Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Jonathan Pollard, the former United States navy intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel, was released from prison on parole on November 20th upon completion of a 30-year prison term. Pollard, perhaps uniquely among convicted felons, left the federal penitentiary in North Carolina and traveled to New York City where an apartment in Manhattan and a job at an unidentified investment bank were awaiting him. He was united with his second wife Esther, an Israeli citizen whom he had met and married while incarcerated. By some accounts, Pollard likely has a million-dollar-plus nest egg waiting for him in a bank account somewhere outside the United States, representing his accumulated earnings dutifully deposited for him by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad to compensate him for his arrest and the time spent in prison. Pollard’s first wife Anne, who also did prison time, is currently suing the Israeli government for compensation for her own pain and suffering now that her former husband has been released.
Pollard is on parole and is required to wear an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements, designed to prevent his fleeing to Israel. He cannot leave the United States for five years even though he has been granted citizenship by the Knesset and has both a town square and a residential building in Jerusalem named after him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared an unofficial holiday in his honor and there will no doubt be a victory parade, as he is regarded as a hero by most Israelis.
Pollard has according to some reports offered to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Two congressmen from New York, Jerrold Nadler and Eliot Engel, as well as the Israeli government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have called on President Obama to let Pollard immediately emigrate to Israel, but there is no indication that the Justice Department will agree. The Pentagon and intelligence community have reportedly voiced strong objections over the risk that Pollard continues to represent due to his alleged photographic memory and his ability to provide context to the documents that he stole.
As I have been following the Pollard case for a number of years, I carefully read many of the media reports on the parole and release from prison. Most were fairly offhand in their coverage, but a number focused on what they discerned to be the main points in the story: that Pollard was spying for an “ally,” that his sentence was alleged to be disproportionately harsh, that anti-Semitism might have played a part in that sentence, and that the information stolen related only to Israel’s enemies. In short, Pollard was a good man only working to help a beleaguered Israel by obtaining intelligence that was being held back by the United States government and who, when caught, was more severely punished than other comparable spies.
As much of the narrative being promoted by the mainstream media is completely false and even hypocritical, it is important to correct the record to demonstrate just exactly what Pollard was as well as what damage he did. Those who are calling for Pollard’s freeing from probation both in Israel and among Israel’s friends in the U.S. should look to the example of how Israel has itself treated Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal in 1986. He was drugged and kidnapped, convicted in a secret trial, and spent 18 years in prison, 11 of which were in solitary confinement. Since his release in 2004, he has not been allowed to leave Israel or speak to journalists and has been re-arrested a number of times.
It is difficult to find a moral high ground when it comes to spying, but Pollard’s friends pretend that the espionage was carried out to help a small and vulnerable ally better defend itself. There is no evidence that Pollard ever thought in those terms himself, and the Pentagon investigation concluded that he was only motivated by money. He reportedly wanted to get rich and before he approached the Israelis he offered to sell his information to several other countries, including Pakistan and then-under-apartheid South Africa. After Pollard was caught, he pleaded guilty to one count of mishandling classified information and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987.
Over the years since Pollard was sentenced I have had the good fortune to speak to several former senior intelligence officials who were involved in doing the damage assessment of what the Israeli spy exposed. They were sworn to secrecy on the details of what actually occurred but were able to make some general comments. They agreed on several points, namely that Pollard was the most damaging spy bar none since the Rosenberg espionage ring betrayed U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s; that Pollard exposed entire intelligence collection and deterrent systems that had to be recreated or abandoned at a cost of billions of dollars; and that Pollard, who has never shown any genuine remorse for what he did, should never be released from prison.
When Pollard was awaiting sentencing his lawyers sought to influence presiding Judge Aubrey Robinson into agreeing to minimal jail time, claiming that the espionage was really only a misguided bid to aid a beleaguered friend and ally Israel. Pollard’s wife Anne also appealed directly to the Jewish community to support her and her husband, claiming on “60 Minutes” that “our moral obligation was as Jews.” Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger responded to the pleas by submitting to the judge a letter, which is still classified, detailing precisely the immense damage that Pollard had done. After reviewing the letter, Judge Robinson refused to consider any mitigation and immediately sentenced Pollard to the maximum possible sentence.
In January 2014, M.E. “Spike” Bowman, who was at the time the liaison between the Departments of Defense and Justice and coordinator of the damage assessment, wrote an op-ed entitled “Don’t Trust This Spy” for the New York Times and also provided his assessment of Pollard in a paper presented at the March 7th 2014 National Summit to Reassess the US-Israel Special Relationship. Bowman confirmed the unique damage done by Pollard, observing that there has been no other American spy who provided “information of the quantity and quality that Mr. Pollard has.” To cope with the volume, the Israelis had to install high speed copiers in a safehouse apartment they used with Pollard and it is estimated that he stole 360 cubic feet of documents, enough to fill a room. And it was nearly all information that was beyond secret, meaning top secret and SCI or codeword, which is the most sensitive information that the United States government possesses. The Israelis were delighted and were able to request specific documents from a Defense Intelligence Agency catalog of available intelligence reports that had been given to them by another of their spies in the government, who has never been publicly identified but is generally believed to be a top-level official who served in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Pollard’s high-level clearance meant that he could get his Israeli Washington Embassy-based case officer Colonel Avi Sella, who was also running spy Ben-Ami Kadish at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, anything that he wanted.
For those who hint at anti-Semitism to make their claim that Pollard was treated with disproportionate rigor Bowman notes that it was not a normal espionage case. The conviction was under a special statute (18 US Code 194) that protects information related to “…nuclear weaponry, military spacecraft or satellites, early warning systems, or other means of defense or retaliation against large scale attack; war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information.” In other words, information that would make the United States vulnerable to attack by an enemy or would limit its ability to respond.
Pollard had provided intelligence to Israel relating to nearly every one of the key national security elements detailed in 18 USA Code 194 and, most particularly, had provided the Radio Signal Notations Manual, which contained details of how the United States collects signals intelligence as well as the known parameters of the systems used by the Soviet Union. The information would enable an adversary to avoid collection by American codebreakers and, if in the hands of a sophisticated adversary like the Soviets, would permit penetration of U.S. systems. Former CIA Director William Casey and others believed that the Israelis provided at least some of the stolen information to the Soviet Union in exchange for the expedited emigration of Russian Jews.
It should also be recognized that the focus on Pollard has obscured the duplicitous behavior by the Israeli government and its proxies in the U.S. I recall when I was in Turkey shortly after Pollard was arrested a delegation of the American Jewish Committee came through town and met with the Consul General and later the Ambassador, insisting that Pollard was some kind of nut and assuring all who would listen that Israel would never spy on the United States. That spin prevailed in much of the media and among the punditry, calling it a “rogue operation,” until Tel Aviv finally ‘fessed up in 1998. The fact is that the Pollard spy operation was approved at the highest levels of the Israeli government and to this day Tel Aviv has reneged on its agreement to return all of the material stolen to enable the Pentagon to do a complete damage assessment. And Israel continues to spy aggressively on the United States, ranking first among “friendly” countries in that category.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The shooting down of a Russian fighter plane by a Turkish F-16 is an extremely disturbing turn of events.
Turkey claims that the SU-24 aircraft had violated its airspace and had not responded to repeated warnings before the armed response took place. The Russians for their part claim that they were operating in Syrian airspace with the concurrence of the Damascus government. President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian television shortly after the plane went down and was clearly furious, denouncing a “stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices” and warning that there would be “severe consequences.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled a planned Wednesday visit to talk with his counterpart in Ankara.
The shoot down will have repercussions. It will inevitably involve some kind of response from NATO while also rendering the creation of any grand alliance against ISIS much less likely.
Turkey has produced a map indicating where the violation of airspace allegedly took place. If the map is accurate, it was over a finger of land two miles wide that juts into Syria. The map and Turkish commentary relating to it suggest that the incursion occurred when the Russian plane crossed the border, but there is perhaps inevitably a problem with that account. A fighter traveling at even subsonic speed would have passed over the Turkish territory in roughly twelve seconds, which rather suggests that there would not have been time for any “repeated warnings.”
Then there is the problem with where the plane actually came down. Admittedly the aircraft would not necessarily plummet straight down to mark the spot where it was hit, but the remains appear to have wound up comfortably inside Syria. A video of the plane’s downing also seems to show it being hit and then going directly down.
There is also the question of who gave the order to fire—and why. The Turks have been complaining about Russian aircraft coming too close to the border and there has been inflammatory media coverage about alleged bombings of the ethnic Turkish Turkmen tribesmen who live in the area on the Syrian side. But given the political sensitivity of what is occurring along the Turkey-Syria border, one would have to suspect that any decision to take decisive action came from the top levels of the government in Ankara. American, British, French and Russian airplanes are all operating over northern Syria. None of those planes can be construed as being hostile to Turkey while the terrorist and rebel groups have no air forces. Why a relatively minor incursion, if it indeed took place, would warrant a shoot down has to be questioned unless it was actually a Turkish plan to engage a Russian plane as soon as it could be plausibly claimed that there had been a violation of airspace.
Why would the Turks do that? Because Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently with considerable success, and Turkey has been extremely persistent in their demands that he be removed. Al-Assad is seen by Turkey, rightly or wrongly, as a supporter of Kurdish militancy along the long and porous border with Turkey. This explains why Ankara has been lukewarm in its support of the campaign against ISIS, tacitly cooperating with the terrorist group, while at the same time focusing its own military effort against the Kurds, which it sees as an existential threat directed against the unity of the Turkish Republic.
Would Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan do something so reckless? Only he knows for sure, but if his objective was to derail the creation of a unified front against terrorist and rebel groups in Syria and thereby weaken the regime in Damascus, he might just believe that the risk was worth the potential gain.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week quickly produced demands for stronger steps to be taken against Europe’s own domestic Islamic militants. At least some of the terrorists were indeed French citizens and the massacre of 129 innocent civilians will undoubtedly also generate new calls in the U.S. Congress to do something about the perception of a homegrown terrorist threat on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to attacks against targets that are not high profile and therefore relatively unprotected by security. Think of the havoc multiple gunmen could wreak in coordinated assaults on shopping malls, sporting events, schools, and theaters. And, unlike in France, the perpetrators would be able to procure their weapons locally and even legally, easing the logistical burden on staging an attack.
Whom to blame and what to do will undoubtedly become political footballs in the next several weeks, particularly among those aspiring to be elected president in 2016. Jeb Bush has already declared alarmingly that there is “an organized effort to destroy Western civilization.” Candidates will likely promote new laws to further limit some constitutional liberties in the United States including freedom of speech, oblivious to the fact that perfect security everywhere all the time is an impossible objective while fundamental freedoms once stolen from the American people will never be returned.
I recently attended a very interesting conference in Washington that considered how to analyze the problem that has been called “violent extremism” and questioned what should be done about it, if anything. Several expert panels quickly made clear that the label violent extremism is meaningless, an expression of convenience that actually serves to obscure the broad range of motives that can push someone to become part of a terrorist attack. Several speakers noted that the problem itself has clearly been exaggerated for political reasons, to create a wedge issue to attack the administration. Participants observed that of the thousands of mostly Muslim Americans who have sympathy for the fate of their coreligionists overseas and peruse what are too often loosely described as radical websites, few accept that violence is an appropriate response—and still fewer are willing to do something about it.
So law enforcement and intelligence agencies are actually dealing with a tiny subset within a small minority of the American population. I would add that this marked lack of genuine “homegrown” militants explains the frequency of arrests in terrorism cases where the accused have actually done nothing whatsoever and sometimes appear to have been motivated largely by the ubiquitous FBI informants that are often inserted into such investigations at an early stage. Most cases are consequently resolved with either a plea bargain or with a reduced charge relating to “material support” of terrorism.
Only one speaker believed that “something has to be done” about the violent extremism problem, and he was also the only participant coming at the issue from a government perspective. Most of the others suggested that there might be other ways to look at the phenomenon and agreed, based on a considerable body of research, that there is no identifiable process whereby one becomes a terrorist. Setting up programs based on the premise that that there is some kind of behavior model has been tried in Europe and has proven ineffective. The preferred hybrid programs generally combine police and intelligence agency surveillance of Muslim communities with social service type approaches to “help” those who presumably have been either coopted or “brainwashed,” but they often only generate well-deserved suspicion and unwillingness to cooperate unnecessarily with the authorities.
Where Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs stigmatize and alienate Muslim communities they actually succeed in increasing radicalization while simultaneously discrediting any legitimate government role in preventing a terrorist incident. In one of three current pilot CVE pilot programs in the city of Minneapolis, Somali children were reportedly considered to be “at risk” and were to be monitored both in and out of school to “help spot identity issues and disaffection.” Other programs are being tested in Boston and Los Angeles while the Department of Homeland Security has created an Office for Community Partnerships, a euphemism for CVE, to coordinate efforts.
There are no specific guidelines regarding what constitutes necessary training for a designated CVE lunch monitor or even how and when that individual would be empowered to report suspicious behavior to the FBI. The lack of any framework opens the door to profiling and other abuse. And one might also note that the programs that are currently de facto focused exclusively on Muslims have been deliberately established without any specific sectarian or ethnic bias. The federal government reportedly also considers some groups opposed to gun control, immigration, abortion, and taxes to be violent extremists and potentially subject to the same type of soft surveillance combined with attempts at social engineering.
One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.
The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn’t. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy. Identifying them as fanatics of one kind or another or as “mentally ill” obscures what they really represent—even if it is clearly useful from a propaganda point of view to energize public support for government initiatives.
Avoiding heavy-handed attempts to penetrate and control identifiable communities that the terrorists operate within has failed since the French tried it in Algeria. Relying on the existing courts and law enforcement does work because the justice system has an inherent legitimacy. Identifying terrorists as criminals and dealing with them as such openly and transparently through the criminal justice system provides a guarantee of at least a modicum of due process, particularly when honest efforts are also made to obtain the support and cooperation of the moderates in the local community. That is how the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, ETA, and the IRA were eventually brought to heel. It also led to the dismantling of radical groups including the Weathermen in the United States as well as the Tupamaros and Dev Sol in South America.
Intelligence agencies have a legitimate role in collecting information to support the efforts of law enforcement. But where programs are set up to spy on a suspect community (as they have been most notably in Britain), such activity when exposed will turn cooperation into resistance. In fact, singling out Muslims or immigrants from a particular country either as victims or perpetrators is not a good idea. It labels those on the receiving end as being somehow involved with a poorly defined and nebulous “terror problem” even when they are not. In reality, Muslim-Americans are above average in income and education. They are regarded by most local communities where they have settled as all around good citizens. Law enforcement sources state that they have routinely cooperated with police to help identify members of their community that appear to be becoming radicalized.
So the question over whether domestic terrorism requires a heavy hand, a lighter but more social services oriented approach, or reliance on law enforcement should come down in support of the police and courts. Will there be more terrorist attacks inside the United States? Almost certainly yes, but the solution is to work hard within the limits of the law. We must identify and arrest genuine potential perpetrators while avoiding creating whole classes of alienated citizenry in the process. The criminal justice system is designed to do just that.
And it is important to remember that terrorist organizations come and go, historically speaking. Groups that employ the tactic of terrorism are not the new normal and are mostly creations of specific circumstances that rarely repeat. In the current case, the war against the Russians in Afghanistan followed by the U.S.-led “global war on terror” together triggered dislocation and security breakdowns in the Middle East and Asia. Most radical groups are essentially nihilistic in their core beliefs and they eventually fall out of fashion. Put some of them in jail while providing amnesties for the not-so-hard core and many of the so-called terrorists inevitably go off message and disappear.
Was a Christian non-governmental organization funded by the Pentagon used to smuggle spy equipment into North Korea? Investigative journalist Matthew Cole of the The Intercept has done yeoman’s work in ferreting out the details of what must surely be one of the most ill-conceived military intelligence operations of all time, and that is saying quite a lot. And Congress was reportedly fully briefed on it, though that has been denied by at least one member of the Intelligence Oversight Committee, who accuses the Pentagon of never pausing to consider the potential blowback that it might produce.
With apologies to Cole for any omissions or misunderstandings on my part, the story goes something like this: in 2004 the Pentagon, fired up by the need to “protect the country” post 9/11, was keen on muscling in on the CIA’s virtual monopoly on strategic intelligence collection. Lieutenant General William “Jerry” Boykin, former head of the counter-terrorist Delta Force and at that time deputy in the Pentagon’s office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was tasked with improving collection for the military consumers in key crisis areas, including Iran and North Korea. He turned to the task of creating cover mechanisms to be used by his new corps of clandestine warriors.
Boykin, supported by his boss Stephen Cambone and also by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, soon came up with a scheme to smuggle electronic monitoring equipment and other spyware into top priority target North Korea. In intelligence jargon, North Korea was (and still is) the ultimate “denied area,” a society and government difficult or even nearly impossible to penetrate because of strict population control and a high level of security. At that time the United States had no spies inside the secretive nuclear-armed country telling Washington what was going on. What little information was available on North Korea came primarily from surveillance satellites, from South Korea’s own spy services, and from the very limited intelligence that was being shared by China.
Boykin, who might reasonably be described as an extremely devout evangelical Christian, worked with another evangelical Christian acquaintance named Kay Hiramine to use an existing religious charity he ran called Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG). HISG was to be developed as a mechanism to create a so-called rat line enabling the smuggling of monitoring equipment into North Korea under cover of shipments of used clothing that the regime in Pyongyang was occasionally allowing to enter the country.
The HISG charity was funded by the Pentagon to the tune of an estimated $15 million during the course of the operation, all of which was channeled through three proprietary cover mechanisms. New Millennium Trust, run by a former Delta Force military lawyer, funneled money to an ostensible charity called Working Partners Foundation, run by a car dealer in Colorado who was paid $252,000 in 2006, which in turn passed the money on to HISG. A separate entity called Private Sector Consulting paid HISG salaries and provided other support. The cover mechanisms for funding were established to move the money and conceal the Department of Defense connection. Haramine, for his part, received a $281,351 salary from Private Sector Consulting.
Whether anything could in fact be smuggled into North Korea past the suspicious and watchful border security guards was questionable, but in a test run the HISG charity managed to successfully conceal a large number of bibles in a hidden compartment at the bottom of a shipping container topped up with used winter clothing, a highly prized commodity for starving and freezing North Koreans.
From that point the narrative gets a little bit fuzzy. Boykin retired from the Pentagon in 2007 but the program continued to run with one officer describing it as a “jobs program” for Boykin’s friends, most of whom appear to be, like him, evangelical Christians. It is reported that short wave radios and some electronic devices intended to monitor nuclear programs as well as interfere with North Korean military communications were indeed smuggled into the country by unwitting Christian missionaries, aid workers, and Chinese smugglers, but whether they provided any critical intelligence is unclear. The operation continued to run during the Obama administration, finally winding down in 2013. While it is certain that George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew of and approved the operation, it is not known if either the Bush or Obama White Houses had explicit knowledge of it.
Some background on the usual restraints governing how the United States runs covert intelligence operations overseas is necessary. The charity involved in the Pentagon initiative is what is referred to as a non-governmental organization, or NGO. NGOs are not organized like businesses or corporations in that their primary objective is only peripherally linked to making money and their objectives vary considerably. The ones that are encountered overseas frequently have either charitable or educational functions.
NGOs are fair game for infiltration and cover by intelligence organizations, but their exploitation in that fashion is extremely uncommon. That is because it is impossible to control all the unwitting players in an NGO and any such operation would be susceptible to eventual exposure, with the damage derived from potential blowback far exceeding any possible gain.
The United States government does in fact impose a ban on recruiting certain categories of individuals as spies. Clergymen are off limits partly for ethical reasons but more because the exposure of such a relationship would be devastating both to the religious organization itself and to the United States government. Use of the U.S. taxpayer-funded Peace Corps is also banned because exploiting it would potentially turn its volunteers into targets for terrorists. Recruitment of journalists whose reporting potentially might appear in the U.S. media is also forbidden because the distribution of intelligence agency-produced stories could be construed as an attempt to covertly influence opinion and policies inside the United States. Ironically, the federal government officially opposes spy agency disinformation even though it does the same thing through the judicious leaking of information from the White House and Pentagon.
NGOs and individuals that operate as charities like Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), the victim of the recent bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, might in theory be exploited by an intelligence agency. But there is considerable risk of unfortunate consequences when doing so. One need only cite the case of the Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was recruited in 2011 as part of the CIA’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Afridi covered his search for bin Laden DNA by providing vaccinations against polio. After the story broke, polio eradication projects throughout south Asia foundered, leading to a resurgence in the disease and the injuring and killing by militants of numerous health care workers. Exploiting a humanitarian medical cover proved to be damaging to everyone involved, particularly as a risk-versus-gain analysis suggests that the information provided by Shakil Afridi did not in any way prove critical to the success of the operation to kill bin Laden. In 2014, the White House announced that U.S. intelligence would no longer exploit vaccination programs.
When the Pentagon sought to exploit a religious charity to infiltrate North Korea, all kinds of red flags should have gone up. But they did not because Boykin was relying on his personal relationships and his status as a former head of Delta Force to make the operation untouchable. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who served on the Intelligence Committee at the time, insists that no one in Congress was briefed. She commented astutely on the downside to the operation, observing that “…to use unwitting aid workers on behalf of an intelligence operation, people who genuinely do humanitarian work, to turn their efforts into intel collection is unacceptable. Now we have people who have been hired to do some good work and become unwitting accomplices to an intelligence mission? They can face all kinds of retaliation. It is completely unacceptable.”
Intelligence officers and combat arms soldiers pride themselves on being able to “get the job done” in spite of all obstacles, which often blinds them to the consequences of their actions. Boykin, a product of that tradition—and driven by his own conceit that he needed to do what was necessary to “save” the United States—inevitably failed to recognize that the eventual exposure of the scheme would produce a reaction among foreigners who are already inclined to be suspicious of proselytizing Christians. Now it will be plausibly believed that Christian charities are actually hotbeds of American spies and the likely response will be commensurate with that perception. Using a Christian charity to spy puts at risk all the employees and volunteers linked to that specific organization while helping propagate the myth that any indigenous Christian is a potential traitor.
HISG and its three cover support mechanisms were all disbanded in 2013-14, but not because the Pentagon was concerned about the possible consequences of its actions. It seems that the operation had provided little useful intelligence, not a particularly surprising outcome: Using unwitting and unfocused humanitarian charity volunteers and employees to smuggle in spy gear was a non-starter right from the beginning and should never have been attempted.
I am waiting for a sheepish Pentagon or White House to proclaim that it will never again exploit religiously-affiliated groups as intelligence cover mechanisms. But unfortunately, all I am hearing is silence.
The media are reporting a rare “success” in Washington’s ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to confidential, anonymous government sources, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been engaged in a secret program to assassinate designated “high-value targets,” which means terrorist leaders and other prominent figures, particularly those engaged in propaganda and enticing Western Muslims to join ISIS.
The program, which began in the spring, has reportedly killed four individuals, including ISIS number two Haji Mutazz. The operation employs “an array of satellites, sensors, drones and other technology,” according to the Associated Press, but it has benefited particularly from 24-hour NSA satellite coverage to pick up cellphone signals, a technique that has been used repeatedly in Afghanistan.
The program, which is distinct from the regular bombing attacks carried out by the Air Force and Navy, uses military drones to strike its targets. One of the sources for the AP story describes how the assassinations are keeping ISIS “off balance,” though the program is not seriously degrading the ability of ISIS to plan and execute new operations.
There are a number of problems both with the program itself and how it is being window-dressed. As the information is being provided by the Pentagon anonymously, its release is actually authorized, even though it is not subject to any independent verification. It is likely being described favorably to give the White House a much needed “victory” in the War on Terror.
In addition, revealing to the leadership of ISIS that it is being targeted through its phones will force it to figure out new ways to maintain contact with supporters, complicating future targeting. Revealing such information is referred to in the spy trade as exposing one’s sources and methods, the ultimate “thou shalt not” for any intelligence officer, which suggests that the whole story might be a deception to conceal what is really taking place.
Also, as military-directed drones in Afghanistan are notorious for causing collateral damage, it is not clear if civilians are being killed in the strikes and, if so, how many. Nor is the procedure for authorizing an attack in any way transparent. What constitutes evidence that a high-value target is actually near or using the phone being tracked? Is it now assumed that anyone fitting a profile residing in an area controlled by ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra a legitimate target? What are the rules of engagement?
Finally, there are legal and moral questions relating to targeted assassination itself. The Israelis have employed it for years, but America’s allies in the war against ISIS consider it unacceptable. Targeted assassination of enemy leaders and other prominent figures was contrary to U.S. doctrine prior to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. Now it has become official policy, so much so that it is being heralded as a success.
The White House believes that killing the ISIS leadership is legal under the Authorization for Use of Military Force as it is a Salafist-type terrorist group. That may be true from a U.S. perspective, but endorsing a program of targeted killing opens the door for those being targeted to start reciprocating, aggressively going after coalition government leaders and other high-level officials.
As former House Speaker Dennis Hastert prepares to plead guilty in accordance with a deal he has made with federal prosecutors, most media will focus on the crimes the FBI mentioned in his indictment. Since Hastert was charged in May, the public has been shocked to learn that the former high-school wrestling coach allegedly spent large sums trying to cover up past sexual abuse. But one prominent whistleblower has been speaking up about the possible misdeeds of Hastert for years now—and the way that they may have compromised national security.
Longtime readers of The American Conservative are familiar with the Sibel Edmonds saga. Edmonds, an FBI translator who revealed large-scale corruption throughout the government, has received multiple gag orders under the State Secrets Act. She has nevertheless persevered in spite of concerns that she would be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. TAC interviewed her for a feature article in 2009, and I also reviewed her claims multiple times over the last few years, including when her book Classified Woman came out in 2012.
Many of Edmonds’s claims involved Turkish and Israeli front groups seeking to influence U.S. policy while sometimes also engaging in illegal activity. The scope of the corruption allegedly involved bribery of senior government officials and congressmen, arranging for export licenses to countries that were embargoed, and the exposure of classified information. Edmonds has been questioned by a congressional committee, by individual congressmen and staffers, as well as by the FBI inspector general, and her information was found to be “credible,” “serious,” and “warrant[ing] a thorough and careful review.” She also provided interviews for “60 Minutes” and Vanity Fair, both of which were able to confirm key elements of her story.
Some critics have opined that Edmonds overstates or misinterprets what she claims to know, but there is no reason to doubt her veracity when she describes documents and investigative files that she personally handled during her time with the bureau. No one has challenged her accounts of the investigations that were underway at that time. She has been gagged by the Justice Department precisely because the information she revealed is damaging to certain political and purported national-security interests.
In the course of her various media appearances, Edmonds provided significant information on Congressman Hastert, who was under FBI investigation while he was speaker of the House, a role he assumed in 1999 and held for eight years. In her TAC interview, Edmonds related that “In early 1997, because of the information that the FBI was getting on the Turkish diplomatic community, the Justice Department had already started to investigate several Republican congressmen. The number-one congressman involved with the Turkish community, both in terms of providing information and doing favors, was Bob Livingston. Number-two after him was Dan Burton, and then he became number-one until Hastert became the speaker of the House. Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, was briefed on the investigations, and since they were Republicans, she authorized that they be continued… In 1999, [FBI agents in the Chicago field office] wiretapped the congressmen directly.”
In a deposition given in August 2009, Edmonds identified Hastert as “one of the primary U.S. persons involved in operations and activities that are not legal, and they’re not for the interest of the United States but for the interest of foreign governments and foreign entities.” She detailed what she believed to be Hastert’s wrongdoing: “This information has been public. The concerns, again would be several categories. The acceptance of large sums of bribery in forms of cash or laundered cash and laundering is to make it look legal for his campaigns, and also for his personal use, in order to do certain favors and call certain—call for certain actions, make certain things happen for foreign entities and foreign governments’ interests, Turkish government’s interest and Turkish business entities’ interests.”
When asked in the deposition, “Did you have reason to believe that Mr. Hastert, for example, killed one of the Armenian genocide resolutions in exchange for money from these Turkish organizations?” she responded, “Yes, I do… Correct… and not only taking money, but other activities, too, including being blackmailed for various reasons.” At the time of the deposition Hastert had left Congress and was working for the Washington lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro as a registered lobbyist for Turkey, reportedly earning millions of dollars in commissions.
Edmonds described her work on Turkish-language transcripts of investigations relating to Hastert covering the period 1996 until January 2003, elaborating on the possibility of blackmail. She recalled that Hastert “used the townhouse [in Chicago] that was not his residence for certain not very morally accepted activities. Now, whether that was being used as blackmail I don’t know, but the fact that foreign entities [Turkey and Israel] knew about this, in fact, they sometimes participated in some of those not maybe morally well activities in that particular townhouse that was supposed to be an office, not a house, residence at certain hours, certain days, evenings of the week. So I can’t say if that was used as blackmail or not, but certain activities they would share. They were known.”
In testimony before congressional staffers and committees, Edmonds has reported hearing Turkish wiretap targets boast of their secret relationship with a “Hastert.” They discussed giving him tens of thousands of dollars in clandestine payments in exchange for political favors and information. Many of the transcripts involved a suspect at the city’s Turkish Consulate, as well as several members of the American-Turkish Council and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, business entities that some FBI agents believed served as occasional covers for organized crime. Some calls appeared to be referring to drug shipments and other possible crimes.
One important contact was repeatedly referred to by Turkish callers under the nickname “Denny boy,” later identified as Hastert. The wiretaps revealed that tens of thousands of dollars were paid to Hastert’s campaign fund in small checks because donations of less than $200 need not be itemized in public filings.
Vanity Fair did its own due diligence in covering Edmonds’s claims, and the magazine’s David Rose wrote:
Hastert himself was never heard in the recordings, Edmonds told investigators, and it is possible that the claims of covert payments were hollow boasts. Nevertheless, an examination of Hastert’s federal filings shows that the level of un-itemized payments his campaigns received over many years was relatively high. Between April 1996 and December 2002, un-itemized personal donations to the Hastert for Congress Committee amounted to $483,000.
Edmonds noted that the phone taps contained repeated references to Hastert’s volte face in the fall of 2000 over the campaign to have Congress designate the killings of Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1923 a genocide. In August 2000, Speaker Hastert declared that he would support the resolution and send it to the full House for a vote. The resolution, vehemently opposed by the Turks, did indeed pass in the International Relations Committee by a large majority. Then, on October 19, shortly before a full House vote, Hastert withdrew it.
Hastert explained his switch as being based on a letter he had supposedly received from President Clinton arguing that the resolution, if passed, would be damaging to U.S. interests. It is not known if a payoff ever occurred but, per Edmonds, a senior official at the Turkish Consulate indicated in one recorded conversation that the price for convincing Hastert to withdraw the genocide resolution would be at least $500,000.
Fast forward to the Dennis Hastert case making the rounds today, which focuses on relatively minor federal banking laws and ignores the other evidence that has been collected by the FBI on Hastert for the past 20 years. One has to ask, “Why Hastert and why now?”, but there does not seem to be a simple answer. It might be little more than the result of frustrated FBI investigators demanding that some action be taken.
Edmonds, for her part, has described how the Hastert case has been ignored by the media and has predicted that it would eventually be made to go away by the government. Indeed, legal action following up on the original indictment has been delayed through postponement after postponement and more recently sidetracked into a plea bargain that will allow the former congressman to plead guilty to reduced charges while at the same time sealing forever the unsavory details linked to his being blackmailed.
Hastert and his lawyers understand that they are well placed to effectively threaten the government prosecutors because Hastert knows where a lot of bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking. By demanding that the investigative files on him—which could include reports of illegal activity by a broad range of former officials—be released as part of his defense, he can force the government to drop or mitigate the charges against him. It is a ploy similar to that used by alleged AIPAC spies Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman in 2009, which led to the presiding judge’s dismissal of the case.
Glenn Greenwald writes that “Those with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever. Often they need not even exploit their access to superior lawyers because they don’t see the inside of a courtroom in the first place—not even when they get caught in the most egregious criminality.” There is a particular irony here: criminals in high office may avoid punishment through their willingness to implicate their peers who are engaged in much the same practices, in effect blackmailing the government to leave them alone or face the consequences. That is what the Dennis Hastert story appears to be all about.
Since 9/11, numerous groups have launched aiming to make the neoconservative, interventionist approach the only acceptable foreign policy for candidates on the Right. The newest member of this club, the formerly little known John Hay Initiative, just had something of a coming out party in Washington, holding two high-profile events with GOP rising stars in the last few weeks.
Named after the secretary of state to Teddy “carry a big stick” Roosevelt, and consisting largely of the former Mitt Romney foreign policy team, the Initiative has been around since 2012. But it stepped into a more prominent place last month, when it held its first public event, a September 17 speech by Sen. Marco Rubio; on September 28, it hosted Speaker of the House aspirant Rep. Kevin McCarthy to explain his foreign policy views. The group, which does not have a website, has reportedly released a book entitled Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World, though it has not yet appeared on Amazon.
The Initiative, which as an IRS 501(c)4 nonprofit is permitted to both lobby officials and conceal its donors, was founded and is still headed by Brian Hook, a former Romney adviser and a George W. Bush political appointee as assistant secretary of state. He is joined by Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman, familiar hardliner figures also from the second Bush administration. Hook says that the group supports “American leadership abroad” and is concerned about “neo-isolationism in both parties. We want to be a resource to…those who are interested in conservative internationalism and promoting American leadership and ideals.”
With Mitt Romney himself on its advisory council, the Hay Initiative claims to have 200 experts on tap to provide commentary and “viewpoints” on global developments, who are themselves divided into 20 policy working groups focused on specific issues like Iran. The Initiative issues a weekly newsletter called “The Hay Bulletin” and prepares policy white papers. It claims to have advised half of the 17 candidates who were initially competing for the GOP nomination, which explains why so many of them sound the same when speaking about foreign policy. The list of current and former clients includes Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham.
Initiative “experts” reportedly wrote the foreign policy talking points used by candidates Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina in the second Republican debate. They undoubtedly scripted Carly’s astonishing menu for her first day in office in which she would immediately call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pledge undying fealty, followed by a call to the Iranians to read them the riot act as a prelude to cutting off their money supply. She also pledged not to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin as she has nothing she wants to say to him.
A number of Initiative-affiliated individuals have also made the logical transition to actually join the campaigns of several candidates, including Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden, who are both advising Jeb Bush. They and others of a like mind would presumably step up to become the foreign policy team if a Republican is elected to the presidency in 2016.
The Hay Initiative is only the newest addition to the virtual alphabet soup of organizations that have shaped Republican foreign policy over the past decade. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) regularly briefed the White House in the lead-up to the disastrous Iraq War. Since that time AEI’s resident scholars as well as their counterparts from the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Hudson Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) have been regular fixtures on talk radio and television, as well as in front of Congressional committees. They all produce their own newsletters and position papers but are also supported from outside by the battery of publications that regularly promote neoconservative views, including The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and National Review, as well as Rupert Murdoch properties such as The Wall Street Journal.
The various foundations and institutes compete for the same pool of dollars—and have experienced some internal conflicts over message and timing—but they are all essentially united in their belief that the United States must project “strength” in promoting democracy (and, peripherally, free markets). As a general rule, these organizations have enthusiastically supported bombing Serbia, invading Iraq, continuing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, attacking Iran, changing the regime in Libya, overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, increasing U.S. strikes against ISIS, supporting Georgia and Ukraine in their conflicts with Russia, and pushing back against Chinese expansion in Asia. And defending perceived Israeli interests is always part of their agenda.
These groups have also been generally uncritical of abuses like torture, renditions, and secret prisons, while supporting legislation frequently criticized by civil libertarians, including the Patriot and Military Commissions acts and the various iterations of the Authorization to Use Military Force. This muscular foreign policy inevitably comes with a costly price tag—and unsurprisingly much of the funding for neoconservative foreign policy groups comes from defense contractors and pro-Israel sources.
As every candidate is listening to the same tune sung by the same choir—and has virtually the same Hay Initiative-provided enemies list of bad guys and rogue states—the only disagreement evident in most GOP debates is who to attack first: Iran or Russia. Carly Fiorina breaks the mold by appearing to want to go after both of them simultaneously.
One critic of the Hay Initiative describes the organization and its associates as constituting a GOP Walmart for foreign policy, noting with particular irony how the “experts” have experienced no career damage from having been completely wrong on every significant foreign policy development during the past 15 years. And their shaping of the Romney campaign from a foreign policy perspective might best be described as incoherent. Of course, the Hay Initiative folks would argue that if Washington had doubled down instead of retreating from its leadership role, everything would be coming up roses.
The solution is to expose the putative candidates to some alternative opinions—but that might be asking too much. Do any of the GOP aspirants read The American Conservative or peruse any of the established outlets that offer constructive and fact-based commentary on global issues? I know that some of their campaign staffers do so, but have to be skeptical whether any of it permeates up to the top level.
I suspect the candidates are resistant to changing course because they do not want to be perceived as altering their message. Thus, the insertion of John Hay Initiative experts into their campaigns at a relatively early point may stifle consideration of any contrary points of view. But I also have to wonder if, within their own hearts, any of the GOP stalwarts are insightful enough to realize that they are being fed a load of hokum by their handlers. As with any number of issues, it would be very interesting to learn what leading politicians actually think about foreign policy when they are not performing on stage.
Back in the days when I was a spy there were certain things that one just did not dwell upon. Everyone who worked in the field knew that there were episodes that it would be best not to recall, either because they were embarrassing, possibly unsavory, or even, more rarely, wildly successful though at a price that one would not be willing to pay a second time around. With that kind of baggage, the expectation was that a retired officer would be best advised to live quietly on a couple acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains and take up landscape painting or breeding Labradors and not think about or try to explain the past.
But that was then, and today the new breed of intelligence officers apparently prefers to flaunt the naughty things that it has been up to. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have read the latest exculpatory effort by a gaggle of retired senior CIA officers seeking to justify torturing people. It is called Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Programs. Indeed, I read the entire thing, no insignificant achievement, even though much of the text appears to be untouched by a competent editor. If there was one, he or she must have given up in despair at the relentless government-speak prose.
The CIA rebuttal narrative goes something like this: the Senate report on torture was written by Democrats who were out to get the Agency and is therefore little more than a partisan hatchet job that targeted some senior officers. The book includes multiple assertions that the senators and their staffers willfully ignored things like “context,” which means that everyone was terrified that a bunch of bearded guys in caves were about to overthrow our Republic, justifying extreme measures.
And those Democrats, who ought to have known better, refused to accept that torturing people produced valuable information that saved “hundreds and even thousands of lives,” even arguing instead, perversely, that the sought-after intelligence was or could have been obtained without the physical coercion. Per the authors’ rebuttal that’s because information is like money—you can never have too much of it, an argument they label “corroboration.” Also, according to the authors, all of the CIA’s conduct was completely legal (even when someone was getting banged around before being hung from a wall and forced to listen to nonstop Michael Jackson tapes) because of authorization provided by Justice Department and White House lawyers, all of whom were indisputably men of great honor who would not lie or conform to political pressure under any circumstances.
The book is full of inflammatory yet oddly homily-like advice on how to keep America safe. George Tenet sets the stage by asserting that in 2001 “the world was in great danger.” Porter Goss explains, “What ‘must never happen again’ is that we fail to understand that weakness – real or perceived – is a magnet that attracts ‘evildoers.’ ‘What must never happen again’ is for the United States of America to relinquish its leadership as the greatest force for good in the world…” Or “no one could really claim to be following a moral path if they were complicit in the death of hundreds or thousands more Americans through failure to get information that these detainees had,” in the words of John McLaughlin, career Agency analyst.
The seven men who contributed to the book (George Tenet, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, John McLaughlin, Michael Morell, Jose Rodriguez, John Rizzo, and Philip Mudd) are, with the exception of Mudd, quite likely guilty of war crimes, so it is completely understandable that they would want to either set the record straight or redirect the narrative, depending on how one views their actions. They also plead their case without benefit of providing any actual evidence to support it, presumably because the exculpating details are either still classified or do not actually exist. Most readers would undoubtedly accept that torturing people as an interrogation technique sometimes produces information that would otherwise be withheld, but I searched in vain for a “ticking bomb” scenario where “enhanced” methods produced intelligence that actually prevented an imminent terrorist attack.
I also tried to find proof that the book’s contributors saved the claimed thousands of lives, but all I came up with were generic assurances based on “what if” terrorist plots, suggesting to the completely gullible that if the CIA had not been torturing terrible things might have happened somewhere and at some time. The rebuttal also did not address directly any of the scores of fully documented cases of incompetence and egregious brutality that are recorded in the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
There are also a number of out-and-out lies that undercut the credibility of the book, including the repeated suggestion that CIA was working flat out on the terrorism problem before 9/11. In his earlier self-promoting book The Great War of Our Time Morell asserts that a “brilliant” George Tenet foresaw the growth of international terrorism and was “focused on it, laser-like” prior to the al-Qaeda attack. In fact, the record shows that Tenet did little or nothing even after the heads-up afforded by the first World Trade Center attack and the Embassy bombings in Africa. Morell, it should be noted, was serially promoted by Tenet and many insiders view him as George’s go-to boy.
One element I find particularly disturbing is the actual backgrounds of the officers who are pleading their case. Most were career desk jockeys, far removed from the dirty work involved in “enhancing” interrogations, but who were willing to order others to carry out something that they had to know was both morally wrong and contrary to legally binding treaties entered into by the United States regarding the treatment of prisoners and torture. One of the contributors, Jose Rodriguez, destroyed the video tapes made of the interrogations, ostensibly based on the completely implausible argument that he was doing so to protect the identities of those carrying out the torture. Someone should explain to Rodriguez that the cameras were aimed at the poor slob who was being maimed, not at the guy doing it, but of course Jose was actually destroying the hard evidence of a war crime, protecting himself and others at CIA.
It is also interesting to note some of the evidence for malfeasance that the authors chose not to address. In 2004, the Agency’s own inspector general John Helgerson produced a Top Secret report that concluded that there had been a failure in leadership at CIA relating to nearly every aspect of the enhanced interrogation program. He reported that it was difficult to determine when and if certain techniques (i.e. torture) actually resulted in information that might not have been produced otherwise, that the procedures used themselves were more brutal than what was authorized in Department of Justice legal guidelines, that the program was poorly administered, and that some prisoners were tortured when there was no good reason to do so in terms of the information that they might have had access to.
As both George Tenet, his deputies John McLaughlin, Jose Rodriguez, and Mike Morell, as well as the current Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan, were part and parcel of the process approving and implementing the enhanced interrogation procedures, one would have to believe that they have a lot to answer for. But instead of accountability we now have a book sugarcoating how and why the United States chose the dark side, a book written in expectation that a considerable hunk of the public will continue to believe that torture not only works but also that it is perfectly acceptable when a nation is “under stress” as it was after 9/11. And both the public and the authors would prefer not to consider that opening the door to torture as official policy provides justification for America’s actual enemies to do the same when they capture a U.S. citizen.
Rebuttal comes on top of mildly expiatory earlier books by Tenet, Rodriguez, Morell, and Rizzo. One might note in passing that abandoning the rule of law either due to expediency or out of fear of subversive plots is not exactly a new trick. Adolph Hitler used it in 1933 after the Reichstag fire to pass his emergency “Decree for the Protection of the German People,” which suspended the Weimar constitution. We, of course, have the Patriot and Military Commissions Acts as well as the Authorization to Use Military Force and a new Pentagon manual that defines journalists as potential “unprivileged belligerents” subject to killing on or near a battlefield. And it is all backed up by a White House that secretly enjoys having the authority to act unilaterally whenever long-suffering humanity needs to be “protected.”
One might well ask whether publishing an ostensibly serious book justifying torture could even happen anywhere but in the United States. The contributors are all retired now with generous pensions and lucrative second career positions in the National Security industry. But regrettably their legacy endures. Outright lying and plausible dissimulating continue to be the name of the game in Washington.
Recent media reports reveal that 52 intelligence analysts working out of the U.S. military’s Central Command and Defense Intelligence Agency have filed a formal complaint with the Pentagon inspector general claiming that reports on the war against ISIS have been routinely altered by senior officials to make them more optimistic. They describe their work environment as “Stalinist” and if what they allege is true, it confirms that even the White House doesn’t know what the Defense Department is actually doing in Syria.
Kudos to the analysts, but some earlier dissidents on the issue were forced to resign, and they will all certainly be punished for speaking out. And I have to believe that Tenet, Goss, McLaughlin, Morell, and Rodriguez will not think well of them for breaking the code of omerta that all too often prevails in intelligence circles.
On April 29th, 2008 I had a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment. I had flipped open the Washington Post and there, on the front page, was a color photo of a two year old Iraqi boy named Ali Hussein being pulled from the rubble of a house that had been destroyed by American missiles. The little boy was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and had on his feet flip-flops. His head was hanging back at an angle that told the viewer immediately that he was dead.
Four days later on May 3rd a letter by a Dunn Loring Virginia woman named Valerie Murphy was printed by the Post. Murphy complained that the Iraqi child victim photo should not have been run in the paper because it would “stir up opposition to the war and feed anti-US sentiment.” I suppose the newspaper thought it was being impartial in printing the woman’s letter, though I couldn’t help but remember that the neocon-dominated Post had generally been unwilling to cover anything antiwar, even ignoring a gathering of 300,000 protesters in Washington in 2005. Rereading the woman’s complaint and also a comment on a website suggesting that the photo of the dead little boy had been staged, I thought to myself, “What kind of monsters have we become.” And in truth we had become monsters. Bipartisan monsters wrapped in the American flag. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said that killing 500,000 Iraqi children through sanctions was “worth it.” She is now a respected elder statesman close to the Hillary Clinton campaign.
I had another epiphany last week when I saw the photo of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach like a bit of flotsam. He was wearing a red t-shirt and black sneakers. I thought to myself that many Americans will shake their heads when looking at the photo before moving on, more concerned about Stephen Colbert’s debut on the Late Show and the start of the NFL season.
The little boy is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to get to Europe. The world media is following the crisis by focusing primarily on the inability of unprepared local governments to deal with the numbers of migrants, asking why someone somewhere can’t just “do something.” This means that somehow, as a result, the vast human tragedy has been reduced to a statistic and, inevitably, a political football.
Overwhelmed by thousands of would-be travelers, Hungary suspended train service heading towards Western Europe while countries like Serbia and Macedonia deployed their military and police along their borders in a failed attempt to completely block refugees. Italy and Greece have been overwhelmed by migrants arriving by sea. Germany, to its credit, is intending to process up to 800,000 refugee and asylum applications, mostly from Syria, while Austria and Sweden have also indicated their willingness to accept many more. Immediate neighbors of the zone of conflict, notably Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are hosting more than three million of those who are displaced, but the wealthy Arab Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia have done little or nothing to help.
Demands for a European unified strategy to deal with the problem are growing, to include sealing borders and declaring the seas off of preferred departure points in North Africa and Asia to be military zones where undocumented ships and travelers will be intercepted and turned back. One also has to suspect that the refugee crisis might be exploited by some European politicians to justify NATO “humanitarian” intervention of some sort in Syria, a move that would have to be supported by Washington. But while the bickering and maneuvering goes on, the death toll mounts. The recent discovery of 71 dead would-be migrants who suffocated in the back of a locked truck found in Austria, to include five children and a toddler, horrified the world. And that was before the dead three year old on the Turkish beach.
Many of the would-be migrants are young men looking for work in Europe, a traditional enterprise, but most of the new arrivals are families escaping the horrors of war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Their plight has been described in the media in graphic terms, families arriving with nothing and expecting nothing, fleeing even worse conditions back at home.
The United States has taken in only a small number of the refugees and a usually voluble White House has been uncharacteristically quiet about the problem, possibly realizing that allowing in a lot of displaced foreigners at a time when there is an increasingly heated debate over immigration policy in general just might not be a good move, politically speaking. But it should perhaps be paying some attention to what caused the problem in the first place, a bit of introspection that is largely lacking both from the mainstream media and from politicians.
Indeed, I would assign to Washington most of the blame for what is happening right now. Since folks inside the beltway are particularly given to making judgements based on numerical data they might be interested in the toll exacted through America’s global war on terror. By one not unreasonable estimate, as many as four million Muslims have died or been killed as a result of the ongoing conflicts that Washington has either initiated or been party to since 2001.
There are, in addition, millions of displaced persons who have lost their homes and livelihoods, many of whom are among the human wave currently engulfing Europe. There are currently an estimated 2,590,000 refugees who have fled their homes from Afghanistan, 370,000 from Iraq, 3,880,000 million from Syria, and 1,100,000 from Somalia. The United Nations Refugee Agency is expecting at least 130,000 refugees from Yemen as fighting in that country accelerates. Between 600,000 and one million Libyans are living precariously in neighboring Tunisia.
The number of internally displaced within each country is roughly double the number of those who have actually fled and are seeking to resettle outside their homelands. Many of the latter have wound up in temporary camps run by the United Nations while others are paying criminals to transport them into Europe.
Significantly, the countries that have generated most of the refugees are all places where the United States has invaded, overthrown governments, supported insurgencies, or intervened in a civil war. The invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum that has empowered terrorism in the Arab heartland. Supporting rebels in Syria has piled Pelion on Ossa. Afghanistan continues to bleed 14 years after the United States arrived and decided to create a democracy. Libya, which was relatively stable when the U.S. and its allies intervened, is now in chaos, with its disorder spilling over into sub-Saharan Africa.
Everywhere people are fleeing the violence, which, among other benefits, has virtually obliterated the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East. Though I recognize that the refugee problem cannot be completely blamed on only one party, many of those millions would be alive and the refugees would for the most part be in their homes if it had not been for the catastrophic interventionist policies pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States.
It is perhaps past time for Washington to begin to become accountable for what it does. The millions of people living rough or in tents, if they are lucky, need help and it is not satisfactory for the White House to continue with its silence, a posture that suggests that the refugees are somehow somebody else’s problem. They are, in fact, our problem. A modicum of honesty from President Barack Obama would be appreciated, perhaps an admission that things have not exactly worked out as planned by his administration and that of his predecessor. And money is needed. Washington throws billions of dollars to fight wars it doesn’t have to fight and to prop up feckless allies worldwide. For a change it might be refreshing to see tax money doing some good, working with the most affected states in the Middle East and Europe to resettle the homeless and making an honest effort to come to negotiated settlements to end the fighting in Syria and Yemen, both of which can only have unspeakably bad outcomes if they continue on their current trajectories.
Ironically, American hawks are exploiting the photo of the dead Syrian boy to blame the Europeans for the humanitarian crisis while also demanding an all-out effort to depose Bashar al-Assad. Last Friday’s Washington Post had a lead editorial headlined “Europe’s Abdication,” and also featured a Michael Gerson op-ed urging immediate regime change in Syria, blaming the crisis solely on Damascus. The editorial railed against European “racists” regarding the refugee plight. And it is not clear how Gerson, an evangelical neoconservative former speech writer for George W. Bush, can possibly believe that permitting Syria to fall to ISIS would benefit anyone.
We Americans are in something approaching complete denial about how truly horrible our nation’s recent impact on the rest of the world has been. We are universally hated, even by those who have their hands out to receive their Danegeld, and the world is undoubtedly shaking its head as it listens to the bile coming out of the mouths of our presidential candidates. Shakespeare observed that the “evil that men do lives after them,” but he had no experience of the United States. We choose to dissimulate regarding the bad choices we make followed up with lies to justify and mitigate our crimes. And still later the evil we do disappears down the memory hole. Literally.
In writing this piece I looked up Ali Hussein, the little Iraqi boy who was killed by the American bomb. He has been “disappeared” from Google, as well has the photo, presumably because his death did not meet community standards. He has likewise been eliminated from the Washington Post archive. The experience of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 immediately came to mind.
The United States’s engagement in the Middle East since 2001 would be a comedy of errors but for the fact that it is not funny. It all began with the exploitation of a befuddled President George W. Bush by a group of neoconservative advisers who had long planned to invade Iraq and oust its President Saddam Hussein using phony arguments about Baghdad being a nest of terrorists and a repository of weapons of mass destruction. The bungled occupation was followed by a prolonged case of democracy building that essentially destroyed Iraq as a nation and eventually led to a sectarian government closely tied to neighboring Iran that had the temerity to ask U.S. forces to leave at the end of 2011.
Overall, George Bush’s adventure has rightly been described as the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of the United States, killing approximately 4,500 Americans and some hundreds of thousands of Iraqis while costing the U.S. taxpayer at least $5 trillion. And that judgment does not even consider how the U.S. intervention led to the entry of al-Qaeda into the country as a result of the power vacuum created. Al-Qaeda was followed by the birth of ISIS in neighboring Syria, a development that soon metastasized and expanded back into Iraq. Neither Iraq nor Syria harbored any terrorists before 2001, but they certainly have plenty of them right now, and quite a few of them are using American-made weapons captured without a fight from the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army.
The United States has also given open and covert support to rebel groups operating in Syria in the insane belief that overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad would lead to the creation of a new democracy. Just like in Libya, apparently. Even though almost everyone agrees that the “moderate rebel” is difficult to define in practice and has been sighted less frequently than the unicorn, Washington went ahead with a $500 million dollar program for the CIA and Pentagon to train a strike force of such creatures to turn loose in Syria. The hugely expensive effort trained a paltry 60 rebels, who returned home only to be quickly defeated by their more militant peers. Some were killed and others captured, so they were unceremoniously disbanded. Back to square one.
All of this seems to have benefited ISIS, which has an excellent grasp of social networking as well as a propaganda arm able to depict the group as the Islamic bulwark against the West and its values while also opposing the corrupt Muslim regimes that have betrayed both Allah and the faithful.
From the start, Turkey, which nominally opposes radical rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been curiously absent from the fray, instead arguing that the major effort should be focused on defeating al-Assad. Indeed, when I was in Istanbul last July bearded rebels were observed in the more fundamentalist neighborhoods collecting money for ISIS without any interference from the numerous and highly visible Turkish police and intelligence services. Turkey has also been surreptitiously buying as much as $3 million worth of smuggled oil from ISIS every day, virtually funding the group’s activities. Ankara has allowed ISIS militants to freely cross over the Syrian border into Turkey for what might be described as R&R (rest and recreation) as well as medical care and training. Weapons have been flowing in the opposite direction, cash and carry, some provided by the Turkish intelligence service MIT.
Given the plate of pottage that now exists in the Arab Middle East, Washington was understandably delighted when Turkey on July 23rd announced that bygones should be bygones and that henceforth it would play a more active role against ISIS. Or at least that’s what Ankara seemed to be saying. U.S. warplanes would be able to use the NATO air base at Inçirlik to bomb ISIS positions, a much shorter flight than from the facilities hitherto used in the Persian Gulf, though the move did not solve the real problem, which is that there are no forward observers on the ground to direct the bombs and missiles, which has meant that many planes return with their bomb loads intact.
But the euphoria in Washington must have been short lived as Turkey quickly demonstrated that its use of the United States as a partner in an offensive against terrorists could be considered window dressing or possibly even cover for quite different activity, as ISIS was not the enemy that Ankara had in mind.
Some understanding of what was going on in Turkish politics leading up to the shift to an ostensibly more aggressive role is essential. Turkey had held a parliamentary election on June 5th in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to obtain a majority. Worse still, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is largely Kurdish, broke through the 10 percent barrier required to obtain parliamentary seats with more than 13 percent of the vote, much of it consisting of former AKP seats, making it a potential swing party in forming a new government.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose autocratic and increasingly Islamist style was the likely cause for the electoral shift, has been de facto running Turkey while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been attempting unsuccessfully to find a coalition partner for a new government. Erdogan has been openly maneuvering for new elections by refusing to make any concessions to potential coalition partners and has attempted to create a political situation perceived to be favorable to the AKP, a tactic that has been described by an opposition leader as a “civilian coup.” November 1st has been proposed as a possible date, but it must be confirmed by the Elections Board. Erdogan had a personal stake in again going to the polls as he has been seeking to have his position as president upgraded with significant new powers, something that will require a substantial majority in parliament to amend the constitution.
The Turkish government of Erdogan has over the past several years been preoccupied with finding both internal and external enemies to justify its increasingly megalomaniacal heavy hand. This effort has largely been focused on the near-mythical foe Fethullah Gülen, who resides in Pennsylvania and who allegedly heads a somewhat cult-like organization called Hizmet (the Service). Gulen, who is a religious conservative, once was a political ally of Erdogan but the two eventually became bitter enemies. Erdogan while Prime Minister accused Gulen of setting up a secret government that was “terroristic” in nature and proceeded to initiate a number of purges of the military, police, judiciary, universities, and the media to destroy it. Nevertheless, the most recent election demonstrated that AKP for all its fear mongering was beginning to lose control and something had to be done to create a more compelling threat narrative. Enter the Kurds.
For three decades Turkey has been at war on-and-off with the Kurds, some of whom seek more autonomy within Turkey, while others favor the creation of an independent Kurdish state incorporating parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. By some estimates 18 percent of the population of Turkey is of Kurdish origin, concentrated in the rural southeast, making it the country’s largest minority. Kurdish identity has itself been suppressed through the Turkish assertion that Kurds are actually “mountain Turks.” Kurdish language and cultural manifestations have long been illegal in Turkey, though there has been some temporary loosening of those strictures in recent years under pressure from the European Union.
For many Turks Kurds are the existential enemy. A Kurdish state would lead to the dismemberment of the Turkish state and Syria has become the object of Turkish wrath in part due to concerns that al-Assad would unleash Kurdish terrorism along his 600 mile long and largely indefensible border with Turkey. Even though Turkey has had a mainly effective cease fire with the most powerful Kurdish armed dissident group the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) since 2013, Erdogan evidently decided that it was good politics to break the agreement and declare war against the ancient enemy. And he chose to do it under the aegis of the U.S. led war on terror to increase its legitimacy in the media and in front of the international audience, hence the decision to support the Americans against ISIS.
The Turkish turnabout took place four days after a suicide bombing inside Turkey killed thirty-two civilians in Suruç in the Kurdish region. The bombing was attributed to ISIS not completely convincingly, but it nevertheless led to the round up and imprisonment of mostly Kurdish and leftist militants throughout Turkey plus a much smaller number of ISIS supporters. A major air assault on the PKK and other Kurdish targets in northern Syria followed with no warning to American and other allied soldiers and intelligence officers present in the area, a move that reportedly “outraged” U.S. military leaders. Ankara was clearly responding forcefully to fears of some kind of Kurdish state developing in northern Syria, a concern that had been growing after Kurdish militiamen liberated the border town of Tel Abyad from ISIS in June, provoking a pro-government newspaper to describe the Kurds as “more dangerous than ISIS.”
Since the wave of arrests and the initial air attacks, Kurdish reprisals against the Turks have killed more than 50 policemen and soldiers, while there are reports of an estimated 400 Kurdish militants dead at the hands of the Turks. It all guarantees that the tit-for-tat cycle of violence will continue.
As of last week, the Turkish Air Force had conducted more than 300 strikes against Kurdish targets versus only three against ISIS. Turkey’s war against ISIS was quickly and by design directed against the Kurds, including the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units YPG militia which, together with the Iraqi Kurds, is supported by the United States and has been the most effective force in opposing ISIS. So Turkey, pretending to oppose ISIS, is actually attacking ISIS’s enemies and even placing in danger the American advisers known to be working with the Kurds.
All of which means that the United States is again looking on in astonishment over having been bamboozled, recalling Rudyard Kipling’s famous epitaph “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.” One angry American general calls the development a “bait and switch,” while another commented that Erdogan “needed a hook” to go after the Kurds and lied to Washington to accomplish that. I might even suggest that the original suicide bombing that sparked the whole chain of events, which was carried out by a 20-year-old ethnic Kurd, might itself have been a false flag operation by MIT, designed to ease Turkish entry into a hot war ostensibly against ISIS but which would really be directed at the Kurds.
It remains to be seen if Erdogan will actually benefit electorally from the new war, as most Turks continue to be wary about military involvement in Syria and the instability has sent the Turkish lira plummeting on currency markets. He has already explicitly linked the opposition HDP to Kurdish terrorism in an attempt to discredit it and remove it from parliament, also calling for its 80 legislators to be stripped of their immunity so they can be prosecuted. And Erdogan certainly has plenty of precedents in mind when it comes to fabricating a powerful new external threat to revive one’s political fortunes.
Lost in the shuffle are Washington’s hapless diplomats and soldiers, trying to make sense of the long-abandoned U.S. interests, but that does not mean that Americans will be immune from blowback as the situation continues to deteriorate. The United States Consulate General in Istanbul, where I once-upon-a-time worked, came under gunfire two weeks ago, while Kurdish militants have already begun a new terror campaign directed against foreign tourist targets in Istanbul and along Turkey’s Aegean and south coast.
The drama of Edward Snowden’s exposure of wide-ranging National Security Agency (NSA) domestic spying has somewhat overshadowed the steady flow of somewhat lesser revelations derived from the massive cache of documents known as Wikileaks. The most recent news reports based on five Wikileaks documents, plus a list of targeted telephone numbers, detail how Washington spied on senior members of the Japanese government, as well as on banks and companies such as the major diversified conglomerates Mitsui and Mitsubishi, referred to as keiretsu.
According to the documents that were made public, 35 numbers were targeted specifically by the NSA for coverage between 2006 and 2009. The electronic intrusion permitted Washington to obtain information on trade talks, policies relating to energy and climate change, as well as secret briefings involving Japan’s then-prime minister that took place at his official residence.
As is often the case, the back story is more interesting than the exposure of the spying itself, as most of the world has by now concluded that the United States spies on everyone all the time and has become blasé when a new country is added to the list. In this instance, however, the documents revealed that NSA was sharing some of the information on Japan’s climate-change strategies with the British, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, which make up the remainder of the “Five Eyes” group that is privy to the most sensitive signals-intelligence operations. The suggestion would be that all five nations were and still are interested in collecting at least some types of economic information through espionage—a risky proposition, as revelation of such activity could easily derail trade negotiations.
A second major issue relates to what one does with business-related information after it is collected. Obviously intelligence that relates to trade disputes would be of some value to the White House, but design or marketing plans that could provide a U.S. company with a competitive advantage when dealing with a Japanese firm raise serious ethical questions. The U.S. government does not pass on such information, at least in theory, because of the practical consideration that the American economy has multiple competing firms in most economic sectors, and it would create unfair advantage if the information were given only to one company. So no one gets it, though one has to suspect there might be an occasional midnight phone call that violates the rule.
Ironically, the Japanese work the other way. The government cooperates fully with its large industrial firms to give them every conceivable advantage, which includes industrial spying on their behalf run out of Japanese Embassies.
Finally, a risk versus gain assessment of the apparent value obtained from spying on Japan would quite likely determine that the effort has never been worth the potential damage to bilateral relations. It is as inexplicable as the rationales produced to justify the programs involving other friendly nations like Germany, France, and Brazil.
One has to suspect that NSA spying often occurs just because the resources are in place and have to be used for something. We Americans spy on everyone mostly because we can.
The counter-terrorism industry in the United States is largely invisible, but its cost is not, amounting to tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars annually, depending on what one includes in the reckoning. And the actual level of threat is certainly debatable. Anyone who looks at terrorism arrests and convictions in the United State would likely come to the conclusion that many of the cases that eventually go to court are borderline entrapment. A suspect is frequently first identified by way of the internet or through telephone taps, either based on radical sites visited or by connections to friends who are themselves under suspicion. A case against the individual is then developed by monitoring what he or she is saying and writing, followed by the frequent introduction of a confidential Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant who contrives to become a friend.
At that point the whole process becomes murky because the informant is not supposed to encourage the suspect to undertake an illegal act, which would be entrapment. Nevertheless, in many cases the suspect proceeds to commit himself more and more after the informant is introduced and in many cases the latter then provides a bomb that will not explode or a gun that will not shoot. An arrest, trial, and conviction follow, demonstrating once again that the government is doing its job against terror.
Part of the trial process is the expert witness, used by both the defense and prosecution. An expert witness is supposed to be objective but in reality he is an advocate for the viewpoint of whoever is paying for his services, though if he goes too far he is vulnerable to aggressive cross examination by the opposing side.
I have worked as an expert witness in a number of court cases, including that of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, where I assisted the defense. In some cases, the witness really is expert in explaining hard forensic or scientific evidence, but very often credibility is actually the real issue. In the Lindh case, which was plea bargained and did not go to trial, I would have explained that Lindh did not in any way fit the profile of someone who was an actual participating member of a militant group, challenging claims that he was an active member of al-Qaeda. The jury would have had to weigh up both my presumed knowledge and credibility as a former CIA officer who worked on terrorism against the evidence produced by the prosecutors. The prosecution, for its part, would likely have produced its own expert witness from the intelligence community who would have disputed my testimony.
As many terrorism cases come down to trying someone for intent rather than actually having done something, it is perhaps not surprising to find a number of expert witnesses who claim to understand how terrorists think, which they exploit to strengthen the government case, resulting in longer prison sentences. Steve Emerson was perhaps the first prominent product of the proliferating expert witness phenomenon, all of whom testify for the prosecution in what has been sometimes dubbed the “guilty verdict industry.” Emerson, a notably Islamophobic journalist, cannot speak any Middle Eastern language but he is a perfect fit for the agenda-driven neocon-dominated world of terrorism punditry, associated as it is with right wing or pro-Israel organizations as a sine qua non. He insisted that 1993’s Oklahoma City bombing must have been an attack by Muslims, arguing that “inflicting as many casualties as possible is a Middle Eastern trait.” He later claimed that the “US has become occupied fundamentalist territory.” More recently, he described Birmingham England as a city “where non-Muslims simply don’t go in” and eventually had to apologize. Alexander Cockburn observed that Emerson’s “prime role is to whitewash Israeli governments and revile their critics.”
An Emerson protégé Evan Kohlmann is perhaps the most successful exploiter of the terrorism as a cash cow school of expert witness-dom, having become the go-to guy for a number of federal departments. I first noticed him in 2011 when he appeared as the NBC “network terrorism analyst” after the Anders Behring Breivik mass shooting in Norway. Kohlmann dutifully described extremist groups in northern Europe, but then opined that the example of a single man killing a large number of people with a rifle and thereby paralyzing an entire country would likely serve as a teaching point for Islamic extremists who would do the same thing, rendering it unnecessary to learn how to make bombs.
Kohlmann thereby adroitly advised how to carry out a terrorist act while also keeping the terror focus on Islamists, even though they were not involved, while also ignoring that the fact that hatred of Muslims undeniably motivated the Norwegian gunman. Within the intelligence community and at the Pentagon Kohlmann, like many of his expert colleagues, is widely considered a phony who has ingratiated himself with those who prefer an affable young media resource saying all the right things about terrorism, alarming the public while exuding a “charade of expertise.” Critics have called him the “Doogie Howser of terrorism” and a “huckster,” with a law professor describing him as a life form “grown hydroponically in the basement of the Bush Justice Department.” One observer agreed, noting that “He appears to have risen almost without trace.”
Evan Kohlmann’s credentials and connections, are to say the least, unusual. A graduate of Georgetown University and of the University of Pennsylvania law school Kohlmann has never worked in law enforcement, intelligence, or served in the military. Everything he knows about terrorism is derivative, coming from individual research in libraries and, more often, over the internet. Kohlmann even lacks the tools that the academic world would require. He does not speak or read any of the primary languages that relate to Islamic terrorist groups, to include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto. He has never even traveled to either Iraq or Afghanistan. In an article “Pandering to Terrorists” written for The Journal of Counterterrorism & Security, co-authored with yet another questionable terrorism expert Rita Katz, he hyperbolically described Hezbollah as a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of the entire Western world. While Kohlmann claims to have compiled one of the world’s largest data bases on terrorism, it would appear to be exclusively in English and, though he frequently cites it in trials as part of his bona fides, no one has ever actually seen it or been able to challenge it in court. Most intelligence professionals would agree that without practical experience Kohlmann has no idea at all of counter-terrorist operations, possesses no particular insights, and is not worth listening to.
Kohlmann has even written a book, Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network. It postulates that Bosnian Muslims are linked in a worldwide conspiracy with al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan. One reviewer dryly asked that “How can anyone even attempt to link the [extremely secular] Muslims of Bosnia to the Muslims in Afghanistan?” while another critic described how sloppy and poorly edited the book was. “From the get go Mr. Kohlmann is making cardinal mistakes starting from names of the places, and people (even ex Croat president), to the flipping [of] geographical positions of numerous places in the book. Mr. Kohlmann’s writing…is flat out incorrect and far from the truth as one could get.”
Nevertheless Kohlmann as an “expert witness” is a habitué of the U.S. judicial system. He has frequently appeared in court where he is paid as much at $400 per hour by the prosecution in terrorism cases, netting the company he founded a total of $1.2 million in fees for testifying and “consulting” with various government agencies. It has recently been revealed that he also has a classified relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, presumably as an investigator, which some might regard as a conflict of interest. The federal government imprimatur also has helped Kohlmann bring in considerable additional income, including providing consulting services for private clients and an estimated $700,000 from NBC alone.
Evan Kohlmann claims to understand the “indicators” that reveal that someone might actually be a “homegrown terrorist.” He cites five or six “factors” that produce a suspect, including, in one case, providing material support to terror through translating radical material from Arabic into English for a website. Kohlmann has provided testimony in thirty trials in the United States, plus several more in Europe. The cases are often “based on charges of conspiracy or supporting a terrorist organization, where the individual’s guilt is established by association…the demand for Kohlmann’s expertise by prosecutors is not surprising…[he] tends to demonize Islamist groups, and to link disparate groups and individuals into an encompassing narrative of international terrorism.”
There have been frequent challenges raised about Kohlmann’s expertise, both regarding his command of the facts and his analysis. Marc Sageman, a former naval officer, CIA Case Officer and practicing psychiatrist believes Kohlmann “tells stories” and describes his work as “so biased, one sided and contextually inaccurate that [it does] not provide a fair and balanced context for the specific evidence to be presented at a legal hearing.” A genuine “expert witness” should ideally have publications subjected to peer review or other intimate knowledge of the issue being examined, but Kohlmann has never faced such scrutiny. In one case, he was presented as an expert on the Bangladeshi Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, but under cross examination “it transpired that he had never written any papers on the party, nor been interviewed about the group. He had never been to Bangladesh, could not name the country’s Prime Minister nor even the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami.” But he was still permitted by the court to be an expert witness and the two accused were convicted.
Fortunately, sometimes a smarter-than-average judge will not be taken in. That actually happened to Kohlmann in London where a judge downgraded him from expert witness to “fact witness” because a 19-page report he produced on a Libyan group had clearly been completely researched on the internet. In short, the judge ruled that Kohlmann had no direct knowledge of terrorism or terrorists relevant to the case.
Evan Kohlmann is perhaps the most egregious manifestation of the global war on terror’s “terrorism expert big money business,” but he is far from unique. Like many of his colleagues, he is selling a product and would like to get rich on it before the American people wake up and the cash spigot gets turned off. More to the point, it is our own government officials, who certainly realize he is a fraud, that both protect and encourage him. They do it because it is in their own interest to obtain yet another terrorism conviction. Kohlmann is like a parasite who feeds off the system but it is the system itself that is corrupt and needs replacing.
Fourteen years of an unchallenged and largely unaccountable war on terror has certainly proven to be more than enough.
It has frequently been alleged that the modern Turkish Republic operates on two levels. It has a parliamentary democracy complete with a constitution and regular elections, but there also exists a secret government that has been referred to as the “deep state,” in Turkish “Derin Devlet.”
The concept of “deep state” has recently become fashionable to a certain extent, particularly to explain the persistence of traditional political alignments when confronted by the recent revolutions in parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. For those who believe in the existence of the deep state, there are a number of institutional as well as extralegal relationships that might suggest its presence.
Some believe that this deep state arose out of a secret NATO operation called “Gladio,” which created an infrastructure for so-called “stay behind operations” if Western Europe were to be overrun by the Soviet Union and its allies. There is a certain logic to that assumption, as a deep state has to be organized around a center of official and publicly accepted power, which means it normally includes senior officials of the police and intelligence services as well as the military. For the police and intelligence agencies, the propensity to operate in secret is a sine qua non for the deep state, as it provides cover for the maintenance of relationships that under other circumstances would be considered suspect or even illegal.
In Turkey, the notion that there has to be an outside force restraining dissent from political norms was, until recently, even given a legal fig leaf through the Constitution of 1982, which granted to the military’s National Security Council authority to intervene in developing political situations to “protect” the state. There have, in fact, been four military coups in Turkey. But deep state goes far beyond those overt interventions. It has been claimed that deep state activities in Turkey are frequently conducted through connivance with politicians who provide cover for the activity, with corporate interests and with criminal groups who can operate across borders and help in the mundane tasks of political corruption, including drug trafficking and money laundering.
A number of senior Turkish politicians have spoken openly of the existence of the deep state. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit tried to learn more about the organization and, for his pains, endured an assassination attempt in 1977. Tansu Ciller eulogized “those who died for the state and those who killed for the state,” referring to the assassinations of communists and Kurds. There have been several significant exposures of Turkish deep state activities, most notably an automobile accident in 1996 in Susurluk that killed the Deputy Chief of the Istanbul Police and the leader of the Grey Wolves extreme right wing nationalist group. A member of parliament was also in the car and a fake passport was discovered, tying together a criminal group that had operated death squads with a senior security official and an elected member of the legislature. A subsequent investigation determined that the police had been using the criminals to support their operations against leftist groups and other dissidents. Deep state operatives have also been linked to assassinations of a judge, Kurds, leftists, potential state witnesses, and an Armenian journalist. They have also bombed a Kurdish bookstore and the offices of a leading newspaper.
As all governments—sometimes for good reasons—engage in concealment of their more questionable activities, or even resort to out and out deception, one must ask how the deep state differs. While an elected government might sometimes engage in activity that is legally questionable, there is normally some plausible pretext employed to cover up or explain the act.
But for players in the deep state, there is no accountability and no legal limit. Everything is based on self-interest, justified through an assertion of patriotism and the national interest. In Turkey, there is a belief amongst senior officials who consider themselves to be parts of the status in statu that they are guardians of the constitution and the true interests of the nation. In their own minds, they are thereby not bound by the normal rules. Engagement in criminal activity is fine as long as it is done to protect the Turkish people and to covertly address errors made by the citizenry, which can easily be led astray by political fads and charismatic leaders. When things go too far in a certain direction, the deep state steps in to correct course.
And deep state players are to be rewarded for their patriotism. They benefit materially from the criminal activity that they engage in, including protecting Turkey’s role as a conduit for drugs heading to Europe from Central Asia, but more recently involving the movement of weapons and people to and from Syria. This has meant collaborating with groups like ISIS, enabling militants to ignore borders and sell their stolen archeological artifacts while also negotiating deals for the oil from the fields in the areas that they occupy. All the transactions include a large cut for the deep state.
If all this sounds familiar to an American reader, it should, and given some local idiosyncrasies, it invites the question whether the United States of America has its own deep state.
First of all, one should note that for the deep state to be effective, it must be intimately associated with the development or pre-existence of a national security state. There must also be a perception that the nation is in peril, justifying extraordinary measures undertaken by brave patriots to preserve life and property of the citizenry. Those measures are generically conservative in nature, intended to protect the status quo with the implication that change is dangerous.
Those requirements certainly prevail in post 9/11 America, and also feed the other essential component of the deep state: that the intervening should work secretly or at least under the radar. Consider for a moment how Washington operates. There is gridlock in Congress and the legislature opposes nearly everything that the White House supports. Nevertheless, certain things happen seemingly without any discussion: Banks are bailed out and corporate interests are protected by law. Huge multi-year defense contracts are approved. Citizens are assassinated by drones, the public is routinely surveilled, people are imprisoned without be charged, military action against “rogue” regimes is authorized, and whistleblowers are punished with prison. The war crimes committed by U.S. troops and contractors on far-flung battlefields, as well as torture and rendition, are rarely investigated and punishment of any kind is rare. America, the warlike predatory capitalist, might be considered a virtual definition of deep state.
One critic describes deep state as driven by the “Washington Consensus,” a subset of the “American exceptionalism” meme. It is plausible to consider it a post-World War II creation, the end result of the “military industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower warned about, but some believe its infrastructure was actually put in place through the passage of the Federal Reserve Act prior to the First World War. Several years after signing the bill, Woodrow Wilson reportedly lamented, “We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”
In truth America’s deep state is, not unlike Turkey’s, a hybrid creature that operates along a New York to Washington axis. Where the Turks engage in criminal activity to fund themselves, the Washington elite instead turns to banksters, lobbyists, and defense contractors, operating much more in the open and, ostensibly, legally. U.S.-style deep state includes all the obvious parties, both public and private, who benefit from the status quo: including key players in the police and intelligence agencies, the military, the treasury and justice departments, and the judiciary. It is structured to materially reward those who play along with the charade, and the glue to accomplish that ultimately comes from Wall Street. “Financial services” might well be considered the epicenter of the entire process. Even though government is needed to implement desired policies, the banksters comprise the truly essential element, capable of providing genuine rewards for compliance. As corporate interests increasingly own the media, little dissent comes from the Fourth Estate as the process plays out, while many of the proliferating Washington think tanks that provide deep state “intellectual” credibility are similarly funded by defense contractors.
The cross fertilization that is essential to making the system work takes place through the famous revolving door whereby senior government officials enter the private sector at a high level. In some cases the door revolves a number of times, with officials leaving government before returning to an even more elevated position. Along the way, those select individuals are protected, promoted, and groomed for bigger things. And bigger things do occur that justify the considerable costs, to include bank bailouts, tax breaks, and resistance to legislation that would regulate Wall Street, political donors, and lobbyists. The senior government officials, ex-generals, and high level intelligence operatives who participate find themselves with multi-million dollar homes in which to spend their retirement years, cushioned by a tidy pile of investments.
America’s deep state is completely corrupt: it exists to sell out the public interest, and includes both major political parties as well as government officials. Politicians like the Clintons who leave the White House “broke” and accumulate $100 million in a few years exemplify how it rewards. A bloated Pentagon churns out hundreds of unneeded flag officers who receive munificent pensions and benefits for the rest of their lives. And no one is punished, ever. Disgraced former general and CIA Director David Petraeus is now a partner at the KKR private equity firm, even though he knows nothing about financial services. More recently, former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell has become a Senior Counselor at Beacon Global Strategies. Both are being rewarded for their loyalty to the system and for providing current access to their replacements in government.
What makes the deep state so successful? It wins no matter who is in power, by creating bipartisan-supported money pits within the system. Monetizing the completely unnecessary and hideously expensive global war on terror benefits the senior government officials, beltway industries, and financial services that feed off it. Because it is essential to keep the money flowing, the deep state persists in promoting policies that make no sense, to include the unwinnable wars currently enjoying marquee status in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan. The deep state knows that a fearful public will buy its product and does not even have to make much of an effort to sell it.
Of course I know that the United States of America is not Turkey. But there are lessons to be learned from its example of how a democracy can be subverted by particular interests hiding behind the mask of patriotism. Ordinary Americans frequently ask why politicians and government officials appear to be so obtuse, rarely recognizing what is actually occurring in the country. That is partly due to the fact that the political class lives in a bubble of its own creation, but it might also be because many of America’s leaders actually accept that there is an unelected, unappointed, and unaccountable presence within the system that actually manages what is taking place behind the scenes. That would be the American deep state.
Back in October 2007, the House of Representatives passed The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act by an overwhelming 405 to 6 vote. The bill would have created and empowered a Congressional commission to hold hearings nationwide, conduct investigations, and propose new legislation to deal with the threat posed by various groups designated as “homegrown terrorists.” The legislation was introduced by then-Congresswoman Jane Harman, normally a reliable liberal, after she learned of alleged threats directed at synagogues in her California district.
The bill was also introduced to the Senate and was viewed favorably by the head of the Homeland Security Committee, at that time Sen. Joe Lieberman. It appeared to have majority support, but no action was taken on it and the bill eventually died in committee.
The demise of the Act was largely due to an uproar amongst civil libertarians regarding its overly broad definitions of what constitutes terror, leading numerous critics to challenge its potential infringement on First Amendment rights to free speech. Congressman Dennis Kucinich called it a “thought crime bill” and Ron Paul condemned it as both unconstitutional and unnecessary while also deploring its circumvention of the existing criminal justice system.
So case closed on a bad bill. Or was it?
In Washington, a favored bit of legislation that doesn’t make it through the committee and onto the floor for a vote can always be tacked on to another bill. Or, if there is some awkwardness about it, it can always be repackaged and given another name. Both of those tactics are currently being employed to revive the Violent Radicalization Act as the The Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015, which is now being rolled into the renewal of the Homeland Security Act as an amendment. It has also been bureaucratically jiggled, creating an Office for Countering Violent Extremism headed by an Assistant Secretary under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rather than a commission run by Congress.
DHS defines violent extremists as “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals.” It subdivides the extremists into domestic terrorists, which means native-born extremists who are generally speaking right-wing politically and anti-government, and homegrown violent extremists, who are U.S. citizens or residents beholden to a “foreign” ideology or terrorist group. In February, Homeland Security produced a report suggesting that the threat from domestic terrorists might well be as serious as that coming from individuals linked to overseas terrorism.
The legislation authorizing the new Office for Countering Violent Extremism is carefully neutral regarding exactly whom it is targeting, providing it with latitude to examine both domestic and internationally connected terrorism. But both political reality in Washington and most particularly the language used suggest that it will be heavily focused on Muslim communities and groups. It calls for “identifying risk factors that contribute to violent extremism,” “identifying populations targeted by violent extremist propaganda, messaging or recruitment,” and “assessing the methods used by violent extremists to disseminate propaganda and messaging to communities at risk for radicalization the recruitment.”
The intended mechanism is also clear. The bill calls for “leverag[ing] new and existing internet and other technologies and social media platforms to counter violent extremism,” a goal which might be connected to impending legislation that would compel providers to report on “suspect messages” relating to terrorism, which they do not currently do. Social media are understandably reluctant to become secret informants for the government while spokesmen on national security argue, inevitably, that it is essential to keep the country safe.
It is not difficult to see where this is going. The Office will hold hearings and will summon “experts” to speak, but there will be no critics of the program, only advocates drawn from places like the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Heritage Foundation. They will all agree that homegrown violent extremism is a serious problem and it will be implicit that the development is inextricably connected to the rise of political Islam.
The Office for Countering Violent Extremism is neither unique nor radically different from much of what has taken place already. An unfortunate consequence of the trauma of 9/11 has been the creation of a number of new laws and commissions designed to protect the country, frequently through either deliberate or inadvertent limitation of rights that have long been viewed as fundamental. The Patriot Acts of 2001 and 2006, the Military Commission Act of 2006 and the annual Authorizations for the Use of Military Force have diminished constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, freedom from illegal search, the right to habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom from the illegal seizure of private property.
That there might be homegrown terrorists in the United States is also not a revelation: their existence has been front page news since the time of the first World Trade Center bombing and Timothy McVeigh. But the increasing conflation of terrorism with Islamic militancy has been a more recent post-9/11 development. As terrorism is and always has been a crime and it is something that the law enforcement community and intelligence agencies have been dealing with intensively for the past fourteen years one wonders why a new Office with an expensive bureaucracy should now be required to address the problem.
It is certainly true that those who want to do more to confront what they see as a major threat believe that that something extraordinary must be done to anticipate and neutralize the homegrown problem, but many outside the national security bureaucracy believe that the threat itself has been overstated. Arrests and convictions in terrorism cases suggest that most of the alleged threat has come from activists who are more “wannabe” than the real thing, many of whom are arrested and charged after insertion of an FBI informant in law enforcement operations that might well be regarded as entrapment.
And some examples of similar programs both in the U.S. and overseas are not particularly encouraging. state department efforts to engage suspected militants in conversations through social media have generally been regarded as a failure. A major British initiative called “Prevent,” which began 10 years ago in the wake of the London bus and underground bombings, funded a number of programs supporting community outreach and dialogue but found that it was difficult to demonstrate what if anything was being accomplished. Worse, there was a public relations problem because many of those most effective at connecting with disaffected Muslim teenagers were themselves former Jihadis or religious extremists, suggesting that they might be doing more recruiting than dissuading. After 2010, the program began to emphasize less outreach and more surveillance of Muslim communities, a fact that was noted by those on the receiving end and perhaps an inevitable development in a initiative that seeks to combine educational and law enforcement functions but which has difficult in creating a firewall between them. Many critics of “Prevent” now note ruefully a new law in Britain that requires all government employees, including teachers and social workers, to inform the police if they suspect someone is being “radicalized.”
Even a well-intentioned effort to probe the mysteries of radicalization can produce unintended consequences, as the British experience suggests. The DHS’s own definition of “violent extremism” implies that numerous groups, including animal rights activists, anarchists, gun enthusiasts, and polygamists, could become part of the Office for Countering Violent Extremism mandate. As there will be no completely transparent or objective screening process, the agenda will be driven by the need to show some results. And the direction it takes will almost certainly be shaped by the same self-defined “experts” who will called upon to address the DHS panels. They currently enjoy good access to individual congressmen and to congressional committees, which will carry over into interactions with the new bureaucracy. Many of them have a scarcely concealed anti-Muslim agenda and it is likely that they and their associates will find plenty of terrorists and radical groups to investigate, including “anti-American” professors at various universities and critics of Washington’s post 9/11 foreign policy.
Last week’s two mass murders carried out by militants allegedly associated with the Islamic State (IS) took place shortly after the release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. Country Reports is 389 pages long, broken down by country and region. It also includes statistical charts, a focus on state sponsors, and analysis of transnational issues. It is worth a read if only to gain some insight into how the United States government views an issue as unwieldy and ultimately indefinable as “international terrorism.”
Initial reactions from interested parties and the media suggest that one can find something in the report to support nearly any point of view if one looks hard enough. The New York Times emphasized in its headline that “Iran still aids terrorism,” a conclusion also reached by the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Critics and friends of Israel, meanwhile, found the report’s explicit detailing of the Palestinian civilian deaths that occurred during the fighting in Gaza last summer either an “about time” moment or just one more indication that the White House is intent on punishing Benjamin Netanyahu.
I found the report to be somewhat perplexing, at times contradictory in terms of how it defines terrorism and what conclusions it draws. The 21st century might well be called the century of the terrorist. Terrorism is constantly in the news in one form or another and American newspapers have been reporting that “terrorism trend lines are ‘worse than at any other point in history.’” But what is terrorism? It has frequently been pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not an actual physical adversary, though it is less often noted that a simple definition of what constitutes terrorism is hardly universally accepted, while the designation itself is essentially political. The glib assertion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter fails to capture the distinction’s consequences as the terror label itself increasingly comes with a number of legal and practical liabilities attached. Describing an organization as terroristic in order to discredit it has itself become a tactic, and one that sometimes has only limited applicability to what the group in question actually believes or does.
The bone of contention in defining terrorism concerns where to draw the line in terms of the use of violence in furtherance of a political objective. In practice, it is generally accepted that state players who employ violence do so within a social framework that confers legitimacy, while non-state players who use political violence are ipso facto terrorists, or at least susceptible to being tagged with that label, which confers upon them both illegitimacy and a particularly abhorrent criminality. But some on the receiving end of such a Manichean distinction object, noting that the laws defining terror are themselves drawn up by the governments and international organizations, which inevitably give themselves immunity in terms of their own potential liability. They would argue that established regimes will inevitably conspire to label their enemies terrorists to marginalize both resistance movements and internal dissent in such a way as to diminish the credibility of the groups that are so targeted. One might reasonably argue that the government assertion of a right to a monopoly use of violence is sometimes in practice indistinguishable from the actions of non-state players.
One might also argue that “the threat of terrorism” is deliberately exaggerated and even nurtured by governments to justify tax increases and military spending while also permitting behavior by the country’s executive free of the usual legal and constitutional restraints. Interestingly, the State Department report, perhaps inadvertently, provides ample evidence that the global terrorist threat is not particularly global, and in most cases hardly amounts to a threat. The report notes that there was an 81 percent increase in terrorism connected fatalities in 2014, but it also observes that nearly 80 percent of all those fatal terrorist attacks took place in five countries—Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria. All are either war zones or have large areas that are not controlled by the central government. To put it simply, a power vacuum will often be filled by forces hostile to the country’s rulers and the result will be bloody.
For Americans the threat is best described as miniscule, hardly reflective of the popular view of a world awash with militants all seeking to kill U.S. citizens before travelling to Times Square so they can blow themselves up. Twenty-four Americans died in terrorist incidents overseas in 2014, but seventeen of those deaths occurred in war zones (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria). Five more were Israeli citizens who resided in Israel but who had a second U.S. passport. The other two deaths were in Abu Dhabi and Egypt. Even if one broadens the analysis to include terrorist incidents in the United States, which are not covered in the State Department report, the numbers remain the same as there were no deaths in 2014.
Overall, there have only been seven incidents attributed to jihadi-type terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11, resulting in 26 deaths. Not to disparage the death of anyone, but statistically speaking that is roughly one incident every two years and less than two deaths per year, hardly an existential crisis for the United States of America. During the same time period 48 Americans were killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists in 19 separate domestic terrorist incidents.
Even the labeling of Iran as “aiding terrorism” is a bit of a fudge that raises some questions regarding how plausibly defensive behavior by various governments is categorized. The main charges against Iran are that it is supporting anti-American radical Shi’ite militiamen who are helping defend Iraq, and that it and its proxy Hezbollah are aiding the Syrian government as well. As the U.S. government claims that Syria is itself guilty of terrorism, Iran thus becomes a terror sponsor once removed, permitting it to be tarred with the same brush.
But the State Department report also goes on to describe IS as the most serious new terrorist threat. As the Islamic State is opposed on the ground by both Iran and Syria as well as by Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias it would appear that Damascus and Tehran are only doing what the U.S. is also seeking to do, i.e. destroy IS. It should be clear that the policy makes even less sense than the Pentagon’s arming of Syrian rebels, which suggests that some in Washington want to differentiate between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Conspicuously, the State Department report makes no claim that Iran is in any way threatening Americans and provides no evidence to suggest that its client Hezbollah is an international terrorist organization. Even WINEP can only cite the arrests of three suspected but not convicted Hezbollah operatives in Thailand and Peru in 2014 to substantiate its claim that the group operates worldwide.
All of which, yet again, raises the question of who or what a terrorist is, how one attempts to tally the actual death toll, and what it means. A recent report by the highly respected Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests that there has been considerable deliberate understating of the true consequences of terrorism. The report reveals that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first 10 years post-9/11 as part of the so-called “global war on terror” (GWOT) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. As one might reasonably add Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the carnage and update the numbers on Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan for all areas where the U.S. is or has been engaged militarily the current total might easily exceed two million or more. The report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.
The State Department report is of necessity heavy on numbers and light on introspection, while it cannot be expected that anyone in Washington will take the blame for the anarchy that has been unleashed in the Arab heartland. Still less would anyone actually try to understand what motivates people to commit terrorist acts. To be sure, there is enough blame to go around, and not all of those possibly millions of potential war on terror victims were killed by American bullets or bombs. But their deaths are plausibly the consequence of ill-advised military interventions and operations to destabilize and replace existing governments, starting with the Taliban and continuing with Libya as well as into the present with operations directed against Syria.
How many of the dead that the Department of State scrupulously reports on each year are ultimately the victims of a misdirected and overly muscular response unleashed after 9/11, and how many new deaths will be added to that tally, is anyone’s guess, but attempts to point the finger at bit players like Iran and Syria might be convenient and politically comforting even as they are basically misguided.
Spying has sometimes been described as the realm of smoke and mirrors, but the expression might equally be applied to politics in Washington. President Obama appeared to be aligning himself with the critics of the growing militarization of police forces in the United States when he spoke in Camden, New Jersey on May 18. He declared that his administration would henceforth limit the types of surplus military equipment given to police departments as part of a program referred to as “1033.” The program, which has transferred material worth $18 billion, takes its name from and is funded through section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.
Equipping the police with military weapons began even earlier, however, with the 1990 defense spending bill, when a surge in the activity of violent drug gangs left the police outgunned and lacking the resources to purchase items like body armor, night-vision goggles, and automatic weapons to match those used by their adversaries. The program inevitably grew post-9/11 and was justified as an appropriate anti-terrorist measure under the aegis of the Defense and Homeland Security Departments. To respond to the new security environment, the transfers began to incorporate heavier equipment, including armored vehicles.
The heavily armed police on display during the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri prompted Obama to establish in January a working group—headed by the attorney general and secretary of defense—seeking to find a middle ground between legitimate police needs and the widespread perception that law enforcement has become an occupying army. It focused on procurement, training, inventory control, and potential civil-rights violations. The group’s 50-page report, “Recommendations Pursuant to Executive Order 13688 Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition,” was released to coincide with Obama’s Camden visit. The White House declared that it had taken major steps to demilitarize the police, and the media largely endorsed that narrative.
Certain weapons systems and peripherals have been placed on a list of prohibited items, including tracked armored vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, military-specification equipped and armed vehicles, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms. As police forces, with very rare exceptions, do not have any of the equipment that is now banned, the list is basically irrelevant. The curious inclusion of camouflage uniforms was intended to distinguish policemen from soldiers.
The group also recommended that access to other weapons be more strictly controlled. Airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles on wheels, drones, riot gear, battering rams, special-purpose firearms, and command vehicles are all acceptable as long as the police department fills out the forms required to validate the transfer and makes sure its personnel are properly trained to handle the equipment. Any police force can acquire the surplus gear, with the sole exception of those providing security for public school systems.
So the widely ballyhooed first step in the demilitarization of police follows the pattern of misdirection that has become characteristic of the Obama administration. Equipment that no one uses or even desires has been banned, while everything else is still available, as long as one is willing to do the required paperwork and endure the approval process.
Back in the 1980s I had a friend who was, like me, a CIA Case Officer. He came from a German-Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States in 1933 and, though non-practicing in religion, he was a devoted reader of Commentary. At that time Commentary was the house organ for what we now would describe as a neoconservative foreign policy, a fringe viewpoint that had not yet captured the Republican Party.
One day my colleague approached me and began to rant and rave about the movie “Gandhi.” He had been reading about the film in Commentary and told me that it was historically inaccurate and little more than a puff piece that had been funded by the Indian government. Lacking any particularly insight into the matter I made agreeable noises and left it at that, but it occurred to me that there was something more to the story.
Today I understand what the problem was. Gandhi forced a seemingly unassailable imperial occupying power to pull up stakes and go home. And he did it through nonviolence. Commentary clearly understood that if the Palestinians were to copy Gandhi it would create possibly insurmountable difficulties for the Israeli occupation, which was even then beginning to build permanent settlements for 100,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, as well as in Gaza. It could also expose Israel’s denial of basic human rights to many of the Palestinians under its control.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and numerous other friends of Israel have essentially declared war on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which one might describe as the Palestinian version of Gandhi, as it is nonviolent and nonconfrontational. BDS essentially seeks to bring about change through exposing the immorality of the status quo and even challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state, which was founded by dispossessing the Palestinians. BDS was organized in 2005 and has three stated objectives: ending the Israeli occupation, granting Arab Israelis full citizenship rights, and respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The third demand, the most contentious, is generally conceded to be a bargaining chip, expected to be subsumed into an agreement that would produce two contiguous states, which the BDS organizers explicitly support.
Boycotting Israeli products, divesting from companies that operate there, and calling for sanctions directed against particularly egregious human rights violations are intended to create economic pressure to bring about the type of change that eventually occurred in apartheid South Africa. Netanyahu clearly understands that BDS is the greatest threat that the current Israeli government faces because it actually might be successful, as the world now realizes that Tel Aviv plans a perpetual de facto occupation of all of Palestine coupled with second-class status for anyone who is not Jewish. As a result, even many traditional supporters of Israel regard continuation of the Israel-Palestine status quo as both morally and politically indefensible.
Supporting boycotts or foreign sanctions has now been declared illegal for any citizen of Israel and the government is also taking aim at local human rights groups that it says are providing fodder for foreign critics. Israel was rocked two weeks ago by a near miss over a possible suspension of the country from the international soccer federation FIFA due to its treatment of Palestinian footballers, and fears that similar moves might be taken against its participation in next year’s Olympic Games. Netanyahu understands that international ostracism is a threat far greater than a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and much more significant than the two intifada outbreaks of violence that began in 1987 and 2000. He has stated so explicitly, saying recently that BDS “is an international campaign to blacken [Israel’s] name” and declaring that it “is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence.”
Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli justice minister, has instructed her department to “prepare a plan of legal steps” against BDS to “move from the defense to the offense.” The government has budgeted $26 million to fund the effort. Gilad Erdan, Minister for Public Security Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, will lead the effort together with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. Erdan and Hotovely might well be considered gifts to the Palestinians as both are poster children for Israel’s hardest hardliners, Erdan saying that Arab members of the Israeli parliament will be “cleansed” when the time is right while Hotovely has declared “This land is ours. All of it is ours.”
The Israeli government view is that accepting BDS is analogous to letting Nazis into your house. Yair Lapid, a former Finance Minister, told a New York audience that BDS organizers were “outright anti-Semites” linked to Arabs who “collaborated with the Nazis” and for a kicker threw in that they were “responsible for 9/11, for terror attacks in Madrid and London, and for the 250,000 people already killed in Syria.”
In the United States a broad array of organizations considered to be part of the Israel lobby have also mobilized, while Israeli-American billionaires Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, who recently hosted a meeting in Las Vegas to address the problem, are funding the effort with $20 million to raise an activist army called “Campus Maccabees.” Saban noted that “Any company that chooses to boycott business in Israel, we’re going to look at this case, and once we’re done, they’re going to think twice about whether they want to take on Israel or not.” Self-described “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach was at the meeting as designated point-man, damning BDS as “Hitler’s U-boats” and an “an act of war” that is “driven by a malignant pulse of anti-Semitism.”
The BDS movement in the United States has won some minor victories, to include resolutions supporting boycotts on 15 university campuses as well as divestment by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. In Brazil, the government recently canceled a $2 billion contract with an Israeli security firm linked to the upcoming Rio Olympics. In Europe, the movement is much more advanced. The European Union (EU) intends to demand that products originating in Israeli settlements be identified as to place of origin while 16 of 28 EU foreign ministers now support sanctioning such goods. Recently, major French telecom company Orange Chief Executive Stephane Richard recognized the problem in doing business in Israel, stating that he would like to pull out completely. He was forced to travel to Israel to apologize personally to Netanyahu, recanting obsequiously under pressure from Jewish organizations and the French government.
The U.S. Congress recently approved an anti-BDS amendment to the omnibus European trade bill, mandating that nations engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, to include “Israeli controlled territories,” should be penalized in any trade agreement. In early June the South Carolina legislature made it illegal for any public entity to do business with a company or organization that “boycotts others” based on “national origin.” The bill also targeted other kinds of discrimination, but it was really all about Israel, with one State Representative acknowledging “our great ally” before noting that the legislation would counter “economic warfare to forward the purposes of hatred and bigotry … the tactics employed by the Nazis.” Similar bills have also passed in Indiana and Tennessee while Illinois has unanimously approved legislation prohibiting any pension fund investment in companies that boycott either Israel or territories occupied by Israel. There are reportedly 18 other states with similar legislation pending.
New York State considered cutting off funding to colleges that pass resolutions boycotting Israel, a step that GOP Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz also supports at the federal level, blocking money that would include student loans and research grants. Cruz, who called BDS both a “lie” and “anti-Semitism,” was picking up his Defender of Israel award from the Champion of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at the time.
The counterattack in the U.S. has also spawned an interesting website called Canary Mission, which “was created to expose individuals and groups that are anti-Freedom, anti-American and anti-Semitic.” In reality it is all about Israel, targeting BDS activists at colleges and naming students involved, as “We believe in the right of employers to know which potentially threatening organizations prospective employees were affiliated with during their time on campus.” In short, if you become too active with BDS, we will attempt to make you unemployable.
Some observers note that attempts to use “Lawfare” and coercion against BDS activists might also actually make the movement go underground and be more difficult to confront. Instead of demonstrating or demanding divestment in public fora, critics will simply avoid having anything to do with Israel or with the business interests of prominent American and European Jews who are heavily engaged in supporting the Israeli government. Entertainers will increasingly avoid performing in Israel and academics will stop going to conferences. At a certain point, even friendly investors will consider the country to be a poor risk due to its politics.
The Nazi theme inevitably surfaces regularly in the attacks on BDS. One editorial describes the movement as “a blatant lie rooted in Goebbels’ school.” Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow for the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that neo-Nazi groups support BDS and that the first phase of the Holocaust consisted of boycotting Jewish businesses. He cites an acerbic Israeli Foreign Ministry response to European efforts to label settlement products, “It seems European nations now want to put a yellow patch on Israeli products…” It is a familiar argument: since neo-Nazis support boycotting Israel then anyone supporting a boycott must be considered a neo-Nazi.
One can only expect the fight over BDS to become even more bitter as the two sides dig in. The involvement of both federal and state governments on behalf of Israel is particularly regrettable as there will be pressure on universities to conform, and First Amendment rights could easily be trampled along the way. The argument that efforts to bring about change in Israeli policies equates to anti-Semitism is also dangerous, particularly as it could lead to a questionably broad definition of “hate speech.” Even if Netanyahu is able to win by blocking critics, it will still be a Pyrrhic victory because it will not address the fundamental issue: Israel, by its own actions, has become internationally isolated, reducing the number of countries that are reliably sympathetic to a handful. As Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea, in describing the unsustainability of the status quo, put it laconically, “…as long as we have not occupied the rest of the world, we have a problem.”
It is sometimes observed that universities, far from being centers for the free exchange of different viewpoints, frequently are victims of their own orthodoxy in their eagerness to excommunicate promoters of views that are considered to be outside the pale or otherwise unacceptable. That type of complaint most often comes from conservatives who are appalled by the progressive and politically correct orthodoxy that dominates many departments at most universities but it also applies to liberals who seek to promote alternative views at colleges that regard themselves as Christian.
With that in mind, I am somewhat conflicted over the idea of “presidential libraries” being collocated at major universities, because it creates a perhaps unhappy matrix where politics, personal commemoration, and archival information presumed to be both reliable and comprehensive have to coexist. Most Americans would likely be surprised to learn that there are 13 presidential libraries, many of which are attached to museums and supporting foundations, all of which are now operated by the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). The first such library was founded by Herbert Hoover, but a number of libraries preserving presidential papers were established privately prior to that administration for presidents Washington, the two Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Wilson, and Coolidge.
Currently, the libraries themselves are constructed from private contributions, and some of the more recent ones even have endowments to help with their operating expenses. After they open, all the libraries and exhibit rooms are funded through the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and are managed by the NARA, which provides them with much of their material and pays their actual operating costs, currently in excess of $100 million annually. Add-on institutes linked to the libraries are privately funded, normally by a foundation set up for that purpose.
Presidential libraries actually attract few visitors. The three most popular are those of JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Others get by through hosting special events like book signings that might or might not be linked to the presidency or by featuring theme park-like exhibits. Even the most popular, the Reagan library, recently featured a display of Walt Disney treasures.
The older presidential libraries are essentially historical collections of presidential papers and are only to a limited extent partisan, as the contentious issues that might have divided the nation once upon a time have subsequently faded. That makes them a genuine resource for researchers, aided measurably by the declassification of many documents that were considered too sensitive when they first opened their doors.
The newer libraries have likewise been promoted as repositories for documentary evidence relating to a presidency but they are in fact much more self-absorbed, engaged in what one critic describes as “legacy polishing.” They include numerous unclassified documents that present a certain point of view, but most information that would be of interest to scholars does not begin to appear until more than a decade after the library opens, after it has been “processed.” Even then, it is reasonable to assume that many documents will take decades to be declassified, or may never appear at all on grounds of national security, or potential embarrassment.
The issue of presidential libraries has some immediacy for me as my alma mater, the University of Chicago, has recently been chosen to become the home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. In the words of the press release, Chicago has agreed to “collaborate” with the Center, which will nevertheless be “independent” from the university. The Center will include a library, museum, exhibit rooms, and office space for the Barack Obama Foundation. The city of Chicago is donating the land while construction costs will be privately raised. The actual operation of the center will depend on both NARA funding and a private endowment. As hosting a presidential library is regarded as prestigious, the university is already boasting of the achievement to us alumni, envisioning in the Center the creation of a “new global destination.”
The Great Seal of the University of Chicago proclaims “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolator,” in English, “increase knowledge so life can be improved.” But if the actual aim of a top university espousing the highest academic standards is to enhance our understanding of the world, there are certain pitfalls in tying oneself to what is an essentially self-serving political initiative.
The Chairman of the Obama Foundation, for example, describes the development as a “dynamic, vibrant forum for civic participation, education, action and progress” while a local community organizer sees a “tremendous opportunity to help culturally significant neighborhoods become vibrant and more economically self-sufficient.” University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer adds his own vision of a “catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programing.”
One has to wonder exactly how the repository of record for presidential papers part fits in to all that exuberance, and it is fair to ask if it is reasonable for tax-supported monuments to ex-presidents to be so focused on social engineering. And Obama, like his predecessor, is not exactly very easy to define, meaning that an assessment of his time in office will be inevitably take on the coloration of whoever is structuring the narrative and to what end. Which means that it will likely leave out more than it includes, and therein lies the dilemma.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize will no doubt be prominently on display, but one will likely be unsuccessful when seeking the critical documents needed to explain the arguments made and the reasoning behind assassination by drone. Given that it is impossible to sit in on a meeting that took place six years before, the position papers and meeting notes would be invaluable in trying to assess what occurred, but those documents will not be in the library as they potentially disrupt the narrative and are considered both too recent and too sensitive for public consumption.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which includes a library, museum, and think tank, provides some insights into what the Barack H. Obama library is likely to offer. First of all, the museum portion is essentially a celebration, offering displays on what the administration itself saw as its positive achievements, which the George W. Bush Foundation president describes as “…a reflection of what [the Bushes] think is important about what happened in their service.”
Given recent comments made by George W. Bush on some of his most criticized policies, it is clear that there has been no serious retrospection regarding the Iraq invasion or on the use of renditions and torture by the CIA, exigencies which both he and his museum clearly view as aspects of a “war presidency.” Nor is there any second-guessing about Hurricane Katrina or the financial meltdown and bank bailout at the end of his term of office. All of those issues are dealt with using displays and video defensively, providing explanations that amount to damage control featuring recorded speakers like Condi Rice, Andrew Card, and John Bolton. For the serious student there is thin gruel, with no opportunity for rigorous inquiry into whether the White House had a reasonable case to justify its handling of all those evolving situations. At the dedication Bill Clinton even joked about the library, which includes W’s collection of signed baseballs, as the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.”
So assuming that the Obama Library will be a replay of the W version with a lot more community outreach thrown in, I would like to see the University of Chicago exploit its leverage over the situation at this development stage to insist that there be at least a modicum of transparency and at least token accountability in examining the full record of the Obama White House, warts and all. President Obama should certainly get top marks for his opening to Cuba and his willingness to negotiate with Iran, but there ought to be plenty of room for a serious discussion over the questionable mandate referred to as Obamacare as well as regarding the two wars in Libya and Syria motivated by “regime change,” initiated by the White House against nations with which we Americans were not at war.
And then there are the innocent victims of the U.S. foreign policy that has been a hallmark of both the Bush and Obama years, an estimated 1-2 million Muslims who have perished in the so-called “War on Terror,” to include the more than 3,000 civilians who have been killed under Obama by drones. And there needs to be some explanation for the treatment of whistleblowers who have attempted to expose criminal and unconstitutional activity only to be silenced through imprisonment as well as for the “renditioned” and tortured foreigners seeking redress in U.S. courts who have been blocked through repeated invocation of the State Secrets Privilege.
Obama can also be rightly criticized for his overexploitation of claimed executive privilege, something which, perhaps not coincidentally has found strong and vocal support in the University of Chicago Law School. And finally, there is the possibly unconstitutional NSA domestic surveillance program as well as the targeting and killing of American citizens by drone without any due process that the Founders of this nation would recognize.
These are all serious issues. If the President can make a solid case for his actions he should do so through the mechanism of his Center and show the public the documents and records of the deliberations that supported his decisions. That is precisely what a taxpayer-supported presidential library should do, and it is also what the University of Chicago, as a collaborator in the project, should demand.
Some might argue that knowing exactly how Osama bin Laden was killed really doesn’t matter. Some might even argue that he is still alive, which, if nothing else, would demonstrate the persistence of urban legends relating to conspiracies allegedly involving the U.S. government. JFK’s assassination has the grassy knoll and second gunman, plus Mafia, CIA, and Cuban connections as well as a possible Vietnamese angle. 9/11 had the mystery of the collapse of Building 7. More recently still, the Texas State Guard was mobilized to monitor a military training exercise because it was rumored to be a ploy to impose martial law. Demonizing Washington as one large conspiracy is good business all around.
The death of bin Laden has been memorialized by a CIA-sponsored film “Zero Dark Thirty” and a book by Peter Bergen, by numerous White House leaks and press releases, and by memoranda of participants, including the CIA’s female officer who tracked bin Laden and the Navy SEAL who allegedly fired the fatal shots. The most recent contribution to the oeuvre is an account by the former CIA Deputy Director and torture apologist Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: the CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from al-Qai’da to ISIS.
Inevitably, great stories that don’t quite hang together are often revised as memory grows weak and, in the manner of Rashomon, frequently take on the coloration of where the narrator was sitting when events unfolded. And then there are the skeptics, who focus on the inconsistencies and pull together their own explanations. A number of articles and blogs have questioned details of the standard narrative on bin Laden. One compelling account by R.J. Hillhouse in August 2011 challenged central aspects of the prevailing story, and there has been corroborative reporting from highly respected New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall.
A more recent skeptic about bin Laden is America’s top investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh. In a lengthy article published in the current London Review of Books, Hersh provides a fascinating narrative regarding the killing of bin Laden, which contradicts the account provided by the government. A White House spokesman immediately weighed in to describe Hersh’s account as “baseless,” while Morell has called it “all wrong” and Bergen has dubbed it a “farrago of nonsense.”
Sy Hersh believes the official account, that bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad after one of his couriers was tracked, is wrong. Instead, he claims, the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who was paid as much as $25 million. Hersh also claims that the heads of the Pakistani Army and its intelligence service (ISI) knew about the raid in advance and were able to facilitate the U.S. incursion. A Pakistani intelligence officer participated in the operation after a Pakistani army doctor obtained DNA evidence proving the presence of bin Laden, convincing the White House to authorize the attack. The Obama administration, however, claims that the assault was completely unilateral and Pakistan knew nothing about it.
The Hersh account also states that bin Laden had been under house arrest by the Pakistani intelligence service for five years and was unarmed when the U.S. team arrived with instructions from Washington to kill him. His stay in Pakistan was being secretly funded by the Saudi government, which did not want him released. There was no shooting apart from that done by the Navy SEALs. An after-the-fact cover story prepared by the White House and Pakistani officials, that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan, was abandoned when Obama, for various reasons, decided to instead go public on the night of the killing, betraying the trust of the Pakistani generals.
The Hersh account and the government response together raise a number of questions which can be examined based on plausibility of the respective accounts and the possible security considerations that might have influenced an official narrative that milked the event for political gain while also protecting sources and methods. Interestingly, NBC News came out with its own report one day after Hersh’s article was published, confirming it from its own sources that a Pakistani official “helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden, not a courier.” The article, subsequently retracted, also cited a New York Times Magazine report by Carlotta Gall that the Pakistani intelligence service ISI actually had a special desk tasked with hiding bin Laden.
For what it’s worth, I have known Sy Hersh for more than 15 years and have a great deal of respect for him as a journalist. I am aware of how carefully he vets his information, using multiple sourcing for many of his articles, and I also know that he has a network of high-level contacts in key positions scattered throughout the defense, intelligence, and national security communities. For this article he cites three anonymous U.S. special ops and intelligence sources, three named Pakistani sources, and a number of unnamed Pakistanis. I think I know the identities of at least two of his American sources, both of whom are reliable and have access, while one of his other anonymous sources might well be Jonathan Bank, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad. If Sy says that someone revealed something to him either on background or anonymously, I am sure that he accurately conveys what was said, though that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the source might be intentionally misleading him or somehow be mistaken.
Against that, the government has hardly been a reliable source of accurate information, even regarding this past weekend’s Delta Force raid in Syria in which the Pentagon account and the report of a British monitoring group vary considerably. Some of those who are most aggressively attacking Hersh know nothing about the death of bin Laden except what the White House and its various spokesmen have provided. Several have a vested interest in parroting the official line, to include books they want to sell and white lies they would prefer remain somewhere in the shadows. Nevertheless, the bin Laden killing was a story that benefited the White House politically, making it important to get the details right lest it be discredited from the get-go.
Hersh’s first assertion, that the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who walked-in with the information is quite plausible and it actually makes more sense than the courier story, which is inconsistent in terms of who, what, when, and where. Walk-ins are mistrusted, but they also provide many breakthroughs in intelligence operations. In this case, the walk-in passed a polygraph examination and provided significant corroborating information. If the man was indeed paid and he wished to keep the connection secret, a cover story would be needed to explain how the U.S. came by the information. That is where the courier story would come in.
The presumed role of the Pakistani intelligence officer leads naturally to the plausible assumption that Pakistan had bin Laden under control as a prisoner. Among retired intelligence officers that I know no one believes that the Pakistanis were unaware of bin Laden’s presence among them though there are varying degrees of disagreement regarding exactly why he was being held and what Islamabad intended to do with him. Some speculate, as Hersh asserts, that the Paks were seeking a mechanism both to get rid of bin Laden and obtain a satisfactory quid pro quo for turning him over to Washington. Per Hersh, they considered bin Laden a “resource” to be cashed in at the right time, which makes sense.
That several senior Pakistani military officers were informed of the impending raid is also not exactly surprising. The billions that Washington has provided to the Pakistani military was largely controlled by the head of the army and the chief of ISI. That did not exactly make them paid agents of the United States, but it certainly would create a compelling self-interest in keeping the relationship functional. They could be relied upon to be discreet and they were certainly well-placed enough to mitigate the risk to incoming American helicopters if called upon to do so.
Hersh notes that due to the delay caused by the crashed helicopter the SEAL team was on the ground for 40 minutes “waiting for the bus” without any police, military, or fire department response to the noise and explosions. The public lighting in that area had also been turned off. And, indeed, the White House could still claim that it was a wholly U.S. operation because the civilian government in Islamabad, out of the loop on what was occurring, could plausibly deny any deal with Washington. Hersh notes that in Obama’s press conference on the killing, the president nevertheless acknowledged that the “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” a statement that may have been true enough but also exposed the assistance that had been received and put at risk the generals who had cooperated.
And then there is the Saudi role. Hersh claims that Riyadh was footing the bill for holding bin Laden because they did not want him to reveal to the Americans what he knew about Saudi funding of al-Qaeda. The Pakistanis for their part wanted bin Laden dead as part of the deal so he would not talk about their holding him for five years without revealing that fact to Washington.
Other claims by Sy Hersh include his debunking of the “garbage bags of computers and storage devices” seized by the team, used to support the contention that bin Laden was still in charge of a vast terrorist network. But there is little evidence to suggest that anything at all was picked up during the raid. Documents turned over by the Pakistanis afterwards were examined but found to be useful mostly for background on al-Qaeda.
Concerning the firefight that may not have occurred, the government account started with a claim that bin Laden was armed and resisted using his wife as a shield, a wild west fantasy concocted by then-White House terrorism chief John Brennan, but it eventually conceded that the terrorist leader was unarmed and alone. In the initial debriefing the SEAL team reportedly did not mention any resistance in the compound. The military participants in the raid were subsequently forced to sign nondisclosure forms threatening civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the operation either publicly or privately.
Finally, what happened to bin Laden’s body? The original plan was to wait a week and announce that bin Laden had been literally blown to bits by drone, but that was preempted by President Obama, who saw an opportunity to score some political points. There is no evidence that bin Laden was buried at sea, as was alleged, no photos, no eyewitness testimony by sailors on board the USS Carl Vinson, and no ship’s log confirming the burial. Two of Hersh’s sources are convinced the burial never took place and that what remained after being torn apart by bullets was instead turned over to the CIA for disposal. They regard the burial at sea as a poorly designed cover story to get rid of the body and avoid any embarrassing questions over possible misidentification.
So what do I think is true? I believe that a walk-in Pakistani intelligence officer provided the information on bin Laden and that the Pakistanis were indeed holding him under house arrest, possibly with the connivance of the Saudis. I am not completely convinced that senior Pakistani generals colluded with the U.S. in the attack, though Hersh makes a carefully nuanced case and Obama’s indiscreet comment is suggestive. I do not believe any material of serious intelligence value was collected from the site and I think accounts of the shootout were exaggerated. The burial at sea does indeed appear to be a quickly contrived cover story. And yes, I do think Osama bin Laden is dead.
Ironically, for a president who once ran for office promising “transparency” in government, the dreaded associated “a” word, “accountability,” has been somewhat difficult to discern. Even if government actions were transparent, which they are not, the ability of senior bureaucrats and politicians to make multiple bad decisions goes unchallenged when there is no accountability .
The recent killing of two foreign captives in an errant drone strike in Pakistan has raised some serious questions about the government’s employment of what has become its principal offensive weapon in its global war on terror (which the White House now prefers to call its overseas contingency operations). While President Obama, who has claimed that drones strikes only take place when there is “near certainty” about the target, took personal responsibility for the mishap, it does not require much understanding of Washington’s ways to realize that the gesture is in reality quite empty since the Chief Executive is unlikely to bear any actual consequences.
As the government acts in loco populi in its increasing use of drones as the end game in a policy that includes kill lists, assassinations of American citizens and military action in countries with which the United States is not at war, there should be at least a modicum of both transparency and accountability to the process. In reality, there is neither and many Americans have no idea what is being done in their name. Most would be shocked to learn about the U.S. using drones for so-called double-taps in which a group on the ground is hit and the drone hovers while rescuers rush to the scene. The rescuers are then killed by a second wave of missiles. Apart from anything else, targeting those assisting the wounded is a war crime.
The serious questions that should be raised about the use of drones have most often been successfully deflected by both government and an accommodating media which have diverted the narrative into an all too frequent technical discussion of the weapon’s capabilities. Drones are cheap as weapons systems go, they are versatile, they can hover for hours or even days. They have unparalleled technical intelligence sensors and they can spot, assess, and kill targets with some precision. They are a Hollywood-plus-video game vision of warfare, American-style, with an operator sitting in air-conditioned comfort while he or she searches for a target, acquires it, and zap, a hellfire missile makes the bad guy wish he had not messed with Uncle Sam. Best of all, as in a video game, no American servicemen are actually placed in harm’s way in the process.
When not discussing how capable drones are at doing what they do and dissecting how they do it, the media interest is frequently focused on the administrative question of who should be operating them, whether that ought to be the intelligence community or the armed forces. The Pentagon runs the drones in places like Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria that are considered war zones, where it has a broad mandate to use the unmanned vehicles for “protection of forces” as well as offensive operations. The CIA initially became the prime operator in most other theaters because it could plausibly deny what it was doing and could also target countries like Pakistan and Yemen where the governments were ostensibly friendly and supportive but did not want the public to know that they were cooperating with the Americans. And the CIA also had the advantage of operating with less of a bureaucratic “tail” than the military, enabling it to move more quickly and respond spontaneously to evolving situations. But essentially the question of who should run the counter-terrorist drones is a bit of a red herring as the technology, procedures and results are basically the same and there is no longer any fig leaf of denial regarding who is doing what to whom.
The government’s justification for using drones at all, reportedly spelled out in some detail in classified Justice Department memos, has long been based on the constabulary concept. That means that the U.S., by virtue of the authority provided by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to pursue al-Qaeda and more recently “associated groups” wherever they might be, has taken upon itself the task of ridding the world of terrorists. The drone has become the mechanism of choice in those countries where the local authorities do not have the ability to confront and detain their own radicals and whatever other non-indigenous terrorists have chosen to shelter within their borders. In other words, if Pakistan can’t do it, Washington will send in a sheriff and take care of the problem.
But how drones work, who operates them, and what the legal justification for their use might be avoids rather more serious discussion of their fundamental immorality. The 800-pound gorilla question regarding the drones is, “Who exactly is being killed and what do we in Washington actually know about those who are dead?” Anecdotally, the people who live in the places that are on the receiving end of the attacks believe that large numbers of civilians are killed, far more than the number of actual militants. The destruction of a wedding party in Yemen in December 2013 was widely reported and led to compensation payments by the United States government.
The federal government undoubtedly compiles meticulous reviews of drone strikes, but the official public announcements, when they are actually made, seem to vary considerably from what those on the ground are experiencing. They routinely indicate that only militants or terrorists have been killed and are often accompanied by the word “confirmed.” But how do we know that to be true as the details of such operations are generally considered classified and how does that square with independent estimates suggesting that only two percent of the thousands killed fit the high-level terrorist profile? The Guardian has reviewed drone strikes in Pakistan and has concluded that 28 civilians are killed as collateral damage for the death of each certifiable “bad guy” target.
As many of the strikes and victims are located in Pakistan or Yemen where the U.S. has no one on the ground, are American authorities getting some kind of confirmation from the respective governments or intelligence services, and if so, how do Islamabad and Sana’a themselves identify militants? It might well just be someone who lives in the wrong village or who is out at the wrong time at night. Or could it be the supporter of a political party opposed to the government?
A second question, which is related to the first, must be “what is the benefit versus damage assessment relating to drone strikes?” Washington is hated in Pakistan, with opinion polls revealing that only 11 percent of the population views the United States favorably. Other polls indicate that the level of animosity is directly linked to the attacks by drones. If that is so, what is the offset? How many identified leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who are the alleged targets of the drone operations, have been killed and, more to the point, to what extent has that degraded their ability to conduct their own operations? If the threat represented by the two groups is not being dramatically eroded, the damage to Washington’s relationship with Pakistan, nuclear armed and frequently borderline unstable, might well be considered a price that is too high to pay.
A third question relates to how the drones are actually directed, because the targeting relies on intelligence and one has to suspect that the information being developed might not be very reliable. A drone capable of hitting a target with pinpoint accuracy is only as good as the intelligence it relies on to make the strike. Lack of precise information on what is actually happening on the ground is likely the reason the program developed so-called signature strikes. Signature strikes are basically profiles, i.e. someone behaving in a certain way or appearing in a certain area, which means that the attackers have no idea whatsoever of whom they are killing. If there is heavy reliance on signature strikes, which appears to be the case, the collateral damage caused by the attacks will be considerably higher as there will undoubtedly be a substantial margin for error.
Finally, drones should be considered in their macro context, which is the extent to which they have done irreparable damage to the reputation of the United States and led many to label it a rogue nation. The callous attitude towards casualties inflicted collaterally suggests that the U.S. is at war with civilian populations as much as with terrorists, eliminating any possible moral high ground for justifying the unending war on terror.
But one should go back to the initial observation about transparency and accountability, which is where the rot sets in. The government has a right to protect secrets on sources and methods relating to its counter-terrorism activity, but such operations should be conducted within a context where it is being honest with the public about what is being done and what the costs are. There is considerable evidence that the White House has sought to conceal the scale of ongoing military action worldwide and the fact that it has avoided transparency about the drone program suggests that it has much to answer for.