The U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for Europe Victoria Nuland made headlines yesterday when an audio recording of her phone conversation with the U.S. Ambassador with Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was released. Rumors are swirling that the Russians were surveilling the U.S. diplomats and released the audio recording to embarrass the United States.
What was so embarrassing about it? Nuland, frustrated that the European Union wasn’t acting more forcefully on the Ukraine issue, said “Fuck the EU.”
Here’s the conversation:
While the expletive is what caught all the media attention, much less was paid to the substance of the discussion, which involved Nuland and Pyatt talking about the Ukrainian opposition and some kind of transition, as if it’s any of their business.
Here’s an excerpt from the State Department Press Briefing with reporters asking about the extensive U.S. meddling in Ukraine’s affairs that was made evident by the audio recording:
QUESTION: – now, once we get into it. Quite apart from the colorful language that is used in reference to the European Union, the conversation appears to – well, doesn’t appear to suggest, it does – the conversation shows that the United States certainly has – or at least officials within the U.S. Government have certain opinions about certain Ukrainian opposition leaders and others. And I’m wondering how that squares with your repeated insistence that every – all of this is up to the Ukrainians to decide themselves.
[State Dept. Spokeswoman] MS. PSAKI: It’s not inconsistent in the least bit. It is no secret that Ambassador Pyatt and Assistant Secretary Nuland have been working with the Government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that at any point, there have been discussions about recent events and offers and what is happening on the ground. And as you know, Assistant Secretary Nuland is on the ground right now continuing our efforts in that regard.
It remains the case that it is up to the Ukrainian people themselves to decide their future. It is up to them to determine their path forward, and that’s a consistent message that we’re conveying publicly and privately.
…QUESTION: Because they’re – look, the Russians have repeatedly accused the United States Government of interfering in Ukraine’s politics.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The U.S. Government has, to some degree, made reciprocal claims about Russia. Does not the fact that U.S. diplomats purportedly are discussing who should and should not be in a Ukrainian government hint at some possibility of U.S. interference here?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. There – it should be no surprise that U.S. officials talk about issues around the world. Of course we do. That’s what you do, that’s what diplomats do, and discuss especially issues where we’ve been closely engaged. The Secretary met with the opposition this weekend. He stopped by a meeting with the foreign minister. It’s up to the people of Ukraine, including officials from both sides, to determine the path forward. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are discussions about events on the ground.
QUESTION: This was more than discussions, though. This was two top U.S. officials that are on the ground discussing a plan that they have to broker a future government, and bringing officials from the UN to kind of seal the deal. This is more than the U.S. trying to make suggestions. This is the U.S. midwifing the process.
Here’s how the relationship between Israel and Gaza works: successive “cease-fires” are repeatedly adopted and continuously violated, leading more often to skirmishes than to lulls in violence. Israel bombs Gaza with airstrikes, Gaza shoots rockets into Israel. Then a new “cease-fire” is imposed.
If you were to ask anyone, from a casual observer to a ‘well-informed’ media commentator, which side violates the ceasefires more often, they would almost surely say Gaza. The newspapers and network news media constantly inform the American people when a rocket is hurled from Gaza into Israel. Both Israeli and American politicians cite this phenomenon in speeches and press conferences to justify Israel’s continuing economic blockade of Gaza, among other things. With regard to the Gaza situation, practically all we hear about is rockets.
In an ongoing study of violence between Israel and Gaza, The Jerusalem Fund, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., has catalogued cease-fire violations on either side. The principal finding is as follows: “Palestinian launches have been rare and sporadic and occurred almost always after successive instances of Israeli cease-fire violations.” Despite this, in the diplomacy on Mid-East peace, we invariably hear about Israel’s security concerns, while that of the Palestinians’ is hardly mentioned.
Here is a graph of the findings:
[Click to Enlarge]
Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund, explains how it typically works: Israel can “fire into Gaza without accountability, provoke a reaction and then claim self-defense.” See here for his explanation of the methodology.
I have written about previous cases in which Israel breaks the cease-fire with bombings, shootings, or territorial incursions, and then uses the retaliation from Gaza as a justification to launch a deeper bombing campaign here and here.
Israel violates the cease-fires more often, bombs Gaza more times than Gaza rockets Israel, and kills more Palestinians than Palestinians kill Israelis. But these findings are not what is striking. What is striking about this is that almost everybody believes the opposite of the reality. Here’s Munayyer with more on that:
Since the revelations about the NSA from Edward Snowden’s leaks last year, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who authored the Patriot Act, has come out in opposition to certain NSA surveillance practices, particularly bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata.
The NSA says that its authority to vacuum up all Americans’ call records comes from the Patriot Act’s Section 215. Sensenbrenner says that “no fair reading of the text would allow for this program.” In other words, the NSA is acting beyond the authority granted to it by law.
In testimony yesterday, Sensenbrenner said Congress is likely to take away NSA’s bulk collection capabilities. Here he is giving the DOJ’s James Cole a piece of his mind:
According to the Project on Government Oversight, “The U.S. is going to spend $1.5 trillion on the F-35, and it still isn’t meeting its goals. Watch the video and find out how this happened.” Several commentators including Winslow Wheeler and William Hartung discuss this flying monuments to government waste.
Brace yourself: George W. Bush’s former attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, is arguing publicly that the Obama administration’s drone war exceeds legal limits on executive authority. As anyone with a memory of Gonzales’s tenure under Bush knows, this is more than a little ironic.
For example, the Wall Street Journalreports, “Gonzales was a key figure in counterterrorism policies that placed executive power at the pinnacle, often at the cost of individual rights.” Gonzales supported the Bush administration’s denial of habeas corpus rights, torture, and warrantless NSA surveillance. Additionally, “the drone war began under Mr. Gonzales’s tenure, with a 2002 strike in Yemen that killed six people, including a U.S. citizen.”
Writing in the George Washington Law Review, however, Mr. Gonzales says current targeting practices may not be constitutional, and urges the legislative and executive branches to take steps to strengthen protections for citizens.
The 60-page article, “Drones: The Power to Kill,” focuses on President Barack Obama‘s decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen killed by a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Mr. Gonzales says that while he believes there was sufficient evidence to justify killing Mr. Awlaki, the decision-making process may fall short of standards established by a series of Supreme Court decisions since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The Supreme Court has a role to play. As Justice O’Connor said in Hamdi, ‘a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens,’” Mr. Gonzales writes.
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld is the 2004 opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that rejected the Bush administration’s claim to hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely as an enemy combatant. Mr. Gonzales was on the losing side of the case, as he was in three other enemy prisoner cases.
…According to remarks by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, various groups of “senior officials” and government lawyers determined Mr. Awlaki could not feasibly be captured and that killing him was appropriate.
Such a process may fall short of the Fifth Amendment, Mr. Gonzales said, which prohibits the government from taking a life “without due process of law.”
Let’s put to the side, for the moment, the issue of Gonzales as a walking contradiction. Instead, consider the weight of his claim that Obama’s drone war policies go to far in the way Americans’ constitutional rights. Coming from such a champion of executive power and, let’s face it, acting outside the law, it is much heavier.
But it’s important to note that we needn’t rely solely on Gonzales’s arguments here. Back in October, an investigation by Human Rights Watch found the Obama administration to have conducted the drone war in “violation of international law” on several occasions. Amnesty International also described the drone war as illegal, and called on U.S. authorities to “bring those responsible for unlawful drone strikes to justice in public and fair trials.”
A UN report last year identified serious questions as to the legality of the drone program. “The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, explained. “It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.”
A study from the Stanford and NYU schools of law found strong evidence that drone strikes have targeted rescuers running towards bombed sites in follow-up attacks, something the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has said would constitute war crimes.
Michael Boyle, who was on Obama’s counter-terrorism advisory group in the run-up to the 2008 election, wrote in a study for the Chatham House journal International Affairs that the drone war’s legality was dubious and that Obama “has been just as ruthless and indifferent to the rule of law as his predecessor.”
I could continue. The problem is that no matter how many lawyers, UN officials, academic studies, and former Bush cronies question the legality of Obama’s drone war, in the end the administration gets to choose whether or not to allow these questions to be settled in the courts. So far, Obama’s policy has been to block all attempts at judicial scrutiny in the name of state’s secret privileges.
So, yeah, it can be kind of hard to prove in a court of law whether or not an action is illegal if the government refuses to be subject to those courts. Right, Alberto?