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Why Trump's pledge to keep Guantanamo open doesn't matter

The real story is what he doesn't talk about: a military-intelligence complex with unfettered power to wage endless war

Lesson one from Donald Trump's first year in office: if you're stuck on his words, your eye's off the ball.  

The US president's chest-beating Tweets are dangerous mainly because they distract us so effectively from what is going on. This is true most of all in the shadowy world of America's global counter-terror ops - an area that, with the media's lens fixed on Trump, has all but vanished from mainstream reporting. 

Take his recent State of the Union address. Trump said little about counter-terrorism abroad, save to toss in a pledge to keep Guantanamo open. Take it from someone who represented dozens of detainees - this doesn't matter. It's just another Trump Steak for the base. Gitmo turned 16 this month, is still open, and needed no executive order to stay that way. The only possible effect of Trump's remark will be to help the detainees' court challenge to endless detention.

Crazy rhetoric

This is an example of a wider problem. Hiding behind Trump's crazy rhetoric is real news: the president has effectively handed the keys of US counter-terror policy to the military and intelligence agencies, with predictable costs to civilian life. This shift has happened right under our noses, but it's been lightly reported and hardly discussed.

The change started early. In January 2017, a botched special ops raid in Yemen killed a Navy Seal and 10 children under 13. It's not that no one reported it: this harrowing piece on the raid was classic frontline journalism. In it, we hear a five-year-old Yemeni boy who survived: "'No, no. The bullets were coming from behind,' the 5-year-old insisted, interrupting to demonstrate how he was shot at and his mother gunned down as they ran for their lives." But the story got little US pick-up, washed away by the latest presidential outrage. 

While we fixate on the president, foreign reporting has withered, leaving us with massive blind spots. Our democracy is the poorer for it

So too with the AP's exposé of secret prisons in Yemen - Emirati-run, US-funded - where prisoners come out telling of torture. This should have been a major story: black sites were front-page news under president George W Bush. But the current model, where we support foreign partners to run secret prisons, is more deniable and makes a less sensational story. 

When asked, officials whisper to reporters that their new authority is all to the good. An early New York Times report about the "loosening" of restrictions on drone strikes and commando raids quotes an anonymous security official saying "the replacement rules" for drone strikes, which vastly expand the US definition of who can be bombed, "should be seen as similar to Mr Obama's but clearer and less bureaucratic".

Scores of civilians killed

In fact, these "less bureaucratic" rules have killed dozens of innocents. Last month, the Guardian reported that a "surge" in US air strikes in Somalia has left scores of civilians dead. Somalia has suffered appalling terrorist violence of late, with over 500 slain in a bombing late last year. 

But no one at a Trump press conference bothers to ask whether indiscriminate bombing by the US will diminish this threat or increase it. This is what has come of delegating most counter-terrorism authority to the military and CIA; damaging policies grab no headlines because there's no tie to Trump.

This is now the clear trend across the Muslim world - an unfettered military-intelligence complex and a vast increase in US violence. A New York Times report on the battle of Mosul suggests the civilian death toll was "more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition". Statistics collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that in Trump's first year, counter-terrorism strikes doubled overall and, in Yemen and Somalia, tripled from the late Obama years. 

US President Donald Trump has become ‘walking orange clickbait’ (AFP)

Drone warfare was problematic enough under president Obama - I represented many civilians killed in those attacks, and the US sent condolence payments to some. But with the rules for strikes made dramatically looser, we can expect tales of bereaved families and embittered survivors to number in the thousands. 

Some commentators imagine fondly that if generals hold the reins of our foreign policy, at least Trump will be constrained by "adults" whom we can trust to make sound decisions. This is cold comfort. To cede so much authority to the military and intelligence agencies is unhealthy in any democracy. 

Stealing the oxygen from real news

So is our inability to pay foreign policy real attention. It has meant, as the NYT Mosul report points out, that the conflict against the Islamic State "may be the least transparent war in recent American history". 

It's easy to see how this happens: The press is losing money hand over fist, foreign bureaus are closing, and the president is walking orange clickbait. This has a cost. Our front pages are choked with think-pieces about the latest tweet. What passes for foreign reporting is overheated Russiagate coverage with a side of North Korea. Those issues matter, but not to the exclusion of everything else.  

A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, about one Middle East-based freelancer hanging up her hat, highlights the problem. In it, we learn that Foreign Policy magazine was closing all its foreign bureaus at the end of last year. We read that the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, which funds top-quality reporters to do investigations abroad, struggles even to place its fellows' journalism. 

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Meanwhile, our debate about the armed forces has boiled down to the proposition that they must have bottomless funding and nigh-limitless authority. This is a recipe for trouble. Civilian control of the military isn't an empty catchphrase. It is the best way to avoid needless conflict.

While we fixate on the president, foreign reporting has withered, leaving us with massive blind spots. Our democracy is the poorer for it. It's time to stop Trump stealing the oxygen from real news. Perhaps citizens of goodwill ought to make a New Year's pledge: Don't Click. Ignore the tweets. Find the good field reporters. Read them. Support them. Retweet them. Demand answers about what they reveal. That is how we hold this president to account.

- Cori Crider directed the Abuses in Counter-Terrorism team at the NGO Reprieve from 2009-16. As a lawyer she has represented Guantanamo prisoners, victims of "extraordinary rendition" and survivors of drone attacks. She still represents the Belhaj family, and writes as a freelance journalist on the excesses of the national security state. Her writing appears in the Guardian, Reuters, Al Jazeera, the Independent, CNN, Newsweek and the New York Daily News.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: People walk past a guard tower outside the fencing of Camp 5 at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 26 January 2017 (AFP)

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