THROUGH THE LENS OF THE SNOWDEN FILES
Glimpse into the early days of the War on Terror
After the 9/11 attacks, the US government, with support from its allies, launched a global military campaign against terrorism that continues to this day. The disclosures of former CIA employee and US government contractor-turned-whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has shed unprecedented light on the darkness surrounding the involvement of US intelligence agencies in shaping the early days of this campaign.
The term “War on Terrorism” was first used by US President George W Bush on September 16, 2001, originally with a particular focus on countries that the US alleged were associated with al-Qaeda. Following the events of 9/11, President George W Bush laid the blame for the attack on the US on Osama bin Laden—already wanted by the US since 1998—who was hiding in Afghanistan, demanding the Taliban hand him over; the Taliban refused to comply, unless the US provided them with evidence of Laden's involvement in the September 11 attacks. The US dismissed the request and launched Operation Enduring Freedom, with UK, on October 7, 2001.
The military aspects of the war essentially started with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and, later, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has arguably been responsible for many of the wars throughout that region since then. What was largely unknown prior to the release of the Snowden files by The Intercept (an online news publication started by Glenn Greenwald that initially served as a platform to report on the documents released by Edward Snowden), however, was the scale of engagement of various intelligence agencies in the west and their influence on decision making and on ground operations in these wars.
A most important reason for this is how these agencies operate. According to a document released by The Intercept, the Director of Central Intelligence gives out something called "Denial and Deception Awards" to intelligence operatives. While the subsection "denial" in the document was classified, the section contained under subtitle "deception", was not. This shows the mentality promoted by powerful intelligence agencies which they expect all its employees to adopt (hence unclassified for all employees to see).
Nevertheless, the SIDToday (internal newsletter for the NSA's most important division, the Signals Intelligence Directorate) files openly boast about NSA's overwhelming influence and involvement in the Iraq War. For example, in a document titled "Driving History", the NSA compares its engagement in Iraq to the cracking of the Enigma Code during World War II (a crucial breakthrough in decrypting German coded messages that made significant contributions to the Allied victory). Not only that, but according to one document dated May 25, 2004, more than 100 NSA employees were working directly in Iraq while another authored by the NSA management warned its entire workforce to look after themselves as their overtime hours shot through the roof during the time of the invasion.
A document called "Generally Speaking: Learning Lessons from CSTs [Civil Support Team] in Iraq" further described how NSA analysts in Baghdad "witnessed the importance of 'translating' SIGINT [intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets] for the tactical commanders to help them understand how the SIGINT could serve as the basis for military operations," revealing how combat decisions, too, significantly depended on the NSA. This, however, wasn't necessarily a good thing for innocent civilians. As one female NSA staffer described in a leak, "I'm in the military, we kill people and blow things up. It's our job."
Another showed how NSA had trialled the use of machines to translate Arabic due to a shortage of qualified linguists. Given the complexity of the Arabic language and that documents show SIGINT conclusions were often the sole intelligence relied on by US and its allies for bombing missions, one cannot help but imagine a number of things that could have gone wrong (and/or did). This could also describe how and why there were so many instances of bombing hospitals in Afghanistan and many other countries as well as media outlets by US air force, including an Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad in 2003.
What is most concerning, however, is that one document actually admits how NSA had "influenced the Secretary of State and changed history" with the information it gave to the US mission and to the United Nations, including the faulty intelligence that Iraq had "Weapons of Mass Destruction" which ultimately sealed the invasion. It also claimed that the agency had provided confirmation on how each member state would vote ahead of UN Resolution 1511 (arguably the most significant resolution post-Iraq invasion) which confided to the Secretary that US "had the votes needed to assure [its] adoption". Moreover, it said that "SIGINT even contributed to the composition of the US President's speech at the UN General Assembly in September of 2002, and to Secretary Powell's presentation to the Security Council on the case against the Iraq dictator, among other events."
As for claims made by western politicians prior to the war that invasion would result in only limited casualties, one document read, "Rebuilding a country from scratch is an extremely difficult challenge." Needless to say, a country has to be rebuilt from scratch only after it has been totally devastated. As associate fellow of the Higher Education Academy, City University of London, Bamo Nouri explained, "In 2003 the US was dropping around 380 bombs a day and it was specifically targeting infrastructure and numerous other areas of key spots."
"Although, the US went to Iraq in the name of democracy, they wanted to personally select leaders in Iraq [again confirmed by the Snowden files]. From the minute they made this decision in the Iraqi government and council in 2003 people started to protest in Baghdad. Those protests ultimately then became ISIS, because people in Iraq felt marginalised and subjugated to a system that they didn't believe in. This is at a time when many Iraqis had seen their families killed."
Similar trauma was, and continues to be, inflicted on civilians in Afghanistan also, where SIGINT again, "Helped USUN and State officials in their decisions," according to the NSA's own admission. According to journalist Elizabeth Vos, "The statement amounts to an admission that the NSA has been a driving force in the American foreign policy and United Nations decision-making process for years if not decades."
Yet, its involvement didn't stop there. Leaks also confirmed that NSA had a direct role in "interrogation" programmes at the outset of the war on terror, further describing how NSA agents were deployed to Guantanamo in 2003 alongside CIA and US military personnel. This type of deployment, the document read, was an "excellent opportunity" for employees. And the description of the job in the newsletter is shocking given what really went on at such interrogations sites. As one 2014 US Senate Committee report explained, "CIA Detainees were tortured...the conditions of confinement and the use of authorised and unauthorised interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading." Yet, Snowden leaks showed how staffers described the job as, "extremely interesting, challenging, and fulfilling."
In the Snowden files, the NSA also bragged about helping to "capture and kill" insurgents in Iraq. Interestingly, one document says "The events of September 11 brought new urgency to the task of identifying the dividing line between legitimate political activity and activity that is the precursor to, or supportive of terrorism [emphasise mine]." Added with other revelations, this shows the potential for US to target any opposition it considered problematic to its agenda, regardless of whether they really were terrorists or not (or involved with any illegal activities).
The clear purpose of this was to instil fear into the hearts of the local population and prevent any opposition or uprising against the control of US—to deny the local population of their sovereignty, also supported by other documents that describe how US positioned anyone of influence operating in the Iraqi armed forces, intelligence units, etc. Under such circumstances, should one really be surprised to find that many extremist forces functioning in the Middle East today somehow metastasised out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan?
What is not so surprising though is how the excuse of growing extremism was later used by NSA, in collaboration with other agencies such as GCHQ (British intelligence and security organisation) to expand their national and global surveillance and monitoring capacities and capabilities. To globalise their surveillance systems, as Snowden warned.
However, it is important to remember that it was not only NSA that was responsible for waging an invisible war of terror on people in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which ultimately gave rise to, to some extent, more terrorism as a response. But as the documents themselves revealed, given the revolving doors—where operatives continually switch from one agency to another—that exist between all such powerful intelligence agencies and many other institutions, the responsibility for the bad intelligence and the damage that it caused must fall on the shoulders of the intelligence-military-industrial-complex as a whole. And until the use of terror by such powerful and shadowy agencies stop under the guise of fighting terror, one wonders whether the War on Terror can truly ever end.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal
The author greatly benefitted from the work done by The Intercept and journalists Suzie Dawson and Elizabeth Lea Vos in writing this article.