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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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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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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How Bowe Bergdahl went missing

In 2012, reporting for Rolling Stone in “America’s Last Prisoner of War,” Michael Hastings wrote: On June 27th [2009], [Bowe Bergdahl] sent what would be his final e-mail­ to his parents. It was a lengthy message documenting his complete disillusionment with the war effort. He opened it by addressing it simply to “mom, dad.”

“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”

The e-mail went on to list a series of complaints: Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.” His battalion commander was a “conceited old fool.” The military system itself was broken: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”

In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.” Then he signed off with a final message to his mother and father. “There are a few more boxes coming to you guys,” he said, referring to his uniform and books, which he had already packed up and shipped off. “Feel free to open them, and use them.”

On June 27th, at 10:43 p.m., Bob Bergdahl responded to his son’s final message not long after he received it. His subject line was titled: OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!

“Dear Bowe,” he wrote. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.” He signed it simply “dad.”

Ordinary soldiers, especially raw recruits facing combat for the first time, respond to the horror of war in all sorts of ways. Some take their own lives: After years of seemingly endless war and repeat deployments, active­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.

Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away. [Continue reading...]

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Afghanistan 2016 withdrawal keeps secret Bagram detainees in limbo

The Guardian reports: President Barack Obama’s decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan until 2016 is likely to mean two more years behind bars for America’s most secret detainee population, according to Pentagon officials.

On the outskirts of the massive Bagram airfield, about an hour’s drive from the capital of Kabul and in what the military calls the Detention Facility in Parwan, the US holds about 50 prisoners. The government has publicly disclosed nearly nothing about them, not even their names, save for acknowledging that they are not Afghans.

These are the last detainees the US holds in the Afghanistan war. It relinquished hundreds of Afghan detainees, and almost all of the detention facility, to Afghan control last year. Sometimes called, in military parlance, “Enduring Security Threats”, the non-Afghans have posed a dilemma for the Department of Defense for years, as officials pondered what to do about them ahead of a pullout that had been anticipated for December 2014. [Continue reading...]

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Most U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan attack houses

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: Domestic buildings have been hit by drone strikes more than any other type of target in the CIA’s 10-year campaign in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan, new research reveals.

By way of contrast, since 2008, in neighbouring Afghanistan drone strikes on buildings have been banned in all but the most urgent situations, as part of measures to protect civilian lives. But a new investigative project by the Bureau, Forensic Architecture, a research project based at London’s Goldsmiths University, and New York-based Situ Research, reveals that in Pakistan, domestic buildings continue to be the most frequent target of drone attacks.

The project examines, for the first time, the types of target attacked in each drone strike – be they houses, vehicles or madrassas (religious schools) – and the time of day the attack took place. [Continue reading...]

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The year of living more dangerously: Obama’s drone speech was a sham

Andrea J Prasow writes: A lot can happen in a year. And a lot can’t.

Twelve months ago today, Barack Obama gave a landmark national security speech in which he frankly acknowledged that the United States had at least in some cases compromised its values in the years since 9/11 – and offered his vision of a US national security policy more directly in line with “the freedoms and ideals that we defend.” It was widely praised as “a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America“.

Addressing an audience at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, the president pledged greater transparency about targeted killings, rededicated himself to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and urged Congress to refine and ultimately repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been invoked to justify everything from military detention to drones strikes.

A year later, none of these promises have been met. Instead, drone strikes have continue (and likely killed and wounded civilians), 154 men remain detained at Guantanamo and the administration has taken no steps to roll back the AUMF. This is not the sort of change Obama promised. [Continue reading...]

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Nick Turse: How ‘Benghazi’ birthed the new normal in Africa

Amid the horrific headlines about the fanatical Islamist sect Boko Haram that should make Nigerians cringe, here’s a line from a recent Guardian article that should make Americans do the same, as the U.S. military continues its “pivot” to Africa: “[U.S.] defense officials are looking to Washington’s alliance with Yemen, with its close intelligence cooperation and CIA drone strikes, as an example for dealing with Boko Haram.”

In fact, as the latest news reports indicate, that “close” relationship is proving something less than a raging success.  An escalating drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has resulted in numerous dead “militants,” but also numerous dead Yemeni civilians – and a rising tide of resentment against Washington and possibly support for AQAP.  As the Washington-Sana relationship ratchets up, meaning more U.S. boots on the ground, more CIA drones in the skies, and more attacks on AQAP, the results have been dismal indeed: only recently, the U.S. embassy in the country’s capital was temporarily closed to the public (for fear of attack), the insurgents launched a successful assault on soldiers guarding the presidential palace in the heart of that city, oil pipelines were bombed, electricity in various cities intermittently blacked out, and an incident, a claimed attempt to kidnap a CIA agent and a U.S. Special Operations commando from a Sana barbershop, resulted in two Yemeni deaths (and possibly rising local anger).  In the meantime, AQAP seems ever more audacious and the country ever less stable.  In other words, Washington’s vaunted Yemeni model has been effective so far — if you happen to belong to AQAP.

One of the poorer, less resource rich countries on the planet, Yemen is at least a global backwater.  Nigeria is another matter.  With the largest economy in Africa, much oil, and much wealth sloshing around, it has a corrupt leadership, a brutal and incompetent military, and an Islamist insurgency in its poverty-stricken north that, for simple bestiality, makes AQAP look like a paragon of virtue.  The U.S. has aided and trained Nigerian “counterterrorism” forces for years with little to show.  Add in the Yemeni model with drones overhead and who knows how the situation may spin further out of control. 

In response to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 young women, the Obama administration has already sent in a small military team (with FBI, State Department, and Justice Department representatives included) and launched drone and “manned surveillance flights,” which may prove to be just the first steps in what one day could become a larger operation.  Under the circumstances, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. has already played a curious role in Nigeria’s destabilization, thanks to its 2011 intervention in Libya.  In the chaos surrounding the fall of Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, his immense arsenals of weapons were looted and soon enough AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and other light weaponry, as well as the requisite pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns or anti-aircraft guns made their way across an increasingly destabilized region, including into the hands of Boko Haram.  Its militants are far better armed and trained today thanks to post-Libyan developments.

All of this, writes Nick Turse, is but part of what the U.S. military has started to call the “new normal” in Africa.  The only U.S. reporter to consistently follow the U.S. pivot to that region in recent years, Turse makes clear that every new African nightmare turns out to be another opening for U.S. military involvement.  Each further step by that military leads to yet more regional destabilization, and so to a greater urge to bring the Yemeni model (and its siblings) to bear with… well, you know what effect.  Why doesn’t Washington? Tom Engelhardt

The U.S. military’s new normal in Africa
A secret African mission and an African mission that’s no secret
By Nick Turse

What is Operation New Normal? 

It’s a question without an answer, a riddle the U.S. military refuses to solve. It’s a secret operation in Africa that no one knows anything about. Except that someone does. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee Magee. He lives and breathes Operation New Normal. But he doesn’t want to breath paint fumes or talk to me, so you can’t know anything about it. 

Confused? Stay with me.

Whatever Operation New Normal may be pales in comparison to the real “new normal” for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). The lower-cased variant is bold and muscular. It’s an expeditionary force on a war footing. To the men involved, it’s a story of growth and expansion, new battlefields, “combat,” and “war.” It’s the culmination of years of construction, ingratiation, and interventions, the fruits of wide-eyed expansion and dismal policy failures, the backing of proxies to fight America’s battles, while increasing U.S. personnel and firepower in and around the continent.  It is, to quote an officer with AFRICOM, the blossoming of a “war-fighting combatant command.” And unlike Operation New Normal, it’s finally heading for a media outlet near you.

[Read more...]

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U.S. nuclear-response drill begins in wake of Russian exercise

NTI: U.S. Strategic Command this week is conducting a massive nuclear arms drill designed to “deter and detect strategic attacks” on the United States and allies.

A Sunday press release announcing the May 12-16 “Global Lightning” exercise explicitly noted that the event’s timing is “unrelated to real-world events.” Observers of ongoing East-West tensions will note, however, that Russia on Thursday conducted its own large-scale nuclear response drill under the supervision of President Vladimir Putin. That exercise was widely promoted in Russian media and included the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-fired ballistic missiles.

“Exercise Global Lightning 14 has been planned for more than a year and is based on a notional scenario,” U.S. Strategic Command said. Roughly 10 B-52 heavy bombers and as many as six B-2 bombers are slated to take part in the nuclear deterrence exercise.

Mark Schneider, a former U.S. Defense Department nuclear strategy official, told the Washington Free Beacon that Russia’s drill last week seemed aimed at sending a message of “nuclear intimidation” to the United States and NATO over Ukraine. He noted that Moscow typically stages its atomic exercises in the fall. [Continue reading...]

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Pratap Chatterjee: The true costs of remote control war

It’s rare to hear a government official speak in contrite tones; rarer still if that official represents the National Security Agency.  Recently, however, Anne Neuberger, a special assistant to former NSA Director Keith Alexander, did just that.

A year of revelations, courtesy of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, prepared the way.  Since last June, the world has learned that the agency collects information on almost all U.S. domestic phone calls, spies on Internet activity — courtesy of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook — taps fiber optic cables and other key Internet infrastructure, uses digital dirty tricks to undermine worldwide computer security, breaks its own internal privacy rules, and as Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept revealed earlier this year, is using “complex analysis of electronic surveillance… as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes — an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.” And that’s only the beginning.

In the wake of all of this, Neuberger offered a reply, though you could be excused for not noticing.  After all, she took to DefenseNews TV with her mea culpa.

“Above all, NSA feels a sense of responsibility,” she told interviewer Vago Muradian.  She sounded earnest and everything about her look and gestures suggested penitence.  She talked of understanding and appreciating people’s “concerns” and skated to the very brink of apology more than once.  Was she there to ask for forgiveness?  To admit the NSA had violated the public trust?  To offer up the first evidence of soul-searching at an agency that has, for years, spied upon the most intimate communications of untold numbers of people?

In a word: no.

She was there, it turned out, not to express regret to the many millions of people around the world who have been touched by the agency’s digital tentacles, but as part of a charm offensive aimed at wooing tech companies, whose long-secret cooperation with the NSA has angered their global customers, back into the espionage fold.  “We hear the private sector concerns,” she said.  “We didn’t get out as quickly as we could have, following the media leaks… to explain the roles of the companies, the fact that they are compelled to participate by law, the fact that such programs are really common and almost uniform among Western democracies looking to gather data.”  This was as close as she came to apology for anything. 

The NSA had not done right by its industry partners and, claimed Neuberger, whose official title is director of the agency’s Commercial Solutions Center, was looking to make amends.  The idea was to pave the way for the spy agency and the tech industry to resume their long-running relationship in the digital shadows.  “The core concern we hear,” she told Muradian in a fog of vagueness, “is companies saying ‘we’re global businesses, so while we appreciate the protections for U.S. persons, you need to extend those protections.’” The NSA and the U.S. government, she insisted, hadreally begun taking big steps to address some of those concerns.”

While the National Security Agency may not be engaging in soul-searching, some of the men and women who have been involved in Washington’s drone assassination campaigns in distant parts of the world using the fruits of the NSA’s electronic surveillance and other technological wizardry are stepping forward to do so in an impressive way, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee reveals in his latest investigation.  While the NSA works to smooth things over with the tech industry, others are hoping to draw attention to the grave costs of some of the NSA’s activities that Neuberger neglected to mention. Nick Turse

The three faces of drone war
Speaking truth from the robotic heavens
By Pratap Chatterjee

Enemies, innocent victims, and soldiers have always made up the three faces of war. With war growing more distant, with drones capable of performing on the battlefield while their “pilots” remain thousands of miles away, two of those faces have, however, faded into the background in recent years. Today, we are left with just the reassuring “face” of the terrorist enemy, killed clinically by remote control while we go about our lives, apparently without any “collateral damage” or danger to our soldiers. Now, however, that may slowly be changing, bringing the true face of the drone campaigns Washington has pursued since 9/11 into far greater focus.

Imagine if those drone wars going on in Pakistan and Yemen (as well as the United States) had a human face all the time, so that we could understand what it was like to live constantly, in and out of those distant battle zones, with the specter of death. In addition to images of the “al-Qaeda” operatives who the White House wants us to believe are the sole targets of its drone campaigns, we would regularly see photos of innocent victims of drone attacks gathered by human rights groups from their relatives and neighbors. And what about the third group — the military personnel whose lives revolve around killing fields so far away — whose stories, in these years of Washington’s drone assassination campaigns, we’ve just about never heard?

[Read more...]

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The Pentagon tossed millions of dollars into the trash

Matthew Gault reports: Over the past four years, the Defense Department’s logistics agency threw away a significant portion of the spare parts it purchased via a $21-million contract with the manufacturer of a lifesaving armored vehicle.

The parts were for the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected trucks, which are specially shaped and reinforced to deflect the blasts from buried and roadside bombs. Starting in 2007, the Pentagon purchased tens of thousands of the high-tech vehicles at a cost of $49 billion.

The Defense Logistics Agency handles spare parts worth billions of dollars for the thousands of MRAPs in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In 2010, the DLA placed a parts order with Navistar Defense, the weapons arm of an Illinois truck-maker that produced thousands of MRAPs.

The long-term contract, which is ongoing, has cost taxpayers $21 million. But according to one DLA worker, many of the parts never arrived, showed up in the wrong packaging or were surplus to requirements. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. won’t give Egypt its blessings but will deliver Apache helicopters

The Guardian reports: The US has given the go-ahead for the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt that the Obama administration had withheld since the military-led overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last year.

A spokesman for the US defence department said the helicopters would be sent to help Egypt quell a wave of militancy in the country’s northern Sinai desert, where Islamist extremists have been fighting a cat-and-mouse insurgency since Morsi’s overthrow last July, and have since made a series of bomb attacks on the Egyptian mainland.

Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed in the attacks. In turn, Egypt’s security officials have been criticised for its scorched-earth counterinsurgency tactics that have seen innocent Sinai residents killed, and their homes destroyed.

The Apaches’ delivery will please Egyptian military officials who had previously claimed in private that the withholding of the helicopters was in effect siding with the government’s opponents. But it will further anger Morsi’s supporters, who feel the US has always given tacit approval to the ex-president’s overthrow.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the delivery simply recognised Egypt’s commitment to its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the terms of which dictate that the US supply Egypt with annual deliveries of military aid. But he cautioned that the move should not be seen as a blessing of Egypt’s political process. [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: Star-spangled baggage

In 2007, a new phenomenon reared its ugly head in Afghanistan.  With two attacks that year and two more the next, it was first dubbed “green-on-blue violence,” and later the simpler, blunter “insider attack.”  At one level, it couldn’t have been more straightforward.  Afghan soldiers or policemen (or in a small number of cases Taliban infiltrators) would suddenly turn their weapons on their American or NATO mentors or allies and gun them down.  Think of these “incidents” as early votes in the Afghan elections — not, as Lenin might once have had it, with their feet, but with their guns after spending time up close and personal with Americans or other Westerners.  It was a phenomenon that only intensified, reaching its height in 2012 with 46 attacks that killed 60 allied soldiers before slowly dying down as American combat troops began to leave the country and far stricter controls were put in place on relations between Afghan, U.S., and allied forces in the field.

It has not, however, died out.  Not quite.  Not yet.  In a uniquely grim version of an insider attack just two weeks ago, an Afghan police commander turned his gun on two western journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding AP reporter Kathy Gannon.  And even more recently, just after it was reported that a month had passed without an American death in a war zone for the first time since 2002, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers in an insider attack at Fort Hood, Texas.

With its hint of blowback, this is not, of course, a comparison anyone in the mainstream American media is likely to make.  On the whole, we prefer not to think of our wars coming home.  In reality, however, Lopez’s eight-minute shooting rampage with a pistol purchased at a local gun shop fits the definition of an “insider attack” quite well, as did the earlier Fort Hood massacre by an Army psychiatrist. Think of it as an unhinged form of American war coming home, and as a kind of blowback unique to our moment.

After all, name me another wartime period when, for whatever reason, two U.S. soldiers shot up the same base at different times, killing and wounding dozens of their fellow troops. There was, of course, the “fragging” of officers in Vietnam, but this is a new phenomenon, undoubtedly reflective of the disturbing path the U.S. has cut in the world, post-9/11.  Thrown into the mix is a homegrown American culture of massacre and the lifting of barriers to the easy purchase of ever more effective weaponry. (If, in fact, you think about it for a moment, most of the mass killings in this country, generally by young men, whether in schools, movie theatersshipyards, or elsewhere, are themselves a civilian version of “insider attacks.”)

Ironically, in 2011, the Obama administration launched a massive Insider Threat Program to train millions of government employees and contractors to look for signs in fellow workers of the urge to launch insider attacks.  Unfortunately, the only kind of insider attacks administration officials could imagine were those attributed to whistleblowers and leakers.  (Think: Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.)  So, despite much official talk about dealing with the mental health of military men, women, and veterans, the military itself remains open to yet more insider attacks.  After almost 13 years of failed wars in distant lands, think of us as living in Ameraqafghanica.

Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, whose odyssey of a book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, captures the truly painful cost of these wars for America’s soldiers like no other, points out just what every commentator in this country has avoided writing about and every government and military official up to the president has avoided talking about, despite the massive coverage of the Fort Hood killings. Tom Engelhardt

How America’s wars came home with the troops
Up close, personal, and bloody
By Ann Jones

After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America’s biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded.  When he did so, he also pulled America’s fading wars out of the closet.  This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political “extremist.”  He seems to have been merely one of America’s injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.

Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition.  Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger.  Only 12% of the surveyed veterans claim they are now “better” mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.

The media coverage that followed Lopez’s rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America’s distant wars comes back to haunt the “homeland” as the troops return.  In that context, Lopez’s killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide.  It’s a story with a body count that should not be ignored.

[Read more...]

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Nick Turse: AFRICOM becomes a ‘war-fighting combatant command’

Let me explain why writing the introduction to today’s post by TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse is such a problem.  In these intros, I tend to riff off the ripples of news that regularly surround whatever subject an author might be focusing on.  So when it comes to the U.S. military, if you happen to be writing about the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” really, no problem.  Background pieces on that pile up daily.  How could you resist, for instance, saying something about the U.S. refusal to send an aircraft carrier to China for a parade of Pacific fleets (after the Chinese refused to allow Japanese ships to participate)?  It’s mean girls of the Pacific, no?  Have an interest in the Ukrainian crisis?  Piece of cake, top of the news any time — like those curious pro-Russian protestors in eastern Ukraine who tried to liberate an opera house in the city of Kharkiv, mistaking it for city hall, or the hints that U.S. troops might soon be stationed in former Soviet satellite states.  Or, say, you’re writing about threats in cyberspace — couldn’t be simpler!  Not when you have Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel offering an amusing assurance that the country that launched the first cyberwar and is ramping up its new cybercommand at warp speed “does not seek to militarize cyberspace.” And, of course, any day of the week U.S.-Iranian relations are a walk in the park (in the dark).  At the moment, for instance, the Iranian nominee for U.N. ambassador — previously that country’s ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia, and the European Union, but once a translator for the group that took U.S. embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979 — has been declared “not viable” by the Obama administration.  In a remarkable act of congressional heroism, the U.S. Senate, led by that odd couple Ted Cruz and Chuck Schumer, has definitively banned him from setting foot in the country.  Mean girls of Washington?  Who could resist such material?

Unfortunately, there’s one place in that city’s global viewfinder that never seems to provides much of anything to riff off of, and so no fun whatsoever: Africa.  Yes, today and Tuesday, Nick Turse continues his remarkable coverage of the U.S. military pivot to that continent, which promises a lifetime of chaos and blowback to come.  Admittedly, what’s happening isn’t your typical, patented, early twenty-first-century-style U.S. invasion, but it certainly represents part of a new-style scramble for Africa — with the U.S. taking the military path and the Chinese the economic one.  By the time U.S. Africa Command is finished, however, one thing is essentially guaranteed: a terrible mess and a lifetime of hurt will be left behind. This particular pivot is happening on a startling scale and yet remains just below the American radar screen. Explain it as you will, with the rarest of exceptions the U.S. media, riveted by Obama’s so far exceedingly modest pivot to Asia, finds the African one hardly worth a moment’s notice, which is why, today, without the usual combustible mix of what’s recently in the news and what’s newsmaking in Turse’s two pieces, I have no choice but to skip the introduction. Tom Engelhardt 

AFRICOM goes to war on the sly
U.S. officials talk candidly (just not to reporters) about bases, winning hearts and minds, and the “war” in Africa
By Nick Turse

What the military will say to a reporter and what is said behind closed doors are two very different things — especially when it comes to the U.S. military in Africa.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has maintained a veil of secrecy about much of the command’s activities and mission locations, consistently downplaying the size, scale, and scope of its efforts.   At a recent Pentagon press conference, AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez adhered to the typical mantra, assuring the assembled reporters that the United States “has little forward presence” on that continent.  Just days earlier, however, the men building the Pentagon’s presence there were telling a very different story — but they weren’t speaking with the media.  They were speaking to representatives of some of the biggest military engineering firms on the planet.  They were planning for the future and the talk was of war.  

I recently experienced this phenomenon myself during a media roundtable with Lieutenant General Thomas Bostick, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  When I asked the general to tell me just what his people were building for U.S. forces in Africa, he paused and said in a low voice to the man next to him, “Can you help me out with that?”  Lloyd Caldwell, the Corps’s director of military programs, whispered back, “Some of that would be close hold” — in other words, information too sensitive to reveal. 

The only thing Bostick seemed eager to tell me about were vague plans to someday test a prototype “structural insulated panel-hut,” a new energy-efficient type of barracks being developed by cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He also assured me that his people would get back to me with answers.  What I got instead was an “interview” with a spokesman for the Corps who offered little of substance when it came to construction on the African continent.  Not much information was available, he said, the projects were tiny, only small amounts of money had been spent so far this year, much of it funneled into humanitarian projects.  In short, it seemed as if Africa was a construction backwater, a sleepy place, a vast landmass on which little of interest was happening.

Fast forward a few weeks and Captain Rick Cook, the chief of U.S. Africa Command’s Engineer Division, was addressing an audience of more than 50 representatives of some of the largest military engineering firms on the planet — and this reporter.  The contractors were interested in jobs and he wasn’t pulling any punches.  “The eighteen months or so that I’ve been here, we’ve been at war the whole time,” Cook told them.  “We are trying to provide opportunities for the African people to fix their own African challenges.  Now, unfortunately, operations in Libya, South Sudan, and Mali, over the last two years, have proven there’s always something going on in Africa.”

[Read more...]

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