Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Did the Air Force violate Freedom of Information law when it took down drone strike reports?

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.

An armed British Reaper UAV taxis on the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Photo via Flickr.

The AirForce Times reported Friday that the U.S. Air Force has stopped publishing data on weapons releases from Remotely Piloted Aircraft – i.e. drone strikes – in their monthly activity reports on Afghanistan operations.

Last October, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates. At the time, AFCENT spokeswoman Capt. Kim Bender said the numbers would be put out every month as part of a service effort to “provide more detailed information on RPA ops in Afghanistan.”

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been.

Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed — and recently.

In other words, not only did the Air Force stop publishing their numbers on drone strikes, but they actively removed that data from previously published reports. The information is no longer available to the public, and the military made a distinct effort to remove it from the public domain. But under federal laws, there are very clear rules around what information can be public and what can be private.

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect July 5, 1967, information held by the government has been publicly available by default. As the FOIA website puts it:

Enacted in 1966, and taking effect on July 5, 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records, except to the extent that such records (or portions of them) are protected from public disclosure by one of nine exemptions or by one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.

The Department of Defense, on their FOIA page, lays out the nine exemptions. Essentially, information that is exempt from public disclosure must be classified, pose a threat to national or operational security or invade the personal privacy of personnel, among other things. The law is very specific on these points, as they are the only reasons for which the government can withhold information from its people.

Granted, not all government information is readily accessible or published. The point of this law is not to burden agencies with the task of publicizing every action they take, but it is to make it possible for citizens to get information about their government, enhancing transparency and accountability. So while public officials don’t need to post their every action online, they are obligated to provide information when it is requested of them unless it falls under a specific exemption. Government information is public by default.

So when the Air Force took down the data on drone strikes and said – as the Air Force Times reports – “the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” it was removing data from the public record because it didn’t look good, not because it was exempt from release. The full statement seems to suggest the data was misleading because it reported only instances in which a drone used weapons and not the far more common instances in which drones were used only for surveillance.

“A determination found the data disproportionately focused on RPA kinetic events,” CENTCOM said in the statement. “A variety of multi-role platforms provide ground commanders in Afghanistan with close air support capabilities, and it was determined that presenting the weapons release data as a whole better reflects the airpower provided in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Kinetic events involving RPAs are the exception, with only about 3 percent of all RPA sorties over Afghanistan involving kinetic events.”

The Air Force could have added the total monthly number of RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] sorties [missions] to their report, which would have brought the number of kinetic events [drone strikes] into proportion with the total drone activity in Afghanistan. Perhaps then the public would be able to see that while these aircraft are doing damage and taking lives, they are also doing a lot of work collecting intelligence that benefits – and perhaps saves the lives of – troops on the ground. This would have addressed the Air Force’s concern that the data was disproportionately focused on offensive strikes and at the same time increased the transparency of the operations.

Instead, the Air Force omitted the number from their reporting and then went back into their old reports and stripped the already public numbers from there too, despite the fact that the information clearly was not protected under any of the FOIA exemptions. It is possible that the Air Force would release those numbers again in the face of a FOIA request, but the fact that they made the effort to actively remove already available data from the public domain seems to me a violation of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, if not its letter.

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Trucker strike cuts NATO supply lines through Pakistan

Major NATO military bases
Border crossings used in NATO supply lines
Karachi, where NATO supplies are shipped for transport to Afghanistan

Transport lines into Afghanistan, providing NATO troops – including U.S. soldiers – with the supplies they need for day-to-day living, are in jeopardy after the private Pakistani drivers who have been bringing supplies from the Karachi seaport into Afghanistan began a strike.

The strike began in response to the government’s decision to require truckers to go through authorized companies to carry NATO supplies instead of making individual deals with the government-run National Logistics Cell, said Jehanzeb Khan, head of a transport workers union in northwest Pakistan. The companies pay the truckers less, said Khan.

He also claimed the government was not providing adequate protection to the drivers from Taliban attacks, and each truck had to pay corrupt security officials about $165 in bribes to pass through the Khyber tribal area on the way to the border.

These same supply lines have been broken before. In Nov. 2011, the Pakistani government cut off NATO supply after an airstrike-gone-wrong killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. That lasted over six months, during which time the supplies had to be shipped through Russia and Central Asia via a longer route which cost more than $2 billion extra over that period.

International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops are more concentrated in the eastern regions of Afghanistan, making the Pakistani supply lines ideal. But the Pakistani government, in what they say was an effort to reduce theft and disorder in the logistical undertaking of supplying the roughly 100,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, mandated the drivers go through officially approved companies in order to be hired for the jobs.

The drivers, however, call the regulation a government attempt to strip them of a decent paycheck. They say they won’t go back to work until the Pakistani government reverses the mandate.

Because the truckers are only loosely organized, not all have stopped working. Though no trucks were reported passing through the more northern Torkham Crossing Wednesday, according to an AP report, there were still supplies going through at Chaman, which is well-positioned to supply the large ISAF airbase just outside Kandahar.

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A memorial day retrospective

The brutal serendipity of war.

On the New York Times’ At War blog, James Dao writes about a May 30, 2007 crash that claimed seven coalition lives, and almost a reporter as well.

Alex Quade, a freelance television reporter, was supposed to be on that helicopter, covering a battalion-size air assault mission involving troops from the Seventh Special Forces Group, the First Battalion, the 508th Parachute Infantry Battalion and the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. But at the last minute, Ms. Quade lost her seat to the British and Canadian soldiers, who were public affairs officers for their respective militaries. She survived to report firsthand on the recovery efforts, which included a fierce firefight, and she subsequently interviewed pilots who reported seeing a missile streaking into the sky and striking the Chinook.

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American supply routes to Afghanistan causing political weakness

Supply

As its relationship deteriorates with Pakistan, the U.S. has been forced to get creative in resupplying its troops in Afghanistan. Now the government must pay a higher cost — either diplomatic or monetary (the choice is with the Pentagon) — to keep troops fed.

The Diplomat explains:

The U.S. and NATO, having already anticipated problems with Pakistan, had been building up another set of overland supply routes from Europe through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

It’s not known how long Pakistan will keep the supply routes closed, but after an incident last year in which the U.S. killed three Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan shut off the border for ten days. U.S. officials say that with the NDN, and with large amounts of goods stockpiled in Afghanistan, they don’t anticipate any shortages as a result. Still, recent events have shown that the United States’ partners on the northern route may now try to take advantage of its increased dependence on them.

Uzbekistan has been a key partner on the NDN and an estimated 98 percent of overland traffic from the north to Afghanistan passes through the southern Uzbekistan border city of Termez. As a result, and despite the unseemliness of cooperating with one of the most brutal and repressive governments in the world, the United States has been strengthening its ties with Tashkent. Washington recently changed its policy which forbade sales of military equipment to the country because of its miserable human rights record. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Tashkent in October, said there had been “progress” on human rights and democracy in the country, prompting critics to claim that Washington was selling out its principles for the sake of access for its military.

The U.S. is now forced to rely on countries fundamentally opposed to American ideals. Uzbekistan has something of a human rights crisis, condemned just today by Human Rights Watch for torture and a corrupt justice system, among other things. Human Rights Watch said the U.S. has failed to address the former Soviet state’s failures for need of access.

“Driven by a short-term interest in Uzbekistan’s strategic importance … the U.S. and the (European Union) have failed to respond to Uzbekistan’s deepening human rights crisis,” HRW said in its report.

The U.S. could be using more air transport or alternate routes instead, but in the interest of keeping costs down, has opted to use more politically precarious routes. The Diplomat explains the options:

By the time of the Pakistan cutoff, a bit more than a third of NATO cargo to Afghanistan went in via the northern route, slightly more than via Pakistan. The remainder goes in by air, which avoids any geopolitical complications but is far more expensive.

Russia isn’t as essential a link as Uzbekistan – the coalition can bypass Russia by transiting through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea into Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan. But the Russian route is nevertheless easier and cheaper.

The added money would have a political cost back home, and taxpayers likely would rather not pay to airmail chemically preserved meatcakes to the troops. Americans would almost always rather read about atrocities in the paper than pay extra taxes to keep money out of the hands of those who commit them.

The bottom line is that without Pakistan as a suplly route, and even with it, Washington’s political power, foreign and domestic, will suffer. With taxpayer money flowing to the oppressive regimes they publically condemn and a very sensitive polticial string in the hands of a country on the other side of a nuclear missile shield only so America can continue to send its young men to attempt (in vain, some say) to stabilize the Graveyard of Empires, this can not end well.

Photo/Creative Commons/Defence Images

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Steve Coll on Afghanistan: ‘Let us hear from the spies’

Obama_petraeus

Steve Coll at the New Yorker wants America to dive into the nitty gritty in 2012. As the war in Afghanistan enters its second decade and Barack Obama’s spot in the White House is contested, Coll is asking for the facts.

The facts, in this case, come in the form of a National Intelligence Estimate on the war in Afghanistan that should be published soon, according to Coll. The Estimate, compiled by analysts in all 16 American intelligence agencies, is — to use a military term — a ‘no-bullshit assessment’ of the current situation in Afghanistan.

Typically, Coll says, these estimates are classified Secret or Top Secret, as they are compiled using a range of data, some of which is presumably classified. These Estimates, however, are compiled with a distinct lack of something else: political influence. Coll explains:

After the debacle of misreported intelligence during the infamous 2002 N.I.E. on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence community made changes to try to ensure a drafting process of high integrity. Thomas Fingar, who oversaw some of the reforms, described the process in a 2008 speech. The protection of dissent was certainly one of the goals of the post-Iraq reforms. But they were not intended to create yet more ways for four-star generals to be weigh in on finished intelligence. The idea was to protect civil servants from a politicized process—to defend the proverbial analyst-dweeb (i.e., Chloe O’Brian on “24”) who might be poorly socialized but who happened to see what her slick bosses had overlooked.

In today’s Washington, ‘no-bullshit’ is a phrase than can often only be used literally. With partisan mud-slinging from both sides of the aisle and gridlock on some very basic issues, a government assessment free of partisan influence is probably about as common in Washington as an actual pile of bull feces, so the upcoming N.I.E. is a golden opportunity.

Not only does this Estimate give us the first comprehensive view of a war fought with the increased troop presence provided by Obama starting in 2009, but it will answer better than anything else the question: What has Barack Obama’s administration done in Afghanistan?

After the 2009 troop surge became one of the first major issues to divide the democratic government during the Obama administration, the importance of that question cannot be understated.

But the answer provided by the upcoming N.I.E. is one the public may not see. Since the Estimates seem to be classified by default, someone in Obama’s government would have to opt to go public with the information, either by way of WikiLeaks or the like, or officially, as Coll suggests:

Let us have the facts, as the intelligence community describes them. Obama should publish unclassified versions of the key judgments in the latest N.I.E. once it is complete. The Bush Administration did this twice at the height of public controversy over the Iraq war.

Based on the hints Coll was able to get about the latest Estimate, they don’t pain a pretty picture.

These days, an Estimate usually contains “Key Judgments” backed by analysis near the front of the document. There are six such judgments in the Afghanistan draft, I was told. I wasn’t able to learn what all of them were; according to the accounts I heard, however, the draft on the whole is gloomier than the typical public statements made by U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan.

A grim official analysis of his efforts in Afghanistan could seriously hurt president Obama’s reelection campaign, and that is motivation enough for his administration to keep it under raps. If they truly have America’s best interests in mind, and truly believe they’re doing the best that could be done for the country, then let’s hope an official (and not-too-severely-redacted) version of the assessment is released to the public before Americans head to the polls next year.

Photo: Then-Senator Barack Obama with then-General David Patreus in July 2008. The pair have climbed the ranks in Washington: Petraeus is now head of the CIA and Obama was elected President in 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell.

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