National Security

Bin Laden Photos to Stay Hidden

This will remain Bin Laden's enduring image.
Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al-Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view. At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker 's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the column I wrote: Might the image be disturbing? Yes, it might...

If at First You Don't Succeed, Bomb, Bomb Again

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi I n testimony last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman made clear that the U.S. would continue to look for ways to raise the pressure on Tehran, even as it remained committed to a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But she also cautioned against steps that would foreclose diplomatic options or damage the international consensus that the administration has worked so effectively to forge. “As we move forward, it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far,” Sherman said. Sherman was reiterating the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community: that the government of Iran, while continuing to move forward with its nuclear program and keeping its options open, has not yet made a decision to obtain a nuclear weapon. It shouldn’t be surprising that various members of...

Pakistan's Industry of Violence

AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad
AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad I was at an uncle’s house in Peshawar a couple of months ago when the windows began to rattle. One of my youngest cousins walked towards them, peering out nervously. “It’s an earthquake,” she said almost hopefully. I looked at her father who shook his head slowly, but only when his daughter had turned back to the window. It was as if he wanted her to believe that the quivering earth was the result of a mere natural disaster. And then the windows began to clatter again. The 14-year-old slunk onto the couch beside her father. Her sisters and mother filed in around the TV, scarves draped over their heads, lips moving in prayer. It didn’t take long for live coverage to begin. The site of the attack was the city airport, just a couple miles from where we were. Even more disconcerting, the rockets began to fire where, just a few minutes prior, my aunt had driven on her way home. Once we’d been watching long enough that the news reports had become repetitive—the same...

Benghazi Was Neither a Terrorist Attack Nor an Act of Terror

Pinocchios for everyone! (Vladimir Menkov/Wikimedia Commons)
I am hereby declaring 99 Pinocchios on Barack Obama, all the people who work for him, everyone in the Republican party, and most everyone in the press who has reported on Benghazi. This is about what has to be one of the most inane disagreements in the history of American politics, the argument about whether Obama called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" or a "terrorist attack." Incredibly, people are still bickering over this. The other day Darrell Issa expressed his outrage that Obama had, in his diabolical attempt to cover up the incident, used the phrase "act of terror," which, let's be honest, is almost like saying, "Way to go, al Qaeda!", instead of using the far, far, far more condemnatory phrase "terrorist attack." It's like the difference between saying "steaming pile of bullshit" when you ought to say "steaming bullshit pile"—anyone who can't tell the difference between the two obviously can't be trusted to run the country. Then the ordinarily reasonable Glenn Kessler,...

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay
Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes. The two hearings mark the first time Congress has explicitly scrutinized drones as a stand-alone issue; previous discussions were wrapped up in confirmation hearings and Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster in March. But in narrowing the focus of the debate over drones to encompass only the moral gray areas of the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, Congress is failing to ask more important questions. There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. Beyond the disputed numbers of noncombatants killed, there are psychological consequences to consider as well. In the Senate hearing, Farea al-Muslimi, an American-educated Yemeni writer and activist, spoke eloquently of the heartbreak and fear that drones cause...

The Military Can't Handle the Truth

Flickr/West Point Public Affairs
Flickr/West Point Public Affairs T he real scandal this week around military sexual violence isn’t the release of the latest in a string of Department of Defense (DOD) reports showing stunning levels of sexual assault—hell, even the DOD estimates 26,000 actual incidents compared with the 3,374 reported incidents. It’s not the fact that this year marks the third in a row to show an increase in sexual violence (under law, DOD has published them yearly since 2004), or that the latest report “found that among the one-third of women who reported sexual-assault allegations to a military authority, 62 percent suffered retaliation for speaking up. ” It’s not even the arrest , two days before the report came out, of the officer in charge of sexual-assault prevention programs for the Air Force on sexual battery charges. The real scandal is the degree to which the military has been allowed to continue punting on addressing sexual violence, despite knowing about the widespread sexual abuse of...

Why Israel Can't Be Part of Obama's Calculus on Syria

AP Photo
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit F rom Tel Aviv, so the usual map sites say, you could drive to Damascus in three hours and 20 minutes, if only there were no borders, barbed wire or war in the way. From vacation cottages in the Upper Galilee, where city people go to find some quiet, you can look across the Jordan to the ridge that barely blocks a view of the Syrian capital. Just past the horizon, impossibly close to us, people are killing their countrymen. Cities are being crushed into rubble. Israel is a place with very little agreement on anything. Perhaps the closest thing to a national emotional consensus is horror at what's happening in Syria. But there's also unusually wide agreement, especially among policy and strategic experts, that Israel can do pretty much nothing to affect the outcome of the Syrian conflict. At most, it can take limited steps to protect narrow Israeli security interests. For now, the government and military appear to be partners in this consensus. Put differently:...

Benghazi Fizzles

A New York Post cover from back when Benghazi was hotter.
Conservatives want, so very desperately, for Benghazi to be Barack Obama's undoing. And you have to give them credit for trying. Yesterday's hearing, hyped like it was the Super Bowl by Fox News, wasn't the first or the second or the fifth on the topic, and each one is supposed to deliver the blockbuster revelation that will finally show America just how evil the Obama administration is. But if you look at the way they've been talking about it, you can see some faint glimmers of doubt. Sure, you can always find somebody to come on Fox and take the speculation to an absurd level ("Did Hillary Clinton order the consulate to be unprotected because Ambassador Stevens knew she's an al Qaeda operative and she wanted him killed? We just don't know"). But I think all that speculation is sapping their spirits. After a while it gets tiresome to keep harping on what might have happened or why, when it would be so much more satisfying if there were some actual incriminating facts you could bring...

No, Syria Is Not Iraq

AP Photo/Hussein Malla
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit F or those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience. “Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see. And if those outcomes...

The Isolationists Are Coming!

AP Photo
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File A sk yourself: Do you oppose putting U.S. troops everywhere, all the time? If you answered yes, you might be an isolationist, according to the word’s new definition. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times , based on a new NYT/CBS poll , warned that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now.” In the very next paragraph, however, we are told that, “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.” In other words, if you only support bombing unspecified foreign countries with flying robots, you're exhibiting an isolationist streak. Further illustrating the crazy isolationist fever infecting the American people, the article quoted poll...

Are We Finally Achieving Some Sanity on Terrorism?

Flickr/AnubisAbyss
Now that it's been almost an entire week and a half since the Boston bombing, we can look back with some satisfaction, because America handled this pretty well. Sure, you might question whether it was necessary to shut down an entire major metropolitan area for the purpose of catching one guy. And there was (and still is) some predictable buffoonery on the part of conservative politicians and media figures. But on the whole, we seem to have weathered this attack without losing our collective minds. Is it possible that we're now able to look rationally at what kind of a threat terrorism is, and isn't? Are we capable of having a measured reaction to a terrible event? To look toward the future without being driven mad by fear? Holy cow, maybe so! Nobody's cancelling major events because we're terrified. The calls from the right to postpone immigration reform or come up with some new form of ethnic/religious profiling to find and stop the next disgruntled young Chechen immigrant are being...

Five Reasons Boston Has Nothing to Do with Immigration Reform

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
*/ AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on immigration reform yesterday. S hortly after Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated bombs near the finish line at the Boston marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200, conservatives opposed to immigration reform began exploiting the tragedy. Their goal? Derailing or delaying the 844-page Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 . The bombings cast a pall over hearings on the immigration bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, where Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano fielded questions about the asylum process used by the boys' family to enter the country. Questions were also posed about the Department of Homeland Security's entry-exit system, which tracked the older of the two brothers' six-month trip to Russia, but not his re-entry. Republican senator Rand Paul sent a letter to House...

Beware Of "Ties"

Flickr/Fernando de Souza
Something to think about as we learn more in the coming days about both Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his deceased brother Tamerlan. Everything investigators have released so far suggests that they acted alone, and you can easily find instructions to make the kind of bomb they used on the Internet. But as details get fleshed out about where they went, what they did, and whom they met in the last few years, there's a phrase we'll be hearing a lot: "ties to al-Qaeda." So before people start saying the brothers had "ties to al-Qaeda," we should make sure we know exactly what we're saying when we use that term. We still don't know much about why the Russian government contacted the FBI regarding Tamerlan, and what he did on an extended trip to Chechnya and Dagestan in 2012. Who knows, maybe Ayman al-Zawahiri himself went to Grozny to meet with him, told him how to make the bombs, and ordered him to carry out the attack. But probably not. It's a lot more likely that we'll find out about some far...

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be. You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture...

The Chechen Connection

The Boston bombers have put the region and U.S.-Russia relations in the spotlight.

AP Images
Thursday night, the FBI released photographs of two suspects wanted in connection with Monday’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. Shortly afterward, Boston police identified two men suspected of the attack, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Over the course of several chaotic early morning hours, a violent chase ensued. Tamerlan died in a shootout with police and as of this writing, Dzhokhar remains at large. The brothers are originally from the restive Russian republic of Chechnya. Like many Chechens, the Tsarnaev family fled Chechnya in the 1990s amidst brutal fighting. There were two wars in the region—the first from 1994 to 1996 that largely kicked Russia’s military presence out of the republic, and a second one from 1999 to 2006 or so that succeeded in cementing Russian control. The first Chechen War was a secular, nationalist war for independence. The countries of the South Caucasus—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—gained their independence during the collapse of the Soviet...

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