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    Counterterror policy since 9/11 has often been ineffective, even illegal. At last, trusted traditional methods are paying off

    As the news of this week's intelligence sting against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula became public, there was a seemingly odd contradiction. On the one hand, the president, speaking from Afghanistan, had just announced that, thanks to US military action, al-Qaida was "on the path to defeat". In the words of John Brennan, "In short, al-Qaida is losing badly." On the other hand, there was news of a new and potentially lethal plot – a perhaps undetectable bomb aimed at blowing up an airplane.

    At first blush, these two facts seem incongruous. As a result, much of the editorial comment on the bomb plot has focused on the need for increased vigilance when it comes to al-Qaida. But there's a more important lesson to take away from this disrupted plot.

    Since 9/11, the United States has responded with a full arsenal of national security tools. All too many of these were merely shots in the dark; many were misplaced attempts to find information, with few leads and even less understanding of al-Qaida. Whether it was enhanced interrogation techniques, or FBI stings that focused on individuals with few or no real ties to al-Qaida, or the useless expenditure of funds on fruitless and unfocused data collection, law enforcement and national security officials spent a decade struggling with, rather than mastering, the ways to detect and counter al-Qaida.

    Throughout, there was a determination to find a way to place sources inside the inner chambers of al-Qaida – but until this case, the payoff seemed elusive. When US intelligence services did get close to infiltrating al-Qaida, the result was disastrous – witness the trust the US placed in the triple agent who blew up the CIA team of seven operatives in Khost.

    The success of this latest tactic – successful infiltration based on wise intelligence and careful espionage work – carries an important message. It did not involve secret prisons or torture. It was not a made-up plot designed to lure individuals to the cause of jihad. It was not a case of surveilling or rounding up whole groups of people to try and find one who might pose a danger to the United States. Accordingly, it signifies the new era in counterterrorism, one in which the threat is understood and is therefore manageable; a threat for which the lawful, legitimate and professional skills of the national security apparatus take center stage.

    The Yemeni underwear plot is not the only recent sign of the way in which law enforcement and intelligence have reached a new plateau. Last week, a verdict was returned in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn in a case where three men were accused of plotting to blow up the New York city subways. This was a case where the accused, two of whom have pled guilty and the third of whom was convicted by the jury, were apprehended in the midst of a plot in which training in Waziristan, the purchase of explosives, and the plot to bomb the subways was well underway by the time law enforcement became involved. It was, one could argue, the most serious homegrown terrorist threat to the United States since 9/11. And it was one in which law enforcement intercepted the crime through tactical surveillance.

    Both of these cases, sobering as they may be in their potential for harm, signal that rather than flailing about to find those bent on destruction, the United States has reached a new level of confidence and competence in addressing the threat of al-Qaida. This is a welcome turn of events, one that suggests that counterterrorism has come to rely on knowledge, on on-the-ground information, on patience, and on strategic methods of investigation and pursuit. 

    The president was right. The age of al-Qaida, as we once knew and feared it, is dwindling. With the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, BinLadenism has essentially disappeared. What remains seems to be a less centralized enemy, one that we are now able to declare can be handled by methods of intelligence that have been used against far more recognizable – and far more lethal – enemies. Of equal importance, though, was the manner in which the discovery and disruption of the plot came about: techniques that were essentially by the book, without either illegal methods or overblown claims of danger.

    The sobering significance of the Yemeni underwear bomb was less the plot itself than what it indicates about the way forward. In the future, a frantic reliance on torture, entrapment, and over-inclusive surveillance can give way to the more reliable methods based on knowledge of the enemy, on-the-ground intelligence, global cooperation, and strategic planning to make us safe.

    If only our efforts at apprehending terrorists had trusted these tried and true methods early on in the "war on terror". Perhaps, then, we could have avoided the lapses of law and morality that have marked the era. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Shakil Afridi deserves sentence passed using colonial-era rules for running fake CIA vaccination drive, says Pakistan spy agency

    For some Americans the Pakistani doctor who worked on a clandestine operation to track down one of the US's greatest enemies is a hero who should be given citizenship. But for Pakistan's security agencies Dr Shakil Afridi, a 48-year-old physician who once led campaigns to vaccinate children against polio on the Afghan frontier, is a villain.

    On Wednesday a representative of the country's main spy agency said Afridi had got what he deserved when he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for conspiring against the state, for his role in trying to help the CIA track Osama bin Laden to his hideout in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

    The verdict, passed under colonial-era legislation that denies defendants the right to a lawyer, was handed down by an official from Khyber Agency, one of Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, in consultation with a council of elders. Afridi was also fined £2,221.

    The former public health officer, who reportedly did not know who exactly the CIA were trying to target, was arrested soon after the night-time raid on the former al-Qaida leader's compound on 2 May last year.

    As first revealed by The Guardian, in the weeks running up to the assault by US Navy Seals Afridi had been running a bogus hepatitis B vaccination campaign for the CIA, a front designed to collect blood samples in the hope of finding people who matched the bin Laden family DNA.

    More than a year after the killing of bin Laden he is the only person to have been arrested in connection with an event which humiliated Pakistan's all-powerful military establishment and severely undermined relations between the US and Pakistan.

    An official inquiry into all aspects of the affair appears more vexed by how US forces could have got in and out of Pakistan without being detected than whether Bin Laden had a network of helpers who are still at large.

    The conviction of Afridi came despite public lobbying by senior Americans, including the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who in January publicly said Afridi had "helped provide intelligence that was very helpful with regard to this operation".

    The support of Dana Rohrabacher, a controversial US Congressman who introduced legislation calling for Afridi to be given US citizenship, was perhaps less helpful. Rohrabacher is reviled by the Pakistani establishment for his support for a nationalist movement in the southern province of Baluchistan.

    "He was not in any way treasonous towards Pakistan," Panetta said in January. "He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."

    But that did not wash with a Pakistani intelligence official who compared Afridi to Jonathan Pollard, a former US intelligence analyst who was imprisoned for spying on behalf of Israel.

    "He was working for a spy agency of a third country, irrespective of the fact that country is an ally," said the official.

    On Wednesday Pentagon press secretary George Little responded to questioning about the verdict, saying: "Anyone who supported the United States in finding Osama bin Laden was not working against Pakistan. They were working against al-Qaida."

    Lawyers were puzzled by the decision to try Afridi under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a much criticised set of harsh rules designed by the British in the 19th century to subjugate unruly tribes.

    Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former supreme court judge, said the FCR did not cover Abbottabad where the writ of regular Pakistani law runs. The authorities may have wished to deal with the case in a "hush hush type of hearing".

    "Everyone is entitled to be tried in an ordinary court and in ordinary way and I cannot understand why they would do that if the offence – if it is an offence at all – was committed in Abbottabad," he said.

    Although Afridi has the right to appeal against the verdict to an official known as the FCR Commissioner, his best hope may lie in a presidential pardon, should relations between Pakistan and the US improve. That is not likely in the near term given the fundamental disagreements between the two countries over American use of drone attacks in the tribal areas and Washington's refusal to formally apologise for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an incident on the Afghan border last September.

    The announcement of Afridi's sentence came days after Barack Obama snubbed Asif Ali Zardari by refusing to hold a formal bilateral meeting with the Pakistani president at the Nato conference in Chicago.

    The Americans are furious that Zardari's government has refused to lift a six-month long ban on Nato supply trucks passing through Pakistani territory.

    US and Pakistani officials give different accounts of the importance of Afridi's work in determining bin Laden's whereabouts. The US has long maintained that policymakers were far from being completely sure the terrorist leader was in the house when the raid was launched.

    However, Pakistani officials recently told The Guardian that although the nurses working for Afridi were not allowed to vaccinate anyone they did succeed in getting a mobile phone number for someone inside the bin Laden compound.

    The Pakistani sources say that phone call allowed the CIA to make a voice match to bin Laden's private courier, a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

    All of the 17 health workers who assisted Afridi on the vaccination drive were sacked in March after being officially criticised for acting "against the national interest".

    Aid under threat

    Pakistan's aid community is still reeling from Dr Shakil Afridi's clandestine activities to pinpoint the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

    In a country in which well-meaning health workers can struggle to reach conservative or conflict-torn areas where outsiders are unwelcome, Afridi's work with the CIA has undermined their efforts.

    With his band of 17 health workers, Afridi pretended to be running a hepatitis B vaccination campaign. In fact they were only interested in collecting DNA that might link people in Abbottabad with Bin Laden.

    There are fears that the exposure of the ruse has helped to link public health campaigns with foreign spies.

    That is all the more unfortunate given Afridi's prior history working on polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan's restless tribal areas.

    Pakistan is one of just three countries that have failed to eradicate the disease that leaves children with withered legs. Despite polio eradication being a government priority, as many as 200,000 children were not vaccinated in the past two years.

    Save the Children has been particularly badly affected by the saga. Afridi reportedly told investigators from Pakistan's military intelligence agency that he was originally introduced to the CIA by the aid organisation – a claim Save the Children denies.

    The organisation has since faced a number of problems, including staff being refused visas and the blocking of vital medical supplies from coming into the country.

    The aid community is so disconcerted by the affair that in March a coalition of 200 organisations wrote to David Petraeus, director of the CIA, protesting about the use of a doctor to track down bin Laden.

    Jon Boone © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    State department says there is 'no basis' for Shakil Afridi's 33-year sentence for his part in fake CIA vaccine drive

    The US has said it will press for the release of a Pakistani doctor who has been jailed for 33 years for running a fake CIA vaccination programme as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

    The US state department said there is "no basis" for the arrest and detention of Dr Shakil Afridi, the former surgeon-general of Khyber, who was convicted of treason over the scheme to identify Bin Laden through DNA.

    But even as senior American politicians denounced the sentence as "outrageous", the Obama administration shied away from strong comment on the trial itself as officials said that the legal process is not at an end. Officials are hoping that the sentence can be shortened or overturned on appeal.

    "We continue to see no basis for these charges, for him being held, for any of it," said the state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland. "We will continue to make representations."

    Privately, Obama administration officials are angered by Afridi's arrest and trial which is further evidence of the sharp deterioration in relations with Pakistan. They say that the doctor did not act against Pakistan but against al-Qaida.

    Two US senators, John McCain and Carl Levin, denounced Afridi's conviction and demanded his immediate release.

    "Afridi's actions were completely consistent with the multiple, legally-binding resolutions passed over many years by the United Nations Security Council, which required member states to assist in bringing Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network to justice," the two senior Senators on the armed services committee said in a joint statement.

    "Afridi set an example that we wish others in Pakistan had followed long ago. He should be praised and rewarded for his actions, not punished and slandered.

    "At a time when the US and Pakistan need more than ever to work constructively together, Afridi's continuing imprisonment and treatment as a criminal will only do further harm to US-Pakistani relations, including diminishing Congress's willingness to provide financial assistance to Pakistan."

    Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee, demanded the Obama administration take punitive action against Pakistan.

    "This is decisive proof Pakistan sees itself as being at war with us," he said.

    Afridi's sentence will further alarm western critics of Pakistan who say the country has put far more effort into trying to understand how US spies and special forces were able to plan and launch the Bin Laden raid than into how the al-Qaida leader was able to remain for so long in the Pakistani army garrison town of Abbottabad.

    The sentence was announced just days after Barack Obama snubbed the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, by refusing to hold a formal meeting with him at the Nato conference in Chicago.

    In January, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said he was "very concerned" about the arrest of Afridi after Pakistan's intelligence service discovered he had set up a fake hepatitis B vaccination scheme with his nurses going from house to house in Abbottabad in the weeks before the raid on Bin Laden's hideout in May last year.

    "For them to take this kind of action against somebody who was helping to go after terrorism, I just think it is a real mistake on their part," Panetta said in January.

    There had been hopes that Afridi would eventually be quietly released after the controversy surrounding the Bin Laden raid had subsided.

    US intelligence officials say the clandestine operation by Afridi did not succeed in determining whether Bin Laden was in the house and the raid went ahead without any certainty that the Navy Seal team would find its target.

    However, Pakistani security officials recently told the Guardian that although the nurses working for Afridi were not allowed inside the house to vaccinate any of the children, they did succeed in getting a mobile phone number for someone in the house.

    The Pakistani sources say that phone call allowed the CIA to make a voice match to Bin Laden's private courier, a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

    US aid groups have complained that the bogus vaccination operation undermined their efforts "to eradicate polio, provide critical health services, and extend life-saving assistance during times of crisis" in Pakistan. The ruse may have fuelled fears, backed by religious extremists, that polio drops are a western conspiracy to sterilise the population. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Obama administration under fire for granting access to Hollywood film-makers in apparent violation of official policy

    The Obama administration is under fire for granting Hollywood film-makers clandestine access to the Navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden in apparent violation of official policy.

    Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were given unprecedented information about the 2011 raid to help them make Zero Dark Thirty, a forthcoming film about the event.

    Documents released under freedom of information laws showed the Pentagon and CIA divulged secret information about the commando unit, known as Seal Team Six, which killed the September 11 mastermind.

    The filmmakers were shown a classified facility, whose name was redacted in the released documents, and toured CIA vaults. They were also shown the CIA's replica of Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

    Peter King, the Republican chairman of the Congressional Homeland Security committee, said on Wednesday the documents told a "damning story of extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration" with filmmakers.

    King asked: "If this facility is so secret that the name cannot even be seen by the public, then why in the world would the Obama administration allow filmmakers to tour it?"

    The documents will fuel Republican accusations that Obama is using the raid for partisan political gain in the presidential election. It may also anger those upset at the administration's hard line against government whistleblowers.

    The story first surfaced in Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times on 7 August 2011, which reported the filmmakers' "top-level access".

    Judicial Watch, an advocacy group, sued the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act and last week obtained hundreds of pages of emails and transcripts exchanged between the filmmakers.

    They met senior officials including Michael Vickers, under-secretary of defence for intelligence, John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, and Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser.

    Vickers promised to "give everything that you would want" and stressed the need for confidentiality given that the mission was top-secret. He said: "The basic idea is they'll make a guy available who was involved from the beginning as planner, a Seal Team 6 Operator and Commander."

    In an email, Bigelow, who won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker, wrote: "That's incredible." Boal also responded: "That's dynamite."

    The White House responded by echoing a statement by Obama's press secretary last year when he ridiculed allegations that the administration had leaked classified material to the filmmakers.

    The film was originally set for release just before November's presidential election but has been pushed back to December. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Speaking to graduates at West Point, Biden lists Obama administration's achievements and rejects criticism from Romney

    Troop drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan has allowed the US to focus on new global challenges after a decade of war, Joe Biden, the vice-president, said on Saturday.

    Speaking to graduates at West Point military academy, Biden countered Republican claims that the administration had been weak on foreign policy, citing the hit on Osama bin Laden and the scaling down of conflicts overseas.

    The comments came as President Barack Obama announced he is to spend Memorial Day on Monday with veterans at Arlington national cemetery and the Vietnam veterans memorial.

    In his weekly radio address, the commander-in-chief also sought to make a political point in suggesting that the best way to honour those who had served would be to ensure that they have access to healthcare, higher education and jobs.

    At the US military academy in West Point, Biden sought to rebuff assertions by presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that Obama had become an apologist for America overseas.

    Instead, he listed the administration's achievements, including the pullout of troops in Iraq and the drawdown of soldiers in Afghanistan.

    "Winding down these longs wars has enabled us to replace and rebalance our foreign policy," the vice-president told army cadets and their families.

    Referring to the team of US navy Seals that killed Bin Laden, Biden added: "Those warriors sent a message to the world that if you harm America, we will follow you to the end of the earth."

    Biden's address echoes the themes that Obama outlined in a commencement speech to air force cadets earlier this week.

    Both have sought to counter the view that the current administration has overseen a diminishing US influence in the world.

    It is an area that Romney has attempted to make capital from, repeatedly criticising the president for perceived weak leadership. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Calls for an emergency response to polio are not unrelated to the news that Shakil Afridi has been convicted for his part in the CIA plot

    I was in New York on 11 September 2001, standing near one of the TV screens in the media section of Unicef's communication division, where I headed up Unicef's global communication work on immunisation. As the second plane crashed into the twin towers, we were quickly evacuated out of Unicef headquarters. I remember looking at the tall UN secretariat on First Avenue, home of the UN security council and the office of the UN secretary general. The building had always struck me as looking so graceful, but that morning it just looked like another ideal terrorist target. In fact, I never looked at the UN secretariat building with the same eyes again, and the impacts of that day – and the weeks and months that followed – were just the beginning of a changed, less trusting, anxious world.

    The impacts of that day in New York became an unexpected thread in my Unicef work and the current research I lead at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where we monitor trends in vaccine confidence globally.

    Last week's call by the World Health Assembly for an emergency response to polio eradication is not unrelated to the news that Dr Shakil Afridi has been convicted of treason in Pakistan and sentenced to 33 years in prison. Dr Afridi, former surgeon general of the Khyber agency, was central to the CIA-led fake vaccination drive used to confirm the presence of Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

    The news of Dr Afridi's role did not emerge until a Guardian article in July 2011, when it shook the immunisation world. Although Dr Afridi had pretended to provide a hepatitis B vaccination, not normally a door-to-door delivery, the news had a particularly strong impact on those working in polio eradication, where door-to-door vaccination is the norm. Anxieties and distrust about the polio vaccine and its western providers were rampant in some communities, and suspicions about CIA links with the polio vaccination campaigns, and rumours they were a front for the sterilising of Muslims, had been around for a decade after 9/11. After years of working to dispel myths about CIA links to the polio eradication efforts – from northern Nigeria to Pakistan and India, all of the work seemed fruitless.

    It is no coincidence that the remaining three countries in the world which have polio endemics are Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes, there are geographical challenges and financial challenges. And, yes, finding Bin Laden has been a global security priority. But deep-seated suspicions about the motives of those who provide polio vaccines have persisted in some circles from Nigeria to Pakistan, and the CIA's choice of immunisation as a strategy to find Bin Laden has only given credence to the conspiracies.

    There must have been a better, more ethical, way. This choice of action has jeopardised people's trust in vaccines, and in particular the polio-eradication campaign, now so close to success – broken trust that will take years to restore. Was this strategy worth this sacrifice of trust and the loss of opportunity for the final eradication of a disease scourge – another threat to human security? These are actions where the age-old Hippocratic oath might have urged caution.

    • Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    On ABC's This Week, Panetta says treatment of doctor who helped track down Bin Laden has weakened US-Pakistan ties

    Defence secretary Leon Panetta has upped US criticism of Pakistan's jailing of a doctor who helped track down Osama bin Laden, suggesting it had hit efforts to steer diplomatic relations between Washington and Pakistan back on track.

    Speaking on ABC's This Week, Panetta said the 33-year prison sentence handed to Shakil Afridi for treason was "so difficult to understand and so disturbing".

    The physician ran a fake vaccination programme to collect the al-Qaida chief's DNA as part of a CIA scheme to prove he was living in the Abbottabad compound where he was eventually killed.

    Last week, the US Senate committee retaliated for the sentencing by voting to cut Pakistan's aid by $1m for each of the 33 years handed down to Afridi.

    The spat has served to worsen already rocky relations between Washington and Islamabad amid tension over Pakistan's closure of a supply route to Afghanistan and the US's use of unmanned drones to strike at terrorist targets.

    Panetta described the diplomatic conditions between the two countries as "up and down", noting "this is one of the most complicated relationships we have had".

    But he stressed the importance of trying to improve links between Washington and Islamabad.

    Nonetheless, his criticism over the handling of Alfridi was firm.

    "This doctor was not working against Pakistan. He was working against al-Qaida, and I hope Pakistan understands that because what they have done here doesn't help re-establish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan."

    The apparent leaking of information about the fake vaccination scheme by Pakistani authorities – which was first reported in the Guardian – has angered the US at a time of heightened tension between the two countries.

    However, after Afridi's role was made public, American officials openly acknowledged it.

    Panetta – who was CIA director when Bin Laden was killed– described the doctor as having been "very helpful" in gathering intelligence on the al-Qaida leader.

    The defence secretary also told This Week that the continued use of part's of Pakistan's border region as a safe haven for terrorists remains a concern that needs to be addressed.

    But he defended the Nato plan to end active military operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

    "That is the plan that has been agreed and it is a plan that it working," he said. However, he committed the US to an "enduring presence" in the strife-torn country beyond that date. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    The Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Frontline's Jamie Doran chatted about their experience in one of the most dangerous al-Qaida strongholds

    Guardian reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is no stranger to risky reporting assignments. He's been embedded with insurgents in Iraq, detained by the Taliban, and, in 2011, was captured by the Libyan army. But even with that track record, infiltrating al-Qaida in Yemen presented new challenges — and extraordinary risks.

    To reach his contact in remote southwest Yemen, Ghaith and his director Safa al-Ahmad took a treacherous route through the no-man's land between the territory held by the Yemeni army and that held by al-Qaida. From there, risking their lives at every turn, they filmed Frontline's Al Qaeda in Yemen a unique, first-person record of al-Qaida's growing influence in the region.

    So how did they do it? How close were they to being caught? What role did the camera play? What were the al-Qaida fighters like, day to day? What's al-Qaida's strategy for winning influence over the population — and how well is it working on the ground?

    Abdul-Ahad and Frontline producer, Jamie Doran, discussed these questions and more on Wednesday in a live chat.They were joined by guest questioner Amy Davidson, a senior editor at The New Yorker. She last worked with Frontline to host a chat with Ali Soufan as part of the film The Interrogator.

    If you missed it, not to worry. Here's the transcript:

    A lot of viewers will wonder, I think, about how you managed your security. Ghaith, you've been in Iraq and Somalia, you were detained in Libya—how did this trip compare in terms of the risks you were taking? – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: through tribal connections

    Jamie Doran: To be fair, it's always best not to give away operational data. Best to be general

    To ask in very general terms then—not how you got in, but how you decided what risks were worth it. When does a story rise to the level of being something you might die for? – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Tribes in yemen are stronger than those in Iraq or in somalia and their authority are have more weight. I meant to say that the authority of the tribal elders are more prominent

    Jamie Doran: We've both taken risks in many countries over the years. I think journalism requires risks, to get at the truth. They were going to hang me in Burma back in 1990, shoot me in Panama and God knows what in Afghanistan many times. Difficult to weigh it up

    Glad that you're still here! I'm not sure most people are familiar with Ansar al-Sharia--could you tell us more about the group and its allegiances? – Amy Davidson

    Jamie Doran: Ansar al-Sharia is the public face. AQAP saw this as more acceptable, able to raise foot soldiers beyond the hard core

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Al Qaeda has a tainted name in the middle east because of iraq. after taking over Jaar they came up with the name of the ansar, when i first went to yemen i was thinking of the relationship between the two groups more like the Taliban and the qaeda in pakistan a foreign body and a local surrogate but when i arrived there and found that the people refer to ansar as qaeda and that the ansar themselves refer to their organization as qaeda the picture became more clear.

    Hi, do you think that a large part of Yemen's population is in favour Al-Qaida? How is Al-Qaida perceived by Yemenis? – Comment From Hakim

    Jamie Doran: The vast majority in the south oppose the north's occupation to such a degree that, especially the young, AQAp can be seen as an option. The south wants independence. Bottom line. You have to understand that, whatever the attacks from the ground and the air, AQAP is almost preferable to rule from the north

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Think of the ansar as the foot soldiers of the qaeda, and as a PR exercise.

    Even though they are also outsiders? How do Yemenis feel about foreign Al Qaeda figures? I believe you saw a number of non-Yemenis in the town you visited. – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: the Qeada has moved from their hide outs in the mountains to controlling the towns by creating the term ansar they can portray themselves as separate "legitimate" local organization

    What, as the filmmakers , do you think the most important impact of the film should be for an american audience; the straight facts reported, the visceral images of people actually living with these almost unthinkable pressures, or something else? – Comment From Edward Foster

    Jamie Doran: I think that, too often, an American audience perceives itself to be the world audience. That's not the case. AQAP is a threat to all

    In your opinion, what non-military actions can the government of Yemen or any nation that has to deal with al-Qaeda in its population take to combat them? – Comment From Dan M.

    Jamie Doran: The government of Yemen is terribly disunited. It's important to understand that the Yemeni army can never defeat Al Qaeda. Nor can the US. Only the tribes of Yemen can do that

    There was a piece in the Washington Post today on how drones strikes in Yemen are causing people to turn against the United States, and toward Al Qaeda. DId you find the same thing? – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: they hate the outsiders, and most of all the northerners (local yemenis from the north) but unlike iraq and afghanistan majority of aqap are yemenis from the south

    Jamie Doran: Unfortunately yes. The drone strikes alienate so many, even though they may succeed with a few senior members of AQAP

    My question: Where are all the women in this society? Is there any hope that the Yemeni women may have any possible hope for influencing their world, or is this completely impossible? – Comment From Guest

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Important thing to note that during socialist rule in south yemen many of the islamists went to fight in afghanistan and then in 1994 they -arab afghans- were used by gov in north to fight separatists so they are more or less indigenous to the south of yemen

    Jamie Doran: Yemen is number 1 in the world for it's poor treatment of women. It's hardly going to get better under Al Qaeda. But this is no excuse for the Sana'a government, which is almost as bad

    Greetings to all, Can you can conceive Al-Qaeda taking control of Yemen? – Comment From Chsrlie

    Jamie Doran: Yemen is so disunited that any group can take advantage. AQAP will never control the entire country, but the south is another matter

    Amy Davidson: Would love to follow up on the great question about women. I was also curious about the women in the town you visited. What are their lives like under Al Qaeda control? Do they have a voice?

    Jamie Doran: The Sana'a government was so corrupt under Ali Saleh that few people have any real faith in the new group. Pres Hadi is a nice fellow, but perceived to be a tool of the US

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Amy, like afghanistan taliban or qaeda authority on women not that different from local tribal codes. I mean its culture that really oppresses the women.

    Jamie Doran: I spoke to women who had fleed Al Qaeda. I also spoke to more women who had fleed the drones and Yemeni govt attacks

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: The poor director had to wear a shroud and burqaa for weeks while we filmed in yemen and not only in qaeda land but almost everywhere

    Jamie Doran: The culture of the country from long before AQAP is anti-women

    You visited Azzan, the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Al Qaeda propagandist who was killed by a drone strike. What did the people you spoke to feel about his death? How important was he in Yemen? – Amy Davidson

    Jamie Doran: I spoke with the new Minister for Human Rights in Sana'a. She, too, despaired that women were so badly treated. Truth is: women had a say in the old socialist south and that is now disappearing across the country

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: I have to point out that she is a female in a way she was the real hero of this project imagine convincing qaeda guys to let a woman film them

    Jamie Doran: This is very true. AQ see it almost as an insult even to speak to females. Safa was immensely brave

    How were you able to gain enough trust from the al-qaeda militants to be accepted to the camp? – Cmackaing on Reddit

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: I know me convincing jihadis is normal.... a woman is something else they didnt know how to deal with her.... when we were served lunch they put her food in separate room and she wasn't allowed to eat with us... like she had rabies or something

    Jamie Doran: The core conflict is almost impossible to define. There are so many rival factions, tribes and financial interests that it is easily the most difficult country I have visisted in an attempt to understand. Little wonder others can take advantage of the chaos

    I am curious about Awlaki—such a big part of the debate about the drone wars here. Do we overestimate him? – Amy Davidson

    Jamie Doran:The truth is that even Osama didn't rate Al Awlaki very highly. He appeared more important in the western media than he was to AQAP

    Has the rebranding worked in attracting more moderate recruits or changing perceptions? – Comment From Edward Foster

    Jamie Doran: Definitely. The hard core was around several hundred; you can now say it runs into the lower thousands. What's interesting is that the US and Yemeni govts claim there are only several hundred. Look at the figures of claimed hits since January this year and you'll see several hundred dead already. Figures don't add up.

    Is it in the US Govt's interest to support the SOUTH to independence and mobilize the tribesmen there to root out AQAP? Did you see any evidence of US support for these groups? – Comment From Mark

    Jamie Doran: Logically yes, but the US is seen as such a strong supporter for the govt in the north that most people oppose the idea of American intervention on any scale

    How aware is AQAP about its appearance in the Western media? Would they have followed the big Times story on kill lists? – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Amy, i agree with Jamie Awlaki was not that significant and then he became prominent figure in AQAP partly because of the americans.... another interesting thing most of the tribesmen refer to him as a very polite and soft spoken guy who went slightly over the top so even in south of yemen people still dont take him seriously he is not zwahiri

    Jamie Doran: AQAP watches the western media very seriously. They won't have missed the kill lists. The hits in the mountains have been impressive, no doubt, but 'collateral damage' is only increasing support for AQAP. I have also found the justifications for killing US citizens slightly grey ion the area of international and even US law.

    If AQAP watches western media closely, how will they react to your story? And what will be the consequences for those who helped you get it? – Comment From Mort

    Jamie Doran: Difficult to answer that, as we don't wish even to give a hint of who helped us. There's no question that a dvd of our film, just like our films in Afghanistan and elsewhere, will make its way to Yemen. How will they react - I imagine they're too busy fighting the battles taking place at this moment.

    Reading what you both have to say about civilian deaths and the way Awlaki's role was overplayed, I wonder if you came away thinking that America is working against its own interests in Yemen. – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: one very important thing i have to say here that those Jihadis are different from the ones i have met in iraq somalia...etc they are post arab spring jihadis they talk about the revolutions all the time and sometimes you can close your eyes and think that they are sitting in a cafe in tunis.

    Jamie Doran: As I said at the beginning - AQAP will not be defeated by military means - it takes the tribes on the ground to turn against them. There are groups within Saudi Arabia which support the undermining of the yemeni regime at any cost.

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: I dont know if the saudis are to blame here they could be anywhere... qatar UAE... even here in london i actually have no proof of the financing.

    Do the people in Yemen know much about Mitt Romney—or care? – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Who is Romney? I mean no one knows him... people there are not really focused ion US politics.

    Jamie Doran: Not entirely sure they are fully aware of US politics. Those in the war zones really only care about what might drop on their heads.

    Ghaith, explain more of what you mean by post-Arab Spring jihadis? – Comment From Raleigh

    Jamie, you say tribes are the answer to defeating AQAP in Yemen, but what about the tribesmen who are part of AQAP. Do those cross-links make this more difficult? – Comment From NYC

    Jamie Doran: The tribes are key, as I've said. Most of them have no time for AQAP but are more greatly opposed to the northern government. No tribes per se, are with AQAP - but the US must not alienate them and push them into their hands.

    Good question about the Arab Spring! What remains of it in Yemen? Would love to hear more about that. – Amy Davidson

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Raleigh they are trying to claim the arab revolutions like other islamists parties they are trying to portray themselves as the only people who fought the decadent and corrupt rulers

    Jamie Doran: Currently, the US is concentrating its efforts on defeating AQAP. It ignores tribal needs at its peril. Frankly, I don't think anyone in Wasington is fully aware of their importance.

    And yet we might assume that people in Yemen are following the U.S. Presidential election—always good to be reminded that the entire world does not share our obsessions! What does "America" mean to them now? – Amy Davidson

    Jamie Doran: Money to the north and, increasingly, an enemy to the south. The southerners believe they are the forgotten people - that's where Al Qaeda will grow. People across the country face starvation - 44% according to some figures. The US should consider more the effect it could have ploughing money into this humanitarian crisis. Yes, they contribute. But, if Yemen is as important strategically as Washington claims, then divert even more money to the people. Hearts and minds goes both ways

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: For a while the jihadis were confused when it came to the arab spring... it took them sometime to come up with a strategy... that we -jihadis- were the the first revolutionaries we suffered in the cells of the regime we fought against it .... and now that some revolutions have taken a sectarian twist ... they found an opportunity

    Since we're nearing the end, I'll try for something hopeful: Did you see any cause for optimism on your visit? Any glimmer of a way through? – Amy Davidson

    Jamie Doran: Very little hope. President Hadi has given himself 2 years to sort things - it will take 2 decades. What we have missed in this conversation is that, being so obsessed with AQAp, we've forgotten the violent rivalries in Sana'a itself. Those must be tackled even before AQAP.

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: yes... in Lawder...were tribesmen defeated al qaeda those were not like the sahwas of iraq paid by the US but villagers who decided that they dont want any foreigner entering their town be it northern army qaeda or american

    Ghaith, Did you get any sense AQAP is sophisticated enough to coordinate more attacks against US on US soil? – Comment From Christopher Roche

    Jamie Doran: The worst thing, in many ways, is to push AQAP back into the mountains. That's where any plots will be hatched

    Jamie Doran: This is a very secretive organisation and it's impossible to say.

    Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Roche, i dont know ... but i know its not an organization its an ideology that keeps adapting and only way to defeat it is not through military action but when locals realize that it is actually harming their their lives and their faith.... military actions make them look like heros fighting a big empire © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Shakil Afridi may face separate trial over claims he was involved in fake vaccination drive to help catch Osama bin Laden

    The Pakistani doctor who assisted the CIA in its hunt for Osama bin Laden was given a 33-year jail sentence not for aiding the US intelligence service but for providing medical care to banned terror groups, according to leaked legal documents.

    According to a five-page verdict seen by Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, the administrator from the country's tribal areas that tried and convicted Shakil Afridi did not even consider evidence that the doctor had conspired with the CIA on a fake vaccination programme.

    Instead the quasi-legal process found Afridi guilty of "anti-state activities" relating to his alleged involvement with Mangal Bagh, the leader of Lashkar-i-Islam, a group that has fought against government forces.

    The court document accused Afridi of giving the banned group nearly £14,000, providing medical care to various militant commanders and holding meetings with them shortly before attacks on government checkposts.

    Dawn said the court argued Afridi's work with the CIA fell outside its jurisdiction and that the former public health official should be tried again in a full court. He could face the death penalty if found guilty of a treason charge in a regular court.

    Afridi, who as a doctor had unusual access to the forbidding tribal areas where a wide variety of Taliban and militant groups are based, is known to have been working as a CIA informant long before he became involved in the mission to find Bin Laden.

    The fake vaccination campaign was designed to gain DNA samples from people within the compound in Abbottabad where the CIA strongly suspected Bin Laden was in hiding, in the hope of linking them with the former al-Qaida chief.

    Afridi's conviction under an antiquated process that dates back to the British Raj-era efforts to impose order on the tribal belt has caused consternation in the US where top officials have argued he should be treated as a hero.

    The US Senate responded to his jail term by cutting $1m in aid to Pakistan for each year of his conviction. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Pakistan tribal court papers describe CIA aide Shakil Afridi as active supporter of Lashkar-e-Islam

    The doctor who angered Pakistan's powerful security agencies by helping the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison on the basis of flimsy intelligence suggesting he was involved in Islamist militancy, a document from his trial has revealed.

    The five-page summary verdict in Dr Shakil Afridi's case shows the antiquated tribal court that heard his case refused to consider evidence of his work for the CIA, which it said was outside its jurisdiction.

    When Afridi's conviction came to light last week it was assumed he had been imprisoned for his work on a bogus vaccination programme intended to use DNA sampling to pinpoint the whereabouts of the former al-Qaida leader.

    The announcement of his jail term provoked outrage in the US where the Senate symbolically cut aid to Pakistan by $1m (£640,000) for each year of his sentence.

    But the trial document shows he was in fact found guilty of terrorism, not treason under Pakistan's much criticised Frontier Crimes Regulation, a set of draconian laws first imposed by the British on the Pashtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

    The court document said Afridi was an active supporter of Lashkar-e-Islam, a banned militant group, and its leader Mangal Bagh.

    It also claimed he used his position as head of a government hospital to channel nearly £14,000 to the group and gave medical care to various militant commanders.

    According to the document the case, which was presided over not by a trained judge but by the government-appointed "political agent" in consultation with a group of tribal elders, was based on "reports of different intelligence agencies" and statements by local people.

    Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former political agent who once administered the same tribal agency where Afridi was tried, said the case would never have succeeded in regular court.

    "This sort of evidence makes the case very weak legally," he said. "Finding tangible evidence linking him to Mangal Bagh is very, very difficult in the tribal areas where people can tell you just anything."

    Securing a conviction under the peculiar FCR process under which defendants are denied the right to lawyers is much easier, however.

    Some analysts suspect the claims about Afridi's involvement with militant groups may have been cobbled together after the court refused to take a view on his activities for the CIA, which happened well outside the tribal areas where the FCR writ runs.

    Habib Malik Orakzai, head of the Pakistan International Human Rights Organisation, said the government did not want to risk the case in a regular, open court where it could potentially drag on for months or "be thrown out at any time".

    He said: "The political agent has all the power. In simple words he is like a king who does not need proof but has the power to give any person any punishment."

    The FCR also keeps Afridi's fate firmly in the hands of the Pakistani government, giving it the flexibility to use Afridi as a bargaining chip with the Americans at a later point, as many suspect will happen.

    "In due course escape to the US could be facilitated for some quid pro quo", said Mohmand. The CIA reportedly offered Afridi and his family safe passage to the US soon after the killing of bin Laden, but he refused.

    It is likely Afridi did become entangled with many of the leading militants operating in the tribal areas during his long career as a frontier medic – his access to such forbidding and dangerous territory was no doubt what attracted the CIA to him.

    In 2008 Bagh fined him $11,00 for preforming unnecessary operations on several patients, the New York Times reported recently.

    Mehmood Shah, a former security chief of the tribal areas, said it was quite possible for government officials to be "scared" of the militants they came across.

    "At times they try to work out some understanding with them in order to survive," he said.

    He remembered that Afridi had "a bad reputation", but not for involvement with militancy.

    "He had weaknesses for womanising, drinking and making money without any principal," he said. "When we found he had been interfering with female colleagues I ordered he be removed." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    It has been hard to label the president timid since the killing of Osama bin Laden – but that has come at a cost

    The drip of revelations from the White House intended to reassure Americans that Barack Obama can make the tough decisions on national security is rapidly becoming a flood.

    The latest revelation, published in the New York Times, has Obama personally directing cyber-attacks on Iran's nuclear programme. Just a few days ago, the White House spoon-fed a story to the same paper that portrayed the president as agonising over who should go on the "kill list" of targets for the dramatically increased number of US drone attacks against suspected terrorists.

    All this is designed to bolster Obama's claim to be as solid on national security as any Republican and insulate him from accusations that he is weak on Iran or Syria in the runup to November's presidential election.

    Last year, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, called Obama weak and timid. The president came under attack even from Democrats in Congress over his attempts to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and end military trials of accused terrorists, and for "endangering Israel" by not exerting more pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme.

    But it's been hard to make that label stick since the killing of Osama bin Laden. That comes at a cost, not least among Obama's liberal supporters who were disturbed to hear that the president underplays civilian casualty figures from drone strikes by declaring just about every adult male who is killed to be a combatant.

    But it does leave the Republicans with a challenge in trying to attack Obama over national security and provides a convenient distraction from the country's continuing economic problems, with unemployment once again on the rise in figures released on Friday.

    Still, the White House is open to the charge that Obama is playing politics with national security by revealing so much about the drone operations and virus attacks on Iran's nuclear programme as well as other intelligence operations. "This is very sensitive stuff," said Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant defence secretary in the Bush administration. "We shouldn't be exposing our intelligence sources and methods. It opens us up to attribution. People will say if America can do it, why can't we do it? Also, I'm really worried about retaliation. You can't forget that Iran is no slouch when it comes to cyber operations."

    Mike Rogers, the Republican intelligence committee chairman in the House of Representatives, last month said that administration leaks revealing details of a failed plot out of Yemen to blow up a US-bound plane, exposed by an informant, jeopardised a continuing intelligence operation.

    "There were other opportunities, I believe, [that] were lost by the fact that it was leaked," he said. "These leaks are dangerous and could lead to someone's death."

    Rogers said he was reviewing whether Obama's team was "maybe trying to put this in a political narrative to help their politics".

    The White House also came under fire last month from Senator Marco Rubio, a potential running mate for Romney, after it was revealed that it had given the Hollywood director Kathryn Bigelow access to previously undisclosed information about the operation to kill Bin Laden for a film. Rubio said it was "part of a troubling trend of chest thumping" by the administration and could "impact the ability to carry out similar operations in the future".

    Peter King, chairman of the House homeland security committee, said it was shocking that "filmmakers being allowed to tour the CIA's vaults".

    Others have criticised the administration for publicly confirming the role of a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA track Bin Laden. Afridi was jailed for 33 years last month by a tribal court.

    On the first anniversary of Bin Laden's death last month, Obama came under strong attacks from Republicans, including John McCain, his rival in the 2008 election, who accused him of trying to take political advantage of the operation. The president suggested that Romney would not have ordered the raid against the al-Qaida leader.

    "This is the same president who said, after Bin Laden was dead, that we shouldn't 'spike the ball' after the touchdown. And now Barack Obama is not only trying to score political points by invoking Osama bin Laden, he is doing a shameless end-zone dance to help himself get re-elected," he said.

    Romney said it was "very disappointing for the president to try to make this a political item".

    But Obama has also come under criticism from the left over the leaks designed to make him look tough. "He has put a prettier and more palatable face on extremely ugly policies," wrote Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer, in Salon. "Many Obama fans claimed during the 2008 election that his background as a constitutional lawyer would ensure reversal of the most extremist Bush/Cheney policies, but he has instead used that background for the opposite goal." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    New al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri says predecessor stinted on luxuries but had herd of sheep ready for slaughter for visitors

    Osama bin Laden spent all his personal wealth on jihad, stinting on meat and electricity as luxuries so he could save his money to help fund terror attacks, according to recollections by his deputy and successor .

    Yet, in the second of his Days With the Imam series of online videos, posted on Saturday, Ayman al-Zawahiri said Bin Laden would pay readily for hospitality for his guests – although the former al-Qaida leader lived mostly on bread and vegetables, he once invested in an entire herd of sheep to slaughter in case visitors came by.

    Zawahiri, who became head of al-Qaida after Bin Laden was killed in a US raid last year, spoke conversationally while dressed in a white robe and turban.

    Zawahiri is seen as lacking his predecessor's personal authority within the far-flung terror network, and may be trying to boost his popularity by emphasising his closeness to the more charismatic Bin Laden.

    Bin Laden was born to a wealthy family, but ran into financial troubles after he was pushed out of Sudan in 1996, Zawahiri said.

    Shortly thereafter, he said, Bin Laden spent $50,000 to help finance the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania at a time when he had only $55,000 to his name. Those bombings killed 224 people. Bin Laden's personal wealth also helped finance the September 11 attacks in 2001.

    "He is well-known for living austerely but he spent all his money for jihad," Zawahiri said. "If you enter his house you would find simple furniture … and if we were invited to eat, he offered us what was available in his house, bread and vegetables."

    But the terror leader was "generous to his guests by slaughtering sheep for them and because of continuous visitors, he once bought a herd of sheep so that he would be always ready for them".

    Zawahiri said Bin Laden used to encourage the mujahideen – "holy warriors" – to live without electricity, which he considered a luxury. "Luxury is the enemy of jihad and if the mujahideen were brought up to live in asceticism, they would tolerate the burden of jihad," Zawahiri quoted Bin Laden as saying.

    Zawahiri said Bin Laden was also generous to his bodyguards, who were devoted to him. Once in Afghanistan, he came under shelling, but the bodyguards took him to a wall and formed a human shield around him.

    In the first video in the series, posted on jihadist websites in November, Zawahiri said he wanted to show Bin Laden's "human side". He described a sensitive man who cried when his friends lost family members, remained close to his children despite the hard life of an international jihadist, and fondly remembered – by name – the 19 men who carried out the deadliest terrorist attack ever on US soil. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A poll shows how the US president has disappointed the hopes of many worldwide. Americans, though, have their own issues

    We have a lot of truisms in American politics, and some of them are even true – at least some of the time. "All politics is local," the late Tip O'Neill, veteran speaker of the House of Representatives, famously said. So I suspect that Tip, wherever he now presides, wouldn't set much store by the latest headline from the Pew Global Research Center revealing that President Obama's global reputation has slipped considerably in the three years since he took office, won the Nobel peace prize and kept the United States from sinking into a depression.

    Why has this happened? And what does it say about his prospects for re-election?

    "What have you done for me lately?" Long before it became a hit for Janet Jackson, this was the catchphrase of Fiorello LaGuardia, three-term mayor of New York, an Italian-Jewish-socialist-Republican who remains the greatest local politician in American history and, as one of his biographers put it, "a balanced ticket all by himself". Obama shares some of LaGuardia's crossover appeal, but he is also now burdened with a record, and that record gives ample cause for disillusion.

    The inspirational speaker who promised the Muslim world a new beginning in Cairo in 2009 is now the president who has yielded so much ground to Bibi Netanyahu, he ought to have a triangular-shaped sign on his backside. The Socratic figure who took America to school on race and history in Philadelphia in 2008 is now the arbiter of a "kill list" – a phrase that probably says more than any other about the great falling-off in the president's moral authority. (In Pakistan, where presidentially-approved drone strikes are killing their inevitable share of bystanders, along with America's enemies, they know very well what Obama has done for them lately – and they don't like it very much.) And the candidate who promised, time and again, to close Guantánamo Bay is the president who has repeatedly failed to keep that promise.

    Then, there's the economy, stupid. Here, Obama's international reviews are mixed. That the Chinese don't like him much – in fact, Chinese confidence in Obama is down 24% from 2009, a bigger drop than anywhere else in the world – is not entirely to his discredit. Given how many US assets they now own, the Chinese attitude is partly that of any landlord toward an unruly tenant. But some of it doubtless derives from the unwelcome encouragement, in words if not in deeds, that Obama continues to give to human rights campaigners in countries the United States doesn't need to buy oil from or base troops in. Europe remains pretty confident in Obama – 80% of you are still drinking the KoolAid – and surprisingly (60%) favorable toward the US. But then, if you look at how George Osborne's austerity-led growth plan is working out in the UK, maybe the hopey-changey thing doesn't look so bad.

    The phrase "American exceptionalism" comes from a debate between Joseph Stalin and American Communists in the 1920s. But the belief that our country is somehow different from other nations is at least as old as the Puritan John Winthrop's 1630 sermon to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Which makes it more than a century older than any sign of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind". Yet, the world's opinion of America, and America's president, does matter. Obama may deserve little credit for the Arab spring, but the response to his Cairo speech showed how much influence a US president can have when he speaks what people know to be the truth.

    Still, most of us who drank the KoolAid last time are warier now. For some of us, it was the crippled compromise of Obamacare, and the failure to preserve even the possibility of a real national health service. For others, it was the way the Bush administration's battering of civil liberties has been sustained, rather than repudiated, by his successor. Not to mention his love-in with Wall Street. Or the eagerness with which the president has embraced his role as murderer-in-chief, not just regarding the unlamentable Bin Laden, but in his grim insistence on personally approving every targeted killing.

    Does all this disillusion – yours, mine, theirs – say anything about his electoral chances? Probably not.

    "The only poll that matters is the one on election day" is one of the least true truisms. For campaign strategists trying to figure out where to spend their ad budgets, polls are enormously important. Likewise for journalists blocking out a fall travel schedule. But a poll of foreigners' feelings is not going to carry much weight even if Americans were paying attention – which we tend not to do until Labor Day (3 September).

    What psephologists dream about is a bellwether – a poll, or a state, that will reliably predict the election result (with the margins of statistical error, of course). In Mr Bartley's burger bar, off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts – though awkward to admit – my favorite has long been the "Mitt Romney", named in honor of the former governer and consisting of a perfectly grilled burger topped with swiss cheese, grilled onions and a side of onion rings, for $11.70. For the past few years, however, the menu has also offered a "Barack Obama": with feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and french fries, for an austere price of $10.15. If you factor in the cost advantage of the Obama with the home turf factor for the Romney and were able to find out comparative sales over the next few months, I think you might just have a bellwether in a bun. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    A detailed survey of Osama bin Laden's demise from the Washington-based journalist who once interviewed him for CNN

    It was the most asymmetric conflict in history. The mightiest military power the world has ever known went to war against a single man, Osama bin Laden. Last year the US finally killed the Saudi-born fugitive in a raid on his Pakistani villa, but only after a decade-long pursuit that cost a trillion dollars. George Bush called it a "war on terror", but even some of his own top officials questioned what it meant to go into battle against a concept. Bush got closer to the nub of the issue when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he summoned up the spirit of the wild west and declared that Bin Laden was: "Wanted: dead or alive."

    As the years went by and the leads went cold, Bush would affect insouciance over Bin Laden's fate and suggest the struggle was over bigger issues against a networked enemy, but when he asked the CIA director, Michael Hayden "How're we doing?" at each Thursday morning briefing, there was no doubt as to what and who he was talking about. As soon as he arrived in the Oval Office, Barack Obama told Hayden's successor, Leon Panetta, "to redouble our efforts in hunting Bin Laden down".

    Bin Laden was just as single-minded, exhorting al-Qaida's far-flung subsidiaries to set aside local conflicts and refocus on attacking America. The computer files and correspondence captured by the US special forces team that killed him in Abbottabad revealed that he was far more involved in al-Qaida's operational planning than had been imagined, even if his plots ranged from far-fetched to the plain delusional.

    The battle of wits between the man and the superpower is grippingly narrated by Peter Bergen, a Washington-based journalist and author who has interviewed Bin Laden face to face. It was in that 1997 interview (for CNN in an Afghan mud hut), that Bin Laden made his first public declaration of war on America to a western audience. The attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania came a year later, followed by the suicide strike on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. But arguably, it only became total war after September 11, 2001.

    From that initial encounter Bergen stuck to his subject, and even US intelligence professionals concede that he recognised the seriousness of Bin Laden's intent before they did. After it was all over, and Bin Laden had been shot, identified and buried at sea by American servicemen, Bergen was the only independent western observer allowed by Pakistani security into the Abbottabad compound. He also got an early look at the trove of captured computer files and the transcripts of interrogations of Bin Laden's wives, from which he reconstructs the isolation and squalor of his last years, and final minutes. In Abbottabad he was still living with three of those wives, apparently with the help of Avena syrup, which Bergen describes "as a sort of natural Viagra made from wild oats", found at the house after Bin Laden's death, along with the Just for Men black hair dye he used for his beard.

    By the end of his decade on the run, the flow of money from the Gulf had dried up entirely, and even Bin Laden's closest lieutenants were being paid little more than $100 a month. The fugitive, his wives and a dozen children and grandchildren slept on beds made of wooden boards nailed together. The third-storey apartment he shared with his youngest wife, Amal, was low-ceilinged and cramped for a man of 6ft 4in. A tarpaulin had been stretched over part of the garden to allow him to walk in tight circles. As the CIA closed in, American satellite pictures revealed the shadow of this restless soul whom the image analysts back in Langley named "the pacer", but until the very last moment they could not prove it was the man they were looking for.

    Bergen clearly gained extraordinary access to the core US intelligence team whose job it was to track Bin Laden down, and his book succeeds first and foremost as a sort of CIA procedural, a real-life Homeland, complete with its shockingly violent denouement.

    That side of Manhunt is particularly absorbing in its many telling details. It turns out that (just as in Homeland) it was women who provided much of the inspiration and intellect to fuel the pursuit. In 2005, when the CIA manhunt was at its lowest ebb, an analyst Bergen calls Rebecca wrote a paper that laid out a road map for the pursuit, suggesting four possible routes to Bin Laden: through his courier network, contact with his family, communications with his lieutenants and the distribution of his propaganda videos. It was the first path which ultimately led to Bin Laden. In 2010, the hunters picked up the scent of a courier called Ibrahim Saeed Hamid, known as the Kuwaiti, in Peshawar and tracked his white Suzuki jeep to a fortress-style three-storey villa with 18ft-high walls in Abbottabad. A good chunk of Manhunt describes the CIA's maddening uncertainty about whether Bin Laden was really inside. In the end, Obama gave the green light for the raid believing it to be no better than a 50:50 call, but those odds were at least superior to any lead since Bin Laden escaped from Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains.

    Bergen argues that suspicions of connivance by Pakistan's notorious intelligence service (ISI) in hiding Bin Laden are groundless, and here arguably he lets Islamabad off lightly. The Abbottabad house was nestled among the retirement homes of Pakistani officers and close by the premier military academy. Locals referred to it as the "Arab house" and in 2010, Bin Laden's eldest wife, Khairiah, somehow made her way from Iran to the Abbottabad compound without the ISI picking up her trail.

    On the other hand, even the Kuwaiti's wife, living full-time in the compound, did not know who the tall Arab was on the third floor.

    Even more astounding than Bin Laden's sudden demise has been the rapid decline of his reputation and influence. After a flurry of martyrdom rhetoric, his name faded away from global jihadist broadcasts and websites. Al-Qaida was conspicuous by its absence from the events of the Arab spring. The Islamists who have emerged amid the wreckage of the Arab dictatorships owe nothing to Bin Laden and his anti-American jihad. Washington, meanwhile, has moved on to new perceived threats, from a recalcitrant Iran to a rising China. The story is not entirely over, however. Al-Qaida still has a stronghold in Yemen, and its affiliates are becoming more ferocious in west Africa. It is not beyond the realm of imagination that these still glowing embers could ignite once more. There is clearly still plenty to write about, but Manhunt already has the feel of a definitive work. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    This account of America's decade-long adventure in Afghanistan makes for essential reading

    In the spring of 2002, the American army arrived in force in Afghanistan. Its main base was at the old airfield at Bagram, a short drive north of Kabul. By early summer, serried ranks of tents had gone up in the fine dust, a basic field hospital had been established and the all-important PX opened – where soldiers could buy Hershey bars, Hot Tamales candy, R&B compact discs and Bibles in "tactical" camouflage covers. In the evening, during the month I spent at the base, I went running on the airstrip, past the helicopters, the transport planes, the artillery park and the compound where prisoners were being kept. All around the perimeter, as dusk turned to night, newly arrived US troops tested their weapons, sending streams of tracer fire into the gathering darkness.

    Over the following years, the base at Bagram grew rapidly. The old runway was renovated and extended, the makeshift jail converted to one of the most notorious detention facilities run for suspected al-Qaida and Taliban captives, power plants built and vast dining halls opened.

    The tents were replaced by prefabricated and then solid concrete barracks. On one recent visit, I got my dinner from Burger King and, when waiting for a helicopter the next morning, watched Tropic Thunder, the spoof Vietnam war film, projected on the wall of a hangar. The old air base had become a small town of around 10,000 inhabitants, a Little America in the middle of an Afghan plain.

    Little America is an apt title for this comprehensive, perceptive and detailed work. It is the second book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, among the best of those brave, clever, and assiduous reporters that American journalism seems to produce in such happy abundance. His first, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, was a justly praised description of the follies, excesses, naivety and negligence of the Americans who tried to run Iraq with such disastrous results between 2003 and 2004.

    In this new work he looks at the American experience in Afghanistan, focusing on the 2009 to 2011 period. That his book is already effectively a history – albeit a very contemporary history – says much about the rapidity with which the aims and methods of the west have changed in that tragic country over the last years. Little America is focused on the decision by President Obama to send around 30,000 new troops into Afghanistan in 2009 and its consequences. This "surge", modelled in part on a similar but more successful exercise in Iraq, is now over. Whether it worked or not is one of the many themes explored by Chandrasekaran in this book. The CIA apparently decided it had, at best, led to a stalemate.

    "Where we went, we made a difference. But not next door," one official told the author. "The surge worked locally, but it did not have the nationwide effect that was advertised."

    But the ultimate answer is that the debate is no longer relevant. Largely due to factors which have little to do with Afghanistan itself – the state of the American economy, general war fatigue in the US and elsewhere, the death of Osama bin Laden last year, the fragmentation and regionalisation of al-Qaida – the international project in the country is now winding down. In 2009 I asked the then US ambassador in Kabul if, as America was a democracy, any one leader could really promise eternal support. "Can I say we will be committed for the full life of the sun? No," he answered. "But short of that, yes, we will be here." That wasn't true.

    As Chandrasekaran observes, it costs $1m to keep one American service member in Afghanistan for a year. The annual bill for the war last year was more than $100bn. Was achieving a marginally less bad outcome in Afghanistan worth the expense, administration officials wondered? With other pressing security challenges – Iran, North Korea, and the political upheaval in the Middle East – was it prudent to be committing so many resources to stabilising remote Afghan villages? The United States was spending more each year to keep marine battalions in two single remote districts in the deep south of the country than it was providing the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance, Chandrasekaran points out.

    The war in Afghanistan started with goals that were purely to do with US security – the need to eradicate the bases from which the 11 September attacks had been launched. We have come full circle. The only debate now is whether what is left behind is enough to prevent a reconstituted al-Qaida gaining some kind of foothold. In the intervening period, the western project in Afghanistan was something much more ambitious, involving the creation of a prosperous, stable democracy with significantly improved human rights for women and minorities. The contrast with the modest aims of today is, at the very least, unedifying. There are stronger adjectives that could be used.

    So what went wrong? First of all, winning in Afghanistan, however defined, was never going to be easy. The international effort there came at the end of a long series of increasingly ambitious – and even sometimes successful – "liberal humanitarian" interventions. It was a period of extraordinary hubris – and great trauma after the 9/11 attacks. Together this bred a toxic mix of astonishing overconfidence and deep insecurity. Then came the distraction of Iraq.

    Chandrasekaran suggests – and some military historians might disagree – that Afghanistan is "by far the most complicated war the USA has ever prosecuted". The superlative here might be challenged by many historians but that the conflict was a tough challenge is without doubt.

    America, however, could not meet it, he argues. Chandrasekaran's indictment is savage. "Too few generals recognised that surging forces could be counterproductive… Too few soldiers were ordered to leave their air-conditioned bases and live among the people in fly-infested villages. Too few diplomats invested the effort to understand the languages and cultures of the places in which they were stationed. Too few development experts were interested in anything other than making a buck. Too few officials in Washington were willing to assume the risks necessary to forge a lasting peace… Generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant. Uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries. Our development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted." The result, inevitably, was that "the good war… turned bad".

    And if, after reading this, any Europeans are feeling smug, they shouldn't. Where they are mentioned at all, allies are portrayed as incompetent, feckless, cowardly or complacent. The British, whose ineffectual attempts to secure Helmand province and appalling relations with both local communities and the Americans are described in painful detail, come out particularly badly. Though not, it must be said, as badly as the Pakistani security establishment, whose strategically critical support, passive and active, for the insurgents was apparently not fully understood by US military planners until only very recently.

    There are now thousands of books on this most recent Afghan conflict, ranging from airport thrillers to specialist study. Many books are extremely good, some are very bad. Little America is powerful and important and should be read by anyone interested in this ongoing and deeply depressing war, particularly those waiting for helicopters or eating Hot Tamales in Bagram. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Security devices that invade our privacy are about to take a giant leap forward with a scanner that can tell what you had for breakfast from 50 metres away

    Every time I go through airport security nowadays the thought that comes to mind – as I take off my shoes and belt, unpack my laptop and display my toothpaste in a transparent plastic bag – is that Osama bin Laden won hands down. The same thought pops up when taking a photograph outside the London Stock Exchange – or inside an airport or a railway station – and a uniformed jobsworth appears from nowhere to inform me that photography is "not allowed, sir". And it also comes to mind whenever the home secretary opens her mouth on the subject of the draft communications data bill, aka the snooper's charter. Terrorism – or the perceived threat of it – has turned democracies into paranoid armed camps in which the state feels justified in assuming that every citizen is a potential terrorist.

    The intrusiveness and ubiquity of state surveillance is already shocking. But we ain't seen nothing yet – the technology is just getting into its stride. The powers that be (to use William Tyndale's lovely phrase) maintain that the internet is a great boon for criminals, paedophiles, al-Qaida and other miscreants but omit to mention that it's also an Orwellian tool for them, because everything that one does on the net is logged by internet service providers (ISPs) – and, now, stored for later inspection by the authorities. The details of every Google search conducted, every email or tweet sent, every file downloaded, every YouTube video watched and Skype call made, are recorded – and are available on production of a warrant or court order in law-abiding societies or on the say-so of an intelligence officer in less fastidious jurisdictions.

    And that's just in cyberspace. In the real world of "meatspace" the technology of surveillance is coming along nicely too. In airport security we've gone from ancient technology like X-ray scanning of aircraft baggage to the scanners now being deployed in US and other airports which produce fetching images of our unclothed bodies. But at least with this stuff we know when we're being scanned.

    That too is about to change. We've now discovered that within the next year or so the US department of homeland security plans to deploy a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 50 metres away which will instantly reveal an astonishing level of detail not only about your body, clothes and luggage but also about the contents of your wallet and even of your intestines. It's claimed that the technology can identify traces of drugs on banknotes, gunpowder on your clothes and even what you had for breakfast, the adrenaline level in your body and substances in your urine. And all of this information can be collected without even touching you – and without your knowledge.

    The plan is to install this molecular-level scanning in airports and border crossings across the entire US. The official justification is to be able to quickly identify explosives, dangerous chemicals or biological weapons at a distance. The technology is said to be 10m times faster – and 1m times more sensitive – than any currently available system, which means that it can be used systematically on everyone passing through airport security and not just to monitor suspect or randomly sampled passengers.

    The machine that enables all this to happen is a picosecond programmable laser scanner, which was originally developed for medical applications (including monitoring cancer cells in bloodflow). But the company that markets it has obviously realised that the security industry might turn out to be more profitable than the health sector. And it has adapted it for these new purposes by making it mobile and relatively unobtrusive, so that the scanees (that's you and me) will be oblivious to its use. And so although the first deployments of the technology will be in airports, it will only be a matter of time until it is in police cars and other everyday environments. In due course, therefore, the requirement that motorists blow into a breathalyser will seem as quaint as the idea of using chicken entrails as diagnostic tools.

    All of which makes one wonder whether Osama bin Laden ever read Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher who first sketched out the essence of our current arrangements. In order to escape from the brutality of living in a state of nature, Hobbes postulated that we need to accede to a social contract in which we give up some rights in order to have the protection of a sovereign authority. Abuses of that authority were, Hobbes thought, the inescapable price of living in security. By terrorising our governments, bin Laden has ensured that the price of that security would rise in terms of the erosion of privacy, the curtailment of freedoms and of civil rights. The US may have exterminated the old monster. But we're having to live with his legacy. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Trailer for Kathryn Bigelow's forthcoming film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, is released online

    The first trailer for Kathryn Bigelow's forthcoming film about the killing of Osama Bin Laden has debuted online.

    Now titled Zero Dark Thirty, the drama from the double Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker features a high-profile cast including Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Mark Duplass, Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong. It centres on the US Navy Seal unit that raided Bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan on 2 May last year on the orders of US president Barack Obama, killing the al-Qaeda leader in a covert operation.

    Bigelow had been planning a film about the hunt for Bin Laden long before last year's events. She and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal, who also won two Oscars for The Hurt Locker, were therefore first out of the block in terms of bringing the story to the big screen. Other projects were at one time said to be under way with involvement from George Clooney and perennial historical controversialist Oliver Stone, though neither has yet entered production.

    Bigelow told Entertainment Weekly the film's title was a military term. "[It means] 30 minutes after midnight, and it refers also to the darkness and secrecy that cloaked the entire decade long mission," she said.

    Boal added: "I'm fascinated by people who dedicate themselves to really difficult and dangerous things for the greater good. I think they're heroic and I'm intrigued by them. I'm fascinated by the world they inhabit. I personally want to know how they caught bin Laden. All I can do is hope that it interests other people."

    Zero Dark Thirty is due out on 19 December, just after this year's US presidential election. The timing is designed to allay fears from Republican politicians that the movie might influence voters by portraying Obama in a flattering light. Bigelow's project drew flak from the US right earlier this year after it emerged that the president's administration shared information with the production team. New York congressman Peter King, chair of the house homeland security committee, has questioned whether it was right to share "confidential" details.

    Boal, a former freelance war journalist, denied there was any political motivation behind the film's release in his interview with Entertainment Weekly. "There's no political agenda in the film. Full stop. Period," he said. "A lot of people are going to be surprised when they see the film. For example, the president is not depicted in the movie. He's just not in the movie." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Former intelligence operatives plan to scold the president for high-level leaks and for taking credit for Bin Laden killing

    A group of former US intelligence and special forces operatives is set to launch a media campaign, including TV ads, that scolds President Barack Obama for taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and argues that high-level leaks are endangering American lives.

    Leaders of the group, the Special Operations Opsec Education Fund Inc, say it is nonpartisan and unconnected to any political party or presidential campaign. It is registered as a so-called social welfare group, which means its primary purpose is to further the common good and its political activities should be secondary.

    In the past, military exploits have been turned against presidential candidates by outside groups, most famously the Swift Boat ads in 2004 that questioned Democratic nominee John Kerry's Vietnam war service.

    The Opsec group says it is not political and aims to save American lives. Its first public salvo is a 22-minute film that includes criticism of Obama and his administration. The film, to be released on Wednesday, was seen in advance by Reuters.

    "Mr President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not," Ben Smith, identified as a navy seal, says in the film.

    "As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy," Smith continues. "It will get Americans killed."

    An Obama campaign official said: "No one in this group is in a position to speak with any authority on these issues and on what impact these leaks might have, and it's clear they've resorted to making things up for purely political reasons."

    Obama has highlighted his foreign policy record on the campaign trail, emphasizing how he presided over the killing of Bin Laden, as well as how he ended the war in Iraq and set a timeline for winding down the war in Afghanistan.

    However, Obama has come under sharp attack from Republican lawmakers who have accused his administration of being behind high-level leaks of classified information.

    They have pointed to media reports about clandestine drone attacks, informants planted in al-Qaida affiliates and alleged cyber-warfare against Iran that Republicans say were calculated to promote Obama's image as a strong leader in an election year.

    The White House has denied leaking classified information.

    The president of Special Operations Opsec Education Fund Inc, Scott Taylor, is a former navy seal who in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for a congressional seat in Virginia.

    Calling itself "Opsec" for short – which in spy jargon means "operational security" – the anti-leak group incorporated last June in Delaware, a state that has the most secretive corporate registration rules in the US.

    It also set itself up as a nonprofit organisation under section 501(c)4 of the US tax code, allowing it to keep donors' identities secret. Spokesmen for the group declined to discuss its sources of financing.

    Several group representatives say their main motivation for setting up Opsec was dismay at recent detailed media leaks about sensitive operations.

    In an interview, Taylor denied Opsec had any political slant. He described the group as a "watchdog organisation" but added that the current administration "has certainly leaked more than others".

    Opsec spokesmen said the group has about $1m at its disposal and hopes to raise more after the release of its mini-documentary, entitled Dishonorable Disclosures, which aims, in spy-movie style, to document a recent spate of leaks regarding sensitive intelligence and military operations.

    Following the film's release, Opsec's spokesmen said, the group expects to produce TV spots on the anti-leak theme that will air in a number of states, including Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada – key battleground states.

    Fred Rustmann, a former undercover case officer for the CIA who is a spokesman for the group, insisted its focus on leaks was "not a partisan concern". But he said the current administration had been leaking secrets "to help this guy get re-elected, at the expense of peoples' lives … We want to see that they don't do this again."

    Chad Kolton, a former spokesman for the office of Director of National Intelligence during the George W Bush administration who now represents Opsec, also said the group's message and make-up are nonpolitical.

    "You'll see throughout the film that concern about protecting the lives of intelligence and Special Forces officers takes precedence over partisanship," he said.

    Responding to criticism about the president taking credit for the Bin Laden raid, an Obama campaign official pointed to an interview with CNN last month in which Admiral Bill McRaven, commander of the raid, said: "At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him."

    "I think Admiral McRaven knows more about the president's role in the Bin Laden operation than this group," the campaign official said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    Much like 2004 campaign that helped sink Kerry's campaign, Opsec questions Obama's credentials on Osama Bin Laden raid

    The emergence of a group of former special operations soldiers dedicated to running adverts critical of President Barack Obama's national security policy has raised the prospect of a 2012 version of the infamous Swift boat campaign.

    That effort in 2004 played a vital role in derailing John Kerry's bid to beat President George W Bush by casting doubts over the Massachusetts senator's Vietnam War record which Democrats had placed at the heart of their campaign.

    Now the people involved in the tongue-twistingly named Special Operations Opsec Education Fund Inc appear to want to do the same by attacking Obama's handling of the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as a flood of national security leaks from inside his administration.

    At first glance both Opsec and the Swift boaters appear to have many similarities drawn from the shadowy underworld of political dirty tricks. But there are important differences too.

    Republican links

    Both the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Opsec are avowedly non-partisan groups that claim not to be taking a party political stance. Instead they say they are just campaigning on a specific issue. Yet both display strong links to Republicans. Three major donors to the Swift boat campaign, including oil baron T Boone Pickens and Houston construction magnate Bob Perry, were prominent Texas Republican fundraisers. Several Republican-linked communication consultants gave media advice to the group. Numerous Swift boat veterans in the group were also Republicans.

    With Opsec there are also clear links. Opsec president Scott Taylor is a former Republican congressional candidate. Another supporter and spokesman, Chad Kolton, was a former intelligence spokesman under Bush. Finally, one of the ex-CIA officials appearing in the group's 22-minute long introductory documentary is Paul Vallely, who has publicly cast doubt on the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate.


    The funding behind the Swift boat campaign was clearly linked to Republican party supporters. Tax filings for the group in 2005 revealed that more than half of it came from just three major Texan Republicans, including a $4.45m tranche from Bob Perry.

    With Opsec the position is less clear. The group has filed its financial status as a social welfare group. Under American campaign finance laws that means it can keep its donors' identities private. It has, however, raised $1mof backing so far and has appealed for public donations in the wake of its launch.


    The Swift boat group produced a series of TV adverts and a book, Unfit for Command, that sought to cast doubt on the veracity of Kerry's claims about his military service. It questioned whether he deserved certain medals and alleged that he had made up descriptions of part of his career in Vietnam. It also attacked him for joining the anti-war movement after leaving the service.

    However, the Swift boaters were criticised for getting many allegations wrong or for being often made up of people who had served little or no time with Kerry themselves. Senator John McCain called the group's first ad "dishonest and dishonorable".

    Opsec's claim to be non-partisan is dubious. In the 22-minute film only Obama is attacked. However, their argument is more solid. There is little doubt that Obama and his officials have sought to extract political gain from the death of Bin Laden. Nor is there any real doubt as to the scale of leaks from the administration on matters of national security like the controversial "kill list" of Islamic terrorists or the US involvement in the Stuxnet cyber-worm that was used against Iran.

    The FBI is investigating those leaks, and Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein has called for political hearings about the matter. In campaigning on this issue Opsec is making a political argument that has support not just in Republican circles


    The Swift boaters generated interest with a press conference, a book and a series of TV adverts. But their main impact was simply in getting people talking about them, even if it was negatively. Any debate over Kerry's war record could be seen as hurting something that had previously been seen as one of the candidate's strong points.

    Opsec can be seen in the same light. The initial documentary, which is presented with flashy graphics and is slickly produced, is meant to get people talking. Opsec aims to follow up its launch with TV adverts in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada – all key battleground states. Again the aim is to cast doubt on something currently seen as an Obama strong point: his hardline stance on national security and the success of killing Bin Laden.


    The Swift boat impact has been seen as successful. Though the reasons for Kerry's loss are varied and complex, the Swift boat controversy is usually cited as a major contributing factor. At the very least it put the Kerry campaign on the defensive in a contest against Bush that it had expected to be mainly about the president's record.

    Only time – and the airing of TV ads – will tell what the Opsec group's impact will be. So far it has not succeeded in entering the debate. On the day of its launch the group's documentary has just 302 views on YouTube and its website has less than 3,000 "likes" on Facebook. However, the Swift boat group also got off to a slow start, yet by the end of the 2004 election the term "Swiftboating" had entered America's political lexicon. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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    No classified information will be betrayed, publisher says, but security aspects and political timing pose questions

    A member of the US navy Seal team that killed Osama bin Laden has written a book on the operation, triggering fresh questions about the possible public release of classified information involving the assassination in Pakistan.

    US military officials have said they do not believe the book has been read or cleared by the defence department, which reviews publications by military members to make sure no classified material is revealed.

    The book, entitled No Easy Day and scheduled to be released on 11 September, comes amid a heated debate over whether active or retired military personnel should engage in politics.

    "I haven't read the book and am unaware that anyone in the department has reviewed it," said Pentagon press secretary George Little. White House and CIA officials said the book had not been reviewed by their agencies.

    The author is said to have been a member of Seal Team Six and one of the first people through the door when the Abbottabad raid took place. He claims to have been present at Bin Laden's death.

    Separately a group of retired special operations and CIA officers have launched a campaign accusing President Barack Obama of revealing classified details of the mission and turning the killing of Bin Laden into a campaign centrepiece. The group complains that Obama has taken too much credit for the operation.

    Their public complaints drew a rebuke from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as well as other special operations forces, who called the partisan criticism unprofessional. Dempsey said such public political involvement by members of the armed services eroded public confidence and trust in the military.

    The author of the upcoming Bin Laden book has left the military and is using the pseudonym Mark Owen. In a press release from publisher Dutton, Owen describes the book as an effort to "set the record straight about one of the most important missions in US military history".

    He said the book is about "the guys" and the sacrifices that the special operations forces make to do the job and is written in the hope that it will inspire young men to become Seals.

    Often special operations forces must sign nondisclosure agreements and revealing unauthorised information can constitute a crime. Christine Ball, a spokeswoman for the Penguin imprint Dutton, said the work was vetted by a former special operations attorney provided by the author. "He vetted it for tactical, technical and procedural information as well as information that could be considered classified by compilation and found it to be without risk to national security," Ball said.

    Defence department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory said that if the book revealed classified information about the raid the Pentagon would "defer to the department of justice".

    According to Pentagon regulations retired personnel, former employees and non-active duty members of the reserves "shall use the DoD security review process to ensure that information they submit for public release does not compromise national security".

    The CIA might weigh in because it ran the secret Bin Laden mission. Earlier this year a federal judge ruled a CIA whistleblower writing under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones had to forfeit future money he earned from The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, a scathing book he wrote about the spy agency. He had failed to get approval from his former employer before publication, the judge ruled.

    In 2010 the defence department claimed a former army intelligence officer's war memoir threatened national security. The Pentagon paid $47,000 to destroy 9,500 copies of the book, called Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan and the Path to Victory.

    The book was written by Anthony Shaffer, whose lawyer said the army reserve cleared the manuscript beforehand but the Defense Department later rescinded this. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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