World-Wide Military Concerns: From Drones to Damsels

Scraps of world-wide military transformations litter the news, leaving a careful observer with one uneasy and exciting implication: CHANGE. News of ground warfare has been largely replaced by flashy articles about “cyber warfare.” The Army slashed 12 combat brigades across the country, begrudgingly announcing the plan to reduce the number of active duty soldiers by 80,000 in four years (long enough a wait to pray for a Republican president to rescue their budget).

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, their infant Air Force is gleaning every drop of information they can from their Western trainers. NATO will end their training aid in 18 short months. Gen. Shir-Mohammad Karimi, the Afghan National Army chief of staff told 13 flight school grads, “Having all these U.S., coalition forces, advisers, instructors and contractors around us is a golden opportunity for all of us… Make sure you do not [squander] learning enough skills from them…”

Meanwhile in Asia, a collection of countries (including China, India, and Indonesia) sit poised to become the leading coalition of military spending. The US has been permitting (resentfully) the attrition of the budget to a mere $707.5 billion (not including FBI counter-terrorism (who do earn their budget!!! …a little prejudiced.), International Affairs, defense-related Energy Dept., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, satellites, veteran pensions, and interest on debt from past wars). However, Asian countries are prepared to meet US military spending by 2021, anticipating an increase in spending of 35%.

Meanwhile in Israel, they stand prepared to surpass the US as the largest exporter in the world of unmanned drones this year.

So where is the victorious “meanwhile in the US” blurb? What are we overtaking? More importantly, WHAT ARE WE WINNING? Well, folks, once more we are winning the make-the-same-arguments-we’ve-been-making-for-a-decade award. Huge trophies will be delivered to the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets as soon as they can fit it in the budget. A two-year study is to be conducted. Although we hear the typical regurgitated physical-requirements argument against the inclusion of women (not surprised face), I was sickened to learn we’re still talking about the “cohesion and morality” of the group (Army Maj. Gen. Sacolick’s words). Trust me, the declarations are ripe with phrases fretting over “social implications” and “distractions.” I kid you not: “Distractions.” Once more women are to be confined from a respected and desired combat position because of men. Well, you can keep your worries because like it or not gender equality is coming for you, special ops. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow! It may not even be in the year 2015 after your comprehensive and oh-so-fair study. But it will be soon. And for the rest of the military’s life!

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

NSA Details Alleged Thwarted Terrorist Attacks

This week, the NSA took more steps toward controlling the damage caused by Edward Snowden when he released information detailing an extensive surveillance program aimed at U.S. citizens.  The NSA had previously said that it had foiled over 50 terrorist attacks against the United States by collecting phone and Internet records, but the agency’s damaged credibility largely caused those claims to fall on deaf ears.  So on Thursday, NSA Director General Keith B. Alexander provided new information on these supposed attacks.  In all, Alexander claimed that 42 attacks had been stopped, although only 13 of those were being planned on U.S. soil.  The others were to take place in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Alexander attributed these numbers to the success of the PRISM program and other surveillance programs that have come under fire since Snowden first released information to the public about them.  The claims did not come without criticism as multiple senators questioned the role that the surveillance programs played in thwarting the attacks.  Alexander further stated that the public had nothing to worry about in terms of privacy because the data could not actually be accessed unless the NSA had reasonable suspicion that it could use the records to thwart an attack.  Essentially, the NSA is claiming that they were only collecting the data without examining it unless they had been tipped off that the communications contained information about an impending attack.

Once again, we’re faced with the problem of not being able to believe a government entity that has already breached the public’s trust.  Although these claims are a bit more specific than the original claims brought forth by NSA brass, it’s still difficult to trust them without any kind of documentation.  But with al-Qaida already changing their tactics based on Snowden’s leaks, releasing information about how these supposed attacks were stopped could prove even more detrimental to our national security.  The NSA has basically gotten itself into a vicious circle of unsubstantiated claims with no legitimate way of backing them up.

Putting aside the claims of thwarted attacks, I personally find it a little easier to believe that the NSA was not accessing the records without reasonable suspicion.  Think about how many records we know the NSA collected and how many more they could have collected without our knowledge, and ask yourself if the NSA really has the manpower and time to rifle through millions upon millions of files that probably have no value in terms of national security.  Whether you believe the numbers or not, the NSA certainly has a monumental task in protecting us from terrorist attacks and it’s hard to believe that they would waste their time investigating people without probable cause.  On top of that, we haven’t heard any reports of American arrests stemming from the surveillance programs that weren’t terrorist-related.  If there were any such incidents, they probably would have come to light along with all the other dirt that has been dug up in the past month or so.

Like I’ve said from the beginning, it’s completely understandable that Americans are still concerned about these programs.  Regardless of how many terrorist attacks may have been stopped by the NSA, it’s unsettling that the government has this type of power.  But I’ve also said that we need to keep it in perspective.  We face more threats today than ever before and we have put our trust in the government to protect us from these threats.  The government certainly isn’t making it easy, but we need to have some level of trust that they won’t abuse their power.  You could easily make an argument that they already have simply by collecting our records, but we still have to weigh that against the possible destruction that could occur if agencies like the NSA weren’t taking these steps.  There’s no easy answer here, but unfortunately these are the kind of questions we’re left with in the current global climate.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Terrorists Changing Communication Methods Post-Leaks

Intelligence agencies are now scrambling to change their surveillance practices due to Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding NSA surveillance programs. Terrorist groups, who have always taken precaution in order to avoid detection, are now changing the way they communicate since they learned that some of the means previously thought undetectable were actually being monitored. Intelligence officials, speaking anonymously and unauthorized, have stated that terrorist organizations – in particular al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes al-Qaida’s Yemeni Branch – have been switching e-mail accounts, cellphone providers and adopting new encryption techniques to mask communications.  Given that we have 56 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, President Obama’s statement that he would soon lift the ban on Yemeni repatriation seems like a bit of a misstatement. If we can no longer monitor those whom we deem to be terrorists, I highly doubt we would allow for the transfer of detainees back to their home countries, regardless of whether they are seen as valuable or not.

Snowden’s leak on NSA surveillance has brought much debate, particularly regarding how much harm was actually done. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that by giving out information on how we are being monitored could cause issues, namely creating smarter criminals. On the other hand, is it really that unthinkable that a criminal is being monitored and therefore has already thought of means to go undetected? Political issues, etc. (which we do not fully understand the global implications of – and they will continue to rear their ugly heads) aside, has the information Snowden released really taught us any more than we could have learned from every cable series or spy movie of the past decade, not to mention the public debate surrounding the Patriot Act?  For instance, take Osama bin Laden. It took us a decade to find him because he went completely off the radar. 1) This is public information – if you’re that smart and that high up the food chain, you’re probably not using a phone and if you were, you’re using it very sparingly. 2) I could have told you that after watching one season of “The Wire.”

I understand the NSA’s problems with the leak.  I understand that some people may have been tipped off and might be harder to locate now.  But at the same time, come on. The guy at the top of the cell isn’t going to be dumb enough to be making phone calls. And the guy at the bottom of the cell is probably still going to be dumb enough to do something else you probably already have intelligence on.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Senate Armed Services Committee Approves Guantanamo Transfer Bill

It now appears that the government is taking steps toward lightening the burden on Guantanamo Bay, and perhaps even closing it.  Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014.  The bill will lift a ban on the transfer of detainees to the United States for the purpose of prosecution.  The bill also pertains to transferring detainees for medical reasons, or even for continued detention in American prisons.

Since 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Defense has been required to certify that a list of conditions have been met before a detainee could be transferred.  Most of the conditions were extra security measures that essentially stopped the government from even attempting transfers, even for low-security risk detainees.  Under the new bill, the checklist would be done away with and the Secretary of Defense would only need to certify that the transfer would be in the best interest of national security.  This would be a much more flexible process that would probably lead to more transfers and possibly more trials for detainees.

Although the bill has been approved, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a law.  No actual vote has been held; members of the Committee have only agreed to debate the bill’s provisions on the Senate floor.  A rival bill has also been drafted by Republicans in the House of Representatives that would maintain the blanketed ban on transfers for any reason whatsoever.

So what are the benefits of the bill?  First of all, it might speed up the process for detainees who are actually being charged with crimes.  Military tribunals are notoriously slow, and we often have to wait years before we see a verdict in these trials.  If we opened up our traditional court system, we might see quicker results.  That’s not to say that our traditional system is lightning quick, but if we remove some of the barriers that prosecutors and defense attorneys face in military tribunals we would probably see a lot more efficiency.

Aside from that, the cost of providing medical treatment to detainees at Guantanamo can be astronomical.  Medical expenses are high as it is, but when you factor in transportation costs for medical personnel and equipment, they become ridiculous.  We would not only be able to cut our bottom line if we were able to provide quicker, better, and cheaper medical attention for detainees, but we would probably be able to quiet some of the human rights concerns that have stemmed from force-feeding detainees that have been on hunger strikes for months now.

Overall, there are a lot of positives to be found in the bill.  President Obama’s initial promise to close Guantanamo a year into his presidency has turned into a lengthy debacle and it doesn’t look like the government will be able to close it in one fell swoop.  If we make the decision to close it, it’s going to be a long process.  And even if this bill were voted into law it’s probably unlikely that high-value detainees would be transferred due to security issues.    So is this bill just a small step towards the slow phasing-out of Guantanamo Bay?  Yes.  But it’s a step nonetheless, and a step we can build on.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden Makes Request for Asylum in Ecuador

Just weeks after leaking the story that the NSA has been collecting phone records and the internet activity of American citizens, it appears that Edward Snowden will not be seeking permanent asylum in China.  Yesterday, multiple news agencies reported that Snowden was on his way to Moscow, where he will apparently wait for Ecuador to grant him asylum.  Earlier reports stated that he might be fleeing to Cuba, but it looks like he never boarded the flight that was supposed to take him there.

That’s right, the man who went on the record saying that he was concerned with the direction our government was headed in regard to freedom of speech and privacy has turned to China and Russia for protection.  I guess he didn’t hear about the Chinese government upping its own surveillance program in Tibet, or that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an entire band thrown in prison for voicing their opinions on Putin’s Russia, or any number of human rights violations both countries have been accused of committing in the recent past.  And he was probably too busy to notice that Ecuador has followed in Venezuela’s footsteps as far as its policy towards America.

Snowden probably fled China because of an extradition treaty we have with them, figuring that sooner or later he would be turned over to the American government and forced to answer for his actions.  It was probably a smart move in this regard since we don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia.  On top of that, our well-documented, strained relations with Putin’s administration make it even less likely that the Russians would ship him back to the U.S.  So why would he go to Ecuador?  Why not stay in Russia?  After all, the United States accounts for roughly 45% of Ecuador’s trade and they could experience a sharp economic decline if the U.S. decided to retaliate against them for harboring Snowden.

It might have something to do with the fact that the American government has already made a serious push toward convincing Russia to turn him over.  The media reported yesterday that the government had filed to revoke Snowden’s passport, which would presumably strand him in Russia for the immediate future.  And like I said before, Ecuador tends to take Venezuela’s stance on foreign relations with the U.S.  Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is known for making strong statements against America, holding frequent rallies against U.S. “imperialism.”  So even if President Obama were to threaten economic sanctions, it doesn’t seem likely that Correa would cave.

It’s also worth noting that Snowden has reportedly received assistance from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame.  Assange calls Snowden “a hero” and claims that he is healthy and safe in an undisclosed location.  Assange himself has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, another valid reason for Snowden to seek asylum in that country.  For one, he knows he has at least one ally with ties to the Ecuadorian government.  Second, the Ecuadorian government has harbored Assange for nearly a year, protecting him from charges similar to those Snowden would face in the U.S.  The precedent set by the Ecuadorian government has to be reassuring for Snowden.

Knowing this, it seems impossible not to question Snowden’s motives at this point.  That’s not to say that he was wrong for bringing this to light.  This story is definitely concerning and it’s provoked quite a range of responses from the public, and I could argue for both sides all day.  Regardless, it seems hypocritical for a self-proclaimed champion of free speech that claims to want to protect the rights of American citizens to turn to two countries known for censorship and a country that regularly voices anti-American sentiments.  I’m sure he has his reasons; we just don’t know what they are yet.  There’s still speculation that he has deals with foreign governments to sell information about our national security.  This seems plausible since he obviously has access to massive amounts of damning reports and other documents.  It could also be as simple as Snowden not wanting to spend the rest of his life behind bars, or worse.  He reportedly pleaded with the Ecuadorian government that he wouldn’t get a fair trial in the U.S.  Either way, it looks like the government’s chances at having a crack at him in a court of law are shrinking at a rapid pace.  Luckily, Snowden hasn’t shied away from the spotlight since he made international headlines.  We might have more answers soon, but for now we’re still playing the waiting game.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden circumvented legitimate whistleblower route

Over the last couple of weeks, the a lot has been said on both sides of the argument about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and the balance of national security and privacy. His disclosures have raised a moderate amount of outrage on the part of libertarians of both parties, as well as a great deal of discussion on the proper balance of national security needs and privacy rights.

Interestingly, most representatives in Congress does not seem that perturbed by the idea of these programs, although they are livid that they were disclosed in this manner. And of course the Executive has been outraged that one of its trusted contractors has turned on them. And now, Snowden has been charged with espionage, however poorly that statute may fit the offense.

Something that is lost in all of this debate on whether the surveillance programs in question are legal, ethical, wise, etc. is the question of who should be asking these questions and how. We have a Whistleblower Protection Act for a reason, after all. It reiterates and reinforces the idea that national security policy questions are to be dealt with by our cadre of national security professionals and by Congress.

Snowden claims that he leaked the information in order to allow the American public to decide for itself if these programs were appropriate. But his own actions and methods belie this intent. By releasing the information into the public domain, instead of following the prescribed chain of notification and complaint, Snowden decided himself that the programs were a violation of the public’s privacy rights. So instead of having the decision on the careful balance between national security nd privacy made by our elected representatives, Snowden ensured that it was made by an unaccountable high school dropout.

I do not bring up this last point out of spite, or to merely disparage Snowden; I, too, never completed high school.  However, there is a reason for the overwhelming preference for college graduates with a broad liberal arts background. Such an education promotes better contextual understanding of the fine balances between the different competing factors confronted in any given situation. This is precisely the skill that the central question in this affair requires: whether the value to national security of these programs is worth the loss of a given amount of privacy. Interestingly enough, this is also exactly the type of decision made on a daily basis by our elected representatives in Congress, who (not incidentally) should have been the Snowden’s last stop before going public.

I know understand how powerful the personal belief that a certain national security program or event is unethical and must be exposed can be. I have been personally involved in a whistleblower case, and seen with my own eyes the emotional strain that can be caused by holding back the information that you vehemently believe should be made public. But that does not excuse those like Snowden or Bradley Manning, who have simply bypassed all of the proper channels and taken the decision entirely into their own hands.

If Snowden was a true patriot, he would not broadcast his information from safe havens abroad, on the run from the law (although he claims he is “not here to hide”—again, his actions belie his claimed intent). He would instead do what respectable whistleblowers do: First go through the correct channels, and when that fails and resort to the open media is required, stand up and face the music. Such whistleblowers often go unprosecuted, and when they are, they can at least rely on a jury of their fellow citizens to come to the rescue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

U.S. Dons the Cape: The Quest for Syrian Peace

As Americans swarmed to theaters to see the new Superman movie, President Obama once again flew to Ireland for the G-8 summit to try and save the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin clung to his support of Bashir Al Assad’s Syrian regime in the faces of seven frustrated Western leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the conference “G-7 plus one,” and berated Putin for supporting Assad’s “thugs” (Whoever said Canadians were non-confrontational?).

Putin’s Senior Political Advisor, Yuri Ushakov, supported the claim that Assad using chemical weapons “does not look convincing” in defense of Russia’s continued aid to Assad’s forces. However, while the planes were landing in Ireland, Assad’s representatives were shopping for aircraft in Russia (Don’t worry. Russia only gave them 10 new MiG jet fighters that they implied should be used for defense only – defense from all that rebel aircraft that doesn’t exist).

Once again the US finds itself now a little more battle weary by stepping up to fight the bad guys. Though Britain and France threw their support behind the rebels long ago, they have gladly ceded the reigns of control of the operation to the US. In short, here we go again. But this time, let’s actually be the good guys. As Angelina Jolie reported to the UN this week, every 14 seconds a citizen crosses the Syrian border and becomes a refuge (half of them are children).  Something obviously needs to be done here.

Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in CA, opined, “This is the story of two drowning men clutching on to one another. We have every interest to ensure both drown.” What better movie plot is there? Two dictators, political oppression with military force, displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians – practically an invitation for Superman US to save the day. Time to take the identity-confounding glasses off Clark and show them who the men (and women) of steel really are!

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Guantanamo Detainees Request Independent Medical Services

Last month, 13 Guantanamo detainees wrote an open letter requesting independent medical examinations and advice. The detainees, who are using their hunger strike as a means of communication and to gain global attention, said that they did not trust military doctors whom they accused of putting their duties to their superiors above their duties to their patients, in violation of the ethics of their profession. In response, more than 150 doctors, including some from the US, have signed an open letter to President Obama, urging the administration to allow Guantanamo detainees to receive new treatment. The letter, which was published in Lancet, stated:

“Without trust, safe and acceptable medical care of mentally competent patients is impossible. Since the detainees do not trust their military doctors, they are unlikely to comply with current medical advice. That makes it imperative for them to have access to independent medical examination and advice, as they ask, and as required by the UN and World Medical Association.”

The question is whether or not the actions taken by the Guantanamo medics are ethical. According to the World Medical Association, force-feeding hunger strikers of sound mind is never ethically acceptable. The WMA has stated: “Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading statement.” Therefore, the means by which the medical staff is keeping the detainees alive violates international law, and to some, constitutes torture. However, it is a doctor’s duty to provide life-sustaining treatment. Unlike Cruzan v. Dir. Missouri Dep’t Health which held that competent adults have the right to refuse forced feeding, even if death will result, Washington v. Harper held that prison officials could override a prisoner’s objection to forcibly being administered medication, assuming that it’s in the prisoner’s best medical interest. So what other viable treatment options do these physician’s have, given that the detainees remain on hunger strike? While the means to force feed someone are gruesome and painful, wouldn’t it be even worse if we allowed our detainees to starve themselves to death?

President Obama has stated that America should never practice torture and that Guantanamo should be closed. The only way that will happen is if we have healthy detainees, fit to either stand trial or to be sent elsewhere. If this is truly what he wants, the best place to start is by ending this hunger strike. In this case, he should start listening to his detainees and allow for independent medical examinations. The detainees’ aren’t going to stop their hunger strike, and the medical examiners aren’t going to stop force-feeding them.  If no one is going to give, the President should force somebody’s hand.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Trials for Alleged 9/11 Plotters Resume at Guantanamo Bay

Lost in the shuffle during a week where the NSA scandal has dominated headlines is more news coming out of Guantanamo Bay.  On Monday, the government released the identity of Guantanamo’s “indefinite detainees,” or those who the government has deemed too dangerous for release regardless of whether they can be tried in a military court.  The government has already announced that a number of these detainees will be held indefinitely even though they cannot be tried due to lack of evidence. The names have been kept secret since 2009 when multiple agencies investigated files on detainees in order to support President Obama’s initial effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Normally these detainees could not be constitutionally held without the possibility of trial, but in 2001 Congress authorized the practice with the “Authorization of Military Force” bill.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the idea of “indefinite detainees,” calling for the release of all prisoners that the government has no intention of trying in a court of law.  Some men on the “indefinite detainees” list are actively involved in the well-documented hunger strikes.  At least two, both Afghani men, are deceased, with one committing suicide and the other dying of natural causes in Camp 6.  While the practice of holding detainees without the possibility of trial may be controversial, the release of their identities is a small step towards the transparency and legitimacy that human rights groups have been calling for in recent years.

In other Guantanamo-related news, pre-trial hearings for five men accused of plotting the September 11th attacks resumed on Monday, four months after CIA listening devices were discovered in conference rooms used by the detainees’ attorneys.  Included in this group is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.  The hearings included statements from defense attorneys claiming that CIA personnel tortured the detainees while they were being held in overseas prisons prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay.  They have also filed motions to dismiss the case due to meddling by senior military officials.

Also present in the courtroom were two victims and family members of three other victims that perished in the attacks.  The observers met with prosecutors and defense attorneys earlier in the week and pleaded for a quick and efficient trial.  At least one victim, a firefighter who was injured by falling rubble in the aftermath of the attacks, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.  As one could imagine, the trials will probably not be very speedy.  Detainee trials at Guantanamo have been ridiculed for many reasons, one of the biggest being that they are inefficient and often take years to complete.  These particular observers have been waiting on an outcome for some twelve years.  Although the trials are resuming, we may have to wait a lot longer to see a resolution.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research