You are browsing the archive for spying.

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.

Read the rest of this entry →

Peter Van Buren: 10 NSA Myths Debunked

9:41 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.

Protest Sign: Thank you Mr. Snowden, you are a fucking HERO

Peter Van Buren busts the government’s NSA propaganda myths.

A new book, as well as the first account written by a participant, remind us that, in the world of the national security state, when it comes to pure and simple illegality in the monitoring of, spying on, and surveillance of American citizens, there really is nothing new under the sun.  In a late-night break-in and theft in March 1971, eight antiwar activists — the Edward Snowdens of their moment — made off with the files of an obscure FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania.  These proved to contain documents incriminating the Bureau for operations designed to breed paranoia in the anti-Vietnam War movement and for what turned out to be illegal spying on Americans.

The activists, who remained anonymous and whom the FBI never found, sent relevant documents to journalists.  While some papers returned the documents under FBI pressure, the Washington Post began publishing pieces about them.  In this way, in what was then still an all-paper world, a distinctly non-digital, quite illegal break-in, an act of conscience aimed at pulling back the curtain on government illegality, began the unraveling of a massive, secret counterintelligence, or COINTELPRO, operation against Americans.  It had targeted both the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and involved the use of agents provocateurs and blackmail, among many other illegal acts.  Without that break-in by the Media 8, J. Edgar Hoover’s “shadow FBI,” a criminal conspiracy at the heart of a developing national security state, might never have been revealed.  (The CIA, officially banned from domestic spying on Americans, turned out to be involved in massive surveillance as well.)

As a reporter at the Washington Post, Betty Medsger received some of the stolen documents and helped break the story back in 1971.  Now, in her new book, The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, several of those involved in the Media 8 break-in have finally identified themselves. In her personal account in the Guardian, one of the eight, Bonnie Raines, writes this of her modern counterpart: “Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.”

In our own time, despite Snowden, count on one thing: we undoubtedly don’t yet know the worst or most illegal aspects of this era of “intelligence.”  After all, while Snowden “liberated” up to 1.7 million National Security Agency documents (many of them not yet looked at, analyzed, or written about), there have been no similar twenty-first-century break-ins at the FBI, the CIA, or other parts of the American intelligence community (or for that matter at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security).  Massive and shocking as the NSA revelations have been, the curtain has only been pulled back on a corner of the new Washington world that we, the people, continue to fund, even if we aren’t considered important enough to know anything about it.

In the meantime, the defenders of that world have been out in their legions reassuring us that we need know no more, that it’s all for our own good, that NSA surveillance stopped untold terror plots, and that it’s — really and truly! — not such a big deal.  Former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren begs to differ and so takes us through the labyrinth of NSA defenses, point by point, showing just what our favorite Constitution-shredders have to say and why it doesn’t hold water. Tom

You Can’t Opt Out
10 NSA Myths Debunked
By Peter Van Buren

The debate Edward Snowden envisioned when he revealed the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) spying on Americans has taken a bad turn. Instead of a careful examination of what the NSA does, the legality of its actions, what risks it takes for what gains, and how effective the agency has been in its stated mission of protecting Americans, we increasingly have government officials or retired versions of the same demanding — quite literally — Snowden’s head and engaging in the usual fear-mongering over 9/11. They have been aided by a chorus of pundits, columnists, and present as well as former officials offering bumper-sticker slogans like “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” all the while claiming our freedom is in direct conflict with our security.

It’s time to face these arguments directly. So here are ten myths about NSA surveillance that need debunking. Let’s sort them out.

1) NSA surveillance is legal.

True, if perhaps you put “legal” in quotes. After all, so was slavery once upon a time in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. Laws represent what a government and sometimes perhaps even a majority of the people want at a given point in time. They change and are changeable; what once was a potential felony in Colorado is now a tourist draw.

Read the rest of this entry →

A Ripley’s Believe It or Not National Security State

7:17 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.

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

White House Tilt Shift

What would aliens think of our national security state?

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries — but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed in these last decades as a faith-based system — a new national religion — would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call “national security” as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as “the homeland.”  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

Read the rest of this entry →

Pratap Chatterjee: The Jason Bourne Strategy

7:35 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.

[Note from Tom: A death can feel like an archive closing forever on some aspect of your life.  Such is the case for me with the death of Andre Schiffrin.  If you’ll all excuse me, I want to note his passing briefly here:

Secret Agent

Does the CIA think it’s in a Hollywood movie?

This won’t mean much to most of you, but Andre, publisher of Pantheon Books and my boss for 15 years, the person who, in 1976, hired me when there was really no obvious reason to do so and, more than anyone else, let me become what I am today, died last weekend. It’s a moment of genuine sadness for me, an indication that an era — my own in many ways, though he was nine years older than me — has ended. The world of books is unimaginable (to me) without him. Without him, Studs Terkel might never have done his oral histories and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the “first graphic novel,” might never have been published. (He let me do Spiegelman’s masterpiece when, in embryonic form, it had been turned down by every major publishing house in New York.)

I first spent time with Andre in 1971 after I had published an essay, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” in the single most obscure journal on the planet, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. He nonetheless read it and invited me to lunch to urge me to turn it into a book, something I couldn’t faintly imagine doing at the time. I did, however, finally come to agree with him and wrote that book, which was published in 1995 as The End of Victory Culture.  In other words, with my project as with so much else in the world of books, he was a man almost 25 years ahead of his time.

Ariel Dorfman, a writer whose work I published early on in my tenure at Pantheon, wrote me this after Andre’s death: “His existence changed our lives, just by giving you free rein at Pantheon to believe in a young exiled writer.” He couldn’t have been more on the mark. 
Andre’s New York Times obituary offered the gist of his life and the sense that he was a great one. It missed, however, his risk-taking nature and his radical view of what might matter to our world.  It also provided a less than satisfactory account of how the right-wing owner of the conglomerate that housed Pantheon made use of a politically inauspicious time for a small left-wing publishing outfit to push him out of his job (after which we, his loyal editors and employees, quit in protest). Still, no complaints here. The world and the man that made me are both history. What more is there to say at the moment?]

Someone should launch a feature somewhere on American foreign and war policy under the rubric: How could anything possibly go wrong?  Here are just two recent examples.

The Obama administration intervenes militarily in Libya, plays a significant role in overthrowing the autocrat who runs the country as a police state, and helps unleash chaos in its wake. The streets of Libyan cities fill with militias as the new government’s control of the situation fades to next to nil. Which brings us to our present moment, when a panicky Washington decides that what’s needed is yet another, different kind of intervention. The plan seems to be to compete with various local and Islamic militias by creating a government militia as the core of a new “national army.” Its members are to be drawn from already existing militias and they’ll be trained somewhere outside of Libya. What an idea! Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?

Or consider this: Washington begins to panic about heightening tensions between Japan and China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  The problem, reports David Sanger of the New York Times, based on what Obama administration officials have told him, is that the conflict could escalate and so “derail their complex plan to manage China’s rise without overtly trying to contain it.”  Now, let’s get this straight: before things began to run off the rails in the East China Sea, the Obama administration was confidently planning to “manage” the rise of the next superpower on a planet already in such tumult that what being a new great power might even mean is open to question. And keep in mind that we’re talking about an administration that couldn’t manage the rollout of a website.  What could possibly go wrong?

Both examples highlight the strange combination of hubris and panic that, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee points out today, seems to be the essence of so many of Washington’s plans and actions at the moment.  The urge to “manage” is invariably followed by shock at the unmanageability of this roiling globe of ours, followed by panic over plans gone desperately awry when things begin, utterly predictably, to happen unpredictably, followed of course by the next set of managerial plans.  Is there no learning curve in Washington? Tom

Hollywood Without the Happy Ending
How the CIA Bungled the War on Terror
By Pratap Chatterjee

Call it the Jason Bourne strategy.

Think of it as the CIA’s plunge into Hollywood — or into the absurd.  As recent revelations have made clear, that Agency’s moves couldn’t be have been more far-fetched or more real.  In its post-9/11 global shadow war, it has employed both private contractors and some of the world’s most notorious prisoners in ways that leave the latest episode of the Bourne films in the dust: hired gunmen trained to kill as well as former inmates who cashed in on the notoriety of having worn an orange jumpsuit in the world’s most infamous jail.

Read the rest of this entry →

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

Jeremy Scahill: The Fantasy of a Clean War

6:30 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.

Cover of Dirty Wars

The epilogue to Jeremy Scahill’s important book on American warfare.

The foreign leaders are dropping like flies — to American surveillance. I’m talking about serial revelations that the National Security Agency has been spying on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, two Mexican presidents, Felipe Calderón (whose office the NSA called “a lucrative source”) and his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, at least while still a candidate, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s now evidently part of the weekly news cycle to discover that the NSA has hacked into the emails or listened into the phone conversations of yet another allied leader. Reportedly, that agency has been listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders. Within 48 hours last week, President Obama was obliged to call an irritated President François Hollande, after Le Monde reported that the NSA was massively collecting French phone calls and emails, including those of politicians and business people, and received a call from an outraged Merkel, whose cell phone conversations were reportedly monitored by the NSA. Of course, when you build a global surveillance state and your activities, thanks to a massive leak of documents, become common knowledge, you have to expect global anger to rise and spread. With 196 countries on the planet, there are a lot of calls assumedly still to come in, even as the president and top Washington officials hem and haw about the necessity of maintaining the security of Americans while respecting the privacy of citizens and allies, refuse to directly apologize, claim that an “exhaustive” review of surveillance practices is underway, and hope that this, too, shall pass.

In the meantime, on a second front, the news is again bad for Washington, as upset and dismay once largely restricted to the tribal backlands of the planet seem to be spreading. I’m talking here about the global assassination campaigns being conducted from the White House, based in part on a “kill list” of terrorist suspects and using the president’s private air force, the growing drone fleets of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. In the last week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come out with reports on the U.S. drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen debunking White House claims that few civilians are dying in those strikes and raising serious questions about their legality. In two of the six drone strikes it investigated in Yemen, Human Rights Watch reported the killing of “civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.” In a surprising development, Amnesty brought a powerful, historically resonant term to bear, claiming that some of the cases of civilian drone deaths it investigated in Pakistan might constitute “war crimes” for which those responsible should stand trial. (“Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions.”)

And just arriving, reports from the U.N. special rapporteur on drones, Ben Emmerson, and its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns. It’s already clear that these will not please the White House, where the usual denials and self-justifications — however lame they may increasingly sound outside the United States — still rule the day. (“U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”) After a recent visit to Pakistan, Emmerson said, “The consequence of drone strikes has been to radicalize an entirely new generation.” A former high-level U.S. State Department official in Yemen claims that each U.S. drone strike in that country creates “40 to 60 new enemies of America.” Emmerson and Heyns are now demanding far greater “transparency” from a secretive Washington on the subject of its drone killings.

Call both the blanketing surveillance and the drone revelations symptoms of a larger disease. In the years before 9/11, the U.S. focused its global attentions on what it then called “rogue states.” Devoted since that date to perpetual war across significant parts of the planet and to a surveillance apparatus geared to leave no one anywhere in privacy, the U.S. now resembles a rogue superpower to an increasingly resistant and restless world. No single reporter has done more than Jeremy Scahill to bring us back news of how, in the post-9/11 years, Washington took its wars into the darkness, how it helped create a landscape of blowback abroad, and just how such roguery works when it comes to a superpower — from missile strikes in Yemen to a secret CIA prison in Somalia to kick-down-the-door killings of innocents by Special Operations types in Afghanistan. His bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is a revelation, a secret history of twenty-first-century war, American-style.

Today, as the drone story continues to unfold, as ever more countries once considered the sorts of allies that would never say no to a request from Washington, balk at, resist, or ignore Obama administration desires, it’s an honor to have the epilogue to Dirty Wars posted exclusively at TomDispatch for the first time, thanks to the kindness of Scahill’s publisher, Nation Books.  Consider it the gripping backstory for what, in time, could become the equivalent of a global uprising against the last superpower of planet Earth. Tom

Perpetual War
How Does the Global War on Terror Ever End?
By Jeremy Scahill

[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]

On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Read the rest of this entry →

Tom Engelhardt, Spying for Us

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

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

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

Nathan Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry →

Peter Van Buren, Obama’s War on Whistleblowers Finds Another Target

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

Snowden Street Portrait

A street portrait of Edward Snowden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am Afraid

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

Read the rest of this entry →