Archive for the ‘terrorism’ Tag

Obama defines the war that will define him

Another major wave of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. A Detroit-bound airliner imperiled by a terrorist on Christmas Day. A stunning blow to CIA operations targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda. A surge of political attacks against President Obama led by an aggressively partisan former vice president.

In recent weeks America’s current era of war has escalated to a next level. Obama didn’t preside over its inception, of course, but it is ever his to handle. Although the nation’s economic reckoning is far from over, what happens on the national security front is probably more likely to define Obama’s presidency than anything else.

His speech Thursday night addressing the U.S. intelligence debacle at Christmas reflected this. In his closing remarks, Obama made a point of disarming recent partisan attacks; although he didn’t name Dick Cheney specifically, some of his comments clearly were a retort to the former vice president’s assertion that Obama doesn’t take the terrorist threat seriously:

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded again of the challenge we face in protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands. We are at war. We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.

In the New York Post, Rich Lowry beamed that Obama’s rhetoric could’ve been written by Dick Cheney himself.

Most striking was the president’s reiteration of the principles by which he will prosecute America’s long war:

Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women and children. And in this cause, every one of us — every American, every elected official — can do our part.

On MSNBC Thursday night, veteran Washington columnist Howard Fineman pointed out how anxious George W. Bush had been to get through his final weeks in office without another terrorist attack taking place inside the U.S. Apparently Bush was plenty eager to get out of town with what he viewed as a clean post-9/11 record.

The equation Obama faces is not a matter of if, but when. American society would do well to accept that reality, as even David Brooks has now said. Fortunately, the current commander in chief appears driven to move ahead with a markedly different approach than his predecessor. “Instead of giving into cynicism and division, let’s move forward with the confidence and optimism and unity that defines us as a people,” Obama concluded on Thursday. “For now is not a time for partisanship, it’s a time for citizenship — a time to come together and work together with the seriousness of purpose that our national security demands. That’s what it means to be strong in the face of violent extremism. That’s how we will prevail in this fight.”

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Dick Cheney’s 9/11 conspiracy

The former vice president took a break from hunting and fishing this week to return home to Fox News and fire away once again at Barack Obama. Headline-grabbing potshots this time included characterizing the sitting president as “radical” and calling the Obama administration’s decision to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed on trial in New York City “a huge mistake.” Cheney stopped just shy of labeling Obama’s policy as treason. “It’ll give aid and comfort to the enemy,” he said of the pending terrorist trial.

The retired veep is as entitled to his opinions as the next guy, one supposes, however politically motivated they may remain. But particularly since Cheney’s arguments depart ad nauseam from his views about the 9/11 terrorist attacks (see the saturated transcript linked above), it seems an apt moment to point out some news that bubbled up a few weeks ago regarding Cheney and that fateful September day. Newsworthy indeed, although it seemed barely to register in the media: A new book by John Farmer, a former attorney general of New Jersey who served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, says flat out that Cheney lied about how the U.S. government handled the Al Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington as they unfolded.

As someone involved in producing much coverage on the story of 9/11 (including this wide-ranging series for Salon in 2006), I can say that this is one conspiracy worthy of attention. (Numerous others, not so much.)

According to Jacob Heilbrunn’s recent review in the Sunday Times of “The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11,” Farmer handily debunks the Bush administration’s storyline that the White House acted decisively and effectively that day. He describes how both Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz “provided palpably false versions that touted the military’s readiness to shoot down United 93 before it could hit Washington,” according to Heilbrunn. “Planes were never in place to intercept it. By the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector had been informed of the hijacking, United 93 had already crashed.”

Moreover: “Farmer scrutinizes F.A.A. and Norad records to provide irrefragable evidence that a day after a Sept. 17 White House briefing, both agencies suddenly altered their chronologies to produce a coherent timeline and story that ‘fit together nicely with the account provided publicly by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney.’”

Farmer’s damning conclusion? “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.”

It gets one thinking about a comment Cheney made to Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, discussing the memoirs he’s currently writing about his 41 years in Washington, dating back to the Nixon administration: “There are some fascinating stories and interesting things I was involved in.”

Do tell, Mr. Vice President.

In the hands of the Taliban

As Barack Obama continues wrestling with decisions about a war that could define his presidency, veteran reporter David Rohde’s account of his seven-month ordeal as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan makes for some compelling reading. Along with two Afghan colleagues, Rohde was kidnapped in November 2008 while attempting to meet a Taliban commander for an interview. This June, upon reading the surprising news of his escape to freedom — the kidnapping had been kept quiet by the New York Times and other media organizations out of fear for Rohde’s safety — I was anticipating the narrative account surely to follow.

Months later, Rohde’s retelling does not disappoint. In an ongoing five-part series in the Times, his dispassionate tone combines with thoughtful attention to detail to give the reader confidence that, although some of his recollections may be imprecise, his harrowingly close view of America’s elusive enemy was also a profoundly revealing one. In political terms, Rohde’s subsequent analysis cuts in several directions.

Rohde-Taliban-NYT

In the first installment of the series, war hawks will find some forceful affirmation in Rohde’s seasoned assessment of the enemy:

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “Al Qaeda lite,” a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan.

Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.

For those who decried the Bush administration’s conduct of its so-called war on terrorism, there is also persuasive evidence here. “My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners,” Rohde writes. “But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe and Israel preached democracy, human rights and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves.”

From Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, this would come back to haunt Rohde directly — a consequence of which many intelligence and military leaders had long warned. In the second installment out today, Rohde describes how his pleas for release were rebuffed:

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Among the dramatic turns in Rohde’s tale is a remarkable deception perpetrated by his primary captor. (Also see Monday’s piece.) More than just a gripping account, though, his writing further illuminates a Gordian conflict with no end in sight — and on the eve perhaps of some momentous choices in Washington. It’ll be interesting to see what more perspective Rohde offers as the series continues through Thursday.

UPDATE: Some New York Times readers are taking issue with the presentation and placement of the Rohde series (titled “Held by the Taliban”). As I make clear above, I’m with executive editor Bill Keller on this one:

When David Rohde escaped after more than seven months in captivity, it was clear even as we celebrated that his experience was one more window into a long and complicated war. No other journalist, as far as I know, has had such an experience of the Taliban from the inside. As I hope the series makes clear, this is not a story about David Rohde, it is a story about the character, strength and organization of the people the U.S. is fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It provides detailed insights into the minds and motives of the Taliban’s footsoldiers. It also reveals the extent to which the Taliban has, with impunity, colonized a swath of Pakistan. Yes, it is a hell of a story, but it also adds rich detail to our understanding of the Taliban.

Part three of the series is now available here.

Brevity, brainpower… and Obama’s beer hour

If attention spans these days are indeed being digitally obliterated, you may not get very far past this sentence. But if you’re looking for a few good places where you might actually go a little deeper (besides this blog, of course!), here are a few recommended links — a quick rundown of What Else I’ve Been Reading Lately.

Benedict Carey continues an engrossing series about the human brain, with the latest installment looking into the science of gut feelings. What is it that might give some U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan exceptional ability to detect roadside bombs? It could be that cognitive abilities matter most — whether innate or gained potentially through training.

NPR has a look at how Bryant Neal Vinas, a 26-year-old aspiring jihadi from Long Island, made his way pretty darn close to Osama bin Laden. According to terrorism expert Sam Rascoff, “Vinas’ experience tends to undermine the story we’ve been telling about what it takes to get inside the hard-core al-Qaida.”

In “The Kill Company,” Raffi Khatchadourian further investigates the dark side of U.S. military action in Iraq. In the fog of this long war, where is the line between killing and murder on the battlefield?

With a thought-provoking Op-Ed in the Times, Haaretz’s Aluf Benn suggests Barack Obama has blown it by not talking to Israelis, while just about everyone else in the world has been hearing directly from the Diplomat in Chief. “This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price,” Benn says, especially with respect to the incendiary issue of the settlements.

After spending a chunk of time back in June writing about the election upheaval in Iran, it was inspiring to read this high-quality exchange between bloggers Ethan Zuckerman and Robert Mackey about the challenges of covering events in Iran. Would that this kind of open discussion, at the nexus of technology, politics and journalism, be much more commonplace.

RedStripeBeerAnd last but not least… Gates-gate. Since you made it this far, I’ll go a tad deeper here. Obviously, a bunch of media folks have no choice but to waste a bunch of time obsessing about and over-analyzing what brands will be consumed during the imminent beer summit at the White House. (How revealing that the black Harvard professor is going for a Red Stripe! Etc.) It’s not as if there’s an array of daunting issues in the world on which to focus. Nonetheless, CNN’s “Situation Room” today has been featuring a “beer chat” countdown clock onscreen, along with graphic deconstructions of where the gathering will take place in the White House rose garden, and with Wolf Blitzer practically beside himself teasing the event every 60 seconds. (Jon Stewart no doubt is hailing the cable news gods ahead of tonight’s sendup.)

In the end, I think Obama “acted stupidly” himself by getting so directly involved in this whole kerfuffle. He has done wonders to help push America forward on intractable issues of race. (His March 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race was perhaps the high-water mark of his tidal wave of a presidential campaign.) But I agree with Glenn Loury that Obama spent his political capital poorly on this — even if, as Charles M. Blow recounted quite poignantly, America still has a long way to go.

SamAdamsUPDATE: An important twist in the paramount beer summit story: It turns out that Gates recalculated and went with a Sam Adams instead. We can only ponder the significance… also see Michael Scherer, on how the White House press corps got played on this one.

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.

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.

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.'”

Sick with swine flu racism

The threat of a deadly swine flu pandemic appears to be fading, despite an outbreak of hype that one former CNN reporter says stemmed from the media’s “economic vested interest in promoting the fear.”

But fear may well be lingering — fueled by animosity toward Mexicans — thanks to a rash of comments from some of America’s nastiest right-wing broadcast personalities.

Ignoring news reports that some swine flu victims inside the U.S. likely contracted the virus during recent trips to Mexico, Fox News regular Michelle Malkin asserted: “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” radio host Michael Savage warned listeners about the contagion threat. “And that starts in the restaurants,” he said, where you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands.”

As Media Matters for America reported, radio host Neil Boortz stoked fears of a “bioterrorist” plot, asking, “What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans?”

Savage also ran with that idea: “There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies.” He suggested terrorists may realize that Mexicans “are the perfect mules for bringing this virus into America.”

limbaugh-studioRush Limbaugh ranted about an Obama administration conspiracy to use both the swine flu scare and the renewed debate over torture “to cover up the mess that is the United States of America right now.” (One wonders if he’s including Dick Cheney’s prominent role in the latter.)

While such ugliness from this bunch is predictable, it’s worth remembering that these folks have sizeable to large audiences. Moreover, the rank xenophobia underscores an uneasy truth: America has yet to contend in a serious way with its enormous immigration problem.

Obama continues promising to do so, as when he campaigned for president. The task, like many others since last fall, has been swallowed up in the nation’s economic maelstrom — but it’s inextricable. (So is overhauling health care in Obama’s view.) As Colin Powell emphasized when I interviewed him back in 2007 — not long after immigration had commanded headlines in a national election cycle — dealing with the issue is at once a moral and economic imperative. In an hour-long conversation covering much political ground, Powell’s comments on the matter stood out. We should do everything we can, he said, to admit people legally, dry up the flow of illegals and defend our borders. “But let’s recognize that these folks, whether legal or illegal, are making an enormous contribution to America’s well-being. They do the jobs that others don’t want to do.”

He continued: “It’s outrageous for us to take advantage of this population of 12 million people, to use them to cut our grass and build our houses and repair our streets, but keep them illegal and subject to deportation. That’s not equitable — that’s not America. We have to find a dignified way to work through with this population.”

With the swine flu scare, the unpleasant opportunism of the far right reflects how incredibly far we still have to go.