Obama’s Dirty Wars Exposed at Sundance January 24, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan, War, War on Terror.
Tags: amy goodman, civilian casualties, david riker, dirty wars, drone missiles, jeremy scahill, jsoc, rick rowley, roger hollander, sundance, Taliban
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PARK CITY, Utah—As President Barack Obama prepared to be sworn in for his second term as the 44th president of the United States, two courageous journalists premiered a documentary at the annual Sundance Film Festival. “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield” reaffirms the critical role played by independent journalists like the film’s director, Rick Rowley, and its narrator and central figure, Jeremy Scahill. The increasing pace of U.S. drone strikes, and the Obama administration’s reliance on shadowy special forces to conduct military raids beyond the reach of oversight and accountability, were summarily missed over the inaugural weekend by a U.S. press corps obsessed with first lady Michelle Obama’s new bangs. “Dirty Wars,” along with Scahill’s forthcoming book of the same title, is on target to break that silence … with a bang that matters.
Scahill and Rowley, no strangers to war zones, ventured beyond Kabul, Afghanistan, south to Gardez, in Paktia province, a region dense with armed Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network, to investigate one of the thousands of night raids that typically go unreported.
Scahill told me: “In Gardez, U.S. special operations forces had intelligence that a Taliban cell was having some sort of a meeting to prepare a suicide bomber. And they raid the house in the middle of the night, and they end up killing five people, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, and … Mohammed Daoud, a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the U.S.”
Scahill and Rowley went to the heart of the story, to hear from people who live at the target end of U.S. foreign policy. In Gardez, they interviewed survivors of that violent raid on the night of Feb. 12, 2010. After watching his brother and his wife, his sister and his niece killed by U.S. special forces, Mohammed Sabir was handcuffed on the ground. He watched, helpless, as the U.S. soldiers dug the bullets out of his wife’s corpse with a knife. He and the other surviving men were then flown off by helicopter to another province.
Sabir recounted his ordeal for Rowley’s camera: “My hands and clothes were caked with blood. They didn’t give us water to wash the blood away. The American interrogators had beards and didn’t wear uniforms. They had big muscles and would fly into sudden rages. By the time I got home, all our dead had already been buried. Only my father and my brother were left at home. I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans. But my brother and my father wouldn’t let me. I wanted a jihad against the Americans.”
Before leaving, Scahill and Rowley made copies of videos from the cellphones of survivors. One demonstrated that it was not a Taliban meeting, but a lively celebration of the birth of a child that the raid interrupted. Rowley described another video: “You can hear voices come over it, and they’re American-accented voices speaking about piecing together their version of the night’s killings, getting their story straight. You hear them trying to concoct a story about how this was something other than a massacre.”
The film shows an image captured in Gardez, by photographer Jeremy Kelly, sometime after the massacre. It showed a U.S. admiral named McRaven, surrounded by Afghan soldiers, offering a sheep as a traditional gesture seeking forgiveness for the massacre. The cover-up had failed.
William McRaven headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. Following the thread of JSOC, painstakingly probing scarcely reported night raids, traveling from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia, Scahill’s reporting, along with Rowley’s incredible camerawork, constructs for the first time a true, comprehensive picture of JSOC and Commander in Chief Obama’s not-so-brave new world.
The Inauguration Day drone strike in Yemen was the fourth in as many days, along with a similar increase in strikes in Pakistan. The Washington Post reported that Obama has a “playbook” that details when drone strikes are authorized, but it reportedly exempts those conducted by the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Inauguration Day, Obama officially nominated John Brennan, a strong advocate for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that many call torture, and architect of the drone program, to head the CIA.
With the film “Dirty Wars,” co-written with David Riker and directed by Rowley, Jeremy Scahill is pulling back the curtain on JSOC, which has lately exploded into the public eye with the torture-endorsing movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the killing of Osama bin Laden. When “Dirty Wars” comes to a theater near you, see it. Sadly, it proves the theater of war is everywhere, or, as its subtitle puts it: “The World Is a Battlefield.” As Scahill told me, “You’re going to see a very different reality, and you’re going to see the hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 1,100 stations in North America. She was awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award, dubbed the “Alternative Nobel” prize, and received the award in the Swedish Parliament in December.
All in a day’s (or night’s) work for the agents of empire!
Good report from Amy; good work from Scahill & co. Let’s hope this film opens some eyes. I, and many of us, already know this sort of stuff is going on, but maybe the folks in Anytown, USA, will get a glimpse of the awful reality of what our government does across the world.
Kill anything that moves. It has always been the way of empires. How these killers can live with themselves is really the big question. Right up there with that is how do those who make policies leading to this kind of slaughter sleep at night. Callous uncaring killers with no accountability and, in fact, glorified when they return as “HEROES”. It is a sick perversion. Is it surprising then when we turn this violence onto ourselves?
“Kill anything that moves”.
Indeed as writer Nick Turse brings out that that was pretty much the tacit, if not the official, policy of the U.S. military in Vietnam in his incredibly powerful and extremely well written book which bears the title of his tome. What happened so often in Vietnam is now occurring once again overseas as the article notes that:
“You hear them [U.S. soldiers] trying to concoct a story about how this was something other than a massacre.”
It would seem that the U.S. military is continuing on in the less than admirable tradition of what took place in Vietnam when the military there, from Colin Powell on down, tried and succeeded for the most part in covering up the many atrocities that the United States military committed against the Vietnamese. We now have our brave men and women in uniform doing the same thing only it is now taking place in the Middle East instead of Southeast Asia.
Now the Drones are the CIA’s baby no less than the U-2 was their child in the 1950’s. How can we tell if elected officials are calling any shots at all? Amy your show is great but it’s gaping bald spot is growing more apparent every day: a complete failure to integrate the most recent scholarship of the National Security State with other politics. Increasingly, in the word of the Alternative media it seems as if there is a quid pro quo: great stuff on the sculpting of our corporate now in exchange for selling a hollow ahistorical two dimensionalism re the history of our National Security State. Ray McGovern has had some very, very interesting things to say about when the CIA was in it’s teeny bopper years, 13-16. This coincided with some guy who–according to all academic scholarship published since 2000 was a president who was getting out of Vietnam, resisting CIA policies in Brazil, Israel, Indonesia, Cuba, Laos, Congo and towards the Soviet Union over the very basis of the Cold War which served as the ostensible raison d’etre of the emerging US Garrison State. Isn’t it time we take a closer look at the Coup of 1963 in this its 50th anniversary? Isn’t it time we look at the MEDIA IMPLICATIONS of that coup?
Hows bout asking Ray on to talk about this topic? Or are we ONLY allowed to hear Noam’s completely decontexturalized drive by assertions in which he quotes Richard Helms’ top aid. Again.
There was a time when the US left was different. There was a time when this comment could not be so easily put in the ash tray so conveniently labelled “Alex Jones”. The US left now recognizes that shows such as those on MSNBC play a strategic niching role in fragmenting US political communication. Create a channel for the would-be-critics of the Corporate Democrats and the corporations can lower the volume of dissent that the full spectrum hears. Do you think that strategy might be going on … elsewhere on the political spectrum? Mere speculation? Try history. See the history of Encounter Magazine 1950-64. See the great book by Frances Saunders called The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. In England it was called Who Paid The Piper?
Good post, Nathaniel. I’ve always been mystified by Noam’s blind spot as per the JFK assassination as well as the policies of that administration.
As for Alex Jones, his politics may be screwy, but he’s been a pretty good guerilla journalist over the years covering police abuses and secret ops and seems to have some good contacts inside the security-spook establishment, so the left dismisses him at its peril. He certainly didn’t help his credibility with his televised meltdown.
Klovis, as of 7:55 AM I am still deeply suspicious of Alex Jones and why he has so much money to do what he does. Has he often had some great guests? Yes. However, I call this strategy Ashtraying it. In other words put him on Alex Jones, then later when there are mass viewing moments like the incredible circus that MILLIONS SAW not just tens of thousands, it all gets thrown out baby and bathwater style. That is SPECUlation on my part about Alex Jones, but it is informed speculation on account of I have read a fair amount on Cold War Communications history.
I could well be mistaken.
How the heck would I know?
When one speculates like this it is important to label it as such , but that does not mean that historically relavent tributaries should not flow into the river of discussion. Man.
I must say I’ve wondered the same thing at times, even before his blowup. He also seems to play more and more to the peanut gallery of his rightwing audience. I only follow him sporadically, through links at other sites, but I seemed to notice a shift in his rhetoric after the formation of the Tea Party.
“Obama’s Dirty Wars Exposed at Sundance”
That’s all fine documentation – by Scahill/Rowley – and followup article by Amy Goodman. Well done there.
But it’s all well known facts and conditions of the post-911 wars to anyone following with a modicum of independent interest. Though this followup documents closer what’s previously established, it’s no new exposure.
That only goes to show how denied the reality of wars and exploitation and other conditions of the populace is in the USA these days.
Over and over again climate extreming is “exposed” as real. The wars of aggression are “exposed” as counterproductive and horribly unfair and destructive. The corporate sweatshops of Bangladesh, India, China and other poor countries are “exposed” as substandard and in breach of international laws. The activities of capitalism and financial institutions are “exposed” as grossly exploitative, fraudulent and unsustainable. And the obvious existence of the human inner world with compassion as a central trait, is “exposed” as denied by the official, competitive paradigm.
All these “exposures” – fine as they are in themselves – regrettably and paradoxically also serve to reinforce the denials, as they imply that these conditions are “news”.
It’s weird to behold how self-evident facts are “exposed” and established over and over again in the public sphere by the corporate media.
What needs to be “exposed” better is the deliberately induced public amnesia in the corporately hijacked main media.
We in the western-dominated global human tribe need a revolution that dispels with the unecological, disharmonious exploitations of most of the human tribe and all of the biosphere that now have been forced to dominate.
There are lots of approaches to do this: anything that increases harmony between people and people, and people and planet is part of the needed revolution. Any action that reduces artificially contrived tensions contributes.
One good place of attack would be to abolish Compound Interest in financial transactions, and use the natural human growth-decline rate of 1.3 % annually as a target for increase in “growth”/change in human activities to offset natural decline.
The Tobin tax introduced in parts of EU now is also a good development.
When corporations aren’t allowed to run rampant, less wars and more peace follows.
All war is dirty. – That’s another of those denials often “exposed” and claimed as news – over and over again. The interests denying that fact and glorifying war, even as “necessary”, are those that need to be “exposed” and stopped.
The MSM wasn’t there because this is pretty much old news. Kudos for the film as it probably serves a purpose for documentation purposes, but it’s a bit too late for anything else.
I’d like to see something on today’s big story: Women now having “opportunities” to serve as murderers for the army. Yes, you too have “opportunities” to murder, maim and destroy for the asshole in the White House. Another notch in the belt of The Man.
Growing up, I distinctly remember seeing films at school showing asian females marching & carrying guns, the narrator saying how communists countries would stoop so low as to make their women fight.
Our nation, using illegal immigration, unemployment, gangs and decades of violence/conditioning through broadcast and film has, finally, turned the female of our species (at least the American ones) into killing machines. Indeed…”Opportunities” but for whom? The State and its awful Empire, or the naive individual who is about to be used.
This is truly evil.
as i understand it from the military’s pov any person who enlists signs a contract making that person ‘government issue’ as in dehumanized property of the military branch. “our is not to reason why, our is but to do and die.” in my opinion that’s entrapment! during the nam police action, however, a gi speaking up about wanton brutality could choose to protect the truth even if the truth damaged the “good guy” reputation. manning attempted to go the chain-of-command route, but his efforts were rebuffed. what a sad,sad state of affairs!
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Seymour Hersh: Propaganda Used Ahead of Iraq War Is Now Being Reused over Iran’s Nuke Program November 21, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Iran, War.
Tags: amy goodman, Democracy Now, ehud barak, iaea, Iran, iran nuclear, iran sanctions, israel iran, jsoc, netanyahu, non-proliferation, nuclear weapons, roger hollander, Seymour Hersh
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www.democracy.org, Nov. 21, 2011
- Noam Chomsky on the 9/11 Decade and the Assassination of Osama bin Laden: Was There an Alternative?
- From One Ground Zero to Another: Sister of 9/11 Victim Meets Afghan Who Lost Family in U.S. Bombing
- A Debate on Human Rights Watch’s Call for Bush Administration Officials to be Tried for Torture
- Former CIA Agent Glenn Carle Reveals Bush Admin Effort to Smear War Critic Juan Cole
- Seymour Hersh: Despite Intelligence Rejecting Iran as Nuclear Threat, U.S. Could Be Headed for Iraq Redux
AMY GOODMAN: Today the United States, Britain and Canada plan to announce a coordinated set of sanctions against Iran. ABC News and the Wall Street Journal report the sanctions will target Iran’s oil and petrochemical industry. Last weekend, President Obama warned no options were being taken off the table.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The sanctions have enormous bite and enormous scope, and we’re building off the platform that has already been established. The question is, are there additional measures that we can take? And we’re going to explore every avenue to see if we can solve this issue diplomatically. I have said repeatedly, and I will say today, we are not taking any options off the table.
AMY GOODMAN: International pressure has been mounting on Iran since the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency revealed in a report the, quote, “possible military dimensions” to its nuclear activities. The IAEA said “credible” evidence, quote, “indicates [that] Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” The IAEA passed a resolution Friday expressing, quote, “increasing concern” about Iran’s nuclear program following the report’s findings.
The speaker of Iran’s parliament said yesterday Iran would review its relations with the IAEA following the report. Ali Larijani indicated it may be difficult for Iran to continue to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog.
ALI LARIJANI: [translated] If the agency acts within the framework of the Charter, we accept that we are a member of it and will carry out our responsibilities. But if the agency wants to deviate from its responsibilities, then it should not expect the other’s cooperation.
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian parliamentary speaker. Meanwhile, some Iranians have expressed the desire for increased cooperation with the IAEA.
SAID BAHRAMI: [translated] Considering the fact that the government has made plenty of clarifications, it would be better for it to expand its cooperation with the IAEA and let them see for themselves, close up, so there would be no pretext for the superpowers.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the Pentagon confirmed it has received massive new bunker-busting bombs capable of destroying underground sites, including Iran’s nuclear facilities. The 30,000-pound bombs are six times the size of the Air Force’s current arsenal of bunker busters.
The new sanctions against Iran also follow last month’s allegations by the United States that Iranian officials were involved in a thwarted plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. The U.S. is expected to announce today that Iran’s financial sector is of “primary money-laundering concern.” This phrase activates a section of the USA PATRIOT Act that warns European, Asian and Latin American companies they could be prevented from doing business with the United States if they continue to work with Iran.
Well, to talk more about the sanctions and the implications of the IAEA report, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. He’s been reporting on Iran and the bomb for the past decade. His latest piece is titled “Iran and the IAEA.” It’s in The New Yorker.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sy. Talk about what you feel should be understood about what’s happening in Iran right now in regards to its nuclear power sector.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you mention, going in—by the way, the piece was in the blog. It wasn’t in the magazine; it was on the web page.
But you mentioned Iraq. It’s just this—almost the same sort of—I don’t know if you want to call it a “psychosis,” but it’s some sort of a fantasy land being built up here, as it was with Iraq, the same sort of—no lessons learned, obviously. Look, I have been reporting about Iran, and I could tell you that since ’04, under George Bush, and particularly the Vice President, Mr. Cheney, we were—Cheney was particularly concerned there were secret facilities for building a weapon, which are much different than the enrichment. We have enrichment in Iran. They’ve acknowledged it. They have inspectors there. There are cameras there, etc. This is all—Iran’s a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nobody is accusing them of any cheating. In fact, the latest report that everybody’s so agog about also says that, once again, we find no evidence that Iran has diverted any uranium that it’s enriching. And it’s also enriching essentially at very low levels for peaceful purposes, so they say, 3.8 percent. And so, there is a small percentage being enriched to 20 percent for medical use, but that’s quite small, also under cameras, under inspection.
What you have is, in those days, in ’04, ’05, ’06, ’07, even until the end of their term in office, Cheney kept on having the Joint Special Operations Force Command, JSOC—they would send teams inside Iran. They would work with various dissident groups—the Azeris, the Kurds, even Jundallah, which is a very fanatic Sunni opposition group—and they would do everything they could to try and find evidence of an undeclared underground facility. We monitored everything. We have incredible surveillance. In those days, what we did then, we can even do better now. And some of the stuff is very technical, very classified, but I can tell you, there’s not much you can do in Iran right now without us finding out something about it. They found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization. In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities for building a bomb. This is simply a fact. We haven’t found it, if it does exist. It’s still a fantasy. We still want to think—many people do think—it does.
The big change was, in the last few weeks, the IAEA came out with a new report. And it’s not a scientific report, it’s a political document. It takes a lot of the old allegations that had been made over the years, that were looked at by the IAEA, under the regime or the directorship of Mohamed ElBaradei, who ran the IAEA for 12 years, the Egyptian—he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work—somebody who was very skeptical of Iran in the beginning and became less so as Iran went—was more and more open. But the new director of the IAEA, a Japanese official named Amano, an old sort of—from the center-right party in Japan—I’m sure he’s an honorable guy, he believes what he believes. But we happen to have a series of WikiLeak documents from the American embassy in Vienna, one of the embassies in Vienna, reporting on how great it was to get Amano there. This is last year. These documents were released by Julian Assange’s group and are quite important, because what the documents say is that Amano has pledged his fealty to America. I understand he was elected as a—he was a marginal candidate. We supported him very much. Six ballots. He was considered weak by everybody, but we pushed to get him in. We did get him in. He responded by thanking us and saying he shares our views. He shares our views on Iran. He’s going to be—he’s basically—it was just an expression of love. He’s going to do what we wanted.
This new report has nothing new in it. This isn’t me talking. This is—in the piece I did for the New Yorker blog, it’s different for the blog because it has more reporting in it. I talked to former inspectors. They’re different voices than you read in the New York Times and the Washington Post. There are other people that don’t get reported who are much more skeptical of this report, and you just don’t see it in the coverage. So what we’re getting is a very small slice in the newspaper mainstream press here of analysis of this report. There’s a completely different analysis, which is, very little new.
And the way it works, Amy, is, over the years, a report will show up in a London newspaper, that will turn out to be spurious, turn out to be propaganda, whether started by us or a European intelligence agency—it’s not clear. This all happened, if you remember the Ahmed Chalabi stuff, during the buildup to the war in [Iraq], all about, you know, the great arsenals that existed inside [Iraq]. The same sort of propaganda is being used now—pardon me, I have a slight cold—that shows up over the years, over the last decade, in various newspapers. The IAEA would look at it, rule it not to be—be a fabrication, or certainly not to be supportable by anything they know. All of these old reports, with the exception of, I think, in a new study that was put out by the IAEA—there were maybe 30 or 40 old items, with only three things past 2008, all of which are—they—many people inside the IAEA believe to be spurious, not very reliable fabrications. So there you are.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sy Hersh, you’re saying that it’s not new information. It’s a new head of the IAEA that’s making the difference here. Can you talk more about U.S. infiltration of Iran, JSOC in Iran, surveillance, as well, in Iran?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Sure. I mean, the kind of stuff they did. I could tell you stuff that was secret eight, nine years ago. We would—for example, we developed—if there was an underground facility we thought was—where we saw some digging, let’s say, in a mountain area, we would line the road, when there were trucks going up and down the road, we would line the road with what seemed to be pebbles. In fact, they were sensors that could measure the weight of trucks going in and out. If a truck would go in light and come out with heavy, we could assume it was coming out with dirt, they were doing digging. We did that kind of monitoring.
We also put all sorts of passive counters, measures, of radioactivity. Uranium, even plutonium—most of the stuff that’s being done there is enriched uranium. They’re not making plutonium. But you can track. At a certain point, you have to move it. Once you take it out and start moving it around, you can track it. You can find Geiger counters, if you will, to use that old-fashioned term. You can measure radioactivity and see increases. We would go into a building, our troops, sometimes even with Americans, go into a building in Tehran, where we thought there was something fishy going on, start a disturbance down the street, take out a few bricks, slam in another section of brick with a Geiger counter, if you will, or a measuring device to see if, in that building, they were doing some enrichment we didn’t know about.
And we also have incredible competence at looking for air holes from the air, from satellites. If you’re building an underground facility, you have to vent it. You have to get air into it. You have to find a way to remove bad air and put in fresh air. And so, we have guys that are experts, tremendous people in the community. Some of them retired and set up a private company to do this. They would monitor all of the aerial surveillance to look for air holes, so we could find a pattern, try to find a pattern, of an underground facility. Nada.We came up with nothing.
And the most important thing is, we also—and the IA—even this new report also says—let me emphasize this: if you’re not diverting uranium, if you’re not taking uranium out of the count and smuggling it someplace so that you can build a bomb—and that, the IAEA is absolutely categorical on—everything that they are enriching, whatever percentage they enrich to, is under camera inspection, and under inspection of inspections. It’s all open, under the treaty, the safeguard treaty. Nobody is accusing Iran of violating the treaty. They’re just accusing them of cheating on the side, or some evidence they are. And there’s been no evidence of a diversion. So if you’re going to make a bomb, you’re going to have to bring it in from someplace else. And given the kind of surveillance we have, that’s going to be hard to do, to import it from a third country, bring in uranium and enrich it, or enriched uranium. It’s just a long shot.
And what you have is—as I said, it’s some sort of a hysteria that we had over Iraq that’s coming up again in Iran. And this isn’t a plea for Iran. There’s a lot of things that the Iranians do that is objectionable, the way they treat dissent, etc., etc. So I’m just speaking within the context of the hullabaloo that’s up now. And as far as sanctions are concerned, you know, excuse me, we’ve been sanctioning Cuba for 60 years, and Castro is—you know, he may be ill, but he’s still there. Sanctions are not going to work. This is a country that produces oil and gas—less and less, but still plenty of it. And they have customers in the Far East, the Iranians. They have customers for their energy. We’re the losers in this.
AMY GOODMAN: How would you compare the Obama administration to the Bush administration when it comes to Iran?
SEYMOUR HERSH: I can’t find a comparison. Same—a little less bellicose, but the same thing. I do think—I have every reason to believe that, unlike Mr. Bush, President Obama really is worried about an attack. He doesn’t want to see the Israelis bomb Iran. That’s the kind of talk we’ve been getting in the press lately.
And there’s new—as you mentioned, the 30,000-pound bombs built by Boeing, I think. The problem is that most of Iran’s facilities, the ones that we know about, the declared facilities under camera inspection, a place called Natanz, is about 80, 75 to 80 feet underground. And you’d have to do a hell of a lot of bombing to do much damage to it. You could certainly do damage to it, but the cost internationally would be stupendous. The argument for going and bombing is so vague and so nil. There’s been studies done showing—technical studies, MIT and other places, and the Israeli government also has had its scientists participate in these studies, showing it would be really hard to do a significant amount of damage, given how deep the underground facilities are. But you hear this talk about it.
And there’s—you know, look, this president has said nothing about what’s going on in Tahrir Square again. We’re mute. He’s been mute on this kind of bellicosity. But my understanding is that, purely from inside information, is that he does understand the issues more. I think it’s right now a political game being played by him to look tough. You know, everybody’s chasing, you know, the independent vote. I don’t know why—what’s so important to go after people that can’t decide whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, but that seems to be the name of the game.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s turn to the response in Israel to the IAEA report. Yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview with CNN the time has come to deal with Iran. When asked specifically whether Israel would attack Iran, this is how he responded.
DEFENSE MINISTER EHUD BARAK: I don’t think that that’s a subject for public discussion. But I can tell you that the IAEA report has a sobering impact on many in the world, leaders as well the publics. And people understand that the time had come. Amano told straightly what he found, unlike Baradei. And it became a major issue, that I think, duly so, becomes a major issue for sanctions, for intensive diplomacy, with urgency. People understand now that Iran is determined to reach nuclear weapons. No other possible or conceivable explanation for what they had been actually doing. And that should be stopped.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak. Sy, your response?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, what makes me nervous is Barak and Bibi, Bibi Netanyahu, are together on this. They’re not always together on many things. They both agree, and that’s worrisome because, again, it’s a political issue there. Everybody—the country is moving quickly to the right, Israel is, obviously. And I can just tell you that I’ve also talked—unfortunately, the ground rules are so lousy in Israel, I can’t write it, but I’ve talked to very senior intelligence people in Iran—in Israel, rather. If you notice, you don’t hear that much about it, but the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, who left—who was the guy that orchestrated the attempted assassinations in Dubai, etc.—no dove—has been vehement about the foolishness of attempting to go after Iran, on the grounds that it’s not clear what they have. They’re certainly far away from a bomb. Israel has been saying for 20 years they’re, you know, six months away from making a bomb.
But I can tell you that I’ve talked to senior Israeli officers in Israel who have told me, A, they know that Iran, as the American intelligence community reported—I think it was in ’07—there was a National Intelligence Estimate that became public that said, essentially, Iran did look at a bomb. They had an eight-year war with Iraq, a terrible war, 1980 to 1988. And we, by the way, the United States, sided with Iraq, Saddam Hussein at that time. Iran then, in the years after that, they began to worry about Iraq’s talk about building a nuclear weapon, so they did look, in that period, let’s say ’87 to—’97 to 2003, no question. The American NIE said in ’07—it was augmented in 2011. I wrote about it a year ago in The New Yorker. It said, yes, they did look at a bomb, but not—they knew that they couldn’t—there was no way they could make a bomb to deter America or Israel. They’re not fools. This Persian society has been around for a couple thousand years. They can’t deter us. We have too many bombs. They thought maybe they could deter Iraq. After we went in and took down Iraq in ’03, they stopped. So they had done some studies. We’re talking about computer modeling, etc., no building. They—no question, they looked at the idea of getting a bomb or getting to the point where maybe they could make one. They did do that, but they stopped in ’03.
That’s still the American consensus. The Israelis will tell you privately, “Yes, we agree.” They stopped most of their planning, even their studies, in ’03. The Israeli position is they stopped not because they saw what we did to Iraq, but they thought that we could—we destroyed Iraq—I had a general tell me this—we destroyed Iraq in—it took them—we did in three weeks what they couldn’t do in eight years. They thought they would be next. But the consensus was, yes, they stopped. And also, if you asked serious, smart, wise Israelis in the intelligence business — and there are many — “Do you really think, if they got a bomb—and they don’t have one now—they would hit Tel Aviv?” and the answer was, “Do you think they’re crazy? We would incinerate them. Of course not. They’ve been around 2,000 years. That’s not going to happen.” Their fear was they would give a bomb to somebody else, etc.
But there’s an element rationality in the Israeli intelligence community that’s not being expressed by the political leadership. It’s the same madness we have here. There’s an element of rationality in our intelligence community which says, in ’07, and it has said it again last year, they don’t have the bomb. They’re not making it. It’s at NIE, 16 agencies agreed, 16 to nothing, in an internal vote, before that—they did an update in 2011 on the ’07 study and came to the same place. It’s just not there. That doesn’t mean they don’t have dreams. It doesn’t mean scientists don’t do computer studies. It doesn’t mean that physicists at the University of Tehran don’t do what physicists like to do, write papers and do studies. But there’s just no evidence of any systematic effort to go from enriching uranium to making a bomb. It’s a huge, difficult process. You have to take a very hot gas and convert it into a metal and then convert it into a core. And you have to do that by remote control, because you can’t get near that stuff. It’ll kill you. So radioactive.
I mean, so, look, I’m a lone voice. And you know how careful The New Yorker is, even on a blog item. This piece was checked and rechecked. And I quote people—Joe Cirincione, an American who’s been involved in disarmament many years. These are different voices than you’re seeing in the papers. I sometimes get offended by the same voices we see in the New York Times and Washington Post. We don’t see people with different points of view. There are, inside the—not only the American intelligence community, but also inside the IAEA in Vienna. There are many people who cannot stand what Amano is doing, and many people who basically—I get emails—and this piece came out, was put up, I think, over the weekend. And I get emails, like crazy, from people on the inside saying, “Way to go.” I’m talking about inside the IAEA. It’s an organization that doesn’t deal with the press, but internally, they’re very bothered by the direction Amano is taking them.
It’s not a scientific study, Amy. It’s a political document. And it’s a political document in which he’s playing our game. And it’s the same game the Israelis are picking up on, and those who don’t like Iran. And I wish we could separate our feelings about Iran and the mullahs and what happened with the students from 1979, into the reality, which is that I think there’s a very serious chance the Iranians would certainly give us the kind of inspections we want, in return for a little love—an end to sanctions and a respect that they insist that they want to get from us. And it’s not happening from this administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us. His latest piece is on the blog at The New Yorker. It’s called “Iran and the IAEA.” Seymour Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize. His piece, you can see at The New Yorker’s website.
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The Iraq War Ain’t Over, No Matter What Obama Says October 21, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
Tags: al-Qaeda, cia, global strategies group, Iraq, Iraq mercenaries, Iraq war, jsoc, mercenaries, roger hollander, spencer ackerman, triple caopy
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- October 21, 2011 |
President Obama announced on Friday that all 41,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq will return home by December 31. “That is how America’s military efforts in Iraq will end,” he said. Don’t believe him.
Now: it’s a big deal that all U.S. troops are coming home. For much of the year, the military, fearful of Iranian influence, has sought a residual presence in Iraq of several thousand troops. But arduous negotiations with the Iraqi government about keeping a residual force stalled over the Iraqis’ reluctance to provide them with legal immunity.
But the fact is America’s military efforts in Iraq aren’t coming to an end. They are instead entering a new phase. On January 1, 2012, the State Department will command a hired army of about 5,500 security contractors, all to protect the largest U.S. diplomatic presence anywhere overseas.
The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security does not have a promising record when it comes to managing its mercenaries. The 2007 Nisour Square shootings by State’s security contractors, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed, marked one of the low points of the war. Now, State will be commanding a much larger security presence, the equivalent of a heavy combat brigade. In July, Danger Room exclusively reported that the Department blocked the Congressionally-appointed watchdog for Iraq from acquiring basic information about contractor security operations, such as the contractors’ rules of engagement.
That means no one outside the State Department knows how its contractors will behave as they ferry over 10,000 U.S. State Department employees throughout Iraq — which, in case anyone has forgotten, is still a war zone. Since Iraq wouldn’t grant legal immunity to U.S. troops, it is unlikely to grant it to U.S. contractors, particularly in the heat and anger of an accident resulting in the loss of Iraqi life.
It’s a situation with the potential for diplomatic disaster. And it’s being managed by an organization with no experience running the tight command structure that makes armies cohesive and effective.
You can also expect that there will be a shadow presence by the CIA, and possibly the Joint Special Operations Command, to hunt persons affiliated with al-Qaida. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has conspicuously stated that al-Qaida still has 1,000 Iraqi adherents, which would make it the largest al-Qaida affiliate in the world.
So far, there are three big security firms with lucrative contracts to protect U.S. diplomats. Triple Canopy, a longtime State guard company, has a contract worth up to $1.53 billion to keep diplos safe as they travel throughout Iraq. Global Strategies Group will guard the consulate at Basra for up to $401 million. SOC Incorporated will protect the mega-embassy in Baghdad for up to $974 million. State has yet to award contracts to guard consulates in multiethnic flashpoint cities Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as the outpost in placid Irbil.
“We can have the kind of protection our diplomats need,” Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough told reporters after Obama’s announcement. Whether the Iraqi people will have protection from the contractors that the State Department commands is a different question. And whatever you call their operations, the Obama administration hopes that you won’t be so rude as to call it “war.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Tags: abbottabad, abbottabad raid, al-Qaeda, bin laden raid, cia, corporate media, counterterrorism, getting bin laden, investigative journalism, john brennan, journaism, jsoc, khalid bin laden, leon panetta, Lt. General Robert E. “Rooster” Schmidle Jr, Media, navy seals, nicholas schmidle, Osama bin laden, pakistan, roger hollander, russ baker, the new yorker, us navy seals
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Roger’s note: This is straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Given the total capitulation of the mainstream media to the corporate, partisan political and industrial-military intersts, the kind of journalism found in whowhatwhy,com and a handful of other Internet sites are the Zamizdat of today.
Published on Wednesday, August 17, 2011 by WhoWhatWhy.com
The establishment media just keep getting worse. They’re further and further from good, tough investigative journalism, and more prone to be pawns in complicated games that affect the public interest in untold ways. A significant recent example is The New Yorker’s vaunted August 8 exclusive on the vanquishing of Osama bin Laden.
The piece, trumpeted as the most detailed account to date of the May 1 raid in Abbottabad Pakistan, was an instant hit. “Got the chills half dozen times reading @NewYorker killing bin Laden tick tock…exquisite journalism,” tweeted the digital director of the PBS show Frontline. The author, freelancer Nicholas Schmidle, was quickly featured on the Charlie Rose show, an influential determiner of “chattering class” opinion. Other news outlets rushed to praise the story as “exhaustive,” “utterly compelling,” and on and on.
To be sure, it is the kind of granular, heroic story that the public loves, that generates follow-up bestsellers and movie options. The takedown even has a Hollywood-esque code name: “Operation Neptune’s Spear”
Here’s the introduction to the mission commander, full of minute details that help give it a ring of authenticity and the most intimate reportorial access:
James, a broad-chested man in his late thirties, does not have the lithe swimmer’s frame that one might expect of a SEAL—he is built more like a discus thrower. That night, he wore a shirt and trousers in Desert Digital Camouflage, and carried a silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistol, along with extra ammunition; a CamelBak, for hydration; and gel shots, for endurance. He held a short-barrel, silenced M4 rifle. (Others SEALs had chosen the Heckler & Koch MP7.) A “blowout kit,” for treating field trauma, was tucked into the small of James’s back. Stuffed into one of his pockets was a laminated gridded map of the compound. In another pocket was a booklet with photographs and physical descriptions of the people suspected of being inside. He wore a noise-cancelling headset, which blocked out nearly everything besides his heartbeat.
On and on went the “tick-tock.” Yet as Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, noted, that narrative was misleading in the extreme, because the New Yorker reporter never actually spoke to James—nor to a single one of James’s fellow SEALs (who have never been identified or photographed–even from behind–to protect their identity.) Instead, every word of Schmidle’s narrative was provided to him by people who were not present at the raid. Complains Farhi:
…a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.
That didn’t trouble New Yorker editor David Remnick, according to Farhi:
Remnick says he’s satisfied with the accuracy of the account. “The sources spoke to our fact-checkers,” he said. “I know who they are.”
But we don’t.
On a story of this gravity, should we automatically join in with the huzzahs because it has the imprimatur of America’s most respected magazine? Or would we be wise to approach it with caution?
Most of us are not the trusting naïfs we once were. And with good reason.
The list of consequential events packaged for us by media and Hollywood in unsatisfactory ways continues to grow. It starts, certainly, with the official version of the JFK assassination, widely discredited yet still carried forward by most major media organizations. (For more on that, see this.) More and more people realize that the heroic Woodward & Bernstein story of Nixon’s demise is deeply problematical. (I’ve written extensively on both of these in my book Family of Secrets.)
And untold millions don’t think we’ve heard the real (or at least complete) story of the phenomenal, complex success of those 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. Skeptics now include former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who recently speculated that the hijackers may have been able to enter the US and move freely precisely because American intelligence hoped to recruit them as double agents—and that an ongoing cover-up is designed to hide this. And then, of course, there are the Pentagon’s account of the heroic rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq, which turned out to be a hoax, and the Pentagon’s fabricated account of the heroic battle death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, who turned out to be a victim of friendly fire. These are just a few from scores of examples of deceit perpetrated upon the American people. Hardly the kind of track record to inspire confidence in official explanations with the imprimatur of the military and the CIA.
Whatever one thinks of these other matters, we’re certainly now at a point where we ought to be prudent in embracing authorized accounts of the latest seismic event: the dramatic end to one of America’s most reviled and storied nemeses.
The bin Laden raid presents us with every reason to be cautious. The government’s initial claims about what transpired at that house in Abbottabad have changed, then changed again, with no proper explanation of the discrepancies. Even making allowances for human error in such shifting accounts, almost every aspect of what we were told requires a willing suspension of disbelief—from the manner of Osama’s death and burial to the purported pornography found at the site. (For more on these issues, see previous articles we wrote on the subject, here, here and here.)
Clarke’s theory will seem less outrageous later, as we explore Saudi intelligence’s crucial, and bizarre, role at the end of bin Laden’s life—working directly with the man who now holds Clarke’s job.
Add to all of this the discovery that the reporter providing this newest account wasn’t even allowed to talk to any raid participants—and the magazine’s lack of candor on this point—and you’ve got an almost unassailable case for treating the New Yorker story with extreme caution.
We might begin by asking the question: Who provided The New Yorker with its exclusive, and what was their agenda in doing so? To try and sort out Schmidle’s sources, I read through the piece carefully several times.
One person who spoke to the reporter, and who is identified by name is John O. Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser. Brennan is quoted directly, briefly, near the top, describing to Schmidle pre-raid debate over whether such an operation would be a success or failure:
John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told me that the President’s advisers began an “interrogation of the data, to see if, by that interrogation, you’re going to disprove the theory that bin Laden was there.”
The mere fact of Schmidle’s reliance on Brennan at all should send up a flare for the cautious reader. After all, that’s the very same Brennan who was the principal source of incorrect details in the hours and days after the raid. These included the claim that the SEALs encountered substantial armed resistance, not least from bin Laden himself; that it took them an astounding 40 minutes to get to bin Laden, and that the White House got to hear the soldiers’ conversations in real time.
Here’s a Washington Post account from Brennan published on May 3, less than 48 hours after the raid:
Half an hour had passed on the ground, but the American commandos raiding Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideaway had yet to find their long-sought target.
…The commandos swept methodically through the compound’s main building, clearing one room and then another as they made their way to the upper floors where they expected to find bin Laden. As they did so, Obama administration officials in the White House Situation Room listened to the SEAL team’s conversations over secure lines.
“The minutes passed like days,” said John O. Brennan, the administration’s chief counterterrorism adviser. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled.”
Finally, shortly before 2 a.m. in Pakistan, the commandos burst into an upstairs room.Inside, an armed bin Laden took cover behind a woman, Brennan said. With a burst of gunfire, one of the longest and costliest manhunts in modern history was over.
.. The commandos moved inside, and finally reached bin Laden’s upstairs living quarters after nearly 40 minutes on the ground.
Almost all that turns out to be hogwash—according to the new account produced by The New Yorker three months later. An account that, again, it seems, comes courtesy of Brennan. The minutes did not pass like days. Bin Laden was not armed, and did not take cover behind a woman. And the commandoes most certainly were not on the ground for 40 minutes. Some of them were up the stairs to the higher floors almost in a flash, and it didn’t take long for them to run into and kill bin Laden.
For another take, consider this account from NBC News’ Pentagon correspondent—also reported the week after the raid— two days after Brennan told the Washington Post a completely different story. This one appears to be based on a briefing from military officials who would have been likely to have good knowledge of the operational details:
According to the officials’ account, as the first SEAL team moved into the compound, they took small-arms fire from the guest house in the compound. The SEALs returned fire, killing bin Laden’s courier and the courier’s wife, who died in the crossfire. It was the only time the SEALs were shot at.
The second SEAL team entered the first floor of the main residence and could see a man standing in the dark with one hand behind his back. Fearing he was hiding a weapon, the SEALs shot and killed the lone man, who turned out to be unarmed.
As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff — which never materialized.
The SEALs then made their way up a staircase, where they ran into one of bin Laden’s sons. The Americans immediately shot and killed the 19-year-old son, who was also unarmed, according to the officials.
Hearing the shots, bin Laden peered over the railing from the floor above. The SEALs fired but missed bin Laden, who ducked back into his bedroom. As the SEALs stormed up the stairs, two young girls ran from the room.
One SEAL scooped them up and carried them out of harm’s way. The other two commandos stormed into bin Laden’s bedroom. One of bin Laden’s wives rushed toward the Navy SEAL, who shot her in the leg.
Then, without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fired two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head. Although there were weapons in that bedroom, bin Laden was also unarmed when he was shot.
Instead of a chaotic firefight, the U.S. officials said, the American commando assault was a precision operation, with SEALs moving carefully through the compound, room to room, floor to floor.
In fact, most of the operation was spent in what the military calls “exploiting the site,” gathering up the computers, hard drives, cellphones and files that could provide valuable intelligence on al-Qaida operatives and potential operations worldwide.
The U.S. officials describing the operation said the SEALs carefully gathered up 22 women and children to ensure they were not harmed. Some of the women were put in “flexi-cuffs” the plastic straps used to bind someone’s hands at the wrists, and left them for Pakistani security forces to discover.
Given that Brennan’s initial version of the raid was strikingly erroneous, his later account to The New Yorker is suspect as well. So who else besides Brennan might have been Schmidle’s sources? At one point in his piece, he cites an unnamed counterterrorism official:
A senior counterterrorism official who visited the JSOC redoubt described it as an enclave of unusual secrecy and discretion. “Everything they were working on was closely held,” the official said.
Later, that same unnamed counterterrorism official is again cited, this time seeming to continue Brennan’s narrative of the meeting before the raid, in which participants disagreed on the likely success of such a mission:
That day in Washington, Panetta convened more than a dozen senior C.I.A. officials and analysts for a final preparatory meeting. Panetta asked the participants, one by one, to declare how confident they were that bin Laden was inside the Abbottabad compound. The counterterrorism official told me that the percentages “ranged from forty per cent to ninety or ninety-five per cent,” and added, “This was a circumstantial case.”
From the story’s construction, one could reasonably conclude that the unnamed counterterrorism official is indeed still just Brennan. If not, who could it be? How many different white House counterterrorism officials would have debriefed the SEALs, if indeed that is even their role? How many would have been privy to that planning meeting? And how many different officials would have gotten authorization to sum up the events of that important day for this New Yorker writer? Also, it’s an old journalistic trick to quote the same source, on and off the record— thereby giving the source extra cover when discussing particularly delicate matters.
So, we don’t know whether the article was based on anything more than Brennan, under marching orders to clean up the conflicting accounts he originally put out.
It’s curious that the source chooses to emphasize the fundamental disagreement over whether the raid was a good idea. Presumably, there was a purpose in emphasizing this, but the New Yorker’s “tick-tock”, which is very light on analysis or context, doesn’t tell us what it was. It may have been intended to show Obama as brave, inclined toward big risks (thereby running counter to his reputation)—we can only guess.
This internal discord will get the attention of anyone who remembers all the assertions from intelligence officials over the years that bin Laden was almost certainly already dead—either of natural causes or killed at some previous time.
Here’s a bit more from The New Yorker on officials’ doubts going into the raid:
Several analysts from the National Counterterrorism Center were invited to critique the C.I.A.’s analysis; their confidence in the intelligence ranged between forty and sixty per cent. The center’s director, Michael Leiter, said that it would be preferable to wait for stronger confirmation of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad.
Those doubts are particularly interesting for several reasons: the CIA has had a long history of disputes between its covert action wing, which tends to advocate activity, and its analysis section, historically prone to caution. The action wing also has a history of publicizing its being right—when it could purport to be right—and covering up its failures. So when an insider chooses to make public these disagreements, we should be willing to consider motives.
This dispute can also be seen as an intriguing prologue to the rush to dump Bin Laden’s body and not provide proof to the public that it was indeed bin Laden. What if it wasn’t bin Laden that they killed? Would the government announce that after such a high-stakes operation? (“While we thought he’d be there, we accidentally killed someone else instead”? Seems unlikely.)
Now, let us go to the next antechamber of this warren of shadowy entities and unstated agendas.
Who exactly wanted bin Laden shot rather than taken alive and interrogated—and why? There’s been much discussion about the purported reasons for terminating him on sight, but the fact remains that he would have been a source of tremendous intelligence of real value to the safety of Americans and others.
Yet, early in the piece, Schmidle writes:
If all went according to plan, the SEALs would drop from the helicopters into the compound, overpower bin Laden’s guards, shoot and kill him at close range, and then take the corpse back to Afghanistan.
That was the plan? Whose plan? We’ve never been explicitly told by the White House that such a decision had been made. In fact, we’d previously been informed that the president was glad to have the master plotter taken alive if he was unarmed and did not resist. So, that’s a huge and problematical discrepancy that is only heightened by Schmidle’s misleadingly matter-of-fact treatment of the matter.
GET ME RIYADH
If the justification for killing Osama presented in The New Yorker warrants concern, the account of how—and why—they disposed of his body ought to send alarm bells clanging.
At the time of the raid, the decision to hastily dump Osama’s body in the ocean rather than make it available for authoritative forensic examination was a highly controversial one—that only led to more speculation that the White House was hiding something. The justifications, including not wanting to bury him on land for fear of creating a shrine, were almost laughable.
So what do we learn about this from The New Yorker? It’s truly bizarre: the SEALS themselves made the decision. That’s strange enough. But then we learn that Brennan took it upon himself to verify that was the right decision. How did he do this? Not by speaking with the president or top military, diplomatic or legal brass. No, he called some foreigners—get ready–the Saudis, who told him that dumping at sea sounded like a good plan.
Here’s Schmidle’s account:
All along, the SEALs had planned to dump bin Laden’s corpse into the sea—a blunt way of ending the bin Laden myth. They had successfully pulled off a similar scheme before. During a DEVGRU helicopter raid inside Somalia in September, 2009, SEALs had killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of East Africa’s top Al Qaeda leaders; Nabhan’s corpse was then flown to a ship in the Indian Ocean, given proper Muslim rites, and thrown overboard. Before taking that step for bin Laden, however, John Brennan made a call. Brennan, who had been a C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, phoned a former counterpart in Saudi intelligence. Brennan told the man what had occurred in Abbottabad and informed him of the plan to deposit bin Laden’s remains at sea. As Brennan knew, bin Laden’s relatives were still a prominent family in the Kingdom, and Osama had once been a Saudi citizen. Did the Saudi government have any interest in taking the body? “Your plan sounds like a good one,” the Saudi replied.
Let’s consider this. The most wanted man in the world; substantive professional doubts about whether the man in the Abbottabad house is him; tremendous public doubts about whether it could even be him; the most important operation of the Obama presidency; yet the decision about what to do with the body is left to low-level operatives. Keep in mind SEALs are trained to follow orders given by others. They’re expected to apply what they know to unexpected scenarios that come up, but the key strategic decisions— arrived at in advance—are not theirs to make.
Even more strange that Brennan would discuss this with a foreign power. And not just any foreign power, but the regime that is inextricably linked with the domestically-influential family of bin Laden—and home to many of the hijackers who worked for him.
Is it just me, or does this sound preposterous? Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser is just winging it with key aspects of one of America’s most important, complex and risky operations? And the Saudi government is the one deciding to discard the remains of a man from one of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful families, before the public could receive proper proof of the identity of the body? A regime with a great deal at stake and perhaps plenty to hide.
Also please consider this important caveat: As we noted in a previous article, the claim that the body had already been positively identified via DNA has been disputed by a DNA expert who said that insufficient time had elapsed before the sea burial to complete such tests.
The line about Brennan himself having been a former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia is just sort of dropped in there. No recognition of what it means that a person of that background was put into that position after 9/11, no recognition that a person of that background and those fraught personal connections is controlling this narrative. He’s not just a “counterterrorism expert”—he is a longtime member of an agency whose mandate includes the frequent use of disinformation. And one who has his own historic direct links to the Saudi regime, a key and problematical player in the larger chess game playing out.
It’s relevant to note that Brennan is not only a career CIA officer (they say no one ever really leaves the Agency, no matter their new title) but one with a lot of baggage. He was deputy director of the CIA at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was an adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign, after which Obama initially planned to name him CIA director. That appointment was pulled, in part due to criticism from human rights advocates over statements he had made in support of sending terrorism suspects to countries where they might be tortured.
Of course, there could have been other sources besides Brennan. In addition to the unnamed “counterterrorism official” previously cited, the New Yorker mentions a “special operations officer,” as in:
…according to a special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid.
Subsequent quotes from him indicate that this had to be a supervisory special ops officer. His comments are surprising:
“This wasn’t a hard op,” the special-operations officer told me. “It would be like hitting a target in McLean”—the upscale Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C.President Barack Obama listening to John Brennans report.
Whoops! Here’s a Special Ops guy saying the Special Ops raid was actually no big deal! Shouldn’t that, if a valid assessment, get more attention? Especially given the endless praise and frequent statements of how difficult the operation was. I mean, the toughness and diciness of the Abbottabad mission is the prime reason we want to read the New Yorker’s account in the first place!
To further underline the point, consider that this fellow is not alone in his assessment:
In the months after the raid, the media have frequently suggested that the Abbottabad operation was as challenging as Operation Eagle Claw and the “Black Hawk Down” incident, but the senior Defense Department official told me that “this was not one of three missions.”…. He likened the routine of evening raids to “mowing the lawn.”
Why would a person overseeing an operation like this deflate the bubble of adoration? It doesn’t seem helpful to the interests of Special Operations – and it doesn’t seem credible, either. So there’s presumably a reason that this person is—again speaking to The New Yorker after this important exclusive has been carefully considered and strategized. We just don’t know what it is, and the magazine doesn’t even bother to wonder.
Most of the other sources seem to play bit roles. One is “a senior adviser to the President” whose only comment is that Obama decided not to trust the Pakistanis with advance notice of the raid—which we already knew. Another— named—source is Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser, who does not evince any intimate knowledge of the raid itself.
The New Yorker also includes a few other officials who brief Schmidle on general background, like a “senior defense department official” explaining the overall relationship between Special Operations and CIA personnel, and a named former CIA counsel explaining that the Abottabad raid amounted to “a complete incorporation of JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] into a C.I.A. operation.”
That’s only slipped into the article, but it is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the piece, along with a brief mention of the way in which former Iraq/Afghan commander General David Petraeus has gone to CIA while CIA director Panetta has been made Defense Secretary. (For more on these important but confusing games of high-level musical chairs, which were not deeply scrutinized in the conventional media, see our WhoWhatWhy pieces here and here.)
This may sound too technical for your taste, but the takeaway point is that fundamental realignments are afoot in that vast, massively-funded, powerful and secretive part of the US government that is treated by the corporate press almost as if it does not exist. The tales of internal intrigue that we do not hear would begin to provide us with the real narratives that are not ours to have.
In the New Yorker piece, we do learn lots of things we did not know before—for example, that Special Ops considered tunneling in or coming in by foot rather than helicopter. We learn that CIA director Robert Gates wanted to drop massive bombs on the house. General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shared that view—Cartwright is one of the few who is directly identified as a source for Schmidle. That’s important stuff, and worth more than brief mention. And, once again, we need more effort to try and understand why we are being told these things.
“WE REALLY DIDN’T KNOW…WHAT WAS GOING ON”
About two-thirds of the article is a sort of scene-setter, a prologue to on-the-ground story we’ve all been waiting for. But when the big moment arrives, The New Yorker’s Schmidle instead punts:
Meanwhile, James, the squadron commander, had breached one wall, crossed a section of the yard covered with trellises, breached a second wall, and joined up with the SEALs from helo one, who were entering the ground floor of the house. What happened next is not precisely clear. “I can tell you that there was a time period of almost twenty to twenty-five minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on,” Panetta said later, on “PBS NewsHour.”
Until this moment, the operation had been monitored by dozens of defense, intelligence, and Administration officials watching the drone’s video feed. The SEALs were not wearing helmet cams, contrary to a widely cited report by CBS. None of them had any previous knowledge of the house’s floor plan, and they were further jostled by the awareness that they were possibly minutes away from ending the costliest manhunt in American history; as a result, some of their recollections—on which this account is based—may be imprecise and, thus, subject to dispute.
Schmidle claims that the SEALs’ “recollections—on which this account is based”—are subject to dispute. But as I’ve noted, the article is NOT based on their recollections, but on what some source claims to Schmidle were their recollections. Why the summary may be imprecise and thus subject to dispute after it has been filtered by a person controlling the scenario, must be asked. Perhaps this is why The New Yorker is not permitted to speak directly to the SEALs—because of what they could tell the magazine.
Now, killing the men who lived in the compound: First, the SEALs shot and killed the courier, who they say was armed, and his wife, who they say was not, when they emerged from the guesthouse. Then they killed the courier’s brother inside the main house, who they say was armed. Then they moved up the stairs:
…three SEALs marched up the stairs. Midway up, they saw bin Laden’s twenty-three-year-old son, Khalid, craning his neck around the corner. He then appeared at the top of the staircase with an AK-47. Khalid, who wore a white T-shirt with an overstretched neckline and had short hair and a clipped beard, fired down at the Americans. (The counterterrorism official claims that Khalid was unarmed, though still a threat worth taking seriously. “You have an adult male, late at night, in the dark, coming down the stairs at you in an Al Qaeda house—your assumption is that you’re encountering a hostile.”) At least two of the SEALs shot back and killed Khalid.
Ok, that’s pretty strange. First, Schmidle asserts that Khalid bin Laden was armed and fired with an AK-47. Then he quotes the “counterterrorism official” saying that Khalid was unarmed. Why does The New Yorker first run the “Khalid was armed” claim as a fact, and then include Brennan’s disclaimer? What’s really going on here, even from the New Yorker’s editorial standpoint?
Here’s another such instance: a dispute over where Osama was when they first saw him:
Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away. The SEAL instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft [codename for Osama]. (The counterterrorism official asserts that the SEAL first saw bin Laden on the landing, and fired but missed.)
What’s the purpose of all this? How good is intelligence work when they can’t reconstruct whether the singular focus of the operation was first spotted peeking out from a doorway, or standing on the landing above them?
And then one of the most interesting passages, about the kill:
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.)
Uh-oh. So who is this Special Operations officer? He is directly disputing the administration’s claim on what surely matters greatly—what were President Obama’s intentions here? And did they always plan to just ignore them? That The New Yorker just drops this in with no further analysis or context is, simply put, shocking.
It seems almost as if Panetta, Obama, and the people in the story who most closely approximate actual representatives of the public in a functioning democracy, were basically cut off from observing what went down that day—or from influencing what transpired.
Consider this statement from Panetta, not included in the New Yorker piece:
“Once those teams went into the compound I can tell you that there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on. And there were some very tense moments as we were waiting for information.
“We had some observation of the approach there, but we did not have direct flow of information as to the actual conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound.”
Panetta’s “lost 25 minutes” needs to be seen in the context of a man with civilian roots, notwithstanding two mid-60s years as a Lt. in military intel: Former Congressman, Clinton White House budget chief and Chief of Staff, credentials with civil rights and environment movements—a fellow with real distance from the true spook/military mojo.
Taken together, here’s what we have: President Obama did not know exactly what was going on. He did not decide that bin Laden should be shot. And he did not decide to dump his body in the ocean. The CIA and its Special Ops allies made all the decisions.
Then Brennan, the CIA’s man, put out the version that CIA wanted. (Keep in mind that, as noted earlier, CIA was really running the operation—with Special Ops under its direction).
What we’re looking at, folks, is the reality of democracy in America: A permanent entrenched covert establishment that marches to its own drummer or to drummers unknown. It’s exactly the kind of thing that never gets reported. Too scary. Too real. Better to dismiss this line of inquiry as too “conspiracy theory.”
If that sounds like hyperbole, let me add this rather significant consideration. It is the background of Nicholas Schmidle, the freelancer who wrote the New Yorker piece. It may give us insight into how he landed this extraordinary exclusive on this extraordinarily sensitive matter—information again, significantly, not shared by The New Yorker with its readers:
Schmidle’s father is Marine Lt. General Robert E. “Rooster” Schmidle Jr. General Schmidle served as Commanding Officer of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (Experimental)—that’s essentially Special Operations akin to Navy SEALs. In recent years, he was “assistant deputy commandant for Programs and Resources (Programs)”—where, among other things, he oversaw “irregular warfare.” (See various, including contract specs here on “Special Operations,” and picture caption here) In 2010, he moved into another piece of this, when Obama appointed him deputy commander, U.S. Cyber Command. Cumulatively, this makes the author’s father a very important man in precisely the sort of circles who care how the raid is publicly portrayed—and who would be quite intimate with some of the folks hunkering down with Obama in the Situation Room on the big day.
You can see a photo of Gen. Schmidle on a 2010 panel about “Warring Futures.” Event co-sponsors include Slate magazine and the New America Foundation, both of which, according to Nicholas Schmidle’s website, have also provided Schmidle’s son with an ongoing perch (with Slate giving him a platform for numerous articles from war zones and the foundation employing him as a Fellow.) These parallel relationships grow more disturbing with contemplation.
So let’s get back to the question, Who is driving this Ship of State?
First, consider this passage:
Obama returned to the White House at two o’clock, after playing nine holes of golf at Andrews Air Force Base. The Black Hawks departed from Jalalabad thirty minutes later. Just before four o’clock, Panetta announced to the group in the Situation Room that the helicopters were approaching Abbottabad.
To be really useful reporting here, rather than just meaningless “color”, we’d need some context. Was the golf game’s purpose to blow off steam at an especially tense time? Did Obama not think it important enough for him to be constantly present in the hours leading up to the raid? Is this typical of his schedule when huge things are happening? We desperately need a more realistic sense of what presidents do, how much they’re really in charge, or, instead, figureheads for unnamed individuals who make most of the critical decisions.
Here’s something just as strange: we are told the President took a commanding role in determining key operational tactics, but then didn’t seem interested in important details, after the fact.
Forty-five minutes after the Black Hawks departed, four MH-47 Chinooks launched from the same runway in Jalalabad. Two of them flew to the border, staying on the Afghan side; the other two proceeded into Pakistan. Deploying four Chinooks was a last-minute decision made after President Barack Obama said he wanted to feel assured that the Americans could “fight their way out of Pakistan.”
Now, consider the following climactic New Yorker account of Obama meeting with the squadron commander after it’s all over, with bin Laden dead and the troops home and safe. Schmidle decides to call the commander “James…the names of all the covert operators mentioned in this story have been changed.” The anecdote will feature a canine, one who, in true furry dog story fashion, had already been introduced early in the New Yorker piece, as “Cairo” (it’s not clear whether the dog’s name, too, was changed):
As James talked about the raid, he mentioned Cairo’s role. “There was a dog?” Obama interrupted. James nodded and said that Cairo was in an adjoining room, muzzled, at the request of the Secret Service.
“I want to meet that dog,” Obama said.
“If you want to meet the dog, Mr. President, I advise you to bring treats,” James joked. Obama went over to pet Cairo, but the dog’s muzzle was left on.
Here’s the ending:
Before the President returned to Washington, he posed for photographs with each team member and spoke with many of them, but he left one thing unsaid. He never asked who fired the kill shot, and the SEALs never volunteered to tell him.
Why did the president not want to ask for specifics on the most important parts of the operation—but seemed so interested in a dog that participated? While it is certainly plausible that this happened, we should be wary of one of the oldest p.r. tricks around—get people cooing over an animal, while the real action is elsewhere.
Certainly, Obama’s reaction differs dramatically from that of other previous presidents who always demanded detailed briefings and would have stayed on top of it all throughout—including fellow Democrats JFK, Carter and Clinton. At minimum, it shows a degree of caution or ceremony based upon a desire not to know too much—or an understanding that he may not ask. Does anyone doubt that Bill Clinton would have been on watch 24/7 during this operation, parsing legal, political and operational details throughout, and would have demanded to know who felled America’s most wanted?Nicholas Schmidle
Summing up about the reliability of this account, which is now likely to become required reading for every student in America, long into the future:
- It is based on reporting by a man who fails to disclose that he never spoke to the people who conducted the raid, or that his father has a long background himself running such operations (this even suggests the possibility that Nicholas Schmidle’s own father could have been one of those “unnamed sources.”)
- It seems to have depended heavily on trusting second-hand accounts by people with a poor track record for accurate summations, and an incentive to spin.
- The alleged decisions on killing bin Laden and disposing of his body lack credibility.
- The DNA evidence that the SEALs actually got their man is questionable.
- Though certain members of Congress say they have seen photos of the body (or, to be precise, a body), the rest of us have not seen anything.
- Promised photos of the ceremonial dumping of the body at sea have not materialized.
- The eyewitnesses from the house—including the surviving wives—have disappeared without comment.
We weren’t allowed to hear from the raid participants. And on August 6, seventeen Navy SEALs died when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. We’re told that fifteen of them came, amazingly, from the same SEAL Team 6 that carried out the Abbottabad raid—but that none of the dead were present for the raid. We do get to hear the stories of those men, and their names.
Of course, if any of those men had been in the Abbottabad raid—or knew anything about it of broad public interest, we’d be none the wiser—because, the only “reliable sources” still available (and featured by the New Yorker) are military and intelligence professionals, coming out of a long tradition of cover-ups and fabrications.
Meanwhile, we have this president, this one who according to the magazine article didn’t ask about the core issues—why this man was killed, who killed him, under whose orders, what would be done with the body.
Well, he may not want answers. But we ought to want them. Otherwise, it’s all just a game.
Tags: al-Qaeda, cia, counterrorism, jsoc, navy seals, nick turse, pentabon, Petraeus, secret army, socom, special operations, war on terror
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Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done… for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now.
In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans. Once “special” for being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.
After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it’s well known that U.S. Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the shadows.
Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of traveling — a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence — in about 60% of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged — provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.
The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military
Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which eight U.S. service members died, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in 1987. Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander as their advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of startling proportions. Made up of units from all the service branches, including the Army’s “Green Berets” and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, in addition to specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and even battlefield air-traffic controllers and special operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the United States’ most specialized and secret missions. These include assassinations, counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.
One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes American citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal “kill/capture” campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.”
This assassination program has been carried out by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force as well as via drone strikes as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In addition, the command operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.
From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations Command personnel have grown to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are career members of SOCOM; the rest have other military occupational specialties, but periodically cycle through the command. Growth has been exponential since September 11, 2001, as SOCOM’s baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually more than quadrupled to $9.8 billion in these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed abroad has also jumped four-fold. Further increases, and expanded operations, are on the horizon.
Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command — the last of the service branches to be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 — indicated, for instance, that he foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600. “I see them as a force someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we have on the battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000,” he said at a June breakfast with defense reporters in Washington. Long-term plans already call for the force to increase by 1,000.
During his recent Senate confirmation hearings, Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, the incoming SOCOM chief and outgoing head of JSOC (which he commanded during the bin Laden raid) endorsed a steady manpower growth rate of 3% to 5% a year, while also making a pitch for even more resources, including additional drones and the construction of new special operations facilities.
A former SEAL who still sometimes accompanies troops into the field, McRaven expressed a belief that, as conventional forces are drawn down in Afghanistan, special ops troops will take on an ever greater role. Iraq, he added, would benefit if elite U.S forces continued to conduct missions there past the December 2011 deadline for a total American troop withdrawal. He also assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that “as a former JSOC commander, I can tell you we were looking very hard at Yemen and at Somalia.”
During a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict Symposium earlier this year, Navy Admiral Eric Olson, the outgoing chief of Special Operations Command, pointed to a composite satellite image of the world at night. Before September 11, 2001, the lit portions of the planet — mostly the industrialized nations of the global north — were considered the key areas. “But the world changed over the last decade,” he said. “Our strategic focus has shifted largely to the south… certainly within the special operations community, as we deal with the emerging threats from the places where the lights aren’t.”
To that end, Olson launched “Project Lawrence,” an effort to increase cultural proficiencies — like advanced language training and better knowledge of local history and customs — for overseas operations. The program is, of course, named after the British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence (better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), who teamed up with Arab fighters to wage a guerrilla war in the Middle East during World War I. Mentioning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, and Indonesia, Olson added that SOCOM now needed “Lawrences of Wherever.”
While Olson made reference to only 51 countries of top concern to SOCOM, Col. Nye told me that on any given day, Special Operations forces are deployed in approximately 70 nations around the world. All of them, he hastened to add, at the request of the host government. According to testimony by Olson before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, approximately 85% of special operations troops deployed overseas are in 20 countries in the CENTCOM area of operations in the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. The others are scattered across the globe from South America to Southeast Asia, some in small numbers, others as larger contingents.
Special Operations Command won’t disclose exactly which countries its forces operate in. “We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s not advantageous for us to list where we’re at,” says Nye. “Not all host nations want it known, for whatever reasons they have — it may be internal, it may be regional.”
But it’s no secret (or at least a poorly kept one) that so-called black special operations troops, like the SEALs and Delta Force, are conducting kill/capture missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, while “white” forces like the Green Berets and Rangers are training indigenous partners as part of a worldwide secret war against al-Qaeda and other militant groups. In the Philippines, for instance, the U.S. spends $50 million a year on a 600-person contingent of Army Special Operations forces, Navy Seals, Air Force special operators, and others that carries out counterterrorist operations with Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.
Last year, as an analysis of SOCOM documents, open-source Pentagon information, and a database of Special Operations missions compiled by investigative journalist Tara McKelvey (for the Medill School of Journalism’s National Security Journalism Initiative) reveals, America’s most elite troops carried out joint-training exercises in Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Germany, Indonesia, Mali, Norway, Panama, and Poland. So far in 2011, similar training missions have been conducted in the Dominican Republic, Jordan, Romania, Senegal, South Korea, and Thailand, among other nations. In reality, Nye told me, training actually went on in almost every nation where Special Operations forces are deployed. “Of the 120 countries we visit by the end of the year, I would say the vast majority are training exercises in one fashion or another. They would be classified as training exercises.”
The Pentagon’s Power Elite
Once the neglected stepchildren of the military establishment, Special Operations forces have been growing exponentially not just in size and budget, but also in power and influence. Since 2002, SOCOM has been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces — like Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines — a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM. This year, without much fanfare, SOCOM also established its own Joint Acquisition Task Force, a cadre of equipment designers and acquisition specialists.
With control over budgeting, training, and equipping its force, powers usually reserved for departments (like the Department of the Army or the Department of the Navy), dedicated dollars in every Defense Department budget, and influential advocates in Congress, SOCOM is by now an exceptionally powerful player at the Pentagon. With real clout, it can win bureaucratic battles, purchase cutting-edge technology, and pursue fringe research like electronically beaming messages into people’s heads or developing stealth-like cloaking technologies for ground troops. Since 2001, SOCOM’s prime contracts awarded to small businesses — those that generally produce specialty equipment and weapons — have jumped six-fold.
Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, but operating out of theater commands spread out around the globe, including Hawaii, Germany, and South Korea, and active in the majority of countries on the planet, Special Operations Command is now a force unto itself. As outgoing SOCOM chief Olson put it earlier this year, SOCOM “is a microcosm of the Department of Defense, with ground, air, and maritime components, a global presence, and authorities and responsibilities that mirror the Military Departments, Military Services, and Defense Agencies.”
Tasked to coordinate all Pentagon planning against global terrorism networks and, as a result, closely connected to other government agencies, foreign militaries, and intelligence services, and armed with a vast inventory of stealthy helicopters, manned fixed-wing aircraft, heavily-armed drones, high-tech guns-a-go-go speedboats, specialized Humvees and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, as well as other state-of-the-art gear (with more on the way), SOCOM represents something new in the military. Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as “the president’s private army,” today JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.
In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans. Once “special” for being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.
That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while many of their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows. Typical of the vision they are pushing was this statement from Admiral Olson: “I am convinced that the forces… are the most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile, innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer.”
Recently at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, Olson offered up similarly gilded comments and some misleading information, too, claiming that U.S. Special Operations forces were operating in just 65 countries and engaged in combat in only two of them. When asked about drone strikes in Pakistan, he reportedly replied, “Are you talking about unattributed explosions?”
What he did let slip, however, was telling. He noted, for instance, that black operations like the bin Laden mission, with commandos conducting heliborne night raids, were now exceptionally common. A dozen or so are conducted every night, he said. Perhaps most illuminating, however, was an offhand remark about the size of SOCOM. Right now, he emphasized, U.S. Special Operations forces were approximately as large as Canada’s entire active duty military. In fact, the force is larger than the active duty militaries of many of the nations where America’s elite troops now operate each year, and it’s only set to grow larger.
Americans have yet to grapple with what it means to have a “special” force this large, this active, and this secret — and they are unlikely to begin to do so until more information is available. It just won’t be coming from Olson or his troops. “Our access [to foreign countries] depends on our ability to not talk about it,” he said in response to questions about SOCOM’s secrecy. When missions are subject to scrutiny like the bin Laden raid, he said, the elite troops object. The military’s secret military, said Olson, wants “to get back into the shadows and do what they came in to do.”
This article is a collaboration between Alternet.org and TomDispatch.com.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives and The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. His website is Nick Turse.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook.
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The bin Laden dividend May 13, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza & Middle East, Torture, War, War on Terror.
Tags: Afghanistan War, al-Qaeda, bin Laden, bin laden death, bin laden dividend, bin laden killing, civil liberties, foreign policy, glenn greenwald, Iraq war, jsoc, obama administration, permanant war, roger hollander, Taliban, unending war, war on terror, war on terrorism
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Roger’s comment: the so-called bin Laden dividend will result in reducing military commitment in Afghanistan and return to the American people their civil liberties? I will cover any and all bets that this will not occur and am giving 100-1 odds. Any takers? Anyone remember the Peace Dividend that was to accrue after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Well, I am sure that the close to seven hundred billion dollar proposed defense (sic) budget will indeed result in considerable dividends for the massive war profiteering industry. Is this country great, or what?
As but one example, this person (cheered on by Democratic Party commentators) — aside from falsely attributing to me numerous statements I never made, and thereafter refusing to post my response in the comment section — chided me for failing to realize that “Bin Laden’s death also makes things like closing the gulag at Guantanamo Bay seem likelier and more possible” and that it also “marks what could be the beginning of the end of many of the evils that Glenn Greenwald has consistently written about over the past decade, the opportunity to reassert the principles he determinedly wants to defend.” Andrew Sullivan argued that, in the wake of the bin Laden killing, “Obama will have the leverage to shift strategy drastically [in Afghanistan] in the coming year” and that the “average American” will conclude that “it is time to leave. With our heads high. And justice done.” Numerous commenters and others have similarly insisted that bin Laden’s death will spawn reversals in America’s War on Terror policies over the last decade.
It’s still far too early to know with any certainty what the outcome will be. There’s an inertia to our policies that is not going to vanish overnight. Still, it’s worth considering the numerous events that have occurred since bin Laden’s killing, as I think it gives at least some sense of the direction in which we’ll head:
The House Armed Services Committee is expected to take up a defense authorization bill on Wednesday that includes a new authorization for the government to use military force in the war on terrorism. . . .
The provision states that Congress “affirms” that “the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” and that the president is authorized to use military force — including detention without trial — of members and substantial supporters of those forces.
That language, which would codify into federal law a definition of the enemy that the Obama administration has adopted in defending against lawsuits filed by Guantánamo Bay detainees, would supplant the existing military force authorization that Congress passed overwhelmingly on Sept. 14, 2001. It instead named the enemy as the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Critics of [the] provision have reacted with alarm to what they see as an effort to entrench in a federal statute unambiguous authority for the executive branch to wage war against terrorists who are deemed associates of Al Qaeda but who lack a clear tie to the Sept. 11 attacks.
In a joint letter to Congress, about two dozen groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights — contended that the proposal amounted to an open-ended grant of authority to the executive branch, legitimizing an unending war from Yemen to Somalia and beyond.
“This monumental legislation — with a large-scale and practically irrevocable delegation of war power from Congress to the president — could commit the United States to a worldwide war without clear enemies, without any geographical boundaries” and “without any boundary relating to time or specific objective to be achieved,” the letter warned.
The article noted: “At least one civilian died when the missiles damaged the restaurant and a nearby home.”
The article noted: “A neighbor, who goes by the name of Ayatullah, says the girl was 12 years old.”
Inside the Pentagon, however, officials make the case that rather than using Bin Laden’s death as a justification for withdrawal, the United States should continue the current strategy in Afghanistan to secure additional gains and to further pressure the Taliban to come to the bargaining table for negotiations on political reconciliation.
We haven’t been doing all of these things — or any of them — because of Osama bin Laden. We’ve been doing this because it generates massive benefits for the country’s most powerful political and economic factions, and that hasn’t changed. Bin Laden was but one of the pretexts to justify it all. And with him gone (but definitely not forgotten), multiple other pretexts will quickly be created to take his place. Do the events since his killing leave any real doubt about that? As but one example, Marc Ambinder — in a hagiographic love letter to the secretive, glorious Joint Special Operations Command that oversaw the bin Laden killing — reveals as though it’s the most natural thing in the world:
JSOC has fought a silent but successful proxy war against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards — even, National Journal has learned, engaging directly with its soldiers in at least three countries. It has broken up nuclear-proliferation rings. JSOC has developed contingency plans to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the event of a coup in that nation. Its intelligence unit helps Colombian commandos dismantle lucrative drug rings that finance Hezbollah operations around the world. It has provided intelligence that has helped to break up domestic terrorism rings. Operating in tandem with other special forces and regular military battalions, JSOC eviscerated al-Qaida’s network in Iraq. It is nothing less than a secret army within the U.S. military.
We’re fighting a secret, undeclared, undiscussed hot war against Iran in multiple nations (of limited scope, at least for now), as well as numerous other hidden conflicts, using “a secret army within the U.S. military.” Does anyone believe any of this undemocratic, massive imperial machinery — and the liberty abridgments that inevitably accompany it — will be dismantled or even meaningfully reduced because Osama bin Laden is dead?
It is true that a few members of Congress are now advocating an Afghanistan withdrawal (though many were already war skeptics), and there is mixed polling on the war there (though the last thing that determines the end of an American war is public opinion). It would be superb — a serious cause for celebration — if the bin Laden killing, now that it’s a fait accompli, did produce these benefits, and it’s certainly worth exploiting that event to try to bring it about. And we may in fact be tired of our imperial adventure in Afghanistan and ready to re-direct resources to other countries. But America’s National Security State and its posture of Endless War was and remains motivated by far more than one man, or even Al Qaeda generally. There’s no will on the part of the political class to reverse it — quite the opposite — and there won’t be until the citizenry demands it.
UPDATE: According to Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the current military plans for “withdrawal” from Afghanistan calls for a whole 5,000 troops to be pulled out in July, followed by “as many as” another 5,000 be the end of the year (h/t David Mizner). Those plans were prepared prior to bin Laden’s killing, so it remains to be seen whether it changes substantially.
For those interested, the above-referenced blogger at Slacktivist, Fred Clark, has posted a further response, including explaining that long comments are often eaten by his system, an explanation I’ll accept.
Pure Kafka May 30, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Torture.
Tags: charlie savage, constitution, Criminal Justice, detainees, dia, glenn greenwald, Guantanamo, habeas corpus, indefinite detention, jsoc, military commissions, obama administration, Robert Gates, roger hollander, rule of law, scott horton, secret prisons
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By Glenn Greenwald, www.salon.com, May 29, 2010
The 48 Guantánamo Bay detainees whom the Obama administration has decided to keep holding without trial include several for whom there is no evidence of involvement in any specific terrorist plot, according to a report disclosed Friday.
The Report itself, in a matter-of-fact-tone, describes the individuals to be kept in a cage indefinitely without charges this way:
They can’t even be prosecuted in the due-process-abridging military commissions we invented out of whole cloth for those who can’t be convicted in a real court. In other words: of course we’ll provide a fair tribunal for proving your guilt — as long as we’re certain we can convict you — otherwise, we’ll just imprison you indefinitely without charges. All this even though 72% of Guantanamo detainees have been found to be wrongfully held since the Supreme Court compelled habeas hearings in 2008. And then there are the numerous Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for release but who will be kept in a cage anyway because we arbitrarily decreed that we’re not going to release even innocent prisoners back to Yemen.
Here’s one other passage from Savage’s article worth noting:
Of that group, the 48 whom the administration has designated for continued indefinite detention without trial have attracted the greatest controversy, in part because many Democrats sharply criticized that policy when the Bush administration created it after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Yes, I also vaguely recall the days when Democrats criticized the policy of imprisoning people indefinitely without charges. Harper‘s Scott Horton has more on all of this:
The Obama Administration came to Washington promising to clean up the Bush-era detentions policy and make it conform to the clear requirements of law. Then it seems to have decided that the law wasn’t so convenient and that simply providing for unbridled executive authority à la Bush-Cheney wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In terms of Washington power politics, that decision seems to have taken the form of letting Robert Gates make the call on all these issues. The two figures in the Administration who took the most credible stance for implementing the Obama campaign-era promises on detentions policy — Greg Craig and Phil Carter — resigned within a few weeks of one another, offering no believable reasons for departing. Then press reports began to appear about secret prisons, operated by JSOC and DIA and applying rules different from those applied in the “normal” DOD prisons, including plenty of torture-lite techniques under Appendix M of the Army Field Manual (PDF).
This passage in the National Security Strategy makes clear that Barack Obama and his team have abandoned the promises they made to reform detentions policy in the 2008 campaign. Even the commitment to stop torture does not appear to have been fully implemented, given the unaccountable practices of JSOC and the DIA in Afghanistan. Barack Obama’s belief in the rule of law apparently takes the back seat to Barack Obama’s belief in his own ability to make the right call as executive. History will judge whether his confidence in his own abilities is warranted, but the distortion of the constitutional system presents a continuing challenge for those who believe in the older and more fundamental principle of accountability under the law.
Yes — being as sentimental as I am — I, too, harbor nostalgia for that “older principle of accountability under the law”: you know, that idealized time when everyone was entitled to be charged with crimes before being imprisoned forever (rather than only those for whom prosecution was “feasible”) and when Presidents weren’t actually allowed to target American citizens for murder without at least some due process being granted. Anyway, did Sarah Palin post something to her Facebook page today? And isn’t that Glenn Beck crazy?
The Guantánamo “Suicides”: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle February 28, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
Tags: abdul jameel, al-Qaeda, alpha block, camp america, camp delta, carol krishardt, christopher penvose, cia, Criminal Justice, doj, eric holder, geneval convention, Guantanamo, harry harris, joseph hickman, jsoc, justice department, mani shaman al-utaybi, mark denbeaux, michael bumgarner, michael gordon, Muhammed Abdallah Salih, ncis, nuremberg, Pentagon, roger hollander, salah ahmed al-salami, scott horton, seton hall, seton hall law, Shaker Aamer, talal al-jahrani, Taliban, teresa mchenry, tony davila, torture, walling, War Crimes, waterboarding, Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani
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(Roger’s note: lately I am finding occasion often to cite President Truman’s classic dictum: “the buck stops here.” The article posted below – the longest I have ever posted on the blog – was published in Harper’s Magazine six weeks ago. Read it for yourself; you will see that it presents compelling evidence that four internees at the infamous Guantanamo concentration camp were murdered, and that their murder was covered up by authorities. This is not a fly-by-night marginal publication; this is Harper’s Magazine, a journal with 150 years of respectable mainstream publication. And yet. Any yet, the story has been virtually ignored by American mainstream media, and, even more shameful, there has been no indication coming from the government that it is interested in following up on the evidence proffered in the article. I am not naïve; I know that crimes do go uninvestigated and perpetrators not brought to justice — often for political reasons. However, this is too big to ignore; this is the alleged murder of prisoners by their keepers in a federal institution. How can the Attorney General, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and the President, who happens to be not only a lawyer but also a professor of constitutional law, how can these men, sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, turn a blind eye toward these events?)
By Scott Horton, Harper’s Magazine, January 18, 2010
1. “Asymmetrical Warfare”
When President Barack Obama took office last year, he promised to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great.” Toward that end, the president issued an executive order declaring that the extra-constitutional prison camp at Guantánamo Naval Base “shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.” Obama has failed to fulfill his promise. Some prisoners there are being charged with crimes, others released, but the date for closing the camp seems to recede steadily into the future. Furthermore, new evidence now emerging may entangle Obama’s young administration with crimes that occurred during the George W. Bush presidency, evidence that suggests the current administration failed to investigate seriously—and may even have continued—a cover-up of the possible homicides of three prisoners at Guantánamo in 2006.
Late on the evening of June 9 that year, three prisoners at Guantánamo died suddenly and violently. Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, from Yemen, was thirty-seven. Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, from Saudi Arabia, was thirty. Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, also from Saudi Arabia, was twenty-two, and had been imprisoned at Guantánamo since he was captured at the age of seventeen. None of the men had been charged with a crime, though all three had been engaged in hunger strikes to protest the conditions of their imprisonment. They were being held in a cell block, known as Alpha Block, reserved for particularly troublesome or high-value prisoners.
As news of the deaths emerged the following day, the camp quickly went into lockdown. The authorities ordered nearly all the reporters at Guantánamo to leave and those en route to turn back. The commander at Guantánamo, Rear Admiral Harry Harris, then declared the deaths “suicides.” In an unusual move, he also used the announcement to attack the dead men. “I believe this was not an act of desperation,” he said, “but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Reporters accepted the official account, and even lawyers for the prisoners appeared to believe that they had killed themselves. Only the prisoners’ families in Saudi Arabia and Yemen rejected the notion.
Two years later, the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which has primary investigative jurisdiction within the naval base, issued a report supporting the account originally advanced by Harris, now a vice-admiral in command of the Sixth Fleet. The Pentagon declined to make the NCIS report public, and only when pressed with Freedom of Information Act demands did it disclose parts of the report, some 1,700 pages of documents so heavily redacted as to be nearly incomprehensible. The NCIS documents were carefully cross-referenced and deciphered by students and faculty at the law school of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and their findings, released in November 2009, made clear why the Pentagon had been unwilling to make its conclusions public. The official story of the prisoners’ deaths was full of unacknowledged contradictions, and the centerpiece of the report—a reconstruction of the events—was simply unbelievable.
According to the NCIS documents, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.
Al-Zahrani, according to the documents, was discovered first, at 12:39 a.m., and taken by several Alpha Block guards to the camp’s detention medical clinic. No doctors could be found there, nor the phone number for one, so a clinic staffer dialed 911. During this time, other guards discovered Al-Utaybi. Still others discovered Al-Salami a few minutes later. Although rigor mortis had already set in—indicating that the men had been dead for at least two hours—the NCIS report claims that an unnamed medical officer attempted to resuscitate one of the men, and, in attempting to pry open his jaw, broke his teeth.
The fact that at least two of the prisoners also had cloth masks affixed to their faces, presumably to prevent the expulsion of the rags from their mouths, went unremarked by the NCIS, as did the fact that standard operating procedure at Camp Delta required the Navy guards on duty after midnight to “conduct a visual search” of each cell and detainee every ten minutes. The report claimed that the prisoners had hung sheets or blankets to hide their activities and shaped more sheets and pillows to look like bodies sleeping in their beds, but it did not explain where they were able to acquire so much fabric beyond their tightly controlled allotment, or why the Navy guards would allow such an obvious and immediately observable deviation from permitted behavior. Nor did the report explain how the dead men managed to hang undetected for more than two hours or why the Navy guards on duty, having for whatever reason so grievously failed in their duties, were never disciplined.
A separate report, the result of an “informal investigation” initiated by Admiral Harris, found that standard operating procedures were violated that night but concluded that disciplinary action was not warranted because of the “generally permissive environment” of the cell block and the numerous “concessions” that had been made with regard to the prisoners’ comfort, which “concessions” had resulted in a “general confusion by the guard and the JDG staff over many of the rules that applied to the guard force’s handling of the detainees.” According to Harris, even had standard operating procedures been followed, “it is possible that the detainees could have successfully committed suicide anyway.”
This is the official story, adopted by NCIS and Guantánamo command and reiterated by the Justice Department in formal pleadings, by the Defense Department in briefings and press releases, and by the State Department. Now four members of the Military Intelligence unit assigned to guard Camp Delta, including a decorated non-commissioned Army officer who was on duty as sergeant of the guard the night of June 9, have furnished an account dramatically at odds with the NCIS report—a report for which they were neither interviewed nor approached.
All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths. Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and men under his supervision have disclosed evidence in interviews with Harper’s Magazine that strongly suggests the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths. The guards’ accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred.
2. “Camp No”
The soldiers of the Maryland-based 629th Military Intelligence Battalion arrived at Guantánamo Naval Base in March 2006, assigned to provide security to Camp America, the sector of the base containing the five individual prison compounds that house the prisoners. Camp Delta was at the time the largest of these compounds, and within its walls were four smaller camps, numbered 1 through 4, which in turn were divided into cell blocks. Life at Camp America, as at all prisons, was and remains rigorously routinized for both prisoners and their jailers. Navy guards patrol the cell blocks and Army personnel control the exterior areas of the camp. All observed incidents must be logged. For the Army guards who man the towers and “sally ports” (access points), knowing who enters and leaves the camp, and exactly when, is the essence of their mission.
One of the new guards who arrived that March was Joe Hickman, then a sergeant. Hickman grew up in Baltimore and joined the Marines in 1983, at the age of nineteen. When I interviewed him in January at his home in Wisconsin, he told me he had been inspired to enlist by Ronald Reagan, “the greatest president we’ve ever had.” He worked in a military intelligence unit and was eventually tapped for Reagan’s Presidential Guard detail, an assignment reserved for model soldiers. When his four years were up, Hickman returned home, where he worked a series of security jobs—prison transport, executive protection, and eventually private investigations. After September 11 he decided to re-enlist, at thirty-seven, this time in the Army National Guard.
Hickman deployed to Guantánamo with his friend Specialist Tony Davila, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., and who had himself been a private investigator. When they arrived at Camp Delta, Davila told me, soldiers from the California National Guard unit they were relieving introduced him to some of the curiosities of the base. The most noteworthy of these was an unnamed and officially unacknowledged compound nestled out of sight between two plateaus about a mile north of Camp Delta, just outside Camp America’s perimeter. One day, while on patrol, Hickman and Davila came across the compound. It looked like other camps within Camp America, Davila said, only it had no guard towers and it was surrounded by concertina wire. They saw no activity, but Hickman guessed the place could house as many as eighty prisoners. One part of the compound, he said, had the same appearance as the interrogation centers at other prison camps.
The compound was not visible from the main road, and the access road was chained off. The Guardsman who told Davila about the compound had said, “This place does not exist,” and Hickman, who was frequently put in charge of security for all of Camp America, was not briefed about the site. Nevertheless, Davila said, other soldiers—many of whom were required to patrol the outside perimeter of Camp America—had seen the compound, and many speculated about its purpose. One theory was that it was being used by some of the non-uniformed government personnel who frequently showed up in the camps and were widely thought to be CIA agents.
A friend of Hickman’s had nicknamed the compound “Camp No,” the idea being that anyone who asked if it existed would be told, “No, it doesn’t.” He and Davila made a point of stopping by whenever they had the chance; once, Hickman said, he heard a “series of screams” from within the compound.
Hickman and his men also discovered that there were odd exceptions to their duties. Army guards were charged with searching and logging every vehicle that passed into and out of Camp Delta. “When John McCain came to the camp, he had to be logged in.” However, Hickman was instructed to make no record whatsoever of the movements of one vehicle in particular—a white van, dubbed the “paddy wagon,” that Navy guards used to transport heavily manacled prisoners, one at a time, into and out of Camp Delta. The van had no rear windows and contained a dog cage large enough to hold a single prisoner. Navy drivers, Hickman came to understand, would let the guards know they had a prisoner in the van by saying they were “delivering a pizza.”
The paddy wagon was used to transport prisoners to medical facilities and to meetings with their lawyers. But as Hickman monitored the paddy wagon’s movements from the guard tower at Camp Delta, he frequently saw it follow an unexpected route. When the van reached the first intersection to the east, instead of heading right—toward the other camps or toward one of the buildings where prisoners could meet with their lawyers—it made a left. In that direction, past the perimeter checkpoint known as ACP Roosevelt, there were only two destinations. One was a beach where soldiers went to swim. The other was Camp No.
3. “Lit up”
The night the prisoners died, Hickman was on duty as sergeant of the guard for Camp America’s exterior security force. When his twelve-hour shift began, at 6 p.m., he climbed the ladder to Tower 1, which stood twenty feet above Sally Port 1, the main entrance to Camp Delta. From there he had an excellent view of the camp, and much of the exterior perimeter as well. Later he would make his rounds.
Shortly after his shift began, Hickman noticed that someone had parked the paddy wagon near Camp 1, which houses Alpha Block. A moment later, two Navy guards emerged from Camp 1, escorting a prisoner. They put the prisoner into the back of the van and then left the camp through Sally Port 1, just below Hickman. He was under standing orders not to search the paddy wagon, so he just watched it as it headed east. He assumed the guards and their charge were bound for one of the other prison camps southeast of Camp Delta. But when the van reached the first intersection, instead of making a right, toward the other camps, it made the left, toward ACP Roosevelt and Camp No.
Twenty minutes later—about the amount of time needed for the trip to Camp No and back—the paddy wagon returned. This time Hickman paid closer attention. He couldn’t see the Navy guards’ faces, but from body size and uniform they appeared to be the same men.
The guards walked into Camp 1 and soon emerged with another prisoner. They departed Camp America, again in the direction of Camp No. Twenty minutes later, the van returned. Hickman, his curiosity piqued by the unusual flurry of activity and guessing that the guards might make another excursion, left Tower 1 and drove the three quarters of a mile to ACP Roosevelt to see exactly where the paddy wagon was headed. Shortly thereafter, the van passed through the checkpoint for the third time and then went another hundred yards, whereupon it turned toward Camp No, eliminating any question in Hickman’s mind about where it was going. All three prisoners would have reached their destination before 8 p.m.
Hickman says he saw nothing more of note until about 11:30 p.m, when he had returned to his preferred vantage at Tower 1. As he watched, the paddy wagon returned to Camp Delta. This time, however, the Navy guards did not get out of the van to enter Camp 1. Instead, they backed the vehicle up to the entrance of the medical clinic, as if to unload something.
At approximately 11:45 p.m.—nearly an hour before the NCIS claims the first body was discovered—Army Specialist Christopher Penvose, preparing for a midnight shift in Tower 1, was approached by a senior Navy NCO. Penvose told me that the NCO—who, following standard operating procedures, wore no name tag—appeared to be extremely agitated. He instructed Penvose to go immediately to the Camp Delta chow hall, identify a female senior petty officer who would be dining there, and relay to her a specific code word. Penvose did as he was instructed. The petty officer leapt up from her seat and immediately ran out of the chow hall.
Another thirty minutes passed. Then, as Hickman and Penvose both recall, Camp Delta suddenly “lit up”—stadium-style flood lights were turned on, and the camp became the scene of frenzied activity, filling with personnel in and out of uniform. Hickman headed to the clinic, which appeared to be the center of activity, to learn the reason for the commotion. He asked a distraught medical corpsman what had happened. She said three dead prisoners had been delivered to the clinic. Hickman recalled her saying that they had died because they had rags stuffed down their throats, and that one of them was severely bruised. Davila told me he spoke to Navy guards who said the men had died as the result of having rags stuffed down their throats.
Hickman was concerned that such a serious incident could have occurred in Camp 1 on his watch. He asked his tower guards what they had seen. Penvose, from his position at Tower 1, had an unobstructed view of the walkway between Camp 1 and the medical clinic—the path by which any prisoners who died at Camp 1 would be delivered to the clinic. Penvose told Hickman, and later confirmed to me, that he saw no prisoners being moved from Camp 1 to the clinic. In Tower 4 (it should be noted that Army and Navy guard-tower designations differ), another Army specialist, David Caroll, was forty-five yards from Alpha Block, the cell block within Camp 1 that had housed the three dead men. He also had an unobstructed view of the alleyway that connected the cell block itself to the clinic. He likewise reported to Hickman, and confirmed to me, that he had seen no prisoners transferred to the clinic that night, dead or alive.
4. “He Could Not Cry out”
The fate of a fourth prisoner, a forty-two-year-old Saudi Arabian named Shaker Aamer, may be related to that of the three prisoners who died on June 9. Aamer is married to a British woman and was in the process of becoming a British subject when he was captured in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2001. United States authorities insist that he carried a gun and served Osama bin Laden as an interpreter. Aamer denies this. At Guantánamo, Aamer’s fluency in English soon allowed him to play an important role in camp politics. According to both Aamer’s attorney and press accounts furnished by Army Colonel Michael Bumgarner, the Camp America commander, Aamer cooperated closely with Bumgarner in efforts to bring a 2005 hunger strike to an end. He persuaded several prisoners to break their strike for a while, but the settlement collapsed and soon afterward Aamer was sent to solitary confinement. Then, on the night the prisoners from Alpha Block died, Aamer says he himself was the victim of an act of striking brutality.
He described the events in detail to his lawyer, Zachary Katznelson, who was permitted to speak to him several weeks later. Katznelson recorded every detail of Aamer’s account and filed an affidavit with the federal district court in Washington, setting it out:
On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out.
The treatment Aamer describes is noteworthy because it produces excruciating pain without leaving lasting marks. Still, the fact that Aamer had his airway cut off and a mask put over his face “so he could not cry out” is alarming. This is the same technique that appears to have been used on the three deceased prisoners.
The United Kingdom has pressed aggressively for the return of British subjects and persons of interest. Every individual requested by the British has been turned over, with one exception: Shaker Aamer. In denying this request, U.S. authorities have cited unelaborated “security” concerns. There is no suggestion that the Americans intend to charge him before a military commission, or in a federal criminal court, and, indeed, they have no meaningful evidence linking him to any crime. American authorities may be concerned that Aamer, if released, could provide evidence against them in criminal investigations. This evidence would include what he experienced on June 9, 2006, and during his 2002 detention in Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield, where he says he was subjected to a procedure in which his head was smashed repeatedly against a wall. This torture technique, called “walling” in CIA documents, was expressly approved at a later date by the Department of Justice.
5. “You All Know”
By dawn, the news had circulated through Camp America that three prisoners had committed suicide by swallowing rags. Colonel Bumgarner called a meeting of the guards, and at 7:00 a.m. at least fifty soldiers and sailors gathered at Camp America’s open-air theater.
Bumgarner was known as an eccentric commander. Hickman marveled, for instance, at the colonel’s insistence that his staff line up and salute him, to music selections that included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the reggae hit “Bad Boys,” as he entered the command center. This morning, however, Hickman thought Bumgarner seemed unusually nervous and clipped.
According to independent interviews with soldiers who witnessed the speech, Bumgarner told his audience that “you all know” three prisoners in the Alpha Block at Camp 1 committed suicide during the night by swallowing rags, causing them to choke to death. This was a surprise to no one—even servicemen who had not worked the night before had heard about the rags. But then Bumgarner told those assembled that the media would report something different. It would report that the three prisoners had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells. It was important, he said, that servicemen make no comments or suggestions that in any way undermined the official report. He reminded the soldiers and sailors that their phone and email communications were being monitored. The meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes. (Bumgarner has not responded to requests for comment.)
That evening, Bumgarner’s boss, Admiral Harris, read a statement to reporters:
An alert, professional guard noticed something out of the ordinary in the cell of one of the detainees. The guard’s response was swift and professional to secure the area and check on the status of the detainee. When it was apparent that the detainee had hung himself, the guard force and medical teams reacted quickly to attempt to save the detainee’s life. The detainee was unresponsive and not breathing. [The] guard force began to check on the health and welfare of other detainees. Two detainees in their cells had also hung themselves.
When he finished praising the guards and the medics, Harris—in a notable departure from traditional military decorum—launched his attack on the men who had died on his watch. “They have no regard for human life,” Harris said, “neither ours nor their own.” A Pentagon press release issued soon after described the dead men, who had been accused of no crime, as Al Qaeda or Taliban operatives. Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Gordon, the Pentagon’s chief press officer, went still further, telling the Guardian’s David Rose, “These guys were fanatics like the Nazis, Hitlerites, or the Ku Klux Klan, the people they tried at Nuremberg.” The Pentagon was not the only U.S. government agency to participate in the assault. Colleen Graffy, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the BBC that “taking their own lives was not necessary, but it certainly is a good P.R. move.”
The same day the three prisoners died, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly completed a reporting trip to the naval base, where, according to his account on The O’Reilly Factor, the Joint Army Navy Task Force “granted the Factor near total access to the prison.” Although the Pentagon began turning away reporters after news of the deaths had emerged, two reporters from the Charlotte Observer, Michael Gordon and photographer Todd Sumlin, had arrived that morning to work on a profile of Bumgarner, and the colonel invited them to shadow him as he dealt with the crisis. A Pentagon spokesman later told the Observer it had been expecting a “puff piece,” which is why, according to the Observer, “Bumgarner and his superiors on the base” had given them permission to remain.
Bumgarner quickly returned to his theatrical ways. As Gordon reported in the June 13, 2006, issue of the Observer, the colonel seemed to enjoy putting on a show. “Right now, we are at ground zero,” Bumgarner told his officer staff during a June 12 meeting. Referring to the naval base’s prisoners, he said, “There is not a trustworthy son of a bitch in the entire bunch.” In the same article, Gordon also noted what he had learned about the deaths. The suicides had occurred “in three cells on the same block,” he reported. The prisoners had “hanged themselves with strips of knotted cloth taken from clothing and sheets,” after shaping their pillows and blankets to look like sleeping bodies. “And Bumgarner said,” Gordon reported, “each had a ball of cloth in their mouth either for choking or muffling their voices.”
Something about Bumgarner’s Observer interview seemed to have set off an alarm far up the chain of command. No sooner was Gordon’s story in print than Bumgarner was called to Admiral Harris’s office. As Bumgarner would tell Gordon in a follow-up profile three months later, Harris was holding up a copy of the Observer: “This,” said the admiral to Bumgarner, “could get me relieved.” (Harris did not respond to requests for comment.) That same day, an investigation was launched to determine whether classified information had been leaked from Guantánamo. Bumgarner was suspended.
Less than a week after the appearance of the Observer stories, Davila and Hickman each heard separately from friends in the Navy and in the military police that FBI agents had raided the colonel’s quarters. The MPs understood from their FBI contacts that there was concern over the possibility that Bumgarner had taken home some classified materials and was planning to share them with the media or to use them in writing a book.
On June 27, two weeks later, Gordon’s Observer colleague Scott Dodd reported: “A brigadier general determined that ‘unclassified sensitive information’ was revealed to the public in the days after the June 10 suicides.” Harris, according to the article, had already ordered “appropriate administrative action.” Bumgarner soon left Guantánamo for a new post in Missouri. He now serves as an ROTC instructor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Bumgarner’s comments appear to be at odds with the official Pentagon narrative on only one point: that the deaths had involved cloth being stuffed into the prisoners’ mouths. The involvement of the FBI suggested that more was at issue.
6. “An Unmistakable Message”
On June 10, NCIS investigators began interviewing the Navy guards in charge of Alpha Block, but after the Pentagon committed itself to the suicide narrative, they appear to have stopped. On June 14, the interviews resumed, and the NCIS informed at least six Navy guards that they were suspected of making false statements or failing to obey direct orders. No disciplinary action ever followed.
The investigators conducted interviews with guards, medics, prisoners, and officers. As the Seton Hall researchers note, however, nothing in the NCIS report suggests that the investigators secured or reviewed the duty roster, the prisoner-transfer book, the pass-on book, the records of phone and radio communications, or footage from the camera that continuously monitored activity in the hallways, all of which could have helped them authoritatively reconstruct the events of that evening.
The NCIS did, however, move swiftly to seize every piece of paper possessed by every single prisoner in Camp America, some 1,065 pounds of material, much of it privileged attorney-client correspondence. Several weeks later, authorities sought an after-the-fact justification. The Justice Department—bolstered by sworn statements from Admiral Harris and from Carol Kisthardt, the special agent in charge of the NCIS investigation—claimed in a U.S. district court that the seizure was appropriate because there had been a conspiracy among the prisoners to commit suicide. Justice further claimed that investigators had found suicide notes and argued that the attorney-client materials were being used to pass communications among the prisoners.
David Remes, a lawyer who opposed the Justice Department’s efforts, explained the practical effect of the government’s maneuvers. The seizure, he said, “sent an unmistakable message to the prisoners that they could not expect their communications with their lawyers to remain confidential. The Justice Department defended the massive breach of the attorney-client privilege on the account of the deaths on June 9 and the asserted need to investigate them.”
If the “suicides” were a form of warfare between the prisoners and the Bush Administration, as Admiral Harris charged, it was the latter that quickly turned the war to its advantage.
7. “Yasser Couldn’t Even Make a Sandwich!”
When I asked Talal Al-Zahrani what he thought had happened to his son, he was direct. “They snatched my seventeen-year-old son for a bounty payment,” he said. “They took him to Guantánamo and held him prisoner for five years. They tortured him. Then they killed him and returned him to me in a box, cut up.”
Al-Zahrani was a brigadier general in the Saudi police. He dismissed the Pentagon’s claims, as well as the investigation that supported them. Yasser, he said, was a young man who loved to play soccer and didn’t care for politics. The Pentagon claimed that Yasser’s frontline battle experience came from his having been a cook in a Taliban camp. Al-Zahrani said that this was preposterous: “A cook? Yasser couldn’t even make a sandwich!”
“Yasser wasn’t guilty of anything,” Al-Zahrani said. “He knew that. He firmly believed he would be heading home soon. Why would he commit suicide?” The evidence supports this argument. Hyperbolic U.S. government statements at the time of Yasser Al-Zahrani’s death masked the fact that his case had been reviewed and that he was, in fact, on a list of prisoners to be sent home. I had shown Al-Zahrani the letter that the government says was Yasser’s suicide note and asked him whether he recognized his son’s handwriting. He had never seen the note before, he answered, and no U.S. official had ever asked him about it. After studying the note carefully, he said, “This is a forgery.”
Also returned to Saudi Arabia was the body of Mani Al-Utaybi. Orphaned in his youth, Mani grew up in his uncle’s home in the small town of Dawadmi. I spoke to one of the many cousins who shared that home, Faris Al-Utaybi. Mani, said Faris, had gone to Baluchistan—a rural, tribal area that straddles Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—to do humanitarian work, and someone there had sold him to the Americans for $5,000. He said that Mani was a peaceful man who would harm no one. Indeed, U.S. authorities had decided to release Al-Utaybi and return him to Saudi Arabia. When he died, he was just a few weeks shy of his transfer.
Salah Al-Salami was seized in March 2002, when Pakistani authorities raided a residence in Karachi believed to have been used as a safe house by Abu Zubaydah and took into custody all who were living there at the time. A Yemeni, Al-Salami had quit his job and moved to Pakistan with only $400 in his pocket. The U.S. suspicions against him rested almost entirely on the fact that he had taken lodgings, with other students, in a boarding house that terrorists might at one point have used. There was no direct evidence linking him either to Al Qaeda or to the Taliban. On August 22, 2008, the Washington Post quoted from a previously secret review of his case: “There is no credible information to suggest [Al-Salami] received terrorist related training or is a member of the Al Qaeda network.” All that stood in the way of Al-Salami’s release from Guantánamo were difficult diplomatic relations between the United States and Yemen.
8. “The Removal of the Neck Organs”
Military pathologists connected with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology arranged immediate autopsies of the three dead prisoners, without securing the permission of the men’s families. The identities and findings of the pathologists remain shrouded in extraordinary secrecy, but the timing of the autopsies suggests that medical personnel stationed at Guantánamo may have undertaken the procedure without waiting for the arrival of an experienced medical examiner from the United States. Each of the heavily redacted autopsy reports states unequivocally that “the manner of death is suicide” and, more specifically, that the prisoner died of “hanging.” Each of the reports describes ligatures that were found wrapped around the prisoner’s neck, as well as circumferential dried abrasion furrows imprinted with the very fine weave pattern of the ligature fabric and forming an inverted “V” on the back of the head. This condition, the anonymous pathologists state, is consistent with that of a hanging victim.
The pathologists place the time of death “at least a couple of hours” before the bodies were discovered, which would be sometime before 10:30 p.m. on June 9. Additionally, the autopsy of Al-Salami states that his hyoid bone was broken, a phenomenon usually associated with manual strangulation, not hanging.
The report asserts that the hyoid was broken “during the removal of the neck organs.” An odd admission, given that these are the very body parts—the larynx, the hyoid bone, and the thyroid cartilage—that would have been essential to determining whether death occurred from hanging, from strangulation, or from choking. These parts remained missing when the men’s families finally received their bodies.
All the families requested independent autopsies. The Saudi prisoners were examined by Saeed Al-Ghamdy, a pathologist based in Saudi Arabia. Al-Salami, from Yemen, was inspected by Patrice Mangin, a pathologist based in Switzerland. Both pathologists noted the removal of the structure that would have been the natural focus of the autopsy: the throat. Both pathologists contacted the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, requesting the missing body parts and more information about the previous autopsies. The institute did not respond to their requests or queries. (It also did not respond to a series of calls I placed requesting information and comment.)
When Al-Zahrani viewed his son’s corpse, he saw evidence of a homicide. “There was a major blow to the head on the right side,” he said. “There was evidence of torture on the upper torso, and on the palms of his hand. There were needle marks on his right arm and on his left arm.” None of these details are noted in the U.S. autopsy report. “I am a law enforcement professional,” Al-Zahrani said. “I know what to look for when examining a body.”
Mangin, for his part, expressed particular concern about Al-Salami’s mouth and throat, where he saw “a blunt trauma carried out against the oral region.” The U.S. autopsy report mentions an effort at resuscitation, but this, in Mangin’s view, did not explain the severity of the injuries. He also noted that some of the marks on the neck were not those he would normally associate with hanging.
9. “I Know Some Things You Don’t”
Sergeant Joe Hickman’s tour of duty, which ended in March 2007, was distinguished: he was selected as Guantánamo’s “NCO of the Quarter” and was given a commendation medal. When he returned to the United States, he was promoted to staff sergeant and worked in Maryland as an Army recruiter before eventually settling in Wisconsin. But he could not forget what he had seen at Guantánamo. When Barack Obama became president, Hickman decided to act. “I thought that with a new administration and new ideas I could actually come forward, ” he said. “It was haunting me.”
Hickman had seen a 2006 report from Seton Hall University Law School dealing with the deaths of the three prisoners, and he followed their subsequent work. After Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, he called Mark Denbeaux, the professor who had led the Seton Hall team. “I learned something from your report,” he said, “but I know some things you don’t.”
Within two days, Hickman was in Newark, meeting with Denbeaux. Also at the meeting was Denbeaux’s son and sometime co-editor, Josh, a private attorney. Josh Denbeaux agreed to represent Hickman, who was concerned that he could go to prison if he disobeyed Colonel Bumgarner’s order not to speak out, even if that order was itself illegal. Hickman did not want to speak to the press. On the other hand, he felt that “silence was just wrong.”
The two lawyers quickly made arrangements for Hickman to speak instead with authorities in Washington, D.C. On February 2, they had meetings on Capitol Hill and with the Department of Justice. The meeting with Justice was an odd one. The father-and-son legal team were met by Rita Glavin, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; John Morton, who was soon to become an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security; and Steven Fagell, counselor to the head of the Criminal Division. Fagell had been, along with the new attorney general, Eric Holder, a partner at the elite Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, and was widely viewed as “Holder’s eyes” in the Criminal Division.
For more than an hour, the two lawyers described what Hickman had seen: the existence of Camp No, the transportation of the three prisoners, the van’s arrival at the medical clinic, the lack of evidence that any bodies had ever been removed from Alpha Block, and so on. The officials listened intently and asked many questions. The Denbeauxes said they could provide a list of witnesses who would corroborate every aspect of their account. At the end of the meeting, Mark Denbeaux recalled, the officials specifically thanked the lawyers for not speaking to reporters first and for “doing it the right way.”
Two days later, another Justice Department official, Teresa McHenry, head of the Criminal Division’s Domestic Security Section, called Mark Denbeaux and said that she was heading up an investigation and wanted to meet directly with his client. She went to New Jersey to do so. Hickman then reviewed the basic facts and furnished McHenry with the promised list of corroborating witnesses and details on how they could be contacted.
The Denbeauxes did not hear from anyone at the Justice Department for at least two months. Then, in April, an FBI agent called to say she did not have the list of contacts. She asked if this document could be provided again. It was. Shortly thereafter,
Fagell [see update] and two FBI agents interviewed Davila, who had left the Army, in Columbia, South Carolina. Fagell asked Davila if he was prepared to travel to Guantánamo to identify the locations of various sites. He said he was. “It seemed like they were interested,” Davila told me. “Then I never heard from them again.”
Several more months passed, and Hickman and his lawyers became increasingly concerned that nothing was going to happen. On October 27, 2009, they resumed dealings with Congress that they had initiated on February 2 and then broken off at the Justice Department’s request; they were also in contact with ABC News. Two days later, Teresa McHenry called Mark Denbeaux and asked whether he had gone to Congress and ABC News about the matter. “I said that I had,” Denbeaux told me. He asked her, “Was there anything wrong with that?” McHenry then suggested that the investigation was finished. Denbeaux reminded her that she had yet to interview some of the corroborating witnesses. “There are a few small things to do,” Denbeaux says McHenry answered. “Then it will be finished.”
Specialist Christopher Penvose told me that on October 30, the day following the conversation between Mark Denbeaux and Teresa McHenry,
McHenry [see update] showed up at Penvose’s home in south Baltimore with some FBI agents. She had a “few questions,” she told him. Investigators working with her soon contacted two other witnesses.
On November 2, 2009, McHenry called Mark Denbeaux to tell him that the Justice Department’s investigation was being closed. “It was a strange conversation,” Denbeaux recalled. McHenry explained that “the gist of Sergeant Hickman’s information could not be confirmed.” But when Denbeaux asked what that “gist” actually was, McHenry declined to say. She just reiterated that Hickman’s conclusions “appeared” to be unsupported. Denbeaux asked what conclusions exactly were unsupported. McHenry refused to say.
10. “They Accomplished Nothing”
One of the most intriguing aspects of this case concerns the use of Camp No. Under George W. Bush, the CIA created an archipelago of secret detention centers that spanned the globe, and authorities at these sites deployed an array of Justice Department–sanctioned torture techniques—including waterboarding, which often entails inserting cloth into the subject’s mouth—on prisoners they deemed to be involved in terrorism. The presence of a black site at Guantánamo has long been a subject of speculation among lawyers and human-rights activists, and the experience of Sergeant Hickman and other Guantánamo guards compels us to ask whether the three prisoners who died on June 9 were being interrogated by the CIA, and whether their deaths resulted from the grueling techniques the Justice Department had approved for the agency’s use—or from other tortures lacking that sanction.
Complicating these questions is the fact that Camp No might have been controlled by another authority, the Joint Special Operations Command, which Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had hoped to transform into a Pentagon version of the CIA. Under Rumsfeld’s direction, JSOC began to take on many tasks traditionally handled by the CIA, including the housing and interrogation of prisoners at black sites around the world. The Pentagon recently acknowledged the existence of one such JSOC black site, located at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and other suspected sites, such as Camp Nama in Baghdad, have been carefully documented by human-rights researchers.
In a Senate Armed Services Committee report on torture released last year, the sections about Guantánamo were significantly redacted. The position and circumstances of these deletions point to a significant JSOC interrogation program at the base. (It should be noted that Obama’s order last year to close other secret detention camps was narrowly worded to apply only to the CIA.)
Regardless of whether Camp No belonged to the CIA or JSOC, the Justice Department has plenty of its own secrets to protect. The department would seem to have been involved in the cover-up from the first days, when FBI agents stormed Colonel Bumgarner’s quarters. This was unusual for two reasons. When Pentagon officials engage in a leak investigation, they generally use military investigators. They rarely turn to the FBI, because they cannot control the actions of a civilian agency. Moreover, when the FBI does open an investigation, it nearly always does so with great discretion. The Bumgarner investigation was widely telegraphed, though, and seemed intended to send a message to the military personnel at Camp Delta: Talk about what happened at your own risk. All of which suggests it was not the Pentagon so much as the White House that hoped to suppress the truth.
In the weeks following the 2006 deaths, the Justice Department decided to use the suicide narrative as leverage against the Guantánamo prisoners and their troublesome lawyers, who were pressing the government to justify its long-term imprisonment of their clients. After the NCIS seized thousands of pages of privileged communications, the Justice Department went to court to defend the action. It argued that such steps were warranted by the extraordinary facts surrounding the June 9 “suicides.” U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson gave the Justice Department a sympathetic hearing, and he ruled in its favor, but he also noted a curious aspect of the government’s presentation: its “citations supporting the fact of the suicides” were all drawn from media accounts. Why had the Justice Department lawyers who argued the case gone to such lengths to avoid making any statement under oath about the suicides? Did they do so in order to deceive the court? If so, they could face disciplinary proceedings or disbarment.
The Justice Department also faces questions about its larger role in creating the circumstances that led to the use of so-called enhanced interrogation and restraint techniques at Guantánamo and elsewhere. In 2006, the use of a gagging restraint had already been connected to the death on January 9, 2004, of an Iraqi prisoner, Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Jameel, in the custody of the Army Special Forces. And the bodies of the three men who died at Guantánamo showed signs of torture, including hemorrhages, needle marks, and significant bruising. The removal of their throats made it difficult to determine whether they were already dead when their bodies were suspended by a noose. The Justice Department itself had been deeply involved in the process of approving and setting the conditions for the use of torture techniques, issuing a long series of memoranda that CIA agents and others could use to defend themselves against any subsequent criminal prosecution.
Teresa McHenry, the investigator charged with accounting for the deaths of the three men at Guantánamo, has firsthand knowledge of the Justice Department’s role in auditing such techniques, having served at the Justice Department under Bush and having participated in the preparation of at least one of those memos. As a former war-crimes prosecutor, McHenry knows full well that government officials who attempt to cover up crimes perpetrated against prisoners in wartime face prosecution under the doctrine of command responsibility. (McHenry declined to clarify the role she played in drafting the memos.)
As retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy, told me, “Filing false reports and making false statements is bad enough, but if a homicide occurs and officials up the chain of command attempt to cover it up, they face serious criminal liability. They may even be viewed as accessories after the fact in the original crime.” With command authority comes command responsibility, he said. “If the heart of the military is obeying orders down the chain of command, then its soul is accountability up the chain. You can’t demand the former without the latter.”
The Justice Department thus faced a dilemma; it could do the politically convenient thing, which was to find no justification for a thorough investigation, leave the NCIS conclusions in place, and hope that the public and the news media would obey the Obama Administration’s dictum to “look forward, not backward”; or it could pursue a course of action that would implicate the Bush Justice Department in a cover-up of possible homicides.
Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. In June 2009, six months after Barack Obama took office, one of them, a thirty-one-year-old Yemeni named , was found dead in his cell. The exact circumstances of his death, like those of the deaths of the three men from Alpha Block, remain uncertain. Those charged with accounting for what happened—the prison command, the civilian and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and ultimately the attorney general himself—all face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence. Thus far, their choice has been unanimous.
Not everyone who is involved in this matter views it from a political perspective, of course. General Al-Zahrani grieves for his son, but at the end of a lengthy interview he paused and his thoughts turned elsewhere. “The truth is what matters,” he said. “They practiced every form of torture on my son and on many others as well. What was the result? What facts did they find? They found nothing. They learned nothing. They accomplished nothing.”
Presidential Assassinations of US Citizens January 27, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Human Rights, Iraq and Afghanistan, War, War on Terror.
Tags: al-Qaeda, Anwar al-Awlaki, assassination, battlefield, cia, civilian casualties, constitution, democracy, geneva conventions, glenn greenwald, Guantanamo, habaes corpus, high value targets, hit list, jsoc, president obama, roger hollander, rule of law, terrorism, u.s. citizens, war, war on terror, yemen
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The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest today reports that “U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people.” That’s no surprise, of course, as Yemen is now another predominantly Muslim country (along with Somalia and Pakistan) in which our military is secretly involved to some unknown degree in combat operations without any declaration of war, without any public debate, and arguably (though not clearly) without any Congressional authorization. The exact role played by the U.S. in the late-December missile attacks in Yemen, which killed numerous civilians, is still unknown.
But buried in Priest’s article is her revelation that American citizens are now being placed on a secret “hit list” of people whom the President has personally authorized to be killed:
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. . . .
The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.”
Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals,” whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including [New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar] Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi’s name has now been added.
Indeed, Aulaqi was clearly one of the prime targets of the late-December missile strikes in Yemen, as anonymous officials excitedly announced — falsely, as it turns out — that he was killed in one of those strikes.
Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?
Obviously, if U.S. forces are fighting on an actual battlefield, then they (like everyone else) have the right to kill combatants actively fighting against them, including American citizens. That’s just the essence of war. That’s why it’s permissible to kill a combatant engaged on a real battlefield in a war zone but not, say, torture them once they’re captured and helplessly detained. But combat is not what we’re talking about here. The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” as the entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.
As we well know from the last eight years, the authoritarians among us in both parties will, by definition, reflexively justify this conduct by insisting that the assassination targets are Terrorists and therefore deserve death. What they actually mean, however, is that the U.S. Government has accused them of being Terrorists, which (except in the mind of an authoritarian) is not the same thing as being a Terrorist. Numerous Guantanamo detainees accused by the U.S. Government of being Terrorists have turned out to be completely innocent, and the vast majority of federal judges who provided habeas review to detainees have found an almost complete lack of evidence to justify the accusations against them, and thus ordered them released. That includes scores of detainees held while the U.S. Government insisted that only the “Worst of the Worst” remained at the camp.
No evidence should be required for rational people to avoid assuming that Government accusations are inherently true, but for those do need it, there is a mountain of evidence proving that. And in this case, Anwar Aulaqi — who, despite his name and religion, is every bit as much of an American citizen as Scott Brown and his daughters are — has a family who vigorously denies that he is a Terrorist and is “pleading” with the U.S. Government not to murder their American son:
His anguish apparent, the father of Anwar al-Awlaki told CNN that his son is not a member of al Qaeda and is not hiding out with terrorists in southern Yemen.
“I am now afraid of what they will do with my son, he’s not Osama Bin Laden, they want to make something out of him that he’s not,” said Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. . . .
“I will do my best to convince my son to do this (surrender), to come back but they are not giving me time, they want to kill my son. How can the American government kill one of their own citizens? This is a legal issue that needs to be answered,” he said.
“If they give me time I can have some contact with my son but the problem is they are not giving me time,” he said.
Who knows what the truth is here? That’s why we have what are called “trials” — or at least some process — before we assume that government accusations are true and then mete out punishment accordingly. As Marcy Wheeler notes, the U.S. Government has not only repeatedly made false accusations of Terrorism against foreign nationals in the past, but against U.S. citizens as well. She observes: “I guess the tenuousness of those ties don’t really matter, when the President can dial up the assassination of an American citizen.”
A 1981 Executive Order signed by Ronald Reagan provides: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Before the Geneva Conventions were first enacted, Abraham Lincoln — in the middle of the Civil War — directed Francis Lieber to articulate rules of conduct for war, and those were then incorporated into General Order 100, signed by Lincoln in April, 1863. Here is part of what it provided, in Section IX, entitled “Assassinations”:
The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such intentional outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage. The sternest retaliation should follow the murder committed in consequence of such proclamation, made by whatever authority. Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism.
Can anyone remotely reconcile that righteous proclamation what the Obama administraiton is doing? And more generally, what legal basis exists for the President to unilaterally compile hit lists of American citizens he wants to be killed?
What’s most striking of all is that it was recently revealed that, in Afghanistan, the U.S. had compiled a “hit list” of Afghan citizens it suspects of being drug traffickers or somehow associated with the Taliban, in order to target them for assassination. When that hit list was revealed, Afghan officials “fiercely” objected on the ground that it violates due process and undermines the rule of law to murder people without trials:
Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister for counternarcotics efforts, praised U.S. and British special forces for their help recently in destroying drug labs and stashes of opium. But he said he worried that foreign troops would now act on their own to kill suspected drug lords, based on secret evidence, instead of handing them over for trial.
“They should respect our law, our constitution and our legal codes,” Daud said. “We have a commitment to arrest these people on our own” . . . .
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, said that he had long urged the Pentagon and its NATO allies to crack down on drug smugglers and suppliers, and that he was glad that the military alliance had finally agreed to provide operational support for Afghan counternarcotics agents. But he said foreign troops needed to avoid the temptation to hunt down and kill traffickers on their own.
“There is a constitutional problem here. A person is innocent unless proven guilty,” he said. “If you go off to kill or capture them, how do you prove that they are really guilty in terms of legal process?” . . .
So we’re in Afghanistan to teach them about democracy, the rule of law, and basic precepts of Western justice. Meanwhile, Afghan officials vehemently object to the lawless, due-process-free assassination “hit list” of their citizens based on the unchecked say-so of the U.S. Government, and have to lecture us on the rule of law and Constitutional constraints. By stark contrast, our own Government, our media and our citizenry appear to find nothing wrong whatsoever with lawless assassinations aimed at our own citizens. And the most glaring question for those who critized Bush/Cheney detention policies but want to defend this: how could anyone possibly object to imprisoning foreign nationals without charges or due process at Guantanamo while approving of the assassination of U.S. citizens without any charges or due process?
© 2010 Salon.com
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.
Blackwater’s Secret War in Pakistan November 24, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Pakistan, War.
Tags: al-Qaeda, bagram, bagram air base, bin Laden, Blackwater, christina rocca, cia, counterterrorism, Dick Cheney, drone missiles, erik prince, geneva convention, jeremy scahill, jsoc, kestral, kestral logistics, lawrence wilkerson, leon paneta, mcchrystal, mercenaries, military contractors, military intelligence, mullah mohammed omar, pakistan, pakistan war, pakistani government, paramilitaries, paramilitary, predator missiles, roger hollander, roger noriega, rumsfeld, secret war, select, Taliban, the nation, tis, total inteligence, vision americas, xe, xe services
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The Nation, November 23, 2009
At a covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan, an investigation by The Nation has found. The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help direct a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes, according to a well-placed source within the US military intelligence apparatus.
The source, who has worked on covert US military programs for years, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has direct knowledge of Blackwater’s involvement. He spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. The source said that the program is so “compartmentalized” that senior figures within the Obama administration and the US military chain of command may not be aware of its existence.
The White House did not return calls or email messages seeking comment for this story. Capt. John Kirby, the spokesperson for Adm. Michael Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Nation, “We do not discuss current operations one way or the other, regardless of their nature.” A defense official, on background, specifically denied that Blackwater performs work on drone strikes or intelligence for JSOC in Pakistan. “We don’t have any contracts to do that work for us. We don’t contract that kind of work out, period,” the official said. “There has not been, and is not now, contracts between JSOC and that organization for these types of services.”
The previously unreported program, the military intelligence source said, is distinct from the CIA assassination program that the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, announced he had canceled in June 2009. “This is a parallel operation to the CIA,” said the source. “They are two separate beasts.” The program puts Blackwater at the epicenter of a US military operation within the borders of a nation against which the United States has not declared war–knowledge that could further strain the already tense relations between the United States and Pakistan. In 2006, the United States and Pakistan struck a deal that authorized JSOC to enter Pakistan to hunt Osama bin Laden with the understanding that Pakistan would deny it had given permission. Officially, the United States is not supposed to have any active military operations in the country.
Blackwater, which recently changed its name to Xe Services and US Training Center, denies the company is operating in Pakistan. “Xe Services has only one employee in Pakistan performing construction oversight for the U.S. Government,” Blackwater spokesperson Mark Corallo said in a statement to The Nation, adding that the company has “no other operations of any kind in Pakistan.”
A former senior executive at Blackwater confirmed the military intelligence source’s claim that the company is working in Pakistan for the CIA and JSOC, the premier counterterrorism and covert operations force within the military. He said that Blackwater is also working for the Pakistani government on a subcontract with an Islamabad-based security firm that puts US Blackwater operatives on the ground with Pakistani forces in counter-terrorism operations, including house raids and border interdictions, in the North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere in Pakistan. This arrangement, the former executive said, allows the Pakistani government to utilize former US Special Operations forces who now work for Blackwater while denying an official US military presence in the country. He also confirmed that Blackwater has a facility in Karachi and has personnel deployed elsewhere in Pakistan. The former executive spoke on condition of anonymity.
His account and that of the military intelligence source were borne out by a US military source who has knowledge of Special Forces actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. When asked about Blackwater’s covert work for JSOC in Pakistan, this source, who also asked for anonymity, told The Nation, “From my information that I have, that is absolutely correct,” adding, “There’s no question that’s occurring.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me because we’ve outsourced nearly everything,” said Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, when told of Blackwater’s role in Pakistan. Wilkerson said that during his time in the Bush administration, he saw the beginnings of Blackwater’s involvement with the sensitive operations of the military and CIA. “Part of this, of course, is an attempt to get around the constraints the Congress has placed on DoD. If you don’t have sufficient soldiers to do it, you hire civilians to do it. I mean, it’s that simple. It would not surprise me.”
The Counterterrorism Tag Team in Karachi
The covert JSOC program with Blackwater in Pakistan dates back to at least 2007, according to the military intelligence source. The current head of JSOC is Vice Adm. William McRaven, who took over the post from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC from 2003 to 2008 before being named the top US commander in Afghanistan. Blackwater’s presence in Pakistan is “not really visible, and that’s why nobody has cracked down on it,” said the source. Blackwater’s operations in Pakistan, he said, are not done through State Department contracts or publicly identified Defense contracts. “It’s Blackwater via JSOC, and it’s a classified no-bid [contract] approved on a rolling basis.” The main JSOC/Blackwater facility in Karachi, according to the source, is nondescript: three trailers with various generators, satellite phones and computer systems are used as a makeshift operations center. “It’s a very rudimentary operation,” says the source. “I would compare it to [CIA] outposts in Kurdistan or any of the Special Forces outposts. It’s very bare bones, and that’s the point.”
Blackwater’s work for JSOC in Karachi is coordinated out of a Task Force based at Bagram Air Base in neighboring Afghanistan, according to the military intelligence source. While JSOC technically runs the operations in Karachi, he said, it is largely staffed by former US special operations soldiers working for a division of Blackwater, once known as Blackwater SELECT, and intelligence analysts working for a Blackwater affiliate, Total Intelligence Solutions (TIS), which is owned by Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince. The military source said that the name Blackwater SELECT may have been changed recently. Total Intelligence, which is run out of an office on the ninth floor of a building in the Ballston area of Arlington, Virginia, is staffed by former analysts and operatives from the CIA, DIA, FBI and other agencies. It is modeled after the CIA’s counterterrorism center. In Karachi, TIS runs a “media-scouring/open-source network,” according to the source. Until recently, Total Intelligence was run by two former top CIA officials, Cofer Black and Robert Richer, both of whom have left the company. In Pakistan, Blackwater is not using either its original name or its new moniker, Xe Services, according to the former Blackwater executive. “They are running most of their work through TIS because the other two [names] have such a stain on them,” he said. Corallo, the Blackwater spokesperson, denied that TIS or any other division or affiliate of Blackwater has any personnel in Pakistan.
The US military intelligence source said that Blackwater’s classified contracts keep getting renewed at the request of JSOC. Blackwater, he said, is already so deeply entrenched that it has become a staple of the US military operations in Pakistan. According to the former Blackwater executive, “The politics that go with the brand of BW is somewhat set aside because what you’re doing is really one military guy to another.” Blackwater’s first known contract with the CIA for operations in Afghanistan was awarded in 2002 and was for work along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
One of the concerns raised by the military intelligence source is that some Blackwater personnel are being given rolling security clearances above their approved clearances. Using Alternative Compartmentalized Control Measures (ACCMs), he said, the Blackwater personnel are granted clearance to a Special Access Program, the bureaucratic term used to describe highly classified “black” operations. “With an ACCM, the security manager can grant access to you to be exposed to and operate within compartmentalized programs far above ‘secret’–even though you have no business doing so,” said the source. It allows Blackwater personnel that “do not have the requisite security clearance or do not hold a security clearance whatsoever to participate in classified operations by virtue of trust,” he added. “Think of it as an ultra-exclusive level above top secret. That’s exactly what it is: a circle of love.” Blackwater, therefore, has access to “all source” reports that are culled in part from JSOC units in the field. “That’s how a lot of things over the years have been conducted with contractors,” said the source. “We have contractors that regularly see things that top policy-makers don’t unless they ask.”
According to the source, Blackwater has effectively marketed itself as a company whose operatives have “conducted lethal direct action missions and now, for a price, you can have your own planning cell. JSOC just ate that up,” he said, adding, “They have a sizable force in Pakistan–not for any nefarious purpose if you really want to look at it that way–but to support a legitimate contract that’s classified for JSOC.” Blackwater’s Pakistan JSOC contracts are secret and are therefore shielded from public oversight, he said. The source is not sure when the arrangement with JSOC began, but he says that a spin-off of Blackwater SELECT “was issued a no-bid contract for support to shooters for a JSOC Task Force and they kept extending it.” Some of the Blackwater personnel, he said, work undercover as aid workers. “Nobody even gives them a second thought.”
The military intelligence source said that the Blackwater/JSOC Karachi operation is referred to as “Qatar cubed,” in reference to the US forward operating base in Qatar that served as the hub for the planning and implementation of the US invasion of Iraq. “This is supposed to be the brave new world,” he says. “This is the Jamestown of the new millennium and it’s meant to be a lily pad. You can jump off to Uzbekistan, you can jump back over the border, you can jump sideways, you can jump northwest. It’s strategically located so that they can get their people wherever they have to without having to wrangle with the military chain of command in Afghanistan, which is convoluted. They don’t have to deal with that because they’re operating under a classified mandate.”
In addition to planning drone strikes and operations against suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Pakistan for both JSOC and the CIA, the Blackwater team in Karachi also helps plan missions for JSOC inside Uzbekistan against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, according to the military intelligence source. Blackwater does not actually carry out the operations, he said, which are executed on the ground by JSOC forces. “That piqued my curiosity and really worries me because I don’t know if you noticed but I was never told we are at war with Uzbekistan,” he said. “So, did I miss something, did Rumsfeld come back into power?”
Pakistan’s Military Contracting Maze
Blackwater, according to the military intelligence source, is not doing the actual killing as part of its work in Pakistan. “The SELECT personnel are not going into places with private aircraft and going after targets,” he said. “It’s not like Blackwater SELECT people are running around assassinating people.” Instead, US Special Forces teams carry out the plans developed in part by Blackwater. The military intelligence source drew a distinction between the Blackwater operatives who work for the State Department, which he calls “Blackwater Vanilla,” and the seasoned Special Forces veterans who work on the JSOC program. “Good or bad, there’s a small number of people who know how to pull off an operation like that. That’s probably a good thing,” said the source. “It’s the Blackwater SELECT people that have and continue to plan these types of operations because they’re the only people that know how and they went where the money was. It’s not trigger-happy fucks, like some of the PSD [Personal Security Detail] guys. These are not people that believe that Barack Obama is a socialist, these are not people that kill innocent civilians. They’re very good at what they do.”
The former Blackwater executive, when asked for confirmation that Blackwater forces were not actively killing people in Pakistan, said, “that’s not entirely accurate.” While he concurred with the military intelligence source’s description of the JSOC and CIA programs, he pointed to another role Blackwater is allegedly playing in Pakistan, not for the US government but for Islamabad. According to the executive, Blackwater works on a subcontract for Kestral Logistics, a powerful Pakistani firm, which specializes in military logistical support, private security and intelligence consulting. It is staffed with former high-ranking Pakistani army and government officials. While Kestral’s main offices are in Pakistan, it also has branches in several other countries.
A spokesperson for the US State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), which is responsible for issuing licenses to US corporations to provide defense-related services to foreign governments or entities, would neither confirm nor deny for The Nation that Blackwater has a license to work in Pakistan or to work with Kestral. “We cannot help you,” said department spokesperson David McKeeby after checking with the relevant DDTC officials. “You’ll have to contact the companies directly.” Blackwater’s Corallo said the company has “no operations of any kind” in Pakistan other than the one employee working for the DoD. Kestral did not respond to inquiries from The Nation.
According to federal lobbying records, Kestral recently hired former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, who served in that post from 2003 to 2005, to lobby the US government, including the State Department, USAID and Congress, on foreign affairs issues “regarding [Kestral’s] capabilities to carry out activities of interest to the United States.” Noriega was hired through his firm, Vision Americas, which he runs with Christina Rocca, a former CIA operations official who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 2001 to 2006 and was deeply involved in shaping US policy toward Pakistan. In October 2009, Kestral paid Vision Americas $15,000 and paid a Vision Americas-affiliated firm, Firecreek Ltd., an equal amount to lobby on defense and foreign policy issues.
For years, Kestral has done a robust business in defense logistics with the Pakistani government and other nations, as well as top US defense companies. Blackwater owner Erik Prince is close with Kestral CEO Liaquat Ali Baig, according to the former Blackwater executive. “Ali and Erik have a pretty close relationship,” he said. “They’ve met many times and struck a deal, and they [offer] mutual support for one another.” Working with Kestral, he said, Blackwater has provided convoy security for Defense Department shipments destined for Afghanistan that would arrive in the port at Karachi. Blackwater, according to the former executive, would guard the supplies as they were transported overland from Karachi to Peshawar and then west through the Torkham border crossing, the most important supply route for the US military in Afghanistan.
According to the former executive, Blackwater operatives also integrate with Kestral’s forces in sensitive counterterrorism operations in the North-West Frontier Province, where they work in conjunction with the Pakistani Interior Ministry’s paramilitary force, known as the Frontier Corps (alternately referred to as “frontier scouts”). The Blackwater personnel are technically advisers, but the former executive said that the line often gets blurred in the field. Blackwater “is providing the actual guidance on how to do [counterterrorism operations] and Kestral’s folks are carrying a lot of them out, but they’re having the guidance and the overwatch from some BW guys that will actually go out with the teams when they’re executing the job,” he said. “You can see how that can lead to other things in the border areas.” He said that when Blackwater personnel are out with the Pakistani teams, sometimes its men engage in operations against suspected terrorists. “You’ve got BW guys that are assisting… and they’re all going to want to go on the jobs–so they’re going to go with them,” he said. “So, the things that you’re seeing in the news about how this Pakistani military group came in and raided this house or did this or did that–in some of those cases, you’re going to have Western folks that are right there at the house, if not in the house.” Blackwater, he said, is paid by the Pakistani government through Kestral for consulting services. “That gives the Pakistani government the cover to say, ‘Hey, no, we don’t have any Westerners doing this. It’s all local and our people are doing it.’ But it gets them the expertise that Westerners provide for [counterterrorism]-related work.”
The military intelligence source confirmed Blackwater works with the Frontier Corps, saying, “There’s no real oversight. It’s not really on people’s radar screen.”
In October, in response to Pakistani news reports that a Kestral warehouse in Islamabad was being used to store heavy weapons for Blackwater, the US Embassy in Pakistan released a statement denying the weapons were being used by “a private American security contractor.” The statement said, “Kestral Logistics is a private logistics company that handles the importation of equipment and supplies provided by the United States to the Government of Pakistan. All of the equipment and supplies were imported at the request of the Government of Pakistan, which also certified the shipments.”
Who is Behind the Drone Attacks?
Since President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the United States has expanded drone bombing raids in Pakistan. Obama first ordered a drone strike against targets in North and South Waziristan on January 23, and the strikes have been conducted consistently ever since. The Obama administration has now surpassed the number of Bush-era strikes in Pakistan and has faced fierce criticism from Pakistan and some US lawmakers over civilian deaths. A drone attack in June killed as many as sixty people attending a Taliban funeral.
In August, the New York Times reported that Blackwater works for the CIA at “hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft.” In February, The Times of London obtained a satellite image of a secret CIA airbase in Shamsi, in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan, showing three drone aircraft. The New York Times also reported that the agency uses a secret base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to strike in Pakistan.
The military intelligence source says that the drone strike that reportedly killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, his wife and his bodyguards in Waziristan in August was a CIA strike, but that many others attributed in media reports to the CIA are actually JSOC strikes. “Some of these strikes are attributed to OGA [Other Government Agency, intelligence parlance for the CIA], but in reality it’s JSOC and their parallel program of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] because they also have access to UAVs. So when you see some of these hits, especially the ones with high civilian casualties, those are almost always JSOC strikes.” The Pentagon has stated bluntly, “There are no US military strike operations being conducted in Pakistan.”
The military intelligence source also confirmed that Blackwater continues to work for the CIA on its drone bombing program in Pakistan, as previously reported in the New York Times, but added that Blackwater is working on JSOC’s drone bombings as well. “It’s Blackwater running the program for both CIA and JSOC,” said the source. When civilians are killed, “people go, ‘Oh, it’s the CIA doing crazy shit again unchecked.’ Well, at least 50 percent of the time, that’s JSOC [hitting] somebody they’ve identified through HUMINT [human intelligence] or they’ve culled the intelligence themselves or it’s been shared with them and they take that person out and that’s how it works.”
The military intelligence source says that the CIA operations are subject to Congressional oversight, unlike the parallel JSOC bombings. “Targeted killings are not the most popular thing in town right now and the CIA knows that,” he says. “Contractors and especially JSOC personnel working under a classified mandate are not [overseen by Congress], so they just don’t care. If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die. That’s the mentality.” He added, “They’re not accountable to anybody and they know that. It’s an open secret, but what are you going to do, shut down JSOC?”
In addition to working on covert action planning and drone strikes, Blackwater SELECT also provides private guards to perform the sensitive task of security for secret US drone bases, JSOC camps and Defense Intelligence Agency camps inside Pakistan, according to the military intelligence source.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a well-known Pakistani journalist who has served as a consultant for the UN and European Union in Pakistan and Afghanistan, says that the Blackwater/JSOC program raises serious questions about the norms of international relations. “The immediate question is, How do you define the active pursuit of military objectives in a country with which not only have you not declared war but that is supposedly a front-line non-NATO ally in the US struggle to contain extremist violence coming out of Afghanistan and the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan?” asks Zaidi, who is currently a columnist for The News, the biggest English-language daily in Pakistan. “Let’s forget Blackwater for a second. What this is confirming is that there are US military operations in Pakistan that aren’t about logistics or getting food to Bagram; that are actually about the exercise of physical violence, physical force inside of Pakistani territory.”
JSOC: Rumsfeld and Cheney’s Extra Special Force
Colonel Wilkerson said that he is concerned that with General McChrystal’s elevation as the military commander of the Afghan war–which is increasingly seeping into Pakistan–there is a concomitant rise in JSOC’s power and influence within the military structure. “I don’t see how you can escape that; it’s just a matter of the way the authority flows and the power flows, and it’s inevitable, I think,” Wilkerson told The Nation. He added, “I’m alarmed when I see execute orders and combat orders that go out saying that the supporting force is Central Command and the supported force is Special Operations Command,” under which JSOC operates. “That’s backward. But that’s essentially what we have today.”
From 2003 to 2008 McChrystal headed JSOC, which is headquartered at Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Blackwater’s 7,000-acre operating base is also situated. JSOC controls the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, as well as the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron. JSOC performs strike operations, reconnaissance in denied areas and special intelligence missions. Blackwater, which was founded by former Navy SEALs, employs scores of veteran Special Forces operators–which several former military officials pointed to as the basis for Blackwater’s alleged contracts with JSOC.
Since 9/11, many top-level Special Forces veterans have taken up employment with private firms, where they can make more money doing the highly specialized work they did in uniform. “The Blackwater individuals have the experience. A lot of these individuals are retired military, and they’ve been around twenty to thirty years and have experience that the younger Green Beret guys don’t,” said retired Army Lieut. Col. Jeffrey Addicott, a well-connected military lawyer who served as senior legal counsel for US Army Special Forces. “They’re known entities. Everybody knows who they are, what their capabilities are, and they’ve got the experience. They’re very valuable.”
“They make much more money being the smarts of these operations, planning hits in various countries and basing it off their experience in Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia,” said the military intelligence source. “They were there for all of these things, they know what the hell they’re talking about. And JSOC has unfortunately lost the institutional capability to plan within, so they hire back people that used to work for them and had already planned and executed these [types of] operations. They hired back people that jumped over to Blackwater SELECT and then pay them exorbitant amounts of money to plan future operations. It’s a ridiculous revolving door.”
While JSOC has long played a central role in US counterterrorism and covert operations, military and civilian officials who worked at the Defense and State Departments during the Bush administration described in interviews with The Nation an extremely cozy relationship that developed between the executive branch (primarily through Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and JSOC. During the Bush era, Special Forces turned into a virtual stand-alone operation that acted outside the military chain of command and in direct coordination with the White House. Throughout the Bush years, it was largely General McChrystal who ran JSOC. “What I was seeing was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing,” said Colonel Wilkerson. “That’s dangerous, that’s very dangerous. You have all kinds of mess when you don’t tell the theater commander what you’re doing.”
Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch. He saw this begin, he said, after his first Delta Force briefing at Fort Bragg. “I think Cheney and Rumsfeld went directly into JSOC. I think they went into JSOC at times, perhaps most frequently, without the SOCOM [Special Operations] commander at the time even knowing it. The receptivity in JSOC was quite good,” says Wilkerson. “I think Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions.” He said the relationship between JSOC and Cheney and Rumsfeld “built up initially because Rumsfeld didn’t get the responsiveness. He didn’t get the can-do kind of attitude out of the SOCOM commander, and so as Rumsfeld was wont to do, he cut him out and went straight to the horse’s mouth. At that point you had JSOC operating as an extension of the [administration] doing things the executive branch–read: Cheney and Rumsfeld–wanted it to do. This would be more or less carte blanche. You need to do it, do it. It was very alarming for me as a conventional soldier.”
Wilkerson said the JSOC teams caused diplomatic problems for the United States across the globe. “When these teams started hitting capital cities and other places all around the world, [Rumsfeld] didn’t tell the State Department either. The only way we found out about it is our ambassadors started to call us and say, ‘Who the hell are these six-foot-four white males with eighteen-inch biceps walking around our capital cities?’ So we discovered this, we discovered one in South America, for example, because he actually murdered a taxi driver, and we had to get him out of there real quick. We rendered him–we rendered him home.”
As part of their strategy, Rumsfeld and Cheney also created the Strategic Support Branch (SSB), which pulled intelligence resources from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA for use in sensitive JSOC operations. The SSB was created using “reprogrammed” funds “without explicit congressional authority or appropriation,” according to the Washington Post. The SSB operated outside the military chain of command and circumvented the CIA’s authority on clandestine operations. Rumsfeld created it as part of his war to end “near total dependence on CIA.” Under US law, the Defense Department is required to report all deployment orders to Congress. But guidelines issued in January 2005 by former Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone stated that Special Operations forces may “conduct clandestine HUMINT operations…before publication” of a deployment order. This effectively gave Rumsfeld unilateral control over clandestine operations.
The military intelligence source said that when Rumsfeld was defense secretary, JSOC was deployed to commit some of the “darkest acts” in part to keep them concealed from Congress. “Everything can be justified as a military operation versus a clandestine intelligence performed by the CIA, which has to be informed to Congress,” said the source. “They were aware of that and they knew that, and they would exploit it at every turn and they took full advantage of it. They knew they could act extra-legally and nothing would happen because A, it was sanctioned by DoD at the highest levels, and B, who was going to stop them? They were preparing the battlefield, which was on all of the PowerPoints: ‘Preparing the Battlefield.'”
The significance of the flexibility of JSOC’s operations inside Pakistan versus the CIA’s is best summed up by Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “Every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress,” she said. “If they are not, that is a violation of the law.”
Blackwater: Company Non Grata in Pakistan
For months, the Pakistani media has been flooded with stories about Blackwater’s alleged growing presence in the country. For the most part, these stories have been ignored by the US press and denounced as lies or propaganda by US officials in Pakistan. But the reality is that, although many of the stories appear to be wildly exaggerated, Pakistanis have good reason to be concerned about Blackwater’s operations in their country. It is no secret in Washington or Islamabad that Blackwater has been a central part of the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that the company has been involved–almost from the beginning of the “war on terror”–with clandestine US operations. Indeed, Blackwater is accepting applications for contractors fluent in Urdu and Punjabi. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, has denied Blackwater’s presence in the country, stating bluntly in September, “Blackwater is not operating in Pakistan.” In her trip to Pakistan in October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dodged questions from the Pakistani press about Blackwater’s rumored Pakistani operations. Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, said on November 21 he will resign if Blackwater is found operating anywhere in Pakistan.
The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Blackwater “provides security for a US-backed aid project” in Peshawar, suggesting the company may be based out of the Pearl Continental, a luxury hotel the United States reportedly is considering purchasing to use as a consulate in the city. “We have no contracts in Pakistan,” Blackwater spokesperson Stacey DeLuke said recently. “We’ve been blamed for all that has gone wrong in Peshawar, none of which is true, since we have absolutely no presence there.”
Reports of Blackwater’s alleged presence in Karachi and elsewhere in the country have been floating around the Pakistani press for months. Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist who rose to fame after his 1997 interview with Osama bin Laden, claimed in a recent interview that Blackwater is in Karachi. “The US [intelligence] agencies think that a number of Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders are hiding in Karachi and Peshawar,” he said. “That is why [Blackwater] agents are operating in these two cities.” Ambassador Patterson has said that the claims of Mir and other Pakistani journalists are “wildly incorrect,” saying they had compromised the security of US personnel in Pakistan. On November 20 the Washington Times, citing three current and former US intelligence officials, reported that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, has “found refuge from potential U.S. attacks” in Karachi “with the assistance of Pakistan’s intelligence service.”
In September, the Pakistani press covered a report on Blackwater allegedly submitted by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to the federal interior ministry. In the report, the intelligence agencies reportedly allege that Blackwater was provided houses by a federal minister who is also helping them clear shipments of weapons and vehicles through Karachi’s Port Qasim on the coast of the Arabian Sea. The military intelligence source did not confirm this but did say, “The port jives because they have a lot of [former] SEALs and they would revert to what they know: the ocean, instead of flying stuff in.”
The Nation cannot independently confirm these allegations and has not seen the Pakistani intelligence report. But according to Pakistani press coverage, the intelligence report also said Blackwater has acquired “bungalows” in the Defense Housing Authority in the city. According to the DHA website, it is a large residential estate originally established “for the welfare of the serving and retired officers of the Armed Forces of Pakistan.” Its motto is: “Home for Defenders.” The report alleges Blackwater is receiving help from local government officials in Karachi and is using vehicles with license plates traditionally assigned to members of the national and provincial assemblies, meaning local law enforcement will not stop them.
The use of private companies like Blackwater for sensitive operations such as drone strikes or other covert work undoubtedly comes with the benefit of plausible deniability that places an additional barrier in an already deeply flawed system of accountability. When things go wrong, it’s the contractors’ fault, not the government’s. But the widespread use of contractors also raises serious legal questions, particularly when they are a part of lethal, covert actions. “We are using contractors for things that in the past might have been considered to be a violation of the Geneva Convention,” said Lt. Col. Addicott, who now runs the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. “In my opinion, we have pressed the envelope to the breaking limit, and it’s almost a fiction that these guys are not in offensive military operations.” Addicott added, “If we were subjected to the International Criminal Court, some of these guys could easily be picked up, charged with war crimes and put on trial. That’s one of the reasons we’re not members of the International Criminal Court.”
If there is one quality that has defined Blackwater over the past decade, it is the ability to survive against the odds while simultaneously reinventing and rebranding itself. That is most evident in Afghanistan, where the company continues to work for the US military, the CIA and the State Department despite intense criticism and almost weekly scandals. Blackwater’s alleged Pakistan operations, said the military intelligence source, are indicative of its new frontier. “Having learned its lessons after the private security contracting fiasco in Iraq, Blackwater has shifted its operational focus to two venues: protecting things that are in danger and anticipating other places we’re going to go as a nation that are dangerous,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”