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Seated on a stool before an audience packed with spooks, lawmakers, lawyers and mercenaries, CNN's Wolf Blitzer introduced recently retired CENTCOM chief General James Mattis. "I've worked with him and I've worked with his predecessors," Blitzer said of Mattis. "I know how hard it is to run an operation like this."
Reminding the crowd that CENTCOM is "really, really important," Blitzer urged them to celebrate Mattis: "Let's give the general a round of applause."
Following the gales of cheering that resounded from the room, Mattis, the gruff 40-year Marine veteran who once volunteered his opinion that "it's fun to shoot some people," outlined the challenge ahead. The "war on terror" that began on 9/11 has no discernable end, he said, likening it to the "the constant skirmishing between [the US cavalry] and the Indians" during the genocidal Indian Wars of the 19th century.
"The skirmishing will go on likely for a generation," Mattis declared.
Mattis' remarks, made beside a cable news personality who acted more like a sidekick than a journalist, set the tone for the entire 2013 Aspen Security Forum this July. A project of the Aspen Institute, the Security Forum brought together the key figures behind America's vast national security state, from military chieftains like Mattis to embattled National Security Agency Chief General Keith Alexander to top FBI and CIA officials, along with the bookish functionaries attempting to establish legal groundwork for expanding the war on terror.
Partisan lines and ideological disagreements faded away inside the darkened conference hall, as a parade of American securitocrats from administrations both past and present appeared on stage to defend endless global warfare and total information awareness while uniting in a single voice of condemnation against a single whistleblower bunkered inside the waiting room of Moscow International Airport: Edward Snowden.
With perhaps one notable exception, none of the high-flying reporters junketed to Aspen to act as interlocutors seemed terribly interested in interrogating the logic of the war on terror. The spectacle was a perfect window into the world of access journalism, with media professionals brown-nosing national security elites committed to secrecy and surveillance, avoiding overly adversarial questions but making sure to ask the requisite question about how much Snowden has caused terrorists to change their behavior.
Jeff Harris, the communications director for the Aspen Institute, did not respond to questions I submitted about whether the journalists who participated in the Security Forum accepted fees. (It is likely that all relied on Aspen to at least cover lodging and travel costs). CNN sponsored the forum through a special new website called CNN Security Clearance, promoting the event through Twitter and specially commissioned op-eds from participating national security figures like former CIA director John McLaughlin.
Another forum sponsor was Academi, the private mercenary corporation formerly known as Blackwater. In fact, Academi is Blackwater's third incarnation (it was first renamed "Xe") since revelations of widespread human rights abuses and possible war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan threw the mercenary firm into full damage control mode. The Aspen Institute did not respond to my questions about whether accepting sponsorship from such an unsavory entity fit within its ethical guidelines.
John Ashcroft, the former Attorney General who prosecuted the war on terror under the administration of George W. Bush, appeared at Aspen as a board member of Academi. Responding to a question about U.S. over-reliance on the "kinetic" approach of drone strikes and special forces, Ashcroft reminded the audience that the U.S. also likes to torture terror suspects, not just "exterminate" them.
"It's not true that we have relied solely on the kinetic option," Ashcroft insisted. "We wouldn't have so many detainees if we'd relied on the ability to exterminate people...We've had a blended and nuanced approach and for the guy who's on the other end of a Hellfire missile he doesn't see that as a nuance."
Hearty laughs erupted from the crowd and fellow panelists. With a broad smile on her face, moderator Catherine Herridge of Fox News joked to Ashcroft, "You have a way with words."
But Ashcroft was not done. He proceeded to boast about the pain inflicted on detainees during long CIA torture sessions: "And maybe there are people who wish they were on the end of one of those missiles."
Competing with Ashcroft for the High Authoritarian prize was former NSA chief Michael Hayden, who emphasized the importance of Obama's drone assassinations, at least in countries the U.S. has deemed to be Al Qaeda havens. "Here's the strategic question," Hayden said. "People in Pakistan? I think that's very clear. Kill 'em. People in Yemen? The same. Kill 'em."