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Sunday, September 22, 2013
21 September 13
s the pope Catholic? Forgive the posing of a question that is usually rhetorical, the absolute benchmark of certainty, and traditionally regarded as even more settled than the one pertaining to the lavatorial arrangements of bears.
But the most alien element of doubt has been introduced to the inquiry following the pontiff's interview with a Jesuit magazine, in which he criticises his church's "obsession" with gay people, contraception and abortion, and declares that the Catholic hierarchy must dispense with power-playing. "We have to find a new balance," said Francis, "otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards ... The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials." Well. The immediate thought is that you wouldn't want to be his life insurer at the moment. But we shall come to the form book on modern reforming popes later.
So incendiary were the interview's contents evidently deemed that it was practically smuggled out of the Vatican, with so few senior officials reportedly aware of its tenor that the consensus is that it has sent "shock waves" around the Catholic world. Its impact more than doubles down on the seismic jolt effected by the pope when he wandered back to the press seats on his plane out of Brazil a couple of months ago and addressed the issue of gay people with the words: "Who am I to judge?" That can no longer be dismissed as the sort of lunatic thing one might say having consumed an Ambien and several miniatures at 38,000ft - although one has to wonder if those hailing this latest interview as just what the church ordered have partaken of something similar down here on Earth.
After all, if we think of the Vatican as a vast and hugely successful multinational corporation, then this interview would appear to be the equivalent of a profits warning. At the very least, it would seem to be tinkering with the formula of the biggest spiritual brand in the world, analogous to Coca-Cola changing its famous recipe in 1985. I need hardly remind you how that one worked out. Familiarity is what people want in a source of comfort, be it religion or a carbonated beverage.
He is a South American, so perhaps revolutionary spirit courses through Francis's veins. But what, pray, does the Catholic church want with doubt? What does it want with humility? What does it want with that most false of modern idols, relevance? People have been claiming for centuries that the church needs to modernise to survive - reports of its brand demise being revealed as laughably premature every time. Even today, popular myth insists it is the largest landowner in the world, though more realistic estimates place it behind King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, with our own queen in the top spot. Still, it's fair to say the Holy See isn't doing badly.
It's not broke, in any sense of the word - unless you're one of the countless unfortunates to have suffered at the hands of its edicts or its evildoers, of course - so what in his employer's name is Francis up to with this suggestion that something needs to be fixed?
The answer we are being led towards is more sensational than anything he has said so far. And given the spiritual organisation with which we are dealing here, it is obviously necessary to eliminate all other possibilities before we can accept it as the truth. But crikey, if he carries on like this, we may have to consider the almost unthinkable: that a good man has been made pope. Traditionally, such an outcome has felt beyond all realms of reason and possibility, with the notion that a decent sort of chap could politick his way to the top of Vatican's greasy poll more outlandish even than the idea that such a soul could take the White House.
All of which brings us back to the nagging conspiracy theory that a good man who becomes pope has a life expectancy slightly longer than a fruit fly. The last nice reformer to occupy the office was John Paul I, a famously warm chap who immediately moved to humanise the papacy. Just as Francis has shunned the grandeur of the papal apartment in favour of a simple room, so John Paul spoke in the first person, declined to be borne aloft on the papal throne (until he was pressured into it), refused a papal coronation in favour of a more low-key investiture, and sent the clearest of signals that he was a moderniser. A smear campaign promptly cast him as borderline incapable, with one archbishop letting it be known that "They've made Peter Sellers pope." He was dead 33 days after his election, with an autopsy deemed surplus to requirements.
The Lord moves in mysterious ways - though not a thousandth as mysterious as those of his senior personnel from time to time - so there is no earthly possibility of predicting how long the window of opportunity enjoyed by Pope Francis is likely to be. He has certainly made a lively start. But the idea that comments warmed to by atheist liberals - those great irrelevances to the church - represent some sort of material change in the complex doctrinal politics of his organisation seems doctrinally naive. Is it about to get livelier? Is the pope Catholic?
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Exclusive: Journalist uses Freedom of Information Act to disclose 1961 accident in which one switch averted catastrophe
The bomb that nearly exploded over North Carolina was 260 times more powerful than the device which devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images
A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.
The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.
Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.
Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that "one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe".
Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. "It would have been bad news – in spades," he wrote.
Jones dryly entitled his secret report "Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb" – a quip on Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Slim Pickens in a scene from Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy's Road.
Jones found that of the four safety mechanisms in the Faro bomb, designed to prevent unintended detonation, three failed to operate properly. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity. "The MK 39 Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52," Jones concludes.
The document was uncovered by Schlosser as part of his research into his new book on the nuclear arms race, Command and Control. Using freedom of information, he discovered that at least 700 "significant" accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone.
"The US government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy," he said. "We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here's one that very nearly did."
Tuesday, September 17, 2013
By Ryan Devereaux, Rolling Stone
17 September 13
In a new book, the 'Fast Food Nation' author investigates the many near-misses that could have caused catastrophes
t was a one-in-a-million bounce: A socket slipped from a wrench and fell about 70 feet before piercing the fuel tank of the most powerful missile in the United States' nuclear arsenal. What followed was a race to prevent an explosion that could have incinerated the state of Arkansas.
In his new book, Command and Control, award-winning investigative journalist and longtime Rolling Stone contributor Eric Schlosser reveals how this disaster was narrowly avoided at a Damascus, Arkansas missile silo in 1980 – and shows that it was just one incident in an ongoing pattern of near-misses and bureaucratic blunders that have brought America to the nuclear brink again and again. Drawing on six years of research, Schlosser challenges and expands on the U.S. government's secretive record regarding nuclear accidents.
The best-selling author of 2001's Fast Food Nation – which began as an exposé published in RS – likens his new book to a foot soldier's history of World War II, relying on the firsthand accounts of U.S. service members. His interview subjects, many of whom served at the height of the Cold War, have been called on time and again to prevent nuclear devastation, often at tremendous personal risk.
Command and Control hits bookstores tomorrow. Schlosser called RS to explain the results of his latest eye-opening research, and make the case for nuclear disarmament. "I'm not apocalyptic," he says. "But I think we have to confront this issue."
Let's get the big question out of the way: How many times have we just barely avoided nuclear armageddon in the U.S.?
That's a good question. It's a very secretive subject, and I did my best, through interviews and through the Freedom of Information Act, to get as much information as I could on these accidents. The Pentagon lists 32 broken arrows, which are their official nuclear weapon accidents that they consider really serious – but if you look carefully at that list, quite a few of those accidents posed no threat of an accidental detonation on American soil, and I found a lot of other accidents that did.
So the answer is more than once, and far too many for us to be comfortable. The accident that I wrote about at length could have destroyed the state of Arkansas while Bill Clinton was governor. I write about another accident that occurred not long after John F. Kennedy's inauguration that could have deposited lethal fallout as far north as New York City. These are very complicated machines, and they're the most dangerous machines ever invented. I think every nation that has nuclear weapons has to really understand the risk, not only that they pose to your enemy, but to yourself.
You've written about a wide range of topics, from the fast-food industry to marijuana prohibition to immigrant workers. What prompted you to investigate nuclear weapons?
I was in Colorado Springs, spending time with members of the Air Force Space Command, and they started telling me stories of nuclear weapons. And I heard the story of the Damascus [Arkansas] accident, and I thought it was just an unbelievable story. I'd never heard about it. I couldn't believe that it happened, and I was determined to write about it someday. And the more I investigated, the more I realized this accident wasn't the only one. For many years, there were safety flaws with our nuclear weapons which weren't being addressed and which were being covered up. We're just very, very, very, very, very fortunate that a major city has not been destroyed by a nuclear weapon since Nagasaki. But there's no guarantee that that luck will last.
Why did you focus the book on the experience of these nuclear foot soldiers?
Well, you know, there's no shortage of Cold War memoirs by former secretaries of state or former national security advisers or presidents talking about dealings with the Russians. But very little has been written about the ordinary servicemen and women who often took great risks. I tell the story of a guy whose job it was to walk over to a nuclear weapon damaged in an accident and dismantle it – basically a bomb squad guy trained to handle nuclear weapons. Now, that takes a lot of nerve to do, and people like that put themselves at risk in order to prevent catastrophes. I think their stories are really worth telling.
It was important to me to show, not just the bureaucratic incompetence in many cases, but also the incredible heroism of these ordinary servicemen. So it's not a simplistic, black-and-white anti-military thing at all. There's a Vietnam War memorial, but there really isn't any memorial to the people who served in the Cold War – and many of them lost their lives, even though it wasn't a declared war.
What was your research process like?
Unlike the government, I've done everything I can to make the work transparent on this subject. So there's a massive, massive bibliography and source notes – which were a total drag to do, but which were a way of letting readers know where I got the information. Someone who reads one of my books, if they don't want to read any of the source notes, that's fine. But it's sort of a map to the book. And very, very little of the book is based on unnamed sources or anonymous sources. It's all very documented, and I think it was important to do that because the government has been so incredibly secretive on this subject, and there's been a great deal of disinformation and misinformation about it.
What were your most startling discoveries?
The most startling discoveries were how close we came to having a nuclear detonation on American soil. The other thing is how the most trivial, mundane little mistake could have potentially catastrophic consequences. In the Damascus accident, someone is using a socket wrench and the socket comes off the wrench. The idea that a socket could lead to a nuclear detonation is unbelievable – but there are other accidents in which somebody used a screwdriver instead of a fuse-puller and blasted a warhead off of a different intercontinental ballistic missile of ours.
There was another case in which a navigator for a long flight decided to bring some rubber seat cushions onto a B5-2 bomber, and he put the cushions underneath his seat too close to a heat vent. The cushions caught on fire; the bomber wound up crashing with all of its nuclear weapons and almost hit one of our most important military bases. The notion that a nuclear detonation that could destroy one of our most top-secret bases could be caused by some rubber cushions catching on fire is just crazy.
In the last decade, conversations about national security have been dominated by the threat of terrorism, and we don't hear as much about the dangers of nuclear weapons specifically. What do you make of that shift?
There's an enormous amnesia on the part of the American people about nuclear weapons. About half of the American population wasn't born yet or were small children when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union vanished. One of the reasons I wrote the book was just to remind people that these weapons are out there and how easily they can go wrong.
I am hugely concerned – and people who have more expertise than I do in this area are hugely concerned – about the possibility of terrorists getting ahold of a nuclear weapon, or the possibility of a nuclear weapons accident by one of the nuclear weapons powers. I'm critical of the management of our nuclear weapons, but we invented this technology. I think we probably build the safest weapons on Earth. And yet, when you think of countries like Pakistan and India and North Korea having nuclear weapons, a useful guide would be to look at the rate of industrial accidents in those countries, which is much higher than here, and their ability to manage this incredible, complex technology is really worrisome. People can disagree on what the best policy should be for the United States, but I think everyone should know what the options are and what the real risk is.
How secure are the nuclear weapons that exist today, both in the U.S. and abroad?
The Air Force has had some real problems with the management of its nuclear weapons in the last few years. The worst incident I wrote about in the book was in 2007. They lost half a dozen of their powerful nuclear weapons for a day and a half. They had been loaded on a plane inadvertently and nobody bothered [to notice] – there was no paperwork required when they were moved from the bunker. It was incredible that that could occur. Since then, again and again, Air Force units that handle nuclear weapons have been decertified or have been punished for safety lapses.
A few years ago, an entire squadron of our Minuteman missiles went offline, and the missile crews couldn't communicate with our own missiles. The Air Force denied there was any possibility that someone had hacked into our system, but later admitted that they're very concerned about the threat of somebody hacking into our nuclear command and control system. That's like the plot of a bad movie – but if an insider like [whistleblower Edward] Snowden can obtain that sort of information about the NSA, which is some of the most top secret secrets that we have, it's concerning when you have intercontinental ballistic missiles controlled by software.
The biggest concern right now, by far, is Pakistan. One of the things that just came out through some of Snowden's revelations is how little we know about how Pakistan is managing its nuclear arsenal. They're rapidly building all kinds of nuclear weapons. If you have 150 weapons and you only lose one of them, you're still taking care of more than 99 percent of them perfectly – but you can't afford to lose one. Again, one weapon equals one city.
Do you believe there's a place for nuclear weapons in a national defense arsenal, or is the inherent threat they pose too great?
I agree with our president. I think these weapons should be abolished, in the same way I think that biological and chemical weapons should be abolished. Those NBC weapons – nuclear, biological and chemical –weapons, are considered the weapons of mass destruction. I think that it's not going to happen overnight, but people need to be aware of the risk and then I think that over time they can be negotiated out of existence.
If I thought that we were all doomed and it was hopeless to do anything about this, I would not have bothered spending six years researching and writing about nuclear weapons. But I think that we don't have to lose a city to a nuclear weapon – and neither does any other country. People need to be aware, and the world needs to act to eliminate these weapons.
So you believe a day might come when nuclear weapons are gone?
I do. Again, I don't think it's going to happen overnight, but the first step would be for the major nuclear powers to meet and begin greatly reducing the sizes of their arsenals. The fewer weapons there are, the less likely there is to be a catastrophic accident. I mean, that's just the law of probability. Realistically, you have an alternative: You can abolish nuclear weapons or you can accept that one day they're going to be used. It's just almost unimaginable what that would mean.
Soldiers carry a flag draped coffin of a fallen comrade. (photo: AP)
By Chris Hedges, Truthdig
17 September 13
he intoxication of war, fueled by the euphoric nationalism that swept through the country like a plague following the attacks of 9/11, is a spent force in the United States. The high-blown rhetoric of patriotism and national destiny, of the sacred duty to reshape the world through violence, to liberate the enslaved and implant democracy in the Middle East, has finally been exposed as empty and meaningless. The war machine has tried all the old tricks. It trotted out the requisite footage of atrocities. It issued the histrionic warnings that the evil dictator will turn his weapons of mass destruction against us if we do not bomb and "degrade" his military. It appealed to the nation's noble sacrifice in World War II, with the Secretary of State John Kerry calling the present situation a "Munich moment." But none of it worked. It was only an offhand remark by Kerry that opened the door to a Russian initiative, providing the Obama administration a swift exit from its mindless bellicosity and what would have been a humiliating domestic defeat. Twelve long years of fruitless war in Afghanistan and another 10 in Iraq have left the public wary of the lies of politicians, sick of the endless violence of empire and unwilling to continue to pump trillions of dollars into a war machine that has made a small cabal of defense contractors and arms manufacturers such as Raytheon and Halliburton huge profits while we are economically and politically hollowed out from the inside. The party is over.
The myth of war, as each generation discovers over the corpses of its young and the looting of its national treasury by war profiteers, is a lie. War is no longer able to divert Americans from the economic and political decay that is rapidly turning the nation into a corporate oligarchy, a nation where "the consent of the governed" is a cruel joke. War cannot hide what we have become. War has made us a nation that openly tortures and holds people indefinitely in our archipelago of offshore penal colonies. War has unleashed death squads-known as special operations forces-to assassinate our enemies around the globe, even American citizens. War has seen us terrorize whole populations, including populations with which we are not officially at war, with armed drones that circle night and day above mud-walled villages in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. War has shredded, in the name of national security, our most basic civil liberties. War has turned us into the most spied-upon, monitored, eavesdropped and photographed population in human history. War has seen our most courageous dissidents and whistle-blowers-those who warned us of the crimes of war and empire, from Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to Edward Snowden-become persecuted political prisoners or the hunted. War has made a few very rich, as it always does, as our schools, libraries and firehouses are closed in the name of fiscal austerity, basic social service programs for children and the elderly are shut down, cities such as Detroit declare bankruptcy, and chronic underemployment and unemployment hover at 15 percent, perhaps 20. No one knows the truth anymore about America. The vast Potemkin village we have become, the monstrous lie that is America, includes the willful manipulation of financial and official statistics from Wall Street and Washington.
We are slowly awakening, after years on a drunken bender, to the awful pain of sobriety and the unpleasant glare of daylight. We are being forced to face grim truths about ourselves and the war machine. We have understood that we cannot impart our "virtues" through violence, that all talk of human rights, once you employ the industrial weapons of the modern battlefield, is absurd. We see through the Orwellian assertions made by Barack Obama and John Kerry, who have assured the world that the United States is considering only an "unbelievably small, limited" strike on Syria that is not a war. We know that the Pentagon's plan to obliterate the command bunkers, airfields or the artillery batteries and rocket launchers used to fire chemical projectiles is indeed what the politicians insist it is not-a war. We know that the launching of several hundred Tomahawk missiles from destroyers and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea on Syrian military and command installations would be perceived by the Syrians-as we would should such missiles be launched against us-as an act of war. A Tomahawk carries a 1,000-pound bomb or 166 cluster bombs. One Tomahawk has appalling destructive power. Hundreds mean indiscriminate death from the sky. We have heard the careful parsing that does not preclude, should the Pandora's box of war be opened and chaos envelope Syria, the possible deployment of troops on the ground. We have listened to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concede that "there is a probability for collateral damage." We know this means civilians will be killed to prevent the regime of Bashar Assad from killing civilians. Only the circular logic of war makes such a proposition rational. And this circular logic, no longer obscured by the waving of flags, the bombast of "glory and honor," the cant of politicians, the self-exaltation that comes with the disease of nationalism, means that Barack Obama and the war machine he serves are going to face a wave of popular revulsion if he starts another war.
Chris Hedges is a former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. He is the author, with Joe Sacco, of “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.”
Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and head of the U.S. Cyber Command testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 12, 2013. (photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
By Glenn Greenwald, Guardian UK
15 September 13
A lavish Star Trek room he had built as part of his 'Information Dominance Center' is endlessly revealing.
t has been previously reported that the mentality of NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander is captured by his motto "Collect it All". It's a get-everything approach he pioneered first when aimed at an enemy population in the middle of a war zone in Iraq, one he has now imported onto US soil, aimed at the domestic population and everyone else.
But a perhaps even more disturbing and revealing vignette into the spy chief's mind comes from a new Foreign Policy article describing what the journal calls his "all-out, barely-legal drive to build the ultimate spy machine". The article describes how even his NSA peers see him as a "cowboy" willing to play fast and loose with legal limits in order to construct a system of ubiquitous surveillance. But the personality driving all of this - not just Alexander's but much of Washington's - is perhaps best captured by this one passage, highlighted by PBS' News Hour in a post entitled: "NSA director modeled war room after Star Trek's Enterprise". The room was christened as part of the "Information Dominance Center":
"When he was running the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a 'whoosh' sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather 'captain's chair' in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen."'Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,' says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits."
Numerous commentators remarked yesterday on the meaning of all that (note, too, how "Total Information Awareness" was a major scandal in the Bush years, but "Information Dominance Center" - along with things like "Boundless Informant" - are treated as benign or even noble programs in the age of Obama).
But now, on the website of DBI Architects, Inc. of Washington and Reston, Virginia, there are what purports to be photographs of the actual Star-Trek-like headquarters commissioned by Gen. Alexander that so impressed his Congressional overseers. It's a 10,740 square foot labyrinth in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The brochure touts how "the prominently positioned chair provides the commanding officer an uninterrupted field of vision to a 22'-0" wide projection screen":
The glossy display further describes how "this project involved the renovation of standard office space into a highly classified, ultramodern operations center." Its "primary function is to enable 24-hour worldwide visualization, planning, and execution of coordinated information operations for the US Army and other federal agencies." It gushes: "The futuristic, yet distinctly military, setting is further reinforced by the Commander's console, which gives the illusion that one has boarded a star ship":
Other photographs of Gen. Alexander's personal Star Trek Captain fantasy come-to-life (courtesy of public funds) are here. Any casual review of human history proves how deeply irrational it is to believe that powerful factions can be trusted to exercise vast surveillance power with little accountability or transparency. But the more they proudly flaunt their warped imperial hubris, the more irrational it becomes.
(1) Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler has an excellent Op-Ed in the Guardian arguing that the NSA is so far out-of-control that radical measures, rather than incremental legislative reform, are necessary to rein it in.
(2) The Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood, usually a reform-minded transparency advocate somewhat hostile to massive leaks, examines the serious reform which Snowden's disclosures are enabling, as reluctantly acknowledged even by the FISA court and James Clapper himself.
(3) British comedian Russell Brand attended an event sponsored by GQ and Hugo Boss and gave a speech, while accepting an award, which offended almost everyone in the room (that speech is here). He then wrote a genuinely brilliant (and quite hilarious) Op-Ed in the Guardian about the role elite institutions play in reinforcing their legitimacy and how they maintain control of public discourse. It is well worth taking the time to read it.
Friday, September 13, 2013
Syrian rebel fighters stand around an anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on a truck in the northern city of Aleppo, 08/04/12. photo: Getty Images
By Ernesto Londono and Greg Miller, The Washington Post
12 September 13
he CIA has begun delivering weapons to rebels in Syria, ending months of delay in lethal aid that had been promised by the Obama administration, according to U.S. officials and Syrian figures. The shipments began streaming into the country over the past two weeks, along with separate deliveries by the State Department of vehicles and other gear - a flow of material that marks a major escalation of the U.S. role in Syria's civil war.
The arms shipments, which are limited to light weapons and other munitions that can be tracked, began arriving in Syria at a moment of heightened tensions over threats by President Obama to order missile strikes to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in a deadly attack near Damascus last month.
The arms are being delivered as the United States is also shipping new types of nonlethal gear to rebels. That aid includes vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment and advanced combat medical kits.
U.S. officials hope that, taken together, the weapons and gear will boost the profile and prowess of rebel fighters in a conflict that started about 21 / 2 years ago.
Although the Obama administration signaled months ago that it would increase aid to Syrian rebels, the efforts have lagged because of the logistical challenges involved in delivering equipment in a war zone and officials' fears that any assistance could wind up in the hands of jihadists. Secretary of State John F. Kerry had promised in April that the nonlethal aid would start flowing "in a matter of weeks."
The delays prompted several senior U.S. lawmakers to chide the Obama administration for not moving more quickly to aid the Syrian opposition after promising lethal assistance in June. The criticism has grown louder amid the debate over whether Washington should use military force against the Syrian regime, with some lawmakers withholding support until the administration committed to providing the rebels with more assistance.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has pressed the Obama administration to do more to help the rebels, said he felt embarrassed when he met with Syrians along the Turkish border three weeks ago.
"It was humiliating," he said in an interview Wednesday night. "The president had announced that we would be providing lethal aid, and not a drop of it had begun. They were very short on ammunition, and the weapons had not begun to flow."
The latest effort to provide aid is aimed at supporting rebel fighters who are under the command of Gen. Salim Idriss, according to officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because part of the initiative is covert. Idriss is the commander of the Supreme Military Council, a faction of the disjointed armed opposition.
U.S. officials, speaking about the provision of nonlethal aid, said they are determined to increase the cohesion and structure of the rebel fighting units.
"This doesn't only lead to a more effective force, but it increases its ability to hold coalition groups together," said Mark S. Ward, the State Department's senior adviser on assistance to Syria, who coordinates nonlethal aid to rebels from southern Turkey. "They see their leadership is having some impact."
U.S. officials decided to expand nonlethal assistance to Syria's armed rebels after they delivered more than 350,000 high-calorie U.S. military food packets through the Supreme Military Council in May. The distribution gave U.S. officials confidence that it was possible to limit aid to select rebel units in a battlefield where thousands of fighters share al-Qaeda's ideology, U.S. officials said.
Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said Washington's revamped efforts are welcome but insufficient to turn the tide of the civil war between rebels and forces loyal to Assad.
"The Syrian Military Council is receiving so little support that any support we receive is a relief," he said. "But if you compare what we are getting compared to the assistance Assad receives from Iran and Russia, we have a long battle ahead of us."
'It's better than nothing'
While the State Department is coordinating nonlethal aid, the CIA is overseeing the delivery of weaponry and other lethal equipment to the rebels. An opposition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss covert arms transfers, said U.S. intelligence personnel have begun delivering long-promised light weapons and ammunition to rebel groups in the past couple of weeks.
The weaponry "doesn't solve all the needs the guys have, but it's better than nothing," the opposition official said. He added that Washington remains reluctant to give the rebels what they most desire: antitank and antiaircraft weapons.
The CIA shipments are to flow through a network of clandestine bases in Turkey and Jordan that were expanded over the past year as the agency sought to help Middle Eastern allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, direct weapons to moderate Syrian rebel forces.
The CIA declined to comment.
The distribution of vehicles and communications equipment is part of an effort to direct U.S. aid to Syrian rebels in a more assertive, targeted manner. Before Ward established a team of about two dozen diplomats and aid workers in southern Turkey, Washington was doing little more than paying for truckloads of food and medicine for Syrian rebels. U.S. officials concede that the shipments often went to the most accessible, and not necessarily the neediest, places.
Boosting moderate factions
In addition to boosting support for rebels under the command of Idriss, who speaks fluent English and taught at a military academy before defecting from the Syrian army last year, U.S. officials in southern Turkey are using aid to promote emerging moderate leaders in towns and villages in rebel-held areas. Across much of the north, Syrians have begun electing local councils and attempting to rebuild communities devastated by war.
Ward's team - working primarily out of hotel lobbies - has spent the past few months studying the demographics and dynamics of communities where extremists are making inroads. Targeted U.S. aid, he said, can be used to empower emerging local leaders who are moderate and to jump-start basic services while dimming the appeal of extremists.
"We feel we're able to get these local councils off to a good start," said Ward, a veteran U.S. Agency for International Development official who has worked in Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. "We vet individuals who are getting our assistance to make sure they are not affiliated with terror organizations."
The assistance to local communities includes training in municipal management as well as basic infrastructure such as garbage trucks, ambulances and firetrucks. The areas receiving this aid are carefully selected, U.S. officials said, noting that extremist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, are delivering services to communities newly under rebel control.
"If you see new firetrucks and ambulances in places where al-Nusra is trying to win hearts and minds, this might not be a coincidence," said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain details of a sensitive strategy.
The initiatives are part of a $250 million effort to support moderate factions of the Syrian opposition. Of that, the United States has earmarked $26.6 million in aid for the Supreme Military Council. The delivery that began this week does not include items that the rebels have long identified as priorities: night-vision goggles and body armor.
Mohammed Ghanem, director of government relations at the Syrian American Council, which supports the opposition, said the U.S. initiatives are steps in the right direction after years of inaction and misguided policies.
"We've definitely seen a structural and conceptual evolution in terms of their understanding of what's going on on the ground," he said in an interview. "On the other hand, we're always lagging behind. We're not leading. Developments are always like six months ahead of us."
Ghanem said the effect of U.S. assistance is limited by the number of proxies that Washington must use to deliver it. U.S. officials in Turkey rely on a network of contractors and subcontractors to deliver the aid.
Ward said he hopes the assistance efforts will position the United States to have strong relationships in a postwar Syria.
"When you finally have a free Syrian government, you will know them and they will know us," Ward said. "We will have been working with them week after week, month after month. These won't be strangers."
Syria claimed this week that it would sign its chemical weapons over to international control. (photo: Reuters)
By Paul Lewis, Guardian UK
12 September 13
The US vowed to destroy its cache of chemical weapons by 2012. But tons of nerve agents remain in Colorado and Kentucky - reflecting how complicated the process could prove in Syria
f the Obama administration wants an example of the difficulties involved in destroying chemical weapons, it might reflect upon its own struggles to get rid of cold-war era chemical arsenals stockpiled in tightly controlled storage facilities in Kentucky and Colorado.
The United States promised, but failed, to destroy these stocks by 2012 at the very latest. The most recent forecast from the US is that the process of "neutralising" the chemicals in its Colorado weapons dump will be finished by 2018; the date for Kentucky is 2023. That will be 11 years after the US promised to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles, and eight years after Russia - the other major possessor of declared chemical weapons - says it will have finished destroying its arsenal.
About 2,611 tons of mustard gas remains stockpiled in Pueblo, Colorado. The second stockpile, in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, is smaller - 524 tons - but more complicated to decommission, because it consists of a broader range of lethal gases and nerve agents, many of which are contained within weaponry.
Although the process of constructing neutralisation facilities in Colorado and Kentucky is well under way, both plants have still not begun testing procedures. The nature of the Kentucky stockpile makes it particularly difficult to destroy.
"They have every agent there and every weapon - rockets, artillery shells, landmines, spray tanks and aerial bombs," said Paul Walker, a program director at Green Cross International, which has facilitated the destruction of chemical weapons in the US and Russia since the mid-1990s.
Syria claimed this week that it would sign its chemical weapons over to international control, kickstarting a process that could lead to the destruction of the type of nerve agents that were alleged to have been used by the regime in suburbs outside Damascus on 21 August.
The proposal, endorsed by Russia, has been seized on by the White House as a diplomatic path that would avert military strikes, but doubts have been raised about the technical practicalities of securing Syria's chemical weapons and then destroying them.
The secretary of state, John Kerry, is flying to Geneva on Thursday for a two-day meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The State Department said both diplomats would bring specialists to the meetings to discuss the "mechanics" of a programme of Syrian chemical weapons destruction.
The US and Russia have struggled to decommission their own stockpiles of weapons, built-up during decades of confrontation during the cold war. The process has taken place under the auspices the Chemical Weapons Convention - the same treaty Syria has now pledged to commit to.
Enforcement of the convention is overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is based at The Hague. The OPCW provided the scientists who conducted recent United Nations weapons inspections in Damascus and, if Syria were to commit to destroying its stockpiles, would oversee and verify the process.
Kerry and Obama have repeatedly referred to enforcement of the "norms" enshrined in the 1993 convention as a justification for military strikes. In total, 189 countries are now members of the chemical weapons convention.
Syria is one of seven countries that have not ratified the convention; the others are Angola, South Sudan, Burma, Egypt, North Korea and Israel.
However, even those countries that have not signed the treaty are arguably bound by the broader international norm against production, stockpiling or use of chemical weapons.
Since the late 1990s, the US has made great efforts to destroy its own chemical weapons caches, and facilitating the process in the handful of other so-called "possessor states" - in some cases helping fund the process through aid.
However, technological and political challenges have resulted in lengthy delays. By missing its deadlines, the US and other countries have arguably breached a founding principle of the same treaty cited as a reason to justify an attack on Syria.
When the convention came into force in 1997, participating countries agreed to destroy their stockpiles within 10 years, with an option to apply for a five-year extension. Five countries - the US, Russia, South Korea, India and Albania - all missed the main 2007 deadline.
Two years ago, the United States, Russia and Libya were granted further extensions to a previously agreed final deadline for destroying their weapons.
The process in Libya has been complicated because Muammar Gaddafi is believed to have concealed small, secretly stockpiled stashes of weapons that may not have been destroyed. Iraq is controversially proposing to encase and bury its chemical weapons stockpiles as a cheaper alternative. Other countries such as North Korea and Israel are suspected by some of possessing chemical weapons but have not declared them.
However, the majority of declared, undestroyed chemical weapons remain in Russia and the US. The US has destroyed 90% of the chemical weapons it declared in 1993, when the treaty was first signed.
The final stretch of weapons destruction has been beset by technological developments, political challenges and lawsuits. If the US finally meets its promise of destroying all chemical weapons by 2023, the process will have taken more than a quarter of a century and cost an estimated $40bn.
The process could be further delayed further by sequestration, the process of automatic budget cuts affecting the Pentagon, which has promised to prioritise work that relates to combat readiness over less urgent projects.
Russia is scheduled to complete its destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles by 2015, eight years before the US. "It is clear that while Russia and the US have violated the convention, in the sense that they have not met the agreed deadline for destroying all chemical weapons in their countries, those delays are understandable," Walker said. "The failure to meet these arbitrary stockpile destruction deadlines should not discredit their complete commitment to destroying their remaining stockpiles."
Echoing the remarks of other experts, Walker said the process of destroying Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could take up to a decade and cost several billion dollars.
The precise size and nature of Syria's stockpile is unknown, but is likely to be far smaller than the 30,000 tons the US declared in 1990. The secretary of state John Kerry said on Tuesday that Syria possessed 1,000 tons of chemical agents, most of it in the form of unmixed binary components stored in tanks.
India and South Korea, which have destroyed similar-sized stockpiles, took about three or four years to destroy their weapons, but that process only began after the lengthy process of building the plants that were used to destroy the chemicals.
There is little international doubt that there was a chemical weapons attack in Syria on 21 August, which US intelligence officials say killed more than 1,400 people. The US and its allies allege the Syrian government was behind the attack - a charge denied by Bashar Al-Assad and publicly questioned by Russia.
However, the Assad regime has since implicitly admitted it possesses the weapons.
Weapons destruction, a technologically complicated and risky process, is determined by the types of chemical agents, their location and whether or not they have been "weaponised". The process will take considerably longer in a country such as Syria, and could also be made more complicated because the Syrian stockpiles are believed to be stored in several locations.
Analysts say it is unlikely Syria would have the funds to pay for the programme itself, although under the treaty the obligation would be born by the Syrian government. "We may be talking two or three billion," Walker said. "I think the US would be willing to step up to the plate. But that is just a guess."
The US already spends $500m to aid other countries in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons destruction around the world, via one congressionally-authorised programme. Russia, Germany, France, the UK or Canada might also be expected to contribute to any weapons destruction process.
A spokesperson for the US Department of Defense, which oversees and pays for the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiled in the US, said that in 2011 states that were party to the OPCW "acknowledged the need for additional time for the United States, the Russian Federation, and Libya to destroy their chemical weapons".
Under the new extension, a spokesperson said there would be "continued international monitoring of the stockpiles, additional transparency measures, information reporting, and periodic site visits at destruction facilities".
At midday on Friday 5 February, 2016 Julian Assange, John Jones QC, Melinda Taylor, Jennifer Robinson and Baltasar Garzon will be speaking at a press conference at the Frontline Club on the decision made by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on the Assange case.
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