Counter-Terrorism in Lieu of Foreign Policy: The Case of Sudan

11/04/2013 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Obama administration's refusal to say more than that the U.S. is not now, and will not in the future, tap the official cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (and other senior officials) leaves us with an obvious inference: the U.S. has done so in the past. While significant in its own right, this remarkable intrusion by U.S. intelligence officials -- very likely senior officials -- brings into sharp relief the competing claims of rational foreign policies based on cooperation with allies (none more valuable than Germany) and the pervasive, uncontrolled lust for intelligence bearing on counter-terrorism. In this competition, the U.S. intelligence community is now clearly having its way; and its willingness to engage in such high-risk activities as tapping the phone of the democratically elected leader of a major international ally is a measure of the breathtaking arrogance with which the NSA and the broader U.S. intelligence "community" understand their role in defining America's place in the world, and even the priorities of our society.

To be sure, competition between the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to the president goes back many administrations. But it was a competition that took place, in its broadest outlines, in public, at least on most occasions and in the shaping of broader U.S. policies abroad. In the present case, it is unclear who knew what about the tapping of Merkel's cell phone: did Secretary of State John Kerry? Did President Obama? Did they approve these actions? Acquiesce? Answers don't seem likely to be offered in the near term.

But the very arrogance and presumption defining this action by the intelligence community -- increasingly opaque and beyond the control of the State Department -- help make sense of any number of otherwise bewildering features of U.S. foreign policy.

In Sudan, for example, the Obama administration has known for more than two years that the campaign by the Khartoum regime against the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile is genocidal in nature -- targeting the Nuba and other African tribal groups in these two northern states. The deliberate targeting of agricultural production through relentless aerial assaults; the destruction of food and seed stocks; the cold-blooded murder of civilians, including women and children -- the Obama administration knows about all this and yet issues only an occasional, largely perfunctory condemnation. The U.S. has also failed to show leadership in creating humanitarian corridors to the populations in rebel-held territory, upon which Khartoum has imposed a virtually total humanitarian blockade.

In Darfur
terrifying security conditions continue in free-fall and wholesale withdrawal by humanitarian organizations could occur at any time, leading to catastrophic human destruction. There has been a virtually total breakdown in security throughout the region. The epidemic of rape, targeting African women and girls, continues unabated; those who have been forced from their lands and villages -- civilians again overwhelmingly from non-Arab or African tribal groups -- face increasing violence in the vast camps for displaced persons, more than 2 million people altogether. Arab militias have occupied farmlands as "payment" for their brutal predations, undertaken at the behest of the Khartoum regime. In the Jebel Marra region of central Darfur, there are virtually daily bombings of civilian targets -- not "collateral damage," but the deliberate bombing of civilians thought to be supportive of rebel groups. The Obama administration knows this is the case, or could easily devote the satellite reconnaissance resources necessary to confirm the extremely detailed reports that come from Radio Dabanga. Instead, we again get perfunctory condemnations, often accompanied by a grim "moral equivalence" between Khartoum and its rebel adversaries.

What is going on here? Why not at least powerful condemnations of acts that are war crimes and, aggregated, constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute, the basis for the International Criminal Court? Why the tendentious skepticism about realities in Sudan that has characterized statements by Obama's previous presidential special envoys. Why in May 2011, on the eve of Khartoum's military seizure of Abyei -- the region now most likely to serve as catalyst for renewed north/south war -- did the Obama administration do nothing to warn off the regime from this explosively provocative action, even as the military assault had become increasingly obvious for many weeks? Why did the U.S. not publicly warn Khartoum about the consequences of its military onslaught in South Kordofan, which began two weeks after the failure of the U.S. to condemn in appropriate terms the seizure of Abyei?

Notably, the military action in South Kordofan began on June 5, 2011; on June 2, 2011 John Brennan -- current head of the CIA, and a career man at the agency -- was in Khartoum talking to senior regime officials. We were told by the Obama administration that this was merely coincident with Brennan's travels "in the region." But Brennan had no diplomatic experience, and diplomacy can hardly have been his mission. With so many warnings about an impending attack on South Kordofan, the U.S. intelligence community certainly knew what was about to occur, and Brennan's task was likely to re-set the relationship between the regime and Washington concerning the provision of "counter-terrorism intelligence" in anticipation of the attack.

To be sure, the excessive value place on Khartoum's provision of counter-terrorism "intelligence" precedes the Obama administration. Salah Gosh, the ruthless head of Khartoum's security services and minder of Osama bin Laden during his years in Sudan (1992 - 1996), was flown to Washington on an executive jet by the CIA in June 2005. Notably, the State Department had been kept out of the loop, as we discovered in a fine piece of investigative reporting that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Gosh had been deeply complicit in a wide range of atrocity crimes at the time, but this seemed not to trouble the CIA in its insatiable quest for counter-terrorism intelligence. Ken Silverstein of the Times reported at the time:

The CIA and Mukhabarat [Khartoum's intelligence and security services] officials have met regularly over the last few years, but Gosh had been seeking an invitation to Washington in recognition of his government's efforts, sources told The Times. The CIA, hoping to seal the partnership, extended the invitation. "The agency's view was that the Sudanese are helping us on terrorism and it was proud to bring him over," said a government source with knowledge of Gosh's visit. "They didn't care about the political implications."

Here we should remember that in November 2010 the Obama administration explicitly "de-coupled" Darfur from "counter-terrorism" issues in the bilateral relationship between Washington and Khartoum. The very public announcement of this "de-coupling" proved deeply embarrassing to the Obama people, and so we must ask: Was South Kordofan also being quietly "de-coupled" from the bilateral relationship by Brennan? This would go a long way toward explaining the morally shameful acquiescence of officials throughout the Obama administration.

The U.S. feels it has a lot at stake in its relationship with Khartoum's génocidaires. A few "missteps" in following international law were not going to end that relationship, Brennan may well have suggested. Certainly we must wonder about the perversely stubborn skepticism concerning the genocidal nature of the campaign that ensued in South Kordofan. Evidence included satellite photography of mass graves, first-hand accounts of ethnic targeting reported by journalists in the area where fighting began, as well as additional reports of roadblocks and house-to-house searches targeting people of Nuba ethnicity. And in early July 2011 the UN human rights team that had been in Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan) the entire month of June produced an extraordinary report of atrocity crimes committed by the regime's forces, many witnessed by the UN reporters themselves (the report was leaked in a matter of days).

But if the U.S. is willing to tap the phone of a major European ally, why should we believe that it would have any scruples about distorting what U.S. intelligence knew at the time of Khartoum's plans and actions in South Kordofan?

The intelligence community would have us believe that they are getting very useful counter-terrorism information from the regime; many knowledgeable Sudan experts doubt this, but of course all is classified and the matter can't be settled. Perhaps a new release by Edward Snowden will clarify matters. But for now U.S. priorities seem best measured by the $172 million U.S. embassy that has been completed in Khartoum -- and this doesn't include the pricey bits of intelligence and surveillance equipment that likely more than double this cost. Clearly some sort of quid pro quo has been arrived at secretly for the U.S. to be allowed to build the facility and equip it as our intelligence folks wish. From the standpoint of establishing an "ideal listening post" for North Africa, Khartoum could hardly be better. And certainly the movement of international terrorism suggests that the migration from Afghanistan to the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa is well underway.

But are we as a country really willing to pay not only hundreds of millions for this listening post, but turn away from the human cost imposed by the continuing brutal tyranny of a regime that we refuse to confront forcefully? Change is coming to Sudan, sooner or later, as the economy continues to implode and popular unrest explodes. Will a new government be content to ignore our many egregious sins of omission? That question is at present unanswerable.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is author of Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 -- 2012. He has worked full-time as a Sudan researcher and analyst for 15years, publishing extensively both in the US and internationally. He has testified several times before the Congress on U.S. policy toward Sudan, particularly concerning Darfur.