Armed Conflict Congress Executive Branch Foreign Relations & International Law Terrorism & Extremism

A Less Generous Take on Greenwald's Latest

Benjamin Wittes
Monday, September 29, 2014, 2:59 PM
Jack is very generous to Glenn Greenwald in his post earlier today, in which he notes areas where he agrees with what he terms Greenwald's "skeptical takedown of the factual basis for the attacks on the Khorasan Group (KG) in Syria, and the American Press’s complicity, based on anonymous USG sources, in spreading war-mongering exaggerations about

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Jack is very generous to Glenn Greenwald in his post earlier today, in which he notes areas where he agrees with what he terms Greenwald's "skeptical takedown of the factual basis for the attacks on the Khorasan Group (KG) in Syria, and the American Press’s complicity, based on anonymous USG sources, in spreading war-mongering exaggerations about KG’s imminent threat to the American public." I'm going to be a little less so. It's not that I disagree with Jack's points, which are well-taken. But I think it's important to note that Greenwald does a little more than Jack relates. He does not, to wit, merely criticize the breathless exaggerations in the press's early accounts of Khorasan. He actively spins a conspiracy theory in which he denies that the group exists and accuses the government of making it up to justify war. No, there's no single passage in which Greenwald writes quite what his piece conveys in the aggregate: That Khorasan is a fabrication by U.S. intelligence fed to the U.S. media in order to stoke the war and that the press dutifully bought it and backed off when the group had served its purpose. But he gets pretty close, starting with the headline, "The Fake Terror Threat Used to Justify Bombing Syria." Here are a few other choice quotations:
  • "The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded 'The Khorasan Group.'"
  • "Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual 'Khorasan group' was to degree an invention of the American government."
  • "There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner."
  • "Once the damage was done, the evidence quickly emerged about what a sham this all was."
The motive for this "sham," this "concoction," this "invention" of a "brand new terror threat" that does not "even exist[] in any meaningful or identifiable manner"? Greenwald explains all in his first paragraph:
As the Obama Administration prepared to bomb Syria without congressional or U.N. authorization, it faced two problems. The first was the difficulty of sustaining public support for a new years-long war against ISIS, a group that clearly posed no imminent threat to the “homeland.” A second was the lack of legal justification for launching a new bombing campaign with no viable claim of self-defense or U.N. approval.
Making up a new terrorist group was the perfect solution, he argues. Perfect, that is, except for a few small things. For one thing, public support for military action against ISIS was actually very strong---even without Khorasan---so Greenwald is overstating the first problem which the supposed fabrication was intended to address. More fundamentally, Greenwald's posited second problem---Obama's supposed lack of legal justification for the strikes---was not a problem at all which Khorosan could solve. The administration, after all, claims (wrongly in my view) the authority to attack ISIS under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It also claims international law authority as an exercise of collective self-defense of Iraq. It therefore does not need a separate self-defense rationale for attacks on ISIS based on a threat to the homeland---unless, that it is, it is also attacking a group separate from ISIS that, in fact, poses a threat to the homeland. So what is Greenwald's evidence that the Khorasan Group was made up? It amounts to the following:
  • The group appeared suddenly in the press at a convenient time for the administration in a series of breathless stories that implied that a Khorosan attack was imminent.
  • The press then backed off some of the more dramatic claims that Khorosan posed an immediate threat of a homeland attack.
  • A single reporter tweeted, "Syrian activists telling us they've never heard of Khorasan or its leader."
  • There are almost no mentions in the press of the group until such time as the administration made a decision to start talking about it.
  • One CIA official who served until 2009 said he'd never heard of the group while at the agency.
  • A former U.S. ambassador to Syria said that the term "Khorasan" was used in the government but wasn't what the group called itself.
  • Andy McCarthy believes it's all a scam.
All of this is, I suppose, consistent with the machinations Greenwald describes. It's also, however, consistent with a more prosaic explanation: the intelligence community had been tracking Khorosan for a while and not talking about it until it publicly until it decided to hit the group. The initial stories, reflecting both intelligence community fears and journalistic excitement, were a bit hyped, and cooler heads prevailed over the successive days. Not content merely to suggest that the group is a fabrication, Greenwald goes on to make a startling assertion: "once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized" (emphasis added). Really? In fact, not one of the stories Greenwald cites remotely suggests that either the journalists who wrote them or the intelligence community believes the group to be some kind of ghost or concoction or embarrassing fraud. Greenwald quotes Shane Harris of Foreign Policy, for example, in support of his evaporation hypothesis. I'd venture the guess that Shane would be a little surprised to see his story advancing this notion given that it begins as follows:

Before the first U.S. military aircraft attacked the headquarters of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, early Tuesday morning, waves of American Tomahawk cruise missiles began pounding targets 130 miles west, near the battleground city of Aleppo. They weren't targeting the Islamic State, though. They were battering the training camps and explosives-making facilities of a little-known al Qaeda offshoot called the Khorasan Group that officials say was in the final stages of planning an attack on the United States or European countries.

The U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State gave President Barack Obama a moment of opportunity to launch a one-two punch, hitting both the high-profile militant group that has overtaken vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and the shadowy Khorasan Group. But absent the strikes on the Islamic State, which have been telegraphed for weeks, it's difficult to know if, or when, Obama would have ordered an attack on Khorasan. U.S. intelligence agencies have been tracking the group's evolution for years, but until now, the White House avoided taking military action. As it happened, though, the attacks on the Islamic State have finally given the administration a pretext for hitting Khorasan, which U.S. intelligence officials say is trying to learn how to build bombs that can be sneaked onto commercial airliners.

Greenwald also cites this New York Times story by the estimable Mark Mazzetti. I somehow doubt that Mazzetti was blowing the whistle on some war-mongering myth when he wrote the story's lede:

Some time last year, a Kuwaiti man in his early 30s who had spent more than a decade hiding from the American government arrived in northwest Syria, where he met up with other members of Al Qaeda who had begun putting down roots in a country torn by two years of death and chaos.

American intelligence officials believe that the Kuwaiti, known sometimes as Muhsin al-Fadhli, had been sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader, to take over a cell that could one day use Syria as a base for attacks in Europe and possibly the United States.

Unlike other jihadist groups that have come to prominence in recent years, the cell that Mr. Fadhli came to lead---known within intelligence and law enforcement agencies as the Khorasan Group---avoided the spotlight. It put out no slick Internet magazines and did not boast of its plans on Twitter.

This is something rather less than evaporation. It is certainly true that the breathless sense of impending attack faded as the week went on. But that seems to me consistent with journalists doing their jobs. They learn of intelligence that alarms government. They report it. They raise questions about the intelligence. Government is unsure of the answers, and they report the uncertainty. None of this requires a conspiracy.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

Subscribe to Lawfare