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Latest news and features from, the world's leading liberal voice

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    After 9/11 the agency was given free rein to break the rules but when allowed to play dirty abroad, it's difficult to stop at home

    Little more than a week after 9/11, Cofer Black gave instructions to his CIA team before their mission. "I don't want Bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead … I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want Bin Laden's head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to show Bin Laden's head to the president. I promised him I would do that."

    A month later, at a meeting sponsored by Schwab Capital markets, CIA executive director "Buzzy" Krongard laid out for investors what such a war would entail. "[It] will be won in large measure by forces you do not know about, in actions you will not see and in ways you may not want to know about," he said.

    Back then there wasn't a treaty that couldn't be violated, a principle waived or a definition parsed in the defence of American power and pursuit of popular revenge. To invoke the constitution, the Geneva convention or democratic oversight was evidence that you were out of your depth in the new reality. Laws were for the weak; for the powerful there was force. This was not just the mood of a moment; it has been policy for more than a decade.

    Obama's arrival offered a shift in focus and style but not in direction or substance. "I don't want [people at the CIA] to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders," he said shortly before his first inauguration. It was never difficult to see what could go wrong with this approach. But it has, nonetheless, been shocking to see how wrong things have gone. As covert operations were shielded from oversight, so human rights violations became not just inevitable but routine.

    In a 2004 report military intelligence officers told the International Committee for the Red Cross they believed between 70% and 80% of the detainees in Iraq were innocent. The nods and winks became permanent tics – so reflexive they embedded themselves in the institutional subconscious. "The most serious thing is the abuse of power that that allows you to do," Lawrence Wilkerson, former secretary of state, Colin Powell's chief of staff, told Jeremy Scahill in his book, Dirty Wars. "You find out the intelligence was bad and you killed a bunch of innocent people and you have a bunch of innocent people on your hands, so you stuff 'em in Guantánamo. No one ever knows anything about that. You don't have to prove to anyone that you did right. You did it all in secret, so you just go to the next operation. You say, 'Chalk that one up to experience'… And believe me that happened."

    The logic driving this state of affairs is not only self-fulfilling, it's self-perpetuating. The more they act with impunity the more abuses are committed, the more they have to cover up and the more secrecy they need. So long as it happened abroad, the consequences for the American polity were limited. Abu Ghraib and drone attacks cost precious few votes or senior careers. But it was only a matter of time before these ramifications started making themselves felt at home. Foreign policy doesn't take place in a vacuum; it's co-ordinated by and incorporated into the same system that elaborates domestic policy. Once you have told operatives to take their gloves off and fight dirty on the road they don't just start playing by Queensbury rules at home.

    Those openly called on to flout international law in the interests of a higher good do not then suddenly submit that goal to domestic law once they've gone through customs. Once the state has deliberately created space for power to be exercised without accountability those who occupy that space will protect it against enemies domestic and foreign. When your war is global and unending it inevitably comes home and keeps going. The monster the US has unleashed on the rest of the world is steadily devouring its own.

    This is not new. The origins of the Watergate scandal, in which President Richard Nixon bugged his electoral opponents, lies in Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia; McCarthyism had its roots in the cold war.

    But during the war on terror the process has become particularly pronounced. In recent months, it has emerged that the CIA has been spying on investigators from the Senate intelligence committee– the very committee charged with overseeing the CIA. The investigators, who were authorised to examine CIA documents relating to interrogation methods, found a withering internal review which concluded with the finding that torture techniques, like waterboarding, used in "black site" prisons had been ineffective. This was particularly troublesome because the CIA director had argued the opposite before the committee, contradicting the agency's own findings. When the CIA discovered that the investigators had the review, it started going through their computer logs to find out how they had got hold of it.

    In short the CIA spirited people away and tortured them, concluded this was useless, suppressed those conclusions, lied about them to elected officials and then spied on the people who had a democratic mandate to discover the truth precisely because they discovered the truth. Those black sites in far away lands have sister cities within the democratic process.

    The defence for this duplicity is invariably national security. To be kept safe we must also be kept ignorant; to protect democracy it must be undermined. The unfettered phone surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency revealed the degree to which politicians collude in much of this – asking soft ball questions and apparently happier being fobbed off than taking on the democratic responsibilities.

    "You can get caught up in that world. There's a certain glamour to it I think for a lot of elected officials," Senator Martin Heinrich, who is on the intelligence committee, told Politico. The price for that glamour is high and we all pay for it.

    But nobody can claim we weren't warned: "We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world," former vice-president Dick Cheney said shortly after 9/11. "A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion … That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal … to achieve our objective."

    Those shadows are long. They have concealed unspeakable horrors abroad. Increasingly they are casting darkness at home.

    Twitter: @garyyounge© 2014 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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    Prosecutors use Saajid Badat’s testimony to show that Abu Ghaith Suleiuman conspired to create a second wave of terrorist attacks after 9/11

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    Julian Brookes: Want closure for attacks on America? You’ll get more at a trial near Ground Zero than a torturous commission at Guantánamo Bay

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    Shakil Afridi's sentence for membership of militant group reduced by 10 years after calls by Washington for his release

    A court in Pakistan has reduced by 10 years the prison sentence handed down to a Pakistani doctor who helped the US track down the al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a blow to his supporters who have been fighting for his release.

    Shakil Afridi, hailed as a hero by US officials, was arrested after US soldiers killed Bin Laden in May 2011 in a raid in a northern Pakistani town.

    Pakistan arrested Afridi and sentenced him to 33 years in jail for being a member of a militant group, a charge he denies.

    On Saturday, a court in the city of Peshawar reduced his sentence to 23 years after repeated calls by the US and his legal team for his release.

    "We will receive a complete court order on Monday and will then challenge it at the FATA tribunal," said Afridi's lawyer, Qamar Nadeem, referring to a higher court of Pakistan's semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

    Afridi has become a new irritant in the complex ties between Washington and Islamabad that have been deteriorating in recent years despite Pakistan's pivotal role to US interests in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and nuclear security.

    The day after Afridi was sentenced, the US Senate expressed its anger by voting to dock Islamabad $33m (£20m) in aid – $1m for every year of the sentence.

    Pakistan has accused the doctor of running a fake vaccination campaign in which he collected DNA samples to help the CIA track down Bin Laden.© 2014 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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    In a courtroom surprise, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith testified through an Arabic interpreter that he ‘wanted to get to know’ Bin Laden

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    Suleiman Abu Ghaith testifies in own defence at terrorism trial and says Bin Laden asked him how US would respond to 9/11

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    Attorney says Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's 'purpose was to justify mass murder' as defence prepares to make closing arguments

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    Jury hears closing arguments in trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, charged with providing material support to al-Qaida

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    Dawkins tweeted 'Bin Laden has won' after his jar of honey was confiscated by airport security. Which other items of celebrity baggage have famously fallen foul of airport regulations

    He may have been dead for two and a half years, but this week Osama bin Laden achieved the unspeakably evil endpoint of his diabolical lifelong masterplan: he got an airport security team to confiscate a little jar of honey from Richard Dawkins. Distraught, the evolutionary biologist and world-famous atheist tweeted:

    Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day. I had a little jar of honey, now thrown away by rule-bound dundridges. STUPID waste.

    Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 3, 2013

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  • 03/26/14--12:40: Sketching Guantánamo
  • Court artist's new book offers a rare and unique insight into the drama of the military hearings at US detention centre

    Janet Hamlin has been covering Guantánamo for seven years, making more than 25 trips to the prison. Her work provides an unusual view into the controversial military commissions proceedings - and the only view of the small number of detainees charged with crimes (of the 164 prisoners that remain at Guantánamo, only six face formal charges).

    Sketching Guantánamo, a compilation of her work with accompanying essays, has just hit the shelves. The artist exchanged ideas and answered questions last week over the phone and Gmail chat:

    This was the first time I was in court and the first time I saw the motions and the judge and lawyers from each side like I had seen in the movies and I didn't understand anything about the law and the court procedures. I wondered whether the trial would be fair or only what the American government wanted. They weren't using civilian law or military law and they made up a new law that doesn't offer anything in favour of the prisoner...

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    Shakil Afridi faces allegations over operating on boy in 2006, who died after surgery

    The lawyer for a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden says his client has been charged with murder.

    Samiullah Afridi said on Friday that Shakil Afridi was charged with murder, in a case involving a boy who died after the doctor operated on him for appendicitis in 2006, in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area.

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  • 03/26/14--12:40: Dirty Wars review
  • Jeremy Scahill's documentary about the shadowy world of the Joint Special Operations Command is an important story

    Jeremy Scahill is the national security correspondent for the Nation and his new film is about the strange case of JSoc, or Joint Special Operations Command. It's a military force that has long existed in its own shadowy world of deniability, taking out assumed terrorists, launching drone attacks and killing large numbers of innocent civilians in countries with which the US is not technically at war: Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen. For years, Scahill battled to find out more about JSoc in Afghanistan. Then, when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, Scahill had the disconcerting experience of seeing JSoc come triumphantly out of the shadows, taking the credit, wallowing in glory. Its commander Admiral William McRaven, once so camera shy, now appeared front and centre on TV. Where did that leave Scahill's investigations? Well, his case is that JSoc is a strangely dysfunctional, even homicidal body which has, in fact, become no more transparent or democratically accountable as a result of the Bin Laden publicity. Its bodycount may not be a matter of "collateral damage", but paranoid, punitive killing sprees: a semi-rogue body on whose behalf there will always be someone to dismiss dissenters as the enemy's useful idiot. The movie has rather silly, Bourne-style thriller graphics, which are unnecessary: it has an important story to tell.

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    Kuwaiti imam Suleiman Abu Ghaith faces life in prison after being found guilty on three terrorism charges in New York court

    Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, the voice of fiery al-Qaida propaganda videotapes after the September 11 attacks, was convicted Wednesday of conspiring to kill Americans for his role as the terror group's spokesman.

    The verdict came after about five hours of deliberation in the case against Suleiman Abu Ghaith, the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure to face trial on US soil since the attacks. The Kuwaiti imam had testified during a three-week New York trial that he answered bin Laden's request in the hours after the attacks to speak on the widely circulated videos used to recruit new followers willing to go on suicide missions like the 19 who hijacked four planes on September 11, 2001.

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  • 03/26/14--12:40: Osama bin Laden obituary
  • Leader of al-Qaida and the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he became the world's most wanted man

    To his enemies, whatever colour or creed, he was a religious fanatic, a terrorist with the blood of thousands on his hands, a man who had brought war and suffering to a broad swath of the Islamic world and come close to provoking a global conflagration on a scale not seen for decades. To his supporters, whose numbers peaked in the few years after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in America that he masterminded, he was a visionary leader fighting both western aggression against Muslims and his co-religionists' lack of faith and rigour. For both, Osama bin Laden, who has been killed at the age of 54 by US special forces at a compound near Abbottabad, a town about 50 miles north-east of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, was one of those rare figures whose actions changed the course of history.

    His life was one of extremes and of contradictions. Born to great wealth, he lived in relative poverty. A graduate of civil engineering, he assumed the mantle of a religious scholar. A gifted propagandist who had little real experience of battle, he projected himself as a mujahid, a holy warrior. A man who called for a return to the values and social systems of the seventh century as a means of restoring a just order in today's world, he justified the use of advanced modern technology to kill thousands through a rigorous and anachronistic interpretation of Islamic law. One of the most notorious people on the planet, Bin Laden lived for years in obscurity, his public presence limited to intermittent appearances in videos on the internet. A man who professed to have sacrificed all for others and to care nothing for himself, he was fiercely conscious of posterity.

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    Intelligence committee finds methods such as waterboarding did not produce any crucial evidence in hunt for al-Qaida leader, aides say

    A hotly disputed US Senate torture report concludes that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods provided no key evidence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to congressional aides and outside experts familiar with the investigation.

    The CIA still disputes that conclusion.

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    Declassifying the CIA's Bush-era atrocities will prove what we already knew. Now comes the part we must never forget

    Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee will finally vote on whether to make public a disputed report on years of torture conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. They should vote to declassify this landmark document, as much for what it will remind us as that which we can never know.

    Even if only parts of the 6,300-page investigation would ever see the light of the day (and under CIA supervision at that), it would reportedly provide valuable evidence that waterboarding and other methods applied by the Bush administration provided no key information in the hunt of Osama bin Laden indeed, that America's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques "yielded little, if any, significant intelligence" at all.

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    Prosecutors give opening statements in New York terror trial
    Hamza charged with opening al-Qaida training camp in Oregon

    Radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza used the cover of religion to recruit and indoctrinate men, and to export violence and terror around the world, a New York jury heard on Thursday.

    In his opening statement, assistant US attorney Edward Kim told a federal court in Manhattan that the former imam of the Finsbury Park mosque in north London used the place of worship as a base to send his global export of violence and terror.

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    Maulana Abdul Aziz, controversial and hardline cleric, wanted to pay tribute to al-Qaida leader, 'the martyr'

    A Pakistani cleric who runs an Islamic seminary for girls in the capital of Islamabad has named the school's newly built library in honour of Osama bin Laden, his spokesman and a school administrator have said .

    The tribute is an unusual move, though there have been cases in recent years of Pakistanis naming their sons or even their stores and places of business after the terror network's late leader.

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    The owner of a Sao Paulo drinking hole has turned his accidental resemblance to a certain terrorist into a catering opportunity

    Of the many strange sights awaiting England football fans in Brazil, a Sao Paulo bar named after Osama bin Laden and run by a Bin Laden lookalike may be the most unexpected.

    According to his tumblr page, Ceará Francisco Helder Braga Fernandes, a Sao Paulo resident since 1978, renamed his bar soon after 9/11. With a long grey beard and thick dark eyebrows, he had been a lookalike without knowing it. But when Osama bin Laden became the world's most wanted man, appearing on TV screens around the world, one alarmed customer called the police to report he was lying low as a downtown barman.

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    British born Saajid Badat told the New York jury how he met directly with Osama Bin Laden while planning shoe-bomb plot

    A British-born al-Qaida operative turned government informant told a New York court how Osama Bin Laden had hugged him and wished him luck on his mission as he plotted to blow up a US passenger jet with convicted shoe bomber, Richard Reid.

    Saajid Badat, the key prosecution witness in the trial of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical Islamic cleric and former imam of Finsbury Park Mosque, also said that the Canary Wharf tower in London, the US embassy in London and Britain's Ministry of Defence were discussed as possible al-Qaida targets.

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