Droning on to disaster

Closing U.S. diplomatic posts is the latest sign that surveillance policies harm our interests

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America's situation in the world just gets worse with the huge dead albatrosses hung around its neck of the increasing use of drones to fight our wars and the employment of communications surveillance at home and abroad as a central element of so-called security policy that the administration of President Barack Obama seems to feel compelled to defend and retain.

The policy came home to roost, splattering Americans' windows last week with the temporary closure of 19 American embassies and consulates overseas and what will apparently be the long-term shuttering of one embassy, in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, and one consulate in Lahore, Pakistan.

It cannot be a coincidence that Pakistan and Yemen have been the two countries whose territories have been the targets of most of America's drone strikes. What America has done in both has been considerably more than just the many deaths inflicted on their citizens, citizens of other countries and, in Yemen, even American citizens by U.S. unmanned drones. The United States has also fired drones from Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Niger and Saudi Arabia at targets in other countries, but Pakistan and Yemen have been the primary beneficiaries of those strikes.

Is it any surprise then that the residents of those two countries are the ones that Washington has considered to be far too dangerous to us -- far too enraged at what we have done to them -- to permit the reopening of U.S. offices there?

There is also a mind-set question here. The U.S. government has managed its policies toward these two countries -- and who knows what other ones -- in such a way that U.S. offices there have come to be viewed primarily by Washington as targets, as points of vulnerability, rather than as the eyes and ears and helping hands of America overseas.

It is easy to forget that the primary mission of American embassies overseas is to see to the well-being of Americans in those countries. This runs all the way from providing them the possibility of renewing their passports to getting them out of jail or a fair trial if they fall afoul of local authorities. American embassies help American business people seeking to establish trade ties or to invest in a given country. Lahore, Pakistan, is the second biggest city of that country of 177 million.

Instead, the current geniuses managing U.S. policy have managed to turn American citizens in as many as 16 countries into targets, and the presence of U.S. offices in at least two of them unsustainable given the level of popular and organized hostility that U.S. actions there have provoked. The Yemeni and Pakistani governments are also at the point where they are judged by us to be unable or unwilling to protect U.S. offices on their soil.

That is a sorry state of affairs for Americans who have to or want to be in those countries, as tourists, as students or teachers, as missionaries or as representatives of American business or financial bodies.

The Obama administration's basing the closure of embassies and consulates on information it claimed to have obtained by communications surveillance is really fishy at a time when that very surveillance is under heavy criticism by Americans -- the public, the media and even the Congress.

There are, in my view, three possible interpretations of what occurred. The first is the straightforward one that the National Security Agency intercepted communications that indicated possible attacks by al-Qaida or other evildoers on U.S. installations in one or more of the 16 countries in question. Acting prudently, much as a pigeon flies away when a pedestrian gets too close, the Obama administration folded the U.S. tents in those places, and has chosen to leave the embassy in Yemen and the consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, closed indefinitely.

The second interpretation runs something like this.

Characters: Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida chief, somewhere in Pakistan; Nasser al-Wahayshi, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula leader, somewhere in Yemen.

Z: (off camera, asks, "Are we sure the Americans have this number?" Answer, "Yes." Dials.) "Nasser, how goes it, dude? Hope you're getting in some good harem time! Are we all ready to go on the project?"

W: "Absolutely. I have the explosives, the delivery vehicle and the personnel all lined up. Have you decided yet where and when we are going to do this?"

Z: "Not yet, but I've got a map right here and I'll let you know just as soon as I have decided. Somewhere in the Middle East or South Asia. Be sure to be careful on security. You know the Americans have all this hot surveillance stuff running!"

W. "Don't worry. This line is good."

(Zawahri and Wahayshi both hang up, "high five" their colleagues who have been watching the performance and then laugh until they cry.)

The third interpretation has Mr. Obama and a handful of his political and military advisers, including NSA, Pentagon and CIA officials, discussing the criticism the surveillance program has been receiving. They determine that, to defend it, a big intelligence coup has to take place, attributed to information obtained through surveillance. After some discussion of the risks, including the possibility of yet another leak, they decide that a message between two senior al-Qaida officials discussing an imminent attack will need to be "intercepted." On that basis, to get everyone's attention American embassies and offices across the Middle East and South Asia will be closed in response.

Who knows? I think in the end that the U.S. government would not dare to try to pull off the third scenario. There would be too much risk of a leak, and, in addition, even the Washington politicians have some understanding of how much damage would be brought about by closing 19 embassies and consulates in a key region just to provide political cover for the surveillance policy.

At the same time, both the surveillance and the drone policies remain disastrous to American interests overseas. They need to be terminated, now.

opinion_commentary - dansimpson

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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