Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Greenwald selectively quotes NY Times article on drone policy [UPDATES BELOW]

I spend a lot of time reading Glenn Greenwald, and his work has influenced my thinking on a host of issues. I generally find him to be compelling and well-reasoned. But it's also important to be skeptical of everyone, even those you admire.

To that end, I wanted to highlight something in one of his articles today that I found problematic. In it, Greenwald provided commentary on a very important New York Times report detailing Barack Obama's approach to counter-terrorism. Part of that article examined the ways in which Obama has approached the issue of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. Greenwald summed up the relevant portion of the Times piece in the following way:
The article explains that Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on avoiding civilian deaths “did not significantly change” the drone program, because Obama himself simply expanded the definition of a “militant” to ensure that it includes virtually everyone killed by his drone strikes.
But here's the complete portion of the article Greenwald was referencing (emphasis mine):
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.
In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.  
The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

The cover of my copy of the Chicago Tribune today showed a picture of an elderly woman kneeling by American flags, her face contorted as she started to weep. "I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW THAT WE PAID THE PRICE" was the headline above the picture, and below it a caption explaining that this was Jackie Metzger, who was "planting flags at veterans' grave sites in Kankakee Memorial Gardens on Friday as she remembers how she heard the news that her 32-year-old son, Jonathan, had been killed in Afghanistan." Not far along in the accompanying article, Jim Frazier was quoted, Mr. Frazier being a man "whose 24-year-old son, Jacob, was an Air Force staff sergeant who was killed in Afghanistan in 2003." Mr. Frazier said, "It's not Veterans Day. It's not National Flag Day. It's Memorial Day...At least take a moment to pause and reflect."

I don't think that I did. Not for most of the day, at least. I had thought about attending the annual Memorial Parade downtown, this year led by CIA director and former general David Petreaus (I've never been to a Memorial Day Parade anywhere, not that I can remember) but instead I went to a brunch at a friend's house, and sat on a porch and laughed for a few hours. When I came home, I felt that I owed somebody something, and wound up reading some articles about civilians killed by the US military, by mistake, in Afghanistan, and drone strikes in Pakistan, and a bit of an interview with Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and current Director of Defense, in which he was asked about civilian casualties in those countries and said, "First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. [He was talking about drones.] Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America...We have got to defend the United States of America. That's our first responsibility. And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That's what counts, and that's what we're doing."

Something came to mind. The previous week, I had attended an anti-war rally where several dozen former soldiers had thrown back the medals they had been awarded after their service in recent wars. Each one had a chance to give a few remarks to the crowd before doing so, and some had been direct, and others had been petulant, or angry, and I remember one who sounded very sad and said, "Out of respect for the Iraqi and Afghan people, I'm giving these medals back. I'm sorry." And they had thrown the medals behind the stage, into a tree and grass filled partition and in the direction of the McCormick Center, which was where the leaders of the nations forming NATO were meeting, and where they were hashing out what the future of the NATO-led war in Afghanistan would look like. This had all taken place before the rally had ended, when an element of the crowd had started locking horns with the hundreds of assembled police, resulting in - and I'm not sure who started what - a skirmish and the stabbing of one officer, and the bludgeoning of some protesters, and dramatic photos, and the relative eradication of the rally's thesis from the ensuing media reports, which (at least as far as I could tell) focused largely on the ways in which the police had effectively diffused a dangerous situation. I had been about a block away from the action, but as the crowd began to surge around me in a confused, tightening mass, I had tried to repress panic and worked my way out of it and left.

What I wondered at the time, though, was what had happened to the medals. Had someone picked them up later? Had they been swept up by street cleaners? Or perhaps they had been abandoned and forgotten. In my mind, they still dangled from tree branches and littered the ground. Now, a week later, I went back to see if anything was left.

The corner, without the stage and throngs and air of importance, had resumed its normal nature, which was an intersection with a dry cleaners ("Any item dry cleaned for $2.25"), and a Papa John's pizza place, and a new condo building named The Lux from whose balconies intrigued onlookers had safely watched the aforementioned events. I started walking around the median, sifting through the plants. After a few passes, all I had found was trash. A man pulled up in his car and asked for directors to the freeway. An ambulance passed, sirens on.

After about ten minutes more, I had found one relevant thing, which was a dirty handkerchief with the words "Love Is Our Weapon" on it. It seemed like something someone attending a peace rally would have left behind, but I couldn't know for sure. Somebody stopped their car at the red light and tossed an empty bottle out of the window and lit a cigarette and drove off. Disappointed, I checked my phone. A friend from college, a veteran who had served two tours of duty in Iraq, had called. I had missed it.

I searched again, but there was nothing to find. It was as if the rally had never happened. I imagined city sanitation workers combing the area for war medals, and wondered if they had handled them reverently (maybe even kept them) or with disregard. I was close to leaving when I spotted a piece of metal on the cement. It was part of a pin, the part used to clip it to clothing. Or to a uniform. I bent down and turned it over. It was bent and flattened, like it had been stepped on. Words had been pressed into it. They were these:


When I got home, I called my friend, the vet. We chatted for a while about nothing in particular, skirting an unspoken issue. Then he asked me how my Memorial Day was. I didn't have too much to tell him, but he had a few things to tell me. He said that he had visited a war memorial in Boston, where he is a student, along with his son and wife. There, they had looked out at a field covered with 33,000 American flags representing the 33,000 citizens of Massachusetts who had died in the nation's wars, from the Revolutionary War through the present. There were a few kids in their 20s smoking pot by the memorial, and my friend told me he had walked up to them and asked them politely if they could do that somewhere else. They had agreed. He said it had felt good to be there with his family. He said that he had felt appreciative.

He told me about some of the things he had been reading, work analyzing the relationship between the military and civilians in America today. He read to me from a review of a book. "With the United States more or less permanently at war," the review said, "Americans profess unstinting admiration for those serving in uniform. Yet the gap between soldier and society is wider than at any time in our history." There was more:
In ­places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still fights ambiguous no‑win wars in pursuit of elusive objectives. Yet in contrast to the reaction to Vietnam, the public finds these conflicts tolerable. Not required to serve or to sacrifice (or even to cover the costs incurred), Americans have effectively off-loaded responsibility for national security onto a small warrior elite, whose members..."are embraced as heroes, even as we do not really know them."
He stopped reading and told me that he thought there was something there, something that could be turned into a movement of some kind, something that could touch many aspects of American life, redefining what the average citizen took for granted, and what they were willing to give of themselves, and how connected they were to what their country did, within its borders and around the world.

Another way to put it: what price they were willing to pay.

 The median with the McCormick Center in the background

The handkerchief


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How should journalists refer to Anwar al-Awlaki?

I'm currently scheduled to start journalism school at Medill in June, and as such, I've been trying to keep up on reports published by my future classmates. On Thursday, May 3rd, I read an article filed from Medill's DC bureau. The piece, authored by Andy Matarrese, reported on John Brennan's recent speech concerning U.S. drone policy. I'm going to focus on a single line in the article, because I think it raises questions that are worth asking, especially for journalism students. 

In the original version of the story, Matarrese had written the following (emphasis mine)
Brennan’s speech came just before the first anniversary of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and Brennan’s appearance was part of what he called a greater push by the administration to be more transparent about counter-terrorism strategy. Tom Donnelly, a national security and defense researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he agrees with the administration’s reasoning behind the legality of drone strikes. People like Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born terrorist killed in a drone strike last year are enemy combatants, he said, and are “subject to the law of war, not the law of peace.”
What I found noteworthy was that Matarrese referred to al-Awlaki as "an American-born terrorist," which is (in various ways) how he is described by Obama administration officials. But this issue - the exact nature of al-Awlaki's activities and the question of what proof has been offered by the government concerning those activities - is at the heart of the debate surrounding his killing. I wanted to ask Matarrese about his word choice, and so I sent him a group of messages on Twitter (available here). Collectively, they read as follows:  
Andy, enjoyed your report on Brennan's speech, but you refer to al-Awlaki as "an American-born terrorist." That's the problem for critics of this polcy [sic]: al-Awlaki was never tried, and the evidence against him wasn't public. Instead, he was added to a kill list in secret (Reuters report: ). So that begs the question: can the President, in theory, add anyone to a kill list in secret? Can he declare anyone to be a terrorist, without proving it? Based on this, do you think it was right to refer to al-Awlaki as a "terrorist" in your piece? To be clear: what I mean is, him being a terrorist is the gov's accusation. But w/out public evidence, should it be repeated?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Scenes from the NATO protests, day one

Click below for more photos, and click any photo to open a slideshow. 

Kevin Gosztola at Revolution Books on Bradley Manning and Wikileaks

The following audio is from a presentation Kevin Gosztola offered at Revolution Books in Chicago on 5.16.12. Gosztola writes for Firedoglake. He spoke about Bradley Manning, specifically: who is is and what he did; the conditions of his confinement; the charges against him; and the conditions of his trial, which Gosztola is covering.

Afterwards, I had a chance to speak with Gosztola. He offered his thoughts on the significance of Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, as well as whether any harm had come from the material Manning is alleged to have leaked. He also commented on whether the model Wikileaks had established was sustainable and beneficial.

Madea Benjamin speaks on US drone policy

The audio below is from a presentation Madea Benjamin gave on 5.14.12 at the Heartland Cafe in Chicago. It was a critical assessment of US drone policy. Benjamin is a founder of CodePink and Global Exchange.

Click below for more photos, and click any photo to start a slideshow.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Close-ups of paintings by Lea Pinsky and Joanna Pinsky (I think)

These photos are close-ups of paintings on display as part of a mural on the 7000 block of Glenwood Avenue in Chicago, IL. Paintings done by Lea Pinsky and Joanna Pinsky (as far as I could tell from a list of contributors to the mural - great work, you two!). Oh, and one more picture of something not done by the Pinskys:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Exclusivity of Rights, the web-based version of Fox News, chose to announce Obama's statement in support of gay marriage like this:

Within a few hours, the war was over, though the defiance remained:

Setting aside the issue of Obama's changing public rationale concerning this issue, I just wanted to bring up an often-made point regarding the extension of rights to new groups. It seems that those opposing such extensions routinely characterize them as an assault on their own existent rights, arguing that their ability to continue doing what they've been doing will disappear if alternatives are allowed. Most of the time, this doesn't make sense - how, for example, would an increase in gay marriages prevent heterosexual couples from getting married? But what we're dealing with, I would think, is something emotional and visceral in nature. When rights are attached to a certain socially and culturally dominant group, some members of that group will fight hard to prevent those rights from being extended to anyone else. That extension means the loss of their unique (and hence powerful) status, and the ushering in of behavior they're not psychologically prepared to accept because it doesn't fit within their conception of what is "normal." (That definition of normality, of course, is malleable, and is both changed by, and changes, our culture and laws, which explains the - admittedly shrinking - generational divide on the issue of gay rights.)

This conception of "rights" sees them as that which limits others, rather than empowering all, as that which divides one group from another, rather than uniting them under common protections and guarantees. As many others have written, it is at its core an attempt to guarantee freedom from behavior one objects to by outlawing it and marginalizing it in an attempt to prevent it from entering one's consciousness. What we're really talking about, then, is fear.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What's the definition of a crazy question?

Over the last few years, plenty of people have attacked Barack Obama using easily disprovable falsehoods and specious reasoning. (I know - I used to watch Glenn Beck for a living.) On Monday, a woman at a Mitt Romney event stood up during a Q&A session and said this:

"We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution. And I want to know -- yeah, I do agree he should be tried for treason -- but I want to know what you would be able to do to restore balance between the three branches of government and what you are going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country."

The Huffington Post put up a story about the event that afternoon written by Sam Stein. Stein highlighted the fact that Romney had "remained silent" following the accusation. "Romney didn't correct the woman," he wrote, "choosing instead to address the question she posed." The candidate, he said, appeared stuck between "balancing the anti-Obama sentiments of the party's base with the need to maintain a civil level of discourse." Stein contrasted Romney's behavior with that of John McCain, who during a 2008 town hall had taken the microphone away from a supporter who said she couldn't "trust" Obama because he was "an Arab."

That evening, MSNBC's Ed Schultz presented a piece on the event as well. In a segment entitled "Obama Derangement 2012," Schultz also criticized Romney for letting the charge pass without comment, and he, too, brought up McCain. "For all his faults," Schultz said, "at least John McCain had the guts to talk down the crazy."

I have no desire to allow lies and baseless assaults to pervade our political discourse, and candidates should always reject them - especially (and this goes without saying) when they're dripping with the racist vitriol McCain faced.

But it's also worth asking if the question presented to Romney was, as Stein and Shultz suggested, inherently unreasonable. To be clear: treason is defined in Article III of the US Constitution: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." The application of that definition to the actions of the Obama Administration stretches the bounds of credibility, as far as I can tell.

But we should also consider the other part of the statement - the idea that Obama has upset our government's balance of power by "operating outside the structure of our Constitution." Is that concept also devoid of all intellectual coherence? And is it as repugnant as racist hate-mongering? I'm not saying that Romney's questioner was right. But I think the question can, at the very least, be legitimately asked, as it could have been asked of many past presidents.

After all, questions concerning the constitutionality of some of Obama's actions, especially those pertaining to foreign policy, civil liberties, and executive power, often underpin critiques of, and queries posed to, his administration.

It's worth remembering that in June of 2011, lawyers from both the State Department and the White House were tasked with publicly defending the constitutionality of America's prolonged military campaign against the Qaddafi regime.

Or take just one other example: the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (which again the administration felt the need to defend, via Eric Holder, from an explicitly constitutional standpoint). Following Awlaki's death, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley (among many others) objected, writing that, "[w]hile few people mourn the passing of figures such as al-Awlaki, who was accused of being a leader in al-Qaeda, they should mourn the passing of basic constitutional protections afforded to all citizens." MSNBC's own Rachael Maddow examined the legality of the action in an interview with Wired's Spencer Ackerman, who has continued to take clear issue with the killing. And it was Jake Tapper of ABC News who, during the White House press briefing of September 30, 2011, asked spokesman Jay Carney, "Do you not see at all -- does the administration not see at all how a President asserting that he has the right to kill an American citizen without due process, and that he’s not going to even explain why he thinks he has that right, is troublesome to some people?"

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This isn't to pick on Stein and Shultz. I mean, rather, to make a broader point. Within the context of illogic and paranoia that has at times defined Barack Obama's opponents, it is tempting to write off those who make the most strident claims against him as being unworthy of further consideration. But during this campaign, we shouldn't be afraid to ask big, fundamental questions about the conduct of the administration and its officials - and to the extent that those questions have merit, the President and his team owe us answers.