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Dec. 22 2014 10:27 AM

Colombia May Finally Be on the Verge of Peace

In news that was slightly overshadowed by developments in another decades-old Latin American conflict last week, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group announced a unilateral and indefinite cease-fire on Wednesday, a historic step in resolving a devastating guerilla war that began in the 1960s. Coincidentally, that cease-fire resulted from a round of peace talks in Havana, and came on the same day President Obama and Raul Castro announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have made similar announcements in the past, often around Christmas or elections, only to see violence resume, this feels different. The announcement comes after the FARC’s fifth and last meeting with a delegation of representative victims in Cuba, the last stage of a five-point conflict resolution plan that included agrarian reform, political participation for the FARC, ending the conflict and eradication of illicit crops. In their statement online, the FARC say they believe they have “begun a definitive journey toward peace,” and that the cease-fire could turn into an armistice. It is set to start Dec. 20, so long as the the Colombian military also ceases all attacks, and that international organizations including the UN, European Union, and the Red Cross, as well as Pope Francis, ratify the agreement.


President Juan Manuel Santos, who came into office in 2010 pledging to bring the nation’s long conflict with the revolutionary Marxist group to a close through negotiations, said he did not accept the conditions, and that the military will continue as usual in its offensive against the guerrillas. He did call the gesture “a good first step,” comparing it to receiving a thorned rose. In the past, he has rejected calls for a bilateral cease-fire, saying these become an excuse for rebel groups to rearm and regroup, as indeed happened in the late 1990s when former president Andrés Pastrana gave the FARC a 26,000 square mile demilitarized zone in southwest Colombia.

A major challenge for both parties will be to keep rogue attacks from the FARC from sabotaging the cease-fire. But if the FARC keep their word, it would add credibility to their stated intentions to end the five-decade-long conflict. Skepticism about the peace talks, which first began in 2012, has been growing since the kidnapping of a general by the FARC last month. The government suspended the peace talks until he was released two weeks later, and negotiations had been stalled until this week’s announcement.

The most difficult and controversial steps in the peace process might be still to come, particularly the tricky issue of immunity for FARC members and how they will be reintegrated into Colombia’s civil and political life.  Santos will also face strong public opposition to any major concessions to the group. Nonetheless, after half a century and more than 220,000 deaths, Wednesday’s announcement was a rare and clear sign of progress.

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Dec. 19 2014 5:53 PM

What the Cuba Embargo Teaches Us About Sanctions

Defenders of the U.S. embargo on Cuba sometimes sound like the communist ideologues they’re targeting, promising that despite decades of failure, the worker’s paradise is just around the corner.

The Washington Post, for instance, argued in a surprising editorial that this week’s moves by the White House to lift some of the restrictions on commerce with Cuba were an “underserved bailout” for the Castro regime. The argument is that “the outlook for the Castro regime in Cuba was growing steadily darker” due to economic distress and a growing opposition movement, and then the Obama administration gave the Castros an undeserved shot in the arm.


The embargo has clearly hamstrung the Cuban economy for decades, a situation likely to be worsened by the impending economic collapse of the regime’s main benefactor, Venezuela. But the goal of the embargo wasn’t to make Cuba poor. It was to topple the Castro regime. After 53 years and 10 U.S. presidents, we’ve seen enough evidence to declare that goal a failure.

Obama’s Cuba move provides an opportunity to reflect on the utility of U.S. economic sanctions shortly after another major international story: the dramatic crash of the Russian ruble.

The sanctions aren’t the main reason, or even one of the main reasons, for the Russian crash. Years of economic mismanagement and the dramatic fall in oil prices over the last few months are much more important factors. But that hasn’t stopped administration officials from doing some off-the-record gloating about their role in wrecking the Russian economy. There’s some justification for this—as Michael Crowley of Politico writes, “key Russian lenders find themselves cut off from foreign financing at a moment of stress for major Russian businesses.” In a press conference yesterday, Vladimir Putin himself blamed sanctions for about 25 percent of the ruble’s fall.

But the end of the Cuba embargo, with a Castro still in power in Havana, ought to be the source of some humility for the United States as we consider using economic pressure on another rival. Putin is still overwhelmingly popular and continues to portray Russia as the victim of a Western plot to limit its power. As I wrote on Tuesday, he doesn’t seem like he’s in a hurry to de-escalate tensions, no matter how much inflation and a stagnant economy hurt ordinary Russians.

The U.S. is clearly capable of inflicting economic pain on other countries, but its record of actually getting those countries to do what it wants is more mixed. According to one estimate from the Peterson Institute for Economics, which looked at 174 instances of U.S. sanctions between World War I and 2006, those sanctions at least partially accomplished their political goals just 34 percent of the times.

There are cases when sanctions are effective, but circumstances are important. Sanctions like the Cuba embargo, which aimed to foment a revolution or topple a regime, aren’t successful very often.

“When they do have a better track record is when you’re asking for more tangible concessions,” Daniel Drezner, a political scientist at Tufts, prolific foreign-policy blogger, and author of The Sanctions Paradox, told me. He points to the U.S. sanctions on Iran, which have clearly played a role in pushing Tehran to the nuclear negotiating table, and are likely more effective because it’s “clear [the Obama administration] isn’t looking for regime change.”

Sanctions are also more likely to work when imposed on countries that have a large and active opposition movement, such as South Africa during apartheid. Otherwise, it’s easy enough for a an autocratic leader to use sanctions for propaganda purposes—to blame poor economic conditions on foreign powers, as Putin is doing today and Saddam Hussein did in the years leading up to the Gulf War.

Even when sanctions “work,” the effects can be fleeting. Myanmar, another go-to example of sanctions success, now appears to be backsliding on many of the human rights commitments it made during its political opening a few years ago.

Going forward, it could be even more difficult to impose effective sanctions given the ongoing impasse between the White House and Congress. If Obama lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for nuclear concessions, he will likely have to do so by making an elaborate legal end run around Capitol Hill. Congressional Republicans will almost certainly try to stymie Obama’s new Cuba policy. It’s hard for sanctions to be effective if no one believes the leader who’s negotiating with them has the power to lift them.

Despite their limitations, sanctions remain a popular policy option. Just this week, even as he was chipping away at the half-century old embargo, Obama signed into law new sanctions on Venezuelan officials and is expected to authorize new sanctions on Russia.

It’s possible to make the case that the Cuba embargo is finally working: With his political biological clock ticking, Raúl Castro wants to put his country on more secure economic footing ahead of what’s sure to be a fraught political transition. This will require ending Cuba’s international isolation and could push him toward further economic and political reforms.

But 53 years of stagnation followed by modest market reforms isn’t what John F. Kennedy had in mind in 1961. It’s time we started to be a little more realistic about what American economic pressure can achieve.

Dec. 18 2014 3:41 PM

Don’t Expect Flags and Champagne in Havana

Yoani Sanchez is one of Cuba’s best-known independent journalists and director of the news site 14ymedio, on which this post was originally published. She is also the author of the book Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today, and received the World Press Freedom Hero award from the International Press Institute in 2010.

Wednesday was one of those days we had imagined a thousand ways, but never as it actually finally happened. We were prepared for a date on which we could celebrate the end, hug our friends who returned home, and wave a flag in the middle of the street. But D-Day is late. Instead, the events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.


The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations surprised us in the midst of exhausted hopes and signs that pointed in the opposite direction. Raúl Castro had just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this Dec. 10, International Human Rights day, fell heavily on activists, as it does every year.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of all the official bluster and calls by the government to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months–clear evidence that all this intransigence was just for show. At the same time they were telling the island’s citizens that even crossing the threshold of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana would make someone a traitor to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green uniforms were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics!

Both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The U.S. president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer. But he did so before the coveted and greatly demanded goals of democratization and political opening in our country have been achieved. The question of what would come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. The fig leaf of the American embargo remains, preventing the resignation from being complete.

Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and an American spy for the long-awaited return of three Cuban agents held in U.S. custody. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.

Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat for the government. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by–as one of its main pillars–the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?

In the Carlos III market in central Havana, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting soccer or videoclips, but Castro’s speech and later Obama’s. The first statement caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the U.S. president, particularly when he mentioned relaxing the regulations for sending remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard.

It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition—the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of absence. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware of the big news and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. What we have yet to hear is a public timeline that commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of these announcements to extract a public promise from the government, which must include, at a minimum  four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months: The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island.

Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to believe that the day we have longed for is still far off. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

-This post was translated by Mary Jo Porter and lightly edited for publication on Slate.

Dec. 17 2014 5:29 PM

Why Does Cuba Want to Re-establish Relations With the U.S.?

For the Obama administration, the motivation for today’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba is clear. The embargo against Cuba is increasingly unpopular, even in parts of the Cuban-American community that long supported it, and the president has been eager to find areas of both foreign and domestic policy where he can act without cooperation from Congress. But what’s driving this move on the Cuban side?


For one thing, Wednesday’s prisoner exchange, involving three of the five intelligence officers convicted of espionage in Florida in 2001, was a major propaganda victory. “Getting the rest of the Cuban Five back has been a huge priority for Raúl Castro,” Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Slate. Underlining the iconic status the Cuban Five have taken on during their captivity, Castro referred to the men by their first names during his speech Wednesday, saying, “As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said, ‘They shall return!’ Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland.”

Dec. 17 2014 11:19 AM

The Beginning of the End of the Embargo?

In what one longtime Cuba watcher is calling “the biggest day for U.S.-Cuban relations in 50 years,” the two governments announced a prisoner exchange today that removes some of the largest impediments to full diplomatic relations between the longtime adversaries. Both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are due to make statements later today, and according to ABC News, “The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was president.”

Alan Gross, an American who was arrested and charged with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” in 2009 while attempting to deliver communications equipment to religious groups on the island as a subcontractor for USAID, has been released and is now en route back to the U.S. Gross was reportedly in poor health, and Obama had suggested earlier this month that his release would “remove an impediment to more constructive relations.”


(In an interesting coincidence, this development coincides with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah stepping down. In addition to the Gross affair, Shah’s agency has recently been involved in a number of Keystone Kops-ish democracy-promotion efforts in Cuba, including the creation of a Twitter-like social network and a campaign to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop community.)

The U.S., meanwhile, is releasing three members of the so-called Cuban Five—a group of men convicted in 2001 for attempting to spy on exile groups in Miami and who have become a cause célèbre back home. Two of the five have already been released after serving their sentences.

There’s been speculation for a long time now that Obama, who has already eased travel restrictions on Cuban families and rules on remittances and memorably shook hands with Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last year, would do something dramatic on Cuba in the remaining years of his presidency. His Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both attempted unsuccessfully to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, but there’s reason to think Obama will be more successful.

For one thing, support for the embargo, even among Florida voters and voters of Cuban descent, has never been lower. Prominent political figures, including Hillary Clinton, are feeling a lot more comfortable going on record against the embargo.

And while we certainly can’t say that Cuba is on the path toward democracy, Raúl Castro’s government has carried out some meaningful reforms, including loosening rules on travel and private property. Even the country’s best-known anti-Castro dissident, Yoani Sanchez, thinks the embargo is now counterproductive.

One thing that isn’t going to change is Congress, and that will limit just how much Obama can do on Cuba. Republicans, as well as Democrats like Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, don’t seem likely to shift on their support for the embargo anytime soon.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act enshrined the embargo as U.S. law—prior to that, it had been maintained through a series of executive orders. Rep. Dan Burton, one of the sponsors of that bill, predicted it would be the “the last nail in [Castro’s] coffin.” Almost two decades later, Castro is still alive while the bill constrains U.S. foreign policy.

There are, though, a number of things that Obama—who is increasingly conducting his foreign policy as if Congress doesn’t exist—can do on his own.

As a recent Economist column suggested, Obama could instruct the State Department to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list, on which it still anachronistically sits. An Americas Society/Council of the Americas report from last year listed a number of other executive actions the White House could take under existing laws, including allowing U.S. businesses to buy products from non-state-controlled Cuban firms, expanding travel licenses to Cuba to include business travel, allowing American travelers to Cuba to have access to U.S. financial services, allowing the sale of telecommunications hardware to Cuba, and allowing Cuba to request assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. (Helms-Burton requires the U.S. to prevent Cuba from joining these organizations.)

(Update, 12:38 p.m. The measures announced by the White House on Wednesday include many of the steps mentioned above, including more travel licenses, allowing the export of goods to private Cuban enterprises, and the sale of communications equipment and authorizing U.S. credit and debit card use by U.S. travelers to Cuba. The State Department will also be reviewing Cuba’s state terrorism designation. More dramatically, the U.S. is re-establishing an embassy in Havana in the next few months and beginning talks on restoring full diplomatic relations. This was a lot faster and more sweeping than expected.) 

After today, it’s clear that Cuba is on Obama’s agenda. The effort could still be derailed, as Bill Clinton’s overtures were after Cuba shot down two U.S. planes in 1996. But more than likely, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of one of the least effective foreign policy initiatives in American history.

Dec. 16 2014 3:46 PM

Why We Need the Gory Details About Torture

Since last week’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s treatment of detainees, there’s been a renewed debate over the use of the word torture as opposed to Orwellian euphemisms like enhanced interrogation. The report itself wasn’t shy about the T-word, deploying it more than 130 times. President Obama has used it as well, although his CIA director avoided it. The architects of the program were certainly concerned about the word. As I noted yesterday, a 2002 Justice Department memo approvingly cited a European court decision that found that techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation were “inhuman and degrading,” but not actually torture.

One new poll suggests this fixation on torture semantics may be misplaced. Forty-nine percent of the respondents to a Washington Post-ABC poll released today agreed that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture,” while 38 percent disagreed and the rest had no opinion. However, 59 percent believe that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified” with just 31 percent opposed. The only subgroups that opposed the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists: liberal democrats and atheists.


Does it matter if you include the word torture in the question itself? While other recent polls haven’t mentioned the word at all, a recent Pew survey that asks flat-out whether “torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified” found a lower but still significant level of support. Americans have only grown more supportive of torture over time, with support increasing since Pew started asking this question in 2004.

Whether you use the word or not, Americans are OK with torture because they believe it’s effective at gaining information that couldn’t be obtained by any other means. The fact that the Senate report knocked down that argument doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction.

If not torture, what do Americans oppose? Things start to change when you get really specific. A recent post on the Washington Post’s Post Everything site by three political scientists notes that when you ask specifically about techniques like “waterboarding,” “sexual humiliation,” and “exposure to extreme heat/cold,” most Americans do oppose them. They’re less bothered by “stress positions” or “sleep deprivation,” which I would imagine is a function of the fact that people don’t understand what they are.

I haven’t seen polling on forced rectal feeding, the most startling interrogation technique discussed in the report, but my guess is that most people would be opposed to that as well. This is how you make the case against torture: Describe exactly what’s being done to detainees in as clear language as possible.

One other intriguing finding in the Post/ABC poll: Fifty-four percent of Americans believe the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress, and the public about its activities. Despite this, 52 percent of respondents believe it was wrong to release the report. As with the Edward Snowden revelations, Americans don’t like their intelligence services lying to them, but they also don’t like being told the truth.

Dec. 16 2014 11:22 AM

So Maybe Putin Wasn’t an Omnipotent Supergenius

Earlier this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin was racking up an impressive run of geopolitical victories, the conventional wisdom among American pundits was that the president was a shrewd and calculating strategist, outwitting his Western rivals at every turn. This view was always flawed. Putin’s biggest political victory, the now seemingly irreversible seizure of Crimea, was made possible by the chaos following the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government, which should be counted as a much more significant defeat.

Now that the ruble has gone into a free fall, losing 22 percent of its value against the dollar this month and 11 percent Monday alone despite the government hiking interest rates, a number of commentators are pointing out that Putin isn’t looking so smart today.


Russia now expects a recession and 10 percent inflation this year, and the country’s deputy prime minister said Tuesday that poverty will “inevitably rise” as a result. Putin’s gamble, that Russia could weather the impact of Western sanctions resulting from its military incursions into Ukraine, now doesn’t appear very shrewd. “Talk of a new cold war, comparisons between Putin’s Russia and the USSR, look a bit silly now, don’t they?” writes the New York Times’ Paul Krugman.

But just as Putin’s strategic acumen was overestimated before, there’s a danger of underestimating it now. Putin’s foreign policy strength has never been has ability to look three steps ahead like some sort of geopolitical chessmaster. It’s been his ruthlessness in moving quickly to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves: snatching a territorial consolation prize from the jaws of defeat in Ukraine, swooping in to negotiate a deal over Syria’s chemical weapons when the Obama administration was looking for any excuse not to launch airstrikes, and taking full propaganda advantage of Edward Snowden when he literally appeared on Russia’s doorstep. It’s unlikely that Putin anticipated any of these situations, but he did a great job playing the cards he was dealt.

This time, Putin’s luck ran out. The fundamentals of the Russian economy weren’t strong to begin with and Western sanctions were always going to pose a challenge. But even the almighty Putin couldn’t have anticipated that all of this would coincide with a 40 percent drop in the price of oil, which, along with gas, the Russian government depends on for about half of its budget.

But Putin has survived crises before. So far, the economic crisis hasn’t put too much of a dent in the president’s popularity. His recent annual televised address to the national assembly was heavy on the nationalist themes that have served him well throughout the Ukraine crisis and placed blame for inflation vaguely on “speculators.” With Russia’s state-controlled media taking it as a given that low oil prices are the result of a U.S.-Saudi plot to weaken Russia and Iran, it remains to be seen whether Russians will blame the government for the economic turmoil ahead.

Now that international sanctions—with a big assist from the oil markets—are having the desired effect, Western governments may be hoping that Russia will become more compliant, particularly in Ukraine, which just had its first night without a shooting in months.

This may not be the case. Putin can’t do much of anything about oil prices,and any steps to cooperate with NATO to secure sanctions relief will make him look weak. There’s a fair chance, then, that he may actually escalate tensions to get back the rally-round-the-flag effect that has sustained his popularity through the Ukraine crisis. Russian jets continue to buzz the airspace of NATO countries, and the military recently carried out snap drills in Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad. This doesn’t look like a leader on the verge of de-escalating.

Dec. 15 2014 3:48 PM

What America Learned About Torture From Israel and Britain

One striking aspect of the debate over Bush-era interrogation methods has been the willingness of the program’s defenders to support methods that are routinely described as torture when employed by other countries. “In [Dick] Cheney’s world, nothing Americans do can be called torture, because we are not al-Qaida and we are not the Japanese in the Second World War (whom we prosecuted for waterboarding) and we are not ISIS,” writes the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson. She continues: “[I]t was not really the Justice Department that ‘blessed,’ or rather transubstantiated, torture; it was our American-ness.”

The United States, though, is not the only democracy to have tortured. In fact, in justifying the interrogation program, its architects drew on the experiences of two of America’s closest allies.


As was widely reported in the Israeli media, last week’s Senate report notes that the CIA used Israel as a precedent to justify its use of coercive interrogation tactics. The Jerusalem Post reports:

On November 26, 2001, soon after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., the CIA general counsel wrote that “the Israeli example” could serve as “a possible basis for arguing ... regarding terrorist detainees that ‘torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm.’ ” The internal memorandum also said that “states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives.”

The use of torture in fighting terrorism has been a recurring subject of debate in Israel. In 1987, following the deaths of two Palestinian prisoners, an Israeli government commission led by former Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau found that in some extraordinary cases “the exertion of a moderate degree of physical pressure cannot be avoided.” 

According to the human rights group B’Tselem, Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, used physical force against at least 850 persons per year in the years following the Landau Commission, usually not in the “ticking bomb” scenarios the report had used to justify such methods. These methods include depriving prisoners of sleep, forcing them into “stress positions,” threatening them, subjecting them to extreme temperatures, and blasting them with loud music—all methods that would later become commonplace in CIA interrogations.

In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the Shin Bet from using Landau-approved techniques, but still allowed interrogators to invoke the “defense of necessity” if they were later faced with prosecution. The agency returned to coercive interrogations soon after, when the Second Intifada broke out. While such tactics are routinely condemned by human rights groups, most Israelis, like most Americans, believe they are justified to prevent terrorist attacks.

But even some who defend Israel’s interrogation practices argue that the U.S. drew the wrong lessons from the country's experience. John Schindler, a former NSA employee and historian whose take on the Senate report was cited by my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley last week, argues that while Shin Bet employs “what outsiders would term torture on occasion, those conditions are tightly controlled by legal authorities.” Interrogators are also highly trained and fluent in Arabic.

In contrast, Schindler writes, the U.S. intelligence community “opted for an ad hoc, somewhat fly-by-night interrogation program, lacking in expertise or language skills, and botched the job—to the surprise only of those who have never seen U.S. intelligence in action.”

Israel isn’t the only country whose experience was examined by the Bush administration’s lawyers. In a post on the Irish political blog Slugger O’Toole, Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland program director for Amnesty International, writes that in the now infamous 2002 “torture memos” which advised the CIA and the administration on the legality of “enhanced” interrogation, assistant attorney general Jay Bybee quoted from a European Court of Human Rights decision on Britain’s treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

During the Troubles, British security forces developed what became known as the “five techniques” for interrogations of IRA suspects: hooding, “wall-standing” (a kind of stress position), subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, and denial of food and water. When the techniques were made public in 1972, they were banned for future interrogations by Prime Minister Edward Heath. Shortly afterward, the Irish government filed a case against Britain in international court against Britain alleging torture in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the interrogation methods amounted to “inhuman and degrading” treatment, but not torture.

Following a recent Irish TV documentary which alleged that the British government had misled the investigation, the Irish government recently announced plans to ask the European Court of Human Rights to revise its judgment.

The 2002 memos used this case to bolster the argument that U.S. interrogations did not constitute torture. Variations on all of the five techniques were employed by the CIA during the period covered by the Senate’s report. Bybee apparently ignored the fact that though the British government denied “torture,” it still found the techniques illegal under British law.

Proponents of the U.S. interrogation program took from these examples that government can get away with an awful lot of mistreatment without having to call it “torture.” Israel’s experience is also a reminder that security forces will find ways to exploit the loopholes left open in legal judgments. This is concerning given that the Obama administration is reluctant to launch any prosecutions program and that its legal position on torture leaves some troubling ambiguity on the topic of “black site” prisons. And the British interrogations, still being argued in court four decades later, suggest that even if the U.S. is completely finished with torture, the controversy over the program is far from over.

Dec. 15 2014 1:26 PM

Australia’s Terrorism Problem

Police have now stormed the downtown Sydney café where a lone gunman took more than a dozen hostages. We still don’t know much about the identities or motivations of the attacker beyond the fact that he forced his hostages to display a black flag with white Arabic script resembling those used by al-Qaida and ISIS.

Given the prominent role Australians have played in the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, it seems reasonable to speculate that there may be a link. In June it was reported that there were 150 Australians fighting with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, making it the largest per-capita contributor of foreign fighters. In August an Australian jihadist in Syria with a history of mental illness received international attention for posting a photo online showing his 7-year-old son holding a severed head.


Australia has already seen two instances of confirmed ISIS-related violence—one attempted, one successful. In September, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a former nightclub bouncer from Sydney who had moved to Syria to fight with the Islamic State, phoned a friend back home asking him to carry out a beheading on camera as a “demonstration.” The call was intercepted, and the friend was arrested. Several days later, an 18-year-old “known terror suspect” who had been spotted carrying the ISIS flag at a shopping center stabbed two counterterrorism officers in Melbourne before he was shot and killed. Following the latter attack, hundreds of police officers raided dozens of homes in Sydney and Brisbane, arresting 15 people in the largest counterterrorism raids in the country’s history. Allegations of police abuses during the raids lead to protests in the Muslim community.

Australia has been a part of the international military coalition fighting ISIS since October, and federal police have warned the country’s citizens to stay out of the conflict. Echoing the concerns other Western governments, Australian officials have warned of radicalized fighters returning home from Syria to carry out attacks in their own country. So far, though, we haven’t seen many signs of this. The Baryalei plot, which never got very far, was an exception to the rule in that someone in Syria was in contact with a potential attacker back home. The Melbourne stabber, the two men who carried out attacks in Canada in October, and Mehdi Nemmouche, the ISIS vet who shot three people at the Jewish museum in Brussels last May, are all believed to have acted on their own with little to no coordination from ISIS central.

The suspect in this case was an Iranian-born self-styled cleric and “spiritual healer” named Man Haron Monis who was apparently well-known to police for having sent offensive letters to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and was facing multiple sexual assault charges. Monis, who according to his website used to be Shia but converted, had no known ties to terrorist groups and seems to have acted alone.

Adam Dolnik, a terrorism researcher at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, speculated to the New York Times that the attacker is likely “a lone wolf sympathetic to the issues of the Islamic State and the goal of jihad more generally” or represents a case of “psychopathology in search of a cause.”

A reasonable case could be made that this describes most terrorists, but the point here is that this appears to be a solo effort and not a very well-planned one. The good news is that these lone-wolf attackers are generally much less effective that organized plots. The bad news is that they are much harder to suss out and prevent in advance.

Dec. 11 2014 4:09 PM

Al-Qaida Is No Longer the Worldwide Leader in Terror

There were 664 lethal jihadist terrorist attacks resulting in 5,042 deaths this November. That’s according to a report released today by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, in conjunction with the BBC.

Confirming the findings of other surveys, the report found that the vast majority of attacks take place in just a handful countries—namely Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. A little more than half the victims are civilians. The vast majority of those civilians are Muslims.


The report doesn’t provide much context regarding whether November was an unusual month—the choice was “determined by convenience and BBC scheduling.” Rather, it aims to provide a “global snapshot” of the current level of jihadist activity.

Just as terrorism is concentrated in a few countries, a very small number of groups are responsible for the vast majority of these deaths. Only 17 groups out of the 50 the authors were monitoring had any activity during this period, and just eight of them carried out 97 percent of the attacks.

One of the report’s key findings is that, as the report's author, Peter Neumann of ICSR, puts it, “al-Qaida and jihadism are no longer synonymous (if they ever were).” Attacks by the two deadliest groups during this period, ISIS and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, accounted for 44 and 16 percent of all deaths respectively. This means that 60 percent of the deaths (and 51 percent of the attacks) were the work of groups with no formal ties to al-Qaida. Neumann writes, “They represent a new breed of jihadist groups which thrive on religious and sectarian fault lines, are state builders, and seem to have fewer restraints in using excessive forms of violence.”

The Taliban, allied with al-Qaida but separate from it, was third on the list. Al-Qaida’s affiliates aren’t out of the picture entirely—al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for a fifth of the deaths—but they don’t have the central role in international terrorism that they once did.

This ought to be another indication that a 13-year-old document aimed at punishing the perpetrators of 9/11 is no longer the best framework for America’s global counterterrorism efforts. Back in 2001, it made sense to think of al-Qaida as the central hub of global terrorism. That’s not the case in 2014.