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How the US Military Keeps Reporters in the Dark

Those inquiring about secret bases and other operations are met with everything from ignored questions to airport detentions

| Mon Jul. 8, 2013 2:09 PM EDT

The First Casualty
And don't think that was the worst of it. The most dismissive response I've gotten recently from anyone whose salary we pay to keep us (nominally) informed about the US military came from Marco Villalobos, the FOIA manager of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), responsible for Central America and South America. 

Last year, reports surfaced of civilians killed during operations conducted or overseen by US personnel in Honduras. In at least one instance, the Honduran Air Force shot down a civilian plane thanks in part, it seems, to intelligence provided by SOUTHCOM. Since the US military is heavily involved in operations across Latin America, I requested records relating to civilian casualties resulting from all operations in the region. 

That was in July 2012. In February 2013, I got a peculiar response from Villalobos, one I've never seen otherwise in hundreds of replies to FOIA requests that I've ever received from various government agencies. He didn't say there were no such records. He didn't tell me that I had contacted the wrong agency or bureau. Instead, he directed me to the United Nations Statistics Division for the relevant data.

The trouble is, the U.N. Statistics Division (UNSD) doesn't collate US military data nor is it devoted to tracking civilian casualties. Instead it provides breakdowns of big datasets, like the Food and Agriculture Organization's figures on how many hectares of apricots were harvested in Afghanistan in 2007 (3,400) or the prevalence rate of contraceptive use for women ages 15 to 49 in Uganda in 2005 (19.7%). 

I was surprised to say the least. And I wasn't alone. When I checked in with the U.N., the Statistics Division wrote back: "could you please forward us the email you received from SOUTHCOM in which they suggest UNSD as a source, so we can contact them if they continue to give our address out in response to such inquiries which don't pertain to our work."

So I called Villalobos to complain. It wasn't his fault, he quickly assured me. The decision had been made, he claimed, by the director of personnel. I asked for his name, but Villalobos refused to give it: "He's not a public person." 

That's the nature of the runaround. Months later, you find yourself back in the same informational cul-de-sac. And when it comes to the US military, it happens again and again and again. I had a similar experience trying to embed with US units in Afghanistan. I was rebuffed repeatedly for reasons that seemed spurious to me. As a result, however, a never-used Afghan visa for that trip sits unstamped in my passport—which brings me back to my recent trip to Qatar.

The American Taliban?
In the airport upon returning to the United States, I was singled out by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. He directed me to a "girl" at a far counter. When I got there, I was admonished by her for being in the wrong place. Finally, I was sent to see a third CBP officer at a different workstation. Think of it as the runaround before the runaround.

This agent proceeded to question me about the contents of my bag, pulled out my papers and began reading them. She also wanted to know about my profession. I said I was a writer. What did I write about? National security issues, I told her. She asked what I thought about national security and the role of the US military in the world. In my estimation, I said, it tended to result in unforeseen consequences. "Like what?" she asked. So I described my most recent article on blowback from US military efforts in Africa. 

Did I write books? 

"I do," I replied. 

"What are the titles?" 

"The latest one is called Kill Anything That Moves." 

"Kill what?"  

"Kill Anything That Moves." 

She turned to her computer, promptly Googled the book, went to the Amazon page, and began scrolling through the customer reviews. She asked if my book was, as the page said, a New York Times bestseller. I assured her it was. After a short while, she told me to stay put and disappeared into a back room with my personal papers—writings, notes, reading materials. When she returned, she told me that she couldn't conduct the rest of my "examination" in public. She would have to bring me "back." I asked if there was a problem. No. Could I have my papers back? The answer was again no.

I was soon deposited in "Area 23" of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and I was definitely the odd one out. Not that there weren't plenty of other people there. The Muslim man in the taqiyah. Three women in head scarves. Another wearing a niqab. Everyone's skin color was at least several shades darker than mine.

I waited for a while, taking notes, before my name was called by an Officer Mott. The badge on his shirt made that clear, but he spelled it out for me anyway. "It seems like you're taking notes on everything, so I might as well get that out of the way," Mott said visibly perturbed, especially when I asked for his full name. "I'm not giving you my first name," he said with palpable disgust.

Like the previous CBP agent, he also asked about my writing interests. I told him it mostly centered on US foreign policy. 

"Are you for or against it?" 

"Am I for foreign policy?" I asked. 

"Well, I'm reading that your last book is Kill Anything That Moves.  That was about what?" 

"The Vietnam War."  

"What about the Vietnam War?" 

"Civilian casualties." 

"Sensitive topic," he said. 

"Especially for the Vietnamese," I replied.

"Well, in this day and age with the whole war going on, that's a sensitive issue you're writing about... Do you get any heat or problems writing about war and civilian casualties?" 

"It comes with the territory," I told him.

As he typed away at his computer, I asked why I was singled out. "I think because some of the material you have is of interest… What you're writing, traveling with." I asked how they would know what was in my bag before I was detained. "Why the officer stopped you is beyond me, but what the officer discovered is something of interest, especially for national security... It's not every day you see someone traveling with information like this." 

It was probably true. The contents of my bag were splayed out before us. The most prominent and substantive document was "Qatar: Background and US Relations," a report prepared last year by the US Congressional Research Service. 

Agent Mott rifled through my papers, tapped at his keyboard some more, breathed in deeply and then launched into a series of questions designed to make sure, he told me, that nothing "jeopardizes our national security."   

"How long have you been writing about wars and things like that?" 

"About 10 years." 

He did a double take, looked at my passport, and typed feverishly. "I thought you were younger," he told me. I took it as a compliment. He wanted to know if I'd traveled anywhere in the last five years as he flipped through my passport, filled as it is with visas and entry and exit stamps from around the world. The answer was obviously yes. "Pakistan? Afghanistan?" he asked. 

Immediately, I thought of the unused Afghan visa in my passport and started to explain. After instructing me to get a visa, the US military had strung me along for months before deciding I couldn't embed with certain units I requested, I told him. 

"Doing journalistic stuff, not fighting with them or anything like that?" 

Fighting? Was I really being accused of heading to Afghanistan to join the Taliban? Or maybe plotting to launch an insider attack? Was I really being questioned about this on the basis of having an Afghan visa and writing about national security issues? "Nope. I'm a writer," I told him. "I cover the US military, so I was going to cover the US military." 

Agent Mott seemed satisfied enough. He finished his questions and sent me on my way. 

The next morning, I checked my email, and found a message waiting for me. It was from the Media Embed Chief in Afghanistan. "You are receiving this email because in the past you have been an embed with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] or requested an embed," it read. "Your opinion and satisfaction are important to us." 

"You can't make this shit up," an old editor of mine was fond of saying when truth—as it so often does—proves stranger than fiction. This sequence of events certainly qualified. I could hardly believe my eyes, but there it was: a link to a questionnaire about how well served I was by my (nonexistent) 2012 embed in Afghanistan. Question number six asked: "During your embed(s) did you get the information and stories you require? If no please state why."

Let me count the ways.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here. His website is NickTurse.com. You can follow him on Tumblr and on Facebook.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse's The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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