Saudi Arabia threatens economic fallout if Congress passes 9/11 bill

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. The officials have warned senators of diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation.

Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. [Continue reading…]

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Does it take 8 years to decide whether to declassify 28-pages of 9/11 report?

The Daily Beast reports: By the end of President Obama’s term in office, the administration hopes to decide whether to declassify a controversial portion of Congress’ investigation into the 9/11 attacks, the White House said Tuesday. The so-called “28 pages,” which have never been publicly released, are said to implicate Saudi government officials and civilians in the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

The administration had directed a “declassification review” of the material from the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the terrorist attacks in 2014. Former lawmakers who have read the classified pages say they describe a financial and logistical support network for the 19 hijackers, most of them Saudi citizens, while they were in the U.S. The report was released in December 2002.

“That review process remains underway, but every effort is being taken to complete it before the end of the Administration,” Ned Price, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, told The Daily Beast in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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Andrew Bacevich: Presidential wars

It was a large banner and its message was clear.  It read: “Mission Accomplished,” and no, I don’t mean the classic “mission accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln under which, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush proudly proclaimed (to the derision of critics ever since) that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  I’m actually referring to a September 1982 banner with those same two words (and an added “farewell” below them) displayed on a landing craft picking up the last Marines sent ashore in Beirut, Lebanon, to be, as President Ronald Reagan put it when they arrived the previous August, “what Marines have been for more than 200 years — peace-makers.”  Of course, when Bush co-piloted an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto the deck of the Abraham Lincoln and made his now-classic statement, major combat had barely begun in Iraq (and it has yet to end) — nor was it peace that came to Beirut in September 1982: infamously, the following year 241 Marines would die there in a single day, thanks to a suicide bomber.

“Not for the last time,” writes Andrew Bacevich in his monumental new work, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, “the claim proved to be illusory.”  Indeed, one of the grim and eerie wonders of his book is the way in which just about every wrongheaded thing Washington did in that region in the 14-plus years since 9/11 had its surprising precursor in the two decades of American war there before the World Trade Center towers came down.  U.S. military trainers and advisers, for example, failed (as they later would in Iraq and Afghanistan) to successfully build armies, starting with the Lebanese one; Bush’s “preventive war” had its predecessor in a Reagan directive called (ominously enough given what was to come) “combating terrorism”; Washington’s obsessive belief of recent years that problems in the region could be solved by what Andrew Cockburn has called the “kingpin strategy” — the urge to dismantle terror organizations by taking out their leadership via drones or special operations raids — had its precursor in “decapitation” operations against Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid with similar resulting mayhem.  The belief that “an additional increment of combat power might turn around a failing endeavor” — call it a “surge,” if you will — had its Iraq and Afghan pretrial run in Somalia in 1993.  And above all, of course, there was Washington’s unquenchable post-1980 urge to intervene, military first, in a decisive way throughout the region, which, as Bacevich writes, only “produced conditions conducive to further violence and further disorder,” and if that isn’t the repetitive history of America’s failed post-2001 wars in a nutshell, what is?

As it happened, the effects of such actions from 1980 on were felt not just in the Greater Middle East and Africa, but in the United States, too.  There, as Bacevich writes today, war became a blank-check activity for a White House no longer either checked (in any sense) or balanced by Congress.  Think of it as another sad tale of a surge (or do I mean a decapitation?) that went wrong. Tom Engelhardt

Writing a blank check on war for the president
How the United States became a prisoner of war and Congress went MIA
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Let’s face it: in times of war, the Constitution tends to take a beating. With the safety or survival of the nation said to be at risk, the basic law of the land — otherwise considered sacrosanct — becomes nonbinding, subject to being waived at the whim of government authorities who are impatient, scared, panicky, or just plain pissed off.

The examples are legion.  During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln arbitrarily suspended the writ of habeas corpus and ignored court orders that took issue with his authority to do so. After U.S. entry into World War I, the administration of Woodrow Wilson mounted a comprehensive effort to crush dissent, shutting down anti-war publications in complete disregard of the First Amendment. Amid the hysteria triggered by Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order consigning to concentration camps more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them native-born citizens. Asked in 1944 to review this gross violation of due process, the Supreme Court endorsed the government’s action by a 6-3 vote. 

More often than not, the passing of the emergency induces second thoughts and even remorse. The further into the past a particular war recedes, the more dubious the wartime arguments for violating the Constitution appear. Americans thereby take comfort in the “lessons learned” that will presumably prohibit any future recurrence of such folly.

[Read more…]

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Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]

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Lawmakers warn of ‘radical’ move by NSA to share information

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The Hill reports: A bipartisan pair of lawmakers is expressing alarm at reported changes at the National Security Agency that would allow the intelligence service’s information to be used for policing efforts in the United States.

“If media accounts are true, this radical policy shift by the NSA would be unconstitutional, and dangerous,” Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) wrote in a letter to the spy agency this week. “The proposed shift in the relationship between our intelligence agencies and the American people should not be done in secret.

“NSA’s mission has never been, and should never be, domestic policing or domestic spying.” [Continue reading…]

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Citing atrocities, John Kerry calls ISIS actions genocide

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims who have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq.

The militants, who have also targeted Kurds and other Sunni Muslims, have tried to slaughter whole communities, enslaved captive women and girls for sex, and sought to erase thousands of years of cultural heritage by destroying churches, monasteries and ancient monuments, Mr. Kerry said.

The Islamic State’s “entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology,” he said.

The statement by Mr. Kerry, made in response to a deadline set last year by Congress for the Obama administration to determine whether the targeting of minority religious and ethnic groups by the Islamic State could be defined as genocide, is unlikely to change American policy. The United States is already leading a coalition that is fighting the militants, and American aircraft have been bombing Islamic State leaders and fighters, its oil-smuggling operations and even warehouses where the group has stockpiled millions of dollars in cash. [Continue reading…]

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Apple and FBI look to Congress to settle battle over iPhone encryption

The Guardian reports: The war of words between Apple and US law enforcement escalated again on Monday as their fight over personal versus national security prepared to move beyond the courthouse and into the halls of Congress.

In testimony released ahead of a hotly anticipated congressional hearing, Apple’s chief attorney argued that helping unlock an iPhone used by a terrorist in San Bernardino will ultimately create more crime. New York’s chief prosecutor said the company’s devices were beyond the law and urged Congress to pass new legislation keeping encryption keys to user data in the hands of the tech giants.

Both sides have called on Congress to settle the dispute, although lawmakers and the Obama administration have thus far balked at either setting encryption standards by legislation or permanently ceding the territory to mathematicians. Technologists and privacy advocates spent much of 2015 in a highly visible public push to prevent Congress from mandating so-called backdoors into company-held data. [Continue reading…]

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Senator calls on Obama administration to stop UN from letting Assad regime censor aid plans

BuzzFeed reports: Sen. Bob Casey has told the Obama administration he is “appalled” that the United Nations allowed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to censor parts of a humanitarian aid plan, in a letter being sent to the State Department on Thursday and obtained in advance by BuzzFeed News.

The letter follows reporting by BuzzFeed News last week that the U.N. had changed parts of a humanitarian aid plan for Syria after consulting with the Assad regime, removing the words “besieged” and “sieged,” references to a de-mining program, and references to violations of international law.

The censorship came to light after revelations of extreme starvation in the Syrian town of Madaya, which has been besieged by regime forces.

Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is urging the State Department to “insist that UN-produced assessments and humanitarian aid plans accurately reflect conditions on the ground, not the political concerns of the Assad regime.” Casey’s letter, addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, states that he is “appalled” by the reports that the Assad regime was allowed to censor parts of the document, which lays out a $3.1 billion aid plan. [Continue reading…]

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SEC is criticized for lax enforcement of climate risk disclosure

The New York Times reports: As recently as 2011, shares in Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest private sector coal company, traded at the equivalent of $1,000. Today, they hover around $4 each. Over that time, investors who held the stock lost millions.

Peabody, like other coal companies, has been hammered as cheap natural gas erodes the demand for coal. But concerns about climate change are also an issue for the company as customers and investors turn away from fossil fuels.

Peabody saw this coming. Even as the company privately projected that coal demand would slump and prices would fall, it withheld this information from investors. Instead, Peabody said in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was not possible to know how changing attitudes toward climate change would affect its business.

Peabody’s double talk was revealed as part of a two-year investigation by the New York attorney general. In a settlement in November, Peabody agreed that it would disclose more about climate change risks in its regular filings with the S.E.C.

In theory, however, Peabody should have been making such disclosures all along. [Continue reading…]

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A nation of field mice where fear runs rampant

In an article titled, “One Nation Under Fear,” Mark Edmundson writes:

How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow.

In the latest wave of mass hysteria, the barriers of entry to the United States imposed on people with darker skins will once again be raised higher.

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 does not make any mention of skin color, yet the officials who are responsible for enforcing this law will inevitably notice skin color when determining if it needs to be applied. Since the law will apply, for instance, to British citizens who are also Iranian nationals simply by virtue of having an Iranian father — such an individual might have been born in the UK, have never visited Iran and not possess an Iranian passport — the way in which they will get flagged for questioning will most likely be because they are Middle Eastern in appearance.

Ostensibly, the law was designed to block U.S. entry to Europeans who have joined ISIS.

Let’s imagine how that would work: A British citizen who fought with ISIS in Syria has now returned home and then decides to fly to New York. He shows up at the airline check-in desk, presents his passport and the clerk, seeing the stamp entered when he visited Syria, says: “Sorry mate, no trip to America for you!” The thwarted traveler responds: “Damn that Terrorist Travel Prevention Act!” … except, of course, such an individual would in reality neither declare nor present any evidence that they had been in Syria or belonged to ISIS. The terrorist would — surprise, surprise — break the rules.

In truth, this isn’t a serious piece of legislation. Those who drafted and passed this law were engaged in a piece of political theater. Indeed, anyone who can coin a phrase like “terrorist travel prevention” would be better employed at The Onion than in the U.S. Congress.

The only people who will be reliably prevented from travel are those innocently trying to do what most travelers do — visit relatives and friends; engage in tourism or business.

The terrorists are not so dumb that they would run afoul of such restrictions — just as no terrorist would subvert his own objectives by tangling himself in the vetting process imposed on asylum seekers. [Read more…]

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Is U.S. Congress empowering Iranian hard-liners?

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Mahmoud Pargoo writes: [In 2013] Hassan Rouhani, who sternly criticized Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policies, won the election and appointed Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Consequently, and as a result of the softening of the rhetoric and engagement in talks with the United States, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and six world powers in July. The agreement was seen as evidence that if Iran engages in serious talks with the United States, issues can be gradually solved. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pointed to the likelihood of extending negotiations to other non-nuclear issues if the United States proves to be trustworthy.

This line of thinking, however, is changing with the recent series of US measures — including the recent congressional vote to restrict visa-free travel to the United States for those who have visited Iran in the past five years. Indeed, many in Iran are coming to the conclusion that no matter what rhetoric or action the Islamic Republic may assume, the United States will continue its enmity with Iran. Thus, a new consensus is being formed — but this time, against the United States. People from almost all political orientations have interpreted the new Visa Waiver Program (VWP) changes as running counter to the JCPOA. Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker and a powerful conservative supporter of the nuclear negotiations, has criticized the law, while many Reformist politicians have also condemned it as being against Iranian goodwill in engaging with the United States. Zarif, the foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, has additionally said that the new law breaches the JCPOA.

When seen in the light of historical parallels, the recent developments could be an alarming sign that certain elements in the US foreign policy establishment are seeking to paralyze any effort to normalize relations with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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NSA’s targeting of Israeli leaders also caught private conversations between U.S. lawmakers and Israel lobby

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama announced two years ago he would curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state after the world learned the reach of long-secret U.S. surveillance programs.

But behind the scenes, the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.

The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That raised fears — an “Oh-shit moment,” one senior U.S. official said — that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.

White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”

Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations — learned through Israeli spying operations — to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and former officials familiar with the intercepts. [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo Bay lawyers call bluff on Obama’s promise to close prison

The Guardian reports: Lawyers representing Guantánamo Bay detainees who have been held at the camp in Cuba for up to 14 years without charge or trial have accused President Obama of stalling on his promise to close the military prison.

As the US president enters his final year in office, pressure is mounting on him to stand by his pledge to shut down the detention center by the time he leaves the White House. Numerous defense lawyers working directly with Guantánamo detainees have told the Guardian that they hold Obama and his senior officials personally responsible for the lack of action.

Obama made his vow to close Guantánamo within a year on his second day in the White House in 2009. In recent months, he has stepped up the rhetoric, promising to redouble efforts to close the prison while also heavily criticising the Republican-controlled Congress for blocking moves to transfer prisoners out of the prison to the US mainland. [Continue reading…]

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To defeat ISIS, embrace refugees

Musa al-Gharbi writes: In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”). In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands. [Continue reading…]

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Why ISIS isn’t going anywhere

Michael Weiss, in text prepared for his testimony in front of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on December 2, wrote: Policymakers here and abroad often speak as if ISIS only debuted as a significant insurgency and international terror threat in June 2014, when its soldiers stormed into Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, almost uncontested. The president surely forgot himself when, in conversation with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, he referred to the group that had dispatched mentally disabled girls in Tal Afar as suicide bombers and blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra as the “JV team.” But as you well know, this is a jihadist franchise, which with we have grown intimately acquainted for over a decade. It has long memory and is playing an even longer game.

Has it altered its strategy? No, not really, although it has placed greater tactical emphasis on its foreign operations since its capacity for receiving emigrating jihadists from New Jersey to Peshawar has shrunk, thanks to better policing and the relative closure of the Syrian-Turkish border.

Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, officially ISIS’s spokesman but in reality the man in charge of its dominion in Syria, defined the “state’s” foreign policy rather plainly in September: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State,” he said, “then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

But Adnani was only reiterating what has always been ISIS’s global ambition—to export its holy war well beyond its immediate precincts or purview. The domestic pillar of ISIS’s project is what it calls “remaining and expanding”—the pushing of the borders of the caliphate in the Levant and Mesopotamia and the swelling of the ranks of its fighters and supporters there. We may pretend that ISIS is no state, but its ideologues and bureaucrats and petty officials behave as if they fully believe their own propaganda.

The foreign pillar is the opportunistic spreading of chaos, harm and wanton destruction in the West, relying upon agents who come from the West and who may or may not be returning veterans from a regional battlefield but rather everymen, Muslim or non-Muslim, who have been radicalized remotely. These jihadists are encouraged to strike at the kufar, the unbelievers, on the latter’s home turf or wherever they may be found, using methods both clever and crude: “an explosive device, a bullet, a knife, a car, a rock, or even a boot or a fist,” as al-Adnani elsewhere specified.

The two pillars have been in existence since the era of ISIS’s founder and godfather, the Jordanian jailbird Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Lest we forget, Zarqawi personally beheaded the American contractor Nicholas Berg in Iraq in 2004; two years before that, he had a direct hand in the assassination of 60 year-old American citizen and USAID worker Laurence Foley in Amman. [Continue reading…]

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