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Mar 20 2012

President Obama’s Propaganda Wars

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In the last week or so two news stories have broken that are both quite important and remarkably underreported.   First is the story about the issuance of an official accusation by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that the Obama administration has engaged in cruel and inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning and the rapporteur cannot say whether torture has occurred because of the refusal of the Obama administration to grant him the usual and customary access to Bradley Manning for evaluation purposes.

Second, there is a journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who is being held in a Yemeni gulag at the behest of President Obama.  Despite the fact that major human rights and journalism organizations are standing up and calling out the President on this, the issue has gotten little attention from the mainstream press.

These two stories add to the growing body of evidence of the Obama administration’s extraordinary actions to chill the speech of journalists and whistleblowers in an effort to control information about US actions in the Global War on Terror.

To put these current stories in context, consider that the Obama administration since taking office has shown a remarkable “forward looking” laxness in prosecuting the possible war crimes of the previous administration, some say for political reasons.  That said, the Obama administration has been quite zealous in prosecuting those from the previous administration who have blown the whistle on potential criminal activity by the government to the press.  Ironically, the Obama administration recently formally charged a former CIA officer for revealing information to the press about the capture, brutal interrogation and waterboarding torture of an al-Qaeda suspect.  It’s somewhat ironic that a fellow who leaked information to the press about illegal government torture is going to be prosecuted for spying, while the people who performed the torture, ordered the torture, approved the torture and created the false legal justification for the torture will likely never be prosecuted for those terrible crimes.

Since Mr. Obama took office, his administration has prosecuted twice as many cases under the Espionage Act as all previous administrations put together since its enactment in 1917. As one government whistleblower writes:

That Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.

   Yet, extreme as use of the Espionage Act against government insiders and whistleblowers may be, it’s only one part of the Obama administration’s attempt to sideline, if not always put away, those it wants to silence. Increasingly, federal agencies or departments intent on punishing a whistleblower are also resorting to extra-legal means. They are, for instance, manipulating personnel rules that cannot be easily challenged and do not require the production of evidence. And sometimes, they are moving beyond traditional notions of “punishment” and simply seeking to destroy the lives of those who dissent.

So in this climate of extreme actions toward whistleblowers by an administration that apparently feels that torture is not such a big deal but whistleblowing is, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture reveals that the Obama administration has subjected Bradley Manning to cruel and inhumane treatment in violation of article 16 of the UN Convention on Torture treaty to which the US is a signatory.  

The UN special rapporteur on torture has formally accused the US government of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment towards Bradley Manning, the US soldier who was held in solitary confinement for almost a year on suspicion of being the WikiLeaks source.

Juan Mendez has completed a 14-month investigation into the treatment of Manning since the soldier’s arrest at a US military base in May 2010. He concludes that the US military was at least culpable of cruel and inhumane treatment in keeping Manning locked up alone for 23 hours a day over an 11-month period in conditions that he also found might have constituted torture. …

Mendez, who runs the UN office that investigates incidents of alleged torture around the world, told the Guardian: “I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.

President Obama declared Manning guilty about a year ago, which is also about the time that the special rapporteur publically complained about the Obama administration blocking his access to Manning for evaluation:

Juan E. Méndez, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, said in a statement to the press that the US has refused to grant him an official visit to Private First Class Bradley E. Manning, despite repeated requests since last December. …

Mr. Méndez said it was standard practice for the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to have private, confidential and unsupervised interviews with detainees or anyone alleging torture or ill-treatment to ensure the credibility of those interviews.

He noted that such forms of interview had been carried out by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in at least 18 countries during the past six years.

In the US, the Obama administration interestingly has not moved against journalists, but has moved against the whistleblowers that provide the journalists with information (though the administration has been working on a means of prosecuting Julian Assange of Wikileaks).

Outside of the US, journalists are clearly targets.

Obama certainly didn’t originate the targeting of journalists in the GWOT, certainly the Bush administration pioneered in this area with the arrest of Sami al Hajj, a Sudanese journalist and cameraman for Al Jazeera, who was imprisoned for six years in Gitmo and released without charge.  Then there were the attacks on unembedded journalists in Baghdad and the missile attack on Al Jazeera offices in Afghanistan, and more, demonstrating a clear pattern of questionable detentions and hostile (sometimes lethal) attacks by the US on journalists.

The Obama administration continues the Bush administration’s pioneering work with the questionable detention of a Yemeni journalist.  The story of Abdulelah Haider Shaye’s detention was broken by Jeremy Scahill in the Nation under the title, Why Is President Obama Keeping a Journalist in Prison in Yemen?

It’s well worth a read, here’s an excerpt:

On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” It turned out that Shaye had not yet been released at the time of the call, but Saleh did have a pardon for him prepared and was ready to sign it. It would not have been unusual for the White House to express concern about Yemen’s allowing AQAP suspects to go free. Suspicious prison breaks of Islamist militants in Yemen had been a regular occurrence over the past decade, and Saleh has been known to exploit the threat of terrorism to leverage counterterrorism dollars from the United States. But this case was different. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist. …

While Shaye, 35, had long been known as a brave, independent-minded journalist in Yemen, his collision course with the US government appears to have been set in December 2009. On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike. The Pentagon would not comment on the strike and the Yemeni government repeatedly denied US involvement. But Shaye was later vindicated when Wikileaks released a US diplomatic cable that featured Yemeni officials joking about how they lied to their own parliament about the US role, while President Saleh assured Gen. David Petraeus that his government would continue to lie and say “the bombs are ours, not yours.”

The story goes on to detail Shaye’s arrest and sham trial in Yemen followed by his sentence to 5 years in a Yemeni prison.  After pressure from tribal sheiks in Yemen and the condemnation of Shaye’s sham trial by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was prepared to release Shaye.  What apparently changed Saleh’s mind was a phone call from President Obama.

The article also details Shaye’s independence as a journalist and the respect for his work not only in Yemen and around the world and the importance of his work to American’s understanding of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula.

There is no doubt that Shaye was reporting facts that both the Yemeni and US government wanted to suppress. He was also interviewing people Washington was hunting. While the US and Yemeni governments alleged that he was a facilitator for Al Qaeda propaganda, close observers of Yemen disagree. “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of his work,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton University who had communicated regularly with Shaye since 2008. “Without Shaye’s reports and interviews we would know much less about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula than we do, and if one believes, as I do, that knowledge of the enemy is important to constructing a strategy to defeat them, then his arrest and continued detention has left a hole in our knowledge that has yet to be filled.”

There’s much more to this story and if you’re interested, Democracy Now has a very good feature about it here.

This though, is probably the most important line in the whole Scahill, Nationpiece for understanding why Shaye is in jail and the significance it has for Americans:

Unlike most journalists covering Al Qaeda, Shaye risked his life to travel to areas controlled by Al Qaeda and to interview its leaders. He also conducted several interviews with the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. Shaye did the last known interview with Awlaki just before it was revealed that Awlaki, a US citizen, was on a CIA/JSOC hit list. “We were only exposed to Western media and Arab media funded by the West, which depicts only one image of Al Qaeda,” recalls his best friend Kamal Sharaf, a well-known dissident Yemeni political cartoonist. “But Abdulelah brought a different viewpoint.”

Perhaps the real reason that an independent journalist is in jail in Yemen at President Obama’s request is that the information warriors at the Pentagon don’t want an independent (hence uncontrollable) voice operating in Yemen.  The absence of an independent journalist in a place like Yemen has a powerful effect on what Americans learn about what is actually happening in the places where our military operates.  Without independent journalists, all we get is a feedback loop of regurgitated Pentagon narratives placed in foreign media and reported by “embedded” friendly journalists whose lives and ability to move about and access to events and sources is largely dependent upon their military handlers.

Controlling the information about the US war efforts has been a powerful interest of the military throughout the run up to and course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Those that have been paying attention will no doubt remember the contracts awarded to outfits like the Rendon Group (who organized the Iraqi National Congress, vetted reporters who requested to be embedded in Afghanistan based upon the friendliness to the military of their prior reporting, handled PR aspects of U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan and provided PR support to Hamid Karzai’s regime among other things) and the Lincoln Group to plant stories in the Iraqi media to ensure “that the Coalition gains widespread Iraqi acceptance of its core themes and messages.”

Here in the US, the Pentagon hatched a little scheme that went even further than the usual game of restricting access to top military sources to friendly reporters.  The Pentagon created a pool of “military experts” given special briefings, junkets to Iraq and Afghanistan and armed with talking points to take with them onto network television shows where their special status and often their financial interests as military consultants and suppliers were rarely if ever disclosed to the networks or the viewers. David Barstow of the New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for the revelations in this series about the Pentagon propaganda machine.

In 2011, Barstow reported in his article about the Pentagon’s self investigation Pentagon Finds No Fault in Ties to TV Analysts:

The results of the new inquiry, first reported by The Washington Times, confirm that the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld made a concerted effort starting in 2002 to reach out to network military analysts to build and sustain public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The inquiry found that from 2002 to 2008, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon organized 147 events for 74 military analysts. These included 22 meetings at the Pentagon, 114 conference calls with generals and senior Pentagon officials and 11 Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Twenty of the events, according to a 35-page report of the inquiry’s findings, involved Mr. Rumsfeld or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or both. …

The inspector general’s investigation grappled with the question of whether the outreach constituted an earnest effort to inform the public or an improper campaign of news media manipulation.

The inquiry confirmed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s staff frequently provided military analysts with talking points before their network appearances. In some cases, the report said, military analysts “requested talking points on specific topics or issues.” One military analyst described the talking points as “bullet points given for a political purpose.” Another military analyst, the report said, told investigators that the outreach program’s intent “was to move everyone’s mouth on TV as a sock puppet.”

Lest one think that a change of administrations and commander-in-chief has changed the way that the military operates here is evidence in the form of a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings that describes military psyops run on visiting US Senators that little has changed since the Pentagon exhonerated itself:

The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in “psychological operations” to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned – and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators.

The orders came from the command of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops – the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the war. Over a four-month period last year, a military cell devoted to what is known as “information operations” at Camp Eggers in Kabul was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation. …

The list of targeted visitors was long, according to interviews with members of the IO team and internal documents obtained by Rolling Stone. Those singled out in the campaign included senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin; Rep. Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee; Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Czech ambassador to Afghanistan; the German interior minister, and a host of influential think-tank analysts.

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has recently released a report Dereliction of Duty II:

Senior Military Leaders’ Loss of Integrity Wounds Afghan War Effort

27 January 2012
, a longish, unclassified (84 page .pdf) analysis of the failure of military leaders speak truthfully to the public about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, for the purpose of prolonging a war that it is evident that the public will for has largely expired.

Among the many interesting things the report covers, the military attitude toward the role of Public Affairs and Information Operations is very enlightening and somewhat disturbing.

Davis explains here the military’s idea of the role of information operations:

For most people, it is quite simply irreconcilable with what we think we know, to seriously consider any senior military leader would intentionally tell the American public something that was untrue. In all probability our leaders do not consider what they are saying to be “lying” per se, but an effective part of “Information Operations (IO)” designed to protect the support of the American people for our troops in contact.

Evidence suggests our leaders genuinely believe eventually we will wear down the insurgents and if the generals just get a little more time, we’ll succeed. If the American public were to know the truth, the thought goes, the people may “incorrectly” judge we aren’t going to succeed and “prematurely” demand a withdrawal. …

“IO becomes a core competency. The importance of dominating the information spectrum explains the objective of transforming IO into a core military competency on a par with air, ground, maritime and special operations.” It is a remarkable development to suggest that using information in combat is on par with ground and air forces.

Considering the way the military views information operations and the need to maintain “dominance of the information spectrum,” the actions of the Obama administration with regards to Bradley Manning or Abdulelah Haider Shaye take on a new meaning.

The Obama administration is at war.  In order to maintain “dominance of the information spectrum” President Obama must make war on whistleblowers, war on Wikileaks and war on foreign journalists in order to control the flow of information and maintain control of the narrative or conventional wisdom, not just at home, but also in foreign countries.  People like Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou or other whistleblowers that expose corruption, fraud, abuse and even war crimes – regardless that the information is wrongfully classified are enemies of the state because they challenge the official narrative and information dominance.  Independent journalists like Shaye interfere with the narratives created by our paid propagandists and psyops personnel and (like the whistleblowers) regardless of their good intentions to expose the truth and fully inform the public, their work is unwelcome to the military and the administration.

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

— Winston Churchill

2 comments

  1. joe shikspack

    thanks for taking the time to pick through all of this, i really recommend checking out the scahill story at the nation and/or the interview at democracy now linked above.  they are excellent journalism.

  2. joanneleon

    There is a lot going on in the propaganda war.  And this diary made me realize that it is probably considered a real war, and I had not looked at it like this before.  I knew that national security was used, overused, abused IMHO but I had not considered it the way it is presented here. It might explain a lot.

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