Brandon's Weapons Bazaar
New arms-sales data just dropped. Joe Biden has been so good for the weapons-export market that an analyst wonders if this is "a new normal," rather than a Ukraine-specific uptick. PLUS: Majid Khan is free! ALSO: A corrupt spyhunter mook at the NY FBI, you say?
Edited by Sam Thielman
IT'S A GREAT TIME TO BE ALIVE if you're in the business of manufacturing and selling things that kill people at scale. The latest State Department statistics on the state of the domestic arms industry—and the U.S. is the world leader, as you'd expect from a reigning-if-embattled global hegemon—are eye-popping. So much so that a leading arms-industry analyst wonders if they represent "a new normal," beyond the war in Ukraine.
According to the latest roughly-annual tally of U.S. arms sales, released by the State Department last week, the U.S. defense industry registered $205.6 billion in arms sales during fiscal year 2022. That number encompasses both the $51.9 billion in hardware the U.S. government sells directly to foreign governments (known as Foreign Military Sales) and the far larger $153.7 billion those governments buy from export-designated U.S. arms manufacturers (Direct Commercial Sales).
Using prior State releases and a Congressional Research Service report for recent-historical comparison, that's something of a peak. Total-value Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales were $138.2 billion in fiscal 2021; $175.08 billion in fiscal 2020; $170.09 billion in fiscal 2019; $192.26 in fiscal 2018; $170.03 in fiscal 2017; and $151.5 billion fiscal 2016. Although once inflation is factored in—though I caution that I've done about all the math in this edition that I'm capable of—$205.6 billion may merely rival the high points of the extravagant Trump years rather exceeding them.
"There's certainly a large uptick in the last fiscal year, especially compared to the first year of the Biden administration," says Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, who, unlike me, controls for inflation. "It's approaching some of the peak years of the Trump administration, drawing into question how and if the Biden administration is really different from Trump" when it comes to the arms market.
State says the spike in Direct Commercial Sales this past year "was primarily due to authorizations adjudicated in support [of] Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from Russia’s unprovoked aggression." While we know the stuff sent to Ukraine—here's a recent State Department itemization—it's harder to see how it corresponds to Direct Commercial Sales, particularly since the armaments sent to Ukraine occur through transfers of items already procured by U.S./NATO militaries. State's big-sticker examples of such sales are all non-Ukraine related—unless we're supposed to count the Netherlands' big F-35s purchase…?—like Saudi Arabia buying Patriot missiles and South Korea buying F-15s.
All this is symptomatic of a general lack of transparency around factory-direct arms procurement. Direct Commercial Sales "really are a black box," Abramson notes. They transfer arms from the U.S. to foreign governments just as Foreign Military Sales do, but they don't require the same congressional notification. "It's an ongoing problem," he says. "The numbers we see on DCS aren't that helpful, and it's hurting transparency into the U.S. arms trade." (The examples cited in the last paragraph are from DCS purchases that do carry congressional notification requirements.) [You can go through the items on the State shopping list and find the brand names of the various armaments—the contract for Javelin missiles mostly goes to Raytheon, despite the missile itself being a joint venture between Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin—but that won’t give you the per-unit cost. If Democrats want accountability, they could do worse than to start with literal accounting!—Sam.]
We'll have to wait at least a year to see if these numbers are uncharacteristically high. But Abramson questions whether these ballooning weapons figures might be more like "the new normal moving forward." The Pentagon is priming the defense industrial base to accelerate production—which has applications beyond just backfilling NATO stocks with missiles and, now, tanks en route to Ukraine.
"This could be the indication of a starting point of a rapid expansion of the U.S. defense industrial base and arms transfers," Abramson says. "Whether that will come with transfers outside of the Ukraine war is always a question and potentially a concern. When you ramp up, as the expectation is, often the knock-on effect is the U.S. defense industry will seek to sell weapons outside of the region of conflict. Will we see calls to keep [production] lines open to sell weapons to the Middle East, Africa or Asia, as a counter to China?"
MAJID KHAN, WHOM THE CIA TORTURED, is free and, as of Thursday morning, now living in Belize. It's an extremely big deal—I think Khan's the first of the CIA-tortured Camp 7-residing "high value detainees" to go free from Guantanamo. Carol Rosenberg's write-up seems to agree. It also seems significant that Belize's foreign minister, Eamon Courtenay, is saying that Khan's resettlement is occurring "on humanitarian grounds," and Khan, though subject to a period of police monitoring, will be "a free man."
A statement from Khan himself:
“I have been given a second chance in life and I intend to make the most of it,” said Mr. Khan in a statement issued through his legal team. “I deeply regret the things that I did many years ago, and I have taken responsibility and tried to make up for them. I continue to ask for forgiveness from God and those I have hurt. I am truly sorry. The world has changed a lot in twenty years, and I have changed a lot as well. I promise all of you, especially the people of Belize that I will be a productive, law-abiding member of society. Thank you for believing in me, and I will not let you down. My actions will speak louder than my words.”
In 2021, FOREVER WARS brought you the story of Khan's extraordinary accounting, at his Guantanamo Bay military sentencing, of what the CIA did to him, as well as his remorse about aiding al-Qaeda. Today, I hope he's finally hugging his daughter Manaal.
TED OLSON'S WIFE BARBARA died in the 9/11 attacks. In 2004, Olson, then the Bush administration’s solicitor general argued to the Supreme Court that it had no authority to extend legal protections or any other process rights to the Guantanamo Bay detainees. But 18 years later, Olson is in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the Biden administration ought to pursue plea deals for the remaining defendants before Gitmo military commissions.
In retrospect, we made two mistakes in dealing with the detained individuals at Guantanamo. First, we created a new legal system out of whole cloth. I now understand that the commissions were doomed from the start. We used new rules of evidence and allowed evidence regardless of how it was obtained. We tried to pursue justice expeditiously in a new, untested legal system.
It didn’t work. The established legal system of the U.S. would have been capable of rendering a verdict in these difficult cases, but we didn’t trust America’s tried-and-true courts. In the 20 years since this ordeal began, no trial has even begun.
The other mistake was pursuing the death penalty, he writes. "If the 9/11 defendants held at Guantanamo are willing to plead guilty, and accept a life sentence at the military prison instead of the death penalty, we should accept that deal," is his bottom line. Given who Olson is, what he's done in his career and the pain that he's endured, I would expect this to be the kind of op-ed that the White House pays attention to.
Olson is conceding an error, and I don’t want to be uncharitable to him, but I do think part of his framing is still not quite right. What he's describing weren't "mistakes" of an "untested legal system." They were tests of what a legal state of exception could accomplish and how much of it could endure. So much of it has endured for so long that some of those present at its creation now consider parts of it due for expiration.
MY DAY WAS MADE recently when I walked into my longtime local comic shop, Bulletproof Comics on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, and owner/manager Hank Kwon let me know that someone had just come by the store and pre-ordered WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1, my forthcoming comics debut with Evan Narcisse and Jesús Merino. To this person, thank you so much! Even more than REIGN OF TERROR, it's gratifying down to my soul to know there are people who want to read my superhero spy story featuring soon-to-be-TV-star Amanda Waller and her clash with Battalion from StormWatch.
The first issue of the series will be out on March 21. But there's another important date to keep in mind, particularly if you want to be like the person who just brightened my week: February 12. That's the date by which comic shop owners can place orders for the first WALLER VS. WILDSTORM issue from distributors. The store owners buy their merchandise outright, so they need to know there's enthusiasm for this series, since they have to shoulder a ton of upfront risk when they place orders. Find your closest comic store here and tell the great folks who work there by February 12 that you want your copy of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1!
GREG RUCKA, one of the best writers in comics and co-creator of my favorite current ongoing series, has a new series on the way from Image, along with his Lazarus collaborator Eric Trautmann and artist Mike Henderson. It's a space adventure called The Forged. I've read the first issue and it's full of classic Rucka themes of power struggles, martial cultures and women warriors. Greg remains in his bag. Image says The Forged is coming March 15—but remember what I wrote above? Just now? About the importance of preordering comics? Comics shops need to order The Forged by February 6, the Monday after this edition drops. Rush to your store and preorder The Forged along with WALLER VS. WILDSTORM! I'm borrowing enough Rucka-isms for the two to pair well…
I HAVE MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS, so I don't want to wade very far into the story of Charles McGonigal, the former counterintelligence chief of the New York FBI, who recently got indicted for selling his services to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. (Deripaska wanted intelligence on a rival oligarch.) Read this great Mattathias Schwartz piece in Business Insider, which, among other things, strongly suggests that McGonigal's mistress told the bureau chief about his payoffs after he ended things.
The impact of the McGonigal indictments is still rippling out through the law-enforcement world. The charges accuse an official at the heart of the Trump-Russia investigation of secretly selling his own access, accepting bundles of cash in surreptitious meetings with someone who had ties to Albanian intelligence. McGonigal, a top-tier member of the city's law-enforcement community, a man who had fully integrated himself into a powerful circle of trust where favors get swapped and sensitive intelligence gets circulated, is accused of himself being on the take. If the indictments are correct, McGonigal was leading a dangerous double life, right under the noses of some of the sharpest cops in America.
I'm compelled professionally to refer back to my tangentially related earlier reporting about the sides of FBI special agents you don't exactly get from MSNBC. To offer some clarity on that piece of my 2016 reporting, I've often seen people assert that it is directed at the New York FBI. That is not and has never been true. In both a plain reading of the piece, as well as a subtle reading of the piece, you can see that I am talking about a national phenomenon, not a local one, though certainly not one sparing the New York FBI. Regardless, it is also true that the New York bureau has for decades possessed an incredibly New York reputation for flash, graft and occasional hilarious dimwittery. All that is to say that when I read this sentence from the McGonigal indictment, I heard Alicia Keys bang on her piano as a tear splashed on my Timberland:
When the Friend questioned MCGONIGAL about why the Russian Bank was making payments to the New Jersey Corporation, MCGONIGAL told the Friend, in substance and in part, that it was for "legitimate" work MCGONIGAL was performing for "a Rich Russian Guy."
NOW YOU'RE IN NEW YORK NEW YORK NEW YORRRRRRK
WE NOTED IN OUR JAN. 25 EDITION a quick spike in U.S. military operations in Somalia. Right after we published—and I forgot to note it in our Jan. 30 edition—U.S. special operations forces conducted a helicopter-borne raid that killed a Somali-based Islamic State figure said to be a senior financier. That's the second helicopter raid in a month; the prior one being in Syria, as we noted on Jan. 25. Meanwhile, in Yemen this week, the U.S. conducted a drone strike, something that hasn't been happening as frequently, what with the far broader Saudi/UAE/U.S.-supported air campaign there.
THE COMMERCE DEPARTMENT NEEDS ITS OWN INTELLIGENCE SERVICE, argues Jonathan Panikoff, who was one of the top U.S. intelligence analysts for East Asia. Panikoff argues that there's an intelligence gap concerning the assessment of security risks or flaws in Commerce-overseen technology transfers, which is not something I would have expected, given, say, the existence of NSA. Back when the NSA would send us responses for the Snowden stories, there would typically be some boilerplate on the back end of a statement that was always too long for a newspaper to quote—I regret that my Guardian email no longer exists, at least not to me, or I'd quote it here—about how they didn't perform surveillance for purely economic advantage or some such language. I took that to mean they performed surveillance for economic advantage, just as long as they could plausibly claim another purpose. Either way, an emergent China Cold War would certainly augur well for Panikoff's proposal. The part of the government concerned with U.S. overseas commercial development getting its own intelligence service is something I'd probably use in a WALLER VS. WILDSTORM sequel.