Guiding Obama into Global Make-Believe

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Guiding Obama into Global Make-Believe

The Orwellian concept of 'information warfare' holds that propaganda can break down enemies and decide geopolitical outcomes, a strategy that has taken hold of the U.S. government’s approach to international crises, especially the Ukraine showdown

(Photo: Ash Carter/flickr/cc)

CIA Director John Brennan told TV host Charlie Rose on Friday that, on assuming office, President Barack Obama “did not have a good deal of experience” in intelligence-related matters, adding – with remarkable condescension – that now “he has gone to school and understands the complexities.”

If that’s the case, I would strongly suggest that Obama switch schools. Judging from his foreign policy team’s inept and increasingly dangerous actions regarding Ukraine and the endless stream of dubious State Department and senior military cry-wolf accusations of a Russian “invasion,” Obama might be forgiven for being confused by the “complexities.”

He should not be forgiven, though, if he remains too timid to bench his current foreign policy team and find more substantively qualified, trustworthy advisers without axes to grind. He is, after all, President. Has he no managerial skill … no guts?

This U.S. pattern of exaggeration – making scary claims about Ukraine without releasing supporting evidence – has even begun to erode the unity of the NATO alliance where Germany, in particular, is openly criticizing the Obama administration’s heavy-handed use of propaganda in its “information warfare” against Russia.

The German magazine Der Spiegel has just published a highly unusual article critical of the NATO military commander, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, entitled “Breedlove’s Bellicosity: Berlin Alarmed by Aggressive NATO Stance on Ukraine.

It is becoming clearer day by day that the Germans are losing patience with unsupported and alarmist U.S. statements on Ukraine, particularly in the current delicate period when a fledgling ceasefire in eastern Ukraine seems to be holding tenuously.

The Spiegel story was sourced to German officials who say Breedlove and his breed are making stuff up, adding that the BND (the CIA equivalent in Germany) “did not share” Breedlove’s extreme assessment of Russian actions. Spiegel continued:

“For months now, many in the Chancellery simply shake their heads each time NATO, under Breedlove’s leadership, goes public with striking announcements about Russian troop or tank movements. … False claims and exaggerated accounts, warned a top German official during a recent meeting on Ukraine, have put NATO — and by extension, the entire West — in danger of losing its credibility.”

Scaring the Europeans

The Obama administration’s erratic and bellicose approach to Ukraine caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to take matters into their own hands in February to press for a ceasefire and an agreement on how to resolve the crisis politically, rather than following the U.S. strategy of having the regime in Kiev escalate its “anti-terrorist operation” against ethnic Russian rebels in the east who are supported by Moscow.

Fearing the conflict was spinning out of control – with the prospects of a showdown between nuclear-armed Russia and the United States on Russia’s border – Merkel traveled to the White House on Feb. 9 seeking assurances from President Obama that he would not fall in line behind his tough-talking aides and members of Congress who want advanced weaponry for Ukraine.

Though Obama reportedly assured Merkel that he would resist the pressure, he continues to keep slip-sliding into line behind the war hawks and letting his subordinates feed the propaganda fires that could lead to a more dangerous war, especially Gen. Breedlove and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 4, 2015, Nuland presented her usual black-and-white depiction of the Ukrainian civil war, claiming Russia had “manufactured a conflict controlled by the Kremlin, fueled by Russian tanks and heavy equipment.” She added that Crimea and eastern Ukraine live under a “Reign of Terror.”

Of course, the core problem with how Nuland and pretty much the entire U.S. establishment present the Ukraine crisis is that they ignore how it got started. Nuland, Sen. John McCain and other U.S. officials egged on western Ukrainians to destabilize and overthrow the elected President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in the south and east, including Crimea.

The coup opened historic fissures in this deeply divided country where hatreds between the more European-oriented west and the ethnic Russian east go back many generations, including the unspeakable slaughter during World War II when some western Ukrainians joined with the Nazis to fight the Red Army and exterminate Jews and other minorities.

Despite the U.S. claims over the past year about unprovoked “Russian aggression,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was not the instigator of the conflict, but rather he was reacting to a violent “regime change” on his border and to Russian fears that NATO would seize the historic Russian naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea.

But Nuland and other neocon hardliners have never been interested in a nuanced presentation of reality. Instead, they have treated Ukraine as if it were a testing ground for the latest techniques in psychological or information warfare, although the propaganda is mostly aimed at the U.S. and European publics, getting them ready for more war.

Mocking Merkel

As for Merkel and her peace efforts, Nuland was overheard during a behind-closed-doors meeting of U.S. officials at a security conference in Munich last month disparaging the German chancellor’s initiative, calling it “Merkel’s Moscow thing,” according to Bild, a German newspaper, citing unnamed sources.

Another U.S. official went even further, the report said, calling it the Europeans’ “Moscow bullshit.”

The tough talk behind the soundproof doors at a conference room in the luxurious Bayerischer Hof hotel seemed to get the American officials, both diplomats and members of Congress, worked into a lather, according to the Bild account.

Nuland suggested that Merkel and Hollande cared only about the practical impact of the Ukrainian war on bread-and-butter issues of Europe: “They’re afraid of damage to their economy, counter-sanctions from Russia.”

Another U.S. politician was heard adding: “It’s painful to see that our NATO partners are getting cold feet” – with particular vitriol directed toward German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen as “defeatist” because she supposedly no longer believed in a Kiev victory.

Sen. McCain talked himself into a rage, declaring “History shows us that dictators always take more, whenever you let them. They can’t be brought back from their brutal behavior when you fly to Moscow to them, just like someone once flew to this city,” Munich, a reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler.

According to the Bild story, Nuland laid out a strategy of countering Merkel’s diplomacy by using strident language to frame the Ukraine crisis in a way that stops the Europeans from backing down. “We can fight against the Europeans, we can fight with rhetoric against them,” Nuland reportedly said.

NATO Commander Breedlove was quoted as saying the idea of funneling more weapons to the Kiev government was “to raise the battlefield cost for Putin, to slow down the whole problem, so sanctions and other measures can take hold.”

Nuland interjected to the U.S. politicians present that “I’d strongly urge you to use the phrase ‘defensive systems’ that we would deliver to oppose Putin’s ‘offensive systems.’” But Breedlove left little doubt that these “defensive” weapons would help the Ukrainian government pursue its military objectives by enabling more effective concentration of fire.

“Russian artillery is by far what kills most Ukrainian soldiers, so a system is needed that can localize the source of fire and repress it,” Breedlove reportedly said. “I won’t talk about any anti-tank rockets, but we are seeing massive supply convoys from Russia into Ukraine. The Ukrainians need the capability to shut off this transport. And then I would add some small tactical drones.”

Nuland’s Rhetoric

Before the Ukraine coup in February 2014, Nuland was overheard in a phone conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussing who should become the country’s new leaders – “Yats is the guy,” she said about Arseniy Yatsenyuk who became the post-coup prime minister – while also criticizing the less aggressive European approach with the pithy phrase, “Fuck the EU.”

Nuland’s tough-gal rhetoric continues, including her bellicose testimony before Congress this month, along with the alarmist (and unproven) reports from Gen. Breedlove, who claimed that “well over a thousand combat vehicles, Russian combat forces, some of their most sophisticated air defense, battalions of artillery’ having been sent to the Donbass” in eastern Ukraine.

The Nuland-Breedlove allies in Kiev are doing their part, too. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko recently claimed that around 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armored vehicles entered east Ukraine’s breakaway Luhansk region from Russia via the Izvaryne border crossing.

This “rhetoric” strategy follows the tried-and-true intelligence gambit known as the Mighty Wurlitzer, in which false and misleading information is blasted out by so many different sources – like the pipes of an organ – that the lies become believable just because of their repetition.

The Ukraine story has followed this pattern with dubious claims being made and repeated by U.S. and Ukrainian officials and then amplified by a credulous Western news media, persuading people who otherwise might know better — even when supporting evidence is lacking.

Similarly, Official Washington’s chorus of loud demands for ignoring Merkel and sending sophisticated weapons to Ukraine continues to build with the latest member of the choir, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

On March 4, Clapper broke the important ethos of professional intelligence officers scrupulously avoiding policy advocacy when he told an audience in New York that the U.S. should arm the Ukrainians “to bolster their resolve and bolster their morale that, you know, we are with them.”

Clapper offered this endorsement as his “personal opinion,” but who cares about James Clapper’s personal opinion? He is Director of National Intelligence, for God’s sake, and his advocacy immediately raises questions about whether Clapper’s “personal opinion” will put pressure on his subordinates to shape intelligence analysis to please the boss.

We saw a possible effect of this recently when journalist Robert Parry contacted the DNI’s office to get an updated briefing on what U.S. intelligence has concluded about who was at fault for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Blaming the Russians

In prepared testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary Nuland had insinuated that the Russians and the ethnic Russian rebels were to blame. She said, “In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage; MH-17 was shot down.”

This may have been another example of Nuland using “rhetoric” to shape the debate, but it prompted Parry to ask the DNI’s office about what evidence there was to support Nuland’s finger-pointing in this tragic incident that killed 298 people.

Kathleen Butler, a DNI spokesperson, insisted that the U.S. intelligence assessment on MH-17 had not changed since July 22, 2014, five days after the shoot-down when the DNI’s office distributed a sketchy report suggesting Russian complicity based largely on what was available on social media.

Parry then sent a follow-up e-mail saying: “are you telling me that U.S. intelligence has not refined its assessment of what happened to MH-17 since July 22, 2014?” Butler responded: “Yes. The assessment is the same.” To which, Parry replied: “That’s just not credible.” [See’s “US Intel Stands Pat on MH-17 Shoot-down.”]

But the DNI’s response does make sense if later U.S. intelligence analysis contradicted the initial rush to judgment by Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials blaming Russia and the rebels. The Obama administration might not want to surrender a useful propaganda club to bash Moscow, or as Nuland might say, an important piece of anti-Russian “rhetoric.”

As for Brennan and his appearance before the stuffy Council on Foreign Relations fielding  questions posed by Charlie Rose as the “presider,” the CIA director seemed more concerned about the flak his agency has been getting for having a cloudy crystal ball and not anticipating how the Ukraine crisis would unfold, saying:

“Now I know that many would like the CIA to predict the future — answering questions such as ‘will Crimea secede and be annexed by Russia’ and ‘will Russian forces move into Eastern Ukraine.’ But the plain and simple truth is that … virtually all events around the globe, future events — including in Ukraine — are shaped by numerous variables and yet-to-happen developments as well as leadership considerations and decisions.”

But the prospect of CIA analysts seeing events clearly – both understanding what may have caused an event in the past and perceiving the complex forces that may shape the future – are diminished when the U.S. intelligence community becomes politicized and exploited for propaganda purposes, when it gets enlisted into “information warfare.”

Obama could surely use some experienced, mature help in putting an end to this potpourri of you-pick-your-favorite-statement about “Russian aggression.” The disarray and deceit on such an important issue does nothing to bolster confidence that he has been tutored well, that he understands the value of sober intelligence work, or that he is in control of U.S. foreign policy.

Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President's Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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