A stark reminder of Guantánamo’s sins

In an editorial, the New York Times says: It is haunting, maddening even, to revisit the facts of Abu Zubaydah’s time in American custody more than 14 years after he was detained in Pakistan in the frenzied period following the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner known to have been waterboarded by the Central Intelligence Agency, loomed large in America’s imagination for years as the personification of evil.

On Tuesday, a small group of human rights advocates and journalists got a fleeting glimpse of Abu Zubaydah — the first since his detention — when he appeared before a panel of government officials to argue that he would not be a threat to the United States if he were released from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. The hearing, which civilians were allowed to watch part of from a live video feed, is an opportunity to reflect on the shameful tactics employed during years of national panic about terrorism and to reinvigorate efforts to close the prison.

George W. Bush’s administration believed that Abu Zubaydah, a bearded Saudi who wears a patch on his left eye, was the operations head of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush singled him out in a 2006 speech, calling him a “senior terrorist leader,” and claiming that “the security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.” Abu Zubaydah and men like him, government officials argued, fully justified the facility at Guantánamo as well as a secret web of prisons run by the C.I.A. They also justified the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, then eagerly embraced by some American intelligence officials.

Years later, it became clear that Abu Zubaydah wasn’t a top figure in Al Qaeda after all. It also became clear that he had willingly provided insights into terrorist groups when he was interrogated by F.B.I. agents, who treated him cordially. By the time he was turned over to the C.I.A., his knowledge about threats to the United States appears to have been largely exhausted. Yet agency personnel insisted on the need for torture, waterboarding him at least 83 times and subjecting him to other cruelty.

Never charged and never tried, Abu Zubaydah has also never been allowed to speak publicly about his ordeal. His American abusers have never been held to account. [Continue reading…]

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How corruption paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the failure of Iraq

Ken Silverstein writes: It is hard to overstate the devastating role that corruption has played in the failure of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. According to a report last March by the Iraqi parliament’s auditing committee, the country’s defense ministry has spent $150 billion on weapons during the past decade — but acquired only $20 billion worth of arms. Much of the equipment it did obtain was useless, 1970s-era matériel from former Soviet bloc states that was invoiced at up to four times its actual value. Late last year, well-placed sources tell me, the Pentagon delivered a shipment of new weapons to the Iraqi government, including .50-caliber sniper rifles, which were supposed to be sent to Sunni fighters in Anbar Province. Instead, corrupt officials in the Iraqi ministries of interior and defense sold the arms to ISIS, which is using them to kill Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

“The Kurds are still using equipment we gave them in 2003,” says a former CIA official who spends a good deal of time in Iraq. “They’re forced to buy ammo and weapons that the U.S. government gives to Baghdad from corrupt Iraqi government officials.”

Weapons aren’t the only target for corruption. When it comes to the vast sums of money that have flowed into Iraq for reconstruction and economic development, officials at every level of government have been more focused on lining their own pockets than rebuilding their ruined country. [Continue reading…]

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The folly of Obama’s disengagement doctrine

Thanassis Cambanis writes: A generational war has engulfed the Levant. The ruination of Iraq and Syria is akin to a core meltdown within the Arab state system, with consequences that already have rocked the world: new wars flaring across the Middle East, political ferment in Turkey, a global refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State group, to name just a few.

Today we can begin the sad work of taking inventory of an American presidency that aspired to a humane and humble foreign policy. President Barack Obama didn’t start the Levantine conflagration — that ignoble credit belongs to his predecessor — but he has kept America fighting in Iraq and deployed forces in Syria to support a vast, billion-dollar covert proxy effort. All to little effect.

The long, horrific war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, with his illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, has shattered the cradle of civilization beyond all recognition. During the subsequent occupation, U.S. officials dismantled the pillars of the Iraqi state, including its military and bureaucracy, and then stood by as newly empowered sectarian warlords and mob bosses tore apart the country. Many wars flared simultaneously in Iraq, some of which spread to neighboring Syria after the popular uprising sparked there in 2011.

President Obama’s signal intellectual and policy contribution was his minimalist response towards the chaos left behind by Bush. American policy at turns sought to contain the implosion of Syria and the ongoing fighting in Iraq, and at others accelerated or tried to steer the conflict, often by trying to balance ethnic or sectarian militias in a manner that, perhaps inadvertently, deepened the hold of sectarian warlords.

The president’s lackluster attitude has poisoned much of the serious policy conversation in Washington. His policies have spread the spurious conviction that whatever happens in the Middle East is not a core U.S. or international interest, but rather a sad and regional affair. [Continue reading…]

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Karen Greenberg on the making of the modern security state

Brian O’Neill writes: For people not intimately involved in national security debates, and who haven’t closely followed how we arrived at the modern security state, the decade-and-a-half following the surreal terror of September 11 have felt like an unmoored drift, a country floating aimlessly, if recklessly, down a river of indecision. The internet’s rising ubiquity, followed by the dominance of social media, allowed many of us to unwittingly shrug off privacy concerns, while simultaneously ignoring others’ indefinite detention, the torture of strangers, and sky-borne assassination overseas, until we looked around and the sky was speckled with revelations. It’s easy to feel like the new relationship we have with our government “only just happened.”

In Rogue Justice, Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, puts that feeling of aimless drift mostly to rest. This detailed and meticulously researched book shows how the willingness to make every citizen a suspect, and to give the executive branch immense powers to surveil, detain, torture, and murder were not just a product of collective fear and indifference, but the deliberate actions of a surprisingly small group of people. I say “mostly” because the decisions were made by officials within the Bush and (to a lesser extent) Obama administrations, but they were also enabled by the assumed (and granted) complicity of many others.

This complicity came from careerists worried about rocking the boat, politicians in both parties worried about being painted as weak on terror (with notable and noble exceptions), and to an uncomfortable extent, the general public. The terrorist attacks in 2001 made everyone realize that anyone could be a target, but we didn’t see — or didn’t want to see — that in a very real way, we also became a target of the government. Many of the policies enacted in the wake of 9/11 made everyone a suspect as much as a target. Through official secrecy aided by general indifference, we allowed ourselves to be passively dragooned into being on both sides of a war. [Continue reading…]

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Unconditional commitment to war in Iraq: ‘I will be with you whatever,’ Blair told Bush

The Associated Press reports: Letters published by the U.K.’s Iraq War Inquiry show that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair assured U.S. President George W. Bush of his support for regime change in Iraq eight months before the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003.

The report by retired civil servant John Chilcot offered a sweeping condemnation of Britain’s preparations for the war and its aftermath. The newly published documents offer one side of the vital relationship between Bush and Blair — Blair’s letters to Bush are published, but Bush’s responses are not.

In a six-page “Secret Personal” memo to Bush written July 28, 2002, Blair says he would do “whatever” with regards to removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain from power. Blair says toppling Saddam is “the right thing to do” adding that the important question is “not when, but how.”

At the time, Blair was telling the British public and Parliament that no decision to go to war against Iraq had been made.

“I will be with you whatever,” Blair wrote to his U.S. counterpart. [Continue reading…]

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Tony Blair demonstrates once again how he took Britain to war in Iraq

Anne Perkins writes: Prime ministers blamed for catastrophic diplomatic failure tend to go quietly to their country houses to grow roses. Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, paralysed by fear of the cost of war then blamed for failing to rearm in the 1930s, Anthony Eden for the lying deception of Suez in the 1950s, retreated entirely from public life.

In contrast, Tony Blair, although no longer the representative of the Middle East quartet, has a sports foundation, a faith foundation, an Africa governance initiative, a climate change initiative, and of course Tony Blair Associates, whose earnings fund them all.

The criticisms of the Chilcot report were familiar to him from the privileged access given months ago so that he could challenge the conclusions. They had been trawled over by him and, no doubt, his lawyers. Thus, soon after Chilcot had made his statement, at about the time Rose Gentle was accusing him of murdering her son at the press conference for the families, Blair’s office was ready with a rebuttal, insisting the report had exonerated him of all charges of falsification, deception and a secret war pact with George W Bush.

A couple of hours later, in the mid-afternoon, Blair himself launched his press conference with an expression of responsibility for the Iraq war, for which he felt “more sorrow and regret and apology … than you can ever believe”. He looked, and sounded, utterly stricken.

It feels cheap at such a time to doubt someone’s sincerity. But I have seen him look stricken before – and like millions of other voters, I don’t trust him any more. [Continue reading…]

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I governed in Iraq, and saw the lack of postwar planning first-hand

Emma Sky writes: Although I opposed the Iraq war, I went on to serve in Iraq longer than any other British military or civilian official. When I testified before the Iraq inquiry on 14 January 2011, I explained how in 2003 I had responded to the government’s request for volunteers to administer Iraq for three months before we handed the country back to the Iraqis.

I felt I had useful skills to contribute, after a decade in Palestine working on capacity building and conflict mediation. And I did not want the only westerner Iraqis would meet to be a man with a gun.

Before I went out to Iraq I was not briefed, and had no idea what my job was going to be. I received a phone call from someone in the British government telling me to make my way to RAF Brize Norton, jump on a military plane and fly to Basra, where I would be met by someone carrying a sign with my name on it and taken to the nearest hotel.

It sounded plausible. It was June 2003. The invasion was three months previous. The war was apparently over. I assumed the British government knew what it was doing – it had just not told me. So I followed the instructions. But I arrived in Basra airport to find no one expecting me, no sign with my name. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Justice for torturers?

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks.  On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s highest honorary award for private citizens.”  In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”

Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.”  The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians.  And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for.  Public service indeed.

Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there.  Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country.  Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission.  I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards.  Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world.  Must-reads all!  With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt 

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.

[Read more…]

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The U.S. and Russia are fighting about missile defense when they should be settling differences

Fred Kaplan writes: The Standard Missile 3, or SM-3 as it’s called, is purely defensive; it works not by blowing up a missile in midair but by slamming into it with great force; in other words, it couldn’t be turned into an offensive weapon, even if some future Western leader wanted it to be.

But from Russia’s point of view, that’s not the issue. As one military adage has it, the only purely defensive weapon is a foxhole, and a battery of antimissile missiles doesn’t change this fact. In the odd world of nuclear strategy, a nation deters an attack by posing a credible threat of “retaliation in kind.” Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back against Side A; therefore, Side A doesn’t attack in the first place. But imagine that Side A has an effective missile-defense system. Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back, but most of its missiles get shot down before reaching their targets; therefore, Side B is unable to “retaliate in kind.” Both sides do the calculation and understand the strategic imbalance, and therefore (so goes the theory), Side A dominates Side B — intimidates it into doing certain things in A’s favor — without having to go to war.

This is why Russian officials see missile defense systems as a threat. It’s a concept they learned from the Americans. In the 1950s and early ’60s, many American nuclear strategists, notably Herman Kahn, author of the best-seller On Thermonuclear War, advocated anti-ballistic-missile systems as an explicit adjunct to an offensive first-strike strategy: The U.S. launches a nuclear attack on the USSR; the USSR strikes back with the few nuclear missiles that survived the first strike; the U.S. shoots them down with its antimissile missiles. Or, more to the point, the U.S. has the capability to do these things — which puts the U.S. in a dominant position in international confrontations.

In the mid-1960s, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed a treaty banning anti-ballistic missiles in the United States and Soviet Union, some Russian officials were puzzled: Why ban defensive weapons, they asked? McNamara schooled them on nuclear strategy; he essentially wanted to avoid the destabilizing situation that Herman Kahn wanted to foster and exploit. The Russians learned the lesson. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s last chance to end the ‘forever war’

Jennifer Daskal writes: The United States is fighting an unauthorized war. Over the past 19 months, American forces have launched more than 8,800 strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and hit the group’s affiliate in Libya. The United States continues aerial assaults against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is going after militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and killed more than 150 suspected Shabab fighters in Somalia just last month.

This war isn’t limited to drone strikes or aerial bombings. It includes Special Operations forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — and possibly elsewhere. This past weekend, President Obama announced that he would send an additional 250 such troops to Syria.

The primary legal authority for these strikes and deployments comes from the 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed almost a decade and a half ago. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush asked for an open-ended authorization to fight all future acts of terrorism. Wisely, Congress rejected that request, though it did give the president authority to use force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and those that harbored them, the Taliban.

Today, the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and the other key participants in the Sept. 11 attacks are either locked up or dead. But the old authorization lives on. [Continue reading…]

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What cyberwar against ISIS should look like

Fred Kaplan writes: Pentagon officials have publicly said, in recent weeks, that they’re hitting ISIS not only with bullets and bombs but also with cyberoffensive operations. “We are dropping cyberbombs,” Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense, is quoted as proclaiming in Monday’s New York Times. Similar, if less colorful, statements have been made by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and,a week ago, President Obama.

What does it mean? And what effects are these new weapons having on the overall war? After dropping his “cyberbombs” bombshell, Work said, “We have never done that before.” But in fact, the United States has done it before, against Iraqi insurgents, including al-Qaida fighters, back in 2007. And, as I discovered while researching my book Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, the effects were devastating.

Standard accounts have credited President George W. Bush’s troop surge and Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy for turning the Iraq conflict in the coalition’s favor in 2007. These accounts aren’t wrong, as far as they go, but they leave out another crucial factor — cyberoffensive warfare, as conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command and the National Security Agency. [Continue reading…]

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The CIA kidnapper facing jail in Italy

The Daily Beast reports: Former CIA employee Sabrina De Sousa, now fighting extradition from Portugal to Italy, was skiing on a mountainside far away from the action, on Feb. 17, 2003, when Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was snatched off a street in Milan on his way to the mosque. The cleric, known as Abu Omar, was first flown by executive jet to Germany and then to Cairo, where he was tortured for nearly seven months, according to his own testimony and Amnesty International accounts.

The kidnap was part of the infamous “extraordinary rendition” program being run at the time by the United States. The CIA was grabbing suspected terrorists from all over the world and shipping them to various countries, including Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, to suffer the tortures of the damned and in some cases execution.

Begun under President Bill Clinton, the rendition program developed with a vengeance under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America. And Abu Omar’s kidnapping took place only weeks before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration was anxious to prove some link between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. (None existed.)

Abu Omar was believed to have funneled jihadists into the ranks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was then operating out of northern Iraq and later founded the organization Al Qaeda in Iraq, that evolved into the so-called Islamic State. Italian authorities, backed by the CIA, believed he was plotting to blow up a busload of American students who attended an international high school in Milan. [Continue reading…]

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