State of the Union

Reading War With China

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mark C. Schultz/Released

Imagine a near-future scenario in which China and Russia sneak-attack America’s assets in the Pacific, sink its fleet, and occupy Hawaii in order to stage a multi-front war of land, sky, space, and cyber. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines turn into mujahedeen, NATO crumbles like a cookie, and Wall Street plunges into a black shroud of despair.

This may sound like “Red Dawn”, but authors Peter W. Singer and August Cole endeavor to make their new (and first) novel Ghost Fleet a modern cautionary tale more in the mold of World War Z, informed by two writers whose professional métier is the unbounded realm of the U.S. national security establishment, otherwise known as the Military Industrial Complex. As think tank denizens in the belly of the Beltway beast, both Singer and Cole have an inside grasp of how the Washington military culture works, with a particular focus on future war technology and all of the politics, hubris, and unintended consequences that world entails.

On the front end, Ghost Fleet, which hits the bookshelves on June 30, will no doubt cheer critics who see the Pentagon as long overdue for a reality check. On the back end, however, it’s a traditional war novel, sure to excite readers of the genre for illustrating the major conflict Washington really wants to fight—not a conflict against rag-tag religious fundamentalists in the Middle East who never seem to go away, but Great Power against Great Power, in the Pacific. In other words, World War III.

It’s not all wishful thinking—today’s headlines certainly lend themselves to the narrative, with China’s massive island building in the South China Sea, and its suspected super hack of the U.S. government’s most sensitive personnel data. Reportedly Chinese computer spies have routinely breached American weapons projects in order to clone them. Meanwhile, national security experts now openly refer to an “arms race” in the Pacific, egged on in part by Washington’s own public displays, such as the “pivot to Asia,” the Pentagon’s offset strategies, and years of doomsday reports from the U.S. Navy.

Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has been writing about the U.S. military’s strengths and vulnerabilities for some time. He was the first to take full measure of outsourcing war, capping it off with a seminal book on the private military industry in 2007. Today he focuses on cutting-edge robotics and unmanned systems. Cole is a former defense reporter for the Wall Street Journal who now runs the Art of Future War project at the Atlantic Council. Together they make a formidable team of two men who write about Washington’s defense community while advantageously situated within its fraternal embrace.

The result: Ghost Fleet is an ambitious blend of fact and fiction, Herman Wouk-meets-William Gibson, with a dash of Brave New World and “In Harm’s Way” for good measure. Critics of the Washington war machine will appreciate the first half, which takes a scalpel to nearly every major budget and acquisition debate since 9/11, underscoring the cynical subtext of each failed, aborted or over-extended program.

But if this makes Singer and Cole’s military readers uneasy, they’re soon rewarded by the second half, which allows them another crack at glory not seen since the Navy picked itself out of the detritus of Pearl Harbor. From their vantage, the authors not only know the machines, but the myth, and weave a tale that will speak directly to defense insiders (this early review is a tip off). Thanks to some fun sci-fi touches and the pace of a Tom Clancy novel, Ghost Fleet will likely find an audience among thriller lovers, too.

Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is not an argument against war, but a primer on how to wage it better. TAC talked to Singer about this, and the real-life U.S.-China conflict, in a recent interview:

TAC: So I’m reading Ghost Fleet and suddenly there are all these headlines about China building massive islands in the South China Sea and (Secretary of Defense) Ashton Carter calling on them to stop. Tensions seem to be ramping up and the headlines seem to be cuing the book.

PS: It was very hard to engineer a geopolitical crisis just for the benefit of the book but it worked out (laughs). The book is a mash-up of fiction and non-fiction. It is both a novel, but also looking at the overall trends in technology and politics of the real world. One key issue we wanted to explore is how geopolitics is undergoing a shift. If you look at the 20th century, it was shaped by great power politics, both the world wars that we actually fought, and the one that we didn’t fight but defined the last half of the century’s politics, the Cold War.

After the Berlin Wall falls and then 9/11, that idea of a war between great states is off the table, it’s not even thought of. It’s all about terrorism and insurgency. Conflict doesn’t go away but it’s not about the big boys anymore.  It’s not even thought of.

But now the risks of a big war between great states is back on the table.

With Russia and China and the U.S., you not only have a new arms race but a massive amount of tension and it is scary. I don’t think war is inevitable but that phrase ‘war is inevitable’ was used in a Chinese newspaper just last week … there are some very dangerous [signs] here. What the book does, is that it takes these trends and says ‘What if?’

TACThe Navy especially has been talking about conflict with China for the last several years, in fact it seems to be what the military culture in Washington would prefer. As someone who works both in and outside the defense community here, were you in a sense reacting to that, or are you seeing something else when you wrote this?

PS: I have a track record as a sort of trend spotter. Over a decade ago I was writing about the rise of the private military companies and—five years ago—the rise of the robots in war … This trend is one that I see as both real, but misunderstood. If you look at the raw data, China is clearly rising as an economic, political, and military great power, and we see that in everything from its economy moving towards the number one position in the world, it’s military spending has essentially gone up a greater percentage than anyone else’s in this period. They built the most warships in 2013, the most warships in 2014, they are expected to build the most warships in 2015 and are planning for the most in 2016 and 2017. You sense the trend here.

But there is another trend, as these two great powers engage in an arms race. This added risk is revealed when you look at both China’s plans and U.S. plans. Both militaries are gearing up for something. That is the centerpiece of the new U.S. “offset” strategy, which is about buying a whole new generation of tech to deter or defeat China. And that is at the center of China’s more emboldened strategy, where it is redefining its thinking on “active defense” from close to home to global power.

The problem is that both of them have the notion that any conflict would be “short” and “sharp” in their words and would work out for their side. There are great levels of overconfidence, both inside and outside of government, noting for example polling in China that 74 percent of the public thinks their military would beat the U.S. in a war. This doesn’t just make war more likely, they can’t both be right! One of them has to be wrong and would lose, or it could be that both could be wrong and the war could be draining and long. From a U.S. perspective, I think we are looking at what we can do and not factoring in the other side looking at what we can do and then reacting to that.

…The difference of a World War III is it would see battles of different domains. And you would be competing against states that could have just as good gear as you do—or even better. That could be very challenging, which makes it entirely compelling from the fictional standpoint—and of course scary if there was a real war.

TAC: One of the most compelling themes here is that our own technology—the sophisticated weapons systems, ships, planes, drones, communications—can be turned on us so easily by an adversary.

PS: The amazing networked communications, the command and control information domination that we have been able to put on the battlefield—they are strengths that could be turned into weaknesses. For example, we totally depend on GPS satellites. What happens when we don’t have access to that? We have that at play.

But we also have the “own goals” we might score on ourselves—an old soccer saying. We have spent not millions, but trillions of dollars on weapons system that might not serve us in actual great power war. We’ve bought weapons systems that we already know are riven with cyber vulnerabilities. Last year, the Pentagon’s tester found 40 major programs had vulnerabilities. Similarly, we are in the middle of buying warships that in the words of the Navy’s own tester are “not survivable” in an actual battle. We’ve bought a plane that is supposed to be a generation ahead of anything out there and we are seeing Chinese prototypes flying that already look like their twin.

TAC: Speaking of scoring goals on ourselves, what does it mean when you are fielding fighter jets in which 78 percent of the microchips in it are made by the people you might end up fighting, which is raised in the book?

PS: That’s not a random number, it’s the exact number in the F-35, that we cite in the book from a DARPA presentation. The risk there is not just someone cuts off your supply line, but you’ve opened yourself up to a new kind of hack, a “hardware hack,” where the other side can literally back vulnerabilities into your systems that you won’t know are there until they activate. Oops, I just spoiled one of the opening scenes.

TAC: There is a ton of technology here. I’m no techno geek—and I don’t mean to insult you here—but how much of the technology in Ghost Fleet actually exists and how much is of the “Star Trek” order, where it sounds perfectly real, but has little basis in reality?

PS: We came at it opposite of “Star Trek” in that many of the cool technologies in  “Star Trek” were actually imagined a way to solve production problems on the set. For example, the transporter was created because the prop of an actual shuttle craft would be too expensive to build for the original series. Our rule was everything in the book has to be inspired from the real world—it had to be a technology that is already at the research and development or prototype or even operations stages. It may sound fiction but it’s all footnoted in the index. No Klingon power packs or teenage wizard wands.

TAC: Ghost Fleet is very Navy-centric, why?

PS:  There is definitely at the center, a Navy theme … that’s again reflecting the real world and the fiction that I love. We envisioned what would be different about a war with China is it would involve something we haven’t seen since 1945 and that is a battle between great powers … If you look at China, the military build-up has literally created a modern powerful and soon to be globe spanning Navy … If you look at the next generation of our warships, where are we sending all of them? The Pacific. Like it or not it is a reality. It is an arms race in the Pacific—the U.S. and the Chinese are in a looming Cold War, with nationalism raising the risks. Just as we are talking right now, Foreign Policy magazine released an article describing the U.S.-China predicament as ‘riding the tiger.’

Hopefully (the book) will to shape politics in a way so that the scenario doesn’t come true. That is a difference with the “Star Trek” series—you hope that it doesn’t come true.

TAC: All of this speculation about a U.S.-China confrontation, is any part of you concerned that it merely whips up the war hawks and helps the Navy and defense industry justify expanding their budgets? It might sound cynical but this is Washington, and the Pentagon is still smarting from sequestration.

PS: No, they don’t need my help in that. My concern more is us buying gear that weirdly isn’t that great for an insurgency fight in the Middle East or a great power conflict in the Pacific. We have a lot of what I joke are Pontiac Aztec defense programs, where you try to be all sorts of things simultaneously and end up being bad at all of them individually, the way the Aztec was supposed to be a sports car crossed with a van crossed with an SUV.

TAC: I never asked you about Russia’s role in all of this. Why Russia, and how do you think real-events shaped the U.S-China narrative in your book?

PS: There is an ever closer alignment between Russia and China, and even more so after Ukraine further isolated Russia from the West. Indeed in the last few months they’ve signed over 30 major agreements on everything from energy to cybersecurity and done joint military exercises not just in the Pacific but also in Mediterranean. The problem for Russia is that it is China’s junior partner, who doesn’t want to realize they are the junior.

TAC: Thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

March of the Imperial Senators

(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)
(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)

Revisionist history is en vogue among Republicans this summer.

As Ramadi falls, hawks offer comfort in the argument that at least Iraq’s current troubles with ISIS can all be laid at President Obama’s feet. In the face of well-documented Iraqi reality, they are reviving the stale Vietnam-era trope to say that—if only the United States had the conviction to stay a little longer—it would have “won.”

The reviser-in-chief is none other than Sen. John McCain. McCain was Washington’s greatest advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and he hated that the U.S. ever left. No doubt he dislikes President Obama, who thwarted the elder man’s bid for the White House in 2008, even more.

Just last week he told reporters that President Obama’s strategy for curbing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was “one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history.” McCain’s widely known and tolerated flair for the dramatic now places an “episode” that most Americans could not rightly pin down, much less explain without the aid of Google, alongside slavery, the Trail of Tears, the federal crackdown on World War I-era Bonus Marchers, and the entire Vietnam War.

His partner in this long-running routine, Sen. Lindsey Graham, also reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Buck Turgidson (“Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”), laid out the latest talking points in an interview about the ISIS takeover of Ramadi in Iraq this month:

It’s a predictable outcome of withdrawing all forces back in 2011…The military advised [Obama] to leave 10,000 troops. When he refused to take their advice, everything you see before you is a result of that big mistake.

Graham, McCain, and their fellow Republican hawks, energized by an election over a year away, are once again using foreign policy overseas to bludgeon Obama, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and by extension, the whole Democratic Party in the arena of domestic politics here at home. It’s a deadly fandango that places national security in the balance, while lawmakers play rhetorical games, often crossing, if not leaping, the usual boundaries of diplomatic propriety and control.

“Imperial senators, basically that’s what they are … playing this real life version of Risk,” said Matthew Hoh, an Iraq War veteran, referring to the strategy board game in an interview with TAC. Hoh was the highest U.S. official to resign in protest of the Afghanistan war policy when he quit his State Department post in 2009.

Hoh says playing “real life Risk” is all about deception, and in the case of Iraq, a larder of revisionist history, which, as McCain and Graham have demonstrated, involves an elaborate tweaking of the story of how the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and why. It also requires the ambitious assumption that a) American forces had every right and opportunity to stay there indefinitely, and b) there would be no consequences if they did so.

Therefore it is “Obama’s fault,” as Graham has said repeatedly, for not renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement, which codified the complete pull-put of U.S. combat troops by 2011. His failure to do so was evidence of his willingness to put politics before the long-term security of the Middle East, or so they say. This not only squandered the surge “victory” led by Gen. David Petraeus’ in 2007, but the vacuum Obama left set the stage for the Islamic State and its rampage across Syria, and Iraq.

“It’s revisionist, and it’s for political reasons, and it’s the same thing you hear from those who said we could have won the Vietnam War—we could have tried harder if the media had allowed it, or the hippies had allowed it,” said Hoh. “The reality was that Iraq was not going to allow us to stay. There was very little opportunity to let us stay in Iraq.”

Republican President George W. Bush deliberated and signed the withdrawal agreement in 2008 with Prime Minister Maliki, a man who the U.S. spent enormous sums of money and political capital keeping in office since 2006. When Obama was elected soon after, he endeavored to see it through. Publicly, he advocated for a small residual combat force to stay in the country to help the Iraqis. Privately, according to numerous reports, he and his staff argued with the Pentagon over how big that force would be. He wanted 5,000 or less, they wanted upwards of 10,000.

But it turned out that the Iraqis had other plans. There was plenty of Kabuki theatre, as Maliki was forced to manage a government his opponents said he did not rightfully earn the right to form after the 2010 election, while needing to appease the Iraqis who wanted to see the Americans go. He seemed to be telling the Americans privately he wanted a big U.S. presence left behind, while explaining to the Wall Street Journal in 2010, “this (SOFA) is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.”

Negotiations reportedly wore on until the eleventh hour, but finally broke down when Maliki could not promise criminal immunity for U.S. troops there. “Frankly, given that less than 20 percent of the Iraqi public wanted American troops to stay, and given the great resentment in the Iraqi population …there wasn’t much sympathy to grant Americans full legal immunities in the Iraqi parliament,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in 2014. The withdrawal was complete in 2011.

The rest as they say is history, but Republicans have written their own chapters to the story, seizing on private memoirs from departing members of the Obama court, either scorned and ready to talk or just eager for the limelight and their own political makeovers. A narrative has been woven into existence that says Obama didn’t “try hard enough,” that Maliki was willing to bend but wasn’t given the proper inducements, that the White House flubbed tactically, etc. From the reliably Republican Washington Times in June last year:

Once Mr. al-Maliki repeated his demand for criminal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, the Obama administration stopped talking, a former defense official said. The White House planned to pull out of Iraq instead of engaging in tough negotiations to reach a compromise.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left his job in 2013 and wrote ruefully about the Iraq withdrawal a year later. In Time magazine, following the release of his memoirs in 2014, Panetta wrote, “the White House was so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” He claims “we had leverage,” but offers nothing but the weak threat of withholding reconstruction aid. Nevertheless, his “tell all” was a boon for the war hawks, and Republicans have gobbled it up.

Writer Gareth Porter, on the other hand, argued in a 2011 article that it was Maliki’s design all along to boot the Americans, and the SOFA was crafted that way despite the objections of Bush and the U.S. military. In the end, Bush was forced to agree to the 2008 document, lest he leave it up to chance that an incoming Democratic White House might pull out much sooner.

“A central element of the Maliki-Iran strategy was the common interest that Maliki, Iran and anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shared in ending the U.S. occupation, despite their differences over other issues,” wrote Porter.

Dexter Filkins breaks this down in his extensive, “What We Left Behind” for the New Yorker in 2014. Maliki needed al-Sadr’s coalition support in the new parliament, so a deal was struck. Sadr would weigh in for Maliki, as long as Maliki promised that U.S. combat forces would leave.

While behind the scenes Iraqi politicians reportedly expressed interest in a long-term American combat presence, wrote Filkins, “(Maliki) argued that the long-standing agreement that gave American soldiers immunity from Iraqi courts was increasingly unpopular; parliament would forbid the troops to stay unless they were subject to local law.” It gave him the out he needed.

The war hawks argue that if Obama had renegotiated the SOFA (basically forced a longer occupation), the U.S. would have helped the Iraqis repel growing al-Qaeda elements before they morphed into the Islamic State. This completely ignores the fact that it was our friend Maliki’s suppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Sunnis that empowered the extremist elements. It also ignores the very real possibility that al-Sadr’s Shia army, which had been standing down per agreements, may have re-emerged to fight the Americans themselves, along with the Iranian-backed militias that are now fighting ISIS in places like Ramadi.

“Sadr said he would put his army back on the streets if we were to stay,” Hoh said. Furthermore, “even if we put troops back there, the Islamic State and the Sunni were going to fight against the Shia-dominated military anyway. So we would have our troops in the middle of a civil war.”

Revisionism is a shopworn playbook employed to maintain support for the military and its operations overseas. The rewritten chapter on the Vietnam War, which claims the conflict would have been won if Washington had been more willing, was carried forward like a torch by Gen. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency “crusaders” in 2007 to garner support for escalating and protracting the Iraq War.

But not all history is so easily glossed over. The war hawks conveniently forget that McCain lost to Obama in 2008 for a host of reasons, not the least of which was that Bush had promised the American people both retribution after 9/11, and a transformation of the Middle East. What they got was endless war, with the worst yet to come in Afghanistan. They were tired, and preferred the so-called “anti-war” candidate to McCain’s dusty, faintly jingoistic rhetoric, which smelled like more of the same.

Despite what McCain & Co. say today, the country is split over putting so called “boots on the ground” in Iraq, or in Syria. The more the hawks call for military intervention, in fact, the more they remind Americans of the debacle that mired the U.S. there in the first place. The Wall Street Journal recently called it “an awkward election issue” that Republicans feel the need to dodge on the campaign trail.

“The GOP debating position is in tatters,” writes Juan Williams for The Hill. “Republican leaders refuse to admit that a Republican president made a terrible mistake in starting the war in Iraq. This sad political reality is a reflection of a culture of political polarization which has left much of the GOP base with their own set of beliefs, regardless of the objective facts.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Pamela Geller’s Free-Speech Hypocrisy

LARRY W. SMITH/EPA/Newscom
LARRY W. SMITH/EPA/Newscom

For those of us following Pamela Geller’s bombastic career over the course of the past decade, one of the most illuminating aspects of the aftermath of her otherwise tragic Texas Muhammad caricature contest, and its accompanying road show of anti-Muslim provocateurs, was how it revealed a fault line–however thin–over just how far the right should go in provoking Islamic fundamentalism.

Geller’s event was planned after 11 people at the magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed in January by Islamist attackers because of the magazine’s regular depictions of Muhammad and Islam. Two Muslim converts, Elton Simpson, 31, and Nadir Soofi, 34, whom police say have been communicating with ISIS over social media, attempted to storm the May 3 contest with assault rifles. They were killed when they exchanged fire with the two men providing security outside the event and a SWAT team that responded.

Such violence could have been expected, which was almost certainly the point. Geller and her associates “have the right to go there, but again, it’s stupid, it accomplishes nothing,” said Bill O’Reilly, whose brand of pop-conservative opinionating has kept him in the top seed of prime-time cable talk shows since he joined Fox News in 1996. “You don’t fish for [terrorists] by putting people in danger.”

O’Reilly was chatting with Laura Ingraham, the sharp-tongued doyenne of right-wing talk radio. Ingraham is the pillar of truth or a priestess of hate, depending on the eye of the beholder, but numbers don’t lie—she has successfully made a name for herself in a male-dominated field in which hosts generally hew to the hard-line orthodoxy on immigration, terrorism, and religion.

But when it comes to Geller’s stunt in Garland, Ingraham seemed to be calling for a time out: “The idea that this is going to be beneficial to us—and I come to it from a Catholic Christian conservative perspective—to rile an entire faith this way … to do what was done at this (contest) … it not only doesn’t accomplish anything, but I think it could actually make things worse for us.”

“Us” in this case means those who have made it their agenda to expose radical Islam as a tool of oppression and terror against non-believers. Taunting large numbers of Muslims over their belief that depictions Muhammad are tantamount to idolatry doesn’t help move “moderates” over to the side against extremism, she suggested.

“There is a line that is crossed if you attack someone’s religion,” offered Mike Lofgren, a retired Republican congressional staffer who in 2012 wrote, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

One of the first interviews granted by Geller after the May 3 incident was with Martha MacCallum at Fox. It did not go well. Kelleher flat-out asked Geller whether the conference was an appropriate way to combat extremism, citing criticism from billionaire gadfly Donald Trump and conservative Catholic ramrod Bill Donahue, both of whom said Geller’s event was “taunting” extremists and insulting all of Islam.

“When you embolden people, when you empower people, the haters, you’re going to get violence,” Donohue said in an earlier interview with Fox. “And so why would anybody who’s morally responsible want to intentionally incite other people? …We live in a sick society that some people think it’s good to taunt other people.”

Trump, who is no stranger to flamboyant publicity stunts, seemed scandalized by Geller’s tactics. “It looks like she’s actually taunting people,” Trump said. “It’s disgusting that [the shooting] happened and everything else, but what are they doing drawing Muhammad? Isn’t there something else they can draw?”

Fox’s MacCallum pointed to Pope Francis, who went into a Turkish mosque to pray for the end of the wars. “I understand where you are coming from, but I’m not sure you went about the right way,” she charged.

“You’re looking to restrict my speech,” shot back Geller, who has spent the last 10 years trying to shut down places of worship and keep al-Jazeera off the air. She retreated to her favorite defensive position, behind the 1st Amendment, where Geller knows no constitutionally minded conservatives or liberals will go.

“You’re asking me to abridge my speech so as not to offend savages,” she said, a line that was oft-repeated in the days after. “I’m not looking to denigrate anybody. I’m looking to rise everybody up.” She then compared herself to Rosa Parks, the black woman who sparked the end of the Jim Crow south by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1960.

A better comparison might be Sen. Joe McCarthy, who spent several years investigating, blacklisting, and destroying careers of citizens under the mantle of anti-Communism. Geller may be talking cartoons right now, but just a few years ago she was demanding loyalty tests and warning an audience at her unofficial 2010 CPAC event that Islamists had infiltrated every level of the U.S. government. At the same event, her Defense Initiative co-founder, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch proceeded to snicker at the prospect of Muslim women shrinking away from full-body airport security scanners because their faith demands modesty. Any move to accommodate them would be a “perversity,” he said, because Muslims “made [full-body scanners] necessary.”

This was just one in a string of several statements and innuendo showing how he and Geller really feel about Muslims, despite their flimsy public exhortations to the contrary. “Everyone knows Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority,” Spencer said acidly to a room of knowing guffaws. Like people who “believe in Santa Claus, though no one has ever seen it.”

Just two months later, Geller started the group Stop Islamicization of America and led a rally through the streets of downtown Manhattan in order to shut down the construction of an Islamic center she declared to be an affront to the victims of 9/11. The only connection between the center and the dead 9/11 hijackers, of course, was that they shared the same faith. Just like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, shared his religion with 173 million adult Americans. Nevertheless, the center became synonymous with terror, and the project appears forever on hold. That is how Geller and Spencer operate.

It is difficult for Geller, 58, not to tip her anti-Muslim hand. A wealthy socialite who loves the spotlight and the camera, she often lapses into her real feelings during press interviews, such as this one with The Times of Israel. After calling herself a “human rights activist,” Geller all but declares that the only path for a Muslim to become moderate is to stop being so Muslim.

Later on in the interview, she declared that “all of the major Muslim organizations in the U.S. are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. That is not a conspiracy theory, that is conspiracy fact.” Since Geller and her friends believe that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists-in-waiting, is she not saying all major Islamic organizations in the U.S. (representing more than 5 million Muslim-Americans today) are linked to terrorism and should therefore be investigated and/or shuttered?

Then there is her association with Geert Wilders, who joined her event in Texas. The Dutch parliamentarian and frequent guest on the Geller train is known for calling for a ban on the Koran and for staunching the flow of Muslims into Europe. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday that he wanted to plan a Muhammad cartoon expo in the parliament to show that they weren’t intimidated. When asked if he was “anti-Islam,” Wilders said simply, “Well, I’m certainly not anti-Muslim, but indeed I believe Islam is a threat to our civilization.”

Geller’s approach has gotten her into trouble with conservatives before. There is a reason her group is never allowed an official presence at CPAC, which is one of the biggest grassroots right-wing convocations of the year. Some of its attendees might agree with much of what Jihad Watch and Geller’s longtime blog, Atlas Shrugs, dish out, but organizers apparently won’t take any chances with having what the Anti-Defamation League has called Geller’s “anti-Muslim bigotry” bringing a lot of unwelcome press onto their annual confab.

It doesn’t help that Geller, Spencer, and their pal Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy have accused CPAC of treating with terrorists, particularly targeting organizer Suhail Kahn and long-time conservative power-broker and CPAC board member Grover Norquist. Not only have all three attacked Norquist for allegedly hanging out with “radicals” and accused Kahn of being one but they have also charged the popular Americans for Tax Reform president with bringing jihadists into the Bush White House, and they have repeatedly assailed Norquist’s wife.

“Grover Norquist’s ties to Islamic supremacists and jihadists have been known for years. He and his Palestinian wife, Samah Alrayyes—who was director of communications for his Islamic Free Market Institute until they married in 2005—are very active in ‘Muslim Outreach,’” Geller wrote in 2010. She goes on to elaborately connect-the-dots between the “silver tongued jihadists” he supposedly introduced to President Bush with card-carrying terrorist sympathizers, saying Norquist “had given Muslims with jihad terror links access to the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

Even Joe McCarthy could hardly make such guilt-by-association charges and call it a fight for America’s freedom. When the same tactics are turned on Geller, however, she calls it an affront to her own freedom of speech, such as when intrepid writers pointed out that Norwegian white nationalist, Islamophobe, and mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Geller and Spencer, calling her, in his 5,000-page manifesto, one of the “decent human beings” under attack for speaking truth to power. He went on to cite her blog 12 times and Spencer’s Jihad Watch 116 times. From Slate, shortly after the killings:

He cited [Geller’s] blog, Atlas Shrugs, and the writings of her friends, allies, and collaborators—Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, and Front Page magazine—more than 250 times. And he echoed their tactics, tarring peaceful Muslims with the crimes of violent Muslims. He wrote that all Muslims sought to impose “sharia laws” and that “there are no important theological differences between jihadists and so-called ‘peaceful’ or ‘moderate’ Muslims.”

Still right-wing writers like NRO’s Rich Lowry and the daddy of the radio demagogues, Rush Limbaugh, defend her, mostly against her liberal detractors. They know their audience: the same sort of people who supported ill-fated presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said he would institute loyalty tests for all incoming staff at the White House, and Newt Gingrich, who likened the fight against Sharia in the U.S. to the American Revolution.

Perhaps, however, the comments by Ingraham, O’Reilly, and other conservatives indicate Geller can no longer take their tolerance of her for granted. Does she care? Never. As she told Breitbart.com, her conservatives critics are weak sisters, “desperately afraid that the leftist media will smear them by association with me,” she said. “It is an act of sheer cowardice.”

Everyone–even neoconservative critics who call her “shameful”–insists that Geller’s free speech is sacrosanct. But what makes some conservatives especially uneasy is that her rigid stance against Islam raises implications for their own religious freedom movement, not to mention that it’s unclear whether her “free speech” is primarily about denying someone else’s. She is also drawing fire, literally. Even the mayor of the unfortunate town where the attack happened said she invited the attack.

“That’s the price we pay for living in a relatively free society,” said Mike Lofgren. “But if someone ends up getting killed as a result of her shenanigans, she really might want to rethink this stuff.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Lobby Day For the Marijuana Industry

Squint, and it looks like your typical networking confab in the nation’s capital: men and women in tailored suits and trendy dark-framed glasses gathered around a sideboard of coffee and carbs, their outsized name cards promoting wonkish-themed firms and start-ups.

Focus in, however, and a few inconsistent cues emerge: a touch of leather here, a man with handlebar mustache over there.

The blink-you-missed-it nonconformity is all you get, however. As marijuana industry leaders readied for lobbying Capitol Hill Tuesday, their freak flags weren’t flying. This is the next-gen legacy of a decades-old movement, a business association like any other, with their sights on tax reform and banking regulations, and they are all business. They just want to end the federal ban on pot, too.

“If you are in the business of selling cannabis or cannabis products in the cannabis space it is in your financial interest to change federal law,” exclaimed Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director, of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which started out with a dozen cannabusinesses in 2010 and now has over 850 members and a full-time lobbyist on the Hill.

Not just about profits, the assorted entrepreneurs, investors, advocates, lawyers and compliance experts gathered in Washington had specific goals for their “lobby day” with lawmakers on Wednesday. Those included a change to the tax code, specifically repealing “280E,” which restricts their ability to declare corporate deductions, forcing pot business to pay upwards of 70 percent of their income to Uncle Sam. They also want Congress to step in on their behalf with federal regulators who are scaring banks into turning away businesses in states where recreational marijuana and/or medical marijuana are fully legal, forcing them to be dangerous cash-only operations.

“We’ve come a long way since the beginning,” said Steve Fox, co-founder and deputy director, who heads up NCIA’s lobbying effort, recalling the first such confab in 2010 where, “I believe all we probably had was a homemade little poster board with our logo on it on the podium.” On Tuesday he spoke to a generous audience in the sleek “20 F Street” conference center on Capitol Hill, and two giant banners with NCIA’s sunrise logo (no leaf) graced the stage. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton stopped by and spoke for nearly 20 minutes about D.C.’s legalization law, which so far, has been thwarted by several Republicans in Congress.

Like any other industry, every level of the supply chain filled the room—cultivators, sellers, laboratories that test medical marijuana, manufacturers of equipment that extract the oils that make edibles and other cannabis products, capital investors, and experts who help cannabusinesses comply with the laws, which vary from state to state. Activists were in force, too, the backbone of a movement that has steered not only successful medical marijuana laws in 23 states plus D.C., but full legalization in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia—all in the last five years.

“This is all part of an ongoing social justice movement,” said Smith, “but we are also a movement for free enterprise, which I think has been the driving force behind a lot of social change.”

This juncture is exactly where free enterprise needs to keep channels open with the anti-prohibition effort and not let the two grow apart or worse, work against one another, said Rob Kampia, head of the Marijuana Policy Project, which has been responsible for drafting most of the state-level laws enacted since 2000, including the landmark referendum legalizing pot in Colorado in 2012.

On one hand, medical dispensaries used to a certain profit level in California were blamed in part for gumming up full legalization in 2010 because they saw profits going down. On the other, reformers have been prickly about “Big Pot” and the over-commercialization of the bud.

“The tension between industry players who care about making money and the rest of us who care about freedoms … . Both aren’t mutually exclusive,” pointed out Kampia. More than ever, he said, they have to work together.

Now that these laws are in place, the success of the movement will depend, in part, on whether the dispensaries act responsibly, standards are met, the taxes and other benefits that states are counting on transpire, and businesses not only profit, but have the ability to grow and flourish in a safe, legitimate space. Getting the federal government to take pot off of its Schedule I list of Controlled Substances, would be the cherry on top.

No one agrees more than the entrepreneurs who spoke with TAC at the event Tuesday. All three have livelihoods that depend on the success of cannabis, but expressed a personal investment in reforms based on the compassion for patients and the freedom of choice. All three were running to serve on the NCIA’s board of 22 directors.

“I’m conservative—very conservative,” and a longstanding Republican, offered Chet Billingsley, a refined older gentleman with a shock of white hair, impeccably dressed, and with a presence that belies his years on Wall Street and in the halls of America’s top schools, including West Point, Harvard, and MIT. The founder of California-based Mentor Capital, a publicly traded mergers & acquisitions and investment company since 1985, Billingsley has shifted the company’s focus from cancer research to medical cannabis. Mentor is now what is called a public incubator, taking solid cannabis companies, prepping them to go public, and then spinning them off, all the while letting them maintain operational control.

He told TAC that when he was first approached with investing in medical marijuana, “my response was, ‘are you kidding me?’ It was like asking a chicken to go surfing in the ocean.” It was a moral dilemma. Then “the scientist in me” did the research and found the answer. For cancer patients, Billingsley realized, “(cannabis) was a godsend,” stimulating appetite, suppressing nausea, and easing pain. He believes cannabis can ease the tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease, and treat epilepsy, too.

In fact, families all over the country have been moving to medical marijuana states like Maine and Colorado to treat children with epilepsy because it is known to help reduce the severity of seizures.

For Billingsley, an end to federal prohibition would open the space to investment, which is hurting due to fears among banks and other financial institutions. Most banks won’t take accounts from cannabusiness, and even attempts to open community credit unions are encountering unusual speed bumps.  Everyone fears the unknown when a new president takes office in 2016. “This is driving down investors,” he said. “Cannabis stocks are down 25 percent.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post recently reported that two girls from Northern Virginia who suffered hundreds of seizures a day are now being treated with a THC extract that has rendered them all but seizure-free in Colorado. These are the kinds of heartrending stories that Dorian Des Lauriers of ProVerde Laboratories likes to hear, but all the more reason he went to lobby congress this week for a bill that would allow every state to offer medical marijuana without federal intervention.

“I’m here to lend my support to changing laws,” the former software developer told TAC. ProVerde is a Massachusetts-based consulting and testing lab that helps cultivators, dispensaries and patients determine the right strain and dosage of marijuana required for treatment. Currently the lab is helping 10 families in Maine find the right formula for treatment for epilepsy.

“It is mind-boggling that these laws still exist,” said Des Lauriers, who senses the charm for politicians on the Hill: “the fact that we come from a strict science perspective—people listen. Politicians, leaders listen to that, it’s science and fact-based. I bring credibility to the cause, which is getting rid of these ludicrous, arcane laws.”

He said he was running for the NCIA board because he believes the lobbying is working—and he’s right. There are several bills pending in Congress that would prevent the DOJ from prosecuting dispensaries in compliance with their state medical marijuana laws, as well as measures that would end the ban on medical marijuana. Another would repeal 280E to help bonafide businesses reap the same tax benefits as any other corporation.

That issue has drawn the support of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who won’t speak on the issue of whether pot should be legalized, but says 280E, which was established in 1982 after a convicted drug smuggler was able to apply federal deductions to his profits, is a matter of “taking the federalist approach.”

“Whether it is medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, you don’t want tax policy getting in the way of federalism,” he told TAC ahead of a planned appearance at the NCIA event. “If the state is taking a position that it is not a crime then the feds shouldn’t be taxing it like it is.”

In his opinion, the federal government is stifling free enterprise – and experimentation — by burdening potential entrepreneurs with “bad tax policy.” When federal taxation precludes state experimentation,” he said, “I think it’s dangerous.”

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been working for 15 years on state and federal reforms, said they can “see victory” at the federal level, mostly because the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are coming around to the sound economic arguments, and positive opinion polls. If Colorado’s “experiment” is any indication, it’s going okay, so far. Crime rates were down in Denver from 2013, and the tax benefits are rolling in, maybe not as much as advocates has predicted, but $50 million from July 2014 to January 2015 shows the financial get was more than just a pipe dream.

Meanwhile the industry is boasting  $2.7 billion in annual revenues and employs tens of thousands of people, according to NCIA.

“There is nothing that has more potential for explosive growth than this industry – it’s phenomenal,” said A.C. Braddock, CEO of Seattle-based Eden Labs, which specializes in marijuana extraction and distillation systems that turn marijuana plants into oils that can be taken orally, vaporized or smoked.  She is also running for the NCIA board.

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” she said to TAC. But there is so much more. She wants to open up space for women CEOs and to promote “green” extraction techniques, as well as success for the industry as a whole.

“We just have to get past the stigmas involved in this simple plant.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Our Bad Friends, the Saudis

State Department photo / Public Domain

Before most Americans could even pronounce the name “Houthi,” much less tell you who they were, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on a dais chastising President Obama for his unwillingness to bomb them into the ground.

Mere hours after the Saudis (armed with $90 billion in U.S. weaponry and more on the way) began pounding Shia Houthi rebel targets in Yemen, the two senators were lamenting that Washington had not been let in on the operation.

“The fact that the Arab coalition no longer trusts us, or feels they need to inform us as what they’re about to do, is chilling,” Graham said on March 26. “They no longer have confidence in the United States of America,” McCain enjoined. “The Saudis did the right thing.”

This has been a common refrain from the senior senators, who have become as predictable as the tides when it comes to blaming the president for “leading from behind,” or not showing the appropriate obeisance to certain foreign allies—whether Israel on the Iran nuclear deal or Ukraine in their struggle against Russia.

But that Obama should be admonished for a perceived laggardness in the Sunni Gulf states’ swift intervention in Yemen, in what has been called a battle for sectarian dominance in the region, shows how little these men think of the American public. After 14 years of fighting Sunni insurgencies with no end in sight (Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda everywhere, now ISIS), the idea the U.S. could be shamed into joining a coalition of countries espousing highly questionable motives and human rights records, in an intervention no one can rightly explain, should raise a few red flags.

And one question—what do we get out of it?

There are, of course, two prevailing boilerplate explanations for why the U.S. should intervene more strenuously: 1) Yemen is boiling over in a proxy war in which the bad guys are power-hungry Iranians seeking to establish Persian-led Shi’a hegemony across the region, and/or 2) Washington must support “pillars” of stability like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, else the Middle East will go up in flames. Both claims have been deemed exaggerated and oversimplified in varying degrees by national security experts who see the events in Yemen as nothing more than a civil war that could turn into a sectarian blow-out across the region if airstrikes continue and Iranian proxies get further enmeshed in the situation.

The Saudi government has just hired two top Republican political spin doctors for tens of thousands of dollars to ensure that the above narratives stick, however, and to make sure that U.S. elected officials react in a matter consistent with the Saudi point of view on Yemen and the Gulf states’ desire to see President Bashar al-Assad deposed in Syria.

While U.S. lawmakers and the constellation of Washington think tanks can always be persuaded, the American people are far from convinced that Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that beheads people for blasphemy, covers women from head to toe, keeps its people largely unemployed and poverty stricken, and exports the kind of terror-inspiring Wahhabism that makes suicide bombers out of boys, really has American best interests at heart.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has done a stellar job at maintaining the fiction that even while it is everything that America is not, the kingdom is worthy of unconditional support. The same goes for places like Egypt and like Bahrain, which itself has largely escaped U.S. censure in its violent (Saudi-assisted) crackdown on the country’s oppressed Shi’a majority.

Aside from regional “stability,” the sword of Damocles ostensibly hanging over Washington until now has been oil (though the U.S. imports less oil from Saudi Arabia now than it does from Latin American countries and Canada), and U.S-global economic concerns linked to Saudi investments in the U.S. and the preservation of dollar as the world reserve currency. Those cringeworthy kisses and hand-holding with the man in the flowing robes weren’t for nothing.

After all these years of this ill-fitting alliance, the U.S. has demanded little in return. The Saudis allowed access to installations and air space after 9/11, and the CIA has a drone base there. U.S. forces work closely with the Saudi military, but more permanent U.S. assets are parked in other Gulf States, like the Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain.

Meanwhile, Washington continues to demur on the possible Saudi connection to 9/11, and has been tepid in its criticism of Saudi support of Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS. All this makes the McCain-Graham insistence that Washington “prove” its loyalty so mendacious. Who should prove what to whom?

Conservative columnist Trudy Rubin raised these contradictions in an April 11 column about Riaf Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger whose case went viral after he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for advocating free speech in the kingdom. He got 50 of those lashes before an international outcry forced the government to postpone the rest, yet he still languishes in a 10-year jail term and is in danger of being retried on apostasy charges, punishable by death (likely a public beheading, of which there have been 54 already in 2015).

“[Badawi] was trying to encourage the kind of peaceful debate that is essential if Arab nations are ever to emerge from the backwardness that fueled the failed Arab Spring,” wrote Rubin.

When asked why the Saudis would display a level and kind of intolerance similar to the Islamic State, “Saudi officials insist they won’t tolerate any interference with their ‘independent judiciary,’” she continued. “This is a thin cover story designed to stifle debate about the impact of Saudi religious ideology at home and abroad.”

Badawi’s wife, who fled with their young children to Canada, has spoken publicly for his release. Saudi Arabia has responded by “warning” Canada not to interfere. The Saudis have been even tougher on Sweden, recently cowing the country’s officials into walking back criticism made by their own foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom.

Wallstrom had spoken out against Badawi’s flogging and called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship. The House of Saud responded by scrapping a major arms deal with the country, barring her from talking about democracy and women’s rights at a speech of the Arab League in Cairo, recalling its ambassador to Stockholm, announcing it would no longer issue business visas to Swedes or renew the visas for Swedish citizens already there, and blocking the recent transfer of Swedish monkeys to a Riyadh zoo.

One would think Washington was in a much better position to pressure the Saudis on this point, but as foreign policy analysts (especially of the old Cold War ilk) are wont to say, “it’s complicated.” It’s especially complicated by the amount of money and the number of top-drawer lobbying firms Saudi Arabia employs to do its bidding in U.S. centers of power.

Therefore it’s not surprising that the Obama administration has been criticized for its lackluster appeals to the kingdom on its human rights record. When the White House failed to mention Badawi during the elite-studded Washington pilgrimage to King Abdullah’s funeral in January, Obama insisted that “a balance” is required.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was less nuanced: “I don’t think we’re in the business of demanding things.”

When U.S. Senators weighed in urging the Saudis to desist in the flogging, it was six Democrats and two Republicans (Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk) who signed a letter. Graham and McCain, who was forced to fire a top fundraiser during his 2008 campaign for president because his firm collected $15 million in lobbying work from the Saudis, were absent.

The fact is, Badawi was espousing the same arguments against the Saudis’ harsh interpretation of Islam that McCain and Graham have made in justifying the expensive, endless U.S. war on radical jihadism overseas. Many Americans are waking up to the fact that there is little difference between the two, and that Washington looks hypocritical when it coddles one purveyor of Wahhabism while sending U.S. troops into harm’s way to spill blood over another.

“This is an old story, that the U.S. puts aside human rights when it does not coincide with its own strategic interests,” Phyllis Bennis, activist and Middle East commentator for the liberal Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), tells TAC

“The disempowerment of women, the truly abysmal version of a so-called justice system that includes flogging bloggers and beheading people, the government’s definition of ‘terrorism’ which includes advocacy of atheism – this is the so-called stabilizing instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the region we are supposed to be supporting in this moment of instability?”

At least 90 people were publicly executed in Saudi Arabia in 2014. According to Sevag Kechichian, the Saudis have been defiant in the face of criticism, insisting such beheadings occur only after the strictest fair trial standards are upheld. Kechichian points out, however, that “suspicion, it seems, is enough for a judge to order putting an end to someone’s life.” Half of the announced executions in 2014 – and so far in 2015 – are for non-lethal offenses, he said. The vast majority are drug related, including mere possession. Meanwhile, religious minorities, including Christians, are routinely persecuted by the country’s religious police.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a convert who wrote The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role In Terrorism (2002) and founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism, says “Wahabbism is entrenched” in the kingdom and that reforms are in motion, but “it’s going to be slow.”

Unlike Bennis, Schwartz believes there is good reason to push back against Iranian influence in Yemen, and believes Obama could be more active in supporting the Gulf states against Assad’s crackdown on the Sunni opposition in Syria. However, “the U.S. should be more active is supporting reforms in Saudi Arabia,” he tells TAC. “That should be key to our policy in the Middle East. I am in favor of more active criticism of Saudi Arabia. I am also realist about how societies change.”

Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and three-quarters of all unemployed are 20-somethings. Millions of Saudis are living on less than $530 a month, even while, thanks to the monarchy’s spoils, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest concentrations of wealth on the planet. There is a pressure cooker here, one that also includes a restive Shi’a minority, and a radicalized segment of the population that sees the House of Saud as aberration.

Afshin Shahi writes that with its aggression in Yemen, new King Salman and the country’s elites are either ignoring these domestic struggles or using foreign policy “as an effective tool to control internal dynamics. “(The) ‘external enemy’ can be used to generate unifying nationalism or to legitimize a security state,” he says. “It’s an especially useful tactic for authoritarian regimes.”

But as one Reuters analysis warned on April 10, this strategy may have unintended consequences, as “nationalist fervor is sweeping the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom, bringing with it a sharp sectarian edge.”  The Saudis may call it a war against Tehran’s influence, but it appears to be translating into a religious war that abides no territorial boundaries.

So far, Pakistan has sensed that, too, refusing a Saudi request to send any troops with Riyadh and Egypt for a potential ground war in Yemen.

It’s hard to think this is what McCain and Graham truly want, but maybe they’ve been in league with Saudi interests against Iran for so long that putting American forces in the middle of an 1,300-year-old sectarian schism that Americans can’t even begin to untangle, doesn’t strike them as ill-conceived. For McCain, who has raved more than once, “thank God for Saudi Arabia and (former intelligence chief and ambassador) Prince Bandar, ” that point may be long lost.

It may be music to the kingdom’s ears, but for America’s sake, its lawmakers should reconsider their blessings before blundering into the next war.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

How Google AdSense Censors the News

Is Google trying to censor news it deems “inappropriate” for public consumption?

That’s what the editors of several news websites are asking after recent tussles with Google AdSense, the online advertising behemoth that generates revenue for publishers by placing third-party “pay per click” or “pay per impression” ads on their sites. Publishers need only sit back and collect the checks, which can add up to thousands of dollars a month, depending on traffic.

AdSense brings in about $13 billion a year to Google’s coffers, about 24 percent of its overall revenue. According to its fourth-quarter earnings report in January, Google earned $3.72 billion in the last months of FY2014 from ads appearing on its network partners’ websites. In 2011, the company said it paid 68 percent of ad revenue back to the sites that participate in AdSense. All added up, that’s a lot of cash.

Until, of course, a publisher runs afoul of Google’s Terms and Conditions. Google says it tries to guarantee its advertisers that their ads will only be displayed on “family-friendly” websites. That includes a strict prohibition on “violent content,” a rule the company says is applied across the board—and is apparently blind to context.

“If your site has content which you wouldn’t be comfortable viewing at work or with family members around, then it probably isn’t an appropriate site for Google ads,” according to Google’s guidance for “Adult Content.”

But “family-friendly” is a vague standard that can lead to poor, context-free judgements about content, as some publishers, including The American Conservative, suspect after recent brushes against those Terms and Conditions.

Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, says that in January, Google AdSense asked that its ads be removed from a January 2012 story featuring a commentary by this author that included a photograph of U.S. soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses, as well as a photograph of abuses that had occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War (specifically, the infamous photo of Pfc. Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi by a leash).

“Because ads are displayed on our site according to a general template, the only way we could satisfy Google’s demand was by removing AdSense from all of our article pages,” McCarthy explained, adding that “We still feature AdSense on our homepage and blogs, for now.” How much longer may depend on just how indiscriminately Google enforces its rules.

“There’s a chilling effect here,” McCarthy says, getting to the heart of journalists’ obligation to report the news, including disturbing images that the public needs to see. A corporate gatekeeper that treats news like offensive or “adult” content risks stifling free speech.

“Advertisers have always been free to withdraw support from a news organization when they’re embarrassed by its reporting, but Google is more than just an advertiser: AdSense is the Internet’s largest advertising network, and the only reason it’s the Internet’s largest ad network is because of Google’s market power as a provider of search engine and other services integral to most Americans’ web use,” says McCarthy.

“So when Google imposes restraints upon what news organization can report, it’s not acting like an auto manufacturer that withdraws advertising from ’60 Minutes’ in retaliation for an expose. It’s more akin to CBS itself telling the news program that it can’t report anything that wouldn’t be suitable for children’s television.”

Google as an Internet gatekeeper is no fantasy. Since its founding as a scrappy start-up amid the tech boom of 1998, it has grown to dominate the online ad and search markets. The company has drawn the attention of regulators, who want to rein in what they see as monopolistic behavior. Google in turn has spent millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress. Not all of that spending has been purely self-interested, however: the Internet giant, whose motto has long been “Don’t be evil,” has weighed in against what it calls unnecessary government surveillance on the net, and the company is aware of the censorship risks that overly broad regulations can pose.

One wonders then why AdSense won’t make a distinction between “Faces of Death” and the analysis delivered by The American Conservative when it comes to offensive violent content, which Google describes in its Terms and Conditions as anything with “bloodshed, fight scenes and gruesome or freak accidents.” Publishers, Google says, “are responsible for every page on which their ad code appears and for screening any text, images, videos or other media which will appear on a page with Google ads.”

Eric Garris, editor and founder of Antiwar.com, reports that AdSense contacted him on March 18 to say that his news site was suspended from the AdSense network due to pages that violated its terms of service, after Antiwar.com had been with AdSense for nearly 10 years. (Full disclosure: the author is a former contributor to Antiwar.com)

“I woke up Wednesday morning, went to the computer, looked at the front page, and there were no ads. Just three big blank spaces where the ads should have been,” he told TAC. “Then I went to my email and there was the mail from Google AdSense.”

The offense? Two pages that contained a series of graphic Abu Ghraib photographs first seen on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” featuring U.S. military servicemembers torturing Iraqi detainees, putting them in naked stress positions, frightening them with dogs. Two show servicemembers making the “thumbs up” sign over the bodies of dead prisoners.

These pictures are offensive, but that was the point—their release in 2004 caused an international uproar about U.S. treatment of detainees and soldiers’ conduct in war, spawned a number of high-level investigations, and led to lawsuits that are still playing out in our highest court. Without the pictures, would the outrage have been as fierce, the response as swift? The images are part of the historical record, and they made a difference.

“This is a matter of principle,” says Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Seeing that Google has become such a significant part of what we see and do online and in the public sphere, she says, “I think the company has an obligation to protect free speech and they are not, by and large, doing that.”

When contacted by TAC, AdSense spokesperson Andrea Faville said she could not discuss individual cases but that the Terms and Services are quite clear about prohibited content, which all publishers agree to at the onset. “The reason for the policies, really, is to protect everyone,” she said.

“It is not a judgment call in terms of the value of the content,” according to Faville. She says Google polices its more than two million partner sites for potential offenses with “a combination of technical and human review,” suggesting there are bots set to specific algorithms sniffing out offenders, then actual people at Google who determine whether action needs to be taken.

Garris and others wonder why the red flags regarding the Abu Ghraib photos now, after they’ve been online so many years already. “I understand that Google wants to protect their advertisers and that is a reasonable thing, but what they were objecting to had been on our site for 11 years and they never complained before,” Garris told TAC.

Gawker’s Alex Pareene followed the exchanges between Antiwar.com and AdSense for a week, expressing incredulity that the ad giant couldn’t discern between news and gratuitous stuff like this. He says the incident should “worry publishers of controversial political content who rely on Google for revenue. It looks to be much too easy for a malicious complaint, a faulty algorithm, simple human misinterpretation or overeager application of policy to cost a publisher a lot of money.

“The result could be a very real chilling effect on independent journalism.”

Especially since it seems that once the process gets over to the “human review,” things get much more subjective. Garris says Antiwar.com was reinstated after he got in touch by e-mail with AdSense public relations. But then AdSense came back and said the deal was off because of a May 2014 Antiwar story that featured an Associated Press photo showing a pile of dead people allegedly killed by Ukrainian government soldiers.

Garris says he was willing to work with Google on the issue but soon got the sense he was being painted into a corner. “I think what they really might be trying to do is edit us so we either become less objectionable in their minds, or just get rid of us.”

In their last exchange, Garris asked Google PR rep John Brown if this photo of Yemenis carrying a blanket, ostensibly with an injured person inside, “would be objectionable.” Brown, according to the email provided by Garris, responded: “A good rule of thumb is if it would be okay for a child in any region of the world to see that image, it’s acceptable.”

What would happen if Google really applied this “rule of thumb”? Suddenly, all of the significant war photography of the last century seems at risk, like this grim view of Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion. What about these images from World War I, Vietnam—could the goal of keeping advertisers happy eventually scrub the historical canon of war’s ugly realities, leaving only a bloodless, “family friendly” Madison Avenue vision intact?

For the last 70 years, entire generations have been educated about and sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust with photography. Consider what will be lost in our mission to “never forget” if scenes like this are deemed unfit to appear on ad-supported sites.

“No newspaper could operate in the brick-and-mortar world under the constraints that Google imposes on its clients,” says McCarthy.

“Does Google consider newspapers inappropriate for the family table?” he wonders. “They certainly can contain images and stories you wouldn’t want the youngest members of the family exposed to, but it’s the duty of a new organization to report such things, and it’s the duty of parents, not advertisers, to control when their children are exposed to harsh realities.”

Faville insists AdSense has nothing to do with making editorial judgments. “We are happy to work with any website that is compliant with our policies… we work with more than two million websites all over the world with all kinds of content. The team’s concern is if the content is in line with our policies or not.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

America’s Warlords in Afghanistan

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)

Thanks to a tawdry investigation and controversial plea deal this month, David Petraeus will forever be known as the American general who gave over classified ‘black books’ to his mistress-biographer. But his real legacy appears to be playing out like a slow moving train wreck back in the provinces of Afghanistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.

So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.

“Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”

HRW found, through numerous interviews with civilians, cross-checked with official inquiries and independent reporting, that Afghan Local Police (ALP) commanders were behind many of the human rights abuses. Petraeus, during his brief time as Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan (2010-11), was the key facilitator of the ALP, calling it a “community watch” of sorts, and considered it critical to his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

“This program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas,” Petraeus told congress in March 2011. “For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”

It turns out that while Petraeus was burnishing his bio with black book fodder for Paula Broadwell’s 2012 hagiographical All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, his “community watch” was becoming a village horror show for Afghan civilians in a number of ways—right under the noses of the U.S. Special Forces who armed and trained them, and who in many cases insisted on appointing their commanders, sometimes against the locals’ adamant opposition.

“What has been put into this (HRW) report, everyone knew for years,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a Skype interview with TAC from Kabul. Not only the ALP, he said, but private militias, security companies, strongmen and their minions, have flourished because of their usefulness in the war against the Taliban.

Despite the numerous allegations of criminal activity and brutality committed against the population, he said, “leading U.S. military commanders continue to present themselves with these people in a very friendly manner.” For him, “this is really shocking. War is violent, but there are real excesses here that go far beyond any red line that is acceptable.”

By September 2012 Petraeus was long gone from the scene, and his vaunted ALP program was slipping into disgrace. While the ALP was credited for keeping the peace in some places, burgeoning complaints of abuse and corruption in others forced the U.S. Army to halt recruitment that fall. By then, the ALP was 16,000 strong nationwide, according to the New York Times. In its most recent report, HRW said the ALP managed to give legitimacy (and a source of income) to warlords, local strongmen, and illegal militias that had already enjoyed an unofficial “hands-off” approach under the former regime and its American partners:

Although the Afghan government outlined measures to prevent pre-existing militias from joining the ALP, a weak vetting process failed to achieve this, and the force has provided cover for armed groups already implicated in abuses…The result has been a pattern of impunity, abuse, and the consolidation of power and control of resources by a small elite group.

HRW has singled out some of the more infamous American allies, among them Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, who despite outstanding arrest warrants for the murder of more than a dozen people remained the de facto commander of the ALP in the central district of Khas Uruzgan as of June 2014. According to HRW,

Shujoyi was originally a member of the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) and directly worked with U.S. forces in Khas Uruzgan. U.S. Special Forces in the district reportedly insisted on his recruitment as the commander of the Afghan Local Police in Khas Uruzgan in early 2011, although he was not from the locality.

Shujoyi and his men are accused of raping, stealing, beating, setting fire to at least one person’s home, and killing 121 local men. In one incident in August 2012, his forces were accused of killing upwards of 17 people in one day, including the stoning of a 15-year-old boy.

An American spokesman denied any ties with Shujoyi at the time of the killings, and said U.S. Special Forces were not active in the area where they occurred. But despite the arrest warrant, Shujoyi still enjoys his freedom, and has been witnessed with U.S. forces since.

“Everyone has seen (Shujoyi) with the Americans,” one witness told HRW. In particular, according to the report, “he was frequently seen entering the international base in the district capital of Khas Uruzgan (known as Forward Operating Base [FOB] Anaconda).”

In 2013, Australian journalist Paul McGeough wrote that “a reputation as a fearless ‘Taliban hunter’ has earned enough U.S. military protection for (Shujoyi) to cast himself as a new warlord—even as the Americans were backing him into the leadership of a new grassroots community protection service, the Afghan Local Police or ALP.”

In other words, McGeough added, “Special Forces has emboldened and protected Shujoyi.”

Meanwhile, in Urgun province, Tajik “Commander Azizullah” made a neat shift to ALP chief after allegedly committing numerous crimes against civilians as a member of the Afghan Security Guards from 2008 to 2010, when the ASG was conducting combat operations with U.S. forces, according to HRW. It was then that he was first accused in a 2010 United Nations report of theft and beatings during search operations, detention and physical abuse of children, and arbitrary killing of civilians. This included one case in which he reportedly drove around with the dead bodies of three locals strapped to his vehicles, announcing they were terrorists, until they started to decompose.

When confronted with the charges in 2011, a NATO spokesman at the time told the The Independent there was “little information to substantiate what were essentially claims.”

Azizullah and the forces under his command joined the ALP in February 2011, according to the HRW report, “despite local objections that this would legitimize Azizullah.” Afterwards, “human rights abuses attributed to his forces continued.”

Likely the most infamous of the Afghan strongmen associated with the United States, Gen. Abdul Raziq is credited with both keeping the Taliban out of Kandahar, and running an elaborate network of ruthless security forces that made him wildly rich, and feared. Nothing, the report says, happens in the province without his knowing. Meanwhile, a UN report in 2013 accused Kandahar police of “disappearing” 81 people in just one year.

Overall, Raziq and his henchmen are accused of drug running, corruption, torture, and more. In 2011, journalist Matthieu Aikins uncovered a 2006 case in which Raziq and his men allegedly executed 16 rivals and dumped their bodies in the desert. Raziq dismissed the allegations as smears against his reputation. When asked, according to reports, U.S. officials have affected the same tone, preferring to refer to the charges as baseless rumors.

Raziq, 36, rose in power as police chief of his hometown of Spin Boldak after the 2001 invasion, but his support from former President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. catapulted him to rock-star status and head of security for Kandahar province, the epicenter of the Taliban insurgency.  Dubbed “Our Man in Kandahar” in Aikins’ Atlantic profile, Raziq received Petraeus (five times), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other top Americans at his home in Spin Boldak. His men were trained by none other than Blackwater, and armed to the teeth by U.S. forces, according to Aikins.

“Ah, yes, General David … a good man,” gushed General Raziq, as he recalled the visits from Petraeus in a November 2014 interview with the New York Times.

Just last year, the new ISAF commander Lt. Gen. John Anderson seemed to be carrying on the tradition, as he was captured in a photo with Raziq, his arm slung over the smiling Afghan in a seeming show of camaraderie.

TAC reached out to the Pentagon for this story and received a brief but timely response about the standards applied to the ALP. From spokesman Maj. Brad Avots:

The U.S. military funds the salaries of Afghan Local Police who are under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Interior …  In order to maintain international support and the trust and confidence of the Afghan people, (they) must demonstrate that they are effectively governed, respect the Rule of Law, and operate in accordance with the Afghan constitution and international obligations.

President Ghani is now trying to figure out a way to rein in “our man in Kandahar,” but it seems futile. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan-American author who spoke with TAC from Kabul, says he doesn’t have much confidence that Ghani, who has pledged to clean up corruption and bring war criminals to justice, will be successful.

He blames the U.S. for not encouraging better standards when they had the chance.

“They have simply looked the other way and never had the courage or willingness to tell the Afghan government there has to be rule of law. And I am very sad about that,” said Shansab.

“Right from the beginning the United States was here to win the war. They went to the warlords and armed them to wage the war. That pattern was established. And the warlords they all got rich and powerful because of the war and now they run the country the way they want to,” he said.

“That is the state of human rights in Afghanistan,” Shansab charged. “I hate to be so dark, but that is the truth of it.”

Ruttig says that while U.S. forces are withdrawing now, Petraeus’s legacy police are “shooting up like mushrooms.” They’ve taken to illegal tax collection to subsidize their ranks.

“There were a lot of formal precautions to take them under control,” Ruttig noted,  “but it was clear to everyone who set up these precautions they were not going be as strong as they were on paper.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The DEA Strands Veterans

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

When ret. Sgt. Ben King came home from Iraq he was “high on his service,” but like many other veterans coming home from active duty at the time, the adrenaline eventually wore off and the pain settled in.

Suddenly, King, who served on an Army tactical psychological operations team (PSYOPS), was feeling less like a “warrior” and more like an old man. He had serious joint aches and couldn’t sleep well at night. He started self-medicating with alcohol and sleeping pills. He was becoming an emotional wreck.

“When I got back,” he explained to TAC, “I came back high on my service and proud of my service and very much the warrior. But little by little, things started wearing me down.”

King, now 34, is among a significant percentage of recent combat veterans suffering from chronic pain (44 percent) and/or symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (20 percent or more). They range from people like King who suffered emotional stress and muscle strain from the rigors of everyday combat life, to the thousands of men and women who survived the kinds of head and limb injuries that would have left them dead in wars just a generation ago.

Veterans along this scale have, up to now, turned to pills for pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia—mostly because they relied on them before they got out of the military. When they got home, VA doctors found prescription meds an effective way to plow through the glut of patients flooding into hospitals in unanticipated numbers across the country.

But unfortunately, as has been reported here at TAC and in many other outlets, overmedication has led to the rampant misuse and abuse of pills, dependency, and even death. As Aaron Glantz wrote in a piece about the VA for the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013, “Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the agency charged with helping veterans recover from war instead masks their pain with potent drugs, feeding addictions and contributing to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that is nearly double the national average.”

Because of reporting like Glantz’s, and numerous studies both inside and outside the military and VA health system, things are beginning to change. Whether that ends up being good or bad for veterans, will depend on whether there are other options for the injured and disabled.

According to a Washington Post report in February, new federal Drug Enforcement Agency rules instituted last summer have restricted access to the number of opiates like Oxycontin and Vicodin that anyone, including veterans, can get per month. In other words, doctors cannot fill more than a 30-day supply of painkillers to anyone, anymore. This does not apply to drugs for depression, anxiety or insomnia. The changes came not only in response to veterans’ issues, but nationwide addiction and overdose statistics, what Centers for Disease Control has called a “growing, deadly epidemic,” backed up with data indicating that it is “the worst drug epidemic U.S. history.”

For some vets who welcome alternative pain management and who believe pill popping has taken over their lives, this is a welcome development. But for many others, the Post points out, it is a troubling one. Vets tied to the VA system often drive great distances to get to a government pharmacy, and the wait times for appointments at some facilities can be weeks, even months.

“Suddenly, the VA treats people on pain meds like the new lepers,” said Stephanie Schroeder, the wife of veteran Craig Schroeder. She told the Post her husband was injured in a makeshift-bomb explosion while serving in Iraq. He suffers from traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, a herniatic disc, and pain from a broken foot. He has been on a “steady regimen” of opioids ever since. Now, he’s had to wait five months for an appointment with the VA and his prescriptions have simply run out.

“It feels like they told us for years to take these drugs, didn’t offer us any other ideas, and now we’re suddenly demonized, second-class citizens,” she said.

Dr. Charles Ruby, who retired from the Air Force and is now working as a clinical psychologist and veterans advocate in the greater Washington, D.C., area, is a proponent of therapy vs. medication for PTSD sufferers. He acknowledges, too, that pain meds, especially in combination with psychotropic drugs, can be lethal. However, he is skeptical of what he says are the federal government’s arbitrary constraints on painkillers.

“It’s probably a good idea to manage the doling out of [opioids], but who does the managing, in my view, should be the prescribers, the doctors,” he told TAC, “not the DEA stepping in. The government is going with this brutish shotgun approach without judging the consequences.”

Veterans’ blogs have been lighting up with responses to the new rules, which many are calling onerous and resulting in withdrawal symptoms among users. Among the complaints, that vets are all being labeled addicts no matter the circumstances.

“Best I can tell, VA could have handled the change better and treated veterans affected with more compassion while they suffered through withdrawals,” writes disabled veteran and advocate Benjamin Krause, who runs DisabledVeterans.org. “A big problem with the change was that VA failed to warn and did not explain exactly why the change was going on. Veterans that pushed for the painkillers they previously received were labeled as ‘drug seeking.’”

Many of Krause’s commenters said they would like to try medical marijuana as an alternative, but did not trust that even if they did so in a pot-friendly state such as Colorado, their federal benefits wouldn’t be at risk.

The VA did not respond for calls for comment. A Center for Investigative Journalism report in 2014 found that for years, the VA did not follow its own rules regarding the distribution of highly addictive painkillers—including morphine. All the while, VA prescriptions of narcotics jumped 270 percent between 2001 and 2012.

Ben King said he recognizes the struggle and is now a strong proponent of alternative treatments. After he was introduced to yoga at a D.C.-area VA, he became convinced he could lose the pills and booze. He now runs “Armor Down,” which supports “mindful meditation” as a healing approach for veterans.

“It was really rough for me to start thinking about pulling away from these things that I was using, which I felt were very valuable, very helpful,” he told TAC. But they were just blunting his symptoms, and only for short periods of time. King now believes meditation and other holistic remedies can work to help veterans transition to civilian life and even manage pain.

The VA has come to this realization, too, and in recent years has poured money into alternatives, including a $21.7 million initiative late last year that would study the effectiveness of such therapies—including the use of morning light to treat back-pain and PTSD, as well as hypnotherapy, chiropractors, and meditation to reduce chronic pain.

According to a December article in Medical Care, authors A. Rani Elwy and Stephanie Taylor presented 14 new studies on CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies, saying the research showed “promising steps to improve the health of veterans and active military personnel.” They also cited statistics showing that CAM programs were offered in some form at 90 percent of VA medical facilities at the time.

King said the greatest obstacle has always been the stigma of such programs for the military culture. “What (the DEA rules) represent for the VA is a kind of pulling off of the Band-Aid,” he said. “If they VA can find a way to articulate the means of these (alternative) practices, they can have the opportunity to frame the changes as beneficial to everyone. But it’s going to take some guts.”

Several members of Congress have been pushing for funding for alternatives, too. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., recently re-introduced her Expanding Care for Veterans Act, which would broaden research and access to CAM.

“(Complementary and alternative medicine) can help veterans manage chronic pain and reduce overuse of prescription drugs, which, as we now know, can lead to very serious health problems caused by addiction,” Brownley said in a statement to TAC.

However, in response to the new DEA restrictions, she warned, “The VA and DEA must also ensure that regulations aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse do so without compromising pain management.”

The reality is, not all sufferers can be expected to get through the day with Yoga or acupuncture. Their injuries are too serious. For vets who need to cut through the VA wait times or get to a pharmacy closer to home, the Veterans’ Affairs Choice Card program would allow them access private clinics. But so far, according to a recent VA report, only 27,000 out of the nine million eligible vets have bothered to use it.

One issue, according to the Washington Post, is that veterans have to wait months to be reimbursed by the VA for private care. Again, bureaucracy gets in the way.

Meanwhile, veterans feel labeled and abused, as though they are paying for others’ mistakes.  “Their policies regarding the prescription of opiate pain relievers are not only an atrocity against the disabled but are criminal in their application and enforcement,” raged one DisabledVets.org commenter.

“As usual, no one cares, and veterans who are suffering in agony remain voiceless and trapped in a government made nightmare.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Abu Ghraib Goes to Court

The world was so scandalized by the images of American soldiers forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pile into pyramids, leashing them and cornering them with dogs—not to mention the dead bodies flanked by men and women in camouflage giving the “thumbs up” sign—that the words “Abu Ghraib” will be forever associated with a sense of depravity and shame.

But nowhere to be seen in those photographs were the civilian contractors accused of setting the horror at the infamous Iraqi prison into motion, long before the scandal broke in 2004. These men managed to stay in the shadows, out of range of the camera, though subsequent military investigations confirm they were there all along.

These were the private contractors from CACI Inc., and Titan Corporation (later L-3 Communications), which provided interrogators and translators, respectively, to the prison. They were fingered as puppeteers of a kind in the Iraq War’s worst abuse scandal. According to testimony by lower-level guards from the 372nd Military Police Company who were convicted and did time for their role in the abuse, the guards were ordered by the private contractors working at the jail to “soften up” the prisoners, and were even given ideas of how to do it.

This was confirmed in the first official Army investigation by Maj. General Antonio Taguba, which examined the military police role, and another by Major General George Fay, which looked at the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. Both criticized the contractors’ role on site.

The Taguba report names names, including CACI interrogator Steven “Big Steve” Stefanowiz, who became known as a ringleader, inspiring a newly installed Cpl. Charles Graner—yes, that Graner—to use a number of abusive techniques with the prisoners, including stripping them naked, forcing them to endure stress positions, and inducing sexual humiliation.

From Taguba:

[Stafanowiz] Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by “setting conditions” which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable regulations/policy. He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.

But neither Stefanowiz, nor any civilian interrogator, was ever reprimanded, as recommended in the report, much less charged with any crime. Nine out of the 11 individuals convicted were non-officers, while one additional officer received a non-judicial reprimand and was relieved of duty and another faced a series of charges but was later acquitted.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who had been commanding officer at the prison (and highest ranking woman in the war), probably took the biggest hit for the team—she was demoted to colonel in 2005 for an unrelated charge. She believes the demotion was political retaliation for her public view that the abusive practices were led by contractors and approved higher up the governmental food chain. This familiar but never officially prosecuted charge was bolstered by revelations in 2005 that former Guantanamo Bay commander Geoffrey Miller had instituted the same techniques at Gitmo (including the use of dogs and forced nakedness) before he helped set up detention operations at Abu Ghraib at the beginning of the war.

Many of the degrading and abusive techniques at Abu Ghraib—the beating, stress positions, protracted isolation, sleep deprivation—also mirror some of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices revealed in the newly-released executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report.”

“It’s been documented that the authority emanated from the highest level of government,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University and former senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Torture was official U.S. policy—and it played out in a number of different ways, including through abuse by private contractors.” But so far, critics like Hafetz lament, contractors have avoided culpability for their direct involvement in prisoner abuses, as alleged in the official Army reports.

They have not escaped entirely scot-free, however. Scores of former detainees have retained American attorneys and have taken the private military companies to federal district court, accusing both CACI and Titan of, among other charges, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture; war crimes; assault and battery; sexual assault; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and aiding the military handlers in all of these crimes.

In 2013, Titan Corporation settled with 70 Iraqis for $5 million. CACI, however, which made billions in the war, has been steadfast in maintaining its innocence and has not offered to settle. They have fought various lawsuits all the way. Former CEO and recognized face of CACI, J. Phillip “Jack” London, wrote a book about it, called Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib, in 2008. 

A judge even ordered, upon CACI’s request, that the impoverished Iraqis suing the company in Al Shimari v. CACI pay the multibillion-dollar company’s legal fees—nearly $14,000—when the district court threw the case out in 2013.

In that decision, the court said it didn’t have the jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Act (ATS) to review the case, citing Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which held that the ATS only applies to conduct taking place in the U.S or on the high seas.

Forcing the Iraqis to pay CACI’s fees was only one indignity inflicted upon the abused. The court insisted that at least three Iraqis had to be in court for the case to proceed, but their attorney Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights said at the time, “There is some inexplicable block by some agency in the U.S. government that’s preventing them from coming here.”

But now the tide has seemingly turned. The Iraqis got a boost last summer when the Fourth District Court of Appeals found that the Virginia District Court erred when it tossed out the case, and that Kiobel could not be so narrowly applied in Shimari, remanding the case back to Virginia.

On Feb. 6 of this year, both sides gave oral arguments to Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in the federal district court in Alexandria. CACI is now arguing that the “political question doctrine” immunizes them from suit, because the court is barred from second-guessing military command decisions in wartime. They also say that the military is immune from such lawsuits, so as agents operating strictly under the military chain of command, the private military contractor is exempt as well. According to this November filing by CACI’s lawyers, the military had controlled “all aspects of interrogations” at the prison and exercised “total control” over the CACI interrogators.

 

CACI isn’t the first contractor to use these arguments and surely won’t be the last. In fact, numerous lawsuits by not only foreign plaintiffs, but also American soldiers who feel they were harmed by private contractors in the warzone, are making their way through the system. Decisions in any one of them could have an impact on the others.

 

For example, just last month the Supreme Court declined a request by KBR Inc. and former parent company Halliburton to review two lawsuits against the private contractor relating to its work in Iraq. One is a class action suit by hundreds of veterans who say they were made sick by the burn pits under the purview of KBR, which had a waste management contract with the U.S. The other is a suit by the family of a soldier who was electrocuted in a base shower built by a KBR subcontractor in Iraq.

KBR, which has denied wrongdoing in both cases, has said it should be shielded with same immunity from lawsuits as the military, and is also protected under the same “political question doctrine” as CACI is using in the Abu Ghraib case.

While the District Court in each case agreed with KBR and granted dismissals, they were both overturned by the Circuit Court of Appeals. By refusing to get involved, the Supreme Court effectively sent the cases back to the District Courts, where the plaintiffs hope to get a trial.

“You cannot look at these cases in a vacuum,” says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has written extensively on contractor liability issues, including the political question doctrine and other defenses, at the Lawfare blog.  “In all of these cases where you have private military contractors being sued in court for conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan they have invoked the same battery of defenses.”

The contractor lawsuits are taking place in a shifting gray area in which there is little solid precedent, but tiny convenient legal shelters into which companies are trying to hide, hoping the suits will go away. Will the political question doctrine and immunity argument be the sanctuaries they are looking for? Observers say there is no hard and fast litmus test, and like everything with war contractors, new cases seem everywhere, ready to set a standard.

Meanwhile, Congress has not stepped in to clarify the law as it applies to contractors in war, even as the U.S. government has outsourced more of today’s military operations to civilians than it has in any other conflict in its history. The question about what to do when those hired by the government are accused of abuse and negligence is something the Supreme Court may have to deal with more assertively, sooner or later.

As for the legacy of Abu Ghraib, the former detainees want their day in court, and for the time being, they are getting their wish.

“I think in general, the government’s record in prosecuting torture and other misconduct in Iraq and elsewhere has been extremely disappointing,” Hafetz tells TAC. “But contractors should remain liable, and I think that’s what the courts are suggesting here. They should be held to account.”

Calls to CACI and its attorneys were not returned, nor were calls to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs in Shimari v. CACI.

A Blackwater World Order

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s most profound legacy could be that it set the world order back to the Middle Ages.

While this is a slight exaggeration, a recent examination by Sean McFate, a former Army paratrooper who later served in Africa working for Dyncorp International and is now an associate professor at the National Defense University, suggests that the Pentagon’s dependence on contractors to help wage its wars has unleashed a new era of warfare in which a multitude of freshly founded private military companies are meeting the demand of an exploding global market for conflict.

“Now that the United States has opened the Pandora’s Box of mercenarianism,” McFate writes in The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order, “private warriors of all stripes are coming out of the shadows to engage in for-profit warfare.”

It is a menacing thought. McFate said this coincides with what he and others have called a current shift from global dominance by nation-state power to a “polycentric” environment in which state authority competes with transnational corporations, global governing bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), regional and ethnic interests, and terror organizations in the chess game of international relations. New access to professional private arms, McFate further argues, has cut into the traditional states’ monopoly on force, and hastened the dawn of this new era.

McFate calls it neomedievalism, the “non-state-centric and multipolar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances.” States will not disappear, “but they will matter less than they did a century ago.” He compares this coming environment to the order that prevailed in Europe before the domination of nation-states with their requisite standing armies.

In this period, before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended decades of war and established for the first time territorially defined sovereign states, political authority in Europe was split among competing power brokers that rendered the monarchs equal players, if not weaker ones. The Holy Roman Emperor, the papacy, bishoprics, city-states, dukedoms, principalities, chivalric orders–all fought for their piece with hired free companies, or mercenary enterprises of knights-turned profiteers.

As progenitors of today’s private military companies (PMCs), free companies were “organized as legal corporations, selling their services to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit,” McFate writes. Their ranks “swelled with men from every corner of Europe” and beyond, going where the fighting was until it wasn’t clear whether these private armies were simply meeting the demand or creating it.

In an interview with TAC, McFate said the parallels between that period in history and today’s global proliferation of PMCs cannot be ignored. He traces their modern origins to the post-Cold War embrace of privatization in both Washington and London, both pioneers in military outsourcing, which began in earnest in the 1980s.

By the time the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and stay there in 2003, its smaller peacetime military force structure could not withstand the burden. The Pentagon increasingly relied on contractors to support and wage the war.

“Policy makers, when they started the war in Iraq, they didn’t think it would last beyond a few weeks. They had three terrible choices – they could withdraw prematurely, they could institute a Vietnam-era draft … or they could contract out. So they chose to contract it out,” McFate said. “That is why you have it now and why it is not regulated.”

The U.S. used contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan more than it had in any war in its history: in 2010 there were more contractors deployed to war zones (207,000) than U.S. servicemembers (175,000). In World War II, contractors only made up 10 percent of the military workforce, according to McFate.

From 1999 to 2008, at the peak of the wars, Pentagon spending on outsourcing alone increased from $165 billion to $466 billion a year. Attempts at oversight have been pathetic, as documented by the government’s own inspectors general time and again. Success at regulating or imposing codes of conduct on contractors has proven elusive, too. The industry remains as opaque as it has been unassailable where it really counts—the pocketbook.

“The industry is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere,” said McFate a former employee of Dyncorp, which cut its teeth in Bosnia. Dyncorp thrived as one of Washington’s primary contractors for both security and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq despite intermittent accusations of overbilling and underperformance on the job.

Perhaps the most infamous of all contractors was Blackwater, which deflected charges of fraud, violence against civilians and murder for years before it was forced to “rebrand.” Four of its former guards were convicted of murder in October, however, in connection with the massacre of 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.

Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince has dipped and dodged his way through several incarnations of his company (no longer “Blackwater,” it was renamed “Xe” and is now “Academi”), and has been successful at running a number of other so-called shell companies and international security operations inside and outside of the U.S. government trough, including anti-piracy enterprises in North Africa.

In his post-American days (Prince left the U.S. for Abu Dhabi in 2010 amid a series of federal charges and lawsuits dogging Blackwater), Prince perched himself “at the top of the management chain” at Saracen International, a security group made up of hard-core mercenary veterans hired in 2009 to train indigenous forces in Puntland, Somalia, and to serve as a security detail for the embattled president of the fragile central government in Mogadishu.

Saracen was officially kicked out of Somalia in 2011 after accusations were made that it was violating the country’s arms embargo. According to Jeremy Scahill’s seminal “Dirty Wars”, however, by 2013 it was not clear that Saracen had ever left, and it was likely still operating in Somalia at the time with a handful of other international PMCs, including Dyncorp.

This is the world that Prince has both made and has thrived in. According to McFate, “‘irregular’ warfare is more regular than the ‘regular’ warfare,” as the number of internal conflicts have tripled while interstate wars have dwindled in number since a peak in 1965. As a result, PMCs have been used increasingly over the last 15 years by countries, NGOs, and corporations alike to protect ships on the high seas and oil fields in the deserts, to secure humanitarian missions, to raise armies against insurgencies, and to serve as security details at embassies, military bases, and palaces across the Middle East and beyond.

On the darker side, many of the multinationals once on the U.S. dole as PMCs in places like Iraq have since started their own enterprises and taken their skills to clients no matter the mission. They are hard to track, and impossible to rein in.

For example, before Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi was killed, he hired mercenaries from across Africa, “to brutally suppress the popular revolt against him,” McFate points out. Likewise, papers reported in 2011 that one of Prince’s companies, Reflex Responses, was hired to raise a force of several hundred guards for the emir of Abu Dhabi, to “assist the UAE government with intelligence gathering, security, counterterrorism and suppression of any revolts.”

By no means has the U.S. stopped using PMCs—they are protecting diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq, training foreign militaries, and conducting intelligence. At this point they are more agile and better equipped to do this work overseas than even their military paymasters, McFate argues, and their use prevents the public angst—and scrutiny—that accompanies putting American soldiers into harms way.

“The argument about private militaries being here to stay – that is the truth or unfortunate truth depending on your position,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow for the Future War project at the New America Foundation and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

“For those who thought this would all be over with the end of Iraq 2.0 or Obama’s presidential victory, the facts just don’t bear that out,” he told TAC in an interview. Singer agrees with McFate’s assessments in Modern Mercenary, which he said
“mixes the analytic and academic side with his own personal experiences working for one of the firms; that combination is rare in this space.”

McFate details for the first time in public how he was hired by Dyncorp on behalf of a secret U.S. contract to help prevent a group of Hutu rebels, the Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), from sparking another genocide of the Tutsis during the ongoing civil war in Burundi. McFate was tasked at one point with guarding the president of Burundi from impending assassination. The president remained safe, and the civil war was brought to an end by 2005.

McFate said he wrote about this, and Dyncorp’s training of the Liberian army in 2011, to show in part that PMCs can be used to positive ends. But he is not naïve. He is clear about where they can fail, invite mission creep, or seize power for clients through violence. By their very nature, PMCs profit from conflict and are always at risk of creating and expanding it for their own benefit. McFate cites numerous examples throughout history in which mercenaries have played both sides, only to come out with full pockets.

In addition, private armies live by no rules of war or international conventions; here, Erik Prince is the best example. PMCs can hide in countries with the lowest standards and norms. They have access to a global arms trade and the latest military technology, including drones. They are a risk to civilian populations, and their operations are never transparent. “You can FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) the CIA, you can’t FOIA this industry,” said McFate.

So what to do? McFate suggests that banning PMCs or trying to regulate them into submission won’t work because it would only drive them underground and into the realm of rogues. He suggests letting the market work to “incentivize desirable practices by making them profitable” might be the best course. He notes, however, that when the U.S. military had “market power” and was in the best position to set price and practices at the beginning of its wars, it “failed to do so.”

Whether the cons of private contracting outweigh the pros is a debate McFate chooses not engage, and his background as both soldier and contractor figure heavily in the tenor of his book. “I leave it deliberately up to the reader,” he said. “The book is not an argument; it’s more about exploration. There is a big global trend happening right under our feet. I think we are in the precipice of a big decision.” That decision is how to deal with the privatization of war effectively, if at all.

It will not be easy. U.S. agencies knowingly hired companies with spotty records. They used private contractors for controversial secret operations, including the detainee interrogations at Abu Ghraib, and a covert CIA assassination program involving Blackwater. It will take a lot more trust in Washington to believe that “best practices” in this industry can genuinely come from government itself.

“In an idealized world the companies with the best practices and best performance records would end up with all the contracts, and the bad actors would be eliminated from the field,” said Singer. “That hasn’t happened in regular business, much less when you cross regular business with what you call politics.”

Or war. Get your seat belt on, because if McFate is right, it is “back to the future,” and any choice we might have had in the matter is long gone.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

David Petraeus’s Double Standard

When CIA officer John Kiriakou was convicted of revealing the name of an agent allegedly involved in the torture of a prisoner, then-CIA director David Petraeus heralded the court’s decision as “an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country.”

“Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” he said in a statement on Oct. 23, 2012.

Less than a month later it would be revealed that former general Petraeus had broken his own oath, to his wife Holly, admitting to an affair with a woman who had once been his subordinate in the Army. In the course of the investigation that exposed the affair with Paula Broadwell—who was also his biographer—the FBI found he might have broken another oath, to the CIA (the affair supposedly began after he began his directorship there). Investigators suspected that the celebrated retired general had given her access to classified information that she was not authorized to have.

At the time, President Obama assured there was no indication that Petraeus passed along material “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

This month, however, sources inside the Justice Department suddenly leaked that they have enough evidence to recommend felony charges against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. The New York Times, in breaking the news, suggested that investigators were frustrated that higher-ups had been dragging their feet on the case, that the man once called “King David,” was receiving “special treatment at a time Mr. [Attorney General Eric] Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists.”

For his part, Petraeus has insisted all along that he did not pass along classified material to his former mistress, and according to the Times, is uninterested in making any plea “that would spare him an embarrassing trial.”

Reaction has been swift and predictable. Official Washington and the elite media have rushed to Petraeus’s defense, rebuking the unnamed sources inside the Justice Department as overzealous and vindictive and possibly having ulterior motives for dragging the beloved “four star” through the mud.

“No American deserves such callous treatment, let alone one of America’s finest military leaders whose selfless service and sacrifice have inspired young Americans in uniform and likely saved many of their lives,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.

Calling him “the four star general of our generation” and “a very brilliant man,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who once demanded no quarter for Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden—whistleblowers both—appeared to suggest a man’s personal appeal and status qualify as mitigating factors in a potential felony prosecution.

“This man has suffered enough in my view,” Feinstein told CNN on Jan. 11. “It’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job,” Feinstein said. “I mean, how much does the government want?”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald was aghast when he heard the audio of her full remarks during an interview on Democracy Now on Jan. 12, calling it, “actually one of the most disgusting remarks you’ll ever hear.”

Now, what’s so amazing about that is that, first of all, the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world for trivial transgressions. You would never hear Dianne Feinstein or any of those people in Washington saying about ordinary people, ‘Oh, they’ve suffered enough. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve been taken away from their family. Let’s free them from prison.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but as I seem to remember from middle school government class, lady justice is supposed to wear a blindfold,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, in a recent email exchange with TAC. He continued:

If the FBI has sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, then it ought to present those findings to a court for the consideration of indictment.  If they do not have sufficient evidence, the case needs to be closed and the suspicions related to Mr. Petraeus removed. But the stature of Mr. Petraeus, his past accomplishments, or what he may have suffered owing to self-inflicted misbehavior he may have committed should bear no weight whatsoever in the decision.

It is no secret that since leaving the CIA in a cloud of shame, Petraeus has nonetheless enjoyed a lucrative post-career, beginning with a $220,000 a year pension paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. He is also teaching at CUNY (he was forced to give up the six figure salary there after students and faculty protested), and the University of Southern California. He has a perch at Harvard, and was hired in 2013 by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity giant best known for “large debt-fueled corporate takeovers.”

While Broadwell was stripped of her security clearances, Petraeus reportedly retains his. Hardly an outcast, he has consulted with the White House on current troubles in Iraq—a war he was unable to fully win as head of U.S. Central Command, despite a barrage of accolades testifying to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Kiriakou has been in a federal prison with violent offenders for cellmates for more than two years. His wife Heather, who was pushed out of her job as a top CIA analyst three years ago—before John was even convicted—is struggling to pay the mortgage on their home while raising three young children alone. When he finally gets out in early February, he will be under house arrest until May, with little opportunity to get his family out of the enormous debt they have accumulated over the past several years since he was indicted.

Some would say that is “suffering.” But unlike the relative quiet it kept about Kiriakou’s humiliations when they were happening, the Beltway hive is already fighting—and seemingly winning—Petraeus’s battle for public opinion. If there was any doubt that the man who sold counterinsurgency (COIN) and two massively expensive (and failed) military surges to Washington is the Don Draper of the military age, one need only see how, with seemingly little effort, Petraeus is already being spun as a victim of the Obama administration’s runaway war on leaks, with the political establishment, media, and even the conservative grassroots closing ranks around him.

For his debut column at Politico last week, veteran newsman Jack Shafer penned “In Defense of David Petraeus,” which takes the Obama administration to task for over-classification and its crackdown on leakers. In defense of Shafer, he has been writing about these issues for some time and has nominally defended Edward Snowden. But he seems to compare Petraeus’s transgressions to writing bad checks and was never so breathless when talking about Kiriakou.

Neoconservative writer Eli Lake, who recently went over to Bloomberg News, also takes aim at the Obama administration in his Jan. 10 analysis, “Petraeus Caught in Obama’s War on Leaks.”

At first, Lake hints at the double standard, noting that high-level security-state offenders, if indeed that is what Petraeus is, “are almost never punished as harshly as low- and mid-level analysts,” using as an example Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive who lost his security clearance and his career, and who is now working at a Washington D.C.-area Apple Store following an aborted prosecution by the government in 2011.

Drake, a whistleblower who sacrificed his livelihood to bring attention to the unconstitutionality of the NSA’s post-9/11 data collection, has suffered, and with little or no public sympathy. The government wanted to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, thinking he had leaked information about President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, but it couldn’t make the case. He lost everything anyway.

Lake acknowledges that, “admittedly, Petraeus played a supporting role in the administration crackdown” on leakers by taking agency credit for Kiriakou’s demise. But that is as far as Lake is willing to go. He minimizes allegations that Petraeus engaged in more than just pillow talk with his former mistress:

when Broadwell—a graduate of West Point—was writing her first biography of him, she was given access to top secret information covering the period in which Petraeus commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement is common in Washington for established authors. Sources for Bob Woodward, whose books often disclose classified information that is provided to him through semi-official leaks, are not investigated for betraying state secrets.

Meanwhile, Petraeus has his right flank covered, too. The conservative grassroots believe he’s being blackmailed by the Obama administration over what he knows about the 2012 attacks on the American mission in Benghazi. They also sense this is a ploy to keep Petraeus from running for the White House in 2016. In the wake of the Times’ report on possible charges against Petraeus, Judge Andrew Napolitano took to the Fox News airwaves to rake Obama over the coals:

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA at the time of Benghazi … David Patraeus was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate. You can’t ethically or lawfully use the threat of a prosecution for political purposes but I am not naïve—it has happened before and it will happen again.

As national-security journalist Kevin Gosztola tells TAC, there is every reason to criticize the administration for its proliferating leak prosecutions and its zeal for using the Espionage Act to punish truth-tellers and whistleblowers. But all the evidence (that we know of) in the Petraeus case suggests that an “oath” was broken in order to sell a book, for the benefit of what turned out to be a bloated hagiography about a general who for years seemed more intent on preserving appearances and managing politics than actually telling the truth about America’s wars. Gosztola is not ready to make Petreaus a martyr to the cause.

Gosztola, who has been one of Kiriakou’s few links to the outside world writes: 

Petraeus should be prosecuted to send a message that leaks for personal gain are wrong. And, when elites feel disgusted or scoff at Petraeus’ prosecution [because they like to fawn over him], they can join the efforts of whistleblower advocates to end the use of the Espionage Act in leak prosecutions. They can help deal with the issue of rampant over-classification and push for changes in how the government goes about punishing people to “protect” the sanctity of American secrets.

The potential indictment of Petraeus raises a number of questions. While critics loathe him for his politicization, if not expansion, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they resent, perhaps more, the power of the state to use government secrecy and the threat of prosecution to silence dissent and quash efforts at open information. They look at unpunished leaking that benefits the state and chafe at the inequities.

That leaves Petraeus’s detractors, who would normally be thrilled at the idea of his comeuppance, in the awkward position of having to defend the general against the government. Or not.

“The problem is the rank hypocrisy,” said Tom Drake, who of all people might want to see someone like Petreaus in the hot seat, “and the use of the Espionage Act to chill anybody that [the] powers-that-be deem necessary to quell with respect to source information.”

“It is the power of the surveillance state that threatens all of our individual privacy, movement, association, and beyond—including Petraeus.”

Drake is a stalwart of the civil-libertarian cause, but it will be interesting to see how many Johnny-come-latelies suddenly take up this banner to defend Petraeus. Because of this deft spin, and for political reasons we cannot even begin to disentangle, he can’t seem to lose—the Teflon general.

“No,” said one military source who has known Petraeus since West Point, “nothing will stick to Petraeus.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Bureaucrats With Berettas

terrordome vilsack agriculture tank press conference

It’s a morning Kenneth Wright will never forget: 15 armed agents break in his front door and grab him by the neck, still in the boxer shorts he slept in. For six hours, a handcuffed Wright sat in a cruiser parked outside with his three children, ages 3, 7, and 11, while agents searched his house.

“They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids,” the Stockton, Calif., resident told a local news outlet at the time.

Drugs? Weapons? Domestic violence? No. As Wright later found out, his gun-toting visitors were from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). What the neighbors mistook as a S.W.A.T. team raid was really the execution of a search warrant in a student loan fraud case involving Wright’s wife, who wasn’t even there at the time.

“They busted down my door for this,” he exclaimed, “it wasn’t even me.”

The Department of Education took a drubbing from conservative and libertarian media but was unrepentant in its explanation. It offered no information on what the search warrant was for, other than to say that the OIG got it signed by a federal judge, and that the OIG routinely executes warrants for bribery, embezzlement, fraud, “and other criminal activity.” The department also said it “assesses” the danger of each search based on “a number of factors” before bringing the guns, like the whether the “persons” known to be at the house have a criminal or violent history.

Wright had no previous record, according to the above-mentioned report.

It might come as a surprise to most Americans, but the DOE considers its inspector general’s office to be its “law enforcement” arm and has outfitted it as such. In 2010, the department purchased 27 Remington Brand Model 870 police 12-gauge shotguns to replace its old firearms. “OIG operates with full law enforcement authority,” the department said after the Stockton incident.

And it was right. After the 9/11 attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 gave inspector generals’ offices across the federal spectrum statutory authority to build up such law enforcement capabilities—including the right to carry weapons and arrest people.

Not surprisingly, as the nation debates the militarization of local and state police in the wake of several high-profile use of force cases, the proliferation of the law enforcement culture within the federal bureaucracy has largely gone unnoticed. The fact is, agencies whose prime directive is to audit and investigate regulatory transgressions like waste, fraud and abuse, are arming up with rifles and submachine guns—in essence, getting ready for battle.

“Not only is it overkill, but having these highly-armed units within dozens of agencies is duplicative, costly, heavy handed, dangerous and destroys any sense of trust between citizens and the federal government,” declared Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in a statement to TAC. He plans to re-introduce language he sponsored in the last session that would repeal the authority given to the OIGs in 2002 and prohibit any federal agency outside “those traditionally tasked with enforcing federal law,” like the FBI and federal marshals, to get their hands on machine guns, grenades, and other military weapons.

In May last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) OIG put a bid out for 85 submachine guns (original solicitation here), specifically “.40 Cal. (Smith & Wesson), ambidextrous safety, semi-automatic or 2 shot burst trigger group,” outfitted with “Tritium night sights for front and rear, rails for attachment of flashlight (front under fore grip), scope (top rear) and stock-collapsible or folding, magazine.”

In September, a contract went out to Heckler & Koch Defense Inc., a weapons outfit in Northern Virginia, for $126, 586 worth of “weapons” for the OIG with no additional detail available. On the Heckler & Koch website, the gun closest to the solicitation is the MP5/40 Smith & Wesson.

Broiled by bad press after news of the solicitation and subsequent contract to Heckler & Koch, the USDA OIG responded with a five-page backgrounder—and justification—in October. “OIG’s investigations handles, on average, over 800 criminal investigations each year, some of which place OIG agents in potentially life-threatening situations,” it read.

The USDA said its statutory authority dates back to the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 which gives the OIG authority to “make arrests, execute warrants for arrest, the search of premises or the seizure of evidence; and carry firearms.”

“Although most OID enforcement activities do not result in a use of force related incident, a seemingly routing action such as an interview, surveillance, or search-arrest warrants always has the potential to turn into a dangerous deadly situation,” the agency argued, going on to list 11 cases dating back to 1997 in which OIG investigators were directly or indirectly threatened, or involved massive amounts of drugs, weapons and criminal activity.

“Carrying situation-appropriate firearms and wearing ballistic vests, as necessary, can reduce the possibility that criminal suspects engage OIG special agents or other persons in physical violence or use of firearms,” the agency said. So what about the 85 sub-machine guns?

The agency says the guns are not “fully automatic” capable and would “be carried by OIG special agents only when a particular arrest or search warrant is deemed as high risk for danger.”

One might ask two things: 1) whether the “crime” and “danger” should dictate that traditional law enforcement like the FBI step in rather than the USDA’s OIG, and 2) Why the OIG, which is has traditionally looked inward to tackle fraud and abuse among USDA’s programs, is increasingly pursuing cockfighting rings and meth labs on farms.

It isn’t new, says Washington, D.C., attorney Patrick O’Donnell, whose work in part requires that he defend corporate clients and individuals in federal cases quite like the ones pursued by these OIGs every day. He says the complexity of federal law has pushed the boundaries of what violations of a regulation constitutes a “crime” and the OIGs have taken full advantage, pursuing the more “glamorous” path of arming up.

“Those who do this on the defense side don’t carry guns—I can’t carry a gun. I work in Washington D.C. where they are basically outlawed,” he tells TAC. “But I personally don’t feel the need to be armed.” He said aside from his government cases, he has defended clients in both white-collar crimes and in pro-bono criminal defense cases. “I’ve done a lot of them in rough neighborhoods with rough folks—I know what cases tend to be threatening or not threatening. So this strikes me as outlandish.”

O’Donnell and colleague Brita Strandberg recently penned an op-ed, “We Don’t Need a Pistol-Packing FCC Inspector General’s Office,” for the National Law Journal. The FCC’s OIG David L. Hunt has testified that his office would like to hire two criminal investigators, who would be armed, to carry out what he says are potentially dangerous investigations going on both inside the agency’s programs and outside fraud and theft cases, typically involving federal communications subsidies like the Video Relay Service or the Universal Service Fund and its four major programs.

Hunt has argued that the office lacks the tools to go after more of these crimes effectively and must wait for FBI/DOJ investigators, whose time is split, to do the job. “However, if we were to have the support of criminal investigators, we could develop a case to a further point on our own rather than consume DOJ and FBI resources,” he told a House subcommittee in September.

As for the guns, “OIG investigators will be able to securely enter premises to interview witnesses in situations where it may be unwise to do so without the assistance of the FBI,” Hunt said, pointing an ongoing cases where “we have been advised not to conduct interviews because of possible safety concerns.”

Hunt told TAC last week that, “the focus on the weaponry is frustrating; all we are saying is if you want to investigate crime you have to have people trained to do that.” He said his office oversees a nexus of $10 billion in taxpayer money and is their job to keep it from leaking out into the wrong hands—whether that is embezzlement on the inside or among potentially dangerous actors outside.

“We’re like internal affairs at a police department but with a huge program (Universal Service Fund)—a number of huge programs on the outside too,” Hunt tells TAC. “Congress did not just task us to look on the inside.”

O’Donnell says it’s no surprise that FCC and other OIGs “are turning outward in the world, and not inward to the agency. ” The former invites possible law enforcement action, is higher profile, and tends to get more press.

“There is nothing glamorous about taking a hard line on the FCC and critically pointing out its shortcomings,” he said, referring to internal audits required by the OIG. “But to say you helped bust someone ripping off a program and to say you helped prosecute them and you have to carry a gun as a federal agent—well that’s more glamorous.”

So far, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been unwilling to green light Hunt’s request to add two criminal investigators to his 39-member staff. In a statement to TAC, Wheeler’s office said: 

Chairman Wheeler values and supports the independence of the Office of the Inspector General. The question of whether to permit armed employees in FCC buildings and field offices raises important security and employee safety questions. The Chairman has not made a final decision. The Office of the Chairman has discussed public safety concerns with the Inspector General and is consulting other agencies on their practices.

Critics like O’Donnell and others suggest that once these agencies have the ability to build law enforcement capabilities, the need to justify them inevitably grows, too, as does the proliferation of their trappings, including weapons and “tactical” gear (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection service paid $10,000 for a sniper rifle in 2010, for example)—not unlike the militarization of local and state police departments everywhere in the nation today.

“We are already far down this road,” he said. “There is no shortage of law enforcement in America. Quite the opposite.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Afghanistan’s Still-Broken Government

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat with broad Western support who promised to bring his troubled country into the 21st century, has something in his government he hadn’t counted on: a shadow.

Thanks to a power-sharing agreement that the United States helped to push on Ghani, the president has a prime minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former finance minister and top Northern Alliance official who had all but threatened civil war if he was not given a place at the head of the government along with Ghani. Abdullah got his wish, but longtime observers say the “sharing” may have created the conditions for a civil war anyway.

“I think forcing the two to share power is a recipe for disaster,” said Otilie English who worked on and off in Kabul throughout the decade after 9/11, mostly on government teaching contracts. Before 9/11 she did human rights lobbying, and worked to promote the cause of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Washington. She has no illusions that Afghanistan has turned a corner since.

“I really think the country is evolving back to conditions prior to the civil war in the 90’s in which Kabul was destroyed.”

A return to the 1990s would be the worst-case scenario, but it is just as likely that the central government will be a conflicting mess of tribalism, ethnic competition, and corruption—in other words, it will be no different than it is today. The first indication that things are going south are that it’s been a month since the so-called united government was formed, yet there is no government because the two sides cannot agree on who will be running the ministries.

“Power-sharing agreements can only succeed when there is political order, backed by internal security arrangement and an effective state-building mechanism,” said human rights activist Nemat Sadat.

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, with the escalation of attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan occurring since the inauguration and the inability to decide new ministers who can create an effective state-building mechanism, and the U.S. and allied countries running for the exits, you have a power vacuum.”

Tony Cordesman, senior national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that on every measurable front, Afghanistan is descending into crisis. “They [the metrics] are truly dismal,” he said, from economic growth and poverty, to security and governance. CSIS has just issued two reports with reams of data to prove his point.

“Just remember—and this often gets lost—Afghanistan is a country that regardless of who is elected, would have truly major governance problems. It is one of the worst governed countries in the world.”

Afghanistan’s recent open election—the country’s first without Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed leader who was constitutionally mandated to step down after two terms—was supposed to help turn the governance problem around.

TAC wrote about the elections this past summer, when Ghani and Abdullah went into a run-off after all of the eight competing candidates failed to get 50 percent of the vote in the April elections. Abdullah led April’s voting with 44 percent, compared to Ghani’s 31 percent. By July’s election, however, things had turned ugly as it was announced that Ghani was leading Abdullah 56 percent to 43 percent.

In one respect, the shift in numbers was not surprising—in American terms, think of it like an eight-way race in which six candidates are Republicans and two are Democrat. One candidate from each party emerges from the first round, and then the Republican benefits by consolidating the others’ votes in the two-way run-off. Ghani and five other candidates were all ethnic Pashtuns, while Abdullah and is Tajik and Pashtun but hails from the Northern Alliance, which was a Tajik resistance movement.

Nonetheless, Abdullah would not accept the results, charging widespread fraud. When he made the same accusations four years before against Karzai, it turned out that he was right. But this time, the situation was more complicated, observers said, and any fraud like ballot stuffing could turn out to have been committed on both sides. Either way, Abdullah threatened to withdraw support from the government if audits were not done. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud. We reject these results … and justice will prevail,” he told a crowd of restive supporters in July.

A deep audit of more than a million votes was initiated by the International Election Commission, and in September Ghani was declared the winner. But mysteriously, we do not know by how much—the final tallies were never released. Almost immediately, Ghani and Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry, which gives Ghani the presidency but leaves both men essentially in charge, with Abdullah serving as CEO with all the duties of prime minister. (For a deeper dive into the details, see the Afghan Analysts Network’s take.)

“Abdullah stamped his feet, and blustered and basically threatened and that’s why our government gave in—Kerry should have never went near this because it’s not going to work,” said English.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials, like senior presidential advisor John Podesta, called the pact and the subsequent joint-signing of the security agreement keeping upwards of 10,000 American troops in the country, a “turning of the page” in regards to U.S.-Afghan relations.

According to Martine van Bijlert at AAN, “Ghani and Abdullah have, so far, taken great pains to present the image of a united leadership,” going to Brussels and London in December to convince the international community to continue aid and security partnerships, but the cracks are already showing. Several deadlines to fill the cabinet have already been missed. Meanwhile, the old Karzai cabinet was dismissed from duty in November.

The deal itself might be to blame, as it calls for a perfect split in the appointment of the 25 ministries, each man getting half, but is filled with ambiguities about how to arrive at that split. AAN’s Bijlert writes that while the two have agreed to split up the ministries, they are not yet fully agreed on who gets which posts to fill. And according to AAN, the exact terms of Abdullah’s authority were not made clear in the original agreement, creating another sticking point. As of Friday none of the ministers have been appointed, which leaves the most critical posts like interior, finance, and defense in limbo.

In a town in which these jobs have usually been doled out for patronage and become cash cows for officials’ friends and family, this is a tricky business. Ghani has promised to stop the era of patronage and move toward meritocracy, but that goal seems farther away now as Afghanistan slips into the abyss of poverty and insecurity.

As Sadat tells TAC: 

The main conundrum in this power-sharing agreement is that under the terms signed by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and brokered by the United States, it requires “parity” to deciding leadership positions in ministries relating to security and economy and that the two sides will be “equally represented at the leadership level.”

This restricts Ghani’s executive powers and his dream about establishing a “merit-based” mechanism (or meritocratic or meritocracy if you will), whereby appointment of officials are made based on who is the most qualified to lead that position.

English tells TAC that to make it even worse, the nepotism and patronage throughout the ministries is ethnic-based, with Tajiks filling some ministries, Pashtuns others. This is the way it has always been and complicates the way forward. “Abdullah will demand certain key ministries and Ghani won’t give them up, and all the ministries are ethnically divided—that’s just how it is done.”

David Isby, an Afghan expert and author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland, adds that appointing ministries in the past has always been about favors and payback. Ghani has promised to tackle this corruption—most recently in his London speech—but therein lies the conundrum. “That means he is going to have to something about a system that is about mainly dividing the goodies rather than doing a job,” he tells TAC.

Isby says the central government is actually less important than setting the 34 provincial governments on a straight course, and to start that process the two new “co-leaders” had to go to their international donors with hat in hand first, even if it meant missing the deadlines for establishing the cabinet. “That’s where their money is, you know—they had to make that priority,” said Isby. However, he concedes that the continuing violence, including a series of suicide attacks in Kabul over the last month, combined with government uncertainty, “discourages investment.”

Bijlert takes that point one step further, suggesting the donor community is unsettled by the delay in the cabinet.

“The introduction of new faces ahead of the (donor) conference would have been a tangible sign of progress easily understood at home and in donor capitals. It would have been particularly welcome given the contentious and drawn-out election, the lingering uneasiness about whether a dual-headed government will actually work and the morphing of the ISAF mission into the new Mission Resolute Support,” she wrote, noting the new assistance role for the few international troops left behind.

Bijlert added: 

The inauguration of the new government initially led to a sense of optimism among many Afghans. This has been dampened as time passed, particularly with still no ministers appointed who could have started effecting the promised changes. What remains is a mix of hope and disappointment, as the new government, on the one hand, continues to present a sense of dynamism, albeit largely symbolically, and on the other hand, remains bogged down in its own complications.

CSIS’s Cordesman points out that the instability on all levels will indeed create a security vacuum for both the country and the region, given the strength of the Pakistani Taliban next door. He in part blames the American government for letting the corruption and the persistent problems in the Afghan military get so bad without coming to terms with them sooner and more openly.

The power-sharing agreement was just an attempt at a Band-Aid in order to keep all the powerbrokers happy, but the country is bleeding through. “And at this point,” he said, “no one can predict the outcome.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Civil Liberties Lose a Champion

Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studios
Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studios

The irony of Sen. Mark Udall’s stunning defeat to Republican Cory Gardner in this year’s midterm election is that he lost, in part, because of his association with a significantly unpopular president.

In reality, he was never a likely real stand-in for the president or the Democratic caricatures painted by the GOP. A western state mountaineer and self-described libertarian who supported concealed carry permits alongside a woman’s reproductive rights, this Colorado Democrat wasn’t your typical limousine liberal.

But come January he will be gone, leaving behind a canyon-sized void that civil liberties advocates say will be difficult to surmount.

“To be blunt, he’s leaving very big shoes to fill,” said Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has worked with Udall for over a decade. “When I think of his work over the last several years, he was really only joined by (Oregon Senator Ron) Wyden and a few others since the early days, asking the hard questions,” she added.

“He was one of the few who were willing to cross examine and take issue with any statement that was posited by the national security establishment – things they would prefer not to be questioned about,” said Tom Drake, a whistleblower and privacy activist who has plenty of experience battering the doors of Congress to force transparency on the government’s classified surveillance programs.

“It doesn’t take much opposition to get opposition – all you need is a check,” he said, noting that Democrats Udall and Wyden, who both serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, provided that “check” for years. “We are going to lose one of the key voices in the committee that is supposed to have oversight.”

Republicans saw Udall, 64, as an easy target for a Senate majority takeover in a midterm election that became more about President Barack Obama and his policies than anything else—and it worked. Taking up the challenge, Udall by pundits’ accounts, flubbed the campaign by focusing too heavily on whether Gardner opposed reproductive rights for women and not enough on other issues.

A cruel-fated end, his supporters say, to a career spent being the type of elected official most Americans say they want in poll after poll—someone who works for them, and not necessarily for party dominance or parochial allegiances. He may have had a “D” after his name, but particularly on the issue of constitutional rights and liberties, Udall was a champion of every American.

“Mark Udall has been a real leader on these issues, and he’s not someone who can be easily replaced,” his old compatriot Wyden told TAC in a statement.

Udall has not only been on the forefront of privacy issues, but his independent streak has extended to voting against the war in Iraq and against the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, which critics say would have allowed for the indefinite detention of Americans. Advocates now want him to read the classified CIA torture report, the release of which has been delayed by the White House and CIA, into the congressional record before he leaves office at the end of the month.

Airing the 6,000 page final report for the first time would be his boldest move yet. His office told TAC this week that the senator is considering “all options,” and is currently in talks with the White House to get the report released before it gets to that point. News late Thursday suggested a summary of the report might be released early next week.

Udall declined to be interviewed for this story, but e-mailed some of his thoughts about his work in the Senate. “At the heart of freedom is the freedom to be left alone. That’s why I’ve been a steadfast advocate of Americans’ privacy rights and worked to rein in the National Security Agency’s overreach,” he said. “Our intelligence community should focus on combating terrorists, not collecting the private phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans when there is no compelling national security interest to do so.”

Udall served 10 years in the House before winning a six-year term in the Senate in 2008. He drew his first line in the sand by voting against the Patriot Act in October 2001. It overwhelmingly passed, but he was one of 62 Democrats and 66 members total in the House to vote against it. Anyone who was working in Washington in those emotionally charged weeks after 9/11 knows that was a bold stand to take.

“I don’t care about the politics, it’s bad policy,” he reportedly said to Democratic consultant Steve Welchert at the time. “Mark turned out to be right,” Welchert recalled later to The Denver Post. That was an understatement.

More recently, as a senator, he voted again against extending several provisions of the Patriot Act, chiding his fellow Democrats for a lack of debate. For years he and Wyden had been banging their heads against the wall to get federal law enforcement to disclose just how they were interpreting the laws. As members of the Intelligence Committee they know things most Americans don’t, and they expressed frustration that secret interpretations of the law had allowed the government to run roughshod over the constitution while calling it a matter of “national security” in order to keep it all secret.

“We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act,” Udall and Wyden wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder in March 2012 after the Justice Department sought the dismissal of two lawsuits by the ACLU and The New York Times. The suits endeavored to disclose how 215 (the provision that allows the feds who go after “any tangible thing” they say is related to a terrorism investigation without a warrant) was being used by law enforcement.

“As we see it there is a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows,” they wrote. “This is a problem because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public does not know what its government thinks the law says.”

The two senators—who are among the very few privy to the classified interpretations—went on to make some damning assertions, not only about over-classification, but they also suggested the government was misusing the “national security” card in order to obfuscate the truth. “We have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the ‘intelligence collection operation’ …this has come as a surprise to both of us, as we were initially inclined the take the executive branch’s assertions about the importance of this ‘operation’ at face value.”

In the summer of 2013, Udall called for the Patriot Act to be “opened up” and reformed. This time, he didn’t just have his own evidence about government abuses gleaned from classified briefings, but the whole of Edward Snowden’s leaks from that June. He and Wyden found common cause with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to push for reforms at the National Security Agency, which we know now has been using FISA to dragnet millions of Americans’ personal data and phone records without warrant.

“It’s time to end the dragnet – and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans’ constitutional rights,” Udall, Wyden, and Paul wrote in a June 2013 op-ed.

Jesselyn Radack is a federal whistleblower and attorney whose clients include Edward Snowden. Like Drake, she has emerged as one of Washington’s toughest privacy advocates. Radack told TAC that after the Snowden leaks rocked Capitol Hill, Udall went straight to work, “conducting aggressive oversight of the NSA’s surveillance programs,” she said. “At a time when the majority of the congressional intelligence committees are unable or unwilling to properly oversee the surveillance state, Senator Udall stands out as a member dedicated to informing the public and protecting civil liberties,” she added.

“He wasn’t just talking about the NSA only when it was cool to talk about the NSA,” added the ACLU’s Guliani. “He was talking about these issues for a long time and continues to talk about them.”

But Snowden gave Udall and Wyden a chance to grill people like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan, with headline-grabbing and illuminating results. After a cross-examining from Wyden, Clapper told the Intelligence Committee that the NSA was not gathering millions of Americans’ phone records without warrant—contradicting to the evidence right in front of the committee. Clapper was forced to apologize.

Meanwhile, the senators have doggedly quizzed other administration officials about the NSA’s role in collecting massive amounts of data under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act (which Udall also opposed). This tool has allowed NSA to dragnet and keep massive amounts of data without warrant even if it’s useless to any investigation. Two previously secret programs—PRISM and Upstream—were revealed in the Snowden leaks.

The Washington Post reported in June that “ordinary Internet users” far outnumbered actual terrorism-related suspects among those swept up in these programs, and more than half of the tens of thousands of surveillance files reporters were able to analyze came from American citizens—not foreigners—ranging from their emails to photographs to academic transcripts and medical records.

Marcy Wheeler, a privacy policy expert and scribe behind the popular Empty Wheel blog, points out that Udall is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and from that perch was able to question Vice Admiral Mike Rogers, who was nominated (and confirmed) to head U.S. Cyber Command/NSA this year. In much the same fashion as Wyden did with Clapper, Udall asked Rogers to say whether the NSA was conducting warrantless surveillance on Americans through Section 702. Rogers declined to answer.

“SASC was the only venue to ask Admiral Mike Rogers any questions before he was confirmed. Udall tried to use Rogers’ confirmation to get him on the record on back door searches,” Wheeler recalled to TAC.

“I also think he’s good at finding places where the government isn’t meeting the spirit of the law,” she added, pointing to the growing concerns about NSA data collection under Executive Order 12333, which is also secret and warrantless. She said Udall used the February confirmation hearing for John Carlin to Assistant Attorney General for National Security to press his points, and to show just how transparent these agencies want to be with the people. Turns out—not much.

However, said Guliani, “I feel that we are much further along with the debate than we were before thanks in part to Senators Udall and Wyden.”

In July, Udall called for CIA head John Brennan to resign after the agency was forced to admit it spied on Senate Intelligence Committee staff computers while the CIA torture report was being pulled together. Brennan was forced to apologize.

Supporters hope Udall will read the torture report into the record if the White House continues to delay. Certainly, said Drake, it would be his last great stand as the independent senator.

“There’s been way too much cover-up and collusion and too much year after year of keeping critical matters of state from public view,” he said. “He is in a unique position to do this.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Military-Industrial Candidate

Analysts were right to say that the Republican takeover of Congress bodes well for the war machine: already we see the levers of power slowly shifting in reverse, eager to get back to salad days of post-9/11 wartime spending.

But waiting in the wings, Hillary Clinton just may prove to be what the defense establishment has been waiting for, and more. Superior to all in money, name recognition, and influence, she is poised to compete aggressively for the Democratic nomination for president. She might just win the Oval Office. And by most measures she would be the most formidable hawk this country has seen in a generation.

“It is clear that she is behind the use of force in anything that has gone on in this cabinet. She is a Democratic hawk and that is her track record. That’s the flag she’s planted,” said Gordon Adams, a national security budget expert who was an associate director in President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who has spent her post-service days protesting the war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is more blunt. “Interventionism is a business and it has a constituency and she is tapping into it,” she tells TAC. “She is for the military industrial complex, and she is for the neoconservatives.”

Hillary, Inc.

The former secretary of state, senator, and first lady appeared to fire the first salvo (at least in her national security arsenal) in her next presidential bid last summer, when she gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg mostly on the launch of her new autobiography, Hard Choices. In the much-ballyhooed Atlantic piece, Clinton defends Israel from charges of disproportionate attacks in Gaza, takes a hard line on Iran in the nuclear talks, and suggests President Obama could have avoided the rise of ISIS by listening to her proposals for arming the anti-Assad rebels in Syria last year.

Not long after, Leon Panetta—who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff before he was Obama’s CIA director, then secretary of defense in 2011—released his own tell-all, Worthy Fights. While the book itself might be more nuanced in its criticism of Obama’s foreign policy choices, the promotional tour, which came at the height of the current Islamic State crisis and right before the midterm elections, had Panetta blaming Obama for not keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq, then, and not having “the will to fight” in Iraq and Syria, now.

Panetta’s flurry of press interviews, all of which make Obama look like a rube, feed the belief that all of Clinton’s actions are politically motivated. “The criticisms that (Panetta) is leveling at President Obama do not seem to be his own,” charged liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, in October. She pointed out how, at the time, then-defense secretary Panetta “staunchly defended” Obama’s decision to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. She continued:

“Now that he’s out and working for a global strategy firm that’s essentially the Hillary Clinton campaign in exile, now he’s flying the same exact anti-Obama flag that the hawkish Clinton wing of the party has been flying all year trying to position themselves for the next stage in their own political careers by stepping on President Obama’s neck.”

Maddow was describing Beacon Strategies—a firm launched by a collection of former Hillary Clintonistas, including longtime spokesman Phillipe Reines. When it opened shop in 2013, Defense News noted that it looked like these former aides were keeping their powder dry for another government run; in the meantime Beacon was “built on providing advice to companies, primarily defense contractors, focused on international defense business as well as cyber, although their first client was Bash’s former boss, Panetta.” Panetta has since joined the firm.

If Hillary Inc.’s first order of business was to define her worldview away from her former boss, it also seemed to take on some of that old Clinton triangulation magic—anticipating the usual trope that Democrats are too squishy on defense. And it seemed to work, for now. Panetta’s attacks on Obama were so welcomed by the right wing that Karl Rove called him a “patriot” on Fox News.

True Believer

Hillary’s prevailing record in Washington is as ideological as it is political. In the purest sense she endeavors at what writer Peter Beinart refers to as muscular liberalism, in the vein of Presidents Truman and Kennedy. Her intellectual coterie includes elite purveyors of “humanitarian interventionism” like former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Anne Marie Slaughter.

In a September review of her friend Henry Kissinger’s latest book, aptly entitled, World Order, Clinton describes her own perception of America’s “global leadership.”

“America, at its best, is a problem-solving nation. And our continued commitment to renovating and defending the global order will determine whether we build a future of peace, progress and prosperity in which people everywhere have the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential,” she writes.

Her bond with the former Nixon national security advisor, who she boasts, “checked in with me regularly” during her time as President Obama’s secretary of state, reflects the paradoxes inherent in both their tenures. She says they both share “a belief in the indispensability of continued leadership in service of a just and liberal order,” yet Kissinger is best known for expanding the war in Vietnam. In the interest of global order he pushed for continued air strikes on Laos and helped initiate a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia without congressional approval, ultimately strengthening the genocidal trajectory of the Khmer Rouge.

All told, millions of civilians died as a result of the war in Indochina. Kissinger was feted for “ending” the conflict in Vietnam with the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, for an agreement that in no way inhibited the North Vietnamese from overrunning the south as the last Americans scrambled to leave Saigon in 1975. Kissinger also supported the war in Iraq, and was a regular counselor/visitor at the Bush White House, too. Now, like his protégé Clinton, he says, “If I had known everything then that I know now, I probably would not have supported it.”

Hillary may have been protesting the Vietnam War while Kissinger was escalating it, but she has long since seen force as a way to promote democratic goals, beginning with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1994 (when, of course, it politically suited, as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out in 2008).

Networking to the Right

So when she became a New York senator in 2001, she chose to consult with the brass, including Gen. Jack Keane, who helped to draft the so-called surge in Iraq. She bonded with fellow Armed Services Committee member and chairman Sen. John McCain, who critics joke never saw a conflict he didn’t want to bomb his way out of. It was in the Senate that Clinton cemented her ties with the military, knowing full well that it helped her politically, too, given the lessons learned from her husband’s cool relationship with the Armed Forces more than a decade before.

Her new friends did her no good in 2008, however, when she faced Barack Obama in the Democratic primary for president. The mood in the country was decidedly antiwar, and her vote for Iraq came back to haunt her. As secretary of state, however, she did little to distance Foggy Bottom from the subordinate role it had been playing to the Pentagon in world affairs after 9/11, said Adams.

“She wanted to make sure she was never in a fight with [then-Defense Secretary] Bob Gates … One got the feeling from her she felt safest when the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense were at the hip,” he said.

Clinton talks a lot about non-kinetic “soft power,” but Gordon said he “watched very closely as the State Department tried to align itself with the DoD,” under Clinton.

“It concerned me because it leaned toward the hawkish side of her policy views,” said Adams, a firm believer that “there should be creative tension between both departments.”  Meanwhile, the Clintonites who had come to inhabit the Obama administration, like Slaughter, began coalescing behind “responsibility to protect” or “R2P,” in hopes of saving the future of humanitarian intervention from the clutches of American war fatigue.

On the surface it would appear that Clinton is expert at fusing her touchy-feely side with a seemingly instinctual desire to use the military to sustain and wield American “global leadership” to whatever ends. This approach can yield political paydirt, drawing in hawks from both sides of the spectrum. But to critics it smacks of “soft empire” and in that way, it’s no different than say, Robert Kagan’s neoconservatism—it’s all a matter of branding.

Military-Industrial Fundraising Machine

Which brings us back to the politics, which has been in Hillary’s blood since she was a high school “Goldwater Girl.”  She knows, ultimately, that her status in the national security establishment and credibility with the Pentagon brass is essential.

“You don’t get to be a serious person in Washington until you are considered pro-intervention,” said Mike Lofgren, who spent 30 years as a budget analyst and aide on Capitol Hill, specializing in defense. Plus, the “Clintons, they really like to hang out with rich people and there is a lot of money in the military industrial complex.”

Money, of course, is high on the list for a credible presidential run, and Clinton has been raising lots of it. Hollywood, which appears to hate war only when Republicans are waging it, is forming the left flank in her PAC operations. Meanwhile, Israeli billionaire friend Haim Saban (yes, that Saban) told the Washington Post that he will spend “whatever it takes” to get her elected.

So what does this all mean in a practical sense? First, if Saban and other hardliners get their way, Clinton will come down on Iran like a ton of bricks in the nuclear negotiations and light as a feather on Israel in respect to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially given her comments to Goldberg over the summer.

Furthermore, if the dynamics in North Africa and the Middle East remain the same, electing Clinton could lead to an even greater military footprint overseas. The Armed Services, ever the wailing Cassandras, will likely get the appropriations they want with less commotion, a boon for the defense industry.

“Clinton understands that the only avenue of safety for a Democrat in the arena of national security is to throw money at the Pentagon,” said Adams, and “this is consistent with her worldview on national security. She sees military force as an essential tool and if you take that view, why wouldn’t you want to increase the military’s budget?”

More importantly, her support of the military allows her to project an image of leadership and toughness during the campaign, which Adams says is absolutely necessary for winning the White House.

“What this does is protect her right flank, it makes it very hard for anyone in the general election to accuse her of being soft on national security,” said Adams.

“And where did she learn that lesson? Her husband.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Revenge of the COIN Doctrine

Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it. —Weird Al Yankovic

In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife. It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing to do with eating humble pie.

In Knife Fights, Nagl has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan in 2009.

Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.

Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”; b) to distance himself—and COIN—from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and c) burnish his own resume—which takes up much of the book—for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016.

This might sound cynical, even abrasive, but consider the stakes: the U.S. is currently engaged in another military intervention in Iraq, against an enemy that never went away even after COIN allegedly “won” the war there. When someone who not only promoted prolonging the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and publicly sold the snake oil that surged hundreds of thousands of troops into harms way is now attempting to rehabilitate himself suggests a return of at least 15,000 more troops to Iraq, is it not wise to examine the merits and timing of what Peter Mansoor hubristically calls, “a magnificent memoir from one of the most brilliant officers of his generation”?

Ret. Army Col. Gian Gentile, a long-time COIN critic who is singled out in Knife Fights, certainly thinks so. He tells TAC the book reads more like “a Hollywood director hoping to turn (his memoir) into a swashbuckling movie.”

“Nagl’s new book is not about research and scholarship,” he charges, but is actually “about proliferating a myth, constructed by him and other proponents of counterinsurgency, that COIN can work as long as stupid armies are transformed and saved from themselves by clever COIN doctrine and savior generals.”

COIN was supposed to create a safe space in Iraq for political reconciliation and democratic governance to grow. That is what Nagl and his “COINdinistas,” led by Gen. David Petraeus (who still plays the savior role in Knife Fights), said would be the measure of success for the 2007 troop surge.

By all objective metrics, that did not happen before Petraeus declared the surge a success in front of a beaming, COIN-bedazzled audience at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in 2009. In hindsight, the only meaningful space created was for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who would rule Iraq for the next several years with an American-sanctioned whip hand.

This was accomplished not through so called “population centric warfare,” but through intensive capture/kill campaigns and immense American firepower deployed against both Maliki’s Sunni enemies and his Shia rivals in Baghdad during the surge—which Petraeus explained in great detail at that ’09 CNAS event.

This is the kind of slight of hand that Nagl & Co. have been playing from the start—suggesting that COIN’s successes came from non-kinetic approaches, like special ops forces living among the people and anthropologists air dropping in to help win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, they paid some 90,000 Sunni fighters to side with them and helped Maliki kill or torture the rest.

Nagl continues the Kabuki less effectively in Knife Fights, which he prefaces by trying to say the book is “about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women.” It is actually about John Nagl, who generally takes credit for bringing COIN to the upper echelons of the military culture, getting top brass to embrace it, and birthing a generation of young junior officers hooked on the juice.

Furthermore, he demands that “our politicians … approach future wars with greater humility,” when he shows no such willingness to do so himself. He says “the final tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan would occur if we again forget the many lessons we have learned about counterinsurgency over the past decade of war.” Yet the book makes no attempt to tell us what those lessons are. It merely makes excuses as to why it didn’t work in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, which he calls “an unsatisfying and untidy sort-of-victory.” He acknowledges that COIN under Petraeus was “imperfect and left behind a deeply troubled country that remains violent and unstable,” but claims it now has a “government the United States can live with.” (More on that later.)

According to Nagl, bad decisions made by civilian policymakers are to blame for what went wrong in Afghanistan, not the overzealousness of counterinsurgency as a magic formula. There weren’t enough troops for an Afghan surge, he complains. The U.S. gave Afghanistan democracy before they were able to handle it. The government in Kabul is too corrupt, the people illiterate, the neighboring Pakistanis untrustworthy.

Interestingly, Nagl also throws Gen. Stanley McChrystal under the bus in Knife Fights, saying Petraeus “had done a good job of underpromising and overdelivering in Iraq, but McChrystal took the opposite approach” in Afghanistan. That is almost laughable when the entire Beltway universe was on the COIN bandwagon at the time, “overpromising” an Iraq Redux in Helmand.

Worse, Nagl says McChrystal, “overinternalized the guidance” in the counterinsurgency field manual, or COIN bible, published in 2006. “Only some of the best weapons for COIN don’t shoot bullets,” Nagl writes, “and although dollars are weapons in this kind of fight, bullets work pretty well in a lot of circumstances.”

McChrystal, who made his name as a “man hunter” in Iraq, was surely aware of this, but one would have to have beeen living under a rock in 2009 not to have seen that he was under serious pressure to sell—and employ COIN—as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He didn’t write the manual—Nagl did—and as it was full of such pabulum as, “sometimes the more you protect your force the less secure you’ll be,” it is no wonder McChrystal had a difficult time translating it on the battlefield.

And lest we forget, CNAS—of which Nagl was the director—published a paper at that very time saying “protecting the population (should) take precedence over all other considerations for the time being” and that the U.S. should “adopt a population-centric counterinsurgency that emphasizes protecting the population rather than controlling physical terrain or killing the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

But when McChrystal is fired, for not having a “natural caution” of the press, hero Petraeus is brought in for the save. He immediately starts the bombing, “and the results are almost immediate,” Nagl gushes. Of course he would have kept on winning, Nagl suggests, if Obama didn’t get in the way and impose a timeline for withdrawal.

And here you have Nagl’s marquee complaint of why COIN did not work in Afghanistan and why Iraq is a disaster today: it’s all Obama’s fault.

In Knife Fights, Nagl directs his fire at Obama’s choices in Afghanistan. But that was written before Iraq imploded on the global stage just a few months ago. Then, the Iraqi government could be “lived with.” But now, as evidenced in his recent public appearances, Nagl is accusing Obama of squandering every hard-fought gain made under Petraeus, and, by withdrawing all combat troops in 2011, being responsible for ISIS cutting its way through Iraq today.

Talking before a largely sympathetic audience at the New America Foundation on Oct. 27, Nagl said Obama should have ignored the will of the Iraqi people and stayed there for a generation at least. Nagl advocates putting no less than 15,000 combat “advisors” into Iraq now to get the job done. All those maimed and dead American veterans of Iraq deserve it.  “If it was important enough to bleed there,” it’s important enough to stay, he charged.

Obama is an easy target these days. One is reminded of how critical Nagl was of the Bush war architects when that administration was on the way out, too. Nagl knew Pentagon positions would be opening up—he even quit the Army in 2008 to hitch his star to the Democratic “administration in waiting” at CNAS. However, as his colleagues Michele Flournoy and Kurt Campbell were scooped up for national security appointments with Obama, Nagl was overlooked. He eventually left the directorship at CNAS to take a position at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011; a year later, he became headmaster at The Haverford School, a wealthy boys prep school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

For Nagl, timing is everything. Maybe he is hoping Knife Fights will get him back on the Beltway beat as a strategy guru in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Not surprisingly, while chiding Obama’s judgments on Syria last year, he asserts that Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Clinton are “as good a security team as you’re going to find.”

But the failure of COIN is now well documented, despite Nagl’s attempts at historical whitewash. For this, his comeback may be short-lived. The “skunks at the party,” like Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, and Gentile, are looking at the fairy dust on the floor and wondering why Nagl is still around.

“The hard fact is that COIN did not produce the outcomes promised, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.  At best, it allowed the United States to leave Iraq without admitting defeat.  Today, of course, the rise of ISIS makes even that claim increasingly untenable,” Bacevich tells TAC.

My sense is that the officer corps once more finds itself in an intellectual void. Filling that void is an urgent priority, but is unlikely to happen until members of the officer corps acknowledge that the infatuation with COIN to which Nagl and others succumbed was from the outset deeply misguided — an excuse to avoid serious thinking about war and actually existing security requirements.

To wit: the next time we’re told to “eat it,” let’s ask what’s in it first. That way we’ll avoid the heartburn, and the knife fights afterward.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Iraqi Army Never Was

In a bloody ISIS attack on an Iraqi Army base just north of Fallujah on September 21, upwards of 500 government soldiers perished or disappeared, fleeing into the marshlands, the woods, or to the next base camp four miles away. Few were left behind alive, surrounded by militant fighters who by all accounts were supposed to be less equipped, less trained, and less organized than Iraq’s professional fighting force.

But the Iraqi security forces, into which American taxpayers poured some $25 billion over the course of a decade, had in the span of a summer, crumbled.

While pro-war critics blame the Iraqi military’s failures on the current administration for leaving the country too soon, American veterans and journalists who spoke with TAC say the army was corrupt, incompetent, and unmotivated from the beginning, and that top U.S. officials papered over this inconvenient fact for years in order to protect their commands and maintain public support for the U.S. intervention.

The Paper Tiger Folds

The September attack took place just 45 miles west of Baghdad, and the base had been under siege without food or supplies for a week when ISIS fighters dressed as the Iraqi Army rolled up in a convoy of bomb-laden Humvees and blew the place up. Details emerging from survivors indicate that the Iraqi Air Force refused to provide air support to its comrades under fire on the ground.

Perhaps the most stunning defeat for the Iraqi Army came when the entire 2nd Division collapsed in June as ISIS took over the strategic cities of Tikrit and Mosul. “Positions collapsed without a shot fired,” wrote analysts Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly for War on the Rocks. “They left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL within Mosul itself.”

All told, reports over the last month suggest that several Iraqi divisions—there were 14 to start—have just evaporated (American officials prefer to say they’re “combat ineffective”) since ISIS began its current march across Iraq. According to a military source quoted in the New York Times in June, 60 out of 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot not be accounted for and all of their equipment is lost.”

“You haven’t seen much of a fight because the (Iraqi) army just disappeared,” Marine Corps veteran Matthew Hoh, who served two tours in Iraq, tells TAC. “They were not made to defend the country against invaders.”

Feel-Good Generals

This is a long way from the rosy picture described by top U.S. generals like David Petraeus and his protégé Raymond Odierno (now Army Chief of Staff) just a few years ago. In June 2009, as the U.S. was readying the first phases of withdrawal, Odierno, then-commander of American forces in Iraq, told the media and Congress that Iraqi forces were ready to operate on their own.

“I do believe they’re ready,” General Odierno said from Baghdad on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’ve been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good.”

Petraeus told Congress a year earlier, “the performance of many units was solid, especially once they got their footing,” and that over 100 combat battalions were capable of taking the lead, “albeit with coalition support.” He continued in his April 2008 testimony to describe “an increasingly robust Iraqi-run training base” that “enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to grow by over 133,000 soldiers and police over the past 16 months,” with “an additional 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and 16 Army and Special Operations battalions” expected by the end of the year.

Of course, Petraeus was busy selling himself, too. He was already taking credit for what CNN’s Peter Bergen called bringing “Iraq back from the brink of disaster,” as “the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.” It was in his best interest to try and prove that helping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vanquish all his Sunni and Shia rivals, and putting 100,000 Sunni fighters on the American payroll, were more than just temporary Band-Aids.

In a late 2013 treatise unfortunately titled, “How We Won in Iraq,” Petraeus said,

Over time, we and our Iraqi counterparts achieved slow but steady progress in building the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces. … Progressively, over the months and years that followed [the surge], the coalition turned over responsibility for security tasks to Iraqi forces until, at the end of 2011, Iraqi elements assumed all security tasks on their own, with only a residual U.S. office of security cooperation remaining in Iraq.

“Claims by Petraeus, Dempsey, and other U.S. generals of Iraqi effectiveness were always exaggerated or false,” said (Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, an author and Army consultant who served in the first Gulf War. “The generals were simply cultivating their Bush administration sponsors in pursuit of further promotion.”

A Military Divided

In May 2010, according to the Pentagon’s mandated report to Congress, there were approximately 666,500 security force personnel in Iraq. When the U.S. finally left Iraq in 2011, there were supposedly 930,000, including a 200,000-strong army. The U.S had invested billions in equipping and training them. Upwards of $500 million worth of equipment and material were just handed over to the Iraqis, while Maliki’s government contracted for billions more.

If ISIS, at the most, has 50,000 stateless fighters spread between Iraq and Syria, how has it routed such a superior force? The popular narrative, particularly on the pro-war right, is that President Obama squandered everything Petraeus had built by leaving Iraq too soon. In an interview in June, retired Gen. Jack Keane, co-architect of the surge, suggested that the Iraqi Army was “well-led and it was competent” while American forces were present, but broke down “systematically” after U.S. withdrawal under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki.

And indeed, after the U.S. withdrew, Maliki did fail to populate his security forces with Sunnis, instead alienating all the Sunni fighters once on the U.S. dime by keeping them unemployed. At best, those Sunnis are now standing down in the face of the ISIS invasion. At worst, they are joining them.

But others say that’s only half the story. While the investment was real and the training, too, the entire effort was doomed from the beginning—when the U.S. invaded and disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath army in 2003. That was the closest thing to a professional military that Iraq had, and it was gone in an instant.

“Fundamentally, the fault was America’s for destroying the existing army, but there was nothing America could do after that to build a truly inclusive and effective new army,” war correspondent David Axe, who writes for the popular War is Boring blog, tells TAC. “That required compromise, will power and competence on the Iraqis’ parts—all of which were lacking.”

Others argue it was the corruption in the ranks, beginning at the top and filtering all the way down to the lowliest private, that sabotaged Iraq’s security forces. Commands were bought and sold, and subordinates were fleeced. According to a recent interview with author Patrick Cockburn, the going rate for a colonel’s position in the army is $200,000—$2,000,000 to be a division commander. Then one spends the rest of the time demanding grease from everyone else.

“They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment,” Cockburn told Tariq Ali in late September.

Lt. Col. Danny Davis traveled to Iraq in 2009 as a chief of a transition team with direct experience working with Iraqi commanders and recruits. “When I was sent out to train this battalion I had no idea who (commanders were) and how they got there. That was, ‘internal business,’” said Davis.

Shipments of gasoline, spare parts, and weapons would be pilfered before they reached their intended destinations, he recalled. Ethics were an anomaly. “All the skimming and graft and all the rest—a corrupt army can’t fight and won’t fight,” added Hoh.

A Marine Corps colonel who did not want to be identified because of his current status as a deployed active-duty officer, said he served multiple tours in Iraq and on the last, as a team leader for an Iraqi Army (IA) advisor team from 2007-2008.

“Based on that last tour with the IA, I’m not surprised what is going on in Iraq. The IA (battalion) I was with was considered one of the best, and were still lousy,” he wrote to TAC in an email.

Leaders looked out for themselves first by making side deals involving food, water, and even electricity if they were sitting on top of a generator. I got the first two battalion commanders I worked with fired for corruption that involved taking money out of soldier’s salaries and the rape of local Sunni women by the Shia soldiers. I understand what we consider corrupt in our culture was not in theirs, and I was learning to live with it. But I told them if it starts directly involving the welfare of their men, then I would come after them.

Yet corruption was only part of the problem. Starting from scratch meant that the military’s leaders had no institutional experience. As a fighting force they never became tactically sophisticated enough to deploy as coherent, effective units, or engage in complicated maneuvers that would require “taking it to the enemy.”

“They could not adapt rapidly and were not agile,” said the Marine colonel. “Against an agile, adaptive enemy, they would easily become morally, physically, or mentally isolated.”

Most of all, however, loyalty was the biggest factor in the Iraqi failures. After their own families, the soldiers and leaders were loyal to their tribes and then their religion, he said. “Iraq as a nation falls at the bottom of the list. Combine this with lack of cohesion, unity, loyalty, and camaraderie among themselves, and you have an organization that will disintegrate under pressure,” he wrote.

Set Up for Failure

There is enough blame to go around, said Maj. Donald Vandergriff (Ret.), who has done contract work training Afghan security forces. He said the U.S. made the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that it did in Vietnam over 40 years ago. “I’ve said all along, we keep trying to make these forces in our own image,” he said, and “they don’t take ownership because the system was forced upon them.”

The technology, the logistics, the modern air power, the intelligence—were and are all foreign to them. U.S. trainers come and go on short rotations, and there is no consistency, no ability to learn the foreign culture and understand the gaps. “Again we have to say, what kind of force would these people buy into? What kind of military can they afford and accept? Instead we force our own grand, narcissistic vision.”

In the end, the U.S. is returning to Iraq to bail out a country that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (despite his current views) said was “capable of [addressing] its own security needs.”

“Three years later and where are they now?” demanded Davis. “Were they ever able to function on their own?”

Perhaps an even more pressing question: how do we expect the U.S.-trained Afghan military to perform against the Taliban when most U.S forces leave Afghanistan at the end of this year?

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Army Attacks Ebola

UN Geneva / cc
Photo by U.S. Embassy, Monrovia, Liberia

Last week, President Obama announced that the United States would be launching Operation United Assistance, involving not bombs nor combat troops, but special forces of another kind: doctors, nurses, and pathologists.

This latest military intervention will, however, involve 3,000 U.S. forces at the spear tip in the fight against Ebola. A Department of Defense assessment team has already landed in Liberia, the center of a West African war zone that, like the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, involves an aggressive adversary spreading rapidly and leaving senseless death in its wake.

Army personnel will be sent in to build field hospitals and help facilitate the training of health care workers who will be working directly with patients. They will be delivering medicine and medical supplies, but they won’t be providing security (at least right now). It is the kind of militarized aid that no doubt has some critics squirming about America’s expanding footprint on the continent. Others spent the last week groaning that Operation United Assistance takes our eyes and resources off the Islamic State—the “real” enemy—in Syria and Iraq.

But most editorial boards and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are joining health experts in heralding the move, and here’s why: this is by far the worst Ebola outbreak since the virus was discovered in 1976, and if it is not contained soon, we could be looking at a pandemic rampaging across the Third World on the order of history’s deadliest plagues. Will it come to the North America? It’s not likely, but the human toll is grave. As of Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) projections are putting total infections as high as 1.4 million in West Africa by January if nothing is done soon.

If those moral implications aren’t enough, say advocates, think of the instability and economic wreckage that mass infections would provoke across the developing world, including many places already bordering on failed states and breeding grounds for extremism.

“The real danger is if it gets into the cities,” said Dr. Frederick Murphy, former Director of Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who now teaches experimental pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Murphy was there when Ebola was first named 40 years ago, and was the first person to actually photograph the virus with an electron microscope. He also helped discover the deadly Marburg virus, a sister filovirus to Ebola, first discovered in 1967.

The “Ebola Zaire” strain is now burning through Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—leaving more than 2,800 dead since March. Current infections are at 5,843 according to the World Health Organization, with deaths at 2,811, but even they acknowledge the count is “vastly underestimated” because of the reality of underreporting in the region. Just this week, WHO released new projections, predicting 20,000 infections by Nov. 2 in the affected areas. Even worse, it said the virus was killing 70 percent of its victims, much more than the 50 percent it had been reporting up until now.

“If (it gets to the big cities) you can have a very large number of cases and that actually adds to the danger of it spreading around the world, to other poor parts of the world, where containment would be much more unlikely,” Murphy said in an interview with TAC.

“The reality is we have to get control of it. Are the resources going into the region sufficient? My guess is not, we are going to have to step it up. Overdoing it right now doesn’t have a lot of downsides,” said Scott Gottlieb, a physician and former Federal Drug Administration official during the George W. Bush Administration.

Like others, he believes the situation brings into focus Washington’s own lack of readiness in the event of a global, or even regional, pandemic. Infectious disease experts have been bemoaning shortfalls in research and development for years. What’s happening in West Africa scares them, whether it’s in their own backyard or not. They see this as a test—are U.S. health institutions ready? Hardly. A recent rebuke by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found that the agency isn’t even prepared to protect its own personnel (which includes FEMA and HHS, in many cases the front lines in a federal response), in the event of a pandemic.

“What’s more, a lot of the public seems not to be fully aware or not fully engaged in this,” added Gottleib, who is also a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, “I was on C-SPAN taking calls from callers and it was fairly consistent that they did not want to see American troops going over there.”

For one, he told TAC, ordinary people see don’t see the military response as commensurate with what appears to be a low body count in West Africa. “But this is a contagion and it is growing.”

Perhaps people would be more on board if they knew what Ebola really is and what it does. The word conjures many images, but nothing could be more horrifying than the description set by Richard Preston in his best selling non-fiction, The Hot Zone, in 1995:

Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is the perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.

Then, deliberately testing the reader’s own gastrointestinal fortitude, Preston launches on a description of the viral breakdown of the body, calling it “wiping the slate.” This involves systematic blood clotting, causing dead spots and hemorrhaging in the brain, liver, lungs and intestines, and tearing of the connective tissue that holds things, like organs, together. The virus rips out the top layer of the tongue and the lining of the eyeballs. It pushes unclotted blood out of the mouth and nose.

“It triggers a creeping, spotty, necrosis that spreads through all of the internal organs”— while the victim is still alive, he wrote.

The virus destroys the brain, with Ebola victims going through violent epileptic convulsions through the last stage. At death, the organs, which had “been dead or partially dead for days,” begins a “shock-related meltdown…. the corpse’s connective tissue … begins to liquefy, and the fluids that leak from the cadaver are saturated with Ebola-virus particles.”

Different strains of Ebola can kill both humans and animals, particularly primates, and is typically transferred from host to host—in a quite aggressive, predatory manner, writes Preston—through bodily fluids, including blood, secretions and the handling of organs. There have been reports of African villagers contracting the virus by kissing corpses at funerals.

There is a hot debate over whether Ebola can be transmitted through the air. Most experts say no. But there is some cause to believe that another strain, Ebola Reston, named after an outbreak among crab-eating macaque monkeys shipped to Reston, Va., for laboratory experiments in 1989, had traveled from the primary group of infected monkeys through the air ducts, infecting different monkeys in another room. That strain did not affect humans, so it’s sometimes lost in the debate over respiratory transmission. But the door in that conversation has not been closed, particularly when most scientists readily admit that Ebola Zaire is mutating all of the time.

“It’s still a controversial question because there is not an awful lot of data,” proving it either way, said Murphy, who was called in for the Reston outbreak.  Already, according to a study released at the end of August in the journal Science, the strain in the current outbreak has already undergone “hundreds of mutations,” that make it different from past outbreaks and more difficult to study.

As of the beginning of this week, Ebola Zaire—the most deadly of the currently identified strains—has killed over 2,800 people in West Africa since March. For context, consider that of all the previous outbreaks recorded in the last 40 years, the highest number of people killed in one event was in the first one, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, when 280 people died.

“One of the scary things about this outbreak is that all the general models of the past have been broken,” John Connor, an investigator at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, told the Washington Post on Monday.

For Americans, this might evoke a generalized, uncomfortable feeling, but that’s more or less offset by media assurances that Ebola is not a direct threat, if Gottlieb’s C-SPAN callers are any indication. Aside from the largely forgotten Reston episode, the closest Ebola has gotten to the U.S. since then was this summer, when two American missionary aid workers contracted the disease during the current outbreak in Liberia. They were flown to a top medical facility in Atlanta and given the experimental drug ZMapp.

They survived. But there is no known vaccine or treatment for Ebola, and even if ZMapp turns out to be the cure—which is far from decisive (a Spanish priest who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone died in August, even after taking ZMapp), its makers said this week that they have no more to give, and that it would take months to make a new batch.

That is why the resources—Obama has pledged $750 million, which includes the military component—are so important right now. The densely populated urban landscape, the lack of education and clean, equipped hospitals, the growing civil unrest (arbitrary lockdowns and travel restrictions are resulting in a shrinking food supply and other economic strains), poor sanitation, and fragile security conditions, all combine to make host-happy conditions for Ebola.

Gottlieb said if people really needed a national security reason to support Operation United Assistance, it was there, festering and bleeding out, a little more every day.

“It’s not just a Liberia problem,” he said. “We have to treat all these other countries as one big hot zone … if we get it wrong the results could be catastrophic.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Islamophobia Makes a Comeback

Sandeep Singh was dragged 30 feet under a pick-up truck after the driver reportedly called him a terrorist, told him to go back to his country, and then mowed him down in the middle of 99th Street in New York City.

Singh survived the ordeal, but he’s going to need skin grafts. He told police what happened and now Joseph Caleca of Long Island is charged with a hate crime. “I was attacked because I am a Sikh and because I look like a Sikh,” Singh, 29, told reporters from his hospital bed. “We need to create a world without hate.”

Thirteen years ago in the wake of 9/11, there were hundreds of similar incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikhs, who despite being Indians practicing Sikhism, were often confused with Arab Muslims because of their long beards and their turbans, called dastars.

But what happened to Singh didn’t take place in 2001, it was just a month ago, in August, indicating that no matter how far America gets away from the horrific events of 9/11, anger and prejudice against the perceived “enemy among us”—call it Islamophobia—is still just around the corner.

“Yes, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is as alive today as it was in 2001,” declared Deepa Kumar, associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University, and author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (2012).

Kumar and other experts in cultural politics and media tell TAC that it began after the attacks, when the so-called Global War on Terror muddied then-President George W. Bush’s words that this was “not a war against the Muslim faith,” by initiating widespread surveillance of Muslim communities, profiling of Arab and Muslim people and infiltrating their activities, even entrapment, all which the American Civil Liberties Union says continue to this day.

These law enforcement activities, combined with the hot rhetoric of far-right politicians, and the assistance of a growing cottage industry of self-appointed jihad hunters like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, and Frank Gaffney, has fanned the fear and intolerance among the American populace, critics say.

“After 9/11, people had questions but it was the people who provided the answers who created the problem—from the president on down,” said James Zogby, founder and president of the American Arab Institute.

“It started with they hate us for our values. He might have justified this by saying it was only a small minority of the Muslim world, but in people’s minds it was everybody (in the Muslim faith)” said Zogby, who published Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters in 2012.

Match that cultural disconnect with a parade of new “terrorism” experts on cable news ratcheting up the threats to “the homeland,” including the possibility of sleeper cells lying in wait just over the nation’s borders, and suddenly everyone bearing a Middle Eastern name, wearing a hijab, or attending a mosque becomes suspect.

“There is a hatred of Muslims, there’s this idea that they are evil people,” mostly because, despite all the superficial talk to the contrary, no one in the media or even elite academia has really learned what the religion is all about, said Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a writer and converted Sunni Muslim who now runs the Center for Islamic Pluralism, dedicated to giving voice to moderate Muslims, on the West Coast.

Schwartz is an arch critic of Wahhabism—a highly puritanical movement of Islam practiced by the 19 hijackers on 9/11—and believes it is both ignorance, and the reluctance of moderate Muslims to speak out against fellow Muslims, that have generated intolerance and hatred. “People come up to me on the street and say what’s the problem with Islam? What’s the problem with this religion?”

“I say (ISIS/Islamic State) is a radical wing—and this hasn’t always existed in Islam.” Fight ISIS, but leave the rest of the Muslim world alone.

The message, so far, just isn’t getting through.

According to Zogby’s Arab American Institute, which has been polling Americans on their views of religious and ethnic groups since the 1990’s, Americans’ dislike of Arabs and Muslims skyrocketed after 9/11 and has hardly budged since. Unfavorable ratings for Muslims have declined from a peak of 55 percent in 2010 to 45 percent in July, but at the same time, favorable ratings have plunged, from 41 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2014.

Republican attitudes are clearly skewing the results. When narrowed, 63 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of Muslims, while only 21 percent had favorable views in 2014.

It’s not surprising, considering how Islamophobia has attached itself to Republican politics since 9/11. Any stroll through the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will attest to that (though, ironically, CPAC itself was once accused of hosting a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer—Grover Norquist, to be exact). Between Newt Gingrich comparing the “the struggle against radical Islamists” to the American Revolution, to presidential wannabe Herman Cain calling for loyalty tests for administration appointees, there has been no limit to the bald political rhetoric animating Capitol Hill debates and elections.

Meanwhile, well-funded fringe groups like Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative, have attempted to purge Muslim-Americans who have dared to “infiltrate” the White House and other high profile positions throughout federal government. They might have gone too far in 2012, however, when they suggested long-time Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin had connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But outside Washington, American-based Islamophobia has splattered subway walls (Geller’s brainchild), and even informed international mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, according to his own writings. It’s call has been strident, peaking in 2010, when the streets of downtown Manhattan were filled with opposition to the Park51 Islamic Center, which had been planned for a property two blocks from Ground Zero.

That protest was spurred, not surprisingly, by Geller and Spencer, but the message resonated so well on the right wing blogosphere and media, that it was co-opted in political campaigns hundreds of miles away, and in some cases it worked. Like with Renee Elmers, who in 2010 won a congressional seat in South Carolina after making the so- called “Ground Zero mosque” a campaign issue.

Zogby and others see a limit to how well Islamophobia is working in political campaigns—out of 17 campaigns where the mosque was made an issue in that 2010 season, only two actually won. Rep. Allen West, whose fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric is legendary, lost his seat in 2012.

Zogby also points out that the anti-Arab and Muslim attitudes in his polls are clearly generational and racial. The negative numbers are driven by white middle aged men, particularly evangelical Christians; the positives from African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and people under 30. They are “locked in,” however, which means there’s not much movement either way, and no one seems to be debating the issue either. “There are these defined groups and they have their defined attitudes,” said Zogby. “That’s the tragedy of it, there needs to be public discourse.”

And it needs to start with someone on the right wing saying, “we need to cut this out,” Zogby added. This kind of admonishment coming from the left just won’t do.

On a darker note, Kumar believes Washington has no real interest in curbing the bugaboo machine as long as its waging war in Muslim countries abroad. Plus, it’s much easier to raise the specter of fanatical militancy than to examine how our own policies in Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade may have created it, she said.

“In order to have an endless war on terror it is necessary to have an enemy that Americans fear and hate. This is how it worked during the Cold War as well,” she told TAC.

“Today, the enemy is the Muslim terrorist. And we are told constantly that this threat is everywhere and that we should therefore spend trillions of dollars to fight this enemy,” she added.  If that’s the case, expect a lot more fear-mongering back home as Obama readies for U.S airstrikes in Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). Already, pop-culture figures like Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson are weighing in on the cable shows, saying the U.S. needs to “convert” ISIS or “kill them.”

“In a nutshell, I think the framework that we had after 9/11—which is the U.S. is now at war with terrorists wherever they are—is the same kind of rhetoric we have today,” said Kumar. The problem is, just like 13 years ago, “terrorist” often gets conflated with “Muslim” and “Arab,” and sometimes “Sikh.”

“That’s what Islamophobia is,” she said, “demonizing an entire population of people.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

How Oil Rules Iraq

Alexander Smulskiy / shutterstock
Alexander Smulskiy / shutterstock

There is an oil tanker the size of four football fields representing the full measure of Kurdistan’s independence. And it’s sitting off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

This tanker is just one thread in the emerging story of Iraq’s tumultuous evolution, and oil’s commanding role in it. During the war, critics liked to say “it’s all about the oil,” but that is now truer than ever before. Kurdish sovereignty depends on it. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fueled by it. And all through the violence and political crises of the last summer, the oil has continued to pump, keeping a fragile central government one step from implosion.

“Oil is the central facilitator of all the actors’ ambitions—it is how the Kurds hope to obtain eventual independence, how ISIS can finance the much larger organization it has become, and how the Iraqi state stays afloat,” said Steve LeVine, an energy expert and Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation, in an interview with TAC.

“Absent oil, we would have a very different situation.”

Kurds Go to Court

The giant tanker United Kalavrvta is carrying 100 million barrels of crude oil pumped in Kurdistan and destined for LyondellBasell Industries, a Dutch-owned company in Texas. It has been anchored off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico for a month. This week, a federal judge in Texas threw out a seizure order that could have drawn U.S. marshals into the protracted dispute over who owns the oil—Kurdistan or the central government in Baghdad.

The judge’s order, however, said, essentially that the U.S. has no dog in the fight, and the Kalavrvta can sail on, Kurdish flags flying. Iraq has a small window in which to appeal.

This is a critical juncture because the U.S. is saying, despite a recent U.S. State Department declaration otherwise, that it will not stop the Kurds from selling oil from their fields in the north, effectively bypassing the central government. Baghdad says that, constitutionally, Kurdistan Regional Government sales must go through the oil ministry and more importantly, they must share the revenues. But since December, the Kurds have shipped an increasing amount through Turkey—so far, some 6.5 million barrels via the Ceyhan terminal alone according to Turkish officials—reportedly to ports in Israel, Egypt, and beyond.

Just last week, amid the news that foreign oil giants, including Chevron and Exxon Mobile, were evacuating people from northern Iraq due to the violence, Kurdistan announced that it was working to significantly raise their pipeline’s export capacity from its current 300,000 barrels a day to 500,000 within months.

“The Kurds are becoming more confident of their ability to export crude independently of Baghdad,” said Julian Lee, a Bloomberg oil strategist, in a recent report. “At least four of the seven tankers that loaded Kurdish crude from Ceyhan have successfully discharged their cargoes, suggesting that willing buyers are starting to emerge.”

It also suggests that Baghdad’s bark is rapidly losing its bite. The Kurds have hired the best Washington lawyers to navigate the foreign market channels, and are clearly unphased after years of being stiffed on billions in oil revenues the central government was supposed to be sharing all along. If buyers in the region are willing to deal with Kurdistan as a rightful independent entity, then they are ready to produce the goods.

“The point is, the more they sell abroad the more legitimacy they have,” notes LeVine. For the Kurdish oil industry at least, recent instability in the north has made it stronger.

But for how long? 

ISIS Oil Barons

The rapidly advancing jihadist forces of ISIS have been effective in laying siege to and capturing strategic areas across northern Iraq (find a good map of this here), especially at or near oil-producing facilities. This includes Baiji, the nation’s largest refinery, which has been the scene of several intense battles between Iraqi government forces and ISIS fighters since the spring. ISIS reportedly briefly captured the refinery, which is big enough to produce a third to half of the oil for Iraq’s domestic energy consumption, in June. At the time, fighting produced a plume of black smoke that could be seen by satellites in space.

Iraqi forces said they thwarted new ISIS attempts to take Baiji again this week. It’s not clear how much production is actually occurring there right now—it went offline in June, and at least one report suggests that ISIS fighters have been messing with its pipelines ever since.

Meanwhile, the relentless violence that has displaced 1.2 million Iraqis, many of them minority Christians and Yazidis, has also sent a number of foreign oil companies fleeing, with others “battening down the hatches.” But with the Baiji siege it’s becoming clear that alongside the Kurds’ increasing oil empowerment, new ISIS oil barons are also emerging, stronger and better fortified for the next fight.

“They are basically a bunch of terrorists who grow (and shrink) based on whatever cash they can get,” said Luay al-Khateeb, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute who is also an energy policy advisor to the Iraqi parliament.

They used to get their funds from sympathetic sources in the region, he told TAC. Now 60 percent of their assets are coming from smuggled oil, and they are using it “to expand their activities and recruitment and cause future harm.”

In addition to the oil and gas fields it commands in Syria, ISIS now controls seven small but functioning oil fields in Northern Iraq, and is smuggling oil out and selling it at a discount price in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, he added.

Al-Khatteeb said the militants could be making upwards of $2 million a day from smuggled oil. The fields in Iraq they now control have an output capacity of 80,000 barrels a day. This jibes with recent IEA (International Energy Agency) reports. More recently, Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the London-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, estimated that total ISIS oil earnings could reach as high as $3 million a day.

An Aug. 25 report by Indira A.R. Lakshmanan for Bloomberg said ISIS now has the “ability to self-finance on a staggering scale.” Other financing includes extortion, imposing taxes and other smuggling, she reports, as the funding stream from outside donors now “pales in comparison” to ISIS’s income from these illicit activities.

But oil barons? Not quite yet, cautions LeVine. While everyone is inclined to believe the worst, the oil ISIS is reportedly smuggling to buyers is crude and delivered on trucks. There’s no concrete measurement available of how much they are selling, or what they are selling it for, although al-Khatteeb has estimated their price to be between $25 and $60 a barrel, a steep discount from the average $100 a barrel oil runs for on the world market.

Other impediments to ISIS’s newfound business model remain, such as the maintenance requirements of the fields they control. Are the militants paying workers and engineers, and are they able to get spare parts? If so, how much are they spending on that? We don’t know. “Some have cast doubt … even though they have a 80,000 barrel a day capacity in Iraq, they may only be producing half that because of maintenance requirements,” said LeVine.

And as far as getting the oil out of the country, the Kurds are less likely than ever to allow any more smuggling over their borders.

“We have one big fact—they control the fields, which produce this volume of oil. Beyond that the rest is murky,” LeVine said.

South Is Safe, for Now

Even with these unknowns factored in, it’s clear that the oil industry in the north is on an unpredictable trajectory that, while helping the Kurds break out, will require a lot more fighting and a major push by the Kurds, Baghdad, and increasingly the United States, to stabilize a market everyone believed would be flourishing once Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

In the south, Saddam’s old Shia enemies seem to be faring best, at least where oil is concerned. Experts tell TAC that production in the south, while down slightly, is humming along so far, free of the violence and political rancor in the north. Thanks in part to that southern oil, Iraq is pumping at a higher capacity than during the Saddam era, 3.1 million barrels a day, and prices have remained the same. BP, which works the Rumaila oilfield (the largest in Iraq at about 1.4 million barrels per day), initially cut staff because of the violence, but made a show to investors by the end of July assuring them that production was back to normal.

“(ISIS) can send suicide bombers (to the south) but they cannot wage a war or occupy or echo or replicate what’s happening in the north,” said al-Khatteeb. “So far key investments are far from danger.”

Corruption Is the Constant

Southern security stability is great for the foreign companies and the big oil interests in Baghdad, but even steady production doesn’t necessarily translate into economic stability in Iraq—a critical weakness that led to political and social upheaval in the Sunni areas, which ISIS was able to exploit fully this year. One of the major complaints against the former al-Maliki government was that oil riches weren’t trickling down to local governments in the form of services and resources.

Iraqi unemployment is quite high—hovering around 15 percent—and the poverty rate is anywhere from 18 to 28 percent depending on the source. According to the World Bank, only 46 percent of the country’s economy doesn’t depend on oil, which means the economy is “structurally weak.” So in a literal sense, oil is the biggest game in town, the “central facilitator in everyone’s ambitions,” as LeVine put it, even as it only benefits a few.

“Poor governance, an inefficient and easily co-opted judiciary system, inconsistent regulations, and security issues keep Iraq at the bottom of the global rankings for business,” according to the World Bank. Continuing violence and political instability will only make it worse.  For now, Iraq is on a path to continued GDP growth, with some estimates expecting as much as 6.3 percent growth this year, thanks to oil. “But no one knows where the money is going,” points out LeVine.

“A lot of corruption and waste. It is a source of discontent and instability. That’s not going to simply go away,” he said, even if ISIS is driven away or the Kurds decide to play ball with Baghdad. “It’s not going to vanish.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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