On Saturday, January 16, in the context of public discussion in the middle of the previous week and public talks by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and a December suicide bombing that left eight CIA agents dead, a protest of roughly 70 people occurred on a strip of land outside of the CIA outside Dolly Madison Boulevard. Its number dwindled to approximately 20 before concluding at the nearby corner of the street where Dick Cheney now lives. Attempting to approach strangers and seriously discuss the war a block away from the CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters was as frustrating as trying to initiate a meaningful conversation on chatroulette.com; every single discussion was tinged with the unknown. The governmental intelligence gathering and military arm’s past activities left a lingering possibility of being duped by a shill, a lunatic or a misinformed reactionary. What is the nature, though, of some of the biggest legitimate critics of the U.S. covert military apparatus?
At approximately 1 p.m. that day, I was making a miscalculated approach from the north through one of America’s wealthiest suburbs. A handful of men in black uniforms awaited my pulling up through the north gate at 38.956641,-77.145633, two of them with AR-system rifles pointed away from me. They asked if I was going to the protest, and I offered an affirmation, awkwardly and very conspicuously turning the vehicle around. The whole experience was pretty nerve-wracking because I kept imagining all of the very likely ways in which my trunk and car contents were being scanned. I don’t think I’ll feel more naked in front of the genital-splaying full body scanner at the airport.
The protest was, let’s just say, a big, big tent of interests.
Speaking of tents, the largest group of most obviously organized protesters appear in the orange jumpsuits, outfits which are a hybridization of the iconic Abu Ghraib prison image of the detainee standing on a box like some sort of bizarro Statute of Liberty, except with wires coming off of him – the black hoods are a reference to that specific image – and the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo Bay. In actuality of course, the latter lucky individuals wear goggles, presumably so they don’t get that nasty itch which comes from wool. I’m pretty sure that, later in the day on the walk to Dick Cheney’s house, that figure giving the pro-Taliban protester the most flack was the one arguing to me for the careful maintenance of a relatively strict, smaller tent, if you will. Immediately, the irony of what he tried to maintain in his arguments to David and me was apparent in light of the CIA’s long-celebrated history of destabilizing protest.
If this protest can be said to have succeeded in any sense, it is only because Cheney’s opulently wealthy neighbors may have been forced to deal with on an – ahem, enhanced – basis possibly being ID’d as they attempt to approach their own dwellings. It’s simple, but it probably gave them at least a less vague idea of what it’s like to have to go through a military checkpoint in Iraq. But don’t get me wrong. The people who live in Dick Cheney’s neighborhood inhabit silk-lined crystal goblets. These are the kind of people who fly their dogs to each other on private planes.
Sheehan’s most impassioned accusation regarding Dick Cheney is that he is in fact directly and in no uncertain terms responsible for her son’s death. As has been widely reported for years, Cindy Sheehan lost her son Casey when his helicopter was shot down over Iraq while he had gone along on a mission that, his mother says, he had immediately protested. The myriad ways in which the role of the military is discussed in conversation, the blame for death in war behaves as a bullet striking a concrete surface and breaking apart, each piece destroying a part of different people’s reputations. Politicians, fawning for the soldiers, accept bold pronouncements of their culpability much as Harry Truman did with the sign he kept on his desk, “The buck stops here.” Meanwhile, conversations with actual soldiers inevitably reveal a lot of skepticism about the motives of their elected superiors and of course for good reason. However, the mindset of anyone in an organized warring setting is the displacement of personal responsibility for a killing by a discrete yet distinct virtue in serving one hierarchy’s orders and ostensibly, by extension, the multitude of one’s national group.
Famously, in the lobby of the CIA are inscribed words from the books of Psalms that say the truth will “set you free.” If one only barely extends CIA management’s skill in theology, the biblical verse can be understood in the context of lying to close family members “for their own good” and “trying to suppress that twitch.” Whether it was Nancy Pelosi and the CIA last year unable to match stories about whether they had informed her about waterboarding (e.g. – torture to anyone with nothing to personally gain by saying otherwise), or Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas this year getting the agency to back off claims that he’d sanctioned their destruction of assuredly brutal interrogation videos, the blood has been flowing down both sides of the aisle as freely as slime on Double Dare. The CIA is now like either Congress’ drop rifle, or the main instigator of Congress becoming the CIA’s.
The whole event was happening in the context of Ray McGovern’s having appeared at Café Gutenberg in the District of Columbia beside Cindy Sheehan. McGovern made a ton of headlines for his having cornered Donald Rumsfeld on having manipulated the information regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the run-up to the war. McGovern noted an interesting tidbit from history that he says surprises a lot of the students that he addresses, that in The Washington Post, there was an op-ed by Harry Truman a month following the assassination of JFK that decried the CIA’s role as having moved from an information-gathering conduit to an organization carrying out covert action. After having provided so many intelligence briefings to so many presidents since, he bitterly reminded the crowd at the café of how prophetic Truman’s words have proven.
It was at that same evening event in the auditorium of sorts of the café that Sheehan really began to flesh out what she meant by Peace of the Action, her brainchild for nonviolent resistance to the military operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. As spring approaches, she said, she was planning to set up a camp on The Mall, and from there enlist a larger coalition to stage sit-ins in the Senate and House Office buildings. She claimed in a TV interview with Russia Today that the whole thing begins early next month. Don’t expect her to go all William Thomas and literally set up tent as Thomas did outside of the White House for 26 years. I think that’s about as likely as the machine, grinding along like a slug with razor-sharp teeth on his belly, is to get enough.
As recently as late last year, Sheehan got herself arrested by handcuffing herself to the White House, adamant that Barack Obama’s work for peace is as negligible as Bush’s. Much in the same way that exaggeratedly hawkish voices skate by faster for their children’s military roles, there is a similar bubble around Sheehan. Her son’s decision to enlist, her own father’s work for Lockheed Martin, all of it hovers as a paradox around the woman. Cindy Sheehan has become iconic because that same spirit that leads people to say nothing at all about murders like those the drones are carrying out is that guilt, that guilt that says we’re suckers to judge anyone who pats their kids on their behinds on the way to the firing line and/or daresay, actually loses a child to war and then happens to ramp up her strident demands for rapid demilitarization. The truth is if you criticize these types, hawks or doves, you’re going to look like a real asshole to a number of people actually relatively disinterested in these peoples’ personal causes: ending or escalating the conflicts. And in self-obsessed, painfully monolingual, low-turnout America, that means just about everybody!
The moment I saw “David” (or so he called himself) was the moment I suspected that he might work for the CIA. A crowd of four or five was standing around him trying to block his posterboard sign which said “Victory to the Taliban.” Immediately, I tried to make him shift his frame of reference to catch him in a lie, requesting his defense of the Taliban’s destruction of some impossibly old statues of Buddha. Surprisingly, his answer was very zen, saying that he believed that the Buddha would have supported the destruction of the statues. It really seemed very sympathetic to Buddhist beliefs, namely Linji’s koan, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Somehow, this didn’t awaken any cheerleading for the Taliban in me, but the nuance of the answer did satisfy my instincts asking me if I was simply dealing with a provocateur. After all, I thought, why would a guy rooting for the Taliban be willing to transfer blame off of Casey Sheehan for enlisting in the first place and then onto Dick Cheney? Still, still, I had to remind myself, this guy shared none of Sheehan’s apparent commitment to nonviolence. It was pretty obvious that the rest of the protesters had a great deal of trouble reconciling themselves with the Taliban’s social policies, too. But, blockers all around him, David would contend that since the Taliban were the only organized group expressing direct opposition to U.S. forces and that the others were foolish not to support them.
Watching while Debra Sweet went up to address the crowd, like one of those South American tree frogs, David just starting excreting the sort of distilled stupid that’s absolutely undoing everything good humans have ever accomplished. Her denouncement of any fundamentalist strain of any religion was approached by David with the claim that she was being racist. So frustrating is the way this runs: Criticize a belief, and it’s automatically like saying you don’t like the way someone looks or their entire lineage. You see, that made me think that maybe David was just an actor.
One of the speakers, Joshua Smith, was handing out DVDs containing technical materials and recent news write-ups about the capabilities of the drone attacks along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Smith attributed the biggest problems to the agency’s assumptions about how much it really knows about the people at whom it’s pointing the 100-pound, five-foot Hellfire missiles fired from out of sight from the Reaper and Predator-brand drones. He said, “The problem is they’re not doing their due diligence in their intelligence gathering. And when they strike a home, they always label ‘suspected militants’ who were killed. That encompasses civilians. Anybody in a dwelling of a high-value target they label a ‘suspected militant.’ And, as I’ve said, I think, onstage, if you go and Google ‘suspected militants, drones,” you’ll see page after page of drone attack reports, and the word or the term ‘suspected militant’ is used throughout. And ‘suspected’ is the key word, of course. That flies in the face of most all customary international law and in regards to the Geneva Convention(s) and the Additional Protocols (of 1977). There are many protocols stated to protect at the utmost civilian life. And that is not being followed at all.”
By saying “customary international law,” Smith was referencing his documentation, author Max Kantar’s citing the Additional Protocols of 1977 against the United States. Kantar says that, while these were not ratified by the United States, non-ratifiers have been held accountable. Last November, Kantar published a report called “International Law: The First Casualty of the Drone War,” which very seriously decimates conclusions such as the “31 percent to 33 percent” casualty ratio for the drone strikes forwarded by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann last year through The New Republic and the New America Foundation.
“Mechanisms for enforcing the protocols exist,” explains Kantar. “In the report I wrote, I cited the cases of Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone, where several war criminals from those countries were prosecuted in the ICC. And I don’t think there was very much opposition in the international community to do so. However, who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t and who is held accountable and who isn’t, is determined entirely by power. That is why there’s a warrant out for the arrest of al-Bashir from Sudan but not for Ehud Olmert or George W. Bush. This isn’t to say that al-Bashir shouldn’t be indicted. He should. But George Bush is a much bigger criminal and he should be indicted too. There’s the famous saying by Thucydides, which basically says that the powerful do what they can and the weak accept what they must. Unfortunately we live in a world ruled by force and this is also reflected in the UN.”
Smith indicated his belief that the war is most likely over natural gas. “And there is another theory that we are only there to destabilize Pakistan for the pipeline to not be able to be built. And that would be in the aspects regarding a proxy war on China so that China cannot have access to all of that natural gas.”
Although former congresswoman, Green Party presidential candidate and ardent Gaza activist Cynthia McKinney had said she would make it, Sheehan says that she had to step out of it due to her father’s health.
So I said to Smith, who has protested near the Gazan border, “Well, do you think that – to what extent do you – this is largely painted by people like Robert Gates. When, you know, this larger surge was announced, it was viewed in terms of Islamic extremism and fundamentalism.
Do you feel that – to what extent do you feel that really motivates the people who orchestrate and who actually make the decisions about doing these attacks? Are they really – or just by what their intent – you know, I’m talking about their intentions, you know. Do they really believe that this is about Islamic extremism? When they say that, are they really ‘we got to get that natural gas?’ I mean, I think that that’s a worthy question.”
He replied, “Well, I don’t believe the war or the global war on terror have anything to do with Islamic extremists. I think it is strictly imperialism, domination, profits for the military-industrial complex, and of course natural resources. I think the factor of Islamic extremists is the scapegoat for everything.
I said, “But – so the people being killed in essence were either – they’re standing in the way of the pipelines being built or they’re for the pipelines being built? I’m trying to understand the victims’ relationship to, you know, that larger economic goal.”
Smith said, “Well, victims in relation to Taliban and al Qaeda, and those victims being the innocent people, primarily, they are heavily against U.S. occupation, I believe. There are a lot of reports about that. But also the Taliban have come in with their initial laws, and attempted to help the people. Now, this is a common occurrence. However, it ends up actually being” – and here Smith trails off, confident that the politician-as-heartbreaker theme has been thoroughly articulated elsewhere. “This an occurrence we see here in America with promises of politicians. I saw it in Gaza where Hamas had taken over.”
“So we see it with America. We see it with – in Israel with the Palestinians and then within Gaza’s own, quote, unquote, ‘government,’ and we’re seeing that there in Pakistan and Afghanistan now.”
I asked, “So what extent does the trade of opiates and heroin reflect on motivating the war and the drug trade as a whole?”
Smith said, “Well, the motivation in regard to drugs, I would believe, is that the United States wants to protect the drug trade. They – the drug trade here in America is primarily used to somewhat infiltrate and undermine lower levels, as they would say, of, you know, society.”
“Poor people,” I suggested.
“Poor people. Yes. And, in urban areas, the CIA has been exposed as protecting quite a bit of the cocaine trafficking.”
I asked Smith, “What is the relationship between the CIA’s funding, apparent funding, of Ahmed Karzai and yet the pushing of these lower-level military people into trying to stop the drug trade? Why do they get them into that if they’re paying a drug dealer?”
“Well, I think what a lot of people need to understand is the drug trade is an entire economy unto itself, and, especially in countries such – when we were in Vietnam and just as we are now in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drug trade being an economy is also somewhat a source of currency. Bundles of any drug from those regions are traded openly and around the regions, and that’s only my suspicion. My father was in Vietnam, and he told me all the facts of that. My father told me of the military escorting loads of drugs in U.S. helicopters.”
The nature of assassinations is that they constitute a weighed balance. Insofar as people rationalize killing those whose actions they cannot properly assess; and that is to say they concede the incalculability of collateral damage. Interchangeably, the most callous killer and most righteous actor inevitably and must take into the cost of this sort of action, if for no other reason than people may make associations whose outrageously dubious behavior may be unknown to them. At their most organized, acts of violence enter a realm in which regarding individuals’ actions must be set aside in order to accomplish some perceived greater goal.
The battles of Central Asia recall the words of the iconic Mohammed ibn Abdullah that oppression is worse than slaughter. The Americans, NATO and now even Japan are locked in combat with a variety of belligerents, Pakistani criminals and apparently others with no apparent affiliation with any of these groups. But as surely as the mission there rolls on and everyone who matters at House Armed Services Committee like Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) and the White House continue to approve, the only apparent calculus, if their words are taken on their face, is that the deaths have much greater meaning. The Bush administration’s tactic of trying to curb the poppy trade by burning crops has been abandoned to take on a different strategy, the more public advocacy of simply paying the people who would otherwise be fighting NATO.
At least from my contact in Karachi, there seems to be a degree of uncertainty about the relationship between the assassination of Benazhir Bhutto and Baitelluh Mahsud, taken out by one of the CIA’s drones, not unlikely to have been operated from a center such as Kreech Air Force Base in Nevada. The Times was reported significantly higher civilian casualty rates than the U.S. military sources.
The cynics claim that NATO is making the big push into Central Asia for the purposes of holding onto Central Asian natural gas pipelines, that even the sparsely populated mountainous regions around the Khyber Pass. Is this just raw, albeit abashed imperialism? Will these movements in Central Asia really provide freer societies for the Pakistanis and the Afghans? The United States is cleaning up an old mess, having set up a bunch of particularly wealthy Saudi Wahhabists against the Soviet Union. By all accounts, the remnants of this organization have only a hundred or so members even in Afghanistan. From the very limited information available on official ongoing investigations into the organization, it’s not amazing that the struggle has become so demagogued. Just as the 9/11-spawned (and recently respawned!) USA PATRIOT Act has been mostly used against those uninvolved in terrorism per se, the self-definitional spirit of al Qaeda seems to be totally lost.
What happened that I had least expected were counterprotesters who were most certainly born and raised in Central Asia. One of them had difficulty understanding one of my questions due to the language barrier. They were slightly closer to the highway, more towards the traffic of luxury sedans and SUVs, as well as the Fairfax County Police. Their reactions to my questions are here. They seemed totally oblivious to the reports of the scale of civilian deaths that Kantar had managed to piece together from old CNN reports.
I showed this footage to a guy I know in Karachi, way to the south, and he thought it was amazing. “I am grateful to you that you shared this video to me because after watching this I amazed to know that someone (seems to be from) my land really supports drone attacks and termed them defensive measures. I am not sure about the identity of these guys but I can tell you that, even those people who [defend] or justify U.S. existence in Afghanistan and the policy of Pakistani government to give land and transportation to U.S., don’t support drone attacks. Who they guys are? Why they stand for drones’ favor? And before CIA center? These are questions which would be answered by you, but I don’t look something genuine-voiced in all of this. That’s I think so.”
One of the Pashtun gentlemen said that he would have respected the protest with Sweet, Sheehan and Smith had they first protested the atrocities of the Taliban before protesting the drone attacks. And while Sweet had gotten up to a microphone and denounced the Taliban, it’s true that the crux of the blame that day among the main organizers had gone first to the American and Pakistani authorities who were authorizing murder, insofar at least as the assassinations were outside of a court. I had remembered meeting a Pakistani man in Washingtob four months before the protest who had told me that he was very glad to hear that such a drone attack had killed Baitullah Mehsud, a man, many argued, had ordered the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. I didn’t ask them their names on camera, because I honestly thought they would refuse and I didn’t want to break the flow of natural conversation when approaching their most honest inclinations about the subject matter. Last names weren’t really something I would have pushed with anyone at the outdoor CIA state-sanctioned murder symposium.