Friday, September 30, 2011

al-Awlaki and Khan

From AP and Twitter: BREAKING: Yemen Defense Ministry says another American in al-Qaida, Samir Khan, was killed with al-Awlaki.

The standard for assassination gets lower, looser and more diffuse. What is the official line right now on how an American gets themselves into a zone where due process can be ignored? Apparently it can happen if (a) you make yourself a foreign soldier- that's one way. Now apparently it can also happen if you associate or are in proximity to someone they want to kill.

If you assume very high competence and exemplary ethics on the part of the so-called "elite" special forces who do it, and there actually is a coherent story about why they are assassinating the person in (a), it's one thing. I have objections to that in the first place. But two huge problems are accidents and deliberate abuse of authority. If I don't know what the rates/ratios are like and don't have evidence, it's because state secrets and classification are used to keep from the public the information we should be entitled to use to decide whether the tradeoffs are worth it.

So in the voice of a calm centrist practicing Occam's Razor, what is the new colloquial rule of thumb that separates Samir Khan from you and me? Don't go overseas at all? Don't travel to countries where terrorists have come from? If you hear on CNN that the U.S. is trying to kill someone and you see them coming, run away? What if you work for an NGO? What if you're a journalist?

As I have said before, I am worried about the conflation of new slivers of people who are angry over the economy and austerity, into the umbrella of terrorists. If a government feels under stress, if governments are out of money, if we have austerity, no jobs and blackmailing radicals in the House, I think this also puts a stress on the ethical standards and quality standards that a centrist is taking for granted in assuming that it can't happen here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Twitter and the Arab Spring, Twitter and London

This Idealab story reports on a new study that said that Twitter played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. Well duh. It isn't the whole story, in my opinion, and I wrote a comment:

It's interesting to know about tweets that went out, but I'm curious about prior restraint and times when tweets do *not* go out. What happened with London? According to the Telegraph via Lauren Dugan's article on Mediabistro, Cameron said, "everyone watching these horrific actions will be [struck] by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."

Suppose for a minute that I and most everyone I know approves of fighting dictatorships, disapproves of censoring the people who fight dictatorships, disapproves of rioting and looting and would maybe condone prior restraint over tweets that facilitate it. What I'd be interested in reading about is how Twitter behaves with ethically ambiguous middle cases. This is a good article and I like reading about how tech and politics and muck *intersect*. However, it irritates me that there is very little analytical coverage anywhere of Twitter as an editorial entity in its own right. They're in the world. Generally a news story that mentions Twitter takes Twitter as a given and the news is that person X tweeted Y.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TPM thread on Awlaki

A couple of weeks ago, Donald Smith posted a comment on TPM that alluded to Awlaki. I replied to him, but then left the post, got distracted (easy to do with the constant churn of new TPM stories) and never checked back with that thread. NCSteve 3.0 replied to me. I can't say I'm crazy about how quickly he takes a rude tone, but I'm interested in what he was saying about why killing Awlaki is perfectly fine. These are some excerpts from the thread, and then I remark on it after that.

Donald Smith said: At some point, we liberals have a right to expect that those we elect will not simply worry about the next election. I did not vote for Obama so that he could allow the CIA to put out a wanted dead or alive warrant on the head of an American citizen who has never been arrested, let alone tried or convicted. If Obama can order the assassination of an American abroad without a court order AND legislative backing.... who the hell cares anymore? Extra-judicial assassination = worse than waterboarding.

I said: I am mostly with you except for "who the hell cares anymore?" Awlaki bothers me a lot too. But I think the point of continuing to push is that the degree to which there are many more Awlakis ahead - with ever more arbitrary rationales for killing - depends on the outcry from Bill of Rights people, Glenn Greenwald, Amy Goodman, legal groups like ACLU, EFF, CCR who bring suits. Otherwise the CIA et al., will say "It's the new bipartisan consensus! Nobody objects, so killing Awlaki is the new center!" and keep on doing it.

NCSteve 3.0 said: I'm sorry, but I simply do not get the all the hand-wringing and sobbing and slippery slope-mongering you guys do over a guy who's left the country, joined an enemy terrorist organization with which we are actually at war, who has actively recruited and encouraged people who have actually killed and maimed Americans and others and, at least according to the intelligence, has now moved into operational planning rather than just recruiting, exhorting others to kill us and inciting future mass-murderers.

There's simply nothing "arbitrary" about putting Awalki on the list of enemy leaders on foreign soil, beyond both the legal and practical limits of civilian criminal jurisdiction jurisdiction, that the spooks are allowed to take a shot at if they get a chance. Nor are the reasons for doing so ambiguous or morally or constitutionally suspect.

Awalki joined a foreign enemy of the United States. A real foreign enemy, not some contrived propaganda figment of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove's imaginations. An actual avowed enemy of the United States that has the blood of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of others on its hands. An enemy that has unrelentingly demonstrated utter moral depravity, one that regularly recruits children to act as suicide bombers and then sends more suicide bombers in to the funerals of the victims.

If Awlaki wants to be treated like a civilian and subjected to civil criminal jurisdiction, he can reach out to the nearest embassy--through al Jazeera or some other media intermediary if he's afraid of being disappeared--and the DoJ would gladly negotiate a surrender deal with him in a heartbeat. But if he wants to play with swords, he doesn't get to use his citizenship as a shield.

So yeah, sorry, but I just don't get how I'm supposed to object to killing an enemy on foreign soil who is actively participating in making war upon us just because he's an American citizen out of fear that . . . what, it'll be construed as a precedent for killing someone in Peoria some time in the future? If this was FDR ordering the OSS to kill a German-American who'd heeded the fuhrer's call to return to the Fatherland, joined the SS and then was posted to the German embassy in Argentina in 1943 where he was recruiting others to commit acts of sabotage inside the U.S., would you be horrified at the violation of the Nazi cocksucker's Constitutional rights? Because, to me at least, that's just what this is.

There is more from Donald after that but I'm not going to quote it here. It's available downthread on the original story.

I definitely am using the slippery-slope argument, but the fact that it *starts* with someone who may inherently be a militant isn't relevant. I'm not worried about where the slippery-slope argument begins, I'm worried about where it *goes*. I am willing to consider Awlaki as someone who is inherently a militant, like the example of the German agent from the Supreme Court case Ex Parte Quirin. I suspect that law enforcement/military/intelligence thinks in terms of trial balloons. Crossing the line of killing a U.S. citizen may not be wrong, but it's still a threshhold. I propose that because Steve approves, that is an incremental piece of a big political back-and-forth that determines what they can do, and what they can do will influence what they will do. It's like elections, only based on outcry rather than voting. If they can get to a certain place without catching a lot of shit for it, or hurting anyone's reelection chances, I suspect they will try the next increment when it falls inside of their goals. That's my "slippery slope-mongering." My impression of law enforcement/military/intelligence is that they view permissions and prohibitions as having more or fewer tools. I believe Holder has talked about "give us tools so we can do our jobs."

(I'm mixing agencies, but really, I don't have a lot of faith in the walls of separation between military/police/domestic intelligence/overseas intelligence/DHS. There is lots of evidence that the police are increasingly militarizing, and we have the Pentagon blurring the lines with its own DIA, etc.)

I suspect that getting away with something works as a trial balloon. The outcry or lack of outcry towards Awlaki will influence that. It's what they can get away with without a political cost. If it works and it makes their life easier, preemptive killing is a tool. I think they would respond to counterproductiveness, like blowback, but sometimes maybe not even that.

The point of this blog is documenting evidence. So in addition to false positive stories I should also make a note of examples of the slippery slope or lack thereof. Just because Steve says it isn't a millieu worth worrying about doesn't mean it isn't. I don't know. Even if I do find examples, someone can always undercut your sources, say they're biased, etc. I do have a problem with the "size of the entire pie." If I find ten anecdotes about false positives, I don't know how I would figure out the denominator of the fraction. If I find ten instances of an actual slippery slope, same problem. Anyway, I want to back up or refute my own preconceptions, so when I find something I will probably still document it on here.

As for Awlaki in particular, he can be inherently a militant and my anxieties about it still hold. Like the German agent. But the authorities should go public with the standard. Go out in the open and state what kinds of ancillary damage is considered worth it. If it includes the guy in Peoria, say so. If it doesn't, say so. Ridicule creates impunity to actually hurt false positives, sort of like the language from the early '00s around "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." The imperative nature of the war is all well and good, but what about the actual innocent people that civil libertarians are protecting by trying to split hairs? If you think the ends justify the means, say so. I don't accept that the answer to "Where is the oversight? How do we know they're wielding power honestly and competently?" rests on superstition and patriotic spectacle like saying "valiant" and "heroic" and then holding up soldiers as special, above reproach or drilling down for specific information about what their accidents and their overreach are like.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Flying While Brown

This blog post by Shoshana Hebshi tells the story of an infuriating, astonishing incident on Sunday. Thank you to Allan for pointing it out to me via the MSNBC coverage.

The crew of a Frontier Airlines flight on Sunday was "seeing ghosts" because of the anniversary of 9/11 and called out what they considered suspicious behavior.

Via the AP: The crew reported that two people were spending 'an extraordinarily long time' in a bathroom," Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said. ... Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," [FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra] Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not." What are the limits to this contention? What are the protections against overreach or disingenuous misuse of power?

NORAD scrambles two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it lands safely in Detroit. Leaving that weird occurrence aside, once the plane lands, they are stuck waiting on the tarmac. "Before I knew it," Hebshi writes, "about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations."

These quasi-militarized cops handcuff and detain Hebshi and two Indian men who were in her row, and they're none too nice about it, grabbing her arm "a little harder than I would have liked."

She's arrested. She's held in a stark and accusatory setting. She is strip searched albeit by a female officer. At this point the chronology of jaw-dropping events levels off a bit. When she gets mad and insists that of course she speaks English, she's a U.S. citizen, the officer does not escalate or blow up. Then she is released. I'm not concentrating on the two men basically because she wrote an articulate first-person account but their experience is important too. Hebshi concludes with remarkable poise and magnanimity.

I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress. I admit to have fallen to the traps of convention and have made judgments about people that are unfounded. We live in a complicated world that, to me, seems to have reached a breaking point. The real test will be if we decide to break free from our fears and hatred and truly try to be good people who practice compassion–even toward those who hate.

The One Percent Doctrine

I am horrified by this story. And I can see how conservatives and centrists will hop the lilypads to say that the authorities were just doing their jobs, erring on the side of caution to try to prevent even a single black swan event with disproportionate killing power. The U.S. has not stopped persecuting people who look like they might be Middle Eastern or Muslim because apparently in the short term and in the moment, law enforcement considers it plausible that terrorists tend to correlate with a crude racial profile and do not want to risk being wrong.

I have objections to this contention. Start with the well-meaning protector. It is a horrible, horrible job, to be the person whose job it is to try to determine who can be sacrificed for a greater good. And the people who happen to bring up Shirley Jackson's black dot may have something to say about it. Like "Hell no," for instance?

I want to say it's illegal but I don't know the facts. I assume we will be hearing a lot more about the experiences of Hebshi and the two men. It may well be that it is illegal and the FBI did it anyway and are prepared to deal with the after-the-fact consequences of suits and settlements. Democracy Now reported in January 2009: "JetBlue Airways and two Transportation Security Authority officials have paid out $240,000 to the Iraqi-born blogger Raed Jarrar, who sued after he was stopped from boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK Airport because he was wearing a t-shirt that said 'We will not be silent' in both Arabic and English."

I also have an objection on the basis of ineffectiveness. It is so utterly narrow. What happens as the terrorist profile changes? Will we drop racial profiling? Will we continue profiling brown and Middle Eastern people even if evidence comes in that the correlation no longer holds? (I doubt that law enforcement will want to relinquish the "new tool" of being given the nod to profile.) Or will we profile a wider and wider dragnet?

A Swiss Cheese of Exception Zones

I'm concerned about the use of 9/11 to set up a special zone. I've written this in a post about airports. Major airports are a small police state with boundaries in space. Major anniversaries of 9/11 ending in zero are a small police state with boundaries in time. I do not see any limits coming from Holder, Petraeus or whoever else, that the exception-making will not roll on wider and wider. It can happen in the aftermath of an attack but doesn't have to only happen there. If all of the state's opinion-influencing tools are unleashed - like Powell at the U.N. and Cheney on the Sunday shows - on bringing cruise liners or strong-encrypted IRC channels or public libraries under a microscope of attention and on serving notice that it's going to be a new exception zone and the loss of rights is going to be the rule and not the exception in that zone, they would probably get their way. And when you do that enough times, eventually there is more exceptional space than regular space.

Where are the bright red lines between Shoshana Hebshi and Anwar al-Awlaki?

As Shoshana Hebshi is sitting astonished in her cell, she is thinking "about Abu Ghraib and the horror to which those prisoners were exposed." The bizarre horrors of rendition, black sites, Abu Ghraib, targeted killings and Guantanamo are just echoes as she tells her story, but they are not far away. It seems to me there are things we have not done to U.S. citizens within the U.S. yet but we have already declared the entire world to be the battlefield. Bush, Cheney and Yoo set it into motion and Obama continued it and gave it bipartisan consensus.

Kings and dictators assert power over the life and death of every citizen, and we haven't done that yet. But the erosion continues when we (a) deem certain U.S. citizens preemptively killable so long as they fall into certain niches, like being overtly militant and espousing violence against the U.S. and (b) lower the criteria for the mistreatment of U.S. citizens inside of the U.S. as long as they fall into certain niches, like flying while brown while it's 9/11.

I suppose the next notch on the slippery slope will be the targeted killing of an Al-Qaeda militant who was someone they considered killable anyhow, and the U.S. is where he happened to be when they got their chance. Perhaps we are going to hear a lot more about the Supreme Court case Ex parte Quirin, which upheld the idea that German saboteurs "behind enemy lines" in the U.S. were subject to military jurisdiction rather than U.S. constitutional. I'm a little over my head in talking about this interesting case but I can maybe see the argument for killing someone who is incontrovertibly a combatant. Maybe not. I don't know the Constitutional arguments. However, the problem for me is that past assertions of who's a militant have been full of holes. According to Glenn Greenwald, "72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process ... have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained. These are people who are part of what the U.S. Government continues to insist are "the worst of the worst." Three quarters of all Guantanamo detainees are false positives!

If the security services who prevent attacks - DHS, FBI and others - were to assert that rather than merely profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, let go, and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, or even profile certain passengers, arrest, detain, question, hold forever and chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, now we're going to profile certain passengers, skip the arrest and preemptively kill them and then chalk it up to erring on the side of caution, who could stop them?

If this is far-fetched, why is it far-fetched, in light of the bizarre, radical and very fast changes in the new center and the new normal over the last ten years?

Friday, September 9, 2011

False positive killings by JSOC

In his interview with Dana Priest on his Russia Today program, Thom Hartmann asks if she thinks JSOC has been a net positive or a net negative.

"You know, it depends on your definition," Priest answers. "They've been an effective killing force. That's what they do. In the process, they have killed civilians. Accidentally, they would say. But, they will continue to do those, because civilians are mixed in with people that are terrorists. So, what does that create? You know, even the leader of JSOC, General McChrystal at one point, he told me in an interview for the book that often their actions were counterproductive. Because if they killed innocent people, if they bombed the wrong house - and the rate of success was only 50% because intelligence is so hard to be accurate with - you would create hostilities on the ground that the conventional army, ill-equipped to deal with that kind of blowback, would have to handle. And they weren't good at handling it."

Edit: Real News link no longer works

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Innocence Matters

From the web page of legal defense nonprofit Innocence Matters:

"John was 18 years old when he was arrested for a murder he did not commit. The truth has been locked away with John [Smith] in his prison cell for 17 years. In July, John effortlessly passed a polygraph performed by a retired career law-enforcement officer. Soon after, the sole eyewitness was interviewed and immediately explained that he was pressured by the police to implicate John." ... "A right-handed black man [Karreem Jones] with a medium complexion was convicted of a robbery committed by a left-handed man with a dark complexion. Another case of close enough in Georgia?" ... "We are proud and honored to have had the opportunity to assist on the Troy Davis case - an innocent man on Georgia's death row."

Jessica Farris says:
"It makes you think about ... how many false witness identifications there are." ...

"Your heart just gets broken over and over again that one wrong turn, one alibi that is just not strong enough or one being where you're not supposed to be or being involved in things you're not supposed to be involved in, and his entire life has shifted in a horrible way."

Breaking eggs round the world / the spooky mode

Something I know nothing about and do not yet have a cache of evidence on, is the activities of other countries' famous intelligence services such as Mossad, MI5, Savak.

I do not intend to approach intelligence from inside the usual fog of spookyness. I have been there. Probably like a lot of people, I fell into the orbit of the Prevailing Winds catalog, or Dave Emory's programs, in the 80s and 90s. I went to see Barbara Honegger, Philip Agee, John Stockwell, Daniel Sheehan on campus. I read Brought to Light and I think it's a terrific, innovative piece of documentary comics, plus I love almost everything that Alan Moore does, but it is drumming on the heartstrings, trying to be scary with swimming pools full of blood. (The La Penca story is stylistically more plain, so kudos to that.) I think what the spooky mode does for kids is makes them feel like diggers digging. Reading about the Kennedy assassination is like reading Narnia or Lord of the Rings. It takes you out of your humdrum existence. Also, when you're reading a book or watching a documentary containing an alphabet soup of programs, dollar amounts, acronyms, people, it presses a button with a nerdy boy aesthetic that likes to fantasize about being drenched in complexity.

But I would like to graduate to a more methodical approach that has some real goals beyond perpetuating the spooky. I haven't read Richard Hofstadter but I guess what I am calling 'the spooky mode' is also something like what Hofstadter called 'the paranoid style in American politics.'

What I would be interested in keeping an eye out for is the way in which intelligence services of various countries, who sometimes draw upon plausible deniability and use it as cover to break their domestic laws and treaties for their 'vital security interests,' approach false positives. Of course with rendition and secret prisons, the story I am already tracking is an international story. But what about intra-Israel, intra-Russia, intra-Iran? What has the outcry been like when a country's version of the CIA kills a citizen of that country? And has there ever been an overt codifying of acceptable downsides? I guess I am interested in this as a pattern to look out for in the future, so that you might be able to say, this is how governments usually approach unintended casualties. This is the furthest that a body of ordinary people has ever gotten in trying to call them on that and get them to admit it. If any conclusions can be drawn about the bottlenecks and why it failed, it puts you in a better position for next time.

At the back of my mind I have the possibility of dismantling or unraveling a "What's the Matter with Kansas?" style discrepancy, where a citizen might actually be shooting themself in the foot by supporting policies that lead to impunity that lead to bystander deaths of people just like THEM. But they don't know they're shooting themselves in the foot. If this model were the case, what could be done? The thing that would be a positive reform, I think, would be regular and public disclosure of collateral damage costs in intelligence/security/war operations. Of course, that's one of the outcomes of intelligence services utilizing secrecy. They don't have to admit when they kill a bystander. They might get an outcry from the bystanders' families, but because of secrecy, they don't.