Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Fri, 19 Dec 2014 16:23:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Top 7 Ways Assassination Fails USA as Policy Fri, 19 Dec 2014 15:03:50 +0000 By Juan Cole

Wikileaks has released a government assessment of drone strikes aimed at assassinating top leaders. The document urges such strikes, but is amazingly frank about the drawbacks.

it says,

“Potential negative effects of HVT ope rations include increasing the level of insurgent support, causing a government to neglect other aspects of its counterinsurgency strategy, altering in surgent strategy or organization in ways that favor the insurgents, strengthening an armed group’s bond with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group’s remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or deescalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents. “

Below I consider the CIA’s cautions about the drawbacks of such assassination tactics in the context of the rise of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq.

“Potential negative effects of HVT [high value target] operations include”:

“increasing the level of insurgent support,”

This happened with what is now Daesh (ISIS or ISIL). The US killed the leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in spring of 2006. His successor was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was killed by the Iraqi army in 2010. The new leader was Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who styled himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and took over 42% of Iraq’s land area. Each assassination seems to have increased the level of insurgent report among Iraqi Sunnis.

“causing a government to neglect other aspects of its counterinsurgency strategy,”

The Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq failed to reach out to Sunni Arabs to include them in the new system. The alienated people of Mosul thus allied even with Daesh against al-Maliki.

“altering in surgent strategy or organization in ways that favor the insurgents,”

The heat in Iraq on Daesh caused the fighters to go off to Syria, instead. They were able to take and hold al-Raqqah Province there, allowing them to evolve into ordinary institutions.

“strengthening an armed group’s bond with the population,”

The USA/ Shiite leaders of Iraq scared the Sunni Arab population so badly, with its prejudice and discrimination, that it pushed them into the arms of al-Qaeda.

“radicalizing an insurgent group’s remaining leaders,”

Each al-Qaeda/ Islamic State leader has been more radical than his predecessor.

“creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and”

The US targeting of secular Iraqi opposition groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigade and Jaysh Muhammad led the way for extreme fundamentalist Daesh to dominate that market.


Related video:

CNN: “3 senior ISIS leaders killed in U.S. strike”

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Roots of Militancy among some Muslim Youth: What can be Done? Fri, 19 Dec 2014 05:39:27 +0000 By Mustafa Gurbuz

Gruesome ISIS beheadings, the Sydney siege, and now Talibanís slaughter of children in Pakistan have haunted the media, along with the Senateís report on CIAís use of torture against suspected terrorists. The true nature of the radicalization problem, once again, is mostly obscured by petty domestic politics. The militant Islamism rests on a triple layer: opportunity, organizing structures, and a unifying ideology. All of them are significant to develop consistent policies, as radicalization of expatriate and second-generation Muslim youth is a growing challenge for Europe and to a lesser extent the Unites States.

First, a wide range of global and domestic factors support rebellious recruitment, providing unprecedented opportunities. About 40,000 foreign fighters have joined conflicts from Bosnia to the Philippines in the past three decades. The Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon should not be taken for granted as a corollary of conflict in the Muslim world, as argued by Thomas Hegghammer, because long distance foreign fighter mobilization was rare before 1980. Post-Cold war world context, plagued by increasing number of civil wars and failed states, exacerbates the trend. Jeff Goodwinís study, based on a comprehensive global analysis since 1945, indicate that weak states are far most likely to incubate radical mobilizations, especially if they pursue exclusivist policies such as Iraqís Maliki government against Sunni population. It is impossible to change the clock of globalization. Yet, it increasingly becomes imperative to grasp the link between a weak and exclusive government in Mali, for example, and the European security at large.

Second, militant organizational structures are ever more complex and powerful. Radicals are now collecting taxes, cutting energy deals, and virtually running de facto states. Such powerful localization provides radicals what they seek: a supportive community, order, and discipline. Bolstered with technological advances, global network of fighters offer a long career for radicals, moving from one zone to another. Among thousands of foreign fighters who joined the ranks of the Mujahedeen between 1980 and 1992, only 5 percent lost their lives. Average tours in late the 1980s were so short that some volunteers were called ìjihad tourists.î Growing Sunni-Shia tension in the Middle East provides a structural context where financial and logistical support for militants is a mundane act. Furthermore, global diffusion of governing experiences from Al-Qaeda in Yemen to Al-Shabab of Somalia is a great help for organizing militant structures.

Third, why Salafism as an ideology attracts Muslim youth in the West needs to be grasped in its complexity. The roots of Salafist foreign fighters go back to the Afghan Mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union. Populist pan-Islamism was based on the global network of charities, mostly drawing recruits from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia. Having the fear of being perceived as unsympathetic toward suffering Muslims abroad, the Saudi elites engaged in a competitive pan-Islamist propaganda. ìAt the heart of the story of the transnationalization of jihad,î as one analyst maintains, is ìa process of elite competition.î Understanding the nature of discursive competition is important to avoid simplistic path from Salafism to terrorism. As I argued elsewhere, ideologies are neither blinkers put on radicals nor what Marx called ìnightmare weighing on the brain of the livingî; instead, they are shaped and transformed in social relations through semiotic practices. Thanks to discursive competition among Salafis and Islamists, there is now a unifying ideology among Muslim foreign fighters: anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism.

Ironically, far right wing nationalist extremism in Europe is likely one trigger for the radicalization of European Muslim youth. Nor is this a trivial consideration. In 2030, Muslims are projected to constitute 10% of the total population in ten European nations. The hardest lesson of identity politics, perhaps, is perplexity that drives contradictory policies, often produce results in favor of radicals. Mass hysteria and the politics of fear support what Martha Nussbaum calls ìthe new religious intoleranceî against ordinary Muslims. The ban on headscarves in France, the prohibition of minaret construction in Switzerland, and U.S state legislaturesí anti-Sharia campaigns are just few counterproductive attempts in recent years. As long as policy makers approach the issue to drive domestic votes for their short-term benefit, roots of radicalism remain vibrant.

Radicalization of Muslim youth, thus, is no different than other extreme forms of identity politics. Similar to other fundamentalist mobilizations, puritan Salafi movement constructs a utopian past on the sculpture of the modern self. The element of ìdiscoveryî in identity politics is a perfect fit for religious fundamentalism in various forms, perceived as the final resort of expressing discontent against sweeping ìfilthyî capitalism. In the words of Mike Davis, ìIn the slums of St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and even Tokyo, militant workers avidly embraced the new faiths of Darwin, Kropotkin and Marx. Today, on the other hand, populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth-century socialism and anarchism.î As an acute observer of Islamism in the West, Olivier Roy echoes by quoting a foreign fighter in Bosnia ìthe Muslims are the only ones to fight the system.î Roy adds, ìThe radicals are often a mix of educated middle-class leaders and working-class dropouts, a pattern reminiscent of most West European radicals of the 1970s and 1980sÖTwenty years ago these men would have joined a radical leftist movement, but such movements have disappeared from the spaces of social exclusion or have become more bourgeois.î

MUSTAFA GURBUZ is a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press) and taught courses on revolutionary movements and political violence at the University of Connecticut and the University of South Florida.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Hatred of Muslims has “no place in Germany” says German Chancellor Angela Merkel”

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The Yezidi Minority, Daesh/ISIL, and Iraq’s Human Rights Catastrophe Fri, 19 Dec 2014 05:28:12 +0000 by Patrick Ball

Patrick Ball with Yezidi boys at an informal camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Patrick Ball with Yezidi boys at an informal camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Farhad (not his real name) got the call from ISIS on his personal cell phone just after lunch: we have your sister, and we will give her back if you pay us $6000, plus $1500 for the driver.

Carrying little more than his phone, a few clothes, some food, and helping his parents, Farhad and his family left his village in the Shingal municipality of Iraq three months ago when the multinational Islamist extremists of ISIS came. As they fled, his sister had gotten separated and was captured by ISIS.

I heard Farhad’s story—and many similar stories—during my mid-November week visiting the Yezidi people in northwestern Iraq. With my colleague Miki Takacs, I met with about a dozen young Yezidi human rights activists who were eager to find ways to respond. I told them stories from other projects I worked on, including the prosecutions of Slobodan Milošević for war crimes in Kosovo, and of Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala. We talked about what genocide means in the international treaty that defines it, about how to organize data, and most of all, how to secure data using the Martus software. I left them with a stack of textbooks about the international standards for documenting human rights violations, particularly killings.

Yezidi children in an internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Sharya, Iraq.

Yezidi children in an internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Sharya, Iraq.

The Yezidis (also spelled Yazidis) are an ethno-religious community that lives primarily in Iraqi Kurdistan (an overview can be found here). Most Yezidis are native Kurdish speakers, while others speak Arabic, and many speak both languages. They practice an ancient religion known as Yazidism, which is neither Christian nor Muslim. They have struggled for centuries against pressure from their neighbors to convert to Islam. During the Saddam Hussein period, the pressure to convert to Islam continued, and in addition, they felt strong pressure to conform culturally to Arab practices, including a strict separation of the sexes and to adopt Arab clothing styles. They call this pressure “Arabization.”

In Yezidi tradition, the current violence by ISIS is the seventy-fourth attempt to destroy them as a people. People I spoke to are confident that they will survive this assault on their persons, property, culture, and values as they have survived all the previous attacks. But this time, for the first time, they will respond by appealing to international law. Will the Yezidi people get their day in court?

My sense reading popular media since returning is that Americans are both underconcerned and overconcerned about ISIS. In the last section of the post, I outline what I learned.

Camp conditions

Formal camp with running water and electricity, where tents are built on concrete pads.

Formal camp with running water and electricity, where tents are built on concrete pads.

We visited people in the sprawling complex of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps southwest of Duhok, north of Mosul Dam Lake (the dam sits across the Tigris river). Some 80,000 Yezidi people are housed in this collection of formal and informal camps, and there are several hundreds of thousands more in other camps across northern Iraq.

The formal camps are organized by the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government; those governments provide running water, electricity, and sanitation, while the UN provides tents, food, and medical supplies. The informal camps, where families essentially squat, have no running water, electricity, or sanitation.

An informal camp, which has no running water or electricity.

An informal camp, which has no running water or electricity.

The tents at the formal camps are erected on concrete pads that keep the tent floor elevated above rainwater and mud. In the informal camps, families use shipping palettes to elevate their floors. In these same camps, some families pirate electricity and use LED lights (shown in photos).

As one of these photos show, some families cook on traditional bread ovens that they have built at the camp. The camps we visited are built on land that was formerly used for farming.

What We Did with Lalish Center

Miki Takacs (far right, standing) teaching at the Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Miki Takacs (far right, standing) teaching at the Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Lalish is the name of a Yezidi holy place, and Lalish Sharya is a cultural organization that is now mobilizing humanitarian assistance and human rights documentation among the community. Miki and I worked with eleven activists, many of whom are themselves displaced from the Shingal region. They brought all my favorite activist characteristics to the table: skepticism, a deep connection to their communities, and a powerful interest in figuring out what can be done.

We focused the technical part of the training on what information needs to be collected about each event, and how to store the information safely. The storage problem can be addressed squarely with Martus, the self-encrypting, self-replicating database from the Benetech human rights program. We also shared a wide range of electronic security tools with the students in the class, including gpg and tools for securely deleting files and erasing temporary files in Windows.

Graduation in the garden at Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Graduation in the garden at Lalish Center, Sharya Branch.

Discussions with the training participants helped orient and organize their approach to data collection; topics included methods for human rights investigations; database approaches, electronic security, and the logic of moving narrative testimonies into structured data tables.

The less-technical part of the training involved me telling stories. I shared experiences from the long process of gathering evidence, framing arguments, creating analysis, and working with prosecutors in war crimes trials. We talked about advocacy campaigns in El Salvador, war crimes trials of officials from the former Yugoslavia, and the genocide trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala last year. I was honored to recount to these young, engaged Yezidi investigators the long, committed struggle of Mayan Ixil people to have their case heard, against very powerful opponents. Of course we explored the appropriate data structures for the information collected, and the information security principles they should consider. Beyond the knowledge we shared, the session’s participants told me that they gained insight into what steps will be needed to bring a war crimes case to trial. I felt their enthusiasm rise through the course of the week, and mine rose with them.

HRDAG’s role


A tent with pirated electricity, in an informal camp.

While I was in Iraq, I was reminded of the reasons we do human rights work. Of course there are the big goals, including vindicating the victims’ experiences, establishing historical memory, preparing for criminal trials and other kinds of accountability. But there are individual, personal goals that are at least as important as the big goals, and this trip brought me back in touch with the personal goals.

The first of the personal goals is solidarity. I found it deeply moving to sit with people who have recently experienced some the most horrible events that can happen to people, that can be done by people to other people, and to listen to their stories. I believe that that act of listening helps people telling their stories to know that they’re not alone in the world (this has limits, see below). In this work, we risk becoming abstract, focused on the political and military analysis of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and ISIS; on the legal and advocacy meaning of human rights evidence and argument; or on the technical impact of data and the statistical patterns we might be able to understand from them. Solidarity helps me to remember the human meaning of the violence that we study.

The inside of one family's tent, where shipping palettes raise the floor above mud and rainwater.

The inside of one family’s tent, where shipping palettes raise the floor above mud and rainwater.

The second of the personal goals I remembered last week concerns what social science geeks call agency. As we walked through the IDP camps, several people told me that taking photos isn’t enough. We’ve told our stories before, two women who had escaped from ISIS told me: what are you going to do about it? When I asked if I could take their photos, some people responded by asking me if I could help them get kerosene for cooking, warmer clothes for their children, or an appointment with a doctor.

No, I said, I don’t have any aid to offer, I’m just a teacher. As we talked about what I was teaching, they realized that maybe what I brought was more valuable than a few liters of kerosene. By learning the skills I was teaching, people in their community became more effective actors in the conflict, not in the sense of being military combatants, but as people who can act on behalf of their community. They are gathering evidence with which to build arguments that may someday bring justice for this, the seventy-fourth time the Yezidi have been attacked.

Children in a Yezidi camp.

Children in a Yezidi market.

We were invited back to repeat our training at a half-dozen more of the Lalish Center offices, and I look forward to building a larger documentation training project with Lalish and our partners at Benetech and FreedObject. This trip has reinspired me. We are helping local activists to do it themselves, and for me, that’s the most satisfying part of being a human rights worker.

What You Can Do

There’s a Yezidi group organizing support for displaced people, and this is their Facebook page. There’s contact info and a donation process there, it involves transferring directly to the group’s bank account. The Kurdistan Refugee Fund is organized in part by one of our translators, and I recommend it.

The ISIS Situation

Tents in a formal camp, which was formerly farmland. In the background is Mosul Dam reservoir.

Tents in a formal camp, which was formerly farmland. In the background is Mosul Dam reservoir.

Starting in June 2014, the Islamist group calling itself the Islamic State (or ISIS) invaded Iraq from Syria and took control of substantial portions of western Iraq. Conditions for people who do not share ISIS’s extreme form of Sunni Islam have been very difficult, in particular for the Yezidi, who were displaced from their villages on 3 August.

Below I’ve give some detail, but here’s the tl;dr: ISIS is not an overwhelming military force rolling over big armies; they’re a ragtag bunch of lightly-armed militia guys who take over areas where they are welcome; they only beat the Iraqi army when the army soldiers flee or surrender; they are incredibly brutal to civilians under their control.

Last month HRW reported that “The armed group Islamic State is holding hundreds of Yezidi men, women, and children from Iraq captive in formal and makeshift detention facilities in Iraq and Syria.” Fred Abrahams, special advisor, Children’s Rights Division at HRW, said, “We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery—and some of the victims were children.” According to the New York Times, several thousand Yezidi girls and young women have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS. The Middle East Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center recently hosted an event to bring attention to the problem of the enslavement of Yezidi women by ISIS.

Sorting clothing at a Yezidi camp.

Trading clothing at a Yezidi market.

The ISIS takeover is not strictly a question of military conquest. Many of the Yezidi told me that ISIS was welcomed by the conservative Sunni Arabs in Mosul and surrounding towns. The Arab Sunni, they said, are more worried about the Shia government in Baghdad than they are about ISIS (see this Human Rights Watch report about why Sunnis may have good reason to be worried about the Shia militias and the Shia-dominated Army). Furthermore, many Arab Sunni joined ISIS, which gives ISIS deep connections to the local community and geography, something ISIS fighters from as far abroad as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Egypt patently lacked. It is notable that the only areas ISIS conquered outside of the friendly Arab Sunni region were the villages of the powerless religious minorities, including the Yezidi, the Turkmen Shia, and the Assyrian Christians. In particular, ISIS made very little progress into Kurdish areas.

(A bit of detail here: most Kurdish people are also Sunni Muslims, but relatively few of them adopt the extremist interpretation of ISIS. Most Yezidi people speak Kurdish, but they are culturally and religiously distinct from the Sunni Kurds. I heard very different opinions from the Yezidi about whether the Kurdish peshmerga (the traditional militia now in the service of the Kurdish Regional Government) could be trusted to defend them, but most people seemed to agree that the peshmerga is the only option on the ground because the Iraqi Army’s infantry is too disorganized, badly led, and mistrusted by the Sunni Arabs to make much progress against ISIS.)

A traditional bread oven built by Yezidis in a Sharya camp.

A traditional bread oven built by Yezidis in a camp near Sharya.

There have been developments in the military situation since the displacement of the Yezidi on 3 August that offer hope to these besieged people. Everyone—and I mean every single one of the several dozen conversations I had about this—thanked me (because I’m an American, I suppose) for the Coalition airstrikes against ISIS and the weapons sent to the Kurdish peshmerga. There are still about 15,000 Yezidi people stranded on Shingal Mountain. Coalition airstrikes help keep open their thin and dangerous escape route west through Syria. The trapped Yezidis are being supplied by Iraqi Army helicopter convoys with humanitarian assistance and weapons for the peshmerga defending them. The Coalition airstrikes prevent ISIS from using armored vehicles or other heavy weapons to attack the Yezidi or interfere with the helicopter convoys. Without this support, my Yezidi interlocutors assured me, they would be quickly overrun by ISIS.

ISIS’s military situation may be more precarious than it seems. Nonetheless, the people in the displaced persons camps are preparing for a long wait through the winter, and potentially, for years while the conflict drags on. Like all refugee camps I’ve visited, these camps have poor sanitation, only the most marginal protection against the weather, and a palpable sense of fear and deep concern about the future.

[CC BY-NC-SA, including images] All images by HRDAG 2014.

Patrick Ball, PhD, is Executive Director of Human Rights Analysis Data Group and has spent more than twenty years conducting quantitative analysis for truth commissions, non-governmental organizations, international criminal tribunals, and United Nations missions in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, Chad, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Kosovo, Liberia, Perú, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria.

Mirrored with author’s permission from Human Rights Analysis Data Group


Related video added by Juan Cole:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “Iraq: The Plight of the Yazidis”

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The Israeli Hospital Admitting Syrian Fighters: The War Next Door Fri, 19 Dec 2014 05:27:21 +0000 Vice News | —

“In August, al Nusra Front jihadists took control of Syria’s side of the border crossing with Israel and kidnapped over 40 United Nations peacekeepers — who have since been released.

But al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-affiliate, isn’t Israel’s only threat from Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in a possible effort to bait Israel into its civil war to shore up Arab sympathies, has been lobbing mortars across the border. Just a few weeks ago, the Israeli military shot down a Syrian plane flying over the Golan Heights — the first time it has done so since the 1980s.

In part two of a five-part series, VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky visits the Ziv Medical Center, a hospital that is unique for its proximity to the international borders with Lebanon and Syria, and for treating victims of hostilities and soldiers injured on both sides of the border.”

Vice News: “The Israeli Hospital Admitting Syrian Fighters: The War Next Door” (2)

Watch Part 1 —

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Torture, Assassination and the Other Shoe: The Coming Great Senate Drone Report of 2019 Fri, 19 Dec 2014 05:25:26 +0000 By Tom Engelhardt | ( | —

It was December 6, 2019, three years into a sagging Clinton presidency and a bitterly divided Congress. That day, the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s long fought-over, much-delayed, heavily redacted report on the secret CIA drone wars and other American air campaigns in the 18-year-long war on terror was finally released.  That day, committee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) took to the Senate floor, amid the warnings of his Republican colleagues that its release might “inflame” America’s enemies leading to violence across the Greater Middle East, and said:

“Over the past couple of weeks, I have gone through a great deal of introspection about whether to delay the release of this report to a later time. We are clearly in a period of turmoil and instability in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future, whether this report is released or not. There may never be the ‘right’ time to release it. The instability we see today will not be resolved in months or years. But this report is too important to shelve indefinitely.  The simple fact is that the drone and air campaigns we have launched and pursued these last 18 years have proven to be a stain on our values and on our history.”

Though it was a Friday afternoon, normally a dead zone for media attention, the response was instant and stunning.  As had happened five years earlier with the committee’s similarly fought-over report on torture, it became a 24/7 media event.  The “revelations” from the report poured out to a stunned nation.  There were the CIA’s own figures on the hundreds of children in the backlands of Pakistan and Yemen killed by drone strikes against “terrorists” and “militants.”  There were the “double-tap strikes” in which drones returned after initial attacks to go after rescuers of those buried in rubble or to take out the funerals of those previously slain.  There were the CIA’s own statistics on the stunning numbers of unknown villagers killed for every significant and known figure targeted and finally taken out (1,147 dead in Pakistan for 41 men specifically targeted).  There were the unexpected internal Agency discussions of the imprecision of the robotic weapons always publicly hailed as “surgically precise” (and also of the weakness of much of the intelligence that led them to their targets).  There was the joking and commonplace use of dehumanizing language (“bug splat” for those killed) by the teams directing the drones.  There were the “signature strikes,” or the targeting of groups of young men of military age about whom nothing specifically was known, and of course there was the raging argument that ensued in the media over the “effectiveness” of it all (including various emails from CIA officials admitting that drone campaigns in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen had proven to be mechanisms not so much for destroying terrorists as for creating new ones).

There were the new tidbits of information on the workings of the president’s “kill list” and the convening of “terror Tuesday” briefings to target specific individuals around the world.  There were the insider discussions of ongoing decisions to target American citizens abroad for assassination by drone without due process of law and the revealing emails in which participants up to presidential advisers discussed how exactly to craft the exculpatory “legal” documents for those acts at the Department of Justice. 

Above all, to an unsuspecting nation, there was the shocking revelation that American air power had, in the course of those years, destroyed in whole or in part at least nine wedding parties, including brides, grooms, family members, and revelers, involving the deaths of hundreds of wedding goers in at least three countries of the Greater Middle East.  This revelation shocked the nation, resulting in headlines ranging from the Washington Post’s sober “Wedding Tally Revealed” to the New York Post’s “Bride and Boom!

But while all of that created headlines, the main debate was over the “effectiveness” of the White House’s and CIA’s drone campaigns.  As Senator Wyden insisted that day in his speech:

“If you read the many case studies in the executive summary of our report, it will be unmistakable not only how ineffective American air power has been over these years, but how, for every ‘bad guy’ taken out, the air strikes were, in the end, a mechanism for the mass creation of terrorists and a continuing, powerful recruitment tool for jihadist and al-Qaeda-linked organizations across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  If you doubt me, just count the jihadis in our world on September 10, 2001, and today in the areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia where our major drone campaigns have taken place, as well, of course, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Then tell me with a straight face that they ‘worked.’”

As with the 2014 torture report, so the responses of those deeply implicated in the drone assassination campaigns and the loosing of American air power more generally in the backlands of the planet put on display the full strength of the American national security state.  It was no surprise, of course, when CIA Director David Petraeus (on his second tour of duty at the Agency) held the usual Langley, Virginia, news conference — an unknown event until then-Director John Brennan first held one in December 2014 to dispute the Senate torture report.  There, as the New York Times described it, Petraeus criticized the latest report for being “‘flawed,’ ‘partisan,’ and ‘frustrating,’ and pointed out numerous disagreements that he had with its damning conclusions about the CIA’s drone program.”

The real brunt of the attack, however, came from prominent former CIA officials, including former directors George Tenet (“You know, the image that’s been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, ‘Oh boy, now we go get to assassinate people.’  We don’t assassinate people.  Let me say that again to you, we don’t assassinate people. O.K.?”); Mike Hayden (“If the world had acted as American air power has done in these years, many people who shouldn’t have gotten married wouldn’t have gotten married and the world would be a saner place for marriage.”); and Brennan himself (“Whatever your views are on our drone program, our nation and in particular this agency did a lot of things right during a difficult time to keep this country strong and secure and you should be thanking them, not undermining them.”).  Hayden, Brennan, and national security, intelligence, and Pentagon officials also blanketed the news and the Sunday morning talk shows.  Former CIA Director of Public Affairs Bill Harlow, who had set up the website to defend the patriotic honor of the Agency at the time of the release of the Senate torture report, repeated the process five years later with the website

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated his classic statement of 2009, insisting to a range of media interviewers that the drone campaign was not just “effective,” but still “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”  Former President Barack Obama did an interview with NBC News from his new presidential library, still under construction in Chicago, saying in part, “We assassinated some folks, but those who did so were American patriots working in a time of great stress and fear.  Assassination may have been necessary and understandable in the moment, but it is not who we are.”  And 78-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on Fox News from his Wyoming ranch, insisted that the new Senate report, like the old one, was a “gob of unpatriotic hooey.”  President Hillary Clinton, interviewed by BuzzFeed, said of the report, “One of the things that sets us apart from other countries is that when we make mistakes, we admit them.”  She did not, however, go on to admit that the still ongoing drone program or even the wedding air strikes were “mistakes.”

On December 11th, as everyone knows, the mass junior high school shootings in Wisconsin occurred and media attention quite understandably shifted there, 24/7.  On December 13th, Reuters reported that a drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, which was “suspected” of killing seven “militants,” including possibly an al-Qaeda sub-commander — local residents reported that two children and a 70-year-old elder had been among the dead — was the thousandth drone strike in the CIA’s secret wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Running a Criminal Enterprise in Washington

It’s not 2019, of course.  We don’t know whether Hillary Clinton will be elected president or Ron Wyden reelected to the Senate, no less whether he’ll become the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a body once again controlled by Democrats, or whether there will ever be a torture-report-style investigation of the “secret” drone assassination campaigns the White House, the CIA, and the U.S. military have been running across the backlands of the planet. 

Still, count me among the surprised if, in 2019, some part or parts of the U.S. national security state and the White House aren’t still running drone campaigns that cross national borders with impunity, kill whomever those in Washington choose in “terror Tuesday” meetings or target in “signature strikes,” take out American citizens if it pleases the White House to do so, and generally continue to run what has proven to be a global war for (not on) terror.

When it comes to all of this “secret” but remarkably well-publicized behavior, as with the CIA’s torture program, the U.S. has been making up the future rules of the road for the rest of the world.  It has created a gold standard for assassination and torture by green-lighting “rectal rehydration” (a euphemism for anal rape) and other grim acts.  In the process, it has cooked up self-serving explanations and justifications for actions that would outrage official Washington and the public generally if any other country committed them.

This piece, of course, is not really about the future, but the past and what we should already know about it.  What’s most remarkable about the Senate torture report is that — except for the odd, grim detail like “rectal rehydration” — we should never have needed it.  Black sites, torture techniques, the abusing of innocents — the essential information about the nightmarish Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush administration set up after 9/11 has been publicly available, in many instances for years.

Those “2019” revelations about drone assassination campaigns and other grim aspects of the loosing of American air power in the Greater Middle East have been on the public record for years, too.  In truth, we shouldn’t be in any doubt about much of what’s billed as “secret” in our American world.  And the lessons to be drawn from those secret acts should be obvious enough without spending another $40 million and studying yet more millions of classified documents for years.

Here are three conclusions that should now be obvious enough when it comes to Washington’s never-ending war on terror and the growth of the national security state.

1. Whatever grim actions are the focus of debate at the moment, take it for granted that they don’t “work” because nothing connected to the war on terror has worked: The coverage of the Senate torture report has been focused on arguments over whether those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, “worked” in the years after 9/11 (as in 2019, the coverage would undoubtedly focus on whether drone assassination campaigns had worked).  The executive summary of the Senate report has already offered numerous cases where information gained through torture practices did not produce actionable intelligence or stop terror plots or save lives, though misinformation from them might have helped embolden the Bush administration in its invasion of Iraq.

Bush administration officials, former CIA directors, and the intelligence “community” in general have vociferously insisted on the opposite.  Six former top CIA officials, including three former directors, publicly claimed that those torture techniques “saved thousands of lives.”  The truth, however, is that we shouldn’t even be having a serious discussion of this issue.  We know the answer.  We knew it long before the redacted executive summary of the Senate report was released.  Torture didn’t work, because 13 years of the war on terror has offered a simple enough lesson: nothing worked.

You name it and it failed.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about invasions, occupations, interventions, small conflicts, raids, bombing runs, secret operations, offshore “black sites,” or god knows what else — none of it came close to succeeding by even the most minimal standards set in Washington.  In this period, many grim things were done and most of them blew back, creating more enemies, new Islamic extremist movements, and even a jihadist mini-state in the heart of the Middle East that, fittingly enough, was essentially founded at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Let me repeat that: if Washington did it any time in the last 13 years, whatever it was, it didn’t work. Period.

2. In national security and war terms, only one thing has “worked” in these years and that’s the national security state itself: Every blunder, every disaster, every extreme act that proved a horror in the world also perversely strengthened the national security state.  In other words, the crew that couldn’t shoot straight could do no wrong when it came to their own agencies and careers.

No matter how poorly or badly or stupidly or immorally or criminally agents, operatives, war fighters, private contractors, and high officials acted or what they ordered done, each disaster in this period was like a dose of further career enhancement, like manna from heaven, for a structure that ate taxpayer dollars for lunch and grew in unprecedented ways, despite a world that lacked all significant enemies.  In these years, the national security state entrenched itself and its methods in Washington for the long run. The Department of Homeland Security expanded; the 17 interlocked intelligence agencies that made up the U.S. intelligence community exploded; the Pentagon grew endlessly; the corporate “complexes” that surrounded and meshed with an increasingly privatized national security apparatus had a field day.  And the various officials who oversaw every botched operation and sally into the world, including the torture regime the Bush administration created, were almost to a man promoted, as well as honored in various ways and, in retirement, found themselves further honored and enriched.  The single lesson from all of this for any official was: whatever you do, however rash, extreme, or dumb beyond imagining, whatever you don’t accomplish, whomever you hurt, you are enriching the national security state — and that’s a good thing.

3. Nothing Washington did could ever qualify as a “war crime” or even a straightforward crime because, in national security terms, our wartime capital has become a crime-free zoneAgain, this is an obvious fact of our era.  There can be no accountability (hence all the promotions) and especially no criminal accountability inside the national security state.  While the rest of us are still in legal America, its officials are in what I’ve long called “post-legal” America and in that state, neither torture (to the point of death), nor kidnapping and assassination, nor destroying evidence of criminal activity, perjury, or the setting up of an extralegal prison system are crimes.  The only possible crime in national security Washington is whistleblowing.  On this, too, the evidence is in and the results speak for themselves.  The post-9/11 moment has proven to be an eternal “get out of jail free card” for the officials of two administrations and the national security state. 

Unfortunately, the obvious points, the simple conclusions that might be drawn from the last 13 years go unnoticed in a Washington where nothing, it seems, can be learned.  As a result, for all the sound and fury of this torture moment, the national security state will only grow stronger, more organized, more aggressively ready to defend itself, while ridding itself of the last vestiges of democratic oversight and control.

There is only one winner in the war on terror and it’s the national security state itself.  So let’s be clear, despite its supporters who regularly hail the “patriotism” of such officials, and despite an increasingly grim world filled with bad guys, they are not the good guys and they are running what, by any normal standards, should be considered a criminal enterprise.

See you in 2019.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

[Note on weddings: On the issue of wedding parties obliterated by American air power, a subject TomDispatch has been covering for years, I had counted news reports on seven of them by the time an eighth, a Yemeni wedding party, was blown away in December 2013.  Since then, a correspondent has pointed out to me a report that a ninth wedding party, the second in Iraq, may have been hit by U.S. air power on October 8, 2004, in the city of Fallujah, with the groom dying and the bride wounded.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Yesterday, I sent out my once-a-year reminder to all TD subscribers that, with the holidays approaching, this site deeply appreciates any contributions those of you who rely on us might offer. Even though we are a stripped-down, low-rent operation, it still takes a remarkable amount of money, relatively speaking, to keep ourselves rolling along year after year. So this is my reminder to those of you who do read us regularly (without getting our emails) that we’re a good deal: no subscription price, no paywall, nada. Which means, if you can afford it, think about going to our donation page and dropping a few bucks on us this holiday season.

Note that, for $100 (or more) you can get a signed, personalized copy of my new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, or other books on offer. Those of you who are Amazon customers, if you go to that site via a TomDispatch book link like this one, whatever you buy there, we get a small cut of your purchase at no cost to you. And while you’re at it, before the year ends, pick up a copy of Shadow Government, or Rebecca’s Solnit’s runaway indie bestseller, Men Explain Things to Me, or Ann Jones’s powerful They Were Soldiers as a gift for a friend — another way to offer us a little support! Tom]

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

Mirrored from


Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: “Is it a shark? No, it’s US underwater drone on duty”

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Cuba: Top 5 other Dictatorships with which US has Diplomatic Relations Thu, 18 Dec 2014 10:04:35 +0000 By Juan Cole | —

The US sanctions on Cuba were justified by their supporters with reference to the Communist government’s human rights record. That record, bad as it is, however, cannot explain the sanctions. They are rather pique that Cuba defied American hegemony and corporate domination. The sanctions have not overthrown the government of Fidel Castro. They have imposed some hardships on ordinary Cubans.

Let’s consider dictatorial countries with which the US has diplomatic relations; some of them are actually very warm friendships, despite all the arbitrary arrests, censorship, etc. Some of them are even Communist! With Cuba, it had to be personal.

1. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which doesn’t even allow political parties or any kind of public dissent.

Human Rights Watch reports:

“Saudi Arabia stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations by citizens in 2013. Authorities continued to violate the rights of 9 million Saudi women and girls and 9 million foreign workers. As in past years, authorities subjected thousands of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. In 2013, courts convicted seven human rights defenders and others for peaceful expression or assembly demanding political and human rights reforms.”

None of the opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba has even once suggested that the US break off relations with Saudi Arabia over its medieval human rights practices. I therefore conclude that human rights does not drive this issue.

2. Zimbabwe. The US has diplomatic relations with the notoriously dictatorial government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and actually has given the country $400 million in humanitarian aid.

Human Rights Watch reports:

“Both the power-sharing government prior to August 2013 and the new administration have failed to amend repressive laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, which severely curtail basic rights through vague defamation clauses and draconian penalties. Failure to amend or repeal these laws and to address the partisan conduct of the police severely limits the rights to freedom of association and assembly.

Sections of AIPPA and POSA that provide criminal penalties for defamation, or for undermining the authority of, or insulting the president, have routinely been used against journalists and human rights defenders. Police often misuse provisions of POSA to ban lawful public meetings and gatherings. Activists and journalists continue to be wrongly prosecuted and charged under these laws. For instance, on May 7, police arrested Dumisani Muleya, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, and Owen Gagare, its chief reporter, following the publication of an article on the security forces. The two were detained for eight hours, then charged with “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State.” ”

3. Belarus, a small eastern European country with a population of 9.5 million, which never made the transition to democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. We have an embassy in Minsk, though the post of ambassador is right now unfilled (there is a charge d’affaires).

Human Rights Watch says:

“The human rights situation in Belarus saw little improvement in 2013. The state suppresses virtually all forms of dissent and uses restrictive legislation and abusive practices to impede freedoms of association and assembly. Journalists are routinely harassed and subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention. Eight political prisoners remain jailed. Those who have been released continue to face restrictions, ranging from travel limitations to inclusion in law enforcement agencies’ ‘watch lists’. Civil society groups cannot function freely. Belarusian courts sentenced two more people to death during 2013.

Media Freedom, Attacks on Journalists

Most media are state-controlled, and authorities harass the few independent journalists and outlets that remain. In 2013, police arrested 25 journalists as they covered public protests. Courts sentenced at least four to short-term detention following convictions on misdemeanor charges. The authorities frequently prohibit reporting on public marches and open court hearings.”

4. Sultanate of Brunei: The US has warm diplomatic relations and a US embassy there, despite its disregard for basic human rights

5. We actually have an embassy in Vietnam of all places: Human Rights Watch writes:

“The Vietnam government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule. Police harass and intimidate activists and their family members. Authorities arbitrarily arrest activists, hold them incommunicado for long periods without access to legal counsel or family visits, subject them to torture, and prosecute them in politically pliant courts that mete out long prison sentences for violating vaguely worded national security laws.

In 2012, police used excessive force in response to public protests over evictions, confiscation of land, and police brutality.

Land confiscation continues to be a flashpoint issue, with local farmers and villagers facing unjust confiscation of their lands by government officials and private sector projects. Those who resist face abuses from local authorities.”

If the US recognizes Vietnam and has an embassy there after all that happened between the two countries, it seems like a minor thing to have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Related video:

Euronews: “A brief history of US-Cuba relations”

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Pope Francis Backs Obama’s Cuba Opening Thu, 18 Dec 2014 08:52:23 +0000 By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Dec 18 2014 (IPS) – In perhaps his boldest foreign-policy move during his presidency, Barack Obama Wednesday announced that he intends to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

While the president noted that he lacked the authority to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo against Havana, he issued directives that will permit more U.S. citizens to travel there and third-country subsidiaries of U.S. companies to engage in commerce, among other measures, including launching a review of whether Havana should remain on the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.

He also said he looked forward to engaging Congress in “an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” he said in a nationally televised announcement.

“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

The announcement, which was preceded by a secret, 45-minute telephone conversation Tuesday morning between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, drew both praise from those who have long argued that Washington’s pursuit of Cuba’s isolation has been a total failure and bitter denunciations from right-wing Republicans.

Some of the latter had vowed, among other things, to oppose any effort to lift the embargo, open U.S. embassy in Havana, or confirm a U.S. ambassador to serve there. (Washington has had an Interest Section in the Cuban capital since 1977.)

“Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all costs,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a number of fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American lawmakers and a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

“I intend to use my role as incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuba people’s expense,” he said in a statement.

The outgoing Democratic chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, also decried Obama’s announcement.

“The United States has just thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline. With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, Cuba is losing its main benefactor, but will now receive the support of the United States, the greatest democracy in the world,” said Menendez, who is also Cuban American.

But other lawmakers hailed the announcement.

“Today President Obama and President Raul Castro made history,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat and one of three lawmakers, including a Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who escorted a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, Alan Gross, from Havana Wednesday morning as part of a larger prisoner and spy swap that precipitated the announcement.

Part of that deal included the release of 53 prisoners in Cuba, including Gross, who the U.S. considers to be political prisoners.

“Those who cling to a failed policy [and] …may oppose the President’s actions have nothing to offer but more of the same. That would serve neither the interests of the United States and its people, nor of the Cuban people,” Leahy said. “It is time for a change.”

Other analysts also lauded Obama’s Wednesday’s developments, comparing them to historic breakthroughs with major foreign-policy consequences.

“Obama has chosen to change the entire framework of the relationship, as [former President Richard] Nixon did when he travelled to China,” said William LeoGrande, a veteran Cuba scholar at American University, in an email from Havana.

“Many issues remain to be resolved, but the new direction of U.S. policy is clear.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank that has long urged Washington to normalise ties with Havana, told IPS the regional implications would likely be very positive.

“Obama’s decision will be cheered and applauded throughout Latin America. The Cuba issue has sharply divided Washington from the rest of the hemsiphere for decades, and this move, long overdue, goes a long way towards removing a major source of irritation in US-Latin American relations,” Shifter said.

“Since his sensible and lofty rhetoric at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Latin Americans wondered where Obama has been in recent years.”

Indeed, Obama also announced Wednesday that he will attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. Because Castro was officially invited, over the objections of both the U.S. and Canada, at the last Summit in Cartagena in 2012, there had been some speculation that Obama might boycott the proceedings.

Harvard international relations expert Stephen Walt said he hoped that Wednesday’s announcement portends additional bold moves by Obama on the world stage in his last two years as president despite the control of both houses of Congress by Republicans, like Rubio, who have opposed Obama’s efforts to reach out to perceived adversaries.

“One may hope that this decision will be followed by renewed efforts to restore full diplomatic relations with even more important countries, most notably Iran,” he told IPS in an email.

“Recognition does not imply endorsing a foreign government’s policies; it simply acknowledges that U.S. interests are almost always well-served by regular contact with allies and adversaries alike.”

Administration officials told reporters that Wednesday’s developments were made possible by 18 months of secret talks between senior official from both sides – not unlike those carried out in Oman between the U.S. and Iran prior to their November 2013 agreement with five other world powers on Tehran’s nuclear programme — hosted primarily by Canada and the Vatican, although the Interests Sections of both countries were also involved.

Officials credited Pope Francis, an Argentine, with a key role in prodding both parties toward an accord.

“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday.

The Vatican’s strong endorsement could mute some of the Republican and Cuban-American criticism of normalisation and make it more difficult for Rubio and his colleagues to prevent the establishment of an embassy and appointment of an ambassador, according to some Capitol Hill staff.

Similarly, major U.S. corporations, some of whom, particularly in the agribusiness and consumer-goods sectors, have seen major market potential in Cuba, are likely to lobby their allies on the Republican side.

“We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish,” said Thomas Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in a statement.

Donohue headed what he called an unprecedented “exploratory” trip to Cuba earlier this year.

“Congress now has a decision to make,” said Jake Colvin, the vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, an association of many of the world’s biggest multi-national corporations. “It can either show that politics stops at the water’s edge, or insist that the walls of the Cold War still exist.”

Wednesday’s announcement came in the wake of an extraordinary series of editorials by the New York Times through this autumn in favour of normalisation and the lifting of the trade embargo.

In another sign of a fundamental shift here, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband Bill took some steps to ease the embargo during his tenure as president, disclosed in her book published last summer that she had urged Obama to “take another look at our embargo. It wasn’t achieving its goals, and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”

That stance, of course, could alienate some Cuban-American opinion, especially in the critical “swing state” of Florida if Clinton runs in the 2016 election.

But recent polls of Cuban Americans have suggested an important generational change in attitudes toward Cuba and normalisation within the Cuban-American community, with the younger generation favouring broader ties with their homeland.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at He can be contacted at

Edited by Kitty Stapp

Licensed from Inter Press Service


Related video added by Juan Cole:

The White House: “President Obama Delivers a Statement on Cuba”

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If Jeb Bush Is In, Who Will Win Wall Street’s Money? Thu, 18 Dec 2014 08:36:59 +0000 Bloomberg Business | —

“Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle and John Heilemann talk cash and 2016 prospects.

Bloomberg Politics leads Bloomberg’s political coverage across all platforms: Web, mobile, television, digital video, radio, live events and more. “With All Due Respect” is hosted by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann airs at 5p ET/PT on Bloomberg Television and

Bloomberg Business: “If Jeb Bush Is In, Who Will Win Wall Street’s Money?”

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