Sunday, June 21, 2015

21-Jun-15: State Department's report on terror: Questions, and questions not asked

Ambassador Kaidanow
[This post, like a number of others before it, has been translated to Polish ("Raport Departamentu Stanu o terrorze") by courtesy of Malgorzata Koraszewska over on the listy z naszego sadu website. Our sincere thanks to her, and great appreciation to readers of this blog in Poland.]

Tina S. Kaidanow is the United States of America's Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism. This past Friday was one of the big days in her year. It's when she presented the State Department's annual Country Reports on Terrorism report for 2014. The latest report itself is online here. (And the reports for years going back to 2004 are here.)

The short version is that the twelve months since she presented the 2013 report have seen a stunningly dramatic increase in terrorism (but you won't see those words in the government report). We can see that by looking at such metrics as overall number of attacks, by people killed and kidnapped, and by number of "major" attacks in which 100 or more people were killed. It's a depressing litany.

How seriously should they be taken? In her remarks at the media briefing in which the report was launched [here], Ambassador Kaidanow seemed to suggest we ought to pause and think before we jump on top of the results:
While I cite these statistics, which are compiled by the University of Maryland and are not a U.S. ... Government product per se, I do want to stress again that in our view they don’t provide the full context. Aggregate totals or numbers of attacks are not really a particularly useful metric for measuring the aims of the extremist groups or of our progress in preventing or countering those activities. 
But the numbers she cites in a report with the State Department's name on the cover are worth absorbing. So is the slightly odd way she seems to walk away from any responsibility for them ("not a US Government product per se... their emphasis is a little different than ours..."):
  • Number of terrorist attacks up by 35% over previous year to 13,463
  • Number of deaths from terrorism up by 81% to 32,727. 
  • Number of people kidnapped or taken hostage in a terror attack "increased three-fold" from 3,137 in 2013 to 9,428 in 2014
  • No fewer than 20 attacks in which 100 or more people were killed. In 2013, there were 2 of them - a ten-fold increase.
If these incredible numbers and the trends they describe do not tell the whole story then, according to the Ambassador's way of seeing things, what is the story? That's not entirely clear from her remarks or the report itself. To us it actually seems that the numbers are sufficiently persuasive and articulate, moving in a clear direction, and describing a mortal threat that just keeps growing and spreading. Is there a fuller contact that would lead intelligent people to a different, less disturbing, view?

Without drilling down on this, one of the media questioners who spoke after the ambassador's presentation asked a couple of questions that seemed to get to the core of the issue. First this:
"Given the sharp rise in attacks, killings, and kidnappings, what does that say about this department and this Administration writ large, its effectiveness in fighting terror in 2014?
And then a few minutes later he moved on to this:
"Was the United States effective last year in fighting terrorism?
Then a few minutes after that, a pointed exchange from another reporter:
"Considering all of these objective metrics, how do you see a record of competence or success for this President in the area of counterterrorism? ...You keep talking about inputs and I’m asking about the outputs, the outcomes. 
AMBASSADOR KAIDANOW: Right, well, again, I’ve answered the question. If that’s not satisfactory, then we can have a conversation offline about other issues, but that’s what I would say.
And she moved on immediately to someone else's comment. But to us, those seem like precisely the kind of questions a report like this should be answering.

Iran comes in for some special attention. That's not at all surprising given the prominent role the Iranian regime takes in the field as a state sponsor of terrorism (on a vast scale), first designated as such by the State Department on January 19, 1984 and still on the list. (The others are Syria - an Iranian client - and Sudan.) Its impact comes via multiple channels,
mostly through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force. Iran sponsors terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon, several Iraqi Shia militant groups, Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad... Kaidanow said the department's assessment of Iranian terrorist activity doesn't measure whether the country has increased or decreased its support, and the report also does not take into account any activity in 2015. "We continue to be very, very concerned about [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] activity as well as proxies that act on behalf of Iran," Kaidanow said. "[T]hey are continuing their pursuit of these activities … [W]hether it's expanding, not expanding – that's a little harder to judge, but the point is they're still doing it, we're still concerned." ...Reports that the Obama administration and its partners have whitewashed reports of Iranian sanctions violations to prevent derailing [nuclear talks that are supposed to end in two weeks] have also fueled skepticism negotiators can reach a deal without too many concessions, as well as skepticism Iran will comply with any such deal reached. [US News and World Report, June 19, 2015]
At the same time, the State Department report states, with no elaboration, that
Iran remains a state of proliferation concern. Despite multiple UNSCRs requiring Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear proliferation activities, Iran continued to be in noncompliance with its international obligations regarding its nuclear program. Implementation of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, coordinated by the EU), and Iran began on January 20, 2014. Iran has fulfilled the commitments that it made under the JPOA...
Screen shot from the State Department report [On-line here]
How accurate is that? The Obama administration has made repeated claims that Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program. But many analysts see it differently, including a New York Times report ["Iran’s Nuclear Stockpile Grows, Complicating Negotiations"] on June 1, 2015, just three weeks ago:
With only one month left before a deadline to complete a nuclear deal with Iran, international inspectors have reported that Tehran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel increased about 20 percent over the last 18 months of negotiations, partially undercutting the Obama administration’s contention that the Iranian program had been “frozen” during that period. But Western officials and experts cannot quite figure out why. [NYTimes]
How to understand that? Consider the views of an expert published three months earlier:
It is time for the Obama administration to more accurately describe the impact of the JPOA on Iran’s nuclear program... If Iran is in fact in violation of the JPOA, what steps does the administration plan to take to bring Iran into compliance? By continuing to ignore this apparent violation, the administration will be setting a bad precedent. If violations of the JPOA are ignored, what hope do we have that any violations of any follow-on nuclear agreement will be acknowledged and dealt with? Source: “In Iran, Distrust and Verify | Has the Iranian nuclear program violated the Joint Plan of Action?” [Gregory S. Jones, National Review, March 2, 2015]
Iran itself takes a robust view of such things which it has no hesitation trumpeting: 
Iran rejected Saturday US claims that it was a sponsor of global terror attacks, saying instead it is a victim of terrorism. On Friday, the US State Department said the Islamic Republic "continued to sponsor global terror" attacks last year and supplied arms to the Syrian regime even though it was engaged in talks to rein in its nuclear programme. But Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said those accusations were "worthless." "For three decades, Iran has been the great victim of terrorism and considers international cooperation to combat terrorism a priority," she said, without elaborating. [AFP, June 20, 2015]
So whom are we to believe? Are the Iranians terrorists or victims of terror? Is the US comfortable with Iranian "compliance" with the Joint Plan of Action (and so we can all move forward to a June 30 agreement with Teheran)? Or is the US trying to sound better informed than in reality it is?

Ambassador Kaidanow's ailing boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, has very recently gone to energetic lengths to claim the US knows everything it needs to know about Iran. Michael Gordon from the New York Times asked him whether ongoing concerns about "suspected nuclear design work and testing of nuclear components" by the Iranian regime had to be "fully resolved before sanctions are eased or released or removed or suspended" and whether that was "a core principle" or negotiable:
SECRETARY KERRY: Michael, the possible military dimensions, frankly, gets distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way. That clearly is one of the requirements in our judgment for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement. And in order to have an agreement to trigger any kind of material significant sanctions relief, we would have to have those answers. [Source: State Department Briefing, June 16, 2015]
If only. 

Here's what the people from the International Atomic Energy Agency, who have been carrying out a frustrating program of site inspections in Iran for years, now say - and it tells a very different story. This is Yukiya Amano, director general of IAEA
[W]hat we don’t know whether they have undeclared activities or something else. We don’t know what they did in the past. So, we know a part of their activities, but we cannot tell we know all their activities. And that is why we cannot say that all the activities in Iran is in peaceful purposes... And our information indicates that Iran engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices. We do not draw conclusions. But we are requesting Iran to clarify these issues... I think it is very important that Iran engage with us to clarify these issues. [From a PBS interview with Amano on March 23, 2015]
And here, as the deadline for an agreement rapidly approaches, Amano is again, saying that the IAEA:
is not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities... [Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors, June 8, 2015]
So the man with the on-the-ground inspectors says he doesn't know. But the State Department says it has "absolute knowledge"?

Smarter people than we have pointed out that what the US and the world don't know about Iran's nuclear activity makes for a serious list. For instance:
  • There's persuasive evidence that North Korea helped jump-start Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. How long that partnership been in place, and what is its status today? [Washington Post, March 29, 2015]
  • How far has Iran gotten with testing nuclear detonators [note]
  • When the Iranians paved over their Parchin complex, which IAEA said was a possible location for testing explosive triggers for a nuclear blast, what did they hide? [Fox, August 22, 2013]
Do we have the full context? And if the Administration keeps saying what it's saying about Iran's compliance, including as a part of this terrorism report, does say something meaningful about the rest of the report? It's not as if these issues don't matter. Being wrong on terrorism has huge consequences.

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