The fall of Yemen's pro-U.S. government to Muslim rebels reportedly backed by Iran lays bare the strategic folly of a president who just months ago hailed Yemen as a "model" Arab democracy and an "ideal" partner against jihadist terrorism, a former CIA station chief told Newsmax TV
"Unbelievable," Gary Berntsen, who led the CIA team hunting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, told "MidPoint" host Ed Berliner, shaking his head at what he called the Obama administration's "misreading" of a situation that was obviously dire even before the Yemeni government collapsed.
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"And the fact that they would use Yemen as an example of success in counterterrorism operations is just a stunning disconnect from reality," said Berntsen, author of "Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda."
The power vacuum opened by the rebels, known as the Houthis, undermines Western counter-terror efforts and puts a major oil transit route at risk, according to numerous Mideast watchers.
Berntsen said it also upsets the regional balance of power between Sunni Saudi Arabia — Yemen's neighbor — and Shiite Iran, which favored the Houthis over the now-deposed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
While the Saudis, who just lost a king,
surely won't take Iran's meddling in stride, it is Iran that right now is "playing big on that field," he said.
Berntsen called the siege of Yemen a "projection of Iranian power" at the expense of Saudi Arabia — a key American military ally and oil supplier in the Middle East, and a common foe of Iran.
Yemen "has been mishandled terribly by the administration," said Berntsen. "The president didn't even mention it the other night in the State of the Union as this thing was coming apart. We all knew it was coming apart. It's all pretty shocking; it's just shocking incompetence."
Berntsen also discussed the latest hostage drama
instigated by the Islamic State (ISIS), this time with two Japanese nationals captured in Syria. The deadline for a $200 million ransom payment from Japan's government passed on Friday, with no word of the hostages' fates.
Berntsen said the Japanese should not give in to kidnappers, even with the prospect of countrymen dying as horrifically as other captives of the Islamic State.
"We don't want to see the Japanese make a payment," he said. "We'd like to see these people be rescued, but sadly ISIS will kill almost anyone they get their hands on, and hopefully this will harden the Japanese and others around the world to see that this is not just an attack on the West, it's an attack on the global community."
Berntsen also said that paying ransoms for ISIS hostages is more common than people realize because ISIS is kidnapping people from several countries to fund operations, especially with the West squeezing the terrorist group's black-market oil trade.
"I would say they get paid more often than not," he said. "They get paid a lot, and it's not always covered" in the media.
Bernsten also discussed the suspicious death of an Argentinian prosecutor
who was investigating his own government for allegedly covering up Iran's involvement in a 1994 terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires.
Berntsen said flatly that the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was "assassinated" in connection with the probe, which sought to establish that Argentine President Cristina Kirchner had cut a deal with Iran to whitewash the 20-year inquiry into the bombing of a Jewish cultural center in which 84 people died.
He said Argentina's motive was money: With its economy in tatters, and the government unable to find lenders because it has refused to pay its debts, Argentina under Kirchner wanted financial aid from Iran and was willing to derail the bombing investigation to get it.
Argentina is not the only operator to deal covertly with Iran, said Berntsen, even as Iran remains under Western economic sanctions intended to curb the country's nuclear ambitions.
"The entire sanctions regime against Iran has been a payday for banks — American banks and international banks," said Berntsen.
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