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January 11, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Coughlin backed
Some Pentagon and military leaders, along with lots of working-level officials, are quietly rallying to support ousted Joint Staff counterterrorism analyst Stephen Coughlin.

Pentagon officials said a number of generals and admirals who share Mr. Coughlin's well-reasoned assessment of the Islamic law underpinnings of Islamist terror are voicing support for the lawyer and former military intelligence official.

Mr. Coughlin was fired as a Joint Staff contractor after his confrontation with Hasham Islam, a special assistant to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, was reported here last month.

Mr. Islam, a Muslim, referred to Mr. Coughlin as a "Christian zealot with a pen" during the meeting several weeks ago, a slur rejected by Mr. Coughlin's supporters.

Critics of Mr. Coughlin are spreading word -- falsely -- that he is being let go because he talked out of school to the press. One official suggested the action was due to budget cuts.

But defense and military officials supportive of Mr. Coughlin said the real reason is that critics, like Mr. Islam. want him sidelined because they oppose his hard-to-refute views on the relationship between Islamic law and Islamist jihad doctrine. Those views have triggered a harsh debate challenging the widespread and politically correct view of Islam as a religion of peace hijacked by extremists.

"Steve Coughlin is the most knowledgeable person in the U.S. government on Islamic law," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. "The secretary of defense should ensure that he stays at DOD."

Another booster is Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Corps, who said in November that Mr. Coughlin's briefing for Marines bound for Iraq "hit the mark in explaining how jihadists use the Koran to justify their actions."

"Your presentation has armed service men and women with more intellectual ammunition to take the fight to the enemy," Gen. Helland said in a letter.

A U.S. Central Command analyst, Neal Harper, stated in an e-mail to friends, that if Mr. Coughlin is allowed to become a casualty in the war of ideas "then I'm deeply concerned about the future course of the war on terrorism."

"Ignoring Steve Coughlin's honest assessments and terminating his contract sets a dangerous and disturbing precedent," Mr. Harper stated. "We struggled for many years to get our heads around radical Islam, and Steve has been a leader in the effort."

Mr. Harper said Mr. Coughlin should be promoted, but instead "Hasham Islam is allowed to insult him publicly."

"How is it that he is allowed to call anyone a Christian zealot?" he asked. "This alone exposes his bias, his poor perception of Christians, and a complete lack of professionalism, at best. Should we instead be asking who is this guy and how did he get inside? Is he representative of those who are leading this Muslim outreach? Does Muslim outreach mean that we are not allowed to question or confront those we are trying to communicate with and the doctrine upon which they stand? When speaking the truth gets one fired, we all should be concerned and at the very least need to ask why."

Army Lt. Col. Joseph C. Myers, commandant's Army adviser at the Air Force Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, said in a letter posted on the Internet that the Joint Staff is losing its only Islamic law scholar if the firing stands.

Col. Myers said Mr. Coughlin should continue to educate the military for the war on terrorism. "If we don't understand the war and the enemy we are engaged against, we remain vulnerable and we cannot win," he stated.

Unlike during the Cold War, when Soviet war-fighting doctrine dominated his education at West Point, "can anyone show me where the equivalent of the Soviet threat doctrine series for the global war on terror is published?" he asked. "It has not been done."

Col. Myers said the military is fighting a war that "from doctrinal perspective, we fundamentally do not understand."

Mr. Myers also stated that U.S. counterintelligence failures should lead people to "wonder and question the extent we are in fact penetrated in government and academia by foreign agents of influence, the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists and those who truly in essence do not share our social compact."

Analysts threatened
The firing of Joint Staff counterterrorism analyst Stephen Coughlin also is having a negative impact throughout the U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism community.

Analysts are watching closely to see if the firing of the Islamic law specialist over his views of the Islamist law basis for extremism will be allowed to stand and thus hamper the production of honest intelligence analysis of terrorist threats throughout the 16-agency community.

Officials critical of Mr. Coughlin's firing, following a verbal confrontation with Hasham Islam, a special assistant to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, said he is being punished for telling the truth.

"The analyst now sees two threats to their work: the enemy and the uninformed policy-maker," said one analyst.

Officials said that if the situation had been reversed and an analyst who supported politically correct Muslim outreach programs by the U.S. government were fired, the hue and cry would have been loud inside government and within the press.

Instead, Mr. Coughlin, who has questioned whether such outreach programs are legitimizing extremist front groups and their supporters, has received little support from senior Bush administration policy-makers, the Congress, or the liberal news media.

CIFIUS update
Bush administration officials said the National Security Council staff is in the final stages of producing a new presidential order on the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The latest draft was circulated late last month and is expected to be published shortly.

One official said the latest draft is "not appreciably different" than a contentious version produced in October that was opposed by officials at the Justice Department, Homeland Security Department and the Pentagon because it lessened the clout of security agencies in reviewing foreign purchases of U.S. companies.

The new order grew out of congressional reform legislation and is supposed to strengthen the hand of the three security departments. Critics say instead, it's being watered down by pro-business officials who see the security review as hampering U.S. business interests.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said he is "not sure" when the new order will be finished and disputed officials who said the order has not changed substantially from the October draft.

A multi-agency memorandum on the order in October stated that recently passed CIFIUS reform legislation was "security focused" but that the administration's draft order weakens the role of security agencies in reviews of foreign companies that seek to buy U.S. firms.

Wrong signal
While Navy officials are praising the restraint, discipline and training of U.S. Navy sailors on the warships passing the Strait of Hormuz that recently were approached by Iranian speedboats, other defense officials say privately that the Navy sent the wrong signal to Iran in not attacking and sinking the threatening craft.

"They should have taken action since there is no way of knowing what kind of threat those speedboats posed," said one official.

The officials said the failure to sink the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps boats was a missed opportunity to signal Tehran that such threatening actions will be met with immediate action. The boats approached within 500 yards of the ships and were seen dropping things into the water, which officials said could have been high-technology mines designed to sink or damage the warships.

Instead, the boats were allowed to conduct a threatening action in the strategic strait with no penalty. One of the Iranian boats radioed the message to the Navy ships "I am coming to you ... you will explode."

An intelligence official said weapons operators on the three Navy warships were within seconds of firing shipboard guns on the five Iranian boats. But the sailors held fire after the boats turned away, apparently fearing the Navy would be accused of being aggressors by firing at retreating small boats.

Chief Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Frank Thorp said in the speed boat incident "commanding officers did not believe that the threat at hand warranted firing on the Iranian boats."

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202-636-3274, or at

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