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A Group of Agents Rose Through the Ranks to Lead the Border Patrol. They’re Leaving It in Crisis.

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The Border Patrol seems a lot like a gang. Melissa del Bosque reports in ProPublica:

On a Saturday evening in late September, Deputy Chief Scott Luck gathered with family and friends in the crystal-chandeliered ballroom of the Trump National Golf Club, nestled along the shores of the Potomac River in Virginia, to celebrate his retirement after 33 years in the U.S. Border Patrol.

The party was adorned with a who’s who in Border Patrol leadership, past and present. There was the unmistakable figure of Luck’s boss, Chief Carla Provost, tall and broad with her trademark fringe of brown bangs, and her longtime friend Andrea Zortman, who helps oversee foreign operations for the agency. A full contingent of retired former chiefs-turned-consultants were on hand, too, including David Aguilar, 64, who’d headed the Border Patrol as well as its parent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Michael Fisher, 55, who’d succeeded Aguilar as Border Patrol chief. Rowdy Adams, 59, another retired senior-level CBP official, also attended the celebration.

The guests had kicked in $75 apiece to cover food and a gift for the send-off, but hovering over the party was a mix of weariness and defiance: It wasn’t just the end of Luck’s career, it was the end of an era at the agency — their era. And the widespread critiques currently pummeling the embattled patrol and its more than 19,600 agents would be, implicitly, their legacy.

Unbeknownst to most outsiders, almost all of the immigration honchos at Luck’s party that night were longtime colleagues who’d served as young agents in the remote border town of Douglas, Arizona, when the Border Patrol was just a small, backwater agency.

The group, called “the Douglas mafia” by some agents, began climbing the ranks together after the 9/11 attacks as the Border Patrol nearly tripled in size and budget. They’d ridden two decades of escalating political polarization over immigration to the top of the agency. They brought with them an entrenched us-against-them defiance that they’d fostered in the Arizona desert, when, feeling maligned and misunderstood, they’d forged their own way.

For better or worse, they’d had a hand in shaping virtually every aspect of the agency’s leadership and culture.

But the feeling in the room that night, said some in attendance, was relief that many of them would not be around to lead it much longer. Provost, 50, who’d started as a naive 25-year-old from a rural Kansas police force, had been planning her exit from Washington for months. Sandi Goldhamer, 56, her longtime partner who’d also gotten her start in Douglas, was already at their new home in Texas. Goldhamer had retired quietly last spring as associate chief in charge of national policy after her role in the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in thousands of children being separated from their families with no plan to reunify them.

The two women, along with Zortman, 46, had risen to the top despite the agency’s infamous lack of female agents, the least of any federal law enforcement agency.

The group had overseen or witnessed crises in the past — including lawsuits over excessive use of force and revelations of corruption within the patrol’s own ranks. But the last three years, catalyzed by ever-harsher Trump administration policies, had thrust the insular agency into unprecedented turmoil. The arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers at the border had forced agents into new roles, for which they had little training. A series of high-profile scandals had focused scalding attention on the agency: Children died in its custody. Reporters uncovered a racist, misogynist private Facebook page with some 9,500 current and former Border Patrol members, including, at one point, Provost. Misconduct charges rose and a longtime agent was even prosecuted as a serial killer.

The Border Patrol they’d guided was experiencing not just a crisis of confidence among legislators and the public, but from within.

Some senior agents said they can’t help but blame the current state of the Border Patrol on the Douglas agents for fostering a culture that favored loyalty over competency. “I still believe in our mission. But we need restructuring, we need change,” said one longtime senior agent from Texas, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s a group following each other on their coattails with the same ideas, because everyone thinks the same way. And a lot of people skipping rank based on who they know, not on their experience.”

The agent said he’d worked with many of the leaders of the group at Border Patrol’s Washington, D.C., headquarters over the years, and the experience had led him to conclude that many of the agency’s problems were self-inflicted. “We grew too fast,” he said. “And there are people in leadership who are not performing at the levels they should.”

Provost, Goldhamer, Zortman, Luck and Aguilar all declined or did not respond to requests for interviews for this article, as did the Border Patrol.

“I feel like we’re leaving a terrible legacy for those who follow,” the senior agent said. Soon he, like so many others in leadership, would retire, leaving a gap that he believes the agency is ill-equipped to fill. Lately, as the patrol lurches from one crisis to another, the agent said he’s tried to figure out how everything had gone “sideways,” adding, “I’ve been asking myself, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”


In the beginning, they were just a bunch of young, mostly novice agents shunted off to a small outpost two hours southeast of Tucson, Arizona. But the ill-equipped border station in Douglas was on the verge of becoming the largest, and busiest, in the nation.

In July of 2000, Rowdy Adams was sent to Douglas station as the patrol agent in charge to help oversee its rapid expansion. “I’d never dealt with anything that complex or that big,” recalled Adams, whose spiky, once-blonde hair is now streaked with gray. When he arrived, agents were working out of trailers because they’d run out of places to put everyone. “They had a station built for 40 people, and we had something in the neighborhood of 450 or 500 agents,” he said. “I mean, it was crazy, but we made do with what we had.”

Up until the 1990s, the Border Patrol had been little more than a congressional afterthought, with fewer than 4,000 agents nationwide. Then, the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, which, coupled with a crippling peso devaluation in Mexico, helped spur a mass migration of workers north. The number of apprehended border crossers spiked to nearly a million in 1994 and kept on rising. Congress responded by passing the restrictive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and doubling down on more border fencing and agents.

The Border Patrol had already been experimenting with extended enforcement operations in San Diego and El Paso, Texas — flooding those areas with armed agents — which reduced traffic, but just like in a game of whack-a-mole, the crossers would surface somewhere else. By 2000, that somewhere else was Douglas, a sleepy borough of 14,000 inhabitants bordering the much larger Agua Prieta, Sonora.

Back then, most migrants were single men from Mexico looking for work. They were processed quickly then sent back across the line, said former agent Kevin Smith, who spent his entire career in Douglas and retired there in 2014. “We were making 1,000 apprehensions a day and not even catching 10%,” he said. “We were so overwhelmed.”

The border town had already gained an outsized infamy after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who would later lead the Sinaloa Cartel, built his first cross-border drug tunnel there, a 270-foot long engineering marvel that included a hidden door under a hydraulic-lifted pool table. In the ensuing years, a wave of investigations and arrests of U.S. border agents with ties to drug traffickers and human smugglers fed the town’s notoriety. By 1996, the Los Angeles Times noted that Douglas was known as “the most corrupt town on the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border.”

The resources opened up by Congress continued to pour into Douglas anyway. A new station was built on 29 acres of seized property, at a cost of $23 million. By 2003, Douglas station was the largest in the nation, with 550 permanent agents and an additional 100 on rotation from other parts of the country. It had grown so big, so fast that there was little managerial oversight, Adams said. His primary task at the time, he said, was to hire more supervisors and get the organization under control, “to make sure that people were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Provost had landed at Douglas in 1995, one of a handful of women in a notoriously macho culture.

“I’d like to say we had maybe 6-7% women at Douglas station,” Adams said. “It’s a tough gig. We’re in remote locations. And if you want to have a family, and all that, it’s going to have an impact.”

Provost, athletic and with a can-do Midwestern pragmatism, was determined to make her mark, recalled Michael Fisher, who first met Provost in Douglas and rose through the ranks as her superior.

Fisher’s first encounter with Provost came late one night while he and a tactical team, clad in black and with their faces covered in black grease paint, were tracking a group of migrants in the desert east of Douglas. “We heard a sound, and all of a sudden I saw this person go by on a bicycle,” Fisher said. “We thought it was a scout or something, so we started running and got into position and flashed our lights and announced that we were Border Patrol agents.”

The bicyclist, Fisher said, doubled back, and he was surprised to see a woman in a Border Patrol uniform on a mountain bike. He said he asked what she was doing in the desert alone in the middle of the night.

“Well, what are you doing here?” the agent shot back, Fisher remembered.

“I told her we were tracking the group,” Fisher said. “And she said: ‘Like hell you are. That’s my group.’ And then she rode off into the desert. And I was like, ‘Wow, who was that?’”

Later, he would find out it was Provost, a supervisor on the Border Patrol’s recently created bike unit. “I was impressed,” he said. “She stood her ground.”

Goldhamer, originally from Tallahassee, Florida, was also determined to succeed in the testosterone-filled workplace. Petite, with long brown hair that she wore in a tight bun, Goldhamer stood out because she was always one of the first to volunteer, Adams said. “She just did what she needed to do. Even if it was the shit job for the evening, she would take that and embrace it without complaint,” he said.

By the early aughts, apprehensions at Douglas were up to 2,400 a day, according to Adams. The station was praised for being one of the first to implement new biometric technology linking its IDENT fingerprint database with other law enforcement databases to screen people for criminal backgrounds. But the Border Patrol was not screening its own agents thoroughly enough. The station had grown too fast, with too few checks and balances in place, to weed out the bad actors within its own ranks. “I’d love to take credit for picking nothing but rock stars,” Adams said of the agents he’d promoted at the time. “But it didn’t always turn out that way.”

In those early years in Douglas, Adams and others said, the agents, including those who would come to be the Douglas mafia, saw firsthand many of the problems that would plague the agency in coming years.

One night in late September 2000, Goldhamer noticed an acting supervisor named Dennis Johnson talking with a Salvadoran woman they’d just apprehended. With several people to process for the return to Mexico, Goldhamer lost sight of them, according to court records. Johnson drove the handcuffed woman into the desert and sexually assaulted her. Then he took her to another port of entry at Naco, 25 miles west of Douglas, and sent her back to Mexico. The assault was only discovered because the woman made a complaint to a Mexican customs agent who then reported it to his U.S. counterpart, the court records show.

Adams, as patrol agent in charge, said he took the call that night from the agent in Naco. He needed to quickly piece together what had happened. Goldhamer helped him identify Johnson’s patrol vehicle. “We quietly seized the vehicle and did the DNA samples,” he said, “and that’s what wound up getting him convicted.” Goldhamer later testified at Johnson’s trial. Johnson’s attorney argued that the woman had initiated oral sex and then made up a the story to stay in the United States, but a jury found him guilty of sexual assault and kidnapping.

But Johnson’s trial was a rare occurrence, then and now.

In 2001, the Justice Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into a sprawling kickback scheme in which numerous agents detailed to Douglas from other stations were furnished with falsified receipts from supervisors, who’d rented them rooms in their homes, or from hotel managers or apartment landlords. Agents claimed the $55-a-day housing allowance when they’d actually paid much less, pocketing the difference. Some also received gym memberships and cash incentives. . .

Continue reading.

It’s a criminal gang operating under the mantle of law enforcement.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 February 2020 at 1:44 pm

The Golden Age of White-Collar Crime

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Michael Hobbs reports in HuffPost Highline:

1 A Slow-Motion Looting

OVER THE LAST TWO YEARS, nearly every institution of American life has taken on the unmistakable stench of moral rot. Corporate behemoths like Boeing and Wells Fargo have traded blue-chip credibility for white-collar callousness. Elite universities are selling admission spots to the highest Hollywood bidder. Silicon Valley unicorns have revealed themselves as long cons (Theranos), venture-capital cremation devices (Uber, WeWork) or straightforward comic book supervillains (Facebook). Every week unearths a cabinet-level political scandal that would have defined any other presidency. From the blackouts in California to the bloated bonuses on Wall Street to the entire biography of Jeffrey Epstein, it is impossible to look around the country and not get the feeling that elites are slowly looting it.

And why wouldn’t they? The criminal justice system has given up all pretense that the crimes of the wealthy are worth taking seriously. In January 2019, white-collar prosecutions fell to their lowest level since researchers started tracking them in 1998. Even within the dwindling number of prosecutions, most are cases against low-level con artists and small-fry financial schemes. Since 2015, criminal penalties levied by the Justice Department have fallen from $3.6 billion to roughly $110 million. Illicit profits seized by the Securities and Exchange Commission have reportedly dropped by more than half. In 2018, a year when nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at firms with more than 50 employees.

With few exceptions, the only rich people America prosecutes anymore are those who victimize their fellow elites. Pharma frat boy Martin Shkreli, to pick just one example, wasn’t prosecuted for hiking the price of a drug used to treat HIV from $13.50 to $750 per pill. He went to prison for scamming investors in a hedge fund scheme years before. Meanwhile, in 2016, the CEO whose company experienced the deadliest mining disaster since 1970 served less than one year in prison and paid a fine of 1.4 percent of his salary and stock bonuses the previous year. Why? Because overseeing a company that ignores warnings and causes the deaths of workers, even 29 of them, is a misdemeanor.

Construction magnate Bruce Karatz provides an infuriating case study of how the criminal justice system treats wealthy defendants. In 2010, Karatz was convicted of failing to disclose in a financial statement that he had secretly “backdated” his stock options (think Biff with the Sports Almanac in “Back to the Future II”) to boost his pay by more than $6 million. Prior to his sentencing hearing, his lawyer submitted letters of support from former mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Prosecutors recommended six-and-a-half-years in prison; the judge gave Karatz five years’ probation and eight months of house arrest in his Bel Air mansion. After two years, the judge terminated the remainder of the sentence. Karatz later received a civic award from The Malibu Times for volunteer work he did to make a good impression for his sentencing hearing.

Country-club nepotism and Gilded Age avarice are nothing new in America, of course. But the rich are enjoying a golden age of impunity unprecedented in modern history. “American elites have become more brazen than they were even five years ago,” said Matthew Robinson, a professor at Appalachian State University and the author of several books on “elite deviance”— all the legal and illegal social harms caused by the wealthy.

Elite deviance has become the dark matter of American life, the invisible force around which the country’s most powerful legal and political systems have set their orbit. Four members of the Sackler family, the owners of Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, have retained the services of former SEC head Mary Jo White as their personal lawyer. Epstein’s dinner party guest lists included Harvard professors, billionaire philanthropists and members of political dynasties in at least two countries. In 2017, the pharmaceutical company Novartis spent about 14 percent of its annual lobbying budget on payments to a shell company controlled by ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

And this clubbiness has human costs. Tax evasion, to pick just one crime concentrated among the wealthy, already siphons up to 10,000 times more money out of the U.S. economy every year than bank robberies. In 2017, researchers estimated that fraud by America’s largest corporations cost Americans up to $360 billion annually between 1996 and 2004. That’s roughly two decades’ worth of street crime every single year. As the links between corporations and regulators become increasingly incestuous, the future will bring more crude-soaked coastlines, price-gouging corporate behemoths and Madoff-style Ponzi schemes. More hurdles to suing companies for poisoning their customers or letting bosses harass their employees. And more uniquely American catastrophes like the opioid crisis and the price of insulin.

Perhaps the greatest myth about white-collar crime is that Americans struggle to understand it—as if chemical companies toxifying rivers or insurance executives gouging their customers fail to stimulate our moral intuitions. In fact, surveys consistently show that the vast majority of the population considers white-collar crime more harmful than street crime and powerful offenders more odious than common criminals.

Those intuitions are correct: An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society. And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.

2 An Increasingly Desperate Pantomime Of Legal Enforcement

EVERY YEAR, AT BRANDED COCKTAIL receptions and bloated buffet breakfasts, government agents spend two days hobnobbing with the tax-haven attorneys they spend the rest of the year investigating.

The Offshore Alert conference takes place in Miami each spring, in London each fall and in “key offshore jurisdictions” all year round. Officially, participants come to discuss “wealth creation, preservation and recovery.” Less officially, the tax lawyers come to learn what the feds will crack down on next year. The government investigators come to fish for future jobs. Imagine a yearly picnic where sheriffs give drug dealers tips on hiding baggies from pat-downs and leave with a new set of endorsements on LinkedIn.

In person, the conference is even more surreal than it sounds. From across a cologne-scented hotel lobby, I watched tanned attorneys fresh off flights from the Caribbean mingle with ashen IRS agents who bring business cards from Kinko’s because the agency won’t pay to get them printed anymore. I listened to officials from the FBI and SEC lay out enforcement priorities as cryptocurrency investors and Russian bankers took notes. At lunch, I talked “Game of Thrones” with a Senate advisor, a government auditor and a Bahamanian lawyer who later offered to set me up a shell corporation for $5,000.

The finance types were frosty during the day—an investor who appeared to be wearing monogrammed slacks wouldn’t tell me his first name—but they loosened up at the happy hours. An offshore tax advisor bragged that he could take his clients’ tax rates from 49 percent to 15 percent and complained that they were constantly pushing him to go lower. Another told me that most of his clients aren’t trying to hide money from the government but from their second or third wives. “The first one raised their kids so they feel like she’s entitled to something,” he explained. “It’s the trophy wives they want to lock out.”

Jack Albertson is a government investigator—that’s not his real name and he won’t let me get more specific about his job description—who has been coming to Offshore Alert for years. When I ask him how this cops-and-robbers conflagration even exists, he tells me I’m thinking about it the wrong way. He, like all the other investigators here, knows that many of the lawyers who attend are hiding their clients’ money sketchily or outright illegally. He even knows how they’re doing it. The tactics for hiding money from tax authorities are not particularly sophisticated and have barely changed in the last 50 years. Set up a shell company and buy an appreciating asset—Iowa farmland, a London apartment, a New York pizzeria, something common enough that it won’t attract attention.

Contrary to the “Catch Me If You Can” myth, Albertson said, solving financial crimes is not a cat-and-mouse game between cunning investigators and slippery con artists. Most of the time it is simply the blunt application of resources to a series of unimaginably tedious tasks. “Investigators can already crack almost any offshore account if they have enough time and money,” he said. “The problem is that they only get that for a few cases a year.”

Over the last four decades, the agencies responsible for investigating elite and white-collar crime—roughly speaking, the IRS, SEC, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and FBI—have seen their enforcement divisions starved into irrelevance. More than a third of the FBI investigators who patrol Wall Street were reassigned between 2001 and 2008. Enforcement funding at the IRS has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade. And, worst of all, every time a scandal exposes the government’s inadequacy, Congress steps in to squeeze the regulators even harder.

The most instructive case of this deliberate stunting is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Founded in 1972, the CPSC’s job is to make sure the things you buy won’t pierce, poison or burn you. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan slashed its budget as part of his crusade against bureaucratic waste. In the 1990s, Clinton instructed the agency to produce more data as part of his push for government accountability. No matter which party was in power, every administration gave the CPSC more to do and less money to do it with. By 2007, it had shrunk from its initial 786 employees to just 420.

That same year, Mattel announced a recall of more than 1 million⁠ of its children’s toys that had been contaminated with lead paint. Despite the company’s sophisticated international operations and billions in revenues, it had never bothered to inspect the Chinese sub-contractors. By then, the CSPC had fewer than 100⁠ inspectors to monitor all imports to the United States. The Los Angeles-area ports where a chunk of the tainted toys arrived was overseen by a single part-time inspector.

Congress responded to the scandal by compounding the mistakes that had caused it. Lawmakers agreed to double the CPSC’s budget and increase its staff, but also obligated the agency to carry out dozens of new activities, including the creation of a public database to track safety hazards for every single product sold in the U.S.

The new mandate swallowed up all the agency’s new funding and more. Soon, the CPSC was dedicating nearly all of its time to lead abatement in children’s toys, neglecting millions of products that posed far greater risks to children, like flammable blankets or dangerous table saws. The product database filled up with unconfirmed complaints and spammy comments. Mattel, meanwhile, faced no consequences for manufacturing the lead-tainted toys beyond a $2.3 million fine—roughly 0.006 percent⁠ of its net income. According to Rena Steinzor, the author of “Why Not Jail? Industrial Disasters, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction,” the same cycle has repeated itself across every form of elite deviance, from tax compliance to financial regulation to environmental protection. In 2010, following a series of tax-haven scandals, the IRS set up a “wealth squad” to investigate the ultra-rich —but only staffed it with enough agents to perform 36 audits in its first two years.

After the Enron-led avalanche of corporate bankruptcies in the early 2000s, Congress gave the SEC enough funding to hire 200 new auditing staff. At the same time, however, lawmakers obligated the agency to review the filings of every publicly traded U.S. financial firm every three years—a mandate far larger than the agency’s new staffing levels. Then, after the financial crisis, it happened again: The Dodd-Frank act tasked the SEC with monitoring even more companies and trillions of new assets while increasing its enforcement staff by less than 10 percent.

This cycle has left America’s regulators with no choice but to engage in an increasingly desperate pantomime of white-collar law enforcement. On the outside, they report impressive performance statistics to avoid even more budget cuts. Behind the scenes, they’ve retreated to investigating only the defendants they know are guilty and the crimes they know where to find.

The primary beneficiaries of this shift are American elites. Rich people generate mountains of financial data. Millionaires can have over 100 bank accounts; billionaires’ tax returns run to 800 pages long. For people who earn most of their income from working (i.e. almost everyone), the IRS has an automatic system that compares individuals’ reports to the records submitted by their employers and banks. For the wealthy, who make much of their income from interest and investments, the agency has nothing to compare their reports against. The only way to tell if a rich person is cheating on their taxes is to sit down and go through them line by line.

“Let’s say you get a tip that some billionaire is hiding a bunch of money offshore and not paying taxes on it,” said Arthur VanDesande, who spent 25 years as a criminal investigator for the IRS. “And you manage to narrow the tax evasion down to 20 of his bank accounts. OK, now you have to prepare 20 subpoenas, get them signed by a judge and deliver them to the banks. But when you go to Bank of America, they say, ‘We don’t accept subpoenas at this location, you have to go to our authorized representative in Orlando.’ So then you go to Orlando and and you find out the money is linked to an offshore account. So then you have to write to the embassy…’”

Due to the IRS’ lean resources, VanDesande did most of this legwork himself. “You type your own shit, you make your own copies, you write every single affidavit. Sometimes you feel like, ‘I’m a senior-level person with a college degree. Why am I calling Wells Fargo and sitting on hold for 45 minutes?’”

Only some of this drudgery can be outsourced to lower-level staffers. White-collar cases involve understanding arcane laws, absorbing thousands of pages of documents, traversing international jurisdictions and coordinating a vast array of agencies from the Secret Service to the Post Office. They require investigators to be Jack Ryan, Magnum P.I. and Leslie Knope all at once. Even though auditing millionaires and billionaires is one of the most cost-effective government activities imaginable—an independent report estimated in 2014 that it yielded up to $4,545 in recovered revenue per hour of staff time—the IRS investigated the returns of just 3 percent of American millionaires in 2017.

In addition to reducing their caseload, America’s white-collar enforcement agencies have started prioritizing crimes they can prosecute in bulk. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it provides some insight into why America is failing.

Operation Encore and the Saudi Connection: A Secret History of the 9/11 Investigation

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Tim Golden and Sebastian Rotella report in ProPublica:

On the morning of Sept. 11 last year, about two dozen family members of those killed in the terror attacks filed into the White House to visit with President Donald Trump. It was a choreographed, somewhat stiff encounter, in which each family walked to the center of the Blue Room to share a moment of conversation with Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, before having a photograph taken with the first couple. Still, it was an opportunity the visitors were determined not to squander.

One after another, the families asked Trump to release documents from the FBI’s investigation into the 9/11 plot, documents that the Justice Department has long fought to keep secret. After so many years they needed closure, they said. They needed to know the truth. Some of the relatives reminded Trump that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama blocked them from seeing the files, as did some of the FBI bureaucrats the president so reviled. The visitors didn’t mention that they hoped to use the documents in a current federal lawsuit that accuses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — an American ally that has only grown closer under Trump — of complicity in the attacks.

The president promised to help. “It’s done,” he said, reassuring several visitors. Later, the families were told that Trump ordered the attorney general, William P. Barr, to release the name of a Saudi diplomat who was linked to the 9/11 plot in an FBI report years earlier. Justice Department lawyers handed over the Saudi official’s name in a protected court filing that could be read only by lawyers for the plaintiffs. But Barr dashed the families’ hopes. In a statement to the court on Sept. 12, he insisted that other documents that might be relevant to the case had to be protected as state secrets. Their disclosure, he wrote, risked “significant harm to the national security.”

The families were stunned. They knew that the success of their lawsuit might well depend on access to the FBI’s investigation into possible Saudi involvement in the plot by al-Qaida. In a federal courthouse in Manhattan, near where the twin towers once stood, the fight over evidence had already dragged on for more than a year. Now, as the judge prepared to rule on what documents would be disclosed, the Justice Department was digging in.

Daniel Gonzalez wasn’t surprised by the hard line. A former street agent in the FBI’s San Diego field office, he was one of several retired investigators who had signed on to help the families. During the last 15 years of his FBI career, Gonzalez was a central figure in the bureau’s effort to understand Saudi connections to 9/11. But even on the inside, Gonzalez often felt as if his own government wanted no part of what he was finding.

From the day of the attacks, the trail seemed to point to Saudi Arabia. First, there was the inescapable fact that, like Osama bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The first two flew in to Los Angeles in January 2000 and quickly made their way to a Saudi mosque. When they moved to San Diego a few weeks later, they turned for help to a middle-aged Saudi student whom the FBI suspected of spying for the kingdom.

But as details of the 9/11 plot came into focus, the FBI line on possible Saudi involvement began to shift: When the evidence was assessed, FBI officials reported, there was no solid proof that the Saudi government or any of its senior officials deliberately aided the Qaida terrorists. Low-level Saudis with government ties might have helped the two hijackers in California, the bureau acknowledged, but there was no indication that they knew the men were terrorists — much less planning to murder thousands of Americans.

Gonzalez knew he hadn’t seen all the evidence; he had just a corner of an investigation that stretched around the world. American intelligence agencies surely had pieces of the Saudi puzzle that even senior FBI officials might not be aware of. But what Gonzalez uncovered was troubling, and he knew that bigger questions about the plot were still unanswered. “My head was already flat from banging it against the wall,” he recalled. “But I thought, We’re not done.”

Gonzalez, a tough, affable Texan, pressed on. With a small group of like-minded investigators in New York and California, he hunted down witnesses who had slipped away and circled back to clues that had been missed. The evidence they developed was nearly all circumstantial. But it added to the questions about the role of the Saudi government.

The FBI has disputed the idea that foreign-policy considerations significantly influenced its investigation. In interviews, current and former bureau officials and federal prosecutors insisted to us that they never would have hesitated to pursue any Saudi who could have been solidly linked to the 9/11 plot, even if that person never faced trial in the United States. (Saudi Arabia does not extradite its citizens.) “I have never been privy to discussions about not charging someone for 9/11 because we need to maintain a better relationship with the Saudis,” Jacqueline Maguire, a special agent in charge in New York who was closely involved in the case from the beginning, told us. “I have never heard charges be questioned for that reason.”

But others who worked on the matter, including some at the FBI’s highest levels, say that the United States’ complex and often-troubled relationship with the Saudi regime was an unavoidable fact throughout their investigations. Even as the Saudi authorities became more cooperative with the United States in fighting al-Qaida after 2003, they were minimally and grudgingly helpful when it came to the 9/11 inquiry. According to current and former officials, requests for assistance that might rattle the Saudi security agencies were frequently balanced against FBI and CIA needs for Saudi help against continuing terror threats.

How such considerations might also weigh against the appeals of the 9/11 families for a fuller record of what happened remains an open question. If anything, the transactional nature of America’s relationship with the Saudi kingdom has become more overt. In December, following the terrorist shooting by a Saudi Air Force officer that killed three Americans and wounded eight others on a Florida naval base, Trump tweeted what he said were assurances from King Salman that “this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people.” Earlier last year, addressing the Saudi government’s murder of a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, Trump argued that such offenses should be seen in a broader context. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’” he told NBC News.

Washington’s efforts to keep secrets about possible Saudi connections to 9/11 have also intensified. Former FBI agents who have made court statements in support of the 9/11 families have been warned by the bureau that they risk violating secrecy laws. Kenneth Williams — a retired agent who wrote a prescient memo before 9/11 about radical Arab students taking flying lessons in possible preparation for hijackings — said in a sworn declaration for the plaintiffs that an FBI lawyer told him that the Trump administration did not want him to help them because it could imperil “good relations with Saudi Arabia.” (The FBI declined to comment.)

The full story of the FBI’s investigation into Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks has remained largely untold. Even the code name of the case — Operation Encore — has never been published before. This account is based on interviews with more than 50 current and former investigators, intelligence officials and witnesses in the case. It also draws on some previously secret documents as well as on the voluminous public files of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

The Encore investigation exposed a bitter rift within the bureau over the Saudi connection. It illuminated a series of missed opportunities to resolve questions about links between one of Washington’s closest allies and the deadliest attack in the nation’s history. Richard Lambert, who led the FBI’s initial 9/11 investigation in San Diego, as the assistant special agent in charge there, says he believes that even if the FBI’s evidence of possible Saudi involvement in the case is not conclusive, it is significant enough that it should be fully disclosed. “The circumstantial evidence has mounted,” he says. “Given the lapse of time, I don’t know any reason why the truth should be kept from the American people.”


Images of the World Trade Center’s collapse were still looping on television sets in the FBI’s San Diego field office when a lead came in from Dulles International Airport, outside Washington. A blue 1988 Toyota Corolla had been found in a parking lot; it was registered to one of the suspected hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77, which took off for Los Angeles the previous morning before crashing into the Pentagon, killing 64 people on board and 125 inside the building. The hijacker, Nawaf al-Hazmi, listed a San Diego address.

Gonzalez caught the lead. At 42, he had been in the office for a decade, building a reputation as a shrewd, instinctive agent with a gift for getting people to talk. He had worked very effectively against Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt border-control agents, and he pivoted easily to the new target. “He was a phenomenal agent,” Lambert says, “what you would want to see if an agent knocked on your door. He just kept going and going.”

The address from Dulles led Gonzalez to a plain, white, two-story house in the working-class suburb of Lemon Grove. The listed owner was a 65-year-old Indian immigrant, Abdussattar Shaikh, who had taught English as a second language at local community colleges and helped establish the Islamic Center of San Diego, the city’s largest mosque. Gonzalez hurried back to prepare a search warrant at the FBI office, where snipers had taken up positions on the roof. “It was chaos,” recalls William D. Gore, who was then the special agent in charge in San Diego. “Nobody knew where the next attack would be.”

When Gonzalez returned to the Lemon Grove house the next day, a small army was mustering: an evidence-collection team, computer experts and a SWAT team with protective gear and a battering ram. Before they could get to the door, however, the professor politely opened it for them. It would be more than a week before anyone told Gonzalez that Dr. Shaikh, as he liked to be called, was in fact a long-time informant for the FBI field office.

Shaikh’s FBI handler would later acknowledge to Justice Department investigators that the professor had mentioned the two hijackers to him — but only by their first names, noting casually that they were the latest in a line of young Muslim men who rented his spare bedroom. Even had the agent dug further, he might not have discovered that Shaikh’s boarders, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were known Qaida operatives whose names were in the databases of both the CIA and the National Security Agency. While CIA officials placed the two men under surveillance in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early January 2000 and learned that at least one of them later flew to Los Angeles, the agency did not alert the FBI to their presence until August 2001, a few weeks before the attacks.

As the raid proceeded, Gonzalez escorted one of Shaikh’s new boarders outside. The young man got to know Hazmi a bit at a Texaco gas station where Hazmi briefly worked washing cars. But the guy whom Gonzalez should try to find, the boarder said, was another young immigrant who was especially close to the two Saudi men. His name was Mohdar Abdullah.

Gonzalez set up 24-hour surveillance on the Texaco station and began searching for Abdullah. The next day, as Abdullah drove into a student parking lot at San Diego State University, Gonzalez pulled up alongside him and identified himself as FBI. “What took you so long?” Abdullah asked. “I thought you’d be all over me sooner.”

Gonzalez and another agent invited Abdullah for breakfast at a Denny’s just east of the campus. The diner was one of the spots that Abdullah liked to go to with the two hijackers. Just up the hill, on Saranac Street, was the two-bedroom apartment they rented, where they often whiled away their days with Abdullah and a rotating crew of young Muslim men. Nearby was a small mosque where the three men worshipped under the guidance of Anwar al-­Awlaki, the Yemeni-American imam who would emerge as an important Qaida leader before being killed in Yemen by a United States drone strike in 2011.

Over the next three days, Abdullah, then 22, sketched a picture of the hijackers’ California lives — praying daily at the mosque, going for pizza at Little Caesars, playing pickup soccer. Abdullah translated for the two Saudis, drove them on errands and registered them for English classes. He also tried to arrange flying lessons for the pair. At a San Diego airfield in May 2000, they told the instructor they wanted to skip past the single-engine Cessna and learn to fly Boeing jets. He broke off their training after the second lesson and advised them to come back when they could speak better English.

Mihdhar, who was 24, left for Yemen in June 2000 to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I’ve always been disturbed by how the George W. Bush administration helped Saudi citizens flee the US after the attacks.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2020 at 4:50 pm

Inside the U.S. military’s raid against its own security guards that left dozens of Afghan children dead

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Brett Murphy reports in USA Today:

ZIZABAD, Afghanistan – Once the Americans left, the survivors started digging.

There were too many dead and not enough shovels, so a local politician brought in heavy machinery from a nearby construction site. He dug graves deep enough to fit mothers with children, or children with children. Some were still in their pajamas, their hands inked with henna tattoos from the party preparations the night before.

Villagers picked through the rubble of what had been an entire neighborhood, looking for remains to wrap in white linens for burial. A boy clutching a torn rug walked in a daze on top of the ruins. A young man collapsed in grief by a pile of mud bricks where his home once stood – where his wife and four children had been sleeping inside.

The local doctor recorded a cellphone video to document the dead faces, freckled with shrapnel and blood, coated with dust and debris. Some were Afghan men of fighting age, but most – dozens of them – were women and children. Taza was 3 years old. Maida was 2. Zia, 1.

The hot summer wind kicked up dust, smoke and the smell of gunpowder as villagers tried to make sense of why their remote village was demolished by an American airstrike in the middle of the night.

A clue was found near several of the dead Afghan fighters: ID badges from the private security company at the American-controlled airfield up the road.

Why had a team of U.S. soldiers and Marines battled its own paid security detail?

After more than a decade, those who buried their families still don’t know.


U.S. military officials publicly touted the August 22, 2008, Azizabad raid – Operation Commando Riot – as a victory. A high-value Taliban target had been killed; the collateral damage was minimal; the village was grateful.

None of it was true.

The Taliban commander escaped. Dozens of civilians were dead in the rubble, including as many as 60 children. The local population rioted.

It remains one of the deadliest civilian casualty events of the Afghan campaign. But the story of how the operation turned tragic has been largely hidden from the public.

USA TODAY spent more than a year investigating the Azizabad raid and sued the Department of Defense to obtain almost 1,000 pages of investigative files previously kept secret because it had been deemed “classified national security information.” The records included photographs of the destruction in Azizabad and sworn testimony from the U.S. forces who planned and executed the operation.

USA TODAY also obtained Afghan government records, evidence collected by humanitarian groups, including the Red Cross, and a confidential United Nations investigation into the incident.

In addition, a reporter traveled to western Afghanistan to interview government officials, investigators, first responders, witnesses and the villagers who survived.

Together, the records and interviews tell the story of a disaster that was months in the making as military and company officials ignored warnings about the men they had hired to provide intelligence and security. The records also reveal that the Defense Department has for years downplayed or denied the fatal mistakes surrounding the tragedy.

The problems began in 2007 when ArmorGroup, a private security company working on a Pentagon subcontract, hired two local warlords on the U.S. intelligence payroll to provide armed guards at an airfield on the western edge of Afghanistan.

Those warlords fought each other for control of the weapons and money ArmorGroup was giving out. The tangle of espionage and tribal infighting eventually drew in the very same military units that had helped empower the warlords in the first place.

The breakdowns in the U.S. military intelligence machine culminated with the raid itself. Some troops were never warned of Azizabad’s civilian population, and the special operation commanders who did know unleashed devastating force from the air anyway. Ground troops directed an American gunship to demolish house after house where at least one insurgent took cover, without knowing who else was inside.

“If they fled into the building, we were asking him to basically drop the building,” a Marine who was coordinating with the gunship testified. Most of the names were redacted from the military investigation.

Much about the mission in Azizabad remains in dispute, but this much is clear: The architects behind this corner of the war – and those profiting from the security contract – did not understand the difference between who they were supposed to be fighting, employing and protecting.

There still is no definitive death toll. After initially insisting that only five to seven civilians died, Pentagon officials were forced to adjust that figure to 33 after photos and videos of the carnage proved the official account wrong. Separate reviews by the Afghan government, Red Cross, United Nations and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission put the civilian deaths over 70.

After two Pentagon investigations, the U.S. military denied any wrongdoing. Defense Department officials declined to comment for this story.

A 2010 Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry laid blame with both ArmorGroup and the Defense Department for doing business with the warlords. In response to the Senate report, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a letter recognizing problems with contract oversight, which he pledged to fix.

Yet in the aftermath of the Azizabad raid, records show, military leaders sought to present an image of success and mask evidence of a civilian casualty disaster. The false version of events was amplified by Oliver North – a former Marine commander and a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s – who was embedded as a Fox News contributor with the forces conducting the raid. North’s segment, which presents the mission as a success and the Taliban commander “confirmed dead,” is still available on the Fox News website.

North did not respond to multiple interview requests. In an email, Fox News spokeswoman Caley Cronin did not address North’s segment and directed questions to North, “who is no longer a contributor with the network,” she wrote.

Lt. Colonel Rachel E. VanLandingham, a retired officer with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the chief of international law at Central Command’s headquarters during the Azizabad raid, said the commanders responsible for investigating the incident seemed to ignore the failures instead of learning from them. She did not know the details of the operation or the military’s response until contacted by USA TODAY.

“The CENTCOM investigation seemed more worried about looking good than being good,” VanLandingham, now a law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview. “Everyone who deploys in Afghanistan should know this incident.”

G4S, the largest private security company in the world, purchased ArmorGroup in 2008 – after the company had signed its contract with the Pentagon to provide security at the airfield but before the Azizabad raid. The company’s role has remained virtually unknown other than a literal footnote in the Senate inquiry.

Executives at ArmorGroup, which G4S dissolved into another subsidiary it later sold in 2014, considered their decisions at the time to be the best option to keep those inside the base safe under difficult circumstances, according to emails collected by Senate investigators.

“Without the leadership and management” of company staff, the “worst could have caused the project to fail long before the August tragedy,” one said.

G4S declined to comment for this story, except to state that ArmorGroup is a former G4S subsidiary that wasn’t under the direct control of the parent company.

But some of the employees who were operating the air base contracts near Azizabad agreed to speak out publicly for the first time.

“It was wholesale slaughter,” David McDonnell, a former ArmorGroup director who oversaw mine clearing projects in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview. “And it didn’t need to be.”

His colleague, Tony Thompson, worked with some of the villagers killed in the raid. Thompson told USA TODAY he has spent much of the past decade wrestling with the truth kept secret all this time.

“Their families died, and they still don’t know why,” he said. “You’ll never bring them back. But you need to know how and why it happened.”
chapter1.png” alt=”I. The Airfield” />

I. The Airfield

The Shindand District air base, on the southern border of Afghanistan’s Herat Province, was first built by the Soviets in the 1960s. A graveyard of abandoned Russian aircraft and land mines spread across open fields on both sides of the perimeter fence. The base is a 9-square-mile campus in a remote but strategic location between Iran’s eastern border and the Ring Road, which circles all of Afghanistan.

In a district that has . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Military “honor” is a curiously flexible concept. And we still are at war in Afghanistan — and the military is still lying about it, as the Washington Post has discovered through a massive FOIA request.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 January 2020 at 2:23 pm

Why the Media Are Ignoring the Afghanistan Papers

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Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

This week, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, an extensive review of thousands of pages of internal government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Pentagon Papers, which showcased the lies underpinning the Vietnam War, the Post’s investigation shows that U.S. officials, across three presidential administrations, intentionally and systematically misled the American public for 18 years and counting. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974, told CNN earlier this week, the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers revealed the same dynamic: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.”

The documents are an indictment not only of one aspect of American foreign policy, but also of the U.S.’s entire policymaking apparatus. They reveal a bipartisan consensus to lie about what was actually happening in Afghanistan: chronic waste and chronic corruption, one ill-conceived development scheme after another, resulting in a near-unmitigated failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Both parties had reason to engage in the cover-up. For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was a key component in the war on terror. For the Obama administration, Afghanistan was the “good war” that stood in contrast to the nightmare in Iraq.

The Afghanistan Papers are, in other words, a bombshell. Yet the report has received scant attention from the broader press. Neither NBC nor ABC covered the investigation in their nightly broadcasts this week. In other outlets, it has been buried beneath breathless reporting on the latest developments in the impeachment saga, Joe Biden’s purported pledge to serve only one term, and world leaders’ pathological envy of a 16-year-old girl.

The relentless news cycle that characterizes Donald Trump’s America surely deserves some blame: This isn’t the first time that a consequential news story has been buried under an avalanche of other news stories. But one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.

George W. Bush started the Afghanistan War and botched it in plenty of ways, not least by starting another war in Iraq. But Barack Obama, despite his obvious skepticism of the war effort, exacerbated Bush’s mistakes by bowing to the Washington foreign policy blob and authorizing a pointless troop surge. Now, although both Democrats and Donald Trump seem to be on the same page about getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, there has been little progress with peace talks. The pattern across administrations is that any movement toward resolution is usually met with a slow slide back into the status quo, a.k.a. quagmire.

The political press loves the idea of bipartisan cooperation, which plays into a notion of American greatness and its loss. It also thrives on partisan conflict, because conflict drives narrative. It doesn’t really know what to do with bipartisan failure.

During the impeachment hearings, news outlets gleefully covered the conflict between Trump and members of the foreign policy establishment, holding up the latter as selfless bureaucrats working tirelessly and anonymously on behalf of the American interest, in contrast with the feckless and narcissistic head of the executive branch. The Afghanistan Papers don’t provide that kind of easy contrast; they demand a kind of holistic condemnation, in which Trump and those bureaucrats are part of the same problem.

The media also has a long-standing bias toward “new” news. The Afghanistan War has been a catastrophic failure for nearly two decades. Because little changes, there is little to report that will excite audiences. (Though the Afghanistan Papers are startling, they are hardly surprising.) Given that the president is the greatest supplier of “new” news in recent history—his Twitter feed alone powers MSNBC most days—more complex stories, like the situation in Afghanistan, are often buried in favor of the political equivalent of sports sideline reporting.

The result is that this massive controversy receives disproportionately little coverage. Despite wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, everyone in the U.S. government gets off scot-free. . .

Continue reading.

It is increasingly difficult to see how the US can get back on track. Too many different forces have motivation to stay the current course, which leads directly over a cliff.

The Daily 202: The Afghanistan Papers show the corrosive consequences of letting corruption go unchecked

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A lesson the US should heed for itself. James Hohmann writes in the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: A toxic mix of U.S. government policies, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directly contributed to Afghanistan’s descent into one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

U.S. leaders said publicly that they had no tolerance for corruption in Afghanistan, but that was one of several topics related to the war effort on which they systematically misled the public, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

American representatives often looked the other way at egregious and brazen graft, so long as the offenders were considered allies. Congress appropriated vast sums of money, which was handed out with little oversight or recordkeeping. The ensuing greed and corruption undermined the legitimacy of the nascent government and helped make the ground more fertile for the Taliban’s resurgence.

“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution. But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor.

The adage is as true in Afghanistan as America: Follow the money.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it. … The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly…”

Crocker told interviewers from the government that he felt “a sense of futility”: “I was struck by something [then-president Hamid] Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue,” he explained. “I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. … You just can’t.”

— The comments from Crocker and Rubin are included among more than 2,000 pages of previously private notes from research conducted by U.S. government investigators. More than 400 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals to diplomats and aid workers, were questioned about what went wrong. The interviews were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction between 2014 and 2018 for a “Lessons Learned” project. A report outlined the conclusions in broad brushstrokes in 2016, but a lot of the most noteworthy material was held back. The Post has fought a three-year legal battle, which is ongoing, to get these documents out under the Freedom of Information Act so that the American people can see for themselves what’s been going on.

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged in an interview with Craig Whitlock that the records show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Whitlock has written a six-part series dissecting all the documents. (You can start with Part One here.)

— A key theme underlying many of the most candid interviews is that a short-term focus on maintaining security led to compromises that started small but became bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale that can be cross-applied to a host of other challenges facing the United States.

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, analyzed 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion. He said they calculated that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials. But former government ministers told them it was higher. Berthold said few U.S. officials wanted to hear about the evidence they uncovered: “No one wanted accountability,” he said. “If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”

Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said the Afghan government led by Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” the colonel told his government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

— A lot of important information is still being concealed by the government. While the agency has turned over previously unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of more than 600 interviews that were conducted, these documents identify only 62 of the people who were interviewed by their names. The names of 366 others are blacked out. A decision by a federal judge is pending in response to a motion to disclose the other names. But The Post chose to publish what it has now, instead of waiting for the judge to rule on the rest, because these records could contribute to the civic discourse over President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and the debate over whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan, which has become a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign.

The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview as part of the project. (Their responses are compiled here.)

— Here are five of the most striking quotes about corruption from people whose identities are still redacted in the interview summaries:

1. An unnamed senior U.S. diplomat said the early years were “a dark space” with “not much documentation” about who we were giving cash. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” this diplomat lamented during an interview in August 2015. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”

2. From another unnamed senior U.S. official: “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue.”

3. From a former National Security Council staffer: “In the beginning, the military kept saying that corruption was an unfortunate short-term side effect then toward the end the feeling was ‘Oh, my God, this could derail the whole thing.’”

4. An unnamed State Department official said that U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.” This person said that the Americans “had no red lines” for cutting off corrupt partners. “We didn’t spend the money effectively and didn’t consider the implications,” this person told government interviewers. “We wanted to keep the country afloat, not to let the country be a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

5. An unidentified government contractor said his job was to distribute $3 million in taxpayer money each day for projects in an Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He recalled asking a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”

— So often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chapter four of Whitlock’s six-part series is a narrative, as told through these interviews, of how Afghanistan became consumed by corruption: “About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become. Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. … Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’ … According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. …

In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. ‘The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,’ the unnamed official told government interviewers. By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway … ‘People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said ‘ok now I need to go,’’ the U.S. official said. ‘So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.’”

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. … Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls. Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast. The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway. In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. …

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.”

It got worse in 2010: “Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country’s entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings. Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country’s first vice president. ‘On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here,’ an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. ‘It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country.’ …

“At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. … For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011. … Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone. They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.” . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 1:07 pm

At War With the Truth in Afghanistan

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Craig Whitlock has a special report in the Washington Post:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The US has been betrayed by its leaders.

The sidebar has useful links:

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: At war with the truth

INTERVIEWS AND MEMOS – Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history

POST REPORTS – Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn<

THE FIGHT FOR THE DOCUMENTS – It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records

PART 1 – U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.

PART 2 – Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.

PART 3 – Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that

PART 4 – The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled

PART 5 – Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

PART 6 – The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn

Interviewees respond

Share your story about the war

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:53 pm

Is Facebook Mark Zuckerberg’s Revenge for the Iraq War?

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Peter Canellos offers an interesting perspective in Politico, and I can agree that when the George W. Bush administration was pushing the US to invade Iraq — a totally discretionary move, since Iraq posed no danger whatsoever to the US (unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, the home of 19 of the 9/11 terrorists) — the mainstream media at that time seemed to go right along, downplaying any reports that undermined the push to war. (Not all of the mainstream media: the Atlantic published several lengthy articles that made a cogent argument against the attack and invasion, including a piece by James Fallows titled, as I recall, “Iraq: The 51st State.”)

Canellos writes:

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent media blitz included a lot of scripted lines that belie his intentions—such as his assertion during a cozy chat with News Corp CEO Robert Thomson that journalism is crucial for democracy—and one that rings strikingly, resoundingly true: His claim at an October 17 speech at Georgetown University that his views on free expression were shaped by his collegiate frustrations over the failure of the mainstream media to expose the weaknesses of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq.

The comment passed with relatively little notice, except among skeptics who saw it as a self-serving, ex-post-facto justification for Facebook’s reluctance to impose constraints on its users’ political assertions. But it was a rare personal admission from one of the least-known and most privacy-obsessed of moguls, and offered an organic, true-to-his-experiences explanation for his decisions at Facebook, many of which have proved to be ruinous for the mainstream media. It turns out it wasn’t just the profit motive that drove Facebook to become the prime source of information around the world; Zuckerberg wished to supplant the mainstream media out of something closer to real animus.

“When I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq,” he explained. “The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives. The toll on our soldiers, families and our national psyche was severe, and most of us felt powerless to stop it. I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.”

This is the closest Zuckerberg has ever come to acknowledging a formative event, an aha moment, that shapes his perceptions of the relative merits of the mainstream media and social media. And it feels authentic to the moment; by late 2003, when the 19-year-old computer whiz was pondering the world from a Cambridge dorm room, it had started to dawn on the country that many of the justifications for the Iraq war were faulty—especially the reports of weapons of mass destruction. Young people rightly extended their anger from the Bush administration to the mainstream media that had failed to alert the country to the flimsiness of the government’s case.

If there was any doubt that those resentments linger, Zuckerberg laced his speech with encomiums to the fresh, clean air of direct democracy and backhanded swipes at the mildewed professional media. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world—a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he declared. “People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.”

He defended political ads on Facebook as a voice for the voiceless, saying he considered banning them but reversed himself because “political ads are an important part of the voice—especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

The specter of a 35-year-old mogul making off-the-cuff decisions about how much speech (or “voice”) is healthy for society engenders a queasy feeling. It suggests that Elizabeth Warren and others may be right that too much monopolistic power exists on one platform— especially one that coyly presents itself as an innocent conduit for information while blithely acknowledging its governing power over constitutional liberties. But pending future action, such power is indeed vested in the character and values of Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg’s criticism of mainstream media might be honestly earned. Like Vietnam before it, the debate over the Iraq war dominates the political attitudes of a big slice of the generation that grew up around it. But it also represents only one window on the much larger, and more complicated, question of how best to provide a check and balance to the power of government, and to properly inform the populace. Zuckerberg may have come to his views sincerely, through his own impressions. Like other youthful conversions, they may be very hard to shake. But they aren’t remotely the last word on the question.

For while Zuckerberg may be open about his intentions, he can seem almost willfully blind to their consequences. In his speech, he tries to capture the long arc of American history, veering from the civil rights movement to the repression of socialists during World War I to the era of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. He quotes Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. But he never mentions the words “conspiracy theory” or “Donald Trump.”

That left a ghost in the lecture hall at Georgetown, shadowing all of Zuckerberg’s pronouncements and justifications: the abject failure of his chosen mode of communication in the 2016 election, a lapse that threatens to recur if not corrected and that carries more enduring consequences for America than the sins of the mainstream media in the early 2000s.

***

Back when a handful of major news outlets held outsized influence over the national political dialogue, it was common to rail against these unelected gatekeepers. By habitually returning to the mean, insisting on reporting whose candidacy seemed most viable and whose views comported with Main Street assumptions, those media arbiters perpetuated a bland centrism, or so the theory went. They chopped the ends off of the political spectrum, left and right. People who challenged the system had to struggle to be taken seriously.

This critique found a persuasive advocate in the late Ross Perot, who happened to be both a fan of conspiracy theories (particularly regarding POWs) and the CEO of a data firm. Almost three decades ago, when the only web on anyone’s mind was Charlotte’s, Perot envisioned a running national plebiscite, in which average citizens voted like senators. They would simply plug their choices into their home computers, thereby diminishing the importance of Congress and the media’s control of the national debate surrounding its actions.

Perot’s vision of a daily Brexit has yet to come to pass, but his desire to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2019 at 6:15 pm

How Joe Biden Empowered China’s Censorship of the NBA

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Over the weekend, the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet favorable to Hong Kong protesters, a tweet that said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Twitter is banned in China, and the tweet would have ordinarily been ignored. But Chinese politics is changing; Xi Jinping, having consolidated power using nationalistic rhetoric, has unleashed Cultural Revolution-style pressure inside Chinese bureaucracies. Any bureaucrat who doesn’t ramp up volume aggressively against even a perceived slight to Chinese honor could be undermined or even imprisoned.

There are many examples of this hyper-nationalism; earlier this year, the Chinese government denied visas to German lawmakers who criticized the country’s human rights record. In this case, the offending party was just a basketball team executive. Yet, the CCP can apparently brook no resistance, anywhere.

China’s state-owned top broadcaster said it would stop showing team events, and Chinese tech giant Tencent announced it would no longer live-stream games or carry team news. China’s consulate general in Houston said the team should clarify its views, and the Chinese Basketball Association, led by former NBA player Yao Ming, cut all ties with the Rockets.

The National Basketball League Kowtows

The Rockets are a popular team in China, and China is an important market for the NBA. It would be hard to convey the level of sycophancy to the Chinese that business leaders in America immediately adopted. Morey deleted his tweet and apologized, top NBA player and Adidas spokesperson James Harden said sorry to the Chinese, and the NBA issued two statements, a mild one in English and a harsh condemnation of Morey in Chinese. The billionaire owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, criticized his own employee.

Most amusingly, the billionaire owner of the Nets, Chinese tech giant Alibaba co-founder and prominent Yale Law donor Joseph Tsai, wrote an essay condemning Morey’s comments, bringing up 19th century Opium Wars as one rationale for why all 1.4 billion people were immediately offended at the comments of someone posting on a platform banned in China.

Why does China have so much leverage?

The Chinese market is massive, both as an importer and exporter. We can see it use its power to attempt to bully U.S. politicians over agricultural products in hopes of gaining leverage in the trade war. This NBA situation is no different.

Among the nearly 1.4 billion people who call China home, 640 million of them watched some kind of NBA programming over the course of the 2017-2018 season, per league figures. That’s nearly twice the population of the entire United States.

“When global partners are looking at the NBA, I think for them the two big markets are really the U.S. and China,” Chang said. “And in some respects for some of these guys, they start to look at China as almost a bigger opportunity going forward.”

The National Basketball Association, like most American producers of goods and services, sees the potential for eye-popping profits in China. Of course, it’s a trade-off that comes with steep costs, like censorship. And it will ultimately collapse because the CCP is not interested in trade, it is interested in dominance.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese have used a simple set of strategies to take over industrial capacity. First, use imports and foreign financing/know-how to learn the business, then gradually replace foreign businesses with domestic ones, and finally subsidize the Chinese producers abroad until they dominate the global market. The Chinese have done this across many different sectors, most prominently the telecommunications equipment space, with Huawei causing a global national security crisis as it is now the best value for telecom equipment buyers in the world.

It’s not obvious how the Chinese could learn how to replace the NBA or international soccer, which is also quite popular in China. China is investing in youth sports, but my guess is that it won’t replace foreign sports starts with its own stars, because there’s no real strategic need to do so. The CCP will simply impose conditions on global sports, ensuring that, like with Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, sports becomes a zone where politics are not allowed. It is increasingly doing that in Hollywood, as the U.S. government noted in 2015.

A lot of people are saying that the NBA is greedy, willing to sacrifice human rights for profits. And in some sense, that is true. But what just happened to the NBA is a result of signals the U.S. government has been sending to the American business community for years, that commercial relationships with autocracies – however compromised they may appear – ultimately help lead to democracy.

Bill Clinton pioneered this policy framework. The idea was called ‘engagement’ with China, and many Western China watchers, in an orientalist fantasy world, sought to ‘shape’ China as a great power compatible with the liberal international order. As I wrote in June, this policy was part of a “a global utopian view, peddled most aggressively by Thomas Friedman in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree and his 2005 The World is Flat…. China would become a democratic state, slowly, because its people wanted McDonald’s and X-Boxes, and McDonald’s and X-Boxes turned countries democratic.” Clinton’s policies sent large chunks of the U.S. industrial base and American factories to China. Under Clinton, U.S. businesses exported capital and technology and even armed the Chinese state, accidentally transferring missile machining tools to the Chinese military.

George Bush and Barack Obama continued this policy architecture. Bush oversaw the main years of the ‘China shock’, when Wall Street, private equity, and China cooperated to rip the economic guts out of the midwest. During the Obama administration, despite some rhetoric of a ‘pivot to Asia’ to deal with China, this policy architecture largely dominated D.C. One very clear example is that of how Joe Biden sought to sell American entertainment product while Vice President.

Joe Biden’s China Deal

In 2012, Hollywood studios were increasingly frustrated at their inability to get into the Chinese market. China had maintained a system whereby American studios could sell only 20 films a year into their fast growing theater chains, and often wouldn’t make decisions until after the movies were made. This created a situation where studios would preemptively censor their own creative work in the hopes that their films would be imported by China.

The Obama administration, pursuing the strategy of engagement, or deepening trade ties, sought to loosen this restriction. And they sent Joe Biden to cut the deal, as Cecilia Kang reported.

During a luncheon [in 2012] in Los Angeles, Vice President Biden convinced China’s vice president to agree to a deal that would unlock new fortunes for Hollywood. Biden asked Xi Jinping to relax China’s quota of allowing only 20 foreign films to be shown at a time and to increase distribution fees for Hollywood firms.

China had been reluctant to change its decades-old restrictions meant to control the flow of non-Chinese films into the nation that could hinder its own arts industry. But Biden pressed his Chinese counterpart during those last hours of Xi’s five-day U.S. visit.

“By the end of the luncheon, we had a handshake,” Biden said Friday at the Creativity Conference hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft and ABC News. As a result, “your share of box office revenues doubled,” Biden told the crowd of network executives, studio heads and technology lobbyists.

Part of this deal was straightforward aid to a U.S. industry, Biden doing the bidding of former Senator Chris Dodd, who had since become the head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Biden joked there were rumors in the Senate that Dodd “controlled me,” adding that he left a meeting with Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to speak at the MPAA event.

But this deal also signaled to American entertainment executives, including those at the NBA, that U.S. government policy was to encourage more trade with China, no matter what. If they sought to sell their product in China, the U.S. would back them with geopolitical muscle. What Biden and the United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk didn’t consider was the leverage over studio output that that increased dependency on the Chinese market gave to the Chinese government.

Such leverage has already been an important part of China’s exporting power. For decades, . . .

Continue reading.

He also mentions his

. . . upcoming book, Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. A few years ago, I feel like I lucked into a learning about the secret history of political economy and power in the 20th century. The book, and this newsletter, are the result. If you pre-order it, the book gets on various lists and gets more promotion from fancy people, which then leads to more exposure, and more lists and promotion, etc. That means that the ideas you and I care about – democracy in commerce – get to a wider audience.

It’s already causing trouble. So far, Ed Luce at the Financial Times attacked my arguments about fascist Chinese power, and Farhad Manjoo in the NYT used the book to recast the Obama era in a way that generated bitter pushback from senior Obama officials. This is the debate we need to have as a society. So pre-order it! If you like this newsletter, you will love Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 6:12 pm

The Opioid Crisis Is About More Than Corporate Greed

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Zachary Siegel reports in the New Republic:

“Just like Doritos keep eating. We’ll make more.”

“It’s like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are…”

These lines are from emails sent between opioid manufacturers and distributors, recently pried loose by attorneys general suing Big Pharma for its role in fueling a massive wave of overdose deaths. Similar to the damning internal memos revealing that Big Tobacco knew that cigarettes indeed caused cancer, these emails appear to show that Big Pharma knew that a significant share of their product was landing in the street, feeding addiction. And yet they kept shipping out obscene quantities to rural towns across America, creating even more demand.

Nearly every step of the pharmaceutical supply chain is implicated in the soaring death rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription opioids killed 218,000 people from 1999 to 2017. Many of the companies—from Johnson & Johnson to obscure distributors like Cardinal Health—are listed as defendants in hundreds of lawsuits filed by nearly every state in the country. The government thinks these corporations should pay up and treat the addiction their products caused. But the companies claim to have been acting legally and in compliance with federal regulators like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Was it all, technically, legal?

What the opioid crisis illustrates is not that there are a few bad apples in the pharmaceutical industry, but that the country’s entire health care system is driven by profit at the expense of public health and safety. Drug manufacturers, pharmacy chains, drug distributors, and insurance companies got rich while people, especially people lower down the income ladder, suffered—and the DEA, through neglect or incompetence or a mix of both, watched it all happen.


While there are significant similarities between Big Pharma and Big Tobacco, there is also a key difference that makes today’s story of corporate malfeasance even worse: namely, that the supply chain for tobacco is much simpler than opioids, which are, theoretically, tightly controlled substances that pass through a dizzying array of actors and regulators.

First, a doctor must write a prescription, which must be filled at a pharmacy, and is likely paid for by an insurance company. Depending on the needs of their customers, pharmacies place orders for these drugs (customers, it turns out, need a lot of them). Shipping companies then go between the pharmacy and the drug manufacturers. Overseeing this entire system is the DEA, which sets the quota for how many opioids a company is allowed to manufacture, and tracks where those pills go.

While politicians are making hay out of Big Pharma’s wanton greed and recklessness, far less attention has been paid to the DEA. Attorneys general suing Big Pharma recently unearthed a database that both the corporations and the government—each for their own self-interested reasons—fought to keep sealed, called the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS). Mammoth in size and granular in detail, ARCOS tracks the shipments of every single controlled substance, from the company that manufactured it, to the company that shipped it, to the pharmacy that received it. It is the world atlas for how the opioid crisis began.

All told, from 2006 to 2012, roughly 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills criss-crossed America, according to a Washington Post analysis. While many of these pills went to legitimate patients, millions more were showered on troubled communities with a voracious thirst for pain relief. While drug manufacturers produced more and more opioids (approved by the DEA), and distributors shipped those pills to pharmacies all over the country (tracked by the DEA), drug companies saw record profits—and America’s overdose death rate soared off the charts.

“I think this [database] brings home what we all knew,” says Corey Davis, an attorney and public health expert at the Network for Public Health Law. “This wasn’t just incompetence on the part of the DEA and the Department of Justice, it was knowing and intentional failure to do what most people think is their jobs.”

What is the DEA’s job, exactly? Its first task, and the one most associated with the agency, is the Sicario-esque disruption of illicit flows of drugs coming into the U.S. from abroad, like intercepting speedboats filled with cocaine. Its other major responsibility is controlling licit pharmaceuticals. “The whole goal of the prescription system is to make sure that patients are getting their medications, and that medications are not going to those who aren’t patients,” which is called “diversion,” says Bryce Pardo, a drug policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “That’s the whole point of the system, which was invented a hundred years ago. Clearly, the system broke. The system failed.”

Pardo points out, in the DEA’s defense, the story of a so-called DEA whistle-blower blaming a pharma-backed piece of legislation passed by Congress in 2016, which prevented agents from stopping suspicious shipments of opioids, and stunted investigations into the very corporations that are now being villainized and sued. Just as DEA agents were working their way up the pharmaceutical supply chain, much as they would in a case against any transnational crime organization, Congress hamstrung their enforcement efforts.

Or so the story goes—but that’s not the whole of it. “These companies, often times acting legally, were asking for preclearance from the DEA to go about their business,” says Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University (where I’m currently a journalism fellow). “Now, the DEA is saying their hands were tied when, in fact, their hands were not tied. They were completely asleep at the wheel. And by the time the DEA began constricting the [prescription] supply and targeting certain doctors and distributors, it was too late.”


In drug policy scholarship, there is a concept called the “balloon hypothesis.” When one end of a balloon gets squeezed, the air inside, rather than disappearing, rushes to fill the other end of the balloon. The balloon hypothesis is used to describe, often critically, America’s drug enforcement strategy. If cocaine production in Colombia is stamped out, production will shift to, say, Peru. If the Dark Web’s Silk Road gets shut down, a new Dark Web market pops up. The air has to go somewhere.

The balloon hypothesis also applies to the ever-shifting demand for drugs. “Over a period of 20 years, the DEA provided the green light to a 39-fold increase in the oxycodone quota and a 12-fold increase in the hydrocodone quota, even as our opioid epidemic unfolded,” Senator Dick Durbin wrote in a letter to the editor to The Washington Post. 

In other words, the prescription balloon expanded, under the DEA’s watch, big time. But starting in 2011, the prescription market finally began to shrink after Purdue Pharma reformulated its blockbuster drug OxyContin with so-called abuse deterrent technology, and pill mills serving the black market were shut down. The supply was squeezed. The air still had to go somewhere, and it rushed to deadlier opioids like heroin spiked with illicit fentanyl. With enforcement focused on prescription opioids, the overdose crisis got worse.

Dan Ciccarone, a physician-researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who studies heroin use, says the crisis unfolded in three waves:  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some pertinent observations on reducing demand (which ultimately is the only solution).

Facebook and agnotology

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From Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter this morning:

Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, says with great clarity what so many now believe: Facebook should be broken up.

Facebook’s dominance is not an accident of history. The company’s strategy was to beat every competitor in plain view, and regulators and the government tacitly — and at times explicitly — approved.

I don’t blame Mark for his quest for domination. He has demonstrated nothing more nefarious than the virtuous hustle of a talented entrepreneur. Yet he has created a leviathan that crowds out entrepreneurship and restricts consumer choice. It’s on our government to ensure that we never lose the magic of the invisible hand. How did we allow this to happen?

This is more than simply restricting consumer choice. Facebook’s quest for growth has also spread Zuckerberg’s dorm room cultural values across the globe. It has become an interface between people as citizens (not merely as “consumers”) and the resources they need to access. Facebook has also been instrumental in the growth of agnotology as a business and societal disease.

🕳️ danah boyd on how social media fosters agnotology, the ‘strategic and purposeful production of ignorance’ and is a ‘tool of oppression by the powerful.

What’s at stake right now is not simply about hate speech vs. free speech or the role of state-sponsored bots in political activity. It’s much more basic. It’s about purposefully and intentionally seeding doubt to fragment society. To fragment epistemologies. This is a tactic that was well-honed by propagandists.

One nuance I would add is that while actors within these platforms may act to purposefully spread ignorance, I think the platforms themselves have apathetic positions on epistemologies. Rather this emerges as a result of chasing engagement and the ad-supported business model. (We first covered agnotology in EV#24.)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 May 2019 at 6:14 am

Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

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Ben Taub writes in the New Yorker:

The Guard

In 2004, Steve Wood was deployed to Guantánamo Bay, as a member of the Oregon National Guard. He and his comrades were told that many of the detainees were responsible for 9/11 and, given the opportunity, would strike again. “I just remember being super excited, because I thought, I’m going to be doing something important,” Wood told me. For two weeks, he worked as a guard in the cellblocks, monitoring men who had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Then a sergeant major pulled him aside for a brief interview, and assigned him to work the night shift in Echo Special, a secret, single-occupancy unit that had been built to house the United States military’s highest-value detainee. The International Committee of the Red Cross—which has access to many of the world’s most notorious detention sites, some of them in countries where there is no rule of law—had recently sent representatives to Guantánamo, but the base commander, citing “military necessity,” had refused to allow them into Echo Special. The man confined there was referred to by his detainee number, 760. When Wood tried to search for 760 in Guantánamo’s detainee database, he found nothing.

Wood was the second of three boys. His father died in a plane crash when he was three years old, and his mother brought him and his brothers up in Molalla, Oregon, a lumber town about an hour south of Portland. His mother dated a string of alcoholics and addicts, and took the children to an evangelical church on Sundays; Pat Robertson’s sermons blasted from the living-room TV. In 1999, shortly after graduating from high school, Wood started a job at the local sawmill. Several of his co-workers were missing fingers, and the manager took every opportunity to denigrate the staff. After a few months, he signed up for the Oregon National Guard, on the military-police track. He sought structure and discipline—a life of pride, purpose, and clarity of mission.

After 9/11, patriotism eclipsed restlessness as Wood’s primary motivation to serve. He had spent the morning of the worst terrorist attack in American history lying on his mother’s couch, high on painkillers after a tonsillectomy, but when he emerged from the haze he was angry, focussed, and longing for deployment. He didn’t harbor any particular animosity toward Muslims, but he had absorbed his mother’s belief: “If it’s not from Jesus then it must be from the Devil.” After completing the requirements to become an M.P., Wood enrolled in a criminal-justice program at a nearby community college. He recalled his political views as being “whatever Fox News told us.” He didn’t know the difference between a Hindu, a Sikh, and a Muslim—he had never met one.

Before his first shift in Echo Special, Wood was told to place a strip of electrical tape over the name on his uniform, and to use only nicknames inside the cell, so that if 760 were to somehow sneak a message out of the camp he couldn’t issue fatwas against his guards or their families. “Never turn your back,” the sergeant major warned him. Wood, who was twenty-three, had recently learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. He wouldn’t take any chances. “You trust the handcuffs and everything, but, no matter what, we’d never be with him one on one—there would always be a partner,” Wood told me. Until recently, the guards and the interrogators had worn Halloween masks inside the cell. Wood walked through the camp to Echo Special proud to be part of a serious national-security operation. He thought, It must be somebody really important—the most dangerous person in the world, perhaps—to have this special attention, a guard force just for him.

Echo Special was a trailer that had been divided in two. Wood walked into the main area, which housed the guards; through a door was the prisoner’s sleeping space. A government report describes the facility as having been “modified in such a way as to reduce as much outside stimuli as possible,” with doors that had been “sealed to a point that allows no light to enter the room.” Inside, the walls were “covered with white paint or paper to further eliminate objects the detainee may concentrate on.” There was an eyebolt for shackling him to the floor, and speakers for bombarding him with sound.

An M.P. explained to Wood that the current guard force called Detainee 760 “Pillow,” because when they had arrived, several months earlier, a pillow was the only object in his possession. Then one of them shouted, “Pillow, you can come out now!” A short man in his mid-thirties stepped into the guards’ area, unshackled. He wore a broad smile and a white jumpsuit, and moved cautiously toward Wood. The detainee introduced himself as Mohamedou Salahi, then reached for a handshake, and said, “What’s up, dude?”

Wood is six feet three, with a shaved head, a shy, stoic manner, and the musculature of an élite bodybuilder. Although he towered over Salahi, he hesitated before taking his hand, and when he did he noted how delicate Salahi was. “Nice to meet you,” Wood said. But he thought, What the fuck is this? This is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

The fragmented image of Mohamedou Salahi that United States military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agencies assembled in a classified dossier was that of a “highly intelligent” Mauritanian electrical engineer, who, “as a key al-Qaida member,” had played a role in several mass-casualty plots. Other men carried box cutters and explosives; Salahi was a ghost on the periphery. The evidence against him lacked depth, but investigators considered its breadth conclusive. His proximity to so many events and high-level jihadi figures could not be explained by coincidence, they thought, and only a logistical mastermind could have left so faint a trail.

The U.S. government gathered that in 1991, when Salahi was twenty, he swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and the following year he learned to handle weapons at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Later, Salahi moved to Germany, where, the Americans assessed, “his primary responsibility was to recruit for al-Qaida in Europe.” Among his alleged recruits were three of the 9/11 hijackers, all of whom served as pilots on separate planes. A fourth was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the attack coördinator; while in C.I.A. custody, bin al-Shibh named Salahi as the man who had arranged his travel to Afghanistan and his introduction to bin Laden.

In 1998, shortly after Al Qaeda detonated truck bombs outside the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Salahi took a call from a phone number belonging to bin Laden. Then, and on at least one other occasion, a member of Al Qaeda’s Shura Council—its leadership—wired some four thousand dollars to Salahi’s bank account in Germany; Salahi withdrew the cash and handed it to men who were travelling to West Africa, to facilitate what the Americans assessed to be money-laundering and telecommunications “projects for al-Qaida.”

In 1999, the Shura member called Salahi, but U.S. intelligence didn’t know what his instructions were. In November of that year, Salahi moved to Montreal, where he began leading prayers at a prominent mosque. Soon afterward, a jihadi who had attended the same mosque—and who the Americans believed had met Salahi—attempted to smuggle explosives in the trunk of a car across the U.S. border; his plan was to detonate suitcases inside Los Angeles International Airport, in what became known as the Millennium Plot. Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service began a surveillance operation focussing on Salahi and his associates, but Salahi noticed two pinhole cameras poking through his apartment walls and left the country. The U.S. government concluded that he was “the leader of the Montreal-based al-Qaida cell.”

In Guantánamo, Salahi admitted to this and other allegations. “I came to Canada with a plan to blow up the CN Tower in Toronto,” Salahi wrote, in one of his many confessions. He listed his accomplices and added, “thanks to Canadian Intel, the plan was discovered and sentenced to failure.” After years of holding out in interrogations, he had become what the classified dossier described as a “highly cooperative” font of intelligence—“one of the most valuable sources in detention.” He described Al Qaeda’s financial involvement in credit-card fraud and drug smuggling, and also the group’s “investment in unwitting companies in Bosnia, Canada, Chechnya, Denmark, England, Germany, Mauritania, and Spain.” He drew organizational charts, with the names and operational roles of key figures, and supplied intelligence on jihadi cells and safe houses all over Europe and West Africa. Owing to his expertise as an electrical engineer, the dossier concludes, Salahi was also able to describe Al Qaeda’s elaborate communications systems, “including radio relay, couriers, encryption, phone boutiques, and satellite communication links to laptops.” But the U.S. government was sure there was more to be gleaned from him; the dossier says that he “still has useful information” on a variety of subjects, including the 9/11 attacks, and lists twenty-two additional “areas of potential exploitation.” Military officials considered him “the poster child for the intelligence effort at Guantánamo.”

As a result of Salahi’s coöperation, his private cell was now stocked with what the government referred to as “comfort items.” After the pillow came soap, towels, a prayer cap, and prayer beads—by the time Steve Wood arrived, Salahi also had books, a television, a PlayStation, and an old laptop, on which he killed time playing chess and watching DVDs. Eventually, Salahi would be allowed access to a small patch of soil outside his trailer, where he tended sunflowers, basil, sage, parsley, and cilantro. “What I was told was that his information had saved thousands of American lives,” Wood said, “and this is what they’d given him to keep talking.”

Salahi was taken into custody when he was thirty years old, but he had already lived on four continents, and spoke fluent Arabic, French, and German. English was his fourth language. Since he had learned it in captivity, some of his earliest phrases were “I ain’t done nothing,” “cavity search,” “fuck this,” and “fuck that.” “My problem is that I had been picking the language from the ‘wrong’ people—namely, U.S. Forces recruits who speak grammatically incorrectly,” he wrote on a scrap of paper inside his cell. “English accepts more curses than any other language, and I soon learned to curse with the commoners.”

As a matter of professionalism, Wood resolved from the outset to bury in the back of his mind what he had heard of Salahi’s past. “It’s hard to sit there and laugh and chat with the guy, if he’s actually that bad,” Wood told me. The night shift was twelve hours, and he never saw Salahi shackled or restrained. Other Guantánamo prisoners threw punches and feces and urine, but, according to the classified dossier, Salahi’s only disciplinary infraction was that, on May 11, 2003, he “possessed an excessive amount of MRE food.”

Salahi often appeared sullen and withdrawn. But, when he wanted to engage, he spoke with a worldly, provocative humor that Wood found appealing. He liked to rile his guards into debating equality, race, and religion, and he wielded a sophisticated understanding of history and geopolitics to chip away at their beliefs. Before meeting Salahi, Wood had never heard of Mauritania; Salahi told him that, to his great embarrassment, slavery was still practiced there, even among people close to him. Salahi also pushed him to research Western foreign-policy blunders—for example, that in 1953 the American and the British intelligence services had orchestrated a coup in Iran, overthrowing a popular Prime Minister in order to prop up a tyrannical, pro-Western Shah. “Have you heard of Nelson Mandela?” Wood recalled Salahi saying. “Look him up, dude. Look up the prison on Robben Island. See if you think his captivity was just. See what it did to his family.”

A job posting depicts life as an intelligence officer in Guantánamo Bay as “a rewarding challenge with incredible surroundings”—sunsets, beaches, iguanas, pristine Caribbean blue. “After a hustled day of tackling a myriad of issues and directly contributing to the global war on terrorism,” it reads, “fun awaits.” Officers could partake in pottery classes, paintball, rugby, tennis, and softball, or exercise in several pools and gyms. The local dive shop offered gear and certifications for sailing, water-skiing, snorkelling, scuba diving, and more: “No experience, no problem. . . . Relaxing is easy.”

In practice, many military-police officers killed time by watching movies and getting drunk at the Tiki Bar; they also took flights to Afghanistan, to pick up more detainees. But Wood spent his days in the base library, researching topics that Salahi had brought up in the cell. He devoured volumes on history, foreign affairs, politics, civil rights—“pretty much any type of book you could think of, other than, like, romance novels,” he said. “I was educating myself on the world.” But, because Salahi’s trailer was a national secret, Wood kept a cordial distance from most of the other guards. “I’d come home and iron my uniform, and my roommates didn’t know a thing,” he said. “They’d ask me, ‘Who’s in there?,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, probably somebody famous.’ ”

In time, Wood began to think of everything he had known before meeting Salahi as a narrow-minded myth of American superiority, notable for its omissions of overseas misadventures. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s pretext for invading Iraq was collapsing, and so was Wood’s trust in government. It was the spring of 2004. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The “mission” had not been “accomplished.” When Wood watched the evening news, he saw photographs of American M.P.s torturing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. He began to wonder whether the case against Mohamedou Salahi was as flimsy and politically motivated as that for the invasion had been. “I was, like, What else have they lied about?” he said.

Salahi underwent daily interrogations. The sessions Wood witnessed were calm and courteous, with Salahi attempting to answer everything asked of him. “It was the pretty blond interrogator bringing in these disks with footage from Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps in Afghanistan,” Wood recalled. The videos had been pulled from jihadi Web sites, or captured by intelligence officers during raids, and Salahi’s role was to identify the people in them. But sometimes, after coöperating, “he’d get depressed and anxious, and say, ‘I’m a bad Muslim,’ ” Wood told me. “And I’d say, ‘No matter what you did in the past, man, you’ve saved thousands of lives.’ I’d always say that, and he’d just shake his head, like, ‘Bullshit.’ ”

One night, when Salahi was asleep, Wood heard sounds that reminded him of a child having a nightmare. He walked into the sleeping area and found Salahi lying in the fetal position, shaking. No adult in Wood’s life had ever looked so frightened and so vulnerable. He gently held Salahi’s shoulder, and said, “Everything’s O.K.” Salahi shook his head, and clicked his tongue in disagreement, but refused to speak. The next day, Wood pressed him to talk about the episode, but Salahi wouldn’t elaborate. He just said, “Dude, they fucked me up.”

The night terrors kept coming. Salahi was on a diet of Ensure nutrition shakes and antidepressants. One day, he complained to Wood that the interrogators were demanding information on events that he couldn’t possibly know about, because they had taken place while he was in custody.

Although Wood had introduced himself to Salahi as Stretch, his nickname from the sawmill, Salahi had quickly learned his real name, as well as those of the other guards. “The tape would fall off our uniforms,” Wood recalled. “We’d try to cover it back up, real quick, but eventually we were, like, fuck it. We knew he wasn’t a threat.” Where once he had struggled to forgive himself for enjoying Salahi’s company, he now felt bad about having to lock the door at the end of each shift. He walked into the morning sunlight in a daze, unable to reconcile his impression of the man in Echo Special with the depiction of the terrorist in the dossier. Had Wood remained as a regular guard, in one of the regular cellblocks, he might have finished his deployment with his understanding of the global war on terror more or less intact. Instead, he began to wonder whether what he was actually protecting at Guantánamo was one of the government’s darkest secrets: that its highest-value military detainee was being held essentially by mistake, and that his isolation in Echo Special was intended to cover up the hell that had been inflicted upon him.

One day, Salahi started requesting paper from his guards. As the result of a recent court ruling, Guantánamo detainees had access to legal representation, and so, during the next several months, Salahi drafted a diary of his detention as a series of harrowing letters to his lawyers, Nancy Hollander, Sylvia Royce, and Theresa Duncan—four hundred and sixty-six pages, sealed in envelopes and mailed to a classified facility near Washington, D.C. No guards or interrogators were allowed to read Salahi’s work. For the first time, he described his experiences without fear of retribution. On one page, he recalled the day he got his nickname, when an interrogator brought him a pillow. “I received the present with a fake overwhelming happiness, and not because I was dying to get a pillow,” he wrote. “No. I took the pillow as a sign of the end of the physical torture.”

The Detainee

Mohamedou Ould Salahi was born in late December, 1970, the ninth child of a Mauritanian camel herder and his wife. Like most countries in West Africa, Mauritania had gained independence from France a decade earlier. Few locals spoke French, but since the country had been arbitrarily drawn up as a vast, mostly desert territory, populated by numerous ethnic groups who spoke different languages, there was no alternative for official documentation. When a nurse, who spoke only Hassaniya Arabic, filled out Mohamedou’s birth certificate in the Latin alphabet, she omitted a syllable from his last name. Salahi became “Slahi.” So began a life in which governments treated Salahi in accordance with their own mistakes. . .

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There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 April 2019 at 12:55 pm

The Priest of Abu Ghraib

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The Smiethsonian has a long and thoughtful article that is very much worth reading. It’s by Jennifer Percy and it begins:

Joshua Casteel was 24 years old when he learned he would be sent to Iraq as an interrogator with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. This was his first deployment. It was June 2004, and the war in Iraq had been going on for a little more than a year. Casteel packed a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and didn’t stop reading until he saw the lights of Baghdad in the desert below. From Ali Al Salem Air Base, outside Kuwait City, he took a military bus overnight to Baghdad International Airport. Out his window he saw oil fires, roadside weddings, sand that went on forever.

The next day, he suited up in body armor, strapped on his M-16, and took a heavily armored three-vehicle convoy 20 miles outside Baghdad to Abu Ghraib prison. On the way, he was thinking about Pope John Paul II, who wrote about suffering, human dignity and the nature of personhood and its relationship to the divine. Then the commander asked about newcomers: “Who has never done this before?” Casteel raised his hand. The commander explained that they didn’t fire warning shots. “If you move your selector level from ‘safe’ to ‘semi’ automatic, you shoot to kill,” he said.

Casteel stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds. He was a blond, blue-eyed evangelical Christian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The deployment came six weeks after the revelation of prisoner torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. An Army intelligence officer and a patriot who’d long dreamed of serving his country in uniform, Casteel also had doubts about the morality of the so-called war on terror. Two weeks before he got his assignment letter from the Army, he was accepted to seminary school. He chose Iraq.

His mother, Kristi Casteel, could never picture her son as an interrogator. “He just wasn’t cruel to anyone,” she told me. She worried the job would change him. Casteel tried to rationalize. “Better that they have someone like me in the interrogation room,” he told her, “than someone who doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions, or just wants to drop bombs.”

Abu Ghraib was already a prison before the Americans arrived, where Saddam Hussein incarcerated, tortured and executed Iraqi dissidents. When Saddam’s regime collapsed, the Americans took the place over and replaced Saddam’s portrait with a banner that read “America is the friend of all Iraqi people.” There was hardly any vegetation, just expanses of dirt and mud between buildings. “At the prison’s edge is a teetering skyline—minaret, palm trees, the mosaic dome of a mosque, rooftops,” Casteel wrote home to his parents. “At sunset I can hear the calls to prayer from the south and from the east. At times it may even appear as if in a round, like choirs of a cathedral, one folded atop the other. But always a few hours after the sun has fallen there is the intermittent echo of small-arms fire, the howling of dogs.” The complex, which now also housed a U.S. military base, had a chapel, a couple of cafeterias, an entertainment shed. When Casteel got to his sleeping quarters, everything was covered in ash. Outside, he saw a plume of smoke from a giant trash pile. The pit burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes the smoke blew right through Casteel’s sleeping quarters.

Casteel was told that the military’s top priority, above even the search for Osama bin Laden, was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and nicknamed the “Sheik of the Slaughterers.” Casteel’s job would be to interrogate prisoners to learn more about Zarqawi’s chief lieutenant, a man named Omar Hussein Hadid, whose army of insurgents had killed 95 Americans with rocket-propelled grenades and crude bombs during the Battle of Fallujah.

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

* * *

I met Casteel in 2009, when we were both graduate students in the writing program at the University of Iowa. We took a class together on the art of memoir, and on the side, Casteel told me, he took courses in philosophy and theology. I was surprised when I learned he had been an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison. He wasn’t like any soldier I had ever met. He loved to sing solos from Les Misérables and gave frequent sermons at local churches. I often saw him in a corduroy blazer, books piled under one arm.

A few years later, I contacted Casteel’s mother, Kristi, because I wished I had gotten to know him better. She invited me to her home in Cedar Rapids and gave me access to a Dropbox account containing Joshua’s many writings and files. The folders had titles like “Heidegger and the Mystery of Pain,” “Flesh and Finitude,” “Heidegger and Sartre on God and Bodies,” “Technologies of Humanness” and “The Rhetoric of Pain.”

Kristi said, “Joshua had a complexity about his life.”

There were folders for academic papers, diary entries, plays—Casteel got a dual master’s degree in playwriting and nonfiction writing—and many jotted-off musings. A small publisher, Essay Press, had put out a short book by Casteel in 2008 titled Letters from Abu Ghraib, composed of selected emails he wrote to friends and family during his six-month deployment. And there were a lot of unfinished projects, including a memoir called No Graven Images.

Peeking into Casteel’s files felt a little like having a conversation with him, even if it was one-sided. But there was so much I still wished to know. Casteel often made difficult and even contradictory choices, which to many people who knew him seemed incomprehensible. He was constantly trying to make sense of how his Christianity fit with the war and his time in Iraq. For him, questioning this paradox at the heart of his life was analogous to figuring out the mystery of Christ. “If Jesus is anything,” Casteel wrote in the introduction to his unfinished memoir, “he is incomprehensible. This is my story of wrestling with that incomprehensibility.”

* * *

Casteel was born into a family of evangelists and raised in Cedar Rapids. His father was an ordained minister with River of Life Ministries, and both of his parents worked as Christian marriage therapists. Joshua was the youngest child of three, and the only boy. For years Casteel soaked up the ecstasy of Pentecostalism, spoke in tongues, attended miracles. On Sundays, he listened to sermons, Scriptures, hymns, and learned about the fight between good and evil.

He was a kid driven by questions of meaning and significance. He lived with what people now like to call “intentionality.” He told his mother he wanted to give himself up to a higher cause—either his country, or God, or both. He even told his mother that his calling might include the ultimate sacrifice. He covered his bedroom walls with cutouts from Army brochures and Marine recruiters, the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, and a large wooden cross.

He attended his first presidential caucus events at age 7, and in high school became president of the local chapter of the Young Republicans. In his parents’ garage he would hold press conferences in a White House built from cardboard, wearing a suit and clip-on tie, his hair parted like Ronald Reagan’s. He got his first gun at 11, during the Gulf War—a 22-caliber rifle with a long-range scope. Rush Limbaugh was a constant presence. So was Billy Graham and Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition. “On the one hand,” Casteel wrote in his memoir, “the political banter of our ‘fundamentalist’ Christian household hovered around familiar conservative themes: family values, small government, private enterprise (Dad was an entrepreneur). But also always present was what Thomas Friedman refers to as the invisible fist behind the invisible hand in the economy: strong national defense.”

Casteel was consumed by feelings of loyalty to America and believed in America as a “Shining City on a Hill.” His father had been a captain in the Army, and his grandfather had fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At his grandfather’s funeral, Joshua placed an old West Point badge in his casket.

One summer, at Bible camp, when Casteel was 14 years old, a man named Steve, a self-declared prophet, had a revelation that Casteel was destined to be a powerful and historically significant man. When Steve was kicked out of the ministry for false prophecy, Casteel asked the camp pastor whether the prophecy was still worth anything. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” the pastor said. “God can speak through a false prophet.”

* * *

Kristi Casteel describes her son as a happy and affectionate child, obedient as they come. The two forged a close and trusting relationship right from the beginning. One day when Casteel was 3 years old she found him sobbing uncontrollably. He brought her outside. “It’s really bad,” he said. “A little worm is dead.” The worm had dried out in the sun. Casteel dug a tiny grave and buried it. “Jesus loves the little wormies,” he told his mother. “All the little wormies of the world.” As a teenager he made small but symbolic acts in the name of God. He torched his collection of unholy CDs. He anointed the high school doorways and baseball dugouts with oil from the Christian bookstore. He blew a shofar from centerfield.

His mother said he could sometimes get lonely, staying home on weekends rather than partying or socializing with other teenagers. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Some of his friends took to calling him “Mama’s Boy.” Other classmates thought he was gay because many of his friends were girls, because he acted in school plays and musicals, because he had a hormone imbalance called gynecomastia that gave him breasts. For years, until he had surgery, he was teased in the locker room, and refused to take off his shirt to swim or change backstage during school plays.

He and his mother talked about everything—faith, friendships, girls, dreams, disappointments, fears, philosophy, theology, art, literature, music. “We were very much alike in many ways, and just naturally connected on a deep level,” Kristi told me. Joshua was never as close to his father, Everett, who didn’t share his son’s temperament or interests. (In 2010, Everett Casteel died from complications related to a brain tumor.) With his mother, Joshua was always sweet. He gave her a tiny crystal swan, a ragged cotton bunny (she collected bunnies), a pink chiffon blouse, a large print of an angel that he thought looked like her, and a framed poem he wrote about her and the meaning of her name. Casteel was always praying to Mary, the mother of God. For Kristi, it made sense. “We identified with Mary and Jesus—it just seemed to naturally evolve,” she says. “People mentioned his likeness to Christ again and again.”

Kristi had always worried that God would take her son. She had gone into his bedroom at night when he was a few weeks old and heard God talking: Give him back to me. You need to let him go. She tried to make sense of it. She later thought of the story of Isaac, when Abraham raised a knife above his son’s head to prove his faith in God.

“Whenever that fear entered my mind,” she told me, “I reminded myself that all of our children are on loan to us, and I shouldn’t live in fear of something I couldn’t know would happen.”

* * *

Casteel never forgot Steve’s prophecy, and a month after he turned 17 he enlisted as an Army reservist in Iowa City under the delayed entry program, in part to help his chances of getting accepted to West Point. That summer, between junior and senior year of high school, . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2019 at 3:13 pm

Did CIA Director Gina Haspel run a black site at Guantánamo?

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I certainly would not be surprised. She seems totally comfortable with torturing suspects (aka extreme interrogation techniques). Carol Rosenberg reports for McClatchy:

An attorney for the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks told a judge in a secret session last year that CIA Director Gina Haspel ran a secret agency outpost at Guantánamo, an apparent reference to a post-9/11 black site, according to a recently declassified transcript.

The claim by Rita Radostitz, a lawyer for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, appears in one paragraph of a partially redacted transcript of a secret hearing held at Guantánamo on Nov. 16. Defense lawyers were arguing, in a motion that ultimately failed, that Haspel’s role at the prison precludes the possibility of a fair trial for the men accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks who were also held for years in covert CIA prisons.

Neither the public nor the accused was allowed to attend the hearing but, following an intelligence review, the Pentagon released portions of its transcript on a war court website.

Haspel reportedly ran a CIA black site in Thailand where two terror suspects were waterboarded, probably before her arrival there. The unverified statement that she had a similar assignment at the terror-detention center at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would reveal a never-before disclosed chapter of the spy chief’s clandestine career.

The CIA declined to comment on the claim.

But in the transcript of a discussion about CIA torture and restrictions on the lawyers for the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Radostitz notes that prosecutors claim they are “not trying to cover up the torture … But the one thing that they’re not willing to talk about is the names of the people involved in the torture.” Then, after a large censored section, she says, “it makes it impossible for people at Guantánamo, who may have seen her when she was here as chief of base, to identify her and talk about it.”

Chief of base is a CIA term for the officer in charge of a secret foreign outpost. A 2014 Senate study of the CIA’s network of secret overseas prisons, called black sites, said the CIA had two such secret prisons at Guantánamo in 2003 and 2004 — apart from the Pentagon’s Guantánamo prison known as Camp Delta. While the military prison commanders’ names were disclosed, those who served as CIA chief of base were not.

The CIA sent the alleged 9/11 conspirators and other “high-value detainees” to military detention at Guantánamo in September 2006 after the captives spent three or four years in secret spy agency custody. But at least one 9/11 defendant, Ramzi bin al Shibh, was earlier held at Guantánamo, according to the public portion of the 6,200-page Senate Intelligence Committee study of the CIA’s overseas prison program, known as the torture report.

It says the agency operated two black sites there — code named Maroon and Indigo — from September 2003 to April 2004 then spirited them away for fear their captives might be entitled to attorneys.

Former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou told McClatchy that he was offered theGuantánamo chief of base position in late 2002 or early 2003 — and declined. “Nobody wanted the job,” he said. So they resorted to sending people on temporary duty assignments ranging from six weeks to nine months, he said.

“If it was during one of those periods when they couldn’t find somebody to fill the billet it would’ve made sense that she would’ve been there a short period of time,” Kiriakou said, describing a Gitmo stint as essentially a ticket punch for some agents associated with the black site program. “So when I read it, although I was surprised by it, I kind of believed it.”

Former CIA analyst Gail Helt, now a professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at King University in Tennessee, said there’s been “a lot of shadiness” with the way the spy agency has spoken about Haspel’s agency career.

An official CIA timeline of Haspel’s 33-year career notes that the agency won’t disclose 30 short-term, temporary duty assignments she held over the course of her career, suggesting they were covert. “Was one of those at Guantánamo for a couple of months?,” said Helt. “I don’t have personal knowledge of that, and couldn’t discuss it if I did. But it doesn’t surprise me.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2019 at 6:54 pm

Lest we forget: “Vice” vs. the Real Dick Cheney

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Nicholas Lemann writes in the New Yorker:

Adam McKay, the director of “Vice,” has an exuberant and fantastic filmmaking style that inoculates him against the kind of indignant fact-checking to which Hollywood depictions of history are often subjected. Who wants to be an old grump and point out that, for example, there is no evidence that Dick Cheney, the movie’s antihero, suggested to the President that they head out to the White House lawn for a round of circle jerk, or that Dick and Lynne Cheney spoke to each other in bed in mock-Shakespearean pentameter? But “Vice” isn’t asking to be judged purely as a work of fiction, either; its implicit claim is that it plays around with the facts about Cheney in order to get closer to the truth.

By that standard, there’s no problem about the regular flights into speculation and satire, but there is one major false note in “Vice.” That’s when a young Cheney rather plaintively asks his mentor, the congressman turned White House aide Donald Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld bursts into uncontrollable laughter, turns away, and disappears into his office. Through the closed door we can still hear him cackling. Actually, it’s clear that Cheney, even that early, was a deeply committed and ideological conservative—one whose phlegmatic demeanor and eagerness to master the details of government masked who he really was for a very long time.

In the early nineteen-sixties, Cheney dropped out of Yale twice, but one professor there made a deep impression on him. That was H. Bradford Westerfield, a diplomatic historian who believed that it was possible that the United States would fall victim to a Communist takeover. “Ominously, the infectious defeatism drifts across the Atlantic and begins to insinuate itself into the mind of America,” he warned in his book “The Instruments of America’s Foreign Policy.” Another crucial experience for the Cheneys—both of whom were children of career federal civil servants—was their brief tour of duty in Madison, Wisconsin, at the height of the sixties, when they were enrolled in graduate school, at the University of Wisconsin.

Many years later, Lynne Cheney told me, “I distinctly remember going to class, and having to walk through people in whiteface, conducting guerrilla theatre, often swinging animal entrails over their heads, as part of a protest against Dow Chemical. And then the shocking thing was that you would enter the classroom and here would be all these nice young people who honestly wanted to learn to write an essay.” Dick Cheney, during an internship in Washington, D.C., took a delegation from Capitol Hill to a Students for a Democratic Society meeting in Madison, so that they could see the unvarnished face of student radicalism, and also to a faculty meeting, where he was struck by the professors’ lack of alarm over the left’s activities. Cheney and Rumsfeld’s first jobs in a Presidential Administration were at the Office of Economic Opportunity, during Richard Nixon’s first term—Rumsfeld was the director and Cheney was his deputy. This is presented in “Vice” as an anodyne bureaucratic assignment, but, because the O.E.O. had been created to carry out Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, their jobs entailed dismantling the most sixties-infused agency of the federal government. From Cheney’s point of view, the work had the quality of removing the serpent from the breast of state.

The episode that best foreshadowed the Cheney we came to know in the years after the 9/11 attacks occurred at the end of his service as Secretary of Defense, under George H. W. Bush—another job that “Vice” understands in terms of power, not ideas. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Cheney, with the help of aides such as Lewis (Scooter) Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, who later joined him in the George W. Bush Administration, commissioned a study with the bland title “Defense Planning Guidance.” It envisioned a post-Cold War world in which there would only ever be one superpower, the United States: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” the document said. It was skeptical of power exercised by the United Nations and other multinational alliances, as opposed to that exercised by the United States unilaterally. Cheney’s circle did not support the first President Bush’s decision to conclude the Gulf War without toppling Saddam Hussein and installing a new government in Iraq. The 9/11 attacks provided Cheney and his allies with an unexpected opportunity to enact their long-standing views.

“Vice” treats conservatism as a combination of resistance to the civil-rights movement, the Koch brothers’ eagerness to reduce taxes and regulations, and pure opportunism. Cheney’s conservatism, at heart, is none of these. It is what might be called threatism. Powerful, determined, immensely destructive forces—the Soviet Union, radical Islam, the domestic left—want to destroy American freedom and democracy. Complacent politicians, especially liberal ones, are incapable either of understanding this or of summoning the will to combat it. For the small cadre who do understand, it is imperative to use power unusually quietly, expertly, and aggressively. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 January 2019 at 2:34 pm

‘But Mr. Trump had not read the letter’: Television is running the country

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Eric Wemple writes in the Washington Post:

The resignation letter of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis runs just shy of 600 words. For the average reader, digesting such a missive is an undertaking of about three minutes, maybe a bit less. Way too much, in other words, for the president of the United States.

If President Trump had wanted just the CliffsNotes version of the letter, he could have read merely these three sentences: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

That’s about 100 words, or about a half-minute of investment for the average reader. Again, that’s asking a lot for this particular fellow. The New York Times reports:

But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.

Indeed: On Sunday, Trump declared that Mattis would be leaving his post on Jan. 1, not in February, as Mattis had intended.

The snap decision resulted from a policymaking “process” governed by television. Here was a letter addressed to the president himself. Instead of reading it and sorting out its tone and message, he outsourced that job to the people on whom he relies the most. Commentators on cable news and other media, that is.

The list of precedents highlighting this depraved dependency is getting unruly. Just think back to the shutdown drama, as Trump knuckled under to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and people on Fox News who knocked him for caving on wall funding. Or all the times that he derived governmental policies based on the programming of “Fox & Friends.” Or the time he vowed to get to the bottom of the land-reform situation in South Africa based on an error-laden presentation by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Or the fact that his communications director — Bill Shine — is a former Fox News guy and a buddy of host Sean Hannity. Or the fact that he adjudges former Fox News presenter Heather Nauert sufficiently qualified to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

On one level, Trump’s approach to the resignation of his defense secretary makes sense. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump was asked where he got his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals,” he said. For such a dedicated liar, that was a moment of honesty, not to mention a campaign promise fulfilled: Instead of reading Mattis’s letter, he turned to television to figure out what this general had to say.

And then he became enraged. That makes a lot of sense, too: Cable news is designed to tweak you, to bait you, to titillate you and, sometimes, to anger you. It’s a dangerous formula even for folks who read a lot and who are not president of the United States. It’s a lethal formula for a guy who doesn’t read and who is president of the United States.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2018 at 3:24 pm

Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein

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The US has a bad habit of aligning itself with dictators and authoritarian rulers, quite a few of whom it has helped to power. Ryan Costello and Sina Toossi write in Foreign Policy:

In the 1980s, the United States embraced a brutal Middle Eastern tyrant simply because he opposed Iran. Washington should not repeat the same mistake today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.

Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Years before Saddam became Washington’s chief foe, he enjoyed significant support from the United States and other Western countries. This ended after he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. However, the lead-up to that conflict and Washington’s earlier patronage of Saddam provide instructive lessons for U.S. regional policy today and the major risks of not responding forcefully to the assassination of Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual and brutal consolidation of power, marked by the detention and torture of his domestic rivals, evokes the “nation-changing assault on dissent within Iraq’s ruling party in 1979 by a young President Saddam Hussein,” Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Bloomberg last year. “The concentration of power in one youthful, ambitious and unpredictable pair of hands is worrying now as it was then.” Washington’s steadfast support of Saddam during the 1980s not only enabled his rampage against his own people and neighboring countries, but also eventually threatened U.S. security interests.

The U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein began in 1963, when, according to the former National Security Council official Roger Morris, the CIA under President John F. Kennedy “carried out in collaboration with Saddam Hussein” a coup to overthrow the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, who had five years earlier toppled Iraq’s pro-American monarchy.

However, U.S. ties with Saddam truly began to solidify in February 1982, when the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department’s terrorism list, paving the way for providing military assistance to Iraq. This occurred roughly 17 months after Saddam’s invasion of Iran, while Iraqi forces were occupying the oil-rich southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that Iraq sought to annex. In December 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as a presidential envoy to meet Saddam and set the stage for normalizing U.S.-Iraqi relations. U.S. support for Saddam during the war would grow to include, according to the Washington Post, “large-scale intelligence sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and facilitating Iraq’s acquisition of chemical and biological precursors.”

Saddam’s devastating use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, both against Iranian military and civilian targets and on his own people, did not deter U.S. support. Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam took place despite Washington possessing firm evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons use beginning in 1983. Prior to Rumsfeld’s trip, on Nov. 1, 1983, senior State Department official Jonathan Howe had toldSecretary of State George Shultz of intelligence reports showing that Iraq was resorting to “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” against the Iranians.

While Iran received some weaponry from the United States through the Iran-Contra affair, Washington tipped the scales much further in favor of Saddam. When intelligence showed Iran mounting a major offensive in early 1988 that threatened to break through Iraqi lines, Reagan wrote to his secretary of defense: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Toward the end of the war, “U.S. intelligence was flowing freely to Hussein’s military,” according to a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, despite U.S. officials being “fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons.”

According to declassified CIA documents, two-thirds of all Iraqi chemical weapons deployed during the war were used in the last 18 months of the conflict, when U.S.-Iraqi cooperation peaked. This included the March 1988 genocidal chemical weapons attackon the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which led to the deaths of as many as 5,000 civilians. Ironically, this attack would later be used by the George W. Bush administration in 2003 as part of its pretext for invading Iraq to eliminate the country’s by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

A few months after the Halabja attack, in September 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy wrotein a memo on the chemical weapons question that “the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives.” Today, the Trump administration is echoing this language when discussing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi and its devastating assault on Yemen, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently proclaiming that Saudi Arabia is “an important strategic alliance of the United States” and that “the Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us.”

It was no surprise, then, that on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saddam felt he had unconditional backing from the United States. This impression was reinforced by Saddam’s meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie on July 25, 1990, a week before his invasion of Kuwait. During their fateful encounter, according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting, Glaspie stressed “President [George H.W.] Bush’s desire for friendship” and that “the president had instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” When Saddam raised the issue of Kuwait, which he had been relentlessly threatening, Glaspie stated that the United States took “no position on these Arab affairs.”

To this day, academic experts such as the Harvard University professor and FPcolumnist Stephen M. Walt contend that “the United States did unwittinglygive a green light to Saddam” to invade Kuwait—much as he invaded Iran—without a strong response from the United States. Walt adds that, contrary to some perceptions, Glaspie was “following the instructions she had been given” and that “she was doing what the Bush administration wanted at this crucial meeting.” U.S. diplomatic cables from Glaspie’s era also reveal, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, that “Glaspie and her predecessor painted the regime in an extremely favorable light from the very outset, overlooked Saddam’s widely-known crimes, and were so influenced by mutual enmity for Iran as to be negligently uncritical.”

The United States was wrong to back Saddam simply because he opposed Iran, a mistake that has haunted it for decades. Not only were more than 500,000 U.S. troops required to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait, resultingin 382 U.S. military casualties, but it also placed the U.S. government on a warpath that resulted in the 2003 toppling of Saddam, an event that beyond its humanitarian and financial costs for the Iraqi and American people led to the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and inextricably altered the regional balance of power in favor of Iran—whose largely Shiite allies have assumed power in Baghdad by way of democratic elections.

Today, the Trump administration’s reflexive support of Mohammed bin Salman is heading in the same direction as Washington’s ill-fated support of Saddam Hussein. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s important.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2018 at 7:23 am

War Without End: The Pentagon’s failed campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan left a generation of soldiers with little to fight for but one another.

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C.J. Chivers paints a grim but realistic picture:

Second Platoon did not hide its dark mood as its soldiers waded across the Korengal River in the bright light of afternoon. It was early in April 2009 and early in the Pentagon’s resumption in earnest of the Afghan war. The platoon’s mission was to ascend a mountain slope and try to ambush the Taliban at night. They were about 30 men in all, riflemen and machine-gunners reinforced with scouts, a mix of original platoon members and replacements who filled gaps left by the wounded and the dead. Many of them considered their plan foolish, a draining and dangerous waste of time, another example of a frustrated Army unit’s trying to show activity for the brass in a war low on focus and hope. They muttered foul words as they moved.

Specialist Robert Soto had been haunted by dread as the soldiers left their base, the Korengal Outpost. His platoon was part of an infantry unit that called itself Viper, the radio call sign for Bravo Company, First Battalion of the 26th Infantry. Viper had occupied the outpost for nine months, a period in which its soldiers were confined to a small stretch of lower valley and impoverished villages clinging to hillsides beneath towering peaks. Second Platoon had started its deployment with three squads but suffered so many casualties that on this day even with replacements it mustered at about two-thirds strength. With attrition came knowledge. Soto knew firsthand that the war did not resemble the carefully considered national project the generals discussed in the news. He had enlisted in the Army from the Bronx less than two years before, motivated by a desire to protect the United States from another terrorist attack. But his idealism had turned swiftly into realism, and the war had become a matter of him and his friends surviving each day as days cohered into a tour. He was doubtful about the rest, from the competence of the war’s organizers down to the merits of this ambush patrol. There’s no way this works, he thought. The valley felt like a network of watchers who set up American platoons, relaying word to those laying traps.

Soto sensed eyes following the patrol. Everybody can see us.

He was 19, but at 160 pounds and barely needing to shave, he could pass for two years younger. He was nobody’s archetype of a fighter. A high school drama student, he joined the Army at 17 and planned to become an actor if he survived the war. Often he went about his duties with an enormous smile, singing no matter what anyone else thought — R. & B., rap, rock, hip-hop, the blues. All of this made him popular in the platoon, even as he had become tenser than his former self and older than his years; even as his friends and sergeants he admired were killed, leaving him a burden of ghosts.

He faced the steep uphill climb, physically ready, emotionally spent. We’re just trying to get out of here in two months, he thought. He and his fellow soldiers had been in the valley long enough that they moved in the sinewy, late-deployment fitness of infantry squads seasoned by war. Sweat soaked his back. His quadriceps and calves drove him on, pushing him like a pack animal for the soldier beside him, Specialist Arturo Molano, who carried an M240 machine gun. The two fell into a rhythm. One soldier would get over a hard patch, turn around and extend a hand to the other. “Hey, man, you good?” Soto would ask. Molano would say he was fine. “You want me to carry the gun?” Soto would offer. Molano declined every time. Soto considered Molano to be selfless and tough, someone who routinely carried more than men of much larger size. He liked being partnered with someone like this.

After a few hours, Second Platoon reached the crest, high above the valley. The soldiers inhaled deeply, taking in the thin air. Away from the outpost’s burning trash, the air tasted clean.

A few soldiers went forward to check the trail before the rest of the platoon moved to the ambush site. With little more than whispers, the soldiers arranged themselves in a triangle astride a mountain footpath. Second Lt. Justin Smith, their platoon leader, put Molano at one corner and a second man with an M240 at another, with their machine guns angled back toward each other so their fire could create an interlocking zone of flying lead. Other soldiers set claymore mines on small stands.

Everything was ready before dark. The air was chilly and the ridge raked by gusts. Soto was shivering. He pulled a dry undershirt and socks from his pack, changed clothes, ate a protein bar and washed it down with water. He saw his company’s outpost below, across the open space, and realized this must be what it looked like to militants when they attacked. A distant call to prayer floated on the mountain air.

In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.

More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

Almost two decades after the White House cast American troops as liberators to be welcomed, large swaths of territory where the Pentagon deployed combat forces are under stubborn insurgent influence. Areas once touted as markers of counterinsurgency progress have become no-go zones, regions in which almost no Americans dare tread, save a few journalists and aid workers, or private military contractors or American military and C.I.A. teams.

Across these years, hundreds of thousands of young men and women signed on in good faith and served in the lower and middle ranks. They did not make policy. They lived within it. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The US cannot afford this.

Denying reality is ultimately a losing strategy.

Nick Turse on a Grim Inheritance: The Legacy of Infinite War

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Tom Englehardt introduces a column by Nick Turse at TomDispatch.com:

It looks like TomDispatch may have a few less readers from now on. Perhaps it will surprise you, but judging by the mail I get, some members of the U.S. military do read TomDispatch — partially to check out the range of military and ex-military critics of America’s wars that this site publishes. Or rather they did read TomDispatch. No longer, it seems, if their computers are operating via Department of Defense (DoD) networks. The DoD, I’ve heard, has blocked the site. You now get this message, I’m told, when you try to go to it: “You have attempted to access a blocked website. Access to this website has been blocked for operational reasons by the DOD Enterprise-Level Protection System.” Oh, and the category that accounts for it being blocked? “Hate and racism.” Mind you, you can evidently still read both Breitbart and Infowars in a beautifully unblocked state via the same networks.

On consideration, however, I’ve concluded that the Department of Defense might have a point. Since this site was launched as a no-name listserv in October 2001 soon after the Afghan War started — you know, the war that the DoD is still pursuing so successfully almost 17 years later with its 17th commander now in the field, 15,000 American troops still fighting and advising there (and still dying there as well), and the enemy, the Taliban in particular, in control of yet more territory in that country — TomDispatch has always hated America’s never-ending, ever-spreading, refugee- and terror-producing wars that now extend from South Asia across the Middle East and deep into Africa. So perhaps this site is, after all, a must-block “hate” site.

And among the authors who have spread TomDispatch’s antiwar gospel of hatred — now so judiciously cut off by the Pentagon — Nick Turse, in particular, has long grimly tracked the growth and spread of Washington’s forever wars and of the Special Operations forces, the semi-secret military that has become, in these years, their heart and soul. He returns to this sorry tale again today, this time in a unique fashion — by tracing the careers of those in the military, commanders and commanded, dead and alive, who returned to America’s official and unofficial war zones again and again and yet again. Maybe someone should suggest to the Pentagon that there’s something else out there to block, so that another website, 17 years from now, won’t be writing about Washington’s 34th commander in the field in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s time to block those wars. Tom

The Legacy of Infinite War 
Special Ops, Generational Struggle, and the Cooperstown of Commandos
By Nick Turse

Raids by U.S. commandos in Afghanistan. (I could be talking about 2001 or 2018.)

A U.S. drone strike in Yemen. (I could be talking about 2002 or 2018.)

Missions by Green Berets in Iraq. (I could be talking about 2003 or 2018.)

While so much about the War on Terror turned Global War on Terrorismturned World War IV turned the Long War turned “generational struggle” turned “infinite war” seems repetitious, the troops most associated with this conflict — the U.S. Special Operations forces — have seen changes galore. As Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ), chairman of the Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, pointed out in 2006, referring to Special Operations Command by its acronym: “For almost five years now, SOCOM has been leading the way in the war on terrorism: defeating the Taliban and eliminating a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, removing a truly vicious Iraqi dictator, and combating the terrorists who seek to destabilize the new, democratic Iraq.”

Much has changed since Saxton looked back on SOCOM’s role in the early years of the war on terror. For starters, Saxton retired almost a decade ago, but the Taliban, despite being “defeated” way back when, didn’t do the same. Today, they contest for or control about 44% of Afghanistan. That country also hosts many more terror groups — 20 in all — than it did 12 years ago. “Vicious Iraqi dictator” Saddam Hussein is, of course, still dead and gone, but in 2014, about a third of “the new, democratic Iraq” was overrun by Islamic State militants. The country was only re-liberated in late 2017 and the Islamic State is already making a comeback there this year. Meanwhile, Iraq is besetby anti-government protests and totters along as one of the most fragile stateson the planet, while the Iraqi and Afghan war zones bled together — with U.S. special operators now fighting an Islamic State terrorist franchise in Afghanistan, too.

In spite, or perhaps because, of these circumstances, SOCOM continues to thrive. Its budget, its personnel numbers, and just about any other measure you might choose (from missions to global reach) continue to rise. In 2006, for instance, 85% of Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed overseas — Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, and others — were concentrated in the Greater Middle East, with far smaller numbers spread thinly across the Pacific (7%), Europe (3%), and Latin America (3%). Only 1% of them were then conducting missions in Africa.

Today, the lion’s share — 56% — of those commandos still operate in the Greater Middle East, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by SOCOM, but all other foreign deployments have grown at that region’s expense. Africa Command has leapt from last to second place and now hosts 16.5% of America’s overseas commandos, European Command 13.9% of them, the newly renamed Indo-Pacific Command 8.6%, and Southern Command 4.5%.

In the Zone

As deployments have shifted geographically, the number of special operators overseas has risen dramatically. In any given week in 2001, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed abroad. By 2014, that number had hit 7,200. Today, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw, it’s 8,300.

A generation of commandos have spent their careers fighting on the proliferating fronts of Washington’s forever wars, hopping from one conflict zone to another or sometimes returning to the same campaign again and again. Some have spent much of their adult lives at war and a number have lost their lives after multiple warzone tours, still without a victory in sight. “At this stage in the ongoing counter-violent extremist type of fight, it is not a rare exception for airmen to be on their 12th, 13th, or 14th deployment,” Lieutenant General Marshall Webb, the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, told the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities earlier this year. And when it comes to serial deployments, special ops airmen are hardly unique.

Consider, for example, Green Beret Colonel Owen Ray who recently took command of the 1st Special Forces Group (1st SFG). His path to that post might be thought of as the military equivalent of working one’s way up from the mailroom. He has, in fact, held a command at every level of the 1st SFG. In 2003, he served as a detachment commander in Afghanistan. By 2011, he was back there as a company commander. In 2013, he returned as the chief of the 1st Special Forces Group’s 4th Battalion. Now, he heads a unit whose members have spent the last years deploying to hotspots across the planet. “I stand in absolute awe at the service rendered and the impact this unit had on multiple theaters,” said outgoing commander Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere at a July change of command ceremony in which he handed over the reins to Ray.

Beaurpere himself is a model of the long-war SOF experience in multi-theater warfighting. A French immigrant commissioned as an officer in 1994, he served in South Korea, Kosovo, and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, he commanded a Special Forces company in Iraq. In 2008, he was back in Iraq as the executive officer for a special operations task force in Baghdad. In 2010, he served as the deputy chief of staff of a SOCOM joint task force and the task force deputy operations officer during the lead-up to NATO’s war in Libya. In 2011, he took command of a special forces battalion and supervised its operations in West Africa. He also played a role in establishing a special ops presence in Central Africa to aid local proxies fighting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. In 2012, he served as the chief of a special operations command and control element in the Horn of Africa. Beaurpere is now assigned to Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, where he serves as executive officer to the commander.

This spring, President Trump tapped Lieutenant General Scott Howell to be the first Air Force officer to head Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), SOCOM’s secretive “hunter-killers,” which include the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. A longtime special operator, Howell has hopped back and forth between combat zones and stateside posts while steadily climbing the special ops ladder. His assignments have included a 2005-2006 stint, when he was still a lieutenant colonel, as commander of the Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment Arabian Peninsula at Joint Base Balad, Iraq; a 2008-2010 assignment, when he was a colonel, as commander of the Joint Special Operations Aviation Component, Special Operations Task Force, at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan; a 2012-2013 stint, when he was a brigadier general, as deputy commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan and NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan; and then, a 2016-2017 position, when he was a major general, as the head of NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan and Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.

Or, for a grimmer look at the special ops experience in these years, consider the biographies of some of the commandos recently killed overseas. They offer a unique window on the operations tempo, scale, and scope of America’s never-ending wars. Take Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens. He completed his Navy SEAL training in December 2002and then deployed 12 times, carrying out perhaps 1,000 missions or more, including assignments in Afghanistan and Somalia, before he was killed in Yemen last January. Similarly, Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, who enlisted in the Navy in 2002 and joined the SEALs a short time later, survived tours in Iraq — in 2007 alone, he took part in 48 combat missions there — and Afghanistan only to be killed in Somalia last May.

Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar, a Green Beret who was reportedly strangled to death by two fellow special operators in Mali last June, was a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, one of two Green Berets killed in an Islamic State ambush in Niger in October 2017, was reportedly on his second deployment to that West African nation. Army Sergeant 1st Class Mihail Golin — the victim of a New Year’s Day attack in Afghanistan — enlisted in the Army in 2005, a year after emigrating to the United States from Latvia, serving in Iraq in 2006-2007 and Afghanistan in 2009-2010, 2011-2012, and again in 2017. Staff Sergeant Alexander Conrad, a 26-year-old assigned to the Special Forces, served two tours in Afghanistan — in 2012-2013 and again in 2014 — before losing his life in a June 2018 attack in Jubaland, Somalia.

Hallowed Halls

Today, who remembers Dan Brouthers or the Troy Trojans and Buffalo Bisons, the professional baseball teams he played for? The same could be said of William “Judy” Johnson of the Hilldale Daisies, Mike “King” Kellyof the Boston Beaneaters, and Charlie “Old Hoss” Radbourn of the Providence Grays who, in 1884, pitched 73 complete games and won 59 of them. (Yes, you read that right!). Those men are nonetheless immortalized in bronze forever — or at least as long as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum stands in Cooperstown, New York.

Philip CochranLeroy Manor, and Aaron Bank might be even less well known to the rest of us, although they’re enshrined in the equivalent institution for their line of work. They are among the 69 members of the Commando Hall of Honor at SOCOM headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Cochran is best known for his service as . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 August 2018 at 2:36 pm

Lord save us. FEMA personnel chief harassed women, hired some as possible sexual partners for male employees, agency’s leader says

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Lisa Rein reports in the Washington Post:

The personnel chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — who resigned just weeks ago — is under investigation after being accused of creating an atmosphere of widespread sexual harassment over years in which women were hired as possible sexual partners for male employees, the agency’s leader said Monday.

The alleged harassment and other misconduct, revealed through a preliminary seven-month internal investigation, was a “systemic problem going on for years,” said FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long. Some of the behavior could rise to the level of criminal activity, he said.

Some of the claims about the agency’s former personnel chief are detailed in a written executive summary of the investigation provided to The Washington Post. FEMA officials provided other details and confirmed that the individual under investigation, whose name was redacted from the report, is Corey Coleman, who led the personnel department from 2011 until his resignation in June.

Coleman could not immediately be reached for comment, and no one answered the door at his Northeast Washington home when a Washington Post reporter visited Monday. Coleman resigned June 18, before a scheduled interview with investigators, and FEMA officials said they have not been able to question him since.

Online records show Coleman was a senior executive who was paid an annual salary of $177,150.

In an interview, Long described a “toxic” environment in the human resources department Coleman had led at FEMA headquarters, hiring dozens of men who were friends and college fraternity brothers and women he met at bars and on online dating sites — then promoting them to roles throughout the agency without going through proper federal hiring channels.

Coleman then transferred some of the women in and out of departments, some to regional offices, so his friends could try to have sexual relationships with them, according to statements and interviews with employees, said a FEMA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

“What we uncovered was a systemic problem going back years,” Long said. He said he has referred several of the cases to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, who oversees FEMA, to investigate possible criminal sexual assault.

“The biggest problem I may solve here may be  . . .

Continue reading.

Is it just me, or are things getting really weird? This takes some sort of cake.

And you know this is just the tip of the iceberg. If this department — a government department, no less—is dong this, then it’s going on in a lot of other places. As we’re seeing at CBS.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2018 at 3:38 pm

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