Archive for the ‘Bush Administration’ Category
The US government grows increasingly intolerant of dissent. Read this post by Juan Cole at Informed Comment:
Cenk Uygur at Young Turks makes the point that the National Security Agency and other US intelligence (services who are ending up with massive amounts of electronic surveillance information on Americans –whether that is what they were mainly going for or not) keep saying we should trust them with the information. They maintain that they aren’t looking at the information on US citizens on US soil and that strict procedures are in place to forestall abuses. But they admit a few abuses– NSA ex-boyfriends stalking ex-girlfriends and similar minor personal matters.
But there is no reason for us to simply trust the US government with personal information that they should not by the Constitution be having in the first place. The history of government illegally invading privacy and playing dirty tricks on citizens is long and fetid. J. Edgar Hoover menaced senators with his secret files. The the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually proposed to Jack Kennedy in 1962 that they conduct a false flag campaign of terrorism in the US and blame it on Castro, to justify an invasion of Cuba. That is, the highest military commanders of the US armed forces were terrorists willing to hurt innocent citizens for their purposes. You had COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 1970s, when the FBI attempted to smear and disrupt anti-war groups by infiltrating them. Richard M. Nixon attempted to use the CIA politically, and it kept 10,000 files on US citizen activists on US soil at that time. All this would come as no surprise to the Founding Fathers, who knew that government officials are often corrupt and tyrannical and can’t be trusted. That was why they attempted to bind those officials with a constitution, bill of rights, independent courts, and oversight from the legislature.
Their attempts have failed. In late 2001 there was a coup, and a secret shadow government was established at that point that has no checks or balances, and which is completely ruthless. It exploited elementary flaws in the architecture of the internet to spy on the whole world not excluding Americans on American soil (the internet sends US emails, phone calls, etc. all around the globe bouncing off servers, and you can’t scoop up all the fiber optic traffic going to the UK across the Atlantic without scooping up Americans’ information). It doesn’t tell the relevant House and Senate committees or the judiciary what it is really up to, or even, I suspect, the president.
An indication of how these things are actually done surfaced when Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer, and some others inside the agency, told the New York Times’s James Risen in 2011 that the Bush White House asked the CIA to “get” me (Juan Cole) wanted to find personal information on me with which to discredit me. Carle’s and others’ courageous pushback (he said “hell, no, that’s illegal and might destroy the Agency!”) helped stop this criminal conspiracy of the Neocons in its tracks. But others at the Agency were perfectly willing to go along, and if Carle hadn’t been there, who knows what would have happened? And if the White House could try to use the CIA against an obscure Midwest college professor with a blog, imagine what they were doing to other more important people.
More came out on Democracy Now! that summer:
By the way, Barack Obama’s DOJ is prosecuting the courageous James Risen for his national security journalism, which is despicable. After all, what the White House ordered the CIA to do to me was presumably classified, so he revealed classified information. It is all classified, Mr. President, the wrongdoing along with the things gotten right. You can’t have journalism if you prosecute all leaks.
I was thinking about this amazing piece by Pratap Chatterjee on how the CIA has seen too many Jason Bourne movies and has adopted the derring-do and bravado tactics that work so well in the movies but, in real life, turn out to make a mess. One thinks of the person who sees in a movie the tablecloth trick—whisking a tablecloth away from a fully set table, disturbing nothing—and decides to show his family at Thanksgiving dinner, only to discover that movies hide the effort, the practice, and the failed attempts and show only the shot that came out perfectly. In real life, things are different, as Chatterjee shows. Instead of Jason Bourne, think of Inspector Clouseau, only not funny.
And the piece, which I blogged earlier, is really worth reading in its recitation of how would-be Jason Bournes and James Bonds fare in real life: poorly. He doesn’t even mention the CIA’s kidnapping and torture of a totally innocent German citizen (Khalid El-Masri), apparently thinking they had Khalid Al-Masri. Or the entire CIA team that kidnapped the Egyptian cleric in Italy and were then tried and convicted of the kidnapping (in abstentia). The messy story, so unlike a movie, is described by an agent who was part of the team.
And in the post just blogged, car-jack victim Edward Bell fired on his own car as it was being driven away by an assailant. In the movies, depending on the rating, he would have shot out a tire and stopped the car, or wounded the driver and stopped the car, or (for R-rated) shot the driver through the back of the head. But it wasn’t a move, and Bell instead killed 69-year-old Geraldine Jackson inside her house. Movie shootings and stunts are choreographed and follow the plot and if a mistake is made, the scene is reshot until it is done right. Jackie Chan once did 2900 takes before the scene was done right. (In life, you get one take and have to carry on from there.)
So the CIA needs to rethink its programs and tactics. Read Chatterjee’s piece and see if you don’t agree.
Medicare Part D (prescription drug benefit) had a very rocky roll-out and the law was poorly drafted, leaving a famous “donut hold” in the coverage: in go through the year, a person using the benefit will find that for a portion of the year prescriptions were not covered. But in time things got fixed, and now people scream that the politicians had better keep their government hands off Medicare…
Ezra Klein interviews the Mark McClellan in the Wonkblog:
In the months before Obamacare officially launched, the White House health-care team talked often about everything they were doing to make sure Obamacare didn’t become the next Medicare Part D.
Fast forward a few months, and the White House health team is desperately hoping Obamacare becomes the next Medicare Part D.
Medicare Part D is the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. It was passed by the Bush administration in 2003 and launched in 2006. The launch, to say the least, didn’t go well.
Seniors were confused by the new options. Some showed up at pharmacies only to find their benefits didn’t work, or the plan they thought they signed up for wasn’t the one they got. The initial enrollment push was a disaster, with far fewer seniors signing up than expected. Two months in, then-Majority Leader John Boehner called it “horrendous.”
But the law recovered. Today, Medicare Part D is widely considered a success. More than 90 percent of seniors are satisfied with the program. Republicans point to it as a model for their future reforms. Democrats expanded it as part of the Affordable Care Act.
This is exactly what the White House is hoping happens with Obamacare.
I asked Mark McClellan, who led the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services during Part D’s implementation, whether that was realistic. His answers didn’t foretell a pleasant 2014 for the Obama administration. But they suggested that many critics have written the law off far too early.
Even if HealthCare.gov is repaired, McClellan warned that the law’s problems aren’t anywhere near over. Part D’s worst trials came when people actually began attempting to use their insurance. Obamacare hasn’t even reached that juncture yet — and, worryingly, its sign-up process has been more troubled and more disruptive than Part D’s.
Come January there will be people who had their plans canceled by Obamacare but didn’t or couldn’t sign up for new insurance. There will be people who signed up for new insurance but their application got lost in the tubes. Some of these people will be sick, and interruptions to their care will be dangerous — not to mention widely publicized.
“There’s is a 100 percent chance that this will happen to a nontrivial number of people,” McClellan, who’s now at the Brookings Institution, said. “So the Obama administration needs some kind of plan in place for resolving those cases as rapidly as possible and making sure they get the care they need.”
As of now, McClellan said, enrollment data isn’t worth much. “It is way too early to draw definitive conclusions about ultimate enrollment numbers or whether it’ll be skewed to older, sicker people,” he said.
The Medicare Part D experience was that sign-up was slow at the outset and then rocketed upward in the spring of 2006, toward the end of open enrollment. “By that point, every senior had heard about this program or knew people in it. And everyone was familiar with the delayed enrollment penalty. Those things together led to a big bump in enrollment for people who were procrastinating. But they decided to sign up before the end of open enrollment,” McClellan said.
The White House has been explicitly comforting itself by looking to the enrollment patterns of Medicare Part D. But McClellan isn’t certain they apply. For one thing, . . .
Matthew Schofield has a story in McClatchy on growing German outrage about US illegal activities:
To appreciate the scope and impact of a joint investigative series by the highly regarded German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung and German public television station NDR on the depth of American trespasses in this country, you don’t even have to read a word of the reports, or watch the videos.
All you really have to do is take a look at the U.S. Embassy rebuttal of the series. The multi-part, multi-media series was put on line beginning Friday morning, though some parts weren’t up until evening. And others are said to be coming during the coming weeks. The U.S. Embassy in Germany press office statement came out just after 3 p.m.
U.S. Embassy Berlin
November 15, 2013
U.S. Embassy Statement on “Secret War” Allegations
The article in today’s Sueddeutscher Zeitung, ‘The Secret War: Germany and the Role of America,’ is full of half-truths, speculation, and innuendo. For many decades there have indeed been military facilities in Germany for our mutual security under Status of Forces Agreements, but the fact that they are closed to the public in no way implies that illegal activities are being organized there. Although we do not comment on specifics, as a matter of policy the United States does not engage in kidnapping and torture, and does not condone or support the resort to such illegal activities by any nation. Germany is one of the closest allies and partners of the United States, cooperating in areas ranging from counter-terrorism to international economic sustainability. Outrageous claims like those raised in this article are not helpful to the German-American relationship and to our shared global agenda.”
The newspaper reaction to that reaction: . . .
The problem with the Embassy’s response is that it contains boldfaced lies that will be quite evident to the German people:
“As a matter of policy the United States does not engage in kidnapping and torture, and does not condone or support the resort to such illegal activities by any nation.”
This statement is not only false, it is well known to be false. Germans in particular will remember the case of Khalid El-Masri, a German citizen kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia, flown to Afghanistan, and tortured at length until the CIA finally realized that they had picked up the wrong man, an innocent bystander, in effect: El-Masri was on vacation in Macedonia, a vacation that went about as bad as a vacation can go.
Despite the event, the US has refused to allow El-Masri to sue for damages. And the US will not apologize for what it did.
And it’s not the only instance: a team of CIA agents in Italy were actually tried and found guilty of kidnapping Abu Omar and transporting him to Egypt to be tortured.
And there’s the case of the Canadian citizen Maher Arar who was taken at a layover in JFK Airport and, after two weeks in solitary, was taken to Syria for torture and held in prison there for a year. The Canadian government has apologized and awarded damages, but the US has stonewalled any legal action.
These cases are all well known. Why the American Embassy decided to lie when the lie would be evident is unclear, but obvious lying will not increase respect for the US government.
The US now holds the view that it is vital that US citizens not know what the US government is doing. The efforts to hide programs and punish vindictively any whistleblower who reveals what is going on is not only contrary to what is needed for a democracy, it leads to program failure: mission creep, change of directions, and simple incompetence. A good whistleblower or two in the early stages might have kept the Obama Administration from such an enormous fail in launching Healthcare.gov. But Obama has worked hard to make sure that whistleblowing carries such severe penalties that people won’t do it. Healthcare.gov is the result. The NSA is the result. And now a new story, from CommonDreams.org by Sarah Lazare:
If the U.S. gets its way, the world will never know the details of top-level discussions between George W. Bush and Tony Blair that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
An exclusive report released Thursday by The Independent reveals that the White House and U.S. State Department have launched a fierce battle against the release of a four-year government-ordered investigation into the lead-up and aftermath of British participation in a war now widely viewed in the UK as a catastrophe.
The inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot, is believed to take aim at the official version of events, including misrepresentation of Iraq intelligence, as well as questions about whether former British Prime Minister Tony Blair engaged in secret negotiations with the Bush administration while lying to the British people.
Yet, the U.S. government is forbidding the release of communications between Blair and Bush in the lead-up to the war, declaring it classified information and pressuring British Prime Minister David Cameron to wipe this information from the report.
The Independent reports that the hidden documents “are said to provide crucial evidence for already-written passages that are highly critical of the covert way in which Mr Blair committed British troops to the US-led invasion.”
The paper goes on to quote a top-level diplomat, who declared, “The US are highly possessive when documents relate to the presence of the President or anyone close to him… this is not Tony Blair’s or the UK Government’s property to disclose.”
There are signs that the British government is poised to cave to U.S. pressure, in a bid to protect the ‘special’ relationship between the two countries.
The Independent reports:
Although the Prime Minister told Chilcot in a letter last week that some documents needed to be “handled sensitively”, the Cabinet Office decoded the Prime Minister’s phrases yesterday, telling The Independent: “It is in the public’s interests that exchanges between the UK Prime Minister and the US President are privileged. The whole premise about withholding them [from publication] is to ensure that we do not prejudice our relations with the United States.”
Immediately following the release of the report, a Cabinet spokesperson denied that the U.S. has veto power over the Iraq War inquiry, declaring, “All sides recognize that this raises difficult issues, involving legal and international relations considerations.”
The inquiry was launched by Gordon Brown in 2009, expected to take a year to finish, and has already been concluded but remains hidden from the public. The report has no set publication date at this time, according toThe Huffington Post.
An editorial by Guardian editors sounds the alarm over the delayed release of the report, declaring, “If there is an urgency, it is because only with publication of Chilcot’s report can this generation hope to learn the lessons of that misguided war and how to avoid repeating those mistakes.”
The US government does not want any glaring contradictions to the story they tell us. And why? Because the US government has done things that they know the public will not approve, and it wants to keep doing such things.
The US started down a wrong path years back, when it decided that laws no longer applied to it. We are reaping the harvest of many ill-considered decisions to embrace illegal actions. Matthew Schofield reports in McClatchy:
The breach in U.S.-German relations seemed likely to widen Friday after a joint German newspaper and television investigation titled “Secret War” reported that American intelligence and military use this nation for “tapping, code cracking, recruiting informants, observing suspects, kidnapping and abducting foreign enemies.”
What’s more, the reports added: “The Germans have known all that for years.”
The reports come at a time when German-U.S. relations have been taking a beating. In June, documents released by former National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has spied on the electronic communications of tens of millions of Germans. In October, the news broke that the NSA had even been tapping the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years, even before she became chancellor.
The resulting freefall in American popularity was tracked by a poll by national German public television station ARD. That poll showed that only 35 percent of Germans still see the United States as a good partner, down from 49 percent in July. The poll also found that 61 percent of Germans now see the United States as an untrustworthy partner and that 60 percent of Germans consider Snowden – who has been called a traitor by American officials – to be a hero. President Barack Obama’s star has fallen fast. In April 2010, 88 percent of Germans said they liked his politics; the new poll put that number at 43 percent.
The news organizations – the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and German public television station NDR, two of Germany’s most respected – say that the eight reports they published Friday were just the first of many that will come in the next few weeks.
To appreciate the scope and impact of just those installments, you don’t have to read even a word of the reports, or watch video reports. All you really have to do is take a look at the U.S. Embassy’s rebuttal, which was released within hours of the reports’ first publication.
The statement bluntly dismisses the reports.
“The article in today’s Sueddeutscher (sic) Zeitung, ‘The Secret War: Germany and the Role of America,’ is full of half-truths, speculation and innuendo,” the statement begins.
It goes on to note: “For many decades there have indeed been military facilities in Germany for our mutual security under Status of Forces Agreements, but the fact that they are closed to the public in no way implies that illegal activities are being organized there.”
And the statement goes after several of the stronger allegations in the series.
“Although we do not comment on specifics, as a matter of policy the United States does not engage in kidnapping and torture, and does not condone or support the resort to such illegal activities by any nation. Germany is one of the closest allies and partners of the United States, cooperating in areas ranging from counterterrorism to international economic sustainability. Outrageous claims like those raised in this article are not helpful to the German-American relationship and to our shared global agenda.”
The newspaper was unchastened: “The American Embassy also comments and rejects the reports as innuendo. They are stating the United States ‘are not kidnapping and torturing on principle.’ This is a daring claim. Only seven months ago a commission made up of Democrats and Republicans called it ‘undeniable’ that the United States tortured inmates following the terror attacks of 2001. Even President Barack Obama said in 2009 that the American practice of waterboarding was torture.”
The newspaper said almost 20 journalists had worked on the series, and that it was more than a year in the making.
The English-language version of the series begins:
“Tapping Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone would seem like an outrageous breach of trust – except that there have been so many other, deadlier and lesser-known, breaches of trust wrought by the U.S. in Germany in recent years. . .
A little tip for the American Embassy: Denials work much better if they do not contain (or consist of) falsehoods. The US quite clearly has committed kidnapping and torture, including kidnapping and torture of perfectly innocent people, one of whom is a German citizen (and the US resolutely refuses to allow the victim to seek restitution in US courts, and the same for the Canadian we kidnapped and shipped to another nation to have the torturing done for us: outsourcing torture, though we did a fair amount ourselves (apparently 92 videotapes worth). Indeed, the Italian courts have convicted several CIA employees for kidnapping a person in Italy.
It seems that the US government has decided the best approach is to deny everything, including well-known facts. This is going in a very bad direction when the US demands that other nations collude in illegal behavior. And while I can understand that official Washington may be deeply ashamed of what happened, simply denying that it did happen is a very weak defense indeed, especially when it is quite clear that it did happen.
The evidence of group decisions made in real time is seen in many places: the movements of schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of animals. In each case the group moves to some extent as a unit, though obviously each individual member is making independent decisions, yet those sum to a coordinated group behavior. Slime molds would be another example, so the phenomenon is not limited to vertebrates.
I think that is how we came to invade Iraq: that exact same phenomenon, with a group finding itself coordinated and purposeful—of one mind, as it were—each individual member of the group makes his/her own decisions, but like a group decision, those individual decisions are coordinated and add up to movement together in a particular direction. Each member of the group feels as though s/he is simply taking the appropriate steps, in the light of the situation, and yet all those appropriate steps are marching in formation into war.
It seems easy to understand, given the psychological state of the White House (and, indeed, the nation) at the time. From Ezra Klein’s interview with Peter Baker at Wonkblog:
. . . EK: But it wasn’t hijacked by Iraq. The Bush administration chose that war. And, to be honest, that’s what I read the book to understand. I’ve never felt like I understood the reason the Bush administration decided to go to war in Iraq. Once that decision was made, I feel like I can track the arguments for and against it. But the fundamental choice to make that the project is a mystery to me. Now that you’ve written the book, do you feel like you understand it?
PB: I have a better understanding, but I think it’s one of these questions that will be revisited and re-debated for decades to come. My guess is 20 years from now we’ll still be seeing more books on that question. It is the essence of this presidency: Why go to war in Iraq? Some mention Bush’s father. Some mention Cheney’s sense of unfinished business in the Gulf War. There’s the false intelligence.
And overlaying all that is what it felt like in that moment. They were operating in an atmosphere of fear and anger and uncertainty. They were seeing these threat reports every day — including episodes we didn’t even know about, like the botulism scare. When they come into office, they had thought, at the time, that Iraq was a top threat. Then once 9/11 happens it sort of removes all constraints that they might have had prior to that in their interest and inclination to use force. There’s a quote in the book from a senior administration official who was really involved in the decision to invade Iraq and who regrets it now who says we went into Iraq because Afghanistan was so easy. We needed someone harder to beat; 9/11 felt like such a signal event that it required action and response beyond simply toppling the Taliban.
EK: That quote is amazing. But it sounds like he also doesn’t know why they went into Iraq. And he was there! That’s less an explanation of the policy than of the psychology. And that’s something the book details really well. I think people can remember what it felt like to be scared after 9/11. But the amount of fear there is in the White House and the degree to which fear of a worse attack drives the decisions after 9/11 — it’s a really psychologically unusual administration.
PB: That’s absolutely right. Every day they receive a briefing telling them 100 ways bad guys around the world are trying to kill Americans, Some are real, and some are fanciful. But in that moment the intelligence agencies, having missed the dots on 9/11, begin throwing everything they have at the White House.
Cheney has this history in continuity-of-government issues. He has for years contemplated the notion of an apocalyptic attack on the United States — 9/11 convinces him his fears are real. Nineteen guys with box cutters, to him, are only a scratch on the surface compared to what could have happened. And that makes a lot of things seem more reasonable. Eventually, Frances Townsend becomes head of the Homeland Security Advisor and begins taking some of these threats out of the briefings because she felt it was so skewed towards danger and it was warping everyone’s mindset to be so exposed to every piece of raw data like that. . .
And they were undoubtedly working around the clock, and sleep deprivation has its own significant psychological effects.
I will add that it strikes me that the reason the guy gave (“We went into Iraq because Afghanistan was so easy.”) is the sort of reason you think up after the fact because you really don’t have a reason, as such. You can only honestly say, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” and in this sort of group decision/action mode, I would think that is indeed the feeling of each individual. It in fact doesn’t seem all that unusual, on a limited individual scale, to encounter that mode of “decision-making”, when any reason you offer for a decision you made in the past, one that turned out poorly, is made up afterwards, because in fact at the time you were just doing what seemed like a good idea. This unconscious decision-making mode often leads to behaviors that trigger, “What on earth were you thinking?”
James fallows has an excellent post at the Atlantic:
Six months ago, President Obama said that the fearfulness and over-reaction of the ‘GWOT’ were doing far more harm than good. He was right then, and still is. So why hasn’t he matched his — our — policies to his words?JAMES FALLOWSOCT 27 2013, 2:22 PM ET
Seven-plus years ago, I argued in a cover story that the open-ended “war on terror” was damaging American interests and American values more than the (still-real) threat of terrorist attack had or ever could.
This wasn’t some big leap of insight or imagination on my part. I was mainly citing military strategists and historians who had demonstrated, over time, that the reaction provoked by terrorist attacks was always more damaging than the original assault itself. Extreme illustration: the nationalist-anarchist assassination of two people in Sarajevo in 1914 leading to the deaths of tens of millions in The Great War. (Hyper-vivid death-car recreation below, via Smithsonian.) The damage done by an over-reactive response to terrorism seems almost a ho-hum point now, but it wasn’t prevailing opinion at the time, and I will always be grateful to James Bennet, then just installed as our editor, for sticking with it as his first cover story.
Thus I was glad when, earlier this year, President Obama announced that it was time to “define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
But as with various other aspects of the Administration and of this era, we’ve learned that it’s one thing to announce “change!” and something else to bring it about. The drone war goes on, the NSA programs go on, surveillance increases and detentions continue — and the damage mounts up faster than we reckon. There’s immediate damage to the objects of these programs, of course — but broader and longer-lasting damage to American institutions, interests, and ideals. (As you’ve read from Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Cohen, and otherAtlantic writers over the years.)
This is all by way of directing you to David Rohde’s latest installment in this vein, “Our Fear of Al-Qaeda Hurts Us More Than Al-Qaeda Does.” Exactly so. And he speaks with the credibility of someone who knows about the direct damage terrorists can do, having been kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban for nine months in Afghanistan.
Read it, and let us see whether our government can change a policy that the president himself has stated is damaging the world in general and us as well.
Pretty wonderful. Hayes Brown reports at ThinkProgress:
Former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden is more used to being the one listening in on conversations than the one being eavesdropped on himself. The tables were turned on Thursday, however, as Hayden suddenly found his supposedly private conversations blasted across the Internet.
Riding on the Acela express train between New York and Washington, DC, Hayden had the bad luck of sitting near entrepreneur and former MoveOn.org director Tom Matzzie. “Former NSA spy boss Michael Hayden on Acela behind me blabbing ‘on background as a former senior admin official’,” Matzzie wrote on his Twitter account. “Sounds defensive.” For the next twenty minutes, Mattzie continued to livetweet Hayden’s conversations slamming the Obama administration, all the while insisting that he be referred to only on background.
The conversation also seemed to touch on Hayden’s time as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush as well. “Hayden was bragging about rendition and black sites a minute ago,” Mattzie wrote. Hayden has in the past defended the use of waterboarding against detainees held in various sites around the world, and dismissed torture as a “legal term.”
“On Acela listening to former NSA spy boss Michael Hayden give ‘off record’ interviews,” Mattzie joked minutes later. “I feel like I’m in the NSA. Except I’m in public.” Hayden has been a vociferous defender of the NSA’s ongoing surveillance tactics, claiming repeatedly that the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have harmed U.S. security.
It’s unclear precisely which news outlets Hayden was speaking to during the train ride, which passed through Philadelphia around 4:45 PM, though he was apparently speaking on the recent stories revealing the extent of NSA spying on allies like Germany and France. Mattzie speculated that one of the reporters was Massimo Calabresi at TIME magazine, but it will be impossible to determine until stories attributable to a “former senior administration official” begin to be published. See the full stream of tweets describing the situation here: . . .
Quite interesting article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker:
Last night, along with the bill reopening the government, the Senate confirmed Stephen W. Preston, the top lawyer at the C.I.A., to move to the Pentagon to serve in the same role there. The vote slipped by unnoticed by most, but on close inspection, it revealed previously unreleased documents that lift the lid on an unusual standoff between Congress and the Obama Administration’s C.I.A. At its core is a bitter disagreement over an apparently devastating, and still secret, report by the Senate Intelligence Committee documenting in detail how the C.I.A.’s brutalization of terror suspects during the Bush years was unnecessary, ineffective, and deceptively sold to Congress, the White House, the Justice Department, and the public. The report threatens to definitively refute former C.I.A. personnel who have defended the program’s integrity. But so far, to the consternation of several members of the Intelligence Committee, the Obama Administration, like Bush’s before it, is keeping the damning details from public view.
Preston’s confirmation became a proxy skirmish in the fight. Obama reportedly hoped to get Preston confirmed before the congressional recess this past summer. Instead, Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, who is a member of both the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Armed Services Committee, put a “hold” on Preston’s confirmation until he answered a set of additional, and previously undisclosed, questions. A copy of these seven questions, and Preston’s answers, obtained by The New Yorker (below), sheds new light on the conflict.
The questions and answers make clear that Udall, who has pushed vigorously for the report’s release, voted to confirm Preston only after he believed that the general counsel distanced himself from his own intelligence agency’s defiant and defensive stance on the six-thousand-three-hundred page report, which cost forty million dollars to produce. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, are pushing to declassify and publicly release it. But John Brennan, the agency’s director, a career C.I.A. officer, and an Obama confidant, is apparently resisting disclosure, and challenging many of the report’s conclusions.
On June 27th, the C.I.A. delivered an impassioned rebuttal of the report to the committee. Last month marked the last of numerous meetings between C.I.A. and Intelligence Committee personnel over the disputed report. They did not go well, according to several informed sources. Meanwhile, despite Obama’s calls for increased transparency, the White House has apparently sat on the sidelines, urging the two intransigent sides to work out their differences. Without White House involvement, the standoff is likely to remain a huge battle.
Edward Price, a media spokesman for the C.I.A., said in a statement, “Mr. Preston’s answers are fully consistent with the Agency’s position and its response to the Senate report on the Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. The C.I.A. response noted that the C.I.A. agreed with a number of the Senate study’s findings and had taken steps to address shortcomings identified by the report, but it also detailed significant errors in the study.” The C.I.A. declined to discuss details, and documents suggest some significant differences between Preston and the agency.
The C.I.A. has defended its record on keeping Congress informed. In contrast, Preston, in his answers to Udall, concedes that, during the Bush years, the C.I.A. “fell well short” of current standards for keeping the congressional oversight committees informed of covert actions, as is required under the 1947 National Security Act.
In fact, Preston admits outright that, contrary to the C.I.A.’s insistence that it did not actively impede congressional oversight of its detention and interrogation program, “briefings to the Committees included inaccurate information related to aspects of the program of express interest to Members.”
The contention that the C.I.A. provided inaccurate information to the congressional oversight committees is apparently extensively documented by the report. Udall notes that . . .
You’ll recall that the CIA earlier destroyed videotaped evidence of its torture sessions. From the article at the link:
. . . As many as 92 tapes of terror war captives being tortured by CIA operatives were allegedly destroyed. Officials suggested these recordings depicted torture sessions with terrorism suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri.
Along with the tapes, detailed records of the CIA’s so-called “torture flights,” showing the planes, destinations and even the passengers, were also said destroyed.
The destruction of these records was revealed by then-CIA Director Michael Hayden in Dec. 2007, who said the decision was made because the videos posed “a serious security risk” to the agency. [The risk was that the torturers and those who ordered the torture would face prosecution for war crimes. - LG]
The ultimate decision to destroy the torture tapes was made by Jose Rodriguez, the former Director of the National Clandestine Service. The Department of Justice (DoJ) said in Nov. that Rodriguez would not face charges.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in June that after a years-long investigation, the DoJ would probe the deaths of two prisoners who allegedly perished in the CIA’s custody. In doing so, he said that it was also dropping possible further inquiries into allegations of torture by CIA agents.
Paul Buchheit reports in Salon:
Every clear-thinking American knows that education and jobs are needed more than armed guards in poor neighborhoods. But average Americans are led to believe in a terrorist threat that may or may not exist, and that in any case is greatly exaggerated, while the corporate/military/political complex creates new forms of terror to safeguard the assets of the rich.
1. War Terror
It started with our leaders comparing notes on Iraq:
In the first Iraqi war, two air missions per minute were conducted over 43 days, with the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs dropped on a largely defenseless country. Much of the slaughter was caused by “dumb bombs” that fell on civilian areas. U.S. troops attacked retreating Iraqi soldiers with cluster bombs and napalm as American pilots, adopting metaphors such as ‘turkey shoot’ and ‘fish in a barrel,’ conducted target practice from above. Some Iraqis were buried alive by bulldozers that spread tons of sand over them.
2. Drone Terror
In Pakistan, civilians can hear the droning in the sky all day long. Said one resident: “I can’t sleep…when the drones are there…I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain.” A humanitarian worker added, “I was in New York on 9/11…This is what it is like.”
When bombings kill townspeople, their family and friends are often afraid to run to their aid, because standard procedure is to bomb the first responders. Afterwards the funerals are sometimes bombed.
A Pew survey reported that 75% of Pakistanis consider us their enemy. A former advisor to General Petraeus stated, “Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement..” Indeed, militant groups have rapidly been forming, such as Lashkar, which has been attacking U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan. The sentiment goes beyond Pakistan. A spokesperson for Yemen, also under attack, told a U.S. Senate committee, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”
The disease is spreading. There are now 737 U.S. Military Bases around the world, and over 2.5 million military personnel. Since 9/11 about 100 new generals and admirals have been added to the ranks of top brass, all with private jets and chefs and guards and secretaries and drivers.
3. Unconstitutional Terror
The Fourth Amendment guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Since 9/11, numerous measures have been employed in the name of national security: The Patriot Act, Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and the National Defense Authorization Act. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has facilitated the monitoring of foreign communications in the name of anti-terrorism.
Internet privacy has been threatened by proposals like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Privacy is at risk with the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), passed in the House.
In addition, . . .
For those who would point out that Saddam Hussein did indeed have “weapons of mass destruction” (for example, hand grenades), I reply that the expansion of “weapons of mass destruction” to include things like hand grenades, RPGs, and the like was made AFTER Cheney’s statement. He did indeed mean what we once knew as “weapons of mass destruction”: nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons. But now, when Hillary Clinton refers to “weapons of mass destruction” in Syria, she could be talking about hand grenades, which now are defined as “weapons of mass destruction.”
As you can probably tell, the grotesque expansion of the meaning of “weapons of mass destruction” seems incredibly stupid to me. It’s good, of course, that the expanded definition does not include, say, ice–cream cones and chocolate bunnies, but still: a hand grenade?? Really. So every nation on earth possesses weapons of mass destruction? The term thus broadened is useless: as W.S. Gilbert wrote, “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody” (from The Gondoliers)—when every nation and every militia has weapons of mass destruction, then we need a new term for those things (like nuclear weapons) that really are weapons of mass destruction.
The US used chemical weapons heavily in Vietnam, as this article points out, though we were careful to call them “agents” rather than “weapons.” Nora Eisenberg reports for AtnerNet:
As the Obama administration presses ahead with its mission to punish the Syrian government for its alleged gassing of civilians in suburban Damascus, the particulars of the attack remain unclear. All too clear, though, is the role of the United States as a supplier, supporter and even employer of a wide range of weapons of mass destruction, including sarin gas, resulting in the death and illness of not only those considered our enemies, but our “heroes” too.
The 1960s and 1970s
The US military’s widespread and long-term use of the defoliant Agent Orange to destroy Vietnamese jungles is among the best known and most anguishing chapters in modern chemical warfare. Published articles had demonstrated the health and environmental dangers of the chemical components of Agent Orange (so called for the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped) for a full decade preceding the war. In 1952, Monsanto (which along with Dow Chemicals was the principal manufacturer) informed the government of the dangerous byproduct resulting from heating the chemical mix—namely dioxin. Yet we proceeded to employ Agent Orange, denying for decades the death and illness inflicted on Vietnamese and Americans alike. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by AP photographer Nick Ut documented , we used the incendiaries napalm and white phosphorus in Vietnam.
As Seymour Hersh revealed in his groundbreaking 1968 reporting, we provided the South Vietnamese with the lethal arsenic-containing gas DM , claiming it was a “tear” gas for riot control, though the Field Manual clearly stated “not approved in any operations where deaths are not acceptable.” Throughout the war, Hersh and others continued to document the US use of gases, incendiaries and Agent Orange and other herbicidals to destroy not only Vietnam’s jungles but its food supply—a crime against humanity and nature.
Totally unknown till 35 years after the Vietnam War was the DoD’s Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD), a highly classified program, which from 1962 to 1971 tested whether US warships and their troops could withstand attacks from chemical and biological weapons. From overhead planes and nearby aircraft carriers, the military aimed lethal gases at ships carrying mostly unsuspecting sailors and marines. In the 1990s, veterans stationed on SHAD boats reported respiratory conditions and cancers only to be told by VA that nothing called Project SHAD had ever existed. Finally, after CBS broke the story in May 2001 , the Department of Defense admitted to SHAD’s existence and its almost decade-long program of toxic testing.
In 1998, a CNN two-part Sunday night news report revealed that a special commando unit in 1970 used sarin gas in Laos to kill American defectors. The story about “Operation Tailwind” was researched, written and produced by seasoned journalists April Oliver and Jack Smith, with help from Pulitzer Prize-winning Peter Arnett, who narrated the broadcast. Under pressure from Henry Kissinger and others, many claim, CNN retracted the story, and fired Oliver and Smith, and Arnett soon after. (Newsroom‘s Aaron Sorkin recently explained on the Daily Show that he used “Operation Tailwind” as the basis of the second season’s centerpiece, Operation Genoa, a secret mission set in Pakistan, in which the US supposedly used sarin against civilians. CNN’s reporting, Sorkin told John Oliver, offered an intriguing example of journalism gone awry with compromising research and doctored videos.)
The story of Operation Tailwind has never been proven wrong, as Jennifer Epps persuasively documented recently  on the Daily Kos.According to Oliver and Smith , the story’s prime source, Admiral Thomas Moorer, read and signed off on the script; and according to Reese Schonfeld, CNN’s co-founder, Moorer stated in a legal deposition that he had said what the journalists quoted him as saying. Even CNN’s attorneys Floyd Abrams and David Kohler “found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process….We do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent.” The attorneys asserted that high-level and reliable military personnel had been confidential sources for the story. Yet the story was pulled and the journalists fired.
The 1980s and 1990s
Reagan and Bush I’s Dual-Use Double Dealing
The 1991 Gulf War followed almost a decade of the Reagan-Bush I administration’s active support of Iraq in its war against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. The US supplied Iraq with financing, intelligence and supplies for a protracted war with Iran, in which chemical weapons played a significant role. “Iraqgate”—in which we used other countries and their banks to transfer war funds and materials to Iraq—became a considerable though fleeting scandal in 1989-’90. But Reagan’s and then Bush’s use of US government agencies to funnel materials and technology that could be used to create and disperse chemical and biological weapons remains a little known chapter in the history of US warfare.
Dual-use materials and technologies—normally used for civilian purposes but with ready military applications—were central to the program. Overseen by the Department of Commerce, the secret program allowed massive export to Iraq items such as agricultural toxin, and “crop duster” equipped helicopters, ostensibly to kill weeds and insects, but used to kill people.
In 1983, as the State Department was reporting Iraq’s manufacture and use of nerve gas, Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan’s special envoy to Iraq, was in Baghdad negotiating the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Iraq, which were formalized soon after. In 1988, with clear evidence that Iraq had used sarin and other nerve gases on the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing up to 5,000 civilians, the US government did nothing: The State Department advanced the bogus story that Iran was partly to blame. In 1989, the Bechtel corporation, on whose board Rumsfeld sat, won a contract with Iraq to construct a new chemical plant that expanded its ability to produce sarin and other chemical weapons.. .
Very interesting excerpt from Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare, by Juan C. Zarate, a former deputy national security advisor and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the senior national security analyst for CBS News, and a visiting lecturer of law at Harvard Law School:
Ever since Treasury’s press secretary, Tony Fratto, had been read into the classified and closely held Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) program, he had prepared for a leak. We had constructed the program to help track terrorist financing legally, effectively, and in secret. But we assumed all along that the program would see the light of day. Fratto knew the call would come. When it did, he was surprised it had taken so long.
The Treasury Department and officials involved in Europe made a serious attempt to keep the program quiet and to limit those with knowledge of its operations. But we always knew that the program would be revealed. From the outset we designed the program to ensure that it would stand up to legal and public scrutiny. The mechanics of the program were far more open than those of a classic intelligence operation. More foreign officials—especially more of those who were not traditionally in the intelligence business—were aware of the program than had been the case with any other highly sensitive counterterrorism program. The backlash that had come in 2005, when the New York Times reported the existence of the White House’s highly secret Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), had been a searing experience. Not just the U.S. government, but SWIFT executives, too, were nervous. The SWIFT officials feared their cooperation would be construed in the same critical light.
This is what Fratto and the small group of public affairs professionals “read into” the program had prepared for since 2002. Fratto and his predecessors Michele Davis and Rob Nichols had crafted a communications plan that anticipated the inevitable leak—with detailed questions, designated phone trees, and anticipated lines of attack and counterarguments to use with reporters. The communicators held three tabletop exercises with SWIFT officials and Treasury’s European counterparts so that all of them would understand their roles and the various pitfalls of a poorly coordinated response. Fratto had made two trips to the historic SWIFT chateau in Brussels to work with the company’s senior officials on the communications plan until they felt comfortable with it and were ready to respond.
In 2006, Fratto picked up a call from New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, and he knew the time had come. Lichtblau was coy, mentioning only that he was looking into a possible story about Treasury acquiring data from SWIFT. He made it sound like he didn’t know much, but alarm bells went off for Fratto. He understood that a call like this would not have happened unless Lichtblau, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his TSP piece, already had a story in mind. Lichtblau had begun to dig around and was asking other people questions about SWIFT as well. SWIFT communicators called Treasury press representative Molly Millerwise Meiners to let her know that New York Times reporters were sniffing around a story. In the conversation with Lichtblau, Fratto was able to discern that the Times had its hooks into the story and would ride it to the end. From the tenor of the conversation he could also tell that the Times thought the Treasury was doing something illegal—perhaps even stealing the financial data. Fratto did not reveal anything about the program, but he agreed to talk with Lichtblau again, since the Times would not be publishing a story without first talking to the Treasury Department.
Quickly, Fratto and the architects of the program put the response plan into motion—Fratto called Dan Bartlett, the communications director at the White House, while others called their counterparts throughout the U.S. government. Fratto assembled a group that included Stuart Levey, Molly Millerwise Meiners, and Treasury lawyers to determine the course of action. The team believed that the story the New York Times was constructing was flat-out wrong—there was nothing illegal about the SWIFT program. They hoped to convince the Times that the program was legal, effective, and appropriate—this would be our one chance to kill the story.
Josh Bolten, the president’s chief of staff, convened a meeting in his bright and spacious office just down the hall from the Oval Office. All of the administration’s key senior stakeholders on this issue were present, including Vice President Cheney, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, and Treasury Secretary Snow. The options on the table were straightforward—try to shut the New York Times out by not cooperating at all with the story; work with Lichtblau and his editor to try to convince them to not publish the story; work with them but try to shape the story in a favorable light; or hand the story to another publication.
Secretary Snow and the Treasury staff made the case for working with Lichtblau and the editors at the Times to try to convince them that they really didn’t have much of a story and the program they were investigating was legal, effective, and constrained in its application. Fratto did not want to be caught behind the story and knew that if it came out with inaccuracies and false assumptions, it would be a disaster for the Treasury, the administration, and SWIFT, jeopardizing the program itself. He also realized that the story could leak anyway, given the reporter’s ongoing inquiries to experts and officials in the United States and Europe about the program. I agreed wholeheartedly with Fratto and my former Treasury colleagues.
At every opportunity and every meeting I attended, we argued that . . .
I suspect that what’s happening is that too many in Congress and in the White House have had no military experience, much less combat experience. They don’t understand, at the level of direct personal experience, the toll that constant deployments can exact—there’s a tendency to view the military as a machine rather than as a bunch of people. That’s a guess. But read this post.
The good old CIA, never one to observe the law, domestic or international. The use of chemical warfare is illegal under the various conventions regarding warfare, and the US has fiercely condemned use of chemical and nerve gases, but I presume the US sees it differently when the US itself is involved (though no necessarily: I recall Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical warfare was one of the reasons the US gave for invading that country. It reminds me a little of how the FBI finds some Muslims who can’t find work and are unhappy, and supplies them with plans and materiel for a bomb attack, then arrests them and sends them to prison, protecting the US. We supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons, then when he uses them, we use that as an excuse for invasion.
Margaret Hartmann writes in New York:
The United States appears to be moving closerto taking military action in Syria over President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons, but a new report in Foreign Policyshows that the U.S. government wasn’t always so vehemently opposed to the use of such tactics. According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials, the U.S. government had evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons in 1983, but concealed those facts as Iran tried to prove that to the United Nations. Even worse, toward the end of the war, the U.S. shared information with Iraq about Iran’s military position that it knew was likely to lead to a chemical attack. AsForeign Policy puts it, the new revelations are “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”
Long before the U.S. decided that both nations were were part of an “Axis of Evil,” it was determined to see Iraq defeat Iran, even if it meant looking the other way as Saddam Hussein gassed his enemies and his own people. When Iraq began using mustard gas in 1983, the U.S. government wasn’t sharing intelligence with Hussein, but CIA reports show that top Reagan administration officials were regularly updated on the attacks. Nothing was done to prevent them either, though U.S. officials knew about Iraq’s efforts to produce the weapons and the locations of its chemical plants. One CIA document stated, “If the Iraqis produce or acquire large new supplies of mustard agent, they almost certainly would use it against Iranian troops and towns near the border.”
The U.S. changed its policy on sharing intelligence with Hussein in 1987, when CIA satellite images revealed that the Iranians had uncovered a hole in Iraq’s defenses near Basrah, and were building up troops and equipment nearby. A Defense Intelligence Agency report warned that if Iran captured the city, Iraq would lose the war. President Reagan reportedly read the document and scribbled in the margin, “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.”
Top officials decided to share information on Iran’s strategy with Iraq, providing satellite imagery and reports on the Iranian military’s abilities. Soon after, Iraq launched sarin attacks that killed thousands.
For years, U.S. officials have defended themselves by saying that throughout the war, Iraq never announced it would use chemical weapons. Retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 attacks, told Foreign Policy, “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew.”
UPDATE: Abby Ohlheiser also reports on this at the Atlantic Wire:
The U.S. knew about, and in one case helped, Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks against Iran in the 1980′s, according to recently declassified CIA documents obtained by Foreign Policy. Their detailed timeline, also constructed with the aid of interviews with former foreign intelligence officials, indicates that the U.S. secretly had evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks in 1983. The evidence, FP writes, is “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”
Ever since last week’s devastating evidence of chemical attacks in Syria, analysts have looked for benchmarks to predict the U.S.’s response. On Sunday, a U.S. official suggested that the U.S. is moving closer to possible military action in the country as the U.S. has “little doubt” that an “indiscriminate” chemical attack took place. Officials are reportedly looking to the 1998 air war on Kosovo for a precedent — a similar humanitarian crisis in the face of virtually no chance of a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize use of force, thanks to dissent from Russia. And while Foreign Policy’s additional reporting places the Iraq situation in contrast to today’s debate over Syria, the details reveal just how sharply, in the past, the razor of U.S. interests in the Middle East has cut: “it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi victory in the war, whatever the cost,” the report explains. And apparently, that went up to and including helping Saddam Hussein gas Iran.
From 1983 until 1987, the U.S. more or less sat on (and internally discussed) intelligence containing strong evidence of Iraq’s chemical weapons use — early on, that meant mustard gas. Retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona told the magazine that he first learned of Iraq’s chemical weapons use in 1984. All that time, Iran was publicly saying that Iraq had used chemical weapons against them. They just didn’t have any evidence to take to the U.N. Then, Iran concentrated a large number of troops near the Iraqi city of Barash, near a vulnerability in Iraq’s defenses:
In late 1987, the DIA analysts in Francona’s shop in Washington wrote a Top Secret Codeword report partially entitled “At The Gates of Basrah,” warning that the Iranian 1988 spring offensive was going to be bigger than all previous spring offensives, and this offensive stood a very good chance of breaking through the Iraqi lines and capturing Basrah. The report warned that if Basrah fell, the Iraqi military would collapse and Iran would win the war.
President Reagan read the report and, according to Francona, wrote a note in the margin addressed to Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.”
The U.S. authorized intelligence sharing with Iraq, and gave Iraq the location of those troops. Iraq then conducted a series of devastating sarin gas attacks. You can view all of the declassified documents (or read the whole report) at Foreign Policy.
Mark Bowden gives much food for thought and pellucid writing in this article in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s becoming clear, as he tells it, that the drone is useful only in very special and specific circumstances and using it outside those parameters “doesn’t work.” That is, you can do it, sure, but what happens is the opposite of what you want: it doesn’t work.
So a good part of it is figuring out where it does work, and why, and whether there indeed many instances where it does. Any?
Anyway, ar article definitely worth reading. You can see a certain amount of “product placement” sort of spin, but very little and so far as I can tell totally supported by rational argument. The problems are not with the good faith of the people doing it, but the inescapable side-effects on the subject population. It’s somehow a big transgression, too akin to the thunderbolt of Zeus, risking impiety—in the serious sense, of assuming responsibilities you cannot control: the socerer’s apprentice with death. It may be that we ultimately decide that the drone is something we tried, and it just didn’t work, except in very special circumstances.
Consider David. The shepherd lad steps up to face in single combat the Philistine giant Goliath. Armed with only a slender staff and a slingshot, he confronts a fearsome warrior clad in a brass helmet and chain mail, wielding a spear with a head as heavy as a sledge and a staff “like a weaver’s beam.” Goliath scorns the approaching youth: “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?” (1 Samuel 17)
David then famously slays the boastful giant with a single smooth stone from his slingshot.
A story to gladden the hearts of underdogs everywhere, its biblical moral is:Best to have God on your side. But subtract the theological context and what you have is a parable about technology. The slingshot, a small, lightweight weapon that employs simple physics to launch a missile with lethal force from a distance, was an innovation that rendered all the giant’s advantages moot. It ignored the spirit of the contest. David’s weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair.
As anyone who has ever been in combat will tell you, the last thing you want is a fair fight. Technology has been tilting the balance of battles since Goliath fell. I was born into the age of push-button warfare. Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, capable of vaporizing an entire modern metropolis, of killing millions of people at once, was detonated over the Pacific before my second birthday. Growing up, the concept of global annihilation wasn’t just science fiction. We held civil-defense drills to practice for it.
Within my lifetime, that evolution has taken a surprising turn. Today we find ourselves tangled in legal and moral knots over the drone, a weapon that can find and strike a single target, often a single individual, via remote control.
Unlike nuclear weapons, the drone did not emerge from some multibillion-dollar program on the cutting edge of science. It isn’t even completely new. The first Predator drone consisted of a snowmobile engine mounted on a radio-controlled glider. When linked via satellite to a distant control center, drones exploit telecommunications methods perfected years ago by TV networks—in fact, the Air Force has gone to ESPN for advice. But when you pull together this disparate technology, what you have is a weapon capable of finding and killing someone just about anywhere in the world.
Drone strikes are a far cry from the atomic vaporizing of whole cities, but the horror of war doesn’t seem to diminish when it is reduced in scale. If anything, the act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act.
One day this past January, a small patrol of marines in southern Afghanistan was working its way at dusk down a dirt road not far from Kandahar, staying to either side to avoid planted bombs, when it unexpectedly came under fire. The men scattered for cover. A battered pickup truck was closing in on them and popping off rounds from what sounded like a big gun.
Continents away, in a different time zone, a slender 19-year-old American soldier sat at a desk before a large color monitor, watching this action unfold in startlingly high definition. He had never been near a battlefield. He had graduated from basic training straight out of high school, and was one of a select few invited to fly Predators. This was his first time at the controls, essentially a joystick and the monitor. The drone he was flying was roughly 15,000 feet above the besieged patrol, each member marked clearly in monochrome on his monitor by an infrared uniform patch. He had been instructed to watch over the patrol, and to “stay frosty,” meaning: Whatever happens, don’t panic. No one had expected anything to happen. Now something was happening.
The young pilot zoomed in tight on the approaching truck. He saw in its bed a .50-caliber machine gun, a weapon that could do more damage to an army than a platoon of Goliaths.
A colonel, watching over his shoulder, said, “They’re pinned down pretty good. They’re gonna be screwed if you don’t do something.”
The colonel told the pilot to fix on the truck. A button on the joystick pulled up a computer-generated reticle, a grid displaying exact ground coordinates, distance, direction, range, etc. Once the computer locked on the pickup, it stayed zeroed in on the moving target.
“Are you ready to help?” the colonel asked.
An overlay on the grid showed the anticipated blast radius of an AGM-114 Hellfire missile—the drone carried two. Communicating via a digital audio link, the colonel instructed the men on the ground to back away, then gave them a few seconds to do so.
The pilot scrutinized the vehicle. Those who have seen unclassified clips of aerial attacks have only a dim appreciation of the optics available to the military and the CIA.
“I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,” the pilot told me later. “I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.”
On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.
“Fire one,” said the colonel.
The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.
“I was kind of freaked out,” the pilot said. “My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, ‘You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,’ so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.”
One of the things that nagged at him, and that was still bugging him months later, was that he had delivered this deathblow without having been in any danger himself. The men he killed, and the marines on the ground, were at war. They were risking their hides. Whereas he was working his scheduled shift in a comfortable office building, on a sprawling base, in a peaceful country. It seemed unfair. He had been inspired to enlist by his grandfather’s manly stories of battle in the Korean War. He had wanted to prove something to himself and to his family, to make them as proud of him as they had been of his Pop-Pop.
“But this was a weird feeling,” he said. “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.”
After slaying Goliath, David was made commander of the Israelite armies and given the hand of King Saul’s daughter. When the Pentagon announced earlier this year that it would award a new medal to drone pilots and cyber warriors, it provoked such outrage from veterans that production of the new decoration was halted and the secretary of defense sentenced the medal to a review and then killed it. Members of Congress introduced legislation to ensure that any such award would be ranked beneath the Purple Heart, the medal given to every wounded soldier. How can someone who has never physically been in combat receive a combat decoration?
The question hints at something more important than war medals, getting at the core of our uneasiness about the drone. Like the slingshot, the drone fundamentally alters the nature of combat. While the young Predator pilot has overcome his unease—his was a clearly justifiable kill shot fired in conventional combat, and the marines on the ground conveyed their sincere gratitude—the sense of unfairness lingers.
If the soldier who pulls the trigger in safety feels this, consider the emotions of those on the receiving end, left to pick up the body parts of their husbands, fathers, brothers, friends. Where do they direct their anger? When the wrong person is targeted, or an innocent bystander is killed, imagine the sense of impotence and rage. How do those who remain strike back? No army is arrayed against them, no airfield is nearby to be attacked. If they manage to shoot down a drone, what have they done but disable a small machine? No matter how justified a strike seems to us, no matter how carefully weighed and skillfully applied, to those on the receiving end it is profoundly arrogant, the act of an enemy so distant and superior that he is untouchable.
“The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, both law professors at Harvard, wrote in their 2010 book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons From the War on Terror. “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”
Is it any wonder that the enemy seizes upon targets of opportunity—a crowded café, a passenger jet, the finish line of a marathon? There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians, but one can understand why it is done. Arguably the strongest force driving lone-wolf terror attacks in recent months throughout the Western world has been anger over drone strikes.
The drone is effective. Its extraordinary precision makes it an advance in humanitarian warfare. In theory, when used with principled restraint, it is the perfect counterterrorism weapon. It targets indiscriminate killers with exquisite discrimination. But because its aim can never be perfect, can only be as good as the intelligence that guides it, sometimes it kills the wrong people—and even when it doesn’t, its cold efficiency is literally inhuman.
So how should we feel about drones?
II. Gorgon Stare . . .
But an excellent proposal nonetheless.
Too bad Manning didn’t torture US prisoners, because in Obama’s eyes that’s perfectly forgivable. No investigation, no prosecution. Look forward, not back. But to embarrass the US: unforgivable: go for the death penalty.
1. The shooting of Ibragim Todashev (unarmed) during an interrogation by the FBI, which apparently has no smartphones or other means to record an interrogation—a major oversight. Or maybe not:
Ibragim Todashev, who was killed by the FBI during a questioning, was shot six times, once in the crown of his head, photos shown at a press conference in Moscow reveal. His father suspects it could have been a kill shot.
“I can show you the photos taken after the killing of my son. I have 16 photographs. I just would like to say that looking at these photos is like being in a movie. I only saw things like that in movies: shooting a person, and then the kill shot. Six shots in the body, one of them in the head,” Abdulbaki Todashev said at the press conference at RIA Novosti news agency in the Russian capital.
He explained that the photos were taken by friends of his son in the US, to whom the FBI handed the body.
“I want justice and I want an investigation to be carried out, I want these people [the FBI agents] to be put on trial in accordance with US law. They are not FBI officers, they are bandits. I cannot call them otherwise, they must be put on trial,” he said.
The FBI promised an investigation, but so far as news reports go, this episode has been blanked from the public memory.
2. Extradition of Edward Snowden. Obama is very big on getting Edward Snowden extradited to stand trial, but there never seems to be any mention of the US refusing to extradite the CIA officers guilty of kidnapping and torture. (See the recent post on Robert Seldon Lady, one of miscreants who was convicted.) They were tried in Italy, found guilty, and remain at large in the US. I suppose it’s like Luis Posada Carriles: a terrorist, sure, but he’s our terrorist, so protection instead of extradition. When Obama talks about extraditing Snowden, I sure wish reporters would ask him about the CIA guys. If it’s okay for the US to refuse extradition for them, why isn’t it okay for Russia (or any other nation) to refuse to extradite Snowden? I suppose the answer is because the US doesn’t care that much about the law.
3. The TWA Flight 800 crash investigation. It seems highly suspicious that US Navy vessels in the area (conducting exercises) fled the scene. This is a violation of the Law of the Sea: they are required to render aid. Why no follow-up on why they fled, why they failed to help? Was no one held accountable? It vanished from the news quickly. I would love to see some questions raised in the White House press conferences. Not going to happen. I truly believe this is a cover-up: it’s the only explanation for the Navy vessels fleeing the scene rather than helping. But even if there’s no cover-up, some explanation (and accountability) is needed for their refusal to help.
4. James Clapper and his videotaped outright lie to Congress: Why is his felony ignored? And why is no journalist other than Glenn Greenwald asking about it?
5. In contrast, the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye was imprisoned (no charges) at US request for the crime of reporting (in Yemen) what happened: a drone strike that killed civilians. Remember that line by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men? “You cannot handle the truth.” Apparently the US government cannot handle the truth and cannot stand having the truth emerge. It exposes too many bad actions and (worse) bad actors. From the link:
Prominent Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye has been released from prison after being held for three years on terrorism-related charges at the request of President Obama. Shaye helped expose the U.S. cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah that killed 41 people, including 14 women and 21 children in December 2009. Then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced his intention to pardon Shaye in 2011, but apparently changed his mind after a phone call from Obama. In a statement, the White House now says it is “concerned and disappointed” by Shaye’s release. “We should let that statement set in: The White House is saying that they are disappointed and concerned that a Yemeni journalist has been released from a Yemeni prison,” says Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation, who covers Shaye’s case in “Dirty Wars,” his new book and film by the same name. “This is a man who was put in prison because he had the audacity to expose a U.S. cruise missile attack that killed three dozen women and children.”
Three years in prison for reporting the truth. Our nation has changed a lot, and not for the better.
The list can be extended. I think the reasons the US has lost its moral center are covered well in the video in this post: the US is under control of and run by the wealthy, and the moral failings that wealth brings are reflected in US behavior.
And this one is from 2008—we’ve know about this for a long time, though the extent of the Big Brotherism was not really understood.
Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), called the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said the committee has begun its own examination.
“We have requested all relevant information from the Bush Administration,” Rockefeller said Thursday. “The Committee will take whatever action is necessary.”
“These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones,” said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA’s Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.
Kinne described the contents of the calls as “personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism.”
She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and “collected on” as they called their offices or homes in the United States.
Another intercept operator, former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk, 39, said he and his fellow intercept operators listened into hundreds of Americans picked up using phones in Baghdad’s Green Zone from late 2003 to November 2007.
“Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another,” said Faulk.
The accounts of the two former intercept operators, who have never met and did not know of the other’s allegations, provide the first inside look at the day to day operations of the huge and controversial US terrorist surveillance program.
“There is a constant check to make sure that our civil liberties of our citizens are treated with respect,” said President Bush at a news conference this past February.
But the accounts of the two whistleblowers, which could not be independently corroborated, raise serious questions about how much respect is accorded those Americans whose conversations are intercepted in the name of fighting terrorism.
Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of “cuts” that were available on each operator’s computer.
“Hey, check this out,” Faulk says he would be told, “there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy’,” Faulk told ABC News. . .
That was the initial scandal, and where the telecom immunity issue came up. Although the article is old, it now has new relevance. Read it and watch the videos: they were doing it then, and they’re doing more surveillance now, and they don’t want to quit.
This is from back in 2007, but it does show how a Senator is readily purchased if you give him/her enough money. It’s worth reading in the light of the vote-buying visible in the recent NSA vote. Ryan Singel wrote in Wired:
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) is reportedly steering the secretive Senate Intelligence Committee to give retroactive immunity to telecoms that helped the government secretly spy on Americans.
He has also recently benefited from some interesting political contributions.
Top Verizon executives, including CEO Ivan Seidenberg and President Dennis Strigl, wrote personal checks to Rockefeller totaling $23,500 in March, 2007. Prior to that apparently coordinated flurry of 29 donations, only one of those executives had ever donated to Rockefeller (at least while working for Verizon).
In fact, prior to 2007, contributions to Rockefeller from company executives at AT&T and Verizon were mostly non-existent.
But that changed around the same time that the companies began lobbying Congress to grant them retroactive immunity from lawsuits seeking billions for their alleged participation in secret, warrantless surveillance programs that targeted Americans.
The Spring ’07 checks represent 86 percent of money donated to Rockefeller by Verizon employees since at least 2001.
AT&T executives discovered a fondness for Rockefeller just a month after Verizon execs did and over a three-month span, collectively made donations totaling $19,350.
AT&T Vice President Fred McCallum began the giving spree in May with a $500 donation. 22 other AT&T high fliers soon followed with their own checks.
Prior to that burst of generosity, the only AT&T employee donation to Rockefeller was a $300 contribution in 2001. That supporter did not identify herself as a company executive.
When asked about the contributions, an AT&T spokesman told THREAT LEVEL: “AT&T employees regularly and voluntarily participate in the political process with their own funds.”
Both companies are being sued for allegedly turning over billions of calling records to the government, while AT&T is also accused of letting the National Security Agency wiretap phone calls and its internet backbone. A federal judge in California allowed the suits regarding the eavesdropping to continue despite the government’s attempt to have the suits thrown out on the grounds they will endanger national security. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed that decision in August. The judges seemed reluctant to toss the cases, but have yet to issue a ruling.
This is the issue that turned me against Obama. He pledged to vote against retroactive immunity for the telecom lawbreaking, but apparently he must have gotten a hefty amount of money, because when the vote was taken, he broke his pledge with no sign of regret and voted for immunity. That ended my own contributions to his campaign (small though they were) and revealed to me that he simply could not be trusted. Not at all. “Distrust and verify” is the slogan. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.