Obama Warned to Defuse Tensions with Russia

A group of ex-U.S. intelligence officials are warning President Obama to defuse growing tensions with Russia over Syria by reining in the demonization of President Putin and asserting White House civilian control over the Pentagon.


FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity


We write to alert you, as we did President George W. Bush, six weeks before the attack on Iraq, that the consequences of limiting your circle of advisers to a small, relatively inexperienced coterie with a dubious record for wisdom can prove disastrous.* Our concern this time regards Syria.

Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-first session. 20 September 2016 (UN Photo)

President Barack Obama addresses the General Assembly’s seventy-first session on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo)

We are hoping that your President’s Daily Brief tomorrow will give appropriate attention to Saturday’s warning by Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova: “If the US launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift not only in the country, but in the entire region.”

Speaking on Russian TV, she warned of those whose “logic is ‘why do we need diplomacy’ … when there is power … and methods of resolving a problem by power. We already know this logic; there is nothing new about it. It usually ends with one thing – full-scale war.”

We are also hoping that this is not the first you have hear of this – no doubt officially approved – statement. If on Sundays you rely on the “mainstream” press, you may well have missed it. In the Washington Post, an abridged report of Zakharova’s remarks (nothing about “full-scare war”) was buried in the last paragraph of an 11-paragraph article titled “Hospital in Aleppo is hit again by bombs.” The New York Times totally ignored the Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s statements.

In our view, it would be a huge mistake to allow your national security advisers to follow the example of the Post and Times in minimizing the importance of Zakharova’s remarks.

Events over the past several weeks have led Russian officials to distrust Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who parses his words carefully, has publicly expressed that distrust. Some Russian officials suspect that Kerry has been playing a double game; others believe that, however much he may strive for progress through diplomacy, he cannot deliver on his commitments because the Pentagon undercuts him every time. We believe that this lack of trust is a challenge that must be overcome and that, at this point, only you can accomplish this.

It should not be attributed to paranoia on the Russians’ part that they suspect the Sept. 17 U.S. and Australian air attacks on Syrian army troops that killed 62 and wounded 100 was no “mistake,” but rather a deliberate attempt to scuttle the partial cease-fire Kerry and Lavrov had agreed on – with your approval and that of President Putin – that took effect just five days earlier.

In public remarks bordering on the insubordinate, senior Pentagon officials showed unusually open skepticism regarding key aspects of the Kerry-Lavrov deal. We can assume that what Lavrov has told his boss in private is close to his uncharacteristically blunt words on Russian NTV on Sept. 26:

“My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, [they] made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia (he confirmed that during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin), apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.”

Lavrov’s words are not mere rhetoric. He also criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia, “after the agreements concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama stipulated that they would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …”

 Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, addresses a high-level meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Syria on Sept. 21, 2016 (UN Photo)

Sergey V. Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, addresses a high-level meeting of the Security Council on the situation in Syria on Sept. 21, 2016 (UN Photo)

Policy differences between the White House and the Pentagon are rarely as openly expressed as they are now over policy on Syria. We suggest you get hold of a new book to be released this week titled The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by master historian H. W. Brands. It includes testimony, earlier redacted, that sheds light on why President Truman dismissed WWII hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur from command of U.N. forces in Korea in April 1951. One early reviewer notes that Brands’s narrative makes us wonder about challenges of military versus civilian leadership we still face today.” You may find this new book more relevant at this point in time than the Team of Rivals.

The door to further negotiations remains ajar. In recent days, officials of the Russian foreign and defense ministries, as well as President Putin’s spokesman, have carefully avoided shutting that door, and we find it a good sign that Secretary Kerry has been on the phone with Foreign Minister Lavrov. And the Russians have also emphasized Moscow’s continued willingness to honor previous agreements on Syria.

In the Kremlin’s view, Russia has far more skin in the game than the U.S. does. Thousands of Russian dissident terrorists have found their way to Syria, where they obtain weapons, funding, and practical experience in waging violent insurgency. There is understandable worry on Moscow’s part over the threat they will pose when they come back home. In addition, President Putin can be assumed to be under the same kind of pressure you face from the military to order it to try to clean out the mess in Syria “once and for all,” regardless how dim the prospect for a military solution are for either side in Syria.

We are aware that many in Congress and the “mainstream” media are now calling on you to up the ante and respond – overtly or covertly or both – with more violence in Syria. Shades of the “Washington Playbook,” about which you spoke derisively in interviews with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year. We take some encouragement in your acknowledgment to Goldberg that the “playbook” can be “a trap that can lead to bad decisions” – not to mention doing “stupid stuff.”

Goldberg wrote that you felt the Pentagon had “jammed” you on the troop surge for Afghanistan seven years ago and that the same thing almost happened three years ago on Syria, when President Putin persuaded Syria to surrender its chemical weapons for destruction. It seems that the kind of approach that worked then should be tried now, as well – particularly if you are starting to feel jammed once again.

Incidentally, it would be helpful toward that end if you had one of your staffers tell the “mainstream” media to tone down it puerile, nasty – and for the most part unjustified and certainly unhelpful – personal vilification of President Putin.

Renewing direct dialogue with President Putin might well offer the best chance to ensure an end, finally, to unwanted “jamming.” We believe John Kerry is correct in emphasizing how frightfully complicated the disarray in Syria is amid the various vying interests and factions. At the same time, he has already done much of the necessary spadework and has found Lavrov for the most part, a helpful partner.

The Security Council adopted resolution 2310 (2016) urging all States that have either not signed or not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) to do so without further delay. The Council also called upon all States to refrain from conducting any nuclear-weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion and to maintain their moratoria in this regard. The resolution was adopted with a vote of 14 in favour, and one abstention (Egypt). 23 September 2016 (UN Photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the United Nations Security Council.

Still, in view of lingering Russian – and not only Russian – skepticism regarding the strength of your support for your secretary of state, we believe that discussions at the highest level would be the best way to prevent hotheads on either side from risking the kind of armed confrontation with Russian forces that nobody should want.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that you invite President Putin to meet with you in a mutually convenient place, in order to try to sort things out and prevent still worse for the people of Syria.

In the wake of the carnage of World War II, Winston Churchill made an observation that is equally applicable to our 21st Century: “To jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than to war, war, war.”

* In a Memorandum to President Bush criticizing Colin Powell’s address to the UN earlier on February 5, 2003, VIPS ended with these words: “After watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served if you widened the discussion … beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”

For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

William Binney, former Technical Director, World Geopolitical & Military Analysis, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)

Fred Costello, Former Russian Linguist, USAF

Mike Gravel, former Adjutant, top secret control officer, Communications Intelligence Service; special agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps and former United States Senator

Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan (associate VIPS)

John Kiriakou, former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS)

Edward Loomis, NSA, Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)

Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East, CIA (ret.)

Todd Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.)

Coleen Rowley, Division Counsel & Special Agent, FBI (ret.)

Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA, (ret.)

Robert Wing, Foreign Service Officer (ret.)

Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret) and former U.S. Diplomat

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  • walkergw

    Not that I disagree with these authors. But Obama is in quite a pickle of his own making. He had time to act and in such a way as to make none of this necessary. He could have made it nearly impossible for Russia to move in to Syria without taking huge losses in the same way they did in Afghanistan. At this point, not even arming the rebels will stop Putin, and after these warnings, doing so would be too high of a risk. So what I didnt see in this important advisory is what to do now. “Therefore, we strongly recommend that you invite President Putin to meet with you in a mutually convenient place, in order to try to sort things out and prevent still worse for the people of Syria.” Is not much in the way of advice. What can Obama trade for Russia’s cooperation? What is the price of no action? None of these important questions are answered and no advice given. This makes this advisory close to worthless. Nothing more than saying “Russia is serious.” Yes, we know that. But what do we do about it?

    • Nexusfast123

      Expecting Russia to turn tail run away was never a strategy. As you say a complete US screw-up from day one. Also enabled the Russians to demo some interesting capabilities.

      • cstahnke

        The strategy is to overtax the Russian security forces by an all court press everywhere hoping to outmaneuver Putin/Lavrov. The U.S., we must remember, has unlimited money to spend on this project along with the Gulf-States since American citizens consider the U.S. military to be as sacred as Christians regard Jesus. The only chance the Russians have is to arouse public opinion within Europe and the U.S. against the Empire by backing and encouraging the nationalism of Trump and his Euro counterparts and, more importantly, continue to pick at the deep divisions within the National Security State.

        Now everyone knows that the Defense Department is in open mutiny as are the neocon parts of the State Department. The President is now only the leader of a minority faction with the government. This is why the anti-Trump forces are hysterical and almost mad with anxiety using every trick in the book to flim-flam the American public into voting in the Neoconservatives who will pick off their opponents in short order. This is why, should Clinton be elected, disruption and resistance is in order and the left (the actual left not the fakers) must join the alt-right in resistance.

        • wunsacon

          Can’t Obama replace people who’ve been promoting policies he dislikes, illegally starting wars he opposes, etc.? If he truly has no power and dislikes what they do, then he should employ a powerful weapon: resign in protest.

          Since he doesn’t do any of that, he doesn’t deserve the “free pass” you give him.

          • cstahnke

            As I’ve said many times in many places, he can not oppose the Deep State because it will hurt or kill him and his family. We are ruled by oligarchs who are, essentially, gangsters and Obama serves at their pleasure.

        • Nexusfast123

          Valid but I don’t think the Russians will let that happen. They will bring it to a head as I think they have confirmed to themselves that the degenerates in Washington are and will remain an extensional threat to their national existence no matter how they try.

          They are in the process of starting a civil defense exercise on a massive scale – 40m people into shelters. It is also ominous that they have reactivated their short-wave radio network.


    • Charlie Primero

      Did not read. No paragraphs.

  • paul

    Why are these people engaged in this activity of promoting the theory that Obama is a Secret Peacenik? It’s all the fault of the bad people around him? And when you cite Churchill, really, one of the most horrific human beings of history?

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    • cstahnke

      I think you misunderstand the nature of the Presidency and the nature of the American political scene. The President’s job is to mediate between power groups within the Washington milieu. While he has the legal authority to order his officials to do what he wants them to do that does not mean his orders will be followed as the famous quote goes “we don’t need no stinkin badges!” In the real world legality is viewed as an obstacle nothing more for asserting power. The fact is that the neoconservative alliance (includes more than neocons) is currently dominant in Washington and they cannot simply be ordered to heel. The powers at their disposal threaten the life both political and physical of anyone who crosses them. Power, as Mao astutely recognized, comes out of a barrel of a gun not from what is taught in high school civics. Who has the actual and symbolic guns counts more than all the elections and morality in the world.

      I believe Obama has proven that he is uninterested in the neocon agenda–neither was Ronald Reagan to his credit–but he still had to give in to them in small matters. Now, much more powerful this group believes it can call the shots. Obama has not major constituency other than from the people to count on–this is not enough. He is trying to marshal other forces know as the “realists” who want balance not hegemony. But people like Ash Carter believe their day is coming with Hilary Clinton and they are beginning to swagger. I believe Kerry is genuine in his desire to serve this Presidency but he cannot control power-relations in Washington nor the people pointing guns at the President and himself.

      • wunsacon

        >> I believe Obama has proven that he is uninterested in the neocon agenda

        He’s been following the Wolfowitz Doctrine and PNAC policy document to the letter.

    • wunsacon

      >> Why are these people engaged in this activity of promoting the theory that Obama is a Secret Peacenik?

      My guess is it’s just a style they’ve adopted: pretend like your audience isn’t a psycho like the people surrounding him.

      Think about if they chose a different style. If they instead were to believe “we know what Obambam is all about, so it’s stupid to pretend he’s a secret peacenik”, then there’d actually be no reason for them to draft this letter to him. These VIPs would be “just another bunch of bloggers with a website”.

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  • Mr Boompi

    I’m sure Obama will pass this warning along to the people that he reports to. And they will tell him to not let the door hit him in the #$$ on the way out.