Stephen Zunes writes: It’s been interesting to observe the large numbers of people who suddenly think they’re experts on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine — both those on the left who blame it on Obama for intervening too much and those on the right who blame it on Obama for not intervening enough.
As someone who has spent his entire academic career analyzing and critiquing the U.S. role in the world, I have some news: While the United States has had significant impact (mostly negative in my view) in a lot of places, we are not omnipotent. There are real limits to American power, whether for good or for ill. Not everything is our responsibility.
This is certainly the case with Ukraine.
On the right, you have political figures claiming that Obama’s supposed “weakness” somehow emboldened Moscow to engage in aggressive moves against Crimea. Sarah Palin, for example, claims that Obama’s failure to respond forcefully to Russia’s bloody incursion into Georgia in 2008 made Russia’s “invasion” possible, despite the fact that Obama wasn’t even president then and therefore couldn’t have done much.
Even some Democrats, like Delaware senator Chris Coons, claim that Obama’s failure to attack Syria last fall made the United States look weak.
In reality, there seems to be little correlation between the willingness of Moscow to assert its power in areas within its traditional spheres of influence and who occupies the White House: The Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956 when Eisenhower was president; the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Johnson was president; the Soviets successfully pressed for martial law in Poland in 1981 when Reagan was president; the Russians attacked Georgia in 2008 when Bush was president. In each case, as much as these administrations opposed these actions, it was determined that any military or other aggressive counter-moves would likely do more harm than good. Washington cannot realistically do any more in response to Russian troops seizing Crimea in 2014 in the name of protecting Russian lives and Russian bases than Moscow could do in response to U.S. troops seizing Panama in 1989 in the name of protecting American lives and American bases. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: The head of the United Nation’s refugee agency said on Tuesday it must be ready in case Ukraine’s crisis causes refugees to flee Crimea, but his biggest worry is that “a total disaster” could occur if the international community diverts its attention away from Syria’s conflict.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview that little progress was being made in efforts by the United States and Russia, now at loggerheads over Ukraine, to bring Syria’s warring sides together after the collapse of talks in Geneva last month.
“In the moment in which we need the most relevant countries in the world to be able to come together to narrow their differences and to try to find a way to move into peace for Syria, this tension around Ukraine will obviously not help,” Guterres told Reuters while visiting Washington to discuss Syria’s refugee crisis.
“I hope that those that have the most important responsibility in world affairs will be able to understand that forgetting Syria will be a total disaster,” he said. [Continue reading...]
Loren Thompson writes: The interim prime minister of Ukraine was in Washington this week, and according to the New York Times, he was asking just one thing of U.S. leaders. He said as a signatory to a 1994 treaty guaranteeing the security of Ukraine, America “must defend our independent, sovereign state.” Some members of Congress sound like they agree, especially Republicans who are using Washington’s slow response to Russian occupation of the Crimea as the latest evidence that President Obama is weak when it comes to dealing with America’s enemies.
If Obama looks weak, it is mainly because he sees the danger of decisive action in a place that matters far more to Russia than America. Over the last two decades, the United States has gotten used to fighting enemies with modest military capabilities and crackpot leaders, but Russia is a much more imposing player. If Washington somehow stumbled into a military confrontation with Moscow, the U.S. would probably lose and in the process run huge risks to its larger interests.
Most Americans seem to understand this — a CNN poll this week found three-quarters of respondents opposed to even giving military aid to Kiev, with far fewer backing use of U.S. forces. Nonetheless, some hardliners seem to think America’s military might play a role in forcing Russian leader Vladimir Putin to back away from what they see as a return to the expansionist foreign policies of the Cold War era. Here are six reasons why using U.S. military power in the current crisis would be a strategic miscalculation of epic proportions. [Continue reading...]
Our major post-9/11 wars are goners and the imagery of American war-making is heading downhill. The Iraq War was long ago left in the trash heap of history, while in Afghanistan the talk is now about “the zero option” — that is, about an irritated Obama administration making a lock, stock, and drone departure from that country as 2014 ends. Meanwhile, back in America, headlines indicate that the U.S. military stands trembling at the brink of evisceration, with the U.S. Army soon to return to pre-World War II levels of troop strength and all the services about to go on a diet in an era of belt-tightening. The only new arms being promoted are the ones Republicans are “up in” when it comes to the potential destruction of U.S. military might.
As it happens, the impression this leaves bears only the most minimal relationship to the actual U.S. global military posture of this moment. The Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf buildup around Iran remains massive, even as talks on that country’s nuclear program are underway. Despite the “zero option” media focus on Afghanistan, Obama administration officials seem determined that a residual force of trainers, mentors, and special operations types will remain in that country to anchor a rump war after combat troops leave this year. They clearly expect the successor to the recalcitrant President Hamid Karzai to sign the necessary bilateral security pact — even if at the last moment. As for the axe being taken to the Pentagon budget, it turns out, at worst, to be a penknife.
In the meantime, hardly noticed amid all the hoopla about future cuts to Army strength (which do indicate a genuine no-invasions-no-occupations-on-the-Eurasian-landmass change of strategy initiated in the late Bush years), there has been next to no attention paid to a striking piece of budgetary news: despite speculations about cuts to its fleet of aircraft carriers, the U.S. Navy is expected to keep its full contingent of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups — essentially 11 giant floating bases off the world’s coasts. This fits well with the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. As Michael Klare recently explained, that pivot is, at heart, a naval strategy (consonant with those 11 carriers) of ensuring ongoing control over the crucial energy sea lanes in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the East and South China Seas through which China is going to have to import staggering amounts of liquid energy in the coming decades.
Finally, on a planet still impressively heavily garrisoned by Washington, hardly noticed by anyone and rarely written about, the U.S. military has for years been quietly moving into Africa in a distinctly below-the-radar fashion. This represents a major new commitment of American power in a world of supposed cutbacks, but you would never know it. If you’re a news jockey, every now and then you can catch a report, like David Cloud’s recently in the Los Angeles Times, which offers a brief snapshot of that process with, for instance, a head’s-up that 50 U.S. Special Operations troops have just been put on the ground at a “remote outpost” in Tunisia. However, only at TomDispatch, thanks to the reporting of Nick Turse, can you find an ongoing account of the U.S. military move into Africa, its planning, its implementation, and the destabilization and blowback that seem to accompany it. The Pentagon’s newest tactic for Africa, as he documents today: refight the colonial wars in partnership with the French. Just tell me: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt
Washington’s back-to-the-future military policies in Africa
America’s new model for expeditionary warfare
By Nick Turse
Lion Forward Teams? Echo Casemate? Juniper Micron?
You could be forgiven if this jumble of words looks like nonsense to you. It isn’t. It’s the language of the U.S. military’s simmering African interventions; the patois that goes with a set of missions carried out in countries most Americans couldn’t locate on a map; the argot of conflicts now primarily fought by proxies and a former colonial power on a continent that the U.S. military views as a hotbed of instability and that hawkish pundits increasingly see as a growth area for future armed interventions.
Since 9/11, the U.S. military has been making inroads in Africa, building alliances, facilities, and a sophisticated logistics network. Despite repeated assurances by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) that military activities on the continent were minuscule, a 2013 investigation by TomDispatch exposed surprisingly large and expanding U.S. operations — including recent military involvement with no fewer than 49 of 54 nations on the continent. Washington’s goal continues to be building these nations into stable partners with robust, capable militaries, as well as creating regional bulwarks favorable to its strategic interests in Africa. Yet over the last years, the results have often confounded the planning — with American operations serving as a catalyst for blowback (to use a term of CIA tradecraft).
Ryan Gallagher and Glenn Greenwald report: Top-secret documents reveal that the National Security Agency is dramatically expanding its ability to covertly hack into computers on a mass scale by using automated systems that reduce the level of human oversight in the process.
The classified files – provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – contain new details about groundbreaking surveillance technology the agency has developed to infect potentially millions of computers worldwide with malware “implants.” The clandestine initiative enables the NSA to break into targeted computers and to siphon out data from foreign Internet and phone networks.
The covert infrastructure that supports the hacking efforts operates from the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and from eavesdropping bases in the United Kingdom and Japan. GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, appears to have played an integral role in helping to develop the implants tactic.
In some cases the NSA has masqueraded as a fake Facebook server, using the social media site as a launching pad to infect a target’s computer and exfiltrate files from a hard drive. In others, it has sent out spam emails laced with the malware, which can be tailored to covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam. The hacking systems have also enabled the NSA to launch cyberattacks by corrupting and disrupting file downloads or denying access to websites.
The implants being deployed were once reserved for a few hundred hard-to-reach targets, whose communications could not be monitored through traditional wiretaps. But the documents analyzed by The Intercept show how the NSA has aggressively accelerated its hacking initiatives in the past decade by computerizing some processes previously handled by humans. The automated system – codenamed TURBINE – is designed to “allow the current implant network to scale to large size (millions of implants) by creating a system that does automated control implants by groups instead of individually.” [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: One of the world’s leading cyberwarfare experts has warned of the damaging lack of government literacy in cybersecurity issues, pointing out that some senior officials don’t know how to use email, and that one US representative about to negotiate cybersecurity with China asked him what an “ISP” was.
Speaking at the SXSW festival, Dr Peter W Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security & Intelligence, cited a 2014 poll by the Pew research institute that found Americans are more afraid of cyberattack than attack by Iran or North Korea, climate change, the rise of China or authoritarian Russia.
Sketching out the scale of technology in our lives, Singer said that 40 trillion emails are sent a year, that 30 trillion websites now exist and that 9 new pieces of malware are discovered every second. He claimed that 97% of Fortune 500 companies have admitted they’ve been hacked – the other 3% just aren’t ready to admit it yet.
The consequent rise in cybercrime and state-sponsored attacks has not gone unnoticed. 100 nations now have cyber command, and the Pentagon’s own briefings, which contained the word ‘cyber’ 12 times during 2012, have already mentioned it 147 times so far this year.
Yet former head of US homeland security Janet Napolitano once told Singer. “Don’t laugh, but I just don’t use email at all,” Singer recalled. “It wasn’t a fear of privacy or security – it’s because she just didn’t think it was useful. A supreme court justice also told me ‘I haven’t got round to email yet’ – and this is someone who will get to vote on everything from net neutrality to the NSA negotiations.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Ten months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation’s surveillance court delivered a ruling that intelligence officials consider a milestone in the secret history of American spying and privacy law. Called the “Raw Take” order — classified docket No. 02-431 — it weakened restrictions on sharing private information about Americans, according to documents and interviews.
The administration of President George W. Bush, intent on not overlooking clues about Al Qaeda, had sought the July 22, 2002, order. It is one of several still-classified rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court described in documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.
Previously, with narrow exceptions, an intelligence agency was permitted to disseminate information gathered from court-approved wiretaps only after deleting irrelevant private details and masking the names of innocent Americans who came into contact with a terrorism suspect. The Raw Take order significantly changed that system, documents show, allowing counterterrorism analysts at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. to share unfiltered personal information.
The leaked documents that refer to the rulings, including one called the “Large Content FISA” order and several more recent expansions of powers on sharing information, add new details to the emerging public understanding of a secret body of law that the court has developed since 2001. The files help explain how the court evolved from its original task — approving wiretap requests — to engaging in complex analysis of the law to justify activities like the bulk collection of data about Americans’ emails and phone calls.
“These latest disclosures are important,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “They indicate how the contours of the law secretly changed, and they represent the transformation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court into an interpreter of law and not simply an adjudicator of surveillance applications.” [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: The senior CIA lawyer accused by the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee of trying to intimidate the panel over its investigation into secret prisons and brutal interrogations of terrorism suspects was himself involved in the controversial programs. The attorney, the CIA’s top lawyer, is cited by name for his role more than 1,600 times in the Senate’s unpublished, 6,300-page investigative report, according to the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Until the California Democrat’s extraordinary Senate speech Tuesday, the CIA’s senior deputy general counsel, Robert Eatinger, was little known outside a small cadre of highly specialized national security lawyers. He has maintained a low profile in a legal career that has spanned two decades at the CIA and in the Navy. But Feinstein’s remarkable accusations instantly made Eatinger famous — or infamous — over a simmering constitutional dispute that threatens to engulf two branches of the government.
Eatinger had filed a formal criminal complaint earlier this year on behalf of the CIA asking the Justice Department to investigate whether the Senate Intelligence Committee had improperly obtained classified CIA documents for an as-yet unreleased Senate report on the agency’s use of waterboarding and other abusive tactics against al-Qaida prisoners during the George W. Bush administration.
Eatinger’s move boomeranged Tuesday. [Continue reading...]
Ars Technica reports: It sounds like something out of Homeland: at a secret location somewhere off the campus of the CIA, the agency leases a space and hires contractors to run a top-secret network, which it fills with millions of pages of documents dumped from the agency’s internal network. But that’s apparently exactly what the CIA did for more than three years as part of an agreement to share data with the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on its controversial detention and interrogation program.
And it’s also how the agency was able to gain access to the computers and shared network drive used by committee staffers in a search that Senator Diane Feinstein contended yesterday crossed multiple legal and constitutional boundaries. In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday morning, Feinstein detailed the strange arrangement and accused the CIA of breaking its agreement with the committee on multiple occasions. She also accused the agency of reportedly filing a criminal report against committee staffers with the Justice Department in “a potential effort to intimidate this staff.”
The details shared by Feinstein show the length to which the CIA went to try to control the scope of the data that was shared with Senate staffers — and still managed to give them more than some officials in the agency wanted to. Even with multiple levels of oversight, the CIA managed to hand over the data along with an internal review of that very data, which included the agency’s own damning assessment of the interrogation program. [Continue reading...]
This American Life: Last May, a weird story made the news: the FBI killed a guy in Florida who was loosely linked to the Boston Marathon bombings. He was shot seven times in his living room by a federal agent. What really happened? Why was the FBI even in that room with him? A reporter spent six months looking into it, and she found that the FBI was doing a bunch of things that never made the news.
This story was reported by Susan Zalkind in a collaboration with Boston Magazine. Check out Susan’s print story for more about the murders in Waltham, MA, and the investigation into Ibragim Todashev.
Christopher Soghoian writes: “You are the firefighters,” National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told a tech savvy audience here yesterday, during my conversation with him at the SXSW festival. “The people in Austin are the ones who can protect our rights through technical standards.”
Ed’s comments were a call to arms for the tech community to protect its users from indiscriminate mass surveillance by the NSA and the insecurity it creates. Despite the talk from Washington DC regarding cybersecurity threats – and you’ll hear more of it today during a confirmation hearing for the would-be next head of the NSA – it is now clear that the NSA’s mass surveillance efforts are not meant for good. Whether it’s systematically undermining global encryption standards, hacking communications companies’ servers and data links or exploiting so-called zero-day vulnerabilities, the nation’s cyberspies are focused on attacking online privacy and weakening the security of systems that we all trust.
Forget all the government rhetoric on cybersecurity: the NSA simply isn’t here to make the Internet more secure. But that doesn’t mean the agency has to win. The global tech community can fight back, if developers ramp up efforts to build privacy and security into their products. By zeroing in on practical steps Ed and I discussed in our conversation here, we can build a more open, free and secure Internet. [Continue reading...]
Gary Younge writes: Little more than a week after 9/11, Cofer Black gave instructions to his CIA team before their mission. “I don’t want Bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead … I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want Bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to show Bin Laden’s head to the president. I promised him I would do that.”
A month later, at a meeting sponsored by Schwab Capital markets, CIA executive director “Buzzy” Krongard laid out for investors what such a war would entail. “[It] will be won in large measure by forces you do not know about, in actions you will not see and in ways you may not want to know about,” he said.
Back then there wasn’t a treaty that couldn’t be violated, a principle waived or a definition parsed in the defence of American power and pursuit of popular revenge. To invoke the constitution, the Geneva convention or democratic oversight was evidence that you were out of your depth in the new reality. Laws were for the weak; for the powerful there was force. This was not just the mood of a moment; it has been policy for more than a decade. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Encryptions tools must be simplified and made accessible for the mainstream, Pulitzer-winning journalist Barton Gellman said on Monday, calling on the tech industry to have the courage and ingenuity to help address the disparity of power between the people and their government.
Addressing the SXSW festival shortly before Edward Snowden’s live speech by video, Gellman said we are a long way off simple, transparent encryption tools. He cited Pew research which found that 88% of Americans say they have taken steps to protect their privacy in some form.
“With all the user interface brains out there we could get easier tools,” he said. “But it’s not just the ability to encrypt, it’s a frame of mind, a workflow and a discipline that is alien to most people, and that is the opposite to the open nature of the consumer internet. You could use Tor to access a site a hundred times, but the 101st time you forget, you may as well not have used Tor.”
“There are people at this conference who have taken very considerable risk to protect the privacy of their customers and have put themselves at the edge of the door to jail and it will take courage as well as ingenuity to change the way things work.” [Continue reading...]
Note: The audio quality of Snowden’s feed renders him virtually unintelligible, but Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union’s principal technologist, comes through loud and clear.
Doesn’t this just say it all? After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the “nuclear option” on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans — the president’s proudly disloyal opposition — had fumed to their hearts’ content, Obama still couldn’t get his nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division confirmed. The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats. Despite a “sustained closed-door effort” by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down. Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.
Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine. Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington. Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way. But so far it’s been a Charge of the Lite Brigade. Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.” And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced. Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.
The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes. And the action’s been hot and heavy. For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been “in another world” — i.e. deranged. (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.) As for Putin, if he’s crazy, by all accounts he’s crazy like a fox. He’s managed to go to “war” with what’s left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired. He’s been punching visibly above his weight.
Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight. Its theme, widely announced, has been to “isolate” Russia, particularly economically. Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn’t been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.
Yes, they’ve all said the right words in the rhetorical war that’s been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington’s urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians. And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil. Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.
The president’s inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary. In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age. His is a presidency in a time of decline. As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates today in a sweeping character portrait of the man we’ve never quite come to know, he’s had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power. Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington. As Bromwich suggests, the president’s words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground. Tom Engelhardt
How Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president)
By David Bromwich
Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.
For some time now, observers — a surprisingly wide range of them — have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.
A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office — or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.