(CNN) Trump administration abruptly cancels 4 Iran briefings

(CNN) Trump administration abruptly cancels 4 classified Iran-related briefings. Quoting,

The sudden briefing cancellations come as some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, continue to question the administration’s justification for killing Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Senators appear likely to rebuke President Donald Trump soon in the form of a vote on a war powers resolution to limit his military actions in Iran.

There is a suspicion that the claim is invented, to circumvent the War Powers Resolution. While I cannot refute this suspicion, any similar question about Hezbollah is a special circumstance.

The English translation of “Hezbollah” is “Party of God.” Hezbollahs exist in three countries, as separate organizations of native Shiites, all  organized by Iranian “missionaries.”, of whom Qasem Soleimani was the recent chief. Lebanon’s Hezbollah was the second, dating to the early 1980’s.  The first Hezbollah was organized in Iran itself, in 1979. Iraq’s Hezbollah dates to about 2003.

Prior to 9/11, Hezbollah (Lebanon) was considered the most dangerous terror threat to U.S. soil. In contrast to other terror groups then extant, Hezbollah (Lebanon) was noteworthy for competent command/control, execution, and even counterintelligence. (CBS) Major CIA network unraveled by Hezbollah, in 2011. Hezbollah skillfully exploited an encryption error in the group’s secure radios.

The similarity of characters of the three Hezbollahs is the result of Iranian leadership. Opinions vary whether the 1983 United States embassy bombing in Beirut was an Hezbollah operation, disguised by the adoption of a “brand” in the form of the Islamic Jihad Organization. But there is general agreement that the attack was ordered by Iran.

The Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981, in which the revolutionary government of Iran seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, hints at a pattern. It continues with the 12/31 attack on the Baghdad embassy Iran is unrestrained by diplomatic norms from attacks on U.S. embassies.

Iran wants to kick the U.S. out of Iraq.  Even with no intelligence, the embassy and consulates are at risk as targets of opportunity.

This does not address whether the intelligence about 4 embassies is fabricated. If it is not, the fearsome capabilities of Hezbollah counterintelligence puts sources at risk from disclosure. (CNN) 3 detained on suspicion of leaking Soleimani’s movements to US. If informants survive Iraq’s justice, they will not survive Hezbollah’s.

Sources for this kind of intelligence must be protected by the narrowest possible distribution. To reveal which embassies are known to be targeted could be fatal to some.



20 Years of Vladimir Putin; Russian Gov. Resigns, Part 1

(CNN) Russian government resigns as Putin proposes reforms that could extend his grip on power.

Inspired by Russia’s adversarial attitude towards the West, media coverage is almost uniformly negative. What else could be expected towards a government that has been described as a kleptocracy, with such noteworthy achievements as lending a helping hand to Assad’s use of poison gas in Syria, Novichok in Salisbury, (NY Times) Syria hospital bombings, Ukraine invasion, and nuclear cruise missiles that make mini-Chernobyls? Have I left anything out? Sure, but on the chance that Putin reads this, I won’t dig deeper.

Every leader is the product of the society he or she is trying to lead. When we study history, we encounter for the most part the biographies of rulers  who, by modern Western standards, were barbarous. Passers-by of London Bridge between 1300 and 1660 remarked on the endless rows of heads impaled on stakes.

This has not blinded modern historians to the subtleties of those times. That mix was the crucible of the modern English speaking world. Putin’s Russia has the contrasts of a society in flux. While some elements of the state remain barbarous, Putin’s inner circle seems touchingly modern — provided we exclude the Kremlin’s criminal element from our view.  On the occasions I have engaged Russian intellectuals, I’ve found modern minds. This is one portent of future greatness, not the shallow yearning to be a “great power.”

Patterns of history cannot be refuted and should not be ignored. They  can rarely be avoided. Russia is a PITA, but there is more going on in Russia than can be expressed in short-form journalism. Much of it can be viewed vicariously, through the eyes of a ruler. If we are open to seeing with the ruler’s eyes, to experiencing the peculiar bond between the ruler and the ruled; and the fears for the role and for the nation, we get something vastly additive to the boilerplate dished out by think-tanks.

In March ’17, I decided that Putin deserved an “apology”, which in the original Greek means , not “I’m sorry”, but something like the defense  a trial lawyer provides for a client. In comparison with the unknowable facts, it could be true, false, or a mix. The only requirement of this apology is that it be favorable to Putin, and not definitively refutable.

In Alexei Navalny, Poisoned?, I wrote,

Putin’s bargain with the Devil, by which it can be argued that he saved Russia from chaos, involved co-opting all the elements of Russian society, and he has never found a way to pay it off. But there is also a political reason of some legitimacy why Navalny must not be allowed to rise.

(Moscow Times) ‘Not Everything Works Out’: Medvedev’s Career, in Photos.. Quoting,

As Medvedev resigned, Putin thanked him for what he had achieved, adding: “Not everything worked out of course — but then, nothing ever works out totally.” The newly resigned prime minister will now serve as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, which Putin chairs.

Putin’s remark, and dismissal of the government is incompletely explained by the desire to hold onto power. It offers the possibility that he will now try to pay down that unholy bargain. The price of failure is a system so entirely dependent on his character, it cannot survive his passing. Most autocrats don’t appreciate this point. Putin may be the exception. Perhaps the wisdom of  Vladimir Bukovsky holds meaning to him:

“The movers and shakers of today have little interest in digging for the truth. Who knows what one may come up with? You may start out with the communists, and end up with yourself.”

But first, let’s see where he has been, the visceral Russian experience of decay and stasis, the rescue of a state in collapse, while viewing the West from a remote point of view.

To be continued shortly.


Ukraine 737 Crash – Iran Shot it Down

(CNN) Ukrainian Boeing plane crash in Iran, investigators hunt for clues. Former NTSB manager Peter Goelz remarks on the startling appearance of the fireball.

The estimate is that Iran shot it down by accident.

The main hypothesis that avoids a hostile act is an uncontained engine failure. This occurs when a rapidly rotating fan or turbine explodes from centrifugal force on a defective part.

The instantaneous appearance of a fireball has not been a feature of previous engine explosions.  Of the 13 that have occurred since 1973, three have featured large fires:

Both of the above  occurred on takeoff rolls that were successfully aborted. They featured large wing fires that could have resembled the Ukraine accident if seen at altitude.

In the other 10 incidents, fire did not occur, or was  minimal.

A large fire requires a lot of fuel. The 737 has a tank in each wing, and one or two belly tanks along the center. Cellphone videos of the crash may be important, since it is unlikely Iran will release the black boxes before erasing them. Photometric analysis of a video, measuring the brightness of individual pixels, may indicate a belly tank fire. Since the belly area has not in the past examples been impacted by engine explosions, it may indicate:

  • An engine explosion with extreme violence, enough to puncture the belly area with shrapnel.
  • Explosion of an antiaircraft missile with a proximity fuse.

This is ground for mere suspicion, an atypical accident on an unusual day. But there is a separate factor that allows laying odds.

(NY Times 6/22/2019) U.S. Carried Out Cyberattacks on Iran on 6/20. Quoting,

An additional breach, according to one person briefed on the operations, targeted other computer systems that control Iranian missile launches…Officials have not publicly outlined details of the operation. Air defense and missile systems were not targeted, the senior defense official said, calling media reports citing those targets inaccurate.

But targeting air defense was technically possible.  (Times of Israel) US cyber attack on Iran exploited flaw in heavily guarded network, experts say.

Citing US official sources, American media last week reported that the Army Cyber Command had crippled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s air defense units that shot down a sophisticated drone on June 20.

I  take the denials stated to the Times at face value. Someone said, “we could have”, and it morphed by human exaggeration into “we did this.”

For Iran, the nut is not whether air defenses were in fact disabled. It is the fact that the U.S. can jump into air-gapped Iranian networks with ease. (An air-gapped network has no electronic connection to other networks.)

So prior to the missile attacks in the early hours of 1/8, the Iranians did what is prudent in the face of a cyber superpower: they air-gapped their air defense computer network, breaking it into local pieces, reliant on human-to-human communication.

The three notorious shoot-downs of our time, KAL007, MH17, and Iran Air 655, were mistakes. Mistakes happen because radar doesn’t show all the features or paint job of a plane. Now we can work out what I think happened:

  • A radar blip is a featureless “blob”. By itself, it’s a mystery.
  • Every commercial airplane carries a transponder, a kind of automatic two-way radio.
  • When air traffic surveillance radar interrogates a plane with a transponder, the transponder replies. Now a little ID code appears on the screen next to the blip.
  • When, in anticipation of retaliation, Iran air-gapped their network, their surveillance radar was unable to send the ID information over to the AA batteries.
  • An AA missile battery, disconnected from the larger network, detected the Ukraine flight. In a confused telephone conversation, they were unable to resolve their radar blip with air-traffic control radar.
  • Some underling turned a key and hit the big red button.

The cost: 82 Iranian lives. At Soleimani’s funeral, 65 died in a stampede. This is the cost exacted by fate, or your deity if you have one,  for the privilege of killing one American contractor.

At times like these, even the most devout wonder if God is on their side.


Did Iran Aim to Miss?

(CNN) Some administration officials believe Iran intentionally missed areas with Americans.

This possibility depends upon:

  • Where the missiles impacted in relation to the target.
  • Population density of the impact area.
  • CEP (Circular error probable) of the missile.. This is the average of the distance of the actual impact point from the target.

These are the tells:

  • If a bunch of impact points cluster together, but hitting an empty area, near the target, it suggests that Iran really wanted the missiles to land there.
  • If the cluster is far from the target, it’s bad guidance, from bias error.
  • If the missile impacts cluster together, but kill Iraqis, it suggests bad guidance. This can happen from bias that makes all the rockets drift in the same direction,  like loaded dice.
  • If the impact points are spread out on the map, it suggests bad guidance.

Only the first is a good demo.  Here “near” and “far” are relative to the CEP, the average error. Large CEP = bad guidance system. Small CEP = good guidance system. But how can we tell if the missile was bad, or the aim was deliberately off? From years of watching missile tests, the CEP of a missile type is known to the intelligence community.:

  • If the  CEP is thought to be 100 yards, and it hits 200 yards from the target, it’s bad guidance, because it’s too risky.
  • If the CEP is 10 yards, and it hits 50 yards from the target, that’s good guidance.

Now imagine you are Khamenei, and you want to prove to the Great Satan that you can put U.S. forces at risk, while avoiding retaliation. You want a demo:

  • The more convincing the demo, the riskier for Iran.
  • The less convincing the demo, the safer it is.
  • Assume the Iranians are counting cards at the blackjack table. They sure aren’t playing strip poker.

Al Assad Airbase is in the Syrian Desert of western Iraq, where almost nobody lives.

  • If the missiles hit in tight clusters, away from barracks, yet close enough to give worry, it suggests an accurately guided missile that was intentionally set for the “wrong” impact point. It doesn’t have to be accurate to save Iraqis, because the local population is close to zero.
  • If the missiles straddle the base, with some coming close to barracks, it suggests bad guidance, risking an accidental hit that could start a war.

Iran had to be careful with the U.S. consulate in  Erbil, which is at the northern edge of the built-up area. (Google Earth, 36°14’08.21″ N 43°59’20.86″ E ). An impact south of that has high risk of civilian casualties. An impact 1500 feet  north of the consulate, just north of an irrigation channel, would impact farmland, avoiding subdivided but vacant lots south of it. This is the strongest indication of a demonstration.

We can’t draw this conclusion if the impact clusters are loose. For a good demonstration of strength, they have to be tight. If the clusters are loose, aim-to-hit cannot be excluded.

Why did Iran choose this, if it was a choice?

Khamenei stated that he wanted the response to come from inside Iran, and be directed against military targets. This was to satisfy the national urge to revenge. The need is shown by the 65 Iranians who died in a stampede at Soleimani’s funeral. Martyrdom was on display.

The Iranians reflected on how well deniable actions have worked for them: damaging the enemy while mostly avoiding reciprocation. With the death of a U.S. contractor, they discovered a level  of conflict that triggered a U.S. response. They will now try to estimate what that level is in general terms, and stay below it.

The Soleimani killing has a different meaning for us and for them. To us, it is the lawful killing of a combatant who was out to kill U.S. forces. We drew a red line. Iran has drawn a reciprocal line: an attack on Iranian notables in Iraq is an attack on Iran.

Besides expanding the idea of Iran to include Iraq, the demonstration  is intended to restore  immunity from U.S. attack of  Iranian  commanders, continuing superior leadership of Iraq/Iran militias.

The use of proxies to shield the aggressor is not new. It was used with partial success in the Vietnam War, and most recently by Russia in eastern Ukraine. International law is blind to proxies like it is to undeclared war. This is the drawback of a voluntary code that recognizes the “nation” as a basic division of humanity.


Solemani Killing Makes no Difference; Politics Muddys; Remember Pearl Harbor

This  assertion is unrepresented in the polemics surrounding the strike:

The killing of Soleimani does not significantly bias the future. It does not  improve or worsen the U.S. position to a measurable or predictable degree. The effect on future events is limited to detail. This includes the total number of U.S. casualties, although attempts at specific, high profile people are more likely.

This option, “no change”, is typically ignored in debates, because it is no basis for approval or criticism. Yet the claims in favor of “+change” or “change” are severely flawed:

Claim: Soleimani’s killing aborts or interferes with attacks on  U.S. forces. While Iran’s plans in the short term may have been disrupted, Iran has a deep   bench in Quds Force leadership.  To be effective, a decapitation strike has to knock off most of the bench, which this strike did not do.

Claim: Killing not  justified. (CNN) Skepticism mounts over Trump’s claims of an imminent threat. The language of skeptics derives from:

  • International law: A sovereign state is entitled to defend itself from imminent threat. Skeptics claim imminence is not documented.
  • Presidential war powers: The killing of an individual who is not universally identified as a terrorist.

These arguments are viable only in the moment of time. It is natural for the public to focus on the moment, but we need to expand the moment into the present, and the present into histories that encompass both the past and the future.

(Reuters) Inside the plot by Iran’s Soleimani to attack U.S. forces in Iraq presents imminence  in the form of a good story, revealing prior intent. Reliant on unnamed sources, one might suspect it was “cooked”. I don’t think it was. Delving into the past substantiates it. From U.S. Debacle in Iraq? Part 1,

Missile attacks were anticipated in Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack; Missile Attack on U.S. Forces? Attacks did not immediately result, though supply of missiles to militia occurred around that time. (Reuters)  Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies.

The above implies a defensive intent, which may have been justified by John Bolton’s demeanor. But Iranian Missile Movements; Open Source Versus Technical Intelligence quotes (NBC) U.S. officials: Iran official OK’d attacks on American military:

…the Iranian regime has told some of its proxy forces and surrogates that they can now go after American military personnel and assets in the region, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.

which is good for intent. What was missing at the time was a final sign-off on the attacks, a date stamp on these operations.  A documented date stamp is the focus of skepticism for some.

The past of 8 months corroborates the present. The more past is included, the more difficult it is to suspect that the story is cooked.

Nota bene: Except for occasional products of the CIA history division, “proof” provided by the intelligence community never satisfies legal rules of evidence. In law, the prosecution is required to produce the evidence, based in the main on witness testimony. With spy work, the greater obligation is to conceal the witness.

Both political parties have attempted  manipulation of intelligence. Successful manipulation depends upon the character of the intelligence community. That of the senior IC component, the CIA, has changed several times since formation in 1947.  It has at times been susceptible, or resistant, to political pressure. Consider:

Quoting from What is Intel Proof?,

“At this time, the U.S. Intelligence Community has not identified any information from the recovered weapon systems used in the 14 September attacks on Saudi Arabia that definitively reveals an attack origin.”

This is very conservative, absent bias favorable to the administration position. I said I would go further, with circumstantial evidence:

The case against Iran is supported by more physical evidence than Scott Peterson, yet we withhold the verdict of “guilty.” We do this to protect us from ourselves, from intelligence manipulated by politics.

We are not done expanding back in time from the  moment.On May 8, 2018, the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, subjecting Iran to paralyzing economic sanctions. But the pot didn’t really begin to boil until, on April 22, 2019, sanction waivers were allowed to lapse. (NPR) U.S. Won’t Renew Sanction Exemptions For Countries Buying Iran’s Oil.

This, not the killing of Soleimani, is the real driver of events. Now let’s complete the picture by expanding back to a date that will live in infamy, December 7, 1941. The Imperial Navy of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor with carrier based aircraft, the missile of the day.

It was called a surprise attack. Yet going even further back reveals the ultimate cause. Japan was already an expansionist,  militaristic power. Almost devoid of natural resources, petroleum was critical. No one can say that war in the Pacific could have been averted, though when F.D.R. cut off oil exports to Japan in Japan 1941, it became mechanically certain. From Attack on Pearl Harbor,

Japan’s final proposal, delivered on November 20, offered to withdraw from southern Indochina and to refrain from attacks in Southeast Asia, so long as the United States, United Kingdom, and Netherlands ceased aid to China and lifted their sanctions against Japan.[37] The American counter-proposal of November 26 (November 27 in Japan), the Hull note, required Japan completely evacuate China without conditions and conclude non-aggression pacts with Pacific powers. On November 26 in Japan, the day before the note’s delivery, the Japanese task force left port for Pearl Harbor.[citation needed]

So the events of the moment are anticipated by the Hull Note of 1941. History gives us  the driver, which is not the killing of an Iranian notable.

George Santayana is reputed by some to have said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”  Maybe, maybe not. I would  put it another way. If you’re going to drive your adversary into an unbearable corner, if you’re going to have a Rumble in the Jungle, make sure you really are Ali, and the other guy is Foreman.

And don’t lead with your chin.




U.S. Debacle in Iraq? Part 2

We continue from U.S. Debacle in Iraq? Part 1.

The situation  has rapidly evolved. (CNN) Trump orders killing of key Iranian commander in Baghdad airport strike, killing Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

I tend agree with the implication of Peter Bergen’s op/ed, The killing of Iran’s General Soleimani is hugely significant;  the decision to target was the consequence of Trump’s temperate response to previous aggression, most notably the Aramco attacks of 9/14/2019. Sadly, a temperate response can encourage aggression. Would I have made this choice? After hearing about how U.S. forces have for years been Soleimani ‘s victims, I might be unable to say no.

Events are racing ahead in this situation, which has no close historical parallel. There is some resemblance to the ethnic  fragmentation of Europe which occurred in periods of Europe. Before World War I, ethnic tension existed in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bismarck’s design on Alsace-Lorraine. which he obtained in the Franco-Prussian War.

To the above, add an Iranian belief of “entitlement” to Iraq. In each case, there is a weak empire or state, with segments and layers like an orange, and a power that wants to do some peeling. In the present case, Iran’s deeply complex peeling strategy has been complicated by U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Nothing quite like this has come before, but it’s still useful to note some of the historical strategies used by great powers:

  • Overthrow the dictator, and replace him with your own man. The minimal requirement for this is an incompetent army of mercenary character that you indirectly pay through your man. Multiple instances at the end of the colonial period in Africa, notably, in the former Belgian Congo.
  • Invade, depose the dictator, and hope for democracy. This wish fulfillment actually happened in Panama, in 1989. In Iraq, it has taken 15 years to see even the possibility.
  • Save a country from foreign domination by destroying it — Vietnam War, 1955-1975.
  • Empower a popular revolt to change a regime — Libya, in 2011. The result was chaos.
  • Buy loyalty and alliances, and use these as tools to assemble principalities into a whole. A resounding success, the British Raj of India, 1858-1947.
  • Repel the invader with military force, and till fertile ground for democracy — the Korean War, 1950 – 1953.
  • Empower the  youth without hope for a future. This is not an historical choice.

These are patterns, so few they are worth noting. They do not apply to Iraq because the country is enmeshed in  hyper-acute politics, reminiscent of the early French Revolution. Ethnic groups whose relative positions were formerly defined by Saddam now haggle it out in a feverish tribal system with trappings of democracy. Those who buy into it are participants in various  “rewards programs.”

The fervor of Iraq is nothing like the quiet that followed the 2003 invasion. Then, as in Japan in 1945, a fresh start was possible. In Iraq today, the structure can’t be dismantled; Iran owns a good part of it. The most telling part of the U.S. Embassy attack was the aftermath. On leaving, the attackers cleaned the area. Iran’s message: We have total control. You have nothing.

The disaffected Shiite young, who have been left out of the rewards program, are  last on the list. The movement may have started in Basra, a town with especially miserable municipal services, and spread north. If it were possible to develop this group, it would be a counterbalance to Iran. But they are not organized. An organization can be enabled; a mob cannot.

Nothing besides the possibilities of disaffected youth is remotely suggestive of methods to improve the hospitality of Iraq towards U.S. forces. There is a parliamentary initiative, which Iran is trying to rig, to expel them. Although the embassy cannot be seized, Iran can make it useless.

As before, the opponent is Machiavellian. Iran’s retaliation will involve urban sanctuary for weapon emplacement. U.S. retaliation resulting in collateral casualties would be very helpful to Iran. Attempts by the U.S. to develop domestic allies would be met with assassination.

The cause of unwanted war is the failure of one or both sides to apprise the core interests of the opponent, and the amount of pain it is willing to take. Even though Qasem Soleimani  deserved the ultimate sanction, Iran’s ultimate fuel is not oil; it’s martyrdom. It is central to  Shiism, and their religious myth: Ali ibn Abi Talib died in battle, the first martyr of this branch of Islam. The declaration of martyrdom of Soleimani gives Iran’s religious establishment a powerful tool to sell war to the recently demonstrating Iranian youth. It also gags criticism.

Since in Shiism, a life is more valuable once martyred, while a sunken tanker is worthless, I might have argued for a  material, deniable response. And if I seen a list of U.S.  dead at Soleimani’s hands, I might have changed my mind again.

We shall soon see if each side understands what the other is capable of.  Iran may commit ground forces to Shiite urban areas, from which they cannot be removed except by ground assault and urban warfare, including:

  • Basra.
  • Qatif and Al-Ahsa, where the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia is concentrated.
  • Mortar attacks originating from within the urban sprawl of Baghdad.
  • Hostage abduction, car bombs, drones, and the like.

From the Vietnam War on, the chief adversarial assumption has been that the U.S. cannot accept casualties even on what might be a favorable exchange ratio. We might ask an analogous question of Iran’s infrastructure.

The swarming small boat naval threat, with ship-borne missiles, and Silkworms near the Strait of Hormuz, have been long anticipated.  Does Iran anticipate that their naval forces and oil infrastructure would survive retaliation?


U.S. Debacle in Iraq? Part 1

This might eventually be followed by, “How the Giant Got His Foot Caught in the Door.” (CNN)US strikes 5 facilities in Iraq and Syria linked to Iranian-backed militia and (CNN) Iran warns of ‘consequences’ after US strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Missile attacks were anticipated in Iran warns U.S., Israel of revenge after parade attack; Missile Attack on U.S. Forces? Attacks did not immediately result, though supply of missiles to militia occurred around that time. (Reuters)  Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies.

In Trump wants U.S. military in Iraq to ‘watch Iran’: CBS interview, I wrote,

The far west locations of the bases provide some insulation against sectarian strife. But how Iraq will fall apart is as hard as predicting how a goblet will shatter when dropped.

      • For a clean break into a few large pieces, the bases are an asset.
      • Bases are useful if there is enough coherence to request U.S. assistance, but the U.S. response would have to be massive.
      • With total shattering, and  many sharp pieces, the bases become “Mortarvilles”, exposed to grinding attrition.

This is the evolving threat. In anticipation,  Plan to Defeat ISIS Part 3; 1000 Troops to Kuwait; New Doctrine  proposes the Doctrine of Ephemeral Deployment. A legitimate objection is increased cost, for less force projection, than fixed support and fire bases.

But these issues are tactical to the Game of Nations, which involves every aspect of diplomacy, threat and use of force, with overt and covert strategies.

Our play of the game of nations has been a complicated mish-mash of strategies and tactics.  With the notable exception of the Marshall Plan, U.S. foreign policy was neither driven nor fettered by moral considerations, which were drowned out by “Communism versus the Free World” . This began to change with the (full text pdf) Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, (Wikipedia summary) Foreign Assistance Act.

This legislation was motivated by  a Cold War foreign policy in the 1950’s with highly immoral or amoral notes, which continued with only mild abatement until the  Iran-Contra affair. A separate law, (CRS, pdf) “section 2008”, further restricts aid to governments that assume power by coup.

The curtain on how things worked was lifted by CIA plank owner Miles Copeland Jr., in his book The Game of Nations. It’s expensive now, but a hint of its value is given by the question surrounding publication: Why did the CIA allow it?

Some express nostalgia for those days, while others note that the major “successes” that shared Copeland’s amoral mindset boomeranged badly:

  • Egyptian revolution of 1952, when, as told by Copeland, CIA money supported Gamal Abdel Nasser. To fuel his populist regime, Nasser would for decades skillfully play the U.S. and Soviet Union against each other.
  • Afghanistan proxy war with the Soviets resulted in Soviet defeat, and the birth of modern, “weaponized” terrorism.
  • The joint  CIA- MI6 venture which deposed the democratically elected prime minister Mosaddegh in 1953. This enabled Shah Reza Pahlavi to suppress democracy and remain in power until the 1979 revolution , his tenure directly responsible for the hostility of today’s Iran.

The Vietnam war is not listed here because, although an enormous waste of blood and treasure, it left a remarkably slight trace in the current world. The same goes for other misadventures, such as the Bay of Pigs. Neither does this list include numerous clandestine programs, which include small successes and small failures.

Even the short list is an important reminder. Headline news is a problematic informer. Without context, the headlines offer little more than a punch in the gut, eliciting instinctive reaction, which variously draws from politics and morality.  The media characterize our opponents as rivals. This is wrong. Rivals vie for the same cup, usually called “influence.” This, too, is a worthless term. Today’s world is a collision of interests, which are different for each power.

In what follows, I do not advocate an amoral or immoral foreign policy. But it is a game. This has been understood since the year 1513, when Niccolò Machiavelli published The Prince. PDF here.  Your opponents play according to his rules, not yours. You have three choices:

  • If you choose to play according to your moral imperatives of your system against your amoral /immoral opponent, loss at great cost is almost inevitable. The exceptional wins are commemorated by holidays.
  • To step away, to lose at slight cost. Great future costs may be claimed by your detractors.
  • To play by Machiavelli’s rules is to accept the condemnation of history. With this choice, you may win, or still lose. Victory may lessen condemnation.

In (Nov. 2016) Is Iraq Headed for Another Civil War? I wrote,

The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities. Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would steamroller it.

I didn’t write this stuff to be oracular. Maybe we can beat the odds, maybe not. What does it take?

To be continued shortly.





Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, Part 4, Conclusion

From Part 3, we have a hint at an activity that might utilize Godsend’s skills. To explore further, we need to understand more than the famous milestones highlighted by histories. That focus will never get us the place of a figure as minor as Godsend. We have to look at the mistakes, dead ends, and activities that, while useful and supportive, did not leave much of a mark in time.

The number of dead ends explored by Manhattan was huge, a much larger story than the choices that worked. The entire uranium bomb effort, was, in retrospect, a wasteful duplication — if the far more complex plutonium “Fat Man” bomb could have been assumed to work. But it could not. Hence, 100% duplication, in the form of “Little Boy”, an inferior weapon of great expense.

Heavy water, which contains heavy hydrogen, a.k.a. deuterium, has been romanticized in movies and by historians. Lacking crucial purpose to the Manhattan project, it was almost a dead end. It was recognized early to be useful for the production of plutonium, but was never used by the U.S. for that purpose. (Neither is it of use to the Iranians for a uranium based program, one root of my suspicion that they have a second, completely hidden plutonium program, or an interest in the H-Bomb.)

Although it  became crucial to the H-bomb that came later, it never served a crucial role in the Manhattan project. Yet it kept Los Alamos busy between 1942-1944.

For the A-Bomb, heavy water is intriguing but unnecessary shortcut to obscure goals. It takes roughly a pound of natural uranium enriched with U-235,  dissolved in heavy water, to make a nuclear reactor.   In 1944, at Enrico Fermi’s instigation, a sphere of this liquid, which was named the “water boiler”, gave Los Alamos an experimental atom-splitting reactor to study. With enrichment with about 58 grams (about 2 ounces) of U-235, it went critical, meaning that the chain reaction could grow without bound. This was much less U-235 than required by solid-metal experiments. Unlike the massive reactors at Hanford used to make plutonium, the homely water boiler could be easily reconfigured by changing the uranium-water solution.

(A joke of record: the “water boiler” did not boil water, and it is  unrelated to boiling water reactors.)

The concentration, determined by experiment, is analogous to the critical mass of a bomb. The solution could be drained, dried, and analyzed for fission products. The result is an average of all the ways the cookie crumbles, the Fission Product Yield.

The water boiler reactor was tangential to the main effort. At best, it was a distant relative of the Bomb.  The ease of construction may have inspired continued interest in Oppenheimer’s  “hydride bomb”, which was actually tested years after the war, and fizzled twice. The chain reaction was produced by “thermal” neutrons, slowed down by the water. The Bomb, which has no moderator, uses fast neutrons.

But these were desperate times, and it gave the Los Alamos group something with which to test their pencils. What does this have to do with the fourth spy, Godsend, who ran Calutrons and mass spectrometers at Oak Ridge?

Godsend’s job at Los Alamos was similar to his job at Oak Ridge. The fission products produced by the water boiler could not be properly analyzed by wet chemistry, but would yield to the mass spectrometer, at which Godsend was expert at operation and maintenance.

At Trinity test,  Robert Oppenheimer’s memorable quote, from the Bhagavad Gita, was “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But there was also a minor act of creation, of isotopes and elements. What were they? The day after Trinity, Enrico Fermi and Julius Tabin drove to ground zero in a lead lined Sherman tank. Through a trap door in the bottom of the tank, they sampled  a new radioactive material, a green glass dubbed “trinitite.”

Fresh trinitite was dangerously radioactive.  But the risk, as then understood, was reduced acceptably by the minuscule quantities required by the mass spectrometer. Godsend was in business again, and busy for another half year at least, profiling the first instance of nuclear fallout.

The mass spectrometer also revealed how much of the bomb material was wasted, showing up as unreacted uranium or plutonium. This and the distribution of atomic splits facilitates calculation of total energy release.

All of this information was soon in the hands of Lavrentiy Beria, master of the security apparatus of the Soviet Union, a human monster and brilliant administrator who directly supervised both  the Soviet atomic effort and all related espionage.

As before, the above is not a documented history of Godsend’s role. It is an alternative approach, complimentary to the efforts of historians, providing insight that may not be available from archives.

This is a sad note for the end 2019.  It must not stand. There should be dancing in the streets!  I’ll do my best.

Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, Part 3

This is a rare, semi-quiet moment. So let’s finish up the Fourth Spy.

We continue from Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, Part 2 & Part 1.   Disclaimer: this is not one of the things you need to know, or to start your day. It’s archaeology for entertainment, like digging up a shipwreck.  So I thought of a way to tell the story with the  bonus of understanding some things that are still relevant.

You’ve probably seen Einstein’s famous formula,  , which dates to 1905. In 1938, when the nucleus of the atom was split, a question was posed:

  • An atom splits.
  • The fragments it splits into are known.
  • The mass (weight, to non techies) of all the fragments is known.
  • Some of the mass is missing.
  • Where did the missing mass go?
  • Answer. It was converted to energy as per .

If you weigh yourself clothed, then naked, then

Weight clothed =  weight naked + weight of clothes.

Before  , this would have been expected of an atom and its splits.  But with the atom, some of the weight (mass) is missing. Einstein’s equation explains what happened to it: conversion into energy.

There is a big difference between what physicists call truth, and the popular meaning of the word. There is only one truth that counts: a theory with predictive power. You feed it numbers, it gives you predictions. Nothing else counts. This is in stark contrast with legal truth, religious truth, and common sense.

In the 1930’s,  the atomic nucleus was modeled as a drop of some liquid. The rounded shape of drop of water is caused by surface tension. A drop of water can be split if it is hit by something that makes it spread apart too much for the surface tension to pull it back. Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch used this to explain fission.

An atomic nucleus can split in many ways. For each kind of split, the drop model accurately predicted the energy release for that split. But it could not predict how it would split.  How does the cookie crumble? A physics “truth” that would predict how the atom crumbles would not come until the 1950’s.  But the Manhattan Project had to know now.

The Manhattan Project was the extreme of front-loading. 95.3% of the money was spent by gigantic industrial combines producing materials for a bomb. At Los Alamos, where only 4.7% of the money was spent, they didn’t know how to make a bomb. Imagine a contract for the F-35 fighter let before the Wright Brothers first powered flight in 1903. The Manhattan project was saved from ignominy by the fact that it worked.

Initially, the combines produced mere traces, then grams, of purified uranium-235, and plutonium.  The kilograms mass of plutonium metal required by the Bomb became available only a few weeks before the Trinity test, in July 1945. How can you experiment with bomb-making without explosive?

The Los Alamos teams spent their first two years, figuring out:

  1. the amount of uranium or plutonium which have to be assembled to produce critical mass, and for how long.
  2. that the gun-type bomb would work for one particular fuel, uranium-235, and not for plutonium.
  3.  how to compress (implode) a “pit”, the critical mass of plutonium, using John von Neumann’s solutions of the Taylor shock wave equations, to design shaped charges, detonators, and power supplies.
  4. the design of the “initiator”, which was then a special radioactive mass at the center of the pit.
  5.  how an explosively critical mass would  behave in the few microseconds of its existence. What was the interval of time nicknamed the “shake”. How many shakes did it take to make the bang?
  6. that a lot of potential designs and shortcuts were dead ends.
  7. the various ways uranium splits, testing the nuclear drop model, with an ingenious device, the “water boiler reactor.” Finding critical mass with different water-based solutions was considered valuable exercise, since there wasn’t enough bomb-grade uranium until 1945 to experiment with solid metal.

With which of the above activities were Godsend’s E.E. based skill set and job experience useful?

  • Exclusion of 1 and 2. This is physics, not E.E. Those who worked on it are in the record.
  • Exclusion of 3. The design of the implosion mechanism required some electrical design, but unrelated to Godsend’s specialty. He had expertise with Calutrons and mass spectrometers, which elevated him above the basic B.S., but only for this specialization. There were people with more applicable background, who appear in the record.
  • Exclusion of 4.  This is pure physics.
  • Exclusion of 5.  It is now known that the nuclear chain reaction occurs on a “cycle”, or generations, measured in “shakes.”  A shake is a 10 billionths of a second. Before the invention of the Esaki tunnel diode in 1957, electronics couldn’t deal with tiny time.  In a modern lab, a contemporary Godsend could fit in. This also applies to 1.
  • Exclusion of 6.  Godsend was not a manager.

This leaves 7. In the finale, we’ll see how Godsend stole Los Alamos’s mojo.


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