For many citizens living in parts of Eastern Ukraine occupied by Pro-Russia rebels, reality has become a tenuous amalgamation of rumors, propaganda, and dreams.
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing.
Finding Bergdahl: Inside the Search for the Last Prisoner of America’s Longest War
Private Bowe Bergdahl is the personification of America’s lack of purpose and clarity in its decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The narrative thus far is this: An introverted but adventurous 23-year-old neophyte soldier becomes disenchanted with the war he has eagerly signed up to fight. Then, within weeks, he wanders off base and ends up kidnapped by the Taliban. He becomes our singular POW, a soldier held against his will for five years—at some points in a cage. According to the kangaroo court of public opinion, though, he is a deserter.
The overall tone of the saga is overwhelmingly negative. Bergdahl is victimizer, responsible for the deaths of solders who never even set foot in Pakistan, the country in which the government and military knew he was being held. Yet this once idealistic, sensitive young man has emerged from five years in captivity in a foreign land to a cycle of social brutalization that has the potential to be even more crushing to his psyche. He has faced accusations that he is a traitor, deserter, Taliban-lover, turncoat, and perhaps even one ofthem.
The other side of this bifurcated stream of white-hot hate is caused by the anger of the American public suddenly discovering that five senior members of the inner circle of Taliban leader Mullah Omar were kidnapped and held for more than 13 years without charges in Guantánamo Bay and are now on their own recognizance in a luxury villa in Qatar. As we will learn, however, all five had surrendered or were working with the Americans before they were kidnapped. The concern is that they are “terrorists” and will be “recidivists.” The Taliban have never been labeled as a terrorist group, but there is clear evidence of men released from Gitmo returning to their violent ways.
Coiled inside, around, and throughout this story is the truth and, even more curiously, my involvement with some elements of that truth in the early days of Bergdahl’s disappearance. A truth obfuscated by a topic that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or analysis as its byproducts: the actual criminal act committed by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
In 2009 I was in Afghanistan and was involved in the search for Bergdahl from that first June morning he went missing. Tasked by a secretive military group to provide minute-by-minute information on his location using my network of local contacts, I quickly pinpointed Bergdahl’s whereabouts. We then predicted which routes Bergdahl would be taken along, knowing full well he would be sold to the Haqqanis in Miranshah, Pakistan, and whisked across the Pakistani border. Thankfully, the military’s Task Force was able to put a spy plane on target and monitor two phone calls made by Bergdahl’s kidnappers.
Eric Garner and the Plague of Police Brutality Against Black Men
If you haven’t heard about Eric Garner yet, let me fill you in. He was a 43-year-old father of six who lived in Staten Island, and he died in the street on Thursday after as many as four New York police officers choked him and slammed his head on the ground. The NYPD told the Associated Press that they stopped Garner because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, something he’d been arrested for before. However, witnesses who spoke with local news website Staten Island Live have basically said that’s bullshit. Ramsey Orta, who was on the scene and shot a now infamous video that is making the rounds, can be heard in the clip saying that all Garner had done to get bothered by the police was break up a fight.
In the video, Garner denies any wrongdoing and asks why he’s being hassled. “Every time you see me you want to mess with me,” he says in an exasperated tone that most men of color across this country can relate to. Garner, who was 400 pounds and has been described by people who knew him as a “gentle giant,” suffered from chronic asthma and police claim his death was the result of a heart attack suffered during the arrest.
Police say that Garner made a “fighting stance” and resisted arrest. Which, based on the video clip, is complete nonsense, considering we can see him pleading to the officers, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” before going completely silent as several officers pile on him.
The video of Garner’s death is disgusting, but I can’t say I was shocked or even outraged the first time I watched it. At this point, as someone who’s read and written about some of these stories time and time again—and who’s had firsthand experiences with the way cops treat black males—this kind of reprehensible shit is not surprising at all. After so many cases like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, you start to feel desensitized by the seemingly insurmountable injustice that plagues communities of color.
Two Would-Be Jihadists, Two Very Different Responses from the FBI
One is a 19-year-old citizen from Arvada, Colorado, named Shannon Maureen Conley. The other is a 29-year-old, Pakistani-born permanent US resident who lived in North Carolina named Basit Javed Sheikh. Both—entirely separately—planned to travel to Syria for love and jihad, according to public records, and both came under close scrutiny of the FBI and were eventually arrested.
But in Conley’s case, the FBI gave the would-be jihadist every available out. Overt agents who identified themselves as being from the FBI repeatedly cautioned her against going through with her plans to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). According to a sworn affidavit, they warned her she would be arrested if she tried to board a plane to the region, but to no avail. Few, if any, targets in federal terrorism investigations have been given such apparently blunt warnings from openly identified agents. “That’s a first as far as I know,” says Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside The FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.
Sheikh, however, wasn’t so lucky. The FBI didn’t openly try to talk him out of boarding a plane allegedly to join Jabat al Nusra, the al Qaeda–linked militant group fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. Sheikh has even gone so far as to claim that an FBI informant, posing as a nurse in Syria, engaged in a romantic relationship with him, and he was traveling to marry her. An undercover agent—as opposed to an openly identified one, like in Conley’s case—told Sheikh he didn’t have to go through with his plan, something investigators often do to prevent an entrapment defense. Both cases are currently in the pre-trial motions phase.
Remember last year when VICE on HBO was nominated for an Emmy? Well, this year season two managed to scoop up three nominations at the premier award ceremony for American television excellence: Outstanding Informational Series or Special; Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming; and Outstanding Sound Editing for Nonfiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera).
We would like to congratulate the cast and crew on an excellent season, and the renewal of the show for seasons 3 and 4. If they keep going at this rate, who knows what to expect next year. Is it too early for a lifetime achievement award?
A Romanian Man’s House Was Stolen and Replaced with a Corn Field
In May, Andy Pascali, a Romanian from Bucharest, drove to his summer house in the county of Brăila. When he arrived, the house wasn’t there. Apparently, in the few months Andy had been away, someone disassembled the property piece by piece, leaving room for his neighbor to plant a cornfield in its place.
Last week, Andy decided to rant about his misfortune on Facebook:
Translated, his status reads: ”If you happen to have a summer house in the mountains, you should go check that it’s still there. I drove to my house in the countryside and all I found in its place was a cornfield. I don’t mean that the corn was covering the house from my line of sight—I mean that it was literally covering the place where my house used to be.”
I called Andy to ask why it took him two months to do anything about his missing house.
VICE: It’s been a while since your house disappeared. Are you still angry?
Andy Pascali: I’m not upset—I haven’t even tried to find out who did it until now. I’m lucky, because I live in Bucharest and have two houses—I have all I need. What I don’t like is this random disrespect. Why would you do that to a house that doesn’t belong to you?
How did you find out your house was missing?
I’ve built this house for my dad, and I usually drive him there. So last time I drove him there, at the beginning of May, I found a pile of gravel and a few stones instead of my house. But I couldn’t find the time to make a formal complaint with the police until now. If nobody reports this kind of crime, the thieves will just keep doing it. I hope the police catch them.
This 16-Year-Old Made an App That Exposes Sellout Politicians
With US politics swimming in so much corporate money that it’s pretty much an oligarchy, it can be hard to keep track of which particular set of lobbyists is trying to milk more cash out of healthcare, fossil fuels and other very important issues from one week to the next.
But thanks to 16-year-old Nick Rubin, keeping track of just how much politicians have sold out has become a lot easier. He created Greenhouse, a new browser plugin which operates under the motto, “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” The plugin aims “to shine light on a social and industrial disease of today: the undue influence of money in our Congress.” It sounds like a bit of a lofty aim for an app, but it’s actually pretty simple and effective—it provides a break down of a politician’s campaign contributions when that politician’s name comes up in an article. It is currently available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari and is completely free. As you can imagine, reading about how your Member of Congress voted in a recent health bill becomes all the more enlightening if you know how much money the health industry showered him in at the last election.
I spoke to Nick Rubin about the plugin, politics and what he calls the “money stories” behind what you read in the news.
VICE: Hi Nick. So how did you come up with the idea for Greenhouse?
Nick Rubin: Back in seventh grade, I gave a presentation on corporate personhood and ever since then I’ve been really interested in that issue. I think the one problem is that the sources of income for members of congress haven’t been simple and easily accessible when people have needed it. More recently, I’ve been teaching myself how to code and I thought that something like Greenhouse that puts the data at people’s fingertips would be a perfect solution. It really is the intersection of these two passions of mine—coding and politics. I made it after school and on weekends on my computer.
Why the name?
Well, green is the color of money in the US, and house refers to the two houses of Congress [the Senate and House of Representatives]. The name also implies transparency; greenhouses are see through and they are built to help things thrive.
Where did you get the information on the politician’s donations?
It uses the data from the last full election cycle which was 2012. This is simply because it’s just the most complete set of data that we have. But, the browser does provide access to the most up to date 2014 information by just clicking the name of the politician on the top of the window or theOpenSecrets.org link in the popup. So the 2014 data is just one click away.
I’m intending to update the data as a whole later in the election cycle as the 2014 contributions are more complete. These are updates I’m currently working on, as well as thinking of other ways I can expand the tool.