This week on CounterSpin: The WikiLeaks Afghan War Diaries prompted waves of media coverage, though much of that amounted to “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” But digging into the documents might reveal more about the Afghan War than we knew—like the existence of something called Task Force 373, set up to capture or kill specific al Qaeda or Taliban figures. What does it really do, though, and where does it fit in with what we know about U.S. war policy? Journalist Pratap Chatterjee will join us to talk about that.
Also on CounterSpin today: A few years ago many would’ve said Google and Verizon would be very strange bedfellows. What does it mean that the two have huddled up to come up with a plan for Internet regulation? Can that possibly be a good thing for the web’s current relatively non-discriminatory access? We’ll learn the concerns and the state of play from Free Press’ campaign director Timothy Karr.
All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.
—Despite John McCain’s strongly conservative record, corporate journalists enamored with the Arizona senator have long clung to the “maverick” myth, that he’s a guy who just follows his principles whether the party likes it or not. This year’s primary race saw him shifting even further to the right, particularly on immigration, finally convinced many in the media that maybe the maverick isn’t so mavericky after all. NBC Nightly News correspondent Kelly O’Donnell had this exchange with McCain on August 23:
McCAIN: So it’s their priority, so it has to be my priority. I represent them.
But in a piece about myth busting, NBC‘s O’Donnell offers one of her own about “increasing border violence.” It’s well documented that crime has actually dropped in Arizona, as well as along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Which makes sense, since much of the research indicates that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the population at large. Unfortunately for O’Donnell, trading in a myth your guest wants to shed for a new one he wants to promote doesn’t count as tough journalism.
—”Venezuela, More Deadly Than Iraq,” declared an August 23 New York Times headline. Below that, reporter Simon Romero wrote that “In Iraq, a country with about the same population as Venezuela, there were 4,644 civilian deaths from violence in 2009, according to Iraq Body Count; in Venezuela that year, the number of murders climbed above 16,000.”
This comparison has so many problems, it’s beyond apples-to-oranges—it’s more like apples-to-alligators. The Iraq Body Count project tallies violent deaths that are reported by foreign media; compared to more scientific surveys of violence in Iraq, it’s been found to underestimate the total number of deaths by a factor of three or more. And it’s a measure of civilian deaths—much of the “deadly” violence that one associates with Iraq involves combatants, who are not included in the Body Count number. Members of drug gangs and other armed groups who kill each other in Venezuela, on the other hand, are included in the Venezuelan statistics.
When analyst Robert Naiman pointed out these and other problems with the comparison in the New York Times, the paper passed the buck. A Times editor told Naiman that Romero did not “declare the Iraq Body Count correct; he simply used an official figure, even if one subject to debate, to make a comparison with the violence in Venezuela.” Of course, Iraq Body Count is not an official figure—it’s a non-governmental group monitoring the Iraq conflict. But apparently, for the New York Times, if a statistic serves the official agenda of making Venezuela look bad—then it’s official.
—An August 25 Washington Post article told of a “sober new assessment” of Al Qaeda-related activity in Yemen that has led the White House to ramp up airstrikes in that country. One would hope a newspaper article about expanding a shadowy, undeclared war might include the perspective of critics. But not in the Washington Post, which did find one official who endorsed firing missiles from CIA drones because they can’t be easily traced back to the United States.
The Post article builds on some of what was learned in an August 15 New York Times story about the White House’s expanding war in Yemen, part of a broad and mostly unknown military campaign in “roughly a dozen countries.” The Times explained the concerns that this raises, including the “blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections.” Now one would hope that interest in the Geneva Conventions and international law might be broader than worrying about what might happen to captured U.S. forces. Like the legality of undeclared drone wars, for instance.
Deep into the piece, the Times revealed how this kind of war is actually being conducted. In December, the U.S. Navy fired a cruise missile at a Yemeni village, killing 41 civilians. Three more died after the strike because the missile was loaded with cluster bombs. You had to read a long way before finding out these gruesome details. The Times piece does neatly capture elite media’s worldview: “The Yemen operation has raised a broader question: Who should be running the shadow war?”
Should the military bomb Yemen, or should the CIA do it? That’s the way the Times sees this “debate.”
—NBC‘s August 18 segment about the Iraq War featured an exercise in unself-conscious media criticism. Anchor Brian Williams introduced one guest, “Let’s bring into this conversation retired U.S. Army Colonel Jack Jacobs. He’s a decorated combat veteran, a recipient of the Medal of Honor and, of course, an NBC News military analyst.” Williams proceeded,
Williams is absolutely right, of course—people like him do always seem to leave gleaning the lessons of warfare to retired military officials. During the run-up to the Iraq War, NBC promoted their coverage in an ad that began, “Showdown Iraq, and only NBC News has the experts.” It offered a list including General Norman Schwarzkopf, General Barry McCaffrey, General Wayne Downing, and ambassador and former UN weapons inspector David Kay. The ad ended: “The experts. The best information from America’s most watched news organization, NBC News.”
Well, whether those experts actually provided the “best information” would seem to speak for itself. But it’s not speaking loudly enough for Williams, who still thinks the best way to learn what critics of the war think is to ask a Colonel rather than, you know, a critic of the war.
—And finally, everyone knows that just because a claim is false doesn’t mean you have to stop saying it, if you’re a cable TV host that is. And especially if your name is Bill O’Reilly. So here we have O’Reilly bringing his trademark sensitivity and abiding concern for accuracy to the issue of the Islamic community center planned for Lower Manhattan. Or the “Ground Zero Mosque” in cable-speak. Some opponents of the center have tried to pretend they’re not really anti-Muslim, it’s really about something else, but O’Reilly’s having none of that. Responding to a comment by Adam Clayton Powell IV noting that the construction of a different religious center would not be controversial, O’Reilly declared the following:
Of course Bill O’Reilly doesn’t endorse mass punishment and discrimination against all members of any religion, some of whose adherents commit crimes; so his line would be specious and hateful even without the inaccuracy he pins it on—which is one he and others have used before, and which is no more true now than it was then.
Just because O’Reilly chooses to ignore the immediate denunciations of the attack from leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Libya and others, the candlelight vigils right afterward by thousands of young people in Iran, or by Palestinians in Jerusalem, or the unequivocal condemnation and call for aid issued by a coalition of major U.S. Muslim groups on September 11 doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen. It just means Fox isn’t interested in realities that conflict with their fantasy.
CounterSpin: If you followed the media discussions about the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diaries, you heard a few different themes. These aren’t the Pentagon Papers, we were frequently told. Then we heard there wasn’t anything in there we didn’t know already. Then it was determined that the identities of some Afghans working with U.S. forces were left in the documents—which led to a discussion about whether or not the website had “blood on its hands.” But the WikiLeaks documents continue to provide fodder for journalists looking to shed light on the war in Afghanistan. The Washington Post, for instance, recently cited WikiLeaks in order to make a point about how there are relatively few Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan at all.
Our next guest has zeroed in on one of the more remarkable aspects of the WikiLeaks documents: Task Force 373, which is described as a secretive “capture/kill” team ostensibly hunting down specific Taliban or Al Qaeda figures. Pratap Chatterjee is a freelance journalist and senior editor at CorpWatch. His most recent book is Halliburton’s Army. His piece about this task force is called “The Secret Killers.”
Pratap Chatterjee, welcome back to CounterSpin.
Pratap Chatterjee: Peter, thank you for having me.
CS: Your article attempts to piece together what we can learn about this task force from WikiLeaks documents and from some other sources. From the sound of it, WikiLeaks presented 373 to the world. It seems to have been spun off from similar units in Afghanistan and elsewhere. What makes Task Force 373 so different and so remarkable in a way?
PC: Task Force 373 is not in fact completely unknown. There have been people who mentioned it and even its name. In fact, Stephen Grey mentioned it in his book Operation Snakebite, so we were familiar that there were capture/kill teams. You often read about night raids where special forces arrive in the middle of the night, knock on the door, break down the door and capture people and take them to secret prisons. Anand Gopal in TomDispatch did a very good piece called “Afraid of the Dark,” and what I’ve done in this TomDispatch piece is use WikiLeaks to actually delve into the details of this task force because it’s simply, until this point, just hearsay. Here we have documented evidence. And having said that, I just want to put out a couple of caveats: one is these are secret documents and therefore they’re not top-secret documents; it’s not the whole picture. And a lot of this is raw data—this is what soldiers, one soldier often, has seen and is transmitting back. If there’s a major incident, there will be in fact a number of people sent out to investigate something. And then of course finally it doesn’t involve the Afghan point of view; it’s simply the American point of view. Having said that, this is better than—in fact, even though it’s raw—it’s better than second-hand information passed on to a New York Times or Washington Post reporter, which is typically how we hear about it. We’re hearing directly from the soldiers, and we’re hearing what they saw and what they heard. So it paints us a picture and here too the level of detail, having said it’s raw detail, but there are some 200 reports out of the 76,000 that have been released, that get into some of the detail. A lot of them are just Task Force 373 took, you know, five prisoners to Bagram, but some of them are much more detailed. So it gives us an unfiltered look into what is happening on the ground.
CS: Now I was reading your piece, and I was thinking about some of these newspaper accounts where you hear about a house raid where civilians were killed, and the first drafts of these stories usually include a NATO spokesperson saying, we’re not aware of any activity there, which does leave one to wonder if some of these teams are operating in ways that NATO might not be fully aware of or want to speak about. One of the reactions , I think, when the WikiLeaks story came out, there were a lot of folks who said, well yes there is this task force, and it’s hunting down bad guys—what’s the problem with that?
PC: Well, I think there are a couple of problems with it. One is: who decides who the bad guys are? We’re told there’s a list, but you know, how do you get on that list? I mean the notion of habeus corpus seems to have gone completely out of the window when these people are hunted down and sometimes killed, you know. There’s no court involved; there’s no indictment. There’s simply a list drawn up by some mysterious people, presumably at the CIA, who then act as, you know, judge, jury and effectively then Task Force 373 is the executioner. So they go hunting for these people, and one of the most disturbing things about these stories is they seldom speak very frankly about the kill ratio, the number of people they’ve found. And in some cases they kill Afghan police officers. There’s one case in which, you know, they thought they were being attacked, and they called in an aid strike with an AC-130 gunship, and they killed seven Afghan soldiers. In another case in Paktika, where they launched missiles at this compound, they missed the mark, but they destroyed the madrassa religious school, and in it they found seven children, one of whom was still barely alive and died 20 minutes later. So we’re seeing some of these reports. I’m not sure that NATO always knows. My story tries to weave in not just what the soldiers see in terms of Task Force 373 but the people who respond to that. And interestingly a lot of the times the people who are called upon to respond and explain what happened are the provincial reconstruction teams, the joint civilian military units who are building schools and hospitals and roads and mosques and what have you. And so they’re the ones who go and have to answer to the governor. And they have to say well we’re sorry that special forces killed somebody and we’ll try and make it up, we’ll try and give you a payment or something. Now I think in many cases, and I talked to somebody who works with one of these provincial reconstruction teams, his name is Matthew Hoh, and he said look, these PR teams are often informed of what happening in advance. So I think that has certainly raised questions. Now in Matthew’s opinion, because he was part of the reconstruction team’s work, he thinks these are necessary. But I have to raise the question of how, if the reconstruction teams know that somebody is about to be killed, that they’re not questioning how this impacts their own work and whether or not this is really, as the outcomes often suspect, a very dangerous game or certainly counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency.
CS: You’re speaking about this tension between the rebuilding teams on one hand, and then you’ve got this task force who are working secretly to capture or kill certain targets and end up killing civilians often in the process. It does bring up the big picture, and we have about a minute left, and it does seem like the question is asked in your piece that there’s a broad policy implication here. The force could shrink in a war like Afghanistan but you would have the growth of these secretive capture/kill teams, as you put it, “global hunter-killer teams.” Some supporters of the concept call it “manhunting.” Is this the future of the Afghanistan war?
PC: Well, that’s a good question. The lead thinker for the special forces in Tampa, Florida—his name is Lieutenant Colonel George Crawford, but he’s retired now. He wrote a paper called Manhunting, in which he said the U.S. needs to develop these capabilities. And actually interestingly after my story came out he wrote to me and he said I don’t understand why you have a problem with this. We really need to do this. And I think it is important that we as a nation—I think he is assuming of course that I’m American; I’m not—that we need to go and fight people who are out to destroy our mission. But there are certainly people out there—there is actually, somewhat surprisingly maybe, a professor at the School of International Policy at Columbia University by the name of Austin Long who also is behind this idea. He praises the Phoenix program from Vietnam and has suggested that in fact the number of troops in Afghanistan could be reduced to 13,000 special forces who would just do counterterrorism strikes.
CS: Pratap Chatterjee is a freelance journalist and senior editor at CorpWatch. His most recent book is Halliburton’s Army. His piece about Task Force 373, called “The Secret Killers,” can be read at TomDispatch.com.
Pratap Chatterjee, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
PC: Thank you so much for having me.
CounterSpin: If you use the Internet you’re familiar with the concept of “net neutrality”: it’s what makes the Internet more like an ever-better-stocked library, where you can wander around and look at pretty much whatever you like equally easily, even self-published books. More like that than that bookstore at the mall that only carries the tiny handful of trendy titles the publishers are promoting this season, and those are overpriced. But ever since there’s been an Internet there have been concerns that this highly prized quality wouldn’t last, that sooner or later corporations would find a way to make more money by stoppering up access, charging fees, or changing the technology to drag us all back from the library to the darn mall. Is that in the offing now with this private deal between Google and Verizon that leaves little role for what the Washington Post called “intrusive regulatory authority?”
Joining us now for an update is Timothy Karr, he’s campaign director at the media policy group Free Press.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, Timothy Karr!
Timothy Karr: Thank you, Janine.
CS: Well, it doesn’t require a conspiratorial turn of mind to think that the existing big media companies are not that happy with the democratic nature of the Internet, as it becomes the vehicle for so much communications content and activity. It diminishes their gatekeeping role, and they just don’t make as much money as they feel they ought to. So we’ve had these concerns for years. What is new now?
TK: We’ve seen this happen in the history of all new technologies. There’s usually this period of a sort of flourishing of ideas and very democratic communications, and after a time when very powerful players get engaged, they see that they can exert their authority both in Washington and in their market power to try to shut it down. And what’s been happening over the last year is that very powerful companies from Internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have increasingly been pressuring Washington to take out the sort-of protections—take out the net neutrality that creates this big open marketplace of ideas, so that they can start putting in prioritizations, start sending people to sites that they want them to go to, start striking deals with Internet services, where companies like Google or companies like Yahoo might pay them some money so that their customers can only search using those services. So you’re seeing—you’re absolutely right—you’re seeing the very democratic nature, the sort-of flourishing of ideas of the public Internet of the last 20 years being threatened by these very powerful corporate players who see the future of media moving away from newspapers and towards the Internet, moving away from traditional broadcast media and towards the Internet. And in order for them to continue to profit, they need to control the flow of information over this new medium.
CS: Well, if we’re talking about Google and Verizon and right now, the argument of access providers, phone and cable companies, as I understand it, is: if people use wireless connections the way they use broadband—the idea is wireless should be separate and not regulated in this way—if people use wireless in that way, we have to build a lot more base stations, we have to invest a lot more money, so we need to charge some people more. The Washington Post editorially endorsed that idea, and one New York Times article called it a “neutral” proposal because it balances the needs of the Verizons of the world and the Googles of the world. What are your specific objections to that deal?
TK: Well, Google and Verizon have created what they call a policy framework, and it’s the sort-of idea that powerful companies will actually create legislation and that the regulators should just simply get out of the way. And we’ve seen how that doesn’t work. I mean, you only have to look to the Gulf of Mexico, or you need to look at the financial mortgage meltdown of the last couple of years to see what happens when you let companies dictate policy. What happens when you let companies make the rules is they make rules that protect their interests, and in this case, the Google/Verizon case, sell out the public good. And the problem that we see right now is not only that the Google/Verizon proposal only protects their interests, but that the agency that’s in charge of protecting the public interest in communications, the Federal Communications Commission, has been reluctant to step in. There is a new chairman there—I guess he’s been there for a year and a half now, but he’s been very reluctant to fill the pledges that President Obama, when he first came in to office, which was to protect net neutrality and to promote universal access to this new broadband universe. Unfortunately, Chairman Julius Genachowski has been hearing from the very powerful phone and cable lobby and is reluctant to make those steps. So we’re in the midst of this battle right now, where we don’t have these sorts of consumer protections in place. We have a very powerful corporate lobby that is trying increasingly to infringe upon our freedom to communicate via the Internet, and we have a regulatory body that is very reluctant to take action on behalf of the public. So we’ve been organizing, both in Washington and around the country, to try to send the message to the FCC that Internet users need these fundamental protections.
CS: Well, net neutrality, as you mentioned, is not the only media policy issue that’s going on. There is also the National Broadband Plan, just providing access for more households, and bringing speed and price into line with other countries where the U.S. has fallen behind. Well, in the world of activism, some think that the neutrality stuff might be a distraction from these other things. Do you see a conflict there or do these things fit together as part of the same project?
TK: They are all one and the same. You cannot propagate a non-neutral Internet. The great thing about the open Internet is that openness has made it this tremendous engine for economic growth, for democratic participation and for equal opportunity. And taking neutrality out of the network doesn’t make it easier for people to get access to it. This is an argument that has been put forth by industry lobbyists because they want to kill that neutrality with this idea that somehow if net neutrality rules are in place, it will cease investment and buildout. Well, the problem is that they haven’t been building out either way. We did a study of AT&T when it merged with Bell South, it was subject to net neutrality conditions for two years. And while it was operating under those net neutrality conditions in the years 2007 and 2008, it actually invested more in buildout, more in getting access into communities than it did after the fact when those conditions were lifted. So it’s a false argument; it doesn’t really make sense. And if you take net neutrality out of the Internet, you have something else—you have something like the cable net. It’s more like a cable television model, it’s not the openness that has made the Internet so valuable for so many people.
CS: It can be difficult in media activism when sometimes you’re fighting over things that don’t yet exist, but at the same time, if you wait until all the decisions have been made—and they’re often made behind the scenes—then it’s too late. So you really have to start organizing about things even as they’re just coming down the line.
TK: Well, I mean, we’re fortunate to have a very broad and diverse coalition that is fighting both for net neutrality and universal access, and we are now looking to the FCC to really fulfill those pledges and you’re right the FCC did create a National Broadband Plan, which they unveiled earlier this year. It was part of the stimulus package. The stimulus package mandated that they create this plan and that we help America catch up in terms of our broadband services. So the FCC has a lot on its plate, but I think these are both priorities: universal access and net neutrality. And pushing both of them is the right policy for right now.
CS: We’ve been speaking with Timothy Karr of the group Free Press. Find them and their work on the web at FreePress.net.
Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin, Timothy Karr.
TK: Thank you.
—”Manhunters, Inc.,” by Pratap Chatterjee (TomDispatch, 8/19/10)