Blowback, Boston, and the Lessons Learned for US Drone Strikes

While there are many elements of the response to the Boston Marathon bombing worth highlighting in relation to this blog’s ongoing coverage of drones and mainstream drone discourse, I would like to focus today on the UN rapporteur Richard Falk’s remarks about “blowback” and the subsequent response to his commentary.

Falk wrote an article on his blog a few days after the Boston Marathon bombing in which he challenged the “dominant reactions” found in mainstream political discourse. In particular, Falk was weary of the sort of reaction easily observed in the wake of 9/11, which he described as “holy wars fevers” in full embrace of Islamophobia. Instead, Falk strongly encouraged a meditative moment of self-scrutinizing in response to the bombing – for which he found hopeful signs in the immediate aftermath:

Listening to a PBS program hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station: “it is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have killed women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another caller asked “is this not a kind of retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, and verified for the world by pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” And another asked, “in light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, and containing senior military and security officials, has not the time come to apply the law to the wrongdoers during the Bush presidency”?

The Boston Marathon bombings were a fitting departure point for the rest of Falk’s discussion, as he then segued into a very general assessment of US foreign policy. Falk spoke of the “American global domination project” without much specifics – with the exception of US complicity in the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories [not surprising given his work at the UN on that topic]. Falk concluded his commentary with a remark that has since been adduced as evidence of his ostensible point that the US government is ultimately responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings: “We should be asking ourselves at this moment, how many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”

Falk’s article has since generated a remarkable outpouring of hostility towards his rather common-sense observations. Admittedly, much of this hostility has to do with unforgivable misinterpretations of his commentary. For instance, in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, the Israeli defense group UN Watch accuses Falk of “justifying” the Boston Marathon bombings on the basis of US foreign policy and then “blaming the Boston bombings on the Jewish state.” It doesn’t take much more than a sober reading of Falk’s article to find that he makes no such assertions anywhere in the piece. For her part, Rice tweeted:

Falk has also drawn the ire of at least one Congressional representative – Mike Kelly (R-PA) – who has since circulated a letter to Moon and to Obama condemning Falk for his “despicable comments blaming the U.S. and Israel for the horrific Boston Marathon terrorist bombings.” The letter continues:

We condemn Falk for his offensive belief that the Boston attack was justified because “[t]he American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post- colonial world” and his suggestion that the U.S. may “experience worse blowbacks” if it does not “rethink [its] relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.”

What’s remarkable in all of this, besides the fact that Falk never so much as hinted at these arguments, is that the surviving Tsarnaev brother, when confessing to his role in the bombing, made explicitly clear his motivations:

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has specifically cited the U.S. war in Iraq, which ended in December 2011 with the removal of the last American forces, and the war in Afghanistan, where President Obama plans to end combat operations by the end of 2014.

[Notice how desperately WaPo is trying to downplay these two horrendous events by describing them in terms of when they end(ed). A more realistic approach may be to describe the wars in terms of the tens of thousands of individuals killed or maimed, the millions of lives displaced and destroyed, and the total destruction of two nations.]

In light of this, what might account for this visceral rejection of the idea of blowback – itself a term coined by the CIA to describe the potential unintended consequences of their overthrow of elected Iranian prime minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh? What is it about US politicians and pundits that makes the idea of American culpability so anathema to our mainstream discourse? In his analysis of the “demonization” of Falk, Jeremy R. Hammond opines:

One is just not supposed to tell the public that U.S. foreign policy results in what intelligence analysts call “blowback”. This is a forbidden truth, reminiscent of the 2007 presidential debate when Rudy Giuliani condemned Ron Paul for making the completely uncontroversial statement that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” for U.S. foreign policy, to which Dr. Paul replied by standing firm and repeating the uncomfortable truth before the audience. It is a point that Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, Alec Station, has also made in a commentary on the Boston bombings published at Foreign Policy Journalin which he remarks that “it is blatantly obvious from the evidence the authorities have presented to date that the attackers were motivated by what the U.S. government does in the Muslim world”.

To add my own observations, I would contend that the fear of self-criticism stems from a deeply rooted insecurity about the truth of American policy as it pertains to the rest of the world. Politicians and their sycophantic cheerleaders in the mainstream media do whatever they can do maintain the illusion that America is a benevolent, graceful superpower policing the world and stopping injustice anywhere it can. It’s missteps and its blunders are always excusable as well-intentioned slip-ups. Meanwhile, the world at large is generally an unsafe place in which jealous enemies attack us because they are fundamentally evil and “hate our freedoms,” which in turn justifies the aforementioned global policing. Social psychologists define this as a fundamental attribution error – one which (coincidentally) serves the holders of power in this country remarkably well, and establishes an illusion that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It isn’t much of a leap to see how this argument relates to drones. Just last week, a Yemeni by the name of Farea al-Muslimi testified in front of Congress that whenever his friends and neighbours think of the US “they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.” And in January, US General Stanley McChrystal and former top commander in Afghanistan told Reuters

“The resentment created [by drone strikes] is much greater than the average American appreciates…[drones add to] the perception of American arrogance that says, ‘We can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.”

If we cannot appreciate the candour of our critics, and insist on clinging blindly to self-delusions about the decent nature of the American state and its policies, what hope do our hapless victims in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have?

Obama’s drone war kills ‘others,’ not just al Qaida leaders

By Jonathan S. Landay, April 9 2013

Shamsi Airbase cropped

WASHINGTON — Contrary to assurances it has deployed U.S. drones only against known senior leaders of al Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area, classified U.S. intelligence reports show.

The administration has said that strikes by the CIA’s missile-firing Predator and Reaper drones are authorized only against “specific senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces” involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks who are plotting “imminent” violent attacks on Americans.

“It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative,” President Barack Obama said in a Sept. 6, 2012, interview with CNN. “It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.”

Copies of the top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy, however, show that drone strikes in Pakistan over a four-year period didn’t adhere to those standards.

The intelligence reports list killings of alleged Afghan insurgents whose organization wasn’t on the U.S. list of terrorist groups at the time of the 9/11 strikes; of suspected members of a Pakistani extremist group that didn’t exist at the time of 9/11; and of unidentified individuals described as “other militants” and “foreign fighters.”

In a response to questions from McClatchy, the White House defended its targeting policies, pointing to previous public statements by senior administration officials that the missile strikes are aimed at al Qaida and associated forces.

Micah Zenko, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank, who closely follows the target killing program, said McClatchy’s findings indicate that the administration is “misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.”

The documents also show that drone operators weren’t always certain who they were killing despite the administration’s guarantees of the accuracy of the CIA’s targeting intelligence and its assertions that civilian casualties have been “exceedingly rare.”

McClatchy’s review is the first independent evaluation of internal U.S. intelligence accounting of drone attacks since the Bush administration launched America’s secret aerial warfare on Oct. 7, 2001, the day a missile-carrying Predator took off for Afghanistan from an airfield in Pakistan on the first operational flight of an armed U.S. drone.

The analysis takes on additional significance because of the domestic and international debate over the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan amid reports that the administration is planning to broaden its use of targeted killings in Afghanistan and North Africa.

The U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy covered most – although not all – of the drone strikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011. In that later period, Obama oversaw a surge in drone operations against suspected Islamist sanctuaries on Pakistan’s side of the border that coincided with his buildup of 33,000 additional U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. Several documents listed casualty estimates as well as the identities of targeted groups.

McClatchy’s review found that:

– At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.

Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants.”

During the same period, the reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

– At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

To date, the Obama administration has not disclosed the secret legal opinions and the detailed procedures buttressing drone killings, and it has never acknowledged the use of so-called “signature strikes,” in which unidentified individuals are killed after surveillance shows behavior the U.S. government associates with terrorists, such as visiting compounds linked to al Qaida leaders or carrying weapons. Nor has it disclosed an explicit list of al Qaida’s “associated forces” beyond the Afghan Taliban.

The little that is known about the opinions comes from a leaked Justice Department white paper, a half-dozen or so speeches, some public comments by Obama and several top lieutenants, and limited open testimony before Congress.

“The United States has gone far beyond what the U.S. public – and perhaps even Congress – understands the government has been doing and claiming they have a legal right to do,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a Notre Dame Law School professor who contends that CIA drone operations in Pakistan violate international law.

The documents McClatchy has reviewed do not reflect the entirety of the killings associated with U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, which independent reports estimate at between 1,990 and 3,581.

But the classified reports provide a view into how drone strikes were carried out during the most intense periods of drone warfare in Pakistan’s remote tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Specifically, the documents reveal estimates of deaths and injuries; locations of militant bases and compounds; the identities of some of those targeted or killed; the movements of targets from village to village or compound to compound; and, to a limited degree, the rationale for unleashing missiles.

 

The documents also reveal a breadth of targeting that is complicated by the culture in the restive region of Pakistan where militants and ordinary tribesmen dress the same, and carrying a weapon is part of the centuries-old tradition of the Pashtun ethnic group.

The Haqqani network, for example, cooperates closely with al Qaida for philosophical and tactical reasons, and it is blamed for some of the bloodiest attacks against civilians and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. But the Haqqani network wasn’t on the U.S. list of international terrorist groups at the time of the strikes covered by the U.S. intelligence reports, and it isn’t known to ever have been directly implicated in a plot against the U.S. homeland.

Other groups the documents said were targeted have parochial objectives: the Pakistani Taliban seeks to topple the Islamabad government; Lashkar i Jhangvi, or Army of Jhangvi, are outlawed Sunni Muslim terrorists who’ve slaughtered scores of Pakistan’s minority Shiites and were blamed for a series of attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including a 2006 bombing against the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed a U.S. diplomat. Both groups are close to al Qaida, but neither is known to have initiated attacks on the U.S. homeland.

“I have never seen nor am I aware of any rules of engagement that have been made public that govern the conduct of drone operations in Pakistan, or the identification of individuals and groups other than al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban,” said Christopher Swift, a national security law expert who teaches national security affairs at Georgetown University and closely follows the targeted killing issue. “We are doing this on a case-by-case, ad hoc basis, rather than a systematic or strategic basis.”

The administration has declined to reveal other details of the program, such as the intelligence used to select targets and how much evidence is required for an individual to be placed on a CIA “kill list.” The administration also hasn’t even acknowledged the existence of so-called signature strikes, let alone discussed the legal and procedural foundations of the attacks.

Leaders of the Senate and House intelligence committees say they maintain robust oversight over the program. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., disclosed in a Feb. 13 statement that the panel is notified “with key details . . . shortly after” every drone strike. It also reviews videos of strikes and considers “their effectiveness as a counterterrorism tool, verifying the care taken to avoid deaths to non-combatants and understanding the intelligence collection and analysis that underpins these operations.”

But until last month, Obama had rebuffed lawmakers’ repeated requests to see all of the classified Justice Department legal opinions on the program, giving them access to only two dealing with the president’s powers to order targeted killings. It then allowed the Senate committee access to all opinions pertaining to the killing of U.S. citizens to clear the way for the panel’s March 7 confirmation of John Brennan, the former White House counterterrorism chief and the key architect of the targeted killings program, as the new CIA director. But it continues to deny access to other opinions on the grounds that they are privileged legal advice to the president.

Moreover, most of the debate in the United States has focused on the deaths of four Americans – all killed in drone strikes in Yemen, but only one intentionally targeted – and not the thousands of others who’ve been killed, the majority of whom have been hit in Pakistan.

Obama and his top aides say the United States is in an “armed conflict” with al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, and the targeted killing program complies with U.S. and international laws, including an “inherent” right to self-defense and the international laws of war. Obama also derives his authority to order targeted killings from the Constitution and a Sept. 14, 2001, congressional resolution empowering the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those who perpetrated 9/11 and those who aided them, they say.

Time and again, the administration has defined the drone targets as operational leaders of al Qaida, the Afghan Taliban and associated groups plotting imminent attacks on the American homeland. Occasionally, however, officials have made oblique references to undefined associated forces and threats against unidentified Americans and U.S. facilities.

On April 30, 2012, Brennan gave the most detailed explanation of Obama’s drone program. He referred to al Qaida 73 times, the Afghan Taliban three times and mentioned no other group by name.

“We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing,” Brennan said.

To be sure, America’s drone program has killed militants without risk to the nation’s armed forces.

The administration argues that drones – in Brennan’s words – are a “wise choice” for fighting terrorists. Over the years, the aircraft have battered al Qaida’s Pakistan-based core leadership and crippled its ability to stage complex attacks. And officials note it has been done without sending U.S. troops into hostile territory or causing civilian casualties “except in the rarest of circumstances.”

“Any actions we take fully comport to our law and meet the standards that I think . . . the American people expect of us as far as taking actions we need to protect the American people, but at the same time ensuring that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force,” Brennan said at his Feb. 7 Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.

Caitlin Hayden, national security spokeswoman for the White House, said late Tuesday that the Brennan speech is broad enough to cover strikes against others who are not al Qaida or the Afghan Taliban. While she did not cite any authority for broader targeting, Hayden said: “You should not assume he is only talking about al Qaida just because he doesn’t say ’al Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces’ at every reference.”

Some legal scholars and human rights organizations, however, dispute the program’s legality.

Obama, they think, is misinterpreting international law, including the laws of war, which they say apply only to the uniformed military, not the civilian CIA, and to traditional battlefields like those in Afghanistan, not to Pakistan’s tribal area, even though it may be a sanctuary for al Qaida and other violent groups. They argue that Obama also is strengthening his executive powers with an excessively broad application of the September 2001 use-of-force resolution.

The administration’s definition of “imminent threat” also is in dispute. The Justice Department’s leaked white paper argues the United States should be able “to act in self-defense in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack.” Legal scholars counter that the administration is using an exaggerated definition of imminence that doesn’t exist in international law.

“I’m thankful that my doctors don’t use their (the administration’s) definition of imminence when looking at imminent death. A head cold could be enough to pull the plug on you,” said Morris Davis, a Howard University Law School professor and former Air Force lawyer who served as chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo Bay terrorism trials.

Since 2004, drone program critics say, the strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, fueling anti-U.S. outrage, boosting extremist recruiting, and helping to destabilize Pakistan’s U.S.-backed government. And some experts warn that the United States may be setting a new standard of international conduct that other countries will grasp to justify their own targeted killings and to evade accountability.

 

Other governments “won’t just emulate U.S. practice but (will adopt) America’s justification for targeted killings,” said Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. “When there is such a disconnect between who the administration says it kills and who it (actually) kills, that hypocrisy itself is a very dangerous precedent that other countries will emulate.”

A special U.N. human rights panel began a nine-month investigation in January into whether drone strikes, including the CIA operations in Pakistan, violate international law by causing disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. The panel’s head, British lawyer Ben Emmerson, declared after a March 11-13 visit to Pakistan that the U.S. drone campaign “involves the use of force on the territory of another state without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

The administration asserts that drones are used to hit specific individuals only after their names are added to a “list of active terrorists,” following a process of “extraordinary care and thoughtfulness” that confirms their identities as members of al Qaida or “associated forces” and weighs the strategic value of killing each one.

Yet the U.S. intelligence reports show that 43 out of the 95 strikes recorded in reports for the year ending in September 2011 were launched against groups other than al Qaida. Prominent among them were the Haqqani network and the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.

The Haqqani network is an Afghan Taliban-allied organization that operates in eastern Afghanistan and whose leaders are based in Pakistan’s adjacent North Waziristan tribal agency. The United States accuses the group of staging some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Kabul, including on the Indian and U.S. embassies, killing civilians, and attacking U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. But the Obama administration didn’t officially designate the network as a terrorist group until September 2012.

 

Its titular head is Jalaluddin Haqqani, an aging former anti-Soviet guerrilla who served as a minor minister and top military commander in the Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaida until both were driven into Pakistan by the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. U.S. officials allege that the group, whose operational chief is Haqqani’s son, Sirajuddin, closely works with al Qaida and is backed by elements of the Pakistani army-led Inter-Services Intelligence spy service, a charge denied by Islamabad.

At least 15 drone strikes were launched against the Haqqani network or locations where its fighters were present during the one-year period ending in September 2011, according to the U.S. intelligence reports. They estimated that up to 96 people – or about 20 percent of the total for that period – were killed.

One report also makes clear that during the Bush administration, the agency killed Haqqani family women and children.

According to the report, an undisclosed number of Haqqani subcommanders, unnamed Arabs and unnamed “members of the extended Haqqani family” died in a Sept. 8, 2008, strike. News reports on the attack in the North Waziristan village of Dandey Darapakhel said that among as many as 25 dead were an Arab who was chief of al Qaida’s operations in Pakistan, and eight of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s grandchildren, one of his wives, two nieces and a sister.

The U.S. intelligence reports estimated that as many as 31 people were killed in at least nine strikes on the Pakistani Taliban or on locations that the group shared with others between January 2010 and September 2011. While U.S. officials say the Taliban Movement of Pakistan works closely with al Qaida, its goal is to topple the Pakistani government through suicide bombings, assaults and assassinations, not attacking the United States. The group wasn’t founded until 2007, and some of the strikes in the U.S. intelligence reports occurred before the administration designated it a terrorist organization in September 2010.

The U.S. intelligence reports estimated that the CIA killed scores of other individuals in 2010 and 2011 in strikes on other non-al Qaida groups categorized as suspected extremists and unidentified “foreign fighters,” or “other militants.” Some died in what appeared to be signature strikes, their vehicles blown to pieces sometimes only a few days after being monitored visiting the sites of earlier drone attacks, or driving between compounds linked to al Qaida or other groups.

“The first challenge in any war is knowing who you’re fighting, and distinguishing those that pose a credible threat to your interests and security,” said Swift.

 

The U.S. intelligence documents also describe a lack of precision when it comes to identifying targets.

Consider one attack on Feb. 18, 2010.

Information, according to one U.S. intelligence account, indicated that Badruddin Haqqani, the then-No. 2 leader of the Haqqani network, would be at a relative’s funeral that day in North Waziristan. Watching the video feed from a drone high above the mourners, CIA operators in the United States identified a man they believed could be Badruddin Haqqani from the deference and numerous greetings he received. The man also supervised a private family viewing of the body.

Yet despite a targeting process that the administration says meets “the highest possible standards,” it wasn’t Badruddin Haqqani who died when one of the drone’s missiles ripped apart the target’s car after he’d left the funeral.

It was his younger brother, Mohammad.

Friends later told reporters that Mohammad Haqqani was a religious student in his 20s uninvolved in terrorism; the U.S. intelligence report called him an active member – but not a leader – of the Haqqani network. At least one other unidentified occupant of his vehicle perished, according to the report.

It took the CIA another 18 months to find and kill Badruddin Haqqani.

Remi Brulin on State Secrecy and Targeted Assassinations, from Operation Condor to the Obama Administration

The problem with drones has never been with the technology itself. Certainly, drones have brought the vision of an Orwellian dystopia to the forefront of our minds. And yes, the administration has often tried to justify its use of drone strikes with the explanation that they are “surgical” and “precise” weapons of war. But the true threat to the people of this world lies not with the proliferation of drone warfare, but with the associated policies of states who choose to use them for their own purposes. The prevarication, the secrecy, the outright lies, and the arbitrary killing of individuals with no legal process undermine the very notions of accountability and democratic governance.

In a guest piece for today, Remi Brulin takes a cold hard look at one of the most egregious examples of this secrecy and state-sponsored terrorism in which the US is culpable, Operation Condor – an internationally-coordinated program between several Latin American regimes to actively suppress and “disappear” political opponents under the guise of fighting “terrorism” – while highlighting the secrecy still surrounding the United State’s exact role in this “international terrorist network” and the dangerous historical precedent thus being set. Brulin is currently a Visiting Scholar at NYU, and has taught classes on the American discourse on terrorism and the media at the Media, Culture and Communication Dept and at the Journalism Institute there. His phenomenal research on terrorism is alluded to in his piece; his dissertation can be found here, and an interview with Glenn Greenwald can be found here. Brulin has also written an article about  “terrorism experts” and El-Salvador for Foreign Policy which can be found here. Brulin’s article comes at an auspicious time, considering the recent passing of Margaret Thatcher (who was a close ally and supporter of General Augusto Pinochet, one of the despots responsible for Operation Condor) and the establishment of Wikileaks’s Public Library of US Diplomacy [PLUS D]. ramesses

The Past as Prologue: Secrecy and Impunity in the Other “War on Terrorism”

 by Remi Brulin

Imagine a world where the security forces of several non-democratic states “coordinate intelligence activities closely,” “operate in the territory of one another’s countries” and have established a program “to find and kill terrorists” anywhere around the world as part of a “war” against “terrorism.” Such a dystopian reality appears to be precisely what Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth had in mind when writing, in his December 7, 2010 letter to President Obama, that current US policies of “targeted killings” may “set a dangerous precedent for abusive regimes around the globe to conduct drone attacks or other strikes against persons who they describe in vague or overly broad terms as terrorists.”

Such a nightmarish vision is much more, however, than a description of what could be. The first sentence above is a description of what was, taken verbatim from an August 3, 1976 secret memorandum by Assistant Secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and describing the system of international cooperation between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay known as Operation Condor. Between 1976 and 1980 these regimes would, thanks to an elaborate and modern intelligence network, closely collaborate to “disappear” hundreds of people across state borders, among them some members of guerrilla movements but mostly political opponents, former legislators and even Presidents, journalists, religious personalities, often killed after having been submitted to the worst kinds of torture. Entitled “The “Third World War” and South America,” this memorandum makes for fascinating reading as it highlights how, over 35 years ago, close allies of the United States had already developed both a set of specific practices implemented in secret and aimed at fighting “the terrorists,” and a full discourse emphasizing at every turn the fact that they were “at war” against “terrorism.” Only a few weeks later, Orlando Letelier would become the most prominent victim to date of Operation Condor, a Chilean citizen assassinated by the Chilean intelligence services in the streets of Washington D.C.

A few week ago, Argentina opened a major trial into Operation Condor. In contrast, no US official has ever been held accountable for their potential role in this program, a form of impunity bolstered by the continued refusal of the US government to declassify hundreds of documents that would shed light onto the exact nature and extent of its knowledge and involvement at the time. The Shlaudeman memorandum testifies to the dangers of a policy shrouded in secrecy and a complete lack of accountability. It also underlies the importance of current calls on the government to provide much greater transparency regarding “war on terrorism” policies such as “targeted killings” or the resort to extraordinary renditions and torture, policies which, at least to some degree, bear resemblance to some of Operation Condor’s practices.

At the most basic level, this memorandum reminds us that long before America’s current “war on terrorism,” other States did develop a similar discourse. That various regimes have, historically, used the concept of “terrorism” to delegitimize their enemies (and the cause they claim to fight for) and thus justify the use of often profoundly immoral methods against them (think France in Algeria in the 1950s, or South Africa in its fight against Mandela’s African National Congress from the 1960s onward) is neither a new nor a very original notion. The Latin American case is especially relevant to current discussions however, for at least a couple reasons. First,  because the United States government was intimately involved in some of the worst practices of these regimes, although the extent and exact nature of this involvement remains, to this day and especially as it pertains to Operation Condor, mostly unknown and classified. Second, because, as I document in my PhD dissertation, it is precisely in the Latin American context that the Reagan administration put the “fight against terrorism” at the heart of the American foreign policy discourse for the very first time. Not only that but, as I discussed in some detail in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, in doing so the US government essentially adopted the discourse used and developed by these authoritarian regimes during the previous decade.

Already in 1976 senior US officials were aware of the problematic nature of a discourse where “subversion” and “terrorism” were often used as synonyms, and were extremely broadly defined. As Shlaudeman explained:

The problem begins with the definition of “subversion” – never the most precise of terms. One reporter writes that “subversion has grown to include nearly anyone who opposes government policy.” In countries where everyone knows that subversives can wind up dead or tortured educated people have an understandable concern about the boundaries of dissent.

The Assistant Secretary of State was also rather doubtful of the seriousness of the threat faced by these regimes, noting that “the terrorists have had substantial accomplishments over the years” so that “the threat is not imaginary,” but adding that “it may be exaggerated” since after all, “broadly speaking, both terrorists and the peaceful left have failed.” Shlaudeman’s account also shows clear awareness, on the part of US officials, of the extreme nature of the methods used by these regimes. Indeed, he explained that “the terrorists […] have provoked repressive reactions, including torture and quasi-governmental death squads” and that these governments resorted to “bloody counter terrorism.” In the rest of the memorandum, however, such forms of violence are dealt with mostly through euphemisms, like in the following remark about Argentina: “We expect the military to pull up their socks and win. They have precedents to guide them, and the terrorists have no handy refuge in neighboring countries.” As this account shows and many other declassified documents confirm, despite doubts about the threat and knowledge of the extreme tactics used to counter it, US officials did clearly think of Operation Condor as a program aimed at “fighting terrorism,” and consistently described it as such. For example, in what was until the mid-1990s the only known cable referencing Condor, the FBI explained in late September, 1976 that:

“Operation Condor” is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning so called “leftists,” communists and Marxists, which was recently established between cooperating intelligence services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities in the area. In addition, operation Condor provides for joint operations against terrorist targets in member countries of “Operation Condor.” […] A third and most secret phase of “Operation Condor” involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from “Operation Condor” member countries.

Significantly, Shlaudeman was also very aware of the great benefits that claiming to be fighting a “Third World War” afforded the Condor states since “It justifies harsh and sweeping “wartime” measures [and] emphasizes the international and institutional aspect, thereby justifying the exercise of power beyond national borders.” He then noted that much of the region’s militaries’ power was directly derived from such a claim, and warned of the long term danger this could pose:

What will remain is a chain of governments, started by Brazil in 1964, whose origin was in battle against the extreme left. It is important to their ego, their salaries, and their equipment-budgets to believe in a Third World War. At best, when Argentina stabilizes, we can hope to convince them that they have already won. The warriors will not like this.

A few weeks later, on September 21, the profound immorality and illegality of the Condor methods would be exposed for the whole world to see as Orlando Letelier was killed, alongside his colleague Ronni Moffitt, in the explosion of his booby-trapped car on Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row. As John Dinges noted, Letelier was “targeted as a dangerous democrat rather than a violent terrorist,” a man whose work against the Pinochet regime took place “not in secret but in public corridors of power.” Indeed, for months he had been lobbying Congress to stop US aid to Chile.

Immediately, politicians like Senator Kennedy and other commentators condemned this assassination as an act of “political terrorism.” Following the confession of Michael Townley, the United States indicted three high-level members of the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the Chilean intelligence services, including its former director (and Pinochet’s right-hand) Manuel Contreras, and requested their extradition. DINA had been set-up a few years before with help from the CIA, and there is some indication that Townley, who was a DINA agent, may also have worked for the CIA. In September 2000, a congressional report revealed that Contreras himself had been a CIA asset in 1975 and maintained contacts with the agency for years thereafter. Further investigation revealed that the bomb was built and placed under the car by Cuban-Americans from the Cuban Nationalist Movement. In 1979, the Chilean Supreme Court rejected the US’s call for extradition, leading the State Department to denounce the fact that “the three terrorists have been released from custody and are now free” and to repeat that Chile “has a duty to insure that this brutal act of terrorism does not go unpunished.”

For his part, Chilean Ambassador Manuel Trucco had immediately condemned the Letelier assassination as an “outrageous act of terrorism,” while blaming it on unidentified “hostile elements” and insisting that accusations against his government were “irresponsible” and represented a further “invitation to violence.” In this, the Letelier assassination fit the pattern of all other Condor operations, and indeed of all these regimes’ purely domestic modes of repression: implemented covertly, so as to give these regimes “plausible deniability,” it also enabled them to deliver an extremely clear message to their political opponents. It is this system of shadows, of illegal activities fully visible but denied by the authorities, of supposedly “out of control” and “independent” “death squads” targeting political opponents while official responsibility is denied, of people being “disappeared,” leaving their families with no possible recourse and faced with official silence, that created the pervasive feeling of dread and terror that hovered over Latin America for so many years.

If responsibility for the Letelier assassination was never claimed by Chile or any other Condor state, that these regimes considered such methods necessary and justified was exactly what their political discourse had always implied. After all, these leaders had insisted for years that they were “at war” with “subversives” and “terrorists,” while publicly stating their goals in ways that clearly suggested that they considered the use of any necessary methods as fully legitimate and justified. As Argentine General Luciano Menendez had infamously announced: “We are going to have to kill 50,000 people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000 mistakes.” As demonstrated by several declassified documents, such policies were accepted and often enabled by the US government at the time.

On January 24, 2013, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights program, called on the Obama Administration to collaborate with the newly-announced United Nations investigation into targeted killings, and expressed fears that such a program was “setting a dangerous precedent” for countries which have “less traditional respect for human rights and international law.” As the August 3, 1976 memorandum clearly shows, however, countries with very little respect for the rule of law and claiming to be fighting “terrorism” have already defended their practices by pointing to such precedents. Indeed, as Shlaudeman wrote, the Condor countries referred to Israeli practices to justify theirs: “They consider their counter-terrorism every bit as justified as Israeli actions against Palestinian terrorists and they believe that the criticism from democracies of their war on terrorism reflects a double standard.” A few years later, it would be Israel’s turn to use a similar argument: in response to Reagan’s criticism of the bombing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Beirut, which caused over 200 civilian casualties, on December 20, 1981 Prime Minister Begin summoned US Ambassador Samuel Lewis and stated:

You don’t have the right, from a moral perspective, to preach to us regarding civilian loss of life. We have read the history of World War II, and we know what happened to civilians when you took action against the enemy. We have also read the history of the Vietnam War, and your concept of “body counts.” We always make efforts to prevent casualties among civilians, but sometimes this is unavoidable.

At heart, these arguments are based not on claims regarding the legality or morality of such methods, but rather on a cold, realist assessment of the impunity that has accompanied them, historically, when used by powerful enough states. In Latin America, various Truth Commissions and high profile trials such as the one that just started in Argentina, have brought some level of legal and historical accountability. Former leaders have been convicted of a variety of extremely serious crimes, and have served long prison sentences, developments to a great extent made possible by declassification projects undertaken under Presidents Clinton (Chile) and Bush (Argentina.) Partly as a result of such transparency, as New York University’s Greg Grandin recently noted Latin American countries are, in a rather astonishing historical reversal, fully absent from the list of 54 States that became involved in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture and extraordinary renditions programs

US officials themselves, however, have never been held accountable for their role in this other “war on terrorism.” Former Secretary of State Kissinger, for example, has been called to testify several times by Latin American judges, demands that have always been rejected by the United States. Operation Condor thus stands as a perfect example both of the level of secrecy that continues (due to repeated refusals to declassify relevant official documents) to surround the nature and extent of American involvement in what can only be described as a giant “international terrorist network,” and of the existence of serious hints at actual complicity at the highest level of the US government. In ways eerily reminiscent of Latin America’s terrifying history of secretive “death squads,” recent reporting is hinting at the possibility of current cooperation between the US military (or the CIA) and various Afghan armed groups involved in killings and disappearances, while an investigation by The Guardian documents what appear to have been very clear links between US policies in El Salvador in the 1980s (also described, at the time, as part of the “fight against terrorism”) and its “counterinsurgency” strategy in Iraq.

Secrecy is fundamentally inimical to democratic rule, as it erodes trust while distorting and polluting public discourse. As Georgetown Law School Professor David Cole recently wrote, transparency about current US “targeted killings” policies that essentially allow the government “to kill its citizens in secret while refusing to acknowledge, even after the fact, that it has done so” is of the utmost importance. Indeed, he further noted, secrecy was exactly why Argentina’s policy of “disappearances” was so “deeply corrosive of democratic politics.”  Similarly John Dinges, probably the foremost American expert on Operation Condor, argues that the current Argentina trial should be seen as an opportunity for the United States to learn the right lessons from history and from that other “war on terrorism.” As he reminds us after noting the troubling similarities between the Letelier assassination and the logic that appears to underlie certain uses of drones by the Obama administration, “the tendency of a state to feel that they can move against their enemies in the most effective way possible is still there, and it is certainly not limited to dictatorships.”

President Obama’s suggestion, in January 2009, that we need to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” thus putting behind us what appear to have been very serious official crimes, was profoundly counterproductive. The chain of secrecy and unaccountability must be broken, and transparency restored, illuminating today’s practices as well as yesterday’s. Only then can we hope to make sure that the past represented by Condor was not simply a prologue of things to come.

UPDATE: Brulin tweeted about the whitewashing of Thatcher’s association with Pinochet in the NYT Obituary from today

The One-Sidedness of the American Perspective

Of course, it isn’t terrorism when we do it

Taking a step away from the discussion about drones (only momentarily, I promise!), Yves Smith has an importance piece at naked capitalism concerning the rhetoric used in discussing Cyprus’s recent “bailout” (although Ed Harrison would contend it’s more of a “bail-in“). Smith’s piece – titled Why Does No One Speak of America’s Oligarchs? – examines the double standard that exists in the American perspective of political commentary:

Russia’s oligarchs and “dirty money” are a distinctive national creation. Do you ever hear Carlos Slim or Rupert Murdoch or the Koch Brothers described as oligarchs? To dial the clock back a bit, how about Harold Geneen of ITT, which was widely known to conduct assassinations in Latin America if it couldn’t get its way by less thuggish means?

…there’s been a peculiar sanctimonious reluctance to apply the word oligarch to the members of America’s ruling class. Some of that is that we Americans idolize our rich, and the richer the better. No one looks too hard at the fact many of our billionaires started out with a leg up, parlaying a moderate family fortune (for instance, in the case of Donald Trump) into a bigger one, or having one’s success depend on other forms of family help (Bill Gates’ mother having the connection to an IBM executive that enabled Gates to license MS-DOS to them).

But the fact that some people have advantages and are able to make the most of them, isn’t the reason to pin the “o” word on America’s top wealthy. It’s that, like Simon’s prototypical emerging market magnates, they increasingly dominate our society and are running it strictly for own self interest and devil take the rest of us. And the results on important metrics are worse than in Russia. The Gini coefficient is a widely-used measure of income inequality. The Gini coefficient is worse (higher) for the US than for Russia.

Arguably, Smith leaves out the peculiar tendency of American culture to be incredibly aversive to self-criticism, instead preferring the cheap, cowardly comfort of self-affirmation.

Think about this: is there any (serious) equivalent for the label of “anti-American” for any other country in the world? And this isn’t just a peculiar quirk of a more close-minded segment of the population, it’s something that’s as rampant and pervasive as “U-S-A” and “We’re number 1” chants. The fact that criticisms of American society and/or state can be portrayed as “anti-Americanism” is indicative of just how deeply this aversion to criticism is.

But to tie this back into the discussion of drones, one must consider how this double standard can become particularly pernicious in the context of warfare. Yesterday, I posted a piece from the Associated Press discussing how drone strikes and constant drone surveillance were terrorizing local populations in Afghanistan and forcing families to flee from their homes. Last year, Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU’s Global Justice Clinic paired up to release a damning report on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, including testimony from victims of drone strike. One such individual, a student named Sadaullah Wazir, explained how US drone strikes had affected his life:

“Before the drone strikes started, my life was very good. I used to go to school and I used to be quite busy with that, but after the drone strikes, I stopped going to school now. I was happy because I thought I would become a doctor.” Sadaullah recalled, “Two missiles [were] fired at our hujra and three people died. My cousin and I were injured. We didn’t hear the missile at all and then it was there.” He further explained, “[The last thing I remembered was that] we had just broken our fast where we had eaten and just prayed. . . .We were having tea and just eating a bit and then there were missiles. . . . When I gained consciousness, there was a bandage on my eye. I didn’t know what had happened to my eye and I could only see from one.” Sadaullah lost both of his legs and one of his eyes in the attack. He informed us, “Before [the strike], my life was normal and very good because I could go anywhere and do anything. But now I am not able to do that because I have to stay inside. . . . Sometimes I have really bad headaches. . . . [and] if I walk too much [on my prosthetic legs], my legs hurt a lot. [Drones have] drastically affected life [in our area].”

It is important to consider the label of “terrorism” in this context. Does the constant overhead buzzing of drones, and the enduring threat of a Hellfire missile killing one’s family not terrorize people? Is Sadaullah, no longer able to attend school because of his injuries, not a victim of US state-sponsored terrorism? The ostensible objective of these drone strikes is to combat terrorism – but is counterterrorism – at least where drone strikes are concerned – really any different from terrorism itself? Here is an innocent civilian whose live has been forever impacted by the violence of state policies whose sole purported object is to exert political influence on a target population. Is that not the very definition of terrorism?

Obviously, this parsing out of terms can be expanded to include other instances of US state aggression, such as the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. The point is not simply to challenge the occurrence of these events, but to question the validity of the language used to describe these things (nation-building, promoting democracy) paired against the reality of body counts, ruined infrastructure, and destroyed communities. Furthermore, it is important to understand how this doublespeak is disseminated by the government and its media apparatus. Who is responsible for inculcating and normalizing the use of these terms, and what is their stake in the matter?

Gallup Poll Confirms the Obvious: Most Americans are Racists

A Gallup poll released yesterday includes some incredibly interesting insights regarding American attitudes towards the US government’s drone strike policies.

Views on U.S. Government's Use of Drones in Various Situations, March 2013

The survey results suggest that a majority of Americans would agree with previous U.S. drone attacks that have killed suspected terrorists living in other countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. However, the data indicate that less than a majority of Americans would have in principle supported the drone attack in the fall of 2011 against American citizens who were suspected terrorists living in Yemen. And the results show that substantial majorities of Americans are opposed to drone airstrikes “in the U.S.,” regardless of whether they are against U.S. citizens.

So unsurprisingly, Americans don’t want drone strikes to occur where they live and work, where their families reside and where their communities are. Are Pakistani’s somehow exempt from sharing these sentiments? What is it about the American political discourse regarding Muslims and just brown people in general that somehow it never hits home that drone strikes are just as anathema to their families and their communities? (I’ve written before about the issue of racism when it comes to the topic of drones, here and here.)

Notice, too, how support for US drone strike policy drops off as the target becomes more and more “like us.” Hellfire missiles terrorizing and killing Muslims outside of the US? Sure, why not. Hellfire missiles targeting US Citizens though? That’s an issue. And forget about targeting foreign nationals who are suspected terrorists weaving their way through crowds of Americans.

Which brings up another issue – are none of these people remotely concerned with the idea of due process, or even the simplest opposition to arbitrary killing by a state power on the basis of mere suspicions? What does that say about a culture with so readily and regularly celebrates its vaunted ideals and principles as enshrined in documents such as the constitution, which, incidentally, uses the language “no person” and not “no US-Citizen” with regards to who is protected?

Support for Use of Drones, by How Closely Following, March 2013

The last point i want to comment on is this correlation between people who follow news of drones “very/somewhat closely” and their support for it. This is as clear an indictment of the mainstream news establishment as any – the more exposure one has to the part of the state (no longer the fourth estate) that continually and unquestioningly validates government policy through the ostensible lens of objectivity, the more likely one is to support such policies. As I wrote recently regarding the American media culture’s complete omission of NSA whistle-blower William Binney from their discourse, this breeds a kind of mindless irrationality towards issues of serious pertinence – for instance, Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Again, this finding of the Gallup poll speaks volumes of truth to my point about the necessity of a counter-narrative that doesn’t simply render all the victims of US military aggression statistics or “terrorists”.

Appeals Court Rules Against CIA Secrecy on Drone Program

On Friday, a federal appeals court rejected the CIA’s glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) to Freedom of Information Act requests, filed by the ACLU, concerning the CIA’s drone strike program. In doing so, Judge Merrick B. Garland reversed the district court ruling that had dismissed these FOIA requests and reopened the case for further proceedings. In an official statement from the ACLU, Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer remarked

This is an important victory. It requires the government to retire the absurd claim that the CIA’s interest in the targeted killing program is a secret, and it will make it more difficult for the government to deflect questions about the program’s scope and legal basis. It also means that the CIA will have to explain what records it is withholding, and on what grounds it is withholding them.

The ACLU’s FOIA request in question here sought to “learn when, where, and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how and whether the U.S. ensures compliance with international law restricting extrajudicial killings.”

Garland’s 19-page opinion reminds, “The collapse of the CIA’s Glomar response does not mark the end of this case. FOIA contains exemptions, including particularly Exemptions 1 and 3, that the government argues permit withholding.” In short, while the case is open for further proceedings, it is not guaranteed that the information requested will be divulged.

Despite the Obama administration’s rhetoric about transparency, this case is a clear-cut example of how something as contentious and relevant as the CIA drone-strike program is obfuscated by the veil of state secrecy.

Israel leads the charge in making (and selling) fully automated drones

Times columnist Bill Keller reports in a piece titled Smart Drones

Israel is the first country to make and deploy (and sell, to China, India, South Korea and others) a weapon that can attack pre-emptively without a human in charge. The hovering drone called the Harpy is programmed to recognize and automatically divebomb any radar signal that is not in its database of “friendlies.” No reported misfires so far, but suppose an adversary installs its antiaircraft radar on the roof of a hospital?

Israel is also the world’s second-largest producer of drones, and the largest exporter of drones. Last year, Jefferson Morley at Salon wrote about how Israel’s “drone dominance” is influencing both drone policy and industry here in the US:

Israel’s drone expertise goes back to at least 1970, according to the UAV page of the Israeli Air Force. Mark Daly, an expert on unmanned aircraft at Jane’s Defense in London, notes the Israelis were the first to make widespread use of drones in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when the aircraft were used to monitor troop movements.

Now, as the Arab media and Western reporters such as Scott Wilson of the Washington Post have reported, the Israeli Defense Force uses fleets of constantly hovering drones to intimidate and control the Arab population in the Gaza Strip.  (The residents call these drones “zenana,” which both sounds like the aircraft’s distinctive buzz and is Arabic slang for a nagging wife.) The IDF regularly uses drones for targeted assassinations of suspected militants, saying the drones enable them to use “precision strikes” to avoid hurting civilians. Yet as Human Rights Watch has documented, the drone strikes during the Gaza War killed scores of children who were nowhere near armed combatants.

As for domestic drone uses, the Israeli example is perhaps most instructive at the U.S. border. The 5 million Palestinian Arabs living in and around Israel, like the 11 undocumented resident aliens in the United States, are ineligible for citizenship in the land they call home. Both groups are subject to monitoring, barriers to entry and rapid expulsion. Not surprisingly one of the first uses of drones by the Department of Homeland Security was to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border, where it now flies Israeli-made Hermes 450 drones.

Keller’s piece quotes Professor Ronald Arkin, director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Georgia Tech, who argues that such automation could “make war more humane. Robots may lack compassion, but they also lack the emotions that lead to calamitous mistakes, atrocities and genocides: vengefulness, panic, tribal animosity.” Ironically, Israel is perhaps the one state that could reap the most benefits from such a development.

Ben Emmerson: Drone strikes in Pakistan carried out without Pakistani consent

We have received the first bit of news from UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson since he first announced his investigation of 25 specific drone strikes. Emmerson just returned from a three-day visit to Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was given assurances that there is no “tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory.” The Guardian reports

His comments on Friday are a direct response to widespread suspicions that some parts of Pakistan’s military or intelligence organisations have been providing clandestine authorisation to Washington for attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on Taliban or al-Qaida suspects in provinces on the Afghan border.

Emmerson said he had been told that “a thorough search of Pakistani government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given”.

Firstly, there are not only suspicions that some parts of Pakistan’s military or intelligence apparatuses are giving secret authorization to US for drone strikes. It has been confirmed by at least one Wikileak cable, in which Pakistani General and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani asked US Admiral William J. Fallon (formerly Commander at USCENTCOM) for “continuous Predator [drone] coverage” of a “conflict area” in Waziristan. If anyone with internet connection can find this cable, why can’t the Pakistani officials who told Emmerson about the search find it in their internal records?

Secondly, Emmerson’s statement reports that “since mid-2010 (and to date) [Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry] has regularly sent ‘notes verbales’ to the US embassy in Islamabad protesting the use of drones on the territory of Pakistan.” That implies a six-year lapse between the first US drone strike to take place in Pakistan (June 2004) and the foreign affairs ministry in Pakistan deciding to protest such actions to the US embassy there. What are the implications of this six-year period of silence, and does that silence not hint at some sort of tacit authorization?

Emmerson is also not the first person to make the claim that the Pakistani government does not consent to the CIA drone strike program in the former’s territory. As I wrote about here just a month ago

… Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani ambassador to Washington, declared the CIA drone program in Pakistan a “red line,” insisting that “Pakistan does not privately okay drone strikes inside Pakistan.” Rehman was quoted as saying “I can assure you there is no quiet complicity in this, there is no question of a wink and a nod…”

Rehman noted that as of the declaration, the members of army and the civilian government were “all on the same page” with regards to their attitude towards US drone strikes in Pakistan. Is that hinting at some sort of divergence in their respective opinions prior to that moment, as indicated in the cable quoted above?

Emmerson’s statement condemns the US drone strikes in Pakistan as being a violation of their national sovereignty, given that the latter has not consented to such actions, and thus the US is in violation of the UN Charter. Even if we were to narrow the scope of discussion to the Obama administration alone, it is unclear whether or not an argument rooted in the legal framework of international law is enough to sway the US to reconsider its actions. The twisted logic of the whole program, as represented in documents like the Department of Justice White Paper that was leaked to NBC News several weeks ago, doesn’t seem to evince much regard for international law on a whole. The many perversions which are required to make the Obama administration’s actions seem justifiable within the context of international law aren’t necessarily a sign that the administration values international law and wants to seem to conform to it – rather, the highly-flawed arguments presented by the Obama administration seem more a way for it to justify its actions to Americans, who might otherwise find ways to poke holes in those arguments through the many avenues provided by commentators such as myself.

However, given that the drone strike program is justified on the basis of necessity – i.e. we need to take out these would-be terrorists to prevent a threat against the “homeland” – Emmerson’s statement offers one unambiguous and incredibly logical reason for ending the US drone strike program (not just in Pakistan, but all over the Middle East): “Pakistan has also been quite clear that it considers the drone campaign to be counter-productive and to be radicalising a whole new generation, and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region.

Furthermore, individuals who may have simply posed a threat to the Pakistani state before may now be incensed to take up arms against the US given it’s responsibility for decimating whole Pashtun communities, and maiming and murdering scores of people. As I have discussed here and here, it is absolute insanity for the US government and its electorate to ignore the fact that bombing and killing people abroad is going to engender more hostility towards the US – and quite possibly, convince more people to take up arms against the imperial aggressor.

 

Robert Pape on the Logic of Suicide Terrorism, and its subsequent perversion by the US

Back in 2005, Robert Pape wrote a book titled Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.  I wanted to highlight some facts presented by Pape in an interview he had with The American Conservative:

RP: The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign—over 95 percent of all the incidents—has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw.

TAC: That would seem to run contrary to a view that one heard during the American election campaign, put forth by people who favor Bush’s policy. That is, we need to fight the terrorists over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.

RP: Since suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism, the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies over there, if you would, is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us.

Since 1990, the United States has stationed tens of thousands of ground troops on the Arabian Peninsula, and that is the main mobilization appeal of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. People who make the argument that it is a good thing to have them attacking us over there are missing that suicide terrorism is not a supply-limited phenomenon where there are just a few hundred around the world willing to do it because they are religious fanatics. It is a demand-driven phenomenon. That is, it is driven by the presence of foreign forces on the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. The operation in Iraq has stimulated suicide terrorism and has given suicide terrorism a new lease on life.

Pape concludes

The central motive for anti-American terrorism, suicide terrorism, and catastrophic terrorism is response to foreign occupation, the presence of our troops. The longer our forces stay on the ground in the Arabian Peninsula, the greater the risk of the next 9/11, whether that is a suicide attack, a nuclear attack, or a biological attack.

Arguably, the case can be made not just for foreign occupation but the use of military force against foreign populations in their own homelands. Drones for instance, can be landed at bases in countries beyond the domain of their targeting operations. Such was the conclusion reached in a 2004 Rumsfeld-era Pentagon report on the causes of terrorism. Similarly, the Times Square bomber, when asked in court to explain why he wished to plead guilty to the charges laid against him opined

I want to plead guilty and I’m going to plead guilty 100 times forward because until the hour the US pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan and stops the occupation of Muslim lands and stops Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking US, and I plead guilty to that.

Economic sanctions coordinated against Iran have also had the predictable consequence of generating more anti-American ire in that country, and Iranians are five times more likely to blame the US for the sanctions than they are their own leaders (rendering the perverted logic on which the sanctions were predicated invalid). Should we be surprised if the economic plight which we have for forced on these people, for what our own intelligence regards as s a peaceful nuclear program, generates more Times Square bomber-minded individuals?

Interestingly enough, the US is currently using the battlefield of Afghanistan as a “testing grounds” (using real people as targets, of course) for their kamikaze Switchblade drones, which are basically remote-controlled missiles. Essentially, the US will be turning the logic of suicide terrorism on its head by using “suicide” drones to do exactly what their human counterparts are opposing (occupation and military adventurism) with the latter’s act of suicide terrorism. Whew. There is an interesting (to say the least) animation made by a Taiwanese news outlet on these new weapons available here:

US security priorities switch from al-Qaida to cyberwarfare

This morning the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was briefed by Director of national intelligence James Clapper, and the heads of the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Counterterrorism Center, and the State Department regarding the intelligence community’s worldwide threat assessment.

As reported in a piece from the Danger Room, the heads of the US intelligence apparatus “focused on their budgets and on cyber attacks more than they did terrorism. Not only was that itself a big change in the annual exercise, what they said about the threat from al-Qaida was mostly cheerful news.” Most noticeably,  Clapper testified that with regards to the core al-Qaida (the one the US is in an non-international armed conflict with), “Senior personnel losses… have degraded core al-Qa’ida to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West.”In fact, with the exception of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the intelligence community has concluded that all the other Al-Qaeda “affiliates” it reported on (Al-Qaida in Iraq; Syria-based al-Nusra front; Somalia-based Al-Shabaab; Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Nigeria-based Boko Haram; Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayibba; and Lebanese-based Hizballah) are more focused on local issues than they are with targeting the US.

Moreover, the document also explicitly acknowledges the “dispersed and decentralized nature of the terrorist networks active in the region,” and recognizes that anti-US operations can still be conducted “even in the absence of official direction or guidance from leaders of established al-Qa’ida affiliates,” with the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the recent attack on the Algerian oil platform cited as examples of this. These points unambiguously corroborate the legal opinion drafted by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in his report on drone strikes, as I wrote about here:

Alston explains that the US cannot claim to be in a transnational non-international armed conflict with al-Qaeda beyond the context of Afghanistan or Iraq “without further explanation of how those entities [collectively] constitute a “party” under the [International Humanitarian Law] of non-international armed conflict, and whether and how any violence by any such group rises to the level necessary for an armed conflict to exist.” Moreover, Alston opines that to arbitrarily “expand the notion of non-international armed conflict” to these groups would be to do “deep damage to the IHL and human rights frameworks.”

But beyond the framework of international law, it is worth wondering aloud whether or not it makes sense to combat an ideology hostile to US government interests by playing a perpetual game of Whack-A-Mole. As I wrote about here regarding a 2004 Pentagon report on the topic, the issue at stake for those who adopt this ideology is not so much a whimsical and irrational hatred of America for it’s “freedoms” – it is US policy in the Middle East that engenders the sort of perspective we so easily dismiss in the West as uncivilized, animalistic, and barbaric. It does no one any good to ignore the historical precedents and continuing nature of US meddling in foreign nations that are the direct causes of anti-US sentiments abroad.

Surprisingly, violent and brutal imperialist policies don’t exactly endear the victims of such policies to the aggressor.

UPDATE: A simple illustration of this shift in priority concerns is the attention given to the threat of cybersecurity in the document. As reported by Kevin Baron at Foreign Policy, cybersecurity gets a whopping 18 “paragraphs of concern” in the briefing, while the issue of terrorism gets barely two pages worth of mention.

UPDATE II: A fascinating example of fear mongering in the mainstream media, from the Times

In his discussion of the terrorism, Mr. Clapper noted that while Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan “is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West,” a host of spinoffs still posed a threat [to whom?]. Listed first is the affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Mr. Clapper said had retained its goal of attacks on United States soil, but he also noted militant groups in six other countries that still threaten local violence [so they are domestic problems for foreign nations?].

And the Post

Officials said al-Qaeda’s core leadership group is so degraded that it likely unable to carry out large-scale attacks in the West. A serious threat, said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, emanate from “homegrown extremists who may well be inspired or radicalized by the message that al-Qaeda sends.”

Contrasted with the aforementioned piece from the Danger Room at Wired on the same issue

Matt Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified that those attempts are and are likely to remain “unsophisticated.” Those al-Qaida manages to inspire may be “wayward knuckleheads,” Olsen said, but they’ll remain a challenge for the spy apparatus to monitor and disrupt.