Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
The Obama administration is stepping up drone strikes on Yemeni al-Qaida operatives. The White House warned some U.S. embassies could remain closed for another month as the al-Qaida terror threat escalates. President Barack Obama canceled a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin following tensions over NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham visited Egypt and urged its military to release opposition leaders. McCain called the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a “coup,” a move that contradicts the White House. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad escaped injury as rebels attacked his convoy. A panel of journalists join Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Courtney Kube national security producer for NBC News.
- Thom Shanker Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times and co-author of "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The U.S. orders evacuation of most personnel from its consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. This follows the closure of U.S. diplomat posts across the Middle East and Africa in the wake of terror threats. And President Obama calls off a September meeting with Russian's President Putin.
MS. DIANE REHMHere for the week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Thom Shanker of the New York Times, Courtney Kube of NBC News and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. You're invited to be part of the program, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome everybody.
MS. COURTNEY KUBEThank you.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning.
MR. THOM SHANKERThank you.
REHMGood to see you. Thom Shanker, tell us about the order to evacuate the U.S. consulate in Lahore and telling Americans generally to get out.
SHANKERThat's exactly right Diane. Just overnight the State Department put out one of its global warnings removing all nonessential American personnel from the consulate in Lahore, Pakistan. There's a small staff remaining for vital services.
SHANKERAnd they also told all Americans to eliminate nonessential travel to Pakistan. This really is just the latest wrinkle in what's been a week long terror warning around the world that has shut down almost two dozen embassies at this point and started when American intelligence apparently picked up some communications between al Qaida central in Pakistan and the affiliate in Yemen and perhaps beyond talking about what the government says were very specific plans for terror attack.
REHMWhat do we know about those specific plans, Courtney?
KUBEWe actually don't know that much. I mean, the one common thread is that they're somewhat vague. There are specific time frame that's apparently associated with it, but we don't really know what that was.
KUBEInitially we were told last Friday that it was potential for an attack on Sunday, August 4th. Obviously that didn't happen fortunately but one thing we do know is that it seems to have an epicenter in Yemen, which is where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, is centered.
KUBEAQAP has sort of become known as the strongest offshoot of al Qaida and potentially could I think morph into the core al Qaida in the coming days and years. I mean, that's what's very interesting about, Thom mentioned the communications between Zawahri and Wahishi who's the leader of AQAP.
KUBEThat's one thing that's very interesting about that what the government is calling a direct communication between the two of them, is what is that relationship. We know Wahishi was very close to Bin Laden before 9/11 obviously Zawahri was close to Bin Laden before he was killed.
KUBEBut what is that relationship? Is there sort of like a melding of two core al Qaida in Pakistan and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Are they working in conjunction? We just don't know. All we do know is that, you know, despite the administration calls that al Qaida has been decimated and almost defeated in recent years they've still proven that they can really instill widespread fear in the West, in the United States.
REHMAnd what about the status of the other diplomatic posts closed in both the Middle East and Africa, Hisham?
MELHEMSome of them will probably be continued to be closed in the foreseeable future mostly in the Arabian Peninsula particularly in Yemen. But let me say something about the relationship between al Qaida central and the offshoots. It seems to me that there's more developed and still going on, you know, beyond what we've heard from the administration.
MELHEMI was dumbfounded when I read some press reports, that this was some sort of a confidence call, that not only included Wahishi in Yemen and Zawahri and probably from one cave somewhere in Pakistan or maybe a nice city, who knows, and a bunch of other people.
MELHEMMore than 20 people, now the question is did they drop their usual caution? How would they do something like that and not anticipate that the United States would intercept this is kind of call.
MELHEMThis is really -- nobody answered that question. I mean, I've been asking that question, why would they do something like that? They're not dumb, they are not dumb and in the past, they've used curriers and, you know, all these methods that are not necessarily easily detected.
MELHEMBut this time we've seen this and there are a lot of questions about this whole episode. The other thing is this was a sad reminder because the President of the United States a few weeks ago gave a major speech on the use of drones and in that speech he said, "All wars must come to an end including this one."
MELHEMAnd he was talking about the American war with al-Qaida. You cannot declare a one-way cease fire when the other side is still shooting at you and al-Qaida and its offshoot unfortunately is still alive and kicking.
SHANKERWell, it's just fascinating as he was talking about how they were communicating and just for your listeners to know, none of us know for sure what this communication was. Was it a, you know, something in writing or was it a phone call?
SHANKERBut just the idea of a conference call, I don't mean to make light of this but it's something like out of the Legion of Doom in the comic books or Specter around a table in James Bond. And I can just hear Zawahri saying, comrades if you have a question please press pound one, state your name and the affiliate before telling us what your attack plan is. It just boggles the imagination Diane.
REHMSo then the question becomes are the closures around the world warranted or did the U.S. overreact, Courtney?
KUBEI think it's difficult to make the argument that they've overreacted because even if there isn't some sort of an attack what none of us here are privy to is the actual intelligence that led to the decision to finally make these closures.
KUBEI know there's been a lot of talk about, you know, they're overreacting because of Benghazi. That may not necessarily be a bad thing in a short for short term decision. To make, you know, a short term decision to protect your people if there is a potential imminent threat.
KUBEAnd I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who found that that sort of overreaction is unwarranted.
REHMAnd this all comes after Benghazi when the administration has been accused of letting down its guard. What about Yemen claiming to have foiled a major terrorist plot, Courtney?
KUBEYes, they said that they, on Wednesday that they had foiled a plot to attack some gas and pipelines and take over a city and whatnot. I mean, U.S. officials weren't saying it was completely untrue but they also weren't saying that it was true and Yemen sort of back off of it.
KUBEIt seems like it was an attempt by the Yemeni government to prove that they have the ability to fight back against al Qaida, to keep their foreign friends, their foreign allies within the country safe. Yemen was pretty open about the fact that they were unhappy that the United States withdrew their people from Sunnah.
MELHEMAbsolutely they were very unhappy. They saw this as a vote of non-confidence especially because of the timing. I mean, it came a few days after the president, the Yemeni president met President Obama here at the White House and of course they talked about al Qaida and talk about cooperation, you know, combating terrorism.
MELHEMBut definitely Yemen is a country that's not in full control of its, all of its territory. There is a secessionist movement in the south. There are some small areas that are controlled by al Qaida and some of these radical groups and that's why, one of the reasons we've seen the United States recently escalating the drone attacks.
MELHEMYesterday there were three separate attacks with at least 12 people were killed. The problem in the place of Yemen when we have "collateral" causalities and damage when a man dies he belongs to a family and that family belongs to a clan and that clan belongs to a tribe and then you end up, you know, alienating a lot of people and that's one of the problems that are associated with the drone program particularly in a tribal society.
MELHEMLike, Yemen when the central state in summer has nominal serenity over the rest of the country, but not real control and Yemen went through part of the so-called Arab Spring and you still have a great deal of upheaval going on there.
SHANKERIt's interesting when we try to assess whether the administration did the right thing with this terror warning, if I can elevate this just a level of strategic policy for a moment. There's been a lot of academic writing about deterrence and terrorism.
SHANKERA lot of people say it doesn't really apply, but by putting out this announcement, by closing all of these consulates and embassies, at a minimum you've sent a very strong signal to the potential terrorists and it might have disrupted any plot that might have been in the work because suddenly things were different.
REHMBut how capable is the Yemeni government dealing with terrorist threats itself?
SHANKERWell, it's having a real challenge. That's why there's been a great and covert American effort there to train them. There's been the drone strikes that are run both by the CIA and by the most secretive arm of American special operations.
SHANKERBut the Yemeni branch of al Qaida has been discussed here is really the most vicious and most capable. They have a bomb maker who's kind of a dark genius and able to put bombs in underwear and shoes and all that and only for the grace of a chemical failure and good intelligence have several...
MELHEMAnd a lot of luck.
SHANKERAnd a lot of luck, thank you, have airliners not fallen out of the sky.
REHMBut he's now working to put bombs insides bodies I gather.
KUBEWhich he's done before, he did it to his own brother I believe it was in the...
MELHEMIn an attack on a Saudi official. I mean, his brother died, luckily the Saudi official was not killed. But, I mean, he is a genius apparently and as I said they move freely in some parts of Yemen and that's why we've seen the resumption of the drone attacks.
MELHEMI mean, the drones have been effective. They killed Anwar al-Awlaki, obviously. And very few people will tell you that this is not a very effective tool, but it is a tool. It's not a strategy.
REHMWhat about the fire in Nairobi that closed the airport? Is that connected, Courtney?
KUBENo, I mean, there doesn't seem to be any terroristic plot here and what was curious is that it happened, it coincided with the attack on the embassy in Nairobi 15 years ago I think it was.
KUBEWhat was interesting, I saw a report just earlier this morning from the Associated Press out of Nairobi that now they're saying that some of the first responders rather than immediately helping out were looting and trying to steal, you know, safes and whatnot and they were very slow to respond.
KUBEThey ran out of water so it seems like just a tragic accident and what people don't realize is this is a major hub for Eastern Africa. It caused massive flight problems.
REHMAnd tell me about the developments in the Benghazi investigation?
SHANKERWell, very, very interesting legal development this week, Diane. U.S. law enforcement filed a murder charge against a man named Ahmad Abu Khattallah, who was a militia leader in Benghazi when the attack on the consulate there occurred killing the ambassador. He is not in custody but it's the first legal action against an accused assailant.
REHMAnd the charges against him are under seal. We'll talk about why when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Just before the break we were talking about the arrest -- sorry, the accusation that Ahmad Khattallah was involved in the Benghazi attack last September 11. Reuters reported that officials considered Khattallah a suspect in the attacks. U.S. investigators were not sure about the scope of his role. Why are the charges against him under seal? Why does he roam freely in Libya, Courtney?
KUBEThe charges aren't just under seal. I mean, the other names of the people -- his, you know, alleged co-conspirators are under seal. There's upwards of a dozen more people whose names we don't even know. And, you know, he gave an interview. He's speaking openly to the media, Khattallah, and said, no I'm not -- I'm free to do what I want to do. I'm not a militia member. I'm a construction contractor now. And I was there that night but I wasn't involved.
MELHEMHe was directing traffic.
KUBEHe was directing traffic, he says, that night at the attack.
MELHEMHe said that on the record.
KUBEHe did. The thing I found most striking about his interview though, you know, is that he said that neither the Americans nor the Libyan authorities have not picked him up but even questioned him about anything. So it really makes you wonder how serious are these charges.
REHMAll right. President Obama used the Tonight Show with Jay Leno to comment on Edward Snowden and the fact that President Putin has given him asylum. Let's hear what he had to say.
MR. JAY LENOWere you surprised that Russia granted Snowden asylum?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMAI was disappointed. Because, you know, even though we don't have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally we have tried to respect if there's a lawbreaker or an alleged lawbreaker in their country. We evaluate it and we try to work with them. They didn't do that with us. And in some ways it's reflective of some underlying challenges that we've had with Russia lately.
REHMAnd certainly he's going to be questioned a lot on that at the press conference today.
SHANKERThat's right, Diane. This is a very significant foreign policy decision. President Obama's basically turned off the reset with Russia that was begun a couple of years ago. And, as you said, the president will be no doubt asked about this at a news conference today. And even as we're sitting here in your studios, Diane, the Secretary of State Mr. Kerry, the Defense Secretary Hagel are meeting with their Russian counterparts at the State Department for three back-to-back sessions trying to find some goodness left in this relationship.
SHANKERYou can sort of imagine them with the electronic paddles, putting them on the heart saying, clear, trying to put some energy back in this because things are just very, very grim between the U.S. and Russia right now.
REHMWhat does the president gain by cancelling this meeting with Putin?
KUBEI don't think he gains anything but he has more to lose from holding the meeting than from canceling it. So there were no deliverables. That's what they look for in these meetings. They look for -- afterwards there's a statement that's almost always written in advance frankly, that they can release afterwards saying here are all the agreements that we've come to in our 45-minutes meeting.
KUBEThe problem is they have -- they are -- the two countries -- the two nations are so far apart on several issues. Snowden was just the tipping point in the cancellation of this meeting next month. But, I mean, there's missile defense. They are still miles apart on missile defense. You know, nuclear proliferation, reducing their nuclear arsenals, there is -- Obama has said that he's willing to reduce the United States. Vladimir Putin has shown no interest in that.
KUBEHuman rights issues, Obama also spoke about that on the Tonight Show the other night. These very severe austere rules now against lesbians and gays in Russia that are now even potentially threatening the Olympic participants next year in Sochi. So, I mean, it's not so much just this very rare decision by the United States not to meet next month, but it's more -- it would've been very embarrassing to come out of that meeting and still be miles apart on all these issues, which frankly they would have been.
MELHEMAnd also you have Syria. I mean, there's a huge difference between the United States and Syria that has really be poisoning the relationship in the last two-and-half years over the Russian support -- you know, Russian support for the Assad regime, even when Assad regime is using, you know, scud missiles and chemical weapons against his own people.
MELHEMAnd I think, you know, Putin looks at the Syrian conflict not only through the prism of all bilateral relationship between Moscow and Damascus, but also through his own prism of Chechnya. And he sees -- and he believes all the propaganda, even before the Jihadists came to Syria. And unfortunately now you have this poisons Jihadi presence in the Syrian conflict.
MELHEMBut even before when Assad was diabolically trying to create the impression when the rebellion was mostly peaceful, that this is instigated by radical Islamists. And when you look at some Syrian cities, they were devastated. And you remember what the Russian army and the Soviet Army before that did to Chechnya and to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. They are similar in the same bloody approach.
SHANKERThat's such an important point. I think we do need to step back for just a moment and try to look at it through the eyes of Vladimir Putin. You know, not a nice guy. As Courtney so articulately said, has done all sorts of things in the human rights area that we cannot possibly support. But from where he sits, he wants a stable Syria. And he sees Assad as being the best chance of that.
SHANKERHow interesting, Diane, that America's closest ally in the region, Israel, was at a very peaceful border with Syria for many years. Israeli's wouldn't say this out loud, but if there was a time machine that they could roll back the time and put a stable Assad regime in power, that's far preferable to America's closest ally than the chaotic possibly radical government that will follow Assad. And it is U.S. policy for Assad to go.
SHANKERAnd equally when Putin looks at the United States -- you know, I spent five years in Moscow, a time my wife calls five winters -- and, you know, so I was there at the collapse. The U.S. and West welcomed Russia. Said thank goodness no more communism. We want to be partners with you. We have no territorial ambitions. NATO will never expand to your border. We'll never have NATO warplanes in former Soviet Republics. NATO expanded to their border. NATO warplanes are in former Soviet Republics. So from where Putin sits, however irrational, he has reason for paranoia.
REHMSo what was his reaction to the president's cancelling his meeting?
KUBEThe Kremlin said that he was disappointed and the invitation remains open to him. I think that any notion that this is going to change Vladimir Putin's calculus on anything is wrong. It's unfounded. It's not going to change his behavior. In fact, it may actually have the opposite effect frankly. You know, Putin, he wants to operate from a position of power. And any perception of weakness is -- he will never allow that in.
KUBEAnd the problem with the Snowden case is he was really painted into a corner. When Snowden arrived in his airport, I truly believe that Vladimir Putin didn't want to deal with the Snowden issue. But it arrived in his lap basically and he had to deal with it. And once the administration, you know, unveiled these charges of espionage, he was in a corner.
REHMSo how long is Snowden going to be there? Just one year, then where's he going to go?
MELHEMWell, I mean, a year is an eternity. I mean, who knows what'll happen within the year. He'll probably end up in another country, maybe in Latin America. I mean, there are some people who are very willing to receive him. But I think to go back to Putin, Putin chafes and resents the fact that Russia today is not perceived by the United States and the West as a super power. And he resents that. And he thinks that, you know, by being tough he will earn the respect of the West and the treatment and elevated to that previous status of a great super power.
MELHEMEverything in his comeback domestically and regionally the way he did to Georgia and others is just -- tells you that he's a czar. He's a modern day czar.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to Syria. What's the latest on claims of an attack on President Assad's convoy?
SHANKERRight. To the best of our knowledge, Diane, there was some kind of attack on his convoy but it wasn't serious. And he went on TV shortly thereafter just to prove that he was alive and kicking and everything's fine. But the situation, of course, is just, you know, becoming worse and worse. The civilian casualties are rising. And interestingly Syria really now is becoming the magnet for foreign fighters that Iraq was a few years ago in Afghanistan before that.
SHANKERSo again, part of this chaos is truly the potential for creating terrorist-safe havens in a (word?) Syria, which of course is a terrible possibility for American national security.
KUBEYeah, absolutely. You know, and we heard Mike Morell, the deputy of the CIA, who's -- today is his last day actually in the CIA home. He gave this fascinating interview this week. And he said that Syria, he sees as the worst national security threat to the United States right now. And not because there's really any concerns of violence in any way coming to the United States homeland from Syria. But more just what Thom was speaking about, of these -- there's a massive influx of foreign fighters going into Syria right now.
KUBEThere's something like 1200 opposition groups fighting against the regime right now. Many of them are either offshoots of al-Qaida or believe the same, you know, values as al-Qaida or whatnot. Whatever it is, I mean, massive swaths of the country are now full of al-Qaida fighters al Nusra fighters and whatnot. And there's what I see as this terrifying new group. It's called al-Qaida and Iraq in Syria. It's this melding of the two -- al-Qaida fighters Iraq and Syria. I mean, you almost envision this future with no Western border of Iraq and just sort of a free-for-all zone there.
MELHEMThese are some of the people that Assad used to support when these nasty guys were fighting the Americans in Iraq a few years ago. The problem now is that the war in Syria and the war in Iraq -- because there is also a low intensity civil war in Iraq -- the two wars are morphed into one. And that's the scary part. And one of the reasons -- I mean, we should talk about, you know, these nasty elements that are coming in Syria, especially from the Caucasus and from Egypt and from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
MELHEMThis is, in part, because the West and the other Arab states and Turkey were (word?) for a long time and allowed us to turn this conflict that was not initially a sectarian one into a sectarian one. And telling the world I'm the only guarantor of security in Syria. And even if I have to do it by being bloody. But I'm the address. I'm the one. But today Syria is not Afghanistan and Syria is on the Mediterranean. It's close to southern Europe. And that's why allowing Syria to break down, allowing what we call soft partition to take place, allowing areas within Syria that are relatively large to be controlled by these nasty characters, you are going to have a chaotic situation.
MELHEMWhen you look back at Afghanistan in the 1980s after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the early '90s, it would look tame in comparison. This is scary and that's why we've been saying there is a responsibility for the neighboring countries and the West to stop this thing before it festers and reaches this stage.
REHMBut is Assad in any way vulnerable?
KUBEI think he has been vulnerable and remains vulnerable, but that doesn't mean that he's either going to step aside or be killed. And you have to ask yourself, what would happen if the assassination -- this attempted assassination this week, as loose as it was, what if that had been successful? What would be next? And it's terrifying to think about it. The majority of the opposition now is made up of extremists -- of terrorists and extremists.
KUBESo -- and what's fascinating about it is it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy essentially of what Assad has said from the beginning, that it's terrorist, it's al-Qaida trying to overthrow his country, his peaceful government, his peaceful, you know, regime. And essentially that has become true at this point because they -- you know, there's hundreds and hundreds of them that are moving in every single day fighting with the opposition.
REHMCourtney Kube of NBC News and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about Egypt? What is happening there, Thom?
SHANKERWell, as you know, the military ousted the former president Mr. Morsi in something that the U.S. government has refused to call a coup. Because by labeling it that, the U.S. government would have to cut off $1.5 billion.
REHMBut John McCain did it for them.
SHANKERThat's right. So the guy who wanted to be president said the word that the guy who is president won't. Okay. Fair enough. It's American politics.
MELHEMExplain that to the Egyptians.
SHANKERYeah, right. So Senator McCain and Senator Graham were in Egypt sort of on a peace mission, although McCain went further in criticizing the military. Perhaps he was just trying to show them how important it is to move rapidly toward a negotiated political settlement. That does not appear to be happening. Mr. McCain called on all sides to act better. He called on the Muslim Brotherhood to drop its demand to reinstate Morsi. He called on the military and the prime minister to open up political dialogue. It doesn't seem to be happening.
SHANKERSome people are already beginning to say that General al-Sisi the chief of defense might be the next president returning to sort of an Egyptians strongman model. Again, nobody knows but the situation's still very fluid. The military is firmly in control. And we can debate whether it was a coup or not but that doesn't solve the problem on the ground.
REHMWhat about protests in the street? Did they continue, Courtney?
KUBEThey continue now and the government has said that they will forcibly remove protestors. It probably won't happen before the end of the holidays over the next several days. But, you know, you can envision the troops literally -- Egyptian troops going in and removing these protestors and the violence that may ensue.
KUBEAnd, you know, Thom mentioned General al-Sisi. He gave an interview this week where he said that the U.S. has abandoned Egypt and that the Egyptians won't forget that. So it's very interesting that now he's really emerging among the Egyptian people as this leader, you know, the man who may be able to save Egypt and bring them into the next year and whatnot. And he's very clearly angry at the United States. He has a good relationship with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel right now but not with President Obama.
MELHEMChuck Hagel calls him almost every day.
KUBE...almost every day.
MELHEMAl-Sisi himself said, he calls me almost every day. And he was actually indignant -- that's probably the right word -- indignant because Barack Obama did not pick up the phone and talk to him, as if he is the head of state. As if he was the president of the Egyptian Republic. Look, he is ambitious. Everybody tells you he's ambitious. And whether he will run for elections or not, but, you know, he's loving this moment where many Egyptians are comparing him to Gamal Abdel Nasser, who captivated the hearts and minds of Egyptian and other Arabs in the 1950s and '60s before the nasty defeat of 1967 at the hands of the Israelis.
MELHEMEgyptians or many Egyptians unfortunately always look for a savior galloping on a white horse and wearing khaki unfortunately. And so we have a nasty situation. We have really serious polarization -- social, cultural, political polarization in Egypt. And if the army moves to remove the people who are now engaged in the sit-ins in two major places in Cairo where we have families and kids and old people, you don't want to see another blood scene.
MELHEMAlready 300 people died since the non-coup coup. And you will have another situation. I think the Americans really -- I mean, you may quibble with what John McCain said or not say, whatever, but I think he has a good intention. And, by the way, the United States is not going to label it as a coup. Already Bill Burns, one of our best diplomats who went to Cairo, went to the Hill the other day and told the leadership there, legally we're not bound and we're not supposed to come up with the position.
MELHEMSo already they should have pleased the Egyptian, the new coalition in Cairo because we didn't call it the coup. And nobody's seriously threatening aid. And that's their way of saying, look, move quickly on the political process. Set up base for elections, write the new constitutions but for God's sake, move. And I think some people don't want to move on this political process quickly.
REHMSo why did John McCain do what he did?
SHANKERWell, I mean, John McCain is a hardnosed realist and I think he's put that out there to show the Egyptians, to hopefully inspire the military to move toward a dialogue of reconciliation.
REHMThom Shanker of the New York Times, author of the book "Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda." Short break. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back to the International Hour of our "Friday News Roundup" this week with Hisham Melhem. He's Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya News Channel, Courtney Kube, national security producer for NBC News and Thom Shanker, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times.
REHMWe've got a lot of emails like this first one from Mitch in Unison, Va. who says: "Given that al-Qaida understands that the U.S. is monitoring all electronic communications and the NSA is desperate to demonstrate the value of that monitoring, how likely is it that this so-called conference call and clear threat is an al-Qaida ploy to cost us money, disrupt activities and pull our chain at little or no cost to them?" Hisham?
MELHEMI don't know. Obviously al-Qaida is happy in one way because we can sense, I mean get that sense from watching their websites after the American decision to close down the embassies and the consulates because this shows that just one communication created this kind of international havoc.
MELHEMIt's not only the Americans that have closed down their embassies but the Brits and the French and others. I mean one could see why people would say that. On the other hand we could say also that the United States has exaggerated the threat. One could also say that the NSA looks good because it is. It succeeded in intercepting this kind of communication.
MELHEMI don't know, but I still have the question, you know, why would these people do something like that knowing in advance that whatever the format, whether it's on Skype or a telephone conversation or emails or whatever that the United States has the technical abilities to uncover it?
REHMTo Oklahoma City, good morning, Justin.
JUSTINMy comment and my observation is that al-Qaida wins when we have all these people being so afraid of such an insignificant threat that is al-Qaida. The 3,000 people that died are insignificant in the resources that we have spent trying to fight al-Qaida. If we had spent those dollars on healthcare we would be much better off.
REHMI take issue with your point that the 2,000 people who died at 9/11 are insignificant. I do understand your point that al-Qaida has said right from the start it wanted to bankrupt the U.S.
KUBEAnd there have been some forums this week after the closure of the embassies and diplomatic consulates that, where there have been some al-Qaeda members, alleged al-Qaeda members saying, oh, look what we've done. We're costing them billions of dollars. And there is something to be said for the fact that they've been able to essentially paralyze American diplomacy in large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa without ever firing a shot or you know.
KUBEBut that being said, you know, it's really difficult to make the argument that maybe overreacting or acting with prudence to save a lot of American lives, potentially save American lives and even save some local lives too, we don't, we still don't know what the threat, what this potential target was going to be.
KUBEWe don't know if it was embassies. We have no idea and when you look at some of the embassy bombings in the past, locals have been killed. Nairobi...
MELHEM15 years ago, yes, exactly.
KUBE...Dar es Salaam, yeah. So it's difficult to make the argument that acting with prudence and potentially saving lives is, you know, is the wrong choice.
REHMAll right. And here's an email from John. "Is it fair to say the Russians effectively cancelled the meeting by giving Snowden asylum?"
SHANKERWell, they were part of it. I mean this is like any sort of bad marriage, both sides are at fault. But they didn't cancel it. The White House, President Obama made the decision not to go for granting Mr. Snowden leave to live in Russia for.
REHMBut didn't Putin, he knew that that would happen, didn't he?
SHANKERWell, I think they were upping the ante to be sure but we were discussing earlier there was really no, there's no downside for Vladimir Putin in his domestic political world in appearing strong against the United States.
REHMAll right, to John in Mexico, N.Y. Hi there.
JOHNHi, on the topic of Snowden, I just find it really weird that a lot of people are calling Snowden a traitor yet he exposed a huge program that's spying on the United States' citizens without their knowledge or consent. What are your thoughts on that?
KUBEWell, there is actually legislation that, if you have a federal employee who believes that there is a wrong being done, there are channels that that person can go to. They can go to their superiors. They can go to Congress and they can express their concerns. And Edward Snowden didn't exercise any of those options so when people are calling him a traitor, it's similar to Bradley Manning, which we've, you know, spent the past two and half years covering his hearings and court martial and whatnot.
KUBEAnd he was convicted or he was sentenced, is being sentenced right now. It's similar to him. A lot of people said that he was exposing war atrocities when he released all this information and. But you know, the U.S. government, the U.S. military they found him guilty of seven counts of espionage for what he did so.
KUBEHe also did not try any of the proper channels to expose what he saw as war atrocities.
REHMSo some people believe he was simply a whistleblower.
MELHEMWho Snowden or Manning?
MELHEMIf Snowden focused only on the domestic program and he went to Senator Wyden for instance and he did benefit as Courtney was saying from that whistleblower legislation he would have been a hero. I am not interested in anybody telling me how the United States is spying on China. You know why? I want the United States to spy on China. I want the United States to spy on Russia. I want the United States to spy on Iran and on Syria and on Venezuela.
REHMHe's getting red.
MELHEMNo, no. I'm getting red, yeah. But you know, you know one of the funniest moments after the Snowden affair, the French. I love the French. They became indignant because Snowden apparently told them, we are spying on you.
MELHEMThere was a beautiful piece in the Foreign Policy website documenting the way the French have been spying on us since the early 60s, industrial espionage and military espionage was. They want to spend one franc as they said on R&D. So let's steal it from the Americans. But I want the United States to spy on China and Russia but not on the American people.
SHANKERIt's the Casablanca rule. I'm shocked, shocked to find spying going on.
REHMAnd here's a tweet from Eric: "With Hezbollah assisting the Syrian regime do you see a potential for the group get involved in events in Egypt?" Thom Shankar?
SHANKERWell, I think it's certainly possible as we were discussing earlier what could grow out of Syria which was at first a civil, political war. It's now becoming yet another major rift between the Sunni and the Shia and Hezbollah coming in on one side, al-Qaida, Sunni on the other. We can see that spreading throughout the region.
REHMAll right, to Brighton, Mich. James, you're on the air.
JAMESYeah, I've got to agree with your first email that relying on hearsay evidence through the NSA, through the communication without more credible evidence on the ground can steer our country in any direction that al-Qaida wants to steer us and they can just sit back and laugh and watch us jump.
JAMESFor one thing it's like rubbing a rash. Al-Qaida is like rubbing a rash, the more you rub it the worse it gets. And as far as 9/11 where 2,000 people have died we've sent more over to die in the name of 9/11 than actually were killed in 9/11, in the interests of keeping this country safe, going to fight people that usually don't.
JAMESMost of them don't have enough money to get to the next village let alone to the United States.
REHMThanks for calling. You know all of this seems to point to a lack of trust in government, in the NSA, in even what the terrorists may be saying. Courtney?
KUBEBecause we just don't know. It's really easy to sit back and to criticize or judge what decision that this administration made but we really don't know what information they have. You know my understanding from the U.S. officials we've been speaking to for the past week or so have said that this wasn't one conversation or one, as we've all sort of been joking about, a conference call.
KUBEThere's no way that you could ever plot any kind of attack on one of our conference calls 'cause they're riddled with technical problems until everyone hangs up and gives up on it. But you know I've heard that it's more of a mass, a series of communications and that within those communications there was this thread of information that started to match up. And there were little bits and pieces that seemed to all point towards one plot that again, while specific was not against any specific target that was mentioned.
KUBESo I mean, I know it's easy to sit back and say, well, tell us exactly what the target was and tell us how you know it and everything but the fact is that may expose some kind of an intelligence, you know, coup that the U.S. doesn't want to give up which is another reason frankly that I don't think that this was a conference call because why would any U.S. official ever leak that to any media outlet and give up their ability to continue to potentially listen to these high-value al-Qaeda leaders.
SHANKERIt is interesting, Diane, two of your callers have now made the point that 9/11 was insignificant compared to the mistakes that were made in the name of 9/11. I'd just like to sort of rephrase that a little bit because I think there's a very important strain across America that supports that view.
SHANKERAnd I think it goes to the fact that America needs to learn resilience in the face of problems. After 9/11 the leadership of this country called al-Qaeda an existential threat. That means they viewed it as a threat to the very existence of our country. Al-Qaeda then, al-Qaeda now cannot threaten the existence of our country unless we do things that so undercut our values that we diminish the power of our country.
SHANKERSo while I disagree with the sort of dismissive nature of the 2,000 who died on 9/11. They were innocent. I think there's a very important public discussion that needs to be held about putting national security risks in perspective and responding with resilience and the appropriate methods and not overreaching.
REHMAnd what does that mean about going into Iraq as we did after 9/11?
SHANKERI will let history judge that having spent a lot of time on the ground I can tell you the military commanders and the troops I've spent time with were following lawful orders. They executed the mission to the best of their ability. The question you ask me, I'm afraid I have to defer. I'm a Pentagon beat reporter, not an editorial writer so my view on the rightness or wrongness of the war would be inappropriate to speak about today.
REHMAll right, let's go to Louisville, Ky. Hi there, Joe, you're on the air.
JOEGood morning, Diane, and to your guests. I had a quick question for them if they could solve this for me. It seems that the Middle East has just been full of warfare for over 1,000 years between the Sunni and the Shia and the radicals have pretty much dominated the conversation over there for, you know, at least the last 15 years.
JOEI'm wondering if, you know, like our radicals here in the United States have been dominating the conversation here. We seem to have been the sheriff that tried to walk in after World War I, World War II and separate them and instead we got the black eye. In every sense, we've been the target of their aggressions even though they hate each other and if we were removed from the formula wouldn't they still be hating each other and fighting each other as is going on right now in Egypt and Syria and all over the Middle East? They're going after each other like dogs.
REHMInteresting question and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Courtney?
KUBEWell, I mean, Joe, since you brought up Egypt, you know, let's take the situation in Egypt right now. The Muslim Brotherhood was in power there for about a year I think before Mohamed Morsi was deposed, was kicked out of office. They are seen as a radical element, a radical group.
KUBEBut what was interesting was this week we had Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Secretary Burns calling for inclusiveness, calling to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the conversation because if they really want to establish a viable government, rebuild their disaster of an economy and tourism industry then they need to have some sort of an inclusiveness if they want to have any kind of a democracy there they need to include these "radical" elements for the future.
KUBESo I take your point, but I think Egypt is a good example of a place where, you know, the more radical elements need to really be brought into the fold. The same thing, you could argue happened frankly in Iraq although Iraq isn't a very good example right now with the massive levels of violence that we've been seeing there this summer.
MELHEMLook, I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood has been there for 80 years. Part of that history they went underground because they were persecuted violently and two of their great leaders were executed. And then they later on, they renounced violence and they wanted to play on, you know, the open field of politics.
MELHEMThe president of Egypt I didn't like. He was elected. He was elected when the group was acting above the table, openly. He was elected, okay, and the Egyptians are against him today, elected him because they didn't want the military. Now they are in love with the military.
MELHEMOkay, it's fickle. It's a fickle political culture. I don't know. But let me go back to the Sunni/Shia. This is true that the rift goes back 1400 years. It began as a political rift and then became more, you know, theological and all that but in the last 200 or 300 years they were not slaughtering each other. The recent phenomena, the killing of Sunni/Shia, you know, the warfare in Iraq or in Syria or whatever, it is recent phenomena.
MELHEMAnd another thing, I'm very sensitive about this issue. The Middle East is not unique when it comes to violence. We did not have the 100 Years War, The 30 Years War. The bloodiest wars of the 20th century were fought by white men in Europe and in the world, not by the Muslims of the Middle East and others.
MELHEMAnd then, you know, now we talk about, oh the Middle East is full of violence. Well, they used to say the same thing about the Balkans. So let's have a, you know, historic perspective. There is nothing unique about the people of the Middle East. If anything, the worst wars and atrocities committed in the 20th century were committed on European soil by Western powers.
REHMAll right, to Indianapolis and Dan, last question.
DANAh, yeah, I'd like to backtrack for a second. I know there was a comment made regarding the whistleblower opportunity that Snowden might have had.
DANIf I'm not mistaken, Bill Binney was a 30-year career man in NSA and there were several other NSA employees that had already come forward and they were featured on "60 Minutes" and The New York Times and really other than that the press didn't really jump all over the issue until the actual documentation was released.
REHMAnd one further point, we've just received several emails asking that we clarify that Manning said he did try to leak information to The New York Times and The Washington Post and got no response. Only then did he go to WikiLeaks.
KUBEBut frankly and Manning's attorneys made this case that they consider WikiLeaks to be a journalistic organization. So that's true, believe me I sat through days and days and days of that court martial and the hearings. But the appropriate way that Manning should have gone about his, relaying his concerns was to go to his superiors and his NCO and whatnot.
KUBEHe did try to go to The Washington Post and I think the New York Times, but it ended up being WikiLeaks that accepted the information.
REHMBut had he gone to his superiors as we've seen, read, heard in the past, he might have gotten squashed down.
KUBEAnd realistically he probably would have gotten squashed and nothing would have happened and then if he had leaked the information to any kind of a journalistic organization you could sort of give him a little bit more credibility as a "whistleblower."
REHMCourtney Kube of NBC, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel, Thom Shankar of The New York Times, thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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