The Cable

U.S. Won't Ship Iraq The Weapons It Needs to Fight Al Qaeda

The stunning conquest of Fallujah and Ramadi by al Qaeda fighters has reignited the debate about whether the White House should have left combat troops in Iraq. But that argument obscures what may be the original sin of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq two years ago: Washington's refusal to provide Baghdad with the F-16s and Apache attack helicopters that could turn the tide in the bloody fight to recapture the key cities.

The Iraqi military has surrounded Fallujah with ground troops and armored vehicles, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki indicated Monday that he was prepared to order an all-out assault on the city if tribal fighters there failed to expel the al Qaeda fighters on their own. In a jab at the White House, a senior Iranian military official, Gen. Mohammad Hejazi, said Tehran was prepared to give Baghdad weaponry and military trainers to help in what could be weeks of grinding house-to-house, street-to-street fighting.

Current and former U.S. officials say that F-16s and Apaches would change the situation on the ground by giving Iraqi commanders the ability to destroy al-Qaeda targets from the air and prevent reinforcements from reaching the cities. Baghdad has spent years pressing Congress and the White House for permission to buy dozens of the aircraft. So far, though, Washington has said no.

"It's beyond shortsighted," a U.S. military official with multiple tours in Iraq said in an interview. "Airpower can be a game-changer, and we're damaging our own interests by leaving the Iraqi army to slug this out on the ground. If we see them as an ally, we should treat them like one."

The reason Iraq hasn't received the aircraft and helicopters is that some powerful lawmakers simply don't trust Maliki to only use them against al Qaeda fighters and other militants. Congressional opponents of the deal instead worry the Iraqi prime minister might one day use them against domestic enemies from the country's restive Sunni minority. The Obama administration supports Iraq's request for Apaches, but powerful members of Congress have so far refused to allow the deal to move forward.

At press time, a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, one of the lawmakers that have blocked the deal in the past, didn't respond to a request for comment about whether the lawmaker still opposes the Apache sale. Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokeswoman, said Baghdad was hoping to buy American weapons to "increase its capability to counter terrorist threats."

"The administration supports this and we are working with Congress on providing additional military equipment to Iraq for this effort," she said.

Still, the ongoing U.S. refusal to ship warplanes and attack helicopters to Iraq means that the country's air force basically exists in name only. Shunned by Washington, Baghdad has signed agreements to buy dozens of Russian Mi-35 helicopters, but most of them won't arrive in Iraq until later this year. For the moment, Iraq mainly relies on propeller-driven Cessnas. Baghdad has equipped a few of them with Hellfire missiles, but the planes seem more appropriate for a private airstrip in the United States than for use in a war zone.

The Maliki government desperately wants to upgrade its arsenal, and Baghdad signed a contract in 2011 for 18 F-16 warplanes and inked another one in 2012 for 18 more. None of the planes have been delivered, though the State Department says the first wave of F-16s should arrive in Iraq this fall, nearly three years after the first deal was signed.

Baghdad also wants dozens of Apache attack helicopters, which carry both Hellfire missiles and powerful chain-fed cannons. The senior military official said the aircraft would allow the Iraqi military to carry out relatively precise attacks that could destroy al Qaeda targets inside Fallujah without causing significant numbers of civilian casualties. Iraq has been pushing for the Apaches for years, but it hasn't gotten any of them yet either.

Maliki used his October visit to Washington to ask the White House to prod Congress to sign off on the Apache deals, but there's no sign of movement. That may change in the wake of Fallujah's fall to al Qaeda. Maliki's critics worry about his treatment of the Sunnis and his close relationship with Iran, but many lawmakers are even more concerned about the prospect of significant parts of Iraq coming under militant control. That means they may be willing to give Maliki the Apaches he's wanted for years. The Iraqi prime minister is facing a tough fight on the ground at Fallujah and Ramadi. Here in Washington, though, the tide could quickly start to turn. 

The Cable

FBI Drops Law Enforcement as 'Primary' Mission

The FBI's creeping advance into the world of counterterrorism is nothing new. But quietly and without notice, the agency has finally decided to make it official in one of its organizational fact sheets. Instead of declaring "law enforcement" as its "primary function," as it has for years, the FBI fact sheet now lists "national security" as its chief mission. The changes largely reflect the FBI reforms put in place after September 11, 2001, which some have criticized for de-prioritizing law enforcement activities. Regardless, with the 9/11 attacks more than a decade in the past, the timing of the edits is baffling some FBI-watchers.

"What happened in the last year that changed?" asked Kel McClanahan, a Washington-based national security lawyer.

McClanahan noticed the change last month while reviewing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the agency. The FBI fact sheet accompanies every FOIA response and highlights a variety of facts about the agency. After noticing the change, McClanahan reviewed his records and saw that the revised fact sheets began going out this summer. "I think they're trying to rebrand," he said. "So many good things happen to your agency when you tie it to national security."

Although a spokesman with the agency declined to weigh in on the timing of the change, he said the agency is just keeping up with the times. "When our mission changed after 9/11, our fact sheet changed to reflect that," FBI spokesman Paul Bresson told Foreign Policy. He noted that the FBI's website has long-emphasized the agency's national security focus. "We rank our top 10 priorities and CT [counterterrorism] is first, counterintel is second, cyber is third," he said. "So it is certainly accurate to say our primary function is national security." On numerous occasions, former FBI Director Robert Mueller also emphasized the FBI's national security focus in speeches and statements. 

FBI historian and Marquette University professor Athan Theoharis agreed that the changes reflect what's really happening at the agency, but said the timing isn't clear. "I can't explain why FBI officials decided to change the fact sheet... unless in the current political climate that change benefits the FBI politically and undercuts criticisms," he said. He mentioned the negative attention surrounding the FBI's failure in April to foil the bomb plot at the Boston Marathon by Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Whatever the reason, the agency's increased focus on national security over the last decade has not occurred without consequence. Between 2001 and 2009, the FBI doubled the amount of agents dedicated to counterterrorism, according to a 2010 Inspector's General report. That period coincided with a steady decline in the overall number of criminal cases investigated nationally and a steep decline in the number of white-collar crime investigations.

"Violent crime, property crime and white-collar crime: All those things had reductions in the number of people available to investigate them," former FBI agent Brad Garrett told Foreign Policy. "Are there cases they missed? Probably."

Last month, Robert Holley, the special agent in charge in Chicago, said the agency's focus on terrorism and other crimes continued to affect the level of resources available to combat the violent crime plaguing the city. "If I put more resources on violent crime, I'd have to take away from other things," he told The Chicago Tribune.

According to a 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigation, the Justice Department did not replace 2,400 agents assigned to focus on counterterrorism in the years following 9/11. The reductions in white-collar crime investigations became obvious. Back in 2000, the FBI sent prosecutors 10,000 cases. That fell to a paltry 3,500 cases by 2005.  "Had the FBI continued investigating financial crimes at the same rate as it had before the terror attacks, about 2,000 more white-collar criminals would be behind bars," the report concluded. As a result, the agency fielded criticism for failing to crack down on financial crimes ahead of the Great Recession and losing sight of real-estate fraud ahead of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

In many ways, the agency had no choice but to de-emphasize white-collar crime. Following the 9/11 attacks, the FBI picked up scores of new responsibilities related to terrorism and counterintelligence while maintaining a finite amount of resources. What's not in question is that government agencies tend to benefit in numerous ways when considered critical to national security as opposed to law enforcement. "If you tie yourself to national security, you get funding and you get exemptions on disclosure cases," said McClanahan. "You get all the wonderful arguments about how if you don't get your way, buildings will blow up and the country will be less safe."