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Sailors Report Enduring Concerns About Navy Readiness and Leadership

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Kengo Tsutsumi reports in ProPublica:

This story was originally published in our Disaster in the Pacific newsletter. Read earlier reporting from this series here, and sign up to get emails when we publish updates.

The responses by the sailors — consistent, repeated — can be jarring to read:

Are you getting enough sleep? “No.”

Do you feel well-trained to do your job? “No.”

Have there been scenarios in which you or your bosses had concerns about the safety of the ship and crew but felt they could not say no to new tasking? “Yes.”

Please rate your confidence in Navy leadership in the Pentagon. “I am not confident.”

On Feb. 26, ProPublica published a callout aimed primarily at active-duty men and women in the U.S. Navy. We had published two stories about neglect, exhaustion and deadly mishaps in the 7th Fleet, the largest armada anywhere and once the Navy’s crown jewel. Now, we wanted to take a measure of the confidence in the many reforms the Navy had announced in assuring the nation that it was addressing the systemic shortcomings laid bare after two fatal accidents in the Pacific in 2017.

We’ve received dozens of responses from active-duty sailors and their families, but also from people who retired from the Navy, academics and contractors.

Thirty active-duty sailors have completed our callout so far. Twenty-eight of them testified to some combination of fear, lack of training and an absence of confidence in the Navy’s leadership. Almost one-fifth of them described working 100 hours a week or more while underway.

One officer in the 2nd Fleet lamented that there was still not consistent training to enable men and women to master the wide variety of steering systems in place on the fleet’s ships. A sailor on a 7th Fleet aircraft carrier worried that the widespread problem of sleep deprivation was leading to profound mental health issues, with some sailors being placed on suicide watch. Another 2nd Fleet sailor said that the promised reforms aimed at improving training, adequately staffing ships and better caring for overtaxed service members sounded fine on their face, but that they ran the risk of proving to be a largely empty exercise.

“If the Navy paid more attention to the job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation of sailors, then a lot of these other systemic issues will fix themselves,” the sailor wrote. “All of these recommendations are great, but if it is not a joint effort for change, with ideas and suggestions from those expected to implement the change, then it will just continue a ‘culture of compliance,’ which Navy leaders have stated they want to transform into a ‘culture of excellence.’ This change cannot be forced down, but must be grown from the ground up.”

A spokesman said that Navy leadership continues to take “aggressive action” implementing changes meant to address the issues revealed by ProPublica’s reporting. “The reform process will take time, resources, and most importantly, trust,” Cmdr. Jereal Dorsey said. In response to sailor feedback, some commanders have “taken action where appropriate,” including canceling deployments for ships that weren’t ready.

The callout, to be sure, is limited, and it is perhaps not surprising that responses have so far been dominated by people who felt alarmed or found fault with the Navy. But the responses certainly echo the themes the Navy has already conceded are problems. As well, almost two years after the deadly crashes involving the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, the Navy has yet to fully satisfy its congressional overseers that the reforms have been accomplished. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2019 at 12:18 pm

Posted in Daily life, Military

Donald Trump Is a One-Man Foreign Policy Catastrophe

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Doyle McManus reviews Donald Trump’s foreign policy:

As president he named himself negotiator-in-chief and tried to cajole North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to abandon nuclear weapons. He reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, betting he could force the ayatollahs to change their ways. He vowed to force China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union to give up what he called unfair trade practices. He backed an uprising in Venezuela aimed at toppling its leftist president, Nicolas Maduro. He declared victory against Islamic State and ordered U.S. troops home from Syria. In his spare time, he asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has achieved none of those outcomes.

But he might declare war on Iran. And impose tariffs on European cars. And commit the United States to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2019 at 11:09 am

The USA today: Trump Pardons Former Soldier Who Murdered Naked Iraqi Prisoner

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Eric Levitz writes in New York:

Eleven years ago, U.S. forces arrested an Iraqi man named Ali Mansur, on the suspicion that he was a member of al-Qaeda who had knowledge of a recent roadside bombing that had killed two American soldiers. Intelligence professionals interrogated Mansur. Then, officials ordered Army First Lieutenant Michael Behenna to drive Mansur home.

Instead, Behenna drove the detainee into the desert, stripped him naked, interrogated him at gunpoint, and then shot him in the head and chest. Behenna insists that he shot the naked man he illegally abducted in self-defense. He was convicted of unpremeditated murder.

This week, President Trump awarded Behenna a full pardon. The former soldier had already secured some leniency from the Justice Department; Army Clemency and Parole reduced his sentence from 25 years to 15, and paroled him as soon as he was eligible in 2014. Nevertheless, securing a full pardon for Behenna became a popular cause in his home state of Oklahoma, one embraced by its military community and elected officials. Two of Behenna’s friends died in the roadside bombing that preceded Mansur’s arrest. In his sympathizers’ view, Behenna had only wanted to secure information from Mansur to save other American lives. His actions were rash and insubordinate. But they were the well-intentioned products of trauma — and Mansur would still be alive if he hadn’t attempted to steal the lieutenant’s firearm.

The White House cited this community support along with Behenna’s model behavior as prisoner in a statement justifying his pardon.

Critics argue that the act of clemency could actually endanger American soldiers overseas, by weakening norms against the inhumane treatment of prisoners of war.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump defended war crimes in general — and the mass murder of Muslim prisoners of war, in particular — as highly effective and legitimate tools for advancing U.S. national security.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump informed Fox & Friends in December 2015. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

Two months later at a rally in South Carolina, he told a false story about how General John Pershing put down an insurgency by the Muslim Moro people in the Philippines (after America’s invasion and occupation of those islands) in the early 20th century.

“And there’s a whole thing with swine, and animals, and pigs, and you know the story, okay? They don’t like that. And they were having a tremendous problem with terrorism,” Trump explained. “He took 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men, and he dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood. You heard that right? He took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pig’s blood, and he had his men load up his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people and the 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people and you tell them what happened’.”

Eight months into his first term as president, Trump reiterated his admiration for this approach to fighting “terrorism.”

Trump’s other pardons include former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, who refused to respect the civil rights of Arizona’s Latino residents despite a court order to cease his unconstitutional racial-profiling practices. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

7 May 2019 at 3:21 pm

After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

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The US government seems to be moving to embrace ignorance (and incompetence). Geoff Brumfiel reports at NPR:

A secretive group of scientists who advise the U.S. government on everything from spy satellites to nuclear weapons is scrambling to find a sponsor after the Defense Department abruptly ended its contract late last month.

The group, known as the Jasons, will run out of money at the end of April. The Pentagon says that the group’s advice is no longer needed, but independent experts say it has never been more relevant and worry the department is throwing away a valuable resource.

Russell Hemley, the head of the Jasons, says that other government agencies still want advice and that the Jasons are determined to give it.

Late Thursday, it appeared that another government agency might be willing to take on the group. The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration posted a solicitation saying it intends to take over the contract for the group. That could happen in a matter of months, and it is unclear how the Mitre Corp., which manages the Jasons, would fund the group in the interim.

The Jasons group comprises about 60 members. By day, they’re normal academics, working at colleges and universities and in private industry. But each summer, they come together to study tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government.

The group’s name, like the group itself, is shrouded in mystery, though it’s believed to be a reference to Jason, the Greek mythological prince who leads the Argonauts in looking for the Golden Fleece.

“The idea that they’re going to cut back on the kind of advice that the Jasons provide is not good for the Department of Defense,” says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, an independent watchdog group. “It’s not good for the nation.”

“We’re very independent, we have this diversity of talent and we often come up with very different, very original perspectives and solutions to problems,” says Hemley, a physicist and chemist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hemley is one of the few members who publicly identify themselves as part of the group. He says the Jasons are unlike anything else out there — academics at the top of their individual fields, with security clearances that let them work on any problem.

The group’s origins go back to the early days of the Cold War.

“They just formed themselves, back in 1960,” says Ann Finkbeiner, who wrote The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite. It began when a group of physicists won funding from the Pentagon to spend the summer learning about the problems facing the Defense Department in its fight against the Soviet Union. These stubborn researchers were determined to advise the government. They went on to study everythingfrom anti-submarine warfare to missile defense.

“Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South,” Finkbeiner says.

The problem was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find beneath the dense jungle canopy. The Jasons’ solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy. The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial and didn’t work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare, in which sensors provide troops with detailed battlefield information, Finkbeiner says.

In recent years, Hemley says, the Jasons have broadened the areas they study. They’ve tried to help the Department of Agriculture develop better ways to use data to understand crop production, for example. And they advised the Census Bureau on how to streamline its operations.

So it came as a surprise to Hemley and others when, in late March, the Pentagon abruptly announced it was ending its primary contract with the Jasons. The contract, run through the Mitre Corp., is the vehicle that allows the Jasons to do work with other parts of the government as well. Without it, the group has no way of getting the several million dollars in funding it needs to operate annually.

“The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review,” Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb said. But Aftergood sees another reason for the end of the relationship. He says that the Jasons are a blunt bunch. If they think an idea is dumb or won’t work, they aren’t afraid to say so.

“They were offering the opposite of cheerleading,” he says. “And DOD decided that maybe they didn’t want to pay for that any longer.”

Aftergood says it’s a real mistake to cut ties with the Jasons now. The Pentagon is embarking on ambitious research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced hypersonic missiles. The Jasons have expertise on these topics and will likely be useful. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 April 2019 at 7:43 am

Navy SEALs Were Warned Against Reporting Their Chief for War Crimes

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Dave Philipps reports in the NY Times:

Stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death. Picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost. Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.

Navy SEAL commandos from Team 7’s Alpha Platoon said they had seen their highly decorated platoon chief commit shocking acts in Iraq. And they had spoken up, repeatedly. But their frustration grew as months passed and they saw no sign of official action.

Tired of being brushed off, seven members of the platoon called a private meeting with their troop commander in March 2018 at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. According to a confidential Navy criminal investigation report obtained by The New York Times, they gave him the bloody details and asked for a formal investigation.

But instead of launching an investigation that day, the troop commander and his senior enlisted aide — both longtime comrades of the accused platoon leader, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher — warned the seven platoon members that speaking out could cost them and others their careers, according to the report.

The clear message, one of the seven told investigators, was “Stop talking about it.”

The platoon members eventually forced the referral of their concerns to authorities outside the SEALs, and Chief Gallagher now faces a court-martial, with his trial set to begin May 28.

But the account of the March 2018 meeting and myriad other details in the 439-page report paint a disturbing picture of a subculture within the SEALs that prized aggression, even when it crossed the line, and that protected wrongdoers.

According to the investigation report, the troop commander, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Breisch, said in the meeting that while the SEALs were free to report the killings, the Navy might not look kindly on rank-and-file team members making allegations against a chief. Their careers could be sidetracked, he said, and their elite status revoked; referring to the eagle-and-trident badges worn by SEALs, he said the Navy “will pull your birds.”

The enlisted aide, Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Alazzawi, warned them that the “frag radius” — the area damaged by an explosion — from a war-crime investigation of Chief Gallagher could be wide enough to take down a lot of other SEALs as well, the report said.

[For more stories about the changing nature of warfare, sign up for the weekly At War newsletter.]

Navy SEALs are regarded as the most elite commando force in the American military. But that reputation has been blotted repeatedly in recent years by investigations of illegal beatings, killings and theft, and reports of drug use in the ranks. In January, the top commander of the SEALs, Rear Adm. Collin Green, ordered a 90-day review of the force’s culture and training; the results have not yet been made public.

As Chief Gallagher’s men were sounding an alarm about killings in Iraq, his superiors were lavishing praise on him. An evaluation quoted in the investigation report called Chief Gallagher the best chief of the 12 in the team, and said, “This is the man I want leading SEALs in combat.”

A few days after the March 2018 meeting, the chief was awarded a Bronze Star for valor under fire in Iraq.

A month later, the seven platoon members finally succeeded in spurring their commanders to formally report the killings of the three Iraqis to the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, by threatening to go directly to top Navy brass and to the news media.

Chief Gallagher was arrested in September on more than a dozen charges, including premeditated murder and attempted murder. If convicted, he could face life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty and denies all the charges.

The chief’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, said the Navy investigation report, which was first reported by Navy Times, does not offer an accurate account of what happened in Iraq. He said that hundreds of additional pages of evidence, sealed by the court, included interviews with platoon members who said the chief never murdered anyone.

At the same time, some conservatives have rallied to Chief Gallagher’s defense, raising money and pressing publicly for his release.

Chief Gallagher, through Mr. Parlatore, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The Navy has charged Chief Gallagher’s immediate superior, Lt. Jacob Portier, with failing to report the chief’s possibly criminal actions and with destroying evidence. Lieutenant Portier has pleaded not guilty. Through his lawyer, he, too, declined to be interviewed.

The investigation report indicates that a number of other high-ranking SEALs also knew of the allegations against the chief, and did not report them. But no one else has been charged in the case.

Chief Gallagher learned of the March 2018 meeting soon after it happened, the report indicates, and he began working to turn other SEALs against the accusers.

“I just got word these guys went crying to the wrong person,” Chief Gallagher wrote to a fellow chief in one of hundreds of text messages included in the report. To another, he wrote: “The only thing we can do as good team guys is pass the word on those traitors. They are not brothers at all.”

Citing his texts, the Navy kept the chief in the brig to await trial, saying it believed he had been trying to intimidate witnesses and undermine the investigation. He denies that accusation as well. . .

Chief Gallagher, who is 39 and goes by the nickname Blade, is known as a standout even among the elite SEALs. Over the course of five deployments with the SEALs, he was repeatedly recognized for valor and coolheaded leadership under fire. He is qualified as a medic, a sniper and an explosives expert, and has been an instructor at BUDS, the force’s grueling training program. To hundreds of sailors he trained, he was a battle-tested veteran who fed them war stories while pushing them through punishing workouts in the surf.

Investigators’ interviews with more than a dozen members of Alpha Platoon, included in the Navy’s criminal investigation report, as well as other interviews with SEALs, offer a more troubling portrait of the chief.

When Chief Gallagher took over leadership of the platoon in 2015, SEALs said, he already had a reputation as a “pirate” — an operator more interested in fighting terrorists than in adhering to the rules and making rank.

A number of platoon members told investigators that at first they were excited to be led by a battle-hardened “legend,” but their opinion quickly shifted after they were deployed to Iraq in February 2017 to help retake Mosul from Islamic State fighters. . .

A spokeswoman for Naval Special Warfare, Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, said that while they are commandos, SEALs are still expected to follow the same laws as all other troops, adding, “It’s called special operations, not different operations.”

The investigation report said several members of the platoon told investigators that Chief Gallagher showed little regard for the safety of team members or the lives of civilians. Their mission was to advise Iraqi forces and provide assistance with snipers and drones, but they said the chief wanted instead to clear houses and start firefights.

He would order them to take what seemed to be needless risks, and to fire rockets at houses for no apparent reason, they said. He routinely parked an armored truck on a Tigris River bridge and emptied the truck’s heavy machine gun into neighborhoods on the other side with no discernible targets, according to one senior SEAL.

Chief Gallagher’s job was to plan and oversee missions for the platoon, but platoon members said he spent much of his time in a hidden perch with a sniper rifle, firing three or four times as often as other platoon snipers. They said he boasted about the number of people he had killed, including women.

Photos from the deployment that were stored on a hard drive seized by the Navy show the chief aiming sniper rifles and rocket launchers from rooftops in the city.

Two SEAL snipers told investigators that one day, from his sniper nest, Chief Gallagher shot a girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with other girls on the riverbank. One of those snipers said he watched through his scope as she dropped, clutching her stomach, and the other girls dragged her away.

Another day, two other snipers said, the chief shot an unarmed man in a white robe with a wispy white beard. They said the man fell, a red blotch spreading on his back.

Before the 2017 deployment, Chief Gallagher ordered a hatchet and a hunting knife, both handmade by a SEAL veteran named Andrew Arrabito with whom he had served, text messages show. Hatchets have become an unofficial SEAL symbol, and some operators carry and use them on deployments. Chief Gallagher told Mr. Arrabito in a text message shortly after arriving in Iraq, “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”

On the morning of May 4, 2017, Iraqi troops brought in an Islamic State fighter who had been wounded in the leg in battle, SEALs told investigators, and Chief Gallagher responded over the radio with words to the effect of “he’s mine.” The SEALs estimated that the captive was about 15 years old. A video clip shows the youth struggling to speak, but SEAL medics told investigators that his wounds had not appeared life-threatening.

A medic was treating the youth on the ground when Chief Gallagher walked up without a word and stabbed the wounded teenager several times in the neck and once in the chest with his hunting knife, killing him, two SEAL witnesses said. . .

A week later, records show, Chief Gallagher texted a picture of the dead captive to a fellow SEAL in California, saying, “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.”

But his platoon did not see it as a good story, according to the investigation report: The SEALs called a platoon meeting and discussed how to keep the chief away from anyone he could harm.

When senior platoon members confronted Chief Gallagher about the captive’s death, they said, he told them, “Stop worrying about it, they do a lot worse to us.”

The SEALs told investigators they reported the killing to Lieutenant Portier that night and at other times during the deployment, but the lieutenant took no action. They said the lieutenant had trained under Chief Gallagher at BUDS and “idolized” him.

Members of the platoon hoped the chief would be reprimanded when they returned home from Iraq in August 2017, according to the report. It didn’t happen. The report said they spoke repeatedly to the lieutenant’s superior, Commander Breisch, and to Chief Alazzawi and another Team 7 master chief, but were told to “decompress” and “let it go.” . . .

Read the whole thing.

The US seems to be in a very ugly phase.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 April 2019 at 12:40 pm

Guantánamo’s Darkest Secret

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Ben Taub writes in the New Yorker:

The Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Detainee

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

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There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 April 2019 at 12:55 pm

Xenophon as a writer and as a person

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Eve Browning, a professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has an article in Aeon that made me dig up my copy of Xenophon’s Anabasis:

The band of mercenary soldiers had been on the move through hostile territory for several months when they were told they had enlisted under a lie. They weren’t marching to put down a rebellion; they were instead marching in rebellion. Offers of special duty pay from their leader, Cyrus the Younger, however, calmed their anger and doubt, and on they advanced, dusty boots through the desert, as the heat of late-summer Persia rose around them in shimmering waves. The villages they passed by were hostile and strange: alien languages, customs, religions. There was little fresh water.

They has assembled under Cyrus in order to overthrow his brother and rival, Artaxerxes II, king of Persia. Before they reached his defensive line, they were harried on their flanks and from behind, depleting morale and using up their supplies. At a small village named Canaxa 50 miles north of Baghdad, they finally met the Persian king’s forces, on a day when the noon temperature could have fried a pork chop. As the battle began, Cyrus rashly charged Artaxerxes himself. He was pierced through by a javelin thrown by one of Artaxerxes’ guards, and died on the spot.

With heavy casualties and no reason to continue fighting, the mercenaries fell back. They were bleeding deserters. Those who had been recruited near Sardis and Smyrna, and who spoke some of the local languages, melted away. The remainders built camp and waited, parlayed, moved camp, skirmished, and waited some more. In the pitiless heat, now without communication or direction, they discussed their next moves with no particular conviction. After nearly a month of this, an envoy came: would their unit leaders please come to Artaxerxes’ tent and converse about their plans? The leaders agreed. The encamped troops waited for word on the parley. It was not until they saw Artaxerxes’ riders carrying the heads of their former leaders that the truth dawned on them. The campaign was lost. In order to survive, they must disperse.

So began this band of about 10,000 mercenaries’ two-year journey out of hostile country, from the heart of Persia to the shores of the Black Sea. Among the most important of the new leaders was a youngish Greek named Xenophon. By journey’s end, when he finally returned to Athens, Xenophon would have served the equivalent of six consecutive modern deployments and, like any modern soldier sent repeatedly into combat zones, he would be marked for life by what he experienced on that doomed expedition and the subsequent long march through winter mountains to the sea.

The Anabasis is the first military memoir in the history of Western literature, and it recounts Xenophon’s experiences in the Persian campaign of Cyrus against his brother King Artaxerxes, and the long march ‘up country’. Since Xenophon waited several decades to commit these memories to writing, some have argued that they cannot be accurate. But as anyone who has listened to combat veterans will know, there’s a lot about the remembrance of past tours of duty that time cannot soften nor the years wear away.

Xenophon also wrote histories, portraits of leaders, practical treatises on horse training, hunting and running a household, among other things. An enduring theme that runs through much of his writing, and which has received scholarly attention in recent years, is that of leadership. What makes a good leader? What kind of leader can induce humans to endure hardships and expend effort toward a common goal? What exemplary traits mark out a leader and allow him or her to execute the requisite tasks with skill, induce a harmonious fellowship among those for whom he is responsible, maintain loyalty and mission clarity among the ‘troops’, whomever they might be? It is not difficult to see the formative roots of these questions, and of Xenophon’s answers to them, in that literally death-defying, embattled 2,000-mile march up-country to the sea.

Xenophon also wrote down his remembrances of a local philosopher named Socrates. Those who know Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato – Xenophon’s near-exact contemporary – will find Xenophon’s Socrates something of a surprise. Plato’s Socrates claims to know nothing, and flamboyantly refutes the knowledge claims of others. In the pages of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, however, Socrates actually answers philosophical questions, dispenses practical life advice, provides arguments proving the existence of benevolent gods, converses as if peer-to-peer with a courtesan, and even proposes a domestic economy scheme whereby indigent female relatives can become productive through the establishment of a textile business at home.

Socrates’ conversation, according to Xenophon, ‘was ever of human things’. This engaged, intensely practical, human Socrates can be refreshing to encounter. Anyone who has felt discomfort at how the opponents of Plato’s Socrates suffer relentless public refutations and reductions to absurdity can take some comfort in Xenophon’s Socrates who ‘tries to cure the perplexities of his friends’.

For instance, what could be more enchanting than a Socrates who solo-dances for joy and exercise, so unlike the Socrates we know from Plato? In Xenophon’s Symposium, Socrates asks the Phoenician dance-master to show him some dance moves. Everyone laughs: what will you do with dance moves, Socrates? He replies: ‘I’ll dance, by God!’ A friend of Socrates then tells the group that he had stopped by his house early in the morning, and found him dancing alone. When questioned about it, Socrates happily confesses to solo-dancing often. It’s great exercise, it moves the body in symmetry, it can be done indoors or outdoors with no equipment, and it freshens the appetite.

Another surprising side of Xenophon’s Socrates is shown through his encounter with a person who not only doesn’t honour the gods, but makes fun of people who do. To this irreligious person, Socrates presents a careful and persuasive line of reasoning about the designed usefulness of all elements of creation. For humans and many other animals, there are ‘eyes so that they can see what can be seen, and ears so that they can hear what can be heard’, eyelids, eyelashes, molars and incisors, erotic desire to aid procreation; all these are ‘the contrivance of some wise craftsman who loves animals’. And what about the cosmos as a whole? ‘Are you, then, of the opinion that … those surpassingly large and infinitely numerous things are in such an orderly condition through some senselessness?’ Human beings even have the spiritual capacity to perceive the existence of gods, ‘who put in order the greatest and noblest things’, and ‘they worry about you!’

It is noticeable that this Socrates takes his conversation partner through logical steps that are not designed to refute him or humiliate him, but to awaken him to a different way of looking at the natural world. He already acknowledges that there are ordered systems of utility and benefit in nature; he just needs to think about how these could have come to be, and why, and to what end. It’s not brow-beating, but gentle leading, which leaves his intellectual self-respect intact. This is a hallmark of Xenophon’s Socrates. Through such conversations as these, Socrates showed his commitment to leading his companions toward virtue, making them better human beings – the highest aim of any leader, in any field.

Though the historical person of Socrates will remain forever enigmatic, it could be argued that Xenophon strikes closer to real life in his depictions of the man. Plato had a serious philosophical agenda of his own, involving a search for transcendence, purified rationality and sublimity. Xenophon’s interests are at once more worldly and more realistic.

The concept of ordered usefulness is central to the thinking of Xenophon’s Socrates. As with the individual aspects of the natural world, so also with the system of the world as a whole: it is an orderly, and therefore beautiful, cosmos. For Xenophon, the two – beauty and order – are definitionally connected, which comes through in the story of Ischomachus, the fictional narrator of Oeconomikos, Xenophon’s book on domestic economy.

Ischomachus recalls hearing someone describe a Phoenician merchant ship. Though the storage area was not overly large, all the equipment was easily accessible and nothing interfered with anything else. This was, he says, ‘the most beautiful and meticulous arrangement of equipment that I ever saw’. The ship’s mate has this beautiful orderly spectacle so deeply engraved in his mind that he can describe every article’s position when away from the ship. Ischomachus, who is engaged in telling his wife how they can best cooperate on home storage, stresses the similar value of neatly ordered household items:

And what a facetious man would laugh at most of all, but a serious man would not: even pots appear graceful when they are arranged in a discriminating manner … All other things somehow appear more beautiful when they are in a regular arrangement. Each of them looks like a chorus of equipment, and the interval between them looks beautiful when every item is kept clear of it, just as a chorus of dancers moving in a circle is not only a beautiful sight in itself, but the interval between them seems pure and beautiful too …

Beautiful pots in rows! And beautiful shoes and sheets: ‘How beautiful it looks, when shoes are arranged in rows, each kind in its own proper place, how beautiful to see all kinds of clothing properly sorted out, how beautiful bed-linens, bronze pots, tableware!’ The rationale for the beauty of order is functional. In disordered systems, things get in the way of each other. Looking for the shoes that bring us joy, we must flail through the odd ones that pinch our toes. Order creates ease and efficiency. To illustrate, Xenophon reverts to his early military experience: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2019 at 10:23 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Military

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