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How to Build a National Security Blowback Machine

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Letter to an Unknown Whistleblower 
How the Security State’s Mania for Secrecy Will Create You 
By Tom Engelhardt

Dear Whistleblower,

Protest against NSA surveillance

Protest against NSA surveillance

I don’t know who you are or what you do or how old you may be. I just know that you exist somewhere in our future as surely as does tomorrow or next year. You may be young and computer-savvy or a career federal employee well along in years. You might be someone who entered government service filled with idealism or who signed on to “the bureaucracy” just to make a living. You may be a libertarian, a closet left-winger, or as mainstream and down-the-center as it’s possible to be.

I don’t know much, but I know one thing that you may not yet know yourself. I know that you’re there. I know that, just as Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning did, you will, for reasons of your own, feel compelled to take radical action, to put yourself in danger.  When the time comes, you will know that this is what you must do, that this is why you find yourself where you are, and then you’re going to tell us plenty that has been kept from us about how our government really operates. You are going to shock us to the core.

And how exactly do I know this? Because despite our striking inability to predict the future, it’s a no-brainer that the national security state is already building you into its labyrinthine systems.  In the urge of its officials to control all of us and every situation, in their mania for all-encompassing secrecy, in their classification not just of the millions of documents they generate, but essentially all their operations as “secret” or “top secret,” in their all-encompassing urge to shut off the most essential workings of the government from the eyes of its citizenry, in their escalating urge to punish anyone who would bring their secret activities to light, in their urge to see or read or listen in on or peer into the lives of you (every “you” on the planet), in their urge to build a global surveillance state and a military that will dominate everything in or out of its path, in their urge to drop bombs on Pakistan and fire missiles at Syria, in their urge to be able to assassinate just about anyone just about anywhere robotically, they are birthing you.

In every action, a reaction. So they say, no?

Give our national security managers credit, though: they may prove to be the master builders of the early twenty-first century. Their ambitions have been breathtaking and their ability to commandeer staggering amounts of our taxpayer dollars to pay for those projects hardly less so.  Their monuments to themselves, their version of pyramids and ziggurats — like the vast data storage center the National Security Agency is building for almost $2 billion in Bluffdale, Utah, to keep a yottabyte of private information about all of us, or the new post-9/11 headquarters the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency built, again for almost $2 billion, so that its 16,000 employees could monitor our system of satellites monitoring every square inch of the planet — are in their own way unique. In their urge to control everything, to see everything from your Facebook chatter to the emails of the Brazilian president, they are creating a system built to blowback, and not just from the outside or distant lands.

Chalmers Johnson, who took “blowback,” an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, and embedded it in our everyday language, would have instantly recognized what they’re doing: creating a blowback machine whose “unintended consequences” (another term of his) are guaranteed, like the effects of the Snowden revelations, to stun us all in a myriad of ways.

They have built their system so elaborately, so expansively, and their ambitions have been so grandiose that they have had no choice but to embed you in their developing global security state, deep in the entrails of their secret world — tens of thousands of possible you’s, in fact.  You’s galore, all of whom see some part, some corner, of the world that is curtained off from the rest of us.  And because they have built using the power of tomorrow, they have created a situation in which the prospective whistleblower, the leaker of tomorrow, has access not just to a few pieces of paper but to files beyond imagination.  They, not you, have prepared the way for future mass document dumps, for staggering releases, of a sort that once upon time in a far more modest system based largely on paper would have been inconceivable.

They have, that is, paved the way for everything that you are one day guaranteed to do.  They have created the means by which their mania for secrecy will repeatedly come a cropper.  They have created you.

Worse yet (for them), they have created a world populated with tens of thousands of people, often young, often nomadic in job terms, and often with remarkable computer skills who have access to parts of their vast system, to unknown numbers of secret programs and documents, and the many things from phone calls to emails to credit card transactions to social media interactions to biometric data that they so helpfully store away.
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Tom Engelhardt, Spying for Us

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here. 

I Only Regret That I Have But One Life to Give for My Country: Yours
The Crime of the Century
By Tom Engelhardt

Hey, let’s talk spying!  In Surveillance America, this land of spookery we all now inhabit, what else is there to talk about?

Nathan Hale

What would a Revolutionary War hero & spy think of today’s surveillance state?

Was there anyone growing up like me in the 1950s who didn’t know Revolutionary War hero and spy Nathan Hale’s last words before the British hanged him: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”?  I doubt it. Even today that line, whether historically accurate or not, gives me a chill. Of course, it’s harder these days to imagine a use for such a heroically solitary statement — not in an America in which spying and surveillance are boom businesses, and our latest potential Nathan Hales are tens of thousands of corporately hired and trained private intelligence contractors, who often don’t get closer to the enemy than a computer terminal.

What would Nathan Hale think if you could tell him that the CIA, the preeminent spy agency in the country, has an estimated 20,000 employees (it won’t reveal the exact number, of course); or that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which monitors the nation’s spy satellites, has a cast of 16,000 housed in a post-9/11, almost $2 billion headquarters in Washington’s suburbs; or that our modern Nathan Hales, multiplying like so many jackrabbits, lack the equivalent of a Britain to spy on. In the old-fashioned sense, there really is no longer an enemy on the planet. The modern analog to the British of 1776 would assumedly be … al-Qaeda?

It’s true that powers friendly and less friendly still spy on the U.S.  Who doesn’t remember that ring of suburban-couples-cum-spies the Russians planted here?  It was a sophisticated operation that only lacked access to state secrets of any sort and that the FBI rolled up in 2010. But generally speaking, in a single-superpower world, the U.S., with no obvious enemy, has been building its own system of global spying and surveillance on a scale never before seen in an effort to keep track of just about everyone on the planet (as recently released NSA documents show).  In other words, Washington is now spy central.  It surveils not just potential future enemies, but also its closest allies as if they were enemies.  Increasingly, the structure built to do a significant part of that spying is aimed at Americans, too, and on a scale that is no less breathtaking.

Spies, Traitors, and Defectors in Twenty-First-Century America

Today, for America’s spies, Nathan Hale’s job comes with health and retirement benefits.  Top officials in that world have access to a revolving door into guaranteed lucrative employment at the highest levels of the corporate-surveillance complex and, of course, for the spy in need of escape, a golden parachute.  So when I think about Nathan Hale’s famed line, among those hundreds of thousands of American spies and corporate spylings just two Americans come to mind, both charged and one convicted under the draconian World War I Espionage Act.

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Peter Van Buren, The Manning Trial Began on 9/11

7:11 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Bradley Manning - Caricature

Bradley Manning – Caricature

Close your eyes for a moment, think about recent events, and you could easily believe yourself in a Seinfeldian Bizarro World. Now, open them and, for a second, everything looks almost familiar… and then you notice that a dissident is fleeing a harsh and draconian power, known for its global surveillance practices, use of torture, assassination campaigns, and secret prisons, and has found a haven in a heartless world in… hmmm… Russia. That dissident, of course, is Edward Snowden, just granted a year’s temporary asylum in Russia, a.k.a. the defender of human rights and freedom 2013, and so has been released from a Washington-imposed imprisonment in Moscow’s international air terminal and the threat of far worse.

Now, close your eyes, open them again, and for just a moment, doesn’t the world look a little more orderly?  After all, a draconian imperial power has taken one of its own dissidents, who wanted to reveal the truth about its cruel war practices and global diplomatic maneuverings, thrown him in prison without charges, abused and mistreated him, brought him before a drumhead military court and, on essentially trumped up charges of “espionage,” convicted him of just what its leaders wanted to convict him of.  That power, of course, must be Russia and all’s right with the world… oops, I mean, that’s U.S. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning and the “evil empire” that mistreated him is… gulp… the United States.

Think about it for a moment: if Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a place of asylum for American dissidents and the U.S. is doing a reasonable job of imitating aspects of the old USSR, we are on Bizarro Earth, aren’t we?

Today, former State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, considers how America’s distant wars have come home and how, under that pressure, this country is morphing into something unrecognizable.  Worse yet, it’s quite possible that we’re only at the beginning of that transformation.  To give but a small example of what the future might hold, psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, famous for his work with traumatized Vietnam veterans, suggested in Daedalus in 2011 that no one knows what it means for similarly traumatized employees of our Warrior corporations, the rent-a-gun “veterans” of our recent war zones to come home to no health care and no support system.  And he offered an eerie, if provocative, comparison to the footloose German veterans of World War I who, in the 1920s, joined the Freikorps and played their part in the radicalization and then Nazification of that country.

“I am not saying,” he wrote, “that I know that the Weimar Republic would still exist today, with all that implies about a different course to history, if Germany had had Vet Centers and VA Mental Health Clinics. But historians generally agree that the Freikorps contributed to the weakening of the new German political fabric in the immediate aftermath of World War I.”  His is a chilling reminder that, wherever we are now, it might just be a rest stop on some bizarro road to hell. Tom

Welcome to Post-Constitution America
What If Your Country Begins to Change and No One Notices?
By Peter Van Buren

On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress created the first whistleblower protection law, stating “that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

Two hundred thirty-five years later, on July 30, 2013, Bradley Manning was found guilty on 20 of the 22 charges for which he was prosecuted, specifically for “espionage” and for videos of war atrocities he released, but not for “aiding the enemy.”

Days after the verdict, with sentencing hearings in which Manning could receive 136 years of prison time ongoing, the pundits have had their say. The problem is that they missed the most chilling aspect of the Manning case: the way it ushered us, almost unnoticed, into post-Constitutional America.

The Weapons of War Come Home
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Peter Van Buren, Obama’s War on Whistleblowers Finds Another Target

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Snowden Street Portrait

A street portrait of Edward Snowden

Sometimes, it’s hard to grasp just how our world has been transformed since September 11, 2001. But here’s a little exchange at NBC Nightly News a few days back — just part of the humdrum flow of TV news-chat — that somehow caught my attention.  News anchor Brian Williams and Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell were discussing how the Obama administration was dealing with NSA leaker Edward Snowden, then reportedly somewhere in the bowels of Moscow’s international airport.  Here was the exchange:

Williams: The U.S. can say whatever it wishes and the press secretary can get angry and so on, what real power does the United States have here?

Mitchell:  It’s got a lot of leverage against Russia and China. They’re working behind the scenes, but short of rendition — and that’s not going to happen getting him out of Russia — there’s isn’t anything physical that they can do.  So they have to just exert the pressure and hope that diplomacy works, but Vladimir Putin is a tough customer.

It was that reference to “rendition” — to, that is, the kidnapping of terror suspects by American forces (usually the CIA) off global streets (or highways or backlands) and their “rendering” to the United States, or to U.S. Navy ships in global waters, or to the prisons of allied regimes willing to torture any “suspect” and share whatever information (or misinformation) might be extracted with Washington. For a while, this practice was called “extraordinary rendition,” but it’s now so deeply embedded in our American world that it’s become highly ordinary rendition.  In any case, the implication of Mitchell’s passing comment was that the U.S. wouldn’t “render” someone from an airport in the capital of a major power, but if that wasn’t “going to happen getting him out of Russia,” I think it’s hard not to complete Mitchell’s sentence with something like “it might be a perfectly reasonable option for Washington in, say, Ecuador.”

We are, in other words, in a new world where practices that once would have shocked have become the norm of news and pundit chitchat.  TomDispatch, however, refuses to consider any of this “normal.”  We have over these last years regularly focused on the way Washington’s most oppressive powers have been wildly enhanced and on people we now know as “whistleblowers,” people like Bradley Manning, who saw something truly, unnervingly different in our American world and decided they just had to do something about it. TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren is one of them and today he considers what Snowden might be going through. Tom

Edward Snowden’s Long Flight
What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought
By Peter Van Buren

As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can’t help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I’ve never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.

I Am Afraid

Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you’ve uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Chase Madar: Bradley Manning vs. SEAL Team 6

6:05 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Manning Banner: In Prison for Telling the Truth

Our heroes are imprisoned while war criminals go free.

Okay, give them this much: their bloodlust stops just short of the execution chamber door. The military prosecutors of the case against Bradley Manning, assumedly with the support of the Obama administration, have brought the virulent charge of “aiding the enemy” against the Army private who leaked state secrets.  Yet they claim to have magnanimously taken the death penalty off the table.  All they want to do is lock Manning up and throw away the key because, so they claim, he did nothing short of personally lend a hand to archfiend Osama bin Laden.  This echoes the charge repeatedly made by top U.S. officials that he and WikiLeaks have “blood on their hands” for releasing a trove of military and State Department documents.

We’re talking about the very officials who planned and oversaw Washington’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the backlands of the planet and who have searched their own hands in vain for any signs of blood.  (None at all, they don’t hesitate to assure us.)  Among them are those, military and civilian, who set up our torture prisons at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, are ultimately responsible for the perversions of Abu Ghraib, and oversaw kidnappings off the streets of global cities.  These are the folks whose Air Force blew away at least six wedding parties in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose drones have killed hundreds, if not thousands of civilians, and whose special operations forces recently seem to have been involved in the torture, murder, and secret burial of Afghan civilians.  I could go on, but why bother since it was all done “legally,” which means they can retire to corporate boards of their choice, rake in money from speeches, and write their memoirs, while Manning, whose motive (to judge by the online conversations he had) was to end the bloodletting, reveal information about American crimes, and to shut down our wars will have no memoir to write, no life to live.   It can’t get worse than that, can it?

Given what we now know about the U.S. military’s unwillingness to pursue prosecutions of rape in its own ranks, its eagerness to pursue Manning to the edge of the grave should be considered striking.  We’re talking about a national security state that — as recent revelations have made clear — can imagine just about no boundaries when it comes to surveilling its own population and none whatsoever when it comes to protecting its own actions from the eyes of the public.  In that sense, Manning truly crossed a red line.  Rape?  A mere nothing compared to his crime.  After all, he was aiding the most dangerous enemy of all: not Osama bin Laden, but Americans who want to breach the ever-expanding secrecy of the National Security Complex.

As TomDispatch regular Chase Madar (covering the Manning trial as a blogger for the Nation) suggests today, right now there seem to be few crimes more dangerous than shining a light on the secret workings of the U.S. government and its military.  Admittedly, President Obama entered the Oval Office promising on Day One to let the “sunshine” in on government operations.  Manning fulfilled the president’s promise in the only way a 22-year-old who had seen terrible things in Iraq could imagine doing.  Maybe it wasn’t elegant by the president’s high standards, but it was effective.  He deserves something better than the worst the U.S. military and Washington can throw at him.  He deserves a life, and if that life in the end proves as valuable as it’s been so far, a memoir. Tom

How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars
Bradley Manning Has Done More for U.S. Security than SEAL Team 6 
By Chase Madar

The prosecution of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ source inside the U.S. Army, will be pulling out all the stops when it calls to the stand a member of Navy SEAL Team 6, the unit that assassinated Osama bin Laden.  The SEAL (in partial disguise, as his identity is secret) is expected to tell the military judge that classified documents leaked by Manning to WikiLeaks were found on bin Laden’s laptop.  That will, in turn, be offered as proof not that bin Laden had internet access like two billion other earthlings, but that Manning has “aided the enemy,” a capital offense.

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

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

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

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

The Wages of Cluelessness Is Death

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Chase Madar: Accusing Wikileaks of Murder

7:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it “utterly deplorable.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “total dismay”  General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was “deeply disturbed” that the actions in question would “erode the reputation of our joint force.”  Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos declared them to be “wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history,” and Senator John McCain claimed they made him “so sad.”

Seldom have so many high officials in Washington lined up to denounce an event so quickly or emphatically.  I’m talking, of course, about the video of four wisecracking U.S. Marines in Afghanistan pissing on what might be three dead Taliban or simply — since we may never know whose bodies those are — the corpses of three dead Afghans.  (“Have a good day, buddy… Golden — like a shower, ” you hear them say, seemingly addressing the bodies.) The video went viral in the Muslim world, and the Obama administration moved fast to contain the damage.  After all, no one wanted another Abu Ghraib.

On this subject Washington has been remarkably united (with the exception of Rick Perry, who offered a half-hearted defense of the Marines — “to call it a criminal act, I think, is over the top”). Pardon me, though, if I find this chorus of condemnation to be too little, too late.  It feels like a malign version of one of Casablanca’s famous final lines: “Round up the usual suspects.”

After all, these last years in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan have been utterly deplorable, totally dismaying, and deeply disturbing from start to finish.  On occasion after occasion, U.S. troops, aka “America’s heroes,” as well as private contractors and others in Washington’s employ have run riot.  There is no way to catalogue what’s been deplorable, dismaying, and deeply disturbing, but if you wanted to start, it really wouldn’t be that hard.

In fact, you wouldn’t have to go farther than this website.  If, for instance, it was deeply disturbing pictures taken by our troops you were curious about, you could have read David Swanson’s 2006 piece “The Iraq War as a Trophy Photo,” which focused on the “war porn” photos U.S. soldiers were already taking (or even setting up) and then proudly submitting to an actual porn website for posting (something, by the way, that’s still going on).

Or if checkpoint killings by U.S. soldiers in Iraq were what you were interested in, all you had to do was read Chris Hedges at TomDispatch in 2008, based on interviews he did with American soldiers for the book Collateral Damage: “Iraqi families,” he wrote, “were routinely fired upon for getting too close to checkpoints, including an incident where an unarmed father driving a car was decapitated by a .50-caliber machine gun in front of his small son.”  (“‘It’s fun to shoot sh-t up,’ a soldier said.”) And if his word wasn’t enough, you could turn to U.S. Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal who, in a moment of bluntness in April 2010, commented: “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”

Or consider something no one has yet denounced as deplorable, dismaying, or deeply disturbing: the obliteration of wedding parties.  Over the years, TomDispatch has counted up at least six weddings in Iraq and Afghanistan that were wiped out in part or full by the U.S. Air Force.  All of these, including the first in December 2001 in which a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, armed with precision weapons, killed 110 of 112 Afghan revelers, were reported individually.  But next to no one in our world thought them dismaying or disturbing enough to write about them collectively or, for that matter, to deplore them.  (Of a wedding in Western Iraq in which U.S. planes killed 40 people, including wedding musicians and children, Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, asked: “How many people go to the middle of the desert… to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?”)

The troves of documents leaked to the website WikiLeaks, for which Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been charged, certainly caused a stir, but the carnage in them was, in truth, easily available without access to a single secret document.  Washington’s crocodile tears can’t wash away the stain of all this on American honor, as TomDispatch regular Chase Madar, author of the upcoming book The Passion of Bradley Manning, makes all too clear.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

 

Blood on Whose Hands? Bradley Manning, Washington, and the Blood of Civilians
By Chase Madar

Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about… civilian war casualties?  What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.

A couple hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel.  And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the U.S. have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and “dwelling on” = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.

Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties — but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.

Pfc. Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialed for passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks.  Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how Americans dealt with civilians in invaded countries.  For instance, the documents revealed that the U.S. military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.

Then there was that gun-sight video — unclassified but buried in classified material — of an American Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children.  There were also those field reports about how jumpy American soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the U.S. military had previously denied possessing.

Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the U.S.  A tiny number of low-ranking American soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians in the midst of the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted.  We don’t talk about these cases a lot either.  On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.

Putting Lives in Danger

“[WikiLeaks] might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the release of the Afghan War Logs in July 2010.  This was, of course, the same Admiral Mullen who had endorsed a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which would lead to a tremendous “surge” in casualties among civilians and soldiers alike.  Here are counts — undoubtedly undercounts, in fact — of real Afghan corpses that, at least in part, resulted from the policy he supported: 2,412 in 2009, 2,777 in 2010, 1,462 in the first half 2011, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.  As far as anyone knows, here are the corpses that resulted from the release of those WikiLeaks documents: 0.  (And don’t forget, the stalemate war with the Taliban has not budged in the period since that surge.)  Who, then, has blood on his hands, Pfc. Manning — or Admiral Mullen?

Of course the admiral is hardly alone.  In fact, whole tabernacle choirs have joined in the condemnation of Manning and WikiLeaks for “causing” carnage, thanks to their disclosures.

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, also spoke sternly of Manning’s leaks, accusing him of “moral culpability.”  He added, “And that’s where I think the verdict is ‘guilty’ on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”

This was, of course, the same Robert Gates who pushed for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009 and, in March 2011, flew to the Kingdom of Bahrain to offer his own personal “reassurance of support” to a ruling monarchy already busy shooting and torturing nonviolent civilian protesters.  So again, when it comes to blood and indifference to consequences, Bradley Manning — or Robert Gates?

Nor have such attitudes been confined to the military. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Manning’s (alleged) leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables of being “an attack on the international community” that “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.”

As a senator, of course, she supported the invasion of Iraq in flagrant contravention of the U.N. Charter.  She was subsequently a leading hawk when it came to escalating and expanding the Afghan War, and is now responsible for disbursing an annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt’s ruling junta whose forces have repeatedly opened fire on nonviolent civilian protesters.  So who’s been attacking the international community and putting lives in danger, Bradley Manning — or Hillary Clinton?

Harold Koh, former Yale Law School dean, liberal lion, and currently the State Department’s top legal adviser, has announced that the same leaked diplomatic cables “could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals — from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security.”

This is the same Harold Koh who, in March 2010, provided a tortured legal rationale for the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, despite the inevitable and well-documented civilian casualties they cause.  So who is risking the lives of countless innocent individuals, Bradley Manning — or Harold Koh?

Much of the media have clambered aboard the bandwagon, blaming WikiLeaks and Manning for damage done by wars they once energetically cheered on.

In early 2011, to pick just one example from the ranks of journalism, New Yorker writer George Packer professed his horror that WikiLeaks had released a memo marked “secret/noforn” listing spots throughout the world of vital strategic or economic interest to the United States.  Asked by radio host Brian Lehrer whether this disclosure had crossed a new line by making a gratuitous gift to terrorists, Packer replied with an appalled yes.

Now, among the “secrets” contained in this document are the facts that the Strait of Gibraltar is a vital shipping lane and that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in minerals. Have we Americans become so infantilized that factoids of basic geography must be considered state secrets?  (Maybe best not to answer that question.)  The “threat” of this document’s release has since been roundly debunked by various military intellectuals.

Nevertheless, Packer’s response was instructive.  Here was a typical liberal hawk, who had can-canned to the post-9/11 drumbeat of war as a therapeutic wake-up call from “the bland comforts of peace,” now affronted by WikiLeaks’ supposed recklessness.  Civilian casualties do not seem to have been on Packer’s mind when he supported the invasion of Iraq, nor has he written much about them since.

In an enthusiastic 2006 New Yorker essay on counterinsurgency warfare, for example, the very words “civilian casualties” never come up, despite their centrality to COIN theory, practice, and history.  It is a fact that, as Operation Enduring Freedom shifted to counterinsurgency tactics in 2009, civilian casualties in Afghanistan skyrocketed.  So, for that matter, have American military casualties.  (More than half of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the past three years.)

Liberal hawks like Packer may consider WikiLeaks out of bounds, but really, who in these last years has been the most reckless, Bradley Manning — or George Packer and some of his pro-war colleagues at the New Yorker like Jeffrey Goldberg (who has since left for the Atlantic Monthly, where he’s been busily clearing a path for war with Iran) and editor David Remnick?

Centrist and liberal nonprofit think tanks have been no less selectively blind when it comes to civilian carnage. Liza Goitein, a lawyer at the liberal-minded Brennan Center at NYU Law School, has also taken out after Bradley Manning.  In the midst of an otherwise deft diagnosis of Washington’s compulsive urge to over-classify everything — the federal government classifies an amazing 77 million documents a year — she pauses just long enough to accuse Manning of “criminal recklessness” for putting civilians named in the Afghan War logs in peril — “a disclosure,” as she puts it, “that surely endangers their safety.”

It’s worth noting that, until the moment Goitein made this charge, not a single report or press release issued by the Brennan Center has ever so much as uttered a mention of civilian casualties caused by the U.S. military.  The absence of civilian casualties is almost palpable in the work of the Brennan Center’s program in  “Liberty and National Security.”  For example, this program’s 2011 report “Rethinking Radicalization,” which explored effective, lawful ways to prevent American Muslims from turning terrorist, makes not a single reference to the tens of thousands of well-documented civilian casualties caused by American military force in the Muslim world, which according to many scholars is the prime mover of terrorist blowback.  The report on how to combat the threat of Muslim terrorists, written by Pakistan-born Faiza Patel, does not, in fact, even contain the words “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” “drone strike,” “Pakistan” or “civilian casualties.”

This is almost incredible, because terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world.  Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the U.S. had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  How could any report about “rethinking radicalization” fail to mention this?  Although the Brennan Center does much valuable work, Goitein’s selective finger-pointing on civilian casualties is emblematic of a blindness to war’s consequences widespread among American institutions.

American Military Whistleblowers

Knowledge may indeed have its risks, but how many civilian deaths can actually be traced to the WikiLeaks revelations?  How many military deaths?  To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not a single one.  After much huffing and puffing, the Pentagon has quietly denied — and then denied again — that there is any evidence at all of the Taliban targeting the Afghan civilians named in the leaked war logs.

In the end, the “grave risks” involved in the publication of the War Logs and of those State Department documents have been wildly exaggerated.  Embarrassment, yes.  A look inside two grim wars and the workings of imperial diplomacy, yes.  Blood, no.

On the other hand, the grave risks that were hidden in those leaked documents, as well as in all the other government distortions, cover-ups, and lies of the past decade, have been graphically illustrated in aortal red.  The civilian carnage caused by our rush to war in Iraq and by our deeply entrenched stalemate of a war in Afghanistan (and the Pakistani tribal borderlands) is not speculative or theoretical but all-too real.

And yet no one anywhere has been held to much account: not in the political class, not in the military, not in the think tanks, not among the scholars, nor the media.  Only one individual, it seems, will pay, even if he actually spilled none of the blood.  Our foreign policy elites seem to think Bradley Manning is well-cast for the role of fall guy and scapegoat.  This is an injustice.

Someday, it will be clearer to Americans that Pfc. Manning has joined the ranks of great American military whistleblowers like Dan Ellsberg (who was first in his class at Marine officer training school); Vietnam War infantryman Ron Ridenhour, who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre; and the sailors and marines who, in 1777, reported the torture of British captives by their politically connected commanding officer.  These servicemen, too, were vilified in their times. Today, we honor them, as someday Pfc. Manning will be honored.

Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, to be published by OR Books in February.  He is an attorney in New York, a TomDispatch regular, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, American Conservative Magazine, and CounterPunch.  (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) He tweets @ChMadar.

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Copyright 2012 Chase Madar