Archive for the ‘intelligence’ Tag

Tiananmen Square erased

“Today, reports abound of young Chinese saying they don’t know or don’t care about events in 1989,” Xiao Qiang, founder of China Digital Times, wrote this week. “Yet all one has to do is go online to the vast number of Chinese forums and blogs to know that the spirit of Tiananmen is still alive.” He described China’s nearly 300 million youthful netizens and their unprecedented capability to express a roar of dissent, despite heavy government censorship.

I shared that essential optimism, albeit cautiously, in thinking and writing earlier this week about the potential of digital communication from Tehran to Beijing. After I published that post, a friend who teaches in the Bay Area emailed me with a striking example of how successful the Chinese government has been at burying the bloody history of June 4, 1989:

I taught modern Chinese history last semester. I had 3 students who grew up in mainland China in my class. They had never heard about Tiananmen. One of them is the son of a top official in China who was heavily involved in the economic development of Shanghai, the miracle city we all saw during the Olympics. This kid was brilliant and incredibly well informed about Chinese history already. He has levels of access you and I can only imagine and is being groomed to be an elite in the Chinese power system. He had never heard about Tiananmen. Interesting to think that a generation of leaders is growing up with a false view of their recent history.

While the student’s ignorance isn’t surprising, it is indeed astonishing to think that even the very people who might soon be running China wouldn’t necessarily know about what transpired at Tiananmen. Imagine Barack Obama being elected U.S. senator from Illinois without having a clue that Chicago had been torn by violent protests in the 1960s.

One place for inquiring Chinese youth to start would be the collection of raw U.S. government reports from 1989 found in the declassified history of Tiananmen Square at The National Security Archive.

Tiananmen3

An overview section titled “The Crackdown” brings into focus the actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the resulting human toll. (In retrospect the initial estimates of people wounded, killed, arrested and executed were conservative. Emphasis here is mine.)

The Secretary of State’s intelligence summary for the following morning (Document 13) reports that “deaths from the military assault on Tiananmen Square range from 180 to 500; thousands more have been injured.” It also describes how “thousands of civilians stood their ground or swarmed around military vehicles. APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers] were set on fire, and demonstrators besieged troops with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails.” …

One section of the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary for June 5th (Document 17), titled “After the Bloodbath,” focuses on developments in Beijing. It reports that “troops continued to fire indiscriminately at citizens in the area near Tiananmen Square.” It also notes the destruction of a large number of military vehicles, threats to execute students, and the potential for violent resistance by students. …

By June 21, the Morning Summary (Document 29) was reporting that, “More than 1,500 have been arrested … including at least six of the 21 ‘most wanted’ student leaders.”

That same section documents how Chinese soldiers also began to turn on each other.

sq_on_fire_AK47sPBS/Frontline has a lucid narrative timeline of the political and on-the-ground developments leading up to the explosion of violence, including the moment when the PLA soldiers began “firing on unarmed civilians with AK-47s loaded with battlefield ammunition.”

On the New York Times’ Lens blog, four photojournalists who captured famous images of the Tank Man share engrossing eyewitness accounts.

“The remainder of the day was spent trying to gain access to hospitals to determine how many had died or were wounded,” photographer Stuart Franklin writes. “In the two hospitals I could get access to, I found young Chinese — probably students — being treated on the floor of hospital corridors. It was mysterious that there were no dead. I understood later that the majority of the fatalities were taken to children’s hospitals in the city to avoid media attention. Chinese officials worked very hard to obscure evidence of the massacre.”

And Chinese officials remain hard at work on that goal today, despite the irrepressible promise of digital technology. As Yang Jianli, who participated in the 1989 uprising and was held as a political prisoner in China for several years, wrote this week: “It is estimated that the Communist Party employs over 30,000 ‘cyber cops’ to censor Internet traffic.”

UPDATE: In addition to the four photojournalists’ accounts and well-known images from Tiananmen, The Times’ Lens blog now has up an image never before published, with a dramatically different perspective on the Tank Man. The image was captured by then AP photographer Terril Jones. The Tank Man can be seen at the left, in the distance, with the tanks rumbling towards him, while other protesters flee in the foreground:

TerrilJones-TankMan

As Times editor Patrick Witty writes, the newly published image encourages a fresh evaluation of the encounter: “Mr. Jones’ angle on the historic encounter is vastly different from four other versions shot that day, taken at eye level moments before the tanks stopped at the feet of the lone protester. Wildly chaotic, a man ducks in the foreground, reacting from gunfire coming from the tanks. Another flashes a near-smile. Another pedals his bike, seemingly passive as the tanks rumble towards confrontation.”

At the above link you can also read Jones’ account from Tiananmen, and why he didn’t seek to have his photo published until 20 years later.

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The truth about U.S. bombing in Afghanistan

When dozens of Afghan civilians were killed during U.S. air strikes early last month, a U.S. military commander attempted to convince the public that the U.S. was not responsible for the deaths. As I wrote here on May 7:

With an investigation of the latest bombing incident underway on Wednesday, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, cautioned that the reports of civilian casualties might not withstand scrutiny. “It is certainly a technique of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to claim civilian casualties at every event,” he told reporters. In a follow-up report, McKiernan declined to give any details but said, “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties.”

Now, an official U.S. investigation described in media reports today offers a starkly different judgment:

A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the air strikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official. The official said the civilian death toll would probably have been reduced if American air crews and forces on the ground had followed strict rules devised to prevent civilian casualties. Had the rules been followed, at least some of the strikes by American warplanes against half a dozen targets over seven hours would have been aborted.

“In several instances where there was a legitimate threat, the choice of how to deal with that threat did not comply with the standing rules of engagement,” said the senior military official, according to the New York Times.

B1 bomber over Afghanistan. (Photo: U.S. Air Force.)

B1 bomber over Afghanistan. (Photo: U.S. Air Force.)

The Times report points out the difficult tactical circumstances of the air strikes on the village of Granai; military investigators also found that the Taliban deliberately used civilians as human shields.

Still, as Noah Shachtman reports today over at Wired, the U.S. military keeps digging in with denials of culpability for the deaths caused by its bombs:

“There is nothing — in the story, or that we’ve seen or heard elsewhere — that says our actions led to additional collateral damage or civilian casualties,” said Lt. Commander Christine Sidenstricker, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, according to Shachtman. “And regardless, the fact remains that civilians were killed because the Taliban deliberately caused it to happen. They forced civilians to remain in places they were attacking from.”

As I also noted here recently about plans for further use of U.S. air power in Afghanistan, the Taliban undoubtedly will have more opportunities ahead to “deliberately cause” such civilian deaths.

Dick Cheney and the audacity of hostility

The former vice president’s speech on Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute was little more than an exhaustive rehash of his hard-line views about the so-called war on terror. But it was notable for one thing: The degree to which it was shot through with antagonism.

CheneyatAEICheney went beyond his usual monotone delivery. He set himself up as a “freer man” who ostensibly could now speak his mind outside the constraints of politics. The speech he then went on to deliver was fraught with nothing but politics — betraying how much he desires to extend his political influence beyond office and shore up his tortured legacy. The familiar litany of dubious assertions he made about covert Bush administration programs, from spying inside the United States to “enhanced interrogations” of captured terrorists, will be debunked yet again across the media.

But what of his naked disdain for one of the nation’s most respected news gathering institutions? Cheney emphasized that the Bush government’s Terrorist Surveillance Program “prevented attacks and saved lives,” despite that no clear evidence of that has ever emerged. “The program was top secret, and for good reason,” he said, “until the editors of the New York Times got it and put it on the front page.” He noted how, after September 11, 2001, the Times had spent months publishing the pictures and the stories of everyone killed by al-Qaeda in the terrorist attacks. “Now here was that same newspaper publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaeda,” he sneered. “It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people.”

(This was derision crafted in advance, no less; his prepared remarks, as posted on AEI’s web site, contained the emphatic “damn sure” phrase.)

Political opponents in general were the target of Cheney’s wrath for not seeing all the “exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right” when it came to CIA operatives subjecting captured terrorists to such measures as mock execution by drowning.

“We hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative,” Cheney said. “In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.”

At several turns Cheney directly attacked President Obama — by most counts unusual behavior from a top member of a preceding administration against a sitting president. Noting that Obama “reserved for himself the authority to order enhanced interrogation after an emergency,” Cheney scorned the president: “When they talk about interrogations, he and his administration speak as if they have resolved some great moral dilemma in how to extract critical information from terrorists. Instead they have put the decision off, while assigning a presumption of moral superiority to any decision they make in the future.”

Another terrorist attack on Americans is not a matter of if but when. It may come at a Bronx synagogue. It may come in Minneapolis.

ObamaNatArchiveIn his own speech on Thursday, Obama acknowledged the danger. “Neither I nor anyone can stand here today and say that there will not be another terrorist attack that takes American lives.” Yet, though his speech at the National Archives in Washington was delivered just prior to the former vice president’s on Thursday, it couldn’t have been a clearer rebuke of the Cheney doctrine:

The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense. That, after all, is the unique genius of America. That’s the challenge laid down by our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through the ages. That’s what makes the United States of America different as a nation.

I can stand here today, as President of the United States, and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture, and that we will vigorously protect our people while forging a strong and durable framework that allows us to fight terrorism while abiding by the rule of law. Make no mistake: If we fail to turn the page on the approach that was taken over the past several years, then I will not be able to say that as President. And if we cannot stand for our core values, then we are not keeping faith with the documents that are enshrined in this hall.

The outcome of last November’s election was in part a popular rejection of the politics of fear. After eight years of Bush-Cheney governance, from the mess at Guantanamo Bay to the mess in Afghanistan, there are no clear or easy solutions. But on a day of charged, dueling speeches, at least there can be no confusion about which of the two voices has the power to act on the nation’s behalf.

Why Obama is right about the torture photos

The president’s decision this week not to make public additional graphic photos from U.S. military investigations into torture was the right one. I say that as someone who had a hand in helping make public a large collection of such photos three years ago.

In early 2006, I was part of a team of reporters and editors at Salon that spent many weeks scrutinizing, reporting on and carefully assembling a cache of raw evidence from a classified Army investigation that had been obtained by investigative reporter Mark Benjamin. The culmination of our work was “The Abu Ghraib Files,” a groundbreaking report documenting the notorious Iraq war scandal and its aftermath.

One purpose then of our publishing nearly 300 disturbing images from the Army’s criminal investigation was to help deepen the American public’s understanding of what some members of its military had done. The other essential purpose of our report was to underscore that, two years after the scandal had come to light, nobody above the level of foot soldier in the U.S. military or government had been held accountable — even though it had become clear that the criminal acts sprang from policies crafted and directed at the highest levels of the Bush government.

That failure of accountability remains in place today, to our national discredit. And that should be the primary focus now: The continued pursuit of those responsible for the policies that gave rise to the war crimes.

DickCheney AbuGhraibFiles obama

That’s not to say Obama’s choice was an easy one, particularly given his vows of greater transparency, but I think his cost-benefit analysis here is wise. The nature of the crimes has been documented extensively and is known the world over. Publication of the additional images, based on the contours we have of them from news reports, is not likely to add “any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out,” as Obama put it on Wednesday. Allowing past if newly revealed images of intimidation and degradation to be splashed across the media in an explosive news cycle, on the other hand, would likely enrage legions worldwide and do fresh damage to America’s reputation.

Beginning to repair the grave damage done to America’s standing in the world under Bush was part of the great promise of Obama’s election. He’s been off to a strong start, with his gestures of respect for the Muslim world and his reaching out to political adversaries from Tehran to Havana. Perhaps it would be worth the risk of undermining that shift if the torture perpetrated by Americans at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere somehow remained obscure. But that’s not the case.

Obama did miscalculate with part of his rationale, emphasizing that releasing additional photos could endanger U.S. troops. As Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell reiterated in the Washington Post, “With 20,000 additional forces coming into Afghanistan, an election in August and the fighting season in full swing right now, the timing is particularly bad.”

The commander in chief wants to show support for the troops, especially at a time of escalation — but it’s a misguided emphasis, because on its face it aligns Obama too closely with tactics used at the outset of the torture scandal by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as they sought to cover it up. (Unsurprisingly, some on the political left have used this point to pounce on Obama.) Moreover, it’s an unconvincing argument — U.S. troops are already in danger on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghansitan and elsewhere.

More important to consider in all this is the president’s courageous decision recently to declassify Justice Department memos and reignite a national debate, false dogma of Dick Cheney and all, about the policy origins of the disaster. The important development of the week, then, was not Obama’s about-face but the congressional testimony of Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of crucial terrorist captives early in the war. Soufan, a highly authoritative source on the matter by most counts, barely stopped short of testifying that George W. Bush and his top officials peddled lies apparently fed to them by the CIA about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. (Soufan called the former president’s statements “half truths.”)

Allegations that serious, atop further evidence concerning the authors of the brutal interrogation policy — and there are indications that other revealing memos may be forthcoming — seem to suggest real momentum toward greater accountability, possibly at a much higher level than we’ve seen. That of course is the goal here. Are more grim photos necessary to reach it?

I have friends in the human rights community, some of whom I worked with at length to help expose the troubling national security policies of Bush and Cheney. But I have to disagree with them on this one.

“This essentially renders meaningless President Obama’s pledge of transparency and accountability,” said the ACLU’s Amrit Singh this week, regarding the reversal on the photos. The Obama administration, she said, “has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup.”

It’s an advocacy group’s job to keep the heat on, but that’s rhetoric pretty far gone. It has long been clear that the torture debacle must be resolved to higher account. How best to do that remains up for debate. Meantime, what I see is a president working to navigate treacherous political waters, and doing it mostly with skill and conviction, in a prolonged and painful storm not of his making.

UPDATE 5/24/09: Heartening today to see that I’m in good company on the Op-Ed pages of the Sunday Times, where journalist Philip Gourevitch, who has explored the Abu Ghraib nightmare at great length, underscores why releasing additional photographs wouldn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. After all, as he points out, Dick Cheney has been glad to take credit lately for having terrorists under interrogation slammed against walls or waterboarded.

“Photographs can’t show us that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington,” Gourevitch writes, “but that is what we need to know — or, rather, since we’ve known it and gone along with it for a long time, that is what we need to come to terms with now.”

A dream come true for Osama Bin Laden

It may yet be too early to say whether the protracted conflict in Afghanistan is an American quagmire of the kind Osama Bin Laden dreamed, but recent developments seem not to bode well.

It’s rare for a top U.S. military commander in a war zone to be relieved of duty before his tour is even halfway complete, but that’s precisely what occurred Monday, in what the Washington Post described as “a hastily convened” Pentagon news conference. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander on his way out, just last week sought to persuade reporters that recent U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan were not responsible for numerous civilian deaths. Turns out they were responsible for at least some of the deaths. (It remains unclear whether insurgents also were responsible for some.) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave only a vague explanation for McKiernan’s ouster, citing the need for “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes on the problem” of seven years and counting. Whatever the specific reasons, the unusual shakeup makes clear that behind the scenes there are serious doubts about current U.S. strategy.

A-stan-air-strikeThe prolific bombing component of it, however, appears to remain intact. Despite outcry over a long-term pattern of civilian casualties, including from Afghanistan’s own leader Hamid Karzai, President Obama’s National Security Advisor James L. Jones said on Sunday that the U.S. has no intention of ceasing air strikes.

If the recent trend is any indication, in the days to come Afghanistan can expect to be hit with an awful lot of U.S. firepower from above. As the Navy Times reported last week:

Air Force, Navy and other coalition warplanes dropped a record number of bombs in Afghanistan during April, Air Forces Central figures show. In the past month, warplanes released 438 bombs, the most ever.

April also marked the fourth consecutive month that the number of bombs dropped rose, after a decline starting last July. The munitions were released during 2,110 close-air support sorties.

The actual number of airstrikes was higher because the AFCent numbers don’t include attacks by helicopters and special operations gunships. The numbers also don’t include strafing runs or launches of small missiles.

The announcement of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to replace McKiernan would seem to indicate a rising emphasis on unconventional warfare. McChrystal is credited as the architect of successful special operations tactics in Iraq, including the storied operation that killed terrorist kingpin Abu Zarqawi in 2006. (See this captivating account of the mission by Mark Bowden that appeared in The Atlantic.) The problem of course is that in Afghanistan the U.S. is confronting an elusive enemy in far more forbidding terrain.

Congress, it seems, has plenty to ponder this week as it considers plowing additional stockpiles of money into a long war with no end in sight.

How Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam

Let’s be honest: The presidential summit with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday put only the thinnest gloss of hope on what America faces in the imperiled region. Behind the diplomatic show, immense challenges remain to dealing with a powerful extremist insurgency. What nobody dares to admit is that America may well be fighting another war that, at least in its current form, it cannot win.

One troubling pattern evoking quagmire — in progress for years now — is how the U.S. keeps seeking to bomb its way out of the mess. The high civilian death toll of U.S. air strikes earlier this week continues a disturbing trend — and media spin deployed by U.S. military commanders has included a kind of misdirection that should set off alarm bells. It’s reminiscent of messaging that was commonplace during the war in Southeast Asia four decades ago.

F15 over Afghanistan, Dec. 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo.)

F15 over Afghanistan, Dec. 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo.)

With an investigation of the latest bombing incident underway on Wednesday, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, cautioned that the reports of civilian casualties might not withstand scrutiny. “It is certainly a technique of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to claim civilian casualties at every event,” he told reporters. In a follow-up report, McKiernan declined to give any details but said, “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties.”

Perhaps that’s the case. The U.S. has made efforts to reduce civilian casualties in recent years with precision air strikes. The nonpartisan advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented in the past how the civilian death toll caused by militant extremists in Afghanistan has far exceeded the toll caused by U.S. and NATO forces there.

But in another insurgent war in which identifying the enemy is often difficult at best, the grim reality is that U.S. military operations have resulted in many civilian deaths. More than 2,000 Afghan civilians were killed last year alone, according to the United Nations. It has produced a mood of “real hatred,” according to an unnamed Western diplomat quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday. “You have seen some incidents that produce a limited number of casualties but the resulting recruitment for the Taliban is enormous,” he said.

An in-depth analysis published in Foreign Policy earlier this year, coauthored by two veterans of America’s ongoing wars, confirms that view in stark terms:

In 2005, the coalition conducted 176 close air support missions (in which aircraft conduct bombing or strafing in support of ground troops) in Afghanistan. In 2007, it completed 3,572 such missions. Bombs — even “smart” bombs — are blunt instruments, and they inevitably kill people other than their intended targets. Each civilian death at the hands of the coalition further diminishes the finite amount of goodwill toward the United States among the Afghan people. Each civilian death undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan government the United States seeks to support. Each civilian death, when refracted through the Taliban’s propaganda campaign, strengthens the narrative of America’s enemies.

As Obama sends 20,000 additional troops to the war zone, how much longer can it really last?

Not even the best and the brightest seem prepared to say. Gen. David Petraeus, now in charge of U.S. military operations in the region, is widely considered to be among the most brilliant counterinsurgency strategists around. This was his view of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as stated to Foreign Policy’s Susan Glasser in an interview earlier this year: “I told [then] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in September 2005 that Afghanistan would be the longest campaign in the so-called ‘long war.’ That judgment was based on an assessment I conducted in Afghanistan on my way home from my second tour in Iraq.”

And three years later? “Having been back to Afghanistan twice in recent months,” Petraeus said, “I still see it that way.”

UPDATE: Regarding the initial comments above from Gen. McKiernan, we now have this from the Times late Thursday: “Initial American military reports that some of the casualties might have been caused by Taliban grenades, not American air strikes, were ‘thinly sourced,’ a Pentagon official in Washington said Thursday, indicating that he was uncertain of their accuracy. ‘It looks like at least some of the casualties were caused by the air strikes.'”

More truth about Dick Cheney and torture

In yesterday’s “Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us,” I chose not to address the immorality of interrogation by torture because I wanted to focus on the true purpose of the former vice president’s cynical political tactics. But as commenter ‘Briar’ rightfully noted, a utilitarian argument against torture is in some sense too narrow. Even in the rare theoretical instance in which torture might produce useful results (we have yet to learn of a single one in the prolonged war on terror, as I wrote yesterday), its use would still be wrongheaded and reprehensible.

americacanttakeitThere are numerous reasons for this, of course, not least what it does to the person being tortured. Also deeply disturbing, although less often discussed, is what it does to the people who carry out the torture or who witness it being carried out. The New York Times article I cited yesterday with regard to intelligence extracted from Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah also reported that “watching his torment caused great distress to his captors.” Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, according to a former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

In an in-depth article on torture I reported for Salon back in 2005 (also cited in yesterday’s post), this point was made particularly well by U.S. Army Captain Ray Kimball, who spoke with me about reports of Special Operations Forces brutalizing prisoners in Iraq:

“Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer,” said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. “We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you’re talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and ‘waterboard’ someone” — strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning — “or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that’s going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We’re talking about serious psychic trauma.”

The moral imperative not to torture is manifold, powerful and obvious to most. The single greatest weapon against it is the argument that using torture saves American lives — so in that respect Cheney’s demonstrably false argument, that torture has worked, deserves to be called out for its cold political calculus.

Especially now, as the ongoing media campaign from Cheney and others who share his views appears to be working to a degree. From an analysis on the torture debate by reporter Scott Shane appearing in today’s New York Times:

Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.

It becomes more difficult to doubt the efficacy of torture after reading a paragraph like that from a respected national security reporter. (Even in an article containing a hefty dose of skepticism favoring the other side of the debate.) But if the above is accurate, why, for more than seven years, have no specific details been made public as to how and what “information of great value” was gained through brutal interrogations?

As Shane notes, “which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.”

In light of all the known evidence to date, though, one thing is crystal clear: The political — and moral — onus rests squarely on the backs of the torturers.

UPDATE: Ali Soufan, an FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, speaks out publicly today for the first time on the torture issue. His Op-Ed is well worth reading in its entirety; here’s what stands out in particular per above:

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

It’s also worth noting that Soufan is the central figure in Lawrence Wright’s account of a pivotal interrogation prior to 9/11, which I cited here yesterday.

Why Dick Cheney keeps torturing us

Nobody should be surprised that the former vice president keeps returning from the political wilderness to defend the brutal treatment of suspected terrorists. Without providing any specifics, Cheney continues to intone that torturing Al Qaeda suspects yielded information vital to protecting America. Countless news reports have suggested strongly that claim is false.

cheneyMake no mistake: What Cheney is doing isn’t about protecting America, it’s about protecting political power. (Anyone who needs a refresher on his views of amassing and wielding that commodity should go back and read this Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the Washington Post.) With President Obama’s courageous decision to declassify Bush administration legal memos and return the unfinished torture debate to the headlines, Cheney and those who helped do his bidding in the Bush administration’s war on terror still have a lot to lose in terms of legacy and liability.

Once again we watch Cheney double down on an ugly bet: “I haven’t announced this up until now,” he said on Fox News on Monday, “but I know specifically of reports that I read, that I saw that lay out what we learned through the interrogation process and what the consequences were for the country.” The U.S. government should declassify those reports, too, he said, so that Americans can see “how good the intelligence was.”

Obama is unlikely to do that, and Cheney knows it. That’s because the chances are that most if not all documentation of actual intelligence operations — as opposed to memos laying out the Bush administration’s legal justification for them — contains information too sensitive to disclose regarding sources and tactics. Obama should call Cheney’s bluff not only by noting that distinction, but also with a full-throated rejection of Cheney’s false argument: He should remind Americans that torture simply does not work.

That truth has been borne out in reams of media reporting on the war on terror, and has been reiterated time and time again by senior U.S. military and intelligence officials, several of whom I spoke with when covering the issue at length for Salon back in 2005. It was on full display again in late March, in a Washington Post report further examining the treatment of the terrorist Abu Zubaida, who was waterboarded by the CIA at least 83 times:

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads. In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

A New York Times report last weekend underscored that valuable intelligence gleaned from Zubaida did not come via torture:

His interrogation, according to multiple accounts, began in Pakistan and continued at the secret C.I.A. site in Thailand, with a traditional, rapport-building approach led by two F.B.I. agents, who even helped care for him as his gunshot wounds healed. Abu Zubaydah gave up perhaps his single most valuable piece of information early, naming Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom he knew as Mukhtar, as the main organizer of the 9/11 plot.

Lawrence Wright’s definitive volume about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “The Looming Tower,” recounts in vivid detail another example of how the measured, savvy manipulation of a captured terrorist suspect — not the beating and simulated drowning of him — yielded critical intelligence. No doubt there are other such examples that have not been made public.

But in seven years, not a single example has emerged of specific information vital to U.S. national security that was obtained through torture — not even when protected from public view. As the Post reported late last month, “Since 2006, Senate intelligence committee members have pressed the CIA, in classified briefings, to provide examples of specific leads that were obtained from Abu Zubaida through the use of waterboarding and other methods, according to officials familiar with the requests. The agency provided none, the officials said.”

Of course, Cheney and his supporters will continue muddying the waters — including through leaks of nonspecific claims — in hopes of warding off political and legal vulnerability as the nation realizes the truth about torture.

UPDATE: More here on Dick Cheney’s defense of torture.

A blogger breaks news on waterboarding

Pondering the rise of new media and the decline of the traditional newsroom, skeptics still tend to cling to either-or thinking: You’ve either got shrill partisan hacks or experienced professional reporters, and never the twain shall meet. The failure of imagination involved is pretty obvious. Digital media has unlocked great potential for nontraditional approaches to the gathering and analysis of information — a vast middle ground of additional possibilities.

Let’s say the government releases a bunch of documents related to a controversial, secretive activity. Now anybody with a computer, an Internet connection and a little motivation can dig in. (Of course, this has already been going on for quite a while.)

whatiswaterboardingpgToday brings a fresh example of how reporting by bloggers can contribute to, or even lead, a major news cycle. In a front-page story today, the New York Times announces that the CIA used waterboarding, a torture technique provoking fear of death by drowning, hundreds of times on two Al Qaeda suspects — far more than was previously known. It’s newsworthy information on several levels, including for how it punches holes in past testimonials from U.S. officials about covert interrogations conducted by the Bush government.

This was not a scoop from the nation’s largest newsroom. The information underpinning the Times report came via blogger Marcy Wheeler, who discovered over the weekend that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month when she examined the fine print in a newly declassified Bush administration memo from 2005. Wheeler also used the memo to look at a telling clash between the FBI and CIA over the interrogation program and to examine the key question of whether waterboarding actually is effective, as has been claimed by Dick Cheney et al.

The Times report underscores that this story remains far from over (also see Mark Danner for an in-depth political discussion of the unresolved torture issue) — and the public has an enterprising blogger to thank for pushing it ahead.

Osama bin Laden’s “man-caused disaster”?

President Obama’s predecessor famously terrorized the English language. But lately, as the new, more fluent commander in chief and his team leave behind George W. Bush’s linguistic legacy on national security — jettisoning hard-line terminology such as “war on terrorism” and “enemy combatant” — they seem in danger of over-articulating.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Janet Napolitano explained why, in her first testimony to Congress as Homeland Security chief, she used particular language to describe continuing perils. “In my speech, although I did not use the word ‘terrorism,’ I referred to ‘man-caused’ disasters,” she said. “That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.”

A worthy goal. But considering the mass casualties perpetrated in Manhattan or Madrid or London in recent years, is it really a good idea to deploy a phrase that’s in danger of suggesting accidental tragedy?

As Peter Baker reports in the New York Times, the Obama administration is opening itself to criticism that it doesn’t take the dangers of the world seriously enough. Says Shannen W. Coffin, who served as counsel to former Vice President Dick Cheney: “They seem more interested in the war on the English language than in what might be thought of as more pressing national security matters. An Orwellian euphemism or two will not change the fact that bad people want to kill us and destroy us as a free people.”

One can always count on a loaded partisan volley from the Cheney camp, but in this case one perhaps not easily deflected in the battle of political perception.

oblnycfbiAnother national security legacy of the Bush era, deeply troubling, lingers. An internal report from late 2008 assessing the state of the U.S. intelligence system, made public this week, found precious little progress since 9/11 in terms of fixing serious bureaucratic risks. That’s despite the greatest overhaul since World War II of the system, including the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee America’s spy agencies.

Many senior U.S. intelligence officials interviewed “were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles, and responsibilities,” according to the report. U.S. spy agencies are still running “largely disconnected and incompatible” computer systems and have “no standard architecture supporting the storage and retrieval of sensitive intelligence.” And “intelligence information and reports are frequently not being disseminated in a timely manner.”

And while the concept of sharing information between agencies is “supported in principle” among some intelligence leaders, according to the report, “the culture of protecting ‘turf’ remains a problem, and there are few, if any, consequences for failure to collaborate.”

Hopefully the true consequences of such recent turf battles, and the excruciating story behind them, haven’t already gone forgotten.

Obama’s next epic crisis on the horizon

Sure, the Dow is hitting new lows and the economic meltdown is looking pretty damn frightening. (If the recent flood of headlines hasn’t made you want to hide in a hole, just read Paul Krugman’s mostly despairing analysis today.) But for the new president the trouble is only just beginning, as dark clouds gather to the east. Iran, it seems, is accelerating down a path toward nuclear weapons. That’s troubling in its own right — but far more so when adding to the mix a new right-wing government in Israel, the possibility of which looks imminent as hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu gains an edge in the country’s close election.

In late 2007, my friend and fellow journalist Gregory Levey took an in-depth look at Netanyahu’s political resurgence and the regional conflict that potentially could be unleashed if he returned to power. (This would be his second time as prime minister, having served from 1996-1999.) For anyone in the Israel peace camp, it would be an understatement to say that the prospect did not bode well. And now Iran may be even closer to being perceived truly as an immediate and existential threat. So while President Obama, admirably, has been signaling interest in a new era of diplomacy with the Iranians, he soon may be facing a much more dangerous brew in the Middle East.

Toxic banks one-up bin Laden

I’ve been thinking about the economic crisis as a rising national security danger since sometime back in December, and I’m sure I haven’t been alone, even though scant attention has been paid in the mainstream media — until now. It’s only an odd coincidence that the same day earlier this week that I was suggesting we’d soon be hearing more from President Obama’s intelligence chief on the matter, Dennis C. Blair was in fact on Capitol Hill sounding the alarm. The global economic crisis now represents the top security threat to the United States, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

“Roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown,” Blair said. (That would be nearly 50 countries. Including Iceland, whose government collapsed three weeks ago.) Blair further warned of the kind of “high levels of violent extremism” seen in the 1920s and 1930s if the economic crisis persists beyond 2009.

The fears have now reached the front page of Sunday’s New York Times: “Unemployment Surges Around the World, Threatening Stability.” The trio of images above the fold are a quick world tour of worker displacement and unrest, from Bejing to Reykjavik to Santiago, where street graffiti declares “unemployment is humiliation.”

<em>Ivan Alvarado/Reuters</em>

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Just one glaring manifestation of a troubling global trend.