Archives for April 2013

The Guantánamo memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi

Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been held without charge in Guantánamo for 11 years. He was kidnapped by the U.S. government in November 2001, flown to Jordan where he was held for eight months. The Jordanians concluded he had not engaged in terrorism but the U.S. nevertheless transferred him to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then two weeks later to Guantánamo.

Larry Siems writes:

What followed was one of the most stubborn, deliberate, and cruel Guantánamo interrogations on record. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally signed Slahi’s interrogation plan. Like Mohamed al-Qahtani, the Pentagon’s other “Special Project,” Slahi would be subjected to months of 20-hour-a-day interrogations that combined sleep deprivation, severe temperature and diet manipulation, and total isolation with relentless physical and psychological humiliations. He was told his mother had been detained and would soon be at the mercy of the all-male population at Guantánamo. He was threatened with death and subjected to a violent mock rendition. Declassified files, including the Defense Department’s Schmidt-Furlow Report, the Justice Department’s investigation of FBI involvement in Guantánamo interrogations, and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report on the treatment of detainees, document the Pentagon’s plan and its meticulous and malicious implementation.

That all this abuse was fruitless is clear from the 2010 decision of U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson granting Slahi’s habeas corpus petition and ordering his release. Once there had been talk of trying Slahi as a key 9/11 recruiter, a capital crime, but no criminal charges were ever prepared against him. The man first assigned to prosecute him, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, withdrew from the case when he discovered Slahi had been tortured. When Couch’s boss, former Guantánamo chief prosecutor Col. Morris Davis, met with the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence in 2007 to review Slahi’s case, the agencies conceded they could not link him to any acts of terrorism. During Slahi’s habeas corpus proceedings, the government still alleged he played a role in recruiting the 9/11 hijackers, though by then it was acknowledging, as Robertson notes in a footnote to his opinion, “that Slahi probably did not even know about the 9/11 attacks.” The only evidence the government offered to support allegations of Slahi’s involvement in terrorist plots came, Robertson found, from statements he made in the course of his brutal interrogation.

Slahi testified by closed video link to Washington during the habeas corpus proceedings. What he said remains classified. Until now, one of the few documents we had of Slahi describing his ordeal, in his own words, is the declassified transcript of his November 2005 Administrative Review Board hearing. The document is remarkable for the characteristic clarity and sly humor of Slahi’s voice; a masked interrogator, he tells the board, “had gloves, OJ Simpson gloves on his hands.” It is also exceptionally earnest. Early in his statement, he tells the board, “Please, I want you guys to understand my story okay, because it really doesn’t matter if they release me or not, I just want my story understood.”

At the time, Slahi was already working on his memoir. When his pro bono attorneys met him for the first time in April 2005, he greeted them with 100 handwritten pages. With their encouragement, he delivered additional installments over the next year, complaining at one point in a letter, “You ask me to write you everything I told my interrogators. Are you out of your mind! How can I render uninterrupted interrogation that has been lasting the last 7 years? That’s like asking Charlie Sheen how many women he dated.” And yet Slahi’s writing is much more than a litany of abuses. It is driven by something much deeper: not just the desire to “be fair,” as he puts it, but to understand his guards, his interrogators, and his fellow detainees as protagonists in their own right, and to show that even the most dehumanizing situations are composed of individual, and at times harrowingly intimate, human exchanges. The result is an account that is both damning and redeeming.

From Slahi’s memoir, May, 2003 — some names and other words have been redacted:

In the block the recipe started. I was deprived of my comfort items, except for a thin iso-mat and a very thin, small, and worn-out blanket. I was deprived of my books, which I owned. I was deprived of my Quran. I was deprived of my soap. I was deprived of my toothpaste. I was deprived of the roll of toilet paper I had. The cell — better, the box — was cooled down so that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day. Every once in a while they gave me a rec time in the night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. I don’t remember having slept one night quietly; for the next 70 days to come I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off.

“We know that you are a criminal.”

“What have I done?”

“You tell me, and we reduce your sentence to 30 years. Otherwise you will never see the light again. If you don’t cooperate we are going to put you in a hole and wipe your name out of our detainees database.” I was so terrified because I knew, even though he couldn’t make such decision on his own, he had the complete backup of the high government level. He didn’t speak from the air.

“I don’t care where you take me, just do it.”

When I failed to give him the answer he wanted to hear, he made me stand up, with my back bent because my hands were shackled with my feet and waist and locked to the floor. [ ? ? ? ? ?] turned the temp control all the way down, and made sure that the guards maintained me in that situation until he decided otherwise. He used to start a fuss before going to his lunch, so he kept me hurt during his lunch, which took at least two to three hours. [ ? ? ? ? ?] likes his food; he never missed his lunch. I was wondering, how could [ ? ? ? ? ?] have possibly passed the fitness test of the Army? But I realized he is in the Army for a reason.

The fact that I wasn’t allowed to see the light made me “enjoy” the short trip between my freakin’ cold cell and the interrogation room. It’s just a blessing when the warm GTMO sun hit me. I felt the life sneaking back into every inch of my body. I always had this fake happiness, though for a very short time. It’s like taking narcotics.

“How you been?” said one of the Puerto Rican escorting guards, with his weak English.

“I’m OK, thanks, and you?”

“No worry, you gonna back to your family,” he said. When he said so I couldn’t help breaking into [ ? ? ? ? ?]. Lately, I had become so vulnerable. What’s wrong with me? Just a soothing word in this ocean of agony was enough to make me cry. [Continue reading…]

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Obama: Guantánamo is ‘not sustainable’

The presidential commentator-in-chief says that Guantánamo is not sustainable — and 100 prisoners on hunger strike seems to reinforce that observation. But Obama used to like to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and say “the status quo is not sustainable”. Both of these sound like the observations of a powerless bystander — someone who can see what’s wrong but has no ability to fix it.

The office of the president of the United States might not be all-powerful, but it surely possesses more power than Obama often seems willing to employ.

The New York Times reports: President Obama on Tuesday recommitted to his years-old vow to close the Guantánamo Bay prison following the arrival of “medical reinforcements” of nearly 40 Navy nurses, corpsmen and specialists amid a mass hunger strike by inmates who have been held for over a decade without trial.

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, made no sense. “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

Citing the high expense and the foreign policy costs of continuing to operate the prison, Mr. Obama said he would try again to persuade Congress to lift restrictions on transferring inmates to the federal court system. Mr. Obama was ambiguous, however, about the most difficult issue raised by the prospect of closing the prison: what to do with detainees who are deemed dangerous but could not be feasibly prosecuted.

Mr. Obama’s existing policy on that subject, which Congress has blocked, is to move detainees to maximum-security facilities inside the United States and continue holding them without trial as wartime prisoners; it is not clear whether such a change would ease the frustrations fueling the detainees’ hunger strike.

Yet at another point in the news conference, Mr. Obama appeared to question the policy of indefinite wartime detention at a time when the war in Iraq has ended, the one in Afghanistan is winding down and the original makeup of Al Qaeda has been decimated. “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried,” he said, “that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

But in the short term, Mr. Obama indicated his support for the force-feeding of detainees who refused to eat.

“I don’t want these individuals to die,” he said.

As of Tuesday morning, 100 of the 166 prisoners at Guantánamo were officially deemed by the military to be participating in the hunger strike, with 21 “approved” to be fed the nutritional supplement Ensure through tubes inserted through their noses. [Continue reading…]

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Is Obama’s red line a green light for Assad?

Salman Shaikh writes: The use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was finally blown open last week. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence agencies believed “with varying degrees of confidence” that Syria had used the nerve agent sarin on a “small scale.” The letter followed others sent to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon by Britain and France alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and similar assessments by Israeli military intelligence in the last few weeks.

Still, President Barack Obama’s administration sounded a cautious note. Asked whether Assad crossed the “red line” Obama drew last year that could spur American intervention, a U.S. official replied, “we’re not there yet.” The White House continues to contend that the evidence is not “airtight,” and that it needs further corroboration. In meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan on Friday, Obama stated that “there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used.”

While these are important questions, especially a decade after the intelligence failure in Iraq, the evidence already gathered by Western countries from inside Syria provides significant evidence of chemical-weapons use by the Assad regime. Here is what I have learned about the regime’s use — and logic for the use — of chemical weapons over the past six months.

The Assad regime’s scientists have been experimenting for more than a year with mixtures of toxic and poisonous gasses that could be used to “cleanse areas” of what it calls “terrorists” — the rebel forces it is fighting. Its security and military apparatus has sought to devise methods to use artillery shells or aircraft to deliver chemical weapons in “localized ways” — in areas of one or one and a half square kilometers.

The regime’s logic was that the relentless bombardment of rebel-controlled areas, including in the neighborhoods around the main cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, had forced most civilians to leave. Civilian casualties, in this warped thinking, could therefore be kept to a minimum if chemical weapons were used in these areas. This was important if the regime was to avoid the attention of the international community, especially the United States, which clearly did not want to intervene in Syria.

I first heard this frightening information in the late summer and fall of last year. It came from a small number of privileged Syrians who often travelled to and from Damascus. I had gotten to know and trust them, especially as their information was often corroborated later by other sources and events. All spoke often to current and former senior security officers and regime personalities from the Assad regime’s feared security forces, including the presidential guard, Syrian military intelligence, and Syrian air force intelligence — people they had known in some cases since childhood.

Listening to them, it was clear to me that the regime had the intention to use these horrendous weapons — and that it would do so as it came under further pressure in key strategic areas, especially the major cities in the west of the country.

According to my interlocutors, Assad and those closest to him had been emboldened by the international community’s weak response to his bloody military campaign. The United Nations claimed in February that the death toll from the fighting in Syria was well over 70,000 people, while, during that same month, a lieutenant from Syrian military intelligence informed one of my Syrian interlocutors that the regime estimated that around 85,000 civilians had been killed, with many more thousands “missing.”

Successive statements from Obama and senior U.S. officials, these interlocutors said, had been interpreted by the regime as a “green light” to continue its campaign. The exclusive focus on political and diplomatic solutions, as well as the international community’s rising fear of Islamic jihadists, further reinforced the regime’s belief that “the U.S. and its Western allies did not mind the current military operations,” according to a retired general in Damascus. “Like any war, there are political and diplomatic efforts, while it is the winner that dictates terms in the end.”

In the eyes of the regime, therefore, Obama’s “red line” prohibiting the use of chemical weapons — first drawn last August, in the midst of an election campaign — had to be tested. [Continue reading…]

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Why some Syrians who opposed Assad are now turning against the revolution

This is the first part of a very long seven-part post by Matthew Barber at Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment: A Lebanese acquaintance of Dr. Landis wrote in an email about the recent experience of his Syrian natoor (a worker at an apartment building functioning like a cross between a guard, concierge, and janitor):

I’m now in Beirut at my mother’s. The natoor of our building, Riyadh, is from Hassaka. He’s been our natoor for 6 years.

He just got back yesterday from Haasaka after visiting his folks.

On my last trip here in December, he was 100% anti-regime and his two brothers were fighters with FSA. He told me at the time that Assad must go, he is not good for Syria and his cousin Rami ripped off the country. He came to Lebanon after his military service because Assad and his family destroyed Syria.

That was December 2012. He is now 100% pro regime. His two brothers surrendered to the Syrian army and gave up their $500 a month [FSA] salary (he makes here $250/month).

He said the FSA and Nusra are thieves and robbers – much worse than the regime. They quit after seeing how the FSA (their direct commander was an Afghani) was ripping off and selling everything to Turkey. They sold 4 years worth of huntaa [wheat] for 600 SYP a shewal (no idea what a shewal is, but ya3ni) whereas it’s worth 6,000 SYP. They dismantled whole bakeries, small factories, cables, he swore even faucets were ripped out and shipped to Turkey.

His trip from Beirut to Tadmor was relatively safe, he said. But from Tadmor to Hassaka, there is a Nusra roadblock every few kilometers. At each roadblock, heavily armed men, faces completely covered, get up to the bus and shout “Allahu Akbar.” They wait for the passengers to shout back the same while these men lock their eyes trying to figure out if someone is saying Allahu Akbar back according to their standards. He said I know “Ibn baladi” [locals of the area]. None of these thugs are Ibn baladi.

Women, if any, must be completely covered for the roadblock – head to toe like a trash bag. The driver usually tells all women that they must have black burqas with them before they get on the bus.

Anyway, he said “yashodu allah ya ustaz that Bashar is now in our hearts and minds”:

“يشهد اللهً يااستاذ انه بشار الأسد بقلبنا وبدمنا. يشهد الله يااستاذ انه كل أغلاط النظام ويشار وعيلته مغفورة قدام ها لوحوش المجرمين من الجيش الحر والنصرة الله لاينصرهن خربو سورية. يشهد الله يااستاذ انه هللق كل سوري مخلص وشريف وبيحب بلده الآن مع بشار ومع الجيش السوري ضد هل الأوباش.”

He said, we let Bashar down (نحنا انغشينا و أخطأنا ). And in doing so we let Syria down.

Riyadh is here now to pack his things and go back to Syria to fight with the Syrian army (تطوع). I said how many people are feeling like you in Hasakaa, he said many – all his ربع [a term for family commonly used by Bedouins and Arabs of tribal affiliation]. He is 36 years old. Went to hajj twice. He’s Muslim Sunni.

I asked him what about the Christians in Hasakaa, he said they all left. Only the very weak and poor are left behind, but they are ok.

The FSA ripped off the power plant, dismantled all equipments, generators, transformers, even under ground cables were ripped out and were sold to a turkey.

He said this is not a fight for Assad, this is a fight for Syria.

Such an account looks almost engineered to tickle the ears of regime supporters, but it is real. It obviously, however, cannot reflect the experience of someone whose community has undergone direct bombardment from the regime. Those who have contributed to this long fight or have lived through the airstrikes and massacres of so many towns and villages would not suddenly make a political turnabout and say “we let Bashar down.” Such a statement will appear as the height of absurdity to a great number of Syrians, and even we find it almost bewildering. But it does reflect the feelings of some communities that have become disillusioned with rebel control, or have felt that “you rebels brought the fight to our neighborhood,” a sentiment we’ve seen crop up often.

It reflects the dilemma expressed by the writer of the email: “Syrians today have clarity in the choices being offered: the regime, version 2.0; or a Salafi Islamic Banana Republic. My relatives, friends, and many Syrians I know who were staunch anti-regime revolutionaries early on are privately rethinking their position. It’s almost impossible for Syrians to admit defeat or mistakes (it’s related to some strange DNA mutation I will tell you about later!), but it’s not hard to see where a Sufi Syria would end up given these two distinct choices. The revolution is now proving to be incompatible with the hearts and minds of the Syrian masses.”

Regardless of the degree to which that last statement can be said to be true for various segments of the Syrian population, disillusionment has prompted even some who have been engaged at the forefront of the struggle against the regime to abandon the revolution. The situation alluded to above (the selling off of Syrian assets to Turkey) is a real problem that ultimately drove the head of the Farouq Brigades in Deir Ezzor, Yussef ‘Alke, to resign as leader, leave the Brigades, and declare the revolution a corrupt sham. In a recent statement he laid out 5 reasons for his departure:

  1. That the trajectory of the revolution in Deir Ezzor has deviated from the right path and transformed [into a campaign of] acquiring wealth
  2. That some leaders of the Farouq Brigade, in partnership with other brigades undertook the sale of the tools and equipment from the warehouses of sugar mills without our knowledge or agreement
  3. The failure of the Revolutionary or Military Council or any subsidiary of the join leadership to support us, even with a single bullet, knowing that the everything that comes in the way of support from these groups goes to particular persons with a blind allegiance to the leaders of these councils
  4. The new emergence of the old phenomenon of bloc formation, partisanship, and allegiances to foreign parties which people are forced to follow or face elimination, as has recently become clear
  5. The lack of seriousness on the part of any party responsible for the Free Syrian Army or its supporters in the fight against the regime in Deir Ezzor — instead the main concern was, and still is, making financial deals with the regime

‘Alke gave just one example of destructive economic opportunism to occur in his local area (that of the sugar mill). A commodity that has been intensely fought over recently in several areas is wheat. A feud erupted in Tal Hamis (Hasakeh) over the right to distribute wheat between the FSA 313th Division and Ahrar al-Sham who attacked the FSA positions and took over the grain silos. Another scandal took place in al-Shadadi where the elected head of the Local Council was accused of appropriating wheat to sell it for his own profit. But the hottest affair of all is oil. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Yamandu Costa — ‘Samba pro Rafa’

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The ignorance of economists

The Economist: “Sovereign in tastes, steely-eyed and point-on in perception of risk, and relentless in maximisation of happiness.” This was Daniel McFadden’s memorable summation, in 2006, of the idea of Everyman held by economists. That this description is unlike any real person was Mr McFadden’s point. The Nobel prizewinning economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wryly termed homo economicus “a rare species”. In his latest paper he outlines a “new science of pleasure”, in which he argues that economics should draw much more heavily on fields such as psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. He wants economists to accept that evidence from other disciplines does not just explain those bits of behaviour that do not fit the standard models. Rather, what economists consider anomalous is the norm. Homo economicus, not his fallible counterpart, is the oddity.

To take one example, the “people” in economic models have fixed preferences, which are taken as given. Yet a large body of research from cognitive psychology shows that preferences are in fact rather fluid. People value mundane things much more highly when they think of them as somehow “their own”: they insist on a much higher price for a coffee cup they think of as theirs, for instance, than for an identical one that isn’t. This “endowment effect” means that people hold on to shares well past the point where it makes sense to sell them. Cognitive scientists have also found that people dislike losing something much more than they like gaining the same amount. Such “loss aversion” can explain why people often pick insurance policies with lower deductible charges even when they are more expensive. At the moment of an accident a deductible feels like a loss, whereas all those premium payments are part of the status quo.

Another area where orthodox economics finds itself at sea is the role of memory and experience in determining choices. Recollection of a painful or pleasurable experience is dominated by how people felt at the peak and the end of the episode. In a 1996 experiment Donald Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, two psychologists, showed that deliberately adding a burst of pain at the end of a colonoscopy that was of lower intensity than the peak made patients think back on the experience more favourably. Unlike homo economicus, real people are strongly influenced by such things as the order in which they see options and what happened right before they made a choice. Incorporating these findings into models of consumer behaviour should improve their power to predict everything from which loans people choose to which colleges they apply for. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinian Authority keeps media under its thumb

Vivian Bercovici writes: Palestinian Facebook pranksters are doing prison time for lampooning Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas online.

At the end of March, a West Bank appeal court upheld a one-year sentence for a man alleged to have defamed Abbas by posting his photo online next to that of a TV villain who had collaborated with French colonial rule.

The Times of Israel reported that the convicted man denied posting the photos. Furthermore, he claimed to have been detained without legal counsel for 20 days and interrogated for 53. Following his lost appeal, Abbas pardoned the man, a small gesture after he’d been churned in the justice system for two years.

The previous month, a 26-year-old PA resident was sentenced to a year in prison for posting a photograph of Abbas kicking a soccer ball with a silly caption: “Real Madrid’s New Striker.”

The charge against him? “Extending [his] tongue” against the king; defamation, more colloquially. “King Abbas,” it seems, invoked a Jordanian law from the early 1960s that was intended, according to David Keyes, executive director of the New York-based NGO Advancing Human Rights, to punish critics of Jordan’s monarchy when it ruled the West Bank. [Continue reading…]

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CIA Kabul chief used ‘ghost money’ to bypass U.S. ambassador creating secret channel to Karzai

The Guardian reports: The CIA and MI6 have regularly given large cash payments to Hamid Karzai’s office with the aim of maintaining access to the Afghan leader and his top allies and officials, but the attempt to buy influence has largely failed and may have backfired, former diplomats and policy analysts say.

The Guardian understands that the payments by British intelligence were on a smaller scale than the CIA’s handouts, reported in the New York Times to have been in the tens of millions, and much of the British money has gone towards attempts to finance peace initiatives, which have so far proved abortive.

That failure has raised questions among some British officials over whether eagerness to promote a political settlement may have been exploited by Afghan officials and self-styled intermediaries for the Taliban.

Responding to the allegations while on a visit to Helsinki on Monday, Karzai said his national security council (NSC) had received support from the US government for the past 10 years, and the amounts involved were “not big” and were used for a variety of purposes including helping those wounded in the conflict. “It’s multi-purpose assistance,” he said, without commenting on the allegations that the money was fuelling corruption.

Yama Torabi, the director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan said that the presidency’s low-key response to the reports had “outraged people”.

“As a result, we don’t know what was the amount of money that was given, what it was used for and if there was any corruption involved. Money when it is unchecked can be abused and this looks like one. In addition, it can be potentially used to corrupt politicians and political circles, but there is no way to know this unless there is a serious investigation into it,” Torabi told The Guardian.

Kabul sources told the Guardian that the key official involved in distributing the payments within the NSC was Ibrahim Spinzada, a close confidant of the president known as Engineer Ibrahim. There is, however, no evidence that Spinzada personally gained from the cash payments or that in distributing them among the president’s allies and sometimes his foes he was breaking Afghan law.

Officials say the payments, referred to in a New York Times report as “ghost money”, helped prop up warlords and corrupt officials, deepening Afghan popular mistrust of the Kabul government and its foreign backers, and thereby helped drive the insurgency.

The CIA money has sometimes caused divisions between the various branches of US government represented in Kabul, according to diplomats stationed in Kabul, particularly when it helped give the CIA chief of station in Kabul direct access to Karzai without the US ambassador’s knowledge or approval. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA is the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan

The New York Times reports: For more than a decade, wads of American dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president — courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader.

“We called it ‘ghost money,’ ” said Khalil Roman, who served as Mr. Karzai’s deputy chief of staff from 2002 until 2005. “It came in secret, and it left in secret.”

The C.I.A., which declined to comment for this article, has long been known to support some relatives and close aides of Mr. Karzai. But the new accounts of off-the-books cash delivered directly to his office show payments on a vaster scale, and with a far greater impact on everyday governing.

Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords, undermining Washington’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

“The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

The United States was not alone in delivering cash to the president. Mr. Karzai acknowledged a few years ago that Iran regularly gave bags of cash to one of his top aides.

At the time, in 2010, American officials jumped on the payments as evidence of an aggressive Iranian campaign to buy influence and poison Afghanistan’s relations with the United States. What they did not say was that the C.I.A. was also plying the presidential palace with cash — and unlike the Iranians, it still is. [Continue reading…]

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Did Syria let Israel kill Hezbollah’s top commander?

In an article on the life and death of Hezbollah’s top military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, Mark Perry writes: The Syrians always had a loveless marriage with Iran — and Hezbollah. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had only reluctantly agreed to the deployment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps training units to the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and then insisted that the deployment be scaled back. His son and successor, Bashar, followed suit: He maintained strong ties to Tehran, while registering discomfort with Iran’s anti-Baath strategy in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq.

Relations soured further after the 2006 Lebanon war. Facing domestic economic pressures as a result of U.S.-imposed sanctions, the Syrian president pursued deeper ties with the West — over Iranian objections. “I want to make this clear: Syria views itself as a Mediterranean country,” Imad Moustapha, then Syria’s ambassador to the United States, pointedly told me in 2007. “We look west — not east. We look to America for leadership.” The statement, shocking at the time, reflected Syria’s desire to normalize relations with Washington — a fact that discomfited Tehran.

Hezbollah had its own problems with Damascus. Movement leaders were bitter about Syria’s February 2007 decision to open a communications channel with Israel through Turkey, and with Assad’s decision to send the Sunni Islamist militants of Fatah al-Islam into the Lebanese city of Tripoli, where they sparked a bitter conflict in a Palestinian refugee camp in May 2007 that claimed hundreds of lives. Syria’s move in Tripoli roiled Hezbollah leaders, who accused Assad of purposely attempting to destabilize the Lebanese government — at their expense. “We know who’s responsible for Tripoli, even if you and your journalist friends don’t,” a Hezbollah official told me at the time.

Ties between Damascus and Hezbollah reached a low point that September when Israeli jets bombed Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor under construction in the country’s north and Assad’s regime refused to respond militarily. In private, a senior Hezbollah leader with whom I spoke accused Syria of “flirting with the Zionists.”

Mughniyeh’s assassination in Damascus [on February 12, 2008] marked the final indignity for Hezbollah. In public, the “resistance axis” presented a united front, putting out nearly identical statements bemoaning the killing. In private, however, Hezbollah leaders blamed Syria for Mughniyeh’s death, citing lax security and the incompetence of Gen. Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, who was personally responsible for Mughniyeh’s safety. In the bombing’s immediate aftermath, according to a senior Lebanese Islamist, Hezbollah officials in Damascus adamantly refused all Syrian requests for access to the body, physically barring security officers from the room at the hospital where he had been deposited. Iran dispatched its foreign minister within hours of the killing to calm tensions, but without success. According to my senior Islamist source, no high-level Syrian official attended Mughniyeh’s memorial service, and Hezbollah was enraged when Assad appointed Shawkat as the incident’s chief investigator. [Continue reading…]

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Netanyahu and Obama’s ‘red lines’ both becoming exposed as empty rhetoric

For Reuters, Crispian Balmer and Dan Williams write: Israel risks a loss of credibility over both its “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program and its threat of military action, and its room for unilateral maneuver is shrinking.

After years of veiled warnings that Israel might strike the Islamic Republic, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out an ultimatum at the United Nations last September.

Iran, he said, must not amass enough uranium at 20 percent fissile purity to fuel one bomb if enriched further. To ram the point home, he drew a red line across a cartoon bomb, guaranteeing him front page headlines around the world.

However, a respected Israeli ex-spymaster says Iran has skillfully circumvented the challenge. Other influential voices say the time has passed when Israel can hit out at Iran alone, leaving it dependent on U.S. decision-makers.

“If there was a good window of opportunity to attack, it was six months ago – not necessarily today,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser. Pressure from Washington, he said, had forced Israel to drop its strike plan.

Israel has long insisted on the need for a convincing military threat and setting clear lines beyond which Iran’s nuclear activity should not advance, calling this the only way to persuade Iran that it must bow to international pressure.

Serving officials argue that Netanyahu’s repeated warnings of the menace posed by Iran’s nuclear project have pushed the issue to the top of the global agenda and helped generate some of the toughest economic sanctions ever imposed on a nation.

But some officials have also questioned the wisdom of his red line, arguing that such brinkmanship can generate unwelcome ambiguity – as the United States has discovered with its contested stance on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who runs a Tel Aviv think-tank, suggested last week that Israel had also got itself into a tangle, saying Iran had expanded its nuclear capacity beyond the Israeli limit, without triggering alarms.

“Today it can be said that the Iranians have crossed the red line set by Netanyahu at the U.N. assembly,” Yadlin told a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), which he heads. [Continue reading…]

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Libya faces growing Islamist threat

The Guardian reports: Diplomats are warning of growing Islamist violence against western targets in Libya as blowback from the war in Mali, following last week’s attack on the French embassy in Tripoli.

The bomb blast that wrecked much of the embassy is seen as a reprisal by Libyan militants for the decision by Paris the day before to extend its military mission against fellow jihadists in Mali.

The Guardian has learned that jihadist groups ejected from their Timbuktu stronghold have moved north, crossing the Sahara through Algeria and Niger to Libya, fuelling a growing Islamist insurgency.

“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya – we know there are established routes,” said a western diplomat in Tripoli. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”

That anxiety escalated last week after militants detonated a car bomb outside the French embassy, wounding two French guards and a Libyan student, the first such attack on a western target in the Libyan capital since the end of the 2011 Arab spring revolution.

“The armed groups we are fighting are fleeing to Libya,” said Colonel Keba Sangare, commander of Mali’s army garrison in Timbuktu. “We have captured Libyans in this region, as well as Algerians, Nigerians, French and other European dual-nationals.”

France sent troops to Mali in January after an uprising in the north started by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), named for the independent state it hopes to create.

The impetus for this uprising came from ethnic Tuareg soldiers who had fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi and fled south when his regime fell. They were later augmented by jihadists from Libya and across north Africa, who triggered international condemnation for their destruction of ancient Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. The fear across the Maghreb is that the French operation that has pushed them out of the northern cities has inadvertently compounded problems elsewhere in north Africa as jihadist units disperse.

“If you squeeze a balloon in one part, it bulges out in another,” said Bill Lawrence, of International Crisis Group, a political consultancy. “There’s no question that the French actions in Mali had the effect of squeezing that balloon towards Algeria and Libya.” [Continue reading…]

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Every drone strike is an execution — with no accountability

Steve Coll writes: In the summer of 1960, Sidney Gottlieb, a C.I.A. chemist, flew to Congo with a carry-on bag containing vials of poison and a hypodermic syringe. It was an era of relative subtlety among C.I.A. assassins. The toxins were intended for the food, drink, or toothpaste of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s Prime Minister, who, in the judgment of the Eisenhower Administration, had gone soft on Communism. Upon his arrival, as Tim Weiner recounts in his history of the C.I.A., Gottlieb handed his kit to Larry Devlin, the senior C.I.A. officer in Léopoldville. Devlin asked who had ordered the hit. “The President,” Gottlieb assured him. In later testimony, Devlin said that he felt ashamed of the command. He buried the poisons in a riverbank, but helped find an indirect way to eliminate Lumumba, by bankrolling and arming political enemies. The following January, Lumumba was executed by the Belgian military.

For Eisenhower, who had witnessed the carnage of the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and later claimed to “hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” political assassinations represented an alluring alternative to conventional military action. Through the execution or overthrow of undesirable foreign leaders, the thinking went, it might be possible to orchestrate the global struggle against Communism from a distance, and avoid the misery — and the risks of nuclear war — that out-and-out combat would bring. Assassination was seen not only as precise and efficient but also as ultimately humane. Putting such theory into practice was the role of the C.I.A., and the agency’s tally of toppled leftists, nationalists, or otherwise unreliable leaders is well known, from Mohammad Mosadegh, of Iran, in 1953, and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, of Guatemala, in 1954, to Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam, in 1963, and Salvador Allende, of Chile, in 1973. Not all the schemes went according to plan; a few seemed inspired by Wile E. Coyote. The C.I.A. once planned to bump off Fidel Castro by passing him an exploding cigar.

Aside from the moral ugliness of violent covert action, its record as a national-security strategy isn’t encouraging. On occasion, interventions have delivered short-term advantages to Washington, but in the long run they have usually sown deeper troubles. Lumumba’s successor, the dictator Joseph Mobutu, may have been an ally of the United States until his death, in 1997, but his brutal rule prepared the way for Congo’s recent descent into chaos. Memory of the C.I.A.’s hand in Mosadegh’s overthrow stoked the anti-American fury of the Iranian Revolution, which confounds the United States to this day. Foreign policy is not a game of Risk. Great nations achieve lasting influence and security not by bloody gambits but through economic growth, scientific innovation, military deterrence, and the power of ideas. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Avishai Cohen — ‘Variations In G Minor’

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Faith-based skepticism on chemical weapons

Faith-based skepticism might seem like a contradiction in terms and thus it never fails to amaze me the frequency with which doubt and blind faith are conjoined in some people’s minds when they think about Syria.

The latest example comes in response to claims that chemical weapons have been used.

If U.S. government officials assert that sarin has been used by Assad forces in Syria, should that claim be viewed with skepticism? Yes.

If a blogger asserts that the claim is bogus because it rests on what he regards as “fake” evidence — a YouTube video showing people foaming at the mouth — then should that blogger’s own assertion also be viewed with skepticism?

For the faith-based skeptic that blogger’s opinion carries enough weight. And with respect to this particular video, if something looks like shaving foam, then it must be shaving foam. ‘Nough said.

But here’s what the White House actually said — note: no reference to video evidence:

Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions. We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.

Note the number of caveats embedded in this statement: limited confidence; that the collection of evidence is still ongoing; that it is unclear where the existing evidence came from; and that it is even unclear whether exposure to chemical weapons necessarily has come from their intentional or authorized use. The strongest assertion — though stated as a belief, not a fact — is that the Assad regime would “very likely” be the source of chemical weapons used in Syria.

Underlining the fact that in the midst of so much hedging, the Obama administration is not willing to make its own determination on whether chemical weapons have in fact being used, the White House says: “we are currently pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.” And while the U.S. “presses” for such an investigation, if Syria (with a nod and a wink from Russia) stands in the way, be assured that a great deal of hand-wringing will continue in Washington as the administration persists in expressing its concern but lack of certainty around the use of chemical weapons.

As for what “physiological samples” look like and how they can be tested to determine the use of sarin, an explanation provided by Danger Room makes it clear that such an analysis has nothing to do with images appearing on YouTube:

The U.S. military initially tests for evidence of nerve gas exposure by looking for the presence of the enzyme cholinesterase in red blood cells and in plasma. (Sarin messes with the enzyme, which in turn allows a key neurotransmitter to build up in the body, causing rather awful muscle spasms.) The less cholinesterase they find, they more likely there was a nerve gas hit.

The problem is, some pesticides will also depress cholinesterase. So the military employs a second — and sometimes a third — test.

When sarin binds to cholinesterase it loses a fluoride. The pesticides don’t do this. This second test exposes a blood sample to fluoride ions, which partially reconstitutes sarin if it’s there. If that doesn’t work, military technicians can run a third test — considered the gold standard — which isolates from the plasma one form of cholinesterase, and then uses the enzyme pepsin the chew up the cholinesterase into smaller pieces. Sarin binds to some of the these smaller chunks, and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry should be able to detect it if it’s there up. “You would be sure it’s a nerve agent and not a pesticide,” says a scientist who works with such tests, which are reliable for two to three week after exposure.

Preliminary blood samples are drawn from a pricked finger tip, and placed a field blood analyzer — a gizmo about the size of a scientific calculator that produces varying shades of yellow depending on the cholinesterase level. If the tests are positive, it’s best to tap a vein and draw more blood into a 10 milliliter tube so you can run the more sophisticated exams.

According to the Financial Times, one blood sample was analyzed by American analysts, while the other was examined by Britain’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory.

Exactly when the results came back isn’t clear. But only days ago, the Obama administration was throwing cold water on reports from Israeli and British officials of chemical weapon use in Syria. (“We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.) But that changed Thursday morning, when the White House issued a letter (.pdf) to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain confirming the sarin discovery.

Wherever one stands on the question of intervention, the one thing that should be indisputable at this point is that there are few officials who are rushing to judgement on the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The rush to judgement actually comes from those who insist that all claims regarding use of such weapons by the Assad regime must actually be fake. And that is how faith-based skepticism works: doubt all claims made by Western officials or appearing in Western media while at the same time treating as credible any claim emanating from a purported adversary to Western imperialism.

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Is American credibility really on the line?

By claiming that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer,” President Obama seems to have boxed himself in and made intervention in Syria inevitable — or his word becomes worthless.

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes: U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

The distrust, cynicism and hatred with which the United States is regarded in much of the world, particularly among Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa, is already a cancer. Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East. The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.

As a Washington insider, Slaughter asserts that American credibility is on the line, without questioning the underlying presupposition: that American credibility is currently intact.

That Obama is now equivocating on the nature of his red line — that having once been defined as the mere movement of chemical weapons, the threshold is now means that their use becomes “systematic” — should hardly be treated as credibility undermined. One can reasonably argue that American credibility was in severe disrepair well before Obama took office.

The American Century lasted about two years — that was roughly how long it took for it to become plain to the world that American power was not sufficiently great that the Greater Middle East could be shaped in accordance with American designs.

One of the knock-on effects of the neoconservative demonstration of the limits of American power was that autocrats across the region who had long held on to power because that power was supposedly shielded by the United States gradually lost their own appearance of invulnerability. It was in this sense that the war in Iraq became a prelude to the Arab Spring. It wasn’t that the war unleashed democratic possibilities but rather that it became a huge demonstration of American impotence.

So, if Obama wants to live up to the image he clearly has of himself — that of the cool realist — then the pivot he needs to make (“pivot” being Washington-speak for how to elegantly eat your own words) will involve shifting attention away from “red lines” towards the capabilities the U.S. and its allies do and don’t possess. The narrative will say less about what should or must be done, and more about what can be accomplished.

To intervene in Syria because America’s reputation is at stake would be to intervene for the worst possible motive — just as driving while preening oneself in the mirror is a sure way to get into a road accident.

In as much as the intervention or non-intervention argument has been dominated by ideologues on both sides, it needs to become focused on what is possible. And it might be time to revive one of George W Bush’s earliest promises (that he never lived up to) that it is time for America to engage in the world with humility. It is humility that has by this point surely been well-earned.

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Syria nerve gas claims undermined by eyewitness accounts

The Observer reports: New questions have emerged over the source of the soil and other samples from Syria which, it is claimed, have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, amid apparent inconsistencies between eyewitness accounts describing one of the attacks and textbook descriptions of the weapon.

As questions from arms control experts grow over evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a limited scale on several occasions, one incident in particular has come under scrutiny.

While the French, UK and US governments have tried to avoid saying where the positive sarin samples came from, comments by officials have narrowed down the locations to Aleppo and Homs.

Last week the Obama administration suggested that Syrian government forces may have used the lethal nerve gas in two attacks. Opposition fighters have accused regime forces of firing chemical agents on at least four occasions since December, killing 31 people in the worst of the attacks.

A letter from the British government to the UN demanding an investigation said that it had seen “limited but persuasive evidence” of chemical attacks, citing incidents on 19 and 23 March in Aleppo and Damascus and an attack in Homs in December, suggesting strongly that samples were taken at these locations. [Continue reading…]

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No good military options for U.S. in Syria

For Reuters, Phil Stewart and Peter Apps write: Despite President Barack Obama’s pledge that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is a “game changer” for the United States, he is unlikely to turn to military options quickly and would want allies joining him in any intervention.

Possible military choices range from limited one-off missile strikes from ships – one of the less complicated scenarios – to bolder operations like carving out no-fly safe zones.

One of the most politically unpalatable possibilities envisions sending tens of thousands of U.S. forces to help secure Syrian chemical weapons.

Obama has so far opposed limited steps, like arming anti-government rebels, but pressure to deepen U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war has grown since Thursday’s White House announcement that President Bashar al-Assad likely used chemical weapons.

After fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon is wary of U.S. involvement in Syria. The president’s top uniformed military adviser, General Martin Dempsey, said last month he could not see a U.S. military option with an “understandable outcome” there.

“There’s a lot of analysis to be done before reaching any major decisions that would push U.S. policy more in the direction of military options,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters. [Continue reading…]

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