Tag Archives: crimes

Exposing The Horror and Disgrace Of America’s Drone War

Green for Growth & Peace

After carefully reading the new human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on America’s drone war, I can best describe my mood as equal parts nauseous and horrified. The reports are, in a word, gruesome. And while I have problems with various aspects of both – among them the overreach of each in conflating unintended collateral civilian casualties as war crimes – I nonetheless have to consider the fact that a great-many innocent people (up to 900 in Pakistan alone) have been killed, and their deaths seem to have come at the hands of my country’s government.

Like many others Americans my age, my formative years were consumed by a seemingly never-ending conflict between “good and evil” or “us vs. them”, aimed at justifying America’s engagement in I-don’t-know-how-many conflicts and moral crusades in order to “safeguard our freedom and way of life”. I was a kid (13) when the towers fell and we began this continuing trend of extremist-eradication at-all-costs. But then, in 2008, Barack Obama ran for President, and I’d never seen anything like it. I was too young and uninterested to remember the Clinton years, really. Everything I knew about Presidential power, and the exercise of it, I knew from George W. Bush and Dick “Chancellor Palpatine” Cheney. So when, in 2008, Obama ran on principles of transparency, honesty, accountability and justice, I was naturally inspired; hopeful that the world Bush and Cheney created would finally be jettisoned for something good.

As much I would like to follow the lefty herd and blindly claim that somehow, someway, we’ve gotten ourselves out of the same rut that consumed us during the breadth of Bush’s term(s), the truth is that we haven’t. The truth is we’ve replaced open evil with closeted evil.

Obama visits Pentagon

For years now the president and his senior advisers have made public claims about America’s drone program that have been found to be categorically false. We know, for instance, from top-secret intelligence documents, that “contrary to assurances it has deployed US drones only against known senior leaders of al-Qaida and allied groups, the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified ‘other’ militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.” (Jonathan Landy) These revelations don’t just illustrate that the drone program is out of hand or that the Obama administration has become incapable in accounting for it, but that the Obama administration knowingly misleads the public about the scope of who can be legitimately targeted by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Here’s a crucial point: the Obama administration/US military/intelligence agencies often have no idea who they are killing. Even the CIA – whose intelligence reports are basically the means by which targets are chosen – often has zero idea of the identities of many of the people they target for death. President Obama, much like his predecessor, approves of the use of something called “signature strikes”, where the least important factor in the decision making process to target someone for a drone strike is who they are. More important to the decision making calculus the government employs – and the reason many are targeted for death despite their identity being unknown – is intelligence gathering suggesting that the individual is a ‘militant’ if he engages in a pattern of life more commonly engaged in by ‘militants’. The NY Times reported that “the joke [at the State Department] was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks’, the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp”.

Chinook flight

I should note that the Obama administration has – prior to the reports – signaled its intention to embrace a policy shift away from drones towards various other counterterrorism measures. But because Americans are largely agnostic towards the use of drones in far-away places like Pakistan, and since that ambivalence means neither Republicans nor Democrats will pressure the President to make good on his campaign promises of accountability and transparency, there’s little chance he will.

Photos: Kashif Mardani; US Army

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Seeking some form of redress, inmates review prisons on Yelp

Remember that epic scene in HBO’s Newsroom when Will McAvoy aka Pete Williams unloaded some truth to the fictitious national audience? Here’s a quote from the righteous rant penned by Aaron Sorkin:

…there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King’s College London estimated in 2010 that the total number showed 2,266,832 prisoners from a total population of 310.64 million, or 730 out of every 100,000. Racial components are at play as well; black males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents.

Within the prisons themselves, mistreatment is rampant and inmates have historically lived bereft of opportunities to seek redress. Most states don’t have oversight procedures legislatively certified to address mistreatment within prisons, meaning that most instances go unheard.

The burgeoning website Yelp earns roughly 36 million reviews a quarter, and while many people turn to the site for recommendations for off-the-path dive bars and unique restaurants, lawyers, inmates and their families have been turning to the site to report mediocre food and allegations of serious abuse.

Lawyers from California and Illinois have complained about security procedures that stop them from seeing clients. A woman in Austin alleged that workers in a local jail threatened her with bolt-cutters and tied her to a chair for hours without bathroom breaks. One reviewer claimed a Seattle jail did not return the money he had with him when he entered.

“This was the worst experience of my life and I am a combat veteran from Iraq,” wrote another Seattle reviewer. “I would rather re-live Basic and the evil Drill Sergeant’s. I would rather be in the box.”

Despite the fact that some of the Yelp prison reviews are seen as weird novelties, where career criminals find avenues for complaining about the abysmal states they find themselves in, the reviews could help bring about some positive changes for the US prison system. A 1996 law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act stipulates that inmates cannot sue over prison conditions, or really seek any redress, until they have “exhausted” administrative procedures, and they can ask for only limited changes to prison policy. All the while – since most prisons don’t have oversight measures in place – inmates have to be wary that any false step could find them at the mercy of the same guards they’re seeking to expose.

Prison mistreatment extends to each and every state. In New York, for instance, 60 prisons and about 55,000 anonymous inmates are surveyed by the Correctional Association each year, during which serious problems are uncovered, from mentally ill patients sent, inappropriately, to solitary confinement to outright instances of forced starvation and physical abuse.

Anytime an institution that has historically enjoyed limited oversight and substantial autonomy suddenly begins to be exposed, albeit incrementally, it’s a good thing. The Yelp reviews alone won’t affect change – many of them are seen as unreliable and vindictive – but small steps to bring transparency to a system historically predicated on limited transparency, is a good start.

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The New York Post is a disgrace

Whenever a huge, tragic event occurs, you can trust that some media outlets will remain loyal to the tenants of journalistic integrity and truth, and some won’t. CNN, among others, prematurely announced that an arrest had been made. The necessity to be the ‘first’ to release a story drives these massive conglomerates to take a risk now and again, and suffer the consequences for it. But there’s a distinction between journalistic negligence and journalistic indifference.

The New York Post surely cemented its place next to the News of the World, putting its actions this week in the same vein as the British Murdoch scandal. That may be harsh to consider, since the Post didn’t commit any legal crimes – such as phone tapping – but the manner in which they’ve reported the “news” this week, with total reckless indifference to the truth, is an equivalent offense.

If you’ll recall, the Post published on Monday that twelve people had been killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. Despite every single news source contradicting that claim, despite it being obviously wrong and maliciously intended, the Post kept the figure on their website all day. To be wrong is one thing. To know you’re wrong, to know you’re alone, and to continue, consciously, with being wrong, isn’t journalism. It’s a disgrace to journalism.

But it doesn’t stop there. Today’s headline looked like this:

The NY Post splashed two young people on their newspaper and labelled them suspects because they had on dark clothes and a backpack. The pair show up in multiple photos of the finish line. They carry large bags. They are dark-skinned. That was apparently enough for the Post to run with its front-page story today, claiming investigators are circulating photos of the two. The kid in the blue jacket is a middle-distance runner at Revere High School. They’re absolutely innocent.

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