Climate change poses risk to U.S. military bases, says Obama

Reuters: Rising seas, thawing permafrost and longer wildfires caused by warmer global temperatures threaten US military bases and will change the way the US armed services defend the country, President Obama is set to say on Wednesday.

In his commencement address at the United States Coast Guard academy in New London, Connecticut, the White House said Obama will underscore the risks to national security posed by climate change, one of his top priorities for action in his remaining 19 months in office.

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One-woman play explores the frightening future of the drone wars

Fred Kaplan writes: A new one-woman play, Grounded, by George Brant — now at New York’s Public Theater in a dazzling production directed by Julie Taymor — captures some of the weird dissonance of a drone pilot’s life. The Odyssey “would be a different book,” she muses at one point, “if Odysseus came home every day, every single day.”

The pilot (played by a convincing, even riveting Anne Hathaway) was once a real pilot, an F-16 fighter jock, psyched on “the speed … the ride … the respect … the danger” of hurling through the sky (“You are the blue”), raining missiles down on the desert, breaking minarets into particles of sand. Now she drives to war, “like it’s shift work,” and stares at a gray screen, watches the “silent gray boom” after she pushes a button, and hovers over the scene long after, watching the body parts fly, then the mourning and anguish of those who retrieve them — sights that she had never stayed around to witness before. She begins to see gray everywhere, melding her life that’s not quite a life with her combat that’s not quite combat, imagining the Nevada desert of her daily drive as the Iraqi desert of her daily surveillance, blurring a jihadi’s daughter that she’s killed with her own daughter, and gradually she goes haywire.

Brant’s play is reminiscent of, and must have been to some degree inspired by, Matthew Power’s 2013 article in GQ, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior,” in which his subject, Airman 1st Class Brandon Bryant, recounts the “zombie mode” and “fugue state” of his shifts in the joystick trailer, watching and killing from so near, yet so far: the dissonance of the godlike power and the gray silence. [Continue reading…]

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Predator drone strikes: A cure worse than the disease

Bruce Fein writes: Something is rotten in President Barack Obama’s classified, programmatic use of predator drones to target suspected international terrorists for death anywhere on the planet.

The targeting intelligence is suspect.

The program is secret, lawless, and unaccountable to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people.

The killings pivot on a principle that will haunt the United States in the future as predator drone capability spreads to China, Russia or otherwise.

And the program is compounding rather than diminishing the international terrorist threat against the United States by creating more revenge-motivated terrorists than are being killing; and, by serving as a calling card for international terrorist recruitment. That explains why high level military and intelligence officials in the Obama administration concede that 14 years after 9/11 the United States is more imperiled by international terrorism than ever before.

Depend upon it. If the predator drone program were suspended for six months on a trial basis, international terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia aimed at the United States would contract. The foundation would be laid for terminating the entire program and making the United States safer. [Continue reading…]

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How candidate of hope and change became president of kill lists, drone strikes, and immunity for torturers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.

“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”

Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama’s man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency. [Continue reading…]

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Obama secretly allowed looser rules for drone strikes in Pakistan

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama tightened rules for the U.S. drone program in 2013, but he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The rules were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.—but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan.

Last week, the U.S. officials disclosed that two Western hostages, U.S. and Italian aid workers Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were killed on Jan. 15 by a U.S. drone strike aimed at al Qaeda militants in Pakistan. If the exemption had not been in place for Pakistan, the CIA might have been required to gather more intelligence before that strike.

And though support for the drone program remains strong across the U.S. government, the killings have renewed a debate within the administration over whether the CIA should now be reined in or meet the tighter standards that apply to drone programs outside of Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers read Obama’s unclassified emails, officials say

The New York Times reports: Some of President Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.

The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr. Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.

But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr. Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the president had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Deep support in Washington for CIA’s drone missions

The New York Times reports: About once a month, staff members of the congressional intelligence committees drive across the Potomac River to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., and watch videos of people being blown up.

As part of the macabre ritual the staff members look at the footage of drone strikes in Pakistan and other countries and a sampling of the intelligence buttressing each strike, but not the internal C.I.A. cables discussing the attacks and their aftermath. The screenings have provided a veneer of congressional oversight and have led lawmakers to claim that the targeted killing program is subject to rigorous review, to defend it vigorously in public and to authorize its sizable budget each year.

That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the C.I.A.’s killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly despite President Obama’s announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian. The program is under fire like never before, but the White House continues to champion it, and C.I.A. officers who built the program more than a decade ago — some of whom also led the C.I.A. detention program that used torture in secret prisons — have ascended to the agency’s powerful senior ranks. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Obama’s drone panopticon: A secret machine with no accountability

The Guardian reports: Of all the reactions to the deaths of two hostages from a missile fired from a US drone, Congressman Adam Schiff provided the deepest insight into the logic underpinning the endless, secret US campaign of global killing.

“To demand a higher standard of proof than they had here could be the end of these types of counter-terrorism operations,” said Schiff, a California Democrat and one of the most senior legislators overseeing those operations.

The standard of proof in the January strike in tribal Pakistan was outlined by the White House press secretary in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s admission about the deaths. An agency that went formally unnamed – likely the CIA, though the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) also conducts drone strikes – identified what Josh Earnest called an “al-Qaida compound” and marked the building, rather than particular terrorists, for destruction.

Thanks to Obama’s rare admission on Thursday, the realities of what are commonly known as “signature strikes” are belatedly and partially on display. Signature strikes, a key aspect for years of what the administration likes to call its “targeted killing” program, permit the CIA and JSOC to kill without requiring them to know who they kill. [Continue reading…]

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Warren Weinstein and the long drone war

Steve Coll writes: Warren Weinstein was the forgotten man of the war against Al Qaeda. He was an Urdu-speaking aid worker on contract with U.S.A.I.D., a man past retirement age, who was kidnapped from his home, in Lahore, in the summer of 2011, days before he was supposed to return to the States. The kidnapping occurred three months after Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. Yet, despite efforts that the Obama Administration described on Thursday as extensive, no SEALs ever located or attempted to rescue Weinstein, who was seventy-three years old when he died.

Nor did the White House negotiate his release. Last May, after long talks with the Taliban, U.S. Special Forces flew into Waziristan to accept custody of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier who had wandered off his base, on the Afghan border with Pakistan, and been captured by fighters with the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. In exchange for Bergdahl’s release, the Obama Administration released four Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo. Weinstein did not figure into the deal and was left behind. Judging by the videos that his captors released, he was ill and deeply demoralized.

Of course, Al Qaeda, not the Obama Administration, is responsible for Weinstein’s miserable fate. Still, the fact that Weinstein’s own government accidentally killed him — during his fourth year in captivity, and without a rescue ever being attempted — is a disturbing coda to the short history of drone warfare. It reminds us that the problem with drones is not just that their operators sometimes make mistakes. It is that the heavy reliance — in time, dollars, and bureaucratic priorities — on a technological panacea for the problem of terrorism can cause a government to lose sight of the people on the ground.

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Giovanni Lo Porto was known as aid worker drawn to needy

The New York Times reports: When Giovanni Lo Porto was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in January 2012, the nongovernmental organization he worked for was inundated with emails from around the world expressing concern and care.

“It was amazing how many emails we got saying, ‘We hope he’s well,’ ” said Simone Pott, a spokeswoman for the organization, Welthungerhilfe, one of Germany’s biggest agencies specializing in emergency and long-term aid. She remembered him as a “great colleague,” and “vibrant, full of life.”

His kidnapping prompted a huge response, she said. “He had friends all over the world.”

As those friends and colleagues learned Thursday that Mr. Lo Porto, 37, along with an American hostage, had been killed in a United States counterterrorism operation in Pakistan three months earlier, they recalled a driven and experienced aid worker who was drawn to those in need. Italian opposition parties used news of his death to criticize the country’s leadership and its involvement in the Middle East, and some of his supporters questioned whether enough had been done to secure his freedom. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s drone war has the precision of guesswork

The New York Times reports: Barack Obama inherited two ugly, intractable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he became president and set to work to end them. But a third, more covert war he made his own, escalating drone strikes in Pakistan and expanding them to Yemen and Somalia.

The drone’s vaunted capability for pinpoint killing appealed to a president intrigued by a new technology and determined to try to keep the United States out of new quagmires. Aides said Mr. Obama liked the idea of picking off dangerous terrorists a few at a time, without endangering American lives or risking the yearslong bloodshed of conventional war.

“Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us,” he often told aides.

By most accounts, hundreds of dangerous militants have, indeed, been killed by drones, including some high-ranking Qaeda figures. But for six years, when the heavy cloak of secrecy has occasionally been breached, the results of some strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess. [Continue reading…]

Micah Zenko notes: Based upon the averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 U.S. targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 9/11, which have killed 3,852 people, 476 (or 12 percent) of whom were civilians.

However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced. Moreover, even within traditional battlefields like Afghanistan or Iraq, the U.S. government refuses to provide information about harm caused to civilians. Last year in Afghanistan alone, the United Nations documented 104 civilian deaths “from aerial operations by international military forces.” There were no statements from the relevant military commanders or White House about any of these victims.

Earlier this month, during a question-and-answer session at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, CIA director John Brennan pledged:

“We, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, are very, very careful about taking action that’s going to have collateral civilian impact. A lot of these stories that you hear about — in terms of ‘Oh my god, there are hundreds of civilians killed,’ whatever — a lot of that is propaganda that is put out by those elements that are very much opposed to the U.S. coming in and helping.”

“Propaganda.” That’s how U.S. officials deride research that challenges their assertions.

Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of civilians killed by U.S. counterterrorism operations, despite the very real precautions that the CIA and military undertake to prevent them. This is why, as I have written often previously, the United States has an obligation to those American and non-American civilians killed by drones to commission a study into U.S. targeted killing policies similar to the extensive one conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Without a full and complete accounting of this lethal tactic that has come to define U.S. foreign policy throughout the world, we will always be forced to rely upon the selective pledges provided by U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Waziristan: The world’s drone-strike capital

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Drone strikes killing hostages were aimed at unknown targets

The Guardian reports: The targets of the deadly drone strikes that killed two hostages and two suspected American members of al-Qaida were “al-Qaida compounds” rather than specific terrorist suspects, the White House disclosed on Thursday.

The lack of specificity suggests that despite a much-publicized 2013 policy change by Barack Obama restricting drone killings by, among other things, requiring “near certainty that the terrorist target is present”, the US continues to launch lethal operations without the necessity of knowing who specifically it seeks to kill, a practice that has come to be known as a “signature strike”.

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, acknowledged that the January deaths of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto might prompt the tightening of targeting standards ahead of lethal drone and other counter-terrorism strikes. A White House review is under way. [Continue reading…]

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Mohamed Soltan — an American citizen abandoned by President Obama

In an open letter to President Obama on his 26th birthday, November 16, 2013, Mohamed Soltan wrote from a cell in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison:

Dear President Obama,

Last week, I underwent a procedure to remove two 13” metal nails that were placed in my left arm to help support and repair the damage sustained from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care.

Mohamed-SoltanAfter the nails penetrated the skin at my elbow from below, and ripped through my shoulder muscle from above. The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point. I was finally given two aspirin pills almost an hour later when the guards found my cellmates screams for help unbearable.

I share these details here because my mind drifted to 2007 as I stared at the ceiling of my cramped cell after surgery. During your first presidential campaign, I was moved by your message. I was so passionate about everything you represented. Finally, “change we can believe in.” I saw you, as many Americans did then, a true civil servant looking to put the disadvantaged first, and to pioneer a new model of governance. I felt I was part of the making of a great chapter in my country’s history. You were someone I wanted to stand behind, someone I wanted to support, so I volunteered and worked for your campaign in Ohio, a crucial swing state. As an O.S.U. student, I went door-to-door, made phone call after phone call, urged people to join the movement that would revolutionize American politics. It was time to go back to a government “for the people, of the people.”

Now as I sit in this crowded cell, I can’t help but ask myself, was I naïve to think you were a departure from the norm? As domestic and foreign policies I disagreed with passed during your terms, I chalked it up to the negative consequence of bipartisanship, but now after months of being held without cause in Egypt’s infamous prisons and so little [regard for] my Americanness, let alone humanity, shown, I am beginning to think I was just another silly, idealistic college kid who believed the world can look a whole lot different, with a leader such as yourself at the head of it.

Your abandonment of me, an American citizen who worked tirelessly towards your election, and a staunch supporter and defender of your presidency, has left a sting in me that is almost as intense as the sharp pain emanating from my recently sliced arm.

Last weekend Soltan was sentenced to life imprisonment:

An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, to life imprisonment for supporting an Islamist protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013.

The presiding judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, sentenced more than 35 other defendants in the case to the same penalty and also confirmed death sentences in the same case for about a dozen defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s top spiritual guide, Mohamed Badie, 71, as well as Mr. Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan.

Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, was also sentenced to life in prison. Members of the Soltan family have said they will appeal the decision, and other defendants are expected to appeal as well.

The verdict is the latest in a long series of similarly harsh sentences handed down at mass trials of dozens or hundreds of defendants accused of participating in violent protests or riots in the aftermath of the military takeover, often based on only police testimony or cursory evidence. Thousands more remain imprisoned without convictions. The sweeping penalties have drawn outraged denunciations from rights groups and milder rebukes from Western diplomats.

But the case of the younger Mr. Soltan, 27, is exceptional because he is an American citizen.

The verdict comes just days after President Obama released hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Egypt that had previously been suspended in response to the military takeover and subsequent repression.

The White House released a brief statement:

The United States condemns the life sentence issued today in Egypt against American citizen Mohamed Soltan. We call for Mr. Soltan’s immediate release from prison. We remain deeply concerned about Mr. Soltan’s health, which has suffered during his 20 month-long incarceration. The President is deeply committed to the welfare of all U.S. citizens abroad and we will ensure that Mr. Soltan continues to receive consular support until he can return safely to the United States, per his wishes.

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Gregoire Chamayou: Hunting humans by remote control

Drones seemed to come out of nowhere, sexy as the latest iPhones and armed to kill. They were all-seeing eyes in the sky (“a constant stare,” as drone promoters liked to say) and surgically precise in their ability to deliver death to evildoers. Above all, without pilots in their cockpits, they were, in terms of the human price of war (at least when it came to the lives that mattered to us), cost free. They transformed battle into a video-game experience, leaving the “warriors” — from pilots to generals — staring at screens. What could possibly go wrong?

As it happened, so much went wrong. It often proved hard for the drone operators to tell what exactly they were seeing on those video feeds of theirs and mistakes were regularly made. In addition, drones turned out to kill with a remarkable lack of discrimination, while putting whole rural populations that fell under Washington’s robotic gaze into a state of what, if they had been American soldiers, we would have called PTSD. Worse yet, as recent events in Yemen indicate, drones proved remarkably effective weapons not in staunching terror outfits but in spreading terror, and so became powerful recruitment tools for extremist groups.  In rural societies repeatedly attacked by the grimly named Predators and Reapers, the urge for revenge was apparent.

Drones were, that is, terror instigators.  Everywhere they were sent by the last two administrations to pursue campaigns of “targeted killing” (i.e. assassination) and “signature strikes” (on suspicious patterns of “behavior” on the ground below, as judged by video from thousands of miles away), extremist groups have grown, societies have fragmented, and things have, from Washington’s point of view, gotten worse. In the process, they turned the White House with its secret “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings into a den of assassins, the CIA into assassination central, and the president into an assassin-in-chief. The drones even took an unexpected toll on their pilots waging a theoretically cost-free war.

From the point of view of drone proponents, one curious thing did go right, however — not in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen or Somalia, but here at home. Even though Americans in multiplexes had for years sided with human rebels against the inhuman gaze of robots on the prowl, they now backed the robots, as opinion polls showed, in part because their reputation here remained remarkably untarnished by their dismal and destructive track record in the distant backlands of the planet.

Now, another kind of “gaze,” another form of “constant stare,” has fallen on the drone and it comes from the least robotic of places.  In his new book, A Theory of the Drone, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou has taken a fresh look at the radically new form of warfare wreaking havoc on fundamental human categories, whether of war, legality, or sovereignty. It’s a fascinating effort to deal with a weapons and surveillance system that turns out not to have arrived out of the blue at all. Today, TomDispatch offers a taste of Chamayou’s original approach, presenting two early chapters from his book on how the drone entered our world and transformed the classic “duel” between warriors into a “hunt” in which an all-seeing, lidless eye-in-the-sky searches out distant humans below as its “prey.” In the meantime, the warriors of the past are, as Chamayou writes, morphing into the executioners of the twenty-first century. It couldn’t be a grimmer tale of post-modernity. Tom Engelhardt

Manhunters, Inc.
How the Predator and extra-judicial execution became Washington’s calling cards
By Grégoire Chamayou

[The following is slightly adapted from chapters two and three of Grégoire Chamayou’s new book, A Theory of the Drone, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

Initially, the English word “drone” meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression “target drones” to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.

[Read more…]

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The Obama Doctrine and Iran

Tom Friedman writes: President Obama invited me to the Oval Office Saturday afternoon to lay out exactly how he was trying to balance these risks and opportunities in the framework accord reached with Iran last week in Switzerland. What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.

“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naïve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place. … We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”

Obviously, Israel is in a different situation, he added. “Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security. But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table.”

He added: “What I would say to the Israeli people is … that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable.” [Continue reading…]

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How Barack Obama has undermined freedom of the press

Joel Simon writes: President Obama took office in 2009 promising to make his administration the most transparent in American history. New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger, for one, says he’s failed.

“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said Sanger in a 2013 CPJ report, “The Obama Administration and the Press.” The report’s author, former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr., declared, “The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration.” As journalists often note, the Obama administration has prosecuted more leakers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined.

With less than two years remaining in his administration, there are still actions the president can take to strengthen transparency at home and increase US influence abroad, particularly advocacy on behalf of journalists facing persecution and violence as a result of their reporting.

According to the CPJ report, the Obama administration’s policies have undermined the role of the press in three fundamental ways. [Continue reading…]

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As F-16s trump democracy for Egypt, Sisi becomes the latest Middle East leader to outmaneuver Obama

Joyce Karam writes: The “free and fair elections” and the “inclusive government” that the Obama administration once called for in Egypt is now part of a long wishful list for the 44th U.S. President in the Middle East. The “rule of law” and the “transition to democracy” did not transpire in Cairo, prompting Washington to reverse its punitive path and resume the military aid to Egypt, being withheld since 2013.

Obama’s reversal this week of his own decision concludes this administration’s failed experiment in Egypt. The Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi joins the club of many Middle East leaders who outmaneuvered Obama and forced a change in U.S. calculus instead of the changing theirs. Sisi did so through a strategy that challenged Obama regionally and on his own turf in Washington, while clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and executing a new power grab.

The full resumption of military aid to Egypt, and this time with no strings attached is an admission that the policy of the last two years fell flat. The U.S. administration is practically meeting all Sisi’s demands without Egypt’s strongman giving an inch, not even promising parliamentary elections or the release of political prisoners. [Continue reading…]

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