Obama (finally) confirms drone strikes in Pakistan

Barack Obama has confirmed for the first time that US drones have been used to target individuals in Pakistan, the Telegraph reports.

In a chat with web users on Google+ and YouTube, Obama discussed for the first time the covert drone program that has dramatically escalated under the Obama administration. Previously the administration refused to discuss the strikes publicly.

Talking down the estimated civilian casualties as a result of the strikes, Obama said: “I want to make sure the people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we’re very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”

The New America Foundation think tank in Washington says drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 2,386 and 3,015 people have been killed including between 391 and 780 civilians and around 175 children killed. It is not known whether Obama is accepting these civilian death counts as not being a “huge number” or whether his own administration has much lower estimated death counts. Either way, human rights campaigners have expressed deep concern over increased use of drone strikes.

Obama has increased drone strikes since he came into presidency. The Telegraph has a video of Obama discussing the drone strikes for the first time.

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The rise of the international Military-Intelligence complex: International corporations selling surveillance technology to repressive regimes

Today Wikileaks is set to release around 1,100 documents, brochures and manuals for products and technology sold by companies relating to systems for surveillance and interception of telecommunications. What is being revealed is an industry centred on surveillance, spying and intelligence interception that is worth around $5 billion a year.

Julian Assange, of Wikileaks, stated in a video interview by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: “Over the last 10 years, an international industry has grown up providing state intelligence agencies with mass surveillance equipment. Those industries are now exporting that equipment around the world in an uncontrolled manner.”

Assange continued: “This is something new. Previously we had all thought ‘well, why would the government be interested in me… I am not a criminal’. Now we have a situation where these companies sell to state intelligence organisations the ability to spy on the entire population at once, that is called strategic interception; take all telecommunications traffic out of a country and permanently record it.”

Annie Machon, former MI5 intelligence officer, has written an analysis for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in which she describes a “military-industrial complex [that] is evolving into the military-intelligence complex. It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.”

Machon stated:

“Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increasing dismay as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the international intelligence community to combat the nebulous ‘war on terror’. As a result, civil liberties have been eroded in our own countries, and countless innocent people have been killed, maimed and displaced across the Middle East.

“The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agencies to lawfully intercept our communications to counter terrorism and organised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 public bodies. MI5 admitted to making 1,061 mistakes or ‘administrative errors’ this year alone in its application of RIPA, according to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.”

Coming from an MI5 intelligence officer, that is worrying stuff.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with Wikileaks and Privacy International, gained access document trove of 160 companies that sell surveillance technology to governments around the world.

Eric King, Policy Director at Privacy International, said: “The surveillance industry sells anything from mass interception equipment through to location tracking equipment. They provide technology that allows controller to read every single email, see every single webpage you visit, every text message you send, and these are companies that are selling equipment to some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”

What is also worrying is the lack of accountability and regulation with these companies that sell state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, the international expo that brings surveillance and interception professionals together, did not deny that such companies sell this technology to repressive regimes. Rather, Lucas believes that a free market in surveillance technology is perfectly acceptable:

“The surveillance systems that we discuss in our seminars are available all around the world. Do some countries use them to suppress certain political statements? Yes, probably. But it’s not my job to sort out who are the good and bad countries. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians.

“Our business is to connect those who want to buy these technologies with those who sell them. You can sell cars to the Libyan rebels, and those cars could be used as weapons. Should General Motors and Nissan ask how their vehicles will be used? Why don’t you go asking questions to the car companies? It’s the free market. You can’t stem the flow of surveillance equipment.”

However, commenting on such technology, Lucas stated:  “This technology is absolutely vital for civilization. You can’t have a situation where bad guys can communicate and you bar interception.” – Yet Lucas seems adamant that it is not his ‘job’ to sort out who the bad guys are.

The rise in electronic communications, from social networking to Skype, from text messages to emails, and an increase in the accessibility of such technology means that it is increasingly easier for governments and corporations to intercept and store communications data. This year’s ISS conference, hosted in Dubai, saw around 1,300 attendees from all corners of the world. However, Lucas said that it was Middle Eastern governments that were the most avid buyers of such software and equipment.

“When you’re selling to a government, you lose control of what the government is going to do with it,” Lucas said. “It’s like selling guns to people. Some are going to defend themselves. Some are going to commit crimes.”

Such technology is being sold to repressive regimes such as Syria and Libya. Two links detailing Libya’s surveillance can be found here:

Eric King, of Privacy International, said that it is imperative that we do not allow “British companies to profit from selling equipment that is used to oppress in foreign regimes.”

However, it is not just repressive regimes that are a concern; domestic surveillance by corporations and governments is a real concern, as well. As Annie Machon warned. Continued her analysis for the BIJ, saying:

“The last decade has also been a boom time for companies providing high-tech surveillance capabilities. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV coverage – is notorious. Local councils have invested in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cameras that bark orders to you on the street have been trialled in Middlesbrough.

“Drones are increasingly used for aerial surveillance – and the potential for militarisation of these tools is clear.

“All this despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department that is responsible for processing all this surveillance information stated publicly that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of street robberies in London. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has increased.”

Machon, calling upon her experience at MI5 and using recent examples, issued a warning:

“That would never happen in Britain – would it? We retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our government, while tut-tutting over Syrian police snatch squads pre-emptively arresting suspected dissidents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wedding in April, protesters were pre-emptively arrested to ensure that they would not cause embarrassment. The intent is the same in Syria and Britain. Only the scale and brutality differs – at the moment.”

There is much more to be said about this matter, and the Wikileaks surveillance leak will provide much more information, hopefully sparking debate and discourse in the mainstream media. With the latest revelations of phone hacking and surveillance by tabloid newspapers, the British public may find such emerging information regarding the unaccountable, lawless surveillance industry distasteful.

 Despite her warnings, Machon ends her analysis on an optimistic note:
“The balance of power, bolstered by new technologies, is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is helping level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trailblazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This – combined with the work of informed MPs, investigative journalists and potentially the occasional whistleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.”

US planning to arm UAE with thousands of bombs to counter Iran ‘threat’

The Obama administration has drawn up plans to build a regional coalition to counter Iran by selling munitions to the United Arab Emirates. The US is proposing to quietly sell thousands of advanced “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions as it steps up its mission to counter the perceived threat from Iran.

With US sanctions already in place, and UN security council members Russia and China opposed to introducing new sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration has instead decided to try to “build up the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, U.A.E. and Kuwait, as a unified counterweight to Iran,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

The US is no stranger to supplying arms to the region, and the Obama administration seems to believe that arming the region is the best way to counter the threat of, and apply pressure to, Iran.

“Recent arms deals include a record $60 billion plan to sell Saudi Arabia advanced F-15 aircraft, some to be equipped 2,000-pound JDAMs and other powerful munitions. The Pentagon recently notified Congress of plans to sell Stinger missiles and medium-range, air-to-air missiles to Oman,” the Wall Street Journal writes. “The U.S. has also sought to build up missile-defense systems across the region, with the goal of building an integrated network to defend against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Iran.”

It remains unclear whether the “bunker-buster” bombs would be effective at breaching Iranian fortifications, as it is believed some are deep enough to withstand such strikes. Just to be sure, the Pentagon has been developing larger guided bombs.

The proposal to further arm UAE is perceived to be a move to support the UAE in expanding its ‘security role’ in the region and beyond, and to deter Iran.

Once the arms deal proposal is announced, a congressional challenge could block the deal, although this is unlikely to happen as officials have said the U.A.E. package is seen as less controversial because the country is viewed as less hostile toward Israel.

US arms deals to the Middle East have slowed in pace in recent months due to the outbreak of pro-democracy protests. For example, the Wall Street Journal writes that: “Last month, the State Department put a proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain on hold after some lawmakers and human-rights groups protested the monarchy’s violent crackdown on protesters earlier this year.”

However, it is back to ‘business as usual’ with the Obama administration as arms sales to the Middle East are once again being fast-tracked by the administration.

“We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy,” the U.S. military official said of sales to ‘key allies’.

Latest images from Greece protests (Part 3)

Riot police scuffle with a demonstrator during a protest outside the parliament in Athens June 29, 2011. (Reuters)

People run away from tear gases during a protest at Syntagama square in Athens June 29, 2011. (Reuters)

Teargas swirls in the air during a protest at Syntagma Square in Athens June 29, 2011. (Reuters)

A wounded protester is being led away from clashes with riot police as protesters tried to prevent deputies from reaching the Greek parliament in central Athens on Wednesday, June 29, 2011. (Thanassis Stavrakis)

Demonstrators embrace after being overcome by tear gases during a protest in front of the parliament in Athens June 29, 2011 (Reuters)

Strikers chant slogans during a protest in central Athens, on Tuesday, June 29, 2010. Public services shut down across Greece Tuesday as workers walked off the job in a new nationwide general strike that disrupted public transport, left hospitals operating on emergency staff and pulled all news broadcasts off the air. (Alkis Konstantinidis)

Latest images from Greece protests (Part 2)

Public Power Corporation employees hold a banner which read in Greek " We Resist," during a protest in Athens, on Monday, June 28, 2010. Hundreds of Public Power employees protested Monday outside the Greek Finance Ministry (Petros Giannakouris)

Riot police take position outside the Greek Parliament prior of a demo in Athens on Tuesday June 28, 2011 (Dimitri Messinis)

A protester shakes the hand of a riot policeman during a demonstration in Athens on Tuesday June 28, 2011. (Petros Giannakouris)

A protester kicks a tear gas canister thrown by riot police during a demo in Athens on Tuesday June 28, 2011. (Petros Giannakouris)

Protesters shout slogans as riot police stand in Athens' Syntagma square, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. (Thanassis Stavrakis)

A television van burns after been set on fire by protesters during a demo in Athens on Tuesday June 28, 2011. The graffiti reads "Mass Media of deception" (Thanassis Stavrakis)

Obama rebuked by House of Representatives over Libya, whilst Congress challenges his authority

People look at destroyed tanks belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Reuters)

US President Obama has been facing mounting criticism for the US role in the Libya… what? War? Conflict? Bombing? Mission? ‘Operation’? You see, Obama has recently been keen to stress that the Libya… engagement is not a war amid rebukes from Congress who have been challenging his authority. Now the House of Representatives has stepped in, also rebuking Obama and refusing to authorise the US ‘mission’.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives delivered a symbolic vote on friday to reject a resolution to authorise US involvement in the Libya war. I’m going to call it a war, because I feel calling the military action anything else shapes and desensitises our response to it. Bombs are being dropped, buildings are being destroyed, lives are being lost. To call such violent action an ‘operation’ or a ‘mission’ is an affront to those whose lives are being lost, whatever side they are fighting for. It makes us forget the reality of the situation; this is not some sanitised, smooth military operation. It involves real harm and loss of life, even if those that are losing their lives are classed as “the enemy”. As Jonathon Schell writes:

“American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan air space, they are locating targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. It is war. Some say it is a good war and some say it is a bad war, but surely it is a war.”

So anyway. I’m going to call the NATO military intervention in Libya a war, because I believe it to be so. Obama has a rejected this worldview, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The House of Representatives refused to give President Obama the authority to continue US participation in the NATO-led war against Libya, but rejected a call to cut off money for the conflict. In this sense, the House refusal is a largely symbolic gesture. Obama has said he does not need additional congressional approval, as US forces are simply supporting NATO. However, the House has shown its disproval for the ongoing war against Libya, reflecting the disenchantment in the US over the ongoing conflicts.

The House voted 295 to 123 against the resolution to authorise the war. About 70 of the president’s Democratic party joined the Republicans to vote it down. This is the first time since the 1999 Bosnian conflict that either the House or the Senate has voted against a military operation. The House ignored Hillary Clinton’s pleas against voting it down.

“The president has operated in what we now know is called the zone of twilight as to whether or not he even needs our approval,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida said. “So what are we left with?”

House speaker John Boehner said: “I support the removal of the Libyan regime. I support the president’s authority as commander-in-chief, but when the president chooses to challenge the powers of the Congress, I, as speaker of the House, will defend the constitutional authority of the legislature.”

It is clear there is growing unrest in the US against the Obama administration’s involvement in the US war. It is also evident that the ‘excuse’ of, “oh, well, we’re only supporting NATO” is not going to stick; opponents of the US involvement are, perhaps, becoming riled at the growing culture whereby the Obama administration is becoming increasingly unaccountable for its actions in conflicts.

Republican congressman Tom Rooney, who sits on the armed services committee, said: “The last thing that we want as Americans is for some president, whether it’s this president or some future president, to be able to pick fights around the world without any debate from another branch of government.”

Whether it’s the self-perpetuating “War on Terror” or NATO-involvement, the Obama administration is increasingly avoiding accountability for its conflicts and engagements. Few Republicans or Democrats would wish to be seen to be against the “War on Terror”, which began in ‘self-defence’ (right?), though opponents of the unaccountability are beginning to draw the line; the Libyan war is, rightly or wrongly, aimed at unseating a ‘dictator’ from power rather than aiming to defend US soil… but then again, I have this strange feeling of deja vu…

Libya is not a war, says Obama


A bus burns on a road leading to the outskirts of Benghazi, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 20, 2011. The U.S. military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force. (AP)

As I mentioned earlier, President Obama has already been facing criticism from Congress. He has defended his right to take war to Libya without the approval of Congress, after Republican leaders challenged his authority. How? In his administration’s eyes, the issue is one of semantics. The US participation in the NATO-led bombings in Libya do not, in his eyes, amount to a full-blown war.

As the Guardian reported, “this week the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, wrote to Obama telling him that, under the 1973 war powers act, the president was obliged to seek congressional approval for the Libyan venture before Friday.

“The White House replied by saying the law, which says there must be a vote in the legislature within 90 days of the president taking the US to war, did not apply”.

Congress warned Obama that refusal to comply with a congressional request to seek authorisation for military action in Libya appeared to violate the war powers act.

“The combination of [White House] actions has left many members of Congress, as well as the American people, frustrated by the lack of clarity over the administration’s strategic policies, by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the role of the Congress, and by a refusal to comply with the basic tenets of the War Powers Resolution,” Boehner, the speaker of the House, stated in a letter to the president.

The White House responded to the warning with a 38-page report to Congress, describing the Libya operation not as war, but a mission to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. As stated earlier, the administration considers the war as an operation, a mission, a military ‘intervention’, shall we say, rather than considering the bombings as an act of war. And why do they not consider the bombings as an act of war? Because US troops are not directly under fire. The Obama administration only considers a conflict as being a ‘war’ when there is US soldiers at risk.

“US operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve US ground troops,” the 38-page report said.

Boehner dismissed the White House position on Thursday. “It doesn’t pass the straight-face test in my view that we’re not in the midst of hostilities,” he said. “It’s been four weeks since the president has talked to the American people about this mission. It’s time for the president to outline for the American people why we are there, what the mission is, and what our goals are.”

In an article published in the Guardian,  denounced the White House’s report, stating: “In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favour of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying, when we die. When only they, the Libyans, die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name. When they attack, it is war. When we attack, it is not.”

This is very worrying thinking from the leaders of the United States of America. Would it be naive to suggest that this worldview may represent a new age of warfare? An age of unaccountability? As Schell writes, “In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter who launched it or what happened next. Now, the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.”

In the age of the predator drone, when war can truly be waged with no damage or sacrifice, government’s can claim that bombing a country (before, a clear act of war) is simply an operation, a mission, designed to bring about a set agenda with minimum civilian casualties. Of course, civilian casualties are inevitable, but the less the better, right? When war can be waged without a soldier’s boot on foreign soil, does that end the meaning of the word, “war”?

In an act of double-think that George Orwell would be proud, War is not War – War is Peace. War is not war when there are no “active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor [when] they involve US ground troops”. But surely this means that it is in the best interests of the adversaries of the US, the ‘enemy’ that the US is (at the time) engaged with, to ‘actively exchange fire’ with US drones/planes? For then, the adversaries are suddenly turning the one-sided conflict into a war – where they are then afforded the ‘rules’ of warfare, and the US is suddenly subjected to International Law and the like? They are, essentially, suddenly held accountable for their actions, like some child that has been caught out?

Schell concurs: “It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for, if not equaling us, then at least doing us some damage. Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorised war. Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.”

“The War Powers Resolution permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces”. The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the territories of the United States.”

It is, perhaps, a sign of things to come. Much of the media outlets have been picking up on the government’s use of language; the subtle semantic changes that government’s implement into their vocabulary. Much like in Orwell’s 1984, governments realise the power of language and carefully shape and construct their verbiage for their benefit, be it influencing public opinion or escaping the nuances of their own laws. Those who construct the laws evidently and innately hold the power to escape the law – either overtly, by changing the very law itself, or covertly, by slipping through loop-holes and the like. By deciding that the Libyan war is actually a ‘mission’ or ‘operation’, the Obama administration has seemingly escaped accountability and the force of the law.

Schell continues: “In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid challenge to existing law has forced assault on the dictionary. For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of Congressional authorisation, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.”

“It chose language.”

And as we enter an age of predator drones, “War on Terror” and a newfound distaste for ‘evil dictators’ residing in the Middle East, are we also entering an age where the self-proclaimed “protagonists” of the world (the US, the UK, NATO, and the like) are becoming unaccountable for their actions? Are we entering an age where war ceases to exist, merely because language is changing? Wars become conflicts; conflicts become operations; operations become missions; missions become peace.

Latest images from Greece protests

Moltov cocktail explodes near riot police guarding the Greek parliament in Athens, June 15, 2011. Tens of thousands of grassroot activists and unionists converged on Athens' central Syntagma (Constitution) Square Wednesday as Prime Minister George Papandreou prepared to push through a new five-year campaign of tax hikes, spending cuts and selloffs of state property to continue receiving aid from the European Union and International Monetary Fund and avoid default. (Reuters)

A Greek riot police officer kicks a protester that was trying to calm other protesters down during clashes in Athens' main Syntagma square, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in central Athens Wednesday as a major anti-austerity rally degenerated into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

Greek riot police officers throw tear gas as they chase protesters during clashes in Athens' main Syntagma square, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. The banner reads in Greek: 'Continuous strikes, until victory'. Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in central Athens Wednesday as a major anti-austerity rally degenerated into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

A Greek riot police officer chases protesters during riots in central Athens Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Riot police made heavy use of tear gas Wednesday to disperse groups of masked anarchists hurling firebombs and rocks on the sidelines of a major rally outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks required to avoid a debt default. (Petros Giannakouris)

A Greek protester throws plastic bottles into a fire that was lit by protesters to combat the effects of tear gas, thrown by riot police, not seen, during clashes in Athens' main Syntagma square, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in central Athens Wednesday as a major anti-austerity rally degenerated into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

A protester tries to cover her face from the effects of tear gas shot by police during clashes in Athens' main Syntagma square, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in central Athens Wednesday as a major anti-austerity rally degenerated into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

A demonstrator argues with a police officer outside the Greek Parliament during a rally against plans for new austerity measures, in central Athens, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. A 24-hour anti-austerity strike by Greece's largest labor unions crippled public services Wednesday, as the Socialist government was to begin a legislative battle to push through last-ditch cost-cutting reforms that will extend beyond its own term in office. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

A protester throws stones towards a riot policeman taking cover behind a shutter at the ministry of Finance during riots in central Athens Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Riot police made heavy use of tear gas Wednesday to disperse groups of masked anarchists hurling firebombs and rocks on the sidelines of a major rally outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks required to avoid a debt default. (Petros Giannakouris)

Police arrest a demonstrator trying to block the road to the Parliament during a rally against plans for new austerity measures, in central Athens, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. A 24-hour anti-austerity strike by Greece's largest labor unions crippled public services Wednesday, as the Socialist government was to begin a legislative battle to push through last-ditch cost-cutting reforms that will extend beyond its own term in office. (AP Photo)

A Greek protester runs with a baton to hit a riot police officer during clashes in Athens' main Syntagma square, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police in central Athens Wednesday as a major anti-austerity rally degenerated into violence outside Parliament, where the struggling government was to seek support for new cutbacks to avoid a disastrous default. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.