Ryan Lizza writes: On March 12, 2013, James R. Clapper appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss the threats facing America. Clapper, who is seventy-two, is a retired Air Force general and Barack Obama’s director of National Intelligence, in charge of overseeing the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and fourteen other U.S. spy agencies. Clapper is bald, with a gray goatee and rimless spectacles, and his affect is intimidatingly bureaucratic. The fifteen-member Intelligence Committee was created in the nineteen-seventies, after a series of investigations revealed that the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. had, for years, been illegally spying on Americans. The panel’s mission is to conduct “vigilant legislative oversight” of the intelligence community, but more often it treats senior intelligence officials like matinée idols. As the senators took turns at the microphone, greeting Clapper with anodyne statements and inquiries, he obligingly led them on a tour of the dangers posed by homegrown extremists, far-flung terrorist groups, and emerging nuclear powers.
“This hearing is really a unique opportunity to inform the American public to the extent we can about the threats we face as a nation, and worldwide,” Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said at one point. She asked committee members to “refrain from asking questions here that have classified answers.” Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, asked about the lessons of the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, asked about the dangers of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Toward the end of the hearing, Feinstein turned to Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, also a Democrat, who had a final question. The two senators have been friends. Feinstein held a baby shower for Wyden and his wife, Nancy Bass, before the birth of twins, in 2007. But, since then, their increasingly divergent views on intelligence policy have strained the relationship. “This is an issue where we just have a difference of opinion,” Wyden told me. Feinstein often uses the committee to bolster the tools that spy agencies say they need to protect the country, and Wyden has been increasingly concerned about privacy rights. For almost a decade, he has been trying to force intelligence officials like Clapper to be more forthcoming about spy programs that gather information about Americans who have no connection to terrorism.
Wyden had an uneasy kind of vindication in June, three months after Clapper’s appearance, when Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the N.S.A., leaked pages and pages of classified N.S.A. documents. They showed that, for the past twelve years, the agency has been running programs that secretly collect detailed information about the phone and Internet usage of Americans. The programs have been plagued by compliance issues, and the legal arguments justifying the surveillance regime have been kept from view. Wyden has long been aware of the programs and of the agency’s appalling compliance record, and has tried everything short of disclosing classified information to warn the public. At the March panel, he looked down at Clapper as if he were about to eat a long-delayed meal. [Continue reading...]
Rosa Brooks writes: After a spate of news stories this summer citing tensions between President Barack Obama and his top military commanders over the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough hastened to assure the Washington Post that everything was, in fact, copacetic: The president “appreciates” candid military advice “above all else,” McDonough insisted, and has “close, and in some instances warm, relationships with his military chiefs,” as the Post put it. During my own time at the Pentagon, where I worked as an Obama appointee from the spring of 2009 until mid-2011, few seemed to hold this view. I recall asking one general, recently back from Afghanistan, if he’d shared his experiences and insights with the president. Rolling his eyes, he told me grimly that the White House preferred the military to be seen but not heard.
Curious about whether things had changed since then, I asked a dozen serving and recently retired senior military officers with high-level White House access, many of whom were not comfortable speaking on the record, if they knew of any military leaders with whom the president had a close and warm personal relationship. In every case, the initial response was a long silence. “That’s a great question,” said one retired senior officer, after a lengthy pause. “Good question. I don’t know,” said a second. “I don’t think he’s close to anyone,” commented a third. He just doesn’t seem to have any interest in “getting to know” the military, a retired general concluded.
Of course, there’s no law that requires the president to invite his top generals for pajama parties or rounds of golf, and being “close” to military leaders is no guarantee of sound decision-making. But all of this raises an increasingly relevant question: How has the president—the man who promised to “finish the job” in Afghanistan, close the door on the unpopular Iraq War and “end the mind-set that got us into the war in the first place”—managed a military he often seems to regard with mistrust and unease? [Continue reading...]
Shuaib Almosawa writes: Arfag al-Marwani finished his last minute shopping for the Eid al Fitr holiday by midnight, just enough time to enjoy a few hours of rest before the holiday’s dawn Fajr prayers. A 28-year-old laborer, Arfag had recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia and planned on spending the time with his family. It was August 8.
Just before making his final holiday preparations, he received a troubling phone call. Before the holiday celebrations could begin, he would have to carry out one final task.
There had been some sort of car accident involving his brothers: 24-year-old Abdullah, 17-year-old Hassan and 16-year-old Hussein. They too were on their way to the family home after finishing some last minute Eid shopping. Arfag’s thoughts drifted to news reports of the seven U.S. drone strikes in the past 11 days — one of which already targeted al Qaeda suspects in his home province of Marib. Arfag hoped that his young brothers weren’t somehow caught in the drone crossfire.
It took Arfag half an hour to reach the wreckage. Amidst the eerie quiet of the Maribi countryside, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of his brothers’ mangled vehicle.
The strike that killed Arfag’s three brothers was the eighth out of nine total air attacks launched between July 27 and August 10. It was part of a spastic attempt to thwart what U.S. officials claimed was an al Qaeda plot to attack American interests. But the drone campaign may have only created more support for the militants, if Arfag and his grieving family are to be believed.
Government officials told the press that the strike’s targets were all al Qaeda militants. But the victims’ families say just the opposite was true: that the two teenagers and their older brother were innocent bystanders.
“Everything inside the car seemed to have been flung out of the windows by the force of the blast,” said Arfag, describing what he found at the wreckage that night.
“I found their bodies lying nearby — decapitated.”
Arfag carried the bodies of Abdullah, Hassan and Hussein to the trunk of his car one by one along with what remained of Eid gifts his brothers’ had purchased just a few hours earlier.
“They purchased two outfits for their little nieces, deserts, and a lot of fireworks. We all enjoy the Eid fireworks — they weren’t just for the boys,” said Arfag.
Arfag notified the rest of his family before he began the 50 mile drive north where the family would prepare the bodies for burial in a nearby cemetery the following day.
“Mom took pictures with her mobile phone of all of them, along with the [charred] gifts they had bought,” Arfag continued.
The August 8 strike has outraged the residents of Marib, a governorate where al Qaeda maintains a strong presence. According to some security analysts, that outrage over drone strikes directed toward the U.S. may do more harm than good in a long term struggle against AQAP, as the local Qaeda affiliate is known.
“This case gets at what I believe to be the Achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: a lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and American’s War in Arabia. [Continue reading...]
Jeffrey Bachman asks: Is President Obama a suspected war criminal?
If you have read the recent reports on drone strikes by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is only one answer to this question … and it is not the answer most would want to hear.
If you have not read the reports, let me provide you with a brief summary of the common themes. The reports repeatedly criticized President Obama for what has been a near complete lack of transparency. Lack of transparency, according to the reports, impedes accountability. By failing to acknowledge responsibility for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, there can be no accountability to those who have wrongfully had their innocent loved ones killed in attacks.
Frank La Rue, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted the role the right to information plays in promoting good governance. La Rue added that there exists a right to know the truth because the truth enables access to other rights: in this case, the right to reparations and accountability for the wrongful deaths of loved ones. [Continue reading...]
In their efforts to deflect criticism of drone warfare, President Obama and senior officials overseeing strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have repeatedly insisted that missiles are only fired when there is minimal risk to civilians and that the primary virtue of this weapons system is its precision.
This week, after Rafiq Rehman and his two children came all the way from Waziristan to testify before Congress on the impact of drone warfare, only five lawmakers bothered to show up. The assumption among campaigners seems to have been that the consciences of ordinary Americans would be stirred if they were to hear children describe what it’s like witnessing your 67-year-old grandmother getting blown up in a drone strike.
The death of Momina Bibi exactly a year ago illustrates how little value precision has if the target is a nameless figure on a computer screen. Yet the testimony of the Rehman family seems unlikely to have much impact on public opinion when Washington finds it so easy to ignore.
Al Jazeera reports:
[E]ven after what his family has been through, Rafiq Rehman said he does not resent the United States. In fact, even after witnessing his first Halloween weekend in the States, he does not believe all that much separates him from Americans.
“It’s very peaceful here. For the most part, there’s a lot of freedom and people get along with each other. They’re nice, they respect each other, and I appreciate that,” Rafiq told Al Jazeera.
“We’re all human beings,” he said. “I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That’s why I came here — I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians.”
The attitude of the Obama administration seems to have been reflected in the decision to prevent the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, from accompanying them on their visit.
Akbar, a legal fellow with Reprieve, the U.K.-based advocacy organization that helped bring the family to the Washington, believes that his work has something to do with the denial. He only had trouble obtaining a visa after he started to litigate on the behalf of drone victims.
In an interview at his Islamabad office, Akbar told me that he was first denied entry to the United States in 2010, even though he had an open visa at the time. He said that the head of visa services at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad told him his visa could not be processed there because of his history. “And I looked at her and I said what do you mean by history? She just smiled and she said, ‘You know very well what I mean by history.’”
He assumes she was referring to his decision that year to sue the CIA station chief in Islamabad. “It’s very simple,” Akbar said. “You mess with [the] CIA and they mess with you to the extent they can.”
Even if Akbar had been there and even if the hearings had been well attended, I suspect that many lawmakers and other Americans would find it easy to marginalize the Rehman family’s experience.
America never tires of expressing its good intentions. We mean well. Accidents happen. Momina Bibi’s death was a mistake.
This month the Obama administration decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan and in what looks like a rather transparent quid pro quo, the Pakistani government today issued a statement drastically reducing its claims about the number of civilians killed in drone attacks.
They now say that since 2008, 2,160 militants and 67 civilians have been killed.
There was no indication why the new data seem to differ so much from past government calculations and outside estimates.
A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by drone attacks in the country since they started in 2004.
Emmerson called on the Islamabad government to explain the apparent discrepancy, with the Foreign Ministry figure indicating a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation puts the figure at 185 civilians. Such estimates are often compiled from news media reports about the attacks.
Having made drone warfare one of the signatures of his presidency, Barack Obama’s level of comfort in utilizing this form of technology can be seen both through his willingness to joke about it, and his insistence on its judicious use. In his mind, the drone has somehow been turned into a symbol of restraint. Shock and awe has been replaced by carefully calibrated violence — even while it employs the far too infrequently cited brand: Hellfire.
The propaganda campaign the Obama administration has engaged in — now with the collusion of the Pakistani government — has always been a numbers game. It attempts to justify drone warfare on the basis of its supposed efficiency. Through a false equivalence — that drone strikes kill far fewer people and do less damage than air strikes — the drone is cast as the lesser of two evils. (This is a false equivalence because drone strikes are rarely employed as an alternative to an air strike. The 317 drone strikes in Pakistan Obama has authorized could not have been substituted by 317 air strikes.) And the measure of the drones’ success can be reduced to a numerical formula such as the one Pakistan just produced.
The effect of claiming that “just” 67 civilians have been killed (leaving aside the issue that this number is implausibly low) is that it masks the wider effect of drone warfare: that it has terrorized the populations in the areas where its use has become prevalent.
A reporter for the Washington Post interviewed a journalist in Pakistan and tried to get a sense of the psychological impact of drones. Was it, she asked, like living somewhere where there are lots of drive-by shootings? (Fear of random acts of violence might usefully offer some common ground, though the comparison might be a bit more realistic if one imagines a neighborhood where the shooters are armed with shoulder-launched missiles rather than handguns.)
Kiran Nazish describes what the presence of drones really means: that the fear of sudden death becomes ever-present.
Along with the few victims that Washington acknowledges, there are thousands more. Facing the risk of missile strikes, these are people afraid to go to market or to leave their own homes. And when the sky is blue, the danger rises, as high above, unseen but constantly heard, drones circle like vultures in search of their prey.
Powerless and with nowhere to flee, for the living victims of drone warfare, America has become an invisible and blind executioner.
The New York Times reports: The nation’s top spymaster said on Tuesday that the White House had long been aware in general terms of the National Security Agency’s overseas eavesdropping, stoutly defending the agency’s intelligence-gathering methods and suggesting possible divisions within the Obama administration.
The official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the N.S.A. had kept senior officials in the National Security Council informed of surveillance it was conducting in foreign countries. He did not specifically say whether President Obama was told of these spying efforts, but he appeared to challenge assertions in recent days that the White House had been in the dark about some of the agency’s practices.
Mr. Clapper and the agency’s director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, vigorously rejected suggestions that the agency was a rogue institution, trawling for information on ordinary citizens and leaders of America’s closest allies, without the knowledge of its Washington overseers.
Their testimony came amid mounting questions about how the N.S.A. collects information overseas, with Republicans and Democrats calling for a congressional review, lawmakers introducing a bill that would curb its activities and Mr. Obama poised to impose his own constraints, particularly on monitoring the leaders of friendly nations. At the same time, current and former American intelligence officials say there is a growing sense of anger with the White House for what they see as attempts by the administration to pin the blame for the controversy squarely on them.
General Alexander said news media reports that the N.S.A. had vacuumed up tens of millions of telephone calls in France, Italy and Spain were “completely false.” That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the intelligence services of those countries and provided to the N.S.A.
Still, both he and Mr. Clapper said that spying on foreign leaders — even those of allies — was a basic tenet of intelligence tradecraft and had gone on for decades. European countries, Mr. Clapper said, routinely seek to listen in on the conversations of American leaders. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: President Barack Obama recently ordered the National Security Agency to curtail eavesdropping on the United Nations headquarters in New York as part of a review of U.S. electronic surveillance, according to a U.S. official familiar with the decision.
Obama’s order is the latest known move by the White House to limit the NSA’s vast intelligence collection, in the wake of protests by allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, over U.S. spying on foreign heads of state.
The full extent of U.S. eavesdropping on the United Nations is not publicly known, nor is it clear whether the United States has stopped all monitoring of diplomats assigned to the U.N. in New York or elsewhere around the world.
“The United States is not conducting electronic surveillance targeting the United Nations headquarters in New York,” said a senior Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official did not address past surveillance of the world body. Such programs are highly classified, although some details have been leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. [Continue reading...]
The Los Angeles Times reports: The White House and State Department signed off on surveillance targeting phone conversations of friendly foreign leaders, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said Monday, pushing back against assertions that President Obama and his aides were unaware of the high-level eavesdropping.
Professional staff members at the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies are angry, these officials say, believing the president has cast them adrift as he tries to distance himself from the disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that have strained ties with close allies.
The resistance emerged as the White House said it would curtail foreign intelligence collection in some cases and two senior U.S. senators called for investigations of the practice.
Precisely how the surveillance is conducted is unclear. But if a foreign leader is targeted for eavesdropping, the relevant U.S. ambassador and the National Security Council staffer at the White House who deals with the country are given regular reports, said two former senior intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing classified information.
Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”
If U.S. spying on key foreign leaders was news to the White House, current and former officials said, then White House officials have not been reading their briefing books.
Some U.S. intelligence officials said they were being blamed by the White House for conducting surveillance that was authorized under the law and utilized at the White House.
“People are furious,” said a senior intelligence official who would not be identified discussing classified information. “This is officially the White House cutting off the intelligence community.”
Any decision to spy on friendly foreign leaders is made with input from the State Department, which considers the political risk, the official said. Any useful intelligence is then given to the president’s counter-terrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, among other White House officials.
When Angela Merkel phoned Barack Obama to tell him she didn’t appreciate being spied on by the NSA, it’s not as though Obama got blind-sided by the call. “You have a call on line one Mr President. It’s a woman with a German accent. She sounds pissed off.”
On the contrary, it’s reasonable to assume that Obama, in consultation with his staff, had time to craft a response, and if that response was not exactly crafted then it should at least have sounded halfway plausible.
Senior White House adviser: Just tell her you knew nothing about it but you promise it’ll never happen again.
Obama: But that’s going to sound like the lame excuse a 12-year-old would give in response to a reprimand from a school teacher.
Adviser: You got any better ideas?
The Most Powerful Man in the World: ….
What should he have said? How about:
I am aware of the reports you are referring to. I understand your concerns. I have ordered a comprehensive review of our surveillance policies and I am fully committed to taking whatever steps are necessary to restore trust between the United States and Germany. To that end, I’d like to invite you to send a team of your intelligence officials to meet their counterparts in Washington and in that context we will be able to address more specific issues and hopefully arrive at a common understanding.
You remain dear to my heart, Angela.
Well, maybe not the last bit.
Dana Milbank writes: The Associated Press’s Josh Lederman led off Monday’s White House briefing with an obvious question: “Was the president kept out of the loop about what the NSA was doing?”
“I am not going to get into details of internal discussions,” press secretary Jay Carney replied, repeating previous promises that “we do not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications.” This formulation conspicuously omits the phrase “did not.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta cited the HealthCare.gov rollout and the IRS targeting, which Obama said he learned about through news reports. “Is there a concern,” Acosta asked, “that the president is being kept in the dark on some of these issues?”
Carney told Acosta he had “conflated a bunch of very disparate issues.”
“Republican critics,” Acosta said, “are making the case, though, that the president appears to be in the dark about some pretty significant stories that are swirling around this White House.”
“Well, Republican critics say a lot of things, Jim,” Carney replied icily.
That’s true. But in this case, the Republicans understated the number of issues on which the president has claimed to be in the dark. A compilation by the Republican National Committee titled “The Bystander President” cited the NSA spying on Merkel, the Obamacare rollout and an investigation of the IRS’s targeting of political groups (the White House counsel knew of the inquiry but said she didn’t inform Obama). The RNC also mentioned the failure of clean-energy company Solyndra, which had received government funding (Carney had said Obama read about it in “news accounts”), and the attempts to go after reporters’ phone and e-mail records (which the president also found out about from reading the news, Carney said).
The RNC didn’t mention that Obama had allegedly known nothing about an FBI investigation of an affair involving David Petraeus that led him to resign as CIA director. Neither did it mention two other claims that conservatives often question: Obama’s ignorance of a guns-on-the-border sting operation called “Fast and Furious” that went awry, and his unawareness of requests for additional diplomatic security in Libya before a U.S. outpost in Benghazi was attacked.
There’s no reason Obama should have known about Fast and Furious or diplomatic security requests. But how could he not know his spies were bugging the German chancellor?
“Is it believable that the president would not know about surveillance of the head of state of a close American ally?” ABC News’s Jon Karl asked Carney. “Does that sound plausible to you?”
This finally provoked a hint from Carney that Obama did, in fact, know that the NSA was bugging Merkel. “The Wall Street Journal probably doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that their story is wrong,” he said, referring to a report that said Obama learned of the activity in the summer, “but I would say simply that we’re not going to comment on specific activities reported in the press,” he said.
The foreign leaders are dropping like flies — to American surveillance. I’m talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called “a lucrative source”) and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader. Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders. Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA. Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread. With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an “exhaustive” review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.
In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading. I’m talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a “kill list” of terrorist suspects and using the president’s private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality. In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of “civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.” In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute “war crimes” for which those responsible should stand trial. (“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”)
And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns. It’s already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications — however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States — still rule the day. (“U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”) After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, “The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation.” A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates “40 to 60 new enemies of America.” Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater “transparency” from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.
Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease. In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called “rogue states.” Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world. No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower — from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan. His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.
Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it’s an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill’s publisher, Nation Books. Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom Engelhardt
How does the Global War on Terror ever end?
By Jeremy Scahill
[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]
On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. — President Obama, August 9, 2013.
A report in the German newspaper Bild cites NSA sources claiming that in 2010, Gen. Keith Alexander briefed President Obama on the targeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone.
The NSA has responded with a statement saying:
[General] Alexander did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel.
That sounds very much like a non-denial denial.
Given that as it was widely reported in the English-language press that Obama had been “briefed” on the surveillance, an unambiguous denial from the NSA would have simply said that Obama had not been briefed on this matter. He had not been briefed by Alexander or anyone else in the intelligence community.
A briefing involves nothing more than the exchange of information. Whether that exchange provokes discussion is another matter. Every U.S. president will be briefed on matters every single day during which he is a passive recipient of information.
That Obama presents the appearance of being a disengaged president, is well documented.
If Alexander presented Obama with a list of heads of state currently under U.S. surveillance — a list including Merkel’s name and/or position — and Obama scanned the list, noting who was being spied on and for how long, but this information provoked neither comments nor questions from the president, then he could certainly have been briefed while having no discussion.
Officials choose their words very carefully precisely because they are afraid of accused of lying. That they might at the same time be engaged in an effort to be deceptive is another matter, since in response to the suggestion that a statement might be misleading, they can always plead ignorance or regret or blame the press. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Sorry if there’s a misunderstanding. You misinterpreted my statement.
The charade of a press briefing won’t, however, alleviate the credibility issue that Obama now has with Merkel. In her eyes the U.S. president must now appear to be either a liar, incompetent, or both.
For Barack Obama, the turning point in the 2008 presidential election came as a gift, courtesy of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. While his opponent, Sen. John McCain, reacted to the crisis like a headless chicken, Obama emerged as the man who looked like a cool and competent economic manager — a better bet for steering the nation at a time of financial turmoil. But bear in mind that prior to the collapse on Wall Street, the Obama campaign was struggling to figure out how to respond to another awesome challenge… that posed by Sarah Palin.
So, we should never forget that to the extent that Obama entered office with an aura of competence, that was never more than competence defined by contrast with the scary prospect of a McCain-Palin administration.
In his book, The Amateur, Edward Klein writes:
While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard [in August 2010], Obama invited New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to play a round of golf at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Massachusetts. A self-made billionaire, Bloomberg had been touted as a possible replacement for Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury. Bloomberg flew to the island on his private jet, eager to give Obama advice on how to get the country moving again. Obama and Bloomberg were joined by Vernon Jordan, a Lazard Frères & Co. senior managing director and longtime Democratic Party wise man, and Marvin Nicholson, the White House trip director who keeps Obama organized and on schedule. When the round of golf was over, the president left immediately. Bloomberg looked nonplussed. He turned to his golfing colleagues and said, “I played four hours of golf with the president and he didn’t ask me a goddam thing.”
It’s worth noting that at that time, a White House spokesman made a point of noting that Obama’s round of golf had been preceded by a 15-minute discussion with Bloomberg on the economy. The intended image was of a president who goes on vacation but refuses to leave work behind.
Bloomberg’s own account, however, paints a picture of a man who not only gladly disengages from work but also from the people around him.
Given the unique challenges Obama faced from day one, it’s easy to see that sooner or later he might become over-burdened, but there are accounts of his lack of engagement right from the beginning.
[Gen. Stanley McChrystal who in early 2009 was Director of the Joint Staff] first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged.”
Four years later, Obama still created the sense that he was disengaged when faced with challenging issues.
Even as the debate about arming the rebels [in Syria] took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.
While many of Obama’s most ardent admirers have been overseas — their admiration largely being inspired by his character seeming to be the antithesis of George Bush’s — they do not include Angela Merkel.
Merkel’s connection to Obama wasn’t particularly good before the spying scandal. The chancellor is said to consider the president overrated — a politician who talks a lot but does little, and is unreliable to boot.
One example, from Berlin’s perspective, was the military operation in Libya almost three years ago, which Obama initially rejected. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced him to change his mind, he did so without consulting his allies. Berlin saw this as evidence of his fickleness and disregard for their concerns.
The chancellor also finds Washington’s regular advice on how to solve the euro crisis irritating. She would prefer not to receive instruction from the country that caused the collapse of the global financial system in the first place.
I haven’t evolved in my assessment of the actual [surveillance] programs. I consistently have said that when I came into office I evaluated them. — President Obama, August 2013.
The Wall Street Journal reports: The National Security Agency ended a program used to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a number of other world leaders after an internal Obama administration review started this summer revealed to the White House the existence of the operation, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that it tapped the phones of world leaders. European leaders have joined international outrage over revelations of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone and of NSA’s monitoring of telephone call data in France.
The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.
The account suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.
They added that the president was briefed on and approved of broader intelligence-collection “priorities,” but that those below him make decisions about specific intelligence targets.
The senior U.S. official said that the current practice has been for these types of surveillance decisions to be made at the agency level. “These decisions are made at NSA,” the official said. “The president doesn’t sign off on this stuff.” That protocol now is under review, the official added.
Der Spiegel reports: Among the politically decisive questions is whether the spying was authorized from the top: from the US president. If the data is accurate, the operation was authorized under former President George W. Bush and his NSA chief, Michael Hayden. But it would have had to be repeatedly approved, including after Obama took office and up to the present time. Is it conceivable that the NSA made the German chancellor a surveillance target without the president’s knowledge?
The White House and the US intelligence agencies periodically put together a list of priorities. Listed by country and theme, the result is a matrix of global surveillance: What are the intelligence targets in various countries? How important is this reconnaissance? The list is called the “National Intelligence Priorities Framework” and is “presidentially approved.”
One category in this list is “Leadership Intentions,” the goals and objectives of a country’s political leadership. The intentions of China’s leadership are of high interest to the US government. They are marked with a “1″ on a scale of 1 to 5. Mexico and Brazil each receive a “3″ in this category.
Germany appears on this list as well. The US intelligence agencies are mainly interested in the country’s economic stability and foreign policy objectives (both “3″), as well as in its advanced weapons systems and a few other sub-items, all of which are marked “4.” The “Leadership Intention” field is empty. So based on the list, it wouldn’t appear that Merkel should be monitored.
Former NSA employee Thomas Drake does not see this as a contradiction. “After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Germany became intelligence target number one in Europe,” he says. The US government did not trust Germany, because some of the Sept. 11 suicide pilots had lived in Hamburg. Evidence suggests that the NSA recorded Merkel once and then became intoxicated with success, says Drake. “It has always been the NSA’s motto to conduct as much surveillance as possible,” he adds.
BBC News reports: Mrs Merkel phoned the US president when she first heard of the spying allegations on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama apologised to the German chancellor and promised Mrs Merkel he knew nothing of the alleged phone monitoring and would have stopped it if he had, Der Spiegel reports.
But on Sunday Bild newspaper quoted US intelligence sources as saying NSA head Keith Alexander personally briefed the president about the covert operation targeting Mrs Merkel in 2010.
“Obama did not halt the operation but rather let it continue,” the newspaper quoted a senior NSA official as saying.
Her number was still on a surveillance list in 2013.
Bild is a tabloid that does not have a reputation for journalistic excellence. Even so, if a conflict between the NSA and the White House is escalating, then an NSA source might turn to this type of publication as a way of making a veiled threat. The report has the effect of sowing doubt about Obama’s statements even if NSA officials now make dismissive responses, pointing out the unreliability of the press.
Obama has a dilemma. On the one hand it is becoming increasingly evident that he will need to steer some kind of reform in the NSA’s operations. But at the same time he doesn’t want to foster the appearance of the agency having become a rogue operation since that would also make him look like a negligent, ineffectual president. Neither does he want to get into an open fight since by their nature, intelligence agencies are dirty fighters. He can be reasonably confident that none of his communications are being monitored by any foreign intelligence agencies, yet why should he assume the NSA would never spy on an American president?
In a speech NSA chief Keith Alexander gave this summer, as he referred to when Obama “first came on board,” either unconsciously or intentionally, the four-star general seemed to be alluding to the transience of elected officials. The president, his cabinet, and members of Congress, sustain the facade of democracy, but the captains of the state like Alexander generally move around in the background, loyal to the president and the Constitution as they like to declare, yet harboring the conceit that they are America’s most stalwart defenders.