Focal Points Blog

Pakistan’s Little-Known Payback to the U.S. for Drone Attacks on Its Soil

In the course of an October 3 article at MEMRI titled The Failing U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan, Tufail Ahmad and Y. Carmon puncture the myth that the Taliban is negotiating, or preparing to negotiate, with the United States. (MEMRI is the Middle East Media Research Institute.) Even more of a revelation — at least to me –they report that Pakistan mounted a series of military attacks on Afghanistan this year. Here’s a sample:

In February 2011, Pakistani planes also bombarded Afghan Border Police posts and civilians’ homes in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Khost provinces. … In June 2011, Pakistan launched a series of missile and artillery attacks on the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost and Paktia, killing dozens of civilians which were described by the Afghan government in a resolution as an “act of invasion” by Pakistan. On June 26, 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused Pakistan of firing 470 missiles into the eastern Afghan provinces. … In a July 2, 2011 testimony before the parliament, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak confirmed that two Pakistani helicopters entered the Afghan territory sometime in the summer of 2011. On July 5, 2011, Afghan border police commander Aminullah Amarkhel reported that hundreds of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban crossed the border into Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, where they attacked police outposts and torched homes. … on the eastern borders of Afghanistan with Pakistan, and that Pakistan has established 16 security checkposts inside Afghanistan’s territory; 31 Pakistani security checkposts on the border with eastern Afghanistan were also seen as a threat to Afghanistan.

It’s embarrassing enough for the United States that Pakistan not only refuses to clamp down on, but enables, the Haqqani network’s campaign in Afghanistan. But when Pakistan’s military itself invades Afghanistan, it nudges our campaign there into the realm of the farcical. At least, though, it permits Pakistan a degree of payback for our drone attacks on Pakistan’s soil, as well as the raid on Abbottabad.

Iran Alleged Assassination Plot: Emboldened by Nuke Program?

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution is the author of the 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which he’ll probably never live down. Weighing in on Iran’s alleged attempt on the life of the Saudi ambassador to the United States yesterday at the Daily Beast, Pollack wrote:

… while this plot—a mass casualty attack on U.S. soil—would go well beyond what Iran has attempted in the past, it would represent an extrapolation of another pattern, namely the emergence of a more aggressive, risk-tolerant Iranian regime over the past two years.

Be that as it may, part of the case those who are skeptical of the plot’s plausibility make is that Iran wouldn’t dare because it would be concerned with retribution even more crippling than the “crippling” sanctions we’ve already imposed on it. Pollack’s view is …

That the regime may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation. In the past, that fear has been an important restraint on Iranian action against the United States. Again, if true, this plot suggests that the Iranians may believe either that the United States is so consumed with its own internal problems and so determined to avoid another war in the Middle East that the American people would not countenance any action that might risk escalation with Iran. Alternatively, it may suggest that Iran believes its nuclear program is far enough along to deter conventional American military retaliation.

Hold on a minute — a program that’s at least a couple of years from producing nuclear weapons is capable of deterring an attack from another country, even if it’s not via nuclear weapons? Granted that might be true if Iran had reached the point where it wasn’t necessarily manufacturing nuclear weapons but was capable of building them (known as virtual deterrence).

But even Israel and the most rabid American hawks don’t believe Iran has either built any nuclear weapons, nor is capable of it. It’s gives Tehran little credit to infer that it was operating under the delusion that just the intention to develop nuclear weapons would deter an attack. Suggesting it only makes Pollack appear ignorant.

Is Iran’s Alleged Cash-for-Assassinations Plot Too Implausible to Be True?

Today, US Attorney General Eric Holder reported that an FBI-DEA action, “Operation Red Coalition,” has successfully prevented a campaign of Iranian terrorist attacks in the US and Argentina. Attorney General Holder and law enforcement personnel all assert that the operations were approved at highest levels of the Iranian government, but refer to “factions of the Iranian government” rather than “the Iranian government” as being responsible. Despite the saber-rattling, it appears that the US government does not want to completely assign blame for the attack on Iran’s top leadership.

A criminal complaint has been filed, based off of an FBI affidavit presented to a New York judge, charging five Iranians, including several Iranian-Americans, with plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel Al-Jubeir. They are also suspected of seeking to bomb the Saudi and Israeli embassies in both DC and Buenos Aires.

Purportedly undertaken in the spring with the blessing of high-level Iranian officials, an Iranian-American naturalized citizen named Mansour Arbabsiar approached a DEA informant (referred to only as “CS-1”) masquerading as a member of “Drug Cartel #1,” which ABC reports is probably the Mexican-based Los Zetas Cartel. As to why Mansour approached cartels, he is said to have been ordered to by his superiors “because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.”

US media reports that Mansour also promised CS-1 to supply his/her cartel with “tons of opium” as part of their deal, though this has not been mentioned in any of the papers made public by the Justice Department.

CS-1 is described as “a paid confidential source” who, in exchange for having unspecified State Department charges dropped against him/her, agreed to become a mole for the DEA. The report discloses that CS-1 is on federal payrolls and is regarded as a “reliable” source of intelligence, and that some of the exchanges between Mansour took place in Mexico. The DEA’s informant policies are extremely well-kept secrets, and also very expensive and controversial. And like the FBI’s informant programs that have exposed numerous alleged terrorist plots, this plot was, apparently, held together by the informant, who presented himself as an explosives expert and promised to deliver C-4 for the operation.

Working through Mansour, the group in Iran was said to have sent US$100,000 (obtained from the Iranian government) to CS-1 as a “down payment” on a US$1.5 million assassination contract. When CS-1 suggested that an attack on the ambassador in a restaurant would also kill US civilians, Mansour replied that “sometime [sic], you know, you have no choice,” a point that US officials have (somewhat hypocritically, as Glenn Greenwald points out, given our “collateral damage” record overseas) reiterated time and again to try and demonstrate that the Iranians are somehow unbalanced psychopaths.

Regarding this portrayal, one is reminded of how in the late 1980s Batman comic series “A Death in the Family,” the writers were able to end the storyline where the Joker — yes, the Joker –became the Iranian ambassador to the UN (in order to kill UN ambassadors, of course!). You see, the Iranians are crazy, and so’s the Joker! Batman and Superman, of course, stop him (kind of), just as the DEA and FBI stopped the Quds Force (kind of).

The complaint asserts that one of the alleged plotters, Gholam Shakuri, is a colonel in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), specifically in the Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC the US designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2007. Mansour also made allusions to CS-1 that he also had a “high-ranking” cousin in the Quds Forces, “a general” with covert ops experience in Iraq “wanted” by the US. Gholam is said to be this man’s deputy. Other Quds Force members were also involved and allegedly identified by Mansour, though the US government refuses to publicly disclose specific information about such individuals.

Mansour was recently arrested at JFK airport and, according to the complaint, waived his Miranda rights to give interviews to US authorities, which form the basis of the testimony in addition to statements by CS-1.

The allegations of this plot surface at a very tense time in US-Iranian relations. With a presidential election approaching, candidates are grandstanding to “show” their “toughness” towards Iran. The IRGC is being accused of having a hand in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain’s civil conflicts, the later two of which Saudi Arabia has intervened in, partly in the name of “containing” Iran. Furthermore, US politicians and media outlets are increasingly questioning Iran’s alleged ties to al Qaeda, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and the progress of Tehran’s nuclear program. The Israeli government is also rattling sabers over the program, which the last US National Intellignece Estimate on concluded Iran is years away from producing nuclear weapons.

The announcement also comes at a tense time for Attorney General Holder, who has recently come under fire over the failure of a US government gun-running program involving Mexican cartels called Operation Fast and Furious. Undoubtedly, Operation Red Coalition will boost his standing among members of Congress. Whether it deters them from their investigation of his part in Operation Fast and Furious is another thing entirely. Even with the arrest of Mansour, we can likely expect to see more complaints from US politicians that the Obama Administration is “undermining” US security by being “weak” in the face of Iran.

Secretary of State Clinton told reporters that this plot “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.” Attempting to perhaps inject a bit of levity into what is, by any standards, an outlandishly roundabout, Blofeld-esque plot, said in a press conference that “The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?”

The Iranian government has not tried to make light of the incident, though. They have refuted the allegations, accussing the US of running “a comedy show” and of trying to drive a wedge between Riyadh and Tehran (as though there wasn’t one a mile thick already). Saudi Arabia will be recalling its ambassador to Iran, Reuters reported.

The Cable reports that executive branch departments are “developing new measures against the Iranian government that are to be announced ‘within hours,'” including new international sanctions. Members of Congress are reported to be pushing for a new round of sanctions against Iran as well.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

The Real Nuclear Threat From Iran May Not Be Nuclear Weapons

Because it appears on the websites of local Fox News stations, one instinctively takes an article titled Insider: Iran Will Be ‘Next Chernobyl’ with a grain of salt. But its plausibility is undeniable. See if you agree.

The first Iranian nuclear power station is inherently unsafe and will probably cause a “tragic disaster for humankind,” according to a document apparently written by an Iranian whistleblower. There is a “great likelihood” that the Bushehr reactor could generate the next nuclear catastrophe after Chernobyl or Fukushima, says the document. … It claims that Bushehr, which began operating last month after 35 years of intermittent construction, was built by “second-class engineers” who bolted together Russian and German technologies from different eras; that it sits in one of the world’s most seismically active areas but could not withstand a major earthquake; and that it has “no serious training program” for staff or a contingency plan for accidents. The document’s authenticity cannot be confirmed, but nuclear experts see no reason to doubt it.

More about the Russian-German incompatibility:

“The Russian parts are designed to standards that are less stringent than the Germans’ and they are being used out of context in a design where they are exposed to inappropriate stresses,” the document says. It goes on to claim that “much of the necessary work for Bushehr is outside the competence of the Russian consulting engineers,” who consider the project a “holiday.”

What’s ironic about this article is that Fox types no doubt view the shoddy-sounding state of Iran’s nuclear-energy program as a force multiplier to add to Iran’s alleged development of nuclear weapons. Operating in synergy, theoretically they should make the case for attacking Iran. To others though, Iran’s possible nuclear-energy troubles eclipse the nuclear weapons threat. Thus is Iran reduced from malevolent to incompetent and not worth attacking. Given enough time, its nuclear program may well blow itself up.

Hawks Used Test Ban Treaty as Justification for Expanding Nukes

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has still not yet been activated, or, in treaty talk, “entered into force.” As of September 2011, 155 states have ratified the CTBT and another 27 states, not least among them the United States, have signed but not ratified it.

According to the Basic Obligations under ARTICLE I, the CTBT requires that:

Each State Party [as in “state that is party to the treaty”] undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.

On September 23 of this year, the Conference on Facilitating the Entry Into Force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was held, spurring calls in support. At the conference itself United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said

We gather at a moment of action. On the international front, the calls for bringing the CTBT into effect are growing. … We must face facts. Until we have universal adherence to a legally binding global norm against nuclear testing, there is no guarantee that nuclear tests will not happen again. We need no more reminders. We need political will. We need concrete action.

Meanwhile, former Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary and Hazel O’Leary and Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

The treaty is an essential tool for dealing with today’s security threats. … Countries with nuclear weapons, such as China, India and Pakistan, cannot create advanced nukes without further nuclear test explosions. Without nuclear tests, Iran could not confidently build warheads for delivery by ballistic missiles. By ratifying the treaty, the United States would put pressure on these nations to shelve their nuclear programs and engage more productively with the international community.

Most important, by ratifying the treaty, “the United States would gain the political and moral leverage to end nuclear testing worldwide.”

In a December 2009 article for Z Magazine, Darwin BondGraham shows how the United States gained a different kind of political leverage, and at the expense of moral (emphasis added).

According to Ray Acheson [of the disarmament group Reaching Critical Will, a nation that] “pursues nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, must do so based on the tried-and-true path of setting off a nuclear detonation. But to do so under the CTBT would almost reflexively entail sanctions and military strikes.” Acheson and others point out that the “virtual testing” advances at the U.S. labs—particularly in the areas of flash-ray and laser technologies—provide it with an exclusive, high-tech route around the CTBT. The U.S. remains free to continue developing qualitatively new nuclear weapons … without violating the letter of the agreement.

In the current subscription edition of Counterpunch BondGraham provided additional insights into how a treaty such as the CTBT is not all it’s cracked up to be. He explains that the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program (SSM)

. . . came about largely because of the Clinton administration’s counterproductive obsession with ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). … The nuclear weapons complex and its allies in the Pentagon, Congress, and industry [claimed that] an end to testing … would require huge funding increases to build complex virtual testing facilities to use in lieu of nuclear shots under the desert. Even though Clinton approved SSM, setting in motion a decade of trough-feeding for the nuclear complex, the CTBT was never ratified by the Senate. Republicans balked.

In any event, U.S. ratification of the CTBT isn’t exactly impending. Global Security Newswire reports that a U.S. official explained that the Obama administration

… “cannot simply negotiate treaties and put them into force. … Every treaty we negotiate must be ratified. That is 67 votes [in the Senate] and always requires a major effort.” So far that effort has not been officially launched in Washington. While other nations are “very keen” on CTBT ratification, [Jarmo Viinanen, chairman of the U.N. General Assembly’s First Committee, which handles disarmament] said, “if you expect there is going to be any movement from the U.S. side, I don’t think so. … One year before the [presidential] election, I’m not counting on that.”

Not that the United States is the only one dragging its feet. Among the other nine nations “that must still ratify the treaty before it can become a global rule of law [are] nuclear-armed … China, India, Pakistan and North Korea.”

Bono’s African Philanthropy Could Use a Remix

BonoPaul Hewson, better known as Bono, has become arguably as famous for his alleged philanthropy as for his day job as front man for veteran Irish rockers U2. Within the past week, he unveiled a new publicity campaign through his organization, the ONE Campaign, intended to draw attention and direct aid towards the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa by referring to famine as “The F Word.” It’s a clever idea, but something absolutely crucial is missing, without which the campaign is largely missing the point. While Bono’s own writings and the website of the ONE Campaign do mention violence and political instability afflicting the region, and even refer to the famine as “man-made,” the actual causes of this disruption are completely ignored.

At the end of 2006, Ethiopian military forces invaded Somalia, quickly routed the amateurish militia fighters of the governing Islamic Courts Union, and seized control of Mogadishu. They did this at the behest of the Bush Administration, whose role in encouraging and funding the invasion was stated openly at the time. More information has come to light recently thanks to Wikileaks, however, specifically the extent to which the Bush Administration had to cajole and essentially twist the arms of a very reluctant Ethiopian government. The motive was simple: the United States has always supported the Transitional Federal Government, a group of exiles who purport to rule Somalia from their headquarters in Kenya. Under the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia had seen impressive (if wildly uneven) economic growth, but this did not deter Washington. The Islamic Courts Union had usurped the position of Washington’s favored partners, plus they had the word “Islamic” in their names, so they were targeted for overthrow.

The result has been catastrophic. A swift Ethiopian victory quickly became a draining counterinsurgency as Somali forces regrouped, leading to a withdrawal of Ethiopian forces in 2009. Civil war has raged in and around Somalia ever since, with hundreds of thousands of people (at minimum) displaced and thousands killed by the conflict, along with a near-complete collapse of the country’s recent economic progress. The Obama administration has continued the policy of intervention, with a series of recent drone strikes and alleged involvement of covert elements, all in an effort to bolster favored factions.

As a result of all of this, the people of the Horn of Africa have been completely unable to manage a particularly bad drought, leading to the catastrophe now occurring. This pattern of cause and effect is completely absent from the rhetoric of the ONE Campaign, leading observers of their work to conclude that the man-made famine was entirely made in Africa. Bono may be well aware of this, but his pattern of activism since the mid-1980s makes it clear that he seeks to curry favor with politicians of various ideological stances around the world, in order to better ameliorate the results of the actions of these same politicians. To use the terminology of Bono’s own industry, his own philanthropy could use a remastering, if not a complete remix. The present, longstanding path of his activism is not only possibly self-defeating, but ominously could be leading to apathy and “donor fatigue” as the same story repeats again and again.

Americans Too Creeped Out by Nuclear Attack to Prepare for It

Never fear — Global Security Newswire reports:

Major cities and other communities in the United States can take a number of preparedness measures to drastically reduce the number fatalities and illnesses that would follow a nuclear strike, a leading nongovernmental organization declared.

Something called Rad Resilient City was created by the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC (the University of Pittsburgh). No indication what Rad means, but Global Security Newswire explains that it’s

… a seven-point checklist … that communities can implement to better protect residents from radioactive fallout after an atomic blast. … starting with obtaining broad community support for nuclear incident preparedness; conducting an ongoing public education campaign on … how people can protect themselves. … The plan also calls for establishing a rapid system for mapping and monitoring radioactive fallout [and] developing strategies and logistics for a large-scale, phased evacuation of a municipality.

… Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior associate at the center. … rejected the assumption that lives cannot be saved after such a catastrophic event. “We must reverse this fatalistic thinking.” she said during the panel discussion.

Here’s a testimonial “Rad Resilient City” from its website.

“UPMC has presented us all with a gift today — they’ve given us this preparedness checklist that can help us go back to our families, our communities, our businesses.” Tammy Taylor, Leader, Nonproliferation Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory

New York City dad to his family: “The Center for Biosecurity has brought us all a wonderful gift.”

Little Emma: “What is it, daddy?”

Dad: “Why, it’s a plan to help us survive and recover from a nuclear attack.”

Emma: “Oh, daddy. We don’t ever have to be afraid of anything again.”

Dad: “Actually, we won’t be 100% secure, Emma, until America is completely protected by missile defense.”

Emma: “I’ll put that on my Christmas list and send it to Santa!”

Mom: “What’s most important is that we’ll be together as a family, even as we die a slow death by radiation poisoning.”

Yes, Ms. Taylor, cities and regions might find the Center for Biosecurity preparedness plans a useful gift. Though where they’ll find the funding is another question. But if yours is like most American families, the silence with which the checklist is met will be deafening.

Failing to demonstrate an interest in preparing for an attack might seem fatalistic to the Center for Biosecurity’s Ms. Schoch-Spana. But, one suspects that most Americans have no stomach for thinking about and preparing for a nuclear attack with all that it implies about living through the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. In fact, preventing the attack would be the gift that keeps on giving.

Besides, what’s truly fatalistic is when the United States can’t envision a national security policy without weapons which can’t be used lest they invite retaliation that condemns us to, if not obliteration, a kind of living death for a generation or two.

Meanwhile, the Center for Biosecurity and the government might count 100,000 dead in a nuclear terror attack on a city rather than 400,000 a triumph of civil defense. But to the inhabitants of the city it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Especially considering the hell that the 300,000 who were “saved” will be living through.

One Step Closer: Lieberman Calls for No-Fly Zone Over Syria

Cross-posted with Right Web’s Militarist Monitor, a weekly column on trending topics in the neoconservative discourse.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the lame duck “Independent Democrat” from Connecticut closely allied to neoconservative advocacy groups, has reportedly become the first U.S. senator to call publicly for military intervention in Syria. “I’d like to see us begin to consider some safe zones inside Syria, particularly along the Turkish and Jordanian borders,” said Lieberman. When asked by Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” on Tuesday if that meant he favored a no-fly zone, he replied, “I’d be in favor of that, yes.” While so far no other U.S. lawmakers have called openly for armed intervention in Syria, Lieberman’s remarks parallel a growing chorus of voices pushing for a “stronger response” to the Syrian crackdown by Washington.

Lieberman’s statement came shortly after the joint Russia-China veto of a Security Council resolution calling on Syria to end its crackdown and release its political prisoners. Russia and China cited the resolution’s contingency that the Security Council would “consider its options” after 30 days of Syrian noncompliance, observing that such language represented a veiled reference to the kind of sanctions that preceded the Libya intervention. Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon similarly abstained from voting.

Shortly after the veto, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice delivered what the New York Times called “one of her most bellicose speeches in the Council chamber,” with Rice declaring that “the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators.” Rice’s outrage prompted an editorial from the right-wing Wall Street Journal, which wondered, “Why, except for reasons of masochism or moral abdication, does the Obama administration insist on obtaining a symbolic and toothless UN resolution? … Maybe once the lesson delivered at the UN this week sinks in, the Obama administration might take further steps to oust Mr. Assad.”

The veto came on the heels of a long-delayed U.S. Senate vote to confirm Robert Ford as the U.S. ambassador to Syria. No longer viewed as a “concession” to the Syrian regime, an increasing number of hawks have come to appreciate Ford’s high-profile confrontations with the Syrian government over its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

However, with Ford pushing hard against the regime in Syria (and therefore increasingly unlikely to broker any moderation on the part of Damascus), and with the UN Security Council tied up over the issue of sanctions, neoconservative advocates of regime change are increasingly likely to declare that diplomatic responses to the Syrian government have been exhausted—a well-worn path on the way to justifying various other U.S.-led wars. Senator Lieberman will likely not be the last lawmaker to call for war in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal has probably not issued its final shot over the bow either.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Spanish Court Won’t Let Cameraman Couso’s Killing at Hands of Americans Die

For the third time, Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Spanish National Court has indicted the three soldiers responsible for the killing of Spanish cameraman José Couso in Baghdad in 2003. With evidence to suggest that the attack on Couso’s hotel, which also took the life of Ukranian cameraman Taras Protsuk, was part of a coordinated effort to rid Baghdad of un-embedded journalists during the early days of the U.S. invasion, Lieutenant Colonel Philip De Camp, Captain Philip Wolford and Sergeant Thomas Gibson have been indicted with crimes against the international community and ordered to post bail of 1 million Euros within 24 hours, after which the court will order their assets frozen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government under the Obama administration has stuck with the “official” U.S. military investigation of the two journalists’ deaths conducted in 2003. Military investigators found that the tank that fired against the Palestine Hotel – media hub to over 300 journalists at the time – had responded in kind to hostile enemy fire. They claimed that the hostile fire ceased immediately after the anti-personnel shell blew up Taras Protsyuk along with the entire 15th-floor balcony from where he was filming. That balcony then collapsed on top of José Couse who was filming from the balcony below.

But the official story has from the beginning been riddled with holes. Every eyewitness to the crime agreed that no shots were fired from the hotel. The investigators making their report must not have gotten that news, because even Pentagon officials changed their story within days of the attack, saying instead that an enemy spotter with binoculars was giving information on the tank’s location from a lookout point in the hotel. Just why enemy fighters would need to plant a spotter in the same place that Protsyuk’s Reuters camera was broadcasting live via satellite to spot a tank that was in the middle of one of Baghdad’s major bridges was never explained. Indeed, witnesses and video footage contest the fact that the tank was under fire at all.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has been successful in selling these contradictory, counterintuitive statements to the public. For one, as revealed in December 2010 by Wikileaks cables, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid was able to strong-arm the Spanish government into having the case closed twice. And for the last eight years, U.S. media has obediently ignored key facts of the case in its coverage. The typical line of the corporate media takes U.S. claims at face value, omitting key contravening facts (just see Wednesday’s CNN piece on the subject). Moreover, it is almost never mentioned in the U.S. media that two other media outlets – Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV – were attacked on the very same morning by the same infantry division. Along with Reuters, those two Arab media stations were the only cameras emitting live video from the Iraqi capital that day. Of course, the best way for the media to comply with the U.S. military is to keep quiet on the issue: a quick search through the web archives of any major U.S. outlet will prove that that has been the preferred strategy. Still other U.S. news stories turn the killers into the victims, like this “human interest” piece from the LA Times.

This time it may be more difficult for the media to keep quiet. Before filing this most recent indictment, Judge Pedraz traveled to Baghdad with a team of experts in optical physics and military science, who concluded that the hotel balcony was perfectly visible in great detail from the tank’s scope, and that the tank would never have taken position in the middle of the bridge had it not been safe from enemy fire.

Perhaps most importantly, the indictments issued Wednesday open official investigations into two superior officers directly up the chain of command from the accused. One is erstwhile Colonel David Perkins, now a General, who admitted to having known about the media presence at the Palestine Hotel, but did not filter that information down to the soldiers in the tank. The other is General Buford Blount, former program manager for the Saudi National Guard – “the shock troops of the Saudi royals.” Extending the official investigation higher up the chain of command marks an extremely important development in the case and sets a key precedent in the global struggle for justice against U.S. war crimes.

But what consequences could this case possibly have? If the U.S. refuses to extradite the accused to Spain, the only consequence of their conviction would be a travel ban within most of the European community, other states sympathetic to the doctrine of Universal Jurisdiction and countries with extradition treaties with Spain. Since Spanish law doesn’t allow the trial of suspects in absentia, the case will likely remain open until one or more of the accused soldiers attempts to travel outside the U.S. In the Spanish case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for torture, Pinochet was arrested in the UK (against the wishes of Prime Minister Thatcher). There he was held under house arrest for almost two years while appealing his extradition to Spain before finally being released for his deteriorating health conditions.

Still, the precedent of indicting U.S. soldiers on war crimes for the deliberate targeting of journalists in Iraq would open several doors to the families of the more than 140 journalists killed during the U.S.-led war and occupation, many of whom have been blocked from learning the truth about their slain loved ones. Just look to the case of Mazen Dana to glimpse the horrific war against independent journalists waged by the Bush administration.

If enough people come forward with their stories – like former Army Intelligence officer Adrienne Kinne, who told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that she had seen the Palestine Hotel on a list of potential targets after it was known to house journalists – the details will continue to accumulate and the big picture of U.S. war crimes will subject the most powerful war-planners to justice.

For a detailed review of the Couso case, from the day of the crime to the present, please see my recent piece in Foreign Policy in Focus.

V. Noah Gimbel is currently working on a book on Universities and Empire and can be reached at

The Extraterrestrial Atomic Energy Agency

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created, in large part, to inspect nuclear facilities for safety and security. Over time, succumbing to a bad case of mission creep, it became a de facto detective agency stuck with the job of determining whether states such as Iran were developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, other bodies verify compliance with the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and would perform the same service for the prospective Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

But another entity, one that’s neither party to any treaties nor reports back to the UN Security Council like the IAEA, may also be monitoring nuclear facilities. While it has enforcement capabilities the IAEA can only dream of, it has yet to be inclined to use them.

In 2010 an eye-opening book titled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record was published with the surprising support of John Podesta and the Center for American Progress. It was written by Leslie Kean, a founder of the Coalition for Freedom of Information, launched in 2001 to obtain documents from the United States government about UFOs through the Freedom of Information Act.

UFOs serves two purposes. First, it’s the authoritative record of ironclad sightings as witnessed or assembled by those enumerated in the subtitle, who narrate their stories in their own chapters. Second, author Kean analyzes the U.S. government policy of reflexively debunking UFO sightings, which has the insidious effect of filtering down to all serious commentators. Writing about UFOs has become almost as lethal to a writer’s credibility as if he or she lent credence to those who subscribe to alternate histories of 9/11.

Before continuing, allow me to mention the reason — ostensible, anyway — that the United States debunks UFO sightings. In the early 1950s, Kean writes:

Authorities were … saturated by hundreds of UFO reports. … Even though the UFOs had demonstrated no threat to national security, false alarms could be dangerous. … Officials were concerned that the Soviets might take advantage of this situation by simulating or staging a UFO wave, and then attack.

How the United States government deals with UFO reports stands in stark contrast to how they’re handled in other countries, notably Britain, France, and Belgium, as well as those of South America. As one of the sub-authors writes,

… the 1989-90 UFO wave in Belgium was handled rationally, openly, and responsibly by the government. The Belgian Air Force was called into action immediately, and other agencies, such as the Gendarmerie Nationale (a combination of police and army) and the Belgian equivalent of our FAA, also cooperated in the mobilization to identify the objects.

In other words, stigmatizing those investigating UFO sightings is a distinctly American phenomenon.

Returning to the auxiliary monitoring agency alluded to above, Kean writes about Jean-Jacques Velasco, an engineer in satellite development for CNES, the French equivalent of NASA, who later served as head of the French government’s UFO agency for over 20 years. In his section, Velasco reminds us of a famous incident in 1967 when UFOs were spotted by military personnel near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana when, simultaneously, the launch capacity of almost 20 nuclear missiles was shut down. One of the few officials to actually hypothesize about why extraterrestrials seem to be visiting us, Velasco writes.

I would like to propose an intriguing hypothesis that. … has required some research … into the United States. I believe that there is a connection between strategic nuclear power [by which he means] the atomic bomb, and the presence of unidentified artificial objects in the sky. This is suggested by data collected over several decade.

During the Cold War, he continues, “Air Force intelligence noted that many sightings occurred over ‘sensitive installations.'”

Most explicit was part of a report by George E. Valley, MIT physicist and radiation. (Emphasis added.)

Such a civilization [as might visit the earth] might observe that on Earth we now have atomic bombs and are fast developing rockets. In view of the past history of mankind, they should be alarmed. We should, therefore, expect at this time above all to behold such visitations.

Since the acts of mankind most easily observed from a distance are A-bomb explosions, we should expect some relation to obtain between the time of A-bomb explosions, the time at which the space ships are seen, and the time required for such ships to arrive from and return to the home base.

Velasco further writes:

We have on record the number of explosions worldwide and tests … a total of just over 2,400 explosions. … By comparing nuclear tests to some 150 visual/radar UFO cases collected since 1947, we note that the curves are practically superimposed in time and they coincide, with not more than a few months appearing between the number of explosions and one of the UFO appearances. … We can see on a graph the relationship between atomic explosions and visual/radar sightings. … This similarity in the two curves would suggest that the proven presence of UFOs is related to the nuclear strategic activity in the world.

Those inclined to attribute benevolence to extraterrestrials might think they monitor our nuclear weapons to keep us from harming ourselves. But they would be advised not to hold their breath waiting for extraterrestrials to become disarmament advocates of last resort who will decommission nuclear stockpiles on earth via electromagnetic pulse or something. This kind of thinking is just as much a symptom of our earth-centricity as the failure to perceive that what we do on earth spills over the borders of the planet. We’ve demonstrated little inclination to make sure that what happens on earth stays on earth.

In fact, extraterrestrials’ main concern may be how nuclear weapons on earth affect them. More likely, though, since recent developments in science suggest life elsewhere is untold light years away, extraterrestrials are too far from us to be directly affected by radiation emanating from earth. Instead, their overarching concern might be the ecology of the universe, if you can believe not only that, in its immensity, the universe needs tending like a planet but that extraterrestrials actually care enough to see to its well-being.

Whether they’re concerned about themselves or the state of the universe, it’s certainly a measure of how dangerous nuclear weapons are that beings from points unimaginably far distant are monitoring them out of apparent concern that, if used, they’d spill over the borders of the earth and into the universe commons.

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