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Alfred McCoy: It’s About Blackmail, Not National Security

7:27 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.

Portrait of Snowden

Snowden brought spying home to the NSA, but the secrecy’s been with us for decades.

Spying has a history almost as ancient as humanity itself, but every now and then the rules of the game change.  This post-9/11 moment of surveillance is one of those game-changers and the National Security Agency (NSA) has been the deal-breaker and rule-maker.  The new rules it brought into existence are simple enough: you — whoever you are and wherever you live on Planet Earth — are a potential target.  Get used to it.  The most basic ground rule of the new system: no one is exempt from surveillance.

But then there’s human nature to take into account.  There’s the feeling of invulnerability that the powerful often have.  If you need an example, look no further than what key officials around New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were willing to commit to emails, even in this day and age, when it came to their scheme to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge.  Something similar has been true of the system NSA officials set up.  Its rules of the road were that no one was to be exempt from surveillance. (Call me Angela Merkel.)  They then plunged their creation into the deepest secrecy, in part because they couldn’t imagine a world without at least one categorical exemption: themselves.

As it happens, Edward Snowden’s revelations fit the logic of the system the NSA created to a T.  What the former agency contractor revealed, above all, was that the surveillance of anyone and everyone was the essence of our new world, and that not even the NSA would be exempt.  He made that agency his own object of surveillance and so opened it up to the scrutiny of the rest of the planet.  He gave its officials a dose of their own medicine.

Much of the ensuing outrage from the U.S. intelligence community, including the calls for his head, the cries of “treason,” the demands to bring him to “justice,” and so on, reflect outrage over the fact that the agency had gotten a full-scale dose of its own rules.  It turns out that you don’t have to be an ordinary citizen or a world leader to feel terrible when someone appropriates the right to surveil your life.  When it happened to agency honchos, they undoubtedly felt just like Merkel or Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff or so many other figures who discovered that their lives and communications weren’t private and weren’t their own.  In a perfectly human manner, reality being far too ugly for their taste, they wanted payback.

There’s humor in the fact that the key figures involved in creating the foundations of a new, all-encompassing global security state simply couldn’t imagine the obvious happening.  Unfortunately, as TomDispatch regular and historian of U.S. surveillance practices Alfred McCoy points out, what the NSA set up, despite the blowback it’s now causing, is irresistible to Washington.  Not surprisingly, as new information about the agency’s methods continues to ooze out, the president’s recent NSA speech makes it clear that genuine “change” or “reform” isn’t on the agenda, that little that matters will alter in the NSA’s methodology, and that nothing will be allowed to shake the system itself. Tom

Surveillance and Scandal
Time-Tested Weapons for U.S. Global Power
By Alfred McCoy

For more than six months, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) have been pouring out from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Brazil’s O Globo, among other places.  Yet no one has pointed out the combination of factors that made the NSA’s expanding programs to monitor the world seem like such a slam-dunk development in Washington.  The answer is remarkably simple.  For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line — like, in fact, the steal of the century.  Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.

For well over a century, from the pacification of the Philippines in 1898 to trade negotiations with the European Union today, surveillance and its kissing cousins, scandal and scurrilous information, have been key weapons in Washington’s search for global dominion. Not surprisingly, in a post-9/11 bipartisan exercise of executive power, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have presided over building the NSA step by secret step into a digital panopticon designed to monitor the communications of every American and foreign leaders worldwide.

What exactly was the aim of such an unprecedented program of massive domestic and planetary spying, which clearly carried the risk of controversy at home and abroad? Here, an awareness of the more than century-long history of U.S. surveillance can guide us through the billions of bytes swept up by the NSA to the strategic significance of such a program for the planet’s last superpower. What the past reveals is a long-term relationship between American state surveillance and political scandal that helps illuminate the unacknowledged reason why the NSA monitors America’s closest allies.

Not only does such surveillance help gain intelligence advantageous to U.S. diplomacy, trade relations, and war-making, but it also scoops up intimate information that can provide leverage — akin to blackmail — in sensitive global dealings and negotiations of every sort. The NSA’s global panopticon thus fulfills an ancient dream of empire. With a few computer key strokes, the agency has solved the problem that has bedeviled world powers since at least the time of Caesar Augustus: how to control unruly local leaders, who are the foundation for imperial rule, by ferreting out crucial, often scurrilous, information to make them more malleable.

A Cost-Savings Bonanza With a Downside

Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the Internet’s fiber optic cables.

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Nick Turse: Special Ops Goes Global

7:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Map of US Special Forces Around the World

US Special Forces stationed worldwide. Click for larger version. See bottom of post for map key.

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

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So consider the actions of the U.S. Special Operations Command flattering indeed to the larger U.S. military. After all, over recent decades the Pentagon has done something that once would have been inconceivable.  It has divided the whole globe, just about every inch of it, like a giant pie, into six command slices: U.S. European Command, or EUCOM (for Europe and Russia), U.S. Pacific Command, or PACOM (Asia), U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM (the Greater Middle East and part of North Africa), U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM (Latin America), and in this century, U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM (the United States, Canada, and Mexico), and starting in 2007, U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM (most of Africa).

The ambitiousness of the creeping decision to bring every inch of the planet under the watchful eyes of U.S. military commanders should take anyone’s breath away.  It’s the sort of thing that once might only have been imaginable in movies where some truly malign and evil force planned to “conquer the world” and dominate Planet Earth for an eternity.  (And don’t forget that the Pentagon’s ambitions hardly stop at Earth’s boundaries. There are also commands for the heavens, U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, into which the U.S. Space Command was merged, and, most recent of all, the Internet, where U.S. Cyber Command, or CYBERCOM rules.)

Now, unnoticed and unreported, the process is being repeated.  Since 9/11, a secret military has been gestating inside the U.S. military.  It’s called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  At TomDispatch, both Nick Turse and Andrew Bacevich have covered its startling growth in these years.  Now, in a new post, Turse explores the way that command’s dreams of expansion on a global scale have led it to follow in the footsteps of the larger institution that houses it.

The special ops guys are, it seems, taking their own pie-cutter to the planet and slicing and dicing it into a similar set of commands, including most recently a NORTHCOM-style command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Once could be an anomaly or a mistake. Twice and you have a pattern, which catches a Washington urge to control planet Earth, an urge that, as the twenty-first century has already shown many times over, can only be frustrated. That this urge is playing out again in what, back in the Cold War days, used to be called “the shadows,” without publicity or attention of any sort, is notable in itself and makes Turse’s latest post all the more important. Tom

America’s Black-Ops Blackout
Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military
By Nick Turse

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.”  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014?  Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year?  How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013?  Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers.  I called.  I left messages.  I emailed.  I waited some more.  I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos — the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world — were doing.

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion.  It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013.  With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to — or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of — more than 100 foreign countries.   And that’s probably an undercount.  In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet.  “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.”  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

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Tomgram: Bob Dreyfuss, American Death Spiral in the Middle East

8:39 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.

When Barack Obama took office, the sky was the limit in the Greater Middle East.  After all, it seemed the U.S. had hit rock bottom.  President Bush had set the region aflame with a raging debacle in Iraq, a sputtering conflict in Afghanistan, and a low-level drone war in Pakistan.  The outgoing president was wildly unpopular in the region and it was hard to imagine just what the new administration could do to make the situation worse.

For all his foreign policy faults, Bush had even left his successor with an ace in the hole.  Obama had campaigned on ending the Iraq War and Bush was kind enough to negotiate the terms for him before he left office.  All the new president had to do was sit back and reap the rewards.

Almost five years later, the administration surely wishes it had a time machine to take America back to the Bush days when Iraq was convulsed by a civil war, the war in Afghanistan was largely forgotten, Egypt and Tunisia were under the thumbs of American-backed tyrants, and Syria and Libya were controlled by detested but stable dictators.

What seemed at the time to be a blood-soaked hell must look more like the halcyon days to the Obama administration, whose national security team now seems content to limp through the remainder of the president’s second term with fingers crossed, hoping desperately that they won’t stumble, bumble, stagger, slide, or inadvertently leap into yet another foreign policy fiasco in the region.  Today, as Bob Dreyfuss indicates, the administration finds itself adrift in the Greater Middle East, chastened by a series of its own foreign policy flubs, stumbles, and mini-disasters, as well as by governments that seem increasingly beyond its power or ability to control, coerce, or cajole.  The only country in the region that seems to bear much resemblance to its pre-Obama self is Iraq, where violence has reached its highest level in half a decade and suicide and car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats are creeping ever closer to Bush-era levels.

Today, TomDispatch regular and Nation magazine stalwart Bob Dreyfuss wades knee deep in the Big Muddy in the Middle East to offer a vivid portrait of an Obama administration in remarkable disarray. Nick Turse

A Field Guide to Losing Friends, Influencing No One, and Alienating the Middle East 
Obama’s Washington Is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Region
By Bob Dreyfuss

Put in context, the simultaneous raids in Libya and Somalia last month, targeting an alleged al-Qaeda fugitive and an alleged kingpin of the al-Shabab Islamist movement, were less a sign of America’s awesome might than two minor exceptions that proved an emerging rule: namely, that the power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East and its ability to shape events there is in a death spiral.

Twelve years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and a decade after the misguided invasion of Iraq — both designed to consolidate and expand America’s regional clout by removing adversaries — Washington’s actual standing in country after country, including its chief allies in the region, has never been weaker. Though President Obama can order raids virtually anywhere using Special Operations forces, and though he can strike willy-nilly in targeted killing actions by calling in the Predator and Reaper drones, he has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East. Not only does no one there respect the United States, but no one really fears it, either — and increasingly, no one pays it any mind at all.

There are plenty of reasons why America’s previously unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East is in free fall. The disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq generated anti-American fervor in the streets and in the elites. America’s economic crisis since 2008 has convinced many that the United States no longer has the wherewithal to sustain an imperial presence. The Arab Spring, for all its ups and downs, has challenged the status quo everywhere, leading to enormous uncertainty while empowering political forces unwilling to march in lockstep with Washington. In addition, oil-consuming nations like China and India have become more engaged with their suppliers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. The result: throughout the region, things are fast becoming unglued for the United States.

Its two closest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are sullenly hostile, routinely ignore Obama’s advice, and openly oppose American policies. Iraq and Afghanistan, one formerly occupied and one about to be evacuated, are led, respectively, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an inflexible sectarian Shiite closely tied to Iran, and President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt, mercurial leader who periodically threatens to join the Taliban. In Egypt, three successive regimes — those of President Hosni Mubarak, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chieftains of the July 2013 military coup — have insouciantly flouted U.S. wishes.

Turkey, ostensibly a NATO ally but led by a quirky Islamist, is miffed over Obama’s back-and-forth policy in Syria and has shocked the U.S. by deciding to buy a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system from China. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have little or no government at all. They have essentially devolved into a mosaic of armed gangs, many implacably opposed to the United States.

This downward spiral has hardly escaped attention. In a recent address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described it in some detail. “We have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there,” said Freeman, whose nomination by Obama in 2009 to serve as head of the National Intelligence Council was shot down by the Israel Lobby. “We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region.”

In an editorial on October 29th, the New York Times ruefully concluded: “It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.” And in a front-page story on the administration’s internal deliberations, the Times’s Mark Landler reported that, over the summer, the White House had decided to scale back its role in the Middle East because many objectives “lie outside [its] reach,” and henceforth would adopt a “more modest strategy” in the region.

Perhaps the most profound irony embedded in Washington’s current predicament is this: Iran, for decades the supposed epicenter of anti-Americanism in the region, is the country where the United States has perhaps its last opportunity to salvage its position. If Washington and Tehran can negotiate a détente — and it’s a big if, given the domestic political power of hawks in both countries — that accord might go a long way toward stabilizing Washington’s regional credibility.

Debacle in Syria

Let’s begin our survey of America’s Greater Middle Eastern fecklessness with Exhibit A: Syria. It is there, where a movement to oust President Bashar al-Assad devolved into a civil war, that the United States has demonstrated its utter inability to guide events. Back in the summer of 2011 — at the very dawn of the conflict — Obama demanded that Assad step down.  There was only one problem: short of an Iraq-style invasion of Syria, he had no power to make that happen. Assad promptly called his bluff, escalated the conflict, and rallied support from Russia and Iran. Obama’s clarion call for his resignation only made things worse by convincing Syrian rebels that the United States would come to their aid.

A year later, Obama drew a “red line” in the sand, suggesting that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would precipitate a U.S. military response. Again Assad ignored him, and many hundreds of civilians were gassed to death in multiple uses of the dreaded weapons.

The crowning catastrophe of Obama’s Syria policy came when he threatened a devastating strike on Assad’s military facilities using Tomahawk cruise missiles and other weaponry. Instead of finding himself leading a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” with domestic support, Obama watched as allies scattered, including the usually reliable British and the Arab League. At home, political support was nearly nil and evaporated from there. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to a war with or attack on Syria.

When, in desperation, the president appealed to Congress for a resolution to authorize the use of military force against that country, the White House found (to its surprise) that Congress, which normally rubber-stamps such proposals, would have none of it. Paralyzed, reluctant to choose between backing down and striking Syria by presidential fiat, Obama was rescued in humiliating fashion by a proposal from Syria’s chief ally, Russia, to dismantle and destroy that country’s chemical weapons arsenal.

Adding insult to injury, as Secretary of State John Kerry scrambles to organize a long-postponed peace conference in Geneva aimed at reaching a political settlement of the civil war, he is faced with a sad paradox: while the Syrian government has agreed to attend the Geneva meeting, also sponsored by Russia, America’s allies, the anti-Assad rebels, have flatly refused to go.

Laughingstock in Egypt

Don’t think for a second that Washington’s ineffectiveness stops with the ongoing Syrian fiasco.

Next door, in a country whose government was installed by the United States after the 2003 invasion, the Obama administration notoriously failed to convince the Iraqis to allow even a small contingent of American troops to remain there past 2011. Since then, that country has moved ever more firmly into Iran’s orbit and has virtually broken with Washington over Syria.

Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Shiite-led Iraq has joined Shiite Iran in supporting Assad, whose ruling minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism. There have been widespread reports that pro-Assad Iraqi Shiite militias are traveling to Syria, presumably with the support or at least acquiescence of the government. Ignoring Washington’s entreaties, it has also allowed Iran to conduct a virtual Berlin Airlift-style aerial resupply effort for Syria’s armed forces through Iraqi air space. Last month, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari undiplomatically warned Obama that his government stands against the U.S. decision — taken in a secret presidential finding in April and only made public last summer — to provide arms to Syria’s rebels. (“We oppose providing military assistance to any [Syrian] rebel groups.”)

Meanwhile, Washington is also flailing in its policy toward Egypt, where the Obama administration has been singularly hapless.  In a rare feat, it has managed to anger and alienate every conceivable faction in that politically divided country. In July, when Egypt’s military ousted President Mohammad Morsi and violently clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Obama administration made itself look ridiculous to Egyptians (and to the rest of the Middle East) by refusing to call what happened a coup d’état, since under U.S. law that would have meant suspending aid to the Egyptian military.

As it happened, however, American aid figured little in the calculations of Egypt’s new military leaders. The reason was simple enough: Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, bitter opponents of the Morsi government, applauded the coup and poured at least $12 billion in cash into the country’s near-empty coffers.  In the end, making no one happy, the administration tried to split the difference: Obama declared that he would suspend the delivery of some big-ticket military items like Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts, and F-16 fighter planes, but let other aid to the military continue, including counterterrorism assistance and the sale of border security items. Such a split decision only served to underscore the administration’s lack of leverage in Cairo. Meanwhile, there are reports that Egypt’s new rulers may turn to Russia for arms in open defiance of a horrified Washington’s wishes.

Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag

The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom’s erratic behavior may result from a growing awareness among its ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson’s new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.

One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson, is the “existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty.” For decades, such an American military presence in the region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the country a virtual U.S. protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive Iran, Saudi Arabia isn’t sure which way to turn, or whether the United States is friend or foe.

Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area’s chief Sunni power, was apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq’s Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In 2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak government in Egypt.

Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over Washington’s policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less dismayed by the possible emergence of a U.S.-Iran accord from renewed negotiations over that country’s nuclear program.

To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking U.N. members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had long campaigned. “Upset at President Barack Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria,” reported Reuters, “members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years.”

That news service quoted Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a “major shift” in its relations with the U.S. Former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America’s Syria policy this way: “The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. [It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down [from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

This is shocking stuff from America’s second most reliable ally in the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative partner in the region, making Obama’s job more difficult at every turn. Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more shrill. In a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction.” This despite the fact that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.

Netanyahu’s speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. “He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility,” said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. “He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

Iran: Obama’s Ironic Beacon of Hope

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the talks between Iran, the U.S., and the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the U.N. security Council plus Germany), Israel has put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, Israel wants that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium, abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium, permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.

In contrast, it’s widely believed that the United States is ready to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ironically, a U.S.-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran, for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed. Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize that country after the departure of U.S. combat forces in 2014. And it could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional powers to stabilize Iraq.

More broadly, a U.S.-Iran entente might lead to a gradual de-escalation of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It’s even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.

Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are determined to prevent it.

Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles.  At just this moment in the Middle East, those “plates” are tipping in every direction. There’s still time to prevent them all from crashing to the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House — and it’s far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Bob Dreyfuss

Nick Turse, AFRICOM’s Gigantic “Small Footprint”

6:31 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.

 

Here’s a question for you: Can a military tiptoe onto a continent? It seems the unlikeliest of images, and yet it’s a reasonable enough description of what the U.S. military has been doing ever since the Pentagon created an Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. It’s been slipping, sneaking, creeping into Africa, deploying ever more forces in ever more ways doing ever more things at ever more facilities in ever more countries — and in a fashion so quiet, so covert, that just about no American has any idea this is going on.  One day, when an already destabilizing Africa explodes into various forms of violence, the U.S. military will be in the middle of it and Americans will suddenly wonder how in the world this could have happened. 

In the Cold War years, while proxy battles took place between U.S.- and Soviet-backed forces in Angola and other African lands, the U.S. military, which by then had garrisoned much of the planet, was noticeably absent from the continent.  No longer.  And no one who might report on it seems to be paying attention as a downsizing media evidently sees no future in anticipating America’s future wars.  In fact, with the exception of Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, it’s hard to think of any journalist who has dug into the fast-expanding American role in Africa. 

Enter TomDispatch’s Nick Turse.  When it comes to American military plans for that continent, he has been doing the work of the rest of the American foreign press corps on his own.  For the last two years, while his bestselling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, was being published, he has been carefully tracking and mapping the growing American military presence in Africa, exploring the way those moves may actually be helping to destabilize the continent, and doing his best to make sure that U.S. planning for future wars there doesn’t go unnoticed and unreported. 

Today, he puts his work — and his efforts to mine resistant AFRICOM spokespeople for information — into a single panorama of everything a fine reporter and outsider can possibly know now about Washington’s ongoing militarization of Africa.  It’s a grim tale of the way, via a hush-hush version of mission creep, the Pentagon and AFRICOM are turning Africa into a battlefield of the future.  Don’t say you weren’t warned — at TomDispatch. Tom

The Pivot to Africa
The Startling Size, Scope, and Growth of U.S. Military Operations on the African Continent
By Nick Turse

They’re involved in Algeria and Angola, Benin and Botswana, Burkina Faso and Burundi, Cameroon and the Cape Verde Islands.  And that’s just the ABCs of the situation.  Skip to the end of the alphabet and the story remains the same: Senegal and the Seychelles, Togo and Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.  From north to south, east to west, the Horn of Africa to the Sahel, the heart of the continent to the islands off its coasts, the U.S. military is at work.  Base construction, security cooperation engagements, training exercises, advisory deployments, special operations missions, and a growing logistics network, all undeniable evidence of expansion — except at U.S. Africa Command.

To hear AFRICOM tell it, U.S. military involvement on the continent ranges from the miniscule to the microscopic.  The command is adamant that it has only a single “military base” in all of Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.  The head of the command insists that the U.S. military maintains a “small footprint” on the continent. AFRICOM’s chief spokesman has consistently minimized the scope of its operations and the number of facilities it maintains or shares with host nations, asserting that only “a small presence of personnel who conduct short-duration engagements” are operating from “several locations” on the continent at any given time. 

With the war in Iraq over and the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. military is deploying its forces far beyond declared combat zones.  In recent years, for example, Washington has very publicly proclaimed a “pivot to Asia,” a “rebalancing” of its military resources eastward, without actually carrying out wholesale policy changes.  Elsewhere, however, from the Middle East to South America, the Pentagon is increasingly engaged in shadowy operations whose details emerge piecemeal and are rarely examined in a comprehensive way.  Nowhere is this truer than in Africa.  To the media and the American people, officials insist the U.S. military is engaged in small-scale, innocuous operations there.  Out of public earshot, officers running America’s secret wars say: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”

The proof is in the details — a seemingly ceaseless string of projects, operations, and engagements.  Each mission, as AFRICOM insists, may be relatively limited and each footprint might be “small” on its own, but taken as a whole, U.S. military operations are sweeping and expansive.  Evidence of an American pivot to Africa is almost everywhere on the continent.  Few, however, have paid much notice.


The U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2013 TomDispatch ©Google

If the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s a map worth? Take, for instance, the one created by TomDispatch that documents U.S. military outposts, construction, security cooperation, and deployments in Africa.  It looks like a field of mushrooms after a monsoon.  U.S. Africa Command recognizes 54 countries on the continent, but refuses to say in which ones (or even in how many) it now conducts operations. An investigation by TomDispatch has found recent U.S. military involvement with no fewer than 49 African nations

In some, the U.S. maintains bases, even if under other names. In others, it trains local partners and proxies to battle militants ranging from Somalia’s al-Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram to members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Elsewhere, it is building facilities for its allies or infrastructure for locals. Many African nations are home to multiple U.S. military projects. Despite what AFRICOM officials say, a careful reading of internal briefings, contracts, and other official documents, as well as open source information, including the command’s own press releases and news items, reveals that military operations in Africa are already vast and will be expanding for the foreseeable future. 

A Base by Any Other Name…

What does the U.S. military footprint in Africa look like? Colonel Tom Davis, AFRICOM’s Director of Public Affairs, is unequivocal: “Other than our base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, we do not have military bases in Africa, nor do we have plans to establish any.” He admits only that the U.S. has “temporary facilities elsewhere… that support much smaller numbers of personnel, usually for a specific activity.” 

AFRICOM’s chief of media engagement Benjamin Benson echoes this, telling me that it’s almost impossible to offer a list of forward operating bases. “Places that [U.S. forces] might be, the range of possible locations can get really big, but can provide a really skewed image of where we are… versus other places where we have ongoing operations. So, in terms of providing a number, I’d be at a loss of how to quantify this.” 

A briefing prepared last year by Captain Rick Cook, the chief of AFRICOM’s Engineering Division, tells a different story, making reference to forward operating sites or FOSes (long-term locations), cooperative security locations or CSLs (which troops periodically rotate in and out of), and contingency locations or CLs (which are used only during ongoing operations). A separate briefing prepared last year by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger references seven cooperative security locations across Africa whose whereabouts are classified.  A third briefing, produced in July of 2012 by U.S. Army Africa, identifies one of the CSL sites as Entebbe, Uganda, a location from which U.S. contractors have flown secret surveillance missions using innocuous-looking, white Pilatus PC-12 turboprop airplanes, according to an investigation by the Washington Post

The 2012 U.S. Army Africa briefing materials obtained by TomDispatch reference plans to build six new gates to the Entebbe compound, 11 new “containerized housing units,” new guard stations, new perimeter and security fencing, enhanced security lighting and new concrete access ramps, among other improvements.   Satellite photos indicate that many, if not all, of these upgrades have, indeed, taken place. 


Entebbe Cooperative Security Location, Entebbe, Uganda, in 2009 and 2013 ©2013 Google ©2013 Digital Globe

A 2009 image (above left) shows a barebones compound of dirt and grass tucked away on a Ugandan air base with just a few aircraft surrounding it.  A satellite photo of the compound from earlier this year (above right) shows a strikingly more built-up camp surrounded by a swarm of helicopters and white airplanes. 

Initially, AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refused to comment on the construction or the number of aircraft, insisting that the command had no “public information” about it. Confronted with the 2013 satellite photo, Benson reviewed it and offered a reply that neither confirmed nor denied that the site was a U.S. facility, but cautioned me about using “uncorroborated data.” (Benson failed to respond to my request to corroborate the data through a site visit.) “I have no way of knowing where the photo was taken and how it was modified,” he told me. “Assuming the location is Entebbe, as you suggest, I would again argue that the aircraft could belong to anyone… It would be irresponsible of me to speculate on the missions, roles, or ownership of these aircraft.” He went on to suggest, however, that the aircraft might belong to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) which does have a presence at the Entebbe air base. A request for comment from MONUSCO went unanswered before this article went to press.

This buildup may only be the beginning for Entebbe CSL. Recent contracting documents examined by TomDispatch indicate that AFRICOM is considering an additional surge of air assets there — specifically hiring a private contractor to provide further “dedicated fixed-wing airlift services for movement of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and cargo in the Central African Region.” This mercenary air force would keep as many as three planes in the air at the same time on any given day, logging a total of about 70 to 100 hours per week. If the military goes ahead with these plans, the aircraft would ferry troops, weapons, and other materiel within Uganda and to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.

Another key, if little noticed, U.S. outpost in Africa is located in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. An airbase there serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative. According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Lieutenant Colonel Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for Special Operations Command Africa, told me that it provides “emergency casualty evacuation support to small team engagements with partner nations throughout the Sahel,” although official documents note that such actions have historically accounted for only 10% of its monthly flight hours. 

While Rawlinson demurred from discussing the scope of the program, citing operational security concerns, military documents again indicate that, whatever its goals, it is expanding rapidly. Between March and December 2012, for example, the initiative flew 233 sorties. In the first three months of this year, it carried out 193.

In July, Berry Aviation, a Texas-based longtime Pentagon contractor, was awarded a nearly $50 million contract to provide aircraft and personnel for “Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing services.”  Under the terms of the deal, Berry will “perform casualty evacuation, personnel airlift, cargo airlift, as well as personnel and cargo aerial delivery services throughout the Trans-Sahara of Africa,” according to a statement from the company. Contracting documents indicate that Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia are the “most likely locations for missions.”

Special Ops in Africa

Ouagadougou is just one site for expanding U.S. air operations in Africa.  Last year, the 435th Military Construction Flight (MCF) — a rapid-response mobile construction team — revitalized an airfield in South Sudan for Special Operations Command Africa, according to the unit’s commander, Air Force lieutenant Alexander Graboski.  Before that, the team also “installed a runway lighting system to enable 24-hour operations” at the outpost.  Graboski states that the Air Force’s 435th MCF “has been called upon many times by Special Operations Command Africa to send small teams to perform work in austere locations.” This trend looks as if it will continue. According to a briefing prepared earlier this year by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers, plans have been drawn up for Special Operations Command Africa “operations support” facilities to be situated in “multiple locations.” 

AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson refused to answer questions about SOCAFRICA facilities, and would not comment on the locations of missions by an elite, quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU 10).  But according to Captain Robert Smith, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two, NSWU 10 has been engaged “with strategic countries such as Uganda, Somalia, [and] Nigeria.” 

Captain J. Dane Thorleifson, NSWU 10’s outgoing commander, recently mentioned deployments in six “austere locations” in Africa and “every other month contingency operations — Libya, Tunisia, [and] POTUS,” evidently a reference to President Obama’s three-nation trip to Africa in July.  Thorleifson, who led the unit from July 2011 to July 2013, also said NSWU 10 had been involved in training “proxy” forces, specifically “building critical host nation security capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our African CT [counterterror] partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and Boko Haram.”

Nzara in South Sudan is one of a string of shadowy forward operating posts on the continent where U.S. Special Operations Forces have been stationed in recent years. Other sites include Obo and Djema in the Central Africa Republic and Dungu in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  According to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, “advisory assistance at forward outposts was directly responsible for the establishment of combined operations fusion centers where military commanders, local security officials, and a host of international and non-governmental organizations could share information about regional insurgent activity and coordinate military activities with civil authorities.”

Drone bases are also expanding.  In February, the U.S. announced the establishment of a new drone facility in Niger.  Later in the spring, AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson confirmed to TomDispatch that U.S. air operations conducted from Base Aerienne 101 at Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger’s capital, were providing “support for intelligence collection with French forces conducting operations in Mali and with other partners in the region.”  More recently, the New York Times noted that what began as the deployment of one Predator drone to Niger had expanded to encompass daily flights by one of two larger, more advanced Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, supported by 120 Air Force personnel.  Additionally, the U.S. has flown drones out of the Seychelles Islands and Ethiopia’s Arba Minch Airport. 

When it comes to expanding U.S. outposts in Africa, the Navy has also been active.  It maintains a forward operating location — manned mostly by Seabees, Civil Affairs personnel, and force-protection troops — known as Camp Gilbert in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.  Since 2004, U.S. troops have been stationed at a Kenyan naval base known as Camp Simba at Manda Bay.  AFRICOM’s Benson portrayed operations there as relatively minor, typified by “short-term training and engagement activities.”  The 60 or so “core” troops stationed there, he said, are also primarily Civil Affairs, Seabees, and security personnel who take part in “military-to-military engagements with Kenyan forces and humanitarian initiatives.” 

An AFRICOM briefing earlier this year suggested, however, that the base is destined to be more than a backwater post.  It called attention to improvements in water and power infrastructure and an extension of the runway at the airfield, as well as greater “surge capacity” for bringing in forces in the future.  A second briefing, prepared by the Navy and obtained by TomDispatch, details nine key infrastructure upgrades that are on the drawing board, underway, or completed. 

In addition to extending and improving that runway, they include providing more potable water storage, latrines, and lodgings to accommodate a future “surge” of troops, doubling the capacity of washer and dryer units, upgrading dining facilities, improving roadways and boat ramps, providing fuel storage, and installing a new generator to handle additional demands for power.  In a March article in the National Journal, James Kitfield, who visited the base, shed additional light on expansion there.  “Navy Seabee engineers,” he wrote, “…have been working round-the-clock shifts for months to finish a runway extension before the rainy season arrives. Once completed, it will allow larger aircraft like C-130s to land and supply Americans or African Union troops.”

AFRICOM’s Benson tells TomDispatch that the U.S. military also makes use of six buildings located on Kenyan military bases at the airport and seaport of Mombasa.  In addition, he verified that it has used Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in Senegal for refueling stops as well as the “transportation of teams participating in security cooperation activities” such as training missions.  He confirmed a similar deal for the use of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia. 

While Benson refused additional comment, official documents indicate that the U.S. has similar agreements for the use of Nsimalen Airport and Douala International Airport in Cameroon, Amílcar Cabral International Airport and Praia International Airport in Cape Verde, N’Djamena International Airport in Chad, Cairo International Airport in Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport in Kenya, Kotoka International Airport in Ghana, ‎ Marrakech-Menara Airport in Morocco, Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Nigeria, Seychelles International Airport in the Seychelles, Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Botswana, Bamako-Senou International Airport in Mali, and Tunis-Carthage International Airport in Tunisia.  ‎All told, according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military now has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

In addition, U.S. Africa Command has built a sophisticated logistics system, officially known as the AFRICOM Surface Distribution Network, but colloquially referred to as the “new spice route.” It connects posts in Manda Bay, Garissa, and Mombasa in Kenya, Kampala and Entebbe in Uganda, Dire Dawa in Ethiopia, as well as crucial port facilities used by the Navy’s CTF-53 (“Commander, Task Force, Five Three”) in Djibouti, which are collectively referred to as “the port of Djibouti” by the military.  Other key ports on the continent, according to Lieutenant Colonel Wade Lawrence of U.S. Transportation Command, include Ghana’s Tema and Senegal’s Dakar. 

The U.S. maintains 10 marine gas and oil bunker locations in eight African nations, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson refuses to name the countries, but recent military contracting documents list key fuel bunker locations in Douala, Cameroon; Mindelo, Cape Verde; Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire; Port Gentil, Gabon; Sekondi, Ghana; Mombasa, Kenya; Port Luis, Mauritius; Walvis Bay, Namibia; Lagos, Nigeria; Port Victoria, Seychelles; Durban, South Africa; and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. 

The U.S. also continues to maintain a long-time Naval Medical Research Unit, known as NAMRU-3, in Cairo, Egypt.  Another little-noticed medical investigation component, the U.S. Army Research Unit – Kenya, operates from facilities in Kisumu and Kericho.

(In and) Out of Africa

When considering the scope and rapid expansion of U.S. military activities in Africa, it’s important to keep in mind that certain key “African” bases are actually located off the continent.  Keeping a semblance of a “light footprint” there, AFRICOM’s headquarters is located at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany.  In June, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the base in Stuttgart and the U.S. Air Force’s Air Operations Center in Ramstein were both integral to drone operations in Africa.

Key logistics support hubs for AFRICOM are located in Rota, Spain; Aruba in the Lesser Antilles; and Souda Bay, Greece, as well as at Ramstein.  The command also maintains a forward operating site on Britain’s Ascension Island, located about 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic, but refused requests for further information about its role in operations. 

Another important logistics facility is located in Sigonella on the island of Sicily. Italy, it turns out, is an especially crucial component of U.S. operations in Africa.  Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa, which provides teams of Marines and sailors for “small-footprint theater security cooperation engagements” across the continent, is based at Naval Air Station Sigonella.  It has, according to AFRICOM’s Benjamin Benson, recently deployed personnel to Botswana, Liberia, Djibouti, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Tunisia, and Senegal.

In the future, U.S. Army Africa will be based at Caserma Del Din in northern Italy, adjacent to the recently completed home of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.  A 2012 U.S. Army Africa briefing indicates that construction projects at the Caserma Del Din base will continue through 2018. The reported price-tag for the entire complex:  $310 million.  

A Big Base Gets Bigger

While that sum is sizeable, it’s surpassed by spending on the lone official U.S. base on the African continent, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.  That former French Foreign Legion post has been on a decade-long growth spurt. 

In 2002, the U.S. dispatched personnel to Africa as part of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).  The next year, CJTF-HOA took up residence at Camp Lemonnier, where it resides to this day.  In 2005, the U.S. struck a five-year land-use agreement with the Djiboutian government and exercised the first of two five-year renewal options in late 2010.  In 2006, the U.S. signed a separate agreement to expand the camp’s boundaries to 500 acres.

According to AFRICOM’s Benson, between 2009 and 2012, $390 million was spent on construction at Camp Lemonnier.  In recent years, the outpost was transformed by the addition of an electric power plant, enhanced water storage and treatment facilities, a dining hall, more facilities for Special Operations Command, and the expansion of aircraft taxiways and parking aprons. 

A briefing prepared earlier this year by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command lists a plethora of projects currently underway or poised to begin, including an aircraft maintenance hangar, a telecommunications facility, a fire station, additional security fencing, an ammunition supply facility, interior paved roads, a general purpose warehouse, maintenance shelters for aircraft, an aircraft logistics apron, taxiway enhancements, expeditionary lodging, a combat aircraft loading apron, and a taxiway extension on the east side of the airfield. 

Navy documents detail the price tag of this year’s proposed projects, including $7.5 million to be spent on containerized living units and workspaces, $22 million for cold storage and the expansion of dining facilities, $27 million for a fitness center, $43 million for a joint headquarters facility, and a whopping $220 million for a Special Operations Compound, also referred to as “Task Force Compound.”


Plans for Construction of the Special Operations or “Task Force” Compound at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

According to a 2012 briefing by Lieutenant Colonel David Knellinger, the Special Operations Compound will eventually include at least 18 new facilities, including a two-story joint operations center, a two-story tactical operations center, two five-story barracks, a large motor pool facility, a supply warehouse, and an aircraft hangar with an adjacent air operations center.   

A document produced earlier this year by Lieutenant Troy Gilbert, an infrastructure planner with AFRICOM’s engineer division, lists almost $400 million in “emergency” military construction at Camp Lemonnier, including work on the special operations compound and more than $150 million for a new combat aircraft loading area.  Navy documents, for their part, estimate that construction at Camp Lemonnier will continue at $70 million to $100 million annually, with future projects to include a $20 million wastewater treatment plant, a $40 million medical and dental center, and more than $150 million in troop housing.

Rules of Engagement

In addition, the U.S. military has been supporting construction all over Africa for its allies.  A report by Hugh Denny of the Army Corps of Engineers issued earlier this year references 79 such projects in 33 countries between 2011 and 2013, including Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, The Gambia, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia.  The reported price-tag: $48 million.

Senegal has, for example, received a $1.2 million “peacekeeping operations training center” under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program. ACOTA has also supported training center projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

The U.S. is planning to finance the construction of barracks and other facilities for Ghana’s armed forces.  AFRICOM’s Benson also confirmed to TomDispatch that the Army Corps of Engineers has plans to “equip and refurbish five military border security posts in Djibouti along the Somalia/Somaliland border.”  In Kenya, U.S. Special Operations Forces have “played a crucial role in infrastructure investments for the Kenyan Special Operations Regiment and especially in the establishment of the Kenyan Ranger school,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

AFRICOM’s “humanitarian assistance” program is also expansive.  A 2013 Navy briefing lists $7.1 million in humanitarian construction projects — like schools, orphanages, and medical facilities — in 19 countries from Comoros and Guinea-Bissau to Rwanda.  Hugh Denny’s report also lists nine Army Corps of Engineers “security assistance” efforts, valued at more than $12 million, carried out during 2012 and 2013, as well as 15 additional “security cooperation” projects worth more than $22 million in countries across Africa.

A Deluge of Deployments

In addition to creating or maintaining bases and engaging in military construction across the continent, the U.S. is involved in near constant training and advisory missions.  According to AFRICOM’s Colonel Tom Davis, the command is slated to carry out 14 major bilateral and multilateral exercises by the end of this year.  These include Saharan Express 2013, which brought together forces from Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Liberia, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, among other nations, for maritime security training; Obangame Express 2013, a counter-piracy exercise involving the armed forces of many nations, including Benin, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Togo; and Africa Endeavor 2013, in which the militaries of Djibouti, Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, and 34 other African nations took part.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  As Davis told TomDispatch, “We also conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent.”  A cursory look at just some of U.S. missions this spring drives home the true extent of the growing U.S. engagement in Africa. 

In January, for instance, the U.S. Air Force began transporting French troops to Mali to counter Islamist forces there.  At a facility in Nairobi, Kenya, AFRICOM provided military intelligence training to junior officers from Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and South Sudan.  In January and February, Special Operations Forces personnel conducted a joint exercise code-named Silent Warrior with Cameroonian soldiers.  February saw South African troops travel all the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to take part in Cobra Gold 2013, a multinational training exercise cosponsored by the U.S. military.

In March, Navy personnel worked with members of Cape Verde’s armed forces, while Kentucky National Guard troops spent a week advising soldiers from the Comoros Islands.  That same month, members of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa deployed to the Singo Peace Support Training Center in Uganda to work with Ugandan soldiers prior to their assignment to the African Union Mission in Somalia.  Over the course of the spring, members of the task force would also mentor local troops in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Seychelles, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Liberia.

In April, members of the task force also began training Senegalese commandos at Bel-Air military base in Dakar, while Navy personnel deployed to Mozambique to school civilians in demining techniques. Meanwhile, Marines traveled to Morocco to conduct a training exercise code-named African Lion 13 with that country’s military.  In May, Army troops were sent to Lomé, Togo, to work with members of the Togolese Defense Force, as well as to Senga Bay, Malawi, to instruct soldiers there.

That same month, Navy personnel conducted a joint exercise in the Mediterranean Sea with their Egyptian counterparts.  In June, personnel from the Kentucky National Guard deployed to Djibouti to advise members of that country’s military on border security methods, while Seabees teamed up with the Tanzanian People’s Defense Force to build maritime security infrastructure.  That same month, the Air Force airlifted Liberian troops to Bamako, Mali, to conduct a six-month peacekeeping operation.

Limited or Limitless?

Counting countries in which it has bases or outposts or has done construction, and those with which it has conducted military exercises, advisory assignments, security cooperation, or training missions, the U.S. military, according to TomDispatch’s analysis, is involved with more than 90% of Africa’s 54 nations. While AFRICOM commander David Rodriguez maintains that the U.S. has only a “small footprint” on the continent, following those small footprints across the continent can be a breathtaking task.

It’s not hard to imagine why the U.S. military wants to maintain that “small footprint” fiction.  On occasion, military commanders couldn’t have been clearer on the subject.  “A direct and overt presence of U.S. forces on the African continent can cause consternation… with our own partners who take great pride in their post-colonial abilities to independently secure themselves,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume Beaurpere earlier this year in the military trade publication Special Warfare. Special Operations Forces, he added, “must train to operate discreetly within these constraints and the cultural norms of the host nation.”

On a visit to the Pentagon earlier this summer, AFRICOM’s Rodriguez echoed the same point in candid comments to Voice of America: “The history of the African nations, the colonialism, all those things are what point to the reasons why we should… just use a small footprint.”

And yet, however useful that imagery may be to the Pentagon, the U.S. military no longer has a small footprint in Africa.  Even the repeated claims that U.S. troops conduct only short-term. intermittent missions there has been officially contradicted.  This July, at a change of command ceremony for Naval Special Warfare Unit 10, a spokesman noted the creation and implementation of “a five-year engagement strategy that encompassed the transition from episodic training events to regionally-focused and persistent engagements in five Special Operations Command Africa priority countries.”

In a question-and-answer piece in Special Warfare earlier this year, Colonel John Deedrick, the commander of the 10th Special Forces Group, sounded off about his unit’s area of responsibility.  “We are widely employed throughout the continent,” he said. “These are not episodic activities.  We are there 365-days-a-year to share the burden, assist in shaping the environment, and exploit opportunities.” 

Exploitation and “persistent engagement” are exactly what critics of U.S. military involvement in Africa have long feared, while blowback and the unforeseen consequences of U.S. military action on the continent have already contributed to catastrophic destabilization.

Despite some candid admissions by officers involved in shadowy operations, however, AFRICOM continues to insist that troop deployments are highly circumscribed.  The command will not, however, allow independent observers to make their own assessments.  Benson said AFRICOM does not “have a media visit program to regularly host journalists there.” 

My own requests to report on U.S. operations on the continent were, in fact, rejected in short order.  “We will not make an exception in this case,” Benson wrote in a recent email and followed up by emphasizing that U.S. forces are deployed in Africa only “on a limited and temporary basis.”  TomDispatch’s own analysis — and a mere glance at the map of recent missions — indicates that there are, in fact, very few limits on where the U.S. military operates in Africa. 

While Washington talks openly about rebalancing its military assets to Asia, a pivot to Africa is quietly and unmistakably underway.  With the ever-present possibility of blowback from shadowy operations on the continent, the odds are that the results of that pivot will become increasingly evident, whether or not Americans recognize them as such.  Behind closed doors, the military says: “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”  It remains to be seen just when they’ll say the same to the American people.     

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Nation, on the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.  You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here.  His website is NickTurse.com 

Key to the Map of the U.S. Military’s Pivot to Africa, 2012-2013

Green markers: U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2013
Yellow markers:
U.S. military training, advising, or tactical deployments during 2012
Purple marker:
U.S. “security cooperation”
Red markers:
Army National Guard partnerships
Blue markers:
U.S. bases, forward operating sites (FOSes), contingency security locations (CSLs), contingency locations (CLs), airports with fueling agreements, and various shared facilities
Green push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2013
Yellow push pins:
U.S. military training/advising of indigenous troops carried out in a third country during 2012

Copyright 2013 Nick Turse

Tom Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth

6:00 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

And Then There Was One 

Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt

Tattered American Flag

Tom Engelhardt on the madness of the world’s lone superpower.

In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.

He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.

Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.

Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.

Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.

Why Orwell Was Wrong

Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.

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Ariel Dorfman, Martin Luther King and the Two 9/11s

7:34 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.

Dorfman Cover

Ariel Dorfman’s most recent book

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the words pour out.  Ten years ago on the 40th anniversary, TomDispatch asked the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman to consider what Martin Luther King had meant to him in the struggle that followed the first 9/11, the brutal U.S.-backed military coup of September 11, 1973, against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.  Just two years after the second 9/11, Dorfman wrote a unique piece — or, at least, a piece from a unique perspective.  It was a moving evocation of King’s significance in the context of the two 9/11s (one of which North Americans, then and now, prefer to disappear from history).  A decade later, Dorfman, the author, most recently, of Feeding On Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile, has had the urge to rewrite and update that piece, reconsidering that King moment in the context of our increasingly grim drone assassination and global surveillance moment.  Somehow, to my mind at least, good as it was then, it’s both more moving and more relevant now. Tom

A Time for Creative Suffering
Martin Luther King’s Words in a Surveillance World
By Ariel Dorfman

So much has changed since that hot day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his famous words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A black family lives in the White House and official segregation is a thing of the past. Napalm no longer falls on the homes and people of Vietnam and the president of that country has just visited the United States in order to seek “a new relationship.”

A health-care law has been passed that guarantees medical services to many millions who, 50 years ago, were entirely outside the system. Gays were then hiding their sexuality everywhere — the Stonewall riots were six years away — and now the Supreme Court has recognized that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits. Only the year before, Rachel Carson had published her groundbreaking ecological classic Silent Spring, then one solitary book.  Today, there is a vigorous movement in the land and across the Earth dedicated to stopping the extinction of our planet.

In 1963, nuclear destruction threatened our species every minute of the day and now, despite the proliferation of such weaponry to new nations, we do not feel that tomorrow is likely to bring 10,000 Hiroshimas raining down on humanity.

So much has changed — and yet so little.

The placards raised in last week’s commemorative march on Washington told exactly that story: calls for ending the drone wars in foreign lands; demands for jobs and equality; protests against mass incarceration, restrictions on the right to an abortion, cuts to education, assaults upon the workers of America, and the exploitation and persecution of immigrants; warnings about the state-by-state spread of voter suppression laws. And chants filling the air, rising above multiple images of Trayvon Martin, denouncing gun violence and clamoring for banks to be taxed. Challenges to us all to occupy every space available and return the country to the people.

Yes, so much has changed — and yet so little.

In my own life, as well.

Words for an Assassination Moment

I wasn’t able to attend last week’s march, but I certainly would have, if events of a personal nature hadn’t interfered. It was just a matter of getting in a car with my wife, Angélica, and driving four hours from our home in Durham, North Carolina.

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Tom Engelhardt, Luck Was a Lady Last Week

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.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden compared to CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant.  In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia — poof! — he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant.  The CIA’s station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita version of extraordinary rendition as part of Washington’s Global War on Terror.  His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.

His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn’t spook straight.  They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.

Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement.  (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.)  Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six).  He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”

Last week, the Panamanians picked him up.  It was the real world equivalent of a magician’s trick.  He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then — poof again! — he wasn’t.  Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, “It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States.”  So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more.  Consider it the CIA version of a miracle.  Instead of landing, he just evaporated.

And that was that.  Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice.  Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media.  When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: “We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19.  Panama’s actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory.”

In other words, he came and he went.

Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician’s Trick

When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension.  Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence?  But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.

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Nick Turse, Blowback Central

6:57 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.

An Africom soldier

Today’s US military operations in Africa set us up for tomorrow’s blowback.

The other day, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-supported Afghan president who was once sardonically nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul,” had a few curious things to say about American policy in the Muslim world.  Karzai, of course, is a man whose opinions — whether on U.S. special operations forces and their (out of control) militias, U.S. night raids on Afghan homes, or U.S. air strikes on Afghan villages — Washington loves to ignore.  He is considered “volatile.”  Sometimes, however, it’s worth listening to what our subordinate allies, uncomfortable nationalists-cum-puppets, think and say about us.

As Josh Rogin reported at the Daily Beast, Karzai recently suggested that, starting in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration and the CIA buddied up with the Saudis and Pakistani intelligence and backed a set of extreme fundamentalist Afghan rebels against the Soviets, the U.S. has been, advertently or not, promoting Islamic radicalism in the Greater Middle East.  As Karzai said of that long-forgotten moment, “The more radical we looked and talked, the more we were called mujahedin. The consequence of that was a massive effort toward uprooting traditional Afghan values and culture and tolerance.”  In his speech at the 2013 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, he made a case for the ways in which Washington’s destabilization of the region has never ended, provoking ever more extreme blowback as it goes.

Without a doubt, the central event in the multi-decade fiasco that for a few years was known as the Global War on Terror was the invasion of Iraq, Washington’s preeminent act of folly so far in the twenty-first century.  Its disastrous effects have yet to be fully absorbed or assessed.  Yet without that invasion, it is hard to imagine a whole series of developments, including the present killing fields in Syria, the potential disintegration of Iraq itself, the Arab Spring, or the spread of extreme Islamic factions ever more widely in a vast region.  The irony, of course, is that the Bush administration and the neocon types who set so much of this in motion used to refer to the Greater Middle East from North Africa to the Chinese border disparagingly as “the arc of instability.”  Today, it increasingly looks like an arc of chaos and, as Nick Turse indicates, the process, far from ending, seems to be spreading — in this case, deep into Africa.

Turse, author of the recent bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, has been following the latest U.S. global command, AFRICOM, as it embeds American military power ever more fully on the African continent. (In the process, he has engaged in full-scale public debate with that command over the nature of what it is doing.) Today, he offers a magisterial overview of what can be known about the increasing American military presence in Africa and how it is continuing a now more than three-decade-old process of spurring destabilization, the growth of radical Islamic movements, and blowback in a new region of the planet. Tom

The Terror Diaspora
The U.S. Military and the Unraveling of Africa
By Nick Turse

The Gulf of Guinea. He said it without a hint of irony or embarrassment. This was one of U.S. Africa Command’s big success stories. The Gulf… of Guinea.

Never mind that most Americans couldn’t find it on a map and haven’t heard of the nations on its shores like Gabon, Benin, and Togo. Never mind that just five days before I talked with AFRICOM’s chief spokesman, the Economist had asked if the Gulf of Guinea was on the verge of becoming “another Somalia,” because piracy there had jumped 41% from 2011 to 2012 and was on track to be even worse in 2013.

The Gulf of Guinea was one of the primary areas in Africa where “stability,” the command spokesman assured me, had “improved significantly,” and the U.S. military had played a major role in bringing it about. But what did that say about so many other areas of the continent that, since AFRICOM was set up, had been wracked by coups, insurgencies, violence, and volatility?

A careful examination of the security situation in Africa suggests that it is in the process of becoming Ground Zero for a veritable terror diaspora set in motion in the wake of 9/11 that has only accelerated in the Obama years.  Recent history indicates that as U.S. “stability” operations in Africa have increased, militancy has spread, insurgent groups have proliferated, allies have faltered or committed abuses, terrorism has increased, the number of failed states has risen, and the continent has become more unsettled.

The signal event in this tsunami of blowback was the U.S. participation in a war to fell Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi that helped send neighboring Mali, a U.S.-supported bulwark against regional terrorism, into a downward spiral, prompting the intervention of the French military with U.S. backing.  The situation could still worsen as the U.S. armed forces grow ever more involved.  They are already expanding air operations across the continent, engaging in spy missions for the French military, and utilizing other previously undisclosed sites in Africa.

The Terror Diaspora

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Tom Engelhardt: The Intelligence Bureaucracy That Ate Our World

7:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Data Mining You
How the Intelligence Community Is Creating a New American World

By Tom Engelhardt

I was out of the country only nine days, hardly a blink in time, but time enough, as it happened, for another small, airless room to be added to the American national security labyrinth.  On March 22nd, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Jr. signed off on new guidelines allowing the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a post-9/11 creation, to hold on to information about Americans in no way known to be connected to terrorism — about you and me, that is — for up to five years.  (Its previous outer limit was 180 days.)  This, Clapper claimed, “will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively.”

Joseph K., that icon of single-lettered anonymity from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, would undoubtedly have felt right at home in Clapper’s Washington.  George Orwell would surely have had a few pungent words to say about those anodyne words “practically and effectively,” not to speak of “mission.”

For most Americans, though, it was just life as we’ve known it since September 11, 2001, since we scared ourselves to death and accepted that just about anything goes, as long as it supposedly involves protecting us from terrorists.  Basic information or misinformation, possibly about you, is to be stored away for five years — or until some other attorney general and director of national intelligence think it’s even more practical and effective to keep you on file for 10 years, 20 years, or until death do us part — and it hardly made a ripple.

If Americans were to hoist a flag designed for this moment, it might read “Tread on Me” and use that classic illustration of the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.  That, at least, would catch something of the absurdity of what the National Security Complex has decided to swallow of our American world.

Oh, and in those nine days abroad, a new word surfaced on my horizon, one just eerie and ugly enough for our new reality: yottabyte.  Thank National Security Agency (NSA) expert James Bamford for that.  He wrote a piece for Wired magazine on a super-secret, $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center the NSA is building in Bluffdale, Utah.  Focused on data mining and code-breaking and five times the size of the U.S. Capitol, it is expected to house information beyond compare, “including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’”

The NSA, adds Bamford, “has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net.”

Which brings us to yottabyte — which is, Bamford assures us, equivalant to septillion bytes, a number “so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.”  The Utah center will be capable of storing a yottabyte or more of information (on your tax dollar).

Large as it is, that mega-project in Utah is just one of many sprouting like mushrooms in the sunless forest of the U.S. intelligence world.  In cost, for example, it barely tops the $1.7 billion headquarters complex in Virginia that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, with an estimated annual black budget of at least $5 billion, built for its 16,000 employees.  Opened in 2011, it’s the third-largest federal building in the Washington area.  (And I’ll bet you didn’t even know that your tax dollars paid for such an agency, no less its gleaming new headquarters.)  Or what about the 33 post-9/11 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work that were under construction or had already been built when Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote their “Top Secret America” series back in 2010?

In these last years, while so many Americans were foreclosed upon or had their homes go “underwater” and the construction industry went to hell, the intelligence housing bubble just continued to grow.  And there’s no sign that any of this seems abidingly strange to most Americans.

A System That Creates Its Own Reality

To leave the country, of course, I had to briefly surrender my shoes, hat, belt, computer — you know the routine — and even then, stripped to the basics, I had to pass through a scanner of a sort that not so long ago caused protest and upset but now is evidently as American as apple pie.  Then I spent those nine days touring some of Spain’s architectural wonders, including the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, and that city’s ancient synagogue (the only one to survive the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), as well as Antonio Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, his vast Barcelona basilica, without once — in a country with its own grim history of terror attacks — being wanded or patted down or questioned or even passing through a metal detector.  Afterwards, I took a flight back to a country whose national security architecture had again expanded subtly in the name of “my” safety.

Now, I don’t want to overdo it.  In truth, those new guidelines were no big deal.  The information on — as far as anyone knows — innocent Americans that the NCTC wanted to keep for those extra 4½ years was already being held ad infinitum by one or another of our 17 major intelligence agencies and organizations.  So the latest announcement seems to represent little more than bureaucratic housecleaning, just a bit of extra scaffolding added to the Great Mosque or basilica of the new American intelligence labyrinth.  It certainly was nothing to write home about, no less trap a fictional character in.

Admittedly, since 9/11 the U.S. Intelligence Community, as it likes to call itself, has expanded to staggering proportions.  With those 17 outfits having a combined annual intelligence budget of more than $80 billion (a figure which doesn’t even include all intelligence expenditures), you could think of that community as having carried out a statistical coup d’état.  In fact, at a moment when America’s enemies — a few thousand scattered jihadis, the odd minority insurgency, and a couple of rickety regional powers (Iran, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuela) — couldn’t be less imposing, its growth has been little short of an institutional miracle.  By now, it has a momentum all its own.  You might even say that it creates its own reality. Read the rest of this entry →