Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
After I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program in 2007, the fallout for me was brutal. To make a long story short, I served nearly two years in federal prison and then endured a few more months of house arrest.
What happened to the torture program? Nothing.
Following years of waiting for the government to do something, I was heartened when I read in my prison cell—in a four-day-old copy of The New York Times—that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had finally released in December a heavily censored summary of its report on the CIA’s brutal “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
Finally, I thought, Congress will do something about our government’s shameful embrace of torture. It was big news—for two or three days.
I thought there would be quick action by courageous members of both parties who respect human rights and civil liberties. I thought they’d work together to ensure that our collective name would never again be sullied by torture—that we’d respect our own laws and the international laws and treaties to which we’re signatories.
In retrospect, I was naïve, even after having served in the CIA for nearly 15 years and as a Senate committee staffer for several more.
Despite repeated efforts by the CIA to impede investigations into its conduct, the report confirmed that the program was even worse than most Americans had thought.
Take the case of Ammar al-Baluchi, who was arrested in Pakistan and sent to a secret CIA prison, where interrogators held his head under water, beat him repeatedly with a truncheon, and slammed his head against the wall, causing lasting head trauma.
This abuse wasn’t authorized by the Justice Department. So why weren’t the perpetrators charged with a crime?
Perhaps worst of all, CIA officers tortured as many as 26 people who were probably innocent of any ties to terrorism.
Sadly, the report’s release didn’t lead to any action by the White House or the Justice Department. The architects of the program haven’t been held accountable. Nor have those who clearly violated the law by torturing prisoners without any legal justifications. Why should the government have locked me up for telling the truth and given them full impunity?
But there’s still time for President Barack Obama to order the Justice Department to prosecute these perpetrators of torture. And there’s a clear precedent in how the government has confronted similar actions in the past.
In 1968, for example, The Washington Post published a photo of a US soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. The Defense Department investigated the incident, court-martialed the soldier, and convicted him of torture.
Why should the Senate’s torture report elicit less response than a photograph? It was wrong in 1968 to commit torture. It’s still wrong—and prosecutable—in 2015.
Some current and former CIA leaders will argue that torture netted actionable intelligence that saved American lives. I was working in the CIA’s counterterrorism center at the same time they were, and I can tell you that they’re lying.
Torture may have made some Americans feel better in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It may have made them feel that the government was avenging our fallen compatriots. But the report found that “the harsh interrogation methods did not succeed in exacting useful intelligence.”
Whether or not it ever gleans useful intelligence, however, is beside the point. The question isn’t whether torture works. Torture is immoral.
There has to be a red line: The United States of America must oppose torture and ban its use absolutely. That begins in the Oval Office, and Obama needs to belatedly do something about it.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The names of the refugees below have been changed to protect their identities.
Imagine the choice between throwing your fate into the hands of notoriously abusive human traffickers or staying in a place facing the highest risk of genocide in the world. This is the choice faced by hundreds of thousands of people from the Rohingya minority in western Burma today.
The reality of their trials was brought to life for me recently in a crowded home of refugees in Malaysia, where an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have now fled. Each has a slightly different story, but the following accounts are fairly typical.
Stage 1: Intimidation and Poverty
Salim, a 30-year-old fish and vegetable trader in western Burma, is detained by local authorities and beaten—not for any crime, but for choosing to self-identify as a “Rohingya” during the 2014 census. The government of Burma denies the existence of Rohingya, choosing to label them as undocumented “Bengalis” from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many Rohingya can trace their origins in Burma back several generations. Local authorities tell Salim he has a choice: He can either pay for passage out of the country or face the risk of death.
Bibi Khadija, 20, and her husband worry about the lack of food, medicine, and education for their children in the displacement camps they’re forced to live in.
Some 150,000 Rohingya in western Burma have fled their homes since violent clashes erupted between local Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in 2012, disproportionately affecting Rohingya. They’ve been forced by the government to live in displacement camps that have been described as open-air prisons. Stories spread throughout the camps of the promise of a better life in Malaysia, encouraging Bibi Khadija to approach the well-known “agent” in their camp. There’s such an agent in every camp, more than willing to help—for a price, typically the equivalent of $100 to $200.
Stage 2: Trial by Sea
Not far from the city of Sittwe, a small boat takes Bibi Khadija, her husband, and their two small children out to a larger boat with some 200 other Rohingya. Many of the ships are much larger, containing more than 1,000 passengers. Armed human traffickers typically overcrowd the ships and deny the passengers adequate food and water. The voyage is usually seven to ten days but can vary considerably.
Bibi Khadija and her family will be at sea for 33 days. Five people will die from starvation along the way.
Another boat takes off near the Bangladesh border holding Salim and nearly 700 other Rohingya. He witnesses the armed traffickers strike over the head with iron rods anyone who asks for water. Nine will succumb to the beatings and be dumped into the sea along the way. Four others will die of starvation.
Stage 3: Hell in the Jungle
After over a month at sea, Bibi Khadija and her family arrive in Thailand and are forced to march for two days and two nights, deep into the jungle. They will remain there in a trafficker camp with hundreds of others for more than three months. There are thousands of Rohingya in dozens of camps in Thailand, described as “tropical gulags” in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters report from a few years back. Once they arrive, the women and children are separated from the men.
The men find out the money they paid at the beginning of the trip does not apply here. They’re beaten daily until they can get word to relatives to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for their freedom. If after six or seven months no money arrives, they’re beaten and discarded or sold to rubber plantation owners.
Salim describes living with some 800 other people under a leaky plastic sheet and surviving off daily rations of just a little bit of rice. After several months, he’s able to reach relatives who pay for his release.
For the women it’s often worse. Salim tells of a beautiful woman he traveled with who was sold into prostitution. Sex trafficking is an all too common fate for the Rohingya refugees.
Sitting before Bibi Khadija, the reality of the horror comes shockingly clear. She averts her eyes, revealing in a near whisper that she’d been raped by the traffickers. A dark mass of broken blood vessels covering the left side of her face bears testament to the recentness of the traumatic experience. Sexual assault is another all too real and all too common fate for the women who take the voyage.
Stage 4: Exile
After months in the traffickers’ camp, Salim is able to get word to family members in Malaysia, who send nearly $2,000 for his release. He’s been in Malaysia for two months now but has lost contact with his brother, who will remain in the hands of the traffickers until he can get word to his family. “I am ready to pay,” he tells me. “I just need to hear from him.”
In Malaysia, Salim finds a network of support from other Rohingya exiles, but faces the daily threat of detention as an illegal immigrant or exploitation by corrupt authorities who demand bribes. A spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said it receives “regular reports of abuse, intimidation, and exploitation of Rohingya refugees” in Malaysia.
Bibi Khadija and her family arrived in Malaysia just days ago. They now share a small house with two other Rohingya families—a total of 16 people sharing three rooms, one kitchen, and one bathroom. They face severe challenges in obtaining education and health attention. And like Salim, they live with the daily threat of detention.
The Lucky Ones?
The people I meet in Malaysia are the lucky ones. They have family who were able to pay for their freedom or were fortunate to escape when a police raid scattered the traffickers. There is a community of support here and a government that, while not exactly welcoming, does not seem intent on their eradication.
As one aid worker helping the Rohingya tells me, there is much that needs to be done to help the Rohingya in Malaysia, but the ultimate solution to this crisis must be in Burma. The government in Burma must recognize the Rohingya as a people with rights and hold accountable anyone who would persecute them.
As I absorb the stories of these various families, I ask each a final question: Given all of the dangers they’ve risked, from drowning to rape and beatings, would they recommend the journey to those still in Burma?
Without hesitation, they all answer yes.
* * *
In the days since Sullivan returned, the situation has greatly deteriorated. Mass graves have been found in the Thai jungle trafficking camps, and a crackdown by authorities has caused traffickers to abandon thousands of Rohingya at sea. Immediate action is needed to save their lives. To join the call for action, go to www.endgenocide.org.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
John Kiriakou is a former CIA officer. Back in 2007, he became the first US government official to confirm—and condemn—the practice of torture by CIA interrogators.
After a drawn-out legal battle, federal authorities convicted Kiriakou of leaking classified information and handed down a prison sentence. He remains the only US official to serve time following the revelation of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” practices.
In February, after serving two years in a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, Kiriakou was permitted to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest at his home in Northern Virginia. Under the terms of his release from prison, he was required to check in daily at a local halfway house in Washington, DC, until May 1 of this year. He’s now on federal probation.
Kiriakou documented his experiences in prison in a series of hand-written “Letters from Loretto” published at FireDogLake. In this, his final entry in the series, he recounts the depredations of house arrest and announces his associate fellowship at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Hello from Arlington, Virginia! I thought I’d write a letter to Loretto to tell you about my experience since going home.
I completed my house arrest on May 1 and began three years of probation, or what Ronald Reagan called “supervised release.” (Technically, there is no such thing as “probation” anymore, although the person to whom I report is called a “United States Probation Officer.”)
I left Loretto on February 3 of this year. My last hour there was a little stressful—not because I was anxious to get out (although I was), but because of one final attempt by a trollish prison employee to set me up just as I was leaving.
She taunted me and threatened to put me in solitary because I asked to go to the release office at a time other than a formal “move.” And when I just repeated, “I’m not going to let you set me up. I’m going home and you can’t stop me,” she blew me a cynical kiss. (This secretary, the sister and daughter of corrections officers, has a reputation for sending prisoners to solitary for “leering” at her.)
I was met in the parking lot by my wife, Heather, my three youngest children, and my friend Joe, who took the day off to drive me to the halfway house where I was supposed to check in before being sent home. We stopped at the nearest McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin. (I know, I know. But it just goes to show you how sickening the food is in prison when you can’t get to a McDonald’s fast enough upon release.)
Making our way down from Pennsylvania, I got to the halfway house with only 45 minutes to spare after crawling through heavy Washington traffic.
The place is called Hope Village. Many residents refer to it as “Hopeless Village,” and I’ve even heard people call it “Abandon All Hope Village.” Located in a former housing project and tucked deep within Washington’s low-income Anacostia neighborhood, it’s nowhere near a Metro station. Transportation by bus is inconvenient, to say the least.
I’d done a little research on Hope Village before my arrival. The Washington Post found the facility’s “job training services lacking and access to mental health services anemic.” There is no money for “residents” to use public transportation to job interviews, and cell phones and Internet access are forbidden.
In addition, according to Prison Legal News, a 2013 report by the District of Columbia’s Corrections Information Council found that Hope Village “lacked the ability to help residents find housing and employment, and hindered them from accessing mental health services. Residents said they felt unsafe and the halfway house did not have an effective system to handle grievances.” The report continued, “The CIC heard on multiple occasions that incarcerated DC residents would prefer to stay at secure [prison] facilities than to reenter DC through Hope Village.”
In a bit of an understatement, the chairman added, “I would say that there are some things that are obviously dysfunctional.”
So I was prepared for the worst.
The Nine-Hour Check-In
I arrived at Hope Village at around 11:45 a.m. and went to the office to check in. I was told that I had to speak to several different people before being sent home, so I settled into apartment 301 and waited until somebody came to get me. I told Heather and Joe to go home.
Several things came immediately to my attention. First, everybody was friendly. And I mean everybody. The staff greeted me with, “Hello, Mr. Kiriakou. Welcome to Hope Village.” The apartment was sparsely furnished, but had everything important: two bunk beds, a couch, two chairs, and a color TV with broadcast channels.
There was a schedule waiting for me. I was to see a case manager, an employment counselor, a drug counselor, and a social worker. That also meant that I couldn’t just check in, check out, and go home.
Instead, check-in took nine hours.
(That said, the food in the cafeteria, which everybody complained about, was absolutely delicious to me: white bread with a slice of turkey and a slice of cheese. I never tasted anything so wonderful. And I guess that says a lot about the fare federal prisons serve.)
The case manager finally gave me a list of 14 mandatory classes that I had to complete in the coming weeks, and then sent me home. I was told that I had to go to the halfway house every day to check in, go to class, and get drug tested.
That sounded fine, but became a colossal pain in the ass.
First, I wasn’t allowed to drive, so I had to take public transportation.
I had to leave my house in Arlington, walk to the nearest Metro station, take the train to Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, catch a bus for Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, get off on Alabama Avenue, then walk the rest of the way to Hope Village. This takes at least two hours each way. I’d spend an hour or two at Hope Village, and then make the two-hour trip home.
This was killing six hours every day in the middle of the workday. The problem here is that I was supposed to be finding a job and working every day. Remaining unemployed at a certain point would make me “violated.” Having broken the rules of my probation, I’d be heading back to Loretto and spending more time in prison. I saw these daily visits to the halfway house as an utter waste of time.
Perhaps out of laziness or maybe as a form of rebellion, I didn’t sign up for any of the classes the first two weeks of my house arrest. These classes included Life Skills, Kicking Your Drug Addiction, Suicide Prevention, Prison Rape Prevention, How to Write a Resume, and others.
By way of background, I have a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a master’s degree in legislative affairs, both from George Washington University. I spent 15 years at the CIA, four years as the deputy director of competitive intelligence in a “Big Four” accounting firm, and more than two years as the senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I have five children, the eldest of whom is graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in economics.
So frankly, I didn’t need any of those classes. I’ve never done a drug in my life, and my life skills are just fine. And really, I told the case manager, prison rape prevention class should be given before the person goes to prison, not after release.
At the end of the second week, I got a call from my case manager. “Come to Hope Village right away. We need to do a team meeting.” I had no idea what this meant, but I embarked on another long trek to Anacostia. When I got there, I was ushered into a dilapidated conference room. Sitting around the table were the director and deputy director of Hope Village, the case manager, the employment counselor, the social worker, and a representative of the Bureau of Prisons. The case manager angrily said, “You haven’t signed up for a single class since you got out. Unless you want to be violated you better start taking the life skills classes!”
I paused for a moment, looked at her, and said, “Have you ever seen the episode of The Simpsons where Homer has to take a life skills class? He walks into the classroom and the instructor is saying ‘put a garbage can lid on the garbage can, people. I can’t stress that enough.’ Is that what you’re going to teach me in your life skills class? To put a garbage can lid on the garbage can?” There was silence for a moment, then the director asked me to step outside for a moment.
I stood in the hall for about half an hour, and then I was called back in to the conference room. “OK,” the director said. “We’re waiving all the classes. You don’t have to take any of them.” I thanked him, and continued: “There’s another thing. I want permission to drive. I kill four hours in travel time, plus however much time I spend being here every time I come up. I can drive here from my house in 15 minutes. I can use the rest of that time to work. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?” There was another period of silence. Then the director said, “OK. You can drive. Give the employment counselor a copy of your license, insurance, and title. I’ll approve it.”
I later made one more minor complaint to my case manager. I told her that our meetings, which by then had tapered to three times a week yet were still scheduled in the middle of the day, interfered with my ability to work. She moved them to Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m.
To their credit, Hope Village’s employees showed flexibility, pragmatism, and respect. I wish I could say the same for my experience with the Bureau of Prisons.
The Daily Gauntlet
So for 87 days, from my release from Loretto on February 3 until the end of my house arrest on May 1, this was the deal: I couldn’t leave my house except to go to Hope Village, seek or do work, or visit the doctor. What I couldn’t do was go to PTA meetings, my children’s school events, their sporting events, or enter a private home.
The halfway house’s “officer in charge of quarters” called me every morning between 7:10 and 8:00 a.m. to make sure I was home. There was a second call every night between 9:15 and 10:15 p.m. Sometimes they even called after 11:00 at night.
The “employment counselor” stopped by the house randomly, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to make sure I was home. If I left the house for any reason whatsoever, I had to call Hope Village and say, “John Kiriakou leaving the house,” even if it was to go to Hope Village. I also had to call when I got home to say, “John Kiriakou. I arrived home.”
On Saturdays and Sundays, at least, I was allowed to leave the house for five hours. Then, if I returned home for an hour, I could go back out for up to four more hours, for the purpose of “family reintegration.” I could go to a movie, a restaurant, the park, or do whatever I needed to with my wife and kids.
Every Tuesday, I had to meet with my case manager and give her a copy of my proposed movement for the week—a list of doctor’s appointments, visits to Hope Village, meetings with my attorneys and prospective employers, and plans for the weekend. I also had to give her receipts from the weekend to prove that I did what I said I would do, and a copy of my monthly phone bill.
I also had to pay “rent” to Hope Village for the bed I didn’t use. That rent is 25 percent of my gross pay. You see, like all halfway houses, Hope Village is a for-profit enterprise. Lip service to job training, mental health, and reintegration are fine, but the truth is that the goal of Hope Village and every other halfway house is to get released prisoners in and out as quickly as possible.
Every resident has to pay rent, and the only way the halfway house can make any money is to rent out the bed to three, four, or more people at the same time. The goal, then, is to get people into home confinement like mine quickly. That way, they don’t cost the halfway house anything in the way of food or other resources, but they still pay rent.
You would think that would be an incentive for Hope Village to help people find a job, but it’s not. Aside from a bulletin board in the office listing job openings at fast food restaurants, car washes, and motels, there’s no program to get anybody a job. Just get a job—any job—on your own, and go home and pay your rent.
Ideas Into Action
Fortunately, I had a temporary job lined up before I even left prison. I set out immediately to find something permanent.
I was finally offered a position as an associate fellow with Washington’s pre-eminent progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies.
Founded in 1963, IPS is one of the most highly respected independent policy institutions in the city. Its experts appear on network news programs all the time, they publish countless books, magazine articles, and syndicated columns, and they speak around the world on issues as varied as the Middle East peace process, climate change, gender equality, human rights, civil rights, and the environment. My job would be to write articles, papers, and op-eds on prison reform, intelligence reform, torture, terrorism, and the Middle East.
I’ve always admired IPS and the work it does, and I was excited at the prospect of working there. But more bureaucracy lay ahead.
I filled out the relevant paperwork for the halfway house. The employment counselor visited the IPS office to make sure there was such a place and that they knew I was a felon. No problems there.
But two weeks later, my case manager showed me a note from the Bureau of Prisons regional office in Baltimore. It said, “We feel it is inappropriate for Inmate Kiriakou to work in a job that would allow him to comment on foreign affairs and prison reform, given the nature of his crime.”
That, of course, is nonsensical.
First, there’s that pesky issue of “freedom of speech.” Second, it’s not up to the Bureau of Prisons to decide where I can and can’t work. I could have gone to court to file a motion overturning the BOP’s decision. But that would have taken months, so I decided to wait them out.
With my house arrest over, the BOP no longer controls me. So on May 4 I started my job with IPS.
Of course, I’ve had other problems with the BOP along the way.
When I got home on February 3, I tweeted a photo of myself sitting on the couch with my three youngest kids and the caption, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last. MLK, Jr. (And John Kiriakou.)” That tweet was picked up by major alternative news websites, as well as television networks like Russia Today and Al Jazeera. Consequently, I received dozens of interview requests over the next couple of weeks.
Before I accepted any of them, I looked at the BOP’s regulations related to press interviews at www.bop.gov. The regulations were clear: I needed to get BOP approval for interviews while incarcerated. I then checked the halfway house’s website. It said that residents of Hope Village had to get the director’s permission before speaking to the press. I was neither incarcerated nor a resident of the halfway house.
So I accepted a number of interview requests, including with Democracy Now!, RT, and several print outlets. Within days, I received a call from a BOP official in Baltimore. He said that he was “very concerned” that I’d had unauthorized contact with the press. I told him that, on the contrary, I had read the regulations and didn’t need BOP approval. Furthermore, I had read the Hope Village regulations, and I didn’t need their authorization either.
The BOP guy nonetheless insisted that if I continued to grant interviews without his approval, he’d violate me and send me back to prison. Again, a motion before the court would’ve taken months to get a hearing. And I likely would’ve had to argue it from prison.
I know when to make a strategic retreat, so I made one.
Instead of continuing to freely speak with the media, I decided to bury him in paper. I sent him as many as a dozen forms per week. I put him in touch with every blogger, podcaster, reporter, and photojournalist I came into contact with. There were reporters from most major American news outlets and a dozen foreign countries. There were radio hosts from the far left, the far right, and everything in between. I even did an entire one-hour radio program on how folk singer Pete Seeger influenced the course of my life.
This turned out to be too much for the BOP guy. He just ignored many requests when he was too busy. I resubmitted them. And when he told one freelance reporter that he couldn’t speak to me because he wasn’t a “real” journalist, I countered that I shouldn’t need to ask permission to speak with him. After all, it would be a conversation between two private citizens. The BOP guy backed down.
Again, if I needed to, I could just outwait him. He only controlled me until May 1.
So now I’m home and, generally, free.
The future looks promising. I intend to make a living writing, speaking, and teaching. I will write op-eds for the Institute’s OtherWords editorial service and its Foreign Policy In Focus website. I’ll speak at colleges, universities, nonprofits, and to other groups, and I’ll teach a course I’ve developed on ethics in intelligence operations.
Additionally, after what I’ve been through, my voice will be heard on prison reform—no matter how much of a pest I have to make of myself.
Our country’s prison system is broken. It’s racist. And it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Overcrowding is unconstitutional and out of control. Sentences are draconian, especially for people of color. And the poor quality of medical care is criminal. The Bureau of Prisons’ neglect of sick prisoners is tantamount to abuse and, in some cases, manslaughter. I hope to help put an end to that.
In the meantime, I want to say thanks again to the more than 700 people who wrote to me in prison. Thank you for remembering me. Thank you for your support. Please also remember those still inside.
Please stay in touch by signing up for my occasional newsletter at www.johnkiriakou.com.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
There’s an international awakening afoot about a radical expansion of corporate power—one that sits at the center of two historic global trade deals nearing completion.
One focuses the United States toward Europe—that’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—and the other toward Asia, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both would establish broad new rights for foreign corporations to sue governments for vast sums whenever nations change their public policies in ways that could potentially impact corporate profits.
These cases would not be handled by domestic courts, with their relative transparency, but in special, secretive international tribunals.
It’s a stupendously powerful tool and a double win for the corporations: It’s a money machine that loots public treasuries and a potent tool to stifle unwelcome regulations, all wrapped in one. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system would be a bad deal.” But it’s a deal US lawmakers are rapidly preparing to make as they debate extending “fast-track” trade promotion authority to President Barack Obama.
The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. But not so long ago, the trade tribunal system wasn’t the stuff of high-profile op-eds by US senators. It was virtually unknown except among a small cadre of international lawyers and trade specialists.
The case that brought the system into broad public view was born 15 years ago this month on the streets of a city high in the Andes. How that case was won holds powerful lessons today for the battles over the TTIP, the TPP, and the effort to hand global corporations enormous new legal powers.
The Water Revolt
It started here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2000, when citizens rebelled against the takeover of their public water system by a foreign corporation.
In what became known as the Cochabamba Water Revolt, thousands of Bolivians faced down bullets and batons to take back their water from Bechtel, the California engineering giant. Within weeks of taking over the local public water system, Bechtel’s Bolivian company had hit water users with price increases averaging more than 50 percent, and often far higher. Families faced stark choices between keeping water running from the tap or food on the table.
So they rebelled.
Protesters shut down this city of half-a-million people three times with blockades and general strikes. The right-wing government sent in soldiers and police to defend Bechtel’s contract, killing a teenage boy and leaving hundreds of others wounded. But the protests only increased, and finally Bechtel was forced to flee Bolivia, returning the water to public hands.
A year later, however, Bechtel struck back—this time in a World Bank trade court. The company demanded not only the $1 million it had invested in the country, but a full $50 million—the rest being the future “profits” the company claimed it had forgone by leaving.
Bechtel’s case against Bolivia sparked a second rebellion. This one was global and just as powerful, a citizen action campaign that stretched worldwide. In the end, Bechtel would walk away not with the $50 million that it demanded from Bolivians, but just 30 cents and a badly damaged public image. The case also ripped the mask off a system of secret trade courts that today sits at the heart of the trade debate.
A System Designed for Corporate Advantage
Here in Bolivia, a soccer team from anywhere else would be foolish to play a match against a Bolivian team in La Paz, the nation’s capital. At nearly 13,000 feet above he sea level, most foreigners find it a serious challenge just to climb a staircase, much less chase a ball for 90 minutes.
The legal venue chosen by Bechtel—the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)—has a similar quality. It’s a playing field tilted deeply to corporate advantage.
It’s no small irony that Bechtel went to the World Bank, since it was the World Bank that set the Cochabamba Water Revolt in motion to begin with.
In 1997, World Bank officials made the privatization of Cochabamba’s public water system a condition of loans the bank was issuing to expand water service in the country. So Bolivia’s government was compelled to offer a 40-year lease to Bechtel, complete with a guaranteed annual profit of 16 percent—a gouging deal backed by the willingness of the government to shoot its own people if required.
The World Bank’s ICSID and other international tribunal systems are a corporate dream. The tribunals that decide these cases are made up of lawyers who move from being highly paid corporate defenders in one case to supposedly impartial judges in the next, a blatant conflict of interest. It’s a system where testimony is commonly sealed and where cases are heard thousands of miles away from the communities involved.
Unsurprisingly, corporations win either a full or partial victory more than half the time.
The Court of Public Opinion
The citizen campaign that took on Bechtel refused to wage its fight in the confines of Bechtel’s carefully chosen judicial comfort zone.
The organization I run, the Democracy Center, and our Bolivian and global allies took aim at Bechtel instead on the battlefield where citizen movements do best: the court of public opinion. That campaign became a powerful early prototype for how to organize in the age of the Internet, driven not so much by an orchestrated grand plan as by sheer, viral inspiration.
Through our own articles and our work with journalists from the New Yorker, PBS, and elsewhere, the Democracy Center kept telling, over and over again, the powerful narrative of a David and Goliath victory on the streets of Cochabamba. Water Revolt leaders from Bolivia also traveled across the world to share their story directly.
We hung that story not just around Bechtel’s corporate neck, but the neck of its CEO and namesake, Riley Bechtel. We even released his personal e-mail address to thousands of people. As people reached out to us to get involved, we armed them with the hard evidence and some advice on strategy, encouraging them to take whatever action they were moved to take that could build pressure on the corporation.
The result was a beautiful, global spectacle of citizen power.
In San Francisco, activists shut down Bechtel’s headquarters by chaining themselves together in the lobby. A local coalition also got the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a city resolution calling on Bechtel to drop its Bolivia case—just as the company was negotiating a major city contract.
In Amsterdam, people mounted a ladder outside Bechtel’s local office and renamed the street for the teenager killed by soldiers during the Cochabamba Revolt. In Washington, protesters picketed the house of the president of Bechtel’s Bolivian water subsidiary. At the South Africa Earth Summit, Bolivian activist Marcela Olivera recruited organizations to join a “Citizens Petition to the World Bank” calling on Bechtel to drop the case. EarthJustice filed a legal petition demanding public participation, and the Institute for Policy Studies mobilized Washington NGOs.
From one corner of the world to another, Bechtel was seized upon by angry Lilliputians tying a mighty corporate Gulliver to the ground.
The Power of Storytelling
In January 2006, besieged Bechtel officials flew to Bolivia and signed a deal with the Bolivian government under which it dropped its World Bank case for two shiny 1 boliviano coins—the cost of a local bus fare. No other major corporation, before or since, has ever been forced to drop such a major trade case by a campaign of citizen pressure waged against it.
In the end, Bechtel was defeated by something very simple: a story. It was a narrative about people fighting for their water, and of a corporation content to see them killed in order to squeeze the poor for profits it never earned. The mighty corporation could never escape the moral power of that story. We hit Bechtel with it using not just one tactic, but every tactic we could think of—from legal briefs to direct action. We didn’t waste time debating which approach was more worthy.
The trade battles before us today, including the TPP and TTIP, must also be fought with stories that lift the issue above technical jargon and into popular understanding.
And there’s no shortage of stories to tell. The tobacco giant Phillip Morris demands $2 billion from Uruguay for the sin of strengthening health warnings on cigarette packages. The people of El Salvador face a $300 million case from a Canadian-Australian mining company because Salvadorans were able to block toxic mining operations. Germany faces a demand of €700 million from a nuclear energy company because, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, popular movements won a moratorium on new nuclear power plants in the country.
Telling the stories of cases like these is essential to building a broader public understanding of what’s at issue in these arcane negotiations: a corporate power play against basic democracy.
“It is impossible to overstate the impact of the people’s victory in Cochabamba against Bechtel,” Naomi Klein observed recently. “At a time when winning real victories seemed like a distant dream, we suddenly saw that it was still possible to win, even against a giant U.S. multinational.” In the battle of the Bolivian people against Bechtel, David beat Goliath not only once, but twice. In the midst of the current battles on trade, the spirit of both those victories and their concrete lessons well deserve our remembrance.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When the crisis of unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States burst onto the front pages last summer, it seemed that at last the US government would come to grips with its legacy of disaster amid the current havoc in Central America.
The United Nations documented that most of the children were fleeing violence—violence caused in part by the failure to restore constitutional order following the Honduran coup of 2009 and the unfinished peace processes after the dirty wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Washington propped up right-wing dictatorships for years.
The governments of those three countries—known as the Northern Triangle—certainly share some of the blame for the mass exodus, which is not as new or unprecedented as the press made out when it sounded the alarm.
But in the end, the problem isn’t one of assigning blame, but rather helping children in conditions of extreme vulnerability, right?
Less than a year later, Washington has come up with its policy response to the children’s plight. Unfortunately, while purporting to address the root causes of migration, it mirrors—and in many ways intensifies—the causes that forced so many to flee.
Tucked into the administration’s 2016 budget request, the plan has been christened “Biden’s Billion” for its major promoter and the amount he expects US taxpayers to put up to support it. It divides aid into three “lines of action”: security, economic development and governance.
Yet in every one of these areas, the response repeats errors of the past. Rather than focusing on a response to the humanitarian crisis of child refugees, it serves as a vehicle for deepening the drug war and “free trade” agendas that have contributed to the crisis.
Rewarding Human Rights Violators
The plan requests $300 million for security assistance, a considerable increase over previous regional collaborations like the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The increase goes mainly to the region’s police forces.
This essentially rewards known human rights violators.
In an op-ed published in The Hill, Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains: “Funding for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) aid to Central America would double from $100 million in fiscal year 2014 to $205 million in fiscal year 2016,” he writes. “This assistance, rooted primarily in the U.S. ‘war on drugs,’ includes extensive support for the region’s police and military forces despite abundant reports of their involvement in extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations.”
Although fighting drug traffickers is purposely underplayed in the proposal, INCLE nonetheless expands the failed drug war model of militarizing local security forces. Experience shows that placing weapons and training in the hands of abusive police ensures that they can be—and are—used against civilians not associated with cartels, or against suspected criminals denied a right to trial.
The foreign military funding—or FMF, in bureaucratese—included in the plan, while comparable to prior levels, has a particularly ominous note to it this time around. “FMF in the Western Hemisphere,” declares the budget request, “supports our partners’ efforts to control national territory, modernize defense forces, and secure the southern approaches to the United States.”
Given that the region has no invading armies, to “control territory” means to control undefined internal populations—presumably criminals, but potentially including opposition or indigenous communities fighting for land rights against state-supported designs. “Modernizing defense forces” in the absence of external threats, means a dangerous re-militarization of nations barely emerging from military dictatorships.
And “securing southern approaches to the United States” marks a clear imposition of US priorities to the detriment of the host nations. Even more outrageous is the implication that the southern US border has to be protected from child migrants by creating an allied buffer some 2,000 miles deep.
Proponents of the plan note that some funding goes to human rights training. The contradiction of funneling money to human rights abusers to compel them to cease their abuse is one that they no doubt relish. It sends a mixed message by supporting corrupt and violent police at the same time that it claims to be improving them.
The plan bolsters Honduran security forces even as human rights groups document uncontrolled abuses, to the extent that ninety-four members of the US Congress have called for a complete cut-off of aid to Honduran security forces. The plan apparently also funds the provision of training for Colombian security forces—the nation famous for the “false positives” scandal, a human bounty hunt in which soldiers dressed peasant farmers up as guerrillas, assassinated them and received a government bonus.
The US government has been shoveling out money to US agencies and private-sector firms for dubious police and judicial reform programs in Mexico and Central America for years. The result is horrors like Ayotzinapa and an increase rather than decrease in violations throughout the region. The police forces are being equipped and trained as they continue to victimize their own populations with impunity.
As the recent murders of unarmed youth in US cities have shown, the United States urgently needs to reform its own police before it spends millions purporting to teach others. As in all other areas of this plan, the money would be better spent at home.
The billion-dollar plan does highlight a few of the root causes of migration—namely physical and economic insecurity. But its emphasis on border security reveals its Janus-faced attitude toward migrants as threats as well as victims.
In part, this comes at the urging of immigration hawks in Congress.
Last December, John Lindsay-Poland explains, “Congress required the State Department to submit a strategy within three months that would ‘address the need for greater border security for the countries in Central America and for Mexico, particularly the southern border of Mexico.’ The strategy must also ‘support repatriation facilities for the processing of undocumented migrants returning from the United States’ as well as ‘combat human trafficking in Central America.’”
Mexico, once again, is responsible for doing the real dirty work here. Some 23,000 children have been deported at Washington’s urging from Mexico’s southern border over the past year.
The crackdown along Mexico’s southern boundary breaks with the country’s traditionally permissive attitude toward millennial migration patterns in the region. But it has not significantly decreased migration. Reports from that border describe a continued flow of migrants amid an increased presence of police, armed forces and immigration agents. The result is more extortion and abuse.
The economic development section of the plan would support the “Alliance for Prosperity,” an initiative developed with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Northern Triangle governments. The IDB has a history of supporting large infrastructure projects that too often displace populations from their places of origin rather than rooting them through sustainable livelihoods.
This “line of action” intensifies policies that have been imposed for the past twenty years in the region: international trade facilitation, market integration, transnational investment and export-oriented infrastructure and megaprojects.
Civil society organizations have long criticized this strategy. In a letter to heads of state in 2013, a coalition of 160 organizations stated, “Large-scale ‘development’ projects are imposed on the region’s most vulnerable populations with little or no regard for their lives or livelihoods. This results in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities; bloody conflicts over resources; environmental destruction and impoverishment.”
Here too, the details of the new Central America plan relate more to US goals than to Central American needs. For example, the Trade and Development Agency notes that its part of the funding “prioritizes activities where there is a high likelihood for the export of U.S. goods and services.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with opening up business opportunities for US companies abroad, it’s a crass abuse of the goal of securing the safety of children in Central America.
Moreover, many of those investments include export promotion that puts local producers out of business (recall the 2 million Mexican farmers driven out under NAFTA) and infrastructure projects that serve the transnational movement of goods while destroying internal market linkages.
This creates a vicious but lucrative circle of investment-displacement-repression, as populations are forced from their lands and then criminalized as migrants, justifying enormous security contracts.
This combination of hardening borders for human mobility while opening them for goods and money is nothing new, as two decades of NAFTA have shown. We’ve seen the tragic results in Mexico.
Children and Youth at Risk
The United Nations concluded that 58 percent of the child refugees it interviewed had international protection needs, including a staggering 72 percent of Salvadoran children.
Yet for all its fanfare, the Biden plan makes no attempt to respond to this urgent need to keep children safe. In fact, through its border security measures and the likelihood of increased deportations from the United States and Mexico, it exacerbates their plight. The plan actually transfers millions of dollars out of child and maternal health to fund the new security measures.
The policies to deport migrants from Mexico are creating greater perils for them en route and back home. Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a migrant shelter in southern Mexico, worries that “They’re sending them right into the arms of the cartels.” That’s just what the plan does.
In a New York Times op-ed penned to promote it, Vice President Biden demonizes the migrants from the very first paragraph, where he calls the child migrant crisis a reminder that “the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.” Later on, he laments a “dangerous surge in migration.”
What kind of nation have we become when we treat desperate children as a national security threat?
The good news is that the plan faces a rocky road in Congress. “We’ve spent billions of dollars there over two decades,” observed Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee. “And we’ve seen conditions get worse in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador.” Other members have also balked at the huge spike in security funding to governments where impunity and abuse is rampant.
There are undoubtedly some worthwhile projects within the proposed billion-dollar package, for example funding for domestic violence shelters. Washington promoters urge critics not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
But to avoid doing that, first you have to separate the two. This plan does precisely the opposite, by lumping together repressive measures that continue drug-war militarization and punitive measures against youth with educational and jobs programs. It criminalizes migrants at the borders even while attempting to address root causes of migration. So, for example, the mother who has the courage to flee an abusive husband and take her children to safety will be more likely to be stopped and returned to her tormenter.
It’s laudable to turn our attention to the root causes of the refugee crisis out of Central America. But if the aid package intensifies the same policies that contributed to the crisis—as Biden’s clearly does—then we’re moving in the wrong direction. American taxpayers have no reason to throw more hard-earned money at the Washington NGOs, corrupt foreign governments, abusive security forces and avaricious security industry that have perpetuated the failed drug war far beyond any justifiable error.
Despite the seriousness of the current situation, this is a classic case of where doing the wrong thing can be far worse than not doing anything.
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When some seventy members of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn go on trial sometime this spring, there will be more than street thugs and fascist ideologues in the dock. A tangled web of influence is likely to engulf Greece’s police, national security agency, wealthy oligarchs and mainstream political parties. While Golden Dawn—with its Holocaust denial, its swastikas and its Hitler salutes—looks like it might inhabit the fringe, in fact the organization has roots deep in the heart of Greece’s political culture.
Which is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
Golden Dawn’s penchant for violence is what led to the charge that it is a criminal organization. It is accused of several murders, as well as attacks on immigrants, leftists and trade unionists. Raids have uncovered weapon caches. Investigators have also turned up information suggesting that the organization is closely tied to wealthy shipping owners, as well as the National Intelligence Service (EYP) and municipal police departments.
Several lawyers associated with two victims of violence by party members—a 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant stabbed to death last year and an Afghan immigrant stabbed in 2011—charge that a high-level EYP official responsible for surveillance of Golden Dawn has links to the organization. The revelations forced Dimos Kouzilos, director of EYP’s third counter-intelligence division, to resign last September.
There were several warning flags about Kouzilos when he was appointed to head the intelligence division by right-wing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Kouzilos is a relative of a Golden Dawn Parliament member, who is the party’s connection to the shipping industry. Kouzilos is also close to a group of police officers in Nikea, who are currently under investigation for ties to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the Nikea police refused to take complaints from refugees and immigrants beaten by party members, and the police chief, Dimitris Giovandis, tipped off Golden Dawn about surveillance of the party.
In handing over the results of their investigation, the lawyers said, “We believe that this information provides an overview of the long-term penetration and activities of the Nazi criminal gang with the EYP and the police.” A report by the Office of Internal Investigation documents 130 cases in which Golden Dawn worked with police.
It should hardly come as a surprise that there are close ties between the extreme right and Greek security forces. The current left-right split goes back to 1944, when the British tried to drive out the Communist Party—the backbone of the Greek resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. The split eventually led to the 1946-49 civil war, when Communists and leftists fought royalists and former German collaborationists for power. However, the West saw the civil war through the eyes of the then-budding Cold War, and, at Britain’s request, the United States pitched in on the side of the right to defeat the left. In the process of that intervention—then called the Truman Doctrine—US intelligence services established close ties with the Greek military.
Those ties continued over the years that followed and were tightened once Greece joined NATO in 1952. The charge that the United States encouraged the 1967 fascist coup against the Greek government has never been proven, but many of the colonels who initiated the overthrow had close ties to the CIA and the US military.
Golden Dawn was founded by some of the key people who ruled during the 1967-74 junta, and Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos, the leader of the colonels who led the 1967 coup, groomed the party’s founder and current leader, Nikos Michaloliakos. Papadopoulos was a Nazi collaborator and served with the German “security battalions” that executed 130,000 Greek civilians during World War II. Papadopoulos was trained by the US Army and recruited by the CIA. Indeed, he was the first CIA asset to govern a European country.
Golden Dawn’s adherence to Hitler, the symbols of Nazism and the “Führer principle”—investing the party’s leader with absolute authority—is, in part, what has gotten the organization into trouble. According to an investigation by Greek Supreme Court Deputy Prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis, Golden Dawn is split into two wings, a political wing responsible for the party’s legal face and an operational wing for “carrying out attacks on those deemed enemies of the party.” Michaloliakos oversees both wings.
Prosecutors will try to demonstrate that attacks and murders are not just the actions of individuals who happen to be members of Golden Dawn, because independent actions are a contradiction to the Führer principle. Many of the attacks have featured leading members of Golden Dawn and, on occasion, members of Parliament. Indeed, since the leadership and core of the party were jailed last September, attacks on non-Greeks and leftists have fallen off.
There is a cozy relationship between Golden Dawn and some business people as well, with the party serving as sort of a “Thugs-R-Us” organization. Investigators charge that shortly after two party MPs visited the shipyards at Piraeus, a Golden Dawn gang attacked Communists who were supporting union workers. Golden Dawn also tried to set up a company union that would have resulted in lower pay and fewer benefits for shipyard workers. In return, shipping owners donated 240,000 euros to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the party also raises funds through protection rackets, money laundering and blackmail.
Journalist Dimitris Psarras, who has researched and written about Golden Dawn for decades, argues that the party is successful not because it plays on the economic crisis, but because for years the government—both socialists and conservatives—mainstream parties and the justice system have turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s growing use of force after the economic crisis began. It was the murder of Greek anti-fascist rapper/poet Pavlos Fyssas that forced the authorities to finally move against the organization. Killing North Africans was one thing, killing a Greek quite another.
Instead of challenging Golden Dawn in the last election, the New Democracy Party railed against “Marxists,” “communists” and—pulling a page from the 1946-49 civil war—“bandits.” Even the center parties, like the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) and the new Potami Party, condemned both “left and right,” as though the two were equivalent.
Golden Dawn did see its voter base shrink from the 426,025 it won in 2012 to 388,000 in the January election that brought left party Syriza to power. But then, Golden Dawn is less interested in numbers than it is in wielding violence. According to Psarras, the party’s agenda is “to create a climate of civil war, a divide where people have to choose between leftists and rightists.”
Some of the mainstream parties have eased Golden Dawn’s path by adopting the party’s attacks on Middle East and African immigrants and Muslims, albeit at a less incendiary level. But, as Psarras points out, “Research in political science has long since showed that wherever conservative European parties adopt elements of far-right rhetoric and policy during pre-election periods, the upshot is the strengthening of the extreme far-right parties.”
That certainly was the case in last year’s European parliamentary elections, when center and right parties in France and Great Britain refused to challenge the racism and Islamophobia of right-wing parties, only to see the latter make strong showings.
According to the Supreme Court’s Vourliotis, Golden Dawn believes that “those who do not belong to the popular community of the race are subhuman. In this category belong foreign immigrants, Roma, those who disagree with their ideas and even people with mental problems.” The party dismisses the Holocaust: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers,” Michaloliakos said in a 2012 national TV interview. Some 60,000 members of Greece’s Jewish population were transported to and murdered in the death camps during World War II.
The trial is scheduled for April 20 but might delayed. Golden Dawn members, including Michaloliakos and many members of Parliament, were released March 18 because they can only be held for eighteen months in pre-trial detention. The party, with its ties in the business community and its “wink of the eye” relationship to New Democracy—that mainstream center-right party apparently printed Golden Dawn’s election brochures—has considerable resources to fight the charges. Golden Dawn has hired more than 100 attorneys.
If convicted, Golden Dawn members could face up to twenty years in prison, but there is not a great deal of faith among the anti-fascist forces in the justice system. The courts have remained mute in the face of Golden Dawn’s increased use of violence in recent years, and some magistrates have been accused of being sympathetic to the organization. The party is charged with being a criminal organization, with murder, assault and illegal weapons possession under Article 187.
Thanasis Kampagiannis of “Jail Golden Dawn” warns that the party will not vanish on its own. “Many are under the impression that if we stop talking about Golden Dawn the problem will somehow disappear. That is not the case. The economic crisis has burnished the organization, but there are other causes that have contributed to its existence and prominence, such as the intensification of state repression and the institutionalization of racism by the dominant parties.”
But courts are political entities and respond to popular movements. Anti-fascists are calling on the Greeks and the international community to stay in the streets and demand that Golden Dawn be brought to justice. Germans missed that opportunity with the Nazi Party and paid a terrible price for it.
Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected from the original, which mischaracterized the law under which Golden Dawn is being prosecuted.
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The last days of the campaign sounded an awful lot like the Jim Crow South, when African-Americans had officially won the right to vote but still faced massive discrimination.
On election morning, a powerful white official running for re-election urged his followers to get out and vote, warning that minority voters were turning out in large numbers—and those trouble-making civil rights agitators, he complained, were busing them to the polls.
But this wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama circa 1965. It was Israel in 2015.
And the candidate wasn’t some protégé of Bull Connor or George Wallace shouting into a bullhorn. It was Israel’s prime minister writing on his Facebook page.
The leader of Washington’s closest Middle East ally—the storied “only democracy in the Middle East”—was pushing his right-wing supporters to get out and vote. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he warned, because—in his words—“Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
The naked racism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute electioneering was repellent. But more horrifying was the fact that it worked.
The language aimed to frighten right-wing Israeli Jewish voters with the specter of a large turnout among the Palestinians, who make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens. The gambit brought back to Netanyahu’s Likud Party the far-right voters who otherwise might have voted for one of the even more extreme right-wing parties.
It worked. Likud trumped its challengers from the right as well as the left, and Netanyahu swept to victory.
Of course, there were other ploys to reach extreme-right voters as well. Netanyahu’s last-minute promise that he would oppose the creation of a Palestinian state—seemingly reversing a position he’d laid out several years earlier—may have been shocking to many in the United States. But it was actually consistent with the prime minister’s longstanding behavior.
As far back as 2001, Netanyahu bragged that he “actually stopped the Oslo Accord,” the diplomatic framework that was supposed to give rise to a Palestinian state. For the past six years, with one brief and ineffectual freeze, Netanyahu has led successive Israeli governments in building new settlements in the West Bank, “Judaizing” occupied Arab East Jerusalem and attacking Gaza with brutal and illegal force—all with the intended effect of derailing any possibility of even a rump Palestinian state, let alone one that would be independent, viable and contiguous.
Netanyahu attempted to dial back his reversal after the election. But given the prime minister’s consistent opposition to ending the occupation, President Obama should reject that lie.
Rethinking Old Assumptions
Indeed, the challenge for the Obama administration now is not how to rebuild its frayed relationship with Netanyahu, or even its relationship with Israel writ large. That relationship has been way too special for far too long, and it needs to be brought down to normal size.
In the past few years, we’ve seen Israel continue to act in violation of human rights, in violation of international law and in direct contravention of the very values that it claims to share with the United States—unless those values happen to concern a continuing legacy of racism toward indigenous peoples and others outside the majority demographic.
Unfortunately, those violations were just ratified—again—by Israeli voters.
Obama’s challenge, then, is to craft an entirely new approach to dealing with Tel Aviv. It’s time to rethink the old assumptions, driven by pro-Israel lobbies and by outdated Cold War strategies, that called for providing Israel with uncritical support, diplomatic impunity, guaranteed military protection and billions of US taxpayer dollars in military aid.
Those have been the key features of the US-Israel relationship for at least forty-eight years, and they have failed.
They’ve failed to bring Israel’s nuclear arsenal under international inspection or to make Israel sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They’ve failed to bring about an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its rejection of the Palestinian refugees' internationally guaranteed right of return or its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. They’ve failed to encourage an Israel that respects human rights and accepts equality for all as an essential national goal.
As Obama considers the possibility—so long in coming—of reducing its diplomatic protection of Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere, his administration should keep in mind that litany of failures.
The US relationship with Israel has sustained and cosseted an over-armed, nuclearized state that not only expropriates and occupies other peoples’ lands and deprives 20 percent of its own citizens of crucial national rights, but has also worked deliberately to derail US and international negotiations with Iran. The United States can no longer welcome Israeli leaders who rely on openly racist provocations to win votes in support of apartheid policies or foolish wars.
A Normal Relationship
It’s time for an entirely new connection—one based not on a “special relationship,” but on the normal ties Washington shares with most other countries.
A normal relationship means reconsidering why US taxpayers send $3.1 billion to Israel every year—that’s 55 percent of all US military aid—when Israel, according to the IMF, is the twenty-fifth-wealthiest country in the world.
It means asking why we don’t enforce the Leahy Law, which prohibits sending arms to any military unit known to commit human rights violations, when even the State Department’s own annual reports document patterns of Israeli violations. It means replacing our current “we-will-protect-Israel-no-matter-what-it-does” strategy with a new commitment to reaching a solution between Israelis and Palestinians based on human rights, international law and equality for all.
A normal relationship, in short, means ending US complicity in Israel’s violations.
Our own progress against racism in the United States remains too recent, too fragile and too incomplete to allow our government to provide support to those relying on racist appeals to win elections abroad—especially when they include the leader of the US-armed, US-funded and US-protected “only democracy” in the Middle East.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus. An earlier version appeared in Telesur English, which graciously gave its permission to reprint it.
Early in the morning of January 25, commandos belonging to the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police crept into the southern town of Mamasapano—a stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The elite Seaborne Unit had come for Zulkifli Abdhir, a Malaysian bomb maker better known as “Marwan.”
By the end of the morning, dozens lay dead.
The episode has severely discredited the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, jeopardized decades of progress on peace talks with Moro separatists and underlined the perils for developing-world governments that put themselves at the beck and call of Washington.
The commandos were able to kill Marwan, who’d sat high on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.” But then all hell broke loose. The insurgents woke up and opened fire on the intruders, forcing the commandos to leave Marwan’s body behind. They had to content themselves with cutting off the corpse’s index finger to turn over to the FBI.
As they retreated, nine of the Seaborne commandos were killed. They radioed for help, but they were told that the “Quick Reaction Force” charged with covering their withdrawal was already pinned down in a flat cornfield with little cover. Over the next few hours, that separate unit of thirty-six men was picked off one by one by Moro snipers. Only one of the thirty-six survived, by running for his life and jumping into a nearby river.
All in all, forty-four policemen died in the bloody battle. Moro fighters estimated that eighteen of their combatants and about four civilians were killed.
A timely rescue effort was not even mounted, since an infantry battalion in the area wasn’t informed till late in the morning that the commandos were under fire. When ceasefire monitors finally reached the cornfield late in the afternoon, long after the battle ended, they found corpses that had been stripped of their weapons and other gear, some exhibiting wounds that indicated they had been shot at point-blank range.
Biggest Casualty: Moro Autonomy
The “Mamasapano Massacre,” as it has come to be called, upended Philippine politics.
The biggest casualty was the Bangsa Moro Basic Law that was in the last stages of being shepherded through the Philippine Congress. Known as the BBL, the bill was the product of nearly five years of intensive negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to put an end to almost fifty years of fighting in the southern Philippines. It would have created an autonomous region for the Muslim Moros, a fiercely independent people that have long resisted integration into the broader Filipino polity.
With emotions among the Christian majority running high, congressional approval of the BBL was thrown into doubt, threatening an eventual return to hostilities. Some politicians rode on the incident to stoke the latent anti-Muslim prejudices of the dominant culture—not just to derail prospects for Moro autonomy, but also to advance their own political ambitions.
Under congressional questioning, the facts of the raid were extracted piece by piece—on national television—from high-level administration officials. Their feelings seemed to run the gamut of guilt, grief, disbelief and resentment at not being “in the know” about the planned incursion.
The decisive element in the unraveling of the operation, it appears, was the deliberate withholding of information from key people at the top of the police and armed forces hierarchy. Only the president, the Special Action Force commander and the national police chief, Gen. Alan Purisima, knew about the mission. Though suspended from office on corruption charges, Purisima—a trusted aide of the president—was effectively in charge of the operation, bypassing the acting police chief and the secretary of the interior, who knew nothing of the mission until disaster overtook it.
Emerging in the hearings was the following portrait of the tragedy: The officials who conceived and implemented the operation to nab Marwan chose not to inform the top people in the police and military leadership. They also ignored and subverted the carefully negotiated procedures for territorial access worked out among the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the government and third-party monitors.
The Liberation Front fighters—along with fighters from a die-hard separatist group, the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters—responded that morning to what they perceived as a large invasion force. Once the battle began, it became very difficult for their leaders to realize the intent of the commando contingent and get their forces to disengage.
It seemed evident, too, that some wounded policemen were finished off execution-style, though it was not clear which group was responsible for these atrocities.
The big puzzle for many was why a government that was in the last stages of negotiating an autonomy agreement to end fifty years of warfare would endanger this goal—said to be a major legacy priority for President Aquino—with a large-scale commando intrusion into Moro territory without informing its negotiating partner.
To an increasing number of people, the answer must have something to do with Washington.
Indeed, Washington’s fingerprints were all over the operation: There was a $5 million bounty placed by the Americans on Marwan’s head. A US military helicopter appeared in the area after the long firefight, allegedly to help evacuate the wounded. Marwan’s finger disappeared after the battle and showed up at an FBI lab in the United States a few days later.
Filipino officials have remained tight-lipped on the question of US participation in the raid, invoking “national security” or choosing to make revelations only in secret executive sessions with the Senate. Thus it has fallen on the media to probe the US role.
Perhaps the most reliable of these probes was conducted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which found that US drones had pinpointed Marwan’s hiding place, guided the commandos to it and provided the capability for real-time management by the Philippine commanders away from the battlefield. American advisers, the paper claimed, were the ones who had vetoed informing top officials of the police, the armed forces and the Liberation Front of the planned raid on the grounds that news of the action would be leaked to Marwan.
Finally, the original plan was to have a fused team of Seaborne Unit commandos and the Quick Reaction Force. But that was reportedly rejected by the American advisers, who favored having the Seaborne Unit carry out the raid itself and the Quick Reaction Force provide cover—a plan that proved disastrous. The Seaborne Unit, it emerged, had been trained by “retired” Navy Seals and functioned as the Americans’ special unit within the special forces of the Philippine National Police.
The full extent of US involvement remains to be unearthed, but it’s now clear to many that taking out Marwan was a major priority for Washington—not Manila. As one congressman put it, the Mamasapano tragedy was a case of “the Americans fighting to the last Filipino.”
Into the Bunker
As the details of the American role emerge, the pressure is on President Aquino to admit complicity in a Washington-directed operation, which he has so far refused to do.
Aquino has come under intense fire from nationalist quarters that earlier criticized him for negotiating a military pact that allows the United States to use Philippine bases to implement President Obama’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China.
Already under attack for putting a suspended police general in charge of the fatal mission and refusing to admit command responsibility for it, the charge of laying down Filipino lives for an American scheme appears to have forced the president further into his bunker, creating the widespread impression of a drift in leadership that, it was feared, coup plotters and other adventurers—of which there is no shortage in the Philippines—could take advantage of.
There is a personal postcript to this. As a sitting member of the Philippine House of Representatives, I withdrew my political support for President Aquino when he refused to accept command responsibility for the operation. Since my party, Akbayan, remains allied to the administration, I resigned as the congressional representative of the party.
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The story of the day on the Iran front is the publication of what its authors titled “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It was signed by forty-seven Republican senators led by freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who, as reported by LobeLog, received nearly $1 million in advertising support from Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in the closing days of last November’s campaign. The basic thrust of the letter is to warn the recipients that once President Barack Obama leaves office, any deal that he and his P5+1 partners may have reached with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program could be revoked “with the stroke of a pen.”
There are already lots of arguments breaking out over whether the basis of the letter was an accurate statement of US law.
One prominent Harvard law professor who also served as a top Justice Department official under George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, called at least one of the letter’s assertions about the ratification process “embarrassing.” It was especially embarrassing not only because Cotton graduated from Harvard Law School, but also because Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who earned an MA and PhD in international law at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver—Condoleezza Rice’s alma mater—felt compelled to correct Cotton’s understanding of Washington’s international legal obligations.
There is also a dispute over whether the letter constitutes a violation of the Logan Act, which says:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
For those who might claim that the letter is protected by the First Amendment, it’s interesting to note that when he was serving in the US Army after law school in 2006, Cotton wrote another “open letter” published by the far-right website Power Line calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of three New York Times reporters for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by disclosing how the government was tracking terrorist financing.
I’ll leave the legal analysis to the specialists, but the political implications of this truly remarkable effort to undermine the duly elected president of the United States and sabotage an international negotiation in which our closest NATO allies are also deeply invested need to be digested and understood. This is a clarifying moment and one that Obama himself made abundantly clear when he said that “it’s somewhat ironic to see some members for Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.”
For those who follow Iran policy closely, this observation comes as no surprise. The Republican senators who signed that letter are desperate to block any agreement with Iran, just as hard-liners in Iran have long opposed anything that could lead to détente with the “Great Satan.” It’s not that they want a “much better agreement” with Tehran, as Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in his address to Congress. They want no agreement.
Indeed, it was Cotton himself who made this, as I put it, “Kristol clear” in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in mid-January:
The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation, and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.
And let’s please remember that veteran neoconservative activist Bill Kristol was up there in the same section of the House gallery where Netanyahu spoke as Bibi’s spouse, Sara Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and, of course, multibillionaire casino magnate and staunch Bibi-backer, Sheldon Adelson, who spent at least $150 million for Republican candidates in the 2012 election cycle.
Given ECI’s support for Cotton in the 2014 Senate race, it’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu and his Republican ambassador here, Ron Dermer, would not have approved of this latest initiative to sabotage prospects for an Iran deal.
Democrats on Notice
So let’s be clear: All the commentary and Israeli spin in the Times and elsewhere suggesting that Bibi’s speech had subtly signaled an openness to an agreement with Iran that settles for less than the total dismantling of its nuclear program, including its enrichment capabilities, is—to put it bluntly—bullshit.
For Netanyahu, Kristol and Adelson, no deal is better than any deal because an agreement between Washington and Tehran could begin a process of rapprochement. And anyone—like Senator Bob Corker (who, to his credit, did not sign the Cotton letter) or Robert Menendez—who says otherwise is either lying or deluding themselves. Cotton’s letter, and the fact that he spearheaded this effort, makes that abundantly clear.
Hopefully wavering Democrats now understand that.
Certainly, the Democratic leadership is holding up Cotton’s initiative as evidence of bad faith. Calling the letter “juvenile,” minority leader Harry Reid accused the Republicans of “undermining our commander in chief while empowering the Ayatollahs.”
He also rightly noted that the letter constituted a “hard slap in the face of not only United States but also our allies,” a point that, in my opinion, has not received nearly enough attention. I’m sure the leaders of Britain, France and Germany greatly appreciated the Republican warning that their own efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement to Iran’s nuclear program have been a waste of time because the president of the United States can’t really negotiate an agreement with them on behalf of his country.
The Democrats’ number two, Senator Dick Durbin, warned that Republicans “should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East,” while the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, was quite direct in her assessment of the letter:
I am appalled at the latest step of 47 Republicans to blow up a major effort by our country and the world powers to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear program. This is a highly inappropriate and unprecedented incursion into the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign affairs and is not befitting this chamber. This letter only serves one purpose—to destroy an ongoing negotiation to reach a diplomatic agreement in its closing days.
All of this should result in a major reality check by Democrats and the dwindling number of relatively reasonable Republicans who remain in Congress.
Indeed, seven Republicans apparently decided against adding their names to the letter: Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, Maine’s Susan Collins, Indiana’s Dan Coats (which surprises me because he’s been very hawkish on Iran), Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and the two Tennessee senators, Lamar Alexander and Corker.
Perhaps this will prompt Corker to reassess the problematic provisions that he and Menendez (who will now be preoccupied with defending himself against anticipated federal corruption charges) have included in the legislation they crafted to ensure congressional review of any comprehensive deal with Iran. In any event, this really brazen and exclusively partisan effort to undermine presidential authority will almost certainly solidify Democratic support for a veto, if one is needed, of any legislation designed to sabotage the negotiation.
A Rift in the Israel Lobby
This episode is also likely to create even deeper divisions within the Israel lobby, particularly between mainstream groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which are finding it ever more difficult to retain their bipartisan image and which were, apparently as a result, kept in the dark about House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi—about which they were clearly unhappy.
Cotton’s initiative was an exclusively Republican affair, which, like Boehner’s invite, puts these groups in a very difficult position. This marks an intensification of the tensions generated by AIPAC’s decision a year ago to suspend its lobbying for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill after it ran into a brick wall of Democratic opposition in the Senate.
That decision drew scorn from Kristol’s ECI, Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition and the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which receives substantial support from Adelson. As Kristol himself wrote at the time:
It would be nice if there were universal bipartisan support for acting now to stop a nuclear Iran. But there apparently is not. And it would be terrible if history’s judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship—and got a nuclear Iran.
As this latest maneuver shows, this coalition of right-wing groups, clearly backed by Netanyahu and Dermer and fueled by the largess of Adelson and other RJC billionaires, has essentially taken over the Republican Party’s leadership, at least as it pertains to US policy in the Middle East. Even Rand Paul signed the letter.
As a result, they’ve become by far the most aggressive force in “pro-Israel” activity in Washington, leaving to AIPAC, the ADL and the AJC the increasingly difficult task of reassuring increasingly alienated Democrats that supporting an Israel headed by the likes of Bibi Netanyahu is somehow consistent with their values and the national interest. This also means that long-faithful congressional champions of AIPAC who pride themselves on working “across the aisle”—notably Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez—have found themselves playing second or third fiddle to upstart and ultra-partisan extremists like Cotton and Ted Cruz.
As a result of changes in election laws, we don’t know which specific donors provided ECI with that $960,000 that was then passed along to a pro-Cotton ad campaign in the closing days of the election last November, but the choice of ECI—and the obviously tight relationship between ECI and the Republican Jewish Coalition—as the conduit suggests that it came from people who think very highly of Bibi Netanyahu.
We do know, however, the identity of one important source of direct financing for Cotton’s campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website, the second-biggest donor to his campaign was Elliott Management, a hedge fund headed by billionaire Paul Singer. While the Club for Growth provided more than half a million dollars to Cotton’s campaign, Elliott supplied $143,100—about 50 percent more than the Senate Conservatives Fund and four times as much as Koch Industries.
Singer sits on the RJC board and has contributed to such hard-line neoconservative organizations as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the American Enterprise Institute—all of which, consistent with Netanyahu, have denounced negotiations, let alone any deal with Iran.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Nigerian authorities recently postponed elections that had been scheduled for February, ostensibly to give them more time to fight Boko Haram, the militant Islamic extremist group with ties to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. The delay heightens the already intense levels of fear and instability in the country.
Of particular concern is the safety of Nigeria’s women and girls, who are increasingly becoming targets—and tools—of violence.
“I really fear for this country in the sense that I think that Boko Haram will escalate the violence—and women and girls are instruments in this battle,” says Udy Okon, executive director of the Youth Alive Foundation, a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment and advocacy, especially for girls and young women. “They’ve been used to set off bombs, they’ve been kidnapped, they’ve been raped. I think Boko Haram now knows that when they attack women and girls, they get attention. They get the world to notice.”
In recent months, Boko Haram has reportedly engaged in widespread rape and used girls as young as 10 years old as suicide bombers.
“What does a 10-year-old girl know about throwing a bomb somewhere? She doesn’t even know whose side she’s on,” says Christiana Okechukwu, president and CEO of the Inwelle Study and Resource Center in Enugu, Nigeria, a Global Fund for Women grantee focused on girls’ education and using access to technology to empower girls. Okechukwu calls it “scary” that girls are being manipulated in these ways and says that the increased violence in the country means that “girls’ vulnerability is heightened.”
A Growing Problem
Boko Haram has lately increased its attacks.
In a brutal and deadly massacre on January 12, terrorists invaded the town of Baga, launching grenades, pursuing residents on motorcycles before shooting them down, and burning people in their homes. Many of the estimated 2,000 victims in Baga were women, children and the elderly who “could not run fast enough” from the assailants. Some survivors report that Boko Haram fighters have raped the women who remain in Baga.
“Boko Haram has been deliberate and opportunistic in their attacks against women’s freedom. Women and girls have remained vulnerable and exposed,” says Saudatu Mahdi, secretary general of WRAPA, which empowers women and is mobilizing women to vote in this election. “They are either left behind by fleeing family heads or deliberately taken away as spoils of the attacks of the insurgents.”
In response to the uptick in attacks, authorities announced that the election, originally planned for February 14, would be postponed six weeks to March 28, in order to give the military time to make polls safer for voters. However, many Nigerians doubt that this was the real reason for the delay. Some speculate that the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, wanted more time to campaign.
“People are not happy about it—they feel that the reasons given are not the real reasons,” says Okon. “If we’ve been trying to do something about Boko Haram for so long, what’s going to be different in six weeks?”
Boko Haram’s attacks will certainly affect Nigerians’ ability to vote. The violence has displaced about 1.5 million people, many of whom will not be able to vote. In large parts of the country’s northeast, violence by Boko Haram may impede polling.
Beyond Boko Haram, the election could bring additional acts of violence. The previous election, in 2011, resulted in unprecedented violence, with more than 800 people killed as longstanding ethnic and religious tensions came to a head.
“People have concerns that this postponement might actually increase violence—the tension is higher now,” Okon adds. “We’re trying to amplify the message [to young people] to abstain from violence. We really don’t want the country to descend into chaos.”
Bring Back Our Girls
Activists say that whatever the outcome of the election, the government must place a greater emphasis on the security of women and girls. Although last year’s #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign calling for the release of the 273 schoolgirls that militants kidnapped from the classroom briefly shone a spotlight on the issue, most of the schoolgirls are still being held in captivity. And many Nigerians feel the government has not done enough to rescue them.
“The abduction of the Chibok girls really put the matter of security of lives of women in very sharp focus for everyone in the country, so that the whole issue of security has become—whether explicitly acknowledged or not—an election issue,” says Oby Ezekwesili, who co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria to demand government action for the kidnapped schoolgirls. “The [newly elected officials] are going to have to hit the ground running trying to prove to Nigerians that the security of all citizens—especially women—matters to them.”
Some of the candidates have expressed similar concerns. “We believe that there is faulty intelligence and analysis,” the leading challenger for the Nigerian presidency, Muhammad Buhari, said about the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. “They ought to know [the location of] the Chibok girls, who have been abducted for more than ten months now.”
In Nigeria, as in many countries, women’s rights groups provide an early-warning system for systematic violations of women’s and girls’ human rights. “Women’s groups in Nigeria were reporting on increased kidnappings and the need to invest more in safety and security for women and girls more than a year before kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok,” says Jane Sloane, Global Fund for Women’s vice president of programs.
Okechukwu emphasized the need to bridge ethnic divides once and for all in order to drive the country forward. “More people must forget about personal interests and come together for the sake of girls and women,” she says, adding that the elected leader must be ready to bring people together at this critical time. She concluded that Nigerian voters need to ask themselves, “Who is going to make Nigeria the great country it should be?”
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