No choice but to use American gear, grins spymaster
This is the first time opponents of the CIA’s torture program will have the chance to seek discovery evidence in the case unimpeded by the government.
the new head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, demanded that all the federal government agencies that received the report should return it to him so he can destroy it and make sure that no one ever sees what’s in the report.
For quite some time now, there have been serious questions about how how the US was able to track down Osama bin Laden’s “hiding place” to send in special forces to kill him. The story many people have heard was that the CIA was able to identify the “courier” who was used to help bin Laden communicate with the outside world, and then used that info to figure out where he was. And, a big part of that story — especially as immortalized in the movie Zero Dark Thirty — was that the CIA’s torture program was instrumental in revealing that information. However, even before the big Senate Intelligence Committee study on the torture program was released, it was revealed that the torture program had nothing to do with identifying the courier, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
However, as you may have heard over the weekend, Seymour Hersh published a somewhat epic story, arguing that almost everything about the bin Laden killing was a lie, and a bunch of stories — including everything about al-Kuwaiti — were made up after the fact. Hersh’s story is well worth reading (as are some of the criticisms of it that question some of the details). But one key aspect of the report is that finding a courier had absolutely nothing to do with finding bin Laden. Instead, it was a so-called “walk in” — a Pakistani intelligence official who knew that Pakistan already had captured bin Laden — who reached out to the US, seeking the $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden’s whereabouts.
In other words, even the Senate’s torture report gets the story wrong completely. In the Senate report, the identifying of al-Kuwaiti came from traditional interrogation, rather than the torture part. The CIA’s response was basically that it was the torture part (the bad cop) that enabled the information to come out separately (good cop). But Hersh’s report says the whole courier story is made up whole cloth. While some have questioned the details of Hersh’s report, there’s now independent verification from other sources to NBC that bin Laden was actually found via a “walk-in,” rather than the courier (warning: stupid NBC autoplay video at that link).
In Hersh’s version, the plan had been to kill bin Laden, and later (perhaps weeks later) come up with a story saying bin Laden had been killed by a drone strike. A few things went wrong — including one of the US helicopters famously crashing, and there was enough buzz that the US rushed to publicly announce the killing, including Obama’s famous speech that, apparently, created havoc since it messed up a bunch of previously agreed to things about how the killing would be presented, and was done without first clearing it with the intelligence community. This resulted in the CIA being rushed in to concoct some cover stories, and some CIA officials quickly realized that this would be a fantastic way to pretend that torture had been useful
A coalition of news organizations that includes The Intercept filed a suit today demanding the release of information about the sentencing of former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus, who last week pleaded guilty to mishandling classified materials.
Petraeus, who admitted to giving secret information to his former mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell, was sentenced on a misdemeanor charge to two years probation and was fined $100,000.
More than 30 people, including high-level government and military officials, reportedly filed letters of support for Petraeus ahead of his sentencing. “The letters paint a portrait of a man considered among the finest military leaders of his generation who also has committed a grave but very uncharacteristic error in judgment,” U.S. Magistrate Judge David Keesler said at the sentencing.
But those letters, and the sentencing memorandum filed by Petraeus’s lawyers, remain under seal in a federal court in the Western District of North Carolina. The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media, is joining The New York Times, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, The Washington Post and other media in suing to have them released. (Here’s the motion and a memo laying out the news organization’s arguments.)
“Given the attention the case has received, we think it’s important for the public to see the arguments that Petraeus made for leniency, and the people who wrote letters in support of him,” said Hannah Bloch-Wehba, a fellow with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is coordinating the lawsuit. Bloch-Wehba said that in other leak cases, sentencing memoranda have been public, but that thanks to a rule particular to the North Carolina court, Petraeus’s escaped scrutiny.
Petraeus’s monetary punishment — which was more than double what his lawyers and prosecutors had agreed on but still amounts to less than he reportedly charges for speaking engagements — stands in contrast to the stiff penalties sought for other recent leakers. The Intercept has noted that the Justice Department appears to have a “two-tier justice system” for punishing leakers, wherein senior officials accused of mishandling classified information have tended to get off with far lighter consequences than lower-level leakers.
Indeed, last week the government asked for 19 to 24 years for former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who was convicted in January of giving classified information about the CIA’s efforts against Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen. Sterling’s lawyers have pointed to the Petraeus deal in asking for leniency, saying the court “cannot turn a blind eye to the positions the government has taken in similar cases.”
In the fall of 2013, Rafiq ur Rehman, a school teacher from the remote tribal region of North Waziristan, in Pakistan, stood with his 12-year-old son, Zubair, and 9-year-old daughter, Nabila, in Washington, D.C., preparing to challenge one of the U.S. government’s most secretive means of killing.
The Rehmans say a missile fired from a U.S. drone killed 68-year-old Momina Bibi — Rehman’s mother, and grandmother to the two young children — in an October 2012 airstrike. Both Zubair and Nabila were present when the attack happened and suffered injuries. The missile had struck their grandmother straight on, obliterating her completely. There were no others killed in the attack and no substantiated reports of terrorists at the scene.
According to the family’s account, Bibi was killed tending okra while her grandkids played nearby.
The family came to the U.S. to demand answers. They were treated as honored guests among the human rights community in New York City, but when they met with lawmakers on October 20, 2013, a total of five members of Congress showed up.
For Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar, who represents 150 victims of the strikes, including the Rehman family, President Barack Obama’s recent apology for the killing of two Americans merely underscores the double standard that exists for civilian death.
“Today, if Nabila or Zubair or many of the civilian victims — if they are watching on TV the president being so remorseful over the killing of a Westerner, what message is that taking?” Akbar said Thursday in an interview with The Intercept.
The answer, he argued, is “that you do not matter, you are children of a lesser God, and I’m only going to mourn if a Westerner is killed.”
The absence of transparency, despite the Rehman family’s tremendous efforts, has been a defining feature of the Obama administration’s drone program. Typically, no amount of evidence gathered by journalists, human rights investigators or researchers indicating the death of a civilian from a drone strike will elicit an on-the-record response from the U.S. government — let alone an admission of responsibility — or prompt an independent investigation.
That was not the case on Thursday morning when President Barack Obama delivered a press conference describing a strike gone wrong. In the unprecedented address, Obama detailed how a failure in intelligence-gathering had left two civilians dead. Numerous anonymous U.S. officials said the attack occurred in Pakistan and that the CIA was responsible, though Obama and his press secretary, Josh Earnest, refused to explicitly confirm either. Unlike past cases, the unintended victims killed in the attacks were Westerners, one an Italian, the other a U.S. citizen.
The American, 74-year-old Warren Weinstein, had spent 40 years working around the world. For the last decade he had lived in Pakistan, where he served as country director for a consulting firm working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The second victim, Giovanni Lo Porto, was an Italian national. The 39-year-old had come to Pakistan four years ago, when severe floods ravaged the country. Both men ultimately found themselves hostages of al Qaeda — Weinstein was taken in 2011, Lo Porto in 2012. They had been held in a compound in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley, The New York Times reported Thursday night.
“We believed that this was an Al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Obama said of the January 15 strike. “And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of Al Qaeda. What we did not know, tragically, is that Al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
The compound had been placed under “hundreds of hours of surveillance,” Obama said. U.S. intelligence officials chose to take the shot only after achieving “near certainty” that the building was a legitimate terrorist target and civilian lives would not be risked, Earnest added. When the dust settled, American spies watched as more bodies were pulled from the rubble than expected. It would take weeks, however, for the intelligence community to confirm that the dead included Weinstein and Lo Porto. Ahmed Farouq, an American and alleged al Qaeda leader, also died in the attack. A separate U.S. airstrike in the region on January 19 was also described in detail on Thursday. U.S. intelligence officials said they believed that attack killed Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist. Again, the Americans said they did not know he was inside when they fired.
Neither of the two strikes targeted specific individuals, U.S. officials said. The attacks were signature strikes, a much-criticized tactic in which the CIA kills people without knowing their identities, instead relying on behavioral observations. In both of the January strikes, the U.S. only learned whom it had killed after the fact.
Earnest told reporters that neither Farouq nor Gadahn were considered high-value targets, meaning they were not eligible for the type of assassination of U.S. citizens the Obama administration has deemed legal in recent years, which requires additional layers of approval. “The president did not specifically sign off on these two operations,” Earnest said.
Earnest said an inspector general was conducting an independent review of the operation.
President Obama said the operation that killed the two Westerners would be declassified and disclosed publicly, “because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth.”
“One of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes,” Obama explained. “Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.”
When asked by The Intercept if the president’s words meant there would be a policy change in how the U.S. deals with claims of civilian casualties resulting from counterterrorism operations, an administration official declined to comment.
Whether anyone from the CIA has been or will be held accountable for the strikes remains unclear. Writing for The New Yorker, Steve Coll raised the question of whether the March removal of the powerful head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center may have been linked to the attacks. For nearly a decade, a man named Mike — who uses the CIA cover name Roger — has overseen the agency’s drone program in Pakistan. Known for his apparently dark persona and chain-smoking, the counterterrorism chief is considered a principal architect of signature strikes, which in 2010 brought the number of U.S. kills in Pakistan to its highest-ever recorded total of 117.
“I predict that even this episode will have no effect,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert in U.S. counterterrorism operations, told The New York Times.
Though he did not identify the agency, the aircraft or the country, Obama, in his remarks Thursday, came as close as he ever has to directly and candidly addressing civilian casualties in the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan in public.
“As president and as commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” Obama said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
Weinstein’s family released a statement Thursday placing the ultimate responsibility for his death on the men who took him captive, but the family characterized elements of the U.S. government’s response — aside from that of lawmakers and the FBI — as “inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years.”
Following Lo Porto’s kidnapping, a petition calling on the Italian government to ensure that “all possible efforts” were made in securing his release amassed nearly 48,000 signatures. On Thursday, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the Lo Porto family was grief-stricken by the news of Giovanni’s death. “Leave me with my pain,” his mother said. “I do not have much to add,” his brother told reporters. “Obama has apologized? Thanks.”
The January attacks brought the total number of Americans killed by a drone strike under Obama to at least eight. Of that total, the U.S. has intentionally killed one.
Mustafa Qadri, an investigator with Amnesty International, has spent years conducting investigations in Pakistan, including into the strike that killed Momina Bibi. Speaking to The Intercept on Thursday, the human rights investigator said he was pained by the death of Weinstein, but noted that there are scores of other innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes.
“Obama’s statement is really moving,” Qadri said. “And we welcome that, I welcome the fact he has done that.” But, he added, “there are hundreds, potentially thousands of others who deserve the same apology.”
It’s hard for some Americans to understand why the Obama administration is so determined to come to an agreement with Iran on its nuclear capability, given that huge Iranian rallies are constantly chanting “Death to America!” I know the chanting makes me unhappy, since I’m part of America, and I strongly oppose me dying.
But if you know our actual history with Iran, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. They have understandable reasons to be angry at and frightened of us — things we’ve done that if, say, Norway had done them to us, would have us out in the streets shouting “Death to Norway!” Unfortunately, not only have the U.S. and our allies done horrendous things to Iran, we’re not even polite enough to remember it.
Reminding ourselves of this history does not mean endorsing an Iran with nuclear-tipped ICBMs. It does mean realizing how absurd it sounds when critics of the proposed agreement say it suddenly makes the U.S. the weaker party or that we’re getting a bad deal because Iran, as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, does not fear Obama enough. It’s exactly the opposite: This is the best agreement the U.S. could get because for the first time in 35 years, U.S.-Iranian relations aren’t being driven purely by fear.