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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We have news and a special offer for TomDispatch readers today. As all TD obsessives know, for the last two years award-winning journalist Nick Turse has been covering a striking development tenaciously and practically alone: the "pivot" of U.S. Africa Command to that continent. It's a major story that, at the moment, simply can't be found elsewhere and it's now in book form, thanks to our growing publishing program at Dispatch Books. Its title: Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and it's that ominous "tomorrow" that catches just why we should all be concerned. Right now, when you think of war, American-style, what comes to mind is Iraq or Afghanistan or maybe Libya or even Yemen, but as Turse makes clear, tomorrow it could be Mali, or Nigeria, or Niger, or dozens of other places on the African continent. This story should be a significant beat for the mainstream media, but as of now almost no one's paying attention except, of course, the U.S. military -- and TomDispatch . Glenn Greenwald calls Nick's new book "gripping and meticulous... his investigations... reveal a secret war with grave implications for Africans and Americans alike." Noam Chomsky says, "Nick Turse's investigative reporting has revealed a remarkable picture of evolving U.S. military operations in Africa that have been concealed from view, but have ominous portent, as he demonstrates vividly and in depth." That's why, both for your own information and to support a small operation that does big things, you really should pick up a copy of Nick's remarkable new book of reportage, available now and officially published in a few days. (If you want to order it directly from our publisher, the stalwart and remarkable Haymarket Books, just click here and then, for a special publication date discount of 40%, enter this code, TBF40, at checkout.)
For those of you who would like to support TomDispatch in a slightly more grandiose way and help keep us atop the latest developments in a roiling world, a contribution of $100 to this site will get you a signed, personalized copy of Tomorrow's Battlefield . It's an offer we hope you'll jump at, giving us the sort of financial boost we always need. Just check out our donation page for the details -- and, as ever, many thanks in advance. One small scheduling matter: for those of you who get your contributions to us within 36 hours of the posting of this piece, a signed book will be in the mail to you almost immediately. For the rest of you: be patient. The next batch of books won't go out until early May. Tom]
That's what we do know from the headlines and news reports, when it comes to sex, drugs, and acting truly badly abroad (as well as at home). And yet there's so much more, as TomDispatch's intrepid Nick Turse reports today. As you'll see, Turse has unearthed a continent's worth of bad behavior, even as U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) went out of its way to obstruct his reporting and the documents he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act were so heavily redacted that ink companies must be making a fortune. No one should, of course, be surprised that as AFRICOM has quietly and with almost no attention pivoted to Africa, making inroads in 49 of the 54 countries on that continent, a certain kind of all-American behavior has "pivoted" with it. In a revelatory piece today, Turse -- whose groundbreaking new book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, has just been published -- pulls the curtain back on one bit of scandalous and disturbing behavior after another on a continent that Washington is in the process of making its own; in other words (given the pattern of the last 13 years), that it's helping to destabilize in a major way.
If you want a little bit of light comedy to leaven the news, only a few weeks ago, AFRICOM hosted military lawyers from 17 African nations at its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. The subject of the gathering: "the rule of law." As Lieutenant General Steven Hummer, AFRICOM deputy to the commander of military operations, said in his opening remarks, "The rule of law is our most important export." Turse has a slightly different interpretation of what the U.S. is "exporting" to Africa along with destabilization and blowback. Tom
Sex, Drugs, and Dead Soldiers
What U.S. Africa Command Doesn't Want You to Know
By Nick Turse
Six people lay lifeless in the filthy brown water.
It was 5:09 a.m. when their Toyota Land Cruiser plunged off a bridge in the West African country of Mali. For about two seconds, the SUV sailed through the air, pirouetting 180 degrees as it plunged 70 feet, crashing into the Niger River.
Three of the dead were American commandos. The driver, a captain nicknamed "Whiskey Dan," was the leader of a shadowy team of operatives never profiled in the media and rarely mentioned even in government publications. One of the passengers was from an even more secretive unit whose work is often integral to Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which conducts clandestine kill-and-capture missions overseas. Three of the others weren't military personnel at all or even Americans. They were Moroccan women alternately described as barmaids or "prostitutes."
The six deaths followed an April 2012 all-night bar crawl through Mali's capital, Bamako, according to a formerly classified report by U.S. Army criminal investigators. From dinner and drinks at a restaurant called Blah-Blah's to more drinks at La Terrasse to yet more at Club XS and nightcaps at Club Plaza, it was a rollicking swim through free-flowing vodka. And vodka and Red Bull. And vodka and orange juice. And vanilla pomegranate vodka. And Chivas Regal. And Jack Daniels. And Corona beer. And Castel beer. And don't forget B-52s, a drink generally made with KahlÃºa, Grand Marnier, and Bailey's Irish Cream. The bar tab at Club Plaza alone was the equivalent of $350 in U.S. dollars.
At about 5 a.m. on April 20th, the six piled into that Land Cruiser, with Captain Dan Utley behind the wheel, to head for another hotspot: Bamako By Night. About eight minutes later, Utley called a woman on his cell phone to ask if she was angry. He said he'd circle back and pick her up, but she told him not to bother. Utley then handed the phone to Maria Laol, one of the Moroccan women. "Don't be upset. We'll come back and get you," she said. The woman on the other end of the call then heard screaming before the line went dead.
A Command With Something to Hide
In the years since, U.S. Africa Command or AFRICOM, which is responsible for military operations on that continent, has remained remarkably silent about this shadowy incident in a country that had recently seen its democratically elected president deposed in a coup led by an American-trained officer, a country with which the U.S. had suspended military relations a month earlier. It was, to say the least, strange. But it wasn't the first time U.S. military personnel died under murky circumstances in Africa, nor the first (or last) time the specter of untoward behavior led to a criminal investigation. In fact, as American military operations have ramped up across Africa, reaching a record 674 missions in 2014, reports of excessive drinking, sex with prostitutes, drug use, sexual assaults, and other forms of violence by AFRICOM personnel have escalated, even though many of them have been kept under wraps for weeks or months, sometimes even for years.
"Our military is built on a reputation of enduring core values that are at the heart of our character," Major (then Brigadier) General Wayne Grigsby Jr., the former chief of AFRICOM's subordinate command, Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), wrote in an address to troops last year. "Part of belonging to this elite team is living by our core values and professionalism every day. Incorporating those values into everything we do is called our profession of arms."
But legal documents, Pentagon reports, and criminal investigation files, many of them obtained by TomDispatch through dozens of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and never before revealed, demonstrate that AFRICOM personnel have all too regularly behaved in ways at odds with those "core values." The squeaky clean image the command projects through news releases, official testimony before Congress, and mainstream media articles -- often by cherry-picked journalists who are granted access to otherwise unavailable personnel and locales -- doesn't hold up to inspection.
"As a citizen and soldier, I appreciate how important it is to have an informed public that helps to provide accountable governance and is also important in the preservation of the trust between a military and a society and nation it serves," AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez said at a press conference last year. Checking out these revelations of misdeeds with AFRICOM'S media office to determine just how representative they are, however, has proven impossible.
I made several hundred attempts to contact the command for comment and clarification while this article was being researched and written, but was consistently rebuffed. Dozens of phone calls to public affairs personnel went unanswered and scores of email requests were ignored. At one point, I called AFRICOM media chief Benjamin Benson 32 times on a single business day from a phone that identified me by name. It rang and rang. He never picked up. I then placed a call from a different number so my identity would not be apparent. He answered on the second ring. After I identified myself, he claimed the connection was bad and the line went dead. Follow-up calls from the second number followed the same pattern -- a behavior repeated day after day for weeks on end.
True to form, AFRICOM's Benjamin Benson failed to respond to requests for comment and clarification, but according to the final report on the incident by Army criminal investigators (obtained by TomDispatch through a FOIA request), the deaths of Utley, Bast, Sergeant First Class Marciano Myrthil, and the three women "were accidental, however [Captain] Utley's actions were negligent resulting in the passengers' deaths." A final review by a staff judge advocate from Special Operations Command Africa found that there was probable cause to conclude Utley was guilty of negligent homicide.
AFRICOM's Sex Crimes
The criminal investigation of the incident in Mali touched upon relationships between U.S. military personnel and African "females." Indeed, the U.S. military has many regulations regarding romantic attachments and sexual activity. AFRICOM personnel have not always adhered to such strictures and, in the course of my reporting, I asked Benson if the command has had a problem with sexual misconduct. He never responded.
In recent years, allegations of widespread sex crimes have dogged the U.S. military. A Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012, though just one in 10 of those victims reported the assaults. In 2013, the number of personnel reporting such incidents jumped by 50% to 5,518 and last year reached nearly 6,000. Given the gross underreporting of sexual assaults, it's impossible to know how many of these crimes involved AFRICOM personnel, but documents examined by TomDispatch suggests a problem does indeed exist.
That same year, according to a Pentagon report, a noncommissioned officer committed a sexual assault on a female subordinate at an unnamed U.S. base in Djibouti (presumably Camp Lemonnier, the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa). "Subject grabbed victim's head and forced her to continue having sexual intercourse with him," the report says. He received a nonjudicial punishment including a reduction in rank, a fine of half-pay for two months, 45 days of restriction, and 45 days of extra duty. The latter two punishments were later suspended and the perpetrator was, at the time the report was prepared, "being processed for administrative separation."
At an "unknown location" in Djibouti in 2011, an enlisted woman reported being raped by a fellow service member "while on watch." According to a synopsis prepared by the Department of Defense, that man "was not charged with any criminal violations in reference to the rape allegation against him. Victim pled guilty to failure to obey a lawful order and false official statement."
In a third case in Djibouti, an enlisted woman reported opening the door to her quarters only to be attacked. An unknown assailant "placed his left hand over her mouth and placed his right hand under her shirt and began to slide it up the side of her body." All leads were later deemed exhausted and no suspect was identified. According to Air Force documents obtained by TomDispatch, allegations also surfaced concerning an assault with intent to commit rape in Morocco, a forcible sodomy in Ethiopia, and possession of child pornography in Djibouti, all in 2012.
On July 22nd of that year, a group of Americans traveled to a private party in Djibouti attended by U.S. Ambassador Geeta Pasi and Major General Ralph Baker, the commander of a counterterrorism force in the Horn of Africa. Baker drank heavily, according to an AFRICOM senior policy adviser who sat with him in the backseat of a sport utility vehicle on the return trip to Camp Lemonnier. While two military personnel, one of them an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), sat just a few feet away, Baker "forced his hand between [the adviser's] legs and attempted to touch her vagina against her will," according to a classified criminal investigation file obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
"I grabbed his hand and held it on the seat to try to prevent him from putting his hand deeper between my legs," she told an investigator. "He responded by smiling at me and saying, 'Cat got your tongue?' I was appalled about what he was doing to me and did not know what to say." She later reported the offense via the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Hotline. According to a report in the Washington Post, "Baker was given an administrative punishment at the time of the incident as well as a letter of reprimand -- usually a career-ending punishment." Demoted in rank to brigadier general, he was allowed to quietly retire in September 2013.
A Pentagon report on sexual assault lists allegations of three incidents in Djibouti in 2013 -- one act of "abusive sexual contact" and two reports of "wrongful sexual contact." The report also details a case in which a member of the U.S. military reported that she and a group of friends had been out eating and drinking at a local establishment. Upon returning to her quarters at the base, one of her male companions asked to enter her room and she gave him permission. He then began to kiss her neck and shoulders. When she resisted, according to the report, "he grabbed her shorts and began to kiss and lick her vagina." That man was later charged with rape, abusive sexual contact, and wrongful sexual contact. He was tried and acquitted.
The Pentagon has yet to issue its 2014 report on sexual assaults and AFRICOM has failed to release any statistics on its own, but given that military personnel fail to report most sexual crimes, whatever numbers may emerge will undoubtedly be drastic undercounts.
Sex, Drugs, and Guns
On the morning of April 10, 2010, a Navy investigator walked through the door of room 3092 at the Sarova Whitesands Beach Resort in Mombasa, Kenya. Two empty wine bottles sat in the trash can. Another was on the floor. There were remnants of feminine hygiene products on the bathroom countertop, Axe body spray in an armoire, unopened condoms on a table, and inside a desk drawer, a tan powder that he took to be "an illicit narcotic," all of this according to an official report by that NCIS agent obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act.
Three days before, on April 7th, Sergeant Roberto Diaz-Boria of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard had been staying in this room. On leave from Manda Bay, Kenya -- home of Camp Simba, a hush-hush military outpost in Africa -- he had come to Mombasa to kick back. That night, along with a brother-in-arms, he ended up at Causerina, a nearby bar that locals said was a hotspot for drugs and prostitution. Diaz-Boria left Causerina with a "female companion," according to official documents, paid the requisite fee for such guests at the hotel, and took her to his room. By morning, he was dead.
A news story released soon after by Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa stated that Diaz-Boria had died while "stationed" in Mombasa. The cause of death, the article noted, was "under investigation." CJTF-HOA failed to respond to a request for additional information about the case, but an Army investigation later determined that the sergeant "accidentally died of multiple drug toxicity after drinking alcohol and using cocaine and heroin." Where he obtained the drugs was never determined, but according to the summary of an interview with an NCIS agent, a close friend in his infantry unit did say that there were "rumors within the battalion about the easy access to very potent illegal narcotics in Manda Bay, Kenya."
Kenya is hardly an anomaly. Criminal inquiries regarding illicit drug use also took place in Ethiopia in 2012 and Burkina Faso in 2013, while another investigation into distribution was conducted in Cameroon that same year, according to Air Force records obtained by TomDispatch. AFRICOM did not respond to questions concerning any of these investigations.
"I know this girl is a prostitute because I pulled her from the club previously. The name of the club was 'The Pom-Pom'... I had hooked up with this girl before [redacted name] so when he showed me the photo I recognized the girl. [Redacted name] stated how she had a nice booty and was good in bed... I want to say that [redacted name] told me he paid about 1,000 Birr (roughly $30 US dollars), but I can't recall exactly."
Army investigation documents obtained by TomDispatch also indicate similar extracurricular activities by members of the 607th Air Control Squadron and the 422nd Communications Squadron in neighboring Djibouti. An inquiry by Army criminal investigators determined that there was probable cause to believe three noncommissioned officers "committed the offense of patronizing a prostitute" at an "off-base residence" in June 2013.
AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on or to provide further information about members of the command engaging in illicit sex. It was similarly nonresponsive when it came to criminal inquests into allegations of arson in South Africa, larceny in Burkina Faso, graft in Algeria, and drunk and disorderly conduct in Nigeria, among other alleged crimes. The command has kept quiet about violent incidents as well.
"He had a gun in his hand and he was waving it around with the barrel level. He was saying something to the effect of 'f*ck you!' or something like that. I heard the [redacted] say something like 'put the gun down!' a couple of times and then the [redacted] shot at the subject 2-3 times with his handgun."
The drunken soldier was hit once in the leg and later surrendered. An investigation determined that the specialist had probably committed a host of offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including wrongful appropriation of government property, failure to obey an order, and aggravated assault, although a charge of attempted murder was deemed "unfounded." The incident, detailed in previously classified documents, was never made public.
AFRICOM has certainly had its troubles, starting at the top, since it began overseeing the U.S. military pivot to Africa. Its first chief, General William "Kip" Ward, who led the fledgling command from 2007 until 2011, was demoted after a 2012 investigation by the Department of Defense Inspector General's office found he had committed a raft of misdeeds, such as using taxpayer-funded military aircraft for personal travel and spending lavishly on hotels.
During an 11-day trip to Washington, for example, he billed the government $129,000 in expenses for his wife, 13 employees, and himself, but conducted official business on just two of those days. According to the Inspector General's report, Ward also had AFRICOM personnel ferry his wife around and run errands for the two of them, including shopping for "candy and baby items, picking up flowers and books, delivering snacks, and acquiring tickets to sporting events." He even accepted "complimentary meals and Broadway show tickets" from a "prohibited source with multiple [Department of Defense] contracts."
Ward was ordered to repay the government $82,000 and busted down from four stars to three, which will cost him about $30,000 yearly in retirement pay. He'll now only receive $208,802 annually. An AFRICOM webpage devoted to the highlights of Ward's career mentions nothing of his transgressions, demotion, or punishment. The only clue to all of this is his official photo. In it, he's sporting four stars while his bio states that "Ward retired at the rank of Lieutenant General in November 2012."
Ward's wasteful ways became major news, but the story of his malfeasance has been the exception. For every SUV that plunged off a bridge or general who was busted down for misbehavior, how many other AFRICOM sexual assaults, shootings, and prostitution scandals remain unknown?
For years, as U.S. military personnel moved into Africa in ever-increasing numbers, AFRICOM has effectively downplayed, disguised, or covered-up almost every aspect of its operations, from the locations of its troop deployments to those of its expanding string of outposts. Not surprisingly, it's done the same when it comes to misdeeds by members of the command and continues to ignore questions surrounding crimes and alleged misconduct by its personnel, refusing even to answer emails or phone calls about them. With taxpayer money covering the salaries of lawbreakers and the men and women who investigate them, with America's sons dying after drink and drug binges and its daughters assaulted and sexually abused while deployed, the American people deserve answers when it comes to the conduct of U.S. forces in Africa. Personally, I remain eager to hear AFRICOM's side of the story, should Benjamin Benson ever be in the mood to return my calls.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. A 2014 Izzy Award and American Book Award winner for his book Kill Anything That Moves, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times , the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book, Tomorrow's Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, has just been published.
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Copyright 2015 Nick Turse
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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 (more...)