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February 12, 2008

Major Coughlin Update

Back in January, the Editorial Staff regaled the assembled Villainry with the sad tale of one Major Stephen Coughlin, whose DoD contract was not renewed, allegedly because he published a thesis harshly critical of The Religion of Peace:

Mr. Coughlin, a lawyer and reserve military intelligence officer, has been the Pentagon's sole specialist on Islamic law charged with lecturing senior officers on jihad doctrine — military leaders who have been fighting the so-called war on terror for years without an inkling of Islamic ideology. His contract with the Joint Staff will end in March, Mr. Gertz wrote, because Mr. Coughlin "had run afoul of a key aide" to the Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England.

That "key aide" is Cmdr. Hesham Islam (USN ret.), an Egyptian-born, Arabic-speaking Muslim whom Gordon England describes as "my interlocutor" and "personal, close confidante." According to Mr. Gertz, Mr. England's interlocutor and confidante confronted Stephen Coughlin seeking "to have Mr. Coughlin soften his views of Islamist extremism."

Various reasons are being given for the decision not to renew Coughlin's contract. Some say he is being terminated for speaking to the press without authorization, others that budget cuts are to blame for the move. His supporters dismiss these explanations, pointing to Cmdr. Islam's characterization of Coughlin as "a Christian zealot with a pen" as evidence of what they suspect is the real reason for his dismissal:

......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.

Now (h/t Glenn Reynolds) the plot thickens:

In a stunning turn of events, a high-level Muslim military aide blamed for costing an intelligence contractor his job will step down from his own Pentagon post, WND has learned.

Color us stunned. You just can't trust anyone these days, can you? Islam's bio (which mysteriously disappeared from the DoD web site but comes up if you click on the cached link) described Islam as "rarely at his Pentagon desk". But the intriguing part of the short article is described by Claudia Rosette:

It begins: “If Hesham Islam’s life story was translated into a screenplay — and it’s got all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster — the director would be hard-pressed to come up with a more compelling chain of events landing him as a top adviser to the deputy defense secretary.”

As told by Islam to the reporter, “The movie would open with Islam as a young boy growing up in Cairo, Egypt, huddling in terror as Israeli bombs came raining down, demolishing much of the building around him and his family.”

There’s one problem with this scene. As far as I have been able to discover, Israel during Hesham Islam’s entire lifetime has never bombed Cairo. Asked to explain this, the Pentagon spokesman duly conferred with Islam, and relayed to me by phone that Islam says this building-wrecking bombing raid took place during the 1967 Six-Day War. But as for details that might substantiate the when and where in Cairo of this graphic scene, Islam “Doesn’t remember. He was seven years old.”

It is of course possible that Islam was privy to a piece of history with which expert historians on the region are not acquainted. But if this tale is based solely on the unsubstantiated impressions of Islam as a seven-year-old, then what is it doing on the U.S. Defense Department website? Queries I have made to a number of experts in Tel Aviv, the U.S., and Cairo itself all get the same reply: It didn’t happen. According to Michael Oren, author of the extensively researched Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Israel during the Six-Day War struck the Cairo airport, but “Israel did not bomb any residential areas of Cairo.”

The profile continues: “Next would be the scene of the teenager who moves to Iraq when his Egyptian naval officer father is transferred to help establish the Arabian Gulf naval academy Islam would later attend.”

That family move to Iraq came as Saddam Hussein was consolidating his Baathist rule, though neither the Pentagon profile nor Hesham Islam’s Pentagon biography any makes mention of that context. In answer to questions, the Pentagon spokesman says Islam’s father was invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein, but the spokesman doesn’t know when: “It was in 1971-1973 time frame.” Surely with Pentagon background checks, more exact information would be easily available? “It’s available,” says the spokesman, but “I don’t have his C.V. kind of thing.”

The profile goes on to describe young Hesham Islam as a “merchant mariner adrift for three days in the Arabian Sea after an Iranian torpedo sunk his 16,000-ton cargo ship, drowning all but Islam and four of his crewmates.”

That sounds memorable. But after more than a week of my repeated requests made by phone and e-mail, the Pentagon spokesman — despite being presumably in touch with Islam himself — was either unable or unwilling to provide such basic information as the name of the ship, or the date of its sinking. He just kept saying he was “looking into it.” But no answers.

Before I began the marathon requests for specific information, the spokesman had speculated earlier, based on conversations with Islam, that the ship might have been called the Ibn Khaldoon, which might have been registered to the Iraqi merchant marine, and might have sunk sometime in 1979. A check with the U.K.-based Lloyd’s Register turns up two cargo ships registered in Iraq during that time and under that name, but no record that either was ever sunk, either in the 1970s, the 1980s, or beyond. One is still in service; the other was broken up — and not by a torpedo — only a few years ago.

Rosette then asks:

So, what qualifies Islam to serve as an adviser to whom Gordon England listens all the time, and whose advice England takes? According to Kevin Wensing, England’s public-affairs aide: “Mr. Islam brings 20 years of experience in the U.S. Navy and international relations to his current assignment.”

This includes an M.A. in national-security affairs, awarded in 1992 at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. For this degree, Islam wrote a 139-page thesis about the Middle East, entitled “Roots of Regional Ambition.” In it, he devoted dozens of pages to lambasting Israel, and the influence of American Jews on U.S. politics. He deplored “Israeli activities which have detrimentally affected U.S. objectives but which have continued with impunity.” He argued that U.S. support for Israel “has negatively affected the attainment of U.S. objectives in the Middle East.” He blamed the influence of American Jews on U.S. policy for a host of ills, ranging from Arab “retaliation” against Americans, to jobs lost overseas, to hampering sales of “defensive arms to friendly Arab states.”

Whether Gordon England (or Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for that matter) considers such views a relevant qualification for Islam’s current duties is unclear. But what’s emerging at the Pentagon is a landscape in which Stephen Coughlin’s insistence on crafting doctrine based not on politically correct assumptions, but on facts, is apparently deemed a bridge too far.

So it would seem that Islam, in addition to having a bit of a problem establishing at least part of his background story, begins to sound a bit like a "Muslim zealot with a pen" who, it now appears, is has been wielding a malign influence over DoD policy:

At the urging of a subordinate, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England scheduled at least two meetings with foreign emissaries in direct contradiction of U.S. policy at the time. The meetings date back to 2005. They involved a Lebanese ambassador considered a proxy for the Syrian government and a leading member of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.

U.S. policy at the time was not to engage in talks with either man, because they represent groups with whom the United States was not to communicate. The meetings were organized by England's special assistant for international affairs, Hesham Islam.

An invitation to Muslim Brotherhood official Husam al-Dairi was canceled in late 2005 after a senior State Department official heard about it and insisted it not take place. That official, J. Scott Carpenter, told IPT News he was shocked that such an invitation was issued, let alone that it was done without anyone consulting the State Department.

After Carpenter relayed his concerns to England's office, a staff member called back. She told him it would be "a huge hassle to postpone it" and if that happened, England's office would make it clear this was the result of the State Department "putting its foot down and [saying] the meeting should not take place."

Carpenter said that was fine by him. The episode, including the serendipitous way he learned about it, made him wonder whether other meetings like that took place without State Department consultation, he said.

"When the United States is meeting with dissidents, it is important to know who those dissidents are and what message we send by meeting with them. It is incredibly important that the wrong signal not be sent," Carpenter said.

That may have happened earlier in 2005, when England met with Farid Abboud, a Lebanese ambassador to Washington. Viewed as a proxy for the Syrian government, Abboud was frozen out by U.S. government officials working to isolate Syria, especially as tensions rose following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The attack is widely suspected of having been orchestrated by Syria.

David Schenker, a former adviser in the Secretary of Defense's office on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs, described Abboud's influence in Washington in an article column published last March in the Weekly Standard. Schenker described Abboud as "unabashedly pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah" and explained his diplomatic isolation resulted from that perception.

"Essentially, Abboud has spent the last six years of the Bush administration largely isolated, having little or no contact with executive branch personnel. Since 2003 Abboud has met with only one senior administration official--then Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate Gordan England--but the meeting happened only because of negligence on the part of one of England's junior staffers. As a matter of policy, the administration has treated Abboud as a Syrian official and has studiously avoided contact."

Schenker declined to discuss the controversy in England's office or Hesham Islam. But he confirmed that Islam is the "junior staffer" referenced in his article.

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who chairs the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said news of the invitations was a cause for concern.

"You have to wonder, what do you have, freelancers out there?" Hoekstra asked. "Clearly it's sending a conflicting message to some of these groups. When you have a lack of clarity it always creates problems."

It gets worse from there:

... Mr. Islam arranged for Deputy Secretary England to be a featured speaker at ISNA's 43rd Annual Convention in September 2006. England reciprocated by hosting an ISNA delegation at the Pentagon on April 25, 2007. According to ISNA's publication, Islamic Horizons, Hesham Islam also attended the meeting, along with Abuhena Saifulislam, the U.S. Navy chaplain trained by ISNA's Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS).

The ISNA was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the US vs Holy Land Foundation trial, which is coming up for retrial soon. Though DoD is hardly alone in their misguided "outreach" efforts, one has to wonder who is minding the candy store?

This author does not endorse knee jerk suspicion of Muslims living and working in the United States.

But when we are at war with a determined and fanatic enemy, neither reasonable caution nor mere questions (uncomfortable though they may be when they touch on ethnic or religious sensibilities) should be out of bounds. If Islam's borderline anti-Semitic rantings raised no red flags, why was the same forbearance not extended to Coughlin's thesis?

And why (if this report can be believed) are some officials at the DoD trying to block Coughlin's new appointment?

In one intelligence briefing, Coughlin argued that the Pentagon should end its outreach programs with ISNA, which also put him at odds with Islam.

Pentagon insiders say Eric S. Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, has sought to stop the awarding of a new contract to Coughlin. Edelman served as ambassador to Turkey from 2003 to 2005.

Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., who co-chairs the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus, has been fighting to keep Coughlin in the Pentagon, where she says his blunt analysis of the Islamic enemy is sorely needed.

Last time I checked, we are not at war with Israel.

Posted by Cassandra at February 12, 2008 07:24 AM

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This is one hell of a riveting read. I love spy thriller fiction, but this is reality which is stranger than, and yet rings sadly true.

I have not been a conspiracy theorist, but there are days when it seems as if somehow, it is almost

De cahds say you are to be da new Frederica Forsythe.

Posted by: Calypso Cricket at February 12, 2008 09:49 AM

I am seriously beginning to wonder how Cdr Islam managed to secure an SSBI clearance. And I'm sorry, if you cannot follow directives on who you should and should not meet foriegn policy directives (not foriegn policy suggestions, or recommendations... DIRECTIVES) because your bestest buddy (who seems to have an axe to grind in this arena) says otherwise, you've got no damn business as a DoD Deputy Sectratary. That's just damned poor judgement in a VERY serious role.

Posted by: MikeD at February 12, 2008 10:02 AM

Oh, and there's a damned-sight huge difference between knee jerk suspicion of all Moslems and suspicion of this guy who seems to have a problem with the truth when it comes to his own background, and ties to questionable folks.

Posted by: MikeD at February 12, 2008 10:05 AM

You know, I am a cautious person.

These situations can be manipulated for advantage in any number of ways. At the very least though, I'd say someone needs to go in and do their homework now :p

Posted by: Cassandra at February 12, 2008 10:15 AM

I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the *anal probing* MH and I received during his standard security clearance background check just so he could open and decode the base CG's mail. That was almost 15 years ago. I won't even go into that which was probed for his *Top Secret* clearance. Being somewhat of a cynic, and having gone been put through such an ordeal when I'm not even in the Marine Corps, has me leaning towards the *Something-stinks-and-it-ain't-the-potato-salad* end of the scale on this.

Posted by: Sly2017 at February 12, 2008 11:34 AM

You noticed? How can this be? Isn't this reminiscent of the spies within the State Department during the fifties?

Denial by the left and yet this just FEEL SO FAMILIAR....

I wonder if this has flown under Ann Coulter's radar, and if so, why she is being so oddly silent on this? I know I know, AC is a shrew, but she does have our backs in some areas, and
after you edited the snark out of 'Treason'
she made an excellent case against the socialist elite.

Posted by: Cricket at February 12, 2008 11:40 AM

I think you have to be a bit cautious about jumping all over stories like this, but I don't like to see them buried, either.

There's a legitimate tension between the pesky press and people who want to air every bit of dirty linen we have on the front pages of the NY Times and those who want to take a more conservative approach. This one doesn't really smell quite right to me, but on the otter heiny we don't really have all the facts either. It doesn't look good on the face of it.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 12, 2008 01:09 PM

I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like to see this looked into without the half vast punditocracy shrieking "TERRORISTS!!!!" when that hasn't been proven. I don't think all the heat is helpful, and if you're proven wrong all that does is make it harder to get the next suspicious case investigated. It would make so much more sense if we could just enforce the same standard evenly across the board.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 12, 2008 01:11 PM

That is precisely the reason why the story is not going to be investigated by the media simply because to them, it is a witch hunt.
NOT of Major Coughlin, but because of Islam.

The way they are going to see it is that the poor innocent Islam is being victimized by Coughlin's supporters or a cabal of the vast right wing conpsiracy.


Posted by: Cricket at February 12, 2008 01:53 PM

Please do not misunderstand gentle hostess... I do not think CDR(fmr) Islam is a terrorist, or even (necessarily) a terrorist sympathiser. However, I think he's got enough holes in his story as well as in his whereabouts in foriegn countries to make me severely doubt his suitability to hold a security clearance commeasurate with his position.

Posted by: MikeD at February 12, 2008 02:03 PM

I don't :)

I just worry a lot, Mike, when I post something like this. That's all. I am a cautious person by nature, so I am going to caveat things to death. I think it's important to take stories like this with a large grain of salt until the facts are in.

That said, I would not have posted it, after much deliberation, if it didn't bother me too. I've been watching this for a long time.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 12, 2008 02:14 PM

Hashem Islam.

Terrorist or terrorist sympathizer? Ni!

Intelligence mole? Maybe. Very strong maybe.

We've got to wonder if he reports to someone in the renowned KSA.

Gordon England. Priceless. Dupe. Heh.

To flip the story around, if Mr. England had been an undersecretary in a Democrat administration, factions in the news media would have been eager to crucify him. But to my addled brain, it appears he was clearly off the reservation on this one.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at February 12, 2008 04:37 PM