The Truth About the USS Liberty

American Legion Joins VFW in Calling for Congressional Investigation of Israel’s Attack on USS Liberty.

Updated on December 29, 2018
USS Liberty, body bags.
USS Liberty, body bags.

Due to the persistence of surviving crew members and the continual emergence of new revelations, the national veteran’s group American Legion has passed Resolution 40 calling for Congress to “publicly, impartially, and thoroughly” investigate the attack by Israel on an American ship in 1967, in which 34 American sailors were killed and hundreds of others were wounded. The resolution comes despite a veil of government secrecy which keeps key documents on the attack classified more than 50 years later. [NSA USS Liberty documents]

The attack, which surviving crew members to a man say was deliberate, as well as a stellar list of high-ranking officials, has never been officially investigated outside of a Navy Court of Inquiry and an NSA probe. Surviving crew members were not allowed to testify to key points which did not fit the official conclusion that it was an accident.

For example, according to James Ennes who was Officer of the Deck that day, crew members were never allowed to give testimony witnessing an Israeli patrol boat’s methodical machine-gunning of the life boats, which supports the contention that the Israelis wanted no survivors.

The surviving crew continues to hold a memorial service in Washington DC each year on the date of the attack, and issues invitations to members of Congress to attend. To date, not one congress member has attended a service.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the other major US veterans’ organization, passed a national resolution calling for a congressional investigation in 2003.

Although the American Legion leadership has fought hard over the years to prevent the Liberty survivors’ resolution from passing, the rank and file has overwhelmingly supported the veterans, and passed the resolution thunderously on a voice vote. The leadership had no choice but to introduce it into the record. Resolution 40 itself is a devastating document, reading in part:

WHEREAS, on June 8, 1967, while operating in support of the National Security Agency (NSA) in international waters, properly marked as to her identity and nationality, and in calm, clear weather in the eastern Mediterranean, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was the target of an unprovoked attack by Israeli military forces that killed 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounded 173; and,
….
WHEREAS, according to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) information reports from June and October, 1967, sources in Tel Aviv reported: “Israel’s forces knew exactly what flag the [L]IBERTY was flying” and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “personally ordered the attack” on the Liberty over the objections of senior uniformed military personnel, one of whom characterized the attack as “pure murder”; and,

WHEREAS, Richard Helms (Director of Central Intelligence, 1966-1973), stated in a 1984 CIA interview: “…I don’t think there can be any doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing…”; and,

WHEREAS, Lieutenant General Marshall S. Carter, USA (ret.) (Director of the NSA, 1965-1969), recalled in a 1988 NSA interview that he stated at a Congressional hearing in 1967 that the attack on the Liberty “couldn’t be anything else but deliberate…and,

WHEREAS…Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, USN (ret.) said: “there is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew” (Moorer was also the legal counsel for the official Navy investigation);

The American Legion Resolution 40 harnesses two of the most powerful non-corporate lobbies in America, US military veterans. The survivors are now asking military veterans to forward the resolution to their congressional representatives.

On the morning of June 8th, 1967, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft circled slowly around the Liberty, according to the sailors, for 9 hours, making 13 very close passes. The Liberty crew members recall the planes were close enough to wave at the pilots, who waved back. The ship was flying two American flags, including the Holiday Colors, a particularly large flag. The breeze was around 15 mph and the flags flew fully unfurled.

At around two in the afternoon, after the recon planes broke off, Israeli Mirage jets came roaring over the horizon and opened fire, for nearly two hours, with .30mm cannon, rockets, missiles, and napalm bombs. Then an Israeli Navy patrol boat arrived and launched torpedoes.

According to the timeline of If Americans Knew, a website run by survivors, at 12:15 and 12:45, Israeli recon aircraft again circled the ship. The timeline reads:

1215 & 1245: Israeli reconnaissance aircraft again circle Liberty.

1341: Israeli torpedo boats spot Liberty and call for an immediate air strike.

1358: Two unmarked delta-winged Mirage jets attack Liberty. After taking out gun mounts, they target ship’s antennae and bridge with heat-seeking missiles.

1405: Three unmarked Dassault Mystère IIIC jets attack with napalm and rockets. Ship tries to contact Sixth Fleet headquarters, but five of Liberty’s six shore circuits are jammed. Radio operator manages to send distress signal from Captain McGonagle: “Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance.” Attack lasts approximately 22 minutes, involving 30 to 35 sorties, killing nine men and wounding around 60. Israeli pilot reports to base: “Great, wonderful, she’s burning, she’s burning.”

1409: Captain Joe Tully of the USS Saratoga acknowledges call for help, dispatches four F-4 Phantom jets, and informs Liberty that help is on the way. Within minutes U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara orders rescue jets to return: “Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.” Rear Admiral Geis relays message and tells them to re-launch jets in 90 minutes.

1424: Three French-built 62-ton Israeli motor torpedo boats approach Liberty in attack formation. Because the Israeli fighters had destroyed the American flag, Captain McGonagle orders the signalman to hoist the “holiday ensign,” the largest flag the ship has.

1435: Torpedo boats launch five German-made 19-inch torpedoes at Liberty. One torpedo strikes starboard directly into NSA area, accounting for 25 of the 34 men who would be killed. Torpedo boats then circle, machine-gunning the ship with armor-piercing projectiles for another 40 minutes.

1450: Commander of Sixth Fleet orders carriers USS America and USS Saratoga to send aircraft to defend Liberty.

History has charged LBJ with failing to assist the ship and ordering a cover-up. As to the reason for the attack, Admiral Thomas Moorer once speculated it was an Israeli attempt to draw the US into war with Egypt, which Israel was fighting at the time in the Six Day War. The apparent attempt to kill all hands and leave no witnesses is cited as support for this thesis. Indeed, sources say LBJ had already launched nuclear-tipped jets toward Cairo when word came that the Liberty had not sunk.

If true, it has also been speculated, the Liberty crew, by saving the ship, may have prevented World War III. Survivor Phil Tourney, in his talks recounting the damages from over 800 cannon rounds, rockets, missiles, napalm bombs, and torpedoes, has said that the ship not sinking is to him a “miracle.”

In 2007, the Chicago Tribune published an explosive exclusive, in which US officers who had seen presently classified NSA transcripts of radio transmissions that day disputed the accuracy of leaked transcripts published by the Jerusalem Post.

The Tribune reported:

“The transcript published by the Jerusalem Post bore scant resemblance to the one that in 1967 rolled off the teletype machine behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning office in the Air Force.

“The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it,” Forslund recalled. “The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag.

“The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors.”

The Tribune reported the words of James Gotcher, who was then serving with the Air Force Security Service’s 6924th Security Squadron, an adjunct of the NSA. Gocher said:

“There is simply no way that [the Post transcript is] the same as what I saw,”

Even more damning are the recollections to the Tribune of Air Force Capt. Richard Block, who was commanding an intelligence wing of more than 100 analysts and cryptologists monitoring Middle Eastern communications.

“Some of the pilots did not want to attack,” Block said. “The pilots said, ‘This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?’

“And ground control came back and said, ‘Yes, follow orders.'”

Forslund, Gotcher, and Block agree that the Jerusalem Post transcript was not at all like what they remember reading.

During the attack, some Liberty crew fought fire and damage even while wounded. Less wounded cared for more gravely wounded. With Israeli 30mm cannon being made for tank killing, the rounds punched through the thin steel hull and butchered men deep inside the ship.

For the incredible drama of that day, in which one Medal of Honor was won and a rafter of other heroism decorations, the bare facts of the USS Liberty attack are little-known, with barriers and stumbling blocks placed in the paths of survivors at every turn. Even though the American Legion passed Resolution 40, in 2018 it denied booth space to Liberty survivors at their annual convention. James Ennes, the Officer of the Deck that day, has written a book which, although well received and with many orders, seems to have problems finding its way into major bookstores.

It is clear that the surviving veterans are not fading into the sunset quietly.

As the Chicago Tribune reporter reached out to survivors for telephone interviews he relates:

…decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot talk about the attack without shouting or weeping.

The epic struggle to be heard and avenge their shipmates, almost all young in their twenties when killed, by forcing Israel and the US government to admit it was not an accident, might recall the Dylan Thomas lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Replace Washington War Hawks

After Syria, Trump Should Clean Out His National Security Bureaucracy

They’re undermining his positions and pursuing their own agendas. John Bolton should be the first to go.

John Bolton (Gage Skidmore/Flikr)

President Donald Trump has at last rediscovered his core foreign policy beliefs and ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Right on cue, official Washington had a collective mental breakdown. Neocons committed to war, progressives targeting Trump, and centrists determined to dominate the world unleashed an orgy of shrieking and caterwauling. The horrifying collective scream, a la artist Edvard Munch, continued for days.

Trump’s decision should have surprised no one. As a candidate, he shocked the Republican Party establishment by criticizing George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq and urging a quick exit from Afghanistan. As president, he inflamed the bipartisan War Party’s fears by denouncing America’s costly alliances with wealthy industrialized states. And to almost everyone’s consternation, he said he wanted U.S. personnel out of Syria. Once the Islamic State was defeated, he explained, Americans should come home.

How shocking. How naïve. How outrageous.

The president’s own appointees, the “adult” foreign policy advisors he surrounded himself with, disagreed with him on almost all of this—not just micromanaging the Middle East, but subsidizing Europeans in NATO, underwriting South Korea, and negotiating with North Korea. His aides played him at every turn, adding allies, sending more men and materiel to defend foreign states, and expanding commitments in the Middle East.

Last spring, the president talked of leaving Syria “very soon.” But the American military stayed. Indeed, three months ago, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced an entirely new mission: “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

That was chutzpah on a breathtaking scale. It meant effectively that the U.S. was entitled to invade and dismember nations, back aggressive wars begun by others, and scatter bases and deployments around the world. Since Damascus and Tehran have no reason to stop cooperating—indeed, America’s presence makes outside support even more important for the Assad regime—Bolton was effectively planning a permanent presence, one that could bring American forces into contact with Russian, Syrian, and Turkish forces, as well as Iranians. As the Assad government consolidates its victory in the civil war, it inevitably will push into Kurdish territories in the north. That would have forced the small American garrison there to either yield ground or become a formal combatant in another Middle Eastern civil war.

The latter could have turned into a major confrontation. Damascus is backed by Russia and might be supported by Ankara, which would prefer to see the border controlled by Syrian than Kurdish forces. Moreover, the Kurds, under threat from Turkey, are not likely to divert forces to contain Iranians moving with the permission of the Damascus government. Better to cut a deal with Assad that minimizes the Turks than be Washington’s catspaw.

The Pentagon initially appeared reluctant to accept this new objective. At the time, Brigadier General Scott Benedict told the House Armed Services Committee: “In Syria, our role is to defeat ISIS. That’s it.” However, the State Department envoy on Syria, Jim Jeffrey, began adding Iran to his sales pitch. So did Brian Hook, State’s representative handling the undeclared diplomatic war on Iran, who said the goal was “to remove all forces under Iranian control from Syria.”

Apparently this direct insubordination came to a head in a phone call between President Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Why are you still there?” the latter asked Trump, who turned to Bolton. The national security advisor was on the call, but could offer no satisfactory explanation.

Perhaps at that moment, the president realized that only a direct order could enforce his policy. Otherwise his staffers would continue to pursue their militaristic ends. That determination apparently triggered the long-expected resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who deserves respect but was a charter member of the hawkish cabal around the president. He dissented from them only on ending the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Still in place is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who so far has proven to be a bit more malleable though still hostile to the president’s agenda. He is an inveterate hawk, including toward Tehran, which he insists must surrender to both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as part of any negotiation. He’s adopted the anti-Iran agenda in Syria as his own. His department offered no new approach to Russia over Ukraine, instead steadily increasing sanctions, without effect, on Moscow. At least Pompeo attempted to pursue discussions with North Korea, though he was certainly reluctant about it.

Most dangerous is Bolton. He publicly advocated war with both Iran and North Korea before his appointment, and his strategy in Syria risked conflict with several nations. He’s demonstrated that he has no compunctions about defying the president, crafting policies that contradict the latter’s directives. Indeed, Bolton is well-positioned to undermine even obvious successes, such as the peaceful opening with North Korea.

Supporting appointments to State and the National Security Council have been equally problematic. Candidate Trump criticized the bipartisan War Party, thereby appealing to heartland patriots who wonder why their relatives, friends, and neighbors have been dying in endless wars that have begotten nothing but more wars. Yet President Trump has surrounded himself with neocons, inveterate hawks, and ivory tower warriors. With virtually no aides around him who believe in his policies or were even willing to implement them, he looked like a George Bush/Barack Obama retread. The only certainty, beyond his stream of dramatic tweets, appeared to be that Americans would continue dying in wars throughout his presidency.

However, Trump took charge when he insisted on holding the summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Now U.S. forces are set to come home from Syria, and it appears that he may reduce or even eliminate the garrison in Afghanistan, where Americans have been fighting for more than 17 years. Perhaps he also will reconsider U.S. support for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen.

Trump should use Secretary Mattis’s departure as an opportunity to refashion his national security team. Who is to succeed Mattis at the Pentagon? Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan appears to have the inside track. But former Navy secretary and senator Jim Webb deserves consideration. Or perhaps it’s time for a second round for former senator Chuck Hagel, who opposed the Gulf war and backed dialog with Iran. Defense needs someone willing to challenge the Pentagon’s thinking and practices. Best would be a civilian who won’t be captured by the bureaucracy, one who understands that he or she faces a tough fight against advocates of perpetual war.

Next to go should be Bolton. There are many potential replacements who believe in a more restrained role for America. One who has been mentioned as a potential national security advisor in the past is retired Army colonel and respected security analyst Douglas Macgregor.

Equally important, though somewhat less urgent, is finding a new secretary of state. Although Pompeo has not so ostentatiously undermined his boss, he appears to oppose every effort by the president to end a war, drop a security commitment, or ease a conflict. Pompeo’s enthusiasm for negotiation with Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin is clearly lagging. While the secretary might not engage in open sabotage, his determination to take a confrontational approach everywhere except when explicitly ordered to do otherwise badly undermines Trump’s policies.

Who to appoint? Perhaps Tennessee’s John Duncan, the last Republican congressman who opposed the Iraq war and who retired this year after decades of patriotic service. There are a handful of active legislators who could serve with distinction as well, though their departures would be a significant loss on Capitol Hill: Senator Rand Paul and Representatives Justin Amash and Walter Jones, for instance.

Once the top officials have been replaced, the process should continue downwards. Those appointed don’t need to be thoroughgoing Trumpists, of whom there are few. Rather, the president needs people generally supportive of his vision of a less embattled and entangled America: subordinates, not insubordinates. Then he will be less likely to find himself in embarrassing positions where his appointees create their own aggressive policies contrary to his expressed desires.

Trump has finally insisted on being Trump, but Syria must only be the start. He needs to fill his administration with allies, not adversaries. Only then will his “America First” policy actually put America first.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

The Howrah Bridge in Calcutta (Kolkata)

The mighty Howrah Bridge in Calcutta is the lifeline between the city of Howrah on the West side of the Hooghly River and Calcutta on the East. There is a massive amount of traffic, vehicles and pedestrians every day.

These pictures were taken on December 8, 2018. I walked across the bridge from Calcutta and back with the crowds of pedestrians. It is worth doing to get a feel of this great city.

These pictures were taken with my fifty-year old Minolta camera with a 28 mm Vivitar lens. I developed the film myself. Sometimes old things work better.

A constant stream of people are walking across the bridge.

An impressive sight. The massive bridge shakes from time to time as one walks across it.

On the way up to the walkway of the bridge.

The masses.

The regulations against vending on the approaches to the bridge are conveniently ignored, it seems. In some cases, at least.

A constant stream of traffic and people.

It is about one third of a mile across the bridge.

I was actually supposed to be crossing on the opposite side of the bridge, to the left.

It is sometimes very crowded.

There is a place for relieving one’s self before making the trek. I took a picture clandestinely.

The famous flower market under the bridge.

A lot of goods cross on heads, for sure.

And on shoulders.

Old and crowded buses. But they still work.

It is a city full of life and activity and one must be cautious to keep from getting run over. Light crossings often do not work. I was rather stuck here. The best way to get across the street is to join a jaywalking crowd and hope for the best.

Colorful old trams that sometimes run off the rails. It is a wonder how they keep going.

Coconuts cut open for drinking the juice. Plentiful fruits.

Plates of fruit, papaya, watermelon, banana and so on sold under the bridge.

After doing a lot of trekking around India, I always wanted to take this trek through Calcutta. A great and vibrant city full of life and of course, great wealth and great poverty.

India is a sort of photographer’s paradise. Every meter of the city is another interesting picture. It must be the greatest place in the world to do street photography. If one has the energy, that is. December is a pleasant time of the year.

 

 

Handing Mattis His Ass

Handing Mattis his Ass

Trump Scores, Breaks Generals’ 50-Year War Record

His national security team had been trying to box him in like every other president. But he called their bluff.

President Donald Trump walks with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Howard, commander of Joint Force Headquarters, at Arlington National Cemetery, May 29, 2017. Behind them are Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Flickr/CreativeCommons/DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

The mainstream media has attacked President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as impulsive, blindsiding his own national security team. But detailed, published accounts of the policy process over the course of the year tell a very different story. They show that senior national security officials and self-interested institutions have been playing a complicated political game for months aimed at keeping Trump from wavering on our indefinite presence on the ground in Syria.

The entire episode thus represents a new variant of a familiar pattern dating back to Vietnam in which national security advisors put pressure on reluctant presidents to go along with existing or proposed military deployments in a war zone. The difference here is that Trump, by publicly choosing a different policy, has blown up their transparent schemes and offered the country a new course, one that does not involve a permanent war state.

The relationship between Trump and his national security team has been tense since the beginning of his administration. By mid-summer 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford had become so alarmed at Trump’s negative responses to their briefings justifying global U.S. military deployments that they decided to do a formal briefing in “the tank,” used by the Joint Chiefs for meetings at the Pentagon.

But when Mattis and Dunford sang the praises of the “rules-based, international democratic order” that has “kept the peace for 70 years,” Trump simply shook his head in disbelief.

By the end of that year, however, Mattis, Dunford, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo believed they’d succeeded in getting Trump to use U.S. troops not only to defeat Islamic State but to “stabilize” the entire northeast sector of Syria and balance Russian and Iranian-sponsored forces. Yet they ignored warning signs of Trump’s continuing displeasure with their vision of a more or less permanent American military presence in Syria.

In a March rally in Ohio ostensibly about health care reform, Trump suddenly blurted out, “We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon—very soon we’re coming out.”

Then in early April 2018, Trump’s impatience with his advisors on Syria boiled over into a major confrontation at a National Security Council meeting, where he ordered them unequivocally to accept a fundamentally different Syria deployment policy.

Trump opened the meeting with his public stance that the United States must end its intervention in Syria and the Middle East more broadly. He argued repeatedly that the U.S. had gotten “nothing” for its efforts, according to an account published by the Associated Press based on interviews with administration officials who had been briefed on the meeting. When Dunford asked him to state exactly what he wanted, Trump answered that he favored an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces and an end to the “stabilization” program in Syria.

Mattis responded that an immediate withdrawal from Syria was impossible to carry out responsibly, would risk the return of Islamic State, and would play into the hands of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, whose interests ran counter to those of the United States.

Trump reportedly then relented and said they have could five or six months to destroy the Islamic State. But he also made it clear that he did not want them to come back to him in October and say that they had been unable to defeat ISIS and had to remain in Syria. When his advisors reiterated that they didn’t think America could withdraw responsibly, Trump told them to “just get it done.”

Trump’s national security team had prepared carefully for the meeting in order to steer him away from an explicit timetable for withdrawal. They had brought papers that omitted any specific options for withdrawal timetables. Instead, as the detailed AP account shows, they framed the options as a binary choice—either an immediate pullout or an indefinite presence in order to ensure the complete and permanent defeat of Islamic State. The leave option was described as risking a return of ISIS and leaving a power vacuum for Russia and Iran to fill.

Such a binary strategy had worked in the past, according to administration sources. That would account for Trump’s long public silence on Syria during the early months of 2018 while then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Mattis were articulating detailed arguments for a long-term military commitment.

Another reason the approach had been so successful, however, was that Trump had made such a big issue out of Barack Obama giving the Pentagon a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. As a result, he was hesitant to go public with a similar request for a Syria timetable. As CNN reported, a DoD official who had been briefed on the meeting “rejected that any sort of timeline was discussed.” Furthermore the official asserted that Mattis “was not asked to draw up withdrawal options….” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Chiefs, also told reporters, “the president has actually been very good in not giving us a specific timeline.”

Nevertheless, without referring to a timeline, the White House issued a short statement saying that the U.S. role in Syria was coming to a “rapid end.”

Mattis and Dunford were consciously exploiting Trump’s defensiveness about a timeline to press ahead with their own strategy unless and until Trump publicly called them on it. That is what finally happened some weeks after Trump’s six month deadline had passed. The claims by Trump advisors that they were taken by surprise was indeed disingenuous. What happened last week was that Trump followed up on the clear policy he had laid down in April.

The Syria withdrawal affair is a dramatic illustration of the fundamental quandary of the Trump presidency in regard to ending the state of permanent war that previous administrations created. Although a solid majority of Americans want to rein in U.S. military deployments in the Middle East and Africa, Trump’s national security team is committed to doing the opposite.

Trump is now well aware that it is virtually impossible to carry out the foreign policy that he wants without advisors who are committed to the same objective. That means that he must find people who have remained outside the system during the permanent war years while being highly critical of its whole ideology and culture. If he can fill key positions with truly dissident figures, the last two years of his administration could decisively clip the wings of the bureaucrats and generals who have created the permanent war state we find ourselves in today.

Gareth Porter is an investigative reporter and regular contributor to The American Conservative. He is also the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

Bolton’s Syria Plan

BUSTACHE

Bolton’s Hawkish Syria Plan Backfired, Pushing Trump to Get Out

The national security adviser expanded U.S. goals in Syria to challenge Iran. But Trump wasn’t on board, senior officials say, and Turkey took an opportunity to push the U.S. out.

EXCLUSIVE

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

A fateful decision by National Security Adviser John Bolton to expand the United States’ goals in Syria backfired, and is a key reason why President Donald Trump ordered a total withdrawal of U.S. troops, two senior administration officials told The Daily Beast.

Bolton in September added a second mission to the already open-ended operation in Syria: In addition to destroying the so-called Islamic State, U.S. troops would stay in Syria indefinitely, forcing Iranian forces there to eventually withdraw.

Trump adopted a bellicose stance towards Tehran long before he became president. But he was never comfortable with an indefinite stay in Syria yoked to Iran. The officials said that Trump was willing to tolerate fighting ISIS, but was already uncomfortable with the duration of the war for that purpose. In the spring, he told audiences that he was willing to pull out of Syria “very soon,” something his senior advisers had to expend political capital to reverse.

Yet in September, Bolton—known as one of Washington’s most hawkish foreign policy hands, especially towards Iran—effectively reshaped the war, with a new goal. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he told reporters during the United Nations General Assembly.

“Bolton and Jeffrey repeatedly said U.S. forces are in Syria to counter Iran, but the president never signed off on that mission.”
— Senior Administration Official

Some leading Pentagon officials were uncomfortable with Bolton’s anti-Iran goals in Syria. Days after Bolton’s statement, senior Pentagon officials signaled to Congress that they weren’t on board. “In Syria, our role is to defeat ISIS. That’s it,” Brig. Gen. Scott Benedict, an officer on the Joint Staff, testified to the House Armed Services Committee.

Bolton’s revised policy led to broad and public articulation by the State Department’s envoy on Syria, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey. But officials said Jeffrey was implementing what he thought was a policy Trump endorsed. “The president wants us in Syria until [Iran’s withdrawal] and the other conditions are met,” he said in late September.

“In Syria,” added Brian Hook, the State Department’s Special Representative for Iran, “we have three goals. It’s to defeat ISIS, it’s to remove all forces under Iranian control from Syria, and to advance an irreversible political process under UN Security Council Resolution 2231.”

“Bolton and Jeffrey repeatedly said U.S. forces are in Syria to counter Iran; the Defense Department never defined the mission that way. It was always about defeating ISIS,” a senior administration official said. “They were adamant about countering Iran, but the president never signed off on that mission.”

After initial publication of this story, a senior White House official told The Daily Beast in an email, “This is another instance of fake news. The basis of this article is inaccurate. The President has been clear that once the territorial caliphate was defeated, he would bring our troops home.”

But other officials said the expanded, open-ended mission was provocative to the Turks, who saw confirmation of their suspicions that the U.S. was presiding over the de facto creation of a northeastern Syrian Kurdish mini-state on its border, a prospect it considered intolerable.

The U.S. officials said that Turkey used Bolton and Jeffrey’s expanded mission as an opportunity to manufacture a crisis that proved to be decisive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began threatening an invasion east of the Euphrates, where 2,000 U.S. troops were stationed alongside the Syrian Kurdish forces pivotal to fighting ISIS. Jeffrey traveled to Turkey on Dec. 4 for meetings about setting up a working group on Syria that would work out the political future of northeast Syria. Reportedly, the Turks were already dissatisfied with Jeffrey’s position that a Russia-Iran-Turkey diplomatic alliance to settle the Syrian civil war should be wound down.

During a Dec. 14 phone call first reported by the AP, Erdogan told Trump that his anti-ISIS mission was accomplished, and questioned the rationale of a prolonged U.S. deployment, with the prospect of a Turkish invasion hanging overhead. Erdogan, who requested the call, told Trump that Turkey could handle the ISIS threat in the future and then asked him: if ISIS is 99 percent defeated, “Why are you still there?”

One of the senior administration officials confirmed those details to The Daily Beast.

“Erdogan was like, look, I’m going in and the president was like OK, I’ll come out,” the senior official said—a response that shocked both U.S. officials and even Erdogan, who warned Trump against a precipitous pull-out.

In his first public statement following the call, Erdogan said Friday that Turkey will postpone its military operation “for a while.” But the damage is done, with Trump committed to his snap decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

“This is not real estate he cares about. He wasn’t thinking about the broader coalition,” the official said of Trump. “Everyone understood we would change our posture, but this was seemingly so knee-jerk, especially not having a plan with respect to the Kurds,” the official said.

The decision to pull out had immediate consequences in the fight against ISIS, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told The Daily Beast, “One thing that hasn’t been reported is, we were six weeks away from a major clearing operation [against ISIS] that has been planned for a long time. I got briefed on this a year ago—with ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley,” the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, referring to the area where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding.

The day after the Trump-Erdogan talk, a senior adviser to Erdogan warned that the expanded U.S. mission in Syria was turning the region into “another theater for proxy games” and that the de facto mini-state “poses a direct threat to our national security” that Ankara would not tolerate. He directly referenced the expanded U.S. mission.

“They say that now they are in Syria for three main reasons: one is the enduring defeat of [ISIS]; number two is to provide stability and secure Syria’s territorial integrity; and number three is, now they say it publicly, to get Iran and its forces out of Syria,” Ibrahim Kalin, the Turkish presidential spokesperson, told the global policy-focused Doha Forum on Dec. 15, according to the Anadolu news agency.

Kalin was quoted at the forum as telling his “U.S. counterpart” that “Look, I can understand the first two goals, but good luck with the third one… That means [the] Syrian issue is no longer about [the] Syrian issue.”

The Pentagon is still negotiating to keep U.S. air power in the fight over Syria, in support of British and French troops who Pentagon officials hope will backfill departing U.S. troops on the ground. “The decisions are still in process,” the official said.

One source directly involved in the conversations about troop withdrawal from Syria said troops on the ground have been briefed on the announcement. Forces were told that some would withdraw to the U.S. base at al-Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the Syrian border, while others would be redeployed elsewhere. The New York Times reported Friday that the Pentagon is considering cross-border special operations raids into Syria staged from neighboring Iraq to mitigate an ISIS resurgence.

Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria prompted a contemptuous resignation from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the most internationally respected member of his administration. (“The most decorated Marine and thought leader on the military basically just said, ‘Fuck this,’” a source close to Mattis told The Daily Beast.) Several officials appeared blindsided—including Jeffrey, who on Monday gave a speech indicating he understood the expansive U.S. presence in Syria was still operative.

“D.C. seems in disarray now, especially after the Syria announcement,” one senior European official told The Daily Beast, echoing the reaction of allies in both the Middle East and NATO. “We are alarmed. It used to be Russia that was unpredictable.” Now, he said, it’s U.S. foreign policy that’s unpredictable.

And that volatility could have lethal consequences for the Kurdish forces—as well as Kurdish civilians—who sacrificed on behalf of the U.S. to fight ISIS once the final U.S. troops depart.

“They’ve done the majority of the fighting against ISIS in Syria,” one of the senior administration officials said. “How do you treat a partner like this?”

—with additional reporting by Roy Gutman and Erin Banco

UPDATE 10:47PM: This story has been updated with a comment from a White House official.