Cuba Off Terrorism List, Germany and U.S. Drones, War in Yemen

Originally published at the Fordham Observer‘s “Going Global” column.

U.S to Remove Cuba From Terror Sponsors List

In his continued effort to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama has made an official recommendation to Congress that Cuba be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move will leave only Iran, Sudan and Syria on the list. Cuba was placed on the list in 1982 when its government was supporting liberation struggles across the region. It will not be officially removed from the list until after a 45-day review period, during which Congress could form a joint resolution to block its removal. The Cuban government called Obama’s move “just” and said it should never have been on the listThe U.S. trade embargo with Cuba remains in effect. “President Obama has acknowledged publicly and with actions something that has been obvious for a very long time: US policy towards Cuba has been frozen for way too many years and hasn’t done a thing to achieve its stated goals. It’s time to try a more enlightened approach,” Hector Lindo-Fuentes, associate chair and professor of history, said.

Germany is heart of U.S. drone program

A top-secret document obtained by the news website, The Intercept, confirms that the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, is the main technology center for America’s drone program. Drone operators in the American Southwest use Ramstein as a satellite relay station to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other targeted countries. Although Ramstein’s role in the drone program has been downplayed, an unidentified source told The Intercept, “Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now.” A German court has agreed to hear a case brought by a relative of two Yemeni victims of a U.S. drone strike for Germany’s role in the drone program. This is globally unprecedented as no court anywhere, including in the U.S., has ever agreed to grant standing to a relative of a drone strike victim. “Perhaps the court would be willing to issue an injunction prohibiting the use of Ramstein for its role in drone strikes if it finds this role essential,” Thomas H. Lee, Leitner Family professor of International Law, said. “All of this just adds to the controversies about the drone program – the United States has still not officially recognized civilian deaths as collateral damage.”

War in Yemen

Over 1,000 people have died in the fighting in Yemen since late March. With intelligence and logistical support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and nine regional allies began bombing Houthis on March 25. The Houthis, a Shiite minority, took over the capital Sana’a in January and forced the resignation of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has since fled to Saudi Arabia. President Obama has long defended the “successful” counterterrorism model with the Yemeni government in its fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has begun to gain control of more territory during the power vacuum created by the Houthis’ takeover and the Saudi Arabian military campaign. “No outside power can resolve what is, at heart, a struggle for national identity in a country seriously divided along religious, tribal, and ideological lines […] You can’t bomb a country into the 21st century nor rearrange its political architecture through external interference,” John P. Entelis, professor and chair of Political Science and director of Middle East Studies, said.

Obama’s Crackdown on Whistleblowers: Petraeus Plea Deal Reveals Double Standard for Leaks

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Originally published at Huffington Post.

“There are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” then-CIA director David Petraeus told his employees in 2012 of the successful conviction of CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, the only government official to be jailed for any reason related to CIA torture. And in a 2010 interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Petraeus said of whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s leaking of classified war documents to WikiLeaks, “This is beyond unfortunate.  I mean, this is a betrayal of trust.” Kiriakou, after serving twenty-three months in prison, is currently finishing his three-month house arrest, and Manning is serving her thirty-five-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile, in March Petraeus agreed to a lenient plea deal which will likely only result in two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine for giving classified information to his mistress and authorized biographer Paula Broadwell. He also has, as the New York Times‘ Matt Apuzzo writes, “a lucrative post-government career” as a partner in a private equity firm. Not only does Petraeus go on speaking tours about national security, but he has also continued to advise the Obama administration on its strategy in Iraq. This stark difference in the way government officials are prosecuted and treated after leaking classified information reveals a double standard for leaks: serious criminal consequences are brought on only those who expose government wrongdoing.

High-level government officials like Petraeus are immune from these consequences because the information they reveal is in the government’s interest. By contrast, low-level employees (like Kiriakou, Manning and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) who reveal government corruption, abuse and wrongdoing are prosecuted to the fullest extent because the government wants this information kept secret, and because these low-level employees don’t have the political resources and connections to fight back. The government uses these prosecutions as a method of deterrence for future whistleblowing, giving the message that if you leak classified information that makes the government look bad, you will spend time in prison. (Luckily for the public, this threat didn’t deter Snowden: since the day he went public via the Guardian, he has said numerous times that he is willing to face any consequences provided that he is guaranteed a fair trial.)

Government officials leak classified information without authorization to journalists all the time. But this information makes the administration look good. It details successful military operations overseas or productive discussions with foreign governments. For example, the Obama administration has been accused of intentionally inviting a filmmaker of Zero Dark Thirty, a film spewing U.S. war propaganda, to a talk by former CIA director Leon Panetta who disclosed classified information. Panetta was never prosecuted.

Neither was James Cartwright, a retired Marine general who gave highly classified information to a Times reporter about a joint U.S.-Israeli effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear centrifuges through a cyber attack. The information he leaked is not very different from that leaked by Jeffrey Sterling, an African American CIA officer convicted in January for leaking classified information to Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter James Risen about a CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. In March, Sterling’s lawyers requested a reconsideration of his conviction considering the lenient treatment given to both Petraeus and Cartwright. “The principal difference between Mr. Sterling and Generals Petraeus and Cartwright are their respective races and rank,” Sterling’s lawyers argue. “Like General Cartwright, General Petraeus is a white, high ranking official […] The government must explain why the justice meted out to white generals is so different from what Mr. Sterling faced.”

As investigative journalist and Intercept co-founder Jeremy Scahill said at the paperback launch of his book Dirty Wars “[current CIA director] John Brennan leaked so much after the Osama bin Laden raid that I wanted to buy him a Depends diaper.” Every detail leaked to the press by Brennan about the bin Laden raid turned out to be false. He revealed them to make the story more jingoistic, to make the military look good. But he was never prosecuted or held accountable for leaking this classified – albeit false – information.

There is another important difference in how the double standard works: unlike Petraeus and Cartwright, low-level whistleblowers get charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The Justice Department under President Obama has used the Espionage Act seven times (Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Manning, Stephen Kim, Sterling, Kiriakou and Snowden) in leak prosecutions – more than double the three times that all prior administrations combined have used it. Violating the Espionage Act is a strict liability offense, which means that you can’t mount a defense, so a court cannot consider a person’s intent for leaking classified information. As Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer for Snowden, Kiriakou and Drake, said on Democracy Now!, “It does not matter whether you were leaking secrets to a foreign enemy for profit or whether you were giving information to journalists in the public interest to give back to the people who have a right to know what’s been done in their name.”

No one in government raises an eyebrow when propagandist information is leaked to the media. This is exactly the information that the government wants the public to know. In this environment of state-sponsored journalism wherein the only information leaked to the public is that which the government authorizes the public to know, we as members of the public must demand transparency and accountability. This is why independent journalism – which should be inherently adversarial to the state – is so utterly necessary. It serves as the only challenge to the government’s line. Otherwise, high-level officials like David Petraeus are free to profit from selling propaganda (“The hard-earned progress of the Surge was sustained for over three years”) and lies about the U.S. government while Chelsea Manning faces three decades in prison for exposing the wrongdoing that people like Petraeus wish to keep secret from the public.

Nigerian Election, Palestine Joins ICC, Sanctions on Venezuela

Originally published at the Fordham Observer‘s “Going Global” column.

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Nigerian Presidential Election

Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, unseating President Goodluck Jonathan by 2.7 million votes. One of Nigeria’s military rulers, Buhari, 72, first came to power in a military coup in 1984. Many voters were drawn to his hard-handedness in a country marked by corruption and an Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram, both targets of much of Buhari’s aggressive rhetoric. “If he acts on his military approach to end the insurgency, Nigeria will plunge into violence and political instability. There is no military solution to Boko Haram. Buhari must address the socio-economic causes of the insurgency to advance democratic values and foster economic development,” Amir H. Idris, professor and chair of African and African American Studies, said.

Palestine Becomes Member of ICC

As of April 1, Palestine has become an official member of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In January, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acceded to the 1998 Rome Statute, which created the court, after the United States and Israel blocked a U.N. Security Council measure calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestine has given the ICC jurisdiction over incidents beginning in June 2014, a month before Israel launched its 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip killing more than 2,200 Palestinians, including nearly 1,500 civilians, opening the door to prosecute Israeli war crimes. Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, opened a preliminary examination in January. The Israeli military is conducting several already in an attempt to stymie external efforts to hold the military accountable for war crimes. “[Palestinian ICC membership] could mean prosecution not only of Israelis, but also Palestinians – including groups like Hamas. As the ICC’s preliminary examinations typically last months or years, it may be a whole year before we see how the ICC will proceed,” Karen Corrie, adjunct professor of political science and former trial lawyer for the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC, said.

Obama Imposes Sanctions on Venezuelan Leaders

In March, the White House imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan senior officials, citing human rights violations and corruption. As a legal requirement to justify the sanctions, President Obama declared Venezuela “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security,” but has since rescinded this classification. 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries issued support for President Nicolás Maduro and rejected the US sanctions, claiming they are a threat to Venezuelan sovereignty and aren’t actually about human rights given U.S. support of repressive regimes across the world and its long-time attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in Venezuela. “Regardless of what one can think of the wisdom of Maduro’s policies, it is hard to see how Venezuela — a country in the middle of a deep economic crisis, high inflation and high crime rates — can represent such a threat to the most powerful country in the world,” Hector Lindo-Fuentes, professor and associate chair of history, said.