Nick Mottern | Sit Down and Shut Up

For more than a year, I participated in the Bloggers Roundtable, a Pentagon conference-call forum in which internet reporters ask questions of military personnel and civilians involved in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other work of the Department of Defense.

During this time I gathered information that was useful for articles I have written for Truthout, for example on detention in Iraq.

However, on July 7, 2010, I was denied further access to the roundtable in an odd process that appears to have involved the office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs David Wilson. The banishment betrays an extraordinary Pentagon sensitivity to even the asking of questions unwelcome to the military.

In this case, the offending questions were apparently about whether US or Afghan military and police personnel are involved in the Afghan drug trade.

Here is how the banishment unfolded:

The Bloggers Roundtable is run by Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg, operations officer of the New Media Directorate, “created,” according to DoD.mil, “to address DoD’s need to compete in an evolving global messaging space, particularly as our forces are engaged in multiple fronts around the globe. The directorate is part of the Defense Media Activity, which is the field activity for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.”

“In her present role,” says DoDlive.mil, “she (Lt. Cragg) engages in cutting-edge communications strategies and cultivates ideas with other military and government public affairs officers and leaders around the globe.”

On about a twice-weekly basis, Lt. Cragg sends notifications of DoD interview opportunities to a list of internet reporters. The reporters who wish to participate are included in the roundtable on a first-come basis until the maximum number, which seems to be about 10, is reached.

Lt. Cragg tries to bring forward officials who are involved in breaking news, and the roundtable offers reporters a chance to talk with people who are at the operational level of military activity, which is often illuminating. Consequently I looked forward to the notifications even though some were not within my interest.

On May 17, 2010, I participated in a Roundtable interview of Army Col. Thomas J. Umberg, chief of Anti-Corruption, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. The Roundtable notification said that in civilian life, Col. Umberg, a member of the Army Reserve, had been deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy, where his duties included “negotiation and coordination with foreign governments to enhance US counter-drug intelligence and interdiction,” with a focus on Latin America.

The following is from the transcript of my exchange with Col. Umberg:

Mottern: “There’s a report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: The Transnational Threat of Afghan Opium.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that report or not, but it does talk about 90 percent of the world’s opium coming from Afghanistan, and only about 2 percent is seized there. And they say that this is actually something of an international crisis, because the drugs are also beginning to infect Central Asia.

“And one of the arguments that they make in the report is that this could lead to the — I guess they’re calling it the loss of Central Asia and its energy supplies.

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“And my question is, do you know of or do you have a concern at all about any US entities — individuals or agencies, private or part of the government — who are involved in the drug trade in Afghanistan? Have you seen any evidence or do you have any concerns about US involvement in drug trade there?”

Col. Umberg: “You mean US involvement in actually facilitating or promoting drug trade? Is that what you mean?”

Mottern: “US involvement in either directly transporting or facilitating or in looking the other way while these transactions occur. I know that from reading this report, there’s a very porous border in the region of Baluchistan, where drugs apparently flow freely into Pakistan.

“And the United States has been in this region operating fairly intensively and throughout Afghanistan since 2001, and so it would seem to me that at this point the US would have knowledge of, whether corruption or through, you know, covert policies, the US was involved with this in any way, because it seems that it’s a rather extraordinary flow that’s going on that doesn’t seem to be able to be staunched.

“So I’m just curious as — what — you know, I’d love to hear your perspective on this now, you know, I — and how you see this, because when it comes to corruption in Afghanistan, wouldn’t drugs be the number one — you know — opium be the number one corruption issue?”

Col. Umberg: “First, with respect to opium in particular, is it a problem? Yes. It’s a huge problem. It’s both a problem because it helps to fund the — our enemies, number one; number two because it leads to addiction among the population, which is horrendous; number three, it also contributes to corruption; number four, when it’s exported, it causes issues in nations to which it’s exported. So it — yeah, it’s a problem.

“Number two, is the United States or any of our allies complicitous in any sort of large-scale drug manufacturing, sale, distribution? And the answer to that is no. I have no information, nor do I think any information’s being withheld from me with respect to whether or not there’s any agency in the United States that is complicitous in the drug trade.

“Now we do have a challenge, especially in the poppy-growing regions, because there’s a close connection, as I mentioned, between poppy, opium and the insurgency. And one of our first challenges is to first clear — as you know, our strategy — clear, build — excuse me — clear, hold and then build — and we have to first focus on security, which means that we have to prioritize that for right now.

“And in terms of our drug strategy, our drug strategy is to go after the labs and interdict rather than destroy the poppy fields, which is the — which is actually the same strategy that was — that was adopted under the first Bush administration with respect to what’s going on in Latin America.”

Lt. Cragg: “Thank you, sir.”

I did not get time to ask further questions.

The other reporters participating in the Umberg interview were from Bouhammer.com, Leatherneck Magazine, WarIsBoring.com, America’s North Shore Journal and The Institute for the Study of War. No one else asked questions about the Afghan drug trade.

Lt. Cragg customarily offers to send follow-up questions to interviewees if time runs out on a reporter, and the same day she sent this follow-up question for me to Col. Umberg:

“What percentage of the Afghan police and what percentage of the Afghan military are involved in the opium/heroin business?”

Later that day I got this response from Air Force Maj. Vanessa Hillman, operations officer at the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, the unit in which Col. Umberg works:

“The trafficking of opium or heroin is not an accepted practice in either the Afghan police or the Afghan military.”

On May 20, I wrote back to Maj. Hillman:

“Thank you for your response, but my question was for an estimate of the percentage of Afghan military and police actually involved with the opium/heroin business, understanding that this may not be an officially accepted practice. So I would like to resubmit the question for Col. Umberg.”

That day, Maj. Hillman responded:

“We are unaware of any of them being involved in the opium/heroin business. However, if we were aware of someone involved with this it would be investigated and action would be taken.”

I found this response astounding. The United Nations report mentioned in the Umberg interview, in line with other reports, said:

“In 2006, the CNPA (Counter Narcotics Police Afghanistan) arrested a former police officer for selling two kilograms of heroin to a law enforcement informant. The accused had previously directed a special narcotics unit within the Ministry of Interior. There have also been cases of drugs concealed and moved in official police vehicles. Similar allegations have been made about other agencies such as the Afghan National Army (ANA).”

My question to Col. Umberg was sparked in part by a curious paragraph I recalled reading in a 2003 report of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly:

“One of the factors worsening the drug-trafficking situation in Afghanistan is the involvement of some authorities and army commanders providing security for drug-trafficking operating. Last February (2003) the chief of Nangarhar province police Khazarat Ali was arrested for the involvement in kidnapping and drug trafficking. As it became known, the man used US helicopters given by the US command to combat terrorists and the Taliban fighters in his own purposes. He engaged the helicopters to transport large shipments of drugs to the north of the country from where they were smuggled to drug dealers in the neighbouring Central Asia states.”

At the time I read this I doubted that the police chief had his own helicopter pilots, and I wondered how US military personnel could have been ignorant of what was going on.

Additionally, it seemed possible that there might have been cooperation between the police chief and the US military in the interest of gaining armed support from the chief for US goals. In the December 2009 Harper’s Magazine, in “The Master of Spin Boldak,” Matthieu Aikins reports on instances of dependency of US and allied forces on Afghan drug smugglers.

The New York Times reported in October 2009 that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and “a suspected player in the country’s illegal opium trade,” was receiving payments from the CIA. The CIA is reported to have supported Afghan drug smugglers in the Afghan-Soviet war.

There is a history of US support of drug traffickers in the Central American Contra War of the 1980s. A US Senate report released in1989 said, for example, that “Contra drug links included payments to drug traffickers by the US State Department of funds authorized by the Congress for humanitarian assistance to the Contras, in some cases the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.”

“The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia” is one of a number of sources addressing CIA involvement in the opium/heroin trade during the Vietnam War.

Before going further with this narrative, I should explain that I understand it would be remarkable if Col. Umberg or Maj. Hillman had given me answers that revealed any wrongdoing or misjudgements on the part of Americans or Afghanis. At the same time I have found that in interviews people will sometimes say exposing things that surprises even them or that lead to important information.

Although some of the things Col. Umberg said in the interview suggested points of inquiry, and the responses of Maj. Hillman deserved examination and comment, I did not immediately write an article on these responses, holding the information until I might work on a story about the drug trade and the war.

Several weeks passed with no further notifications of Roundtable interviews, and I thought Lt. Cragg might be on vacation. On June 14, 2010, I sent the lieutenant an email asking whether the roundtables “are continuing and with what frequency.” I received an immediate response: “May I get your phone number? I sent the number, and we subsequently spoke, as I recall because I took the initiative to call her after some time had passed.

The lieutenant said she had been meaning to call me to tell me that she had received complaints, including complaints from my fellow reporters, that often my questions were outside the expertise of those being interviewed, were too long, taking time away from other reporters, that I tried to get in follow-up questions and, she said, I had been conducting myself in an “unprofessional” manner.

I responded that I believed my questions were within the expertise of those being interviewed, that some of my colleagues also asked long questions and that those being interviewed also frequently gave extremely long answers, limiting the time available for questions. As I tried to further address her concerns, Lt. Cragg said abruptly that she had to wrap up the conversation. I stopped explaining, told her I understood her position, and the conversation ended.

Reflecting on the conversation, I wrote the lieutenant an email apologizing for being curt at the end of our conversation, further addressed her concerns and said that I would like to continue to be notified of the roundtables and to “participate as it seems needful.” On June 17, 2010, Lt. Cragg sent an email saying she had added my name again to the Bloggers Roundtable listing, and I began to receive notifications.

On two occasions I asked to be included in roundtables, but the requests were sent very close to the time of the interviews. When I was told the sessions were full and that I would be sent transcripts I did not question it.

On July 5, 2010, at 9:02 a.m. I received notification of a roundtable with Army Lt. Col. James Baker, executive officer for the Deputy to the Commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, Col. Umberg’s outfit. The topic: “A key element to building successful Afghan National Security Forces capable of providing security and stability for the nation and the people of Afghanistan is leader development. Lt. Col. Baker will discuss two of the three key components of the leader development program for the Afghan National Security Forces.” As usual, Lt. Cragg invited reporters to: “Please let me know if you can attend.”

At 9:19 a.m. I wrote back saying I would like to participate, and at 9:55 a.m. Lt. Cragg emailed back: “I’ll send you a transcript.” I responded asking if the roundtable was full?

Not getting an answer, I called the lieutenant several times the following day, July 6, speaking to her once; she said her boss had just come in and she would call back. After another call, unanswered, she sent an email saying:

“Every time you call I am on the phone. I will forward the transcript when this roundtable is completed.”

I responded saying:

“If you have been told that I should not be included in the roundtables but only be given transcripts, I would like to know that. I would appreciate it if you would let me know what I can expect in terms of live participation on the roundtables.”

Within 20 minutes of sending this email, the website that I operate, Consumers for Peace.org, was visited by the Pentagon and by Armed Forces Information Service, as shown on the web site’s meter.

Having received no response from the lieutenant by the morning of July 7 – the roundtable was to be held at 11 a.m. that – I sent her an email saying I intended to write an article about my apparent exclusion from the roundtable and that I wanted to give her the opportunity to answer the questions in the previous day’s email.

She responded:

“I have forwarded yesterday’s email that you sent me to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Someone from OSD-PA will be contacting you. Please don’t contact me in the future. All future correspondence will be handled at the senior command level.”

I have not been contacted.