Archive for the ‘CIA’ Category

Battle over electoral fraud in Afghanistan (updated July 7, 2014)

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

This is probably the last chance for the United States, NATO, and other ISAF countries to avoid losing the Afghan war.

To succeed in averting a collapse in legitimacy, they must fully and with great candor discuss openly the alleged fraud at each voting table, and absolutely insist on a full recount of all votes in dispute–voting station by voting station, with full representation of all parties concerned.

Hamid Karzai was “awarded” the presidency of Afghanistan in 2009 as the result of 1) massive fraud in the first-round election, reportedly organized by him and his supporters; 2) enormous international pressures which led to a very partial and skewed recount which, though it did not reveal the full extent of the fraud, reduced Karzai’s “official” vote count sufficiently to require a second-round runoff with Abdullah Abdullah; and 3) Abdullah’s withdrawal from the run-off, when his demands for reform of the electoral bodies were not met, and also apparently after having been subjected to great pressure from the United States.

In the first-round elections held in April of this year, Abdullah emerged with 45% of the votes as opposed to his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, who received just under 32% of the vote.

In the second-round election held recently, as the vote count proceeded, Abdullah denounced what he alleged was a massive fraud then underway being orchestrated by Ghani and Karzai acting in collusion with electoral officials. The chief electoral official, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, was forced to resign after Abdullah released tapes allegedly showing him and other officials issuing instructions for ballot stuffing.

Much is at stake in whether Abdullah succeeds in gaining a full elimination of fraudulent votes before results are announced. It is no exaggeration to say that the legitimacy and cohesion of the government which emerges from the vote count may determine the chances for the United States’ and ISAF nations’ project in Afghanistan to avoid either a Taliban takeover or a civil war, or a combination of the two.

President Obama seems totally removed from this process, recalling his tightly-managed Afghanistan policy review in 2009, when the ongoing fraud in that year’s election was apparently not even discussed by those involved in the policy review.

This is probably the last chance for the United States, NATO, and other ISAF countries to avoid losing the Afghan war.

To succeed in averting a collapse in legitimacy, they must fully and with great candor discuss openly the alleged fraud at each voting table, and absolutely insist on a full recount of all votes in dispute–voting station by voting station, with full representation of all parties concerned.

In 2009 the United States and its allies took the easier path, accepting Karzai’s refusal to reform the electoral commission and the electoral complaints commission before a second-round run-off, and pressuring Abdullah to withdraw.

This looks like another massively fraudulent election, with the U.S., its allies and the U.N. Mission in Afganistan looking the other way.

Ghani’s numbers do not pass the smell test.

See Margherita Stancati (Kabul), “Afghan Candidate Boycotts Count of Votes; Abdullah, a Karzai Rival, Alleges Fraud in Presidential Runoff, Citing Outsize Turnout in Opponent’s Areas of Support,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2014 (Updated 7:40 p.m. ET). Stancati reported,

“Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the IEC , which organized the election and is counting the votes, said Saturday’s turnout was up from 6.6 million in the first round. While turnout was largely the same or lower in much of the country, the IEC’s initial tallies indicated a dramatic surge —in the areas of eastern Afghanistan that are Mr. Ghani’s base.

“In the eastern province of Khost, for example, initial IEC tallies showed that more than 400,000 voters cast ballots on Saturday, up from 113,000 in the first round.

“According to the 2012-13 data compiled by Afghanistan’s central statistics office, Khost’s entire population is 549,000—and, given Afghanistan’s demographic structure, at least one-third of them are children.

“In the nearby province of Paktika, 390,000 voters cast their ballots on Saturday, up from 180,000. The province’s population is 414,000.”

See also, “Afghanistan Presidential Election: Abdullah Calls for Halt to Vote-Counting Alleging Fraud by the Electoral Commission,” The Trenchant Observer, June 18, 2014.

Without the acceptance by Abdullah’s supporters of the election results, any future Ghani-Karzai government will have the same weaknesses as the current government of Karzai. Karzai will continue to manipulate the tribal and warlord alliances to keep Ghani and the current political elite in power in Kabul. Ghani will owe his survival to Karzai. But without the continuing presence of the U.S. military in significant numbers to hold things together, such a Karzai-Ghani strategy is not likely to succeed.

Whatever illusions the Americans may have about getting rid of Karzai, while keeping the present political elite of “Corrupt-istan” in power as Karzai pulls the strings from behind the scenes, are likely to evaporate as the new government loses the support of Abdullah’s voters and the Northern Alliance.

Without their support, it is difficult to see how a new government might hold together and succeed in maintaining the allegiance of its soldiers.

See “U.S. National Intelligence Estimate points to dire future in Afghanistan,” The Trenchant Observer, January 8, 2014.

Obama may walk away from Afghanistan the same way he walked away from Iraq in 2011.

Yet it is hard to see how the Democrats, after losing the two wars that have been the focus of Americans’ attention since 2001 and 2003, respectively, could hold back the tide of a Republican sweep of Congress and the presidency in 2016, with Republicans running on a strong national security platform.

To repeat: What Obama and the U.S. do in the next several weeks to ensure a full and accurate vote count in Afghanistan, and what they have to say about it publicly, are likely to have a decisive impact on the success or lack thereof of the Afghanistan project that has been underway since 2001.


(1) Adam Ahmed, “Afghanistan Election Dispute Draws More Calls for Vote Audit,” New York Times, July 6, 2014.

(2) “Afghanistan Presidential Election: Abdullah Calls for Halt to Vote-Counting Alleging Fraud by the Electoral Commission, The Trenchant Observer, June 18, 2014.

(3) “Leading Afghan presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, narrowly escapes assassination in Kabul,” The Trenchant Observer, June 6, 2014.


For deeper insights into the present crisis, consider the following articles and their implications:

(5) “Obama Snubs Abdullah During Latter’s Trip to Washington,” The Trenchant Observer, May 22, 2010.

(6) “The real problem with U.S. policy toward Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai and the CIA,” The Trenchant Observer, November 26, 2013.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama’s six crises and collapsing foreign policy: Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and China’s actions in the East and South China Seas

Friday, June 20th, 2014


President Barack Obama now faces six simultaneous crises, amid the collapsing edifice of his foreign policy. They are:

1. Russia and the Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of the eastern Ukraine continues, calling the West’s bluff that it would impose sectoral sanctions.

The fact that Russia is acting through special operations and irregular foces has no bearing on its responsibility under international law for these actions. They amount to an “armed attack” under the terms of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, creating a right self-defense on the part of the Ukraine, and a right of “collective self-defense” on the part of other states, up to and including the use of force, to repel the invasion.

Economic and other sanctions are similarly justifiable as measures of self-defense, and also as “countermeasures” in response to illegal intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

But where legal authority for action to stop the Russians is abundant and clear, the political will of the countries in the West to act effectively is almost non-existant. Instead, appeasement and a new form of “hybrid” pacifism have taken hold.

Putin knows his antagonists. As the one-month deadline for stopping support of the “separatists” in eastern Ukraine draws near, the EU and the U.S. are already backing down, talking now of further “targeted” sanctions–not sectoral sanctions. Today Obama added seven individuals to the list.

If there were any doubt in Putin’s mind about Obama’s decisiveness, the latter’s meek and temporizing responses to the advances of ISIS in Iraq should have put those doubts to rest.

Russia continues its invasion of eastern Ukraine, sending additional tanks and other equipment across the border right now.

Having concentrated control of foreign policy in the White House, President Obama does not have the decision making capacity to deal with multiple crises at the same time, or indeed the decisiveness to take timely and effective action in any one of them.

We have devoted great attention to Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea, and its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine, because these actions and the pacifism and appeasement with which they have been met in the West directly threaten the collapse of the institutions and norms established to uphold the maintenance of international peace and security.

In the hierarchy of grave crises, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine remains the most serious, because it threatens to destroy or eviscerate the necessary tools of international law and institutions which are essential for the resolution of other crises, including those which are presently all raging at the same time.

When the question seems to be where to send the fire brigade, actually the more fundamental question is how can you keep the fire brigade functioning, and operating effectively?


Brett Logiurato, “Ukraine Wants A Ceasefire — Russia Is Sending A Bunch Of Tanks Into Ukraine,” Business Insider, June 20, 2014 (1:16 p.m.).

To be continued…

2. Iraq

The armed forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured Mosul, and are driving south toward Baghdad. Kurdish Peshmurga forces have occupied Kirkuk. The tribes in the Sunni triangle are collaborating with ISIS. The newly elected Parliament is to convene and elect a new prime minister.

Iraq has requested the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against ISIS forces. Obama has disatched under 300 soldiers to help protect the U.S, Embassy, and also approximately 300 special forces troops and advisers to help the Iraqi military.

If the ISIS advance is not stopped, particularly toward Shiite shrines in the south, Iran may intervene militarily to defend the shrines and the al-Maliki Shiite government.

Tellingly, one of Obama’s first moves was to go to Congressional leaders to see what actions might be politically acceptable, instead of huddling with all of his top national security officials to decide what actions are required by the exigencies of the present military and political situation in Iraq.

3. Syria

Syria has been reported by the international chemical weapons agency, charged by the Security Council with overseeing Syria’s surrender and destruction of all of its chemical weapons, as having recently used chemical weapons (chlorine gas) against its population on a number of occasions.

Such actions would appear to cross Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use. What is he going to do about it? His “red line” seems to have been written in the sand.

4. Afghanistan

The Afghan presidential run-off election on June 14 was, according to the leading candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, the subject of massive fraud in the eastern portions of the country, the traditional base of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani.

The actions the U.S. takes in the coming days may have a decisive impact on the transparency and outcome of the election. If a satisfactory way out of the present crisis is not found, the legitimacy of the new government and the prospects for its survival after U.S. forces withdraw in 2015 could be greatly diminished.

In thinking about Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers should keep one image firmly fixed in their minds: that of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers laying down their arms and fleeing from battle as ISIS forces approached in Mosul, and elsewhere.

A full-blwn crisis has erupted.

5. Iran

A settlement of the nuclear dispute with Iran is far from assured. The six-month interim agreement will expire on July 20. The talks could not bear fruit, raising again the possibility of a military strike by Israel against Iran’s buclear installations.

6. China and territorial claims in the South and East China Seas

In the last week China has begun moving oil rigs into disputed territorial waters. This is highly provocative, and has the potential to generate an arms race with its neighbors in the region, including Vietnam, Japan and Korea.

The U.S. needs to actively intervene in this crisis to ensure it does not lead to military incidents in the region, or an arms race. The ultimate risk is that Tokyo could be driven to deploy nuclear weapons. Few doubt that it has the capability to do so.

Can President Obama and his administration handle all of these crises simultaneously, and successfully?

We shall see, and very soon.

The Trenchant Observer

Afghanistan Presidential Election: Abdullah Calls for Halt to Vote-Counting Alleging Fraud by the Electoral Commission

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014


Four days after the presidential run-off election in Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, who led the first-round results with 45% of the votes compared to 32% for Ashraf Ghani, his opponent in the Sunday second-round election, has accused the Electoral Commission of committing fraud in favor of his opponent, demanded an immediate halt to the vote-counting, and ordered his election workers to withdraw from the centers where the votes are being counted.

Abdullah witnessed massive fraud reportedly orchestrated by President Hamid Karzai in the last presidential election, in 2009, and withdrew from the second-round run-off against Karzai only under intense U.S. pressure to do so.

It appears that he is not willing to go quietly into the night again if he is robbed of a second election.


(1) Margherita Stancati (Kabul), “Afghan Candidate Boycotts Count of Votes; Abdullah, a Karzai Rival, Alleges Fraud in Presidential Runoff, Citing Outsize Turnout in Opponent’s Areas of Support,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2014 (Updated 7:40 p.m. ET)

(2) Arzam Ahmed and Matthew Rosenberg (Kabul and Pashir Valley), “Candidate’s Protest Clouds Afghan Vote-Counting for President,” New York Times, June 18, 2014.

(3) “Wahlen in Afghanistan: Favorit Abdullah verlangt Abbruch der Stimmenauszählung,” Der Spiegel, 18. Juni 2014 (17:11 Uhr).

Die Präsidentschaftswahl in Afghanistan droht zu scheitern. Vier Tage nach der Stichwahl fordert Kandidat Abdullah, die Auszählung der Stimmen zu stoppen – obwohl ihm die besseren Chancen zugesprochen werden.

(4) “AFGHANISTAN: Favorit Abdullah fordert Stopp der Stimmauszählung,” Die Zeit, 18. Juni 2014 (14:42 Uhr).

Der afghanische Präsidentschaftskandidat hat kein Vertrauen mehr in die Wahlbehörden. Bei der Stichwahl am Samstag sei massiv betrogen worden, sagte Abdullah.

(5) Le avec AFP, “Afghanistan: Abdullah, le favori de la présidentielle, demande la suspension du dépouillement,” 18 Juin 2014 (Mis à jour à 15h23).

Giving an idea of the scale of the alleged fraud, Stancati reported the following:

Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the IEC , which organized the election and is counting the votes, said Saturday’s turnout was up from 6.6 million in the first round. While turnout was largely the same or lower in much of the country, the IEC’s initial tallies indicated a dramatic surge—in the areas of eastern Afghanistan that are Mr. Ghani’s base.

In the eastern province of Khost, for example, initial IEC tallies showed that more than 400,000 voters cast ballots on Saturday, up from 113,000 in the first round.

According to the 2012-13 data compiled by Afghanistan’s central statistics office, Khost’s entire population is 549,000—and, given Afghanistan’s demographic structure, at least one-third of them are children.

In the nearby province of Paktika, 390,000 voters cast their ballots on Saturday, up from 180,000. The province’s population is 414,000.

The role of the United States, which has reportedly had numerous Afghan government officials on its CIA payroll, in addition to making deliveries of bags containing millions of dollars in cash to the presidential palace on a regular basis, is not clear.

For details of the election fraud in 2009, use the search box to select articles on Afghanistan. It is found in the upper right-hand corner of our home page, which you can reach by clicking on the title banner above

The dedication of the Obama administration to a transparent counting of the votes, against this backdrop, remains to be demonstrated.

Stay tuned for further developments. The stakes are extremely high.

The perceived legitimacy of this election may well have a decisive impact on whether the soldiers in the Afghan army stand and fight after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2015, or rather lay down their arms and run, like the Iraqi soldiers who fled Mosul this last week.

The Trenchant Observer

The qualities that are needed in a new CIA Director, Part I (with video links to Feinstein Senate speech and Brennan rebuttal)

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

(Developing story–check back for updates over the next few days)

John Brennan’s battle with the Senate Intelligence Committee over the Torture Report

Given his past associations with Bush’s torture and other scandalous programs, and his role in overseeing White House targeted killing lists and ensuing drone strikes with the president’s approval and/or participation, John Brennan should never have been confirmed as Director of the CIA.

Now he has become both the symbol of a rogue CIA and the primary obstacle to getting control of the agency and bringing it back under the supervision and control of a democratic state governed by law. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, that supervision is the responsibility of both the president and the congress, including in particular the Senate Intelligence Committee which is chaired by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California).

She has now delivered an extraordinary speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate in which she lays out in detail the obstruction her committee has encountered in dealing with the CIA, particularly in connection with the drafting, declassification, and publication of a 6,000 word report on the CIA’s involvement in George W. Bush’s torture program, euphemistically referred to as one of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or as Brennan referred to them in his Senate confirmation hearings, “EIT’s”.

For background on Brennan and his confirmation hearings, see the following article and the articles cited in it:

“Torture and torture memos pose serious obstacle to confirmation of Carolyn Krass as CIA General Counsel,” The Trenchant Observer, December 20, 2013.

As noted below, the Krass nomination was approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 4, 2014.

It is difficult to imagine how John Brennan can continue to lead the CIA, now that he is involved in a very public and bitter dispute with the Senate Intelligence Committee and its Chair, Senator Feinstein–over matters that go to the very heart of what constitutes democratic government under the rule law.

Brennan’s hubris was once again revealed as he immediately gave a TV interview in which he contradicted Senator Feinstein.

Despite his extraordinarily close relationship with President Obama, to whom he served in many respects as a mentor and guide to the secret world of intelligence operations, Brennan should begin looking for a new job.

Russia’s aggression against the Ukraine and military seizure of the Crimea has been a wake-up call for Washington, demonstrating again how international law is important after all, particularly in terms of setting precedents, and of mobilizing coalitions and generating international support for collective action.

Russian intervention in the Ukraine has underlines the fact that unsanctioned violations of international law weaken its authority, and even its most important provisions including the prohibition of the illegal threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.

It is now time for the United States to put its rogue actions behind it, and to bring its policies and actions into compliance with international law.

Brennan is a symbol and defender of these rogue policies from the past, and doesn’t fit the new requirements of the job. To cite but one example, at his confirmation hearings, he was unable to bring himself to admit that “waterboarding” constitutes torture.

A new kind of leader is needed at the CIA.

Links to Videos and Transcripts

For links to the video and transcripts of Senator Feinstein’s speech on the Senate floor, and Brennan’s response, see:

(1) “Sen. Feinstein Accuses CIA of Searching Congressional Computers,” C-SPAN, March 11, 2014. (CLIP FROM MARCH 11, 2014, Senate Session, Part 1, with informal transcript).

The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee says the CIA improperly searched a stand-alone computer network established for Congress as part of its investigation into allegations of CIA abuse in a Bush-era detention and interrogation program. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California defended her committee’s work and challenged the CIA on Tuesday as she sought to set the record straight amid various reports of disputes between Congress and the agency.

For the YouTube video, click here.

(2) “CIA Director Denies Spying on Senate Intel Committee” NBC News, March 11, 2014 (with video link).

(3) The Senate Intelligence Committee approved the nomination of Carolyn Krass to be General Counsel of the CIA on March 4, it was announced on March 6, 2014, by a vote of 13-2. If approved by the full Senate, she will replace acting General Counsel Robert Eatinger, who has been at the center of a number of controversial issues and decisions related to the torture program.

The Qualities Needed in a New CIA Director

(To be continued)

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Obervateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

On floor of Senate, Senator Feinstein speaks of grave constitutional violations by CIA (with video link)

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014



Corine Lesnes (Washington), “Menacée par un rapport sur la torture, la CIA soupçonnée de piratage du Sénat américain, Le Monde, 12 mars 2012 (12.03.2014 (Mis à jour à 07h19).

Scott Wilson, “CIA feud with Senate panel puts lack of post-9/11 accountability in spotlight,” Washington Post, March 11, 2014.

Video: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke Tuesday on the Senate floor for almost 40 minutes about a controversy between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA. Here are the highlights.

“Key moments from Senator Feinstein’s soeech,” Washington Post, March 12, 2014 (video).

Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman, “Conflict Erupts in Public Rebuke on C.I.A. Inquiry,” New York Times, March 11, 2014.

For background, see also the following article and articles cited therein:

“Torture and torture memos pose serious obstacle to confirmation of Carolyn Krass as CIA General Counsel,” The Trenchant Observer, December 20, 2014.

The Trenchant Observer

Western diplomats stumble in the Ukraine—-Stop telephone diplomacy, let Germany lead, and publish serious international law memoranda

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Updated March 7, 2014

Western leaders have made three major blunders since the Russian military takeover of the Crimea first began on or around February 25.

Telephone Calls to Putin

First, they have engaged in a series of telephone calls to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Obama’s calls to Putin, who is reliably reported to detest him, have had no positive effect and may well have stiffened his resistance to the conciliatory proposals from the West. Even Angela Merkel’s calls directly to Putin have probably been ill-advised.

Such calls may in some circumstances be useful if their occurrence and content is kept private. While they may satisfy a hunger for instant gratification in the age of the Internet, decisions to deploy tanks and military ships are not likely to be reversed by e-mails or telephone calls, which between heads of government are probably heavily scripted, and further distorted by the use of interpreters.

Moreover, formal written communications have the advantage of permitting a wider range of officials with different perspectives to participate in their review and offering suggestions for response. Both with Putin and with Obama, and probably other government leaders as well, the quality of the exchange is likely to be improved by wider internal review and additional time to formulate policy and decisions.

On the Charlie Rose show on March 5, Henry Kissinger provided a powerful explanation of why direct communications between heads of government is usually a poor idea. This seems to be all the more true in a crisis like the one in the Ukraine, folllowing Russian military intervention in the Crimea, which remains under Russian military control and occupation.

Today, again, we learn that Obama called Putin and during a substantive call made no progress.

See “Ukraine-Krise: Putin bleibt hart in Telefonat mit Obama; Eine Stunde lang haben Putin und Obama die Lage auf der Krim beredet. Doch an dem Kurs des russischen Präsidenten hat das nichts geändert – er sagt: Russland dürfe die Hilferufe aus der Ukraine nicht ignorieren,” Der Spiegel, 7. Marz 2014 (6:45)

Generally, particularly in the case of Obama, such telephone calls and background briefings on their content are used as part of a campaign to show others Obama is doing something and Putin is being unreasonable.

Urgent Advice: Take the telephone away from Obama. He has not charmed or persuaded Putin, and he isn’t going to.

(Quote from Kissinger)

Trying to Force the Russians to meet with Ukrainian Officials

The second mistake Western diplomats have made in recent days is to try to force the Russians to sit down at the same table and talk to representatives from the new government in Kiev. This has been a huge blunder, confusing the goals of process with those of substance. The substantive but secondary goal is to get Russia to recognize the government in Kiev. The primary goal should be to persuade the Russians to cease and desist from further provocative actions in the Crimea and in the Eastern Ukraine, whether executed directly by Russians or Russian-speaking supporters. Such actions could–whether by design or inadvertence–ignite the flames of war.

In short, the highest substantive goal in the next few days should be to halt the Russians’ provocations and inflamation of passions. The second substantive goal should be to obtain formal Russian acceptance of OSCE and other observers, and to provide formal guarantees of their physical safety.

The ill-advised efforts to force the Russians to talk to the Ukranians before the stage is set, and the Russians want to, only aggravates the circumstances in which substantive diplomatic activity can take place.

These attempts to force the Russians to talk to the Ukranians reflect the same demented logic according to which simply getting the al-Assad goverment to meet with the opposition at the Geneva II Conference in June would somehow produce a miraculous breakthrough. It didn’t, and it was foolish to think that it could.

American Efforts to Assert its Leadership in Responding to Russia

The third development, unfortunate in the extreme, is that the United States is now seeking the mantle of leadership of the West in relations with Russia in connection with the crisis.

American policy in the Ukraine has not been an unqualified success, with Victoria Nuland’s “F… the EU” cell phone call revealing both deep American involvement with the opposition and disdain for EU leaders and their efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis.

And it hasn’t stopped. Only days sgo, a high U.S. official (a woman) was quoted on background in the German press as being highly critical of Angela Merkel, who was far too slow and deliberative in this official’s view. Such American officials do not understand the requirements of diplomacy, and should be immediately removed from the policy making process.

On March 7, 2014, on the Charlie Rose show, Tom Donilon, the former National Security adviser, stressed the importance now of the United States’ reasserting its leadership of the West.

The problem here is that Obama and his foreign policy team have been largely incompetent in dealing with the most urgent foreign policy questions of the last five years. While John Kerry has his strengths (and weaknesses), and Samantha Power provides capable and clear-eyed leadership as Ambassador to the U.N., Obama continues to maintain tight White House control over the making and execution of foreign policy. We and the world, looking at the cumulative evidence, know he is not very good at it. For example, Angela Merkel shared with Obama her perception from talking to Vladimir Putin on the phone that he was “in another world”. Obama promptly leaked this quote to the world, which was probably not helpful in terms of influencing Putin.

With respect to the Ukraine, Obama’s “reset” of relations with Russia undid the measures George W. Bush had implemented to punish Russia for its military intervention in Georgia–without any change in Russian behavior or resolution of the issues in Georgia, where Russian troops remain in enclaves in what amounts to de facto recognition of the fruits of Russian aggression.

Moreover, if Obama had not blinked at the moment of truth when he needed to pull the trigger to launch missiles against Syria, following the use of chemical weapons by Syria at Ghouta on August 21, 2014, Putin in his calculations might have taken the U.S. more seriously and never launched his military takeover of the Crimea.

The Observer’s advice is, “If you’re going to drive from behind (or slumber in the back seat), stay in the back seat and let others who know how to drive drive the car.”

Only two and a half weeks ago, the German, Polish and French foreign ministers hammered out a transition agreement whereby Yanukovych would yield partial power to a transitional government. To be sure, the deal fell apart when the Ukrainian negotiators could not deliver the crowd at the Maidan, the regime collapsed, the parliament relieved the president of his office, and the latter fled first Kiev and then the country. Still, the agreement was a brilliant piece of statecraft.

In the present situation, Obama is in no position to give Vladimir Putin lectures on international law, a concept which the president has only recently introduced into his discourse. Obama’s failure to prosecute officials responsible for torture as required by the U.N. Convention against Torture, his continuing use of drone strikes frequently in apparent violation of international law (particularly outside the war theater of Afghanistan and Pakistan), the continued detention without trial of prisoners at Guantanamo, and NSA’s massive surveillance around the world in violation of constitutions and international law, all strongly suggest Obama is not the best leader to take the lead in the media in making the legal case against Russia.

The U.S. also has a troubled record of its own interventions, including those in the Dominican Republic (1965) and Grenada (1983) which were justified, at least in part, under the rubric of “intervention to protect nationals”.

Germany is a better choice. The U.S. can take the lead with France and Britain in the Security Council.

That is not to say the U.S. in the U.N. and elsewhere should not make the strongest possible legal arguments against the Russian military intervention, in writing. It only means that the U.S. should carefully coordinate its efforts with the Europeans, and avoid undercutting Angela Merkel’s leadership, in the media.

This is not a time for a lot of wordsmithing and speeches and statements by Barack Obama and his administration. The focus, instead, should be on presenting serious and detailed legal memoranda in relevant forums, and on taking concrete actions such as imposing sanctions with real teeth on Russia and Russians.

Consideration should also be given to imposing EU and U.S. travel bans, and more, on individuals in the Crimea who have actively collaborated with Moscow in its military takeover, and who have joined efforts to provoke a secession from Ukraine and annexation of the peninsula by Russia.

The U.S. should work to coordinate its actions with the EU, and to persuade EU leaders behind closed doors, but should let Angela Merkel lead and coordinate the European response to Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in the Ukraine. The Germans and the Poles know the Ukraine, and Putin, far better than does the U.S., and should be allowed to lead. Merkel is the most powerful and respected leader in Europe, has an important relationship with Putin, and also has the experience and insights gained from having grown up in East Germany when it was a police state under Soviet domination.

As suggested above, even as Merkel leads, the U.S can push hard on implementing sanctions while still setting forth its international law arguments in written form, presenting them to the Security Council and also publshing them elsewhere.

Summary of Recommendations

In sum, the Observer’s advice is:

1. Stop the telephone diplomacy with Putin.

2. Don’t try to force the Russians to talk to the Ukrainians before the stage is set, and the Russians have assumed a more conciliatory posture as a result of pressure from the EU and the U.S. The Ukraine’s fate will be decided by the major powers, though the actions of the Ukrainian government will have great import. The biggest challenge for the West is to forge unity behind strong positions, avoiding disarray which can only work to Russia’s advantage.

3. Obama should let Germany, and France and Poland, lead. Obama has important cards to play, but he should keep them close to his vest, and not go channeling his thought processes to the press on background or on TV, through Ben Rhodes or other government officials. He should speak instead with actions, as he did today with the announcement of the first sanctions against Russia and Russians, to take immediate effect.

Among the most important of these actions would be to publish serious and detailed legal memoranda rebutting Russian legal justifications and setting out clealy how its military intervention in the Ukraine has violated international law’s most important prohibitions, as well as treaties and agreements such as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence of the Ukraine.

The Trenchant Observer

(Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter)
(L’Obervateur Incisif)
(El Observador Incisivio)

REPRISE: Anwar al-Aulaqi—Targeted Killings, Self-Defense, and War Crimes

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Press reports indicate President Obama is considering adding or has already added the name of a U.S. citizen to the kill list for targeted assassination by drone or other means.


Tom Cohen, “When can a government kill its own people?,” CNN, February 11, 2014.

Mark Memmot, “U.S. Citizen May Be Targeted With Drone Strike: Reports,” NPR, February 10, 2014.

Given the text of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that no one shall be deprived of “life” without due process of law, and the absurd argument that has been made by Attorney General Eric Holder that “due process of law” does not require judicial involvement, the question arises–however theoretical it may be–as to whether Obama’s authorization of another targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen abroad would constitute a “failure to uphold the Constitution of the United States” (Obama’s oath of office), and therefore grounds for impeachment.

Consider the factors discussed in the previous article reproduced below.

First published on April 7, 2010

The United States has gotten itself into a terrible jam, having adopted the legal justification of the Bush administration for targeted killings.

The Washington Post reports today that,

A Muslim cleric tied to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner has become the first U.S. citizen added to a list of suspected terrorists the CIA is authorized to kill, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

Anwar al-Aulaqi, who resides in Yemen, was previously placed on a target list maintained by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command…

Because he is a U.S. citizen, adding Aulaqi to the CIA list required special approval from the White House, officials said. The move means that Aulaqi would be considered a legitimate target not only for a military strike carried out by U.S. and Yemeni forces, but also for lethal CIA operations.

“He’s in everybody’s sights,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity….

–Greg Miller, “Muslim cleric Aulaqi is 1st U.S. citizen on list of those CIA is allowed to kill,” Washington Post, April 7, 2010

If this death warrant is executed in circumstances that do not justify the use of force in self-defense, either at the international or at the domestic level with the permission of the territorial state, its execution may constitute a war crime.

Some lawyers have won the argument within the Obama administration that it is lawful to kill a member of a terrorist organization, particularly if he has been involved in past acts of terrorism, wherever he can be found.

This argument is based on provisions of humanitarian law or “the law of war” that distinguish between combatants who are lawful targets and non-combatants who are not.

It ignores, however, the fact that provisions of humanitarian law are themselves limited by key provisions of the United Nations Charter, particularly Article 2 paragraph 4 which prohibits the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, except in the case of self-defense against an armed attack as provided in Article 51.

It is universally recognized that Article 2 paragraph 4 is a norm of jus cogens, or mandatory law from which there can be no exception. Humanitarian law grants no right to act beyond the limitations of this prohibition.

The use of lethal force to punish past actions, moreover, constitutes an armed reprisal, which is universally recognized as prohibited by international law.

In other cases, where the territorial state grants its permission to a foreign state to carry out a targeted killing, such a killing is legal under international law only if it meets the requirements of international human rights law. For the territorial state can cede to another state no greater rights than it itself possesses, and indeed it is far from clear that it can do even this.

Both Article 2 paragraph 4 of the Charter and international human rights law allow for the use of lethal force as may be required for self-defense or for self-defense and the defense of others by the authorities of the territorial state.

In both cases the requirement is that force be used only as a last resort against an ongoing or imminent use of force by the target, or after judicial proceedings and due process of law.

This element is initially self-judging in character, opening the door to abuse. However, just as police allegations that they have acted in self-defense are subject to judicial review, the self-defense justification of a state conducting targeted killings, and of the individuals executing the state’s orders, are subject to review by the courts of other countries exercising universal jurisdiction and potentially, at least in the future, by the International Criminal Court. Actions taken by a state in exercise of the right of self-defense are, moreover, to be reported to the U.N. Security Council under Article 51 of the Charter.

The use of force against an individual who has laid down his arms or ceased and desisted from active participation in attacks (or, in the language of  humanitarian law, has withdrawn from combat or placed himself hors de combat) is an extrajudicial killing or assassination, and would also constitute a war crime.

The problem here is that the U.S. government has become so accustomed to being prosecutor, judge and executioner that it has forgotten that international legal norms are involved, whose content and validity are necessarily determined by others, and that the ultimate validity of the legal justifications for targeted killings are likely one day to be determined by the judges of an international court or a national court exercising universal jurisdiction.

Just as individuals who participated in the “harsh interrogation techniques” program carried out under the Bush administration would be well advised to carefully choose the countries they travel to, now but also particularly in five or ten years, those individuals currently involved in the targeted killings program should also be very confident they are acting in lawful exercise of the right of self-defense when executing their orders.

For if their actions do not satisfy the requirements of self-defense, they constitute the commission of unlawful assassinations, and probably war crimes. As established at Nuremberg, the argument that such actions were carried out under the orders of superiors, or “due obdience”, is not a permissible defense.  Nor is the argument that the defendant believed he was acting in accordance with international law likely to be given any weight as a defense.

The United States has now become an official hit squad, which will go out and kill anyone on its list of targetable individuals.

Yet it is hard to see how the United States can kill its way to peace, in Afghanistan or in the struggle against terrorists in different countries throughout the world.

Whatever the short-term gains from the current approach, and it is far from clear that it does not create more terrorists than it kills, President Obama and his international lawyers need to rethink their approach to targeted killings.

They need to reexamine the issue, both in order to avoid extrajudicial executions and assassinations, and to shape the standards which will also guide other states in the future in deciding whether or not to put someone on a hit list and then to go out and kill him.

It is time to back off from the Wild West, and to return to civilization and the task of building out a viable international legal order.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation. A Google translation will be sufficient.

Watch what he does, not what he says: Decoding President Obama’s “State of the Union” speech (including link to text)

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

President Barack Obama delivered the annual “State of the Union” address to the Congress on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. For the text of the speech, see

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address,” January 28, 2014

Advice for for Decoding the Speech

The advice for decoding the significance of President Barack Obama’s “State of the Union” speech on January 28, 2014 is straightforward:

Ignore the torrent of finely crafted language in which the president seeks to impress you with his knowledge of the problems of the nation and the world, what in his head he thinks should be done, and to persuade you and the nation that he is right.

What is in his head and in his words is almost if not entirely irrelevant, except to the extent it is revealed through his actions. What he is really thinking, in consequential terms, is particularly difficult to discern by merely analyzing the words he speaks.

Watch instead his actions, tonight and over the coming months and years. Watch for announcement of significant actions that he has taken or will take very shortly.

Then, watch what he does. All the rest is either rhetoric or Obamian intellectual analysis that has no meaning without actions to back up the words. If he speaks of democracy and human rights in Africa, for example, take a careful look at the budget for foreign assistance to build civil society and democratic government in the 54 nations of the continent.

Obama speaks now of attacking inequality, but when he had a chance to actually do something about it he quickly folded, agreeing to maintain the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy who earn between $250,000 and $450,000 per year.

And watch out for hints that he will try to do what Congress won’t do, by executive decree.

The most important issue facing the nation is what the President or the people are going to do to reign in an out-of-control national security and intelligence bureaucracy which is hell-bent on building instruments of potential totalitarian control.

Here, more than anywhere else, one will need to penetrate the smoke and mirrors of Obama’s clever language, and look hard at what capabilities remain in place after whatever “reforms” he may announce are implemented.

Most important will be what actions, if any, Obama announces regarding the secrecy of legal memos and legal justifications for any secret operations–from drone strikes in Somalia to continuing massive surveillance throughout the world.

We know Obama. Watch what he does, not what he says.

The Trenchant Observer

The Emperor and his vassals: Obama and the Surveillance State

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Jakob Augstein, in his column in the German weekly Der Spiegel, has written a penetrating analysis of Obama’s posturing and fine wordsmithing on the issue of U.S. surveillance of communications throughout the world.

Augstein cuts right through to the heart of the matter. At least in the area of spying and surveillance, Barack Obama has arrogated to himself the full powers of an absolute monarch, here an Emperor overseeing a vast realm. In exchange for loyalty, he provides security to his vassals and supporters, such as Germany and other European countries, the United States, and their citizens. His actions, like those of an absolute monarch, are unchecked by constitutional constraints such as those imposed on English kings since the Magna Carta in 1215.

Augstein notes that Obama, in addition to his speech on January 17, also gave a TV interview to the German ZDF network. He writes:

Before the speech and the interview, commentators had speculated on who the speaker would be: the Commander-in-Chief, or the civil rights lawyer? That was a misunderstanding. Here, a Ruler has spoken to his subjects. And the subjects, they are all of us….

In the interview with ZDF Barack Obama let a sentence slip out which contains more truth than the presidential press office can be happy with: “The President of the United States is not the great Emperor (Kaiser) of the whole world, but only a human being, a little wheel (cog) in this machine.” If one believes he has to speak this sentence, in truth he thinks the opposite, and this also fits the speech and the interview. In all the smart and friendly words there was only one message that sticks: The USA can do things which others cannot do, and when it considers it appropriate, it will do these things.”

Such are the views of Jakob Augstein, one of Germany’s leading commentators, in his current column in Der Spiegel.

See Jakob Augstein, “Obamas PR-Offensive: Der Kaiser und seine Vasallen; Präsident Obamas Rede und sein Interview im ZDF waren eindeutig: Die USA erheben Anspruch auf die digitale Herrschaft über den Planeten. Höchste Zeit, dass Deutschland und Europa aus der digitalen Krabbelgruppe kommen und lernen, auf eigenen Füßen zu stehen,” Der Spiegel, 20. Januar 2014 (13:05 Uhr).

For now, the column is available only in German. However, it can be read in different languages including English through Google translator, and should become available eventually on the English-language website of Der Spiegel.

The article merits a close reading and careful reflection.

For an earlier article by the same author on related subjects, in English, see:

Jakob Augstein (commentary), “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” Der Spiegel (English), June 17, 2013.

It all sounds preposterous, kind of beyond belief. Yet those who have followed these issues closely know that it is not preposterous, and not beyond belief. We have learned a great deal about U.S. spying and surveillance activities in the last year.

To understand what is going on, still, we must look beyond the clever lawyer-like language in Obama’s speeches and statements, to his actions, and to what the United States is actually doing on the ground–and in the air, and on and under the oceans.

Then, we must measure these actions against the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which establishes the following:

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Trenchant Observer
(Der scharfsinniger Beobachter)

183 dead in Syria on January 14—Western intelligence meetings with Syria, the moral universe, and Geneva II

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the following earlier today:

Final death toll for Tuesday [14/01/2014]: Approximately 183 people killed in Syria.

The dead: (40 civilians including(7 children, 7 women, 2 teenagers) , 36 rebels, 39 YPG, 10 ISIS, 10 non-Syrian ISIS and Islamic fighters, 11 NDF, 31 regular forces, 6 unknown fighters)

by province: Aleppo(12 civilians), Dera’a(9 civilians, 3 rebels), Reef Dimashq(7 civilians, 3 rebels), Homs(4 civilians, 1 rebel), Idlib(2 civilians), Der-Ezzor(1 civilian).

We all need to pay close attention to what is ocurring on the ground in Syria, each and every day.

See also “REPRISE: The Olympic Games, and the Battle for Aleppo, Begin (July 28, 2012); Geneva II and the urgency of a ceasefire NOW,” The Trenchant Observer,
January 12, 2014. Update reports 697 people killed in nine days in Syria.

The Geneva II Peace conference scheduled to begin January 22, 2014 is unlikely to halt, or even slow, the fury of the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the wanton and systematic commission of war cimes and crimes against humanity by the Bashar al-Assad regime, and also by some if not many of the insurgents.

Meanwhile, Western intelligence agencies have met with Syrian officials regarding jihadist threats.

See Maria Abi-Habib, “European Spies Reach Out to Syria,” Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2014 (updated 10:41 p.m. ET).

AFP and Reuters, “Western intelligence ‘talking to Syria regime’,” Gulf News (, January 15, 2014 (13:34 h). This report cites Western intelligence officials confirmation of contacts, and quotes Secretary of State John Kerry as saying he knew nothing about them.

BBC, “Syria says West talks to Damascus about Islamist rebels; Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister: “Many foreign intelligence agencies have visited Damascus”, BBC News, January 15, 2014 (10:18 ET). The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet said informed sources had confirmed meetings between Western and Syrian intelligence officials.

Incredible! All the more incredible as Secretary of State John Kerry is quoted as saying he knew nothing of these meetings. More sheer incompetence from the Obama administration!

Who makes foreign policy in Washington and the capitals of the Western countries–the intelligence agencies or the elected governments which represent the people?

The civilized nations of the world cannot simply resume intelligence cooperation with al-Assad, without surrendering the last shred of any claim to moral authority which their countries may still have.

If we act as if we do not live in a moral universe where human actions have meaning and moral significance, as Barack Obama and other leaders who have followed or acquiesced in his vision of the world have done in Syria, we will create a self-fulfilling prophecy hurtling us all into a moral abyss. The consequences will be felt in every country, throughout the world. They are already being felt today.

Obama’s place in history is set, barring unforeseen miracles of redemption. Even if the Group of Five plus One and the Security Council conclude a nuclear deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program, the deaths of 130,000 Syrians (and counting) will weigh heavily on Barack Obama’s place in history, not to speak of his reputation for the rest of his life.

While America lies dormant in a deep isolationist sleep, that will not always be the case. When America awakes, as awake it must to deal with the horrific forces unleashed by Obama’s morally obtuse and utterly incompetent foreign policy, no amount of remorse or rueful apologies (as in the cases of Rwanda, or Srebrenice) will salvage Barack Obama’s legacy from the ashes.

In Syria, these ongoing atrocities must be stopped, now.  The Geneva II Peace Conference can be useful, if at all, only if it establishes as its primary and highest goal the establishment of a ceasefire throughout all of Syria.

The Trenchant Observer