Bergdahl Brought Home in Prisoner Exchange

Over the weekend, news broke that the United States government had made the decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl roughly five years after his capture by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. While many have applauded the effort to bring home a captured member of the American armed forces, not everybody has been so quick to label this course of action “correct.” Continue reading

How do we define terrorism?

Last week’s shootings at Fort Hood have once again raised a seemingly simple question;

How do we define terrorism?

In the wake of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, the Army and White House were hesitant to classify the tragedy as terrorism. Instead, the attack was labeled an incident of workplace violence, much to the disappointment of survivors and their advocates. In an article published earlier this week, The New York Times points out that the “t-word” was carefully avoided in reference to both Fort Hood shootings, but quickly associated with last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. Continue reading

Al Nashiri Before a Military Commission at Gitmo

This guest post was written by Charles R. Church, and is drawn from his copyrighted e-book titled My Week at Guantanamo’s War Court, which is available on amazon.com.

 

My excitement ran high when Mark Denbeaux phoned to tell me I would be heading to the Guantanamo Naval Base for a week, for I had been studying, writing and talking about both its detention facility and its military commissions for years. Now I would be attending, as a journalist and observer, pretrial proceedings in the military tribunal capital prosecution of abd al Rahim Hussayn Muhammad Al Nashiri, the Saudi claimed to have presided over bin Laden’s “boats operation,” for which he had planned three attacks on foreign ships, including the devastatingly lethal one in 2000 on the USS Cole, the destroyer fueling in Aden Harbor in Yemen. Continue reading

Al Nashiri Keeps Kammen, Speaks of Frustrations

Alexandra Kutner is currently at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to observe proceedings in the al Nashiri case on behalf of the Center for Policy and Research.

Alleged architect of the USS Cole bombing Abd al Rahim al Nashiri’s motion hearing went off without a hitch yesterday morning. Al Nashiri met with his learned counsel Rick Kammen after the court recessed on Monday, and the pair appear to have worked out whatever problems led to al Nashiri’s attempt to fire Kammen. Al Nashiri spoke unshackled to the court, apologizing for the delay. Continue reading

Guantanamo News: 9/11 Case Delayed

Yesterday, officials at Guantanamo Bay announced that United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al. a.k.a the 9/11 trials, will be delayed until at least April. The case has been at a standstill since December when the presiding judge, Army Col. James Pohl, decided to adjourn to determine the mental status of one of the detainees on trial. Continue reading

Pentagon Appoints Guantanamo “Closer”

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that it has appointed a special envoy in a renewed effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Paul M. Lewis, a former Judge Advocate General in the Marine Corps and current Democratic lawyer for the House Armed Services Committee, will take over the position on November 1.  He will be working alongside fellow Capitol Hill attorney Clifford Sloan, who was appointed in June as the State Department’s envoy for Guantanamo. Continue reading

Bradley Manning Sentencing Begins

Early yesterday, the sentencing phase of the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of the Wikileaks scandal, began at Fort Meade.  As I said yesterday, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him.  Still, Bradley Manning was convicted on 20 of 22 counts, including charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.  The prosecution and defense both agreed with Col. Denise Lind that Manning faces a total of 136 years in a military prison for his crimes.

On top of the potential 136-year prison sentence, the parties also agreed that Bradley Manning will be demoted to the rank of enlisted private, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and stripped of all pay and benefits that he would have otherwise received.

The star witness of yesterday’s sentencing hearing was Brig. Gen. Robert A. Carr (ret.), who is now an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.  General Carr’s expertise on the matter comes from a long career overseeing the Army’s intelligence gathering operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia.  His last assignment as a member of the Army was to gather information and assess the extent to which information released by Wikileaks harmed soldiers in the field and jeopardized American national security.

Now that the bulk of Bradley Manning’s sentence has already been settled, all that remains is to determine how much of the potential 136-year sentence he will actually serve and what monetary fines the court will impose on him.  I find it hard to believe at this point that Manning, who is just 25 years old, will ever be a free man.  I guess that’s just what 20 separate convictions for espionage will get you.  But now that he has been stripped of all benefits and pay and will probably spend most or all of his life behind bars, arguing about monetary fines is basically just a formality.  It’s probably not very realistic to expect him to pay up.

Anyways, General Carr’s testimony centered around whether or not Bradley Manning’s crimes actually led to any deaths in the field.  General Carr claimed that exactly one death, an Afghani national with ties to the U.S. government, occurred as a result of the Wikileaks scandal.  The Taliban reportedly killed him after obtaining the information.  However, when pressed by the defense, General Carr admitted that the man was never named in war logs released by Julian Assange and any mention of the death was stricken from the official record.  General Carr still insisted that Bradley Manning’s crimes had put U.S. soldiers and Afghani allies at risk by detailing the relationship between certain Afghani forces and the U.S. military.

It’s interesting that not even General Carr, the prosecution’s authority on the supposed damage caused by Bradley Manning, could not point to a single instance where the leaks led to even one casualty.  The only such accusation was quickly stricken from the record.  To me, this shows just how desperate the government was to make an example out of Manning with the aiding the enemy charge.  There’s really no other explanation for moving forward with that charge with only one precarious piece of evidence.

The trial still has a long way go.  The defense is still days, maybe weeks away from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances that could soften the blow of Bradley Manning’s 20 convictions.  Like I said before, Manning isn’t going to be a free man any time soon.  But if today was any indication, he might not be looking at a 136-year sentence after all.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Inside the SJC’s Guantanamo Debate

Last week, we wrote about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Guantanamo Bay.  The debate, entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights Implications,” brought together members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Dick Durbin (D, IL); Chairman of the Full Committee Patrick Leahy (D, VT); Ranking-Member Ted Cruz (R, TX); and Rep. Mike Pompeio (R, KS-4), among others.  Testifying were top-ranking members of our armed forces and members of international human rights organizations, including Major General Paul Eaton, U.S. Army (Ret.); Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, M.D., U.S. Army (Ret.); Lieutenant Joshua Fryday, Judge Advocate General’s Corps., U.S. Navy; Frank Gaffney, Founder and President, Center for Security Policy; and Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First.

Most of the usual Guantanamo-related topics were discussed, including arguments for and against the closure of Gitmo, what that closure might mean for American national security, and how we might go about transferring current detainees to domestic prisons or foreign countries for continued detention or release.  As we’ve come to expect, testimony from Congressional representatives was fairly predictable based on party membership.  Chairman Durbin opened the hearing by calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, stated that Gitmo had become an “international eyesore” and that “the Administration could be doing more to close (GTMO)…, [but] the President’s authority has been limited by Congress.”  Nothing too groundbreaking there, but it’s always nice to see someone in a position of authority acknowledging that this isn’t all President Obama’s fault.  Like I’ve said before, this isn’t a unilateral decision for the President to make.  It’s going to take a level of bipartisan cooperation that’s been completely absent in Congress in recent history.

But even if President Obama can’t single-handedly close Guantanamo, Chairman Durbin noted that through the FY14 Defense Bill, passed by the House Armed Services Committee in early June, he has an expanded ability to dispose of prisoners (calm down, disposing means releasing or transferring in this context) as he sees fit.  But we’ve seen problems with this as well.  First, where do we release or transfer these detainees?  Just a few days ago we saw Senator Saxby Chambliss voice concerns about releasing detainees to their home countries where they may attempt to join or re-join al-Qaeda.  Our European allies have a history of rejecting transfers of Guantanamo detainees.  And we certainly aren’t going to give them asylum here.  So even if the President’s powers to release or transfer detainees have been expanded, it’s still a delicate situation.

Ranking-Member Cruz was one of the few speakers to advocate for keeping Guantanamo Bay open, bashing the Obama administration for it’s policy and saying that we “continue to apologize for continuing the policy.”  Senator Cruz’s main argument was that we can’t embrace a “utopian fiction” where released detainees embrace global peace and pledge not to take up arms against the United States.  I could understand that concern if we were talking about releasing KSM.  I can understand that concern if we’re talking about releasing any detainee that we know was involved in attacks against the United States.  But I’m pretty sure nobody is calling for those detainees to be released.  So what about the detainees with no formal charges or evidence against them?  Are we going to hold them for the rest of their lives just because there’s a chance they could join al-Qaeda if we release them?  Apparently Senator Cruz would say yes.

Major General Eaton and Brigadier General Xenakis also testified in front of the panel, both advocating for the closure of the detention center.  Major General Eaton stated clearly that “[t]here is no national security reason to keep Guantanamo open,” and even went so far as to say the keeping it open this long has undermined national security by damaging our “moral leadership, political leadership, military power and economic power.”  Brigadier General Xenakis attacked the much-covered force-feeding policy, stating that it violates not only the basic ethics of the medical field, but also the Geneva Convention.

Rep. Pompeio joined Senator Cruz’s position, making the bold claim that “there are no human rights violations occurring at [GTMO].”  He also voiced concerns that foreign nations would torture detainees if we were to transfer them.  Now, I’m not saying I can’t see any reason behind the force-feeding policy.  I get that we don’t want upwards of 40 detainees dying of malnutrition on our watch.  But to say shoving a rubber tube through the nose and into the stomach of a fully conscious human being in an extremely painful fashion is not a human rights violation is borderline ludicrous.

The way I see it, the only semi-logical argument for keeping Guantanamo Bay open came from Mr. Gaffney.  Mr. Gaffney argued that Gitmo should remain open until a safe and effective alternative is pinpointed.  That much I can get on board with.  I already pointed out that there are some holes in the current plan.  But Mr. Gaffney’s seems to be worried about detainees escaping from super-max prisons on U.S. soil and rejoining al-Qaeda or remaining in the U.S. to plan attacks.  Is this what we’re really concerned about?  We already trust maximum security penitentiaries to hold our most notorious murderers, so why does it matter what their nationality is?  According to documents from the New York State Department of Corrections, there were a total of 10 escapes from detention facilities of any kind between 2006 and 2010.  That equates to a rate of .03 escapes per 1,000 inmates during that time period, and includes statistics from ALL New York state penitentiaries.  I, for one, am no too worried about detainees, who will probably have additional monitoring in place, escaping from super-max prisons.  Again, I agree that we need a rock-solid plan in place before we close Guantanamo, but the concerns cited by Mr. Gaffney are simply not realistic.

That’s probably a good thing since the plan proposed by Democrats involved transferring detainees to the same super-max facilities that Mr. Gaffney is so worried about.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) pointed out that it will cost tax payers roughly $551 million to operate Guantanamo Bay in 2013, and roughly $2.1 million per detainee.  According to her estimates, it would cost only $287,000 to house a detainee in a super-max facility here in the U.S.  Especially since the sequester hit the federal government, this would obviously be a much more cost-effective model.  So on top of potentially eradicating human rights violations, we might be able to take a step towards a balanced defense budget.

All in all, we are still in a stalemate.  The hearing was essentially a summary of all the arguments we’ve heard about Guantanamo Bay over the past 5 years.  Democrats and members of the military are still pushing for its closure while Republicans are standing firm on keeping it open.  I don’t know that we’re any closer to actually closing Gitmo after the hearing, but it’s good to see that we haven’t given up the fight.

***Special thanks to Mr. Rick Erkel for reporting on the hearing

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Signature Strikes are as Old as War

Arianna Huffington recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the Obama Administration’s use of so-called “signature strikes” by drones in Pakistan and elsewhere. Underlying much of her criticism is a basic assumption that signature strikes are a new form of targeting that is more pernicious than the more targeted strikes that we are used to. This assumption is perfectly true, if your sense of history goes back no more than about decade.

Signature Strikes are the norm, not the exception

The truth is that what we now call “signature strikes” used to just be called “targeting the enemy.” The practice is in fact so old that it is impossible to trace its origins. In fact, some of the earliest accounts of armed conflict speak about the use of “signatures” or qualities that allow a soldier or government agent to identify an unknown person as a probable member of an enemy group. The Old Testament is replete with examples, including David’s use of foreskins to identify Philistines, and the Gileadites’ use of the word “shibboleth” to identify and kill the Ephraimites.

In fact, knowing the identity of your enemy with any precision was extraordinarily rare until the last ten years. Granted, targeted killing of one sort or another (even leaving aside clear cases of political assassination) has existed for time immemorial as well, but was definitely not the norm. It was instead an unusual undertaking, and attempts rarely led to success. For eons, the standard approach to warfare has been to assemble together a large group of men, few of whom are expected to know any of the enemy by name (with the exception of their king or president), and effectively set them loose on a collection of the enemy population. In later more “civilized” times, these armed groups would mostly only attack one another, although this was never a perfectly uniform practice. These soldiers, whether professionals or conscripts, would not identify an enemy by name, position, or other individualized characteristic. It was always enough that they “look like the enemy.”

This is what has always been expected of soldiers, and to a great extent, still is. We now have more rigorous standards of conduct, laws to mitigate civilian damage done during an attack on enemy forces, and clearly spelled out rules of engagement. Even still, in my four years in US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was shown a picture of an individual enemy that we planned to kill or capture on a handful of occasions. The rest of the time we were just expected to use the same standard as is used for pornography: you know it when you see it. In other words, we were expected to use the ground combat equivalent of signature strikes. Warfare is just not that individualistic, even today.

Signature strikes may not be new, but our new techniques are helping reduce civilian harm, despite the “evidence”

Still, the US military and intelligence community is becoming impressively proficient at identifying and locating individual members of the enemy. Despite the much publicized (but mostly classified) report recently published by the Center for Naval Analysis’ Larry Lewis, most reliable evidence says that drones, even when used for signature strikes, are much more discriminant and precise, killing or injuring fewer civilians per strike, and far fewer per militant killed. Much of the evidence to the contrary is in fact gained from anonymous sources linked to the Pakistani military or to the militants themselves. Given the sourcing–the enemy and their patrons–it is a little surprising that the claimed number of civilian deaths is in fact so low, even including signature strikes. Maybe these sources are willing to double the number of civilian casualties, but tripling it seems a bridge too far (except for a stalwart few who transparently either fudge their numbers or need to retake middle school pre-algebra).

As a case in point, even the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who appears at first to be an honest broker of information on drone strikes, upon deeper investigation, are highly biased. They reported yesterday that the number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes in Pakistan has been underreported by 81. They describe this as a “high civilian death toll,” but for a campaign waged over the course of nine years, this is actually an extremely low death toll. I challenge anyone to find another military campaign that lasted nine years yet killed fewer than 45 civilians per year (according to their numbers). However, even these numbers are suspect, as can be seen from their source document, a leaked Pakistani summary of drone strike casualties. Setting aside the arithmetic problems (4+5=8? Apparently, in Pakistan. See line 78), several problems indicate unreliability.

First, the number of civilians killed is not always as clear as the Bureau would have it. In the vast majority of “civilian” casualty cases, the number of civilians are not specified, and is indictated only by inclusion of the word “civilian” in the remarks column. It is not clear whether this means all dead and wounded were civilians or whether one or some of them were. However, in other cases, the number is given, or the remarks indicate that they were “all civilians.”

Second, and more damning, only two references were made to militants out of the nearly 750 dead in 84 attacks. However, one entry refers to “miscreants,” and several others list foreigners as among the dead. This raises the suspicion that the number of militants killed is actually under-reported, and thus the possibility that some listed as civilians are in fact militants.

Third, and worst of all for the reliability of this information, it is apparently obtained secondhand and from afar. Several of the entries indicate that the information is “reported” or “yet to be received.” Local elders and even local political administrations are often pro-Taliban or otherwise compromised (e.g. by bribery which constitutes the majority of their income).

The hard truth is that coming to even a good, ball-parked number of civilian dead is extremely difficult. But what is clear is that the US drone campaign, even when using signature strikes, has a remarkably low rate of civilian casualties when compared to other available options, given their advanced optics, long loiter times, and precision munitions. Those who advocate against drones tend to focus on the technology, when what they are actually opposed to is the use of force in general. This is a laudable sentiment, but these same folks never seem to be willing to offer workable alternatives.

The truth is that drones are here to stay, because they are an extremely useful, discriminating weapon system. Given that we are involved in a protracted conflict with an enemy that hides among the civilian population, our drones and drone pilots are doing a remarkable job. Of course, as I will describe in a later post, relying solely on drones to win this conflict for us is in the end counterproductive. More on that soon.

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

Bradley Manning’s Top Charge to Remain

Earlier today, a military court judge dismissed a motion by Bradley Manning’s defense team to drop “aiding the enemy” from the list of charges against him.  Manning, who is now definitely facing life in military prison without the possibility of parole, is the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking the information that eventually ended up on Wikileaks.  He was arrested in 2010 in Iraq and charged with 22 separate counts related to the release of over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks.  Though he plead guilty to 10 of the 22 counts back in February, Manning’s trial did not start until early last month.

The decision was left up to Colonel Denise Lind, the judge presiding over the case at Fort Meade in Maryland.  She rejected the motion based on the “accused’s training and experience and preparation,” as well as Manning’s knowledge that terrorist organizations would have access to the leaked documents on the Internet.  The defense’s motion claimed that the government had failed to show that Manning possessed “actual knowledge” that he was providing information to the enemy, and could only show that he unintentionally or accidentally gave terrorist organizations access to the documents.

I think it’s worth noting that there’s a pretty sharp difference between “knowingly” and “intentionally” aiding the enemy, a difference that the defense seems to have overlooked.  I agree that Manning’s intent probably wasn’t to provide al-Qaeda with sensitive government documents. The way he went about releasing the information wouldn’t make any sense if that scenario were true.  But at the end of the day, his intent isn’t what matters if you read Article 104, the charge which Manning’s defense appealed:

Any person who—
(1) aids, or attempts to aid, the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other things; or
(2) without proper authority, knowingly harbors or protects or gives intelligence to, or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly;
shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct. This section does not apply to a military commission established under chapter 47A of this title.

What matters in regard to this charge is that Manning knowingly released classified government documents that he knew could indirectly reach terrorist organizations.  You can argue all day about whether or not Manning actually deserves to be charged under Section 104.  But if we’re going by the book, Judge Lind made the right call.

Putting aside the technical aspects of the case, journalists are all in a tizzy about what this means for investigative journalism.  Many are claiming that the Obama administration is trying to make an example of Manning by bringing the hammer down on a highly visible whistleblower.  They are concerned that the threat of life in prison without the possibility of parole will prevent others like Manning to come forward when they believe the government is doing something unethical or shady.  These are valid concerns.  There is a reason why freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy.  If we aren’t aware of what our representatives are doing, how can we vote them out of office if we disagree with their policies?

Still, I think the government has a legitimate concern as well.  Sure, we over-classify and give security clearances to far too many people, but that doesn’t mean it should be a free-for-all.  There is plenty of classified information that I’m sure I wouldn’t want to go public, and the government has a right to protect that information in the name of national security..  But the solution isn’t to throw Manning into prison for the rest of his life; it’s to fix the system.  Because of the aforementioned over-classification, the government has created a climate in which someone almost HAS to leak classified information to get to the bottom of any real stories.  Since we seemingly classify everything nowadays, what should be public and what should be classified gets lumped together and we see exactly what happened in Manning’s case.  And when we have an estimated 4 million people with top-secret security clearance, let’s not act too surprised when that happens.

Did Bradley Manning do something stupid?  I think he did.  Did terrorist organizations gain access to classified government documents because of his actions?  Undoubtedly.  But the government needs to realize that the guilt doesn’t lie solely with Manning.  If we’re really worried about protecting classified information, we need to start being selective in regard to what we classify and who we give clearance to.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research