Germany is the tell-tale heart of America’s drone war

Jeremy Scahill reports: A top-secret U.S. intelligence document obtained by The Intercept confirms that the sprawling U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as the high-tech heart of America’s drone program. Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the American Southwest to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other targeted countries. The top-secret slide deck, dated July 2012, provides the most detailed blueprint seen to date of the technical architecture used to conduct strikes with Predator and Reaper drones.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. According to the source, Ramstein’s importance to the U.S. drone war is difficult to overstate. “Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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How could crimes that don’t warrant a life sentence justify a death sentence?

Conor Friedersdorf writes: Some of the most powerful people in the U.S. government wanted to kill Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh. The military, the CIA, and an influential Republican member of Congress all argued that a drone should be sent to kill the American.

Now he is in custody.

And if convicted of all charges that he faces, he’ll get a maximum of 15 years in prison–the same sentence that a brother and sister in Missouri got for growing marijuana.

How can a person narrowly escape extrajudicial assassination, get extradited to the United States, appear inside our judicial system, and face just 15 years in prison? Powerful people were prepared to end his life, but the extent of what they’re willing to prove beyond a reasonable doubt wouldn’t even draw a life sentence. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistan could end up charging CIA officials with murder over drone strikes

Time: A landmark case may open the door for a possible multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit launched by relatives of the alleged 960 civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered police to formally investigate former CIA agents for allegedly authorizing a 2009 drone strike.

If the case moves forward, it may subject the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to sensitive police investigations and even result in U.S. citizens for the first time being charged with murder for covert drone strikes in the South Asian nation.

Last Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court ordered police to open a criminal case against former CIA Islamabad Station Chief Jonathan Bank and ex-CIA legal counsel John A. Rizzo for murder, conspiracy, terrorism and waging war against Pakistan.

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Obama administration still weighing merits of assassinations vs. trials

The New York Times reports: A Texas-born man suspected of being an operative for Al Qaeda stood before a federal judge in Brooklyn this month. Two years earlier, his government debated whether he should be killed by a drone strike in Pakistan.

The denouement in the hunt for the man, Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was arrested last year in Pakistan based on intelligence provided by the United States, came after a yearslong debate inside the government about whether to kill an American citizen overseas without trial — an extraordinary step taken only once before, when the Central Intelligence Agency killed the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011.

Mr. Farekh’s court appearance also came as the Obama administration was struggling to fashion new guidelines for targeted killings. The decision to use an allied intelligence service to arrest Mr. Farekh has bolstered a case made by some that capturing — rather than killing — militant suspects, even in some of the world’s most remote places, is more feasible than the orders for hundreds of drone strikes might indicate.

“This is an example that capturing can be done,” said Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies counterterrorism strikes.

The Obama administration’s discussions about the fate of Mr. Farekh, who used the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami, began in earnest in 2012, and in the months that followed the C.I.A. and the Pentagon ramped up surveillance of his movements around Pakistani tribal areas.

Drones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013, and spy agencies used a warrant issued by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications. The Pentagon nominated Mr. Farekh to be placed on a so-called kill list for terrorism suspects; C.I.A. officials also pushed for the White House to authorize his killing. [Continue reading…]

What is left out of this analysis is consideration of the basic premise that any individual suspected terrorist can pose a national security threat.

The hysteria surrounding terrorism that has become embedded in the American worldview, presupposes that anyone who can be labelled a terrorist is inherently dangerous.

If the same line of thinking was applied across criminal law, then someone could be accused of being a murderer without committing murder.

The task of law enforcement would be to track down individuals who supposedly had a proclivity to commit crimes and could thus be convicted of being murderers, thieves, frauds, and so forth, because criminality was seen to be invested in the person rather than their actions.

This is what makes trials for terrorism difficult: prosecutors often seem to have more conviction that the accused is a terrorist than they have evidence to back up that claim.

Another issue lurking behind the Obama administration’s debate on the expediency of assassination is that the U.S. government and apparently many Americans have far fewer qualms if the targets are non-Americans.

If President Obama was to sign an executive order prohibiting the assassination of American citizens, would the ACLU commend him for doing so?

Why should the assassination of Americans be treated as a graver issue than the practice of targeted killing itself?

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Gregoire Chamayou: Hunting humans by remote control

Drones seemed to come out of nowhere, sexy as the latest iPhones and armed to kill. They were all-seeing eyes in the sky (“a constant stare,” as drone promoters liked to say) and surgically precise in their ability to deliver death to evildoers. Above all, without pilots in their cockpits, they were, in terms of the human price of war (at least when it came to the lives that mattered to us), cost free. They transformed battle into a video-game experience, leaving the “warriors” — from pilots to generals — staring at screens. What could possibly go wrong?

As it happened, so much went wrong. It often proved hard for the drone operators to tell what exactly they were seeing on those video feeds of theirs and mistakes were regularly made. In addition, drones turned out to kill with a remarkable lack of discrimination, while putting whole rural populations that fell under Washington’s robotic gaze into a state of what, if they had been American soldiers, we would have called PTSD. Worse yet, as recent events in Yemen indicate, drones proved remarkably effective weapons not in staunching terror outfits but in spreading terror, and so became powerful recruitment tools for extremist groups.  In rural societies repeatedly attacked by the grimly named Predators and Reapers, the urge for revenge was apparent.

Drones were, that is, terror instigators.  Everywhere they were sent by the last two administrations to pursue campaigns of “targeted killing” (i.e. assassination) and “signature strikes” (on suspicious patterns of “behavior” on the ground below, as judged by video from thousands of miles away), extremist groups have grown, societies have fragmented, and things have, from Washington’s point of view, gotten worse. In the process, they turned the White House with its secret “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings into a den of assassins, the CIA into assassination central, and the president into an assassin-in-chief. The drones even took an unexpected toll on their pilots waging a theoretically cost-free war.

From the point of view of drone proponents, one curious thing did go right, however — not in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq or Yemen or Somalia, but here at home. Even though Americans in multiplexes had for years sided with human rebels against the inhuman gaze of robots on the prowl, they now backed the robots, as opinion polls showed, in part because their reputation here remained remarkably untarnished by their dismal and destructive track record in the distant backlands of the planet.

Now, another kind of “gaze,” another form of “constant stare,” has fallen on the drone and it comes from the least robotic of places.  In his new book, A Theory of the Drone, French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou has taken a fresh look at the radically new form of warfare wreaking havoc on fundamental human categories, whether of war, legality, or sovereignty. It’s a fascinating effort to deal with a weapons and surveillance system that turns out not to have arrived out of the blue at all. Today, TomDispatch offers a taste of Chamayou’s original approach, presenting two early chapters from his book on how the drone entered our world and transformed the classic “duel” between warriors into a “hunt” in which an all-seeing, lidless eye-in-the-sky searches out distant humans below as its “prey.” In the meantime, the warriors of the past are, as Chamayou writes, morphing into the executioners of the twenty-first century. It couldn’t be a grimmer tale of post-modernity. Tom Engelhardt

Manhunters, Inc.
How the Predator and extra-judicial execution became Washington’s calling cards
By Grégoire Chamayou

[The following is slightly adapted from chapters two and three of Grégoire Chamayou’s new book, A Theory of the Drone, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press.]

Initially, the English word “drone” meant both an insect and a sound. It was not until the outbreak of World War II that it began to take on another meaning. At that time, American artillery apprentices used the expression “target drones” to designate the small remotely controlled planes at which they aimed in training. The metaphor did not refer solely to the size of those machines or the brm-brm of their motors. Drones are male bees, without stingers, and eventually the other bees kill them. Classical tradition regarded them as emblems of all that is nongenuine and dispensable. That was precisely what a target drone was: just a dummy, made to be shot down.

[Read more…]

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American Sniper illustrates the West’s morality blind spots

Gary Younge writes: Say what you like about the film American Sniper, and people have, you have to admire its clarity. It’s about killing. There is no moral arc; no anguish about whether the killing is necessary or whether those who are killed are guilty of anything. “I’m prepared to meet my maker and answer for every shot I took,” says Bradley Cooper, who plays the late Chris Kyle, a navy Seal who was reputedly the deadliest sniper in American history. There is certainly no discursive quandary about whether the Iraq war, in which the killing takes place, is either legal or justified. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” wrote Kyle in his memoir, where he refers to the local people as “savages”.

The film celebrates a man who has a talent for shooting people dead when they are not looking and who, apparently, likes his job. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” writes Kyle. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally. I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshairs, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people.”

Americans are celebrating the film. It has been nominated for six Oscars and enjoyed the highest January debut ever. When Kyle kills his rival, a Syrian sniper named Mustafa, with a mile-long shot, audiences cheer. It has done particularly well with men and in southern and midwestern markets where the film industry does not expect to win big. And while its appeal is strong in the heartland it has travelled well too, providing career-best opening weekends for Clint Eastwood in the UK, Taiwan, New Zealand, Peru and Italy.

And so it is that within a few weeks of the developed world uniting to defend western culture and Enlightenment values, it produces a popular celluloid hero who is tasked not with satirising Islam, but killing Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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A dubious history of targeted killings in Afghanistan

Der Spiegel reports: Death is circling above Helmand Province on the morning of Feb. 7, 2011, in the form of a British Apache combat helicopter named “Ugly 50.” Its crew is searching for an Afghan named Mullah Niaz Mohammed. The pilot has orders to kill him.

The Afghan, who has been given the code name “Doody,” is a “mid-level commander” in the Taliban, according to a secret NATO list. The document lists enemy combatants the alliance has approved for targeted killings. “Doody” is number 3,673 on the list and NATO has assigned him a priority level of three on a scale of one to four. In other words, he isn’t particularly important within the Taliban leadership structure.

The operations center identified “Doody” at 10:17 a.m. But visibility is poor and the helicopter is forced to circle another time. Then the gunner fires a “Hellfire” missile. But he has lost sight of the mullah during the maneuver, and the missile strikes a man and his child instead. The boy is killed instantly and the father is severely wounded. When the pilot realizes that the wrong man has been targeted, he fires 100 rounds at “Doody” with his 30-mm gun, critically injuring the mullah.

The child and his father are two of the many victims of the dirty secret operations that NATO conducted for years in Afghanistan. Their fate is described in secret documents to which SPIEGEL was given access. Some of the documents concerning the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the NSA and GCHQ intelligence services are from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Included is the first known complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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UK and Israel supported Kenyan program of extrajudicial killings

Al Jazeera reports: Kenyan police have assassinated nearly 500 terrorism suspects as part of an extrajudicial killing program supported by intelligence provided by Israel and the United Kingdom, an Al Jazeera investigation has revealed.

Officers from four units of Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) said that police assassinated terrorist suspects on government orders.

The police killings, according to an ATPU officer, were ordered by Kenya’s National Security Council and run into the hundreds every year. “Day in, day out, you hear of eliminating suspects,” the officer said.

“Since I was employed, I’ve killed over 50. Definitely, I do become proud because I’ve eliminated some problems,” added another officer.

The ATPU officers contend that Kenya’s weak judicial system had forced them to resort to assassinations, as police have failed to produce strong enough evidence to prosecute terrorism suspects. [Continue reading…]

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Gaza: Families bombed at home

B’Tselem: During the fighting in Gaza, dozens of residences were bombed while residents were at home. The following infographic lists members of families killed in their homes in 59 incidents of bombing or shelling. In these incidents, 458 people were killed, including 108 women under the age of 60, 214 minors, and 18 people over the age of 60. Mouse over the houses for more details. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: At least 59 Palestinian families suffered multiple casualties over four weeks of Israeli bombardment in Gaza, according to data collated by the Guardian. The youngest casualty was 10-day old Hala Abu Madi, who died on 2 August; the oldest was Abdel al-Masri, aged 97, who was killed on 3 August.

The figures are based on data from three independent Palestinian human rights organisations – the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) and Al Mezan, both based in Gaza, and the West Bank-based Al-Haq; the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem; and the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

However, it is almost certainly an incomplete picture. Systematic identification of bodies and logging of data have been hampered by the sheer scale of the casualties in Gaza – about 2,000 killed in total, and 10,000 wounded – types of injuries, and the need for swift burial.

Among families in which four or more people died, 479 people were killed in total, including 212 children under the age of 18, and 15 people aged 60 and over. The deadliest day was 30 July, when 95 members of 10 families were killed. On 20 July, 65 members of 10 families died, and on 21 July, 71 members of six families were killed.

The Guardian has interviewed six families who suffered multiple casualties. In each case, relatives say there was no warning of attack, and all deny any connection with militant organisations in Gaza.

However, in many cases there may have been a military target among the dead. But the number of women and children killed in such attacks has led human rights organisations and international observers to question whether Israel’s use of force was proportionate and in keeping with the obligation under international law to protect civilians in war.

Hamdi Shaqqura, of the PCHR, said: “What has been significant about this onslaught is the deliberate attacks on families – whole families have been smashed under the rubble. We have documented 134 families, in which two or more members have been hit by Israeli forces – a total of 750 people. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: Witnesses corroborate mass deaths in custody claims

Human Rights Watch: Horrific accounts by former detainees in Syria corroborate allegations of mass deaths in custody by a military defector. Four former detainees released from the Sednaya military prison in 2014 described deaths in custody and harsh prison conditions that closely match the allegations of the defector, who photographed thousands of dead bodies in military hospitals in Damascus.

In January, a team of senior international lawyers and forensic experts published a report concluding that Syrian authorities had committed systematic torture and killing of detainees. According to the report, a military defector, code-named Caesar, had taken 55,000 photographs of an estimated 11,000 bodies in military hospitals and other locations in Damascus. The bodies showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.

“The accounts of the four recently released detainees we interviewed lend further credibility to the already damning evidence about mass deaths in Syria’s prisons,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher. “When the Syrian authorities are held to account, the deaths in custody will be one of the first crimes they will have to answer for.”

All four former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed the death of fellow detainees in Sednaya prison in Damascus following a combination of beatings, torture, malnutrition, and disease. The former detainees, who were held for between 21 and 30 months, most of the time at Sednaya, described abhorrent conditions, including overcrowding, lack of food, inadequate heating and ventilation, poor medical services, and extremely poor sanitary conditions that caused detainees to develop skin diseases and diarrhea. The detainees said that they had lost significant weight during their detention. One said that he lost more than half of his body weight, weighing only 50 kilograms when he was released. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public. Now show us the library of secret law

Jameel Jaffer writes: A federal appellate court’s publication on Monday of the so-called “drone memo” finally allows the American public to evaluate the legal theories that were the basis for one of the Obama administration’s most controversial acts – the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.

Authored three years ago by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), the 41-page memo contends that the president has broad power to carry out the targeted killing of terrorism suspects, even in geographic areas far removed from conventional battlefields.

The publication of the memo is a victory for transparency – the result of hard-fought litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times. (I argued the ACLU’s case before the appellate court.) It is a very rare thing for a federal court in the United States to order the release of information that the government contends is properly classified. In transparency litigation in the national-security sphere, the courts almost invariably defer. That the court declined to defer here suggests that it found the arguments from the Obama administration to be not simply unpersuasive but wholly without foundation.

But despite the release of the drone memo, the American public still does not have the information it needs in order to evaluate the lawfulness and wisdom of its government’s policies. Indeed, to read through the memo is to be reminded of how successful the Obama administration has been at rationing even the most basic information. [Continue reading…]

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Obama administration continues to obstruct release of drone strike memo

The New York Times reports: One week after the Obama administration said it would comply with a federal appeals court ruling ordering it to make public portions of a Justice Department memo that signed off on the targeted killing of a United States citizen, the administration is now asking the court for permission to censor additional passages of the document.

In the interim, the Senate voted narrowly last week to confirm David Barron, the former Justice Department official who was the memo’s principal author, to an appeals court judgeship. At least one Democratic senator who had opposed Mr. Barron over the secrecy surrounding his memo voted for him after the administration said it would release it.

The 41-page memo, dated July 16, 2010, cleared the way for a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused by intelligence officials of plotting terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times are seeking the memo’s public disclosure in lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act.[Continue reading…]

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How many have we killed with drones?

David Cole writes: On Monday, The New York Times reported that “the Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force.” National security officials in the Obama administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded. So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”

The Senate’s decision is particularly troubling in view of how reticent the administration itself continues to be about the drone program. To date, Obama has publicly admitted to the deaths of only four people in targeted killing operations. That came in May 2013, when, in conjunction with a speech at the National Defense University, and, in his words, “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue,” President Obama acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four Americans in drone strikes. But according to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?

In the NDU speech, President Obama also announced new limits on the use of drones “beyond the Afghan theater.” He proclaimed that drone strikes would be authorized away from the battlefield only when necessary to respond to “continuing and imminent threats” posed by people who cannot be captured or otherwise countermanded. Most important, he said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Yet in December, a US drone strike in Yemen reportedly struck a wedding party. The New York Times reported that while some of the victims may have been linked to al-Qaeda, the strike killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. senators remove requirement for disclosure over drone strike victims

The Guardian reports: At the behest of the director of national intelligence, US senators have removed a provision from a major intelligence bill that would require the president to publicly disclose information about drone strikes and their victims.

The bill authorizing intelligence operations in fiscal 2014 passed out of the Senate intelligence committee in November, and it originally required the president to issue an annual public report clarifying the total number of “combatants” and “noncombatant civilians” killed or injured by drone strikes in the previous year. It did not require the White House to disclose the total number of strikes worldwide.

But the Guardian has confirmed that Senate leaders have removed the language as they prepare to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, after the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, assured them in a recent letter that the Obama administration was looking for its own ways to disclose more about its highly controversial drone strikes. [Continue reading…]

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Tom Engelhardt: Knowledge is crime

Why kidnapping, torture, assassination, and perjury are no longer crimes in Washington
By Tom Engelhardt

How the mighty have fallen.  Once known as “Obama’s favorite general,” James Cartwright will soon don a prison uniform and, thanks to a plea deal, spend 13 months behind bars.  Involved in setting up the earliest military cyberforce inside U.S. Strategic Command, which he led from 2004 to 2007, Cartwright also played a role in launching the first cyberwar in history — the release of the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear program.  A Justice Department investigation found that, in 2012, he leaked information on the development of that virus to David Sanger of the New York Times. The result: a front-page piece revealing its existence, and so the American cyber-campaign against Iran, to the American public.  It was considered a serious breach of national security.  On Thursday, the retired four-star general stood in front of a U.S. district judge who told him that his “criminal act” was “a very serious one” and had been “committed by a national security expert who lost his moral compass.” It was a remarkable ending for a man who nearly reached the heights of Pentagon power, was almost appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had the president’s ear.

In fact, Gen. James Cartwright has not gone to jail and the above paragraph remains — as yet — a grim Washington fairy tale.  There is indeed a Justice Department investigation open against the president’s “favorite general” (as Washington scribe to the stars Bob Woodward once labeled him) for the possible leaking of information on that virus to the New York Times, but that’s all.  He remains quite active in private life, holding the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as a consultant to ABC News, and on the board of Raytheon, among other things. He has suffered but a single penalty so far: he was stripped of his security clearance.

A different leaker actually agreed to that plea deal for the 13-month jail term.  Nearly three weeks ago, ex-State Department intelligence analyst Stephen E. Kim pled guilty to “an unauthorized disclosure of national defense information.”  He stood before U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who offered those stern words of admonition, and took responsibility for passing classified information on the North Korean nuclear program to Fox News reporter James Rosen in 2009. 

Still, someday Cartwright might prove to be unique in the annals of Obama era jurisprudence — the only Washington figure of any significance in these years to be given a jail sentence for a crime of state.  Whatever happens to him, his ongoing case highlights a singular fact: that there is but one crime for which anyone in America’s national security state can be held accountable in a court of law, and that’s leaking information that might put those in it in a bad light or simply let the American public know something more about what its government is really doing.

If this weren’t Washington 2014, but rather George Orwell’s novel 1984, then the sign emblazoned on the front of the Ministry of Truth — “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — would have to be amended to add a fourth slogan: Knowledge is Crime.

[Read more…]

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Britain increasingly invokes power to disown its citizens

The New York Times reports: The letter informing Mohamed Sakr that he had been stripped of his British citizenship arrived at his family’s house in London in September 2010. Mr. Sakr, born and raised here by British-Egyptian parents, was in Somalia at the time and was suspected by Western intelligence agencies of being a senior figure in the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda.

Seventeen months later, an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a “very senior Egyptian,” though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011.

Senior American and British officials said there was no link between the British government’s decision to strip the men of their citizenship and the subsequent drone strikes against them, though they said the same intelligence may have led to both actions.

But the sequence of events effectively allowed the British authorities to sidestep questions about due process under British law, mirroring the debate in the United States over the rights of American citizens who are deemed terrorist threats. The United States and Britain have a long history of intelligence sharing and cooperation in fighting terrorist threats. [Continue reading…]

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Karen Greenberg: Obama’s commandments

Think of us as having two presidents.  One, a fellow named Barack Obama, cuts a distinctly Clark Kent-ish figure.  In presiding over domestic policy, he is regularly thwarted in his desires by the Republicans in Congress and couldn’t until recently get his most basic choices for government positions or the judiciary through the Senate.  For the most minimal look of effectiveness, he has to rely on relatively small gestures by executive order.  In the recent history of the American presidency, he is a remarkably powerless figure presiding over what everyone who is a media anyone claims is a riven, paralyzed, even broken government structure, one in which the Republicans are intent on ensuring that a Democratic president can do nothing until they take the White House (which is almost guaranteed to be never).  What this president wants, almost by definition, he can’t have.  He is, as Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote recently, a man who’s lost the plot line to his own story and has been relegated to the position of onlooker-in-chief.

But keep in mind that that’s only one of our two presidents.  The other, a fellow named Barack Obama, flies (by drone) like Superman, rules more or less by fiat, sends U.S. missiles to strike and kill just about anyone, including American citizens, anywhere in the distant backlands of the planet, and dispatches the country’s secret warriors (whether from the CIA or the special operations forces) wherever he pleases.  He can, with rare exceptions, intervene violently wherever he chooses.  He can (by proxy) listen in on whomever he’s curious about (including, it seems, 320 German business and political leaders).  He rules over what former Congressional insider Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state” in Washington, a national security apparatus that is neither riven, nor broken, nor paralyzed, with only the rarest intercessions from Congress.  In this world, Obama’s powers have only grown, along with the “kill list” he reviews every week.

Admittedly, in his actions abroad from Afghanistan to Libya, his moves on the global stage haven’t exactly proven to be brilliant coups de théâtre.  Many have, in fact, been remarkably boneheaded.  But no one ever claimed that Superman’s superpowers included super-brain-power.

Think of this White House, then, as the schizophrenic presidency, one half remarkably impotent, the other ever more potent.  The conundrum is that they both inhabit the same man.  And if they add up to anything, as Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and TomDispatch regular, makes clear today, it’s long-term bad news for the country and the planet. Tom Engelhardt

The Five Commandments of Barack Obama
How “thou shalt not” became “thou shalt”
By Karen J. Greenberg

In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action.  In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived. 

Thou shalt not torture.

Thou shalt not keep Guantanamo open.

Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.

Thou shalt not wage war without limits.

Thou shalt not live above the law.

Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?

[Read more…]

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How the U.S. turned the world into a war zone

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…]

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