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Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

Torture: No One Said No

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David Cole has a good column in the NY Review of Books:

Who bears ultimate responsibility for the US torture program? The report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released in December, told us much about how the program was implemented and carried out: it was fundamentally ill-conceived, poorly managed, and led to grievous abuses of basic human rights with little or no accountability. Yet the Senate report focused almost exclusively on the CIA, and despite intense debate about it in Washington and in the press, remarkably little was said about the responsibility of the Bush administration itself. In this regard, a separate, largely overlooked trove of newly declassified documents, mostly internal CIA records of correspondence with White House officials and lawyers, is particularly revealing.

The documents, which were uploaded to a mysterious website by the name of ciasavedlives.com, provide dramatic new details about the direct involvement of senior Bush administration officials in the CIA’s wrongs. They were apparently declassified by the CIA at the request of former director George Tenet, who presumably hoped they would help defend his record as director during the agency’s descent into torture. But they hardly exculpate the agency. Rather, they show an extended conspiracy between the CIA and administration officials that played out for the duration of the program, in which the agency leadership repeatedly asked for approval for patently illegal interrogation methods, and repeatedly got “yes” for an answer. This is the record of an agency with a guilty conscience, and of multiple high-level officials and lawyers eager to enable it at every turn.

Even though the program had been approved at its outset by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in July 2002 and by Attorney General John Ashcroft in August 2002, the slightest hint that the Bush administration might actually be committed to avoiding torture or inhumane treatment caused the CIA to panic. Bush administration lawyers had determined that the methods the agency was using to induce detainees to talk—including waterboarding, extended sleep deprivation, slamming into walls, and painful stress positions—were not torture and did not violate the prohibition on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. But the agency acted as if it couldn’t quite believe it. It kept returning to the White House and the DOJ asking them to say, yet again, that the agency could do what it had already been told it could do.

Again and again, the agency’s concerns were triggered by official statements by the Bush administration suggesting that the US does not mistreat its prisoners. The first concerns arose in late 2002, after the program had been fully approved. Scott Muller, then general counsel of the CIA, worried that the program might conflict with a February 2002 memo from President Bush entitled “Humane Treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban Detainees.” In that memo, Bush had proclaimed that the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment of all wartime detainees, did not apply to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but stated that “as a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely.”

In December 2002, Muller twice asked John Bellinger, counsel to National Security Adviser Rice, whether this posed a problem for the CIA’s continuing program. Bellinger twice told Muller not to worry, assuring him that the CIA’s techniques were “consistent with the President’s direction as reflected in the February Memo,” and urging him to speak to Justice Department lawyer John Yoo about it. Yoo, who with Jay Bybee wrote the initial Justice Department memo approving of the CIA’s interrogation tactics in August 2002, concurred, and told Muller that the February memo “had been deliberately limited to be binding only on ‘the Armed Forces’ which did not include the CIA.”

Early the next year, in January 2003, Muller again raised the issue in a meeting with four top legal officials for the Bush administration—White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, Counsel to the Vice-President David Addington, Defense Department General Counsel Jim Haynes, and Yoo. Again, Addington and Gonzales reassured Muller, confirming that the commitment to humane treatment did not apply to the CIA. Tellingly, no one suggested that the CIA’s tactics were actually “humane”; rather, they insisted that only the Armed Forces, and not the CIA, were bound to treat detainees humanely.

All of these reassurances were not enough, however. The CIA came back for more in July 2003. This time its anxiety was the result of three events in the last week of June 2003. DOD General Counsel Haynes had written a letter to Senator Pat Leahy, stating that “United States policy is to treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur, in a manner consistent with” the US’s international treaty commitment to prevent “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” The administration had issued a press release on International Day in Support of Victims of Torture that condemned “cruel” treatment of detainees. And a White House press officer had said that US government detainees were being treated “humanely.” Tenet promptly wrote a memo to Rice asking the administration to reaffirm its commitment to the CIA interrogation program in light of, or more properly, in spite of, these statements.

The implicit predicate of Tenet’s request is that what the CIA was doing was in fact cruel and inhumane, and therefore not in keeping with the administration’s representations. But in a meeting on July 29, 2003, attended by Tenet, Muller, Vice President Cheney, Rice, Ashcroft, Gonzales, Bellinger, and Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin, the CIA was again told not to worry. Vice President Cheney was apparently aghast, not at the program, but at the press. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2015 at 2:45 pm

Drawbacks of drone warfare

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One drawback is evident: when a US drone sends a missile to blow up a wedding party or a meeting of village elders, it creates great anger at the US among the survivors and the family members of those killed and maimed. But there are other drawbacks as well. Pratap Chatterjee writes at TomDispatch.com:

The U.S. drone war across much of the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa is in crisis and not because civilians are dying or the target list for that war or the right to wage it just about anywhere on the planet are in question in Washington. Something far more basic is at stake: drone pilots are quitting in record numbers.

There are roughly 1,000 such drone pilots, known in the trade as “18Xs,” working for the U.S. Air Force today. Another 180 pilots graduate annually from a training program that takes about a year to complete at Holloman and Randolph Air Force bases in, respectively, New Mexico and Texas. As it happens, in those same 12 months, about 240 trained pilots quit and the Air Force is at a loss to explain the phenomenon. (The better-known U.S. Central Intelligence Agency drone assassination program is also flown by Air Force pilots loaned out for the covert missions.)

On January 4, 2015, the Daily Beast revealed an undated internal memo to Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh from General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle stating that pilot “outflow increases will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 [Predator and Reaper] enterprise for years to come” and added that he was “extremely concerned.” Eleven days later, the issue got top billing at a special high-level briefing on the state of the Air Force. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James joined Welsh to address the matter. “This is a force that is under significant stress — significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations,” she told the media.

In theory, drone pilots have a cushy life. Unlike soldiers on duty in “war zones,” they can continue to live with their families here in the United States. No muddy foxholes or sandstorm-swept desert barracks under threat of enemy attack for them. Instead, these new techno-warriors commute to worklike any office employees and sit in front of computer screens wielding joysticks, playing what most people would consider a glorified video game.

They typically “fly” missions over Afghanistan and Iraq where they are tasked with collecting photos and video feeds, as well as watching over U.S. soldiers on the ground. A select few are deputized to fly CIA assassination missions over Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen where they are ordered to kill “high value targets” from the sky. In recent months, some of these pilots have also taken part in the new war in the Syrian and Iraqi borderlands, conductingdeadly strikes on militants of ISIL.

Each of these combat air patrols involves three to four drones, usually Hellfire-missile-armed Predators and Reapers built by southern California’s General Atomics, and each takes as many as 180 staff members to fly them. In addition to pilots, there are camera operators, intelligence and communications experts, and maintenance workers. (The newer Global Hawk surveillance patrols need as many as 400 support staff.)

The Air Force is currently under orders to staff 65 of these regular “combat air patrols” around the clock as well as to support a Global Response Force on call for emergency military and humanitarian missions. For all of this, there should ideally be 1,700 trained pilots. Instead, facing an accelerating dropout rate that recently drove this figure below 1,000, the Air Force has had to press regular cargo and jet pilots as well as reservists into becoming instant drone pilots in order to keep up with the Pentagon’s enormous appetite for real-time video feeds from around the world.

The Air Force explains the departure of these drone pilots in the simplest of terms. They are leaving because they are overworked. The pilots themselves say that it’s humiliating to be scorned by their Air Force colleagues as second-class citizens. Some have also come forward to claim that the horrors of war, seen up close on video screens, day in, day out, are inducing an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

But is it possible that a brand-new form of war — by remote control — is also spawning a brand-new, as yet unlabeled, form of psychological strain? Some have called drone war a “coward’s war” (an opinion that, according to reports from among the drone-traumatized in places like Yemen and Pakistan, is seconded by its victims). Could it be that the feeling is even shared by drone pilots themselves, that a sense of dishonor in fighting from behind a screen thousands of miles from harm’s way is having an unexpected impact of a kind psychologists have never before witnessed?

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 March 2015 at 8:11 am

“Snowden ready to return home”: Media deceit? or media incompetence?

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Glenn Greenwald writes at The Intercept:

Most sentient people rationally accept that the U.S. media routinely disseminates misleading stories and outright falsehoods in the most authoritative tones. But it’s nonetheless valuable to examine particularly egregious case studies to see how that works. In that spirit, let’s take yesterday’s numerous, breathless reports trumpeting the “BREAKING” news that “Edward Snowden now wants to come home!” and is “now negotiating the terms of his return!”

Ever since Snowden revealed himself to the public 20 months ago, he has repeatedly said the same exact thing when asked about his returning to the U.S.: I would love to come home, and would do so if I could get a fair trial, but right now, I can’t.

His primary rationale for this argument has long been that under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute under which he has been charged, he would be barred by U.S. courts from even raising his key defense: that the information he revealed to journalists should never have been concealed in the first place and he was thus justified in disclosing it to journalists. In other words, when U.S. political and media figures say Snowden should “man up,” come home and argue to a court that he did nothing wrong, they are deceiving the public, since they have made certain that whistleblowers charged with “espionage” are legally barred from even raising that defense.

Snowden has also pointed out that legal protections for whistleblowers are explicitly inapplicable to those, like him, who are employed by private contractors (rendering President Obama’s argument about why Snowden should “come home” entirely false). One month after Snowden was revealed, Daniel Ellsberg wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Postarguing that Snowden did the right thing in leaving the U.S. because he would not be treated fairly, and argued Snowden should not return until he is guaranteed a fully fair trial.

Snowden has said all of this over and over. In June 2013, when I asked him during the online Guardian chat why he left the U.S. for Hong Kong, he said: “the US Government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home . . . That’s not justice, and it would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it.” In January 2014, AP reported about a new online chat Snowden gave: “Snowden said returning would be the best resolution. But Snowden said he can’t return because he wouldn’t be allowed to argue at trial that he acted in the public interest when he revealed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs.” In that chat, he said: “Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself.”

In his May, 2014 interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, Snowden said: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 March 2015 at 4:27 pm

Obama is upset that China wants tech companies to undermine their own security

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This is very weird: Obama goes on record as saying that the Chinese government is out of line in requiring tech companies to provide back doors to encrypted data—but doesn’t say a word about the same push from the US government. Andrea Peterson reports in the Washington Post:

President Obama came out against back doors in encrypted communications — if the Chinese government can access them. But the president has avoided taking a position on whether tech companies should build in ways for U.S. law enforcement to access secure communications, a policy endorsed by some high-ranking administration figures.

Obama criticized a far-reaching Chinese counterterrorism proposal during an interview with Reuters released Monday. The Chinese plan would require technology companies to build back doors into their products and hand over encryption keys that secure customer data for use in Chinese surveillance programs.

The laws, the president said, “would essentially force all foreign companies, including U.S. companies, to turn over to the Chinese government mechanisms where they can snoop and keep track of all the users of those services.” Obama told Reuters he had directly raised his concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We have made it very clear to them that this is something they are going to have to change if they are to do business with the United States.”

The debate over foreign access to secure online communications mirrors a standoff happening in the United States. The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the president’s comments. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told The Washington Post that the government’s concerns were more about intellectual property rights and trade concerns than protecting communications. . .

Continue reading. It’s a good article and summarizes well the positions—and clearly points out the fallacy in requiring “strong encryption” that’s been weakened by a back door that can be exploited by anyone who finds it—and those who discover the weakness will be tempted to sell that information, so the encryption becomes a trap: those using it think they are protected and they are not.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 March 2015 at 10:03 am

Petraeus and whistleblowers: Unequal treatment before the law

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Contrast the classified materials Petraeus revealed with what Thomas Drake leaked, and the difference in how they were treated. Petraeus is handled with kid gloves and protected; Drake was pilloried. The US today does not believe in equal justice before the law; it believes in protecting the wealthy and powerful no matter what. Peter Maass reports for The Intercept:

David Petraeus, the former Army general and CIA director, admitted today that he gave highly-classified journals to his onetime lover and that he lied to the FBI about it. But he only has to plead guilty to a single misdemeanor that will not involve a jail sentence thanks to a deal with federal prosecutors. The deal is yet another example of a senior official treated leniently for the sorts of violations that lower-level officials are punished severely for.

According to the plea deal, Petraeus, while leading American forces in Afghanistan, maintained eight notebooks that he filled with highly-sensitive information about the identities of covert officers, military strategy, intelligence capabilities and his discussions with senior government officials, including President Obama. Rather than handing over these “Black Books,” as the plea agreement calls them, to the Department of Defense when he retired from the military in 2011 to head the CIA, Petraeus retained them at his home and lent them, for several days, to Paula Broadwell, his authorized biographer and girlfriend.

In October 2012, FBI agents interviewed Petraeus as part of an investigation into his affair with Broadwell — Petraeus would resign from the CIA the next month — and Petraeus told them he had not shared classified material with Broadwell. The plea deal notes that “these statements were false” and that Petraeus “then and there knew that he previously shared the Black Books with his biographer.” Lying to FBI agents is a federal crime for which people have received sentences of months or more than a year in jail.

Under his deal with prosecutors, Petraeus pleaded guilty to just one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, a misdemeanor that can be punishable by a year in jail, though the deal calls only for probation and a $40,000 fine. As The New York Times noted today, the deal “allows Mr. Petraeus to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.”

The deal has another effect: it all but confirms a two-tier justice system in which senior officials are slapped on the wrist for serious violations while lesser officials are harshly prosecuted for relatively minor infractions.

For instance, last year, after a five-year standoff with federal prosecutors, Stephen Kim, a former State Department official, pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act when he discussed a classified report about North Korea with Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009. Kim did not hand over a copy of the report — he just discussed it, and nothing else — and the report was subsequently described in court documents as a “nothing burger” in terms of its sensitivity. Kim is currently in prison on a 13-month sentence.

“The issue is not whether General Petraeus was dealt with too leniently,  because the pleadings indicate good reason for that result,” said Abbe Lowell, who is Kim’s lawyer. “The issue is whether others are dealt with far too severely for conduct that is no different. This underscores the random, disparate and often unfair application of the national security laws where higher-ups are treated better than lower-downs.”

In 2013, former CIA agent John Kiriakou pleaded guilty to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by disclosing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter; he was sentenced to 30 months in jail. Kiriakou’s felony conviction and considerable jail sentence — for leaking one name that was not published — stands in contrast to Petraeus pleading guilty to a misdemeanor without jail time for leaking multiple names as well as a range of other highly-sensitive information.

Kiriakou, released from prison earlier this year, told The Intercept in an emailed statement, “I don’t think General Petraeus should have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act, just as I don’t think I should have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act.  Yet only one of us was. Both Petraeus and I disclosed undercover identities (or confirmed one, in my case) that were never published. I spent two years in prison; he gets two years probation.”

The prosecution of Kiriakou, Kim and other leakers and whistleblowers has been particularly intense under the Obama Administration, which has filed more than twice as many leak cases under the Espionage Act as all previous administrations combined. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 March 2015 at 4:19 pm

On Iran: Absence of Plan B

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Kevin Drum has an interesting note: No commentator who is opposed to Obama’s negotiations with Iran has any Plan B. More at the link, but that’s the essence. It’s like the GOP opposition to Obamacare: they don’t like it, but they don’t have an alternative to offer. The same with negotiating with Iran: they don’t like it, but they don’t have an alternative to offer. Childish, not to put too fine a point on it.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 March 2015 at 9:35 am

Netanyahu apparently is set on a war with Iran

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I think he’d be biting off a lot more than he could chew, but I imagine he figures if he starts the war, he can use the US as a catspaw to save him (and Israel). In other words, he thinks to play the US for his own ends. Mark Langfan has this report:

The Bethlehem-based news agency Ma’an has cited a Kuwaiti newspaper report Saturday, that US President Barack Obama thwarted an Israeli military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2014 by threatening to shoot down Israeli jets before they could reach their targets in Iran.

Following Obama’s threat, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was reportedly forced to abort the planned Iran attack.

According to Al-Jarida, the Netanyahu government took the decision to strike Iran some time in 2014 soon after Israel had discovered the United States and Iran had been involved in secret talks over Iran’s nuclear program and were about to sign an agreement in that regard behind Israel’s back.

The report claimed that an unnamed Israeli minister who has good ties with the US administration revealed the attack plan to Secretary of State John Kerry, and that Obama then threatened to shoot down the Israeli jets before they could reach their targets in Iran.

Al-Jarida quoted “well-placed” sources as saying that Netanyahu, along with Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, had decided to carry out airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program after consultations with top security commanders.

According to the report, . . .

Continue reading. Video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 March 2015 at 11:59 am

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