. Instead, we are being encour­aged to retreat behind the bat­tle­ments of grossly over­sim­pli­fied ide­o­log­i­cal stances and told to watch the show.

Beyond the sen­sa­tion­al­ism, how­ever, seri­ous issues about Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life do exist at the heart of the Wik­iLeaks scan­dal. Among them can be found crit­i­cal ques­tions con­cern­ing the role and ethics of secrecy in an open democracy.

On the issue of state secrets, the dri­ving nar­ra­tives of debate can be roughly plot­ted along a spec­trum: the left­most point argues that the leaked cables expose the impro­pri­eties of empire and there­fore all clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion should be brought to light by what­ever means pos­si­ble; the oppo­site point on the right asserts that gov­ern­ment action in the name of the national inter­est should nec­es­sar­ily be hid­den and pro­tected; and then there’s the cen­ter, which shrugs the whole thing off by not­ing that there’s really noth­ing much in the cables — aside from petty gos­sip — that mer­its all this fuss.

All three miss the point. To begin with, it’s sim­ply not the case that the busi­ness of Amer­i­can gov­er­nance neces­si­tates secrecy in order to be effec­tive. The Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act (FoIA) belies this myth. To be sure, our demo­c­ra­tic laws rec­og­nize that cer­tain infor­ma­tion — that which con­sti­tutes a clear and present dan­ger to the most sen­si­tive national inter­ests or threat­ens indi­vid­ual pri­vacy, civil, and human rights, for exam­ple — should not be issued into the pub­lic domain. And for this rea­son, claims that all infor­ma­tion should be entirely free and unreg­u­lated ought to be han­dled with cau­tion, deriv­ing as they do from an out­look that demands the priv­i­leges of trans­parency with­out accept­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ties that attend it.

Still, the argu­ment that gov­ern­ment wrong­do­ing, when shielded by the cloak of secrecy, con­sti­tutes a fla­grant abuse of admin­is­tra­tive power enjoys the pow­er­ful wind of demo­c­ra­tic prin­ci­ples at its back. Not only that, but like Glenn Green­wald, I’d push it a bit fur­ther and argue that the second-hand gos­sip and banal­ity that fills the vast major­ity of leaked cables thus far is pre­cisely at issue in this dis­cus­sion, inso­far as it also rep­re­sents the mis­use of gov­ern­ment secrecy pow­ers. If the var­i­ous cat­e­gories of con­fi­den­tial­ity that the State Depart­ment uses to clas­sify dif­fer­ent lev­els of sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion are to have any mean­ing at all, they must be rig­or­ously respected and adhered to. Oth­er­wise, civil ser­vants risk under­min­ing good-faith claims — whether right or wrong — to gov­ern­ment secrecy in truly extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions that may war­rant it. The WikiLeaks cables demon­strate that they do not, and that even harm­less infor­ma­tion is highly restricted, which is deeply troubling.

Beyond these con­sid­er­a­tions, how­ever, the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non has also defrocked the media of its claim to guardian­ship over the pub­lic good. The argu­ment can be made — and it should — that tools such as the FoIA offer insti­tu­tional chan­nels through which the pub­lic can respon­si­bly access exactly the sorts of doc­u­ments Wik­iLeaks has brought to light. The trou­ble with this argu­ment, of course, is that the media — which has tra­di­tion­ally pos­sessed the resources to max­i­mize these tools to great­est profit — has shirked its respon­si­bil­ity as a mech­a­nism by which the pub­lic can hold its gov­ern­ment to account. As the media ter­rain itself rapidly shifts, and eco­nomic incen­tives fol­low, fewer and fewer resources are devoted to the deep inves­tiga­tive report­ing that has helped police gov­ern­ment behav­ior in the past but — with the excep­tion of a notable few hold­outs — has largely van­ished today.

In many respects, the dis­ap­pear­ance of inves­tiga­tive report­ing is as much a prod­uct of what jour­nal­ists them­selves see as their pub­lic func­tion as it is of tech­no­log­i­cal shifts or the public’s wan­ing inter­est in any morsel of infor­ma­tion that exceeds 140 char­ac­ters. The new model of polit­i­cal report­ing has come to priv­i­lege the arm­chair over shoe leather as its pri­mary accou­trement, as exem­pli­fied by the atti­tude of media elites such as The New Repub­lic’s Jonathan Chait, who asks “What’s so bad about sit­ting around?” To be cer­tain, Chait is right that “You can learn a lot sit­ting behind a desk, min­ing the papers for inter­est­ing fac­tual nuggets, read­ing polit­i­cal com­men­tary from every per­spec­tive, por­ing through books and reports, and using the Nexis data­base to com­pile enor­mous stacks of news­pa­per stories.”

But Chait’s larger point is dis­cour­ag­ing. “Part of the prob­lem is that jour­nal­ism ter­mi­nol­ogy glo­ri­fies “shoe-leather report­ing,” whereby you pound the pave­ment so often you wear out the soles of your shoes. I’m not say­ing that every news story could be reported with­out leav­ing one’s desk. (Bern­stein: “Wood­ward, look! I found a clip from 1971 in which Pres­i­dent Nixon tells the Omaha World-Herald he plans to order his goons to break into Demo­c­ra­tic head­quar­ters in the Water­gate Hotel!” Wood­ward: “I’ll can­cel that meet­ing with Deep Throat.”) I’m sim­ply say­ing that, some­times, lazi­ness can be the bet­ter part of valor.”

I’m not so sure, sim­ply because it seems to have devel­oped into a news­room pathol­ogy. Iron­i­cally, the Wik­iLeaks doc­u­ments have done almost noth­ing to shock reporters back into action, but instead have rein­forced their very reluc­tance to leave the news desk, chained as they are to their chairs in expec­ta­tion of the next batch of cables. Indeed, most of the “report­ing” on the Wik­ileaks doc­u­ment dump has come to con­sti­tute a sort of Cliff’s Notes guide to the embassy cables rather than seri­ous reportage or analysis.

And this is pre­cisely it. The lion’s share of dis­dain swirling around the Wik­iLeaks scan­dal has been directed at the gov­ern­ment and Julian Assange. But amidst this comic book-worthy show­down, the media has largely given itself a free pass, which in many respects strikes me as the crux of the mat­ter. If pow­er­ful media out­lets were doing a bet­ter job at mon­i­tor­ing gov­ern­ment action at home and abroad, there would likely be no Wik­iLeaks (or at least not the Wik­iLeaks that we’ve grown to love/hate), nor would gov­ern­ments enjoy carte blanche to get in the lazy habit of clas­si­fy­ing every­thing they do as con­fi­den­tial or using the shield of “state secrets” to obscure gov­ern­ment malfeasance.

So it makes sense that as the unpar­al­leled tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can inves­tiga­tive report­ing gives way to the relent­less waves of new infor­ma­tion pour­ing into the Amer­i­can psy­che with each new tweet, Wik­iLeaks has appeared on the scene to fill the gap. Whether Assange and com­pany see them­selves as heirs to this tra­di­tion is doubt­ful. As the Van­cou­ver Sun, in an excel­lent analy­sis of blog­ger Aaron Bady’s work on Assange’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, notes, the Wik­iLeaks leader “is not try­ing to pro­duce a jour­nal­is­tic scan­dal which will then pro­voke red-faced gov­ern­ment reforms,” but instead is seek­ing to dis­rupt modes by which gov­ern­ment secrecy oper­ates in order to change the very nature of gov­er­nance itself.

Still, it seems as if Wik­iLeaks itself has come under the power of a strangely market-driven demand for demo­c­ra­tic trans­parency in the absence of healthy media and in the face of increas­ingly secret gov­ern­ment behav­ior. Despite the hacker ethic sup­pos­edly dri­ving the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non — that all infor­ma­tion must flow unfet­tered into the pub­lic domain — there is evi­dence that Wik­iLeak­ers are mak­ing efforts at vet­ting the flow of infor­ma­tion to meet clas­sic report­ing stan­dards that avoid vio­lat­ing the harm prin­ci­ple out­lined in the FoIA. Indeed, as a recent piece in the Washington Post points out,

Well before publishing the cables, [Assange] wrote a letter to the U.S. government, delivered to our ambassador in London, inviting suggestions for redactions. The State Department refused. Assange then wrote another letter to State, reiterating that “WikiLeaks has absolutely no desire to put individual persons at significant risk of harm, nor do we wish to harm the national security of the United States.”

In that second letter, Assange stated that the department’s refusal to discuss redactions “leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful.” He then indicated that WikiLeaks was undertaking redactions on its own.

This sort of thing strikes me as both encour­ag­ing and to be encouraged.

And it’s for this rea­son that the government’s ham-fisted response to the Wik­iLeaks phe­nom­e­non is so shock­ing. Of course the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment is lick­ing its wounds at hav­ing had its sense of enti­tle­ment to secrecy stripped away with each new batch of cables leaked to the pub­lic. I don’t find this sur­pris­ing in the least. The aston­ish­ing part to my mind is that the gov­ern­ment, con­fronted with an Amer­i­can pub­lic that has grown increas­ingly dis­trust­ful of it by the year, con­tin­ues to adhere to the very prac­tices that fur­ther pull the car­pet of pos­i­tive pub­lic opin­ion out from beneath its own feet. In an age in which polit­i­cal power clearly resides with those seek­ing to pull the cur­tains away to dis­pel the gloom of secrecy, polit­i­cal elites in the United States would pre­fer to keep us all in the dark.

New START: Once Again, Where Is the Disarmament in This Picture?

You might think that a new arms control treaty might be anything but a cause of celebration to the director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that maintains America’s nuclear weapons. A decrease in nuclear weapons makes inroads into his turf, right? But Thomas D’Agostino’s exuberance about New START positively spills off the pages of an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Times, Unprecedented commitment to modernize.

Over the next decade, the Obama administration has proposed investing more than $85 billion to modernize the nuclear stockpile, recapitalize the infrastructure that supports it and reinvigorate the science and technology at the core of our stockpile stewardship efforts.

Having worked on NNSA budget issues through the administrations of three presidents representing both parties, I can say with confidence that this is the most robust, sustained commitment to modernizing our nuclear deterrent since the end of the Cold War. . . .

My predecessor, former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks, put it best, saying he “would have killed” for budgets like this and for the top-level support we have gotten from the White House.

D’Agostino barely nods at the disarmament component to the treaty.

When President Obama released his Nuclear Posture Review earlier this year, he outlined the need to move toward a smaller stockpile. . .

You’d think D’Agostino would be more discreet about extolling New START as a means of ensuring the future of the nuclear weapons industry rather than as a disarmament treaty. The degree to which he isn’t is a measure of the extent to which the Obama administration has given away the nuclear farm — to the tune of that $85 million mentioned above — to secure passage of New START and achieve another Health-Care Reform-like Pyrrhic victory.

Is Iran President Ahmadinejad Trying to Out-Supreme the Supreme Leader?

Khameini AhmadinejadAt PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau, Muhammad Sahimi reports:

“President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has appointed Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and one of his 12 vice presidents, as the country’s interim foreign minister, and has fired Manouchehr Mottaki from the position. This happened while Mottaki is in Senegal to convey his boss’s message to the president of that country.”

The unprofessionalism of that aside, as Homy Lafayette, also at Tehran Bureau, writes: “This development may signal a new round of acrimony between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Majles.”

Beyond that, the Associated Press reports that it may be:

. . . the latest sign of a rift at the top levels of the Islamic theocracy as the country faces intense pressure from the West over its nuclear program. . . . the fired diplomat, Manouchehr Mottaki, is seen as close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the president may be aiming to install a figure more personally loyal to himself as Tehran resumes critical talks with world powers over the nuclear program.

Sahimi agrees.

The latest move is another indication of mounting tension between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Leader met with a group of experts to discuss an “Islamic-Iranian way” of development — none of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet members were invited.

Back in September we posted about another article by Sahimi titled Ahmadinejad-Khameini Rift Deepens. He wrote of the changes in the Tehran landscape after the elections (emphasis added).

Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. [Presumably because of the post-election violence — RW.] . . . reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself. . . . The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics.

It sounds like Ahmadinejad doesn’t just want to be president. He may seek to surpass Khameini and become, not the Supreme Leader, but the Supremium Leader.

WikiLeaks XX: Chavez — First Citgo, Now Burger King?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twentieth in the series.

Of all the wacky things being revealed in this week’s WikiLeaks document drop, a couple of the weirdest have come from the US embassy in Caracas. The first was a cable (which now seems to have disappeared from the Wiki archives) describing Hugo Chavez’s adventures in the kitchen, fighting American imperialism with food.

According to the January 19, 2010 cable, with a headline that promises top secret information on “Socialism’s Tangible—and Tasty—Benefits”

President Chavez opened the “Arepera Socialista” with much fanfare on December 22, advertising its low price and high quality as symbolic of the benefits of his socialist revolution. (Note: “Arepas” are a Venezualan-style thick cornmeal tortilla usually used for a type of sandwich. End Note.) The restaurant, located in a lower middle class neighborhood of Caracas, serves “arepas” for about a fourth of their regular price. It is currently only open during weekday mornings, although there are plans to extend its hours, add coffee and fresh juice to its menu, and open two new locations in working class neighborhoods.

On a January 8 visit, EmbOffs witnessed a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant but surprisingly rapid service. Inside, one wall was dominated by a quote in large red lettering from Simon Bolivar: “The best system of government is that which produces the greatest happiness.” An employee managing the line said the restaurant served 1,200 customers per day. One man in line said he worked in the neighborhood and came every day since the food was excellent and cheap.

Apparently, in the new state sponsored “Arepera Socialista,” “Money is Secondary in Socialist Restaurants.”

According to Minister of Commerce Eduardo Saman, people can count on low prices at the “arepera socialista” because the ingredients come from government-owned companies and other products, such as boxed juices, come from government-owned companies. Saman claimed the prices were sufficient to cover the store’s operating costs. He also announced on December 23 that a chain of “Arepera Socialista” restaurants would be opened throughout Venezuela as part of the Socialist Market Cooperatives run by the Ministry of Commerce. Saman himself worked at the restaurant on December 24; other Ministry of Commerce employees were “volunteering” at the restaurant on the day of the Emboffs’ visit. About 30 people work at the restaurant.

Besides the price, Saman highlighted another key difference between socialist and capitalist “arepera”: customers pay only after eating, while “in fast food chains . . . they only think about money.” In the “Arepera Socialista,” the cash register is in a corner of the room and customers pay only after eating, self-reporting how many of the “arepas” they ate.

Imagine that: the state providing low-cost, healthy foods to the poor! But that’s nothing compared with another development related in an earlier cable.

The cable dates from 2008, when on

The evening of September 30, American Airlines Country Manager Omar Nottaro (strictly protect throughout) called Econoff to report that the captain and crew of American Airlines flight 903 were being held at the airport. He explained that upon landing a crew member said “Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is” X.

As travelers to Venezuela in recent years know, Chavez ordered the creation of the country’s own time zone to allow the public more daylight in which to be productive. At the time of the decision, Chavez confidently defied his critics by noting that “I don’t care if they call me crazy, the new time will go ahead.”

Funny that he should have that. As it turns out, one of the flight’s passengers, a

friend of Venezuelan National Assemblyman Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez, thought the crew member had said “loco Chavez time.”

He wasn’t the only one. The cable discusses a Venezuelan Immigration report on the incident obtained by Interpol, which shows that officially the captain’s remarks had been logged as “the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Whatever was said, the reports of the incident almost immediately made their way to the highest levels of the Venezuelan state, and provoked a momentary crisis.

The passenger, Nestor Maldonado Lanza, told Deputy Rodriguez who was waiting for him outside, that the pilot had called President Chavez crazy. The Deputy called Venezuelan Vice President Carrizales to report the incident. The Vice President called civil aviation authority (INAC) President Martinez who went to the airport. The Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention, DISIP, opened an investigation. However, because ONIDEX had not allowed the crew to go through customs, DISIP backed out of investigation and turned it over to ONIDEX which had jurisdiction as the crew had not officially entered Venezuela. The crew then waited inside the airport for the results of a meeting between airport, ONIDEX, INAC and American Airlines staff.

The situation was defused when AA’s Nottaro promised

to put the crew back on the empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get the captain and crew out of the country immediately. Nottaro also apologized in person to INAC President Martinez and committed to writing several letters of apology on October 1. Venezuelan authorities accepted Nottaro’s offer and the crew left Venezuela at 11:30 pm. American made the decision to turn the plane around even though it meant canceling AA flight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, at considerable cost to the airline.

The cable notes that this was the second incident involving Venezuelan authorities and American flight crews that month, but does not discuss the matter further, other than to relate that it involved Delta Airlines. As the cable concludes, the AA incident demonstrates just how soured relations between Washington and Caracas had become by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency “when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency.”

WikiLeaks XVIX: Guatemalan Concerns Get Short Shrift in Cables About Illegal Border Crossings Into Mexico

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the nineteenth in the series.

Earlier this year, American diplomats in Mexico experienced first-hand the fluid nature of Central American borderlands. Following a series of security conferences—one in Phoenix, Arizona to discuss measures to more effectively police Mexico’s northern border, and a second in Tapachula, Mexico, to analyze security operations in the country’s southern flank—US officials decided to visit both borders themselves to gain familiarity with the flourishing arms trade that pours through each.

They were shocked by what they saw. The cable reports that

our visit to three border crossings between Guatemala and Mexico in Chiapas revealed neither country presently works seriously to enforce these laws.

At the first border crossing in Talisman, Chiapas, the conference participants witnessed almost as many individuals crossing the border illegally as legally. Immigration officials conjectured that individuals crossing illegally under the bridge were either visiting family members on the other side of border or engaging in informal commerce. Although the delegation did not have an opportunity to talk with any of the individuals crossing under the bridge at the border, it appeared the majority were carrying what appeared to be personal belongings rather than items of commerce.

The American observers were assured that though border traffic was largely allowed to flow freely and that immigration officers were maintaining a secure frontier, US embassy staff weren’t buying it.

. . . their explanations highlighted serious procedural inconsistencies that undermine effective controls. While border officials inspect 100 percent of the individuals and cars crossing the bridge legally, the data collected is stored in a local database that is not connected to federal or international criminal databases. Border officials are also hampered by their lack of access to national registries that would allow them to determine if the individuals crossing are on any criminal or terrorist watchlists.

Part of the problem is simply Mexican immigration law which

allows individuals to cross the border with an “original” identification document but does not prescribe what constitutes an “original” document. As long as the individual agrees to confine one’s visit to the state of Chiapas and return to Guatemala after an undefined period of time, one is granted admission to the country.

But the bigger issue is resources. The cable highlights the stark differences between American capabilities at the border and those of their Mexican counterparts across the way.

While there are 30,000 U.S. CBP officers on the 1,926 mile Mexican/U.S. border, only 125 Mexican immigration officials monitor the 577 mile border with Guatemala. Mexican immigration officials repeatedly confirmed that they do not have the manpower or resources to direct efforts effectively along the southern border.

American diplomatic staff visited another border crossing as well, this time at Ciudad Hidalgo, the most densely trafficked point between Mexico and Guatemala.

Border officials estimated that on a daily basis 95% of all exports, 350-400 shipments; and 26% of all imports, flow through these border crossings to and from Central America. Additionally, 80-100 carloads of visitors pass through the border on a daily basis.

Here, American officials were impressed by the inspection tools immigration officials had at their disposal, but concerned by what they observed to be inconsistency in the use of this

equipment to check the cabs of trucks and there is no revealed coordinated approach between Mexico and Guatemala to share information that would reduce crossing times and avoid duplicative inspections, as, for example, is being done at certain places in the Mexican-U.S. border.

Eventually, the cable gets around to addressing the heart of Mexico’s weaknesses in securing its territory—a theme that surfaces repeatedly in all discussions of the country’s problems: tensions between Mexico’s state and federal levels. At the conference in Tapachula,

The lack of coordination between federal and state officials became apparent when a representative from the Chiapas State Attorney General’s Office complained that his state does not receive any information from the federal authorities and has no input or visibility in the federal process. While the state representative acknowledged a common perception of corruption at the state level, he argued it was counterproductive and illogical to exclude them from the process. Other participants recognized an acceptable process for intelligence collection, but complained about inadequate dissemination of actionable information and insufficient formal mechanisms for sharing collected information.

As all conferences do, the gathering at Tapachula ended with hollow promises from all sides to make efforts at ameliorating common problems moving forward.

The Americans’ shock at what they saw at the Mexican/Guatemalan border would not be shared by anyone with experience travelling by land through Central and South America. What’s curious about this cable, however, is the almost complete absence of consideration given to Guatemala. While Mexico surely needs to resolve internal conflicts between its different layers of security agencies to produce more effective results, the bigger issues reside in Guatemala. As former Costa Rican vice-president Kevin Casas-Zamora has argued—correctly in my estimation—Guatemala’s dire condition presents significant challenges in region-wide efforts to battle thriving organized crime.

The thick unpopulated forests of Petén, in Northern Guatemala, offer a haven to drug trafficking activities, often carried out under the complacent gaze, when not the active participation, of the only institution with effective presence throughout the Guatemalan territory: a military establishment riddled with corruption. Indeed, outside the military, the Guatemalan state is a feeble entity by almost any indicator. Tax revenue in the country stands at 12 percent of GDP, one of lowest figures in Latin America…

The weakness of the state, the pervasive violence, the widespread corruption, and the country’s strategic location for drug trafficking are creating a very dangerous cocktail. Moreover, the prognosis is not favorable. The situation on the ground in Central America is bound to deteriorate if the offensive of the Mexican government against the drug cartels succeeds in reclaiming control over Northern Mexico for the state. Evidence of increased activity by Mexican crime syndicates, including turf wars between them, is rife throughout Central America these days. The big difference, of course, is that the capacities of the Central American states, and of the Guatemalan state in particular, to enforce the law and exert effective control over their territory are well below those of Mexico and certainly below what is needed to face up to the dire security challenge that is being foisted upon them.

It’s odd then that the cable chooses to present the border issue in near zero-sum terms, with an almost exclusive emphasis on Mexico’s troubles. It’s also strange that, given US criticism of Mexico for not sharing information with its partners to the south, diplomatic staff responsible for disseminating sensitive information about Mexico with concerned parties throughout the State Department, did not see fit to share this cable with the embassy in Guatemala City.

In Today’s Open-Source World, Low-Tech Attacks by “Other Guys” Rule

I woke up thinking about caltrops. Remember caltrops – those handy little devices scattered around by Roman cavalry to cover their retreat? Equally effective against infantry, cavalry and war elephants, caltrops are nothing more than two or more sharp nails or spines fastened together so that one of them always points upward when it lands. These 2,000-year-old ‘no tech’ weapons are thoroughly modern, too – make those spines hollow and they also work on pneumatic tires.

Now imagine a group of fun loving ‘Other Guys’ [gangs, drug cartels, insurgents, terrorist groups] with a few vans and a few thousand caltrops they knocked out over a batch of brewskis while watching Monday Night Football on the big screen.

These OGs, pissed off, perhaps, by petty resentments such as their jobs being offshored, their retirement being stolen through a hedge fund scam, or their team once again making a lousy draft choice, set off for some payback. They hit the freeways at rush hour, and liberally (though they would never use the term!) scatter their carefully crafted caltrops around Greater Metropolitan Anywhere.

Within minutes, it’s gridlock. The entire region is at a standstill. Economic damage runs into the tens (or hundreds) of millions through lost wages, lost time, lost production, tire repairs and replacement, body work and insurance claims, road crew and law enforcement / emergency crew overtime, etc., etc., etc. Collateral damage includes several dozen DOAs because medic rigs couldn’t reach victims or hospitals, shootouts resulted from super-sized road rage, and the sheer frustration and stress of it all triggered a wave of heart attacks and CVAs.

Cost to the OGs – a couple cases of Coors, 100 pounds of 16 penny nails or stout tubing, a couple of torches and a few gallons of gas.

Talk about Return on Investment.

Or . . . let’s say you’re really bad with tools and hate football, but are handy with a mouse and social networks. A techie friend points out that you don’t have to be a code poet to mount a DDoS attack on some corporate or .gov evildoer. (PayPal and the US State Department come to mind for some reason.)

You only need a few hundred or thousand friends to simultaneously log on to the targeted site and continuously hit ‘refresh’ to clog the server and crash the site. You can coordinate through tweets, texts and Facebook, and all pass ‘Go!’ at the same moment. You can hang out for hours, chatting, texting and virtually goofing together the whole time. Like, it’s community, dude.

The bottom line is, in ‘industrialized’ and well as ‘developing’ nations, people are tired of being lied to, ripped off and abused by the system. They’re threatened, angry and resentful. And while they may not be willing or capable of building an IED or flying a Cessna into a building, they can weld up a caltrop, click on a mouse, or squeeze a little Krazy Glue into the locks of the local bank that’s foreclosing on them or their neighbors.

In each case, the result is the personal satisfaction of fighting back, and disruption ranging from minimal to massive. ROI – economic and emotional – is massive in every case. (Cost of a tube of Krazy Glue: $4. Cost of a locksmith for an hour and new hardware and keys: $300. Cost of lost business and angry customers: pick a number. Watching it all while burning a couple dubes across the street in the park. Priceless.)

Now consider angry, idle, disenfranchised folks with access to modern arms, a garage ‘fab lab’, or a DNA sequencer purchased on EBay . . .

If there is to be a future for humankind that is not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it will be based on a concept of Mutually Assured Security. (Exactly the opposite of the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that ‘guided’ US foreign policy for so long.) Our world is just too big, too fast, too interconnected, and too well armed and capable for some of us to be secure if others are in peril.

Until we recognize that ‘we’ cannot be secure unless ‘they’ are also secure, and begin to design and bring forward what John Robb of Global Guerillas calls ‘mutually beneficial templates for success’, humanity is on a fast track to the ultimate undoing.

Bigger bombs, more troops and better surveillance will not reverse this trend – they will accelerate it.

As this week’s events around WikiLeaks and the various actions, reactions and counteractions demonstrate, we’re not in Kansas any more. And that’s just the orchestra tuning. We haven’t gotten to the overture yet, much less the symphony.

Like it or not, we live in an open source world, where small groups and even individuals can successfully take on institutions and nation states with a reasonable chance of winning. ROI is on their side. They can bleed the beast until it either implodes, or lashes out, inflicts collateral damage, and draws in new opponents who can do it greater harm. In an environment like this, as the nuclear command and control computer learned in the classic 1984 movie War Games, ‘The only way to win is not to play.’

Governments around the world had better figure that out and begin to deliver genuine security, justice and prosperity for all, or leaked memos and a thumping at the ballot box will be the least of their worries.

WikiLeaks XVIII: What About Bob? (Woodward, That Is)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eighteenth in the series.

Stephen Walt has yet another excellent piece at Foreign Policy taking stock of a double-standard being ignored in discussions of the WikiLeaks scandal, namely that

Given how frequently government officials leak classified information in order to make themselves look good, box in their bureaucratic rivals, or tie the President’s hands, it seems a little disingenuous of them to be so upset by Assange’s activities.

Walt goes on to examine the uberjournalism of Bob Woodward, the insider par excellence of White House politics.

Consider the case of the most famous of all “insider” journalists: Bob Woodward. Over the past several decades, he’s built a highly-lucrative career on his ability to get Washington insiders to talk to him. Less charitably, you could say he’s gotten rich giving politicos a vehicle to make their case in print. Just think about how many insiders spill their guts to Woodward, and even provide him with key memos, which are sometimes published as appendices in his opuses. It is apparently entirely acceptable for Woodward to publish remarkably detailed stuff on the most sensitive deliberations of the U.S. government, including the nasty things our officials say about one another and about foreign officials. This well-established practice warrants no adverse comment whatsoever; instead, the usual result is a front page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a #1 position on the best-seller list.

Walt asks if anyone has

proposed arresting Bob Woodward? Has anyone looked into applying the 1917 Espionage Act to his revelations of the most secret deliberations of the national security establishment? Is the State Department telling employees not to buy or read his books, the same way they are telling employees not to look at any of the Wikileaks materials? And remember: Woodward isn’t writing about minor issues or even the trivialities of diplomacy; his books deal directly with core issues of war and peace. One could argue that what Woodward digs up and displays — information drawn from the highest and innermost counsels of the U.S. government — is more important and more potentially damaging than zillions of often-trivial memcons by mid-level bureaucrats in overseas embassies. How can these leaks be more sensitive or troublesome than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama’s secret Afghanistan decision-making?

The piece sums up the case neatly, with Walt offering the observation that

I suspect it mostly comes down to this. Elites like the idea of being in charge, and they don’t really trust “the people” in whose name they govern, even though it is the latter that pays their salaries, and fights their wars. Elites like the sense of power and status that being “on the inside” conveys: it’s a turn-on to know things that other people don’t, and it can be so darn inconvenient when the public gets wind of what the current “best and brightest” are actually doing. The idea that ruling elites are in fact “public servants” who serve at our behest is not a big part of their mental make-up, except that some of them do have to get re-elected every few years, and not every seat is safe.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already caught it, take a moment to read Marcy Wheeler’s account of sitting on a roundtable discussion of the Scooter Libby case, where similar issues of government-media relations came to the surface. While Wheeler concludes that some observers, in this case Jay Rosen, seem “optimistic [that] Wikileaks will make some difference here,” she remains “skeptical that the Bill of Rights will win out over the culture of secrecy.” This is certainly the concern. But I’m not clear that we should discount the staying power of freedom of expression just yet. With major voices from all points along the political spectrum—from Ron Paul and George W. Bush lawyer Jack Goldsmith on the right, to Brazil’s Lula on the left—the political terrain on which this battle is fought is shifting rapidly. And the elite media emperors, busy scrambling to put on their clothes, are losing ground by the day.

Torture and the Ticking Time Bomb (Read: Nuclear) Scenario

When the subject of torture in the abstract is broached, the conversation tends to wend its way toward the terrorist and the ticking time-bomb scenario. You know how it goes: a terrorist group announces that a nuclear bomb it’s planted in a major American city will be detonated unless its demands are met. One of its members is captured. Time to take off the shackles on torture and let ‘er rip, right?

However, when a scenario hinges on not only the ultimate weapon, but one set to go off at a time that’s both predetermined and rapidly approaching, it’s no longer a test case for torture. Instead the debate slips down a peg in hierarchy to one about torture under highly specific circumstances. The option often poised in counterpoint to torture — becoming intimate with the subject and winning his or her trust over repeated interrogation sessions — is removed because of the time constraints. The scenario, in other words, becomes tantamount to the plot device of a movie.

In fact, such a movie, was made by Australian director Gregor Jordan, but, apparently deemed unfit for theatrical release, it went straight to video. One viewer wrote of The Unthinkable: “Glib, pretentious and cynical, this is both unpleasant and insufferable.” But this viewer found it thought-provoking.

The film’s plot differs from the shopworn scenario in that the perpetrators are fewer: one man — an Anglo former member of special operations forces with nuclear knowledge turned radical Islamist. But the number of bombs is greater: three, says Yusuf, aka Stephen Arthur Younger. To back up his threat if his as yet unspecified demands aren’t met, he films himself with what he claims to be a nuclear bomb, complete with a timer that has been set.

Younger, played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen, soon allows himself to be captured in Los Angeles, presumably to enhance the platform from which he will attempt to get his demands met. Brought to what appears to be an evacuated school, he’s handed over to black ops torturer Henry Humphries. Known as “H,” he’s played by Samuel Jackson, compelling as always and, in fact, underplaying what could be easily be an over-the-top role. H’s foil is Helen Brody, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, of the FBI, which prides itself on getting results without torture.

The phrase “torture porn” has been invoked to describe The Unthinkable. True, it features plenty of tasering and, as well, severed fingertips are shown. But when it comes to atrocity exhibitions, it’s not in the same league as, say (the author imagines without actually seeing), the Hostel series.

One scene, though, shocks, but — handled without gore — only because it’s unexpected. Without revealing its nature (because — spoiler alert, as they say — I’m about to give away the rest of the movie), I’ll note that, to the discerning viewer, it supplants the question of torture momentarily. But torture returns to the foreground when the meaning of the movie’s title, The Unthinkable, reveals itself.

Try to imagine torture at its most degraded and demented. Dental drilling a la The Marathon Man? Bringing harm to the sexual organs? No, think who, not what. When Younger, with his special forces training, proves impervious to torture on his person, H calls for his children to be brought to the site.

H believes that Younger has foreseen every contingency. In fact, Younger had expected his family to be out of harm’s way on a plane to Saudi Arabia, but his Muslim wife and children were denied visas. (Small flaw in the plot: The last thing Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of recent efforts to root out al Qaeda in its midst, would want is to welcome the family of a nuclear terrorist in its midst. It would likely have extradited Younger’s family to the United States — or what remained of it after the nuclear explosions. Younger should have known this.)

When his children are escorted into the interrogation room, Younger becomes distraught and gives up the locations of a bomb in Los Angeles, as well as in New York City. (Authorities had already located one in Dallas.) The officials at the interrogation site allow themselves to hope that the threat is winding down. However, H remains suspicious that, even in his reduced state, Younger has something up his sleeve. Then H realizes that not all the missing enriched uranium from Russia that Younger used to make his bombs hasn’t been accounted for in the three known bombs. Enough remains for Younger to have manufactured a fourth bomb. (Another flaw in the plot: authorities just might have noticed that little detail.)

When Brody refuses to return the children to the interrogation room, H, apparently grandstanding, unstraps Younger and informs him that he’s free. But Younger manages to get hold of a sidearm and skills himself. FBI agent Brody leads Younger’s children out of the site and the film ends. It seems anti-climactic and an alternate ending for the movie was created, providing, from the account I read, no more satisfaction on the surface. But was it necessary to depict the last bomb detonating most likely in middle America?

Aside from ending the torture and eliminating the risk that he might crack and give up the last bomb, what did Younger achieve by shooting himself? In fact, by giving up the location of the Los Angeles bomb, he removed his children from harm’s way. Also, because he’s dead, information can’t be extracted from him by torturing his children.

After the movie ends, you make an accounting: who was right — those pro or those against torture? Let’s do the math. The FBI discovered one bomb (25% of the threat), torture produced two bombs (50%), and one fell through the cracks. The argument, however, can be made that if Younger were still alive he’d be even more likely to give up that last bomb to ensure the safety of his children. Let’s then rate torture 75% successful.

True, it’s insidious that watching The Unthinkable left this viewer more interested in calculating a score for torture than debating whether it was justified. To reiterate, the sui generis-ness of the scenario seems to make approving torture in this situation as free of ethical concerns as killing zombies. Or am I just making an excuse for myself?

This question was explored in 2006 and again in 2008 by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explored this question. First, though, its disclaimer:

It is important to stress here that the kind of scenario under discussion remains that of the one-off case of torture in an emergency situation; what is not under consideration in this section is legalised, or otherwise institutionalised, torture.

The treatise proper begins:

. . . The central claim of the proponents of “practical moral absolutes” seems to be [that] ticking bomb scenarios, such as our above-described terrorist case — and other relevant one-off emergencies in which torture seems to be justified — have not, and will not, happen. . . . [But] it is not simply a philosopher’s fanciful example.

To outline the justification:

(1) The police reasonably believe that torturing the terrorist will probably save thousands of innocent lives; (2) the police know that there is no other way to save those lives; (3) the threat to life is imminent; (4) the thousands about to be murdered are innocent — the terrorist has no good, let alone decisive, justificatory moral reason for murdering them [as if one could possibly exist — RW].


. . . the terrorist is in the process of completing his . . . action of murdering thousands of innocent people. . . . the terrorist is more akin to someone in the process of murdering an innocent person, and refusing to refrain from doing so. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, another individual in the act of murder might be shot by the police. Still:

. . . someone might hold that killing is an absolute moral wrong, i.e., killing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. This view is consistent with holding that torture is an absolute moral wrong, i.e. torturing anyone — no matter how guilty — is never morally justified. However, the price of consistency is very high.

Moral absolutism takes consistency to its extreme like, say, nuclear weapons takes killing to its extreme. Both push past the point of absurdity. In the end:

. . . it is difficult to see how torturing (but not killing) the guilty terrorist and saving the lives of thousands could be morally worse than refraining from torturing him and allowing him to murder thousands.

To repeat, the scenario may be too unique to have practical value.

In a postscript, The Unthinkable features a moment that has all the trappings of an inside joke. The demands that Younger finally reveals require the president to announce a cessation of support for what he calls puppet governments in Middle Eastern countries and a withdrawal of American troops from the Middle East. The president’s man responds to Brody and H that that he can’t report the demands to the president since it’s a declared policy of the United States to refuse to negotiate with terrorist. This viewer’s response? Go Younger!

In fact, the sympathy director Jordan invokes in us for a nuclear terrorist is even more insidious than making it easy for us to accept torture.

Do Arab States Really Want the U.S. to Attack Iran?

[The] cables reveal how Iran’s ascent has unified Israel and many longtime Arab adversaries — notably the Saudis — in a common cause. Publicly, these Arab states held their tongues, for fear of a domestic uproar and the retributions of a powerful neighbor. Privately, they clamored for strong action — by someone else.

. . . wrote a David Sanger-led team at the New York Times on November 29 as part of its coverage of the lastest WikiLeaks dump. For example, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supposedly called for the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” of Iran. Also, from the Los Angeles Times via Michael Bush at Focal Points:

In a May 2005 meeting, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed, deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates armed forces, urged a U.S. general to use “ground forces” against Iran. . . . A February 2010 document attributes Bin Zayed’s “near-obsessive” arms buildup to his fears about Iran.

Apparently this didn’t jibe with what Gareth Porter and Jim Lobe of IPS News knew of Arab attitudes toward Iran. They took it upon themselves to scrutinize the cables in question. Here’s an excerpt from what they learned.

The notion that these leaders, like Israel, favour a military solution to Iran’s nuclear programme has become widely accepted by the news media in the past week. . . . for example, the Washington Post Monday asserted that the Wikileaks disclosure “show[ed] that Persian Gulf leaders have pressed for a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities…”

But a careful reading of all the diplomatic cables reporting the views of Saudi and other Gulf Arab regimes on Iran shows that the [New York] Times’ account seriously distorted the content — and in the case of the Saudis, ignored the context — of the cables. . . . The original Times story, headlined “From Arabs and Israelis, Sharp Distress Over a Nuclear Iran”, referred to “a largely silent front of Arab states whose position on sanctions and force looked much like the Israelis”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. neo- conservative backers immediately seized on the story as confirmation of what Israel has been saying all along.

In fact . . .

. . . the cables show that most Gulf Arab regimes including Saudi Arabia itself — have been seriously concerned about the consequences of a strike against Iran for their own security, in sharp contrast to Israel’s open advocacy of such a strike.


The [NY Times] story asserted that the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, had recalled the king’s “frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran” during an April 2008 meeting with Gen. David Petraeus. . . . The implication was that al-Jubeir had made that statement during the Petraeus-Abdullah meeting. But the reporting cable makes clear that [it was] two days later, in a conversation with the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Riyadh, Michael Gfoeller.

In his meeting with Petraeus, in fact, Abdullah had not spoken about Iran’s nuclear programme but focused instead on the importance of “resisting and rolling back Iranian influence and subversion in Iraq”, according to the cable. [Meanwhile] the foreign minister “called instead for much more severe U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, including a travel ban and further restrictions on bank lending.”


Even if Abdullah had in fact offered explicit support for a military attack against Iran in the meeting with Petraeus . . . that would not be a reliable indicator of Saudi policy toward the issue, according to Chas Freeman, a veteran diplomat who served as Washington’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 and maintains contact with top Saudi officials. Freeman told IPS that such a statement would “fit a pattern of communication with the United States of ingratiating themselves with their protector”.

In their hearts of hearts, Arab leaders might long to turn their friendship with the United States to their advantage and beat back Iran. But they know that trying to make use of U.S. military power is as likely to evoke blowback as when the United States thought they were clever and armed the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviets.

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