It's a bit long, but incredibly strong, saying many things I'd bet have
been secreted away in many minds. A political Larry David. Joking
aside, it's a serious, contentious opinion piece, deserving of the same
attention we used to give the now-defunct LA Times Opinion &/or Book
sections. If there's anyone who should write one, it's Allan Nairn. -Ed
Journalist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama's First Year in Office
Democracy Now Interview
January 06, 2010
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it's almost been a year since President Obama's
inauguration and his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo.
For a critical look back over the Obama administration's foreign policy and
national security decisions in the last twelve months, we're joined here in
New York by award-winning investigative journalist and activist Allan Nairn.
In 1991, we were both in East Timor and witnessed and survived the Santa
Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian forces killed more than 270 Timorese. The
soldiers fractured Allan's skull.
Over the past three decades, he has exposed how the US government has backed
paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Haiti. He also
uncovered US support for the Indonesian military's assassinations and
torture of civilians.
He's joining us now for the rest of the hour.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Allan Nairn.
ALLAN NAIRN: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don't you start off with a broad overview, as we move
into this first anniversary of President Obama's inauguration, of his term
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I think Obama should be remembered as a great man because
of the blow he struck against white racism, the cultural blow. And he
accomplished that on Election Day. That was huge. This is one of the most
destructive forces in world history, and by simply-by virtue of becoming
president, Obama did it major damage.
But once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US
president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama
became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans
the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill.
He could have flipped the switch and turned it off. The President has that
power, but he chose not to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean? Explain more fully.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the machine. The US spends about half of all-almost half
of all the military spending in the entire world, equal to virtually all the
other countries combined. More than half of the weapons sold in the world
are sold by the United States. The US has more than 700 military bases
scattered across dozens of countries. The US is the world's leading trainer
of paramilitaries. The US has a series of courses, from interrogators to
generals, that have graduated military people guilty of war crimes and
crimes against humanity in dozens upon dozens of countries. The US has a
series of covert paramilitary forces of its own that get almost no
attention. For example, right now in Iran, there are covert US
paramilitaries attacking Iran from within, authorized by secret executive
order. This was briefly reported, but it dropped from notice. In addition to
that, there are the open attacks, the open bombings and invasions. Just in
the recent period, the US has done this to Iran-to, I'm sorry, to Iraq, to
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya. Currently in the Philippines, there
are US troops in action in the south. And you could go on. This is the
And then, in addition, there's the support for a series of what the RAND
Corporation itself-you know, RAND is an extension of the Pentagon-called US
support for repressive non-democratic governments and for governments that
commit aggression. There are about forty of them that the US backs. And I
could run through the list. And the point is, Obama has not cut a single-cut
off a single one of these repressive regimes. He has not cut off a single
one of the terror forces. He has increased the size of the US Army,
increased the size of US Special Forces. He has increased the level of
overseas arms sales. In fact, the Pentagon, his Pentagon, was recently
bragging about it. The same thing happened under the Clinton administration
with then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. He has tuned it up. But you could
just run down the list of countries where civilians are being killed and
tortured with US weapons, with US money, with US intelligence, with US
political green lights.
ANJALI KAMAT: So, Allan, what would you say is the difference between the
preceding eight years under the Bush administration and this past year, as
we move forward under Obama?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, in this respect, on matters I was just talking about,
there's no substantive difference. In fact, as far as one can tell, Obama
seems to have killed more civilians during his first year than Bush did in
his first year, and maybe even than Bush killed in his final year, because
not only has Obama kept the machine set on kill, but he had his special
project, which is Pakistan and Afghanistan. He used this to get elected. He
had to prove himself. He had to go through what the New York Times once
called the "presidential initiation rite," under which each president must,
in their words, demonstrate his willingness to shed blood. Obama did that by
saying, "I'm going to attack more vigorously Afghanistan and Pakistan." And
he's brought chaos.
I mean, you just saw the report from Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has
squeezed the Pakistani military to attack their own tribal and border areas
with extensive civilian death and retaliation from the residents of those
areas through a series of bombings across the major cities of Pakistan.
Likewise in Somalia, Bush backed Ethiopia in an invasion of Somalia,
basically an Ethiopian-US invasion of Somalia. Now Obama is pumping in new
arms, new weapons, into the midst of the killing and chaos there. Somalis
are streaming into Yemen as refugees. The already disastrous level of hunger
and starvation is increasing. His body count probably exceeds that of Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what we've been seeing over the last few days, I
mean, what happened with the jetliner, now President Obama coming out
yesterday talking about other attempts that were thwarted, like even on
Inauguration Day, and that was actually Somali. And what are the approaches
you think that President Obama should take?
ALLAN NAIRN: Right. Well, you know, the issue is not the safety of
Americans. The issue is the safety of people. All people. You have to count
not just the American deaths and potential American deaths, but the deaths
everywhere, since-you know, since everyone counts. And the best solution is
the one that protects the maximum number of people. And if you happen to be
the party that is committing the largest number of killings in the world, as
the US is now, then the solution is easy: stop committing the killings.
In this case, in the present moment in history, that would have the added
side benefit of most likely making Americans safer, as well, because you
would take away the main provocation. Tom Brokaw, on TV this weekend, made a
very interesting comment. He described what the US was engaged in as the
"war against Islamic rage." That's actually the most telling definition I've
seen. I mean, think about it. In Afghanistan, Karzai, the US/UN-installed
president, basically the man thought of as a US puppet, the man previously
lionized by the US press before he started speaking out against the US
aerial killings of civilians, Karzai started to get enraged after a series
of bombings of wedding parties by the US and NATO forces. Think about it.
Somebody bombs your wedding, a foreign air force bombs your wedding. How are
you supposed to react? Are you supposed to be delighted? Rage is the normal
human response. If you stop that, you lower the rage, and you probably get
fewer attacks on Americans.
You know, there's a man named Kilcullen, who's Australian by origin, who's
now one of the main intellects behind the US counterinsurgency policy. He
advises Secretary Gates, who of course was Bush's Defense Secretary, as
well. He said that if he were a Muslim today in a Middle Eastern country, he
would probably be a jihadist. Robert Pape, the leading academic specialist
on suicide bombings who studied the entire database of all the suicide
bombers in recent years, said it's a consequence primarily of occupation.
So, you stop committing mass murder overseas, and you immediately,
immediately, just by that action, achieve the main goal, which is minimizing
the overall deaths of people, and you most likely get the side benefit of
also minimizing the deaths of Americans-
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pape-
ALLAN NAIRN: -because you're prodding fewer people.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Pape is a conservative academic?
ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. In fact, he went on TV recently saying he was a big fan of
aerial bombing. I mean, he is no peacenik. But he honestly studied the data
on suicide bombings, and that was his conclusion.
And by the way, the tactic of, you know, bombs in civilian places, like
outside mosques, it was not originated by the current jihadists. You know,
the current jihadists, of course, as is well known, grew out of the US and
Saudi Arabian operation in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet invasion, and bin
Laden and the others were backed by the US. But that actual tactic dates
back to times like when the CIA used it in Lebanon to try to kill a cleric,
and they blew up people as they were leaving the mosque. They used a car-the
US used a car bomb to do that.
Even aerial bombings, even bombings of airplanes, three of the biggest
incidents before 9/11 were actually incidents of US culpability. In '76, a
Cuban airliner was brought down with-I believe the death toll was-what was
it? Seventy-three, I think, something on that order-by Luis Posada Carriles,
a longtime CIA operative, who was later indicted for terrorism. And the US
refused to extradite him. They're harboring-they're harboring him. Later,
in-let's see, what year was it? The Indian Airlines bombing in '85, I
believe, an Indian jetliner was blown up, almost-about 300 killed. The
bombers were later found to have received training at a US camp in Alabama,
US paramilitary camp that had also, with Reagan backing, had done operations
against Central America. The Iranian jetliner shot down by a US ship, the
Vincennes, also with roughly 300 killed, in '88, the captain of the ship who
did that, he got a medal from Bush Senior for exceptionally meritorious
So these tactics, you know, bombing civilian places, even blowing up
jetliners specifically, are not new. And the US itself has used them.
And, you know, they talk about how the jihadists target civilians. Well,
certainly true. But when bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center, he was
basically using-the attack on 9/11, he was basically using US targeting
principles. He attacked the Pentagon, a military target, and he attacked the
World Trade Center, which had a CIA-in fact, did have a CIA office in it.
Now, on this end, especially here in New York, we can see that those
targeting standards are absolutely insane. I mean, we could see the cooks
and the firemen dying. You know, we could breathe the dust. We could see,
no, even if you are going after a CIA office, you do not do this. We can see
that that's wrong on this end. It's also wrong on the other end, when the US
When the US opened-so it's not just a matter of targeting, and it's not just
a matter of targeting civilians. The Goldstone report found that Israel
targeted civilians specifically, when they invaded Gaza, and the US has
often done it. For example, in Iraq, the US adopted what they called the El
Salvador option, which is a reference back to the El Salvadoran death squads
of the 1960s and '70s, which is something I investigated extensively. And
these were launched under the Kennedy administration and basically sponsored
and run by the US for decades. And similar operations were done in Iraq by
the US, under the direction, by the way, of General McChrystal, who now runs
Afghanistan. The technical term the Pentagon used for it-uses for it is
"manhunting." So they do target civilians.
But even when they're not targeting civilians, which is probably most of the
time, they end up killing massive numbers of civilians. The Pentagon has a
word for that, too. They call it "bugsplat." In the opening days of the
invasion of Iraq, they ran computer programs, and they called the program
the Bugsplat program, estimating how many civilians they would kill with a
given bombing raid. On the opening day, the printouts presented to General
Tommy Franks indicated that twenty-two of the projected bombing attacks on
Iraq would produce what they defined as heavy bugsplat-that is, more than
thirty civilian deaths per raid. Franks said, "Go ahead. We're doing all
twenty-two." So that adds up to, you know, about 660 anticipated,
essentially planned, what in domestic terms would be called criminally
negligent homicide, at the least, probably second-degree murder. You might
even be able to get it up to first, first-degree. And that, just if-if that
was the actual toll, the bugsplat estimate of the toll on the first day,
that right there would give you a third of the World Trade Center death
toll, just on the first day of the Iraq operation. And, of course, the Iraq
operation has gone on. And that's essentially what's happening in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They claim-or they claim-or let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and
they say, OK, they have an al-Qaeda target, or whatever target, some armed
man in some compound somewhere, and they bomb it, and they also kill the
person's wife and the kids and their extended family and the friends who
were there for dinner. Imagine. Imagine if that happened here. Let's say
al-Qaeda occupied New York. They set up checkpoints on Seventh Avenue. And
if a car tried to run the checkpoints, they'd machine-gun the car, as the US
does in Iraq. Or they ran drones over Washington, DC, and they were taking
out US officials in their backyards as they did barbecues in suburban
Virginia or as they were going for coffee in Dupont Circle. How would
Americans react to that? In fact, how would Americans react if some young
American went out and killed some of those al-Qaeda occupiers? The question
I mean, when you do things like this, when you make humans into bugsplat,
you invite response. So, stop the killing, and you get a benefit. You'll
probably make yourself safer, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to award-winning journalist and activist Allan
Nairn. We're going to go to break, then come back. Want to get your reaction
to President Obama's Nobel address, also to his condemning torture just
about a year ago. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and
Peace Report. We'll be back in a minute.
AMY GOOMAN: Our guest for this hour is Allan Nairn, award-winning journalist
Allan, I want to get your response to President Obama's invocation of the
concept of a just war, this in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in
Oslo in December.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: we
will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times
when nations, acting individually or in concert, will find the use of force
not only necessary, but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this
same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves
no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As
someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I
am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is
nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve, in the creed and lives of
Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be
guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is and cannot stand
idle in the face of threats to the American people, for, make no mistake,
evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted
Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down
AMY GOOMAN: An excerpt of President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo
just about a month ago. Allan Nairn, your response?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he's right. There is evil in the world. And Obama should
stop committing it. He should stop bombing, doing bombing raids that kill
civilians. He should stop backing forces that kill civilians.
You know, it's probably true that nonviolence couldn't have stopped Hitler.
There are just resorts to violence. If you're standing there with your
mother, someone comes in with a machine gun, you step in front. And if
got a gun, you try to kill the machine gunner before they blow away you and
your mother. Sure, there are lots of situations like that in life.
But that's not in the situation of the US in foreign policy. As Obama was
making that speech, he was saying, when we resort to violence, we will abide
by the rules. This was exactly at the moment when the US was blocking the UN
from doing precisely that. The Goldstone report had recommended, in just one
example, that Israel be brought to the International Criminal Court for
their assault on Gaza and that-as well as Hamas-and that let the chips fall
where they may. Do an objective investigation and see if rules of law were
violated, see if crimes against humanity were committed, as he said they
were. And Obama blocked it.
The US itself, in its operations in dozens upon dozens of countries, is
violating not just international law, but US law. People have forgotten
about them, because they're not enforced. Here are four US laws currently on
the books. There can be no US weapons used for aggression. That's the old
Harkin amendment. There can be no US aid for foreign internal security
forces of any kind. That's Section 660 of the 1974 Foreign Assistance Act.
There can be no US military aid for any regime that engages in a pattern of
gross human rights violations. That's 22 US Code 2304(a). There can be no US
aid for any military unit that commits atrocities. That's the Leahy
amendment. Now, these are not radical political demands; these are existing
US law. And the US systematically violates its own laws, not to mention the
murder laws of local countries.
AMY GOOMAN: Where? Name the countries.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, just-you know, we mentioned before some of the places
where the US is bombing and attacking. Less known, these are some examples
of the machine being set on kill, repressive-what in RAND's words-RAND
Corporation's words, repressive regimes being backed by the US: Algeria,
where they annulled an election, they stole an election, they do systematic
torture; Ethiopia, where there's mass hunger among the population, but where
the US is building up the Ethiopian army and using them against Somalia;
Saudi Arabia, the most religious extremist, anti-woman dictatorship in the
world; Jordan, a torture center-the Jordanian intelligence outfit was, in
the words of George Tenet, owned by the CIA, and both the CIA and Israel use
it for torture; Rwanda, whose army and paramilitaries have been pillaging
and raping and massively killing in the eastern Congo; Congo itself,
Secretary of State Clinton went there and made a good denunciation of rape
by the Congolese army, and as that was happening, the US was delivering
weapons and training to that same Congolese army; Indonesia, where the army
now de facto occupies and terrorizes Papua and has recently resumed
assassinations in Aceh, the other end of the archipelago; Colombia, where
army and army-backed militaries are the world's number-one killer of labor
activists; Uzbekistan, massive torture backed simultaneously by the US and
Russia; Thailand, where officers who-US officers who I spoke to use their US
training in what they call "target selection" to assassinate and disappear
Muslim rebels in the south; Nepal, where US Green Berets for years created
old Guatemala-style civil patrols that carried out lynchings against
pro-Maoist forces and civilians in the countryside; India, where the police
do daily torture and where their own officers talk about using terror
against villages in the Naxalite rebel areas; Egypt, one of the world's
leading torture states and Israel's accomplice in the blockade and hungering
of Gaza; Honduras, where the army recently staged a coup when the
president, Zelaya, turned against his fellow oligarchs; Israel, which
committed aggression against Gaza using US white phosphorus and cluster
bombs as the US was-the US was shipping in new materiel as this, you know,
attack was underway; and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where,
as the British Guardian just reported, the security forces are doing
systematic torture of Hamas people and other dissidents under CIA
sponsorship. And that's only a partial list. We'd need another twenty-minute
segment to complete the list.
But in not one of these cases has Obama decided to comply with US law,
comply with international law, and cut off the killer forces. In fact, in a
number of them he has stepped it up. In Indonesia, for example, he's made a
push to renew aid to the Kopassus, the Red Berets, the most deadly of the
killer forces, hated by the people, long trained by the US Green Berets.
AMY GOOMAN: You made a provocative statement at the beginning of this
broadcast, comparing an Obama presidency with a possible Palin presidency,
and whether you would see a difference when it comes to foreign policy.
ALLAN NAIRN: Right. Well, in terms of killing civilians overseas, no
difference. Every single action I've laid out could easily be adopted by
Palin. In fact, Obama is carrying them out using Bush's Secretary of
Defense, Gates, using Bush's old counterterrorism man, Brennan, using
Admiral Blair, Admiral Dennis Blair, who personally-this is something that
we discussed on an earlier show and which I personally reported on-who
green-lighted church massacres, massacres of Catholic churches by General
Wiranto in occupied East Timor in 1999 to punish the Timorese for voting for
independence. So Palin could do all those things.
AMY GOOMAN: Dennis Blair's position at the time?
ALLAN NAIRN: He was head of the US Pacific forces, and he's now Obama's
Director of National Intelligence. And he's now getting some political heat
over the Detroit underwear bomber incident, which I actually think is
unfair. You know, you can reinforce the-I mean, Blair should have been
indicted for crimes against humanity and put on trial. Blair should be in
prison now for what he did with General Wiranto. But this is unfair
criticism of him on the bomber. I mean, you can't prevent someone from, you
know, trying to sneak in. If you want real security, you stop it on the
other end. You stop the provocations and turn down the heat.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Allan Nairn, one of the things that Obama promised-one of
the ways he promised he would be different from the Republicans, different
from previous presidents, and different from the enemy he's fighting, is
that he would adhere to the rule of law. There would be standards. He's
banning torture. He's going to close Guantanamo. These were promises he made
last year. Can you talk about where-you mentioned the Goldstone report and
US efforts to block the Goldstone report at the UN. But can you give us an
assessment of where Obama stands in terms of international law? You told us
a little bit about domestic law.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the violations-and this is not-you know, we're talking
about Obama, but this is the whole US system. I mean, Bush did the same.
Clinton did the same. Bush's father, Reagan, Carter. It's institutional
policy. He's violating not just law, but especially international law, which
defines aggression as the supreme crime. And when you go in and bomb
countries because you say there's a-you know, there's a militant there you
want to kill, that is easily defined as aggression.
When you back forces that are systematically killing civilians, as many are
in that list of countries I ran through, you are a party to crimes against
humanity and maybe even, arguably, in some cases, genocide. That was
certainly the case in Central America in the '80s, where-actually, now a
Spanish court has indicted and is trying various Guatemalan generals for
those crimes, charging them with an array of crimes against humanity. And
they did it with US backing, with US weapons.
Obama issued a torture ban, a supposed torture ban, which was actually a
AMY GOOMAN: Let me play a clip of President Obama. It was just about a year
ago, this executive order banning torture. On January 22nd of last year,
this is what Obama promised to do.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning, I signed three executive orders.
First, I can say, without exception or equivocation, that the United States
will not torture. Second, we will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp
and determine how to deal with those who have been held there. And third, we
will immediately undertake a comprehensive review to determine how to hold
and try terrorism suspects to best protect our nation and the rule of law.
AMY GOOMAN: That was President Obama just about a year ago. Allan Nairn?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, his torture ban is empty. Ninety-eight, 99 percent of the
US-backed torture is not done by Americans; it's done by foreigners acting
under US sponsorship. And that continues. His ban does not affect that. And
even when it comes to Americans doing hands-on torture, his ban only says
they are prohibited from doing so in situations of armed conflict, like in
the middle of a war. That means that even an American could today go into
Venezuela, go into Cuba, going into Egypt, go into Jordan, go into most of
the countries of the world and commit hands-on torture, and it would be
perfectly permissible under the so-called Obama torture ban. So it's fake.
AMY GOOMAN: And what do you mean that others can do it?
ALLAN NAIRN: An American can do it if it's in a country that's not in a
state of armed conflict. But the vast majority of the torture is carried out
by proxies. That's the way they did it in El Salvador. That's the way they
did it in Guatemala. There's an intelligence officer, an Army man, a
policeman of the local country, and they are trained by the US, they are
paid by the US, but they're not an American citizen. And they're the one who
wields the razor blade. They're the one who puts the hood on.
AMY GOOMAN: Allan, you spend your time traveling the world. Talk about
wealth and poverty.
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the biggest issue is there are more than a billion people
hungry in the world. It recently increased by a hundred million or so
because of the Wall Street-induced financial collapse, but it was at about
900 million during the days of top prosperity, as defined by our current
economic system. That's completely intolerable. Until everybody eats, no one
should live in luxury.
You know how much it would cost to feed those billion people? Less, much
less, than was spent on just the bailout of Citibank. No one in the US, no
one in any party leadership, talks about shifting those resources to do
that. In fact, the President could do that with his own executive authority.
For a deeper, longer-term solution, you'd have to change trade rules, you
would have to change the IMF and the World Bank, so that farmers in
currently hungry areas would have the same opportunities and protections
that US yeoman farmers once had back in the age of Jefferson, when the US
protected its farmers. But a president or even a rich person like a Gates or
a Carlos Slim or a Buffett could instantly feed half the world. The World
Food Programme, every few months, comes out with a desperate bulletin,
saying we've got to cut back the calorie rations because we're not getting
enough for this or that program.
You know, in US politics, people face a bitter choice. You can't vote for
the-with a two-party system, you can't vote against murder, you can't vote
for ending starvation. So they say, "My god, I guess I'll go for the
Democrats, because if I don't, they're going to move my Social Security to
Wall Street, they'll end gun control, they'll end women's choice." So you
end up backing these direct mass murders and the allowing of babies to have
their brains deformed due to lack of food. That's not tolerable.
I agree with those lunatic tea party people: we need a revolution. We
need-now, they're talking about a revolution to put a white person in
charge. I'm talking about a revolution for change. Nothing radical, really.
Just enforce the laws, those US laws, the murder laws, and shift a few
dollars from people who merely want it, people like us who-you know, we live
in luxury; we have all the food we could possibly eat in many lifetimes-and
shifting it to people who need it to keep from being stunted, who need it to
keep breathing, people-we can do that. You know, Nazi Germany, Imperial
AMY GOOMAN: We have fifteen seconds.
ALLAN NAIRN: -horrible regimes. Today, they're peaceful and productive. They
were crushed by violence. That's how they transformed their societies. I
hope we don't have to be crushed in that way. We can transform ourselves,
but people have to stand up and do it. Surround Congress. Occupy the
military bases. The US can become peaceful also, but only if we decide to do
so. And we do have that choice. We have freedoms here.
AMY GOOMAN: Allan Nairn, I want to thank you for being with us. Allan Nairn
is an award-winning journalist and activist.