Josh Fattal, who along with his friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, was imprisoned in Evin Prison alongside Iranian political prisoners, writes: Nine months into my detention, my interrogators led me blindfolded out of my cell to meet a man they described mysteriously as a “foreign diplomat from this region.” Awaiting Shane, Sarah and me in a prison office was Salem Ismaeli, an Omani businessman and envoy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He enveloped us in his flowing robes as he introduced himself, and I still remember how sweetly he smelled of sandalwood. He gave us expensive watches and told us his mission was to get the United States and Iran to talk to each other about our release.
It took more than a year for Salem to deliver us to freedom and the waiting arms of our families on the tarmac in Muscat. The Associated Press has since reported that Oman’s mediation led to direct talks between U.S. and Iranian officials that paved the way for last November’s interim accord to freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from some economic sanctions.
With talks between Iran and six world powers on a permanent accord resuming this week, some voices in Congress and some supporters of Israel continue to warn against engagement with Iran and to press for even tougher sanctions. The Iran that I glimpsed under my blindfold, heard in the supportive whispers on my prison hallway and tasted in the sweet candies provided by my hall mates convinces me this stance is misguided.
It is time to end the mutual hostility for good. A permanent accord that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions would make my relatives in Israel safer. It would make my family in the United States safer. And it would strengthen the hand of the brave Iranians I met in the dark corridors of Evin Prison in their continuing struggle for democracy.
The Associated Press reports: Sen. Rand Paul, a possible Republican presidential candidate, sued the Obama administration Wednesday over the National Security Agency’s mass collection of millions of Americans’ phone records.
The Kentucky senator said he and the conservative activist group FreedomWorks filed the suit for themselves and on behalf of “everyone in America that has a phone.”
The lawsuit argues that the bulk collection program that’s been in existence since 2006 violates the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. It calls for an end to the program, which was revealed by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. [Continue reading...]
The Los Angeles Times reports: An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
Levin’s plan ran aground on the Washington shoals of secrecy and turf, according to congressional aides and other U.S. officials, none of whom would be quoted by name discussing classified oversight matters. [Continue reading...]
Mehdi Hasan asks: Is a lobby group famed for its ability to move bills, spike nominations and keep legislators in line now in danger of looking weak and ineffectual? Consider the evidence of the past year. Exhibit A: Chuck Hagel. In January 2013, the independent-minded Republican senator from Nebraska was tapped by Obama to become his second-term defence secretary. Pro-Israel activists quickly uncovered a long list of anti-Israel remarks made by Hagel, including his warning in a 2010 speech to a university audience that Israel risked “becoming an apartheid state”.
In previous years, Aipac would have led the charge against Hagel, but this time it stayed silent. “Aipac does not take positions on presidential nominations,” its spokesman Marshall Wittman insisted. Hagel was (narrowly) confirmed by the Senate the following month.
Exhibit B: Syria. In September 2013, Aipac despatched 250 officials and activists to Capitol Hill to persuade members of Congress to pass resolutions authorising US air strikes on Syria. “Aipac to go all out on Syria” was the Politico headline; the Huffington Post went with “Inside Aipac’s Syria blitz”. And yet, although it held 300-plus meetings with politicians, the resolutions didn’t pass; the air strikes didn’t happen.
Exhibit C: Iran. Despite President Obama pushing for a diplomatic solution to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, Aipac is keener on a more confrontational approach. Between December 2013 and last month, a bipartisan bill proposing tough new sanctions on Iran, and calling on the US to back any future Israeli air strikes on the Islamic Republic, went from having 27 co-sponsors in the Senate to 59 – and threatened to derail Obama’s negotiations with Tehran. [Continue reading...]
Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia’s pledge to sell advanced antiaircraft weapons to Syria, noting that it would have “a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region.” And really, who could argue that pouring more weapons into a heavily-armed corner of the globe, roiled by conflict, convulsed by civil strife and civil war, could do anything but inflame tensions and cost lives?
Yet Kerry’s State Department, in coordination with the Pentagon, has been content to oversee a U.S.-sanctioned flood of arms and military matériel heading into the region at a breakneck pace. In December, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment, announced that it had approved the sale of more than 15,000 Raytheon-produced anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia under two separate agreements worth a combined $1 billion. Last month, potential deals to sell and lease Apache attack helicopters to the embattled government of Iraq were also made public, in addition to an agreement that would send the country $82 million worth of Hellfire missiles. At about the same time, the DSCA notified Congress of a possible $270 million sale of F-16 fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All of this was on top of a potential $600 million deal to train 6,000-8,000 Libyan military personnel and a prospective $150 million agreement for Marines to mentor members of the UAE’s Presidential Guard Command, both of which were announced in January. And let’s not forget that, last month, Congress also turned on the spigot to allow automatic weapons and anti-tank rockets to flow to rebel fighters in — wait for it — Syria.
Of course, Muslim nations around the region aren’t alone in receiving U.S. support. The U.S. also plies Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, with copious amounts of aid. Since World War II, the Jewish state has, in fact, been the largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign assistance, almost all of it military, according to the Congressional Research Service. Yet the topic is barely covered in the U.S. Today, TomDispatch regular Chase Madar provides a remedy for that collective silence, taking us on a deep dive into what that aid means in Israel, Palestine, and Washington. In the process, he explains why you’re unlikely ever to hear John Kerry suggest that sending weapons to Israel might have “a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region.” Nick Turse
Washington’s military aid to Israel
Fake peace process, real war process
By Chase Madar
We Americans have funny notions about foreign aid. Recent polls show that, on average, we believe 28% of the federal budget is eaten up by it, and that, in a time of austerity, this gigantic bite of the budget should be cut back to 10%. In actual fact, barely 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid of any kind.
In this case, however, truth is at least as strange as fiction. Consider that the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the past three decades isn’t some impoverished land filled with starving kids, but a wealthy nation with a per-head gross domestic product on par with the European Union average, and higher than that of Italy, Spain, or South Korea.
Consider also that this top recipient of such aid — nearly all of it military since 2008 — has been busily engaged in what looks like a nineteenth-century-style colonization project. In the late 1940s, our beneficiary expelled some 700,000 indigenous people from the land it was claiming. In 1967, our client seized some contiguous pieces of real estate and ever since has been colonizing these territories with nearly 650,000 of its own people. It has divided the conquered lands with myriad checkpoints and roads accessible only to the colonizers and is building a 440-mile wall around (and cutting into) the conquered territory, creating a geography of control that violates international law.
“Ethnic cleansing” is a harsh term, but apt for a situation in which people are driven out of their homes and lands because they are not of the right tribe. Though many will balk at leveling this charge against Israel — for that country is, of course, the top recipient of American aid and especially military largesse — who would hesitate to use the term if, in a mirror-image world, all of this were being inflicted on Israeli Jews?
The Guardian reports: The CIA has confirmed that it is obliged to follow a federal law barring the collection of financial information and hacking into government data networks.
But neither the agency nor its Senate overseers will say what, if any, current, recent or desired activities the law prohibits the CIA from performing – particularly since a section of the law explicitly carves out an exception for “lawfully authorized” intelligence activities.
The murky episode, arising from a public Senate hearing on intelligence last week, illustrates what observers call the frustrations inherent in getting even basic information about secret agencies into public view, a difficulty recently to the fore over whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) and its surveillance partners.
Last Wednesday, in a brief exchange at the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, asked CIA director John Brennan if the agency is subject to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a three-decade-old law intended to protect computer systems, like those of financial and government networks, from unauthorized access.
Brennan demurred, citing the need to check on the legal complexities posed by Wyden’s question, and pledged to give the senator an answer within a week.
The answer, agency spokesman Dean Boyd told the Guardian, is: “Yes, the statute applies to CIA.”
Wyden gave no indication of what prompted his query. His office would not elaborate, citing classification rules, and neither would the CIA. [Continue reading...]
Electronic Intifada reports: Weeks after Ambassador Michael Oren, Israel’s former envoy to the United States, suggested it, members of the United States Congress have introduced a bill to punish American universities if their members support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
The so-called “Protect Academic Freedom Act” would deny federal funding to any institution that participates in a boycott of Israeli universities or scholars or even whose departments issue statements in support of a boycott.
The proposed law defines “an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott” if “the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.” [Continue reading...]
The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in history, with a total cost of $1.5 trillion. Learn more here.
The New York Times reports: The last time the nation’s most potent pro-Israel lobbying group lost a major showdown with the White House was when President Ronald Reagan agreed to sell Awacs surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over the group’s bitter objections.
Since then, the group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has run up an impressive record of legislative victories in its quest to rally American support for Israel, using a robust network of grass-roots supporters and a rich donor base to push a raft of bills through Congress. Typically, they pass by unanimous votes.
But now Aipac, as the group is known, once again finds itself in a very public standoff with the White House. Its top priority, a Senate bill to impose new sanctions on Iran, has stalled after stiff resistance from President Obama, and in what amounts to a tacit retreat, Aipac has stopped pressuring Senate Democrats to vote for the bill.
Officials at the group insist it never called for an immediate vote and say the legislation may yet pass if Mr. Obama’s effort to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran fails or if Iran reneges on its interim deal with the West. But for the moment, Mr. Obama has successfully made the case that passing new sanctions against Tehran now could scuttle the nuclear talks and put America on the road to another war.
In doing so, the president has raised questions about the effectiveness of Aipac’s tactics and even its role as the unchallenged voice of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. [Continue reading...]
Huffington Post reports: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supports President Barack Obama’s opposition to imposing new sanctions on Iran as negotiations continue on the country’s nuclear program.
“The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that imposing new unilateral sanctions now ‘would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.’ I share that view. It could rob us of the diplomatic high ground we worked so hard to reach, break the united international front we constructed, and in the long run, weaken pressure on Iran by opening the door for other countries to chart a different course,” Clinton wrote in the January 26 letter. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said on Tuesday she has seen no evidence that Russian spies helped former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden steal U.S. eavesdropping secrets.
The Democrat’s comments on the MSNBC TV channel contrast with statements by her Republican counterpart in the House of Representative Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers.
Rogers suggested earlier this month that Russia had acquired influence over Snowden before he left his job as an NSA contractor and traveled to Hong Kong, where he leaked tens of thousands of classified documents describing U.S. and British eavesdropping operations.
“I have no information to that effect. I’ve never seen anything to that effect. I’ve asked some questions since and nothing has been forthcoming,” Feinstein said.
A senior U.S. official familiar with the matter said that he had seen no evidence Snowden had been recruited or influenced by Russia to acquire and leak U.S. eavesdropping secrets. Other U.S. security officials have privately offered similar assessments in recent weeks.
Rogers said on television 10 days ago that Snowden had likely been collaborating with Russia before he fled there last year. [Continue reading...]