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

US Considering Drone Strike Against Citizen

Yesterday afternoon, the Associated Press reported that the US is currently tracking an American citizen and terrorist suspect in Pakistan. While officials have not confirmed the identity of the man, they described him as an “al Qaeda facilitator” who is currently plotting attacks against the United States. Now the Obama administration is struggling with the question of whether to use the controversial drone program to eliminate him. Continue reading

Obama Addresses the NSA Scandal

This past Friday, President Obama finally directly addressed an issue that has been raging since the Edward Snowden leaks back in June; the NSA surveillance scandal (a full transcript of the speech can be found here, courtesy of The New York Times). Countless politicians and public figures have addressed the issue in the media, but this was one of the first times the President discussed it openly and at length with the press. As one could imagine, reactions to the speech ranged from “usefully balanced” to “skeptical.” Although the topic needed to be addressed by President Obama, the public should not expect much to change in the immediate aftermath of this speech. Continue reading

Drone Strikes Linked to More Civilian Deaths

Despite claims that drone strikes in Pakistan have been effective and efficient, new reports are set to come out later this week that link the drone campaign with high civilian casualty rates, raising questions regarding the United State’s transparency in the ongoing drone war.   Continue reading

Critics Question Closed Embassies

A few days ago I wrote about the Obama administration’s decision to shut down 19 embassies in the Middle East and North Africa for the remainder of the week in response to what officials are calling a serious and credible threat.  The State Department has since reaffirmed that some embassies will remain closed until further notice while others will reopen on Monday.  We already know that the threat causing the shutdown came from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, but we’re still in the dark in regard to what the threat actually entails. Continue reading

Lietzau Condemns Guantanamo & Detainee Status

A few days ago, a story came out in which William Lietzau, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Detainee Affairs and point-man on Guantanamo Bay, admitted that he would argue against building Guantanamo.  This came following Lietzau’s announcement that he would be leaving his post to continue his career in the private sector.  He also gave President Obama a pointer on how to close Guantanamo; announce that the so-called war against al-Qaeda has come to an end.  Lietzau, who was key in getting Guantanamo built in the first place, was quoted as saying, “[a]rguably, if the war aim of diminishing Al Qaeda’s ability to mount a certain level of attack has been achieved, we could declare an end to hostilities and return to dealing with the threat as a law enforcement matter.” Continue reading

Senate Panel Debates the Close of Guantanamo

Yesterday afternoon, for the first time since 2009, a Senate committee took to the issue of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The hearing was called by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, and Civil and Human Rights. In his opening remarks, Sen. Durbin referred to the prison as a sad chapter in American history, a place he had “never imagined in 2013… would still be open.”

“Every day it remains open, Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies, and calls into question our commitment to human rights.” – Sen. Durbin

Sen. Durbin has long been critical of Guantanamo Bay. In 2009 he stated that he would be OK with accepting detainees into the Illinois supermax facility. Earlier this month, along with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Durbin asked President Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding the hunger strikers, challenging the military claim that the enteral feedings were humane and modeled after the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Opposing Sen. Durbin’s request to close the prison, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) harped on the threat of detainee recidivism. Quoting from a recent study by the Director of National Intelligence which found that 28 percent of detainees previously released from Guantanamo were suspected or confirmed to have joined up with terrorist groups upon leaving US custody, Sen. Cruz emphasized the risk we face by releasing the detainees. In agreement, Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney stated that moving prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. could result in attacks on domestic prisons as well as the spread of radical Islam to other inmates.

As of now, little progress has been made on the closing of Guantanamo. Congress appears to be divided, even among its own factions. I tend to agree with Sen. Durbin and propose that we close Guantanamo. We give the detainee’s their day in court and either send them back to their country of origin if that country is willing to accept them, or we place them in supermax prisons within the United States. Mr. Gaffney’s concerns are ludicrous. We hold hundreds of terrorists in supermax facilities – to my knowledge, there have been no attacks or major issues stemming from the domestic detention of detainees. In fact, a detainee in the general population of a prison will probably have more to fear from us than we will of him. Furthermore, should we allow the detainees to return to their country of origin and something goes wrong – another Abu Ghraib-type escape or a detainee returning to a terrorist cell – just look at what happened to Saeed al-Shiri. While I am not proposing or endorsing the use of drones, I am pointing out that the Obama administration clearly has no problem finding more permanent solutions when it deems necessary. On top of that, the study Sen. Cruz referred to only took into account the number of detainees associated with militant groups, not the number who have actually engaged in violent activities themselves. If I were to guess, the majority of detainees that we saw fit for release were more concerned with starting families and their lives than plotting more attacks.

So what comes next? Most likely nothing. The Pentagon finally announced that they will be establishing Periodic Review Boards – two years after the Obama administration called for their creation (no official dates as of yet). Force feeding and genital searches are still a go. Another day, another story. Maybe next time there is a senate hearing, the Obama administration will actually show up.

Alexandra Kutner, 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

Force-Feeding Condemned by Top Congressmen

As the controversy surrounding force-feeding tactics at Guantanamo Bay continues, two top members of the U.S. Senate have spoken out in favor of ending the practice.  Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein called on President Obama to stop force-feeding prisoners partaking in hunger strikes in protest of their status at Guantanamo.  This comes just days after a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a ruling stating that federal courts have no authority to shut down the force-feeding program, but agreeing with detainees and their attorneys that the practice is troubling and may violate human rights.  The decision put the burden solely on President Obama to address the situation, and it looks like he will be receiving pressure from Congress as well.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein did imply that there may be cases where force-feeding is medically necessary, but stated that the military does not observe proper guidelines and safeguards even in those cases.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt at convincing the government to stop force-feeding.  Last month she wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel after a visit to Guantanamo in which she called hunger strikes a “long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide.”  This seems to imply that Feinstein’s views are in line with others who believe that force-feeding is inhumane in instances where protests do not threaten Guantanamo personnel and involve mentally competent detainees.

The White House turned to its usual response, stating that it does not want any detainees to die of malnutrition while in detention.  So it’s ok to hold them indefinitely with no hope of release even though we lack the necessary evidence to press charges, but it’s not ok for them to protest a largely unreasonable policy in a manner that poses no threat to the United States or its military personnel.  Got it.

The Senators also called on President Obama to make good on his long overdue promise to close Guantanamo Bay altogether, which was just another drop in the proverbial ocean of similar requests made since Obama took office.  As sad as it is, it’s almost laughable at this point to think that another request to close Guantanamo will make a difference with so many members of Congress still in favor of keeping it open.  But I guess it’s nice to know that there are still politicians out there who believe that it can be accomplished.

Do I think this latest effort to stop force-feeding and close Guantanamo will make any difference?  Not really.  Like I’ve said before, closing Guantanamo will be a long, painful process and there are still too many people who want to keep it open.  It’s not a groundbreaking prediction but I don’t think Guantanamo Bay will be closed any time in the near future.  I think our short-term goal needs to be putting an end to force-feeding.  If you believe Monday’s decision, we should be able to sidestep much of the political process and leave it up to President Obama if we focus on that.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to close the base, but we need to focus on the immediate problems that we can fix right now.

In a related story, two hunger-strikers dropped out of the over 4 month-long protest for unspecified reasons, bringing the total number down to 104.  However, 45 are still being force-fed on a daily basis.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research