Guest: Allan Nairn, award-winning journalist and activist.
Website: News and Comment
ANJALI KAMAT: On Tuesday, President Obama made another statement on the failure of intelligence agencies to intercept the Christmas Day plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight. He said the US government had the necessary information to stop the twenty-three-year-old Nigerian suspect from boarding the Detroit-bound flight, but he excoriated the intelligence community for failing to connect the dots in time.
ANJALI KAMAT: Obama said intelligence agencies knew that the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had, quote, “traveled to Yemen and joined up with extremists there.” The President also addressed concerns over repatriating the ninety-odd Yemeni men who are still detained in Guantanamo.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s almost been a year since President Obama’s inauguration and his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo.
For a critical look back over the Obama administration’s foreign policy and national security decisions in the last twelve months, we’re joined here in New York by award-winning investigative journalist and activist Allan Nairn.
In 1991, we were both in East Timor and witnessed and survived the Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian forces killed more than 270 Timorese. The soldiers fractured Allan’s skull.
Over the past three decades, he has exposed how the US government has backed paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Haiti. He also uncovered US support for the Indonesian military’s assassinations and torture of civilians.
He’s joining us now for the rest of the hour.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Allan Nairn.
ALLAN NAIRN: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you start off with a broad overview, as we move into this first anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration, of his term in office?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I think Obama should be remembered as a great man because of the blow he struck against white racism, the cultural blow. And he accomplished that on Election Day. That was huge. This is one of the most destructive forces in world history, and by simply—by virtue of becoming president, Obama did it major damage.
But once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill. He could have flipped the switch and turned it off. The President has—turned it off. The President has that power, but he chose not to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean? Explain more fully.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the machine. The US spends about half of all—almost half of all the military spending in the entire world, equal to virtually all the other countries combined. More than half of the weapons sold in the world are sold by the United States. The US has more than 700 military bases scattered across dozens of countries. The US is the world’s leading trainer of paramilitaries. The US has a series of courses, from interrogators to generals, that have graduated military people guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in dozens upon dozens of countries. The US has a series of covert paramilitary forces of its own that get almost no attention. For example, right now in Iran, there are covert US paramilitaries attacking Iran from within, authorized by secret executive order. This was briefly reported, but it dropped from notice. In addition to that, there are the open attacks, the open bombings and invasions. Just in the recent period, the US has done this to Iran—to, I’m sorry, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya. Currently in the Philippines, there are US troops in action in the south. And you could go on. This is the machine.
And then, in addition, there’s the support for a series of what the RAND Corporation itself—you know, RAND is an extension of the Pentagon—called US support for repressive non-democratic governments and for governments that commit aggression. There are about forty of them that the US backs. And I could run through the list. And the point is, Obama has not cut a single—cut off a single one of these repressive regimes. He has not cut off a single one of the terror forces. He has increased the size of the US Army, increased the size of US Special Forces. He has increased the level of overseas arms sales. In fact, the Pentagon, his Pentagon, was recently bragging about it. The same thing happened under the Clinton administration with then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. He has tuned it up. But you could just run down the list of countries where civilians are being killed and tortured with US weapons, with US money, with US intelligence, with US political green lights.
ANJALI KAMAT: So, Allan, what would you say is the difference between the preceding eight years under the Bush administration and this past year, as we move forward under Obama?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, in this respect, on matters I was just talking about, there’s no substantive difference. In fact, as far as one can tell, Obama seems to have killed more civilians during his first year than Bush did in his first year, and maybe even than Bush killed in his final year, because not only has Obama kept the machine set on kill, but he had his special project, which is Pakistan and Afghanistan. He used this to get elected. He had to prove himself. He had to go through what the New York Times once called the “presidential initiation rite,” under which each president must, in their words, demonstrate his willingness to shed blood. Obama did that by saying, “I’m going to attack more vigorously Afghanistan and Pakistan.” And he’s brought chaos.
I mean, you just saw the report from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has squeezed the Pakistani military to attack their own tribal and border areas with extensive civilian death and retaliation from the residents of those areas through a series of bombings across the major cities of Pakistan.
Likewise in Somalia, Bush backed Ethiopia in an invasion of Somalia, basically an Ethiopian-US invasion of Somalia. Now Obama is pumping in new arms, new weapons, into the midst of the killing and chaos there. Somalis are streaming into Yemen as refugees. The already disastrous level of hunger and starvation is increasing. His body count probably exceeds that of Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what we’ve been seeing over the last few days, I mean, what happened with the jetliner, now President Obama coming out yesterday talking about other attempts that were thwarted, like even on Inauguration Day, and that was actually Somali. And what are the approaches you think that President Obama should take?
ALLAN NAIRN: Right. Well, you know, the issue is not the safety of Americans. The issue is the safety of people. All people. You have to count not just the American deaths and potential American deaths, but the deaths everywhere, since—you know, since everyone counts. And the best solution is the one that protects the maximum number of people. And if you happen to be the party that is committing the largest number of killings in the world, as the US is now, then the solution is easy: stop committing the killings.
In this case, in the present moment in history, that would have the added side benefit of most likely making Americans safer, as well, because you would take away the main provocation. Tom Brokaw, on TV this weekend, made a very interesting comment. He described what the US was engaged in as the “war against Islamic rage.” That’s actually the most telling definition I’ve seen. I mean, think about it. In Afghanistan, Karzai, the US/UN-installed president, basically the man thought of as a US puppet, the man previously lionized by the US press before he started speaking out against the US aerial killings of civilians, Karzai started to get enraged after a series of bombings of wedding parties by the US and NATO forces. Think about it. Somebody bombs your wedding, a foreign air force bombs your wedding. How are you supposed to react? Are you supposed to be delighted? Rage is the normal human response. If you stop that, you lower the rage, and you probably get fewer attacks on Americans.
You know, there’s a man named Kilcullen, who’s Australian by origin, who’s now one of the main intellects behind the US counterinsurgency policy. He advises Secretary Gates, who of course was Bush’s Defense Secretary, as well. He said that if he were a Muslim today in a Middle Eastern country, he would probably be a jihadist. Robert Pape, the leading academic specialist on suicide bombings who studied the entire database of all the suicide bombers in recent years, said it’s a consequence primarily of occupation. So, you stop committing mass murder overseas, and you immediately, immediately, just by that action, achieve the main goal, which is minimizing the overall deaths of people, and you most likely get the side benefit of also minimizing the deaths of Americans—
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pape—
ALLAN NAIRN: —because you’re prodding fewer people.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pape is a conservative academic?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. In fact, he went on TV recently saying he was a big fan of aerial bombing. I mean, he is no peacenik. But he honestly studied the data on suicide bombings, and that was his conclusion.
And by the way, the tactic of, you know, bombs in civilian places, like outside mosques, it was not originated by the current jihadists. You know, the current jihadists, of course, as is well known, grew out of the US and Saudi Arabian operation in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet invasion, and bin Laden and the others were backed by the US. But that actual tactic dates back to times like when the CIA used it in Lebanon to try to kill a cleric, and they blew up people as they were leaving the mosque. They used a car—the US used a car bomb to do that.
Even aerial bombings, even bombings of airplanes, three of the biggest incidents before 9/11 were actually incidents of US culpability. In ’76, a Cuban airliner was brought down with—I believe the death toll was—what was it? Seventy-three, I think, something on that order—by Luis Posada Carriles, a longtime CIA operative, who was later indicted for terrorism. And the US refused to extradite him. They’re harboring—they’re harboring him. Later, in—let’s see, what year was it? The Indian Airlines bombing in ’85, I believe, an Indian jetliner was blown up, almost—about 300 killed. The bombers were later found to have received training at a US camp in Alabama, US paramilitary camp that had also, with Reagan backing, had done operations against Central America. The Iranian jetliner shot down by a US ship, the Vincennes, also with roughly 300 killed, in ’88, the captain of the ship who did that, he got a medal from Bush Senior for exceptionally meritorious service.
So these tactics, you know, bombing civilian places, even blowing up jetliners specifically, are not new. And the US itself has used them.
And, you know, they talk about how the jihadists target civilians. Well, it’s certainly true. But when bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center, he was basically using—the attack on 9/11, he was basically using US targeting principles. He attacked the Pentagon, a military target, and he attacked the World Trade Center, which had a CIA—in fact, did have a CIA office in it. Now, on this end, especially here in New York, we can see that those targeting standards are absolutely insane. I mean, we could see the cooks and the firemen dying. You know, we could breathe the dust. We could see, no, even if you are going after a CIA office, you do not do this. We can see that that’s wrong on this end. It’s also wrong on the other end, when the US does it.
When the US opened—so it’s not just a matter of targeting, and it’s not just a matter of targeting civilians. The Goldstone report found that Israel targeted civilians specifically, when they invaded Gaza, and the US has often done it. For example, in Iraq, the US adopted what they called the El Salvador option, which is a reference back to the El Salvadoran death squads of the 1960s and ‘70s, which is something I investigated extensively. And these were launched under the Kennedy administration and basically sponsored and run by the US for decades. And similar operations were done in Iraq by the US, under the direction, by the way, of General McChrystal, who now runs Afghanistan. The technical term the Pentagon used for it—uses for it is “manhunting.” So they do target civilians.
But even when they’re not targeting civilians, which is probably most of the time, they end up killing massive numbers of civilians. The Pentagon has a word for that, too. They call it “bugsplat.” In the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, they ran computer programs, and they called the program the Bugsplat program, estimating how many civilians they would kill with a given bombing raid. On the opening day, the printouts presented to General Tommy Franks indicated that twenty-two of the projected bombing attacks on Iraq would produce what they defined as heavy bugsplat—that is, more than thirty civilian deaths per raid. Franks said, “Go ahead. We’re doing all twenty-two.” So that adds up to, you know, about 660 anticipated, essentially planned, what in domestic terms would be called criminally negligent homicide, at the least, probably second-degree murder. You might even be able to get it up to first, first-degree. And that, just if—if that was the actual toll, the bugsplat estimate of the toll on the first day, that right there would give you a third of the World Trade Center death toll, just on the first day of the Iraq operation. And, of course, the Iraq operation has gone on. And that’s essentially what’s happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They claim—or they claim—or let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and they say, OK, they have an al-Qaeda target, or whatever target, some armed man in some compound somewhere, and they bomb it, and they also kill the person’s wife and the kids and their extended family and the friends who were there for dinner. Imagine. Imagine if that happened here. Let’s say al-Qaeda occupied New York. They set up checkpoints on Seventh Avenue. And if a car tried to run the checkpoints, they’d machine-gun the car, as the US does in Iraq. Or they ran drones over Washington, DC, and they were taking out US officials in their backyards as they did barbecues in suburban Virginia or as they were going for coffee in Dupont Circle. How would Americans react to that? In fact, how would Americans react if some young American went out and killed some of those al-Qaeda occupiers? The question answers itself.
I mean, when you do things like this, when you make humans into bugsplat, you invite response. So, stop the killing, and you get a benefit. You’ll probably make yourself safer, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to award-winning journalist and activist Allan Nairn. We’re going to go to break, then come back. Want to get your reaction to President Obama’s Nobel address, also to his condemning torture just about a year ago. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOOMAN: Our guest for this hour is Allan Nairn, award-winning journalist and activist.
Allan, I want to get your response to President Obama’s invocation of the concept of a just war, this in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people, for, make no mistake, evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.
AMY GOOMAN: An excerpt of President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo just about a month ago. Allan Nairn, your response?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he’s right. There is evil in the world. And Obama should stop committing it. He should stop bombing, doing bombing raids that kill civilians. He should stop backing forces that kill civilians.
You know, it’s probably true that nonviolence couldn’t have stopped Hitler. There are just resorts to violence. If you’re standing there with your mother, someone comes in with a machine gun, you step in front. And if you’ve got a gun, you try to kill the machine gunner before they blow away you and your mother. Sure, there are lots of situations like that in life.
But that’s not in the situation of the US in foreign policy. As Obama was making that speech, he was saying, when we resort to violence, we will abide by the rules. This was exactly at the moment when the US was blocking the UN from doing precisely that. The Goldstone report had recommended, in just one example, that Israel be brought to the International Criminal Court for their assault on Gaza and that—as well as Hamas—and that let the chips fall where they may. Do an objective investigation and see if rules of law were violated, see if crimes against humanity were committed, as he said they were. And Obama blocked it.
The US itself, in its operations in dozens upon dozens of countries, is violating not just international law, but US law. People have forgotten about them, because they’re not enforced. Here are four US laws currently on the books. There can be no US weapons used for aggression. That’s the old Harkin amendment. There can be no US aid for foreign internal security forces of any kind. That’s Section 660 of the 1974 Foreign Assistance Act. There can be no US military aid for any regime that engages in a pattern of gross human rights violations. That’s 22 US Code 2304(a). There can be no US aid for any military unit that commits atrocities. That’s the Leahy amendment. Now, these are not radical political demands; these are existing US law. And the US systematically violates its own laws, not to mention the murder laws of local countries.
AMY GOOMAN: Where? Name the countries.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, just—you know, we mentioned before some of the places where the US is bombing and attacking. Less known, these are some examples of the machine being set on kill, repressive—what in RAND’s words—RAND Corporation’s words, repressive regimes being backed by the US: Algeria, where they annulled an election, they stole an election, they do systematic torture; Ethiopia, where there’s mass hunger among the population, but where the US is building up the Ethiopian army and using them against Somalia; Saudi Arabia, the most religious extremist, anti-woman dictatorship in the world; Jordan, a torture center—the Jordanian intelligence outfit was, in the words of George Tenet, owned by the CIA, and both the CIA and Israel use it for torture; Rwanda, whose army and paramilitaries have been pillaging and raping and massively killing in the eastern Congo; Congo itself, Secretary of State Clinton went there and made a good denunciation of rape by the Congolese army, and as that was happening, the US was delivering weapons and training to that same Congolese army; Indonesia, where the army now de facto occupies and terrorizes Papua and has recently resumed assassinations in Aceh, the other end of the archipelago; Colombia, where army and army-backed militaries are the world’s number-one killer of labor activists; Uzbekistan, massive torture backed simultaneously by the US and Russia; Thailand, where officers who—US officers who I spoke to use their US training in what they call “target selection” to assassinate and disappear Muslim rebels in the south; Nepal, where US Green Berets for years created old Guatemala-style civil patrols that carried out lynchings against pro-Maoist forces and civilians in the countryside; India, where the police do daily torture and where their own officers talk about using terror against villages in the Naxalite rebel areas; Egypt, one of the world’s leading torture states and Israel’s accomplice in the blockade and hungering of Gaza; Honduras, where the army recently staged a coup when the oligarchy’s president, Zelaya, turned against his fellow oligarchs; Israel, which committed aggression against Gaza using US white phosphorus and cluster bombs as the US was—the US was shipping in new materiel as this, you know, attack was underway; and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where, as the British Guardian just reported, the security forces are doing systematic torture of Hamas people and other dissidents under CIA sponsorship. And that’s only a partial list. We’d need another twenty-minute segment to complete the list.
But in not one of these cases has Obama decided to comply with US law, comply with international law, and cut off the killer forces. In fact, in a number of them he has stepped it up. In Indonesia, for example, he’s made a push to renew aid to the Kopassus, the Red Berets, the most deadly of the killer forces, hated by the people, long trained by the US Green Berets.
AMY GOOMAN: You made a provocative statement at the beginning of this broadcast, comparing an Obama presidency with a possible Palin presidency, and whether you would see a difference when it comes to foreign policy.
ALLAN NAIRN: Right. Well, in terms of killing civilians overseas, no difference. Every single action I’ve laid out could easily be adopted by Palin. In fact, Obama is carrying them out using Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Gates, using Bush’s old counterterrorism man, Brennan, using Admiral Blair, Admiral Dennis Blair, who personally—this is something that we discussed on an earlier show and which I personally reported on—who green-lighted church massacres, massacres of Catholic churches by General Wiranto in occupied East Timor in 1999 to punish the Timorese for voting for independence. So Palin could do all those things.
AMY GOOMAN: Dennis Blair’s position at the time?
ALLAN NAIRN: He was head of the US Pacific forces, and he’s now Obama’s Director of National Intelligence. And he’s now getting some political heat over the Detroit underwear bomber incident, which I actually think is unfair. You know, you can reinforce the—I mean, Blair should have been indicted for crimes against humanity and put on trial. Blair should be in prison now for what he did with General Wiranto. But this is unfair criticism of him on the bomber. I mean, you can’t prevent someone from, you know, trying to sneak in. If you want real security, you stop it on the other end. You stop the provocations and turn down the heat.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Allan Nairn, one of the things that Obama promised—one of the ways he promised he would be different from the Republicans, different from previous presidents, and different from the enemy he’s fighting, is that he would adhere to the rule of law. There would be standards. He’s banning torture. He’s going to close Guantanamo. These were promises he made last year. Can you talk about where—you mentioned the Goldstone report and US efforts to block the Goldstone report at the UN. But can you give us an assessment of where Obama stands in terms of international law? You told us a little bit about domestic law.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the violations—and this is not—you know, we’re talking about Obama, but this is the whole US system. I mean, Bush did the same. Clinton did the same. Bush’s father, Reagan, Carter. It’s institutional policy. He’s violating not just law, but especially international law, which defines aggression as the supreme crime. And when you go in and bomb countries because you say there’s a—you know, there’s a militant there you want to kill, that is easily defined as aggression.
When you back forces that are systematically killing civilians, as many are in that list of countries I ran through, you are a party to crimes against humanity and maybe even, arguably, in some cases, genocide. That was certainly the case in Central America in the ’80s, where—actually, now a Spanish court has indicted and is trying various Guatemalan generals for those crimes, charging them with an array of crimes against humanity. And they did it with US backing, with US weapons.
Obama issued a torture ban, a supposed torture ban, which was actually a sham.
AMY GOOMAN: Let me play a clip of President Obama. It was just about a year ago, this executive order banning torture. On January 22nd of last year, this is what Obama promised to do.
AMY GOOMAN: That was President Obama just about a year ago. Allan Nairn?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, his torture ban is empty. Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the US-backed torture is not done by Americans; it’s done by foreigners acting under US sponsorship. And that continues. His ban does not affect that. And even when it comes to Americans doing hands-on torture, his ban only says they are prohibited from doing so in situations of armed conflict, like in the middle of a war. That means that even an American could today go into Venezuela, go into Cuba, going into Egypt, go into Jordan, go into most of the countries of the world and commit hands-on torture, and it would be perfectly permissible under the so-called Obama torture ban. So it’s fake.
AMY GOOMAN: And what do you mean that others can do it?
ALLAN NAIRN: An American can do it if it’s in a country that’s not in a state of armed conflict. But the vast majority of the torture is carried out by proxies. That’s the way they did it in El Salvador. That’s the way they did it in Guatemala. There’s an intelligence officer, an Army man, a policeman of the local country, and they are trained by the US, they are paid by the US, but they’re not an American citizen. And they’re the one who wields the razor blade. They’re the one who puts the hood on.
AMY GOOMAN: Allan, you spend your time traveling the world. Talk about wealth and poverty.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the biggest issue is there are more than a billion people hungry in the world. It recently increased by a hundred million or so because of the Wall Street-induced financial collapse, but it was at about 900 million during the days of top prosperity, as defined by our current economic system. That’s completely intolerable. Until everybody eats, no one should live in luxury.
You know how much it would cost to feed those billion people? Less, much less, than was spent on just the bailout of Citibank. No one in the US, no one in any party leadership, talks about shifting those resources to do that. In fact, the President could do that with his own executive authority. For a deeper, longer-term solution, you’d have to change trade rules, you would have to change the IMF and the World Bank, so that farmers in currently hungry areas would have the same opportunities and protections that US yeoman farmers once had back in the age of Jefferson, when the US protected its farmers. But a president or even a rich person like a Gates or a Carlos Slim or a Buffett could instantly feed half the world. The World Food Programme, every few months, comes out with a desperate bulletin, saying we’ve got to cut back the calorie rations because we’re not getting enough for this or that program.
You know, in US politics, people face a bitter choice. You can’t vote for the—with a two-party system, you can’t vote against murder, you can’t vote for ending starvation. So they say, “My god, I guess I’ll go for the Democrats, because if I don’t, they’re going to move my Social Security to Wall Street, they’ll end gun control, they’ll end women’s choice.” So you end up backing these direct mass murders and the allowing of babies to have their brains deformed due to lack of food. That’s not tolerable.
I agree with those lunatic tea party people: we need a revolution. We need—now, they’re talking about a revolution to put a white person in charge. I’m talking about a revolution for change. Nothing radical, really. Just enforce the laws, those US laws, the murder laws, and shift a few dollars from people who merely want it, people like us who—you know, we live in luxury; we have all the food we could possibly eat in many lifetimes—and shifting it to people who need it to keep from being stunted, who need it to keep breathing, people—we can do that. You know, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan—
AMY GOOMAN: We have fifteen seconds.
ALLAN NAIRN: —horrible regimes. Today, they’re peaceful and productive. They were crushed by violence. That’s how they transformed their societies. I hope we don’t have to be crushed in that way. We can transform ourselves, but people have to stand up and do it. Surround Congress. Occupy the military bases. The US can become peaceful also, but only if we decide to do so. And we do have that choice. We have freedoms here.