The first step is that it is the Department of State which decides you are indeed entitled to a nice, blue passport. No birth certificate? Problem. Born in Canada, albeit to two American parents? Maybe we need to talk. Constitution-level stuff.
Next up are the reasons you can have your passport revoked: treason, national security stuff, swearing allegiance to a foreign power. Pretty heavy stuff, lots of laws, and court challenges can be involved.
Congress Restricts Travel
But the Congress has quietly been side-slipping in restrictions on travel.
An old one is child support. If you owe $2500 of it, no passport. Congress is also flirting with revoking or denying passports to Americans “affiliated” with terror organization and/or seeking to travel abroad for jihad. And there is a move to deny passports to Americans who owe too much in back taxes.
Sex Offenders’ Passports to Be Marked
Now, to that growing list add this one: Legislation requiring the State Department to identify registered sex offenders with a special mark on their passports, and to revoke those passports already issued unmarked, was signed on February 8 by Obama. The law (Public Law No: 114-119) also authorizes notification to a destination country (including its visa-issuing agents in the United States) of impending or current international travel of a child-sex offender to that country.
International Megan’s Law, is supposedly to help prevent sex trafficking, since sex offenders “hop on planes and go to places for a week or two and abuse little children,” the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), said. Smith of course had no actual figures to substantiate his argument, nor did he acknowledge that State can already deny a passport to those convicted of sex tourism involving minors.
Offenses Against Minors?
In addition to the new law being the first time in U.S. history that a special class of Americans would be marked on their passports, a chilling event of its own, the law ignores the reality that the sex offender registry is another government “list,” such as no fly, that is relatively easy to get on and very hard to leave.
Prosecutors have been seeking sex offender registration under child pornography charges against teens who sext, building registry cases against peeping toms, and overall unevenly applying state-by-state standards to something that now may have global impact.
In at least ten states, you can earn sex offender designation from innocuous forms of indecency like streaking, mooning, or urinating in public. None of the registries provide any factual details of the offenses, just the names of the crimes, and sometimes not even that. So if a registry lists the offense of indecent exposure, for example, the passport people have no way of distinguishing a high school prankster who streaks a football game from a creep who heads off to a playground to flash children for sexual gratification.
Many registries also contain numerous purely statutory offenders who are often also minors at the time of the offense, such as an 18-year-old who engages in consensual sexual activity with his 16-year-old girlfriend. In many jurisdictions, this would be labeled “sexual assault against a minor.”
This has resulted in ever-growing lists of offenders. California has the largest list in the country with over one hundred thousand registered sex offenders.
Everybody hates people who commit sex crimes, even more so those who commit them against children. But marking their passports represents nothing more than chilling use of government power that will accomplish nearly nothing at the loss of something greater.
(example passport shown for illustration only)
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.
Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.
So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.
“We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.
Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.
A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.
Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Either the terror watch list is complete bull, or the Department of Homeland Security has a big problem. Come to think about it, maybe you can read it both ways.
At least 72 employees at the Department of Homeland Security are listed on the U.S. terrorist watch list, according to Representative Stephen Lynch (D., MA, pictured)
It is entirely possible Representative Stephen Lynch just demonstrated there is little to no actual threat from terrorists.
“Back in August, we did an investigation — the inspector general did — of the Department of Homeland Security, and they had 72 individuals that were on the terrorist watch list that were actually working at the Department of Homeland Security. The former DHS director had to resign because of that.”
Lynch did not say what has happened to the 72 employees, however. That in fact is the key question. If any of them are indeed bad guys, how did they get their jobs at DHS, and keep them, and what, if any, naughtiness did they do? If some/none of the 72 are bad guys, why were they on the terror list and WTF is the point of such lists?
Meanwhile, list or no list, DHS continues to fail inspections aimed at determining the efficiency of its internal safety mechanisms, as well as its efforts to protect the very Homeland that is part of its own name. Lynch referred to a recent report that found the Transportation Security Administration, which is “overseen” by DHS, failed to stop 95 percent of those who attempted to bring restricted items past airport security.
“We had staffers go into eight different airports to test the department of homeland security screening process at major airports. They had a 95 percent failure rate,” Lynch said. “We had folks going in there with guns on their ankles, and other weapons on their persons, and there was a 95 percent failure rate.”
And that brings up another question. If TSA has a 95 percent failure rate, and since no terror incidents have happened due to contraband being smuggled through our airports, doesn’t that strongly imply there really isn’t much of a threat? At a 95 percent failure rate, given the level of threat we are told is now part of our post-ISIS lives, shouldn’t planes be dropping daily from the sky?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In medieval times, cities were walled. At night the gates were locked, the towers guarded, and thieves and brigands were kept outside. At least in theory, because walls could be scaled, or blown up, or tunnels dug, or guards bribed.
And so in what may turn out to be the ultimate 21st century Renaissance Faire, the Iraqi government, no doubt with the support of, if not the checkbook of, the United States, is building a wall around the city of Baghdad in hopes that that will stop ISIS where nothing else has.
An interior ministry’s spokesman explained that work began this week on a 65 mile stretch of a wall and trench on the northern and northwestern approaches of the capital. The wall will be 10 feet high and partially made up of concrete barriers already in use across much of the capital. The spokesman declined to specify the measurements of the trench, possibly out of embarrassment.
While a wall is about the dumbest idea yet in a nation plagued by dumb ideas, something is needed. On Wednesday alone, roadside bombings in various parts of the capital and a drive-by shooting killed eight people and wounded 28. Last month, according to UN figures, 490 civilians were killed and 1,157 were wounded in Iraq. Baghdad was the worst affected, with 299 civilians killed and 785 wounded.
Of course not all of those were killed by ISIS, and many of the killers, ISIS and not, are already living inside the city and thus will not be affected by the new wall, but meh.
The thing is that since 2003 Baghdad has always been a city of walls. As one facet of its failed strategy to prevent sectarian violence in the city, the U.S. erected a labyrinth of blast walls, eventually walling off entire neighborhoods and nearly every government office, bank, police station, school, hospital, market, gas station, and university campus. The boundaries of the Green Zone itself are defined in places by blast walls.
The fact that all of those walls having failed to stop ISIS does not appear to have been factored into the Iraqi government’s plans.
Another day, another faux-terrorism arrest by the FBI. Who do we really need to be protected from anyway?
Now watch the italics:
The Justice Department charged two Virginia men with terrorism-related offenses, a day after FBI agents arrested one of them at an airport where officials believe he was planning to begin a journey to Syria to fight with the Islamic State.
Both men, Joseph Hassan Farrokh and Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, are in FBI custody and face up to 20 years in prison if they are convicted.
The department did not cite any evidence that the two men had direct contact with operatives for Islamic State, and based the terrorism charges on conversations they had with three informants.
Farrokh, a 28-year-old native of Pennsylvania, was arrested at the airport in Richmond, Virginia, where he was planning to fly to Chicago and on to Amman, Jordan, according to a criminal complaint released on Saturday. During wiretapped conversations with an FBI informant, Farrokh discussed beginning his journey from a smaller airport to evade scrutiny.
The complaint said that Elhassan, a 25-year-old permanent resident of the United States originally from Sudan, drove Farrokh to within a mile of the airport, and that Farrokh took a taxi the rest of the way. Elhassan is being charged with aiding and abetting Farrokh’s attempts to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
The complaint said that Farrokh did not appear to want to return to the United States.
— No terrorism committed, or even planned, inside America.
— One guy arrested for trying to fly to Chicago.
— Other guy arrested for driving Guy I to the airport.
— 100% of “evidence” are conversations with informants.
— No information on how the two arrested men came together with informants, or what the informants said that might have spurred the conversations.
Vice News revealed the details of a confidential database that banks, employers and others use to blacklist customers.
The World-Check database also includes major charities, activists, and mainstream religious institutions under its category of “terrorism.”
The confidential service claims it is used by over 300 government and intelligence agencies, 49 of the 50 biggest banks, pre-employment vetting agencies and 9 of the top 10 global law firms. It says it provides “an early warning system for hidden risk.
The database now lists more than 2.7 million individuals and entities spanning a variety of categories. Since 2007, the number of terror entries has risen fivefold.
But don’t worry (too much) about snagging the wrong bad guy — the tool’s website claims “in many cases, false positives have been reduced from 30 to 15 percent.”
In addition to those individuals on the blacklist, the database also boasts that for each person listed, they also include their immediate relatives and associates.
And this is handy — the database’s “Early Warning System” includes persons who are “pre-conviction.” In other words, people who have not been found guilty of any crime.
World-Check claims to be an impartial resource. However, critics argue this claim is at odds with its “terrorism” designation, in which profiles are accompanied by a logo of a red balaclava. Each terrorism profile includes a list of the sources of information used by World-Check when compiling the profile — some have been created solely from allegations written on conservative blogs, Islamophobic websites and political organizations.
So what does this mean to you?
Like the ever-growing number of lists compiled since 9/11, such as the No-Fly, you will never really know if you are included, or, if you are included, based on what information. You will never have a chance to examine and rebut the evidence. You will be subject to a 30-15 percent “false positives” rate. You will be targeted if you are immediate family member or associate of someone on the list.
You will be denied a bank account, turned down for a job or refused legal representation because your name is on this list. It is very possible complaining about the list will get you added to the list.
When we speak of the government’s ongoing assault against the First Amendment, it is typically in the context of Freedom of Speech. That is indeed primarily the focus, using the tools of The State to silence its critics. But not if you are a Muslim.
For many Muslims, the clause inside the First Amendment most often violated is that of Freedom of Religion. One of the latest battles in that war is playing out now in New York City.
Because the worst of the 9/11 attacks happened in New York, the city has always claimed a kind of de facto exemption from having to follow the rule of law. Under its former mayors, the NYPD actively conducted blanket surveillance of the Muslim community, to include sending undercover cops into mosques and Muslim social events for “intel.” Though no obvious terror attacks were identified or thwarted, the NYPD insisted the program was critical (see the same tired arguments expelled as “torture worked, though we won’t tell you how.”)
NY’s current mayor, Bill Blasio, promised in April of 2014 to dismantle the so-called NYPD Demographics Unit, which was responsible for singling out one religious group among all others, apparently based on the twisted post-9/11 logic of “Muslim –> Likely Terrorist –> Spy on all Muslims.”
However, despite the promise, the NYPD has continued its spying in violation of the First Amendment.
The most recent example was discovered when the website The Gothamist wrote about an NYPD undercover detective who converted to Islam to spy on students at a local college. The police admitted to the spying, but claimed it did not violate the First Amendment in that it was “targeted” and not “overarching blanket surveillance.” The undercover cop developed intimate ties with the students she met, even attending bridal showers and weddings. She also joined the school’s Islamic Society to gather information on Muslim students.
Glenn Katon, legal director for Muslim Advocates and a lead attorney in Hassan v. City of New York, which alleges that the NYPD engaged in a program of “blanket, suspicionless surveillance” that discriminated on the basis of religion, recently won a small victory when the Third Circuit court found that the Hassan plaintiffs had standing and raised valid constitutional concerns, and reversed the suit’s previous dismissal. The courts had previously in that dismissal required the plaintiffs to prove on an individual and personal basis that they had been surveilled, a difficult request given that while the NYPD admitted blanket surveilling the Muslim community, it would not confirm individual cases (see “Catch-22” in the dictionary.)
An attorney in another ongoing lawsuit against the NYPD, Handschu v. Special Services Division, stated that for a police officer to be placed undercover for as long as in the current case, there would have to be a terrorism enterprise investigation in place, which would require permission from the Commissioner of Intelligence and proof of an ongoing criminal conspiracy. No such terrorism enterprise or ongoing criminal conspiracy has even been alleged by the NYPD. They conducted the spying anyway based on the idea that terrorists are Muslims so therefore all Muslims must be treated as potential terrorists.
Indeed, Handschu originally dates back to 1985, when the courts prohibited the NYPD from investigating political and religious organizations and groups unless there was “specific information” that the group was linked to a crime that had been committed or was about to be committed. Following 9/11, the NYPD has counter-sued, sought to modify and/or ignored what are known as the Handschu Guidelines as they wished.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller said, without apparent shame, that the need to prevent terrorist attacks sometimes comes into conflict with the need to respect the constitutional rights terrorists in theory are attacking. “We have two sets of tensions that pull against each other every day, and the hardest thing to have to do is find a balance.” Um, no. Our freedoms are ensured by the Constitution John Miller, that document you are sworn to uphold and protect.
Miller might want to run his ideas by the Supreme Court, and perhaps a few of the innocent Muslim students whose religion alone put them under surveillance. They might argue that what the cops call the need for public safety indeed puts them outside the scope of Americans who qualify for that safety.
Youngblood, a new novel by Matt Gallagher set in the late stages of the Iraq War, is a powerful fiction debut from an author already known for his nonfiction portrayal of that conflict in Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. Youngblood is a gritty, tragic, realistic look inside the failures of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq told by someone who lived it as a young infantry lieutenant.
Youngblood presents three different themes intermingled. They work symbiotically with one another to create an image of what happened in the underbelly of a war poorly reported on by the American media.
The first theme tells the story of American Army Lieutenant Jack Porter, and his complex battlefield relationship with his platoon sergeant, Dan Chambers, and the host of Iraqis they encounter. In seeking a literary vehicle to his tale, Gallagher bypassed the traditional Saving Private Ryan-like choices in favor of a murder mystery of sorts. Actually multiple murders, killings and assassinations, whose connections unfold slowly as different characters divulge and withhold information, almost Rashomon-like. Lieutenant Porter is often times faced with choices of who to believe, and often gets it wrong, often with tragic consequences. Along the way the reader is introduced to the cast of the Iraq War: slimy sheiks, nasty terrorists, game-playing interpreters, innocent victims, not-so-innocent victims, and American soldiers stuck inside a world they cannot possibly understand.
Having spent a year in Iraq embedded with the U.S. Army has part of my State Department job, these portrayals ring true. Nearly on a one-to-one basis, I could match up a real person I interacted with for every one of Gallagher’s “fictional” characters.
Those soldiers’ stories and the events of their “workdays” are the second theme of Youngblood. For those who want to look behind the one-dimensional portrayals on TV, here is life on the ground for a counterinsurgency army. As the best novels do, Gallagher’s story drags you deep into a new and unfamiliar world, showing you the food the troops ate, the conditions under which they lived, the lies and boasts they told each other, and the motivations noble, and mundane, that sent them into service. If you enjoyed Kaboom, a minor criticism of Youngblood may be that you’ve read some of this before. That, however, does not take away from the realism; Gallagher really makes you smell the streets of war-torn Baghdad, and you can feel the grit of its back alleys in your own mouth as you turn the pages.
The final theme in Youngblood is the most subtle, and the most interesting. Through his broader story, that murder mystery and its eventual resolution, Gallagher deftly offers an allegorical view of the whole war. His soldiers try and do the right things in nearly every instance, but both their disparate personal motivations and the fact that right and wrong in war are never anything but gray in search of black and white, often means the best intentions turn to mud (Gallagher’s characters might use a stronger term.) When that happens in war, people die, sometimes the wrong people. The Iraqis, beaten down by years of occupation, play along with the Americans, but with the knowledge that in the end the soldiers will leave them with the mess to attend to.
In the end the message is clear for both sides: there was no way to win in Iraq, only to survive. Youngblood tells that tale, and tells it well.
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
Hey, did you wake up today wondering what was going on in Afghanistan, America’s 51st state, you know, the one we’ve been occupying for over 14 years, that one where thousands of Americans have died and where thousands still serve? Yeah, that Afghanistan.
The truth? Things kinda suck donkey over there.
Sure, of course, I can be more specific. But better let the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) tell the tale, via it released its thirtieth Quarterly Report to Congress. The quarterly report notes:
— Despite more than a decade of reconstruction and development efforts, the Afghan economy remains in fragile and worsening condition. Intractable insurgents, cutbacks in foreign military personnel, persistent emigration of people and capital, and a slowing global economy are shifting Afghanistan’s economic prospects from troubling to bleak.
— Afghanistan is even more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.
— The lack of security has made it almost impossible for many U.S. and even some Afghan officials to get out to manage and inspect U.S.-funded reconstruction projects. The dangers of absent oversight were exposed when a task force appointed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani found millions of dollars were being embezzled while Afghanistan pays for numerous nonexistent “ghost” schools, “ghost” teachers, and “ghost” students.
— Members of Congress have asked SIGAR to conduct an inquiry into the U.S. government’s experience with allegations of sexual abuse of children committed by members of the Afghan security forces the U.S. is paying for.
— Afghanistan’s domestic revenues paid for only 40% of the nation’s budget expenditures. The country’s large budget deficits and trade imbalances will require substantial donor aid for the foreseeable future.
— Cumulative funding for Afghanistan reconstruction increased to approximately $113.1 billion, with approximately $11.5 billion more in the pipeline for disbursement. A total of $8.4 billion of the reconstruction funding has been provided for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.
— This quarter, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces assigned force strength was 322,638 (including civilians). This reflects a decrease of 2,078 since July 2015 and 9,306 since May 2015.
— Since 2003, USAID has spent at least $2.3 billion on stability programs in Afghanistan. The findings of a USAID-contracted, third-party evaluation program on the impacts of its stabilization projects raise worrying questions. They reported, for example, that villages receiving USAID stability projects scored lower on stability than similar villages that received no such assistance.
— Some villages under Taliban control that received USAID stability projects subsequently showed greater pro-Taliban support. USAID appears to be largely indifferent to the implications of these findings.
So, yep, thanks for asking, this war is going well.
Especially now, as we learn some Sunnis are far more afraid of Iraqi government-supported Shiite militias than they are of anyone from Islamic State. This will not end well, especially since the United States still hopes to get those same Sunnis to turn on ISIS and support the same goals as the Shiite Iraqi government.
Fear of those Shiite Muslim militias is driving many locals in Diyala Province, where the population is mixed, to change their names to more neutral formulations.
The reason is simple survival. “Just over the past two months our department has received between 150 and 200 applications for a name change,” said an official working for Diyala’s Directorate of Nationality. “Most of the applications are being submitted by people whose names reveal their sect or the areas from where their family or tribe comes.”
In the Middle East, a name can tell a lot about its bearer. A surname may indicate which tribe one comes from originally, and thereby which part of the country. A first name or father’s name can indicate which sect one belongs to, especially if one is given a name specific to either Shiite or Sunni Muslims.
In Diyala, a province with a population where Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and a variety of ethnicities are thrown together, locals say that they fear being targeted for their Sunni religious background, even though they may not actually be very religious. They specifically fear the Shiite Muslim militias, supported by the United States, Iran, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, who are ostensibly fighting Islamic State. The militias are also engaged in some serious ethnic cleansing directed against the Sunni population.
Iraq’s Shiite-controlled Ministry of the Interior issued an order two months ago to put a stop to the Sunni name changes, stating that only those who have the name “Saddam” would be allowed to change their names. However, the responsible (Sunni-controlled) department in Diyala has resumed its work in defiance of Baghdad.
Short answer: the Pentagon spent $800 million of your tax dollars to try and get businesses started in Afghanistan. They didn’t get any businesses started.
Nobody spent a f*cking penny to help Americans at home start businesses like that.
Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Brian McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support that maybe all that money wasn’t wasted. McKeon said that the costly effort “had mixed results, with some successes and some failures.” He urged patience before branding the whole project as entirely misguided. “It’s a little early to say,” he offered, adding that “the jury is still out” on the fate of various projects.
McKeon, however, listed no specific projects that succeeded and gave no information on why it may be too early to tell how things will work out in Afghanistan. He did not say out loud, but knew, that this sh*t has been going on in Afghanistan for more than 14 years already, so how can it still be too early to tell? Dude, you’re not aging whiskey here.
McKeon faced off before the subcommittee against John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who described the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, known as TFBSO, the folks who spent that $800 million because they could not find a match to simply set fire to it, as a “scattershot approach.”
“It sounded like they just got together and they said, ‘Hey, this sounds like a great idea, and we have an unlimited budget. Let’s just do it and see if it works.’ And that’s why no one could really say with any credibility that the programs were effective,” Sopko remarked.
Sopko’s office has unleashed critical reports about Pentagon spending in Afghanistan — especially TFBSO, which was finally disbanded in a mercy killing last year. Financial records show that the task force spent $43 million on a compressed natural gas filling station that has been widely mocked as the world’s most expensive. It also spent upwards of $150 million on private villas and associated security, bankrolled a multi-million dollar Afghan start-up incubator that is now defunct, and even paid to import Italian goats in order to jumpstart the country’s cashmere industry.
“Now what I want to know, Secretary McKeon, is who made this decision?” Senator Claire McCaskill asked. “Who decided it was a brilliant idea when the people of a country make $690 a year that we’re going to spend — I don’t care if it was $2.9 million or $200 million — who made the brilliant decision that this is a good idea, to put a natural gas gas station in Afghanistan?”
McKeon wasn’t prepared to answer that question, though he added “I’m not a businessman. You make a lot of valid points.”
The U.S. government was nice enough to gift our loyal friends the Afghans $17 billion of your tax money, and, in the true spirit of giving, asked nothing in return for itself.
What that means in actual dollars and nonsense is that the U.S. government wasted $17 billion in taxpayer money in Afghanistan on various projects that never made it off the ground or were doomed to fail because of incompetence or lack of maintenance, according to a new report.
ProPublica looked at over 200 audits conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) over the last six years and tallied up the costs for the wide range of failed efforts to reach the $17 billion price tag. This greatest hits study only scratched the surface of the estimated $110 billion spent to rebuild the country (the U.S. spent some $47 billion in rebuilding Iraq, and how’d that work out?)
The new study touches on only the most egregious examples of waste, including:
— $8 million to end Afghanistan’s drug trade, which is flourishing today as never before;
— $2 billion for roads that the Afghan government is unlikely to maintain due to lack of funds and security concerns;
— $1 billion for unrealized criminal justice reform efforts;
— $936 million for aircraft that can’t be maintained;
— $486 million for cargo planes that can’t fly;
— $470 million on the Afghan Police;
— $43 million for a gas station that doesn’t work.
The timing of the report couldn’t be better. The chief of the watchdog office is slated to appear before a Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel shortly after lawmakers return from their extended holiday break.
That January 20 hearing was originally set to scrutinize only the work of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which spent $700-$800 million (no one knows the exact amount) on economic redevelopment in Afghanistan, as well as $150 million on villas and private security for the group’s staffers. The agenda will now likely expand to a whole-of-government waste review.
This story makes me so angry that I can’t even come up with my usual snarky introduction. I only weep.
The Guantánamo parole board approved the release of a Yemeni “forever prisoner,” dismissing intelligence that imprisoned the man for 13 years without trial. And if that level of evil and scorn for justice doesn’t radicalize a 100 people to join ISIS, then nothing can.
The so-called Gitmo Periodic Review Board heard the case of Mustafa al Shamiri, 37. Intelligence analysts, I’ll say it again, 13 years ago, wrongly labeled him as a high level al-Qaida guy, because his name was similar to actual extremists. For 13 years of hell, like some modern-day Jean Valjean, he was known only as Detainee 434 by his American jailers.
“In making this determination, the board noted that the most derogatory prior assessments regarding the detainee’s activities before detention have been discredited, and the current information shows that the detainee has low-level military capability.”
The military says the U.S. “ally” Northern Alliance captured Shamiri in Afghanistan in late November 2001 and held him for a time in a crammed fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. He was then rendered over to the U.S. Such renditions were typically paid for in cash bounty by the U.S. to stock up its offshore penal colony.
Now look at him, Detainee 434 Mustafa al Shamiri:
…that works out to about 28 dead every day.
It is also an estimate, given that many areas of the country are not readily accessible, and because the death toll from the siege of Ramadi is not accounted for in the figures. More than 3.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced and/or homeless.
Iraq is now an ungoverned, failed state, a killing field on the scale of genocide.
At least 18,802 civilians were killed and 36,245 wounded in Iraq over the last 22 months, according to the UN’s Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq. Another 3,206,736 Iraqis are internally displaced, including more than one million children. The study emphasizes that these are conservative estimates. The UN also is careful to note that the number of civilians killed by secondary effects of the violence, such as lack of access to food, water or medical care, is unknown. In many areas of Iraq schools are closed and basic infrastructure is not functioning.
All that is in addition to the more than one million people already killed during the American occupation period.
These horrors are directly caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. In addition to unleashing near-total chaos in the nation, the U.S. invasion led directly to the rise of Islamic State, which found the consuming violence fertile soil for growth. ISIS went on to see a new role to emerge, protector of the Sunni population, which was being slaughtered and impoverished by the Shiite majority empowered by the Americans and Iran.
“Armed violence continues to take an obscene toll on Iraqi civilians and their communities,” remarked the UN high commissioner for human rights. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”
ISIS is targeting non-Sunni ethnic and religious communities, “systematically persecuting” them, subjecting them to violent repression and crimes, the UN notes. Women and children are particularly affected by these atrocities. Women face extreme sexual violence and even sexual slavery. Children are being forcibly recruited as fighters.
In addition to ISIS violence, the UN notes that civilians have been killed and kidnapped, and that civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by pro-government forces, militias and tribal fighters. Moreover, civilians are being killed by U.S. airstrikes.
Adding to the depth of horror in Iraq, many Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, but have been largely unwelcome. In a time of heightened Islamophobia, some European countries and many right-wing American politicians — including more than half of the U.S. governors — have made it clear they do not want to accept Muslim refugees.
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
This one’s so funny that it must be some kind of U.S.-led initiative; I can’t believe the Afghans have this kind of a sense of humor.
But whatever the origin, Afghanistan banned the sale of imitation Kalashnikovs and other toy guns after they caused injuries to more than 100 people during the last Eid celebrations. Children toting toy guns that fire rubber or plastic pellets are a common sight in the country during Eid al-Fitr, with sales surging every year amid festivities marking the end of Ramadan.
More than 100 children and teenagers suffered eye injuries during the last round of celebrations, the interior ministry said. “We have ordered police forces to confiscate all toy guns which can lead to physical and psychological damage among people,” a ministry statement said.
Now of course the hilarity is that Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily-armed places on earth. It is more than likely that every kid with a toy gun either has his own AK at home, or lives in a house with a real AK (or two, or four…) Meanwhile, the countryside is strewn with land mines dating back to the British 19th century defeat, buried under Soviet mines from the 1980s, buried under American munitions of more recent vintage. Car bombs are not infrequent interruptions to Taliban firefights and if none of that puts a kid’s eye out, there are always “accidental” U.S. drone strikes to help paint the landscape with Afghan kid splat.
Nonetheless, while the Afghan government can do nothing about any of that, it does claim it wants to reduce the influence of war toys on impressionable young minds.
But every action has a consequence. The toy gun ban, if vigorously enforced by the lazy, corrupt Afghan police who can’t stop car bombs, never mind plastic guns, would impact the booming toy business in the country. That, along with opium production, are possibly the last two for-profit enterprises functioning in Afghanistan.
The ban follows an earlier increase on import tax for toy guns from 10 percent to 50 percent to discourage it. The move could lead to an emergence of adults’ black markets and smuggling networks for children’s toys, the Interior Ministry warned. That situation will then mirror the lucrative black market for real firearms. Hey kids, just like daddy!
According to the AFP news agency, the toy gun ban was widely welcomed on social media, with some calling for extending the crackdown to include sales of real weapons in the war-torn country. “This is a positive step that will stop children from taking up real arms when they grow up,” one Afghani wrote on Facebook. “Militancy and war has promoted a brutal culture of violence in our society that is impacting children.”
Like I said, those wacky Afghans. Who knew after centuries of war against foreign invaders they still have their sense of humor?
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
Four American prisoners, including detained Washington Post journalist Jason Resaian, Saeed Adedini, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, were released as part of a deal with the United States alongside the ending of many trade sanction against Iran. Iran also released a fifth American prisoner unrelated to the swap, student Matthew Trevithick.
However good that news is, the fate of two other Americans believed to still be in Iran remains unknown.
Authorities in Tehran said they would not be freeing a Iranian-American businessman arrested in October, and were silent on the fate of an CIA/DEA/FBI semi-undercover contractor who disappeared in the country.
It was unclear why businessman Siamak Namazi, 44, an Iranian-American based in Dubai, was arrested in October in the first place. He was visiting a friend in Tehran, where he had done consultant work for over ten years without incident. Namazi is the son of a prominent family in Tehran. He immigrated to the United States in 1983, and he later returned to Iran after graduating from college to serve in the Iranian military.
The fate of Robert Levinson, 67, pictured, is also unclear. Levinson, who worked at one time for the FBI, and also for the CIA, went missing on an Iranian island in March 2007. The island was reportedly a well-known stopover for smugglers bringing goods into Iran. Levinson is believed to have been looking into Iranian government corruption related to cigarette smuggling out of Dubai. The Iranians have never acknowledged holding Levinson.
Levinson joined the FBI’s New York field office in 1978 after spending six years with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Eventually he moved to the Miami office, where he tracked Russian organized-crime figures.
After retiring from the FBI in 1998, Levinson worked as a CIA contractor. Levinson was supposed to produce academic papers for the agency, but operated much like a case officer. Levinson traveled the globe to meet with potential sources, sometimes using a fake name. CIA station chiefs in those countries were allegedly never notified of Levinson’s activities overseas, even though the agency reimbursed him for his travel.
In the world of covert intelligence, the use of such contractors can be a convenient means of gathering information without creating any true responsibility of the agency to protect or repatriate an American who is technically not a “spy” and officially not an employee of the U.S. government. For the sake of long-term relations, this also allows all nations involved to not be pressed into raising a disappearance into a significant bilateral issue if desired, as appears in the case of Levinson.
There will be many, many articles today speculating what Dr. Martin Luther King would say about this event or that. There is much to talk about — the ongoing police killings of young black men, crippling economic inequality that helps keep Blacks in poverty, the use of gerrymandering and election day tricks to disenfranchise African-Americans, the fact that we disproportionately imprison Black men — the list is a long one.
Dr. King’s most powerful message revolved around freedom. Freedom for Blacks, freedom for whites, freedom for Americans, freedom. Writing from jail, in his famous letter from Birmingham, King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King was rightly focused primarily on the injustices of segregation. But his concept of freedom extended far beyond simply race. He understood the word in the broadest possible sense, and so I’ll add one more article to the stack today putting words into Dr. King’s mouth, seeking to bring his message forward.
Following a singular day — one day — of terror attacks, we set fire to the whole world. Willingly, almost gleefully, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the former on the promise of bloody revenge and the latter based on flimsy falsehoods that today seem as real as childhood beliefs. We reinvaded Iraq in 2014, and brought war to many other places. But we want to believe and so it is easy to lie to us.
Worse yet, we turned on ourselves. With a stroke of a pen, we did away with 226 some years of bitterly fought for civil rights — silence the First Amendment and do away with critics and whistleblowers, cow journalists and use the police to break up the peaceful assembly of citizens seeking to address their government, rip open the Fourth Amendment and allow the government to spy into our lives. Plumbing for the depths of evil, we as a nation tortured men, created an archipelago of secret prisons and make excuses to keep them still open, build a regime of indefinite confinement and rendition to feed our concentration camps, hungering for flesh. When even that was not enough, we unleashed death from the sky, smiting people who bothered us, maybe occasionally threatened us, often times simply people who were nearby or looked like our possible enemies. In the calculus of the day, we kill them all without a concern that any deity would sort the bodies out later. How much would be enough for revenge?
That our nation can be both vengeful and impersonal at the same time horrifies. I wonder what Dr. King would say.
We thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead were proven again to be just dupes and amateurs. He could have turned it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously.
One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. I wonder what Dr. King would say.
Today, this day, we are left with only ironic references to where we were and what we had been. We now today go through the motions of a celebratory day like an old married couple dutifully maintaining civility where joyous lust once was. We are raising a new generation who accept that their nation tortures, invades, violates and assassinates, all necessary evils requiring us to defame democracy while pretending to protect it.
On this same day we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who wrote to us all from a jail cell in sweltering Birmingham. King’s guidance in that letter was that the “means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
We cannot fight wrongs by committing wrongs. For what noble crusade do we allow the torturers to walk free? To claim the right to kill people, even Americans, anywhere in the world simply because we can do so? Why do we prolong wars, long ago not just lost but rendered pointless, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere? For what crusade do we keep our enemies in Guantanamo? These are the features and questions of Post-Constitutional America. I wonder what Dr. King would say.
I’ve been accused of over-romanticizing America’s Constitutional Era, 1789-9/11/2001. Indeed, didn’t the worst of the abuses Dr. King fought against take place during that time, as King described them “vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity.”
The horrors ranged from those depths to the smallest of examples; again, from Birmingham, King wrote “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people.”
America’s Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern times’ irony, hope. Dr. King believed in hope, and indeed based the soul of his movement on it — things could be made better, saying “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail.”
I wonder what Dr. King would say today about America. Lots of talk today, Martin Luther King Day.
Iranians may have learned how to disrupt and spoof American encrypted GPS systems, and that new ability is connected to the downing of an American drone a few years ago, and also to the capture of two American Navy craft earlier this month.
If true, this new tech is a potential global game changer. Here’s some additional information on what might have happened recently in the Persian Gulf.
To recap, after some bumbling false explanation about engine failure, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained that the captured American sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” as they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base. The LA Times added “a sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course.”
All that “misnavigation” would have meant two boats making the identical error in some of the world’s most volatile waters, and that no backup systems as simple as those in your cell phone were available. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Measure twice, cut once.
In 2011, when Iran downed an American drone that had “drifted” more than 100 miles into that nation from its flight path in Afghanistan, Iranian General Moharam Gholizadeh, the deputy for electronic warfare at the air defense headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stated publicaly “We have a project on hand that is one step ahead of jamming, meaning ‘deception’ of the aggressive systems… we can define our own desired information for it so the path of the missile would change to our desired destination… all the movements of these [enemy drones are being watched]” and “obstructing” their work was “always on our agenda.”
Technology site Daily Tech explains how this might work:
A team uses a technique known as “spoofing” — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain. In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, commonly acquired from several satellites [pictured above]. By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince the drone that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base. At that point the drone’s autopilot functionality kicked in and triggered the landing. But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone victim instead found itself captured at an Iranian military landing zone. Spoofing the GPS is a clever method, as it allows hackers to land on its own where they wanted it to, without having to crack the [encrypted] remote-control signals and communications.
What May Have Happened
If the Iranians have such technology, what happened in the Gulf with those two U.S. Navy boats is easy to explain. As they came close to Iranian territorial waters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) spoofed both crafts’ GPS system simultaneously. The navigation systems were told the boats were outside of the line, when in fact they were inside the line by about a mile. Two systems with the same information displayed at the same time are unlikely to be questioned.
If the Iranians had such technology since 2011, and assuming they have not used it before against the U.S. in any undisclosed incidents, why did they employ it now, and against such meaningless targets as two small patrol boats?
Timing is everything. The nuclear deal the U.S. made with Iran was not popular among its own conservatives. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard represents a conservative body of thought in general, and are specifically in charge of much of the weapons-side of the nuclear program. That opens the door to two potential “why now” answers.
The first may have been to try and postpone or trash the nuclear deal at the last minute by sparking an international incident. Imagine if the more liberal, secular elements of the Iranian government had failed to get the American sailors released so quickly, and the whole mess developed into a full-blown hostage “crisis.” American war drums would have beat hard.
The second may be more subtle. The United States uses GPS technology to guide most of its long range weapons, the weapons that would play a significant role in any U.S. attacks on Iran. The Guards’ overt use of the spoofing tech may have been a warning shot to the U.S., a signal that any American aggression towards a non-nuclear Iran (as happened to non-nuclear Saddam, or in Libya soon after that nation abandoned its nuclear ambitions under U.S. pressure) would be complex, and possibly a failure. And if that wasn’t enough, the IRG may have sent a note via its actions that such tech could easily find its way into other unfriendly hands.
Speculation, of course. There may be an explanation for the boats’ misnavigation as simple as a young sailor’s human error. But the science suggests at least one other reason, with significant repercussions for years to come.
But there may be an explanation that might answer some questions. But first a review of what’s already been said, and then discarded.
When news first broke of the detention of two U.S. ships in Iranian territorial waters, the U.S. media uncritically repeated the U.S. government’s explanation for what happened — one boat experienced “mechanical failure” and “inadvertently drifted” into Iranian waters. On CBS News, Joe Biden said, “One of the boats had engine failure, drifted into Iranian waters.”
But then a few people began to ask how two boats had mechanical failures simultaneously, or why one didn’t tow the other, or evacuate the crew and sink the broken boat or call for help or anything else that made sense. And the idea that somehow the U.S. government was simply misinformed about what really happened to the degree that the vice president made a fool of himself on national TV is a bit hard to process.
And, according to The Intercept, the U.S. government itself now says this story was false. There was no engine failure, and the boats were never “in distress.” Once the sailors were released, the AP reported, “In Washington, a defense official said the Navy has ruled out engine or propulsion failure as the reason the boats entered Iranian waters.”
Instead, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at a press conference, the sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” when, in the words of the New York Times, “they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base.”
The LA Times conveyed this new official explanation: “A sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course. Or the crew members may have taken a shortcut into Iranian waters as they headed for the refueling ship, officials said.”
Well, it would have had to have been two boats making an error, and that in some of the world’s most tricky territory. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Seems hard to just write this off blithely as “pilot error.” Among other questions: wasn’t the big Navy, with lots of ships and planes in the area, tracking these boats via radar? Seems the Iranians sure as hell were.
Don’t like those ideas? Oh wait, there are some more explanations.
“U.S. defense officials were befuddled about how both vessels’ navigational systems failed to alert them that they were entering Iranian waters,” reported the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youseff. SecDef Carter sought to explain this away by saying, “It may have been they were trying to sort it out at the time when they encountered the Iranian boats.” The LA Times said boats were perhaps running out of gas, entered Iranian waters merely as a “shortcut,” experienced engine failure when they tried to escape, and then on top of all these misfortunes, experienced radio failure.
So, what did happen? We may never know, but here’s something to consider.
In 2011 a drone (the U.S. never acknowledged it was American, but it very much appeared to be from the photos) was forced down in Iran. What if the Iranians have figured out how to jam the U.S. encrypted GPS systems and instead feed them false coordinates? The false GPS coordinates may have said the drone was at the airfield, so the thing went into a landing cycle and crashed in Iran. A lot of sensitive technology fell into Iran along with that drone.
So consider this. Let’s assume the U.S. boat crews did not intend to enter Iranian waters, technically an act of war. The U.S. itself has ruled out mechanical failure, and said the cause was navigational error — GPS-based technology. A dumb crew making mistakes is always a possibility, but two crews doing it simultaneously in such dangerous territory? Seems like a place where you measure twice and cut once. With backup.
What if their GPS was spoofed, telling the crews they were not in Iranian territorial waters, at least until the Iranian Revolutionary Guard showed up to inform them at gunpoint? The U.S. government, shocked, fumbles around for a day or two looking for an explanation people will accept. Iran accomplished its goal, tweaking the U.S., and telling the Americans not to mess around in their Gulf.
Anyway, if you have a better explanation, feel free to shout it out. That’s no different at this point than what the government is doing.
I joined host Joshua Holland on Politics and Reality Radio to talk about Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Syria and concerns about the gap between on-the-ground reality in Iraq and what might be being reported up the chain by military intelligence analysts intent on cooking the books to suggest we are winning.
My portion of the show starts at 7:05 in.
Also featured are Ed Kilgore from The Washington Monthly on U.S. politics and the 2016 campaign, and The New Republic‘s Rebecca Leber talking about the horrific shootings broadcast live out of Virginia this week.
Check out the interview online.
It appears America’s military fear-mongers have just about run out of new ways to try to frighten us into submission. So the best they are able to come up with now is to say the boogie men are heading south, to the blue waters and delightful beaches of the very un-Muslim Caribbean.
Seriously. And the photo above is of an ISIS landing craft.
The number of ISIS devotees living in or coming from the Caribbean is on the rise, according to U.S. Southern Command chief General John Kelly, who oversees “security” (and paranoia) throughout South America.
Kelly said he has seen a shift in rhetoric by top ISIS leaders geared toward a “few very, very radical mosques” in the Caribbean, essentially directing would-be disciples to conduct attacks from their islands (a sort of “work from home” scheme) rather than trek to the Middle East and risk capture by law enforcement. Nonetheless, Kelly estimates that the number of radicals who left the region anyway to join ISIS has risen from 100 to 150 over the last year.
“It seems like the Islamic extremists and terrorists have shifted a lot of their message, and that is, ‘Hey, rather than come to Syria, why don’t you stay at home and do San Bernardino, or do Boston, or do Fort Hood?’” Kelly said Friday at a Pentagon press briefing, reciting just about the only real terror actions in the Homeland over the past 14 years. Also, the Fort Hood shooter was motivated by al Qaeda; ISIS didn’t exist outside of Iraq at that time. Maybe a lesson in there, eh General?
The Marine Corps four-star general said he was particularly worried that “nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean” because small island nations like Jamaica lack law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or the Transportation Security Administration, and many of them have “very, very small militaries, if they have militaries at all.” Oh, if only they could be more like us…
Now of course the question might be how will these new Islamic pirates of the caribbean infiltrate the United States? Perhaps by disguising themselves as bales of marijuana?
Since our providers and tech makers in Silicon Valley are already deep in bed with the NSA to help spy on us, it should be little surprise that the White House now wants them to climb on board another Bill of Rights busting train and help “disrupt” ISIS online by editing the Internet.
This new strategy is based on the government’s firm belief that the real cause of radicalization is because some suburban kid reads a Tweet and then poof! skips Spring Break for jihad. The idea that the roots of radical actions lie deep and involve complex motivations, including being torqued off at bloodthirsty U.S. foreign policy, meh, let’s blame social media and that damn rock ‘n roll you kids like and use it all as a way to clamp down on political speech the government doesn’t like.
And now, mighty tech giants, you can help.
Silicon Valley executives met with top government officials in a private (of course!) meeting this week to game out strategies to counter Islamic State online. The goal is for technology companies to crack down on ISIS’ social media. See, if Google does it based on government instructions instead of the government doing it directly, it does not technically violate the First Amendment.
According to America’s best newspaper, the UK Guardian, executives from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft attended along with FBI Director James Comey, NSA Director Mike Rogers, NIA Director James Clapper, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
The Guardian obtained a copy of the agenda for the meeting, which focuses heavily on the devil’s tool, social media. So here’s how the government thinks ISIS will be defeated online:
a. How can we make it harder for terrorists to leveraging [sic] the internet to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence?
b. How can we help others to create, publish, and amplify alternative content that would undercut ISIL?
c. In what ways can we use technology to help disrupt paths to radicalization to violence, identify recruitment patterns, and provide metrics to help measure our efforts to counter radicalization to violence?
d. How can we make it harder for terrorists to use the internet to mobilize, facilitate, and operationalize attacks, and make it easier for law enforcement and the intelligence community to identify terrorist operatives and prevent attacks?
I especially love the bit in Item C about providing “metrics to help measure our efforts to counter radicalization to violence.” Exactly how does one gather metrics to prove a negative, i.e., how many people allegedly don’t join ISIS because of something they read online?
Anyway, as a loyal American myself, and as a public service, I offer the following suggestions:
— Hack each ISIS site so that it includes pop-ups, multiple invitations to sign up for newsletters and take surveys, autoplay videos set to high volume and use banner ads, lots of banner, ads for payday loan places and boner pills. No one will stay long enough to read the ISIS content.
— Include more photos of Kim Kardashian interspersed with the ISIS Twitter feed as a distraction. Offer an hour with Kim (she’s a patriotic gal but maybe not a virgin) for each person who denounces ISIS with an emoticon.
— Redirect any ISIS phone numbers to a call center in India with an endless loop of “Press or say 145.89 for customer service” prompts.
— Stop killing Muslims and stop throwing gasoline into Middle East fires, close Guantanamo, have a truth commission expose American torture practices, and realign U.S. foreign policy to stop sucking up to the Saudis as its mainstay.
A kid is dying in the Bronx.
He was in a miserably poor and dangerous neighborhood. He shot at a cop, and the cop shot back. Now that’s the whole story, if you can understand it.
I know his name from the news articles, but I’m not going to use it, because if I said his real name somebody reading this would say, “Oh, another Black kid,” and stop reading.
I know the cop’s name from those same articles, which included a lot more information about the cop than the kid. The cop is going to be OK, luckily will heal up from his wounds, and in fact was struck by rounds fired by another cop, not the kid. That pretty much ended the media’s interest in much of a follow up story. “Cop Shooter Who Missed” is weak copy compared to “Cop Killer,” and somebody reading would say, well, that’s that. Mouse click and what was the score of the game? Sports is easier, every game has a winner.
The media did take time to write about what they said were the circumstances of the shooting: street party, some fights got out of control, maybe something to do with gangs. They quoted a resident, who “spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety,” and said that these kinds of things happen all the time in the neighborhood.
Kid shot at a cop, and I make no effort here to justify that. Can’t and shouldn’t be done. But questioning isn’t justification, so I’m going to do that instead. If you thought about stopping reading this at “kid shot at a cop,” here’s where you likely will stop reading.
But I want to know why there are square mile after square mile of miserably poor and dangerous neighborhoods in my city. They’re only a 15 minute subway ride away from where some of the richest people on earth – the Koch Brothers, a bunch of investment bankers whose names aren’t familiar – live. Among all that wealth, in 2016, why do we have such places? I looked for them in Tokyo and Ottawa, and while there are always rich and poor, there weren’t square mile after square mile. I did see something like them outside Nairobi and Delhi.
I want to know why that part of the Bronx has charity-run drug clinics and liquor stores and payday loan storefronts and pawn shops and a few fast food places selling only carbs and fat as fuel as its only real commerce.
I want to know why the only government offices in the neighborhood are a police station and an armed forces recruiting center.
I want to know how a kid barely old enough to legally vote can illegally have a handgun.
I want to know why a kid his age has a rap sheet that includes an assault on a cop in March 2015, a resisting arrest bust in September 2014 and another arrest in 2012 for another assault. The resisting charge has to do with him screaming “F*ck you, cops, I hate you all” but the news reports said nothing about the underlying event that brought the kid and the cops to that.
The kid’s most recent bust came the day before he was shot, after he was arrested for skipping on a $2.75 subway fare. He was held overnight for that, released only a few hours before the party shooting, after a judge simply set him free. I want to know the thinking behind an arrest and 24 hour police detention for a subway fare.
I want to know where the kid went to school. I want to know what happens in his home, what his parents say to him.
I want to know why a kid would shoot at a cop, knowing the only two possible outcomes would be his own death or 20-to-life upstate.
I want to know why we quickly ascribe these crimes to an individual without simultaneously asking why they happen so constantly and consistently across our society and not really any others.
I want to know, amid the other daily news about celebrities and ISIS under every bed, why this all isn’t really news.
We used say America was a place where anyone could grow up to be president. I’m not naive enough to believe that was ever really true, but I want to know if anyone thinks this kid ever had a chance to even grow up.
I watched a documentary about North Korea which explained how the government there assigns a score to each citizen, based on how large a threat to the regime s/he is perceived to be. When I lived in Taiwan under a military government years ago, such a number was encoded into every national ID card. Those citizens every interaction with the government and police force was shadowed by those scores.
Same as in 21st century post-Constitutional America.
Even as our nation learned more about how our daily lives are cataloged by the National Security Agency, a new generation of technology is being used by local law enforcement that offers them unprecedented power to peer into the lives of citizens. Ominously, software that is part of such systems, assigns each citizen monitored a Threat Score, allegedly to alert cops enroute to a crime scene of what to expect of the once-innocent-until-proven-guilty citizen they will encounter.
One such product is a software suite called Beware. On their website, the maker claims:
There are no such things as routine calls… Accessed through any browser (fixed or mobile) on any Internet-enabled device including tablets, smartphones, laptop and desktop computers, Beware® from Intrado searches, sorts and scores billions of publically-available commercial records in a matter of seconds – alerting responders to potentially dangerous situations while en route to, or at the location of, a 911 request for assistance.
Intrado Beware® is a tool to help first responders understand the nature of the environment they may encounter during the window of a 911 event.
Police officials say such tools can provide critical information that can help uncover terrorists or thwart mass shootings, though no such uncovering has ever happened.
Programs such as Beware scour billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and social media postings. One example is how authorities in Oregon are facing a civil rights investigation after using social media-monitoring software to keep tabs on persons using #BlackLivesMatter hashtags.
Does anyone expect that a police response to a citizen labeled at a “low threat” level will be as preloaded for disaster as one for a “high threat” person? What if that police response is based primarily on the free speech protected use of a hash tag?
I wonder if my score will change after this article. Or yours, for reading it.
The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.
Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.
But why execute al-Nimr now?
The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.
While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.
The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.
Times have changed.
Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.
The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.
But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.
It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.
The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.
Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.
And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.
The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.
Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.
But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.
One of the unique things surrounding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the extraordinary number of books written by servicemen and women.
Unlike in previous wars, the best telling of the soldiers’ stories has come from the soldiers themselves, and not from traditional journalists. Many of these books add to our understanding of people at war, while a few are just macho battle stories.
Some seek to reach into a war’s soul.
Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire is one from the latter category. Randy Brown, who blogs as “Charlie Sherpa,” is a 20-year Army veteran and the author. FOB Haiku (a FOB is a Forward Operating Base in mil-speak), via a series of short poems, takes the reader from boot camp through Afghanistan, to homecoming.
While Brown’s book-length work is the only one available now that demands we understand the Afghan War through poetry, the use of verse to express things often otherwise unsayable about war has a long history. From Homer’s Iliad through Walt Whitman’s plaintive descriptions of the American Civil War, the collision of something beautiful with something terrible has been an important part of war literature.
Brown’s writing is a worthy addition. For example, saying grace over a prepackaged meal (MRE), Brown is funny, but with an edge:
Forgive us our trespasses, for we have trespassed a lot today — kinda goes with the territory, and the job. And deliver us from evil, particularly that which we have done unto others. See also: “trespasses,” above.
Warning a new trooper too anxious to get into the fight:
War is often more boring than not. Then, it is scalding. Do not covet action.
Brown wistfully recalls his days as a National Guardsman, when training was laughed off as “summer camp.” Headed to Afghanistan post-military retirement as a reporter, Brown has to buy his own body armor online, noting it is part of a land of no refunds and no returns, as true for Afghanistan as it is for Internet commerce. He remembers his grandfather’s musket over the fireplace mantle as a proud symbol, and wonders if he could do the same with that armor. Should he make it home, of course.
A Vietnamese cab driver enroute to the airport asks too many questions about Afghanistan, leaving a hole in Brown, the irony — a Vietnamese asking about another American war — noted. In that same airport, Brown observes well-traveled suits confuse boots with heroes and buy us sandwiches, knowing they do not understand the shallowness of such a gesture, Brown bitter and generous in forgiving at the same time.
Speaking of other wars, or perhaps of all wars, Brown reaches for more epic tones:
Let all diffuse, dissolve and disappear in time. Because we are not dust, but water – moving in spaces between nations. We are not ashes, but waves.
But the strongest writing here is in the final section, Homecoming. Brown remembers the blessed smell of earth at his farm, experiences shock at the fried-food excesses of a county fair, and expresses a soldier’s sense of wonder reuniting with his family. He is frustrated with the difficulty of re-establishing relationships with his children, begging a too-young daughter to cling to a turn looking at the night sky with him, finally saying to her:
Wars and presidents will come and go. So, too, will parents and children and other first loves. All will be eclipsed in memory, leaving you. Remember this.
We are the stories we tell ourselves, Brown writes near the end of Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. These poems are the stories he brought home to tell us.
May lightening not strike me, but I am going to help Ted Cruz now. Ted is a natural-born citizen and he can be president. There is no ambiguity, no legal question. It is very clear.
Clear of of course to nearly everyone but Donald Trump, his running dog Ann Coulter, and a somnolent American media who would rather have this faux-controversy than simply say to Trump he is factually wrong.
Sigh. Here it is.
The Constitution, Article II, Section I, states one must be a “natural born citizen” to become president. That means immigrants who were born citizens of one country and naturalized to become American citizens later in life are not eligible. Natural born means the person was an American by birth, at birth. Yes, yes, technically the Supreme Court has never be asked to rule on this, but the Supreme Court has never ruled on lots of things that are still true and lawful. That argument is pretty damn weak. Let’s challenge the Third Amendment, about quartering troops in private homes, first.
Cruz was indeed born in Canada, which is indeed a foreign country. His mother was born in the United States. His father was Cuban. They lived in Canada, working in the oil industry. A child of an American citizen mother born abroad is an America citizen, absent some very specific circumstances that even Trump isn’t challenging.
The determination of American citizenship for a kid born abroad is formally adjudicated by the State Department, which documents the citizenship with a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA, or Form FS-240.) Happens all the time. Technically there is no actual requirement to even have that document — it is only convenient proof of what are the circumstances of a birth abroad.
The natural born question is not new, but it has been so well-chewed over such that there is no need to do it again as Trump is doing.
In 2008, the Senate passed a resolution that John McCain was allowed to run for president even though he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, which is not the United States. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both senators then, voted for it.
The Congressional Research Service, the agency tasked with providing authoritative research to members of Congress, published a report after the 2008 election supporting the fact that natural born citizenship means citizenship held at birth.
If we must have more, two of the best-known Supreme Court lawyers make the case that Cruz, as were McCain, George Romney (born in Mexico) and Barry Goldwater (born in Arizona when it was only a territory, not a state) before him, is eligible to run.
Neal Katyal, who served as acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, and Paul Clement, who was solicitor general under George W. Bush (i.e., bipartisan support), wrote earlier this month in the Harvard Law Review that “there is no question” Cruz is eligible.
OK, that’s the last time I’m going to help Ted Cruz.