Tom Diaz

Archive for the ‘Terrorism and counter-terrorism’ Category


In Chechnya, Corruption, Cronatos Hybamper, Espionage, Expendable Youth, Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Mass Incarceration, Political Satire, Putin, Russia, Russian Army, Russian Intelligence Operations, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, War and Rumors of War on December 22, 2016 at 7:00 pm


A grainy old sepia photograph appeared on the screen. Soviet soldiers stood guard in the background as a line of civilians shuffled diagonally across the frame from right foreground to center left middle ground, where waited a chain of Studebaker trucks. A tangled heap of dead bodies lay in the left foreground.

“This picture captures everything you need to know about Operation Lentil. Soviet troops were sent into Chechnya on phony missions and positioned in key locations. Any Chechnyan men who were organized and could potentially resist the Soviets were diverted to fake work sites, where they were disarmed. On Red Army Day, February 23, 1944, the hammer of Operation Lentil fell. Chechnya was to be liquidated. Over half a million Chechnyans were rounded up, loaded onto trucks supplied by America to Russia for the war effort, dumped into the cars of freight trains, and transported to Central Asia. Tens of thousands were murdered intentionally or died as collateral damage during the transport. Many starved to death in their new homeland. Thirteen years later, in 1957, the Chechnyans were allowed to return, albeit to a shrunken and more tightly defined homeland. Most came back. Many have not been inclined to forgive and forget their exile.”

 From Cronatos Hybamper—An Extraordinary Incident

By Tom Diaz

This brief fictional discussion by a fictional CIA operations officer of real history—Operation Lentil—serves as a fulcrum, a plot device in Cronatos Hybamper. If Bad Old Stalinist Russia could deport an entire nation, what would fictional President Gribov’s New Russia be capable of?

Readers of Cronatos Hybamper find out the answer in the next few pages of the novel.

One doubts that those who will be in charge of American foreign policy on February 23, 2017—the 73d anniversary of Operation Lentil—will give much thought to Operation Lentil or its implications, if, indeed, they have even heard of it at all. One suspects that if the history of this horrible episode is somehow brought to the attention of the plutocratic old boys who will be running the American side show, it will be sent straight down the memory hole. (cf: Orwell, George, 1984.)


Operation Lentil was an axial point in history, when Russia turned from the level of harsh brutality in which all nations fighting real or perceived insurgencies inevitably engage to the impudence of ruthlessly obliterating innocent men, women, and children with the sledge-hammer of the unaccountable state.

The fever has subsided but not gone away.

The Chechen case fits snugly into Max Boot’s observation. “The transition from politically motivated to religiously motivated insurgency—from leftist to Islamist extremism—was the product of decades, even centuries of development.” Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), p. 481.

The violent line marking this transition in Chechnya began early in the 18th century, when Czarist Russia first confronted the fierce mountain people of the North Caucasus. Imperial Russia quieted but never really subdued these people, and the Soviet Empire had only marginally greater success.

The Chechens and other independent-minded “small peoples” of the Northern Caucasus really annoyed Stalin and his thugs. Stalin and his creepy secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria invented the myth of Chechen cooperation with Hitler’s Nazi army to “justify” the wholesale exile of Chechens and others. The stunning brutality of Stalin’s deportations, of which the Chechens were numerically the greatest, was meticulously documented by Robert Conquest in The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (New York, Macmillan, 1970). It is the kind of story in which statistics overwhelm human tragedy.

From the Stalinist cleansing of Operation Lentil the Chechen transformation continued through Russia’s two modern wars (1994-96, 1999-2009), all the way to the Chechens who are fighting in Aleppo today. The Chechen wars followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and began as a political fight over whether or not Chechnya (known by various tongue-twisting names) could withdraw from the New Improved Russia. The Russians thought not. Yeltsin was sick, drunk, and ineffective. Putin was ruthless, sober, and very effective.

There are a number of sources about this whole line of history, some listed below, but there is a fine summary of the two modern wars in Max Boot’s Invisible Armies:

The Russians invaded in 1994 and pulled out in 1996, stymied by Chechen guerrillas who, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, resisted to the death. But the Russian army returned in 1999 to subdue the breakaway province using scorched-earth tactics. An estimated 100,000 Chechens were killed out of a prewar population of just a million…Perhaps 20,000 Russian soldiers also perished.

 Russia’s success in Chechnya…showed that even in the twenty-first century a brutal approach could work as long as the counterinsurgents did not care about world opinion and were operating on their home soil, where they enjoyed a de facto level of legitimacy… (p. 514)

Two clear consequences.

One, Chechen fighters are today waging jihad. There is even a blog, the bona fides of which I do not know or care to endorse, but yet exists and “tracks North Caucasian militants in Syria and Iraq and the impact of their participation in the Syrian battlefield on the insurgency in the North Caucasus.”

Two, the brutal methods Putin’s various military forces learned and applied in Chechnya are being repeated today in Syria. See these articles, for example:

“Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo,” by Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, September 29, 2016

A city blasted into rubble, its civilians fleeing, hiding, or simply dying in the ruins while a world looks on in horror. Bombs spilling from Russian warplanes and shells and rockets thundering from Russian guns and launchers. Today this is a portrait of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Not long ago, it was Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechen War, which lasted from 1999 to 2000 (even if sporadic small-scale violence never really stopped). These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.


“Putin in Syria: Chechnya All Over Again,” by Oliver Bullough, The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2016

 If moderate Syrians, the kind of people the West might seek to build a movement around, remain in the country, the Russian government can help Mr. Assad destroy them.

This is what Mr. Putin did in Chechnya, where his security services picked off anyone worth negotiating with. The rebel leaders who lived longest were the fanatics, driven by rage and perverted Islam. They sent traumatized women to blow themselves up on the streets of Moscow, or attacked soft targets — a school, a theater, a concert. Every atrocity blackened their cause, conferred greater legitimacy on Mr. Putin’s allies and ensured less sympathy for his victims.

In addition to the Robert Conquest and Max Boot books noted above, here are some other sources I referred to in whole or in part in researching this and related passages of Cronatos Hybamper (and the prequel which I am writing now):

Czarist Period

The classic history (in the public domain and thus available in a reprint version) is John Frederick Badderley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1908).

Leo Tolstoy fought in the Caucasus and, among other things, wrote the wonderful novel Hadji Murad. (I read Hadji Murad as the best kind of satire—just recounting the things that important people actually think and do.)

The Recent Wars

Mark Galeotti, Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2014). An excellent package of the historical roots and military aspects of these two wars.

Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001). As the title indicates, this monograph ends before the second war did. Based to a large extent on Russian press clippings.

People Who Were There

Arkady Babchenko, One Soldier’s War (New York: Grove Press, 2007). Babchenko fought in both wars and this kaleidoscopic book makes sense best if one has an overall grasp of the period he writes about.

Andrew Meier, Chechnya—To the Heart of a Conflict (New York: Norton, 2005). Classic and admirable journalism, going in harm’s way to report the beast.

Anna Politkovskaya, A Small Corner of Hell—Dispatches from Chechnya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). One of the searing truth-tellings that ultimately cost this brave, brave woman her life. Grim to despair in its details of the impact on little people of the Putin way of war in Chechnya.


Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face—The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012). Another brave woman, eventually driven out of Russia, recounts the rise of Putin, including his exploitation of war in Chechnya.

Masha Gessen, The Brothers—The Road to an American Tragedy (New York: Riverhead Bo0oks, 2015). The story of the Boston Marathon bombers. Useful background on the pinball world of refugees, but in my opinion, Gessen wades into over her head in her discussion of the prosecution’s case and appears apologetic in her naïve discussion about the supposed difficulties of constructing a pressure cooker bomb and the government’s damning evidence.

Paul J. Murphy, Allah’s Angels—Chechen Women in War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010). Snipers, bombers, and other fighters who were women.


In Cronatos Hybamper, Espionage, Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Political Satire, Putin, Russia, Russian Army, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, War and Rumors of War on December 20, 2016 at 6:10 pm


From Cronatos Hybamper –An Extraordinary Incident

A Novel by Tom Diaz (2016)

Project Cronatos Hybamper is a system of deep space satellite observation, connected through real-time data download, lightning computer analysis, product sorting, and automatic routing to scores of intelligence centers.

Four satellites—tiny compared to the huge old clunkers that were hurled into space during the Cold War Era—coordinate with each other to watch every square inch of the earth’s surface, without blinking and without rest. Packed with purpose-built sensors tuned to every known observable spectrum, the satellites capture images in any weather, hear radio and microwave signals, sense changes in physical elements, detect underground phenomenon through certain observable surface signatures, and even smell chemical anomalies by means of spectral analysis.

The visual sensors can read a handwritten name and address on an ordinary post card. The signals sensors can trap and dissect even the most clever communications evasion. By using alternative sets of sensors, the satellite system slices through fog, cloud cover, and the shroud of midnight. It does all of this in the dark, shielded by random but choreographed movements among the satellites, the black arts of stealth technology, and the camouflage of esoteric spoofing. The workings of these satellites are maddeningly invisible to the prying eyes of even the most advanced of America’s friends, friends with benefits, frenemies, rivals, and outright blood enemies.

“Our biggest challenge with implementing the Cronatos system,” Wes McRae, the Director of National Intelligence, quipped at a seemingly casual but well-planned off-the-record moment in a joint briefing that he and the Secretary of Defense gave on Capitol Hill, “Was separating out the workers’ farts from the chemical leaks at the Russian’s special warfare facilities.”


In Cronatos Hybamper, Espionage, Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Political Satire, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, War and Rumors of War on December 20, 2016 at 4:37 pm


Then there was the fact that Lane had recently taken control of his daily intelligence briefing. This surprised and delighted the CIA. The PDB—the President’s Daily Briefing—was cloak and dagger revelation, top secret gospel written daily, read only within the holiest of holies. The PDB was the most revered work of the American intelligence community, the very reason for its existence, secret knowledge made manifest unto a select few.

Until recently, however, President Lane had no questions. He had refused to meet at all with the CIA’s briefers. He preferred instead to let Dr. Quin Rivera read the PDB, talk with the officers if she thought it necessary, and spoon feed him ten minutes of a desultory and derivative summary of the summary of summaries. In the event, the chastened CIA briefers’ only role was to wait alone in a bare anteroom until Rivera had finished reading the PDB. She then handed it back without comment. The officers escorted the iPad back to Langley, where it would be “rinsed and repeated” for the next morning’s ritual.
One recent morning that had all changed.

From the novel Cronatos Hybamper—An Extraordinary Incident, by Tom Diaz

These excerpts are from a longer passage in Cronatos Hybamper about a day during which the worm turns.

President Roger Wilson Lane, an accidental and wholly unqualified hack, has been passive. He has been content to be manipulated by the people around him. But internal changes in the man have come with experience on the job. The President is shedding his old ways. The sucker fish and manipulators have—in their arrogance and selfishness—failed to notice a number of signals about the change building up in President Lane.

I never imagined that the daily news would be so much like what I wrote in this passage. This scene is based on background research and my own imagination about what I learned about the President’s Daily Brief (which I must confess I called the “President’s Daily Briefing,” although I see that it is more correct to call it the “Brief,” just like people used to call a certain organization “the CIA,” but now the real slicks call it just plain “CIA,” dropping the “the.” Go figure.)

There are number of public sources from which anyone can learn about the PDB and the high priestly ritual that attends it. (Come to think of it, this subject would make a great episode of The Simpsons!)

At the easiest and quickest but most superficial level one can read the news, such as this article by Charlie Savage in The New York Times of December 12, 2016, “What Is the President’s Daily Brief?”

Or, you can go to school at the Central Intelligence Agency.

No, not literally, silly (except for some of you).

The CIA website hosts the “Center for the Study of Intelligence,” and the Center has posted many interesting and scholarly documents about how the world of intelligence either works or ought to work. Among them are a series called “Studies in Intelligence.”

The mission of Studies in Intelligence is to stimulate within the Intelligence Community the constructive discussion of important issues of the day, to expand knowledge of lessons learned from past experiences, to increase understanding of the history of the profession, and to provide readers with considered reviews of public literature concerning intelligence.

Among the posted documents is the PDF form of a book by John Helgerson, Getting to Know the President, Second Edition: Intelligence Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952–2004.

Even though the book is mostly about the history of briefings for candidates, it has a ton of fascinating information that applies just as well to the briefing of Presidents in office. Here are two excerpts that give the flavor of how three Presidents approached the CIA’s briefing:

Nixon and Ford

During his eight years as vice president in the 1950s, Richard Nixon had had broad exposure to the activities of the civilian US Intelligence Community. He was aware CIA had briefed the presidential candidates in every election since 1952 and undoubtedly harbored mixed feelings about the way the process had worked in 1960, when his narrow defeat by John Kennedy might well have hinged on the candidates’ different perceptions of the intelligence process. This familiarity with the IC’s capabilities and practices made him willing, at the outset of his new campaign for the presidency in 1968, to accept briefings from CIA Director Richard Helms. It also led him to decline to receive routine briefings from lower level officers, opening the way for Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, to play a central and expanding role. (p. 61)

Ford accepted a suggestion that the PDB be brought to him directly, acknowledging that this would be the most secure way to receive the sensitive document. He specified that he would like to see it early each morning, prefer- ably as his first appointment. Beginning 1 July that became the regular rou- tine, one that was altered only occasionally by such diversions as a vice- presidential breakfast with the president or a speaking engagement out of town. On a few occasions Ford was seen at his Alexandria home before he flew off to keep such an engagement. Always a gracious host, he brewed and served instant coffee.

Ford came to the vice-presidency an informed consumer of the products of the Intelligence Community. He notes that he “had become familiar with CIA first as a member of the Intelligence subcommittee on Appropriations; later in other roles, including Minority Leader. I knew Colby from my days in Congress.” This familiarity, particularly with Colby personally, was to provide the Agency at least a temporary buffer in some difficult times to come. (p. 77)

Jimmy Carter

In late June 1976, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter distinguished himself in the eyes of CIA officials by becoming the first presidential hopeful to request intelligence briefings even before receiving his party’s nomination. Carter’s request, which was directed to President Ford, prompted discussions involving the president, CIA Director George Bush, and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft about who should provide such briefings and when they should be made available to the candidate. (p. 87)

Another source is a more recent book by David Priess, The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents from Kennedy to Obama. Written by a former CIA officer and State Department desk officer, it has the benefit of real first hand experience, if written in a sort of cheer-leading style. Don’t expect any gossip.

A source of endlessly annoying (to me) and usually partisan ankle-biting is the blame game about the PDB and other high-level briefings—what was in them and should the person being briefed have “caught” that item? In my humble opinion, most of the people who raise this issue know little about the real-world process of gathering and assessing intelligence, and especially the difference between knowing an adversary’s capability and his intentions.

I call these people “ball-scratchers,” like the guy at the end of the bar who knows just about everything and has an opinion on it that he is happy to share while relieving his STD itch.

If you feel compelled to either scratch yours or tell one of them to STFU, here is a place to start. The National Security Archive at GWU has a post on the famous or infamous briefing about Osama bin Laden’s intention to attack the United States. It includes a link to a declassified version of the August 6, 2001 PDB. Scratch away at this!

The National Security Archive, “The President’s Daily Brief,’ and link to August 6, 2001 PDB.

Finally, there is this short video which features clips of actual professionals from the intelligence community who know what they are talking about (as opposed to some meme generator at a political boiler room or a Hill “staffer.”)

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