Southcom disagrees…again

For the second time since 11 March, General Douglas Fraser, head of the US Southern Command (Southcom) in Miami, has differed publicly with US intelligence assessments about Venezuela made by analysts who do not work at Southcom.

General Fraser said in Washington, DC on 27 April that Iran’s activities in Venezuela are diplomatic and commercial – but not military. “We see a growing Iranian interest and engagement with Venezuela. … It’s a diplomatic, it’s a commercial presence. I haven’t seen evidence of a military presence,” Fraser said.

The general’s remarks appeared to contradict an unclassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report sent to Congress earlier in April. DIA is the intelligence arm of the Department of Defense (Pentagon).

The unclassified DIA report about Iran’s military capabilities (there is also a classified report) said that Islamic revolutionary Guards Corp – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) “…is well established in the Middle East and Latin America, particularly Venezuela.”

The Washington Times published a story on 21 April and included a PDF link to the unclassified report. We posted a brief item with the link to the newspaper article, and promptly received a comment from a reader in Venezuela who said that our post was garbage because the original article was published by the Washington Times, a “neo-con propaganda” outlet.  

But the Pentagon to date has not denied the accuracy of the WashTimes article. It also has not denied the legitimacy of the unclassified DIA report published by the newspaper. However, General Fraser apparently disagrees with the DIA assessment.

General Fraser’s first public disagreement with another intelligence assessment about Venezuela happened on 11 March when he told US legislators that Southcom has not seen any evidence “of any specific relation that could verify that there is a direct link between the government (of Venezuela) and the terrorists.” Fraser also said that Southcom “has maintained a close monitoring of any connection with some illicit or terrorist organization in the region… (but) we’re concerned, skeptical and will continue monitoring” the situation.

The general’s remarks to US legislators caused great surprise among civilian and military intelligence professionals from the US, Colombia, Trinidad & Tobago, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands, and France, among others. But even more surprising at the time was that General Fraser publicly contradicted Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, who told US legislators on 10 March that there have been some signs that Venezuela’s government is cooperating with the FARC. Valenzuela said that he could not say more at a public hearing, but he offered to speak with US legislators behind closed doors.

Then, on 12 March General Fraser clarified his remarks of 11 March at Southcom’s web site: “Yesterday I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and fielded a question from Senator McCain pertaining to the Government of Venezuela (GoV) facilitating contacts between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) during the planning and attempted assassination of Colombian officials, including President Uribe, during their recent visit to Spain. The Senator also asked about other activities where the GoV was engaged in enabling or supporting terrorist activity in our area of responsibility. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela was asked a similar question one day earlier during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Conference on 10 March.”

“Assistant Secretary Valenzuela and I spoke this morning (12 March) on the topic of linkages between the government of Venezuela and the FARC. There is zero daylight between our two positions and we are in complete agreement: There is indeed clear and documented historical and ongoing evidence of the linkages between the Government of Venezuela and the FARC. We track this and continue to monitor the amount and level of direct support in the form of money, networks, and providing a safe haven for operations and personnel. In this view and pursuit, we are in direct alignment with our partners at the State Department and the Intelligence Community.”

Reading between the lines of Fraser’s clarification, it was clear that Valenzuela may have engaged in a bit of diplomatic ear pulling. In the US, generals do not outrank Assistant Secretaries of State. But now Fraser has differed with a DIA assessment about Iranian military activities in Venezuela – although Fraser apparently did not say that there is no evidence of an IRGC-QF presence in other Latin American states besides Venezuela. What’s going on? We tried to answer the question in a previous post in March, but did a poor job of it. So, here goes again:

*In general, the US government is clueless about what is happening in Venezuela, particularly, and more broadly in Latin America. And this is not a recent problem. Successive US governments have never paid much attention to Latin America. The region has never been a top priority for any US administration in recent memory, but particularly so since 11 September 2001. Since 911, the main responsibility of US officials engaged in the conduct of US foreign policy towards Latin America has been to avoid at all costs the eruption of major crises in the region. The Obama White House, and before that the Bush White House, has no time or inclination to deal with any crises in Latin America.

*Since 911, US intelligence assets have shifted massively towards Iraq, Afghanistan and fighting the global war against terrorism – a global war by the only (for now) superpower state in the world against a stateless enemy. US intelligence and military assets chasing elusive Islamist terrorists around the world, and battling in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, have no time or interest in Latin America. In this global war, Africa is a much higher priority for the US intelligence establishment since 911 than is Latin America & the Caribbean. Africa is a hotbed of Islamist extremism and militant groups eager to blow up infidels everywhere. Latin America has drug cartels (Mexico) and narco-terrorist groups (FARC, etc) for whom killing is routine business, but not necessarily a religious obligation.

*The Washington-centric community of US experts on Latin America and the Caribbean, both Democrats and Republicans, is somewhat long in the tooth. Most of US experts on Latin America still active in Washington have been around since the mid-1970’s, engaged in the region since the Carter and Reagan administrations, and focused mainly on issues like Cuba, the Central American Cold War conflicts, Haiti, and the Colombian drug cartels. There are some talented young experts in the Washington policymaking community on Latin America nowadays, but even many of these younger experts will agree that Latin America simply does not command any priority in the US capital, regardless of which party holds the White House.

*The US federal government has more intelligence agencies than any other country in the world. Besides DIA, there are at least 10 other military intelligence agencies in the US military establishment. There’s also the Homeland Security Department, CIA, FBI, DEA, and the Treasury, State and Energy Departments all have their own intelligence and counterintelligence services. But more isn’t better. The vast US intelligence apparatus failed to prevent 911, and it appears that every single new attempt at airborne terrorism against the US has been stopped by passengers aboard commercial airliners who seized wannabe martyrs before they could detonate explosives.

*In Latin America particularly, US intelligence is significantly outmatched by Cuban intelligence. Cuban intelligence has been running rings around the US intelligence establishment for a half-century. Cuba’s DGI is considered one of the world’s top intelligence services. The gringos have way more money and technology, but Cuba’s DGI appears to have been spectacularly more successful in terms of recruiting spies at very senior levels of the US intelligence and diplomatic establishments. Ana Belen Montes, the DIA’s senior Cuba analyst who was recruited by DGI while still in university, spied for Havana against the US for over 16 years before she was caught. The harm she caused is on a scale with the damage wrought by the FBI’s Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union’s KGB and its post-Soviet successor for over two decades.

*The US intelligence establishment that focuses on Cuba and Latin America has never entirely recovered from the Ana Belen Montes espionage case. It’s no small thing that the top US intelligence official responsible for Cuba was in reality Havana’s top spy inside the US intelligence/military establishments. Some people who worked closely with Belen Montes saw their careers derailed because they were unfairly tainted simply for having worked with her.

*Cuba’s DGI owns Venezuela. Today there are upwards of 50,000 Cubans in Venezuela on official missions, by the Chavez regime’s own estimates. Cuban nationals are operating today at senior levels in the armed forces, Defense Ministry, Interior and Justice Ministry, Public Works Ministry, Seniat and Onidex, the national registry, the seaports and customs, the new national police and the new Bolivarian intelligence service (Sebin), the energy, planning/finance, and education ministries, CANTV, Corpoelec, Pdvsa, etc. Caracas Gringo’s contacts within the defense ministry claim that DGI has its own offices in Venezuela with over 600 agents engaged permanently in intelligence and counter-intelligence activities.

*The gringo military mission years ago got booted from its decades-old digs in Fort Tiuna, but the Cubans, and more recently Russians, Belarusians and Chinese, have growing access to the Bolivarian armed forces. Is there a permanent US intelligence presence in Venezuela? In 2009 we were told by a US official in Washington, DC that the law enforcement (FBI/DEA) and intelligence (CIA) offices of the US embassy in Caracas were grossly understaffed.

*No offense intended, but Southcom has always been a military command in quest of a grand mission in Latin America. There’s no action in Southcom’s area of responsibility, and there never has been any. There’s drug trafficking, humanitarian aid, military exchanges. But there are no real conflicts or critical threats to US national security in Southcom’s area. Caracas Gringo has spoken over the years with many US military officers who spent time deployed with Southcom, all of them highly motivated professionals who excelled at their jobs. These officers say that Southcom never has been held in high priority by the Pentagon, and that no one seeking advancement in a professional military career wants to spend much time there. In fact, we’re told that increasingly posts once held by military personnel at Southcom are now held by civilian hires. It’s also a fact that Southcom’s intelligence analysts are not allowed to engage foreign nationals personally. Why? Those are the rules, a source tells Caracas Gringo. Good enough, but how does an effective intelligence analyst obtain intelligence if he/she cannot engage personally with foreign nationals?

*In Caracas Gringo’s experience, over 90% of the generals appointed to command Southcom have literally no experience or even knowledge of the region. They spend 2-3 years at their commands, and acquire their “knowledge” from briefings imparted by experts within their command. But at bottom they know as much about Latin America as, say, Hugo Chavez knows about Baltimore. It also appears that Southcom’s intelligence analysts operate independently of other US intelligence services, which is hardly surprising given the substantial number of US intelligence agencies out there doing their own thing. Is Southcom’s intelligence output less accurate or credible than what is generated at DIA or CIA? Not necessarily. But Southcom certainly does not have the resources, global range and intelligence assets that one finds at DIA or CIA.

General Fraser appears to be basing his remarks about Venezuela on the intelligence generated by Southcom. But Southcom’s intelligence may be limited by some of the factors mentioned above. It’s possible that Fraser also is being misquoted by the Washington defense press corps; if so, not talking to the press would seem a wise course of action for any general. Unfortunately, too many US generals seem to become entranced, or entrapped, by politics.

There’s more to this story, but this post is too long by far….

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3 Responses to Southcom disagrees…again

  1. David I says:

    Its sad for Southcom to miss the target. Every two weeks oen or two commercial flights between Caracas and Maracaibo get delayed, plane changed and makes a stop in Punto Fijo or other city. In each of these stops Iranian personel are on board, they do not like tourists or merchants. However its becomes a usual routine and people are even avoiding certain flights due to this.
    You do not need to be a spy or analyst. Just take a plane in the country


  2. Robert says:

    I have been your blog´s attentive reader and would have to agree your local sources and experience in Latin America qualifies your assessments of the social and political circumstances in Venezuela. But I find hard to believe the apparent degree of benign neglect given to Venezuela while in Colombia there has been a stepped up effort to work alongside their government in battling drug traffic and terrorism.The announced deployment of new military bases and increased military aid attests to this. Still,it will not be an easy task while its eventual success would hinge, in my view, on the neutralization or at minumum forcing a curtailment on the past and present evident aid and protection provided to the insurgents in Colombia from Venezuela´s government (and possibly from Ecuador´s as well). So , is it nor possible that a grand design scenario may be in the making for SouthCom under Pres. Obama´s administration ? One hopeful sign of advancement in the L.A. region has been the joint military maneuvers for the region´s defense (against external threats ) announced by the USA and Brasil. Their acquiescence in the required efforts to reduce to nil the now discredited enemy must be secured .


  3. Roy says:


    Not to jump on the bandwagon against U.S. Intelligence, but LatAm is not the only location in the world where U.S. intelligence is lacking. Some years ago, I was a project manager (civilian) for a project (government) in a remote (but strategically important) Central Asian country, when we experienced an unscheduled change of national command authority (revolution). During the couple of weeks of uncertainty that we experienced, I sought out the best intelligence I could find to be prepared to take the actions needed to protect my staff and my company’s interests.

    While I received assurances from the Embassy that I would receive timely intelligence updates of the situation, in fact, every briefing I received was information that was nearly 48 hours old and nearly half of it was just plain inaccurate or misleading. My own sources on the ground were far more useful and timely. In fact, the U.S. Rep. in charge of the project began coming to me for his daily briefing because I had better information.

    My company also had a subscription to one of the private world intelligence agencies. When I made contact with the analyst assigned to that country I found that she had never actually been there. After a long conversation in which she learned much from me and I learned little from her, she proceeded to call me twice a day for an up-date.

    The point I am trying to make is that while we somehow assume (or at least want to believe) that the CIA, the DIA, and the all the rest are truly professional and really know what is going on in the world, it isn’t always the case.

    CG, I suspect, from what I have read, that you have a similar opinion. I wrote this primarily for your readers to let them understand that you are not the only one claiming that U.S. intelligence is often lacking. My personal estimation is that the DIA report is exaggerated (perhaps deliberately?). While I am sure that Iran has operatives in Venezuela to protect their varied interests here (laundering funds for various groups that do their dirty work, supplies of raw uranium, etc…), I can see no reason for them to have operational military units. What would be their purpose? The Iranian purposes here are political, not military. If they actually did put military units here, it would be seen as an unacceptable provocation to the U.S. and the more rational LatAm states.

    In any case, the U.S. needs to present a unified front. This public disagreement will be seen as a sign of weakness.


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