Tag Archives: The Wall Street Journal

Hostage locations difficult to track – and may be getting harder

 American hostage Warren Weinstein is shown in this image captured from an undated video courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.


American hostage Warren Weinstein is shown in this image captured from an undated video courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group.

The U.S. drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages in Pakistan exposes intelligence shortfalls that former and current U.S. officials say appear to be growing more frequent as militants expand their safe havens and as Washington gathers less on-the-ground human intelligence.

Obtaining timely intelligence on hostages has always been difficult, especially in volatile regions where the United States has limited access and where militants have well-established operations.

But as unrest spreads, militants are acquiring more safe havens, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, complicating and often hampering U.S. intelligence-gathering. This is especially so in the wake of the Arab Spring as militants exploit the vacuum left by shattered institutions.

That has forced American intelligence operatives to become more dependent on electronic eavesdropping and spy satellites rather than using informants and on-the-ground human intelligence, say the former and current U.S. officials.

The inadvertent killing of American doctor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto in a January U.S. drone strike, acknowledged by U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday, follows two failed U.S. attempts in the past nine months to rescue Western hostages. Those efforts apparently relied on dated or incomplete information.

Last July, U.S. Delta Force commandos swooped into eastern Syria to try to rescue U.S. journalist James Foley and other hostages, only to find they had been moved. Foley was later executed by his Islamic State captors.

A December attempt to free American photojournalist Luke Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie in Yemen failed when their al Qaeda captors were alerted to U.S. commandos’ approach and executed them.

Of all those regions, few have remained off limits for as long as Pakistan’s rugged northwest North Waziristan, where Weinstein and Lo Porto were held and where a generation of Taliban and al Qaeda militants have built a stronghold for launching attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Some former U.S. officials say the problem is too few U.S. informants on the ground in danger zones such as Pakistan or Yemen. “You can’t do intelligence operations without HUMINT,” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official, using the acronym for “human intelligence.”

Rescue missions in enemy territory are inherently risky and, officials say, based on imperfect information.

“The rule is, you almost never know where these guys are,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“NO ONE SILVER BULLET”

The latest killings re-ignited criticism from hostages’ family members about White House efforts to protect their loved ones, and stoked controversy over the lethal drone program.

In the drone strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto, sources said the Central Intelligence Agency had no idea the two were being held there despite hundreds of hours of surveillance of the al Qaeda compound.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that before the strike, U.S. government assessments had arrived at “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. An internal review of the operation is underway to see if reforms are needed to prevent similar incidents, Earnest said.

Whether mistakes were made or not, it is very difficult for U.S. spy agencies to acquire timely information about where and how hostages are being held, the officials said.

“It’s a very complex proposition,” requiring the stitching together of multiple streams of intelligence from various data collection methods, said Dane Egli, a former senior White House advisor for hostage policy under President George W. Bush. “There’s no one silver bullet.”

To militant groups, hostages are an extremely valuable commodity and kidnappers make their captives’ security a top priority, the officials said.

Egli said that opportunities to learn information from local inhabitants or interrogating detainees have been reduced as the United States has withdrawn troops and intelligence assets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Another obstacle is the expansion of safe havens and ungoverned spaces, from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Yemen.

“Any time they have secured real estate … it’s harder for us to penetrate the (U.S. military) Special Forces for us to do a surprise mission” and attempt rescue, Egli said.

Sometimes there is virtually no information at all. American journalist Austin Tice disappeared in Damascus in August 2012, and has not been heard from other than a brief video that surfaced five weeks later.

U.S. officials have given Tice’s family no indication they know where he is, a person familiar with the situation said on Thursday.

 

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Crude price drop triggers major layoffs in US oil industry

Thousands of recently highly paid workers have been laid off after the oil price plummeted 50 percent in 2014. At least four American oil-producing states are already facing budget problems due to decreasing oil revenues.The price plunge has affected petroleum production in all oil-extracting countries, including the US.

READ MORE: Putin says US and key oil producers may be equally interested in lower oil

Currently cheap fuel is still believed to be providing an overall boost to the US economy, as consumers can spend less on gasoline and more on shopping and services. But for the American energy sector the future looks less bright. It’s effecting places like Alaska, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the New York Times reports.

US oil experts recall the 1980s oil price downturn, accompanied by economic disasters around the globe and arguably becoming one of the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union. Some experts are positive and say America’s oil-producing states won’t suffer too much because they “diversified their economies.”

READ MORE: Oil producers to lose $1tn if price below $60 – Goldman Sachs

READ MORE: OPEC decision will keep oil prices low & hit Russia, Iran, US – experts

This doesn’t apply to the state of Alaska. According to the NYT, approximately 90 percent of state’s budget is formed from oil revenues. Alaska’s government is considering a 50 percent capital-spending cut for bridges and roads in the face of the oil price drop, with Moody’s, the credit rating service, lowering Alaska’s credit outlook from stable to negative.

The state of Louisiana’s 2015-16 budget is going to be $1.4 billion short, with 162 state government positions already eliminated and more to be discontinued starting from January. Contracts and projects are being either reduced or frozen in state agencies. According to the state’s chief economist Greg Albrecht, for every $1 fall in price of an annual average barrel of oil, Louisiana loses $12 million.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia braces for $39bn deficit, to cut wages due to low oil prices

For Texas, which has a far larger and more diversified economy than Louisiana, the oil price downturn is no good either. In just October and November Texas lost 2,300 oil and gas jobs, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week. Through the last half a year the state has been losing $83 million in potential revenue every day, the Greater Houston Partnership recently reported. They blamed this on crashing price of its West Texas Intermediate crude oil, which has depreciated to $54.73 per barrel this week, from more than $100 six months ago.

READ MORE: $20 oil wouldn’t force production cut – Saudi oil minister

The situation in other oil-extracting states could be even worse. In a study published last year, the Council on Foreign Relations warned the largest job losses caused by sharp decline in oil prices are going to take place in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming, where the number of drilling rigs is decreasing.

READ MORE: Obama: Keystone XL pipeline does not benefit Americans

The US oil industry has showed 50 percent employment growth since the recession officially ended in mid-2009, giving jobs to over 779,000 people as of October 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported. A total of 10 million jobs have been associated with the US oil and gas industry, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, estimated.

Now according to Tom Runiewicz, a US industry economist at IHS Global Insight, if oil stays around $56 a barrel till the middle of the next year, companies providing services to oil and gas industry could lose 40,000 jobs by the end of 2015, while oil and gas equipment manufacturers could slash up to 6,000 jobs.

READ MORE: Richard Branson: S. Arabia attacking renewable energy with cheaper oil

These workers can earn more than $1,700 a week, much higher than the average $848 a week payment for other workers, the WSJ reported. When experienced workers lose their highly paid jobs, they stop paying their bills.

There are also fears of a house-price slump. Fitch Ratings has already warned that with the price of oil continuing to plummet, home prices in Texas “may be unsustainable.”