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After 9/11, a rush of national unity. Then, quickly, more and new divisions.

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Dan Balz had an interesting column in the Washington Post yesterday. (The gift link I used by-passes the paywall.) The column begins:

On Monday, the leaders of Congress are to gather with colleagues at noon for a bipartisan ceremony marking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It will be reminiscent of the gathering on the night of the attacks, when members of Congress, many holding small American flags, stood on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” But so much has changed.

Twenty years ago, members of Congress were joined in a determined and resilient expression of national unity at an unprecedented moment in the nation’s history, a day that brought deaths and heroism but also shock, fear and confusion. Monday’s ceremony will no doubt be somber in its remembrance of what was lost that day, but it will come not as expression of a united America but simply as a momentary cessation in political wars that rage and have deepened in the years since those attacks.

In a video message to Americans released Friday, President Biden spoke of how 9/11 had united the country and said that moment represented “America at its best.” He called such unity “our greatest strength” while noting it is “all too rare.” The unity that followed the attacks didn’t last long. Americans reverted more quickly than some analysts expected to older patterns of partisanship. With time, new divisions over new issues have emerged, and they make the prospect of a united nation ever more distant.

On a day for somber tribute, the man who was president on 9/11, George W. Bush, spoke most directly of those new divisions — and threats — in a speech in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 went down on the day of the attacks. Bush warned that dangers to the country now come not only across borders “but from violence that gathers from within.” It was an apparent but obvious reference to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

The question is often asked: As the United States has plunged deeper into division and discord, is there anything that could spark a change, anything big enough to become a catalyst for greater national unity? But if ­9/11 doesn’t fit that model, what does? And look what happened in the aftermath of that trauma.

For a time, the shock of the attacks did bring the country together. Bush’s approval ratings spiked to 90 percent in a rally-round-the-flag reaction that was typical when the country is faced with external threats or crises.

One notable expression of the unity at the time came from Al Gore, the former vice president who had lost the bitter 2000 election to Bush after a disputed recount in Florida and a controversial Supreme Court decision.

Speaking at a Democratic Party dinner in Iowa less than a month after the attacks, Gore called Bush “my commander in chief,” adding, “We are united behind our president, George W. Bush, behind the effort to seek justice, not revenge, to make sure this will never, ever happen again. And to make sure we have the strongest unity in America that we have ever had.” The Democratic audience rose, applauding and cheering.

Trust in government rose in those days after the attacks. Shortly after 9/11, trust in government jumped to 64 percent, up from 30 percent before the attacks, according to Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm that was closely tracking public attitudes to the attacks. By the summer of 2002, the firm found that trust had fallen back, to 39 percent.

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Five years after the attacks, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now deceased, was quoted as saying that America was “more divided and more partisan than I’ve ever seen us.” Today, after many contentious elections, political warfare over economic, cultural and social issues and a domestic attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many Americans would say things have become worse.

As he prepared the U.S. response to the attacks by al-Qaeda in the fall of 2001, Bush made clear the United States would go it alone if necessary, assembling what was called a “coalition of the willing.” He put other nations on notice, saying the United States would hold them accountable in the campaign against the terrorists. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight,” he said.

Bush described the world in Manichaean terms: good vs. evil.

Today’s politics at home is often practiced that way. That phrase — “with us or against us” — could stand as a black-and-white expression of the way in which many Americans approach the political battles: all in with the team, red or blue, or not in at all. If you win, I lose. No middle ground.

Lack of imagination on the part of Americans had helped 9/11 to happen. No one in the upper reaches of government  . . .

Continue reading. No paywall on this one.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 10:35 am

After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong

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In the Atlantic Garrett M. Graff, a journalist, historian, and the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, lays out the bad decisions after 9/11 — many of which were strongly opposed at the time (for example, many (including yours truly) vociferously opposed the (stupid) invasion of Iraq):

On the friday after 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the New York City site that the world would come to know as Ground Zero. After rescue workers shouted that they couldn’t hear him as he spoke to them through a bullhorn, he turned toward them and ad-libbed. “I can hear you,” he shouted. “The whole world hears you, and when we find these people who knocked these buildings down, they’ll hear all of us soon.” Everybody roared. At a prayer service later that day, he outlined the clear objective of the task ahead: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press two days later, Vice President Dick Cheney offered his own vengeful promise. “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” he told the host, Tim Russert. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful.” He added, “That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”

In retrospect, Cheney’s comment that morning came to define the U.S. response to the 2001 terrorist attacks over the next two decades, as the United States embraced the “dark side” to fight what was soon dubbed the “Global War on Terror” (the “GWOT” in gov-speak)—an all-encompassing, no-stone-unturned, whole-of-society, and whole-of-government fight against one of history’s great evils.

It was a colossal miscalculation.

The events of September 11, 2001, became the hinge on which all of recent American history would turn, rewriting global alliances, reorganizing the U.S. government, and even changing the feel of daily life, as security checkpoints and magnetometers proliferated inside buildings and protective bollards sprouted like kudzu along America’s streets.

I am the author of an oral history of 9/11. Two of my other books chronicle how that day changed the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts and the government’s doomsday plans. I’ve spent much of this year working on a podcast series about the lingering questions from the attacks. Along the way, I’ve interviewed the Cassandra-like FBI agents who chased Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the attacks; first responders and attack survivors in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; government officials who hid away in bunkers under the White House and in the Virginia countryside as the day unfolded; the passengers aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11; and the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden a decade later. I’ve interviewed directors of the CIA, FBI, and national intelligence; the interrogators in CIA black sites; and the men who found Saddam Hussein in that spider hole in Iraq.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.

The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.

As a society, we succumbed to fear.

The most telling part of September 11, 2001, was the interval between the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, at 8:46 a.m., and the second, at 9:03. In those 17 minutes, the nation’s sheer innocence was on display.

The aftermath of the first crash was live on the nation’s televisions by 8:49 a.m. Though horrified, many Americans who saw those images still went on about their morning. In New York, the commuter-ferry captain Peter Johansen recalled how, afterward, he docked at the Wall Street Terminal and every single one of his passengers got off and walked into Lower Manhattan, even as papers and debris rained down from the damaged North Tower.

At the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush, who was in Florida. They discussed the crash and agreed it was strange. But Rice proceeded with her 9 a.m. staff meeting, as previously scheduled, and Bush went into a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote his No Child Left Behind education agenda. At the FBI, the newly arrived director, Robert Mueller, was actually sitting in a briefing on al-Qaeda and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole when an aide interrupted with news of the first crash; he looked out the window at the bright blue sky and wondered how a plane could have hit the World Trade Center on such a clear day.

Those muted reactions seem inconceivable today but were totally appropriate to the nation that existed that September morning. The conclusion of the Cold War a decade earlier had supposedly ended history. To walk through Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock today is to marvel at how low-stakes everything in the 1990s seemed.

But after that second crash, and then the subsequent ones at the Pentagon and in the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our government panicked. There’s really no other way to say it. Fear spread up the chain of command. Cheney, who had been hustled to safety in the minutes after the second crash, reflected later, “In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.”

The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.

The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact. James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general during some of the frantic post-9/11 era, told me in 2009 that he had been horrified by the unverified intelligence landing each day on the president’s desk. “When I started, I believed that a giant fire hose of information came in the ground floor of the U.S. government and then, as it went up, floor by floor, was whittled down until at the very top the president could drink from the cool, small stream of a water fountain,” Comey said. “I was shocked to find that after 9/11 the fire hose was just being passed up floor by floor. The fire hose every morning hit the FBI director, the attorney general, and then the president.”

According to one report soon after 9/11, a nuclear bomb that terrorists had managed to smuggle into the country was hidden on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This tip turned out to have come from an informant who had misheard a conversation between two men in a bathroom in Ukraine—in other words, from a terrible global game of telephone. For weeks after, Bush would ask in briefings, “Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?”

Even disproved plots added to the impression that the U.S. was under constant attack by a shadowy, relentless, and widespread enemy. Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.”

At the time, some commentators politely noted the danger of tilting at such nebulous concepts, but a stunned American public appeared to crave a bold response imbued with a higher purpose. As the journalist Robert Draper writes in To Start a War, his new history of the Bush administration’s lies, obfuscations, and self-delusions that led from Afghanistan into Iraq, “In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.”

he crash of that second plane at 9:03, live on millions of television sets across the country, had revealed a gap in Americans’ understanding of our world, a gap into which anything and everything—caution and paranoia, liberal internationalism and vengeful militarism, a mission to democratize the Middle East and an ever more pointless campaign amid a military stalemate—might be poured in the name of shared national purpose. The depth of our leaders’ panic and the amorphousness of our enemy led to a long succession of tragic choices.

We chose the wrong way to seek justice.

Before 9/11, the United States had a considered, constitutional, and proven playbook for targeting terrorists: They were arrested anywhere in the world they could be caught, tried in regular federal courts, and, if convicted, sent to federal prison. The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Arrested in Pakistan. The 1998 embassy bombers? Caught in Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere. In Sweden on the very morning of 9/11, FBI agents had arrested an al-Qaeda plotter connected to the attack on the USS Cole. The hunt for the plotters of and accomplices to the new attacks could have been similarly handled in civilian courts, whose civil-liberties protections would have shown the world how even the worst evils met with reasoned justice under the law.

Instead, on November 13, 2001, President Bush announced in an executive order that those rounded up in the War on Terror would be treated not as criminals, or even as prisoners of war, but as part of a murky category that came to be known as “enemy combatants.”

While civil libertarians warned of a dark path ahead, Americans seemed not . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Meanwhile, for all the original talk of banishing evil from the world, the GWOT’s seemingly exclusive focus on Islamic extremism has led to the neglect of other threats actively killing Americans. In the 20 years since 9/11, thousands of Americans have succumbed to mass killers—just not the ones we went to war against in 2001. The victims have included worshippers in churchessynagogues, and temples; people at shopping mallsmovie theaters, and a Walmart; students and faculty at universities and community colleges; professors at a nursing school; children in elementarymiddle, and high schools; kids at an Amish school and on a Minnesota Native American reservation; nearly 60 concertgoers who were machine-gunned to death from hotel windows in Las Vegas. But none of those massacres were by the Islamic extremists we’d been spending so much time and money to combat. Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists than by foreign ones. Political pressure kept national-security officials from refocusing attention and resources on the growing threat from white nationalists, armed militias, and other groups energized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim strains of the War on Terror.

FDR was right: the thing to fear is fear itself — fear leads to panic, and panic leads to bad and ill-considered decisions.

Update: But see also David Corn’s article  in Mother Jones: “It’s Not Too Late to Learn the Lessons We Didn’t Learn From 9/11.”

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 3:57 pm

Reading John Gray in war

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Andy Owen, author of All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War: The Story of a British Deserter (2017) and a former soldier who writes on the ethics and philosophy of war, has an interesting essay in Aeon:

‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Blaise Pascal (1623-62)

Ifirst read the English philosopher John Gray while sitting in the silence of the still, mid-afternoon heat of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Gray showed how the United States’ president George W Bush and the United Kingdom’s prime minister Tony Blair framed the ‘war on terror’ (which I was part of) as an apocalyptic struggle that would forge the new American century of liberal democracy, where personal freedom and free markets were the end goals of human progress. Speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2008, Gray highlighted an important caveat to the phrase ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs,’ which is sometimes used, callously, to justify extreme means to high-value ends. Gray’s caveat was: ‘You can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette.’ In my two previous tours of Iraq, I had seen first-hand – as sectarian hatred, insurgency, war fighting, targeted killings and the euphemistically named collateral damage tore apart buildings, bodies, communities and the shallow fabric of the state – just how many eggs had been broken and yet still how far away from the omelette we were.

There was no doubt that Iraq’s underexploited oil reserves were part of the US strategic decision-making, and that the initial mission in Afghanistan was in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the US, but both invasions had ideological motivations too. I had started the process to join the British military before 9/11. The military I thought I was joining was the one that had successfully completed humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and Sierra Leone. I believed we could use force for good, and indeed had a duty to do so. After the failure to prevent genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ was developing, which included the idea that when a state was ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect its people, responsibility shifted to the international community and, as a last resort, military intervention would be permissible. It would be endorsed by all member states of the United Nations (UN) in 2005 but, under the framework, the authority to employ the last resort rested with the UN Security Council, who hadn’t endorsed the invasion of Iraq.

Despite the lack of a UN resolution, many of us who deployed to Iraq naively thought we were doing the right thing. When Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins delivered his eve-of-battle speech to the Royal Irish Battle Group in March 2003, he opened by stating: ‘We go to liberate, not to conquer.’ We had convinced ourselves that, as well as making the region safer by seizing the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we were there to save the people of Iraq from their own government and replace it with the single best way of organising all societies: liberal democracy. This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country.

By my second tour of Iraq in 2005, it was clear that no WMD would be found and the society that was evolving was far from the one envisaged. Morale was at a low ebb as the gap between the mission and what we were achieving widened. We were stuck in a Catch-22. We would hand over to local security forces when the security situation improved enough for us to do so. However, the security situation couldn’t improve while we were still there. It would improve only if we left. The conditions that would allow us to leave were us already having left. Most troops were stuck inside the wire, their only purpose seemingly to be mortared or rocketed for being there. I was asked why we were there, especially when soldiers witnessed their friends being injured or killed, or saw the destruction of the city we’d come to liberate. They needed meaning, it couldn’t all be pointless. Meaning was found in protecting each other. My team of 30 or so men and women found purpose in trying to collect intelligence on those planting deadly improvised explosive devices along the main routes in and out of the city. Members of both the team before and the team after us were blown up trying to do so.

Much of the criticism levelled at the post-invasion failure focused on the mistake of disbanding the Iraqi state, the lack of post-conflict planning and the lack of resources. There was less focus on the utopian aims of the whole project. But it was only through Gray that I saw the similarities between the doctrines of Stalinism, Nazi fascism, Al-Qaeda’s paradoxical medieval, technophile fundamentalism, and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Gray showed that they are all various forms (however incompatible) of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (indeed, from the Jacobins onwards, violence has had a pedagogical function in this process). At first, I baulked at the suggested equivalence with the foot soldiers of the other ideologies. There were clearly profound differences! But through Gray’s examples, I went on to reflect on how much violence had been inflicted throughout history by those thinking that they were doing the right thing and doing it for the greater good.

A message repeated throughout Gray’s work is that, despite the irrefutable material gains, this notion is misguided: scientific knowledge and the technologies at our disposal increase over time, but there’s no reason to think that morality or culture will also progress, nor – if it does progress for a period – that this progress is irreversible. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the flawed nature of our equally creative and destructive species and the cyclical nature of history. Those I spoke to in Basra needed no convincing that the advance of rational enlightened thought was reversible, as the Shia militias roamed the streets enforcing their interpretation of medieval law, harassing women, attacking students and assassinating political opponents. By the time bodies of journalists who spoke out against the death squads started turning up at the side of the road, Basra’s secular society was consigned to history. Gray points to the re-introduction of torture by the world’s premier liberal democracy during the war on terror as an example of the reversibility of progress. The irreversibility idea emerged directly from a utopian style of thinking that’s based on the notion that the end justifies the means. Such thinking is often accompanied by one of the defining characteristics of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: hubris.

The myth of progress was a key theme of Gray’s . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2021 at 8:46 pm

Facing Years in Prison for Drone Leak, Daniel Hale Makes His Case Against U.s. Assassination Program

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This article by Ryan Devereaux in The Intercept is a must-read:

THE MISSILES THAT killed Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber and Walid bin Ali Jaber came in the night. Salim was a respected imam in the village of Khashamir, in southeastern Yemen, who had made a name for himself denouncing the rising power of Al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula. His cousin Walid was a local police officer. It was August 21, 2012, and the pair were standing in a palm grove, confronting a trio of suspected militants, when the Hellfires made impact.

The deaths of the two men sparked protests in the days that followed, symbolizing for many Yemenis the human cost of U.S. counterterrorism operations in their country. Thousands of miles away, at the U.S. military’s base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Daniel Hale, a young intelligence specialist in the U.S. Air Force, watched the missiles land. One year later, Hale found himself sitting on a Washington, D.C., panel, listening as Salim’s brother, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, recalled the day Salim was killed.

As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only ones watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button, from thousands of miles away, two Hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.

Hale recalled the emotional moment and others stemming from his work on the U.S. government’s top-secret drone program in an 11-page, handwritten letter filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia this week.

Secret Evidence

Hale was indicted by a grand jury and arrested in 2019 on a series of counts related to the unauthorized disclosure of national defense and intelligence information and the theft of government property. In March, the 33-year-old pleaded guilty to leaking a trove of unclassified, secret, and top-secret documents to a news organization, which government filings strongly implied was The Intercept. His sentencing is scheduled for next week.

The Intercept “does not comment on matters relating to the identity of anonymous sources,” Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed said at the time of Hale’s indictment. “These documents detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including U.S. citizens, through drone strikes,” Reed noted. “They are of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors are urging Judge Liam O’Grady to issue a maximum sentence, up to 11 years in prison, arguing that Hale has shown insufficient remorse for his actions, that his disclosures were motivated by vanity and not in the public interest, and that they aided the United States’ enemies abroad — namely the Islamic State.

“These documents contained specific details that adversaries could use to hamper and defeat actions of the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community,” the government claimed. “Indeed, they were of sufficient interest to ISIS for that terrorist organization to further distribute two of those documents in a guidebook for its followers.”

Prosecutors have acknowledged, however, that Hale’s sentencing was “in an unusual posture” because the probation officer in the case, who makes recommendations to the court, “has not seen some of the key facts of the case,” namely those that the government says support its claim that Hale’s disclosures had the potential to cause “serious” or “exceptionally grave” harm to U.S. national security. The Intercept has not reviewed the documents in question, which remain under seal, shielded from public scrutiny.

Harry P. Cooper, a former senior official in the CIA and noted agency expert on classified materials who did review the documents, provided a declaration in Hale’s case on the potential national security threat posed by the release of the documents.

Cooper, who maintains a top-secret clearance and has trained top-level officials at the agency, including the director of the CIA, said that while some of the documents did constitute so-called national defense information, “the disclosure of these documents, at the time they were disclosed and made public, did not present any substantial risk of harm to the United States or to national security.”

Commenting on the government’s claim that Hale’s disclosures were circulated by ISIS, Cooper said, “such publication further supports my conclusions, because it suggests that the adversaries treated the documents as trophies rather than as something that would give a tactical advantage, given that publication would reduce to zero any tactical advantage that the documents might otherwise have given.”

“In short,” Cooper said, “an adversary who has gained a tactical advantage by receiving secret information would never publicize their possession of it.”

Hale was charged under the Espionage Act, a highly controversial 1917 law that has become a favored tool of federal prosecutors pursuing cases of national security leaks. The law bars the accused from using motivations such as informing the public as a defense against incarceration, and yet, Hale’s alleged personal motivations and character came up repeatedly in a sentencing memo filed this week, with prosecutors arguing that he was “enamored of journalists” and that as a result, “the most vicious terrorists in the world” obtained top-secret U.S. documents.

In their own motion filed this week, Hale’s lawyers argued that the former intelligence analyst’s motivations were self-evident — even if the government refused to recognize them. “The facts regarding Mr. Hale’s motive are clear,” they wrote. “He committed the offense to bring attention to what he believed to be immoral government conduct committed under the cloak of secrecy and contrary to public statements of then-President Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States military’s drone program.”

Hidden Assassinations

Legal experts focused on the drone program strongly dispute the prosecution’s claim that Hale’s disclosures did not provide a significant public service. Indeed, for many experts, shedding light on a lethal program that the government had tried to keep from public scrutiny for years is vital.

“The disclosures provided important information to the American public about a killing program that has virtually no transparency or accountability, and has taken a devastating toll on civilian lives abroad in the name of national security,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. “They helped reveal how some of the most harmful impacts of this program, in particular the civilian toll, were obscured and hidden.”

Thanks in large part to the government’s efforts to keep the drone program under tight secrecy, the task of calculating the human impact of the program has been left to investigative journalists and independent monitoring groups. The numbers that these groups have compiled over the years show a staggering human cost of these operations. The U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, estimates the total number of deaths from drones and other covert killing operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to run between 8,858 and 16,901 since strikes began to be carried out in 2004.

Of those killed, as many as 2,200 are believed to have been civilians, including several hundred children and multiple U.S. citizens, including a 16-year-old boy. The tallies of civilian casualties are undoubtedly an undercount of the true cost of the drone war — as Hale’s letter to the court this week and the documents he allegedly made public show, the people who are killed in American drone strikes are routinely classified as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise.

Following years of pressure — and in the wake of the publication of the materials Hale is accused of leaking — the Obama administration introduced new requirements for reporting civilian casualties from covert counterterrorism operations to the public in 2016, disclosing that year that between 64 and 116 civilians were believed to have been killed in drone strikes and other lethal operations. However, the Trump administration revoked that meager disclosure requirement, leaving the public once again in the dark about who exactly is being killed and why. . .

Continue reading. There’s more and it’s important because it shows an aspect of the US that one normally associates with the baddies. Some of what the US has done — a drone strike on a wedding party, for example — are functionally equivalent to terrorism.

Written by Leisureguy

25 July 2021 at 4:56 pm

Rachel Maddow speaks on Frederick Douglass

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Rachel Maddow:

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, published the first of what would become three autobiographical accounts of his life. The first one was called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.

Frederick Douglass is, of course, one of the greatest Americans of all time. His autobiographies about life as a slave and his struggle to become free, in addition to everything else he did in his life, those written works are some of the most influential written American accounts of anything on any subject.

In Narrative of the Life, which is the most widely read of the three of his three autobiographical accounts but also in the subsequent autobiographies he wrote as well, including the next one, My Bondage and My Freedom, one of the most harrowing things that Frederick Douglass describes about his own life is a yearlong period when the man who owned him as a slave decided that young Frederick Douglass was incorrigible.

Douglass’ owner decided that Frederick Douglass needed in effect to be tamed, to be broken. And so he shipped Frederick Douglass off to a man that is literally known as a slave breaker. The slave breaker was named Edward Covey. C-O-V-E-Y.

This is part of how Frederick Douglass describes him in My Bondage and My Freedom. He says, quote, “I have now lived with him [meaning his slave owner] nearly nine months, and he had given me a number of severe whippings, without any visible improvement in my character or my conduct. Now he was resolved to put me out as he said, quote, to be broken.”

There was, in the Bay Side, a man named Edward Covey, who enjoyed the execrated reputation of being a first rate hand at breaking young Negroes. Breaking.

Frederick Douglass then goes on in chapter after chapter after chapter in this autobiography. Look at this. The experiences at Covey’s, unusual brutality at Covey, driven back to Covey’s. You know, Covey’s manner of proceeding to whip, right? Chapter after chapter after chapter, he describes this experience, the way that Edward Covey tortured him and beat him nearly to death and worked him nearly to death all the try to destroy Frederick Douglass’ spirit, to try to destroy his mind, to turn him into a docile slave who would work out question whereupon he would then be returned to his owner.

And because Douglass is so capable and so brilliant, his own recounting of what happened to him in that period of his life, what happened to him when his slave owner sent him to Edward Covey, what happened to him at Edward Covey’s hands, what happened to him when he stayed for a year at Edward Covey’s farm and Covey was tasked there with breaking him, because Frederick Douglass is such a luminous, important, brilliant, inspiring, incredible figure, unparalleled figure in American history, because of what we know he is capable of, because of what we know what his mind was capable of and what he did for his country in his life, when he recounts what happened to him at the hands of Edward Covey, it is the most dispiriting and desolate and just miserable thing that Douglass writes about.

He wrote:

I shall never be able to narrate the mental experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at Edward Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed and bewildered, goaded almost to madness at one time and at another reconciling myself to my wretched condition. I suffered bodily as well as mentally.

“The overwork and brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever gnawing and soul devouring thought, I am a slave, a slave for life, a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom, it rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.

That was Frederick Douglass’ account of his own life in that lowest period in his own life. And that written account did more than any other to galvanize the American abolitionist movement to bring an end to slavery. Of course, it was not fiction. It really happened and it happened as Frederick Douglass said it did and Edward Covey was a real person who operated a slave breaking operation at his farm to which Frederick Douglass was sent.

Now, if you go back to that initial description, Douglass describes Covey’s farm as being on the Bay Side. What he meant by that is that the farm was on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, the far side of Chesapeake Bay from the mainland of Maryland, which is where Douglass was being sent there from.

Edward Covey’s farm, his slave breaking operation which he tortured Frederick Douglass and countless others was this house and its surrounding farmland on the eastern shore of Maryland, in a town that’s now called St. Michael’s.

The farm and the house at the farm itself had a name, a fitting name. It was called Mount Misery.
About 15 years ago now, a literature professor wrote a very thoughtful piece in the Baltimore Sun newspaper suggesting a new future for Mount Misery, suggesting that the United States of America should consider buying Mount Misery to make it a commemorative site. He argued, would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a monument or museum wherein a key moment from the country’s past can find a rightful place in the public memory. The old Edward Covey house deserves our understanding and preservation, the fight between slave and slave breaker that took place there is emblematic of two of the elemental themes of American history, the horrors of legally sanctioned racial violence and also the nobility of the struggle against it.

And then her;`s actually the kicker from that piece. The professor writes, “Preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face also would help keep St. Michael’s from being merely a resort for the wealthy.”

A resort for the wealthy? Check this out. The occasion for that call that well-argued piece in the Baltimore Sun that Mount Misery should be purchased and preserved by this country as a monument to the epic violence committed there against slaves in great numbers but specifically against one of the greatest Americans of all time, the key role that the torture in that house played in turning on our American conscious to eventually overthrow slavery, the occasion for that call to preserve Mount Misery as a monument to the hell that happened there, the reason the Baltimore Sun published that just less than 15 years ago now was this revelation that was published in the New York Times exactly 15 years ago today.

On June 30th, 2006, it’s titled “Weekends with the President’s Men.” It is kind of a kicky sidebar piece in the New York Times that was published in the summer of 2006. And that piece revealed that that site on the eastern shore of Maryland, Mount Misery, that house, that farm had actually been recently purchased and was now being lived in as a private home.

Can you imagine, right? First of all, the house is still called Mount Misery today. That`s still the name by which it is known. Who would want to live in a place called Mount Misery?

But then you get to the reason that it`s called Mount Misery, right? It was the home, the same building standing there since 1804. Frederick Douglass was tortured there in 1833 and 1834. It`s the same actual physical place in which the great Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death every day for a year.

Whether or not you think that place should be purchased by this country and made into a memorial for the worst most violent evils of slavery and their role on turning on American’s conscious to end slavery, again, that’s a substantive and interesting proposal. Whether or not you are into that idea, would you want to live there yourself? Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast, have that be your home? Who would do that?

That article published in the New York Times“15 years ago today was actually controversial at the time that it was published because in writing that piece it did reveal the exact home address of a senior government official who in fact had made Mount Misery his private home. His name is Donald Rumsfeld, and he was at the time, the summer of 2006, struggling to the end of his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.

He lived at the time at Mount Misery. He bought the place in 2003 as he was leading the nation into the invasion of Iraq. That was where he went to get away from Washington while running two disastrous wars. He would like to have the Chinook helicopter drop him off at the slave breaker’s home where Douglass was tortured to death. He could relax there.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 10:31 pm

How Rumsfeld Deserves to Be Remembered

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George Packer vocally and enthusiastically backed the idea of the US invading Iraq by the US during the George W. Bush administration, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and Dick Cheney was Vice President. Cheney and Rumsfeld seemed to work closely together. Packer now writes in the Atlantic:

In 2006, soon after I returned from my fifth reporting trip to Iraq for The New Yorker, a pair of top aides in the George W. Bush White House invited me to lunch to discuss the war. This was a first; until then, no one close to the president would talk to me, probably because my writing had not been friendly and the administration listened only to what it wanted to hear. But by 2006, even the Bush White House was beginning to grasp that Iraq was closer to all-out civil war than to anything that could be called “freedom.”

The two aides wanted to know what had gone wrong. They were particularly interested in my view of the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and his role in the debacle. As I gave an assessment, their faces actually seemed to sag toward their salads, and I wondered whether the White House was so isolated from Iraqi reality that top aides never heard such things directly. Lunch ended with no explanation for why they’d invited me. But a few months later, when the Bush administration announced Rumsfeld’s retirement, I suspected that the aides had been gathering a case against him. They had been trying to push him out before it was too late.

Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara, and that is not a competition to judge lightly. McNamara’s folly was that of a whole generation of Cold Warriors who believed that Indochina was a vital front in the struggle against communism. His growing realization that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable waste made him more insightful than some of his peers; his decision to keep this realization from the American public made him an unforgivable coward. But Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.

Rumsfeld was working in his office on the morning that a hijacked jet flew into the Pentagon. During the first minutes of terror, he displayed bravery and leadership. But within a few hours, he was already entertaining catastrophic ideas, according to notes taken by an aide: “best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” And later: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” These fragments convey the whole of Rumsfeld: his decisiveness, his aggression, his faith in hard power, his contempt for procedure. In the end, it didn’t matter what the intelligence said. September 11 was a test of American will and a chance to show it.

Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the attacks and never stopped. He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he’d long advocated. He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn’t need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn’t operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he’d ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.

He believed in regime change but not in nation building, and he thought that a few tens of thousands of troops would be enough to win in Iraq. He thought that the quick overthrow of Saddam’s regime meant mission accomplished. He responded to the looting of Baghdad by saying “Freedom’s untidy,” as if the chaos was just a giddy display of democracy—as if it would not devastate Iraq and become America’s problem, too. He believed that Iraq should be led by a corrupt London banker with a history of deceiving the U.S. government. He faxed pages from a biography of Che Guevara to a U.S. Army officer in the region to prove that the growing Iraqi resistance did not meet the definition of an insurgency. He dismissed the insurgents as “dead-enders” and humiliated a top general who dared to call them by their true name. He insisted on keeping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq so low that much of the country soon fell to the insurgency. He focused his best effort on winning bureaucratic wars in Washington.

By the time Rumsfeld was fired, in November 2006, the U.S., instead of securing peace in one country, was losing wars in two, largely because of actions and decisions taken by Rumsfeld himself. As soon as he was gone, the disaster in Iraq began to turn around, at least briefly, with a surge of 30,000 troops, a policy change that Rumsfeld had adamantly opposed. But it was too late. Perhaps it was too late by the early afternoon of September 11.

Rumsfeld had intelligence, wit, dash, and endless faith in himself. Unlike McNamara, he never expressed a quiver of regret. He must have died in the secure knowledge that he had been right all along.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 6:31 pm

Donald Rumsfeld, despicable person, dies at age 88

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Update: See also “The Hell Donald Rumsfeld Built.”

Spencer Ackerman has a good obituary of Rumsfeld in the Daily Beast:

The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison. Yet that was foreordained, considering how throughout his life inside the precincts of American national security, Rumsfeld escaped the consequences of decisions he made that ensured a violent, frightening end for hundreds of thousands of people.

An actuarial table of the deaths for which Donald Rumsfeld is responsible is difficult to assemble. In part, that’s a consequence of his policy, as defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, not to compile or release body counts, a PR strategy learned after disclosing the tolls eroded support for the Vietnam War. As a final obliteration, we cannot know, let alone name, all the dead.

But in 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project put together something that serves as the basis for an estimate. According to Neda C. Crawford, Brown’s political-science department chair, the Afghanistan war to that point claimed about 147,000 lives, to include 38,480 civilians; 58,596 Afghan soldiers and police (about as many American troops as died in Vietnam); and 2,401 U.S. servicemembers.

Rumsfeld was hardly the only person in the Bush administration responsible for the Afghanistan war. But in December 2001, under attack in Kandahar, where it had retreated from the advance of U.S. and Northern Alliance forces, the Taliban sought to broker a surrender—one acceptable to the U.S.-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld refused. “I do not think there will be a negotiated end to the situation, that’s unacceptable to the United States,” he said. That statement reaped a 20-year war, making it fair to say that the subsequent deaths are on his head, even while acknowledging that Rumsfeld was hardly the only architect of the conflict.

Crawford in 2018 also tallied between 267,792 and 295,170 deaths to that point in Iraq. That is almost certainly a severe undercount, and it includes between a very conservatively estimated 182,000 to 204,000 civilians; over 41,000 Iraqi soldiers and police; and 4,550 U.S. servicemembers. As one of the driving forces behind the invasion and the driving force behind the occupation, Rumsfeld is in an elite category of responsibility for these deaths, alongside his protege Dick Cheney and the president they served, George W. Bush.

Rumsfeld’s depredations short of the wars of choice he oversaw—and yes, responding to 9/11 with war in Afghanistan was no less a choice than the unprovoked war of aggression in Iraq – were no less severe. His indifference to the suffering of others was hardly unique among American policymakers after 9/11, but his blitheness about it underscored the cruel essence of the enterprise. When passed a sheet of paper that, in bureaucratic language, pitched a torture technique of forcing men held captive at Guantanamo Bay for hours on end, Rumsfeld scribbled a shrug on it: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day.” Months earlier, when Rumsfeld was banking on using the U.S. military to invade Iraq, a reporter asked about using U.S. forces to provide security for rebuilding Afghanistan at a moment before Taliban resistance coalesced. “Ah, peacekeeping,” he sneered in return, explaining that such tasks were beneath U.S. forces.

But to those forces, for whom he was responsible, he was no less indifferent. In Kuwait in December 2004, National Guardsmen preparing for deployment confronted Rumsfeld in the hope of enlisting his help with a dire circumstance. They were scrounging through scrap heaps for metal to weld onto their insufficiently armored vehicles so the RPGs they were sure to encounter wouldn’t kill them. Rumsfeld let it be known that the war mattered, not the warfighter. “You go to war with the Army you’ve got, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” he replied.

If Rumsfeld was indignant at the question, it reflected the unreality he inhabited and the lies he told as easily as he breathed. He wrapped himself in a superficial understanding of epistemology (“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns…”) that a compliant press treated as sagacity. He wore a mask of assuredness, a con man’s trick, as he said things that bore no resemblance to the truth, such as his September 2002 insistence that he possessed “bulletproof” evidence of a nonexistent alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. As resistance in Iraq coalesced in summer 2003, Rumsfeld said it couldn’t be “anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance,” even as a reporter quoted U.S. military doctrine explaining why it was. He insisted, “I don’t do quagmires” when quagmires were all he did.

He had reason to suspect he would get away with it. Manipulating the media was, to Rumsfeld, a known known, since reporters loved Rumsfeld before they hated him. U.S. News & World Report put a grinning Rumsfeld on the cover above the headline “Rum Punch.” (“A Secretary of War Unlike Any Other… You Got A Problem With That?”) Vanity Fair dispatched Annie Liebovitz to photograph him amongst Bush’s war cabinet. People magazine called him the “sexiest cabinet member” in 2002. A typical thumbsucker piece, this one in the Los Angeles Times of August 17, 2003, began with the falsity that “Donald H. Rumsfeld has won two wars and won them his way…” The conservative press reflected the subtext. “The Stud” was what National Review called the septuagenarian Rumsfeld as it depicted him in a come-hither pose. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. He wasn’t any good at his job, and he never recognized that nor expressed any regret or remorse. He was a man who couldn’t be bothered.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 10:28 am

“I Fought in Afghanistan. I Still Wonder, Was It Worth It?”

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Timothy Kahn, formerly a USMC captain, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes in the NY Times:

When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.

Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.

It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless.

Then it’s replaced by the sweet, artificial scents of home after the long plane ride back. Suddenly I’m on a cold American street littered with leaves. A couple passes by holding hands, a bottle of wine in a tote bag, dressed for a party, unaware of the veneer that preserves their carelessness.

I remain distant from them, trapped between past and present, in the same space you sometimes see in the eyes of the old-timers marching in Veterans Day parades with their folded caps covered in retired unit patches, wearing surplus uniforms they can’t seem to take off. It’s the space between their staring eyes and the cheering crowd where those of us who return from war abide.

My war ended in 2011, when I came home from Afghanistan eager to resume my life. I was in peak physical shape, had a college degree, had a half-year of saved paychecks and would receive an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in a few months. I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Initially I attributed it to jet lag, then to a need for well-deserved rest, but eventually there was no excuse. I returned to my friends and family, hoping I would feel differently. I did not.

“Relax. You earned it,” they said. “There’s plenty of time to figure out what’s next.” But figuring out the future felt like abandoning the past. It had been just a month since my last combat patrol, but I know now that years don’t make a difference.

At first, everyone wanted to ask about the war. They knew they were supposed to but approached the topic tentatively, the way you hold out a hand to an injured animal. And as I went into detail, their expressions changed, first to curiosity, then sympathy and finally to horror.

I knew their repulsion was only self-preservation. After all, the war cost nothing to the civilians who stayed home. They just wanted to live the free and peaceful lives they’d grown accustomed to — and wasn’t their peace of mind what we fought for in the first place?

After my discharge, I moved to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

The Endgame of the Reagan Revolution

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Heather Cox Richardson writes a good summary of modern American political history:

And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.

It’s been quite a year.

But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.

In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980.

In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure.

But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color.

That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.”

To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate.

With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money.

From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.

After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.

The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters.

And so, 2000 came.

In that year, the presidential election came down to the electoral votes in Florida. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes over Republican candidate George W. Bush, but Florida would decide the election. During the required recount, Republican political operatives led by Roger Stone descended on the election canvassers in Miami-Dade County to stop the process. It worked, and the Supreme Court upheld the end of the recount. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and, thanks to its electoral votes, became president. Voter suppression was a success, and Republicans would use it, and after 2010, gerrymandering, to keep control of the government even as they lost popular support.

Bush had promised to unite the country, but his installation in the White House gave new power to the ideology of the Movement Conservative leaders of the Reagan Revolution. He inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor Democrat Bill Clinton, but immediately set out to get rid of it by cutting taxes. A balanced budget meant money for regulation and social programs, so it had to go. From his term onward, Republicans would continue to cut taxes even as budgets operated in the red, the debt climbed, and money moved upward.

The themes of Republican dominance and tax cuts were the backdrop of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. That attack gave the country’s leaders a sense of mission after the end of the Cold War and, after launching a war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda, they set out to export democracy to Iraq. This had been a goal for Republican leaders since the Clinton administration, in the belief that the United States needed to spread capitalism and democracy in its role as a world leader. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the president and the federal government, creating the powerful Department of Homeland Security, for example, and leading Bush to assert the power of the presidency to interpret laws through signing statements.

The association of the Republican Party with patriotism enabled Republicans in this era to call for increased spending for the military and continued tax cuts, while attacking Democratic calls for domestic programs as wasteful. Increasingly, Republican media personalities derided those who called for such programs as dangerous, or anti-American.

But while Republicans increasingly looked inward to their party as the only real Americans and asserted power internationally, changes in technology were making the world larger. The Internet put the world at our fingertips and enabled researchers to decode the human genome, revolutionizing medical science. Smartphones both made communication easy. Online gaming created communities and empathy. And as many Americans were increasingly embracing rap music and tattoos and LGBTQ rights, as well as recognizing increasing inequality, books were pointing to the dangers of the power concentrating at the top of societies. In 1997, J.K. Rowling began her exploration of the rise of authoritarianism in her wildly popular Harry Potter books, but her series was only the most famous of a number of books in which young people conquered a dystopia created by adults.

In Bush’s second term, his ideology created a perfect storm. His . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Enhanced interrogation in practice: This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie

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Torturing people who are merely suspects is something done by totalitarian governments — and also the US under George W. Bush. We know, even though the CIA deliberately destroyed the video recordings of the torture.

Frederic Wehrey writes in the NY Review of Books:

A few weeks before I deployed to Iraq as a young US military officer, in the spring of 2003, my French-born father implored me to watch The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s dramatic reenactment of the 1950s Algerian insurgency against French colonial rule. There are many political and aesthetic reasons to see this masterpiece of cinéma vérité, not least of which is its portrayal of the Algerian capital’s evocative old city, or Casbah. One winter morning in 2014, more than a decade after I first saw the film, I took a stroll down the Casbah’s rain-washed alleys and into the newer French-built city. Scenes from the black-and-white movie—like the landmark Milk Bar café where a female Algerian guerrilla sets off a bomb that kills French civilians—jumped to life. The ensuing French military response, memorably depicted in the film, included arbitrary arrests, torture, and “false flag” bombings that only inflamed the Algerian insurrection.

It was these moral perils of counterinsurgency that my father hinted at. “Keep your eyes open,” he told me. This was a prescient warning, one that served as the backdrop for my deployment, even if the Algerian analogy was imperfect and would become overused. As American soldiers soon faced a guerrilla and civil war in Iraq for which they were woefully ill-equipped, intellectually and militarily, The Battle of Algiers would be screened and discussed at the Pentagon. To this day, it is taught to West Point cadets as a cautionary tale.

Still, the full weight of the film’s lessons was not apparent to me in Iraq until one morning in the summer of 2003, when I received an urgent phone call about a captured Iraqi intelligence officer. My commander wanted me to go interview him at the Baghdad hospital where he was being treated for unspecified wounds.

I donned my Kevlar vest and grabbed my carbine for the trip to the so-called Green Zone in the city center, which was becoming increasingly dangerous because of bomb attacks and ambushes by a growing insurgency.

My own experience with this militancy was mostly of a distant nature—though my encounters were anything but impersonal. As an intelligence officer, I debriefed Iraqi sources and informants on insurgent groups and foreign fighters, which sometimes yielded detailed information that US soldiers would use to conduct raids, looking for weapons, explosives, insurgents, or wanted ex-regime figures. Since I read the after-action reports of these operations, I learned the names and ages of those who were captured. Sometimes, I even saw photographs of their faces. This established a sort of intimacy, a chain of causality between my actions and their fates.

In collecting the intelligence that drove these raids, I tried to vet and verify what I heard. Ninety percent of the information I discarded after rounds of questions. Much of it was outright fabrication by Iraqis seeking financial reward or favors from the US military. Others were trying lure American soldiers into helping them settle personal scores or eliminating their political, commercial, or sectarian rivals. The remainder of the information sometimes proved valid. And the resulting seizure of militants, weapons, or bomb-making materials did save lives.

On occasion, though, we did not sufficiently corroborate the information before an assault, or we got the location wrong. In the aftermath of such misdirected predawn raids on innocent Iraqi civilians, I remembered Pontecorvo’s film and would ask myself: “How many new insurgents did we just create?”

All of this was a departure from the original focus of my deployment, which was to interview former Iraqi officials about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But once the insurgency started attacking American soldiers, Iraqis, and international organizations, US military commanders demanded that more intelligence resources be devoted to penetrating the insurgents’ networks—especially since the hunt for Saddam’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons was going nowhere.

Even so, I continued to chase down any leads I got on WMD. And that was what I assumed this call about the detained Iraqi spy was about. Instead, when I got to the hospital room in the Green Zone, I found myself seated across from a man who had been at the center of one of the biggest lies behind the US decision to invade Iraq.

When Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was posted to the Iraqi embassy in Prague in the late 1990s under diplomatic cover, he quickly came under surveillance by the Czech security service. One morning in early April of 2001, an Arab informant working for the Czechs reported seeing al-Ani meeting with an Arab student at the Iraqi embassy. This student was identified, according to the report, as an Egyptian named Mohamed Atta—the man who, not long after, became the ringleader of the hijackers who carried out al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The CIA and FBI later punched holes in this story; the Czech president himself subsequently repudiated it. To begin with, the informant had identified Atta as the man from the April 2001 meeting only upon seeing his photo published in the news after September 11. The FBI’s records of Atta put him in Virginia and Florida immediately before and after the supposed Prague meeting, and the agency uncovered no evidence of international travel. But none of this stopped the Iraq war hawks in the Bush administration from seizing on the so-called Prague Connection as proof of Saddam Hussein’s supposed complicity in terrorist attacks on American soil—and using it as a casus belli for the 2003 invasion.

There at the Baghdad hospital, I joined an FBI agent in questioning the bedridden al-Ani about his time in the Czech Republic. A diminutive man with a grizzled face creased by bouts of pain, he epitomized the type of drab regime functionary I’d come to know in Iraq all too well. He answered our questions straightforwardly. In the end, the hours-long session provided no evidence about the Prague meeting to contradict the debunking that had already appeared in the press. Al-Ani had never met Mohamed Atta or even heard of him until he saw news reports after September 11. Nor was he himself even in Prague on the day of the alleged encounter; he was out of town, seventy miles away.

Even more disturbing than this non-revelation, though, was his account of his capture that summer by US special operations forces and the reason for his hospitalization. Snatching him from his Baghdad home at night, US soldiers had bound his wrists, covered his head, and forced him to lie on the floor of a Humvee for the long trip to a detention facility. Within fifteen minutes of his confinement in the vehicle, he felt an unbearable burning sensation. A Humvee’s engine is located in the front and conducts heat to the rear bed, where al-Ani was lying facedown on the bare metal. He twisted and writhed from the pain, but his American guards thought he was resisting. One of the soldiers stepped harder on his back with his boot. “Jesus, Jesus, please,” he’d cried, he told me, hoping that this invocation in English would get them to relent.

In front of us in the hospital, he lifted his gown to show us the results: severe burns, in dark-hued patches, covered his stomach, thighs, feet, and palms. As a consequence, al-Ani would endure three months of hospitalization, which involved multiple skin grafts, as well as the amputation of his thumb and the loss of movement of a finger.

After the meeting, I relayed his account of these injuries to my commanding general, who later reported the matter to a Senate inquiry into detainee abuses. The US Department of Justice also included the FBI’s account of this same interview in the inspector general’s 2008 report on detainee interrogations. And, over several years, the US Army investigated the incident, concluding that al-Ani’s injuries were consistent with his story and that “the offences of Assault and Cruelty and Maltreatment was [sic] substantiated.” Despite that finding, the Army dropped the case.

To my knowledge, nobody was ever disciplined or punished for al-Ani’s mistreatment.

*

It is a cruel irony that this Iraqi man was first used as a prop for an American invasion and then subjected to disfiguring violence by soldiers who had carried out that invasion. But his story weighs on me in other ways. The abuses we’ve seen in US policing have deep, homegrown roots, but I am convinced that they are also partly a result of the militarization of law enforcement born of the Iraq War and America’s other overseas interventions. The Iraq disaster has rippled across virtually every facet of American life, deepening the inequalities that divide us, stirring a popular contempt for “expertise” that has opened the door to demagoguery, and contributing to the hollowing-out of our infrastructure and institutions in ways that have left the country dangerously exposed to future shocks.

The Iraq debacle is what the journalist Robert Draper, in his engrossing recent book on the decision to oust Saddam, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, correctly calls . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

16 September 2020 at 4:59 pm

Why the International Criminal Court will investigate possible U.S. war crimes — even if the Trump administration says it can’t

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Kelebogile Zvobgo writes in the Washington Post:

Judges in the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court on Thursday authorized Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation into alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. This is a big milestone in international criminal justice — for the first time in history, U.S. leaders, armed forces and intelligence personnel may face a trial in an international court for crimes perpetrated in the context of the nation’s wars abroad.

In April, the Pre-Trial Chamber rejected Bensouda’s first request for an investigation. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the Appeals Chamber’s overturning of the decision, calling the ICC “an unaccountable political institution masquerading as a legal body.”

What are the alleged abuses? How does the ICC have jurisdiction over the United States? What will ordinary U.S. citizens make of an ICC investigation? My research explains how U.S. citizens are more supportive of the ICC than the Trump administration’s rhetoric suggests.<

The ICC prosecutor examined evidence of U.S. torture and abuse

In 2006, the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) opened a preliminary examination into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Afghan conflict since 2003 — the year Afghanistan became a member of the ICC.

The OTP examined allegations of abuses by both anti-government and pro-government forces, including the Taliban, the Afghan National Security Forces, the United States, armed forces and the CIA. The OTP says the information it gathered indicates, among other allegations, that U.S. interrogation techniques used in Afghanistan — involving “torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape” — amount to war crimes.

Some ICC judges are worried about going after the U.S.

The United States is not a member of the ICC. However, the treaty that created the court, the Rome Statute, allows it to investigate citizens of nonmember states if the alleged crimes occurred on the territory of a member state. Once Afghanistan ratified the Rome Statute and joined the ICC in 2003, U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan came under the court’s jurisdiction.

[The International Criminal Court was established 20 years ago. Here’s how.]

In November 2017 — after more than a decade of gathering evidence — the prosecutor requested authorization to open a full investigation, arguing there was “a reasonable basis to believe” U.S. military and intelligence personnel committed war crimes.

A year and a half later, in April 2019, the Pre-Trial Chamber unanimously rejected the request. The judges agreed the request was in the ICC’s jurisdiction and admissible before the ICC. However, they claimed the investigation would probably not be successful and, therefore, it would not serve the interests of justice to proceed.

The 2019 decision sparked controversy in the human rights community. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued statements criticizing the court’s judges for capitulating to the Trump administration’s threats and, in the process, abandoning the victims of the alleged crimes.

The ICC will move ahead, despite the political risks

Bensouda swiftly appealed the decision. Her office coordinated a multifaceted response, drawing on submissions from victims’ legal representatives and amicus curiae briefs from human rights organizations.

[The U.S. revoked the visa for the ICC prosecutor. That bodes poorly for international criminal justice.]

On Thursday, the Appeals Chamber unanimously reversed the Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision, saying it had gone beyond its power by rejecting the prosecutor’s request. The Rome Statute requires only that the Pre-Trial Chamber determine whether “there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” and whether “the case appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court.”

Since these facts were not in dispute, there was no basis to reject the prosecutor’s request. Last week’s decision authorizes . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

11 March 2020 at 4:14 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

Trump Is Doing the Same Thing on Iran That George W. Bush Did on Iraq

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Understandable in that Trump is devoid of originality and thus naturally must copy. Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

Last week, intelligence officials testified publicly that Iran has not resumed its efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon. The next day, President Trump called these officials “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran,” and advised, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

The first-blush response to this presidential outburst was to dump it in the same category as Trump’s other public eruption against members of his government who undercut his preferred narratives with inconvenient facts. That response is probably correct: this Trump tantrum is probably like all the other Trump tantrums. But there is another possible meaning to this episode: Trump’s rejection of intelligence assessments of Iran’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities eerily echoes the Bush administration’s rejection of Iraq’s WMD capabilities a decade and a half earlier.

Shortly after their testimony, the intelligence officials were summoned to the Oval office for a photographed session in which they publicly smoothed over their breach with the president, and (according to Trump) assured him that their remarks had been misconstrued, despite having been delivered in public and broadcast in their entirety. Yet Trump’s interview broadcast Sunday with Margaret Brennan on CBS made clear how little little headway they made in regaining his trust.

Trump told Brennan he plans to maintain troops in Iraq because, “I want to be able to watch Iran … We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.” But would he accept the assessments that he received? No, Trump replied, he wouldn’t.

His reason for rejecting this intelligence was consistent. Trump is unable to separate the question, Do I like Iran’s government and its foreign policy? from the question Is Iran building a nuclear weapon? Tell Trump that Iran is abiding by its nuclear commitment, and what he hears you saying is, “Iran is a lovely state run by wonderful people.”

If that account of Trump’s thinking sounds too simplistic, just look at his answers:

I’m not going to stop [intelligence officials] from testifying. They said they were mischaracterized — maybe they were maybe they weren’t, I don’t really know — but I can tell you this, I want them to have their own opinion and I want them to give me their opinion. But, when I look at Iran, I look at Iran as a nation that has caused tremendous problems …

My intelligence people, if they said in fact that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100 percent. It is a vicious country that kills many people …

So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is — if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel.

In fact, intelligence officials did not deny Iran has caused problems. They simply asserted facts about its nuclear weapons. Trump cannot hear those facts without translating it into Iran being comprehensively “wonderful.”

Even more remarkably, Trump explained that intelligence assessments could not be trusted because they had failed in the run-up to the Iraq war:

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to move on here but I should say your intel chiefs do say Iran’s abiding by that nuclear deal. I know you think it’s a bad deal, but—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I disagree with them. I’m — I’m — by the way—

MARGARET BRENNAN: You disagree with that assessment?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: —I have intel people, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein—

MARGARET BRENNAN: Sure.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: —in Iraq had nuclear weapons — had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in.

Trump’s understanding of this history is almost perfectly backwards. U.S. intelligence officials never said Iraq “had nuclear weapons,” or even anything close to that. They did overstate Iraqi weapons capabilities. But — crucially — the Bush administration also pressured intelligence agencies to inflate their findings, as John Judis and Spencer Ackerman reported in 2003, and administration officials overstated the intelligence that was produced, as the Senate Intelligence Committee found in 2008.

The backdrop to this episode does have some important differences with the current moment. The Bush administration had been plunged into an adrenal panic by the 9/11 attacks. Its rush toward war was largely choreographed by Dick Cheney, a skilled bureaucratic operator, and enjoyed broad public legitimacy created by the national unity bestowed upon Bush by the surprise attack. None of these conditions apply to the easily distracted, childlike, and deeply unpopular sitting president.

And while Cheney has departed the scene, National Security Council director John Bolton has assumed a somewhat parallel role. An ultrahawk with a long record of punishing subordinates who undermine the factual basis for his preferred policies, Bolton has emerged as Trump’s most influential foreign policy adviser. Bolton in 2015 insisted that Iran was racing toward a nuclear weapon. (“Even absent palpable proof, like a nuclear test, Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear weapons has long been evident.”) He likewise concluded that diplomacy could never work (“The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program”) and that “only military action” could stop it.

As Trump has grown alienated from his national security apparatus, Bolton appears to be the one remaining official who has retained a measure of his trust. And while he may not have a Cheney-like ability to manipulate the president, Bolton does benefit from a near vacuum in rival power sources. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

4 February 2019 at 4:46 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

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. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

5 January 2019 at 2:34 pm

American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Myth

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

Donald Trump has done more to elevate the left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy than any politician in modern memory.

As a presidential candidate, the mogul told Republican primary audiences that George W. Bush had lied the United States into Iraq; that said war had done a “tremendous disservice to humanity”; and that America could have saved countless lives by investing $5 trillion in domestic infrastructure instead. As commander-in-chief, Trump has suggested that there is no moral distinction between the U.S. and other great powers; that American foreign policy in the Middle East is largely dictated by the interests of arms manufacturers; and that the U.S. judges foreign regimes by their utility to American economic interests, not their commitment to human rights.

But if Trump’s descriptions of geopolitics echo Noam Chomsky, his prescriptions owe more to Attila the Hun. The president does see the invasion of Iraq as a criminal waste — but only because the U.S. failed to expropriate the region’s oil fields. He does imply that, in the eyes of the American state, Raytheon’s profits count more than journalists’ lives —but he sees that as a good thing. And when Trump suggests our country isn’t “so innocent,” he isn’t imploring neoconservatives to hold America to higher moral standards, but rather, to hold foreign autocrats to lower ones.

In other words, the Trump presidency can be read as an object lesson in the virtues of hypocrisy. Having a global hegemon that preaches human rights — while propping up dictators and incinerating schoolchildren — is bad. But having one that does those things while preaching nihilism is worse; not least because even a nominal commitment to liberal values can function as a constraint against their violation. Trump’s distaste for the whole “shining city on a hill” shtick has, among other things, enabled the Pentagon to tolerate higher levels of civilian casualties in the Middle East, the Israeli government to accelerate settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, and the Saudi crown prince to take a bonesaw to international law.

It’s understandable, then, that many liberal intellectuals are eager to revive the national myths that Trump has busted. Such thinkers concede that Trump has highlighted flaws in the triumphalist, Cold War narrative about American global leadership. And they acknowledge the necessity of rethinking what “leading the free world” truly requires of the United States. But they nevertheless insist that America’s self-conception as an exceptional power — which is to say, as a hegemon whose foreign policy is shaped by universal ideals (as opposed to mercenary interests) — isn’t just a beneficent fiction, but an actual fact. And that compulsion is unfortunate; because it will be difficult for liberals to realize their vision for America’s exceptional future, if they refuse to grapple with its unexceptional past.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, former Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan presents one of the more compelling cases for making America exceptional again. Against Dick Cheney’s arrogant, unilateralist approach to world leadership — and Trump’s nihilistic disavowal of America’s international obligations — Sullivan offers a call for restoring the U.S. to its former role as a benevolent hegemon, one whose global supremacy is legitimated by its demonstrable commitment to spreading peace, democracy, and shared prosperity.

Crucially, Sullivan recognizes that this restoration is contingent on sweeping reform. He acknowledges that,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

5 January 2019 at 2:30 pm

Nico Walker is a convicted bank robber. ‘Cherry’ proves he’s also a must-read author.

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Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World writes:

You won’t hear Nico Walker on a book tour anytime soon because he’s serving two more years in prison for bank robbery. But don’t wait to pick up his lacerating new novel about the horrors of war and addiction. “Cherry” is a miracle of literary serendipity, a triumph born of gore and suffering that reads as if it’s been scratched out with a dirty needle across the tender skin of a man’s forearm.
The story of how this autobiographical novel evolved is almost as remarkable as the story of how its debut author survived. In 2005 and 2006, Walker served as an Army medic in Iraq, where he was commended for valor and saw many of his buddies blown to pieces. Returning to civilian life depressed and traumatized, he became addicted to heroin, a habit he funded with extravagant success by robbing 10 banks in four months.
In 2013, when Walker was behind bars in the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Ky., his journey from hero to thief became the subject of a harrowing profile in BuzzFeed. One of many people struck by that story was Matthew Johnson, a publisher at the independent press Tyrant Books. Fascinated by the historical tradition of war vets taking up bank robbery, Johnson sent Walker books and encouraged him to write about his life. Eventually, through one of those wildly circuitous trajectories that make up the map of literary history, Walker’s disheveled manuscript ended up at Alfred A. Knopf, the nation’s most prestigious publishing house.
In a gracious and unusually detailed acknowledgment at the end of “Cherry,” Walker credits Tim O’Connell, his editor at Knopf, with transforming those typewritten pages into this tour de force. But when I contacted O’Connell, he claimed he did nothing but edit Walker’s manuscript as usual. “It is the fruit of his hard work and remarkable natural talents,” O’Connell said, “especially his voice, which is unlike any other. Nico simply poured everything he had into it.”
That sounds right — and true to the searing authenticity of this novel, which tries to answer the question, “How do you get to be a scumbag?” But in the process of laying out the road to perdition, Walker demonstrates the depths of his humanity and challenges us to bridge the distance that we imagine separates us from the damned.

We meet the unnamed narrator in 2003 when he’s a listless college student raised by a nice middle-class family. From the start, his tone is one of mournful candor with a trace of straight-faced wit. “I sold drugs but it wasn’t like I was bad or anything,” he says. “I wasn’t bothering anybody; I didn’t even eat meat. I had a job at the shoe store. Another mistake I made. No interest whatsoever in shoes. I was marked for failure.”
With the same rueful smirk, he enlists in the Army “because I’d been saying I would.” The inane tests, the screaming sergeants, the empty slogans — none of it impresses him. “You just had to remember it was all make-believe,” he says. “We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.”
But there’s nothing make-believe about the blood that’s soon gushing across these pages. As an Army medic, he goes on missions that are vaguely explained, often impromptu, frequently disastrous. His fellow soldiers are regularly called upon to brutalize the local people. The Iraqis, for their part, are experts at planting IEDs in the roads. “I was supposed to pretend to be some kind of great healer,” the narrator says, but his medical expertise rarely involves more than scraping up bits of his friends and zipping them in bags. “I was not a hero,” he says.
Of course, we’ve heard these stories before, in superb fiction and nonfiction by other soldiers. But Walker, 33, brings a raw and casual brutality to the narrative of battle. His rambling collection of chaotic anecdotes involve drugs and porn, acts of cruelty and kindness, unending boredom pierced by spikes of terror. These juxtapositions convey the fundamental disorder of the American mission and its deleterious effect on the young people forced to implement it. His language, relentlessly profane but never angry, simmers at the level of morose disappointment, something like Holden Caulfield Goes to War: “I’m glad I missed the battle because it was probably bulls— and the Army just murdered your dog anyway.”
But Walker also channels an even older novelist who saw the carnage of war. His prose echoes Ernest Hemingway’s cadences to powerful effect like this: “By the time it was fall you could tell we were all a little off. In that state none of us could have passed in polite society; those of us who’d been kicking in doors and tearing houses up and shooting people, we were psychotic. And we were ready for it to end. There was nothing interesting about it anymore. There was nothing.”
Ironically, that sense of sliding into the abyss accelerates when . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 August 2018 at 8:43 pm

Posted in Books, Iraq War

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.

A disheartening report: New CIA Director Gina Haspel Oversaw Torture at a Black Site Then Lost Evidence of It

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Matthew Gault writes in Motherboard:

In another shake up in Washington, Rex Tillerson is out as the Secretary of State and President Trump said he will promote CIA Chief Mike Pompeo to the position. Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo as head of the CIA. Haspel famously ran the CIA’s first black site prison in Thailand during the early days of the War on Terror.

Haspel has tortured people, overseen the torture of people, and destroyed the evidence of said torture. A quick reminder—torture isn’t an effective method of intelligence gathering.

We know this because of cables the CIA declassified describing the torture. In August 2002, the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah—former manager of a training camp in Afghanistan—and began to torture him at a black site in Thailand while Haspel was running it. The Senate’s infamous torture report also details the torture of Zubaydah while he was in Haspel’s custody.

“Subject began crying as he was told that we wanted information to stop operations against the U.S,” the cables read. “Subject was told he could stop the process at any time. Subject continued with his appeal that he has told all that he has and muttered ‘help me.’ Between 1250 and 1315 the waterboard technique was applied numerous times. Subject was put into a large box at 1317.”

To get a sense of Zubaydah’s treatment, the Senate report mentions his name 1,343 times in 712 pages.

On another day, “subject was led to the small box and shut in at 1349 hours…at 1412 hours, subject could be heard sobbing, which continued for some time.” When the CIA captured Zubaydah, he had two eyes. Now he has one. He was waterboarded a total of 83 times.

According to the Senate’s torture report, “CIA Headquarters formally proposed that [Zubaydah] be kept in an all-white room that was lit 24 hours a day, that [Zubaydah] not be provided any amenities, that his sleep be disrupted, that loud noise be constantly fed into his cell, and that only a small number of people interact with him. CIA records indicate that these proposals were based on the idea that such conditions would lead [Zubaydah] to develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness.’”

Haspel was the head of the Thailand site during Zubaydah’s torture, a position referred to in the documents as the “chief of base.” Repeatedly in the cables, the chief of base or COB takes a direct role in the torture. “On July 15, 2002, a cable providing details on the proposed interrogation phase stated that only the DETENTION SITE GREEN chief of Base would be allowed to interrupt or stop an interrogation in process, and that the chief of Base would be the final decision-making authority as to whether the CIA’s interrogation techniques applied to [Zubaydah] would be discontinued,” the Senate torture report explained.

At one point, the chief of base congratulated Zubaydah on a fine acting job and accused him of faking a mental breakdown under torture, according to CIA psychologist and torture architect James Mitchell. “Good job,” Mitchell wrote in his book, quoting the COB. “I like the way you’re drooling, it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.” Several former associates put her in the room at the time of Zubaydah’s torture. She signed many of the reports sent from Thailand to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

One cable detailed in the Senate report attributed to Detention Site Green’s chief of base read notes some opposition to the techniques: . . .

Continue reading.

A willingness to torture people is to my mind a sign of bad character, as is a willingness to torture animals.

Trump has declared that he wants the US to resume its practice of torture. He has also called for the entire family of any terrorist to be murdered (i.e., no due process). The US seems to be circling the moral drain.

Written by Leisureguy

13 March 2018 at 11:19 am

After the liberation of Mosul, an orgy of killing

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This is a depressing report, but it does reflect the on-going costs of George W. Bush’s boneheaded decision to invade Iraq, a totally unnecessary invasion sold to the American public by a series of lies. None of those who lied us into war have faced any accountability whatsoever. Dishonest and incompetent Presidents do a lot of damage, as we have seen.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports in the Guardian. It’s a lengthy article, which begins:

One hot and sticky evening in July, in the dying days of the battle for Mosul, a group of Iraqi army officers sat for dinner in a requisitioned civilian house not far from the ruins of the mosque where, three years earlier, the leader of Islamic State had announced the creation of a new caliphate.

At the head of the table sat the commander, large and burly, flanked by his two majors. The rest of the officers were seated according to rank, with the youngest officers placed at the far end. The commander, who was trying to lose weight, had banned his cook from serving meat at mealtimes, but tonight was a special occasion. The day before, his unit had liberated another block of streets in the Old City without suffering any casualties. In celebration, a feast of bread soaked in okra stew, and roasted meat shredded over heaps of rice flavoured with nuts and raisins, was laid out on a white plastic table.

Over the previous eight months, since the commander and his men had started fighting in Mosul, the caliphate had shrunk to a tiny sliver of the Old City squeezed between the River Tigris and advancing columns of army and police forces. Thousands of Isis fighters, who captured the city in 2014, were now trapped, living without running water or electricity, with dwindling supplies of food and medicine, being bombed day and night by US drones and jets. Caught in the siege with them were thousands of civilians. The few who were managing to escape came out filthy, emaciated and crazed by thirst and the constant bombing.

The officers at dinner that night were all veterans of the war against Isis, but nothing in their long years of fighting compared to what they had experienced over the past few weeks in Mosul, one of the fiercest urban battles since the second world war. They fought in narrow alleyways, old stone houses and dense networks of tunnels and basements. Their advance was sometimes measured in metres, and their casualties were mounting.

“We have one more battle and Mosul will be fully liberated, inshallah,” the commander said as he tucked into his meal. A captain who was still limping from a recent injury said: “Our fathers used to talk about the Iran-Iraq war as the ‘long war’. That one lasted for eight years. Well, soon this war against Isis will surpass it.”

Laughing, the commander asked the officers to open the military maps on their phones and proceeded to explain the plan for the next day’s advance. “You jump into this building, make a fire base here and here at street corners,” he said, giving them the coordinates of the street. “You advance towards this high building. Your flanks will be secured by other units. Once you take the building, you will dominate the whole area with your snipers and we can reach the river in few hours.”

Before leaving, a wiry junior officer named Taha asked the commander: “Sir, what do we do with the two detainees?” The prisoners had crossed the frontlines the night before and taken shelter with a civilian who denounced them to the army. “We tried to hand them to the intelligence service, but they refused to take them.”

“Yes,” the commander said, “they told me: ‘You deal with detainees from your end. We can’t hold them because of human rights and Red Cross inspections.’”

“We worked on them all night,” said the junior officer. “One eventually confessed that he was with Daesh [Isis], but he said he left them two months ago.” At that, everyone in the room laughed. “The other,” the junior officer continued, “we beat him hard but he didn’t confess, so I think he must be innocent.”

“Just finish them,” said a major.

“Release one and finish the other,” the commander said.

The sentence issued, now came the question of who would be bestowed with the honour of executing an Isis fighter. Kifah, a tall and lean soldier, stood next to the table and asked to be given the prisoner. But the junior officer suggested that they gift the prisoner to a captain who was still grieving the loss of his brother, killed by Isis a month ago.

“Call him and give him the detainee,” said the commander, getting up from his chair. The officers rose swiftly and stood to attention as he made his way to the living room where tea was to be served.

In a neighbouring house, the two detainees were squatting in a corner, resting against the green walls of a bare room, lit by a fluorescent light that hung from the ceiling. Outside the room, soldiers in T-shirts and shorts walked back and forth, paying no attention to the two captives.

Shortly after dinner, Taha walked into the room and grabbed the head of the younger man who was to be released on the commander’s order. He had been beaten so hard that a large ball of pink flesh had replaced his right eye, and his lips were blue, thick and pouting. “Eh, you have lost your eye, who did this to you?” asked Taha, laughing.

From the circle of soldiers that had formed around the two detainees, a very skinny soldier came forward grinning. “Why? Why did you do this to this poor citizen?” Taha mocked, and the soldiers hooted in response. The young detainee stared back blankly at the soldiers with his remaining eye.

“You,” the junior officer said to the condemned man, “come with me.” When they reached the street, two soldiers bundled him into the back of a Humvee to be delivered as a gift to the grieving officer.

The junior officer lifted his chin and eyebrows, a gesture to signal that it was all over. When the Humvee had driven off, the second detainee was brought in. The soldiers pushed him into the dark street and told him to run away quickly. If he turned back, they would shoot him. The man hobbled into the darkness, dragging his broken body along, likely to be detained and tortured by another army unit.

The following morning, Taha and two officers headed to the Old City to scout the frontline before the coming battle. They walked through streets scattered with twisted cars and lorries, past half-collapsed houses and craters left by airstrikes. As they reached the end of an alleyway, they heard a woman’s drawn-out screams.

Not far off, a soldier from another unit was dragging a thin young woman by her wrist. Her shirt was torn open and her headscarf had slid down to her shoulder, revealing stringy, salt-and-pepper hair. She tried to resist as she stumbled barefoot over rocks, moaning and pleading for help, but the soldier pulled her into a bombed-out house. Two soldiers who followed him told the officers, laughing, that they knew the woman was with Daesh because they had found “five bundles” ($50,000) on her. (Mosul is a rich city, and because Iraq has no banking system, the woman could have been carrying all her family savings in cash. But after three years of Isis rule, most people in the city had sold everything in order to feed their family, and anyone who had enough money to allow them to leave had already done so. Thus, the woman was suspected of being linked to Isis.)

The officers grumbled about the lucky soldier who had stumbled across this money. “And he got a woman as well,” said one.

“But did you see how ugly she was?” answered the other, and they turned and walked on.

They stopped by the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had addressed his followers in 2014, to snap selfies in the rubble. The medieval al-Hadba minaret, which had long been a symbol of the city, with its elegant design and familiar leaning shape, lay in heaps of 800-year-old bricks. It had been blown up by retreating Isis fighters in mid-June.

From behind the ruins, refugees were pouring out of shelled houses. They emerged dazed and scared after months of siege and bombardment. Even by the standards of Mosul, they were wretched and miserable. A soldier carrying an old woman stopped in the middle of the road to rest. She clung to his back, fearing that he might leave her in the middle of this madness. Taha went to the soldier and lent him a hand, and together they carried her to a shed where medics were trying to help other people fleeing.

They were followed by the woman’s young daughter, who held a large Qur’an in her hands, and her injured brother, who lay on a stretcher carried by two soldiers. His bones stuck out of his skinny flesh, his right leg was bandaged and he had an old scar that stretched the length of his abdomen. After depositing him in the shed, the two men left. Now other soldiers took an interest in him, grabbing him and starting to question him about his injuries.

“He was trying to get water from the river when he was shot by a sniper,” cried his sister as her brother lay in the stretcher, smiling faintly.

“This is the injury of a fighter,” said one soldier. “Take him to where his brothers are.” Two men helped the injured man to his feet and walked him across the street into an empty shop, where he was shot.

The women screamed, begged and wailed, but the soldiers ignored them. “You are Daesh,” one soldier said. “All of you in the Old City are Daesh.”


One of the factors that had aided Isis’s takeover of Mosul was the conduct of the Iraqi army and security forces stationed in the city, who behaved like sectarian occupation forces, mistreating and detaining the population at will. In the early stages of the battle for Mosul, the Iraqi army and police, keen to change their prevailing image, had taken care to preserve the lives of civilians. Soldiers and officers used their vehicles to help people evacuate their homes, and offered water and medical help. But the Old City was seen as the last refuge of Isis, and almost every inhabitant was treated as a suspect. Fighting-age men from other parts of the city, and those with injuries, were detained on the spot. The rest were sent to detention centres, where their identity would be checked.

On the way back from the Old City, the officers went into the basement of an old stone house, where a couple of soldiers lay on filthy mattresses, recording military coordinates of the different battalions taking part in the next day’s offensive. The filth in the house matched the ruins of the streets outside. Flies swarmed over discarded food packets, and dozens of empty plastic bottles lay amid piles of women’s clothing and other domestic items.

Then, on the radio, between batches of numbers, came the words: “We caught a Daesh.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2017 at 11:00 am

Posted in Iraq War

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