Three years ago this past weekend, on his first full day in office, President Barack Obama issued his now infamous memo on transparency and open government, which was supposed to fulfill his campaign promise to lead the “most transparent administration in history.”
Instead, his administration has been just as secretive—if not more so—than his predecessors, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has become the prime example of his administration’s lack of progress.
In 2009, Obama made FOIA reform the centerpiece of his open government agenda. “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government,” he said, while laying out principles he wished to see his agencies adopt in the proceeding months.
In March of 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder issued what the Justice Department called “comprehensive new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) guidelines.” Holder ordered that all executive branch departments and agencies were to apply “a presumption of openness” in response to FOIA requests.
In 2010, EFF’s senior counsel David Sobel testified to Congress, calling on Obama to lead by example if they wish to change the FOIA process.
Unfortunately, secrecy won out in the Obama administration almost immediately. In the early months of his presidency, a court ruled that the administration would have to turn over photos related to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in response to a FOIA request. Knowing they’d likely lose the appeal, Obama supported a new law that could keep information secret even when FOIA would otherwise require disclosure. The bill’s only intention was to create a way to shield photographs of detainee abuse from public disclosure.
President Obama also refused at first to release White House visitor records, a practice for which his predecessor, George W. Bush, was pilloried. The Obama Administration appealed a court’s ruling that the visitor logs were subject to FOIA. In September 2009, Obama reversed course and agreed to voluntarily release White House visitor records going forward. But in 2011, the Administration was still fighting in court to keep the logs before Obama’s reversal a secret.
The Associated Press looked at the administration’s commitment to transparency in 2010 and concluded Obama was using FOIA exemptions to withhold information from requesters more than Bush did in his final year, despite receiving fewer overall requests. And one of the most frequently used exemptions was one Obama explicitly told the agencies not to use: the “deliberative process” exemption, which allows the government to withhold documents dealing with its decision making process. In Obama’s first year in office, the use of the exemption skyrocketed from 47,395 times in 2008 to 70,779 times in 2009.
Worse, more than a year after Obama and Holder’s memos, a National Security Archive study found “less than one-third of the 90 federal agencies that process such FOIA requests have made significant changes in their procedures.” Even FOIA requests on transparency were held up:
The AP is still waiting–after nearly three months–for records it requested about the White House’s “Open Government Directive,” rules it issued in December directing every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public.
Yet around the same time, when President Obama was asked a question at a townhall about why his administration wasn’t more transparent, he responded by saying it was the most transparent in the modern era.
What was his first reason?
The administration’s release of White House visitor records—the same records they went to court to fight to keep secret.
The President also bragged: “We’ve revamped the classification system so it’s not used to hide things that might be embarrassing to us.”
Which, of course, is not true either. As EFF has pointed out, government secrecy and over-classification has reach absurd levels under Obama.
More damage was done to FOIA in the Dodd-Frank bill. A little-noticed provision of the recently passed financial-reform legislation stated that the SEC “no longer has to comply with virtually all requests for information releases from the public, including those filed under the Freedom of Information Act.” Other media organizations have lodged public complaints about FOIA procedure at the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and even agencies dealing with health and scientific issues like the EPA and NASA.
EFF has experienced many of these problems first hand. When we sued the FBI after it was revealed they were systematically abusing their National Security Letter authority, the bureau redacted the vast majority of the thousands of pages requested. In another case, it was clear the FBI was arbitrarily redacting information when it wasn’t appropriate. The DHS singled out EFF, along with other activist groups and media representatives such as the ACLU, EPIC, Human Rights Watch, and AP, for an extra layer of review on its FOIA requests. EFF sued just to find out the names of the members of Obama’s Intelligence Oversight Board.
But by March 2011, only 49 of the 90 federal agencies had followed any “specific tasks mandated by the White House to improve their FOIA performance.” The National Security Archive found in July that federal backlogs of FOIA requests are growing. A Study released in December of this year by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and OpenTheGovernment.org found the administration was withholding information using nine of the most common exemptions 33% more than George Bush’s last full year in office.
But perhaps the worst violation of Obama’s open government principles was the deplorable attempt by the Justice Department to change the DOJ’s own FOIA regulations. Under the proposed rule, instead of refusing to confirm or deny a document is in the Department’s possession, the agency could “respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.” The Los Angeles Times called it an “outrageous proposal” that “provides a license for the government to lie to its own people and makes a mockery of FOIA.” After near universal outcry, including pressure from Congress, the Justice Department scaled back its rules. But as the Sunlight Foundation said, the Justice Department’s revised FOIA rules were still “worse than reported” and allow reviewers to dismiss requests for a host of trivial reasons. Obama’s Justice Department seemed intent on killing the very law it championed at the start of his administration.
The Freedom of Information Act has been hailed by open government advocates as “one of the most significant laws ever passed by the U.S. Congress,” yet its passage and survival has been fought by Presidents for more than forty years. The bill, as a significant check on executive power and secrecy, was originally opposed by Lyndon Johnson, yet was signed into law in 1966. When Congress strengthened the act after the Watergate scandal, President Ford vetoed it on the advice of his then-chief of staff Dick Cheney. Thankfully, Congress overrode his veto. Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese was so opposed to FOIA, despite its being law for more than 20 years, he wrote a memo telling the Justice Department to essentially disregard requests it disliked.
President Obama promised to change all that. Unfortunately, it’s clear many of his pledges have been broken or ignored, turning his declaration that he would lead the “most transparent administration ever” into a punch line rather than a re-election slogan.
- Obama Regime Seeks Permission To Lie In Response To Freedom Of Information Requests – Even To The Courts (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Obama Justice Dept. Battles against Freedom of Information Act (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Should Mitt Romney make it to the White House, his Middle East policy and plan for Iran may be as hawkish as that of Bush Junior, thanks to Eliot Cohen.
In 2005, a group of graduate students at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) participated in the school’s annual diplomatic simulation. The high-pressure scenario required the students to negotiate a resolution to a standoff with a nuclear-armed Republic of Pakistan. Mara Karlin, a student known for her hawkish politics on Israel and the Middle East, played President of the United States.
Though most of the participants were confident they could head off a military conflict with diplomatic measures, Karlin jumped the gun. According to a former SAIS student, not only did Karlin order a nuclear strike on Pakistan, she also took the opportunity to nuke Iran. Her classmates were shocked. It was the first time in 45 years that a simulation concluded with the deployment of a nuclear weapon.
That year, Karlin received a plum job in the Bush administration’s Department of Defense where, according to her bio she was “intimately involved in formulating U.S. policy on Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestinian affairs.” Lebanon was a special area of focus for Karlin. She claims to have helped structure the Lebanese Armed Forces and coordinated relations between the US and Lebanese militaries.
According to the former SAIS student, Karlin was a favorite of Eliot Cohen, an ultra-hawkish professor of strategic studies at SAIS, which is regarded in American foreign policy circles as a training ground for the neoconservative movement. Through Cohen’s connections among the neocons occupying key civilian posts in Bush’s Defense Department, the former student claims Cohen was able to arrange an attractive sinecure for Karlin. Besides Karlin, the ex-SAIS student told me Cohen has promoted the career ambitions of many former pupils, including Kelly Magsamen, who worked under Cohen in the Bush administration and now oversees the Iran portfolio in the Obama administration’s State Department.
Today, Cohen is among Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s top campaign advisers. He is the primary author of Romney’s foreign policy white paper, which attacks Obama for “currying favor with [America’s] enemies” and “ostentatiously shunning Jerusalem.”
The paper urges a policy of regime change in Iran including possible coordination with Israel on military strikes to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon. It is an aggressive Republican election season document presenting a concoction of post-9/11 unilateralism and unvarnished neo-imperialism as the antidote to a sitting president Cohen accused of “unilateral disarmament in the diplomatic and moral sphere.” More importantly, it suggests that a Romney administration’s foreign policy might look remarkably similar to – and perhaps more extreme than – that of the Bush administration.
Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s School of Government who has been on the receiving end of aggressive attacks by Cohen, called Cohen “a classic neoconservative.” Walt said, “He is constantly fretting about alleged U.S. vulnerabilities, consistently supportive of increased defense spending, and generally inclined to favor U.S. intervention in other countries. Second, like virtually all neoconservatives, he is also deeply attached to Israel, as well as to the United States. I do not question his patriotism, but I think he tends to see U.S. and Israeli interests as more-or-less identical and doesn’t see a trade-off between support for one and support for the other.”Cohen rose through the ranks of the Republican foreign policy elite as a protégé of Paul Wolfowitz, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense who is credited with playing a central role in the push for invading Iraq. In 1990, Wolfowitz secured a position for Cohen working beside him on the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Three years later, when Wolfowitz was appointed dean of SAIS, he began using his influence to propel Cohen’s career. According to a former State Department official who graduated from SAIS, it was through the beneficence of Wolfowitz that Cohen earned an endowed teaching position at SAIS as the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies.
In 1997, Wolfowitz and Cohen joined forces to form the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative umbrella group that served as the key non-governmental vehicle for promoting the case for invading Iraq after 9/11. In the immediate wake of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Cohen took to the media to map out the next phase of a grand global military venture that he coined, “World War IV.”
Describing Iraq as “the big prize,” Cohen urged a unilateral invasion of Iraq that would advance the ambitions of the now-discredited political charlatan Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. Like so many of his neoconservative peers, Cohen claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime maintained “a connection with the 9/11 terrorists.” With the war deteriorating into a chaotic bloodbath and as his own son was called up for duty, Cohen criticized the Bush administration for “happy talk and denials of error.” However, he refused to admit fault for his role in selling Americans on the invasion.
Despite mildly dissenting from the White House line, Cohen continued his ascent, replacing Philip Zelikow as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2007. According to the former State Department official, Rice had almost no role in Cohen’s appointment. Instead, Cohen was recommended for the position by Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz. Cheney’s daughter headed the Iran Syrian Operations Group, a newly created, neoconservative-inspired initiative burrowed within the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. At the time of Cohen’s appointment, Rice was attempting to open diplomatic lines to Iran, North Korea, and Syria – a move Cohen and the Cheneys fiercely opposed.
A few months after Bush left office, the former State Department official said Cohen and Wolfowitz rewarded their neoconservative fellow traveler Eric Edelman – a former Defense Department official during the later Bush years – with a visiting scholarship at SAID. In private, Johns Hopkins alumni expressed outrage at the installment of Edelman, a career diplomat with no academic background, accusing the neoconservatives of exploiting SAIS to create a system of political patronage.
Cohen’s extensive web of foreign policy and military connections forms a seamless line to Tel Aviv. There, on the top floor of one of the office buildings known as “HaKirya,” is the office of one of Cohen’s former pupils, Aviv Kochavi. Kochavi is now the director of Israeli military intelligence, making him one of the most quietly influential figures in the country. In 2006, Kochavi, who also holds a philosophy degree, boasted to the Israeli architect and anti-occupation activist Eyal Weizmann about how he and his troops crushed Palestinian resistance cells in Nablus through the use of “inverse geometry” and “micro-tactical actions” inspired by the theories of post-structuralist philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari. On February 2, Kochavi appearedat the annual Herzliya Conference to issue grave warnings about the rapid progress of Iran’s nuclear program, suggesting that sanctions and diplomacy have failed, and that more aggressive action might be required.Despite Cohen’s deep Israeli ties, he has proven extremely sensitive to critiques of the connection. When Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the latter a professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago, published their widely debated paper on the Israel lobby in 2006, Cohen authored one of the first attempts to discredit their thesis about a loose coalition of individuals and organizations creating political pressure to move US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Cohen accused the authors of “kooky academic work” and “obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews.”
“Cohen’s rather hysterical reaction to our work was both typical and easy to explain,” Walt remarked. “Given that he and other neoconservatives had played a key role in convincing George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, he was understandably upset when we pointed this out and provided extensive documentation of their role in the run-up to this disastrous war. He could not refute our logic or our evidence, however, so he chose to misrepresent our views and smear us falsely as anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.”
With the last battalions of US troops preparing to redeploy from Iraq to other conflict zones, Cohen is homing in on Iran. In a September 2009 editorial for the Wall Street Journal, he dismissed diplomacy and sanctions as feasible means of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program,” he wrote. “The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time.” While not ruling out the necessity of an American strike on Iranian facilities, Cohen advised that the “US actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic…through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard.”
As tensions between Israel and Iran rise to unprecedented levels, and Israel’s leadership beseeches the US to join a military strike on Iran, Cohen’s visions of regime change seem closer to realization than ever before. For him and the neoconservative policy elite, a Romney victory in November might deliver the next “big prize.”
- Washington’s Iran Debate and the “Soft Side” of Regime Change (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Neoconservatives Planned Regime Change Throughout the Middle East and North Africa 20 Years Ago (ritholtz.com)
The UK is sending a nuclear submarine to the Malvinas Islands amid growing tensions between Britain and Argentina over the disputed territories.
According to media reports on Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron has personally approved the deployment of the Trafalgar-class vessel, believed to be either HMS Tireless or HMS Turbulent, in the South Atlantic.
However, a British Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokeswoman said, “We do not comment on submarine deployments.”
The heavily-armed submarine is set to be in the Malvinas waters in April for the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war which the two countries fought over the islands also known as the Falklands.
The Royal Navy has already revealed it is sending HMS Dauntless, a Type 45 destroyer, to the Falklands.
Britain’s Prince William arrived in the Malvinas on Thursday for a six-week training mission as a search and rescue pilot with the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Buenos Aires has strongly condemned Britain’s “provocative” move to post Prince William, likening it to that of a “conqueror.”
“The Argentinean people regret that the royal heir is coming to the soil of the homeland with the uniform of the conqueror and not with the wisdom of a statesman who works in the service of peace and dialogue between nations,” read an Argentine Foreign Ministry statement.
Situated about 250 nautical miles from Argentina, Malvinas has been a British colony for over 180 years.
Argentina claims sovereignty and the two countries fought a destructive 74-day war over the islands in 1982.
- UK flexes nuclear muscles against Argentina (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Late last year, the Central Intelligence Agency explained to Judge Kessler of the US District Court in Washington DC that releasing the final volume of its three-decade-old history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle would “confuse the public,” and should be withheld because it is a “predecisional” document. Wow. And I thought that I had heard them all.
On the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the National Security Archive filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the release of a five-volume CIA history of the Bay of Pigs affair. In response to the lawsuit, the CIA negotiated to release three volumes of the history — the JFK Assassination Records Review Board had already released Volume III– with limited redaction, currently available on the National Security Archive’s website. At the time, the Director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation project, Peter Kornbluh, quipped that getting historic documents released from the CIA was “the bureaucratic equivalent of passing a kidney stone.” He was right. The Agency refused to release the final volume of this history, and the National Security Archive is not giving up on the fight.
Volume five of the history, written by CIA historian Jack Pfeiffer –who sued the CIA himself to release the history in 1987, and lost– is described by the CIA as an “Internal Investigation document” that “is an uncritical defense of the CIA officers who planned and executed the Bay of Pigs operation… It offers a polemic of recriminations against CIA officers who later criticized the operation and against those U.S. officials who its author, Dr. Pfeiffer, contends were responsible for the failure of that operation.”
While Dr. Pfeiffer’s conclusions may or may not be true, FOIA case law appears to be pretty clear that Americans –who funded the operation and Dr. Pfeiffer’s histories– have the right to read this document and decide for themselves its merits. Despite the claims of the CIA’s chief historian David Robarge, the document should not remain in the CIA vaults because its conclusions “could cause scholars, journalists, and others interested in the subject at hand to reach an erroneous or distorted view of the Agency’s role.” Historians, after all, are well trained in treating documents –especially CIA
hagiographies sources– skeptically.
To prevent the public from reading this volume, the CIA has argued that because it is a draft, it is a predecisional document and can be denied under exemption b(5) of the FOIA. Except –as Davis Sobel, counsel to the National Security Archive points out in our motions– the case law states otherwise.
President Obama instructed every agency (yes, even the CIA) to “usher in a new era of open government” and apply a “presumption of disclosure… to all decisions involving FOIA.” In response to this instruction, the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy –responsible for enforcing FOIA throughout the government– issued its own guidance to agencies (yes, even the CIA), explaining:
“A requested record might be a draft, or a memorandum containing a recommendation. Such records might be properly withheld under Exemption 5, but that should not be the end of the review. Rather, the content of that particular draft and that particular memorandum should be reviewed and a determination made as to whether the agency reasonably foresees that disclosing that particular document, given its age, content, and character, would harm an interest protected by Exemption 5. In making these determinations, agencies should keep in mind that mere “speculative or abstract fears” are not a sufficient basis for withholding. Instead, the agency must reasonably foresee that disclosure would cause harm…
For all records, the age of the document and the sensitivity of its content are universal factors that need to be evaluated in making a decision whether to make a discretionary release.” *
As the D.C. circuit recognized, “the Supreme Court has pointed out that the ‘expectation of the confidentiality of executive communications  has always been limited and subject to erosion over time…”” (Judicial Watch, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Justice (D.C. Cir. 2004.)
Even presidential records are barred from being withheld under “predecisional pretenses” after a period of time. The Presidential Records Act expressly states that exemption b(5) cannot be invoked to withhold records once the president has been out of office twelve years. If the presidential communication and work process is not threatened by this provision, there is no reason that the CIA’s history staff should be.
And there is a good chance that the history is not even a predecisonal document. The burden rests on the CIA to point to the specific decision that the history is “decides” to make it a predecisional document. And so far they have not. Their case rests on the speculative and abstract fear of “discrediting[ing] the work of the CIA History Staff in the eyes of the public or, worse, in the eyes of the Agency officers who rely upon CIA histories.”
Even if parts of the document truly are predecisional, only they can be withheld, the facts leading up to that decision –and histories are (hopefully) based primarily on facts– must be released.
To wit, draft histories have frequently been released under FOIA. In 2010, the Department of Justice released portions of pages of a candid history of Nazi-hunting (and Nazi-protecting) clearly marked DRAFT. (The unredacted version of the report was subsequently leaked– no prosecution by the Obama administration for that one… yet.) Moreover, the CIA previously disclosed Volume IV of this history in draft form (with a disclaimer)! This final volume to the CIA’s history remains one of the few –perhaps the only– government produced product chronicling the doomed invasion which remains classified; the public should be allowed to see its contents.
The National Security Archive’s case is a strong one. I’m confident that Judge Kessler will require a de novo review of the document leading to its eventual release.
On the other hand, the CIA’s “confuse the public” defense appears is as weak as it is insulting.
*It’s certainly not clear why DOJ attorneys would agree to argue this case for the CIA, especially after Eric Holder sent a government-wide memo which promised to defend denials of FOIA requests only when disclosures would truly harm agency interests. What is more clear is the reason why many agencies have failed to implement the Obama FOIA reforms –the Department of Justice has done a poor job implementing them within its own divisions, and the DOJ Office of Information Policy has done a poorer job forcing other agencies to comply with the law.
As the Archive’s counsel David Sobel put it, “This case is yet the latest example of the Obama administration failing to deliver on its promise of ‘unprecedented’ transparency. It’s hard to understand how the release of this document, after all these years, could in any way harm legitimate government interests.””
- Document Friday: Che Guevara Thanks the United States for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. (nsarchive.wordpress.com)
- CIA won’t disclose involvement in OWS crackdowns (rt.com)
- Under Obama, the Freedom of Information Act is Still in Shackles (eff.org)
- FBI Sanctioned for Lying About Existence of Surveillance Records (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Obama Regime Seeks Permission To Lie In Response To Freedom Of Information Requests – Even To The Courts (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- ACLU Sues U.S. for Information on Targeted Killing Program (newsworldwide.wordpress.com)
- The CIA, Cuba and Operation Peter Pan (alethonews.wordpress.com)
On December 19, 2011 the Syrian Arab Republic and the Arab League signed a protocol establishing an observer mission that would lead efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria and protect civilians in the process.
Almost immediately afterward, once-staunch advocates of this Arab League “intervention” in Syria began efforts instead to undermine the mission’s efforts.
Before inking the final deal, an Arab League official had warned me that certain member states – Qatar, most prominently – were setting up conditions that would preclude the participation of the Syrian government. But intense shuttle diplomacy at the eleventh hour produced a breakthrough: the mission was approved by the two parties, and the disappointed spoilers launched a public relations blitz to cast doubt on the mission’s participants, the Arab League’s capabilities and the investigation’s discoveries.
For the last month, we have heard allegations fly riotously about the Sudanese Head of Mission Lieutenant General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, now suddenly accused of war crimes. Rumors abounded about mission observers quitting their posts because of the “horrific” nature of the Syrian government’s onslaught against its civilians. International NGOs and a slew of western politicians even offered to “train” the mission observers – implicitly suggesting that Arabs lack observation and negotiation capabilities, or worse perhaps, that the observers need to be taught to view the Syrian conflict through external lenses.
It was hard to doubt these rumors entirely. The Arab League has, after all, refused to make the final monitors’ report available to the general media. But the report has suddenly popped up as an annex to the UN resolution on Syria currently being hotly debated at the Security Council. Most puzzling though, is that few Western or Arab journalists congregated at the United Nations this week are drawing attention to this critical document that provides insight into the very events contested at Council sessions.
Mission Report: The Good, Bad and Ugly
The full monitor’s report of the Arab League, as revealed here, refers in several instances to efforts aimed at undermining the mission and its activities:
“Since it began its work, the Mission has been the target of a vicious media campaign…that increased in intensity after the observers’ deployment. Some media outlets have published unfounded statements, which they attributed to the Head of the Mission. They have also grossly exaggerated events…Such contrived reports have helped to increase tensions among the Syrian people and undermined the observers’ work. Some media organizations were exploited in order to defame the Mission and its Head and cause the Mission to fail.”
The effort to “defame” the mission – ostensibly by opponents of the Syrian government – is a strange one. The report – while short – is professionally written, detailed, and highlights the difficulties inherent in covering a hard-fought conflict. It also criticizes the Syrian regime’s actions and shortcomings in sticking to the protocol and protecting civilians:
“On being assigned to their zones and starting work, the observers witnessed acts of violence perpetrated by Government forces and an exchange of gunfire with armed elements in Homs and Hama. As a result of the Mission’s insistence on a complete end to violence and the withdrawal of Army vehicles and equipment, this problem has receded.”
On the critical issue of political detainees, the report states:
“On 19 January 2012, the Syrian government stated that 3569 detainees had been released from military and civil prosecution services. The Mission verified that 1669 of those detained had thus far been released. It continues to follow up the issue with the Government and the opposition, emphasizing to the Government side that the detainees should be released in the presence of observers so that the event can be documented.” The report also verifies that an additional 3,843 detainees were released before Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a general amnesty decree on January 15. The government claims the number is 4,035.
But then the report veers sharply away from conventional narratives about the nature of the Syrian conflict by observing: “The Mission determined that there is an armed entity that is not mentioned in the protocol.”
Though the report attributes this development “to the excessive use of force by Syrian Government forces in response to protests,” it also points out that “in some zones, this armed entity reacted by attacking Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the Government to respond with further violence.”
The report then provides several examples of this:
“In Homs and Dera‘a, the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against Government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks. In certain situations, Government forces responded to attacks against their personnel with force. The observers noted that some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.”
“In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against Government forces and civilians that resulted in several deaths and injuries. Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil. In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers. A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed.”
Media Coverage and Access In Syria
Notable too is the mission report’s contention that media reports on incidents of violence in Syria are often exaggerated and unverified:
“The Mission noted that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded. The Mission also noted that, according to its teams in the field, the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”
The report also addresses criticism that the Syrian government restricts media access both into Syria and into the country’s hot spots. Complaints varied from media being allowed into the country for an insufficient “four days” to the regime demanding cumbersome “destination” itineraries, “operating permits” and “movement restrictions.”
The report provides a list naming the various individual journalists and media organizations entering Syria during the mission’s mandate, and concludes: “The Government had accredited 147 Arab and foreign media organizations. Some 112 of those organizations entered Syrian territory, joining the 90 other accredited organizations operating in Syria through their full-time correspondents.”
I should note that I was in Syria doing research for some articles during the mission’s investigations and that I am not on the list. While my own visa was arranged through a connected non-Syrian friend, I know of other writers who entered the country without incident. I spent my time there freely interviewing many opposition groups and individuals and was at no time accompanied by government minders – or monitored, to the best of my knowledge.
Less fortunate was Gilles Jacqiuer, the France 2 Channel cameraman who was killed during a visit to a pro-regime neighborhood in Homs. The French government has loudly sought to implicate the Syrian government in this killing, but the mission says that “mission reports from Homs indicate that the French journalist was killed by opposition mortar shells.”
The report also refers to controversial statements made by several monitors who abandoned their positions and publicly criticized the mission afterward. Probably the most memorable of these is Algerian Anwar Malek who famously claimed on Al Jazeera: “What I saw was a humanitarian disaster…The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people. The snipers are everywhere, shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released.”
The Arab League released a terse statement in response, saying Malek’s allegation “does not relate to the truth in any way,” and claiming instead, that “since he was assigned to the Homs team, Malek did not leave the hotel for six days and did not go out with the rest of the team into the field giving the excuse that he was sick.”
The report further expounds: “Some observers reneged on their duties and broke the oath they had taken. They made contact with officials from their countries and gave them exaggerated accounts of events. Those officials consequently developed a bleak and unfounded picture of the situation.”
Mission Success or Failure?
The report concludes with some pessimism: because of early logistical and other difficulties, the mission only actually operated for 23 days out of its month-long mandate. There is a need for better transportation, communication equipment – and most importantly – the necessary “media and political support” to complete its mandate.
On a positive note, the mission stresses that the Syrian regime “strived to help it succeed in its task and remove any barriers that might stand in its way. The Government also facilitated meetings with all parties. No restrictions were placed on the movement of the Mission and its ability to interview Syrian citizens, both those who opposed the Government and those loyal to it.”
Most critically, however, the report recommends a change in the Protocol’s mandate, namely, the “commitment of all sides to cease all acts of violence.” This, for the first time, introduces the notion that the Syrian government may not be entirely responsible for the civilian casualty numbers flaunted in media reports. And it is an important point – regular soldiers reportedly account for approximately 2,000 deaths in the country since March 2011.
But the observers warn: “Recently, there have been incidents that could widen the gap and increase bitterness between the parties. These incidents can have grave consequences and lead to the loss of life and property. Such incidents include the bombing of buildings, trains carrying fuel, vehicles carrying diesel oil and explosions targeting the police, members of the media and fuel pipelines. Some of those attacks have been carried out by the Free Syrian Army and some by other armed opposition groups.”
The “citizens” of Syria with whom they met – some of whom suffer from “extreme tension, oppression and injustice” – “believe the crisis should be resolved peacefully through Arab mediation alone, without international intervention. Doing so would allow them to live in peace and complete the reform process and bring about the change they desire.”
This is a narrative that is entirely missing in the mainstream media’s coverage of the Syrian crisis. The complicity of armed groups in escalating the violence initially started by the Syrian government; the compliance of the regime in advancing the Arab League Protocol’s demands; the rejection by ordinary citizens of internationalizing and militarizing the conflict.
Read the mission report. Conclude what you will. But admit that possibly the worst thing that can be done at this critical juncture is to suspend the Arab League mission’s investigations and interventions. If the mission is halted, civilians will lose protection in this conflict, facts will be hard to come by, and intermediaries on the ground in Syria will be nonexistent. Violence escalated after the mission took its leave to file the report. Inserting them back into the ring is unarguably the right course of action, particularly as it appears the UN Security Council is, today, at an impasse.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.
- Arab Observer Chief Satisfied: “Allegations against Syria Mission Untrue” (alethonews.wordpress.com)
A former U.S. police chief – whose “horrific” crackdown on protesters in Miami in 2003 drew condemnation from the Amnesty International- is now on the ground in Bahrain to train the security forces in the Persian Gulf nation, a human rights activist says.
The Bahraini government which has been repressing anti-regime protesters since mid-February last year now has one of America’s “most notorious police chiefs” to train its security forces, Mohammed Malik, who is also an organizer of Occupy Miami, told Press TV’s U.S. Desk.
“We continue to see the crackdown and this is an embarrassment to be an American and see that,” Malik said.
John Timoney was chief of the Miami Police for seven years and his heavy-handed policing of protests around the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 and the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit meeting in Miami in 2003 has made him controversial.
- Bahraini forces injure 12 protesters (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- Bahrain: Car Bomb in Capital Follows Appointment of American and British Police Chiefs to Lead ‘Reforms’ by Finian Cunningham (dandelionsalad.wordpress.com)