Sunday, September 24, 2006

Political news of the week take 24

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 23, 22, 21, 20, 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Spy Agencies Say Iraq War Fuels Terror
The war in Iraq has made global terrorism worse by fanning Islamic radicalism and providing a training ground for lethal methods that are increasingly being exported to other countries, according to a sweeping assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies.

The classified document, which represents a consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, paints a considerably bleaker picture of the impact of the Iraq war than Bush administration or U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged publicly, according to officials familiar with the assessment.

"They conclude that the Iraq war has made it worse," said a government official familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly have described the war in Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism and argue that Americans are safer as a result of the administration's policies.

The report, titled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," was completed and described to U.S. government officials in April but not made public. The document is what is known as a National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, which is designed to represent the U.S. intelligence community's most comprehensive treatment of a subject.

The 30-page report documents an array of disturbing trends in the war on terrorism and focuses on forces that are contributing to the evolution of Islamic terrorist networks from centralized structures to an increasingly fragmented ideological movement.

"It paints a fairly stark picture of what we all know, and that this is a movement that is spreading and gaining momentum around the world," said the official familiar with the document. "Things like the Iraq war have given the terrorists recruiting tools and places to ply their trade and a training ground."

The official said the estimate touches on a number of factors fueling the jihadist movement, but that "the reference to Iraq was the main one."


In public testimony and unclassified documents, U.S. intelligence officials have for several years been pointing to the more troubling consequences of the drawn-out conflict in Iraq. In particular, officials have highlighted the anger that Muslim extremists feel about the U.S. presence in the region — which has also been one of Osama bin Laden's rallying cries.

Intelligence officials have also pointed to the flow of Muslims from other countries, including Europe, to Iraq to join the insurgency. Those who survive the fighting often leave and return to their home countries with dangerous new experience in urban fighting, bomb-making and — perhaps most important — credibility with other potential Muslim recruits.

Last week, the House Intelligence Committee warned in a report that the danger from terrorists faced by the U.S. was "more alarming than the threat that existed" before Sept. 11. The document also warned that Iraq had become a breeding ground for terrorists who might target other countries.

Detainee Deal Comes With Contradictions:
The compromise reached on Thursday between Congressional Republicans and the White House on the interrogations and trials of terrorism suspects is, legal experts said yesterday, a series of interlocking paradoxes.

It would impose new legal standards that it forbids the courts to enforce.

It would guarantee terrorist masterminds charged with war crimes an array of procedural protections. But it would bar hundreds of minor figures and people who say they are innocent bystanders from access to the courts to challenge their potentially lifelong detentions.

And while there is substantial disagreement about just which harsh interrogation techniques the compromise would prohibit, there is no dispute that it would allow military prosecutors to use statements that had been obtained under harsh techniques that are now banned.


Changes to the procedures for the military commissions established to try terrorism suspects for war crimes also met with mixed responses. Revisions that would let defendants see the evidence against them were welcomed by military defense lawyers and human rights groups.

But some voiced concern that using statements obtained through coercion, even coercion forbidden by the McCain Amendment to Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, would still be allowed in many circumstances. So would be hearsay evidence, as well as a combination of the two.

“You create a situation,” Ms. Daskal said, “in which someone could be convicted based on a second- or third-hand statement from a detainee during an abusive interrogation.”

The issue that most engaged administration critics was the new bill’s aggressive and possibly constitutionally suspect efforts to keep the courts from hearing many detainees’ challenges or claims based on the Geneva Conventions. Though people charged with war crimes would receive trials before military commissions that largely resemble courts-martial and criminal prosecutions, the administration has announced plans to use just a score of those.

About 430 people are being held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and there is no guarantee that they will ever be tried. The legislation, unchanged by the compromise, would prohibit habeas corpus challenges to these indefinite detentions.

“You’re creating a system,” Ms. Daskal said, “where Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” called the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “will have more rights than the low-level detainee who was sold into U.S. custody by bounty hunters.”

Indeed, the propriety of indefinite detentions at Guantánamo will continue to be decided by combatant status review tribunals, or C.S.R.T.’s. The revised rules for military commissions do nothing to alter the tribunals’ unorthodox procedures.

"The C.S.R.T. is the first time in U.S. history in which the lawfulness of a person’s detention is based on evidence secured by torture that’s not shared with the prisoner, that he has the burden to rebut and without the assistance of counsel,” said Joseph Margulies, author of “Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power” (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Secrets in the Mountains of Afghanistan:
GARDEZ, Afghanistan — After completing their deployment to this remote firebase, the Green Berets of ODA 2021 left for home [in 2003] covered in glory.

Apparently unknown to Army officials, two detainees had died in the team's custody in separate incidents during the unit's final month in eastern Afghanistan. Several other detainees allege that they were badly beaten or tortured while held at the base in Gardez.

One victim, an unarmed peasant, was shot to death while being held for questioning after a fierce firefight. The other, an 18-year-old Afghan army recruit, died after being interrogated at the firebase. Descriptions of his injuries were consistent with severe beatings and other abuse.

A member of the Special Forces team told The Times his unit held a meeting after the teen's death to coordinate their stories should an investigation arise.


What distinguishes these two fatalities from scores of other questionable deaths in U.S. custody is that they were successfully concealed — not just from the American public but from the military's chain of command and legal authorities.

The deaths came to light only after an investigation by The Times and a nonprofit educational organization, the Crimes of War Project, led the Army to open criminal inquiries on the incidents. Two years later, the cases remain under investigation and no charges have been filed.

The Times has since reviewed thousands of pages of internal military records showing that prisoner abuse by Special Forces units was more common in Afghanistan than previously acknowledged.

More than a year before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal broke in Iraq, top officers worried that harsh treatment and excessive detentions could lead to criminal prosecutions.

In one November 2002 correspondence, a high-ranking Special Operations official said military police were detecting "an extremely high level of physical abuse" of detainees transferred from Special Forces field bases to a prison in Bagram.

An operations officer with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, the command supervising Special Forces teams in Afghanistan, complained in a memo that prisoners were being held for so long without charges that it "may be implied as kidnapping, a federal crime."

Early in 2003, the chief Special Forces intelligence officer in Afghanistan warned in a note to the task force commander, Col. James G. "Greg" Champion, and his top aides: "As you are all aware, alleged assaults and kidnapping [have] been occurring for quite some time. Again, I want to emphasize, this is not isolated."

The same officer reported another improper detention less than two weeks later, notifying Champion's staff in a memo that reflected his exasperation. "Today is Day 5 of this hostage crisis," wrote the intelligence officer, Maj. David Davis. He said that such unauthorized detentions amounted to "criminal conduct in my book."

CIA ‘refused to operate’ secret jails
The Bush administration had to empty its secret prisons and transfer terror suspects to the military-run detention centre at Guantánamo this month in part because CIA interrogators had refused to carry out further interrogations and run the secret facilities, according to former CIA officials and people close to the programme.

The former officials said the CIA interrogators’ refusal was a factor in forcing the Bush administration to act earlier than it might have wished.

When Mr Bush announced the suspension of the secret prison programme in a speech before the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, some analysts thought he was trying to gain political momentum before the November midterm congressional elections.

The administration publicly explained its decision in light of the legal uncertainty surrounding permissible interrogation techniques following the June Supreme Court ruling that all terrorist suspects in detention were entitled to protection under Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions.

But the former CIA officials said Mr Bush’s hand was forced because interrogators had refused to continue their work until the legal situation was clarified because they were concerned they could be prosecuted for using illegal techniques. One intelligence source also said the CIA had refused to keep the secret prisons going.

U.N. rights envoys condemn Bush plan on interrogation:
United Nations human rights investigators said on Thursday that legislation proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush for tough interrogations of foreign terrorism suspects would breach the Geneva Conventions.

In a joint statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, the five independent envoys also said that Washington's recent admission of secret detention centres abroad pointed to "very serious human rights violations in relation to the hunt for alleged terrorists".

The investigators called again for the United States to close down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of foreign terrorism suspects are being held, alleging that violations including torture and religious discrimination continued to occur.

"...the Government has not only taken no step to close Guantanamo, but it has recently proposed draft legislation to the Congress which is in breach with United States' human rights obligations ... and with the requirements of article 3 of the Geneva Conventions," the statement said.

A License to Abuse - an editorial in the Washington Post
PRESIDENT BUSH made crystal clear Friday that he has one overriding concern about the legislation on foreign detainees before Congress. His "one test," he said, was whether Congress would authorize what he repeatedly called "the program" -- that is, the CIA's network of secret prisons and its brutal treatment of the people in them. "Congress has got a decision to make," Mr. Bush declared during a news conference. "Do you want the program to go forward or not?"

That is indeed the most important question before Congress and the nation. So allow us to elaborate, again, exactly what Mr. Bush means by "the program." He's talking about the practice of sequestering terrorist suspects indefinitely and without charge in secret foreign locations and holding them incommunicado even from the International Red Cross. Until recently, such "disappearances" were the signature of Third World dictatorships. U.S. adoption of them has roiled relations with our closest European allies and impeded collaboration with foreign police and intelligence services.

Mr. Bush also wants the CIA to be able to treat its detainees to such practices as "cold cell," or induced hypothermia, in which detainees are held naked in near-freezing temperatures and repeatedly doused with water; "long standing," in which prisoners are handcuffed in an uncomfortable standing position and forced to remain there for up to 40 hours; and prolonged sleep deprivation.

Throughout the world and for decades, such practices have been called torture. That's what the United States called them when they were used by the Soviet KGB. As the president himself tacitly acknowledges, they violate Geneva and other international conventions as well as current U.S. law. News that the United States has used these techniques -- as well as waterboarding, an ancient torture technique that simulates drowning -- has gravely damaged U.S. standing in the world and the fight against terrorism. It increases the danger that captured U.S. servicemen will be exposed to similar treatment by nations that might otherwise feel obliged to respect the Geneva standards.

When Mr. Bush was asked Friday whether he wasn't in effect seeking sanction for torture, he responded with an evasion. He claimed that the Geneva Conventions' Common Article 3 is "very vague" and that his proposal would provide "clarity" for CIA professionals. In fact, the opposite is true.

Common Article 3, which prohibits cruel treatment and humiliation, is an inflexible standard. The U.S. military, which lived with it comfortably for decades before the Bush administration, just reembraced it after a prolonged battle with the White House. The Army issued a thick manual this month that tells interrogators exactly what they can and cannot do in complying with the standard. The nation's most respected military leaders have said that they need and want nothing more to accomplish the mission of detaining and interrogating enemy prisoners -- and that harsher methods would be counterproductive.

Iraq says kidnappers use victims as unwitting bombers:
Insurgents are no longer using just volunteers to drive suicide car bombs but are instead kidnapping people with their cars, rigging the vehicles with explosives, and blowing them up remotely, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

In what appears to be a new tactic for the insurgency, the ministry said the kidnap victims do not know their cars have been loaded with explosives when they are released.

The ministry issued a statement saying that first "a motorist is kidnapped with his car. They then booby trap the car without the driver knowing. Then the kidnapped driver is released and threatened to take a certain road."

The kidnappers follow the car and when the unwitting victim "reaches a checkpoint, a public place, or an army or police patrol, the criminal terrorists following the driver detonate the car from a distance," the Defense Ministry statement said.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. military. In the past, U.S. officials have said insurgents often tape or handcuff a suicide driver's hands to a car, or bind his foot to the gas pedal, to ensure that he does not back out at the last minute.

Thailand's king gives blessing to coup:
Thailand's long-reigning king endorsed the bloodless military coup that ousted the country's prime minister, according to a televised statement, and the general who seized power promised to restore civilian rule within a year.

The statement from King Bhumibol Adulyadej came after he met Thai army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who has declared himself the country's interim leader.

Sonthi ousted embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while Thaksin was in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly.

In a nationally televised address Wednesday, he declared the coup d'etat complete and promised power would be returned to the people as soon as possible.

Officials Wary of Electronic Voting Machines:
A growing number of state and local officials are getting cold feet about electronic voting technology, and many are making last-minute efforts to limit or reverse the rollout of new machines in the November elections.

Less than two months before voters head to the polls, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland this week became the most recent official to raise concerns publicly. Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said he lacked confidence in the state’s new $106 million electronic voting system and suggested a return to paper ballots.

Dozens of states have adopted electronic voting technology to comply with federal legislation in 2002 intended to phase out old-fashioned lever and punch-card machines after the “hanging chads” confusion of the 2000 presidential election.

But some election officials and voting experts say they fear that the new technology may have only swapped old problems for newer, more complicated ones. Their concerns became more urgent after widespread problems with the new technology were reported this year in primaries in Ohio, Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland and elsewhere.


Paperless touch-screen machines have been the biggest source of consternation, and with about 40 percent of registered voters nationally expected to cast their ballots on these machines in the midterm elections, many local officials fear that the lack of a paper trail will leave no way to verify votes in case of fraud or computer failure.


In the last year or so, at least 27 states have adopted measures requiring a paper trail, which has often involved replacing paperless touch-screen machines with ones that have a printer attached.

But even the systems backed up by paper have problems. In a study released this month, the nonpartisan Election Science Institute found that about 10 percent of the paper ballots sampled from the May primary in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, were uncountable because printers had jammed and poll workers had loaded the paper in backward.


A Princeton University study released this month on one of Diebold’s machines — a model that Diebold says it no longer uses — found that hackers could easily tamper with electronic voting machines by installing a virus to disable the machines and change the vote totals.

Mr. Radke dismissed the concerns about hackers and bugs as most often based on unrealistic scenarios.

“We don’t leave these machines sitting on a street corner,” he said. “But in one of these cases, they gave the hackers complete and unfettered access to the machines.”

Warren Stewart, legislative director for VoteTrustUSA, an advocacy group that has criticized electronic voting, said that after poll workers are trained to use the machines in the days before an election, many counties send the machines home with the workers. “That seems like pretty unfettered access to me,” Mr. Stewart said.

Why the Numbers Don't Add Up in Iraq (Sept. 10):
In this besieged capital, it was a rare good-news story: Killings had plummeted by as much as 50% since U.S. and Iraqi forces hit the streets last month in a show of strength after the sectarian bloodbath of July.

"We're actually seeing progress out there," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman here, said when making the announcement.

Not so fast.

Last week, Iraqi officials released new figures showing the city morgue had received more than 1,500 victims of violent death in August — a significant drop of about 17% from the record of more than 1,800 killings in July, but hardly a great leap forward.

How the U.S. military arrived at the 50% figure remains a mystery. Commanders won't release the raw data, saying such specifics could help the enemy.


During weekly news briefings deep inside barricaded compounds, commanders regularly display slick charts, multicolored bar graphs and PowerPoint presentations, all heralding good news.

"One more indicator that operations are in fact reducing the amount of attacks on civilians is shown here on this graph," Caldwell assured reporters the other day, pointing to a bar chart dutifully placed on an easel by a stone-faced uniformed subordinate. But all the numbers had been carefully scrubbed. They were classified.

"We typically characterize trends in ways that do not divulge raw data," explained a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson.

Commanders have consistently declined to say how many civilians have been killed by U.S. forces, although officials have acknowledged tracking the number. Avoiding the Vietnam-era stigma of "body counts," authorities also refuse to divulge "kill" totals for suspected insurgents.

U.S. excluded car, suicide bombs from Iraq murder toll (Sept. 11):
The U.S. military did not count people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets or other mass attacks when it reported a dramatic drop in the number of murders in the Baghdad area last month, the U.S. command said Monday.

The decision to include only victims of drive-by shootings and those killed by torture and execution, usually at the hands of death squads, allowed U.S. officials to argue that a security crackdown that began in the capital August 7 had more than halved the city's murder rate.

But the types of slayings, including suicide bombings, that the U.S. excluded from the category of "murder" were not made explicit at the time. That led to confusion after Iraqi Health Ministry figures showed that 1,536 people died violently in and around Baghdad in August, nearly the same number as in July.

The figures raise serious questions about the success of the security operation launched by the U.S.-led coalition. When they released the murder rate figures, U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts were eager to show progress in restoring security in Baghdad at a time when Iraq appeared on the verge of civil war.

At the end of August, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said violence had dropped significantly because of the operation. Caldwell said "attacks in Baghdad were well below the monthly average for July. Since August 7, the murder rate in Baghdad dropped 52 percent from the daily rate for July."

However, Caldwell did not make the key distinction that the rate he was referring to excluded a significant part of the daily violence in and around the capital. On Monday, for example, at least 20 of the 26 people slain in the capital were killed in bombings.

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