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721
News Items / US suffers heavy Afghan losses
« on: July 13, 2008, 07:51:21 PM »

US suffers heavy Afghan losses


Nine US soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in clashes with Taleban militants.

US commander Daniel Dwyer told the BBC the soldiers had been killed in clashes in the north-east of the country.

The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says it is one of the biggest single losses in a day for the coalition since the start of military operations there.

722
News Items / Airstrike 'killed 47 civilians'
« on: July 11, 2008, 07:48:04 PM »
Airstrike 'killed 47 civilians'

 Airstrike 'killed 47 civilians'The head of an Afghan government commission investigating a US military airstrike in Nuristan province this week said it killed 47 civilians travelling to a wedding.
The airstrike on Sunday in Deh Bala district also wounded nine civilians, said Burhanullah Shinwari, the deputy chairman of the Senate, who led the delegation.
The US military on Sunday denied any civilians were killed in the incident.
At the time officials said 27 civilians had been killed.
US coalition spokesman First Lieutenant Nathan Perry said that "any loss of innocent life is tragic".
Mr Shinwari said that 39 of those killed in the airstrike were women and children, including the bride.
Last Updated: Friday, 11 July 2008, 16:20 GMT

723
News Items / New Local Cost of War Numbers Now Available
« on: July 09, 2008, 09:46:47 PM »
New Local Cost of War Numbers Now Available

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE July 3, 2008 12:44 PM

CONTACT: National Priorities Project (NPP) Pamela Schwartz, Communications Director 413-584-9556 (o); 413-219-5658 (cell)

- July 3 - On June 30th, President Bush signed into law a $162 billion War Supplemental spending bill, providing an additional $130 billion for the Iraq War alone. This new funding brings the total allocated for the Iraq War to $656.1 billion.

NPP has updated its local cost of war numbers to reflect this new total, also showing what this war funding could buy local communities if it was spent on domestic needs instead. Click here to get the numbers for each state, congressional district, county, city or town.

The National Priorities Project (NPP) is a 501(c)(3) research organization that analyzes and clarifies federal data so that people can understand and influence how their tax dollars are spent. Located in Northampton, MA, since 1983, NPP focuses on the impact of federal spending and othe policies at the national, state, congressional district and local levels. For more information, go to http://nationalpriorities.org.

724
For Your Information / Scott Ritter Interview
« on: July 09, 2008, 09:44:09 PM »
Scott Ritter Interview

By Matthew Rothschild, July 2008 Issue

Scott Ritter has traveled an odd career path. An intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, he was gung-ho on the Gulf War and was an aide to General Norman Schwarzkopf. Then he was one of the leading U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He resigned because he didn’t think the United States was acting aggressively enough to combat the threat from Iraq.

But he opposed overthrowing Saddam Hussein. And when George Bush and Dick Cheney were ginning up the case for war, this former Marine became a chief critic. He famously said that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And these days, he is warning loudly about the likelihood that Bush and Cheney will bomb Iran.

Ritter is the author of several books, including Iraq Confidential, Target Iran, and Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.

I caught up with him in Madison, Wisconsin, in mid-April, where he delivered a public talk and then went drinking with some Iraq War vets.

I asked him if any of his old Marine Corps buddies resent his outspokenness. “No, they love me,” he said, adding that he is able to say out loud many of the things that they agree with but are forbidden from mentioning.

Q: I was amazed at how far out on a limb you went before the Iraq War started in declaring flat-out that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. Why were you so certain?

Scott Ritter: I don’t view it as going out on a limb. Having investigated Saddam’s WMD programs from 1991 to 1998, I was simply pointing out the fact that if you’re relying on a data set that’s derived from that experience, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein would have these massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that the Bush Administration claimed were being possessed.

Unless someone could demonstrate that the Iraqis had reconstituted their manufacturing base for WMD, simple science takes over. You don’t have to be brave to point out that anthrax as produced by the Iraqis has a shelf life under ideal circumstances of three years. The last known batch rolled out in January 1991. One cannot state that any anthrax that may have been hidden at that time is still viable in 2002 unless there was a new anthrax facility put in play. And the Bush Administration never said that. What the Bush Administration said was that 9/11 has caused us to reevaluate the intelligence data that existed up until 1998. That’s why I knew I had them because I was intimately familiar here with the intelligence information up to 1998, and there was nothing in that data set that would support what the Bush Administration was asserting. So I wasn’t going out on a limb. I was simply stating a fact.

Q: Do you think Bush Administration top officials were surprised not to find weapons of mass destruction once they got there, or did they just not care?

Ritter: It’s even more simple than this. Some of the key members of the Bush Administration knew they weren’t there. Remember, Scott Ritter is not the only one who was familiar with this data set. The CIA was familiar with this.

Q: But George Tenet says in his autobiography that he was as surprised as the next guy that we couldn’t find any of these weapons.

Ritter: Tenet himself knows that there was no hard intelligence that sustained the Bush Administration’s claims. It might have been wishful thinking on his part. But my experience with George Tenet is one of a man who publicly says one thing and privately says another. I don’t believe George Tenet for a second that he was surprised. George Tenet knew that he was selling the President a bill of goods. George Tenet knew that the intelligence support for the President’s claim was based on stovepiping and cherry picking, not on a comprehensive review of all the available data.

Q: Was he selling the President a bill of goods, or was he selling the President the goods the commander in chief had ordered?

Ritter: You’re right to point that out. This isn’t George Tenet trying to convince the President to do something. This is the President saying, “I’m going to war against Iraq. The vehicle that will facilitate this is the WMD issue, and I want George Tenet basically to cook the books so that the data is available that sustains my allegations.” And that’s exactly what Tenet did; Tenet delivered that which the President demanded.

Q: Where are we now in the war in Iraq?

Ritter: It’s an unmitigated disaster. We’ve lost the war. And we don’t have a collective recognition of our defeat yet, so we continue to stumble along trying to achieve some nebulous definition of victory that no one can define. Our politicians seem more inclined to seek a “solution” in Iraq that is derived not by the reality on the ground in Iraq but rather that which can be sold to the American people, sold to the Congress. We have a problem. We’re not defining it correctly. Therefore, any solution we embark on is a solution to nowhere.

Q: Good people in this country who agree Bush shouldn’t have gone into Iraq and that he and Rumsfeld made hash of the situation are reluctant to say the U.S. should withdraw. They cite humanitarian grounds, arguing that things could get worse, or that there could be a genocide. How do you respond to that?

Ritter: Well, how much worse could it get? I don’t understand the benchmark that’s being applied here. You know, people talk about a humanitarian disaster. There is a humanitarian disaster in play right now. It’s called the American occupation. People talk about a moral imperative. The moral imperative must be to get the problem out. The problem is the American occupation. You know I’ve been in Iraq for many, many years. And I have enough respect for the Iraqi people to understand that they are capable of resolving their own internal problems. The hubris of the white man’s burden, that only the United States can solve the problem of Iraq, is extreme and dangerous. We need to understand it’s a problem we made. It’s a problem we can’t solve. And we need to liberate the Iraqi people by withdrawing our troops so they can resolve their own problems.

Q: For several years now, you’ve been warning of the possibility that the Bush Administration will attack Iran. What do you think the likelihood is now in the waning months of the Bush Administration?

Ritter: I think we’ve never been at a greater risk of American military action against Iran.

Q: Really? Why do you say that?

Ritter: Because the Bush Administration has made it clear that it seeks to resolve the Iranian problem before it leaves office. It has defined the Iranian problem in quite stark terms. It’s a nation pursuing an illegal nuclear weapons program. It’s a nation that retains the status, according to the United States, as the largest state-sponsor of terror in the world today. And it’s the nation solely responsible for all that ails the United States in Iraq today.

The American people need to understand that when we speak of conflict between Iran and the United States, we’re not talking about a repeat of Operation Iraqi Liberation, later known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. We’re talking about a limited military strike, at least initially. We’re talking about a five- to seven-day aerial bombardment that can be extended to thirty days.

Q: How limited would that be? Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker says this could involve many hundreds of targets. Then things could spin out of control. The Atlantic magazine did a war games exercise on this, and the thing just spun and spun and spun. So it won’t be just a simple seven-day or two-week or three-week affair.

Ritter: I concur with these assessments. But the Bush Administration continues to live under the illusion that it can limit this conflict. I was always trained in the military that the enemy has a vote. When you start something, you’ve suddenly lost control. No plan survives initial contact with the enemy.

Q: What are some of the predictable negative consequences?

Ritter: The easiest one is that the Iranians won’t roll over and play dead, and the Iranian people won’t rise up and embrace the United States for bombing them. The Iranians aren’t stupid. They know the region better than we know it, and they are planning, as we speak, appropriate retaliatory measures. If they shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which they can do, if they intervene into Saudi oil production in the eastern oil fields, if they shut down Kuwaiti oil production, if they unleash the hounds of war in southern Iraq and shut down oil production there and tie down American troops there, if they fire ballistic missiles against the state of Israel, thereby prompting an Israeli retaliation–all of these things are well within the realm of the possible, I would even say probable. But all of them will create a massive escalation of the conflict.

Q: How will Bush be able to get away with this?

Ritter: Well, he’s already gotten away with it. There’s no constitutional impediment to prevent the President from launching a military strike against Iran.

Q: There’s Article 1, Section 8, which says Congress has to declare war.

Ritter: Congress has declared war. Congress has given this President two standing war powers resolutions that clearly link the use of military force to the global war on terror. And the President has successfully defined Iran as the largest state sponsor of terror in the world today. The United States Senate has gone further, giving the President a de facto target list by naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Command as a terrorist organization.

Q: This is the Lieberman bill, right?

Ritter: Kyl-Lieberman.

Q: Some members of Congress tried to pass a bill requiring Bush to come to Congress first before attacking Iran. But that bill died.

Ritter: It died for some of the most curious reasons, too. Nancy Pelosi opposed this legislation because she did not want to tie the President’s hands when it came to securing the national security interests of–and now we can have a drum roll–Israel. Here we have an elected American official willing to push the Constitution of the United States aside not for American interests, which I would still disagree with, but for the interests of a non-American entity, in this case, the state of Israel. I find this as repulsive as can possibly be.

Q: You’ve written a book about the peace movement. What’s your critique of the peace movement, and what should we be doing?

Ritter: This book was a product of my frustration out of the 2006 elections. Democrats got control of Congress, and a lot of people in the anti-war movement were claiming victory, saying, we’ve reversed the trend, and a majority of Americans are against the war in Iraq. But the people are against the Iraq War not because we went to war under false pretenses but because we’re losing the war. The other thing is, what anti-war movement are we speaking of? There is no anti-war movement in America. There are grassroots organizations across the country that can’t even organize themselves to do anything meaningful. I do a lot of traveling. I have nothing but the highest respect and regard for these true patriots who are out there doing the job of a citizen. But to say this is a movement of a national scale is misleading. We can’t even get two of the big organizations to sit down and talk with each other. You get ANSWER to sit down with United for Peace and Justice–it won’t happen. If you call yourself an American who believes in the principles set forth in the Constitution, who believes in citizenship, who believes in the rule of law–that’s what the anti-war movement should be, not anti-war, but pro- America, pro-Constitution. We’re the real American movement. But you need to understand that there’s an element out there that’s against you. They’re engaged in ideological warfare. And unless you’re organizing yourself to wage war, you’re going to continue to get beat.

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.

725
For Your Information / Interview with Gareth Peirce/ Moazzam Begg
« on: July 09, 2008, 09:10:09 PM »
Interview with Gareth Peirce
Moazzam Begg
Cageprisoners

MOAZZAM BEGG: Perhaps you don’t remember, Gareth, but one of the first times I met you, you said that, it was the Irish first and I can see now it’s the turn of the Muslims. This was before September 11th had taken place. Did you ever envisage that we’d be in the situation that we are today that you would have to defend people who are held without charge and without trial again?

GARETH PEIRCE: No. I’m sure none of us, whatever observations we might have made, probably in the same way that people at the beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland would never have envisaged thirty years of sustained nightmares. I don’t think we could ever have thought that things would come to how they are now.

MB: We both visited Northern Ireland, I think it was last year, at the opening of the Free Derry Museum and I was very taken by the powerful message that was given out at that meeting, at the opening of the museum, meeting many people, including Martin McGuiness for the first time in my life and seeing that people now were going through the peace process, had gone through a process which began in a sense with internment, and then Bloody Sunday followed as a result of that internment. Is it correct to say that what we have today is akin to internment? Is it the same? Is it different?

GP: I think internment, as it was imposed upon the Nationalist community, was probably the wake up call to the Nationalist movement that they had to stand up and fight. And the repression of protests against internment in particular, the civil rights marches and the murders by British soldiers of civilians on Bloody Sunday, those were the ways in which the armed conflict in fact began and fuelled volunteers enlisting because there was no other way. And I think probably looking back it would not…We’re all aware that, looking back, Nationalists in Northern Ireland would now say we would never have advanced to the point of shared power in Northern Ireland had there not been an armed conflict - that’s the way retrospectively history would be viewed. But equally looking back it would be seen that there would never have been an armed conflict and should never have been an armed conflict if equality and sharing of power had ever been there in the first place; so it’s become a circular route of history, and the lesson, I suppose, we learn is those thirty years of conflict need never have happened and that’s perhaps what is now so frighteningly clear. We needn’t be in the situation we are in now, we simply need not be in it and there are so many ways in which the state is viewing people and acting towards them and implementing legislation to deal with those people that’s just plain wrong and it’s mad, it’s a completely mad construction in relation to many of the people who are at the receiving end.

MB: Is there a parallel? Do you see something happening at that time that is happening again? Or is it different?

GP: If one takes the straight parallel of internment it’s a pretty even equation. There was just a locking up of the wrong people as a symbolic exercise to achieve a political end. To that extent, our internment in 2001 was a very similar exercise. However, were one to be a member of the Muslim community in this country now, I think there would be a different feeling than to have been a member of the Irish community in the past and I think that there was all along a comprehension by the politicised Irish community that allies were needed, political allies were needed, no matter the extent of the armed conflict that was raging; that somewhere along the line there needed to be a progressive, political dialogue - even if it was not with the British state, with allies: the Irish government, or Irish Americans or the worldwide community. It is much harder now, I would think, to identify political allies in the world. The allies that the Muslim community deserves to have appear to come from informed NGOs, campaigning organisations who comprehend the attack that is being made on human rights, rather than organisations, countries, regimes, administrations, that comprehend that there has to be a political shift. It’s more a comprehension of how the law has been distorted, that appears to be the only lifeline to hang onto, more than a way of moving towards a recognition that the world cannot go on like this; we cannot go on with this level of political and religious incomprehension. We cannot. We are in a state of grave danger.

MB: The day I returned from Guantanamo and I met you and spoke to you, you told me the next day you could not be there with me for the interviews with the police because you told me you had to rush off to the House of Lords to issue a decision in the case of the internment, the Belmarsh detainees. I still never really understood what that meant in terms of a decision being made by the most powerful legal body in the country and then in practical, tangible terms, it meant nothing, when they were re-arrested. Can you just explain that to me?

GP: The government had gone through a number of deceits. It had told the Council of Europe that in December 2001 this country was facing a grave emergency so that the fabric of the nation was threatened, so that a dozen men had to be locked up indefinitely without trial. That was never true. The factual claim was false for all to see. The legal claim sustained itself over three and a half years until the House of Lords ruled. That was a significant victory in a number of ways. It reaffirmed that the courts in this country were capable of assessing and delivering a profoundly moral message; that we will not stoop to that kind of legislation, we simply will not, whatever the odds. But all of that legislation came in on the excuse of 9/11, which frankly had nothing to do with this country until we made it something to do with this country. But there followed thereafter another excuse, and that was the bombings in London of July 7th, five months after the interned men were released.

MB: And were these men ever said to have any link, or any association?

GP: No, nothing, absolutely nothing, whatsoever. They were young British men, very quickly within a couple of days from Leeds known to have carried out the bombings on their own; not Arabic speakers, British nationals. There has never been any suggestion that they were motivated by, inspired by, connected with the foreign national Arabic speaking Algerians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Libyans who have been interned. Nothing to do with them. However, within days the Prime Minister again took the same group of men for his symbolic response. This country is going to face up to this grave emergency. How? By changing the rules of the game. This is what he said, changing the rules of the game. How does he do it? He will lock up these men once again and this time, deport them to their own countries who will torture them and probably kill them. For three and a half years, he had said we can’t deport them because they’ll be tortured and therefore we will lock them up indefinitely without trial. Now he was saying suddenly overnight that we can…

MB: Based on the infamous memorandums of understanding.

GP: Although with Algeria, they didn’t ever achieve a memorandum of understanding, in the end they gave up, but nevertheless the deportations were ordered. The same tiny little group of men who were there to become the scapegoats for the administration to show that they were tough on terror, shoulder to shoulder with Bush, dealing with an emergency in an utterly illogical, false, unjustified way/ But it didn’t really matter to the mass of this country because these were outcasts, outcasts from society. They didn’t belong, they were foreigners, they had no rights - that’s how in general we perceive it here.

MB: These men have become, as you’ve said, outcasts and it would have been understandable had they been charged with a crime or had some evidence been put forward about them being involved in some sort of activity against the British government or in general. But that’s never happened. And I remember you told me that they’ve not even been interrogated.

GP: No, no they’ve not ever been questioned. There’s much debate as to whether the police need powers to question people for 7, 14, 28, 90 days. They’ve never been questioned at all, never.

MB: And the Security Services have never asked a question about them?

GP: No, no, no, no. No, they’ve made an assessment. What the assessment is we don’t know because the processes that have been constructed are to have courts that hear secret evidence so that the person himself will not know the evidence.

MB: I remember when you wrote to me in Guantanamo Bay, one of the things you told me about, the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which was this sort of kangaroo court, which didn’t have any legal jurisdiction and you told me I shouldn’t take part in it because it’s something that includes secret evidence, you don’t get witnesses, there’s no appeals process – in fact there’s no process, it’s simply a military panel making a decision on your life. This seems to me…

GP: It was somewhat hypocritical of me to write that, wasn’t it? Given what was happening here.

MB: Because the lawyer also does not get the right of hearing the evidence, also.

GP: Yes.

MB: And this is where they determine a person’s – not guilt, because they have not been charged with a crime – but a person’s security threat level almost. And as a result of these secret proceedings they are either continually kept in prison or put out under a strict regime of control orders, or have placed upon them UN sanctions, or in some cases get deported or extradited. The average person would be extremely surprised to hear this, to learn that these great terrorist threats to this country have not even been questioned. How does the government respond when you ask them to produce the evidence, to say what is it that my clients have done for which they are paying this ultimate price?

GP: Well, one discovers there’s been a range of dishonesty here to get the legislation through Parliament, internment in the first place in 2001. A number of Parliamentarians quite rightly said that we have jury trial in this country, we have proper process of accusation; and they were reassured that this would also be a last resort if this legislation comes in and there will always have been a careful decision by the Crown Prosecution Service before we resort to the last resort of secret evidence. But after these men were arrested, we wrote to the Crown Prosecution Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and said please just tell us the dates when you took these decisions not to prosecute and who took the decision, what did they have in front of them. When the letter came back, saying actually we never took a decision at all, about any of them. So the legislation was passed on a fraudulent basis in the first place but it is sustained itself even when that legislation was condemned by the House of Lords; its message continues and its decision continues in that the same men were made the subject of control orders, released to forms of home house arrest, again on secret evidence and then some of them made available for deportation, again on secret evidence. But in fact, worse was to come, because we now have discovered that the government has sent the findings of this secret court to each regime, each torturing regime to which it wishes to send this particular group of men. It is a complete breach of every guarantee given to every asylum seeker that your application for asylum will be treated in confidence. We’ve sent the asylum claims to Algeria, and Jordan and probably Libya, and therefore we have placed the same hapless group of men at even further risk – we’ve sent their asylum claims, and we’ve sent the findings of SIAC – the Immigration Appeals Commission that has considered secret evidence. And when one man, Benaissa Taleb, an Algerian, went back in despair - although he was on bail here the conditions were so horrific he decided he would risk torture to leave his wife and daughter here with the ability to have a better life, in the hopes he would not be detained. He was detained; he was tortured, interrogated, charged on the basis of a false confession obtained from torture. And at his trial, the Algerian judge said, "How dare you claim asylum in another country, that’s a betrayal of our country, Algeria. It is an absolute treacherous betrayal to have claimed asylum." So the very fact of claiming asylum…

MB: …is itself guiltworthy (18:53) it’s devastated people’s lives. It’s destroyed, not just the men and their ability to be men for their families, but also the effects - whether it’s imprisonment without trial, whether it’s the control order regime – I’ve spoken to several people, either the prisoners or under control orders who speak of finding this a paradox in Britain, of a country that is supposed to be one of the bastions of freedom, liberty and justice, where in fact many of them had sought asylum for that reason in the United Kingdom, and laws are being created specifically for these men; men who still have not been charged with a crime. Some of them, as you said have correctly, opted to return home facing torture; one I’ve spoken to recently, Abu Rideh, is on hunger strike, has tried to harm himself, as a result of these strict measures that he has on him. His family life is completely upside down as a result of it. Is there any hope for them at all?

GP: For a long time, in a probably misleadingly, not intentionally, lawyers have said to the men there is hope, this legislation can’t be right. We can win internment. Control orders can’t be right; we can win this in courts. Deportation to countries that torture, with memorandums of understanding, can’t be right; we could win this. But the people we represent become very tired and very cynical and very disbelieving. They will say perhaps you were right but it took three and a half years for internment to be overturned. Perhaps you were right about deportation, but we have been in prison now for three years - another three years, on top of the three and a half from internment. And those men will say even if we win, look at the cost to our families or to the community and - even more cynically - if we win, the government will simply introduce something else. So the prospect of normality of life has become nil and it’s an endurance test in which the government has all the time in the world on its side and men see their lives disappearing; young men who are single see no prospect of ever being able to marry and have a family; men who are married with children, see the children growing up without fathers at all; or with fathers at home in circumstances that are destructive of a normal family life. I think, to be frank, people given a choice would never, never want to be here. Refugees would never have chosen to come here if they’d ever known this was ahead of them and if there were any prospect of another country, a safe third country, no one would be here for a moment. But what we’re doing is meant to be sending a message to the world, isn’t it? We’re not acting only in relation to our domestic borders; we’re trying to encourage other countries to behave in the same way.

MB: I had a meeting with a judge, a judge advocate, a general from the US military about three weeks ago. He was so adamant that detainees’ cases in Guantanamo could be won, through fighting their case in the court and ultimately to the Supreme Court. In fact, he felt so confident that the tie he had on which had Supreme Court frontages on it, he took off during dinner and gave it to me. And I thought to myself, no one has been released from Guantanamo as the result of any legal proceeding, even when the Supreme Court decision was passed, in Rasul vs Bush. But at least in the cases in Guantánamo and in my case in particular, when you were working on it, there was a public outcry, eventually. And that is what ended up securing or bringing about our release to the embarrassment and so forth, but in the case of the men here who are held, not in similar circumstances, but under similar attitudes of the law, or of the government, where they don’t have the right to challenge their detention; why is it that the public simply - to be as blunt as possible – doesn’t give a damn?

GP: We’re a pretty apathetic country politically. We’re a pretty xenophobic country. It’s always an easy populous message to wave the flag of no more immigrants, no more refugees, enough’s enough. And if you add that basic concept to terrorism then the equation’s complete. These are people that the nation were being encouraged to think no country would want within their borders; countries made to think these are dangerous people. As no one has ever talked to them I can’t see how any one can properly assess what they are. But those who are detained, or not detained, some of whom you have met, many of whom I have met, talking to them, we’re quite capable of seeing that they are people who are not a threat – far from it. If we had some ability to talk intelligently and sensibly to people who are themselves intelligent and sensible we might find that this country is simply looking in the wrong direction. And if there is to be any hope or prospect of the world becoming a safer, saner place, it has to be on a basis of comprehension and understanding. And at the present moment that is spectacularly missing. I am sure you see that far more vividly than I.

MB: When peace eventually came to Northern Ireland, they had to negotiate with those very same members they had demonised and said were the leaders of the terrorist movements, and cells and the political wings and so forth. And bizarrely before Tony Blair left, one of his lasting actions, I suppose, will be that he was the man who brought Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley together – and still it seems bizarre. Yet we’re looking at some of the people we’ve just mentioned, who are not involved and never been charged with being involved in any acts of terrorism in this country - they are clearly in some cases dissidents from their countries, because that’s how they and why they sought political asylum here. But the government makes it look as if these people are not only part of the problem, but they are the problem. But based on the Northern Ireland example, are they not really part of the solution?

GP: I would have thought that any sane intelligent person could comprehend that, but I think it’s not just talking to the people themselves and finding out that they are not as painted, that’s one thing. But the second aspect that’s missing is that what those people are representative of; as you say, they are dissidents, opposed to the regimes from which they’ve fled – no doubt about it, and justifiably so. We’re talking about regimes that torture people, that kill people, that commit genocide, where hundreds of thousands of people are disappeared, countries that are recipients and agents of the American rendition program. Those are the regimes we’re talking about. And one of the men who is relied upon significantly as a focus of the legislation, what did he do to attract the condemnation of his country, Jordan? He protested against the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. He was the voice in Jordan that said Jordan should not have supported to Saddam Hussein, as it did. And for that he was tortured and for that he was perceived as a dissident and fled. Now it seems to me that there is a wilful and deliberate unethical foreign policy here, in that for our own economic and strategic reasons, we embrace these torturing regimes, and therefore we are in the position where those regimes, complain, as they have vociferously, that their dissidents are here; we then move against them in the name of the War on Terror. But to achieve a world order that is just, we cannot forever uphold those regimes, we cannot forever support them. We fail to understand that the world conflicts that are the most insoluble must be solved and they become solved by some form of comprehension. We are just slavishly following a path of incomprehension, and these men who are here are simply part and parcel of that incomprehension.


MB: A great number of the men have been detained under these anti terror legislation measures or been put under these control orders are actually from Libya. And I think that’s an important case in point, because it demonstrates how many of these Libyan men were given asylum readily by the United Kingdom over the past couple of decades; and then all of a sudden, after the War on Terror an agreement is made between Gaddafi’s Libya, who was a pariah for the last thirty to forty years, and now all of a sudden has become a relatively friendly between the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It’s nothing to do with justice. It’s all to do with interests. How does one explain that, as somebody who lives under a control order regime, for example, when everybody he knows, everybody he deals with on a day to day basis he has to inform that I’m under this control order regime and therefore the warning lights come on? How can he explain that interests have changed, I have remained the same, I’ve never changed at all? Can he do that at all?

GP: There is an element in going through the motions of legal representation before SIAC, before the administrative court of control orders, where all of it seems so nonsensical. You’re talking about whether there should be a boundary drawn around a premises in Leicester that allow a Libyan dissident to go to one gym or another gym. It’s all completely barking mad. We’re talking about young men, or once young men, who, in anybody’s view, courageously stood up to this outrageous tyrant, who is also insane – Gaddafi – who stood up, who protested, who said this regime should not continue. And now their lives are to be conducted with geographical lines drawn around. They are not a threat to national security. It is mad to assess them with this. And yet we’re so far down the road of the rubber stamp from internment being applied to control orders, being applied to deportation, that there’s no longer any capacity for anyone to stand up and say the Emperor has no clothes on - at all.

MB: Yes, that’s true. One of the other things that came out, after the September 11th attacks, in the legislation in the United Kingdom, is this fast track or supposed fast track extradition treaty with the United States of America which is non reciprocal. It has caused great consternation amongst the Muslim community in the case of Babar Ahmad and others. Is there any merit in this at all? Is there any merit, as far as the Americans are concerned? Is there is a real case, that somebody can somehow after all of these years, will a person like Babar Ahmad, or Haroon, or any of the other guys that are under extradition, will they ever be able to rightfully defend themselves if that ever transpires, if they are ever extradited?

GP: They are not meant to be able to properly defend themselves. What they will face when they go there is being detained in isolation, under special measures, imposed on them pre-trial, which will pretty much break any strong human being. If they’re convicted, they will probably spend the rest of their natural lives, in identical situations, virtual isolation in a Supermax prison. The evidence against them will be constructed from corrosive methodology in which witnesses for the prosecution are encouraged to become witnesses by threats; if you don’t do this, you will be made an enemy combatant and locked up in Guantanamo, or in a military brig; or yourself get life imprisonment without parole. The prospects are horrific and the men here fighting extradition know it. The only advantage, slight advantage, is that this greedy American extension of its jurisdiction has come to embrace the banking community here and therefore bankers are getting sent. British aerospace employees are being questioned now because we in this country stopped a prosecution for corrupt payments to Saudi Arabia by British aerospace. That is now becoming an area of interest for American prosecution. There is going to be an awful lot of squealing going on if our upper echelons of business are vulnerable to American prosecution. But the argument is the same: if there is a proper prosecution to be brought the natural forum should be the country in which the person lives and from which the evidence is gained. In the case of Babar Ahmad, that will be here. The man was running a website, with a collective of people of Islamic interests, and simply because the service provider was arbitrarily based in Connecticut his extradition is now sought for trial in Connecticut.

MB: That’s his only link to the United States.

GP: He’s never been to Connecticut. The whole of the readership of Azzam.com, which was the website, was cyberspace, worldwide, anyone could have a look. But it’s Connecticut that’s after him. But it’s this appetite, this same appetite that kidnapped you and took you to Guantanamo; America uber-alles, America the Superpower, America has the right and the ability to make everyone subject to it.

MB: Yes, often I say I’ve never been to America – America came to me.

GP: It did.

MB: Through extraordinary rendition. Babar has never been to Connecticut but he may be sent there through extradition, which almost sounds like extraordinary rendition. What is the prospect for all of these people, all these people detained under these measures? The common denominator of course is that they are detained without charge or trial. And even people who have been charged or convicted of crimes, today we can see for example someone can be convicted of writing poetry, convicted of downloading something from the internet – that’s a significant change from the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Is there any precedent for that sort of thing that you’ve ever seen before? Thought crimes?

GP: There were aspects of that in a way. Look, the IRA was a military organisation carrying out military campaigns, setting off bombs, murders, kidnaps. You could know what was being done. You could arrest, you could prosecute for substantive offences. There was a subtext as well that attempted to be censorship which was pretty spectacular failure, with broadcasting ban, ludicrous. But it was seen as ludicrous and in a way the Nationalist community gained some strength from that. This is more worrying because it’s so confusing, it’s so inscrutable, it’s going backwards. I know when you came back from Guantanamo, and we were talking about the fact people were being interned and what for. Well, insofar as they knew it was because they supported Chechen resistance. And you commented, ‘Oh, has that become a crime since I’ve been gone?’ Well, the answer is it never was a crime, it isn’t a crime but it is somehow being devolved into being a crime, in the sense it’s terrorism now. Self defence or self determination has been twisted into being terrorism, by somehow attaching liberation struggles through expanding definitions into something that is criminalised. And that is utter confusion. If one was a lawyer and someone came to you and said, is it a crime for me to support a resistance struggle. You would say, no, the United Nations Declaration of Independence tells you that you can. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights tells you that it’s appropriate to overthrow a tyrant as a last resort, it’s appropriate to support an entity that is able to claim self determination. That’s all gone by the board definition of terrorism that now says all of that is a crime. Any attempt to overthrow any government anywhere in the world is now terrorism, and therefore it’s all a political decision on the part of our government as to what it will go after and what it won’t. And who can know where they stand? And people go to lawyers and say if I publish this book, if I put up this website, is it legal or not? He will say in theory it’s legal, but in practice it well could be a crime, and so there is no certainty. And people, there are many people in prison now who haven’t a clue why they are there, absolutely no idea; and there are some young people convicted who do not know, do not understand why they’ve been convicted. They’ve searched the internet, they’ve looked at things, they’ve left a trace on their computer and suddenly that’s a crime.

MB: It sounds to somebody who hadn’t, wouldn’t have heard of these things before, an outsider coming to the United Kingdom, who would have heard of these things, quite bizarre, that Britain has changed. It sounds like what the Archbishop of York recently said that Britain is becoming a police state in some ways.

A lot of the people who have been charged with crimes I’ve tried to compare them with some of the former IRA prisoners I’ve met, and one of the things they’ve said was that at least in our time - and I’m talking about the people who were convicted, who openly said that they were involved a part of the Nationalist struggle - they said at least in our time we were convicted for things that we did, or planned to do, or tried to do, or wanted to do, or admitted to do. One of them said it seems now people are amongst he Muslim Community are being convicted for just thinking. And I find that quite stark for him to say that, as that’s what many people feel like in the Muslim community; and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of people in the Muslim community are afraid to advocate on the community’s behalf in the way that the Nationalist community had done, though there were completely different goals, and aims and objectives. But there is this constant, recurrent statement that’s said to people like me or anybody who’s ever been detained anywhere, that you don’t have to be Muslim or anything, it’s just something that people intrinsically believe, that the state can’t be wrong; therefore, if you’ve been detained, if you’ve been questioned, if you’ve been arrested, if you’ve been a suspect, there’s no smoke without fire, you must have been doing something. How does one counter that argument, as it’s something that remains with you even if you’ve been exonerated? You campaigned for the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six who were eventually released, convictions were not stayed, but even they have to carry the stigma of well, the state couldn’t have got it wrong. How can one explain to ordinary people that the state not only can get it wrong but often gets it wrong?

GP: I think one of the things that you do, has great value. You go round talking to an extraordinary range of people and a significant percentage of that range probably wouldn’t have encountered you in your ordinary course of events but because of this accident of fate you are breaking a number of preconceptions for those people. But you can’t go round the whole country; you won’t manage to do that.

MB: I’ve had a pretty good go of it.

GP: You’ve had a good go. Middle England - you’ve done very well. But a lot of it is lack of any opportunity to comprehend. You’ve certainly see now a great deal of comment about prisons, and about prisoners being radicalised and a lot of nonsense about Muslims in prison. But there is an extraordinary misapprehension. If young men and young women are turning to faith and are learning about a new religion or learning more about their religion, and that religion is Islam, it seems incredible that there is no recognition that this is an amazing wonderful thing. That’s quite extraordinary in this secular age in which we live; that there are young people - that’s quite the extraordinary thing - a new generation, new generations coming to faith. Frankly, prisons should be incredibly happy that of the prison population there is not only faith but there is an abstention from drugs, from alcohol, from violence, and all that goes with being devout. Instead of that, it’s all being perceived as dangerous, dangerous radicalisation, and prisoners being broken up, one from another, lest they contaminate one another by encouraging faith. Now if we’ve got to that, it’s an extraordinary stage of our thinking and our history, and we certainly now suddenly see in relation to bail, or control orders, people are being moved from areas where there is a Muslim community. It’s very, very, very close to a kind of ethnic, religious cleansing. I find it quite extraordinary.


MB: And deliberate.

GP: Yes, and conscious, and deliberate. But yet how can we be in this, even if it’s a secular age that we’re in - and it is; in terms of what used to be a homogenous fairly cohesive Christian community – it isn’t that any more. But have we now moved to an absolutely medieval frame of mind where we see the embracing of a religion as sinister. It seems to me that is very close to where we are; in which case we have torn up all our history. We have torn up all of our moves towards tolerance, all of our moves towards the right to individual respect for religion, and freedom of thought – it’s all gone, if that’s where we are.

MB: There is something in the press daily about just what you’ve said, about the demonisation of Muslims - and I know a lot of people who simply don’t want to turn on the television or read the newspapers as they are afraid of hearing the next sensational anti-Muslim story. People have termed it Islamophobia, and they can term it whatever they like – but is that an extension of racism, or is it something completely new? Is it something that’s a latent fear of something that has existed for a long time, a fear of Islam, the clash of civilisations, the fear that Islam will engulf the West in the way that it was or supposed to have been doing, or attempted to do in the Middle Ages? Can it be that? Can people be so afraid of something from hundreds and hundreds of years ago?

GP: It’s very hard to disentangle it as it’s all been stuck together with the glue of terror, and you can’t disentangle that. The War on Terror is the war on Islam. It’s impossible in terms of public understanding to wind it back, however much there is a rational debate about if people commit acts of terror, they’re to be seen as doing that. If people are of a faith, they’re to be seen as that. It’s become completely moulded together in a public consciousness. I’ve no idea how anyone can begin to disentangle that other than knowing, knowing people; because those of us who’ve had the rare, unusual luck of knowing many people of a different faith, in the Muslim community. Familiarity becomes normality and normality comes to the point where actually that’s how everyone should be. And you see family life, you see tolerance, you see broadmindedness, you see humour in ways that you might not have seen a decade before you had that experience. But how do you transpose that to the whole of society? I don’t know.

MB: Yes, sometimes I wish, when I sit and talk to some of the people who’ve been accused of being some of the world’s greatest terrorists, I really wished they could be a fly on the wall or people could see what we’re talking about, listen to what we’re talking about, and be surprised about what we are talking about and what our attitudes are.

GP: I agree completely. We’ve all had our preconceptions.

MB: Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why they won’t allow phone tap evidence into court.

GP: They’d hear a lot of talk about, surprisingly about King Lear or Ernest Hemingway or Harry Potter.


MB: That’s right, amazing, they certainly would. You have earned the title ‘al-Umm’ from some people.

GP: I know what ‘Umm’ means.

MB: ‘Al Umm’ of course means ‘the Mother’ and it’s not a title that’s easily given in the Arab world.

GP: I thought anyone could have it who had a son – which I do.

MB: Of course, but you’re not the real mother of these men but you are regarded as a motherly figure. That’s a great honour, I think that’s been bestowed by these men who regard you with the respect of ‘the mother’. In the Arabic language, ‘Al-Umm’ sometimes refers to the greatest, or the pinnacle of something. What is it you feel on a personal level towards the men that you defend and campaign for?

GP: I thought ‘Al Umm’ was simply a generational, recognition of age. I understand that - the feeling of family; maybe this experience has gone on too long, sufficiently long for us all to know each other very well. When you’ve known people for a long time, and represented people for a long time, you come to know them very well, and
the friendships you make are an extraordinary privilege that you know people in ways you would never have known them, probably in ordinary life. I know that the people I represent fiercely criticise me and quite rightly, but knowing them as well as I do and their position, and their thoughts, and where they stand on relevant issues, that I don’t sufficiently argue their case publicly. I know – and they’re right. And so I regret that I am not a sufficient witness to what I know. What I know is that they are people highly intelligent, very interesting, very thoughtful, who have a range of and a complexity of views that would be of great use to society if they could know them too. And the thought that these men are stigmatised and written off as a threat to national security is simply not right – it’s not right and I know it and I regret that I don’t sufficiently often say it.

MB: Well, the artwork of some of these men is featured in the exhibition and perhaps people can come to know them – the men – through the artwork that they’ve produced. And one of the ideas I had when visited several museums in Northern Ireland, particularly those that displayed artwork produced by prisoners in the Maze and Long Kesh [prisons] and so forth gave me an idea to have prisoners in this period – the Muslim prisoners – be able to display themselves, or display their own artwork and let people see what a father produces for his daughter; what a husband produces for his wife; what a son produces for his mother and what a person produces for his community, in the only way that he can express himself because there’s not much else that he’s able to channel his expressions through. That is, I think, the term people would use often is to ‘humanise’ the characters, but they are already humans, and it’s simply them displaying works that channel some of their work. One of the people or several have produced various mosques. I remember looking recently at just one of them. It gives me these ideas of – just looking at the design – the Golden Age of Islam in Spain, when the nations and the great faiths of the worlds - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - came together and produced this amazing society and it was so advanced that the whole of Europe itself marvelled at it. And when I looked at the art designs and work by these men, I thought to myself, perhaps this is a way in which people and recognise the good that these men have, that is potentially available to them if they were simply were to reach out to it and able to grasp it.

GP: I think probably the most extraordinary piece of Islamic art that you’re probably referring to, that the man who made that, he said that the time that they will recognise me in this country is when I’m Minister for Oil in Algeria!

MB: That’s probably true. I remember there was a book that I was given by the MI5 in Guantanamo Bay called "The English: A Portrait of the People", by Jeremy Paxman. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the MI5 had come all the way to Guantanamo to deposit this book; they had to go and clear through US military censorship. One of the things I read in there was Lord Palmerston’s statement, in 1852. He said that, "We, the British people, have no perpetual friends and we have no perpetual enemies; only our interests are perpetual." And that just seems to be as true today as it was in 1852.

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News Items / Iran will only talk on common points with 5+1
« on: July 06, 2008, 11:02:34 AM »
Iran will only talk on common points with 5+1
Tehran Times Political Desk


Tehran – Government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham said on Saturday that Tehran is prepared to hold talks with the six world powers on the “common points” in the two sides’ proposals.


EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on June 14 put forward an updated package of incentives on behalf of Britain, the United States, France, Russia, China, and Germany in return for a halt in Iran’s uranium enrichment work.

The package follows an original proposal in 2006, offering nuclear cooperation and wider trade in aircraft, energy, high technology, and agriculture.

Iran has also presented its own package of proposals, offering solutions to international challenges including the threat of atomic weapons proliferation.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Elham said “Tehran has asserted in the letter that it will only hold talks on the common points.”

He vowed that Iran will press on with its uranium enrichment activities in the face of the major powers’ demands to suspend the program as a precondition for talks.

“Iran’s stance on the nuclear issue has not changed and we are ready to hold talks with different countries including the 5+1.”

He rejected reports that Tehran has recently adopted a softer tone on the offer of incentives, saying, “Iran will not relinquish its right (to access nuclear technology). This is the path the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has defined and it will be followed.”

“People are free to express their personal point of view. But it is the government which has the responsibility to make decisions on the nuclear issue,” the spokesman stressed.

His comments came a day after Iran’s ambassador to Brussels presented Solana with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki’s response to the six powers’ letter on ending the West’s prolonged nuclear standoff with the Islamic Republic.

In a telephone conversation with Solana on Friday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said Iran has provided a “creative and constructive” response to the sextet’s letter “with a focus on common ground between the two sides.”

The two also agreed to hold further talks later this month.

Solana’s spokeswoman Cristina Gallach confirmed that the response had been delivered Friday evening in a letter to the European Union’s foreign policy chief and to the foreign ministers of the six countries that submitted the offer.

Jalili and Solana “had a positive, constructive conversation. They agreed to remain in contact,” AFP quoted Gallach as saying.


Tehran Times July 6

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News Items / Anger over Afghan air raid deaths
« on: July 06, 2008, 10:54:07 AM »
Anger over Afghan air raid deaths 
 
 
The local governor said US missiles hit two cars carrying civilians
 
 
At least 15 people, including a woman and a child, have been killed in a US air raid in eastern Afghanistan, a provincial governor has said.

The US military said its raid in Nuristan province hit anti-government fighters who had earlier launched mortar attacks on a nearby army base.

But Tamim Nuristani, the governor, told Al Jazeera that two cars carrying civilians, including doctors from a local clinic, were hit by missiles from US helicopters.

"The Americans told people around the base to leave [the area], and they left. About 700 metres from the district office they bombed," he said.

Conflicting claims

Nuristani said that although a mistake by US forces may have caused the deaths, the incident was "inexcusable because [the US] knew that these civilians were leaving the area."

"I think the president, the whole cabinet and the people of Afghanistan are getting angry, and that is not helping our cause, nor the Americans or Nato. It is helping the Taliban, not us," he said.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition insisted that fighters who had attacked a military base earlier were targeted.

The helicopters tracked them down and destroyed the vehicles they were traveling in, First Lieutenant Nathan Perry said.

"These were combatants. These were people who were firing on us," Perry said.

"We have no reports of non-combatant injuries," he said, giving no information on the casualties in the vehicles.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, ordered an investigation into the air raid in the remote district of Waygal near the border with Pakistan and said he was "deeply saddened" by the deaths.

MP killed

In a separate incident, an Afghan parliament member was killed in a gun attack in the southern province of Kandahar, a district governor said.

"Habibullah Jan was shot dead by unknown gunmen while going home on Friday evening," Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, governor of Zharai district in Kandahar province said.

Jan was killed hours after he had visited an Afghan army compound in Zharai.

Zharai is a particularly dangerous part of Kandahar where Canadian forces from the Nato alliance have battled fighters loyal to the Taliban over the last two years.

Yousuf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that their fighters had any involvement in the killing.

"This is not our work," Ahmadi, speaking from an unknown location, told AFP by telephone on Saturday.

Jan was a military commander in the area before he become a member of parliament.

Meanwhile on Saturday, 10 Taliban fighters were killed in Helmand province when a roadside bomb they were planting detonated prematurely, Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, a police chief, said.
 

 Source: Al Jazeera and agencies  July 5th, 2008

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For Your Information / Afghanistan - a hidden catastrophe
« on: July 01, 2008, 06:03:05 PM »
Afghanistan - a hidden catastrophe
     
Monday, 30 June 2008
 
There has been scandalously little reporting of the war in Afghanistan, even though the 7,700 British and more than 40,000 NATO troops there are engaged in more intense fighting than in Iraq.

When it is mentioned at all, the war in Afghanistan is presented as a humanitarian, nation-building operation. The reality is that the occupation is itself creating a humanitarian disaster.

In the summer of 2007 the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that the situation in Afghanistan was becoming desperate: “Civilians suffer horribly from mounting threats to their security, such as increasing numbers of roadside bombs and suicide attacks, and regular aerial bombing raids…Thousands of people have fled their homes and are continuing to move in search of safer areas”.

The Red Cross report said that the local population was suffering particularly badly in the south where the fighting has been heaviest and where most British troops are based.

Afghanistan is now one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. It stands at 174 out of the 178 countries on the UN’s world development index. More than one third of children suffer malnutrition. Seven per cent of under-fives die of hunger. Life expectancy is 44, health care is non-existent for the majority of Afghans and the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

The authoritative Senlis report says that only two countries in the world have worse child poverty rates and that poverty and fighting have led to the uncontrolled spread of refugee camps across the country. The report blames this situation directly on the NATO forces’ war against anti-government groups which has “rendered reconstruction efforts in the area obsolete” and on the shameful level of aid delivered “notwithstanding proclamations of commitments towards the people”.

In the first year of occupation the US promised Afghanistan 1/ 40th of the aid promised to Iraq in 2003. Very little even of that has been delivered. Only 8 billion dollars of the 20 billion promised by the international community has materialised.

All the indications are that over the last year the level of fighting has increased dramatically. There are now nearly twice as many foreign troops in Afghanistan as there were in 2006, and Oxfam estimates that last year therewere four times asmany aerial bombing raids on Afghanistan as Iraq.
But a series of official reports out in January 2008 show that the military strategy is not working and that Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a failed state.

It is not surprising that opposition to the occupation is growing. The Senlis report states that the Taliban has “increasing control of several parts of southern, south eastern and western Afghanistan”. In the past, it says, the Taliban was finding it difficult to retain control of terrain it had conquered.
“That situation has nowchanged”.Anti-occupation forces now control much of Afghanistan’s key infrastructure. They regularly disrupt the ring road from Kabul to Herat, and have the capacity to close the other main roads to the capital. They run electricity substations in three key districts in Helmand, effectively giving themcontrol over the region’s power supply.

The resistance is not mainly inspired by religion. It is fuelled by a mixture of social and economic grievances which include the number of civilian deaths caused by the occupiers, lack of aid, forced crop eradication, lack of public services and the perception that the Karzai government is a puppet regime. No wonder that even US appointee, President Karzai, has recently criticised the occupation and refused to back Paddy Ashdown as ‘Viceroy’.

Military commanders from Britain and the US have been warning it will take decades to ‘pacify’ Afghanistan. The disaster that is Iraq has made some semblance of success in Afghanistan vital for the western powers. But the truth is that the mission here too is failing, and recognition of failure is causing a crisis in NATO. Canada has served notice it will withdraw its troops unless there are significant reinforcements, and in defiance of the US, Germany has refused to send its troops to
the combat zones in the south. In the meantime the occupation causes untold suffering for the Afghan people. It is time for the troops to leave.

 

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Seymour Hersh: Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran
     
Written by Seymour Hersh
     
Monday, 30 June 2008
 
Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations, for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.

Under federal law, a Presidential Finding, which is highly classified, must be issued when a covert intelligence operation gets under way and, at a minimum, must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate and to the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees—the so-called Gang of Eight. Money for the operation can then be reprogrammed from previous appropriations, as needed, by the relevant congressional committees, which also can be briefed.

“The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.” The Finding provided for a whole new range of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi political opposition is strong, he said.

Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding, and “there was a significant amount of high-level discussion” about it, according to the source familiar with it, the funding for the escalation was approved. In other words, some members of the Democratic leadership—Congress has been under Democratic control since the 2006 elections—were willing, in secret, to go along with the Administration in expanding covert activities directed at Iran, while the Party’s presumptive candidate for President, Barack Obama, has said that he favors direct talks and diplomacy.

The request for funding came in the same period in which the Administration was coming to terms with a National Intelligence Estimate, released in December, that concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The Administration downplayed the significance of the N.I.E., and, while saying that it was committed to diplomacy, continued to emphasize that urgent action was essential to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. President Bush questioned the N.I.E.’s conclusions, and senior national-security officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made similar statements. (So did Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee.) Meanwhile, the Administration also revived charges that the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly, by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods. (There have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others, has reported that “significant uncertainties remain about the extent of that involvement.”)

Military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon share the White House’s concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but there is disagreement about whether a military strike is the right solution. Some Pentagon officials believe, as they have let Congress and the media know, that bombing Iran is not a viable response to the nuclear-proliferation issue, and that more diplomacy is necessary.

A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, “We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.” Gates’s comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates’s answer, the senator told me, was “Let’s just say that I’m here speaking for myself.” (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to dispute the senator’s characterization.)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman is Admiral Mike Mullen, were “pushing back very hard” against White House pressure to undertake a military strike against Iran, the person familiar with the Finding told me. Similarly, a Pentagon consultant who is involved in the war on terror said that “at least ten senior flag and general officers, including combatant commanders”—the four-star officers who direct military operations around the world—“have weighed in on that issue.”

The most outspoken of those officers is Admiral William Fallon, who until recently was the head of U.S. Central Command, and thus in charge of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Fallon resigned under pressure, after giving a series of interviews stating his reservations about an armed attack on Iran. For example, late last year he told the Financial Times that the “real objective” of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians’ behavior, and that “attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice.”

Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements. “Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,” he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there, and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way or another is nonsense.”

When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, “Did I bitch about some of the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid.”

The Democratic leadership’s agreement to commit hundreds of millions of dollars for more secret operations in Iran was remarkable, given the general concerns of officials like Gates, Fallon, and many others. “The oversight process has not kept pace—it’s been coöpted” by the Administration, the person familiar with the contents of the Finding said. “The process is broken, and this is dangerous stuff we’re authorizing.”

Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the White House’s. One issue has to do with a reference in the Finding, the person familiar with it recalled, to potential defensive lethal action by U.S. operatives in Iran. (In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)

The language was inserted into the Finding at the urging of the C.I.A., a former senior intelligence official said. The covert operations set forth in the Finding essentially run parallel to those of a secret military task force, now operating in Iran, that is under the control of JSOC. Under the Bush Administration’s interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A. operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional interference. But the borders between operations are not always clear: in Iran, C.I.A. agents and regional assets have the language skills and the local knowledge to make contacts for the JSOC operatives, and have been working with them to direct personnel, matériel, and money into Iran from an obscure base in western Afghanistan. As a result, Congress has been given only a partial view of how the money it authorized may be used. One of JSOC’s task-force missions, the pursuit of “high-value targets,” was not directly addressed in the Finding. There is a growing realization among some legislators that the Bush Administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress about what it is doing.

“This is a big deal,” the person familiar with the Finding said. “The C.I.A. needed the Finding to do its traditional stuff, but the Finding does not apply to JSOC. The President signed an Executive Order after September 11th giving the Pentagon license to do things that it had never been able to do before without notifying Congress. The claim was that the military was ‘preparing the battle space,’ and by using that term they were able to circumvent congressional oversight. Everything is justified in terms of fighting the global war on terror.” He added, “The Administration has been fuzzing the lines; there used to be a shade of gray”—between operations that had to be briefed to the senior congressional leadership and those which did not—“but now it’s a shade of mush.”

“The agency says we’re not going to get in the position of helping to kill people without a Finding,” the former senior intelligence official told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the war on terror. “This drove the military people up the wall,” he said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official said, “the over-all authorization includes killing, but it’s not as though that’s what they’re setting out to do. It’s about gathering information, enlisting support.” The Finding sent to Congress was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.

The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced capture or harm.

The legislators were far from convinced. One congressman subsequently wrote a personal letter to President Bush insisting that “no lethal action, period” had been authorized within Iran’s borders. As of June, he had received no answer.

Members of Congress have expressed skepticism in the past about the information provided by the White House. On March 15, 2005, David Obey, then the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, announced that he was putting aside an amendment that he had intended to offer that day, and that would have cut off all funding for national-intelligence programs unless the President agreed to keep Congress fully informed about clandestine military activities undertaken in the war on terror. He had changed his mind, he said, because the White House promised better coöperation. “The Executive Branch understands that we are not trying to dictate what they do,” he said in a floor speech at the time. “We are simply trying to see to it that what they do is consistent with American values and will not get the country in trouble.”

Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully with Congress. He said, “I suspect there’s something going on, but I don’t know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it. We still don’t get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence that they give us information on the edge.”

None of the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre Reyes—would comment on the Finding, with some noting that it was highly classified. An aide to one member of the Democratic leadership responded, on his behalf, by pointing to the limitations of the Gang of Eight process. The notification of a Finding, the aide said, “is just that—notification, and not a sign-off on activities. Proper oversight of ongoing intelligence activities is done by fully briefing the members of the intelligence committee.” However, Congress does have the means to challenge the White House once it has been sent a Finding. It has the power to withhold funding for any government operation. The members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership who have access to the Finding can also, if they choose to do so, and if they have shared concerns, come up with ways to exert their influence on Administration policy. (A spokesman for the C.I.A. said, “As a rule, we don’t comment one way or the other on allegations of covert activities or purported findings.” The White House also declined to comment.)

A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with a Democratic victory in November, “it will take another year before we get the intelligence activities under control.” He went on, “We control the money and they can’t do anything without the money. Money is what it’s all about. But I’m very leery of this Administration.” He added, “This Administration has been so secretive.”

One irony of Admiral Fallon’s departure is that he was, in many areas, in agreement with President Bush on the threat posed by Iran. They had a good working relationship, Fallon told me, and, when he ran CENTCOM, were in regular communication. On March 4th, a week before his resignation, Fallon testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that he was “encouraged” about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the role played by Iran’s leaders, he said, “They’ve been absolutely unhelpful, very damaging, and I absolutely don’t condone any of their activities. And I have yet to see anything since I’ve been in this job in the way of a public action by Iran that’s been at all helpful in this region.”

Fallon made it clear in our conversations that he considered it inappropriate to comment publicly about the President, the Vice-President, or Special Operations. But he said he had heard that people in the White House had been “struggling” with his views on Iran. “When I arrived at CENTCOM, the Iranians were funding every entity inside Iraq. It was in their interest to get us out, and so they decided to kill as many Americans as they could. And why not? They didn’t know who’d come out ahead, but they wanted us out. I decided that I couldn’t resolve the situation in Iraq without the neighborhood. To get this problem in Iraq solved, we had to somehow involve Iran and Syria. I had to work the neighborhood.”

Fallon told me that his focus had been not on the Iranian nuclear issue, or on regime change there, but on “putting out the fires in Iraq.” There were constant discussions in Washington and in the field about how to engage Iran and, on the subject of the bombing option, Fallon said, he believed that “it would happen only if the Iranians did something stupid.”

Fallon’s early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations in his area of responsibility. One of Fallon’s defenders is retired Marine General John J. (Jack) Sheehan, whose last assignment was as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, where Fallon was a deputy. Last year, Sheehan rejected a White House offer to become the President’s “czar” for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons the White House selected Fallon for CENTCOM was that he’s known to be a strategic thinker and had demonstrated those skills in the Pacific,” Sheehan told me. (Fallon served as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 2005 to 2007.) “He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible for all military operations within his A.O.”—area of operations. “That was not happening,” Sheehan said. “When Fallon tried to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut him out.”

The law cited by Sheehan is the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act, known as Goldwater-Nichols, which defined the chain of command: from the President to the Secretary of Defense, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on to the various combatant commanders, who were put in charge of all aspects of military operations, including joint training and logistics. That authority, the act stated, was not to be shared with other echelons of command. But the Bush Administration, as part of its global war on terror, instituted new policies that undercut regional commanders-in-chief; for example, it gave Special Operations teams, at military commands around the world, the highest priority in terms of securing support and equipment. The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed military.

“The coherence of military strategy is being eroded because of undue civilian influence and direction of nonconventional military operations,” Sheehan said. “If you have small groups planning and conducting military operations outside the knowledge and control of the combatant commander, by default you can’t have a coherent military strategy. You end up with a disaster, like the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.”

Admiral Fallon, who is known as Fox, was aware that he would face special difficulties as the first Navy officer to lead CENTCOM, which had always been headed by a ground commander, one of his military colleagues told me. He was also aware that the Special Operations community would be a concern. “Fox said that there’s a lot of strange stuff going on in Special Ops, and I told him he had to figure out what they were really doing,” Fallon’s colleague said. “The Special Ops guys eventually figured out they needed Fox, and so they began to talk to him. Fox would have won his fight with Special Ops but for Cheney.”

The Pentagon consultant said, “Fallon went down because, in his own way, he was trying to prevent a war with Iran, and you have to admire him for that.”

In recent months, according to the Iranian media, there has been a surge in violence in Iran; it is impossible at this early stage, however, to credit JSOC or C.I.A. activities, or to assess their impact on the Iranian leadership. The Iranian press reports are being carefully monitored by retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy at the National War College and now conducts war games centered on Iran for the federal government, think tanks, and universities. The Iranian press “is very open in describing the killings going on inside the country,” Gardiner said. It is, he said, “a controlled press, which makes it more important that it publishes these things. We begin to see inside the government.” He added, “Hardly a day goes by now we don’t see a clash somewhere. There were three or four incidents over a recent weekend, and the Iranians are even naming the Revolutionary Guard officers who have been killed.”

Earlier this year, a militant Ahwazi group claimed to have assassinated a Revolutionary Guard colonel, and the Iranian government acknowledged that an explosion in a cultural center in Shiraz, in the southern part of the country, which killed at least twelve people and injured more than two hundred, had been a terrorist act and not, as it earlier insisted, an accident. It could not be learned whether there has been American involvement in any specific incident in Iran, but, according to Gardiner, the Iranians have begun publicly blaming the U.S., Great Britain, and, more recently, the C.I.A. for some incidents. The agency was involved in a coup in Iran in 1953, and its support for the unpopular regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—who was overthrown in 1979—was condemned for years by the ruling mullahs in Tehran, to great effect. “This is the ultimate for the Iranians—to blame the C.I.A.,” Gardiner said. “This is new, and it’s an escalation—a ratcheting up of tensions. It rallies support for the regime and shows the people that there is a continuing threat from the ‘Great Satan.’ ” In Gardiner’s view, the violence, rather than weakening Iran’s religious government, may generate support for it.

Many of the activities may be being carried out by dissidents in Iran, and not by Americans in the field. One problem with “passing money” (to use the term of the person familiar with the Finding) in a covert setting is that it is hard to control where the money goes and whom it benefits. Nonetheless, the former senior intelligence official said, “We’ve got exposure, because of the transfer of our weapons and our communications gear. The Iranians will be able to make the argument that the opposition was inspired by the Americans. How many times have we tried this without asking the right questions? Is the risk worth it?” One possible consequence of these operations would be a violent Iranian crackdown on one of the dissident groups, which could give the Bush Administration a reason to intervene.

A strategy of using ethnic minorities to undermine Iran is flawed, according to Vali Nasr, who teaches international politics at Tufts University and is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Just because Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue,” Nasr told me. “Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic. The U.S. is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran.” The minority groups that the U.S. is reaching out to are either well integrated or small and marginal, without much influence on the government or much ability to present a political challenge, Nasr said. “You can always find some activist groups that will go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population.”

The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda,” Baer told me. “These are guys who cut off the heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.

One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. “This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,” Nasr told me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture.” The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.

The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.

The M.E.K. has been on the State Department’s terrorist list for more than a decade, yet in recent years the group has received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the United States. Some of the newly authorized covert funds, the Pentagon consultant told me, may well end up in M.E.K. coffers. “The new task force will work with the M.E.K. The Administration is desperate for results.” He added, “The M.E.K. has no C.P.A. auditing the books, and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If people only knew what the M.E.K. is getting, and how much is going to its bank accounts—and yet it is almost useless for the purposes the Administration intends.”

The Kurdish party, PJAK, which has also been reported to be covertly supported by the United States, has been operating against Iran from bases in northern Iraq for at least three years. (Iran, like Iraq and Turkey, has a Kurdish minority, and PJAK and other groups have sought self-rule in territory that is now part of each of those countries.) In recent weeks, according to Sam Gardiner, the military strategist, there has been a marked increase in the number of PJAK armed engagements with Iranians and terrorist attacks on Iranian targets. In early June, the news agency Fars reported that a dozen PJAK members and four Iranian border guards were killed in a clash near the Iraq border; a similar attack in May killed three Revolutionary Guards and nine PJAK fighters. PJAK has also subjected Turkey, a member of NATO, to repeated terrorist attacks, and reports of American support for the group have been a source of friction between the two governments.

Gardiner also mentioned a trip that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, made to Tehran in June. After his return, Maliki announced that his government would ban any contact between foreigners and the M.E.K.—a slap at the U.S.’s dealings with the group. Maliki declared that Iraq was not willing to be a staging ground for covert operations against other countries. This was a sign, Gardiner said, of “Maliki’s increasingly choosing the interests of Iraq over the interests of the United States.” In terms of U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement in the killing of American soldiers, he said, “Maliki was unwilling to play the blame-Iran game.” Gardiner added that Pakistan had just agreed to turn over a Jundallah leader to the Iranian government. America’s covert operations, he said, “seem to be harming relations with the governments of both Iraq and Pakistan and could well be strengthening the connection between Tehran and Baghdad.”

The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC’s operations in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success, used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the situations in Waziristan and Iran are not comparable.

In Waziristan, “the program works because it’s small and smart guys are running it,” the former senior intelligence official told me. “It’s being executed by professionals. The N.S.A., the C.I.A., and the D.I.A.”—the Defense Intelligence Agency—“are right in there with the Special Forces and Pakistani intelligence, and they’re dealing with serious bad guys.” He added, “We have to be really careful in calling in the missiles. We have to hit certain houses at certain times. The people on the ground are watching through binoculars a few hundred yards away and calling specific locations, in latitude and longitude. We keep the Predator loitering until the targets go into a house, and we have to make sure our guys are far enough away so they don’t get hit.” One of the most prominent victims of the program, the former official said, was Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior Taliban commander, who was killed on January 31st, reportedly in a missile strike that also killed eleven other people.

A dispatch published on March 26th by the Washington Post reported on the increasing number of successful strikes against Taliban and other insurgent units in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A follow-up article noted that, in response, the Taliban had killed “dozens of people” suspected of providing information to the United States and its allies on the whereabouts of Taliban leaders. Many of the victims were thought to be American spies, and their executions—a beheading, in one case—were videotaped and distributed by DVD as a warning to others.

It is not simple to replicate the program in Iran. “Everybody’s arguing about the high-value-target list,” the former senior intelligence official said. “The Special Ops guys are pissed off because Cheney’s office set up priorities for categories of targets, and now he’s getting impatient and applying pressure for results. But it takes a long time to get the right guys in place.”

The Pentagon consultant told me, “We’ve had wonderful results in the Horn of Africa with the use of surrogates and false flags—basic counterintelligence and counter-insurgency tactics. And we’re beginning to tie them in knots in Afghanistan. But the White House is going to kill the program if they use it to go after Iran. It’s one thing to engage in selective strikes and assassinations in Waziristan and another in Iran. The White House believes that one size fits all, but the legal issues surrounding extrajudicial killings in Waziristan are less of a problem because Al Qaeda and the Taliban cross the border into Afghanistan and back again, often with U.S. and NATO forces in hot pursuit. The situation is not nearly as clear in the Iranian case. All the considerations—judicial, strategic, and political—are different in Iran.”

He added, “There is huge opposition inside the intelligence community to the idea of waging a covert war inside Iran, and using Baluchis and Ahwazis as surrogates. The leaders of our Special Operations community all have remarkable physical courage, but they are less likely to voice their opposition to policy. Iran is not Waziristan.”

A Gallup poll taken last November, before the N.I.E. was made public, found that seventy-three per cent of those surveyed thought that the United States should use economic action and diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, while only eighteen per cent favored direct military action. Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to endorse a military strike. Weariness with the war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public’s tolerance for an attack on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports of the incident made public by the Pentagon press office said that the Iranians had transmitted threats, over ship-to-ship radio, to “explode” the American ships. At a White House news conference, the President, on the day he left for an eight-day trip to the Middle East, called the incident “provocative” and “dangerous,” and there was, very briefly, a sense of crisis and of outrage at Iran. “TWO MINUTES FROM WAR” was the headline in one British newspaper.

The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region. No warning shots were fired, the Admiral told the Pentagon press corps on January 7th, via teleconference from his headquarters, in Bahrain. “Yes, it’s more serious than we have seen, but, to put it in context, we do interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their Navy regularly,” Cosgriff said. “I didn’t get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats.”

Admiral Cosgriff’s caution was well founded: within a week, the Pentagon acknowledged that it could not positively identify the Iranian boats as the source of the ominous radio transmission, and press reports suggested that it had instead come from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the region. Nonetheless, Cosgriff’s demeanor angered Cheney, according to the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn’t do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.

In June, President Bush went on a farewell tour of Europe. He had tea with Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the President and First Lady of France. The serious business was conducted out of sight, and involved a series of meetings on a new diplomatic effort to persuade the Iranians to halt their uranium-enrichment program. (Iran argues that its enrichment program is for civilian purposes and is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Secretary of State Rice had been involved with developing a new package of incentives. But the Administration’s essential negotiating position seemed unchanged: talks could not take place until Iran halted the program. The Iranians have repeatedly and categorically rejected that precondition, leaving the diplomatic situation in a stalemate; they have not yet formally responded to the new incentives.

The continuing impasse alarms many observers. Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister, recently wrote in a syndicated column that it may not “be possible to freeze the Iranian nuclear program for the duration of the negotiations to avoid a military confrontation before they are completed. Should this newest attempt fail, things will soon get serious. Deadly serious.” When I spoke to him last week, Fischer, who has extensive contacts in the diplomatic community, said that the latest European approach includes a new element: the willingness of the U.S. and the Europeans to accept something less than a complete cessation of enrichment as an intermediate step. “The proposal says that the Iranians must stop manufacturing new centrifuges and the other side will stop all further sanction activities in the U.N. Security Council,” Fischer said, although Iran would still have to freeze its enrichment activities when formal negotiations begin. “This could be acceptable to the Iranians—if they have good will.”

The big question, Fischer added, is in Washington. “I think the Americans are deeply divided on the issue of what to do about Iran,” he said. “Some officials are concerned about the fallout from a military attack and others think an attack is unavoidable. I know the Europeans, but I have no idea where the Americans will end up on this issue.”

There is another complication: American Presidential politics. Barack Obama has said that, if elected, he would begin talks with Iran with no “self-defeating” preconditions (although only after diplomatic groundwork had been laid). That position has been vigorously criticized by John McCain. The Washington Post recently quoted Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s national-security director, as stating that McCain supports the White House’s position, and that the program be suspended before talks begin. What Obama is proposing, Scheunemann said, “is unilateral cowboy summitry.”

Scheunemann, who is known as a neoconservative, is also the McCain campaign’s most important channel of communication with the White House. He is a friend of David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. I have heard differing accounts of Scheunemann’s influence with McCain; though some close to the McCain campaign talk about him as a possible national-security adviser, others say he is someone who isn’t taken seriously while “telling Cheney and others what they want to hear,” as a senior McCain adviser put it.

It is not known whether McCain, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been formally briefed on the operations in Iran. At the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in June, Obama repeated his plea for “tough and principled diplomacy.” But he also said, along with McCain, that he would keep the threat of military action against Iran on the table.

New Yorker
 
 

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General Discussion / Rules of the Forum
« on: June 24, 2008, 10:48:33 PM »
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