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Peter Van Buren: The Ultimate No-Fly List

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Last week, touching down in India on his way to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described reality as you seldom hear it in the confines of Washington and, while he was at it, put his stamp of approval on a new global doctrine for the United States.  Panetta is, of course, the man who, as director of the CIA, once called its drone air campaign in the Pakistani borderlands "the only game in town."  (At the time, as now, it was a classified, "covert" set of air strikes that were a secret to no one in Washington, Islamabad, or anywhere else on Earth.)

In India, expressing his frustration over U.S. relations with Pakistan, he spoke the "W-word" aloud for the first time.  "We are," he told his Indian hosts, "fighting a war in the FATA [the Pakistani tribal areas]."  How true.  Washington has indeed long been involved in a complex, confusing, escalating, and undoubtedly self-defeating partial war with Pakistan, never until now officially called by that name, even as the intensity of the drone air campaign in that country's borderlands continues to ratchet up.  So give Panetta credit for rare bluntness.

In India, he said something else previously unspoken, acknowledging a breathtaking new reality: "We have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves. This is about our sovereignty as well."  In other words, he claimed that, while the sovereignty of other countries might be eternally violable, U.S. sovereignty extends inviolably over Pakistani territory.  This is, in fact, the concept that underpins the use of drones there and elsewhere.  When it comes to its presidential version of war-making, only the U.S. has a claim to global sovereignty, against which the more traditional concept of national sovereignty doesn't stand a chance.

In Washington, a controversy has now broken out over what are clearly administration leaks about our drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and our new cyberwar against Iran.  It's clear enough that, in its urge to run a Republican-proof election campaign on the image of a tough-guy president, those in the Oval Office, themselves fierce anti-leakers in other circumstances, didn't know when to stop leaking information they considered advantageous to the president and so badly overplayed their hand.  Now, as prosecutors from the Justice Department (one with a pedigree that should leave the administration shaking in its combat boots) are being appointed to look into the leaks, all bets should be off in the capital.  Hold onto your hats, tell your journalist friends that, as the investigations begin, they are the ones likely to find themselves in the hottest water, and expect almost anything in the coming months.

One thing won't happen, though.  You're not going to get tons more Panetta-style realism.  It's clear that all of Washington's players, however intensely they might argue with one another, will be pulling together to shut down those leaks and any others heading our way.  We at TomDispatch are convinced, on the other hand, that its time to open the faucets, turn those drips into a steady stream, and let the American people know just what is being done, what wars (even when not called wars) are being fought in their name, what new weapons are being released into the world with their imprimatur (if not their knowledge).

It's with some pride, then, that TomDispatch turns to its whistleblower-in-residence, State Department official Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, to offer his take on what this controversy really means for us all and just how it looks to someone who has been on the other end of the Obama administration's fierce crackdown on governmental truth-tellers, rather than image-padders. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses how Washington has changed when it comes to both leaking and stifling information, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Leaking War
How Obama's Targeted Killings, Leaks, and the Everything-Is-Classified State Have Fused
By Peter Van Buren

White is black and down is up. Leaks that favor the president are shoveled out regardless of national security, while national security is twisted to pummel leaks that do not favor him. Watching their boss, bureaucrats act on their own, freelancing the punishment of whistleblowers, knowing their retaliatory actions will be condoned. The United States rains Hellfire missiles down on its enemies, with the president alone sitting in judgment of who will live and who will die by his hand.

The issue of whether the White House leaked information to support the president's reelection while crushing whistleblower leaks it disfavors shouldn't be seen as just another O'Reilly v. Maddow sporting event. What lies at the nexus of Obama's targeted drone killings, his self-serving leaks, and his aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers is a president who believes himself above the law, and seems convinced that he alone has a preternatural ability to determine right from wrong.

If the President Does It, It's Legal?

In May 2011 the Pentagon declared that another country's cyber-attacks -- computer sabotage, against the U.S. -- could be considered an "act of war." Then, one morning in 2012 readers of the New York Times woke up to headlines announcing that the Stuxnet worm had been dispatched into Iran's nuclear facilities to shut down its computer-controlled centrifuges (essential to nuclear fuel processing) by order of President Obama and executed by the US and Israel. The info had been leaked to the paper by anonymous "high ranking officials." In other words, the speculation about Stuxnet was at an end. It was an act of war ordered by the president alone.

Similarly, after years of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't stories about drone attacks across the Greater Middle East launched "presumably" by the U.S., the Times (again) carried a remarkable story not only confirming the drone killings -- a technology that had morphed into a policy -- but noting that Obama himself was the Great Bombardier. He had, the newspaper reported, designated himself the final decision-maker on an eyes-only "kill list" of human beings the United States wanted to destroy. It was, in short, the ultimate no-fly list. Clearly, this, too, had previously been classified top-secret material, and yet its disclosure was attributed directly to White House sources.

Now, everyone is upset about the leaks. It's already a real Red v. Blue donnybrook in an election year. Senate Democrats blasted the cyberattack-on-Iran leaks and warned that the disclosure of Obama's order could put the country at risk of a retaliatory strike. Republican Old Man and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain charged Obama with violating national security, saying the leaks are "an attempt to further the president's political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security." He called for an investigation. The FBI, no doubt thrilled to be caught in the middle of all this, dutifully opened a leak investigation, and senators on both sides of the aisle are planning an inquiry of their own.

The high-level leaks on Stuxnet and the kill list, which have finally created such a fuss, actually follow no less self-serving leaked details from last year's bin Laden raid in Pakistan. A flurry of White House officials vied with each other then to expose ever more examples of Obama's commander-in-chief role in the operation, to the point where Seal Team 6 seemed almost irrelevant in the face of the president's personal actions. There were also "high five" congratulatory leaks over the latest failed underwear bomber from Yemen.

On the Other Side of the Mirror

The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers whose disclosures do not support the president's political ambitions. As Thomas Drake, himself a victim of Obama's crusade against whistleblowers, told me, "This makes a mockery of the entire classification system, where political gain is now incentive for leaking and whistleblowing is incentive for prosecution."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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