When it comes to the decision to take out Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the question is, what did the Trump administration know and when did they know it?
No one seems to want to define the word “imminent” as in the “imminent” threat that prompted the targeted attack on Suleimani. The secretary of Defense said he didn’t see specific threats to four embassies in the intelligence that crossed his desk, and some State Department people in charge of embassy security told the press that they weren’t made aware of such threats either.
And then President Trump said it didn’t matter if Suleimani posed an “imminent” threat because of his “horrible past.”
So what’s a country to think?
Malcolm Nance has some thoughts here. He was a career Navy intelligence officer and field interrogator, an Arabic speaker who spent years in the Middle East studying Al Qaeda. He went public during the administration of George W. Bush against waterboarding torture, and spent years both in uniform and out cultivating expertise in counterterrorism and intelligence.
Nance, whose latest book is “The Plot to Betray America,” assesses the shifting relationships between Trump and the nation’s intelligence and military services.
We are seeing the repercussions of the killing of Qassem Suleimani in Iran, and that action was based on what we are assured by the Trump administration is intelligence showing a clear and present danger from Gen. Suleimani. Do you believe it?
I’m not sure, and I’m going to be noncommittal, principally because when I was working in the intelligence community, I was a field collector, which means that the information that would go up to the president of the United States, which we had an actually very, very super-fast reporting process where a flash traffic system would come from a person that would be sitting on an operator collection terminal.
We would be the people to first recognize the impact of whatever information we’re collecting, especially when it comes from agencies like the National Security Agency, which gets it straight from the horse’s mouth. So from the bottom up, you could clearly see where the risks were.
Ronald Reagan ordered an air strike on Libya [in 1986] related to the intelligence that was collected. That intelligence was decisive. Ronald Reagan declassified that reporting and put it out into the public sphere, showing literally orders being given [to bomb a Berlin disco frequented by Americans; the bombing killed two U.S. soldiers].
I’m bringing these examples up because we do not know what Qassem Suleimani was doing. However, there are some inferences that can be drawn.
First, [Suleimani] is a strategic commander. He is not the guy who signs off on individual terrorists or individual militia men carrying out very specific acts against the United States. He doesn’t have to do that. That wouldn’t be his purview. His junior lieutenants would do that, or the militiamen themselves might think that up and just do it because a lot of these Shiite militiamen just hate the United States.
He is the person who would be implementing the strategic plan to bring Shiite Islam in a clear crescent all the way around the Middle East. He would have subordinate commanders there who would go out and give training and education.
This guy is like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only instead of the Iranian armed forces, he would have been the equivalent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
So when I hear from the White House that they had intelligence showing Qassem Suleimani himself was ordering it, or was involved in an incident in which the imminent attack of American citizens and their lives and diplomatic facilities was in the offing — now, Suleimani is the kind of guy who gets briefed on these things. And could give a yea or nay. But he would not be the guy who would be saying, OK, let’s shoot 10 rockets at the American embassy.
He doesn’t have to. No, he’s way above that.
I would like to see what the intelligence was. What was the act that they were talking about? Was it another rocket attack on a U.S. base? Because if it was, the White House drew a red line so low — in my time in Iraq [as a private intelligence and security contractor] and the U.S. forces’ time in Iraq, from 2003 to the day we left in 2008, 2009, we were getting to hundreds of rockets all across Iraq every day killing U.S. service members.
You could set your clock by the rockets, every time they would hit the Green Zone every day. So how would we take our standard back to being so incredibly low?
I believe we were losing three or four service members per day to [improvised explosive devices] every day for eight years. This administration standard is one American killed by a rocket attack by an Iraqi militia, they would hold the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personally responsible?
That’s not saying that Suleimani didn’t deserve the missile that he got. OK? That guy had it coming for a long time.
But we have to understand the consequences of such an order, because there are second-degree effects. There are third-level effects which come from that, which could lose many, many, many more Americans than could ever have been saved by killing him.
There’s also the paradox of a president who has stubbornly and consistently refused to believe intelligence reports choosing to embrace, presumably, this one.
It’s laughable, isn’t it?
They are schizophrenic in the way that they view the patriotic Americans who spend day in and day out, thanklessly, thanklessly trying to keep this nation safe. And that in itself is suspicious.
But that they would now turn around and say, we have foreign intelligence that we used to kill Suleimani. It was based on the best assessments of the U.S. intelligence community.
That in itself is not only hypocritical. But next week, if something came out that personally impacted Donald Trump, he would go back to calling the intelligence community the “deep state” and that they should be dismantled.
When it comes to war, we can go back to the Tonkin Gulf incident or the allegations about WMDs in Iraq, that in whatever intelligence was offered, certainly in the case of the WMDs, it was overturned or ignored by what the administration wanted to happen politically then.
True. The CIA never said Iraq had WMDs. The actual assessment that came from the CIA and what was told to George W. Bush by the director at that time were two entirely different things. And this is the fundamental nature of the intelligence process.
We can only produce the best information as it exists or as the best projection and forecast of what can come.
It is up to the intelligence consumer to make a decision about that. So Donald Trump went to the most extreme decision in a wide range of options without any regard to the consequences of who it could hurt or how it could damage this nation in the extreme.
President Trump likes to invoke the military at his rallies and to appear with those in uniform as commander in chief. But in recent months, he’s abruptly withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria, leaving our Kurdish allies in the lurch. He’s also cleared three armed services members, pardoning an Army lieutenant convicted of murdering two civilians, and an Army major who was facing a court martial after he admitted killing an Afghan man. He also reversed the demotion of a Navy SEAL who had been acquitted of murder but convicted of the lesser war crime of posing with the dead body of an Iraqi detainee. Even the Defense secretary and Army secretary argued against this. How do actions like this affect the morale in the military, and the enforcement of good military order?
One, what it does is, it creates a schism in the armed forces, and you can see that in polls where, if you see the approval polls amongst members of the armed forces for Donald Trump, I think his approval numbers are in the high 30s, but his disapproval numbers — strongly disapprove — I believe in the last poll was approximately 47% in the military.
Here’s why. We do not suffer fools gladly, OK? When you get into the middle ranks, sergeant and above, when you’re not just a junior officer, we have no tolerance for tomfoolery, for idiocy, for backtalk. And we definitely recognize a person who is ignorant of what we do — instantly.
And my family has served in every war from 1864 to today. My great-great-grandfather and his brother ran away from slavery and joined the Union Army to make the union a little more perfect through their participation in a country that didn’t like them, but they did it anyway. I have a niece who was in combat off of Yemen two years ago, was fired at by Iranian proxies, anti-ship missiles fired at her vessel.
This is all very serious to the armed forces. [Trump] views this as like toy soldiers.
The very fact that he wanted to have a personal parade, that would rival what he saw on the Champs Elysees on Bastille Day. Now he wants to go to the May Day parade in Moscow, where they do the same thing, and where the Chinese and North Korea do the same thing.
This is the mind of an autocrat. He does not understand the American experience. He does not understand the sacrifice of the armed forces. And what he sees with the armed forces is a form of salvation. He plays this Tom Clancy character where he’s the president who doesn’t put up with anything from his foreign adversaries.
But what he doesn’t do is, he doesn’t think. He gives no forethought to what could happen, what should happen, and how should the nation be defended. They are toys to him.
Now let’s go over to good order and discipline, the reason that he backs and endorses and gave pardons to three people. [Navy SEAL] Eddie Gallagher was brought before a military court, and he was tried before his peers, where his own men, upholding the honor of the United States for the good of our SEAL teams and their ethos, for the protection of the civilians that he bragged that he was murdering with his sniper rifle to the point where [other service members] tinkered with his weapon so that he wouldn’t fire straight.
We have a process for that. That’s the military judicial system. And it was working until the president stepped in, used what we call undue command influence and changed the result. And the president of the United States says, this is my kind of guy.
Then, there are the other two people that Donald Trump pardoned, Army officers. Just absolutely disgraceful behavior.
We are not having a crisis of confidence with Donald Trump. We are having a national crisis of honor.
The people who support him — I will be quite frank; I’ve received many death threats from them [and those] who have served in the armed forces dishonor their own oaths that they took by supporting Trump.
Your new book seems to be filling in blanks and connecting dots on things that the Mueller report listed, but did not make the kind of connections that you do.
That’s true, and principally because there is an entire component of the Mueller report no one has ever seen or hasn’t truly been investigated. And that’s the national counterintelligence investigation that was supposed to discover whether there were actual links between Donald Trump himself and Russia.
You hear it talked about all the time: When are we going to see the counterintelligence report?
[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s job [at the KGB] was to turn people into human intelligence assets for the KGB. That’s the same as doing that at a nation-state level, because Vladimir Putin is KGB spy master Vladimir Putin to the day he dies.
And like all good Bond villains, you have to have a really big objective. And in his case, it wasn’t “destroy the world”; it was that the world has changed. We are no longer communist. Money does all the talking. I’m going to meet the objectives of the Soviet Union by dismantling democracy in the West. Donald Trump is the perfect foil for him.
You make the argument that Russian intelligence used all the mechanisms of propaganda, the “alternative world of fake news and misperceived information,” to create an image that they wanted voters to buy into and to distract them from some of the factual things that were being put before them.
Well, the Russians actually have a technical term for it — perception management.
Perception management is where you craft an information bubble around your target, so that left, right, up, down, your target is living within an information sphere of your crafting.
The analysis that I use, the information bubble that was put around Donald Trump created his belief that all of his thoughts are homogenous, that everything that he thinks was Donald Trump’s own brilliance, like Crimea being part of Russia and they all speak Russian, and Obama is a weak president and Putin is a strong president.
Donald Trump is a subordinate in this story. Putin doesn’t have to do anything. Also, as long as he maintains the relationship and keeps a short leash on whatever the debt is that he has over Donald Trump.
The question is, what is it? It’s just the belief that Donald Trump wants to get into what I call the global oligarchy, the global-archy, which is this: There are people with so much money, they live beyond flags. They live beyond nations.
Trump does not see the global-archy, you know, as nations of flags. And I think he sees politics and the American stepping stone as a way to acquire wealth after the presidency, which even the presidency can’t afford him.