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Should Gates share a prison cell with Snowden?

Robert Gates' memoir exposes US machinations in Afghanistan, forcing the Obama Administration into damage control.

Last updated: 14 Jan 2014 08:17
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.
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Revelations in Gates' book could have a detrimental effect on US troop drawdown in Afghanistan [AP]

As 2013 headed into the New Year, a media movement was emerging on the editorial pages of The New York Times and the Guardian to press for a pardon for Edward Snowden.

The Times labelled him a "whistle blower", and argued he should be offered not just the legal protection to which whistle blowers are supposed to be entitled (and which the Obama Administration has done its best to ignore), but should be shown clemency by US President Barack Obama. The Guardian asked, "If the (Supreme Court) agreed with Mr Obama's own review panel and Judge Richard Leon in finding that Mr Snowden did, indeed, raise serious matters of public importance which were previously hidden (or, worse, dishonestly concealed), is it then conceivable that he could be treated as a traitor or common felon?"

Snowden clearly has good reason to fear harsh treatment by the Obama Administration's Justice Department. Chelsea Manning's fate for the WikiLeaks disclosures amounted to decades in jail. CIA torture whistle blower John Kiriaku is infamously sitting in a prison cell - with approximately 20 months remaining on his 30-month sentence - because he released information about the extent of US torture activities. His family continues to face the consequences of having a "felon" as their husband and father. Meanwhile, those who committed the torture remain free with little fear of facing any consequences for their blatant violations of US and international law.

A constant swirl of revelations about every aspect of clandestine US policies or strategies, leaked by every mid-level intelligence officer or diplomat with a political, ideological or personal axe to grind, is the last thing any government can or should tolerate.

One might argue that however painful these sentences, they are necessary to ensure that the leaking of classified information doesn't become even commonplace. A constant swirl of revelations about every aspect of clandestine US policies or strategies, leaked by every mid-level intelligence officer or diplomat with a political, ideological or personal axe to grind, is the last thing any government can or should tolerate.

Cell-mates forever?

If this is the case, however, then Snowden could at least take comfort in the possibility of passing his time in prison with an especially interesting cell mate should the Obama Administration somehow succeed in bringing him to trial and convicting him for the massive release of classified information he initiated: former CIA head and Obama Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Why would Gates wind up sharing a cell with Snowden? If the standard the Obama Administration has applied to Snowden and other leakers was applied across the board, then Gates' just published memoirs, Duty, contain revelations about Obama Administration policy in Afghanistan that clearly threaten US strategic and foreign policy interests - and lives.

Specifically, Gates explains that the administration tried to oust Afghan President Hamid Karzai by manipulating elections in 2009, a set of actions he describes as a "clumsy and failed putsch". That's right, Gates is telling us that Obama engaged in direct interference in the elections of a sovereign country in order to remove an elected president from power, regardless of the wishes of the people of that country - putsch is the German word for coup, in which US presidents are not supposed to engage.

Anyone familiar with the history of US interventions and even coups across the "third world" would recognise the administration's actions as merely the latest in a long line of US imperial interventions in the Arab/Muslim world, as epitomised by the infamous engineering of the coup that removed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeqh in 1953. This was followed by a host of interventions, including perhaps most brutally, helping the Iraqi Baath Party seize power in 1963 and 1968, which was coupled by large-scale imprisonment and even killing of communists and other competing social and political forces.

Providing more detail and assessment, Gates explains that, "It was all ugly: our partner, the president of Afghanistan, was tainted, and our hands were dirty as well."

Costly soul-baring

Let's consider this for a moment. A former defence secretary and CIA director, who was deeply involved in the planning and execution of Obama's Afghanistan surge strategy (and who, as Juan Cole rightly points out, has been at the centre of many of the most disastrous US Middle East policies of the post war era), publishes a memoir while the last administration he served is not only still in office, but is still in Afghanistan and dealing with the president against whom it planned a coup. Moreover, he offers details about the coup, the rationale behind it and its negative impact on the local political scene. In so doing he confirms the worst suspicions of the already paranoid president (Karzai) about the previously alleged and now confirmed interference of the US government in the most vital democratic process in his country.

What is certain is the potential for his revelations to destabilise an already fragile US-Afghan partnership on the eve of the final drawdown of US troops.

It's hard to determine Gates' motivations in making these revelations, but it really doesn't matter. What is certain is the potential for his revelations to destabilise an already fragile US-Afghan partnership on the eve of the final drawdown of US troops. As such, they constitute a threat not only to US foreign policy goals, but to the safety of the remaining US forces in the country.

At the same time, however, both Americans and Afghans should welcome the revelations of US government interference, because such revelations are the only way to understand the sordid realities rather than lofty rhetoric behind US policies. 

Most important, if Gates' claims are accurate (the Obama Administration "strongly denied" them), then the Obama Administration has, in the least, clearly violated international law which prohibits the direct intervention into the affairs of other states, "the mirror image" of every state's right to "sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence", which is "part and parcel of customary international law", as the International Court has ruled in several cases. That the US has routinely aided or even initiated the removal and even assassination of foreign leaders for decades doesn't make it acceptable, never mind legal, to do so today in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the Obama Administration will ultimately assign responsibility for the attempted "putsch" to Richard Holbrooke, the maverick US ambassador who died unexpectedly in 2010, and whom Gates claims was the point person in these efforts. Even if the affair was passed off as the product of a freelancing ambassador, Gates' revelations thus force the Obama Administration into a rather indelicate situation.

So, should Bob Gates be arrested and tried for his revelations? Should he be protected as a whistle blower? Should he share a cell with Edward Snowden - whose revelations, at least on the surface, seem far less self-serving than Gates and not nearly as direct a threat to troops and policies on the ground? Or should Americans use the revelations as a spur to have a much-needed debate about the policies of the Obama Administration and its predecessors and the roughshod manner in which it has trampled upon US laws and interests in the pursuance of dubious goals?

Whatever we think, it's hard to justify prosecuting Edward Snowden while subjecting Bob Gates to nothing worse than an interminable but profitable book tour.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new bookOne Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg, will be published by the University of California Press this spring. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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