Tag Archives: war on terror

United States, the Taliban, and the spin doctors

Days after deciding to blacklist an insurgent group linked to the Taliban and responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to say whether she also would brand the Taliban a foreign terrorist organization.  Asked in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg Radio if the Taliban — whose government gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network before the 2001 U.S. military actions — should be blacklisted, Clinton didn’t directly answer.

“You know, we do a very intensive analysis before we designate someone as a foreign terrorist organization,” she said. “We have reached that conclusion about the Haqqani Network, and we think it’s the right decision.”  Clinton’s decision on Sept. 7 to designate as a terrorist organization the Haqqani Network — a militant group with operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is closely affiliated with the Afghan branch of the Taliban [or simply another name for Taliban]– came after months of inter-agency debate.  One issue was the potential impact on already difficult relations with Pakistan. The Haqqanis operate from havens in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region with what U.S. officials have said are ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.  Clinton said in the interview that blacklisting the Haqqanis wasn’t a message aimed at Pakistan.  “No, it is about squeezing” the Haqqanis, she said.  “It’s part of the continuing effort to try to send a message to them — not to anyone else, but to them — because of the really incredibly damaging attacks they have waged against us, against other targets inside Afghanistan, and it’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them,” she said in the interview in Vladivostok, Russia, at the end of an 11-day trip through the Asia-Pacific.  The U.S. had already slapped the Haqqani group’s leaders with individual sanctions, and has long targeted them in military operations and clandestine drone strikes.Adding the Haqqanis to the group blacklist “gives us much greater reach into any financial assets or fundraising that they may engage in, it gives us better traction against assets that they might own,” Clinton said. “It’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them.”

Though the Haqqanis were behind some of the highest-profile attacks on American and NATO interests in Afghanistan, including a day-long assault last year on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and an attack on NATO headquarters there, the debate on whether to blacklist them involved arguments that doing so might hinder U.S. policy goals.

The decision followed months of discussion within the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Treasury Department, Justice Department and the intelligence community over the merits and the timing of blacklisting the Haqqanis, according to officials from different agencies who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Opponents of blacklisting the Haqqanis had argued that slapping them with a label might hinder prospects for engaging them in reconciliation talks to take them off the battlefield. The same may be said of the Taliban…Another concern about blacklisting the Haqqanis — which can also be said of the Taliban — is that affixing a terror label to the group may affect U.S. relations with Pakistan. Some U.S. officials, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, have said Pakistani intelligence and security forces have aided the Haqqanis in order to wield influence in Afghanistan. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said Pakistan needs to do more to crack down on the group.  Pakistan also has ties with the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to U.S. intelligence officials.  The U.S. wants Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to engage them in serious peace talks with the Afghan government to help bring an end to the 11-year conflict.

Excerpts, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Clinton Doesn’t Say If Taliban Should Be on Terror List, BusinessWeek, Sept. 9, 2012

See also statement of Taliban in their website Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

Shut up: torture techniques in clandestine prisons

The al Qaeda suspects who were subjected to so-called harsh interrogation techniques, and the lawyers charged with defending them at the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals, are not allowed to talk about the treatment they consider torture.  Defense attorneys say that and other Kafkaesque legal restrictions on what they can discuss with their clients and raise in the courtroom undermine their ability to mount a proper defense on charges that could lead to the death penalty.  Those restrictions will be the focus of a pretrial hearing that convenes this week.  Prosecutors say every utterance of the alleged al Qaeda murderers, and what their lawyers in turn pass on to the court, must be strictly monitored precisely because of the defendants’ intimate personal knowledge of highly classified CIA interrogation methods they endured in the agency’s clandestine overseas prisons.  Defense attorneys called that view extreme.  “Everything is presumptively top secret. So if my client had a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, I couldn’t tell you that,” Cheryl Bormann, who represents defendant Walid bin Attash, said after the May arraignment of the men charged with plotting the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  At one point in the arraignment, another of bin Attash’s attorneys, Air Force Captain Michael Schwartz, was explaining why his client refused to cooperate. Just when things got interesting, a security officer cut the audio feed to the media and others observing the proceedings from behind a soundproof glass wall with a 40-second audio delay.  “The reason for that is the torture that my client was subjected to by the men and women wearing the big-boy pants down at the CIA, it makes it impossible …,” Schwartz said during the blocked portion of the arraignment, according to a partial transcript later declassified.  Prosecutors have said in court filings that any revelations about the defendants’ interrogations could cause “exceptionally grave damage.”

Civil libertarians argue that if those interrogation methods really are top secret, then the CIA had no business revealing them to al Qaeda suspects.  Defense attorneys will challenge the secrecy rules at the pretrial hearing that begins on Wednesday at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.  Prosecutors have about 75,000 pages of evidence to turn over to defense attorneys in the 9/11 case, but they won’t do it until the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, issues protective orders aimed at safeguarding the material.

Hundreds of men suspected of supporting al Qaeda or the Taliban were rounded up in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere and shipped to Guantanamo in response to the September 11 attacks. (Of the 779 men who have been held at Guantanamo since the prison operation began in 2002, 168 remain.)  The CIA took custody of the “high-value” captives believed to have top-level information that could help the U.S. and its allies prevent further attacks.  It held them incommunicado for three or four years and transferred them among secret overseas prisons, questioning them with interrogation methods that defense attorneys say amounted to torture and which the Obama administration has since banned.  Some details of the program, including waterboarding, mock executions and sleep deprivation, have already been disclosed by Bush and the CIA itself. Jose Rodriguez, a former CIA official, recently defended them in news interviews to promote his book, “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Action After 9/11 Saved American Lives.”

Yet in both the 9/11 case and that of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of sending suicide bombers to ram a boat full of explosives into the side of the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000, the government presumes that every word spoken by the defendants, in the past and in the future, is classified at the highest level — “Top Secret,” with a “Sensitive Compartmented Information,” which is routinely shortened to TS/SCI.  The defendants’ words are also “born classified,” a status their lawyers said has previously been used only to safeguard details about nuclear weapons. So are all documents and legal motions related to their cases, which cannot be made public unless they’re cleared by a Department of Defense Security Classification Review team.  How that team works is a secret.  “I’ve never seen them. I’ve never communicated (with them). No one has ever been able to tell me that,” said James Connell, a lawyer for 9/11 defendant Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.  The Pentagon would say only that the review team includes both civilians and uniformed military personnel and that it can take up to 15 business days to make its decisions.

Proscribed topics include details of the defendants’ capture, where they were held and under what conditions, the names and descriptions of anyone who transferred, detained or interrogated them and the methods used to get information from them, according to the court documents.

Defense lawyers say the classification system used at Guantanamo violates President Barack Obama’s 2009 order that prohibits using secrecy labels to conceal lawbreaking or prevent political embarrassment. They say it also “eviscerates” the legal defense protections Congress set down in the law that authorizes the Guantanamo tribunals.  The government’s secrecy rules mean that every lawyer, paralegal and expert on the prosecution and defense teams must undergo an extensive background check and obtain a TS/SCI clearance. Once they get clearance, they are briefed on what has to stay secret. The document that forms the basis of the presumptive classification is itself secret.  “It is ridiculous,” said Army Captain Jason Wright, one of the lawyers for accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “The briefing is classified, so I can’t discuss what I can and cannot discuss.”

Mohammed’s lawyers have asked the UN special rapporteur for torture, Juan E. Mendez, to investigate claims that their client was tortured. But they could only share with Mendez the information that has been publicly declassified.  “We are prohibited from sharing any details of his mistreatment, even to the special rapporteur,” Wright said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a challenge arguing that the government has no legal authority to classify information that it not only disclosed to the defendants but forced them to learn.  “The question here is: Can the government subject people to torture and abuse and then prevent them from talking about it?” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.  The ACLU said the claim of broad authority to gag defendants infringes on the American public’s right to open trials and goes far beyond what the courts have allowed, namely that censorship must be narrowly tailored and aimed at protecting a compelling government interest.

Excerpt, Jane Sutton and Josh Meyer, Insight: At Guantanamo tribunals, don’t mention the “T” word, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2012

Why the CIA Loves Somali Warlords

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and US military special operations teams carried out frequent espionage and counter-terrorism missions inside Somalia starting in 2003, according to a recent series of articles in a newspaper focused on the US Army.Secret operatives who flew or swam to Somalia planted cameras and phone-tapping devices and paid local warlords to help hunt for key figures in Al Qaeda’s East African network, the reports in Army Times reveal.

Sean Naylor, a reporter for the privately owned Virginia-based newspaper, attributes the disclosures mostly to anonymous sources currently or formerly affiliated with US military or intelligence services.  For example, he quotes “an intelligence source with long experience in the Horn” indicating that although Al Qaeda’s “centre of gravity” was in Mogadishu, “there was a huge support cell split between Nairobi and Mombasa.”  Some of the clandestine missions inside Somalia yielded important results, Army Times reports.

In late 2003, CIA agents persuaded warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed to sell them about 40 surface-to-air missiles, each capable of shooting down a civilian jet liner, the newspaper recounts.  It was a weapon of this type that was fired at, but missed, an Israeli aircraft taking off from the Moi International Airport in Mombasa in 2002.  The CIA paid about $360,000 for the missiles — a sum described by a US intelligence source as “peanuts.” They were taken initially to the US military base in Djibouti and later flown out, Army Times writes.  American agents were flown into Somalia from Kenya on civilian turboprop planes loaded with miraa, the newspaper says.  “The safest flight you can be on in Somalia is the miraa flight,” a source is quoted as explaining.  The planes are said to have landed at the K50 airport, about 50 kilometres southwest of Mogadishu.  From there, CIA case officers and “shooters” from a US special operations force travelled to Mogadishu in small convoys escorted by militants loyal to one or another warlord, Naylor reports.

Devices for eavesdropping on mobile telephone conversations were seeded in several locations in the Somali capital. “The ability to listen to Al Qaeda in East Africa’s phone calls paid big dividends,” Naylor writes.  The ultimate aim of these undercover missions was to capture or kill the 20 or so most important Al Qaeda figures in Somalia, Army Times says. “But rather than use US forces to do this, the CIA’s plan would have Somali warlords capture the Al Qaeda personnel before turning them over to the US to send — or ‘render’ — them to an American ally or one of the agency’s secret prisons,” according to Naylor’s account. At least two of the targets were subsequently hit.

Saleh Ali Nabhan, described as a key Al Qaeda operative in East Africa, was killed in a 2009 raid by US Navy special forces; Aden Hashi Ayro, a leader of Al Shabaab, was among several militants who died in a US airstrike in 2008.  In southern Somalia, US intelligence agents paid local spies up to $2,000 a month, Army Times reports.  A key point of interest was a rumoured Al Qaeda training camp in Ras Kamboni, a coastal town three kilometres from the Kenya border.  But it was not until 2007 that the US became convinced that “hundreds” of fighters were indeed training in and near Ras Kamboni, the newspaper says.

Somali warlords who did not agree to co-operate with the US in exchange for payoffs were threatened with the possibility of air strikes, Naylor reports. That was supposedly a bluff on the part of the CIA, however.

In the first of his articles, published in Army Times on October 31, Naylor describes an operation involving about a dozen forays into Somalia to plant cameras that had been disguised to look like natural or man-made objects.  These “Cardinal” devices were put in place by special forces who travelled via small submarines to within a mile of the Somalia coast and then swam to shore through what the newspaper describes as some of the world’s most shark-infested waters.  The cameras were placed near suspected militant training sites as well as in Kismayu and other ports where foreign fighters were believed to be arriving.

The missions were opposed by then-US ambassador to Kenya Mark Bellamy as well as by the CIA station chief in the Nairobi embassy, Naylor reports.  On the other side was US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. President George W Bush was eventually persuaded to approve the missions, Naylor reports.  One of the devices was discovered in January 2004 by fishermen from Ras Kamboni, Army Times says, citing a report on a Somalia news website.  “Nothing” came out of these operations, however, says a source cited by Naylor. A “senior intelligence official” offered the same verdict: “If it were a business, it’s not making any money.”

Seven or eight years ago, “the warlords’ fear of being whacked by US air power was groundless. There were no US aircraft overhead,” Naylor writes.  He quotes a US source as saying, “We had very, very few imagery assets available — everything was still dedicated to Iraq.”  It was the lack of pilotless aircraft and a shortage of reliable local spies inside Somalia that led the US to undertake risky espionage missions that, in some cases, produced no useful information.

KEVIN KELLEY, Reports detail past CIA operations in Somalia, East African, Nov. 20, 2011