In recent weeks the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has slowed from a peak of more than 1,000 new cases per week to 99 confirmed cases during the week of February 22, according to the World Health Organization. For two countries who have taken diametrically opposed approaches to combating the disease, the stark difference in the results achieved over the last five months has become evident.
The United States, which sent about 2,800 military troops to the region in October, has announced an end to its relief mission. Most soldiers have already returned. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby declared the mission a “success.” The criteria for this determination is unclear, as the troops did not treat a single patient, much less save a single life.
President Barack Obama proclaimed the American response to the crisis “an example of American leadership.” In the case of Ebola, as is the case “whenever and wherever a disaster or disease strikes,” according to Obama, “the world looks to us to lead.” The President claimed that the troops contributed not only by their own efforts, but by serving as a “force multiplier” that increased the ability of others to contribute. Apparently the U.S. forces also have the effect of divine inspiration.
This is an example of “American values,” Obama declares, which “matter to the world.” The “American leadership” is one more example of “what makes us exceptional,” according to Obama, as is the case “whether it’s recession, or war, or terrorism.”
Anything that Americans do is exemplary of these “values,” which by virtue of American supremacy are superior to those of people from any other nation.
When you look behind the President and the Pentagon’s rhetoric, it becomes more difficult to find concrete examples of success in the U.S. military mission to Africa. From the beginning, the capacity of American troops to make a difference in containing and eliminating a medical disease was questionable, to say the least.
In October, the Daily Beast reported that soldiers would receive only four hours of training in preparation for their deployment to Africa. That is half of a regular work day for people with no medical background. When they arrived, they did not exactly hit the ground running. “The first 500 soldiers to arrive have been holing up in Liberian hotels and government facilities while the military builds longer-term infrastructure on the ground,” wrote Tim Mak.
The DoD declared on its Web site that “the Defense Department made critical contributions to the fight against the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa. Chief among these were the deployment of men and women in uniform to Monrovia, Liberia, as part of Operation United Assistance.” So, the chief contribution of the DoD was sending people in military uniforms to the site of the outbreak.
The DoD lists among its accomplishments training 1,539 health care workers & support staff (presumably non-technical and cursory); creating 10 Ebola treatment units (which you could count on your fingers); and construction of a 25-bed medical unit (for a country that has had 10,000 cases of Ebola).
USAID declares that “the United States has done more than any other country to help West Africa respond to the Ebola crisis.” Like the DoD, they are short on quantitative measurements for their assertions and long on abstractions. In vague business-speak, USAID says they “worked with UN and NGO partners,” “partnered with the U.S. military,” and “expanded the pipeline of medical equipment and critical supplies to the region.”
While the USAID personnel have clearly helped facilitate the delivery of equipment and supplies. this is far from proof that the U.S. has done more than any other country. By the end of April, all but 100 U.S. troops will have left West Africa, to continue what Obama called the “civilian response.” The transition to the civilian response seems as vague, and on a much smaller scale than the military response.
The U.S. response did involve many people and several hundred millions of dollars, which is, indeed, more than most countries contributed. But an examination of the facts shows that the U.S. played mostly a support role, involved in collaboration with other actors in the tangential aspects of the crisis. U.S. government employees were not directly involved in treating any patients. Their role was rather to help other health workers and officials on the front lines who actually did. To say this is an example of American leadership and exceptionalism seems like a vast embellishment.
The other country who has taken a very public role in the Ebola crisis is Cuba. Unlike the U.S., Cuba sent nearly 500 professional healthcare workers – doctors and nurses – to treat African patients who had contracted Ebola. These included doctors from the Henry Reeve Brigade, which has served over the last decade in response to the most high-profile disasters in the world, including in Haiti and Pakistan. In Haiti, the group was instrumental in detecting and treating cholera, which had been introduced by UN peace keepers. The disease sickened and killed thousands of Haitians.
Before being deployed to West Africa, all the Cuban doctors and nurses completed an “intense training” of a minimum of two weeks, where they “prepared in the form of treating patients without exposing themselves to the deadly virus,” according to CNN.
After Cuba announced its plan to mobilize what Cubans call the “army of white robes,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that “human resources are clearly our most important need.”
“Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission,” she said. “We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses” to work under “very demanding conditions.”
Like their American counterparts, Cuban authorities also recently proclaimed success in fighting Ebola. They used a clear definition of what they meant.
“We have managed to save the lives of 260 people who were in a very very bad state, and through our treatment, they were cured and have gotten on with their lives,” said Jorge Delgado, head of the medical brigade, at a conference in Geneva on Foreign Medical Teams involved in fighting the Ebola crisis.
The work of the Henry Reeve Brigade was recognized by Norwegian Trade Unions who nominated the group for the Nobel Peace Prize “for saving lives and helping millions of suffering people around the world.”
The European Commission for humanitarian aid and crisis management last week also “recognized the role Cuba has played in fighting the Ebola epidemic.”
For more than 50 years, Cuba has carried out medical missions across the globe – beginning in Algeria after the revolution in 1961 and taking place in poor countries desperately needing medical care throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. They have provided 1.2 billion consultations, 2.2 million births, 5 million operations and immunizations for 12 million children and pregnant women, according to Granma.
“In their direct fight against death, the human quality of the members of the Henry Reeve brigade is strengthened, and for those in need around the world, they represent welcome assistance,” writes Nuria Barbosa León.
The mission of the DoD is one of military involvement worldwide. As Nick Turse reports in TomDispatch, U.S. military activity on the African continent is growing at an astounding rate. The military “averages about one and a half missions a day. This represents a 217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises since the command was established in 2008,” Turse writes. He says the DoD is calling “Africa the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”
Turse writes that the U.S. military is quietly replicating its failed counterinsurgency strategy in Africa, under the guise of humanitarian activities. “If history is any guide, humanitarian efforts by AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa will grow larger and ever more expensive, until they join the long list of projects that have become ‘monuments of U.S. failure’ around the world,” he writes.
There are some enlightening pieces of information listed by the DoD as part of the “transition to Operation Onward Liberty.” The DoD “will build partnership capacity with the Armed Forces of Liberia” and will “continue military to military engagement in ways that support Liberia’s growth toward enduring peace and security.”
It is unclear what role the U.S. military will help their Liberian counterparts play, unless peace and security is considered from the perspective of multinational corporations who have their eyes on large oil reserves, rather than the perspective of the local population.
In Liberia, as in most of Africa, Washington’s IMF and World Bank-imposed neoliberal policies have further savaged a continent devastated by 300 years of European colonialism. Any U.S. military involvement in Liberia and elsewhere is likely to reflect the economic goals of the U.S. government, which primarily consist of continuing the implementation of the Washington consensus.
The U.S. military, unsurprisingly, seems to be using the Ebola crisis as a pretext to expand its reach inside Africa, consistent with the pattern of the last seven years that Turse describes. The deployment of several thousand troops to West Africa can be understood as a P.R. stunt that is the public face of counterinsurgency.
U.S. troops are used as props. The idea is to associate them with humanitarianism, rather than death and destruction. But a true humanitarian mission would be conducted by civilian agencies and professionals who are trained and experienced specifically in medicine, construction and administration, not by soldiers trained to kill and pacify war zones.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, warned last fall about the dangers of conceiving of a “war on terror template” in response to a disease such as Ebola.
“Countering Ebola will require a whole new set of protections and priorities, which should emerge from the medical and public health communities. The now sadly underfunded National Institutes of Health and other such organizations have been looking at possible pandemic situations for years,” Greenberg writes. “It is imperative that our officials heed the lessons of their research as they have failed to do many times over with their counterparts in public policy in the war on terror years.”
The approaches of the United States and Cuban governments to the Ebola epidemic are a study in contrasts. The goals that led to these policy choices are clear. And after nearly six months on the ground, the difference between a military and a technical assistance mission can easily be evaluated. The results speak for themselves.
When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker compared labor unions to ISIS his audience cheered. At the end of the speech he got a standing ovation. His wealthy audience hated labor unions that much.
In fact, the 1% despises unions much more than they hate ISIS. Islamic extremists in the Syrian desert pose no threat to anyone in the U.S., while labor unions pose a direct threat to the profits of the super rich.
Conversely, the average U.S. worker has much more to fear from Scott Walker than any knife-wielding Jihadist. For example, Scott Walker is subtly campaigning for president among the elite by bragging about his successful butchering of Wisconsin unions, a model that he and his supporters hope to spread nationally.
Walker is idolized by the super rich for having dismembered Wisconsin unions in a way that recalls Ronald Reagan’s smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981. The rich view Walker as a Reagan-like messiah who will transform labor relations yet again, giving corporations still more power in relation to the U.S. workforce.
For example, Walker’s anti-union laws have reduced union membership in Wisconsin by 50 percent since he defeated the “Wisconsin Uprising” in 2011, a battle victory that the super rich consider more heroic than the campaigns of any current military general.
The deathblow that Walker delivered to Wisconsin public unions devastated the powerful teacher union that has been the target of the 1% nationally, as reflected in Obama’s anti-union Race to the Top education policies that have weakened teacher unions in every state.
Walker’s stunning 2011 victory has been studied across the country by politicians inspired to follow in Walker’s footsteps by striking at the heart of union power, rather than the decades-long practice of chipping around the edges. The Walker copycat craze was described by the New York Times :
“[Governor Walker] has already emboldened other Republican-controlled states to enact measures that weaken unions and cut benefits. Tennessee and Idaho passed laws that cut back bargaining rights for public schoolteachers… Even longtime union strongholds like Michigan and Indiana have enacted right-to-work laws that undercut private-sector unions…”
Now the Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, is imitating Walker by signing an executive order that would cripple public sector unions in his state, which includes a direct attack on the very powerful Chicago Teachers Union. The president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Karen Lewis, recently called the Illinois governor “Scott Walker on steroids.” All the conditions for a Wisconsin-like clash in Illinois have been set.
Scott Walker himself discussed the national significance of his actions in Wisconsin:
“I’m at the top of the list of people they’d [labor unions] have on a platter. Not just for retribution, but they understand that if they could take me out [electorally], it would send a very powerful message to other governors and other mayors. But if we’re able to win again in a tough, evenly divided battleground state, that would send another message — that you can take on some of these issues and still survive.”
Walker is right. He struck at the heart of union power and won. The unions blinked first. And Walker wants to take the Wisconsin model nationwide. In the same speech that Walker compared unions to ISIS he said:
“If we can do it in Wisconsin, there’s no doubt we can do it across America.” He was talking about crushing unions, and his wealthy audience cheered wildly.
But Walker isn’t resting on his laurels after crushing Wisconsin unions. Now that he’s unofficially running for president he has to maintain his anti-union momentum, to convince the rich that he’ll continue his “bold” anti-worker agenda if elected. Walker has thus voiced support of new Wisconsin legislation that would eviscerate what little power Wisconsin unions have left.
The New York Times acknowledged the political motive for Walker’s new attack on Wisconsin unions:
“As Mr. Walker builds a presidential run on his effort to take on unions four years ago, he is poised to deliver a second walloping blow to labor.”
Scott Walker, however, can’t be blamed for everything. Wisconsin unions are not mere victims, but powerful actors that pursued bad strategy. When the unions were mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters alongside an activated rank and file, they backed down from Walker instead of organizing mass civil disobedience or advocating a general strike.
Instead, Wisconsin unions wasted their momentum by collecting signatures for a recall election, where they stupidly backed an anti-union Democrat against Walker. Surviving the re-call election further empowered Walker and weakened the unions.
And the unions were weakened even further recently when Walker won his re-election campaign. Yet again, the Wisconsin unions threw their weight behind an uninspiring corporate Democrat, who completely ignored union issues in her losing campaign that wasted enormous union resources. The Wall Street Journal correctly noted that the recent Wisconsin gubernatorial election signaled “a historic shift in the power of unions,” exposing the weakness of their political strategy.
Scott Walker’s new anti-union attack in Wisconsin has provoked fresh calls for a general strike to stop the legislation. If Wisconsin unions have the organizational power to win a general strike they should immediately begin preparations for it. However, it’s unclear if the rump that remains of the Wisconsin movement is organized enough to win a general strike, and losing one would certainly encourage Walker to napalm what remains of the Wisconsin labor movement.
Scott Walker and his followers have made it clear: they are declaring total war on unions, who can either fight back or accept their fate. The labor movement must engage its rank and file over a national discussion on fighting back and strategy.
Many unions remain suicidally content with burying their heads in the sand and hoping the attackers go away. Other unions, however, are taking powerful, pro-active steps to defend themselves.
SEIU, for example, was one of the Wisconsin unions in 2011 that got their teeth kicked in. Consequently they initiated a national campaign for “$15 and a union,” a masterstroke that has directly led to thundering union victories in Seattle and San Francisco that won a citywide $15 minimum wage. Such a campaign is now being mimicked statewide by Oregon’s labor movement.
The $15 campaign has inspired low wage workers across the country, making the West Coast unions less vulnerable to “right to work” legislation, since an active and strong labor movement is itself a repellent to anti-union attacks. The $15 campaigns have arguably been the biggest victories for unions in decades, especially given the current political climate. These unions have dominated the public political discussion and multiplied the popularity of unions in the broader community.
Also critically important are the actions of unions across the country that are building political programs such as “labor candidate schools,” where union members are being trained and encouraged to run for office. Ohio unions showed the potential of such a strategy by running for and winning several elections against Democrats, prompting calls for the creation of a labor party. This is crucially important given the events in Wisconsin, where unions tied their fate to the Democrats, who dragged the unions underwater in losing campaigns that wasted millions of their members’ money.
The U.S. labor movement has reached a historic crossroads, as labor relations in the United States are undergoing dramatic, sudden shifts. The only way to answer the aggressiveness of Scott Walker and his clones is by aggressively throwing counter punches that mobilize union members and the community. The Steelworkers union is waging its first strike in decades and other unions must re-learn how to effectively organize lest they die without a fight.
Shamus Cooke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By | February 26, 2015
Despite polls showing overwhelming support for labeling for genetically engineered foods, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed yesterday that consumers should use their smartphones to scan bar codes on food packages to find out whether their food contains GMOs.
Vlisack’s idea is sure to cheer the food industry, while denying Americans the right to know what is in our food.
Why not just enforce our right to know what is in our food? Why does the Obama administration stand up for Big Food and not consumers?
A fancy smart phone and a pricy data plan should not be prerequisites for knowing if your food has been genetically engineered.
In 2007, as a presidential candidate, then-Senator Obama promised mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. He said: “Here’s what I’ll do as president … We’ll let folks know if their food has been genetically modified, because Americans should know what they’re buying,” Obama has yet to keep his promise.
In 2001, then-Governor Vilsack was named Governor of the Year for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
From Torture to Drone Assassination, How Washington Gave Itself a Global Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card
“The sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” said conservative thinker Carl Schmitt in 1922, meaning that a nation’s leader can defy the law to serve the greater good. Though Schmitt’s service as Nazi Germany’s chief jurist and his unwavering support for Hitler from the night of the long knives to Kristallnacht and beyond damaged his reputation for decades, today his ideas have achieved unimagined influence. They have, in fact, shaped the neo-conservative view of presidential power that has become broadly bipartisan since 9/11. Indeed, Schmitt has influenced American politics directly through his intellectual protégé Leo Strauss who, as an émigré professor at the University of Chicago, trained Bush administration architects of the Iraq war Paul Wolfowitz and Abram Shulsky.
All that should be impressive enough for a discredited, long dead authoritarian thinker. But Schmitt’s dictum also became a philosophical foundation for the exercise of American global power in the quarter century that followed the end of the Cold War. Washington, more than any other power, created the modern international community of laws and treaties, yet it now reserves the right to defy those same laws with impunity. A sovereign ruler should, said Schmitt, discard laws in times of national emergency. So the United States, as the planet’s last superpower or, in Schmitt’s terms, its global sovereign, has in these years repeatedly ignored international law, following instead its own unwritten rules of the road for the exercise of world power.
Just as Schmitt’s sovereign preferred to rule in a state of endless exception without a constitution for his Reich, so Washington is now well into the second decade of an endless War on Terror that seems the sum of its exceptions to international law: endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy. Yet these many American exceptions are just surface manifestations of the ever-expanding clandestine dimension of the American state. Created at the cost of more than a trillion dollars since 9/11, the purpose of this vast apparatus is to control a covert domain that is fast becoming the main arena for geopolitical contestation in the twenty-first century.
This should be (but seldom is considered) a jarring, disconcerting path for a country that, more than any other, nurtured the idea of, and wrote the rules for, an international community of nations governed by the rule of law. At the First Hague Peace Conference in 1899, the U.S. delegate, Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University, pushed for the creation of a Permanent Court of Arbitration and persuaded Andrew Carnegie to build the monumental Peace Palace at The Hague as its home. At the Second Hague Conference in 1907, Secretary of State Elihu Root urged that future international conflicts be resolved by a court of professional jurists, an idea realized when the Permanent Court of International Justice was established in 1920.
After World War II, the U.S. used its triumph to help create the United Nations, push for the adoption of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ratify the Geneva Conventions for humanitarian treatment in war. If you throw in other American-backed initiatives like the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank, you pretty much have the entire infrastructure of what we now casually call “the international community.”
Breaking the Rules
Not only did the U.S. play a crucial role in writing the new rules for that community, but it almost immediately began breaking them. After all, despite the rise of the other superpower, the Soviet Union, Washington was by then the world sovereign and so could decide which should be the exceptions to its own rules, particularly to the foundational principle for all this global governance: sovereignty. As it struggled to dominate the hundred new nations that started appearing right after the war, each one invested with an inviolable sovereignty, Washington needed a new means of projecting power beyond conventional diplomacy or military force. As a result, CIA covert operations became its way of intervening within a new world order where you couldn’t or at least shouldn’t intervene openly.
All of the exceptions that really matter spring from America’s decision to join what former spy John Le Carré called that “squalid procession of vain fools, traitors… sadists, and drunkards,” and embrace espionage in a big way after World War II. Until the creation of the CIA in 1947, the United States had been an innocent abroad in the world of intelligence. When General John J. Pershing led two million American troops to Europe during World War I, the U.S. had the only army on either side of the battle lines without an intelligence service. Even though Washington built a substantial security apparatus during that war, it was quickly scaled back by Republican conservatives during the 1920s. For decades, the impulse to cut or constrain such secret agencies remained robustly bipartisan, as when President Harry Truman abolished the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), right after World War II or when President Jimmy Carter fired 800 CIA covert operatives after the Vietnam War.
Yet by fits and starts, the covert domain inside the U.S. government has grown stealthily from the early twentieth century to this moment. It began with the formation of the FBI in 1908 and Military Intelligence in 1917. The Central Intelligence Agency followed after World War II along with most of the alphabet agencies that make up the present U.S. Intelligence Community, including the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and last but hardly least, in 2004, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Make no mistake: there is a clear correlation between state secrecy and the rule of law — as one grows, the other surely shrinks.
America’s irrevocable entry into this covert netherworld came when President Truman deployed his new CIA to contain Soviet subversion in Europe. This was a continent then thick with spies of every stripe: failed fascists, aspirant communists, and everything in between. Introduced to spycraft by its British “cousins,” the CIA soon mastered it in part by establishing sub rosa ties to networks of ex-Nazi spies, Italian fascist operatives, and dozens of continental secret services.
As the world’s new sovereign, Washington used the CIA to enforce its chosen exceptions to the international rule of law, particularly to the core principle of sovereignty. During his two terms, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized 104 covert operations on four continents, focused largely on controlling the many new nations then emerging from centuries of colonialism. Eisenhower’s exceptions included blatant transgressions of national sovereignty such as turning northern Burma into an unwilling springboard for abortive invasions of China, arming regional revolts to partition Indonesia, and overthrowing elected governments in Guatemala and Iran. By the time Eisenhower left office in 1961, covert ops had acquired such a powerful mystique in Washington that President John F. Kennedy would authorize 163 of them in the three years that preceded his assassination.
As a senior CIA official posted to the Near East in the early 1950s put it, the Agency then saw every Muslim leader who was not pro-American as “a target legally authorized by statute for CIA political action.” Applied on a global scale and not just to Muslims, this policy helped produce a distinct “reverse wave” in the global trend towards democracy from 1958 to 1975, as coups — most of them U.S.-sanctioned — allowed military men to seize power in more than three-dozen nations, representing a quarter of the world’s sovereign states.
The White House’s “exceptions” also produced a deeply contradictory U.S. attitude toward torture from the early years of the Cold War onward. Publicly, Washington’s opposition to torture was manifest in its advocacy of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Geneva Conventions in 1949. Simultaneously and secretly, however, the CIA began developing ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of those same international conventions. After a decade of mind-control research, the CIA actually codified its new method of psychological torture in a secret instructional handbook, the “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual, which it then disseminated within the U.S. Intelligence Community and to allied security services worldwide.
Much of the torture that became synonymous with the era of authoritarian rule in Asia and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s seems to have originated in U.S. training programs that provided sophisticated techniques, up-to-date equipment, and moral legitimacy for the practice. From 1962 to 1974, the CIA worked through the Office of Public Safety (OPS), a division of the U.S. Agency for International Development that sent American police advisers to developing nations. Established by President Kennedy in 1962, in just six years OPS grew into a global anti-communist operation with over 400 U.S. police advisers. By 1971, it had trained more than a million policemen in 47 nations, including 85,000 in South Vietnam and 100,000 in Brazil.
Concealed within this larger OPS effort, CIA interrogation training became synonymous with serious human rights abuses, particularly in Iran, the Philippines, South Vietnam, Brazil, and Uruguay. Amnesty International documented widespread torture, usually by local police, in 24 of the 49 nations that had hosted OPS police-training teams. In tracking torturers across the globe, Amnesty seemed to be following the trail of CIA training programs. Significantly, torture began to recede when America again turned resolutely against the practice at the end of the Cold War.
The War on Terror
Although the CIA’s authority for assassination, covert intervention, surveillance, and torture was curtailed at the close of the Cold War, the terror attacks of September 2001 sparked an unprecedented expansion in the scale of the intelligence community and a corresponding resurgence in executive exceptions. The War on Terror’s voracious appetite for information produced, in its first decade, what the Washington Post branded a veritable “fourth branch” of the U.S. federal government with 854,000 vetted security officials, 263 security organizations, over 3,000 private and public intelligence agencies, and 33 new security complexes — all pumping out a total of 50,000 classified intelligence reports annually by 2010.
By that time, one of the newest members of the Intelligence Community, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, already had 16,000 employees, a $5 billion budget, and a massive nearly $2 billion headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Maryland — all aimed at coordinating the flood of surveillance data pouring in from drones, U-2 spy planes, Google Earth, and orbiting satellites.
According to documents whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked to the Washington Post, the U.S. spent $500 billion on its intelligence agencies in the dozen years after the 9/11 attacks, including annual appropriations in 2012 of $11 billion for the National Security Agency (NSA) and $15 billion for the CIA. If we add the $790 billion expended on the Department of Homeland Security to that $500 billion for overseas intelligence, then Washington had spent nearly $1.3 trillion to build a secret state-within-the-state of absolutely unprecedented size and power.
As this secret state swelled, the world’s sovereign decided that some extraordinary exceptions to civil liberties at home and sovereignty abroad were in order. The most glaring came with the CIA’s now-notorious renewed use of torture on suspected terrorists and its setting up of its own global network of private prisons, or “black sites,” beyond the reach of any court or legal authority. Along with piracy and slavery, the abolition of torture had long been a signature issue when it came to the international rule of law. So strong was this principle that the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously in 1984 to adopt the Convention Against Torture. When it came to ratifying it, however, Washington dithered on the subject until the end of the Cold War when it finally resumed its advocacy of international justice, participating in the World Conference on Human Rights at Vienna in 1993 and, a year later, ratifying the U.N. Convention Against Torture.
Even then, the sovereign decided to reserve some exceptions for his country alone. Only a year after President Bill Clinton signed the U.N. Convention, CIA agents started snatching terror suspects in the Balkans, some of them Egyptian nationals, and sending them to Cairo, where a torture-friendly autocracy could do whatever it wanted to them in its prisons. Former CIA director George Tenet later testified that, in the years before 9/11, the CIA shipped some 70 individuals to foreign countries without formal extradition — a process dubbed “extraordinary rendition” that had been explicitly banned under Article 3 of the U.N. Convention.
Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his staff wide-ranging secret orders to use torture, adding (in a vernacular version of Schmitt’s dictum),“I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” In this spirit, the White House authorized the CIA to develop that global matrix of secret prisons, as well as an armada of planes for spiriting kidnapped terror suspects to them, and a network of allies who could help seize those suspects from sovereign states and levitate them into a supranational gulag of eight agency black sites from Thailand to Poland or into the crown jewel of the system, Guantánamo, thus eluding laws and treaties that remained grounded in territorially based concepts of sovereignty.
Once the CIA closed the black sites in 2008-2009, its collaborators in this global gulag began to feel the force of law for their crimes against humanity. Under pressure from the Council of Europe, Poland started an ongoing criminal investigation in 2008 into its security officers who had facilitated the CIA’s secret prison in the country’s northeast. In September 2012, Italy’s supreme court confirmed the convictions of 22 CIA agents for the illegal rendition of Egyptian exile Abu Omar from Milan to Cairo, and ordered a trial for Italy’s military intelligence chief on charges that sentenced him to 10 years in prison. In 2012, Scotland Yard opened a criminal investigation into MI6 agents who rendered Libyan dissidents to Colonel Gaddafi’s prisons for torture, and two years later the Court of Appeal allowed some of those Libyans to file a civil suit against MI6 for kidnapping and torture.
But not the CIA. Even after the Senate’s 2014 Torture Report documented the Agency’s abusive tortures in painstaking detail, there was no move for either criminal or civil sanctions against those who had ordered torture or those who had carried it out. In a strong editorial on December 21, 2014, the New York Times asked “whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to have perpetual immunity.” The answer, of course, was yes. Immunity for hirelings is one of the sovereign’s most important exceptions.
As President Bush finished his second term in 2008, an inquiry by the International Commission of Jurists found that the CIA’s mobilization of allied security agencies worldwide had done serious damage to the international rule of law. “The executive… should under no circumstance invoke a situation of crisis to deprive victims of human rights violations… of their… access to justice,” the Commission recommended after documenting the degradation of civil liberties in some 40 countries. “State secrecy and similar restrictions must not impede the right to an effective remedy for human rights violations.”
The Bush years also brought Washington’s most blatant repudiation of the rule of law. Once the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC) convened at The Hague in 2002, the Bush White House “un-signed” or “de-signed” the U.N. agreement creating the court and then mounted a sustained diplomatic effort to immunize U.S. military operations from its writ. This was an extraordinary abdication for the nation that had breathed the concept of an international tribunal into being.
The Sovereign’s Unbounded Domains
While Presidents Eisenhower and Bush decided on exceptions that violated national boundaries and international treaties, President Obama is exercising his exceptional prerogatives in the unbounded domains of aerospace and cyberspace.
Both are new, unregulated realms of military conflict beyond the rubric of international law and Washington believes it can use them as Archimedean levers for global dominion. Just as Britain once ruled from the seas and postwar America exercised its global reach via airpower, so Washington now sees aerospace and cyberspace as special realms for domination in the twenty-first century.
Under Obama, drones have grown from a tactical Band-Aid in Afghanistan into a strategic weapon for the exercise of global power. From 2009 to 2015, the CIA and the U.S. Air Force deployed a drone armada of over 200 Predators and Reapers, launching 413 strikes in Pakistan alone, killing as many as 3,800 people. Every Tuesday inside the White House Situation Room, as the New York Times reported in 2012, President Obama reviews a CIA drone “kill list” and stares at the faces of those who are targeted for possible assassination from the air. He then decides, without any legal procedure, who will live and who will die, even in the case of American citizens. Unlike other world leaders, this sovereign applies the ultimate exception across the Greater Middle East, parts of Africa, and elsewhere if he chooses.
This lethal success is the cutting edge of a top-secret Pentagon project that will, by 2020, deploy a triple-canopy space “shield” from stratosphere to exosphere, patrolled by Global Hawk and X-37B drones armed with agile missiles.
As Washington seeks to police a restless globe from sky and space, the world might well ask: How high is any nation’s sovereignty? After the successive failures of the Paris flight conference of 1910, the Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare of 1923, and Geneva’s Protocol I of 1977 to establish the extent of sovereign airspace or restrain aerial warfare, some puckish Pentagon lawyer might reply: only as high as you can enforce it.
President Obama has also adopted the NSA’s vast surveillance system as a permanent weapon for the exercise of global power. At the broadest level, such surveillance complements Obama’s overall defense strategy, announced in 2012, of cutting conventional forces while preserving U.S. global power through a capacity for “a combined arms campaign across all domains: land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace.” In addition, it should be no surprise that, having pioneered the war-making possibilities of cyberspace, the president did not hesitate to launch the first cyberwar in history against Iran.
By the end of Obama’s first term, the NSA could sweep up billions of messages worldwide through its agile surveillance architecture. This included hundreds of access points for penetration of the Worldwide Web’s fiber optic cables; ancillary intercepts through special protocols and “backdoor” software flaws; supercomputers to crack the encryption of this digital torrent; and a massive data farm in Bluffdale, Utah, built at a cost of $2 billion to store yottabytes of purloined data.
Even after angry Silicon Valley executives protested that the NSA’s “backdoor” software surveillance threatened their multi-trillion-dollar industry, Obama called the combination of Internet information and supercomputers “a powerful tool.” He insisted that, as “the world’s only superpower,” the United States “cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.” In other words, the sovereign cannot sanction any exceptions to his panoply of exceptions.
Revelations from Edward Snowden’s cache of leaked documents in late 2013 indicate that the NSA has conducted surveillance of leaders in some 122 nations worldwide, 35 of them closely, including Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After her forceful protest, Obama agreed to exempt Merkel’s phone from future NSA surveillance, but reserved the right, as he put it, to continue to “gather information about the intentions of governments… around the world.” The sovereign declined to say which world leaders might be exempted from his omniscient gaze.
Can there be any question that, in the decades to come, Washington will continue to violate national sovereignty through old-style covert as well as open interventions, even as it insists on rejecting any international conventions that restrain its use of aerospace or cyberspace for unchecked force projection, anywhere, anytime? Extant laws or conventions that in any way check this power will be violated when the sovereign so decides. These are now the unwritten rules of the road for our planet. They represent the real American exceptionalism.
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is the author of Torture & Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, among other works.
Copyright 2015 Alfred W. McCoy
The US definition of assassination in a 1953 instruction manual includes that assassination is “the planned killing of a person who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the killer”, “whose death provides positive advantages” to the organization that performs the killing.
All conceivable methods for carrying out and hiding or publicizing assassinations, depending on the situation, have long been conceived by US militants. The following is a brief sample of tips and tricks advised by the US:
Orders for secret assassinations will never “be written or recorded.”
“All planning must be mental; no papers should ever contain evidence of the operation.”
Discussion of the assassination will be “confined to an absolute minimum of persons. Ideally, only one person will be involved.”
“Except in terroristic assassinations”, in which publicity is necessary for psychological effect, the assassin “should have an absolute minimum of contact with the rest of the organization and his instructions should be given orally by one person only.” This leaves no tracks and helps keep the operation secret, confined to an inner circle of the most vetted, reliable killers.
Sometimes, to help conceal the act, an unwitting person is to be used and “killed with the subject”. These types of operations are called “lost”.
In lost operations, the US advises using mentally unstable individuals, or “fanatics”, who can be used, killed in the operation, and blamed entirely, allowing the US to deny involvement.
“In lost assassination, the assassin must be a fanatic of some sort. Politics, religion, and revenge are about the only feasible motives. Since a fanatic is unstable psychologically, he must be handled with extreme care. He must not know the identities of the other members of the organization, for although it is intended that he die in the act, something may go wrong.”
When it is desired that a killing is not revealed as an assassination, “the contrived accident is the most effective technique.”
“The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.”
The assassin can then play the “horrified witness”, so that “no alibi or surreptitious withdrawal is necessary”.
Sometimes, as in the US assassination of civil rights leader Fred Hampton, it will be necessary to “drug the subject” before killing him.
Particularly if “the subject is under medical care”, killing him or her with “drugs can be very effective”. “An overdose of morphine administered as a sedative will cause death without disturbance and is difficult to detect.” (The US has since also been documented to have a gun that can shoot people with undetectable poisons that “caused heart attacks and cancer.”)
When firearms are used, they should be selected to “provide destructive power at least 100% in excess of that thought to be necessary”.
But since their “possession is often incriminating” and they “may be difficult to obtain”, often a “hammer”, “baseball ball”, or a “heavy stick” is preferable to a firearm, especially due to “universal availability” of such objects. With these, blows need simply “be directed to the temple, the area just below and behind the ear, and the lower, rear portion of the skull. Of course, if the blow is very heavy, any portion of the upper skull will do.”
Using machine guns for assassination will usually “require the subversion of a unit of an official guard at a ceremony, though a skillful and determined team might conceivably dispose of a loyal gun crow [sic] without commotion and take over the gun at the critical time.”
If a shotgun is used the “barrel may be ‘sawed’ off for convenience”.
“The sound of the explosion of the proponent in a firearm can be effectively silenced by appropriate attachments”, though the use of silencers has been hyped beyond their effectiveness.
When Obama chooses to publicize his assassinations by intentionally leaking information about them to the press, they are thus here defined by the US as “terroristic”.
On using explosives for assassinations, the manual states that “in terroristic and open assassination[s]” like many of Obama’s, bombs “can provide safety” for the assassin and “overcome guard barriers” – and this was long before today’s advancements in remote-controlled bomb detonation, a method favored by Obama for executing suspects.
The manual states that one consideration when using explosives for assassination is the “moral” dilemma involved in “indiscriminate killing” of “casual bystanders”, though this has apparently been little deterrent for Obama, who, since entering office, has further relaxed official US standards on knowingly killing civilians.
Here is historian William Blum’s list of US assassinations or attempted assassinations of major leaders of foreign governments since 1945, when the US became the world’s dominant organization:
- 1949 – Kim Koo, Korean opposition leader
- 1950s – CIA/Neo-Nazi hit list of more than 200 political figures in West Germany to be “put out of the way” in the event of a Soviet invasion
- 1950s – Chou En-lai, Prime minister of China, several attempts on his life
- 1950s, 1962 – Sukarno, President of Indonesia
- 1951 – Kim Il Sung, Premier of North Korea
- 1953 – Mohammed Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran
- 1950s (mid) – Claro M. Recto, Philippines opposition leader
- 1955 – Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India
- 1957 – Gamal Abdul Nasser, President of Egypt
- 1959, 1963, 1969 – Norodom Sihanouk, leader of Cambodia
- 1960 – Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Kassem, leader of Iraq
- 1950s-70s – José Figueres, President of Costa Rica, two attempts on his life
- 1961 – Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, leader of Haiti
- 1961 – Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Congo (Zaire)
- 1961 – Gen. Rafael Trujillo, leader of Dominican Republic
- 1963 – Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam
- 1960s-70s – Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, many attempts on his life
- 1960s – Raúl Castro, high official in government of Cuba
- 1965 – Francisco Caamaño, Dominican Republic opposition leader
- 1965-6 – Charles de Gaulle, President of France
- 1967 – Che Guevara, Cuban leader
- 1970 – Salvador Allende, President of Chile
- 1970 – Gen. Rene Schneider, Commander-in-Chief of Army, Chile
- 1970s, 1981 – General Omar Torrijos, leader of Panama
- 1972 – General Manuel Noriega, Chief of Panama Intelligence
- 1975 – Mobutu Sese Seko, President of Zaire
- 1976 – Michael Manley, Prime Minister of Jamaica
- 1980-1986 – Muammar Qaddafi, leader of Libya, several plots and attempts upon his life
- 1982 – Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran
- 1983 – Gen. Ahmed Dlimi, Moroccan Army commander
- 1983 – Miguel d’Escoto, Foreign Minister of Nicaragua
- 1984 – The nine comandantes of the Sandinista National Directorate
- 1985 – Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanese Shiite leader (80 people killed in the attempt)
- 1991 – Saddam Hussein, leader of Iraq
- 1993 – Mohamed Farah Aideed, prominent clan leader of Somalia
- 1998, 2001-2 – Osama bin Laden, leading Islamic militant
- 1999 – Slobodan Milosevic, President of Yugoslavia
- 2002 – Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Afghan Islamic leader and warlord
- 2003 – Saddam Hussein and his two sons
- 2011 – Muammar Qaddafi, leader of Libya
Robert Barsocchini is an internationally published researcher and writer who focuses on global force dynamics and also writes professionally for the film industry. Follow Robert and his UK-based colleague, Dean Robinson, on Twitter.
Nine months into Barack Obama’s presidency, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation”. Six years on, has the 44th president of the United States lived up to his peacemaker laurels?
Humility and Power
“… our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please… our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” – First inaugural address, January 2009.
“We’re the largest, most powerful country on Earth… [America] is going to be the indispensable nation for the remainder of this century.” – January 2015, interview with Vox magazine
“Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?“ – Candidate Obama in a June 2008 speech in Berlin, Germany
August 2014 news conference: “We tortured some folks… We did some things that were contrary to our values.”
“… might does not make right…Citizens, like nations, will never settle for a world where the big are allowed to bully the small. “ – Speaking in Tallinn, Estonia, September 2014
“We occasionally have to twist the arms of countries that wouldn’t do what we need them to do.” – February 2015 interview with Vox magazine
Embargoes don’t work…Do they?
President Obama announced lifting the embargo against Cuba in January 2015, because “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.”
In the same speech, Obama boasted that “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters,” due to sanctions by the US and EU governments for alleged Russian “provocations” in Ukraine.
“Ukraine must be free to decide its own destiny.” – Barack Obama, speaking in Estonia in September 2014
Legitimacy to lead
“A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country.” – Barack Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2014, referring to President Bashar Assad of Syria.
“…since ultimately there is no military solution to this crisis, we will continue to support President Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve peace.” – Tallinn, September 2014
Petro Poroshenko’s plan for peace in Ukraine:
International law matters?
Addressing an EU youth conference in Brussels, in March 2014, Obama said: “in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force … international law matters.”
Partner, not policeman
Secretary of State John Kerry introduced President Obama at the Summit to Counter Violent Extremism as someone who has “consistently sought to act not as the world’s policeman, but as the world’s partner.”
While he doesn’t have the option of “simply invading every country where disorder breaks out,” the overall goal “is a world in which America continues to lead,” Obama told Vox magazine.
Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is arguing for supplying arms to Ukraine, saying the US should counter Russia’s influence in the former Soviet Union and act as a global leader.
Dealing with Russia should be done from a position of “strength, not from weakness,” former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Der Spiegel in an interview published on Saturday, saying that giving Ukraine military aid would give Russia a “higher price to pay.”
“I would have provided arms to Ukraine early on because I think they need to have the military aid necessary to send Russia a message,” Panetta told the publication.
Panetta said that he doubts that the current ceasefire will last, saying that “like the last one, it will only be temporary unless the West is willing to enforce it with both economic and military support to the Ukrainians.”
Panetta added that he would act from a position of strength, and would also give more military aid to NATO countries which border Russia.
“The United States has to be a leader in the world, because the problem is: If we are not leading, nobody else will,” he added.
France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Finland have all rejected the idea of providing Ukraine with lethal assistance. Russia has warned that the proposed US arms deliveries to Kiev could lead to a sharp increase in violence in Donbas, where fighting intensified at the start of 2015. In addition, Russia denies that it is militarily involved in the conflict.
Leon Panetta was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2009 to 2011 and US Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013.
Last week President Obama sent Congress legislation to authorize him to use force against ISIS “and associated persons and forces” anywhere in the world for the next three years. This is a blank check for the president to start as many new wars as he wishes, and it appears Congress will go along with this dangerous and costly scheme.
Already the military budget for next year is equal to all but the very peak spending levels during the Vietnam war and the Reagan military build-up, according to the Project on Defense Alternatives. Does anyone want to guess how much will be added to military spending as a result of this new war authorization?
The US has already spent nearly two billion dollars fighting ISIS since this summer, and there hasn’t been much to show for it. A new worldwide war on ISIS will likely just serve as a recruiting tool for jihadists. We learned last week that our bombing has led to 20,000 new foreign fighters signing up to join ISIS. How many more will decide to join each time a new US bomb falls on a village or a wedding party?
The media makes a big deal about the so-called limitations on the president’s ability to use combat troops in this legislation, but in reality there is nothing that would add specific limits. The prohibition on troops for “enduring” or “offensive” ground combat operations is vague enough to be meaningless. Who gets to determine what “enduring” means? And how difficult is it to claim that any ground operation is “defensive” by saying it is meant to “defend” the US? Even the three year limit is just propaganda: who believes a renewal would not be all but automatic if the president comes back to Congress with the US embroiled in numerous new wars?
If this new request is not bad enough, the president has announced that he would be sending 600 troops into Ukraine next month, supposedly to help train that country’s military. Just as the Europeans seem to have been able to negotiate a ceasefire between the opposing sides in that civil war, President Obama plans to pour gasoline on the fire by sending in the US military. The ceasefire agreement signed last week includes a demand that all foreign military forces leave Ukraine. I think that is a good idea and will go a long way to reduce the tensions. But why does Obama think that restriction does not apply to us?
Last week also saw the Senate confirm Ashton Carter as the new Secretary of Defense by an overwhelming majority. Carter comes to the Pentagon straight from the military industrial complex, and he has already announced his support for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. Sen. John McCain’s strong praise for Carter is not a good sign that the new secretary will advise caution before undertaking new US interventions.
As we continue to teeter on the verge of economic catastrophe, Washington’s interventionists in both parties show no signs of slowing. The additional tens of billions or more that these new wars will cost will not only further undermine our economy, but will actually make us less safe. Can anyone point to a single success that the interventionists have had over the last 25 years?
As I have said, this militarism will end one way or the other. Either enough Americans will wake up and demand an end to Washington’s foreign adventurism, or we will go broke and be unable to spend another fiat dollar on maintaining the global US empire.
Nearly a decade ago, a keen observer of Honduras produced a damning analysis of the country. “In a very real sense, Honduras is a captured state,” he began. “Elite manipulation of the public sector, particularly the weak legal system, has turned it into a tool to protect the powerful,” and “voters choose mainly between the two major entrenched political parties, both beholden to the interests of individuals from the same economic elite.” The situation required a “strategy that will give people the means to influence public policy,” the report concluded.
Its author was James Williard, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Honduras in 2005. In the following years, Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president from 2006-2009, formulated a strategy like the one Williard mentioned. The country’s rulers reacted by toppling Zelaya in June 2009, manipulating the feeble legal system to justify his overthrow. Washington feigned outrage, but then recognized the marred November 2009 national election, its 2013 follow-up—and heaped supplies on the military. About “half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere” went to Honduras in 2011, Martha Mendoza disclosed, referring to the $1.3 billion in military electronics that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon” would explain.
Zelaya had planned to conduct a poll the day of the coup, to see whether the public desired a referendum on constitutional reform that November. “Critics said it was part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the Constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president,” New York Times reporter Elisabeth Malkin wrote immediately after the ouster.
That was the official line. But U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens had a different take. “The fact is we have no hard intelligence suggesting any consideration”—let alone effort—“by Zelaya or any members of his government to usurp democracy and suspend constitutional rule,” he wrote five days before the coup. Zelaya’s “public support” then was somewhere “in the 55 percent range,” with the poll’s as high as 75%. These figures signaled the nightmare. “Zelaya and his allies advocate radical reform of the political system and replacement of ‘representative democracy’ with a ‘participatory’ version modeled on President Correa’s model in Ecuador,” Llorens panicked.
He need not have. Repression crushed the hope of reform, and today’s Honduras recalls its 1980s death-squad heyday. The Constitution Zelaya allegedly violated dates from that era, and “contained perverse elements such as military autonomy from civilian control,” Michelle M. Taylor-Robinson explains, adding that “during the 1980s the military chief negotiated defense policy directly with the U.S. government and then informed the Honduran president of what was decided.”
General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez helmed the army until 1984. “Trained in Argentina, as he rose to power he openly declared to U.S. Ambassador Binns that he admired the Argentine methods used during the murderous Dirty Wars there and planned to use the same techniques in Honduras,” Jennifer Harbury notes. Álvarez wasn’t kidding. He proceeded to form Battalion 316, whose members the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies trained. One of its targets was union leader German Pérez Alemán. Battalion hit men forced him into a car on a busy street near Tegucigalpa’s airport, then killed him with torture. Journalist Oscar Reyes was another victim. “He was strung up naked and beaten ‘like a piñata,’” Harbury writes, while his wife, Gloria, “was given electrical shocks to the genitals that damaged her internal organs.”
Reagan dealt with Álvarez by awarding him the Legion of Merit in 1983. Now a new generation continues the Battalion’s work. “In the ’80s we had armed forces that were excessively empowered. Today Honduras is extremely similar,” activist Bertha Oliva stated, emphasizing that “the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant” then, and is now. “Military personnel now control state institutions that in the 1990s were taken from them,” added Héctor Becerra, Director of the Honduran Committee for Free Expression.
One example is the Public Order Military Police (PMOP, in Spanish), first deployed weeks before the 2013 election. That October 10, it “raided the home of Marco Antonio Rodriguez, Vice President of SITRAPANI (National Child Welfare Agency Workers’ Union),” then “broke down the doors” of seasoned activist Edwin Robelo Espinal’s home a few weeks later, human rights group PROAH reported. Several legislators opposed the law creating the PMOP. A top Honduran human rights official declared it unconstitutional. But not only was its champion, ex-Congressman Juan Orlando Hernández, allowed to retain his position—he’s now president.
And “since taking office in January 2014 [he] has presided over several deployments of soldiers and expanded the PMOP,” the Security Assistance Monitor points out. PROAH reviews some case studies in citizen security, like one “where the police have been complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two fishermen, and another where soldiers were directly responsible for the torture of two miners.” A former police agent, in a sworn statement, described other experiments in sadism “that implicate top level commanders of the national security forces,” according to TeleSUR. A “woman was taken to a security house in the exclusive Trejo neighborhood, interrogated for 48 hours, hanged and disappeared,” for example. The agent also recounted how his team had abducted three gang members, who “were tortured and killed. They were then decapitated and their bodies appeared in different parts of the city. A different head was placed on each body to make it more difficult to identify the person killed.”
International policy expert Alexander Main writes that U.S. support for Honduran militarization has been not only “tacit”—seen in “the steady increase of U.S. assistance to national armed forces” since the coup—but also “direct.” A DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST), for example, “set up camp in Honduras to train a local counternarcotics police unit” from 2011-2012. U.S. and Colombian Special Forces later instructed “a new ‘elite’ police unit called the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group” (TIGRES, in Spanish). When $1.3 million vanished in a drug raid last year, evidence emerged implicating dozens of TIGRES members. It seems the training paid off.
We can say the same of U.S. efforts to shape Honduran society. The “military simply did not exist in any institutionalized form” there for much of the 20th century, Kirk Bowman observes. This situation changed after the U.S. and Honduran governments signed a Bilateral Treaty of Military Assistance in May 1954. We see the outcomes today. The journalists gunned down by passing assassins, the poor farmers stalked and murdered for defending their land—this is as much a part of Obama’s Latin America legacy as his celebrated Cuba thaw.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
There is too often a gap between the Obama administration’s words and deeds when it comes to transparency on national security issues. Take, for example, whether the government should release information about the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody.
In a decade-old Freedom of Information Lawsuit the ACLU is still fighting, the administration recently told the court that it can’t release some 2,000 photos showing prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and other military detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason, the government says, is because the pictures could be inflammatory and lead to attacks against U.S. interests abroad.
But in December, when asked about the possibility of violence in response to the release of the Senate report on the CIA’s torture program, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest had this to say:
[W]e believe so strongly in the value of actually following through on the release of this report, that it says something critically important about our values as a country, and that even though it may pose some risk to the security situation at diplomatic facilities around the globe – we can take prudent steps to protect those facilities, and that it is critically important – again, consistent with the values of this country – for the declassified version of the summary of this report to be released.
The president himself took a similar stand when talking about Sony’s decision to pull “The Interview” from theaters in the face of threats:
I think they made a mistake. . . We can’t start changing our patterns of behavior any more than we stop going to a football game because there might be the possibility of a terrorist attack, any more than Boston didn’t run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm. So let’s not get into that way of doing business.
In our FOIA lawsuit, the district court and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both held, in 2005 and 2008 respectively, that the photos must be released. In 2009, President Obama announced that his administration wouldn’t appeal to the Supreme Court, but then Congress enacted a law that carved out an exception to the FOIA. It gave the secretary of defense the authority to withhold abuse photos for three years if he certified that their disclosure would jeopardize national security. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did just that in 2009, and his successor, Leon Panetta, issued a blanket recertification for the entire collection of photographs in 2012.
The ACLU challenged the mass recertification as insufficient, and last August U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein agreed with us, ruling that the defense secretary has to review each photo individually and give a reason for keeping it secret. The government pushed back, arguing that its process was in fact acceptable.
At a hearing last week, Judge Hellerstein told the government that his view had not changed, saying:
The government is not allowing itself to account. I think that’s a mistake… [As] a judge of the court and the government, under laws I feel it’s the obligation of the secretary of defense to certify each picture in terms of its likelihood or not to endanger American lives and why.
The judge asked the government how it would like to proceed, giving two options: The government could propose ways to comply with the August ruling, or it could say that the defense secretary does not want to certify the photos individually, in which case the judge would rule for the ACLU and the government could appeal. The government’s response – coming in a letter to the court Wednesday – was to do neither of those things. Instead, it asked for clarification of what the government must do to comply with the judge’s August ruling.
During last week’s hearing, the judge warned the government about its use of delay tactics in this case:
[T]he consequence of what the government is doing is a sophisticated ability to obtain a very substantial delay. . . You appeal. By the time you get to the appeal, maybe two years go by – the issue is not easy – it may be longer. The downside for you is that you can always produce and disclose. And realistically, postponing the day of reckoning of something that is considered to be sensitive is itself a victory, because it postpones an unpleasant decision to a succeeding generation.
And yet now we have another delay tactic from the government (we made this point in a letter to the court today). The American public has a right to know what took place in the U.S. military detention centers, and the photos are essential to that right. Covering them up won’t change what happened, and it certainly won’t help stop more abuse from happening in the future.
Reprieve | February 13, 2015
Saturday, February 14th, marks 13 years since the arrival of British resident Shaker Aamer at Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held without charge or trial ever since.
Mr Aamer, a father of four from London, has been cleared for release under both the Bush and Obama administrations, in a process which requires six government agencies to confirm that he poses no threat. However, he remains imprisoned in Guantanamo, despite repeated requests by the UK Government that he be returned to his family in South London.
Mr Aamer’s plight was most recently raised by David Cameron during talks at the White House in January, leading a spokesperson for President Obama to say the US would ‘prioritise’ his case. However, concerns about a lack of progress have been raised after Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – whose signature acts as the final authorisation to release prisoners from Guantanamo – reportedly said that Mr Aamer’s file was not ‘on his desk’.
Today also marks the birthday of Mr Aamer’s youngest son, Faris, who was born on the day Mr Aamer was brought to Guantanamo Bay, and whom he has never been allowed to meet.
Commenting, Clive Stafford Smith, Director of legal charity Reprieve, which represents Mr Aamer said: “President Obama’s claim that he will ‘prioritise’ Shaker’s case rings rather hollow, since he is the most powerful person in the world and is perfectly able to put Shaker on a plane to London and his long-suffering family within 24 hours. Eight hundred years ago the Magna Carta assured us that to nobody will we ‘deny or delay justice’. Thirteen years in a military prison without charge or trial is an affront to the most basic standards of justice. The Prime Minister needs to tell Shaker’s children when their father is coming home.”
No More Rubber Stamps
At long last, the Obama administration has submitted a draft resolution to Congress that would authorize the ongoing U.S.-led military intervention against the Islamic State, or ISIS.
The effort comes more than six months after the U.S. began bombing targets in Iraq and Syria. Since then, some 3,000 U.S. troops have been ordered to Iraq, and coalition air forces have carried out over 2,000 bombing runs on both sides of the border.
Better late than never? Maybe not.
The language proposed by the White House would authorize the president to deploy the U.S. military against the Islamic State and “associated persons or forces” for a period of three years, at which point the authorization would have to be renewed.
In an attempt to reassure members of Congress wary of signing off on another full-scale war in the Middle East, the authorization would supposedly prohibit the use of American soldiers in “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” It would also repeal the authorization that President George W. Bush used to invade Iraq back in 2002.
The New York Times describes the draft authorization as “a compromise to ease concerns of members in both noninterventionist and interventionist camps: those who believe the use of ground forces should be explicitly forbidden, and those who do not want to hamstring the commander in chief.”
As an ardent supporter of “hamstringing the commander in chief” in this particular case, let me count the ways that my concerns have not been eased by this resolution.
1. Its vague wording will almost certainly be abused.
For one thing, the administration has couched its limitations on the use of ground forces in some curiously porous language.
How long is an “enduring” engagement, for example? A week? A year? The full three years of the authorization and beyond?
And what’s an “offensive” operation if not one that involves invading another country? The resolution’s introduction claims outright that U.S. strikes against ISIS are justified by America’s “inherent right of individual and collective self-defense.” If Obama considers the whole war “inherently defensive,” does the proscription against “offensive” operations even apply?
And what counts as “combat”? In his last State of the Union address, Obama proclaimed that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.” But only two months earlier, he’d quietly extended the mission of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in the country for at least another year. So the word seems meaningless.
In short, the limitation on ground troops is no limitation at all. “What they have in mind,” said California Democrat Adam Schiff, “is still fairly broad and subject to such wide interpretation that it could be used in almost any context.”
Any context? Yep. Because it’s not just the ISIS heartland we’re talking about.
2. It would authorize war anywhere on the planet.
For the past six months, we’ve been dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria. But the draft resolution doesn’t limit the authorization to those two countries. Indeed, the text makes no mention of any geographic limitations at all.
That could set the United States up for war in a huge swath of the Middle East. Immediate targets would likely include Jordan or Lebanon, where ISIS forces have hovered on the periphery and occasionally launched cross-border incursions. But it could also rope in countries like Libya or Yemen, where ISIS knockoff groups that don’t necessarily have any connection to the fighters in Iraq and Syria have set up shop.
This is no theoretical concern. The Obama administration has used Congress’ post-9/11 war authorization — which specifically targeted only the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their patrons and supporters — to target a broad array of nominally “associated forces” in a stretch of the globe reaching from Somalia to the Philippines.
In fact, the administration has used the very same 2001 resolution to justify its current intervention in Iraq and Syria — the very war this new resolution is supposed to be authorizing.
How does the new resolution handle that?
3. It leaves the post-9/11 “endless war” authorization in place.
Yep. That means that even if Congress rejects his ISIS resolution, Obama could still claim the authority to bomb Iraq and Syria (not to mention Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, and beyond) based on the older law.
It also means that if Congress does vote for the war but refuses to reauthorize it three years from now, some future president could fall back on the prior resolution as well.
Obama is explicit about this point. In his accompanying letter to Congress, the president claims that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need to take these actions” against ISIS.
Yes, you read that right: Obama claims he doesn’t even need the authority he’s writing to Congress to request. And he’s saying so in the very letter in which he requests it.
So what does that say about this authorization?
4. It’s a charade.
Obama says that the war resolution is necessary to “show the world we are united in our resolve to counter the threat posed by” ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry added in a statement that an authorization would send “a clear and powerful signal to the American people, to our allies, and to our enemies.”
But as any kid who’s taken middle school civics could tell you, the point of a war resolution is not to “show the world” anything, or “send a signal” to anyone.
The point is to encourage an open debate about how the United States behaves in the world and what acts of violence are committed in our name. Most importantly, it’s supposed to give the people’s representatives (such as they are) a chance to say no. Without that, it’s little more than an imperial farce.
Which is a shame. Because an empty shadow play about the scope of the latest war leaves out one crucial perspective…
5. War is not going to stop the spread of ISIS.
ISIS has flourished almost entirely because of political breakdown on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. That breakdown has been driven by a mess of factors — local sectarian tensions and a brutal civil war in Syria, assuredly, but also the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq, ongoing U.S. support for a sectarian government in Baghdad that has deeply alienated millions of Sunnis, and helter-skelter funding for a variety of Syrian rebel groups by Washington and its allies.
Military intervention fixes precisely none of these problems, and indeed it repeats many of the same calamitous errors that helped to create them. A better strategy might focus on humanitarian assistance, strictly conditioned aid, and renewed diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement in Syria, equal rights for minority populations in Iraq, and a regional arms embargo among the foreign powers fueling the conflict from all sides.
But as Sarah Lazare writes for Foreign Policy In Focus, saying yes to any of those things requires saying no to war. That means not just rejecting the ISIS authorization the administration wants now, but also the 2001 law it’s used to justify the war so far.
If you feel similarly, I’d encourage you to write your member of Congress immediately and let them hear it: No more rubber stamps. No more shadow play.