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Interview: A Journalist Not Scared to Speak the Truth

5 Jun

June 5, 2010

Celebrity Dialogue

CelebityDialogue: Which news publications do you write for?
Eric: I’ve written for The Guardian, Mother Jones, The Nation, Huffington Post and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others.

CelebityDialogue: What is your beat?
Eric: I don’t have one beat in any traditional sense. My interests are quite varied. I generally critique US foreign policy, our outrageous military budget, the privatization of war, including the use of mercenaries, and the growing use of robotics, both on the ground and in the air, in modern warfare. I also regularly write about nonviolent movements around the world for Waging Nonviolence, a blog that I helped start last year.

CelebityDialogue: What would you say to the critics who may view your writing as mostly anti-government?
Eric: I would say that would be an inaccurate way of characterizing my work. I’m not against all government. I’m against government that is destructive, dysfunctional and unresponsive to the will of the people, and that’s unfortunately where we’re at in the United States. On issue after issue the policies of the US government are in direct opposition to the demands of social and economic justice. To take just one example, we spend upwards of a trillion dollars every year on the Pentagon and war while tens of millions of Americans live in poverty and have no access to health care. That is immoral and unacceptable.

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Schock fighting against freedom in Honduras

18 Oct

October 18, 2009

Peoria Journal Star

casa-presidencial_-senadores-republicanos-llegan-a-honduras-para-reunirse-con-presidente-micheletti_noticia_encabezado

After traveling to Honduras earlier this month to show his support for the June 28 military coup, Congressman Aaron Schock ironically spoke of his concern for democracy and “the will of the Honduras people.”

The ousted President Manuel Zelaya, however, is the democratically elected leader who – with the support of the tiny Honduran elite – was forcefully removed from power by the military. And despite the massive propaganda campaign against Zelaya, his popularity hasn’t changed. According to a poll that was just released, only 17.4 percent of Hondurans support the coup and a majority still favor Zelaya’s return to power.

While the State Department and the White House view the matter differently, Schock continues to argue that Zelaya was illegally attempting to change the constitution so that he could run for another term, thereby making the coup perfectly legal and constitutional. The truth is another matter.

While President Zelaya did call for a non-binding referendum on whether the public would support rewriting the 1982 constitution – which has already been rewritten 16 times – such action was apparently perfectly legal under the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act. Moreover, Zelaya repeatedly said that any changes made by the constitutional assembly, including allowing a second presidential term, wouldn’t apply to him, since his term ends in January.

The real reason that Honduran soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the middle of the night and flew Zelaya at gunpoint to Costa Rica was because of opposition by the wealthy beneficiaries of the status quo to his redistributive policies – such as raising the minimum wage, subsidizing public transit and providing free school lunches and pensions for the elderly – that began to address the massive inequalities and desperate poverty in the third poorest country in the hemisphere.

Since taking power, the coup government of Roberto Micheletti has closed down critical media outlets, blocked access to international news sources like CNN, and regularly beaten, arrested and killed courageous, peaceful protesters calling for a return to democracy and the rule of law.

Schock’s embarrassing stance on Honduras only adds to the rich, sordid history of politicians from both sides of the aisle backing military dictatorships and repressive regimes that are seen as beneficial to our “economic interests,” while paying lip service to democracy, human rights and freedom.

Guards Gone Wild

4 Sep

September 4, 2009

The Guardian, ZNet

armorgroup_3The release of the extensive investigation by the Project on Government Oversight on Tuesday depicting a “Lord of the Flies” environment among mercenaries in Afghanistan, should only sour the American public further on a war that the majority rightfully no longer believe is worth fighting.

According to interviews and emails with more than a dozen guards from ArmorGroup North America – which holds a five-year $189m contract to protect the US embassy in Kabul – approximately 30 supervisors and guards working for the company “are engaging in near-weekly deviant hazing and humiliation of subordinates” that has led to “complete distrust of leadership and a breakdown of the chain of command, compromising security”.

In one email, a current ArmorGroup guard describes scenes where his colleagues are “peeing on people, eating potato chips out of [buttock] cracks, vodka shots out of [buttock] cracks (there is video of that one), broken doors after drnken [sic] brawls, threats and intimidation from those leaders participating in this activity”.

In another incident, an Afghan food-service worker at Camp Sullivan, a base a few miles from the embassy where the mercenaries are quartered, claims that a “supervisor and four others entered a dining facility on August 1, 2009, wearing only short underwear and brandishing bottles of alcohol. Upon leaving the facility, the guard force supervisor allegedly grabbed the Afghan national by the face and began abusing him with foul language.”

Witnesses allege that the highest echelons of ArmorGroup’s management in Afghanistan have not only condoned these twisted activities, but engage in them, and that “those who declined to participate [are] often ridiculed, humiliated, demoted or even fired”.

While these revelations are shocking, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last two years, the US state department has repeatedly warned ArmorGroup about its numerous contract violations and chronic lack of manpower in Afghanistan, which according to one contracting official has put the embassy’s security “in jeopardy”.

The Project on Government Oversight’s 10-page letter to secretary of state Hillary Clinton also notes, among a host of other problems, that most of the 300 Indian and Nepali Gurkhas working for ArmorGroup in Kabul cannot speak adequate English, which forces “non-English-speakers and English-speakers … to use pantomime in order to convey orders or instructions.” In addition, a lawsuit filed by two former guard supervisors says the firm “knowingly and repeatedly provided substandard equipment and services” in order to maximise profits.

At a Senate hearing on waste, fraud and abuse by ArmorGroup in June, senator Claire McCaskill asked in exasperation: “Is this the best we can do?” It doesn’t take a particularly wild imagination to dream up ways that the $8,000-a-month salary that American, Canadian and British ArmorGroup guards are paid could be better spent.

Nevertheless, ArmorGroup’s contract was renewed yet again the following month, revealing just how utterly dependent the US is on mercenary forces to keep its wars afloat.

As of 30 June, there were nearly 74,000 military contractors – including 5,165 armed private security guards – in Afghanistan, far outnumbering the roughly 58,000 US troops in the country. While it’d be next to impossible for President Barack Obama to rid the occupation of contractors altogether, it would not be difficult for him to replace the entire mercenary force (which is about the equivalent of one brigade) with US soldiers.

Given the never-ending scandals involving armed contractors, why then has the administration not taken this seemingly logical step? The answer points to one of the most alluring attractions of privatised war: It gives those in power an easy way to circumvent traditional democratic processes. They can escalate war under the radar with far less interference from the public.

Hiring additional contractors in Afghanistan – the vast majority of whom are local nationals or citizens from other poor countries – simply doesn’t generate the headlines that sending more US troops does. Moreover, contractor deaths are not counted in any official tally of casualties, which ultimately serves to slow the growth of public opposition to the war.

Despite these unspoken benefits of privatisation, out-of-control contractors could still become more hassle than they are worth to the administration. Perhaps this latest scandal will open America’s eyes to the fact that mercenaries – much like the war itself – are detrimental to the security and image of the US abroad.

How Does Remote-Controlled Technology Change War?

28 Apr

April 28, 2009

KALW 91.7 FM

kalw-cityToday, I was on “Your Call,” an hour-long call-in program on KALW 91.7 FM, the local Public Radio station in San Francisco, to talk about the impact of drones and robotics on war. To listen to show, click here. Hope you enjoy!

No Mercy for Mercenaries

28 Feb

Blackwater – er, Xe – has been kicked out of Iraq. Now the other private security contractors should be banned as well.

February 17, 2009

The Guardian, Huffington Post, Common Dreams, ZNet

After raking in more than a billion dollars from its contracts in Iraq, Blackwater is finally being forced to leave the country that it has terrorised for so long. But the notorious mercenary firm’s departure will likely have more symbolic significance than any real impact on the day-to-day lives of Iraqis.

First, only Blackwater as a corporate entity – which just changed its name to Xe in an effort to shake its bad reputation – is being given the boot. Iraqi officials have said that its operatives will be allowed to stay in the country by switching companies, as long as they have clean records. While this sounds reasonable, making that determination will be next to impossible. According to US officials and the contractors themselves, the actual number of shootings in Iraq by private military companies is far higher than is publicly acknowledged and they are rarely reported by the individuals involved.

Second, Blackwater never was a lone bad apple. The entire mercenary industry is rotten and needs to be discarded. Consider Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, the two mercenary outfits that will be filling the hole left by Blackwater. In 1999, for example, Dyncorp employees were implicated in a sex ring in Bosnia that involved the trafficking of women and children as young as 12 years old. When whistleblowers came forward to expose these heinous crimes, they were promptly fired.

And there is no sign that firm has cleaned up its act in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US state department has repeatedly rebuked Dyncorp for being unprofessional and “too aggressive”. In one embarrassing incident, a BBC correspondent actually saw a guard from the company slap the Afghan transport minister.

By comparison, Triple Canopy is a relative newcomer to the mercenary business. With hopes of cashing in on the most privatised war in history, the company was founded immediately after the invasion of Iraq by three US special forces veterans. According to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (pdf), Triple Canopy relies far more heavily on so-called “third-country nationals” to cushion its bottom line than either Dyncorp or Blackwater. Paid only $33 a day, these hired guns come largely from developing countries – especially those in Latin America – that have histories of human rights abuses.

Much like Blackwater, Triple Canopy was involved in one of the most infamous shooting sprees of the war in Iraq. On 8 July 2006 – after remarking “I want to kill somebody today” – a heavily armed Triple Canopy guard in Iraq reportedly shot multiple rounds into the windshield of an unthreatening pickup truck and later a taxi for amusement.

Many argue, including President Barack Obama, that these mercenaries can be reined in through the creation of a legal framework that can hold them accountable for any wrongdoing. The notion, however, that these hired guns – who number in the tens of thousands and are often better armed than US soldiers – can somehow be effectively monitored and brought to justice in the middle of a war zone is pure fantasy.

The only real solution to this mess is for either Iraq or the US to ban armed contractors altogether. The Stop Outsourcing Security Act would accomplish this by mandating “that all diplomatic security in Iraq be undertaken by US government personnel within six months of enactment.” The legislation also states that “the use of private military contractors for mission critical functions” in all conflict zones where the US is active must be phased out over a longer timeline.

Hillary Clinton offered a glimmer of hope when she endorsed this bill during her campaign for the presidency. But as Obama’s secretary of state, she has quickly abandoned her commitment to “show these contractors the door”. Unfortunately for Iraqis, it looks like the mercenary industry will have little to fear from the new administration.

Obama: Listen to Iraqi Opinion

28 Feb

January 5, 2009

Foreign Policy In Focus, Alternet, Common Dreams

Demonstrators make their voices heard during a rally at Firdos square in Baghdad November 21, 2008. (REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz)

Demonstrators make their voices heard during a rally at Firdos square in Baghdad November 21, 2008. (REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz)

In discussing his plans for the Iraq War during the presidential campaign, one group that Barack Obama seldom, if ever, mentioned as supporting his proposed policy was the Iraqi people.

Obama’s campaign website, which differs only slightly from his transition website, lays out very clearly what he sees as problematic with the Iraq War. It highlights U.S. casualties — without mentioning the hundreds of thousands (some studies estimate over one million) of Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the invasion and occupation — and the exorbitant financial cost of the war, while arguing from a strategic perspective that the diversion of troops and resources to Iraq “continues to set back our ability to finish the fight in Afghanistan.”

 Not only is Iraqi opinion completely ignored, but Obama’s website actually blames the victim — a popular line with both Democrats and Republicans — by stating that “the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people.” How Iraqis are supposed to take control of their destiny with 146,000 U.S. troops — and an even larger number of U.S. contractors — in their country is apparently not a relevant question.

Failure to mention Iraqi opinion during the campaign, however, wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge about what they think. In fact, since the war began, the Iraqis have been extensively polled and the results are telling. Below is a sampling of these poll results, each compared with the president-elect’s proposed policy for the Iraq War.

1) A March 2008 poll by Opinion Business Research found that 70% of Iraqis wanted foreign troops to leave. Of that group, 65% said they wanted the troops to leave “immediately or as soon as possible,” and another 13% responded “within six months.” Such sentiment has remained fairly consistent since shortly after the U.S. invasion. In April 2004, for example, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that 57% of Iraqis wanted the U.S. and British forces to “leave immediately.”

Obama has repeatedly pledged to “responsibly end the war in Iraq,” convincing many of his supporters who didn’t dig beneath the campaign rhetoric that he was the “peace candidate.” Obama’s plan from the beginning, however, has consisted of withdrawing only the “combat brigades” over a 16-month period and leaving behind a “residual force in Iraq [that] would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces.”

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Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils

28 Feb

October 31, 2008

Huffington Post

jonik-votewolf1Those skeptical of voting – at least for either major party – are invariably confronted with some version of the “lesser of two evils” argument. It’s usually the last line of defense for Democrats, after they concede that their party has a long way to go on many of the issues that matter most to Americans. Indeed, whether it’s the economy, health care or the war, polls show that the policies of both parties are considerably to the right of public opinion, and have been so for a long time. This disconnect between the will of the people and their so-called representatives is evidence of a failing democracy.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that there are differences between the two major parties. Democrats would in all likelihood be slightly better on certain domestic issues than their Republican counterparts. Even Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who generally critique the deep systemic nature of our problems, have admitted as much in recent interviews. On issues such as foreign policy, however, both parties are virtually identical. Any honest look at our history would admit that the Democrats have been just as avid – if slightly more subtle and sophisticated – in their support of war and empire as the Republicans. To take just a brief look at their record:

• A Democrat initiated US military involvement in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Balkans.
• Only a Democrat has ever dropped an atomic bomb on innocent civilians.
• During the 2000 campaign for the White House, Al Gore’s proposed increase for the military budget over the next 10 years was more than double what Bush was proposing at the time.
• Apart from the courageous Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrats unanimously voted for the
never-ending “War on Terror.”
• The subsequent invasion of Iraq could not have been pulled off without the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Biden.
• Since being swept to power in both Houses of Congress by a wave of antiwar sentiment nearly two years ago, Democrats have done nothing to end the war in Iraq.

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