The White House’s Handling of the Ukranian Crisis

From a national security perspective, the current Ukranian crisis serves as an unparalleled means to highlight the way in which the White House deals with a global crisis.

FISC Reopens NSA Phone Surveillance Program

Despite the public’s hopes that the NSA’s telephone surveillance program would be deemed unconstitutional, the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) recently gave the Agency the go-ahead to continue collecting and analyzing millions of Americans’ private phone records. However, the extension may only be temporary as the FISC only granted the NSA three more months of surveillance. Continue reading

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

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

The Right to Refuse Foreign Visitors: One of the Few Rights Guaranteed to GTMO Detainees

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department denied a Russian delegation permission to visit with Ravil Mingazov (ISN 702), a detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

Mingazov is well known in Russia, as a former ballet dancer who had appeared on national television. He converted to Islam while living in Russia, but fled the country to Afghanistan to escape anti-Muslim prejudice. The U.S. captured Mingazov when he was found in a terrorist safe house in Pakistan in 2002. He is also accused of training in al-Qaeda linked camps. Mingazov conveyed, through his lawyers, that he fears returning to his country after the treatment other Russian former-detainees have received upon arriving home. According to Mingazov’s lawyers, “They were subject to persecution upon their release and based on that he does not want to go back.”

Mingazov was in fact ordered released by a federal judge in May of 2010, although he currently remains in Guantanamo. The US has appealed this decision. It is possible that his desire not to be returned to Russia will, or already has, held up his transfer. It is also possible that reasons unknown will keep him in Guantanamo Bay, like numerous other cleared detainees.

Although the State Department had facilitated the Russian delegation’s visit to the military base in Cuba, permission to visit with Mingazov was denied when he refused to see them. According to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, there is “a longstanding policy of not forcing such interviews if they’re not voluntary.”

Apparently detainees have a right to refuse foreign visits, but not food, as involuntarily force-feeding is ongoing during the current hunger strike. This highlights one of the many quandaries of Guantanamo Bay.

Ed Dabek, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

UN to Investigate Drone Strikes

The United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, to investigate drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel region of Africa.

The investigation was formally launched on Thursday in response to requests from Russia, China and Pakistan, and will look into drone strikes by the US, UK, and Israel.

Emmerson will select a “representative sample” of about 20 or 30 strikes to assess the extent of any civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes. It beggars the imagination, however, that 20-30 strikes by at least 4 government agencies in at least 6 countries could be representative of much of anything, except possibly sample bias.

Emmerson has previously suggested that some drone attacks could possibly constitute war crimes. While this is certainly true, it could be said of any sort of attack. The fact that it is conducted by drone should make little if any difference to the calculus.

Emmerson also told the Guardian: “One of the fundamental questions is whether aerial targeting using drones is an appropriate method of conflict … where the individuals are embedded in a local community.” But again, the particular platform chosen to conduct the attack has little bearing on its legality or morality. It is how the platform is used that matters. The appropriate question is therefore not whether drones should be used, but whether any aerial strikes should be.

It is clearly important that the use of armed force by any state be carefully studied and it’s justifications questioned. This may be especially true when it is the world’s most powerful state that is conducting the operations. However, like many of the activities of the United Nations, it will remain to be seen whether the resulting report is an honest assessment of a difficult question, or is a purely political swipe by rivals.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research