Emails imperil both candidates

I am a former Foreign Service officer who worked for 21 years in the State Department and used to handle large volumes of classified material, including the specialized compartmented variety (SCI). The rules about this stuff are clear: it must be handled in protected channels and certainly not in personal email accounts or on unclassified servers (even if they are in your own house). Virtually all information going to and from the Secretary of State is normally classified at the “confidential” level or above, often including purely logistic stuff that for anyone else might be public.

Once upon a time, when I was an office director in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I would write analytical pieces for the Secretary of State’s “Morning Summary” based entirely on open source material. The editor, who was the last person to see them before publication, would always classify them confidential. I objected and asked for an explanation. “You wrote it,” he said, “and it is going to the Secretary of State, so that makes it at least confidential.” We compromised: the texts got classified, but the titles did not. I still list them among my publications.

So there is a lot of what a reasonable person would regard as over-classification of materials going to the Secretary, including stuff that becomes useless the day after a trip to say, Moscow, because it concerns arrival procedures and hotel room numbers. It should not be assumed that mishandling of classified material necessarily compromises national security. That is particularly the case for emails on a private server that was apparently never hacked, or we would have heard about it by now.

The real problem arises when an official takes highly classified material (especially SCI), tries to purge or obscure its origins, and puts it into an unclassified channel. There is some evidence this was done with a few previously discovered materials, but the FBI concluded that the violations did not meet the threshold for a reasonable prosecutor to proceed against Hillary Clinton on that basis, which requires intent to make information available outside classified channels.

The new emails discovered since then won’t meet the threshold for prosecution either if Newsweek is correct:

There is no indication the emails in question were withheld by Clinton during the investigation, the law enforcement official told Newsweek, nor does the discovery suggest she did anything illegal. Also, none of the emails were to or from Clinton, the official said. Moreover, despite the widespread claims in the media that this development had prompted the FBI to “reopen” of the case, it did not; such investigations are never actually closed, and it is common for law enforcement to discover new information that needs to be examined.

I would be the first to admit that FBI Director Comey was put in a tough spot: he had to investigate these newly discovered emails. Doing so without informing Congress, when he had already testified that the case was not going anyplace, would have been risky. But in saying that he was pursuing the investigation further (not reopening it, as the press has reported, echoing the Trump campaign) without the clarifications Newsweek provides, Comey erred in a way that has huge political ramifications that he certainly should have anticipated. I can only imagine the political pressures brought to bear.

Hillary Clinton showed poor judgment in using a private email server, as Comey has charged and she has admitted. Just as important: Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a disaster waiting to happen. Her grossly excessive private employment while a government official and her husband’s dreadful sexting obsession should have been ample warning that she was accustomed to both abusing and abuse. Clinton would do well to sacrifice her to the gods of public opinion.

Should Americans be concerned about the compromise of national security information? Yes, of course. But there is no clear evidence of that in either the earlier stage of the investigation or in the effort just now beginning. They should of course also be concerned about the hacking of private emails by the Russian government, which is using them to help Donald Trump’s campaign after he appealed for Moscow’s help in publicizing Clinton’s staff emails. They don’t prove much other than the high competence of some of the staff and Bill Clinton’s willingness to work for foreigners who also gave donations to the Clinton Foundation, which isn’t what I would call the worst idea he ever had. President Obama could be making much more of the Russian connection than he has so far. Emails imperil both candidates.

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Hopes for a Kingdom reformed

The National Council on US-Arab Relations held its annual conference this Wednesday and Thursday in Washington DC. The conference focused primarily on the changing dynamics between the US and its Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.

A morning panel on Thursday titled “Strategic Dynamics in Perspective: Looking Closer at Saudi Arabia Vision 2030” picked apart the implications of Saudi Arabia’s planned redesign. The panel featured Ambassador James Smith, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Seema Khan, former Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Advisor for the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Julie Monaco, Global Head of Public Sector Group, Corporate and Investment Banking, Institutional Clients Group and Citi, and Newton Howard, Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Neurosurgery, University of Oxford and Director of the Synthetic Intelligence Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Saudi Vision 2030 is a blueprint for moving Saudi Arabia away from total reliance on oil sales. By 2030, Saudi Arabia plans to attract more foreign investment, diversify its economy away from hydrocarbon exports, develop essential service sectors such as health, education and tourism, and to develop the private sector. The result will hopefully be a more sustainable and successful Saudi Arabia in the face of declining oil prices.

Smith opened the panel by identifying four things to be optimistic about when looking at Saudi Vision 2030 and four things to be concerned about. His four points of optimism were:

  • The program builds on over 10 years of investment and commits 26% of the national budget.
  • It was planned entirely by young Saudis, who have the biggest stake in the country’s future.
  • Saudi Vision 2030 has garnered commitment from the highest levels of government and everyone is holding each other accountable.
  • Putting Prince Salman in charge of the project, who is barely 30 years old, emphasizes the importance of young, educated Saudis to the country’s progress.

The concerns were these:

  • There is a cultural aversion to risk and failure in Saudi Arabia, which means that innovation isn’t highly valued and new technologies are often brought in from the outside.
  • There is also an aversion to letting small, new businesses take root in Saudi Arabia since they have a higher propensity for failure compared to well established international businesses.
  • There is a lack of viable policy changes that would attract investment into the country.
  • There is no regional organization charged with making the Gulf competitive in the global economy—it is organizations like these that have led to the growth in East Asia.

Khan said that by pursuing Saudi Vision 2030 Saudi Arabia is finally making itself fully accessible to the world. This is incredibly important because the Kingdom is widely misunderstood. One of the key features of Saudi Vision is that is ensures better communication between Saudi Arabia and its allies. This could potentially lead to more effective goal sharing and coordination in the region. Aside from greater accessibility, the plan will result in Saudi Arabia boasting a more innovation-based economy rather than one based solely on investment.

Monaco expressed great optimism for the project, due to the practicality of the plan and the abundance of political will behind it. One potential cause for concern is that Saudi Arabia may not be able to divert enough funding to the project over the next 14 years. They will need to increase taxes, cut budgets, and increase domestic bond insurance in order to ensure long-term funding. They need to maintain a good credit profile as well if they wish to enter foreign debt markets. The Kingdom needs to commit to good governance to ensure that the project is successful.

Howard emphasized that Saudi Vision needs to managed effectively from the top. He said that the government needs to focus on innovation and make good use of the infrastructure that they already have. The government also needs to start working on looking past the beliefs and ethnicities of their personnel and instead focus on their qualifications—doing so will bring Saudi Arabia into the modern age.

For somewhat less sanguine views of Vision 2030 and its implementation prospects, see the last two speakers at this recent Middle East Institute/Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies event:

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Lose an election, try a coup

Montenegro, invited to join NATO less than a year ago, completed its accession negotiations in May. Eleven countries have already ratified the accession agreement. But opponents are not giving up: they planned and a coup immediately after Montenegro’s October 16 election, which pro-NATO forces won.

Here is what a Montenegrin colleague wrote about the evolving situation:

Two days ago [Serbian Prime Minister] Vucic held a press conference confirming that there was a serious threat to [Montenegrin Prime Minister] Djukanovic and a professional plan to destabilize his country through riots, targeted shootings, etc. The plan was extremely elaborate. It involved the participation of several groups, which would even wear police uniforms. One group was tasked to neutralize special anti-riot police forces, two others to stage a police shooting on the crowd and subsequent seizure of the Parliament building. They were given sophisticated weapons and GPS maps that are only available to major powers around the world. In other words, this was not a layman’s work.

Now after one group has been arrested, and the others have been disassembled, Vucic said that there is a strong indication of “foreign” involvement. The sudden visit of the head of the Russian National Security Council to Belgrade is suggestive. Officially he is there to talk about global terrorism. Unofficially he is going to inquire what went wrong with the Montenegrin case. One can only expect that he will put pressure on Belgrade, saying not to get too close to the West.

If Vucic was indeed hinting at Russia, it would be a major move, albeit a dangerous one for his political career. The plan depended on nationalistic and pro-Russian groups in Serbia. They might plan something similar for Serbia as well. [Serbian President] Nikolic was in Russia recently. Sputnik published news that he discussed a potential reunification of Montenegro and Serbia once the opposition wins in Montenegro, but has retracted that report and now denies it. It seems that the Russians are ready to invest substantial effort in countering Montenegrin accession to NATO, and asserting their dominance in the Balkans.

Asked for more clarification, he added:

There is still no hard evidence of Russian involvement. These are mainly political assertions base on available information.

The special public prosecutor for organized crime and corruption in Montenegro spoke extensively about the case in an interview for TV Vijesti.

Here is a summary of his statement:  the arrested group was from Serbia. It included individuals of various backgrounds, predominantly associated with nationalist circles. The group entered Montenegro a few days before the elections with instructions to deploy to different cities across Montenegro. The commander of the group, former commander of the Serbian Gendarmerie Bratislav Dikic, entered Montenegro and spent two days in the coastal city of Budva before he was arrested in Podgorica. He was arrested on the night before the elections, as he was getting ready to inspect weapons. He and the rest of the group were under surveillance. So were the weapons, which never entered Montenegro.

According to the Special Prosecutor, these were highly sophisticated weapons that were destroyed before entering the country with the prosecutor’s permission. The entry point was supposed to be on the border with Albania. The arrested group was one of four or five that was expected to act. Other groups were not apprehended, but the prosecutor’s office is adamant that all of them will be arrested. One group was tasked to neutralize special police anti-riot forces, stationed close to Podgorica. The arrested group, together with two more, were supposed to act in front of the Parliament building, where they would first stage a shooting of (fake) police forces into the crowd and then seize the Parliament building. According to some reports the group was expected to receive 50 high-end rifles and 3500 bullets. The prosecutor identified Dikic as coordinator of the entire operation. His arrest crippled the entire plan.

Vucic’s press conference revealed that Serbian authorities seized a large number of police uniforms that were supposed to be worn during the riots, a large amount of cash (125,000 euros), and highly sophisticated GPS footage only available to advanced armed  forces. A few days before the elections, the Demoratski Front had announced a “celebration” of their electoral victory in front of the Parliament, and in case of their electoral loss adamant resistance and contestation of the results.

Some conspiracy theorists initially spoke about a Djukanovic plot, even claiming he staged the whole thing. However, recent statements by Vucic only confirmed what the prosecutor’s office in Montenegro initially said. The Serbian group was closely following Djukanovic’s every step, aiming to “arrest” him if he declared victory at the elections.

Vucic also confirmed what Montenegrin authorities previously stated, that this was a plan strongly supported by outside players, with strong meddling of intelligence services from abroad. Although there is only speculation that this might be pointing toward Russian secret services, Serbian authorities have expelled a number of Russian citizens from Serbia following the failed plot in Montenegro. This may be the reason why the Russian national security council chief abruptly came to Serbia.

Officially he came to discuss terrorism with his Serbian colleagues and offer strong collaboration to them. However news about the expulsion of Russian citizens came only few hours after Vucic said that the whole situation regarding Montenegro had strong foreign involvement. He also said that he is aware that the decision to speak publicly about this might politically jeopardize him, but he did not want to keep silent and minimize the risk of what almost happened in Montenegro. He even used the example of failed assassination attempt on Djindjic, which was ridiculed in the media only few days before the assassination happened.

Prime Minister Djukanovic has announced his withdrawal from office, in favor of his deputy prime minister, Dusko Marovic.

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Diplomats traditionally dread release of their cables, which often convey private conversations with foreign government officials. Having left the State Department more than 18 years ago, I’ve lost that sensitivity.

That’s a good thing, as the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera has gotten hold of some from US Embassy Rome (presumably through the Freedom of Information Act), where I was deputy chief of mission and frequent Charge’ d’affaires from 1990 to 1993. Those were turbulent years in Italy. Its magistrates were investigating corruption, especially among political party leaders. Their “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) effort was strikingly successful, shaking Italy’s Christian Democratic and Socialist parties to their foundations.

The Embassy of course had lots of contacts in those political parties, which had collaborated in preserving Italy’s Western orientation throughout the Cold War. But we also by that time were expanding our contacts in the former Communist Party and in the relatively new Northern League (Lega Nord).  We were determined not to intervene in what was going on, but to follow it with care and elucidate the events for officials in Washington, who sometimes had exaggerated fears and excessive concerns.

The published account of our cables (ignore the headline) shows just that: an embassy doing a highly professional job in the midst of political turbulence. We talked to lots of different people but managed to stay out of the fray. Flying below the radar in Rome is not easy. Italians are inclined to think the Americans, in particular their ambassador, are behind everything important that happens in their world. They were also quick to think we would protect this or that accused politician. Those suspicions were disarmed: we neither generated Clean Hands nor shielded anyone from judicial investigation.

Such probity doesn’t make for big headlines. I’m told the story is attracting little attention in Rome. It will attract none in the US. Americans have already had a giant dose of diplomatic cables from Wikileaks. Interest has been limited to those that suggest scandal or malfeasance, especially by still active politicians.

Will the publication of these and other cables inhibit non-Americans from sharing their perspectives with our diplomats? I suppose it will make some people more cautious in what they say. But most politicians understand perfectly well that what they say to diplomats will be conveyed, in one form or another, to a foreign capital. Diplomats hear what people want them to hear. That’s why it is so important to listen to many voices and reach independent judgments about what to believe, or not. I may not want what I say to a diplomat published tomorrow, but I definitely want it noticed and reported.

One small note about diplomatic cables: they are all signed by whoever is in charge of the embassy, either the ambassador or a charge’ d’affaires. That does not mean he has read and signed each and every one before it is sent. A number of section chiefs in a big embassy like Rome will have the authority to sign off on a cable if it is judged not to merit top-level attention or if the head woman is unavailable for some reason. I frankly don’t remember which of the cables Corriere has quoted I or the ambassador signed, though much of the wording is familiar. I likely read all of them, if not before sending then afterwards. And I am proud of the professional tone and substance, whether I signed them or not!

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What the next president will face in the Middle East

On Monday the Middle East Institute hosted the launch of the November volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The event featured a panel of the Special Editors of the edition, Rand Beers, Richard A. Clarke, Emilian Papadopoulos, and Paul Salem, discussing the issue titled The Middle East and Regional Transition, Terrorism, and Countering Violent Extremism: What the Next President Will Face.

Clarke remarked that the next president will face a markedly different Middle East from eight years ago. The volume seeks to make specific recommendations for action as opposed to just a discussion of the issues. Two major and overlapping problems are determining how we see the issues:

  1. The number and role of failed states in the Middle East, of which there are now six or seven. These will continue to be a source of terrorism for some time.
  2. The role of ideologies, in particular how to address the violent jihadist ideology that is highly attractive to disaffected youth, not only in the Middle East but across all regions of the world.

Regarding the US role in Syria, Clarke recommends that we must not abandon the principle of ‘Assad must go’, as the US role in the Middle East will be permanently undermined if we do. The US must also take leadership in supporting the stabilization, economic stimulation and return of refugees in post-Islamic State Mosul and Raqqa, as simply removing IS from cities will not resolve any problems. Salem also suggested that the economic rebuilding of conflict zones in the Middle East is an opportunity to coordinate with China, which has demonstrated interest in building infrastructure and ensuring trade relationships in the region.

As former Deputy Homeland Security Advisor to the President, Beers focused on counter extremism measures. Since 2001 the focus has been on preventing the arrival of foreign nationals intending to commit terrorist acts in the US. But the trend has now shifted to radicalized Americans.  Ninety-four people have been killed in the US by domestic terrorists since 2001, with 63 of those in the last year alone. The next administration must therefore focus on identifying individuals prior to their radicalization and on redirecting them. As the government itself is not particularly successful in communicating these messages the approach needs broadening beyond law enforcement agencies. Local nongovernmental organizations and religious organizations will be helpful partners in identifying those exhibiting patterns of behavior that suggest a move towards violent extremism.

Clarke remarked that to law enforcement’s credit there has not been a major foreign attack on American soil since 2001, however the next president should identify these successful components of the counter extremism program and cut down the excesses and inefficiencies that also plague the program.

Salem considers the Middle East to be in a perfect storm of dysfunction due to the disrupted regional order, the number of failed and fragile states, and underlying stress factors including demographic issues, climate change, and competing ideologies. He suggests some of the concerns in the Middle East that have dominated administrations in the past, such as Weapons of Mass Destruction and the flow of oil through the Gulf, are largely stable at this point, and Russia and China do not pose a direct threat to US security. Therefore the threat of terrorism should continue to be the primary concern of the US in the region.

The next administration, Salem thought, should continue to address IS and then focus on al Qaeda, try to rebuild the regional order, make more concerted efforts to end civil wars, and help to rebuild failed states. Salem agreed wholeheartedly with Clarke that Syria will not be resolved while Assad is still in power, but while waiting for a political solution the US must address the suffering of civilians. He considers President Obama to have failed in addressing humanitarian concerns. In response to a question on the future of the Sykes-Picot borders, Salem explained that the Middle East’s problems are primarily attributable to poor governance and institutions rather than the borders. The current borders are likely to endure but changes such as decentralization and federalism within states will be important.

The problems the next administration will face in the Middle East are complex, but the volume focuses on realistic recommendations for what can be achieved. The US must balance its military strength with non-military assets and smart power. While the Obama administration has cautiously withdrawn the next administration must reassert American leadership in the region and focus on re-establishing a regional order.

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Whose war is going well?

The popular image is that Russia is doing well in Syria, where it has been bombing for a year. Donald Trump says the American-allied forces in Iraq are struggling to retake Mosul. Precisely the opposite is true.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has now lost well over 60% of the territory that it once controlled in Iraq. Mosul is the last main population center it rules. Its diversionary attack on Kirkuk was just that: an effort to make the anti-ISIS coalition slow its advance by diverting forces. But it will have only a temporary impact. The tens of thousands of troops involved in or supporting the Mosul offensive seem remarkably determined and unified in their objective: to chase ISIS out. ISIS likely has no more than a few thousand fighters left inside the city.

If there is a serious problem in the anti-ISIS coalition attacking Mosul, it is more likely to come after success than before. At least some of the various coalition forces–Iraqi Army, Kurdish peshmerga, Shia “popular mobilization forces,” Yezidi, Christians and other militias–will race to the center of Mosul, each hoping that early arrival will help to strengthen its position in the inevitable pushing and shoving once ISIS is gone. That will be the big test: we’ll see whether the Iraqi government can succeed in putting together a coalition to govern the country’s second largest city. It won’t be easy.

The situation in Syria is much less favorable to the Russian/Iranian/Assad coalition. After months of effort, it has still not succeeded in taking eastern Aleppo, even after besieging it, denying it humanitarian assistance, and bombing it to near smithereens, including many civilian targets. In the meanwhile, Kurdish and allied Arab forces have taken Manbij on the Euphrates river from ISIS. Seeking to block further Kurdish expansion west, Turkey has helped Syrian rebels to take Jarablus, and move towards al-Bab, thus carving out what might become a de facto opposition “safe area” under Turkish protection.

The Assad coalition will eventually succeed in dislodging the opposition from Aleppo, but in doing so they are creating Sunni martyrs and radicalizing people who might otherwise have preferred a more moderate course. They are also guaranteeing that the Americans and Europeans will not be available to foot the bill for reconstructing Aleppo as well as other Syrian towns Assad, the Russians and Iranians have attacked. It is entirely possible for Assad’s coalition to win the battle for Aleppo but lose the war and the peace.

President Obama can be pleased with the progress of the war in Iraq, especially as he was instrumental in recruiting Haider al Abadi to replace Nouri al Maliki. It is impossible to see how the latter would have been able to construct the kind of coalition the former has managed to cobble together.

But Syria is likely to besmirch both Obama and Putin. Their failure to reach an accommodation that ends the war between coalitions that both claim to oppose the Islamic State and to begin a political transition is not just a personal tragedy for many Syrians but also a geopolitical disaster for the region.

The American-backed war is going okay. The Russian war is not. Iraq has a chance for a decent outcome. But no one is likely to be happy with the outcome in Syria.

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