A Washington Post/ABC News poll yesterday found that a large majority of Americans think the Afghan War – America's longest conflict – has not been worth fighting. The latest evidence of the electorate's extreme war-weariness will certainly not be lost on President Obama, whose administration has already been floating the notion in the DC press of a "zero option" for Afghanistan that would see US forces leave the country completely after 2014.
For years, the plan has been for the US to come to an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on leaving behind 10,000 or more troops after the majority of US troops are withdrawn from the country at the end of next year. The problem has been the agreement part: Mr. Karzai has dragged his feet and made additional financial demands as terms for giving the US what it wants as a condition of remaining – most crucially, a guarantee that US forces in the country would be immune from Afghan prosecution.
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When the "leaks" about a zero option started this month the presumption was that it was a shot across Karzai's bow by Mr. Obama, an attempt to remind him that Afghanistan stands to lose far more than the US if all the troops come home. But the prospect that the US will really pack up everything and come home is now being taken as a real possibility. And why not? Obama may not have to face another election, but his fellow Democrats do and the war has become incredibly unpopular, even as Karzai has taken to blustering at a nation that has spent 11 years at war and over $600 billion to keep his government in power.
Asked if "war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting," 67 percent of respondents said "no" and 28 percent "yes." Asked if the war has contributed to America's long-term security, 43 percent said it had a "great deal" or "somewhat" while 50 percent said "no." Those who thought the war hasn't been worth surged from 56 percent the last time the question was asked, in March.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters earlier this week that he wants a bilateral security agreement, the document that would include immunity for US troops, to be signed by October. Gen. Dempsey said the Obama administration isn't planning to withdrawal completely at the end of 2014, but it may come to that.
"No one asked me to prepare a zero option," he said. "I don’t recommend a zero option, but there could be a zero outcome, because we can only stay here if we are invited to do so."
The shifting climate has led even proponents of a longer war to consider that Obama means what he says. Yesterday it was Zalmay Khalilzad's turn at the plate. Mr. Khalilzad served as President George W. Bush's first ambassador to Afghanistan and later as his ambassador to the United Nations, and was very much one of the key diplomatic faces in the early years of the "war on terror." He doubts an agreement will be reached by October.
"My discussions with officials in Washington and Afghanistan have left me thinking that an agreement is unlikely to be signed by October. Mistrust at the leadership level, different threat perceptions, and Obama’s arbitrary but politically potent deadline for ending the war all pose significant obstacles," he writes. "Karzai’s allegations of bad faith against the United States have dampened the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for a bilateral security agreement. Whether Karzai fully appreciates the costs of alienating Washington is unclear. The U.S. proposal on the table would make Afghanistan the largest recipient of U.S. security and economic assistance for the foreseeable future, even ahead of close allies such as Israel."
Khalilzad isn't happy about this – his reference to Obama's politically popular "arbitrary" deadline makes that clear. He argues that Obama should make security guarantees to Karzai about Pakistan and make commitments to strengthen Afghanistan's military and economic institutions. That presumably means more money. He warns that "Obama needs to decide whether short-term expediency is worth the risk of undermining hard-won gains, allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorist groups and forcing a future U.S. president to invade Afghanistan again."
Another lining up against a total withdrawal is former Afghan and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who told Trudy Rubin "If it's a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal... It's as if we're telling the Afghans, 'We're tired, we're going home, screw you.'"
In a way, that is the case. The American public is tired, and the spending on the war has been vast. In return, Karzai has rigged elections, repeatedly lashed out at the US, and his government has leaned on the US to do business with an airline American officers accused of being a major player in the country's heroin trade. Earlier this month Karzai's government demanded the US pay what it termed "back customs fines" on the order of $70 million to move supplies in and out of the country, a practice to extract additional money that's apparently been going on for some time and involves vastly larger sums of money.
To be sure, the argument for staying come what may boils down to "there may be another 9/11." But with Al Qaeda-style Islamist militants resurgent in Iraq and Syria, threats may also emanate from regions far closer to home. The core of Al Qaeda that was based in Afghanistan in 2001 has been hammered, its survivors scattered.
Meanwhile, there hasn't been a successful terrorist attack inside the US that emanated from abroad since 2001, and greater security has been thanks to intensified security procedures at airports and better global intelligence efforts as much, if not more so, than to the US military presence in Afghanistan.
Sometimes wars just have to end, however much people who have invested in them don't want to let go. And it isn't entirely up to the US. In 2011, much of the year was spent speculating about the process terms of an agreement that the US needed from the Iraqi government in exchange for an extended presence beyond 2012. In the end, Obama couldn't get a deal done with the Iraqis that was acceptable to both sides, and we left.
There's a real possibility Afghanistan could unfold in much the same way. It seems a majority of American voters would be just fine with that.
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Reporter Gert Van Langendonck and cameraman Jonny von Wallström interviewed Miral Brinjy in Tahrir Square on Feb. 1, 2011, and it quickly became an internet sensation: A young, unveiled woman speaking passionately and clearly about democracy and hope on the spot that would soon become synonymous with popular uprisings against autocracy around the world, and where Hosni Mubarak's regime was undone.
I first met Mr. Van Langendonck a day or two later and he showed me the clip and asked my opinion. I told him "it's gold." Well shot, with military helicopters hovering overhead and sometimes drowning out the interview, it beautifully captured the contrast between youthful optimism and the military machine Egyptians had finally stood up to when protests erupted on Jan. 25. The day they broke the shackles of fear that had served military-backed dictatorship in Egypt for decades.
"The ministry of interior unleashed all the thugs to destroy the cities so that people would say they still need the regime," Ms. Brinjy said then. "We don't want the regime. We want either a constitutional amendment or something that says that the next president of Egypt will be chosen by the people. When we say we don't want the regime it doesn't mean we don't want Hosni Mubarak as a person and be stuck with someone else who's imposed on us. We want to chose our president because we want to take this country into the future."
Clear, direct, a call for a leader at long last chosen by the people from a younger person wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed: "I love my country. It's the government I'm afraid of."
The next morning the Egyptian military urged the protesters to abandon Tahrir and warned there might be trouble if they didn't go home. The military was right. That afternoon, a large group of thugs abetted by Mr. Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Interior Ministry assaulted the square – some of the attackers on camel and horseback. The melee, which came to be known as the "battle of the camel," left 11 dead and hundreds injured – and Mubarak's hopes of hanging on to power in tatters.
The assault led to a surge of public support for the protests and nine days later Mubarak was gone, pushed out by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
It came to mind today as I thought about how much has changed since early 2011, and how frankly ugly so much of Egypt's political discourse has become. The Muslim Brotherhood is derided as "terrorists" by many of their opponents, there are mass demonstrations on the streets in support of the military, and there are looming questions over whether an Egyptian transition to a stable democracy is really possible any time soon.
Egypt got its first elected leader - though not the one Brinjy and many others at Tahrir would have hoped for. Mohamed Morsi's election in June 2012 saw the Muslim Brotherhood take the reins for the first time in Egyptian history. His year in power was marked by heavy-handedness and growing fear that the movement's Islamist vision would be be imposed on all Egyptians – never mind that he took only 51 percent of the vote against a secular-leaning politician and long-time Mubarak stalwart Ahmed Shafiq.
So Brinjy and hundreds of thousands like her took to the streets again, with mass protests breaking out against the Brotherhood on June 30. The military has been almost universally praised for its actions by the anti-Morsi camp and it turns out Brinjy is among them.
I shared the old video clip on Twitter. It was quickly re-tweeted by the Muslim Brotherhood's official English account:
Brinjy, now a local coordinator in a Cairo neighborhood for the secular Dustour ("Constitution") Party of Mohamed ElBaradei, noticed and took umbrage at the Brotherhood's appropriation of Jan. 25 for its "anti-coup" movement.
I asked her who the "terrorists" are and she responded "those who kill to terrorize people for political gains." Pressed for specifics, she wrote back: "If you ask me I think the [Muslim Brotherhood] are the mother of all Islamist terrorist and militant groups."
That someone like her is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultimate agenda for Egypt is natural and understandable. But the exchange also shows the extent to which the military is being exalted and trusted by many of the country's secular activists. These folks generally trust the army to guide Egypt to democracy, its track record to the contrary notwithstanding.
I suspect if Van Langendonck had asked her in Feb. 2011 if she'd support a military removal of a democratically elected president from power she would have said "no." But a lot has changed since then.
The Senate Foreign Relations committee heard testimony yesterday on what's going on in Egypt and what the US should do about it – if anything.The broad takeaway from the testimony from three Egypt watchers: the US has little leverage to shape events in Egypt, and is unlikely to use what leverage it has.
The state of play in Egypt is that the results of all the democratic elections held since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011 have been overturned, and an interim government installed by the military is running the show. President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has been in military detention since his ouster on July 3, and political passions at street level are at a dangerous pitch. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the head of the army, has called for mass demonstrations Friday in support of the military and issued thinly veiled threats to the Brotherhood, who have protested daily since Morsi's removal from power.
Today, the lack of US influence over unfolding events in the Arab world's largest country is being amply demonstrated. Even as the military has called for mass demonstrations in its support, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi are in turn out on the streets demanding he be returned.
In the 30 months since Hosni Mubarak's ouster by the same military that removed Morsi, US policy toward the country has been adrift. Mubarak, and President Sadat before him, were the kinds of military-backed autocrats the US preferred to do business with during the cold war. They could be relied on to keep the Suez Canal open to US warships, maintain the peace with Israel, and promptly consult with US officials on security matters. A steady subsidy for the Egyptian military of more than $1 billion for decades helped cement the friendship, and the US generally looked the other way on human rights abuses inside the country.
So it was hardly surprising that when the mass protests erupted against Mubarak in January 2011 that the US was hesitant to withdraw support from the dictatorship and was the target of Tahrir Square's ire. After Mubarak was pushed out, the Obama administration backed Egypt's transition and sought to work with Morsi when he won the presidency in 2012. That too, ended up drawing many Egyptian's ire. And while the US was strangely passive in the face of criminal proceedings brought by Egypt against a number of NGO workers working on US-funded democracy programs – one of them the son of Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – it kept the flow of military aid unchecked.
The US response to Egypt's military coup? The same. The Obama administration has played with semantics to avoid calling the coup by its proper name, since that would have required the military aid to be cut, under laws set by Congress. That's infuriated the Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, who say the US government's pledge to support democracy rings hollow. Today, Egypt's interim government ordered Morsi detained for a further 15 days while he is investigated for the crime of espionage – specifically colluding with Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, to attack police stations and prisons during the uprising against Mubarak.
While Egypt has grown more chaotic and divided, the US has come to rely as much on its relationship with Egyptian generals like Sisi as much as it ever has. Army chief Sisi called for the mass pro-military demonstrations today while also issuing veiled threats about a crackdown on "terrorism" that appears to indicate further moves against the Brotherhood, which remains the largest grass-roots organization in the country.
'Don't freeze out the Brotherhood'
The three experts who gave testimony on Egypt yesterday – former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel Kurtzner, former special envoy for the Middle East in the Clinton years Dennis Ross, and Michelle Dunne, who held a variety of posts at the State Department focusing on the region and who is now a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University – all seemed in agreement that the US has few good options in Egypt now, and warned that freezing the Muslim Brotherhood out of political life could lead to a catastrophe.
"If you exclude what is an important social force within Egypt then this is a prescription for trouble," Mr. Ross told the hearing. He and his two colleagues all argued that Egypt is desperately in need of a reconciliation process while acknowledging that the enormous polarization at the moment will make that difficult.
Said Mr. Kurtzer: "Right now today [the Muslim Brotherhood] have adopted tactics that are confronting the authorities and they have decided that that's the best way to build the support back that they used to have. If they decide not to engage in a national reconciliation process that's real ... they could also decide to engage in an insurgency ... this is a region where weapons are easy to come by and jihadists are easy to come by, they cross borders at will."
While both Ross and Ms. Dunne said the deposal of Morsi was a coup, Kurtzer declined to call it that. And both Kurtzer and Ross argued that the US should ignore the law that calls for military aid to be cut.
“I am afraid that if we were to cut off our assistance at this point, the effect would be to lose the link we have with the military. But we would also find a backlash among the Egyptian public," Ross said. "The Egyptian public would look at this as an American effort to dictate to them against the popular will.”
Aid will flow
While some senators were concerned that this undermines US credibility – with John McCain musing how the US can preach the rule of law to others while ignoring it at home and Rand Paul questioning the wisdom of a blank check for Egypt's military – the administration has made it clear the aid will flow. While it delayed the delivery of F-16s to Egypt this week to send a signal of displeasure, it told lawmakers yesterday that it won't declare the coup a coup and is determined to keep money and weapons flowing to Egypt.
Essentially, that means the US has taken its strongest bargaining chip off the table as the future of Egypt is decided, with the generals looming large behind the scenes. Their presence, and relatively free hand to act, has made them the most powerful force in determining Egypt's future.
The Egyptian military has called for mass protests Friday to show support for its decision to depose President Mohamed Morsi, turning up the heat on what is already a boiling and dangerous social and political situation.
The rhetoric within Egypt both for and against Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has grown violent and threatening. Dehumanizing language from Muslim Brotherhood opponents – "terrorist scum," "traitors," "foreign puppets" – is now being matched by calls from Brotherhood supporters for "jihad" to restore Morsi's rule.
Mao may have said that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, but army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi isn't taking any chances. He's adding mass protest to the arsenal.
But it's hard to see any result from the large-scale demonstrations he's asking for beyond a more divided Egyptian public and more deaths. And as if the situation wasn't tense enough, a statement was issued on a Facebook page that Al Jazeera says is "affiliated with" the Egyptian military "today saying the army stands ready to turn its guns "against black violence and terrorism which has no religion or nation." (Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called it an "official" page). This should be taken as a threat to the Muslim Brothers to keep their supporters off the street tomorrow, since "terrorist" has become a favorite epithet in state media broadcasts – and among secular-leaning activists – for the movement.
Gen. Sisi hasn't been exactly coy about that. In his speech yesterday, snappy in his dress uniform and shades, a veritable army of commendations and medals marching over his left breast, he said he needed a mass outpouring of support to "give me, the army and police, a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism so that in case there was a resort to violence and terrorism, the army would have a mandate to confront this." The people opposing him have been the Brothers.
Morsi has remained under military arrest since the military took charge on July 3, and the Muslim Brotherhood has held daily protests against the coup, demanding Morsi be restored to power. Earlier this month roughly 50 Muslim Brotherhood protesters were gunned down by the military outside the Republican Guard barracks and on Monday, both Brotherhood supporters and opponents engaged in a gun battle at Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo.
Sisi may be hoping that another mass demonstration for what is an overwhelmingly popular coup will lead the Brotherhood to back down. But the movement has been backed into a corner, and is paranoid and angry now, as are many of its opponents. If demonstrations are met with demonstrations, violence results and the military does indeed crack down hard on the Brothers, what then? They remain Egypt's largest grass roots movement and while they may have lost the support of millions of Egyptians, they still have the support of millions, and have organizational skills that their rivals lack.
If they become convinced the only option open to them is political surrender, the chances that they'll turn to greater violence will increase. And while a likely next move for Sisi will be mass arrests of Brotherhood figures in the wake of tomorrows demonstrations, the Brotherhood survived for decades against torture and indefinite detention by the Egyptian military. The role of the defiant and resilient outsider is one the Brotherhood is most comfortable and experienced at playing.
Sarah Carr has a good view from the ground on how the Muslim Brotherhood – due to its own arrogance and incompetence, and a slick media campaign – has become a "terrorist" organization in the public's eye, and on how an Egyptian public that wanted the Egyptian military out of politics in early 2011 now appears to be clamoring for a paternalistic general to lead them again:
At some point between the end of June and today, allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization stopped being allegations and became facts. It was a gradual process, like watching a photograph develop — the outlines slowly became clearer, and the picture emerged. Two groups laid the groundwork for all this: The Muslim Brotherhood, and the media. The Brotherhood, with its obstinate hubris and desperate attempts for attention, with its traffic-paralyzing marches and the inevitable confrontations they provoke... It was mostly the privately owned satellite media and newspapers that became the army’s court jester, or at least did so with the most gusto. Logos appeared on screens insistently informing viewers that June 30 was a popular revolution, not a coup. Then the terrorism rhetoric began, and the pro-Morsi protesters were no longer just a bunch of skin-disease ridden, cult supporting lunatics, but also terrorists. Again, this happened almost seamlessly. Television presenters indulged themselves in the vilest xenophobia against Palestinians and Syrians, who they claimed were camped out in pro-Morsi sit-ins and meddling in Egyptian affairs.
It doesn't end there. Egyptian social media is filled with wild conspiracy theories that the Muslim Brotherhood are foreign agents controlled by the US, or Hamas, or Iran – sometimes even all three together. Xenophobic passions have been stirred to such an extent that it seems the definition of "Egyptian" is "he who agrees with me" and "foreigner" means "everyone who doesn't."
Shows of bravado from the Brothers also aren't helping matters. "Prepare for a second of jihad," senior Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohammed al-Beltagi, urged protesters on Wednesday in response to Sisi's call for mass rallies. Though he also urged supporters to remain peaceful, the religious choice of words can't be ignored.
More clashes seem inevitable in Egypt tomorrow, and that almost certain violence will make the real task for Egypt – finding some kind of national consensus on a constitution, on fresh elections, a way out of the paralysis of street politics and fury – even harder than it's been since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011.
It was a euphoric time that felt like it was being viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia even as it happened. Protesters talked about at last seeing "the real Egypt" that had been hidden by decades of military-backed dictatorship and brutal and unaccountable police behavior. They insisted that all were "Egyptians" first – categories like Christian or Muslim or leftist or liberal or rich or poor didn't really matter. And they predicted that a new Egypt would be forged easily once President Hosni Mubarak was gone and the military was out of politics.
The optimism ignored the important and clear stratification in Egyptian society at the time, particularly between Islamists like the Muslim Brothers of Mohamed Morsi and various secular-leaning groups. But in the nearly 30 months since, that division has been wrenched into the open. The vast, polarized protests against the Muslim Brotherhood – which convinced the military to depose Mr. Morsi on July 3 – showed that. And it couldn't be any clearer now, with pro-Morsi protesters and anti-Morsi protesters clashing at the entrance to Tahrir Square today.
The video below appears to show an exchange of amateurish gunfire between from the perspective of pro-Morsi protesters at Tahrir Square (Witnesses there said gunfire was returned from the anti-Morsi side, which holds Tahrir).
The location, just across from the Arab League and halfway between the end of Qasar al-Nil bridge and the entrance to the square, was one I passed daily during the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak, where generally jubilant crowds of men, women, and kids passed through the ad-hoc security that political factions, working together, had set up to secure the square. Look at it today.
Reports in Cairo say at least one of the anti-Morsi protesters was killed in clashes around the area today. Tahrir is no longer a place where all of Egypt symbolically comes together, it seems, but a place where Egyptians go to contest power. Mubarak was ousted by the masses at Tahrir. Morsi was ousted by greater masses at Tahrir (this second enabled in part by the far more permissive environment for political organization since Mubarak's fall). So, the thinking goes, greater masses at Tahrir still will return Morsi and the Brothers to power.
That's not going to happen, of course. But street power has become the currency of politics in Egypt – or at least one of them. With democratically elected upper and lower houses of parliament and the elected presidency now dissolved, the ballot box no longer holds holds the same power. The Muslim Brothers remain Egypt's largest grassroots political movement. And they appear, with senior leaders like Morsi still in military detention, to be growing dangerously desperate.
For instance Essam al-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and vice president of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), lashed out at the United States today, calling for supporters to lay siege to the US embassy in Cairo. He claimed that the US backed the coup that ousted Morsi.
But if the Brothers think turning up the temperature like this is going to lead to greater US government support – rather than Obama administration officials worrying about language that veers dangerously close to threats of violence against diplomats – the movement will be sadly surprised. Although Egypt's security services suspiciously failed to protect the usually heavily guarded embassy from protesters who scaled it walls and burned a US flag inside on September 11 2012, when Morsi was in charge, security will probably be up to snuff again now that the military is formally in the driver's seat.
Sophisticated overnight attacks on two Iraqi prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad involving mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and dozens of attackers are a sign of growing potency for the country's Sunni insurgents.
These weren't attacks on mosques or markets, designed to spread terror by killing unprepared civilians in public spaces. These were attacks on the militarized prisons of Abu Ghraib and Taji, both of which have large contingents of insurgents among their inmates and have long been targets for Iraq's jihadis. Yet the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was forced to scramble attack helicopters and rush troops to join pitched battles. Even so, they may not have staved off a stunning symbolic defeat.
Though early today government officials claimed the attackers had been kept from their ultimate objective – freeing jihadi comrades – as the day wore on scattered claims were made of a stunning insurgent success. Member of Parliament Hakim al-Zamili asserted to Reuters that 500 insurgents escaped from Abu Ghraib alone and that most of them were members of the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic State in Iraq.
Iraq's al-Summaria TV also reported that hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters escaped from Abu Ghraib and Taji, citing an unnamed police source, and went on to say that many of them were from Saladin Province, which lies between the insurgent hotbed of Anbar and the increasingly troubled province of Mosul due to its border with Syria. But TV stations frequently get stories wrong when relying on unnamed sources. And Mr. Zamili, as a loyalist of Shiite preacher and Maliki opponent Muqtada al-Sadr, would have reasons to favor a story that embarrasses the prime minister.
Whether this was a total disaster or just the latest in a series of black eyes for the government remains to be seen, as does the death toll. Early reports claim that 20 soldiers and policemen died in the jailbreak and that roughly that many of the prisoners were killed. How many of the insurgent assault forces died has yet to be determined.
But what's already clear is light infantry attacks involving a large number of insurgents and weapons, that must have been long planned, were carried out against government forces on the outskirts of Baghdad, the seat of central government power. Iraq's sectarian civil war in some ways never really ended, US protestations that the "surge" brought peace to Iraq to the contrary. The Shiite dominated government has behaved autocratically, clamped down on freedom of speech, continued the tradition of torture in Iraq's prisons and police stations, and cut Sunni Arabs out of the political process.
Not surprisingly some of the Sunni Arabs who were promised a seat at the table in the "new Iraq" but have instead been systematically marginalized are taking up arms again. Lately they've been given heart by Sunni jihadi successes across the border in Syria (where Bashar al-Assad is allied with Shiite Iran and enjoys at least the tepid support of the Maliki government), with Iraqi jihadis from Anbar and other border provinces playing a prominent role in the Jabhat al-Nusra insurgent group, and those returning home reinvigorating their comrades.
AFP statistics show that 527 Iraqis died in insurgent violence this month through July 20 and there have been at least 100 further killed in the two days since, making July the deadliest month of the year – and the deadliest month in Iraq since June 2008. The previous deadliest month in Iraq since June 2008 was this May.
While Sunni jihadis frequently execute prisoners and prey on defenseless civilians for either working with the government or simply being Shiites, an attack on Abu Ghraib carries powerful symbolism for Iraq's Sunni community in general.
The prison there was a house of horrors under Saddam Hussein, where political opponents (most Shiite but many Sunnis as well) were tortured before their execution. The disfigured body of a loved one returned to a community formed a powerful disincentive to standing in his way. After Hussein was deposed by US-led forces in 2003, Abu Ghraib's administration came into the hands of the US Army, which in turn carried out torture on inmates, many of them Sunnis accused of being insurgents.
Pictures of the torture conducted by US guards leaked out and in 2004, and indelibly stained America's reputation in the country and much of the region. Abu Ghraib was long ago returned to Iraq's government, but succeeding Iraqi governments have made torture far more widespread and routine than it was when the US was running the country. While the worst abuses under Maliki's rule have taken place in secret prisons co-located with Iraqi Army bases and Interior Ministry facilities, Abu Ghraib remains a symbol of central government abuse. And the ongoing torture fuels Iraq's separation and violence, rather than quelling it.
Iraq remains a long way from the worst of the civil war. The vast majority of Iraqis who lived through it don't want to return to that horror. But the war in Syria has seen Iraq's already limited control of that long border slip, and government failures like that today – which potentially saw hundreds of seasoned operatives re-injected into the Iraqi insurgency – will encourage more Sunni fence-sitters to join the fight.
An article we ran on Egypt's love-in for the military yesterday stated that Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists had surprisingly supported the July 3 coup that deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a member of the group's politburo and an old friend from Cairo, writes that was incorrect. He sent in an explanation of their position. We've adjusted the original story, but I thought it would be fair to share Hossam's explanation in full, since the state of politics in Egypt is sufficiently fraught for its participants even without our errors being heaped into the mix. His letter in full and unedited below. -DM
By Hossam el-Hamalawy, politburo member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists:
Your article "In Egypt, lonely voices warn of too much love for the military", implied that the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists (the group I belong to) were in the pro-military camp. This is incorrect and the anti-Morsi opposition camp should not be lumped up in one basket.Unlike the majority of the opposition groups, the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists have had a clear position "Against the MBs, Against the folool (remnants of the Mubarak regime), Against SCAF", as a slogan reasserted in our marches, statements and articles. It was not a popular stand with many in the opposition and the streets, yet we were clear about it.
We never sat down nor negotiated with the military at any point before or after the 25 Jan revolution (Editor's note; Egypt's uprising against Hosni Mubarak began on Jan. 25, 2011). In fact, the RS was the first revolutionary group to warn from the army's role in the events in a statement from Tahrir Square as early as 1 Feb 2011. Our cadres were subject later to arrests and torture in military prisons, and our group was singled out in the media for a long time as "anti-army conspirators who want to destroy the state." Such smearing campaign, ironically, was spearheaded by the MBs publications and Islamist TV satellite channels.
Hence, I find it bizarre to be labelled as "military coup supporters" in your article... as bizarre as the accusation we also hear from other political groups in Egypt that we are "MB supporters" because we refuse to stand with the military.
Make no mistake, the RS was part of the effort and the street mobilization to overthrow Morsi in the run up to 30 June and later. Yet, our position, expressed in our official statements, have made it clear this was not the end goal solely. While we regard Morsi as murderer whose legitimacy has been lost, long before the Tamarrod campaign, he should be tried together with Mubarak, Tantawi and the SCAF generals in one cage.
- Hossam el-Hamalawy
Microsoft Corp. says it's been getting a raw deal, subject to what it complains are exaggerations of its compliance with US government data collection deals but also bound by a gag order from the Obama Justice Department that prevents it from fully defending itself.
The Guardian reported on July 11, citing files provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, that "Microsoft has collaborated closely with US intelligence services to allow users' communications to be intercepted, including helping the National Security Agency to circumvent the company's own encryption."
The paper reported that Microsoft "helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal"; that the agency "already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;" and that Microsoft "worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide."
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder also sent yesterday, Mr. Smith complained that the government has been slow to respond to requests by Microsoft and other companies mentioned in stories connected to Mr. Snowden's leaks that they be allowed to publicly address the nature and extent of their cooperation with the government. "In my opinion, these issues are languishing amidst discussions among multiple parts of the Government, the Constitution itself is suffering, and it will take the personal involvement of you or the President to set things right," Smith wrote to Mr. Holder.
In his blog, Smith complains "there are significant inaccuracies in the interpretations of leaked government documents reported in the media last week. We have asked the Government again for permission to discuss the issues raised by these new documents, and our request was denied by government lawyers."
He then goes on to disclose what he can. He writes: "We do not provide any government with direct access to emails or instant messages. Full stop." He writes that Microsoft provides access to information only in response to court orders and warrants, that it has not given the US or any other government access to its encryption keys or a means to break its encryption, and that "we do not provide any government with the technical capability to access user content directly or by itself. Instead, governments must continue to rely on legal process to seek from us specified information about identified account."
This doesn't necessarily mean one or the other side is wrong or lying on all of this. For instance, the Guardian wrote that the NSA "already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail." It could theoretically have that access without any help from Microsoft, and Smith does not categorically state what the NSA might have access to – just what Microsoft has or hasn't done.
Likewise with this claim in the Guardian article: "In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism (a US government data collection and analysis program)." It's certainly possible that NSA's "new capability" was created without the help or knowledge of Microsoft. Smith certainly doesn't rule it out.
"All of us now live in a world in which companies and government agencies are using big data, and it would be a mistake to assume this somehow is confined to the United States," he writes. "Agencies likely obtain this information from a variety of sources and in a variety of ways, but if they seek customer data from Microsoft they must follow legal processes."
But Smith rejects the assertion of closer collaboration made in the Guardian article. He writes:
Cutting through the technical details, all of the information in the recent leaked government documents adds up to two things. First, while we did discuss legal compliance requirements with the government as reported last week, in none of these discussions did Microsoft provide or agree to provide any government with direct access to user content or the ability to break our encryption. Second, these discussions were instead about how Microsoft would meet its continuing obligation to comply with the law by providing specific information in response to lawful government orders.
What does Microsoft want to share publicly that it says the Obama justice department is preventing? I'd sure like to know. Smith strongly implies that it's important, and relevant. And while the company disagrees with some of the assertions made by Snowden and the Guardian, they're in agreement with Snowden that something unconstitutional is going on. Smith concludes:
"The world needs a more open and public discussion of these practices. While the debate should focus on the practices of all governments, it should start with practices in the United States. In part, this is an obvious reflection of the most recent stories in the news. It’s also a reflection of something more timeless. The United States has been a role model by guaranteeing a Constitutional right to free speech. We want to exercise that right. With U.S. Government lawyers stopping us from sharing more information with the public, we need the Attorney General to uphold the Constitution."
And this gets to the heart of the matter stemming from the Snowden revelations. There has been a proliferation of secret warrants and secret orders in the past decade, many from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose rules require secrecy compliance from private companies and individuals.
Snowden with his leaks has basically argued that the government's mantra of "trust us" is overblown. Now Microsoft, albeit for different reasons, is saying the same.
Yesterday I wrote about NSA leaker Edward Snowden's threat, made via Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, to release information damaging to the US government if he's killed, and concerns about what exactly that information might be.
Today Mr. Snowden remains at a Moscow airport. He applied for temporary asylum in the country yesterday. His Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said today that Snowden has no plans to try to leave the country soon and has not ruled out applying for Russian citizenship. As he seeks help in avoiding arrest and capture, it's hard not to wonder if Snowden will trade information he has in exchange for help.
After I wrote my story yesterday, Mr. Greenwald published a series of e-mails involving former New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey, Snowden, and himself, in which Snowden was insistent that it's impossible for information in his possession to be obtained by enemies of the US.
"Provided you have not leaked information that would put in harm's way any intelligence agent, I believe you have done the right thing in exposing what I regard as massive violation of the United States Constitution," Senator Humphrey wrote to Snowden. Snowden responded, thanking Humphrey and complaining he's been misrepresented by the press:
"The media has distorted my actions and intentions to distract from the substance of Constitutional violations and instead focus on personalities. It seems they believe every modern narrative requires a bad guy. Perhaps it does. Perhaps, in such times, loving one's country means being hated by its government," he wrote. "Though reporters and officials may never believe it, I have not provided any information that would harm our people – agent or not – and I have no intention to do so."
"Further, no intelligence service – not even our own – has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. While it has not been reported in the media, one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China).
You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture."
I think his good intentions, as he sees them, are fair to assume. But his certainty that it is impossible to compromise what he knows seems questionable. Presumably he has digital files that are encrypted in some fashion. But if the files are accessible at all, there has to be a key.
Or even imagine a Escherian progression of unbreakable locks containing the key to the next unbreakable lock in the progression, which in turn contains the next key. Layers of difficulty are just that – problems to be overcome. Assertions of insurmountably seem specious as long as a key or set of keys exists and someone hasn't destroyed the first one in the sequence.
And if Snowden's claims are to be believed, a key to whatever data he has does exist. Greenwald says Snowden's NSA files have been set up for release in the event Snowden is killed by the US. Greenwald hasn't said what the mechanism would be and what precisely would be released beyond, "if something does happen to [Snowden] all the information will be revealed and it could be [the US government's] worst nightmare."
That implies that there is some process, known to some people or persons, that allows for access. And while state of the art encryption can foil technical efforts to break it, it's hard to see how gaining access to the knowledge of others is impossible. Spy agencies use trickery, bribery, coercion, and sometimes worse to pry out others' secrets. Yet Snowden was insistent in his letter to Senator Humphrey.
I originally took the torture comment to be a bit of naive bravado (people will say or do almost anything to stop the unspeakable horror of torture) though Greenwald implies today that what Snowden meant was that he doesn't know how to get at the files himself. But then, who does?
If the answer is "no one," then it's hard to square with his claim of a release being made in the event of his death. If the answer is "someone" or "some group of people," then his confidence that secrets can't be compromised seems misplaced. (I asked a number of people who know more about encryption than I about this; the answer always circled back to "the key is the vulnerability." Perhaps there's something we're all missing?)
A spy with computer skill takes a job at one of the country's most secretive intelligence agencies with the intent to ferret out secrets and leak them. He then flees with a trove of stolen computer files, first to China and then on to Russia.
He leaks some information to journalists about US domestic surveillance programs as well as efforts targeting both rivals like China and allies in the European Union. But he says he's holding back the really good stuff as insurance against the US doing him harm. An ally of his says that if everything the fugitive knows becomes public it could be the US government's "worst nightmare." The latest disclosure is that he's seeking political asylum – in Russia.
Spy thriller stuff, no?
But to some, media and public interest in the tale of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who the above paragraphs describe, is a sign of a US media that fawns over and protects the establishment. Chief in pushing this line has been Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who first broke stories provided by Mr. Snowden about the NSA's data collection program in the US and use of secret warrants to collect vast amounts of metadata surrounding the phone calls of millions of Americans.
Greenwald frequently dismisses other reporters as tools of the US government and has complained that coverage of Snowden has been used as a way to avoid writing about the NSA's spying programs. For instance, on Monday he said, "I knew when I began reporting the (NSA) story, that the technique that the US government uses – and its media allies use – against anybody who discloses what they're doing in the dark is to distract attention away from the contents of the revelations"; and, "If you’re a loyalist of the Obama administration, as most of MSNBC is, you are desperate to distract attention away from these disclosures."
In June, shortly after he and a filmmaker released a video interview with Snowden, he suggested that having concerns about Snowden's actions isn't compatible with being a reporter.
"I don’t think there’s any problem with people who want to criticize what [Snowden] did on the merits, although I think it’s extremely strange that people who call themselves journalists find it more contemptible than almost anything when someone steps forward and brings transparency to what the government is doing,” Greenwald said. “That’s supposed to be their jobs. They should be in the lead cheering for that. But, so be it. If they decide that disclosure and transparency are bad things, I think it’s odd that they call themselves journalists, but they have the right to do that.”
I, like many Americans, am concerned about expanding government surveillance, particularly the practice of gobbling up vast amounts of data on people without a specific warrant. I wrote after Greenwald's first big scoop from Snowden of the "Orwellian overtones" of domestic surveillance, of the potential threat to liberty posed by modern technology coupled with insufficiently scrutinized spy agencies – and of the fact that since 9/11, US citizens have conceded a lot of privacy over their fear of terrorism.
But Snowden himself, his actions and motivations, aren't just interesting from a spy thriller perspective. An NSA employee who violated his privacy agreements is now said to be in possession of documents that allegedly can do great harm to the US government, and he gets to decide whether they're released or not. He's currently in Russia, where today he formally sought termporary asylum, according to Wikileaks, which is acting as his legal adviser.
Snowden's apparent commitment to an anti-secrecy agenda is a reminder of a growing trend among younger, technologically savvy citizens, and has broad implications (Joshua Foust wrote an excellent piece a few weeks ago on "hacker ethics shifting into mainstream politics") for how an outsourced, computer-reliant spying infrastructure will be managed going forward.
And while he may or may not be a whistleblower with his disclosures about NSA domestic surveillance (the ACLU has filed a legal challenge to the NSA's phone record collections on the grounds that it is unconstitutional), his decision to reveal details about NSA spying on other countries indicates a willingness to go far beyond that. While Greenwald and Snowden said the principal reason for the leaks was preserving US liberty, disclosures about intelligence collection methods in China, Brazil, and Europe have nothing to do with that. What might, in the fullness of time, he decide to disclose next?
Then there is what the Guardian's Peter Beaumont calls Snowden's apparently "dangerous moral relativism." In a statement issued on Friday, Snowden said: "Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless." Beaumont rightly points out that the human rights record of Russia, in particular, is atrocious, and that "in providing a public relations coup for Putin, Snowden has provided cover for a gross and serial human rights-violating state."
Ecuador and Venezuela's own human rights records and attitude toward freedom of speech are nothing to write home about, either. To praise these countries "as first to stand up against human rights violations" against all evidence to the contrary is not reassuring about Snowden's judgment.
And apparently, that judgment is very important for the US government. This is what Greenwald told Argentina's La Nacion daily over the weekend, according to a translation made by Reuters:
"Snowden has enough information to cause harm to the US government in a single minute than any other person has ever had," Greenwald said. "The US government should be on its knees every day begging that nothing happen to Snowden, because if something does happen to him, all the information will be revealed and it could be its worst nightmare."
At around the same time, Greenwald gave an interview with the Associated Press in which he said that Snowden has "literally thousands of documents" that are "basically the instruction manual for how the NSA is built." He also said that in his estimation, while the documents would be harmful to the US government, they would not be harmful to the American people. He hasn't been forthcoming on what, exactly, would be released if something happened to Snowden or who precisely would get to decide. He told the AP:
"It's not just a matter of, if he dies, things get released, it's more nuanced than that. It's really just a way to protect himself against extremely rogue behavior on the part of the United States, by which I mean violent actions toward him, designed to end his life, and it's just a way to ensure that nobody feels incentivized to do that."
Greenwald took sharp issue with Reuters translation of his interview in a column for the Guardian subtitled "the latest effort to distract attention from the NSA revelations is more absurd than most." Greenwald alleges his interview had been "distorted" by Reuters and said that Snowden's plan to have information released if he's killed isn't a form of threat. Greenwald writes:
That Snowden has created some sort of "dead man's switch" – whereby documents get released in the event that he is killed by the US government – was previously reported weeks ago, and Snowden himself has strongly implied much the same thing. That doesn't mean he thinks the US government is attempting to kill him – he doesn't – just that he's taken precautions against all eventualities, including that one (just incidentally, the notion that a government that has spent the last decade invading, bombing, torturing, rendering, kidnapping, imprisoning without charges, droning, partnering with the worst dictators and murderers, and targeting its own citizens for assassination would be above such conduct is charmingly quaint).
Greenwald can seek to define this as "not a threat," but not everyone will agree.
The whole question about whether Snowden should be granted asylum, something Greenwald supports, breaks on whether you believe the US has the right to demand its spies keep their secrecy agreements and whether prosecution for breaking that law amounts to "persecution." I'm in the camp that believes secrecy is frequently necessary, and that spying is both a useful and necessary tool for national security. Should there be limits on both? Of course.
But veiled threats from Snowden, via intermediaries, are unsettling. While damaging disclosures are now only threatened in the highly unlikely event of a US assassination of Snowden, he very well may change his mind if a time comes when it looks possible that he might be extradited to the US to stand trial.
He's already shown a willingness to use the information at his fingertips to advance his personal agenda. In June, Snowden provided details of NSA computer spying on China and Hong Kong – something that is squarely in the NSA's job description. Greenwald said then he thought "what motivated that leak [by Snowden] was a need to ingratiate himself to the people of Hong Kong and China." At the time, Snowden was hoping for Hong Kong to grant him political asylum.
So Snowden makes for more than irresistibly great copy. He has information that's vital to the foreign spying programs of the US, and the chances that he can and will use it as bargaining chips with foreign powers are real. And the US government, at least in theory, responds to the will of the people via their elected representatives. Who does Snowden answer to?