Noam Chomsky: America’s real foreign policy

It goes without saying that the honchos of the national security state weren’t exactly happy with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.  Still, over the last year, the comments of such figures, politicians associated with them, and retirees from their world clearly channeling their feelings have had a striking quality: over-the-top vituperation.  About the nicest thing anyone in that crew has had to say about Snowden is that he’s a “traitor” or — shades of the Cold War era (and of absurdity, since the State Department trapped him in the transit lounge of a Moscow airport by taking his passport away) — a “Russian spy.”  And that’s the mild stuff.  Such figures have also regularly called for his execution, for quite literally stringing him up from the old oak tree and letting him dangle in the breeze.  Theirs has been a bloodcurdling collective performance that gives the word “visceral” new meaning.

Such a response to the way Snowden released batches of NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman calls for explanation.  Here’s mine: the NSA’s goal in creating a global surveillance state was either utopian or dystopian (depending on your point of view), but in either case, breathtakingly totalistic.  Its top officials meant to sweep up every electronic or online way one human being can communicate with others, and to develop the capability to surveil and track every inhabitant of the planet.  From German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to peasants with cell phones in the backlands of Afghanistan (not to speak of American citizens anywhere), no one was to be off the hook.  Conceptually, there would be no exceptions.  And the remarkable thing is how close the agency came to achieving this.

Whether consciously or not, however, the officials of the U.S. Intelligence Community did imagine one giant exception: themselves.  No one outside the loop was supposed to know what they were doing.  They alone on the planet were supposed to be unheard, unspied upon, and unsurveilled.  The shock of Snowden’s revelations, I suspect, and the visceral reactions came, in part, from the discovery that such a system really did have no exceptions, not even them.  In releasing the blueprint of their world, Snowden endangered nothing in the normal sense of the term, but that made him no less of a traitor to their exceptional world as they imagined it.  What he ensured was that, as they surveil us, we can now in some sense track them.  His act, in other words, dumped them in with the hoi polloi — with us — which, under the circumstances, was the ultimate insult and they responded accordingly.

An allied explanation lurks in Noam Chomsky’s latest TomDispatch post.  If the “security” in national security means not the security of the American people but, as he suggests, of those who run the national security state, and if secrecy is the attribute of power, then Edward Snowden broke their code of secrecy and exposed power itself to the light in a devastating and deflating way.  No wonder the reaction to him was so bloodthirsty and vitriolic.  Chomsky himself has an unsettling way of exposing various worlds of power, especially American power, to the light with similarly deflating results.  He’s been doing it for half a century and only gets better. Tom Engelhardt

Whose security?
How Washington protects itself and the corporate sector
By Noam Chomsky

The question of how foreign policy is determined is a crucial one in world affairs.  In these comments, I can only provide a few hints as to how I think the subject can be productively explored, keeping to the United States for several reasons.  First, the U.S. is unmatched in its global significance and impact.  Second, it is an unusually open society, possibly uniquely so, which means we know more about it.  Finally, it is plainly the most important case for Americans, who are able to influence policy choices in the U.S. — and indeed for others, insofar as their actions can influence such choices.  The general principles, however, extend to the other major powers, and well beyond.

There is a “received standard version,” common to academic scholarship, government pronouncements, and public discourse.  It holds that the prime commitment of governments is to ensure security, and that the primary concern of the U.S. and its allies since 1945 was the Russian threat.

There are a number of ways to evaluate the doctrine.  One obvious question to ask is: What happened when the Russian threat disappeared in 1989?  Answer: everything continued much as before.

[Read more...]

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The hawks’ playbook for opposing an Obama nuclear deal with Iran

Foreign Policy reports: Though the United States has yet to secure a final deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, an influential pair of hawks in Washington have already devised a way for Congress to unravel any potential agreement after the ink is dry.

The plan, obtained by Foreign Policy, calls on Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation. Some of those topics haven’t been part of the ongoing U.S.-led talks with Tehran, which means that linking sanctions relief to those conditions after a deal is made would likely drive the Iranians off the wall, say experts. Tehran would likely see any such measures as moving the goalposts and as evidence that the United States wasn’t genuinely interested in backing up its end of the deal.

The two authors of the plan — Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk — each played pivotal roles in shaping the Iran sanctions debate in the past year. Rather than blowing up an historic agreement, they both insist the paper is simply a guide for how to keep sanctions in place that will deter and punish Iran if it doesn’t comply with a final deal.

Whatever their motivations, the detailed strategy document is of keen interest to advocates on both sides of the Iran debate given the immense political clout its authors enjoy on Capitol Hill and the significant role Congress will have in approving, modifying, or rejecting a final deal.

“This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill,” said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case.” [Continue reading...]

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Sen. Wyden releases details of backdoor searches of Americans’ communications

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., released the following statement in response to a letter provided by the Office of Director of National Intelligence, which details the number of backdoor searches performed by U.S. intelligence agencies. As this response makes clear, intelligence agencies are searching through communications collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – an authority that Congress intended to be used to target foreigners – and are deliberately conducting warrantless searches for the communications of individual Americans.

“The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has now responded to my longstanding question regarding warrantless searches for Americans’ emails and other communications, and I appreciate the candid and straightforward nature of their reply.

When the FBI says it conducts a substantial number of searches and it has no idea of what the number is, it shows how flawed this system is and the consequences of inadequate oversight. This huge gap in oversight is a problem now, and will only grow as global communications systems become more interconnected. The findings transmitted to me raise questions about whether the FBI is exercising any internal controls over the use of backdoor searches including who and how many government employees can access the personal data of individual Americans. I intend to follow this up until it is fixed.

While intelligence officials have often argued that it is impossible to estimate how many Americans’ communications are getting swept up by the government under Section 702, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has noted that the NSA acquires more than two hundred and fifty million Internet communications every year using Section 702, so even if US communications make up a small fraction of that total, the number of U.S. communications being collected is potentially quite large. The scale of this activity seems to be something that could be conducted pursuant to probable cause warrants, particularly given the exceptions that are included in the bipartisan bicameral legislation that I and others have proposed.

I and other reformers in Congress have argued that intelligence agencies should absolutely be permitted to search for communications pertaining to counterterrorism and other foreign threats, but if intelligence officials are deliberately searching for and reading the communications of specific Americans, the Constitution requires a warrant. The bipartisan, bicameral legislation that I and other reformers have supported would permit the government to conduct these searches pursuant to a probable cause warrant or emergency authorization, and it would include an exception for searches for individuals who are believed to be in danger.

Last week the House of Representatives voted 293-123 to require a warrant for these searches, and I’ll be urging my colleagues in the Senate to follow suit. Reformers believe that it is possible to protect Americans’ security and American liberty at the same time, and the American public expects nothing less.”

The full ODNI response is available here. The letter came in response to a question by Sen. Wyden during an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 5.

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Judge upholds order demanding release of CIA torture accounts

The Guardian reports: A military judge has rejected the US government’s attempts to keep accounts of the CIA’s torture of a detainee secret, setting up a fateful choice for the Obama administration in staunching the fallout from its predecessor’s brutal interrogations.

In a currently-sealed 24 June ruling at Guantánamo Bay – described to the Guardian – Judge James Pohl upheld his April order demanding the government produce details of the detentions and interrogations of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri during his years in CIA custody. The Miami Herald also reported on the ruling, citing three sources who had seen it.

Among those details are the locations of the “black site” secret prisons in which Nashiri was held until his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo; the names and communications of CIA personnel there; training and other procedures for guards and interrogators; and discussions of the application of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public. Now show us the library of secret law

Jameel Jaffer writes: A federal appellate court’s publication on Monday of the so-called “drone memo” finally allows the American public to evaluate the legal theories that were the basis for one of the Obama administration’s most controversial acts – the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.

Authored three years ago by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the 41-page memo contends that the president has broad power to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, even in geographic areas far removed from conventional battlefields.

The publication of the memo is a victory for transparency – the result of hard-fought litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. (I argued the ACLU’s case before the appellate court.) It is a very rare thing for a federal court in the United States to order the release of information that the government contends is properly classified. In transparency litigation in the national-security sphere, the courts almost invariably defer. That the court declined to defer here suggests that it found the arguments from the Obama administration to be not simply unpersuasive but wholly without foundation.

But despite the release of the drone memo, the American public still does not have the information it needs in order to evaluate the lawfulness and wisdom of its government’s policies. Indeed, to read through the memo is to be reminded of how successful the Obama administration has been at rationing even the most basic information. [Continue reading...]

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In surprise vote, House backs NSA limits

The Hill reports: A proposal to block intelligence agencies from conducting warrantless and “backdoor” searches of U.S. communications passed in the House late Thursday night.

Adopted 293-123, with one member voting present, the amendment to the 2015 Defense appropriations bill would prohibit the search of government databases for information on U.S. citizens without a warrant. It would further cut off funding for the CIA and National Security Agency to build security vulnerabilities, or “backdoors,” into domestic tech products or services for surveillance purposes. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) was the only member to vote present.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), the chief sponsor of the bipartisan amendment, said it would limit the controversial NSA spying.

“The American people are sick of being spied on,” Massie said. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq’s Maliki: I won’t quit as condition of U.S. strikes against ISIS

The Guardian reports: A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has said he will not stand down as a condition of US air strikes against Sunni militants who have made a lightning advance across the country.

Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, on Wednesday made a public call on al-Arabiya television for the US to launch strikes, but Barack Obama has come under pressure from senior US politicians to persuade Maliki, a Shia Muslim who has pursued sectarian policies, to step down over what they see as failed leadership in the face of an insurgency.

Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, told a hearing on Wednesday that Maliki’s government “has got to go if you want any reconciliation”, and Republican John McCain called for the use of US air power but also urged Obama to “make very clear to Maliki that his time is up”. [Continue reading...]

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Washington and Tehran’s shared interests in Iraq

Robin Wright writes: On Monday, Iran and the United States, along with envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia, will meet again in Vienna to work on specific terms for a nuclear agreement. The talks resume just as Washington and Tehran suddenly find that they have common cause in preventing Iraq’s abrupt disintegration. For both, their longtime strategies toward Iraq appear to be failing, as a few thousand thugs in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) burn their way across the country.

Washington and Tehran have started using the same language. President Obama, in his remarks on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, said, “Nobody has an interest in seeing terrorists gain a foothold inside of Iraq, and nobody is going to benefit from seeing Iraq descend into chaos.” An hour later, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, told me, by telephone, from Tehran, “It is in the interest of everybody to stabilize the government of Iraq. If the U.S. has come to realize that these groups pose a threat to the security of the region, and if the U.S. truly wants to fight terrorism and extremism, then it’s a common global cause.”

Obama said that Washington is “going to pursue diplomacy” across the region. Zarif told me that he’d been working the phones with Iraq’s neighbors for the past two days. Obama warned of the dangers of the Sunni extremists trying to “overrun sacred Shia sites.” Iran is the world’s largest Shiite country, and its interests in Iraq are focussed on protecting the Shiite plurality that was long dominated by a Sunni minority.

Twitter pundits are already speculating about the potential for de facto coöperation between the countries. Among the scenarios: U.S. drones striking ISIS targets and, in effect, providing air cover for Iranian Revolutionary Guards dispatched to help hold back the ISIS jihadis, who have been pushing toward Baghdad. In our conversation, Zarif denied reports that Tehran has already dispatched battalions of Revolutionary Guards to aid and protect Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, but its élite Quds Force has long had a presence — in various forms — inside Iraq. [Continue reading...]

The Guardian adds: The US should “sit down and talk” with Iran over the crisis in Iraq, top Republican senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday.

Graham, a leading foreign policy hawk, also attacked President Barack Obama for what he said was his “delusional and detached” response to the crisis.

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Chelsea Manning on the U.S. military and media freedom

Chelsea Manning writes: When I chose to disclose classified information in 2010, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others. I’m now serving a sentence of 35 years in prison for these unauthorized disclosures. I understand that my actions violated the law.

However, the concerns that motivated me have not been resolved. As Iraq erupts in civil war and America again contemplates intervention, that unfinished business should give new urgency to the question of how the United States military controlled the media coverage of its long involvement there and in Afghanistan. I believe that the current limits on press freedom and excessive government secrecy make it impossible for Americans to grasp fully what is happening in the wars we finance.

If you were following the news during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, you might remember that the American press was flooded with stories declaring the elections a success, complete with upbeat anecdotes and photographs of Iraqi women proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. The subtext was that United States military operations had succeeded in creating a stable and democratic Iraq.

Those of us stationed there were acutely aware of a more complicated reality. [Continue reading...]

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Bergdahl must tell his own story

Sooner or later, mistrust of government can lead some Americans to some untenable and absurd positions.

Statements coming from the White House, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community can never be taken at face value. I have no problem with that kind of skepticism. After all, officials all have political and institutional interests that they endeavor to protect; decisions are often made in haste; people with great power can be badly informed, short-sighted, and petty.

But in the growing hysteria surrounding the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the latest “bombshell” being devoured by those who never waver in their conviction that the government always lies, comes from a private spying outfit run by Duane R. (“Dewey”) Clarridge, a former CIA senior operations officer, who was on trial on seven counts of perjury and false statements in Iran-Contra before being pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

“EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show,” shouts the headline at Fox News in a story based on claims coming from Clarridge’s firm, the Eclipse Group.

Amidst the voluminous praise that Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have received for revealing the inner workings of the NSA, perhaps the most negative impact resulting from this is the fact that nowadays most people seem to think that secrets are concealed truths.

In reality, secrets are very often rumors, pieces of speculation, or information whose factual basis or significance has yet to be verified.

The findings made by Eclipse were no doubt recorded in secret documents, but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess how much truth those reports reveal.

The documents obtained by Fox News show that Eclipse developed and transmitted numerous status reports on the whereabouts of the errant American soldier, spanning a period from October 2009, roughly three months after Bergdahl reportedly walked off his base in Afghanistan and fell into custody of the Haqqani network, up through August 2012.

At one point — in late June 2010, after Bergdahl succeeded in one of his escape attempts — the Haqqani commanders constructed a special metal cage for him, and confined him to it. At other points, however, Bergdahl was reported to be happily playing soccer with the Haqqani fighters, taking part in AK-47 target practice and being permitted to carry a firearm of his own, laughing frequently and proclaiming “Salaam,” the Arabic word for “peace.”

Who knows whether this information came from reliable sources or whether Eclipse may at times have become entangled in some Haqqani psyops operations that purposefully wanted to feed the U.S. conflicting pictures of Bergdahl’s intentions and the conditions of his captivity.

The CIA once prized Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi as one of its most valuable informants — until, that is, he conducted a suicide attack on Camp Chapman in 2009.

“Personally I would like to be able to talk to the guy and ask him why did this,” says former Army Spc. Gerald Sutton, who served in Afghanistan with Bergdahl.

This is Bergdahl’s story and hopefully some day we’ll hear it from his own lips. In the meantime, the media will milk it for all its worth.

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NSA reform bill finds few allies before Senate intelligence committee

The Guardian reports: Senators on the intelligence committee expressed deep doubts about curbing the National Security Agency’s broad data collection powers as the upper legislative chamber begins to consider a landmark surveillance bill that passed the House last month.

Lawmakers attacked the USA Freedom Act as insufficiently protective of both privacy and national security as intelligence and law enforcement officials, who now back the bill, conceded that under its provisions they would still have access to a large amount of US phone and other data.

Deputy attorney general James Cole told the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday that the bill allows the NSA to collect information “two hops“, or degrees removed from a targeted phone account. “It gives us the prospective collection, it gives us a wider range of information that we wouldn’t have under normal authorities,” he said.

That account bothered three Democratic privacy advocates on the panel – Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Colorado’s Mark Udall and New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich – but most of the consternation shown by the panel came from the opposite direction, indicating that a surveillance bill whose privacy protections have been largely weakened will still face a difficult road in the Senate.

The panel’s leaders, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia – both of whom remain staunch advocates of the bulk domestic phone metadata collection that the bill is aimed at ending – feared that restricting the volume of data to which the NSA has access will leave the US vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

In some cases, the panel, charged with overseeing the intelligence agencies and preventing abuse, advocated greater authorities for the surveillance agency than the NSA itself requested. [Continue reading...]

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The U.S. has been speaking to Hamas through back channels for more than six months

Sheera Frenkel reports: United States officials have been holding secret back-channel talks with Hamas over the last six months to discuss their role in the newly formed unity government, according to two senior diplomatic sources with direct knowledge of the talks.

The meetings were held between U.S. intermediaries and Hamas’ leadership, which lives outside the Gaza Strip in third-party countries ranging from Egypt to Qatar and Jordan. Topics included the ceasefire agreement with Israel and the recently formed unity government between Hamas and Fatah.

During the talks, Hamas gave assurances that allowed the U.S. to support the unity government, despite heavy pressure by the Israeli government for them to condemn it, the diplomatic officials — one American and one Palestinian — said. They said those assurances including a commitment to maintaining a ceasefire with Israel.

“Our administration needed to hear from them that this unity government would move toward democratic elections, and toward a more peaceful resolution with the entire region,” said one U.S. official familiar with the talks. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as the U.S, government’s official stance is that it has not, and will not, talk to Hamas until certain preconditions are met. “It was important to have that line of communication,” the U.S. official said. [Continue reading...]

BBC News reports: US Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected Israeli criticism of his recognition of the new Palestinian government formed by Fatah and Hamas.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that he was “deeply troubled” by the decision.

But during a visit to Lebanon, Mr Kerry noted the ministers were independent technocrats and insisted that they would be watched “very closely”.

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Don’t come back to Afghanistan

The New York Times reports: The Taliban seem loose, almost offhand, on camera as they wait for the American Black Hawk to land. Two fighters walk their hostage, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, out to American troops, greeting their enemies eye to eye as they quickly shake hands. They wave as the Americans retreat back to the chopper.

In their viral video to the world on Wednesday, framing dramatic images of their transaction with the United States with music, commentary and context, the Taliban scored their biggest hit yet after years of effort to improve their publicity machine — one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.

Within hours of the video’s release, the Taliban website where it was posted was overwhelmed with traffic and the page hosting it crashed, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents. The video has since been uploaded in dozens of different versions on YouTube.

It is the product of a Taliban propaganda effort that has grown increasingly savvy.

In recent years, the Taliban have tried to score points by insisting that they, unlike their Pakistani militant counterparts, actively supported polio vaccinations. Two months ago, realizing that they had outraged the Afghan public with an attack by gunmen on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that left children among the dead, the Taliban issued their first public apology. And they suggested that they had purposefully held back on attacking civilians on election day in April, and that Afghans should trust the Taliban over a government being chosen by Western ways.

On Wednesday, several passages in the video went straight to the Taliban’s campaign for attention abroad and political heft at home.

One series of scenes focuses on the fruit of the Taliban’s deal with the United States: the five Taliban detainees who had been freed from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp are shown joyously embracing their comrades at the militants’ diplomatic post in Doha, Qatar.

That site — billed by the Taliban as the political office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of the old Taliban government — sums up the heart of the Taliban’s political efforts. It was from there that the Taliban negotiated with American officials, through Qatari mediation, to finalize the detainee transfer deal. And it was there, from the moment of the post’s opening last summer, that the Taliban clearly showed their new bid for international attention, conducting television interviews, giving speeches, and even featuring a ribbon cutting in a news video with Qatari officials. [Continue reading...]

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Taliban warned U.S. that drones nearly killed Bergdahl

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Taliban warned the U.S. during prisoner-exchange negotiations that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that U.S. drone strikes had come close on several occasions to killing the soldier while he was in captivity, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Sgt. Bergdahl was being held at the time in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the Central Intelligence Agency carried out an estimated 27 drone strikes in 2013, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that tracks the drone program. The CIA hasn’t conducted any drone strikes in the tribal areas since Dec. 25, the foundation said. [Continue reading...]

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Bowe Bergdahl and negotiating with the Taliban

Fred Kaplan writes: My guess is that very few among us remembered — or had ever heard of — Bowe Bergdahl until his release made headlines this weekend. Still, the U.S. military cherishes this same principle (leave no soldier behind) [as does Israel], and his recovery is cause for satisfaction — but not much more than that.

One difference between this case and many others is that Bergdahl wandered off his base. He wasn’t abducted or captured while on patrol. Rather, on the night of June 30, 2009, he simply got up, took his compass and a few other supplies (though not his weapons), and walked away. It’s not clear why. (After he’s nursed back to health, an Army investigation will presumably find out.)

In a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings painted a picture of Bergdahl as a moralistic home-schooled adventurer, enticed by the romance of do-good soldiers (he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion), who studied Pashto, took the nation-building doctrine seriously, grew disillusioned with the Army’s mission and disgruntled by his own unit’s incompetence — and walked off into the mountains. On the other hand, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a retired Army captain who served in the same battalion, recalls Bergdahl — in the Daily Beast and a BBC interview — as a mentally unstable misfit who should never have been allowed to join the service.

Either way (and the two portraits aren’t mutually exclusive), Bethea is probably right that soldiers from Bergdahl’s own unit “died trying to track him down.” Not in some Saving Private Ryan–like search, but aircraft and drones were probably diverted from normal military tasks in the hunt for Pfc. Bergdahl, leaving several units unprotected in the process. (He has been promoted to sergeant, for service, during the years of his captivity.) Again, this is what servicemen and women do for comrades lost in harm’s way; it’s part of their mission, a vital aspect of military culture. But it’s a bit less noble, it feels more like a burden than a duty, when the lost soul got lost on his own free will, when he deserted his post and abandoned his fellow soldiers — whatever the reason.

And so, it felt a bit discordant when Secretary Hagel made a victory lap around Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, proclaiming, “This is a happy day, we got one of our own back.” And, though more understandable, it seemed a bit excessive, as well, when President Obama called it “a good day” while standing before the White House press corps alongside Bergdahl’s parents. (A low-profile photo-op might have been more appropriate.)

There are a couple more misconceptions in this saga. First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)

Second, it’s not the case — at least if things work out as planned — that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them — though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.

There’s one more potential bit of good news. This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered. [Continue reading...]

The New York Times reports: The five were all high-level Taliban members, in their mid-to-late forties, with prominent political or military careers dating back before the American invasion. Counterterrorism experts described the men as effectively gray beards, and unlikely to go back to active fighting. But a concern held by some of those experts and many American officials, including some senior military officers, is that the men will give a boost to the Taliban and provide the leadership with proof of its cohesiveness.

The most important figure is Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, a founding member of the Taliban and a confidant of Mullah Omar. He was the governor of Herat Province in western Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled, and is viewed by many officials in the Afghan government as a reasonable figure and possible interlocutor for future talks.

Mullah Mohammad Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the deputy defense minister and commander of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A short, thickset man with a reputation for cruelty, he is accused by human rights organizations and his opponents of presiding over the massacres of Shiite and Tajik Sunni Muslims across parts of central and northern Afghanistan.

Trapped with thousands of his Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan under the American bombing campaign in 2001, he surrendered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, along with the Taliban governor of Balkh Province, Mullah Norullah Noori, who was also released Saturday.

The other two detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence, and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a former high-level Taliban security official, were both detained after reaching out to American officials after the invasion in an offer to help the new power in their country, officials said.

Though the released men have played no role in the renewed Taliban insurgency during their incarceration, many in the Taliban put a high premium on getting the five men back. That included members of the Haqqani militant network, who have claimed loyalty to Mullah Omar even though they carry out independent operations, and who were the people holding Sergeant Bergdahl.

“The Haqqanis will get kudos for being seen to deliver something for the movement,” said Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union Mission in Kabul. “They can say, ‘We are Taliban, and we are integral to the movement.’ ”

On Sunday, Mullah Omar himself broke a long silence to hail the men’s return, saying it brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.” [Continue reading...]

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Guantanamo prisoners get to play video games in a recliner — while being force-fed

Jason Leopold reports: Military officials at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility are attempting to make force-feeding a little more fun for detainees. Some longterm hunger strikers can now kick back in a plush recliner — well, not literally, since their ankles are restrained by shackles — and play video games or watch TV while being tube fed a liquid nutritional supplement.

The policy was implemented last October at about the same time prison officials were rewriting a new standard operating procedure that rebranded the hunger strikes as “long-term non-religious fasts.”

VICE News obtained from Guantanamo attorneys newly unsealed declarations in a lawsuit filed by a detainee who is challenging the legality of the force-feeding process. In one sworn declaration, Army Colonel John Bogdan discussed the new reclining chair policy. He said it only applies to detainees who are “compliant.” [Continue reading...]

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