Bush’s Dumb War and Obama’s Global Track and Whack War
August 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
This essay will be my response to Jeremy Scahill,’s book, “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield”. The book is a 528 page indictment of George W. Bush and Barack Obama for waging a “Global War on Terror” featuring military invasions of over a hundred countries; bombing raids based on generalized probability, rather than specific targeting of suspected “terrorists”; maintenance of secret prisons where inmates were interrogated and, during the Bush years routinely tortured; imprisonment for indefinite terms without access to courts or lawyers, and drone aircraft used for surveillance, missile and bombing attacks causing death and injury to thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the bombing of New York in September, 2001.
The book is based on evidence scrupulously gathered and compiled by Scahill, an accomplished and courageous reporter. The text is followed by 92 pages of notes, detailing the sources and interviews of countless people, warlords, former and active members of the military and CIA with personal knowledge of the events and practices described in the book, family members of victims of the raids, attacks and “snatch and grab” activities that filled the prisons scattered in remote locations in the Middle and Near East, as well as other reporters and analysts who shared their investigative efforts through published sources. There is no doubt that Jeremy Scahill has an opinion and point of view concerning the subject matter of his book but, unlike the politicians and apologists who defend the practices he describes, Scahill states his opinions plainly, backs them with facts, and does not disguise them with artful words designed to deceive the reader.
Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld – The Dumb War
The Dumb Designation of a Crime as a War
A group of criminals flew planes into two office towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.. They did so as part of a carefully planned conspiracy directed by Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader and strategist. Unfortunately for our country, and fortunately for militant Islamist groups around the world, the damage and harm done by the conspirators was enhanced because it happened when our government was in the hands of some ruthless and radical men who had been waiting impatiently for more than twenty years for an opportunity to reshape the rules that protect Americans from abusive government power.
In the 1970’s, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the powers of the presidency to wage war in Vietnam and Cambodia without effective oversight by the Congress or the courts. Because it involved thousands of young male conscripts, over 50,000 of whom died there, the pain of those losses, expressed by millions of outraged and grieving American mothers, forced Congress to take steps to limit presidential power to make war.
Bob Eckhardt, a brilliant Congressman from Texas, drafted the War Powers Act of 1973. Congress enacted it. Nixon vetoed it. Congress overrode his veto and adopted it. It was intended to require active Congressional involvement in decisions to wage wars.
By September, 2001, three developments had occurred that weakened the force of the 1973 law. First, the draft was ended and the military was staffed with professional soldiers , so war threats no longer affected a broad cross-section of American families. Second, the Reagan years had spawned a new and powerful group of GOP political leaders who were committed to restoring power to the presidency. They were called “neo-conservatives”. They preached the “exceptionalism” of America and appealed to a kind of jingoistic patriotism, a new iteration of the “Mainifest Destiny” of the 1840’s and 1850’s, a doctrine used to justify the relentless war on native Americans and wars against Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were early and enthusiastic neo-cons. Third, the 1990-91 Gulf War against Iraq required only six months, had minimum loss of American life and was ended as a clear victory that enabled Americans to enjoy the overwhelming “shock and awe” inflicted on Saddam Hussein’s overrated army.
So, given these facts, the 9-ll bombing afforded Cheney, Rumsfeld and the compliant President Bush an opportunity to rid the presidency of the nettlesome restrictions imposed by the War Powers Act, as well as the Bill of Rights, the domestic and international laws against torture of prisoners, and the laws against assassinations imposed by Presidents Ford and Carter. Cheney & Co. regarded all those measures, including the Constitution, as barriers to the proper exercise of presidential power. Therefore, instead of proceeding to apprehend the criminals who designed and enabled the bombing, it was marketed according to an in-apposite metaphor: as an episode in the “Global War on Terror” perpetrated by “Islamoterrorists”. It was compared to the December 7th bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Instead of taking advantage of the almost universal offers of assistance from other industrialized nations throughout the world, and tracking down Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators, arresting them if possible and killing them if not, the Congress adopted an ambiguously worded hunting license to President Bush and turned him loose on the world and the United States Treasury. The enemy was undefinable and the battlefield was boundless. It was a war against a weapon: any plan or device intended to terrorize people, and the enemy was anyone suspected of planning to use such a weapon and anyone suspected of helping anyone to obtain or use such a weapon against the United States.
This was without precedent in the history of the world. Wars had been fought over territory, over trade routes and advantages, over religious differences, over competing claims to sovereignty and political leadership positions. No war had ever been fought over the use of a weapon.
A state of war is essentially a state of lawlessness. Homicide, theft, malicious destruction of property, assault and battery are all legal if committed during a war on a battlefield against an enemy. Modern weaponry has rendered the distinction between civilian and military targets meaningless because, when a bomb is dropped or a missile fired toward a suspected enemy , there is no practical way to insure that innocent persons will not suffer injury or death. So, when an American president is given the right to use the most powerful military arsenal in the world against a undefinable enemy in an unlimited battlefield, all laws, including the Constitution, intended to protect against abusive power are nullified if they impose limits on waging that war.
There are so-called “laws of war” that impose humane limits on the brutality of armed conflict. Even those weak limits were cast aside by an exquisite feat of sophistry: The lawyers for the “Global War on Terror” [GWOT] claimed that the GWOT warriors were immune from prosecution because they were soldiers in a war, but their victims were not entitled to the protection of the “laws of war” because they were not actually soldiers. They were “enemy combatants” who, like spies caught without uniforms, could be dealt with summarily. The Supreme Court finally set some limits on this absurd argument, but still refused to accord GWOT prisoners the rights of prisoners accused of or convicted of crimes who are held without trial for indefinite terms of years.
A Dumb Way to Wage a Dumb War
After Congress adopted the “Authorization for Use of Military Force”, the AUMF hunting license, Cheney and Rumsfeld decided to shroud their GWOT in a veil of secrecy that would avoid oversight by the legislative branch of government and First Amendment oversight in the form of public scrutiny. The CIA was designed as the official agency for secret activity in foreign territory but, over the many years of its existence, the CIA adopted certain rules that limited its use of lethal force and prohibited it from engaging in the torture of prisoners. Not only that, but the CIA operated according to an established system of oversight by Congress. That attention to the Constitution’s system of “checks and balances” was unacceptable to the Bush GWOT team.
Rumsfeld solved this problem by using his job as Secretary of Defense to empower the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC] to be the main force used to wage the GWOT. The CIA was relegated to a support role.
JSOC is seldom mentioned in the press. Its activities are secret. It was formed in response to the failed mission to rescue Iran hostages during the Carter administration. Its members were highly trained men recruited from Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, Delta Force and other elite groups from different branches of the military establishment. They are a “private army” subject to the command of the President. JSOC was used to engineer the killing of Che Guevera, illegally supply the Contras with arms and support, and engage in various other covert operations in Latin America. It was perfect for Rumsfeld’s purposes.
The sidelining of the CIA resulted in a turf war and several times both CIA and FBI officials protested the way Cheney and Rumsfeld conducted their GWOT, especially their use of secret prisons where prisoners were subjected to “enhanced interrogation”.
The Killing of Abu al Harithi and Kamal Derwish aka Ahmed Hijazi
On November 3, 2002, a JSOC team located Abu al Harithi in Marib, Yemen. He was one of the people responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. The information was sent to the CIA headquarters in Langly, Virginia and to a CIA command center in Djibouti. An armed drone was launched. It located Harithi in a car driving through Marib. A five-foot-long Hellfire missile was fired at the car, hitting it and killing Harithi and Ahmed Hijazi, an American Citizen born in Buffalo, New York. Before moving to Yemen, Hijazi had been an “unindicted conspirator” in the prosecution of the “Lackawanna Six”, a group of men charged with supporting al Qaeda. He was neither tried nor convicted of any crime.
Before the strike, CIA Director George Tenet told Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of Yemen, that the killing would be kept secret so that Saleh would not be embarrassed for allowing US military operations in his country. Soon afterward, however, an unnamed US source claimed credit for the killing and that was reported in the American press. Saleh was “highly pissed”. He had released the “cover story” that he and Tenet had agreed on: that the car hit a land mine. Ultimately, he was mollified with generous infusions of money and arms that enabled him to hold on to his tenuous grasp of power.
This was the first killing of an American citizen not on a battlefield since Gerald Ford banned political assassinations in 1976. Amnesty International and the ACLU denounced it and called on the US government to “bring to justice” those responsible. This was ignored. The President and members of Congress expressed satisfaction that “terrorists” had been killed.
This was only the beginning. A command center was established on the USS Mount Whitney, a ship sailing in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa. During the ensuing months JSOC offensives in Somalia, Yemen, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti were directed from it.
Dumb Snipe Hunts
A snipe hunt is a mean trick typically played on a city kid by usually older kids raised in the country. It is played at night. The victim is told that he and the other kids are going on a snipe hunt. He is told that a snipe is nocturnal animal who can be trapped in a gunny sack held open; that it is attracted by a light. He is told that the small animal will not bite him and is good to eat. He is then led into the woods, given a flashlight, told to hold open a gunny sack, to sit and wait for a snipe. He is assured that the other “hunters” will be at other locations similarly occupied. After being left there for as long as the pranksters feel is sufficient, he is rescued and teased about foolishly believing the phantom snipe story. There are variations, but this is the core idea.
For several years, beginning in 2002, the President of the United States and his team of GWOT warriors and Iraq invaders engaged in not one, but two snipe hunts: The first was initiated by Rafid Ahmed Alwan al Janabi, an engineering school dropout also known as Curveball, who told Bush’s eager listeners that he had personal knowledge that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”, The second was triggered by a Czech counterintelligence source who claimed that Mohamed Atta, one of the 9-11 hijackers, met in Prague in April, 2001, with Ahmad Samir al Ani, an Iraqi consulate.
Curveball proved to be a deranged con man who tried to score a green card from the willingly gullible Bush team by making up this story. The Czech government, after an intelligent investigation, declared that there was no credible evidence to support the alleged Prague meeting.
Before these snipe hunts were exposed, Rumsfeld and his JSOC army imprisoned thousands of men and women and subjected them to horrific forms of torture in a doomed effort to extract from them information about the WMD’s and the al Qaeda connection with Saddam Hussein’s government. Rumsfeld personally held weekly meetings to receive updates on the success of these efforts and sent memo after memo urging more and more severe methods to obtain the information he required. He was like a hapless kid, crouching in the dark, waiting for a snipe that never came. Disreputable lawyers like John Yoo were kept busy contriving new definitions of the word “torture” to protect Rumsfeld and his subordinates from criminal prosecution as war criminals.
[To be fair, it is true that Bill Cliinton and some members of both US and British intelligence forces began talking about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” before the advent of the Snipe Hunters. The difference is that they did not launch a GWOT based on their suspicions. And, most important, they listened to other, conflicting, opinions within the intelligence community. When the USS Cole was attacked in October, 2000, President Clinton did not
“Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial ”
That reaction awaited the Snipe Hunters.]
The Dumb War Dictionary
In order to achieve their goals of unfettered power while avoiding criminal prosecution or impeachment, President Bush and his GWOT warriors had to re-define several words and phrases that affect the application of various US laws. For example, American law distinguishes between “covert operations” and “clandestine operations”. Covert operations are military incursions into other countries that are not only secret, but are also done in a way that the US Government can deny responsibility for them. Covert operations require a presidential finding that must be shared with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees before the operation begins. Those restrictions were imposed as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Clandestine operations are secret military operations in foreign countries. They do not require a presidential finding nor do they require the involvement of Congress. Clandestine operations typically were used when invasions were planned. In the language of the military “Standard Operating Procedure” they are referred to as “Preparing the Battlespace”. For example, before D-day in WWII, clandestine operations were used to disrupt anticipated defensive actions by the German military.
Rumsfeld and his team viewed the entire ex-US world as a “battlespace” that could be “prepared” by JSOC operations. He not only wanted to bypass Congressional oversight and the bother of a presidential finding, he also wanted the ability to launch these clandestine operations without wading through the Pentagon’s chain of command. In other words, he wanted his own private army to send wherever he chose without having to account to anyone but himself and his hand-picked subordinates. The fact that this had no resemblance to any reasonable interpretation of the terms and phrases upon which he was relying did not deter him.
He encountered opposition from Pentagon brass who rightly felt that they were being benched. He also found himself in a running war with the FBI and the CIA who also felt that they were being relegated to supporting decisions and choices over which they had no control or influence. Despite these problems, Rumsfeld, with the powerful backing of his friend and mentor Dick Chaney, had his way. He became, in effect, a super general, able to invade, kill and destroy whoever and whatever he chose wherever he chose, so long as it was outside the United States. He became the most powerful snipe hunter in the history of the world.
Dumb War in Somalia: A Debacle
Even before the GWOT began Somalia was a failed state: a mostly rural territory larger than France with few resources, inhabited by desperately poor people surviving under the ad hoc rule of a network of war lords. The CIA operated in Somalia through shifting alliances with some of the war lords. Al Qaeda had a few agents there, but they were not a major force. When the GWOT began in Somalia, the CIA used its client war lords as contractors, armed with US weapons, funded with US money and supported by US air power to stage raids in rural villages and kill suspected al Qaeda supporters and others who harbored or protected them.
Those raids were done with vicious brutality and the resulting resentment was focused on the American sponsors. By 2004, news of the Iraq invasion and the abuses at Abu Graib convinced the Somali Muslim population that the US was waging war against Islam. To halt, or at least moderate, the lawless chaos that prevailed, local Muslims organized a system of sharia courts to enforce order. This system became known as Islamic Courts Union or ICU.
In a short time, the ICU grew strong enough to control a substantial part of Somalia and, at one point, controlled Mogadishu. In response, JSOC and the CIA launched large scale bombing attacks on Somali villages where ICU was in control. In addition, the US sponsored and supported an invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, a neighboring country with which Somalia had gone to war in the 70’s and which had continued a hostile relationship since then, featuring periodic cross-border raids.
A full scale war ensued, with US air strikes supporting the invaders. The ICU was finally vanquished, the war ended and the Ethiopian troops withdrew.
The Ethiopian invasion disrupted the ICU but it also attracted large numbers of young men from other countries, who considered the conflict in Somalia to be an attack on Islam. These men became easy recruits for al Qaeda and ultimately organized a new insurgency called al Shabab that became the most powerful and effective al Qaeda organization in East Africa. In 2009, a report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded, “In many areas al-Shabab is the only organization that can provide basic social services, such as rudimentary health facilities, food distribution centers, and a basic justice system rooted in Islamic law.”
The influx of foreign fighters steadily increased and al Shabab gained control of more territory than any other al Qaeda group in history. The dumb GWOT strategy, in a few years, had converted a failed state with little or no power to a territory similar to Afghanistan before 9-11, where al Qaeda could recruit and train its forces and expand its potential for harm to America. In the process, it had furnished ready-made propaganda for al Qaeda to use throughout the world to encourage Muslims to hate America.
The Track and Whack War
The Pirates’ Mistake
Three months after Barack Obama became the Commander-in-Chief, some Somali pirates made the mistake of waylaying and boarding an American ship off the Somali coast. The crew resisted and one of the pirates was wounded. Three of the pirates left the ship in a small boat, taking Captain Richard Phillips, an American, with them as a bargaining chip. They headed for the Somali coast. At Obama’s order, the USS Bainbridge was dispatched to the scene and arrived the next day. On the third day, Captain Phillips tried to escape from the pirates, but was re-captured. Two other US vessels joined the Bainbridge. On the morning of the fourth day, Obama, after being advised that JSOC had a team of expert marksmen capable of dealing with the escaping pirates, authorized the team to use lethal force to free the captain. After the team was in place, Obama and some advisers questioned them about their ability to free Phillips. “Would there be undue risk of harm to US troops?” “Would there be collateral damage?” “Do you have a clear shot?” After receiving negative answers, Obama was asked, “Do I have permission to execute?” Obama said “Yes you do.” The voice at the other end of the line gave an order. Then “Pop. Pop. Pop.” Three pirates were dead and Captain Phillips was rescued.
Barack Obama had experienced the power of heading a powerful military force. It undoubtedly impressed him with the efficiency and capability of a JSOC team. Admiral William McRaven, the JSOC commander became a frequent White House visitor and established a close relationship with Obama.
Obama’s GWOT Army
Obama focused on killing Al Qeada and groups “associated” with Al Qaeda. His primary weapon was JSOC, using intelligence supplied by the CIA. His CIA Director, Leon Panetta, an old hand at handling political conflicts driven by outsized egos, effectively ended the turf wars between the FBI, the CIA and JSOC. Obama soon had a smoothly working army which he began using to kill members and supporters of al Qaeda and “associated groups”, a shifting and imprecise designation of victims, the meaning of which changed in response to a constantly changing body of information.
Obama, in other words, while he ordered the ending of prisoner torture, continued, expanded and made more effective the “Global War on Terror” begun by the Bush neo-cons. He used JSOC forces for raids on the ground, drones, missile armed helicopters and AC130 gunships for larger scale attacks. [To appreciate the nature of the air attacks, do a Google search for “AC130”, look at some pictures and consider how those attacks were perceived by rural villagers in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya and other African countries.]
Rendition and Interrogation
Ali Nabhan was one of the Al Qaeda leaders and planners of terrorist activities in East Africa. He and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed were responsible for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When Obama became President, both were still at large, regarded as HVT’s (High Value Targets). In July, 2009, Kenya security forces raided a home in Eastleigh, a slum district in Nairobi. They arrested Ahmed Abdullah Hassan and took him to Somalia. There, in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency, he was interrogated by US Intelligence officials as well as by Somali interrogators. He proved to have been a personal assistant to Nabhan and, in response to repeated interrogation by both US and Somali men, disclosed information that allowed a JSOC team, on September 14, 2009, to attack a convoy consisting of a Land Cruiser and several “technicals” (pickup trucks armed with machine guns). All passengers in those vehicles were gunned down. The American commandos landed and collected two of the bodies, one of whom was Saleh Ali Nabhan.
In April, 2009, CIA Director Panetta declared that the “CIA no longer operates detention facilities or black sites” and announced a “plan to decommission the remaining sites.” Three months later, Hassan was interrogated by Americans in a secret prison basement.
The Bombing of Majalah
On December 16, 2009, legal advisers from the State Department and the Pentagon and seventy-three other top national security officials were given a file of “baseball cards” containing the bios of three men in Yemen who were alleged to be leaders of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). The JSOC commander, Admiral McRaven wanted immediate authority to kill all three. The two legal advisers were given forty-five minutes to consider the request. A teleconference was set up. McRaven laid out the case for “kinetic action”, saying that one of the targets, Mohammed Saleh Mohammed Ali al Kazemi, had been tracked to a training camp near the village of Majalah. Capturing him had been ruled out and a JSOC cruise missile attack on the camp had been decided on.
The assembled group gave their permission for the strike. A short time later, the Pentagon lawyer watched as a satellite beamed a real life image of Majaloah. Figures moving around the village appeared to be the size of ants. Then, in a massive flash, they were vaporized. In the Pentagon, the satellite feed was known as “Kill TV”.
There was no training camp. Scahill interviewed Bin Fareed, one of the most powerful citizens of Yemen, a leader of the Aulaq tribe and Anwar Awlaki’s uncle, who visited the killing site the next day after the strike. “When we went there, we could not believe our eyes. I mean, if somebody had a weak heart, I think he would collapse. You see goats and sheep all over, you see the heads of those who were killed here and there. You see their bodies, you see children, I mean some of them, they were not hit immediately, but by the fire, they were burned, . . . .” The man described efforts to bury the dead: “Some of the meat we could not reach, even. It was eaten by the birds. They were all children, old women, all kinds of sheep and goats and cows. Unbelievable.” “Why did they do this? Why in the hell are they doing this?” “There are no [weapons] stores, there is no field for training. There is nobody, except a very poor tribe,one of the poorest tribes in the South.”
Scahill interviewed several survivors. One of them was spared because he had gone on an errand to a neighboring village. “People saw the smoke and felt the earth shake – they had never seen anything like it. Most of the dead were women, children and the elderly. Five pregnant women were killed.”
Scahill includes statements from other survivors, all similar descriptions of horror and slaughter.
It Gets Worse
Abdulelah Haider Shaye was a journalist in Yemen who did not conform his reporting to the interests of either the Yemen government or the interests of the United States. He was not allied with Al Qaeda and his stories were as critical of its activities and policies as those of the US and Yemen. He was related by marriage to “. . a radical Islamic cleric,Abdul Majeed al Zindani, the founder of Iman University and a US Treasury Department designated terrorist” [in Scahill’s words] Because of this connection, Shaye was able to get information about Al Qaeda that probably would not have been otherwise available, but his stories were often critical of Zindani and were not subject to a charge of bias toward Al Qaeda.
Scahill wrote that Shaye “. . . had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen. . ..” He became a target for US retaliation when he began to write stories about Majalah. Shaye went there and published pictures of pieces of cluster bombs and Tomahawk cruise missles with “Made in the United States” stamped on them. Among the debris found and photographed by Shaye were pieces of BLU 97 A/B cluster bomblets described by Scahill as “[bombs] which explode into some two hundred sharp steel fragments that can spray more than four hundred feet away. In essence, they are flying land mines capable of shredding human bodies. The bomblets were also equipped with an incendiary material, burning zirconium, that set fire to flammable objects in the target area. The missile used in the attack [on Majalah], a BGM-109D Tomahawk, can carry more than 160 cluster bombs.”
All of this information was spread around the world, on Al Jazeera as well as other news media. It made obvious that the claim made after the strike: That it was done by the Yemen government, was not true. The Yemen government did not have the kind of missiles used.
Bin Fareed reacted to the Majalah bombing by organizing a massive meeting of almost 150 of Yemen’s tribal leaders. Old feuds and inter-tribal hatred were put aside and a crowd estimated as between 50,000 and 70,000 tribesmen assembled at Majalah in cars, according to Fareed, “as far as the eye could see.” A huge tent was erected and plans were made for speeches expressing outrage toward the US and the Yemen government for the attack.
The night before the speeches were scheduled, a small group of strangers came to the tent. They identified themselves as Al Qaeda agents and asked for permission to address the crowd. Bin Fareed refused and told them they were “idiots” who would divert attention from the purpose of his organizing: to oppose the lawless violence, not align with Al Qaeda’s equally violent policies. The Al Qaeda men left but, the next morning one of them, standing atop a car, spoke to the crowd and identified himself with Al Qaeda. His speech was televised and, despite Fareed’s effort, his rally was hijacked and branded as an Al Qaeda event. He told Scahill, with satisfaction that, a few days later, all of the Al Qaeda agents were killed, probably because the US was able to track them based on their appearance at the rally.
Abdulelah Haider Shaye persisted in his investigative reporting of the Majalah attack. He worked with Al Jazeera, ABC News and the Washington Post to expose the false tales offered by the Yemen and US governments, claiming that the attack was by Yemen military forces and that it destroyed an important Al Qeada training camp. His reports also exposed the way Saleh, the Yemen president, used the Al Qeada threat to pry money and weapons from the US.
In July, 2010, seven months after the Majalah strike, Shaye was grabbed off the street by Yemeni intelligence agents, taken to a secret location and told that to stop criticizing the Yemen government. They told him, “We will destroy your life if you keep on talking.” His lawyer told Scahill he was convinced the kidnapping was done at the behest of the US government.
Shaye responded to the threats by going directly to Al Jazeera after being released to describe the event in a live telecast. Saleh had set up a special court to prosecute journalists who were critical of him. The head of a committee to protect journalists in the Middle East and North Africa happened to be in Yemen that night. He interviewed Shaye and found him to be a competent and courageous reporter.
About that same time, major news media outlets in the US were being told by US intelligence officials to stop working with Shaye, that he was using the money they paid him to support Al Qaeda. Scahill interviewed both Shaye and his friend Sharaf, a cartoonist who incurred the wrath of the Yemen government by publishing unflattering cartoons of Saleh. He was convinced that neither of them were Al Qaeda agents.
On August 16, 2010, the end of Ramadan, Sharaf’s home was surrounded by armed soldiers. He and Shaye were taken to jail, beaten and tortured for about thirty days. Sharaf was released in exchange of his promise to stop drawing cartoons of Saleh. Shaye refused to make any promises, so he was charged with a long list of crimes and, a month later, brought to trial in a cage located in the courtroom. After the charges, accusing him of being an Al Qaeda agent among other crimes, were read aloud, he made a short speech to his fellow journalists, declaring that he was being persecuted for no reason except his exposure of the violent attacks on innocent citizens. He said, “You notice in court how they have turned all my journalistic contributions into accusations.” As security guards dragged him away, he yelled, “Yemen, this is a place where, when a young journalist becomes successful, he is viewed with suspicion.” He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Human rights groups and reporters who attended the trial, denounced Shaye’s treatment and branded the trial “a joke”. Gregory Johnson, the Yemen scholar at Princeton University, who had maintained steady communication with Shaye for years, told Scahill, “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his work. Without Shaye’s reports and interviews we would know much less about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that we do, and if one believes, as I do, that knowledge of the enemy is important to constructing a strategy to defeat them, then his arrest and continued detention has left a hole in our knowledge that has yet to be filled.”
A group of tribal leaders and some prominent Yemen sheikhs met with Saleh and urged him to release Shaye. Saleh agreed. A pardon was printed and Shaye was about to be released when Saleh received a call from President Obama. Obama “expressed concern” that Shaye was to be released before serving his sentence. After the call, Saleh tore up the pardon and Shaye remains in prison.
Horror at Gardez
Mohammed Daoud Sharabuddin was a policeman who headed the intelligence department in Paktia Province, Afghanistan. He lived near Gardez, a town in that province. On February 12, 2010, he, his family and some friends were celebrating the naming of his son, a ritual that occurs six days after birth.
About 3 a.m., the party was winding down when someone noticed that an outside light was not on. One of the musicians saw lasers from the perimeter of the compound focused on the grounds. He ran back inside and told Daoud that the Taliban was attacking. He said they were already on the roof.
Daoud and his fifteen-year-old son went outside and were killed by sniper fire. The family inside began hearing the attackers speaking English and realized they were Americans. Daoud’s brother tried to stop the attack. He went outside and shouted, “We work for the government. Look at our police vehicles. You have wounded a police commander.” Three women, family members ages thirty-seven, twenty-two and eighteen, tried to get him back inside. All four were killed. Seven people died. The dead women were survived by sixteen children.
One of the survivors, Mohammed Sabir, one of Daoud’s brothers, saw his brother, his niTece and his sister-in-law killed. At 7 a..m. stunned by the violence, he stood in a room filled with American soldiers while others searched the home. His request to take the wounded to the hospital was ignored. The soldiers told him they would care for them. Finally, a helicopter came but, by that time, the wounded family members were dead.
Afghans customarily bind the heads and feet of the dead. A scarf is put around the bottom of the chin to keep the mouth from being open. The survivors began trying to do this, but the soldiers handcuffed them and put the men and the women in separate rooms. Scahill interviewed the survivors. Several of the men told him that, after being handcuffed, they saw American soldiers using knives to dig bullets out of the corpses of the womens’ bodies. When Scahill asked one of the men to confirm this, the man said, “Yes.” “They were taking bullets from their bodies to remove the proof of their crime.”
Some of the male members of the family were taken into custody and interrogated for three days and nights. They were still wearing clothes bloody from the killings. They were accused of being Taliban members, although they told their interrogators that they had actually fought against the Taliban.
United Nations investigators issued a report that was never released. It said that the Daoud family was subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; that medical treatment was wrongfully delayed; that the survivors were made to stand outside in the cold for long periods of time.
The International Security Assistance Force issued a press release claiming that, while engaged in a routine operation, an ISAF team had made a “gruesome discovery”. After being caught in a a “firefight” at the compound, they went inside and found three women who had been “bound” and “gagged” and then executed. The ISAF team found them in an adjacent room”. The release stated that eight men had been held for “further questioning”. The press release stated, “ISAF continually works with our Afghan partners to fight criminals.”
The New York Times published the ISAF account. A Times reporter, Rob Norland, spoke to the local police chief, who confirmed many of the details of the incident. He stated that three women had been killed by Taliban militants and appeared to have deep cuts and puncture wounds, suggesting they had been stabbed.
A month after the attack, a British journalist, Jerome Starkey, began a serious investigation of the Gardez attack. After interviewing witnesses and viewing other evidence, he concluded that it was a tragedy followed by a cover-up. One of the most telling items was a video of the party, showing musicians playing and people dancing. The Taliban is notorious for banning musical instruments. Starkey realized that the whole Taliban story was a lie. When he interviewed the governor of the province where the attack occurred, he was told, “The operation was a mistake.”
The ISAF continued to insist on their bogus version but, when the Times of London published a long story written by Starkey, the cover-up began to unravel. At first, ISAF pressured other journalists to attack Starkey’s credibility. Then NATO claimed to have a tape recording in which Starkey made statements inconsistent with his story. When he demanded access to the tape, NATO spokesmen admitted it did not exist.
Starkey published a follow-up story describing the grief and outrage of the Afghans about the Gardez attack.
In late March, 2010, Starkey got a phone call from NATO. The caller told him that they were issuing a new press release changing their account of the attack. The new version admitted that the Daoud family was not allied with the Taliban, that, while the men “showed hostile intent”, they did not fire on the ISAF forces; that the women were not “bound and gagged” as originally claimed. NATO still denied that bullets had been dug out of the women’s bodies. A later investigation by Afghan investigators confirmed that the bullets had, indeed, been removed by the soldiers. Starkey published another story based on that investigation.
On April 8, 2010, a huge convoy of American armored cars and land cruisers, loaded with a large number of Afghan and American soldiers arrived at the Daoud compound. Admiral McRaven stepped out of one of them. A sheep was unloaded from one of the vehicles and three Afghan soldiers knelt by it in the courtyard of the compound. Afghan law includes a doctrine named nanawate that requires that when a wrongdoer comes to ones home to ask forgiveness, he slaughters a sheep at the front door and the victim is bound to accept him and his apology. As an Afghan mullah prayed, the soldiers prepared to kill the sheep. Hajji Sharabuddin, the family elder, stopped them. He recognized that honor required him to let the visitors into his home. He insisted, over McRaven’s objections, that Starkey remain in the room. His photographer took pictures of the event. McRaven made a short speech. He apologized and asked for “mercy” for him and his men for “this awful tragedy”. The Afghan generals handed the family $30,000.
When Scahill spoke with Sharabuddin months later, he said he did not accept the apology. He said, “Initially, we were thinking that Americans were the friends of Afghans, but now we think that Americans themselves are terrorists. Americans ar our enemy. They bring terror and destruction. Americans not only destroyed my house, they destroyed my family. The Americans unleashed the Special Forces on us. These Special Forces with the long beards, did cruel, criminal things.”
Scahill made FOIA requests for documents pertinent to the bullet removal issue. His requests were denied.
The Anwar Awlaki Story
A major part of Scahill’s book concerns the killing of Anwar Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son. I have written about this elsewhere so I won’t repeat it here. [See “Lynch Law” and “Lynch Lay Two”] Scahill’s book does, however, include one charming detail of which I was not aware.
The CIA accepted the assistance of a Danish citizen, Morton Storm, a lapsed Muslim who volunteered to become a double agent. Storm is a former biker gang member who became a devout Muslim and then, after a sudden epiphany, became an eager anti-Muslim. During his devout Muslim stage, he was a fan of Alwar Awlaki’s YouTube Muslim ministry and established a friendly relationship with him via email.
Awlaki told Storm that, because he was in exile to escape US surveillance and living away from his family, he pined for another wife who would accompany him on his frequent travels. Storm agreed to look around for one. He then went to a local office of the CIA and volunteered his services.
With the help of the CIA, Storm found a Croatian woman who was also a fan of Awlaki and was eager to become his wife. A video was produced featuring her, expressing her admiration for Awlaki , proposing herself as his future wife. He responded favorably and their wedding was arranged.
Since Awlaki had made plain the fact that their marriage would involve a lot of travel, the CIA provided her with a suitcase for her wardrobe and equipped it, without her knowledge, of course, with a homing device that would be trackable.
She met and married Awlaki and Storm was paid $250,000 by the CIA for acting as the matchmaker.
Following their marriage, Awlaki transferred her clothes from the suitcase to a plastic bag, abandoned the suitcase and the CIA plan to blow up the bride and groom as well as anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity was thwarted.
Last Sunday night, 60 Minutes included a segment in which Storm, who has produced a self-laudatory book, complained bitterly because, according to him, he was responsible for killing Awlaki and was denied the large reward that had been promised. The CIA claimed that his information was not vital to locating and killing Awlaki, so they refused to pay him. Perhaps they considered a quarter of a million dollars for a plot that did not succeed was enough.
Three days after becoming President, Obama signed executive orders “dismantling” the Bush torture and detention programs. He declared that we would wage war against “violence and terrorism”,but would do so in a manner consistent with “our values and our ideals”. The next day, CIA Director Michael Hayden told the President about drone strikes planned in Pakistan near the Afghan border. Hayden described them as targeting “upper tier” Al Qaeda and Taliban” members.
On January 23, 2009, two Hellfire missiles hit two compounds in two small villages. Hayden reported that the “upper tier” agents had not been hit, but that “at least five Al Qaeda militants” had been killed. Obama replied, “Good.”
The next day, John Brennan, his chief anti-terrorism adviser, told the President that most of those killed were innocent civilians. One strike killed between seven and fifteen people, almost all civilians. The second strike hit the wrong house and killed between five to eight civilians, some of whom were family members of the tribal elder, who was a member of a “pro-government peace committee”.
Obama summoned Hayden for a meeting. Hayden explained that the targets were based on “signature” findings, based on “life patterns” rather than actual intelligence specifically identifying them as Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders or members. The CIA had reported that they were “military age males” who were part of a large gathering in a region known to contain Al Qaeda or Taliban agents or were known to have had contacts with suspected militants. After hearing the explanation, Obama agreed that strikes could be based on such evidence, but required that the CIA Director was to have the “final say” on them.
These meetings were followed by other meetings with members of the intelligence community and Obama was made aware of the way the drone program was structured. During the next ten months, Obama authorized as many drone strikes as Bush had in the eight years of his presidency.
As I read descriptions of these “signature” strikes, something seemed familiar about them. One night, while half asleep, it came to me. This was the way the McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover waged the war on communism in the United States in the 50’s and 60’s. People were singled out based on their associations with others suspected of being communists. If they attended meetings where ideas consistent with communism were discussed, they were targeted. If they publicly opposed the methods of the anti-communists, they were targeted.
They weren’t killed, just jailed, ruined and black-listed. But the method was the same. We weren’t at war with the USSR or with any communist country. We had a war going on against an loosely defined ideology named by those waging the war as “communism”. Part of its appeal was based on fear. In those days the fear was focused on being incinerated by an atomic bomb. The GWOT war, also focused on an ideology, is based fear of another terror attack.
Those claimed to be communists, like those claimed to be agents of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, were not formally inducted into an organization. Their names did not appear in official membership roles. Their supposed adherence and approval of every objectionable idea of an ideology was presumed based on their “life pattern”.
This “life pattern” strategy used as a basis for drone strikes and lethal force should be familiar to us all. The pity is that, when it is given a new name, we don’t recognize it. Mayor Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk” program in New York, now the subject of conflict and public discussion, is another iteration of it. It also bears a resemblance to the “articulable suspicion” used to justify the NSA’s surveillance programs’ focus on specific persons or groups.
It seems to me that the GWOT is being fought on bases similar to the old McCarthy/Hoover/ John Birch wars on communism and the other just cited examples, except that Hellfire missiles and 500 pound bombs are more serious weapons than Congressional hearings and blacklists; Bloomberg’s police harassment; and NSA’s snooping.
I know this essay is too long. I have touched on about ten percent of the material in Scahill’s book. The examples I have discussed can give only a hint of the descriptions of mayhem and violence he describes, along with detailed accounts of the secrecy and deceit that characterize the efforts to conceal it. It is not a pleasant book but it reminds me of the importance of the First Amendment’s important protection of journalists like Jeremy Scahill, Jerome Starkey and Abdulelah Haider Shaye.