Tuesday ReadsPosted: August 27, 2013
The big news today is that President Obama appears likely to order “limited” strikes on Syria in the next few days in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against opposition fighters. From the WaPo: After Syria chemical allegations, Obama considering limited military strike.
President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration, designed to serve as punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement in that country’s civil war, according to senior administration officials.
The timing of such an attack, which would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles — or, possibly, long-range bombers — striking military targets not directly related to Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, would be dependent on three factors: completion of an intelligence report assessing Syrian government culpability in last week’s alleged chemical attack; ongoing consultation with allies and Congress; and determination of a justification under international law.
“We’re actively looking at the various legal angles that would inform a decision,” said an official who spoke about the presidential deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Missile-armed U.S. warships are already positioned in the Mediterranean.
I guess “looking at…legal angles” is code for that pesky rule in the Constitution where Congress has to declare wars. When’s the last time that happened–WWII?
Meanwhile, BBC News reports: Russia and China step up warning over strike.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich has called on the international community to show “prudence” over the crisis and observe international law.
“Attempts to bypass the Security Council, once again to create artificial groundless excuses for a military intervention in the region are fraught with new suffering in Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries of the Middle East and North Africa,” he said in a statement.
Late on Monday, the US said it was postponing a meeting on Syria with Russian diplomats, citing “ongoing consultations” about alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Hours later, Russia expressed regret about the decision. The two sides had been due to meet in The Hague on Wednesday to discuss setting up an international conference on finding a political solution to the crisis.
The Russian deputy defence minister, Gennady Gatilov said working out the political parameters for a resolution on Syria would be especially useful, with the threat of force hanging over the country.
Read more at the link.
Just as SOS Kerry was giving a speech to justify the upcoming military strikes, providing “Clear Evidence of Chemical Weapon Use in Syria” (NYT), a little birdie told Shane Harris and Matthew Aid of Foreign Policy magazine that the U.S. facilitated Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran back in 1988.
The U.S. government may be considering military action in response to chemical strikes near Damascus. But a generation ago, America’s military and intelligence communities knew about and did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks far more devastating than anything Syria has seen, Foreign Policy has learned.
In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.
The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.
U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.
“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.
Read the rest of this long article at Foreign Policy.
The wildfire in Northern California continues to spread into Yosemite National Park and has begun to threaten towns in the area. From the LA Times: Massive Rim fire continues to reshape lives and topography.
…even as firefighters worked furiously to hold a line outside of town, officials warned that this blaze was so hot it could send sparks more than a mile and a half out that could jump lines and start new hot spots. Evacuation advisories remain in effect for Tuolumne City and nearby areas.
On the north edge, the fire — now 134,000 acres — pushed into the Emigrant Wilderness Area and Yosemite National Park. It’s the one side of the fire with a natural last stand: Eventually it will run into granite walls that have snuffed out fires in this region for centuries.
Each day, what the massive blaze does depends on the wind. But officials were particularly attuned to each shift of breeze Sunday because of the weather’s eerie similarities to the day when the fire first exploded out of control.
So far the unpredictable blaze is only about 20% controlled, and it still threatens water and power sources for San Francisco.
The massive fire presents every challenge: steep slopes, dry fuel, rugged terrain and entire communities possibly in harm’s way.
The base camp and incident post, usually a haven outside fire lines, was a prominent example of the fire’s unpredictability: It’s in the middle of the burn zone, charred land with still-smoldering stumps on both sides.
Firefighters call such complete devastation “the black.” Entire ravines and ridges were a dusty gray moonscape. But some of the land was a “dirty burn” — meaning there were small circles of pine and aspen and even grass and wildflowers in the middle of charcoal-black areas where smoke still curled and embers glowed. The specks of beauty made firefighters nervous: To a fire, they are fuel.
My sister and her husband own a house north of San Francisco. It’s probably not in danger, but it still brings the scope of this disaster home to me. I sure hope Firefighers will begin to make progress soon. The burning area is now the size of the city of Chicago, according to CNN.
Yosemite National Park, California (CNN) – A massive northern California wildfire that’s threatening Yosemite National Park and San Francisco’s key water and power sources grew Monday, becoming the 13th largest in state history, state fire authorities said.
The Rim Fire, which has devoured 160,980 acres, has scorched an area about the size of the city of Chicago while more than 3,600 firefighters try to rein it in….
The wildfire, which was 20% contained Monday night, was spreading primarily to the east and threatened to grow amid extremely dry conditions and hot weather.
Part of the fire continued to spread Monday toward a key part of San Francisco’s water supply: the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which lies within Yosemite and is just east of the flames.
The fire also could threaten the area’s hydroelectric generators, which provide much of San Francisco’s electricity. Because of the approaching flames, officials shut down the generators, and the city — more than 120 miles to the west — temporarily is getting power from elsewhere.
Speaking of disasters, Charles Pierce reminds us that West, Texas is still recovering from the horrible explosion at the fertilizer plant there and that Texas still isn’t doing that much to prevent similar events in the future.
From the Texas Observer: State Agencies Meet Resistance in Policing Fertilizer Industry.
In the third House committee hearing focusing on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15, state agencies described resistance from some fertilizer companies in trying to inspect their facilities. The conflicting and overlapping roles of various governmental agencies with responsibility over fertilizer facilities was also underscored once again today.
Though investigations are ongoing, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is undertaking voluntary inspections of other facilities that handle ammonium nitrate – the chemical responsible for the explosion. The Fire Marshal’s Office has identified 153 facilities in the state that are believed to store ammonium nitrate. Since Texas doesn’t have a state fire code, the fire marshal lacks the authority to conduct inspections if the company resists. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said most facilities have welcomed him and that his office has already inspected 62 sites. Five facilities refused to be inspected, though he couldn’t say why or which facilities they were….
Much of the hearing was dominated by Republican lawmakers worried about burdening fertilizer businesses with new requirements. Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said while he respected the victims of the West tragedy, the industry has been doing a “pretty good job of policing themselves” and voluntarily submitting reports. “If we’re not careful we could get like the federal government and try to put diapers on cows,” he said.
As Pierce writes, we wouldn’t want to overreact to a disaster that killed 15 people and destroyed a town. That might be inconvenient for big business.
We don’t want to burden Texas industries with apocryphal tales of federal regulatory overreach, which means that, occasionally, unregulated fertilizer factories will explode and nearly wipe out small towns. This is how you create a “business-friendly” environment.
Some surprising news broke yesterday in the Edward Snowden story. It turns out that Snowden was in touch with Russia while he was still in Hong Kong; he stayed at the Russian consulate there for at least two days–during which he celebrated his thirtieth birthday. From the WaPo:
MOSCOW — Before American fugitive Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow in June — an arrival that Russian officials have said caught them by surprise — he spent several days living at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, a Moscow newspaper reported Monday.
The article in Kommersant, based on accounts from several unnamed sources, did not state clearly when Snowden decided to seek Russian help in leaving Hong Kong, where he was in hiding to evade arrest by U.S. authorities on charges that he leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs….
Kommersant reported Monday that Snowden purchased a ticket June 21 to travel on Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, from Hong Kong to Havana, through Moscow. He planned to fly from Havana to Ecuador or some other Latin American country.
That same day, he celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, the paper said — although several days earlier he had had an anticipatory birthday pizza with his lawyers at a private house.
Kommersant cited conflicting accounts as to what brought Snowden to the consulate, on the 21st floor of a skyscraper in a fashionable neighborhood. It quoted a Russian close to the Snowden case as saying that the former NSA contractor arrived on his own initiative and asked for help. But a Western official also interviewed by the newspaper alleged that Russia had invited him.
At this point, only a Greenwald cult member could fail to wonder whether Snowden was in touch with the Russian or Chinese government before he fled the U.S. After all, he had visited Hong Kong just a few months previously. From The Week: Did Russia help Edward Snowden dodge the U.S. all along?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently maintained that his government had nothing to do with Edward Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow as he evaded U.S. authorities, half-suggesting that the Obama administration’s aggressive posture toward the NSA leaker had practically forced him upon the Russians.
However, Snowden’s arrival at a Moscow airport on June 23 might not have been the surprise Putin claims.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant says in a new report that Snowden got help from Russia while he was in Hong Kong, and even spent a couple of days at the Russian consulate there before fleeing to Moscow. Snowden had planned to stop only briefly at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, but got stuck after Cuba, facing pressure from the U.S., refused to let him make a stopover in Havana, according to Kommersant. Snowden had reportedly planned on flying on toEcuador or one of the other Latin American countries offering him exile.
So even if Putin had not expected Snowden to stick around, he had fully expected the American to show up, if the Kommersant story is accurate.
The Week also questions the claim that “Cuba would bend to pressure from the U.S. while leaving Russia stuck with a guest it apparently didn’t want.” That seems highly unlikely to me. Why would Cuba side with the U.S. against its most powerful ally? It makes no sense.
Meanwhile, St. Glenn gave an interview to Jonathan Franklin of Truthout, published yesterday and headlined with a typical melodramatic quote from Snowden’s PR man. Exclusive Glenn Greenwald Interview: “I Won’t Be Kept Out of My Country for Doing Journalism!” In the interview, Greenwald repeats the lie that his partner David Miranda was refused the right to an attorney when he was recently detained and questioned at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Jonathan Franklin: Your partner, David Miranda, was detained and held at Heathrow airport for 9 hours; all his electronics were taken away, and he was interrogated about your reporting on the NSA. What was the message the US/UK governments were trying to send you by detaining David Miranda?
Glenn Greenwald: That if we continue to report on what the NSA and [the UK surveillance agency] GCHQ are doing, they will continue to target us for all sorts of retribution.
JF: Puts a different meaning to the term “Miranda” warning, eh?
GG: Yeah, it is ironic that he was denied the right to the lawyer; they actually offered one of their lawyers, and he said he didn’t trust their lawyers and wanted his own, and they refused that; so yeah, there is an irony there.
JF: How would you describe this new kind of Miranda warning? Incriminate yourself or else?
GG: It is pretty amazing that they have this law, and in this law, they force you to cooperate with them fully, not just answer their questions but to give them passwords if they ask for that; and then if you don’t [provide passwords], you are committing an entirely separate crime.
In fact the Guardian admitted that Snowden did have a lawyer for the final hour of the interview. Presumably it was one of the Guardian’s attorneys.