SPIEGEL: What was it like in the days following the [al Qaeda] attacks?
Steiner: Condoleezza Rice was George W. Bush’s security advisor at the time. I actually had quite a good relationship with her. But after Sept. 11, the entire administration positively dug in. We no longer had access to Rice, much less to the president. It wasn’t just our experience, but also that of the French and British as well. Of course that made us enormously worried.
Steiner: Because we thought that the Americans would overreact in response to the initial shock. For the US, it was a shocking experience to be attacked on their own soil.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean, overreact? Were you afraid that Bush would attack Afghanistan with nuclear weapons?
Steiner: The Americans said at the time that all options were on the table. When I visited Condoleezza Rice in the White House a few days later, I realized that it was more than just a figure of speech.
SPIEGEL: The Americans had developed concrete plans for the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan?
Steiner: They really had thought through all scenarios. The papers had been written. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: It has been nearly 14 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, but a lawsuit on behalf of Muslims rounded up in the aftermath has barely moved forward as lawyers try to show how frightening it was for hundreds of men with no ties to terrorism to be treated like terrorists, locked up and abused for months at a time.
The lawsuit finally got a green light from a federal appeals court last week, with two judges willing to let the courts grapple with what happened in the days after the worst terrorist attack in American history, when the largest criminal probe in U.S. history tested the boundaries of civil liberties.
In a 2-1 ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit against three former top U.S. officials, including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Holding the defendants “in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al-Qaida violated the detainees’ Constitutional rights,” the majority wrote. “The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy.” [Continue reading…]
In post 9/11 America, terrorism has been used to justify wars, drone strikes, torture, secret detention, kidnapping, extrajudicial killing, mass surveillance, and the unfettered expansion of the national security state.
In recent days, numerous commentators, many of whom have surely previously been disturbed by the way the fear of terrorism has been used to manipulate this country’s political system and global outlook, are nevertheless now arguing that in America today the term “terrorist” is not being used broadly enough.
Since the white male Charleston killer, Dylann Roof, is unlikely to be branded a terrorist by public officials or in most of the media, Anthea Butler suggests:
Nevertheless, Butler writes:
The Charleston shooting is a result of an ingrained culture of racism and a history of terrorism in America. It should be covered as such. On Friday, Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce acknowledged that the Charleston shooting “was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community” (though terrorism is not among the nine murder charges brought against Roof, so far). And now that Roof has admitted to killing those people to start a “race war,” we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.
Ship him off to Guantánamo?
Terrorist is a politically charged and legally dubious term precisely because it gets used to shut down debate and curtail analysis. It is used to justify sidestepping due process and ignoring human rights.
The terrorist is the ghoul of modern America — the term functions more as an instrument of exorcism rather than illumination.
In America and elsewhere in the West, fear of terrorism dovetails with the inclinations to treat skin color as a mark of foreignness, and the tendency to view the foreign as threatening.
Calling Dylann Roof a white American terrorist, isn’t going to diminish the levels of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia across this country.
Calling Roof a terrorist, merely elevates his infamy, grants him the attention he obviously craves and turns attention away from the flawed legal system that allowed a worm of hatred inside his mind to be transformed into an act of deadly violence.
In America, infamy is no harder to obtain than a gun.
I recognize that there is a common sentiment which justifiably perceives an undercurrent of racism in the way in which people get labelled terrorists — that it’s a term that sticks much more easily to non-whites and especially to Muslims — but I don’t think this indicates we lack a sufficiently expansive definition and application of the term.
On the contrary, we would be better off not using the term at all, rather than trying to make its application more racially inclusive.
Jared Keller argues:
by not calling Roof’s atrocity terrorism, we gloss over the past — and present — of white America’s war of terror against its black citizens.
To my mind, that assertion, much as it contains an element of truth, is also indicative of the cultural stranglehold with which the war-on-terrorism narrative continues to grip America, fourteen years after 9/11.
The only way in which we can sense the gravity of a mass killing is by calling it terrorism, because it goes without saying — supposedly — that nothing is more serious than terrorism.
The real problem here is not the failure to call Roof a terrorist, but rather a failure to acknowledge that America faces many issues that are actually much more serious than terrorism:
Racism, inequality, environmental degradation, an unsustainable economic system, and foundationally a societal breakdown that results from individual interests being placed above collective welfare.
In a mind-your-own-business society, the mass murderers always seemingly come out of nowhere. No one sees them coming, because no one was paying enough attention. A live-and-let-live philosophy easily shifts into a live-and-let-kill reality.
In a word, we live in a country where people do not care for each other enough.
We do not live in a country where the number of terrorists is being undercounted.
After the shooting, President Obama said: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”
But why wasn’t that point reached long ago? The signs of this ugly form of American exceptionalism has been evident for decades.
Most Americans don’t own a gun and yet gun owners are more likely to think of themselves as “a typical American” (72% vs. 62%). Indeed, gun owners are more likely to say they “often feel proud to be American” (64% vs. 51%).
The most vocal among the 24% of Americans who own a gun are using their weapons to intimidate the whole population. Through their arrogance, ignorance and selfishness, they seem to imagine they have a stronger claim on what it means to be an American than everyone else.
After the Charleston shootings, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton blamed the deaths on one of the dead, Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.
“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”
Gun owners like Cotton, regard guns as the protectors of freedom, and see gun control laws as threats to their own freedom. In practice, they prize their weapons more highly that the lives of the tens of thousands of Americans who get killed each year by firearms.
As Gary Younge writes:
America does not have a monopoly on racism. But what makes its racism so lethal is the ease with which people can acquire guns. While the new conversation around race will mean the political response to the fact of this attack will be different, the stale conversation around gun control means the legislative response to the nature of this attack will remain the same. Nothing will happen.
After Adam Lanza shot 20 primary school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012 before turning his gun on himself, nothing happened. Seven children and teens are shot dead every day in America and nothing happens.
So these nine victims will join those who perished before them – a sacrifice to the blood-soaked pedestal erected around the constitution’s second amendment that gun lobbyists say guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms.
At some point, America as a nation needs to challenge its superstitious reverence for a piece of paper, and demonstrate that it is no longer willing to see the lives of so many of its citizen’s needlessly wasted.
Jeff Stein reports: Mark Rossini, a former FBI special agent at the center of an enduring mystery related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says he is “appalled” by the newly declassified statements by former CIA Director George Tenet defending the spy agency’s efforts to detect and stop the plot.
Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the time of the attacks, has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up secret relations between the spy agency and Saudi individuals who may have abetted the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a failed effort to crash into the U.S. Capitol, were Saudis.
A heavily redacted 2005 CIA inspector general’s report, parts of which had previously been released, was further declassified earlier this month. It found that agency investigators “encountered no evidence” that the government of Saudi Arabia “knowingly and willingly supported” Al-Qaeda terrorists. It added that some CIA officers had “speculated” that “dissident sympathizers within the government” may have supported Osama bin Laden but that “the reporting was too sparse to determine with any accuracy such support.” [Continue reading…]
Max Fisher writes: Late on Friday, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The few sections left un-redacted in the 500-page report do not appear to offer any major revelations.
But the very final section of the report, titled “Issues related to Saudi Arabia,” touches on a question that has swirled around US inquiries into 9/11 since the first weeks after the attacks: Was there any involvement by the government of Saudi Arabia?
This section of the report is entirely redacted save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.” However, it adds, some members of the CIA’s Near East and Counterterrorism divisions speculated that rogue Saudi officials may have aided al-Qaeda’s actions.
The findings, though frustratingly inconclusive, are in line with what many analysts and journalists have long suspected: that, while the Saudi government was probably not involved, rogue Saudi officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda may have been. Like so many investigations into Saudi links to 9/11, this report adds credence to the “rogue officials” theory, but it ultimately settles nothing. [Continue reading…]
Yochi Dreazen and Seán D. Naylor report: Since its creation in 1947, the CIA has steadily evolved from an agency devoted to its mission of spying on foreign governments to one whose current priority is tracking and killing individual militants in an increasing number of countries. It has been well documented that the agency’s growing scope and depth of influence in the counterterrorism fight reflects its growing skill at hunting America’s enemies from Pakistan to Yemen. What is more surprising, however, is the CIA’s adept navigation of public scandals and its outmaneuvering of the DNI and opponents from the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the rest of the intelligence community. Through such machinations, the spy agency has managed to weaken or eliminate crucial counterweights to its own power.
To be sure, an empowered and largely autonomous CIA has global repercussions. Much of what the world associates with U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks—from drone strikes in the Middle East to the network of secret prisons around the world and the torture that occurred within their walls—originated at Langley. And given the agency’s dominance, the CIA seems bound to retain its outsize role in how the United States acts and is perceived abroad. With the agency at the forefront of another looming U.S. war in the Middle East, its primacy will again be put to the test.
Today, the CIA is the tip of the spear of the administration’s growing effort to beat back the Islamic State, which controls broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. CIA officers in small bases along the Turkish and Jordanian borders have helped to find, vet, and train members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition so they can fight to dislodge the Islamic State and, ultimately, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. In addition, the agency is responsible for helping to funnel weapons and other supplies to rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which dwarfs the CIA in size, resources, and congressional backing, is dispatching Special Forces personnel to the region to carry out basically the same training mission. But if the two pillars of the national security establishment were to collide over Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that the CIA would lose out. For better—and sometimes for worse—the CIA has been winning just these types of fights since the war on terror began 14 long years ago. [Continue reading…]
AFP: An Indian television preacher who has called the 9/11 attacks an “inside job” received one of Saudi Arabia’s most prestigious prizes on Sunday, for “service to Islam”.
Zakir Naik, president of the Islamic Research Foundation in India, was one of five recipients of the King Faisal international prize from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman during a ceremony at a luxury Riyadh hotel.
The annual prizes are a project of the King Faisal Foundation, established in 1976 by the children of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz who died in 1975.
Naik was honoured for being one of the most renowned non-Arabic speaking promoters of Islam. He founded the Peace TV channel, billed as the world’s only channel specialising in comparative religion.
It has an estimated English-language audience exceeding 100 million, according to his award citation.
Reuters: A U.S. military court on Wednesday tried to assess whether government agents interfered with the trial of five men charged with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by spying on defenses attorneys and their clients.
The judge halted the pre-trial hearing at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison on Monday after one of the defendants said his interpreter had worked at a secret CIA prison.
When the hearing resumed on Wednesday, defenses attorneys contended the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency had planted Arabic interpreters on the defenses team, bugged conversations between the attorneys and their clients and questioned their support staff.
The New York Times reports: A still-classified section of the investigation by congressional intelligence committees into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has taken on an almost mythic quality over the past 13 years — 28 pages that examine crucial support given the hijackers and that by all accounts implicate prominent Saudis in financing terrorism.
Now new claims by Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted former member of Al Qaeda, that he had high-level contact with officials of the Saudi Arabian government in the prelude to Sept. 11 have brought renewed attention to the inquiry’s withheld findings, which lawmakers and relatives of those killed in the attacks have tried unsuccessfully to declassify.
“I think it is the right thing to do,” said Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts and an author of a bipartisan resolution encouraging President Obama to declassify the section. “Let’s put it out there.”
White House officials say the administration has undertaken a review on whether to release the pages but has no timetable for when they might be made public. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: During the 1980s and ’90s, the historic alliance between the wealthy monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the country’s powerful clerics emerged as the major financier of international jihad, channeling tens of millions of dollars to Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Among the project’s major patrons was Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who last month became Saudi Arabia’s king.
Some of those fighters later formed Al Qaeda, which declared war on the United States and later mounted major attacks inside Saudi Arabia as well. In the past decade, according to officials of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the Saudi government has become a valuable partner against terrorism, battling Al Qaeda at home and last year joining the American-led coalition against the extremists of the Islamic State.
Yet Saudi Arabia continues to be haunted by what some suspect was a tacit alliance with Al Qaeda in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those suspicions burst out in the open again this week with the disclosure of a prison deposition of a former Qaeda operative, Zacarias Moussaoui, who claimed that more than a dozen prominent Saudi figures were donors to the terror group and that a Saudi diplomat in Washington discussed with him a plot to shoot down Air Force One. [Continue reading…]
James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.
At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.
I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.
“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”
I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.
“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”
[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]
Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”
Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.
During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”
Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”
No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.
But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.
Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.
Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.
The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.
If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.
A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.
The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.
Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.
In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.
The Washington Post reports: CIA officials questioned in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003 whether key intelligence cited by President George W. Bush’s administration as a reason for a military invasion was faulty, according to a newly declassified CIA letter released Thursday by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The letter was sent March 13 of this year from CIA Director John Brennan to Sen. Carl Levin, the outgoing committee chairman, and introduced on the Senate floor on Thursday. Brennan confirmed that CIA field operatives “expressed significant concern” whether Muhammad Atta, one of the airliner hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, could have met with a former Iraqi intelligence officer, Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, in Prague about five months earlier.
The so-called “Prague connection” was used by the Bush administration as a way of tying the 9/11 attacks to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The intelligence has been questioned for years, but the new CIA letter raises anew questions about why the Bush administration took the United States into the Iraq War despite concerns repeatedly being raised by U.S. intelligence officers about whether there was a tie between 9/11 and the Iraqi government. [Continue reading…]
Gary Younge writes: Little more than a week after 9/11, Cofer Black gave instructions to his CIA team before their mission. “I don’t want Bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead … I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want Bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to show Bin Laden’s head to the president. I promised him I would do that.”
A month later, at a meeting sponsored by Schwab Capital markets, CIA executive director “Buzzy” Krongard laid out for investors what such a war would entail. “[It] will be won in large measure by forces you do not know about, in actions you will not see and in ways you may not want to know about,” he said.
Back then there wasn’t a treaty that couldn’t be violated, a principle waived or a definition parsed in the defence of American power and pursuit of popular revenge. To invoke the constitution, the Geneva convention or democratic oversight was evidence that you were out of your depth in the new reality. Laws were for the weak; for the powerful there was force. This was not just the mood of a moment; it has been policy for more than a decade. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Times reports: In a revelation missing from the official investigations of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI placed a human source in direct contact with Osama bin Laden in 1993 and ascertained that the al Qaeda leader was looking to finance terrorist attacks in the United States, according to court testimony in a little-noticed employment dispute case.
The information the FBI gleaned back then was so specific that it helped thwart a terrorist plot against a Masonic lodge in Los Angeles, the court records reviewed by The Washington Times show.
“It was the only source I know in the bureau where we had a source right in al Qaeda, directly involved,” Edward J. Curran, a former top official in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, told the court in support of a discrimination lawsuit filed against the bureau by his former agent Bassem Youssef.
Mr. Curran gave the testimony in 2010 to an essentially empty courtroom, and thus it escaped notice from the media or terrorism specialists. The Times was recently alerted to the existence of the testimony while working on a broader report about al Qaeda’s origins.
Members of the Sept. 11 commission, congressional intelligence committees and terrorism analysts told The Times they are floored that the information is just now emerging publicly and that it raises questions about what else Americans might not have been told about the origins of al Qaeda and its early interest in attacking the United States.
“I think it raises a lot of questions about why that information didn’t become public and why the 9/11 Commission or the congressional intelligence committees weren’t told about it,” said former Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican, who chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 2004 through 2007 when lawmakers dealt with the fallout from the 9/11 Commission’s official report.
“This is just one more of these examples that will go into the conspiracy theorists’ notebooks, who say the authorities are not telling us everything,” Mr. Hoekstra told The Times in an interview last week. “That’s bad for the intelligence community. It’s bad for law enforcement and it’s bad for government.”
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission with former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said that as far as he can remember, the FBI never told the commission that it had been working a source so close to bin Laden that many years before 9/11.
“I do not recall the FBI advising us of a direct contact with Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Hamilton told The Times in a recent interview. [Continue reading…]
Rest assured of one thing: he was the only American vice president ever to travel regularly with “a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the back seat of his car. You could say that he took his weapons of mass destruction seriously, and perhaps even infer from Jane Mayer’s account of his anxieties back in September 2001 that he had something of a paranoid view of a world he believed wanted to do him harm in a weapons-of-mass-destructive way.
It was in this mood that he and the president he served decided to show that world just who was who and leaped, post-9/11 — not to put the matter too modestly — to create a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East. (At home, they were planning for a Pax Republicana coast to coast until hell froze over.) In their imaginations, and some of their official documents as well, they dreamed of reorganizing the whole planet in ways that would more than rival any imperial power since Rome went down amid mad emperors and barbarian invasions. In the fabulous future they didn’t hesitate to document, no power or bloc of powers would be allowed to challenge the United States for years, decades, eons to come. And their means of doing this? The U.S. military, which the president took to calling “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” That high-tech force, romanticized and idolized by administration fundamentalists, turned out to be the only tool in their toolkit, all they believed was necessary to transform Earth into a first-class American protectorate.
Give credit to George W. Bush and his more-than-right-hand man, Dick Cheney, the vice president who essentially nominated himself: there’s never been a duo like them in the White House. Cheney, in particular, was a geopolitical visionary, his planet-encompassing vision fueled by his experiences in the energy trade and by a Cold Warrior’s urge to roll back ever further the remnants of the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. He was also, as Mark Danner illustrates, mad in his vision and desperately wrong. But again, give him and his president credit: before they were done mistaking military for economic power, they had punched a gaping hole through the heart of the Middle East and, as Arab League head Amr Moussa warned at the time, had driven directly through “the gates of hell” dreaming of a path strewn with “sweets and flowers” and lined with grateful Iraqis who would greet them as liberators on their way to Tehran.
Before they could complete their global damage, however, the adults were brought in, among them Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. At his congressional nomination hearings in December 2006, Gates put the vice president, his ever-endangered heart still pounding, in his political grave by describing the particular nightmare that would ensue from any U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The signal was clear enough. If Dick Cheney couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran, no one else would (despite much talk in the years to come about all “options” remaining on “the table”). In fact, 2007 should probably be considered the beginning of the Obama years, a time when top officials with no vision at all of how the planet should function raced like so many overworked firemen from the scene of one global blaze to another (many originally set by Cheney and Bush).
Today, Mark Danner reminds us, as he did in his remarkable three-part series at the New York Review of Books on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld, that if the cast of characters from those first post-9/11 years is gone, we still live in the ruins they created and the special darkness they embraced. In an essay that focuses on Cheney’s memoir, a movie about the former vice president, and a book by his surgeon, Danner takes us deep into that darkness. Thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books, it’s an honor to be able to post Danner’s latest piece for the first time online. The start of a three-part series on Cheney, it will appear in that magazine’s March 6th issue. Tom Engelhardt
In the darkness of Dick Cheney
The smile of secret power
By Mark Danner
[This essay appears in the March 6th issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine. The film and two books under review in this piece are listed at the end of the essay.]
If you’re a man of principle, compromise is a bit of a dirty word.
— Dick Cheney, 2013
1. “We Ought to Take It Out”
In early 2007, as Iraq seemed to be slipping inexorably into chaos and President George W. Bush into inescapable political purgatory, Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli Mossad, flew to Washington, sat down in a sunlit office of the West Wing of the White House, and spread out on the coffee table before him a series of photographs showing a strange-looking building rising out of the sands in the desert of eastern Syria. Vice President Dick Cheney did not have to be told what it was. “They tried to hide it down a wadi, a gulley,” he recalls to filmmaker R.J. Cutler.
“There’s no population around it anyplace… You can’t say it’s to generate electricity, there’s no power line coming out of it. It’s just out there obviously for production of plutonium.”
The Syrians were secretly building a nuclear plant — with the help, it appeared, of the North Koreans. Though the United States was already embroiled in two difficult, unpopular, and seemingly endless wars, though its military was overstretched and its people impatient and angry, the vice president had no doubt what needed to be done: “Condi recommended taking it to the United Nations. I strongly recommended that we ought to take it out.”
Gregory D Johnsen writes: Sunrise was still nearly an hour off when Nazih al-Ruqai climbed into his black Hyundai SUV outside a mosque in northern Tripoli and turned the key. The lanky 49-year-old had left the house barely 30 minutes earlier for a quick trip to the mosque on a Saturday. It was Oct. 5, 2013, and after more than two decades in exile, he had settled into a predictable existence of prayer and worship.
The homecoming hadn’t always been so smooth. Ruqai, who is better known in the jihadi world as Abu Anas al-Libi, was still feeling the effects of the hepatitis C he had contracted years earlier during a stint in an underground prison in Iran. Following overtures from Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government, his wife and children had returned to Libya in 2010. But Libi stayed away, wary of the man he had once plotted to kill. Only when the Libyan uprisings started in early 2011 did he follow his family back to Libya. But by then it was already too late. His oldest son, Abd al-Rahman, the only one of his five children who had been born in Libya, was dead, shot while fighting for the capital.
After that, things moved in fits and starts. Qaddafi was killed weeks later in October 2011, and Libi eventually settled in Nufalayn, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in northeast Tripoli, alongside several members of his extended family. Life after Qaddafi was chaotic and messy — nothing really worked as the new government struggled to reboot after 42 years of dictatorship, often finding itself at the mercy of the heavily armed militias and tribes that had contributed to Qaddafi’s downfall.
Libi knew he was a wanted man. He had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade, following an indictment in 2000 for his alleged role in al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two years earlier. Along with Libi the indictment named 20 other individuals, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, as defendants.
“He suspected that at any moment he would be killed,” his son later told The New York Times. Still, on that Saturday morning in early October, much of the danger seemed to have passed. Libi had been living in the open for nearly a year, attending prayers and settling local disputes, where his history as a fighter and knowledge of the Qur’an made him a respected arbiter. Neighbors called him simply “the shaykh,” a sign of respect in the conservative circles in which Libi still moved.
He had also taken steps to address his past. Three weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, Libi had sat down with Libya’s attorney general to discuss his indictment, according to one report. (The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests to confirm Libi’s meeting.) But mostly he just wanted to move on with his life. He had applied for his old job at the Ministry of Oil and Gas and he couldn’t stop talking about how much he was looking forward to becoming a grandfather for the first time.
A trio of cars around 6 a.m. ended all of that.
Inside the family’s apartment, Libi’s wife heard the commotion. From a window she looked out over the beige wall that surrounded their building and into the street where several men had surrounded her husband, who was still in the driver’s seat of his black Hyundai.
“Get out,” the men shouted in Arabic. “Get out.” Then they smashed the window. Most of the men were masked, but she could see a few faces, she said later in Arabic interviews. They looked Libyan; they sounded Libyan. Some of them had guns; some didn’t, but they all moved quickly.
By the time the rest of the family made it to the street, all that was left was a single sandal and a few drops of blood.
Early that same morning, nearly 3,000 miles away in the seaside city of Baraawe on Somalia’s eastern coast, U.S. Navy SEALs crept through the darkness toward their target, which a local resident later described to me as a walled compound more than 100 yards inland. The Americans had been here before. Four years earlier, in September 2009, a contingent of Navy SEALs had ambushed a two-car convoy just outside of town. Flying low in helicopter gunships, the SEALs quickly disabled the cars and then touched down to collect the bodies.
This time the target — Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Abd al-Qadir, a young Kenyan of Somali descent better known as Ikrima — was stationary. The SEALs would have to go in and get him. Pre-raid intelligence suggested that the compound housed mostly fighters with few or no civilians present. Only 130 miles south of Mogadishu and what passed for the Somali government, Baraawe had been under the control of al-Shabaab, a fragmentary militant group, since 2009. Fighters came and went freely, as al-Shabaab implemented its own narrow version of Islamic law in the city.
Moving up the beach and into enemy territory, the SEALs needed the element of surprise. Through the trees and scrub brush ahead of them, most of the city was dark. Baraawe had only a few hours of electricity each day, usually from evening prayers until midnight. But al-Shabaab’s members lived separately and, along with some of the city’s wealthier residents, got around the shortages by running private generators. The plan that night took this into account, calling for the SEALs to jam internet signals, apparently in an attempt to cut off communication once the raid began. That would prove to be a mistake.
Inside the compound, some of the al-Shabaab fighters were up late and online. And, according to a report in the Toronto Star, when the internet suddenly went out in the middle of the night, they went to look for the source of the problem. At least one fighter stepped outside, and as he moved around in the darkness he spotted some of the SEALs.
The plan to knock the internet offline and isolate the fighters in the villa had backfired, effectively giving al-Shabaab an early warning that the SEALs were on their way. (In the days after the raid, al-Shabaab would arrest a handful of local men who were known to visit Western websites, accusing them of spying and aiding U.S. efforts.)
The firefight lasted several minutes, although residents reported hearing gunfire throughout the night as members of al-Shabaab discharged their weapons into the dark for hours after the Americans had withdrawn, empty-handed.
In the span of a few hours, the U.S. had launched a pair of raids — one successful and one not — 3,000 miles apart, in countries with which the nation was not at war. Hardly anyone noticed.
More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.
The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words. [Continue reading…]
Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.
Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.
In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.
The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.
But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.
Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.
There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.
The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading…]
Peter Bergen writes: The Obama administration has framed its defense of the controversial bulk collection of all American phone records as necessary to prevent a future 9/11.
During a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander said, “Let me start by saying that I would much rather be here today debating this point than trying to explain how we failed to prevent another 9/11.”
This closely mirrors talking points by the National Security Agency about how to defend the program.
In the talking points, NSA officials are encouraged to use “sound bites that resonate,” specifically, “I much prefer to be here today explain these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent.”
On Friday in New York, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that NSA’s bulk collection of American telephone records is lawful. He cited Alexander’s testimony and quoted him saying, “We couldn’t connect the dots because we didn’t have the dots.”
But is it really the case that the U.S. intelligence community didn’t have the dots in the lead up to 9/11? Hardly.
In fact, the intelligence community provided repeated strategic warning in the summer of 9/11 that al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attacks on American interests.
Here is a representative sampling of the CIA threat reporting that was distributed to Bush administration officials during the spring and summer of 2001:
— CIA, “Bin Ladin Planning Multiple Operations,” April 20
— CIA, “Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent,” June 23
— CIA, “Planning for Bin Ladin Attacks Continues, Despite Delays,” July 2
— CIA, “Threat of Impending al Qaeda Attack to Continue Indefinitely,” August 3
The failure to respond adequately to these warnings was a policy failure by the Bush administration, not an intelligence failure by the U.S. intelligence community. [Continue reading…]