Posted on October 13, 2016 in Countdown

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An Informant Bonanza for the FBI at the Border

About a week ago, we first learned of a shocking new program that has the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and FBI collaborating to target travelers to the U.S. for potential recruitment as FBI informants. CBP provides flight manifests to the FBI before a flight departs, the FBI reviews them for potential recruits, gives names to CBP, and CBP then stops the traveller when he/she arrives in the United States. Feeling pretty good about this program, CBP gloats that it is the "GO TO agency in the Law Enforcement world when it comes to identifying individuals of either source or lead potential.” This isn't the first time our nation's immigration process has been used as a proxy to target Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Even over the past year we've seen how some people want to impose religious or ideological tests on all visitors and new immigrants to the country. We've watched Congress make discriminatory changes to the Visa Waiver Program, and of course the refugee resettlement part of our immigration code has been under abject attack. And of course there is the TSA. But this CBP program is perhaps either an underlying reason or a compounding factor of another sneaky immigration change that we've been fighting against. Earlier this year, CBP announced that it will start collecting "social media identifiers" of all foreign travelers to the United States. At the time, we criticized the move as being an intrusive and logistically worthless new screening mechanism. But now that we know about the FBI-informant scheme, we're starting to wonder if the two are connected. Our immigration policy is regularly used as a means of targeting, discriminating against, and plain making life difficult for Arab and Muslim visitors to the United States. CBP seems to happily be the leader of immigration authorities who are running wild with objectionable ideas on how to promote national security. 


War Crimes, Retaliation, and Underreported Suffering in Yemen

The Yemeni civil/regional war that started last March has been chronically and damagingly underreported, by the media and right here in Countdown's five quick takes of the week. So we are going to do our darnedest to fix that because the suffering and politics involved in Yemen are pretty unbelievable. Back in August, the United Nations estimated that 10,000 people have died in the cross fire of Yemen's civil war, Saudi's bombings, Iran's interference, and the U.S.'s "logistical support." The civil crisis and regional proxy war has largely been ignored as the U.S. and international community has focused on fighting ISIL and talking about ending the conflict in Syria. But Yemen commanded acute attention over the weekend when the latest Saudi airstrike on densely populated civilian areas struck a wedding killing over 140 people, the images are horrific. The U.S. didn't take kindly to the Saudi assault on civilians (which, for what it's worth, Saudi claims was a mistake), and announced the U.S. would begin a review of U.S. assistance because “U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check.” We even dispatched a high ranking State Department official to the region to take some meetings. While the Saudi actions have only prompted words, reviews, and meetings - when the Houthi side launched missiles at a U.S. warship nearby the U.S. responded this morning with fire power, targeting radar sites with cruise missiles. A Pentagon spokesman said “these limited self-defense strikes" were for protection of U.S. assets in the region, but warned that future threats will be responded to similarly. This has all the hallmarks of a major escalation in U.S. involvement and might just be a turning point in the war. We hope that it turns for the better, but given the reckless disregard for human life we see happening - we're worried.


Syrian Divisions Keep On Obscuring a Path Forward for U.S.

The merciless assault on Aleppo's rebel held areas hasn't abated in the four weeks since the ceasefire failed. The U.S. has continued to rely on diplomatic strength to urge the impervious Russians to stop their strikes and to reign in the unhinged Assad regime. In a new diplomatic maneuver, the U.S. joined France in calling for a war crimes investigation into a recent Assad-led bombing of a hospital in Eastern Aleppo. The Pope (who obviously doesn't have military options at his disposal) has also joined in on the diplomatic pressure as well, calling today for an immediate end to hostilities and promoting the Papal Ambassador to Syria to the rank of Cardinal, which is reportedly a historic diplomatic escalation. While there has been some coming-together amongst those who want the violence to end, the U.S. domestic political scene is continuing to divide and defeat itself over what more the world's super power can do aside from diplomacy. The many raw nerves of U.S. advocates have been on full display recently, with some pushing for American military action (enforcing no fly zones, increasing air strikes, arming the opposition), which some have posited have no chance of changing the trajectory of the crisis. Others are pushing for U.S. restraint and historical memory of the damage U.S. intervention can lead to. And our Presidential candidates are adding to the hopeless lack of consensus on the way forward. We saw Mike Pence and Donald Trump have a notable - and drastic - split on military action in Syria. And Clinton for her part is still playing coy with her recommendations for limited use of force. Today, Russia's Lavrov and John Kerry apparently pledged to try again at a meaningful ceasefire and diplomatic resolution. Let's hope this time is the charm. We've lost count.


U.S. Pledges More Support for Syrian Refugees

Even if an end to the conflict in Syria was in sight (which it really isn't as far as we can see), it won't solve the problem of Syrian refugees. The U.S. is wise to that, even if countries like Lebanon and Jordan are hoping for a magical solution to the conflict and an even more magical homeward march of the Syrian refugees that have escaped into their borders. The new U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, announced another $36 million dollar injection of U.S. aid into international agencies providing services for Lebanon's Syrian refugee population as well as Lebanese infrastructure. It's needed, especially given the hesitancy of the Lebanese government to provide long(er) term services to Syrian refugees who stand to be in Lebanon for many, many more years. That includes education and employment programs that have to be established so that Syrians aren't left languishing.