Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category
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.
Ezra Klein has a good column in the Washington Post:
Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,833 people and damaged more than $80 billion worth of property. It was one of the deadliest, costliest storms ever to hit the United States.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act’s Web site isn’t working very well yet. So of course the media is asking whether “this is Obama’s Hurricane Katrina.” I look forward to future coverage in this vein: “Is the failure of immigration reform Obama’s 1906 San Francisco Earthquake?” “Are the 2014 sequestration cuts Obama’s 1918 Influenza?”
The interest in comparing HealthCare.Gov to a lethal natural disaster is all the odder because the Bush years actually offer a ready analogue to Obamacare: Medicare Part D.Like Obamacare, Medicare Part D was a massive health-care expansion. Like Obamacare, it was administratively complex. Like Obamacare, the Web site didn’t work on launch. Like Obamacare, people who were supposed to be benefitting from the law found their plans upended and the supposedly superior alternatives inaccessible. Like Obamacare, the early months were, in the words of then-Majority Leader John Boehner, “horrendous.”
Obamacare has been live for about six weeks. At this point in Medicare Part D’s life, here’s what the coverage looked like. Let’s start with NPR:
Many health care professional and policy experts have complained about how complicated the Medicare Part D maze is for millions of elderly and disabled people. That may explain why many people still haven’t signed up for the benefits. Out of the 43 million people in Medicare, only about 10 percent have signed up on their own. About 10 million people were automatically enrolled. They could be dually eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, and may even be receiving coverage from a former employer. Still the latest report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, says enrollment numbers are 15 million people below government predictions.
The Washington Post also focused on the mounting enrollment disaster:
A $400 million campaign by the Bush administration to enroll low-income seniors in prescription drug coverage that would cost them just a few dollars per prescription has signed up 1.4 million people, a fraction of the 8 million eligible for the new coverage.
At this rate, by some calculations, the government is on track to spend about $250 for each person it enrolls, and even then it would have only 2 million poor senior citizens taking advantage of what is perhaps the most generous government benefit available today.
The New York Times reported that the new law might cost the GOP support among the elderly:
Older voters, a critical component of Republican Congressional victories for more than a decade, could end up being a major vulnerability for the party in this year’s midterm elections, according to strategists in both parties. Paradoxically, one reason is the new Medicare drug benefit, which was intended to cement their loyalty.
During next week’s Congressional recess, Democrats are set to begin a major new campaign to highlight what Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, describes as “this disastrous Republican Medicare prescription drug plan.”
This zoom-out from the NYT will sound familiar to anyone following the coverage around Obamacare:
The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act … was an effort to blend a classic big government program from the Great Society with the conservative, market-oriented philosophy of the Republicans in power.
It was supposed to be one of the great domestic policy achievements of the Bush presidency.
But today, as state and federal officials struggle to carry out the program, they face widespread complaints from beneficiaries, advocates, pharmacists, lawmakers and others that it is too complex, too cumbersome, too hard to navigate. Congressional committees are holding hearings on problems in the rollout of the plan, which began Jan. 1, and debate has already begun over how to change it.
Michael Kinsley was unsparing in The Washington Post: . . .
Continue reading. It’s pretty entertaining and shows how overblown are the current difficulties with Healthcare.gov. What is happening is undesirable, but anyone who’s worked in software development has seen this very familiar movie many times.
An interesting report at AlterNet by Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese:
These are times of great secrecy and misinformation. Government and corporations hide their actions to avoid public disapproval and accountability. Courageous truth-tellers are persecuted for exposing the deep corruption. We depend on whistleblowers to expose the lies and shine light on information that is hidden from the public so we can understand what is happening around us. We need to know the truth in order to participate in the great debates that shape our futures.
This week, we learned that a brave whistleblower gave the text of the full intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to Wikileaks. This text was released  to the public on Wednesday and has spurred quite a stir as we discover that our concerns about the TPP are justified. We learned that the United States stands out in bullying other countries on behalf of multinational corporations and that the TPP will provide extraordinary patent protections and internet restrictions designed to further enrich the wealthy while the race to the bottom accelerates.
A confluence of events this week has weakened the chances of the TPP’s survival. On Tuesday night, there were light brigade actions  in 13 cities from coast to coast. And three letters signed by 180 members  of the House of Representatives were submitted in opposition to the President’s request for Fast Track, an authority that would allow him to negotiate and sign the TPP before it would go to Congress for limited debate and only an up-or-down vote. Two letters were signed by Democrats, another by Republicans. Three-quarters of Democrats oppose Fast Track and one-third of Democrats on the committee responsible for Fast Track oppose it as currently constituted. The former US Trade Representative said in 2012 that to complete the TPP “We’ve go to have it. ” Now, Congress will not consider Fast Track until the do-nothing election year of 2014, if even then.
Opposition to the TPP continues to build. Next week, negotiators will be in Salt Lake City, UT and actions are being planned  to protest those meetings. Communities are starting to pass resolutions saying that they will not obey if the TPP changes laws in a way that harms them. You can learn more about this on an open training call  on November 20. A global day of protest  against toxic trade agreements is being organized for December 3. And that same day, two members of the Australian Parliament  will submit a request that the text of the TPP be made public.
We are in a historic moment of people vs. the corporations. We are in the midst of defeating the largest trade agreement in history. We can defeat the TPP  if we keep working together in a movement of movements. That success will be a huge win for the people over corporate power. Join the effort .
As we write this, Jeremy Hammond, the young man who hacked into the private security firm StratFor’s emails is facing his sentencing hearing  and up to ten years in jail. While we hope the best for Hammond, we are not confident that his judge, Loretta Preska, can even be fair. She refused Hammond bail, even though he is not a flight risk, and refused to recuse herself, even though her lawyer-husband’s email was part of the StratFor documents Hammond disclosed. The appearance of justice in this case is already lost.
Chris Hedges  calls Hammond “one of the nation’s most important political prisoners.” The information he released to Wikileaks and other media outlets revealed the cooperation between private and government security agencies and methods used to stifle dissent, including monitoring the Occupy movement, as well as their strategies for defeating movements . Hedges used information leaked by Hammond in his case against President Obama over the section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allows indefinite detention of Americans using a vague definition “terrorist.”
Whistleblowers face serious retaliation in the United States as we have seen with Hammond, Chelsea Manning, Barret Brown, Aaron Schwarz, Thomas Drake, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Jesselyn Radack, Julian Assange, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras. They are feared by the power structure because the truth destroys corrupt power. We must support them because as Hedges reminds us, without them, there will be no free press – indeed, we will not be free peoples. We view whistleblowers as heroes despite the government and corporate media doing their best to convince us of the opposite. They take great risks without the expectation of a reward. Whistleblowing is an act of conscience. And, as we can see by the growing list of these heroes, Wikileaks is right when it says “courage is contagious.”
There are many ways to blow the whistle. For some, like S. Brian Willson, it involves speaking out about the things one has witnessed. Willson served in the Vietnam War and since then has dedicated himself to peace and building a sustainable society. On Veteran’s Day, Willson wrote  about a new campaign by the Pentagon to glorify the Vietnam War and hide its atrocities. He said, “It is a shame that the public seems unwilling to grasp that virtually all our military adventures are lawless, imperial barbarisms, violently robbing others of their freedom and autonomy enabling the US people to continue living in fantastic opulence justified by a sense of exceptionalism while we callously outsource the consequential pain and suffering inflicted on innocent others and the sacred earth.” Willson is one of many vets we work with who comes out of war to spend a lifetime working for peace by telling the truth of what he saw. Some of our colleagues are currently in Palestine on a Peace Team trip .
Efforts to hide the truth about the true cost and crimes of war continue. In December the Veterans Administration stopped publishing data on the number of newly-injured service members, probably because that number is now more than one million. The military may also be hiding the murder of ten men in Afghanistan by Green Berets. The US Government has refused to cooperate  with an investigation. The soldiers could be charged with war crimes. Either way, the soldiers are likely to be suffering as a result of their actions as Daniel Somers, a young soldier who committed suicide earlier this year described. Somers’ became a whistleblower in his death as his suicide note described how he was forced to participate in “war crimes, crimes against humanity” and to behave “like a sociopath.”
Some go to great lengths to expose true dangers to the health and safety of Americans. Tom Weis of Climate Crisis Solutions has biked thousands of miles to bring attention to the oil and gas pipelines that pollute our land and water. He recently completed a journey to the White House  to deliver petition signatures against the Keystone XL Pipeline. And this week, riders begin a 230-mile journey  by horseback to call attention to the pipeline owned by Enbridge – this is their third long journey on horseback.
It seems that we are hearing almost daily now of oil and gas pipeline eruptions , train car derailments and contamination of aquifers. A report was just released  that details the dismal performance of TransCanada, the corporation in charge of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some industry whistleblowers have come forward, but more are needed.
Some other facts that need to be brought into the light of day for public debate involve . . .
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.
Totally no surprise. That’s how it works in the US. Some call it corruption, others call it greed.
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 company has a long and sordid record of project failure, which makes one wonder why the Obama Administration selected them as lead developer. Jerry Markon and Alice Crites write in the Washington Post:
The lead contractor on the dysfunctional Web site for the Affordable Care Act is filled with executives from a company that mishandled at least 20 other government IT projects, including a flawed effort to automate retirement benefits for millions of federal workers, documents and interviews show.
CGI Federal, the main Web site developer, entered the U.S. government market a decade ago when its parent company purchased American Management Systems, a Fairfax County contractor that was coming off a series of troubled projects. CGI moved into AMS’s custom-made building off Interstate 66, changed the sign outside and kept the core of employees, who now populate the upper ranks of CGI Federal.
They include CGI Federal’s current and past presidents, the company’s chief technology officer, its vice president for federal health care and its health IT leader, according to company and other records. More than 100 former AMS employees are now senior executives or consultants working for CGI in the Washington area.
A top CGI official said this week that the company is “extremely proud” of its acquisition of AMS. Lorne Gorber, CGI’s senior vice president for global communications, said CGI had been aware of the AMS “trip-ups” but has transformed the AMS culture over the past decade. “Anyone at CGI who came from AMS would not be able to find any similarities in how they work today to how they worked a decade ago,’’ Gorber said.
He said that CGI’s overall government contracting work remains high quality and that the company “delivers 95 percent of its projects on time and on budget.’’
A year before CGI Group acquired AMS in 2004, AMS settled a lawsuit brought by the head of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which had hired the company to upgrade the agency’s computer system. AMS had gone $60 million over budget and virtually all of the computer code it wrote turned out to be useless, according to a report by a U.S. Senate committee.
The thrift board work was only one in a series of troubled projects involving AMS at the federal level and in at least 12 states, according to government audit reports, interviews and press accounts. AMS-built computer systems sent Philadelphia school district paychecks to dead people, shipped military parts to the wrong places for the Defense Logistics Agency and made 380,000 programming errors for the Wisconsin revenue department, forcing counties to repay millions of dollars in incorrectly calculated sales taxes.
Lawrence Stiffler, who was director of automated systems for the thrift board at the time and a 25-year veteran of IT contracting for the federal government, said AMS was highly unreliable. “You couldn’t count on them to deliver anything,’’ he said. . .
Continue reading. The problems with Healthcare.gov seem very much like self-inflicted damage from the Obama Administration.
Glenn Thrust has a feature-length piece in Politico:
Steven Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a brilliant innovator whose research fills several all-but-incomprehensible paragraphs of a Wikipedia entry that spans his achievements in single-molecule physics, the slowing of atoms through the use of lasers and the invention of something called an “optical tweezer.” President Barack Obama even credits Chu with solving the 2010 Gulf oil spill, claiming that Chu strolled into BP’s office and “essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked.” With rare exception, Chu is the smartest guy in the room, and that includes the Cabinet Room, which he occupied uneasily as secretary of energy from 2009 to the spring of 2013.
But the president’s aides didn’t quite see Chu that way. He might have been the only Obama administration official with a Nobel other than the president himself, but inside the West Wing of the White House Chu was considered a smart guy who said lots of stupid things, a genius with an appallingly low political IQ—“clueless,” as deputy chief of staff Jim Messina would tell colleagues at the time.
In April 2009, Chu joined Obama’s entourage for one of the administration’s first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. “No way,” Gibbs told him.
“Come on,” Earnest said. “The guy came all the way down here. Why don’t we just have him talk about all the stuff he’s doing?”
Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. … The island states … some of them will disappear.”
Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”
As Air Force One headed back to Washington, Messina found Chu—who has “no recollection” of this exchange, a person close to him says—sitting at the long table in the plane’s conference room. “What did you say?” Messina demanded, according to a witness. “What were you thinking?” he yelled. “And how, exactly, was this fucking on message?” . . .
Maira Sutton and Parker Higgens report at EFF.org:
After years of secret trade negotiations over the future of intellectual property rights (and limits on those rights), the public gets a chance to looks at the results. For those of us who care about free speech and a balanced intellectual property system that encourages innovation, creativity, and access to knowledge, it’s not a pretty picture.
Today Wikileaks published a complete draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement’s chapter on “intellectual property rights.” The leaked text, from August 2013, confirms long-standing suspicions about the harm the agreement could do to users’ rights and a free and open Internet. From locking in excessive copyright term limits to further entrenching failed policies that give legal teeth to Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools, the TPP text we’ve seen today reflects a terrible but unsurprising truth: an agreement negotiated in near-total secrecy, including corporations but excluding the public, comes out as an anti-user wish list of industry-friendly policies.
Despite the Obama administration’s top U.S. negotiators’ fast approaching their self-imposed 2013 deadline to complete the agreement, today’s leak is the public’s first look at the sprawling text since a February 2011 leak [pdf] of the same chapter and a July 2012 leak of an individual section. And even as the public has been completely shut out, the U.S. Trade Representative has lobbied for wider latitude to negotiate and for “fast-track authority” to bypass Congressional review.
The document Wikileaks has published contains nearly 100 pages of bracketed text—meaning it includes annotated sections that are proposed and opposed by the negotiating countries. The text is not final, but the story it tells so far is unmistakable: United States negotiators (with occasional help from others) repeatedly pushing for restrictive policies, and facing only limited opposition, coming from countries like Chile, Canada, New Zealand, and Malaysia.
The leaked chapter features proposals for setting a new “floor” for copyright duration, ranging from the already problematic U.S. term of life of the author plus 70 years to an incredible life of the author plus 100 years, proposed by Mexico. Such bloated term lengths benefit only a vanishingly small portion of available works, and impoverish the public domain of our collective history. The U.S. is also pushing for countries to embrace terms lengths of 95 years for corporate and 120 years for unpublished works.
Extending term lengths in the U.S. was already a bad idea. The U.S. Trade Rep shouldn’t be compounding it by forcing other countries to follow suit. . .
TPP Exposed: WikiLeaks Publishes Secret Trade Text to Rewrite Copyright Laws, Limit Internet Freedom
Democracy Now! has an interview (video and transcript) on the attempt by the Obama Administration to act (in secret) against the public interest and in favor of Big Business in the intellectual property arena. The fact that this was kept secret shows that the intention is not benign: the Obama Administration very much did not want the public to discover what they were doing.
The description of the interview:
WikiLeaks has published the secret text to part of the biggest U.S. trade deal in history, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). For the past several years, the United States and 12 Pacific Rim nations have been negotiating behind closed doors on the sweeping agreement. A 95-page draft of a TPP chapter released by WikiLeaks on Wednesday details agreements relating to patents, copyright, trademarks and industrial design — showing their wide-reaching implications for Internet services, civil liberties, publishing rights and medicine accessibility. Critics say the deal could rewrite U.S. laws on intellectual property rights, product safety and environmental regulations, while backers say it will help create jobs and boost the economy. President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman reportedly wish to finalize the TPP by the end of the year and are pushing Congress to expedite legislation that grants the president something called “fast-track authority.” However, this week some 151 House Democrats and 23 Republicans wrote letters to the administration saying they are unwilling to give the president free rein to “diplomatically legislate.” We host a debate on the TPP between Bill Watson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
It’s pretty simple: The Obama Administration well understands that what they are pushing for are laws that the American public really does not want. Some of these laws were attempted in Congress, but a public outcry killed them. Apparently Obama believes that if he can hide the new agreement until it’s complete, then the public will have to like it or lump it. This is not what I want from my government, doing in secret what it knows would outrage the public if revealed. (cf. NSA) But that seems to be the pattern of the Obama Administration—and one of the things that led to grief in the development of HealthCare.gov: too much secrecy, too little public understanding of the situation.
I hope the next administration is better at keeping the public informed, and also better at working on the public’s behalf instead of the behalf of Big Business.
Henry Farrell at The Switch in the Washington Post has an excellent article focused on 5 key questions:
Susan Sell is a professor of political science at George Washington University, who has carried out landmark research on international negotiations over intellectual property. Below is her response to five questions about the intellectual property chapter of theproposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which the Obama administration has been negotiating with trading partners behind closed doors. A draft of the chapter wasleaked to WikiLeaks two days ago.
The draft TPP text was kept secret from the general public. Who has seen it and why?
The United States Trade Representative and the Obama administration have kept the treaty texts secret from the public. However, they have shared texts with 700 or so “cleared advisers,” all of whom come from intellectual property rights holders’ industries. Members of the Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Intellectual Property Rights have had access to texts all along. These members include representatives of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Entertainment Software Association, as well as firms such as Gilead Sciences, Johnson and Johnson, Verizon, Cisco Systems, and General Electric.
Select members of Congress have had very limited access to the draft treaty texts. After Thursday’s leak of the intellectual property chapter it is obvious why the USTR and the Obama administration have insisted on secrecy. From this text it appears that the U.S. administration is negotiating for intellectual property provisions that it knows it could not achieve through an open democratic process. For example, it includes provisions similar to those of the failed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that the European Parliament ultimately rejected. The United States appears to be using the non-transparent Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations as a deliberate end run around Congress on intellectual property, to achieve a presumably unpopular set of policy goals.
What’s in it that is interesting?
Some of the most interesting information in the leaked chapter identifies those who are proposing or opposing particular provisions. The United States (often with Australia, sometimes Japan) has taken extreme hard-line positions. For example, only the United States and Japan oppose the objectives in the treaty (Article QQ.A.2) that mention economic and social development, maintaining a balance between the interests of rights holders and users, protecting the public domain, quality examination procedures, and access to affordable medicines. I was somewhat surprised to see how strongly other countries are pushing back against U.S. demands, especially on issues related to access to medicines, Internet Service Provider liability, damages, and copyright in digital media.
People call it a Hollywood wish list – why?
Some provisions of the text resurrect pieces of SOPA and PIPA and ACTA that many found to be objectionable. The entertainment industries (movies and music) championed these agreements and sought stronger protections in the digital realm. These industries were stunned when SOPA and PIPA got killed. Only the United States and New Zealand oppose a provision that would require compensation for parties wrongfully accused of infringement (QQ.H.4). The United States is alone in proposing criminal procedures and penalties “even absent willful trademark, counterfeiting or copyright or related rights piracy”.
Only the United States and Australia oppose a provision limiting Internet Service Provider liability (QQ.I.1); U.S. copyright holders would like ISPs to be held liable for hosting infringing content. The United States also proposes extending copyright to life plus 95 years for corporate-owned copyrights. Hollywood consistently presses for longer copyright terms and it is doing so here.
What are the implications for access to medicine worldwide? . . .
To be honest, I feel betrayed by an administration whose adherence to the principles of the Democratic party seem increasingly shaky. And Congress likewise is apt to feel betrayed. From the article:
What political impact will the publication have?
If these provisions are widely publicized, I expect vigorous debate over the implications of these measures. Various activist groups are mobilizing already, and I think they are hoping for another SOPA/PIPA/ACTA defeat. In the short term, I expect that the release of this text will increase Congressional opposition to extending Fast Track negotiating authority to President Obama. Congress has already expressed displeasure at being shut out of this process. When its members see how provisions that had been defeated in a domestic, democratic, and deliberative process in January 2012 have been included in TPP I suspect that they will not be happy.
Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy:
U.S. agencies collected and shared the personal information of thousands of Americans in an attempt to root out untrustworthy federal workers that ended up scrutinizing people who had no direct ties to the U.S. government and simply had purchased certain books.
Federal officials gathered the information from the customer records of two men who were under criminal investigation for purportedly teaching people how to pass lie detector tests. The officials then distributed a list of 4,904 people – along with many of their Social Security numbers, addresses and professions – to nearly 30 federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Although the polygraph-beating techniques are unproven, authorities hoped to find government employees or applicants who might have tried to use them to lie during the tests required for security clearances. Officials with multiple agencies confirmed that they’d checked the names in their databases and planned to retain the list in case any of those named take polygraphs for federal jobs or criminal investigations.
It turned out, however, that many people on the list worked outside the federal government and lived across the country. Among the people whose personal details were collected were nurses, firefighters, police officers and private attorneys, McClatchy learned. Also included: a psychologist, a cancer researcher and employees of Rite Aid, Paramount Pictures, the American Red Cross and Georgetown University.
Moreover, many of them had only bought books or DVDs from one of the men being investigated and didn’t receive the one-on-one training that investigators had suspected. In one case, a Washington lawyer was listed even though he’d never contacted the instructors. Dozens of others had wanted to pass a polygraph not for a job, but for a personal reason: The test was demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity.
The unprecedented creation of such a list and decision to disseminate it widely demonstrate the ease with which the federal government can collect and share Americans’ personal information, even when there’s no clear reason for doing so.
The case comes to light amid revelations that the NSA, in an effort to track foreign terrorists, has for years been stockpiling the data of the daily telephone and Internet communications of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. Though nowhere near as massive as the NSA programs, the polygraph inquiry is another example of the federal government’s vast appetite for Americans’ personal information and the sweeping legal authority it wields in the name of national security.
“This is increasingly happening – data is being collected by the federal government for one use and then being entirely repurposed for other uses and shared,” said Fred Cate, an Indiana University-Bloomington law professor who specializes in information privacy and national security. “Yet there is no constitutional protection for sharing data within the government.”
Several people who were on the list not only were stunned to learn about it, but they also questioned how the government could legally collect and share their information when they have no direct link to the inquiry.
All of them said they were too nervous to be identified because they feared further scrutiny from the federal government or they didn’t want their names published by the media. “When it comes to national security, the government has a lot of leeway,” said one Washington lawyer whose husband landed on the list after the lawyer bought a book about how to pass lie detector tests. “But to me, this list raises First Amendment, due process and privacy issues.”
The lawyer doesn’t work for the federal government. The husband is a government employee but isn’t required to take a lie detector test for a security clearance. “I’m concerned this may harm his career even though there’s no reason that it should,” said the lawyer, who added that they planned to ask the government to take the husband’s name off the list. “It’s very alarming and McCarthy-esque in its zeal. To put a person on a secret list because they bought the ‘wrong book’ or are associated with someone who did is overly paranoid.” . . .
Do read the whole thing. There’s quite a bit more and much in it raises concerns. From later in the article:
Others assert that the government clearly overreached. Customs officials recently confronted leaders of the agency’s union about their purchase of Williams’ book on beating lie detectors. Joseph Martin, the president of the Arizona chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union, said his vice president bought the book so the union could urge members not to voluntarily undergo a polygraph, because of its unreliability.
“What business is it of the government’s if we bought this book?” he said. “We have a right to read about lie detectors and tell our members not to take them.”
Justin Elliott and Liz Day expose the tip of what is probably a very large (and quite smelly) iceberg (in terms of ultimate impact) in ProPublica. The interesting thing is that State probably doesn’t have a chance: with crowdsourcing and easy communications—I bet hashtags are already being developed—these people are quickly going to be found. It’s like a reality-show contest: Find the Next Special Employee. And the criteria are obvious: simultaneous employment by State and by a private firm.
Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin drew scrutiny for a special arrangement that allowed her to work part time at the State Department while simultaneously maintaining a side gig working for a corporate consulting firm.
Under the arrangement, first reported byPolitico, Abedin was a “special government employee,” a category created decades ago designed to allow experts to serve in government while keeping outside jobs.
So who else is a special government employee at the State Department? The department won’t say — even as eight other federal agencies readily sent us lists of their own special government employees.
A State Department spokeswoman did confirm that there are “about 100” such employees. But asked for a list, she added that, “As general policy, [the department] does not disclose employee information of this nature.”
Meanwhile, after we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July for the same information, State responded in September that no such list actually exists: The human resources department “does not compile lists of personnel or positions in the category of ‘special government employee.’”
Creating such a list would require “extensive research” and thus the agency is not required to respond under FOIA, said a letter responding to our request.
In late September, after we told State we were going to publish a story on its refusal to provide the list, the agency said our FOIA request was being reopened. The agency said it would provide the records in a few weeks.
The State Department has since pushed back the delivery date three times and still hasn’t provided any list. It has been four months since we filed the original request.
Several other agencies, including the Energy and Commerce departments, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, promptly responded to similar FOIA requests with lists of their own special government employees. Requests with several other agencies are still pending.
(See the lists of other agencies’ special government employees.)
Agencies reported having anywhere from just one special government employee (SEC) to nearly 400 over the past several years (Energy Department). Many are academics, interns, or private industry professionals and they often serve on government advisory boards.
As for the State Department, two other special government employees have been identified recently, and both are former Clinton staffers. As of August ex-chief of staff Cheryl Mills was still working at the agency part time with a focus on Haiti, according tothe Washington Post’s Al Kamen. Maggie Williams, who ran Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, worked at the agency’s Office of Global Women’s Issues in 2011 and 2012, according to Politico. . .
Juan Cole has an interesting Tom Englehardt column musing on the NSA situation and future prospects.
I think in the future people should think a lot harder about helping the US. We’ve already seen in Matt Damon’s wonderful movie Green Zone, about our invasion of Iraq, how we left our helpers in the lurch, to face death. Now we’re doing it in Afghanistan. That sends a clear message to the world. Kevin Sieff writes in the Washington Post:
KABUL — A growing number of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside American troops are being denied U.S. visas allotted by Congress because the State Department says there is no serious threat against their lives.
But the interpreters, many of whom served in Taliban havens for years, say U.S. officials are drastically underestimating the danger they face. Immigration attorneys and Afghan interpreters say the denials are occurring just as concerns about Taliban retribution are mounting due to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“There are tons of Talibs in my village, and they all know that I worked with the Americans,” said one interpreter, Mohammad, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “If I can’t go to the States, my life is over. I swear to God, one day the Taliban will catch me.”
Mohammad received a U.S. form letter saying he had failed to establish that there was a “serious threat” against his life. He had explained in his application that the Taliban had spotted him on the job and spread word in his village that he was a wanted man.
In one particularly dangerous assignment, he was asked to mediate between U.S. soldiers and locals after an American convoy ran over and killed an Afghan child, he said.
In the initial phase of the visa process, “an applicant has to establish that he or she has experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government,” said Robert Hilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He said the applications were examined by an embassy committee, which decided whether they should move forward to Washington.
Hilton and other U.S. officials would not explain what constitutes a “serious threat” or discuss specific cases in which applicants were denied visas.
‘A real sense of frustration’
Another interpreter who was denied a visa had worked for years at a U.S. military prison screening visitors. U.S. military officers wrote several letters stating that his job put him in particular danger because of his constant contact with the families of detained militants.
But the State Department review board said those concerns didn’t amount to a “serious threat,” the man said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.
A third interpreter, who received a similar denial and gave only his partial name, Naseri, survived three attacks by improvised bombs on the military units he accompanied during a five-year stint. He said he explained in a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy that he had been called a “spy and a traitor” while on patrol with his American unit and that the Taliban knew where he and his family lived. This year, he said, someone called his father and threatened to kill members of his family.
Several U.S. military officers wrote letters to the State Department about the role Naseri played. . .
The Nation seems to have devoted their current issue to the growing move toward marijuana legalization. Beyond the article mentioned in the the title are these:
Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Why Its Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana”
Carl L. Hart: “Pot Reform’s Race Problem”
Kristen Gwynne: “Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: “Baking Bad: A Potted History of High Times”
Various Contributors: “The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back”
And only online…
J. Hoberman: “The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned”
Harmon Leon: “Pot Block! Trapped in the Marijuana Rescheduling Maze”
Seth Zuckerman: “Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?”
The article about Obama’s antipathy to making marijuana legal, even for medical purposes, was written by Mike Riggs and begins:
In February 2013, three months after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, a sullen Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), shared his regrets with the Canadian magazine Maclean’s. “The administration has not done a particularly good job,” he said, “of, one, talking about marijuana as a public health issue, and number two, talking about what can be done and where we should be headed on our drug policy.” People in mourning are given to melodrama, but Kerlikowske’s attempt to blame marijuana legalization on poor messaging was evidence of psychosis.
From day one of Obama’s presidency, the press—from local outfits to the major networks—had hailed his administration’s promise to treat drugs as a “public health issue” as if it were a novel idea. It wasn’t. White House Czar Calls for End to ‘War on Drugs,’ the headline of a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile of Kerlikowske, could just as easily have been written in 1996 about Gen. Barry McCaffrey, drug czar under Bill Clinton. Another popular Kerlikowske line—“You can’t arrest your way out of the drug problem”—similarly echoed McCaffrey’s statement that “the solution to our drug problem is not in incarceration.”
This tradition of critiquing the drug war while continuing to wage it was similarly evident in the 2012 claim by the ONDCP that marijuana’s potency has “almost tripled over the past 20 years”—a statement only slightly less hysterical than its warning to parents, ten years earlier, describing today’s marijuana as having “potency levels ten to twenty times stronger” than the pot of their generation. Anti-legalization advocate Kevin Sabet, who worked on drug policy under both George W. Bush and Obama, has described the potency of today’s marijuana as “five-to-six times greater” than the pot that baby boomers smoked in their youth. (While it’s true that you can buy stronger pot today, you can also—thanks to the botanical tinkering of the medical marijuana community—find strains that are milder. If boomers can’t find the pot of their youth these days—stuff grown and sold before the Controlled Substances Act—it’s because prohibition historically encourages a disproportionately high potency-to-volume ratio. See: bathtub gin.)
Nevertheless, Obama’s drug policy was hailed as revolutionary by the press even as the Drug Enforcement Administration wreaked havoc on medical marijuana communities in California, Colorado and Montana during his first term. On September 25, 2012, in the midst of re-election season, the DEA tried to shut down more than seventy medical marijuana dispensaries in and around Los Angeles. According to LA Weekly’s reporting at the time, “Federal authorities sent warning letters—which tell operators to shut down—to 68 stores. Additionally, three shops were hit with asset-forfeiture lawsuits and another three were raided via search warrant.”
Yet the next day, CNN ran a segment titled “The ‘War on Drugs’ Withdrawal: Administration Focusing on Prevention.”
Ineffective messaging was clearly not the problem. By November 2012, Americans likely knew as much as an average person could be expected to know about Obama’s supposed public-health-centered approach to drug policy. Yet in Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts (states where medical marijuana was on the ballot), voters still pulled the lever in favor of liberalization. In Arkansas—a state that Mitt Romney won by a landslide—a medical marijuana initiative received more votes than Obama.
Support for legalization has only increased in the last year. A Gallup poll released in late October found that 58 percent of Americans think recreational marijuana should be legal. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted weeks earlier found majority support for legalizing pot in deep-red Texas. A legalization initiative in Portland, Maine, had majority support as of late October, and studies suggest that if Californians voted on the issue today, they’d legalize pot despite refusing to do so in 2010. As with so many issues, the federal government is lagging behind the rest of the country.
* * *
The disconnect between narrative and reality when it comes to the Obama administration’s drug policy can be partly traced to a memo released by the Justice Department in October 2009. Raids on dispensaries and growers had already picked up following Obama’s inauguration, despite his campaign promise to cease targeting state-legal pot clubs. But this memo, colloquially referred to as the Ogden memo, was supposed to change that. It stated that medical marijuana would not be a priority for federal law enforcement unless it was being grown or sold in conjunction with a larger criminal enterprise.
The memo inspired celebration among medical marijuana advocates, and a sense of relief in state and local lawmakers. Yet less than a year later, DEA agents raided the home of 68-year-old Joy Greenfield, a Mendocino County, California, resident who grew marijuana with the blessing of her local sheriff. Agents destroyed Greenfield’s plants and seized her money and computer. As they have many times since, the DEA and US Attorneys then had the records sealed—a common practice in cases where releasing information might reveal the identity of a tipster or jeopardize an investigation, but hard to understand in the case of Greenfield, whom officers didn’t even bother to arrest. If the real goal is to conceal the extent to which agents have targeted small-time growers with no ties to cartels or interstate trafficking operations, however, sealing such records is an effective way to do so.
A June 2013 report issued by Americans for Safe Access found that . . .
Continue reading. (And note that it’s a two-page article.)
I fail to see the wisdom in this course. What, exactly, are the Palestinians supposed to do? Vanish?
And, so far as we know, the NY Times itself has not read it. I think their endorsement is an instance of their acting as the propaganda arm of the US government (the US Pravda), as in the vigorous support of invading Iraq, or in hiding the warrantless wiretapping story at government request. Here’s the story.
Juan Cole has a lengthy extract from a new book by Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story. His post begins:
The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody. They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.
It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage. They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski. They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.
They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.
I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan. It must have been in 2002. In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country — most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co. — and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.
I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf. The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contestedbuzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.
I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses. At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount. They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away, and dump them in the dirt.
A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles, and made a great show of laughing off the incident — of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure. A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”
The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar. In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts. The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.
I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoyswere racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles. Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.
Enter the Warriors
I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children. In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals — few in number then — to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes. They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.
After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital. Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps — no helmets or armor — and walked into shops like casual tourists. They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.
Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run over by speeding soldiers. A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?” I had, at the time, no answer for her.
In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans. As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”
The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum. Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.
To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars — Iraq, for example, orVietnam — and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics. To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.
Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years. Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W). What they seldom acted like was real people. For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian. They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.
In time, though, their canned — and fearful — aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been. So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers. At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency. I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on. In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.
By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors — no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”
For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors. It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle — the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded. It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.
I learned a lesson from that. America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones. To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives. Otherwise, what was the point?
Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?
And that may be the point: . . .
Unfortunately, it seems extremely unlikely that the US military will investigate, and certainly will not investigate and hold those responsible accountable. Investigations, if any, will have to be carried out by the press—for example, see this report in Rolling Stone by Matthieu Aikins:
In the fall of 2012, a team of American Special Forces arrived in Nerkh, a district of Wardak province, Afghanistan, which lies just west of Kabul and straddles a vital highway. The members installed themselves in the spacious quarters of Combat Outpost Nerkh, which overlooked the farming valley and had been vacated by more than 100 soldiers belonging to the regular infantry. They were U.S. Army Green Berets, trained to wage unconventional warfare, and their arrival was typical of what was happening all over Afghanistan; the big Army units, installed during the surge, were leaving, and in their place came small groups of quiet, bearded Americans, the elite operators who would stay behind to hunt the enemy and stiffen the resolve of government forces long after America’s 13-year war in Afghanistan officially comes to an end.
But six months after its arrival, the team would be forced out of Nerkh by the Afghan government, amid allegations of torture and murder against the local populace. If true, these accusations would amount to some of the gravest war crimes perpetrated by American forces since 2001. By February 2013, the locals claimed 10 civilians had been taken by U.S. Special Forces and had subsequently disappeared, while another eight had been killed by the team during their operations.
“They’re venomously anti-American there,” one U.S. official says. “It’s always been that way. Sometimes our adversaries are the men and women of a community.”
Officials at the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, categorically denied these allegations, which came at an extremely delicate moment – as Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the American government were locked in still-unresolved negotiations over the future of American forces in Afghanistan. The sticking point has been the U.S.’s demand for continued legal immunity for its troops, which Karzai is reluctant to grant. Privately, some American officials have begun to grumble about a “zero option” – where, as in Iraq, the U.S. would rather withdraw all its forces than subject them to local law – but both sides understand that such an action could be suicidal for the beleaguered Afghan government and devastating for American power in the region. Yet a story like the one brewing in Nerkh has the potential to sabotage negotiations.
Last winter, tensions peaked and President Karzai ordered an investigation into the allegations. Then on February 16th, a student named Nasratullah was found under a bridge with his throat slit, two days, his family claimed, after he had been picked up by the Green Berets. Mass demonstrations erupted in Wardak, and Karzai demanded that the American Special Forces team leave, and by April, it did. That’s when the locals started finding bodies buried outside the American base in Nerkh, bodies they said belonged to the 10 missing men. In July, the Afghan government announced that it had arrested Zikria Kandahari, a translator who had been working for the American team, in connection with the murders, and that in turn Kandahari had fingered members of the Special Forces for the crimes. But the American military stuck to its denials. “After thorough investigation, there was no credible evidence to substantiate misconduct by ISAF or U.S. forces,” Col. Jane Crichton told The Wall Street Journal in July.
But over the past five months, Rolling Stone has interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses and victims’ families who’ve provided consistent and detailed allegations of the involvement of American forces in the disappearance of the 10 men, and has talked to Afghan and Western officials who were familiar with confidential Afghan-government, U.N. and Red Cross investigations that found the allegations credible. In July, a U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan warned: “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.”
Last year, on the morning of November 10th, a slight, meek-faced, 38-year-old farmer – let’s call him Omar – with a fan-shaped beard and heavily callused hands, was standing with his neighbor, a 28-year-old shopkeeper and father of three named Gul Rahim, when they heard a bomb blast followed by gunfire. The two had been trying to dig out a tree stump in front of Omar’s house, which looked out onto the village of Polad Khan, adjacent to the main road between the provincial capital of Maidan Shahr and Nerkh’s district center.
Nerkh, despite its orchards of apple trees and clean Himalayan air, is not an easy place to live. Like much of Afghanistan’s rural population, the residents of the district, impoverished tenant farmers, are trapped between the inexorable pressures of the insurgency and the American military. The militants, who have deep roots among the local population, will kill anyone who cooperates with the foreigners. Even being seen talking to the Americans is a risk. When the Taliban come to their houses at night, demanding food and shelter or the services of their sons, refusal can mean death. And yet the presence of those militants might draw a drone strike or a raid from the Americans. It is an impossible but daily dilemma. A slip can be fatal.
That November day, a roadside bomb had hit the American Special Forces team as it patrolled nearby, lightly injuring an American soldier and a translator. Soon afterward, a convoy of Americans mounted on ATVs, followed by Afghan soldiers, came rumbling down the road. Fearful, Omar and Gul Rahim put down their tools and went inside. . .