Posts tagged ‘counterterrorism’

David Miranda Is A Journalist

By , 20 August, 2013, No Comment

This weekend, the British government detained David Miranda, for nine hours at Heathrow Airport, where they also confiscated some flash drives and laptops.

The detention took place under the UK’s Terrorism Act, which is badly written enough to provide cover for behavior that has naught to do with preventing acts of terror. In this case, the detention is a reaction to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA leaks, and any detention that treats journalism as a crime is wrong. This comes on the heels of Whitehall threatening the Guardian, and sending GCHQ representatives to the Guardian newsroom to oversee the destruction of some hard drives. That too is wrong.

None of what follows is a defense of the UK’s thuggish behavior.

But there is something disturbing about the way the Guardian has presented its relationship with Miranda.

Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist spearheading the NSA reporting, and they live in Rio. Miranda was passing through Heathrow on his way back to Rio from Berlin, where he had been staying with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been collaborating with Greenwald on the reporting.

When the story first broke, it appeared that Miranda had been traveling in a personal capacity. We now know that Miranda was traveling on a trip funded by the Guardian and was carrying some flash drives pertaining to the reporting. We also know, from a previous account of the dealings with Snowden, that Greenwald has been sharing details of his work with Miranda for some time. And we learn from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger that Miranda often helps Greenwald with his work.

The Guardian initially concealed these details. The New York Times broke the news about the flash drives and the plane ticket, at which point the Guardian updated its own story to include this information. But even then, Greenwald told the New York Times that Miranda, “is not even a journalist,” a claim repeated by Alan Rusbridger.

But David Miranda is a journalist, because he is committing acts of journalism while he is in the Guardian’s employ. His role as described above is similar to the temporary staffers western news organizations routinely hire in developing countries. Local journalists who do the background reporting for pieces with American or British bylines. Fixers who make calls and arrange meetings with difficult sources. Drivers and receptionists who make and take deliveries that contain sensitive material.

It is an ongoing struggle inside news organizations to argue that so long as these people are involved in the production of news, they are in danger of persecution by governments in countries where there is no press freedom, and that they deserve the same protections that major international news organizations afford to their full-time staffers. When Rusbridger enumerates a set of duties any fixer would recognize, and then says, “he’s not a journalist,” he is hurting the cause of people who work in far more dangerous places than London, New York or Rio.

Moreover, if those debating the incident decide it doesn’t matter whether Miranda is a journalist, they endanger thousands around the world who have the (mis)fortune to be related to reporters. Many governments would love to round up the families and friends of journalists and interrogate them about their loved ones. Many reporters live in fear that this will happen. They guard against it by keeping their work secret from family and friends and making sure the authorities never think otherwise.

The UK’s actions have set a terrifying example for other governments that family members are fair game, but if those challenging Britain’s actions are not absolutely clear that Miranda is a journalist, not just a journalist’s partner, it will make that example worse.

I understand that for the purposes of evaluating whether the UK acted wrongly Miranda’s role is not the key fact. Either way, the detention was an attempt to suppress the story, and either way, detentions of anyone for a non-terror issue under a terrorism law are wrong.

Yet events do not take place in a vacuum, and while British and American journalists may be evaluating this incident with respect to press freedom in our countries, others around the world will be applying its lessons in their own political context.

Journalism is beset from all sides. Journalists in the places where, relatively speaking, things are not as bad as they could be need to make choices and use language sensitive to the interests of our colleagues in far more precarious positions. David Miranda is a journalist, as are many others, and we should protect them all.

Zero Dark Thirty: A Review

By , 20 February, 2013, No Comment

Last night, I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I expected to be disappointed, but I did not expect just how much the film would irritate me. Here are the four biggest problems I had:

1. The film is inaccurate.

Despite screenwriter Mark Boal’s promise not to play ‘fast and loose’ with history, there is a lot of sloppiness to his script.

The majority of the film is set in Pakistan, where CIA employees work out the U.S. embassy compound. The protagonist, Maya, drives her own car in and out of this compound, something few women in Pakistan, and no senior officials, do.

When two agents sit down with a prisoner for a meal, he’s served hummus and tabbouleh. This is laughable. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country, and no one there is eating hummus, unless they are going to ethnic restaurants.

When CIA operatives masquerade as aid workers offering vaccines to get bin Laden’s DNA, the film misstates the vaccine being offered (it was hepatitis B, not polio) and doesn’t address the consequences of using humanitarian workers as a cover, thereby discrediting NGOs that provide real aid to Pakistanis.

I could go on a long time picking out details like this, but the point is: to anyone who has any firsthand experience of Pakistan or the ‘war on terror’ in South Asia, the movie is highly implausible.

2. The film glorifies torture.

It is no secret that there is a lot of time spent on torture in this film, from the opening water-boarding scene to later segments featuring forced nudity, dog collars, and a grown man confined in a small wooden box.

What makes the film abhorrent, however, is not that it depicts torture – it would have been inaccurate to exclude it entirely. The problem is in the way it is depicted. Maya’s initial discomfort with torture is something she has to overcome, and we are encouraged to view it as part of her personal growth when she does. Later, when President Obama ends the torture program, we are encouraged to see it as a bureaucratic annoyance.

When the White House asks for hard evidence – photos, phone logs or DNA – that the Abbottabad compound houses bin Laden, Maya’s boss replies, “We lost the ability to tell that when we lost the detainee program.” That statement is presented uncritically, with no one in the room challenging it. It summarizes the position of the film on torture, which is that it was central to CIA success.

As people with knowledge of the matter have pointed out, this is a highly inaccurate claim, not least because in a real room of intelligence officers, there would have been more dissent. Yet it would be an immoral claim whether it was accurate or not, because torture is unequivocally wrong even if it can be effective.

3. The film pretends to be journalism.

My biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty, however, isn’t in its Orientalist depiction of Pakistan or its abhorrent justifications of torture. It is the film’s utterly dishonest attempt to cloak these views under the mantle of journalism.

Its opening title, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is a claim to journalistic authority. It’s a much stronger claim than the standard “based on a true story” we’re used to seeing in historical fiction. Presenting it at the start of the film, rather than during the credits, accompanied by audio of real phone calls from the collapsing World Trade Center, is a way of making an explicit plea that we interpret what follows as fact. Director Kathryn Bigelow herself has referred to the film as a ‘reported’ work and an ‘imagistic version of reportage.’

Lots of viewers – the ones who don’t have any expertise on this topic – will take these claims at face value, and thereby walk away with the conviction that all the film’s fictionalizations are factual, that this is a work of journalism. That is wrong.

Bigelow and Boal are retreating behind the argument that art should be weighed against its fealty to a ‘higher truth’ not against political context. I am skeptical of this notion, but it simply doesn’t apply to a work that has been marketed as nonfiction.

4. All art is political.

Even without its pseudo-journalistic framing, the film would still be problematic.

All culture happens in a political context. Art that aims to be ‘neutral’ by simply presenting ‘the way things are’ is still political. When you present political context as ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way individuals have chosen for things to be’ you are normalizing the prevailing political order, and thereby helping to sustain it.

This film normalizes not only the torture apparatus, but also the validity of spending ten years and billions of dollars on the bin Laden search in the first place. Plenty of reports suggest that the al Qaeda center of gravity long ago moved away from bin Laden to splinter groups elsewhere, or to lone militants radicalized online.

There are good arguments for the significance of catching bin Laden, but the film does not allow its characters to have this debate. The head of the CIA’s operation in Pakistan voices skepticism about Maya’s project. But he is never taken seriously by his peers (or the audience) and is fired from his post in disgrace. The film is on Maya’s side by default, and the audience in my theatre clapped at bin Laden’s death.

Bigelow is a talented director and the film is well made. But she uses the war on terror and claims of historical accuracy as a cheap backdrop for her characters’ stories, refusing to engage in any real way with the moral implications of doing so.

That’s not artistic subversion. It’s disgraceful callousness, and deserves to be called out as such.

What John Kerry, age 27, would tell John Kerry, age 69, about drone strikes

By , 24 January, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up at Forbes today (finally!) about John Kerry’s confirmation hearing today. I look back at his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 and ask what relevance it should have today.

Asked by senators to offer insights on Vietnam after any potential cease-fire, and on whether a limited U.S. air presence would be required after ground troops exited the country, Kerry said:

We veterans can only look with amazement on the fact that this country has been unable to see there is absolutely no difference between ground troops and a helicopter, and yet people have accepted a differentiation fed them by the administration.

No ground troops are in Laos, so it is all right to kill Laotians by remote control. But believe me the helicopter crews fill the same body bags and they wreak the same kind of damage on the Vietnamese and Laotian countryside as anybody else, and the President is talking about allowing that to go on for many years to come.

Swap Vietnam for Afghanistan, Laos for Somalia or Yemen and helicopter for unmanned drone and Kerry’s comments could have been made yesterday. “There are no ground troops in Yemen, so it’s okay to kill Yemenis by remote control” is a pretty accurate, and chilling, description of the position the current Administration has taken.

As a young man, Kerry understood that position to be ludicrous.

More, on the critique Kerry made and its contemporary resonance, here. The confirmation hearing can be see live here.

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

UN Week Blogging

By , 8 October, 2012, No Comment

Belatedly, taking note of two blog posts I’ve written for Forbes recently based on events I attended during UN Week.

1. The UN hosted an event on energy access and sustainability that was notable because it tried to bridge the gap between environmental activism and anti-poverty work.

Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.

Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.

The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlookconcluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.

Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.

Read the rest here.

2. The Concordia Summit held a panel discussion on women in Afghanistan that was notable because it highlighted the role the U.S. government has played in helping Afghan women achieve economic and political freedom, just days before U.S. government officials began telling the press that the U.S. won’t have much role in the postwar peace.

But the most important, and least frequently discussed danger (it gets no mention in the Timesstory) is the fate of Afghan women. One of the few goods to have come of the ISAF presence in Afghanistan is an Afghan constitution that gives women equal legal status to men (Article 22), the right to go to school (Articles 43 and 44), access jobs (Article 48) and hold political office (Article 84). Not only would a postwar government with Taliban members reverse such gains, but many woman who have made social, political and economic gains in the last decade would be in danger of suffering violent retribution and shaming from the men in their communities.

Read it all here.

I’ll be discussing what NATO withdrawal means for Afghan women on HuffPost Live today at 10:30AM Eastern. You can watch it here.

Bin Laden Dead: The Sovereignty Debate

By , 6 May, 2011, 1 Comment

A post on the legal status of U.S.-Pakistan relations right now. Verdict: they’re pretty ambiguous.

Thankfully, for the moment, the United States doesn’t need to defend its actions on Sunday because Pakistan is not pushing it. For this particular raid. But the Pakistani government has been very clear that a future raid–on other high value targets believed to also be in Pakistan, say–would be received as a hostile act and merit retaliation.

Legally, most scholars I’ve spoken to say an official statement saying ‘no’ has to be respected. Or at least, explains Gabriella Blum, a professor at Harvard Law School, it constitutes a reclaiming of sovereignty temporarily, a resetting of the accountability clock, and has to be taken–whether this seems plausible or not–as a promise to try again. The United States would have to build up a new case for Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to combat terrorism if it wanted to go in again. To continue to pursue covert raids without a break now could very easily be described as a attack on Pakistan. That’s quite concerning, since it appears from the recent re-shuffling of CIA and Pentagon leadership, that more covert raids and other intelligence-heavy operations are going to be a staple of the Obama Administration’s war on terror.

If you need further enticement, there’s a clip from the West Wing. Read here.

Bin Laden Dead: Pakistan Responds

By , 3 May, 2011, No Comment

Have started a new post tonight, with some information from the Pakistani government on their role. Probably best to read yesterday’s post as background first.

Bin Laden Dead: Fallout in Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2011, 1 Comment

A post up at Foreign Exchange on the bin Laden raid and what’s come of it in Pakistan:

In other words, as Pakistan has sunk deeper into the abyss of violence, the country’s political debate has divided on two related questions: how involved are we in America’s war, and does more involvement make us safer or less safe?

The raid on bin Laden’s compound only underscores that debate, and the information emerging so far presents all sides with new ammunition.

Read it all here.

Indo-Pak Peace Talks Resume

By , 11 February, 2011, No Comment

Big news out of the Subcontinent this week: India and Pakistan are resuming peace talks after almost two years’ stalemate. The talks, which Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is calling the ‘comprehensive dialogue,’ will cover political, economic and security issues and will be structured not only around meetings between the two countries’ heads of state and foreign ministries, but also the ministries overseeing commerce, culture and natural resources. This structure will prevent, significantly, progress on any one area from being held hostage by stagnation on another.

Will these talks bear fruit? I’m skeptical, though not for the usual reasons. Read why here.

Disappearances in Pakistan

By , 30 December, 2010, 1 Comment

I’m vague and inconclusive over at Foreign Exchange again today, this time in response to an NYT story about disappearances in Pakistan.

I must admit the Times story doesn’t sit easily with my reporting in Pakistan…The Times makes two common foreign policy reporting mistakes–trying to fold an old local dispute largely ignored by the international community into a more recent narrative in which the West has a stake; and glossing over the conflicting interests of diverse factions within Pakistan (the courts, the President, the army). That’s a shame because ultimately, the competing centers of power in Pakistan are a much larger problem for its NATO allies than are these human rights violations, and in desperate need of elucidation.

Read it here.