September 24, 2011
The Washington Post published an eye-opening report on the United States’ rapidly expanding network of secret drone bases in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and even the Indian Ocean:
The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.
One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.
The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.
The tiny Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles is being used for a drone base under the new U.S. Africa Command. Wikileaks released diplomatic cables indicating that the U.S. plans to arm the drones and that U.S. negotiators as well as president of the Seychelles wanted such discussions to be secret:
The U.S. government is known to have used drones to carry out lethal attacks in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The negotiations that preceded the establishment of the base in the Republic of Seychelles illustrate the efforts the United States is making to broaden the range of its drone weapons.
The island nation of 85,000 people has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009. U.S. and Seychellois officials have previously acknowledged the drones’ presence but have said that their primary mission was to track pirates in regional waters. But classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.
The cables, obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, reveal that U.S. officials asked leaders in the Seychelles to keep the counterterrorism missions secret. The Reapers are described by the military as “hunter-killer” drones because they can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.
To allay concerns among islanders, U.S. officials said they had no plans to arm the Reapers when the mission was announced two years ago. The cables show, however, that U.S. officials were thinking about weaponizing the drones.
During a meeting with Seychelles President James Michel on Sept. 18, 2009, American diplomats said the U.S. government “would seek discrete [sic], specific discussions . . . to gain approval” to arm the Reapers “should the desire to do so ever arise,” according to a cable summarizing the meeting. Michel concurred, but asked U.S. officials to approach him exclusively for permission “and not anyone else” in his government, the cable reported.
Michel’s chief deputy told a U.S. diplomat on a separate occasion that the Seychelles president “was not philosophically against” arming the drones, according to another cable. But the deputy urged the Americans “to be extremely careful in raising the issue with anyone in the Government outside of the President. Such a request would be ‘politically extremely sensitive’ and would have to be handled with ‘the utmost discreet care.’ ”
A U.S. military spokesman declined to say whether the Reapers in the Seychelles have ever been armed.
“Because of operational security concerns, I can’t get into specifics,” said Lt. Cmdr. James D. Stockman, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Africa Command, which oversees the base in the Seychelles. He noted, however, that the MQ-9 Reapers “can be configured for both surveillance and strike.”
We might expect to see more of these kinds of secret drone bases in the future given the immense cost of maintaining a network of 1000 foreign military bases and rising calls to cut these foreign bases:
In a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, there was evidence of rising support for closing American overseas military bases and bringing the soldiers home.
The September 13 hearing was called to consider the nomination of Ashton Carter to be Deputy Secretary of Defense, the number two position, replacing Bill Lynn.
Many of the Senators present used the occasion to criticize the “disaster” ahead for the Pentagon and U.S. security if the Pentagon budget is forced to swallow deep budget cuts.
But in little noticed asides, a liberal Democrat, a moderate Democrat and a conservative Republican all called for closing overseas bases.
Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, led off the chorus of the skeptics. Levin argued
“Now, given the budget pressures under which the department’s going to be operating, one of the things that some of us believe we have to do is to take a look at the stationing and restationing of and the location of our military forces overseas where we’ve got large number of bases, and to consider both relocation and the restationing possibly of some of those military forces from overseas bases back to the United States. Is that on the table [to be considered as a reduction]?”
Ash Carter agreeably agreed that the issue was a potential candidate for cuts without committing to anything: “On the table.”
January 27, 2010
U.S. special forces and intelligence agents are deeply involved in military operations against suspected al-Qaeda affiliates. It is amazing and frigthening that the government has designated at least three U.S. citizens for assassination. The U.S. is now killing its own citizens for political crimes of being affiliated with a government identified “terrorist” organization.
U.S. military teams, intelligence deeply involved in aiding Yemen on strikes
By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; A01
U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.
The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.
As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. The officials, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations.
The broad outlines of the U.S. involvement in Yemen have come to light in the past month, but the extent and nature of the operations have not been previously reported. The far-reaching U.S. role could prove politically challenging for Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who must balance his desire for American support against the possibility of a backlash by tribal, political and religious groups whose members resent what they see as U.S. interference in Yemen.
The collaboration with Yemen provides the starkest illustration to date of the Obama administration’s efforts to ramp up counterterrorism operations, including in areas outside the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.
“We are very pleased with the direction this is going,” a senior administration official said of the cooperation with Yemen.
Obama has ordered a dramatic increase in the pace of CIA drone-launched missile strikes into Pakistan in an effort to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban members in the ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghan border. There have been more such strikes in the first year of Obama’s administration than in the last three years under President George W. Bush, according to a military officer who tracks the attacks.
Obama also has sent U.S. military forces briefly into Somalia as part of an operation to kill Saleh Ali Nabhan, a Kenyan sought in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya.
Republican lawmakers and former vice president Richard B. Cheney have sought to characterize the new president as soft on terrorism after he banned the harsh interrogation methods permitted under Bush and announced his intention to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama has rejected those two elements of Bush’s counterterrorism program, but he has embraced the notion that the most effective way to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is to work closely with foreign partners, including those that have feeble democracies, shoddy human rights records and weak accountability over the vast sums of money Washington is giving them to win their continued participation in these efforts.
In the case of Yemen, a steady stream of high-ranking officials has visited Saleh, including the rarely seen JSOC commander, Vice Adm. William H. McRaven; White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command.
A Yemeni official briefed on security matters said Tuesday that the two countries maintained a “steadfast cooperation in combating AQAP, but there are clear limits to the U.S. involvement on the ground. Information sharing has been a key in carrying out recent successful counterterrorism operations.” AQAP is the abbreviation for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate operating in Yemen.
In a newly built joint operations center, the American advisers are acting as intermediaries between the Yemeni forces and hundreds of U.S. military and intelligence officers working in Washington, Virginia and Tampa and at Fort Meade, Md., to collect, analyze and route intelligence.
The combined efforts have resulted in more than two dozen ground raids and airstrikes. Military and intelligence officials suspect there are several hundred members of AQAP, a group that has historical links to the main al-Qaeda organization but that is thought to operate independently.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told a Navy War College class in early January that the United States had “no plans” to send ground troops to Yemen and that he had been concerned about the growing al-Qaeda presence there “for a long time now.”
“We have worked hard to try to improve our relationships and training, education and war-fighting support,” Mullen said. “And, yet, we still have a long way to go.”
Saleh has faced pressure not only from the United States but also his country’s main financial backers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to gain better control over its lawless northern border. In August, Saleh asked U.S. officials to begin a more in-depth conversation over how the two countries might work together, according to administration officials. The current operation evolved from those talks.
“President Saleh was serious about going after al-Qaeda and wasn’t going to resist our encouragement,” the senior official said.
The Obama administration’s deepening of bilateral intelligence relations builds on ties forged during George J. Tenet’s tenure as CIA director.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Tenet coaxed Saleh into a partnership that would give the CIA and U.S. military units the means to attack terrorist training camps and al-Qaeda targets. Saleh agreed, in part, because he believed that his country, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, was next on the U.S. invasion list, according to an adviser to the Yemeni president.
Tenet provided Saleh’s forces with helicopters, eavesdropping equipment and 100 Army Special Forces members to train an antiterrorism unit. He also won Saleh’s approval to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over the country. In November 2002, a CIA missile strike killed six al-Qaeda operatives driving through the desert. The target was Abu Ali al-Harithi, organizer of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Killed with him was a U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, who the CIA knew was in the car.
Word that the CIA had purposefully killed Derwish drew attention to the unconventional nature of the new conflict and to the secret legal deliberations over whether killing a U.S. citizen was legal and ethical.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests,” said one former intelligence official.
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.”
Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals,” whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi’s name has now been added.
Intelligence officials say the New Mexico-born imam also has been linked to the Army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 12 soldiers and a civilian at Fort Hood, Tex., although his communications with Maj. Nidal M. Hasan were largely academic in nature. Authorities say that Aulaqi is the most important native, English-speaking al-Qaeda figure and that he was in contact with the Nigerian accused of attempting to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubaker al-Qirbi said in Washington last week that his government’s present goal is to persuade Aulaqi to surrender so he can face local criminal charges stemming from his contacts with the Fort Hood suspect. Aulaqi is being tracked by the country’s security forces, the minister added, and is now thought to be in the southern province of Shabwa.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
January 3, 2010
Patrick Cockburn: Threats to Yemen prove America hasn’t learned the lesson of history
Extraordinarily, the US is making exactly the same mistake as in Iraq and Afghanistan
Thursday, 31 December 2009
We are the Awaleq
Born of bitterness
We are the nails that go into the rock
We are the sparks of hell
He who defies us will be burned
This is the tribal chant of the powerful Awaleq tribe of Yemen, in which they bid defiance to the world. Its angry tone conveys the flavour of Yemeni life and it should give pause to those in the US who blithely suggest greater American involvement in Yemen in the wake of the attempt to destroy a US plane by a Nigerian student who says he received training there.
Yemen has always been a dangerous place. Wonderfully beautiful, the mountainous north of the country is guerrilla paradise. The Yemenis are exceptionally hospitable, though this has its limits. For instance, the Kazam tribe east of Aden are generous to passing strangers, but deem the laws of hospitality to lapse when the stranger leaves their tribal territory, at which time he becomes “a good back to shoot at”.
The Awaleq and Kazam tribes are not exotic survivals on the margins of Yemeni society but are both politically important and influential. The strength of the central government in the capital, Sanaa, is limited and it generally avoids direct confrontations with tribal confederations, tribes, clans and powerful families. Almost everybody has a gun, usually at least an AK-47 assault rifle, but tribesmen often own heavier armament.
I have always loved the country. It is physically very beautiful with cut stone villages perched on mountain tops on the sides of which are cut hundreds of terraces, making the country look like an exaggerated Tuscan landscape. Yemenis are intelligent, humorous, sociable and democratic, infinitely preferable as company to the arrogant and ignorant playboys of the Arab oil states in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
It is very much a country of direct action. Once when I was there a Chinese engineer was kidnapped as he drove along the main road linking Sanaa to Aden. The motives of the kidnappers were peculiar. It turned out they came from a bee-keeping tribe (Yemen is famous for its honey) whose bees live in hives inside hollow logs placed on metal stilts to protect them from ants. The police had raided the tribe’s village and had damaged hives for which the owners were demanding compensation. The government had been slow in paying up so the tribesmen had decided to draw attention to their grievance by kidnapping the next foreigner on the main road and this turned out to be the Chinese engineer.
Yemen is a mosaic of conflicting authorities, though this authority may be confined to a few villages. Larger communities include the Shia around Sanaa in the north of the country near Saada, with whom the government has been fighting a fierce little civil war. The unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 has never wholly gelled and the government is wary of southern secessionism. Its ability to buy off its opponents is also under threat as oil revenues fall, with the few oilfields beginning to run dry.
It is in this fascinating but dangerous land that President Barack Obama is planning to increase US political and military involvement. Joint operations will be carried out by the US and Yemeni military. There will be American drone attacks on hamlets where al-Qa’ida supposedly has its bases.
There is ominous use by American politicians and commentators of the phrase “failed state” in relation to Yemen, as if this some how legitimised foreign intervention. It is extraordinary that the US political elite has never taken on board that its greatest defeats have been in just such “failed states”‘, not least Lebanon in 1982, when 240 US Marines were blown up; Somalia in the early 1990s when the body of a US helicopter pilot was dragged through the streets; Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; and Afghanistan after the supposed fall of the Taliban.
Yemen has all the explosive ingredients of Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the arch-hawk Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, was happily confirming this week that the Green Berets and the US Special Forces are already there. He cited with approval an American official in Sanaa as telling him that, “Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If you don’t act pre-emptively Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.” In practice pre-emptive strikes are likely to bring a US military entanglement in Yemen even closer.
The US will get entangled because the Yemeni government will want to manipulate US action in its own interests and to preserve its wilting authority. It has long been trying to portray the Shia rebels in north Yemen as Iranian cats-paws in order to secure American and Saudi support. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) probably only has a few hundred activists in Yemen, but the government of long time Yemeni President Ali Abdulah Salih will portray his diverse opponents as somehow linked to al-Qa’ida.
In Yemen the US will be intervening on one side in a country which is always in danger of sliding into a civil war. This has happened before. In Iraq the US was the supporter of the Shia Arabs and Kurds against the Sunni Arabs. In Afghanistan it is the ally of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara against the Pashtun community. Whatever the intentions of Washington, its participation in these civil conflicts destabilises the country because one side becomes labelled as the quisling supporter of a foreign invader. Communal and nationalist antipathies combine to create a lethal blend.
Despite sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties in the countries where the US has intervened in the Middle East, they usually have a strong sense of national identity. Yemenis are highly conscious of their own nationality and their identity as Arabs. One of the reasons the country is so miserably poor, with almost half its 22 million people trying to live on $2 a day, is that in 1990 Yemen refused to join the war against Iraq and Saudi Arabia consequently expelled 850,000 Yemeni workers.
It is extraordinary to see the US begin to make the same mistakes in Yemen as it previously made in Afghanistan and Iraq. What it is doing is much to al-Qa’ida’s advantage. The real strength of al-Qa’ida is not that it can “train” a fanatical Nigerian student to sew explosives into his underpants, but that it can provoke an exaggerated US response to every botched attack. Al-Qa’ida leaders openly admitted at the time of 9/11 that the aim of such operations is to provoke the US into direct military intervention in Muslim countries.
In Yemen the US is walking into the al-Qa’ida trap. Once there it will face the same dilemma it faces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It became impossible to exit these conflicts because the loss of face would be too great. Just as Washington saved banks and insurance giants from bankruptcy in 2008 because they were “too big to fail,” so these wars become too important to lose because to do so would damage the US claim to be the sole superpower.
In Iraq the US is getting out more easily than seemed likely at one stage because Washington has persuaded Americans that they won a non-existent success. The ultimate US exit from Afghanistan may eventually be along very similar lines. But the danger of claiming spurious victories is that such distortions of history make it impossible for the US to learn from past mistakes and instead it repeats them by fresh interventions in countries like Yemen.
August 20, 2009
August 20, 2009
C.I.A. Sought Blackwater’s Help in Plan to Kill Jihadists
By MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON – The Central Intelligence Agency in 2004 hired outside contractors from the private security contractor Blackwater USA as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda, according to current and former government officials.
Executives from Blackwater, which has generated controversy because of its aggressive tactics in Iraq, helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance. The C.I.A. spent several million dollars on the program, which did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects.
The fact that the C.I.A. used an outside company for the program was a major reason that Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A.’s director, became alarmed and called an emergency meeting in June to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years, the officials said.
It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program. American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.
Officials said the C.I.A. did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune. Blackwater’s work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior C.I.A. officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program.
Blackwater, which has changed its name, most recently to Xe Services, and is based in North Carolina, in recent years has received millions of dollars in government contracts, growing so large that the Bush administration said it was a necessary part of its war operation in Iraq.
It has also drawn controversy. Blackwater employees hired to guard American diplomats in Iraq were accused of using excessive force on several occasions, including shootings in Baghdad in 2007 in which 17 civilians were killed. Iraqi officials have since refused to give the company an operating license.
Several current and former government officials interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing details of a still classified program.
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, declined to provide details about the canceled program, but he said that Mr. Panetta’s decision on the assassination program was “clear and straightforward.”
“Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so,” Mr. Gimigliano said. “He also knew it hadn’t been successful, so he ended it.”
A Xe spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, also declined to give details of the program. But she praised Mr. Panetta for notifying Congress. “It is too easy to contract out work that you don’t want to accept responsibility for,” she said.
The C.I.A. this summer conducted an internal review of the assassination program that recently was presented to the White House and the Congressional intelligence committees. The officials said that the review stated that Mr. Panetta’s predecessors did not believe that they needed to tell Congress because the program was not far enough developed.
The House Intelligence Committee is investigating why lawmakers were never told about the program. According to current and former government officials, former Vice President Dick Cheney told C.I.A. officers in 2002 that the spy agency did not need to inform Congress because the agency already had legal authority to kill Qaeda leaders.
One official familiar with the matter said that Mr. Panetta did not tell lawmakers that he believed that the C.I.A. had broken the law by withholding details about the program from Congress. Rather, the official said, Mr. Panetta said he believed that the program had moved beyond a planning stage and deserved Congressional scrutiny.
“It’s wrong to think this counterterrorism program was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin,” the official said. “It went well beyond that.”
Current and former government officials said that the C.I.A.’s efforts to use paramilitary hit teams to kill Qaeda operatives ran into logistical, legal and diplomatic hurdles almost from the outset. These efforts had been run by the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, which runs operations against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
In 2002, Blackwater won a classified contract to provide security for the C.I.A. station in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the company maintains other classified contracts with the C.I.A., current and former officials said.
Over the years, Blackwater has hired several former top C.I.A. officials, including Cofer Black, who ran the C.I.A. counterterrorism center immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
C.I.A. operatives also regularly use the company’s training complex in North Carolina. The complex includes a shooting range used for sniper training.
An executive order signed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 barred the C.I.A. from carrying out assassinations, a direct response to revelations that the C.I.A. had initiated assassination plots against Fidel Castro of Cuba and other foreign politicians.
The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that attacked the United States and has pledged to attack it again, was no different from killing enemy soldiers in battle, and that therefore the agency was not constrained by the assassination ban.
But former intelligence officials said that employing private contractors to help hunt Qaeda operatives would pose significant legal and diplomatic risks, and they might not be protected in the same way government employees are.
Some Congressional Democrats have hinted that the program was just one of many that the Bush administration hid from Congressional scrutiny and have used the episode as a justification to delve deeper into other Bush-era counterterrorism programs.
But Republicans have criticized Mr. Panetta’s decision to cancel the program, saying he created a tempest in a teapot.
“I think there was a little more drama and intrigue than was warranted,” said Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
Officials said that the C.I.A. program was devised partly as an alternative to missile strikes using drone aircraft, which have accidentally killed civilians and cannot be used in urban areas where some terrorists hide.
Yet with most top Qaeda operatives believed to be hiding in the remote mountains of Pakistan, the drones have remained the C.I.A.’s weapon of choice. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has embraced the drone campaign because it presents a less risky option than sending paramilitary teams into Pakistan.
April 26, 2009
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist
The Banality of Bush White House Evil
By FRANK RICH
Published: April 25, 2009
WE don’t like our evil to be banal. Ten years after Columbine, it only now may be sinking in that the psychopathic killers were not jock-hating dorks from a “Trench Coat Mafia,” or, as ABC News maintained at the time, “part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic movement.” In the new best seller “Columbine,” the journalist Dave Cullen reaffirms that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.
On Tuesday, it will be five years since Americans first confronted the photographs from Abu Ghraib on “60 Minutes II.” Here, too, we want to cling to myths that quarantine the evil. If our country committed torture, surely it did so to prevent Armageddon, in a patriotic ticking-time-bomb scenario out of “24.” If anyone deserves blame, it was only those identified by President Bush as “a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values”: promiscuous, sinister-looking lowlifes like Lynddie England, Charles Graner and the other grunts who were held accountable while the top command got a pass.
We’ve learned much, much more about America and torture in the past five years. But as Mark Danner recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, for all the revelations, one essential fact remains unchanged: “By no later than the summer of 2004, the American people had before them the basic narrative of how the elected and appointed officials of their government decided to torture prisoners and how they went about it.” When the Obama administration said it declassified four new torture memos 10 days ago in part because their contents were already largely public, it was right.
Yet we still shrink from the hardest truths and the bigger picture: that torture was a premeditated policy approved at our government’s highest levels; that it was carried out in scenarios that had no resemblance to “24″; that psychologists and physicians were enlisted as collaborators in inflicting pain; and that, in the assessment of reliable sources like the F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, it did not help disrupt any terrorist attacks.
The newly released Justice Department memos, like those before them, were not written by barely schooled misfits like England and Graner. John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee graduated from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan and Brigham Young. They have passed through white-shoe law firms like Covington & Burling, and Sidley Austin.
Judge Bybee’s résumé tells us that he has four children and is both a Cubmaster for the Boy Scouts and a youth baseball and basketball coach. He currently occupies a tenured seat on the United States Court of Appeals. As an assistant attorney general, he was the author of the Aug. 1, 2002, memo endorsing in lengthy, prurient detail interrogation “techniques” like “facial slap (insult slap)” and “insects placed in a confinement box.”
He proposed using 10 such techniques “in some sort of escalating fashion, culminating with the waterboard, though not necessarily ending with this technique.” Waterboarding, the near-drowning favored by Pol Pot and the Spanish Inquisition, was prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II. But Bybee concluded that it “does not, in our view, inflict ‘severe pain or suffering.’ ”
Still, it’s not Bybee’s perverted lawyering and pornographic amorality that make his memo worthy of special attention. It merits a closer look because it actually does add something new – and, even after all we’ve heard, something shocking – to the five-year-old torture narrative. When placed in full context, it’s the kind of smoking gun that might free us from the myths and denial that prevent us from reckoning with this ugly chapter in our history.
Bybee’s memo was aimed at one particular detainee, Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured some four months earlier, in late March 2002. Zubaydah is portrayed in the memo (as he was publicly by Bush after his capture) as one of the top men in Al Qaeda. But by August this had been proven false. As Ron Suskind reported in his book “The One Percent Doctrine,” Zubaydah was identified soon after his capture as a logistics guy, who, in the words of the F.B.I.’s top-ranking Qaeda analyst at the time, Dan Coleman, served as the terrorist group’s flight booker and “greeter,” like “Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace.” Zubaydah “knew very little about real operations, or strategy.” He showed clinical symptoms of schizophrenia.
By the time Bybee wrote his memo, Zubaydah had been questioned by the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for months and had given what limited information he had. His most valuable contribution was to finger Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the 9/11 mastermind. But, as Jane Mayer wrote in her book “The Dark Side,” even that contribution may have been old news: according to the 9/11 commission, the C.I.A. had already learned about Mohammed during the summer of 2001. In any event, as one of Zubaydah’s own F.B.I. questioners, Ali Soufan, wrote in a Times Op-Ed article last Thursday, traditional interrogation methods had worked. Yet Bybee’s memo purported that an “increased pressure phase” was required to force Zubaydah to talk.
As soon as Bybee gave the green light, torture followed: Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002, according to another of the newly released memos. Unsurprisingly, it appears that no significant intelligence was gained by torturing this mentally ill Qaeda functionary. So why the overkill? Bybee’s memo invoked a ticking time bomb: “There is currently a level of ‘chatter’ equal to that which preceded the September 11 attacks.”
We don’t know if there was such unusual “chatter” then, but it’s unlikely Zubaydah could have added information if there were. Perhaps some new facts may yet emerge if Dick Cheney succeeds in his unexpected and welcome crusade to declassify documents that he says will exonerate administration interrogation policies. Meanwhile, we do have evidence for an alternative explanation of what motivated Bybee to write his memo that August, thanks to the comprehensive Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees released last week.
The report found that Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002, told Army investigators of another White House imperative: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.
In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.
But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.
Last week Bush-Cheney defenders, true to form, dismissed the Senate Armed Services Committee report as “partisan.” But as the committee chairman, Carl Levin, told me, the report received unanimous support from its members – John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman included.
Levin also emphasized the report’s accounts of military lawyers who dissented from White House doctrine – only to be disregarded. The Bush administration was “driven,” Levin said. By what? “They’d say it was to get more information. But they were desperate to find a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”
Five years after the Abu Ghraib revelations, we must acknowledge that our government methodically authorized torture and lied about it. But we also must contemplate the possibility that it did so not just out of a sincere, if criminally misguided, desire to “protect” us but also to promote an unnecessary and catastrophic war. Instead of saving us from “another 9/11,” torture was a tool in the campaign to falsify and exploit 9/11 so that fearful Americans would be bamboozled into a mission that had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The lying about Iraq remains the original sin from which flows much of the Bush White House’s illegality.
Levin suggests – and I agree – that as additional fact-finding plays out, it’s time for the Justice Department to enlist a panel of two or three apolitical outsiders, perhaps retired federal judges, “to review the mass of material” we already have. The fundamental truth is there, as it long has been. The panel can recommend a legal path that will insure accountability for this wholesale betrayal of American values.
President Obama can talk all he wants about not looking back, but this grotesque past is bigger than even he is. It won’t vanish into a memory hole any more than Andersonville, World War II internment camps or My Lai. The White House, Congress and politicians of both parties should get out of the way. We don’t need another commission. We don’t need any Capitol Hill witch hunts. What we must have are fair trials that at long last uphold and reclaim our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.
April 22, 2009
Tomgram: John Feffer, The Piracy Problem
Sometimes, it seems as if all U.S. global geopolitics boils down to little more than a war for money within the Pentagon. In the best of times, each armed service still has to continually maintain and upgrade its various raisons d’être for the billions of dollars being poured into it; each has to fight — something far more difficult in economic hard times — to maintain or increase its share of the budgetary pie. The remarkable thing is that we are now in the worst of economic times and yet, for one more year, the Pentagon can still pretend that it just ain’t so. After eight years in which the Bush administration broke the bank militarily, an already vastly bloated Pentagon budget will miraculously rise once more, even if by a relatively modest 4%, in the coming fiscal year. But don’t for a second think that the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy aren’t already scrambling for toeholds suitable for a more precarious future.
Our unchallenged imperial Navy rules the sea lanes of the planet. Its 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, those vast water-borne military bases, roam the oceans of the world without opposition. But there’s a problem. Right now, as John Feffer, co-director of the invaluable website Foreign Policy In Focus and TomDispatch regular, points out below, the American war of note is on the ground in (and in the air over) the Af-Pak theater of operations, which leaves the Navy scrambling for meaning — that is, future money.
Right now, the Army and the Marines are getting the headlines and the attention, which could mean the lion’s share of future loot, as they recalibrate based on a counterinsurgency future. (One, two, many Afghanistans…) So, thought of in naval terms, the Somali pirates — that is, an actual threat at sea — have arrived just in the nick of time, providing an excuse for a new wave of potential expenditures aimed at creating the equivalent of counterinsurgency warfare at sea. In fact, think of those pirates as just the leading edge of a wave of new naval missions involving various forms of low-intensity operations afloat: not just piracy but also “seaborne terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, and human trafficking” for which naval planners and boosters are already starting to beat the drums.
And of course, no new mission should lack its preferably expensive, high-tech weaponry: in this case, the Littoral Combat Ship, a mighty pile of money in a relatively small package. A third the size of a destroyer, this $500 million craft is meant to patrol the planetary shallows, even if it has so far proved a production-plagued nightmare. Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Gates has just modestly upped the craft’s production — and there’s more to come from Navy “reformers.” Count on a new array of smaller, shallow-water vessels that could be formed into little armadas already termed by one naval officer “Influence Squadrons.”
Right now, of course, unmanned aerial drones are the hottest thing in the new Air Force counterinsurgency arsenal (and the Navy’s commissioning them as well), so how about unmanned robo-boats? Don’t worry: they’re already being considered as part of the new Navy mission. The sea’s the limit, so to speak. Tom
Monsters vs. Aliens
Why Terrorists and Pirates Are Not About to Team Up Any Time Soon
By John FefferIn the comic books, bad guys often team up to fight the forces of good. The Masters of Evil battle the Avengers superhero team. The Joker and Scarecrow ally against Batman. Lex Luthor and Brainiac take on Superman.
And the Somali pirates, who have dominated recent headlines with their hijacking and hostage-taking, join hands with al-Qaeda to form a dynamic evil duo against the United States and our allies. We’re the friendly monsters — a big, hulking superpower with a heart of gold — and they’re the aliens from Planet Amok.
In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this “bigger picture,” Fred Iklé urges us simply to “kill the pirates.” Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. “The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists,” he writes. “Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard.”
Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other’s arms. “Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, ‘for private ends,’” writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.
We’ve been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess’s claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.
Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. “To make matters worse,” Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, “there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s.”
Despite their different ideologies — al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don’t — it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates “are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and ‘special weapons’ into Somalia,” former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.
In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.
The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia’s manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an “age of pirates,” he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.
Simply escalating militarily and “going to war” against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country.
Diplomacy and development, however lackluster they might seem up against a trio of dead-eyed sharpshooters, are the only real hope for Somalia and the commercial shipping that passes near its coastline.
From the Shores of Tripoli
It would have been the height of irony if the sharpshooters who took out the three Somali youths in that lifeboat with their American hostage had been aboard the USS John Paul Jones, a Navy guided-missile destroyer. Considered the father of the American Navy, Jones was quite the pirate in his day. Or so thought the British, whose ships he seized and looted.
We are left instead with the lesser irony of the sharpshooters taking aim from the USS Bainbridge. This ship was named for Commodore William Bainbridge, who fought against the Barbary pirates in the battles of Algiers and Tunis during the Barbary Wars and was himself taken prisoner in 1803.
The parallels between the pirates of yesterday and today are striking. Then, as now, American observers miscast the pirates as Muslim radicals. In fact, as Frank Lambert explains in his book The Barbary Wars, those pirates actually served secular governments that were part of the Ottoman Empire (much as Sir Francis Drake plundered Spanish ships on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century or Jones served the United States in the eighteenth). Then, as now, the pirates resorted to preying on commercial shipping because they’d been boxed out of legitimate trade.
The Barbary pirates took to looting European vessels because European governments had barred the states of Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco from trading in their markets. Back then, the fledgling United States accused the Barbary pirates of being slavers without acknowledging that the U.S. was then the center of the global slave trade. Today, the U.S. government decries piracy, but doesn’t do anything to prevent the maritime poaching of fishing reserves that helped push pirates from their jobs into risky but lucrative careers in freebooting.
The most improbable link, however, involves the conflation of terrorism and piracy. In the aftermath of September 11, pundits and historians identified the U.S. military response to the Barbary pirates as a useful precedent for striking out against al-Qaeda. Shortly after the attacks, law professor Jonathan Turley invoked the war against the Barbary pirates in congressional testimony to justify U.S. retaliation against the terrorists. Historian Thomas Jewett, conservative journalist Joshua London, and executive director of the Christian Coalition of Washington State Rick Forcier all pointed to those pirates as Islamic radicals avant la lettre to underscore the impossibility of negotiations and the necessity of war, both then and now.
The battle against the Barbary pirates led to the creation of the U.S. Marine Corps (“…to the shores of Tripoli“) and the first major U.S. government expenditure of funds on a military that could fight distant wars. For historians like Robert Kagan (in his book Dangerous Nation), that war kicked off what would be a distinguished history of empire, which he contrasts with the conventional wisdom of a United States that only reluctantly assumed its hegemonic mantle.
Will the current conflict with the Somali pirates, if successfully linked in the public mind to global terrorism, serve as one significant part of a new justification for the continuation of empire and a whole new set of military expenditures needed to sustain such a venture?
The New GWOT?
The United States has the most powerful navy in the world. But what it can do against the Somali pirates is limited. Big guns and destroyers are incapable of covering the necessary vast ocean expanses in which the relatively low-tech pirates operate, can’t respond quickly enough to pin-prick attacks, and ultimately aren’t likely to intimidate what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has quite correctly termed “a bunch of teenage pirates” with little to lose.
“The area we patrol is more than one million square miles and the simple fact of the matter is we just can’t be everywhere at once to prevent every attack of piracy,” says Lt Nathan Christensen, of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Last year, approximately 23,000 ships passed through the Gulf of Aden. Pirates snagged 93 of them (some large, some tiny). Yet, in part because these trade routes are so crucial to global economic wellbeing, this minuscule percentage struck fear into the hearts of the most powerful countries on the planet.
The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble, low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other services. The Navy’s goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?
Pirates are the perfect threat. They’ve been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don’t hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they’re non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.
And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just such a threat. Through its “revolution in military affairs,” the adoption of a doctrine of “strategic flexibility,” and the cultivation of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the “rogue state” era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the Pentagon isn’t about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.
George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming, the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.
The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration’s surge in Afghanistan, the CIA’s campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, “overseas contingency operations,” doesn’t quite fire the imagination. It’s obviously not meant to. But that’s a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.
Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.
Then it’s simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought “us versus them” went out with the Bush administration…
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His writings can be found at his website, and you can subscribe to his weekly e-newsletter World Beat here.