Saturday, January 12, 2013

Editorial: Collateral Damage

The War on Terror has gone on too long. Collateral damage from the war has hurt us at home and abroad. We must restore the rule of law and put terrorists on trial in US criminal courts for crimes against US citizens. Treating them as prisoners of war — even in isolation at Guantanamo — is an insult to soldiers.

This is the frame for our viewing of President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as director of the CIA.

Shortly after he took office on Jan. 20, 2009, President Obama stopped the use of torture and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” by the CIA and other American forces. He also closed CIA “black sites” but continued “renditions,” the secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the US. He initially ordered the closing of the Guantanamo military prison, though he backed off from that order under pressure from Congress and announced that the Pentagon would move ahead with military trials for detainees in Guantanamo.

Obama also signed a four-year renewal of several controversial provisions of the PATRIOT Act in May 2011, including the use of “roving wiretaps” and warrantless wiretaps, the government’s expanded access to business records, and the “lone wolf” provision, which allows surveillance of individuals not affiliated with any known terrorist organization. On Dec. 31, 2011, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012, which included a controversial provision authorizing the military to indefinitely detain civilians who are believed to have supported the enemy. Obama has said he would not use that provision, but Congress kept the provision in the NDAA for 2013

The Obama administration has justified the use of targeted killings, including at least two US citizens involved in Al Qaeda in Yemen, and expanded the use of remotely piloted armed drone aircraft. The New York Times May 29, 2012, reported that Obama personally signs off on about one-third of drone strikes, including each one launched in Yemen or Somalia.

Brennan, as Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, acknowledged the widely reported drone activity in April 2012, and admitted that some civilians have died from strikes.

Government officials have asserted that civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama are in the “single digits,” but independent counts are considerably higher. The New America Foundation analysis of news reports show 337 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,934 to 3,239 people since 2004, of which 1,489 to 2,605 were reported to be militants. “This means the average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 18 to 23 percent. In 2012 it has been around 10%, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of over 60%.”

But human rights groups have challenged the administration to be more open about its drone program. “It is not enough that care is taken to avoid harm to innocent civilians,” said Raha Wala, an official with Human Rights First, in an interview with NBC News in April 2012. “Brennan’s assertion that any ‘member’ of al-Qaida or ‘associated forces’ is legally targetable is wrong. Under the laws of armed conflict, only members of the enemy’s armed forces, or those directly participating in hostilities or who perform a continuous combat function, may be targeted.”

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame and author of What is War?, wrote in an Aug. 15, 2012, column at that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is a party, prohibits the “arbitrary” deprivation of life, though “the military may use lethal force against enemy fighters during an armed conflict if the use of force meets the requirements of military necessity, and if it will not have a disproportionate impact on civilian lives and property. ...

“President Bush declared a ‘global war on terror’ after 9/11 to, presumably, gain the advantage of more relaxed rules on killing and detention. Some of the same lawyers who tried to develop legal cover for the use of torture produced an even flimsier analysis of why the entire world was a war zone, so that the president could authorize killing and detention of individuals worldwide. ...

“Today, the United States is engaged in armed conflict only in Afghanistan. To lawfully resort to military force elsewhere requires that the country where the United States is attacking has first attacked the United States (such as Afghanistan in 2001), the UN Security Council has authorized the resort to force (Libya in 2011) or a government in effective control credibly requests assistance in a civil war (Afghanistan since 2002).”

Our view is that the use of extralegal rendition, torture and CIA secret prisons during the Bush administration and the continued use of rendition, targeted killings and the informal attitude toward due process under Obama has played into Al Qaeda’s game plan.

Osama bin Laden intended to provoke the United States to overreact to the terrorist attacks and do bad things that would tarnish our reputation around the world in the name of national security. It’s past time that we stop giving terrorists those propaganda victories. Remember that after the 9/11 attacks the world — including Muslim nations — lined up in support of the United States against Al Qaeda’s terrorism. Remember also that Iran offered to cooperate with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Bush/Cheney administration rejected Iran’s overture. Instead, George W. Bush charged in his Jan. 29, 2002, State of the Union speech that Iran was part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea. Then Bush led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003, disregarding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s warning that the move would create “one hundred new bin Ladens,” driving more Muslims to anti-Western militancy.

Bush’s war transformed Iraq from a secular dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, an enemy of Al Qaeda and rival of Iran, into an Islamic republic with strong ties to Iran. The blowback toppled Mubarak in Egypt last year, and Sharia law — real Sharia law, not the imagined threat to Oklahoma — is enshrined in Egypt’s new constitution as Muslim fundamentalists consolidate their hold on power.

In the past decade the world’s support for the US “War on Terror” has evaporated and every drone strike that kills a purported Taliban or Al Qaeda leader — even if they are well-worth killing — helps to recruit more Muslim youth to the terrorist ranks. We don’t have enough Seal teams to take out every militant extremist holed up in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, and the alternatives for reaching out to touch them are cruise missiles and B-52 bombers. If you don’t want collateral damage, don’t go to war.

We think Chuck Hagel is the right nominee for secretary of defense to get us out of Afghanistan and keep us out of other unnecessary wars. As Mideast observer Juan Cole noted at, “Hagel is a decorated war hero, having won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam. He knows what war is, unlike the usual gaggle of chickenhawks who have emerged to accuse him of not being warlike enough ... Hagel not only knows war but knows it from the point of view of the infantry and NCOs, not just the officer corps. Hagel is cautious about wars and what they can achieve, and has become more cautious over time, as his hands got burned by the Iraq resolution.” Hagel also is an advocate for veterans. He has supported the use of diplomacy instead of sanctions in the Middle East and he supports withdrawal from Afghanistan. And he takes the sensible view that US interests should guide US policy toward Israel and Palestine, and that Israel should not have a blank check on US support, which appears to reflect Obama’s view.

John Brennan as CIA chief is a more complicated case. If he can follow Obama’s lead in restoring accountability at the agency, he can do good work there. But at his confirmation hearings senators should probe his role in the use of torture, renditions and drones and other questionable elements of the “War On Terror.” And Congress should follow up with laws that restore real due process for our national security agencies. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2013
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