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U.S. Africa Command Debates TomDispatch

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"Mercenary cargo carriers to skirt diplomatic clearance issues":  You object to my language once again, but don't actually refute the facts.  You ask: "What exactly is a mercenary cargo carrier?"  I submit that it's a person or company which supports military cargo operations for financial gain. The air carriers you mention are, indeed, military contractors which are supporting military operations for profit, largely unbeknownst to the American public.  I firmly stand by this characterization.

You go on to write: "[W]e are always required to obtain diplomatic clearance and complete all customs formalities. It would be highly inappropriate and unethical to attempt to "skirt' country clearances. To do that would be an egregious violation of our values.  In fact, since these actions appear to constitute criminal activity, we would be appreciative if Mr. Turse can provide us specific details, documents, or other evidence, in order to provide our Criminal Investigative Command (CID) a basis of information to start an investigation."  To begin, I would refer CID to Major Joseph D. Gaddis of the U.S. Air Force for further information.  In a section of an Army Sustainment article on air logistics in Africa, titled "The Diplomatic Clearance Hurdle," Major Gaddis writes:

"A major question facing logisticians in Africa is whether the legwork of contracting airlift outweighs the challenges often associated with traditional methods of using U.S. military aircraft in Africa, which include lengthy processes to obtain diplomatic clearance. Carrying out a mission into most countries often requires 14 to 21 days of leadtime. For the Hungary based C -'17 unit, this process can be as long as 30 to 45 days. When working with operations in landlocked countries, diplomatic over-flight clearance leadtimes reduce the flexibility of the DOD airlift system. Domestically registered contract aircraft do not have these clearance issues. Their simple country clearance process enables them to plan a flight in less than a day. Foreign civilian carriers operating in Africa (including U.S.-registered carriers) also face less diplomatic red tape and do not require the same lengthy clearance process as the U.S. military."

Maj. Gaddis very clearly states: "Domestically registered contract aircraft do not have th[e] clearance issues" that affect U.S. military aircraft.  He states explicitly that the U.S. can skirt lengthy authorization issues by using "Foreign civilian carriers operating in Africa" [which] face less diplomatic red tape and do not require the same lengthy clearance process as the U.S. military."  This suggests that the U.S. is making a conscious decision to shift from traditional and more overt methods of shipping equipment and supplies to more covert methods in order to subvert regulations put in place by African countries -- or at the very least subvert the spirit of those regulations.  While cutting "red tape" appears to be the primary reason for hiding behind contractors, I can't help but see similarities between this effort and the use of generic-looking spy planes as part of Tusker Sand surveillance missions in Africa. 

In any case, I would appreciate it if you would keep me apprised of any investigations or other actions that result from this information.

"Emergency Troop Housing": Again, we seem to be in total agreement that the U.S. is constructing "Emergency Troop Housing" in Djibouti.  You note that "the 300 additional Containerized Living Units (CLUs) are being built for people already living at Camp Lemonnier, either in tents or in other substandard housing, not for new arrivals."  I just want to make clear that I never said these CLUs were for "new arrivals."  It does, however, make me wonder about why that word "emergency" is being used for this new housing.  I also question why -- since you dispute that the U.S. presence in Africa is fast-growing -- troops have been living in substandard housing?  If there was no rush and you have plenty of time to plan for arrivals, why wasn't adequate troop housing constructed in advance? 

Finally, I respectfully take issue with your comments about my requests to AFRICOM for information for my article, which was published on July 12, 2012.  As your records will attest, on May 29, 2012, I first asked for detailed information on the U.S. military presence in Africa, specifically bases -- including those at which U.S. troops are guests of other nations.  On June 6th, I received a rather superficial reply to which I followed up with questions, by phone or email -- sometimes both -- on July 2nd, 6th, and 9th.  I even followed up after the story was published and was told I would be contacted with answers by Wednesday, July 16th, by a specific individual at AFRICOM.  At this writing, on July 24th, I am still waiting to hear from him.

I also object to your claim that I "followed up" with a list of questions that required much more time than the one business day he gave us to answer."  To be frank, in my "business" there are no "business days."  And let's be franker still: there aren't any in yours, either.  Other than holiday ceasefires and the like, I've never heard about the U.S. military taking a week off from a war or shutting down for the weekend.  My work adheres to the same schedule. 

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Still, the list of questions to which you refer was first called in to your Pentagon spokesman on July 6th.  He asked me to put them in writing, which I dutifully did.  I sent those in and he assured me that he forwarded them on to your headquarters that same day.  I followed up on the 9th and mentioned my looming deadline.  I was told that AFRICOM headquarters might have some answers for me on the 10th.  That day, however, came and went without a word.  So did the 11th.  We published the piece on the 12th.   

Given that I've been requesting detailed information since May, I'm sorry to say that your letter rings a bit hollow when you write: "If he had waited, we would have provided the information requested, which could have better informed his story." Two weeks later, I'm still waiting for a complete reply to my questions of July 6th (not to mention those of May 29th).   I respectfully submit that a vigorous free press cannot be held hostage, waiting for information that might never arrive.    

Quite obviously, we have different worldviews and differing opinions, but to say that my reporting contained several "inaccuracies and misrepresentations" is, I believe, a misrepresentation and I hope you will reconsider your words in light of my response above. 

I believe that I was fair in my reporting.  I gave ample space to AFRICOM's views and contentions when they differed from mine, provided reasonable-sized quotes so that your spokesman was able to express AFRICOM's opinions, and drew on respected mainstream publications for information when your command did not answer my questions.  I would also submit that my reporting gives much greater voice to dissenting views than do the news articles/releases on the AFRICOM website.  I gave your spokesman's view on what constitutes a "base."  I would challenge your staff to do the same and grant, in news releases and responses to queries, that while the U.S. military might not consider a facility to be a "base," others could have a different opinion.   

Moreover, let me suggest that if AFRICOM were entirely transparent -- and posting reams of information to your website is not the same as transparency -- with America's taxpayers about U.S. military operations in Africa, all of this could be avoided.

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With this and future articles on U.S. operations in Africa, in mind, let me ask (with plenty of time to spare) for a full listing of all -- as you term them -- "temporary facilities" and any other sites where the United States has or has had "warehousing privileges," construction projects, work sites, outposts, camps, facilities, laboratories, warehouses, supply depots, fuel storage, and the like in Africa since 2003, as well as supporting documents on the nature of the operations at these locations so that I can evaluate them for myself.  If I had a clearer picture, I would certainly be in a better position to ask even more informed questions.  Once that picture becomes clearer, I would hope that you would facilitate visits by me to these facilities for a first-hand look, so I could draw my own conclusions about their nature. 

In addition to providing me with this information, I also hope you'll allow me to call on you directly the next time I have questions about U.S. operations in Africa.

Thank you again for your interest in my work and for the information your command provided to me. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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 (more...)

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