Archives for April 2009

EDITORIAL: Churchill’s “we don’t torture” — except they did

Churchill’s “we don’t torture” — except they did

During last night’s news conference, President Obama took a less than subtle jab at his predecessor by citing Winston Churchill’s statement: “We don’t torture.” Whether the exact words that we’re so familiar with coming from George Bush’s mouth were ever also uttered by his English hero, I don’t know, but even if they were, it’s unfortunate that Obama would cite Churchill’s as quite such a principled stance. The British war record actually reveals a dark side even more chilling than the one Dick Cheney inspired.

In 2005, The Guardian reported on then newly-revealed records of Britain’s brutal treatment of Nazi prisoners — treatment that led to Britain being accused of operating concentration camps after World War Two had ended. Citing the British example is useful, but not for the purpose of showing that those who espouse high principles necessarily have the integrity to match their words with their actions.

And herein lies the fatal flaw of the conceit: we’re better than that. We don’t torture because we’re Americans.

In truth there is no failing from which Americans are immune. On the contrary, as Americans we’re just like anyone else — just like the British and so many others who under the pressure of a perceived necessity think that torture can be justified even while its use must remain a closely guarded secret.

In other words, if we argue that we must not torture, it should be because we recognize that Americans are just as capable as anyone else of tumbling down a moral spiral in which conscience and individual responsibility make themselves subordinate to a collective imperative.

The reason we should not torture terrorists isn’t because we operate on a higher moral plane than them, but because we know that we too are capable of descending into barbarity and moral depravity. We should not torture because we want to protect ourselves from our own demons.

Consider then the chilling British record:

The interrogation camp that turned prisoners into living skeletons

Despite the six years of bitter fighting which lay behind him, James Morgan-Jones, a major in the Royal Artillery, could not have been more specific about the spectacle in front of him. “It was,” he reported, “one of the most disgusting sights of my life.”

Curled up on a bed in a hospital in Rotenburg, near Bremen, was a cadaverous shadow of a human being. “The man literally had no flesh on him, his state of emaciation was incredible,” wrote Morgan-Jones. This man had weighed a little over six stones (38kg) on admission five weeks earlier, and “was still a figure which may well have been one of the Belsen inmates”. At the base of his spine “was a huge festering sore”, and he was clearly terrified of returning to the prison where he had been brought so close to death. “If ever a man showed fear – he did,” Morgan-Jones declared.

Adolf Galla, 36, a dental technician, was not alone. A few beds away lay Robert Buttlar, 27, a journalist, who had been admitted after swallowing a spoon handle in a suicide attempt at the same prison. He too was emaciated and four of his toes had been lost to frostbite.

The previous month, January 1947, two other inmates, Walter Bergmann, 20, and Franz Osterreicher, 38, had died of malnutrition within hours of arriving at the hospital. Over the previous 13 months, Major Morgan-Jones learned, 45 inmates of this prison, including several women, had been dumped at Rotenburg. Each was severely starved, frostbitten, and caked in dirt. Some had been beaten or whipped.

The same week that Major Morgan-Jones was submitting his report, a British doctor called Jordan was raising similar concerns at an internment camp 130 miles away. Dr Jordan complained to his superiors that eight men who had been transferred from the same prison “were all suffering gross malnutrition … one in my opinion dying”.

They included Gerhard Menzel, 23, a 6ft German former soldier who weighed seven stones, and was described as a living skeleton. Another, admitted as Morice Marcellini, a 27-year-old Frenchman, later transpired to be Alexander Kalkowski, a captain in the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. He weighed a little over eight stones, and complained that he had been severely beaten and forced to spend eight hours a day in a cold bath.

Prisoners complained thumbscrews and “shin screws” were employed at the prison and Dr Jordan’s report highlighted the small, round scars that he had seen on the legs of two men, “which were said to be the result of the use of some instrument to facilitate questioning”. One of these men was Hans Habermann, a 43-year-old disabled German Jew who had survived three years in Buchenwald concentration camp.

All of these men had been held at Bad Nenndorf, a small, once-elegant spa resort near Hanover. Here, an organisation called the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) ran a secret prison following the British occupation of north-west Germany in 1945.

CSDIC, a division of the War Office, operated interrogation centres around the world, including one known as the London Cage, located in one of London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Official documents discovered last month at the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, show that the London Cage was a secret torture centre where German prisoners who had been concealed from the Red Cross were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with execution or with unnecessary surgery.

As horrific as conditions were at the London Cage, Bad Nenndorf was far worse. Last week, Foreign Office files which have remained closed for almost 60 years were opened after a request by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act. These papers, and others declassified earlier, lay bare the appalling suffering of many of the 372 men and 44 women who passed through the centre during the 22 months it operated before its closure in July 1947.

They detail the investigation carried out by a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Tom Hayward, following the complaints of Major Morgan-Jones and Dr Jordan. Despite the precise and formal prose of the detective’s report to the military government, anger and revulsion leap from every page as he turns his spotlight on a place where prisoners were systematically beaten and exposed to extreme cold, where some were starved to death and, allegedly, tortured with instruments that his fellow countrymen had recovered from a Gestapo prison in Hamburg. Even today, the Foreign Office is refusing to release photographs taken of some of the “living skeletons” on their release.

Initially, most of the detainees were Nazi party members or former members of the SS, rounded up in an attempt to thwart any Nazi insurgency. A significant number, however, were industrialists, tobacco importers, oil company bosses or forestry owners who had flourished under Hitler.

By late 1946, the papers show, an increasing number were suspected Soviet agents. Some were NKVD officers – Russians, Czechs and Hungarians – but many were simply German leftists. Others were Germans living in the Russian zone who had crossed the line, offered to spy on the Russians, and were tortured to establish whether they were genuine defectors.

One of the men who was starved to death, Walter Bergmann, had offered to spy for the British, and fell under suspicion because he spoke Russian. Hayward reported: “There seems little doubt that Bergmann, against whom no charge of any crime has ever been made, but on the contrary, who appears to be a man who has given every assistance, and that of considerable value, has lost his life through malnutrition and lack of medical care”.

The other man who starved to death, Franz Osterreicher, had been arrested with forged papers while attempting to enter the British zone in search of his gay lover. Hayward said that “in his struggle for existence or to get extra scraps of food he stood a very poor chance” at Bad Nenndorf.

Many of Bad Nenndorf’s inmates were there for no reason at all. One, a former diplomat, remained locked up because he had “learned too much about our interrogation methods”. Another arrived after a clerical error, and was incarcerated for eight months. As Inspector Hayward reported: “There are a number against whom no offence has been alleged, and the only authority for their detention would appear to be that they are citizens of a country still nominally at war with us.”

Today, the older people of Bad Nenndorf talk about August 1 1945, the day the British arrived, with undisguised bitterness. A convoy of trucks pulled into the village, and the Tommies took over from an easygoing US infantry division. Within hours, the British had ordered everybody in the centre of the village to pack their belongings and leave. Bad Nenndorf was heaving with refugees from the bomb-ravaged ruins of Hanover, 18 miles to the east: hundreds of people were given 90 minutes to pack some food and valuables, and get out.

“We thought everyone would be allowed back in a few days,” recalls Walter Münstermann, now a retired newspaperman, but then a 14-year-old. “Then the soldiers started putting barbed wire fences around the centre of the village, and slowly we began to realise that this was going to be no ordinary camp.”

Walter and his neighbours realised that the centre of their village was being transformed into a prison camp when they heard that the British were converting a large, 40-year-old bath-house, ripping out the baths and installing heavy steel doors to turn each cubicle into a cell. They saw the first batch of prisoners arrive in the back of a truck. Later groups arrived at the village railway station in cattle trucks.

Ingrid Groth, then a seven-year-old, said locals claimed that if you crept up to the barbed wire at night, you could hear the prisoners’ screams. Mr Münstermann, who passed the main gate on his way to school each day, insists that the opposite was true: that it was a sinister place precisely because “you never, ever saw anyone, and you never heard a sound”. Among the people of Lower Saxony, Bad Nenndorf became known as das verbotene dorf – the forbidden village.

The commanding officer was Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, 45, a monocled colonel of the Peshawar Division of the Indian Army who had been seconded to MI5 in 1939, and who had commanded Camp 020, a detention centre in Surrey where German spies had been interrogated during the war.

An authoritarian and a xenophobe with a legendary temper, Stephens boasted that interrogators who could “break” a man were born, and not made. Of the 20 interrogators ordered to break the inmates of Bad Nenndorf, 12 were British, a combination of officers from the three services and civilian linguists. The remaining eight included a Pole and a Dutchman, but were mostly German Jewish refugees who had enlisted on the outbreak of war, and who, Inspector Hayward suggested, “might not be expected to be wholly impartial”.

Most of the warders were soldiers barely out of their teens. Some had endured more than a year of combat, at the end of which they had liberated Belsen. Some represented the more unruly elements of the British Army of the Rhine, sent to Bad Nenndorf after receiving suspended sentences for assault or desertion. Often, Hayward said, they were the sort of individuals “likely to resort to violence on helpless men”.

The inmates were starved, woken during the night, and forced to walk up and down their cells from early morning until late at night. When moving about the prison they were expected to run, while soldiers kicked them. One warder, a soldier of the Welsh Regiment, told Hayward: “If a British soldier feels inclined to treat a prisoner decently he has every opportunity to do so; and he also has the opportunity to ill-treat a prisoner if he so desires”.

The Foreign Office briefed Clement Attlee, the prime minister, that “the guards had apparently been instructed to carry out physical assaults on certain prisoners with the object of reducing them to a state of physical collapse and of making them more amenable to interrogation”.

Former prisoners told Hayward that they had been whipped as well as beaten. This, the detective said, seemed unbelievable, until “our inquiries of warders and guards produced most unexpected corroboration”. Threats to execute prisoners, or to arrest, torture and murder their wives and children were considered “perfectly proper”, on the grounds that such threats were never carried out.

Moreover, any prisoner thought to be uncooperative during interrogation was taken to a punishment cell where they would be stripped and repeatedly doused in water. This punishment could continue for weeks, even in sub-zero temperatures.

Naked prisoners were handcuffed back-to-back and forced to stand before open windows in midwinter. Frostbite became common. One victim of the cold cell punishment was Buttlar, who swallowed the spoon handle to escape. An anti-Nazi, he had spent two years as a prisoner of the Gestapo. “I never in all those two years had undergone such treatments,” he said.

Kalkowski, the NKVD officer, claimed that toenails were ripped out and that he had been hung from his wrists during interrogation, with weights tied to his legs. British NCOs, he alleged, would beat him with rubber truncheons “while the interrogating officers went for lunch”. Hayward concluded, however, that “there was not a shred of evidence to support these allegations”.

Whatever was happening during the interrogations must have been widely known among many of the camp’s officers and men. In common with every CSDIC prison, each cell was bugged, so that the prisoners’ private utterances could be matched against their “confessions”.

Inspector Hayward’s investigation led to the courts martial of Stephens, Captain John Smith, Bad Nenndorf’s medical officer, and an interrogator, Lieutenant Richard Langham. The hearings were largely held behind closed doors. A number of sergeants – men who had carried out the beatings – were told they would be pardoned if they gave evidence against their officers. [continued…]



Six years after Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki tightens his grip on Iraq

Baghdad has always produced more than its fair share of surreal conversations, but few can match the one I had with three Iraqi intelligence officers in the garden of a newly opened restaurant a few weeks ago. The three were former members of Saddam’s notorious Mukhabarat. Now “reformed”, they worked for the newly established Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INSI), a highly independent security service which some in the Iraqi government accuse of being too close to the US.

After a few pleasantries, which included frisking my shirt for wire-tapping devices, we sat around a plastic table while the most senior officer told me that his men were actively monitoring intelligence and military activities inside the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The two other officers looked in opposite directions as their colleague spoke.

“We have our own eyes and follow what they are doing there,” the senior officer said. “Maliki is running a dictatorship – everything is run by his office and advisers, he is surrounded by his party and clan members. They form a tight knot that is running Iraq now. He is not building a country, he is building a state for his own party and his own people.”

As a waiter in a white shirt and black trousers approached, the senior officer fell silent and his colleague ordered tea. Only when the waiter moved away, the senior officer continued: “We compile reports on their activities, generals’ and military units’ movements, and their corruption, the positions they are taking in the government and the contracts they are obtaining. But we don’t know what to do with these reports because we don’t trust the government.”

The charges voiced by the INSI officers are heard, in hushed tones, more and more around Baghdad these days. Critics say Maliki is concentrating power in his office (the office of the prime minister) and his advisers are running “a government inside a government”, bypassing ministers and parliament. In his role as commander in chief, he appoints generals as heads of military units without the approval of parliament. The officers, critics say, are all loyal to him. He has created at least one intelligence service, dominated by his clan and party members, and taken two military units – the anti-terrorism unit and the Baghdad brigade – under his direct command. At the same time he has inflated the size of the ministry of national security that is run by one of his allies. [continued…]

Is Obama wrong on Iraq? Baghdad violence worst in year

April was the bloodiest month for violence in Baghdad in more than a year, another sign that Iraq’s security gains are beginning to reverse.

President Barack Obama acknowledged Wednesday night that violence has risen in recent weeks, but he said the levels of violence were still below last year’s.

Calling recent bombings “a legitimate cause for concern,” Obama said “civilian deaths . . . remain very low compared to what was going on last year.”

But statistics kept by McClatchy show that in Baghdad alone, more than 200 people have been killed in attacks so far this month, compared with 99 last month and 46 in February, according to a McClatchy count. [continued…]

Busting the torture myths

In the space of a week, the torture debate in America has been suddenly transformed. The Bush administration left office resting its case on the claim it did not torture. The gruesome photographs from Abu Ghraib, it had said, were the product of “a few bad apples” and not of government policy. But the release of a series of grim documents has laid waste to this defense. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report—adopted with the support of leading Republican Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham—has demonstrated step-by-step how abuses on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan had their genesis in policy choices made at the pinnacle of the Bush administration. A set of four Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memoranda from the Bush era has provided a stomach-turning legal justification of the application of specific torture techniques, including waterboarding.

As public and congressional calls for the appointment of a prosecutor and the creation of a truth commission have proliferated, President Barack Obama stepped in quickly to try to turn down the heat. A commission would not be helpful, he argues, and he has made plain his aversion to any form of criminal-law accountability. Republicans, meanwhile, bristle with anger as they attempt to defend against the flood of new information. But, in the end, Obama’s assumption that the torture debate has run its course and that the country can now “move on,” as conservative pundit Peggy Noonan urged, may rest in some serious naïveté: Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have different ideas. They’re convinced that Bush-era torture policy is a promising political product for a party down on its luck. Its success on the political stage is just one more 9/11-style attack away. [continued…]

U.S. plans new talks with Syria

The Obama administration is dispatching two high-level envoys to Syria in coming weeks for a second round of talks focused on securing the Iraqi border and supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process, said officials briefed on the trip.

The diplomats’ visit is the latest sign of a reconciliation between Washington and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which is partly driven by the U.S. desire to weaken Syria’s strategic alliance with Iran.

Syrian officials said this week they hope the diplomatic thaw could lead to an easing of trade sanctions enacted by the Bush administration. The sanctions were aimed at curbing Damascus’s support for militant groups operating in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. [continued…]

Suspects in Hariri’s death released

A judge on Wednesday ordered the release of four high-ranking Lebanese security officers, all being held here in connection with the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The decision was seen here as a blow to the political movement led by Mr. Hariri’s son, and it underscored the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial.

The judge, Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal, said there was not enough evidence to indict the four men, who have been detained without charge since September 2005 and are widely believed to have had some knowledge of the killing or involvement in it. They were the only suspects in the custody of the tribunal, which is based in The Hague and was formed under United Nations auspices after Mr. Hariri’s death in a powerful car bombing on Feb. 14, 2005. [continued…]

Peres: Bombing Iran may not be the ‘best solution’

President Shimon Peres said Wednesday that attacking Iran would only postpone its ability to build an atom bomb.

“I’m not sure that bombing the nuclear facilities is the best solution. You know, the moment there are centrifuges, you can destroy the centrifuges. You cannot destroy the know-how to create centrifuges. You can postpone,” he told Channel 10.

Asked whether Israel could accept a nuclear Iran, the president said: “Attacking the nuclear sites is not the only option. The West has other options. First of all we can tell the Iranians ‘If you launch a nuclear attack, it doesn’t matter against whom, it will elicit a nuclear response.’ Secondly, we can monitor their missiles. It is easier to monitor launching devices. If, like they say, they are not interested in developing nuclear weapons, why do they need launchers?”

Peres also said the new Israeli government of hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should work for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. [continued…]

Israel to EU: Criticism of Netanyahu government unacceptable

A Foreign Ministry official has been warning European countries that unless they curtail criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israel will block the European Union from participating in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

The main target of the offensive is EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who recently called for a freeze in upgrading ties with Israel over its peace process policies.

Several days ago, the deputy director for Europe at the Foreign Ministry, Rafi Barak, began calling European ambassadors in Israel regarding the attitude toward the new government. The first conversations were with France’s Jean-Michel Casa, Britain’s Tom Phillips and the Charge d’Affaires of the German embassy. [continued…]

The binationalism vogue

Several factors have combined to rouse greater interest in the binational option. First, there is a growing realization that the chances of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state no longer exist, aside from an entity along the lines of a Bantustan. Second, the status quo that has emerged, though it appears chaotic, is in practice quite stable and could be characterized as de facto binational. Third, the diplomatic positions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government inevitably lead to a diplomatic deadlock and a deepening of the policy of annexation.

Under these circumstances, it appears that the continued preoccupation with establishing a Palestinian state is not just hopeless, but also injurious, since the delusions that it fosters enable the continuation of the status quo.

Nothing serves the interests of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman better than the demand that they recognize the principle of “two states.” What happens if they agree to it? They do not intend to offer the Palestinians any proposals more generous than those Mahmoud Abbas already turned down in talks with Ehud Olmert. And in the meantime, they would have a free hand to expand settlements. Even the impassioned pleas for the Obama administration to finally enforce the “road map” lead to the same smokescreen of imagined progress toward a dead end. [continued…]

Torture tape delays U.S.-UAE nuclear deal, say U.S. officials

A videotape of a heinous torture session is delaying the ratification of a civil nuclear deal between the United Arab Emirates and the United States, senior U.S. officials familiar with the case said.
In the tape, an Afghan grain dealer is seen being tortured by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, one of the UAE’s seven emirates.

The senior U.S. officials said the administration has held off on the ratification process because it believes sensitivities over the story can hurt its passage. The tape emerged in a federal civil lawsuit filed in Houston, Texas, by Bassam Nabulsi, a U.S. citizen, against Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan. Former business partners, the men had a falling out, in part over the tape. In a statement to CNN, the sheikh’s U.S. attorney said Nabulsi is using the videotape to influence the court over a business dispute. [continued…]

Bretton Woods III?

A few years back, before this crisis erupted, several economists were concerned about the sustainability of the large global imbalances fueled by the so-called Bretton Woods II system. These economists recognized, in the tendency of export-led economies to manage their exchange-rate systems, the origin of large trade and current account surpluses that, via large foreign reserve accumulation, were financing the mirror image of those surpluses, namely the large U.S. trade and current account deficits.

These surpluses, primarily in several export-led Asian economies and also in oil-producing countries, ballooned to extensive proportions in 2007 and 2008. The purchases of U.S. government bonds by these investors helped keep long-term interest rates low and led many investors to seek high-yielding investments, especially in some emerging markets.

Although we are not (yet) witnessing a U.S. dollar crisis, the Bretton Woods II system is still at the center of the debates on the origins of this crisis. Understanding the nature of this crisis is fundamental in order to understand what reforms need to be undertaken for this not to happen again–and to understand what the global economy will look like after this crisis. [continued…]

How to prevent a pandemic

The swine flu outbreak seems to have emerged without warning. Within a few days of being noticed, the flu had already spread to the point where containment was not possible. Yet the virus behind it had to have existed for some time before it was discovered. Couldn’t we have detected it and acted sooner, before it spread so widely? The answer is likely yes — if we had been paying closer attention to the human-animal interactions that enable new viruses to emerge.

While much remains unknown about how pandemics are born, we are familiar with the kinds of microbes — like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), influenza and H.I.V. — that present a risk of widespread disease. We know that they usually emerge from animals and most often in specific locations around the world, places like the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.

By monitoring people who are exposed to animals in such viral hotspots, we can capture viruses at the very moment they enter human populations, and thus develop the ability to predict and perhaps even prevent pandemics. [continued…]



Farewell, the American Century

In a recent column, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote, “What Henry Luce called ‘the American Century’ is over.” Cohen is right. All that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of Luce’s pernicious creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to take some doing.

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the February 7, 1941 issue of Life, his essay, “The American Century,” hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors were on the march.

With the fate of democracy hanging in the balance, Americans diddled. Luce urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world… to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” [continued…]

Truth commission to proceed despite Obama’s wishes

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) plans to proceed with a special commission to investigate alleged Bush administration abuses of power, despite lacking President Barack Obama’s support, according to a report Tuesday.

Sen. Leahy called for a “Truth Commission” in February to probe Bush administration policies on torture, interrogation and surveillance and to — as he puts it — “get to the bottom of what went wrong.” Such an idea would be modeled around truth commissions established in South Africa and Chile, which offered immunity to officials who committed abuses in exchange for the truth. [continued…]

Conyers, Nadler request special prosecutor on torture

Congressmen John Conyers and Jerrold Nadler have written a letter to the Attorney General requesting the appointment of a special prosecutor on torture.

“While I applaud the Obama administration for releasing these torture memos in the spirit of openness and transparency, the memos’ alarming content requires further action,” opined Nadler, who chairs the House Judiceary Committee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “These memos, without a shadow of a doubt, authorized torture and gave explicit instruction on how to carry it out, all the while carefully attempting to maintain a legal fig leaf. [continued…]

Official defends signing interrogation memos

Judge Jay S. Bybee broke his silence on Tuesday and defended the conclusions of legal memorandums he had signed as a Bush administration lawyer that allowed use of several coercive interrogation practices on suspected terrorists.

Judge Bybee, who issued the memorandums as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel and was later nominated to the federal appeals court by President George W. Bush, said in a statement in response to questions from The New York Times that he continued to believe that the memorandums represented “a good-faith analysis of the law” that properly defined the thin line between harsh treatment and torture.

As the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, Mr. Bybee signed two memorandums in August 2002 that discussed the legal limits on American interrogators seeking to apply pressure on captured operatives of Al Qaeda. [continued…]

Hannity waterboard offer: Olbermann increases the pressure

The debate over torture is getting personal for two of cable TV’s prime-time hosts. After Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity made a seemingly impromptu offer last week to undergo waterboarding as a benefit for charity, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann leapt at it. He offered $1,000 to the families of U.S. troops for every second Hannity withstood the technique.

Olbermann repeated the offer on Monday’s show and said in an interview Tuesday that he’s heard no response. He said he’ll continue to pursue it.

“I don’t think he has the courage to even respond to this _ let alone do it,” Olbermann said. [continued…]

The bourgeois revolution

For years, political theorists have argued that developing a healthy middle class is the key to any country’s democratization. To paraphrase the late political scientist Samuel Huntington: Economic growth and industrialization usually lead to the creation of a middle class. As its members become wealthier and more educated, the middle class turns increasingly vocal, demanding more rights to protect its economic gains.

But over the past decade, the antidemocratic behavior of the middle class in many countries has threatened to undermine this conventional wisdom. Although many developing countries have created trappings of democracy, such as regular elections, they often failed to build strong institutions, including independent courts, impartial election monitoring, and a truly free press and civil society.

The middle class’s newfound disdain for democracy is counterintuitive. After all, as political and economic freedoms increase, its members often prosper because they are allowed more freedom to do business. But, paradoxically, as democracy gets stronger and the middle class grows richer, it can realize it has more to lose than gain from a real enfranchisement of society. [continued…]

Palestinian rivals to try once more for an accord

The rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas ended a fourth round of reconciliation talks here on Tuesday without success, but agreed to convene one more time to try to reach an accord.

Egypt, which has been mediating the talks, set May 15 as the new deadline for reaching an agreement, according to Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader based in Damascus who participated in the meetings.

“We cannot just talk for the sake of talking,” said Mr. Abu Marzouk, the deputy political chief of Hamas, in an interview here. “To continue without results is a disaster on the national level.” [continued…]

Israel-Palestine is already a de facto single state

Critics of the one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict see it, at best, as utopian and unachievable, and at worst, as the dismantling of Israel, the denial of the right of Jewish self-determination and the ultimate expression of the new antisemitism.

The idea certainly doesn’t find favour among the Palestinian and Israeli populations, as the One Voice survey results showed. The two-state solution, despite the failure of years of peace negotiations to bring it about, still seems to be the preferred option of significant majorities on both sides.

Nevertheless, there are increasing doubts that it will ever come about, even though it is the choice of the international community, and more voices are now calling for a “one-state” solution as the only way of protecting the human rights of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. And as such voices are heard more often, so too are the critics’ predictions that it would spell national suicide were the single state to be adopted. [continued…]

Hezbollah looks for election win that could shake up Lebanon

With quiet campaigning and moderate talk, Hezbollah is building its strength for Lebanon’s June 7 parliament elections — and the militant Shiite Muslim group and its allies stand a good chance of winning.

That could mean a stunning shake-up for one of the Middle East’s most volatile countries, replacing a pro-U.S. government with a coalition dominated from behind the scenes by Hezbollah, the political movement and guerrilla group widely seen as the proxy of Iran and Syria in Lebanon. [continued…]

Iraqi premier says leader in insurgency is in custody

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Tuesday that Iraqi forces had recently arrested a leader of the Sunni insurgency who had been in league with members of Saddam Hussein’s ousted Baath Party.

Iraqi officials say the insurgent, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, is the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

The government has not provided proof of his capture since announcing the arrest on Thursday, beyond showing a photograph of a man with a trimmed beard wearing a black T-shirt. In 2007, Iraqi officials announced twice that Mr. Baghdadi had been captured and killed. A spokesman for the United States military, which has suggested that he might not exist, said Tuesday that the military could still not confirm his arrest. [continued…]

Living with the Taliban

At my daughter’s annual school parents’ day in Lahore, the tension was palpable. An innocuous annual event had transformed into a maximum security operation. Parents filed in their hundreds past security guards, metal detectors and bag searches to see their children perform songs. One more year like the last one and next year there will be no parents’ day. Another month or two like the previous ones and there might be no school left open. Pakistanis may be scared of a future comprising daily doses of floggings, beheadings, daisy-cutters and drones; but if your children cannot go to school, the future has ceased to be.

Pakistan is facing an existential crisis at multiple levels. The Taliban have already taken over large parts of the North-West Frontier province (NWFP). They have imposed their authority in Swat and adjoining areas through summary executions – including beheadings – of state officials and political opponents, and intimidation of the population. Girls’ schools have been shut down, women are not allowed to leave their homes unless escorted by male family members, polio immunisation programmes have been halted, and nongovernmental organisations have been expelled. Music and film have been banned, and stores trading in them have been destroyed. All men have been required to grow beards. Bombs go off all over the country. [continued…]


Torture only used in moderation

Despite reports, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not waterboarded 183 times

The New York Times reported last week that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in one month by CIA interrogators. The “183 times” was widely circulated by news outlets throughout the world.

It was shocking. And it was highly misleading. The number is a vast inflation, according to information from a U.S. official and the testimony of the terrorists themselves.

A U.S. official with knowledge of the interrogation program told FOX News that the much-cited figure represents the number of times water was poured onto Mohammed’s face — not the number of times the CIA applied the simulated-drowning technique on the terror suspect. According to a 2007 Red Cross report, he was subjected a total of “five sessions of ill-treatment.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — So there we were — we torture scaremongers — hyperventilating that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded an excessive 183 times and it turns out he was only brought close to drowning 183 times during a mere five sessions of waterboarding. It turns out that the CIA torturers studied the rules very carefully and realized that water poured for less than 10 seconds didn’t “count.” It did of course count as far as diligent torture bookkeeping is concerned — hence the carefully recorded 183 fleeting glimpses of death. Thanks goes to Fox News for helping set the record straight.

Since Sean Hannity recently agreed to submit himself to waterboarding “for charity” (is he going to raise money for Amnesty International’s fight against torture?), perhaps when he gets waterboarded he’ll be man enough to take a dozen 9-second pours — the ones that don’t really count. And once he’s graduated from this kiddy torture he’ll be ready to show us he can handle the real thing — Jay Bybee-approved waterboarding, that is.


Easing some of the obstacles to Palestinian unity

Obama move alarms Israel supporters

The Obama administration, already on treacherous political ground because of its outreach to traditional adversaries such as Iran and Cuba, has opened the door a crack to engagement with the militant group Hamas.

The Palestinian group is designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization and under law may not receive federal aid.

But the administration has asked Congress for minor changes in U.S. law that would permit aid to continue flowing to Palestinians in the event Hamas-backed officials become part of a unified Palestinian government. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The Israel lobby will want to portray this as a step down the slippery slope towards the legitimization of Hamas. What it really means is that the Obama administration is setting aside the Bush administration’s policy of fomenting division among Palestinians.

For the former administration, under Elliot Abrams’ direction, Palestinian “unity” was only of value if it involved the exclusion of Hamas. What the Obama administration appears to recognize is that Palestinian unity based on reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is a practical necessity if any semblance of a peace process can be revived.

Israel: PA recognition of Jewish state ‘crucial’ for reconciliation

The Foreign Ministry said Monday that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was ‘crucial’ for reconciliation between the two sides after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Israeli calls to do so.

“Recognition of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people is an essential and necessary step in the historic reconciliation process between Israel and the Palestinians,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The sooner the Palestinians internalize this basic and essential fact, peace between the two peoples will progress and come to fruition.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Here’s one of the central paradoxes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Supposedly, Israelis attach a great deal of importance to what Palestinians think — do the Palestinians recognize our right to exist? Do they accept that Israel is a Jewish state?

At the same time, the Israelis think its acceptable to kill Palestinians, hold them under siege, restrict their movements and curtail their political rights.

It’s an absurd contradiction. The only rational way of interpreting these demands for recognition is to see them as facets of a more fundamental demand: We reserve the right to exert absolute control over the terms of our co-existence.

The Israelis lay down the demands and the Palestinians either meet or fail to meet those demands. The right of return, the end of the occupation, the dismantling of settlements — all of these Palestinian demands have effectively been made inert by “formaldehyde”: the Israeli decision, five years ago, that the political process would indefinitely be placed on hold.

Barak tells Haaretz: No existential threat to Israel

[In an interview with Haaretz that appears in full on Friday, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak] struck a blustery yet pragmatic tone [on Iran’s nuclear program]. “There is no one who will dare try to destroy Israel. We are not in a position of being able to tell the Americans whether to talk to the Iranians. I told American leaders: First learn from the professionals about what is going on in Iran, what they are doing behind the smoke screen, acquaint yourselves with the intelligence material, and from this you will understand they are working determinedly to deceive, confuse and blur things, and that under the headline of ‘nuclear power for peaceful purposes,’ they are trying to achieve military nuclear capability.

“I told them negotiations should be short and have a deadline, accompanied by ‘soft’ sanctions such as limitations on money transfers, while preparing the ground for harsh sanctions that involve authorizing action afterward. This has to be done in deep cooperation with the Russians and the Chinese, and we say we are not removing any option from the table. We have a tendency to hope for a heroic operation that will end everything, as with the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981. Is that realistic?

“There is no comparison,” he said. “In the Iraqi case there was one target that existed and was working, and a surgical strike eliminated it. We thought we were delaying the project for three to four years, whereas in practice it was delayed forever. Here we are up against something far more complex, sophisticated and extensive.”

“The Iranians don’t play backgammon, they play chess, and in fact they invented the game. They are proceeding with far greater sophistication and are far more methodical. The Iranian nation is a collection of people held together by an identity that includes the perception of being an empire from the dawn of history. Part of their nuclear pretensions have nothing to do with Israel, but with their place in the world and the Orient.” [continued…]



Iran’s President ‘would support two-state solution’ for Israel

Asked if he would support an agreement between the Palestinians and Tehran’s arch enemy, he said: “Whatever decision they take is fine with us. We are not going to determine anything. Whatever decision they take, we will support that.

“We think that is the right of the Palestinian people, however we fully expect other states to do so as well.”

Given his frequently stated hostility to Israel’s existence – calling more than once for its “annihilation” – and his habit of capriciously offering threat and promises of friendship within the space of a few days, Mr Ahmadinejad’s words will not treated by Western diplomats as a permanent shift in policy. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — It’s often said that Iranian politics is a subject so complex that it often baffles the leading experts. Even so, there is one utterly predictable and dependable rule when it comes to the interpretation of statements from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: If he says something extreme and inflammatory then his words should be taken literally and treated with the utmost seriousness. If he says something reasonable and conciliatory then he obviously doesn’t mean what he’s saying and his words can be dismissed.

There you have it: Iran-watching made simple!

Israel’s secret plan for West Bank expansion

Israel has taken a step towards expanding the largest settlement in the West Bank, a move Palestinians warn will leave their future state unviable and further isolate its future capital, East Jerusalem

The Israeli Peace Now group, which monitors settlement growth, said it had obtained plans drawn up by experts that the interior ministry had commissioned which call for expanding the sprawling Maale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem southward by 1200 hectares, placing what is now the separate smaller settlement of Kedar within Maale Adumim’s boundaries.

The expansion is on a highly sensitive piece of real estate that both sides see as holding the key to whether the Palestinians will have a viable state with their own corridor between the north and south parts of the West Bank. [continued…]

Clinton’s Mideast pirouette

The sparring between the United States and Israel has begun, and that’s a good thing. Israel’s interests are not served by an uncritical American administration. The Jewish state emerged less secure and less loved from Washington’s post-9/11 Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

The criticism of the center-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come from an unlikely source: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She’s transitioned with aplomb from the calculation of her interests that she made as a senator from New York to a cool assessment of U.S. interests. These do not always coincide with Israel’s. [continued…]

Lieberman: Israel will not attack Iran – even if sanctions fail

Israel will not attack Iran even if the international sanctions against Tehran fail to convince President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give up his country’s nuclear program, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Austrian daily Kleine Zeitung. In an interview published this weekend, Lieberman was asked whether Israel planned to strike Iran as a last resort.

“We are not talking about a military attack. Israel cannot resolve militarily the entire world’s problem. I propose that the United States, as the largest power in the world, take responsibility for resolving the Iranian question,” Lieberman told the paper. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — According to Jeffrey Goldberg, in an interview late in March, “Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a challenge for Barack Obama. The American president, he said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and quickly—or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself.” Subsequently, President Shimon Peres has said that Israel will not go it alone in a military confrontation with Iran. And now Lieberman echoes Peres.

What are we to make of this? Is it Israeli tactical ambiguity whose purpose is to keep its enemies (and allies) guessing? Or is possible that Netanyahu simply dug himself into a rhetorical hole. Once you’ve presented yourself as a Churchillian figure ready to stand up to Hitler II, it’s hard to reposition yourself without appearing to swing in the direction of Chamberlain. The only alternative is to let the president and foreign minister say what the prime minister knows but daren’t utter.

‘Obama’s rabbi’: Support for Israel doesn’t mean blanket approval

After Rabbi David Saperstein was appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to a White House volunteer advisory council of religious and secular leaders and scholars, some called him “Obama’s rabbi.”

Saperstein, however, is more cautious with definitions. Named America’s top rabbi by Newsweek, Rabbi David Saperstein is quick to supply a disclaimer: “They have my mother on the committee.”

Saperstein has served for more than 30 years as a leader of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and is the leader of the Washington D.C.-based lobbying arm of the North American Reform movement.

This week, he sat down to speak with Haaretz on Israel, the peace process, Iran, gay marriage and spirituality.

While he stressed the importance of the connection between U.S. Jews and Israel, the rabbi said he didn’t feel support for the country necessarily meant blanket approval of its actions.

“If I see my brother or sister doing something that I believe is truly harmful to them – I’m going to say something even if they are adults that make their own decisions,” he said. [continued…]

My country, caving to the Taliban

The day after Pakistan’s government signed a peace deal with the Taliban allowing them to implement their own version of sharia in the Swat Valley, there was a traffic jam at a square in downtown Mingora, the main town in the region. The square, Green Chowk, has acquired the nickname Khooni Chowk, or Bloody Square, because the Taliban used to string up their victims there. “Look at this.” A shopkeeper pointed to the hubbub. “This is what people wanted, to get out and do business. Take the security forces away, take the Taliban away, and we can get on with our lives.” He, like many Pakistanis, believed that the deal with the Taliban was the only way to stop bullet-riddled bodies from turning up at Khooni Chowk.

Mingora is not a backwater, not part of the Wild West that foreign journalists invoke whenever they talk about the Taliban. It’s bursting with aspiration; it has law schools, a medical college, a nurses’ training institute. There is even a heritage museum. Yet when peace arrived on Feb. 16, all the women vanished. They were not in the streets or in the offices, not even in the bazaar, which sells nothing but fabric, bags, shoes and fashion accessories.

The music market vanished, too. All 400 shops. The owner of one had converted it into a kebab joint. “This is sharia,” he spat at his grill, which hissed with more smoke than fire. Across from his stand, a barber had hung the obligatory “No un-Islamic haircuts, no shaves” sign and was taking an early morning nap, his face covered with a newspaper.

This, I was told, was the price of peace. [continued…]

Taliban advance: is Pakistan nearing collapse?

The move by Taliban-backed militants into the Buner district of northwestern Pakistan, closer than ever to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, have prompted concerns both within the country and abroad that the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million is on the verge of inexorable collapse. [continued…]

Taliban seize vital Pakistan area closer to the capital

Pushing deeper into Pakistan, Taliban militants have established effective control of a strategically important district just 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, officials and residents said Wednesday.

The fall of the district, Buner, did not mean that the Taliban could imminently threaten Islamabad. But it was another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and it raised new alarm about the ability of the government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance toward the heart of Pakistan.

Buner, home to about one million people, is a gateway to a major Pakistani city, Mardan, the second largest in North-West Frontier Province, after Peshawar. [continued…]

U.S. questions Pakistan’s will to stop Taliban

As the Taliban tightened their hold over newly won territory, Pakistani politicians and American officials on Thursday sharply questioned the government’s willingness to deal with the insurgents and the Pakistani military’s decision to remain on the sidelines.

Some 400 to 500 insurgents consolidated control of their new prize, a strategic district called Buner, just 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, setting up checkpoints and negotiating a truce similar to the one that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law in the neighboring Swat Valley. [continued…]

Obama’s sins of omission

The history of American liberalism is one of promoting substantively modest if superficially radical reforms in order to refurbish and sustain the status quo. From Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, liberals have specialized in jettisoning the redundant to preserve what they see as essential. In this sense, modern liberalism’s great achievement has been to deflect or neutralize calls for more fundamental change – a judgment that applies to President Obama, especially on national security.

Granted, Obama has acted with dispatch to repudiate several of George W. Bush’s most egregious blunders and for this he deserves credit. In abrogating torture, ordering the Guantanamo prison camp closed, and setting a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, Obama is turning the page on a dark chapter in American statecraft. After the hectoring and posturing that figured so prominently in his predecessor’s style, the president’s preference for dialogue rather than preaching is refreshing.

But however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded. Put simply, Obama’s pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.

For decades now, that consensus has centered on what we might call the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism – the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as “American global leadership.” The United States configures its armed forces not for defense but for overseas “contingencies.” To facilitate the deployment of these forces it maintains a vast network of foreign bases, complemented by various access and overflight agreements. Capabilities and bases mesh with and foster a penchant for meddling in the affairs of others, sometimes revealed to the public, but often concealed. [continued…]

The big sleep

On March 28, clashes erupted in Baghdad’s Fadhil district after Iraqi troops arrested the leader of the local Awakening Council, Adil al Mashhadani, one of many former Sunni insurgents who had allied with American forces in the fight against al Qaeda-inspired Salafi militants in Iraq. Mashhadani’s men staged a two-day uprising, which was put down by Iraqis with considerable help from American troops fighting against their former allies.

In Baghdad Mashhadani was a notorious figure, one of many Awakenings men suspected of serious crimes before he went on the American payroll and of continuing them afterwards. I had heard complaints about him since 2007 from Shiites, and especially from supporters of Muqtada al Sadr, who were outraged that a man they accused of the indiscriminate slaughter of Shiite civilians had been empowered by the Americans. An American intelligence officer in Washington told me that the US had possessed incriminating information on Mashhadani for several years – but that he had been one of the first insurgents to see which way the wind was blowing and sign on with the Americans.

Mashhadani’s men and their allies complained that the Americans had betrayed them, and threatened to renew their insurgency unless their leader was released; the clashes in Fadhil provoked new speculation that the failure to integrate the Awakenings into the Iraqi security forces would lead to renewed sectarian strife, if not a return to full-scale civil war. But the brief uprising was quickly put down, and Mashhadani’s arrest demonstrated quite clearly that the civil war is over: there is no organised force in Iraq today capable of challenging, or attempting to overthrow, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. [continued…]

How the horrors of war nearly destroyed me

War’s most dreadful secret, banal and terrible at the same time, is not that men kill – that much is obvious – or even that many men enjoy their killing. That, too, has been well documented. It is more insidious than that. There exists a widespread envy of those who kill, and especially those who kill and kill again. There is a bitter resentment among men when others claim their kills, or their kills are denied. That deems some men “luckier” to have the opportunity to kill more than others.

Soldiers bitching. Another outpost, infested with rats that crawl across useless ceiling ducts that are connected to nothing in a former police station half-ruined by a bomb. The talk is about the young Texan lieutenant who has just left to lead a Small Kill Team on an overnight ambush, palefaced and tired. Top of his class at school, the soldiers say with pride. From what they say it is evident he likes killing and is motivated by opportunities to kill. His men like and respect him, admire his bravery, but sitting on their cots they resent him grabbing all the opportunities to rack up his kills. An activity so full of paradoxes, its meanings are hard to mine and even more difficult to understand. Killing, as Joanna Bourke explains in her study of combat, An Intimate History of Killing, for very many men is an exciting and pleasurable activity as well as a taboo. Being exciting, it is hidden on return to a civilian life that regards permissive killing, even in the high heat of conflict, as something “to be done”, an experience to be endured. But it is different in proximity to the battlefield – among your “buddies” – where all ordinary rules are deliberately suspended. There it becomes obvious that the business of killing is easily assimilated into the story-worlds that define men’s lives. It is integrated into all the other stories that I hear when the men are sitting in their hooches, or round their Saturday night barbecue pits with their cigars, drinking non-alcoholic beer or Gatorade with a shot of illicit spirits occasionally mixed in, after smoking a discreet bowl of hash. Then they talk about sex and cars and films; holidays and children. And sometimes combat and killing. [continued…]

A pirate in the dock, and the US in murky waters

There’s nothing new about the United States making tragically misguided judgement calls in Somalia: think of the ill-fated attempt to arrest the Mogadishu warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in 1993 that turned into the Blackhawk Down bloodbath and prompted a US withdrawal.

Then there was the decision to back an Ethiopian proxy invasion in late 2006 to topple the Islamic Courts Union that had taken control of Mogadishu. That the ICU had restored a modicum of stability and security to a city long plagued by fighting among rival warlords and had managed to tamp down on offshore piracy was less important than one faction of the movement giving shelter to a handful of wanted al Qa’eda men. And of course, once the Islamists were scattered, piracy became a multimillion dollar industry that plagued global shipping.

Which brings us to what may be the latest misguided judgement call: the arraignment in a Manhattan court of Abduwali Abdulkhadir Muse, a Somali teenager captured in the course of a US military operation to free a hostage captured from the US-flagged freighter Maersk Alabama. Most Somalis captured by western navies in the course of anti-piracy operations are handed over for trial in Kenya; even if Muse is guilty as charged, staging his trial in New York is likely to turn him into a hero or martyr in his own community. Somalis tend to take a dim view of the United States to begin with, and many of the pirates that raid shipping off its shores are not viewed by their own communities as criminals. [continued…]



Torture? It probably killed more Americans than 9/11

The use of torture by the US has proved so counter-productive that it may have led to the death of as many US soldiers as civilians killed in 9/11, says the leader of a crack US interrogation team in Iraq.

“The reason why foreign fighters joined al-Qa’ida in Iraq was overwhelmingly because of abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and not Islamic ideology,” says Major Matthew Alexander, who personally conducted 300 interrogations of prisoners in Iraq. It was the team led by Major Alexander [a named assumed for security reasons] that obtained the information that led to the US military being able to locate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Zarqawi was then killed by bombs dropped by two US aircraft on the farm where he was hiding outside Baghdad on 7 June 2006. Major Alexander said that he learnt where Zarqawi was during a six-hour interrogation of a prisoner with whom he established relations of trust.

Major Alexander’s attitude to torture by the US is a combination of moral outrage and professional contempt. “It plays into the hands of al-Qa’ida in Iraq because it shows us up as hypocrites when we talk about human rights,” he says. An eloquent and highly intelligent man with experience as a criminal investigator within the US military, he says that torture is ineffective, as well as counter-productive. “People will only tell you the minimum to make the pain stop,” he says. “They might tell you the location of a house used by insurgents but not that it is booby-trapped.” [continued…]

Iraq resists pleas by U.S. to placate Hussein’s party

On April 18, American and British officials from a secretive unit called the Force Strategic Engagement Cell flew to Jordan to try to persuade one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals — the commander of the final defense of Baghdad in 2003 — to return home to resume efforts to make peace with the new Iraq.

But the Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani, rebuffed them.

After a year of halting talks mediated by the Americans, he said, he concluded that Iraq’s leader, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, simply was not interested in reconciliation.

The American appeal — described by General Hamdani and not previously reported — illustrates what could become one of the biggest obstacles to stability in Iraq. Mr. Maliki’s pledges to reconcile with some of the most ardent opponents of his government have given way to what some say is a hardening sectarianism that threatens to stoke already simmering political tensions and rising anger over a recent spate of bombings aimed at Shiites. [continued…]

Storm of violence in Iraq strains its security forces

A deadly outburst of violence appears to be overwhelming Iraq’s police and military forces as American troops hand over greater control of cities across the country to them. On Friday, twin suicide bombings killed at least 60 people outside Baghdad’s most revered Shiite shrine, pushing the death toll in one 24-hour period to nearly 150.

Like many recent attacks, the bombings appeared intended to inflame sectarian tensions, to weaken Iraq’s security forces and to discredit its government.

The bombings on Friday ominously echoed attacks like the one at a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed and pushed the country toward civil war. [continued…]

Follow the evidence

What have we done as a country over the past eight years? What wrong acts were performed in our name on the pretext of national security? How far have those actions harmed our fame in the world, and how deeply have our institutions been corrupted by a system of concealment devised to perpetuate those actions and to shelter them from inspection? Among those who broke laws by ordering criminal acts, who are those that remain even now in government, and to what extent can they be relied on not to break the laws again? Do Americans understand the Constitution better today than we did in 2002? We: not just secret agents and government officials, but the civilian lawyers in that time of panic who urged such nostrums as “torture warrants” (as Alan Dershowitz did) and representatives who said such things as “I’m OK with it not being pretty” (as Jane Harman said of extreme interrogations). We are at a moment of national inquest. It was not in the president’s power to launch and contain it in a single stroke.

In an essay well known to the American founders, “That Politics may be Reduced to a Science,” David Hume wrote that “A constitution is only so far good, as it provides a remedy against maladministration.” Mere knowledge that crimes were committed is not in itself a remedy. It is necessary that the people responsible for acts of maladministration be rooted out and exposed to public opprobrium. If they committed crimes, they ought to be punished just as other citizens are, without any benefit owing to their official status. Praise of the good is meaningless where blame of the bad is prohibited. So long as servile lawyers and compliant executioners, who work in the dark, continue to be sheltered in the dark, every whistle-blower is at risk by his very loyalty to a public good that trusts the light of day. [continued…]

CIA reportedly declined to closely evaluate harsh interrogations

The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter. [continued…]

My tortured decision

For seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence. [continued…]

U.S. soldier killed herself — after refusing to take part in torture

With each new revelation on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo (and who, knows, probably elsewhere), I am reminded of the chilling story of Alyssa Peterson, who I have written about numerous times in the past three years but now with especially sad relevance. Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what we would call torture, she refused, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003. [continued…]

Part II: soldier who killed herself — after refusing to take part in torture

CIA official: no proof harsh techniques stopped terror attacks on America

The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any “specific imminent attacks,” according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.

aa – That undercuts assertions by former vice president Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials that the use of harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, which is widely considered torture, was justified because it headed off terrorist attacks. [continued…]

The torture timeline

In the past 10 days, the revelation of once classified memos and Senate reports has greatly elucidated how torture happened. This timeline shows the key relevant legal and military events. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: Who did Rep. Harman talk to?

Who did Rep. Harman talk to?

In 1963, the American Zionist Council (AZC) — regarded as the parent organization of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — was under intense pressure from the Justice Department of the Kennedy administration to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act due to the fact that it received funding from the Zionist Agency of Israel, a branch of the Israeli government. AZC resisted, making a plea to Justice officials that if it complied this “would eventually destroy the Zionist movement.” No doubt the memory still haunts AIPAC.

The upcoming trial of former AIPAC officials, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, accused of passing classified documents to Israeli officials, has escalated fears that a thorough examination of the organization’s operations might raise unwelcome questions about the nature of the pro-Israel lobby’s ties.

For that reason, as the Rep. Jane Harman story unfolds, one of the key unanswered questions is the identity of the Israeli agent that the California representative was taped talking to. If a request to intercede with the Justice Department on behalf of Rosen and Weissman, seeking lesser charges than the ones they still face, came from an AIPAC official, that would be one thing. If that official also happened to be an intelligence agent for the Israeli government, then the case has much farther reaching implications.

Interestingly (as David Corn pointed out), when interviewed on NPR this week, Harman initially claimed to have little recollection of the conversation that was wiretapped. “I can’t recall with any specificity a conversation I may have had four years ago.” But later in the interview, she was quite specific in recalling, “The person I was talking to was an American citizen.”

“I didn’t talk to some foreigner,” Harman said. But what about an Israeli agent who also happened to be an American citizen?

If the Israeli government, in contravention with a long-standing agreement not to do so, is in fact conducting intelligence operations inside the United States, it’s hard to imagine that it would not recruit American-Israelis for this purpose. Indeed, staff inside AIPAC with their excellent access to Capital Hill and the highest levels of recent administrations, would seem to be in an ideal position for gathering political intelligence.

Since 1985, after Jonathan Pollard, a US citizen, was convicted of spying on the US for Israel, Israel agreed that it would not conduct intelligence operations inside the United States. Whether it kept to that agreement is clearly open to question. Indeed, that this remains a live issue is apparent from the fact that in 2004 Israel secretly acknowledged to American officials that Pollard was not an isolated case.

In The Forward, in the wake of the Harman accusations, Nathan Guttman writes :

for close observers of the national security establishment, the real news was the extent of its suspicions of American Jewish supporters of Israel — up to and including its willingness to wiretap a member of Congress.

“It’s rooted deep in the system,” an official with an American Jewish organization said, “and it comes from the bottom up.”

The leaked transcripts hint, among other things, at the security establishment’s continued search for an Israeli mole that some reportedly believe remained uncaught after Jonathan Pollard, an American Jewish civilian naval intelligence analyst, was discovered engaged in massive espionage for Israel in 1985. More generally, the wiretap reflects the security establishment’s continuing concern about leaks of classified information to pro-Israel activists and Israeli agents who have shown themselves adept at obtaining nonpublic information from the government.

“We know that we are closely watched, that people might be listening to our phone calls. This is our working premise,” said a former senior Israeli official who was based in Washington in recent years. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said he believed that suspicion toward Israel was prevalent in the military and intelligence establishments but was not common at the political and diplomatic levels.

The disclosure of the Harman wiretaps comes at a time when the government’s most elaborate attempt to crack down on alleged wrongdoings by pro-Israel activists is at a crossroads. The prosecution of two former AIPAC lobbyists, which began more than four years ago and is scheduled to go to trial June 2, is under review and, according to press reports, might be dropped altogether. The conversations involving Harman focused on attempts to put an end to the legal proceedings against the two former AIPAC staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.

Although no formal explanation was provided from the National Security Agency for eavesdropping on the Harman conversation, it is widely believed that the wiretap was part of the investigation into the AIPAC case.

According to court records, wiretaps and surveillance in the Rosen-Weissman case began as early as 1999. From the indictment, which is now being reviewed by the attorney general’s office, it is clear that attempts to stop the flow of information to pro-Israel activists led to a wide- ranging counterintelligence operation in which Israeli diplomats and pro-Israel lobbyists were being followed and their conversations monitored. These conversations involved senior government officials who had been in touch with the subjects of the investigation. The U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia reviewed transcripts of these wiretaps in lengthy pretrial proceedings, and parts of them are expected to be presented if the case reaches trial.

Stephen Green, a Vermont-based writer who has chronicled the counterintelligence spats between the United States and Israel since the late 1970s, said the mistrust toward Israel stems from agents working on the cases and not from an overall anti-Israel ideology. “This has nothing to do with politics or with Israeli foreign policy. These are people who deal with these issues on a daily basis and become very, very upset,” Green said.

If the Justice Department does indeed drop the case against Rosen and Weissman, the person who arguably has the deepest personal interest in this is Larry Franklin, the former Defense Department official who was sentenced to serve 12 and a half years in prison for passing classified information to the AIPAC staffers without authorization.

Although he was sentenced in January 2006, Franklin has yet to be imprisoned. At the time of his conviction, he agreed to assist prosecutors and, according to David Frum, currently works as “a parking lot attendant in West Virginia.” Even so, he has been able to retain the services of one of Washington DC’s highest profile attorneys and no doubt if AIPAC dodges this bullet, Franklin will be wondering why or if he still deserves to go behind bars.

As for Representative Harman, since all sections of the media and fellow members of Congress have happily convinced themselves that this is a story about egregious government overreach and the need for diligent intelligence oversight, the chances that we’ll ever learn the identity of the American-Israeli agent she spoke to now appear slim. Unless of course there’s another useful leak…


Thank G-d for the IDF!

Gaza probe shows IDF among world’s most moral armies

The Israel Defense Forces announced on Wednesday that an internal investigation has determined that no civilians were purposefully harmed by IDF troops during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.

Following the release of the investigation results, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the army’s willingness to probe itself “once again proves that the IDF is one of the most moral armies in the world.

“The IDF is not afraid to investigate itself and in that, proves that its operations are ethical,” said Barak. The defense minister added that he has “complete faith in the IDF, from the chief of staff to the last of the combat soldiers.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Oh my! And to think that cynics like me could have judged the IDF so harshly. What better time could there be to watch again this rousing anthem and wonderful tribute to the most moral army in the world: Don’t mess with the IDF.

Lieberman: U.S. will accept any Israeli policy decision

The Obama Administration will put forth new peace initiatives only if Israel wants it to, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in his first comprehensive interview on foreign policy since taking office.

“Believe me, America accepts all our decisions,” Lieberman told the Russian daily Moskovskiy Komosolets.

Lieberman granted his first major interview to Alexander Rosensaft, the Israel correspondent of one of the oldest Russian dailies, not to an Israeli newspaper. The role of Israel is to “bring the U.S. and Russia closer,” he declared. [continued…]

Senior Hamas official: Rockets damage Palestinian interests

A senior Hamas official said yesterday that firing rockets at Israel ultimately does a disservice to Palestinian interests.

Ismail al-Ashkar is a member of the security committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council and a leading candidate for the interior minister position. “The firing of rockets at Israel is against the Palestinian interest. It benefits certain individuals and groups, but not the Palestinians themselves,” he said yesterday.

Since January 18, the Hamas armed wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has not taken credit for a single Qassam rocket. Sources in the Gaza Strip said just two weeks ago that Hamas detained Islamic Jihad operatives for trying to launch rockets.

Yesterday Hamas representatives met delegates from Islamic Jihad and smaller militant groups in order to ensure the cease-fire with Israel remains in force for now. [continued…]

Clare Short criticised over parliament invitation to Hamas leader

Israel accused former Labour Cabinet minister Clare Short of undermining the Middle East peace process today after she invited the political leader of Hamas to address a meeting in Parliament.

Khaled Mashaal is due to address MPs and peers tonight by video link from Damascus at the event organised by Ms Short, now a independent MP, and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alderdice.

They say that dialogue with Hamas – which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the UK, the US and the EU – is crucial if a solution is to be found to the Palestinian crisis. [continued…]

Most Palestinians and Israelis willing to accept two-state solution, poll finds

A majority of both Palestinians and Israelis are willing to accept a two-state solution, according to a poll from the international grassroots movement One Voice.

Based on public opinion research methods used in Northern Ireland, 500 interviews were completed in Israel and 600 in the West Bank and Gaza immediately following the Gaza war and the Israeli elections.

Each side was asked which problems they thought were “very significant” and what the solutions might be.

The results indicate that 74% of Palestinians and 78% of Israelis are willing to accept a two-state solution on an option range from “tolerable” to “essential”, while 59% of Palestinians and 66% of Israelis find a single bi-national state “unacceptable”. [continued…]

Israel puts Iran issue ahead of Palestinians

The new Israeli government will not move ahead on the core issues of peace talks with the Palestinians until it sees progress in U.S. efforts to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon and limit Tehran’s rising influence in the region, according to top government officials familiar with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s developing policy on the issue.

“It’s a crucial condition if we want to move forward,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, a member of the Israeli parliament and former ambassador to the United States. “If we want to have a real political process with the Palestinians, then you can’t have the Iranians undermining and sabotaging.”

The emerging Israeli position, a significant change from that of previous governments, presents a challenge for President Obama, who has made quick progress on Palestinian statehood a key foreign policy goal. Obama is also trying to begin engagement with Iran as part of a broad effort to slow its nuclear program and curtail its growing strength in the Middle East. [continued…]

Barack Obama begins push for Middle East peace

Barack Obama is to invite Israeli, ­Palestinian and Egyptian leaders to the White House within the next two months in a fresh push for Middle East peace.

Obama, speaking at the White House yesterday, said there was a need to try to rise above the cynicism about prospects for peace. The decision appeared to mark the end of a debate within the Obama administration between those who argued in favour of devoting time and energy to trying to resolve the conflict and those who argued it was a blind alley.

Meeting King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House yesterday, Obama said he hoped “gestures of good faith” would be made “on all sides” in the coming months. He did not say what these ­gestures, intended as confidence-building ­measures, would amount to. [continued…]

Word games

Lord have mercy: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relinquished for the moment his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “a Jewish state” as a condition for negotiations. He has deigned to postpone the demand until future stages. Listen up, world: Perhaps, just perhaps, Netanyahu will also see fit to utter the forbidden phrase “two states for two peoples.”

The slogan of yesterday’s illegitimate radical left will be heard publicly in Washington from the mouth of Israel’s most right-wing prime minister ever, and everyone will sing the praises of the historic turnaround. The diplomatic process will again take wing and the expectations will soar. Peace is just around the corner.

Once again the diplomatic arena has become a playground of words. This will be said and that will be declared and the other will be proclaimed. This is a guarantee of another foregone failure.

Whether or not Netanyahu says two states, nothing will change. The Americans will rejoice, the Europeans will be thrilled, the Israeli right will wax wrathful, commentators will again write with pathos about how the dream of the greater land of Israel has been shelved – and the occupation will flourish. [continued…]


NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENTS: Using torture to force “confessions”

Report: Abusive tactics were used to find Iraq-al Qaida link

The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.

The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush’s quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them. [continued…]

Editor’s CommentInterrogation is used for extracting information. Torture is used to force confessions.

It’s not about getting the victim to tell you something you don’t yet know; it’s about getting the victim to say what you want to hear.

The New York Times refers to Dr James E. Mitchell as a mastermind of the torture program. In a telling quote that sounds like an account straight from the Spanish Inquisition — who’s purpose was to force confessions — we learn:

    “Jim believed that people of this ilk would confess for only one reason: sheer terror,” said one CIA official who had discussed the matter with Dr. Mitchell.

There you have it: this was about forcing confessions.

Waterboarding someone dozens of times in order to gain new information makes no sense. Repeated application in order to force a confession makes perfect sense.

In adopting harsh tactics, no inquiry into their past use

The program began with Central Intelligence Agency leaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terrorist interrogations without risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on Americans during military training. How could that be torture?

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — To hear this story the way the New York Times tells it, then-CIA director George Tenet and his sidekick John McLaughlin added up to a stellar torture sales team. The leaders of the Bush administration passively swallowed the pitch. Good faith was flowing from every direction. It’s yet another ripping yarn in the never ending tale of American innocence. How dreadful that so many eager patriots could have unwittingly become party to the very un-American practice of torture. It’s a great narrative, but somehow it doesn’t quite ring true.

The part that’s missing here is the context — not the context of the United States in a condition of high alert, but the context of an administration that months before had declared its willingness to take the gloves off and operate in the dark side.

The core premise at work here — one that flowed directly from Cheney and Bush — was that the effectiveness of counterterrorism necessarily corresponds with freedom from constraints. From that assumption it naturally follows that the closer one can operate to the boundaries imposed by law, the more effective will be the operation. The perspective on legality is that it is an operational constraint.

Which brings us to the article’s opening words: “The program began…” It began with the assumption that a SERE based interrogation program could not be called torture. Really? Or did it begin with an assignment: find a way to use the most brutal techniques you can devise without any of us running foul of the law.

The idea that brutality and effectiveness might not perfectly coincide never entered the vice president’s mind.

Banned techniques yielded ‘high value information,’ memo says

President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

“High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country,” Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Some precision is called for here. Information comes from the suspect, not the technique. To say that the interrogation technique had an instrumental and indispensable role in soliciting the information depends on knowing that the information could not have been gained in any other way and that the information was reliable. As Blair acknowledged: “The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means.”

But as I said yesterday, the fundamental problem with the argument of expediency is that this provides a justification for torture. If you think that whatever works is justifiable and you think torture works then you have to condone torture. If you can’t condone torture then pointing to “success” stories is simply a way of deflecting attention away from the central issue: the use of torture.

Report gives new detail on approval of brutal techniques

A newly declassified Congressional report released Tuesday outlined the most detailed evidence yet that the military’s use of harsh interrogation methods on terrorism suspects was approved at high levels of the Bush administration.

The report focused solely on interrogations carried out by the military, not those conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency at its secret prisons overseas. It rejected claims by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others that Pentagon policies played no role in harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or other military facilities.

The 232-page report, the product of an 18-month inquiry, was approved on Nov. 20 by the Senate Armed Services Committee, but has since been under Pentagon review for declassification. Some of the findings were made public in a Dec. 12 article in The New York Times; a spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld dismissed the report at the time as “unfounded allegations against those who have served our nation.” [continued…]


Cheney’s bogus pragmatism on torture

Pressure grows to investigate interrogations

Pressure mounted on President Obama on Monday for more thorough investigation into harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, even as he tried to reassure the Central Intelligence Agency that it would not be blamed for following legal advice.

Mr. Obama said it was time to admit “mistakes” and “move forward.” But there were signs that he might not be able to avoid a protracted inquiry into the use of interrogation techniques that the president’s top aides and many critics say crossed the line into torture. [continued…]

Cheney wants CIA files for memoir

Researching his memoirs, former Vice President Dick Cheney is pushing the CIA to declassify files that he claims would vindicate the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques that President Barack Obama has banned.

The request, which the CIA has not yet answered, sets up a showdown between the past and current administrations. Cheney can be expected to argue that the Obama administration’s publication of other files last week is a precedent for release of the reports he wants. Cheney contends that the information he seeks does not pose a threat to anyone, nor to intelligence sources and methods. [continued…]

The CIA’s questioning worked

In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists “did not make us safer.” This is patently false. The proof is in the memos Obama made public — in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media.

Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that “the CIA believes ‘the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.’ . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques.” The memo continues: “Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, ‘Soon you will find out.’ ” Once the techniques were applied, “interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Cheney’s interests — as always — are preeminently political, rather than legal or moral. He understands that the argument that the vast majority of Americans will buy without a second thought is that when it comes to counterterrorism, whatever can be demonstrated as having “worked” is demonstrably justifiable. If waterboarding yielded vital intelligence, it was warranted. Lives were saved. Cheney et al did the right thing.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it provides an ironclad justification for torture. If the protection of American lives is a supreme good, it follows that success in extracting vital intelligence by torturing a terrorist suspect and thereby saving lives, would provide the necessary moral justification for torture — at least for those who subscribe to this ends-justifies-the-means line of reasoning.

Yet — and here’s the problem — the Bush administration cleaved assiduously to the line: “we do not torture.” Why? Simply because it was illegal? Laws can be changed. If the administration was unwilling to change the law then this either means the pragmatic argument didn’t hold — because torture is wrong even when if it saves lives — or, and this would be utterly contrived, the proponents of not-quite-torture believed that their “legal” torture techniques were more effective than illegal torture.

The question Cheney needs to answer is this: If torturing terrorist suspects can save American lives, do you support the use and thus the legalization of torture?

If his answer is “no,” then the documentary evidence of how CIA interrogations “made us safer” is irrelevant to the current debate. If his answer is “yes,” then this begs a further question: Why have you spent all these years arguing that the US does not torture, rather than arguing that the US needs the legal freedom to do whatever it takes — including using torture — to protect its citizens?

Of course, even if Cheney was to face such questions he would decline the debate since he knows perfectly well that torture is indefensible — unless it can be dressed up as something else. “We didn’t torture. We defended America.”



AIPAC on trial

As the Harman-AIPAC story unfolds all I can do at this point is make a few observations whose significance (or irrelevance) will become apparent in the future.

The questions that everyone predictably grab hold of in a situation like this are: Why is the story coming out now? Who’s interests are served by the timing?

In this case a supposedly telling coincidence is the fact that the story comes out in the middle of the waterboarding controversy and, lo and behold, it turns out Harman was the only Congressional leader who had objected to the interrogation program.

Well, Jeff Stein is quite emphatic in asserting that the story came out at this particular time for prosaic rather than political reasons. When asked why it came out now he said: “No special reason. The story was not ‘planted’ on me to influence any other events – in particular the looming AIPAC trial or things related to the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. I’ve known about it for some time but just not been able to pull it together until now for various reasons.” He also said, “The fact is, there is no ‘timing’ to any ‘leak.’ No sources ‘came forward,’ so to speak. I learned about this quite a while ago and was just recently able to turn my full attention to it.” Stein has a reputation as a methodical, diligent journalist and I’ll take his word for it on the timing.

Meanwhile, as everyone scrambles to try and figure out what’s going on here there are vying narratives that seem to have more to do with the observers preoccupations than they do with the story.

This is a story about AIPAC. It’s not about waterboarding or warrantless wiretaps.

There are those who, even if they don’t like AIPAC, nevertheless seem to think the AIPAC investigation rests on shaky legal ground and doubt that it will ever make it to trial. But that level of skepticism is hard to square that view with what are already established facts.

Larry Franklin is sitting in jail, serving a 13-year term. Two Israelis involved in the case hold or are about to enter key positions in the new Israeli government. Naor Gilon, who was alleged to receive classified information both from Franklin and then-AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, has just been appointed as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s chief of staff. Another Israeli official also involved in the case, former Mosad director, Uzi Arad, is expected to become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s national security adviser.

Unless this trial is avoided (might there be a plea bargain in the works?), this isn’t going to just be about the arcane Espionage Act. It’s going to be about how AIPAC works. Potentially, it’s going to be about whether AIPAC is genuinely an independent lobbying organization, or whether its operations have become so deeply entwined with those of Likud/Kadima-led Israeli governments that AIPAC should be legally treated as an agent of a foreign government.

Sources: wiretap recorded Rep. Harman promising to intervene for AIPAC

Lieberman taps Franklin case diplomat for top slot

The Harman-AIPAC story: a timeline

Lawmaker is said to have agreed to aid lobbyists

Jeff Stein takes the Harman story to MSNBC

Who listened to Harman? NSA or FBI?

More on that “suspected Israeli agent”

Are the Harman leaks fueled by her dissent on waterboarding?

Exclusive: Feds probe a top Democrat’s relationship with AIPAC


EDITORIAL: Power, humiliation and torture

Power, humiliation and torture

In the wake of 9/11, no phrase more succinctly projected the upwelling of popular jingoism across the United States than the words “Power of Pride.”

America needed to reassert its potency after experiencing the insult and humiliation of witnessing its power simultaneously centralized and instantaneously crushed when two drab towers acquired their national and international iconic significance in the very same moment that they collapsed.

As American power symbolically turned to a cloud of dust, its leaders scurried around in a desperate effort to salvage their authority and reclaim their dominance.

It now appears that central to that process was a calculated effort through which senior members of the Bush administration would restore their own pride and purge their own humiliation by torturing those who had collaborated in the attacks.

The fact that the CIA’s torture program was claimed to merely use “harsh interrogation” techniques was not simply a way of asserting that the legal threshold of torture had not been crossed. By using the term “interrogation” the issue of sadistic retribution was effectively screened out of consideration.

Even those who were critical of the approach the administration had adopted were inclined to confine those criticisms to questions such as whether these coercive methods would have any chance of yielding valuable intelligence. Alternatively they might press a patriotic argument by suggesting that torture was un-American.

The assumption inside the administration was that if its harsh methods could be presented as having been effective in preventing subsequent acts of terrorism, then pragmatic Americans would have less concern about the moral qualms of the administration’s critics — individuals who could be dismissed as civil liberties fanatics.

The moral question of whether the state can be allowed to use torture as a method of extra-judicial punishment and retribution rarely if ever entered the debate. But the evidence now suggests that it should.

We now learn that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002.

The New York Times has reported:

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case….

…the use of repeated waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah was ordered “at the direction of CIA headquarters,” and officials were dispatched from headquarters “to watch the last waterboard session.”

The memo, written in 2005 and signed by Steven G. Bradbury, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, concluded that the waterboarding was justified even if the prisoner turned out not to know as much as officials had thought.

And he did not, according to the former intelligence officer involved in the Abu Zubaydah case. “He pleaded for his life,” the official said. “But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give.”

A line of command and a set of orders is one way of attempting to explain how it could come about that a man would be waterboarded day after day. Yet the significance of what was taking place at that time was implicit rather than explicit. What mattered most was what was left unstated.

Within a relatively short period, Zubaydah would have learned that as agonizing as waterboarding might be, it was something he could survive. In about the same amount of time, his torturers would have learned that there was no more information they could extract.

And yet the torture continued, day in, day out, multiple times a day.

Cheney knew. Bush knew. Rumsfeld knew.

Each day might yield no new intelligence but for those who had been most deeply humiliated by 9/11, unremitting waterboarding provided its own rewards.

To be able to say, “carry on” — with no reasonable justification — was to silently know: I have the power to exact retribution.



Divisions arose on rough tactics for Qaeda figure

The first use of waterboarding and other rough treatment against a prisoner from Al Qaeda was ordered by senior Central Intelligence Agency officials despite the belief of interrogators that the prisoner had already told them all he knew, according to former intelligence officials and a footnote in a newly released legal memorandum.

The escalation to especially brutal interrogation tactics against the prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, including confining him in boxes and slamming him against the wall, was ordered by officials at C.I.A. headquarters based on a highly inflated assessment of his importance, interviews and a review of newly released documents show.

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.

Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.” [continued…]

Expedience and the torture amnesty

President Obama’s statement on releasing the Bush-era torture memos is a curious and depressing document, but it bears the marks of having been revised with care by the president himself. He takes the occasion to assure the country that a dark age has passed. At the same time he assures the agents of that darkness that they will be exempt from prosecution. The statement betrays an odd mixture of frankness and caution; the appearance of resolution, with a good deal of actual equivocation; a wish to channel the conspicuous truth to one’s own cause without revealing a disadvantageous quantity of truth. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Opinion writers can debate questions about whether President Obama deserves praise for releasing the torture memos and whether he is exercising good or bad political judgment in his appeal that we now “move forward” and not waste “time and energy laying blame for the past.” As Manfred Nowak, the UN’s top torture investigator points out however, Obama has far less leeway here than he is attempting to exercise.

As president of the United States, Obama took an oath to uphold the constitution. The constitution requires that the United States complies with international treaties to which it is bound. This includes the United Nations Convention Against Torture which the US ratified in 1994. This convention requires that torturers be prosecuted. It specifically states: “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

CIA memos could bring more disclosures

Even as President Obama urges the country to turn the page, his decision to reveal exhaustive details about interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency could lead to a flood of new disclosures about secret Bush administration operations against Al Qaeda, current and former government officials said Friday.

At the same time, the new revelations are fueling calls by lawmakers for an extensive inquiry into controversial Bush administration programs, and Mr. Obama now faces a challenge making good on his promise to protect from legal jeopardy those intelligence operatives who acted within Justice Department interrogation guidelines.

Some members of Congress and human rights lawyers are likely to press for new disclosures about the period of several months in 2002 when C.I.A. interrogators began interrogating Abu Zubaydah, a Qaeda operative captured in March of that year, before the Justice Department had officially endorsed the interrogation program. [continued…]

Plan for Palestinian state is ‘dead end,’ Israel tells U.S.

In a direct challenge to President Barack Obama’s commitment to rejuvenate moribund Mideast peace talks, Israel on Thursday dismissed American-led efforts to establish a Palestinian state and laid out new conditions for renewed negotiations.

Leaders of Israel’s hawkish new government told former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy, that they aren’t going to rush into peace talks with their Palestinian neighbors.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he’d require Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state in any future negotiations — a demand that Palestinians have up to now rejected — Israeli government officials said. [continued…]

The reawakened specter of Iraqi civil war

April has already been a cruel month in Iraq. A spate of bombings aimed at Shi‘i civilians in Baghdad has raised fears that the grim sectarian logic that led the capital to civil war in 2005-2007 will reassert itself. On April 6, a string of six car bombs killed at least 37 people; the next day, shortly after President Barack Obama landed in Baghdad, another car bomb killed eight; and on the morrow, still another bomb blew up close to the historic Shi‘i shrine in Kadhimiyya just northwest of the capital’s central districts, taking an additional seven civilian lives. Worryingly for Iraqis, the bombings occurred following gun battles between the security forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi‘i-led government and Sunni Arab militiamen, fueling rumors that the disgruntled militiamen have spearheaded the violent campaign. [continued…]

U.S. experts: Pakistan on course to become Islamist state

A growing number of U.S. intelligence, defense and diplomatic officials have concluded that there’s little hope of preventing nuclear-armed Pakistan from disintegrating into fiefdoms controlled by Islamist warlords and terrorists, posing a greater threat to the U.S. than Afghanistan’s terrorist haven did before 9/11.

“It’s a disaster in the making on the scale of the Iranian revolution,” said a U.S. intelligence official with long experience in Pakistan who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Pakistan’s fragmentation into warlord-run fiefdoms that host al Qaida and other terrorist groups would have grave implications for the security of its nuclear arsenal; for the U.S.-led effort to pacify Afghanistan; and for the security of India, the nearby oil-rich Persian Gulf and Central Asia, the U.S. and its allies.

“Pakistan has 173 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, an army which is bigger than the American army, and the headquarters of al Qaida sitting in two-thirds of the country which the government does not control,” said David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, a former State Department adviser and a counterinsurgency consultant to the Obama administration. [continued…]


EDITORIAL: The scars of torture

The scars of torture

How much credit does President Obama deserve for releasing the torture memos?

Glenn Greenwald argues:

Other than mildly placating growing anger over his betrayals of his civil liberties commitments (which, by the way, is proof of the need to criticize Obama when he does the wrong thing), there wasn’t much political gain for Obama in releasing these documents. And he certainly knew that, by doing so, he would be subjected to an onslaught of accusations that he was helping Al Qaeda and endangering American National Security. And that’s exactly what happened, as in this cliché-filled tripe from Hayden and Michael Mukasey in today’s Wall St. Journal, and this from an anonymous, cowardly “top Bush official” smearing Obama while being allowed to hide behind the Jay Bybee of journalism, Politico‘s Mike Allen.

But Obama knowingly infuriated the CIA, including many of his own top intelligence advisers; purposely subjected himself to widespread attacks from the Right that he was giving Al Qaeda our “playbook”; and he released to the world documents that conclusively prove how that the U.S. Government, at the highest levels, purported to legalize torture and committed blatant war crimes. There’s just no denying that those actions are praiseworthy. I understand the argument that Obama only did what the law requires. That is absolutely true. We’re so trained to meekly accept that our Government has the right to do whatever it wants in secret — we accept that it’s best that most things be kept from us — that we forget that a core premise of our government is transparency; that the law permits secrecy only in the narrowest of cases; and that it’s certainly not legal to suppress evidence of government criminality on the grounds that it is classified.

Still, as a matter of political reality, Obama had to incur significant wrath from powerful factions by releasing these memos, and he did that. That’s an extremely unusual act for a politician, especially a President, and it deserves praise.

Really? I honestly don’t see it and I think that drawing a distinction between the act of releasing the memos and the act of throwing out a lifeline to those who might face prosecution is a way of decoupling what were actually interlocking actions.

The Obama administration had already stalled on releasing the memos. Had they continued to do so they would have put themselves in the position of appearing to be complicit in covering up a criminal conspiracy.

Central to that conspiracy was an effort to use evidence derived from observing the effects of the US military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training.

In assessing the potential risk involved in the use of torture techniques such as waterboarding, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council rested heavily on the proposition that if no lasting harm had been done to SERE trainees then neither would terrorist suspects be at risk.

In his memo to John Rizzo, Acting General Council of the CIA, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee wrote:

…the information derived from SERE training bears upon the impact of the use of the individual techniques and upon their use as a course of conduct. You have found that the use of these methods together or separately, including the use of the waterboard, has not resulted in any negative long-term mental health consequences. The continued use of these methods without mental health consequences to the trainees indicates that it is highly improbable that such consequences would result here. Because you conducted the due diligence to determine that these procedures, either alone or in combination, do not produce prolonged mental harm, we believe that you do not meet the specific intent requirement necessary to violate Section 2340A [the statute prohibiting the use of torture].

But the gaping hole in that argument was acknowledged by Steven Bradbury, a member of Bybee’s own staff, three years later:

Although we refer to the SERE experience below, we note at the outset an important limitation on reliance on that experience. Individuals undergoing SERE training are obviously in a very different situation from detainees undergoing interrogation; SERE trainees know it is part of a training program, not a real-life interrogation regime, they presumably know it will last only a short time, and they presumably have assurances that they will not be significantly harmed by the training.

What was obvious to Bradbury in 2005 somehow eluded Bybee’s grasp in 2002. Maybe it was because Bybee had spent too much time in the company of the likes of Dick Cheney, David Addington and Donald Rumsfeld.

It was Rumsfeld who had famously asserted that as someone who worked standing up, he couldn’t see the harm in forcing someone else to remain standing for many hours — as though it was neither here nor there whether the person standing was also naked, chained in position and being held in secret in a foreign country.

The point — and this is really the core issue in the whole torture debate — is that there is and always has been only one pressure point against which force is applied in the practice of torture, that being, the human mind. Its aim is to break the mind without breaking the body. Its successful practice requires that whatever scars are left behind are not clearly visible.

If its up to Obama, America will now “move forward” and the scars of torture will remain invisible.

The CIA however is bracing itself for examination.

The Washington Post reports:

For the first time, officials said yesterday that they would provide legal representation at no cost to CIA employees subjected to international tribunals or inquiries from Congress. They also said they would indemnify agency workers against any financial judgments.

The announcement appeared to be designed to soothe concerns expressed by top intelligence officials, who argued in recent weeks that the graphic detail in the memos could bring unwanted attention to interrogators and deter others from joining government service.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told employees that the interrogation practices won approval from the highest levels of the Bush administration and that they had nothing to fear if they followed the legal guidance from the Justice Department.

“You need to be fully confident that as you defend the nation, I will defend you,” Panetta said.

John Demjanjuk, the former Nazi death camp guard who is awaiting deportation from the United States before being sent to Germany to face trial for his part in the Holocaust, is being defended by lawyers who argue that putting the 89-year-old on trial would cause him pain amounting to torture.

If he does end up on trial, his defense may well suggest that we no longer live in a world where the Nuremberg defense is untenable.

As Barack Obama and Leon Panetta seem to be saying, “I was just following orders,” has now become an honorable American justification for torture.



The battle against piracy begins in Mogadishu

We call them “pirates”, because that is how they most easily translate into Western culture, but the Somali marauders currently terrorising Indian Ocean shipping might better be termed ocean-going shiftas, heirs to a long and uniquely African tradition of banditry.

The term shifta may be unfamiliar, yet it is a key to understanding what is happening off the coast of Somalia, and how it might possibly be resolved. Shifta, derived from the Somali word shúfto, can be translated as bandit or rebel, outlaw or revolutionary, depending on which end of the gun you are on.

In the roiling chaos that is Somalia, the killers and criminals are variously pirates, warlords, kidnappers, fanatics or Islamic insurgents. Most are young, angry men with no prospects, no education and a great deal of heavy weaponry. But all are historically descended from the shiftas who have plundered the Horn of Africa for decades. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — When the Daily Show turns on some triumphalist, hot-blooded American nationalism (not withstanding some token irony) it makes me wonder how differently a Democratic president would have handled 9/11 from the way George Bush did.

The event of three teenage Somali pirates being shot has been treated as though President Obama has successfully traversed a national security rite of passage. Three scalps held aloft, he can now be hailed by his followers as a blood-anointed chieftain. The ghosts of Mogadishu has been exorcised.

Less attention has given to the fact that the lifeboat containing the pirates and their hostage was tethered no more than 80 feet behind the USS Bainbridge, presenting a bobbing but not very distant target. Or, that we really have no way of knowing whether the critical moment came dramatically with Capt Phillips’ life in immediate danger or whether it came clinically when three pirates simultaneously found themselves in the snipers’ cross hairs.

As for the administration’s broader response to what has been dubbed “the scourge of piracy”, Hillary Clinton’s statement sounds horribly like a piece of vacuous off-the-shelf diplomacy.

What we will do is first send an envoy to attend the international Somali peacekeeping and development meeting scheduled in Brussels. The solution to Somali piracy includes improved Somali capacity to police their own territory. Our envoy will work with other partners to help the Somalis assist us in cracking down on pirate bases and in decreasing incentives for young Somali men to engage in piracy.

Second, I’m calling for immediate meetings with our partners in the International Contact Group on Piracy to develop an expanded multinational response. The response that came to our original request through the Contact Group for nations to contribute naval vessels has turned out to be very successful. But now we need better coordination. This is a huge expanse of ocean, four times the size of Texas, so we have to be able to work together to avoid the pirates. We also need to secure the release of ships currently being held and their crews, and explore tracking and freezing pirate assets.

Third, I’ve tasked a diplomatic team to engage with Somali Government officials from the Transitional Federal Government as well as regional leaders in Puntland. We will press these leaders to take action against pirates operating from bases within their territories.

And fourth, because it is clear that defending against piracy must be the joint responsibility of governments and the shipping industry, I have directed our team to work with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures. So we will be working on these actions as well as continuing to develop a long-term strategy to restore maritime security to the Horn of Africa.

The elephant in the room here is that Somalia effectively has no government. Where there is no rule of law, there are in a practical sense no law breakers. Pressing leaders of a powerless government to “take action against pirates” is really a rather transparent way sidestepping the core political issue: the need to help in the establishment of an effective Somali government whose legitimacy is accepted by the majority of the population.

Netanyahu’s false promises

Tony Blair, who now serves as the Middle East Quartet’s envoy, has told Time magazine he has concluded that the return to power of the newly elected Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu – universally seen as a near-fatal setback to prospects for a two-state solution – may be a blessing.

Blair informs us that he had a serious chat with Netanyahu in which it became clear that far from putting Palestinian statehood beyond reach, Netanyahu intends to become the father of the Palestinian nation. Like his friend George W Bush, Blair apparently looked into his interlocutor’s soul and concluded that this man aspires to nothing less than “to build the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up”.

Of course, there is the annoying matter that Netanyahu refuses to affirm his support for a two-state solution; indeed, Netanyahu considers a Palestinian state a plague to be avoided. However, Blair would like all of us to understand that “circumstances must be right” for Netanyahu before he can let the world in on his secret passion for Palestinian nation-building. [continued…]

IDF planning largest-ever drill to prepare Israel for war

The Home Front Command is preparing to hold the largest exercise ever in Israeli history, scheduled to take place in about two months, in hopes of priming the populace and raising awareness of the possibility of war breaking out.

Should there be a war, Israel would have insufficient emergency and rescue response units, according to a senior Home Front Command officer.

Speaking with Haaretz, Col. Hilik Sofer, who is in charge of the Department for Population at the Home Front Command, said that “in wartime there will be insufficient Magen David Adom, rescue and chemical and biological warfare units. Even if we call up the reserves of the Home Front Command, we will have to rely on the population itself.”

“We need to train for a reality in which during war missiles can fall on any part of the country without warning,” he said.

The Home Front Command is hoping to convince the population that in a future war the entire country can become a front without warning. [continued…]

Aid rots outside Gaza

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of aid intended for the Gaza Strip is piling up in cities across Egypt’s North Sinai region, despite recent calls from the United Nations to ease aid flow restrictions to the embattled territory in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.

Food, medicine, blankets, infant food and other supplies for Gaza’s 1.5 million people, coming from governments and non-governmental agencies around the world, are being stored in warehouses, parking lots, stadiums and on airport runways across Egypt’s North Sinai governorate.

Egypt shares a 14-kilometre border with Gaza that has been closed more or less permanently since the Islamist movement Hamas took control of the territory in June 2007.

Flour, pasta, sugar, coffee, chocolate, tomato sauce, lentils, date bars, juice, chickpeas, blankets, hospital beds, catheter tubes and other humanitarian- based items are all sitting in at least eight storage points in and around Al- Arish, a city in North Sinai approximately 50 kilometres from Gaza’s border.

Three months after the end of the war, much of the aid has either rotted or been irreparably damaged as a result of both rain and sunshine, and Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing. [continued…]

Iran treating Obama declarations as policy

It appears Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has begun treating the declarations of U.S. President Barack Obama as policy, and this is a substantive response to the new American strategy, coordinated with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Contrary to previous Iranian declarations, Ahmadinejad is dropping the precondition to dialogue that the United States first change its policy.

The new American strategy assumes that Iran will continue developing nuclear technology and enriching uranium, and says the Bush policies toward Iran have failed. As such, Washington has decided to do away with Bush’s preconditions, which refused dialogue with Iran as long as Tehran enriched uranium. It appears Obama is willing to allow Iran to continue enriching a limited amount of uranium under strict supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The lifting of this precondition was perceived by Tehran as American recognition of its nuclear program and its right to pursue nuclear technology. Iran also assumes that the threat of further sanctions is now on hold, at least during the dialogue. Iran may be encouraged that the dialogue is not limited in time, and that the U.S. president’s rhetoric does not include ultimatums or threats. Moreover, Washington has decided that there is no point in waiting until the Iranian elections are over, both because Ahmadinejad has a very good chance of being reelected, and because the Iranian people fully support the country’s nuclear program. [continued…]

Gates warns against Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities

Amid increasing suggestions that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned this week that such a strike would have dangerous consequences, and asserted that Tehran’s acquisition of a bomb can be prevented only if “Iranians themselves decide it’s too costly.”

Using his strongest language on the subject to date, Gates told a group of Marine Corps students that a strike would probably delay Tehran’s nuclear program from one to three years. A strike, however, would unify Iran, “cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them,” he said.

Israeli officials fear that the Islamic Republic may gain the know-how to build a bomb as early as this year. Several of them have warned that Israel could strike first to eliminate what it considers an existential threat. [continued…]

Iran ‘to propose nuclear package’

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran has prepared proposals aimed at resolving his country’s nuclear dispute with the West.

Speaking in southern Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad said that the package would ensure “peace and justice” for the world.

It would be offered to the West soon, he said, but gave no further details. [continued…]

Pakistan dodges a bullet

A month ago, Pakistan came close to a political breakdown that could have triggered a military coup. How that crisis developed — and how it was ultimately defused — illuminates the larger story of a country whose frontier region President Obama recently described as “the most dangerous place in the world.”

A detailed account of the March political confrontation emerged last week during a visit to Islamabad by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen. As described by U.S. and Pakistani officials, it’s a story of political brinkmanship and, ultimately, of a settlement brokered by the Obama administration.

At stake was the survival of Pakistani democracy. Allies of President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to cripple his political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The opposition leader took to the streets in response, joining a “long march” to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of Pakistan’s deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The march threatened a violent street battle that could have forced Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, to intervene. [continued…]


Is Obama being blackmailed by the CIA?

Obama tilts to CIA on memos

The Obama administration is leaning toward keeping secret some graphic details of tactics allowed in Central Intelligence Agency interrogations, despite a push by some top officials to make the information public, according to people familiar with the discussions.

These people cautioned that President Barack Obama is still reviewing internal arguments over the release of Justice Department memorandums related to CIA interrogations, and how much information will be made public is in flux.

Among the details in the still-classified memos is approval for a technique in which a prisoner’s head could be struck against a wall as long as the head was being held and the force of the blow was controlled by the interrogator, according to people familiar with the memos. Another approved tactic was waterboarding, or simulated drowning. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — No wonder there’s so much trepidation around releasing these memos. One can only imagine what kind of phrasing is involved in defining the “appropriate” amount of force with which someone’s head can be bashed against a wall.

Was it something specific like this: With less force than would be required to fracture the skull or spill blood? Or was it something more legalistic but vague, like this: With less force than could reasonably be expected to result in permanent brain damage?

The key issue here, the CIA would have us believe, is that revealing details on the torture techniques it has used would “undermine the agency’s credibility with foreign intelligence services.”

What this means, as far as I can tell from reading reports on the Binyam Mohamed case is this: When the CIA enlisted the support of MI5 (and other intelligence services) in the rendition and torture of suspected terrorists, the agreement was that information about the intelligence process would remain under the control of all participants. Another way of putting it would be to say that the co-conspirators agreed to cover each other’s backs so that they could collectively enjoy legal impunity.

Now that that impunity is in jeopardy, the lawbreakers are upping the ante by implying that exposing torture practices poses a national security threat. Ostensibly the threat comes from providing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, but the underlying threat is that the CIA will no longer get cooperation from foreign agencies and that intelligence gathering will therefore suffer. And what this boils down to is the crudest possible threat: if the administration doesn’t protect the agency, the agency won’t protect the administration. This is, in a word: blackmail.

At the White House, joking about a torture investigation?

I was asked to go on Hardball on Tuesday night to discuss the news that Spanish prosecutors are likely to recommend a full investigation be conducted to determine if six former Bush administration officials—including ex-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—ought to be indicted for having sanctioned torture at Guantanamo. So I thought I’d ask White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about the matter.

This could become a true headache for the White House—a high-profile case in which Spanish prosecutors bring charges against Gonzales; Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense; David Addington, former counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney; William Haynes, a former Pentagon lawyer; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, two former Justice Department officials. Several steps must occur before any prosecution proceeds. If the prosecutors determine a full criminal investigation is warranted–as is expected–it will be up to a Spanish judge to open a full-fledged inquiry that could produce indictments. He could decide not to accept the recommendation. And, of course, it’s possible that an investigation could end without indictments. The Spanish hook for the case is a simple one: Five Guantanamo detainees were either Spanish citizens or residents. And, by the way, Spanish courts claim jurisdiction that extends to other nations when it comes to torture and war crimes. [continued…]


Israeli war talk

Israel threatens military strike on Iran

President Shimon Peres has threatened that Israel will take military action against Iran if talks proposed by the US president Barack Obama fail to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. In an interview on the Israeli Kol Hai radio station on Sunday, Mr Peres warned that if the talks don’t soften the approach of the Iranian president, “we’ll strike him”.

Mr Peres ruled out the possibility of Israel engaging in a unilateral attack, and said: “We certainly cannot go it alone, without the US, and we definitely can’t go against the US. This would be unnecessary.”

The Israeli president’s statement comes just a few days after the US Vice President Joe Biden issued a high-level warning to Israel’s new government that it would be “ill advised” to launch a military strike against Iran.

Mr Peres also suggested that the arrest last week of 49 alleged agents of Hizbollah by Egyptian authorities was a blow to the Iranian president’s ambitions. [continued…]

Editor’s CommentIsrael threatens to attack Iran has become a dog-bites-man story. What’s significant here is that Peres went out of his way to say that Israel will not go it alone. An attack either gets US backing or it’s not going to happen.

The subtext here is that the Israelis are becoming genuinely afraid of a US-Israeli rift. And the driving force behind this rift is one that the Israel lobby is powerless to rein in: Avigdor Lieberman.

The diplomatic sleight of hand that the Israelis love to play is to gloss over disagreements and brush away criticisms by suggesting that the differences only exist in the eye of the beholder — that Israel and the US are of one heart, indivisible. But no one makes this posture more difficult than Lieberman, a man who is now too powerful to dismiss as a somewhat harmless embarrassment.

As Douglas Bloomfield wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Lieberman “could do what the Arabs and their supporters could only dream of – drive a wedge between Americans and Israel.”

Netanyahu and threat of bombing Iran — the bluff that never stops giving?

Israel does not have the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. Even the most successful bombing campaign would only set back the known program for a few years — without affecting any potential clandestine program. This is not classified information. Military experts are well aware of Israel’s capabilities — and its limits.

Yet, the threat of military action, or rather the bluff, serves a purpose: Threats of military action militarizes the atmosphere. It creates an environment that renders diplomacy less likely to succeed — it may even prevent diplomacy from being pursued in the first place.

In the Iranian case, Netanyahu’s tough talk undermines the Obama administration’s prospects for diplomacy in the following ways.

Getting to the negotiating table has proven an arduous task for the US and Iran. Both sides are currently testing each other’s intentions, asking themselves if the other side is serious about diplomacy or if the perceived desire for talks is merely a tactical maneuver to either buy time or build greater international support for more confrontational policies down the road. From Tehran’s perspective, uncertainty about Washington’s intentions during the Bush administration was partly fueled by the insistence of the military option remaining on the table. Tehran seemed to fear entering negotiations that could have been designed to fail, since that could strengthen the case for military action against Iran. [continued…]

U.S. may drop key condition for talks with Iran

The Obama administration and its European allies are preparing proposals that would shift strategy toward Iran by dropping a longstanding American insistence that Tehran rapidly shut down nuclear facilities during the early phases of negotiations over its atomic program, according to officials involved in the discussions.

The proposals, exchanged in confidential strategy sessions with European allies, would press Tehran to open up its nuclear program gradually to wide-ranging inspection. But the proposals would also allow Iran to continue enriching uranium for some period during the talks. That would be a sharp break from the approach taken by the Bush administration, which had demanded that Iran halt its enrichment activities, at least briefly to initiate negotiations.

The proposals under consideration would go somewhat beyond President Obama’s promise, during the presidential campaign, to open negotiations with Iran “without preconditions.” Officials involved in the discussion said they were being fashioned to draw Iran into nuclear talks that it had so far shunned.

A review of Iran policy that Mr. Obama ordered after taking office is still under way, and aides say it is not clear how long he would be willing to allow Iran to continue its fuel production, and at what pace. But European officials said there was general agreement that Iran would not accept the kind of immediate shutdown of its facilities that the Bush administration had demanded. [continued…]

Iran says it controls entire nuclear fuel cycle

Iran now controls the entire cycle for producing nuclear fuel with the opening of a new facility to produce uranium fuel pellets, the Iranian president said Saturday.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the speech two days after the inauguration of the facility which produces uranium oxide pellets for a planned 40-megawatt heavy-water nuclear reactor near the town of Arak, central Iran.

Production of nuclear fuel pellets is the final step in the long, complicated chain of nuclear fuel cycle. The U.S. and its allies have expressed concern over Iran’s developing nuclear program for fear it masks a nuclear weapons program — a charge Iran denies. [continued…]

Differences with US on Mideast ‘semantic’: Israel

Differences between Israel and the United States over the Middle East conflict are fundamentally semantic and will be harmonised within a few weeks, an Israeli minister said on Saturday.

“There are differences of approach toward the problems in the Middle East between our government and the administration of (US President Barack) Obama, but they point more to wording and semantics than to reality,” Transport Minister Israel Katz told public radio.

Israel’s hawkish new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has already had meetings with American leaders, and our policies will converge,” he added. [continued…]

Israel lobbies Russia on Iranian arms sales

Israel has lobbied Russia to pull away from selling a strategic air-defense system to Iran but has received only vague assurances, Israeli defense sources said on Monday.

Last week Israel agreed to supply surveillance drones worth $50 million to Russia. The Israeli Haaretz newspaper said this followed a pledge by Moscow not to sell Iran the S-300, which could protect Iranian nuclear facilities against air strikes.

An Israeli defense official said he had no knowledge of such an undertaking by Russia in its talks with Israel on the matter. Moscow has given mixed messages on the prospects of Iran buying S-300s, a deal one Russian newspaper valued at $800 million. [continued…]

U.S. troops take part in Israel X-Band radar test

U.S. troops took part in a missile defense exercise in Israel last week that for the first time incorporated a U.S.-owned radar system deployed to the country in October.

About 100 Europe-based troops continue to operate the X-Band radar, which is intended to give Israel early warning in the event of a missile launch from Iran.

While it’s not a permanent assignment for U.S. troops, as long as the radar is in use, U.S. personnel will be there to operate it, U.S. European Command said. [continued…]