PBS NewsHour

Torture alleged in U.S. search for al-Qaida in Yemen


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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The U.S. military said Thursday it carried out an air-strike in Yemen that killed the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The attack is a reminder of the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations there in coordination with the government of Yemen and allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, an “Associated Press” investigation has found hundreds of men captured in the hunt for al-Qaeda militants in Yemen have been detained in Yemeni and UAE-run prisons, where there are allegations of human rights abuses and torture.

“A.P.” reporter Maggie Michael wrote the story and she joins me now via Skype from Cairo.

So, Maggie, tell us. What’s happening in these prisons?

MAGGIE MICHAEL, ASSOCIATED PRESS REPORTER: The prisons are set up inside different places like villas, military camps, ports, airports, and depending on which the location of the prison, the conditions are different.

So, in the city of Mukalla, for example, there’s a big detention center set up inside Riyan Airport where prisoners are held inside shipping containers. People are blindfolded most of the time. They have access to toilets for like three minutes a day.

There is torture every day, at night, from 11:00 p.m. where military officers and Yemeni soldiers, they enter the cells and they start flogging and beating detainees, and then they start to select a small number of them and drag them outside the cells for more torture, also included sexual assaults, according to detainees.

SREENIVASAN: You described something in here that looks straight out of a medieval story. A grill, what is this?

MICHAEL: Soldiers tie detainees and spit and spun them quickly and fastly until they vomit at the very end. This is what they described to me. And what I was told also that day, the number of people tortures like selected, like they select small number of them. So, they become like a model for the rest of the prisoners. So, whenever the time for interrogations come, the people they have already seen what’s happened to their colleagues — I mean, to the inmates, so they start to just give whatever confessions they are ordered to give.

SREENIVASAN: And who profits from these confessions? What’s the relationship to the U.S. in all of this?

MICHAEL: This is for the Emiratis and for the U.S., a source of information. And at least in one instance, in Riyan, witnesses said that U.S. interrogators would enter the interrogation room at least for three, four hours a day, four times a week. And they ask questions through the Emirati officers to get information. This kind of information will be used later in the raids and airstrikes was carried out over the past months in a prison in Yemen.

SREENIVASAN: What is the Defense Department, what is the U.S. government’s response to your story?

MICHAEL: U.S. officials acknowledged that they had interrogators sent to Yemeni prisons. However, they said that they received reports of torture and they looked into it and they found nothing. And this is the kind of response that the families were really upset to hear because they wanted to hear the U.S. government saying, we’re going to look into this, we’re going to investigate and we’re going to figure out what’s happening.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Maggie Michael of the “Associated Press”, joining us via Skype from Cairo tonight — thanks so much.

MICHAEL: No problem. Thank you.

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Fighting for freshwater amid climate change

marshall islands

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By Mori Rothman and Melanie Saltzman

MIKE TAIBBI: Two men mix sand and shovelfuls of cement, spending hours on end building their seawall— no, re-building it, and higher each time.

Banga Roriki is working with his nephew, Robin, who has been living in this house, on Majuro, one of the Marshall Islands, for 22 years.

BANGA RORIKI: The high tide comes very high.

MIKE TAIBBI: He says the wall is meant to stop massive high tides, known here as king tides, like the one that surged through his home last year.

On another of the Marshall Islands, Ebeye, those same tides eat away the shoreline everywhere you look. Tombstones shoved free and even swept out to sea. What used to be a park surrounding Ebeye’s power plant, gone.

74-year-old Belma Marok has already seen king tides destroy several homes here.

BELMA MAROK: The corner of the house was right over there, right outside that piece of concrete there.

MIKE TAIBBI: These big slabs were part of the foundation of the house?


MIKE TAIBBI: The Marshall Islands, a nation of slender atolls and five more substantial islands, sit in the South Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia, no more than six or seven feet above sea level.

Climate scientists warn — if the current pace of global warming and sea level rise continues, then low-lying islands like the Marshalls could become incapable of sustaining their population within a generation or two.

CHIP FLETCHER: Sea level is rising in certain parts of the pacific faster than anywhere else in the world.

MIKE TAIBBI: Chip Fletcher studies climate science at the University of Hawaii. He says that well before the Marshall Islands might disappear — they could face a more immediate impact from climate change: fresh water shortages.

MIKE TAIBBI: What’s the biggest threat now to the Marshall Islands?

CHIP FLETCHER: Depends on your time scale. I think the longer time scale sea
level rise is probably the biggest threat. Simply because it has the potential to rise
above the average elevation of the Marshall Islands. Shorter timescale though, it’s the
fundamental need for fresh water.

MIKE TAIBBI: On Ebeye, fresh water is Belma Marok’s biggest worry in his home the spigots hooked up to the town water system are dry.

His son lugs buckets of water so their family can shower and flush their toilets. the family relies on rainwater catchment tanks for water — but those remain practically empty because of a relentless drought.

Getting fresh water has always been a preoccupation for the Marshall Islands. Most communities rely on rainwater collection — rooftop gutters connected to water tanks outside of virtually every home — and a few underground freshwater aquifers they can access through wells.

The fresh water is essential for cleaning, personal hygiene, doing laundry and of course, drinking.

But as life in the islands became more westernized, and the population grew to more than 50-thousand people, those limited freshwater sources became more stressed than ever.

And now, because of climate change the traditional water sources are at increased risk. the droughts are getting so long that collecting enough rainwater is becoming harder and harder.

The freshwater wells and underground aquifers are at risk of being fouled by salt water from frequent flooding some wells already spoiled because of high tides driven by rising sea level.

Those so-called “king” tides now sweep over the Marshalls more intensely and more frequently.

It’s an irony not lost on some climate change experts that while the Marshall Islands are among the sovereign nations that contribute the least to global warming, they’re also among the nations that face threats that are the most profound and immediate.

Hilda Heine, the President of the Republic of Marshall Islands is keenly aware of the paradox of living here it’s the old cliche water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: We’ve been fighting this climate change for the last, what, maybe five to 10 years. And our islands are still livable. So we continue to have hopes. And so I think we’re able to make sure that people are safe during droughts. We’re able to provide water, food and so on. So that’s what we need to do. It’s the new norm, but that doesn’t mean giving up.

MIKE TAIBBI: President Heine says the government has made fresh water access a priority and points to improvements in the centralized water systems on the two most crowded islands — Majuro and Ebeye. But those systems supply only a fraction of the population and for limited hours each week.

On Majuro, home to 27,000 residents, severe weather events put enormous pressure on the main water source — seven reservoirs that store rainwater collected from the airport’s runway.

Halston deBrum is operations manager for Majuro’s government-run water company. he says the drought last year nearly depleted their supply.

HALSTON DEBRUM: This reservoir was half. That one, empty. Reservoir number one and two were pretty empty as well. The only water we did have was pretty much in the covered reservoir, the treated water.

MIKE TAIBBI: deBrum says a more severe weather event could leave them scrambling.

So if the big one hits next month, you guys aren’t ready for it?

HALSTON DEBRUM: No, if the big one hits next month, we won’t be ready for it. And then we’ll have to find other ways to provide water.

MIKE TAIBBI: But deBrum says he’s confident coming improvements will one day provide all residents 24/7 water access, even during droughts.

HALSTON DEBRUM: I think if we improve what we have here what we have. the infrastructure work that we have now. Improve the pipeline. Improve our catchment area on the runway. And then build more reservoirs. Bigger reservoirs so that we can store more.

MIKE TAIBBI: On Ebeye, the main freshwater source is a 14-year-old desalination that’s undergoing a nearly 5 million dollar upgrade. but right now it’s less than a panacea for the more than 10-thousand people living in this densely populated setting.

For one thing, the water is piped into households only 45-minutes a day, two days a week and it isn’t safe to drink without boiling it.

For most of their water needs, residents come to this public tap. But even though this water is tested on a regular basis, many residents are skeptical.

MIKE TAIBBI: Do you use it to drink, or just cook with it? What do you do with it?

JIM SHIMA: I do both cook and eat with it, and also bath and shower.

MIKE TAIBBI: But do you drink it straight?

JIM SHIMA: Eh, not really. I don’t drink the water here, I drink the water from Kwaj.

MIKE TAIBBI: “Kwaj” is the US military base on neighboring Kwajalein Island. Ferries throughout the day from Kwaj bring jugs of good, free and safe water from the base’s own state of the art desalination plant.

These five gallon jugs from the ferry weigh more than 40 pounds apiece and they are a load to carry. Health risks from contaminated water are a constant worry in the Marshall Islands. Waterborne illnesses are one of the top three conditions treated at Ebeye’s hospital. When we journeyed to one of the more remote Marshall Islands — Arno, home to just 15-hundred people — we saw a health worker educating children and adults about the risks of contaminated water and how to clean and test water to make sure it’s safe.

Still, after the lecture we met Tarjadik Arwan, who was drawing fresh water from one of the few wells still producing. she says children in the village have contracted pink eye, diarrhea, and typhoid fever from the wells.

A few miles away, a man named Konio Joe relies on this tank to provide water for his family’s home which he built it after a king tide last year swept away his old house a few yards closer to the shore. Climate scientist Chip Fletcher says there are ways to at least delay the impact of sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.

CHIP FLETCHER: What’s the rule of thumb? If you wage war with water, you will lose. Yield and elevate. Yield to the water, and elevate.

By that Fletcher means accepting the consequences of seawater rise and moving homes inland and to higher ground. That’s why Fletcher and his team are creating 3-dimensional models of the Marshalls, like this one of Hawaii’s Oahu island to show where flooding is most likely to occur as sea level rises, and what could be done to defend against it, like building more robust seawalls around the perimeter of the islands.

Fletcher says that’s an approach that should be considered by the Marshall Islands and by other low-lying Pacific ocean countries, like Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, and the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea, all of which are seeing an exodus driven partly by climate change.

CHIP FLETCHER: There are communities that are sort of poised on the edge of the cliff, I believe. All it takes is one event, a king tide event, and that might be the killer event to push you over the edge.”

MIKE TAIBBI: How close are you, do you think, to the kind of destructive weather event which will signal a profound change in the way that you should or the world should look at climate change?

PRESIDENT HEINE: Well, we’re practical, and I think we’re looking at the mitigation efforts, adaptation, how we can make the country resilient, people resilient to the effects of climate change. And we continue to do that. Because the option is not an option for us. We cannot think about evacuating our country, our island, because people are connected to their land. If we’re not on these islands, then we’re another people, another country.

The president does fret about the seawall she showed us that stands between her own home and the water that rises higher each year, a barrier that she says, erodes with every king tide.

In the meantime, the president’s across-the-street neighbor on majuro, Banga Roriki, keeps building and re-building his seawall hoping his home can survive.

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War and Waste: cautionary tales as U.S. ponders Afghan boost

File photo of Afghan National Army (ANA) officers marching during a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training
         Centre in Afghanistan

Afghan National Army (ANA) officers march during a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre in Afghanistan in this October 7, 2015. Photo by Ahmad Masood/Reuters

WASHINGTON — One shirt, one pair of pants.

Those are the basics for outfitting an Afghan soldier. But in that simple uniform combination are the threads of two troubling stories – one about the waste of millions in American taxpayer dollars, the other about the perils of propping up a partner army in a seemingly endless war.

Together these tales help explain why some in Congress question the wisdom of investing even more resources in Afghanistan, nearly 16 years after the United States invaded the Taliban-ruled country in response to the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Army general who runs the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan calls it a stalemate. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the U.S. is “not winning,” and he vows to “correct this as soon as possible.”

The Trump administration is searching for an improved approach to achieving the goal it inherited from the Obama administration: to get the Afghan government to a point where it can defend itself and prevent its territory from being a haven for extremists. Mattis has said he expects to have that revised strategy ready for Congress by next month. This coming week he will be consulting with NATO allies in Brussels on troop contributions and other Afghan issues.

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The long war has generated repeated examples of wasted funds, which may be inevitable in a country such as Afghanistan, where the military has been built from scratch, is plagued with corruption and relies almost completely on U.S. money for even the most basic things, including salaries and uniforms. Among the costs rarely noted publicly: The Pentagon has spent $1 billion over the past three years to help recruit and retain Afghan soldiers.

The money wasted on uniforms is small potatoes by comparison with other U.S. missteps in Afghanistan, but it is emblematic of broader problems.

The Pentagon has not disputed the gist of findings by its special inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, that the U.S. spent as much as $28 million more than necessary over 10 years on uniforms for Afghan soldiers with a camouflage “forest” pattern that may be inappropriate for the largely desert battlefield. In a report released this past week, Sopko’s office said the Pentagon paid to license a propriety camouflage pattern even though it owns patterns it could have used for free. The choice, it said, was based on the seemingly offhand fashion preference of a single Afghan official.

“This is not an isolated event,” Sopko said in a telephone interview. The U.S., he said, has been “in a mad rush to spend money like a drunken sailor on a weekend furlough.” It reflects a pattern, he said, of spending too much money, too quickly, with too little oversight and too little accountability.

Sopko’s office is still investigating the camouflage uniform contract process, which it found “questionable.”

“This was more than just a bad fashion move,” he said. “It cost the taxpayer millions of dollars” more than might have been necessary.

Money is rarely part of the debate over what the United States should do differently or better in Afghanistan, and thus the accumulating costs are often overlooked.

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Since 2002, the U.S. has spent $66 billion on Afghan security forces alone. In recent years this spending has grown, even though President Barack Obama’s stated goal was to wean the Afghans from U.S. military help after he formally ended the American combat role there three years ago. U.S. spending on Afghan forces rose from $3.6 billion last year to $4.2 billion this year, and President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget asks for $4.9 billion.

Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said the money wasted on camouflage uniforms is symptomatic of a broader problem of official corruption that has sapped the strength and spirit of too many Afghan soldiers.

“The real problem in Afghanistan is not, ‘Can we get a rational decision about which camouflage design it should be.’ The real problem in Afghanistan is that cronyism and corruption in the government and the security forces saps the combat motivation of the soldiers,” Biddle said in an interview.

“That’s why they they’re having such a problem holding onto a stalemate,” he added. “That’s why they can’t retake ground, even though they have vastly more forces in the field than the Taliban does.”

Even keeping Afghan troops in uniform – any uniform – is a problem. The army is chronically about 20,000 soldiers short of its authorized total of 195,000. The U.S. has about 8,400 troops there to train and advise the Afghans and to hunt extremist groups, down from a peak of 100,000 in 2010-2011.

Trump has delegated to Mattis the authority to decide how many troops the U.S. should have in Afghanistan, and Mattis is expected to send nearly 4,000 more this summer. That would be in line with a standing request by U.S. commanders, who say it would address a shortfall in troops to train and advise Afghans. A small percentage of the additional troops would be designated for a related U.S. mission of fighting al-Qaida and other extremist groups there.

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London evacuates 650 apartments overnight during fire inspection blitz

The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London

The burnt out remains of the Grenfell Tower are seen in North Kensington, London, Britain June 20, 2017. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

Hundreds of people had to evacuate their towers in London overnight because inspectors found their buildings to be too vulnerable after a fire erupted in a high-rise last week and killed at least 79.

People from more than 650 homes in the Camden borough were scrambling with suitcases and children in the middle of the night because inspectors said their walls have similar cladding to the type that burned rapidly in the Grenfell Tower fire. While government officials tried to accommodate everyone at rest centers and hotels, some residents, including a 72-year-old woman with emphysema, were still stranded or refusing to leave Saturday morning.

“I am so absolutely stressed,” the woman told the Camden Council’s leader Georgia Gould in a conversation taped by the BBC. “I’ve sat in a chair over here, since 9 o’clock last night … Now I’m being told they can’t rehouse me because I’ve got a dog.”

Gould assured the woman they would find her a hotel.

British authorities have inspected more than 600 buildings since the fire on June 14 at the 24-story Grenfell Tower in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. They are looking for aluminum panels with a combustible, polyethylene core — the same type of flammable material that London police on Friday blamed for the rapid spread of the flames.

A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the fire at the Grenfell apartment tower in North

A woman looks at flowers, tributes and messages left for the victims of the fire at the Grenfell apartment tower in North Kensington, London, Britain, June 23, 2017. Phoyo by Hannah McKay/Reuters

While fire officials believe it sparked from a refrigerator on the fourth floor, the cladding may have enabled it to race up the side of the building within minutes, stranding everyone inside.

“Preliminary tests on the insulation samples from Grenfell Tower show that they combusted soon after the test started,” Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said in a televised statement.

McCormack also suggested authorities consider charges of manslaughter.

A New York Times investigation pointed to the failure of a business-friendly government, under pressure to allow builders to use cheaper, flammable material that is forbidden in the U.S. despite its risks.

The panels on Grenfell Tower’s facade were created by manufacturing giant Alcoa, which was renamed Arconic, and installed last year, according to the NYT.

Reuters reported that Arconic was aware of the material’s limitations, but the company said in a statement that it was not its role to decide what was compliant with local building regulations.

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block at Latimer Road
         in West London

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters

Within six minutes of the first call to London fire officials, firefighters were on the scene, mystified and wondering how they would be able to get inside, according to the NYT.

“I have never seen such a phenomenal fire, a building engulfed top to bottom in flames,” Dany Cotton, the London fire commissioner, told the NYT later that day. It took more than 24 hours to get the fire under control.

And on Saturday, Camden officials stressed the urgency of removing the cladding to the dozens of people refusing to leave.

“There are various legal routes that Camden Council could explore to require people to leave their homes – however, we really don’t want to do this,” Gould said in a statement. “We need to get the buildings empty so we can work with our partners to start the work to make these tower blocks safe, so that everyone can return to their normal lives as soon as possible.”

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