The State Department hasn't yet commented on the video – and it's possible that the conversation was faked. However, the White House is blaming the Russians for the leak, which probably tells you that it's the real deal. If not, it's an amazing piece of mimicry of how senior US diplomats speak in private.
(Update: State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki called the leak "a new low in Russian tradecraft" on Thursday afternoon and said "I didn't say it was inauthentic" when asked to confirm if the tape was legitimate. A "new low?" From a Russian perspective, assuming they did it, it was brilliant. And it didn't require assassinating a former spy in a foreign capital with a radioactive isotope.)
In an interview with the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper out today Sergei Glazyev, the Kremlin's top advisor on Ukraine, said President Viktor Yanukovych should use force against the "putschists" and lashed out at the US. He charged that the West was "blackmailing" pro-Russian businessmen and that the US was spending $20 million a week to help "rebels" overthrow a Russian ally. He hinted that Russia might intervene militarily to help the Ukrainian president.
So what we have is an ongoing propaganda war and in the midst of it the apparent leak of Nuland's call – a leak that is highly useful from Russia's perspective. The tape is not a complete conversation and could have been easily edited to make it appear the participants were saying things they weren't saying. It also raises a few interesting questions.
1. The "F-word"
Let's dispense with this one first. Ms. Nuland's use of the "F-word" is going to dominate headlines and keep the kids giggling on Twitter. On the tape, a voice that appears to be Nuland says "F--- the EU" after Pyatt refers to the UN sending an envoy to cement an agreement. Pyatt responds "exactly."
Not knowing the context of their past conversations and email discussions, it's hard to pin down their exact frustration. Remember, this is a piece of tape edited to serve the agenda of whoever released it, and it clearly doesn't start at the beginning (Nuland's first words on the clip are "Whaddya think?")
But her choice of word in a private conversation is irrelevant – and doesn't imply any overarching contempt for the EU that some have claimed. This may come as a shock but senior diplomats are often hard-charging and temperamental. She could have said "I don't care what the EU is doing - we're moving forward with our plans," and it would have meant the same thing.
2. How did this happen?
Well, Pyatt or Nuland or both got hacked. How and by whom? Hard to say. The obvious suspects in terms of motivation and ability would be the Russian or Ukrainian governments. What we don't know is whether the two were talking on a secure line, as they're generally supposed to, and that was compromised, or if they were using an unencrypted cell phone.
The tape appears to have first aired on YouTube on Feb. 4 and was uploaded by an anonymous account that's been on the site for about a month. The account's first upload, "The Truth About Kiltschko," is an attack on the opposition leader.
The Kyiv Post was among the first news outlets to notice the tape. It provides the Ukrainian backdrop to the American conversation. "The leaked phone call appears to have been made following President Viktor Yanukovych’s Jan. 25 offer to opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk to be prime minister and Klitschko to be deputy prime minister, offers both men refused. Mykola Azarov resigned as prime minister on Jan. 28."
It's quite likely that whoever hacked into the conversation was camping out on a phone number known to be used by either or both of the diplomats. Harvesting phone numbers of senior officials is a common task for spy agencies, including Russia's.
The fact that the leak was aired on YouTube implies that the US diplomats were probably using an unsecured line. If Russia or another intelligence agency had compromised the secure system at the embassy, for instance, they wouldn't want to announce that fact.
Whoever did it, the clear intent is to embarrass the US and Ukrainian opposition leaders it supports, as well as to try to drive a wedge between the US and EU. The chances that this was not edited for this political purpose are very low.
3. What of the substance?
Most interesting to me is the way Nuland speaks about the situation, particularly about Klitschko, a former champion boxer who's emerged as a key opposition leader who supports Ukrainian integration with the EU and is against the current government's alliance with Russia. "I don't think Klitsch should go into the government," she says. "I don't think it's a good idea."
Her strong statement of preference for how Ukraine's government should be formed – and apparent confidence that the US has major influence over that – is a reminder of the disconnect between US government assurances that it doesn't meddle in nations' internal politics and its actual behavior (White House spokesman Jay Carney repeats this canard in his comment on the tape.) This was not a conversation analyzing unfolding events and how to respond to what comes next. This was about molding a situation according to US interests.
Transcript of the tape posted on YouTube, followed by the clip itself.
Nuland: Whaddya think?
Pyatt: I think we're in play the Klitschko piece is obviously the complicated electron here. Especially the announcement of him as deputy prime minister and you've seen my notes on the trouble in the marriage right now so we're trying to get a read really fast where he is on this stuff. But I think your argument to him which you'll need to make, I think that's the next phone call you want to set up is exactly the one you made to (nickname for Yatseniuk). And I'm glad you sort of put him on the spot on where he fits in this scenario. And I'm very glad that he said what he said in response.
Nuland: Good. I don't think Klitsch should go into the government. I don't think it's a good idea.
Pyatt: Yeah. I guess... in terms of him not going into the government let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff i"m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tiahnybok and his guys and I'm sure that's part of what Yanukovych is calculating on all this.
Nuland: (Breaks in) I think Yats is the guy that who's got the economic experience the governing experience he's the... what he needs is Klitsch and Tiahnybok (Oleh, leader of a nationalist party who has been pushing confrontation with the Ukrainian government) on the outside he needs to be talking to them four times a week you know. I just think Klitch going in he's going to be at that level working for Yatsinyuk it's just not going to work.
Pyatt: Yeah, no, I think that's right. Ok. Good. Do you want us to set up a call with him as the next step?
Nuland: My understanding from that call that you tell me was that the big three were going into their own meeting and that Yats was going to offer in that context a... three plus one conversation or three plus two with you. Is that not how you understood it?
Pyatt: No. I mean I think that's what he proposed but I think just knowing the dynamic that's been with them where Klitschko has been the top dog, he's going to take a while to shop up for whatever meetings they've got and he's probably talking to his guys at this point so I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn't like it.
Nuland: Ok, good. I'm happy. why don't you reach out to him and see if he wants to talk before or after.
Pyatt: Ok, will do. Thanks.
Nuland: Ok... one more wrinkle for you Jeff. I can't remember if I told you this or if I only told Washington this that when I talked to Jeff Feltman this morning he had a new name for the UN guy Robert Serry did I write you that this morning?
Pyatt: Yeah I saw that.
Nuland: Ok. He's now gotten both Serry and Ban ki-Moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. That would be great I think to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, F--- the EU.
Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude that the Russians will working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it. And again the fact that this is out there right now, I'm still trying to figure out in my mind why Yanukovych (garbled) that. In the meantime there's a Party of Regions faction meeting going on right now and I'm sure there's a lively argument going on in that group at this point. But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast. So let me work on Klitschko and if you can just keep... we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.
Nuland: So on that piece Jeff when I wrote the note Sullivan's come back to me VFR saying you need Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta boy and to get the deets (details) to stick. So Biden's willing.
Pyatt: Ok. Great. Thanks.
The plight of journalists and activists in Egypt today - including the Al Jazeera reporters currently in detention on trumped up claims of abetting terrorism and "spreading false news" - is no laughing matter.
But it's hard not to laugh at a videotape of the arrest and interrogation of Australian Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy that was released on Egypt's Tahrir TV on Sunday night. At least before you cry.
The footage provided to the television station by one of the state security agents involved was filmed at the Cairo hotel where many of Al Jazeera's reporters work, hence the government's reference to their operation as the "Marriott terror cell." As befits this grandiose slander to refer to a bunch of reporters just doing their jobs, Tahrir TV overlaid the cartoonishly ominous and bombastic soundtrack from the movie "Thor: The Dark World," which is about a Norse god trying to save the world from evil elves.
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As cymbals crash and strings provide a thrumming background of anxiety, the camera pans over the reporters' tools of terror: Laptops, a camera, walkie talkies, a coffee table book with pictures from Egypt's 2011 uprising, and (eek!) a tangle of ethernet cable.
The almost 22-minute clip (included below) also includes the informal interrogation conducted on site of Mr. Fahmy and Mr. Greste before it shows them being loaded into a security van and carted away.
The government's release of the clip justifiably infuriated Al Jazeera (and employees of many other news organizations working in Egypt). The network said in a statement "the leak and dramatisation of the footage betrays an attempt to demonize the journalists, and is the latest incident of incitement against the network."
"If this video was deliberately leaked, it violates basic standards of justice. If it came out by mistake, the professionalism of the prosecution process is called into question," Salah Negm, director of news for Al Jazeera English, said in the statement. "The video ridiculously sets images of our crew’s laptops, cameras and mobile phones against dramatic music. People who look beyond the propaganda though will see the video shows what we have been saying all along – that our crew were journalists doing their job."
I don't know Fahmy, but I have many friends and acquaintances who do, and describe him as professional, hardworking, and passionate. I spent a delightful evening with Greste years ago, when he he told me the story of an orphaned baby hippo and a giant land tortoise that became inseparable after his wife helped rescue in Kenya after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (Greste and his wife later collaborated on children's book about the pair).
That they - and many others - are rotting in an Egyptian jail on trumped up charges is sickening, and a worrying sign for Egyptian journalists and activists, who are more vulnerable than those who hold foreign passports. And the guilt by association approach of the Egyptian authorities is reaching new heights.
Dutch reporter Rena Netjes was able to leave Egypt today with the assistance of her embassy ahead of charges that she too has something to do with terrorists. On Twitter, Ms. Netjes wrote that the government was targeting her because she met with Fahmy at the Marriot on Dec. 14 to ask him about the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula.
Another measure of how dark Egypt's so-called revolution has turned is Tahrir TV itself. It was founded just days before Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in Feb. 2011 as a test of the promise of the Egyptian uprising - that Egypt was becoming a freer and more open society. One of the founders was crusading journalist Ibrahim Eissa, who was targeted for prosecution by the authorities on multiple occasions during Mr. Mubarak's last decade in power.
But by February 2012 Mr. Eissa had cut all ties with the channel - shortly after it was taken over by a politically connected Egyptian businessman. Since then it's become something of a mouthpiece for the Egyptian government - which has been led by the military since the July coup against elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Afghanistan's presidential election campaign – the third running action-packed festival of vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of citizens – began this week with a wide-open field. The only sure thing is that mercurial President Hamid Karzai will be out of power when the dust settles, thanks to a term-limit in the country's constitution.
Karzai's term is ending amid questions about whether the US and NATO will be allowed to keep any forces in the country beyond the end of the year. Karzai has refused to sign an agreement making that possible, saying the decision should be made by his successor.
Meanwhile the Taliban is still potent and the country relies economically on foreign aid and a booming opium industry. After over $100 billion spent on Afghan reconstruction (by comparison, West Germany received about $30 billion in 2013 dollars under the Marshall Plan), there are few signs of an economic boom taking hold.
Here are a few things to consider ahead of the April vote.
1. Are NATO and the US about to lose a 'partner' when Karzai is replaced?
Hamid Karzai was America's choice to lead the country after the invasion that routed the Taliban in 2002. He had a lot to recommend him. He was an ethnic-Pashtun, the community that has formed the backbone of Taliban support and has always been highly suspicious of central government authority. He came from a prominent and respected family that has real tribal and political support – no Ahmad Chalabi he. And he spoke perfect English – not a minor consideration given how dependent Afghanistan was, then as now, on foreign aid and military support.
But in his 11 years in power he's undermined whatever slim hopes there were of building capable government institutions. He used the highly-centralized power given to him by Afghanistan's US-backed constitution to place loyalists and sycophants into prominent government posts around the country, and has presided over a rampantly corrupt state. For over four years he's made it a habit of striking out at the US – recently taking to suggest that his principal sponsor has backed suicide bombings in the country, deliberately undermined peace talks with the Taliban, and is almost entirely to blame for the country's problems.
This is all understandable when viewed from Karzai's perspective. He's an Afghan politician, seeking to secure his position. Attacking the long foreign occupation of the country may prove popular. But even when a loya jirga council of Afghan elders approved a draft security arrangement that would allow US troops to remain in the country beyond the end of this year, Karzai refused to sign. From the perspective of US and NATO interests, Karzai has been a big, erratic failure. His departure from the presidency will be no loss to them.
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2. Is Karzai going to be a power behind the throne?
This is an often-expressed sentiment and it may even be true. Karzai's political allies have made vast fortunes over the past decade, and their money will surely be in play during the April presidential election and beyond. But there are others with money in Afghanistan – and there's no guarantee that people who once could be relied on to do Karzai's bidding won't simply throw themselves in with whoever emerges the victor. The Afghan presidency – not Karzai – holds enormous power to appoint provincial governors and police chiefs on down. Karzai's brother Qayum, who was a restauranteur in the US during the Afghan civil war and the time the Taliban was in power, is in the running. Though he's had a strained relationship with his brother at times, if Qayum wins the presidency Karzai's ongoing influence would seem assured. But if a former warlord like Gul Agha Sherzai wins (hint: his nickname is "the bulldozer") Karzai's influence will probably fade. (The Guardian has short pen portraits on the 7 leading candidates).
3. Will the election be fair?
Finally, an easy one. No. It will not be fair. The 2009 presidential election was marked by rampant fraud, as was the 2010 parliamentary poll that followed. The country's independent election monitoring commission hasn't been allowed to become very independent, or to do much effective monitoring. Though the US has preferred in the past to refer to Afghan elections as "messy" rather than acknowledge they are fraud fests, the reality can't be glossed over. Keep your ear tuned for US officials talking about "acceptable" levels of fraud and claims that the simple act of holding a vote is meaningful. (A US official in Kabul told me in 2010 that the "habit" of voting was an important thing to establish, never mind that the results will be tainted.)
4. What about the Taliban?
Will whoever replaces Karzai be able to reach some kind of agreement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups like that Haqqani network? Go figure. Karzai has been pushing for some kind of a peace deal - suggesting the Taliban are no threat to the rights of women in the country and should be welcomed into the government. Today, his spokesman said Karzai has been in secret talks with the Taliban and that the militants are receptive to a "peace process."
Is a deal really close? Well, peace talks and talk of peace talks have been a feature for about five years, all to no avail. From the Taliban's perspective, it might make sense to see if all foreign troops are going to depart the country or not at the end of the year; their position will probably be stronger if that happens. Whether a future president will be better or worse at working with the group is simply unknowable. Some candidates are staunchly anti-Taliban and others far more accommodating.
Then there's the role of Pakistan. Will it step up its support for the Taliban in the wake of a foreign troop drawdown, or curtail it? One hopeful sign is that whether some troops stay or not, the foreign military role in Afghanistan is going to be sharply reduced. That is going to remove a major complication for peace talks.
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The level of direct coordination between Al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and the group that originally was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq has always been limited - and has appeared pretty much dead since 2006. Though you can still find references to "AQI" in US government literature and press reports, the group has rebranded itself multiple times - first becoming the Mujahidin Shura Council, then charging its name to the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. The group formally merged with jihadis in Syria last year and started calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
Zawahiri issued a letter last night on jihadi forums formally announcing the group he leads has no affiliation with the group (a translation is here). "(Al Qaeda) declares that it has no links to the ISIS group. We were not informed about its creation, nor counseled," the letter reads. "Nor were we satisfied with and we ordered it to stop. ISIS is not a branch of Al Qaeda and we have no organizational relationship with it."
The writing has been on the wall in this regard for some time. The forerunner of ISIS in Iraq resisted control by Al Qaeda as early as 2004, both in carrying out attacks on civilians that Zawahiri deemed counterproductive to his long term goals and in focusing on national and regional concerns, rather than the global ambition to confront the US and Israel.
It turns out that local armies, fighting local wars are more interested in their parochial concerns than Zawahiri's quixotic hope for a global jihad to remake the world order and that their commanders aren't particularly interested in taking their orders from a group based thousands of miles away.
Zawahiri has been trying to assert control over ISIS for over a year, with little success. Why he'd want to is obvious - they're currently a global magnate for Islamist fighters and they're fighting in the heart of the Middle East - rather than stuck on the distant margins of the Islamic world as Al Qaeda central is. But he's been mostly ignored. In 2013 the self-styled emir of ISIS Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi (a nom de guerre) claimed his group had merged with the Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), a Syria-based jihadi militia participating in the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Baghdadi's announcement contributed to rancor between ISIS and JN and other jihadis in Syria, a conflict within a conflict that rages to this day. Foreign fighters who were working with JN flocked to ISIS, while JN remained a more Syria-based organization. Competition for weapons and money led to outright conflict and assassinations between the groups.
This fitnah, or civil strife, was considered a great sin by Zawahiri and he feebly tried to end it. In June of last year he ordered the merger to be undone, rebuked Baghdadi, and told him his group should remain focused and based in Iraq. ISIS simply ignored Zawahiri, who was Al Qaeda's number two under Osama bin Laden and replaced him as boss after the US killed Bin Laden.
The Zawahiri letter that became public today focused on "fitnah" as the reason for his announcement. "We declare ourselves innocent of fitnah in (the Levant) between mujahideen and we declare our innocence of the blood that has been shed," the statement reads. "We call upon everyone to fear God... and to realize the catastrophe that happened to the Jihad in Syria and the future of this Muslim nation due to the fitnah that they are in."
ISIS has appeared more engaged in fighting fellow rebels of late than challenging Assad, and thousands have been killed in internecine rebel violence in the past month.
What does it mean? That depends on how much influence Zawahiri has on funders of the jihad, particularly in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. His comments could see money redirected from ISIS to JN in Syria though ISIS controls many oil fields in Syria now, at least partially self-funding itself.
Charles Lister, a fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, thinks the announcement is important.
Asked if this meant that Al Qaeda no longer has an affiliate in Iraq, Lister wrote: "Essentially yes. Though that has (v) debatably been the case since the ISI’s formation."
This is of interest to me because of the way "Al Qaeda" is carelessly tossed around, in journalism and elsewhere (and, yes, I've been guilty). Just because a group is Sunni, carries out suicide bombings, and expresses an interest in creating an Islamic state they imagined would be governed by principles that prevailed 1,400 years ago, at the time of Islam's founding, doesn't make them "Al Qaeda" if that means "the group that organized the 9/11 attacks on the US."
Recent history has shown that most of the jihadis that emerged in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq had very little interest in pursuing the "far enemy." Kill American troops inside Iraq and advance their domestic agenda? Absolutely. Engage in a far-flung war, striking out at civilians indiscriminately far from home? That has not held much appeal for the Iraqi jihadis, at least on the evidence so far.
Zawahiri has never been able to bring the Iraqi fighters under his thumb. One of the earliest leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq was the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (later killed in a US airstrike) and their tentative alliance came apart in 2005. In a letter to Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri's frustration was palpable.
"If we look at the two short-term goals, which are removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then we will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy – after the help and granting of success by God – is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries," he wrote then, warning of the "scenes of slaughter" of captives and civilians that the Iraqi group was daily carrying out. Zawahiri told Zarqawi that he was alienating the Iraqi people and undermining his cause.
Zarqawi and his followers ignored Zawahiri, increased the tempo of sectarian attacks targeting Shiite civilians, and created the conditions that saw many Sunni Iraqi tribes turn on them violently in 2007.
That history appears to be repeating itself in Syria - though with the added wrinkle of other jihadi groups like JN that may maintain longer term links with the Al Qaeda led by Zawahiri.
The crackdown on basic freedoms in Egypt has expanded to the foreign press, with indications from the military-led government that the vague allegations that have been used to jail opposition supporters and local reporters will be relied on to muzzle foreign reporters.
Last week Egypt said it was moving forward with cases against 20 Al Jazeera journalists, four foreigners among them, on charges of abetting terrorism and "spreading false news." The charges against the reporters prompted queries from the foreign press in Cairo about the risks of being labeled criminals for conducting interviews with the Muslim Brotherhood - recently outlawed as a terrorist group - and otherwise carrying out normal reporting duties. The response was not reassuring.
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Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) sent an explanatory note to the foreign press last week that claimed freedom of expression is guaranteed in Egypt, but the note is littered with caveats and get-out clauses.
It reads, "Egyptian law ensures (press) freedoms completely and does not penalize for thought and opinion unless this thought turns really to a materialistic behavior that the Egyptian Penal code forbids. And this falls within the crimes that threaten the country’s national security and its benefits."
Everything that follows "unless" in that sentence means that press freedoms aren't guaranteed at all.
Some foreign reporters in Cairo say government officials have privately warned them off talking to members of the group, which remains the country's largest political movement, banned or not.
On this the information service wrote:
"The SIS also notifies that Egyptian law does not criminalize mere contact or foreknowledge of any accused criminal or a person imprisoned in a pending case as this is not considered a punishable offense to be penalized except if this contact is a sort of assisting or inciting or as a result of a prior agreement."
The "except" is key, once again creating a caveat big enough to drive a truck through. Almost anything can be considered "inciting" and the current government has frequently used this allegation in its crackdown on dissent. Consider the plight of the Al Jazeera journalists.
The prosecution's case against the Al Jazeera reporters is built around the theory that their reporting on the Brotherhood - Egypt's largest political movement, which had won control of parliament and the presidency in free elections in 2011 and 2012 - amounted to direct material support for "terrorists." Since the coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi last July, the military government led by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repreatedly characterized the movements members as terrorists and had the group outlawed on that basis at the end of December.
The channel had taken rooms in a hotel to work, and the state prosecutors described this operation as the "Marriott terror cell" in a statement last week, saying the network was producing "false news" in support of criminal activity. The claim that they are terrorists has been eagerly picked up in the Egyptian press and on the streets.
The government may be leading the charge against reporters, but the effort for now is a popular one. Minor assaults of reporters, once unthinkable there, have become frequent occurrences when covering protests.
Although Al Jazeera is a particular target for the government since the network is owned by Qatar, a supporter of the Brotherhood, that's no guarantee that spurious charges of "false news" won't be used to target other reporters.
Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights, summarized the situation on Friday:
In recent months, there have been numerous reports of harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists as well as violent attacks, including several that led to injuries to reporters trying to cover last weekend’s third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Unconfirmed reports suggest that several journalists were wounded by live fire as well as rubber bullets last Saturday, some of which may have been fired by opponents of the government as well as by police and other government forces. This accentuates the difficult and increasingly dangerous environment for journalists trying to carry out their work in the country.
A significant number of other journalists covering events related to the anniversary were detained by the authorities, although most are reported to have now been released. Wednesday’s announcement that the Egyptian Prosecutor-General intends to bring to trial 16 local and 4 foreign journalists alleged to have worked for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera, on vague charges including “aiding a terrorist group” and “harming the national interest”, is also of great concern.
It has not only placed a sharp focus on the systematic targeting of Al Jazeera staff – five of whom are actually in custody -- since the fall of the previous government last July, but also led to increased fears among the media in general, both national and international, which is clearly deeply detrimental to freedom of expression and opinion.
The government's warning against "inciting" is another indication of the absurdity of the situation. Almost anything can be construed as "inciting" - and mere criticism of the government has historically been treated as such in Egypt. Other things that a reasonable person would consider actual incitement and "false news" can be completely ignored.
Like the many calls to "kill all the Muslim Brotherhood" members on social media and Egyptian television lately, for instance. Or consider the now-famous rant of former lawmaker Mostafa Bakry in January on a popular talk show, in which he insisted that Barack Obama is plotting the assassination of Field Marshal Sisi and called for Americans in Egypt to be dragged from their beds and killed if the assassination succeeds:
Slaughter the Americans in the streets. We will not leave them, we will not leave them... our enemies will be America, Obama and their puppets here in Egypt. Let anyone touch Gen. Sisi and all Egyptians will confront the traitors and the criminals and we'll kill them in their houses. This is a warning to everyone we will enter their houses and will kill them one by one... if anything happens to Gen. Sisi there will not an American left on the face of the earth. Not here and not abroad.
Until now Mr. Bakry has not been charged with either incitement or spreading false news. I doubt he ever will be.
Earlier this week The New York Times and other newspapers, relying on power point slides stolen from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, reported that the US and Britain have been trying to develop better means to spy on the massive amounts of data filtering through smart phones and into the world's telecommunications networks.
A particular target has been smartphone apps – everything from the popular game Angry Birds to photo uploading tools. As the Times wrote:
According to dozens of previously undisclosed classified documents, among the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from the smartphone identification codes of users to where they have been that day.
The NSA. and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters were working together on how to collect and store data from dozens of smartphone apps by 2007, according to the documents, provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former NSA. contractor. Since then, the agencies have traded recipes for grabbing location and planning data when a target uses Google Maps, and for vacuuming up address books, buddy lists, telephone logs and the geographic data embedded in photographs when someone sends a post to the mobile versions of Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and other Internet services.
The paper also uploaded some of the slides, but with one problem: Amateurish redaction of some details, designed to hide the identity of an NSA employee and make it harder for terrorist groups to make good use of the information, that was no redaction at all. The paper quickly rectified the error but not before the original uploads were snatched by the anti-secrecy website Cryptome – at least according to a Twitter account linked to the website. (The person who controls the account has since deleted this claim, as well as an assertion that he'd do any redactions himself when "hell freezes over.")
This error highlights the risks of the tens of thousands of Snowden documents that are now floating around among at least a dozen journalists: Promises that all documents will be handled carefully and be fully vetted by responsible reporters are just that. The more documents and different organizations involved, the greater chances for error – and there is little point in closing the barn door after the horses have bolted.
But what caught my eye in one of the unredacted slides was the mention of Al Qaeda in Iraq being a particular target of the NSA's efforts. The slide reads: "Visual Communicator – Free application that combines Instant Messaging, Photo-Messaging, and Push2Talk capabilities on a mobile platform. VC used on GPRS or 3G networks." The next five words were what the Times tried and failed to redact: "heavily used in AQI Mosul Network."
The aim as described in the documents is to target mobile phone apps that can give away a target's physical location. The utility of this in tracking terrorists hardly needs to be stated. The document describes a program focusing on clear security interests – Al Qaeda in Iraq, now calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – killed thousands in Iraq during the US-led war there and continues to carry out suicide bombings and attacks on civilians there on a weekly basis. ISIS is also deeply involved in the civil war in Syria, and the groups ties to Al Qaeda make it an obvious security concern for the US.
Snowden has often insisted that he isn't interested in exposing intelligence programs that have legitimate security concerns behind them and has gone so far as to say that almost none of the NSA's efforts have anything to do with terrorism. Glenn Greenwald, who's worked with Snowden on releasing NSA documents since at least February of last year, has also made that second claim.
In December Snowden wrote an open letter to "the people of Brazil" (he's been hoping to get asylum there) and in it he claimed:
There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement – where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion – and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever.
These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.
Mr. Greenwald said the following in an interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour last October, after being asked if leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron were correct in saying the world has become a more dangerous place because "bad guys know how we're listening to them and we're not able to do as much intercepting and stopping of these potentially damaging plots as we could in the past":
Let's just use our common sense analyzing the claims of political officials when they say that. Ever since 9/11 British and American officials have screamed terrorism over and over and over every time they get caught doing bad doing things they shouldn't do -- from lying to the public about invading Iraq to setting up a worldwide torture regime to kidnapping people and taking them around the world to be tortured. They just want to put the population in fear by saying that terrorists will get you if you don't want to submit to whatever authority it is that we want to do and that's all they're doing here. It's the same tactic they always use. Let's just use common sense. Every terrorist who's capable of tying their own shoes has long known that the US government and the UK government are trying to monitor their communications in every way that they can. That isn't new. We didn't reveal anything to the terrorists that they didn't already know. What we revealed is that the spying system is largely devoted not to terrorists but is directed at innocent people around the world. That is what was not previously known and that is why American and British officials are so angry because they wanted to hide what the true purpose of the spying system is from the people at whom it's directed. And that is the only thing that's new in what we reported.
Amanpour then plays a short clip of Rep. Mike Rogers saying that if French people understood the uses and intent of NSA telecommunications in that country, which he says is focused on terrorism and security, they'd "be popping champagne corks." Greenwald responds:
Well first of all a lot of people like to ask why is there so much anti-American sentiment around the world all you have to do is listen to that tape of Mike Rogers to understand it he's basically going around telling the world that they ought to be grateful that without their knowledge we're stealing all of their communications data and invading their privacy. None of this has anything to do with terrorism. Is Angela Merkel a terrorist? Are 60 or 70 million French citizens terrorists?... This is is clearly about political power and economic espionage and the claim that this is all about terrorism is seen around the world as what it is. Which is -- pure deceit.
The above two quotes contain a lot of hogwash, not to mention Greenwald's extremely binary thinking on this issue.
Is all American spying about terrorism? No. And no one in the government ever claimed that. The US Congress has directed the NSA and other intelligence agencies to collect intelligence on foreign governments, just as they collect intelligence on the US.
Is it reasonable to claim that the US and other governments have overplayed the threat of terrorism as justification for acts that erode civil liberties? In my view, absolutely.
But his claim that "none of this has anything to do with terrorism" is not reasonable. That's pure nonsense -- as is his attempt to suggest that any revelations of eavesdropping techniques can't do any harm because terrorists already know all about it. Terrorists may know that the US is trying to spy on them as best it can (just as Germany and France know that). But knowing the precise method is another thing altogether.
The fact is that while intelligence tools created to spy on terrorists could end up being used and misused for other purposes, it's an enormous logical leap from there to claim that "this is is clearly about political power and economic espionage and the claim that this is all about terrorism is seen around the world as what it is. Which is -- pure deceit."
That's an assertion refuted by a careful reading of the documents Greenwald says help prove his position.
Egypt's announcement that it will try 20 Al Jazeera journalists - five of them foreign nationals - on charges of aiding a "terrorist organization" today shines a light on how much cruder the mechanisms for controlling dissent and free expression are in the emerging new Egypt than in the Mubarak era.
The country has been whipping itself into a hyper-nationalist and xenophobic frenzy for months, with popular television talk shows going on at length about the Zionist-American-Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to destroy Egypt and frequently baying for the blood of both locals and foreigners. Meanwhile, the military government has been filling the jails with Muslim Brotherhood activists, liberal activists, socialist activists - pretty much any type of activist it can get its hands on. Academics have not been spared either.
The press, especially domestic outlets, has been no exception. But the manner in which foreign news outlets are being targeted and their employees threatened with long jail terms is something new in the storied annals of state repression in Egypt. Under Mubarak the domestic press was tightly muzzled - with editors and journalists who challenged the censorship regime often ending up in court.
But the foreign press was given a freer hand, as the government rightly understood that it was largely irrelevant to controlling the Egyptian people. A foreign reporter might be expelled or fail to have a visa renewed, but the idea of hauling an Australian or a Canadian reporter to the cold cells of Tora prison, where generations of Egyptian political dissidents have served their time, would have been unthinkable: Why stir up international opprobrium for nothing? Foreign academics could also freely conduct interviews and research. While there were some restrictions and inconveniences - many local people were rightly afraid to talk on the record - it was nothing like Tunisia or Syria.
Yet Al Jazeera English's Australian reporter Peter Greste and Canadian-Egyptian producer Mohamed Fahmy and Egyptian colleague Baher Mohamed have spent the past 30 days in Tora. The Egyptian government said today it would also try two Britons and Dutchwoman who work for Al Jazeera for aiding terrorists, as well as 14 other Egyptians. The public prosecutor didn't name the additional defendants and it appears that many of these people are not in custody.
Last week Greste - who has spent only limited time in Egypt - explained the conditions of his detention in a letter smuggled out of Tora:
I am nervous as I write this. I am in my cold prison cell after my first official exercise session – four glorious hours in the grass yard behind our block and I don’t want that right to be snatched away. I’ve been locked in my cell 24 hours a day for the past 10 days, allowed out only for visits to the prosecutor for questioning, so the chance for a walk in the weak winter sunshine is precious.
And his treatment has been much better than that of his two colleagues.
Fahmy and Baher have been accused of being MB members, So they are being held in the far more draconian “Scorpion prison” built for convicted terrorists. Fahmy has been denied the hospital treatment he badly needs for a shoulder injury he sustained shortly before our arrest. Both men spend 24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor with no books or writing materials to break the soul- destroying tedium. Remember we have not been formally charged, much less convicted of any crime
One can only imagine the treatment of the thousands of lower-profile political prisoners across the country who don't have strong media and international ties (consider this letter from an Egyptian-American Muslim Brotherhood member in prison and its description of a fellow inmate being forced to conduct surgery on him with a straight razor because he was denied formal medical care.)
That Al Jazeera is a particular target is no surprise. Jazeera's Arabic channel was a major backer of the uprising that toppled Mubarak and heavily supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president whose tenure was cut short by popular protests followed by a coup last July.
Al Jazeera English has stuck to a much more neutral line, and the method that is being used to target its reporters sends a powerful signal to everyone about the new rules of the game. The military had the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed as a terrorist organization last year. Now it is saying that reporters who interview Muslim Brotherhood members and broadcast their views are terrorists. It is impossible to due a responsible job of explaining Egypt to the world without talking to Muslim Brothers. The government seems well aware of that.
Is this a temporary state of affairs? There's no reason to think so. Field Marshall Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who's led Egypt in practice if not in name for the past 7 months, is the odds-on favorite to be Egypt's next president and he appears to determined to crush the Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized political movement.
Heeling the foreign press and turning the domestic press into a propaganda machine appears part of the plan. The Brothers are not to be allowed any voice but the caricatured evil cackle the government has given them.
And it hasn't stopped at the Brothers. The government has targeted liberal Egyptian reformers and democracy activists like Alaa Abd El-Fattah - anyone who might possibly be interested in protesting in the unfolding, military-led politics of the country.
What's going on now is about far more than the individual activists and journalists in the government's sights. What we're seeing is an attempt to reset the conditions that allowed the central government so much social control during three decades of Mubarak's rule. With the media in hand, opponents jailed, and citizens frightened, elections are far more likely to be the stage-managed affairs of old than anything meaningful - just consider the 98 percent "yes" vote for the new Egyptian Constitution favored by the military earlier this month.
Ms. Hawthorne got in touch with me yesterday, arguing that Ihad mischaracterized her views. After chatting with her and giving the paper a second read I have to concede the point. I got out of the cranky side of the bed that morning, in part because I've been exasperated by a lot of papers on Egypt that suggest the US needs to "do more" on democracy and human rights in Egypt without ever really being explicit about what concrete steps should be taken. Hawthorne took issue in particular with my suggestion that she was "waving the flag for the democratization industry in Egypt."
So let's set the record straight. She agrees that the US has been far too elections focused in its approach bringing about change abroad, and argues that the US should focus on criticizing Egypt's human rights record and should seek to find ways to make it easier to cut off some military aid (currently structured into contracts that make it almost impossible to close the spigot) as a first step towards changing the way the US has done business with Egyptian governments for decades.
She also suggests that public criticism of the rights record of Egypt - where the military-led government is in the midst of a sweeping crack down of all forms of political dissent - could yield tangible, if limited gains.
"(Some Egyptian leaders) really don't want critical attention focused on their human rights record," she says. "What do they really want from the international community? They want legitimization... at least some people in the Egyptian power structure are very sensitive to the country's international reputation." She says that if the US and leading EU country's withhold legitimization by say, refusing to praise the country's current political process and keeping the country's poor and deteriorating rights record front in center in their comments, that it "would not go unnoticed in Cairo."
She yields that grounds for optimism in Egypt in the short term are scant. Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been leading the military government, received promotion to Egypt's highest rank yesterday at the same time as the country's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said it approved of him running for president.
In the current hyper-nationalist mood, with Sisi and army worship on the streets and those who dare to question government priorities (like the successful constitutional referendum earlier this month) often thrown in jail for the trouble, at this moment it's safe to say the presidential election will be more like a coronation than a fair competition.
But Hawthorne says she worries that the emerging conventional wisdom is the US has next-to-no leverage and that democracy promotion or a focus on human rights is a waste of time. "What I'm really, really worried about is that people are going to give up in Washington."
What should President Obama do about all of this? She says if she was in charge she'd order the National Security Council to set up a review of US military aid to Egypt, arguing that ongoing program - dating back to shortly after Anwar Sadat's peace agreement with Israel's Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978 - "is built on a status quo that in some ways no longer exists."
Her second priority would be to order the Pentagon to conduct a study at what the US gets militarily out of the arrangement. How vital are overflight rights granted by Egypt, for instance?
"We need to change the dynamic here. I think that we should look carefully at longstanding security interests in Egypt and review them in light of the current changing circumstances and look at the possibility of developing alternatives and contingency plans for some of these interests - for example, overflight rights. It would be an appropriate time to review that in a formal way and look at what other alternatives exist because maybe as Egypt is changing and the Middle East is changing we don’t need to be so dependent on Egypt as we have in the past."
She adds, though: "The review may not indicate that there are many other options to our current arrangement. But it behooves the US to avoid a situation where we’re kind of running on autopilot with regards to how we do business in Egypt. You don’t want to sent the message to them that we’re so dependent on them for security cooperation that they get a free pass on their human rights record. Just doing the review would send that message, the message that though our relationship with Egypt is very important that we’re constantly looking at options and contingencies."
I'm still skeptical that there's much good that can be done from Washington or any other foreign capital. There's also the matter of the frequent hypocrisy of US human rights rhetoric.
The disconnect between the US government's rhetoric of steadfast support for human rights and its tendency to turn a blind eye to misbehavior by friends and allies hardly needs to be pointed out.
While the annual country reports on human rights from the State Department, mandated by Congress, are thorough and honest looks at almost every member of the UN, in the case of favored countries, they are then set aside to metaphorically gather dust, with ambassadors and other diplomats in embassies around the world generally hoping they stay there (since their jobs are ultimately about building and maintaining good relations with foreign powers, not antagonizing them).
But the apparent hypocrisy (witness ongoing deliveries of advanced US weapons to Egypt since its military coup) undercuts the message and I often wonder if it would be better for the US to tone down its rhetoric, or abandon it completely, if the nation's leaders aren't really willing to follow through.
Adam Coogle from Human Rights Watch takes on this issue in a piece about Saudi Arabia in Foreign Policy today.
Saudi activists, many who have been imprisoned, often ask me why representatives of the U.S. government, who have good relations with members of the Saudi ruling elite, don't publically raise their cases and press Saudi authorities to respect the human rights of Saudi citizens. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted in a December speech: "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." It appears U.S. officials have weighed the economic and geostrategic aspects of the relationship with the kingdom, and effectively told Saudi activists to go to the back of the line.
He recounts the Kingdom's dozens of executions last year, the practice of granting male family members power over whether women can travel, become educated, the effective ban on women driving, the jailing of human rights activists, and the use of pliable statutes against "sowing discord" and "inciting public opinion against the state" to silence internal critics.
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Mr. Coogle writes:
When asked about their silence on these issues, U.S. officials often shrug off the question, or suggest that public criticism would do no good. But without any sign that the issue is being raised in private -- and that private expressions of concern are having an impact -- it may well be time to turn toward the public sphere.
Policy makers might argue that failings and limitations in one country shouldn't stand in the way of doing the right thing in another, and they'd have a point. But the gap between rhetoric and reality could not be more clear. In 2011 the US Congress approved a $30 billion sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia and a $6.8 billion sale of missiles and bombs made by Raytheon and Boeing is currently pending congressional approval.
RECOMMENDED: How US can use aid to nudge Egypt
The ability of soldiers to read and write enables them to understand intelligence, keep records, order fresh supplies, read maps, and participate in training crucial to their skills in the field. In the case of the police literacy is perhaps even more important since, ideally, they conduct investigations and make arrests that can lead to fair prosecutions.
Yet it appears that large sums of money have likely been wasted in Afghanistan trying to imbue basic literacy in police recruits due to shoddy contractor work, lax oversight and seemingly nonexistent tracking of recruits over time, according to a report released today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction:
The command said that the literacy program will meet its goal of 100 percent of ANSF personnel proficient at Level 1 and 50 percent proficient at Level 3 by the end of 2014. However, these goals were based on the ANSF’s authorized end strength of 148,000 personnel that was established in 2009, rather than the current authorized end strength of 352,000. Several NTM-A/CSTC-A (the National Training Mission-Afghanistan and the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan - both NATO-led security training efforts) officials told us they do not know how the goal for the literacy program was developed, but that attaining it based on the current authorized ANSF end strength may be “unrealistic” and “unattainable.
Translation? The already imperfect literacy program for Afghan soldiers and police (collectively known as the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF) was designed for an overall force less than half the size of the current one. The SIGAR report also says that between 30 and 50 percent of Afghan police and army recruits either desert or otherwise drop out every year, that literacy training was removed from basic training by the Afghan Ministry of Defense last year, and that "45 percent of police personnel recruited between July 2012 and February 2013 were sent directly to field checkpoints without receiving any literacy training."
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Literacy "level one" is the proficiency of an average first grader in the US school system. The US and its NATO allies have long recognized that the illiteracy of the average Afghan cop or soldier was a major obstacle to their goals in the country. In 2010, fewer than 20 percent of Afghan soldiers and police were literate. In Aug. 2010 Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the NATO training effort for the ANSF at the time, laid out the challenge in stark terms: "Unless we take on literacy, we truly will never professionalize this force."
To address the problem three contracts worth a total of $200 million were issued that month to OT Training Solutions, Insight Group, and the Education Institute of Karwan to teach recruits how to read. How has it gone?
"The lack of defined requirements for classes and length of instruction resulted in one contractor billing for classes held for as little as 2 hours a month and for multiple classes at one site that could have been combined into one class," SIGAR writes. "None of the three literacy training contracts requires independent verification of testing for proficiency or identifies recruits in a way that permits accurate tracking as the recruits move on to army and police units.
The NATO training mission reports that 298,526 soldiers and police have trained to some degree of literacy (224,826 reading at a first grade level and 73,700 at a third grade level) but that is well below the current authorized force of 352,000 (leaving 53,474 without any literacy training). That's well short of 100% literacy, the goal of the program, and SIGAR says even the reported numbers can be questioned given the absence of outside auditing of performance and the lack of tracking of soldiers and police quitting against new recruits coming in.
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