Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Bush Administration’ Category

A Group of Agents Rose Through the Ranks to Lead the Border Patrol. They’re Leaving It in Crisis.

leave a comment »

The Border Patrol seems a lot like a gang. Melissa del Bosque reports in ProPublica:

On a Saturday evening in late September, Deputy Chief Scott Luck gathered with family and friends in the crystal-chandeliered ballroom of the Trump National Golf Club, nestled along the shores of the Potomac River in Virginia, to celebrate his retirement after 33 years in the U.S. Border Patrol.

The party was adorned with a who’s who in Border Patrol leadership, past and present. There was the unmistakable figure of Luck’s boss, Chief Carla Provost, tall and broad with her trademark fringe of brown bangs, and her longtime friend Andrea Zortman, who helps oversee foreign operations for the agency. A full contingent of retired former chiefs-turned-consultants were on hand, too, including David Aguilar, 64, who’d headed the Border Patrol as well as its parent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Michael Fisher, 55, who’d succeeded Aguilar as Border Patrol chief. Rowdy Adams, 59, another retired senior-level CBP official, also attended the celebration.

The guests had kicked in $75 apiece to cover food and a gift for the send-off, but hovering over the party was a mix of weariness and defiance: It wasn’t just the end of Luck’s career, it was the end of an era at the agency — their era. And the widespread critiques currently pummeling the embattled patrol and its more than 19,600 agents would be, implicitly, their legacy.

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, almost all of the immigration honchos at Luck’s party that night were longtime colleagues who’d served as young agents in the remote border town of Douglas, Arizona, when the Border Patrol was just a small, backwater agency.

The group, called “the Douglas mafia” by some agents, began climbing the ranks together after the 9/11 attacks as the Border Patrol nearly tripled in size and budget. They’d ridden two decades of escalating political polarization over immigration to the top of the agency. They brought with them an entrenched us-against-them defiance that they’d fostered in the Arizona desert, when, feeling maligned and misunderstood, they’d forged their own way.

For better or worse, they’d had a hand in shaping virtually every aspect of the agency’s leadership and culture.

But the feeling in the room that night, said some in attendance, was relief that many of them would not be around to lead it much longer. Provost, 50, who’d started as a naive 25-year-old from a rural Kansas police force, had been planning her exit from Washington for months. Sandi Goldhamer, 56, her longtime partner who’d also gotten her start in Douglas, was already at their new home in Texas. Goldhamer had retired quietly last spring as associate chief in charge of national policy after her role in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families with no plan to reunify them.

The two women, along with Zortman, 46, had risen to the top despite the agency’s infamous lack of female agents, the least of any federal law enforcement agency.

The group had overseen or witnessed crises in the past — including lawsuits over excessive use of force and revelations of corruption within the patrol’s own ranks. But the last three years, catalyzed by ever-harsher Trump administration policies, had thrust the insular agency into unprecedented turmoil. The arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers at the border had forced agents into new roles, for which they had little training. A series of high-profile scandals had focused scalding attention on the agency: Children died in its custody. Reporters uncovered a racist, misogynist private Facebook page with some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol members, including, at one point, Provost. Misconduct charges rose and a longtime agent was even prosecuted as a serial killer.

The Border Patrol they’d guided was experiencing not just a crisis of confidence among legislators and the public, but from within.

Some senior agents said they can’t help but blame the current state of the Border Patrol on the Douglas agents for fostering a culture that favored loyalty over competency. “I still believe in our mission. But we need restructuring, we need change,” said one longtime senior agent from Texas, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a group following each other on their coattails with the same ideas, because everyone thinks the same way. And a lot of people skipping rank based on who they know, not on their experience.”

The agent said he’d worked with many of the leaders of the group at Border Patrol’s Washington, D.C., headquarters over the years, and the experience had led him to conclude that many of the agency’s problems were self-inflicted. “We grew too fast,” he said. “And there are people in leadership who are not performing at the levels they should.”

Provost, Goldhamer, Zortman, Luck and Aguilar all declined or did not respond to requests for interviews for this article, as did the Border Patrol.

“I feel like we’re leaving a terrible legacy for those who follow,” the senior agent said. Soon he, like so many others in leadership, would retire, leaving a gap that he believes the agency is ill-equipped to fill. Lately, as the patrol lurches from one crisis to another, the agent said he’s tried to figure out how everything had gone “sideways,” adding, “I’ve been asking myself, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”


In the beginning, they were just a bunch of young, mostly novice agents shunted off to a small outpost two hours southeast of Tucson, Arizona. But the ill-equipped border station in Douglas was on the verge of becoming the largest, and busiest, in the nation.

In July of 2000, Rowdy Adams was sent to Douglas station as the patrol agent in charge to help oversee its rapid expansion. “I’d never dealt with anything that complex or that big,” recalled Adams, whose spiky, once-blonde hair is now streaked with gray. When he arrived, agents were working out of trailers because they’d run out of places to put everyone. “They had a station built for 40 people, and we had something in the neighborhood of 450 or 500 agents,” he said. “I mean, it was crazy, but we made do with what we had.”

Up until the 1990s, the Border Patrol had been little more than a congressional afterthought, with fewer than 4,000 agents nationwide. Then, the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, which, coupled with a crippling peso devaluation in Mexico, helped spur a mass migration of workers north. The number of apprehended border crossers spiked to nearly a million in 1994 and kept on rising. Congress responded by passing the restrictive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and doubling down on more border fencing and agents.

The Border Patrol had already been experimenting with extended enforcement operations in San Diego and El Paso, Texas — flooding those areas with armed agents — which reduced traffic, but just like in a game of whack-a-mole, the crossers would surface somewhere else. By 2000, that somewhere else was Douglas, a sleepy borough of 14,000 inhabitants bordering the much larger Agua Prieta, Sonora.

Back then, most migrants were single men from Mexico looking for work. They were processed quickly then sent back across the line, said former agent Kevin Smith, who spent his entire career in Douglas and retired there in 2014. “We were making 1,000 apprehensions a day and not even catching 10%,” he said. “We were so overwhelmed.”

The border town had already gained an outsized infamy after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who would later lead the Sinaloa Cartel, built his first cross-border drug tunnel there, a 270-foot long engineering marvel that included a hidden door under a hydraulic-lifted pool table. In the ensuing years, a wave of investigations and arrests of U.S. border agents with ties to drug traffickers and human smugglers fed the town’s notoriety. By 1996, the Los Angeles Times noted that Douglas was known as “the most corrupt town on the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border.”

The resources opened up by Congress continued to pour into Douglas anyway. A new station was built on 29 acres of seized property, at a cost of $23 million. By 2003, Douglas station was the largest in the nation, with 550 permanent agents and an additional 100 on rotation from other parts of the country. It had grown so big, so fast that there was little managerial oversight, Adams said. His primary task at the time, he said, was to hire more supervisors and get the organization under control, “to make sure that people were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Provost had landed at Douglas in 1995, one of a handful of women in a notoriously macho culture.

“I’d like to say we had maybe 6-7% women at Douglas station,” Adams said. “It’s a tough gig. We’re in remote locations. And if you want to have a family, and all that, it’s going to have an impact.”

Provost, athletic and with a can-do Midwestern pragmatism, was determined to make her mark, recalled Michael Fisher, who first met Provost in Douglas and rose through the ranks as her superior.

Fisher’s first encounter with Provost came late one night while he and a tactical team, clad in black and with their faces covered in black grease paint, were tracking a group of migrants in the desert east of Douglas. “We heard a sound, and all of a sudden I saw this person go by on a bicycle,” Fisher said. “We thought it was a scout or something, so we started running and got into position and flashed our lights and announced that we were Border Patrol agents.”

The bicyclist, Fisher said, doubled back, and he was surprised to see a woman in a Border Patrol uniform on a mountain bike. He said he asked what she was doing in the desert alone in the middle of the night.

“Well, what are you doing here?” the agent shot back, Fisher remembered.

“I told her we were tracking the group,” Fisher said. “And she said: ‘Like hell you are. That’s my group.’ And then she rode off into the desert. And I was like, ‘Wow, who was that?’”

Later, he would find out it was Provost, a supervisor on the Border Patrol’s recently created bike unit. “I was impressed,” he said. “She stood her ground.”

Goldhamer, originally from Tallahassee, Florida, was also determined to succeed in the testosterone-filled workplace. Petite, with long brown hair that she wore in a tight bun, Goldhamer stood out because she was always one of the first to volunteer, Adams said. “She just did what she needed to do. Even if it was the shit job for the evening, she would take that and embrace it without complaint,” he said.

By the early aughts, apprehensions at Douglas were up to 2,400 a day, according to Adams. The station was praised for being one of the first to implement new biometric technology linking its IDENT fingerprint database with other law enforcement databases to screen people for criminal backgrounds. But the Border Patrol was not screening its own agents thoroughly enough. The station had grown too fast, with too few checks and balances in place, to weed out the bad actors within its own ranks. “I’d love to take credit for picking nothing but rock stars,” Adams said of the agents he’d promoted at the time. “But it didn’t always turn out that way.”

In those early years in Douglas, Adams and others said, the agents, including those who would come to be the Douglas mafia, saw firsthand many of the problems that would plague the agency in coming years.

One night in late September 2000, Goldhamer noticed an acting supervisor named Dennis Johnson talking with a Salvadoran woman they’d just apprehended. With several people to process for the return to Mexico, Goldhamer lost sight of them, according to court records. Johnson drove the handcuffed woman into the desert and sexually assaulted her. Then he took her to another port of entry at Naco, 25 miles west of Douglas, and sent her back to Mexico. The assault was only discovered because the woman made a complaint to a Mexican customs agent who then reported it to his U.S. counterpart, the court records show.

Adams, as patrol agent in charge, said he took the call that night from the agent in Naco. He needed to quickly piece together what had happened. Goldhamer helped him identify Johnson’s patrol vehicle. “We quietly seized the vehicle and did the DNA samples,” he said, “and that’s what wound up getting him convicted.” Goldhamer later testified at Johnson’s trial. Johnson’s attorney argued that the woman had initiated oral sex and then made up a the story to stay in the United States, but a jury found him guilty of sexual assault and kidnapping.

But Johnson’s trial was a rare occurrence, then and now.

In 2001, the Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into a sprawling kickback scheme in which numerous agents detailed to Douglas from other stations were furnished with falsified receipts from supervisors, who’d rented them rooms in their homes, or from hotel managers or apartment landlords. Agents claimed the $55-a-day housing allowance when they’d actually paid much less, pocketing the difference. Some also received gym memberships and cash incentives. . .

Continue reading.

It’s a criminal gang operating under the mantle of law enforcement.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2020 at 1:44 pm

The Golden Age of White-Collar Crime

leave a comment »

Michael Hobbs reports in HuffPost Highline:

1 A Slow-Motion Looting

OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, nearly every institution of American life has taken on the unmistakable stench of moral rot. Corporate behemoths like Boeing and Wells Fargo have traded blue-chip credibility for white-collar callousness. Elite universities are selling admission spots to the highest Hollywood bidder. Silicon Valley unicorns have revealed themselves as long cons (Theranos), venture-capital cremation devices (Uber, WeWork) or straightforward comic book supervillains (Facebook). Every week unearths a cabinet-level political scandal that would have defined any other presidency. From the blackouts in California to the bloated bonuses on Wall Street to the entire biography of Jeffrey Epstein, it is impossible to look around the country and not get the feeling that elites are slowly looting it.

And why wouldn’t they? The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously. In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998. Even within the dwindling number of prosecutions, most are cases against low-level con artists and small-fry financial schemes. Since 2015, criminal penalties levied by the Justice Department have fallen from $3.6 billion to roughly $110 million. Illicit profits seized by the Securities and Exchange Commission have reportedly dropped by more than half. In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.

With few exceptions, the only rich people America prosecutes anymore are those who victimize their fellow elites. Pharma frat boy Martin Shkreli, to pick just one example, wasn’t prosecuted for hiking the price of a drug used to treat HIV from $13.50 to $750 per pill. He went to prison for scamming investors in a hedge fund scheme years before. Meanwhile, in 2016, the CEO whose company experienced the deadliest mining disaster since 1970 served less than one year in prison and paid a fine of 1.4 percent of his salary and stock bonuses the previous year. Why? Because overseeing a company that ignores warnings and causes the deaths of workers, even 29 of them, is a misdemeanor.

Construction magnate Bruce Karatz provides an infuriating case study of how the criminal justice system treats wealthy defendants. In 2010, Karatz was convicted of failing to disclose in a financial statement that he had secretly “backdated” his stock options (think Biff with the Sports Almanac in “Back to the Future II”) to boost his pay by more than $6 million. Prior to his sentencing hearing, his lawyer submitted letters of support from former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Prosecutors recommended six-and-a-half-years in prison; the judge gave Karatz five years’ probation and eight months of house arrest in his Bel Air mansion. After two years, the judge terminated the remainder of the sentence. Karatz later received a civic award from The Malibu Times for volunteer work he did to make a good impression for his sentencing hearing.

Country-club nepotism and Gilded Age avarice are nothing new in America, of course. But the rich are enjoying a golden age of impunity unprecedented in modern history. “American elites have become more brazen than they were even five years ago,” said Matthew Robinson, a professor at Appalachian State University and the author of several books on “elite deviance”— all the legal and illegal social harms caused by the wealthy.

Elite deviance has become the dark matter of American life, the invisible force around which the country’s most powerful legal and political systems have set their orbit. Four members of the Sackler family, the owners of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, have retained the services of former SEC head Mary Jo White as their personal lawyer. Epstein’s dinner party guest lists included Harvard professors, billionaire philanthropists and members of political dynasties in at least two countries. In 2017, the pharmaceutical company Novartis spent about 14 percent of its annual lobbying budget on payments to a shell company controlled by ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

And this clubbiness has human costs. Tax evasion, to pick just one crime concentrated among the wealthy, already siphons up to 10,000 times more money out of the U.S. economy every year than bank robberies. In 2017, researchers estimated that fraud by America’s largest corporations cost Americans up to $360 billion annually between 1996 and 2004. That’s roughly two decades’ worth of street crime every single year. As the links between corporations and regulators become increasingly incestuous, the future will bring more crude-soaked coastlines, price-gouging corporate behemoths and Madoff-style Ponzi schemes. More hurdles to suing companies for poisoning their customers or letting bosses harass their employees. And more uniquely American catastrophes like the opioid crisis and the price of insulin.

Perhaps the greatest myth about white-collar crime is that Americans struggle to understand it—as if chemical companies toxifying rivers or insurance executives gouging their customers fail to stimulate our moral intuitions. In fact, surveys consistently show that the vast majority of the population considers white-collar crime more harmful than street crime and powerful offenders more odious than common criminals.

Those intuitions are correct: An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society. And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.

2 An Increasingly Desperate Pantomime Of Legal Enforcement

EVERY YEAR, AT BRANDED COCKTAIL receptions and bloated buffet breakfasts, government agents spend two days hobnobbing with the tax-haven attorneys they spend the rest of the year investigating.

The Offshore Alert conference takes place in Miami each spring, in London each fall and in “key offshore jurisdictions” all year round. Officially, participants come to discuss “wealth creation, preservation and recovery.” Less officially, the tax lawyers come to learn what the feds will crack down on next year. The government investigators come to fish for future jobs. Imagine a yearly picnic where sheriffs give drug dealers tips on hiding baggies from pat-downs and leave with a new set of endorsements on LinkedIn.

In person, the conference is even more surreal than it sounds. From across a cologne-scented hotel lobby, I watched tanned attorneys fresh off flights from the Caribbean mingle with ashen IRS agents who bring business cards from Kinko’s because the agency won’t pay to get them printed anymore. I listened to officials from the FBI and SEC lay out enforcement priorities as cryptocurrency investors and Russian bankers took notes. At lunch, I talked “Game of Thrones” with a Senate advisor, a government auditor and a Bahamanian lawyer who later offered to set me up a shell corporation for $5,000.

The finance types were frosty during the day—an investor who appeared to be wearing monogrammed slacks wouldn’t tell me his first name—but they loosened up at the happy hours. An offshore tax advisor bragged that he could take his clients’ tax rates from 49 percent to 15 percent and complained that they were constantly pushing him to go lower. Another told me that most of his clients aren’t trying to hide money from the government but from their second or third wives. “The first one raised their kids so they feel like she’s entitled to something,” he explained. “It’s the trophy wives they want to lock out.”

Jack Albertson is a government investigator—that’s not his real name and he won’t let me get more specific about his job description—who has been coming to Offshore Alert for years. When I ask him how this cops-and-robbers conflagration even exists, he tells me I’m thinking about it the wrong way. He, like all the other investigators here, knows that many of the lawyers who attend are hiding their clients’ money sketchily or outright illegally. He even knows how they’re doing it. The tactics for hiding money from tax authorities are not particularly sophisticated and have barely changed in the last 50 years. Set up a shell company and buy an appreciating asset—Iowa farmland, a London apartment, a New York pizzeria, something common enough that it won’t attract attention.

Contrary to the “Catch Me If You Can” myth, Albertson said, solving financial crimes is not a cat-and-mouse game between cunning investigators and slippery con artists. Most of the time it is simply the blunt application of resources to a series of unimaginably tedious tasks. “Investigators can already crack almost any offshore account if they have enough time and money,” he said. “The problem is that they only get that for a few cases a year.”

Over the last four decades, the agencies responsible for investigating elite and white-collar crime—roughly speaking, the IRS, SEC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and FBI—have seen their enforcement divisions starved into irrelevance. More than a third of the FBI investigators who patrol Wall Street were reassigned between 2001 and 2008. Enforcement funding at the IRS has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade. And, worst of all, every time a scandal exposes the government’s inadequacy, Congress steps in to squeeze the regulators even harder.

The most instructive case of this deliberate stunting is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Founded in 1972, the CPSC’s job is to make sure the things you buy won’t pierce, poison or burn you. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan slashed its budget as part of his crusade against bureaucratic waste. In the 1990s, Clinton instructed the agency to produce more data as part of his push for government accountability. No matter which party was in power, every administration gave the CPSC more to do and less money to do it with. By 2007, it had shrunk from its initial 786 employees to just 420.

That same year, Mattel announced a recall of more than 1 million⁠ of its children’s toys that had been contaminated with lead paint. Despite the company’s sophisticated international operations and billions in revenues, it had never bothered to inspect the Chinese sub-contractors. By then, the CSPC had fewer than 100⁠ inspectors to monitor all imports to the United States. The Los Angeles-area ports where a chunk of the tainted toys arrived was overseen by a single part-time inspector.

Congress responded to the scandal by compounding the mistakes that had caused it. Lawmakers agreed to double the CPSC’s budget and increase its staff, but also obligated the agency to carry out dozens of new activities, including the creation of a public database to track safety hazards for every single product sold in the U.S.

The new mandate swallowed up all the agency’s new funding and more. Soon, the CPSC was dedicating nearly all of its time to lead abatement in children’s toys, neglecting millions of products that posed far greater risks to children, like flammable blankets or dangerous table saws. The product database filled up with unconfirmed complaints and spammy comments. Mattel, meanwhile, faced no consequences for manufacturing the lead-tainted toys beyond a $2.3 million fine—roughly 0.006 percent⁠ of its net income. According to Rena Steinzor, the author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Disasters, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction,” the same cycle has repeated itself across every form of elite deviance, from tax compliance to financial regulation to environmental protection. In 2010, following a series of tax-haven scandals, the IRS set up a “wealth squad” to investigate the ultra-rich —but only staffed it with enough agents to perform 36 audits in its first two years.

After the Enron-led avalanche of corporate bankruptcies in the early 2000s, Congress gave the SEC enough funding to hire 200 new auditing staff. At the same time, however, lawmakers obligated the agency to review the filings of every publicly traded U.S. financial firm every three years—a mandate far larger than the agency’s new staffing levels. Then, after the financial crisis, it happened again: The Dodd-Frank act tasked the SEC with monitoring even more companies and trillions of new assets while increasing its enforcement staff by less than 10 percent.

This cycle has left America’s regulators with no choice but to engage in an increasingly desperate pantomime of white-collar law enforcement. On the outside, they report impressive performance statistics to avoid even more budget cuts. Behind the scenes, they’ve retreated to investigating only the defendants they know are guilty and the crimes they know where to find.

The primary beneficiaries of this shift are American elites. Rich people generate mountains of financial data. Millionaires can have over 100 bank accounts; billionaires’ tax returns run to 800 pages long. For people who earn most of their income from working (i.e. almost everyone), the IRS has an automatic system that compares individuals’ reports to the records submitted by their employers and banks. For the wealthy, who make much of their income from interest and investments, the agency has nothing to compare their reports against. The only way to tell if a rich person is cheating on their taxes is to sit down and go through them line by line.

“Let’s say you get a tip that some billionaire is hiding a bunch of money offshore and not paying taxes on it,” said Arthur VanDesande, who spent 25 years as a criminal investigator for the IRS. “And you manage to narrow the tax evasion down to 20 of his bank accounts. OK, now you have to prepare 20 subpoenas, get them signed by a judge and deliver them to the banks. But when you go to Bank of America, they say, ‘We don’t accept subpoenas at this location, you have to go to our authorized representative in Orlando.’ So then you go to Orlando and and you find out the money is linked to an offshore account. So then you have to write to the embassy…’”

Due to the IRS’ lean resources, VanDesande did most of this legwork himself. “You type your own shit, you make your own copies, you write every single affidavit. Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m a senior-level person with a college degree. Why am I calling Wells Fargo and sitting on hold for 45 minutes?’”

Only some of this drudgery can be outsourced to lower-level staffers. White-collar cases involve understanding arcane laws, absorbing thousands of pages of documents, traversing international jurisdictions and coordinating a vast array of agencies from the Secret Service to the Post Office. They require investigators to be Jack Ryan, Magnum P.I. and Leslie Knope all at once. Even though auditing millionaires and billionaires is one of the most cost-effective government activities imaginable—an independent report estimated in 2014 that it yielded up to $4,545 in recovered revenue per hour of staff time—the IRS investigated the returns of just 3 percent of American millionaires in 2017.

In addition to reducing their caseload, America’s white-collar enforcement agencies have started prioritizing crimes they can prosecute in bulk. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it provides some insight into why America is failing.

Operation Encore and the Saudi Connection: A Secret History of the 9/11 Investigation

leave a comment »

Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella report in ProPublica:

On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Donald Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.

One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the FBI’s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the FBI bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didn’t mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump — of complicity in the attacks.

The president promised to help. “It’s done,” he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an FBI report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi official’s name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families’ hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked “significant harm to the national security.”

The families were stunned. They knew that the success of their lawsuit might well depend on access to the FBI’s investigation into possible Saudi involvement in the plot by al-Qaida. In a federal courthouse in Manhattan, near where the twin towers once stood, the fight over evidence had already dragged on for more than a year. Now, as the judge prepared to rule on what documents would be disclosed, the Justice Department was digging in.

Daniel Gonzalez wasn’t surprised by the hard line. A former street agent in the FBI’s San Diego field office, he was one of several retired investigators who had signed on to help the families. During the last 15 years of his FBI career, Gonzalez was a central figure in the bureau’s effort to understand Saudi connections to 9/11. But even on the inside, Gonzalez often felt as if his own government wanted no part of what he was finding.

From the day of the attacks, the trail seemed to point to Saudi Arabia. First, there was the inescapable fact that, like Osama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The first two flew in to Los Angeles in January 2000 and quickly made their way to a Saudi mosque. When they moved to San Diego a few weeks later, they turned for help to a middle-aged Saudi student whom the FBI suspected of spying for the kingdom.

But as details of the 9/11 plot came into focus, the FBI line on possible Saudi involvement began to shift: When the evidence was assessed, FBI officials reported, there was no solid proof that the Saudi government or any of its senior officials deliberately aided the Qaida terrorists. Low-level Saudis with government ties might have helped the two hijackers in California, the bureau acknowledged, but there was no indication that they knew the men were terrorists — much less planning to murder thousands of Americans.

Gonzalez knew he hadn’t seen all the evidence; he had just a corner of an investigation that stretched around the world. American intelligence agencies surely had pieces of the Saudi puzzle that even senior FBI officials might not be aware of. But what Gonzalez uncovered was troubling, and he knew that bigger questions about the plot were still unanswered. “My head was already flat from banging it against the wall,” he recalled. “But I thought, We’re not done.”

Gonzalez, a tough, affable Texan, pressed on. With a small group of like-minded investigators in New York and California, he hunted down witnesses who had slipped away and circled back to clues that had been missed. The evidence they developed was nearly all circumstantial. But it added to the questions about the role of the Saudi government.

The FBI has disputed the idea that foreign-policy considerations significantly influenced its investigation. In interviews, current and former bureau officials and federal prosecutors insisted to us that they never would have hesitated to pursue any Saudi who could have been solidly linked to the 9/11 plot, even if that person never faced trial in the United States. (Saudi Arabia does not extradite its citizens.) “I have never been privy to discussions about not charging someone for 9/11 because we need to maintain a better relationship with the Saudis,” Jacqueline Maguire, a special agent in charge in New York who was closely involved in the case from the beginning, told us. “I have never heard charges be questioned for that reason.”

But others who worked on the matter, including some at the FBI’s highest levels, say that the United States’ complex and often-troubled relationship with the Saudi regime was an unavoidable fact throughout their investigations. Even as the Saudi authorities became more cooperative with the United States in fighting al-Qaida after 2003, they were minimally and grudgingly helpful when it came to the 9/11 inquiry. According to current and former officials, requests for assistance that might rattle the Saudi security agencies were frequently balanced against FBI and CIA needs for Saudi help against continuing terror threats.

How such considerations might also weigh against the appeals of the 9/11 families for a fuller record of what happened remains an open question. If anything, the transactional nature of America’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom has become more overt. In December, following the terrorist shooting by a Saudi Air Force officer that killed three Americans and wounded eight others on a Florida naval base, Trump tweeted what he said were assurances from King Salman that “this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people.” Earlier last year, addressing the Saudi government’s murder of a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, Trump argued that such offenses should be seen in a broader context. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’” he told NBC News.

Washington’s efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former FBI agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams — a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings — said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an FBI lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.” (The FBI declined to comment.)

The full story of the FBI’s investigation into Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks has remained largely untold. Even the code name of the case — Operation Encore — has never been published before. This account is based on interviews with more than 50 current and former investigators, intelligence officials and witnesses in the case. It also draws on some previously secret documents as well as on the voluminous public files of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

The Encore investigation exposed a bitter rift within the bureau over the Saudi connection. It illuminated a series of missed opportunities to resolve questions about links between one of Washington’s closest allies and the deadliest attack in the nation’s history. Richard Lambert, who led the FBI’s initial 9/11 investigation in San Diego, as the assistant special agent in charge there, says he believes that even if the FBI’s evidence of possible Saudi involvement in the case is not conclusive, it is significant enough that it should be fully disclosed. “The circumstantial evidence has mounted,” he says. “Given the lapse of time, I don’t know any reason why the truth should be kept from the American people.”


Images of the World Trade Center’s collapse were still looping on television sets in the FBI’s San Diego field office when a lead came in from Dulles International Airport, outside Washington. A blue 1988 Toyota Corolla had been found in a parking lot; it was registered to one of the suspected hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which took off for Los Angeles the previous morning before crashing into the Pentagon, killing 64 people on board and 125 inside the building. The hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, listed a San Diego address.

Gonzalez caught the lead. At 42, he had been in the office for a decade, building a reputation as a shrewd, instinctive agent with a gift for getting people to talk. He had worked very effectively against Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt border-control agents, and he pivoted easily to the new target. “He was a phenomenal agent,” Lambert says, “what you would want to see if an agent knocked on your door. He just kept going and going.”

The address from Dulles led Gonzalez to a plain, white, two-story house in the working-class suburb of Lemon Grove. The listed owner was a 65-year-old Indian immigrant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had taught English as a second language at local community colleges and helped establish the Islamic Center of San Diego, the city’s largest mosque. Gonzalez hurried back to prepare a search warrant at the FBI office, where snipers had taken up positions on the roof. “It was chaos,” recalls William D. Gore, who was then the special agent in charge in San Diego. “Nobody knew where the next attack would be.”

When Gonzalez returned to the Lemon Grove house the next day, a small army was mustering: an evidence-collection team, computer experts and a SWAT team with protective gear and a battering ram. Before they could get to the door, however, the professor politely opened it for them. It would be more than a week before anyone told Gonzalez that Dr. Shaikh, as he liked to be called, was in fact a long-time informant for the FBI field office.

Shaikh’s FBI handler would later acknowledge to Justice Department investigators that the professor had mentioned the two hijackers to him — but only by their first names, noting casually that they were the latest in a line of young Muslim men who rented his spare bedroom. Even had the agent dug further, he might not have discovered that Shaikh’s boarders, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were known Qaida operatives whose names were in the databases of both the CIA and the National Security Agency. While CIA officials placed the two men under surveillance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early January 2000 and learned that at least one of them later flew to Los Angeles, the agency did not alert the FBI to their presence until August 2001, a few weeks before the attacks.

As the raid proceeded, Gonzalez escorted one of Shaikh’s new boarders outside. The young man got to know Hazmi a bit at a Texaco gas station where Hazmi briefly worked washing cars. But the guy whom Gonzalez should try to find, the boarder said, was another young immigrant who was especially close to the two Saudi men. His name was Mohdar Abdullah.

Gonzalez set up 24-hour surveillance on the Texaco station and began searching for Abdullah. The next day, as Abdullah drove into a student parking lot at San Diego State University, Gonzalez pulled up alongside him and identified himself as FBI. “What took you so long?” Abdullah asked. “I thought you’d be all over me sooner.”

Gonzalez and another agent invited Abdullah for breakfast at a Denny’s just east of the campus. The diner was one of the spots that Abdullah liked to go to with the two hijackers. Just up the hill, on Saranac Street, was the two-bedroom apartment they rented, where they often whiled away their days with Abdullah and a rotating crew of young Muslim men. Nearby was a small mosque where the three men worshipped under the guidance of Anwar al-­Awlaki, the Yemeni-American imam who would emerge as an important Qaida leader before being killed in Yemen by a United States drone strike in 2011.

Over the next three days, Abdullah, then 22, sketched a picture of the hijackers’ California lives — praying daily at the mosque, going for pizza at Little Caesars, playing pickup soccer. Abdullah translated for the two Saudis, drove them on errands and registered them for English classes. He also tried to arrange flying lessons for the pair. At a San Diego airfield in May 2000, they told the instructor they wanted to skip past the single-engine Cessna and learn to fly Boeing jets. He broke off their training after the second lesson and advised them to come back when they could speak better English.

Mihdhar, who was 24, left for Yemen in June 2000 to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I’ve always been disturbed by how the George W. Bush administration helped Saudi citizens flee the US after the attacks.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2020 at 4:50 pm

Inside the U.S. military’s raid against its own security guards that left dozens of Afghan children dead

leave a comment »

Brett Murphy reports in USA Today:

ZIZABAD, Afghanistan – Once the Americans left, the survivors started digging.

There were too many dead and not enough shovels, so a local politician brought in heavy machinery from a nearby construction site. He dug graves deep enough to fit mothers with children, or children with children. Some were still in their pajamas, their hands inked with henna tattoos from the party preparations the night before.

Villagers picked through the rubble of what had been an entire neighborhood, looking for remains to wrap in white linens for burial. A boy clutching a torn rug walked in a daze on top of the ruins. A young man collapsed in grief by a pile of mud bricks where his home once stood – where his wife and four children had been sleeping inside.

The local doctor recorded a cellphone video to document the dead faces, freckled with shrapnel and blood, coated with dust and debris. Some were Afghan men of fighting age, but most – dozens of them – were women and children. Taza was 3 years old. Maida was 2. Zia, 1.

The hot summer wind kicked up dust, smoke and the smell of gunpowder as villagers tried to make sense of why their remote village was demolished by an American airstrike in the middle of the night.

A clue was found near several of the dead Afghan fighters: ID badges from the private security company at the American-controlled airfield up the road.

Why had a team of U.S. soldiers and Marines battled its own paid security detail?

After more than a decade, those who buried their families still don’t know.


U.S. military officials publicly touted the August 22, 2008, Azizabad raid – Operation Commando Riot – as a victory. A high-value Taliban target had been killed; the collateral damage was minimal; the village was grateful.

None of it was true.

The Taliban commander escaped. Dozens of civilians were dead in the rubble, including as many as 60 children. The local population rioted.

It remains one of the deadliest civilian casualty events of the Afghan campaign. But the story of how the operation turned tragic has been largely hidden from the public.

USA TODAY spent more than a year investigating the Azizabad raid and sued the Department of Defense to obtain almost 1,000 pages of investigative files previously kept secret because it had been deemed “classified national security information.” The records included photographs of the destruction in Azizabad and sworn testimony from the U.S. forces who planned and executed the operation.

USA TODAY also obtained Afghan government records, evidence collected by humanitarian groups, including the Red Cross, and a confidential United Nations investigation into the incident.

In addition, a reporter traveled to western Afghanistan to interview government officials, investigators, first responders, witnesses and the villagers who survived.

Together, the records and interviews tell the story of a disaster that was months in the making as military and company officials ignored warnings about the men they had hired to provide intelligence and security. The records also reveal that the Defense Department has for years downplayed or denied the fatal mistakes surrounding the tragedy.

The problems began in 2007 when ArmorGroup, a private security company working on a Pentagon subcontract, hired two local warlords on the U.S. intelligence payroll to provide armed guards at an airfield on the western edge of Afghanistan.

Those warlords fought each other for control of the weapons and money ArmorGroup was giving out. The tangle of espionage and tribal infighting eventually drew in the very same military units that had helped empower the warlords in the first place.

The breakdowns in the U.S. military intelligence machine culminated with the raid itself. Some troops were never warned of Azizabad’s civilian population, and the special operation commanders who did know unleashed devastating force from the air anyway. Ground troops directed an American gunship to demolish house after house where at least one insurgent took cover, without knowing who else was inside.

“If they fled into the building, we were asking him to basically drop the building,” a Marine who was coordinating with the gunship testified. Most of the names were redacted from the military investigation.

Much about the mission in Azizabad remains in dispute, but this much is clear: The architects behind this corner of the war – and those profiting from the security contract – did not understand the difference between who they were supposed to be fighting, employing and protecting.

There still is no definitive death toll. After initially insisting that only five to seven civilians died, Pentagon officials were forced to adjust that figure to 33 after photos and videos of the carnage proved the official account wrong. Separate reviews by the Afghan government, Red Cross, United Nations and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission put the civilian deaths over 70.

After two Pentagon investigations, the U.S. military denied any wrongdoing. Defense Department officials declined to comment for this story.

A 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry laid blame with both ArmorGroup and the Defense Department for doing business with the warlords. In response to the Senate report, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a letter recognizing problems with contract oversight, which he pledged to fix.

Yet in the aftermath of the Azizabad raid, records show, military leaders sought to present an image of success and mask evidence of a civilian casualty disaster. The false version of events was amplified by Oliver North – a former Marine commander and a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s – who was embedded as a Fox News contributor with the forces conducting the raid. North’s segment, which presents the mission as a success and the Taliban commander “confirmed dead,” is still available on the Fox News website.

North did not respond to multiple interview requests. In an email, Fox News spokeswoman Caley Cronin did not address North’s segment and directed questions to North, “who is no longer a contributor with the network,” she wrote.

Lt. Colonel Rachel E. VanLandingham, a retired officer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the chief of international law at Central Command’s headquarters during the Azizabad raid, said the commanders responsible for investigating the incident seemed to ignore the failures instead of learning from them. She did not know the details of the operation or the military’s response until contacted by USA TODAY.

“The CENTCOM investigation seemed more worried about looking good than being good,” VanLandingham, now a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “Everyone who deploys in Afghanistan should know this incident.”

G4S, the largest private security company in the world, purchased ArmorGroup in 2008 – after the company had signed its contract with the Pentagon to provide security at the airfield but before the Azizabad raid. The company’s role has remained virtually unknown other than a literal footnote in the Senate inquiry.

Executives at ArmorGroup, which G4S dissolved into another subsidiary it later sold in 2014, considered their decisions at the time to be the best option to keep those inside the base safe under difficult circumstances, according to emails collected by Senate investigators.

“Without the leadership and management” of company staff, the “worst could have caused the project to fail long before the August tragedy,” one said.

G4S declined to comment for this story, except to state that ArmorGroup is a former G4S subsidiary that wasn’t under the direct control of the parent company.

But some of the employees who were operating the air base contracts near Azizabad agreed to speak out publicly for the first time.

“It was wholesale slaughter,” David McDonnell, a former ArmorGroup director who oversaw mine clearing projects in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview. “And it didn’t need to be.”

His colleague, Tony Thompson, worked with some of the villagers killed in the raid. Thompson told USA TODAY he has spent much of the past decade wrestling with the truth kept secret all this time.

“Their families died, and they still don’t know why,” he said. “You’ll never bring them back. But you need to know how and why it happened.”
chapter1.png” alt=”I. The Airfield” />

I. The Airfield

The Shindand District air base, on the southern border of Afghanistan’s Herat Province, was first built by the Soviets in the 1960s. A graveyard of abandoned Russian aircraft and land mines spread across open fields on both sides of the perimeter fence. The base is a 9-square-mile campus in a remote but strategic location between Iran’s eastern border and the Ring Road, which circles all of Afghanistan.

In a district that has . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Military “honor” is a curiously flexible concept. And we still are at war in Afghanistan — and the military is still lying about it, as the Washington Post has discovered through a massive FOIA request.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 January 2020 at 2:23 pm

Why the Media Are Ignoring the Afghanistan Papers

leave a comment »

Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

This week, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, an extensive review of thousands of pages of internal government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Pentagon Papers, which showcased the lies underpinning the Vietnam War, the Post’s investigation shows that U.S. officials, across three presidential administrations, intentionally and systematically misled the American public for 18 years and counting. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974, told CNN earlier this week, the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers revealed the same dynamic: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.”

The documents are an indictment not only of one aspect of American foreign policy, but also of the U.S.’s entire policymaking apparatus. They reveal a bipartisan consensus to lie about what was actually happening in Afghanistan: chronic waste and chronic corruption, one ill-conceived development scheme after another, resulting in a near-unmitigated failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Both parties had reason to engage in the cover-up. For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was a key component in the war on terror. For the Obama administration, Afghanistan was the “good war” that stood in contrast to the nightmare in Iraq.

The Afghanistan Papers are, in other words, a bombshell. Yet the report has received scant attention from the broader press. Neither NBC nor ABC covered the investigation in their nightly broadcasts this week. In other outlets, it has been buried beneath breathless reporting on the latest developments in the impeachment saga, Joe Biden’s purported pledge to serve only one term, and world leaders’ pathological envy of a 16-year-old girl.

The relentless news cycle that characterizes Donald Trump’s America surely deserves some blame: This isn’t the first time that a consequential news story has been buried under an avalanche of other news stories. But one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.

George W. Bush started the Afghanistan War and botched it in plenty of ways, not least by starting another war in Iraq. But Barack Obama, despite his obvious skepticism of the war effort, exacerbated Bush’s mistakes by bowing to the Washington foreign policy blob and authorizing a pointless troop surge. Now, although both Democrats and Donald Trump seem to be on the same page about getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, there has been little progress with peace talks. The pattern across administrations is that any movement toward resolution is usually met with a slow slide back into the status quo, a.k.a. quagmire.

The political press loves the idea of bipartisan cooperation, which plays into a notion of American greatness and its loss. It also thrives on partisan conflict, because conflict drives narrative. It doesn’t really know what to do with bipartisan failure.

During the impeachment hearings, news outlets gleefully covered the conflict between Trump and members of the foreign policy establishment, holding up the latter as selfless bureaucrats working tirelessly and anonymously on behalf of the American interest, in contrast with the feckless and narcissistic head of the executive branch. The Afghanistan Papers don’t provide that kind of easy contrast; they demand a kind of holistic condemnation, in which Trump and those bureaucrats are part of the same problem.

The media also has a long-standing bias toward “new” news. The Afghanistan War has been a catastrophic failure for nearly two decades. Because little changes, there is little to report that will excite audiences. (Though the Afghanistan Papers are startling, they are hardly surprising.) Given that the president is the greatest supplier of “new” news in recent history—his Twitter feed alone powers MSNBC most days—more complex stories, like the situation in Afghanistan, are often buried in favor of the political equivalent of sports sideline reporting.

The result is that this massive controversy receives disproportionately little coverage. Despite wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, everyone in the U.S. government gets off scot-free. . .

Continue reading.

It is increasingly difficult to see how the US can get back on track. Too many different forces have motivation to stay the current course, which leads directly over a cliff.

The Daily 202: The Afghanistan Papers show the corrosive consequences of letting corruption go unchecked

leave a comment »

A lesson the US should heed for itself. James Hohmann writes in the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: A toxic mix of U.S. government policies, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directly contributed to Afghanistan’s descent into one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

U.S. leaders said publicly that they had no tolerance for corruption in Afghanistan, but that was one of several topics related to the war effort on which they systematically misled the public, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

American representatives often looked the other way at egregious and brazen graft, so long as the offenders were considered allies. Congress appropriated vast sums of money, which was handed out with little oversight or recordkeeping. The ensuing greed and corruption undermined the legitimacy of the nascent government and helped make the ground more fertile for the Taliban’s resurgence.

“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution. But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor.

The adage is as true in Afghanistan as America: Follow the money.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it. … The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly…”

Crocker told interviewers from the government that he felt “a sense of futility”: “I was struck by something [then-president Hamid] Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue,” he explained. “I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. … You just can’t.”

— The comments from Crocker and Rubin are included among more than 2,000 pages of previously private notes from research conducted by U.S. government investigators. More than 400 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals to diplomats and aid workers, were questioned about what went wrong. The interviews were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction between 2014 and 2018 for a “Lessons Learned” project. A report outlined the conclusions in broad brushstrokes in 2016, but a lot of the most noteworthy material was held back. The Post has fought a three-year legal battle, which is ongoing, to get these documents out under the Freedom of Information Act so that the American people can see for themselves what’s been going on.

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged in an interview with Craig Whitlock that the records show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Whitlock has written a six-part series dissecting all the documents. (You can start with Part One here.)

— A key theme underlying many of the most candid interviews is that a short-term focus on maintaining security led to compromises that started small but became bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale that can be cross-applied to a host of other challenges facing the United States.

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, analyzed 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion. He said they calculated that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials. But former government ministers told them it was higher. Berthold said few U.S. officials wanted to hear about the evidence they uncovered: “No one wanted accountability,” he said. “If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”

Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said the Afghan government led by Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” the colonel told his government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

— A lot of important information is still being concealed by the government. While the agency has turned over previously unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of more than 600 interviews that were conducted, these documents identify only 62 of the people who were interviewed by their names. The names of 366 others are blacked out. A decision by a federal judge is pending in response to a motion to disclose the other names. But The Post chose to publish what it has now, instead of waiting for the judge to rule on the rest, because these records could contribute to the civic discourse over President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and the debate over whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan, which has become a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign.

The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview as part of the project. (Their responses are compiled here.)

— Here are five of the most striking quotes about corruption from people whose identities are still redacted in the interview summaries:

1. An unnamed senior U.S. diplomat said the early years were “a dark space” with “not much documentation” about who we were giving cash. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” this diplomat lamented during an interview in August 2015. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”

2. From another unnamed senior U.S. official: “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue.”

3. From a former National Security Council staffer: “In the beginning, the military kept saying that corruption was an unfortunate short-term side effect then toward the end the feeling was ‘Oh, my God, this could derail the whole thing.’”

4. An unnamed State Department official said that U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.” This person said that the Americans “had no red lines” for cutting off corrupt partners. “We didn’t spend the money effectively and didn’t consider the implications,” this person told government interviewers. “We wanted to keep the country afloat, not to let the country be a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

5. An unidentified government contractor said his job was to distribute $3 million in taxpayer money each day for projects in an Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He recalled asking a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”

— So often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chapter four of Whitlock’s six-part series is a narrative, as told through these interviews, of how Afghanistan became consumed by corruption: “About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become. Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. … Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’ … According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. …

In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. ‘The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,’ the unnamed official told government interviewers. By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway … ‘People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said ‘ok now I need to go,’’ the U.S. official said. ‘So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.’”

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. … Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls. Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast. The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway. In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. …

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.”

It got worse in 2010: “Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country’s entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings. Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country’s first vice president. ‘On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here,’ an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. ‘It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country.’ …

“At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. … For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011. … Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone. They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.” . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 1:07 pm

At War With the Truth in Afghanistan

leave a comment »

Craig Whitlock has a special report in the Washington Post:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The US has been betrayed by its leaders.

The sidebar has useful links:

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: At war with the truth

INTERVIEWS AND MEMOS – Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history

POST REPORTS – Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn<

THE FIGHT FOR THE DOCUMENTS – It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records

PART 1 – U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.

PART 2 – Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.

PART 3 – Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that

PART 4 – The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled

PART 5 – Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

PART 6 – The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn

Interviewees respond

Share your story about the war

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:53 pm

%d bloggers like this: