If the NTC can't control Tripoli's airport...

Tripoli International Airport was seized by an National Transition Council-aligned militia from the city of Tarhouna on June 4th. The militia members were protesting the alleged kidnapping of their commander, one Abu-Ajilah Habshi, who reportedly disappeared on Sunday while traveling along the Tripoli Airport Road.

After holding the airport for several hours and forcing passengers to debark from planes on the runways, a deal was brokered to have the militia withdraw from the airport, and the troops and vehicles left on the same day.

The Tahroun militia organization advanced on the airport after a 24-hour notice demanding Habshi’s release apparently went unheeded (the militia stated it had reason to believe their leader was being held captive in the airport itself). Libya al-Ahrar reports that NTC Chairman Mustafa abd-al-Jalil, along with a delegation from Tahroun, reached an agreement with the militia to withdraw their troops and vehicles from the airport[1]. Earlier, Jalil had been told by the militia to “intervene to reveal the details surrounding the disappearance of chairman of the Tarhunah military council.”

No group has claimed responsibility for Habshi’s disappearance.The NTC blames Qadhafi loyalists for his disappearance, while the Tarhouna militia blames the Tripoli Security Committee.

The standoff, despite ending with the return of the airport to NTC control, is deeply embarrassing for the interim government. Earlier this year, NTC-aligned militiamen from the western town of Zintan had, after some delays, formally handed control of the Tripoli International Airport over to the NTC. The NTC had marked this changing of the guard - following several earlier handovers that broke down (or are still ongoing) - as a major success in asserting its rule over the country.

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Nic Pelham on Libya

I haven't been following very closely lately, but does not look good for the upcoming elections  —Nic Pelham writes Libya's Restive Revolutionaries for MERIP:

The government is clearly alive to the dangers that isolated attacks could mushroom into a broader insurgency, possibly uniting two sets of discontents -- thuwwar and former regime loyalists -- in a marriage of convenience against the new order. Libya’s vacuum provides ample space for fresh alliances. Unable to overcome the thuwwar, the NTC have recently sought to coopt them. Jettisoning such designations as outlaws, NTC chairman Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil has reportedly blamed the government for “not absorbing the revolutionaries.” The NTC has offered the thuwwar blanket amnesties for misconduct during the war, restored the handouts, sanctioned the intervention of composite militia forces in such trouble spots as Bani Walid, a former regime garrison town, and backed the creation of a Patriotism and Integrity Commission, Libya’s version of Iraq’s debaathification commission, designed to vet electoral candidates and government officials.

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A fascinating piece on Khaled Said

Amro Ali speaks of demythologizing Khaled Said in Jaddaliya:

Khaled has been distorted almost beyond recognition. To understand the extent of this, based on interviews from friends, associates and my familiarity and understanding of the district, I attempt to provide a descriptive account of his life up until that fateful night in June 2010. The facts of his life are contrasted with his mythologization and the polarizing effects of both. His death was not just indicative of the corrupt and brutal police state; Khaled’s life was symptomatic of the widespread despair that continues to plague Egypt’s youth and that manifests in a plethora of symptoms from drug abuse to the strong desire to emigrate. The reconstruction of Khaled Saeed perpetuates self-defeating myths that, by elevating him into a figure with saint–like qualities, minimizes and simplifies the dynamics of his life that led up to his death.

It's the most detailed account of Khaled's life I have yet come across. 

NYU Abu Dhabi: Guest in a foreign land

Issandr and I had a fascinating reporting trip to the UAE this past Spring, and one of the stories to come out of it is this one, at The Chronicle of Highher Education, on NYU's Abu Dhabi campus. I'm an NYU alum myself (I did a master's in Near East studies there) and I spent 2 days talking to faculty, students and administrators there. I also spent a lot of time talking to academics elsewhere in the UAE, which has been experiencing a quiet crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly, because its leadership is very nervous about the Arab Spring.

NYU Abu Dhabi is probably the most high-profile collaboration between a Western university and the leaderhship of a Gulf country (although the trend is taking place in Qater, Saudi, etc.). One of the fundamental questions in these ventures (and one that administrators tend to avoid discussing) is how the dependance of the university on the financial and political support of their local backers constrains their engagement with local society and politics. Once you accept these deals, and take up stakes in these countries, you end up in a position where it is very difficult to be critical of their rulers -- and your endorsement is exactly what critics say is being bought.

The article is for subscribers only, but I'm pasting a section here and after the jump. 

Leah Reynolds is the kind of student New York University and the government of Abu Dhabi hoped for five years ago, when they began an ambitious partnership to create a model of academic excellence in the Persian Gulf emirate. Smart, articulate and thoughtful, Ms. Reynolds, a sophomore, is editor of the online campus newspaper. Yet she is keenly aware of the limits of her position, both as a student and as a representative of the institution.

"We're not here to cause trouble," says Ms. Reynolds, who is studying social research and public policy at NYU-Abu Dhabi. "Students want to be in this part of the world. And we're not repressed."

Many people on this campus, from the chancellor on down, describe themselves as guests of the United Arab Emirates, and like guests they are mindful of staying in their host's good graces.

But critics say this mindfulness turns foreign branch campuses in the region into exceptional enclaves, fearful of engaging with contentious local issues. In interviews with over a dozen current and former educators in the Emirates, the insularity of foreign branch campuses was a recurrent theme. Several of NYU-Abu Dhabi's own staff and students describe the campus as "a bubble." Some critics complain that it and other foreign universities have stood by in silence as authorities in the UAE have cracked down on freedom of speech in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"Any academic, any university—you have to be connected to the reality of the country you're in," says Christopher Davidson, a former professor of political science at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi, and author of several books about the UAE. "You can't say your academics are protected but the ones at the university down the road aren't. You can't enter a situation where you admit there isn't academic freedom in the country, there isn't academic solidarity."

New York University's leaders insist that public, and sometimes critical, engagement with one's host country is not part of their mission abroad, In fact, they argue, it could be taken as a sign of hubris.

"What is inherent in the very notion of the global network university is that we often are going to take ourselves outside our comfort zones," says John Sexton, NYU's president, who is the architect of the Abu Dhabi venture, in a written response to The Chronicle. "Many of us will find ourselves living in new cities, new countries, new parts of the world, and it would be downright presumptuous to pretend that we have some inherent understanding from day one that would allow us to think that we have all of the answers for society, much less the questions."

"It's not that we're not concerned" with off-campus events, says Ms. Reynolds. "We're learning what's the best way to engage with the context we're in. It doesn't have to be the same way as in New York."

But is treading cautiously a long-term strategy for success, particularly for a university that hopes to shape the region's cultural and intellectual landscape?

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The radical left always eats itself

A statement by the (Trotskyite) Committee of the Fourth International:

The petty-bourgeois Revolutionary Socialists (RS) group has endorsed the candidate of the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Mohamed Mursi, against Ahmed Shafiq in the second round of the June 16-17 Egyptian presidential elections. The presidential elections are the first since mass working class protests toppled US-backed dictator President Hosni Mubarak last year.

In a May 28 statement titled “Down with Shafiq... Down with the new Mubarak” the RS claim that a vote for the Islamist Mursi would be a means to defend “democratic and social gains” of the revolution against the “counterrevolutionary candidate” Shafiq. The latter was the last prime minister under Mubarak.

The RS write that a “victory of Shafiq in the second round means a great loss of the revolution.” They “therefore call on all forces of reform and revolution and all other candidates affiliated with the revolution to form a national front against the candidate standing on the side of the counterrevolution.”

The statement calls upon the MB to make a pledge to form a presidential coalition with Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and the liberal Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh as vice presidents and to choose a prime minister from outside the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the MB.

The RS’ support for the MB, a government of national unity with right-wing figures, and the fraudulent framework of the US-backed “democratic transition” once again exposes the counterrevolutionary role of the petty-bourgeois “left.”

Can't make this stuff up.

Incidentally, the decision to support Morsi was controversial among the RS — many inside the movement wanted to boycott. The RS have been one of the more interesting movements in Egypt since the revolution. While they are tiny, they appear to have the discipline to stay on message and be much more vocal than their numbers would normally allow. But for a movement that does not believe in electoral democratic politics their stance is a little strange. Perhaps it's best explained by the fact that if Shafik wins, they will be the first easy target for the regime to go after.

[Via the very talented Evan Hill

On AP's piece on US democracy promotion funding in Egypt

US democracy aid went to favored groups in Egypt:

Interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the workers' protest and the broader government crackdown with the raids helped expose what U.S. officials do not want to admit publicly: The U.S. government spent tens of millions of dollars financing and training liberal groups in Egypt, the backbone of the Egyptian uprising. This was done to build opposition to Islamic and pro-military parties in power, all in the name of developing democracy and all while U.S. diplomats were assuring Egyptian leaders that Washington was not taking sides.

"We were picking sides," said a senior U.S. official involved in discussions with Egyptian leaders after last year's revolution swept President Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Since the December raids, U.S. officials have scrambled to repair their once close relationship with Egypt. But the damage wasn't done overnight or as a result of the raids.

Documents and interviews with U.S. and Egyptian officials show:

— U.S. diplomats knew as far back as March 2008 that Egyptian leaders might close democracy programs and arrest workers, and last year some even discussed the possibility of a stern Egyptian response to dumping $65 million into democracy training after the Arab Spring uprisings, a sharp increase from past spending.

— Democracy training programs with strong ties to the U.S. political parties received the biggest share, $31.8 million, and spent it with few strings attached. IRI refused to work with members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, an Islamic group that holds more seats in the elected parliament than any other party in the country. IRI's Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, offered training and support to Brotherhood members.

— Nearly six years before the Egyptian government filed charges against the U.S. democracy workers, its leaders severely restricted the American democracy programs after a controversy over public comments by IRI's director.

A few reactions:

✪ Can we please defund IRI? And fire Sam Lahood?

✪ AP here is overstating the 2008 threat to close these programs by Egypt. In 2008, the US Embassy in Cairo moved to repair the relationship with the Egyptians and actually accepted Egyptian veto power over some of the money spent. After the revolution it moved back to the 2002-2008 position which was not to give the Egyptian government a veto.

✪ This particular bit has to be illegal under US law and should be subject to a Freedom of Information request:

Despite a U.S. commitment to make public the details of its democracy aid program in Egypt, USAID has refused to identify all the groups that received money and the grant amounts. The official said the agency disclosed the list to Egyptian leaders, but will not release information publicly about grant recipients that don't want to be identified. That has surprised some State Department officials.

"All I remember is, there were weekly meetings this time last year about how this all had to be posted publicly," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive diplomatic matters. More than a year after citizens rallied in Tahrir Square for new leadership, the U.S.-Egypt relationship remains fragile.

✪ The article quotes Frank Wisner — whom I consider too close to the Egyptian military. Wisner is a lobbyist for the US defense industry and was the Obama administration's conduit to the military during the 2011 uprising. He's hardly an impartial man.

✪ The article perpetuates the myth that it's all about Fayza Aboul Naga — the real question is, who egged her on and backed her and coordinated the campaign of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian state media? US officials focus on Fayza because the real target — the military and the intelligence services — they don't want to confront. (She's a handy scapegoat for Congress, too.)

Overall this uncovers one important element — contrary to its mission and its statements IRI was engaged in biased political activity, and in doing so has damaged any similar efforts by other organizations. In the overall take of the story, however, apart from the over-funding of IRI and NDI, the article gives the impression of US conspiracy against SCAF and the MB. This is hardly true, since the US has collaborated closely with the military and engaged vigorously with the MB. The money and efforts spent trying to support the "liberal" parties is minimal and not very effective.

There is no conspiracy to empower liberals in Egypt, there is only a focus on retaining core interest — military cooperation, Israel — no matter who is in power. Beyond that, democracy promotion through things like party training does very little except make US politicians who fund it feel good and give officials a talking point. I don't know whether the US can encourage more democracy in Egypt, but it can certainly encourage less autocracy — by stopping the military aid to the country.

Takes on the Mubarak verdict

My column at the National develops a theme I developed on Twitter: In Egypt, a pharaoh falls and the mameluks march on - The National

It is as if the regime's figureheads were sacrificed to save the caste of security officials who still run the country - perhaps reassuring their many colleagues who remain in positions of influence that they are safe and that there will only be token accounting for past crimes.

Egypt may be mostly associated with its pharaonic past and god-kings, but in this case the appropriate historical analogy is more recent: a pharaoh is taking the fall for the military class, the mameluks.

These mameluks, the vast caste of officers and officials (uniformed or not) who continue to rule Egypt, have taken it upon themselves to redefine the revolution. This is taking place amid a larger battle in Egyptian society to define post-Mubarak Egypt.

The young revolutionaries who led the protests last year want, above all, a rupture with the past and to construct a more open society. The Islamists who were late backers of the uprising want to build a more just society by making both society and government more Islamic.

And the generals who now govern, for their part, are trying to redefine "revolution" as simply the removal of Mubarak and a handful of his cronies. As Ahmed Shafiq, the presidential candidate and former air force general who stands a good chance of being Egypt's next president allegedly put it last week: "The revolution is over."

For him it ended with the removal of Mubarak. For others, however, it has just begun.

Also check out this in The Economist, taking a look at the political/electoral impact: A verdict in Egypt: Back to the square | The Economist.

Podcast #31: A7atein

In this edition of the Arabist Podcast, the first since the presidential election, we talk about the results, how the various candidates ranked, the dilemma facing the one-half of voters who did not vote for Morsi and Shafiq, and the negotiations underway for endorsements. In a break from Egypt,  we discuss the terrible massacre at Houla, Syria and its consequences on the debate on international intervention. And we examine today's verdict from the Mubarak trial, what it means and how angry people are about it — and how it might influence the electoral calculus of the next two weeks.

Show notes:

Podcast #31:

Pic of the day


Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in the first round of the presidential election, surfs the crowds gathered to protest the Mubarak trial verdict.

Found through Betsy Hiel — we don't know who the photographer is. (Update: Reader Tine Lavent writes in - "According to al Masry al Youm photographer Virginie Nguyen, the photo of Hamdeen Sabahi was taken by Mohammed Salem for REUTERS.")

I also love this one by Hossam El-Hamalawy, which is actually from last September, but very a propos. The sign says, "Down with the next president."

Down with the Next President! يسقط الرئيس القادم

Re-imagining culture post-uprisings

Sonali Pahwa and Jessical Winegar, in the latest issue of Middle East Report:

The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.

Two fundamental aspects of this emerging cultural politics are frequently overlooked: the support for culture industries in mainstream Islamist circles and the underlying structural transformation of the relationship between arts and the state. The story is not simply one of liberation from authoritarian states, new desires to criticize such states or Islamist threats to freedom of expression. Rather, there are complex shifts in the overlapping cultural and political fields. Changes in the cultural scene are not simply a barometer of broader political and economic change, but part and parcel of it, particularly in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In these places, the dominant state ideology poses culture as a path to progress and enlightenment. In this moment of opening, cultural producers, intellectuals and politicians are asking foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and thus a bellwether of sorts, is a case in point.

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On the future of Egypt-US relations

Steve Cook has a piece at The Atlantic in which he argues that, Shafiq or Morsi, Egypt-US relations have a poor future. He says:

The American military aid to Egypt has become an annual political fight with Congress over conditionality that doesn't sit well with the officers in addition to the fact that $1.3 billion, which needs to be spent in the United States, doesn't buy all that much these days. Moreover, the remnants of the old regime, of which Shafiq is now the standard bearer, were angry over the way the United States handled the uprising. Hosni Mubarak carried Washington's water in the Middle East for almost 30 years to his political detriment and from where supporters of the old regime sit, the Obama administration unceremoniously dumped a longtime ally. I am told that the felool are over it. I am not convinced, but even if they are, it is hard to believe that President Shafiq will embrace the United States given the way Mubarak was treated. Mind you, that doesn't mean that the Obama administration pursued the wrong policy when it came to the conclusion that the Egyptian president had to go, but that Shafiq and his supporters likely have a different view of that episode and it could affect bilateral relations.

Finally, precisely because Shafiq represents the old order, he needs to demonstrate some space between himself and the policies of the past. Even if he wants to roll back the changes that have occurred since the uprising and has held himself out as the restorer of order, the uprising has fundamentally altered Egypt's political arena in important ways. For all their problems and political limitations, revolutionary groups, liberals, leftists, Salafists and a variety of others have discovered ways to make their voices heard. It's clear that Shafiq understands this as he has softened his position on the uprising considerably since it became evident that he would be in the run-off. Like Morsi, Shafiq needs to appeal to voters beyond his natural constituency. The twin exigencies of broadening his base and demonstrating that he isn't Hosni Mubarak in a different Rolex and a cardigan sweater means that, among other things, Shafiq may well run and potentially govern against the United States. The U.S.-Egypt relationship is too big and juicy a political target for Shafiq to ignore because it serves both of his political interests at once.

So you see, no dancing in the streets outside the State Department, the champagne will not flow at the Pentagon, the spies out in Langley won't declare a long weekend. Whether it is Morsi or Shafiq, the party is over for Washington. Rather it is time for Washington to take stock and adjust to Egypt's new reality.

 I left a comment in which I disagree with his take:

Can't say I agree with you Steve. Obama administration seemed ok with Brotherhood a few months ago and thought they would elect a president but defer to military on security policy. Core interests like Suez Canal passage, overflight, quasi-basing rights have been secured. A quick look at the latest Congressional foreign appropriations bill suggests full support for FMF and any "punishing" of Egypt is only taking place out of ESF, laughably. Also disagree with your take that Obama pushed Mubarak out. The Egyptian military did that to save itself, and the US has effectively backed its handling of the transition despite public statements to the contrary, since a military remaining in charge suggests continuity and more of the same on core issues: Israel and military cooperation. The exercise of the waiver on FMF (Foreign Military Financing) is the proof of this.

What, in any case, can the next Egyptian president really do to "govern against the United States"? Nothing important like ending military alliance, realigning itself with other regional powers. Egypt will just continue to be the difficult ally it was under Mubarak. You'll have issues that will consume a lot of media attention like the NGO affair but ultimately do not make a dent in bilateral relations, and many Congressmen completely willing to spread the myth that it's not the military but Fayza Aboul Naga who is to blame. The idea that Egypt-US relations have substantially changed is misleading, right now, as long as the military is in charge of key issues, it's more of the same until I see a US warship having to wait two weeks to get through the Canal or, at minimum, Egypt abandoning the Quartet policies and Roadmap on Israel/Palestine.

My evidence for little change in Egypt-US relations is that even as it backed a return to civilian rule, it also backed the military takeover from Mubarak from the get go (even though you might argue that legislation in place to suspend relations with states where a military coup has taken place should have been applied.) Subsequent behavior suggests continued backing for the military even when it repressed and killed protestors (the initial reason for backing the military was, after all, that it did not fire on protestors during the initial 2011 uprising) and when the government it appointed directly challenged the US over the NGO affair.

A glance at the latest Foreign Operations Appropriations bill suggests that Congress, too, is not eager to put any pressure of consequence on the Egyptian military. Consider angry Congress' reaction to the NGO debacle:

  • It conditions assistance on the governments being "sincere in the pursuit of democracy, based on Millennium Challenge Corporation standards;
  • It prohibits assistance if a government "is actively and significantly interfering with the operation of civil society organizations";
  • It reimburses the US government for the $5m expense of having paid the bail of the US citizens indicted in the NGO affair.

That sounds tough, right? Well not really: all of these conditions are only places on economic assistance, not the military aid package. So basically it punished civilian government for decisions made by the military, cutting from the aid package most Americans will go to democracy promotion, entrepreneurship, education, etc. But not F16s. (Overall economic aid to Egypt remains about the same $250m).

What's more, with regards to the national security waiver on conditionality for military aid, which have been exercised by every administration since first implemented in 2006,  new language has been added. While there is a demand for greater coordination with Congress before exercising a waiver. From an excellent POMED report [PDF] on this:

The national security waiver on Egypt’s FMF is only applicable to Egypt’s commitment to democratic processes and freedoms, and cannot be applied if the Government of Egypt fails to meet its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Additionally, a new provision requires the administration to consult with Congress prior to issuing a national security waiver if they elect to issue a waiver in FY13 as they did in the previous fiscal year.

Translated into plain English, this is a license to protect the military funding from being cut in cases of regression on democratic progress or abuse of human rights, and ensure it ONLY applies with regards to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. SCAF will get the message as follows: do what you want domestically, just don't mess with the Israelis. 

The fact is there is little serious concern about Egypt's transition in Congress or the US government more generally. There is concern about Israel, and about continued military cooperation with the Egyptians which makes many things easier for US military operations in the region. Yes, some politicians are offended by Egyptian behavior over the NGO crisis, which was a poke in the eye to politically-connected institutions such as IRI and NDI. But what happened just after that: no punishment on the Egyptian military which was behind the case, and the weaving of an unlikely tale swallowed by Congress and others by which a civilian female minister was able to wield awesome power and jeopardize bilateral relations.

A petulant Egypt provoking mini-crises over civil society and other issues as bargaining chips to protect the military relationship? Nothing very new in that, I'm afraid. With SCAF or its presidential candidate in charge, at least, it will be more business as usual.

Counterterrorism Calculus in Yemen Shortchanging Political Solutions

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator Jr., seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day.

Correction: This post was mistakenly attributed to Issandr El Amrani when first published. It was actually written by Paul Mutter — apologies.

The Washington Post, stating what ought to be obvious about the US “secret war” in Yemen:

In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Presumably, the CIA would disagree that this sort of approach is undermining US counterterrorism efforts - even though it it is said that it deeply disturbs the White House when “errors” like this occur:

On December 17 [2009], the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.

Or rather, we believe it deeply disturbs the White House, since as the Daily Kos diarist Jesselyn Radack notes, the White House “can neither confirm nor deny” the air war in Yemen and invokes a black ops non-disclosure rule to keep the books closed.

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