Germany is the tell-tale heart of America’s drone war

Jeremy Scahill reports: A top-secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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Congress to introduce last-ditch bill to reform NSA spying

National Journal reports: Backed up against a rapidly approaching do-or-die deadline, bipartisan lawmakers are poised to introduce legislation next week that would roll back the National Security Agency’s expansive surveillance powers.

The legislation could land as soon as Tuesday in the House, congressional aides and privacy advocates said, who would only speak on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

The bill, known as the USA Freedom Act, would effectively end the NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. phone metadata — the numbers, time stamps, and duration of a call but not its actual content — by instead relying on phone companies to retain that data. The program is the first and one of the most controversial spying programs exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks that began nearly two years ago.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Rep. John Conyers, the panel’s top Democrat, are expected to back the bill, as is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the author of the original Freedom Act that first emerged in the fall of 2013, and Rep. Jerry Nadler. All four have been intensely involved in negotiations since the measure fell apart in Congress late last year.

But as the House barrels ahead, it remains unclear what strategy the bill’s advocates in the Senate, led chiefly by Sen. Patrick Leahy, intend to deploy. That question is complicated by the implications a fractious national security debate could have for the Republican caucus, whose three presidential aspirants — Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio — have adopted increasingly divergent positions on NSA surveillance. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon: Ramadi isn’t about to fall to ISIS, but if it does, it’s not a big deal (unless you live in Ramadi)

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. defense officials said a provincial capital in Iraq could soon fall to Islamic State, while America’s top military officer sought to minimize the strategic importance of the city.

At a Pentagon news conference, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that maintaining control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, isn’t central to the U.S. and Iraqi aims of defeating Islamic State forces.

“The city itself is not symbolic in any way,” Gen. Dempsey said. “It’s not been declared part of the caliphate on one hand, or central to the future of Iraq.”

Earlier this week, Pentagon officials minimized the possibility that Ramadi was going to fall. But U.S. officials have monitored large numbers of civilians fleeing from the city, a sign that residents fear an imminent takeover.

Islamic State fighters have taken over a number of villages surrounding Ramadi, destroyed bridges and other infrastructure and reversed recent gains by Iraqi Security forces, defense officials said Thursday.

The U.S. has been stepping up strikes around Ramadi, but those have been insufficient to blunt the advance of Islamic State fighters.

Officials compared the city with Kobani, a Syrian city that was on the brink of being taken over before Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. airstrikes, retook it. [Continue reading…]

Which is to say, Ramadi is like Kobane, minus the Kurdish fighters.

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Nuclear deal may open door to detente with Iran

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes: Powerful factions in the leadership remain deeply suspicious of the West and even of this agreement, believing that the international community is only interested in regime change, and that only through geopolitical adventurism and the projection of power can the regime be sustained. Failure of the negotiating process will only reinforce their hand.

Iranian reformists, on the other hand, support a nuclear deal because it would be a first step in the evolution they would like to see. But its successful enactment would just be the opening salvo in a struggle between these two visions of Iran. Much will depend on President Rouhani’s ability to continue satisfying the electorate’s demand for change. The next showdown will come when a group of elders charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader get elected next winter. The third showdown comes with Parliamentary balloting in the spring of 2016, with the final showdown being the Presidential election in 2017.

Which of these two visions wins out will become clear over the next several years and will have tremendous repercussions for the future of the Middle East. It might also have tremendous repercussions for American foreign policy, pushing open a door which has remained closed for more than 35 years. Exposure to the Iranian people, and their exposure to us, may yield new opportunities to discourage Iranian support for terrorist groups and other abusive regimes where they exercise influence. It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide. [Continue reading…]

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The United States and Palestine

Rashid Khalidi writes: As with many other unresolved issues in the modern Middle East, it was Great Britain rather than the United States that initially created the problem of Palestine. But in Palestine, as elsewhere, it has been the lot of the United States, Britain’s successor as undisputed hegemon over the region, to contend with the complications engendered by British policy. And as elsewhere in the Middle East, in the end the United States significantly exacerbated the conflict over Palestine that it inherited from Britain. The outlines of the problem can be simply stated: with the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, Great Britain threw the weight of the greatest power of the age, one which was at that moment in the process of conquering Palestine, behind the creation of a Jewish state in what was then an overwhelmingly Arab country, against the wishes of its inhabitants. Everything that has followed until this day in that conflict-riven land has flowed inevitably from this basic decision.

Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to support Zionism publicly, and his backing was crucial to the awarding of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine to Britain. This in turn led to the inclusion of the text of the Balfour Declaration in the terms of the Mandate, committing the entire international community of that era to the establishment of a “Jewish national home.” Wilson extended the United States’ support to Zionism in spite of the results of the American King-Crane Commission, which discovered the majority Arab population of Palestine to be overwhelmingly opposed to the establishment of a Jewish national home — which they rightly feared would inexorably develop into an exclusively Jewish state in their homeland and at their expense.

Although the United States withdrew from active involvement in the League of Nations and from many other aspects of international politics soon afterwards, the impact on Palestine of these key post-World War I decisions in which the United States played a crucial role was to be lasting. Under the protection of the British Mandate, and with its invaluable support, and with financing which largely came from contributions raised from American donors, by 1939 the Zionist movement had created the nucleus of a viable, independent Jewish state. This American financing, from private and later governmental sources in the form of economic and military assistance, has been crucial to the success of the Zionist project and the state of Israel from the very beginnings and until the present day. [Continue reading…]

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How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

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Congress can’t stop Iran sanctions unraveling

Barbara Slavin writes: For months now, Russia has been a constructive member of the international consortium negotiating with Iran, often proposing creative fixes to technical hurdles.

But this week, just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up sensitive Iran-related legislation, Russia announced that it was going forward with an old contract to sell Iran an air defense missile system that could make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.

The deal to supply the S-300 is not illegal under UN sanctions, which prohibit selling offensive heavy weaponry to Iran. The message the Kremlin is sending is that Russia is not willing to wait for the conclusion of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to lock in the benefits of resumed trade with the Islamic Republic.

It is unfortunate that the government of Vladimir Putin didn’t wait a few months longer. Critics of the Iran deal have been quick to pounce on the announcement as proof that the Barack Obama administration was somehow duped by Moscow and that the Iran framework so laboriously negotiated over the past 13 months is a “sucker’s deal.”

A more insightful way to read Russia’s act is to see it as a recognition of reality that the elaborate web of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran over the past five years is unraveling and only an egregious Iranian effort to break out and build a nuclear weapon could arrest that momentum. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’ attack on Ramadi just upended U.S. war plans

Nancy A. Youssef reports: ISIS is reportedly marching on key Iraqi city of Ramadi—upending the momentum that the U.S.-led military coalition seemed to have just days ago, and threatening to shatter an already delicate recent power shift that both the U.S. and Iraq hoped to exploit.

Until Wednesday’s reports about Ramadi both U.S. and Iraqi officials were examining what effects ISIS’ recent losses could have in future battles. The officials were even talking about where they would take down ISIS next. During his visit to Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi suggested in an interview Wednesday with reporters that his troops could move on both Anbar province—where Ramadi in the local capital—and the oil-rich city of Baiji.

But that was before, according to residents, three cities near Ramadi fell into ISIS hands. Hours later, area security forces reportedly asked for more support from the central government to retain control of the city. Pentagon officials stopped short of saying the city was on the brink of falling. But they didn’t sound confident it would hold, either. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian president: We are in talks with ‘the major powers,’ not the U.S. Congress

The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Tehran was negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers, not the U.S. Congress, and called a Senate committee’s vote to give Congress the power to review any potential deal a domestic U.S. matter.

The Iranian leader, speaking in a televised speech in the northern Iranian city of Rasht, also repeated earlier statements that his country will not accept any comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers unless all sanctions imposed against it are lifted.

“We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” Rouhani said, Iranian state television reported. Rouhani said the U.S. Congress’ power to review a nuclear deal with Iran was a domestic U.S. matter, the Reuters news agency reported.

He said Iran wanted to end its isolation from the world by constructing “constructive interaction with the world and not confrontation.”

Rouhani’s comments came one day after a Senate committee voted unanimously to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon: ISIS pushed out of 25% of its territory

USA Today: Iraqi forces have pushed the Islamic State out of about 25% of the territory seized during the militants’ lightning advance last year, according to a Pentagon assessment released Monday.

The area represents 5,000 to 6,500 square miles in northern and central Iraq, the assessment said.

The United States has been backing Iraqi forces with daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

“ISIL is no longer the dominant force in roughly 25 to 30% of the populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once had complete freedom of movement,” the Pentagon said.

The assessment comes as President Obama is to meet Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for his first White House visit as prime minister. Al-Abadi has said Iraq needs more international assistance in his country’s fight against Islamic State militants.

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Nick Turse: The U.S. military’s battlefield of tomorrow

Years ago, Chalmers Johnson took a term of CIA tradecraft, “blowback,” and put it into our language.  Originally, it was meant to describe CIA operations so secret that, when they blew back on this country, Americans would be incapable of tracing the connection or grasping that the U.S. had anything to do with what hit us.  The word now stands in more broadly for any American act or policy that rebounds on us.  There is, however, another phenomenon with, as yet, no name that deserves some attention.  I’ve come to think of it as “blowforward.”

In a way, this is what Nick Turse has been documenting for the last two years at TomDispatch as he’s covered the way the U.S. military and its Africa Command (AFRICOM) “pivoted” onto that continent big time.  As in his latest piece, he — and he alone — has continued to report in graphic detail on a level of operational hubris and pure blockheadedness that might be considered unparalleled in our era — if, that is, we didn’t have the disastrous story of post-9/11 U.S. military operations throughout the Greater Middle East eternally before us.  In Africa, as he reminds us today, when the U.S. military first started moving onto the continent in a significant way, there were almost no Islamic terror organizations outside of Somalia.  Now, with AFRICOM fully invested and operational across the continent, count ‘em.

This is no less true of the relationship between American invasions, occupations, wars, raids, interventions, and drone assassination campaigns, and the growth of terror outfits (and the fragmentation of states) in the Middle East.  That someone should draw a lesson or two from all this and not do essentially the same things over and over again may seem reasonable enough on the face of it, but evidently not in Washington.  The question is: Why?  Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon I’ve started calling blowforward.

Before the disaster of 9/11, America’s intelligence agencies managed to gather much information on and yet see little of what was coming.  The result of their blindness was, of course, the unparalleled growth of those same agencies and the national security state. Moreover, those in key positions who might have been held responsible for missing 9/11 paid no price at all.  Instead, they were generally promoted and honored in the years that followed.  Ever since, every new terror group or hideous video or newly proclaimed caliphate that surfed in on a wave of American wars and interventions has blown forward on that security state, spurring phenomenal growth, enhancing its prestige, making countless careers, and offering new kinds of power. In short, what might otherwise be seen as failed policies actually strengthened the hand of a shadow government in Washington that had an endless set of get-out-of-jail-free cards at its disposal.

In other words, each disastrous American move that bred yet more of the insecurity the national security state is supposed to prevent has proved anything but a disaster for the movers.  Each has translated into more funds, more power, more independence, more prestige, and greater reach.  As Turse writes today of AFRICOM’s growth, bad news from the African front after the U.S. military moved onto the continent in a big way only led to a further “swelling of bases, personnel, and funding” — and, of course, no blowback at all when it comes to the officials directing all of this. For them, as Turse’s reporting makes clear, it’s a blowforward world all the way. Tom Engelhardt

2044 or bust
Military missions reach record levels after U.S. inks deal to remain in Africa for decades
By Nick Turse

For three days, wearing a kaleidoscope of camouflage patterns, they huddled together on a military base in Florida. They came from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and U.S. Army Special Operations Command, from France and Norway, from Denmark, Germany, and Canada: 13 nations in all. They came to plan a years-long “Special Operations-centric” military campaign supported by conventional forces, a multinational undertaking that — if carried out — might cost hundreds of millions, maybe billions, of dollars and who knows how many lives.

[Read more…]

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Four Blackwater guards sentenced in Iraq shootings of 31 unarmed civilians

The Washington Post: A federal judge Monday sentenced a former Blackwater Worldwide security guard to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for killing 14 unarmed civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007, an incident that fomented deep resentments about the accountability of American security forces during one of the bloodiest periods of the Iraq war.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District rejected a claim of innocence by Nicholas A. Slatten, 31, of Sparta, Tenn., who received the life sentence after being convicted of murder in October for firing what prosecutors said were the first shots in the civilian massacre.

The three others — Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex.; Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H.; and Dustin L. Heard, 33, of Maryville, Tenn. — were sentenced to 30 years plus one day after being convicted of multiple counts of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

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U.S. expands intelligence sharing with Saudis in Yemen operation

Reuters reports: The United States is expanding its intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia to provide more information about potential targets in the kingdom’s air campaign against Houthi militias in Yemen, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The stepped-up assistance comes as two weeks of relentless air strikes by the Saudis and other Gulf Arab allies have largely failed to halt advances by the Iran-linked Houthi forces.

The U.S. officials said the expanded assistance includes sensitive intelligence data that will allow the Saudis to better review the kingdom’s targets in fighting that has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands since March.

“We have opened up the aperture a bit wider with what we are sharing with our Saudi partners,” said one U.S. official.

“We are helping them get a better sense of the battlefield and the state of play with the Houthi forces. We are also helping identify ‘no strike’ areas they should avoid” to minimize any civilian casualties, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Americans stuck in Yemen file suit against State, Defense departments

Al Jazeera reports: Hundreds of American citizens trapped in Yemen’s roiling violence have a legal right to be evacuated by the U.S. government, advocacy groups argued in a lawsuit filed Thursday that challenges the State and Defense Department’s perceived inaction on a constitutional basis.

In court documents that name Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Ashton Carter as defendants, U.S.-based lawyers acting on behalf of 41 American citizens or permanent U.S. residents stuck in Yemen described Washington’s decision not to provide any flights or ships out of the conflict zone as “arbitrary” and even illegal. The plaintiffs say they are in grave danger from the escalating violence but have received little more from the State Department than emails or calls about possible third-party flights out of the country and recommendations that they take shelter.

Abed Ayoub, national legal policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said his group and two others that formed the Stuck in Yemen legal action group decided to file a suit as a last-ditch effort to compel the U.S. to act. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military sidesteps red tape to coordinate with PKK

The Daily Beast reports: On the volatile front lines facing the so-called Islamic State outside the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, American military personnel have been coordinating with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to a local commander from the left-wing guerrilla group that is still on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Ageed Kalary commands a unit of about 30 PKK fighters positioned some 500 meters from the front. He claims that he has met with U.S. military personnel accompanying commanders from Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, whose soldiers are known as the Peshmerga, and which has strong, open American support. The last direct encounter, he said, was in December. But the coordination does not have to be face to face.

“The Americans tell us what they need and share information but there is no formal agreement,” he says about the U.S. military’s interaction with a group that earned its “terrorist” label for the tactics it employed in its 29-year armed struggle against Turkish rule. [Continue reading…]

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CIA director attacks critics of Iran deal as ‘wholly disingenuous’

Politico reports: CIA Director John Brennan reportedly says the preliminary framework around the nuclear deal with Iran does what had once seemed impossible, calling some critics of the agreement “wholly disingenuous” and expressing surprise at the Iranians’ concessions.

“I must tell you the individuals who say this deal provides a pathway for Iran to a bomb are being wholly disingenuous, in my view, if they know the facts, understand what’s required for a program,” Brennan told an audience at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday night in his first comments since the outline was announced last week in Lausanne, Switzerland, according to Agence France-Presse.

Brennan said that while critics worry that lifting sanctions on Iran will “cause more trouble throughout the area,” the framework is “as solid as you can get” when it comes to blunting the Islamic Republic’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Expedited weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia signal deepening U.S. involvement in Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United States said on Tuesday that it was expediting deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a sign of the Obama administration’s deepening involvement in the Saudi military offensive against the Houthi movement in Yemen.

Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Antony J. Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, said the United States had also increased its intelligence sharing and established a “joint coordination planning cell” with the Saudi government to help its war effort, according to the Reuters news agency.

The show of support by the United States came two weeks after the Saudi military launched an air war against the Houthis, members of a rebel movement from northern Yemen that has seized territory and steadily expanded its influence in the country in the past eight months.

The Saudis said they were aiming to restore stability to Yemen by crippling the Houthis and returning President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by the Americans and the Saudis, to power. On Tuesday, Mr. Blinken praised the Saudis for “sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force,” according to Reuters.

The Houthis have defended their military actions, including the capture of the capital, Sana, in September, as part of an effort to overturn a corrupt political order in Yemen. The Houthis, who are allied with forces loyal to Yemen’s former autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have seemed undeterred by the relentless Saudi bombing.

The fighting and the airstrikes have led to widespread civilian suffering in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country, and warnings by international relief agencies of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. [Continue reading…]

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