Duping Progressives into Wars

The online advocacy group, Avaaz, has pulled progressives into support of U.S. “humanitarian” wars in Libya and Syria by promoting sweet-sounding ideas like “no-fly zones,” as John Hanrahan explains.

By John Hanrahan

A recent two-part series in The New York Times laid out in detail the pivotal role that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played in President Obama’s decision to join in France and Britain’s 2011 military campaign against long-time Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The Times articles make the case that Clinton bears a heavy part of the responsibility for the tragic, increasingly chaotic aftermath of that campaign in which Gaddafi was ousted and killed.

As The Times summaries of the articles put it, Gaddafi’s fall “seemed to vindicate Hillary Clinton. Then militias refused to disarm, neighbors fanned a civil war, and the Islamic State found refuge,” leaving Libya “a failed state and a terrorist haven.”

While neocons, right-wingers and humanitarian interventionists back in 2011 were seeking regime change in Libya, there was one non-governmental organization that was alone among progressive groups in mobilizing public opinion around the world in support of military action in Libya in the form of “a no-fly zone.”

And this wasn’t just any organization, but the fast-growing, on-line advocacy giant Avaaz.org, which in 2011 had seven million members and today boasts 43.1-million members in 194 countries. As such, the New York City-based Avaaz is, as we noted in a previous article, the largest and most influential Internet-based, international advocacy organization on the planet.

Through its members’ petitions and a full-page ad last June in The New York Times, Avaaz has for the last few years been pushing for “a no-fly zone” in Syria, as have assorted neocons and war-hawks in Congress and think-tanks who favor military operations to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. Hillary Clinton (but not other presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump) is a staunch advocate for “a no-fly zone” and regime change in Syria.

Like Clinton and other interventionists, Avaaz — in advocating for “a no-fly zone” in Syria — has not been chastened by what its advocacy wrought in Libya. Some of the same arguments for “a no-fly zone” that Avaaz made for Libya, it has made again over the last few years for Syria. This, despite as we noted in that earlier article, that top U.S. generals have warned that “a no-fly zone” in Syria is a “high-risk operation, a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties,” civilian and military.

It’s instructive to examine Avaaz’s no-fly zone advocacy for Libya in 2011 to get a handle on the organization’s continued thinking that — barring a diplomatic settlement growing out of a current tentative ceasefire in Syria — more war, under the cover of humanitarian intervention, would somehow save more civilians’ lives.

Libyan ‘No-Fly Zone’ Didn’t Turn Out Well

In its call for “a no-fly zone” in Libya in 2011, Avaaz submitted to the United Nations a petition containing 1,202,940 signatures gathered on-line. Demonstrating Avaaz’s impact, 90 percent of those were collected in just a two-day period between March 15 and 17 of that year, when its reported membership was a more modest, but still impressive, seven million.

And we now know what a sage piece of advocacy that was — as Libya experienced not only “a no-fly zone,” but U.S./NATO forces’ bombardments, the ousting and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the rise of ISIS, the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the flood of refugees from the chaotic, failed country that Libya is today.

Even at the time Avaaz was gathering all those signatures back in 2011 in support of “a no-fly zone” in Libya, there were critics who wondered why a U.S.-based non-governmental organization felt it had to stand up with neocons and war-hawks in advocating for an action that violated Libya’s sovereignty and was likely to lead to more violence against the Libyan people.

As John Hilary writing in The Guardian presciently warned in March 2011: “Little do most of these generally well-meaning activists know, they are strengthening the hands of those western governments desperate to reassert their interests in north Africa. … A no-fly zone would almost certainly draw NATO countries into further military involvement in Libya, replacing the agency of the Libyan people with the control of those governments who have shown scant regard for their welfare.”

Hilary, executive director of War on Want, the U.K.-based charity that fights poverty and economic injustice, further noted, again presciently: “Clearly a no-fly zone makes foreign intervention sound rather humanitarian — putting the emphasis on stopping bombing, even though it could well lead to an escalation of violence.”

Noting that support for “a no-fly zone” in Libya was at that time “rapidly becoming a key call of hawks on both sides of the Atlantic,” (just as has been the case in more recent years regarding Syria) Hilary commented: “The military hierarchy, with their budgets threatened by government cuts, surely cannot believe their luck — those who usually oppose wars” [such as Avaaz] “are openly campaigning for more military involvement.”

On-line progressive organizations constantly seek signatures on petitions calling on the U.S. or other governments to adopt or change or reject certain policies. But Hilary pointed out that calling for “a no-fly zone” crosses a line into dangerous territory. As he wrote:

“The issue exposes the core of the problem with internet activism: instead of changing the world through a lifetime of education, it aims to change the world through a single click of the mouse. The impacts might be benign, when lobbying a government to stop causing harm. But a positive plan of action in a situation such as Libya requires more thought. Calling for military intervention is a huge step — the life and death of hundreds of thousands of people might hang in the balance. The difference between the ease of the action and impact of the consequence is great.”

Avaaz’s Justification

It’s worth examining the Libya experience to get some idea of how Avaaz sees using military action to achieve what it contended would be civilian-saving humanitarian results.

Looking back, in calling for “a no-fly zone,” Avaaz appeared to fully accept and spread the Gaddafi-will-systematically-murder-all-opponents line that Western governments were trumpeting as the justification for intervention, stating in its March 15, 2011 message to members: “Right now Gaddafi’s forces are crushing the rebellion town by town” and noted that “brutal retribution awaits Libyans who challenged the regime. If we don’t persuade the U.N. to act now, we could witness a bloodbath.”

Avaaz went on to say that while it “is deeply committed to non-violence … enforcing a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi’s gunships is one case where UN-backed military actions seems necessary.”

On March 17, 2011, just two days into flooding the U.N. Security Council with petitions containing 1,172,000 signatures, Avaaz enthusiastically reported (exclamation point and all) that the United Nations had agreed to take “‘all necessary measures’ short of an invasion to protect the people of Libya under threat of attack, including a no-fly zone!”

It seems Avaaz’s expressed deep commitment to nonviolence had expanded beyond “a no-fly zone” to encompass “all necessary measures” — and Libya was soon on the receiving end of all those necessary measures.

When it was promoting “a no-fly zone” for Libya, Avaaz — as with its current Syria campaign — did receive pushback from some members. The organization felt it necessary to respond at some length on-line to the criticism before “the no-fly zone” was put into effect and the onslaught against Libya began.

Avaaz’s then-campaign director Ben Wikler (who is now with MoveOn.org), in an on-line posting responding to John Hilary’s Guardian article quoted above, outlined a number of reasons and procedures Avaaz used in taking up the cause of “a no-fly zone” for Libya. Among his points:

–“The call for a no-fly zone originated from Libyans – including the provisional opposition government, Libya’s (defected) ambassador to the UN, protesters, and youth organizations. … Avaaz staff are in close and constant contact with activists inside Libya and have been repeatedly asked to move forward on this campaign.”

–“In some ways,” Wikler wrote, “we work a lot like journalists … talking to people and weighing the facts before we form conclusions. However, our staff’s personal conclusions also have to pass the test of our membership being strongly supportive of any position we take.”

In the Libya case, though, it would seem that Avaaz scarcely considered the potential negative aspects of military action — such as, when you “win,” what happens afterwards.

–According to Wikler, a random-sample poll taken before the petition was promulgated on-line, showed that “84% of [Avaaz] members supported this campaign, while 9% opposed it. Since launching it, we’ve found intense support for the campaign from around the world.” Avaaz says that petition ideas such as “a no-fly zone” campaign “are polled and tested weekly to 10,000-member random samples — and only initiatives that find a strong response are taken” to the wider membership.

The organization has not disclosed who within Avaaz was the main instigator of the petitions for “no-fly zones” in Libya and Syria. Generally speaking, Avaaz says here’s how its petitions develop: “Avaaz staff don’t set an agenda and try to convince members to go along with it. It’s closer to the opposite: staff listen to members and suggest actions they can take in order to affect the broader world. Small wonder, then, that many of our most successful campaigns are suggested first by Avaaz members themselves. And leadership is a critical part of member service: it takes vision and skill to find and communicate a way to build a better world.”

Although this doesn’t say so, certainly on a matter of such import and controversy as “a no-fly zone” the final call would logically come from executive director Ricken Patel.

–Avaaz staff played “a key role in consulting with leading experts around the world (and most of our staff have policy as well as advocacy backgrounds) on each of the campaigns we run, and Libya was no exception.” This begs the question: Who were these experts, and did Avaaz seek out critics of such an action?

–On the question of whether imposing “a no-fly zone” would lead to a full-blown international war in Libya, Wikler downplayed the possibility at the time: “No-fly zones can mean a range of different things. Some analysts and military figures [none named by Wikler] have argued that it would require a pre-emptive attack on Libya’s anti-aircraft weapons. Others [again, none named], however, contend that merely flying fighter planes over the rebel-controlled areas would ensure that Qaddafi wouldn’t use his jets to attack eastern Libya, because he knows his air force is weaker than that of Egypt or NATO states. The best solution is the one that reduces civilian deaths the most with the least violence.Things might not turn out as expected, but while there are potential dangers to an international war, there are certain dangers to civilians if things continue without a no-fly zone.” [Emphasis added.]

Calling for military action seems a very risky calculation for an advocacy group to make, given even its own nodding recognition that the action it supports might bring on an international war or other “things … not expected.” And to discuss such an issue in a mere one sentence and conclude that the risk is worth it — and after the petition is already out there — is not indicative of a transparent, all-cards-on-the-table process that make for well-informed potential petition signers.

At the very least, now with the benefit of hindsight, you would think that the Libya experience would give Avaaz some second thoughts about supporting “a no-fly zone” in what top U.S. generals quoted in our previous article have described as the even riskier environment of Syria. But no such soul-searching is evident in Avaaz’s campaign for a Syrian “no-fly zone.”

For this and the previous article, we submitted a series of questions to Avaaz media personnel and campaign directors, with an emphasis on obtaining specifics as to the organization’s rationale for supporting “no-fly zones” in Libya and Syria — including whether the tragic outcome in Libya had figured at all in Avaaz’s consideration of whether to call for “a no-fly zone” in Syria. After requests (and reminders) on five occasions in November, December and January, we finally received a response on Feb. 11 from campaign director Nell Greenberg, but that addressed only a few of our specific questions. Our follow-up questions, submitted on Feb. 12, have gone unanswered.

As with the other questions we submitted to Avaaz personnel, the organization did not answer whether the Libya experience made the organization’s leaders think twice about taking up the Syria “no-fly zone” issue. It was possibly obscurely referencing the Libya “no-fly zone” when Greenberg stated to us: “Much of what you’re asking for are reflections on past campaigns given the geopolitical landscape today. But based on the way we work, I cannot tell you how any Avaaz member would feel today about a past campaign without going back and asking them.”

Our follow-up question made it clear that we were not asking how any individual Avaaz member might feel about the Libya campaign today, but rather how Avaaz’s leaders felt about proposing “a no-fly zone” for Syria when the Libya military action had  turned out so disastrously. To date, Avaaz has not responded to any of our follow-up questions.

–Regarding whether “a no-fly zone” would violate Libya’s national sovereignty, Wikler in March 2011 stated: “National sovereignty should not be a legitimate barrier to international action when crimes against humanity are being committed.” Then in perhaps a foreshadowing of the organization’s call for a similar action in Syria, Wikler added: “If you strongly disagree, then you may find yourself at odds with other Avaaz campaigns as well.”

Wikler concluded his defense of the call for a Libyan “no-fly zone” by saying: “All told, this was a difficult judgment call. Calling for any sort of military response always is. Avaaz members have been advocating for weeks for a full set of non-military options as well, including an asset freeze, targeted sanctions, and prosecutions of officials involved in the violent crackdown on demonstrators.

“But although those measures are moving forward, the death toll is rising. Again, thoughtful people can disagree – but in the Avaaz community’s case, only 9% of our thoughtful people opposed this position [84% approved] – somewhat surprising given that we have virtually always advocated for peaceful methods to resolve conflicts in the past. We think it was the best position to take given the balance of expert opinion, popular support, and most of all, the rights and clearly expressed desire of the Libyan people.”

The figure of 84 percent approval from a sampling of Avaaz members seem astounding — and raises the issue of whether the questions were worded in the most emotional ways that would produce such an overwhelming result (along the lines of — Gaddafi is slaughtering, and will slaughter, everyone in his path and we must act now to avert a bloodbath). It also raises the question of whether Avaaz offered any counterpoints that “a no-fly zone” could lead to a wider war and end up killing, maiming and displacing thousands of civilians.

Regardless of the numbers, relying on partisan civilian sources in embattled areas for tactics or military solutions of any sort is both a dubious and frightening proposition and hardly seems the role for an advocacy organization to undertake.

Avaaz’s Origins: Founders and Funders

Even in the U.S. progressive community, Avaaz is far less well-known than its sister advocacy organization MoveOn.org. To put Avaaz in perspective, a little background is in order.

Avaaz was created in 2006 and officially launched in 2007 by MoveOn.org Civic Action and the little known and closely affiliated global advocacy group Res Publica, Inc. Its initial significant financial backing came from liberal philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations (then called Open Society Institute).

Avaaz’s individual founders included three of its current officers/directors — Ricken Patel, Eli Pariser and Thomas Pravda — as well as Thomas Perriello, Andrea Woodhouse, Jeremy Heimans, and David Madden. (More about them later.)

If you don’t know much about Avaaz, or think about it as I long did as a non-U.S. entity (actually, its headquarters is in New York City), that is not so surprising since many of its campaigns are targeted to specific countries other than the United States, and only a little over 5 percent of its 43.1 million members are U.S.-based. (A member being anyone who has ever signed an Avaaz petition — and that includes me.)

Still, even that small U.S. percentage equates to 2.3 million people — a number that would be the envy of most U.S. activist organizations. (By way of comparison, Avaaz’s affiliated member organization MoveOn.org claims more than 8-million members.)

The U.S. membership in Avaaz is about the same as the German membership (2.2 million), and far less than France with 4.3 million and Brazil with a whopping 8.8 million members. Other nations with more than one million Avaaz members include Italy (2.1 million), Spain (1.8 million), the United Kingdom (1.6 million), Mexico (1.4 million), Canada (1.2 million). India has 991,000 members and Russia 901,000. Overall, Avaaz claims members in 194 countries, with its smallest membership — 81 — in the British overseas territory of Montserrat, population 5,100.

Avaaz is organized under the name the Avaaz Foundation, a 501(c)(4) non-profit lobbying organization, with its headquarters in Manhattan. It describes itself as having “a simple democratic mission: To close the gap between the world we have and the world most people everywhere want.”

In its most recent Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, signed in September 2015 for tax year 2014, Avaaz reported contributions totaling $20.1 million and net assets of $7.6 million. Avaaz, which says that it is entirely member funded, had previously stated that it accepts no single contribution of more than $5,000, but that was not the case in 2014 as the organization reported that 18 individuals had contributed amounts ranging from $5,000 to $15,383. The contributors were not identified by name in the filing. Since around 2010, the organization is on record as not accepting corporate or foundation donations — although it did receive grants totaling $1.1 million from George Soros-connected foundations in the three years before that.

In response to our inquiry about Avaaz funding and the organization’s early link to Soros, campaign director Nell Greenberg responded: “With regards to Avaaz funding, this movement was founded with the ideal of being completely self sustaining and democratic. 100% of the Avaaz budget comes from small online donations…Avaaz has never taken a contribution from a government or a corporation, and since 2009 has not solicited any contributions from charitable foundations.”

She continued: “We did receive seed funding from George Soros and the Open Society Foundation, but not after 2009. No corporation, foundation or board member has influence on the organization’s campaign directions or positions. This is hugely important to ensuring that our voice is exclusively determined by the values of our members, and not by any large funder or agenda.”

Of Avaaz’s four current officers/directors, only executive director Ricken Patel was listed as full-time, with annual pay of $177,666 for 2014. Chairman Eli Pariser; treasurer Thomas Pravda, and secretary Ben Brandzel are not day-to-day employees and all received no compensation in 2014. Of Avaaz’s 77 employees, the five highest-compensated staff members after Patel received salaries ranging between $111,000 and $153,000.

For its various domestic and overseas campaigns, Avaaz reported providing $3.2 million in grants to U.S. organizations and $932,000 to foreign organizations in 2014. Reported grants of more than $5,000 came in five categories, with the largest recipients being the U.S. Fund for UNICEF ($1 million for education for Syrian refugees), and the Rain Forest Trust ($1 million for “conservation of land and species”).

To help combat the Ebola virus, Avaaz provided $500,000 to the International Medical Corps, $350,000 to Save the Children and $300,000 to Partners in Health. For organizing for the September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, Avaaz provided $27,500 to Align and $10,000 to New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Rounding out the list, a $10,000 grant went to Amazon Watch for “protection of the Amazon.”

For activities outside the United States, Avaaz spent most heavily in Europe on campaigns, advertising and consulting — $6.2 million, with South America a distant second at $685,000 for consulting services, followed by East Asia and the Pacific with $553,000 for campaigns and consulting services. Expenditures in five other regions ranged from $45,000 to $270,000.

Avaaz reported that the foundation is still comprised of the same two member organizations — MoveOn.org Civic Action and Res Publica, Inc. (U.S.) — which were the original founding groups.

Res Publica, a 501(c)(3), lists the same Manhattan address as the 501(c)(4) Avaaz and presumably provides unspecified assistance to Avaaz. Back at Avaaz’s beginning, the three principals in Res Publica were the aforementioned Patel, Pravda and Perriello. The three men had all served with the International Center for Transitional Justice, which “assists countries pursuing accountability for past mass atrocity or human rights abuse.” Also in those early days, according to some accounts, Avaaz listed the Service Employees International Union and Australia-based GetUp.org.au as co-founding organizations, but they seem to have long since been out of the picture.

In Res Publica’s most recent Form 990 filing with the IRS for 2013, Patel is listed as executive director, Pravda as treasurer, and Vivek Maru as secretary. All received no compensation. Contributions for 2013 totaled $963,895, of which $846,165 was from “Government grants” for unspecified purposes. The organization reported that it “provides strategic advice to other non-profit organizations … [and] also provides educational and action-based e-mail campaigns to citizens in every country via its website.” It also reported supporting projects “through fiscal sponsorship, that focused on online security and Internet freedom for repressed communities globally…”

Here are profiles of Avaaz co-founders and past and current officers:

Eli Pariser: Avaaz Chairman and Co-founder

Eli Pariser was executive director of MoveOn.org from 2004 through 2009 when the organization experienced explosive growth, and has been its board president since then. MoveOn, in the words of an on-line Pariser biography, “revolutionized grassroots political organizing by introducing a small-donor-funded and email-driven model that has since been widely used across the political spectrum.”

In addition to being a founder of Avaaz and currently serving as its chairman, the Brooklyn-based Pariser has been a member of the boards of Access and the New Organizing Institute. A best-selling author and former fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, Pariser is co-founder and executive of the on-line media company Upworthy. He is also currently a member of the advisory board of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs.

We would note that Pariser appears to be one of the few Avaaz founders and officers whose background is almost entirely in on-line activism, while some others have governmental or otherwise overseas experience working in programs in high poverty and/or war-torn countries.

We submitted several questions to Pariser on March 9, but he has not responded as of this writing.

Ricken Patel: Avaaz Executive Director and Co-founder

Prior to the founding of Avaaz in 2007, the Canadian-born Ricken Patel consulted for a number of international and well-established non-profit organizations — the International Crisis Group, the United Nations, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Harvard University, CARE International, and the International Center for Transitional Justice. He worked in several countries including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and Afghanistan. He also was the founding executive director of Avaaz-affiliated Res Publica, which among its past projects “worked to end genocide in Darfur.” As executive director of Avaaz since its begining, Patel is the face of the organization and has been termed “the global leader of online protest” by The Guardian.

Thomas Pravda: Avaaz Treasurer and Co-founder

Through two of its co-founders — Tom Perriello and Thomas Pravda — Avaaz has connections to government officialdom in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Perriello (discussed below) is now with the State Department as U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes and the Congo-Kinshasa.

Pravda is currently serving as the (unpaid) treasurer and a director for Avaaz, while at the same time holding down a post as a diplomat with the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commonly known as the Foreign Office. He is also co-founder and officer in Res Publica.

As the Foreign Office is “responsible for protecting and promoting British interests worldwide,” this could raise conflict-of-interest possibilities regarding U.K. and U.S. foreign relations and military issues that might be taken up by Avaaz. This would include the organization’s advocacy for a no-fly zone in Syria, in which both the U.S. and U.K. would be expected to participate. Our research, though, found no example of anyone raising a specific issue about Pravda’s dual role as U.K. diplomat and Avaaz officer, but this relationship looks problematic on the face of it.

Pravda’s self-provided biography shows he has been with the Foreign Office since October 2003, and with Avaaz since 2006, and that he was also an advisor to the U.S. State Department in 2009-2010 regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In his diplomatic assignments Pravda has worked on E.U. trade and development policy; as an advisor to the Special Representative for Climate Change, and as the U.K. Representative in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has also consulted extensively on political, security, research and advocacy issues for such institutions as the U.S. State Department, the United Nations Development Program, the International Center for Transitional Justice and Oxford Analytica.

Ben Brandzel: Avaaz Secretary and Co-founder

In addition to currently serving as the (unpaid) secretary for Avaaz, Ben Brandzel is the founder and director of OPEN (Online Progressive Engagement Network), described as an alliance of the world’s leading national digital campaigning organizations. Besides being a founding board member and former senior campaigner at Avaaz, Brandzel is the chief founding advisor for OPEN member groups in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. He also served as the original advocacy director for MoveOn.org and in 2009-2010 directed new media campaigns and fundraising for President Obama during the health reform campaign. He writes frequently on digital organizing and transnational movement building.

Tom Perriello: Avaaz Co-founder

If I were going to name one chief suspect among Avaaz’s founders as the architect of its “no-fly zone” advocacy in Libya and Syria, it would be Tom Perriello. More than anyone else connected with Avaaz from its earliest days, Perriello, since leaving the organization — first for Congress and then for the think-tank world before going to the U.S. State Department — has shown himself to be a reliable advocate for war: For continuing the war in Afghanistan, for bombing Libya and ousting Gaddafi, and for taking military action to support Syrian rebels and remove Assad from power.

Perriello champions “humanitarian intervention” and lauded the NATO bombing campaign in Libya — before the U.S./NATO “victory” there and before the country subsequently went all to hell — as a prime example of how this approach can succeed .

We asked Avaaz whether Perriello’s thinking had influenced the organization’s campaigns for “no-fly zones” in Libya and Syria, and received a stern denial from Avaaz’s Greenberg: “Tom Perriello, specifically, was an Avaaz board member at the founding of the organization but has not been on the board since December 2009, and has had no role in Avaaz’s Syria campaigns.”

Perriello’s career, like some others with Avaaz, has been more one of public service through established organizations than of activism. According to an on-line biography, in 2002-2003 Perriello was special advisor to the international prosecutor of the Special Court of Sierra Leone, and then served as a consultant to the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kosovo (2003), Darfur (2005) and Afghanistan (2007). In 2004, he co-founded Res Publica with Patel and Pravda. Perriello has also been a fellow at The Century Foundation and is a co-founder of DarfurGenocide.org. He said in his on-line bio that he had “spent much of his career working in West Africa and the Middle East to create strategies for sustainable peace, and he was involved in the peace processes that helped end the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”

A Democrat, Perriello was elected to Congress from Virginia’s 5th District in 2008. (It would appear from the statement we received from Avaaz that if Perriello left the organization in December 2009 then he was still on the Avaaz board during his first year in Congress.)

In his one term, Perriello was a staunch supporter of the global war on terror, the military appropriations to continue U.S. wars, and keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Defeated in his 2010 bid for reelection, Perriello went on to serve as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and counselor for policy also at Center for American Progress, a Democratic party-supporting think tank. From 2014 to the present he has been with the State Department, first as the Special Representative to the Secretary of State for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and since last summer as the U.S. special envoy for the African Great Lakes and the Congo-Kinshasa. Although said not to be involved with Avaaz currently, his humanitarian intervention philosophy seems alive and well at Avaaz with its calls for “no-fly zones” in Libya and Syria.

In this excerpt from his 2012 article on humanitarian intervention, Perriello sounds absolutely eager to send in the bombs wherever “egregious atrocities” are occurring and human beings are suffering. And this, as Perriello writes, would give “progressives” the “opportunity … to expand the use of force to advance key values.”

Following are two paragraphs from Perriello’s article that give the flavor of the “humanitarian intervention” philosophy he advocates. It would certainly be helpful if Avaaz would tell us if it subscribes to its co-founder’s rather bloodless and creepy prescription for advancing progressives’ “key values.”

“Operational developments since the end of the Cold War have substantially improved our capacity to wage smart military operations that are limited in time and scope and employ precise and overwhelming force,” Perriello wrote. “This presents progressives with an opportunity — one that is too often seen as a curse — to expand the use of force to advance key values.

“Our technical capacities, ranging from accuracy of systems intelligence to smart weaponry, now allow for previously impossible operations. Today, we have the ability to conduct missions from the air that historically would have required ground troops. And we possess an admittedly imperfect but highly improved ability to limit collateral damage, including civilian casualties. Among other things, this means fewer bombs can accomplish the same objectives, with early estimates suggesting that the Libyan air campaign required one-third the number of sorties as earlier air wars…

“We must realize that force is only one element of a coherent national security strategy and foreign policy. We must accept the reality — whether or not one accepts its merits — that other nations are more likely to perceive our motives to be self-interested than values-based. But in a world where egregious atrocities and grave threats exist, and where Kosovo and Libya have changed our sense of what’s now possible, the development of this next generation of power can be seen as a historically unique opportunity to reduce human suffering.”

Imagine the nerve of those other nations Perriello refers to — failing to see that the United States selflessly engages in “values-based” bombing: Bombs for a better world.

Andrea Woodhouse: Avaaz Co-founder

Another Avaaz co-founder, Andrea Woodhouse, describes herself as a development professional, social entrepreneur and writer. She has worked in many countries experiencing conflict and political transition, including Indonesia, Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma/Myanmar. In Indonesia, she reported working on one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the world, which she said became the model for a national program of post-conflict reconstruction and state-building in Afghanistan. She has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations and was a founder of the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program.

Jeremy Heimans: Avaaz Co-founder

According to an on-line biography, Jeremy Heimans in 2005 co-founded GetUp, an Australian political organization and one of that country’s largest campaigning communities. It has campaigned for same-sex marriage and in support of Julian Assange of Wikileaks. In addition to being an Avaaz co-founder, Heimans in 2009 co-founded Purpose, an activist group that launched several major new organizations including All Out, a two-million member LGBT rights group.

David Madden: Avaaz Co-founder

David Madden, another Avaaz co-founder, is a former Australian Army officer and World Bank and United Nations employee. With Jeremy Heimans, he co-founded GetUp. Madden has worked for the World Bank in Timor Leste, and for the United Nations in Indonesia. In 2004, Madden was one of the founders of Win Back Respect, a web-based campaign against the foreign policy of U.S. President George W. Bush.

George Soros’s Role in Avaaz Early Years

For the last few years, various on-line bloggers have questioned whether Avaaz is somehow doing the bidding of philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations, or of the U.S. government (or portions thereof). (See an example here.)

There is no question that there was a close connection between Avaaz and Soros and his organizations dating back to Avaaz’s early days, but what — if anything — does that translate into today? As noted earlier, in one of the few of my questions that Avaaz answered directly, there was an acknowledgement of early Soros “seed money” to Avaaz, but a denial of any continuing involvement with the organization.

Of all individuals or organizations outside the Avaaz structure, though, Soros’s foundations played the most significant role in helping get Avaaz off the ground with generous grants. Additionally, the Open Society Institute (the previous name of the Open Society Foundations) served as Avaaz’s “foundation partner” on campaigns of joint interest, most notably in connection with the Burmese Democracy Movement.

Avaaz still has a Soros connection — notably, as indicated above, Eli Pariser serving on an Open Society advisory board. And both Avaaz and Soros seem to share an antipathy to what they characterize as “Russian aggression” as exemplified by Avaaz’s sometimes over-the-top statements about Russia in Syria. (For example, as noted in our previous article, Ricken Patel holding Putin’s government responsible for being complicit with the Assad government in “coordinating atrocities” and “targeting the assassinations of journalists” in early 2012. Also, see this Sept. 30, 2015 Avaaz posting using flimsy evidence to accuse Russian planes of deliberately bombing civilian neighborhoods.)

Donations by Soros’s Foundations

Over a three-year period beginning in 2007, Soros’s foundations — either directly or passed through Res Publica — gave Avaaz a total of $1.2 million. In 2007, the Open Society Institute gave $150,000 to Res Publica for general support for Avaaz, and $100,000 for Avaaz’s work on climate change.

In 2008, Open Society Institute again gave a total of $250,000 to Res Publica — with $150,000 of that again for general support for Avaaz and the remaining $100,000 for Avaaz’s climate change work. The following year, Soros was even more generous to Avaaz. His Foundation to Promote Open Society in its Form 990 filing for 2009 (page 87) reported giving a total of $600,000 to Res Publica for Avaaz’s use — $300,000 for general support and $300,000 for climate campaigning.

Avaaz increased its ties to the Soros organization in 2008 by selecting the then-named Open Society Institute (OSI) as its “foundation partner” to oversee some $325,000 in donations that Avaaz had received from its members — in just four days — to support the Burmese Democracy Movement.

Avaaz said it was linking up with OSI — “one of the largest and most respected foundations in the world” — for the purpose of OSI monitoring Avaaz’s grant awards and expenditures. OSI was “taking no overhead on the funds we are granting to Burmese groups” for technology, organizing, support for the regime’s victims and victims’ families, and international advocacy.

In June 2009, OSI reported that its Burma Project grantees — including Avaaz — had rallied global support around democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On that occasion, Avaaz partnered with the Free Burma’s Political Prisoners Now! Campaign to collect more than 670,000 signatures asking for UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s support for Aung San Suu Kyi and some 2,000 other political prisoners.

From available information, it does not appear Soros or his foundations have contributed financially to Avaaz or directly engaged in projects with the organization in the last five to six years. And Avaaz itself says the Soros financial connection ended in 2009. Whether the substantial assistance Soros’s foundations gave Avaaz in its first three years of existence carries any lasting influence, though, is certainly hard to show.

Avaaz’s Impressive Record of Advocacy

As noted in our previous article, even allowing for organizational self-hype, Avaaz has an impressive record of advocacy — a record that mostly seems off-kilter with its “no-fly zone” advocacy in Libya and Syria. For example, here are some other Avaaz campaigns not previously mentioned:

–Avaaz has played a prominent role in a number of actions directed at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

–Avaaz was a key player in a successful campaign (including a petition with more than 1.7 million signatures, coupled with occupations and protests at some 15 Barclays bank branches across the United Kingdom) to pressure Barclays to divest its $2.9 million holdings in an Israeli defense contractor, Elbit Systems.

Avaaz received plaudits from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for its role in that campaign. Elbit Systems is the major Israeli-based arms and security company that manufactures?drones used in surveillance and attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. It also provides electronics for the “apartheid wall” being constructed on the West Bank.

–A petition directed to the government of Israel and to the U.S. Congress netted 185,000 signatures in support of the portion of President Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009 in which he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

–In 2011, some 1.6 million people — more than 300,000 of them in just the first two days — signed an Avaaz petition to European leaders and U.N. member states, urging them “to endorse the legitimate bid for recognition of the state of Palestine and the reaffirmation of the rights of the Palestinian people. It is time to turn the tide on decades of failed peace talks, end the occupation and move towards peace based on two states.”

–In March 2013, at the time of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC’s) annual conference and congressional lobbying days in Washington, D.C., Avaaz joined with Jewish Voice for Peace to erect hundreds of anti-AIPAC posters across Metro stations in central D.C. The signs read: “AIPAC does not speak for me. Most Jewish Americans are pro-peace. AIPAC is not.”

–Through its petitions, Avaaz has strongly opposed governmental surveillance of U.S. citizens, and has defended Wikileaks and national security whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.

–In April 2011, amid news reports of Manning’s brutal treatment while imprisoned at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia before facing a court martial for providing classified documents to Wikileaks, almost 550,000 people signed an Avaaz petition to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The petition, headlined “Stop Wikileaks Torture,” called on those officials “to immediately end the torture, isolation and public humiliation of Bradley Manning. This is a violation of his constitutionally guaranteed human rights, and a chilling deterrent to other whistleblowers committed to public integrity.”

–A December 2010 Avaaz petition, calling “the vicious intimidation campaign against Wikileaks” by the U.S. and other governments and corporations “a dangerous attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” produced 654,000 signatures — more than 300,000 of those in the first 24 hours the petition was circulated on-line.

–In June 2013, just days after the first reports of the National Security Agency’s illegal worldwide spying appeared, some 1.38 million people signed a petition, headlined “Stand with Edward Snowden,” to President Obama. The petition read: “We call on you to ensure that whistleblower Edward Snowden is treated fairly, humanely and given due process. The PRISM program is one of the greatest violations of privacy ever committed by a government. We demand that you terminate it immediately, and that Edward Snowden be recognized as a whistleblower acting in the public interest — not as a dangerous criminal.”

–In April 2012, some 780,000 people signed an Avaaz petition to members of Congress, and another to Facebook, Microsoft and IBM (with 626,000 signers), to drop their support for the Internet surveillance bill known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The bill, the petition stated, would place “Our democracy and civil liberties…under threat from the excessive and unnecessary Internet surveillance powers” that it would grant to the U.S. government without requirement of a warrant.

–In the face of widespread hunger strikes at the Guantanamo Bay prison in 2013, Avaaz gathered 690,000 signatures on a petition to transfer the 86 men who had already been cleared for release, and to appoint a White House official whose responsibility it would be to close down the prison. Said the petition: “This shameful complex is a scourge on humanity, is destroying lives, and fuels hate across the world. Close it down!”

–Avaaz is also in the front ranks on various other issues —  fighting global warming, seeking an end to U.S. and European arms sales to Saudi Arabia, protecting rain forests, saving endangered species, promoting clean energy, challenging Rupert Murdoch’s bid for a greater media monopoly in the United Kingdom, defending human rights in a number of countries, etc.

In none of those other campaigns do we see Avaaz proposing military action of any sort. Why this anomaly when it came to Libya and now Syria? Especially, when military action’s aftermath turned out so badly in Libya, and when even the nation’s leading generals say a Syria “no-fly zone” would escalate the war and endanger the very civilians Avaaz has the stated goal of protecting?

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This story originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org at https://exposefacts.org/avaaz-ignores-libya-lessons-in-advocating-for-syria-no-fly-zone/ ]

 




The Lure of a Syrian ‘No-Fly Zone’

Inundated with one-sided reporting on Syria, some “progressive” groups such as “Avaaz” have joined in demands for direct U.S. military intervention against Assad under the guise of a “no-fly zone,” reports John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

Readers of the national edition of the June 18, 2015 New York Times were greeted with a dramatic full-page ad featuring a photo of an apparently injured baby fitted with a breathing device and being tended to by a partially visible adult beneath a big, bold-type headline: “PRESIDENT OBAMA, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” (A partial picture of the ad can be found here.)

In smaller type, under the picture of the baby and the adult, was the message: “Trapped and under chemical attack, the Syrian people are desperate for help.”

And below that in slightly smaller type was the risky military operation that the ad’s sponsors wanted the reluctant President to undertake. To wit: “A majority of Americans support a No-Fly Zone in Syria to save lives and 1,093,775 people around the world [in an on-line petition] are calling for action now.”

The on-line petition cited in the ad also has an urgent headline calling for a “Safe zone for Syrians, now!” The body of the petition demands the establishment of an “air-exclusion zone in Northern Syria, including Aleppo, to stop the bombardment of Syria’s civilians and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those most in need.” The petition — slightly different than the New York Times ad — was addressed not only to Obama, but also to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron “and other world leaders.”

Now it’s not surprising to see such an expensive ad in the current political climate in which Syrian war fever has seized much of the U.S. political establishment. A climate in which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (but not Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump), and every neoconservative and “humanitarian interventionist” and chicken-hawk in creation have, at the very least, called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria as part of a greater U.S. military involvement to remove President Bashar al-Assad.

What stood out about this ad, then, isn’t so much the neocon-like call to action — a move toward a wider war in Syria which could entail even more U.S. and Western military air bombardments, as well as additional displacement and death for civilians — but rather the ad’s sponsors.

This ad wasn’t the product of a gaggle of bellicose Republicans or acolytes of the Brookings Institution’s war-enthusiast-in-chief Michael O’Hanlon — or even supporters of regime change advocate Hillary Clinton — offering one of their bold, armchair-military solutions to the many-sided, complex Middle East conflicts.

Rather, the ad and its supporting on-line petition were the handiwork of the Internet phenom activist organization Avaaz.org. With the staggering claimed number of 43.1-million members in 194 countries as of mid-March 2016 (anyone who has ever signed an Avaaz petition is considered by the organization to be a member), the New York City-based Avaaz is easily the largest and most influential Internet-based, international advocacy organization on the planet. (Having myself signed many Avaaz petitions over the years, I am counted as one of those 43 million.)

Avaaz, which means “voice” or “song” in many languages, was started in 2006 and officially launched in 2007 by the U.S. online powerhouse MoveOn.org Civic Action and the little known global advocacy group Res Publica.

With initial significant financial backing from — and some blogger critics allege, continued influence of — financier and liberal philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundations (then called Open Society Institute), Avaaz has grown at a mind-boggling pace each year. Since 2011, the organization has increased six-fold to its current membership of almost 43-million. (The second of our two articles on Avaaz will provide more background on the organization, its key issues, its founders and current officials, and funding sources.)

Although widely regarded as liberal to progressive in its campaigns, Avaaz stands alone on the left as the one major on-line activist organization to call for an escalation of the U.S. military role in Syria — just as before that it was alone on the left in 2011 in campaigning successfully for a no-fly zone for Libya, with subsequent disastrous consequences for that country. (More about this in a follow-up article.)

For this article, we submitted a series of questions to Avaaz media personnel, with an emphasis on obtaining specifics as to its rationale for its support for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria. These questions included why the organization had not informed its members of the warnings of top U.S. generals and other experts about the potential dangers to civilians and military personnel inherent in the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria. [See some of those warnings can be read below.]

After requests (and reminders) on five occasions in November, December and January, we finally received a response on Feb. 11, but that addressed only a few of our specific questions. The organization ignored our question as to why Avaaz had not presented petition-signers with the potential dangers of a Syrian no-fly zone that prominent generals had warned of. Our follow-up questions, submitted on Feb. 12, have gone unanswered.

What Avaaz spokesperson Nell Greenberg did tell us is: “When it comes to Syria, millions of Avaaz members have repeatedly over the last six years demonstrated that they believe the world has an obligation to protect civilians in Syria as well as those who have fled the country as refugees. In addition to Avaaz members calling for a targeted no-fly zone back in spring of 2015, Avaaz members have called for diplomacy, negotiations and ceasefire as well as raising over a million dollars for the victims inside and outside Syria and volunteering to house and support refugees displaced by this war.”

Avaaz and signers of its no-fly zone petition, “see every human life as equally precious and deserving of protection,” Greenberg said, adding: “At the time of the Syria no-fly zone campaign, a majority* of our membership supported the call for a targeted no-fly zone in northern Syria. But there were deep questions and concerns brought up by other members of the Avaaz movement that we did not ignore. A Q and A was written to go along with the campaign that you can find here, which spoke to many of their questions and I think addresses the heart of yours: ?http://avaaz.org/en/syria_safe_zone_faq/.

“To be clear, this Q and A was written by the Avaaz Campaign Director [John Napier Tye] who developed this campaign and is his personal perspective, which is why he signed it. It is not a statement from the Avaaz community.” (* A majority of a random sample of 10,000 Avaaz members, not a majority of its entire membership, supported the campaign for a no-fly zone.)

What exactly those last two sentences of Avaaz’s statement mean is anyone’s guess. Someone ostensibly speaking for the organization is really speaking only for himself? The buck stops with John Tye and not with executive director Ricken Patel and others in the Avaaz hierarchy? And, curiously, the Q and A link cited above was disabled sometime in March and no longer worked as of this writing.

Interestingly, Tye himself is a former U.S. State Department official who upon leaving the agency in April 2014 filed a whistleblower complaint. The complaint alleged, as The New York Times reported, that the National Security Agency’s practices abroad — as authorized by Reagan-era Executive Order 12333 permitting the NSA to gather and use U.S. citizens’ communications overseas — “violated Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights” to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

While at the State Department from 2011-2014, Tye “worked on Internet freedom issues and had top-secret clearance.” Unlike whistleblower Edward Snowden, Tye wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that he had gone through channels in making his complaint and had not disclosed any classified information.

Greenberg’s response did not address my questions about the generals’ warnings about a no-fly zone in Syria. Instead, she stated: “In addition, as with all of our campaigns, the emails about this campaign included links to articles with multiple viewpoints to support deliberative discussion of the issue and provide resources for members to fact check and do more research on their own.”

Contrary to this statement, I found no link in the Avaaz materials to any article quoting the generals or other critics of imposing a no-fly zone in Syria. Nor did I see even a generic statement, suggesting this is a controversial issue that might merit further research before an Avaaz member would consider signing.

Comments made by generals about a “no-fly zone” for Syria:

–“I worry sometimes that, when people say ‘impose a no-fly zone,’ there is this almost antiseptic view that this is an easily accomplished military task. It’s extraordinarily difficult. Having overseen imposing a no-fly zone in Libya, a force that is vastly inferior in air forces and air defenses to that which exists in Syria, it’s a pretty high-risk operation…It first entails — we should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel.” — Now-retired four-star General Carter Ham, former commander, U.S. Africa Command, who oversaw U.S. military enforcement of the Libyan no-fly zone in 2011 [CBS News]

–“It is quite frankly an act of war and it is not a trivial matter…I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is . . . it’s basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability.” — Four-star General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s current supreme allied commander, U.S. European Command [Stars and Stripes]

–The New York Times reported that in 2012 General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the White House that imposing a no-fly zone in Syria — in the Times paraphrasing — “would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country.” [New York Times]  (Dismantle being a Times polite euphemism for bombing the bejeezus out of Syria’s antiaircraft defenses.)

 

Other Avaaz Activities in Syria

It’s important to note that Avaaz’s past activities regarding Syria have gone far beyond petitions calling for a no-fly zone. In 2011-2012 (and perhaps beyond), Avaaz interjected itself into the Syrian conflict in a controversial manner not usually associated with on-line activism — spiriting several dozen Western journalists in and out of Syria; helping rescue trapped journalists and other civilians; smuggling in medical supplies; training and then providing “citizen journalists” with cameras to document Syrian government forces’ war crimes; and serving as a major conduit of war information from inside Syria to Western journalists outside the country.

As The New Republic’s Simon van Zuylen-Wood reported, Avaaz’s Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese activist, “helped smuggle medical supplies into Syria, as well as more than 35 western journalists… He also oversaw the training of ordinary Syrians who subsequently re-entered their country to report on what was going on. As Syria became increasingly dangerous and difficult to penetrate, Western journalists came to rely ever more on Avaaz’s daily e-mail briefings, which compiled information from 200 such Syrian ‘citizen journalists.’”

Several hundred reporters were reportedly receiving Avaaz’s email briefings at the time, putting the organization in a unique position of being the major source of anti-regime news and propaganda coming out of Syria. For example, as NPR’s Deborah Amos reported, Avaaz’s “citizen journalists” provided casualty figures that “Many media organizations, as well as United Nations officials” relied on “to track the violence inside the country.”

Amos reported in March 2012 that Avaaz “has given crucial support to the uprising and the Syrian activist networks that aim to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad.” Amos’s piece raised the question of whether Avaaz had overstepped its role by engaging in operations in which a large number of Syrian activists had been killed (as many as 23, Avaaz’s executive director Ricken Patel subsequently said).

Amos’s report appeared shortly after Avaaz, in February 2012, announced that it had coordinated the rescue of British photographer Paul Conroy of the London Sunday Times, who had been wounded when government security forces attacked the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs.

Two journalists — Marie Colvin, also of the London Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik — were killed in the attack. Conroy was evacuated by his rescuers to Lebanon. Thirteen Syrian activists were initially reported killed in the rescue operation, and Avaaz’s Patel told the BBC at the time that seven others were arrested by government forces and then “shot in the back of the head with their hands tied behind their backs.”

The Avaaz press release on the rescue said: “This operation was carried [out] by Syrians with the help of Avaaz. No other agency was involved” — a claim that Avaaz later had to retract.

Around the same time, in another interview with the BBC4 radio program PM, Patel stated that more than 50 Syrian activists had agreed to participate in the rescue operation — and 23 of them had been killed (a slightly higher number than initially cited.)

In that interview, Patel asserted that repeated attacks on the Homs media center by Assad’s forces were “targeted assassinations” of journalists — and he contended on the flimsiest of information that either the Russians or Iranians — most likely the Russians — “were coordinating these atrocities.”

Asked about his evidence for this, Patel said that a drone constantly positioned over Baba Amr conducted surveillance of the area. “…(T)o our knowledge,” Patel said, “the Syrians certainly have not been able to build a drone themselves or own one, so it’s got to be coming from Russia or from Iran, actually coordinating these atrocities.”

Patel said he assumed the drone was Russian operated because the Russians were providing large amounts of military assistance to Assad. Patel said “common sense would suggest there is some sort of cooperation going on” between Russia and Syria’s government and the Russians would have to know the Syrians are “targeting citizens and civilians.”

The New Republic’s Zuylen-Wood  subsequently challenged Avaaz’s initial claim of being the sole coordinator of the Conroy rescue, and got Patel to back off  to correct both his earlier statement and the Avaaz press release. Patel said that he and Avaaz had made an honest mistake in the confusion and chaos of the rescue, and that the opposition Free Syria Army “played a significant role” in the operation but with substantial planning, input and backing from Avaaz. Although guilty of over-hype in claiming sole credit, Avaaz in its back-and-forth with The New Republic certainly showed that it had, indeed, played an important part in the rescue operation.

Whether this was an appropriate role for an activist organization is another question. Amos’s NPR piece raised the issue, stating: Given the deaths “of so many Syrian activists in the operation” this might suggest that “Avaaz has crossed a line, not just a border.”

For her report, Amos interviewed Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a specialist in the Syrian opposition, who said: “I am not questioning their motives. But lives are at stake. Are they the right entity to do it? Is an NGO the right outlet?”

Answering press criticism at the time — and giving an indication of its success in getting the opposition’s view of the Syrian conflict to Western journalists — Avaaz stated it was “proud of 18 months of outstanding work by our staff and our community to support the voices of the?Syrian?people to reach the world in thousands of news articles assisted by citizen journalists we have supported or helped connect to the media.”

Additionally, Avaaz commented, “Our community has donated almost $3 million for communications equipment, humanitarian aid and advocacy, and taken millions of actions including petition signatures, messages, phone calls and advocacy visits to press governments to take action to support the?Syrian?people.”

It is not clear whether Avaaz has continued to provide the same sort of on-the-ground assistance to opposition forces and civilians as it was offering a few years ago, although it indicated at the time that it would continue such activities.

Advocating Military Actions

At first blush, the petition advocating for a Syria no-fly zone was a jolt to those not familiar with Avaaz’s swing toward “humanitarian” military action in recent years. It seemed surprising because Avaaz has on other occasions called for negotiated peaceful solutions to various conflicts (including in Syria itself), and has been substantially in sync with other major progressive organizations on scores of U.S. and international issues in its nine years of existence.

Based on the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of Avaaz petitions I have seen over the years and in preparation for this article, I had assumed that the organization adhered to a basic principle of nonviolence in international affairs — and it has even said so on occasion. But as one person who has had close connections to Avaaz noted to me: Although favoring diplomatic solutions, Avaaz does not rule out the use of military force, as its no-fly zone advocacy for Libya and Syria amply demonstrate.

On its website home page, Avaaz does not have an out-front display of its past campaign for a no-fly zone in Libya and its current one in Syria (and does not ever mention the ongoing disaster in Libya, or its support for a no-fly zone there). Rather, it focuses its out-front materials on its multitude of campaigns that involve nonviolent, political, diplomatic and public relations remedies. And even allowing for organizational self-hype, Avaaz has an impressive record of advocacy.

Through its petitions, street actions, billboards and newspaper ads, Avaaz has been highly visible on hundreds of issues worldwide — including Palestinian rights, support for U.S. government whistleblowers including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, campaigns for endangered species, etc.

This is, after all, an organization that played a major role along with 350.org and other activist groups in organizing the massive People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014; it was also an organizer of the Global Climate March that was to coincide with the opening last November of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in France. That march was blocked by the French government in the aftermath of coordinated attacks attributed to ISIS that killed at least 130 people in Paris earlier in November.

Most — if not all — of Avaaz’s campaigns seem right in line with current day activism of various groupings on the political Left. Even on Syria, an Avaaz campaign urging the United States to take in more refugees is in a more traditional humanitarian vein (that is, one that doesn’t involve military hardware, needless to say). Typical was Avaaz’s full, back-page color ad in the March 10, 2016 Politico headlined (in a play on a Republican presidential debate topic): “IT TAKES BIG HANDS (and a Bigger Heart) TO WELCOME 25,000 SYRIAN REFUGEES.”

The ad praised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for “showing the world what it means to have a giant heart” through Canada’s acceptance and resettlement of 25,000 refugees in the previous four months — “while America debates the size of candidates’ hands” and has taken in fewer than 1,000 refugees. The ad urged President Obama and Congress to “do better, and show the world the size of our hearts, not our hands.”

Also recently, in February 2016, more than 749,000 people signed an Avaaz petition that called on members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France to “suspend all arms deals with Saudi Arabia until they end their assaults in Yemen and begin a genuine peace process.”

The campaign, which also included targeting MEPs with phone calls and personal messages, won a major success when the European Parliament voted on Feb. 25 “for an embargo on arms sale to Saudi Arabia,” in response to a United Nations report documenting 119 Saudi violations of international law in Yemen. Because European Union states are not bound by the action, Avaaz is continuing the campaign to get the European governments and the United States to follow the European Parliament’s lead.

This Saudi campaign makes Avaaz’s repeat advocacy for a no-fly zone — first in Libya and now in Syria — appear on initial impression to be way out of sync with progressive thought and most other Avaaz campaigns, and so much in line with neocon and “humanitarian interventionist” regime-change advocates.

The Dodgy Sarin Story

The organization’s renewed campaign in the spring of 2015 for a Syrian no-fly zone was no sudden philosophical switch by Avaaz. In fact, as noted earlier, Avaaz had in 2011 campaigned for a no-fly zone in since-devastated Libya, and then turned its attention to a no-fly zone for Syria. It continued that Syrian effort in 2013-2014, while at the same time pushing for President Obama to get together with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to work out a diplomatic solution. That diplomacy petition netted 1,126,000 signers.

This diplomatic approach seemed more in line with what progressive individuals and organizations could get behind. But with no such diplomatic talks forthcoming, Avaaz then continued with its no-fly zone strategy.

Even in calling for negotiations, though, as well as in points raised in its on-line advocacy for a no-fly zone, Avaaz has regularly repeated a now-questionable allegation against the Syrian government — made on numerous occasions by Secretary John Kerry and then President Obama. The U.S. leaders and war advocates used the allegation as a justification for war when it appeared that the United States was going to launch a bombing campaign against Syria in September 2013: Namely, that Assad’s forces had used sarin gas on the civilian population near Damascus in August 2013.

This charge that Assad was using chemical weapons on his own people has provided a continuing emotional selling point for Avaaz and other interventionists in the campaign for upping the military ante against the Assad regime.

“Right now,” the message accompanying the Avaaz diplomacy petition stated, “the global drums of war are beating over Syria, but if enough of us make sure Rouhani and Obama know the world wants bold diplomacy, we could end the nightmare for thousands of terrified Syrian children under gas attacks. We have no time to lose…”

But as pointed out repeatedly by Robert Parry of Consortium News and a few other independent journalists over the last two years — as well as recently by an organization of former U.S. intelligence professionals, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) — the Obama administration has publicly offered not one shred of evidence to back up its early claims that Assad gassed his own people in August 2013.

To the contrary, recent disclosures in Turkey provide evidence that strongly suggest it was not Assad’s military that carried out the sarin gas attack.

As Parry recently wrote, summing up his findings from his earlier articles, there is “growing evidence that it was a jihadist group, possibly with the help of Turkish intelligence, that staged the outrage as a provocation to draw the U.S. military into the conflict against Syria’s military by creating the appearance that Assad had crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ on using chemical weapons.”

The sarin gas attack, it should be recalled, came at a very tense time when Obama was considering military action against Assad, and seemed in the eyes of many hawks to provide final justification for attacking Syria and removing Assad from power.

The VIPS group, in a Dec. 22, 2015 memorandum it sent to Kerry and to Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov, noted comments made in the Turkish Parliament 12 days earlier by member Eren Erdem from the opposition Republican People’s Party. In his remarks in Parliament, and four days later in an RT television interview, Erdem confronted the Turkish government on its possible role in the sarin gas issue. He cited a closed criminal case, official reports and electronic evidence documenting a sarin gas smuggling operation that was allegedly carried out with Turkish government complicity.

In the RT interview, according to the VIPS memo, “Erdem said Turkish authorities had acquired evidence of sarin gas shipments to anti-government rebels in Syria, and did nothing to stop them.” The General Prosecutor in the Turkish city of Adana “opened a criminal case, and an indictment stated ‘chemical weapons components’ from Europe ‘were to be seamlessly shipped via a designated route through Turkey to militant labs in Syria.’” Erdem cited evidence implicating the Turkish Minister of Justice and the Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation in the smuggling of sarin.”

This bombshell piece of information, largely ignored by the mainstream news media, is a strong indication that the original sarin gas story linking the chemical attack to Assad’s forces is either false or at best unproven.

This information also undercuts one of the major shocking and emotion-filled underpinnings for Avaaz’s campaign for a no-fly zone — as well as the rationale repeatedly voiced by other advocates of stepped-up military action against the Syrian government.

Gassing your own people is about as low as a dictator can get. True or not, it’s a powerful piece of propaganda that provides a clinching bit of information to someone considering whether or not to sign something like the Avaaz no-fly zone petition.

Since the mainstream media have ignored the Turkish Parliamentarian’s disclosures, it’s a safe bet that most of the petition signers to this day harbor no doubts about the source of the sarin gas attack, since no one in the Obama administration, much less Avaaz or other no-fly zone advocates, has ever publicly offered any contrary information to suggest it might not have been Assad who unleashed the attack.

The shaky nature of the sarin gas allegation is one of the areas about which ExposeFacts queried Avaaz further, but we have received no response to date.

Ignoring U.S. Generals’ Warnings

Among our unanswered questions submitted to Avaaz were ones noting that the organization’s Syria petitions and accompanying supporting materials made no mention of the warnings by top U.S. generals (cited earlier) of the dangers inherent in establishing a no-fly zone there — including risking drastically expanding that bloody, many-sided war and thereby endangering civilians.

Without any indication of such dangers, potential petition signers could very easily get the idea that there is little down-side to a no-fly zone. And, after all, if lives could be saved and there is little down-side, isn’t that a course of action every compassionate human being could get behind? Especially if the organization calling for it has built up trust with its members through its hundreds of other liberal and progressive petitions?

Also, in information provided by Avaaz in its emails to members and on its website relating to its Syria no-fly zone petition, there was no mention of Libya, or any explanation of what Avaaz leaders thought, in retrospect, about the chaos, death, destruction, displacement and rise of ISIS there in the aftermath of the military intervention by NATO including its use of a no-fly zone. (Or, more recently, what Avaaz might think of news reports that the United States is going back into Libya with airstrikes and commando raids to counter ISIS — which did not exist in Libya until after the NATO bombing campaign and the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.)

Surely, you would think that the experience in Libya would limit an organization’s willingness to push once again for a no-fly zone, this time in Syria. Yet, despite that ongoing disaster in Libya, Avaaz was apparently not chastened. (See our follow-up article for an in-depth discussion of Avaaz’s advocacy for no-fly zone in Libya.)

As with our other questions, Avaaz did not answer whether the Libya experience made the organization’s leaders think twice about taking up the Syria no-fly zone issue. It was possibly obscurely referencing the Libya no-fly zone when it stated to us: “Much of what you’re asking for are reflection on past campaigns given the geopolitical landscape today. But based on the way we work, I cannot tell you how any Avaaz member would feel today about a past campaign without going back and asking them.”

Our follow-up question made it clear that we were not asking how any Avaaz member might feel about the Libya campaign, but rather how Avaaz’s leaders felt about proposing a no-fly zone for Syria when the Libya enterprise had turned out so disastrously.

No-Fly Zones As an Act of War

Regardless of the sincerity of petition-signers who believe no-fly zones can save civilians’ lives, the recent history in Iraq and Libya demonstrate that no-fly zones are actually precursors to — or accompanists of — stepped-up military action by the United States and other Western powers to bring about regime change.

And many of those signing the Libya and Syria petitions — having developed trust in Avaaz after signing some of the organization’s previous, meritorious petitions — are inclined to accept Avaaz’s version of events and the benign explanation that a no-fly zone poses little risk and will save thousands of civilians’ lives.

Whatever humanitarian clothes you dress it up in, though, establishing a no-fly zone using air power is by its very nature a provocative act, an act of war, a threat to a sovereign nation (no matter how reprehensible that nation’s government might be).

It is one thing for an activist organization to push its members in support of a diplomatic solution, or to provide food, shelter and other humanitarian assistance to civilian war victims; it is quite another to buy into a dubious no-fly zone notion, which actual generals — not humanitarian armchair generals — warn would involve the deaths of multitudes of civilians.

Yet, in its petition and accompanying materials on Syria, Avaaz gives little hint that a no-fly zone is a move toward an expanded war and likely even more displacement and death for civilians. Instead, it appeals to people’s humanitarian instincts and downplays the risk to both civilians and military personnel.

Typical of the emotional appeal to members’ humanitarian instincts was a Sept. 30, 2015 Avaaz posting that pressed the urgency of a no-fly zone even with the Russians having recently entered the air war in Syria in support of Assad’s government. On the basis of just one eyewitness to an alleged Russian bombing of civilian neighborhoods near Homs, Avaaz said this makes the further case for a no-fly zone.

The Sept. 30 posting, in line with Avaaz’s general practice of casting the Russians as the arch-villains in the war in Syria, was headlined “Russian bombing of Syrian civilian neighbourhoods kills women and children – eyewitness,” and quoted Emma Ruby-Sachs, deputy director of Avaaz, thusly:

“Russia says it’s bombing ISIS, but eyewitnesses say their brutal attacks targeted areas way outside of ISIS control. This will only sow instability and radicalization and should be a wake-up call to the U.S. and its allies to enforce a targeted no-fly zone to save lives, counter ISIS and alleviate the refugee crisis. Syrian civilians need protection now, not further attacks from Russian bombs.”

Now it just might be that much in this posting is true — that Russian planes bombed a bakery and a vegetable market, killing four children and two women — but we are asked to accept this on the word of just one person. We are also asked to accept that neither ISIS nor other anti-regime units operated in the area, on the basis of the one eyewitness who is apparently quoting local residents.

We are also asked to believe that this is conclusive justification for going full speed ahead with a no-fly zone — never mind that the Russians might not want to give up Syrian air space without a fight and possibly send the ongoing disaster in Syria into a whole new dimension of slaughter. [It was a favorite fallacy of the mainstream U.S. media that Russia had promised only to bomb ISIS targets. Russia always said it would bomb ISIS and other terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.]

Despite the lies and propaganda emitting from all of the many sides in the Syrian conflict, despite the uncertainties of just who is bombing whom in some situations, Avaaz sticks to its narrative that the Syrian regime — now along with its Russian bombing partners — are virtually alone in endangering civilians and that a no-fly zone is somehow going to make all that right without posing much of a problem, really.

The possibility that a no-fly zone could increase the likelihood of a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation and an even wider war was apparently not part of Avaaz’s equation. How the no-fly zone would counter ISIS is not explained, since ISIS does not have an air force, but Avaaz presents it and its claims of saving lives and easing the refugee crisis as some sort of sure thing.

Stephen Wrage, a professor of American foreign policy at the Naval Academy, and Scott Cooper, national security outreach director at Human Rights First and a retired Marine Corps aviator, make the point that a no-fly zone in Syria would fail in its mission to protect civilians.

As they wrote last October in Defense One in an article titled, “The History of No-Fly Zones Doesn’t Bode Well for Syria”: “If the no-fly zone is a humanitarian instrument aimed at saving innocents…it will not be effective because it cannot separate the killers from their victims. Saddam and Qaddafi were constrained by geography:?by Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and the Libyan Desert. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, now protected by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s air cover, would have no difficulty reaching the people he intends to?kill.”

And as noted earlier in this article, the nation’s leading generals — no shrinking violets they — have repeatedly warned over the last several years of the drastic consequences of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. And all of these generals gave these warnings before Russian aircraft entered the fray.

It isn’t often I would say this, but in this instance of Syria the war-makers — the generals — are presenting the real-world, provocative implications of establishing a Syria no-fly zone, while Avaaz with its stated goal of protecting Syrian civilians presents a sugar-coated, little-harm version. And its petition and related materials, with a focus on the despicable Assad government’s violence against the civilian population, doesn’t adequately take into account the violence against civilians by ISIS and other opponents of Assad’s regime.

Near the end of each year, Avaaz (as do other on-line organizations) asks people on its email list to weigh in on a self-generated organizational list of priorities for the coming year. In no year has that list of priorities included setting up no-fly zones in, first, Libya, and now in Syria. The 2016 list of priorities, as voted on by members, includes a reference to peace in Syria, but no mention of a no-fly zone, stating: “Peace in Syria – campaign for the Syrian regime and all warring parties to stop brutal violence on innocent Syrian families, and ensure Syrian voices are heard in international peace talks.”

On its home page and in messages sent periodically to members to report on the organization’s campaigns and accomplishments, the call for a no-fly zone is not included as one of its showcase items. Nevertheless, Avaaz keeps raising the issue in dramatic ways throughout the year.

In an email sent to members last June, three days after publication of its New York Times ad, Avaaz renewed its call for a no-fly zone as it reported that a humanitarian worker had informed the organization that the “Syrian air force just dropped chlorine gas bombs on children.”

Noting that a number of countries — including the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey and France — were “seriously considering a safe zone in Northern Syria,” Avaaz added: “Advisors close to President Obama support it, but he is worried he won’t have public support. That’s where we come in…Let’s tell him we don’t want a world that watches as a dictator drops chemical weapons on families in the night. We want action.”

Avaaz said that the unnamed humanitarian worker told it that “I wish the world could see what I have seen with my eyes. It breaks my heart forever.”

Whatever the veracity of Avaaz’s source — and, again, it’s just one source at that moment — and whatever Avaaz’s good intentions, there is still that notion that setting up a no-fly zone is a walk in the park, rather than a dangerous move toward a wider war. The sense of frustration in that Avaaz missive is palpable: People are being slaughtered as the world watches. Something must be done. We want action!

Journalist and Middle East expert Charles Glass reported on the war in Syria in The New York Review of Books after a September 2015 trip there. Citing the United Nations’ latest “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” Glass said the report “paints a depressing portrait of the population’s unimaginable torment at the hands of government and opposition forces alike.”

Wrote Glass: “The regime drops barrel bombs in Aleppo, and the rebels respond with gas canisters of explosives and shrapnel. ISIS rapes and brutalizes Yazidi women whom it has declared slaves to be bought and sold. The regime’s security forces practice torture on an industrial scale. Both sides besiege villages, and both sides commit massacres. The UN report’s forty-four pages of horrific war crimes should be sufficient for the outside powers to budge and call a halt to this war. What are they waiting for?”

Unlike Avaaz’s posture of diplomacy and a no-fly zone, Glass was calling strictly for diplomacy, not escalation of the violence. He was seeing the civilian population suffering “at the hands of government and opposition forces alike.”

Avaaz — unlike, for example, Human Rights Watch on occasion — does not emphasize human rights abuses or killings of civilians by all forces involved in the Syrian fighting, concentrating instead on the abuses by Assad’s forces.

In a 79-page report on Syria in March 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded:  “Opposition armed groups in Syria have indiscriminately attacked civilians in government-held territory with car bombs, mortars, and rockets…The attacks have killed and maimed hundreds of civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure in violation of the laws of war…[The report] documents scores of attacks in heavily populated, government-controlled areas in Damascus and Homs between January 2012 and April 2014, and which continue into 2015. The findings are based primarily on victim and witness accounts, on-site investigations, publicly available videos, and information on social media sites.”

Many of the attacks, Human Rights Watch found, were indiscriminate, were carried out in areas where there were no government forces, and “seemed primarily intended to spread terror among the civilian population.”

An earlier 2013 HRW report, titled “Syria: Executions, Hostage Taking by Rebels — Planned Attacks on Civilians Constitute Crimes Against Humanity,” contained similar findings of abuses by opposition forces.

This is not about who is the worst human-rights abuser or murderer of civilians — Assad or ISIS or the various other groupings of the opposition — but rather about what a trusted organization such as Avaaz tells its members in getting them to sign a petition aimed at halting a humanitarian crisis that involves the killing and maiming of civilians.

By its singular focus on Assad’s military and its supporters as the sole killers and abusers of the civilian population, Avaaz is not being straight with its members. It is holding back key information — information that just might make a potential signer think twice before opting for a military action that Avaaz is selling as a tactic that in its view would lessen a horrible humanitarian crisis.

Also absent in Avaaz’s pitch for no-fly zone signatures is any note to members that its stated humanitarian-inspired stance puts it in the company of the neocons, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and assorted congressional and think-tank war hawks who see a no-fly zone as part of a bigger military strategy to oust Assad from power. A no-fly zone, in the interventionists’ view, is a step toward this end, not an end in itself.

People like Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Clinton ally and president of the nonpartisan centrist think tank New America, who in an article last summer called — as she has before — for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria in order to save civilians’ lives. But that’s only the beginning. Slaughter, who was director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department for two years under Secretary Clinton, writes that the U.S. government had finally come to “the recognition that a new Syrian government is vital to defeat — or even contain — the Islamic State.”

While mentioning that civilians are also sometimes killed by rebel and Islamic State fighters, Slaughter posits that “Assad represents the greater threat, and thus will have to be removed from power before attention can be focused on defeating the Islamic State.” Hillary Clinton makes basically the same argument — and, like Slaughter, can’t really enlighten us as to what a successor Syrian government would look like.

Avaaz is thus allied with those for whom a no-fly zone is a euphemism for — a stalking horse for — regime change in Syria, regardless of the organization’s stated goal of protecting civilians and saving lives, and not of producing regime change.

But as Adam Johnson, associate editor of AlterNet, put it in an article for FAIR.org:

“…A no-fly zone would only be applied to Assad because anti-Assad forces don’t have an air force…While it may sound like a simple humanitarian stop gap — and that’s no doubt how it’s being sold — literally every no-fly zone in history has eventually led to regime change. Which is fair enough, but those pushing for one should at least be honest about what this means: the active removal of Assad by foreign forces. Indeed, if one recalls the NATO intervention in Libya was originally sold as a no-fly zone to prevent a potential genocide, but within a matter of weeks, NATO leaders had pivoted to full-on regime change.”

Johnson also makes the important point — in reference to the devastating, poignant picture late last summer of the drowned Syrian Kurdish refugee, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach — that this boy and his family were not fleeing the Assad government’s bombing of cities. Rather, they were “escaping ISIS and the U.S. bombing of his hometown of Kobani, far from anything the Assad government is doing. A no-fly zone would not have saved his hometown…”

Since Johnson wrote that, and since Avaaz’s dramatic New York Times ad last June, the Russians entered the air war on the side of Assad and in opposition to rebel forces and ISIS. Although Russia announced its partial withdrawal from military action in Syria in mid-March, it is keeping in place “its powerful S-400 air defense system…That would maintain Russian dominance of Syrian airspace…” This would mean that any U.S./NATO effort to impose a no-fly zone would surely meet with Russian and Syrian resistance.

So the questions for Avaaz and other advocates of a no-fly zone in Syria include: Are you thinking beyond a no-fly zone? If not, why not? Doesn’t it matter? What comes next or in conjunction with a no-fly zone? Ousting Assad? Replacing him with whom? How? Full-scale bombardments and drone strikes that somehow miraculously avoid killing masses of civilians, and that avoid triggering more killings by Assad’s forces? More special ops assassination missions? Those “boots on the ground” so beloved of armchair militarists everywhere?

What if Turkey and Saudi Arabia invade Syria, as they have threatened to do? What happens in the fight against ISIS if Assad is out of the picture? What does Russia do? Does some miniscule crew of supposed Syrian moderates that the U.S. has identified take power, and ISIS just pauses while the new government organizes itself (or rather is organized for it by the ever-helpful United States, United Kingdom and other enlightened Western governments)? What happens to Assad’s military? How will a no-fly zone affect not only government violence, but also ISIS violence, or other opposition violence, against civilians? And on and on.

Shouldn’t the still unfolding Libya tragedy make an organization like Avaaz a little gun-shy (so to speak) in calling for the same kind of policy in the even more complicated, confusing case of Syria — what with the Syrian military, various countries, the anti-Assad rebel opposition groups, ISIS and Al Qaeda and Al Nusra and their spinoff groups, and Kurds, and Assad loyalists all slugging it out to the death?

In a Syrian war with atrocities on all sides, isn’t there something to be learned from the Libya experience in which Gaddafi’s crimes were exaggerated to inflame the Western public against his regime? As Patrick Cockburn of The Independent in London reported in November 2014, human rights groups in Libya “discovered that there was no evidence for several highly publicized atrocities supposedly carried out by Gaddafi’s forces that were used to fuel popular support for the air war in the U.S., Britain, France and elsewhere.”

These included, Cockburn continued, “the story of the mass rape of women by Gaddafi’s troops that Amnesty International exposed as being without foundation. The uniformed bodies of government soldiers were described by rebel spokesmen as being men shot because they were about to defect to the opposition. Video film showed the soldiers still alive as rebel prisoners so it must have been the rebels who had executed them and put the blame on the government.”

And, wrote Cockburn, “The majority of Libyans are demonstrably worse off today than they were under Gaddafi, notwithstanding his personality cult and authoritarian rule. The slaughter is getting worse by the month and is engulfing the entire country.”

Writing more than a year later, The New York Times reported on February 29, 2016, that in the aftermath of the killing of Gaddafi and regime change in Libya, that country “dissolved into chaos, leading to a civil war that would destabilize the region, fueling the refugee crisis in Europe and allowing the Islamic State to establish a Libyan haven that the United States in now desperately trying to contain.”

Syria, of course, is not Libya. But there is a lesson there that “humanitarian interventionists” should learn.

Avaaz Defends Its Syria No-Fly Zone

Although Avaaz has ignored most of our specific questions, it did last summer post on its website a “Syria No Fly Zone Questions & Answers” page in response to “thoughtful concerns” expressed by members that, according to Avaaz, boiled down to these main objections: “a) Avaaz is relying on unverified news reports and has the facts wrong. b) Avaaz is pushing for more war in the Middle East. c) Avaaz is serving the imperial interests of western powers, notably the U.S.” (As noted earlier, the Q&A page was deleted sometime last month, and when you click on the above link you get a blank Avaaz page as of this writing.)

To this, I would again add, among other things, Avaaz completely ignoring — or not even considering — the warnings of top U.S. generals and other experts expressed earlier in this article. These warnings are not even mentioned in Avaaz’s Q&A, nor is there any mention of Avaaz’s previous disastrous “humanitarian” call (along with interventionists from across the political spectrum) for a no-fly zone in Libya.

In response to the criticisms, the previously mentioned Avaaz campaign director and former State Department official John Tye emphasized that his organization was only trying to save lives and was not seeking more war in the Middle East or doing the bidding of U.S. or other imperial interests.

Tye wrote that with “more than 210,000 killed. Over 10 million people driven from their homes. More than half the country’s hospitals damaged or destroyed. Millions of children out of school. This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II… the humanitarian disaster of our generation, and it continues to crush innumerable lives.”

Tye went on to note that Avaaz had tried everything short of recommending military action to alleviate the plight of Syria’s civilians. Wrote Tye:

“We supported civilians and non-violent activists to document human rights abuses, and gave millions of dollars for food, medicine, and humanitarian supplies and to put refugee children in school. We campaigned to stop arms dealers from sending weapons to the country, called for sanctions, and then urged the U.N. to help stop the fighting. More than a million of us from across the world called on the U.S. and Iran to come together to help craft a negotiated solution, and then once again we backed UN-sponsored negotiations. This community has worked for nearly four years to stop the war and help the needy, but the crisis continues and is spreading.”

Tye wrote that having tried all these other forums and methods, “it is up to a community like ours to continue to look for legal ways to intervene to stop the carnage.” And this is where the no-fly zone comes in.

Rather than being “the deceitful ‘pre-emptive war’ doctrine advocated by neo-conservatives looking to remake and dominate the Middle East,” Tye — presumably drawing primarily on his State Department and other governmental contacts — wrote that the Avaaz call for a no-fly zone (NFZ) “is a very serious strategy made only after intensive consultation with diplomats, regional experts, and Syrians to save tens of thousands of civilians’ lives. [My emphasis.]

“After four years of brutal violence on all sides, the war in Syria will be extremely difficult to end. But a NFZ could help curb the violence and bring the warring parties into peace negotiations. Right now Assad has no incentive to negotiate peace. He believes he can continue exterminating his people until they submit. A NFZ will show Assad that the world will act to stop this carnage, and it will change Assad’s calculus.”

Additionally, Tye wrote, a no-fly zone “will also provide a safe place for the Syrians who have been driven into extremists’ territory as they are fleeing from the regime’s terror. Lastly it would reinforce the international military campaign against ISIS.” He added that an NFZ “that protects civilians in northern Syria could strengthen the conditions for a negotiated, political solution to the conflict.”

Tye continued that the most common criticism of Avaaz is that it claims as fact certain allegations of Syrian government forces’ atrocities that had not been confirmed when Avaaz published them — such as Avaaz alleging chlorine gas attacks from the air killing civilians, when it lacked corroboration for the allegation.

While acknowledging that “it continues to be difficult to independently and unequivocally confirm details on the ground in Syria,” Tye said the Syrian military “have relied on non-chemical weapons dropped from aircraft to kill thousands upon thousands of civilians in northern Syria. Even if, contrary to current evidence, it somehow turns out that the Assad regime was not responsible for this recent chlorine attack, it is still the case that a no-fly zone in northern Syria would dramatically reduce civilian deaths.”

As to the criticism from some Avaaz members that the organization is pushing for more war in Syria, Tye responded: “The answer is an unqualified ‘no’. U.S. and allied aircraft are already patrolling airspace in northern Syria, as part of the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition, so a no-fly zone would not require significant new deployments. Bloodshed in Syria will continue with or without a no-fly zone, but a no-fly zone would dramatically decrease civilian casualties.”

Yes, Tye is saying, take it from us that this is exactly how a no-fly zone would work out. Ignore those pesky generals who say otherwise — and I do mean ignore them. Do not let their warnings enter the Avaaz dialogue.

Avaaz’s only acknowledgement of possible dangers comes in this one paragraph from Tye: “As with any military mission, a no-fly zone may endanger the pilots enforcing it, or Assad forces trying to break it.”

Tye continued: “Those possibilities are real, but we know what will continue to happen until there is a no-fly zone: weaponized chlorine bombs will fall on sleeping families; and near daily barrel bombing will continue over Aleppo. Thousands and thousands of people will die, for years to come, if we turn away and wring our hands…Prior efforts to put an end to this, through diplomacy and sanctions, have all failed. If nothing changes, another 100,000 could be killed” in 2015 alone.

Note again, there is no mention that a no-fly zone could — and in Syria, likely would — endanger not only U.S. and NATO pilots and Assad’s forces, but the very civilians Avaaz says it wants to protect.

Responding to comparisons to U.S. involvement in Iraq, Tye said: “A no-fly zone over Syria is not the same as the disastrous war in Iraq…This campaign for Syria is not invasion or regime change, it’s about protecting defenseless families.”

As for one of the other criticisms — that Avaaz is serving U.S. and Western interests “to (re)shape and exercise imperial ambitions in the Middle East,” Tye responded: “The answer again is a very definitive ‘no’. Our community regularly campaigns against morally unjustifiable foreign engagement in the Middle East, whether it be Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands or the U.S. and E.U.’s rapprochement with a new tyrant in Egypt. We understand the tragic and often cynical legacy of foreign engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Tye wrote that he understands that a no-fly zone “could conjure up images of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and illegal Western interventions. This is a different thing.” In Avaaz’s vision, a targeted no-fly zone can’t just be a U.S. undertaking. “It must be an international effort, with a clear objective: the protection of civilians. And the states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates that have openly called for a no-fly zone, and the protection of civilian populations in Syria, must take the lead in providing resources to implement it. France’s Socialist government has also voiced strong support for a targeted no-fly zone. But, these governments won’t act without some support from the United States, which has the diplomatic and military resources to serve as coordinator for a limited period of time — until the safety of civilians is secured.”

Finally, Tye said, Avaaz is a member organization and as such was responding to tens of thousands of Syrian members who were calling for a no-fly zone. It should be noted that Avaaz shows 54,000 members in Syria in a population of 23 million — which means that even if every Avaaz member supported a no-fly zone, this would still mean that only one of every 426 Syrians had “voted” for one.

Nevertheless, Tye concluded, “The Avaaz community has repeatedly stood behind the principle that defenseless civilian populations should be protected — and these tens of thousands of Syrian Avaaz members deserve no less.”

It seems an odd notion that it is “Syrian Avaaz members” — rather than Avaaz staffers in New York promulgating petitions for a no-fly zone — who are somehow responsible for the direction of this campaign. Seriously?

In its call for no-fly zones in Libya and Syria, Avaaz has turned the concept of progressive advocacy on its head and appears to be untrue to the direction it has followed in the overwhelming majority of its campaigns. Advocacy organizations should be about stopping wars, not asking their members to buy into a dubious military tactic for Syria that even leading U.S. generals say “entails killing a lot of people…[and is] a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties” for those very Syrian civilians that Avaaz argues it is trying to protect.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for ?The Washington Post,? The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of? Government by Contract? and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This story originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org. https://exposefacts.org/as-in-libya-avaaz-campaigns-for-syria-no-fly-zone-that-even-top-generals-oppose/]




In Case You Missed…

Some of our special stories in December addressed the dangers of global warming, the false narratives of the Mideast conflicts, and America’s chaotic presidential politics.

Near Boiling Point on Global Warming” by Nat Parry, Dec. 1, 2015

The US-Russia Proxy War in Syria” by Ray McGovern, Dec. 1, 2015

Obama Taunts Putin over Syria” by Sam Husseini, Dec. 2, 2015

 “Obama Ignores Russian Terror Victims” by Robert Parry, Dec. 2, 2015

The West’s Deadly Mideast Fantasies” by Mike Lofgren, Dec. 2, 2015

NATO Picks a New Fight with Russia” by Jonathan Marshall, Dec. 3, 2015

Who Wants to Weaponize Outer Space?” by Sam Husseini, Dec. 4, 2015

Learning to Love the ‘Drone War’” by John Hanrahan, Dec. 4, 2015

Suffering from Global Warming First” by Dennis Bernstein and Andrea Carmen, Dec. 5, 2015

PBS Joins the MSM’s Syria-Russia Bias” by Rick Sterling, Dec. 5, 2015

Obama’s Credibility Crisis” by Robert Parry, Dec. 6, 2015

The Incredible Shrinking President” by Daniel Lazare, Dec. 7, 2015

 “Cruz Threatens to Nuke ISIS Targets” by Robert Parry, Dec. 8, 2015

The Terror from the Gun” by Lawrence Davidson, Dec. 8, 2015

Why Syria’s Options Are So Bad” by Ted Snider, Dec. 8, 2015

 “A Day When Journalism Died” by Robert Parry, Dec. 9, 2015

Israel’s Moral Erosion” by Alon Ben-Meir, Dec. 10, 2015

The Courage from Whistle-blowing” by Ray McGovern, Dec. 11, 2015

Chicago Police Adopt Israeli Tactics” by Todd E. Pierce, Dec. 11, 2015

Blocking Democracy as Syria’s Solution” by Robert Parry, Dec. 12, 2015

How ‘Obscure’ Bureaucrats Cause Wars” by Jonathan Marshall, Dec. 15, 2015

Closing the Wrong Visa Loopholes” by Georgianne Nienaber and Coleen Rowley, Dec. 15, 2015

A Blind Eye Toward Turkey’s Crimes” by Robert Parry, Dec. 16, 2015

The Danger After Putin” by Gilbert Doctorow, Dec. 17, 2015

Sam Parry Receives ‘Gary Webb Award’,” Dec. 18, 2015

America’s Unpredictable Imbalance” by Lawrence Davidson, Dec. 18, 2015

Rethinking Donald Trump” by Sam Husseini, Dec. 18, 2015

Neocons Object to Syrian Democracy” by Robert Parry, Dec. 19, 2015

A GOP Split on Neocon Orthodoxy” by James W. Carden, Dec. 19, 2015

Challenging US Overseas Military Bases” by Ann Wright, Dec. 19, 2015

Trump Schools ABC-TV Host on Reality” by Robert Parry, Dec. 21, 2015

The Coming Saudi Crack-up?” by Daniel Lazare, Dec. 22, 2015

A Call for Proof on Syria-Sarin Attack” by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, Dec. 22, 2015

The Grimmer Story Behind ‘Trumbo’” by James DiEugenio, Dec. 24, 2015

A Christmas Message of Peace” by Gary G. Kohls, Dec. 24, 2015

The Obsessive Putin-Bashing” by Gilbert Doctorow, Dec. 26, 2015

The Misinformation Mess” by Robert Parry, Dec. 28, 2015

One County’s Global Warming Failure” by Robert Parry, Dec. 29, 2015

To produce and publish these stories and many more costs money. And except for some book sales, we depend on the generous support of our readers.

So, please consider a tax-deductible donation either by credit card online or by mailing a check. (For readers wanting to use PayPal, you can address contributions to our PayPal Giving Fund account, which is named “The Consortium for Independent Journalism”).




In Case You Missed…

Some of our special stories in November focused on the realities behind the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s dangerous provocations toward Russia, the many failings of the mainstream U.S. media, and disclosures about Ukraine Finance Minister’s self-enrichment at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

Syria at a Crossroads” by Nicolas J S Davies, Nov. 1, 2015

Rubio Follows the Big Money” by Jonathan Marshall, Nov. 1, 2015

Reviving the ‘Liberal Media’ Myth” by Robert Parry, Nov. 2, 2015

The Dark Truth in the Movie ‘Truth’” by James DiEugenio, Nov. 3, 2015

America’s Chalabi Legacy of Lies” by Robert Parry, Nov. 4, 2015

The Death of a Charming Charlatan” by Karen Kwiatkowski, Nov. 4, 2015

Why NYT Dissed the ‘Drone Papers’” by John Hanrahan, Nov. 4, 2015

Obama’s Risky ‘Mission Creep’ in Syria” by Daniel Lazare, Nov. 6, 2015

Bush-41 Finally Speaks on Iraq War” by Ray McGovern, Nov. 8, 2015

How Technology Kills Democracy” by Norman Solomon, Nov. 9, 2015

A New ‘War on Christmas’ Absurdity” by Nat Parry, Nov. 9, 2015

How Israel Out-Foxed US Presidents” by Morgan Strong, Nov. 9, 2015

How Ukraine’s Finance Chief Got Rich” by Robert Parry, Nov. 10, 2015

Rubio’s Big-time Military Build-up” by Chuck Spinney, Nov. 11, 2015

The Progressives’ Green Party Dilemma” by Lawrence Davidson, Nov. 11, 2015

Obama’s Double-Standard on Leaks” by John Hanrahan, Nov. 11, 2015

Netanyahu Ups the US Ante” by Ann Wright, Nov. 12, 2015

Fresh Twists in the Lockerbie Case” by John Ashton, Nov. 12, 2015

Carpetbagging ‘Crony Capitalism’ in Ukraine” by Robert Parry, Nov. 13, 2015

How Saudi/Gulf Money Fuels Terror” by Daniel Lazare, Nov. 14, 2015

Can Obama Level with the People?” by Robert Parry, Nov. 14, 2015

Grasping the Motives for Terror” by James Paul, Nov. 16, 2015

Falling into the ISIS Trap” by William R. Polk, Nov. 17, 2015

CIA Whistleblower Kiriakou Honored” by Ray McGovern, Nov. 18, 2015

Neocons Make Rubio Their Favorite” by JP Sottile, Nov. 18, 2015

Reform Judaism’s Israeli Critique” by Lawrence Davidson, Nov. 18, 2015

Tangled Threads of US False Narrative” by Robert Parry, Nov. 19, 2015

How Russians See the West and Russia” by Natylie Baldwin, Nov. 19, 2015

The Saudi Connection to Terror” by Daniel Lazare, Nov. 20, 2015

The ‘War on Terror’ Has Been Lost” by Nat Parry, Nov. 20, 2015

Ducking the Issue of ‘Perpetual War’” by Sam Husseini, Nov. 22, 2015

Hitting Saudi Arabia Where it Hurts” by Robert Parry, Nov. 23, 2015

A ‘See-No-Evil’ Drone War” by John Hanrahan, Nov. 23, 2015

Turkey Provokes Russia with Shoot-down” by Robert Parry, Nov. 24, 2015

Delinking Terrorism and Islam” by Jonathan Marshall, Nov. 24, 2015

In the Dark on the ‘Dark Side’” by Nicolas J S Davies, Nov. 27, 2015

The Collision Course in Syria” by Daniel Lazare, Nov. 28, 2015

Is Assad Part of a Solution?” by Lawrence Davidson, Nov. 29, 2015

How Gaddafi’s Ouster Unleashed Terror” by Jonathan Marshall, Nov. 30, 2015

Ben Carson and the ‘War on Christmas’” by Nat Parry, Nov. 30, 2015

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Learning to Love the ‘Drone War’

The mainstream U.S. news media is so in the tank on the “war on terror” that it ignores critical information that the American people should know, such as the public complaint from four former Air Force drone operators that the lethal program is killing innocents and creating terrorists, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

The polls show it and commentators of all political stripes often cite the figures: Killer drone attacks by the U.S. military and the CIA in the Greater Middle East and Africa have strong U.S. public support.

According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent poll in May, 58 percent, up slightly from 56 percent in February 2013, approve of “missile strikes from drones to target extremists in such countries as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” The numbers of Americans disapproving of drone attacks actually increased from 26 percent to 35 percent over that two-year period, a hopeful sign, but still very much a minority view.

But how well informed can U.S. citizens be on this subject when the major news media time and again ignore or under-report drone-strike stories, as we have discussed here and here in recent weeks? Stories, such as The Intercept’s October series based on a trove of classified materials provided by a national security whistleblower, that would likely raise serious questions about the drone program in many more Americans’ minds if they were actually given the information?

And now, in the latest example of journalistic negligence, The New York TimesWashington Post and other mainstream news organizations in late November continued their apparent policy of no-bad-news-reporting-about-drones.

This time, the major media chose to ignore four former Air Force drone-war personnel who went public with an open letter to President Barack Obama. The letter urged the President to reconsider a program that killed “innocent civilians,” and which “only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruiting tool [for extremists] similar to Guantanamo Bay.”

In strong, dramatic language, the four men, in the letter and subsequent press appearances, challenged the official Obama White House/Pentagon/CIA public view that civilians are rarely killed by drones, and that drones make Americans safer and are helping defeat terrorists. Rather, they said that the U.S. drone war plays right into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups by terrorizing local populations and killing innocent civilians, resulting in heightened anti-U.S. feeling and more recruits for ISIS.

Now it’s not every day that four former drone operators go public with their anguish-filled stories of the drone program killing innocent people and creating blowback against the United States.

In fact, there has not been any day like that. Until now, that has never happened. You would think that this would meet some textbook definition of news, something new, uncommon, dramatic and consequential. When President Obama or a proven liar about the drone program, CIA Director John Brennan, propagandize about drones and how wonderful and precise and well-nigh infallible they are in crushing extremists, not killing civilians and making us safe, that is what the mainstream media dutifully reports as news.

But when four drone whistleblowers, who sat at the very heart of the system guiding Hellfire missiles from Predator drones to human targets in Afghanistan and Iraq, come forward to undermine that tidy little story, those same news outlets turn their collective back.

Voicing such sharp criticism of a top-secret program with which they were all involved is an especially risky move given that the Obama administration has shown itself to be the most anti-whistleblower administration ever. Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted more than twice as many whistleblowers under the Espionage Act as all previous presidents combined since the passage of the law in 1917.

The letter to Obama, also addressed to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and CIA Director Brennan, said that the Bush and Obama administrations “have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.” They expressed guilt, and are experiencing PTSD, as a result of “our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life.”

In a pointed reference to the Obama administration’s statements in support of the drone program, the letter stated: “We witnessed gross waste, mismanagement, abuses of power, and our country’s leaders lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program.”

And, drawing a link between the recent Paris attacks and drone killings creating more terrorists and blowback, the whistleblowers added: “We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home. Such silence would violate the very oaths we took to support and defend the Constitution.”

These former Air Force personnel, three former Predator sensor operators (Staff Sergeant Brandon Bryant, Senior Airman Stephen Lewis and Senior Airman Michael Haas), and one former drone program infrastructure technician (Senior Airman Cian Westmoreland), had a combined 20-plus years of remotely operating drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

All had Afghanistan drone experience, and all but Westmoreland also had Iraq experience. This gave them special, first-hand insight into a program whose operators, in Haas’s words, viewed targeted human beings as “ants just black blobs on a screen” and considered children who came into view on their screens as “fun-sized terrorists.”

Haas and other whistleblowers expanded on the points in their letter in an interview with Guardian reporters, which resulted in two eye-opening articles by Ed Pilkington and Ewen MacAskill. This was followed by a lengthy appearance onDemocracy Now! and a news conference in connection with the premiere in New York of a new documentary, “Drone,” in which two of the whistleblowers (Bryant and Haas) make appearances. Agence France-Presse (AFP), Reuters and Newsweek all carried stories, as did The InterceptShadowproof and other online news sites.

Did you read about any of that whistleblower criticism in The New York Times or The Washington Post, or see a segment about it on television news? No, you did not. If you know about it at all, it’s probably because of The GuardianDemocracy Now!, and online political and progressive blogs and websites.

This marked the second time in just the last two months that mainstream news outlets have given a thumbs-down to a significant drone story. In October, The Washington Post ignored it and The New York Times ran two paragraphs at the end of a 25-paragraph piece about a series of significant drone articles posted in The Intercept. The articles were derived from documents, referred to as the “Drone Papers,” that were provided to The Intercept by an anonymous intelligence whistleblower. (We wrote about that here.)

As ExposeFacts has previously noted, mainstream news organizations make only occasional forays once or twice a year into reporting that is critical of the drone program (for example, this New York Times article from 2012 and one earlier this year).

What many Americans see or hear most of the time from the self-censoring mainstream media is superficial reporting on the latest drone strike that killed a certain number of what are almost always described in sketchy news stories as militants of one type or another. They also get frequent doses of propaganda and soothing assurances from the President and other Obama administration officials that the program of drones and other aerial bombardments is precise, takes special precaution not to kill civilians, but most importantly is making America safer by killing militants while keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way.

Typical was Obama’s speech in May 2013 at the National Defense University, where he said this: “And before any [drone] strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured the highest standard we can set.” He said civilian deaths constituted “a risk that exists in all wars.”

But as Commander-in-Chief, he went on, “I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold.”

And who, if they were paying attention at the time, can ever forget major-league truth abuser John Brennan, when he was Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, saying in June 2011 that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

In reporting that whopper, The New York Times in August 2011 further reported this: “Other officials say that [Brennan’s] extraordinary claim still holds: since May 2010, C.I.A. officers believe, the drones have killed more than 600 militants including at least 20 in a strike reported Wednesday and not a single noncombatant.”

Given the Obama administration’s control of the drone narrative and the paucity of mainstream press coverage, the 35 percent opposition figure shown in the Pew Research Center’s poll in May is a bit surprising for being as high as it is. Especially given that so many Americans buy into the notion that the nation is in a war against terrorism, that drones make us safe, and that killing remotely by drones is preferable to sending U.S. soldiers into combat areas and risking their lives.

Curiously, that same Pew Research Center poll, in addition to showing 35 percent opposition, found that 48 percent said “they are very concerned that U.S. drone strikes endanger the lives of innocent civilians.” This higher figure suggests that even some Americans currently favoring drone attacks have doubts about how well civilians are protected, and thus might be open to opposing drone use if the mainstream media would let them know what the four whistleblowers said.

Or if the mainstream press would let them know what was contained in The Intercept’s “Drone Papers” articles, such as the revelation that during one five-month period of Operation Haymaker in northeastern Afghanistan, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”

It’s worth noting that The GuardianAFP and Reuters , outlets that did cover the four drone whistleblowers, are all headquartered outside the United States and are not part of the inside-the-Beltway media crowd that influence what is and isn’t news at the national and U.S. governmental level.

Also, because those news outlets all have high levels of newspaper and Internet-based circulation in numerous countries, what they report can make citizens of other countries better informed than Americans about certain aspects of U.S. life. This meant, for example, that Singapore readers of The Straits Times and the Dublin, Ireland readers of TheJournal.ie got to read about the four whistleblowers via an AFP article online. Meanwhile, sadly and ironically, readers of The New York Times and Washington Post were left in the dark.

Across the waters in the drone-deploying United Kingdom, public opinion on drone use appears to be the direct opposite of the United States. A Pew Research Center poll in July 2014 found that the U.K. public opposed the use of drones by a 59-33 percent margin.

With The Guardian and others providing more critical coverage of drones than U.S. mainstream media, and with the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism regularly pumping out information that challenges U.S. government claims about limited civilian drone-strike deaths, it’s a good bet that U.K. citizens are more exposed to criticisms of the drone programs than are their U.S. counterparts.

Additionally, many members of Parliament are much more critical of Britain’s drone policies than are members of Congress critical of U.S. policies, and they are often in the news with their criticisms and concerns. Not so in the United States where, with no serious congressional oversight or debate about drones, there is seldom any anti-drone news generated in the House or Senate, which means citizens hear nothing from the legislative branch to counter the White House views.

As long as major U.S. news organizations continue to ignore, downplay or under-report drone stories, much of the American public will remain under-informed or ill-informed about what our drone strikes are doing to the citizens of many other countries, while at the same time turning ever more people against the United States.

[Disclosure: The four drone whistleblowers are represented by attorney Jesselyn Radack, who is national security and human rights director of the ExposeFacts WHISPeR program.]

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts where this article first appeared, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.




A ‘See-No-Evil’ Drone War

The mainstream U.S. news media has failed miserably in holding the U.S. government to account for the killing of civilians in its drone strikes during the 14-year-old “war on terror,” rarely supplying such unpleasant facts even when they become available, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

By now you know the drill: The CIA or U.S. military forces unleash a drone strike or other aerial bombardment in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or any other country that the United States claims the right to attack.

A U.S. government spokesperson reports 5 or 7 or 17 or 25 or whatever number of “militants” killed, Taliban, or Al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State fighters, according to its fill-in-the-blanks press release. Wire services, mainstream newspapers, television newscasters dutifully report in brief fashion on another successful drone or missile strike, fulfilling minimal journalistic standards by attributing it to the Pentagon, or intelligence or U.S. government sources, sometimes even naming the spokesperson who issued the news release.

And then, usually nothing. Yes, sometimes someone with a little clout raises a stink, say the Afghan president, or some prominent local official who was an eyewitness to the attack, or Doctors without Borders after the U.S. attack on their Afghanistan hospital in October. (* See footnote.) In such challenges to the Americans’ claims of killing only “militants,” these pesky eyewitnesses contend that many of those killed were actually noncombatants, even women and children.

But on those occasions when U.S. officials are confronted with too-strong evidence of civilian casualties, they typically issue an apology (while not usually admitting civilians were actually killed), promise an investigation, and then that’s the last we ever seem to hear of it in the mainstream press.

Now, an American University (A.U.) academic, Jeff Bachman, has documented what some readers may have surmised in reading drone news coverage over the years, but didn’t have the data to back it up. In examining articles by The New York Times and Washington Post in the immediate aftermath of U.S. drone strikes between 2009 and 2014, Bachman concluded:

“Both papers have substantially underrepresented the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, failed to correct the public record when evidence emerged that their reporting was wrong and ignored the importance of international law.”

Bachman’s research dovetails with The Intercept’s recently published “Drone Papers” articles, which among other things document the U.S. government’s lying to the press and public about the number of noncombatants killed in drone strikes.

Bachman, professional lecturer in human rights and the co-director of Global Affairs M.A. Program at A.U.’s School of International Service, examined a sample of 81 Times articles and 26 Post articles published within two days of particular drone strikes between 2009 and 2014. He then compared the two papers’ reporting to the research and tracking of drone strikes by the London-based The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). He said he considered TBIJ’s data authoritative “because they used a methodology that has been endorsed by the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Human Rights” at Columbia University’s Law School.

In the drone attacks reported on by The Times, TBIJ found civilians killed in 26 of the 81 attacks. The Times, though, reported civilians killed in only two of those attacks, Bachman wrote.

Looking at The Post’s coverage of drone attacks, Bachman found that TBIJ reported civilians killed in seven of the 26 attacks, while The Post reported civilians killed in only one attack.

In the 33 strikes that produced civilian casualties, TBIJ found that between 180 and 302 civilians were killed, yet Times and Post articles reported on the deaths of only nine civilians in the three stories in which they noted that there were civilian casualties.

“This trend of underreporting of civilian casualties means readers are not being informed of the real consequences of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan,” Bachman wrote. “It represents a failure by journalists at these papers to view critical government claims regarding who is killed in particular strikes.”

Even worse, Bachman reports what happened when he contacted both newspapers to question them “about the inaccuracies in their reporting on civilian casualties, and to see whether either newspaper published corrections” about civilian deaths from drone strikes. “The answer from both was that they had not,” he wrote.

Read Bachman’s article to see the full summary of his findings and the exact comments he reports receiving from Times and Post representatives. But for one sample of mainstream media indifference to this issue, consider what Bachman reported he was told by Sylvester Monroe, The Post’s assistant managing editor.

Monroe, wrote Bachman, “stated that when using ‘official sources’ it is impossible to ‘independently verify which of the dead were members of militant groups and which might have been innocent civilians.’”

According to Bachman, Monroe added this amazing disclosure: “Even if the CIA were to acknowledge that its count was inaccurate, it would not be up to us to run a correction.” Let that sink in: The Post will apparently not make corrections of a spy agency’s lies and misrepresentations even in the unlikely event the agency itself admits them.

Bachman also noted that the term “human rights”, and various equivalents, showed up in only five of The Times’s 81 drone attack stories, and in only one of the 26 Post articles. The term “laws of war” or “laws of armed conflict”, needed to “place the drone strikes in their international legal context”, were not mentioned in any of the articles.

“Without government transparency and accurate reporting, whistleblowers, like the source of The Intercept’s ‘Drone Papers,’ are the only source for information that will allow us to understand the real consequences of the drone strikes,” Bachman concluded.

*The Oct. 2 multiple U.S. bombings on the Doctor Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, where at least 30 staff, patients and others were killed, might prove to be that unique case that events will force to be seriously investigated. But don’t count on it. In the Kunduz hospital case, eyewitnesses, Westerners/doctors from a highly respected international humanitarian medical organization making allegations that the bombings were deliberate, could not be so easily written off by the Pentagon and our usually incurious mainstream media.

Doctors without Borders has called the multiple bombardments on the hospital a possible war crime and wants the attack investigated by an international inquiry under the Geneva Conventions. Instead, General John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, has appointed a two-star general from another command to head what Campbell termed an independent investigation, a far cry from what Doctors Without Borders has called for.

Keeping the investigation within the military’s own house makes it much more likely that we may be heading for one of those mistakes-were-made Pentagon reports, rather than a war-crimes-were-committed report. Even this inadequate, conflicted investigative step, though, is far more than usually happens when ordinary civilians are killed by U.S. attacks and there are no Westerners or credentialed people to witness them.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for  The Washington Post,  The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of  Government by Contract  and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This article was originally published by ExposeFacts.org.]




Obama’s Double-Standard on Leaks

Though President Obama touts America as a nation of laws and evenhanded justice, there is a blatant double-standard regarding how people are punished for national security breaches whistleblowers are harshly punished but the well-connected get a pass, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

There he goes again. In recently proclaiming Hillary Clinton free of any national security breach, even as the FBI was continuing its investigation of her use of a potentially risky private email server for official business while she was Secretary of State, President Barack Obama continued his disturbing pattern of rendering his personal verdict ahead of legal proceedings in high-profile cases involving classified government information.

From Private Chelsea Manning to General David Petraeus to Edward Snowden and now to Hillary Clinton, the President has sounded off with his opinions on guilt or innocence, and on any alleged damage to national security, in advance of either a trial, or an indictment, or completion of an investigation.

Short version: whistleblowers Manning and Snowden clearly guilty; former high government officials Petraeus and Clinton, no problem.

In April 2011, two years before court martial proceedings began and almost two years before Manning acknowledged being a source for hundreds of thousands of classified documents released by Wikileaks, Obama proclaimed Manning guilty. The materials Manning provided to Wikileaks exposed diplomatic secrets and U.S. military abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, including showing greater numbers of civilian casualties than admitted publicly by U.S. officials.

Among the most shocking was the classified “collateral murder video” that showed U.S. military personnel in an Apache helicopter in a Baghdad suburb indiscriminately firing on and killing more than a dozen people, including rescuers and two Reuters employees, and wounding others, including two children.

Likewise, exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden was excoriated in absentia by Obama in January 2014 for providing to journalist Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras and others a trove of frightening National Security Agency documents. The documents showed that the Big Brother State had indeed arrived via the NSA’s worldwide, dragnet surveillance and data collection programs.

Petraeus received Obama’s no-harm-no-foul verdict in November 2012, while Clinton won the president’s thumbs-up during a 60 Minutes appearance by the President that was broadcast this past Oct. 11.

In his public pronouncements, a double standard has been applied by the President to powerful former governmental figures caught up in investigations regarding classified information. In Obama’s eyes, neither Petraeus nor Clinton did anything wrong: Not Petraeus in providing extremely highly secretive documents to his mistress Paula Broadwell; nor Clinton, in using her personal email server to conduct official business while she was Secretary of State, a server that might have contained classified information and that critics contend could have been easily penetrated by hackers, including unfriendly foreign governments.

And in both the Petraeus and Clinton cases, Obama stated his views publicly in an early stage of an investigation, sending a message that would certainly give pause to FBI investigators and federal prosecutors trying to build a case involving either of those two powerful former government officials.

It’s worth revisiting some of what Obama said about these various national security investigations, and the possible impact his statements had or might have on subsequent events in these cases:

Chelsea Manning

On April 21, 2011, Obama was confronted, and recorded, at a political fundraiser by a Manning supporter who wanted to know why Manning was being prosecuted on such serious charges. Manning, said Obama, was “irresponsible, risked the lives of service members and did a lot of damage. He broke the law.”

Remember, this was two years before Manning went to trial and almost two years before Manning acknowledged being the source for documents released by Wikileaks. Nothing had been proved against Manning in any legal forum.

Obama also made further comments that have a delightful irony about them, given the subsequent investigation of Petraeus, as well as the disclosure that former CIA Director Leon Panetta had provided classified information to the makers of the torture-justifying movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Said Obama: “If I was to release stuff, information that I’m not authorized to release, I’m breaking the law. We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate.”

To those of us who attended sessions of Manning’s 2013 court-martial, with the defense hamstrung by adverse national security rulings and barred by espionage law from mounting a public-interest defense, the verdict was not surprising. But the draconian 35-year sentence meted out by military judge Colonel Denise Lind was a shocker even in the context of the sham that is “military justice.”

Human nature, being what it is, would suggest that when the top military boss, the commander-in-chief, publicly pronounces the defendant guilty in advance of trial, some attention is certainly paid further down the chain of command to not only winning a conviction, but imposing a stiff sentence as well.

In that context, the President’s pre-trial comments amounted to exerting undue command influence, as Manning supporters and even some in the mainstream press pointed out at the time. NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski wrote this:

“The Uniform Code of Military Justice prohibits ‘Command Influence,’ in which a superior officer up the chain of command says or does something that could influence any decisions by a military judge or jury in a criminal case. As commander in chief, there’s no one higher up the chain than the president.”

In receiving that unconscionable 35-year prison term from Judge Lind, Manning may indeed be paying the price for Obama’s pre-trial comments.

General Petraeus

On Nov. 9, 2012, just three days after Obama was reelected, Petraeus resigned as CIA director as the news broke of his affair with Paula Broadwell. A mere five days after that, with the FBI’s investigation still in an early phase, Obama, in his first post-election news conference, all but exonerated Petraeus,saying:

“I have no evidence, from what I have seen at this point, that classified information was exposed.” He also said that he had seen nothing “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

Obama then poured it on, reminding the American public that this four-star general is a unique man who deserves being left alone because of all of his service on our behalf.

“We are safer because of the work that Dave Petraeus has done,” Obama said. “And my main hope right now is, is that he and his family are able to move on and this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.”

Obama may or may not have known that just the previous month (October 2012) Petraeus had lied to the FBI that he had not provided any classified information to Broadwell (who co-authored a biography of Petraeus). He had also signed a statement upon leaving the CIA that he had no classified material in his possession, another lie.

When the FBI raided Petraeus’s home in April 2013, agents confiscated from an unlocked desk drawer eight notebooks that contained what the New York Times described as “handwritten classified notes about official meetings, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and the names of covert officers.” Petraeus himself described material in some of the so-called “black books” as being “highly classified.”

Petraeus subsequently admitted providing the classified notebooks to Broadwell and worked out a sweetheart plea deal under which he was not charged with a felony or covering up by lying to the FBI, but instead was allowed to plead guilty to a minor misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material.

For that, in marked contrast to two convicted CIA whistleblowers, John Kiriakou and Jeffrey Sterling, who received prison sentences of 30 months and 42 months, respectively, Petraeus was given no prison time. His slap-on-the-wrist “punishment”: two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

In addition to having a compliant Justice Department to thank, Petraeus can certainly give a tip of his general’s hat to a president, who made his views clear early on: Namely, you do not send a world-famous general to jail for an offense that would likely land any less heralded soldier in federal prison for many years.

In any event, present and future high-ranking government officials should take note: There is now an apparent “mistress exception” loophole in all those laws and regulations relating to the leaking of classified materials.

Edward Snowden

In a Jan. 17, 2014 speech touting what he described as his plans to reform U.S. surveillance practices, President Obama said that the “Snowden disclosures” had the effect of “revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”

“Given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations,” Obama said. “Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”

Five days after Snowden revealed himself as the whistleblower source for the NSA documents, the Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against him, charging him with theft and, more seriously, with two espionage charges: “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”

In the event Snowden someday faces a trial, you can bet that some variation of Obama’s words, that Snowden’s disclosures had revealed “methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come”, will be part of the prosecutor’s arsenal of charges. Just as was the case in the Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling and John Kiriakou prosecutions, whistleblowing equates to endangerment to us all.

Hillary Clinton

In an appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes that was broadcast on Oct. 11, 2015, Obama said that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server is “not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.” While he opined that Clinton’s use of the non-governmental server was a “mistake,” Obama added: “I don’t think it posed a national security problem.”

How can the President be so sure in the initial stages of an investigation that Manning is guilty and Petraeus and Clinton have done nothing to endanger national security? That Snowden and Manning, though, did endanger national security, but Clinton’s problematic private server, there for the possible picking by friendly or unfriendly nations or terrorist factions, did not?

This gratuitous support for Clinton, coming smack in the middle of the FBI investigation, sends a message down the civilian chain of command: Move on. Nothing to see here. An FBI agent or Justice Department prosecutor might just want to think twice about whether it’s a great career-enhancing move to keep pursuing the Clinton email matter when the President sends such a message out to the world.

(As if the pressure weren’t already enough, knowing that the woman you’re investigating could very likely be elected president next year.)

Even people who believe that Clinton did nothing wrong, who feel that this is just another Republican-influenced vendetta to sabotage her presidential campaign, should be concerned that a president would interject himself thusly into an ongoing investigation.

Two days after the 60 Minutes broadcast, White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued one of those statements intended for that segment of the American public that just fell off the turnip truck: The President’s comment on 60 Minutes was “based on what we publicly know” and “certainly was not an attempt, in any way, to undermine the importance or independence of the ongoing FBI investigation.”

A president who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School has to know that casting such public judgments with the weight of the presidency behind them, guilty for whistleblowers who perform a true public service, exceptions for high-ranking government officials because a double standard applies, further erodes the already crumbling rule of law in this fearful post-9/11 era.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for  The Washington Post,  The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of  Government by Contract  and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.] 




Why NYT Dissed the ‘Drone Papers’

When the “Downing Street Memo” surfaced in the UK in 2006 revealing that the intelligence to justify the Iraq War had been “fixed” around the policy, the mainstream U.S. media largely ignored it. The same has now happened with the leak of documents about President Obama’s drone war, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

For that slice of the American public that still depends heavily on major daily newspapers as their main source of news, they might not even know that the on-line publication The Intercept has published a package of alarming drone-assassination articles based on secret military documents provided by an anonymous intelligence whistleblower.

These “Drone Papers” show, among other disclosures, that the U.S. government has been lying about the number of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For every targeted individual assassinated, another five or six non-targeted individuals are killed, giving the lie to the Obama administration’s long-standing claims of careful, precision killing of specific targets in order to avoid killing civilians.

The Intercept, relying on a cache of slides provided to it by its whistleblower source, posted its package of eight articles on Oct. 15, 2015. Among those picking up on the stories was the Huffington Post (which ran excerpts), and other outlets, including The Guardian, Newsweek, New York Magazine, NPR, the PBS NewsHour, CNN , which generally cited some of The Intercept’s main findings or speculated about a “second [Edward] Snowden” coming forth as a national security whistleblower.

As of this writing, the premier mainstream publications that carry influence beyond their own immediate readership in setting the nation’s news agenda , The New York Times and The Washington Post , have carried virtually nothing about what is in these explosive documents, which cover the 2011-2013 period. The documents show the inner workings, and the deadly failures, of the Joint Special Operations Command’s targeted killing programs, a/k/a assassinations, which President Obama signs off on.

The Post so far appears to have ignored The Intercept’s stories; The Times , in a move lightly criticized by the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan  ,  managed to attach a whopping two paragraphs about The Intercept’s scoop to the end of a story about Obama’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan until 2017. Those who didn’t read beyond the first few paragraphs of the troops-in-Afghanistan story would have missed altogether that bare mention of The Intercept’s scoop in the article’s 24th and 25th paragraphs, as I did.

Among the findings derived from the documents, which Post and Times readers have been deprived of: While drones do kill some of their intended targets, they kill far more non-targeted people who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone strike (or who happen to be using the cell phone or computer of someone who was targeted).

In one major special operations program in northeastern Afghanistan called Operation Haymaker (the only finding the Times mentioned in its two paragraphs), 35 individuals targeted for assassination were actually killed in drone strikes, but 219 other non-targeted individuals were also killed.

This meant, The Intercept reported, that during one five-month period of Operation Haymaker, “nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalis where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”

All those killed, intended target or not, are designated “enemy killed in action” (EKIA), the source told The Intercept. Official U.S. government statements minimizing the number of civilian casualties, the source said, are “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies.”

Now at first I thought it could be that the Times and the Post were working diligently to match The Intercept stories, attempting before printing anything to obtain and carefully review similar sets of slides as The Intercept used for its stories. After all, The Intercept’s articles didn’t just appear overnight, but rather “were produced by a team of reporters and researchers that has spent months analyzing the documents.”

Perhaps these mainstream outlets were also attempting to take the story beyond what The Intercept has posted, I speculated. If so, we should all eagerly await the results.

But at least as far as the Times is concerned, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan questioned Times executive editor Dean Baquet, and the editor for national security coverage, William Hamilton, as to “why the story had received relatively short shrift.”

In response, Sullivan wrote, “Both said they found the project a worthy one. They and several Washington editors looked it over with interest, they said, and agreed that there was new detail in it. But they didn’t see it as something that warranted its own story, at least not at the moment, they said.”

The Times editors’ responses smack of that old chestnut of an excuse in the newsroom when some other publication scoops you: “We had that story already. Nothing much new here. Let’s kiss it off with two paragraphs.”

Before commenting further on the Times’s editors’ fairly inane response, it must be noted that over the past few years New York Times reporter Scott Shane has written some revealing stories about the U.S. drone program, without benefit of documents such as The Intercept is reporting on.

Shane’s articles included one earlier this year noting that, despite reassurances from the President on down, the U.S. is often unsure about whom it is actually killing in drone strikes, a major disclosure reinforced by The Intercept documents and its source.

And in May 2012, Shane and Jo Becker were the first to report that President Obama signed off on a secret “kill list” of individuals to be targeted in drone strikes. The reporters at the same time also revealed that Obama “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

But this past significant coverage does not excuse why the Times and much of the mainstream press has so far not reported even a good timely summary of what The Intercept has published in its articles, which advance the drone story beyond what has previously been reported.

As revealing as the Times stories were at the time, they lacked what The Intercept now has: actual secret military documents that back up what its exclusive source is telling it, and that provide far more detail and data about the program than what was printed earlier.

The Times editors’ explanations just don’t wash. Do these editors really believe that one major drone story every year or so is all that is required, even in the face of vital new information published by a competitor?

In a newspaper full of wall-to-wall stories on Donald Trump, Republican Benghazi shenanigans, the ever-shifting permutations of the Democratic and Republican presidential races in Iowa and New Hampshire, stories all full of much the same elements one day to the next, it boggles the mind to think the Times believes it has “done” its quota of drone-atrocity stories for the time being. That they saw nothing in The Intercept’s stories “that warranted its own story” in the Times.

Do Times editors believe we, their reading public, don’t need to know anything more about this dreadful subject than what they told us in articles last spring and in the spring of 2012? That what Shane reported last May, as substantial a story as it was, is the last word in drone murders? The editors even acknowledged to Sullivan that The Intercept stories contained “new detail.” Why not share all that new detail with its readers?

The Intercept, after all, is a reliable, hard-charging news organization staffed by several of the nation’s top national security investigative reporters, and no editor at any other news operation should have any hesitancy about reporting a summary of its drone findings, backed up as they are by insider documents.

And in reporting the summary, of course crediting The Intercept in the same manner print news media and broadcast newscasts frequently do when they themselves don’t have a particular important story from their own reporters. It happens all the time.

Mainstream news organizations have an obligation to provide their readers with important, credible, timely news reports, even when the report comes from a competing, and reputable, news organization, and even if they might be working on their own story which they hope to publish at some point.

Margaret Sullivan didn’t come down hard on the Times for all but ignoring The Intercept’s stories, noting that since the newspaper “has done so much on this subject, it may be understandable that only a brief mention of The Intercept’s scoop has been made so far.”

Still, she added, “given the revelations in the released documents, as well as the mere existence of a major intelligence leaker who is not Edward Snowden , Times journalists would have served readers well to do more on ‘The Drone Papers.’ They also could consider doing so in the future.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of readers of the Times and the Post and other mainstream news outlets are being denied actual news that has serious implications for the ways the United States wages the endless wars this nation has been recklessly embarked on for the last 14 years.

Jeremy Scahill, the award-winning reporter who headed The Intercept’s reporting team on the Drone Papers, described the importance of the documents this way: “Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence [metadata from cellphones and computers], an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and, due to a preference for assassination rather than capture, an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.”

Scahill said the information in these secret slides is “especially relevant today as the U.S. military intensifies its drone strikes and covert actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”

Tragically, there are few voices in the mainstream press and in Congress raising any alarms about the proliferation of what Scahill calls the borderless U.S. “unconventional wars that employ special operations forces at the tip of the spear”

Like so much else in the never-ending global war on Terror, Inc., the euphemistically named targeted killings have become part of the military landscape which most Americans passively accept as just the way things are, if they pay any attention at all. There are many brave souls around the country who regularly protest and get arrested at military drone sites and drone contractors’ facilities, or at the Pentagon and White House protesting against drones and U.S. militarism generally, but there is no mass movement.

With only a relative handful of people protesting, and with no congressional hearings and only sporadic news coverage raising any serious questions about the morality and legality of targeted assassinations under international law, the policy isn’t likely to change. Not unless and until a critical mass of well-organized citizens rises up in revulsion and anger at these cowardly killings and endless wars being carried out in our name.

And one big way the public should be able to find out more about the horrors of drone warfare, and how it fits into never-ending U.S. militarism, is from a news media that sees it as its mission to report about such subjects in all their terror and gruesome death aspects.

This topic truly is one of life and death for many people, particularly the beleaguered citizens of the greater Middle East. And it carries deep implications for our democracy, as well. As Scahill wrote about the Drone Papers:

“Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.”

The normalization of the United States as prime International Assassin: Somehow, that sounds like news, scary news that the American people need to know, and need to hear again and again.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for  The Washington Post,  The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract  and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He wrote extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.




War on Whistleblowers, After Obama

The war on whistleblowers has injected fear of prosecution into all honest communications between national security officials and reporters, meaning that the public instead gets a steady diet of U.S. government lies, propaganda and self-serving rhetoric, a problem addressed by John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

Here’s the thing about President Barack Obama’s war on whistleblowers: In bringing espionage charges in nine cases involving disclosures or alleged misuse of classified information, the current administration has set a floor, rather than a ceiling, on the number and types of whistleblower espionage cases a future president can bring.

And here’s another thing: With leaders of both political parties having either kept silent or cheered on the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, who in high position in Congress would have one shred of moral authority or credibility to challenge a future president’s excesses under the Espionage Act? On the question of keeping American citizens in the dark and of punishing whistleblowers who dare to enlighten them, we truly have bipartisan authoritarianism.

And then a third thing: Don’t count much on major U.S. news media for any meaningful oversight of, and opposition to, the treatment of whistleblowers under future presidents. The mainstream press and big-name journalists, with some intermittent, notable exceptions such as these two New York Times editorials and this Newark Star-Ledger editorial, have largely ignored the jail-the-whistleblowers policies of the Obama administration.

Or, worse, as we’ve reported before, some of the most prominent names in the media joined elected and appointed government officials in calling for harsh penalties for Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and others whom they claim (without proof) to have endangered U.S. national security by providing classified information to the news media.

With his Justice Department having produced three times as many Espionage Act indictments for classified document disclosure as all other administrations combined since the passage of that legislation back in 1917, Obama has opened the door for his successors to continue, and even expand, the assault on national security state whistleblowers who act in the public interest.

Would any of the announced presidential candidates close that door after Obama leaves office in January 2017? Again, as with leading journalists and members of Congress, don’t count on it.

It’s an open question as to whether any future president could be more aggressive than Obama in going after whistleblowers. But based on the vengeful views of many of the large crop of Republican candidates and on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s tough statements on Edward Snowden’s NSA spying disclosures, prospects are not good for a sharp departure from the whistleblower crackdown of the last six years. Clinton and leading Republican candidates take the hard line that Snowden committed a serious crime and must be punished for it, with no chance of leniency.

Ultimately, as is the case with the ever-growing campaigns against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and National Security Agency spying, for example, it is not presidents or Congress, or the mainstream press, but an aroused citizenry and activist organizations with petitions, street protests, sit-ins, lobbying, etc. that can at least impede such undemocratic programs as the war on whistleblowers.

It also, though, might help if there were a president and Justice Department that were at least somewhat receptive to grassroots pressure to stop prosecuting whistleblowers, so in that vein it is worthwhile to have a look at where the many candidates to date stand.

Because of the monumental nature of Snowden’s NSA disclosures, his case presents the best litmus test of candidates’ views on the role of whistleblowers in a democracy. Bearing in mind, of course, as voters often learn to their regret, what candidates say, and how their views are perceived, before they are in office differs sharply from what they actually do once they are in office.

Look no further than Obama, circa 2008, and his perceived antiwar credentials among Democratic activists, as well as the point from the Obama-Biden ethics agenda from the 2008 campaign in which Obama and running-mate Joe Biden pledged to “protect whistleblowers.” This administration has given a whole new meaning to the word “protect.”

While candidates can back away from progressive positions once in office, it seems a safe bet, though, that candidates who now call Snowden a “traitor” or a “criminal” are unlikely to change their minds to favor whistleblowers once they are elected.

Hillary Clinton: No Friend to Whistleblowers

On the Democratic side, nothing that Hillary Clinton has said to date shows any sympathy toward, or understanding of the role of, whistleblowers. It is laughable that she suggests Snowden and other national security state whistleblowers “go through channels”, as she perpetuates the fairy tale that we have a good system in place for airing whistleblowers’ concerns about military and surveillance issues if only people would avail themselves of it.

During her book tour, The Hill newspaper reported last year, Clinton told National Public Radio: “There were other ways that Mr. Snowden could have expressed his concerns,” such as going to Congress.

Clinton continued: “I think everyone would have applauded that because it would have added to the debate that was already started. Instead, he left the country, first to China, then to Russia, taking with him a huge amount of [sensitive] information.” Clinton has also contended that Snowden’s disclosures had damaged national security by providing information to terrorist networks.

And here is Clinton again in the same vein in a July 4, 2014 interview with The Guardian about holding Snowden “accountable”: “If he [Snowden] wishes to return knowing he would be held accountable and also able to present a defense, that is his decision to make. Whether he chooses to return or not is up to him. He certainly can stay in Russia apparently under Putin’s protection for the rest of his life if that’s what he chooses, but if he is serious about engaging in the debate then he could take the opportunity to come back and have that debate.”

Clinton talks as if there is some sort of Oxford Union mechanism whereby defenders and opponents of the national security state sit together on a stage exchanging deep thoughts about major issues of the day before a well-informed audience.

As many Snowden supporters have pointed out, the “debate” Edward Snowden would face the minute he hits U.S. shores would be to be shackled and put in solitary confinement, like Chelsea Manning, far out of the reach of any press interviews or would-be fellow debaters. He would engage in the same sort of “debate” Manning engaged in under an espionage law which barred her or any defendant from mounting any sort of public-interest defense as to why they did what they did.

Clinton and others who recommend the “channels” route also need to be reminded that Daniel Ellsberg four-plus decades ago went to influential, antiwar members of the Senate, J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) and George McGovern (D-South Dakota) with the Pentagon Papers before he released them to The New York Times and other newspapers, but they rebuffed him.

In more recent times, in the early 2000s, CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling went to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with his concerns over a CIA scheme (Operation Merlin) to provide flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran. Sterling was not only rebuffed, but as his recent trial illustrated (and Sterling did not know at the time), the committee was already aware of this program and did nothing with his allegations.

Sterling was subsequently investigated by the government for allegedly providing information about Operation Merlin to New York Times reporter James Risen, charges Sterling denies to this day. For his troubles in “going through channels,” he became a main suspect in the disclosure to Risen, was hounded for years, was indicted and finally this past January convicted of espionage and other charges. Sterling has begun serving a 42-month prison term as he pursues an appeal.

Sanders, Chafee Favor Leniency for Snowden

Among the small pool of other announced Democratic candidates, long-shot Democrat Lincoln Chafee (a former Republican senator and former independent governor of Rhode Island) and independent socialist Bernie Sanders, running as a Democrat, are calling for some sort of leniency, Sanders calls it “clemency”, that would allow Snowden to come back to the United States and apparently not face a prison term.

A year before announcing his presidential run, Sanders called for leniency for Snowden, but at the same time felt it necessary to gratuitously add that Snowden “violated an oath and committed a crime,” without acknowledging that the duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution should trump any oath of secrecy.

In an early 2014 statement to the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, Sanders said: “The information disclosed by Edward Snowden has been extremely important in allowing Congress and the American people to understand the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights. On the other hand, there is no debate that Mr. Snowden violated an oath and committed a crime.

“In my view, the interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile from the country whose freedoms he cared enough about to risk his own freedom.”

In announcing his Democratic presidential candidacy in June 2015, Chafee also offered a much friendlier attitude than Clinton toward the world’s most famous modern-day whistleblower, calling for Snowden to be allowed to come back to the United States without apparently facing a prison term.

“I want America to be a leader and inspiration for civilized behavior in this new century,” Chafee said at his campaign kick-off. “We will abide by the Geneva conventions, which means we will not torture prisoners. Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which include our phone records. Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it, allow Edward Snowden to come home.”

Notably, unlike Clinton who as a senator voted for the Iraq war resolution, Chafee was one of only 23 senators, and the lone Republican senator, to vote against it.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has called for more restrictions on NSA surveillance than was provided for in the recently passed USA Freedom Act, including as he said recently “having a role for a public advocate in the FISA court.” However, he made no mention of Snowden in his statement.

Rand Paul Thanks Snowden But Would Send Him to Prison

On the crowded Republican presidential side, libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has expressed gratitude for Snowden’s disclosures, but still envisions a prison term, albeit apparently a lenient one, for the whistleblower, even as most other Republican candidates who have taken a position are calling for Snowden’s head as a criminal and a traitor.

Despite Paul’s strong opposition to renewal of the Patriot Act and his acknowledgement that Snowden performed a public service in disclosing NSA’s “illegal” acts, he opts for “a fair trial with a reasonable sentence” for Snowden, rather than clemency.

“I don’t think Edward Snowden deserves the death penalty or life in prison, I think that’s inappropriate, and I think that’s why he fled, because that’s what he faced,” Paul said on ABC’s “This Week” in January 2014. “I think the only way he’s coming home is if someone would offer him a fair trial with a reasonable sentence.”

“Do I think that it’s o.k. to leak secrets and give up national secrets and things that could endanger lives?,” he continued. “I don’t think that’s o.k. But I think the courts are now saying that what he revealed was something the government was doing was illegal.”

Paul went on to pose a false equivalency between NSA’s law-breaking and what Snowden did. Noting the false testimony before Congress of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the NSA did not deliberately collect data from U.S. citizens, Paul said:

“I don’t think we can selectively apply the law. So James Clapper did break the law and there is a prison sentence for that. So did Edward Snowden. So I think personally he probably would come home for some penalty of a few years in prison which would be probably not unlike what James Clapper probably deserves for lying to Congress, and that maybe if they served in a prison cell together, we’d become further enlightened as a country over what we should and shouldn’t do.”

Paul’s comments about prison time for Snowden prompted CNNPolitics.com to opine that if a top antagonist of the NSA such as Paul “believes Snowden should be locked up, the famed whistleblower is unlikely to get any reprieve from the rest of the 2016 Republican field.”

Other Republicans Mainly See Snowden as ‘Criminal,’ ‘Traitor’

Here’s a sampling of what some other declared and potential Republican presidential candidates have said about Snowden:

–Senator Ted Cruz has been somewhat sympathetic to the whistleblower, saying that “Snowden has done a considerable public service by bringing [the NSA disclosures] to light.” But he added that “there are consequences to violating laws and that is something [Snowden] has publicly stated he understands, and I think the law needs to be enforced.”

–Jeb Bush has called the NSA’s spy programs “the best part of the Obama administration,” and termed Snowden “not a hero.” “He violated U.S. law. That’s why he’s living large in Moscow, the land of freedom,” Bush said with some sarcasm in May 2015.

–Marco Rubio said Snowden’s disclosures marked “the single most damaging revelation of American secrets in our history,” adding in a November 2013 speech to the American Enterprise Institute: “This man is a traitor who has sought assistance and refuge from some of the world’s most notorious violators of liberty and human rights.”

–Rick Perry told Bloomberg Television in a March 2014 interview that Snowden was “more criminal than he is a whistleblower,” adding: “We have rules and regulations, and we just can’t have people passing out information that could do damage to our intelligence gathering.”

–Chris Christie in May 2015 told Fox News that Snowden is “a criminal and is living and he’s hiding in Russia and he’s lecturing to us about the evils of authoritarian government while he’s living under the umbrella of Vladimir Putin.”

–Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) has been among the most vengeful in his statements about Snowden, you have “blood on your hands,” he said. “I don’t think he’s a hero. I believe he hurt our nation. He compromised our national security program designed to find out what terrorists are up to. I hope we’ll chase him to the ends of the earth, bring him to justice.”

–Mike Huckabee opposed extension of the Patriot Act, but his position on Snowden is unclear. On his Fox television show, Huckabee did have guests who debated NSA’s spying, including critics such as former NSA whistleblower William Binney, but doesn’t appear to have passed any judgment on Snowden, other than to cite specific disclosures made by Snowden as being important for the American people to know.

–Bobby Jindal has apparently not stated specifically what he thinks of Snowden, saying only about NSA spying that: “I believe that government should have to get a warrant to spy on American citizens, and I oppose the mass collection of data.  At the same time, I also believe that when the government has a lead, they must have the freedom to follow that lead, wherever it goes.”

–Rick Santorum has said: “I don’t think people who are undermining the security of our country are heroes.”

–Donald Trump, in a “Fox & Friends” appearance in June 2013 shortly after Snowden’s disclosures, said, “in the old days [spies] used to be executed.” He continued: “This guy [Snowden] is a bad guy. You know there is still a thing called execution. You really have thousands of people with access to the kind of material like this. We’re not going to have a country any longer.”

–Other declared or potential Republican candidates, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, etc., appear not to have made reported statements about Snowden or whistleblowers in general.

–Among announced third-party presidential candidates, Jill Stein, who is seeking the Green Party’s nomination for a second time, has long called for a pardon for Chelsea Manning who is serving a 35-year prison sentence as her case is under appeal.

Whistleblower Crackdown Part of Landscape of Fear

Thanks to Obama, and the lack of significant congressional, journalistic or public outcry against his crackdowns on whistleblowers over the last six years, the bringing of espionage charges has become commonplace, a dangerous precedent seemingly controversial only among civil libertarians, non-Democratic progressive activists and bloggers.

Punishing whistleblowers has become part of the landscape of fear that blankets our country today, just as with drone warfare, presidential kill lists, targeted and random assassinations, a high level of U.S. surveillance of citizens and people throughout the world, unpunished torturers, undeclared wars, and a claimed right of interventions and invasions anywhere on the planet to keep Americans “safe.”

Democratic leaders in Congress, in fact, believe Snowden should go to prison for a long time for his disclosures. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) in August 2013 said: “I think Snowden is a traitor, and I think he has hurt our country, and I hope someday he is brought to justice.”

Likewise, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), at the time chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said shortly after the first Snowden disclosures in June 2013: “I don’t look at this as being a whistleblower. I think it’s an act of treason.”

And House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) in January 2014 termed Snowden “no hero,” said he should not be granted clemency, but should instead “come back and face the music for what he did (but) the music shouldn’t be the death penalty or life in prison.”

Most of the mainstream press, for its part, even today after all of the NSA disclosures triggered by Edward Snowden, continues to label what Snowden did as a crime. Typical of this was a June 4, 2015 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, whose headline rather sums up the feelings of much of the mainstream press toward whistleblowers: “Snowden deserves credit for NSA reform, and to stand trial.”

Telling whistleblowers “thanks for exposing nefarious government activities, but now you’re going to jail” hardly amounts to a ringing defense of whistleblowers, nor much of an incentive for others to do the same. Nor does it recognize that without whistleblowers most blockbuster news stories would never see the light of day, to the detriment of the public and the ever-shrinking traditional news media.

This is the sad state of most corporate journalism in the early Twenty-first Century: report explosive revelations from the whistleblower but offer nothing but prison in return.

By failing to rally vigorously to the defense of whistleblowers, congressional Democrats and most of the mainstream press have implicitly given the o.k. for any future president to go after as many whistleblowers as he or she deems proper.

And if a future president decides to up the ante and also go after recipients of classified materials, i.e., reporters, in an even more aggressive fashion than this administration did in the case of James Risen of The New York Times (who was threatened with jail for refusing to reveal a source’s identity), and James Rosen of Fox News (who was alleged by the government to have been a co-conspirator, but not indicted, in another Espionage Act case), what then?

Would the mainstream press and influential members of Congress go to the barricades for the First Amendment, the press and whistleblowers in such a scenario?

Regardless of what pessimistic answer one gives to that question, the U.S. public should know by now that, as with all of the other repressive measures imposed under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, we aren’t going to get out of any of these messes by figuring that the next president will somehow be better in restoring some of our democratic rights. Only an inflamed citizenry pressuring all of our unresponsive government and journalistic institutions can help us move in that direction.

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This article originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org.]




A Call to End War on Whistleblowers

The post-9/11 expansion of U.S. government spying on citizens has coincided with an equally draconian crackdown on government whistleblowers who try to alert the American people to what is happening, an assault on the Constitution that seven whistleblowers say must end, writes John Hanrahan.

By John Hanrahan

Seven prominent national security whistleblowers on Monday called for a number of wide-ranging reforms, including passage of the “Surveillance State Repeal Act,” which would repeal the USA Patriot Act, in an effort to restore the Constitutionally guaranteed Fourth Amendment right to be free from government spying.

Several of the whistleblowers also said that the recent lenient sentence of probation and a fine for General David Petraeus, for his providing of classified information to his mistress Paula Broadwell, underscores the double standard of justice at work in the area of classified information handling.

Speakers said Petraeus’s favorable treatment should become the standard applied to defendants who are actual national security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling (who has denied guilt but who nevertheless faces sentencing May 11 for an Espionage Act conviction for allegedly providing classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen).

In a news conference sponsored by the ExposeFacts project of the Institute for Public Accuracy at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., speakers included William Binney, former high-level National Security Agency (NSA) official; Thomas Drake, former NSA senior executive; Daniel Ellsberg, former U.S. military analyst and the Pentagon Papers whistleblower; Ray McGovern, formerly CIA analyst who chaired the National Intelligence Estimates in the 1980s; Jesselyn Radack, former Justice Department trial attorney and ethics adviser, and now director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project; Coleen Rowley, attorney and former FBI special agent; J. Kirk Wiebe, 32-year former employee at the NSA.

Several speakers warned that the Constitution, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been shredded under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and that Obama’s unprecedented “war on whistleblowers” is part of the effort for the government to, as NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake put it, “unchain itself from the Constitution.” Drake said he and other national security whistleblowers were “the canaries in the Constitutional coal mine” to warn of the NSA mantra “to collect it all.”

Drake said he personally was “throwing my weight behind” passage of H.R. 1466, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, which was introduced by the bipartisan duo of Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky.

According to its sponsors, the measure would remove NSA’s claimed justification for its bulk phone metadata accumulation, but would also repeal the FISA Amendments Act through which the government claims the right to spy on Internet users. The issue is coming up now because three key provisions of the Patriot Act expire later this month. Responding to a question from a reporter, the other six whistleblowers said they also supported passage of H.R. 1466.

Petraeus’s recent favorable treatment from the Justice Department and a federal court judge came in for pointed comments from several speakers. In his deal with the government, Petraeus was allowed to plead to a misdemeanor for turning over classified materials to Paula Broadwell, who was writing an admiring biography of the general. Also, as part of the plea deal Petraeus was not even charged with the felony of lying to the FBI.

This stands in marked contrast to as many as nine individuals, including whistleblowers such as Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou (CIA) and the soon-to-be-sentenced Jeffrey Sterling, who have all been charged under the Espionage Act since Barack Obama became president.

Until the Obama administration came into office, the Act had only been used three times since its passage in 1917, which means Obama has used it three times as much as all of his predecessors put together since the law’s passage. But General Petraeus somehow gets to skate free.

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to General David Petraeus for showing us what a farce (the Obama administration’s) war on whistleblowers and leaks more generally really is,” said Jesselyn Radack.

She said she personally had represented seven whistleblowers “charged under the draconian Espionage Actthe weapon of choice for the Obama administration except in the case of General Petraeus who was allowed to enter a plea on a minor misdemeanor charge,” which subjected him to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

Drawing on Petraeus’ favored treatment despite the seriousness of his offense and his lying to the FBI about it, Radack said probation and a fine, such as Petraeus received, was “a more appropriate response” to unauthorized disclosure or leaks of classified information, rather than prison sentences.

Daniel Ellsberg commented in the same vein that, “I don’t think General Petraeus should go to prison” for providing classified material to Broadwell, but neither did he think true whistleblowers in the public interest should go to jail. He added, though, that “it would be wonderful for once to see a public official” go to jail for lying to Congress, or the courts, or the FBI, and for that I’d be willing to see him go to jail.”

As for the Obama administration’s overuse of the Espionage Act, Ellsberg said, “nobody but spies” who provide classified information to foreign governments should be tried under the Espionage Act.

Ellsberg prodded the mainstream press not only to protect whistleblower sources, but also to recognize that such sources are “the grist of investigative journalism.” Too many in the mainstream press, Ellsberg said, seem to regard whistleblowers the way police officers regard their informants, as “snitches” and “law-breakers.” He warned that Obama has “set the precedent” for dealing with whistleblowers, and the press needs to be more supportive of whistleblowers.

Ellsberg, Radack and Ray McGovern also said the Espionage Act, which prohibits whistleblowers from presenting their motives for disclosing classified information as part of their defense, needs to be amended to allow for “a public interest defense.” Illustrating the need for reform, McGovern said that in the Manning court-martial and the Sterling trial, as soon as defense attorneys started to raise the issue of motive, there was an immediate government objection and an immediate ruling of sustained from the judge.

McGovern said Sterling was convicted on “the vaguest of circumstantial evidence” in a “case that was not proven” against him. The government showed that Sterling had had telephone conversations with New York Times reporter James Risen, who had previously written about Sterling’s workplace discrimination lawsuit against the CIA, and prosecutors apparently convinced the jury that they were not discussing Sterling’s discrimination suit, but rather his knowledge of a CIA plan to provide flawed nuclear weapons blueprints to Iran .

What was the lesson any intelligence agency employee might draw from the flimsy evidence used in the Sterling case? Said McGovern: “Do not speak to journalists.” And, especially, “don’t speak to James Risen.”

Contrasting Sterling’s situation (facing a possible long prison sentence) with Petraeus (walking free, with a $100,000 fine, which McGovern noted was three-fourths of a one-hour speaking engagement fee for the general), McGovern said: “Equal justice? Forget about it.”

Coleen Rowley centered her remarks around a statement Obama made last week in apologizing for the deaths of two hostages, an American and an Italian, in a drone strike in Pakistan. Obama, she said, opined that “one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”

“I wish that were true,” Rowley said. “That would be nice if we learned from our mistakes,” but instead the government is going in the opposite direction in areas such as the drone program, as witness the accidental killing of the hostages.

Gathering an accurate assessment of intelligence is inherently going to happen at the bottom levels of intelligence agencies, Rowley said, so employees in the lower positions have to resist someone at the top stating a desired outcome and asking people at the bottom to tailor the intelligence accordingly.

She said that government officials and employees’ “highest loyalty is to the rule of law itself.” That is where whistleblowers come in.

Kirk Wiebe said that the public and political response to the NSA surveillance disclosures has not been encouraging, and painted a dire picture of civil liberties abuses, the militarization of local police forces and the “de facto destruction of the Constitution.”

“I am now entering the phase where I am becoming frightened,” Wiebe said. “People have asked me, are we going to be able to get out of this mess to turn the Titanic around? I don’t see the way to miss hitting the iceberg.”

“We as a nation are more aware of these issues than ever before,” Wiebe said, but “we’ve become a society willing to look the other way in the face of wrongdoing,” adding: “We are no longer afraid of the police state happening. It’s here in small measures, in increasing measures, week by week, day by day”

In introducing William Binney, IPA’s executive director Norman Solomon noted that 10 months before Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance documents began to appear in The Guardian in June 2013, Binney had already gone public in a mini-documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras.

In that interview Binney, without documents, raised many of the spying allegations that Snowden subsequently disclosed. It was this video that apparently encouraged Snowden to contact Poitras, who in turn contacted journalist Glenn Greenwald, to give them the NSA documents.

Binney said the NSA since 2002 had managed to use “terrorizing and fear-mongering” as a way to manipulate and “co-opt Congress and a senior judge at the FISA court,” while keeping the public in the dark about “violating the Constitutional rights of everybody in the country.”

Since it had the White House blessing, Binney said the NSA controlled all three branches of government before its activities came to light. Former NSA director Michael Hayden “to this day” continues to lie that the agency doesn’t collect content, only metadata, Binney said.

In raising the alarm about the sweep of NSA programs since leaving the agency, Binney said he had been painted by NSA as someone who had no credibility “because I was a disgruntled former employee.”

John Hanrahan, currently on the editorial board of ExposeFacts, is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI and other news organizations. He also has extensive experience as a legal investigator. Hanrahan is the author of Government by Contract and co-author of Lost Frontier: The Marketing of Alaska. He has written extensively for NiemanWatchdog.org, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. [This story originally appeared at ExposeFacts.org]