“I have visited the UK before without incident. I have long admired British culture.”
So begins Yemeni drone warfare investigator Baraa Shiban’s description of what happened to him at London’s Gatwick Airport on September 23, published 2 days later by The Guardian.
“I spent part of my education in Wales,” Shiban continues. “This time I came at the invitation of Chatham House to speak at a seminar on Yemen. Standing at passport control, bleary eyed from the long flight, I expected another routine trip.
“The border agent asked what my job is. When I explained I was the Yemen project co-ordinator for London-based legal charity Reprieve he said, ‘Sir, please come with me. We have a Terrorism Act and I have some questions I need to ask you.’"
This was Shiban’s welcome to the low-calorie version of what had happened to David Miranda, the life partner of Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald, and the business go-between for Greenwald and his investigative partner Laura Poitras. Miranda was detained at Heathrow Airport on August 18, and dispossessed of his cellphone, his computer, and files containing more revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, detailing the agency’s surveillance and other activities in the interest, the NSA would claim, of American national security.
Miranda was held incommunicado and harshly questioned by officers of the Metropolitan Police for 9 hours before being released. Shiban’s security toss took just an hour and a half, but it shared some of the same abusive and deranged anti-terrorist assumptions that marred Miranda’s interrogation.
“The suited man quizzed me about my political opinions,” Shiban says. “When I suggested that these should have no bearing on whether I am allowed into the country, the agent threatened to hold me for the maximum extent of his powers. ‘I am authorised to detain you for up to nine hours," he said. "We have only been here for an hour, but we can be here for up to nine. So you understand what this can lead to.’
“He took my Reprieve business card and disappeared. When he returned, … A telling exchange followed: ‘So,’ he asked, ‘does your organisation have anything to do with terrorism in Yemen?’
“I replied, ‘My organisation addresses counter-terrorism abuses inside the country.’
“‘Exactly!’ He said. ‘Why doesn't your organisation do something about the terrorism that happens in your country, instead of focusing on the counter-terrorism abuses?’
“What could I reply? Of course I oppose terrorism. But I also oppose the secret air war in my country – waged by the US, apparently with covert support from the UK and others. The drone war in my homeland has claimed innocent lives and terrorised civilians. It operates wholly outside the law, and serves only to fuel anti-western sentiment.”
I want to butt in here, to make 3 points:
1) I agree with Shiban’s negative judgments of the American directed drone attacks against suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
2) I have been impressed with the evidence he, and any number of reputable local and global news organizations have compiled, suggesting that although our targeting is intended to be selective and precise, it is often misinformed about its selections and indiscriminate in its effects. The bottom line, any number of reports from Yemen have said, is that any tactical benefit derived from killing some “bad guys,” and I’ll agree with the NSA that the drone-missile-struck Islamist preacher and accused terrorist recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki was a very bad guy, is negated, nay overwhelmed, by the strategic disrepute America has earned in Yemen by killing more than a few innocent, non-terrorist civilians. One suspects, just to mention one case, that Al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdurrahim, also drone-popped, in a separate attack, might not have been that bad.
3) Whether you or the British government agree with Shiban’s conclusions, his subject is worth considering, and his evidence was bravely and professionally collected, and is essential to any rational consideration, affirmation or rejection of an increasingly important component of American and British military practice, missile-armed drones.
4) Critically considering drone warfare is something every military, intelligence, or political official, indeed every citizen, should do, and is NOT to be confused with aiding or abetting terrorism.
If you think that distinction is obvious and can go without saying, you probably missed a Greenwald article published in The Guardian the same day as Shiban’s story of his arrest.
In it, Greenwald makes public an entry identified by Snowden as being from “a top secret internal US government website,” used only by people "with top secret clearance and public key infrastructure certificates," which Greenwald notes equates “the most basic political and legal opposition to drone attacks [with] ‘propaganda campaigns’ from ‘America's ‘adversaries’”
“One specific entry,” Greenwald writes, “discusses ‘threats to unmanned aerial vehicles,’ including
1) ‘air defense threats’,
2) ‘jamming of UAV sensor systems’,
3) ‘terrestrial weather’,
4) ‘electronic warfare employed against the command and control system’ [and]
5) ‘propaganda campaigns that target UAV use.’”
What does this high-powered NSA analyst (I’ll bet my money these are the “thoughts” of a “Beltway Bandit” contractor) consider enemy propaganda?
One example is the idea, being pressed in the Federal courts by The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, that executing American citizens, like the Awlakis, father and son, without formal accusation or trial, deprives them of their Constitutional rights to due process.
You don’t have to be a law professor to see the logic of this argument, agree with it or not, and I don’t. But, you do have to be totalitarian or a fool to use the label “enemy propaganda” to try to preempt its presentation and discussion.
Not to say, you can’t be a totalitarian and a fool like those who tried to quash any consideration of the wisdom of continuing the war in Vietnam with labels like “Communist,” or “tool of Hanoi.”
Or the "senior American counterterrorism official" who smeared the UK-based non-profit The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose website says it has collaborated with such respected news organizations as the BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera English, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mirror, the Observer and the Daily Mirror. Said this fellow, who undoubtedly has an access key to the “top secret website” mentioned above, "Let's be under no illusions – there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign [drone warfare] and help Al-Qaeda succeed."
He must believe the crapulous in-house propaganda against “propaganda.” And he’s not the only one. Thus summer several folks in the Obama Administration conspired to deny a visa to Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who represents family members of victims killed by US drones in a suit against the US government.
Akbar had been invited to come to the US to testify before a Congressional committee, not necessarily because members agree with his criticisms of the US drone campaign in northwest Pakistan, or endorse his arguments in behalf of his clients and their relatives allegedly killed or maimed in drone attacks, but because he has information about when and where drone attacks have occurred, and whom they killed or injured, and what the popular reaction to these attacks has been, in the affected “tribal areas,” and across the country, where every poll shows deep Pakistani hostility to the US drone campaign.
If you want to understand the leaders of Pakistan, from President Nawaz Sharif on down, something any responsible Congressperson would want to do, it is useful to hear Akbar out, perhaps even cross-examine him rigorously. But thanks to the Obama Administration, Congress, the news media, and the American people have been denied the chance.
Do you suspect that sometimes, the security apparat inflates the threat of terrorism?
Do you worry that drones kill too many civilians?
Do you think the net effect of deadly remote-controlled American attacks inside other countries’ national territory may be to alienate people over there, fuel more terrorism, and create more hatred of the US?
Someone high up in the NSA is being told that all these ideas are just "adversary propaganda themes."
In fact, the document Snowden showed Greenwald labeled “the phrase ‘drone strike’ …a ‘loaded term,’ [designed to] ‘invoke an emotional reaction’. This, the document asserts, ‘is what propaganda intends to do.’”
Yes, Polonius, propaganda plays with people’s emotions, in large measure by limiting or eradicating their options for rational consideration.
The Brits gave Baraa Shiban an unwarranted hard time, but they let him give his speech at Chatham House, which was probably not unlike the presentation he had been allowed to make to Congress back in May.
How’s the old song go? “It’s a long, long way from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September.” Too short for the beleaguered Obama Administration to permit a full discussion of the drones falling in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and soon, I’ll bet, in Somalia.
Wanna bet, at the NSA and the White House, they’ve already got a drones’ “enemies list?”