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UK Police Spies Stole Identities of Dead Children

In News, Other Leaks, UK on February 3, 2013 at 11:36 PM



Britain’s largest police force stole the identities of an estimated 80 dead children and issued fake passports in their names for use by undercover police officers.

The Metropolitan police secretly authorised the practice for covert officers infiltrating protest groups without consulting or informing the children’s parents.

The details are revealed in an investigation by the Guardian, which has established how over three decades generations of police officers trawled through national birth and death records in search of suitable matches.

Undercover officers created aliases based on the details of the dead children and were issued with accompanying identity records such as driving licences and national insurance numbers. Some of the police officers spent up to 10 years pretending to be people who had died.

The Met said the practice was not “currently” authorised, but announced an investigation into “past arrangements for undercover identities used by SDS [Special Demonstration Squad] officers”.

Keith Vaz, the chairman of parliament’s home affairs select committee, said he was shocked at the “gruesome” practice. “It will only cause enormous distress to families who will discover what has happened concerning the identities of their dead children,” he said. “This is absolutely shocking.”

The technique of using dead children as aliases has remained classified intelligence for several decades, although it was fictionalised in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal. As a result, police have internally nicknamed the process of searching for suitable identities as the “jackal run”. One former undercover agent compared an operation on which he was deployed to the methods used by the Stasi.

Two undercover officers have provided a detailed account of how they and others used the identities of dead children. One, who adopted the fake persona of Pete Black while undercover in anti-racist groups, said he felt he was “stomping on the grave” of the four-year-old boy whose identity he used.

“A part of me was thinking about how I would feel if someone was taking the names and details of my dead son for something like this,” he said. The Guardian has chosen not to identify Black by his real name.

The other officer, who adopted the identity of a child who died in a car crash, said he was conscious the parents would “still be grief-stricken”. He spoke on the condition of anonymity and argued his actions could be justified because they were for the “greater good”.

Both officers worked for a secretive unit called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which was disbanded in 2008.

A third undercover police officer in the SDS who adopted the identity of a dead child can be named as John Dines, a sergeant. He adopted the identity of an eight-year-old boy named John Barker, who died in 1968 from leukaemia. The Met said in a statement: “We are not prepared to confirm nor deny the deployment of individuals on specific operations.”

The force added: “A formal complaint has been received which is being investigated by the DPS [Directorate for Professional Standards] and we appreciate the concerns that have been raised. The DPS inquiry is taking place in conjunction with Operation Herne’s investigation into the wider issue of past arrangements for undercover identities used by SDS officers. We can confirm that the practice referred to in the complaint is not something that would currently be authorised in the [Met police].”

There is a suggestion that the practice of using dead infant identities may have been stopped in the mid-1990s, when death records were digitised. However, the case being investigated by the Met relates to a suspected undercover police officer who may have used a dead child’s identity in 2003.

The practice was introduced 40 years ago by police to lend credibility to the backstory of covert operatives spying on protesters, and to guard against the possibility that campaigners would discover their true identities.

Since then dozens of SDS officers, including those who posed as anti-capitalists, animal rights activists and violent far-right campaigners, have used the identities of dead children.

One document seen by the Guardian indicates that around 80 police officers used such identities between 1968 and 1994. The total number could be higher.

Black said he always felt guilty when celebrating the birthday of the four-year-old whose identity he took. He was particularly aware that somewhere the parents of the boy would be “thinking about their son and missing him”. “I used to get this really odd feeling,” he said.

To fully immerse himself in the adopted identity and appear convincing when speaking about his upbringing, Black visited the child’s home town to familiarise himself with the surroundings.

Black, who was undercover in the 1990s, said his operation was “almost Stasi-like”. He said SDS officers visited the house they were supposed to have been born in so they would have a memory of the building.

“It’s those little details that really matter – the weird smell coming out of the drain that’s been broken for years, the location of the corner Post Office, the number of the bus you get to go from one place to another,” he said.

The second SDS officer said he believed the use of the harvested identities was for the “greater good”. But he was also aware that the parents had not been consulted. “There were dilemmas that went through my head,” he said.

The case of the third officer, John Dines, reveals the risks posed to families who were unaware that their children’s identities were being used by undercover police.

During his covert deployment, Dines had a two-year relationship with a female activist before disappearing from her life. In an attempt to track down her disappeared boyfriend, the woman discovered the birth certificate of John Barker and tried to track down his family, unaware that she was actually searching for a dead child.

She said she was relieved that she never managed to find the parents of the dead boy. “It would have been horrendous,” she said. “It would have completely freaked them out to have someone asking after a child who died 24 years earlier.”

The disclosure about the use of the identities of dead children is likely to reignite the controversy over undercover police infiltration of protest groups. Fifteen separate inquiries have already been launched since 2011, when Mark Kennedy was unmasked as a police spy who had slept with several women, including one who was his girlfriend for six years.

On Tuesday the select committee will hear evidence from lawyers representing the 11 women who are suing the Met after forming “deeply personal” relationships with the spies. Kennedy, who worked for a sister unit to the SDS, is not believed to have used the identity of a dead child.

Vaz said MPs were now likely to demand answers from the Met police about the use of children’s identities. “My disbelief at some of the tactics used [by undercover police] has become shock as a result of these latest revelations. It is clear that inappropriate action has been taken by undercover police in the past. But this has now taken it to a new level,” he said.

“The committee will need to seek answers from the Metropolitan police, to find out why they allowed these gruesome practices to happen.”

Via The Guardian

Gérard de Villiers: The Spy Novelist Who Knows Too Much

In News on February 3, 2013 at 8:13 PM


Last June, a pulp-fiction thriller was published in Paris under the title “Le Chemin de Damas.” Its lurid green-and-black cover featured a busty woman clutching a pistol, and its plot included the requisite car chases, explosions and sexual conquests. Unlike most paperbacks, though, this one attracted the attention of intelligence officers and diplomats on three continents. Set in the midst of Syria’s civil war, the book offered vivid character sketches of that country’s embattled ruler, Bashar al-Assad, and his brother Maher, along with several little-known lieutenants and allies. It detailed a botched coup attempt secretly supported by the American and Israeli intelligence agencies. And most striking of all, it described an attack on one of the Syrian regime’s command centers, near the presidential palace in Damascus, a month before an attack in the same place killed several of the regime’s top figures. “It was prophetic,” I was told by one veteran Middle East analyst who knows Syria well and preferred to remain nameless. “It really gave you a sense of the atmosphere inside the regime, of the way these people operate, in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

The book was the latest by Gérard de Villiers, an 83-year-old Frenchman who has been turning out the S.A.S. espionage series at the rate of four or five books a year for nearly 50 years. The books are strange hybrids: top-selling pulp-fiction vehicles that also serve as intelligence drop boxes for spy agencies around the world. De Villiers has spent most of his life cultivating spies and diplomats, who seem to enjoy seeing themselves and their secrets transfigured into pop fiction (with their own names carefully disguised), and his books regularly contain information about terror plots, espionage and wars that has never appeared elsewhere. Other pop novelists, like John le Carré and Tom Clancy, may flavor their work with a few real-world scenarios and some spy lingo, but de Villiers’s books are ahead of the news and sometimes even ahead of events themselves. Nearly a year ago he published a novel about the threat of Islamist groups in post-revolutionary Libya that focused on jihadis in Benghazi and on the role of the C.I.A. in fighting them. The novel, “Les Fous de Benghazi,” came out six months before the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and included descriptions of the C.I.A. command center in Benghazi (a closely held secret at that time), which was to become central in the controversy over Stevens’s death. Other de Villiers books have included even more striking auguries. In 1980, he wrote a novel in which militant Islamists murder the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, a year before the actual assassination took place. When I asked him about it, de Villiers responded with a Gallic shrug. “The Israelis knew it was going to happen,” he said, “and did nothing.”

Though he is almost unknown in the United States, de Villiers’s publishers estimate that the S.A.S. series has sold about 100 million copies worldwide, which would make it one of the top-selling series in history, on a par with Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. S.A.S. may be the longest-running fiction series ever written by a single author. The first book, “S.A.S. in Istanbul,” appeared in March 1965; de Villiers is now working on No. 197.

For all their geopolitical acumen, de Villiers’s books tend to provoke smirks from the French literati. (“Sorry, monsieur, we do not carry that sort of thing here,” I was told by the manager at one upscale Paris bookstore.) It’s not hard to see why. Randomly flip open any S.A.S. and there’s a good chance you’ll find Malko (he is Son Altesse Sérénissime, or His Serene Highness), the aristocratic spy-hero with a penchant for sodomy, in very explicit flagrante. In one recent novel, he meets a Saudi princess (based on a real person who made Beirut her sexual playground) who is both a dominatrix and a nymphomaniac; their first sexual encounter begins with her watching gay porn until Malko distracts her with a medley of acrobatic sex positions. The sex lives of the villains receive almost equal time. Brutal rapes are described in excruciating physiological detail. In another recent novel, the girlfriend of a notorious Syrian general is submitting to his Viagra-fueled brutality when she recalls that this is the man who has terrorized the people of Lebanon for years. “And it was that idea that set off her orgasm,” de Villiers writes.

“The French elite pretend not to read him, but they all do,” I was told by Hubert Védrine, the former foreign minister of France. Védrine is one of the unapologetic few who admit to having read nearly every one of Malko’s adventures. He said he consulted them before visiting a foreign country, as they let him in on whatever French intelligence believed was happening there.

About 10 years ago, when Védrine was foreign minister, de Villiers got a call from the Quai d’Orsay, where the ministry is based, inviting him to lunch. “I thought someone was playing a joke on me,” de Villiers said. “Especially because Védrine is a leftist, and I am not at all.” When he went to the ministry at the scheduled time, Védrine was waiting for him in his private dining room overlooking the Seine.

“I am very happy to join you,” de Villiers recalled telling the minister. “But tell me, why did you want to see me?”

Védrine smiled and gestured for de Villiers to sit down. “I wanted to talk,” he said, “because I’ve found out you and I have the same sources.”

De Villiers’s books have made him very rich, and he lives in an impressively grand house on the Avenue Foch, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe. I went there one day this winter, and after a short wait on the fourth-floor landing, a massive wooden door swung open, and I found myself facing a distinguished-looking man in brown tweeds with a long, bony face and pale brown eyes. De Villiers uses a walker — a result of a torn aorta two years ago — but still moves with surprising speed. He led me down a high-ceilinged hallway to his study, which also serves as a kind of shrine to old-school masculinity and kinky sex. I stood next to a squatting woman made of steel with a real MP-44 automatic rifle coming out of her crotch. “That one is called ‘War,’ ” de Villiers said. In the middle of the floor was a naked female figure bending over to peek at the viewer from between her legs; other naked women, some of them in garters or chains, gazed out from paintings or book covers. On the shelves were smaller figurines in ivory, glass and wood, depicting various couplings and orgies. Classic firearms hung on the wall — a Kalashnikov, a Tommy gun, a Winchester — and books on intelligence and military affairs were stacked high on tables. Among the photos of him with various warlords and soldiers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, I noticed a framed 2006 letter from Nicolas Sarkozy, praising the latest S.A.S. novel and saying it had taught him a great deal about Venezuela. “He pretends to read me,” de Villiers said, with a dismissive scowl. “He didn’t. Chirac used to read me. Giscard read me, too.”

After an hour or so, de Villiers led me downstairs to his black Jaguar, and we drove across town to Brasserie Lipp, a gathering spot for aging lions of the French elite. As we pushed through a thick crowd to our table, a handsome old man with a deeply tanned face called out to de Villiers from across the room. It was the great French nouvelle vague actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. He grinned and waved de Villiers over for a conspiratorial chat.

“That’s Table No. 1,” de Villiers said as we sat down. “Mitterrand always used to sit there.” After a waiter rushed up to help him into his seat, de Villiers ordered a suitably virile lunch of a dozen Breton oysters and a glass of Muscadet. He caught me looking at his walker and immediately began telling me about his torn aorta. He nearly died and had to spend three months in a hospital bed. “If you fall off your horse, you have to get back on or you are dead,” he said. He was able to maintain his usual publishing pace even while in the hospital. There was only one real consequence: he had used the real name of the C.I.A. station chief in Mauritania in his manuscript, and in the confusion after the accident, he forgot to change the final text. “The C.I.A. was angry,” he said. “I had to explain. My friends at the D.G.S.E. [the French foreign-intelligence agency, General Directorate for External Security] apologized on my behalf, too.”

One of the many myths surrounding de Villiers is that he employs a team of assistants to help with his prodigious turnout. In fact, he does it all himself, sticking to a work routine that hasn’t changed in half a century. For each book, he spends about two weeks traveling in the country in question, then another six weeks or so writing. The books are published on the same schedule every year: January, April, June, October. Six years ago, at age 77, de Villiers increased his turnout from four books a year to five, producing two linked novels every June. “I’m not a sex machine, I’m a writing machine,” he said.

De Villiers was born in Paris in 1929, the son of a wildly prolific and spendthrift playwright who went by the stage name Jacques Deval. He began writing in the 1950s for the French daily France Soir and other newspapers. Early on, during a reporting assignment in Tunisia, he agreed to do a favor for a French intelligence officer, delivering a message to some members of the right-wing pro-colonial group known as la main rouge. It turned out de Villiers was being used as a pawn in an assassination scheme, and he was lucky to escape with his life. He returned to Paris and confronted the officer, who was completely unrepentant. The incident taught him, he said, that “intelligence people don’t give a damn about civilian lives. They are cold fish.” But rather than being turned off, de Villiers found that blend of risk and cold calculation seductive.

In 1964, he was working on a detective novel in his spare time when an editor told him that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, had just died. “You should take over,” the editor said. That was all it took. The first S.A.S. came out a few months later. Although sales are down a bit since his peak in the 1980s, he still earns between 800,000 and a million euros a year (roughly $1 million to $1.3 million) and spends summers at his villa in St. Tropez, where he gads about on his boat by day and drives to parties in the evenings in his 1980s Austin Mini.

He has long been despised by many on the French left for his right-wing political views. “We are all strangled by political correctness,” he told me, and he used the word “fags” several times in our conversations. But his reputation as a racist and anti-Semite is largely myth; one of his closest friends is Claude Lanzmann, the Jewish leftist and director of “Shoah,” the landmark Holocaust documentary. And in recent years, de Villiers has gained a broader following among French intellectuals and journalists, even as his sales have slowed down. “He has become a kind of institution,” said Renaud Girard, the chief foreign correspondent of Le Figaro. “You can even see articles praising him in Libération,” the left-leaning daily.

De Villiers created Malko, his hero, in 1964 by merging three real-life acquaintances: a high-ranking French intelligence official named Yvan de Lignières; an Austrian arms dealer; and a German baron named Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau. As is so often the case, though, his fiction proved prophetic. Five years after he began writing the series, de Villiers met Alexandre de Marenches, a man of immense charisma who led the French foreign-intelligence service for more than a decade and was a legend of cold-war spy craft. De Marenches was very rich and came from one of France’s oldest families; he fought heroically in World War II, and he later built his own castle on the Riviera. He also helped create a shadowy international network of intelligence operatives known as the Safari Club, which waged clandestine battles against Soviet operatives in Africa and the Middle East. “He was doing intelligence for fun,” de Villiers told me. “Sometimes he didn’t even pick up the phone when Giscard called him.” In short, de Marenches was very close to being the aristocratic master spy de Villiers had imagined, and as their friendship deepened in the 1970s, de Villiers’s relationship with French intelligence also deepened and lasts to this day.

De Villiers has always had a penchant for the gruesome and the decadent. One of his models was Curzio Malaparte, an Italian journalist whose best-known book is “Kaputt,” an eerie firsthand account from behind the German front lines during World War II. Another was Georges Arnaud, the French author of several popular adventure books during the 1950s. “He was a strange guy,” de Villiers said. “He once confessed to me that he started life by murdering his father, his aunt and the maid.” (Arnaud was tried and acquitted for those murders, possibly by a rigged jury.) I couldn’t help wondering whether Georges Simenon, the famously prolific and perverted Belgian crime writer, was also an influence. Simenon is said to have taken as little as 10 days to finish his novels, and he published about 200. He also claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, mostly prostitutes. De Villiers laughed at the comparison. “I knew Simenon a little,” he said, then proceeded to tell a raunchy story he heard from Simenon’s long-suffering wife, involving roadside sex in the snow in Gstaad.

This seemed like a good moment to ask about de Villiers’s own preoccupations. “I’ve had a lot of sex in my life,” he said. “That’s why I have so much trouble with wives. In America they would say I am a ‘womanizer.’ ” He has married four times and has two children, and now has a girlfriend nearly 30 years his junior, an attractive blond woman whom I met briefly at his home. When I suggested that the sex in S.A.S. was unusually hard-core, he replied with a chuckle: “Maybe for an American. Not in France.”

One thing de Villiers does not have is serious literary ambitions. Although he is a great admirer of le Carré, he has never tried to turn espionage into the setting for a complex human drama. He writes the way he speaks, in terse, informative bursts, with a morbid sense of humor. When I asked whether it bothered him that no one took his books seriously, he did not seem at all defensive. “I don’t consider myself a literary man,” he said. “I’m a storyteller. I write fairy tales for adults. And I try to put some substance into it.”

I had no idea what kind of “substance” until a friend urged me to look at “La Liste Hariri,” one of de Villiers’s many books set in and around Lebanon. The book, published in early 2010, concerns the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. I spent years looking into and writing about Hariri’s death, and I was curious to know what de Villiers made of it. I found the descriptions of Beirut and Damascus to be impressively accurate, as were the names of restaurants, the atmosphere of the neighborhoods and the descriptions of some of the security chiefs that I knew from my tenure as The Times’ Beirut bureau chief. But the real surprise came later. “La Liste Hariri” provides detailed information about the elaborate plot, ordered by Syria and carried out by Hezbollah, to kill Hariri. This plot is one of the great mysteries of the Middle East, and I found specific information that no journalists, to my knowledge, knew at the time of the book’s publication, including a complete list of the members of the assassination team and a description of the systematic elimination of potential witnesses by Hezbollah and its Syrian allies. I was even more impressed when I spoke to a former member of the U.N.-backed international tribunal, based in the Netherlands, that investigated Hariri’s death. “When ‘La Liste Hariri’ came out, everyone on the commission was amazed,” the former staff member said. “They were all literally wondering who on the team could have sold de Villiers this information — because it was very clear that someone had showed him the commission’s reports or the original Lebanese intelligence reports.”

When I put the question to de Villiers, a smile of discreet triumph flashed on his face. It turns out that he has been friends for years with one of Lebanon’s top intelligence officers, an austere-looking man who probably knows more about Lebanon’s unsolved murders than anyone else. It was he who handed de Villiers the list of Hariri’s killers. “He worked hard to get it, and he wanted people to know,” de Villiers said. “But he couldn’t trust journalists.” I was one of those he didn’t trust. I have interviewed the same intelligence chief multiple times on the subject of the Hariri killing, but he never told me about the list. De Villiers had also spoken with high-ranking Hezbollah officials, in meetings that he said were brokered by French intelligence. One assumes these men had not read his fiction.

What do the spies themselves say about de Villiers? I conducted my own furtive tour of the French intelligence community and found that de Villiers’s name was a very effective passe-partout, even among people who found the subject mildly embarrassing. Only one of those I spoke with, a former head of the D.G.S.E., said he never provided information to de Villiers. We met in a dim corridor outside his office, where we chatted for a while about other matters before the subject of de Villiers came up. “Ah, yes, Gérard de Villiers, I don’t know him,” he said, chuckling dismissively, as if to suggest that he had not even read the books. Then after a pause, he confessed: “But one must admit that some of his information is very good. And in fact, one sees that it has gotten better and better in the past few novels.”

Another former spook admitted freely that he had been friends with de Villiers for years. We met at a cafe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on a cold, foggy afternoon, and as he sipped his coffee, he happily reeled off the favors he’d done — not just talking over cases but introducing de Villiers to colleagues and experts on explosives and nuclear weapons and computer hacking. “When de Villiers describes intelligence people in his book, everybody in the business knows exactly who he’s talking about,” he said. “The truth is, he’s become such a figure that lots of people in the business are desperate to meet him. There are even ministers from other countries who meet with him when they pass through Paris.”

A third former government official spoke of de Villiers as a kind of colleague. “We meet and share information,” he told me over coffee at a Paris hotel. “I’ve introduced him to some sensitive sources. He has a gift — a very strong intellectual comprehension of these security and terrorism issues.”

It is not just the French who say these things. De Villiers has had close friends in Russian intelligence over the years. Alla Shevelkina, a journalist who has worked as a fixer for de Villiers on a number of his Russian trips, said: “He gets interviews that no one else gets — not journalists, no one. The people that don’t talk, talk to him.” In the United States, I spoke to a former C.I.A. operative who has known de Villiers for decades. “I recommend to our analysts to read his books, because there’s a lot of real information in there,” he told me. “He’s tuned into all the security services, and he knows all the players.”

Why do all these people divulge so much to a pulp novelist? I put the question to de Villiers the last time we met, in the cavernous living room of his Paris apartment on a cold winter evening. He was leaving on a reporting trip to Tunisia the next day, and on the coffee table in front of me, next to a cluster of expensive scotches and liqueurs, was a black military-made ammunition belt. “They always have a motive,” he said, absently stroking one of his two longhaired cats like a Bond villain at leisure. “They want the information to go out. And they know a lot of people read my books, all the intelligence agencies.”

Renaud Girard, de Villiers’s old friend and traveling companion, arrived at the apartment for a drink and offered a simpler explanation. “Everybody likes to talk to someone who appreciates their work,” he said. “And it’s fun. If the source is a military attaché, he can show off the book to his friends, with his character drawn in it.” He also suggested that if the source happens to have a beautiful wife, she will appear in a sex scene with Malko, and some of them enjoy this, too. “If you have read the books,” he said, “it’s fun to enter the books.”

I asked de Villiers about his next novel, and his eyes lighted up. “It goes back to an old story,” he said. “Lockerbie.” The book is based on the premise that it was Iran — not Libya — that carried out the notorious 1988 airliner bombing. The Iranians went to great lengths to persuade Muammar el-Qaddafi to take the fall for the attack, which was carried out in revenge for the downing of an Iranian passenger plane by American missiles six months earlier, de Villiers said. This has long been an unverified conspiracy theory, but when I returned to the United States, I learned that de Villiers was onto something. I spoke to a former C.I.A. operative who told me that “the best intelligence” on the Lockerbie bombing points to an Iranian role. It is a subject of intense controversy at the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., he said, in part because the evidence against Iran is classified and cannot be used in court, but many at the agency believe Iran directed the bombing.

De Villiers excused himself to continue packing for Tunisia, after cheerfully delivering his cynical take on the Arab Spring. (“What this really means is the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.”) His views on other subjects are similarly curt and disillusioned. “Russia? Russia is Putin. People fooled themselves with Medvedev that there would be change. I never believed it.” And Syria? “If Bashar falls, Syria falls. There is nothing else to hold that country together.”

Girard and I poured ourselves more Scotch, and he began reeling off stories of his and de Villiers’s adventures together. Many of them involved one of de Villiers’s former wives, who always seemed to show up in Gaza or Pakistan in wildly inappropriate dress. “One time in the mid-’90s, we went to a Hamas stronghold together, and Gérard had his wife with him, wearing a very provocative shirt with no bra,” Girard said. “There were young men there who literally started stoning us, and we had to flee.”

It was getting late, and Girard seemed to be running out of stories. “He is 83 years old, and he is not slowing down,” he said before we parted. “He still goes to Mali and Libya, even after his heart troubles.” He paused for a moment, looking into his Scotch. “I remember one time during the rebellion in Albania, in 1997, we were sitting on a rooftop together, and we started talking about death. He told me: ‘I will never stop. I will keep going with my foot on the accelerator until I die.’ ”

Via NYTimes

Here’s What Your $97 Million Drug War in Central America Actually Bought

In News on February 3, 2013 at 7:49 PM


The U.S. isn’t just shoveling cash to stem the tide of narcotics in Mexico and Colombia. Quietly, it’s built up its drug war in Central America, too — spending nearly $100 million over four years on advanced gear for local forces. Not that Washington has any idea what it’s gotten for its money.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office provides a rare glimpse into the Central American war on drugs. Between 2008 and 2011, the report finds, the government spent $97 million for gear and training for its Central American partners. On the plus side, it’s laughably low compared to the more than $640 billion (and rising) the U.S. has spent on the war in Afghanistan.

Most of the drug war money is spent on equipment such as vehicles — like aircraft and patrol boats — night-vision goggles, body armor, radios and weapons, and X-ray equipment for scanning cargo containers. The Central American Regional Security Initiative, the government program funneling the money south, also funds counter-drug units, or TAG (Transnational Anti-Gang) teams comprised of agents from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, who partner up with local police to investigate drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and money laundering.

That’s not all. The FBI has used funds to develop “fingerprint and biometric capabilities” (.pdf) in Central America, according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service. Beyond biometrics, the U.S. has implemented a gun-tracing system called eTrace, built facilities for wiretapping, and installed an 85-camera surveillance system in Guatemala City.

Tracking all the money is difficult. According to the GAO, the single biggest chunk of funding goes toward police-specific training and gear, disbursed by the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement Program. The rest of the money was split into three other programs: $31 million into two counter-terrorism programs called the ESF and the NADR. The ESF is largely structured around providing economic aid, while NADR includes a host of programs aimed at boosting export controls, deactivating landmines, and seizing and destroying small arms leftover from the Central American civil wars. The remaining $22 million flows into a Pentagon-managed program called Foreign Military Financing, which grants loans for U.S. military weapons and training. (Equipment for border troops in Central America is provided under the NADR counterterrorism umbrella as well.)

But it’s hard to know just what all this money bought, either in terms of security or a reduced influx of drugs.

About 60 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. transits Central America, and the countries most affected by violence in the region — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — are some of the most dangerous in the world. Homicides in Guatemala, however, dropped 8.9 percent in 2012, although violence has increased in some regions in the country. El Salvador also saw a sharp drop in murders over the past two years, though this has been partly attributed by media outlets to a truce between warring gangs. But a counter-example is Honduras, which seen murders more than double since 2007, with homicides intensifying after a 2009 coup.

And not even U.S. military commanders in the region see drug trafficking on the decline. “We have not achieved that on both sides of the isthmus,” the commander of the U.S. anti-drug task force in Central America, Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel recently told InfoSurHoy.

And not all of Michel’s partners are, um, reliable. Intelligence sharing in Honduras had to pause last year after the Honduran air force shot down two civilian planes suspected of carrying drugs. (It resumed in November.) The State Department also halted funding to the Honduran national police last year after allegations were raised that its chief was a former death squad commander.

So for $97 million, the U.S. has gotten drug smugglers to shift their routes and lined the pockets of a human rights abuser. Don’t you feel safer?


Report: U.S. Muslim Terrorism Was Practically Nil in 2012

In News on February 3, 2013 at 7:27 PM


Try as al-Qaida might to encourage them, American Muslims still aren’t committing acts of terrorism. Only 14 people out of a population of millions were indicted for their involvement in violent terrorist plots in 2012, a decline from 2011′s 21. The plots themselves hit the single digits last year.

So much for a widespread stereotype. According to data tracked by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in North Carolina and released Friday (.PDF), there were nine terrorist plots involving American Muslims in 2012. Only one of them, the attempted bombing of a Social Security office in Arizona, actually led to any violence. There were no casualties in that or any other incident. And the Triangle study tracks indictments, not convictions.

Terrorist incidents from American Muslims is on the decline for the third straight year. After an uptick in 2009, there were 18 plots in 2011 involving 21 U.S. Muslims. And it’s not just violent plots: Fewer Muslim-Americans are getting indicted for money laundering, material support for terrorism, and lying to investigators. There were 27 people indicted on those terror-support charges in 2010, eight in 2011 and six in 2012.

“Online, there’s all sorts of radical material out there — exhortations to violence, [instructions], and yet despite it being out there, so few people are taking it up,” University of North Carolina sociologist Charles Kurzman tells Danger Room. Kurzman’s research has been the driving force behind the Triangle study for the past four years. “From the democratization of the means of violence, accelerated by the internet, we might expect to see more violence and, fortunately, we haven’t.”

The encouragement is indeed widespread. Al-Qaida and its sympathizers propagandize heavily online, from message boards and YouTube videos that purport to provide religious justifications for violence to the English-language magazine of al-Qaida’s Yemen offshoot that offers practical advice for DIY jihadis.

Since 9/11, Kurzman and his team tallies, 33 Americans have died as a result of terrorism launched by their Muslim neighbors. During that period, 180,000 Americans were murdered for reasons unrelated to terrorism. In just the past year, the mass shootings that have captivated America’s attention killed 66 Americans, “twice as many fatalities as from Muslim-American terrorism in all 11 years since 9/11,” notes Kurzman’s team.

Law enforcement, including “informants and undercover agents,” were involved in “almost all of the Muslim-American terrorism plots uncovered in 2012,” the Triangle team finds. That’s in keeping with the FBI’s recent practice of using undercover or double agents to encourage would-be terrorists to act on their violent desires and arresting them when they do — a practice critics say comes perilously close to entrapment. A difference in 2012 observed by Triangle: with the exception of the Arizona attack, all the alleged plots involving U.S. Muslims were “discovered and disrupted at an early stage,” while in the past three years, law enforcement often observed the incubating terror initiatives “after weapons or explosives had already been gathered.”

The sample of Muslim Americans turning to terror is “vanishingly small,” Kurzman tells Danger Room. Measuring the U.S. Muslim population is a famously inexact science, since census data don’t track religion, but rather “country of origin,” which researchers attempt to use as a proxy. There are somewhere between 1.7 million and seven million American Muslims, by most estimates, and Kurzman says he operates off a model that presumes the lower end, a bit over 2 million. That’s less a rate of involvement in terrorism of less than 10 per million, down from a 2003 high of 40 per million, as detailed in the chart above.

Yet the scrutiny by law enforcement and homeland security on American Muslims has not similarly abated. The FBI tracks “geomaps” of areas where Muslims live and work, regardless of their involvement in any crime. The Patriot Act and other post-9/11 restrictions on government surveillance remain in place. The Department of Homeland Security just celebrated its 10th anniversary. In 2011, President Obama ordered the entire federal national-security apparatus to get rid of counterterrorism training material that instructed agents to focus on Islam itself, rather than specific terrorist groups.

Kurzman doesn’t deny that law enforcement plays a role in disrupting and deterring homegrown U.S. Muslim terrorism. His research holds it out as a possible explanation for the decline. But he remains surprised by the disconnect between the scale of the terrorism problem and the scale — and expense — of the government’s response.

“Until public opinion starts to recognize the scale of the problem has been lower than we feared, my sense is that public officials are not going to change their policies,” Kurzman says. “Counterterrorism policies have involved surveillance — not just of Muslim-Americans, but of all Americans, and the fear of terrorism has justified intrusions on American privacy and civil liberties all over the internet and other aspects of our lives. I think the implications here are not just for how we treat a religious minority in the U.S., but also how we treat the rights & liberties of everyone.”


Camover: Activists Destroy CCTV Cameras in Germany

In News, Viral Videos, World Revolution on February 3, 2013 at 6:01 PM



It’s being called Grand Theft Auto for the surveillance generation, only instead of being played out in the digital world, it’s played out in the real world. And the object of the game isn’t to steal cars or pull off other underworld pranks but to take out Big Brother’s eyes by destroying CCTV surveillance cameras spread across the city.

That’s the new game being played in Berlin and other German cities under the rules of Camover [note: the website keeps changing addresses so link may not work], an activist sport for those who hate surveillance cameras, according to The Guardian.

Teams of players are charged with taking out as many cameras as possible — by ripping them out of mounts, cutting cables or covering the lenses with black paint using Super Soaker squirt guns — and videotaping the vandalism in the process.

Points are awarded for the number of cameras destroyed — with bonus points granted for the most inventive methods.

“We thought it would motivate inactive people out there if we made a video-invitation to this reality-game,” the creator of Camover told the Guardian. “Although we call it a game, we are quite serious about it: our aim is to destroy as many cameras as possible and to have an influence on video surveillance in our cities.”

The competition was launched as a protest against the European Police Congress being held in Berlin on February 19. There’s no real prize for the game. The winner gets front place in a protest that will take place three days before the congress begins.

The organizers of Camover explained their motivations on their web site:

“The gaze of the cameras does not fall equally on all users of the street but on those who are stereotypical predefined as potentially deviant, or through appearance and demeanour, are singled out by operators as unrespectable,” they write. “In this way youth, particularly those already socially and economically marginal, may be subject to even greater levels of authoritative intervention and official stigmatisation, and rather than contributing to social justice through the reduction of victimisation, CCTV will merely become a tool of injustice through the amplification of differential and discriminatory policing.”


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