Apr 02 2012

Warriors vs. Journalists, Obama vs. Truth

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This past week, several stories appeared which indicate the degree to which true investigative reporting about US efforts in the Global War on Terror is at odds with the desires of the Obama administration and the lengths to which the administration will go to create their preferred narrative and suppress reporting that fails to fit.  At the same time, the President and other administration officials have made public statements, unsupported by documentation, that they refuse for alleged “national security reasons” to release to the ACLU and journalists.

This diary will continue some of the themes developed in a previous diary, President Obama’s Propaganda Wars regarding the Obama administration’s attempts to “dominate the information spectrum.”

The stories this week suggest that sometimes in the Global War on Terror, it’s a matter of getting the images correct.  If the action is popular, we get, “Engaged-Commander-in-Chief-sweating-the-details Obama.”  If the action is controversial, or perhaps questionably legal, we get “Spectator Obama,” watching the action from the stands along with everybody else.

obama cic or spectator lg

Let’s start with what looks like pure propaganda.  This past week an article appeared in the Washington Post about the CIA’s “dronemaster.” The article presents a man who converted to Islam as the “chief architect” and “driving force” of the Obama administration’s targeted assassination program:

For every cloud of smoke that follows a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, dozens of smaller plumes can be traced to a gaunt figure standing in a courtyard near the center of the agency’s Langley campus in Virginia.

The man with the nicotine habit is in his late 50s, with stubble on his face and the dark-suited wardrobe of an undertaker. As chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center for the past six years, he has functioned in a funereal capacity for al-Qaeda.

Roger, which is the first name of his cover identity, may be the most consequential but least visible national security official in Washington – the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign and the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In many ways, he has also been the driving force of the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killing as a centerpiece of its counterterrorism efforts.

This article goes to great lengths to impress us with “Roger’s” capacity as the guy running the drone assassination campaigns from the CIA; it’s one corpulent, chain-smoking, irascible man’s war against his co-religionists, apparently.

One might wonder what happened to the secret panel which was a subset of the National Security Council that “several current and former officials” and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, described to Reuters:

The process involves “going through the National Security Council, then it eventually goes to the president, but the National Security Council does the investigation, they have lawyers, they review, they look at the situation, you have input from the military, and also, we make sure that we follow international law,” Ruppersberger said.

Perhaps the disappearance of the group has something to do with this (also from the Reuters article):

Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals’ decision. If he objected, the decision would be nullified, the official said.

A former official said one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to “protect” the president.

I guess getting those controversial decisions out of the White House entirely and over to Langley really helps “protect the president” even better.

If one didn’t know better, one might say that this looks like one of those stories that get planted in the media by manipulative governments to change a narrative.  Of course the US would never do that.  It would be unprecedented.  The Obama administration would never stand for that; Mr. Obama would demand accountability.  Pffffttt!

To add further ironic quality to the appearance of this story in the Washington Post, it seems reasonable to  assume that the CIA has made its super-duper secret, targeted killing program public knowledge by cooperating with the creation of this article and has allowed its undercover agent who allegedly “single-handedly” runs the program to speak to a Washington Post reporter.  At the same time the Obama administration is fighting an ACLU FOIA request and the CIA is trying to get it thrown out of court on the basis that it cannot confirm any details about the program because it would compromise national security!  Go figure!

Glenn Greenwald describes the situation in this report:

Numerous Obama officials – including the President himself and the CIA Director – have repeatedly boasted in public about this very program. Obama recently hailed the CIA drone program by claiming that “we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied,” and added that it is “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.” Obama has told playful jokes about the same drone program. Former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also likes to tell cute little jokes about CIA Predator drones, and then proclaimed in December that the drone program has “been very effective at undermining al Qaeda and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks.” Just two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech purporting to legally justify these same drone attacks.

So Obama officials are eager to publicly tout the supposed benefits of the CIA’s drone programs in order to generate political gain for the President: to make him look like some sort of Tough, Brave Warrior single-handedly vanquishing Al Qaeda. The President himself boasts about how tightly controlled, precise and effective the CIA drones are. Everyone in the world knows the CIA has a drone program. It is openly discussed everywhere, certainly including the multiple Muslim countries where the drones routinely create piles of corpses, and by top U.S. Government officials themselves.

But then when it comes time to test the accuracy of their public claims by requesting the most basic information about what is done and how execution targets are selected, and when it comes time to ask courts to adjudicate its legality, then suddenly National Security imperatives prevent the government even from confirming or denying the existence of the program: the very same program they’ve been publicly boasting and joking about. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer put it after Obama publicly defended the program: “At this point, the only consequence of pretending that it’s a secret program is that the courts don’t play a role in overseeing it” – that, and ensuring that any facts that contradict these public claims remain concealed.

While when Mr. Obama promised to have “the most transparent administration ever,” it seems a fair bet that he did not mean for transparency to be the result of the artlessly guileful manner in which requests for corroborative facts for the administration’s public pronouncements are handled, this however, is what seems to be happening.  The current record seems to show that Mr. Obama’s administration will go to great lengths to retain control of information and the “official narrative” of events.  The administration seems all too eager to place their carefully chosen information into the hands of embedded reporters who can be trusted to present an approved narrative in return for access to sources and stories.

This past week there was also an interesting story about the obstacles and dangers government creates for those reporters who do independent reporting and sometimes report inconvenient truths.  Chris Hedges at Truthdig has updates about a lawsuit brought Hedges, Noam Chomsky and other journalist and activist plaintiffs against President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta  seeking to have the NDAA, also known as the Homeland Battlefield Bill, declared unconstitutional.  Hedges reports on his recent deposition given to government lawyers who are trying to decide whether they will challenge his standing to bring the case.  Hedges describes the reason for his legal action:

The NDAA implodes our most cherished constitutional protections. It permits the military to function on U.S. soil as a civilian law enforcement agency. It authorizes the executive branch to order the military to selectively suspend due process and habeas corpus for citizens. The law can be used to detain people deemed threats to national security, including dissidents whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, and hold them until what is termed “the end of the hostilities.” Even the name itself-the Homeland Battlefield Bill-suggests the totalitarian concept that endless war has to be waged within “the homeland” against internal enemies as well as foreign enemies. …

The 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act, the employment of the Espionage Act by the Obama White House against six suspected whistle-blowers and leakers, and the Homeland Battlefield Bill have crippled the work of investigative reporters in every major newsroom in the country. Government sources that once provided information to counter official narratives and lies have largely severed contact with the press. They are acutely aware that there is no longer any legal protection for those who dissent or who expose the crimes of state. The NDAA threw in a new and dangerous component that permits the government not only to silence journalists but imprison them and deny them due process because they “substantially supported” terrorist groups or “associated forces.”

This Guardian article points out the the Obama administration’s denial that the law doesn’t broadly apply to civilians :

Controversy centres on the loose definition of key words in the bill, in particular who might be “associated forces” of the law’s named terrorist groups al-Qaida and the Taliban and what “substantial support” to those groups might get defined as. Whereas White House officials have denied the wording extends any sort of blanket coverage to civilians, rather than active enemy combatants, or actions involved in free speech, some civil rights experts have said the lack of precise definition leaves it open to massive potential abuse.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, has already ruled a slightly less vague wording, “material support,” to mean that many kinds of speech and actions that one might instinctively think are protected by the First Amendment, according to the ruling, are not.  As the Center for Constitutional Rights, which argued the suit explains:

The decision marks the first time that the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment permits Congress to make pure speech advocating lawful, nonviolent activity-human rights advocacy and peacemaking-a crime. Doing so can land a citizen in prison for 15 years, all in the name of “fighting terrorism.”

The Court’s ruling leaves it unclear whether publishing an op-ed or submitting an amicus brief in court arguing that a group does not belong on the list is a criminal act is prohibited. What is clear is that the Court’s decision is likely to cast a broad chill over political speech and the activities of humanitarian groups and journalists.

Interestingly, an editorial in the New York Times states that the FBI has threatened journalists with arrest for “material support”:

The case arose after an American human rights group, the Humanitarian Law Project, challenged the law prohibiting “material support” to terror groups, which was defined in the 2001 Patriot Act to include “expert advice or assistance.” The law project wanted to provide advice to two terrorist groups on how to peacefully resolve their disputes and work with the United Nations. The two groups – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – have violent histories and their presence on the State Department’s official list of terrorist groups is not in dispute.

But though the law project was actually trying to reduce the violence of the two groups, the court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on behalf of five other justices, said that did not matter and ruled the project’s efforts illegal. Even peaceful assistance to a terror group can further terrorism, the chief justice wrote, in part by lending them legitimacy and allowing them to pretend to be negotiating while plotting violence. …

The court at least clarified that acts had to be coordinated with terror groups to be illegal, but many forms of assistance may still be a criminal act, including filing a brief against the government in a terror-group lawsuit. Academic researchers doing field work in conflict zones could be arrested for meeting with terror groups and discussing their research, as could journalists who write about the activities and motivations of these groups, or the journalists’ sources. The F.B.I. has questioned people it suspected as being sources for a New York Times article about terrorism, and threatened to arrest them for providing material support.

It seems unlikely that the government would be less aggressive in using the term “substantial support” than the term “material support” in an effort to pressure journalists and other citizens exercising their traditional first amendment rights.  It is also quite likely that the existence of this uncertainty regarding how this unclear wording will be applied will have a chilling effect on speech, which in turn will have an effect upon the independent information that the American public has available to it with which to evaluate the activities of the administration.  There is, of course, no way of telling how these legal uncertainties might be exploited by future administrations, as well.

This is what we tell developing countries about the importance of press freedom:

Access to information is essential to the health of

democracy for at least two reasons. First, it

ensures that citizens make responsible, informed

choices rather than acting out of ignorance or

misinformation. Second, information serves a

“checking function” by ensuring that elected

representatives uphold their oaths of office and

carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

Perhaps we should do a better job of living up to that ideal in “the homeland.”


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