War crimes good, exposing them bad
While military and political leaders accused of war crimes sleep soundly, one alleged whistleblower languishes in jail.
Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis Last Modified: 10 Mar 2011 10:11 GMT
Bradley Manning is accused of humiliating the political establishment by revealing the complicity of top US officials in carrying out and covering up war crimes. In return for his act of conscience, the US government is torturing him, humiliating him and trying to keep him behind bars for life.
The lesson is clear, and soldiers take note: You're better off committing a war crime than exposing one.
An Army intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait, the 23-year-old Manning – outraged at what he saw – allegedly leaked tens of thousands of State Department cables to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. These cables – cables that show US officials covering up everything from child rape in Afghanistan to an illegal, unauthorised bombing in Yemen.
Manning is also accused of leaking video evidence of US pilots gunning down more than a dozen Iraqis in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists - and then killing a man who stopped to help them. The two young children of the passerby were also severely wounded.
"Well, it's their fault for bringing kids into a battle," a not-terribly-remorseful US pilot can be heard remarking in the July 2007 "Collateral Murder" video.
None of the soldiers who carried out that war crime have been punished, nor have any of the high-ranking officials who authorised it. And that's par for the course. Indeed, committing war crimes is more likely to get a soldier a medal than a prison term. And authorising them? Well, that'll get you a book deal and a six-digit speaking fee. Just ask George W Bush. Or Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice. Or the inexplicably "respectable" Colin Powell.
In fact, the record indicates Manning would today be far better off if he'd killed those men in Baghdad himself - and on the lecture circuit, rather than in solitary confinement.
Hyperbole? Consider what happened to the US soldiers who, over a period of hours – not minutes – went house to house in the Iraqi town of Haditha and executed 24 men, women and children in retaliation for a roadside bombing.
"I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head," said one of the two surviving eyewitnesses to the massacre, nine-year-old Eman Waleed.
"Then they killed my granny."
The relative value of life
Almost five years later, not one of the men involved in the incident is behind bars. And despite an Army investigation revealing that statements made by the chain of command suggest they "believe Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives", with the murder of brown-skinned innocents considered "just the cost of doing business" – a direct quote from Maj Gen Eldon Bargewell's 2006 investigation into the killings – none of their superiors are behind bars either.
Now consider the treatment of Bradley Manning. On March 1, 2011, the military charged Manning with 22 additional offences – on top of the original charges of improperly leaking classified information, disobeying an order and general misconduct. One of the new charges, "aiding the enemy", is punishable by death. That means Manning faces the prospect of being executed or spending his life in prison for exposing the ugly truth about the US empire.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has decided to make Manning's pre-trial existence as torturous as possible, holding him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day since his arrested ten months ago – treatment which Psychologists for Social Responsibility notes is, "at the very least, a form of cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment in violation of US law".
In addition to the horror of long-term solitary confinement, Manning is barred from exercising in his cell and is denied bed sheets or a pillow. And every five minutes, he must respond in the affirmative when asked by a guard if he's "okay".
Presumably he lies.
While others sleep soundly
It gets worse. On his blog, Manning's military lawyer, Lt Col David Coombs, reveals his client is now stripped of his clothing at night, left naked under careful surveillance for seven hours, and, when the 5:00am wake-up call comes, he's then "forced to stand naked at the front of the cell".
If you point out that the emperor has no clothes, it seems the empire will make sure you have none either.
Officials at the Quantico Marine Base where Manning is being held claim the move is "not punitive", according to Coombs. Rather, it is for Manning's own good - a "precautionary measure" intended to prevent him from harming himself. Do they really think Manning is going to strangle himself with his underwear – and that he could do so while under 24-hour surveillance?
"Is this Quantico or Abu Ghraib?" asked US Representative Dennis Kucinich. Good question, congressman. Like the men imprisoned in former President Bush's Iraqi torture chamber, Manning is being abused and humiliated - despite having not so much as been tried in a military tribunal, much less convicted of an actual crime.
So much for the presidential term of the candidate of hope and change.
Administrations change, much remains the same
Remember back when Obama campaigned against such Bush-league torture tactics? Recall when candidate Obama said "government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal"? It appears his opposition to torture and support for whistleblowers was mere rhetoric. And then he took office.
Indeed, despite the grand promises and soaring oratory, Obama's treatment of Manning is starkly reminiscent of none other than Richard Nixon.
Like Obama – who has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any president in history – Nixon had no sympathy for "snitches", and no interest in the US public learning the truth about their government. And he likewise argued that Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, had given "aid and comfort to the enemy" for revealing the facts about the war in Vietnam.
But there's a difference. Richard Nixon never had the heroic whistleblower of his day thrown in solitary confinement and tortured. If only the same could be said for Barack Obama.
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, while Charles Davis is an independent journalist.
On March 20, CODEPINK and others will hold a rally at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, USA, in support of Bradley Manning. For details, click here.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
This shameful abuse of Bradley Manning
The WikiLeaks suspect's mistreatment amounts to torture. Either President Obama knows this or he should make it his business
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 March 2011 22.09 GMT
President Obama tells us that he's asked the Pentagon whether the conditions of confinement of Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with leaking state secrets, "are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are."
If Obama believes that, he'll believe anything. I would hope he would know better than to ask the perpetrators whether they've been behaving appropriately. I can just hear President Nixon saying to a press conference the same thing: "I was assured by the the White House Plumbers that their burglary of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's doctor in Los Angeles was appropriate and met basic standards."
When that criminal behaviour ordered from the Oval Office came out, Nixon faced impeachment and had to resign. Well, times have changed. But if President Obama really doesn't yet know the actual conditions of Manning's detention – if he really believes, as he's said, that "some of this [nudity, isolation, harassment, sleep-deprivation] has to do with Private Manning's wellbeing", despite the contrary judgments of the prison psychologist – then he's being lied to, and he needs to get a grip on his administration.
If he does know, and agrees that it's appropriate or even legal, that doesn't speak well for his memory of the courses he taught on constitutional law.
The president refused to comment on PJ Crowley's statement that the treatment of Manning is "ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid". Those words are true enough as far as they go – which is probably about as far as a state department spokesperson can allow himself to go in condemning actions of the defence department. But at least two other words are called for: abusive and illegal.
Crowley was responding to a question about the "torturing" of an American citizen, and, creditably, he didn't rebut that description. Prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity – that's right out of the manual of the CIA for "enhanced interrogation". We've seen it applied in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. It's what the CIA calls "no-touch torture", and its purpose there, as in this case, is very clear: to demoralise someone to the point of offering a desired confession. That's what they are after, I suspect, with Manning. They don't care if the confession is true or false, so long as it implicates WikiLeaks in a way that will help them prosecute Julian Assange.
That's just my guess, as to their motives. But it does not affect the illegality of the behaviour. If I'm right, it's likely that such harsh treatment wasn't ordered at the level of a warrant officer or the brig commander. The fact that they have continued to inflict such suffering on the prisoner despite weeks of complaint from his defence counsel, harsh publicity and condemnation from organisations such as Amnesty International, suggests to me that it might have come from high levels of the defence department or the justice department, if not from the White House itself.
It's no coincidence that it's someone from the state department who has gone off-message to speak out about this. When a branch of the US government makes a mockery of our pretensions to honour the rule of law, specifically our obligation not to use torture, the state department bears the brunt of that, as it affects our standing in the world.
The fact that Manning's abusive mistreatment is going on at Quantico – where I spent nine months as a Marine officer in basic school – and that Marines are lying about it, makes me feel ashamed for the Corps. Just three years as an infantry officer was more than enough time for me to know that what is going on there is illegal behaviour that must be stopped and disciplined.
US vetoes UN draft on settlements
Washington blocks resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories as an obstacle to peace.
Last Modified: 19 Feb 2011 05:23 GMT
The US has vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlements as "illegal" and called for an immediate halt to all settlement building.
All 14 other Security Council members voted in favour of the resolution, which was backed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), on Friday.
Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN, speaking on behalf of his country, France and Germany, condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "They are illegal under international law," he said.
He added that the European Union's three biggest nations hope that an independent state of Palestine will join the UN as a new member state by September 2011.
The veto by the administration of Barack Obama, the US president, is certain to anger Arab countries and Palestinian supporters around the world.
An abstention would have angered the Israelis, the closest ally of Washington in the region, as well as Democratic and Republican supporters of Israel in the US Congress.
The UN says it opposes settlements in principal, but says that the UN Security Council is not the appropriate venue for resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, told council members that the veto "should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity".
"While we agree with our fellow council members and indeed with the wider world about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians," she said.
Palestinians said the veto is counterproductive to the peace process and will help Israel maintain illegal buildings.
"The American veto does not serve the peace process and encourages Israel to continue settlements, and to escape the
obligations of the peace process," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.
Al Jazeera's Cal Perry in Ramallah, West Bank, said the decision is "not going down well in the occupied West Bank".
"People are really wondering when some action is going to be taken," he said.
"People here are tired of a lack of a peace process; they are tired that the two sides are not talking; they are tired that they continue to hear, especially the US president Barack Obama continue to say that human dignity cannot be denied.
"He's been saying it all throughout the protests in Eqypt; he's been saying it all through the protests that continue to sweep across the region and the Palestinian people are saying: 'What about us?'"
Earlier, the Obama administration had tried to exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority to drop the UN resolution in exchange for other measures, but this was rejected by the authoirty.
The decision to back the resolution was made unanimously by the PLO's executive and the central committee of Abbas's Fatah movement on Friday, at a meeting to discuss Obama's appeal to Abbas by telephone a day earlier.
"The Palestinian leadership has decided to proceed to the UN Security Council, to pressure Israel to halt settlement activities. The decision was taken despite American pressure," said Wasel Abu Yousef, a PLO executive member.
Obama, who had said Israeli settlements in territories it captured in a 1967 war are illegal and unhelpful to the peace process, has argued that the resolution could shatter hopes of reviving the stalled talks.
In a 50-minute phone call on Thursday, he asked Abbas to drop the resolution and settle for a non-binding statement condemning settlement expansion, Palestinian officials said.
"Caving in to American pressure and withdrawing the resolution will constitute Goldstone 2," said a Palestinian official, speaking on terms of anonymity before the meeting.
He was referring to the wave of protest in October 2009 accusing Abbas of caving in to US pressure by agreeing not to submit for adoption a UN report that accused Israel and Hamas of war crimes during the invasion of Gaza two years ago.
Abbas maintains he insisted on submitting the report.
The Palestinians say continued building flouts the internationally-backed peace plan that will permit them to create a viable, contiguous state on the 1967 land, after a treaty with Israel to end its occupation and 62 years of conflict.
Israel says this is an excuse for avoiding peace talks and a precondition never demanded before during 17 years of negotiations, which has so far produced no agreement.
The diplomatic standoff is complicated by the effects of Middle East turmoil on the Arab League, whose members backed the resolution.
Egypt, a dominant member, and Tunisia are preoccupied with their transitions from deposed autocracies, and protests are flaring in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
Washington is trying to revive peace talks stalled since September over Israel's refusal to extend a moratorium on settlement building and Abbas's refusal to negotiate further until the Israelis freeze the illegal buildings.
'Nothing to lose'
Obama initially pressured Israel to maintain the moratorium only to relent in the run-up to the 2010 US mid-term elections to avoid, some analysts said, alienating key voters.
Instead of the resolution, Obama told Abbas he would back a fact-finding visit by a delegation of the UN Security Council to the occupied territories.
One PLO official said the leadership was determined not to cave in "even if our decision leads to a diplomatic crisis with the Americans", adding: "Now we have nothing to lose."
Since 2000, 14 Security Council resolutions have been vetoed by one or more of the five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. Of those, 10 were US vetoes, nine of them related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Colin Powell demands answers over Curveball's WMD lies
Former US secretary of state asks why CIA failed to warn him over Iraqi defector who has admitted fabricating WMD evidence
Ed Pilkington in New York, Helen Pidd in Berlin and Martin Chulov
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 16 February 2011 21.45 GMT
Colin Powell, the US secretary of state at the time of the Iraq invasion, has called on the CIA and Pentagon to explain why they failed to alert him to the unreliability of a key source behind claims of Saddam Hussein's bio-weapons capability.
Responding to the Guardian's revelation that the source, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi or "Curveball" as his US and German handlers called him, admitted fabricating evidence of Iraq's secret biological weapons programme, Powell said that questions should be put to the US agencies involved in compiling the case for war.
In particular he singled out the CIA and the Defence Intelligence Agency – the Pentagon's military intelligence arm. Janabi, an Iraqi defector, was used as the primary source by the Bush administration to justify invading Iraq in March 2003. Doubts about his credibility circulated before the war and have been confirmed by his admission this week that he lied.
Powell said that the CIA and DIA should face questions about why they failed to sound the alarm about Janabi. He demanded to know why it had not been made clear to him that Curveball was totally unreliable before false information was put into the key intelligence assessment, or NIE, put before Congress, into the president's state of the union address two months before the war and into his own speech to the UN.
"It has been known for several years that the source called Curveball was totally unreliable," he told the Guardian . "The question should be put to the CIA and the DIA as to why this wasn't known before the false information was put into the NIE sent to Congress, the president's state of the union address and my 5 February presentation to the UN."
On 5 February 2003, a month before the invasion, Powell went before the UN security council to make the case for war. In his speech he referred to "firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails … The source was an eyewitness who supervised one of these facilities". It is now known that the source, Janabi, made up the story.
Curveball told the Guardian he welcomed Powell's demand. "It's great," he said tonight. "The BND [German intelligence] knew in 2000 that I was lying after they talked to my former boss, Dr Bassil Latif, who told them there were no mobile bioweapons factories. For 18 months after that they left me alone because they knew I was telling lies even though I never admitted it. Believe me, back then, I thought the whole thing was over for me.
"Then all of a sudden [in the run up to the 2003 invasion] they came back to me and started asking for more details about what I had told them. I still don't know why the BND then passed on my information to the CIA and it ended up in Powell's speech.
"I want there to be an inquiry so that people will know the truth. So many lies have been told about me over the years. I finally want the truth to come out."
Powell has previously expressed regret about the role he unwittingly played in passing on false information to the UN, saying it had put a blot on his career. But his latest comments increase pressure on the intelligence agencies and their former chiefs to divulge what they knew at the time and why they failed to filter out such a bad source.
George Tenet, then head of the CIA, is particularly in the firing line. He failed to pass on warnings from German intelligence about Curveball's reliability.
Tenet put out a statement on his website in response to Curveball's admission. He said: "The handling of this matter is certainly a textbook case of how not to deal with defector provided material. But the latest reporting of the subject repeats and amplifies a great deal of misinformation."
Tenet refers to his own 2007 memoir on the war, At the Centre of the Storm, in which he insists that the first he heard about Curveball's unreliability was two years after the invasion – "too late to do a damn thing about it".
In the light of Curveball's confession, politicians in Iraq called for his permanent exile and scorned his claim to want to return to his motherland and build a political party. "He is a liar, he will not serve his country," said one Iraqi MP. In his adopted home of Germany, MPs are demanding to know why the BND, paid Curveball £2,500 a month for at least five years after they knew he had lied.
Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green MP, said Janabi had arguably violated a German law which makes warmongering illegal. Under the law, it is a criminal offence to do anything "with the intent to disturb the peaceful relations between nations, especially anything that leads to an aggressive war", he said. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment, he added, though he did not expect it would ever come to that.
Curveball told the Guardian he was pleased to have finally told the truth. He said he had given the Guardian's phone number to his wife and brother in Sweden "just in case something happens to me".
Further pressure on the CIA came from Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff at the time of the invasion. He said Curveball's lies raised questions about how the CIA had briefed Powell ahead of his fateful UN speech.
Tyler Drumheller, head of the CIA's Europe division in the run-up to the invasion, said he welcomed Curveball's confession because he had always warned Tenet that he may have been a fabricator.
Tenet has disputed Drumheller's version of events, insisting that the official made no formal warning to CIA headquarters.
Curveball's admission 'raises questions about CIA'
Senior aide to Colin Powell is among those to react to news that Iraqi testimony used to justify invasion was a lie
Ed Pilkington in New York
The Guardian, Wednesday 16 February 2011
A senior aide to Colin Powell at the time of his pivotal speech to the United Nations said on Tuesday that Curveball's admission raised questions about the CIA's role.
Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to the then US secretary of state Powell in the build-up to the invasion, said the lies of Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, also known by the codename Curveball, raised questions about how the CIA had briefed Powell ahead of his crucial speech to the UN security council presenting the case for war.
In particular, why did the CIA's then director George Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin believe the claim by Curveball, "and convey that to Powell even though the CIA's own European chief Tyler Drumheller had already raised serious doubts.
"And why did Tenet and McLaughlin portray the presence of mobile biological labs in Iraq to the secretary of state with a degree of conviction bordering on passionate, soul-felt certainty?"
Richard Perle, a prominent neocon who chaired the Pentagon's advisory board under the Bush administration at the time of the invasion, said the Janabi admission pointed to a clear failure in intelligence vetting. "It's the job of intelligence agencies to distinguish between defectors who claim to have something to say and defectors who are lying and they obviously didn't do their job. The Germans didn't, and we didn't."
Perle said that Janabi wrote to him directly shortly before the invasion, setting out his claims about weapons of mass destruction and bemoaning that he wasn't being taken seriously by the US.
Groups of US veterans involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq expressed their dismay at the revelation that key information had been fabricated. "This is very damning testimony and an indictment of the work the US put into the pre-war intelligence. The decision to go to war, to spend billions on sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the region, was in large part taken on the basis of an admitted liar," said Ashwin Madia, head of an organisation of progressive US military veterans, VoteVets.
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Janabi's admission undermined those critics who accused the Bush administration itself of having lied. "The source did actually tell them those things. But it does support the idea that they didn't do due diligence on checking out the information in part because they were being told what they wanted to hear."
Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst on Iraq now at the National Defence University in Washington, said there were "bitter lessons" from the handling of Janabi. "It was an intelligence failure and very poor tradecraft".
She said that the syndrome of "false confirmation" – where just one source was shared by many different intelligence outlets none of whom realised they were talking to the same person – had come heavily into play. And the Bush administration had been far too willing to believe incredible witnesses.
"There were people at the time who doubted what Curveball was saying, but if the administration doesn't want to believe it, it doesn't make much difference."
Claims of Iraq WMD were 'pure lies'
Man who claimed that Iraq had WMD prior to the 2003 US invasion has admitted that he fabricated lies.
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2011 01:40 GMT
'US drone strikes' claim lives
The attacks are the first since Friday's protest rally in Pakistan condemning civilian deaths in US drone strikes.
Last Modified: 23 Jan 2011 04:40 GMT
Pakistani intelligence officials say that a possible second US drone strike has killed two more suspected foreign fighters in northwestern Pakistan.
Sunday's attack came several hours after a drone fired two missiles at a vehicle and a house in Doga Mada Khel village, located near North Waziristan's main town of Miranshah, killing at least five armed fighters.
The town is a frequent target of the strikes, and the country's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, is increasingly seen as battleground in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"The US drone hit a car immediately after it parked outside a house," an intelligence official in Miranshah said of the first strike.
According to officials, the second drone fired two missiles at the suspected fighters as they were riding on a motorcycle in the same village in the North Waziristan tribal area.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
As a policy, the United States does not confirm drone attacks, but its military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy them in the region.
A similar strike killed at least three people in North Waziristan on January 12.
On January 1, a string of attacks killed at least 15 people and destroyed a Taliban compound, according to Pakistani officials.
In the town on Mir Ali town, also in North Waziristan, some 1,800 tribesmen staged a demonstration on Sunday against the continuous drone strikes, witnesses said.
All the markets remained closed with traffic suspended on the busy Bannu-Miranshah road, which runs through Mir Ali.
"The government should take immediate steps to stop drone attacks otherwise we will launch a protest movement and will march towards Islamabad," Sherzali Khan, a local tribal elder, told the protesting tribesmen, who were shouting slogans against the US and CIA.
They demanded an end to the operations, which they said were killing civilians including women and children in the tribal areas.
A similar rally was held on Friday in Miranshah against the drone strikes.
The strikes are deeply unpopular among the public, who also see military action on Pakistani soil as a breach of their sovereignty.
According to a tally conducted by the AFP news agency, the covert campaign doubled missile attacks in the tribal area last year, where more than 100 drone strikes killed over 670 people in 2010 compared with 45 strikes that killed 420 in 2009.
Pakistan tacitly co-operates with the bombing campaign, which US officials say has badly damaged al-Qaeda's leadership. But it has stalled launching a ground offensive in North Waziristan, saying its troops are overstretched.
Washington says the strikes have killed a number of high-value targets, including Baitullah Mehsud, the former head of the Pakistani Taliban.
US drone attacks are no laughing matter, Mr Obama
The president's backing of indiscriminate slaughter in Pakistan can only encourage new waves of militancy
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 28 December 2010 20.30 GMT
Speaking at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in May, Barack Obama spotted teen pop band the Jonas Brothers in the audience. "Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but, boys, don't get any ideas," deadpanned the president, referring to his daughters. "Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming." The crowd laughed, Obama smiled, the dinner continued. Few questioned the wisdom of making such a tasteless joke; of the US commander-in-chief showing such casual disregard for the countless lives lost abroad through US drone attacks.
From the moment he stepped foot inside the White House, Obama set about expanding and escalating a covert CIA programme of "targeted killings" inside Pakistan, using Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles (who comes up with these names?) that had been started by the Bush administration in 2004. On 23 January 2009, just three days after being sworn in, Obama ordered his first set of air strikes inside Pakistan; one is said to have killed four Arab fighters linked to al-Qaida but the other hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child. Obama's own daughter, Sasha, was seven at the time.
But America's Nobel-peace-prize-winning president did not look back. During his first nine months in office he authorised as many aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W Bush did in his final three years in the job. And this year has seen an unprecedented number of air strikes. Forget Mark Zuckerberg or the iPhone 4 – 2010 was the year of the drone. According to the New America Foundation thinktank in Washington DC, the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan more than doubled in 2010, to 115. That is an astonishing rate of around one bombing every three days inside a country with which the US is not at war.
And the carnage continues. On Monday, CIA drones fired six missiles at two vehicles in a "Taliban stronghold" in north Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, killing 18 "militants". Or so said "Pakistani intelligence officials", speaking under condition of anonymity to the Associated Press. Today another round of drone strikes is thought to have killed at least 15 "militants" in the same area.
These attacks by unmanned aircraft may have succeeded in eliminating hundreds of dangerous militants, but the truth is that they also kill innocent civilians indiscriminately and in large numbers. According to the New America Foundation, one in four of those killed by drones since 2004 has been an innocent. The Brookings Institute, however, has calculated a much higher civilian-to-militant ratio of 10:1. Meanwhile, figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities suggest US strikes killed 701 people between January 2006 and April 2009, of which 14 were al-Qaida militants and 687 were civilians. That produces a hit rate of just 2% – or 50 civilians dead for every militant killed.
The majority of Pakistanis are against the use of drones in the tribal areas on the Afghan border. Their own government, however, despite public opposition to the bombings, has in private expressed support for America's drones. "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying, in a 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks. "We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."
This is not a left/right issue; criticisms of the drone strikes have come from figures as diverse as Sir Brian Burridge, the UK's former air chief marshal in Iraq, who has described the aerial slaughter inflicted from afar by unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft as a "virtueless war"; and Andrew Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser to General David Petraeus, who says that each innocent victim of a drone strike "represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased".
Kilcullen is spot on. The cold-blooded killing of Pakistani civilians in a push-button, PlayStation-style drone war is not just immoral and perhaps illegal, it is futile and self-defeating from a security point of view. Take Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square bomber. One of the first things the Pakistani-born US citizen said upon his arrest was: "How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan." Asked by the judge at his trial as to how he could justify planting a bomb near innocent women and children, Shahzad responded by saying that US drone strikes "don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody."
But the innocent victims of America's secret drone war have become "unpeople", in the words of the historian Mark Curtis – those whose lives are seen as expendable in the pursuit of the west's foreign policy goals. Killed via remote control, they remain unseen and unremembered. Forgive me, Mr President, for not seeing the funny side.
US military investigates 'death squad' accused of murdering Afghans
Brigadier general to conduct review of 5th Stryker brigade as evidence emerges of widespread complicity in deaths
Chris McGreal in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 29 December 2010 19.45 GMT
The US military is investigating the leadership of an army brigade whose soldiers are accused of running a "kill team" that murdered Afghan civilians, as further evidence emerges of widespread complicity in the deaths.
A brigadier general is conducting a "top to bottom" review of the 5th Stryker brigade after five of its soldiers were committed for trial early next year charged with involvement in the murders of three Afghans and other alleged crimes including mutilating their bodies, and collecting fingers and skulls from corpses as trophies.
Among the issues under investigation is the failure of commanders to intervene when the alleged crimes were apparently widely spoken about among soldiers.
Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged leader of what prosecutors have characterised as a death squad based in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, is accused of planning the alleged murders in which civilians were killed with hand grenades and guns and their deaths made to appear to be legitimate battlefield casualties. Gibbs, 26, has denied three charges of murder and other crimes.
Four other soldiers are charged with involvement in at least one of the three murders over a five-month period this year. They include an army specialist, Adam Winfield, whose lawyer has released a Facebook chat between the soldier and his father, Christopher, that suggests many other soldiers in the brigade approved of the killings.
In the chat, Winfield says he is troubled by one murder by other members of his unit. "Some innocent guy about my age just farming. They made it look like the guy threw a grenade and them and mowed him down ... Everyone pretty much knows it was staged. If I say anything it's my word against everyone. There's no one in this platoon that agrees this was wrong. They all don't care."
Later in the chat, Winfield wrote: "Everyone just wants to kill people at any cost. They don't care. The Army is full of a bunch of scumbags I realized."
Winfield's father contacted the military to warn it about the killings. His son later admitted to firing his gun towards a third Afghan who was allegedly murdered two months later. Winfield later told investigators in videotaped interviews shown at a pre-trial hearing that Gibbs formed the "kill team".
Another soldier, Jeremy Morlock, who faces a court martial for alleged involvement in all three murders, has also accused Gibbs of organising the killings.
"Gibbs had pure hatred for all Afghanis and constantly referred to them as savages," said Morlock.
Seven other soldiers are charged with lesser crimes, including drug use, collecting body parts as souvenirs and covering up the killings. Gibbs is alleged to have kept finger bones, leg bones and a tooth from Afghan corpses. Another soldier is said to have collected a human skull.
Some of the soldiers are also accused of taking a photograph posing next to one of the corpses as if it were hunted game. The military has so far declined to offer the pictures in evidence out of concern they would be more generally released and prompt a backlash against US troops in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, one of the accused soldiers, Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens, reached a plea bargain with prosecutors in which he was convicted of aggravated assault over two killings and sentenced to nine months in prison after agreeing to testify against 10 other members of his unit. He also pleaded guilty to lying about these crimes and to dereliction of duty.
Stevens had faced charges that carried up to 19 years in prison.
Research links rise in Falluja birth defects and cancers to US assault
• Defects in newborns 11 times higher than normal
• 'War contaminants' from 2004 attack could be cause
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 December 2010 21.34 GMT
A study examining the causes of a dramatic spike in birth defects in the Iraqi city of Falluja has for the first time concluded that genetic damage could have been caused by weaponry used in US assaults that took place six years ago.
The research, which will be published next week, confirms earlier estimates revealed by the Guardian of a major, unexplained rise in cancers and chronic neural-tube, cardiac and skeletal defects in newborns. The authors found that malformations are close to 11 times higher than normal rates, and rose to unprecedented levels in the first half of this year – a period that had not been surveyed in earlier reports.
The findings, which will be published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, come prior to a much-anticipated World Health Organisation study of Falluja's genetic health. They follow two alarming earlier studies, one of which found a distortion in the sex ratio of newborns since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a 15% drop in births of boys.
"We suspect that the population is chronically exposed to an environmental agent," said one of the report's authors, environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani. "We don't know what that environmental factor is, but we are doing more tests to find out."
The report identifies metals as potential contaminating agents afflicting the city – especially among pregnant mothers. "Metals are involved in regulating genome stability," it says. "As environmental effectors, metals are potentially good candidates to cause birth defects.
The findings are likely to prompt further speculation that the defects were caused by depleted uranium rounds, which were heavily used in two large battles in the city in April and November 2004. The rounds, which contain ionising radiation, are a core component of the armouries of numerous militaries and militias.
Their effects have long been called into question, with some scientists claiming they leave behind a toxic residue, caused when the round – either from an assault rifle or artillery piece – bursts through its target. However, no evidence has yet been established that proves this, and some researchers instead claim that depleted uranium has been demonstrably proven not to be a contaminant.
The report acknowledges that other battlefield residues may also be responsible for the defects. "Many known war contaminants have the potential to interfere with normal embryonic and foetal development," the report says. "The devastating effect of dioxins on the reproductive health of the Vietnamese people is well-known."
The latest Falluja study surveyed 55 families with seriously deformed newborns between May and August. It was conducted by Dr Samira Abdul Ghani, a paediatrician at Falluja general hospital. In May, 15% of the 547 babies born had serious birth defects. In the same period, 11% of babies were born at less than 30 weeks and 14% of foetuses spontaneously aborted.
The researchers believe that the figures understate what they describe as an epidemic of abnormalities, because a large number of babies in Falluja are born at home with parents reluctant to seek help from authorities.
One case documented in the report is of a mother and her daughter who after the 2004 battles both gave birth to babies with severe malformations. The second wife of one of the fathers also had a severely deformed baby in 2009.
"It is important to understand that under normal conditions, the chances of such occurrences is virtually zero," said Savabieasfahani.
Iraq's government has built a new hospital in Falluja, but the city's obstetricians have complained that they are still overwhelmed by the sheer number of serious defects. The US military has long denied that it is responsible for any contaminant left behind in the city, or elsewhere in Iraq, as it continues its steady departure from the country it has occupied for almost eight years.
It has said that Iraqis who want to file a complaint are welcome to do so. Several families interviewed by the Guardian in November 2009 said they had filed complaints but had not received replies.
The World Health Organisation is due to begin its research sometime next year. However, there are fears that an extensive survey may not be possible in the still volatile city that still experiences assassinations and bombings most weeks.
"An epidemic of birth defects is unfolding in Falluja, Iraq," said Savabieasfahani. "This is a serious public health crisis that needs global attention. We need independent and unbiased research into the possible causes of this epidemic.
We invite scientists and organisations to get in touch with us so that we may gain the strength to address this large global public health issue."
City's spike in deformity rates
Birth-defect rates in Falluja have become increasingly alarming over the past two years. In the first half of 2010, the number of monthly cases of serious abnormalities rose to unprecedented levels. In Falluja general hospital, 15% of the 547 babies born in May had a chronic deformity, such as a neural tune defect – which affects the brain and lower limbs – cardiac, or skeletal abnormalities, or cancers.
No other city in Iraq has anywhere near the same levels of reported abnormalities. Falluja sees at least 11 times as many major defects in newborns than world averages, the research has shown.
The latest report, which will be published next week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, says Falluja has been infected by a chronic environmental contaminant. It focuses on depleted uranium, used in weaponry during two US assaults in 2004 as a possible cause of the contaminant. Scientific studies have so far established no link between the rounds, which contain ionising radiation to burst through armour and are commonly used on the battlefield.
The study focuses on metals as a potential conduit for the contaminant. It suggests a bodily accumulation of toxins is causing serious and potentially irreversible damage to the city's population base, and calls for an urgent examination of metals in Falluja as well as a comprehensive examination of the city's recent reproductive history.