7 May 2014

CIA Is Dismantling Its Bases and Deactivating Its Paramilitary Units in Afghanistan

May 5, 2014
CIA Falls Back in Afghanistan
Kimberly Dozier
The Daily Beast

KABUL, Afghanistan—The CIA is dismantling its frontline Afghan counterterrorist forces in south and east Afghanistan, leaving a security vacuum that U.S. commanders fear the Taliban and al Qaeda will fill—and leaving the Pakistan border open to a possible deluge of fighters and weapons.

“The CIA has started to end the contracts of some of those militias who were working for them,” said Aimal Faizi, spokesman for outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a longtime critic of the CIA’s Afghan operatives. “Some of them were in very important locations, so we deployed our troops there.”

U.S. and Afghan military commanders tell The Daily Beast that Afghan forces are stretched too thin to replace many of those departing CIA paramilitaries. Thousands more CIA-trained operatives are about to get the boot ahead of what already promises to be a bloody summer fighting season. That could mean spectacular attacks against U.S. and Afghan targets just as the White House is weighing its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. And it could give the now-small al Qaeda movement inside the country more freedom to grow and eventually hatch new plots more than a decade after the invasion meant to wipe out the perpetrators of the Sept. 11th attacks.

Senior U.S. officials said the slow dismantling of the CIA’s forces has also alarmed U.S. lawmakers, who had assumed those forces would remain in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban after U.S. troops withdrew.

But CIA officials told lawmakers this past week that with U.S. troops slowly closing bases across the country, the intelligence agency’s footprint also has to shrink. The CIA doesn’t want to face another high-risk situation like Benghazi, Libya, where militants attacked both the U.S. diplomatic outpost and the CIA base. The U.S. ambassador, one of his staff and two CIA employees were killed in that strike.

The Obama administration had wanted to leave up to 10,000 U.S. troops in the country after the December 2014 withdrawal deadline. But the current Afghan president has refused to sign a long-term security agreement, and the Afghan presidential election seems headed for a runoff, meaning it could be months before a new Afghan president takes charge.

So U.S. forces here are rapidly closing outposts, preparing to withdraw to six “enduring” bases that could remain if a security deal goes through before early fall. While the CIA is not affected by the security agreement, it relies on the U.S. military for protection and logistical support—especially at its far-flung bases in south and east Afghanistan. Just months ago, the talk in administration circles was that these paramilitaries would be significantly expanded in the near future. Now, it appears, the opposite is taking place.

The CIA started recruiting and training these Afghan paramilitary groups only months after the intelligence agency first entered the country in 2001 ahead of invading U.S. troops, according to current and former U.S. and Afghan officials. They described the top-secret force in detail on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. (The CIA declined to comment for this story.)

The elite Afghan teams have built a fearsome reputation for their U.S. special operations-like targeting of terrorist suspects, guided by a handful of CIA paramilitary officers on most missions.

The forces now facing the chopping block are 750 members of the Counterterrorist Pursuit Teams in the Kunar region—home to the elusive Afghan al Qaeda leader Farouq al-Qahtani al-Qatari—and the entire 3,500-strong Khost Protection Force.

The Khost fighters have helped patrol the insurgent-heavy region along the border with Pakistan’s infamous Waziristan province, an area so heavily populated by Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and other militant networks that it’s frequently targeted by CIA drone strikes.

The Khost and Kunar-based units “are instrumental in blocking the Haqqani/al Qaeda mix that are responsible for spectacular attacks,” said one senior U.S. military official. “It’s not clear what will happen to either unit; there is no plan so far to absorb them.”
The forces ‘are instrumental in blocking the Haqqani/al-Qaeda mix that are responsible for spectacular attacks. And there is no plan so far to absorb them.’

Khost province is also the site of one of the worst losses in CIA history, when an al Qaeda double agent blew himself up at Forward Operating Base Chapman, killing seven CIA employees and injuring six more.

One of the first major CIA-trained units to be disbanded was the 900-man Counterterrorist Pursuit Team in the town of Shkin, in Paktika province next to Khost. A former senior Afghan intelligence official said the men were fired with no notice, given a severance payment, two rifles and told to leave. The soon-vacated site was then overrun by Taliban forces, who had to be driven out roughly a month later by the Afghan army.

Karzai’s spokesman Faizi said the Afghan government had no advance notice of the firings, but later tried to recruit the Shkin forces into the ranks of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, in hopes of keeping them from selling their skills to the Taliban or someone else.

“We tried to hire those militia for the same pay as the CIA,” he said. “But only a 100 or so said yes.”

In Kunar province, the Afghan army commander there is trying to keep history from repeating itself, by moving his troops to fill the key U.S. outpost and its nearby CIA base, before the Americans depart.

“I need to take that position, but I need more troops,” Maj. Gen. Mohammad Zaman Waziri told The Daily Beast through an interpreter, during a visit to the Afghan National Army’s 201st Corps headquarters in eastern Afghanistan.

Two U.S. officials said the CIA-trained paramilitaries at the Kunar base have been told of their imminent firing, and some have already reached out to the Taliban, possibly to reach a peace deal for when they no longer have Americans to pay or protect them.

May 5, 2014

Rep. Hunter opposes possible nominee to lead Pentagon spy agency
Martin Matishek
The Hill
May 4, 2014

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) on Thursday voiced his opposition to a possible nominee to lead the Defense Intelligence Agency, saying her past work raised “significant concerns” about her qualifications. 

Hunter criticized Deputy Chief of Staff for U.S. Army Intelligence Lt. Gen. Mary Legere’s involvement in a controversial Army intelligence project, the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) program, in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Her work on that project, he wrote, “presents significant concerns, due to mismanagement of the Army’s failed attempts to provide a functional cloud-computing environment in response to multiple requests from theater.”

Hunter, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said that Legere and Maj. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, the head of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, who worked on the program, “should not be considered for higher levels of responsibility, especially when there are several other qualified candidates from the joint community to assume senior military intelligence positions.”

Hunter said Legere held “principal responsibility for failing to deliver urgent capabilities to the warfighter and overseeing initiatives that have repeatedly failed to meet budget and schedule requirements.”

According to reports, Legere is seen as the top candidate for top Pentagon intelligence post.

Hunter’s letter is the latest round in his fight with the Pentagon over the DCGS-A program, which sought to build a cloud that could gather intelligence from multiple sources, such as drones and satellites, and analyze that data for users across the entire intelligence community.

Soldiers in Afghanistan have said the program is slow and difficult to use and that another program, Palantir, developed by a company in Hunter’s home state, is easier to use.

Hunter, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been the lead critic in Congress of the DCGS-A effort and last year got into a heated exchange with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno over the program.

In his letter, he criticized the DCGS-A program, saying it is “now clear that Congress has received false assurances that the Army would provide cloud capability as part” of the DCGS-A program.

He noted that Congress has appropriated $500 million for the effort’s cloud computing development yet field reports and other assessments show it “is still not operational in theater.”

He called the Army’s cloud capabilities “inadequate and outright dysfunctional.”

Hunter said the administration “must hold leaders accountable” to avoid future costly mistakes. 

May 5, 2014

Obama: US Secures Long Term Lease on Djibouti Base

Agence France-Presse

May 5, 2014

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, left, and US President Barack Obama shake hands May 5 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The United States secured long term access Monday to a military base in Djibouti that it relies on to launch counter-terrorism missions, including drone strikes, in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

US President Barack Obama and his Djibouti counterpart Ismail Omar Guelleh announced the renewed “long term lease” on Camp Lemonnier to reporters as they met at the White House.

“Camp Lemonnier is extraordinarily important to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but also throughout the region. We very much appreciate the hospitality that Djiboutians provide,” Obama said.

“Overall, this is a critical facility that we maintain in Djibouti, we could not do it without the president’s cooperation, we’re grateful for him agreeing for a long term presence there,” he added.

Guelleh said his East African country and the United States were linked in a “strategic partnership” to deal with “the fight against terrorism, piracy and human trafficking in our region.”

The US military uses Lemonnier, a base for around 4,000 US and allied personnel, as a crucial staging area for assaults on suspected al-Qaida militants in Yemen and Shebab forces in Somalia.

After al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the US presence has steadily increased at the base, serving as a hub for special operation forces and a growing fleet of armed and unarmed drones as well as other aircraft.

US officials, anxious to maintain a low-profile for the American military in Africa, tends to divulge few details about operations at the base, which is focused on the counter-terrorism mission.

The base is the biggest in a network of airfields in East Africa that the United States uses for drones and other surveillance planes, including outposts in Uganda and Ethiopia.

Washington recently agreed to move its drone base in Djibouti from Lemonnier, which is near the country’s international airport, to a more remote location, following concerns over possible collisions between the unmanned planes and commercial aircraft.

The Pentagon confirmed the deal with Djibouti but did not offer more information about the terms of the new lease.

“We’ve agreed to extend our presence at Camp Lemonnier and to increase our cooperation across a range of areas, including security, counter-terrorism, trade and energy cooperation,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told AFP.

The base, originally created by the French Foreign Legion, was initially seen as a temporary outpost after the 9/11 attacks but the US military has drafted long-term plans to keep operating out of Lemonnier.

The Pentagon reportedly has informed Congress of plans for a dramatic expansion of its facilities in Djibouti, proposing more than a billion dollars in construction projects.

May 5, 2014

Chairman of key House committee agrees to proceed with NSA reform bill

Spencer Ackerman

The Guardian

May 5, 2014

The chairman of a key committee in the House of Representatives agreed to move on a major surveillance overhaul on Monday, after months of delay.

The decision, by the Republican chairman of the House judiciary committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, breathes new life back into the USA Freedom Act, a legislative fix favoured by privacy advocates to prevent the US government from collecting domestic data in bulk.

The judiciary committee is expected to take action on an amendment encapsulating the provisions of the USA Freedom Act on Wednesday at 1pm. Congressional aides expected it to pass the committee with bipartisan support, setting up a fight on the House floor.

Goodlatte, who had been hesitant to endorse the bill, written by former committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, will now vote for it personally.

Goodlatte’s decision comes despite pressure by the House Republican leadership, which preferred an alternative bill, written by the House intelligence committee leadership, that would permit the government to acquire Americans’ data without a specific prior judicial order for it.

An attempt by the intelligence committee and the House leadership to circumvent Goodlatte’s committee and pass the rival bill is said by observers to have galvanised Goodlatte’s decision to move forward on the USA Freedom Act. Internal committee negotiations on modifying the USA Freedom Act for passage intensified after the House intelligence committee unveiled its bill in March.

The Obama administration has yet to take a public position on the House judiciary bill or the House intelligence bill, although President Barack Obama endorsed getting the National Security Agency out of the business of bulk domestic phone records collection in March.

“This will start to look like a reasonable path forward for surveillance reform,” said a congressional aide.

Barely an hour after the judiciary committee announced its move on the USA Freedom Act, the House intelligence committee announced that it will mark up its alternative bill, the Fisa Transparency and Modernization Act, on Thursday.

"This bill directly addresses the privacy concerns many Americans have expressed over bulk collection. The bill ends bulk collection of telephone metadata and increases transparency while maintaining the tools our government needs to keep Americans and our allies safe. We believe this bill responds to the concerns many members of Congress have expressed and can be the compromise vehicle to reform Fisa while preserving important counterterrorism capabilities," said the intelligence committee leaders, Republican Mike Rogers of Michigan and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, in a joint statement on Monday.

Rogers and Ruppersberger, the NSA’s staunchest advocates in the House, have criticized the USA Freedom Act for scaling back bulk collection too far to safeguard national security. Their countermove now sets up a race to see which bill House speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, will bring to the floor first.

Civil libertarians on the judiciary committee had to compromise in order to gain support for the act. Significantly, the government will still be able to collect phone data on Americans, pending a judge’s individualized order based on “reasonable articulable suspicion” – a standard preferred by the NSA – of wrongdoing, and can collect call records two degrees or “hops” of separation from the individual suspected.

The compromised version of the bill tightens a prohibition banning the NSA from targeting Americans in its vast communications content dragnets, but softens its earlier outright ban on querying those dragnets for Americans’ information, a practice termed the “backdoor search” by senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat.

The bill commands the most formal congressional support of any alternative, with 143 House cosponsors and another 21 for a companion bill in the Senate authored by Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians have long believed they would have the votes to pass the USA Freedom Act if only they could get it out of the judiciary committee and onto the floor.

Wednesday’s version of the USA Freedom Act will be brought before the committee by Sensenbrenner, Goodlatte and their fellow Republican, Randy Forbes of Virginia. Joining them will be ranking Democrat John Conyers of Michigan and Democrats Jerrold Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia.

In a statement, the six congressmen praised the compromise.

"As the Committee of primary jurisdiction, we have conducted robust oversight of the intelligence-gathering programs operated under Fisa and have come to the conclusion that these programs are in need of reform to protect our privacy, including prohibiting bulk collection under Section 215. Over the past several months, we have worked together across party lines and with the Administration and have reached a bipartisan solution that includes real protections for Americans’ civil liberties, robust oversight, and additional transparency, while preserving our ability to protect America’s national security. We look forward to taking up this legislation on Wednesday and continuing to work with House leaders to reform these programs," they said jointly.

May 5, 2014

At Least 28 Killed in Fighting in Central African Republic


May 5, 2014

BANGUI — At least 28 people have been killed in Central African Republic during several days of fighting between Muslim and Christian militias in a town in the center of the war-torn country, a priest and a former member of parliament told Reuters on Monday.

The fighting in Mala, around 300 km (190 miles) north of the capital Bangui, between former Seleka rebels and the Christian militia known as the “anti-Balaka”, is the latest in months of tit-for-tat inter-communal violence that has killed thousands and displaced over 1 million people.

The fighting started on Thursday after anti-Balaka fighters looted Seleka food reserves, residents told Reuters.

"During the four days of combat, at least 28 people have been killed including 22 civilians and six Seleka rebels," said Augustin Ndoukoulouba, a former a former member of parliament of the region, in Bangui.

Ndoukoulouba said residents told him bodies littered the streets because there was no one to bury them, while the wounded could not get help.

Everaldo de Souza, a priest in the neighboring town of Dékoa, told Reuters by telephone that seven people were killed in three nearby villages by ex-Seleka rebels. The final death toll could be higher, he said.

Inter-communal violence has gripped the former French colony since late 2012 when a struggle power degenerated into fighting between Muslims and Christian militias.

An interim government in power since January - assisted by thousands of French, European and African peacekeepers - has failed to end the violence.

May 5, 2014

Ukraine Sends Elite Force to Key Port of Odessa

Associated Press

May 5, 2014

ODESSA, Ukraine — Ukraine sent an elite national guard unit to re-establish control Monday over the southern port of Odessa and government troops fought pitched gunbattles with a pro-Russia militia around an eastern city.

The twin moves reflected an apparent escalation of efforts to bring both regions back under Kiev’s control. The possible double loss of Odessa in the southwest and parts of eastern Ukraine could be catastrophic for the new government, leaving the country landlocked, cut off entirely from the Black Sea.

Ukraine already lost a significant part of its coastline in March, when its Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia.

Gunfire and multiple explosions rang out Monday in and around Slovyansk, a city of 125,000 that has become the focus of the armed insurgency against the new interim government in Kiev.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement that government troops were battling about 800 pro-Russia forces that were using large-caliber weapons and mortars. His agency said four officers were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting.

Pro-Russia militias said at least eight people, both insurgents and local residents, were killed. A militia spokesman three of 10 people admitted with gunshot wounds to a hospital in Slovyansk had died. Five more were killed during fighting in the village of Semenivka.

This nation of 46 million is facing its worst crisis in decades after its Russia-leaning president, who hails from Ukraine’s industrial east, fled to Russia in February following months of street protests. Those eastern regions that favor closer links to Russia are now at odds with Ukraine’s western and central areas, which seek closer ties with Europe and largely support the new interim government in Kiev.

The West has offered billions of dollars in loans to help the Kiev government stave off economic collapse. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine expects to receive more than $5 billion in May, according to a statement Monday. This includes $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund, $1 billion from the United States and up to 1 billion euros ($1.38 billion) from the European Union.

The goal of the pro-Russia insurgency is ostensibly geared toward pushing for broader autonomy for local regions, but some insurgents do favor seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

In the last few weeks, pro-Russia forces have stormed and seized government buildings and police stations in a dozen eastern Ukrainian cities. Authorities in Kiev accuse Moscow of backing the insurgents and — since Russia has kept tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border — fear that Russia could try to invade and grab more territory.

For weeks, the Black Sea port of Odessa had remained largely peaceful even as violence erupted across east Ukraine. But 46 people died Friday after riots broke out there between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups and a government building was set on fire.

With tears and red roses, pro-Russia activists mourned Monday in Odessa at the funeral of a regional member of parliament, Vyacheslav Markin, who died two days after the fire from his burns. Markin was known for speaking out against the central government in Kiev.

Activists shouted “Hero! Hero!” and vowed to avenge his death.

"Kiev doesn’t control the situation in the country, Kiev controls only one half of Ukraine," said 32-year-old Dmitry Sheiko, who was wearing the St. George black-and-orange ribbon, a ubiquitous symbol of the pro-Russia protest movement. "Even in Odessa they can’t maintain order, which means that we will restore order ourselves."

Despite those promises, Odessa remained calm Monday and pro-Russia forces made no attempt to occupy government buildings there. The well-armed, elite national guard unit from Kiev could be seen patrolling the streets. Residents — hurt and angry yet peaceful — gathered around the scorched trade union building to lay flowers and commemorate the victims of the fire.

"This is a tragedy for all of Ukraine," said Nadezhda Yelenchuk, a 42-year-old schoolteacher. "This is the result of a civil war that has already begun in Ukraine. We need a powerful government that will stop the bloodshed."

Riots over the weekend brought into question the loyalty of Odessa’s police forces. On Sunday, pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the Odessa police headquarters and freed 67 people who had been detained in the rioting.

Presumably to prevent police from releasing more prisoners, the Interior Ministry said in a statement Monday that 42 others arrested during the rioting were being sent to another region for investigation.

The international community has accused Russia of fomenting the unrest in an attempt to destabilize Ukraine and derail the country’s May 25 presidential elections. Russia, however, has vociferously condemned Ukraine’s security operations in the east and blamed the central government in Kiev for not preventing the Odessa fire.

On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a 70-page report listing what it described as human rights violations by “ultranationalist, neo-Nazi and extremist forces” in Ukraine. The Kremlin wrote that the ministry report “confirms that … violations of basic human rights in Ukraine have become widespread.”

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public comment on Ukraine since the Odessa fire, several Russian politicians have ramped up their anti-Ukraine rhetoric and Russian state media have referred to the fire as genocide.

In Moscow on Monday, Putin signed into law legislation making it a crime to deny Nazi war crimes or spread deliberately false information about the actions of the Soviet Union during World War II. Those convicted could face up to five years in prison.

The Kremlin has used national pride over the Soviet’s WWII victory to consolidate Russian society behind Putin. These patriotic feelings also have figured in a relentless Kremlin-driven propaganda campaign to denigrate Ukrainian authorities by describing them as fascists and neo-Nazis.

May 5, 2014

Fierce Fight in S. Sudan Oil Town; Rebels Counter

Associated Press

May 5, 2014

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Government troops and rebel fighters engaged in a fierce battle over an important oil town Monday after rebels launched a counter-offensive shortly after the government claimed control of the town.

Bentiu has seen fierce battles over the last 24 hours, said the aid group CARE, which added that its staff is taking shelter in bunkers on the U.N. base. The rebels launched a counter-offensive Monday and the city may have changed hands yet again, according to a security expert, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

A government offensive on Sunday came just days after South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that he was ready to hold peace talks with the rebel leader, former Vice President Riek Machar. But a spokesman for Machar’s negotiating team in Ethiopia told The Associated Press on Monday that Machar first wants a “program” that includes a timeline for the formation of a transitional government as well as its composition and structure.

"The Americans are pushing us to go to Juba and form an interim government. We cannot go there without an agreement on a program first. We need to know who will be in that transitional government, in what capacity, for how long and issues like that," said the spokesman, Yohanis Musa Pouk.

In Ethiopia, meanwhile, South Sudan’s government and rebel negotiators signed a document pledging to open safe-travel corridors for aid workers. The agreement also urged the sides to recommit to a discarded peace deal signed in January.

The regional political bloc known as IGAD urged the sides for a one-month peace period — from May 7 to June 7 — to allow crops to be planted and tended. The U.N. has warned of potential famine if crops aren’t planted and harvested.

From South Sudan’s government, Nhail Deng Nhail said the signing of the document is vital because of the approaching rainy season.

"We herein commit ourselves to facilitate humanitarian access to all parts of the country. However, we would have wished we signed today the entire agreement recommitting the parties to observe the whole cessation of hostilities agreement," he said.

On the rebel side, Gen. Taban Deng said the deal would help prevent hunger. Deng also accused South Sudan of intensifying attacks against rebel positions amid Kerry’s peace efforts. Deng said the Juba government’s prime agenda “is war, not peace.”

South Sudan military spokeman Col. Philip Aguer said early Monday that government troops had captured Bentiu from rebels on Sunday. But there were indications later Monday that the rebels may have again won over the city, according to the security expert who insisted on anonymity.

South Sudan has been rocked by violence since December, when Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and 1 million people have fled their homes. The violence has taken on an ethnic dimension between Kiir’s Dinka community and Machar’s Nuer community.

Rebel fighters from the Nuer ethnic group took control of Bentiu in mid-April and slaughtered non-Nuer civilians in the town mosque, the hospital and on streets, leaving “piles and piles” of bodies behind. The U.N. Security Council expressed “horror” at the massacre.

Kiir fired the country’s top military officer last month, Chief of Staff Gen. James Hoth Mai, further isolating the Nuer group politically. Mai is Nuer and his command position, which he held since 2009, was frequently cited as an example of the ethnic diversity of the government led by Kiir, an ethnic Dinka.

Machar has said he wants to see the exit of Kiir, whom he accuses of acting like a dictator.

South Sudan peacefully broke away from Sudan in 2011 after a decades-long fight for independence.

May 5, 2014

Persistent Saudi-U.S. differences hurt Syria strategy


May 5, 2014

Free Syrian Army fighters walk with their weapons as they are deployed in al-Manasher district, near the Bureij neighbourhood of Aleppo May 4, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jalal Al-Mamo

(Reuters) - Differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Middle East policy persist, despite attempts to shore up their old alliance, and may prove calamitous for Syrian rebels.

Although there is evidence that some American weapons are starting to find their way to more moderate groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, disagreements over what to supply, and to whom, have hindered the fight.

Rebels lament a lack of anti-aircraft missiles to help counter Assad’s air force.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been funding the rebels for years now, arguing that the war in Syria is a battle for the future of the Middle East, pitting pro-Western forces against Riyadh’s main enemy Iran and Islamist militants.

However, while the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama also blames Assad for the violence and wants him to leave power, it sees the conflict very differently.

American officials fear involvement in a messy civil war for which they see no clear military solution and which threatens to radicalize a new generation of Islamists who hate the West.

Among the rebels, the failure of the Saudis and the Americans to cooperate better stirs disillusion. Two hours of talks between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah in March appear to have done little to alter that sentiment.

"If the Americans refuse to give us anti-aircraft (missiles), for example, why doesn’t Saudi give it to us?" a Syrian rebel commander in Aleppo whose brigade fights alongside the extremist al-Nusra Front told Reuters by Skype.


In private, American and Saudi officials defend a relationship that in many ways remains strong and broad-based.

But they acknowledge a fundamental divergence over how to approach big political conflicts in the Middle East that were aggravated by the Arab spring, particularly what Riyadh sees as Iranian expansionism across the region.

When Washington agreed a preliminary deal with Tehran in November over its nuclear program, Riyadh feared it would reduce political pressure on Iran, giving it more scope to push its interests across the region.

The Saudis were also angry when Obama did not do more to back Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who was forced from power in 2011, and when Washington criticized the army for ousting his successor, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile Assad appears to be gaining ground and has told a Russian official the heavy fighting will be over within a year.

"I’m afraid that what remains of the Syrian state will vanish, so I would say the United States has had a big failure in this regard," said Abdullah al-Askar, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for Saudi Arabia’s appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government.

But if the Saudis felt stymied, so did the Americans.

"The frustration with the Saudis was that they never gave us a plan," a former senior U.S. diplomat who worked in the region told Reuters.

The former diplomat said there had to be a strategy that included pulling the opposition together into a political and military union dominated by moderates, while arm-twisting Assad’s main backers in the Security Council: Russia and China.


"There’s got to be something more than throwing weapons and suitcases of money," the former diplomat said.

Riyadh’s main Syria strategy has been based on persuading Washington of the need to bring its far greater diplomatic, military and planning clout to bear in helping the rebellion.

"We want the Americans to use their Tomahawks and F16s and beat the hell out of Bashar al-Assad. But at the same time I can see the Americans saying to the Saudis ‘You guys have F15s too’," said Jamal Khashoggi, head of a Saudi television news channel owned by a nephew of King Abdullah.

The United States fears that any heavy weapons or training for the rebels might leak to militants who would then turn on the West, repeating the U.S. experience in 1980s Afghanistan.

While Riyadh is aware of the danger of militant blowback - as happened a decade ago with an al Qaeda campaign of attacks in the kingdom - it sees U.S. reluctance as a strategic error.

Saudi officials think the failure to back moderate rebel groups earlier not only encouraged Assad, but allowed militants to emerge as the strongest element in the opposition.

Although Saudi authorities repeatedly announced that donations to Syrian rebel or humanitarian groups should only go via official channels to ensure they did not end up in militant hands, some private donations were likely made to radicals.

Officials in the kingdom were frustrated at what they saw as American dithering, particularly after Obama backed down from a strike on Syria following a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs in August.


Still, cooperation has improved in recent months, American officials believe, and U.S.-made rockets have started to appear on the battlefield.

One reason for the better atmosphere between the allies may be the departure from office this year of intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was running Saudi policy on Syria.

His abrasive manner and sometimes erratic way of working caused friction with the Americans.

However, Washington still wants more openness on the Saudi side, said a diplomatic source in the Gulf, one of several interviewed for this article.

But the source added that the Saudis still felt left out on a limb by last year’s non-strike.

"They see brush fires all around them and are concerned Washington is not doing more to help the Syrian opposition," the diplomatic source said.

For all its differences with Riyadh, Washington remains the kingdom’s most important ally, sharing an outlook that values regional stability and a tough approach to Islamist militants.

A big American military presence in the Gulf still protects Saudi borders from foreign enemies, the kingdom’s armed forces are equipped mostly with American hardware and a web of personal relations binds officials, diplomats and businessmen.

But after the Arab Spring destabilized one of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors after another, Riyadh’s perception of a pivotal threat was not matched in Washington.


The former U.S. diplomat said this still influenced Riyadh’s view of Washington’s nuclear talks with Iran, despite attempts by Obama and other officials to assuage Saudi fears.

Gary Grappo, a former deputy chief of mission in Riyadh, said the Saudis were intensely suspicious of Iran.

"There was an overwhelming obsession with Iran and the threat that it posed. We heard from Saudi officials, some quite senior, that Iran’s intention is to position itself as leader of the Muslim world, especially after the Shi’ites re-established control over their holy sites in Iraq - Kerbala and Najaf."

"It sounds like an exaggeration to us, but I heard it: ‘The next destination is Mecca and Medina’," said Grappo.

Though frayed, the alliance is unlikely to break, with the former diplomat describing U.S.-Saudi relations in terms of a longstanding marriage:

"It’s like a couple that’s been married for 40 years - you can’t imagine not being together, but you can’t seem to avoid poking each other."

May 5, 2014

Spy Plane Fries Air Traffic Control Computers, Shuts Down LAX

Andrew Blankstein

NBC News

May 2, 2014

A relic from the Cold War appears to have triggered a software glitch at a major air traffic control center in California Wednesday that led to delays and cancellations of hundreds of flights across the country, sources familiar with the incident told NBC News.

On Wednesday at about 2 p.m., according to sources, a U-2 spy plane, the same type of aircraft that flew high-altitude spy missions over Russia 50 years ago, passed through the airspace monitored by the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, Calif. The L.A. Center handles landings and departures at the region’s major airports, including Los Angeles International (LAX), San Diego and Las Vegas.

The computers at the L.A. Center are programmed to keep commercial airliners and other aircraft from colliding with each other. The U-2 was flying at 60,000 feet, but the computers were attempting to keep it from colliding with planes that were actually miles beneath it.

Though the exact technical causes are not known, the spy plane’s altitude and route apparently overloaded a computer system called ERAM, which generates display data for air-traffic controllers. Back-up computer systems also failed.


A NASA ER-2 high altitude research aircraft is shown in flight on Nov. 4, 1997.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to stop accepting flights into airspace managed by the L.A. Center, issuing a nationwide ground stop that lasted for about an hour and affected thousands of passengers.

At LAX, one of the nation’s busiest airports, there were 27 cancellations of arriving flights, as well as 212 delays and 27 diversions to other airports. Twenty-three departing flights were cancelled, while 216 were delayed. There were also delays at the airports in Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario and Orange County and at other airports across the Southwestern U.S.

In a statement to NBC News, the FAA said that it was “investigating a flight-plan processing issue” at the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center, but did not elaborate on the reasons for the glitch and did not confirm that it was related to the U-2’s flight.

“FAA technical specialists resolved the specific issue that triggered the problem on Wednesday, and the FAA has put in place mitigation measures as engineers complete development of software changes,” said the agency in a statement. “The FAA will fully analyze the event to resolve any underlying issues that contributed to the incident and prevent a reoccurrence.”

Sources told NBC News that the plane was a U-2 with a Defense Department flight plan. “It was a ‘Dragon Lady,’” said one source, using the nickname for the plane. Edwards Air Force Base is 30 miles north of the L.A. Center. Both Edwards and NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center, which is located at Edwards, have been known to host U-2s and similar, successor aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force is still flying U-2s, but plans to retire them within the next few years.

Gary Hatch, spokesman for Edwards Air Force Base, would not comment on the Wednesday incident, but said, “There are no U-2 planes assigned to Edwards.”

A spokesperson for the Armstrong Flight Research Center did not immediately return a call for comment.

Developed more than a half-century ago, the U-2 was once a workhorse of U.S. airborne surveillance. The plane’s “operational ceiling” is 70,000 feet. In 1960, Francis Gary Powers was flying a U-2 for the CIA over the Soviet Union when he was shot down. He was held captive by the Russians for two years before being exchanged for a KGB colonel in U.S. custody. A second U.S. U-2 was shot down over Cuba in 1962, killing the pilot.

May 5, 2014

Pakistan: Attack on NATO Supply Convoy Kills 2

Associated Press

May 5, 2014

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A local Pakistani government official says militants have attacked a NATO supply convoy en route to Afghanistan, killing two drivers.

Sher Khan says the attack took place in the Jamrud area of the northwestern Khyber tribal region on Monday morning. He says three people were also wounded in the attack. Jamrud is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the city of Peshawar.

Khan says a group of nearly 30 militants first opened fire at the convoy, then torched three trailers and five military mini-trucks loaded on them.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

The land routes through Pakistan have been vital to getting supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan and are now increasingly being used to ship equipment out as the international coalition draws down its troops.

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