Armed Drones Could Target President: Former U.S. Intelligence Chief

WASHINGTON — As the technology for arming drones spreads around the world, terrorists could use the unmanned, missile-firing aircraft to attack and kill the president and other U.S. leaders, the former chief of U.S. intelligence said Tuesday.

Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama’s first director of national intelligence, told reporters he was concerned that the proliferation of armed drones — a potential outgrowth of the U.S. reliance on drones to attack and kill terrorists — could well backfire.

“I do fear that if al Qaeda can develop a drone, its first thought will be to use it to kill our president, and senior officials and senior officers,” Blair said during a conference call with reporters. “It is possible without a great deal of intelligence to do something with a drone you cannot do with a high-powered rifle or driving a car full of explosives and other ways terrorists now use to try killing senior officials,” he said.

The U.S. development and growing use of armed drones has not “opened a huge Pandora’s box which will make us wish we had never invented the drone,” Blair said. But he said if drones are acquired by terrorist groups, it would force the U.S. to take defensive measures. Yet, the U.S. already has extensive surveillance of its airspace and sophisticated weapons designed against a variety of airborne threats.

The Obama administration has accelerated armed drone strikes against individuals and groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan, in a campaign which is almost entirely secret. Administration officials have said the strikes are necessary to combat terrorist plotting against the U.S. But while President Obama and other officials have declared the strikes are legal, the White House has refused to divulge its legal justification for the strikes, which have included the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

Blair said the Obama administration has only “partly thought through” the repercussions of its expanded drone attack campaign, including the inevitable proliferation of drone technology to other countries and organizations. He spoke Tuesday on a call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, with senior analyst Micah Zenko.

Already, dozens of countries from Iran to China are using surveillance drones, and experts believe it will not be long before swarms of armed drones take to the air.

The Obama administration is coming under increasing pressure to unveil at least some details of the secretive drone counter-terrorist campaign, which is carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command and by the CIA. The latter agency largely operates the drone strikes against terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Blair — who was dismissed by President Obama in May 2010 after a falling-out over intelligence matters — said the administration should make public some details of how and why it decides that some terrorists should be targeted. “The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of,” Blair said. “There’s been far too little debate” about this form of killing.

The drone strikes are reviewed, after they have taken place, by the House and Senate intelligence committees, so there is some oversight of the process by which targets are selected and people killed. But Blair said he doubted the White House would allow the public insight into the drone program. “They’ve made the cold-blooded calculation that it’s better to hunker down and take the criticism than to take the debate public — which I think in the long run is essential,” he said.

But Blair acknowledged that a robust public discussion about the legal basis for the drones campaigns would have little deterrent effect on terrorists. He said extremist groups look at how the U.S. frames its military strikes in legal terms not in order to emulate that behavior but “in order to find weaknesses” they can exploit.

“If a terrorist group gets drone technology,” Blair said, “it will use it against us every way they can.”

Iran Says Its Missiles Can Target Within 2,000 KM Range

Iran boasts about their long-range missiles in order to deter the US and Israel, which consistently threaten to attack the Islamic Republic

Iran says it has the technical capacity to target all enemy bases within a range of 2,000 km, which it boasts about in order to serve as a deterrent to the US and Israel, which consistently threaten to attack the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah_Khamenei“Iran has now reached a point of progress that can target 2,000 enemy bases within a range of 2,000 km,” said General Morteza Qorbani, senior adviser to the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces.

“We don’t need missiles with a range of more than 2,000 km, but we have the technology to build them,” Aerospace Force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), told reporters in December. The ability to reach Israel is enough, he said.

Enough, because that’s all they need to properly deter US or Israeli aggression. Iran’s long-range missiles have been an important development in persuading Washington against bombing Iran.

An extended US military strike on Iran would harm their military capabilities and marginally delay their nuclear program, but it would also prompt large-scale Iranian retaliation that would spark an uncontrollable regional war.

That assessment was compiled in a report by former government officials, national security experts and retired military officers that was released back in September. “It says achieving more than a temporary setback in Iran’s nuclear program would require a military operation – including a land occupation – more taxing than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined,” AP reported.

Increasing the perceivable costs to the US for a war on Iran was probably a good part of the reason the US decided not to take action in 2011 and 2012, when the pressure from Israel to do so reached its greatest level. That, and the fact that the best US intelligence available has concluded that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

Next Round of US Sanctions Aims at Destroying Iran’s Economy

 

Officials Hope to Cripple Economy Ahead of Talks

 

With the next round of negotiations with Iran set to begin in the next month or so, the Obama Administration is imposing yet more rounds of sanctions on the Iranian economy. Whereas others targeted specific segments, the new sanctions aim at damaging broad swathes of the economy with an eye towards collapsing it outright.

 

Iran“The goal is to create a chilling effect on all nonhumanitarian commercial trade with Iran,” noted Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, adding that trying to target only parts of the Iranian economy was a “game of whack-a-mole that the United States could never win.”

 

The underlying justification for attacking Iran’s civilian economy with what borders on an outright embargo is the assumption that if the civilian economy is damaged sufficiently Iran will be more willing to negotiate. Yet since each new round of talks includes more onerous US demands, there is a constant game of trumping anything Iran might be willing to accept at any given time.

 

And so the economic warfare continues, leaving Iran’s government all the stronger as its civilian economy dies, and its population is forced to rely on government-run industries for what little economic production yet remains.

 

by Jason Ditz

 

Caught between al Qaida and Iran, U.S. struggles over Syria conflict

The bloodshed in Syria has continued for so long that extremist forces have taken charge, with U.S. officials saying they now face two familiar enemies in the struggle to find a resolution: al Qaida in Iraq cells and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

Those groups were responsible for thousands of American and Iraqi casualties during the eight years U.S. forces fought them next door in Iraq. Now, U.S. officials and some analysts say, the Sunni Muslim extremists of al Qaida have regrouped in Syria as the Nusra Front, the leading rebel faction fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Syrian military, meanwhile, is relying increasingly on backup from the thuggish pro-Assad militias known as shabiha, elements of which receive Iranian training and funding, U.S. officials say.

Syria“Round 2,” said Joe Holliday, a Washington-based researcher who specializes in Syrian militants at the Institute for the Study of War, noting the resurgence of two foes the United States thought it had left behind after withdrawing from Iraq last year.

The Obama administration designated the Nusra Front and elements of the shabiha as terrorist groups earlier this month in a move to isolate extremists on the battlefield. While few observers dispute that al Qaida-style forces have moved into Syria from Iraq, some analysts say the U.S. government might be overstating the Iranian role with the shabiha, an unstructured entity that was born of Syrian clan loyalty rather than any shared ideology with the Iranians. However, the analysts added, the chance for more Iranian involvement only increases as the bloodshed nears its second year with no end in sight.

With unfriendly forces now on both sides of the conflict, analysts say, the U.S. seems out of policy options in Washington as its leverage on the ground in Syria evaporates. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who’s the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Obama administration was now sandwiched between its archenemies al Qaida and Iran, making it hard to maintain a position of avoiding direct involvement in the conflict.

“America is paralyzed,” Landis said. “They don’t like Assad, but they’re even more fearful of the rebels.”

The Nusra Front’s connections to Iraq seem concrete, with U.S. officials tracking movement of the group’s leaders from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to Syria in late 2011. The administration believes that Nusra is just a renamed incarnation of Iraq’s al Qaida branch, which has “dispatched money, people and materiel from Iraq to Syria over the past year,” one senior administration official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in a conference call this month. Nusra fighters have openly – and proudly – admitted that they’re veterans of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

The Syrian regime’s connections to Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias based in Iraq are harder to prove, analysts say, though that hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from drawing direct links. During the conference call this month, a second senior administration official said the Syrian shabiha known as Jaysh al Shaabi, or the People’s Army, was modeled after the powerful Iranian paramilitary group known as the Basij.

“Jaysh al Shaabi was created and continues to be funded and maintained with support from Iran and Hezbollah, and it is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven so deadly and effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent in Iraq,” the official said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland parroted the administration’s line that the shabiha militias, made up primarily of fellow members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, copy the Iranian Basijis’ tactics.

“They are very much, in terms of the form that they’ve taken, a reflection of Iranian tactics and Iranian methods and advice to the Syrian regime,” Nuland said this month.

Some analysts who specialize in Iran and who’ve closely followed Iranian involvement in neighboring Iraq say the U.S. assertions about Iranian training of the shabiha are overblown, designed to protect the administration from looking too pro-regime as it goes after Nusra on the rebel side.

And Syria experts say the shabiha certainly are not modeled after the Basij, a deeply ideological force born of the Islamic revolution that turned Iran into a Shiite theocracy. The shabiha, by contrast, began as Alawite protection rackets that were loyal to the clans and “paid by cousins,” as Landis put it.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the Middle East and Iran, said it didn’t make sense for the Iranians to train a loose militia confederation such as the shabiha. He said such assistance more likely would go to more formalized fighters such as Assad’s special forces.

“The shabiha are a much more murky and informal and criminal group,” Cole said. “The idea that the shabiha are like the Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Basij is, to me, an error of analysis.”

Other analysts said the better model for the Iranian role with the Syrian militias was the Shiite sectarian groups that flourished in Iraq thanks to their leaders’ long-standing ties to Iran.

The Institute for the Study of War issued a report this week on the resurgence in Iraq of a particularly sophisticated militia that was part of the so-called “special groups,” the catchall term U.S. forces used for the Iranian-backed militias that fought them and participated in attacks on Sunnis during Iraq’s sectarian war.

The report’s author, research analyst Sam Wyer, found that this militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, whose name means “League of the Righteous,” had been quietly transforming itself into a Hezbollah-style group, with not only a militia but also political and charitable offices throughout Iraq and the region.

One of those new offices, Wyer said, was in the northern, predominantly Sunni town of Tal Afar, a strange choice for a Shiite extremist group except that it’s strategically located on a long-established smuggling route into Syria. Another of the new offices, Wyer said, was opened in Beirut, where the Iraqi militiamen have met regularly with Hezbollah operatives and once again play “an integral role in Iran’s regional proxy strategy, augmenting Lebanese Hezbollah in the struggle for Syria.”

Wyer said there wasn’t enough evidence to say conclusively what the scope of the Iraqi special groups’ activities in Syria was but that he’d seen surprisingly similar organizational and tactical maneuvers.

“Obviously, Iran has pretty huge stakes in Syria, and they’re going to want to influence the conflict any way they can – and the best way they know how is through these proxy groups,” Wyer said.

email: [email protected]; Twitter: @HannahAllam

Iranian Jets Fired on US Predator Drone

The Obama administration withheld information about the incident from the public apparently until after the election

Two Iranian fighter jets fired on an unarmed US Air Force Predator drone last week, according to CNN.

The drone was fired upon but not hit, and the Obama administration did not disclose

US Military installations around Iran

information about the incident, keeping it from the American public just days before the US presidential election.

The Pentagon claims the drone was in international airspace “east of Kuwait” and that it was performing “routine maritime surveillance.”

The claim that the drone was in international airspace cannot be confirmed, but it is dubious considering the difficulty Iran would have of firing on a small drone far from its own territory.

The claim that the unarmed Predator drone was engaged in “routine maritime surveillance” is also very dubious. First of all, just because it was “routine” has no bearing on weather its activity could justly be seen as hostile.

And if it was routine, and the Pentagon has nothing to hide, then the surveillance mission should not have been classified, as it was.

News of the Obama administration’s drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan have been publicized internationally for years. That the Iranians were just supposed to presume the drone was unarmed, or surveilling the Gulf instead of the Iranian territory, is absurd.

If the situation had been reversed, and an identifiably Iranian drone was hovering over US airspace, or even off the coast, Washington undoubtedly would have reacted far more aggressively than Iran’s apparent warning shots that missed the US drone.

by John Glaser

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