Archive for the ‘national security’ Tag

Iran election upheaval continues

Trading in their bright green for black, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched again in Iran on Thursday, urged by presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi to mourn the students killed during demonstrations earlier in the week. Photographer Saeed Kamali Dehghan documented the action for the Guardian in Tehran’s Imam Khomeini square:

Tehran-demonstrations-002 Tehran-demonstrations-007

iran(Getty/NPR)NPR’s Mike Shuster reports that members of the Basij, the feared Iranian paramilitary group, have instigated violence under cover of darkness — apparently to help justify a more forceful crackdown against the opposition movement, which by most accounts largely has remained peaceful. One eyewitness report includes a thug exploding an incendiary grenade under a car.

The extraordinary role of digital media in the upheaval remains a hot topic, now including some obligatory contrarianism from the veteran journo corps. (Any hot story in the media tends to provoke both herd-like hyperventilation and a subsequent above-the-fray backlash.) Slate’s Jack Shafer questions the noise-to-signal ratio of the gangbusters #IranElection Twitter stream and points to a potential dark side: “How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets — ‘We’re massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!’ — and busts everybody who shows up?”

Business Week’s Joel Schectman wonders if the “Twitter revolution” has been overblown: “Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street.”

Sure, it’s a worthwhile reminder not to get too utopian about the empowerment of digital technology, especially as the foreign media gets pushed out of the country — but the bottom line is clear: Media control has long been a powerful, essential weapon of the Iranian regime. Twitter, Facebook and blogs increasingly are powerful forces toward neutralizing that weapon. According to Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, Iran has the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. No matter the outcome of Iran’s historic turmoil, they will continue to be heard.

Twitter as unstoppable diplomacy in Iran

The Guardian reports an estimated half million people protesting in Tehran on Wednesday, the fifth day of unrest. Despite President Obama’s cautious posture thus far, the Iranian regime has now begun to openly blame the United States for interfering in the election and inciting upheaval. As the vulnerabilities of the regime and its Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, have become more apparent, the tactic undoubtedly is aimed at undercutting an opposition movement in a country where anti-U.S. sentiment still exerts a powerful pull. It seems to have an out-of-touch air of desperation to it — blame the ol’ Great Satan, and maybe the masses will fall back in line with renewed nationalist fervor. The problem is, those masses now see Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, presiding in the White House. (Not to mention the price of tomatoes in Tehran.)

The situation on the ground appears to be growing more ominous. According to a Reuters report from Wednesday, Mohammadreza Habibi, the senior prosecutor in the central province of Isfahan, declared that demonstrators could be executed under Islamic law. “We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution,” Habibi reportedly announced.

Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times.

Protesters in Tehran, June 15. (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris/New York Times)

Other dispatches from Wednesday described the regime further cracking down on digital communications. In one particular way, it’s an area where official U.S. involvement indeed appears to have been instrumental, in terms of the extraordinary role Twitter has played following the election upheaval. With the messaging network set to go offline temporarily earlier this week, the U.S. State Department stepped in. The Times reports:

On Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran. The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

The global interconnection helping to electrify Iran’s history in the making has been on display in myriad ways over the last few days. This morning I was able to zoom in on one specific example of it: After I’d written here yesterday about a UK blogger’s “#Iranelection cyberwar guide” — which soon vanished from the Web and remains missing as of Wednesday morning Pacific time — I’d also put the link out via my Twitter page. By early this morning at least one person apparently located in Tehran had read and re-tweeted it. (See tweet there with: “http://bit.ly/mfo0i #iranelection”) That quickly led to a burst of referral traffic coming to my site from that person’s Twitter feed. You can imagine the exponential spread to follow. Multiply that by millions of other blog posts and tweets, and you start to see the extraordinarily powerful picture of communication.

As I noted yesterday, there isn’t necessarily any way to verify the particular Twitter user’s location or identity — is it really some young woman, a spark in her eyes, now leaving her dorm room for the massive demonstration in Tir square? — and it’s just one little example of precisely why the Iranian regime will not be able to stem the digital tide.

UPDATE 12:30pmPDT: As K.M. Soehnlein points out, the crackdown on foreign journalists inside Iran raises a disturbing contrast. The Times surveys the latest circumstances, and it’s chilling to read. Most journalists allowed into Iran only get one-week visas, and their numbers are fast dwindling:

“Visa extensions have been denied across the board,” says Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has himself been reporting from Tehran this week. “Some reporters have considered staying on without visas, working under the radar. There are two problems with that. First, this is a fairly efficient police state; the chances of anyone eluding arrest long enough to see how the story plays out are slim. More important, in my mind, is that it puts at risk the decent, hospitable Iranians who would be needed to put us up, translate and help us get the story out.”

Many Western journalists were effectively confined to their offices on Tuesday after the information ministry forbid them to report on protests or conduct interviews outside, according to the Times. Some were told they would be arrested if they were spotted on the streets with a camera.

Jim Sciutto, an ABC News correspondent in Tehran, said the Iranian government had “run out of patience” with the televised images of protests. Until Tuesday, he told the Times by email, “we sensed there was the slightest bit of wiggle room and so we took the risk of filming on our cellphones. But now the message seems to be ‘don’t even think about it.’”

And from Keller’s dispatch above:

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera. As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

It may not be much longer before a lot more blood flows.

Iran’s Twitter revolution goes global

It’s been amazing to watch it spread.

“As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions,” reports the New York Times. “Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

The circuitry of the situation in Iran truly has gone global — not only is the world watching, but political and tech junkies everywhere are getting involved in the communications battle. One compelling example: A blogger in Wales, Esko Reinikainen, has posted a #iranelection cyberwar guide for beginners.

“The purpose of this guide is to help you participate constructively in the Iranian election protests through twitter,” Reinikainen says. He offers tips including how to disseminate proxy IP addresses for Iranian bloggers to use, how to help them target repressive Web sites and how to help give them cover: “change your twitter settings so that your location is TEHRAN and your time zone is GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location and timezone searches. If we all become ‘Iranians’ it becomes much harder to find them.”

IranianprotestorviaASAt the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan is keeping a running log in bold green lettering of tweets ostensibly flowing from the streets of Tehran and beyond. There isn’t really a way to judge the source or authenticity of the material. (For one thing, there are regular mentions at this point of Iranian security operatives spreading disinformation digitally; meanwhile, if Twitter users worldwide increasingly are posing as Iranians per above, how to identify the real ones?) But assuming a majority of it remains authentic, it’s fascinating reading. A sampling from Tuesday morning:


Tehran hotels under high security to stop Iranians from contacting foreign press

anyone with camera or laptop is attacked in street

i am seeing tweets about a lot of disturbances, arrests, violence in Shahrak Gharb, any reports?

we hear 1dead in shiraz, livefire used in other cities RT

Very scared, I was talkin to myuncle in shiraz and he was so paranoid.

If you hear the forces talking in arabic..BE CAREFUL..these guys are imported in, they are not affraid of suicide bombing and killing

Police the reason of insecurity; Dead students buried by profs

Basij attacking Shiraz and Mashad universities, Shiraz U’s dean resigned

some student killed by the 4a blast in Babol Univ’s dorms; surrounded by Basij forces

Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

All last night we hear shooting accross Tehran – everyone is full of rumours and stories – many arrests in night

stay safe and I will RT anything you write! The world is watching and history is being made–we bear witness!

UPDATE – 6/16/09, 9:55amPDT: Esko Reinikainen’s blog apparently is now having technical problems — overloaded with traffic, perhaps, or blocked or otherwise shut down. The above link currently leads to an “Account Suspended” page at Justhost.com. Unclear if or when his site will be back up. Reading the comments section on his page earlier this morning, I noted that his “cyberwar guide” had already been linked and copied widely, including translations in Spanish and German. I was working quickly and didn’t think to grab the whole thing, unfortunately. Reinikainen himself had warned of the potential for his site to go down, and encouraged copying it.

UPDATE 2: Wired’s Noah Shachtman digs into the complexities of the battle online, and has more of the copy from Reinikainen’s missing blog post. How all of this ultimately shapes events in Iran remains to be seen, but there can be little doubt about the rising potential of digital communications for political movements, from Tehran to Tiananmen.

Panetta ices Cheney, but CIA skates

PanettaNewYorkerA long article about CIA director Leon Panetta in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker has prompted a flurry of media attention for comments Panetta made in reaction to Dick Cheney’s latest fear mongering over terrorism and U.S. national security. “It’s almost as if he’s wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point,” Panetta said of Cheney, according to the article. “I think that’s dangerous politics.”

Cheney pushed back on his “old friend Leon” on Monday, according to Fox News. John McCain also jumped in, defending Cheney’s motivations and playing up discord among rank-and-file spooks: “By the way, I hear morale is not at an all-time high over at the CIA under Mr. Panetta’s leadership,” McCain said. Joe Biden weighed in on the talk-show circuit.

The back and forth is politics in the wake of dueling speeches from Obama and Cheney, but it’s a sideshow. Perhaps the famously secretive Cheney’s inner thoughts can’t really be known, but his hand in brutal interrogation policy couldn’t be better known. As I wrote about here recently, paramount for Cheney is protecting his political legacy and seeing his national security policies vindicated. (The essence of Panetta’s point.) The real news in the New Yorker article, buried deep into its 7,600 words, is the continuing absence of accountability for those who carried out Cheney’s vision to horrific ends.

No criminal charges have ever been brought against any C.I.A. officer involved in the torture program, despite the fact that at least three prisoners interrogated by agency personnel died as the result of mistreatment. In the first case, an unnamed detainee under C.I.A. supervision in Afghanistan froze to death after having been chained, naked, to a concrete floor overnight. The body was buried in an unmarked grave. In the second case, an Iraqi prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi died on November 4, 2003, while being interrogated by the C.I.A. at Abu Ghraib prison, outside Baghdad. A forensic examiner found that he had essentially been crucified; he died from asphyxiation after having been hung by his arms, in a hood, and suffering broken ribs. Military pathologists classified the case a homicide. A third prisoner died after an interrogation in which a C.I.A. officer participated, though the officer evidently did not cause the death. (Several other detainees have disappeared and remain unaccounted for, according to Human Rights Watch.)

That’s just the tip of the black iceberg, if you add in the numbers involving U.S. military operations — entwined with CIA operations — under Bush and Cheney. As I reported for Salon back in 2005, by then 108 detainees were known to have died in U.S. military and CIA custody since the start of the so-called war on terror. At least 26 deaths were deemed criminal homicides. Who knows if additional bodies piled up since.

As was also reported long ago, medical doctors and mental health professionals were involved in the torture, too, although the extent of their roles remains buried. Citing recently declassified Justice Department memos, Nathaniel Raymond, who works with the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, says that medical personnel working for the CIA were “the designers, the legitimizers and the implementers” of interrogation using torture. “We still don’t know how many detainees were in the black sites, or who they were,” Raymond says in the New Yorker. “We don’t fully know the White House’s role, or the C.I.A.’s role … This is arguably the single greatest medical-ethics scandal in American history. We need answers.”

If the accountability picture remains grim (both in terms of the operators and the policy overlords) there is one positive development detailed in the New Yorker piece: Panetta has ambitious plans for a new kind of legally acceptable interrogation capability. A task force led by Harvard Law professor Philip Heymann has been advising Panetta on a proposal to create an elite U.S. government interrogation team, staffed by some of the best CIA, FBI and military officers in the country, and drawing on the advice of social scientists, linguists and other scholars. According to the New Yorker, Heymann describes it as an effort to create “the best non-coercive interrogation team in the world,” the equivalent of “a NASA-like, man-on-the-moon effort” for human-intelligence gathering.

Without a doubt, America would benefit much from recruiting more Ali Soufans, while throwing its “Big Steves” behind bars.

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.

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.

Digital revolution from Tehran to Tiananmen Square

June 2009 could be a big month for democracy on the world stage, with digital technology playing no small part.

With a landmark speech in Cairo on Thursday, Barack Obama will continue his quest to connect with the Muslim world and repair the grave damage done to U.S. standing under George W. Bush. It remains to be seen how much he might also press for government reform by Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the Middle East, but more light has been shed on its dark human rights record particularly since 2007, when a video circulated on the Internet showed a man being sodomized with a stick in a Cairo police station.

In Iran later this month, the 10th presidential election could shake things up significantly for a country whose own population is very much displeased with life under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime has failed to suppress the use of Facebook and Twitter on behalf of the reformist movement.

This week also brings the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where on June 4, 1989, thousands of Chinese pro-democracy protesters were wounded and killed at the hands of the Chinese army. One unknown man, instantly made an indelible historical figure, temporarily halted the killing machine in its tracks.

Tiananmen

The iconic image of him will again saturate media around the globe in the days to come. (Several versions of it were captured by photojournalists in the vicinity then; the above was taken by Stuart Franklin.) To this day the identity and fate of the so-called Tank Man, who was whisked away by Chinese agents to end the extraordinary standoff, are unknown. (For more, watch this fascinating 2006 documentary, “The Tank Man,” from Frontline.) In the aftermath, the Chinese government maintained that “not one person” was killed in Tiananmen Square, and has depicted the uprising as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” ever since. As author Yu Hua underscored in an essay this weekend titled “China’s Forgotten Revolution,” today the event is little known to the nation’s youth.

This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

Twenty years later, hopefully the above image and the truth about its bloody context will percolate widely among China’s younger generations. Could the explosive spread of the Internet be the key?

In terms of state media control, China in some ways is a very different place today than even just a few years ago, according to The Washington Note’s Steve Clemons. Following what he describes as a “very candid” diplomatic meeting recently, as well as some guidance from one unnamed Chinese youth, Clemons shared insight about the limitations the Chinese government faces in trying to control an uncontrollable force:

In fact, this young person walking through Internet access issues with me said that Chinese young people can essentially access anything that the government might try and does block. This person who works in international affairs says that the ability of the Chinese government to significantly control access to web-based content is quickly eroding.

And as a result of very interesting and candid discussions with the Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, I believe that many Chinese government officials know that the practice of blocking this site or that is undergoing significant change or reform.

At the end of 2008 China was home to nearly 300 million “netizens,” or regular Internet users, with 162 million blogs and 117 million mobile Internet users, according to Clemons. By the end of this month, Chinese authorities predict another 20 percent jump in those figures.

“Terminals are everywhere,” Clemons says. “The newspapers are actually full of stories about people critiquing government officials, standards, building and infrastructure quality. It’s fascinating — not perfect. I do get the sense that political entrepreneurship is mostly a non-starter here, but even on that front, I have found several key cases where even that form of self-censorship is changing for the better.”

A very relative assessment, of course — seemingly still plenty far from the day when what happened at Tiananmen Square is understood widely across China. But amid the continuing technological revolution, that day could be on the horizon.

UPDATE 6/2/09: From photo sharing on Flickr.com to BBC television, the Chinese government now has a sweeping effort underway to enforce a media blackout of anything revealing the Tiananmen uprising 20 years ago. “The measures came as the authorities tried to close all avenues of dissent ahead of Thursday’s anniversary, placing prominent critics under house arrest and banning newspaper from making any mention of the pro-democracy protests,” reports the Telegraph. “The co-ordinated internet ‘takedown’ occurred at 5pm local time (10am GMT) on Tuesday as a broad range of websites suddenly became unavailable to Chinese internet users.”

Tiananmen2 blackout

But the evolving digital realm apparently is enabling at least some breakthrough: “Twitter users found alternative outlets in rival providers to evade the censors.”

More on the Twitter aspect from the Guardian.

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.

Untold damage of Iraq and Afghanistan

In recent months the war in Iraq had mostly retreated from the national headlines. It took the disturbing news of an American soldier apparently gunning down five of his fellow servicemen in a Baghdad “combat stress clinic” to jump-start any major media coverage. The killings provided the kind of sensational firepower the cable news networks seem to require for any sustained coverage — but the incident also highlighted a grave problem, one that America increasingly will have to confront as two long wars go on.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says that he “couldn’t have been less surprised” by the fratricide in Baghdad. “The fact that this occurred at a mental health counseling center in the war zone just served to add an extra layer of poignancy and a chilling ironic element to the fundamental tragedy,” he wrote on Tuesday. “The psychic toll of this foolish and apparently endless war has been profound since day one. And the nation’s willful denial of that toll has been just as profound.”

ptsd header - The Veterans Health Research Institute

A Washington Post report on Sunday laid out the bleak metrics for anyone who might care to look:

Since 2001, nearly 1 million soldiers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 300,000 of them have served multiple combat rotations, most lasting 12 to 15 months. Currently there are 160,000 soldiers in those war zones, and of those, nearly 30,000 are on at least their third or fourth tour, Pentagon data show.

An estimated 20 percent of service members return from the wars psychologically damaged, with depression or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, hyper-vigilance and emotional numbing, according to a Rand Corp. study last year.

That’s tens of thousands of combat veterans with psychological damage.

And there is no end in sight for the predicament — for the near-term at least, the total number of troops in the war zones is going up, with President Obama deploying another 20,000 to Afghanistan.

That escalation sparked debate in a conversation I had with a couple of friends over the weekend regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question we grappled with: Now under Obama’s leadership, what exactly is the U.S. trying to accomplish in the region? None of us could come up with a clear answer.

Steve Coll suggests that Obama’s aid-driven approach is focused on hearts and minds, that it “seeks to alter the daily experiences and thus the political outlooks of Afghan and Pakistani civilians” and thereby drain recruiting pools for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But as I wrote about here recently, the concurrent heavy use of air power is exacting a counterproductive cost. As Coll also notes: “Four years ago, polls showed that eighty-three per cent of Afghans held a favorable view of the United States; today, only half do, and the trajectory is downward. Persistent civilian casualties caused by air strikes in rural Afghanistan are a major cause of this deterioration.”

That may help explain why a top U.S. military commander would try to mislead the public about U.S. air strikes gone wrong. The foolish thing about that tactic, of course, is that the illusion can’t last for long.

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.'”