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June 21, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

China-trained Taliban
China's military provided training for Afghanistan's Taliban militia and its al Qaeda supporters, according to a U.S. intelligence report.

The intelligence was obtained from anti-Taliban Afghan sources. It was surprising to U.S. analysts because China is a target of Islamic separatists, who are known to have been trained in terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

The training of the Taliban forces took place before September 11. It was carried out in cooperation with Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, defense officials told us.

The report, and others like it, was unwelcome news for some of the pro-China analysts within the U.S. government who are pushing the Bush administration to adopt a more conciliatory posture toward the communist government in Beijing. These officials point to China's cooperation in the war on terrorism, which has included intelligence sharing of limited value.

U.S. intelligence officials do not know why the Chinese provided the military training to Islamic radicals. But some analysts believe it was an attempt to gain influence over the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Another theory is that the Chinese military training was a high-risk variation on the Soviet deception operation in the 1920s known as the Trust. The operation created a false dissident organization in Russia. The group lured regime opponents back to Russia, where they were imprisonment or executed. The Chinese training could have been part of an effort to identify some of the thousands of Uighurs in China's western Xinjiang province, who are working with al Qaeda.

Evidence of Chinese military backing for the Taliban continues to surface. Late last month, U.S. Army Special Forces troops discovered 30 HN-5s, the designation for Chinese-made SA-7s surface-to-air missiles, in southeastern Afghanistan.

Other intelligence reports indicated the Chinese shipped missiles to the Taliban after September 11. China's government has denied supporting al Qaeda and the Taliban.

On Iraq
The buzz in the Army is that units may begin deploying in stages to the Persian Gulf this fall for possible military action against Iraq. There are already more than the normal contingent of Army soldiers in Kuwait. The Pentagon maintains the increased tempo has nothing to do with an invasion.

Some military planners are advocating a slow, disguised buildup of land forces and aircraft so as not to spark a pre-emptive strike by Saddam Hussein. Planners fully expect Saddam to unleash all the weaponry at his disposal including chemical and biological warheads if he feels his regime and his power are at stake.

President Bush wants to topple Saddam before his first term ends, but has not approved a war plan.

Go slow
Pentagon acquisition officials have given the Marine Corps the go-ahead to begin flight tests again on the V-22 Osprey. But naval sources tell us program directors are starting very slow to ensure there is not another fatal accident that would doom the helicopter-fixed-wing hybrid.

Marines are still focusing on reducing airframe vibrations and on pilot proficiency, and may not begin the formal flight-test program until August.

"None of the pilots are current in the airplane," said one source. "They are going super-safe, afraid if they have one more incident, the program will be over, which I think it will be."

The Osprey may die even if restarted test flights go well. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his aides are eyeing cuts in some major weapon systems in the fiscal 2004 budget, which gets written inside the Pentagon this fall. The V-22, say sources, is a prime target for cancellation, as budgeteers look to end shaky programs to save money for large procurement bills due later this decade.

Vice President Richard B. Cheney tried to kill the Osprey troop-carrier 10 years ago when he served as defense secretary in the first Bush administration. Congress and the Corps balked, and Mr. Cheney relented. But Mr. Rumsfeld plays hardball, advising the president to veto defense bills he doesn't like.

The Corps grounded the aircraft last year after two crashes that killed 23 Marines.

L.A.-bound ships searched
The U.S. Coast Guard stopped three or four freighters headed for the Los Angeles area earlier this month. The action was part of the FBI investigation into intelligence reports that a group of up to 40 al Qaeda terrorists and a large weapons cache were headed to the United States.

The Coast Guard stopped the ships in the vicinity of Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. In each case, at least one U.S. official conducted a search.

According to intelligence and law enforcement officials, the probe was triggered by intelligence that stated al Qaeda fighters were aboard a freighter that left an unidentified Middle East port last month. The plan called for unloading the al Qaeda fighters and their weapons onto six or seven small boats near Catalina, which would then infiltrate the terrorists into Los Angeles.

A Coast Guard spokesman declined to comment, citing a policy of not talking about "security measures" taken by the service.

French not spoken
Al Qaeda terrorists now imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been playing games with U.S. military interrogators during questioning sessions.

The military has sent language specialists fluent in the languages spoken by the detainees, including Arabic and Urdu.

However, one prisoner confounded an interrogator recently by switching languages and answering questions in French. The questioner did not speak the language.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters earlier this week that the terrorists being held at Gitmo, as the U.S. Navy base there is called, are tough, but the questioning is producing some results.

"Well, first of all, appreciate the fact that these are pros," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "A lot of these people are very well-trained. They know how to deal with interrogation. They are clever, and they lie through their teeth, and they tell different stories at different times. And you begin piecing things together."

Dish network
Seasoned operators tell us it's no big deal that some dish customers can, from time to time, tune into images from the unmanned Predator beamed across the world via satellites.

"In Europe, we did use commercial satellites for routine UAV [unmanned airborne vehicles] in order to save bandwidth for higher-priority classified-ops traffic," said one military source. "When we run high-interest/classified UAV operations, we exclusively used encrypted military nets."

We assume the encrypted signals would include the times the CIA has used the Predator as a killer, remotely firing Hellfire missiles at top terrorists hiding in Afghanistan.

Fidel's fandango
The Western media has a fascination with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro that sometimes borders on infatuation, say anti-Castro Cuban Americans.

Take for example, they say, Mr. Castro's forced public demonstrations in Cuba this week in favor of continuing his hard-line communist state.

Our man in Havana tells us he saw no reporting on the fact that "demonstrators" must check in a hour beforehand with government representatives. Failure to appear has resulted in lost pay or lost jobs.

Noting some Western pictures of demonstrators, the source said, "There is essentially no one chanting or smiling or doing much of anything? They are simply being where they are supposed to be."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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