Thursday, April 29

Obama still a war criminal; the empire strikes back and misses Hakeemullah again; drone hearing in Congress; and the Guardian delivers a warning

This post is for readers who thought I was making an April Fool's joke when I wrote on April 1 that President Obama should be impeached and tried for war crimes because he authorized Pakistan's government to choose targets for some CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.

Yesterday, April 28, a U.S. congressional subcommittee (National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform) held a hearing to examine the legality of the CIA's use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) to fire missiles at suspected insurgents/terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere.

(See my April 11 post, Koh silent about Obama decision to let Pakistan choose targets for U.S. drones for background on the drone issue.)

Wired magazine reported that one of the authorities giving testimony, David Glazier, Loyola Law School professor and former Navy surface warfare officer, observed about CIA employees carrying out the drone strikes:
... Under the legal theories adopted by our government in prosecuting Guantánamo detainees, these CIA officers as well as any higher-level government officials who have authorized or directed their attacks are committing war crimes.” ... [1]
I didn't listen to the hearing but from the Wired report about it, I doubt Glazier touched on the specific question of Obama's authorizing the CIA to act as an assassin for another government and one that is patently a rogue regime.

Indeed, I'd be surprised if any questions or discussion during the hearing addressed the issue. My guess is that Glazier and others who testified were focused on answering questions about general issues relating to drone use.

That would certainly be the case for an American human rights attorney, Joanne Mariner, who did not testify but who drew up a list of questions she determined the House panel needed to ask about U.S. drone warfare. Her questions, posted at the legal website Find Law, are excellent, except for the glaring omission of one about a U.S. President authorizing Pakistan's government to choose CIA drone strikes.

I hasten to add that I extend the benefit of the doubt to Mariner about whether the omission means she was being generous to Obama. Given that in the United States only a handful of media outlets (The New Yorker; The Wall Street Journal; my blog and RBO, which crossposts my essays) have mentioned the specific issue, she might not know about it. Aside from the outlets I mentioned, to the best of my knowledge not one single American news program on radio or television, not one press outlet or blog, not one Member of Congress, has discussed the specific issue.

Even The Wall Street Journal report, dated March 26, 2010, does not specifically state that Obama had authorized the CIA to allow Pakistan to pick targets; it only mentioned that Obama was reviewing Pakistan's request to use the drones to target domestic enemies. Because the exact date of Obama's decision is only given as "March" 2010 by The New Yorker article, it's possible he okayed Pakistan's request after the WSJ report was published.

In any event, the dearth of public discussion about Obama's decision explains why I have little hope that the issue was explicitly raised during yesterday's hearing, or that Obama will ever be brought to trial or impeached because of a war crime.

However, I don't find it coincidental that on the same day the hearing was conducted the Guardian, a conduit for MI6 opinion, broke a story featuring an unnamed "western diplomat" and a "senior intelligence official at Pakistan's ISI spy agency. The unnamed ISI official asserted that, contrary to earlier reports, Hakeemullah Mehsud had not been killed by a U.S. drone strike in January.

The British government believes the CIA's drone strikes in Pakistan are counterproductive (a belief shared by U.S. military commanders and analysts backing the COIN approach in Afghanistan; see the New Yorker report), but because they don't want to openly confront the U.S. on the matter, I think the Guardian used mouthpieces instead of British officials:
[...] The senior official said the ISI would be "very, very willing" to play a role in negotiations with the Taliban, but only if called upon by both the Afghan and US governments. For now, he said, Pakistan's spies are "sitting on the sidelines, watching".

"There are a number of different efforts and nobody knows what anyone else is doing. It's a very fragmented effort." He added that "if it's meant to confuse the Taliban, it's working".

One stumbling block, he said, was the clashing policies of Britain and the US. "The British are more amenable to negotiations and talking," he said. "The Americans are attempting to create conditions where the Taliban will be forced to come to the table. In my opinion they will never achieve that."

A western diplomat in Islamabad said British officials were more inclined to talks than their US counterparts, but said policy had not been fixed in either country because "otherwise things would be happening".[...]
There is a good reason, in addition to the opportunity afforded by the publicity about yesterday's congressional hearing on drones, that the British government wants to bring up premature reports about Hakeemullah's death at this time. The reason has to do with the recent release of the U.N. report on Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

Pakistan's government is very bad actor; it's on par with the one in Iran, and it's been propped up by the U.S. government; this has been to the great detriment of democracy and human rights in Pakistan and the NATO war effort in Afghanistan.(2)

But even the United Nations, which has great tolerance for atrocities carried out by rogue regimes and doesn't like to cross Pakistan's government, finally had their fill. They refused to whitewash many details relating to Benazir Bhutto's assassination, and which point to ISI complicity in her death. The report is so strongly worded that Pakistan's President (who is also Bhutto's widower) tried at first to suppress its publication.

The Guardian report yesterday mentioned the U.N. findings almost in passing, but the fact that the issue was raised in a discussion of Hakeemullah surviving the U.S. drone strikes I read as a warning from the British government to the American one.

The press in Pakistan managed to downplay the issue of the ISI's stonewalling when they reported on the U.N. findings. But the United Kingdom is a small country that is very vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and which has a large community of Pakistani immigrants and Britons of Pakistani ancestry. And the U.K. press has been open about discussing the U.N. report.

The British government, which has its own history of pandering to Pakistani regimes (and the Taliban in Afghanistan) can no longer afford to be seen as giving strong support to Pakistan's regime, particularly not since the publication of the U.N. report on Bhutto's killing. If the British have to distance themselves from the United States over this matter, they will. I believe that was the message MI6 wished to convey in yesterday's Guardian report.

The CIA can't even name all the Pakistanis they've assassinated with the drone strikes because they don't know who they're killing in many cases; often they have to take the Pakistan military or ISI's word for it. That means they don't know whether they're killing enemies of the Pakistan state, drug dealers, Afghan warlords, al Qaeda, Taliban, or civilians who're not involved with the war against NATO or the attacks on Pakistan's military.

And as can be seen by the question about whether Hakeemullah is still alive, the CIA all too often depends on faulty or deliberately erroneous information supplied by Pakistan's military/ISI about whether a strike actually hit a presumed target.

Yet the Pakistan military and ISI are notorious for supplying wildly erroneous reports, as Long War Journal's Bill Roggio has pointed out several times and most recently yesterday:
Longtime readers of The Long War Journal know that we've been cautious about declaring Hakeemullah dead. Our sources, which have been very accurate on the subject of dead al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the past, have been skeptical of the reports.

Pakistani officials hurt their case when they declared that he died on three different dates, and in three different circumstances.

And the Pakistanis have a terrible track record when declaring senior terror leaders dead. The list at the last link is woefully out of date, but updating it would only reinforce the assertion that Pakistani officials have an awful accuracy rate in reporting on the deaths of top terror leaders. Other than Baitullah Mehsud [killed by a CIA drone strike] and a handful of other local, second-tier Pakistani Taliban leaders in Swat, the record has been dismal at best. One Swati Taliban leader supposedly killed in a shootout later died from cancer. [Bill dryly titled that particular post Taliban commander killed by Pakistani forces dies of cancer]
Not only do Pakistan's military and ISI suffer from an incurable case of irrational exuberance and speaking out both sides of their mouths, they are also notorious for a revolving door policy, whereby they arrest and imprison al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, then several months later report the jailbirds have somehow flown the coop.

As to whether Pakistan's government collects cash bounties from the CIA on terrorists who go through the revolving door, I do not know but it wouldn't surprise me to learn they do collect, and even collect twice if they re-arrest the same terrorists.(3)

If this is the way you like to see your taxes spent, well, what can I say? But when it comes to the point where the President of the United States puts American assassins in the service of a rogue regime it's only a matter of time before Americans have to pay a price we can't afford.

One of the reasons it's hard to get an accurate count and identification of the number of innocent civilians killed by drone strikes is that often, all that's left of the dead are a few pieces of skin and fragments of bone. That is what Pakistanis have had to bury of relatives caught in the crosshairs of the U.S. war on terror. They don't even know whether the fragments are from their relatives, but they share the fragments with other families who lost relatives in the same strike and call that a funeral.

Just so you're clear on why Hakeemullah Mehsud became an enemy of the Pakistan state I'm going to close by repeating quotes from the Indian counterterrorism expert Bahukutumbi ("B") Raman that I've featured at least once before on this blog. If the import didn't sink in the last time or two maybe it will now. Writing for Forbes in May 2009, Raman observed:
[W]hile the Pakistani Punjabi Taliban and the Neo Taliban have been in existence for over a decade, the Pakistani Pashtun Talibans are products of the commando raid into the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007, in which a large number of Pashtun tribal children, many of them girls, were killed. It was after this that tribal sirdars, including Fazlullah, Baitullah and Hakeemullah called for a jihad against the Pakistan army and the ISI in retaliation for the raid. While the TNSM has been in existence since the early 1990s, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was born after the Lal Masjid raid.
1) I don't want to short Glazier's remarks, so please read the Wired report for the fuller context of his remarks, which find drones a lawful weapon of war. In brief, it's the use of (CIA) civilians to carry out the drone attacks that Glazier and other legal experts find unlawful or at least open to the charge.

2) See my two 2009 Alden Pyle in Pakistan essays here and here for information about the U.S. role in Pakistan that doesn't make it into the mainstream media.

3) For information on the cash bounties and additional background on the U.S. drone warfare in Pakistan, see my November 2009 essay How the U.S. government built a perpetual-motion war machine in Afghanistan and sacrificed American values in the process.

Wednesday, April 28

Gordon Brown's 'Bitter Clinging' moment while immigrant exhaustion overtakes Britons

April 13, 2008:
A political storm is brewing over Sen. Barack Obama's recent statements. Last Sunday, Obama was explaining his difficulty with winning over working-class voters in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, saying they have become frustrated with economic conditions:

"And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Obama said.
Mr Obama was unaware that his comments to Liberals at a wine and cheese fundraiser in an upscale San Franciso neighborhood were being recorded. Fast forward to April 28, 2010:

Mrs Gillian Duffy, a 65 year-old grandmother, is a lifelong 'working-class' member of Britain's Labor party. When she had a chance today to put questions to Labor's Gordon Brown during his televised election campaigning, she asked about a range of issues that reflected the majority's concerns: crime, high taxes, the national debt, high university tuition fees, immigration.

The Prime Minister, a practiced pol and adept at dealing with the working class (or "real people" as his administration likes to call them), answered her questions genially, although he was a little arch about her immigration question:
GILLIAN DUFFY: Three main things what I was drummed in when I was a child was education, health service and looking after people who are vulnerable. ... But there's too many people now who aren't vulnerable but they can claim and people who are vulnerable can't get claim, can't get it.

GORDON BROWN: But they shouldn't be doing that. There's no life on the dole for people any more. If you're unemployed you've got to go back to work. It's six months...

GD: You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're... all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?

GB: A million people come from Europe but a million people, British people, have gone into Europe. You do know that there's a lot of British people staying in Europe as well?
After a few more exchanges including a charming compliment about her jacket, Gordo returned to the Sky News truck for the next campaign pit stop.

Unaware that his microphone was still on, which meant he was still broadcasting all over Britain, he snapped to an underling, "That was a disaster. Should never have put me with that woman ... whose idea was that?"

When the underling asked what the woman had said, Gordo replied, "Ugh, everything -- she's just a sort of bigoted woman, said she used to be Labour. It's just ridiculous."

Moments later the media had beat a path to Mrs Duffy to breathlessly inquire how she'd reacted upon learning what Labor's leader really thought of her:
Iain Watson (BBC): We are live at the moment, the prime minister's being interviewed by the BBC, what would you like to say to the prime minister?

Gillian Duffy: "I want to know why I was called a bigot"

GD: I'm not saying anything more to him.

IW: Are you disappointed?

GD: I am really disappointed.

Niall Paterson (Sky News): Mrs Duffy you came here with very specific concerns about your pension, and he responded positively to those, you thought?

GD: It was about the tax being paid and pensions, and the national debt.

NP: But you've just watched that, you've heard the prime minister's words in the Sky truck? What is your instant reaction to that?

GD: Very upsetting, I'm very upset.

IW: Did you expect that from him?

GD: No. He's an educated person, why has he come up with words like that? He's going to lead this country and he's calling an ordinary woman who has just come up and asked him questions - what most people would ask him, they're not doing anything about the national debt, it's going to be tax, tax, tax for another 20 years to get out of this national debt - and he's calling me a bigot.

NP: You told me you were a lifelong Labour supporter, then you have a postal vote registered, will you be sending that?

GD: No.

IW: You also told me earlier, you said when I asked will he stay at No 10 and you said, hopefully he will.

GD: Well, I'm not bothered whether he does ... not now. I don't think he will.
Once Mr Obama realized his remarks were making headlines he backtracked, amplified, clarified, and apologized Six Ways from Sunday. The Obama-crazy media (including the Huffington Post blogger who ratted him out) were all too willing to forgive his snobbish remarks about working class voters.

The British media are not in such a forgiving mood about Gordon Brown's apologies to Mrs. Duffy. A million Britons are indeed fanning out across Europe but they're doing so because they can't find work in the United Kingdom. Unlike the majority of immigrants pouring into the U.K. these British expats are educated, white-collar workers who don't go on the welfare rolls in their host countries.

A week ago the Guardian newspaper, a bastion of British Educated Liberal opinion that could never be accused of bigotry, published an editorial titled We need a radical immigration policy:
Despite debate about population growth figures, the problem of immigration in the UK is clear. The government must take action. [...] Britain is already, with Holland, the most crowded country in Europe. Most immigrants go to London and the south-east. Schemes to oblige them to work and remain in places less attractive to immigrants are unrealistic and unenforceable. There is a strong case to be made that the quality of life and social cohesion of our society as a whole will be severely affected by continued population growth on anything like the current scale.

The view of the public is very clear. According to the latest Sunday Times, 74% think immigration into the UK is too high and the government's own survey, conducted by the Department for Communities and Local Government in February 2010, found that 77% want to see immigration reduced and 50% want it reduced "by a lot". Of the ethnic respondents, 25% also wished to see immigration reduced by a lot. [...]
As the afternoon wore on in the U.K. the Beeb chronicled the widening fallout from the Prime Minister's remark about Mrs Duffy. Nick Griffin must have been grinning from ear to ear as he turned in for the night.

Tuesday, April 20

Iceland Volcano Ash: US military perfectly capable of evacuating stranded Americans from Europe but White House, State continue to prevaricate

Six days out from Europe's grounding of air flights due to ash and glass particles from a volcanic eruption, and the Obama Administration continues to act like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of State posted a bizarre statement about the situation. After giving assurance that the state department was sympathetic to the plight of the stranded and offering helpful tips; e.g., "Keep checking in with your airlines," which of course no stranded citizen would think of doing until being prompted, State plopped out with the bottom line for the American taxpayer:
The Department of State is not evacuating U.S. citizens at this time. U.S. Government evacuation options are constrained by the same factors that are affecting commercial transportation. Furthermore, U.S. Government-facilitated travel by sea would take time to arrange and undertake, by which point commercial travel is likely to have resumed. The cost to travelers to repay an evacuation loan would be equivalent to the commercial rates for cross-Atlantic sea travel.
Also yesterday, AFP reported:
WASHINGTON — The White House said Monday that 40,000 Americans were stranded in Britain because of the huge number of flight cancellations due to the cloud of volcanic ash.

Many more US citizens also appeared to be having trouble returning home from vacation or business trips in other parts of Europe, amid an aviation crisis brought on by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland which led to airspace closures across much of the continent.

President Barack Obama's spokesman said the US ambassador to Britain Louis Susman had called the White House earlier Monday with an update on the situation.

"I think there are approximately, according to him, about 40,000 Americans in England that are trying, because of the disruption in air travel, to get back to this country," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Some of the stranded Americans were running out of medicine or didn't have places to stay, said Gibbs, adding that the US State Department was looking into the situation.

Asked whether the US Navy could follow the example of Britain's Royal Navy and seek to rescue some stranded citizens, Gibbs said he was unaware of any such plans.

"We've got some big ships, but that would be a pretty big ship," he said.
Well yes but that's just why a navy always has more than one ship.

In 2006 the U.S. military, using a variety of vessels including chartered cruise ships, helped 15,000 Americans safely depart from Lebanon during Israel's bombing of the city. And the navy stood ready to extract as many U.S. citizens as necessary.

Not only that, but while they were evacuating Americans the military squeezed in enough time to distribute millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to the Lebanese; they also found time to have a boat full of Navy Seals pull alongside a Norwegian-chartered evacuation ferry and deliver food to the 127 Americans onboard.

The kicker is that this massive operation, which included coordination with other governments, was accomplished in ten days. So while Obama and his pathetic excuses for advisors have been fiddling around for the last six days, evacuations from Europe could have been well underway.

As for the kind of fee ("loan") that State is now talking about charging evacuees, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waived the fee for the 2006 evacuees. Of course; such fees should be waived when Americans are stranded far from home through no fault of their own.

It's one of those duties that are part of the social compact, and which taxpaying citizens expect to be included in the price of their support for a modern government: Large numbers of your citizens are stranded somewhere in the world for an indefinite period, you go extract them.

It's also part of national defense. The U.S. military even has a name for it: "Non-combatant Evacuation Operation."

The only national government that acted responsibly and intelligently in the volcanic ash situation was Taiwan's. Their national airline's officials didn't wait around for days, licking their forefingers and holding them to the wind to see if it was still blowing in the same direction. They chartered buses, trains, ferries, you name it, to pluck their citizens out of European airports and get them safely home.

The most shocking part of the Obama Administration's excuses is that as early as Friday, April 16, it was known that even if the ash cloud cleared up immediately there was already such a large backlog of stranded airline passengers in Europe that it would take weeks for the airlines to work through it.

So I don't know what State was talking about when they argued that if the U.S. launched an extraction by sea the situation might be cleared up before the ships arrived.

And even if that were the case, even if the ships were halfway to the destinations when the tens of thousands of stranded citizens were able to get on planes, then you turn the ships around and say, 'At least we saved on fuel.' You don't use that as an excuse not to make the effort on behalf of your citizens when a situation strands them through no fault of their own.

As an American citizen I feel ashamed that I should have to publicly instruct my government on such elementary points.

None of the above goes near the fact that a fresh eruption of the volcano, combined with the prevailing winds, is sending yet another cloud of ash toward Western Europe.

So now what? State hasn't even yet collected estimates of the number of U.S. citizens stranded in parts of Europe other than England. Six days out. And they haven't even done that much.

Let's see; what could we call State that they haven't already been called? How about the U.S. Department of Sleepwalkers? And while we're at it, rename the White House the Lost House.

High intrigue as SEIU mandarins battle for Andy Stern's throne

Steve Diamond has more news about the doings at the Service Employees International Union in the wake of Andy Stern's announcement that he was giving up the union's presidency. Steve writes on his King Harvest blog:
Battle for Helm of SEIU Underway After Stern
by Stephen Diamond, April 19, 2010

Andy Stern is not yet out of the way but the battle among SEIU's top officials for control of the 2.2 million member union is well underway. Early reports had Anna Burger, currently head of Change to Win and Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU, favored to replace Stern. But King Harvest has learned that a memo from several SEIU VP's, including Eliseo Medina, the powerful west coast based union official, is circulating backing fellow VP Mary Kay Henry over Burger.

The real question is whether the union will now attempt to restore internal union democracy and allow the members themselves a serious role in the process. The lack of transparency behind the departure of Stern and the battling secret emails now going is not a great sign.

No matter the outcome the departure of Stern from the scene means a decline in the union's political leverage. Neither Burger nor Henry are likely to have anything like the access to the White House that Stern, whom I called Obama's Fifth Man, enjoyed during the first year of the Obama Administration. That Stern would depart under these circumstances remains one of the stranger political developments we have witnessed of late.
As you might tell from the title of this post I'm pessimistic that the union will become democratic under a new president. Steve himself noted in his April 15 post about the mystery surrounding Stern's real reason for leaving SEIU:
Sorry, but no one walks away from command of a 2 million member organization that can shut down entire cities (as Stern did as part of the immigrant rights marches a few years ago) or elect presidents (as, arguably, Stern helped do in the case of Obama) quietly or on their own.
Once a union leader gathers that much power I can't feature his replacement handing any of the power to the peasants -- beyond a few cosmetic changes in a nod to criticism.

As to Steve's comment that Stern's departure means the union won't have as much political leverage -- again, as Steve pointed out in his April 15 post, it's the numbers that really make the union so powerful politically -- more than 2 million members. I can't see Obama cold-shouldering SEIU's next president for that reason.

What I can see is the possibility that once the iron-fisted Stern is gone SEIU would break into two or more unions.

History is littered with similar situations accompanying the demise of a powerful emperor. A warlord who never had enough power to take on the emperor is quick to mobilize restive peasants and disgruntled elements of the emperor's army once the emperor is gone. Even if the warlord can't have the palace, he figures he can scare up a big enough army to set up a rival seat of power.

In that event, yes, the next person to head SEIU would not enjoy as many visits to the White House as Stern. Not only would the union membership be smaller after a split but it would also be a political landmine for Obama to show favoritism toward one side, in what would be a bitter rivalry for several years.

Thursday, April 15

When the living look like skeletons: Shamed, China's leaders pledge to make amends to Tibetan earthquake victims and "all ethnic peoples."

Before there was McDonald's, before there was Chuck E. Cheese, the one restaurant you could haul a rambunctious brood to on a weekend night without getting glares from the waiters was a Chinese restaurant. The Chinese worship children; they have infinite patience with them, even with the brats. So when I saw photographs of well-fed Chinese soldiers rescuing half starved-looking Tibetan children from the earthquake rubble I thought, 'If those pictures get on Chinese TV, Hu is toast.'

I guess he thought the same thing because he cut short his attendance at an important BRIC summit in Brazil and raced home. That halted the summit because his attendance there was key. He also announced that because of the earthquakes in western China on Wednesday and "the great loss of human life," he was cutting short his Latin American tour and wouldn't visit Venezuela or Chile as planned.

He also packed off Premier Wen Jiabao to the Tibetan plateau to address the earthquake victims. After flying Thursday night to Qinghai province's Yushu county, close to the epicenter, Wen climbed atop a pile of rubble and pledged to "build a good life for all ethnic people after the earthquake."

The speech was translated simultaneously into Tibetan. Remarking on Wen's speech, The Los Angeles Times reports today:
[...] Almost since the moment the quake struck at 7:49 a.m. Wednesday, Chinese state television has been filled with images of hero Chinese soldiers and paramilitary working hand-in-hand with local Tibetans - some of them Buddhist monks - in common cause to rescue victims of the earthquake.

"I think the Chinese already are looking at the larger implications of this earthquake. They see it as an opportunity for the Communist Party to win sympathy through its generosity," Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at New York's Columbia University, said Thursday. He says he believes that the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, may see it "as an opportunity to find some common ground." [...]
Well that's true but the analysis is overlooking that Hu is well aware of the raw wounds of Chinese parents who lost their children in the Great Sichuan Earthquake in May 2008. Because of the one child policy in China, most of those children were the parents' only child.

It wasn't until May of last year that the Chinese government finally released their version of the number of children killed -- without releasing the names; it was more than 5,300. That number is probably far less than the actual number killed.

That's not the half of it. Many of those children were killed because the earthquake struck during the school day and thousands of shoddily built schools disintegrated. The Chinese authorities promised investigations into the shoddy building practices then dragged their feet and clamped down on parent protests about the issue.

Now the Chinese have to sit in front of the TV and watch more children's bodies pulled from the rubble of collapsed schools in Qinghai province. Even though the quake struck before the school day, many of the children were boarded at the schools. And the Chinese have to see that many of the children look like skeletons. The Han Chinese are still ticked off at the Tibetans about the Tibetan protests in 2008 but I know the sight of those children trumps everything.

Even before the earthquake in Qinghai the situation there was bad:
Many residents of urban areas of Yushu are impoverished former herders and farmers resettled in public housing under a controversial program that the Chinese government said would preserve grasslands and alleviate poverty. Tibetan human rights groups have complained the practice has deprived people of their traditions and livelihood, leading to social unrest.
On top of that, at last count the quake killed 760 people, injured more than 9,000 and made more than 100,000 homeless, the majority of them Tibetan.

Good and bad news about new Iceland volcano eruption

Reuters reported a couple hours ago that the eruption, which happened yesterday, is intensifying and showing no signs of abating. The New York Times reported a half hour ago that the eruption isn't all that powerful (when compared to something like the 1991 eruption in the Philippines.) But there is also bad news:
Eruption Wasn’t That Powerful, but Effects May Linger
By HENRY FOUNTAIN, April 15, 2010

The Icelandic volcanic eruption that disrupted air travel in Europe on Thursday was not a particularly powerful one, experts said, but they cautioned that its effects — both on travel and the regional climate — may linger.

Bill Burton, associate director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s volcano hazards program, said the current eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier bore similarities to the last eruption there, in 1821. “We seem to be reprising that episode again,” he said.

That eruption continued, on and off, until 1823. While no one can predict how long this one may last, Dr. Burton said, in vulcanology, “The past is the key to the present.”

He added, “So if the other eruption lasted for two years, this one might as well.” While an on-again, off-again eruption probably would not have much effect on air travel over the long term, it could affect the weather in Northern Europe, said Richard Wunderman, a vulcanologist with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The volcanic plume contains a lot of sulfur, he said, “that can become an aerosol up there that hangs around a long time reflecting sunlight.”

“It’s not enough that it’s probably going to be cooling the whole climate,” he added. But on a regional basis it could create what is called volcano weather, with smoglike conditions.

Unlike huge volcanic blasts like that at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, the eruption in southern Iceland began slowly about a month ago, with a series of fissures on the side of the volcano and what vulcanologists call fire fountaining, the spewing of hot magma through vents. Dr. Burton said that it was only when the magma found a new route through the volcano earlier this week — shifting to the summit, directly under the glacial ice — that the ash-rich eruption began.

That eruption late Wednesday created a plume of ash that spread out across Northern Europe at high altitudes, forcing aviation authorities to ground flights and close airports because of the risk of damage to aircraft, particularly the engines, from abrasive silicate particles.

Dr. Burton said that when the eruption shifted to the summit, there were indications that the silica content of the ash increased. “Theoretically, the more silica-rich the ash, the more risky or greater threat there is,” he said. But any volcanic plume is dangerous. “The plane is effectively sandblasted,” he said. “Even the windows can become frosted.”

Dr. Burton said the eruption was low on a measure of power called the volcanic explosivity index — certainly nowhere near Pinatubo, which rated a 6 on the 1 to 8 scale, or the 1980 explosive eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, which rated a 5.

Pinatubo spewed so much ash, dust and aerosol particles into the atmosphere that it lowered average air temperatures worldwide for several years, as the particles blocked some sunlight from reaching the Earth. So far the Icelandic eruption has spewed far less material, and its location, in the high latitudes, also reduces its global impact. “The closer to the poles, the less effect it is likely to have,” Dr. Burton said.

Steve Diamond isn't buying Andy Stern's excuse for leaving SEIU

April 14:
Stern confirms he'll leave service employees union
by SAM HANANEL (Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — Andy Stern, the dynamic and divisive union leader who wielded enormous political power, confirmed Wednesday that he will step down as president of the Service Employees International Union.

"There is a time to learn, a time to lead and a time to leave," he said in a video statement on his union's Web site. "There is never a perfect time for any long-term leader to depart or for organizations to make transitions."

Stern spent 14 years heading the 2.2-million member union that he helped build into one of the nation's largest and most politically active. He said he realized a dream with the passage of health care overhaul legislation and that his departure would pave the way for new leadership at SEIU.

But his decision to leave the post two years before his term ends stunned many in the labor and political worlds. Stern had an especially high profile with Democratic control of the White House and Congress. He is a close confidant of President Barack Obama and his fingerprints are on many of the administration's policies.

Stern did not say exactly when he would leave, but indicated it would be soon. Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger will replace Stern for 30 days until the board elects a new president.[...]
Writing at his King Harvest blog today, Professor Steve Diamond analyzes Stern's time as SEIU's President and his seemingly abrupt decision to retire:

SEIU’s Andy Stern - he didn’t jump off the bridge, he was pushed
by Stephen Diamond

With all due respect to the dogged and important reporting of Randy Shaw at BeyondChron on the SEIU v. NUHW saga, I differ with his suggestion today that Andy Stern, longtime head of SEIU, decided to sail into the good night just because the heat in the kitchen was too much to bear.

Shaw concludes in an account that is only slightly different than the press release apologias coming from SEIU HQ that "the bottom line: Stern was burned out, saw nothing on the immediate horizon that excited him, and decided he wanted out. He clearly prefers being a spokesperson for political issues to the day to day struggles of running a labor union, and expect him to stay politically involved."

Sorry, but no one walks away from command of a 2 million member organization that can shut down entire cities (as Stern did as part of the immigrant rights marches a few years ago) or elect presidents (as, arguably, Stern helped do in the case of Obama) quietly or on their own.

Anyone who would should have their head examined. In any case, Stern without those 2 million members is a nobody and he likely knows that. His days as "Obama's Fifth Man" are certainly numbered. His seat at the table was based on his ability to mobilize those members and their affiliate groups in the low wage immigrant communities they were connected to, such as ACORN and various La Raza-type entities.

No, Stern was pushed - by whom and why remains to be explained. But there is a report circulating that Stern was savaged at a recent AFL-CIO Executive Council by none other than his mentor, former AFL president, John J. Sweeney, who preceded Stern as head of SEIU.

In any case, good riddance. Stern's organizing "success" was largely made up out of bureaucratic maneuvers.

He appended CSEA, the huge California public sector union (and the union I belonged to when I was on the labor center staff at U.C. Berkeley) to SEIU and then claimed he had organized 100,000 new workers. Yet, CSEA had been a viable labor organization for many decades in California. He engineered top down deals with governors like Blagojevich and Gray Davis to reclassify social welfare recipients as workers and claim tens of thousands more "new" union members.

He re-organized low wage immigrant hispanic workers in the janitorial and building service sectors in places like Los Angeles only after SEIU had watched for decades while the industry restructured to destroy the unions that often African-American janitors had built over many decades. Then he (and Sweeney too it should be said) imposed trusteeships when the new members thought they should have real input over their labor organizations.

And who can forget Stern's travels to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist Party officials in an abrupt and damaging reversal of international labor's support for genuine independent unions in China? Stern dragged Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., along as well who, likely against his better instincts decided not to press the Chinese on the rights of imprisoned labor activists. Stern claimed, absurdly, that CtW was helping the Chinese state controlled labor organization, the ACFTU, organize WalMart operations there! But the delegations he and UCLA's Kent Wong led there have ignored genuine labor leaders like Han Dong Fang of the China Labour Bulletin as well as the only real labor union in today's China, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Change to Win has turned out to be a pipe dream. Labor intellectuals like Nelson Lichtenstein, Ruth Milkman, Kim Voss, and Ken Jacobs, all based for some odd reason at the University of California which has almost no SEIU presence, thought CtW was the re-birth of the CIO with Stern as John L. Lewis. How quaint. In fact, the five affiliates in CtW went to the mattresses as quickly as the Mafia's Five Families in New York did in the gangland wars of the 30s or 60s.

First, SEIU betrayed the efforts of the UFCW to lead a campaign among WalMart's one million non-union workers with a back stage deal with the WalMart CEO. Then, Stern backed Bruce Raynor in an absurd effort to wrest control of the Unite-HERE (home now of the old ILGWU, my grandfather's proud union for many decades) and its Amalgamated Bank.

Finally, in what has to be the coup de grace in assessing Stern's legacy, there are reports that SEIU supported a "no union" choice in the ongoing election battle in USC's hospital system in Los Angeles when the National Union of Health Workers challenged SEIU's hold on that shop. But the USC employees were, of course, part of the old UHW when it was inside SEIU. It was Stern who forced the split that led to the election, one of many occurring across the state to settle the unions' battle. A recent legal dispute between the two unions resulted in largely a draw.

The upside of the ouster of Stern is that it is very unlikely that his replacement will have anything like the ability or desire to control the union in quite the way he did. It will likely be a very messy transition but we could see the opening of real talks about the CtW affiliates following Unite-HERE back into the House of Labor where they belong.

Iceland volcano eruption intensifies, shows no signs of abating

See also the handy fact list about volcanic eruptions that Reuters has put together, and which has all kinds of information you might prefer not to know.
Icelandic volcano eruption intensifies
by Omar Valdimarsson
filing from Reykjavik, Iceland
1:07 PM EDT Thursday, April 15, 2010

(Reuters) - A volcanic eruption in Iceland, which has thrown up a 6-km (3.7 mile) high plume of ash and disrupted air traffic across northern Europe, has grown more intense, an expert said on Thursday.

The eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier continued to spew large amounts of ash and smoke into the air and showed no signs of abating after 40 hours of activity, said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland.

"The seismographs are showing that since this morning the intensity of the eruption seems to be growing," he said.

Hot fumes had melted up to a third of the glacial ice covering the crater, causing a nearby river to burst its banks, and frequent explosions on the floor of the crater sounded like bombs going off, he said.

The floods were abating, however, and some of those living in the sparsely populated area near the volcano had returned to their homes.

Another scientist said the eruption was 10 times more powerful than one which occurred last month on the flank of the volcano, though the two were part of the same event.

To the east of the volcano, thousands of hectares of land are covered by a thick layer of ash while a cloud blotted out the sun in some areas along the southern coast of Iceland, local media reported.

The cloud of ash from the eruption has hit air travel all over northern Europe, with flights grounded or diverted due to the risk of engine damage from sucking in particles of ash from the volcanic cloud.


Scientists picked up the first signs of increased seismic activity at Eyjafjallajokull last summer and had been expecting an eruption at any moment, Einarsson said.

The eruption began in March but subsided earlier this week when a magma conduit became blocked, building up pressure which finally escaped through the volcano's main crater.

Einarsson, who described the eruption as "reasonably powerful," said it was the most significant volcanic event in Iceland since a huge eruption in 1996, when an eruption under the Grimsvotn lakes led to widespread flooding.

He said scientists were still concerned the ongoing eruption could trigger Mt Katla, a more powerful volcano nearby covered by a thicker ice sheet, but had not picked up any clear signs of brewing activity.

The volcano under the Ejfjallajokull glacier, Iceland's fifth largest glacier, has erupted five times since Iceland was settled in the ninth century.

Iceland sits on a volcanic hotspot in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and has relatively frequent eruptions, although most occur in sparsely populated areas and pose little danger to people or property. Before March, the last eruption took place in 2004.

(Reporting by Omar Valdimarsson; writing by Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Robert Woodward)

File under Signs and Portents: Massive fireball in Midwestern sky

See CNN website for video
CNN Wire Staff
April 15, 2010 10:06 a.m. EDT

(CNN) -- Authorities in several Midwestern states were flooded Wednesday night with reports of a gigantic fireball lighting up the sky, the National Weather Service said.

The fireball was visible for about 15 minutes beginning about 10 p.m., said the National Weather Service in Sullivan, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee.

"The fireball was seen over the northern sky, moving from west to east," said the NWS in the Quad Cities area, which includes parts of Iowa and Illinois.

"Well before it reached the horizon, it broke up into smaller pieces and was lost from sight," the service said. "Several reports of a prolonged sonic boom were received from areas north of Highway 20, along with shaking of homes, trees and various other objects including wind chimes," it said.

It said the fireball was seen across parts of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. CNN affiliate WISN-TV said that people in Ohio also saw it.

Video from WISN showed a massive ball of light exploding across the sky. The Doppler Radar from the Quad Cities weather service appeared to capture a portion of the smoke trail from the fireball at just after 10 p.m., the NWS said. It appears as a thin line extending across portions of Grant and Iowa Counties in Wisconsin.

There has been no official determination as to what caused the fireball, the NWS in Sullivan said.

However, it said there is a meteor shower called Gamma Virginids that occurs from April 4 to April 21, with peak activity expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

"A large meteorite could have caused the brilliant fireball that has been reported," the National Weather Service said. [...]

Volcanic ash closes European airports, stranding tens of thousands of travelers; volcano eruption unleashes flooding in Iceland

"In Iceland, hundreds of people fled floodwaters after the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted Wednesday for the second time in less than a month. As water gushed down the mountainside, rivers rose up to 10 feet by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation's main road in half."
Volcanic ash closes European airports, stranding tens of thousands of travelers
By Janet Stobart, Los Angeles Times
April 15, 2010 7:10 AM (Pacific Time)

The eruption in Iceland snarls air travel across the northern part of the continent. International flights to and from the U.S. are likely to be affected.

Reporting from London

For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, all British airports were ordered shut down Thursday, a move prompted not by terrorism but by drifting ash spewed from an Icelandic volcano.

Air traffic also was halted over Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, stranding tens of thousands of travelers. Shutdowns and cancellations spread to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Britain's National Air Traffic Control Service issued the order at midday and said later that it would last until at least 6 a.m. Friday morning. (10 p.m. Thursday PDT).

The service said that "there will be no flights permitted in U.K.-controlled airspace other than emergency situations," concluding, "It is very unlikely that the situation over England will improve in the foreseeable future."

It issued continual bulletins as the threatening sulfuric cloud drifting over northern Scotland was forecast to reach down across the British Isles and over to continental Europe throughout Thursday. International flights to and from the United States are likely to be affected.

"The ash borne by winds in the direction of Britain and Scandinavia is known to interfere with aircraft engines, causing them to shut down," it warned.

The U.S. Geological Survey said about 100 aircraft encountered volcanic ash from 1983 to 2000. In some cases, engines shut down briefly after sucking in volcanic debris, but there have been no fatal incidents. The ash also interferes with visibility.

Although some airports were closed at 7 a.m. Thursday, thousands of passengers who knew nothing of the situation turned up for flights, only to be turned away and told of indefinite delays. Gradually throughout the morning, disappointed travelers were clogging airports, and immobile aircraft were causing huge parking problems on runways.

At Manchester Airport, crowded by about 45,000 people and 300 grounded aircraft, passenger Donna Thomas told BBC reporter that she'd expected to be in Orlando, Fla., later Thursday.

"Now we're waiting for taxi to go home," she said. Her bored teenage son, Matthew, was equally fed up and complaining: "I had to get up at half five this morning, which wasn't good."

Dr. Hazel Rymers, a vulcanologist from the Open University, told the BBC that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull caused such a massive ash cloud because "its source is underneath an icecap about 200 meters thick."

The eruption is causing "not so much lava flows but rocks turning into ash shooting up between 8 and 11 kilometers up, and that's what's causing the cloud."

The closing of British skies is "a movable feast," said Cathy West of the British Airways' press office. "We've told passengers to go home and offered them refunds or rebooking."

A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said, "We don't yet know when restrictions will be lifted," and workers there too were telling passengers not to come to the airport.

Paul Haskins, a spokesman for the air traffic service, told the BBC at around midday that "the volcano is still erupting and affecting the U.K.'s upper air."

Weather office officials were monitoring the situation, but the eventual outcome is unpredictable, and the reopening of airports ultimately depends on the wind and the activity of Eyjafjallajokull.

In Iceland, hundreds of people fled floodwaters after the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier erupted Wednesday for the second time in less than a month. As water gushed down the mountainside, rivers rose up to 10 feet by Wednesday night, slicing the island nation's main road in half.

Wednesday, April 14

Ironic luck helps limit deaths from earthquake in Qinghai, China

The following report from AP's Anita Chang, filed around 6 PM EDT, solves the mystery of how Chinese military were on the scene so fast after the initial quake. Remember the anti-government protests in Tibet and Tibetan regions of 'mainland' China in 2008? Tensions have continued in the Tibetan region of Yushu county, the epicenter of the earthquake on Wednesday morning. So a garrison of troops was stationed there. That's very fortunate because getting help to that area is a logistical nightmare:
XINING, China — Soldiers and civilians used shovels and their bare hands to dig through collapsed buildings in search of survivors after strong earthquakes struck a mountainous Tibetan region of China on Wednesday, killing at least 589 people and injuring more than 10,000.

The series of quakes flattened buildings across remote western Yushu county and sent survivors, many bleeding from their wounds, flooding into the streets of Jiegu township. State television showed block after devastated block of toppled mud and wood homes. Local officials said 85 percent of the structures had been destroyed.

Residents and troops garrisoned in the town used shovels and their hands to pull survivors and bodies from the rubble much of the day. Several schools collapsed, with the state news agency saying at least 56 students died. Worst hit was the Yushu Vocational School, where Xinhua cited a local education official as saying 22 students died.

Footage on Qinghai Satellite TV showed bodies wrapped in blankets lying on the ground while rescuers pulled shards of concrete from a pancaked school building.

Crews set up emergency generators to restore operations at Yushu's airport, and by late afternoon the first of six flights landed carrying rescue workers and equipment. But the road to town was blocked by a landslide, hampering the rescue as temperatures dropped below freezing. Tens of thousands of the town's 70,000 people were without shelter, state media said.

The airport in Xining, the nearest big city some 530 miles (860 kilometers) away, was filled in the predawn hours Thursday with Chinese troops in camouflage, firefighters and rescue teams leading dozens of sniffer dogs. They were whisked onto waiting buses for the difficult drive to the quake zone, which takes 12 hours under the best of conditions.

Yang Xuesong, a rescuer from Shandong province in eastern China, said his biggest concern was the altitude. "This is the highlands. I don't know if the search dogs can get used to it," he said.

While China's military is well-practiced in responding to disasters, the remote location posed logistical difficulties. The area sits at around 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and is poor. Most people live in Jiegu, with the remaining — mostly herders — scattered across the broad valleys. The small airport has no refueling supplies, so relief flights were carrying extra jet fuel, reducing their capacity for hauling supplies, state media reported.

"The situation here is difficult. Most of the buildings have collapsed. A lot of people are seriously injured," said Pu Wu, a director of the Jinba Project, which provides health care training for Tibetan communities. "We are scared. We are all camping outside and waiting for more tents to come."

The local quake relief headquarters put the death toll at 589 and the injured at 10,000 by early Thursday morning, according to the Xinhua news agency. Wu Yong, commander of the army garrison, said the deaths "may rise further as lots of houses collapsed." Hospitals were overwhelmed, and rescue teams were slowed by damaged roads, strong winds and frequent aftershocks.

Luo Song, a monk from a monastery in Yushu county, said his sister who worked at an orphanage told him three children were sent to a hospital but the facilities lacked equipment.

"She said the hospitals are facing a lot of difficulty right now because there are no doctors, they have only bandages, they can't give injections, they can't put people on intravenous drips," the monk said by phone while on a visit to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. China's rural hospitals typically are not well equipped.

Workers released water from a nearby reservoir whose dam was cracked by the quake, according to the China Earthquake Administration.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao urged "all-out efforts" to rescue survivors and dispatched a vice-premier to supervise the effort. The government immediately allocated $30 million (200 million yuan) for relief, and mobilized more than 5,000 soldiers, medical workers and other rescuers, joining 700 troops already on the ground.

With many people forced outside, the provincial government said it was rushing 5,000 tents and 100,000 coats and blankets to the region, where average daily temperatures were around 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius).

The initial quake, measured at magnitude-6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and 7.1 by the China Earthquake Networks Center, hit Yushu at 7:49 a.m. (7:49 p.m. EDT, 2349 GMT). It was followed by five more tremors within three hours, all but one registering 5.0 or higher.

Residents of Jiegu, known by Tibetans as Gyegu, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the epicenter, fled dazed and sobbing as the ground shook, toppling houses, as well as temples, gas stations, electric poles and the top of a Buddhist pagoda in a park, witnesses and state media said.

"Nearly all the houses made of mud and wood collapsed. There was so much dust in the air, we couldn't see anything," said Ren Yu, general manager of Yushu Hotel in Jiegu. "There was a lot of panic. People were crying on the streets. Some of our staff, who were reunited with their parents, were also in tears."

More than 100 guests of the hotel, which was relatively undamaged, were evacuated to open spaces such as public squares, Ren told The Associated Press by phone. After transporting guests to safety, hotel staff helped in rescue efforts in other buildings, Ren said.

"We pulled out 70 people, but some of them died on the way to the hospital," Ren said, adding other survivors were put in tents in the hotel yard while they awaited assistance.

Many of the students boarded at the schools and were preparing to head to class when the quake struck. One rescue worker said he didn't know how many students had died but he had helped recover several bodies.

"Students just got up and were yet to go to class when the quake happened. I recovered several bodies from the debris and found they were fully dressed," said Zhu Liang, a government worker who joined the rescue operation.

The destruction of schools is an eerie echo of the massive magnitude-7.9 quake that hit neighboring Sichuan province two years ago, leaving nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. Thousands of students among the dead were killed when their schools collapsed. Poor design, shoddy construction and the lax enforcement of building codes were found to be rampant.

Both Wednesday's quake and the one in Sichuan two years ago occurred along the Longmenshan fault, which runs underneath the mountains that divide the Tibetan plateau to the west and the Sichuan plain below.


Once a trading hub and a gateway to central Tibet, Yushu and surrounding environs were among the Tibetan areas caught up in the anti-government protests that swept the region in March 2008. Tensions have simmered since, and the region has been closed to foreigners off and on.

The garrison of troops who were the first to respond to the quake is stationed in the area to help maintain order. CCTV reported that soon after the quake, troops secured banks, oil depots and caches of explosives.

Associated Press Writers Charles Hutzler and Tini Tran and researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing contributed to this report.

Katla Watch: Iceland evacuates hundreds as volcano erupts again

Just yesterday I read that the eruption had ended. Today brings a fresh eruption, this one much stronger than the last. Katla is still quiet.

By GUDJON HELGASON and JILL LAWLESS (AP) – April 14, 2010 - 11:00 AM EDT
REYKJAVIK, Iceland — A volcano under a glacier in Iceland erupted Wednesday for the second time in less than a month, melting ice, spewing smoke and steam, closing a major road and forcing hundreds of people to flee rising floodwaters.

Authorities evacuated 800 residents from around the Eyjafjallajokull glacier as rivers rose by up to 10 feet (3 meters).

Emergency officials and scientists said the eruption under the ice cap was 10 to 20 times more powerful than one last month, and carried a much greater risk of widespread flooding.

"This is a very much more violent eruption, because it's interacting with ice and water," said Andy Russell, an expert in glacial flooding at the University of Newcastle in northern England. "It becomes much more explosive, instead of a nice lava flow oozing out of the ground."

Rognvaldur Olafsson, a chief inspector for the Icelandic Civil Protection Agency, said no lives or properties were in immediate danger. Scientists said there was no sign of increased activity at the much larger Katla volcano nearby.

Iceland's Meteorological Office said a plume of steam rose at least five miles (eight kilometers) into the air. Scientists aboard a Coast Guard plane that flew over the volcano said the new fissure appeared to be up to 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) long.

There were no immediate signs of large clouds of volcanic ash, which could disrupt air travel between Europe and North America. Some domestic flights were canceled, but Iceland's international airport remained open.

The volcano, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) east of Reykjavik, erupted March 20 after almost 200 years of silence.

The original eruption petered out earlier this week. But Gunnar Gudmundsson, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office, said there were a series of tremors overnight, and rivers in the area began rising Wednesday morning — strong evidence of a new eruption under the glacier.

Last month's eruption struck near the glacier in an area that had no ice. Gudmundsson said the new eruption appeared to be about eight or nine kilometers (five to six miles) west of the original fissure.

"Most probably this eruption is taking place at the summit ... under the ice," he said.

Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, said magma was melting a hole in the 650-foot (200 meter) thick ice covering the volcano's crater, sending floodwater coursing down the glacier into lowland areas.

Residents were evacuated to a Red Cross center in the nearby community of Hvolsvollur, the Civil Protection Agency said.

Iceland's main coastal ring road was closed near the volcano, and workers smashed a hole in the highway in a bid to give the rushing water a clear route to the coast and prevent a major bridge from being swept away.[...]

The last time there was an eruption near the 100-square-mile (160 square-kilometer) Eyjafjallajokull glacier was in 1821.

A bigger worry is Katla, which in the past has erupted in tandem with Eyjafjallajokull. Katla is located under the vast Myrdalsjokull ice cap. An eruption could cause widespread flooding and disrupt air traffic between Europe and North America. The last major eruption took place in 1918, and vulcanologists say a new blast is overdue.

"So far there have been no signs of the reawakening of the Katla volcano, but a lot of things can still happen, so we are monitoring it quite closely," Einarsson said.

Lawless reported from London. Associated Press writer Danica Kirka also contributed to this report.

File under Signs and Portents: Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue cut off by mudslides

The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue was named one of the new wonders of the world in 2007, and is visited by two million tourists a year. The statue has towered over Rio de Janeiro for the past eight decades. Access to the statue was cut off for the first time in its 80-year history when Tijuca National Park's Corcovado mountain on which it sits was hit by severe mudslides, park officials said. Roads were blocked by debris.

Work is underway to clear the debris and mend roads, and Rio de Janeiro state's governor said as many as 150 bodies could still be underneath the mud in the Morro do Bumba shanty town. Set in the municipality of Niteroi, across the bay from the city of Rio, Morro do Bumba was built on top of a disused landfill, making it prone to landslides. In Rio de Janeiro city, most of the landslide victims were residents of shanty towns, where about a fifth of Rio de Janeiro's population live.

Quotes taken from BBC report today.

Deadly Earthquake Strikes China's Tibet Plateau in Qinghai Province

Posted online about ten minutes ago, report from VOA News:
Western China has been rocked by a powerful earthquake and strong aftershocks, which have claimed more than 400 lives. More than 8,000 people have been injured and many more people may be trapped in damaged buildings. The earthquake struck the western Chinese province of Qinghai early Wednesday, collapsing buildings in villages around the region. The China Earthquake Administration estimates the quake as being a 7.1 magnitude, while the U.S. Geological Survey puts it at 6.9. [More]
China's military quickly began rescue operations. See also this backgrounder on the most powerful quakes to strike Qinghai since 2001.

Tuesday, April 13

The 'Get Russia' crowd and Blowback

If you missed John Batchelor's discussions with Stratfor's Marko Papic about Russia's moves to re-acquire or solidify influence over its near abroad, you missed a lot. However, John's tour-de-force interview on April 12 with Dr Stephen F. Cohen is a chance to play catch-up.

The Papic interviews, with John's insightful questions driving the discussion, were great; they provided a detailed country by country analysis. (If I recall the interviews were on March 9 and 10 although I don't see the podcasts for them at the show's Archives page.) The Cohen interview, while touching on several countries, focused on Russia's relations with Poland and Kyrgyzstan, START, and the Nord Stream pipeline.

The interview went an entire hour (minus station breaks) and seamlessly worked history lessons into a situation report on Russia's relations with Europe, former Soviet republics, and the United States.

For my money Steve Cohen, a Russian history scholar and professor, is also the best expert on present-day Russian politics and foreign policy. See Steve's latest book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (June 2009).

And John himself is steeped in Russian and Cold War history and the geopolitics of Russia's relations in the present era. So to have those two talking for an hour about Russian geopolitics is hog heaven for foreign relations/defense wonks. The 'listen now' podcast of the Cohen-Batchelor interview is found here.

You can also download the interview (11 PM-midnight segment). See the Archives page.

I consider John and Steve among my best teachers on Russian-American relations but ironically what I've taken from their discussions over the years on John's show, combined with my own research, has perhaps made me a harsher critic of American policy toward Russia than either man.

I believe that during the post-Cold War era U.S. foreign policy was hijacked by people I refer to as the "Get Russia crowd." I term them a crowd because they're not a cabal or conspiracy, even though they network and have the same goals, which are complete control of Russia's government and while they're trying to bring that about, blocking Russia from any influence in its near abroad.

Who makes up the crowd? Russian Oligarchs -- men who made fortunes from the breakup of Soviet-era state controlled industries -- and their mobster enforcers; several U.S. members of Congress (who have their counterparts in Western Europe); a host of lobbyists for expats who hate Russia because of what they suffered under the Soviet regimes; certain foreign governments and energy companies that are in stiff competition with Russia's energy supplies and/or want control of Russia's energy resources; and foreign financiers who want Russia to revert to the 'Wild West' days of the Yeltsin era -- when they could control big chunks of Russia's economy without having any responsibility toward the Russians.

The crowd also includes some defense hawks who can't deal with the modern era unless they reshape it in the Cold War image; several of these are holdovers from the Cold War, although I see the Cold War Warriors in a different light than the Get Russia crowd. And there are also the blinkered among NATO's American supporters -- those who got so involved in NATO's priorities they overlooked that NATO is now "European Union" spelled backward, and that EU interests can work in opposition to America's best interests. If you put you all those types together the result is toxic.

In my view the Get Russia Crowd has been the most destructive force in U.S. relations and defense. They don't care about America's relationships with its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean, or the war on terror. Although they will lie if confronted with a bald statement of their thinking, their actions have demonstrated that they see the 9/11 attack on America as a trifle next to the serious stuff, such as the urgent necessity to encircle Russia and get rid of Vladimir Putin.

As for Mexico's problems and how this is affecting the USA -- tough beans. These Americans are not here, you understand. They are not focused on America or America's part of the Western Hemisphere. They are focused over there -- 6,000 miles away, in Russia and Eastern Europe.

What galls me is that they wrap themselves in the American flag and call any American who disagrees with them un-American. Yet their view of America's proper priorities has been very costly to the United States -- so costly that even if Washington could get free of that crowd's clutches, Americans could spend the rest of this century recovering from the negative consequences of their machinations.

The worst part of what they did was actually not their brainchild; it started under President Reagan as a Cold War tactic, but during the post-Soviet era the Get Russia crowd took the concept to the most perverse extreme. What they did was fashion American democratic principles into a scam -- an outright scam.

Yet the original idea was reasonably benign if you don't have anything against meddling in other countries in the name of doing good: Congress created a nonprofit organization called the National Endowment for Democracy to promote democracy around the world. While it's administered as a private organization its funding comes almost entirely from the U.S. government.

So the NED was the first of what's called a gongo -- a "government non-governmental organization." If you tell me that's gibberish, yup, but that's exactly what it is. Now you know why Putin eventually barred foreign ngos (non-governmental organizations) from Russia; by that time it was hard to tell the gongos from the ngos.

The NED provided cash grants, funded primarily through an annual allocation from Congress, to pro-democracy opposition parties in foreign countries that weren't democratic, or were communist, or had authoritarian regimes standing behind a democracy stage show.

The NED's mission statement sounds good on paper but the gongo's usefulness proved to be too much temptation. In 1991 Allen Weinstein, one of NED's founders, told The Washington Post that much of what the NED "does today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA" -- namely staging 'soft' U.S.-backed coups that masquerade as a democratic election.

The NED, and the copycat gongos that sprang up, got much help from a guide compiled by an American named Gene Sharp. Some have accused Sharp of working for the CIA but I would be surprised if that were the case; he strikes me as a sincere man who was always committed to promoting genuine democracy and civil rights through nonviolent means.

But what Sharp did was collect in the pages of one book (The Politics of Nonviolent Action; published 1973) a list of 198 nonviolent tactics that genuine democracy and civil rights activists had used over the years -- what had worked for them.

That was a great idea; the guide is an invaluable tool for democracy and human rights activists. It saves people who have little or no political savvy from having to recreate the wheel, if they want to stand up to a repressive regime and have a chance at living to tell the tale.

The problem with the guide is that just because it's such a handy reference, a no-brainer recipe, so to speak, it made it child's play for those with non-democratic motives to stage a 'soft' coup. Coups based on Sharp's recipe are virtually indistinguishable from a genuine democratic movement.

The result was an electoral version of 'supermoney' -- the counterfeit $100 bills that are such good copies of the real thing, only experts can tell them apart.

Thus, the 'color revolutions' during the post-Soviet era that were financed in great measure by George Soros's 'societies' and overseen by the U.S. Department of State working with gongos and ngos -- several of which were backed by the Get Russia crowd. It was almost impossible to tell the phony revolutions from the real thing unless you were very knowledgeable about the players and tactics involved.

That's why even today the majority of Americans believe that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was a genuine democratic election. The American public got no help from the American NATO-leaning mainstream media in learning the real story. With one exception the mainstream media hailed the Orange Revolution as a giant step for democracy in Ukraine. The exception was John Batchelor; he was the only person in the news media who warned his audience that the Orange Revolution wasn't genuine.

There were eventually a few rays of light in the mainstream media. In September 2008 The Wall Street Journal carried an article about Gene Sharp -- although without mentioning the dark uses to which his work has been put.

And around the time of the campaign for the Ukrainian 2010 presidential election The Washington Post sniffed that 'some said' the Orange Revolution was not genuine -- as close as I think they'll ever come to admitting it was a sham.

The small nods to the truth did not undo the damage the U.S. news media did by remaining mum because, you see, everyone outside the USA learned about the democracy scam. As to how that came about: in my view it happened because Tony Blair's administration, which was a gold-plated member of the Get Russia crowd, got scared that they'd pushed the Kremlin too far.

No one, including those in the West who were machinating against Putin, could have predicted the massacre at the Beslan school in Russia, which took place in September 2004. Most of the victims were children; many of them killed just for fun, for target practice. Coming on top of everything else that was the final straw for Vladimir Putin, who was Russia's President at the time.

Shortly after the massacre he called a press conference for the major European press outlets and international news wire services, during which he excoriated the U.S. and U.K. governments. He held them responsible for the massacre and charged that the U.S. and the British were trying to apply the Carthage Solution to Russia -- the Carthage Solution being a legend that after the sack of Carthage the Roman victors leveled the city, then salted the ground so nothing could grow.

For 3-1/2 hours Putin held forth in the same vein. It was ugly. From my report on the press conference, in addition to his accusation about the Beslan massacre:
He accused the U.S. and the U.K. of colluding in a plot to destabilize Russia by fomenting anti-Russian sentiment in former Soviet republics. He accused the U.S. and U.K. of being behind the breakaway movement in Chechnya. He clearly implied that the U.S. and U.K. were trying to topple his government. And just to make sure he was perfectly understood, Putin came right out and said that the U.S. and the U.K. had launched a covert war against Russia. ...

I add that Putin's remarks got very little coverage in the U.S. media and only in attenuated form. The remarks were widely reported in painstaking detail by the European press and pored over and parsed for many days, to the great enjoyment of the Europeans who love opera and hate the Coalition's invasion of Iraq. They particularly liked the part about Carthage.

After he'd blown off steam it occurred to him that conjuring the image of Russia reduced to a salt flat was not a boost to Russian tourism and trade so eventually he scaled back on his accusations. However, he stuck by the gist, which still amounts to serious claims.
As to whether there was any truth to his claim about British and U.S. government support for the Chechens -- this part of the story is very murky. I am not the expert on this matter but I'd guess that if anything like that went on the support for Chechen's terrorist organizations came from some individuals in the Get Russia Crowd acting on their own, rather than through official channels.

I interject that this is another problem with the crowd: although there are civil servants and politicians among them they're rarely acting in official government capacity. The State Department's 'country desks' are notoriously opaque. So there's little or no transparency about what all these people do to assist 'democracy movements,' which translates to little or no accountability.

In short, the Get Russia crowd took on a life of its own, sort of like the Incredible Blob.

To continue with the story, the Get Russia Crowd didn't see the Chechen terrorists as terrorists, in the manner that many Palestinian supporters don't see Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. The crowd claimed the Chechen terrorists were freedom fighters.

Yet I have a hard time featuring that anyone in that crowd, even the most vicious mobsters and most virulent anti-Russians, would have supported the Beslan massacre. Even other Chechen terrorists repudiated the massacre; indeed, what happened at Beslan took away much sympathy for the Chechen separatists' cause.

Putin's feeling, I think, was that the U.S. and British government's sympathy for the Chechen terrorists set the stage for Beslan, even if they didn't directly encourage or support the atrocity.

From all this, you can see why Tony Blair, the Labor party, and the British foreign office might have become alarmed after taking in Putin's presser. It wouldn't do for the British government to be seen as child killers.

About two months after Putin's press conference the (U.K.) Guardian newspaper ratted out the U.S. Department of State.

That's as much saying MI6 snitched on State. The Guardian is a conduit for MI6, in the way The New York Times is a conduit for the CIA and The Washington Post is a conduit for the State Department. Not all the articles, of course, but whenever these agencies want to 'leak' something to the public, they have their favorite press outlets.

In a sensational article for the Guardian titled US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev, Ian Traynor reported on November 26, 2004 that the Orange Revolution had been orchestrated by State with the help of various gongos and ngos and George Soros. Traynor named some names:
[...] Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade, played a key role. And by last year, as US ambassador in Tbilisi, he repeated the trick in Georgia, coaching Mikhail Saakashvili in how to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze.

Ten months after the success in Belgrade, the US ambassador in Minsk, Michael Kozak, a veteran of similar operations in central America, notably in Nicaragua, organised a near identical campaign to try to defeat the Belarus hardman, Alexander Lukashenko.

That one failed. "There will be no Kostunica in Belarus," the Belarus president declared, referring to the victory in Belgrade.

But experience gained in Serbia, Georgia and Belarus has been invaluable in plotting to beat the regime of Leonid Kuchma in Kiev.

The operation - engineering democracy through the ballot box and civil disobedience - is now so slick that the methods have matured into a template for winning other people's elections.


The Democratic party's National Democratic Institute, the Republican party's International Republican Institute, the US state department and USAid are the main agencies involved in these grassroots campaigns as well as the Freedom House NGO and billionaire George Soros's open society institute.

US pollsters and professional consultants are hired to organise focus groups and use psephological data to plot strategy.[...]
And he detailed a few of the tactics, lifted straight from Gene Sharp's handy guide.

Ian Traynor's report became famous -- except in the United States. The American public is always the last to know about anything that might raise questions in the USA regarding America's continued involvement with NATO.

However, Traynor's report left out several things. The Americans weren't the only ones poking their nose into Ukraine's politics and other former Soviet republics. The British and EU bureaucrats were also mucking around, and to such an extent in Ukraine it was like gridlock. That was another reason the British had become alarmed: Putin's presser was a signal that he was turning the tables.

If NATO continued to drive a wedge between Russia and its former republics, he was prepared to drive a wedge into NATO. By singling out the British when he knew other EU governments were also meddling, he was as much posing a question to the rest of Europe's NATO countries, and notably Germany: Do you want the British vendetta against Russia to interfere with energy shipments from Russia to Western Europe?

Again, it was ugly. Yet even before Traynor's bombshell the machinations of the Get Russia crowd, and the phony color revolutions they backed, had been noted by despotic regimes. The phony Orange Revolution to install an American puppet leader, coming on top of Georgia's phony Rose Revolution to install another American puppet, was by then revealing a clear pattern.

Kyrgyzstan's autocratic president, Askar Akayev, sputtered in 2005 that there would be no color revolution or "tulip revolution" in his country. Not long after he was deposed by a phony revolution, which the Western media waggishly dubbed the Tulip Revolution. In his place the U.S. installed a thuggish puppet, who was deposed just a few days ago. I am not making any of this up.

If Americans ask, 'Why do we have to be the Fall Guy?' That is our designated role as far as the Europeans are concerned -- it's the role we slipped into, in stages. We stayed too long at Europe's ball after the Iron Curtain fell. That was not good for us and not good for the Europeans. We did a great deal of good in Eastern Europe but the phony revolutions threatened the good we did.

What really rips me up is that the best about America, our democratic system and the high value we place on civil rights, was made into a mockery by the phony democratic revolutions -- a mockery that the world's anti-democratic regimes used to their advantage.

Genuine ngos found it even harder to operate in countries with repressive regimes. And the regimes used the excuse of defending against the color revolutions to crack down harder on their citizens. And they presented democracy as an evil enterprise cooked up by the U.S. Department of State.

I warned about this in Not Clockwork Orange Century, one of the earliest essays I wrote for this blog, although my light tone masked how upset I was at the time. I was watching a great tragedy unfold.

In the name of promoting democracy the Get Russia Crowd had sold democracy down the river, and they did so while singing "Star Spangled Banner."

There was no way to stop it, no way to alert the American public to what was happening. The American blogosphere had no interest in the issue; only a handful of blogs -- mine, Anti-war, and two or three others, made any protest about the Orange Revolution.

The irony is that I was a war hawk. I should have been the last person to be shouting in a glass booth along with the Anti-war site. But I was in full agreement with their protests about the phony revolutions.

Well, I'd meant to write something about Poland's tragedy and to make a futile plea that the Get Russia crowd back off and let the Russians and Poles find their own way. Another day perhaps, but right now I'm too upset to do anything more than extend my condolences to the Polish people. I don't like dredging up the past when it comes to the Get Russia crowd's machinations. But at least you know now why I'm so tough on them.

And I suppose this writing is also an answer to readers who ask why I've had little to say about U.S. foreign policy since 2008. The final straw came for me when John McCain, during his presidential campaign, announced on August 12, 2008 that he had told Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili by phone that he knew he spoke for all Americans when he said, "Today, we are all Georgians."

His words were an allusion to a famous statement by Jean-Marie Colombani, a French journalist and editor of France's Le Monde. Colombani wrote in Le Monde on Sept. 12, 2001:
"In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is this: We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers ... "
That McCain twisted Colombani's words to equate what happened in Georgia with 9/11 was the gravest of insults to the victims of 9/11 and to all Americans. Yet he didn't seem to care.

Saakashvili turned right around and repeated at a large rally what McCain had told him, leading the Georgians to believe that the United States would intervene militarily, in response to the Russian counterstrike against Georgian military forces. Those forces had launched a surprise attack in South Ossetia, slaughtering UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers and many unarmed residents of South Ossetia.

Of course McCain didn't describe it that way when he announced that Americans were all Georgians now:
The impact of Russian actions goes beyond their threat to a democratic Georgia. Russia has used violence against Georgia to send a signal to any country that chooses to associate with the West and aspire to our shared political and economic values.
What shared political and economic values would those be?

McCain knew very well that Saakashvili was an American-installed puppet who turned out to be a thug. A thug who wouldn't tolerate even the appearance of an opposition voice in Georgia. Rupert Murdoch is probably still trying to get his money back from his investment in Georgia's Imedi television station, which Saakashvili's goons smashed up; that was Saakashvili's editorial response to the station's call for a little transparency in his regime.

At the time I'd spent months on this blog fighting Barack Obama's presidential campaign. But while listening to McCain lie about what happened in Georgia, the full implications struck me. Obama was being installed in the White House by the same tactics George Soros used to stage-manage counterfeit revolutions -- the same tactics that John McCain, American war hero, had gone along with.

At that moment I realized Barack Obama's stage-managed election would be poetic justice. It would also be what the CIA calls blowback.

U.S. foreign policy is not meant to run by people who don't have to be accountable to the American electorate. That was the argument for finally reining in the CIA. Decades later we were back at the same place -- only this time with a host of gongos, ngos, members of Congress, political machines, lobbyists, ad agencies, civil servants, and a collection of characters from around the world who were straight out of Mordor.

So what use was it talk seriously about U.S. foreign policy? There is no policy. There's just a maze of machinations against Russia that don't add up to a damn bit of sense. When I fully confronted that, if you recall my foreign policy advice for 2009 was "Run for your lives."

For more blowback, listen to Steve Cohen and John Batchelor discuss what Vladimir Putin has accomplished. He has been very busy since that 2004 press conference. The Get Russia crowd should have left well enough alone.

As for the poor suffering Chechens, I'll discuss that tomorrow.

Sunday, April 11

Koh silent about Obama decision to let Pakistan choose targets for U.S. drones

I want to be clear that the issue under discussion in this post has nothing to do with debates about the effectiveness of drone warfare. (Also called UAV or remote piloted aircraft -- RPA -- warfare.)

Nor do I address the tortured argument that the U.S. must target the Pakistan regime's enemies to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.

And I have nothing to say about the legal and moral questions regarding government-sponsored assassinations. I'm not talking about assassins in the pay of the U.S. pussyfooting around and popping off enemies of the state.

I'm talking about the U.S. putting assassins in the service of Pakistan's monstrous regime, which has a history of war crimes and ongoing human rights abuses; a history of duplicity in its dealings with the White House and Congress; and a history of murdering ISAF troops in Afghanistan and supporting terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, that are fighting ISAF troops.

From a March 26, 2009 report for The Wall Street Journal:
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials are drawing up a fresh list of terrorist targets for Predator drone strikes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, part of a U.S. review of the drone program, according to officials involved.

Pakistani officials are seeking to broaden the scope of the program to target extremists who have carried out attacks against Pakistanis, a move they say could win domestic support. The Obama administration is weighing the effectiveness of the program against the risk that its unpopularity weakens an important ally.

Underlining the fragility of the situation, the U.S. believes Pakistan's top intelligence agency is directly supporting the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan, even as the U.S. targets those groups, says a person close to the deliberations.
From a October 21, 2009 New Yorker interview:
NEW YORKER: What does Pakistan think of the drones?

JANE MAYER: Originally, the Pakistani people’s reaction to the U.S. drone strikes in their country was incredibly negative. Pakistanis rose up and complained that the program violated their sovereignty. So, to obtain Pakistani support—or at least the support of the Zardari government—the Obama Administration quietly decided last March to allow the Pakistani government to nominate some of its own targets. The U.S. has been and is involved in killing not just Al Qaeda figures, but Pakistani targets—people like Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud who are enemies of the Pakistani state.

NEW YORKER: Are there any safeguards that prevent the U.S. from carrying out political vendettas for top Pakistani officials?

MAYER: Well, the problem with this program is that it’s invisible; I would guess there must be all kinds of legal safeguards, and lawyers at the C.I.A. are discussing who we can kill and who we can’t, but none of that is available to the American people. It’s quite a contrast with the armed forces, because the use of lethal force in the military is a transparent process. There are after-action reports, and there’s a very obvious chain of command. We know where the responsibility runs, straight on up to the top of the government. This system keeps checks on abuses of power. There is no such transparency at the C.I.A.
It sounds like a script for a Jason Borne film: Borne discovers the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretly assassinates a repressive regime's enemies in hopes this will placate the regime. But the truth in this case is stranger than fiction.

The CIA is carrying out just such a program for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan -- but instead of a rogue unit doing this in secret the agency is acting on the express order of the President of United States. And while the order was never announced by the White House it is not a secret -- or if it was, it was 'leaked.'

And instead of a CIA-brainwashed assassin making the shocking discovery, we have a famous American former war correspondent and foreign correspondent, The Wall Street Journal's first female White House correspondent, twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her investigative reports, plopping out the news in the staid New Yorker, in an article about the ethical and legal ramifications of drone warfare.

Jane Mayer, who is now a staff writer for The New Yorker, is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Dark Side (2008), which exhaustively examines the CIA's interrogation program. Her professional reputation is so sterling that she has no trouble getting access to highly placed sources in the U.S. military, civilian government, and well-known experts. So when she writes up an investigative piece on defense matters you may trust that military/intel communities on both sides of the Atlantic take notice.

Yet with all that, and despite The New Yorker giving the drone article a big plug by conducting an interview about it with Mayer -- and expressly mentioning the CIA's "unannounced" assassination program for Pakistan's government -- the impact of the news about the program has been the proverbial sound of a tree crashing in an uninhabited forest. That is, except in Pakistan, where Mayer's article made headlines at Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper:

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration quietly decided last March to allow Pakistan to choose some of its own targets for drone attacks, according to the New Yorker, a prestigious US magazine.

Earlier last week, the magazine published a piece on the use of unmanned aircraft to target Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects in Fata ["Federally Administered Tribal Areas"]. On Sunday, its author Jane Mayer gave an online interview to the readers, telling them that the Obama administration agreed to allow Pakistanis to select targets to calm down Islamabad’s protests over the drone attacks.

The change in US policy led to the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in August. [...]
During the past year the drone strikes in Pakistan have come under increasing scrutiny in the United States and in international circles. Both critics and defenders of the armed drone attacks urgently asked President Barack Obama to clarify the legalities pertaining to the use of drones for 'targeted killing' (a sterile term for assassination) in a foreign country.

(The use of the armed drone program in Pakistan and Afghanistan also has its critics in the U.S. military particularly among the COIN faction, which sees the strikes as working against the COIN 'population-centric' approach to counterinsurgency. See Mayers' New Yorker article for details.)

On March 16 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the US departments of defense, justice, and state, in the effort to get more information about the legal justification for the drone strikes and how the targets are chosen. This, after the ACLU had been stonewalled in their attempts to obtain the information through routine channels.

On March 25, partly in response to the controversy about U.S. drone warfare and partly to answer the ACLU lawsuit, the state department's chief legal counsel, Harold Koh, gave a speech defending the practice. The speech, a keynote address to the American Society of International Law, was also explicitly meant to serve as the Obama Administration's reply to critics of the drone program. While noting he wasn't giving a detailed legal opinion Koh observed in part:
[I]t is the considered view of this administration -- and it has certainly been my experience during my time as legal adviser -- that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war.”
The speech was greeted with relief by defenders of the drone program. Human rights organizations and legal scholars, notably the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, were more circumspect. (1)

And yet the only critic I could find who mentioned Koh's failure to address the staggering issue of the CIA assassinating people chosen by the Pakistan military was Chris Rogers, a human rights lawyer working for the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, and he did so only in passing and without mentioning Barack Obama's role. Writing on April 2 for the Huffington Post he observed:
[...] Nor did [Koh] indicate whether or how the U.S. assesses civilian casualties and ensures proportionality is respected. But a number of recent reports are cause for concern, such as the addition of Afghan drug lords to target lists and agreements to target individuals nominated by Pakistani officials in order to ensure their continued support for the program.[...]
I thank Mr Rogers for at least raising the issue of a foreign government choosing people that the CIA assassinates. But the "number of recent reports" he linked to was just Jane Mayers' investigative report for the New Yorker! The report, along with the New Yorker's interview with Mayer about it, contains the only specific mention I've found so far in the news media about Obama's "unannounced" decision to allow the Pakistan military to choose targets for CIA drone strikes.

The situation veers perilously close to The Twilight Zone when one considers the date of Mayers' interview and report: October 21 and 26, 2009 respectively. That was more than six months ago! Since then there's been an unprecedented number of drone strikes in Pakistan, even for the Obama administration, which has overseen more strikes in Pakistan during its first year than the Bush administration oversaw during its two terms.

It's not as if the stepped-up strikes have gone unnoticed on the Left. Even Code Pink , ostensibly staunch Obama supporters, lodged protests. But again, with the exception of the Huffington Post featuring Chris Rogers' op-ed, the protests have gone nowhere near the issue of the U.S. allowing Pakistan's regime to choose some of the targets for the CIA drone operators. The question is why the Left has been silent on this issue.

The same question can be directed at the Right. One would think that right wingers, who sit up nights trying to figure ways to impeach Barack Obama, would have seized on the issue. But no. Silence from the Right. Silence from all quarters including the news media.

Six days after Koh's speech the barrage of drone attacks in Pakistan suddenly stopped; the last attack was on March 30 according to Long War Journal. The halt might simply be a temporary suspension for want of targets. Or it could be Obama recalibrating in the face of the growing outcry about drone warfare in Pakistan, or because of tactical advice from Generals Petraeus and McChrystal.

Yet even if the strikes are outright abandoned in Pakistan, there would still be the issue of a U.S. President who was so desperate to placate a foreign government that he turned the CIA into a Renta-Assassin. And with no way of learning for certain whether the targets chosen by the government were actually terrorists. This issue should not go unexamined by the American public.

1) From Jim Lobe's April 2 report for Inter Press Services:
"We are encouraged that the administration has taken the legality surrounding drone strikes seriously," said Jonathan Manes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "While this was an important and positive first step, a number of controversial questions were left unanswered."

"We still don't know what criteria the government uses to determine that a civilian is acting like a fighter, and can therefore be killed, and... whether there are any geographical limits on where drone strikes can be used to target and kill individuals," he told IPS.

"He didn't really say anything that we took issue with," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who also complained about the lack of details.

"But it still leaves unanswered the question of how far the war paradigm he's talking about extends. Will it extend beyond, say, ungoverned areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen? Because you don't want to leave a legal theory out there that could be exploited by a country like Russia or China to knock off its political enemies on the streets of a foreign city," he added.


The weapon itself "is one of the least problematic from a civilian-protection standpoint, because drones can hover over their targets and observe whether civilians are present before delivering a payload, and because they carry relatively small and precisely guided munitions," noted Malinowski.

"The question is a legal one: under what circumstances can you use lethal force at all? Our view has always been that it should be limited to zones of active armed conflict where normal arrest operations are not feasible."

A related question involves who may be targeted. While many authorities insist lethal force can be used under the laws of war against those who are actively participating in armed conflict, the U.S. has used defined participation in very broad terms, including membership in - or even financial support of - an armed group.

In his remarks to the American Society for International Law, Koh, who was one of the harshest and most outspoken critics of the Bush administration's legal tactics in its "global war on terror", acknowledged some of these concerns, noting that his speech "is obviously not the occasion for a detailed legal opinion."

"(W)hether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses," he said.

Koh added that Washington will ensure the application of the principles of "distinction" and "proportionality" in the laws of war.

While noting criticism that the use of lethal force against some individuals far removed from the battlefield could amount to an "unlawful extrajudicial killing", he insisted that "a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defence is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force."

"Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise," he said.

Alston, the U.N. rapporteur, was far from satisfied with these assurances, however, calling Koh's statement "evasive".

He "was essentially arguing that 'You've got to trust us. I've looked at this very carefully. I'm very sensitive to these issues. And all is well,'" he told an interviewer on 'Democracy Now' Thursday [April 1].

"The speech did not provide essential information about the drone/targeted killing programme, including the number and rate of civilian casualties, and the internal oversight and controls on targeted killing, especially within the CIA," said Manes of the ACLU, which has filed a lawsuit to acquire that information.

Tom Parker of Amnesty International was more scathing about Koh's position, suggesting that it was one more concession -- along with indefinite detention and special military tribunals for suspected terrorists -- to the framework created by Bush's "global war on terror". [...]