This book is written by one of the best investigative journalists working today, Jeremy Scahill. Scahill proves that investigative journalism is the only kind worth doing. He covered the rise of the mercenaries in Blackwater and the privatization of war in an earlier book. This book fits into that one, covering Afghanistan and Iraq but widening the focus to Yemen and Somalia. Blackwater, after all, was another off-the-books covert operation working hand in hand with the CIA and others. He did much of the research in person, visiting all these countries. The focus in this book is on the rise of the secretive JSOC – “Joint Special Operations Command” – variously described as a ‘death star,’ ‘Murder Inc.,’ a ‘global death squad’ – in effect secretive U.S. military assassination and kidnapping teams. It is the revival of the Phoenix program from the Vietnam war and the Contra, Salvadorean and Guatemalan death squads of Central America, but blown up to a global dimension, run directly by the American President as his own Praetorian Guard. No need to hide behind surrogates anymore.
Weaving in and out of the narrative is the personal and political story of American Anwar Awlaki, who was assassinated by an Obama drone in Yemen after being radicalized by the American wars in the Middle East. His 16-year old American-born son met the same fate 20 days later. It goes into detail on familiar military ‘heroes’ like John Brennan, Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, and relatively unknown ones like Admiral William McRaven, who served both Bush and Obama in both overt and covert ways, all up to their eyeballs in the dirty war.
THE NEVER-ENDING ‘WAR’ ON TERROR
There is no doubt from this book that there is almost perfect continuity between Bush and Obama in their application of ‘dirty war’ anti-terrorism methods. In Scahill’s careful recounting, JSOC was created by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld after 9/11 – and it is now their continuing gift to the Obama administration. The sub-head of the book – ‘the world is a battlefield’ – hints at how the ‘war’ pursued by the U.S. has now morphed into a borderless, timeless, unsupervised and lawless rampage across the planet. Many witnesses testify that Obama has actually gone beyond some methods used by Bush. However, for Democratic Party tribal partisans, as long as the label is ‘Democrat,’ the practice is good. They really are a mirror reflection of the Republican tribalists.
Another term this book fleshes out is ‘blowback’ – something we have run into before, but now applied to Somalia and Yemen. Without the U.S. support for, first the criminal warlords of Somalia, then the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia, then the inept Somalia government propped up by African ‘peacekeepers’ – there would be no strong “El Shabab” in Somalia, allied with Al Qaeda (“AQ”). In Yemen, the U.S. has backed a wily dictator, President Ali Saleh, for many years, who lies and covers for the U.S. in order to gain funding and military aid. After the Arab ‘spring” launched protests in Yemen against Saleh, weapons given to his government by the U.S. were used against protesters. In exchange he has allowed U.S. cruise missiles, drones and ‘boots on the ground’ carte blanche, killing innocents and AQ at will. This has lead to alliances between AQ and various large Yemeni tribes. When the jihadis can dress their reactionary religion in nationalist cover, they can attract masses to their side, and this is what has happened in both Somalia and Yemen. Not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scahill covers a JSOC war crime in Yemen, the bombing of the village of al Majalah by cruise missiles, which killed 41 people, only 5 of which were AQ, 14 women and 21 children. Another group of pro-government Yemeni officials going to negotiate with AQ were blown up in their jeeps by JSOC, due to ‘bad’ intel. He also covers another war crime in Afghanistan, a raid on a house having a party in the town of Gardez, also done by JSOC, which killed 5 people, including 3 women, some pregnant. These people were supporters of the Afghan government. The gruesome fact that emerged from this action was that the special ops shooters dug their bullets out of the women’s bodies with knives. Either by being fed fake intelligence or bad intelligence, these ‘surgical’ strikes are anything but. ‘Surgical strikes’ are another myth. In Yemen, of 250 killed by JSOC strikes, only 40 are AQ, according to Yemeni sources. A heroic Yemeni journalist, Abdullah Shaye, covered these stories, and was ordered arrested and incarcerated by the U.S. The Yemeni government obliged. Shaye is still in jail.
You have to wonder, as many have, why a tiny group like Al Qaeda has become the be-all and end-all of foreign policy – unless there is an ulterior motive. Which of course there is.
Scahill shows how the government, the military and their stenographers in the media will outright lie, distort or fabricate stories that justify whatever they are doing - on a regular basis. Any of us who protested the Vietnam war know this already, but for a younger generation being lied to constantly is a newish treat. There are no verifiable facts – just the admonition to ‘trust us.’ John Brennan’s preposterous story about the raid on Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad was a great example, alleging bin Laden was armed and hid behind a woman as a shield. Or the quickly-undermined government story that the attack in Bengazi was due to a protest over a film. Witness the present absence of facts related to the proposed bombing of Syria. As John Kerry has morphed from a winter soldier to a summer war-monger and Barack Obama has morphed from a constitutional lawyer and ‘community activist’ to someone who ignores the poor and rides roughshod over the Constitution – so too this is the story of former progressives who drink the cool-aid, and promote the Bushite military reactionaries like Petraeus and McChrystal. Just as a good chunk of the Bush economic team was absorbed into the Obama administration. Scahill recounts the story of one liberal ‘lawyer,’a former civil libertarian, who read a concoction of straight-out lies about Awlaki and decided Awlaki deserved to die. No checking at all. Drink up, everyone.
Scahill has a section on Raymond Davis, former Green Beret, working under a CIA cover, who Scahill and others have identified as probably a U.S. JSOC asset. He shot two Pakistani ISI agents in the back in Pakistan, then was released after the payment of ‘blood money.’ Revealingly, Sharia law allows money to be paid as penance instead of any punishment, a practice called ‘diyyat’. As Scahill says, ‘this diyyat provision is much loved by the rich and powerful in Muslim societies where it is in force; it literally allows them to get away with murder.’ In this case, Davis was removed from a Pakistani jail after relatives were forced to agree to a diyyat payment.
Petraeus and McChrystal fell, not because of their support of torture, massive collateral damage to civilians, illegal detentions or unconstitutionally killing of Americans – but because one was bad-mouthing his boss and got caught by Rolling Stone – and the other was found with his pants down. This is the pathetic state of American politics.
And perhaps the American people.
THE DEATH SQUAD
At the center of this story is JSOC, which under Obama has become the leading edge of our counter-terrorism and war policies. When Obama says there are no ‘boots on the ground’ he’s lying, because special ops forces drop into many countries in the world, uninvited and unknown. Scahill and later Wikileaks proved this in the instance of Pakistan, where the U.S. government denied having ‘boots on the ground.’ It was revealed that special forces and Blackwater were carrying out raids with the Pakistani military. Scahill published his story in the ‘Nation’ after he was threatened by the U.S. military. They told him he would be ‘on thin ice’ if he wrote the story. Remember, the whole world is a battlefield. Who are they kidding?
Some of JSOCs intelligence for ‘kill’ lists is based on weak or second-hand reports, not even verified by their own intelligence organization, just that of Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni or Somali sources that might have their own axe to grind. As one military person put it, to get on the list you only need ‘hearsay.’ And after you’ve killed the top people on the kill list, then they add more, so the list always grows. That is the nature of the beast, which leads to mid-level, low-level and ‘associated’ persons suddenly becoming targets of liquidation. Any military-age male, in fact. After all, you can’t declare success and go home. JSOC has their own ‘intelligence assets’ and also secret detention facilities that are off-limits to almost everyone, including the Red Cross and Congress. One, the “Hole” in Mogadishu; one at Balad air-force base in Afghanistan and the most notorious, Camp NAMA, formerly in Iraq. In these sites they practiced and still practice illegal torture. JSOC is directly controlled through the Pentagon by the President, so it serves as his own private military arm. Congress is kept in the dark about its operations, so it has no civilian oversight except one person, who doesn't seem to be doing a good job of it.
The real conundrum for JSOC will be how they operate in Syria. U.S. special forces are on the ground there, aiding the “Free Syrian Army,” yet many of the fighters against Assad are now al Qaeda Sunni jihadis, many backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, interested in killing Shiites. Does JSOC go in and kill them or … wait until Assad is overthrown? They are actually thinking the bombing of Syria will be directed at them as well. How about Libya, where the same thing happened – where our great allies in the fight against Gaddafi were jihadis. JSOC won’t know who to kill, or when. All that results is not ‘freedom’ but chaos and shattered states. Another 1,500 civilians will die just in a U.S. bombing campaign. It is like trying to kill cancer with a baseball bat.
Drone strikes, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the ‘state secrets’ privilege, assassination at will, accusations of ‘terrorism,’ almost unlimited and secret detentions, lack of oversight, the fake category of ‘unlawful combatant,’ and the killing of U.S. citizens without due process have now been institutionalized by both corporate Parties and the U.S. state and ‘legal’ system. These accompany the Snowden revelations that the U.S. NSA is engaged in total surveillance of the internet, with the close collaboration of major technology corporations. Without sharp opposition to these policies, some of these methods will be and are being used within the U.S., not just against alleged foreign ‘terrorists,’ but against people in the U.S.
At this point, the CIA and JSOC fiercely compete over who can kill the most. CIA controls the drone program while JSOC has their own Seals, Rangers & Green Berets, along with Tomahawks, to do their killing. The CIA has even weakened its own intelligence-gathering facilities in order to focus on military action. After reading this book, you begin to realize, as reactionary and bloody-minded as AQ is, their greatest recruiting agents are the invasions, drones, bases, ‘boots’ and bombs of the U.S. colossus.
(Other books reviewed on this topic, below: “Islamophobia” and “The Terror Factory.")
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
September 7, 2013