Originally posted at TomDispatch.
One of the strangest news developments of our time is the way the media now focus for days, if not weeks, 24/7, on a single event and its ramifications. Omar Mateen’s slaughter of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is only the latest example of this. If no other calamitous or eye-catching event comes along (“‘Unimaginable’: Toddler’s body recovered by divers after alligator attack at Disney resort”), it could, like the San Bernardino shootings, top the news, in all its micro-ramifications and repetitions, for three or four weeks.
Such stories – especially mass killings, especially those with an aura of terrorism about them – are particularly easy for strapped, often downsizing news outfits to cover. They are, in a sense, pre-packaged. A template for them is already in place: starting with the breaking news of some horror and soon after a tagline like “America in shock, [grief,] [mourning,] wondering what comes next.” Then follow the inevitable grainy smartphone videos of some aspect of the horror as reporters fan out to capture the weeping faces; the brave or tearful accounts of wounded survivors; the backstory on the killer or killers and his or their tangled motivations; commentary from the usual terror (or mass shooting) experts; the latest on the FBI’s follow-up investigations; the funerals for the victims, including the comments of grief counselors meant to help a nation “in mourning”; and finally, of course, the issue of “closure” and “healing,” all topped – if “terrorism” is part of the package – by an endless frisson of horror and fascination when it comes to the influence of ISIS (or allegiance pledged to the same), lone wolves, the role of social media, and so on. In this strange election season, there is, of course, the added thrill of watching Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama in mortal battle. Who could ask for more? Not the TV news outfits that now mobilize for these events the way the military might mobilize for war. So, as the New York Times put it recently, “the news industry descended on Florida” last week, and so they did.
Such events overwhelm us, as they are meant to. They glue eyeballs, as they are also meant to, and the reporting of all of this is now so enmeshed in the events themselves that it is essentially indistinguishable from them. Undoubtedly – given the allure of such intense, over-the-top media attention – it actually works to encourage future acts that will rivet similar attention on the next lone wolf or group.
There is, however, one small problem worth mentioning. For days or weeks on end, a single place – call it Newtown, San Bernardino, or Orlando (one school, one gathering of government workers, one club) – is the center of our universe. The rest of the world? Not so much. However significant the 24/7 event may be, it blots out just about everything else and so plays havoc with our sense of what’s important and what isn’t. It also ensures that, at least in the mainstream, ever fewer reporters cover ever fewer non-24/7 stories.
For so much that’s basic to our world and will matter far more in the long run than local slaughters, no matter how horrific, there are few or no reporters and next to no coverage. This means, for instance, that in the distant reaches of the imperium, much of the time the U.S. military can operate remarkably freely, without fear of significant scrutiny. Which is why, on the subject of the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, it’s lucky that Nick Turse has been on the beat (almost alone) for TomDispatch. Otherwise in our new media universe, what we don’t know could, in the end, hurt us. ~ Tom
The Numbers Racket
AFRICOM Clams Up After Commander Peddles Contradictory Statements to Congress
By Nick Turse
General David Rodriguez might be a modern military celebrity – if he hadn’t spent his career ducking the spotlight. After graduating from West Point in 1976, he began his long march up the chain of command, serving in Operation Just Cause (the U.S. invasion of Panama) and Operation Desert Storm (Iraq War 1.0) before becoming deputy commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan, and commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command in 2009.
In 2011, the 6’5” former paratrooper received his fourth star and two years later the coveted helm of one of the Defense Department’s six geographic combatant commands, becoming the third chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Rodriguez has held that post ever since, overseeing a colossal American military expansion on that continent. During his tenure, AFRICOM has grown in every conceivable way, from outposts to manpower. In the process, Africa has become a key hub for shadowy U.S. missions against terror groups from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to Somalia and Libya. But even as he now prepares to turn over his post to Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Rodriguez continues to downplay the scope of U.S. operations on the continent, insisting that his has been a kinder, gentler combatant command.
As he prepares to retire, Rodriguez has an additional reason for avoiding attention. His tenure has not only also been marked by an increasing number of terror attacks from Mali and Burkina Faso to, most recently, Côte d’Ivoire, but questions have arisen about his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Did the outgoing AFRICOM chief lie to the senators about the number of missions being carried out on the continent? Is AFRICOM maintaining two sets of books in an effort to obscure the size and scope of its expanding operations? Is the command relying on a redefinition of terms and massaging its numbers to buck potential oversight?
If Rodriguez knowingly deceived the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to downplay the size and scope of his command’s operations, that act would be criminal and punishable by law, experts say. That’s a big “if.” But U.S. Africa Command’s response hardly inspires confidence. AFRICOM has refused to comment on the subject, stonewalling TomDispatch on questions about why Rodriguez has been peddling contradictory figures about his command’s activities to Congress. And this rejection of transparency and accountability is only the latest incident in a long history of AFRICOM personnel ducking questions, rebuffing press inquiries, and preventing Americans from understanding what’s being done in their name and with their tax dollars in Africa.
In March 2015, General David Rodriguez appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to report on the previous year’s military missions in Africa. “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities,” he told the senators. The U.S. had, in other words, carried out a total of 674 military missions across Africa, nearly two per day, up from 546 the year before. Those 674 missions amounted to an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military trainings since U.S. Africa Command was established in 2008.
These missions form the backbone of U.S. military engagement on the continent. “The command’s operations, exercises, and security cooperation assistance programs support U.S. Government foreign policy and do so primarily through military-to-military activities and assistance programs,” according to AFRICOM. “These activities build strong, enduring partnerships with African nations, regional and international organizations, and other states that are committed to improving security in Africa.”
Very little is known about most of these missions due to AFRICOM’s secretive nature. Only a small fraction of them are reported in the command’s press releases with little of substance chronicled. An even tinier number are covered by independent journalists. “Congress and the public need to know about U.S. military operations overseas, regardless of what euphemism is used to describe them,” says William Hartung, a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor which tracks American military aid around the globe. “Calling something a ‘security cooperation activity’ doesn’t change the fact that U.S. troops are working directly with foreign military forces.”
This spring, at his annual appearance before the SASC, Rodriguez provided the senators with an update on these programs. “In fiscal year 2015,” he announced, “we conducted 75 joint operations, 12 major joint exercises, and 400 security cooperation activities.” For the first time ever, it seemed that AFRICOM had carried out fewer missions than the year before – just 487. This 28% drop was noteworthy, if little noticed.
But was it true?
Things started getting hazy when Rodriguez went on to offer a new version of the number of missions AFRICOM had carried out in 2014. To hear him tell it, 2015 hadn’t represented a drop in those missions but a banner year for them. After all, its 75 joint operations, he told the senators, topped the 68 of 2014. Twelve major joint exercises one-upped the 11 of a year earlier. And 400 security cooperation activities beat the 363 of the year before.
I did a double take and reread his 2015 statement. The discrepancy couldn’t have been plainer. His exact words last year: “In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities.” And this year he said: “[W]e conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 363 security cooperation activities in fiscal year 2014.” Somehow, between 2015 and 2016, more than 200 missions from 2014 had simply vanished and, months later, AFRICOM has still failed to offer an explanation for what happened, while the Senate Armed Services Committee has, apparently, not even bothered to ask for any clarification.
A discrepancy of 232 security cooperation activities can’t be chalked up to a mere miscount. And since both numbers were presented to the SASC in written statements, the AFRICOM chief can’t simply have misspoken.
Such a discrepancy in the total number of “security cooperation activities” conducted by his command raises questions about what AFRICOM is actually doing on the continent (or whether it even knows what it’s doing). The figure Rodriguez offered this year also contradicts projections laid out in U.S. Army Africa (USARAF) documents obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act in 2014. These refer to more than 400 activities scheduled for Army troops alone in Africa that year.
Despite numerous requests over several weeks, AFRICOM has failed to provide any comment or clarification to TomDispatch. It also failed to respond to requests to interview Rodriguez. A Pentagon spokesperson was able to coax a reply out of the command as to the correct number of security cooperation activities in 2014. According to AFRICOM, that number is indeed 363, directly contradicting Rodriguez’s 2015 testimony and suggesting that, whether purposely or not, the general misled members of Congress. Messages seeking comment from the SASC staff, including Dustin Walker and Chip Unruh – spokespeople, respectively, for U.S. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, the chairman and the ranking member of the committee – were not returned.
“The fact that General Rodriguez gave such wildly conflicting figures, and that members of Congress aren’t pressing him for an explanation, is just one more example of how U.S. military activities in Africa and beyond have spun out of control,” says Hartung.
Bending the Law – or Breaking It?
With Rodriguez, Africa Command, and the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee staying silent, it’s impossible to know what motives – if any – lay behind the bogus numbers offered by the AFRICOM chief.
The command may, without public announcement, have redefined “security cooperation activities” thanks to an as-yet-unreleased 2014 Defense Department memorandum meant to provide guidance on the so-called Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S from providing assistance to foreign security forces implicated in human rights abuses. Reclassifying certain types of training missions makes it more difficult than ever to track both the dollars spent by AFRICOM and the number of activities it conducted on that continent.
Africa Command, its subordinate units, and partners also have a long history of being unable to effectively track and manage their own efforts. A 2015 study by the Government Accountability Office noted that AFRICOM “identifies and synchronizes security cooperation activities through various planning processes, but the brigades allocated to AFRICOM sometimes lack key information about these activities.” According to officials involved in the process, “the increasing number of activities being conducted in Africa… challenges the ability of the Offices of Security Cooperation to fully coordinate individual activities with the host nation, AFRICOM, USARAF, the other service components, and DOD executing units.”
A 2013 report by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General on AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa found recordkeeping so abysmal that its officials “did not have an effective system to manage or report community relations and low-cost activities.” A spreadsheet supposedly tracking such missions during 2012 and 2013 was, for example, so incomplete that 43% of such efforts went unmentioned.
New definitions, poor recordkeeping, ineffective management, and incompetence aren’t, however, the only possible explanations for the discrepancies. AFRICOM has a history of working to thwart efforts aimed at transparency and accountability and has long been criticized for its atmosphere of secrecy. Beyond spin, the highly selective release of information, the cherry-picking of reporters to cover a tiny fraction of its undertakings, and the issuing of news releases that tell a very limited story about the command, AFRICOM has taken steps to thwart press coverage of its footprint and missions.
After I started asking the command questions about the shifting count of security cooperation activities, Rodriguez told Stars and Stripes that the command had carried out “roughly 430 annual ‘theater security cooperation’ activities” last year, a difference of 30 from the figure he provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. Why he has continued to peddle different numbers at different times is unclear.
Under Section 1623 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, knowingly making contradictory statements in court or a grand jury while under oath can get you five years in prison. While that statute doesn’t cover Rodriguez’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, experts point to Section 1621 of Title 18, which prohibits lying to Congress while under oath and Section 1001 covering testimony given while not under oath, as the operative portions of the U.S. Code. A person convicted of the former faces up to five years in jail and fines of up to $250,000. There is, however, a high burden of proof when it comes to perjury, including clear evidence of intent.
Rodriguez could, for example, have been provided with faulty numbers by subordinates or the command might have altered the way it tracks missions. If, however, Rodriguez intentionally manipulated the numbers to deceive Congress, he broke the law, according to Andrew McBride, who served in the Department of Justice for a decade and is now a partner with the Washington D.C.-based law firm of Wiley Rein. “If he has a reason to do it and he knows what he’s doing, that is perjury. That is willfully lying under oath,” says McBride. And under Section 1001, a person does not even have to be under oath for the federal government to bring a false statements charge. It’s enough for an individual to provide false information with an intent to deceive a federal agent or entity.
There is, as yet, no evidence that Rodriguez violated the law, but should he find himself in hot water, it would not be a first for an AFRICOM chief. Just after Rodriguez was nominated to take the helm of AFRICOM back in 2012, its first commander, General William Ward, was demoted as he was retiring from the military and ordered to repay the government $82,000 for lavish spending on the taxpayers’ dime.
On the eve of his own retirement, Rodriguez now finds himself the subject of scrutiny, with his subordinates stonewalling requests for comment. Numerous emails sent to AFRICOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Anthony Falvo – including those with a subject line indicating a request to interview the AFRICOM chief – were, according to automatic return receipts, “deleted without being read.”
At a time when the number of U.S. troops, bases, and – perhaps – missions in Africa are increasing, along with the number of terrorist groups and terror attacks on the continent, hundreds of already murky missions have apparently been disappeared, purged from the command’s rolls and the historical record. As troubling as this may be, the stakes go far beyond numbers, says the Security Assistance Monitor’s William Hartung. Precise figures about foreign military engagements are essential in a world where blowback from military operations is an ever-present reality, but they are only a first step.
“Providing accurate public information on what U.S. troops are doing would at least provide early warning of what might be to come, and allow for scrutiny and accountability,” he points out. “Not only should AFRICOM report the number of activities, but there should be some description of what these activities entail. Arming and training missions can escalate into more substantial military involvement.”
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. His latest book is Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan. His website is NickTurse.com.
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