State of the Union

Six Questions for Tara McKelvey on Torture

Tara McKelvey is a features writer at BBC News in Washington. She is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. We asked her a few questions about the Senate torture report, Donald Rumsfeld, and her book 10 years after the Abu Ghraib scandal.

1) Have you been following the leaks from the Senate inquiry into CIA
torture of detainees’ post-9/11? What do you make of reports that the CIA lied to the government and the public about the scope and effectiveness of the torture program?

Yes. I’m not sure if I would say “lied.” I don’t think we know enough to say they’ve done that. They have kept a lot of things hidden, and people on the Hill are trying to convince them to say more.

If enough of it is declassified, what will the Senate report tell us?

Who knows. But one thing I’ve wondered about is the interrogation methods that didn’t get approved. The former top lawyer of the CIA said in his memoir, Company Man, that they vetoed one method. Given all that they did, I am wondering what they decided was beyond the pale.

2) We recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Your goal was to get beyond the frame of the Abu Ghraib photographs, and Monstering provides an account of extreme disarray there: interpreters who weren’t tested on language proficiency, private contractors with sectarian allegiances, a prisoner to guard ratio of 75 to one, soldiers who were told that they could “do whatever they wanted” to the detainees. What was the most surprising thing you learned while reporting the book?

How hard it was to give everyone their due. There is a German writer, Friedrich Hebbel, who once said: “In a good play…. everyone is right.” But when I interviewed Lynndie England, I had to keep reminding myself to give her the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people saw her as a monster, and I didn’t want to do that. Otherwise, I kept telling myself, I would be just like the people at the prison–the ones who didn’t see the detainees as fully human. But she was difficult to talk to–and she was at the prison when terrible things happened, and, anyway, I was surprised how hard that interview was.

3) What is the legacy of the scandal today as the U.S. winds down the War on Terror?

Obama outlawed torture. But years after he promised to close Guantanamo, it is still open. There is a place on the island called Camp 7 that is off-limits to virtually everyone, including journalists. That is where the people are who were once kept in the CIA’s black sites. That is one legacy of the scandal.

4) Monstering also addresses the elite policymakers (John Yoo, et al) who contributed to a climate of systemic abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. You conclude that instead of asking “how could this happen?” the question is really “how could this not have happened?” Several soldiers involved in the scandal, including Lynndie England, were sentenced to time in prison, but so many haven’t been held accountable. What do you make of this?

That it’s not completely surprising, but it still seems wrong. Putting soldiers on trial when they have committed crimes is not a slight against the military, but unfortunately some people think of it that way.

What policy measures have been put in place (by the army if not the CIA) to prevent future abuse?

Most people in the army were horrified by the abuses. They had rules in place before the Iraq war, and they are now making sure that the rules are followed more carefully. The worst abuse was carried out not by people in the military, though, but by people who worked for the CIA. They may have done tons of things to prevent future abuse, but they haven’t really talked about it.

5) Any thoughts on Errol Morris’s new Donald Rumsfeld documentary? Read More…

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Routine Child Rape by Afghan Police

An Afghan Local Police commander stands watch during combat operations in the Sangin district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 28, 2013, during Operation 38 Eagle. (defenseimagery.mil / Wikimedia)
An Afghan Local Police commander stands watch during combat operations in the Sangin district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 28, 2013, during Operation 38 Eagle. (defenseimagery.mil / Wikimedia)

In December 2012, Maj. Bill Steuber heard that three boys had been shot dead while fleeing the Afghan police headquarters. A fourth was shot point blank in the knee as punishment for trying to escape.

Steuber, a U.S. Marine in charge of the police advisory team in Sangin district, Helmand province, marched into the office of Qhattab Khan, the assistant district chief of police. Journalist Ben Anderson filmed the exchange for the new stomach-churning documentary, “This Is What Winning Looks Like.”

“Why was there a boy on that police base?” Steuber asks Khan, “What did that commander say to you?”

There’s sadness and anger in Steuber’s voice, because he already knows the answer: police commanders routinely abduct young boys to serve as “chai boys,” house servants who are also kept as sex slaves.

This extent of child rape in Afghanistan is hard to measure, but it’s a practice widely attested by journalists, human rights investigators, NATO soldiers, and Afghans themselves. As the White House considers how to wind down the war in Afghanistan, it’s worth reflecting on one of the saddest, most sordid of aspects of that sad and sordid war.

In 2009 the Defense Department was concerned that NATO soldiers were bewildered and outraged by the sexual practices of Afghan civilians and soldiers: seeing old men trying to fondle young boys, being shown cell phone pictures of children by their Afghan counterparts. The military commissioned an anthropological study, “Pashtun Sexuality.” In 2010 the San Fransisco Chronicle reported on the study’s findings:

For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it.

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

The authors of “Pashtun Sexuality” venture that the practice of bacha baazi is a function of a culture of extreme fear of female sexuality. The Chronicle article cites a 29-year-old who told a reporter, “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face?…We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

The State Department has called bacha baazi a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” For instance, one military intelligence reservist related a story about an Afghan colonel who stood before a judge after he hurt a chai boy by violently raping him: “His defense was, ‘Honestly, who hasn’t raped a chai boy? Ha ha ha.’ The judge responds, ‘You’re right. Case dismissed.’”

Cracking down on this practice is nearly impossible, as the main culprits are often the very law enforcement and military personnel that the U.S. works alongside. In the documentary “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” (2010), police officials insist that sex traffickers of young boys will be arrested; later that day, two of the same officers are filmed at a bacha baazi party.

“I have told them not to keep them,” Khan insists to Major Steuber. Despite the fact that one of the boys tried to poison a police chief, he maintains that “these little boys stay willingly in the patrol bases and offer their asses in the night.”

Major Steuber proposes a joint raid the next morning to apprehend the child molesters. Later that night, it’s cancelled at the last minute by the Afghans. According to the documentary, Khan has since retired and no one has been charged or arrested.

“Try doing that day in, day out,” Steuber tells the camera later, “working with child molesters, working with people who are robbing people, murdering them. It wears on you after a while.”

Khan seems considerably less concerned.

“If they don’t f–k the asses of those boys, what should they f–k?” he asks at one point. “The p—–s of their own grandmothers? Their asses were used before, and now they want to get what they are owed.”


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Edward Snowden on Why He Exposed the NSA

The Booz Allen Hamilton whistleblower talks to the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald about why he revealed the NSA’s voracious gathering of Americans’ data, and what he expects the consequences will be:

Meanwhile, making the rounds on Facebook is this clip of then-Senator Obama renouncing spying on American citizens who aren’t suspected of crime—though in fact, in praising FISA and only criticizing “illegal” wiretaps, he was already signalling more support for a national-security dragnet than his admirers may have realized:

Read More…

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AP, Then James Rosen—How Widespread Is DOJ Surveillance of Journalists?

The Washington Post reported yesterday that in 2010 the Justice Department surveilled Fox News reporter James Rosen and obtained a search warrant for his private emails:

They used security badge access records to track the reporter’s comings and goings from the State Department, according to a newly obtained court affidavit. They traced the timing of his calls with a State Department security adviser suspected of sharing the classified report. They obtained a search warrant for the reporter’s personal e-mails. …

At a time when President Obama’s administration is under renewed scrutiny for an unprecedented number of leak investigations, the Kim case provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of one such probe.

Glenn Greenwald explains what sets this apart from the Obama administration’s other prosecutions over leaks:

It involves the prosecution of State Department adviser Stephen Kim, a naturalized citizen from South Korea who was indicted in 2009 for allegedly telling Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen, that US intelligence believed North Korea would respond to additional UN sanctions with more nuclear tests – something Rosen then reported. Kim did not obtain unauthorized access to classified information, nor steal documents, nor sell secrets, nor pass them to an enemy of the US. Instead, the DOJ alleges that he merely communicated this innocuous information to a journalist – something done every day in Washington – and, for that, this arms expert and long-time government employee faces more than a decade in prison for “espionage”. …

This newfound theory of the Obama DOJ – that a journalist can be guilty of crimes for “soliciting” the disclosure of classified information – is a means for circumventing those safeguards and criminalizing the act of investigative journalism itself. These latest revelations show that this is not just a theory but one put into practice, as the Obama DOJ submitted court documents accusing a journalist of committing crimes by doing this.

To obtain that search warrant (read the full thing here), the Obama administration had to argue Rosen had committed a criminal act. A second high-profile incident in as many weeks of the DOJ surveilling journalists raises the question of just how widespread this kind of behavior is, a question Julian Sanchez took up last Friday in Mother Jones. Not surprisingly, we don’t really know:

It wouldn’t be surprising if there were more cases like this we’ve never heard about. Here’s why: The Justice Department’s rules only say the media must be informed about “subpoenas” for “telephone toll records.” The FBI’s operations guidelines interprets those rules quite literally, making clear the requirement “concerns only grand jury subpoenas.” … The procedures that do apply to those tools have been redacted from publicly available versions of the FBI guidelines. Thus, it’s no shocker the AP seizure would seem like an “unprecedented intrusion” if the government doesn’t think it has to tell us about the precedents. And there’s no telling if the Justice Department rules (and the FBI’s interpretation) allow the feds to seize without warning other types of electronic communications records that could reveal a journalist’s e-mail, chat, or Web browsing activity.

If there’s an upshot to any of this, it’s that snooping on journalists could be the last straw that gets people to care about the administration’s ongoing effort to shut down leaks and prosecute whistleblowers.

Key to both surveillance operations are the ways in which executive powers have expanded, but also how privacy laws have failed to keep pace with technological progress.  If ever there were a time to call for a ‘Leveson in reverse’ commission to examine how both might be adjusted to better protect journalists and whistleblowers—rather than a toothless shield law, as the administration is proposing—now might be it.

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Will Obama’s Scandals Change Attitudes Toward Government?

According to many Republicans, Barack Obama has been scandal-plagued since sometime shortly after his inaugural parade. But only within the past few days have national political media begun to adopt the same view, as a cluster of controversies—over Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative activist groups, and the Department of Justice’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records—emerged in quick succession, prompting journalists to announce that a watershed moment for the Obama presidency was at hand. “What we are witnessing is nothing less than a dramatic reversal of the nation’s political narrative,” declared Roll Call‘s Stu Rothenberg, who wondered whether all this augured a “game changer for 2014.” Continuing the theme, Politico theorized that these scandals will expose the limits of “a growing and activist government” and consequently “bolster the conservative worldview.”

Of the three controversies, Benghazi is most purely a product of the contemporary “conservative worldview”—Republicans have been promoting the story for eight months, fueled by a barrage of fury on Fox News and right-wing internet outfits. But the outrage has had virtually nothing to do with discontent over “a growing and activist government.” Instead, what seems to animate it is continued suspicion that the Obama administration deliberately lied about the nature of the attack to avoid suffering a potential setback in the heat of a presidential campaign. Last week’s hearing did lend a degree of credence to the theory—progressives are now less inclined to casually dismiss concerns that the post-attack talking points were manipulated—but regardless, recent developments had no bearing on the desirability of “a growing and activist government.” With very few exceptions, Republicans have not used the Benghazi saga as an opportunity to challenge the underlying logic of the Libya incursion, though a considerable swath of voters could be receptive to such a challenge, including disaffected Democratic-leaning folks who object to Obama’s interventionism and militarism.

In the case of the IRS “scandal,” when the news broke, Obama swiftly denounced the agency’s conduct as “outrageous,” and Democrats vowed to fully investigate. Assuming there is no further conspiracy, this issue may harm Obama in the short-term but seems unlikely to effect a broad-based shift in attitudes toward government power other than to intensify feelings among conservatives who already detest the president and the IRS. As the “Tea Party” brand remains extremely unpopular, progressives and independents will generate little sympathy for the self-described “Tea Party” and “Patriot” groups that were targeted.

By stark contrast, Monday’s revelation that the Justice Department seized two months’ worth of phone records from the Associated Press is a veritable “game-changer”—a full-blown scandal in every sense of the word. DOJ officials obtained these highly sensitive records in secret, preventing the AP from seeking judicial review; sources for as many as 100 reporters may have been compromised. Pulitzer Prize winners Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, whose investigative journalism has been indispensable, were among the targets.

The gravity of this “massive and unprecedented intrusion,” as the AP described it, cannot be overstated. Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed that his department carried out the action pursuant to a criminal investigation into a national-security leak that “put the American people at risk,” creating a situation that “required aggressive action” to remedy.

A substantial set of Americans, young people especially, has grown deeply cynical of state officials’ rote invocation of ill-defined “threats” to justify abridging core civil liberties. Ironically, this scandal is by far the most compelling example of what “a growing and activist government” might wreak—yet it also appears to be the scandal in which the GOP has the least interest. It most threatens Obama precisely because it is not tainted by partisan grandstanding. It is a scandal on its face and required no trumpeting from congressional zealots in order to enter the mainstream discourse.

But since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have demonstrated a remarkable inability to capitalize on Obama’s many vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding pumped-up “narratives” about the administration’s imminent downfall, there is little reason to expect much will change.

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Obama: Nixon in Reverse

The most basic criticism of Obama turns out to be the truest. A one-term Senator doesn’t have much preparation for governing anything—yes, a risk that Republicans will have to keep in mind with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—and government under Obama often seems to be run by functionaries. It’s all too plausible that Obama didn’t know, or care to know, about the IRS applying discriminatory standards against right-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, and his attitude toward Eric Holder’s Justice Department grabbing Associated Press phone records appears similarly blasé.

This is rather unlike the disgraced president to whom many Republicans want to compare the incumbent. As Dana Milbank puts it: “Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of ‘independent’ figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes.” That’s not exculpatory: a president is responsible for the abuses of his administration whether he orders them directly or simply creates the conditions in which they can happen.

It’s doubtful, alas, that congressional Republicans will treat these matters as anything other than opportunities for Benghazi-style partisan hype. There are fundamental matters behind each of these scandals that the GOP establishment does not want to face any more than Obama does. Namely: exactly what the CIA was doing in Benghazi (and why the U.S. had to be so deeply involved in Libya in the first place), the tremendous discretion the IRS enjoys over whom it targets and how, and the extent to which the War on Terror is really a War on Transparency in government. Failure to strike these problems at their roots only reinforces the idea that the GOP’s leadership cares not a whit for the substance of the issues but only about embarrassing Obama. That may be enough to rally the base ahead of 2014, but there are many other Americans—not nearly enough, to be sure—who actually would like someone to stand up for consistent standards, not only for the IRS but to check and limit arbitrary executive power across the board.

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John Mearsheimer, Accused and Vindicated

A short first person account in the Jewish Week got some attention on mondoweiss; though a local and kind of micro story, as a window into deeper societal trends it’s of considerable interest. In the story Josh Blumberg, then a high school senior, now college freshman, relates how he heard that his high school in the New York suburb Croton-on-Hudson was giving a distinguished graduate award to John Mearsheimer, the esteemed University of Chicago professor made more famous by his authorship (with Steve Walt) of the ground-breaking best-seller The Israel Lobby.

As a participant in “Write-On-Israel,” which trains young people how to advocate on behalf of Israel, the young man sprung into action. Not by trying to organize protests or pickets against Mearsheimer (which might have attracted at least three or four people in Croton-on-Hudson), but by writing letters to high school and school board officials,   accusing Mearsheimer of anti-Semitism. Clearly school officials were more than a little bit spooked, this being the most toxic of political accusations, and there appeared an announcement that the award was postponed indefinitely. And then the school board convened a committee to study and review the matter. And then, the young man relates– to his surprise!–that while home from college on vacation he learned that the committee had gone ahead and given Mearsheimer the distinguished graduate award anyway.

Read More…

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The Trichordist’s Disingenuous Attack on Derek Khanna

You may remember the blog The Trichordist for publishing that utterly out-of-proportion response from Camper Van Beethoven singer David Lowery to Emily White, the NPR intern who made the shocking admission that she, like millions of others, pirated music. It’s unique among pro-copyright blogs in that (1) it’s readable, and (2) some of the posts are actually written by artists.

Despite a stated commitment to the idea of authorship–so rigid they don’t post links in their comments!–the blog ran an anonymous ad hominem attack yesterday suggesting that Derek Khanna wrote his copyright memo in hopes of landing a job at Google.

(For the backstory on Khanna, check out my piece from the latest issue of the magazine, go here, or see his piece in The Atlantic that led Reddit’s front page this weekend.)

The story contains a number of misrepresentations.

  • “It’s important to note that Mr. Khanna acknowledged (on Reddit) that he was freelancing–no one asked Mr. Khanna to write the memo.” Khanna was a paid staff member at the time, so this is a strange use of the word “freelancing.”
  • “How he was able to post the memo on the RSC’s website–which would tend to give the memo the imprimatur of the RSC to the casual reader–is anyone’s guess (although someone surely must know).” I seriously doubt Khanna had either the authority or the ability to post things there. The memo was e-mailed out to around 170 congressmen and their staffs. That doesn’t just randomly happen. And good grief, the memo was published on Rep. Jim Jordan’s letterhead, more than anything else that’s what gave it the RSC’s “imprimatur.” The author is perpetuating the myth that the memo wasn’t approved by the RSC, and he’s not the only pro-copyright blogger to do that. Debate over copyright is a healthy thing and I welcome it, but there’s a clear refusal to accept basic facts here.
  • The blog post goes on to quote another piece at the Copyright Alliance, a pro-IP trade group–by Thomas Sydnor and Debbie Rose, both Republican staffers, that also gets the facts wrong. By this telling, Khanna insubordinately took credit for the memo after it was retracted. Their version: “But Khanna then undermined the RSC by publicly embracing the just-disowned paper and associating himself with the “tech community” at TechDirt: “I am the author of this memo, and I hope the tech community continues to add to these ideas….” Khanna then appended a link to… TechDirt.”A quick check of the timeline proves that this simply isn’t true. The tweet in question is time-stamped 4:00 PM, November 17, the day the memo was retracted. The time-stamp on the emailed retraction from Paul Teller is 4:11.

The evidence for the Trichordist author’s claim that Khanna was opportunistically shilling for a Google job from within the Republican Party is…two tweets. One thanking Google’s top copyright lawyer for signing a copy of his book, and one asking Google’s CIO where he stood on the issue. This is weak stuff.

Read More…

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As Gaza Burns, the Scandal Simmers

I’ve lost touch with the Petraeus scandal since the Gaza war started, and obviously intense suffering with potentially profound geostrategic consequences will trump in importance a sex scandal, no how matter convoluted and potentially important the latter might be. But I came across Pat Lang’s column from a week ago, and thought it worth citing.

Confession: I believe there is likely  a political or international angle behind the Broadwell–Kelley-Petraeus thing. When I first read of the scandal I thought, wow, how cool that these broads with such whitebread WASPy and Irish-American names were getting involved in such things. It’s a reaction parallel to the incomparable Julie Mason of POTUS, who opined how pleased she was to hear about women over 40 involved in a sex scandal. We older Americans (in both senses) are not finished yet!!

But you couldn’t watch the TV news, and read about Kelley’s background, and not conclude that something other than sex was in play. And yes, I did at one point last week  google “Paula Broadwell maiden name” and was immediately linked to various neo-Naziish sites, which I of course purged from my hard drive. The commenters there did, in crude and unsubtle ways, assume that there had to be various ethnic and international agendas involved. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t. For some informed, cosmopolitan speculation on some of this, read Pat Lang.

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Breitbart’s Legacy: Occupy’s ‘Race War’

TAMPA—I can’t say for sure, but something tells me Andrew Breitbart—the guy who defended the Tea Party from charges of racism and famously stood up for gay conservatives—wouldn’t approve of the term “race war” being thrown around in the documentary that’s supposed to be his swan song and legacy.

Yet there it was, in “Occupy Unmasked,” which premiered this afternoon at Liberty Plaza outside the Tampa convention center. The comment came from Anita MonCrief, the ACORN whistleblower who is herself black, which is presumably why the documentarians decided it was appropriate to include. In the movie she says the Occupy movement has the same goal in “phase two” as William Luther Pierce and Charles Manson, “race war.”

In the Q&A after the movie I asked MonCrief to elaborate on her comment. Her response was fairly galling:

“You aren’t going to see black people occupying Zucotti Park, because there’s no place to plug in our hairdriers and stuff. But seriously, that’s why you have Barack Obama out there saying if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. … they want black people running around in hoodies protesting in the streets. That’s what he’s looking for. … He wants us divided, and he wants us to fight in the streets, so they can basically keep us down.”

Lee Stranahan, a member of the cast, tried to defend the statement by saying everyone he talked to at Occupy said they did indeed have problems with racism. He added, “yesterday a friend of mine went up to a Romneyville leader, and they’re talking about racism there! That’s racism from another movement.” Now Lee, you probably know this by now, but when overeducated upper-middle class liberal activists call something racist, you have to take that with a grain of salt.

The overall effect of all this talk, from the people who defended the Tea Party from charges of racism, amounts to, ‘no, you’re racist.’

Larry Solov, who is now CEO of the organization bearing Breitbart’s name, introduced his late friend’s vision for the film, saying, “He understood intuitively, in a way that only Andrew could, what the Occupy movement was all about.”

Too true.

Having spent some time covering Occupy DC this fall and speaking with the organizers, I noticed that one of their more obvious grievances was with the way the Democratic Party’s organizing machine, especially the SEIU, was co-opting what they saw as a grassroots movement. When I asked about the tension, Stranahan dismissed these people as dupes. Who knows, maybe they are, but acknowledging the conflict would have given the film more credibility. These unions, the movie claims, are the key instrument connecting the Alinskyite radical Barack Obama to the Occupy anarchists.

They must have left Andrew Breitbart’s keener insights into the movement on the cutting room floor, because most of the clips of him in the movie are utterly juvenile: “[Occupy is] raping and pillaging and pooping, and the mainstream media ignores it!”

The movie does seem to have a Todd Akin-like fascination with the Occupy rapes, which were admittedly under-covered in most media outlets, but was the best closing clip they could find really Breitbart yelling at protesters, “stop raping people, stop raping people, stop raping the[ital mine] people”?

That’s the kind of slip of the tongue that passes for profundity among these people.

Read More…

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