Sunday, November 17, 2013

TPP, WikiLeaks and the Drone Strike Transparency Bill


The Senate Intelligence Committee recently took an important step by passing an intelligence authorization which would require for the first time -- if it became law -- that the administration publicly report on civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes.

Sarah Knuckey, Director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University School of Law and a Special Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, calls this provision "an important step toward improving transparency," and notes that "Various U.N. officials, foreign governments, a broad range of civil society, and many others, including former U.S. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Koh ... have called for the publication of such basic information."
This provision could be offered as an amendment in the Senate to the National Defense Authorization Act. It could be offered in the House as an amendment on the intelligence authorization, or as a freestanding bill. But it's not likely to become law unless there's some public agitation for it (you can participate in the public agitation here.)

Forcing the administration to publish information is crucial, because in the court of poorly informed public opinion, the administration has gotten away with two key claims that the record of independent reporting strongly indicates are not true: 1) U.S. drone strikes are "narrowly targeted" on "top-level terrorist leaders," and 2) civilian casualties have been "extremely rare." Poll data shows that majority public support of the drone strike policy is significantly based on belief in these two false claims; if the public knew that either of these claims were not true, public support for the policy would fall below 50%. By keeping key information secret, the administration has been able to avoid having its two key claims in defense of the policy refuted in media that reach the broad public.

You might think that if a key reason that it's been difficult to do anything politically in the U.S. about the drone strike policy has been the apparent public support for the policy among people who do not know that the strikes have not been "narrowly targeted" on "top-level terrorist leaders" and who do not know that civilian casualties have not been extremely rare, then if there were a proposed transparency reform that could force the administration to disclose information that would likely contribute greatly to knowledge among the general public that these two key claims are not true, it should be a no-brainer that critics of the policy should vigorously support this reform.

Sadly, it is not, apparently, a no-brainer, because there are people who claim that transparency reforms are meaningless. And while it is tempting to try to ignore such people, they have a disproportionate impact to their numbers because most people don't have the life experience that would enable them to easily judge between the competing claims "transparency reforms are important" and "transparency reforms are meaningless." Our starting point is that many Americans, compared to Europeans, are politically disengaged, alienated from political engagement most of the time. So when you put out a call for people to engage Congress, you have a group of people who get it right away and take action, and a another group of people who think, "Engage Congress? Not that again," and treat it as a huge personal sacrifice to engage Congress, like you asked them to volunteer for a root canal. These people are looking for any excuse to not take action. So if someone pops up and says, "transparency reforms are meaningless," these people have an excuse not to take action. "Oh, this proposed reform is controversial, not everyone agrees, so I don't have to do anything."

To people who want to claim that transparency reforms are meaningless, I want to say this: tell it to WikiLeaks. What was the fundamental strategic idea of WikiLeaks? What was the fundamental insight that Julian Assange deeply grasped that caused him to initiate this project, at great personal risk to himself and his close collaborators? It was that governments are hiding key information that the public has the right to know, that allowing governments to continue to hide this information fundamentally undermines democratic accountability, and that forcing this information into public debate fundamentally enables democratic accountability.

Case in point: Just Foreign Policy issued a crowd-sourced reward for WikiLeaks to publish the secret negotiating text of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which, among many other concerns, critics like the AARP have charged threatens the ability of the U.S. government to make medicines safe and affordable under the Affordable Care Act. This week, WikiLeaks delivered, publishing the negotiating text of the "intellectual property" chapter of the TPP, the most controversial part of the agreement, including the negotiating positions of different countries. (If you made a pledge to the reward, you can fulfill your pledge here. )
Publishing this information generated a lot of press. (Google "WikiLeaks and TPP.") It also allowed critics of the agreement, like Public Citizen, Doctors Without Borders, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to respond directly to the TPP text in making their criticisms.

Predictably, some journalists wrote what they often write about such disclosures: that there was nothing really shocking for insiders who were closely following the issue. And, in a narrow sense, that's not untrue. But it missed the point. In general, disclosing "secret" government policies mostly isn't about educating journalists and other insiders who are closely following the issues. It's about educating the broad public, which never saw this information clearly presented in major media. In a democracy, it's hard to keep the basics of important public policies secret from well-informed people who are following closely. Official secrecy is mainly about keeping them from the broad public, because official secrecy allows the government to keep the broad public in a fog of competing claims that can't be directly verified and are therefore never resolved in major media. Critics charge that X, but the government denies it. Who knows for sure?

The New York Times recently had an editorial in favor of the TPP. Critics complained, saying: 1) either you're endorsing an agreement that you've never seen or 2) you have seen the agreement, and instead of doing journalism, you're collaborating in keeping the public in the dark. No, we haven't seen the agreement, the Times responded. We're just endorsing the idea of an agreement. Never mind what the actual agreement is. That's the kind of "public debate" you can have when the policy is secret - whether you like the official story about the policy, rather than the actual policy. (Now that part of the TPP text has been leaked, the Times is quiet.) This is the same problem we face with the drone strike policy: people like the official story about the drone strike policy, in which drones are a magic super-weapon that only kills terrorist leaders and not civilians, not the actual policy, about which they have no idea.

When Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA's blanket surveillance on Americans, many insiders said, "Yeah, we thought the NSA was doing that, we couldn't prove it, but no-one who follows the NSA was surprised." But the broad public had no clue, because it had never been clearly reported where most people could see it, because critics' claims couldn't be directly verified. When Snowden blew the whistle, the broad public found out, and that's why it's plausible that Congress will now force a change in policy. And that shows that transparency matters.

Where we are now with the drone strike policy is where we were with the NSA before Snowden's revelations: insiders know what's going on, but the broad public doesn't.

An illustration: earlier this week, I and others engaged in some "street lobbying" of Jeh Johnson, President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security. When he was previously in government, Johnson was the Pentagon's top lawyer, and thus participated in constructing the administration's purported legal justifications for the drone strike policy (which still have not been fully disclosed to Congress and the public.) Now, as head of DHS, he's not going to play that role directly. But he's still going to have significant influence, because he'll be in the meeting of the national security department heads, because he's well-connected, and because, by his own account, he cares deeply about the rule of law and working to ensure that the drone strike policy transparently complies with the rule of law. I was lobbying Johnson to support the drone strike transparency bill, so that the administration would have to disclose information about civilian casualties. He said he would look into the bill and consider it.

During the discussion, one of my colleagues challenged Johnson about a particular drone strike. Johnson gave the standard administration defense, about people who are planning to attack the United States. I interrupted him: "That's a small percentage of the people being killed by drone strikes."

"That's true," Johnson said.

That's true. When I called him on it, Johnson immediately conceded that the story that the drone strike policy is all about narrowly targeting people who are trying to attack the United States is basically not true. It's true that the U.S. has tried to target some people who have attacked or tried to attack the United States. But that's a small percentage of the people who have been killed. And so, in the main, that's not what the drone strike policy is about; in particular, the claim that drone strikes have been "narrowly targeted" on "top-level terrorist leaders" is not true. ("I believe it very likely that one of my enemies is standing in that crowd of 50 people, therefore I am going to blow up the crowd" does not constitute "narrow targeting.")

Why would Johnson concede to me that a central administration claim in defense of its drone strike policy is basically not true?
Because he wasn't giving an interview to a mainstream journalist. He was just talking to some guy on a street corner who wasn't recording what he was saying, a person who had little presumed ability to reach the broad American public, a person who could, at worst, tell some mainstream journalist what Johnson said, which Johnson could then promptly deny. He could say he was misquoted or misunderstood, and life would go on. And so we're left with the usual fog. Critics say X, U.S. officials deny it. Who really knows what the truth is?

Johnson was having an insider conversation, conceding that which all insiders know, but which the broad public does not know: the drone strike policy is not narrowly targeted on people who are trying to attack the United States.

That's why we need to force the administration onto the public record to document its claims. If the administration wants to claim that civilian casualties from drone strikes have been extremely rare, and that those killed were mainly people trying to attack the U.S., make them show us their numbers, and how they arrived at them. Pass the drone strike transparency bill.

Robert Naiman
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Syria, Obama's Calculations Reveal Stupidity of US Imperialism

Published on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 by Common Dreams

As US and NATO plan aerial attack on Assad government, analyses expose cynical and dangerous mindset of those choosing war over peace

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Does the planned US/NATO attack on Syria serve a larger strategic goal than simply "saving political face"? Perhaps not, but that doesn't make it any less stupid, illegal, immoral, or repugnant. (AFP Photo/Chad R. Erdmann)

With the U.S. war machine in full gear for an expected air assault on Syria, and with a US media continuing to focus on the inevitability of such an attack but not the true reasons behind it, the fundamental question remains: Why would the U.S., backed by its NATO allies, carry out such a misguided, dangerous, and—not to put too fine a point on it—stupid military campaign?

Citing reasons strategic, legal, and moral—critics of a U.S.-led attack on Syria are being drowned out by major news outlets, many citing unnamed government sources, who say U.S. cruise missile attacks (and possibly a multi-day aerial bombing campaign) could begin as earlier as Thursday.

But why? To what end? Who benefits? And who will be left to suffer?

Though asking these questions may not determine definitive answers, there are at least three points of agreement among experts cautioning against war. First, the details of last week's use of a chemical agent outside remain unclear and government claims about intelligence on the matter should be received with high levels of skepticism. Second, even if the Assad government, or someone loyal to it, was responsible for the attack the idea that cruise missiles would be the appropriate response (legally, morally or otherwise) is simple not true. And lastly, there is simply no military solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

So what's the real goal of the attack on Syria?

Asked that question by Democracy Now's Amy Goodman on Wednesday, foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis—referencing Obama's August 2012 comment about use of chemical weapons being a "red line" in terms of U.S. military intervention—articulated this answer:
Well, it seems that the goal is a political goal. It’s to make a statement: "Oh, my god, I used a red line. I said there was a red line, I have to do something." And the only, quote, "something" that seems to be available is a military action.
But is that analysis—that this is all political cover for Obama in the face of neoconservative pressure or the fear that failure to "respond" with military might will look the U.S. look weak—too simplistic?

Perhaps. But Bennis is not alone in her assessment that what's really at stake in Syria is something overtly fundamental to U.S. power precisely because the calculations being made by the Obama administration to launch strikes are so clearly shrugging off the self-evident complexities and dangerous possibilities predicted to result from military action.
Put another way, the simple political calculation that Obama must "save face" is really an admission that what's most important in terms of U.S. foreign policy is that the potency of U.S. military power should never be questioned by potential rivals or made to look impotent by other nations.

The simple political calculation that Obama must "save face" is really an admission that what's most important in terms of U.S. foreign policy is that the potency of U.S. military power should never be questioned by potential rivals or made to look impotent by other nations.

In that context, as former CIA analyst Ray McGovern writes at Common Dreams, the real target of U.S. military action is not the Assad regime per se—but Iran.

"Obviously, there is concern about the human rights catastrophe in Syria," writes McGovern, "but is the main target Syria’s main ally, Iran, as many suspect?"

Parsing why both the U.S. and and neighboring Israel would risk triggering a regional war when both state that neither "regime change" nor protracted involvement in Syria's civil war is the goal, McGovern argues that,
Iran’s leaders need not be paranoid to see themselves as a principal target of external meddling in Syria. While there seem to be as many interests being pursued – as there are rag-tag groups pursuing them – Tehran is not likely to see the common interests of Israel and the U.S. as very complicated. Both appear determined to exploit the chaotic duel among the thugs in Syria as an opportunity to deal a blow to Hezbollah and Hamas in Israel’s near-frontier and to isolate Iran still further, and perhaps even advance Israel’s ultimate aim of “regime change” in Tehran.
What has long been known about the conflict within Syria is the manner in which it has served as a proxy war among both regional and world powers, but none of those players have played such a central and pernicious role in fueling global conflict in the last century than the U.S. military which time and time again has chosen military belligerence and imperial self-interest over the option of more peaceful pathways.

Indeed, as the Guardian's Seumas Milne argues, if the U.S., U.K. and their allies wanted peace in the region, they have a sadistic way of showing it. As he says, it "is the war itself"—the "death and destruction" of ongoing violence—that poses the great threat to Syria's people:
If the US, British and French governments were genuinely interested in bringing it to an end – instead of exploiting it to weaken Iran – they would be using their leverage with the rebels and their sponsors to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement.
Instead, they seem intent on escalating the war to save Obama's face and tighten their regional grip. It's a dangerous gamble [...] 
Even if the attacks are limited, they will certainly increase the death toll and escalate the war. The risk is that they will invite retaliation by Syria or its allies – including against Israel – draw the US in deeper and spread the conflict. The west can use this crisis to help bring Syria's suffering to an end – or pour yet more petrol on the flames.
As many critics argue and Bennis expressed again Wednesday, the "notion that we are going to somehow escalate these attacks in Syria, rather than saying this is a moment when we desperately need diplomacy" is absurd.
Condemning the U.S. decision to cancel scheduled diplomatic talks with Russia on Wednesday, Bennis said the U.S. is wrong to stave off discussions or any possibility of peace talks.
"This is exactly the time" for such talks, she said, adding:
We need to be talking to Russia, to Iran, to all of the U.S. allies that are supporting the other side, to force the various parties to peace talks. There is no military solution. This is what Congresswoman Barbara Lee said yesterday, and it’s absolutely true. There is no military solution. Extra assaults from the United States is going to make the situation worse, is going to put Syrian civilians at greater risk, not provide protection.
So let the record show—if and when the U.S. bombs fall on Syria and the predicted death toll and violence spreads—that there was another choice for President Obama and his allies, but that helping to coordinate peace talks or fostering a negotiated settlement between the warring factions was just "something" that the U.S. simply refused to do.

The Specter of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Science News 

The Specter of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Efforts to harness the power of toxic chemicals and deadly organisms have been at the core of chemical and biological attacks throughout history. This package chronicles such incidents before Syria's recent alleged chemical weapon attack on civilians outside Damascus

United Nations inspectors working to determine the nature of the deadly agents used in last week’s attack have faced multiple challenges, including delays in reaching the site where the blasts occurred. Having originally granted investigators permission to access the site on August 25, Syrian officials later said the team could not enter until 24 hours later. On August 26 the team managed to reach the site after coming under fire from unidentified snipers.

The setback could prove disastrous if the chemical remains of the weapons have evaporated or expired. But if perpetrators used a persistent nerve agent such as sarin, traces of the toxin should linger in the soil for up to 29 weeks.

Scientific American spoke with Charles Blair, senior fellow on state and nonstate terrorist threats with the Federation of American Scientists, about the challenges of pinning down a toxic culprit.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What happened at 2:00 A.M. in the Ghouta region of Syria on Wednesday, August 21?

There are some visuals, but apparently there were thuds or explosions releasing a chemical agent that was dispersed throughout the area, harming a large number of people in a small space. That begins the debate: What was it? There will never be a definitive answer. The U.N. team’s only charge was determining if there was a chemical agent or not, not who delivered it. But it’s pretty safe to say the attack was chemical. The battle is what people consider counts as proof.

What kind of testing is done to find out what chemicals were used in the attack? Is it all done on-site?

The team that goes in can either do on-site testing or they can take it to one of 20 facilities outside the country that are certified to conduct off-site testing. One of the benefits of off-site testing is that the devices there are usually more advanced. Usually they do a combination of both. So in this case you take a sample and split it into eight [parts], which are then sealed to prevent contamination. Two of the eight [parts] are analyzed on-site. One goes to the inspector state party, and one is sent to be analyzed off-site. Each sample is weighed and reweighed before and after shipment to ensure no tampering takes place.

The samples then go through gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) analysis, which breaks down the sample into its various chemicals. Then they identify them by comparing what they have with a database of more than 2,000 chemicals. [Editor’s note: A GCMS instrument comprises two parts. The gas chromatography (GC) component separates the chemical mixture into pure chemicals based on the ease with which they evaporate; the mass spectrometer (MS) identifies and quantifies the chemicals based on their structures.]

Is there an expiration date for detection of these chemicals?

If it was sarin, they have 29 weeks to detect the degradation components. There have been rumors that it’s too late to detect or that sarin evaporates. What happens is it goes into the soil. If there were bursts of sarin in the area say, nearby a crater, the bottom of that crater would be a great place to find sarin remnants. With such a large number of people killed in this attack, there is evidence that large amounts of the chemical—if it was sarin—was used. I expect it lingered in certain areas.
The main one is IMPA, or isopropylmethylphosphonic acid. That’s the main chemical marker. There are others that exist, but as far as my research goes that’s the one I focus on.

Some experts have said it looks like a combination of the nerve agents sarin, used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s, and VX, which some suspect was used in the Iran–Iraq War in 1980–88. Is that possible? Do you agree?

With VX we’re not sure. Some scientists think it’s more persistent, meaning it sticks around, but there’s also evidence that maybe it doesn’t. To my knowledge VX was not used in the Iran-Iraq War. What we do know is that VX can be up to 100 times more toxic than sarin. If we look at the history of chemical warfare, it used to be that you’d either want an agent that was persistent and did its business on the surface or you’d want a gas agent that did damage in the air quickly and dispersed. If VX were both of those things, that would be a game changer.

How easy is it to make these types of weapons?

It’s very challenging. Take Libya, for example. They had a chemical weapons program. The first thing they made in high quantities was mustard gas, which is poisonous and lethal, but is not terribly difficult to make. Then they tried nerve agents. That was just a bridge too far for them. One of the things that made it so difficult was that the U.S. was interfering with their ability to get the precursors, the materials they’d need to make the weapons in the first place. In the end they abandoned the effort and chose to rely on their nuclear program.

Syria and Israel are among the only countries not to have signed or ratified the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (Syria signed but never ratified and Israel never signed), which required signatories to stop bioweapons work and destroy existing stockpiles. Did this play a role in the attack?

There are seven states that have not signed. The significance of the Convention is its role in upholding a social construction of reality in which these sorts of weapons are viewed as beyond the pale, as taboo. The more people that adopt that narrative, the bigger the taboo becomes.

Syria was not a member, but it made sense for them not to be. They wanted a form of defense against Israel. They created a stockpile for defense against other states. I really don’t think they would ever have envisioned using it against insurgents. But because they are not a part of the Convention, and there’s no world government, they didn’t feel compelled not to use chemical weapons.

There are only three reasons I can think of that the regime would’ve done this: One, they have an incredibly complicated chess game that’s out of this world and somehow part of a rational strategy that I can’t understand. Two, this was an element of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Or three, the regime itself is beginning to lose touch with reality, which can happen if you’re isolated. We’ve seen it happen to terrorist regimes over and over.

You can’t automatically accept any of the answers. So then you look at the opposition—they had a lot more to gain through the use of chemical agents. From their perspective, [the opposition] likely understood that it would trigger a large-scale U.S. intervention. So you could have had a situation where they said yes, people are going to die, but more will die if we don’t do this [to] trigger U.S. intervention.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death

Bradley Manning has done more for U.S. security than SEAL Team 6

The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden.  The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found

(Image via Bradley Manning Support Network)

on bin Laden’s laptop.  That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.

Think of it as courtroom cartoon theater: the heroic slayer of the jihadi super-villain testifying against the ultimate bad soldier, a five-foot-two-inch gay man facing 22 charges in military court and accused of the biggest security breach in U.S. history.

But let’s be clear on one thing: Manning, the young Army intelligence analyst who leaked thousands of public documents and passed them on to WikiLeaks, has done far more for U.S. national security than SEAL Team 6.

The assassination of Osama bin Laden, the spiritual (but not operational) leader of al-Qaeda, was a fist-pumping moment of triumphalism for a lot of Americans, as the Saudi fanatic had come to incarnate not just al-Qaeda but all national security threats.  This was true despite the fact that, since 9/11, al-Qaeda has been able to do remarkably little harm to the United States or to the West in general.  (The deadliest attack in a Western nation since 9/11, the 2004 Atocha bombing in Madrid, was not committed by bin Laden’s organization, though white-shoe foreign policy magazines and think tanks routinely get this wrong, “al-Qaeda” being such a handy/sloppy metonym for all terrorism.)

Al-Qaeda remains a simmering menace, but as an organization hardly the greatest threat to the United States.  In fact, if you measure national security in blood and money, as many of us still do, by far the greatest threat to the United States over the past dozen years has been our own clueless foreign policy.

The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death

Look at the numbers.  The attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, a large-scale atrocity by any definition.  Still, roughly double that number of American military personnel have been killed in Washington’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and its no-end-in-sight war in Afghanistan.  Add in private military contractors who have died in both war zones, along with recently discharged veterans who have committed suicide, and the figure triples.  The number of seriously wounded in both wars is cautiously estimated at 50,000.   And if you dare to add in as well the number of Iraqis, Afghans, and foreign coalition personnel killed in both wars, the death toll reaches at least a hundred 9/11s and probably more.

Did these people die to make America safer?  Don’t insult our intelligence.  Virtually no one thinks the Iraq War has made the U.S. more secure, though many believe the war created new threats.  After all, the Iraq we liberated is now in danger of collapsing into another bitter, bloody civil war, is a close ally of Iran, and sells the preponderance of its oil to China.  Over the years, the drain on the U.S. treasury for all of this will be at least several trillion dollars.  As for Afghanistan, after the disruption of al-Qaeda camps, accomplished 10 years ago, it is difficult to see how the ongoing pacification campaign there and the CIA drone war across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas have enhanced the security of the U.S. in any significant way.  Both wars of occupation were ghastly strategic choices that have killed hundreds of thousands, wounded many more, sent millions into exile, and destabilized what Washington, in good times, used to call “the arc of instability.”

Why have our strategic choices been so disastrous?  In large part because they have been militantly clueless.  Starved of important information, both the media and public opinion were putty in the hands the Bush administration and its neocon followers as they dreamt up and then put into action their geopolitical fantasies.  It has since become fashion for politicians who supported the war to blame the Iraq debacle on “bad intelligence.” But as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar reminds us, the carefully cherry-picked “Intel” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program was really never the issue.  After all, the CIA’s classified intelligence estimate on Iraq argued that, even if that country’s ruler Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t), he would never use them and was therefore not a threat.

Senator Bob Graham, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, was one of the few people with access to that CIA report who bothered to take the time to read it.  Initially keen on the idea of invading Iraq, he changed his mind and voted against the invasion.

What if the entire nation had had access to that highly classified document?  What if bloggers, veterans' groups, clergy, journalists, educators, and other opinion leaders had been able to see the full intelligence estimate, not just the morsels cherry-picked by Cheney and his mates?  Even then, of course, there was enough information around to convince millions of people across the globe of the folly of such an invasion, but what if some insider had really laid out the whole truth, not just the cherry-picked pseudofacts in those months and the games being played by other insiders to fool Congress and the American people into a war of choice and design in the Middle East?  As we now know, whatever potentially helpful information there was remained conveniently beyond our sight until a military and humanitarian disaster was unleashed.

Any private-sector employee who screwed up this badly would be fired on the spot, or at the very least put under full-scale supervision.  And this was the gift of Bradley Manning: thanks to his trove of declassified documents our incompetent foreign policy elites finally have the supervision they manifestly need.

Not surprisingly, foreign policy elites don’t much enjoy being supervised.  Like orthopedic surgeons, police departments, and every other professional group under the sun, the military brass and their junior partners in the diplomatic corps feel deeply that they should be exempt from public oversight.  Every volley of revealed documents from WikiLeaks has stimulated the same outraged response from that crew: near-total secrecy is essential to the delicate arts of diplomacy and war.

Let us humor our foreign policy elites (who have feelings too), despite their abysmal 10-year resumé of charred rubble and mangled limbs.  There may be a time and a place for secrecy, even duplicity, in statecraft.  But history shows that a heavy blood-price is often attached to diplomats saying one thing in public and meaning something else in private. In the late 1940s, for instance, the United States publicly declared that the Korean peninsula was not viewed by Washington as a vital interest, emboldening the North to invade the South and begin the Korean War.  Our government infamously escalated the Vietnam War behind a smokescreen of official secrecy, distortion, and lies.  Saddam Hussein rolled into Kuwait after U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie told the Ba’athist strongman that he could do what he pleased on his southern border and still bask in the good graces of Washington. This is not a record of success.

So what’s wrong with diplomats doing more of their business in the daylight -- a very old idea not cooked up at Julian Assange’s kitchen table five years ago?  Check out the mainstream political science literature on international relations and you’ll find rigorous, respectable, borderline-boring studies touting the virtues of relative transparency in statecraft -- as, for example, in making the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe such a durable peace deal.  On the other hand, when nation-states get coy about their commitments to other states or to their own citizenry, violent disaster is often in the offing.

Dystopian Secrecy

Foreign policy elites regularly swear that the WikiLeaks example, if allowed to stand, puts us on a perilous path towards “total transparency.” Wrong again. In fact, without the help of WikiLeaks and others, there is no question that the U.S. national security state, as the most recent phone and Internet revelations indicate, is moving towards something remarkably like total state secrecy.  The classification of documents has gone through the roof.  Washington classified a staggering 92 million public records in 2011, up from 77 million the year before and from 14 million in 2003.  (By way of comparison, the various troves of documents Manning leaked add up to less than 1% of what Washington classifies annually -- not exactly the definition of “total transparency”.)

Meanwhile, the declassification of ancient secrets within the national security state moves at a near-geological tempo.  The National Security Agency, for example, only finished declassifying documents from the Madison presidency (1809-1817) in 2011. No less indicative of Washington’s course, the prosecution of governmental whistleblowers in the Obama years has burned with a particularly vindictive fury, fueled by both political parties and Congress as well as the White House.

Our government secrecy fetishists invest their security clearances (held by an elite coterie of 4.8 million people) and the information security (InfoSec) regime they continue to elaborate with all sorts of protective powers over life and limb.  But what gets people killed, no matter how much our pols and pundits strain to deny it, aren’t InfoSec breaches or media leaks, but foolish and clueless strategic choices. Putting the blame on leaks is a nice way to pass the buck, but at the risk of stating the obvious, what has killed 1,605 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since 2009 is the war in Afghanistan -- not Bradley Manning or any of the other five leakers whom Obama has prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Leaks and whistleblowers should not be made scapegoats for bad strategic choices, which would have been a whole lot less bad had they been informed by all the relevant facts.

Pardon my utopian extremism, but knowing what your government is doing really isn’t such a bad thing and it has to do with aiding the (American) public, not the enemy.  Knowing what your government is doing is not some special privilege that the government generously bestows on us when we’re good and obedient citizens, it’s an obligation that goes to the heart of the matter in a free country.  After all, it should be ordinary citizens like us who make the ultimate decision about whether war X is worth fighting or not, worth escalating or not, worth ending or not.

When such momentous public decisions are made and the public doesn’t have -- isn’t allowed to have -- a clue, you end up in a fantasy land of aggressive actions that, over the past dozen years, have gotten hundreds of thousands killed and left us in a far more dangerous world. These are the wages of dystopian government secrecy.

Despite endless panic and hysteria on the subject from both major parties, the White House, and Congress, leaks have been good for us.  They’re how we came to learn much about the Vietnam War, much about the Watergate scandal, and most recently, far more about state surveillance of our phone calls and email.  Bradley Manning’s leaks in particular have already yielded real, tangible benefits, most vividly their small but significant role in sparking the rebellion that ejected a dictator in Tunisia and the way they indirectly expedited our military exit from Iraq.  Manning’s leaked reports of U.S. atrocities in Iraq, displayed in newspapers globally, made it politically impossible for the Iraqi authorities to perpetuate domestic legal immunity for America troops, Washington’s bedrock condition for a much-desired continuing presence there.  If it weren’t for Manning’s leaks, the U.S. might still be in Iraq, killing and being killed for no legitimate reason, and that is the very opposite of national security.

Knowledge is Not Evil

Thanks to Bradley Manning, our disaster-prone elites have gotten a dose of the adult supervision they so clearly require.  Instead of charging him with aiding the enemy, the Obama administration ought to send him a get-out-of-jail-free card and a basket of fruit.  If we’re going to stop the self-inflicted wars that continue to hemorrhage blood and money, we need to get a clue, fast.  Should we ever bother to learn from the uncensored truth of our foreign policy failures, which have destroyed so many more lives than the late bin Laden could ever have hoped, we at least stand a chance of not repeating them.

I am not trying to soft-pedal or sanitize Manning’s magnificent act of civil disobedience.  The young private humiliated the U.S. Army by displaying for all to see their complete lack of real information security. Manning has revealed the diplomatic corps to be hard at work shilling for garment manufacturers in Haiti, for Big Pharma in Europe, and under signed orders from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to collect biometric data and credit card numbers from their foreign counterparts.  Most important, Manning brought us face to face with two disastrous wars, forcing Americans to share a burden of knowledge previously shouldered only by our soldiers, whom we love to call heroes from a very safe distance.

Did Manning violate provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?  He certainly did, and a crushing sentence of possibly decades in military prison is surely on its way. Military law is marvelously elastic when it comes to rape and sexual assault and perfectly easygoing about the slaughter of foreign civilians, but it puts on a stern face for the unspeakable act of declassifying documents. But the young private’s act of civil defiance was in fact a first step in reversing the pathologies that have made our foreign policy a string of self-inflicted homicidal disasters. By letting us in on more than a half million “secrets,” Bradley Manning has done far more for American national security than SEAL Team 6 ever did.

Chase Madar
Chase Madar, a TomDispatch regular and author of a new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning (OR Books), is a lawyer in New York.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Covert Conflicts, Decried In 'Dirty Wars'


Covert Conflicts, Decried In 'Dirty Wars'

Reporter and author Jeremy Scahill, shown in Somalia, visited a range of conflict-plagued areas for the film Dirty Wars, an outgrowth of his writing on American anti-terrorism efforts abroad. 
 After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the soldiers of the paramilitary force JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) who carried out the operation were lionized as national heroes.

They earned more ambivalent treatment in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. And according to Dirty Wars, a documentary based on a book by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, their shadowy outfit has pretty much taken over America's global war on terrorism — and in flagrantly unconstitutional ways, he claims.

Founded in 1980, JSOC has deployed its crack units to carry out night raids, drone strikes and targeted assassinations, while also outsourcing some of its work to warlords in Africa, Asia and the Middle East — in wars declared and undeclared. Worse, in Scahill's view, they do this without oversight, and with the tacit and/or active collaboration of NATO, the White House, Congress and the U.S. military's top brass.

Scahill, who covers national security for the left-leaning Nation magazine and who has also written a book about the controversial security firm Blackwater, stumbled on JSOC while digging into the murders of an American-trained police commander and several members of his family — two were pregnant women — in the city of Gardez in Afghanistan. From there he worked his way through Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, documenting evidence of undercover JSOC operations to root out al-Qaida terrorists.

The film details Scahill's efforts to bring all this to the attention of Congress, the Army and the media, efforts that met with stonewalling, denials or dismissals of civilian casualties as "collateral damage."

Perhaps fearing that Dirty Wars would get lost in the flood of documentaries probing American involvement in foreign wars since the invasion of Iraq, Scahill and director Rick Rowley upped the ante by casting their story as a real-life thriller, complete with an ill-considered sidebar detailing the effect of his experiences on Scahill's psyche.

They've jazzed up their verite footage with a grainy shooting style and a plaintive score from the Kronos Quartet. They brought in fiction screenwriter David Riker (La Ciudad, The Girl) to pep up Scahill's narration, which is laden with clipped three-word sentences and flights of poetic rhetoric. ("Our car felt thin-skinned and fragile," he tells us while on an excursion into a terrorist stronghold.)

The action is heavily larded with stagey shots of Scahill shopping lethargically at a supermarket back home in Brooklyn, where life had come to seem "too ordinary"; listening gravely to victims' relatives; holding hands with a Yemeni tribesman who's showing him around a devastated strike site littered with signs of an American military presence. Returning to Yemen at the end, he wonders whether he's come for more data, or to apologize on behalf of his country.

Scarred he may be, but as a journalist Scahill is surely the messenger, not the subject, and the attention he receives in Dirty Wars distracts us from the bigger picture he paints. The film's larger argument is that, invited or not, America increasingly fights its global wars (in an estimated 75 countries, many of which, like Yemen, are not officially at war) in secret and without checks or balances. This, Scahill argues, has created a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict without end, in which no country is off-limits.

Given the recent revelations about secret American drone strikes, Dirty Wars is certainly timely. Scahill's trump card is the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric who left the United States for Yemen, where he became a hugely influential jihadist mouthpiece for violent attacks against the United States. The first American citizen to be placed on a kill list by President Obama, Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in 2011, as was his 16-year-old son a few weeks later.

This last is appalling, and Awlaki's son was probably — though not certainly, given that Scahill takes family testimony on trust, while presuming that American authorities must be lying or fudging the truth — an unwarranted casualty.

But Scahill goes on to argue, far more controversially, that the late cleric's militancy was a direct result of American overkill and hostility toward Islam. Indeed, as we watch footage of Scahill and surviving relatives gazing sadly at home movies of the family, Awlaki comes close to being portrayed as an innocent victim.

Scahill is right to focus on the price American security efforts have cost in human rights — and human life. Yet there are difficult questions hovering just outside the frame of Dirty Wars. Short of pacifism, and given that there is no such thing as a truly clean war, what would count as an "acceptable" level of collateral damage?

And in an age when terrorist cells and wild-card loners with grudges strike fear in one corner of the world, then vanish only to pop up in another, what might count as morally acceptable counterterrorism?

PRISM scandal: tech giants flatly deny allowing NSA direct access to servers

PRISM scandal: tech giants flatly deny allowing NSA direct access to servers

Silicon Valley executives insist they did not know of secret PRISM program that grants access to emails and search history

Executives at several of the tech firms said they had never heard of PRISM until they were contacted by the Guardian
Two different versions of the PRISM scandal were emerging on Thursday with Silicon Valley executives denying all knowledge of the top secret program that gives the National Security Agency direct access to the internet giants' servers.
The eavesdropping program is detailed in the form of PowerPoint slides in a leaked NSA document, seen and authenticated by the Guardian, which states that it is based on "legally-compelled collection" but operates with the "assistance of communications providers in the US."

Each of the 41 slides in the document displays prominently the corporate logos of the tech companies claimed to be taking part in PRISM.

However, senior executives from the internet companies expressed surprise and shock and insisted that no direct access to servers had been offered to any government agency.

The top-secret NSA briefing presentation set out details of the PRISM program, which it said granted access to records such as emails, chat conversations, voice calls, documents and more. The presentation the listed dates when document collection began for each company, and said PRISM enabled "direct access from the servers of these US service providers: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple".

Senior officials with knowledge of the situation within the tech giants admitted to being confused by the NSA revelations, and said if such data collection was taking place, it was without companies' knowledge.
An Apple spokesman said: "We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers and any agency requesting customer data must get a court order," he said.

Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer, said it did not provide government organisation with direct access to Facebook servers. "When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinise any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law."

A Google spokesman also said it did not provide officials with access to its servers. "Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'backdoor' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."

Microsoft said it only turned over data when served with a court order: "We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don't participate in it."

A Yahoo spokesman said: "Yahoo! takes users' privacy very seriously. We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network.
Within the tech companies, and talking on off the record, executives said they had never even heard of PRISM until contacted by the Guardian. Executives said that they were regularly contacted by law officials and responded to all subpoenas but they denied ever having heard of a scheme like PRISM, an information programme internal the documents state has been running since 2007.

Executives said they were "confused" by the claims in the NSA document. "We operate under what we are required to do by law," said one. "We receive requests for information all the time. Say about a potential terrorist threat or after the Boston bombing. But we have systems in place for that." The executive claimed, as did others, that the most senior figures in their organisation had never heard of PRISM or any scheme like it.

The chief executive of transparency NGO Index on Censorship, Kirsty Hughes, remarked on Twitter that the contradiction seemed to leave two options: "Back door or front?" she posted.

PRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program



PRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program

The National Security Administration campus is seen in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.
Patrick Semansky / AP
The National Security Administration campus is seen in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.

One day after The Guardian revealed that the U.S. government has been secretly collecting call log data from millions of Verizon customers, The Washington Post reported Thursday that the government’s monitoring of American’s data goes much, much deeper. The FBI and the National Security Agency are mining the servers of the country’s biggest technology companies for the purpose of hunting spies and terrorists. The program, code-named PRISM, is massive in scope and involves web services that many Americans use every day.
To make all this shadowy surveillance easier to digest, here are the relevant data points about the massive data collection:


The number of tech companies involved in the PRISM program. Here’s a list, from an NSA slideshow, including the date when monitoring began:
  • Microsoft (September 2007)
  • Yahoo (March 2008)
  • Google (January 2009)
  • Facebook (June 2009)
  • PalTalk (December 2009)
  • YouTube (September 2010)
  • Skype (February 2011)
  • AOL (March 2011)
  • Apple (October 2012)
So far Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo have flatly denied that they provide the government backdoor access to their services, according to a variety of news sources. Twitter, which says it has been particularly vigilant in protecting user data from government agencies, is notably absent from the list. Dropbox is next in line to be added to PRISM, according to the Post.


The number of different types of data that are collected through PRISM. E-mails, instant messages, videos, photos, stored data (likely items stored on cloud services like Google Drive), voice chats, file transfers, video conferences, log-in times, and social network profile details have all been monitored by the government. Through PRISM NSA officials can even conduct live surveillance of someone doing a Google search, according to the Post.

$20 million

The annual cost of PRISM, according to NSA documents obtained by the Post


The year PRISM was established. The Post describes an “exponential growth” in the program since President Obama took office. The government has snooped on other forms of communication in recent years as well. On Thursday, Senator Dianne Feinstein confirmed that the NSA phone log database has been in place for at least seven years.


The number of times PRISM data was cited in 2012 as part of President Obama’s daily briefing, a high-level intelligence presentation given to the president, the vice president and select cabinet members. According to the Post, at least 1 in 7 intelligence reports from the NSA make use of PRISM data.


Confidence level intelligence officials are supposed to have of a target’s “foreignness” to make use of PRISM data. The massive database is aimed at surveilling spies and foreign terrorists, not Americans. However, large amounts of American user data is also picked up as officials hunt for threats. The NSA describes this as “incidental.”

MORE: Verizon, Telephony Metadata, the National Security Agency and You

His Target Is Assassinations

Snapshot | Jeremy Scahill

His Target Is Assassinations

Excerpt: 'Dirty Wars': The documentary by Jeremy Scahill and Richard Rowley investigates covert American military operations.
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative foreign correspondent whose first documentary, “Dirty Wars,” opens Friday, writes for The Nation and achieved his biggest success with “Blackwater,” a best-selling book critiquing security contractors hired by the George W. Bush administration. Neither of which keeps him from being labeled a right-wing stooge by detractors. 

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Jeremy Scahill 

“Most of my hate mail nowadays comes from liberals, not conservatives,” he said. 

This is because Mr. Scahill has also been an outspoken critic of President Obama. Specifically, he disapproves of what he describes as the administration’s efforts to “normalize and legitimize” targeted assassinations — drone-executed and otherwise — Special Operations raids and other covert military practices that blur the battle lines of the war on terrorism. 

“Dirty Wars” is his latest salvo. In the film (his book with the same title came out in April), Mr. Scahill investigates several American strikes that killed civilians with no apparent ties to terrorist groups, beginning with a February 2010 raid in the village of Khatabeh, Afghanistan, that killed several members of a family. An Afghan police chief and three women were among the dead. (The United States first denied and then acknowledged its role in the deaths.) 

Along the way Mr. Scahill suggests that such acts are radicalizing Muslims both obscure — a man in Khatabeh talks about wanting to become a suicide bomber — and well-known, like the American cleric-turned-Qaeda firebrand Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by drones in September 2011. “We are encouraging a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Mr. Scahill said. “We are making more new enemies than we are killing actual terrorists.” 

Mr. Scahill, 38, has been a frequent talking head on cable news shows and recently was awarded a $150,000 Windham Campbell literary prize. The film stands to raise his profile as it mixes disturbing events in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia with Mr. Scahill’s raw emotional responses. 

He said he had resisted a prominent on-camera role, but allowed that the approach humanizes the film and builds credibility with viewers by being transparent about the imperfect art of journalism. Intense but friendly in conversation, with striking blue eyes, Mr. Scahill talked to Jeremy Egner about how making the film altered him. These are excerpts from the interview. 

Q. How did this project begin?

A. There was this war within the war in Afghanistan. There was the conventional war — the Marines in Helmand Province — and then you had these night raids. But I didn’t know much about it. We started filming aftermaths of night raids and interviewing people. 

How did it evolve?

I was going to be more of a tour guide to this archipelago of undeclared wars. As we started talking about how we wanted to tell the story, we realized we didn’t really have a story. We had four or five ministories, but we weren’t really doing an effective job of connecting them. David [Riker, the co-writer] said: “You’re burying a big part of the story, which is that this film has really changed you as a person. You’re not some dispassionate observer.” 

How were you changed by it?

I feel gutted as a person, to be really honest. When you do this kind of work you run from one story to the next and you try not to let anything catch up with you. Once we started doing this as a more personal journey, it was like a floodgate opened of all of the horrifying stuff that I’ve seen and the stories I’ve absorbed. I was forced to confront things that I don’t think I wanted to. 

Many of the images are pretty ghastly.

We tried to blur them as much as we could, in some cases, but I think people should see the aftermath. 

What do you hope viewers take away from this?

I don’t have any illusions about Congress changing things, but I have faith in people. If we debate about this in our society, Congress will be forced to do something about it. If we embrace assassination as a central component of our foreign policy and continue with the mentality that we can kill our way to victory — or worse, kill our way to peace — then we’re whistling past the graveyard.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Three Democratic Myths Used to Demean the Paul Filibuster

The progressive 'empathy gap', a strain of liberal authoritarianism, and a distortion of Holder's letter are invoked to defend Obama

Comencing immediately upon the 9/11 attack, the US government under two successive administrations has spent 12 straight years inventing and implementing new theories of government power in the name of Terrorism.
Literally every year since 9/11 has ushered in increased authorities of exactly the type Americans are inculcated to believe only exist in those Other, Non-Free societies: ubiquitous surveillance, impenetrable secrecy, and the power to imprison and even kill without charges or due process. Even as the 9/11 attack recedes into the distant past, the US government still finds ways continuously to increase its powers in the name of Terrorism while virtually never relinquishing any of the power it acquires. So inexorable has this process been that the Obama administration has already exercised the power to target even its own citizens for execution far from any battlefield, and the process has now arrived at its inevitable destination: does this due-process-free execution power extend to US soil as well?


This video frame grab provided by Senate Television shows Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaking on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Photograph: AP

All of this has taken place with very little public backlash: especially over the last four years. Worse, it has prompted almost no institutional resistance from the structures designed to check executive abuses: courts, the media, and Congress. Last week's 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director by GOP Sen. Rand Paul was one of the first - and, from the perspective of media attention, easily among the most effective -Congressional efforts to dramatize and oppose just how radical these Terrorism-justified powers have become. For the first time since the 9/11 attack, even lowly cable news shows were forced - by the Paul filibuster - to extensively discuss the government's extremist theories of power and to debate the need for checks and limits.

All of this put Democrats - who spent eight years flamboyantly pretending to be champions of due process and opponents of mass secrecy and executive power abuses - in a very uncomfortable position. The politician who took such a unique stand in defense of these principles was not merely a Republican but a leading member of its dreaded Tea Party wing, while the actor most responsible for the extremist theories of power being protested was their own beloved leader and his political party.

Some Democrats, to their credit, publicly supported Paul, including Sen. Ron Wyden, who went to the Senate floor to assist the filibuster. Sens. Jeff Merkley, Pat Leahy and (independent) Bernie Sanders all voted against Brennan's confirmation, citing many of the same concerns raised by Paul. Some prominent progressive commentators praised Paul's filibuster as well: on CNN, Van Jones - while vowing that "I love this president" - said "Sen. Rand Paul was a hero for civil liberties" and that "liberals and progressives should be ashamed."

But most Democratic Senators ran away as fast as possible from having anything to do with the debate: see here for the pitifully hilarious excuses they offered for not supporting the filibuster while claiming to support Paul's general cause. All of those Democratic Senators other than Merkley and Leahy (and Sanders) voted to confirm the torture-advocating, secrecy-loving, drone-embracing Brennan as CIA chief.

Meanwhile, a large bulk of the Democratic and liberal commentariat - led, as usual, by the highly-paid DNC spokesmen called "MSNBC hosts" and echoed, as usual, by various liberal blogs, which still amusingly fancy themselves as edgy and insurgent checks on political power rather than faithful servants to it - degraded all of the weighty issues raised by this episode by processing it through their stunted, trivial prism of partisan loyalty. They thus dutifully devoted themselves to reading from the only script they know: Democrats Good, GOP Bad.

To accomplish that, most avoided full-throated defenses of drones and the power of the president to secretly order US citizens executed without due process or transparency. They prefer to ignore the fact that the politician they most deeply admire is a devoted defender of those policies. After stumbling around for a few days in search of a tactic to convert this episode into an attack on the GOP and distract from Obama's extremism, they collectively settled on personalizing the conflict by focusing on Rand Paul's flaws as a person and a politician and, in particular, mocking his concerns as "paranoia" (that attack was echoed, among others, by the war-cheering Washington Post editorial page).

Just as conservatives feared non-existent black helicopters in the 1990s, they chortled, now conservatives are hiding under their bed thinking that Obama will kill their neighbors or themselves with drones while they relax at a barbeque in their backyard. In this they echoed Bush followers, who constantly mocked objections to Bush/Cheney executive power abuses as nothing but paranoia.
Besides, they claim, Attorney General Eric Holder has now made crystal clear that Obama lacks the authority to target US citizens on US soil for execution by drone, so all of Paul's concerns are nothing more than wild conspiracies.
The reality is that Paul was doing nothing more than voicing concerns that have long been voiced by leading civil liberties groups such as the ACLU. Indeed, the ACLU lavishly praised Paul, saying that "as a result of Sen. Paul's historic filibuster, civil liberties got two wins". In particular, said the ACLU, "Americans learned about the breathtakingly broad claims of executive authority undergirding the Obama administration's vast killing program."

But almost without exception, progressives who defend Obama's Terrorism policies steadfastly ignore the fact that they are embracing policies that are vehemently denounced by the ACLU. That's because they like to tell themselves that only Big, Bad Republicans attack the ACLU - such as when George H.W. Bush tried to marginalize Michael Dukakis in 1988 by linking him to that group - so they ignore the ACLU and instead pretend that only right-wing figures like Rand Paul are concerned about these matters. It's remarkable indeed how frequently, in the Age of Obama, standard partisan Democrats embrace exactly the policies identified by the ACLU as the most menacing. Such Obama-defending progressives also wilfully ignore just how much they now sound like Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, and George Bush when ridiculing concerns about due process for accused Terrorists:
Bush in his 2004 Convention speech mocking John Kerry: "After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers";
Rove in 2005 mocking liberals: "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments";
Palin in her 2008 RNC Convention speech mocking Obama: "Al Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America, and he's worried that someone won't read them their rights".
Find any defender of Obama's claimed power to assassinate accused Terrorists without due process and that is exactly what you will hear. That's why it is no surprise that the conservatives whom Democrats claim most to loathe - from Dick Cheney to John Yoo to Lindsey Graham to Peter King - have been so outspoken in their defense of Obama's actions in this area (and so critical of Paul): because the premises needed to justify Obama's policies are the very ones they so controversially pioneered.

In sum, virtually all of the claims made by these progressive commentators in opposition to Paul's filibuster are false. Moreover, last week's Senate drama, and the reaction to it by various factions, reveals several critical points about how US militarism and the secrecy that enables it are sustained. I was traveling last week on a speaking tour and thus watched all of it unfold without writing about it, so I want to highlight three key points from all of this, centered around myths propagated by Democrats to demean Paul's filibuster and the concerns raised by it:

(1) Progressives and their "empathy gap"

The US government's continuous killing, due-process-free imprisonment, and other rights abuses under the War on Terror banner has affected one group far more than any other: Muslims and, increasingly, American Muslims. Politically, this has been the key fact enabling this to endure. Put simply, if you're not Muslim, it's very easy to dismiss, minimize or mock these issues because you can easily tell yourself that they don't affect you or your family and therefore there is no reason to care. And since the vast, vast majority of Democratic politicians and progressive media commentators are not Muslim, one continuously sees this mentality shaping reaction to these issues.

Yesterday, the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, in an interview with Mother Jones, said the key fact about US drone killings is that what "we're facing here is an empathy gap". He added:
"Killing a bunch of people in Sudan and Yemen and Pakistan, it's like, 'Who cares - we don't know them.' But the current discussion is framed as 'When can the President kill an American citizen?' Now in my mind, killing a non-American citizen without due process is just as criminal as killing an American citizen without due process - but whatever gets us to the table to discuss this thing, we're going to take it."
Writing in Salon, the South-Asian-American philosophy professor Falguni Sheth blasted Democrats and progressives for leaving it to Rand Paul to protest "the White House's radical expansion of executive power". She noted: "rather than challenge a Democratic administration in defense of constitutional principles that all citizens should insist be guaranteed, Democrats embraced party tribalism." She argues in particular that as Democrats attack Paul on the grounds of his support for racist policies, they support or acquiesce to all of these War on Terror policies that have an obvious racial - and racist - component, in light of the very specific types of individuals who are imprisoned, and whose children are killed by drones, and whose rights are systematically abridged.

The reason this question matters so much - can the President target US citizens for assassination without due process on US soil? - is because it demonstrates just how radical the Obama administration's theories of executive power are.
Some progressives are unintentionally candid about their self-interest leading them to dismiss these issues on the ground that it doesn't affect people like themselves. "I can think of lots of things that might frighten me, but having a drone attack me in my bed tonight is not one of them", declared one white progressive at a large liberal blog in the course of attacking Paul's filibuster. Of course that's not a concern of hers: she's not in the groups who are so targeted, so therefore the issues are irrelevant to her. Other writers at large progressive blogs have similarly admitted that they care little about "civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy" because they instead are "primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class": ie, themselves. And, of course, the same is true of all the MSNBC hosts mocking Paul as paranoid: they are not the kind of people affected by the kinds of concerns they aggressively deride in order to defend their leader.

When you combine what Teju Cole describes as this selfish "empathy gap" among progressives with the authoritarian strain in American liberalism that worships political power and reveres political institutions (especially when their party controls them), it's unsurprising that they are so callous and dismissive of these issues (I'm not talking about those who pay little attention to these issues - there are lots of significant issues and one can only pay attention to a finite number - but rather those who affirmatively dismiss their significance or rationalize these policies). As Amy Goodman wrote in the Guardian: "Senator Paul's outrage with the president's claimed right to kill US citizens is entirely appropriate. That there is not more outrage at the thousands killed around the globe is shameful … and dangerous."

For a political faction that loves to depict itself as the champions of "empathy", and which reflexively accuses others of having their political beliefs shaped by self-interest, this is an ironic fact indeed. It's also the central dynamic driving the politics of these issues: the US government and media collaborate to keep the victims of these abuses largely invisible, so we rarely have to confront them, and on those rare occasions when we do, we can easily tell ourselves (false though the assurance is) that these abuses do not affect us and our families and it's therefore only "paranoia" that can explain why someone might care so much about them.

(2) Whether domestic assassinations are imminent is irrelevant to the debate

The primary means of mocking Paul's concerns was to deride the notion that Obama is about to unleash drone attacks and death squads on US soil aimed at Americans. But nobody, including Paul, suggested that was the case. To focus on that attack is an absurd strawman, a deliberate distraction from the real issues, a total irrelevancy. That's true for two primary reasons.

First, the reason this question matters so much - can the President target US citizens for assassination without due process on US soil? - is because it demonstrates just how radical the Obama administration's theories of executive power are. Once you embrace the premises of everything they do in this area - we are a Nation at War; the entire globe is the battlefield; the president is vested with the unchecked power to use force against anyone he accuses of involvement with Terrorism - then there is no cogent, coherent way to say that the president lacks the power to assassinate even US citizens on US soil. That conclusion is the necessary, logical outcome of the premises that have been embraced. That's why it is so vital to ask that.

To see how true that is, consider the fact that a US president - with very little backlash - has already asserted this very theory on US soil. In 2002, the US arrested a US citizen (Jose Padilla) on US soil (at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago), and then imprisoned him for the next three-and-a-half years in a military brig without charges of any kind. The theory was that the president has the power to declare anyone (including a US citizen) to be an "enemy combatant" and then punish him as such no matter where he is found (including US soil), even if they are not engaged in any violence at the time they are targeted (as was true for Padilla, who was simply walking unarmed through the airport). Once you accept this framework - that this is a War; the Globe is the Battlefield; and the Commander-in-Chief is the Decider - then the President can treat even US citizens on US soil (part of the battlefield) as "enemy combatants", and do anything he wants to them as such: imprison them without charges or order them killed.

Far from being "paranoid", this theory has already been asserted on US soil during the Bush presidency. It has been applied to US citizens by the Obama administration. It does not require "paranoia" to raise concerns about the inevitable logical outcome of these theories. Instead, it takes blind authoritarian faith in political leaders to believe that such a suggestion is so offensive and outlandish that merely to raise it is crazy. Once you embrace the US government's War on Terror framework, then there is no cogent legal argument for limiting the assassination power to foreign soil. If the Globe is a Battlefield, then that, by definition, obviously includes the US.

Second, presidents change, and so do circumstances. The belief that Barack Obama - despite his record - is too kind, too good, too magnanimous, too responsible to target US citizens for assassination on US soil is entirely irrelevant. At some point, there will be another president, even a Republican one, who will inherit the theories he embraces. Moreover, circumstances can change rapidly, so that - just as happened with 9/11 - what seems unthinkable quickly becomes not only possible but normalized.

The need to object vehemently to radical theories of power has nothing to do with a belief that the current president will exercise it in the worst possible way. The need is due to the fact that acquiescing to these powers in the first instance means that they become institutionalized - legitimized - and thus become impossible to resist once circumstances change (another Terrorist attack, a president you trust less). That's why it is always the tactic of governments that seek to abuse power to select the most marginalized and easily demonized targets in the first instance (Anwar Awlaki): because they know that once the citizenry cheers for that power on the ground that they dislike the target, the power then becomes institutionalized and impossible to resist when it expands outward, as it always does.

That's what Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote: "In questions of power . . . let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." It's also what Frederick Douglass meant when he warned:
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them."
Human nature means that once you vest a power in political leaders, once you acquiesce to radical theories, that power will inevitably be abused. The time to object - the only effective time - is when that power theory first takes root, not later when it is finally widespread.

(3) Holder did not disclaim the power to assassinate on US soil

Defenders of the Obama administration now insist that this entire controversy has been resolved by a letter written to Paul by Attorney General Eric Holder, in which Holder wrote: "It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: 'Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?' The answer to that question is no." Despite Paul's declaration of victory, this carefully crafted statement tells us almost nothing about the actual controversy.

As Law Professor Ryan Goodman wrote yesterday in the New York Times, "the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has acted with an overly broad definition of what it means to be engaged in combat." That phrase - "engaged in combat" - does not only include people who are engaged in violence at the time you detain or kill them. It includes a huge array of people who we would not normally think of, using common language, as being "engaged in combat".

Indeed, the whole point of the Paul filibuster was to ask whether the Obama administration believes that it has the power to target a US citizen for assassination on US soil the way it did to Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a "combatant", that he was "engaged in combat", even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast. If the Obama administration believes that Awlaki was "engaged in combat" at the time he was killed - and it clearly does - then Holder's letter is meaningless at best, and menacing at worst, because that standard is so broad as to vest the president with exactly the power his supporters now insist he disclaimed.

The phrase "engaged in combat" has come to mean little more than: anyone the President accuses, in secrecy and with no due process, of supporting a Terrorist group. Indeed, radically broad definitions of "enemy combatant" have been at the heart of every War on Terror policy, from Guantanamo to CIA black sites to torture. As Professor Goodman wrote:
"By declining to specify what it means to be 'engaged in combat' the letter does not foreclose the possible scenario - however hypothetical - of a military drone strike, against a United States citizen, on American soil. It also raises anew questions about the standards the administration has used in deciding to use drone strikes to kill Americans suspected of terrorist involvement overseas . . .
"The Obama administration's continued refusal to do so should alarm any American concerned about the constitutional right of our citizens - no matter what evil they may or may not be engaged in - to due process under the law. For those Americans, Mr. Holder's seemingly simple but maddeningly vague letter offers no reassurance."
Indeed, as both Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller and Marcy Wheeler noted, Holder, by deleting the word "actively" from Paul's question (can you kill someone not "actively engaged in combat"?), raised more questions than he answered. As Professor Heller wrote:

"'Engaged in combat' seems like a much broader standard than 'senior operational leader'. which the recently disclosed White Paper described as a necessary condition of killing an American citizen overseas. Does that mean the President can kill an American citizen inside the US who is a lower-ranking member of al-Qaeda or an associated force? . . . .
"What does 'engaged in combat' mean? That is a particularly important question, given that Holder did not restrict killing an American inside the US to senior operational leaders and deleted 'actively' from Paul's question. Does 'engaging' require participation in planning or executing a terrorist attack? Does any kind of direct participation in hostilities qualify? Do acts short of direct participation in hostilities - such as financing terrorism or propagandizing - qualify? Is mere membership, however loosely defined by the US, enough?"

Particularly since the Obama administration continues to conceal the legal memos defining its claimed powers - memos we would need to read to understand what it means by "engaged in combat" - the Holder letter should exacerbate concerns, not resolve them. As Digby, comparing Bush and Obama legal language on these issues, wrote yesterday about Holder's letter: "It's fair to say that these odd phrasings and very particular choices of words are not an accident and anyone with common sense can tell instantly that by being so precise, they are hiding something."

At best, Holder's letter begs the question: what do you mean when you accuse someone of being "engaged in combat"? And what are the exact limits of your power to target US citizens for execution without due process? That these questions even need to be asked underscores how urgently needed Paul's filibuster was, and how much more serious pushback is still merited. But the primary obstacle to this effort has been, and remains, that the Democrats who spent all that time parading around as champions of these political values are now at the head of the line leading the war against them.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon.  His most recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. His other books include: Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.