All posts by Alexander Rubinstein

Afghan Civilians Fear CIA-Backed Death Squads that Can Call In Airstrikes

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Elite CIA-backed special forces in Afghanistan are leaving a trail of carnage in the country. As such units do not operate under the umbrella of the Department of Defense, they have been given near-impunity despite standing accused of war crimes.

Last month, the New York Times cited “senior Afghan and international officials” who said that while most strike forces in Afghanistan have been put under the purview of Afghan intelligence since 2012, two of the most “ruthless” units are “still sponsored mainly by the CIA.”

On Friday, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that at least one of these units has the capability of calling in air strikes.

Of the two special forces units that remain primarily influenced by the CIA, the name of only one was revealed: a group called “02” in the Nangarhar Province. The name of the unit in the Khost Province was not revealed. The units are trained and equipped by CIA agents and CIA contractors, and their fighters make three times the salary of a regular Afghan soldier. The unit in Khost is believed to have between 3,000 and 10,000 fighters while 02 is believed to be about 1,000 fighters strong.

A former senior Afghan security official told the Times that the strike forces were guilty of war crimes, while the United Nations has “expressed concern” about “consistent, credible accounts of intentional destruction of civilian property, illegal detention, and other abuses.” The unnamed unit in Khost was even singled out by the UN, which said it operates “with an absence of transparency and ongoing impunity.”

Brutality worthy of ISIS

In September, elders from the three Nangarhar districts gathered for a press conference in which they claimed that 100 civilians were killed by 02 in August. Elders are putting the number of civilians slain by 02 in the following two months, September and October, at 260.

One man who spoke at the conference said he and his two brothers were detained for three months as 02 tried to force video confessions of Taliban affiliation from him with threats of driving over him with a tank. He said he was placed in handcuffs and that they used needles to puncture holes in his veins.

In one case investigated by the Times, two brothers were killed as they watered their fields. In another case, a unit pursuing an alleged Taliban member entered the wrong home and killed a dozen civilians. In yet another case, 02 placed two brothers in handcuffs and spit hoods and interrogated them in front of their wives and children. After they were done being questioned, 02 dragged the brothers away and executed them in the corner of a bedroom, and then detonated the building.

According to “several current and former Afghan officials,” Americans help the unit find targets and guide operations. Those detained by such units frequently claim they have been tortured and Afghan officials say that Americans have been present at bases during such abuses. In the Nangarhar province alone, human-rights workers registered 15 complaints of torture by 02, according to the Times.

One medical worker who lives in the Bati Kot district in Nangarhar said he initially mistook 02 for ISIS when they showed up at his village surrounded by orange orchards.

“I ran and got my weapon — I thought it was the caliphate people. I didn’t know it was the government,” Khoshal Khan said. “Then they started firing, and I heard the gate blown up. They were speaking English, also.”

First, one man in the village, Mohamed Taher, was shot. According to his 16-year-old grandson, Sekander, one of Taher’s sons was also shot while following orders to come out of the building with his hands up. Then, 02 shot one of the grandsons in the head. And then another one of Taher’s sons.

“The women started crying. They called to be quiet, then they blew up the gates and came in,” Sekandar told the Times.

As his father bled to death in the yard after being shot while following orders, Adel, Taher’s 10-year-old grandson, was forced to take shelter inside. “They said, ‘Don’t come out — if the airstrikes hit you, then don’t complain.’” Adel still has shrapnel wounds on his face from the raid.

A relative of some of the people killed in the raid, Mohibullah, said that he sees little difference between the Islamic State and 02, since they both attack civilians without warning.

More killing power than the Caliphate

But, as it turns out, the 02 group is far better equipped than the Caliphate ever was. That’s because they have something Daesh lacked: air support. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found instances in which 02 raids were quickly followed by airstrikes. One man they spoke to said 16 civilians were killed in an 02 raid on his village, five of whom were family members.

“When my family members heard shots being fired outside, they went out to see what was going on and were hit by an airstrike that killed the five of them. The airstrike also destroyed part of our house,” he said. The outlet claims that 02 called in the strike.

“Numerous residents and relatives” said that one month later 02 killed 13 civilians, including four children, in a raid that included airstrikes. The Interior Ministry claimed that Islamic State fighters were killed, not civilians.

“First, they attacked us with bombs. Then they entered the living room and started to shoot around,” said one witness. “They didn’t care about who they were killing. They killed my uncle and his 9-year-old son. His wife and his other child were injured.” Another man told the outlet he lost seven family members in the raid.

Bombing and death squads a strange approach to nation-building

The CIA’s training, equipping, and support of 02 is reportedly stoking resentment of America’s 18-year occupation of the country, which has little to show in regard to net gains against the Taliban. Near the end of 2018 the Afghan government controlled the smallest amount of territory since a US military watchdog — the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) — started keeping track in 2015. Meanwhile, the US dropped more bombs in 2018 on Afghanistan than during any other year on SIGAR record, which goes back to 2009.

While the US continues to conduct its mission of nation-building and “democracy promotion” in Afghanistan and attempts broker a peace deal between the Taliban and the government, bombing the country at unprecedented levels and being associated with de facto death squads on the ground could fuel distrust of the Americans.

“When the US also takes on the mission of state-building, then the contradictions between the two approaches — stealth, black ops, and non-transparency vs. institution building, rule of law, and accountability — become extraordinarily difficult to resolve, and our standing as a nation suffers,” bemoaned Karl Eikenberry, a former US commander in Afghanistan who later became a diplomat to the country.

Already, Afghans are beginning to suspect that the US sought to prolong its occupation of their country as means of securing a position to spy on Russia, China and Iran.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Twitter Greenlights Venezuela’s Pro-Opposition Online Blitz – Shuts Down Genuine Opponents

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As the US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela continues to take shape, shady anonymous actors are waging an information war manipulating social media with automated posts in an apparent attempt to manufacture a faux consensus for regime change in the online theater.

If you’ve been on Twitter since January 23, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only pastimes in Venezuela are protesting and replying to anyone and everyone on the platform critical of Washington’s clear collusion with the Venezuelan opposition in its quest for regime change.

Juan Guaido — who had a mere 90,000 followers on Twitter around the time of the coup attempt one year prior, and 340,000 around January 23, 2019 – has since skyrocketed on the platform, currently enjoying a following of more than 1,100,000.

While the phenomenon has not yet been linked to manipulation by the opposition, it raises questions about the online influencers who have tried to turn the previously little-known figure into a household name the world over.

An “immense campaign” and Twitter’s perverse response

Meanwhile, Twitter disinformation researcher and data visualization artist Erin Gallagher uncovered an immense campaign sympathetic to the right-wing Venezuelan opposition that used a variety of tools and applications to artificially inflate the reach of certain posts.

“The Venezuelan opposition is far from censored on Twitter,” she wrote. “To the contrary, their trends generate billions of impressions every day.”

Gallagher’s bombshell report was dropped on Thursday. The following day, Twitter took action — but not against the pro-opposition network. The company banned “764 accounts located in Venezuela” that it said used “spammy” political content “similar to that utilized by potential Russian [Internet Research Agency] accounts” and 1,200 accounts it said “appear” to be “engaged in a state-backed influence campaign targeting domestic [Venezuelan] audiences.” Those accounts have been characterized online as “pro-Maduro.”

The apparent double standard wasn’t confined just to Twitter, however. The Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL), often the mainstream media’s go-to institution of “experts” on such matters, claimed in a blog post that it “did not find clear evidence of automated amplification of hashtags trending around the protests” against Maduro on January 23 (#23E), the day of Maduro’s inauguration, Gallagher noted.

The DFRL post, entitled “Protests Go Viral in Venezuela,” primarily took aim at the government for allegedly censoring the web and perhaps gaming hashtags on Twitter.

DFRL is an arm of the neoconservative Atlantic Council think tank, which is funded by NATO, Gulf monarchies, and the arms industry. Twitter has previously worked closely with the DFRL in countering alleged state-backed disinformation campaigns.

Gallagher wrote that she was “shocked at the contrast between the way DFRLab portrayed Venezuelan social media versus what I’ve been monitoring for 1.5 years.”

In that time, Gallagher discovered a hashtag — #TeamHDP — that was “used by an anonymous group of right-wing political hackers who have attacked the Venezuelan government, leaked documents online,” and doxxed Chavistas. Another hashtag employed by the network was #LaListaJustin, (Justin’s List, which is named after a fake Justin Bieber account that was a primary pusher of #TeamHDP). The #LaListaJustin released hacked documents showing personally identifiable information (such as home addresses, etc.) of Maduro supporters, members of the military, police, and their spouses and families.

The revelation is particularly troubling because the Venezuelan opposition has used vigilantism to enact violent retribution on Chavistas and public officials.

Apparently spearheading the #TeamHDP hashtag is a Miami-based company called DolarToday, which is used by financial websites and media to report on black market exchange rates for Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar. Maduro has previously accused DolarToday of manipulating exchange rates and fueling an economic war against his country

Between January 24 and January 28, DolarToday was a “central influencer of the #23E hashtag,” Gallagher wrote.

The company’s own Twitter account “averages” 349 tweets per day, but picks up steam around uprisings in Venezuela. Gallagher found more than 1,000 tweets per day around the attempted coup.

Beyond its own Twitter account, DolarToday’s tweets are reposted by a network of other accounts. One such artificially amplified message accused the late president Hugo Chavez of being a “perverted drug addict.”

DolarToday has two applications, SWAT Comunicacional and another named after itself. The apps allow users to log in and allow DolarToday to automatically repost the company’s tweets.

Gallagher wrote that she has “never seen anything with such a tremendous reach” as the Venezuelan opposition #TeamHDP hashtag, which was associated with hacking and doxxing (which is against Twitter’s terms of service.)

The researcher concluded that “Venezuelan opposition social media networks are engaging in inauthentic coordinated activity on Twitter.” Such “coordinated inauthentic activity,” it should be noted, has been the primary explanation given by social-media giants such as Twitter and Facebook as their reason for purging tens of thousands of accounts, including those of independent reporters.

A double standard beta-tested in Syria

Twitter and the DFRL appear to be turning a blind eye to violations of Twitter policy from pro-opposition networks while taking aim at allegedly pro-government disinformation operations, while neither has provided evidence of such a campaign by the government.

In many ways, the war in Syria served as a testing ground for propaganda tools — from the US-funded “civil defense” group White Helmets to US-backed Kurdish fighters, who were portrayed as defenders of an anarchist commune in the north.

But Venezuela today exists in an even more precarious position online due to the advent of institutions and “experts” that have made a name for themselves in the frenzy that has followed allegations that Russia used coordinated inauthentic behavior to sway the 2016 presidential elections; even more so because social-media giants like Twitter and Facebook have acquiesced.

For example, back in July, Twitter and Facebook were unaware of any state actors manipulating social media besides Russia. Since then, they have levied such accusations against Iran, and now Venezuela.

With these institutions now revealing their allegiances to the US regime-change machine, and the usual suspects (the Atlantic Council, for example) in full lockstep, it becomes incumbent on social-media users to ignore the “experts” and come to their own conclusions about the facts on the ground in Venezuela.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.

Amnesty International’s Troubling Collaboration with UK & US Intelligence

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Amnesty International, the eminent human-rights non-governmental organization, is widely known for its advocacy in that realm. It produces reports critical of the Israeli occupation in Palestine and the Saudi-led war on Yemen. But it also publishes a steady flow of indictments against countries that don’t play ball with Washington — countries like Iran, China, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea and more. Those reports amplify the drumbeat for a “humanitarian” intervention in those nations.

Amnesty’s stellar image as a global defender of human rights runs counter to its early days when the British Foreign Office was believed to be censoring reports critical of the British empire. Peter Benenson, the co-founder of Amnesty, had deep ties to the British Foreign Office and Colonial Office while another co-founder, Luis Kutner, informed the FBI of a gun cache at Black Panther leader Fred Hampton’s home weeks before he was killed by the Bureau in a gun raid.

These troubling connections contradict Amnesty’s image as a benevolent defender of human rights and reveal key figures at the organization during its early years to be less concerned with human dignity and more concerned with the dignity of the United States and United Kingdom’s image in the world.

A conflicted beginning

Amnesty’s Benenson, an avowed anti-communist, hailed from a military intelligence background. He pledged that Amnesty would be independent of government influence and would represent prisoners in the East, West, and global South alike.

But during the 1960s the U.K. was withdrawing from its colonies and the Foreign Office and Colonial Office were hungry for information from human-rights activists about the situations on the ground. In 1963, the Foreign Office instructed its operatives abroad to provide “discreet support” for Amnesty’s campaigns.

Also that year, Benenson wrote to Colonial Office Minister Lord Lansdowne a proposal to prop up a “refugee counsellor” on the border of present-day Botswana and apartheid South Africa. That counsel was to assist refugees only, and explicitly avoid aiding anti-apartheid activists. “Communist influence should not be allowed to spread in this part of Africa, and in the present delicate situation, Amnesty International would wish to support Her Majesty’s Government in any such policy,” Benenson wrote. The next year, Amnesty ceased its support for anti-apartheid icon and the first president of a free South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

The following year, in 1964, Benenson enlisted the Foreign Office’s assistance in obtaining a visa to Haiti. The Foreign Office secured the visa and wrote to its Haiti representative Alan Elgar saying it “support[ed] the aims of Amnesty International.” There, Benenson went undercover as a painter, as Minister of State Walter Padley told him prior to his departure that “We shall have to be a little careful not to give the Haitians the impression that your visit is actually sponsored by Her Majesty’s Government.”

The New York Times exposed the ruse, leading some officials to claim ignorance; Elgar, for example, said he was “shocked by Benenson’s antics.” Benenson apologized to Minister Padley, saying “I really do not know why the New York Times, which is generally a responsible newspaper, should be doing this sort of thing over Haiti.”

Letting politics creep into mission

In 1966, an Amnesty report on the British colony of Aden, a port city in present-day Yemen, detailed the British government’s torture of detainees at the Ras Morbut interrogation center. Prisoners there were stripped naked during interrogations, were forced to sit on poles that entered their anus, had their genitals twisted, cigarettes burned on their face, and were kept in cells where feces and urine covered the floor.

The report was never released, however. Benenson said that Amnesty general secretary Robert Swann had censored it to please the Foreign Office, but Amnesty co-founder Eric Baker said Benenson and Swann had met with the Foreign Office and agreed to keep the report under wraps in exchange for reforms. At the time, Lord Chancellor Gerald Gardiner wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson that “Amnesty held the [report] as long as they could simply because Peter Benenson did not want to do anything to hurt a Labour government.”

Then something changed. Benenson went to Aden and was horrified by what he found, writing “I never came upon an uglier picture than that which met my eyes in Aden,” despite his “many years spent in the personal investigation of repression.”

A tangled web

As all of this was unfolding, a similar funding scandal was developing that would rock Amnesty to its core. Polly Toynbee, a 20-year-old Amnesty volunteer, was in Nigeria and Southern Rhodesia, the British colony in Zimbabwe, which was at the time ruled by the white settler minority. There, Toynbee delivered funds to prisoner families with a seemingly endless supply of cash. Toynbee said that Benenson met with her there and admitted that the money was coming from the British government.

Toynbee and others were forced to leave Rhodesia in March 1966. On her way out, she grabbed documents from an abandoned safe including letters from Benenson to senior Amnesty officials working in the country that detailed Benenson’s request to Prime Minister Wilson for money, which had been received months prior.

In 1967 it was revealed that the CIA had established and was covertly funding another human rights organization founded in the early 1960s, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) through an American affiliate, the American Fund for Free Jurists Inc.

Benenson had founded, alongside Amnesty, the U.K. branch of the ICJ, called Justice. Amnesty international secretariat, Sean MacBride, was also the secretary-general of ICJ.

Then, the “Harry letters” hit the press. Officially, Amnesty denied knowledge of the payments from Wilson’s government. But Benenson admitted that their work in Rhodesia had been funded by the government, and returned the funds out of his own pocket. He wrote to Lord Chancellor Gardiner that he did it so as not to “jeopardize the political reputation” of those involved. Benenson then returned unspent funds from his two other human-rights organizations, Justice (the U.K. branch of the CIA-founded ICJ) and the Human Rights Advisory Service.

Benenson’s behavior in the wake of the revelations about the “Harry letters” infuriated his Amnesty colleagues. Some of them would go on to claim that he suffered from mental illness. One staffer wrote:
Peter Benenson has been levelling accusations, which can only have the result of discrediting the organisation which he has founded and to which he dedicated himself. …All this began after soon after he came back from Aden, and it seems likely that the nervous shock which he felt at the brutality shown by some elements of the British army there had some unbalancing effect on his judgment.
Later that year, Benenson stepped down as president of Amnesty in protest of its London office being surveilled and infiltrated by British intelligence — at least according to him. Later that month, Sean MacBride, the Amnesty official and ICJ operative, submitted a report to an Amnesty conference that denounced Benenson’s “erratic actions.” Benenson boycotted the conference, opting to submit a resolution demanding MacBride’s resignation over the CIA funding of ICJ.

Amnesty and the British government then suspended ties. The rights group then promised to “not only be independent and impartial but must not be put into a position where anything else could even be alleged” about its collusion with governments in 1967.

Amnesty’s role in the death of Black Panther Fred Hampton

But two years later, senior Amnesty officials engaged in far more troubling coordination with Western intelligence agencies.

FBI documents, released by the Bureau in the spring of 2018 as a part of a series of disclosures of documents pertaining to the assassination of President John Kennedy, detail Amnesty International’s role in the killing of Black Panther Party (BPP) Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old up-and-coming black liberation icon — a killing that was widely believed to be an assassination but was ruled officially as a justifiable homicide.

Amnesty International co-founder Luis Kutner attended a November 23, 1969 speech of Hampton’s delivered at the University of Illinois.

During the speech, Hampton described the BPP “as a revolutionary party” and “indicated that the party has guns to be used for peace and self-defense, and these guns are at the Hampton residence as well as BPP headquarters,” according to the FBI document.

“Kutner has reached the point where he would like to take legal action to silence the BPP,” the FBI wrote. “Kutner concluded by stating that he believed speakers like Hampton were psychotic, and it is only when they are faced with a court action that they stop their “rantings and ravings.”

The FBI internal report on Kutner’s testimony cited above was issued on December 1, 1969. Two days later, the FBI, alongside the Chicago Police Department, conducted a firearms raid on Hampton’s residence. When Hampton came home for the day, FBI informant William O’Neal slipped a barbiturate sleeping pill into his drink before leaving.

At 4:00 a.m. on December 4, police and FBI stormed into the apartment, instantly shooting a BPP guard. Due to reflexive convulsions related to death, the guard convulsed and pulled the trigger on a shotgun he was carrying – the only time a Black Panther member fired a gun during the raid. Authorities then opened fire on Hampton, who was in bed sleeping with his nine-month pregnant fiancee. Hampton is believed to have survived until two shots were fired at point-blank range towards his head.

Kutner would go on to form the “Friends of the FBI” group, an organization “formed to combat criticism of the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” according to the New York Times, after its covert campaign to disrupt leftists movements — COINTELPRO — was revealed. He also went on to operate in a number of theaters that saw heavy involvement from the CIA — including work Kutner did to undermine Congolese Prime Minister and staunch anti-imperialist Patrice Lumumba — and represented the Dalai Lama, who was provided $1.7 million a year by the CIA in the 1960s.

While Amnesty International’s shady operations in the 1960s might seem like ancient history at this point, they serve as an important reminder of the role that non-governmental organizations often play in furthering the objectives of governments of the nations where they are based.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.