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Former FBI Investigator Of Blackwater Massacre Explains Why Pardons Were So Wrong

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Just as his critics had been predicting, President Donald Trump granted a long list of pardons and commutations this week — from his 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort to former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of California to Charles Kushner (father of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner) to four former Blackwater security guards. Some of the sharp criticism that Trump has received for the Blackwater pardons has been coming from people in national security or law enforcement, and former FBI special agent Thomas O'Connor slams those pardons in an op-ed published on CNN's website on Christmas Eve Day.

The four security guards, who worked for the private security firm Blackwater during the George W. Bush era, were serving time in prison for their involvement in the slaughter of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square on September 16, 2007. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince is a far-right Trump supporter and the brother of Betsy DeVos, secretary of education in the outgoing Trump Administration.

O'Connor, who spent 23 years as an FBI special agent before retiring in 2019, explains, "I know that these men were undeserving of pardons because I was a member of the FBI evidence response team that traveled to Iraq and investigated the site of these killings."

O'Connor goes on to describe the events that occurred in Baghdad 13 years ago during Bush's second term as president.

"On September 16, 2007, Baghdad, Iraq was a dangerous place," the former FBI special agent recalls. "No one will dispute that fact. On that day, a bombing took place a few miles from a busy traffic circle called Al Nisour Square, which is used by Iraqis to access major roadways across Baghdad. A security detail from the private government contractor Blackwater was protecting a U.S. official attending a meeting at a government building when the bomb was detonated."

O'Connor notes that "the Blackwater Raven 23 defendants claimed that they responded to gunfire aimed at them while stopping traffic in Nisour Square that day." But after an "FBI team made four trips to Iraq to investigate this shooting," O'Connor writes, the evidence "was introduced into several U.S. court hearings.

"A jury heard the evidence and found four Blackwater guards guilty of murder, manslaughter and weapons charges," O'Connor notes. "The system worked, and justice was brought to the deceased, the injured victims and their families. The families of those killed and wounded at Nisour Square will now watch those responsible for this tragedy go free thanks to a pardon by the president of the United States. This simply makes me sad and angry."

O'Connor wraps up his op-ed by emphasizing that the four Blackwater guards were not acting in self-defense in Nisour Square.

"There is no forensic evidence of anyone shooting at the Blackwater team," according to O'Connor. "How do I know? The evidence told me that."

Pentagon In Chaos Over Response To Iraq Expulsion Of US Troops

An unsigned letter signaling what appeared to be a withdrawal of troops from Iraq threw Washington into chaos on Monday, after Defense Secretary Mark Esper disputed its authenticity.In the letter, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III said the United States is preparing to withdraw troops from Iraq after the Iraqi parliament voted to expel the American military from the country following the deadly attack last week that led to the death of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” Seely wrote in a letter to an Iraqi military official, according to Washington Post reporter Mustafa Salim.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Monday that the letter is “inconsistent with where we are now,” according to defense reporter Paul McCleary.

After that first statement, Esper returned to tell reporters that the letter was real but that it was never meant to be seen as it was a draft.

The letter signaling the United States’ possible decision to pull troops from the country belies Donald Trump’s warning that if Iraq did vote to expel American troops, he would hit the country with “very big sanctions.”

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump said Sunday night from Air Force One, according to the New York Times.

Trump added, “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

NBC’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, who has covered wars across the world, said that expelling American troops from Iraq is “what Soleimani always wanted.”

“Maybe Iran gets its revenge without spilling a drop of blood,” Engel tweeted.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) echoed Engel’s sentiments. In a series of tweets on Monday, Merkley said that Trump’s attack, “strengthened the role of Iranian militias in Iraq, expanding Iranian influence — the exact opposite of our goal of reducing Iran’s influence in Iraq.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Trump Orders Airstrike Killing Top Iranian Military Leader Soleimani

Iraqi TV reported Thursday night that Qasem Soleimani, the leader of a special unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, has been killed. Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also reportedly killed.

While it was initially unclear whether the reports were true and who was to blame, the Pentagon eventually confirmed that, at the direction of President Donald Trump, it had carried out the strike. It said Soleimani had been planning attacks on U.S. diplomats and service members. Trump himself tweeted out simply an image of an American flag before the killing had been reported by the Pentagon, which many observers had interpreted as confirmation of the United States’ role.

“At the direction of the President, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the Pentagon statement said.

Ahmed al-Assadi, an Iraqi militia spokesman, told Reuters: “The American and Israeli enemy is responsible for killing the mujahideen Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani.”

“The gloves are off,” warned Karim Emile Bitar, a professor of international relations, said on Twitter. “This could trigger a major escalation in the entire region, the consequences could be devastating.”

“Senior Iraqi politician tells me ‘apparently’ Soleimani is dead,” tweeted Robin Wright, a joint fellow at U.S. Institute of Peace “This is an astounding escalation between the US and Iran — which will ripple across the entire Middle East.”

Tensions have been rising between the United States and Iran in recent days, as hundreds of Iran-supporting protesters assaulted the American embassy in Iraq following a U.S. strike.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) offered an early comment on the news from Congress:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close ally of Trump and a foreign policy hawk, told Banco: “We need to get ready for a major pushback. Our people in Iraq and the Middle East are going to be targeted. We need to be ready to defend our people in the Middle East. I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch.”

IMAGE: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. Picture taken March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Trump Faces Crises In Iraq And North Korea — After Alienating Allies

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

Two separate crises roiled President Donald Trump on the first day of the year of his re-election campaign.

The U.S embassy in Baghdad is recovering from an assault that grew out of a pro-Iran protest. Some protesters stormed the grounds and set fires. Hundreds came to the facility over two days to protest American airstrikes on the Iran-supported militia group, Kataeb Hezbollah, in Iraq and Syria that killed at least 25 people. That strike came in response to an attack on an Iraqi base that killed an American contractor, according to the U.S.

And now, the Pentagon has announced it is sending 750 troops to Iraq in response to the embassy assault, and thousands more a reportedly preparing to be deployed. It is, apparently, a classic case of escalating tension, and it’s not clear where it will lead.

At the same time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has uncorked a new round of aggressive rhetoric of his own. Kim has said he is ready to take “shocking actual action.” He has promised the release of a “new strategic weapon” in response to unproductive talks with the United States, undermining Trump’s claims that the nuclear threat from North Korea has been eliminated.

“If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy toward the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy,” Kim said, USA Today reported.

It’s never clear how seriously to take North Korea’s rhetoric — it’s often overblown and purposefully provocative. But it is a genuine signal that, as experts have argued since the beginning, Trump’s attempts at diplomacy with the rogue nation have amounted to very little and have done nothing to alter Kim’s strategic interests.

Likewise in Iran, Trump’s failure is also on display. He tore up the Iran deal President Barack Obama had established with no good justification, insisting that being tough on the country could induce it to accept even more punishing terms. But the international community largely rejected Trump’s abandonment of the deal, leaving the United States isolated on the issue. And Trump seems no closer to a new deal with the country than he ever was.

Now we find ourselves in yet another series of escalating punches and counter-punches with Iran, and the body count is rising. When tensions rose with Iran earlier in 2019 over attacks on an oil tanker and a U.S. drone, I feared that then-National Security Adviser could use the situation to engineer a full-scale conflict with Iran. That fate was avoided, and Bolton has since been ousted, but the ratcheting up of violence and provocation on both sides could lead Trump on the path to war even if he genuinely wants to avoid it.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, observed:

So after 3 years of no international crises, @realDonaldTrump is facing one w Iran b/c he has rejected diplomacy & another w N Korea b/c he has asked too much of diplomacy. He will face both w little allied backing, less interagency process, & amidst impeachment. Happy New Year.

— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) December 31, 2019

Some noted that “diplomacy” is too generous to describe Trump’s treatment of North Korea. Laura Rosenberger, the director of Secure Democracy, said that the term “pageantry” is more apt.

But another point in Haass’s tweet is worth paying attention to. He noted that, in Trump’s North Korea and Iran foreign policy, he largely alienated American allies and the interagency staffers who typically shape U.S. diplomacy. As is readily apparent, going his own way hasn’t proved to be a successful method. But it also means it will be much hard to turn to these partners and tested strategies for diplomatic help now because he cut them out at the beginning. Trump has also dramatically undercut his own credibility by prematurely declaring victory in both North Korea and Iran.

“A very predictable consequence of the lack of Trump’s showmanship in place of any policy or strategy on North Korea,” noted Rosenberger of Kim’s aggressive talk. “Buckle up.”

The twin crises, of course, are arising when Trump is uniquely vulnerable.

“The timing of these new challenges is critical,” wrote David Sanger in the New York Times. “Both the Iranians and the North Koreans seem to sense the vulnerability of a president under impeachment and facing re-election, even if they are often clumsy as they try to play those events to their advantage.: