Don’t abandon America’s Afghan helpers

An editorial in the New York Times says: The House Armed Services Committee approved a version of the 2017 defense spending bill on Thursday that would leave thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked for the American government in Afghanistan in the lurch.

More than 10,000 applicants, many of whom submitted petitions years ago and are now under threat in their country, are waiting for visas to get to the United States. However, the State Department can approve only about 4,000 applications, given the number of visas currently authorized by Congress.

The committee’s bill provides no additional visas and imposes unreasonable eligibility criteria for applications made after next month. Under the bill, only interpreters who worked with military personnel in the field would be eligible for resettlement. That is senseless, since many interpreters who worked on military bases or in government offices are in similar danger. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s last chance to end the ‘forever war’

Jennifer Daskal writes: The United States is fighting an unauthorized war. Over the past 19 months, American forces have launched more than 8,800 strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and hit the group’s affiliate in Libya. The United States continues aerial assaults against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, is going after militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and killed more than 150 suspected Shabab fighters in Somalia just last month.

This war isn’t limited to drone strikes or aerial bombings. It includes Special Operations forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — and possibly elsewhere. This past weekend, President Obama announced that he would send an additional 250 such troops to Syria.

The primary legal authority for these strikes and deployments comes from the 60-word Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed almost a decade and a half ago. In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush asked for an open-ended authorization to fight all future acts of terrorism. Wisely, Congress rejected that request, though it did give the president authority to use force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and those that harbored them, the Taliban.

Today, the Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden has been killed and the other key participants in the Sept. 11 attacks are either locked up or dead. But the old authorization lives on. [Continue reading…]

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House advances Email Privacy Act, setting the stage for vital privacy reform

Electronic Frontier Foundation: The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699) yesterday, which would require the government to get a probable cause warrant from a judge before obtaining private communications and documents stored online with companies such as Google, Facebook, and Dropbox.

The bill provides a long-overdue update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), first passed in 1986. The bill also codifies the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in U.S. v. Warshak, which held that the Fourth Amendment demands that the government first obtain a warrant before accessing emails stored with cloud service providers.

The House vote is historic, given that H.R. 699 has an amazing 315 cosponsors, almost three quarters of the entire House. The House voted unanimously, following a unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. [Continue reading…]

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Senator says he may back bill exposing Saudis to 9/11 lawsuits

The New York Times reports: A bill opposed by the Obama administration that would expose Saudi Arabia to legal jeopardy for any role in the Sept. 11 attacks appeared to gain momentum on Tuesday when the senator holding it up said he would be open to supporting it.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview on Tuesday that he would drop his opposition to the bill — predicting it could pass the Senate next week — if the sponsors of the legislation agreed to changes that he believed were important to protect American interests abroad. He did not specify what changes he was requesting.

“The goal is to bring people to justice who have been involved in terrorism,” Mr. Graham said. But he added, “I don’t want Americans to be held liable because of one bad actor in some embassy somewhere.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: There’s a major push in Congress right now for a bill that could hold the government of Saudi Arabia legally responsible for the 9/11 attacks. U.S. military and counterterrorism officials now leading the fights against al Qaeda and ISIS think that bill is a terrible idea.

“We don’t need this debate right now,” one defense official said, like others speaking on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized publicly to criticize the bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. Saudi officials have lobbied hard against the bill, telling members of the Obama administration, lawmakers, and journalists that the Saudi government has been a stalwart ally with the U.S. and was fighting al Qaeda years before it ever attacked American soil.

That message is resonating inside the Pentagon and in U.S. national security circles. Two former officials, who likewise declined to comment on the record about the bill, said it represented a troubling insertion of politics at a key point in the war against ISIS and would distract from a shared goal of combatting Islamic extremism. [Continue reading…]

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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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