NAFTA at 20: Lori Wallach on U.S. Job Losses, Record Income Inequality, Mass Displacement in Mexico

The North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada went into effect 20 years ago this week on January 1, 1994. The massive trade pact was signed into law by President Bill Clinton amidst great promise that it would raise wages, create jobs and even improve health and environmental safety standards. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs have vanished as companies sought lower-wage workers in Mexico. Meanwhile, NAFTA has generated more poverty in Mexico, forcing millions of citizens to migrate to the United States in search of work. We speak to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and author of the new report, “NAFTA at 20.”

© 2013 Democracy Now!

'Kerry, You Coward!': Palestinians Protest Arrival of US Envoy in Occupied West Bank

Published on Friday, January 3, 2014 by Common Dreams

'Framework agreement' is biased toward Israel, say Palestinians, but the so-called "peace process" has problems deeper than that

– Common Dreams staff

Palestinian protesters greeted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Ramallah on Friday with chants of "Kerry, you coward" and "Kerry go home" as he traveled to the West Bank to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, amid the latest round of talks between the Israeli government and the PA.

Palestinian critics of Kerry say the negotiations have so far favored the demands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Kerry met with on Thursday and Friday morning before heading to the West Bank.

Reuters reports:

Hours before Kerry was due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a raucous crowd of several hundred took to the streets of Ramallah, the West Bank's de facto capital, chanting "Kerry, you coward, there's no place for you in Palestine!"

Separately, an official close to Abbas dismissed Kerry's drive for a "framework agreement" as biased toward Israel. […]

Palestinian and Israeli officials have publicly differed on the future status of the West Bank's border with Jordan, where Israelis want a permanent security presence but Palestinians want a full withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers.

The goal of the current negotiations, according to the U.S. delegation, is to come to a "framework agreement" between the two parties, in which the Israelis and Abbas' PA can map out a path towards a future agreement to be signed in April.

"The U.S. does not set an end to those violations as a goal of these peace talks – let alone as a precondition. If it did, Israel would have to end its occupation of the 1967 territories and recognize the Palestinians’ right of return unilaterally – ending violations shouldn’t require negotiations." –Phylllis Bennis

However, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Abbas's deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the "framework agreement" for a peace deal "restricts Palestinian sovereignty on Palestinian land."

While Kerry said yesterday that an agreement between the two is "not mission impossible,” Netanyahu portrayed the opposite sentiment, claiming that the Palestinian leader is someone who embraces terrorists "as heroes" in a press conference following their meeting.

Netanyahu also recently proposed plans to build 1,400 housing units in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

However, Kerry has called such settlements “illegitimate,” as they are illegal under international law.

According to the Associated Press, in the negotiations Netanyahu is "likely to be asked to accept — with some modifications — the borderlines that existed in 1967 before Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem."

Abbas, on the other hand, will likely be asked to recognize "Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and give up the so-called 'right of return' for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the war over Israel's creation in 1948."

Critics of the overall and so-called "peace process," however, have long argued that what are widely passed off as "negotiations" towards a peaceable solution between the Israelis and Palestinians are, in fact, an affront to a just end to the occupation of  Palestinian land. To many of those critics, U.S.-driven talks themselves, dating back to before the Oslo Accords in 1993, have done more to entrench the conflict than solve it.

And as foreign policy expert and Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis wrote this fall, the Obama administration's strategy (led by Kerry) is simply more of the same failed U.S. policy that has existed through successive administrations:

Kerry’s latest foray into Middle East negotiations should be called the Einstein peace process.  Doing the same thing over and over again and still expecting different results is the great scientist’s definition of insanity. This time around, indications are that Kerry actually believes, all evidence to the contrary aside, that this latest iteration of the decades-old industry known as the “peace process” might really succeed. But unfortunately for Kerry, his political calculations are about to run aground on the unforgiving shoals of political reality.

The problem, according to Bennis, is that the same failed approach is being tried once again and, as always, the claims of the Israeli government trumps that of the Palestinians living under armed military occupation:

…Part of the problem lies squarely in Kerry’s stated U.S. goal for the talks: “ending the conflict, ending the claims.” Not ending the occupation, not ending the siege of Gaza, not ending the decades of dispossession and exile of Palestinian refugees. Only ending the tension, the dispute – regardless of which version of current reality becomes the officially agreed upon final status. Then, in Kerry’s world, all Palestinian claims will disappear, and the Palestinians, even if their internationally-recognized rights remain out of reach, will smile, applaud their brave leaders, and politely agree to suck it up. (Future Israeli claims will not have to end, of course, because Israeli claims are about “security,” inherently legitimate and non-negotiable, while Palestinian claims – to self-determination, real sovereignty, equality, return – are simply political and up for grabs.)

And Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud points out the questionable status of Abbas' Palestinian Authority, reflecting the argument of many that it is not the legitimate voice of all Palestinians; certainly not of those living under Israeli military blockade in Gaza or the many refugees who remain outside of Palestine altogether. As the "peace process" re-surfaced earlier this year, Baroud wrote:

[The PA], an entity that was created with Israeli consent, and funded by US-led donor countries, cannot operate outside the US political sphere. According to a reading of the just published annual report by the Palestinian Monitory Authority, as reported by Ma'an news agency, the West Bank economic indicators for 2012 were terrible, and prospects for the next two years are even worse. The PA has no political vision, and even if it did, it is too overwhelmed by economic dependency to act as a self-respecting political entity. The PA has to play the game, fully knowing that the game has been rigged from the very start.

All three parties know this very well, but they are willing to return to the negotiations table. Any table will do while they pause for photos, smile and shake hands over and over. By doing so, a media circus made of experts will resume, are ready with metaphors, clichés and sound bites, as long as they are crammed into 30 seconds or less.

And as Bennis concluded:

Israeli violations of international law, the Geneva Conventions, UN resolutions and more remain. The U.S. does not set an end to those violations as a goal of these peace talks – let alone as a precondition. If it did, Israel would have to end its occupation of the 1967 territories and recognize the Palestinians’ right of return unilaterally – ending violations shouldn’t require negotiations. That’s why, ultimately, these talks will fail. Until negotiations are based not on U.S. support for Israeli power but on international law, human rights, and equality for all, the “peace process,” including this latest Einstein Edition, will continue to fail.


CIA, Caught in Colossal Lie, Lost Agent in Iran in 2007

Published on Friday, December 13, 2013 by Common Dreams

Associated Press finally tells public what it knows about Robert Levinson, a CIA asset abducted in Iran nearly seven years ago

– Common Dreams staff

Though the Associated Press held back the story three times at the request of the US government, on Thursday the news agency finally published a multi-year investigation that found an American who went missing in Iran in 2007 was not just a private businessman traveling for work, but a CIA asset.

Robert Levinson went missing in Iran nearly seven years ago. (Photograph: -/AFP/Getty Images)

Robert Levinson went missing in Iran nearly seven years ago. (Photograph: -/AFP/Getty Images)

It remains unclear if Robert Levinson is still alive—he would be now be 65—with the last proof of life coming in the form of a video released by his captures in 2011.

According to AP, Levinson's case was peculiar because the top brass at the CIA was not fully informed of his activities and it appears that his contacts at the agency were in over their heads, analysts who assumed the role of clandestine operatives. The real shock of the story, however, is not that a seemingly rogue group of CIA analysts operated outside their normal duties by employing Levinson, a former FBI agent and financial investigator, to work as an on-the-ground asset.

More disturbing is how the cult of secrecy so sacred to the intelligence world trickled down through government agencies and lawmakers who have responsibilities to the public. In this case, though keeping Levinson's CIA ties a secret was defended as a way to keep him safe, it's just as likely that the many years of obfuscation resulted in his possible death.

In a letter posted to the AP website, the news agency's executive editor Kathleen Carroll explained why they decided to publish the story now after previously holding it back:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

According to the investigative piece itself, the litany of lies surrounding the case goes back to 2007:

"At the time of his disappearance Mr Levinson was not working for the United States government," the State Department said in a May 2007 message sent to embassies worldwide and signed by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.[…]

However, the CIA later came clean about Levinson's role, but

…even after White House, FBI and State Department officials learned of Levinson's CIA ties, the official story remained unchanged.

"He's a private citizen involved in private business in Iran," the State Department said in 2007, shortly after Levinson's disappearance.

"Robert Levinson went missing during a business trip to Kish Island, Iran," the White House said last month.

And Spencer Ackerman, reporting on the AP's lengthy story, adds:

The AP explained that because investigators’ leads to Levinson had run dry, the public interest in revealing what it called the “serious mistakes and improper actions” that led to his disappearance compelled them to publish.

Tim Weiner, author of the acclaimed CIA history "Legacy of Ashes," said Levinson's case was "yet another case of carelessness at a cost of human life in the name of human intelligence."

The CIA's congressional oversight committees did not have immediate comment

Levinson’s family have sent up a website,, to raise awareness. The website hosts the proof-of-life tape, in which Levinson implores the US government: “Please help me get home. Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something.”


'Whose Sarin?' Investigative Bombshell Questions Obama's Case for Syria War

On September 10, 2013 President Obama addressed the nation, making the case for military action against Syria based on claims that the Assad regime had deployed chemical weapons on an attack against rebel forces on August 21st. New reporting by Sy Hersh says there is much to still to learn about what the White House knew and when it came to know it regarding the attack.

On September 10, 2013 President Obama addressed the nation, making the case for military action against Syria based on claims that the Assad regime had deployed chemical weapons on an attack against rebel forces on August 21st. New reporting by Sy Hersh says there is much to still to learn about what the White House knew and when it came to know it regarding the attack.

Published on Sunday, December 8, 2013 by Common Dreams

Seymour Hersh report asks serious questions about the president's case for war

– Jon Queally, staff writer

According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, President Obama's declarations about what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about who was responsible for the use of sarin gas in Syria this summer were not based on rock solid evidence.

In fact, according to new reporting publish in the London Review of Books on Sunday, Hersh contends that Obama—like his predecessor George W. Bush did in the case of Iraq—Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence" surrounding the chemical attack outside of Damascus in order "to justify a [military] strike against" against the regime of President Bashar al Assad.

Hersh reports:

Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack. In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.

After extensive interviews with current and former military and intelligence officials, writes Hersch describes how there was "intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence" by members of the Obama inner circle.

One of the damaging bits of evidence, according to Hersh, is the absence of the chemical attack in Syria from the White House intelligence briefings in the days surrounding the August incident:

For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public.

The implications of this, according to Hersh, is not that the White House invented evidence in any way, but that "when Obama said on 10 September that his administration knew Assad’s chemical weapons personnel had prepared the attack in advance, he was basing the statement not on an intercept caught as it happened, but on communications analysed days after 21 August."

Controlling the narrative of the attack with the press, Hersh contends, was the ultimate goal.

As Marcy Wheeler points out on her EmptyWheel blog:

Hersh does not say that Assad did not launch the attack. Nor does he say al-Nusra carried out the attack. Rather, he shows that:

  • At some unidentified time since the beginning of the Civil War, Assad had discovered and neutralized wiretaps on his inner circle, leaving US intelligence blind to discussions happening among his top aides
  • Sensors planted to detect any movement of Assad’s CW immediately had not been triggered by the August 21 attack
  • By June, some intelligence entity had concluded that an Iraqi member of al-Nusra had the capability to manufacture sarin in quantity

And Hersh writes: "The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative."

The story was causing quite a stir on Twitter as it permeated the social network on Sunday:

!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+”://”;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document,”script”,”twitter-wjs”);

Read the full story here.


East China Sea Tensions Soar as China Scrambles Fighter Jets Against US/Japan

China has scrambled military jets in an escalation of response to incursion by US and Japanese aircraft in the disputed zone. (Photograph: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

China has scrambled military jets in an escalation of response to incursion by US and Japanese aircraft in the disputed zone. (Photograph: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

Published on Friday, November 29, 2013 by Common Dreams

Dangerous escalation as China responds to provocations by Japan and US militaries

– Jon Queally, staff writer

According to government officials in Beijing, the Chinese on Friday scarmbled fighter jets over the East China Sea in order to assess and monitor the presence of US and Japanese military aircraft flying inside airspace that both China and Japan now claim as their own.

"In almost all games of chicken, each side underestimates the other’s will to risk disaster rather than accept humiliation. This could end quite badly." –journalist, analyst Gwynne Dyer

Tensions over what China has declared as an "air defense zone" have dramatically increased in the last several days with some worried that a stand-off that pits the rising power of the Chinese military against a Japanese-US alliance could escalate with unknown consequences.

As the New York Times reports:

China scrambled jets on Friday and identified two American surveillance planes and 10 Japanese aircraft in its newly declared air defense zone, the Chinese state news media said. The scrambling of the jets to find foreign aircraft was the first move announced by China showing that it was enforcing the zone, which it established last weekend.

Although there was no indication that China’s Air Force showed any hostile intent, the move ratcheted up tensions in a long-simmering dispute between Japan and China that could lead to a military miscalculation that some fear could spiral out of control. The United States, which is bound by treaty to defend Japan if it is attacked, directly entered the fray this week by sending unarmed B-52s into the contested airspace, defying Chinese demands that all aircraft notify the Chinese they were coming in advance or face military action.

The dispute between China and Japan centers on uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The new air defense zone includes airspace above the islands. Analysts believe that China’s intent in declaring control was not to force conflict, but to begin to show that it had as much claim to the islands as Japan, which has long administered them.

And the Guardian adds:

While such zones are common, China's is controversial because it includes the skies over islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, which are the subject of a long-running territorial dispute, and overlaps zones established by Japan and South Korea. There has also been concern over China's warning that it would take unspecified "emergency defensive measures" if aircraft did not comply.

Taylor Fravel, an expert on regional security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said establishment of the zone increased the potential for an incident in the air that could spark a larger crisis. But he said tensions might ease if China continued to clarify the nature of the zone and how it intended to deal with unidentified aircraft, especially those flying through the zone but not heading toward China.

"China has always chafed at Japan's adiz [air defence identification zone], which at some points is less than 150km from China … China probably wants to level the playing field with Japan and increase the pressure on Tokyo regarding the disputed islands," he said.

Japan does not acknowledge that ownership of the islands is disputed. The US does not have a position on their sovereignty but recognises Japan's administrative control and has said they are covered by the joint security pact.

Many analysts think China is laying down a long-term marker, but did not anticipate the forceful response it has received from the US as well as Japan.

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (Source: Ministry of National Defense/China Daily)

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (Source: Ministry of National Defense/China Daily)

Providing further perspective on the situation, independent journalist and commentator Gwynne Dyer, writing at Common Dreams Thursday, described the tensions over the air defense zone as a game of chicken—a dangerous one:

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not worth a war, or even a single ship or aircraft. They are uninhabited, and their alleged connection with the seabed rights to a natural gas field around 300 km. (200 miles away) is extremely tenuous. This move is a deliberate escalation of an existing dispute, made with the intention of forcing the other side to back down and lose face.

It’s quite common in games of chicken to block off your own escape routes from the confrontation, in order to show that you are not bluffing. And in almost all games of chicken, each side underestimates the other’s will to risk disaster rather than accept humiliation. This could end quite badly.


6 Months After Obama Promised to Divulge More on Drones, Here’s What We Still Don’t Know

A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the flight deck of the USS Gunston Hall in February 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Lauren Randall/Released)

A Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle sits on the flight deck of the USS Gunston Hall in February 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Lauren Randall/Released)

by Cora Currier ProPublica, Nov. 5, 2013, 2:23 p.m.

Nearly six months ago, President Obama promised more transparency and tighter policies around targeted killings. In a speech, Obama vowed that the U.S. would only use force against a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” It would fire only when there was “near-certainty” civilians would not be killed or injured, and when capture was not feasible.

The number of drone strikes has dropped this year, but they’ve continued to make headlines. On Friday, a U.S. drone killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban. A few days earlier came the first drone strike in Somalia in nearly two years. How much has changed since the president’s speech?

We don’t know the U.S. count of civilian deaths

The administration says that it has a count of civilian deaths, and that there is a “wide gap” between U.S. and independent figures. But the administration won’t release its own figures.

Outside estimates of total civilian deaths since 2002 range from just over 200 to more than 1,000.  The Pakistani government has given three different numbers: 400, 147, and 67.

McClatchy and the Washington Post obtained intelligence documents showing that for long stretches of time, the CIA estimated few or no civilian deaths. The documents also confirmed the use of signature strikes, in which the U.S. targets people without knowing their identity. The CIA categorized many of those killed as simply “other militants” or “foreign fighters.” The Post wrote that the agency sometimes designated “militants” with what seemed like circumstantial or vague evidence, such as “men who were 2018probably’ involved in cross-border attacks” in Afghanistan.

The administration reportedly curtailed signature strikes this year, though the new guidelines don’t necessarily preclude them. A White House factsheet released around Obama’s speech said that “it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” It did not say that people must be identified. (In any case, the U.S. has not officially acknowledged the policy of signature strikes.)

Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed only that four Americans have been killed by drone strikes since 2009: Anwar al Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, Samir Khan, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. Holder said that only the elder Awlaki was “specifically targeted,” but did not explain how the others came to be killed.

Although Obama said that this disclosure was intended to “facilitate transparency and debate,” since then, the administration has not commented on specific allegations of civilian deaths.

We don’t know exactly who can be targeted

The list of groups that the military considers “associated forces” of Al Qaeda is classified. The administration has declared that it targets members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and “elements of Al Shabaab, but there are still questions about how the U.S. determines that an individual belonging to those groups is in fact a “continuing and imminent threat.” (After the terror alarm that led to the closing of U.S. embassies this summer, officials told the New York Times they had “expanded the scope of people [they] could go after” in Yemen.)

This ties into the debate over civilian casualties: The government would seem to consider some people legitimate targets that others don’t.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth studies of particular strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, respectively. They include eyewitness reports of civilian deaths. (Most of the deaths investigated happened before the Obama administration’s new policies were announced, although the administration has not said when those guidelines went into effect.) The reports also raised questions of the legality of specific strikes, questioning whether the deaths were all unavoidable casualties of legitimate attacks.  

It does not appear that the U.S. plans to expand strikes against Al Qaeda to other countries 2013 officials have reportedly told Iraq, for example, it won’t send drones there. But the U.S. has established a surveillance drone base in Niger, and fed information from drones to French forces fighting in Mali.

We don’t know if the U.S. compensates civilian casualties

CIA director John Brennan suggested during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. made condolence payments to harmed families. But there is little evidence of it happening. U.S. Central Command told ProPublica that it had 33 pages related to condolence payments 2013 but wouldn’t release any of them to us.

We don’t always know which strikes are American

While unnamed officials sometimes confirm that strikes came from U.S. drones, other attacks may be from Pakistani, Yemeni, or even Saudi planes.

(It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has also used cruise missiles and Special Forces raids. But the bulk of U.S. counterterrorism actions outside Afghanistan in recent years appear to rely on drones.)

We don’t know the precise legal rationale behind the strikes

Some members of Congress have seen the legal memos behind targeted killing of U.S. citizens. But lawmakers were not granted access to all memos on the program.

Other congressmen have introduced bills with more reporting requirements for targeted killings. (Proposals for a “drone court” for oversight have not gotten very far.)

It’s far from clear that any of that additional oversight would lead to public disclosure.

The government and the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times are still locked in court battles over requests for drone documents. While a judge has ruled the CIA can no longer assert the “fiction” that it can’t reveal if it has any interest in drones, the agency hasn’t been compelled to release any information yet. The government has also so far fought off disclosure of legal memos underpinning targeted killings.


And here are some things we’ve learned through leaks and independent reporting:

How the U.S. tracks targets: Documents provided by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post detailed the NSA’s “extensive involvement.” Lawyers in a terrorism-related case also uncovered reports that government surveillance of their client may have led to a drone strike in Somalia. The Atlantic published a detailed account of Yemen using a child to plant a tracking chip on a man who was killed in a U.S. strike.

What people in the countries affected think: The Pakistani government’s cooperation with at least some U.S. drone strikes 2013 long an open secret 2013 has now been well-documented. Public sentiment in the country is vividly anti-drone, even when violent Taliban commanders are killed, and politicians continue to denounce them as American interference. Limited polling in the region most affected by drones is contradictory, with some saying that at the very least, they prefer drones to the Pakistani military campaigns. Life in those areas is between a drone and a hard place: Residents told Amnesty International of the psychological toll from drones, and they also face reprisals from militants who accuse them of spying.

Yemen’s president continues to openly embrace U.S. strikes, though the public generally opposes them 2013 particularly those strikes that hit lower-level fighters, or those whose affiliations with Al Qaeda aren’t clear. Foreign Policy recently detailed the aftermath of an August strike where two teenagers died. Their family disputes they had any link to terrorism.

The physical infrastructure: More of the network of drone bases across the world has been re
vealed 2013 from the unmasking of a secret base in Saudi Arabia to the fact that drones had to be moved off the U.S. base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, after crashes and fear of collision with passenger planes.

The CIA’s role: The administration had reportedly planned to scale back the CIA’s role in targeted killing, moving control of much of the drone program to the military. But the CIA reportedly still handles strikes in Pakistan and has a role in Yemen as well.

The history of the programs: Revelations continue to change our understanding of the contours of the drone war, but two books published this year offer comprehensive accounts 2013 The Way of the Knife, by Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, and Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill.

DOJ Brings Fresh Manslaughter Charges Against Blackwater Mercenaries for Iraqi Massacre

Published on Friday, October 18, 2013 by Common Dreams

Four private military contractors reindicted for their role in 2007 Nisour Square massacre that left fourteen Iraq civilians dead

– Jon Queally, staff writer

The Justice Department on Thursday announced new manslaughter charges against four Blackwater mercenaries involved in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Iraq that left dozens of innocent civilians dead or severely wounded.

Ali Kinani, only nine years old at the time, was among the victims in the 2007 killings in Nisoor Square.

Ali Kinani, only nine years old at the time, was among the victims in the 2007 killings in Nisoor Square.

The deadly incident in many ways began the unraveling of Blackwater, founded by a wealthy, ex-Navy Seal named Eric Prince. Subsequent to Nisour Square, Blackwater changed its name twice—first to Xe and then to its current name, Academi—and Prince ultimately severed ties with his company following a stream of bad press.

Justice for the victims of the killings, however, remained illusive as earlier charges against the for-profit militants were dropped and coverage of the story dimmed as the U.S. media turned its attention away from the damage wrought by the bloody and extended damage caused by the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

As The Washington Post reports:

A federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia returned a fresh indictment charging the four guards with voluntary manslaughter and other crimes in the shooting in Nisour Square.

The guards were providing security under a State Department contract for diplomats in Iraq at the time of the shooting. On Sept. 16, 2007, they were part of a four-vehicle convoy that was securing an evacuation route for U.S. officials fleeing a bombing. The guards told U.S. investigators that they opened fire on the crowd in self-defense.

In a long investigation after the attack, the FBI and federal prosecutors concluded that the shooting was an “unprovoked illegal attack” on civilians.

“Today’s indictment charges four Blackwater guards with killing or wounding 32 defenseless Iraqi citizens, including women and children, in a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007,” U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said in a statement. “These defendants abused their power through a relentless attack on unarmed civilians that recklessly exceeded any possible justification.”

And Al-Jazeera adds:

The original US charges filed against the men in 2008 were thrown out in December 2009, about a month before a scheduled trial.

The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans considered themselves above the law. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010, expressed his "personal regret" for the shootings and declared that the US would appeal the court decision.

The case ran into trouble because the State Department promised the guards that their statements explaining what happened would not be used in a criminal case.

The guards told investigators that they fired their weapons, a crucial admission because forensic evidence could not determine who fired.

Because of a limited immunity deal, prosecutors had to build their case without those statements, a high legal hurdle.

The case was reinstated in 2011 and prosecutors began a lengthy review of what charges they could prove in court.

The new indictment returned by a grand jury in Washington charges 33 counts, including voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter and using a firearm in a crime of violence.

The men, Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard had pleaded not guilty to the nearly identical charges brought five years ago.

Writing in The Nation in 2010, journalist Jeremy Scahill recounted the story of the massacre's youngest victim, Ali Kinani, who was just nine years old when he was gunned down by the Blackwater soldiers. Scahill concludes his story about Kinani and the events of that day by quoting Ali's father, Mohammed, who said: "I wish the US Congress would ask [Erik Prince] why they killed my innocent son, who called himself Allawi. Do you think that this child was a threat to your company? This giant company that has the biggest weapons, the heaviest weapons, the planes, and this boy was a threat to them?"

"I want Americans to know that this was a child that died for nothing."

And Democracy Now! now hosted this exclusive report by Scahill and filmmaker and journalist Rick Rowly about Kinani and Nisour Square:


Brazil's President Rousseff Cancels US Visit Over NSA Spying

Published on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 by Common Dreams

News comes as Rousseff pushes for lnternet data to be stored locally

– Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff has canceled her trip to the U.S. over spying by the National Security Agency.

rousseffcancels-a_0The news was first reported by O Globo on Tuesday and later confirmed in an official statement by the Brazilian government.

Signs had emerged earlier this month that Rousseff would cancel the state visit scheduled for October 23,  including a statement from one unnamed Brazilian official who said of the spying scandal,  "This is a major, major crisis …. There needs to be an apology. It needs to be public. Without that, it's basically impossible for her to go to Washington in October."

Rousseff had a 20-minute phone conversation with President Obama on Monday to discuss the revelations that the NSA had spied on Latin American citizens including the presidents of Brazil and Mexico, but Rousseff was unsatisfied with Obama's explanations for the surveillance, the Brazilian newspaper reported.

The official statement called the "illegal practices" of the NSA an "assault on national sovereignty and individuals' rights."

It adds that both presidents had decided to postpone the visit and that "once the matter was resolved adequately" a visit by Rousseff to the U.S. would take place.

In a further sign of spying backlash, Rousseff is pushing legislative measures for her country to "divorce itself from the U.S.-centric Internet" by storing Internet data from Facebook and Google locally to keep it out of the reach of the NSA's prying eyes.

According to the Associated Press, Rousseff asked a legislator to add the language about Facebook and Google data to an Internet bill that "has been before Brazil's lower house since 2011," but the President can force a vote on a bill within 45 days.


Obama Administration Helped Kill Transparency Push on Military Aid

by Cora Currier ProPublica, Sep. 17, 2013, 2:22 p.m.

Afghan National Police cadets steady rifles as they learn to assemble and de-assemble them at the Kabul Police Academy on Nov. 14, 2012, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Afghan National Police cadets steady rifles as they learn to assemble and de-assemble them at the Kabul Police Academy on Nov. 14, 2012, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The U.S. spent roughly $25 billion last year on what’s loosely known as security assistance2014a term that can cover everything from training Afghan security forces to sending Egypt F-16 fighter jets to equipping Mexican port police with radiation scanners.  

The spending, which has soared in the past decade, can be hard to trace, funneled through dozens of sometimes overlapping programs across multiple agencies. There’s also evidence it’s not always wisely spent. In Afghanistan, for instance, the military bought $771 million worth of aircraft this year for Afghan pilots, most of whom still don’t know how to fly them.

Last year, legislators in the House drafted a bill that would require more transparency and evaluation of security and all foreign aid programs. The bill was championed by an unlikely coalition of Tea Party budget hawks and giant aid groups such as Oxfam America.

But the Obama administration successfully pushed to have security assistance exempted from the bill’s requirements, according to a letter obtained by ProPublica and interviews with Congressional staffers.

The Pentagon wrote that it “strongly” opposed last year’s bill in a statement to Congressional staff laying out its “informal view” last December. “The extensive public reporting requirements raise concerns,” the letter said. “Country A could2026potentially learn what Country B has received in military assistance.” Foreign governments would also “likely be resistant” to monitoring and evaluation from the U.S.  Staffers say the State Department had also resisted the bill’s increased oversight of security assistance. (The State Department declined our requests to discuss that.)

Two weeks later, the House passed a version that covered only “development assistance.” The bill never made it to a vote in the Senate.

The State and Defense Departments, which handle most security assistance, “really are scared,” said a House staffer who worked on last year’s bill.  “They’re afraid of transparency about what the money is funding, where the weapons are going, who is getting training.”

As it is now, the staffer said, “some reports come two or three years after the fact, and the data is not easily manipulable.”

Increased oversight of security assistance is needed, said Walter Slocombe, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who recently led a government-sponsored study on the issue. The problem is that “a lot of these programs have been developed ad hoc,” he said. “There’s not much coordination among agencies, though often they are trying to do more or less the same thing.”

New versions of the bill have been reintroduced in the House and Senate. This time, the administration’s stance isn’t clear. A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment, as did the Pentagon.

This year’s bill has a loophole for security spending: a waiver allowing the Secretary of State to exempt such programs if he deems it in the “national interest.”

Still, including security programs in the bill at all is “going to be a bit more difficult,” said an aide to one of the House bill’s co-sponsors, Gerry Connolly, D-Va. The exemption requires the State Department to tell Congress which programs it isn’t including, and why.

Lauren Frese, a State Department foreign assistance official said, “We support Congress’ objectives with the bill. It’s more a matter of making sure we’re not legislating something that isn’t aligned with what we’ve already got going on.” As the White House points out, it has already required agencies to be more transparent about spending on foreign aid.  Agencies must upload budget data to a central public dashboard,, though the site’s data is currently incomplete and information from the Defense Department is available only in generic categories. The bill would turn such directives into law.

The legislation also goes further. It would require the State Department to develop guidelines for monitoring and evaluating aid’s effectiveness across agencies.

In a hearing in April, the House bill’s co-sponsor, Ted Poe, R-Texas, said that “Americans want to see [whether] the money that we’re sending to NGOs, the governments, et cetera is working or not working.”

Representative Connolly hopes the bill will help the public “better understand the rationale for aid, and the context: what a small, small part of the government’s budget it represents,” he told ProPublica. Indeed, foreign aid makes up only about 1 percent  of the federal budget.

Supporters of the bill say excluding security assistance would leave a huge gap.

In January, an independent advisory board to the State Department recommended comprehensive reform of the whole concept of security assistance, calling for concrete objectives, better long-term monitoring, and a greater emphasis on non-military programs, such as programs to strengthen justice systems. (A few months later, the White House issued a policy directive that pledged to take on many of the same issues.)

“Nobody looks at it systematically,” said Gordon Adams, who worked on national security and international affairs for the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s and has argued for a reduced military role in security assistance. That’s in part a reflection of how the landscape of programs has grown and fragmented in recent d
ecades. Security assistance grew 227 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2012, to a peak of $26.8 billion, according to data collected by the Stimson Center, where Adams is a fellow. That growth comes largely from programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are beginning to be scaled back. This year’s budget still allocated more than $20 billion across State and Defense.

State officially oversees all foreign aid, including many programs traditionally thought of as “military,” like weapons sales, but the Pentagon expanded its portfolio of “military operations other than war” and special operations in the 1990s. After 9/11, Congress also legislated new programs related to the “war on terror,” such as the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program and the Coalition Support Fund. With its Afghan programs, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of all security spending 2013 not counting covert operations.

Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta promoted training and aid to partners as “low cost and small-footprint approaches” to military objectives.

The Pentagon’s increased role in foreign aid highlights a long-standing tension between the State Department and the military, which always has more cash on hand. “If you’ve got a $600 billion budget it’s easier to squeeze in a few million dollars here and there,” said Slocombe, who chaired the study for the State Department.

Countless examples from Afghanistan illustrate the problem of lack of both long-term planning and cooperation between agencies. In 2010, ProPublica and Newsweek documented the failures of the police training program, which had by then cost $6 billion. Responsibility shifted between agencies and contractors, and State and Defense squabbled “over whether the training should emphasize police work or counterinsurgency.” Last year, in one police facility built by the Army Corps of Engineers, the inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found a well building being used as a chicken coop. Another encampment, designed for 175 police, was occupied by just 12. The men didn’t even have keys for many of the buildings.

Other reports found the military paid $6 million for vehicles that were destroyed or hadn’t been seen in years, and that $12.8 million in electrical equipment was sitting unused, as Defense and USAID each expected the other to install it.

Afghanistan is an exceptional case, given the scale of the spending and wartime conditions. But it also has the scrutiny of a special inspector general and a large U.S. presence. Security assistance to other countries has far fewer eyes on it 2013 or a clear idea of what the objectives for the aid are. Empowering local police and armies can have more severe political and human rights repercussions than digging wells. “It engages us with a bunch of countries where our interests are at best opaque,” said Adams.

Some programs are designed for political and diplomatic reasons (as was long the case with arm sales to Egypt), while others are meant to build up a country’s ability to help the U.S. in its aims, such as countering terrorism or drug-dealing. In other words, giving a country what it wants, versus what the U.S. thinks it needs. (In fact, the Government Accountability Office found that branches of the military differ on which programs are supposed to do what.)

In a February testimony, the GAO said that few of the military’s training programs had looked carefully at long-term impacts. “Reporting on progress and effectiveness,” had in some cases “been limited to anecdotal information.” For example, while Yemen has received over $360 million from two of the military’s new counterterrorism programs, due to security concerns the Pentagon has yet to evaluate whether that money’s had any effect.

The House bill’s sponsors believe it could help with these problems of planning and communication. The bill “is not designed to be hostile or adversarial for the Pentagon and State Department,” said Representative Connolly. “It’s designed to provide them with a more cogent rationale for these programs.”

Putin plays trump card in high-stakes Syria standoff

Putin plays trump card in high-stakes Syria standoff (via AFP)

After over two years of isolation and vilification as the last significant friend of Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears for now to have played a trump card in the Syrian crisis with a plan for the regime to hand over chemical…