Posts Tagged ‘National Security Council’

Donald Trump’s chief strategist and ideologue will be party to all discussions on the White House National Security Council unlike military and intelligence chiefs

The White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, far right, sits alongside the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump.
The White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, far right, sits alongside the national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The formal inclusion of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist and ideologue in the small circle of top officials who decide US national security policy, sparked alarm among former officials who described it as an unprecedented politicisation of decisions that could mean the difference between peace and war.

Bannon, a former executive of the rightwing Breitbart news site, will be a permanent fixture of the “principals committee” of the National Security Council (NSC), the White House announced, but said that the director of national intelligence and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff would only attend if the “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed”.

David Rothkopf, author of a history of the NSC, said the turbulence of Trump’s foreign policy, intricately connected to the deliberative processes that led to it, was already creating a crisis with international reverberations.

“We have an escalation of chaos as a consequence of White House decision-making, made without consultation with the federal bureaucracy, that has no precedent in modern history and now has people taking to the streets in numbers and ways that is evocative of the 1960s,” Rothkopf said.

“It is not an overstatement to say we have a brewing crisis.”

Placing Bannon on the NSC, with his lack of national security experience, was a “radical” step, Rothkopf said, as the former Breitbart media chairman had shown himself to hold “racist, misogynist and Islamophobic” views. His seat on the NSC principals committee was “essentially putting a thumb on the scale of deliberation in the direction of that kind of thinking”.

Trump, Rothkopf said, was building a security apparatus “with the wrong people at the table and the wrong person at the head of the table” – Trump himself.

Foreign governments, seeing the diminished influence of the established pillars of national security decision-making in the US, were likely to begin dealing with Bannon and his cohort directly to secure their influence with Trump, he continued.

The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, insisted that the composition of the National Security Council’s principals committee under the Trump administrationwas no different than it had been under Bush or Obama and waved sheaves of paper to prove his point as television screens showed highlighted text on either side of him.

He said the chairman of the joint chiefs and the director of national intelligence were welcome to attend, but did not have to if the issues under discussion were not directly part of their brief.

The announcement of Bannon’s national security role came at the end of the Trump administration’s first week in office, during which Bannon was increasingly seen as the most powerful figure in the White House after the president himself, spurring on the issuance of a string of executive orders culminating in the radical immigration ban on travellers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.

As more details emerged about the chaotic launch of Trump’s flagship immigration ban, it emerged the White House office of management and budget, responsible for coordinating executive action with the rest of the government, was told not to put the ban through the normal review process with the justice, state, homeland security and defense departments, so it was as surprised as everyone else about the announcement.

The newly confirmed homeland security secretary, John Kelly, was airborne when it took effect on Friday and only discovered the president was signing the order on Friday because an aide he was talking to by phone saw the signature ceremony on television, according to the New York Times.

Although the defense secretary, James Mattis, was standing at Trump’s shoulder at the Pentagon when the order was signed, the defense department was also not consulted on its contents beforehand.

Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who is expected to be confirmed in the Senate this week, was also not consulted, according to a source he spoke to at the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, an event which brings the country’s mega-rich together with top politicians. Tillerson, as a former oil executive, is both.

Tillerson, who will be America’s top diplomat, appeared unruffled by the executive order and by a purge of top career officials at the state department, the source said, but made it clear he had not been consulted on either issue.

He will inherit a department in turmoil, in the wake of the dismissals of top administrative staff and a growing mutiny over the refugee ban among diplomats, who were circulating a draft cable dissenting from the executive order on Monday.

Steve Bannon: his appointment to the NSC was ‘a radical departure from any national security council in history’, according to Senator John McCain.
Steve Bannon: his appointment to the NSC was ‘a radical departure from any National Security Council in history’, according to Senator John McCain. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The elevation of Bannon, who ran a media organisation that offered itself as a platform for the far right and promoted fake news during the election, has alarmed European capitals as he is a fervent opponent of the European Union. It has also provoked unease about how the new administration will take decisions on intelligence and national security issues, among former officials with experience of the way the NSC functions at the heart of Washington.

“What is striking about it is it is such an explicit rejection of the well-entrenched principle that when it comes to matters of national security that politics doesn’t have any place in the room,”

said James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration.

“It is a flat rejection of what has been a shared view of Republican and Democratic administrations.”

National security professionals considered Bannon’s placement on the NSC an indicator that the institutional disarray following Trump’s immigration halt would be replicated in future policy decrees.

The leadership of the influential Senate armed services committee appeared stunned and appalled by the Trump White House elevating Bannon and diminishing the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence.

The Senate armed services committee chairman, John McCain, who as recently as Thursday lavished praise on Trump’s security team at a Republican retreat, saidBannon’s appointment was

“a radical departure from any National Security Council in history”.

His Democratic colleague, Jack Reed, called it “outrageous and potentially dangerous” and said Trump was turning the NSC into

“an entity that is without a non-partisan military voice”.

With the senior, non-partisan US military officer or the US intelligence chief absent for critical deliberations, presidents are more likely to stumble into unforced errors with significant global repercussions, said Kori Schake, a defense analyst at the Hoover Institution who has advised McCain and co-edited a book with the defense secretary, Mattis.

“Any president should want their intel and military advisers in on the decisions for the same reason you want a lawyer present: they keep you from making mistakes,” Schake said.

“A president would not, for example, want to find out after issuing an executive order banning immigration from countries fighting alongside us that those countries would reciprocally ban Americans, to great detriment for the war effort.

“Evidently the president’s political advisers lacked the judiciousness to see that coming; the experience it takes to make it to the top of the intelligence or military leadership would easily have been able to call that in advance.”

Stephen Hadley, national security adviser in the last Bush administration, argued that the new administration’s guidelines for the new National Security Council were “not very dissimilar from other orders that other administrations have adopted”.

He said that George W Bush had vetoed the participation of his own closest political adviser to the NSC principals committee, but that the Obama administration had not observed such a distinction between politics and national security. “Karl Rove at one point wanted to participate in the NSC meetings and I ran it by President Bush, who said no. He did not want to suggest in any way that national security decisions are made on domestic politics, which is something that I respect,” Hadley told the Guardian.

“David Axelrod, [who] was President Obama’s political person in the first term, I am told attended a number of NSC meetings. This is something where there is no rule written in stone. Presidents basically make the decisions on who they want at their meetings. You can make a stronger case for Bannon because he is not just political adviser … So I can see why the president would want him at the NSC meetings.”

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CIA propaganda in Iraq

Thatcher era, Conservative party PR firm, Bell Pottinger’s former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times, which has worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on this story, that the PR firm known for representing unsavoury characters, was paid $540Million to make FAKE terrorist videos and “false flag” events.
The PR agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking U.S. military officers in their Baghdad “Camp Victory” headquarters as the insurgency raged outside.
 

A controversial foreign PR firm known for representing unsavory characters was paid millions by the Pentagon to create fake terrorist videos.

The Pentagon gave a controversial UK PR firm over half a billion dollars to run a top secret propaganda program in Iraq, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

Bell Pottinger’s output included short TV segments made in the style of Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos which could be used to track the people who watched them, according to a former employee.

The agency’s staff worked alongside high-ranking U.S. military officers in their Baghdad Camp Victory headquarters as the insurgency raged outside.

Bell Pottinger’s former chairman Lord Tim Bell confirmed to the Sunday Times, which has worked with the Bureau on this story, that his firm had worked on a “covert” military operation “covered by various secrecy documents.”

Bell Pottinger reported to the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council on its work in Iraq, he said.

Bell, one of Britain’s most successful public relations executives, is credited with honing Margaret Thatcher’s steely image and helping the Conservative party win three elections. The agency he co-founded has had a roster of clients including repressive regimes and Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president.

In the first media interview any Bell Pottinger employee has given about the work for the U.S. military in Iraq, video editor Martin Wells told the Bureau his time in Camp Victory was “shocking, eye-opening, life-changing.”

The firm’s output was signed off by former General David Petraeus – then commander of the coalition forces in Iraq – and on occasion by the White House, he said.

Bell Pottinger produced reams of material for the Pentagon, some of it going far beyond standard communications work.

The Bureau traced the firm’s Iraq work through US army contracting censuses, reports by the Defense Department’s Inspector General and federal procurement transaction records, as well as Bell Pottinger’s corporate filings and specialist publications on military propaganda. We interviewed half a dozen former officials and contractors involved in information operations in Iraq.

There were three types of media operations commonly used in Iraq at the time, said a military contractor familiar with Bell Pottinger’s work there.

“White is attributed, it says who produced it on the label,” the contractor said.
“Grey is unattributed and black is falsely attributed.
These types of black ops, used for tracking who is watching a certain thing, were a pretty standard part of the industry toolkit.”

Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq was a huge media operation which cost over a hundred million dollars a year on average. A document unearthed by the Bureau shows the company was employing almost 300 British and Iraqi staff at one point.

The London-based PR agency was brought into Iraq soon after the U.S. invasion. In March 2004 it was tasked by the country’s temporary administration with the “promotion of democratic elections” – a “high-profile activity” which it trumpeted in its annual report.

The firm soon switched to less high-profile activities, however. The Bureau has identified transactions worth $540 million between the Pentagon and Bell Pottinger for information operations and psychological operations on a series of contracts issued from May 2007 to December 2011. A similar contract at around the same annual rate-$120 million-was in force in 2006, we have been told.

The bulk of the money was for costs such as production and distribution, Lord Bell told the Sunday Times, but the firm would have made around £15m a year in fees.

Martin Wells, the ex-employee, told the Bureau he had no idea what he was getting into when he was interviewed for the Bell Pottinger job in May 2006.

He had been working as a freelance video editor and got a call from his agency suggesting he go to London for an interview for a potential new gig. “You’ll be doing new stuff that’ll be coming out of the Middle East,” he was told.

“I thought ‘That sounds interesting’,” Wells recalled. “So I go along and go into this building, get escorted up to the sixth floor in a lift, come out and there’s guards up there. I thought what on earth is going on here? And it turns out it was a Navy post, basically. So from what I could work out it was a media intelligence gathering unit.”

After a brief chat Wells asked when he would find out about the job, and was surprised by the response.

“You’ve already got it,” he was told. “We’ve already done our background checks into you.”

He would be flying out on Monday, Wells was told. It was Friday afternoon. He asked where he would be going and got a surprising answer: Baghdad.

“So I literally had 48 hours to gather everything I needed to live in a desert,” Wells said.

Days later, Wells’s plane executed a corkscrew landing to avoid insurgent fire at Baghdad airport. He assumed he would be taken to somewhere in the Green Zone, from which coalition officials were administering Iraq. Instead he found himself in Camp Victory, a military base.

It turned out that the British PR firm which had hired him was working at the heart of a U.S. military intelligence operation.

A tide of violence was engulfing the Iraqi capital as Wells began his contract. The same month he arrived there were five suicide bomb attacks in the city, including one a suicide car bomb attack near Camp Victory which killed 14 people and wounded six others.

Describing his first impressions, Wells said he was struck by a working environment very unlike what he was used to. “It was a very secure building,” he recalled, with “signs outside saying ‘Do not come in, it’s a classified area, if you’re not cleared, you can’t come in.’”

Inside were two or three rooms with lots of desks in, said Wells, with one section for Bell Pottinger staff and the other for the US military.

“I made the mistake of walking into one of the [U.S. military] areas, and having a very stern American military guy basically drag me out saying you are not allowed in here under any circumstances, this is highly classified, get out-whilst his hand was on his gun, which was a nice introduction,” said Wells.

It soon became apparent he would be doing much more than just editing news footage.

The work consisted of three types of products.
The first was television commercials portraying al Qaeda in a negative light.
The second was news items which were made to look as if they had been “created by Arabic TV”, Wells said.
“Bell Pottinger would send teams out to film low-definition video of al Qaeda bombings and then edit it like a piece of news footage”. It would be voiced in Arabic and distributed to TV stations across the region, according to Wells.

The American origins of the news items were sometimes kept hidden. Revelations in 2005 that PR contractor the Lincoln Group had helped the Pentagon place articles in Iraqi newspapers, sometimes presented as unbiased news, led to a Department of Defense investigation.

The third and most sensitive program described by Wells was the production of fake al Qaeda propaganda films. He told the Bureau how the videos were made. He was given precise instructions:
“We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use al Qaeda’s footage,” he was told. “We need it to be 10 minutes long, and it needs to be in this file format, and we need to encode it in this manner.”

US marines would take the CDs on patrol and drop them in the chaos when they raided targets. Wells said: “If they’re raiding a house and they’re going to make a mess of it looking for stuff anyway, they’d just drop an odd CD there.”

The CDs were set up to use Real Player, a popular media streaming application which connects to the internet to run. Wells explained how the team embedded a code into the CDs which linked to a Google Analytics account, giving a list of IP addresses where the CDs had been played.

The tracking account had a very restricted circulation list, according to Wells: the data went to him, a senior member of the Bell Pottinger management team, and one of the U.S. military commanders.

Wells explained their intelligence value. “If one is looked at in the middle of Baghdad…you know there’s a hit there,” he said. “If one, 48 hours or a week later shows up in another part of the world, then that’s the more interesting one, and that’s what they’re looking for more, because that gives you a trail.”

The CDs turned up in some interesting places, Wells recalled, including Iran, Syria, and even America.

“I would do a print-out for the day and, if anything interesting popped up, hand it over to the bosses and then it would be dealt with from there,” he said.

The Pentagon confirmed that Bell Pottinger did work for them as a contractor in Iraq under the Information Operations Task Force (IOTF), producing some material that was openly sourced to coalition forces, and some which was not. They insisted that all material put out by IOTF was “truthful”.

IOTF was not the only mission Bell Pottinger worked on however. Wells said some Bell Pottinger work was carried out under the Joint Psychological Operations Task Force (JPOTF), which a US defense official confirmed.

The official said he could not comment in detail on JPOTF activities, adding “We do not discuss intelligence gathering methods for operations past and present.”

Lord Bell, who stood down as chairman of Bell Pottinger earlier this year, told the Sunday Times that the deployment of tracking devices described by Wells was “perfectly possible”, but he was personally unaware of it.

Bell Pottinger’s output was signed off by the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Wells recalled: “We’d get the two colonels in to look at the things we’d done that day, they’d be fine with it, it would then go to General Petraeus”.

Some of the projects went even higher up the chain of command. “If [Petraeus] couldn’t sign off on it, it would go on up the line to the White House, and it was signed off up there, and the answer would come back down the line’.

Petraeus went on to become director of the CIA in 2011 before resigning in the wake of an affair with a journalist.

The awarding of such a large contract to a British company created resentment among the American communications firms jostling for Iraq work, according to a former employee of one of Bell Pottinger’s rivals.

“Nobody could work out how a British company could get hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. funding when there were equally capable U.S. companies who could have done it,” said Andrew Garfield, an ex-employee of the Lincoln Group who is now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The American companies were pissed.”

Ian Tunnicliffe, a former British soldier, was the head of a three person panel from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)-the transitional government in Iraq following the 2003 invasion-which awarded Bell Pottinger their 2004 contract to promote democratic elections.

According to Tunnicliffe, the contract, which totalled $5.8m, was awarded after the CPA realised its own in-house efforts to make people aware of the transitional legal framework ahead of elections were not working.

“We held a relatively hasty but still competitive bid for communications companies to come in,” recalls Tunnicliffe.

Tunnicliffe said that Bell Pottinger’s consortium was one of three bidders for the contract, and simply put in a more convincing proposal than their rivals.

Iraq was a lucrative opportunity for many communications firms. The Bureau has discovered that between 2006 and 2008 more than 40 companies were being paid for services such as TV and radio placement, video production, billboards, advertising and opinion polls.

These included US companies like Lincoln Group, Leonie Industries and SOS International as well as Iraq-based firms such as Cradle of New Civilization Media, Babylon Media and Iraqi Dream.

But the largest sums the Bureau was able to trace went to Bell Pottinger.

According to Glen Segell, who worked in an information operations task force in Iraq in 2006, contractors were used partly because the military didn’t have the in-house expertise, and partly because they were operating in a legal “grey area”.

In his 2011 article Covert Intelligence Provision in Iraq, Segell notes that U.S. law prevented the government from using propaganda on the domestic population of the U.S. In a globalized media environment, the Iraq operations could theoretically have been seen back home, therefore “it was prudent legally for the military not to undertake all the…activities,” Segell wrote.

Segell maintains that information operations programs did make a difference on the ground in Iraq. Some experts question this however.

A 2015 study by the Rand Corporation, a military think tank, concluded that “generating assessments of efforts to inform, influence, and persuade has proven to be challenging across the government and DoD.”

Bell Pottinger’s operations on behalf of the U.S. government stopped in 2011 as American troops withdrew from Iraq.

Bell Pottinger changed ownership after a management buyout in 2012 and its current structure has no connections with the unit Wells worked for, which closed in 2011. It is understood the key principals who were involved in this unit deny any involvement with tracking software as described by Wells.

Wells left Iraq after less than two years, having had enough of the stress of working in a war zone and having to watch graphic videos of atrocities day after day.

Looking back at his time creating propaganda for the US military, Wells is ambivalent. The aim of Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq was to highlight al Qaeda’s senseless violence, he said-publicity which at the time he thought must be doing some good. “But then, somewhere in my conscience I wondered whether this was the right thing to do,” he added.

Lord Bell told the Sunday Times he was “proud” of Bell Pottinger’s work in Iraq. “We did a lot to help resolve the situation,” he said. “Not enough. We did not stop the mess which emerged, but it was part of the American propaganda machinery.”

Whether the material achieved its goals, no one would ever really know, said Wells. “I mean if you look at the situation now, it wouldn’t appear to have worked. But at the time, who knows, if it saved one life it [was] a good thing to do.”