Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

Book Review: Donald P. Gregg, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014)

Pot Shards presents the life and times of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg (above), an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC. Readers will discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent, non-profit organization that advances the understanding of diplomacy and supports the training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities. As part of its Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, it has prepared thousands of transcripts of interviews recorded with US Foreign Service veterans.  These excellent oral histories present the realities of diplomacy to include thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying stories from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  In April 2014, ADST graciously authorized greatcharlie.com to present the oral history of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, an authentic intelligence professional and consummate diplomat.  In July 2014, Gregg published his extraordinary, must read memoirs entitled, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014).  It is part of ADST-DACOR’s Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. (DACOR is an organization of foreign affairs professionals.)

Donald Gregg was an employee of the US government for forty-three years, working in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  Gregg served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for thirty-one years from 1951 to 1982.  Paramilitary trained and airborne trained, he spent most of his career in assignments overseas and advising the most senior leaders of the CIA.  He was assigned to Japan, Burma, Vietnam, and Korea.  He was special assistant to the Ambassador of Korea from 1973 to 1975.  Gregg also served as a member of the White House National Security Council staff from 1979 to 1982. Upon retirement from CIA, Gregg became National Security Adviser to US Vice President George H.W. Bush from 1982 to 1989, and US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1989 to 1993.  Outside of government, Gregg served as a senior consultant to Goldman Sachs, the chairman and president of The Korea Society in New York, and he currently serves as the chairman of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles.  Gregg was born in New York. He enlisted in the US Army upon graduation from high school in 1945.  He received training as a cryptanalyst and reached the rank of sergeant.  He went on to attend Williams College from 1947 to 1951, majoring in Philosophy.  Gregg has received numerous awards from CIA, the US Department of Defense and the South Korean government and five honorary degrees from American and foreign colleges.  Gregg has visited the North Korea several times and advocates for the normalization of relations between that country and the US.

On its face, Pot Shards is a significant contribution to the record of the US experience in the Far East written by a major player, an intelligence icon.  Pot Shards covers some weighty matters regarding intelligence, diplomacy, and defense policy.  Some of the issues and events discussed by Gregg have never been revealed in other texts. Gregg could have limited the book to the audience of policy scholars, analysts, historians, intelligence professionals and veterans and all those familiar with the subject matter.  However, he presents Pot Shards in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy at some level.  There is much in Pot Shards that would especially thrill those beguiled by spy novels and films and spy craft enthusiasts.  Yet, what makes Pot Shards most exciting is the story of the man: Donald Gregg.  With good humor, he recounts many satisfying exploits, but also reveals vicissitudes and trials he faced.

Individuals that Gregg mentions in Pot Shards are those with whom he had continuous contact as managers, mentors, and friends. Some of are well known, “foreign policy celebrities,” such as Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Creighton Abrams, Richard Helms, William Colby,  Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Holbrooke, and Richard Allen. Others may be remembered only by a few.  Gregg sheds light on their impact and exactly how their ideas ignited events from the inside. Moreover, Gregg indicates those individuals helped him develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, allowing him to become something that he perhaps would not have been without them.

In Cloud of Witnesses, George Rutler examines sixty-six individuals, who have influenced his life, based on what Aristotle would refer to as their ethos (an honest use of talent), logos (an honest use of mind), and pathos (an honest involvement in the suffering of the world).  That would be the best way to examine Gregg’s presentation of his life and career.  At Williams College, Gregg was influenced by the thinking of Professor John William Miller, the head of the Philosophy Department, who taught him the simple definition of morality, “Never treat another human being as an object.”  Gregg explained that he has tried to live by that definition.  Gregg was also influenced by Miller’s interest in people taking action and being defined by, and held responsible for, the actions they took.  Miller taught him that “Man does not have a nature, he has a history,” Gregg recalled Miller urged his students to act upon what they believed in and to “cut behind appearance toward reality.”

It was clear from many anecdotes in Pot Shards that Gregg has had a genuine interest in people.  He has looked beyond differences, avoiding being caught up with race, ethnicity, or other things which had been used particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to determine how one should relate with another.  For example, when he first came to Washington, he would enjoy going to jazz clubs which catered to African-American patrons.  That was notable because Washington, DC at the time was a segregated city. Serving in the military at a young age, he learned about different men and different behaviors, and witnessed racial and ethnic prejudice which repulsed him.  In Kai Bird’s excellent work, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, it was indicated that racial and ethnic prejudice was apparent at CIA.  It was manifested in the casual and official discussions of some, and even worse, in decision making.  That was certainly not Gregg’s way.  His type of clearheaded, solid judgments resulting from giving situations and individuals a deeper look, was always needed.  Virtue shines in the presence of vice.

Having served as a cryptanalyst in the US Army, Gregg was sought by the National Security Agency in the middle of his senior year at Williams.  However, the recruiter rather than take Gregg suggested he join CIA.  Gregg knew little of the CIA and what it did.  However, the recruiter, with what Gregg now thinks was a bit of cynicism said, “Oh, they jump out of airplanes and are going to save the world!” That attracted Gregg, and initiated his thirty-one year career with the Agency.  Gregg has provided an incredibly intriguing discussion of his paramilitary training at CIA and the others he met during it. Gregg makes it clear in that discussion though, that so-called “good old days” in CIA were not always so good.  There were crazy events. Some people were not best serving the needs of CIA or their country. Managers who were very most often former OSS officers tried to recreate approaches taken by their former organization in German and Japanese held territory in Europe and Asia.   Often proposals for covert operations were based on questionable judgment and scant research.  Real possibilities for success were not fully considered by decision makers.  They were praised and approved by management as displaying a “Gung-Ho”, “Go Get ’em”, motivated attitude.  Yet, those operations more often resembled suicide missions.  Gregg found himself on such an assignment.

In March 1952, Gregg was assigned to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, where he would pick up a group of North Vietnamese whom he would train in sabotage and small unit tactics at a secret base. Following the completion of the training, Gregg and his team would be parachuted into North Vietnam.  Gregg spoke neither Vietnam nor French, and knew nothing of Vietnam or its history, and he was far from a veteran saboteur or guerilla leader. Gregg discovered an attractive post-debutante in her mid-thirties was the Vietnam plans officer and he had heard her say that her “Vietnam plan” had been accepted.  A cocktail party was given to celebrate the occasion, but Gregg was not invited.  When Gregg met his team, they turned out to be totally untrained Vietnamese with whom he had no way of communicating.  Gregg said they looked childlike.  Later he further learned that they were ethnic-Vietnamese from Thailand and had never set foot in Vietnam.  The potential for disaster was enormous. Gregg had no intention of backing out, but the truth behind the operation eventually revealed, and things worked out for the best. The operation was exposed as a fraud.  It turned out that a corrupt principal agent had hoodwinked CIA officers in Bangkok and had “taken the money and run.”  The mission was cancelled.

However, Pot Shards does not serve as some expression of some longstanding of primal doubt.  Gregg never moved about stating “Something is rotten in the Agency.”  Readers discover that through coping with those problems he learned not only what to do, but more importantly, “how not to do it.”  Gregg could recognize what was good, as good.  Gregg also worked with many in CIA who were true professionals.  He modeled his own management and decision making style in part from theirs. Gregg’s loyalty to his country and conviction toward duty was surpassed by no other.  He is proud of his years in CIA. So much of that experience was central to his personal life.  Through CIA, he met some life-long friends.  Through CIA, he met his wife.

Gregg makes it clear that his wife Margaret (“Meg”) has been central to his life.  A fortuitous encounter while hailing a taxi at Washington, DC’s Union Station set off of chain of interesting events that led to their life-long partnership.  Unbeknownst to Gregg, Meg, fluent in Russian, was actually Gregg’s superior in the Operations branch at CIA when they met.  However, as Gregg makes clear he was irresistibly taken by her combination of beauty, intellect, and charm, which made her something supreme to him.  Whether accompanying him in Japan, Korea, or Burma or remaining back in the US with their three children while Gregg served in Vietnam, she was the rock on which Gregg was able to build a career while raising a family. Relating the course of their marriage, Gregg leaves no doubt that meeting Meg was the best luck he ever had.

As Gregg rose through the ranks at CIA, he saw more clearly how many policies that drove CIA activities were not carefully considered and constructed. Gregg saw how euphonious policy speeches by political officials would often be based on captivating assessments of positive outcomes and capabilities of foreign partners not based in reality. He could see that near desperation on wanting a situation to be certain way led many, even the well-intentioned, to project their thinking on that of senior foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Only a negative outcome would reveal the error of a flawed approach for some.  In the early years of the US involvement in Vietnam Gregg witnessed this.  Gregg recalled accompanying US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Vietnam in 1963. McNamara was told by General Paul Harkins, who commanded the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) that “We will be out of here with a military victory in six months.”  McNamara was disturbed by the unrealistic reporting, and told US President Lyndon Johnson that things were really not as good as Harkins’ people seemed to think they were.  Gregg also recalled a war game in 1964 on the use of airpower in the North Vietnam.  He participated with: General Maxwell Taylor, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Earl Wheeler, US Army Chief of Staff; General Curtis LeMay, US Air Force Chief of Staff; John McCone, CIA Director; and, in the presence of McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser.  Gregg, as the CIA representative of the Blue Team, gave CIA’s analysis of the plan to bomb North Vietnam.  Gregg described the rationale of the plan and then proceeded to explain why it would fail.  The rest of that story will not be spoiled here.  One will have to read Pot Shards to discover what the response to Gregg was from the many powerful men in the room.  Gregg’s description of it all makes the moment palpable.

Writing about his second tour in Vietnam, Gregg provides good lessons on how to function effectively as a manager or leader under extremely adverse circumstances.  His lessons hold true for professions beyond intelligence for they primarily concern human nature and the wonders and realities of human interaction.  There were many difficult experiences that were a part of that period.  One evening Gregg received a frantic call from a member of his crew who he described as a gifted and committed paramilitary officer, with several tough tours under his belt.  The officer had married a Vietnamese war widow with children and lived in her Bien Hoa apartment.  He had just returned from a mission to find one of his children “desperately ill.”  Gregg rushed to the officer’s apartment with medical assistance in tow.  Yet, by the time he arrived, he found the tragic scene of a beautiful young girl, eight years old, lying silent and still, with her frightened siblings and anguished mother, who was being comforted by the officer.  The girl was confirmed dead and the officer asked Gregg to take her away.  Gregg picked up the child and walked out.  Doing so reminded him of carrying his own small daughters Lucy and Alison to bed after they had fallen asleep. He searched for an answer on how to handle the situation.  This was a CIA matter and had to be kept confidential.  Gregg eventually decided to bring the child to the emergency room of the US Army hospital at Long Binh, where US Army Military Police told him where to go to have the body cared for.

In this segment of Pot Shards, there are also fascinating stories of Gregg’s exploits in combat.  He was in the thick of things as CIA Regional Officer in Military Region 3 (War Zone D).  There are accounts of Gregg managing paramilitary operations and interrogations of his crew.  He flew with forward controllers, directing fire support for US and allied troops.  He described radio communications from battles, the descriptions of which bring the reader right to the scene.  Gregg’s efforts were appreciated by US and allied commanders he worked with such as: General James Hollingsworth (US);  General John McGiffert (US); General Nguyen Van Minh (South Vietnam); General Jangnai Sohn (Korea); and General Roh Tae-woo (Korea); Colonel Nguyen Cong Vinh (South Vietnam); and, Colonel Bach Van Hien (South Vietnam).

On his second tour, Gregg could still see how different ideas, among policy and decision makers, about what was truly happening in there impacted the decisions being made and the lessons the US military as well as other security organizations as CIA, were learning from the experience.  At the very end of his tour in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams hosted a lunch for Gregg at his MACV Headquarters in Saigon, a place where he had been excoriated in the past.  At lunch, Gregg sat next to Abrams and six or eight of his subordinates.  He felt Abrams was the best of the three commanders the US sent to Vietnam.  Knowing Abrams had been in Vietnam for some time, Gregg asked him how long it had actually been.  Abrams proudly responded, “Six years.”  Gregg then asked him how he kept going, and Abrams stated, “Well, I keep learning things.”  Gregg then politely asked him what he had learned so far, and Abrams replied that just finished reading Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, an account of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Abrams said that he “now” understood Fall’s reasoning as to why the French had failed to reestablish their colonial rule in Vietnam.  When Gregg asked “How did Fall explain it,” Abrams explained, “Fall said that the French lost because they failed to politically organize the terrain.  I think I understand that now, but I would not have understood that a year ago.”  Gregg had no response to that, but explained that when he later saw pictures of heavy US battle tanks, named after Abrams, crashing around Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought of Abrams’ answer.

Through his achievements in Vietnam, Gregg developed a reputation in CIA as a very wise and capable officer.  He knew how to present ideas and concepts to develop agreement or consensus on issues. Bringing his thoughts to precise declarations took skill.  This was one of the many skills that Gregg honed through interactions with a number of accomplished professionals.  One who helped Gregg elevate his capabilities while he served in his next overseas assignment as CIA Station Chief in Seoul, was US Ambassador Philip Habib.  Habib was gruff and outspoken.  However, by Gregg’s account, he understood people well and was an excellent diplomat for whom he developed tremendous respect.  Gregg indicates that it was Habib’s maneuvering that help to save the life of liberal South Korean politician, Kim Dae-jung, after he had been kidnapped from his Tokyo hotel room by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).  Habib never accused the Korean President Park Chung-hee of ordering the kidnapping but sent a message to him explaining that the US was aware of the action and hoped he could do everything to keep Kim alive.  This allowed Park a chance to avoid direct embarrassment and contrive a story in which he accused rogue elements of the Korean government had alone committed the act, and in which he took credit for saving Kim.  Gregg said Habib’s astute handling of the situation kept Kim alive and allowed Park to save face.  Gregg explained saving face was always a major concern in Asia.  Habib’s actions allowed Washington’s relations with Seoul to improve.

Gregg completed his career at CIA on a high note at the US National Security Council.  He had achieved success maintaining an ethic of his own, a moral code.  There was goodness living inside a good man.  He saw the greater good that would result from his actions against Communism.  Gregg was invited to join the administration of US President Ronald Reagan as the National Security Adviser to then Vice President George H.W. Bush.  His job made use of all of his skills and experience from CIA.  During those six years with Bush, Gregg traveled to 65 countries.  Along with those visits came his attendance at endless formal events.  Gregg recounts some of rather unusual happenings at such gatherings, providing readers with a gift bag of humorous stories.  Yet, while in the Reagan administration, his self-image was put to the test.  Gregg dedicates a chapter to a painful period of that service: IranContra, which was the purported attempt by the administration to sell surplus arms to Iran in exchange for it to ensure the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon.  Claims that Gregg was involved with that matter were invalidated.  Gregg’s account of it all is captivating.

As Ambassador to South Korea in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Gregg successfully made use of his experience at CIA as well as the White House.  However, Gregg did not tap into his training as an intelligence officer to manipulate Korean officials or simulate closeness with Koreans he met.  There was no deception at all. Gregg was genuine, natural, in his interactions and that is what helped him gain their respect and confidence.  There was a type of communion between Gregg and many of his senior Korean counterparts.  One of the issues Gregg was determined to confront as ambassador was the continuing negative note in US-South Korean relations over the alleged US involvement in the Kwanju Uprising of 1980.  Then Korean President Chun Doo-hwan had brutally cracked down on protests in Kwanju in the wake of the arrest of Kim Dae-jung on charges of treason. At least two hundred Koreans were killed in the streets.  Chun claimed that the US had fully supported his actions.  That was not true, but by the time Gregg arrived in Korea as ambassador, hostility toward the US was still strong in the city.  The US Cultural Center in Kwangju was often attacked with fire bombs by rioters trying to drive the US out.  Gregg after consulting with others, including Kim Dae-jung, went to Kwangju in January 1990.  While there, Gregg met with six leaders of anti-US groups for over three hours.  Gregg explained that he came to Kwangju to lessen the hostility that the people in the city seemed to hold for the US.  Gregg explained to them that the US was not connected at all to the incident, and many of the actions by the US at that time, such as moving an aircraft carrier to Pusan were not a show of support for Chun. That particular move was meant to signal to North Korea not to intervene.  The anti-US protesters believed the US was close to Chun administration, but Gregg let it be known that there was general distaste for it.  In that vein, Gregg explained, that at the time, the Reagan administration had agreed to receive Chun at the White House if Chun agreed to lift the death sentence imposed on Kim Dae-jung, and to release him from prison.  Most important in the conversation was Gregg’s apology over the fact the US had remained silent for so long on the Kwangju issue.  Gregg diffused the hostility toward the US and attacks on the Cultural Center in Kwangju stopped.  Gregg explained his first visit to Kwangju was deeply valuable in showing him how Koreans can hold feelings of han (deep-seated resentment) when they are dealing with events caused by others and which they feel are unjustified, immoral, and unfair.  When Gregg made his first visit to Pyongyang in April 2002, he explains that he encountered the same feelings of han that he had encountered in Kwangju twelve years before.  However, he notes that lessons learned in Kwangju were helpful as he tried to establish a dialogue and some degree of trust between his North Korean hosts and himself.  Ambassador Philip Habib certainly would have been proud of Gregg’s performance.

There is much more in Pot Shards to enjoy!  It is a book one will want to read again and again.

Quam bene vivas referre, non quam diu!  (It is how well you live that matters, not how long!)  There have been a few stories written about Gregg in books, articles, in anecdotal form.  Many were written in the troubled time of the Iran-Contra Affair.  Pot Shards presents the true life and times of Gregg, an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC.  Readers will also discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.  Gregg continues to make a valuable contribution to US foreign and defense policy efforts as a private citizen.  Pot Shards is an absolute pleasure to read.  Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Pot Shards to everyone.

By Mark Edmond Clark