You know when Chuck Todd is upset, the Obama administration has crossed some sort of line…
In the aftermath of public revelations that the Obama Justice Department snooped on scores of AP journalists and accused Fox News reporter James Rosen of criminal acts for seeking out statements from a State Department official, there is a lot of much-needed talk about the so-called “chilling effect,” especially in the context of the unprecedented number of whistleblowers prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act under the Obama administration.
The President’s aggressive tactics in keeping government activity in air-tight secrecy, “creates a serious climate of fear in which investigative journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to do their job — informing citizens about the secret actions of political leaders — because everyone involved in that process is petrified of government persecution,” writes Glenn Greenwald at The New York Times. “As The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it in a New Republic article detailing the harm done to journalism: ‘It’s a huge impediment to reporting, and so chilling isn’t quite strong enough, it’s more like freezing the whole process into a standstill.’”
One aspect of this that hasn’t been widely articulated is this Rumsfeldian notion that, in this climate of fear where informative leaks and off-the-record statements are increasingly rare, the American people don’t even know what we don’t know. That is, there could be plenty of national security policies that have a significant or even mostly covert nature to them, but we can’t even determine with much confidence which policies those are.
But if I were to speculate, one of the most likely of these cases is the U.S. approach to Syria.
Enter Harvard professor of international relations Stephen Walt and his latest post at ForeignPolicy.com. He writes that he “wonder[s] whether U.S. involvement in that conflict isn’t more substantial than I have previously thought,” and speculates on what the U.S. is “REALLY doing in Syria.”
Consistent with its buck-passing instincts, Barack Obama’s administration does not want to play a visible role in the conflict. This is partly because Americans are rightly tired of trying to govern war-torn countries, but also because America isn’t very popular in the region and anyone who gets too close to the United States might actually lose popular support. So no boots on the ground, no “no-fly zones,” and no big, highly visible shipments of U.S. arms. Instead, Washington can use Qatar and Saudi Arabia as its middlemen, roles they are all too happy to play for their own reasons.
Since taking office, Obama has shown a marked preference for covert actions that don’t cost too much and don’t attract much publicity, combined with energetic efforts to prosecute leakers. So an energetic covert effort in Syria would be consistent with past practice. Although there have been news reports that the CIA is involved in vetting and/or advising some opposition groups, we still don’t know just how deeply involved the U.S. government is. (There has been a bit of speculation in the blogosphere that the attack on Benghazi involved “blowback” from the Syrian conflict, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence to support this idea.)
In this scenario, the Obama administration may secretly welcome the repeated demands for direct U.S. involvement made by war hawks like Sen. John McCain. Rejecting the hawks’ demands for airstrikes, “no-fly zones,” or overt military aid makes it look like U.S. involvement is actually much smaller than it really is.
Indeed, as I wrote in these spaces almost a year ago:
…my own view is that the Obama administration probably has an expansive covert policy on Syria in place. Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that “Covert ops [are] ongoing.” This is one of the most secretive administrations in recent memory and the situation in Syria is extraordinarily sensitive and precarious. The notion that Obama is holding off in the clandestine realm of policy is not really credible. Again, [the Syrian conflict] has all the reasons for not intervening attached to it, but if it’s done in secret, the administration can avoid taking responsibility for its actions.
Publicly, Obama has opposed no-fly zones, opposed directly arming the rebels, opposed boots on the ground, etc. Covertly, (although it has been reported in the press, I would guess as a deliberate and authorized leak) the CIA has been facilitating the delivery of arms to rebels through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But what else don’t we know? It’s difficult to write about because we just don’t know what we don’t know thanks to the chilling effect Obama’s unprecedented secrecy has had on the press.
There is a tangled proxy war going on in Syria with enormous stakes. In other areas of foreign policy that are even less consequential than the fight in Syria, the record of the Obama administration has been to make it all secret and insulate themselves from any accountability for costs and failures. It’s hardly far-fetched to suspect a similar scenario with respect to Syria.
“I don’t know what the level of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war really is,” Walt writes. “But that’s what troubles me: I don’t like not knowing what my government is doing…”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Obama likes it.
President Obama is scheduled to give a speech tomorrow at the National Defense University on national security and counterterrorism policy. Many are eagerly awaiting an unprecedented moment of candor, expecting the president at least to clarify certain ‘ambiguities’ (read: utter lack of transparency) on the legal and moral approach to his war on terror.
While the president may mention the drone war, I predict he will fail to address the most hard-hitting questions about its (il)legality.
There is a reason the Obama administration has kept the drone war secret, and it’s not about protecting sources and methods. The real reason is to shield the White House from accountability for crimes committed.
This was articulated rather well by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in deciding on a lawsuit brought against the Obama administration by The New York Times for not disclosing more information about the drone war.
“I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” McMahon said.
In Senate testimony last month, Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, reiterated a similar criticism, arguing that “When a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
More specifically, the most glaring breach of law the Obama administration has committed in its drone war is to unilaterally redefine the legal standards that justify the use of force. The Justice Department’s leaked memo on targeted killings showed that Obama has altered the meaning of the word “imminence” – a prerequisite for the use of force by a state.
The memo refers to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than what has traditionally been required, insisting actual intelligence of an ongoing or imminent plot against the U.S. is simply not a standard the administration chooses to impose on itself (as if it were up to their discretion).
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states, contradicting conventional international law.
There are other aspects of the drone war that clash with international law. A new report out this week by the International Crisis Group calls on the Obama administration to “Demonstrate respect for the international humanitarian law principles,” by “halting reported signature strikes that target groups of men based on behavior patterns that may be associated with terrorist activity rather than known identities; and ending the reported practice of counting all military-aged men in a strike zone as combatants unless sufficient evidence proves them innocent posthumously.”
And finally, the foundation upon which the drone war rests is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which empowered the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
But the administration’s case for the drone war is that it targets “al-Qaeda and its associated forces.” In other words, any individual or group that a couple of high-level officials secretly determine fits that expansive description, including U.S. citizens and Islamist groups that did not even exist at the time of the 9/11 attacks.
In Senate hearings last week, top Pentagon lawyer Robert Taylor kept using the words “associated forces” to justify the legality of the drone war under the 2001 AUMF. Until Senator Angus King of Maine told him those words never appear in the text of the AUMF.
“You guys have invented this term, associated forces, that’s nowhere in this document,” King said. “It’s the justification for everything, and it renders the war powers of Congress null and void.”
On all of the above points, the administration has barely a legal leg to stand on. To expect Obama to substantively address them is to expect him to highlight his own criminality.
The historic conviction of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity was annulled late last night by the country’s high court.
The three-to-two ruling by a panel of constitutional judges annuls everything that has happened in the trial since 19 April, when Gen Rios Montt was briefly left without a defence lawyer.
The defence team had walked out of the court on the previous day in protest at what they called “illegal proceedings”.
…According to the constitutional court ruling, the guilty verdict and the 80-year sentence handed down by Judge Jazmin Barrios on 10 May are therefore now void.
Human rights group Amnesty International said it was a “devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict”.
Montt’s lawyers had walked out in protest, called for the dismissal of the judges, tried to delay the proceedings, etc. It seems like their tactics to stall were effective, if belatedly.
See more on the trial and conviction here.
Update: Prior to this news, The New York Times hosted a debate on just how culpable the Reagan administration was in the war crimes in Guatemala. Here’s Greg Grandin’s take:
…even before [Reagan's] 1980 election, two retired generals, who played prominent roles in Reagan’s campaign, reportedly traveled to Central America and told Guatemalan officials that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.”
Once in office, Reagan, continued to supply munitions and training to the Guatemalan army, despite a ban on military aid imposed by the Carter administration (existing contracts were exempt from the ban). And economic aid continued to flow, increasing to $104 million in 1986, from $11 million in 1980, nearly all of it going to the rural western highlands, where the Mayan victims of the genocide lived.
This aid helped the Guatemalan military implement a key part of its counterinsurgency campaign: following the massacres, soldiers herded survivors into “model villages,” detention camps really, where they used food and other material supplied by the U.S. Agency for International Development to establish control.
And Reagan was consistent in his moral backing for Guatemala’s genocidaires. On Dec. 5, 1982, for instance, he met with Rios Montt in Honduras and said he was “a man of great integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.”
Just 10 days before this meeting, one declassified U.S. document reveals that the State Department had been informed of a “well-founded allegation of a large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children in a remote area by the Guatemalan army.”
Other declassified documents reveal that the White House was less concerned with the massacres than with their effectiveness, or with countering the bad publicitystemming from reports of the atrocities.
The day after Reagan’s endorsement, Guatemalan soldiers arrived at a village called Dos Erres and started killing. The slaughter went on for three days and by the time it was over at least 162 people, including many children, were dead.
From Frank Brodhead’s Iran War Weekly:
After almost a year of no progress in negotiations between “the West” and Iran about Iran’s nuclear program, last week’s meetings in Istanbul confirmed that there would be, indeed, no progress until at least after Iran’s presidential election, which will take place on June 14th. Whatever the outcome of the election, it is likely that the post-election resumption of talks (if any) will take place in an international landscape greatly altered by the fighting in Syria.
First, Iran’s election. As detailed in some good/useful readings linked below, there are a great many “unknowns” and “too soon to tells” regarding the election, including who will be allowed to run and how the several “camps” will (or will not) consolidate around a single candidate. The last-minute entry of former president Rafsanjani into the race has raised a storm of questions in the Iran-expert blogosphere about the stance and political strength (or weakness) of Supreme Leader Khamenei. And the entry of current president Ahmadinejad’s protégé now raises questions about whether he will survive Tuesday’s “cut” by the Guardian Council, and if so, what then, and if not, what will Ahmadinejad do? A dominant motif of analysts is the likelihood of “surprise.”
The short-term fate of Syria may be determined this week by a slew of meetings that will address the US-Russian proposal for an international peace conference, now dubbed “Geneva II.” A useful guide to this week’s meetings (Kerry in Jordan, the EU on resuming arms to the rebels, the Syrian National Council, etc.) can be read here.