Updated | The CIA officer sitting across from me at the Silver Diner in McLean, Virginia, seemed nothing like Hollywood’s portrayal of an intelligence agent. It wasn’t so much his appearance—bearded, bald, with glasses and a brown plaid shirt—that belied Ben Bonk’s occupation. Rather, it was the tears in his eyes.
“Maybe if they hadn’t deceived me, I could have done something,” he told me. “Maybe I could have stopped the Iraq War.”
Bonk, a former deputy director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center and an officer responsible for intelligence on Iraq in the year leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003, spoke with me on background in June 2010 about events leading to the disastrous war. He died eight months later. Under our agreement, everything he told me is now on the record.
And Bonk’s statements—about deceptions that prevented solid intelligence on Iraq from reaching President George W. Bush, as well as other information kept from the public during the buildup to war—are once again in the news as candidates for the Republican presidential nomination fumble with questions about whether that invasion was a mistake. This has been asked of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, each time with a qualifier: “Given what we know now…”
But with that parenthetical, reporters are perpetuating one of the greatest falsehoods in history. The real question should be: “Given what we knew then…” Bush hawks knew there was no good intelligence establishing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). And in what could easily be interpreted as near-treason, they never told the president about the weakness of the intelligence, several former high-ranking officials from the administration have told me.
“The Iraq war began sixteen years ago tomorrow. There is a myth about the war that I have been meaning to set straight for years. After no WMDs were found, the left claimed ‘Bush lied. People died.’ This accusation itself is a lie. It’s time to put it to rest.”
— Former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer, in a Twitter thread, March 19, 2019
“Sixteen years after the Iraq War started, the White House press spokesman at the time sought to rebut a claim he called a “liberal myth” — that George W. Bush lied about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to launch the invasion. (Never mind that the current Republican president also has made this claim, saying in 2016: “They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction; there were none.”) . . . . “
“WASHINGTON — After decades of failing to curb sexual assault in the armed forces, lawmakers and Pentagon leaders are poised to make major changes in military laws that many experts have long argued stand in the way of justice.
A bill championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, would remove military commanders from a role in prosecuting service members for sexual assault and has gained support from scores of key members of Congress. Among them is Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, who said her own experience with assault and her daughter’s stories from West Point helped shift her views on the issue.
“I have been torn,” Ms. Ernst said in an interview. “On the one hand, I was a commander in the National Guard and know how important that role is. But also, as a sexual assault survivor, I know we have to do more. I never really wanted to take this out of chain of command, but we are not seeing a difference.”
Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photograph, via Getty Images
“Every four years, at the start of a new administration, American intelligence agencies put out “Global Trends,” a weighty assessment of where the world seems headed over the next two decades. In 2008, for example, the report warned about the potential emergence of a pandemic originating in East Asia and spreading rapidly around the world.
The latest report, Global Trends 2040, released last week by the National Intelligence Council, finds that the pandemic has proved to be “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II,” with medical, political and security implications that will reverberate for years. That’s not schadenfreude. It’s the prologue to a far darker picture of what lies ahead.
The world envisioned in the 144-page report, ominously subtitled “A More Contested World,” is rent by a changing climate, aging populations, disease, financial crises and technologies that divide more than they unite, all straining societies and generating “shocks that could be catastrophic.” The gap between the challenges and the institutions meant to deal with them continues to grow, so that “politics within states are likely to grow more volatile and contentious, and no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers.” At the international level, it will be a world increasingly “shaped by China’s challenge to the United States and Western-led international system,” with a greater risk of conflict.
Here’s how agencies charged with watching the world see things:
“Large segments of the global population are becoming wary of institutions and governments that they see as unwilling or unable to address their needs. People are gravitating to familiar and like-minded groups for community and security, including ethnic, religious, and cultural identities as well as groupings around interests and causes, such as environmentalism.”
“At the same time that populations are increasingly empowered and demanding more, governments are coming under greater pressure from new challenges and more limited resources. This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy, and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance.”
“Accelerating shifts in military power, demographics, economic growth, environmental conditions, and technology, as well as hardening divisions over governance models, are likely to further ratchet up competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States.”
“At the state level, the relationships between societies and their governments in every region are likely to face persistent strains and tensions because of a growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver.”
Experts in Washington who have read these reports said they do not recall a gloomier one. In past years, the future situations offered have tilted toward good ones; this year, the headings for how 2040 may look tell a different story: “Competitive Coexistence,” “Separate Silos,” “Tragedy and Mobilization” or “A World Adrift,” in which “the international system is directionless, chaotic, and volatile as international rules and institutions are largely ignored by major powers like China, regional players and non-state actors. . . . ”
Credit…Illustration by Nicholas Konrad/The New York Times; photograph by Getty Images
“When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.
Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.
It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless. . . . “
Mr. Wertheim is a historian of American foreign policy and the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank.
President Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, reviewing the readiness of military troops at the U.S. Capitol last month. After four years of Donald Trump, the impulse to return to familiar habits is understandable.Credit…David Tulis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
” “America is back,” President Biden has declared in every major foreign policy speech he has given since taking office. He means to restore what he sees as the essence of global leadership — the United States joining with allies to “fight for our shared values” — that his predecessor defiled. Back, then, is America’s quest to order the world in the name of democracy, human rights and the American way.
After four years of Donald Trump, the impulse to return to familiar habits is understandable. But those habits, especially the moralization of one country’s armed dominance, have proved destructive. What matters is whether the Biden administration will actually make America — No. 1 in armed force and arms dealing — less violent in the world. In that regard, Mr. Biden’s larger vision, of the United States dividing the globe into subordinate allies and multiplying adversaries, and shouldering the burdens toward both, remains troubling, no matter how high-minded his rhetoric or diplomatic his actions.
Mr. Biden has signaled some improvement so far. He has cut off Washington’s support for “offensive operations” in Yemen and related arms sales to Saudi Arabia, reversing the awful policy initiated by President Barack Obama and intensified by President Trump. He has taken steps toward re-entering the nuclear agreement with Iran, essential for avoiding future wars.” . . .
“OFFENBACH, Germany — At the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, a bearded man in sweatpants walked into a police station. His pockets were empty except for an old cellphone and a few foreign coins.
In broken English, he presented himself as a Syrian refugee. He said he had crossed half the continent by foot and lost his papers along the way. The officers photographed and fingerprinted him. Over the next year, he would get shelter and an asylum hearing, and would qualify for monthly benefits.
His name, he offered, was David Benjamin.
In reality, he was a lieutenant in the German Army. He had darkened his face and hands with his mother’s makeup and applied shoe shine to his beard. Instead of walking across Europe, he had walked 10 minutes from his childhood home in the western city of Offenbach.”
Mr. Bossert was the homeland security adviser to President Trump and deputy homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.
Credit…Illustration by Frank Augugliaro; flag: Wolfgang Deuter/Getty Images
“At the worst possible time, when the United States is at its most vulnerable — during a presidential transition and a devastating public health crisis — the networks of the federal government and much of corporate America are compromised by a foreign nation. We need to understand the scale and significance of what is happening.
Last week, the cybersecurity firm FireEye said it had been hacked and that its clients, which include the United States government, had been placed at risk. This week, we learned that SolarWinds, a publicly traded company that provides software to tens of thousands of government and corporate customers, was also hacked.
The attackers gained access to SolarWinds software before updates of that software were made available to its customers. Unsuspecting customers then downloaded a corrupted version of the software, which included a hidden back door that gave hackers access to the victim’s network.”
“. . . General Austin became the top commander of American forces in Iraq in 2010, when the United States still had roughly 50,000 service members there. Much of the attention had moved on to other hot spots in the Middle East, but major questions still existed about the direction of Iraq, including whether any American forces would remain in the country beyond 2011. General Austin and his commanders were convinced that a sizable force of over 5,000 troops needed to remain to help the fledgling Iraqi military. But the commanders on the ground were ultimately overruled by the Obama administration, which pulled out all American forces by the end of 2011.
Years later that decision would be blamed for the Islamic State’s ability to seize wide swaths of the country.
General Austin’s style was far more reserved than some of the officers with marquee names who spent considerable time cultivating their public image and using the news media to maneuver policy fights with the administration.” . . .
Mr. Wu is a co-author of “Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World.”
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
“Put yourself in the shoes of Russian or Iranian leadership for a moment. Why notinterfere with the voting in the U.S. presidential election? What could be more advantageous than catalyzing a bitter and protracted battle over the results of the election, with a chance of igniting civil unrest throughout the country? Sure, it might not work — but with little to lose and so much to gain, why not try?
When it comes to foreign election meddling in elections, disinformation is a serious threat, but the most disruptive form of intrusion is electoral cyber-interference: the freezing of voting systems, the mass deletion of voter registration information, altering vote counts and so on. Such feats may not be easily accomplished, but if they were successful, they could throw the United States into chaos.
The risk is not hypothetical. American intelligence agencies, having hacked into Russian computer networks, report that Russia recently infiltrated some voting systems in the United States. If Russia or another country were to alter tallies or voter information in just a few swing states, it could threaten our confidence in the results of the election.
That is why this week, Joe Biden and President Trump should threaten punishing retaliation should another nation attempt such forms of electoral interference. They should stress that by “interference” they do not mean propaganda or influence campaigns, but rather direct attacks on the election, which are attacks on political independence and thus a form of illegal aggression. And they should warn that such attacks will lead to destructive consequences — as permitted by international law — for the offending nation and its leadership.”