IG: Toxic Burn Pits Still Burning Hell

Despite new rules put into place by Congress in 2009 prohibiting the use of open air trash-burning pits on U.S overseas bases — yes, the same pits that countless numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and their doctors, say have caused irreparable harm to their health  — an inspector general’s (SIGAR) report released today say they are still in commission at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.

Camp Leatherneck is in Helmand Province and has been a launching pad for Marine expeditionary forces and other American servicemembers and contractors since 2008. As recently as 2012  it was the temporary home for some 18,000 at one time — which means a lot of people have been exposed to the huge smouldering pit there. Today, as Camp Leatherneck is  dismantling ahead of withdrawal, it houses about 13,500 U.S military and civilian personnel, according to the letter to U.S Central Command from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko, dated July 11.

Ah, the burn pits, again. Photo credit: Department of Defense
Ah, the burn pits, again. Photo credit: Department of Defense

In that letter, Sopko says the Camp Leatherneck actually spent $11.5 million in taxpayer money to purchase and install two 12-ton and two 24-ton capacity incinerators for clean burning (what the bases were supposed to be doing in the wake of the 2009 legislation). Best let Sopko explain in his own words the rest:

My inspectors made several visits to the camp and found that the 12-ton incinerators were not being used to full capacity and the 24-ton incinerators were not being used at all because a contract for their operation and maintenance had not been awarded. As a result, the camp was relying heavily on open-air burn pit operations to dispose of its solid waste. However, Department of Defense guidance and a U.S. Central Command regulation limit the use of open-air burn pit operations. Camp Leatherneck is in violation of this guidance and regulation.

Camp officials advised that they are planning to eventually use all four incinerators and are looking into the feasibility of contracting to have any excess solid waste hauled to a local landfill. In mid-June 2013, my office was notified that a contract was about to be awarded for operating and maintaining the two 24-ton incinerators and that a contract for hauling trash off-site should be in place by the end of July 2013.

These are positive steps toward the cessation of open-burn pit operations. However, if the base incinerators were used to their full capacity,hauling trash off-site may not be necessary.

Bottom line, the IG’s report found that Camp Leatherneck was violating the new Department of Defense regulations passed in 2009 and furthermore “as a result, possible long-term health risks to the camp’s personnel continue.”

This is a bold statement, considering that the DoD has been dancing around the issue of whether the burn pits are causing health problems for years. We here have documented much of their two-stepping, plus a lot of new funny business with how the VA has been surveying troops coming home with issues ranging from asthma to lung lesions. Doctors who have done lung biopsies on returning vets say they they have have toxic exposure. Others have gone public with their belief that the pits are blame. Yet more and more we hear these reports of bases taking half-baked measures to shut the monsters down — and we’re playing for the privilege! In April we reported another IG report on Camp Salerno, where their two $5 million incinerators have not only gone unused, but are now rotting in place.

Congress has managed to pass a requirement that the VA start collecting information on sick vets for a Burn Pit Registry (the VA initially resisted such a registry, but now is seeking comment and providing details). Soon we may see the repercussions of the Pentagon not taking these risks on U.S bases so seriously.


Onward Christian Drone Aviators!

The first response to Dave Swanson’s “Drones for Christ” report in Sojourners magazine this month is to rub your eyes. This can’t be real, it’s too satirical — a Christian university, sitting on $1 billion of assets in the conservative belt of old Virginia, run by a drawling evangelical preacher with big friends in Washington and the governor’s mansion, offering a concentration in Unmanned Aviation Systems (aka drones)? Calling Slim Pickens!

Riding the bomb: Dr. Stranglelove rides again at Liberty University?

It gets worse when Swanson gets people on campus to lob on-the-record nuggets like this one: “We want to have graduates serving the Lord in this area of aviation.”

That’s right, Liberty University, founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr., is the richest and biggest Christian university in the world and now bills itself as one of the “top military-friendly schools” in the country:

Liberty has been turning out “Christ-centered aviators” for a decade. In fall 2011, Liberty added a concentration in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS, aka drones), making it one of the first handful of schools to do this. Now at least 14 universities and colleges in the U.S. have permits from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, and many institutions, including community colleges, offer drone training.

If one chooses to concentrate studies on piloting drones, the load will include a half dozen courses on “intelligence.” Liberty students can also pick up a minor in strategic intelligence and take courses in terrorism and counterterrorism. (Liberty’s school of government brags that Newt Gingrich helped develop its course on “American exceptionalism.”) …

Liberty’s School of Aeronautics has six faculty members, five of whom have spent 15 to 30 years in the military—four in the Air Force, one in the Navy. Dave Young, dean of the SOA, spent 29 years in the Air Force and retired as a brigadier general. Last summer, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Young to serve on the Virginia Aviation Board.

That Liberty is churning out warriors for Christ is not a surprise, of course. For years, described even on these pages, we have known that there is a pretty sophisticated evangelical cabal mustering at the highest levels of the U.S military (Mikey Weinstein over at MRFF calls it the “Fundamentalist-Christian-Para-Church-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex”). Continue reading “Onward Christian Drone Aviators!”

Michael Hastings, Truthteller, Dead at 33

By now much of the world has learned that Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone reporter, war correspondent and author, has died in a car crash at the age of 33.

hastingsHe will be best known — and all of the eulogies so far lead with this — for his breakout story, Runaway Generalwhich was published almost three years ago to the day, and ultimately got General Stanley McChrystal fired. Hastings was lambasted by the establishment hive for supposedly “breaking the rules,” which meant he did his job: McChrystal and his A-team of chest-thumping commandos had said too much in front of Hastings, who had seized the rare opportunity of being brought into their inner sanctum for an extended series of interviews. Rather than succumbing to the heady experience, Hastings quoted them outright, including McChrystal himself, openly mocking the White House leadership and questioning the Obama war policy. It was a brilliant portrait of a general who was dangerously close to going rogue – fueled by his own authority and narcissism. Beyond that, McChrystal had symbolized just how big the Civilian-Military gap had become over the course of the war. To the hive that had been “covering for power” as Kevin Gosztola so succinctly called it in a tweet this morning about Hastings’ death, Hastings had committed an unforgivable sin. For the the rest of us, he did the American people, which was and still is so much in the dark regarding the war, a tremendous favor.

That was followed by his book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, which gives us a broader, unvarnished view of “Team America” and how the war policy not only unfolded and was interpreted by the generals on the ground, but how they continued to push for action even when they did not believe the war could be won anymore. I reviewed his book, here. Hastings got right back to me when I sent him a link. His words were kind, encouraging and humble, quite the opposite of  what one would expect of a prize-winning journo who had taken down a general.

I believe his book is one of the few “must reads” to come out of the war reportage in that it rankled the powerful while keeping faith with the people, and that’s real journalism. That is why he became a correspondent and why he will be forever remembered as a truthteller. To say he will be missed would be a gross understatement. We are losing so much.



CNAS National Security Hive on Syria: “Meh”

President Obama is expected to make an announcement this week on whether his administration will begin arming the Syrian rebels in their suddenly uncertain effort to topple the autocratic regime of Bashar Assad. All signs point to a lifting of the White House restriction on “lethal assistance” to the rebellion for the first time since the armed resistance began two years ago.

mehThis would mark a major development in U.S intervention in the civil war, which has been complicated by the infusion of radical Sunni extremists from outside the country, as well as the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, and untold resources for both Assad and the rebels, from the Gulf States on one side, and Russia on the other. Millions of refugees are pouring over the borders and into the already beleaguered states of Jordan and Lebanon. The Sunni resistance in Syria is sparking a Sunni resistance in Iraq, whose sectarian tensions mirror those of its neighbor and threaten to boil over at any time.

And how much did the giant annual convocation of national security state interests sponsored by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)  talk about this on Wednesday?

Not much.

In fact, the “pivot to China” (or “pivot to the Pacific”) was a much more attractive topic of conversation today – in fact an entire panel was dedicated to “the future rebalancing to China” this afternoon, proving again that the defense community loves girding up for conflicts that are less likely to happen much more than a) learning lessons from real wars that aren’t quite over yet, or b) talking about very real intervention in a very real tinderbox much closer to our supposed “threat zone” in the Middle East.

This was reflected in the prepared remarks and in the back-n-forth banter by the featured guests throughout the morning, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who, when asked by a Reuters reporter about the Pentagon’s preparation for Syria, said simply, “I don’t have anything for you.” He barely uttered the word Afghanistan, other to say the government will keep funding the war.

Interestingly, Sen. Bob Corker, R-TN., the author of the Syria Transition Support Act with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ., which passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 15 to 3 last month, was the only one to talk extensively about Syria and that was because he is so gung-ho to get in there.

“We are the only county that has the ability to bring all the neighbors in the region together,” he said, pretty optimistically, considering the “neighbors” are already involved and doing their own thing. They are also a bit irritated with the U.S for not “bringing all the neighbors together” when it was more feasible, that is, before every foreign proxy including al Qaeda started popping up in the country.

“What is of great international interest right now is the aftermath of Assad and the great war that is happening right now,” Corker added. Also optimistic, considering that Assad’s forces are on the march toward taking the strategic strongholds of Homs and Aleppo and look less likely to negotiate than ever.

“We have to change the balance of power,” the senator insisted, and help push things toward a negotiated settlement. “I do believe, this is the very best way forward and if I could make a bet …I bet that is what the president is going to to.”

The level of excitement in the room after this rousing plea for intervention was somewhere between zero and “meh.” Quietly, afterward, some national security types (both Marines and Air Force) told me they didn’t think there was any enthusiasm from the military for pushing our way into the Syrian mess. That seems to be an understatement.

Last summer, the Pentagon was on board with a plan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Chief David Petraeus to send arms to the rebels. By April, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Martin Dempsey was backing off from that position and Sec. Def. Chuck Hagel was saying military involvement would be a bad idea.

Who knows who might convince the President otherwise as they continue these hot discussions in the White House this week. It looks like my friend Gareth Porter was right the other day when he said the “National Security State,” which includes the armed services, the Pentagon, and the Joint Chiefs, “are fine with what is going on in Syria” as of this moment. “But getting involved, it would be a tax on their resources,” and that the “cost to the National Security State would be greater than the benefit” of getting involved.

Talk about Nat Sec State interests — these are CNAS’s financial supporters here.  Most likely a good number of them had representatives at today’s conference. That most of the talk in the morning evolved around the budgets — how the Pentagon was going to work with sequestration, how it would survive with leaner budgets, indicates where the hive’s head is right now (on itself). They only want to know where the next-gen threats are in as much as they can offer new opportunities for federal contracts.

Not surprisingly, CNAS’s 7th Annual Conference was called “Looking Forward: U.S National Security Beyond the Wars.” After COIN fell this crowd couldn’t wait to get away from the war fast enough (interestingly, CNAS just issued a paper on “Toward A Successful Outcome in Afghanistan,” yet no panel was arranged to discuss it). CNAS seemed perfectly happy to talk budgets, China and Cyber, energy and whatever the room full of suits wanted. Painful strategy debates involving protracted conflicts (we still don’t know how many troops will be left behind in Afghanistan after 2014) and a possibly messy intervention that may in fact be decided this week, were not on the docket.

Guess it just wasn’t in their “interest.”


A Slice of the Anti-war/Syria position in NYC

It shouldn’t be easy for a group of Antiwar.com writers and supporters to just walk in and dish about foreign policy at the Left Forum, which claims to be the biggest annual convocation of Leftwing activists in the country.

But it was — easy, that is. In fact, some of us probably made it harder for the Leftwing participants at the New York City confab to prove to us that that they weren’t just humanitarian “imperialists” in disguise. Imperialists – that’s a dirty word in these parts, on any side of the aisle.

Which made for an interesting panel discussion on Saturday, moderated by this writer, who was trying to drill down on the question of whether the United States had any moral obligation to intervene in Syria because a) there was (or at least it began as) an organic freedom movement trying to topple a repressive government that had been tacitly supported by America for years, and b) there is a growing human crises that stands to get worse, not just for Syria but for the entire region, which is already fragile from war, refugees and sectarian strife.

This question is particularly salient today because the Obama Administration is expected to “decide” this week whether the U.S will start assisting the rebels with heavy arms (something my co-panelists and many in the audience clearly oppose). And while President Obama has already ruled out “boots on the ground,” there is an ongoing debate about the “less likely” option of helping to impose a no-fly zone and “deploying American air power to ground the regime’s jets, gunships and other aerial assets,” according to an Associated Press report on Sunday.

With help from the Russians and Hezbollah on the ground fighting for Bashar Assad’s Syrian Army forces, the government has in the last week taken back the city of Qusair and is on the march north to recapture Homs and Aleppo, the very source of the rebellion’s strength. The fall of Qusair blocks a strategic supply route for the rebels and the fall of the two other major cities would reopen the government’s access to the coast and a vital corridor of predominantly Shia-Allawite support. In other words, it’s not looking too good for the revolution.

I was joined Saturday to talk about these developments and more by Gareth Porter, John Walsh, Chase Madar, Evan Siegel, and Lorraine Barlett, all of whom who would either consider themselves Left or libertarian, but decidedly anti-war and comfortable working with the Right end of the spectrum on national security issues. All save for Seigel have written for Antiwar.com or The American Conservative magazine.

The audience was decidedly Left, and, judging from the exhibition hall downstairs, way more comfortable with Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky than Randolph Bourne or Ron Paul. But judging from many of the knowing smiles and murmurs of agreement throughout the nearly two-hour discussion – surprise – we had a lot in common, at least on foreign policy.

First off – there seemed to be a hard line against intervention in Syria or anywhere else. “Bombs for peace” didn’t hold well with this crowd. “(Intervention) will only complicate and cause more death than help in Syria,” said Siegel, an adjunct professor at the New York City College of Technology and veteran peace activist. “They have to work it out for themselves,” said Walsh, a microbiology professor who co-founded ComeHomeAmerica.us and over the course of his own activism has shifted from Left, closer to libertarianism. He appeared the most unyielding of them all on the panel, saying any move to assist the rebels would be seen as imperialist in nature.

Porter agreed. “Don’t be suckers,” he said simply. A mantra for our times. More seriously, Porter entered into an exposition in which he explained that the National Security State — the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs and Pentagon — were disinterested in a Syrian intervention anyway. “It’s not in the interest of the National Security State,” he insisted, “because they believe the cost of war to the National Security State itself would be greater than the benefit to the National Security State. In other words, it’s about their bottom line.”

In that vein, Madar, who has written extensively on recent U.N. Ambassador nominee Samantha Power, said fierce liberal interventionists like her pick and choose their “crises” and show their bias when they conspicuously leave politically unfeasible or inexpedient conflicts off their list of struggles worthy of outside assistance.

When I interviewed a few of the audience members after the session they seemed to share much of the sentiments. “It’s ridiculous to push on one side and not give them the chance to decide for themselves,” said Linda D’Angelo from Ohio. “We can’t put our fingers in all of the dykes.”

Not everyone was digging the tone and direction of the speakers, who were basically asserting that the excuse of “humanitarianism” was often used to meddle, but that the United States has only really intervened for its own interests, and in Syria, there was no interest at stake. Furthermore, whether there was an “interest or not,” all five speakers advocated a consistent hands-off policy. For at least one bespectacled man in the audience who spoke up, this equated with allowing a “slaughter” to continue.

He waited patiently to be called upon and when he was, unleashed a Gatling gun of invectives on the panel, calling them and Antiwar.com, “apologists for genocide,” “Islamophobes,” and “crypto-Stalinists.”

Interestingly, after a brief skirmish broke out, with members of the panel and the audience defending the speakers from his accusations, the man abruptly walked out. But not before he was quietly jeered by both sides on his way to the door.

Siegel, Madar, Porter, Walsh & Barlett at LeftForum 2013
Siegel, Madar, Porter, Walsh & Barlett at LeftForum 2013

But the question of whether the U.S might have some obligation to do something in the face of a humanitarian crisis that stands to affect half of Syria’s 20 million population by the end of the year (already, 1.5 million refugees have left Syria, while 4.5 million are displaced inside), still seems to make some uncomfortable. The conversation often drifted toward the history of U.S war policy, empire and the broader principles of anti-interventionism. There seemed to be some consensus around imposing a total arms embargo in order to let both sides fight it out without interference from the Gulf States, Europe, Russia, Iran, U.S.., etc., but then most conceded that it was likely too far gone for that anyway.

Probably the most heartening thing to come out of the 50-minute exchange in that university classroom was the largely positive (not counting the singular fury that left the room) reaction from the audience. One gentleman admitted he had no idea there was this common ground with “the other side” of the political spectrum before.

There were nodding heads all around. Mission accomplished? Perhaps.



While No One Was Looking: House GOP Voted Against GITMO Closure

Just because the whole world seems to be talking about closing Guantanamo Bay prison — not to mention the President of the United States — doesn’t mean it’s going to happen any time soon. Not if congressional Republicans have anything to do with it.


Distracted by the flurry of scandals that seem to plague the White House on a daily basis, the media barely covered (beyond a brief Associated Press report) this week’s news that the House Armed Services Committee passed a new National Defense Authorization Act bill (NDAA 2014)  that includes restrictions  initiated by committee Chair Rep. Buck McKeon, R-CA., on transferring any prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to anywhere in the U.S or its territories, and to any foreign country that has a “confirmed case of any individual transferred from U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the same country or entity who engaged in terrorist activity subsequent to their transfer.” Knowing how the government fiddles with those statistics already, it shouldn’t be hard to find such ‘confirmed cases’ if they wanted to.

The bill also continues the current practice of requiring a waiver or “written certification” from the Department of Defense to congress based on “several requirements” before any prisoner can be considered for transfer to a foreign country, whether or not that prisoner has already been cleared for release. These certifications have been blamed in part for the roadblocks to getting any prisoners transferred in recent years.

The bill, which passed committee on June 5 by a 59 to 2 vote, also includes $248 million in new construction money for the Guantanamo Bay facilities, more signals of permanency for the controversial prison system.

An attempt by Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, D-WA., to strike the language regarding a prohibition on funds to transfer detainees anywhere in the U.S or its territories was thwarted along party lines, 23 to 38.

“While there are many good aspects to this legislation [NDAA], there are also portions and provisions that concern me. Specifically, this bill prevents the Administration from closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by banning the transfer of detainees, and the construction or modification of facilities in the United States to house detainees,” Smith said in a press release before the Wednesday vote. “Republicans in Congress continue to stand in the way. It’s time to remove the restrictions.”

Not if McKeon, the biggest recipient of defense contractor contributions in the congress, has anything to do with it. It isn’t clear what the full House or the Senate will do with the NDAA once they get their hands on it, but if they pass the same restrictions on transfers, you can bet this issue will be put off for yet another year.

Already the press seems to have forgotten the 100-plus men who are hunger-striking at the prison — maybe some of them backed off when the general there assured them it was really a”hunger strike lite.” Canadian reporter Michelle Shephard weighs in:

Ah, Gitmo’s war on words. Over the years this has been an issue raised repeatedly in our reporting on Guantanamo. Do not call it a prison, journalists have been told, because it’s a “detention centre.” Do not write that there are interrogations, because in fact questioning detainees is called “reservations.” (That one was one of my favourites.) Suicides are “asymmetric warfare.”

And keeping Gitmo open is really just a “delay” in closing it, right? Forcing prisoners who have been cleared to leave is really a “protection measure,” too, I am sure. Meanwhile, the force-feeding or “enterally feeding” is taking its toll on the prisoners, some who are saying they expect to die in the island fortress that for many, has been “home” for the last 11 years.

More on the hunger strike, here.