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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Hezbollah accuses Israel of assassinating senior commander in Beirut

Haaretz reports: The death of Hassan al-Laqis, a senior Hezbollah commander who was killed on Tuesday in what looks like a clean and especially professional assassination in Dahieh, the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut, is the biggest operational blow to the Lebanese organization since the death of Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh, who was described as the Hezbollah chief-of-staff, was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008. At the time Hezbollah blamed Israel, which refrained from responding. On Wednesday morning the organization blamed Israel for the assassination of Laqis as well.

Laqis, one of Hezbollah’s veteran military leaders, has been familiar to Western intelligence services since the 1980s. Intelligence officials have described him in the past as a “brilliant mind” who played a combined role in the Shi’ite organization, which could be compared to the head of Israel Defense Forces’ research and development as well as technology and logistics branch.

Laqis was knowledgeable of and involved in all the organization’s operational secrets – from the acquisition and development of advanced weapons to the establishment of classified communication systems to Hezbollah’s operative plans. His death strips Hezbollah of a “intelligence source” – a person whose experience and widespread connections to Syrian and Iranian intelligence organizations served Hezbollah well for almost three decades. [Continue reading...]

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Pakistan’s PTI party names CIA station chief

Firedoglake: A political party in Pakistan has named the CIA station chief in the country and accused the chief and CIA director John Brennan of murder for their role in a recent drone strike in Hangu, where an Islamic school was targeted.

The drone strike on November 21 killed six and, injured a “large number of those present including children,” according to a letter submitted to police by Dr. Shireen M. Mazari, the central information secretary for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Following the strike in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, a settled urban area, a First Information Report (FIR) was submitted to a nearby police station asking them to investigate crimes committed by those who were behind the strike.

Firedoglake is not revealing the alleged station chief’s name. The identity of the alleged CIA station chief in Pakistan has already been exposed by PTI, and his alleged name is circulating in the country.

The letter nominates Brennan and alleged CIA station chief Craig Osth for “committing the gross offenses of committing murder and waging war against Pakistan.” [Continue reading...]

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Barack Obama: Suspected war criminal

Shuaib Almosawa writes: Arfag al-Marwani finished his last minute shopping for the Eid al Fitr holiday by midnight, just enough time to enjoy a few hours of rest before the holiday’s dawn Fajr prayers. A 28-year-old laborer, Arfag had recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia and planned on spending the time with his family. It was August 8.

Just before making his final holiday preparations, he received a troubling phone call. Before the holiday celebrations could begin, he would have to carry out one final task.

There had been some sort of car accident involving his brothers: 24-year-old Abdullah, 17-year-old Hassan and 16-year-old Hussein. They too were on their way to the family home after finishing some last minute Eid shopping. Arfag’s thoughts drifted to news reports of the seven U.S. drone strikes in the past 11 days — one of which already targeted al Qaeda suspects in his home province of Marib. Arfag hoped that his young brothers weren’t somehow caught in the drone crossfire.

It took Arfag half an hour to reach the wreckage. Amidst the eerie quiet of the Maribi countryside, smoke still rose from the smoldering remains of his brothers’ mangled vehicle.

The strike that killed Arfag’s three brothers was the eighth out of nine total air attacks launched between July 27 and August 10. It was part of a spastic attempt to thwart what U.S. officials claimed was an al Qaeda plot to attack American interests. But the drone campaign may have only created more support for the militants, if Arfag and his grieving family are to be believed.

Government officials told the press that the strike’s targets were all al Qaeda militants. But the victims’ families say just the opposite was true: that the two teenagers and their older brother were innocent bystanders.

“Everything inside the car seemed to have been flung out of the windows by the force of the blast,” said Arfag, describing what he found at the wreckage that night.

“I found their bodies lying nearby — decapitated.”

Arfag carried the bodies of Abdullah, Hassan and Hussein to the trunk of his car one by one along with what remained of Eid gifts his brothers’ had purchased just a few hours earlier.

“They purchased two outfits for their little nieces, deserts, and a lot of fireworks. We all enjoy the Eid fireworks — they weren’t just for the boys,” said Arfag.

Arfag notified the rest of his family before he began the 50 mile drive north where the family would prepare the bodies for burial in a nearby cemetery the following day.

“Mom took pictures with her mobile phone of all of them, along with the [charred] gifts they had bought,” Arfag continued.

The August 8 strike has outraged the residents of Marib, a governorate where al Qaeda maintains a strong presence. According to some security analysts, that outrage over drone strikes directed toward the U.S. may do more harm than good in a long term struggle against AQAP, as the local Qaeda affiliate is known.

“This case gets at what I believe to be the Achilles heel of the U.S. in a place like Yemen: a lack of good, on-the-ground human intelligence,” said Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, al Qaeda and American’s War in Arabia. [Continue reading...]

Jeffrey Bachman asks: Is President Obama a suspected war criminal?

If you have read the recent reports on drone strikes by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is only one answer to this question … and it is not the answer most would want to hear.

If you have not read the reports, let me provide you with a brief summary of the common themes. The reports repeatedly criticized President Obama for what has been a near complete lack of transparency. Lack of transparency, according to the reports, impedes accountability. By failing to acknowledge responsibility for drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, there can be no accountability to those who have wrongfully had their innocent loved ones killed in attacks.

Frank La Rue, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted the role the right to information plays in promoting good governance. La Rue added that there exists a right to know the truth because the truth enables access to other rights: in this case, the right to reparations and accountability for the wrongful deaths of loved ones. [Continue reading...]

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Drone warfare as a form of terrorism

In their efforts to deflect criticism of drone warfare, President Obama and senior officials overseeing strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have repeatedly insisted that missiles are only fired when there is minimal risk to civilians and that the primary virtue of this weapons system is its precision.

This week, after Rafiq Rehman and his two children came all the way from Waziristan to testify before Congress on the impact of drone warfare, only five lawmakers bothered to show up. The assumption among campaigners seems to have been that the consciences of ordinary Americans would be stirred if they were to hear children describe what it’s like witnessing your 67-year-old grandmother getting blown up in a drone strike.

The death of Momina Bibi exactly a year ago illustrates how little value precision has if the target is a nameless figure on a computer screen. Yet the testimony of the Rehman family seems unlikely to have much impact on public opinion when Washington finds it so easy to ignore.

Al Jazeera reports:

[E]ven after what his family has been through, Rafiq Rehman said he does not resent the United States. In fact, even after witnessing his first Halloween weekend in the States, he does not believe all that much separates him from Americans.

“It’s very peaceful here. For the most part, there’s a lot of freedom and people get along with each other. They’re nice, they respect each other, and I appreciate that,” Rafiq told Al Jazeera.

“We’re all human beings,” he said. “I knew that Americans would have a heart, that they would be sympathetic to me. That’s why I came here — I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me and influence their politicians.”

The attitude of the Obama administration seems to have been reflected in the decision to prevent the family’s lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, from accompanying them on their visit.

Akbar, a legal fellow with Reprieve, the U.K.-based advocacy organization that helped bring the family to the Washington, believes that his work has something to do with the denial. He only had trouble obtaining a visa after he started to litigate on the behalf of drone victims.

In an interview at his Islamabad office, Akbar told me that he was first denied entry to the United States in 2010, even though he had an open visa at the time. He said that the head of visa services at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad told him his visa could not be processed there because of his history. “And I looked at her and I said what do you mean by history? She just smiled and she said, ‘You know very well what I mean by history.’”

He assumes she was referring to his decision that year to sue the CIA station chief in Islamabad. “It’s very simple,” Akbar said. “You mess with [the] CIA and they mess with you to the extent they can.”

Even if Akbar had been there and even if the hearings had been well attended, I suspect that many lawmakers and other Americans would find it easy to marginalize the Rehman family’s experience.

America never tires of expressing its good intentions. We mean well. Accidents happen. Momina Bibi’s death was a mistake.

This month the Obama administration decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan and in what looks like a rather transparent quid pro quo, the Pakistani government today issued a statement drastically reducing its claims about the number of civilians killed in drone attacks.

They now say that since 2008, 2,160 militants and 67 civilians have been killed.

There was no indication why the new data seem to differ so much from past government calculations and outside estimates.

A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by drone attacks in the country since they started in 2004.

Emmerson called on the Islamabad government to explain the apparent discrepancy, with the Foreign Ministry figure indicating a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation puts the figure at 185 civilians. Such estimates are often compiled from news media reports about the attacks.

Having made drone warfare one of the signatures of his presidency, Barack Obama’s level of comfort in utilizing this form of technology can be seen both through his willingness to joke about it, and his insistence on its judicious use. In his mind, the drone has somehow been turned into a symbol of restraint. Shock and awe has been replaced by carefully calibrated violence — even while it employs the far too infrequently cited brand: Hellfire.

The propaganda campaign the Obama administration has engaged in — now with the collusion of the Pakistani government — has always been a numbers game. It attempts to justify drone warfare on the basis of its supposed efficiency. Through a false equivalence — that drone strikes kill far fewer people and do less damage than air strikes — the drone is cast as the lesser of two evils. (This is a false equivalence because drone strikes are rarely employed as an alternative to an air strike. The 317 drone strikes in Pakistan Obama has authorized could not have been substituted by 317 air strikes.) And the measure of the drones’ success can be reduced to a numerical formula such as the one Pakistan just produced.

The effect of claiming that “just” 67 civilians have been killed (leaving aside the issue that this number is implausibly low) is that it masks the wider effect of drone warfare: that it has terrorized the populations in the areas where its use has become prevalent.

A reporter for the Washington Post interviewed a journalist in Pakistan and tried to get a sense of the psychological impact of drones. Was it, she asked, like living somewhere where there are lots of drive-by shootings? (Fear of random acts of violence might usefully offer some common ground, though the comparison might be a bit more realistic if one imagines a neighborhood where the shooters are armed with shoulder-launched missiles rather than handguns.)

Kiran Nazish describes what the presence of drones really means: that the fear of sudden death becomes ever-present.

Along with the few victims that Washington acknowledges, there are thousands more. Facing the risk of missile strikes, these are people afraid to go to market or to leave their own homes. And when the sky is blue, the danger rises, as high above, unseen but constantly heard, drones circle like vultures in search of their prey.

Powerless and with nowhere to flee, for the living victims of drone warfare, America has become an invisible and blind executioner.

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Jeremy Scahill: The fantasy of a clean war

The foreign leaders are dropping like flies — to American surveillance. I’m talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called “a lucrative source”) and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader.  Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders.  Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA.  Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread.  With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an “exhaustive” review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading.  I’m talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a “kill list” of terrorist suspects and using the president’s private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command.  In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality.  In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of “civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.”  In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute “war crimes” for which those responsible should stand trial.  (“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”)

And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns.  It’s already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications — however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States — still rule the day.  (“U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”)  After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, “The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation.”  A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates “40 to 60 new enemies of America.”  Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater “transparency” from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.

Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease.  In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called “rogue states.”  Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world.  No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower — from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan.  His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.

Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it’s an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill’s publisher, Nation Books.  Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom Engelhardt

Perpetual war
How does the Global War on Terror ever end?
By Jeremy Scahill

[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

[Read more...]

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American terrorism: ‘Will I be next?’ Drone strikes in Pakistan

Amnesty International:

I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?
- Nabeela, eight-year-old granddaughter of US drone strike victim Mamana Bibi

On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.

Earlier, on 6 July 2012, 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of US drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day’s work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.

The use of pilotless aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, for surveillance and so-called targeted killings by the USA has fast become one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in Pakistan.

The circumstances of civilian deaths from drone strikes in northwest Pakistan are disputed. The USA, which refuses to release detailed information about individual strikes, claims that its drone operations are based on reliable intelligence, are extremely accurate, and that the vast majority of people killed in such strikes are members of armed groups such as the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.

According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured. [Continue reading...]

See Amnesty’s 76-page report, ‘Will I be Next?’ U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.

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Caught between a drone on one side and al Qaeda on the other

A 97-page report produced by Human Rights Watch examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. Two of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.

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Documents reveal role of NSA’s targetted surveillance in drone warfare

NSA surveillance allowed the CIA to kill Hassan Ghul, a key al Qaeda operative, in a drone strike in Pakistan a year ago.

What further evidence could anyone need to accept that mass surveillance is necessary for America’s national security?

Sadly, that’s probably a strong argument in the sense that it’s an argument likely have its intended effect. Which is to say, if people believe that sifting through everyone’s email is what it takes to eliminate al Qaeda, then most Americans will probably acquiesce to this loss of privacy — a small price to pay in the fight against terrorism, so the thinking is meant to go.

The Washington Post reports:

It was an innocuous e-mail, one of millions sent every day by spouses with updates on the situation at home. But this one was of particular interest to the National Security Agency and contained clues that put the sender’s husband in the crosshairs of a CIA drone.

Days later, Hassan Ghul — an associate of Osama bin Laden who provided a critical piece of intelligence that helped the CIA find the al-Qaeda leader — was killed by a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

The U.S. government has never publicly acknowledged killing Ghul. But documents provided to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden confirm his demise in October 2012 and reveal the agency’s extensive involvement in the targeted killing program that has served as a centerpiece of President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy.

An al-Qaeda operative who had a knack for surfacing at dramatic moments in the post-Sept. 11 story line, Ghul was an emissary to Iraq for the terrorist group at the height of that war. He was captured in 2004 and helped expose bin Laden’s courier network before spending two years at a secret CIA prison. Then, in 2006, the United States delivered him to his native Pakistan, where he was released and returned to the al-Qaeda fold.

But beyond filling in gaps about Ghul, the documents provide the most detailed account of the intricate collaboration between the CIA and the NSA in the drone campaign.

The Post is withholding many details about those missions, at the request of U.S. intelligence officials who cited potential damage to ongoing operations and national security.

The NSA is “focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets,” an NSA spokeswoman said in a statement provided to The Post on Wednesday, adding that the agency’s operations “protect the nation and its interests from threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

So, for readers who don’t parse the reporting carefully, the narrative thread here is that contrary to the claims of its critics, the NSA isn’t in the business of spying on Americans; it has a vital role in hunting down terrorists.

But keep going — all the way down to paragraphs fourteen and fifteen:

The [leaked] documents do not explain how the Ghul e-mail was obtained or whether it was intercepted using legal authorities that have emerged as a source of controversy in recent months and enable the NSA to compel technology giants including Microsoft and Google to turn over information about their users. Nor is there a reference to another NSA program facing scrutiny after Snowden’s leaks, its metadata collection of numbers dialed by nearly every person in the United States.

To the contrary, the records indicate that the agency depends heavily on highly targeted network penetrations to gather information that wouldn’t otherwise be trapped in surveillance nets that it has set at key Internet gateways. [Emphasis mine.]

Or, to put it more bluntly, we have yet to be shown any evidence that mass surveillance plays any significant role in the war against al Qaeda. In tracking down Ghul, the crucial element appears to have been “a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan” — not a surveillance blanket covering the world.

And having said that, even while mass surveillance by the NSA seems to have prompted greater concern among Americans both inside and outside Washington than many other forms of America’s outlaw conduct over the last decade, the larger issue about which far fewer people show any interest is the policy of sanctioned assassination.

That an American president can now operate like a mafia boss is apparently OK — so long as every man on his hit list has an Arabic name.

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Obama’s secret kill list — ‘the disposition matrix’

The Guardian reports: When Bilal Berjawi spoke to his wife for the last time, he had no way of being certain that he was about to die. But he should have had his suspicions.

A short, dumpy Londoner who was not, in the words of some who knew him, one of the world’s greatest thinkers, Berjawi had been fighting for months in Somalia with al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group. His wife was 4,400 miles away, at home in west London. In June 2011, Berjawi had almost been killed in a US drone strike on an al-Shabaab camp on the coast. After that he became wary of telephones. But in January last year, when his wife went into labour and was admitted to St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, he decided to risk a quick phone conversation.

A few hours after the call ended Berjawi was targeted in a fresh drone strike. Perhaps the telephone contact triggered alerts all the way from Camp Lemmonier, the US military’s enormous home-from-home at Djibouti, to the National Security Agency‘s headquarters in Maryland. Perhaps a few screens also lit up at GCHQ in Cheltenham? This time the drone attack was successful, from the US perspective, and al-Shabaab issued a terse statement: “The martyr received what he wished for and what he went out for.”

The following month, Berjawi’s former next-door neighbour, who was also in Somalia, was similarly “martyred”. Like Berjawi, Mohamed Sakr had just turned 27 when he was killed in an air strike.

Four months later, the FBI in Manhattan announced that a third man from London, a Vietnamese-born convert to Islam, had been charged with a series of terrorism offences, and that if convicted he would face a mandatory 40-year sentence. This man was promptly arrested by Scotland Yard and is now fighting extradition to the US. And a few weeks after that, another of Berjawi’s mates from London was detained after travelling from Somalia to Djibouti, where he was interrogated for months by US intelligence officers before being hooded and put aboard an aircraft. When 23-year-old Mahdi Hashi next saw daylight, he was being led into a courtroom in Brooklyn.

That these four men had something in common is clear enough: they were all Muslims, all accused of terrorism offences, and all British (or they were British: curiously, all of them unexpectedly lost their British citizenship just as they were about to become unstuck). There is, however, a common theme that is less obvious: it appears that all of them had found their way on to the “disposition matrix”. [Continue reading...]

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The shooting of Ibragim Todashev: is the lawlessness of Obama’s drone policy coming home?

George Monbiot writes: Did the FBI execute Ibragim Todashev? He appears to have been shot seven times while being interviewed at home in Orlando, Florida, about his connection to one of the Boston bombing suspects. Among the shots was the assassin’s hallmark: a bullet to the back of the head. What kind of an interview was it?

An irregular one. There was no lawyer present. It was not recorded. By the time Todashev was shot, he had apparently been interrogated by three agents for five hours. And then? Who knows? First, we were told, he lunged at them with a knife. How he acquired it, five hours into a police interview, was not explained. How he posed such a threat while recovering from a knee operation also remains perplexing.

At first he drew the knife while being interviewed. Then he acquired it during a break from the interview. Then it ceased to be a knife and became a sword, then a pipe, then a metal pole, then a broomstick, then a table, then a chair. In one account all the agents were in the room at the time of the attack; in another, all but one had mysteriously departed, leaving the remaining officer to face his assailant alone.

If – and it remains a big if – this was an extrajudicial execution, it was one of hundreds commissioned by US agencies since Barack Obama first took office. The difference in this case is that it took place on American soil. Elsewhere, suspects are bumped off without even the right to the lawyerless interview Ibragim Todashev was given. [Continue reading...]

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Outsourcing assassination

Micah Zenko writes: “Outsourcing” is a dirty word in Washington these days. But officials are strangely silent when it involves targeted killings. This column has repeatedly focused on the scope, distinction, legality, and strategic effectiveness of America’s Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. Among the most widely promulgated criticisms of U.S. drone strikes is the absence of any transparency in decision making, limited congressional and judicial oversight, and the potential for civilian harm without any apparent corrective action. Policymakers and analysts have offered suggestions for how — over 10 years after they began — the Obama administration could comprehensively reform its targeted killing policies. Finally, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder promised some reforms related to transparency “in the months ahead.” That was several months ago. Given the Obama administration’s refusal to provide witnesses to recent congressional hearings on drones — or answer clarifying questions posed by journalists and policymakers — it is likely that forthcoming announcements will fall short of the president’s repeated goal of making his, “the most transparent administration in history.”

However, if you’re concerned by the Obama administration’s targeted killing policies, don’t overlook similar attacks conducted by allies and partners who receive U.S. money, weapons, or actionable intelligence. When the United States provides other states or non-state actors with the capabilities that enable lethal operations — without which they would not happen — it bears primary responsibility for the outcome. Whatever drone strike reforms the White House offers, or if additional congressional hearings are held, they must take into account America’s troubling role in client-state targeted killings. Consider some of the most egregious recent examples which the United States directly abetted: [Continue reading...]

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Rogue state: For the U.S. killing is more convenient than capture

Scott Shane reports: When Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was taken into American custody at an airport stopover in Jordan last month, he joined one of the most select groups of the Obama era: high-level terrorist suspects who have been located by the American counterterrorism juggernaut, and who have not been killed.

Mr. Abu Ghaith’s case — he awaits a federal criminal trial in New York — is a rare illustration of what Obama administration officials have often said is their strong preference for capturing terrorists rather than killing them.

“I have heard it suggested that the Obama administration somehow prefers killing Al Qaeda members rather than capturing them,” said John O. Brennan, in a speech last year when he was the president’s counterterrorism adviser; he is now the C.I.A. director. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In fact, he said, “Our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible.”

Despite Mr. Brennan’s protestations, an overwhelming reliance on killing terrorism suspects, which began in the administration of George W. Bush, has defined the Obama years. Since Mr. Obama took office, the C.I.A. and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to this country; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries with intelligence and other support from the United States.

This policy on targeted killing, according to experts on counterterrorism inside and outside the government, is shaped by several factors: the availability of a weapon that does not risk American casualties; the resistance of the authorities in Pakistan and Yemen to even brief incursions by American troops; and the decreasing urgency of interrogation at a time when the terrorist threat has diminished and the United States has deep intelligence on its enemies.

Though no official will publicly acknowledge it, the bottom line is clear: killing is more convenient than capture for both the United States and the foreign countries where the strikes occur. [Continue reading...]

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Obama will allow lawmakers to see secret memo on drone strikes on American

The New York Times reports: The White House on Wednesday directed the Justice Department to release to the two Congressional Intelligence Committees classified documents discussing the legal justification for killing, by drone strikes and other means, American citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.

The White House announcement appears to refer to a long, detailed 2010 memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen. He was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in September 2011. Members of Congress have long demanded access to the legal memorandum.

The decision to release the legal memo to the Intelligence Committees came under pressure, two days after a bipartisan group of 11 senators joined a growing chorus asking for more information about the legal justification for targeted killings, especially of Americans.

The announcement also came on the eve of the confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon for John O. Brennan, President Obama’s choice to be director of the C.I.A., who has been the chief architect of the drone program as Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.

Critics accused Mr. Obama of hypocrisy for keeping the legal opinions on targeted killing secret, noting that in 2009 he had ordered the public release of the classified memos governing C.I.A. interrogations under President George W. Bush. Administration officials replied that the so-called enhanced interrogations had been stopped, while drone strikes continue.

Until Wednesday, the administration had refused to even officially acknowledge the existence of the documents, which have been reported about in the press. This week, NBC News obtained an unclassified, shorter “white paper” that detailed some of the legal analysis about killing a citizen and was apparently derived from the classified Awlaki memorandum. The paper said the United States could target a citizen if he was a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda involved in plots against the country and if his capture was not feasible.

Administration officials said Mr. Obama had decided to take the action, which they described as extraordinary, out of a desire to involve Congress in the development of the legal framework for targeting specific people to be killed in the war against Al Qaeda. Aides noted that Mr. Obama had made a pledge to do that during an appearance on “The Daily Show” last year.

“Today, as part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters, the president directed the Department of Justice to provide the Congressional Intelligence Committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice related to the subject of the Department of Justice white paper,” said an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the handling of classified material.

The official said members of the Intelligence Committees would now get “access” to the documents.

Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the president’s move “a small step in the right direction.” But he noted that the legal memo or memos were not being shared with either of the Armed Services Committees, which have jurisdiction over Pentagon strikes, or the Judiciary Committees, which oversee the Justice Department.

The public should be permitted to see at least a redacted version of the relevant memos, Mr. Anders said. “Everyone has a right to know when the government believes it can kill Americans and others,” he said. [Continue reading...]

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Obama continues to cloak his killing program in secrecy

The New York Times reports: Early in his first term, President Obama rejected the vehement protests of the Central Intelligence Agency and ordered the public disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions on interrogation and torture that had been written in the administration of George W. Bush.

In the case of his own Justice Department’s legal opinions on assassination and the “targeted killing” of terrorism suspects, however, Mr. Obama has taken a different approach. Though he entered office promising the most transparent administration in history, he has adamantly refused to make those opinions public — notably one that justified the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed an American, Anwar al-Awlaki. His administration has withheld them even from the Senate and House intelligence committees and has fought in court to keep them secret, making any public debate on the issue difficult.

But with the disclosure on Monday of a Justice Department document offering a detailed legal analysis of the targeted killing of Americans, the barricades of secrecy have been breached. Just as leaks of interrogation memos in 2004 under President Bush ignited a fierce public debate over torture, the report on the so-called white paper by NBC News instantly touched off a renewed, and better informed, public discussion about whether and when a president can order the execution of a citizen based on secret intelligence and without any trial.

The Justice Department prepared the white paper, an unclassified, 16-page document, to brief Congressional oversight committees in lieu of providing lawmakers with the far longer, classified memorandum that justified the killing of Mr. Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Sunni Muslim cleric who joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and died in an American drone strike there in September 2011. But the paper dovetails with the legal arguments in that still-secret document, as described to The New York Times in October 2011 by people who have read it.

In short, the Justice Department argued that it was lawful for the government to kill an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” decided that the target was a ranking figure in Al Qaeda who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if his capture was not feasible. While the administration’s basic legal conclusions had already been aired — including in speeches by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other officials — the white paper provided a far more detailed legal justification.

Some human rights groups dismissed it in language reminiscent of their critiques of the Bush administration’s legal opinions on torture, taking particular aim at its flexible definition of what might constitute an “imminent” threat and the lack of any outside check on its claimed authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the paper “chilling.” A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said there was increasing evidence that American practices were “unlawful, violating the fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.” [Continue reading...]

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